Monday, March 30, 2009

Sideburns #19: "Serving Suggestion"

'I gave that androgynous delivery girl a nice tip'
I was going to do a gag where duck sauce gets on the bag and makes the Watchmen smiley, but it was too complex
I am not entirely convinced by this theory...
...they probably just grab a handful and toss 'em in; who besides us is offended by too many cookies?
Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Superhero Theory: An Introduction

With updates on this blog related to Wyatt being necessarily sparse (but I promise you dudes, the slightest progress made on our end will be documented and categorized, both for your sakes and for future historians’), I think we could do with another weekly feature around here.

So: I love superheroes and I love blogs. My favorite comics blogs don’t just review new issues or talk about things that their authors like -- they perform some level of analysis, toward what I like to call “superhero theory” (which is a punchy descriptor, if not entirely accurate). Scipio on the Absorbascon has an intriguing thesis about what he calls the “dynastic centerpiece model” of Silver Age DC Comics, this is a brilliant piece about Batman, the “Delineated” series cuts to the heart of 40-and-up-year-old characters, and plok’s articles about Fantastic Four have given me a level of respect for Roy Thomas I never thought possible.

So inspired by blogs such as these, and many others, every Friday we’ll sit down and have an informal chat about superheroes, what makes them tick, and what makes them work.


To begin: why do I -- a 24-year-old adult, married, employed, financially secure as one can be in this economic climate -- love superheroes?

Well, the first reason is the most obvious. By putting it first, I’m not trying to get it out of the way, I’m trying to stress its importance:

I liked them as a child.

No matter what kind of academic bollocks I or anyone else can feed you about superheroes being “modern mythology” or “allegorical works exploring the use of power” or “examinations on duality,” most people who read superhero comics as adults read them as children. I am a guy who’s pretty indulgent of his inner child (little kids seem to think I’m cool because I’m essentially a 10-year-old boy who can drive a car). And I read superhero comics because, when you strip everything away, it’s a pleasant reminiscence. Nostalgia is only a bad thing if taken to excess, I believe.

And why do little kids like superheroes? Because they look cool.

To drive this home, among the earliest superhero comics I read, and certainly my favorites at the time, were from the David Michelinie/Todd McFarlane run on Amazing Spider-Man (specifically, #305 and #307). Now, people say that kids like Spider-Man because the Peter Parker character is relatable as an alienated youth, but in these stories, Peter is clearly a grown-up, is happily married, and is touring the country in support of a book on Spider-Man photos he’s taken. Heck, he appears as a guest on Johnny Carson at one point! Nothing about the conventional “Spider-Man” formula that we all cite as being the reason for his success is present.

But look at this:

Okay, we can criticize McFarlane about Spawn and everything else all day, but look at that page! More importantly, look at it as an elementary school boy (or girl, as the case may be).

Superheroes, at their most basic level, are a visual phenomenon. If you don’t believe me, how could those early Image superheroes with their half-formed personalities and their unimaginative codenames have sold so many comics? Because, in the cultural context of the time, they looked really cool! Spider-Man looks really cool! He is dynamic! Nobody would really look like that in a skintight outfit, but he does! Spider-Man does have all that alienation and reader-identification stuff going on, of course, but the best costume in all of comics is the bait that lures you in to discover that in the first place.

So we look at superheroes because they’re totally rad. But why did I read them? And why do I still read them, even though I’m old enough to pay taxes and make my own dentist’s appointments?

Well, you see, I like ELO.

The Electric Light Orchestra is probably my second-favorite band behind the Beatles (although, really, “second-favorite band”, “third-favorite” doesn’t really mean anything, does it?). People get on frontman Jeff Lynne’s case for his bombastic production style -- the massive orchestra, the elaborate harmonies and intricate arrangements -- and complain that there isn’t really any depth to the songs, to the lyrics. It’s all just rhyming “moon” with “June,” isn’t it?

But I think that’s the point. We all know “Mr. Blue Sky,” right? It sort of regained popularity a few years ago, appearing in trailers and commercials, and it’s not hard to see why. With that warm vocal, the really crisp strings, the fat, regular bass, and that goofy smacking-the-fire-extinguisher sound, it’s just so happy, so joyful, so positive. But what’s it really about? “It’s a nice day outside.” That’s it. Check the lyrics, there’s nothing more to it than that, really, but the way Lynne puts the song together, it’s just so darn jubilant, isn’t it? It’s not simply a nice day, it’s the best day EVER!

And he does the same to the sad ones, too. The conceit of “Telephone Line” is nothing more than “I’m trying to call the person I love, and she’s either not home or not answering the phone,” and yet, after Lynne lays on the strings, particularly those cello flourishes in the chorus, it is the most tragic thing that has happened to anyone ever!

And can’t you identify with that? We’ve all been there. Intellectually, you know it’s mundane, but it certainly feels like tragedy at the time, doesn’t it? Secretly, at least. You feel it, but you don’t say it, because that would be too…


And that’s what superheroes are good for. Melodrama. Bright costumes, bright colors: this is an exaggerated world for exaggerated people with exaggerated feelings -- but you must always be able to see a sliver of yourself in there! What is Spider-Man if not the extrapolation of that nagging suspicion that you could be really successful and well-liked among your peers if only you didn’t have all this stuff in your life getting in the way? The Hulk is our anger, Iron Man is our mistakes come back to haunt us. We may indulge ourselves vicariously through them. Even Doctor Doom gets his moment; who hasn’t felt unappreciated and secretly wanted to shake an iron fist at the world and mutter “I’ll show them!”

(It’s not just Marvel, although this is what Marvel pioneered with Stan Lee at the helm. The first Flash story I ever read was Mark Waid’s “Terminal Velocity” storyline, a story in which a man is keeping a secret from the woman he loves for what he thinks is her own good. In Wally West’s case, however, it just happens to be a secret involving an extradimensional energy field and a machine that can level a city with earthquakes.)

But in recent years, some writers have been scaling back the melodrama. Brian Michael Bendis is in some ways the epitome of this, or at least the most prominent example. He dumps the dramatic excess in favor of a sort of realism -- at least, the sort of realism you see in film. Literalism might be a better word, although I’m not sure if that’s a loaded term. I mean, even when Bendis used thought balloons, he used them as indicators of reaction and not introspection.

The justification for this is that it makes the characters more “realistic,” and while many people debate this, I have to concede it’s true. I think that’s fair. I would argue that superheroes under this style are rounder, more subtle characters, certainly more rational individuals.

But I don’t want Peter Parker to look at his problems rationally, with a level head! He wears a red and blue outfit with weird white reflective eyes -- this is a man who has license to be dramatic! Let the superheroes be operatic!

Let Superman have a storybook romance with Lois Lane he can never hope to consummate. Doesn’t that just, I don’t know, mean more? Doesn’t it make you feel more, at least? Because if I were Superman… sure, I probably would let Lois know I was Clark Kent, and I’d settle down with her, get married, get an apartment. That would be rational, that would be realistic; that’s what I’d do.

But I wouldn’t look like Superman does in his skintight outfit.

NEXT WEEK: Less macro, more micro: a look at the Avengers’ Henry Pym.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Hall of Actors I Will Watch In Pretty Much Anything

I am sure I am not the only person with a list like this.

But first, I should clarify what it means to be included. This isn't just a list of good actors (although I would say everyone on this list is a good actor). It’s a list of actors I find particularly compelling, and yes, that is an intentionally vague descriptor.

There is a certain uncritical-ness at work here, something hard to explain. I could sum it up by saying I just plain like these actors. I like “hanging out” with them while I am watching the movie or show; they project an innate charm or something. (I suppose that’s almost a condemnation, because an actor is supposed to make you forget he or she is acting and accept the role completely. Hm.)

There should also be something personal about your own list -- the actors on it should seem unusual choices to most, prompting a reaction on the order of “Yeah, I think I’ve seen him in a couple of things, I guess, but I wouldn't say I'm a fan...” I’m not including obvious choices because they’re just that -- obvious. I like Jack Black because he’s usually funny in whatever he’s in, but he’s not on this list. I like Johnny Depp because he always gives an idiosyncratic performance, but he’s not on the list. Sean Connery and Bruce Campbell are geek icons, and Gregory Peck is just straight-up a really talented actor, but none of them are on this list.

So who is on this list?

Here are the inaugural inductees into the Hall of Actors I Will Watch In Pretty Much Anything:

Malcolm McDowell: This guy is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. McDowell has been in some really good movies, but he has also been in a lot of terrible movies and TV shows. And yet, I always want to watch him. Maybe it’s that I want to listen to him; he’s got such an icy, sinister voice. He gets typecast as a villain because of it -- in Tank Girl, Blue Thunder, Star Trek: Generations, and he was Metallo in the Superman cartoon, remember. I watched this really crummy made-for-TV Disney movie called Princess of Thieves about Robin Hood’s daughter (played by Keira Knightley when she was like sixteen or something) where he’s the Sheriff of Nottingham, and he’s awesome. Every time I hear they’re making a new James Bond, I always hope they’ll cast him as the bad guy. A lot of actors would feel bad about that, but from what I’ve read he just enjoys working. So he’ll do some really neat British indie, and then he’ll do a slasher movie, just because they asked. I respect that.

John Glover: You never go to the video store and go, “Oh, I need to get a movie with John Glover in it.” But you’re flipping through the TV Guide and you see he’s in something and you’re like, “I should watch that.” I first saw him in Gremlins 2, which was one of my favorite movies as a kid, so maybe that imprinted on me. I love the smarmy, intellectual Riddler he played on Batman: The Animated Series, his mad scientist in Batman & Robin was the only thing I really enjoyed about that movie, and there was a time in college where I was only watching Smallville because John Glover is awesome as Lionel Luthor, and because Allison Mack is pretty. Also, he was really good in Love! Valour! Compassion!, which is pretty much a 180 from those comic book projects.

Ian McShane: He is a new addition, and it's funny because I’ve never seen Deadwood. Josh pointed him out to me, and all of a sudden I see (and hear) him in all sorts of stuff. I’m really not digging NBC’s Kings, but even if his character’s not very compelling, he is.

Ian McKellen: He just seems like a cool guy. People call him the greatest living Shakespearian actor, and yet he’ll do X-Men and give it some dignity and look like he’s having a fun time. Also, he hosted Saturday Night Live once and it was amazing. You know how Ben Affleck will be in, like, maybe six sketches when he does the show? McKellen was almost in every single one, including "Weekend Update," where he dressed up as Maggie Smith and kissed Jimmy Fallon. It was rad.

Kenneth Branagh: I like that he does these “Shakespeare for the masses” movies, but whenever I find he’s in something that doesn’t involve the Bard, I’m compelled to see it. I wish Wild Wild West had been a better movie, and I remember being really disappointed when I heard he’d dropped out of the villain role in Mission: Impossible III.

Emma Thompson: Y’know, I’ve never seen Dead Again, which has Branagh and Thompson and my mom even owns a copy of it on VHS. Where is my head at?

Gene Hackman: What an awesome dude. I forget he’s in a lot of things because he’s so versatile. Superman and The Royal Tenenbaums are two of my favorite movies, and he’s in both of ‘em. He was in Heartbreakers and Welcome to Mooseport, but don't hold it against him because he was enjoyable in both. His Lex Luthor bears almost no resemblance to one of my favorite comics characters, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jane Lynch: I actually haven’t seen her in all that much, but she always takes me by surprise by appearing in things I was not expecting. You can just be watching some random X-Files or Frasier one day, and she’ll be doing a guest role in that episode. It is always a pleasant surprise.

Alan Cumming: He is just an adorable fellow. I would almost watch Son of the Mask. Almost.

So who’s in your Hall of Actors I Will Watch In Pretty Much Anything?

Monday, March 23, 2009

No Sideburns: LAME

Okay okay okay, but I have a good excuse.

This past week I worked a six-and-a-half-day week (which will really end up being more like an eleven-and-a-half-day stretch when all is said and done). And I feel all sort of weak and achey, which usually heralds the oncoming of a cold (and with my wife sick, this seems awfully likely). Whine whine boo hoo.


Come back here Friday for a new weekly feature on this blog (one which is less inclined to be derailed by a somewhat crummy week).

And on ... oh, let's say Wednesday ... a post I have been meaning to make for some time now. It involves Malcolm McDowell. I can say no more.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Busy-ness vs Busi-ness

So I suppose Justin has been carrying the brunt of this blog for quite a while. As is often stated, Wyatt Earp is a side project for us and sometimes its hard to find the time to fit him in. For over a year now I've been illustrating this other book (that pays me in real us dollars unlike wyatt earp), but that is coming to an end. I'm almost done with it and hopefully that will leave me with more time to work on this. Of course on top of that I will still have my day job as an illustrator/art director, and my freelance work to make ends meet, a wife, 2 dogs, 3 cats, and... and.... well television, movies, comics, the internet, summer, stress over our current political and economic status, kites, blinking lights, squirells, ice cream.... and and well all kinds of other stuff to distract me. In the meantime here's this pretty pciture I drew a while back.


(Did I mention more was on the way.... eventually)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sideburns #18: "Karaoke Supernovae"

I didn't screw up the relative proportions; my brother is four years younger and four inches taller than me
I originally drew my actual cordless phone, but it came out looking like an old-time radio, so I drew this instead
It wasn't intended, but if the drawing lends you to believe I am wearing some sort of giant David Byrne jacket, I am cool with that
I am going to classify my drawing of the SR-71 Blackbird as 'an ambitious failure'
Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hurm: A "Watchmen" film review

Rorschach’s Journal. March 10th, 2009:

Went to see Watchmen couple days ago. Latest showing, Saturday night … not many people in theater. Suppose not many people can handle it. People turn away, hide from truth. And truth is this: film isn’t very good.

Will say positive things, however.

Alternative “master plan” used in film maybe better than one in novel -- at least tighter narratively. Seems more natural, more seamless for cinema.

Some actors good. Jeffrey Dean Morgan engaging as Comedian. Patrick Wilson dead ringer for sad-sack Nite Owl, though strangely somewhat more confident than comics version. Jackie Earle Haley good, and commendable for taking risk of acting behind mask for almost all of movie, but had always “heard” Rorschach as more stoic when reading. More raspy than growling. Still, minor complaint, chalk up to interpretation.

Title montage with Bob Dylan song playing over march of history completely fascinating. Use of pop music in general very good: Hendrix’s version of “All Along The Watchtower,” “The Sounds of Silence” … when Juspeczyk sees Dreiberg in restaurant as “99 Luftballoons” plays, couldn’t help but smile. Even most cinematic comic cannot replicate influence of music on scene, so was interesting to experience familiar story with addition of songs.

Less happy with score: too melodramatic, too big, too much. In fact, whole film is like that, and that is biggest problem. Seems like director Zack Snyder loved plot and themes of novel, but not tone. Wanted to make movie of Watchmen and wanted to make “badass” superhero movie, and thought he could do both at same time.

Novel is violent, but ... subdued. Physical conflicts not epic, graceful battles like in most superhero comics. Instead: short, brutal, unpleasant. Other hand, film’s fights extremely stylized. Visually stimulating, but working at cross purposes to supposed realism of film. Also: in novel, Veidt takes out Nite Owl and Rorschach easily, with little fuss, almost looking bored; in movie, choreographed martial arts fight breaks out. Veidt’s imposing superiority feels diminished.

Acting also too much sometimes. Feels theatrical. Actors seem to be directed to act like they’re in superhero blockbuster, not drama where people just happen to wear funny costumes. Veidt is worst. In novel, Veidt is genial, charismatic, warm; in film, sinister and superior, almost as aloof as Dr. Manhattan. Matthew Goode soaks every line in gravitas, whereas Ozymandias of novel casual at all times. Famous “I did it thirty-five minutes ago” is big emotional moment in movie, but a more horrifying shock in novel because said off-handedly, like paid bills or got milk from store.

Also, felt novel’s satire of superheroes not strong enough in film. In film, superheroes are cool, wear sculpted costumes, pose and look intimidating. In novel, superheroes are awkward, paunchy belly in skintight costume (movie is one of few times spandex outfits would work on film, to highlight how silly costumes would look in real life). In novel, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre discuss mundane, embarrassing problems of having to go to bathroom in suit; in movie, too busy fighting criminals in slow motion.

Whole problem right there: Moore’s thesis is superheroes, even ones looking and sounding “normal” as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, would be maladjusted, dangerous to society and themselves. Snyder doesn't understand or doesn't care. Wants superheroes in his movie to look cool. Moore subverts superhero clich├ęs, Snyder embraces. Moore’s superheroes reasonably realistic, Snyder’s just darker.

Could be if had not read book, would think movie is simply interesting, straightforward superhero movie with cool action sequences -- just more violent, more political than Spider-Man. Possibly unfair to hold movie to novel’s standards. But when director tries to be so faithful to source material, director invites comparisons.

This is my review. Have not read every blogger’s reviews; do not know if writing in Rorschach pastiche has been done, old hat. Even if so, no apologies. Never compromise.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Sideburns #17: "Two Types of People"

I do not like beer
This sort of thing bugs me more than it does her, but it's funnier to have her say it
'Criterion' is singular; we're going to be gramatically correct here
Well, I was born on a Sunday...
Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Reader Interaction and the Finale of Watchmen

With the movie version of Watchmen that comics fans are alternately looking forward to and dreading (often at the same time, it seems) coming out today, the blogosphere is full of people offering their two cents about the original Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons work. So why should I be any bloody different?

I think Watchmen is brilliant, but in some ways time has not been kind to it. Many of the ways that Moore undermines superhero genre conventions have been picked up by the mainstream; the sex, lies, and moral ambiguity that were subversive when Moore introduced them can now be found in a Justice League comic. Even some of the then-novel narrative tricks seem a little cute and forced now (“Wow, she says ‘I’m feeling kinda empty,’ and the panel’s a shot of Dr. Manhattan standing in an empty studio!”)

But there is one narrative element (or "nifty trick") in Watchmen I personally have never seen done so well in comics or any other storytelling medium, and that’s the way Moore teases the reader with having to choose a side in the ethical dilemma he poses in the book. It’s a brilliant bit of an author forging reader-fiction interaction, but it’s a great deal subtler than Grant Morrison having Animal Man yell “I can see you!” at the reader, and I never see anybody talk about it.

Okay, I’m going to really really SPOIL the ending here with words and visual aids, so if you’ve not read the book, don’t read on blah blah balh. Here’s Monday’s Sideburns if you missed it, and I am reasonably sure there are no Watchmen spoilers here.


Still with us? Then let’s begin.

The super short version of Ozymandias’ master plan up to page 20 of issue #12: Veidt faked an alien attack on New York that murdered three million people, thus scaring the United States and the Soviet Union into a truce and ending the threat of nuclear conflict.

Silk Spectre gives the somewhat predictable and superheroic “You can’t get away with that” remark, to which Ozymadias replies:

Narratively, he’s talking to Silk Spectre, but look at it again. She’s not in the panel, and Ozymandias is facing the “camera” -- he’s talking to you, man. Moore is asking the reader to make a decision: by keeping quiet, you condone Ozymandias’ “final solution” (and it should be mentioned, since Veidt is going to spearhead the rebuilding process, he stands to make untold billions as well set himself up as, essentially, the shadow ruler of this new world), but if you turn him in, you invite nuclear war and the annihilation of all human life.

It’s an uncomfortable, unpleasant choice, even to have to impose on a fictional world, and it’s sprung on you very suddenly. Therefore, it’s something of a relief when that choice is made for you:

Rorschach, of course, refuses, but it’s still three against one. This is the first tease: Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are the characters the reader identifies with as the most normal or sympathetic, or possibly even most genuinely "heroic," so we are invited to believe the right choice has been made. Whew!

After this, Moore teases the reader a few more times. Rorschach threatens to reveal Veidt’s master plan to the world, but Dr. Manhattan zaps him. Manhattan’s parting shot to Veidt is a cryptic “Nothing ever ends,” but you can dismiss that as more of his clinically detached observations -- yeah, okay, atoms and particles keep moving and the Earth keeps turning and the universe is slouching toward entropy. Whatever.

So the story marches on and you get some closure with Nite Owl and both Silk Spectres, and then you see the new New York:

Looks pretty nice, doesn’t it? A lot nicer than a nuclear wasteland would, and look -- we’ve got a US/USSR accord and that really positive-looking Millennium ad. Of course if you look closely, you see the graffiti that says “One in eight go mad” with the “eight” crossed out and replaced with a “3”. In another panel is a newspaper headline: “N.Y. survivors reveal nightmares under hypnosis” and a comic called Tales from the Morgue -- a suddenly death-obsessed culture? Still, the alternative is everybody dies (isn’t it?) and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre said this was okay.

Then, that final page.

We saw earlier (#10) that Rorschach had mailed his journal implicating Adrian Veidt to the right-wing newspaper The New Frontiersman:

And this is paid off in the finale of the book:

Alan Moore, you son of a gun.

He’d lulled you into a false sense of security with the clean-looking NYC, the optimism, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s endorsement, and now he pulls it all away from you. Did you really think it would be that easy? Did you think some superheroes were going to answer this nice and tidy for you? No, Moore is going to force you to choose. He puts you in Seymour’s position (I almost think this is some kind of mean-spirited comment on the appearance of a stereotypical comics fan; oh, Alan Moore, just like Elvis Costello you want to bite the hand that feeds you, don't you?), and where Moore earlier posed the question through Veidt, now he does so through Hector Godfrey: “I’m asking you to take responsibility for once in your miserable life ... I leave it entirely in your hands.”

So you have to choose. You have to write your own little fan-fiction ending in your head.

You can have Seymour pick Rorschach’s journal and run the allegations inside it. Maybe no one believes it, maybe Veidt is brought to justice but the accord endures -- or maybe America and Russia go right for the launch buttons.

Alternatively, Seymour grabs one of the others, The New Frontiersman runs a letter about how the moon landing was faked, and they burn the journal as promised earlier. Peace endures.

There is, of course, the third alternative. Which is you don’t choose, you don’t finish the story in your head. You just let that hand hang in the air, the new version of the minute hand on the nuclear doomsday clock, stalemated inches away from disaster.

Waiting for the end of the world.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sideburns #16: "This Week in Declarative Statements"

They both seem like pretty lovely human beings

'They're this great little band from England I just found out about. Their singer sounds like a puppy that's been kicked down the stairs.'

If you interpret the Delphic Oracle as some kind of information pipeline from the future, then the events of the play square with the Novikov self-consistency principle as I understand it

Just like with Coldplay, I maintain that I was into Tina Fey before it was a thing

Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday.