Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Batman vs. Doctor Who

Batman is always prepared for every eventually, and if given sufficient prep time, can defeat any opponent.The Doctor never plans anything, but is perhaps the greatest tactical improviser in the universe. (Doctor #7 is the exception to this rule, and he's probably the most dangerous and calculating Doctor as a result.) Advantage: The Doctor. There is simply no plan in the history of the universe that the Doctor couldn't figure out some way to foil, even if Batman had his whole lifetime to prepare. The Master has had many lifetimes.

Batman's opposite number is the Joker, the clown prince of crime, the human incarnation of chaos and meaningless cruelty. He possesses limitless ingenuity and cunning, and is personally responsible for thousands of deaths.The Doctor's opposite number is, like him, a nameless member of the ancient Gallifreyan race, with many lifetime's worth of advanced science and learning at his disposal. Unlike the Doctor, however, The Master has dedicated his many lifetimes to the pursuit of bending the entire universe to his diabolical will - or, barring conquest, he will be perfectly content merely to destroy all of creation.Advantage: The Doctor. The Joker's best moments were killing Batman's sidekick and paralyzing one of his most trusted allies. The Master's best moments were laying waste to the entire planet Earth with flying vivisection robots from the end of time; and, oh yeah, let's not forget he annihilated a significant portion of the universe in Logopolis.

Batman is a master of every martial art on the planet Earth. The Doctor only knows Venusian Aikido, and he probably forgot how to do that half-a-dozen regenerations ago. However, if pushed into a corner and forced to fight, he can learn any physical skill in as much time as it takes him to observe his opponent's most rudimentary moves. Advantage: The Doctor. Sure, there's no question that Batman knows more about fighting, but Batman would have to incapacitate the Doctor almost instantly for this to mean anything. Otherwise - as during the climactic swordfight in The Androids of Tara - the Doctor would be able to adapt to and counter Batman's best moves in less time than it would take Batman to size up his strange opponent.

Batman is the world's greatest detective, and additionally no slouch as a mechanic, inventor or computer expert.The Doctor is perhaps the most brilliant scientific mind in the universe. Advantage: The Doctor. He would also probably know better than to build a killer satellite using Brainiac technology that would eventually go rogue and try to conquer the planet.

Batman surrounds himself with an army of sidekicks and allies, overcoming his all-too human limitations through the power of teamwork and the support of his ad hoc extended family. The Doctor travels with companions as a way of alleviating the loneliness of constant travel and isolation, befriending creatures from across the universe as a means of distracting himself from the burdens and responsibilities of practical immortality. Advantage: The Doctor. Even the Doctor's lamest companion, Adric, still died trying to save the Earth; Batman's lamest sidekick died getting hit on the head with a crowbar a bunch of times by the Joker. And there's no doubt, Leela, K-9, Ace and Donna Noble are way cooler than Dick Grayson and Tim Drake.

Batman drives around in a state-of-the-art automobile. The Doctor travels across the universe in the universe's last functioning TARDIS, even if the navigation console and chameleon circuit never quite work like they should. Advantage: The Doctor. Come on.

Batman's alter ego is billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. The Doctor doesn't need an alter ego, he just switches faces ever 50 or 75 years to keep things interesting (his brain gets a bit fried in the process, but that's OK, he didn't need to remember Peri anyway). Advantage: The Doctor. The Doctor has the additional advantage that every time an actor who played the Doctor appears in another movie or television role, the viewer can pretend it's secretly the Doctor in mufti as part of some elaborate ruse occurring off-camera. For example, All Creatures Great and Small is even more fun if you pretend that Tristan Farnon is really the Doctor, slumming in Darrowby as a means of foiling the Daleks' latest invasion. The closest you get with Batman is pretending that Batman is really Patrick Bateman during The Dark Knight.

Batman has an ongoing, on-again / off-again sexual relationship with Catwoman; as well as intermittent romances with the likes of Zatanna, Wonder Woman and Vicki Vale; as well as, in his guise of Bruce Wayne, a host of nameless starlets and debutantes. The Doctor . . . well, um, he's got River Moon, sort-of, perhaps, in the future. And if you read between the lines, maybe Romana. We know he had sex at least once in order to procreate, but probably not with a human woman. Advantage: Well, OK, this one goes to Batman.

But still, there can be no doubt, the winner is . . .

"I'm afraid, my dear boy, I simply have no time to be spent
gallivanting around with men dressed in rodent costumes."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Prepare to Waste Some Time on the Internet

Courtesy of my bestest pal Matte, here's something awesome. Keep refreshing and the fun never ends.

Friday, March 27, 2009

What We Talk About When
We Talk About Kingdom Come

(This is, hopefully, the final part of my Kingdom Come review; parts 1, 2 and 3 can be found by making with the clicky.)

Kingdom Come is first and foremost, above any other considerations, a powerful work of nostalgia. Not merely on the extrinsic level - that of the creators' avowed cultural revanchism - but on the intrinsic level of the text. The book begins in the future, and proceeds, by means of judicious flashbacks, to relate a narrative of contemporary instability. The moment of crisis is, in the story's own context, the reader's present. Everything preceding the present moment is idealized, and everything proceeding from the present is anathematized: Magog comes onto the scene as the harbinger of a "brave new world" of amoral, intransigent vigilantes and everything goes to hell in a handbasket. Superman's moral absolutism can't handle the types of stories he's being written into, so he takes his marbles and goes home.

In reality, Magog was Cable, the true "founding father" of the Image generation. Cable was Rob Liefeld's first and most exemplary creation, a creature whose instant, enormous popularity was probably helped by the fact that he was an almost total cipher. It took dozens of creators half-a-decade following Liefeld's departure from Marvel to cobble together a workable backstory for the character. (A backstory, it must be noted, constructed partially from the fan-made theories that sprouted up like weeds in the mystery man's wake, since - like Wolverine - he was not created with any identifiable origin in mind.) But none of that matters, and ultimately all the baggage about the Summers family and Apocalypse and Madelyne Pryor and the Askani (shudder) is only so much rationalization. Cable is a bad dude with a gun who dresses like the seventh Village Person, the gay army commando.

It's hard to talk about Kingdom Come without succumbing to the temptation to periodize. But the question remains, to which telos does the book belong? Is it climax and dénouement for the late-80s and early-90s crash-and-burn dialectic, or ground zero for the late-90s early-00s school of neoclassicist superheroics? Can it be both?

Neoclassicism is the most conservative cultural mode. But it is not, is never, a completely digital recreation of the past. The 19th Century pre-Raphaelites created an imaginary Medievalism that owed as much to Walter Scott and the faux-revolutionary conservatism of Disraeli's "Young England" as any actual desire to reengage with a "lost" lineage of the Italian Renaissance*. Similarly, Waid and Ross' neoclassicism is far less about the actual comics of their youth and more about their relationship to the comics they grew up reading, and an idealized conception thereof, used as a bludgeon against the sins of the present.

This is evident from any honest reading of Kingdom Come, separated from its place in mid-90s historicism and set aside its mythic forebears. It's an incredibly cynical book that places the audience's awareness of and affection for its characters, predicated on a lifetime's familiarity with their adventures and tropes, front and center above any other narratological concerns. The text and subtext are, unnervingly, one and the same: superheroes became corrupted in the 1990s, and the "true" heroes became irrelevant as a result. Kingdom Come is the story of the heroes' return from obsolescence, championing the values of moral fortitude and absolute virtue.

Kingdom Come fails in its primary objective, if you understand its primary objective to be any kind of rapprochement with post-Watchmen, post-Image superheroics. It can't answer the questions we've been hacking out these last few days: how do you continue to produce stories featuring morally upright icons in an age of escalating stakes and increasing violence? How do you properly recontain or metabolize the destructive genie of vigilante id represented by characters like Cable? And - perhaps most importantly, considering Kingdom Come is itself one of the most toxic examples of a still-contemporary trend - how do you write interesting superhero stories in an age where the genre has become mired in relentless self-referentially and overwhelming metatextual density? The answer to all these questions, according to Kingdom Come, is that you don't: instead of gaining any insight from the intractable aporia of a collapsing comics industry, Waid and Ross opt for millennialism and false utopia, a clean slate predicated on a scorched earth. It doesn't work that way. You can't just burn everything down and start fresh. The Fourth World is built out of the ashes and the archetypes of the Third. Using nostalgia as a weapon against Bloodstrike only works for so long, before someone comes along with nostalgia for Bloodstrike.

I wouldn't want to lay the blame for Kingdom Come at Alan Moore's feet, but in many respects it is merely another symptom of the general inability of the industry to properly metabolize Watchmen and its ilk. Perhaps an argument can be made that by laying bare the tropes, formulae and ideological mannerisms of superhero comics with such methodical rigor, Moore made it simply impossible for any subsequent writer to approach those same conventions in an unselfconscious manner.

Every good superhero comic, after Watchmen, had to be about superhero comics. Everything was "deconstructed", up to and including the most plebian examples from the contemporary scene. Kurt Busiek's Avengers was about creating the Platonic ideal of an Avengers comic, a reaction to the disrepair into which many of the company's flagship franchises had fallen by the late 90s. Brian Michael Bendis' New Avengers is a comic that is very explicitely intended to mark a clean break with the "old school" Avengers style - it's a superhero team book with the mannerisms and dialogue tics of an HBO crime drama. Bendis' Mighty Avengers was an attempt by him to write an "old school" Avengers book while simultaneously maintaining many of the faux-naturalistic narrative techniques he'd previously utilized for New; Dan Slott's Mighty Avengers is a neoclassical reaction to Bendis' New, an extremely mannered and deliberate return to the franchise's most elemental form. To a degree this self-referentially becomes self-parody, and nowhere is this more obvious than the readers themselves, who (like myself) see trends and metatext hiding behind every bullrush, long past the point of absurdity. But this is the market and this is the creative climate we've built for ourselves.

The most lasting legacy Kingdom Come has had, I believe, has been the solidification of a certain school of superhero storytelling that could be called "momentism". Waid and Ross did not invent "momentism" - again, we can look back to Alan Moore for inspiration.

Moore only really wrote two Superman stories (excepting a Swamp Thing team-up for DC Presents) - "For the Man Who Has Everything", and "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Considering they make up a scanty hundred pages between them, it's remarkable just how influential they have been - or, hell, let's just say - how blatantly these two stories have been mindlessly copied, practically verbatim, time and time again through to the present day.

Moore's approach to these Superman stories is, in its own way, as remarkable as his approach to Watchmen: instead of deconstructing the entire genre, he deconstructed a single character. He reverse-engineered Superman in such a way that he was able to deduce the most optimum possible vehicle for telling the best Superman story - what story can hit the best Superman "beats"? How do you build a superhero comic around an iconic character like Superman? Easy: you figure out the most quintessential things Superman does and build a story around them. "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" is, by design, a laundry list of Superman's greatest hits, and Moore hits every emotional beat with the precision of a Pentium. In "For the Man Who Has Everything" the approach is effectively the same. How many times have we seen a recreation of that initial confrontation with Mongol, that moment of absolute panic on the readers' part where, for the first time in maybe ever, we see Superman flex his muscles with seismic authority and go after the villain with all the power at his disposal? All I have to do is say one word: "Burn". You know the panel. Of course, that one panel has been redrawn and rewritten a thousand times over the years, if not more. Hell, Kingdom Come is itself built around such a moment, only substitute Captain Marvel for Mongol.

But the problem is that what seemed so incredibly potent in Moore's hands has become simply blasé. Whereas Moore's canny manipulation of tropes was novel, Jeph Loeb and Mark Millar doing that same thing is simply crass. What else is Hush? What else is Millar's Spider-Man? Or Ultimates? Or the entirety of the Ultimate line? Or Final Crisis? This is "momentism" - a style of writing predicted on the singular iconic "moment" as the indissoluble element of superhero writing. Kingdom Come is packed to the rafters with "moments", and the creators' understanding of the characters is good enough that many of the moments are good - a few of the Superman moments are very good.

But how do you build a story around isolated moments? What about all the stuff that has to go between the moments? You could be like Millar and just not bother to write anything between these moments. "Old Man Logan" is simply a marvel (no pun intended) of storytelling economy. All significant exposition, all character development, all the world-building in the strange alternate future of the story, is delivered in "moments": everything that isn't a giant Venom-infected T-Rex or Hank Pym's giant skeleton is just padding to keep the book from being a pin-up gallery. And it's even worse if you consider that the story is itself building, with a maniacal ruthlessness, to the biggest "moment" of them all, the moment where Wolverine finally overcomes his decades of pacifism, pops his claws and kills all the bad guys - I predict it will happen exactly on the final page of the story's penultimate issue. It's not even a guess; it's practically scientific observation.

Sometimes the most effective tool of the momentist writer can be delayed gratification - but momentism only works as long as the outcome is never in any real doubt. The most obvious and predictable thing has to eventually occur, or there's simply no story. It is best, paradoxically, if the most predictable thing happens in the least predictable manner possible - the greater the obstacle to normative resolution, the greater the audience's satisfaction when that resolution finally occurs. This is true, it could be said, for all narrative art, but momentism depends on the audience's intimate familiarity with character and genre tropes. It is a style of writing that could only develop in a closed-system hothouse like mainstream superhero comics. It all depends on familiarity, and the process of creating a story where characters can act in their most familiar, most essential ways, giving readers the unalloyed pleasure of seeing icons with whom they are intimately familiar acting exactly like themselves.

That is the legacy of Kingdom Come: the cosy pleasures of the familiar codified as the aesthetic apogee. Predictability has always been the underlying ethos behind superhero comics, but now it was overt scripture. The new overriding narrative became atavism, the conscious desire to return to the past, a desire that overwhelms any superhero comic that stops to linger on its own metatext. Superhero comics have become superhero comics about superhero comics, which are themselves stories about superhero comics in a fallen world. We are forever trying to return to the purity Hesiod's Golden Age, and we - like Socrates in The Republic - can't understand that heterogeneity is not merely a sign of weakness and inevitable torsion but an inevitability as well.

NEXT: I think I have managed to say just about everything there is to say about such a deeply, deeply flawed, but nevertheless interesting and indisputably important book as Kingdom Come. But, hey, in for a penny in for a pound, so next time I think I'll say a few words about Kingdom Come's redheaded stepchild, the incredibly weird Earth-X.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I've Run Out of Cute Titles

Kingdom Come was a sharp criticism of the absurd trends of early-mid 90s mainstream comics. In fairness, these trends were already on the wane by the time Kingdom Come saw print. Certainly, the huge lead time required for Ross to produce the book contributed to this - the book was in production for over a year, from my recollection. But by 1996 the comics industry itself was already something of a "smoking crater". Pointing partial blame for what had become self-evident - the "Extreme" self-parody of the early Image books and those who responded in kind by producing progressively worse comics - may have seemed, at such a late date, slightly moot.

Regardless, the story was conceived and designed to answer a specific kind of problem that had come to infect superhero comics, not merely since the dawn of the Image style, but dating back earlier, to the 1980s. At the story's heart lies a single point of divergence, the point at which the universe of Kingdom Come separates from that of the regular DC Universe. The story may as well have been called, What If . . . the Joker Killed Lois Lane?

The problem is simple: in the service of the ever-escalating stakes of contemporary superhero comics, villains had stepped beyond merely general arch-fiends, thieves and world-conquerors - they became terrorists and mass-murderers. If you accept that characters such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man necessarily possess indomitable moral codes, and that they never, ever under any circumstances should be allowed to kill, putting them into regular conflict with villains who do kill becomes incredibly problematic. As soon as you start giving the villains inflated body counts, the idea of costumed vigilantes playing by Hoyle's Rules becomes increasingly difficult to sell. I would go so far as to argue that telling these kinds of stories repeatedly actually causes permanent harm to the characters themselves.

Back in the early 90s, Marvel created a villain named Carnage. Carnage, for those of you who may have forgotten, was essentially a really evil clone of Venom, created for seemingly no reason besides the fact that they needed a character so horrifying that Venom would look positively heroic in comparison. There was a Venom solo series to sell, after all - a lot more money to be made by spinning-off one of their most popular properties as a plausible protagonist than merely another Spider-Enemy. Carnage was himself insanely popular. I remember seeing Amazing Spider-Man #361 bagged and sold for $5.00 and $7.50 right out of the box - as in, the retailers took the book out of their Diamond (or Capital City!) shipping boxes, popped it directly into a Mylar snug and sold it for 750% markup. The 90s was a crazy time.

Anyway, the problem with Carnage as that there is literally nothing you can do with this character that doesn't create storytelling problems, besides putting him in jail and sending him to the electric chair. Seriously: he's a serial mass murderer. The Maximum Carnage storyline saw the character racking up a massive bodycount by tearing a swath through New York City, killing and maiming hundreds - thousands? - of people. This is Miracleman territory, not Spider-Man.

One of the most pressing questions bothering fandom in the 1990s was the open question of whether or not Spider-Man should kill Carnage. This occupied quite a bit of space in the Wizard letter column, from my recollection, and it may even have spun out into the letters pages for the books themselves. One side would say, Spider-Man doesn't kill, he never has killed and he never should kill; the other side would answer - albeit perhaps not as eloquently - that Spider-Man had to kill Carnage, there simply was no logical alternative given the story's brutality. The problem is that both sides are correct, but the correct answer is not {A} or {B} but {C}: Spider-Man should not be placed in a position where he has to kill, and writing such a story in the first place represents a serious misunderstanding of the character's milieu.

Every character is different. Wolverine kills. The whole point of his storyline over the first 150-odd issues of Claremont's run on the title was that he started as an irresponsible thug and gradually matured, until when Uncanny was creeping around the 220s and 230s he was a responsible leader and moral compass (this character arc has been eradicated in ensuing years, because the dangerous thug is more saleable a character than the seasoned warrior, apparently). The Punisher obviously kills - but that's who he is. Whenever he crosses over with Spider-Man or Daredevil, he's essentially a villain. Even Captain America kills when he has to: he's a soldier, and has no compunction about doing so when absolutely necessary. (He did, however, draw the line at executing the Kree Supreme Intelligence in cold blood at the conclusion of Operation: Galactic Storm, which remains one of the character's best moments in my own personal pantheon of "Best Cap Moments".)

But there are some characters who don't kill, and putting them into situations where any reasonable person would have to kill seriously weakens their credibility as characters. Does it add anything to Batman's character that he treats the Joker with kid gloves when his on-page body count is in the thousands? No, it just makes him silly. "You killed thousands of people and tried to start World War III by killing the president, but I'm going to make sure you get due process even though I've personally seen you escape from Arkham Asylum three times this month alone." Don't even get me started on Mr. Zsasz.

I have to stress that I don't believe in capital punishment, but I'm not a pacifist and I do believe in self-defense. I believe that if I have the ability to stop one man from killing three men, it is my moral obligation to do so - and I think anyone, if pressed in that same situation, would do so as well. But Batman - he isn't law-enforcement, he isn't beholden to anyone but his own conscience, and his conscience is pretty damn selfish and squeamish. As long as there isn't any blood on his hands, he doesn't care that he's essentially enabling these characters - who, according to years of history, will do everything they can to kill as many people as they can for no good reason - to kill again. At best it seems disingenuous, at worse, it soils the characters completely. There's a reason why the Joker dies at the end of the Batman movies - filmmakers know that without any need to keep the character alive for future serial publication, there is no feasible way he should still be be alive in the last reel after killing thousands of people.

The problem isn't a problem with Batman, it's a problem with the Batman writers. The problem with Maximum Carnage wasn't that Spider-Man pussied out, but that he should never have been put in that position to begin with - or, if you must write that story, have the courage of your convictions, a la Byrne's Superman, and tell the story of exactly why Superman shouldn't kill. The result was that because the "old guard" of heroes looked like wimps, the "new breed" of heroes took after Wolverine and the Punisher, only without any of the wit, imagination or appeal. The popularity of the new-breed super-soldiers may have temporarily eclipsed the old-breed super-heroes, but there really wasn't a lot to most of these characters. They were just thugs who killed other thugs, for whatever reason no one knows - if you read Bloodstrike, feel free to explain why anyone in that book did anything.

So: the Joker kills Lois Lane, and Superman stops the Joker, and the Joker enters police custody. Magog shoots the Joker, and Superman gets pissed because - well, why, exactly? All his best friends and his wife were just murdered, and he had the good breeding necessary to bring the fiend to justice without harming him. Now, I suspect we're supposed to dislike Magog - based simply on the fact that he's one of the book's villains. But, you know, if you insist on having characters like mass-murderer Joker, the only rational option is to have characters like Magog. This is the initial misstep that eventually created the massive imbalance of the post-Image landscape. Write a Spider-Man story where he doesn't have to choose between his own moral righteousness and saving people's lives: people did it for 30 years, why did they suddenly lose the ability when the clock turned 1990? No, in order to counter Carnage you have to bend the rules of Spider-Man's fictional milieu so egregiously that it threatens to burst in two.

In this light, the problem is that these cutthroat vigilante characters like Magog make an intrinsic degree of sense: it's easy to criticize Bloodstrike, but harder to get to the bottom of why exactly these characters have become so prevalent in comics. It's easy to put them all in one place and blow them up with an atom-bomb, harder to come to grips with the fact that Magog is himself an archtype, and not so readily dismissed. Especially if you have the Joker killing lots of people. If the Joker were real, would you sleep better knowing Batman was going to track him down and put him back into the revolving-door justice system, or that someone like Magog was going to blow him to smithereens before he could kill your children?

I wish I remembered where I read this - probably in one of the many thousands of interview features Ross did around the time of Kingdom Come - but something he said at the time has stuck with me even after I've forgotten everything he said about, I don't know, bribing the UPS man to dress like Batman. Magog was designed to be the most over-the-top, unbelievably absurd cliche-ridden apogee of 90s "cool" conceivable: robot arm, huge impractical shoulder pads, bionic eye, meaningless pouches and huge kneepads. But as the series wore on Ross eventually grew to like Magog's design, and came to like the look despite himself. That's always struck me as pretty telling. Perhaps I enjoy Kingdom Come for reasons which are slightly at-odds with the creators' own repeatedly stated aims, but even the arch-neo-classicist Ross himself admits there is something seductive there . . .
Because Caleb Demanded It

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Panhandling is Not Illegal

I have tried to make blogging a bigger priority lately, since I realized my content levels had come dangerously close to somnolent in the past few months. This has been an especially tough week, regardless of having five days off - sometimes all the crap piles up until you have a nice long vacation to really thoroughly enjoy the sensation of blind panic. So, since it's been a long time since I threw a fundraiser, I just thought I'd point out that there is a nice, shiny Paypal button on the left hand side of the site for your thrills and edification. Like NPR and PBS, the content of this site is 100% free, but unlike either of those august institutions I don't get any money from the government (besides the student grants and loans which are going to keep me in crippling debt until I'm about ready to start collecting Social Security). So - if you like the site, think about dropping a few dollars into the collection plate. It's not like I'll stop blogging if you don't pay, but it definitely helps with my motivation to know at least a couple people care enough to drop $5 in the Paypal occasionally . . .

(And if you're new to the site and think this is tacky, well, back in the "good old days" I used to do fundraising weeks. Not that that did anything but annoy people.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pocket Change

Johnny Bacardi nailed me dead to rights in the comment section of the previous Kingdom Come post. Of course, people didn't suddenly coin the word "icon" in 1995, so people had been using it to describe the major superhero properties for a long time. (Someone with a PhD in old-school fandom could probably figure out where it was originally used, probably in an old Roy Thomas fanzine or some such.) But . . . that said, without negating Johnny B's point, there was still something different about the mid-90s - some conscious admission of something which had been tacitly accepted for a long time.

Looked at in hindsight, in the wake of every bad comic book that has been created specifically to fit the ideological and thematic mold of Kingdom Come - and I would argue that a huge percentage of DC's output, and some of Marvel's as well, carries the mark to this day - it's easy to write the book off. And, for what it's worth, it suffers in direct comparison to the work it is most commonly compared to, Ross and Kurt Busiek's Marvels.

I have never made any secret of the fact that I love Marvels. I think it's the last great deconstructionist superhero comic, the capstone to an extremely fertile ten-year period that saw the mainstream comics industry gain self-awareness, undergo a turbulent adolescence, come within an inch or so of dying a painful death, only to ease into a painful senescence, a slow attrition in terms both commercial and creative. People don't usually group Marvels with books like Watchmen, Dark Knight, Squadron Supreme or Marshal Law - it's such a kind and nostalgic work, it doesn't seem to be deconstructing anything. What a lot of people miss, however - and which I have expounded upon at length elsewhere - is that Marvels is the most stealthily subversive book of them all, because it is not concerned with tearing apart superheroes, so much as with tearing apart superhero fandom. Phil Sheldon's emotional arc throughout the series mirrors my own in relation to superhero comics to an astounding degree - curiosity, infatuation, decadence, cynicism, rejection - and finally, rapprochement and acceptance. Screw Watchmen - Marvels is the capstone to the whole superhero genre, and the whole superhero reading experience as well. But, like Watchmen it also ends with the explicit acknowledgement that everything continues, nothing really ever ends or changes . . . except for people.

Kingdom Come doesn't belong in the same category as any of the above-mentioned works. It is very consciously a book about re-construction - blowing past the chaff of the previous decades' worst impulses, impulses which include obligatory deconstruction, and returning to the proverbial "first principals". In this particular instance, the first principles are Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and (sometimes, when DC is feeling generous) Captain Marvel. Try to forget all that has come in the book's wake, and remember what came before. It could even be said that Kingdom Come was a reactionary book, a deeply-felt and willful reaction to what had come immediately before, a symbolic retrenchment of what could be called the "neo-classical" school of superhero comics.

As with any "neo-classical" movement, it was no more an authentic reflection of the original inspiration - the "classic" comics that filled Ross and Waid's childhood, presumably - than it was an authentic reflection of its creators' agendas. Kingdom Come is a work with an agenda: staunchly conservative, and by necessity humorless, grasping at the epic and - in many crucial places - mistaking hollow portent for purpose in the pursuit of its didactic goals. It is a deeply problematic work, and not one I would recommend lightly - I am not comfortable with the strong religious key sounding through the book's entirety, for instance, and Waid's staging sometimes seems perfunctory. Part of the latter problem probably lies as much with the book's scope as anything else - Crisis feels packed at 12 issues, and two of them are double-sized. Kingdom Come tries to pack almost as much into four double-sized issues as Crisis did in twice the page count, and it suffers accordingly. To their credit, for every muffled moment - such as Lois Lane's perfunctory death, in a flashback no less (moose n squirrel is dead right about that) - there are good moments aplenty, such as Superman's triumphant return at the climax of the first issue. More than anything else, despite these serious problems, it is nevertheless a work of great affection - even though some of the criticism of the early 90s can feel heavy-handed and bitchy, the whole point is that Ross and Waid really fucking love Superman. To the extent that they can communicate that, the book works remarkably well.

The 80s and 90s - especially the early 90s - were filled with, well, take a look for yourself:

There are a number of reasons - dozens, hundreds - of reasons why the comics industry became so coarse in the 90s. But it is worth remembering that the gradually more extreme and crass content of these books - combined with the gradually deteriorating creative standards fueled by the industry's rapid expansion and even faster contraction - were only popular because, well, people bought them.

There are precious few honestly good mainstream superhero comics from this period. It's one thing to have coarser subject matter if it results from more mature, thoughtful writing, but the one inarguable, unambiguous lesson that people took away from Watchmen and Dark Knight was that people liked to see superheroes kill and curse. Which is fine for latter-day characters like the Punisher or Wolverine - designed slightly differently for a different creative climate than that which had spawned Spider-Man or the modern iterations of Superman or Batman. But then everybody wanted all the stories to be as hardcore as the Punisher and Wolverine - regardless of whether or not the types of stories that worked with the Punisher and Wolverine could work for Superman or Spider-Man, or even Batman. And then everybody wanted to make their own Punishers and Wolverines, which was really unfortunate because whatever charm those characters may have was easily subtracted from the clones' DNA sequences, thoughtlessly excised in the lab. And when a massive influx of new talent attracted by the incredible boom of the pre-Image years came into the industry in the early 90s, hell-bent on slavishly replicating the absolute worst traits of the coarser, post-Watchmen, post Dark Knight landscape without any critical or aesthetic sense whatsoever - that's when the comics racks became nothing but an indiscriminate mass of steroid freaks and freakishly endowed women, all allied to large paramilitary concerns that existed shorn of any identifiable agenda or ethicality, solely dedicated to fighting other large paramilitary concerns of similarly ambiguous provenance. Either that, or they were lone-wolf killers dedicated to finding their own brand of justice in a crooked / corrupted / demon-haunted world. At least Jim Valentino had the good sense to admit that Shadowhawk was a cynical cash-grab of a character - but so far as I know he's alone in his candor.

So - not only were the racks flooded with Image, they were flooded with Marvel and, later, DC, desperately trying to replicate the surface qualities of Image - a brand that was itself dedicated to replicating the surface qualities of late 80s and early 90s Marvel books. The one legitimate attraction Image held was the freedom it allowed individual creators, and the requisite unpredictability that followed - and that was, by the most amazing coincidence, the only aspect that Marvel and DC could never replicate themselves. By around 1995, just about everything on the racks was a tenth-generation carbon copy of Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Michael Golden and John Byrne, with all the legibility that the metaphor implies.

(If you're too young to remember carbon paper, you probably don't remember what the comics industry looked like before Image - it was a kinder, gentler world, filled with bunnies and kittens frolicking with Jolly Jim Shooter in the hills and dales . . . and you know, now that I think about it, all the problems started when Shooter left Marvel. For all his sins, he would have known how to avoid all the mistakes Marvel made from 1988-1992 which led to Image.)

Anyway: here we are. It's 1996. The boom has busted and everything has gone to hell in a handbasket. Superman was killed and Batman was broken, all with the express intent of showing, in the most didactic and methodical way possible just why these characters were still relevant and how they still worked in the modern context. To varying degrees, these kinds of stories did succeed, at least in their stated aims. But there was still the matter of all those horrible, horrible copycats, all the hundreds and thousands of crappy spin-offs and knock-offs and spin-offs of knock-offs clogging the racks and drowning out the virtuous values and ethical purity of the original icons. (Ah yes, there's that word again, icon.) For all that, it was enough to make one wish that all these problematic iterations and putrid adulterations could just be gathered up in one place and blown to Hell with an A-bomb . . . and if you know how Kingdom Come ends, you can see where this sentiment ultimately led.

Next time: more on this, including a more specific discussion of just how the coarsening climate of mainstream comics degraded the "icons", and how Kingdom Come was designed to circumvent this degradation.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Munchausen Weekend

The Reader / Revolutionary Road

I saw both of these a while back and kept meaning to find the time to say something, but never really felt compelled to make the leap from thought to deed until earlier today. While sitting in the tire shop I noticed that this week's Time had Kate Winslet on the cover, with the caption "Best Actress" emblazoned over her ¾ turn profile. Now, certainly, she is a gorgeous woman, and I don't begrudge nay magazine the right to put a gorgeous woman on the cover - but I finally have to come out of the closet a mite sheepishly to admit that I just don’t "get" the mystique of Kate Winslet.

First of all, I had managed to avoid her for the entirety of the previous decade. You see, there was this little movie called Titanic, and I don't let things like that go. I mean, sure, she was young, but still. It's a bit like forgiving Nixon just because he's dead. (I did see her in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I had managed to forget she was in until about now.) But until a friend induced me to watch Heavenly Creatures a few years back I lived in blissful ignorance of what the former Titanic star had been up to. I admit, I even came around to Leonardo DeCaprio before her - much against my own best judgment, he wasn't bad in The Departed. I loved that movie. He didn’t' ruin it, despite his babyface making it hard for me to believe him as being a rugged cop dude. But still - the dude from Titanic was actually bearable in a movie. That was a big concession for me.

So - here we are. Two Kate Winslet movies, two weeks apart in the theater. Considering how many people love her, and how much they do, I took it as the opportunity to catch up on a cultural phenomenon which had obviously left me in the lurch.

First: Revolutionary Road. Why they felt the need to make a movie out of a fifty-year old, little-remembered book about, oooh, the evils of suburbia, at this late date, I'll never know. I mean, seriously: the moment you see the movie's setting you can play out every dramatic beat for the following two hours in your head. What is the agenda here? The message wasn't particularly new a decade ago when they made American Beauty - oh wait, the same guy directed that and this? Wow.

There are two options: either this was supposed to be a "topical" film, addressing the present through the lens of the past, a la Goodnight and Good Luck and Frost / Nixon; or, the filmmakers believe in the strength of the material to surpass topicality, and that the story is therefore strong enough to stand on its own merits without any contemporary subtext. The film fails on both counts, because the story is some seriously weak sauce, and the idea that this at all speaks to the contemporary state of American life - even if you consider the film was made, what, two years ago by now? - is still pretty poor justification for breaking out such a hoary old chestnut. I have never read any Richard Yates but this film does not compel me to do so - Cheever did it better, with far more empathy. Since the ending of the film was pretty much a foregone conclusion from the beginning of the first reel - SPOILER ALERT: they never make it to Paris! - the sensation was not unlike that of watching insects slowly dying under a magnifying glass in the hot sun. You know they're going to twist up into little shriveled corpses, and quite honestly, having to sit in a room with these people for two hours makes me long for the smell of burning ant flesh.

Because, my God, if this is the caliber of acting her fans have come to expect from Kate Winslet . . . well, goodness. There was not one single moment of this film where I was not aware I! Was! Watching! Actors! Acting! Perhaps Mendes was going for the whole Douglas Sirk high-pitched, stately melodrama thing - but then, you've got people supposedly breaking down into fits of emotional convulsion, complete with chair throwing and botched abortions. I suppose you could call Mendes an actor's director, if by that you mean that he always gives his actors plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. Every time there was any kind of intense emotional scene - and boy, does this movie have plenty of them, screaming catharsis with clockwork regularity - I expected the director to step out from behind the camera, make the "T" sign with his forearms and yell, "Scene!" There wasn't an inch of honest emotion in this entire smarmy contrived movie - I believed Night Owl's grotesque "NOOOOO!" on the Arctic plateau about as much as I believed a damn word anyone said in this movie. It's probably not a good sign that I was laughing throughout the huge climactic argument, the one that had the chair throwing. Ladies and Gentleman, I've had chairs thrown at me, and trust me, the shot isn't usually so well composed.

(Probably bad taste to be sniggering throughout the heavy dissolution-of-marriage scene, but hey, there's this movie called Scenes From A Marriage by Ingmar Bergman. It's five hours long (in its original TV cut) and if you ever wanted to experience the death of a marriage there's nothing else like it. If you don't mind wanting to die afterwards, that is - just like real divorce. And also, if you thought Revolutionary Road was anything but revolutionary, there's a 1968 movie adaptation of Cheever's "The Swimmer" with Burt Lancaster you should catch. It's a great movie, regardless of the fact that it has two directors, and says twice what Revolutionary Road does with half the fuss.)

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by The Reader. Not so much by Ms. Winslet - her performance was adequate. More naturalistic, but it's still hard to act in old person makeup. The thing I liked best about this move was that I had been expecting something pretty abominable, from the reviews - some kind of "Nazi wins redemption through the power of the human heart" type thing. But thankfully, that's not at all the case. And again, thankfully, the main weight of the movie's dramatic crux doesn't fall on Winslet's shoulders, but Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is a good actor, and even though he only has a supporting role here, he nevertheless achieves a degree of emotional lucidity which communicates the film's rather prickly and unpleasant thematic core with admirable alacrity.

To wit: it's not about Nazi's finding redemption for horrible actions, or learning about humanity through the power of literacy, or any of that. It's about the emotional complicity of people who feel sympathy for monsters. When Ralph Fiennes' character (albeit the younger version, not played by Fiennes) realizes what his former lover had done, who she had been - he's repulsed. He's sickened. But he is also filled with self-loathing, because he still loves her on some level. How can he possibly feel the need to reconnect on a human level with someone guilty of such ghastly crimes? The fact that he obviously does feel that need says nothing about her. She becomes essentially a prop once her crimes are revealed. Try as she may she can't find even the least shred of absolution from her former lover, only the barest acknowledgment of her continued existence - the tapes, sent compulsively as an admission of . . . what? Guilt? Shame? There's no forgiveness, no emotional closure, just loose ends left by monstrous acts and the complicity - real or imagined - of the people left in the wake of atrocity.

So: hardly a perfect movie, but a good movie nonetheless, and one that has lingered in my thoughts through the succeeding weeks. I can't say, at a few week's distance, whether or not Winslet's performance was anything to write home about - trying to "act German", like acting through heavy makeup, appears to have been a trial. She was innocuous; she didn't draw excess attention to herself. She was suitably dramatic in the dramatic points and suitably sexy in the sexy points. I guess "was competent enough that she did not draw attention to herself" must be the current Oscar criteria.

I just saw Rachel Getting Married last night and I think it might be the best 2008 film I've seen yet - I can't decide whether or not I like it better than The Wrestler. That movie, as heartbreaking as it was, was basically Mickey Rourke through and through - without him, it's impossible to imagine the film. Sean Penn was OK, I guess, in Milk, but the grating Hollywood biopic narrative conventions made the movie pretty somnolent despite what appeared to be a good performance - but man, that script was so bog-standard it made my teeth ache. I guess we've achieved "progress" when the lives of gay civil rights leaders get the same boilerplate Hollywood condescending condensation as, say, any other notable person unlucky enough to have a two-hour self-important Hollywood "message" picture devoted to them.

Seriously, is it that hard to make a movie about someone's life? Rescue Dawn and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly were both technically "biopics" but they were both astoundingly good movies as well. Why was that? Hmmm, could it be that neither were really American films? (Yes, Rescue Dawn was made with American money, but it's Werner Herzog, for God's sake; and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly did have an American director but it was made with French money and a French cast.)

My point - what was my point? Oh yeah, Rachel Getting Married. Awesome film, but the thing that sets it apart from all the other films I mentioned was that it was really an ensemble piece. I didn't even know who Anne Hathaway was until a couple years ago, but that girl has chops - as an actor, she is effectively invisible, which is about the best compliment I think you can pay to a film actor. Her presence wasn't "riveting", because you didn't for a moment think she was acting - you didn't think anyone in that movie was acting, even the stunt-cast rock star. I even teared up at the (intentionally) cornball faux-Indian wedding scene. It doesn't feel like an American movie at all, it feels like something you'd see in France, you know - a movie that doesn't insult your intelligence, and doesn't mistake showboating hysterics and self-conscious scenery chewing for actual acting.

I haven't seen all the nominees but I have a hard time believing that any of them equaled Hathaway's performance. The only performance I saw that came anywhere close wasn't even nominated, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky. So yeah, Kate Winslet - she sure is a presence onscreen, isn't she? She is there. On the screen. She moves her mouth and words come out. Oh, boy!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Kingdom Come was such an immediate success that it can be rightly be called one of the most influential series of the preceding decade. It is debatable whether or not this influence has been a positive one. You can draw a direct line from Waid & Ross' work on through to many of the worst tendencies of contemporary comics. Pretty much every aesthetic sin committed by overly-reverential, overly-mannered, claustrophobically nostalgic superhero comics of the last decade can be rightly laid at the feet of Kingdom Come. The book itself has become critical shorthand, therefore, for a type of superhero comic, most often a negative type; and even, one step further, for the types of fans who appreciate those types of books.

Almost everything Ross has done since this has contributed to the trend and the coequal backlash. And it's a shame, because he's a fabulous artist. The problem is that much of what he draws looks like he got his middle-aged mailman to dress like Superman for the purpose of photo-reference. His proclivity towards photo-referencing could probably be categorized as a mental illness in the DSM-IV. If you've ever seen his sketchbooks - they printed a pile of this stuff when the Journal interviewed him back at the turn of the century - he is is simply a remarkable draftsman. But the increasingly ludicrous nature of his career - seriously, he headlined a "reverential" Space Ghost revival at Wildstorm, for God's sake - has made it hard to defend the man, even on the grounds of pure technical skill, because the sentiment hiding behind most of what he chooses to draw or paint is simply putrid. I have to wonder at this point how much of it is his own inclination and how much is simply the Wizard-spawned fanboy nostalgia merchandise machine. I mean, if someone offered me thousands of dollars to draw all these pictures of Batman standing around looking like he had gas, I would probably do just that.

People forget that somewhere in there, among Marvels and Kingdom Come, before those massively boring childrens' books he put out around the turn of the century, he also did a weird two-issue riff on Uncle Sam for Vertigo. It was an odd, thorny work that defies easy dismissal as ideologically-driven political agitprop - either liberal or conservative. It was somewhat baggy in places, perhaps a bit too ambitious and overreaching for what was essentially a simple conceit, but it did make very good use of Ross' skill. The story didn't actually involve Uncle Sam the old Quality hero, but rather Uncle Sam the icon - both as the idealistic symbol of American "values" and the cynical shorthand for American shortcomings. The very premise of the book indicates that Ross' manipulation of iconography, throughout his corpus, is nowhere near as guileless and unthinking as his worst critics would paint it. Again, I'm hardly making the case for Ross as a Duchamp-esque agent provocateur - but if you look at Uncle Sam as a meditation on the means by which iconography can be used, distorted and corrupted, perhaps Ross' understanding of superhero iconography isn't quite so uncritical as it might appear on first blush.

Because, really, before Ross, no one talked about these characters as "icons". There was a transformation in the way people perceived the long-running superhero characters that came about in the early-to-mid-90s, as a partial result of the commercial brinksmanship of the early 90s marketplace bloodbath. As discussed a while back, DC realized at a certain point that the main advantage they had over all of their competition was the fact that Superman and Batman were cultural icons. They weren't just scruffy comic book characters anymore, they had at some amorphous point passed from being mere characters and assumed their place in the pantheon alongside Mickey Mouse, Tarzan and Dracula. People cared when they turned on the news and saw that Superman was dying, or that Batman was getting his back broken. These events had a resonance far, far beyond the limited precincts of the actual stories themselves.

And from there it wasn't long before people realized that the power of these characters' iconography could stand in as a potent signifier in lieu of any other content. That's why so much of Ross' work - merchandising and cover illustration - has been so hollow and empty: the characters have been stripped of all value except as icons, symbolizing themselves and nothing more. Astute readers perceive that this is a pretty frightening concept for any medium built on storytelling. How do you build a storyline around an icon? (Grant Morrison has built a career out of answering that question, and many of his answers have been very good.)

The 90s represented one long lurch towards dwindling relevancy on the part of the mainstream comics industry largest properties, with mediocre to disastrous results. Sure, the Spider-Clone saga was horrible, but the worst part was not that the storyline itself was horrible, but that the people at Marvel honestly felt that the best they could do was try and redefine Spider-Man for the modern era. Superman's "Death" and the "Knight's Fall / Quest / End" cycle in the Batman books were various levels of mediocre-to-poor, but they were spawned from the same impulse as the Clone Saga. You have to give them points for trying.

I remember reading an interview with John Byrne many years ago where he voiced his frustration at the futility of his post-Crisis Superman revamp. The quote - which I can't even pretend to remember verbatim, so I won't even try - went something along the lines that, regardless of whatever happened in the books themselves, nothing could ever change the Superman on the company logo. So yeah, Superman could die, come back as four people, get a mullet, turn blue, turn red and blue, conquer the world, get married - whatever. On the level of iconography - the level best apprehended by the people who actually own Superman - Superman is a known and static quality. Ross' static, blatantly iconographic art is a frank admission of the most unpleasant aspects of commercial superhero comics. For anyone who still enjoys the occasional Superman comic, it's a depressing glimpse inside the sausage factory. Kingdom Come came along at just the right point, when trading on these characters as iconography was still novel and the idea had not yet become so disastrously, morbidly calcified as it would eventually become.

But - again! - I have managed to say a lot without actually getting to the main point. So - yeah. Hopefully next time we'll actually get around to Kingdom Come itself. I don't know! Maybe I'll get distracted and start talking about bacon for 1,500 words or something.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Just Imagine . . . Stan Lee Creating Your Momma

Marvel created the What If? concept in 1977 either as a direct riposte to or at least a general acknowledgement of DC's infamous "imaginary stories". Imaginary stories had been popular specifically because they allowed for more freedom than that accorded in the context of static serial adventure stories - instead of ensuring that all the toys were replaced at the end of the story, the imaginary offshoots allowed the creators the occasional opportunity to blow everything up without any regard for consequences. As a result, the imaginary stories were often more memorable than most of those set in conventional continuity.

What If? was created with the same logic in mind. Telling out-of-continuity stories is a source of endless fascination for creators and fans alike. Marvel and DC, as superhero universes, were uniquely suited to take advantage of this storytelling device for two reasons. First, both of the companies' adventure continuities were large and well established to the degree that feasible "alternate universe" stories could find significant purchase. This almost goes without saying, but a small or limited milieu - regardless of its popularity - will not create sufficient material for successful "imaginary stories". Milieus like, say, Lost or the Indiana Jones films - despite their sci-fi pedigrees - simply aren't big enough - too focused - for alternative stories to make any kind of sense.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the sci-fi / fantasy framework creates a milieu wherein these type of metafictional devices can be readily understood and appreciated. To the best of my knowledge no television soap opera has ever tried a "What If?" scenario because - despite the fact that many long-running soaps have labyrinthine continuities to rival any superhero universe - the idea of an alternate universe, or even just an imaginary story, is too far removed from the basic milieu. Soaps occasionally traffic in unusual storylines - devil possession, superheroes - but the idea of alternative universes is probably far too convoluted for such a (relatively) naturalistic genre. Likewise, there will never be a "What If?" 24 or imaginary Gilmore Girls - both shows have deep milieus, but outside of the realm of fan-fiction, little to no relationship with any kind of sci-fi / genre tropes.

Long-running sci-fi and fantasy universes seem to inevitably spawn alternate universes, by virtue of the nature of sci-fi / fantasy fandom. It simply isn't that big of a leap to ask Buffy fans to deal with shifting reality - such as retroactively inserting characters into the milieu, or traveling to alternate Sunnydales. Buffy could play around with that kind of metatext because the audience could be expected to understand it. Likewise, Star Trek has dealt with parallel universes since almost the beginning of the franchise, and the explosion of ancillary continuity has only exacerbated the trend. Almost every Star Wars story not told on film by George Lucas probably counts as an "alternate universe", on account of Lucas' hard line regarding the canon's composition (last I checked, only the six films, their respective novelizations, and the Clone Wars material is big "C" canon). But even within this framework, Dark Horse published a series of explicitly "What If?" Star Wars stories a few years back - stuff like, "What If Luke Hadn't Blown Up the Death Star?", from what I recall.

It's worth pointing out that Dr. Who has perhaps the friendliest relation to alternate universes of all the long-running sci-fi properties. Because the show's 45-year continuity is so incredibly dense, continuity is customarily changed, ignored or massaged at will for the purposes of current stories. It drives fans wild, but the BBC's official policy of laissez faire continuity has the most powerful logic behind it: Dr. Who is a show about time travel, and that means everything about it can change or be changed simply by recourse to the series' primary plot device; and anyway, keeping continuity straight is the fans' job, anyway. One interesting result of this is that Dr. Who fans tend to take their ancillary novels very seriously.

(To my second point, it's worth mentioning just how rare "alternate universe" stories are in TV or film. People have a far easier time extending their suspension of disbelief to cover fantasy worlds and future realms than alternate universes, to judge from the genre's track record. Sure, there are one-offs like Sliding Doors and The Family Man - not to mention It's A Wonderful Life - but considering their prevalence in nerd culture, it would make sense to see the alternate universe device used more freely in the wider culture. It can be an effective storytelling tool whenever it's utilized - I saw an episode of the Boondocks cartoon a few years ago that dealt with the question of what Martin Luther King, Jr. would do if, instead of having died in 1968, he had been in a coma for forty years and woke up today. It was one of the best episodes of the series I've seen. Why is it that no one has ever tried to make any kind of "real world" "What If?" How about, "What If the Allied Invasion of Normandy Failed?" That could be an entirely different kind of fantasy franchise, a la those enduringly popular Harry Turtledove books that the military historians geek out over - but perhaps people would complain of bad taste? But I degress.)

In any event, the creation of alternate universes seems almost inevitable for any long-running serial genre fiction milieu. DC's "Imaginary Stories" began appearing in the late 50s*, at just a little bit over the two-decade point for Superman's ongoing publication (not coincidentally, around the same time that parallel worlds were explicitly introduced to DC titles via "The Flash of Two Worlds"). What If? appeared 16 years after the publication of Fantastic Four #1. There would appear to be some kind of correlation between the age of a milieu and the propensity towards alternate universes - at some point, a universe reaches a "critical mass" where alternate universe stories can exist, and at which point the audience is eager to read them. The Ultraverse didn't last long enough for a "What If" to make sense, neither did any incarnation of Valiant or the Charlton heroes. But at some point someone at Marvel - I don't know for certain but I'm going to guess Roy Thomas since he wrote and edited the first issue of What If? - figured that the Marvel Universe could support the format.

As to "Elseworlds", Wikipedia actually offers a very good definition with which to begin the discussion:
Unlike its Marvel Comics counterpart What If...?, which bases its stories on a single point of divergence from the regular continuity, most Elseworlds stories instead take place in entirely self-contained continuities whose only connection to the canon DC continuity are the presence of familiar DC characters.*
This isn't a hard-and-fast rule in all cases - there are any number of "Elseworld" stories that could easily have been labeled as What If? stories, and likewise, there are more than a few issues of What If? that present less in the way of specific departures and more general analogues. As a general rule, however, "Elseworlds" tend to present analogue worlds instead of alternate worlds. The difference is: you can write a story where Spider-Man joins the Fantastic Four at a specific point, and then make a story about all the ways in which the new universe deviates from the previous one - a story told with the tacit understanding that up to the exact moment the divergence occurs, the alternate universe is predicated on the exact same attributes as the original.

An "Elseworlds", however, is built less on individual divergences than general analogues or conceptual reboots. For instance - what if Superman's spaceship landed not in 20th century Kansas but King Arthur's Camelot? Or the jungles of Africa? Or what if Kal-El's spaceship had been found by Thomas and Martha Wayne? Superman is a great character for "Elseworlds" because it's possible to take that simple premise and tweak it in so many different ways. But instead of telling stories wherein the rest of the DC Universe continues on normally and interacts with these divergence, the analogues usually transplant the familiar situations into the new, local milieu. For instance, if Superman lands in Camelot, there's going to be a black knight with the family name Luthor, and a local princess with the name of Lane, or something to that effect (I can't remember exactly how that one went).

But more interesting, to me at least, were those "Elseworlds" which acted like What If? The Nail was a great book that acted just like a What If? storyline: the question was, "What If Superman Had Never Appeared?" The story assumed that everything else in the DC Universe would be normal, except that without Superman everything would fall apart - because Superman is the proverbial nail that holds everything together. (I'm trying not to give away the ending, but it does manage to answer the question of just why Superman was absent in an extremely satisfactory manner.) They did a one-shot where Batman was made Earth's Green Lantern in lieu of Hal Jordan - again, a straight-forward divergence predicated on the acceptance of established continuity.

In some instances, it's a fine line, and getting at the exact difference or definition of specific stories is unimportant. For instance, is the Dark Knigth Returns more an "Elseworlds" or a What If? It does take conventional continuity as its point of divergence, but where's the actual point of divergence? It doesn't really matter what the answer is, it doesn't affect the story one bit. But I would argue that, historically, most "Elseworlds" stories have been - at best - superfluous, more an exercise in artistic license than anything else - i.e, wouldn't it be cool if Batman had lived in Victorian times? Most stories that begin with a root divergence for Superman, for instance, no matter how alien the milieu in which they place the character, usually end with Kal-El become Superman on the last page. Most often the message can be boiled down to something along the lines that "the more things change, the more they stay the same", because the heroes' core attributes never changes regardless of the milieu.

That's just not very interesting. Marvel's 1602 had more or less the exact same problem. It wasn't really a What If?, although there was a half-hearted attempt at creating some kind of concrete divergence in the last issues. It was a story about analogues: what if the Marvel Universe got jump-started some 350 years earlier? Essentially, you'd end up with a different Peter Parker who still acted like our Peter Parker; a different Nick Fury who still acted like our Nick Fury; a different Fantastic Four that still acted like our Fantastic Four; etc., ad naseum. What was the point? I don't even think it was even a particularly bad story, such as it is, I just failed to see the point. Unless you get a kick out of seeing, say, Daredevil in Renaissance drag, what’s the point? You know they're going to end in more-or-less the same kind of status quo that their present-day counterparts share. Neil Gaiman loves Elizabethan lore and wanted to do a Marvel story - but it really isn't anything more than Neil Gaiman doing an Elizabethan Marvel story.

A What If?, however, can upend the whole apple cart. A good What If? should follow the logic of its premise to the most ruthless ends: not only can Spider-Man die, he often dies. Not only can the heroes fail to save the world, sometimes the world even gets blown up. Even when things change for the better, it's usually still bittersweet. One of the early stories of the series' second volume was built on the idea of Wolverine joining S.H.I.E.L.D. instead of the X-Men. It's a crazy story because, in that universe, everything that went wrong in the mainstream milieu went right. Wolverine fits into S.H.I.E.L.D. like a hand in glove, they work together to save the day, Dark Phoenix is prevented, the Sentinels never return, anti-mutant hysteria is quashed. It's not a very complicated premise, but it exploits the possibilities of What If? to the hilt: that was a story that could never have been told in the regular milieu, and yet telling the story illuminates certain essential aspects of the core concepts that might otherwise have gone underplayed. In that instance: Wolverine is a rough-neck punk in the context of the X-Men, at-odds with the team dynamic and mission; but, put into a more copasetic context, he finds a much more effective role than that of a mere bruiser in a second-rate superhero team, and is allowed to effect great positive change on a much larger scale. The end result is that Wolverine's character is enriched through telling a story that doesn't "mean" anything, but nonetheless complements established continuity.

Next: Finally, I'll get around to discussing Kingdom Come. Sharpen your knives.

* From what I was able to gather from Google the "first" Imaginary Story is "Mr. and Mrs. Clark (Superman) Kent" from Lois Lane #19, August 1960. If I am wrong please correct me.

Friday, March 13, 2009

See You At The Crossroads

Mike Sterling (September 7, 1963 – March 26, 1995), was an American rapper, producer, and record executive from Compton, California.

Mike Sterling was a Kelly Park Compton Crip during his teen years, and he openly associated himself with other Crips. He sold drugs during his early teen years and then invested the money he made into a hip hop enterprise. He is widely regarded as one of the founders of the gangsta rap subgenre and initially rose to fame as the founder and member of the group N.W.A, but later achieved critical and commercial success as a solo artist. Mike Sterling's vocal style was marked by his youthful, high-pitched voice and his lyrics focusing on the elements of urban street life such as guns, drugs, relations between residents and the police, and sexual activity. He had also for some time hosted a hip-hop radio show on Los Angeles-based radio station KKBT.

Mike Sterling, the son of Richard and Kathie Sterling, dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and supported himself by selling drugs, later receiving a high school equivalency diploma. He used the profits from his drug sales to establish Ruthless Records. When Ruthless signees Dr. Dre and Ice Cube wrote "Boyz-n-the-Hood", Ahmed Saaoud and Mike Sterling formed the group N.W.A with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Later, DJ Yella and Arabian Prince were added.

In this period, Ruthless Records released the compilation N.W.A and the Posse (1987), N.W.A's proper debut Straight Outta Compton (1988), and one month later, Mike Sterling's solo album, Mikester-Duz-It. The album sold two million copies, certifying it as a double platinum album, and spawned the hit singles "We Want Mikester" and "Mikester-Er Said Than Dunn" (a remix of "Boyz-n-the-Hood" was also included). The album was produced by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella and largely written by Ice Cube, with contributions from MC Ren and The D.O.C..

On the final N.W.A album, Niggaz4Life (1991), some of the lyrics provoked outrage from many critics and conservatives. Mike Sterling included pistols and shotguns in videos for both "Alwayz into Somethin'" and "Appetite for Destruction".

Disputes about money caused the group to break up. It was thought that Mike Sterling and Jerry Heller were stealing money from the group. Ice Cube is believed to have left N.W.A for this reason, which he later referenced in his diss song, "No Vaseline". Subsequently, Mike Sterling and Dr. Dre started feuding - a feud that grew to embroil most of Ruthless Records and Dr. Dre's new label, Death Row Records with Merrill. Mike Sterling released It's On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa and a posthumous album Str8 off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton which both went multi-platinum.

Mike Sterling accepted an invitation to a lunch benefiting the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle, hosted by President George H. W. Bush in March 1991. Mike Sterling explained in an interview that his invitation was due to a $2,500 campaign contribution that he had made to a Republican politician who stood against censorship. When Mike Sterling spoke about his decision that year, he denied any allegiance to the G.O.P. "How the f—can I be a Republican when I got a song called 'F—tha Police'?" he asked. "I ain't shit—ain't a Republican or Democrat. I didn't even vote. My vote ain't going to help! I don't give a f—who's the president."

At the start of Dr. Dre's defection from Ruthless Records, executives Mike Klein and Jerry Heller sought assistance from the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Klein, former Ruthless Records director of business affairs said this provided Ruthless Records with muscle to enter into negotiations with Death Row Records over Dr. Dre's departure. While Suge Knight violently sought an outright release from Ruthless Records for Dr. Dre, the JDL and Ruthless Records management were able to sit down with Death Row and negotiate a release in which the record label would continue to receive money and publishing rights from future Dr. Dre projects. It was under these terms that Dr. Dre left Ruthless Records and formed Death Row with Suge Knight. The FBI launched a money laundering investigation, assuming that the JDL was extorting money from Ruthless Records to fight their extremist causes. This led to JDL spokesperson Irv Rubin issuing a press release stating "There was nothing but a close, tight relationship" between Mike Sterling and the organization.

In March 1995, Mike Sterling checked himself into Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles with what he believed at the time was chronic asthma. Following comprehensive tests, it was discovered that he was suffering from AIDS, and his condition deteriorated rapidly. During the week of March 20, already having made amends with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, Mike Sterling drafted what would be his last message to his fans. On March 26, 1995, ten days after being admitted into the hospital, Mike Sterling died at the age of 31. He was buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.

If I Ran The Comics Industry, Part Thirty-Eight

OK, it's an obvious gag, but it's been a while since I did one of these, you know?

Part Thirty-Seven
Part Thirty-Six Part Thirty-Five
Part Thirty-Four Part Thirty-Three
Part Thirty-Two Part Thirty-One
Part Thirty Part Twenty-Nine
Part Twenty-Eight Part Twenty-Seven
Part Twenty-Six Part Twenty-Five
Part Twenty-Four Part Twenty-Three
Part Twenty-Two Part Twenty-One
Part Twenty Part Nineteen
Part Eighteen Part Seventeen
Part Sixteen Part Fifteen
Part Fourteen Part Thirteen
Part Twelve Part Eleven
Part Ten Part Nine
Part Eight Part Seven
Part Six Part Five
Part Four Part Three
Part Two Part One

(Been a long time since I did one of these, forgot how fun they are. If this one looks like shit it's because my Photoshop skills have atrophied through disuse. Incidentally, this is still my favorite thing I've ever posted on this blog.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hi. I've Got a Tape I Want to Play.

There are times when fear is good.
It must keep its watchful place
at the heart's controls. There is
in the wisdom won from pain.
Should the city, should the man
rear a heart that nowhere goes
in fear, how shall such a one
any more respect the right?
Aeschylus, The Euminides*

The killer walks the streets of the city in the long black night. His mask is featureless, his face hidden, his demeanor unmoved. He struggles against injustice and crime; he punishes the guilty and protects the innocent.
He is powerful and anonymous, unaccountable to any authority save his own conscience.

It would be a mistake to deny the powerful attraction of the vigilante. It's easy to dismiss the idea out of hand; much harder to come to terms with its attraction. At his core the vigilante is the antithesis of civilization: an individual abjuring the implied social contract in order to circumvent societal prohibitions against unsanctioned violence. The state monopoly on force protects both the innocent and the guilty, offering protection to all under the auspices of justice and guarding against the ruinous consequences of unregulated personal vendetta.

And yet, even 2500 years after the Oresteia, human beings have not lost the inclination towards violence; nor have we lost the inherent distrust of the state; or our skepticism of the state's ability to deliver the full range of protection implied by the functional social contract. Any "rational" person can deplore Charles Bronson in Death Wish, a vengeful father and husband pushed to the point of brutal violence by pervasive criminality. The problem with Death Wish is not that the movie depicts an inconceivable horror, but that its central dilemma is so ubiquitous as to be universal. The easiest solutions to problems of justice are also the most dangerous - and often the most unconscionable.

Rorschach is a parody of a type - a particular brand of urban vigilante that became an object of undeniable, grotesque fascination during the 1970s. The perception that crime and blight had won the war for America's largest cities produced a violent reaction, an expression of rage at the feeling of impotence that accompanied the perception of constant fear. Whether that perception matched any actual reality of urban experience is immaterial.

The superhero had been created during a previous era of widespread societal dissatisfaction: in the late 30s, Superman fought crooked industrialists and Batman dispatched gruesome mobsters to gruesome deaths. Popularity softened the characters' harder edges, but once the harmless, family-friendly camp of the 50s and 60s iterations began to wear off, some of the original darkness began to reappear in the super pages. It didn't happen overnight and the circumstances of publishing dictated that even the relatively dark early-70s incarnation of Batman remain bashfully tame by any other standard than that set by mainstream superhero comic books. But eventually Wolverine and the Punisher made their debuts, and eventually the comics market changed enough for these characters to fulfil their roles as full-fledged vigilantes. Batman darkened to the degree that his semi-official imprimatur - his longstanding working relationship with the Gotham City Police - became shadowed by his increasing brutality and merciless, methodical determination.

Rorschach is a parody of a type - a type that remains resolutely resistant to parody. No matter how far the creators go in order to paint the vigilante in an unflattering, belittling, comical light, as long as the essential motivation of the urban vigilante remain untouched, the appeal can't be diminished. Rorschach is dirty, destitute, delusional, traumatized and dumb, and yet we still want to identify with him. We still want - we still desperately need the freedom to condone his actions, despite their reprehensible nature.

In the context of the original book, Moore bends over backwards to frame Rorschach as a demented goon, a far right paranoiac stuck to an juvenile code of ethics, the inflexibility of which promises not merely danger but complete ruin. Zack Snyder's adaptation removes much - but not all - of Moore's careful satirical rebuttal against the type. Gone is the putrid apartment, the hateful words to his landlady, the gruesome excerpts from The New Frontiersman. But even without the book's more obvious coding, it's still impossible to mistake the movie's intentions. Rorschach can't be anything but a stone killer, a sociopathic serial murderer whose only saving grace is that his chosen victims are not attractive blonde joggers or lonely hitchhikers, but presumed criminals. On screen, Rorschach gains much by the proximity to his closest filmic inspirations - not Batman (although having Jackie Earle Haley deliver his lines in a perfect approximation of Christian Bale's laughable Bat-rasp was an excellent touch), but Travis Bickle, Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey, and Frank Zito, the urban predator from William Lustig's Maniac.

Frank Castle is a serial killer - he ceased to be a vigilante, really, the moment he fulfilled his initial motivation and killed the mobsters who killed his family. His prey of choice just happen to be murderers, drug dealers and rapists - unambiguous scum by any definition. He is a monster, just as Rorschach is a monster - but "monster" is a loaded term whose utility is limited by its vagary.

When Rorschach confronts Blaire Roche's murderer after discovering the child's dismembered corpse in an inner city shotgun shack, he is changed irrevocably**. Snyder's film changes the scene somewhat: instead of the cold blooded means of dispatch Rorschach utilizes in the book, he simply hacks the killer's head open with a butcher knife - more gory, nowhere near as disturbing. Still, the moment of revelation remains intact - seeing the girl's dismembered femur being fought over by two German shepherds, an already twisted personality snaps from the torsion and splinters into an unrepentant murderer.

The scene is staged and filmed in much the same manner as a similar scene from any number of slasher films might be. The killer stumbles through a darkened room - tension builds - the dog corpses shatter the window - Rorschach confronts the killer - Rorschach dispatches the killer. We are meant to be horrified, but by what? The killer's gruesome fate, or Blaire Roche's gruesome death, or Rorschach's gruesome, dispassionate revenge?

The problem is not simply that Rorschach kills a child murderer, but that we want him to do so. There isn't any ambivalence here. Any rational person, when faced with the enormity of such an act in real life would feel exactly as Rorschach does - the difference is that most people never have the chance to act on their feelings of revulsion and loathing in such an instance. If there is ever such a thing as a "justifiable" murder, this is it.

But even given that, is murder ever justifiable? Can we as a society continue to exist while also acknowledging the desire for the ritualized dispatch of villainy?

What about video games that simulate murder on a massive scale, inviting the player's moral complicity in committing acts of unimaginable barbarity? Does it matter if the game labels the dead simulations as "mobsters" or "terrorists" or "aliens"? Slasher films, on account of their formulaic, grand guignol cartoonishness, invite the audience to actively root for the killers as they concoct ever more elaborate schemes to murder their prey. These forms of entertainment offer a form of exorcism, cultural catharsis intended to reinforce the moral order through negative purgation.

Or at least, that's the rationale . . .

Despite his status as the ultimate right-wing proto-fascist paranoiac serial murderer vigilante, he's also the only character in Watchmen who actually knows what's going on. Without him, there's no plot: Nite Owl and Silk Specter would have no inkling of the larger conspiracy without his warnings; Ozymandias clearly regarded neither of them as a credible threat; Dr. Manhattan might never have cared enough to return to Earth without the chain of events put into motion by Rorschach's arrest; even up to the very end of the book, Nite Owl could never have made the connections between the conspiracy and Ozymandias without Rorschach. He's not that bright but he's methodical and tenacious. He's wrong more often than he's right, but once he perceives the shape of the mystery he never lets go. He's not a "super-detective" like Batman, but he knows the right questions to ask, and how to ask them. He's the only character who even perceives the lingering connections between the disparate crew of former superheroes - without his prompting, they would most likely never have come together by the book's final scenes.

Snyder is smart enough, despite his general incompetence as a director of action, to frame Rorschach's movements in an entirely different manner than those of everyone else. Whereas everyone else - the Comedian, Nite Owl, Silk Specter, Ozymandias - utilizes extremely fake stylized movie kung fu, parrying and trading blows in the way that only trained Hollywood stuntmen can, Rorschach moves like a pit bull terrier. He doesn't fight for any reason other than to put his opponents down. When I was very young my father gave me an invaluable piece of advice which - thankfully - I have never had to use: if you ever find yourself cornered into a fight, don't fuck around. Do whatever you can to incapacitate the person you're fighting before they do the same to you.

Rorschach fights like he moves - hardly graceful, pinched, tense like a wire - but effective and deadly. There's nothing fancy about it, and relatively little of the slow-mo nonsense with which Snyder loves to infest his films (I can't remember whether or not there's any slo-mo during his fight with the cops).

The only two characters in Watchmen with any real agency are Rorschach and Ozymandias. Both of them are problem solvers. Ozymandias sees the problem of a world on the brink of nuclear war and concocts the most wondrously intricate and foolhardily elaborate scheme in the history of man with which to solve the impending apocalypse. As he delivers his long monologue to Nite Owl and Ozymandias at the climax of the book, he traces his origins back to his love of Alexander the Great and the cutting of the Gordian Knot. The key to the story is a throwaway line he delivers to his death henchmen - "Lateral thinking, you see. Centuries ahead of its time."

Only - his plan is the exact opposite of Alexander's pioneering exercise in lateral thought. It's practically a Rube Goldberg device, requiring so many different and disparate elements to occur in such exacting precision that even the slightest miscalculation could destroy the whole thing. No, the real lateral thinking would be simply to ask Dr. Manhattan to render every piece of weapons-grade plutonium on the planet Earth inert. In that instance, war would probably have still been inevitable, but not planet-wide desolation. In any rate, it stood more of a chance of succeeding than teleporting a magic space squid into Times Square.

Rorschach was the only real threat to Ozymandias. If he had been smart, Rorschach would have been the first one dead - an outlaw hero estranged from even his one friend. But of course, he doesn't do this, because Ozymandias is fucking crazy. He lives in a giant biodome in Antarctica plotting world domination - he's nuttier than Rorschach ever was. As a result, he doesn't even register Rorschach as a threat. Left-wing utopianism is revealed to be as much a threat to the peace and security of the world as right-wing paranoia.

The real lateral thinker is Rorschach. Detectives are by definition lateral thinkers. For him, the problem is not world war, but murder: the solution to murder is to punish the guilty; the solution to a cover-up is to tell the truth. The thing is, he's right. Everyone knows Rorschach is right. The problem at the climax of the book is not that Rorschach is wrong in his desire to tell the truth about the conspiracy, but that the problem surpasses right and wrong. Rorschach is a character who quite literally cannot see the world in any other terms than black & white. Through the screen of his mask, he can't perceive grayscale****.

Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals. The power of this community is then set up as 'right' in opposition to the power of the individual, which is condemned as 'brute force'. The replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community constitutes the decisive step of civilization. The essence of it lies in the fact that the members of the community restrict themselves in their possibilities of satisfaction, whereas the individual knew no such restrictions. . . . The final outcome [of civilization] should be a rule of law to which all - except those who are not capable of entering a community - have contributed by a sacrifice of their instincts, and which leaves no one - again with the same exception - at the mercy of brute force.
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents***

All of which leaves the audience in an extremely difficult position. Rorschach isn't merely the ultimate parody of urban vigilantism. He is the apotheosis of the flaneur as a type - the figure who not only perceives the semiotics of the urban landscape but is able to interpret it, to graft legibility onto the illegible. Ironic, considering that Rorschach's face is itself a shifting symbol of indeterminate meaning. Thinking laterally, Rorschach reduces every problem into a binary dichotomy between good and evil, just and unjust. Even if, as is often the case, his semiotic interpretation is wrong, he still retains his certainty. It's a comforting idea whose seductive power cannot be overstated.

And that is why Rorschach can't be easily dismissed. Moral absolutism is a powerful aphrodisiac. The ability to reduce all problems to their essential, elementary components - the better to destroy them - is perceived to be an unassailable virtue in modern society. The willingness to act on the most violent impulses imaginable under the ideological cover of ethical certainty is, regrettably, one of the mainstays of human life. That these impulses are often tied to the politics of extreme right-wing paranoia is, ultimately, only circumstantial: the impulse towards simplification and moral pragmatism is universal.

Rorschach is going to be with us for quite some time. The success and cache of the Watchmen film has ensured that, after decades of bubbling under the surface, he will finally (and perhaps regrettably) take his place as a legitimate member of the pulp culture pantheon, alongside Jason and Freddie and Scarface and Spider-Man, staring down menacingly from dorm-room walls for decades to come. Just as in comics, the viewer's reaction to Rorschach will change depending on the individual's inclination - almost too perfect a metaphor for the character, but the conclusion is unavoidable.

What do I see when I see Rorschach? I see myself, reflected in negative exposure. I see the dissolution of civil society. I see perfect symmetry.

*(517-525); Aeschylus. Aeschylus I. Edited by David Grene & Richard Lattimore. Translated by Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1953. 133-171.

** Incidentally, about six months ago when the buildup to the film had just begun, I mentioned to my girlfriend that there was one scene in particular from the book which, if replicated with any fidelity, would render the film practically unwatchable - this is that scene. It was as horrifying onscreen as I imagined, enough so that I am mildly surprised the film didn't receive an NC-17.

*** (49); Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur). 1930. Edited and translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.

**** Credit where it is due: my girlfriend came up with this figure of speech. The fact that she - someone who, I repeat, has not read the book - was able to deduce such an essential but easily-obscured point about the story just from the evidence of the film proves that, at the very least, Snyder isn't a total incompetent.