Tuesday, September 30, 2008
A couple of weeks ago I had a dream that I had seen the movie and I was explaining to a friend that it was about "the impossibility of communicating with each other", which is actually part of what I think Fargo is about. It turns out that Burn After Reading is not quite about this, but is, rather, an allegory about the failure of the American intelligence system. Communication here is a problem only in as much as no one ever really knows what the fuck anyone else is really thinking, which means that everyone is operating with a severe lack of information. The Preston Sturges influence comes through in that the absence of understanding doesn't stop anyone from making their moves. For a lot of these characters, just standing still would solve all their problems, but standing still is not the American Way.
I have to admit that I found a lot of the writing on this movie pretty puzzling. Going by many of the reviews at Metacritic (where the movie has a 62 aggregate rating), you'd get the sense that this was just a little bit of a step up from The Ladykillers (which had a 56 aggregate Metacritic rating). I like The Ladykillers well enough, but that movie is definite "Minor" Coen Bros. and Burn After Reading is definitely "Major".
I suspect that critics would be a lot more enthusiastic about this movie if it had a helpful voice over to explain its themes to them.
I also suspect that most critics had already figured out what they were going to say about it - some kind of variation on "Coens taking a break with a minor genre spoof after the majestic No Country" - before they even saw it.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Volume 1: This Is What They Want by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, and Wade von Grawbadger
Big budget action movie adaptations of super-hero comics tend to be (a) more focused than actual super-hero comics - the continuity is stripped down to its essentials - and (b) a lot less farther out than actual super-hero comics - there's not as much tolerance for the kinds of conceptual inconsistencies that super hero comics thrive on (i.e., the willy-nilly mixing of fantasy and sci-fi, the cosmic and the mundane that gives those Kirby/Lee their particular kick). Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., a slapstick variation on Ellis' Planetary, belongs to a (relatively) recent trend of super-hero comics that take the aesthetics and the focus of the big-budget Hollywood adaptations, but don't shy away from the farther out aspects of the genre.
In terms of execution of concept, Nextwave is just about perfect: Ellis' writing is sharp and the in-jokes - mostly at the expense of Marvel's bigger books - are pointed; Stuart Immonen knows how to handle action sequences and he can draw giant monsters AND giant robots; Wade von Grawbadger helps to give it a manga-esque flow. Despite all this, Nextwave is a book whose qualities I appreciate, rather than one that I really like. I think it's just as well made as The Immortal Iron Fist, but while that book really resonates with me, I'm not on Nextwave's wavelength.
Now, three or four years ago, I could see myself really enjoying a book like this: today, not so much. Not because I've somehow matured beyond it - the book is certainly no less mature than Iron Fist - but because I'm a little weary (and wary) of irreverent super-hero comics that nonetheless rely on you actually knowing quite a bit about super-hero comics in order to really grok. But that's a personal preference thing and not any kind of moral/aesthetic pronouncement.
Still, if I were going to expand on this point of personal preference, I'd say that Nextwave is too cynical for me to enjoy in the way I enjoy Iron Fist or early Ultimate Spider-Man, but not thoroughly cynical enough to take on the genre with real teeth like The Boys or Rick Veitch's super-hero books. (Is there some kind of cute name for The One, Maximortal, and Brat Pack? The Veitchverse? Please let me know.) Nextwave feels a little bit like Frank Miller-Lite.
All that said, I'm planning on tracking down the remaining issues. Ellis is funny, Immonen does know how to draw super-heroic spectacle, and, who knows, maybe I was just cranky this weekend.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Let me start by talking about how I learned to love Blake Edwards' movies:
For most of my movie-buff career, I didn't feel too strongly one way or the other about Blake Edwards and his movies. I didn't dislike them, really, but I didn't see too much in them to get me that excited, either. I had a fondness for The Party and A Shot In the Dark, but I attributed that mostly to my enjoyment of Peter Sellars' performances.
In fact, if I thought of Edwards at all, it was usually as "a guy who made Peter Sellars vehicles".
Anyway, back in April of this year, I started watching a letter-boxed version of The Pink Panther and it blew my mind. All of sudden, I was seeing Blake Edwards as a Great Filmmaker.
What had changed was that I had already come to love Jacques Tati's films and watching The Pink Panther I got the sense that Edwards was doing something similar to Tati. It was "getting" the artsier, more rigorous Tati that allowed me to appreciate what Edwards was doing.
I had had the same kind of experience with Kyle Baker's work. I'd always been aware of it: I'd read Why I Hate Saturn and I picked up some individual issues of his Plastic Man series when they were first out, but I hadn't had a strong reaction to it (in either direction).
But, after immersing myself in some of the artsier comics out there - PictureBox/Kramer's Ergot-style stuff - I started seeing Baker's work in a new light. Watching Tati's movies helped me to see that Edwards' are often about the frame (or about the way he uses the frame): reading these art comics helped me see that Baker's work is really about the drawing.
This Plastic Man book makes that pretty apparent. In Baker's hands, the series is about cartooning and about being a cartoon character. It's an approach that is ideally suited for a character like Plastic Man, because it fits perfectly with his concept - actually, it almost is his concept.
One of my major complaints about contemporary super-hero comics is that they suck all of the visual excitement out of what is, at its heart, an extremely visual genre. IMO, in too many of these books, there's too much reliance on dialogue and narration to carry the story. And when artists are praised, it's often for the style/skill of their illustrations, not for their "comics making"* ability. Anyway, the appeal of Baker's Plastic Man is almost completely in the cartooning. Not that his dialogue is bad or anything: it's perfectly fine, with just the right amount of "groaners" for a tongue-in-cheek comic super-hero comic book, but the best gags here are the sight gags.
Though Baker's use of computers is something that made me lukewarm to his work in the past, I've come to appreciate the fact that he owns it. He isn't trying to obfuscate the technology he uses: its right out there - his process inscribed in the product.
*I know the comics equivalent of "good filmmaker" is supposed to be "good cartoonist", but "cartoonist" doesn't quite fit what I'm trying to get at here.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
HWY 115 seems to belong, with Gilbert Hernandez's Sloth and David Lynch's Lost Highway to a specific, contemporary noir/fantasy sub-genre. Stories in this sub-genre take place in a nightmarish world, they have multiple "realities" or levels of reality, and they also have a circular, ourobosian narrative - like a recursive waking-up-from-a-dream dream.
They are self-consciously artsier elaborations on a certain kind of Twilight Zone-ish, "trick ending" suspense story.
Sometimes, figuring out the puzzle - determining how the different realities all fit together, deciphering the dream symbolism of the nightmare world, and discovering how cause-and-effect works in that world - is part of the appeal for me of these kinds of works. That was definitely the case with Lost Highway and Sloth - a comic that has grown on me a lot since I first read it (although I still don't like it as much as the still criminally underrated Grip).
With HWY 115, though, I wasn't too interested in "figuring it out" (although I presume it's possible): rather, I was content to just drink in the grungy, noir atmosphere.
The story follows a P.I. and a writer who are on the trail of a serial killer, whose M.O. is to kill his victims by forcing them to choke on various random (?) objects. Their investigation leads through a series of interviews with some of the killer's former fellow inmates at the insane asylum he's just escaped from. Each one tells their story - why they got locked up (which is basically: who did they kill and why) - and provides a clue - part of a dream that the killer had recounted to them. The comic moves among all of these levels: the investigation, the stories of the former asylum inmates, the killer's dream, and, at one point, the P.I.'s nightmare.
The strongest part of the comic might be the inmates' stories: these episodes aren't just creepy, they're viscerally, under-your-skin unsettling.
Something else I like: the unrelenting social bleakness. All of these characters seem to be barely hanging on. Everyone is an outsider and the onlything in the comic that comes close to representing of some kind of "social order" is the dingy, rundown insane asylum. (It really fit my mood this week).
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
I have a renewed interest in those crazy crossover comics of the 1990s - Batman vs. Predator, Green Lantern vs. Aliens, Batman/Hellboy/Starman, Superman vs. Aliens, etc.
I think comics fans might take for granted how unique and wonderful this particular sub-genre is. Though there are some video games (Capcom vs. Marvel), a few movies (AVP, Freddy vs. Jason), and a few prose novels (The Seven Percent Solution, The D. Case) that give us these kinds of crossovers, they really found their home in comics. The idea of facing Batman off against the Predator is, IMO, pure genius.
I really wish the trend hadn't died out. Here are some crossover comics I'd love to see:
- Batman vs. The Sopranos
- Hellboy: Trapped on the Lost Island
- Predator vs. Deadwood
- CSI vs. The Sopranos
- CSI: NY vs. Batman
- CSI: Miami vs. Predator
- Green Lantern vs. Firefly
- Jennifer Jones from the Alias comic vs. Sydney Bristow from the Alias TV show
- Jennifer Jones from the Alias comic vs. Buffy
- Jennifer Jones from the Alias comic vs. Buffy vs. Sydney Bristow from the Alias TV show
- Jennifer Jones, Buffy, and Sydney Bristow vs. Aliens
- Heroes vs. the X-Men
- Dr. Steve Brule vs. Lobo
- Battlestar Galactica vs. Firefly
- Torchwood vs. BRPD
Reading this makes me want to wax taxonomical and write out a big list of how different kinds of war fiction use "war". Most of the time, war - or, rather, War - is the subject: what war does to soldiers, what war does to civilians, what war does to society. This is usually the case whether or not a real war is used (WWII in James Jones' trilogy, the Vietnam War in Tim O'Brien's fiction) or an imaginary "symbolic" war is used (i.e., The Forever War's sci-fi version of the Vietnam War).
Army @ Love does something that seems to me to be different from this standard approach. It isn't concerned with the effects of its "imaginary" version of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on soldiers or on American society. Rather, it uses the war as an engine to power its satire of contemporary American culture: more specifically, to satirize what I like to call America's Culture of Awesome. In this way it's more like Mike Judge's Idiocracy than a contemporary version of Catch-22.
The Culture of Awesome is, of course, about the celebration of Bigger and Better, or, rather, Bigger as Better, but it's also about overvaluing things like Intensity and Effectiveness in art, culture, and technology. In Army @ Love, the Culture of Awesome is reflected in the idea of selling the (completely co-ed) Army as a place where you can gain "Peak Life Experience" - living life "turned up to 11" at all times - which means mixing sex into the middle of all that violence. The titular "Hot Zone Club" is the frontline equivalent of the "Mile High Club": you become a member by having sex while under fire.
In industrial terms as much as formal terms, this is the kind of thing that comics can really excel at: Veitch can get away with being farther out than folks dealing with similar material on TV or on film, not only in his subject matter but in how it's presented. For one thing, none of the characters here are that appealing - they're not "likable" - which, in my book, is a good thing.
I don't watch the comics industry closely enough to get a sense of exactly what kind of niche Veitch has carved out for himself, but I've always liked what I see as his attempt to continue the tradition of bringing a weird, underground comix vibe to comics' quasi-mainstream.
I'm really interested in the continuation of 1980s-style "Third Way" tradition, in general. That is: genre-based, more-or-less narratively conventional comics that have no literary pretensions, but are, nonetheless, idiosyncratic and personally expressive. Army @ Love shows that Veitch, who did some of the best examples of this type of comic in the 1980s, is still working to keep the tradition alive.
1. Fawlty Towers
2. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
3. Charlie Rose
4. The Twilight Zone
5. Twin Peaks
6. The Muppet Show
7. Star Trek
9. The Simpsons
10. The Sopranos
12. The X-Files
14. The Larry Sanders Show
15. Arrested Development
16. Prime Suspect
18. South Park
19. Dr. Who
21. Blake's 7
Given enough time I could come up with a list of, probably, 100 shows that I think are about as good as The Wire, starting with Seinfeld, The Irish R.M., Fraiser, Inside Winston Cup (when Allen Bestwick was the host), King of the Hill...
Monday, September 22, 2008
I'm not sure how fair it would be to talk about these comics in terms of how they work as comics and not in terms of why they might be interesting as a historical curiosity. It's the (a) mix of sex, violence, werewolves, exotic weaponry combined with (b) the ultimate male adolescent wish-fulfillment characters - he's the world's greatest fighter and the world's greatest novelist and he lost his virginity to a smokin' hot babe when he was just 14 - that gives the book the early role-playing game feel that both dates it and makes it compelling.
It's dated not just because it's of its time, but because it's a primordial, immature work - immature used here in a descriptive sense and not necessarily a pejorative one.
It's compelling because - as in a lot of the best teenage RPG-play - despite the fact that everything is built on a series of cliches - the specific ways that Wagner enacts these cliches have a distinctive, personal kick.
Wagner has a pretty good sense of page design: there's a great one that features a huge close-up of Grendel giving an "I'm the Top Dog"-style speech to a mob boss, with the boss's changing reaction to the speech - fear, bluster, defeat - conveyed through small panels running counter-clockwise along the edge of the page.
And you can tell Wagner is going for something fairly ambitious story-wise: the Grendel series proper starts in media res at what might be the beginning of Grendel's final battle and then starts into a series of flashbacks.
Of course there's no ending. Wagner would go on to rework this material, so this isn't exactly an unfinished classic or lost masterpiece. I'd probably argue that Wagner was smart to cut things off at this point and do a kind of reboot (even though I'd argue that Dave Sim was smart not to do a reboot of Cerebus when that series reached a point where his then-current ambitions seemed to outgrow his original concept). Of course, this gets us back to talking about these comics mainly in terms of their historical interest...
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
I remember when I did Storeyville, it was "You shouldn't do it like this, you should do it like Rubber Blanket. Have you seen Rubber Blanket? Check this out." Or "If you could just tighten up your drawings." Everybody had something to say as opposed to, "Hey, cool comic." It was raked across the coals. Even John Porcellino, we were exchanging letters. He was like, "I just don't understand it. I don't like the ending. I don't get it. It just ends." I remember James Kochalka wrote me a letter and said, "It's too many pages; there's so much you can cut out." [Spurgeon laughs] That's fine, but I didn't invite that kind of criticism. I just sent it to people. You're welcome to criticize it whatever you want, but it was people telling me what I should do.
I like to be aware of whether or not I'm doing criticism - trying to talk about a given art/culture object/experience - or doing something else that may just look like criticism - offering suggestions on what would make a given arts/culture object/experience work better for a specific audience, for example. It's this latter thing that Frank is describing to Tom. It reminds me a lot of the practice of "giving notes" from my days as a theater student. It assumes that the note giver is coming from some kind of position of authority (i.e. he or she "knows better" in some way), which works pretty well within certain pedagogical frameworks (i.e. an acting class or a writing workshop), but, IMO, doesn't work as well in other contexts.
I'd point to Jim Emerson's post on The Happening as an example of this "not working well". Jim goes into great detail and makes a persuasive argument for why Shyamalan should have made different filmmaking choices, but Jim's argument only makes sense if you assume that Jim knows what Shyamalan wants out of his movie more than Shyamlan himself does. The changes Jim suggests would turn The Happening into a different movie - maybe one that Jim would like more, maybe one that a lot of other people would like more, too, but, nonetheless, a different movie from the one Shyamalan actually made.
Criticism needs to look at the given object/experience itself. That's not to say that people shouldn't engage in other kinds of discussions about arts and culture, including speculations on the kinds of changes that might have made a given object/experience work better for us or for some other kind of audience (like, commentary along the "Here's what DC should do to make their comics more kids-friendly..."-line). It's just that by taking the position of "knowing better", you put yourself in danger of closing yourself off from art/culture objects/experiences that work differently than you expect them to.
Also, it seems to me that there's more temptation to "give notes" when you're (a) talking about pop art/culture and (b) talking about it on the internet.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Writers: John Ostrander & Len Wein
Artists: John Byrne & Karl Kesel
It seems to me that one of the points of DC's big crossover events is to throw together a number of disparate and even incommensurate elements and then try to make them work. When they do work (as with, IMO, the original Crisis, Infinite Crisis, and 52), it isn't because all the different elements get smoothly mixed in together but because the disparities and differences themselves are used evocatively - they become thematically compelling.
Legends is almost there, but it's a case where falling short by inches feels like falling short by miles. On a big picture level, Ostrander and Wein have come up with a thematic reason for their story, but scene-by-scene the comic doesn't earn that theme. It feels like a failed attempt at reverse engineering a meaningful story: they know what it should be about, but they rushed the part where they were trying to figure out how it should be about that.
The best scenes in Legends - like the one at the beginning of this issue, Black Canary, violating the President's order and still playing super-hero, is framed for murder after a police officer who is trying to arrest her accidentally shoots and kill his own partner - offer an interesting set-up that ends up going nowhere. My guess this is partly because of (a) the top down approach and (b) the requirement to hit all of the line-wide "marketing"* needs.
Speaking of marketing, Darkseid is shown playing with what looks like action figure versions of Earth's super-heroes (again, actually: the first issue had a scene like this, too). This is a pretty blatant attempt to tie Legends to the Super Powers cartoons and toys and probably explains some of the choices for why certain characters show up in the series.
Hey - another problem with this series is that even from a marketing p.o.v. the details don't make sense. You have the appeal to fans of Super Powers right next to the attempt to launch an "edgy" book like Suicide Squad.
And there seems to be little thought into which characters are thrown into this crossover. Warlord shows up for a panel or two, I guess to set up a crossover story in that comic. And all of a sudden Dr. Fate seems to be a very important character in all of this.
*Using marketing very loosely here.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Is there something about comics as a medium that encourages so many stories about loneliness and the (often futile) search for companionship? Is it something about cartoonists that they're drawn to tell these kinds of stories? Is there some kind of Harold Bloomian agonistic anxiety of influence working on them so that they're driven to revise and elaborate on Krazy Kat?
I'd answer a tentative "yes" to all of those questions, which came to me as I was reading through Jason's You Can't Get There From Here (although reading Robot Dreams by Sara Varon a few weeks ago probably started me thinking along these lines).
Some other things I like about this book:
-the matter-of-fact presentation
-the irony-free adoption of the Universal Frankenstein iconography
-sense of inevitability that builds up, moment-to-moment, panel-by-panel
-the lack of defensiveness or genre posturing
-relative rigorousness of formal choices
-the lack of exposition, backstory, explanations that keeps it from being "high concept".
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
This is the one about Charles Guiteau, President Garfield's assassin (played by Denis O'Hare in the Broadway production of Assassins). I'm not sure if all of the installments are as good as this one is, but I wouldn't be surprised if they are: (1) Geary is a great comics-maker and (2) this is a great project.
On (1), here's just one example of Rick Geary's subtle mastery:
During a sequence that focuses on Guiteau's growing anti-social behavior, Geary avoids drawing Guiteau's face: it is turned away from the reader or framed outside of the panel. I hadn't noticed this choice at first: I had to stop reading and go back a few pages in order to convince myself that it was a choice. It sneaks up on you, but it perfectly gets at Guiteau's inability to connect with the people around him.
There's a two page spread showing a map of Washington, D.C., with text, arrows, and inserts detailing Guiteau and the President's movements in the days leading up to the shooting. Perhaps the most striking thing about the map is that you can see that the store where Guiteau bought the pistol he would use is two block away from the White House. Geary doesn't play this up at all - there's no caption pointing out the irony in this or making a Big Statement about American culture - it's just a detail that he leaves for us to pick out.
On (2), though the focus is on an infamous murder, the murder is almost just an excuse to look at (in this case) late 19th C., post-Civil War American culture in general. Or rather, the murder gives Geary a center to work around: an organizing principle for his historical observations and (subtle) commentary. The little bits - on Republican Party infighting, on religious communes, on advances (or lack thereof) of medical science - all add up to create something that is more than just a "true crime" story.
Monday, September 8, 2008
The Ghost Brigades isn't as original and doesn't seem as inevitable, which, early on, I took as two strikes against it. With Old Man's War the question was "Why haven't I seen this before?", but with The Ghost Brigades the question was "Where have I seen this before?" It felt more conventional and the "world building" of the earlier novel seemed to be replaced by "world elaboration".
But this is a case where my first impressions of a book really fail to do it justice. Though it isn't as immediately gripping as Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades develops into a story that is just as thematically compelling and full of great neo-Heinlein nuts-and-bolts details.
But here's what I really want to talk about:
I recommended Old Man's War to a number of people who I knew weren't really "sci-fi fans". Like Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it's a book that, IMO (based on reports back from friends), works pretty well for the non-fan. But even though The Ghost Brigades is, in the final analysis, as good a book (if not a better one), I don't think it has as wide an appeal.
How much should accessibility or universaility of appeal count for in terms of how "good" we think something is? If we're talking about most kinds of art/culture works, while we might look at universality of appeal as one measure of greatness, it's hardly ever the only, or even dominant, measure used and, in fact, the opposite law is often evoked (i.e. lowest common denominator criticism). But I do see the whole accessibility/universality stick getting pulled out quite a bit in internecine nerd debates about comic books, sci-fi books and movies, video games, role-playing games, etc. (Related: the phenomenon Jim Henley is talking about,here).
Friday, September 5, 2008
Speed Racer may not have been "smart" in the same way that Iron Man or The Dark Knight were (i.e., themes drawn out of contemporary poltical/social issues), but its themes and concerns (the place of the creative artist in a capitalist society) don't seem especially dumb to me. And if they come out a bit muddled, well, so does a lot of the political stuff in The Dark Knight.
But what makes Speed Racer's dismissal by the critics so annoying to me is that it was more ambitious formally than any other big-budget action movie of the summer, and that's the type of thing critics are supposed to notice. This wouldn't bother me, except that critics tend to give a pass to lazy, unambitious junk like Transformers, which seems to me to be the exact opposite of what they should be doing.
Anyway... Big budget movies tend to use CGI in these three ways:
(1) To make reality more "realistic". This is what I think of as "seamless"-CGI, in that we're not meant to register it as CGI: it's supposed to look real. This is how it is used in movies like Cast Away or Master and Commander. And this is also how it is used in many action movies - Mission: Impossible 3, for example.
(2) The way CGI is used in action movies blends into the second major way it is used: to make the unreal more "realistic". This is how it is used in the Lord of the Rings movies, lots of sci-fi movies, and lots of horror movies.
While methods (1) and (2) blend together, method (3) is more distinct: using CGI to create a stylized "non-reality". Examples include: Sin City and 300, the Star Wars prequels and The Matrix, Amelie and Kung Fu Hustle. These movies are moving closer to animation and farther away from any idea of using the camera to record "reality".
Speed Racer shows an extreme use of (3), but it goes beyond those movies in that it is self-referential in its use of CGI. Its effects call attention to themselves as being computer generated and there is no attempt to blend those effects seamlessly together. (If the guiding principle of, say, Sin City is "use CGI to bring Frank Miller's comics to 'life'", the guiding principle of Speed Racer is "use CGI to bring a world of computer-generated images to life".)
As I said in my earlier post, I don't think Speed Racer is a great movie. But I do think it is a good one and, in a lot of ways, more interesting than any of the other big budget spectacles that came out during the summer.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Writer: Mike Baron
Artists: Jackson Guice & Larry Mahlstedt
So - seven issues in, and Baron and Guice have found a way to make their take on Flash really work. Continuing the longstanding Flash tradition of facing Flash off against rival speedsters, the opposition here is Red Trinity, superfast Soviet super soldiers. There's a great double-page all-in-one which shows the Trinity working as a team to prevent Flash's escape: he's faster than any one of them, but by coordinating their efforts he can't get by them. This is the best piece of super-heroic action in the series, so far.
This is a solid, straight-forward action/adventure story with super-hero trimmings. But there's nothing especially compelling about it: no spark that gives it its own personality.
And, unfortunately for Baron I'd guess, the DCU is lurking right around the corner: we're told on the last page that we need to read Millennium #1 before coming back for Flash #8. In an earlier post, I suggested that DC's Bronze Age gave us super-hero comics where the Mythos was in unresolved opposition to the World. In DC's "Modern" Age, I suggested that the creators tried out various ways of resolving the tension, but that the resolution wouldn't "keep" (for very long, at least). Here, the resolution Baron has come up with is to imbue the series with a certain amount of cynicism and to tone down the super-heroics, to give the feel of a late-1980s action movie's brand of realism. Not a bad idea (although not as good an idea for a character like Flash than it would be for a character like, say, the Punisher), but not an idea that is likely to hold up after forced integration with a Mythos-spanning cosmic Steve Englehart-penned event.
But, as always, we'll see...