09 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 062 - Imprimaturity

Tim O'Neil is a writer I've read on and off for years, but without finding that crucial window into what he's really all about. Let's face it, it's not easy to reconcile an academic tone with a love for the work of Mark Gruenwald, particularly the execrable Squadron Supreme. Sometimes O'Neil will write something I enjoy and agree with (his music reviews are always good), and then he'll write something irritating, occasionally seeming contentious for its own sake.

I thought that was what he was doing here, in which he reduced the past decade's worth of comics as a glut of mediocrity. It struck me wrong based merely on my own general belief that of any art, around 80% of it is mediocre/crap, and only 20% or so is good to great. Even taking aside the time I spent trying to keep up with "The Golden Age of Reprints," there just never seemed to be enough time to read all the stuff everyone else thought was goodPlanetes? Maybe this decade. Probably not. And the truth is, like almost anyone else, I get caught up with the mediocrity, and only occasionally is it because it's a work assignment. I mean, I'm reading Fall of the Hulks and Blackest Night right now, and just as a preview of my eventual BN #1-8 review? It's awful.

I read O'Neil's essay as a way to blame largely innocent, generally competent, meeting expectations comics for his own feelings of being displaced as an enthusiast, one whose enthusiasm dated back before comics became respected, cross-platform entertainments. As interesting as the essay was (although it could have used some dates and the timeline was a little confused), by the end of it I felt like O'Neil was kind of doing to comics what hipsters do to bands whose talent has led them to a major label contract. It's not the music that changes but how we change, what life does to us that causes us to hear it differently.

Luckily, I didn't go off half-cocked like I usually do and write something fiery or withering, because O'Neil had a neat trick up his sleeve. In modular fashion, the essay can work on its own, but O'Neil surprised me (and no doubt, many others), with Part Two, in which he puts the blame for his ennui back where it belongs, on himself. I am absolutely praising him here for his self-reflection, even if it's unfortunately probably fair to use his "dancing bear" metaphor to find a comics reviewer's self-reflection at all noteworthy. In other words, it's a shame it doesn't happen more often, but I guess it's not surprising, because to some extent immersing oneself in comics or any medium is to buy into that illusion that time spent in one's room reading about superheroes in one's 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond is a more worthwhile pursuit than going for a walk, interacting with people, taking a class, making your own art or craft.

It's a very difficult thing to do, challenge one's own beliefs, because after all, it's not like we have a separate brain with which to do it. Any parent has had to, in a pinch, clean smutz off their kid's face with their own spit on a tissue, or their thumb, but is that really cleaning? It's hard, so it's understandable that O'Neil vacillates between questioning whether he's the turd in the punchbowl even as he defends his disdain for the so-called great comics he doesn't like. He says Marjane Satrapi paid her dues even while he introduces the idea that she didn't; he accepts that comics are bigger than his need to be in a club of outsiders even as he laments this acceptance. It's fairly extraordinary, and while it's maybe a little short of a breakthrough, in therapeutic terms it's significant progress for the first couple sessions. And somehow, he digs a little deeper and looks at himself a little more squarely in Part 3.

So obviously, the question then is, where does he go from here? Is there going to be a different approach to what he does? Do you take your comics at a degree of remove, so that they'll never get that close again, or do you throw yourself into it wholeheartedly, trying to find that lost innocence, that anything's possible/best is yet to come feeling? Are we encouraged by his following this introspective trifecta with terrific pieces on great Aughts books like Brunetti's Schizo #4 and the Milligan/Allred X-Force? Is the piece on whether Joker or Mr. Zzazs make sense in the real world (as if Batman does) a regression? Hard to say, but a good effort nonetheless. Would that more of us tried it.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Special #1
Writers - Mark Waid, Paul Dini, Greg Rucka
Artists - Brian Bolland, Mark Chiarello, Rick Burchett, Don Kramer
Publisher - DC Comics. $5.99 USD

I thought BLODK was canceled a long time ago? I think this was originally done as some sort of bonus in a box set or something, and now available to trick people thinking their six bucks is going towards new, exclusive material. Yep, this is all reprints, some just a couple years old and some going back to the '90s. And like the roughly 350 lb. Batman in Alex Maleev's cover, it has a bloated and unjustifiably self-satisfied feeling to it. Editor Bob Joy put this together with a really kind of pointless idea: let's present one story each featuring James Gordon, Two-Face and the Joker, and we'll preface each one with a brief origin piece for anyone who never saw Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Did anyone need to read a one page Batman Secret Files piece on Jim Gordon again? And while Waid is certainly concise in his origins for Batman, Two-Face and the Joker, and the art by Kubert, Chiarello and Brian Bolland is good given the tight space (and for the last two, it's rare to see sequential work from them anymore), these were just filler pieces from 52 and Countdown, respectively.

So with those, and a fine old 1990 cover from Neal Adams reprinted, we have three actual stories here. The Rucka/Burchett "Falling Back" is a 2000 story I remember fondly, with Batman and Gordon trying to restore their friendship after Batman's abandonment of Gotham during No Man's Land. It maybe rings a little over-earnest now, but fine.

"Double Jeopardy" has some annoying pencils by Wheatley and a sputtering script by Fisch about Gordon cajoling Two-Face to help solve the murder of gangster Boss Maroni, the man who had the acid thrown in Harvey Dent's face that caused his mental breakdown/transformation into Two-Face. Fisch is maybe not letting us into Harvey's head so as to make his motivations for helping more enigmatic and compelling, but to me it just came off uninteresting. Somewhat better is the Dini/Kramer "Slayride," which shows the resourcefulness of the Tim Drake Robin as he tries to keep a cool head when kidnaped by the Joker, on a maniacal spree of hit-and-runs. Kramer doesn't bring much to the table, but I kind of liked Joker's bluntly cruel plan of just running over a lot of civilians to try to make Tim crack.

In this download age, reprint compilations like this one may be going the way of the original motion picture soundtrack. Aside from Chiarello or Bolland completists, I can't see a lot of reason to pick this one up, and there are dozens of other stories that better capture the characters.

Zorro: Matanzas #1 (of 4)
Writer - Don McGregor
Artist - Mike Mayhew
Publisher - Dynamite Entertainment. $3.99 USD

Speaking of old material, Dynamite sees fit to follow their Eisner-nominated Zorro from a different creative team with this oddity, a miniseries that was already several years in the making when Topps yanked the rug out from under the creators a decade ago, not publishing any of it. Not that McGregor was cutting edge in 1999, but at least there's a helluva lot of enthusiasm for the character here. McGregor is, not surprisingly, verbose as all get out, and that leads Mayhew, who I recall had yet to make a bigger name for himself on Vampirella and eventually some Marvel stuff, to...see what I did there? I wrote like McGregor. Anyway, the wealth of expository captions from our young hero, Don Diego, sometimes causes Mayhew to have to be creative an compact in how he gets his visual information across in the reduced space left to him. He draws an attractive Diego, and it touched the childlike part of me to see the diagrams of his underground lair with the secret passages, (primitive) laboratory and so on.

Storywise, it's a lot of setup, which Diego's father wanting him to be more responsible, settled down, and attending to family business. Diego has come up with an excuse for his frequent absence to go administering masked justice, and it's a lot like Bruce Wayne's excuse--he's a playboy, although McGregor needlessly confuses things by making Diego feign being effeminate. There's a cruel, scarred, one-handed villain who inexplicably is a kind of friend to Diego's father, and this man is planning some sort of revenge, but it's not clear what that is. More importantly, it's not really clear what Diego is fighting for. Even in that '90s Antonio Banderas movie, you knew he was fighting corrupt Mexican officials, but here who knows? As such, it's hard to get very interested.

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06 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 061 - Ural Nautilus

Weapon X: Wolverine #10
Writer - Jason Aaron
Artist - C.P. Smith
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

I'm pretty sure this is my first exposure to Aaron's writing. Marvel seems to have locked up more of the younger, fresher writers the past couple years than DC. Anyway, I was intrigued by the cover, which is badly drawn by Adam Kubert but has the germ of a funny idea to it: Wolverine as ladies' man. Kubert draws such a tiny cocktail glass for Mystique that I have to think he never goes out--maybe he just drinks from a hose in the backyard? He also has to use a sound effect--unusual for a cover--to convey Wolvie's boredom. At least the idea reflects the contents within, as Logan only has thoughts of his new gal, Melita, a San Francisco reporter. Smith draws a leaner, more Jackman-like Logan, and has the honor of drawing the flashback to his loss of virginity (Logan's, not Smith's). Aaron gets to the finish line where there's an unsurprising wrap-up: Melita is the one for Logan, because she accepts him, won't put up with his crap, has her own gig away from the X-Men, and is able to rationalize the severe increase in her chance of being killed due to dating a superhero as no different than the dangers of riding a bus. We'll see how long that lasts and if Aaron has the chops to find real dimension in her character and their relationship. What's funny is how he gets through the issue, with centuries-old Logan acting like John Cusack in Say Anything, leaning on his female friends like Ororo, Rogue and Black Widow for advice. Of course, Lloyd Dobler never had to turn down guilt-free, cyborg ninja sex.

Red Hulk #1
Writer - Jeff Parker
Penciler - Carlos Rodriguez
Inker - Vicente Cifuentes
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

Parker has a pretty good batting average with me, but when you write for Marvel or DC, you do tend to get sucked into crapping out a superfluous story or ten when you're involved in a multi-title event. This could have just been a regular issue of any of the regular Hulk books instead of a new #1, and not a whole lot happens. Red Hulk and Rick "A-Bomb" Jones team up to break into an AIM base for information on M.O.D.O.K.'s new doomsday device. It's a trap, though, designed to get Red Hulk near the old "Cosmic Hulk" clone/robot/something, which gives it the spark of energy it needs to take off. So, basically, our heroes blew it, plus Red Hulk revealed himself as a traitor to old bosses M.O.D.O.K. and the Leader.

Sturdy enough work from Rodriguez but without the power Romita, Jr. and McGuinness have been bringing the Hulkverse of late. I'm still getting used to Rick Jones as a big, spiky blue behemoth, and despite his many years around superheroes, Red Hulk comes off the more sensible, pragmatic one. All in all, you'd be fine to skip this and just catch the next recap page of the next related Hulk issue.

The Indomitable Iron Man
Writers - Paul Cornell, Howard Chaykin, Duane Swierczynski, Alex Irvine
Artists - Will Rosado, Howard Chaykin, Manuel Garcia & Stefano Gaudiano, Nelson DeCastro
Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

I'll give it an extra point for a new adjective for Iron Man, although if you're going to use "indomitable," maybe the longest story here, the Cornell/Rosado "Berserker," shouldn't be about failure? It reads a lot to me like an '80s inventory story, maybe something David Michelinie would cook up for the month when Bob Layton got behind or something. A kooky terraforming robot probe designed by Tony Stark for NASA gets its lifelike programming screwed up and tries to turn Earth into an alien world. It's angry at its daddy, Tony, for abandoning it, and in reprogramming it he somehow has some feelings of paternal regret. Not a bad premise, just not done that well here, although I liked Rosado getting into that old school spirit with an abundance of Ben-Day dots.

While that one certainly isn't a real inventory story, Chaykin's "Multitasking" looks more like one, as he draws more of an '80s style of armor. Actually, "multitasking" has lost a lot of its significance, hasn't it? It's like "recycling" or "rebooting,"--something that's so commonplace now it has lost all its initial zing. Anyway, it's an insignificant tale of Tony Stark fielding a number of calls from big clients and friends like Nick Fury (still directing S.H.I.E.L.D.), Captain America and Mr. Fantastic, while fighting a number of minor menaces as Iron Man. It's notable only for Chaykin's art, rarely seen in just black and white (the whole special is colorless, modeled on Marvel's '70s magazines), and his use of the exact same panel composition for each page, which works splendidly. Also, no one draws Stark more like an early '80s porn star than Chaykin. You can almost smell his mustache.

Swierczynski offers probably the most interesting story here, "Brainchild," which finds the granddaughter of Pepper Potts entering the protective monolith where an aged, Howard Hughesian Stark has been cooped up for decades, working on solutions to the real problems of the world without the distraction of fighting supervillains. There's a nicely bittersweet quality to the ending, where she gets him out into the fresh air to see how his ideas have been the building blocks for other scientists to finish and improve upon, but this only makes him feel obsolete. However, my favorite part was when he tells her he recycles his waste into nutrients and then asks her if she'd like something to drink. "Ah, right. You're probably going to pass on that. I would."

In keeping with the Marvel magazine model, there's a text story by Irvine and DeCastro, but as I've written about many times, I just have a big hangup about text stories when I'm trying to read comics. Aside from that, though, it's a pretty entertaining, if mostly forgettable, special, and probably a little more forgettable due to being in black-and-white from artists who are not generally good enough to carry the art on their own, or in the case of Chaykin, who is almost invariably served by thoughtful coloring.

Demo (Vol. 2) #1 (of 6)
Writer - Brian Wood
Artist - Becky Cloonan
Publisher - Vertigo. $2.99 USD

Demo was the first thing Brian Wood wrote that I actually liked. I found the works that got him his first industry attention, Channel Zero and The Couriers, to be pretty childish, petulant, though well-designed and drawn. But from the first issue of Demo on, I felt like he was reaching a new level, focusing on real emotions and with a genuine attempt to understand other people. Part of that may have been in writing for an artist like Cloonan, someone who hadn't yet settled on a style but had at least half a dozen capable-to-very-good ones to choose from, and also because he was writing stories that didn't use car chases or explosions to make their points.

Demo brought both Wood and Cloonan to Vertigo for other series, but they've overcome any trepidations they may have had about trying to catch lightning in a bottle to offer up another six issues together. This first, "The Waking Life of Angels," is a bit further removed from the "young people with superpowers" umbrella under which much of the first series operated, but there is some mysticism here, at least. Our heroine, Joan, has been experiencing dreams/visions of an angel in danger, falling from the upper floor of a cathedral. No one ever said Wood was the subtlest writer, so yes, our Joan is kind of like Joan of Arc, and readers can find out for themselves if she suffers a similar martyrdom for reasons that may be divine or could just be mental imbalance.

I haven't read much of Cloonan's work since the first series. It's lost some of that lovely, chunky inkiness, but while it's more assured, she hasn't lost that essential innocent quality. Even though rough pencils included at the back of the issue show just how hard she works, the end result feels unforced, and both she and Wood have a special working chemistry that doesn't appear to have dissipated. I wasn't absolutely thrilled by the ending, but ambiguity will do that, and all in all it's a quite welcome return.

Ultimate X #1
Writer - Jeph Loeb
Artist - Arthur Adams
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

I sure didn't expect to start off 2010 reading a bunch of Jeph Loeb comics, but that's how things work out, I guess. I also thought the reformed(?) Ultimate Universe would be restarting small, but I suppose it's pretty typical of Marvel to start cluttering it up again right away. I actually picked this up not really knowing it was part of the Ultimate Universe at all. I mean, sure, it's got "Ultimate" in the name, but the trade dress is different from Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man and Ultimate Comics: Avengers. I just wanted to see Adams' art.

Adams has never been one to be able to handle monthly deadlines, so we'll see how long he lasts on the book. But what you do get from him is, still, excellent work, for however long he can manage. And clearly, he doesn't adjust his effort based on how important he may think the title in question is, because let's face it, no one was exactly clamoring for another title with "X" in it.

And yet, this is pretty good, even while it has so many familiar elements, not just from various mutant books but also the recent Star Trek movie. Based on one of the variant covers which features a team of heroes including the Ultimate Hulk, Loeb is going to give us a "gathering the forces" arc, each issue focusing on one future team member. This time out, it's Jimmy Hudson, a rebellious, reckless teenager who's a real handful for his parents, James and Heather Hudson. In this universe, neither are Canadian superheroes; James is the sheriff of their small town, Heather his wife.

Like his dad, Jimmy has a thing for redheads, except Hudson isn't his real dad. As he learns from a visiting Kitty Pryde, his father is Wolverine, who died during Loeb's much-derided Ultimatum storyline, but not before recording a Princess Leia-style hologram for Jimmy. Jimmy knew he healed quickly from any injury, and now, with Kitty's prodding, he finds he can extend bone claws from his hands just like his dad, PLUS form metal over them, kind of like Colossus. And that's pretty convenient and easy, ain't it?

It would probably be rather been there, done that, if not for a couple things. Adams, as mentioned above, brings his "A" game, helped enormously by Peter Steigerwald's beautiful coloring (I suppose it's a sign of the times that Steigerwald gets cover billing while the digital inker, Mark Roslan, doesn't). Also, Loeb's use of the elder Hudson narrating, while a little confusing at first, ends up adding a warmth to the proceedings. You know how much the man cares for and worries about his headstrong son, and any kind of focus on the parents of mutant children is a welcome change. Of course, there's a lot more work to do from here, getting readers to care about the other characters, offering Ultimate versions of villains that aren't simply retreads, etc. But it's a better start than I expected.

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29 January 2010

So Long, Mr. Salinger!

A couple years ago I wrote a review of Grant Morrison’s controversial prose issue of Batman (#663) which, despite its excessive length, I was quite proud of. The basis of my analysis was a comparison of Morrison’s story, especially his unusual use of narration, to J.D. Salinger’s infamous “Hapworth 16, 1924.” Salinger has long been one of my favorite writers; so much so that several years ago I voraciously tracked down and read all of his unpublished stories online. I also reviewed Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters here. Although I am saddened by his death, like most fans, I’m also excited by the prospect of 50 years worth of stories finally coming to light. Imagine if Alan Moore had stopped publishing after Watchmen and you kind of get a sense of the anticipation most Salinger fans have lived with for decades. Anyway, despite the fact that it's mostly about Grant Morrison, in honor of Mr. Salinger's passing, I’m reposting my review here unedited.

Batman #663
By Grant Morrison and John Van Fleet
Published in March 2007 by DC Comics, US $2.99

Believe it or not, Grant Morrison’s “The Clown at Midnight”, published in Batman #663, has a lot in common with J.D. Salinger’s final published short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924.”

Having crafted The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most celebrated American novels of all time, Salinger was at the apex of his profession when he wrote “Hapworth.” But when the story first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker in June of 1965, the initial critical reaction was one of distinct outrage.

The crux of the problem was Salinger’s unconventional use of language. “Hapworth,” which is the sixth published tale in Salinger’s series of stories focusing on the eccentric Glass family, (the others include “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Franny,” “Zooey,” “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction”) is extremely long-winded, with paragraph-length sentences often encompassing dozens of only tangentially related ideas. The story is written in a manic, rambling, almost incoherent stream-of-consciousness style, in this case as a letter from seven-year-old “wise child” Seymour Glass to his parents from summer camp. The voice Salinger evokes is so academic, so laden with obscure literary references, faux-religiosity and neo-classicism (which, even allowing for creative license, seems implausible when attributed to a seven-year-old) that most readers, even those with Ivy League educations, felt lost and frustrated with the “impenetrable text.” As Janet Malcolm of the New York Times Book Review writes, “it was greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence…The critical reception…was more like a public birching than an ordinary occasion of failure to please.” As a direct result of the story’s unprecedented critical backlash, Salinger famously decided to stop publishing his writing.

Of course, the comparison of J.D. Salinger and Grant Morrison, a literary master to, of all things, a Batman writer, may sound absurd, but the strong public outcry against Morrison’s story within the online comic community is not unlike “the public birching” that Malcolm describes. For example, FreakComics.com’s Joe Louis writes in his review, bluntly titled “Batman #663 Sucks REALLY Badly,” “For those of you who didn’t have the extreme displeasure of reading Batman #663, don’t bother. It is not a comic book, it is a novella, and a badly written one at that. Yep, that’s right I said it: Grant Morrison wrote a terrible short story and it got shoved in to the pages of Batman #663 with some horrible art by John Van Fleet.” Tucker Stone, of the Factual Opinion, writes a similar, if less reactionary assessment, stating that the story “seems a bit thrown together, like a late night prequel while (regular artist Andy) Kubert finishes penciling the upcoming chapters,” and goes on to call the issue “a bit off-putting.” Even Joe McCulloch (of Jog The Blog), the comic blogosphere’s critic-laureate, proclaims that the book “winds up about fourteen pages over my personal limit of overextended metaphors and raised-eyebrow faux-pulp.”

But as Janet Malcolm wrote about Salinger’s reviled and misunderstood “Hapworth,” “negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work's originality. The ‘mistakes’ and ‘excesses’ that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power."

“The Clown at Midnight” features the highly anticipated return of the Joker, who has been absent from the DC universe after being shot in the face. More significantly, however, this issue marked Morrison’s return to the character after an 18 year gap since his Arkham Asylum graphic novel with Dave McKean was first published in 1989. Though critics remain divided as to the quality of Arkham (interestingly, Jog describes it as “the single shittiest comic Morrison has ever written on his own”), few can dispute that its portrayal of an insane Joker leading a veritable circus of lunatics running loose in the asylum was, if nothing else, unforgettable.

Yet within days of its release, the flood of critical disdain for Batman #663 began. Like Salinger, by far the overwhelming majority of these criticisms focused on Morrison’s unusual prose style. At his excellent blog, “I Am Not the Beastmaster,” Marc Singer writes that “the faux hard-boiled narration…is just bad,” also describing it as “overheated” and “overbaked.” Other critics found similar dissatisfaction with Morrison’s excessive use of metaphors and description. Jog calls the book a “soggy shock show” that’s “just badly written,” while Don MacPherson, at his “Eye on Comics” blog, complains that the book is “marred by…unnecessarily verbose descriptions of peripheral details.” Several critics even extracted individual sentences which struck them as particularly potent examples of Morrison’s “mistakes” and “excesses” and cited them, out of context, as evidence of their conclusions.

While these criticisms are not without some merit, Morrison’s language is actually perfectly suited for its subject matter. The writer uses this “overheated” narrative style not simply as a vehicle for moving the story forward, but as a tool to infuse it with a frantic mania, giving the story an overall sense of insanity. While, admittedly, on an individual sentence by sentence basis, some of Morrison’s conjured images do fall flat (Chapter 2’s descriptions of Gotham City are probably the most glaring examples), the onslaught of outlandish metaphors has the overall effect of creating the sound, rhythm and mood of a madman’s ranting. For example, in Chapter 6, Morrison takes us first inside the Joker’s cell at Arkham, and then drops us right into his head, at the height of his madness. Morrison’s prose matches the chaotic mood one would expect of such a bizarre setting. He writes:

“In the white empty cell, the flat, pressurized silence is relieved by these three things only – the crawling ticks of fluorescent lighting, the slow crackle of breathing – if breathing sounded like paper being torn and torn again and torn again, obsessively, into tiny scraps – and the pin-thin whine of a mosquito that rode in on Batman’s cape and now finds itself locked in a madhouse with something bad for company.

No movement registers either until you look very closely to see the jaws working in stealth beneath surgical gauze and pins. Don’t even think about those sly mandibles chewing down on some poison mantra as the dreadful eyes track the poor mosquito’s lazy flight-path, the way a spider’s might, triangulating its victim.

He’s scrolling through a list of things that make him laugh. Blind babies. Landmines. AIDS. Beloved pets in bad road accidents. Statistics. Pencilcases. BRUNCH! The Periodic Table of the Elements.”

Morrison’s style here is as intentional a device as it is fitting, and like the Joker has done time and time again, it happily calls attention to its own eccentricities. The sheer stylistic madness of the narrator shares an element of the Joker’s madness, crafting wildly imaginative, disturbing and hallucinatory metaphors that are both cringe-inducing and absolutely perfect for this particular tale. Despite the many complaints about Morrison’s use of “purple prose,” it is this wholly distinct and original voice that is the book’s greatest strength.

Another of the common criticisms leveled at Batman #663 is that Morrison offers nothing new in the Joker/Batman paradigm. Jog refers to the issue as “a rather typical Joker story,” adding that “by the final page it’s pretty clear that it’s just more Batman, more Joker, more Harley Quinn, another slugfest, another imprisoning, another run around themes that have been worked out a dozen times before.” Marc Singer expresses a similar sentiment, citing that “Instead of break out of that paradigm, ‘The Clown at Midnight’ looks for a new way to present the same old homicidal Joker” (referring to the classic take on the character established by Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams in the late 70s).

Of course innovation in mainstream superhero comics is a difficult proposition. The editorial constraints inherent in writing superhero books are daunting. You cannot kill off characters (with the rare exception), good must triumph overall, status quo (usually that which was established within the character’s first year of existence) must always, eventually be restored, and action (specifically violence) must govern each story. In addition, most of the more well-known mainstream books have been around for nearly a half century – Batman for more than seventy years – so the volume of back-story, continuity, and popular understanding of a character of such iconic stature greatly limits a writer’s options. This sentiment was perhaps best expressed in Steven T. Seagle’s classic Charlie Kaufman-esqe graphic novel, It’s A Bird, in which the writer’s struggle to find anything original to say took center stage, while the character of Superman became merely a prop.

Yet, despite the claims of some critics, this latest Joker story is much more than a simple variation on a familiar theme. Morrison has delivered a unique and wholly original take on the character which not only takes this weight of history into account, but attempts to do something new stylistically as well. The key to Morrison’s new Joker is the concept that he is perpetually reborn, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Using this idea, Morrison has found a clever way to reconcile the cumulative history of the Joker without changing the fundamental elements of the character, nor discarding any of the variations that have come before. He has also created a novel approach to explain the Joker’s progressively deteriorating state of mind, while also commenting not only on the fixed, cyclical nature of the Batman/Joker duality, but on the nature of mainstream superhero comics in general.

This concept of “perpetual rebirth,” as applied to the Joker, was first introduced in Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum graphic novel, though back then he referred to it as a “superpersona.” Buried in the middle the Arkham’s erratic script, Dr. Ruth Adams, a psychotherapist to the criminally insane, first introduces Batman, and readers, to this theory on the Joker’s “super-sanity”:

“Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day.”

Though Arkham Asylum did not explore this idea of the Joker’s perpetual self re-invention further, (focusing rather on the duality of Batman’s identity), the concept of rebirth remains a familiar theme in Morrison’s body of work. As Timothy Callahan, author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years, points out, “ritual and transformation are the centerpieces of (“The Clown at Midnight”), just as they are in Arkham Asylum, only this time it’s the other side of the mirror that’s featured.”

But what exactly is this transformation the Joker undergoes? How exactly does he “create himself”?

The key to understanding this concept requires an understanding of another related theme that pervades much of Morrison’s body of work: the blurring of the popularly understood concepts of space (the “universe”) and time (“continuity”) in the fictional world of comics. In Morrison’s classic run on Animal Man in the 80s, the writer deconstructed the largely artificial concept of “continuity,” expanding the borders of the superhero universe to include, quite literally, everything that has ever been written (though, no doubt for legal reasons, this concept was confined to the "DC universe” only), regardless of continuity. His “comic book limbo,” where long-forgotten characters reside, waiting until they are resurrected by modern writers, was one of the most novel concepts from that revolutionary series, and the idea that stories could intersect in ways that were previously unimagined, is a theme that continues to influence Morrison’s current writing.

In “The Clown at Midnight,” Morrison returns to this idea again, but here the writer takes it one step further, granting the Joker, not macro-awareness of the real world, as he did with Animal Man (in the classic final issue of Animal Man, the main character meets Morrison, his creator, face to face and suffers the ultimate revelation: that he is merely a fictional character), but rather an acute self-awareness of his broader context, his full history. Jog picks up on this as well, noting that “the Joker is acutely self-aware of his many different characterizations over the years, and…his lack of any ‘core’ personality has dropped him into a pattern of necessary reinvention.” This is a key point the casual reader may have missed in the deluge of prose. Morrison’s Joker is not only aware of his colorful history, he has full memory and perspective of his many different incarnations throughout his seventy years of existence. Indeed, in Morrison’s story, this revelation is the very source of the Joker’s madness.

Morrison sheds light on this self-awareness in Chapter 8 by acknowledging the major historical transitions in the Joker’s character:

“His remarkable coping mechanism, which saw him transform a personal nightmare of disfigurement into a baleful comedy and criminal infamy all those years ago (he is, here, referring to the Joker’s origin and early exploits in the late 30s and 40s) – happily chuckling to himself in the garage as he constructed outlandish Joker-Mobiles which gently mocked the young Batman’s pretensions in the Satire Years (presumably the 50s) before Camp (undoubtedly the 60s), and New Homicidal (from Denny O’Neil forward), and all the other Jokers he’s been – now struggles to process the raw, expressionistic art brutal of his latest surgical makeover.”

In a scene which Marc Singer describes as “arresting,” Morrison goes on to describe the Joker’s frightening transition and rebirth:

“Multiple Joker voices vie for control as he prepares to give blasphemous birth to himself like the Word of God in reverse. His only regret is that Batman isn’t here to witness his obscene display, his rampant pathology in full flower.”

Ultimately, the Joker’s rebirth is a physical manifestation of the creative process, a painful awareness of new hands pulling the strings, accompanied by a profound sense of disillusionment that none of it matters, for the cycle will begin anew before too long. This new spin on the Joker explains not only his varying depictions over the years, but casts the character’s evolution and 70+ year history into a new light. The ultimate irony, of course, is that Batman has not been granted such self-awareness, and, as the Joker points out in his endless frustration, all he wants is for “the goddamn Batman to finally get the goddamn joke.”

Morrison also uses this concept of “rebirth” as an interesting and unique way to pay homage to many of the past Batman creators. His prose narrative with scattered spot illustrations, which is more short story than sequential art, is not actually a unique concept. As Timothy Callahan notes, “this issue pays homage to a prose Batman story, entitled ‘Death Strikes at Midnight and Three’” published in 1978 in DC Special Series #15 by Denny O’Neil and Marshall Rogers. “Both titles share the word ‘Midnight,’ which probably isn’t a coincidence,” Callahan notes. Callahan also points out that Morrison himself attempted a similarly-styled Batman story in an obscure UK publication very early in his career. “Two years before he published Animal Man and Arkham Asylum with DC Comics, he contributed a prose story entitled “The Stalking” to the 1986 Batman Annual published in England. The story, a three-page narrative with illustrations by Gary Leach, describes Catwoman’s excursion into the Batcave as she attempts to uncover Batman’s secret identity.”

But “The Clown at Midnight” actually pays tribute not just to the prose writers of the past, but to every creator who has worked on the Joker since his first appearance in Batman #1 in 1940. From the more obvious artist references like “Aparo Bridge” and “Finger Street,” to the more obscure inclusion of two minor characters from Alan Moore’s classic one-shot, The Killing Joke (circus sideshow henchmen, Solomon and Sheba), Morrison is clearly going out of his way to acknowledge the many great Batman creators of the past. In fact, this issue contains many familiar elements that can be traced all the way back to the Joker’s earliest appearances. In Chapter 2, for example, Batman displays a playing card discovered at the clown funeral massacre which is a clear indication that the Joker was behind the murders. The card Batman holds contains the very first image of the Joker from Batman #1, the famous playing card face by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. Marc Singer also calls attention to the similarities this current Joker story has in common with the classic “Joker’s Five Way Revenge” (from Batman #251) by Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams, which “recast the Joker as a vicious murderer for the first time since the early forties.” In that story, which was deservingly included in DC’s Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told anthology, the Joker murders four of his ex-henchman, each in a cruel and creative manner, all the time leaving carefully crafted clues to lead the Batman on a chase like some helpless rat struggling through yet another booby-trap laden maze. “The Clown at Midnight” clearly draws its underlying “henchman murder’ sub-plot from this classic issue. And as noted above, Morrison even pays homage to himself. “Morrison attempts to canonize his Arkham Asylum interpretation of the mutable multiple-personality Joker who burns through ‘superpersonas’ like a Vegas dealer runs through decks of cards,” Marc Singer notes.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Morrison’s concept of “perpetual rebirth” is also a keen commentary on the enduring status quo of iconic comic book characters. Mired in countless origin stories, series re-launches, new creative teams and endless retreads, the classic DC and Marvel characters (not to mention all the superhero rip-offs published by others) are all, in a sense, stuck in a cycle of endless rebirth. Each writer and artist brings to the character a slightly different voice, a different look, a nip here and a tuck there, but for the most part, these changes are cosmetic. They are never drastic enough to fundamentally change the character’s core personality or appearance, which, in the strict editorial shackles of a licensed and copyright-protected corporate property, cannot be altered. But it is these subtle variations, the result of decades of storytelling by hundreds of different creators, which Morrison refers to when he discusses the “multiple Joker voices” (in fact, it is these varying styles that infuse most superhero comics with what little entertainment value they still retain). It is a particularly apropos analysis of the state of superhero comics, and Morrison’s exposure of this deeper truth within the thematic layers of his “rather typical Joker story,” shows the writer’s superb understanding of the nature of the industry.

John Van Fleet’s artwork has also been the subject of much scorn by several prominent online critics. Marc Singer referred to it as “plasticine” while Jog wrote that “the thoroughly disappointing illustrations…weigh the story down with computer-augmented chintz.” Don MacPherson calls the art “stiff” and “confusing,” while Joe Louis complains that it “looks like bad video-game screen cuts (which) don’t capture any sort of drama, suspense, or action that normal comic art might do.”

While, of course, in comics, as in all art, there is always subjectivity and bias on the part of critics regarding the aesthetic value of the work in question, there is no doubt that Van Fleet’s computer animation style is well-crafted. The artist’s style, which relies heavily on photo manipulation, painted art and CGI-like effects, may not appeal to everyone, but his compositions, figure poses and characters are competently rendered, and his use of colors, lighting and perspectives is impressive. At its best, it’s imaginative and downright creepy. His image of the Joker, having just removed his facial bandages after extensive reconstructive surgery (above) is perhaps the single most horrifying portrayal of the character, and certainly conveys the insanity that befits Morrison’s script.

The main problem is that Van Fleet’s art struggles to justify its own existence. In such a dense narrative script, the artwork is almost irrelevant. In a more traditional comic, with actual panel to panel action, the artist’s digital style works much better (see the artist’s work on the Vertigo mini-series Shadows Fall for an example), but here, Van Fleet is forced to punctuate a story which already overwhelms the reader. As a result, the art feels crammed into the text, squeezing out what little space it can find on the crowded pages. At best, these are visually striking spot illustrations whose sole purpose is to give readers a breath before the next dose of “overheated” prose.

Another area where the book falls short, inevitably, given the volume and function of the script, is the interplay between art and text which the best comics (of which Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen remains the gold standard) use to convey story elements. Here, Van Fleet’s art carries absolutely none of the storytelling responsibility, and, as such, serves simply to break apart long blocks of words at its best, and as a distraction at its worst. If there is a failing in the book’s execution, this is it. Even in Neil Gaiman’s similarly-formatted illustrated novel, Stardust, the author knew when to step aside and let his artist convey that which simply could not be as effectively or beautifully conveyed with text.

The other main failing of this particular issue lies not with Morrison or Van Fleet, but with DC’s editorial and design staff who chose the utterly banal and “pedestrian” Andy Kubert cover to hide what is one of the most original Batman stories in years. The stock cover is nothing other than another in an endless string of clichéd Batman vs. Joker images, with nothing new or interesting whatsoever about it. There is no hint of what a radical departure from the previous 662 issues lies behind its cover. It’s not even an aesthetically appealing image, with Batman in an awkward, shadowy action pose staged against the backdrop of a giant, hovering Joker card, inexplicably crying tears of blood. When the editors were willing to take such a bold step as to green light a story which is so far outside the norm of the typical Batman comic, it seems preposterous to then shackle the book with such a mundane cover. It undermines the creators’ attempts at innovation, and is the kind of frustrating, counter-intuitive decision that induces fits in longtime readers and retailers.

If there is one other complaint that has been written time and time again about Grant Morrison, it is that he often bombards readers with dozens of new and interesting concepts, but never lingers on them long enough to flesh them out. This was his fatal flaw in Arkham Asylum, in which he never (until now) explored his own concept of the Joker’s madness. His New X-Men and Marvel Boy runs, for example, were also riddled with seeds of ideas that were never developed. At his best (We3, Kill Your Boyfriend, Animal Man), Morrison has focused on his “bizarre ideas” long enough to deliver a clear and logical conclusion, but whether he fleshes out his new “Clown Prince of Cruelty” long enough to take advantage of his own interesting premise will go a long way in determining this issue’s place in history. Twenty years from now, if readers have a better sense of a Joker whose multiple identities can manifest themselves into a single, ever-evolving character, then perhaps this issue will be looked upon as one of the greatest Joker stories of all time. However, if Morrison, as the writer is prone to, simply abandons this idea, and moves on, then this issue may forever be seen by readers as, at best, a curious anomaly, at worst, a self-indulgent excess and a failure. Don MacPherson expresses this skepticism of Morrison’s commitment to his new Joker, stating that “it’s a novel and compelling take on the character, though I honestly don’t expect the notion to be explored beyond this self-contained story.”

In general, superhero comics are usually too afraid to branch out this far from the norm, and, judging from the general reaction of righteous nerd-rage, for good reason. Comic fans, for all their posturing and angry demands for new and innovative storytelling, do not embrace change. Sure, some minority of them does, but the continued survival of corporate superhero books proves that a built-in nostalgia market will continually consume the products and stories it loved as children. This is not necessarily bad, but the point is that it is often difficult for a market so classically conditioned, so Pavlovian in its blind loyalty, to swallow such a strange and bitter pill as “The Clown at Midnight.” In reality, superhero fans want just enough maturity and characterization sprinkled into their children’s stories to make them feel good about their childish hobby. They want to delude themselves into thinking that comics have grown up, and that the stories are much better than we remember them as kids (which is debatable), but the fact is that superhero comics have not grown up and will never grow up. The “Ultimate Universe” is no different than the regular Marvel universe, and “Infinite Crisis” is just a repackaging of “Crisis on Infinite Earths.”

So in the end, I understand why readers had a hard time with this issue. It’s different, and takes the typical comics reader way outside of their comfort zone. There are no panels, text balloons, or any of the familiar storytelling tropes, and where readers are used to consuming their comics in quick, ten minute snacks, this issue demands your attention for an hour or more.

In that sense, Morrison’s Batman story fails. It is not a comfortable, familiar, predictable reading experience. Nor is it consistent like a bag of Doritos or a Big Mac, where we know what we’re getting even before we’ve consumed it. What’s worse, it’s smart and sarcastic and not quite straight-forward. It looks and feels like no other Batman comic that has ever been published, and like the best David Lynch movies, it requires real thought, a second (and perhaps third) reading, and certainly some degree of imaginative interpretation. It is different, and it is challenging and it knows exactly what it is doing.

Ultimately, while it may not be perfect, “The Clown at Midnight” is utterly original, and as Salinger’s young Seymour Glass writes to his parents in “Hapworth,” "close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!"

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27 January 2010

Courtney Crumrin and the Knight Kingdom.

See the finished piece and the sketches throughout this post? Click to see them bigger. Chances are, if you follow comics websites, you probably have at least seen this excellent illo by now. They're all by a personable fellow by the name of Ted Naifeh, whose name should be familiar to you through his wonderful Courtney Crumrin series Oni Press releases, as well as his Burton-meets-Barrie Polly and the Pirates (from Oni as well), and stints drawing Nocturnals spinoffs for Dan Brereton, as well as the first place I saw his stuff, the goth-oriented Gloom Cookie. He is quite simply one of the best artists (and a damn good writer as well) in the field right now, in my opinion; his style is distinctive and idiosyncratic-- you won't mistake it for anyone else's-- with dynamic poses, adroit staging, and sharply realized expressiveness in his figures. As an inker he is a master of contrasts and blackspotting, in the same discussion with the likes of Mignola and Jaime Hernandez, to name a couple. Guess you can tell I am an admirer.

So when I see, on his website's blog, that he is putting these illustrations and sketches out there just in hopes, hat in hand, fer chrissakes-- that someone at DC might deign to give him some work...well, that just blows my head right off my shoulders. From where I sit, why in God's name wouldn't they want him to take a shot at a character, who, along with his extended family, has proved itself to be extremely amenable to widely (and wildly) different interpretations, from the stodgy old Sheldon Moldoff, bland Irv Novick, and dynamic Jim Aparo to the grotesqueries of Kelley Jones and angular Marshall Rogers, from the Kirby-worshipping nostalgia of a Bruce Timm or Darwyn Cooke to the 70's funk of a Neal Adams or Dick Giordano? They should have been calling his number a long time ago- can you imagine the recent Batman: RIP series with Naifeh's art, with the imagination he could bring to bear in interpreting Morrison's scripts, instead of the barely-competent and resolutely mired-in-DC-House-Style-circa-1987 Tony Daniel?

I don't know. Perhaps it's the DC editors' reluctance to look outside the superhero-creators' community; Naifeh may be regarded as an "Indie Guy", and not suitable for a Batman comic, any more than a Seth or Dan Clowes, unless they condescend to start up another Bizarro Comics-type anthology. If so, this, I think, is a mistake. Perhaps they think Naifeh's style would be a turnoff for the modern comic shop patron, who thinks George Perez or (shudder) Ed Benes is the absolute apex of everything comic book superhero art should be. As Ian Anderson once stated on the inside of one of his Jethro Tull albums, "People are geared towards the average rather than the exceptional". Perhaps Naifeh has only just now made his intentions clear, and the brain trust didn't know. By taking this tack, I hope Naifeh has made them aware!

So yeah, not to put too fine a point on it, but I sincerely hope to see a Batman series or story or something with Naifeh illustration work someday. I won't stand on one foot waiting, because it just makes too much sense. But a guy can hope, can't he?

And while I'm at it, even though the man himself has told me he has no interest in the character, I would absolutely love to see a Shade (you know, from Starman) series with James Robinson scripts and Naifeh art. Oh yes, I have a dream.

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10 December 2009

Daily Breakdowns 047 - I Have The Neediest Cat In The World

Welcome back. Today I thought I'd write about three books that have nothing to do with each other. First, though, I was thinking. I couldn't wait for 2008 to end. It was a bad, depressing, lonely year. 2007 as well. 2009 has certainly had some low points for me, but something seems a little different, a little better. I know part of it is just that I got involved with TWC and have been writing regularly. I don't know, maybe it's just another escape mechanism and it's not like I feel I'm doing something very important, but it feels pretty good to be doing this.

No credit goes to my cat, though. She's like the worst girlfriend, always flopping down in your path when you're trying to walk, meowing incessantly. And stupid? She can't figure out how the push-in door of the litter box works, so she'll pee on your dirty clothes while you're taking a shower, or take a crap on the bath mat.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Reviewing comics is fun.

Starr The Slayer #1-4
Written by Daniel Way
Art by Richard Corben
Published by Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD ea.

This was a pretty bad miniseries. I don't want to belabor this, because what's another bad miniseries? There are lots of better comics to talk about, and indeed I'm getting pretty backed up already. There are probably fourteen people who care about Starr the Slayer, and I'm not sure half of them would enjoy this. Corben fans probably will, as he gets to draw some odd, alien faces and big breasted women without having to try to tone things down for our reality, or a superhero universe.

Not sure how Way fans will feel, as I don't know much of his work. Here, he takes the original premise--a hack writer comes up with stories of a sword-and-sandal warrior who really exists in another dimension--and uses this mainly in the first issue and then gets away from it for increasingly annoying rhyming narration (think Mark Evanier trying to write Groo while on Vicadin from his stomach-stapling), and a haphazard, let's-beat-him-again-and-again-until-he-fights-back storyline for Starr. Starr is not interesting, nor is his Spartacus-like rebellion, nor is his enemy. After the first issue, I kept buying the rest and only read them after the last came out. If I'd been reading every week, I would have stopped at #2. The miniseries exists only so that a trademark is maintained, in case anyone had ideas of writing their own stories about a blond barbarian named Starr.

Batman: Unseen #1-5
Written by Doug Moench
Art by Kelley Jones
Published by DC Comics. $2.99 USD ea.

Ostensibly a miniseries existing so people who like the Bruce Wayne Batman have something to read until he's inevitably brought back, this is actually a little more narrowly focused towards those who remember the '90s Moench/Jones Batman run (plus a few one-shots/graphic novels) fondly. The majority of those stories took advantage of Jones' gift for grotesque anatomy and high contrast images. There was often a horrible looking character involved, like Black Mask or Dracula, because that's what Jones does best. His normal characters, like Bruce Wayne, are flat and not interesting to look at, but give him a chance to draw Batman's six (eight? twelve? pack framed by a flowing, apparently 30 foot cape, and he's on-point. Moench knows what to give him, and here Jones has the opportunity to draw a deranged scientist in various stages of invisibility--sometimes there's muscles with no skin, sometimes just some organs and eyes, sometimes a skeleton, based on his continued ingestion of a special formula of his devising. As a villain he's not that clever, and his patron Black Mask doesn't get much to do, but Jones' art is always fun to look at, and Moench seems to be having a good time, giving new chapter headings every couple pages like it's an old horror novel. A pretty good time.

Tre Tarino
Art by Ashley Wood
Published by IDW Publishing. $35.00 USD

I've always enjoyed Wood's artwork, and have reviewed a few of these books before. It's not easy to do when you're not an artist. They're interesting books in that they're big and glossy, and yet sort of sloppily put together. That is, they're just a bunch of representative images from the past year or two of Wood's comics output. This time around I see some World War Robot in one section, some of his 48 Nudes in another. Maybe some of it is new to this collection, I dunno. Wood briefly explains at the start that this is a map of where he was and where he's going, and from that point the reader is on his own. From what I can tell, Wood has gotten away from a brief fascination a while ago with depicting female genitalia as mechanical and dangerous. He still has some interest in the contast between the soft, curvy feminine form contrasting with the blunt angles of dull metal robots, but it seems to be cooling a bit based on the selections here. Women are soft and playful and with the body tone of the '70s or '80s rather than the hardbodies of today. Sometimes faces are realistic and sometimes they're cute and cartoony girls atop realistic bodies. Robots still tend to be like darker versions of the ones from Disney's The Black Hole. One example of growth is the murky, oppressive quality he brings to the WWR settings, as well as the horrific quality of their gas masks. Wood's pretty easy to take for granted, as he does a lot of covers and comics art and these art books come about once a year or more, but there's really no one doing anything like him right now.

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26 October 2009

Daily Breakdowns 032 - Batman Confrodisiac

Batman Confidential #31-35
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Andy Clarke
Published by DC Comics. $2.99 USD ea.

I suppose these days, those who want to read comics with Bruce Wayne as Batman will take 'em where they can get 'em. That was part of the reason I started reading this storyline, the other being the presence of Milligan. I remember kind of liking Clarke's style from some 2000 AD stories, too.

In this one, Batman travels to Moscow to take down the Tsar, a scarred but handsome, youngish crime lord who has control over all the kingpins who have sliced up the city like pie, and he keeps them in line through the use of the Bear, a huge and powerful, but childlike and trusting, furry young man. I think you can see where this is going: Batman will get to the Bear and make him realize what he's doing his bad and that the Tsar doesn't care about him, which will be revealed at a crucial moment when the Bear is going to either kill Batman or some innocents.

Not badly done, just very predictable and forgettable. Clarke makes a game effort and draws a nice Batman, but there's never anything in the art that looks like Moscow. Lots of the action takes place indoors or underground, and when it doesn't, it's on nondescript nighttime streets or there are no backgrounds at all. Seems like cheating. And Milligan is complicit as well, peppering his script with vodka and babushka and other Russian words any simpleton knows, but nothing authentic. There's never a feeling that Milligan has discovered any uniquely Russian characteristics or knowledge he's dying to convey. The story could just as easily taken place in San Antonio and given us Alamo and River Walk and Tex-Mex references. The only interesting aspect is early on, when Batman discovers the Moscow criminals don't fear him. As he works harder and figures out how to get to them, Milligan ironically works himself right out of the novel and into the mundane. For completists only.

By Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca
Published by AdHouse Books. $14.95 USD

Rugg's and Maruca's '70s blaxploitation spoof character has been around for several years, appearing here and there in anthologies, and now those pieces and a lot more have been jammed into this collection. Since pimps appear as Halloween costumes -- even for children -- we can assume most readers aren't going to be particularly offended by the hero of these tales being one, with a stable of pretty white women calling him Daddy.

When Afrodisiac, or "D" to his friends, isn't pimping, he's involved in all sorts of adventures, stopping aliens, cult leaders, Hercules and even Dracula, with either his fighting skills or his power to make women love him. It's a fun premise, though the stories themselves are without any complication or suspense. Mainly, they're just parodies of bad '60s and '70s comics. That's not such a bad thing, as there's much to admire about how Rugg gets close to the look of Dell, Gold Key, Charlton and Marvel Comics, and with the excellent AdHouse production, the colors are perfect, and not only do the covers look beat up and dated, one even has a child's marker scribbling on it, as if the issue in question was found at a garage sale or flea market. Fans of old comics will find all that's missing is the smell of decaying newsprint.

In fact, it's the process that gets the most attention, from the production touches to the minor fun of giving Afrodisiac different origins that remind readers of famous characters. It would maybe be counterproductive for Rugg and Maruca to try to make Afrodisiac more dimension, or make his stories more meaningful and layered. We're just supposed to chuckle at yet another blaxploitation parody because it's been mashed up with stupid old superhero comics. It is pretty amusing throughout, but it's hard to look at this lavishly produced trifle and not wish the creators would get working on something original and a little more meaty real soon.

Christopher Allen

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15 October 2009

Thursday Link Party: Sick of Myself

Under the weather this week, so forgive me if this veers too often into non-comics territory. You're tough. You'll get over it.

Comics Alliance has news that all five episodes of the Spider-Woman motion comic are now available for free on Hulu. I'm not personally a huge fan of the format, especially using Bendis' writing; the first episode for me highlighted how unnatural his scripting sounds when actually spoken. But I could see it working with certain comics, and I appreciate the attempt to experiment with major creators and characters.

NOT COMICS 1: Apparently there's an audio-animatronic Remy the Rat who will visit your table at a restaurant in Epcot. If I could afford it, I'd be there in a heartbeat, as I'd love to be entertained by a robotic rat while I eat French food.

Geoff Boucher at Hero Complex writes about the unlikely friendship between Frank Zappa and Jack Kirby, plugging an article by Jeff Newelt in Royal Flush magazine. Also scope that awesome Zappa-as-Kirby-character piece by Rick Veitch. (via Mark Evanier)

NOT COMICS 2: You're a geek, so you probably like They Might Be Giants, right? I know I sure do. Rolling Stone has a track-by-track interview with the Johns celebrating the 20th anniversary of Flood. Blue canary in the outlet by the lightswitch; who watches over you?

I adore the Bat-Blog. There, I said it. Right now you can read an entire Super Powers pack-in minicomic featuring Batman on the site.

NOT COMICS (but it oughta be) 3: Hamtramck Disneyland. See it to believe it.

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30 September 2009

EXTRA MEDIUM #1: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Comic books don't stay in comic books, and that fascinates me.

It's hardly a phenomenon. I know. It's part of the point. For better or worse, most comics - certainly the superhero ones - are produced in the hopes they will lead to films, cartoons, action figures, video games, backpacks, beach towels and bubble baths.

Regardless, there's something about the process of adapting a story from one medium to another that intrigues me. Maybe it's an intellectual curiosity that comes from nothing more complicated than the childlike surprise at seeing characters I had previously known only as frozen subjects on a page become more defined in a film or even a cartoon. Maybe it's because Hollywood's continuing trend of adaptations and remakes has so overtaken film that it seems like adapting a story from one medium to another has almost become an art form in and of itself.

Or maybe I'm just pissed off about organic webshooters. I don't know.

Extra Medium is a (weekly? bi-weekly?) column about this fascination of mine, of what happens when the stories in comics end up in films, television, books, and even video games. I may also explore the opposite: when stories from other media end up in comics. We'll see. This is something new to me and I don't have a lot of rules just yet.

For my first subject, I decided to look at the new PC/Console game Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's a fitting choice because, as I realized while I considered what to write about in my first column, the game is indirectly responsible for Extra Medium. It was a commercial for Batman: Arkham Asylum that renewed in me the desire to own a game console system - my last was a PlayStation 2 which I sold around 5 years ago. My lovely and generous girlfriend bought me an XBox 360 for my birthday, and since then I've been stunned by how utterly cinematic video games have become. I've been thinking a lot about whether or not certain video games could even be correctly called "games" anymore, rather than interactive movies. So when TWC formed and folks were asked what they wanted to write about, since I already had the blurring lines between media on the brain, Extra Medium was the result.

So, without any further delay other than a caveat that I have never even considered reviewing a video game before today so I hope I don't sound too dumb, I give you the first installment of Extra Medium.

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Batman: Arkham Asylum
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Platforms Offered: PlayStation 3, XBox 360, PC

The Joker goes in and out of Arkham so often, they may as well rename it "Harley." This time, he plans to stay for a while. Backed by an army of muscle from Blackgate Prison and a handful of Batman's deadliest nemeses, the Joker plans to put Batman through the most hellish night of his life in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

In his BATMAN ALWAYS WINS column, Matt Springer wrote "There is no such thing as a "definitive Batman."" It's a strong statement, one I agree with, and it's part of what makes something like Batman: Arkham Asylum a challenge to create. Unlike Batman games of the past, Arkham Asylum isn't attached to any specific Batman film or TV show. That left the creators (among them, writer Paul Dini) with a long history of different interpretations of the dark knight from which to choose.

The result is a perfect marriage of the more recent and successful incarnations of Batman. In spite of the stellar success of Nolan's films, visually most of the ideas in Arkham Asylum seem to come from the comics. Characters like Joker, Scarecrow, and of course Batman himself look much more like the guys you'd find in the funnybooks. Of course, Nolan's influence is there in other ways. The game's music sounds mostly to have been culled from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, though every great once in a while you're treated to a thunderous clanging of bells and singing that sounds like it could be a Danny Elfman contribution to one of Tim Burton's films. Also, during some truly disturbing Scarecrow sequences, things like the distortion of Scarecrow's voice and the red glow of his victims' eyes resemble how the character was depicted in Batman Begins. Batman: The Animated Series isn't forgotten. Arkham Asylum's creators recruited some of their talent from Batman: The Animated Series veterans including Kevin Conroy as Batman, Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, and of course Mark Hamill as the Joker.

Along with Joker, players will find themselves locking horns with Harley Quinn, Zsasz, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc and Bane though they're hardly the only super-baddies in Arkham. Just about any lover of superhero comics will love all the references - obscure or otherwise - to the broader mythology of Batman. Early in the game, the Riddler makes radio contact with Batman and challenges the dark knight to find dozens of objects Riddler's hidden on the island. They're not necessary to complete the game but you get rewards for completing challenges (I don't know them all, because honestly while I've finished the game I never managed to find everything). Some are simply "Riddler trophies" in hard-to-get-to spots. Some are patient interview tapes with inmates like Joker, Croc, Ivy, etc. Then there are certain items comicdom's favorite smart-ass didn't hide himself, but have to be identified with only his riddles for guidance, and many of these are objects belonging to, or newly emptied prison cells of, the absent members of Batman's rogue's gallery. While the villains don't appear in the game, players will find references to Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face, the Ventriliquist, the Calendar Man, Mister Freeze, Mad Hatter and more. Mentioning my favorite of these fun additions would be a bit of a spoiler, so simply allow me to say the developers figured out a very inventive way to include Clayface in the game. And of course, all of these little references have potential to be more than simply references should Arkham Asylum enjoy a sequel, since Joker's actions have allowed for most of the aforementioned bad guys (including Riddler) to run free.

Also, while Batman: Arkham Asylum isn't the video game version of the Grant Morrison/Dave McKean GN of the same name (that would be one trippy damn video game), there's obviously a lot of inspiration from that story, as well as numerous direct references. The dark, tragic story of Amadeus Arkham is told in the game directly from the mouth of Arkham's ghost. Chapters of the tale can be accessed when the player finds stone tablets hidden in secret chambers, caves, and other various nooks and crannies throughout Arkham. Readers of the Morrison/McKean GN may notice the shapes of beetles littered throughout the architecture of Arkham's buildings. If you care to, you can even find Arkham's gravestone.

As far as its playability, controlling Batman is surprisingly easy. I'm still new to the most recent generation of video games, and I was worried there would be a complex button combination for every single move, but instead Arkham Asylum uses what the developers call a "freeflow" combat system. In other words, while there are maybe two moves that require specific button combos, for the most part there's one button to hit, one button to counter. The game decides exactly what Batman is going to do when you hit either button (e.g., whether he kicks a guy in the face or punches him in the stomach). It sounds almost too easy, but it's difficult to truly master. Eventually, you'll find yourself in the middle of crowds of literally a dozen or more thugs - some with automatic rifles, electrified batons, knives, and sometimes even boxes or cinder blocks they'll toss at your head - along with a Bane-ified thug or two, and it won't seem like child's play then. There's also a series of great stealth attacks. You can grab bad guys with grappling guns and pull them off catwalks. You can hang below them from a ledge, reach up, bang their heads on a railing and then throw them off. You can hang upside down from gargoyles (you had to know there'd be gargoyles), grab a thug, pull him up a wall and then hang him from the gargoyle. You can even wait until another thug walks under the first guy you strung up, cut the rope with a well-placed bat-a-rang, and take out the thug with the unconscious body of his buddy. As the game progresses, you get more and more gadgets (starting out with only bat-a-rangs), and your options just multiply from there.

What becomes more and more clear as you progress in the game is that the developers were committed to bringing gamers an experience that truly felt like a Batman story, and that came as close as possible to making the players feel like Batman. One interesting thing to note is that, as far as I can tell, there is no way to kill anyone in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I've tried a number of ways and so far I haven't been able to do it. First, I tried pulling a thug off a security tower. As the thug fell, a rope appeared on his ankle and he dangled rather than splatted. Next, I tried using Batman's grappling gun to pull a bad guy into an electrified pool of water. No matter how close I pulled him to the pool, like an overprotective parent at the beach, the game wouldn't let him go in the water. Finally, I tried using the same grappling gun to yank a bad guy into a seemingly bottomless pit. I succeeded, but just as I thought I had changed the dark knight forever by making him take the life of another, the game produced a splashing sound. And mind you, Batman: Arkham Asylum is no kiddy story. There are some fairly gruesome and scary bits. So I doubt the developers went out of their way to stop Batman from being able to kill bad guys because of worries about keeping it kid-friendly. They did it because that's who Batman is.

It also helps that Batman: Arkham Asylum feels like a video game created to accommodate a story, and not the other way around. Maybe more experienced video game reviewers would disagree, but to me it felt like the game had very few honest-to-God Boss Fights. While you eventually defeat each bad guy, the story doesn't follow the usual model of getting through a level, ending with a bad guy you fight, and then on to the next level. There are some villains you never really fight in a face-to-face sense, and there are some you never even capture. You could even argue, in at least one instance, that defeating the villain means escaping him, not beating him up or capturing him. It makes it feel like a genuine Batman story. With the exception of, if you so choose, spending hours and hours finding all of Riddlers hidden extras, Batman: Arkham Asylum feels like something that could easily be a story in a comic book. Nothing about it would feel awkward or forced.

I have to make a special mention of one aspect of the game that is absolutely stunning - Scarecrow. Three times, Scarecrow hits you with his fear gas, and the sequences that follow are the best reasons to play this game. As Batman, you find yourself in a nightmarish abyss, with howling vortexes spinning above and below while you try to navigate floating islands of reality to hide from a Godzilla-sized Scarecrow with a Freddy-Kruegger glove sporting syringes instead of claws. I really don't want to say too much about these sequences because, of everything that happens in the game, these are the last things I would want to spoil. Suffice to say they're scary, they're brilliant, and in one part they lead to something I really never thought I'd see - a video game's retelling of the deaths of Bruce Wayne's parents that is genuinely touching and powerful.

I guess I'll follow the best thing I can say about this game with my biggest complaint, and it's fitting because they're related. The only thing I HATE about Batman: Arkham Asylum is that it uses an auto-save feature. In other words, the game automatically saves your progress in certain spots, and writes over everything you've done. Meaning you can't just, for example, save the moment before a Scarecrow sequence starts because you love it and just might want to play that part again and again and again.

Overall, anyone who has ever cared at all about Batman's exploits should be thrilled at the idea of playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's a testament to how the advances in video game technology have made it possible to not only make games that are more fun, but games that are more cinematic, aesthetically pleasing, and even emotionally powerful. It just depends on who's holding the reins.

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21 September 2009

Uninventing the Wheel

Empty spaces - what are we living for
Abandoned places - I guess we know the score
On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for...

1. On the Wild Ride

Death is an interesting thing.
From the moment that we are born, we begin dying. It's an inevitability of choosing incarnation on this planet, everyone dies. Some people take that with grace and dignity. Other people rage against the "darkness". All throughout, many make some sort of elaborate mythology regarding what happens after death. As such, we get interesting pipe dreams about an eternal reward, a black nothingness, conjunction with godhead, dissolution into the infinite...or zombies. I like zombies.

What comes after death? Annihilation or Reincarnation. That's the smartass answer. A more truthful answer would be, "I don't know".

Death doesn't last long in comics. Maybe a year or two. It's kind of like, if you die, you're eventually going to get better. It probably helps when Death herself is a perky goth chick, but well...if you don't get resurrected, you're at least going to come back as a zombie to drain the pocketbooks of other zombies. (Okay, maybe I don't like all zombies. You can't win all the time. Sometimes you get Shakespeare, sometimes you get a monkey wearing a Green Lantern ring) So, Bruce Wayne's dead or adrift in time, living horrible existences one after another, starting from the dawn of time. In other words, when DC finally dusts off the character in a year, we're going to get to read reams upon reams of snuff...but with Batman. Doesn't that make you feel better?

Anyway, Batman's dead. Long live the Bat! ...or something like that.

I actually haven't read most of what occurred between Batman: RIP and now Batman: Reborn. I took a couple looks at the stuff during that whole Battle for the Cowl thing a couple of days ago in the interest of more informing this column and thought it just looked like a big jumbled mess; so for sanity's sake, I'm ignoring it. Grant Morrison's Batman & Robin, though, thing of beauty.

Now, I know most people probably think "Grant Morrison = Weird and wacky, complex ideas." I think people overcomplicate things. They look in to something, like say Final Crisis, to find some sort of deeper meaning. They think that since Grant's written labyrinthine layers into things like The Invisibles that it must be present in everything that he writes. That's just silly. Even The Invisibles is fairly simple depending on how you look at it. You may not get every reference, but first and foremost, you have to look at any of these things as a story. An entertainment, a lark, a fable, whatever. Look at it that way first, and then derive any sort of existential meaning. Of course, everyone being a unique aggregate of ideas, thoughts and experiences, meanings found will differ.

So what's the story? Bruce Wayne is "dead", necessitating someone new to take his place, likewise resulting in a new Robin to stand beside him. As these two new people try to gain their footing in the roles, they stop a drug-smuggling ring by a group of strange circus performers, stumbling upon a madman trying to remake the world in his image, refashioning people as "dolls". As I say, it's pretty simple.

Batman & Robin, like its conceptual predecessor All Star Superman, is fairly straight forward. Being set in modern continuity, it doesn't have the opportunity to play fast and loose with the structure of universe, however being basically the adventures of a "new" Batman & Robin, it does get to tread slightly different terrain. Despite being set in a world of darkness -- filled with loss, despair and sickness --, it has a surprisingly light-hearted, ephemeral undercurrent. It's strange exactly how that works. It's not the gallows humour that you see in a black comedy, but something that's part irony, part absurdity, and part innocence. "Crime is doomed." or "...so we're agreed. It's Robin and Batman from now on."

To a certain extent, it somewhat feels informed by Morrison's run on Doom Patrol. The core cast of characters -- Dick, Damian, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon -- are played straight, but around them is the insanity of the Circus of Strange and Professor Pyg. Cross reference that to the Brotherhood of Dada circling about an axis of Cliff Steele. Also, while Batman: RIP put the reader in a position of where we were never quite sure where we stand, partially because if we take a peek inside Bruce Wayne's head we're liable to see fractals and talking gummy bears, however, with Dick behind the cowl, there's a humanization that occurs. A grounding that allows for a sense of orientation to take place.

Another hero, another mindless crime
Behind the curtain, in the pantomime
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore

2. On Everything and Nothing

There's a line in Trent Reznor's Wish that goes something like, "Put my faith in god and my trust in you, now there's nothing more fucked up I can do." Then there's a Prince lyric, "Trust...who do ya?" How can you trust a ten-year old boy raised by a cadre of assassins who has an insane, immortal misanthrope for a grandfather?

The answer is: perfectly.

You can trust him perfectly to act irrationally. You can trust him perfectly to go off half-cocked at any instance. You can trust him perfectly to knee-jerk against your authority. That's currently the quandary that we have in this new Batman and Robin. On the surface level, roles have been reversed. Batman is now the more light-hearted individual with Dick Grayson behind the cowl; he's a more rounded character, always seeing light in the darkness. Robin, however, a character traditionally designed to add a bit of levity and colour to the darkness of the world of Batman, is now that same ten-year old boy mentioned above; Damian Wayne.

Even though there's a degree of extreme seriousness to Damian, it doesn't make him any less reckless, and because of it, makes him all the more dangerous. Batman still has to deal with a Robin who is young, inexperienced, and liable to do anything that serves what he thinks is the right course of action regardless of warning or reprimand. This is illustrated by the level of incredulity that Damian has for Dick, as well as how Damian deals with the criminal element. He's shown going off on his own against Pyg when he doesn't like what Dick has to say, as well as beating criminals insensate.

Now, I haven't said anything up until this point about the artwork in the first three issues of Batman & Robin, largely because I'm a writer and I find it much easier to talk about the written word. Part of it, though, is that Frank Quitely's choices of imagery, pacing, and blocking are so perfect that they diffuse immediate across the consciousness.

Take a look at this image on the right, the opening page to Batman & Robin #2. Scarcity of background detail notwithstanding -- that's also partially the point leading the focus to the two characters and the stairs -- this is an amazing image. Concern on the face of Alfred. Sorrow, possibly defeat, on the face of Dick. A Robin emblem lying torn on the floor. The draping of the cape to suggest tears. ...and a descent, Alfred coming down the stairs to reach Dick. Simple, yet loaded with content. This is true of pretty much every page of the first three issues of the series.

It also enables the humanization of Batman. Under the cowl, Dick Grayson is a wirier figure that Bruce Wayne, and Quitely takes a more realistic style when it comes to depicting the main characters. His more outlandish designs are reserved for the villains of the piece. It complements the story being told perfectly.

Also, in the second issue, we get a shift in narrative structure. Although in collected form we'll be able to go back and re-evaluate how the storytelling works, the first issue is told seemingly in the present. The second issue, even though it eventually continues on from where the first issue broke, is told back to us through Dick Grayson telling us what happened after the conclusion of the first issue. The third issue then goes forward again. There's a pattern and a tell in that structure.

"...there was a girl... Did -- Did you just save my life?"

The show must go on,
The show must go on
Inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking
But my smile still stays on.

3. On the Sickness

I like putting tonic water in my Pepsi or Coke.

Can't really explain it, but I like the taste. Somehow it's different from just adding lemon or lime; there's the tart taste of the quinine mixed with the sweetness of the cola that appeals to me. Maybe I'm just strange. I also can't hit the high notes in the Queen songs any more [Just for notation's sake, the interstitial quotes are from Queen's "The Show Must Go On" in case anyone didn't already know that]. Freddie Mercury was unnaturally gifted in terms of his ability to sing such a range without having to utilise a falsetto, but once upon a time, I could easily shift between my natural range and falsetto and ape the notes. I can't do it easily any more. Times change, vocal chords loosen, all that. Things lost.

You could say that it's a winding down, a general shift toward entropy. This is true of just about anything. The key is not to become stagnant. Not to latch on to what came before, hold on to dear life, and try to squeeze every single inch out of it. Take what is old, what is past and done, put it in its place, and move on. Respect it, sure. Learn from it, definitely. But don't worship it. Just because it's the past doesn't mean it's better, it just means that it's past. Change or die.

The problem, however, comes in the idea of "...into what?" It's a process. A journey. Lust for result will almost always result in failure. The perversion that comes from Professor Pyg's manifestations. If you search for anything long enough, you're going to find it. There is, however, the caveat in that what you find might not be exactly what you wanted.

...and so we're left with a pig-faced man; a man masked in "ugliness", couched in ideas brought forth from an Orwellian nightmare, trying to remake the world in his image. It may seem like the incoherent ramblings of a madman, but it's interesting what Pyg is going on about when he's got Robin held captive. First, there's a mention of the despair pit experimentations, then a litany of manifestations of "mommies made of nails": Mormo - a Greek manifestation that cuckolded bad children, Tiamat - a Babylonian goddess that represented that "formless void" mentioned in the Mormo line (also a really good gothic metal band), and finally the "Gorgon Queen" or Medusa - I don't think I need to qualify that one. There's also the line that followed Bereshith ("In the Beginning...") in the Hebrew bible, transliterated as "Tohu va Bohu" and translated as "formless and empty". About a topsy-turvy world I could write reams. ...and the Flashdance sequence is absolutely hilarious. I've missed this Grant Morrison and I'm happy to see him rear his little piggy head. This is like candy to me.

Of course, although ultimately it is fairly simple referencing, to some it takes them out of the straight forward action of a Batman comic. It's a couple drops of tonic water into the sweetness of the cola.

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