Friday, May 29, 2009
So what would you do if you had to revamp Swamp Thing?
Ooh, that’s a daunting question, isn’t it? Swamp Thing has cachet, man. The Len Wein/Berni Wrightson issues are well-respected, and rightfully so, but the Alan Moore stuff is actually legendary. Add to that the fact that he’s had cult movies and a cult TV series, and you’ve got name recognition. Why, then, have Swamp Thing series floundered as of late?
I would submit it is the weight of expectation, which sounds obvious, but there’s more to it. It’s not just about “following Alan Moore,” it’s about working within the framework he built.
Because between Wein and Wrightson’s run and Moore’s run, you have a lot of comics that sold poorly at the time and are talked about rarely if ever today. And a critically panned Wes Craven movie. So Moore’s literary approach to horror, then, is novel. It challenges your assumptions. You see a copy of the comic on the stands in the mid-eighties, and it’s got a swamp monster and a title like a 50s B-movie splashed on the cover with that lurid, dripping logo. And then you open it up to find a beautifully illustrated, intelligent, well-written story. It is innovative and unexpected.
But now, twenty-plus years later, you hear “Swamp Thing” and the first thing you think is “Ah, sophisticated suspense!” And so writers have an almost impossible task to live up to. Moore started with a pulpy swamp monster and did daring things with it until it became art. But what new and shocking things will you do as a writer to the character who broke all the rules in the first place?
My solution: bring back the pulp. Ditch the Parliament of Trees and his status as a plant elemental with all the metaphysics that entails and return him to being that “shambling mockery of a man.” Replace the self-consciously sophisticated storytelling in favor of lurid art and fast-moving horror stories with a solid amount of gristle to ‘em. Heck, have Batman appear in an issue or two! The comic shouldn’t be idiotic, but it shouldn’t wear its intelligence like a badge.
Fans would be flabbergasted. Some of them would be outraged. But … you’d have their attention, wouldn’t you? And that’s a lot more than the recent Swamp Thing series can say for themselves. You’d be defying expectations and challenging assumptions.
And that is exactly what Alan Moore did back in February of ’84.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Full explanation here, short explanation thus: I hit the shuffle on my iPod and write about the first ten songs that pop up in real time, no matter if it repeats artists or albums, no matter if it’s the lamest thing I own.
Brr, let’s get some music going.
1.) Weezer – “Don’t Let Go”: I talked about the Green Album last time, actually. Again, I’m struck by a sense that this is basically a stab at an early 2000s version of pre-Help! Beatles tunes. Very simple, very direct, the kind of thing a high school-age boy listens to and can take to heart (and that is exactly what I did). Best bit of the song is the harmony vocals on “turn your heart away”; magical.
2.) Moby – “Bodyrock”: Ah, Moby. Everybody has a copy of Play knocking around somewhere, right? My dad saw him perform with Blue Man Group on TV and then bought his copy. A messy album that kinda goes all over the place. Doesn’t really hold up all that well, I don’t think. I’m not familiar with the original track the sample is taken from (this is contemporary-ish hip hop, not the old traditional spirituals and/or field recordings that fill up much of the album, and we will talk about that if and when one of those pops up), but it’s just kind of there. Take a sample, add electric guitar to mix up the arrangement, add strings to take the track out a bit, make it a bit more sweeping. I don’t know how clever it is. Catchy enough for me to have slapped it on my iPod, though, I suppose.
3.) Wendy Carlos – “La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie, Abridged)”: I am a synthesizer geek, so I am totally into the Moog interpretations of classical music from A Clockwork Orange. What I like about this one in particular is that the sounds switch back and forth from pretty straightforward simulations of actual instruments to the more purely electronic-sounding tones the Moog can generate. It’s much more satisfying and interesting than if it had stuck to one or the other; one would sound like it's trying too hard to be real, the other might be too alien and distracting, maybe. I got this in high school in a used CD shop, along with an absolutely terrible album of Moog versions of Beatles songs. It seemed like a good idea at the time!
4.) The Beatles – “All You Need Is Love”: This is the Love version as well. Hearing it remixed a bit and cleaned up whets my appetite for the Beatles remasters that are (finally!) coming out later this year. The harpsichord and Lennon vocal sound like they were recorded yesterday. Really is a whole different experience, but I hope I'm not setting myself for disappointment if they end up sounding “wrong”. Hey, something I have always wondered … does George Harrison screw up the guitar solo? The first two lines are real strong, but then they kind of peter out, and like, it kind of sounds like he’s flubbing it and the other instruments go up in the mix to hide it. Or am I imagining that?
5.) Moby – “South Side (feat. Gwen Stefani)”: Okay, so the version of Play my dad bought, lost interest in and gave to me doesn’t have Gwen Stefani on it. The one with Stefani is the single version, but frankly, I always like the old one better. It’s supposed to be a science fiction story, isn’t it? Kids cruising around after the apocalypse? I always thought that was a neat concept; you never see a lot of how culture endures the ol’ nuclear holocaust in those sort of stories usually. A duet works for the concept, but maybe Gwen Stefani is too overpowering (though to be fair it does not take much to overpower Moby’s vocal).
6.) Soul Asylum – “Can’t Even Tell”: Off the Clerks soundtrack (the end credits theme if you recall). As a teenager, Kevin Smith movies were a new and exciting thing, especially if you were a comics fan. Hey, someone’s talking about the X-Men in a movie! But now that there’s a movie about the X-Men, and one that even has Deadpool in it, of all characters, it kind of loses the charm. I like 90s alternative music; I grew up with it, so I am going to be something of an apologist for it. I’ve always liked the cadence in the chorus -- “I know you know I want to know”. Ah, it takes me back to where it was a real treat just to be watching R-rated movies.
7.) Blur – "Mr. Robinson’s Quango": Blur is rad, and Oasis is bad. I am the only American left who still feels it is important to have chosen a side. I think it’s a shame Oasis caught on here when Blur didn’t outside of, like, “Song 2.” Because Oasis songs always sound so dirge-y to me, whereas Blur is upbeat and bouncy and exuberant. I guess it’s all about what you think is the cooler thing to be: moody guitar players or exuberant lads surrounded by swirling Hammond organ and horn arrangements. Still, I can see why Blur was less accessible for Americans, because it’s all about being British, but I was a bit of an Anglophile in high school. I still had to look up what a “quango” was when I first got this album. I assumed some sort of truck, but I may have been thinking of the Dodge Durango.
8.) Electric Light Orchestra – “Don’t Bring Me Down”: Holy crap, is this the first ELO song that’s played? I always feel a little bad for Jeff Lynne about this song. That like, from 1970 to 1979, I am pretty sure every publicly released ELO song had some kind of string arrangement because that was the conceptual point of the whole thing. And then Lynne goes in the studio and knocks off this song real quick and doesn’t add any strings, and this becomes such a big hit. What do you think, was this the most-remembered ELO song until “Mr. Blue Sky” made its comeback a few years ago? Does he think, “Hm, maybe I oughtn’t have bothered with strings on the last seven albums?” Not like Out of the Blue sold poorly or anything, though, I guess. My favorite musical detail of this song is the sounds before the first chorus; that psssshew, pshew pshew, psssshew, pshew. Come on, you know what I’m talking about.
9.) Regina Spektor – “Edit”: This is such an interesting song in its production and arrangement, but is it good as a song? I go back and forth. I am totally not interested in hearing about cocaine, but I am interested in the piano and the weird synth tones (is … is that MIDI?) Okay, I have decided that I like this song today. It sounds like it was a lot of fun to make. I like studio music, what can I say?
10.) Of Montreal – “Natalie and Effie in the Park”: 2002’s Aldhils Arboretum is one of the few albums I got during my ill-fated attempt at being a college music critic, so if I got nothing else out of that experience, I started listening to of Montreal. I don’t care for the new of Montreal sound because the older sort of goofy, sad, piano and guitar music is like candy for my brain. And the drums. If you have cause to listen to this song, listen to the drums. Absolutely beautiful and clean.
I think I could sleep now.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Friday, May 22, 2009
In modern superhero comics, it’s acknowledged that time passes in some way (as opposed to, say, most newspaper comic strips or The Simpsons* where characters stay the same age). The dawn of the Silver Age, beginning in 1956 for DC and 1961 for Marvel, is usually said to have happened “ten years ago” or so. As a result, real-world events gradually become irrelevant. Captain America once lived through the era of Vietnam and Watergate, and now they’re just things he read about after he came out of suspended animation. It seems unlikely that Iron Man would have actually fought any communist spies or that Colossus would feel conflicted about his duty to the X-Men versus his duty to the state, unless you fanwank it and say the Soviet Union collapsed later in the Marvel Universe.
(*--Okay, actually The Simpsons is a little more complicated than that, because they do use a sliding timescale, but only in flashbacks. Bart is ten years old in 1990 and in 2009, but Homer and Marge’s courtship shifts from the late 70s to the time when grunge rock bands walked the earth.)
World War II, however, still happened to the Golden Age heroes. They don’t follow a sliding timeline. Steve Rogers was originally unfrozen in 1964, and now it’s got to be more like sometime late in the Clinton administration, but he always becomes Captain America in 1940/41. Wally West and the rest of the Teen Titans were hip 60s kids, and now they couldn’t be, but Jay Garrick always becomes the Flash around 1939/40.
The problem, of course, is that the time between the start of the Golden Age and the present is always getting longer. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that comic book companies still want to use those Golden Age characters as active superheroes, although by all rights they should be going on ninety years old.
Now, Marvel’s got it a bit easier, because they don’t have too many heroes from the Golden Age prominently active today, and the ones they do have pretty decent work-arounds for this problem. Captain America was frozen in 1945, so he can spend as long as you need him to in that block of ice and still emerge a young man. The original Human Torch is an android, and I’m pretty sure he’s incapable of aging (correct me if I am wrong, please). Namor’s an Atlantean mutant with all sorts of crazy powers, so we can say he just ages incredibly slowly. That covers the major leaguers (although only Cap is what you’d call an A-lister today anyway).
There are a lot more of DC’s Golden Agers still in play, however. Some of them, like the original Green Lantern, have kids that are only about as old as contemporary young heroes, somehow. Unlike Marvel, however, the workarounds tend to be complex, and then writers forget about or choose to ignore them and add additional, contradictory explanations. Jay Garrick, the original Flash, would chronologically be at least ninety years old, but he usually doesn’t look much older than Harrison Ford. It’s explained that the Speed Force keeps him vital. And also that the Justice Society once got hit with some kind of chronal energy that inhibited their aging. And, um, he also was in limbo for awhile with the Justice Society, too. And…uhrr…he also lost a few decades when his city was kept “out of phase” with the rest of reality. Man, forget sixty-something -- Jay Garrick should be, like, thirty-six!
The obvious solution for DC would be to ditch World War II, right? If the Silver Age started “ten years ago,” you could just say the Golden Age was “thirty years ago” and be done with it. You’d have superheroes that were aged past their prime, but not so aged that you need a Byzantine explanation as to how they’re sprightly enough to occasionally come out of retirement to help the Justice League on a case. Problem solved.
So why don’t superhero comics let go of World War II?
It was the last “good” American war, people will tell you. Imagine Captain America being created for any other war or conflict since then, and it’s just not the same. Vietnam and Iraq are regarded as controversial at best, and the Korean War and Desert Storm don’t have a lot of cultural capital -- some people won’t even be able to tell you what those conflicts were actually about.
But everybody knows what the deal with WWII is, right? "Hitler’s campaign of conquest and genocide." Of course, there’s a little more to it than that, but that is what, going on seventy years later, World War II means to people. On its most superficial, reduced level, World War II was a conflict in which evil men tried to conquer the world.
Why, that’s a comic book plot on the surface of it, isn’t it?
That’s why superhero comics will never abandon World War II. It’s a recent enough event that it still has a place in our collective consciousness, but long enough ago that the wounds generally aren’t fresh.
But wait. Why should there need to be a war at all?
Even though most Golden Age DC heroes don’t rely on World War II for their origins the way Captain America directly does, many writers seem to view them as a response nonetheless. As Alan Davis puts it in his JLA Elseworlds book The Nail: “So it was in man’s darkest hour when the first meta-humans appeared. Costumed patriots who symbolized our heroic ideal and protected us from the nation’s enemies.” Ultimate Evil arises in the form of the Axis powers, and it seems as though destiny plays a part in arranging the emergence of Ultimate Good in the form of superheroes to combat it.
What I find somewhat uncomfortable about this is that World War II, an actual event involving real people and real repercussions, gets mythologized to the point where Hitler is Tolkien’s Sauron, instead of Sauron being Hitler. In modern entertainment, Nazis are often just iconography; stripped of any real meaning, you can just use them as stock villains. You can kill as many Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie and the audience will still cheer because there’s no gray area, no remorse (notice that superheroes are never shown in the Pacific theater; they’re always in Europe fighting Germans). Is the cavalier way our superhero comics bandy about Nazi supervillains and World War II vets trivializing the war even while trying to honor it?
Dude … what if Captain America had been created in peacetime? A super-peacekeeper – and how perfect that he’s carrying a shield and not an implicitly offensive weapon! Would Captain America mean more or less, though?
Thursday, May 21, 2009
1.) The Beatles – “If I Needed Someone”: A Harrisong. I wonder if the heavy harmonies from John and Paul indicate a lack of confidence in George’s vocal? I really enjoy the unorthodox sentiment of the song, suggesting there is maybe more than one “suitable” person for everyone. There’s a slightly bashful, apologetic tone to it that’s interesting, and separates it from anything John or Paul would’ve done (John would never apologize, Paul would never think to).
2.) George Harrison – “Isn’t It A Pity?”: Well, okay, I’ve got seven minutes to write about this one. This kind of borrows the na na na na sequence from the end of “Hey Jude,” and I have the same problem with this song as that one: there are very few pop songs I think really need to be longer than five minutes, much less seven. And like in “Hey Jude,” the part that repeats endlessly is the less interesting part. The front part of this song is a really beautiful sounding piano song (but not too lugubrious), with a nice chord change in there somewhere that kind of drops out from under you. In fact, I like the front bit to this song better than the front bit to “Hey Jude” (although this may partially be because you hear “Hey Jude” all the time, and this is a little fresher from less exposure.) And actually, that first four-and-a-half minutes do fly by nicely. But at the end, that callback to “Jude” just drags. Seriously, we could fade at the five-minute mark. Man, this is a great song, though. I heard a quote somewhere (can’t remember if it was a critic or one of his contemporaries) that said Harrison keeps rewriting this song, and I can see that; “Just For Today” off Cloud Nine is kind of a weaker attempt at recapturing that combination of weariness and power.
3.) Ming Tea – “BBC”: A song from Austin Powers (first one, I think) done by Mike Myers and friends in the style of a 60s tune. I like pastiches that don’t specifically quote songs, but make a whole new one, and I think this qualifies (unless this is riffing on a song I’m not familiar with). A bit of fun.
4.) Groove Armada – “Edge Hill”: Ha! Another (nearly) seven-minute song! There’s not a whole lot of Groove Armada I’m into; I actually got this song off of the soundtrack to the first Tomb Raider, which I bought because I was working in a movie theater when that movie came out, and I heard Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At?” over the end credits while cleaning up popcorn and spilt soda about a hundred times, but still decided I needed to own that song. Not a lot on the soundtrack that I dig, but this song alone is worth the price of the disc. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the actual whole movie, so I don’t know where they use this song, but it’s absolutely beautiful, and in contrast to what I said about “Isn’t It A Pity?”, this really does need to be as long as it is. The beats-‘n’-bass at the beginning are steady but repetitive, almost to the point that it’s too much, and so just when you wonder if the song is going anywhere (don’t you dare look at the time to see if it’s coming!), this incredible string section comes in. There’s something awe-inspiring and mysterious in it, like you’ve made contact with aliens or have found a doorway through time or just saw Superman for real. “Uncanny” is the word. If I ever have an out-of-body experience, I want it to be to this song.
5.) Something To Do – “Something To Do”: This is a ska band from my home state of Wisconsin that I saw play in college once. They did a cover of “Get Off My Cloud” that was pretty cool. I don’t listen to whole lot of ska; I like it in theory, but I’ve got a pretty untrained ear for it, so it tends to get same-y in my head. I bought this CD EP to, y’know, support local bands and all that. It’s solidly enjoyable, although the buzzy guitars are a little bland. There’s a repeating line at the end that builds and builds with harmonies and instrumentation, and I always like the effect. It seems like a mission statement -- “Another day goes by / And still I wonder why / It seems this same shit / It happens to me all the time” -- for an album that I am not sure exists.
6.) Elvis Costello – “Kinder Murder”: Brutal Youth is probably my favorite EC album, although I think you’re not “supposed” to like it because it’s overproduced? (I like heavy production, though, and nothing on this record is what I’d call intrusive.) It’s got this great thing where the main verse just alternates between these two threatening-sounding chords. I feel bad that I get so wrapped up in Elvis’ incredible gift for melody that sometimes I lose track of the lyrics (which is again, what we’re all “supposed” to be listening for in Elvis Costello).
7.) The Cars – “Good Times Roll”: I love the sound on the guitar; you know, the one at the beginning coming in through the right channel. You hear it on other Cars songs and on other things Ric Ocasek has produced, so I wonder if he’s doing anything specifically to get that sound or if it’s just something I’m imagining. This song itself I guess isn’t anything real special; I didn’t dance to this in kindergarten or anything (see "Shake It Up"). Not my favorite keyboard sound, I suppose; seems to make a big difference on my affinity for one Cars song over another, actually.
8.) The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever”: This is the Love version. Does a neat trick where a stripped-down version blends into the “proper” version (the vocal isn’t slowed down on this one), which is an interesting experiment. Is the song what it is because of all the showy production, or because it’s a good song? Love itself is mostly interesting as an experiment; Beatles songs are so ingrained into our heads that hearing these altered versions forces you to recontextualize them; take the world’s most famous songs and make them unpredictable again. The bit at the end with the fadeout and the “Piggies” harpsichord part and the “In My Life” triple-speed piano and the “Hello, Goodbye” outro vocal is showy, but a neat trick nonetheless, particularly when it drops out to just the vocals and the drums.
9.) The Moody Blues – “Voices In The Sky”: True fact: I am named after Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues. As a kid, this always seemed significant to me, and so I was likely one of few children in my age group to listen to this. It’s difficult for me to critically assess The Moody Blues because it’s so tied to my childhood and nostalgia, but hey, I’m not doing criticism here. I still think the bridge/middle-eight/whatever it is with the soaring “caaaaalling toooo … *snare hit* … meeeeee!” is neat, and makes up for whatever I care for about it less in the gentle acoustic pastoralism (why do I like that sort of thing better when it’s XTC?)
10.) Weezer – “O Girlfriend”: The Green Album gets a lot of crap, but truth be told, I never thought the Blue Album was all that magical. I guess you had to be there, and I got this album first. Okay, this song doesn’t really mean anything, but did the early Beatles song mean anything either? I see this CD as a kind of modern stab at "Let’s write a lot of good, hooky, straightforward guitar-pop songs that people will like." The intent is so up-front to me that I don’t think you can hold it against them. What’s wrong with simple songs people like? Okay, maybe you could swap out the guitar solo for one that wasn’t just the vocal melody (that is a genuinely weird choice).
Hm, I think this second batch turned out a little better, a little more focused. Should probably stop using the phrase “neat trick,” though. Also, look Zach, I wrote about Weezer; finally something on this blog that you would care about! I’m ready to have a long, drawn-out discussion in the comments about the relative merits of Rivers Cuomo both in the 90s and today if you are…
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
I like reading about music, though, but I’m more interested in how people relate to music -- their personal relationship with certain songs, albums, and artists -- than analysis and critique. So here’s what I’m gonna try: You know that meme from a couple years ago where you hit shuffle on your iPod and list the first ten songs that come up? (Back when that was a thing, I had neither a blog nor an iPod.) It’s like that. I’ll write a little something about each one -- what the song means to me, or why I like it, or where I heard it, or whatever comes to mind -- as I’m listening to it, in real time. That’ll prevent me from overintellectualizing, hopefully. And if this turns out well, I’ll start doing these every so often.
Here goes. The actual first ten songs when I hit shuffle, even if it repeats albums or artists, and no matter how lame or embarrassing they may end up being.
1.) Elvis Costello – “Let Them All Talk”: I’ve really dug EC ever since my wife introduced me to him. This is from Punch the Clock, and the sound is extremely dated. That horrible synthy piano and thin, processed drums. But it’s a good song, despite all that. I really like the melodramatic opening with the driving horns even if it is goofy.
2.) the pillows – “Instant Music”: From the Japanese OVA FLCL/Fooly Cooly. I don’t watch much anime, but I love Cowboy Bebop and FLCL, and not coincidentally, both rely on music heavily for emotional resonance. I’m never quite sure how to describe the pillows. It’s 90s guitar-based alternative rock by Japanese people.
3.) XTC – “Helicopter”: From Drums and Wires. XTC is something else my wife introduced me to; she was into them casually, and I latched onto them and am now one of those obsessive fans who has all the albums and knows all the behind-the-scenes stories (I stop short at tracking down all those demo albums, though; there’s like a dozen of them). Oh, the song, right. When people say someone is “influenced by XTC” they usually mean XTC from this period, not the later, more pastoral kind of stuff. I probably prefer the latter, but their early herky-jerky stuff is infectious and charming where a lot of bands doing the same thing can just come off as annoying to my ears.
4.) Coldplay – “Yellow”: Man, I am telling you, Coldplay used to be a cool thing to be into. My friend in high school told me about this little British band that sounds like the lead singer’s a puppy that’s been kicked down a flight of stairs and it’s great. So I bought this album, and soon after this song took off. I still like this song and this album, no matter what anyone says. It’s just so earnest, is what it is, where everything from A Rush of Blood to the Head on just seems calculated; trying too hard. I still like listening to this on rainy days; in college it was great music to listen to on headphones and get all self-indulgent (I am not too proud to admit).
5.) Paul McCartney – “Another Day”: The first word that comes to mind to describe this song is “pleasant,” but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. McCartney was probably the solo Beatle my dad listened to most when I was a kid, so there’s a strong nostalgia association with this. Sometimes (in contrast with Coldplay) I feel like McCartney doesn’t try hard enough, but this song has a few nice little idiosyncratic things to keep you hooked.
6.) XTC – “Boarded Up”: The acoustic guitar is really beautifully recorded. That’s all I really have to say about this song. Kind of boring. It’s about an old music venue closing down, but it doesn’t feel real emotionally invested, just sort of a “Shame about that, huh?” sentiment. Colin Moulding has supposedly kind of lost interest in songwriting in recent years, and I think it shows on all his songs on the Wasp Star album.
7.) Ben Folds Five – “Alice Childress”: This is the version off the Naked Baby Photos album of rarities, live performances and B-sides. This is actually the first Ben Folds Five album I bought (you’re not supposed to buy this first, though, I guess) just because I wanted to buy an album with “Philosophy” on it on my first night of my first year of college, but I couldn’t find the Ben Folds Five album. Anyway, I think this is Ben Folds at his lyrical best. Conversational lyrics without slipping into that sort of immature or lecturing tone he does a lot these days. (Weird how he can be both at the same time, or is that not weird?) I also love the unusual harmonies. They kick in on “Dreh-ehhhsss” on “Childress”. It’s just interesting.
8.) The Hives – “The Hives Declare Guerre Nucleaire”: I like The Hives in small doses, and this is probably my favorite song of theirs. I love the rhythm, but the BEST BEST BEST part of this song is the way it opens. It’s these real villainous-sounding chords and oh this is a short song.
9.) The Beatles – “Dig It”: It’s only like 45 seconds long, so I don’t have much time to write, but luckily there is not much to write about it.
10.) The Cars – “Shake It Up”: I used to love this song as a real little kid, like elementary school. Dancing in the living room and all that. Looking back, I suppose this song inaugurated what was to become a lifelong love affair with the square synthesizer.
Whew. And that’s the first one. The time crunch forces you to be real rough and disorganized; it comes off a bit like drunk writing but with better spelling and grammar, but I like the effect. It’s funny, I really thought listening to the songs the whole way through would be too much time, but I was consistently surprised with how quickly that three or four minutes would go by. Until I got to “Another Day” or so I was talking mostly about the artists and not the songs themselves; I utterly failed to say anything about “Instant Music” at all, and too bad that “Helicopter” did not get the exploration it deserves.
Well, that was either kind of interesting or kind of asinine. U-Decide, True Believer! And if anyone wants to talk about these songs further (Zach, I know you at least would have something to say about The Hives, and if I keep doing these we’re going to come to Trip Shakespeare eventually), we can chat it up in the comments.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Friday, May 15, 2009
Morrison’s run is rightly lauded for its “mad ideas,” but there’s more to it than that. See, it’s common wisdom among fans that since the stories stayed focused on the superheroes and rarely on their secret identities, that “Morrison’s JLA was light on characterization.”
Like a lot of common wisdom, however, this is staggeringly false.
It’s true that there’s not a lot of what you’d call “character development.” This is partially because most of the characters had their own books or were significant supporting players in someone else’s book. But even the characters that Morrison did “own” in JLA (Zauriel, Plastic Man, etc.) didn’t get personal subplots, per se. There’s not a whole lot of scenes where two characters are just sitting around a coffee shop talking.* And that’s what a lot of people who read superhero comics think “characterization” means: a time out. It’s a division: There are action scenes, and then there are character scenes. Sometimes there’s whole issues that are action issues, and whole issues that are character issues.
That’s how the 80s-90s Justice League (America/International/Europe) series worked, but Morrison doesn’t divide the comic up that way. He gives you characterization in the middle of the action! Make no mistake, these are plot-driven stories, and that’s only hammered home more when you read one of Mark Waid’s fill-ins, or his follow-up run on JLA: Waid’s stories usually are built around some theme, or reveal something about the characters. Morrison’s stories are almost more “realistic” by contrast, because the plots aren’t engineered to make a point, just like the conflicts in your life are not put there for some literary purpose -- they’re just Things That Happen, and the characters react within them.
See, Morrison’s Justice League is too busy to spend half an issue on Green Lantern’s insecurities. Instead you get this scene:
Morrison is often criticized for doing too much “telling” and not enough “showing,” but a scene like this runs counter to another bit of common wisdom. Kyle Rayner showing up in the middle of a crisis without a clue about what’s happening, and his stammering reactions to that, demonstrate his unease better than color-coded narrative caption after color-coded narrative caption ever could (and putting ourselves in Kyle’s shoes by having this scene done via Kyle’s POV is a nifty trick, one of the many idiosyncratic storytelling methods Morrison will pull out once and never use again in his run).
And it’s not just Kyle we get a sense of in that scene. Look at Wally West, the Flash. As Superman says to him in an earlier issue, “You’ve worn a costume longer than most of us,” and it really shows in this scene. Wally West’s been a superhero since he was a pre-teen, and so his developmental years were spent saving the world at superspeed -- as a result, he’s a “normal guy,” but what’s “normal” to him is anything but to Kyle and the audience. “Cosmic stuff,” he says, like it's a familiar headache. “His name’s Metron. He’s one of the New Gods” -- said the same way you or I would say “His name’s Brian. He works in IT.”
The few times we do get pauses in the action, they tend to be brief, and they tend to be in transit. It’s something Morrison uses a great deal in The Invisibles, too. It conveys just how busy these people are. A lot of writers interrupt the action to have characters converse; Morrison has them grab a quick conversation on their way to doing something exciting. The result is that these character interaction bits actually act as suspense because you know they’re rushing off to fight the Ultramarines or storm the House of Pain or something:
It’s just two panels, really, but the interaction reveals so much about the characters. The Flash is chilling out before a big fight, where Wonder Woman is already tense, poised for battle. If that were Steel as Wonder Woman’s passenger, he’d be marveling at the operation of the Invisible Jet, but this is just carpooling for career-superhero Wally; “Thanks for the ride” indeed. I also like Flash’s affable cluelessness here: “I thought you’d be glad to see more women on the Watchtower.” “Actually, Wally, I’m a lot more concerned with personality conflicts than hitting some kind of artificial quota.” Two panels, man.
And Morrison doesn’t even need a whole panel, sometimes. His dialogue tends to be stylized, but what you lose in naturalism (overrated anyway in superhero comics, let’s face it), you gain in density. The whole Wally West/Flash vs. Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern conflict can be summed up in two word balloons:
The Flash, from JLA #1:
Green Lantern, from JLA #12:
These two dialogue snippits condense their entire relationship in Morrison’s run. Wally trained his whole life to be the Flash, so he resents that Kyle didn’t “earn” the name like he did. And Kyle is defensive because, look, I didn’t ask for this power ring, but I think I’m doing a pretty good job considering I basically got picked out of a hat for this gig.
Oh, let’s just do one more, since there’s so much wonderful little stuff going on with this one scene:
Let’s pick it apart. You’ve got Kyle not being entirely clear on the history of the DC Universe because he has to ask about Barry Allen (who, y'know, only died saving the universe an' all), but the fact that he does ask shows he wants to learn. If Kyle’s sudden confidence in the third panel seems odd, consider it in light of something he says earlier in the issue: “This is the Justice Society of America … these guys fought in the war … it’s like having Babe Ruth for dinner, dude.” It’s not “Don’t worry, Green Lantern is here,” it’s “We’re here.” To have the Justice Society talking to him like a real grown-up superhero is a massive boost for Kyle.
Huntress is consistently great in this series, because she’s a highly skilled street-level superhero thrown into completely unfamiliar territory; think of her as a classically trained cellist who’s suddenly found herself playing bass in a metal band. There’s a bit of snobbery to it -- “Can you teach me to stay sane around superheroes?” she asks, as though she’s not one herself in her bodysuit, mask, and cape! But the best bit is “You taught him to box?” Huntress is a Batman supporting character -- Batman’s in his legendary, nigh-mythical phase of competency here, and all of a sudden here’s some guy who’s like, “Yeah, I gave ‘im a few pointers, no big whoop, he’s just a guy who shouldn’t telegraph his right hook so damn much.”
And let’s look at the Jay Garrick Flash and Wildcat. They’re both “nostalgic old-timers,” but Morrison keeps them from sounding identical. Jay’s the kind of guy who’s prone to twinkly-eyed reminiscences, whereas Wildcat is a little gruffer and has that little self-congratulatory “back in my day” vibe. I also love that Jay will say things like “slippery customer” and not feel the least bit embarrassed.
Look, in the space of three panels, Morrison presents four distinct individuals, suggesting more than is shown, and he even has room left for more plot-related dialogue!
So yeah, don’t tell me Grant Morrison didn’t do characterization on JLA just because we never got to see “A Day in the Life of Plastic Man” or something.
And y’know, maybe I even sold him short on the development. Because here’s Kyle and Wally in #1:
And here’s them in #41:
(*--There is one, actually, with Green Lantern and Green Arrow in “Rock of Ages,” but even that advances the plot because the evil sorceress Circe overhears their conversation and tries to use it to recruit them to Lex Luthor’s Injustice Gang.)
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
So when I heard about J.J. Abrams spearheading a Star Trek reboot/revamp, I was pretty cool with the idea; never got into Lost or Alias, but I absolutely loved Mission: Impossible III. I even thought the way they tried to tie it into existing continuity but spin it off into an “alternate universe” was unnecessary. It works better in the movie than I thought it would, but I still think by paying lip service to What Has Gone Before, they’re inviting fans to pick apart inconsistencies; better to pull the Batman Begins Lever and tell people just to deal with a clean reboot, I say.
I saw the movie the other day, and I thought it was A Good Time. Basically, all those positive reviews you’ve heard are true. It was a lot of fun, it moved along at a nice clip, and probably most importantly, it didn’t take itself too dreadfully seriously, which is probably the biggest problem with recent revamps like Batman Begins and Halloween. I missed the original actors somewhat because you associate them so greatly with the roles (Spock kind of loses something without that wry, bemused quality Leonard Nimoy played him with), but I was glad the new guys didn’t just copy what came before like Superman Returns did to its detriment.
So yeah, I enjoyed it. But…
…I can empathize with the fans who didn’t.
Anytime anyone says something bad about this movie on the dreaded internet, they get pegged as Bitter Nerds Who Hate Anything New. And, yeah, there is a lot of whining about “Oh, Scott would never say that” or “The Enterprise was built in San Francisco, not Iowa,” but I kind of feel some legitimate criticisms are being dismissed by Geeks Who Are Trying To Act Like They’re Cooler Than Other Geeks (motto: “Jeez, just enjoy the explode-y goodness.”)
When Old Guard Trek Fans** say “This just doesn’t feel like Trek” or the like, the counterargument is generally that the original show relies on just as much plot contrivance and shoddy science as the new stuff. This I can get behind: from the technobabble last-ditch solution, to pushing buttons in an exciting manner, to big blustery villains, to invariably humanoid aliens, to black holes not really working like that at all, on its surface, there is not much to differentiate this from the original series.
The thing is, as faithful as the movie is to the superficial elements of the old show, I think the new movie misses the heart of Star Trek, as silly and sentimental as that may sound. And the heart, at least as it appears to this casual fan, is twofold.
1.) Star Trek is a series of simple morality plays.
2.) The future is a better place to live.
I just watched “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” the other day online. It’s the one where Bele (an alien who’s shoepolish black on the right side and pancake white on the left) and Lokai (an alien who’s pancake white on the left side and shoepolish black on the right) each have an irrational hatred for the other. Eventually it turns out they’re the last two survivors of their planet, the populace wiped out in a race war, but they keep fighting anyway because their hatred is all they have.
There’s an exchange in the middle of the episode with Bele (played by my favorite Riddler and yours, Frank Gorshin), Kirk, and Spock. Earlier in the episode, Bele tries to seize control of the Enterprise through some sort of alien willpower with all the attending villainous bluster, but in this scene Gorshin gives a very earnest delivery by contrast—it’s actually quite affecting, smack in the middle of an action/sci-fi show:
BELE: “It is obvious to the most simpleminded that Lokai is of an inferior breed.”
SPOCK (plainly): “The obvious visual evidence, Commissioner, is that he is of the same ‘breed’ as yourself.”
BELE (almost as though he feels Spock is joking): “Are you blind, Commander Spock? Well, look at me. (Pause.) Look at me!”
KIRK (also plainly): “You're black on one side and white on the other.”
BELE (as though he shouldn’t even have to explain this): “I am black on the right side.”
(A long pause as Kirk and Spock look at each other in quiet confusion.)
KIRK: “I…fail to see the significant difference.”
BELE (quickly): “Lokai is white on the right si--All of his people are white on the right side!”
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t subtle stuff. It is staggeringly obvious to the point of absurdism, and I think that’s what makes it work so well. It is a ridiculous premise, and that’s kind of the point. Bele is being ridiculous. The show doesn’t even allow for any complexity to the problem -- it just straight up tells you, “You see how idiotic this conflict looks from the outside? Trust us, it looks just as stupid as when you do it.” Very simple, very nice.
There is also a cool sequence where Bele’s taken control of the Enterprise, and Kirk arms the self-destruct mechanism and basically has to play chicken with Bele, and I think it is a totally rad accomplishment that this is a show that can handle both of these elements equally well.
That’s point #1. On to point #2: Star Trek is pretty cool for its time because you have a multinational, multiethnic crew working together and nobody mentions it as being anything other than ordinary. (Of course, the leader is a white Christian American dude who is always right, but I did say “for its time”). The Federation is a united humanity, and they’ve even got a half-alien and a bloody Russkie aboard! And it’s a golden age of peace and prosperity. The message is: “This is what happens when we all stop fighting and work together.”
The problem is, you don’t get that as strongly in the new movie because it is forty years later. Of course, prejudice still exists, but society as a whole holds this as deviant, at least in theory -- a black woman shown working side by side with white men is not as novel as it was in the 60s. In fact, we are at a point where a spaceship crew made up of all white men would seem weird --even token black characters and token women serve as an acknowledgement that someone felt some sort of need for inclusiveness.
As a result, there’s nothing really daring about the crew of the Enterprise today. This is where I thought the movie ought to have been free to chuck out What Has Gone Before and try something new. Leave Chekhov and his Comedy Russian Accent out of it, and bring in someone who registers with an audience as Muslim and have him working side by side with someone who registers as Jewish and never address this in any way. Openly LGBTQ crewmembers where this is not an issue for anybody as well. (In fact, New Doctor Who’s Captain Jack is basically what a 21st-century Captain Kirk ought to be.)
Is it obvious? Yeah, and that is the point. Push the envelope just a little bit past what some people may be comfortable with, and tell them to deal with it, because this is the future, and there’s no room for your prejudices and preconceived notions. They’re not just exploring uncharted space, they’re also exploring what society could be like if we’d all try a little harder not to hate each other.
So, you know, I enjoyed this movie very much, but I hope the next one will aim a little higher.
*--One of these days I may actually draw out this continuum.
**--It has only just struck me how many Capitalized First Letter things I am doing here.
Monday, May 11, 2009
I made two Mother's Day cards this year. This one was for my wife's mom. I can't post the one I did for my mum because I wanted to give her hers in person, and I won't see her till Thursday. So check back then for the other one.
Regular comics to resume on Monday, new Superhero Theory on Friday.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Now, nobody really likes the prequel trilogy, right? Well, kids do, I suppose. We’ll get back to that in a bit. Instead let me rephrase the question: Nobody who saw grew up watching Episodes IV, V and VI and then waited for Episodes I, II, and III likes the prequel trilogy, right?
Now, we could talk about the acting in the prequels not being as good, or the writing, or the characters not being as relatable or archetypal, or the story straying too far from its adventure serial roots, or the special effects being too dependent on CGI. Some of these I agree with, some of them I don’t; I do believe that overall, the new movies are not as good from a critical standpoint, but that’s not relevant to this discussion. Because I feel there is a deeper issue, and it is this: By the time they finally got around to making the prequels, the audience had already written them in their heads.
I don’t mean to say they’d worked up elaborate fan fiction. I mean, I’m sure some did, but I didn’t write any, and most people probably didn’t either. But when characters throw around cryptic references to something called “the Clone Wars,” you might take a moment to consider what that might have been. When Obi-Wan Kenobi recalls meeting Luke Skywalker’s father, you imagine that, just for a second. Obi-Wan says he was trained by Yoda, and it requires no massive creative effort to assume at one point, a younger version of Alec Guinness was taking instruction from a slightly younger version of this Muppet.
So you have, at the very least, all these vague, half-formed notions. More like assumptions than actual story or plot. But with the gap in time between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, these assumptions are all you have, and they’ve got time to bake, to ferment. And when those prequels finally do come out, they look nothing like the version in your head. It turns out the Clone Wars were not a war against clones of some sort, as I had assumed (logically, right?), but rather fought with clones on the good guys’ side. Anakin Skywalker is a child and not Obi-Wan’s peer. Obi-Wan was actually trained by Liam Neeson, but Yoda was on the council, so it’s still kinda-sorta true, but it’s still not really satisfying.
And that “not really satisfying” is key. Because, in all likelihood, George Lucas didn’t really have these prequel movies plotted out in their entirety by 1977 and sitting in a drawer somewhere; there’s too many little inconsistencies and continuity issues to really sell that this was all one grand design. Rather, he probably wrote them some time after finishing Return of the Jedi based on hints and suggestions in the existing movies--just like the audience did in their heads. As a result, I’m not sure Lucas’ version of how the prequels happened is intrinsically more valid than the audience’s.
I know that sounds real snotty--“This contradicts my fan fiction!”--but I actually see it as a fundamental storytelling problem. Not a perfect parallel, but here goes: Imagine you’re reading a novel with a lead character named Jane. Jane is never described physically, so early on you form an idea of what she might look like in your head. Maybe it’s based on what type of character she is, maybe you know someone named Jane and you use her as a template. Let’s say you’re imagining her as tall with dark hair. You’ve got that image of her the entire book, and then at the end of the book, the author throws in that she’s blonde and short. That’s going to grate, because the author had led you to believe that her appearance wasn’t important enough to mention, and now suddenly it is. You’ve got blonde Authorial Jane fighting brunette Personal Vision Jane.
And that is the same problem Marvel faced when it came out with Wolverine: Origin in 2001-02. Wolverine’s history had been shrouded in layers upon layers of mystery for so long that’s it had become as unimportant as Jane’s hair color. And then all of a sudden, we find out that Wolverine wasn’t a badass from Day One, and fans decide “James Howlett” is a silly name. Really, it’s not any worse than “Victor Von Doom,” “Victor Fries,” or “Otto Octavius”; the real issue is everyone had thought of him as “Logan” for too long.
Compounding this in the eyes of fans: At least George Lucas wrote the prequel films himself, as creator of the original Star Wars idea. Origin was “plotted” by Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada, and Paul Jenkins, none of whom created Wolverine; all three just happened to be in a position where they could authorize the telling of the story. That’s not very definitive-sounding, is it? What makes this more authoritative than the other thousands of possible origin--some elaborated in 550-page novels posted on the internet, others that could be summed up in a single vague paragrap--dreamed up by the audience? Other than, of course, Jemas and Quesada giving it the Marvel seal of approval. And I don’t think that even intrinsically counts for much--Jemas got fired soon after, remember. Regimes change.
You know what I think would’ve been smart? Instead of publishing the supposedly definitive Wolverine: Origin, I would’ve put out Wolverine: Origins with an S. Twelve issues, each one written and drawn by a different team. Jenkins and Andy Kubert do theirs, but Len Wein and Herb Trimpe do one as well, as do Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, maybe get one out of Stan Lee and John Romita, and whoever else they can rope in. Each one does their interpretation of Wolverine’s origin in whatever way they choose. The more dissimilar they are from one another, the better. Logan could be a simple man born in Canada near the turn of the century, or a lost time-travelling Shi’Ar prince; no idea is too outrageous, nor too mundane. They could even do the “mutated wolverine” origin.
And so you’d have these twelve issues, and you could put out another one as a special anytime anybody came up with a good pitch. And the audience could choose any one of these to be “their” origin. Or none of them. The very existence of multiple “official” origins would point to the real truth: Wolverine has no origin. All he has is what you, or later writers, bring to him.
I said I’d get to the kids, and here we are: Kids are okay with the prequel trilogy and with the Clone Wars cartoon show, because they came into it that way; they had no preconceived notions. Likewise, anyone who just knows Wolverine from the movies came in with a semi-coherent backstory already in place, imported from the comics. So they don’t experience that dissonance. They’ve known Jane was blonde from the beginning. To me, the prequels and Wolverine’s origin are retcons; to them, they’re Original Texts.
So this is another thing that is “my problem,” the fans’ problem. But, to some degree, this was not uninvited. When you tease an audience for that long, and you finally do deliver the payoff, you might well find out they’ve either already done the job for you, or they’ve decided it must not have been important in the first place.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Okay, so Project Rooftop is doing a “redesign Wolverine” contest, and during a procrastination session the other day I gave it some thought and came up with an idea, just as a mental exercise. I’m not going to submit it, though; I’m not a good enough artist to compete with the talent that contributes to Project Rooftop, and I don’t have Photoshop or any better way of coloring the thing other than MS Paint … and color is pretty essential to my particular idea.
Besides, I figured, my redesign isn’t actually all that different from the Wolverine costume from the X-Men Evolution cartoon:
So I simply made a few minor adjustments within my meager means of image manipulation and came up with this:
So let me talk about the choices I’ve made here.
I kept the mask because it’s a classic design element unique to the character. Of course you want to lose it in the movies because it’d look silly in real life and be a logistical nightmare to construct, but it works really well in a drawing. “But Wolverine doesn’t really have a secret identity, so he has no reason to wear a mask!” I totally do not care, dude.
My one concession to “realism” and practicality is in the lack of sleeves, even editing out the bit of costume covering the deltoid muscles (those are deltoids, right?). Since wielding claws is dependent on arm movement, I figure he wouldn’t want anything to restrict range of motion at all (as much as I liked the Frank Quitely look, I think a leather jacket would really hamper him). But I suppose even sheer practicality is never just that: if his arms were covered, he’d look like a pretty standard superhero, but Wolverine, to some degree, is not meant to be a traditional superhero, and so having those big, exposed arms nicely spoils the superhero look without completely ruining it.
But the most important bit of the design, I think, is the color. In case it’s not clear, it’s meant to be neon or blaze orange, kind of reflective; I couldn’t get a real accurate color because I just messed around with tints and color balances in Windows Photo Gallery. Now, blaze orange suggests a hunter’s outfit, which is appropriate enough for Wolverine, but not what was necessarily intended. High-visibility colors also suggest rescue personnel, and that is something Wolverine would be well suited to.
See, writing Wolverine as a solo character is somewhat awkward. He’s not a traditional superhero, so he doesn’t go out on patrol and fight bank robbers, and having him fight the Evil Mutant du jour makes it just another X-Men story. Some writers remove Wolverine from the superhero aesthetic entirely and cast him as a plainclothes action hero with hand-blades, but you lose the iconography you get from costumes and codenames. The most common solution, therefore, is to make Wolverine’s conflicts personal; this usually takes the form of a grudge match between Wolverine and someone from his past (Sabretooth being the most obvious example), with Logan having to avenge some friend or lover killed thirty-plus years ago. This gives you a story with strong conflict and emotional resonance that lets you keep the superhero stuff but also is distinctive enough from the rest of his adventures with the X-Men. The downside is it makes for a convoluted (and, in my opinion, absolutely tiresome) backstory, as writers have to find the few scraps of Wolverine’s personal history left unexplored and retcon in some new blood feud.
I proposed an alternative in a comment on this post at the Fractal Hall Journal:
I agree 100% with “survival as superpower,” and I’d like to see more comics that emphasize this along with those often-overlooked tracking abilities. Add those two together and it suggests Wolverine’s natural milieu: Rescue missions.
A lot of people think Wolverine’s healing powers are *too* powerful and that it robs the stories of any tension because you can’t kill him (this same argument is applied to Superman). But I think this ignores that a superhero’s primary goal is not to survive the latest battle (otherwise you could just stay home), but to save *other people*.
The conflict in a Wolverine story should never and can never legitimately be “Will Wolverine survive this issue?” (If I were writing a Wolverine comic, I would have him narrate everything in the past tense just to emphasize that no matter what happens, Wolverine is getting out of this one alive.) The conflict is whether who he’s trying to save will survive the story, or whether Wolverine will be left standing in a smoking crater filled with charred bodies that used to be his friends.
It’s a natural fit, I think. The problem with any rescue mission is there’s always the risk the rescuer will also be captured or killed as well, but this isn’t a problem with Wolverine; even if he fails and you’re left with that smoking crater at the end, at least he’ll make it back to tell you what went wrong. It would make for a fine storytelling engine (it’s Wolverine as Bionic Commando), introducing new concepts and characters that would allow you to focus on the present and future instead of dragging up the old rivalry with Sabretooth again. I also like it thematically; Wolverine was created to be a living weapon, but he’s choosing instead to focus on saving good guys instead of killing bad guys. Nice and simple.
And this is where the high-visibility orange comes in. I imagine a lot of the entries in that contest will put Wolverine in camouflage or in all black; a common complaint about Wolverine’s original/’90s yellow-and-blue outfit is this notion that Wolverine requires “stealth.” I’m not so sure that’s necessary--since he can run through a minefield under heavy gunfire and live to tell the tale, how much does he really care if you see him coming or not? In fact, pairing Wolverine’s notoriety at being nearly impossible to kill with bright colors and that instantly identifiable mask could give him a distinct edge. The hostages see the bright orange and feel safe, knowing that help is on the way. And the bad guys? If they recognize those colors and that mask, they would do well to just get out of the way and avoid slashy-stabby time.
It’s not just a costume redesign … it’s a new approach to the character. The trouble is, of course, to convince everybody else of that.
(Hey, by the way, I ended up writing two posts about Wolverine. I know, I'm as surprised as you are. Come back tomorrow for more.)
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
JACK KIRBY BACKSTAGE WITH PAUL McCARTNEY AND WINGS IN 1976!
JACK KIRBY DRAWS PAUL McCARTNEY AND WINGS IN 1976!
Is anyone else's brain melted by the very idea that this ever happened? Seriously! Kirby draws McCartney! Did you all know about this? WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME???
More here: http://beatlephoto.blogspot.com/2009/04/magneto.html
Learn'd here: http://www.comicsalliance.com/2009/05/04/jack-kirby-meets-paul-mccartney/