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long been one of my favorite writers; so much so that several years ago I voraciously tracked down and read all of his unpublished stories online.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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12 November 2009

Daily Breakdowns 036 - Strange Pope Authority God

After immersing myself in the heady works of the Magus, Alan Moore, it's kind of nice to dip into some new floppies and see what's going on there. First, though, some thoughts on other critics. I think it must be some unwritten rule that critics leave other critics alone, but I've always felt they're just as much fair game as creators themselves. Some guys I read for their style, some their taste, and some because they make me laugh in a way they hadn't intended. I like some of the critics who've come out in the past two or three years a lot, but I also pay keen attention to guys who started out around the same time as me, around the start of this decade.

Take Don MacPherson. He used to be ubiquitous on the 'net with then-partner Randy Lander, but most would have called him the Roeper of that pairing, as Randy had a tad more style and humor. And both suffered from the grind of feeling like they had to review a dozen titles a week, so they fell into robotic phrasing like "continues to impress" week after week. I hadn't paid that much attention to Don since then, but I have to say he's pretty sturdy. This Wall-E #0 review is a nice effort, and made me at least consider picking up a book I had #0 interest in before then.

Graeme McMillan's another veteran, although he started out be more of a provocateur and ringleader than a reviewer. I don't follow him regularly but found this latest outing fascinating in the way he alternates between a sort of stand-up comic's hostility ("here's a clue") and the disturbing trait of worrying about the tastes of others ("am I the only one? I am, aren't I?"). Also, why cop to your column being late or irregular? They showed up, didn't they? Don't let 'em see you sweat, Graeme.

Strange #1 (of 4)
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Emma Rios
Published by Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

I like Mark Waid fine, but this seems to be just one of those proposals that got picked up because Marvel wanted to put out something Dr. Strange while some other team prepares a new monthly series or something. In this one, Strange has been left abandoned by magic due to some act of hubris, and so he's taking in a minor league baseball game, because he's only lived in a city with two major league baseball teams for the past 40 fucking years and no one has ever seen him express the slightest interest in baseball.

Whew, sorry. Taking my pills....Oh...kay...

So he has a meet-cute with a girl whose granddad owns the team, and he acts like a loud, obnoxious fan, because I guess Waid really wants to put his own stamp on the character. I think the stamp will wash off pretty quickly, though. Soon enough, it turns out the game is an illusion and what's really going on is a bunch of demons doing stuff on the field (the art is not very clear) and the main demon is here to collect on a thirty year old soul deal that led to the team winning their division this long. The girl helps Strange do the spells to solve things, since his hands don't work so well, and all is well. With a half-assed script and lots of pages of hard-to-follow demon action with tentacles and three or four kinds of fire, this is a minor league effort all around.

Pope Hats #1
By Ethan Rilly
Published by AdHouse Books. $4.00 USD

Part of the contents were originally published as a minicomic, but now with some Xeric Grant money, Rilly has finished it off as a handsome, cardstock-covered comic. The inside cover indicates that the story concerns one Frances Scarland quietly battling demons, but that's not really true. The one battling demons, at least figuratively, is Frances' best friend, Vickie, a nice young woman who won't listen to Frances' advice to be healthier, more social, and to stop getting blitzed and sleeping with the guy who's wrong for her. Meanwhile, Frances argues--not battles--with Saarsgard, a kind of non-threatening, Pac-Man-type of ghost, who seems to want to talk her through her stress rather than really haunt her. Unless you're violently opposed to magical realism, it's kind of an interesting direction for the story. The other story in the book, which I suspect may have been the minicomic part, as it's less ambitious, finds Frances telling a couple unsettling supernatural stories over drinks with friends.

Rilly has a nice line, something like a smoother Farel Dalrymple, realistic but cuter (characters don't have nostrils or irises). He spots blacks well, creates believable environments, and the characters carry themselves with the weight of real people. Very impressive artistically. Storywise, he has an ear for dialogue but tries a little too hard to be clever in spots. The characters just need to breathe a little more and start telling him what they want to talk about. Very impressive debut, though.

Supergod #1
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Garrie Gastonny
Published by Avatar Press. $3.99 USD

There's just a little too much Ellis Avatar product for me to keep up with, plus I don't seem to read any really ecstatic praise for it. But I liked the cover design and the title is suitably ballsy, so I gave it a shot. In standard Ellis fashion, a very smart guy dumps a ton of sci-fi exposition on the reader, interspersed with some drug use to keep it interesting. It's pretty interesting on its own, though: several countries had their own superhuman projects going on, with varied results. Britain sent a crew of two men and a woman into space in an intentionally poorly shielded rocket, whereupon space sports bonded with the crew and the rocket returned with a three-headed, mushroom covered, silent giant that scientists like to beat off to (Ellis also feels compelled to inject sex into his stories, though almost never in a love scene kind of way). Meanwhile, India's experiment yielded a blue-skinned being whose directive to protect India has backfired, as the being, named Krishna, thinks culling some of the population and leveling some cities are appropriate measures. Finally, we get to the USA's model, and he appears to be a soldier with a yen to fight crime, so I guess we'll see if Ellis has some Captain America riffs to work out or something else in mind. Solid work from Gastonny, who has a crisp kind of Chris Weston style, less distinctive than a lot of Avatar artists I've seen but also honestly more professional. Hard to judge Ellis' work quite yet as it's all set up and there are really no characters to latch onto yet aside from the pot-smoking, possibly doomed scientist.

The Authority: The Lost Year Reader
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Gene Ha
Published by Wildstorm. $2.99 USD

It's ironic that this story is called "The Lost Year," but not for the obvious reason that it took a long time between the first and second issue, both collected here, or the fact the series hasn't continued since then and it's only now getting back in production with Keith Giffen taking Morrison's plot and carrying on with different artists. No, it's ironic because I honestly didn't know these issues even existed until very recently. I was buying trades and graphic novels but almost no monthly comics. So while this issue is old hat to a lot of readers, for me it's like, "Great! Two comics for $2.99!"

I could see how the first issue might have annoyed readers, as The Authority doesn't show up and the story takes its time with pedestrian marital strife and lots of murky, underwater scenes. Still, Ha does a great job with either. and the coloring by Art Lyons is outstanding. The series made its reputation early for being bigger and bolder than any other superhero comic, so it has a lot to live up to, and yet I think Morrison was right in a) focusing on some quieter, more human moments, for contrast, and b) setting the big, bold stuff in new areas, namely the sea.

By the second chapter, we get good takes on all the characters, and it's nice to see The Doctor taking more of a lead role. Morrison's story idea is an unusual one: set the team down on an alternate Earth with no superhumans at all. It's not the most original idea but a smart one for a team who historically has been very visible and active on their own Earth, so now their outlandishness is only going to be amplified by being on an Earth not at all prepared for them. All Morrison really gets to do is have a few jokes about comics and to show The Authority as the fascists they are, but this is confined only to dialogue. It's too bad we won't see what he and Ha would have done. Giffen is quite a different writer than Morrison, and few writers do their best working from someone else's plot, so odds are this is just a brief but occasionally stunning glimpse at a creative pairing that wasn't meant to be.

Christopher Allen

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22 October 2009

Thursday Link Party: The Webbing Represents Something Else, I Think

Let's take the long way today, a rambling spin through the interwebbes. We'll start a little far from comics but get there quick. Trust me.

This titanic (get it, cause he directed the movie Titanic, and I'll shaddap now) profile of James Cameron is a must-read, especially if, like me, you get a little dizzy when you think about seeing Avatar in a few months. (via Kevin Church)

Didja know Cameron wrote up his own treatment for a Spider-Man movie back in 1991? And it's online? Read and imagine what could have been.

Supposedly Bruce Campbell will have a larger role in Spider-Man 4, which won't be directed by James Cameron but will be directed by Sam Raimi. I'm glad to hear that as Campbell's extended bit role as the enthusiastic French waiter was for me perhaps the most entertaining part of Spider-Man 3.

Ya know who I'd love see writing a Spider-Man movie? Grant Morrison. (Okay, not really but it's a transition. WORK WITH ME PEOPLE.) Ya know whose upcoming series Joe the Barbarian I'm superexcited about? Grant Morrison. Pretty excited about Sean Murphy too, who is already looking to be KICKING ASS on this book.

Morrison's All-Star Superman did pretty well on the Best Comics of 2008 Meta-List, an indispensible resource once created by Dick Hyacinth but this year created by Sandy over at I Love Rob Liefield (title ironic, I think) using the original formula created by Chad Nevett.

Speaking of Superman, I agree wholeheartedly with Kiel Phegley that Hipster Superman sucks and slutty Halloween costumes do not kick ass. As he says:
But boy oh boy is there a big difference between someone, male or female, who is confident with their body and sexuality and looking to explore that and some who just wants to be slutty. And holy shit, will there be a lot of people slutting it up out there on Halloween this year.
I like skin as much as the next dude but I've got a daughter now and if she tries to parade herself around like a hooker one day a year, I swear to Jesus I will ground her until she's at least as old as those ladies in Grey Gardens.

Finally, I just loved this piece of iPod Touch art that Lea Hernandez created. So evocative and beautiful.

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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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