Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Automatic For The People

It seems that I go months without feeling the need to comment on anything going around this here blogosphere, and then two interesting posts catch my eye on the same day.

First, Tom the Dog takes a look at some recent movie trailers. This is not normally the type of thing I pay much attention to, but something in his write-up of the Sky Captain trailer caught my eye:

"I know that even the simplest of action scenes usually have some kind of CGI involved in them (if only to erase the stunt wires), but still, there's something more compelling, more viscerally engaging, about a stunt with one real person in one real car, than a million CGI robots fighting a million CGI aliens."

Admittedly, I am far from an action movie buff. I don’t really watch many of them at all – the explosions and the violence just gets tiresome. But if I do go to see an action film, I want to see something fun and unique, something that really makes me feel I am getting the most for my mindless popcorn-movie dollar.

I see violence every day. I’ve been in violent situations. I don’t get a lot of escapist thrill out of watching car crashes, because I’ve been in car crashes. But watching "a million CGI robots fighting a million CGI aliens"? That’s not something I can see outside my window every day. That sounds fun. That’s something that can only be created with CGI. Watching real violence – or a realistic portrayal of fantasy violence designed to titillate the worst instincts of the average moviegoer - is just depressing.

Dave over at Motime is finally doing something that he’s been threatening to do for just about forever – that’s right, he’s taking an in-depth and long-overdue look at Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme.

Although I’ve certainly had my differences of opinion with Dave, he never approaches his subjects with anything less than a sterling intellectual rigor. And the original Squadron Supreme is the rare mainstream superhero book that was actually designed to withstand the kind of rigor he brings to bear. It may not be the best thing Gruenwald ever wrote (which is an arguable statement in itself), but it is certainly the work that represented the most concentrated and considered distillation of his particular thematic preoccupations.

But the thing that stood out at me, and made me realize why Dave and I will probably never be able to agree on anything - other than our mutual love of Mark Gruenwald and Grant Morrison - is his statement that ”Squadron Supreme interests me more than Watchmen ever could.” This is a very interesting and revealing opinion. Despite my respect for Gruenwald, I disagree with it on a very profound level.

And herein, I believe, lies the key difference between David Fiore and Tim O’Neil. I prefer Watchmen to Squadron Supreme not because I believe Squadron Supreme to be an inferior statement of thematic principle, but because I believe it to be a genuinely better work. From the standpoint of pure craft, it’s a near perfectly constructed piece of work. My critical philosophy couldn’t be further removed from the cold and calculated creed of the structuralists, but I do appreciate craft. Watchmen holds up so well because it a perfectly constructed piece of fiction, and that “fearful symmetry” exists for reasons relating very intimately to the story itself.

One of the main reasons behind the fact that corporate comics very rarely scale the heights of serious critical esteem is the assembly-line method of production. The separation of creative duties – you write fill in the word balloons, you draw the pitchers – prevents the average superhero book from really exploiting the unique formalistic nature of the comics form. The fact that story and art are considered separate disciplines in most mainstream circles keeps the most powerful aspects of comics – story as art – from reaching fruition. Watchmen works so well because it was a complete thematic and artistic statement from beginning to end. Squadron Supreme just doesn’t hold up as well, because it was put together with all the skill and acumen of your average mid-80s Marvel comic book. In this case, the spirit was definitely willing, but the body was weak.

If Gruenwald had written Squadron Supreme a decade later, who knows what it might have looked like. But in my book, despite the interesting thematic content, it is nowhere near a completely successful work. It’s a strange artifact, obviously a great deal better than just about everything that came up around it, but not quite the masterpiece that it could have been. Story-wise it was many years ahead of its time, but from a visual standpoint it was very much a product of its era, and on that basis it suffers tremendously. It’s a wonderful polemic but a rather poor comic.

Tomorrow – Steve Ditko!

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart; Part VI

Days Like This

Days Like This is the story of a young girl-group on the cusp of stardom in the early days of rock and roll. The time is the early sixties: Elvis had already hit, along with the rest of the first wave of rock stars (Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis). The Beatles were just starting out on the other side of the Atlantic. The girl groups and pop acts that worked out of New York’s famous Brill Building provided another of the key ingredients that would ultimately cohere in the mid-60s when rock and roll began to mature.

The Brill Building was a model for the kind of “vertical integration” seen in Days Like This. There were artists and freelance songwriters and record companies all housed under the same roof. Songs were sold piecemeal to producers who placed them with appropriate artists.

This system produced some fabulous music. It was a short reign at the top, however. Although the first generation of British Invasion artists - such as the Beatles - idolized songwriting prodigies like Carole Kind and Gerry Goffin, the success of so many young groups and artists who wrote their own material in the mid-60s meant, to the record companies, that the era of the separate songwriting teams in pop music was at, or near, an end. Alongside these developments, the idea grew that artists who wrote their own material were somehow more “legitimate” than artists who merely interpreted other people’s words. Of course, there is something to be said for pure artistic expression – but it is also important to note that many rock artists who write their own material really shouldn’t.

As an evocation of a particular era in pop music, Days Like This does a splendid job. The plot involves a trio of high school girls who are discovered at a high-school talent competition by an up-and-coming label executive (who, in a nice touch, only starts a record label to spite her ex-husband). Their rising stars intersect with a young and talented songwriter, fresh out of high-school and hungry for a hit.

This songwriter is, of course, meant to stand-in for Carole King – even down to the fact that King was supposedly better at arrangements than lyrics. She meets a young dude – meant to be Goffin – who is a gifted lyricist, but a poor arranger. Of course, they hit it off. And of course, all this takes place at Harmony Plaza, not the Brill Building. Of course, I can understand why J. Torres and Scott Chantler made the decision to transfer their subjects into the realm of fiction, but its an obvious transposition.

Chantler’s art is superb. He’s got a knack for the type of small-scale, almost domestic storytelling that Torres’ story requires. There are some nice touches that keep things interesting throughout, like the Carole King character’s solid black wardrobe, and Miss Solomon’s white glasses.

My only complaint is the fact that, ultimately, this is a rather facile and toothless look at this period in history. The three female singers who comprise Tina and the Tiaras are black, and the record industry players are all white. Race is barely touched upon in this book – and when it is, by Tina’s father, it’s a reference to Elvis having stole from black music to boost his career. In the early 60s, there is no way that race could have been as pleasantly ignored as it was in the course of this story.

The high school where the initial talent competition occurs is happily integrated. Now, I do not know exactly when New York schools were desegregated, but with just a little bit of research I was able to find that there still were segregated school systems in the state until at least 1964:

"It wasn't until 1964 that the New York State Education Department issued a statewide desegregation order. By then African American parents had already sought relief from segregated schools through the federal courts. In 1964, in a case called Blocker v. Board of Education of Manhasset, the federal district court stated ‘...maintaining and perpetuating a segregated school system’ was an equal protection violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution."

So, is the cheerily mixed-race high-school in Days Like This plausible? I don’t know off the top of my head. But I have a feeling that in order to create a pleasant and affable fable, there might have been some proverbial white-washing of the historical record.

This is a fun book, but ultimately it doesn’t rise above the level of wistful fable. Its obvious that the entire creative team, from J. Torres through to Jamie s. Rich (who writes an informative afterword) was motivated by an affection for the music of this era and the people who made it. It’s a nice tribute, but Days Like This barely scratches the surface of the story potential that this era in music could ultimately yield.

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