Sunday, November 30, 2008

And Now A Word From Your Sponser

OK, here is something that has nothing to do with comics - yes, even less to do with comics than an inexplicable week devoted to Hellraiser. I need some scratch, both for the coming holiday season and in order to get some EXTREMELY overdue work done on my car, i.e., the front brakes that are grinding like Dan Didio's teeth at a sales meeting. So, I have dove into the "rainy day" fund, which just happens to be one lovingly used diamond engagement ring, whose services are no longer required.

Now, when I bought the ring i knew full well that diamonds have shitty resale value - but obviously, you're not thinking about that when you pay for a wedding ring, know what I mean? But it is a fabulous ring, and you'd be getting far more ring that you could expect even at three or four times the price in a place like Zales. Plus, a special for readers of this blog, anyone who buys the ring through this blog will get a GIANT BOX OF FREE COMICS SWAG, all kinds of stuff I've accumulated over the years which I do not need anymore for whatever reason - at least $100 retail value, depending on what I can scrounge up. So yeah: if you've been waiting for the right time to pop the question to your sweetie, there has never been a better time than now, and there has never been a better bargain for those comics-minded Romeos in the audience.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Spoilers for Batman #681

. . .

. . .

. . .

Well, that was a big piece of shit.

I didn't like the run up to the story, but against my better judgment I actually got sucked into the momentum of the last couple chapters . . . there was the promise of a truly awesome finish, based on Morrison's well-known ability to conjure up awesome climaxes out of disparate ingredients. But no, the last issue was pretty much the most awful thing ever, deflating the mysteries of previous issues and sort of retroactively making the pieces seem far less interesting than they had initially seemed. It's not just online hype and anticipation - the story itself seemed to be building to some kind of awesome cosmic slam-bang ur-Batman finish. And then, what? The villains are exactly who you'd expect them to be, the "revelations" don't make a whit of sense (there is a strong odor of editorial fiat) and then the titular hero has the least convincing death ever - incidentally the same death Green Arrow had back in issue #101 of his 90s series. Did anyone else notice that Batman #700 is coming up in a year and a half? Gee, I wonder if they'll bring him back for the round number . . .

Was the issue rewritten? The end is choppy enough. Unusual for mainstream writers, Morrison is really good at endings. Sometimes he can even redeem mediocre premises with strong finishes. But this is a mess - I'm sorry, I'm not going to put lipstick on this pig. At the very least, if he leaves DC after the end of Final Crisis I imagine we'll end up with one brutal exit interview on Newsarama or whatnot. Isn't this how his run on New X-Men ended - in truncated endings, yelling and tears? This issue can't be what Morrison intended it to be - otherwise, he's lost it pretty spectacularly. And, you know, I haven't really warmed to a lot of his recent stuff - but maybe he's just tired of spandex. It happens.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Of Some Small Interest...

I'm really proud of how this turned out. Probably the best thing I've written in a while.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Because I Fine Them Fascinating, At Least

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gleaming the Cube

The comics industry of the early 1990s was pure unbridled chaos. Sales rose steadily for many years in the late 80s, suddenly skyrocketed in the first three or so years of the decade, and then just as suddenly collapsed. There was a lot of money in comics back in those days. The late 80s was a high-water mark for mainstream superhero comics in general, and the sudden cultural relevancy of stuff like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns inspired a number of people to return to the field who hadn't bothered to think about comics since they were kids. There was a time, remember, when a comic being mentioned in Rolling Stone was cause enough to inspire industry-wide euphoria - and these things actually had measurable impact on sales, back in a time when media saturation for nerd-friendly properties was slim to nonexistent.

This renewed bid for relevancy climaxed in the release of the 1989 Batman movie, which either kick-started the boom of the early 90s collectors market or lit the fuse for the eventual disastrous implosion thereof, depending on how generous you're feeling. It seems - and this is a dimly-remembered bit of cultural anecdote, so feel free to dispute it in the comments - that this was also the period when newspapers around the country began a heavy saturation of local-interest stories revolving around people who had found old stacks of comics in their attic and sold them for thousands of dollars. I specifically recall an episode of The New Leave It To Beaver wherein one of the Cleaver grandkids found a near-mint copy of Fantastic Four #1 in an old box and got an offer of $3,000 for the issue. Gee, a whole $3,000! Comics were serious business!

So: comics were cool again. Tim Burton's Batman film actually succeeded in attracting new readers, finally dispelling (to everyone but newspaper headline writers) the campy atmosphere of the 1960s series, which had lingered in the public imagination for quite a long time due to constant syndicated repeats. Batman was a badass. Neil Gaiman's Sandman came literally out of nowhere and became an overnight cause célèbre for literary celebrities across the world. And in conjunction with these momentous events, a small group of up and coming artists very quietly began racking up some serious sales numbers over at Marvel.

Marvel's problem, as I mentioned last time, was the fact that this initial crop of superstar artists became far too powerful far too fast. In the space of two and a half years, Todd McFarlane went from being a weird, awkwardly cartoony artist on the low-selling Incredible Hulk to being the number one commercial draw in the entire comics industry. 1990's Spider-Man #1 became the biggest selling single issue of the modern era. That is, until 1991, when X-Force #1 beat Spider-Man #1's 2.5 million copies with 4 million. Then, just two months later, both records were smashed by Jim Lee's X-Men #1, selling something like 8 million.

Now, if you worked at Marvel at the time, you may just have been able to lie to yourself as to why these comics were selling so well. You may have been able to believe that the artists were just another interchangeable element in the same old factory setting that had been churning out Spider-Man comics for thirty years. There was reason to be comforted in this assumption: in the past, periodic attempts of "superstar" artists to branch out on their own had resulted in a whole lot of not much. Marvel hadn't lost many sales to Continuity Comics or Captain Victory, and I doubt even the relative success of companies like Pacific and Eclipse effected Marvel too much. These were essentially small-press outfits who sold their comics through the burgeoning direct market. They were small mammals who managed to survive in the shadow of large reptiles. Marvel probably worried more about losing star talent to DC - as they had lost Frank Miller in the 80s - but that was part of the expected churn of industry turnover, and had been since Kirby left for DC in 1970. The turnover of creators moving between the two giants did little more than reinforce the idea that the people who made the comics were replaceable, and even that the people who made the comics should be periodically replaced.

Of course, they were wrong, and their miscalculation wasn't just a little miscalculation, it was massive. Because when the "Image Seven" left the company, not only did they go into direct competition with Marvel (and DC), but they also left the company's flagship titles in complete and utter disarray. Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Force, Wolverine, Spider-Man and even steady mid-list mainstay Guardians of the Galaxy were all suddenly rudderless. (Amazing Spider-Man was safe because Erik Larsen had actually quit the title for a run on the adjectiveless Spider-Man, following McFarlane's absence - Mark Bagley had become regular penciller beginning with issue #351, and would remain at Marvel until 2007. I also remember reading an anecdote a long time ago to the effect that it was only an accident of history that Bagley wasn't a member of the "Image Seven", instead of Marc Silvestri.) The X-Men were the #1 franchise in comics and the loss of the creators who had enabled the explosive growth of the early 90s cut the books off at the knees - but, more important in the long run was the fact that Chris Claremont had been forced off the books after the artists' seized control. Without Claremont, who had very carefully controlled the direction of Marvel's flagship franchise for almost twenty years - hell, he had almost single-handedly built the franchise - there was nothing left but for the eventual, inevitable metastasizing. The books remained popular, but suddenly the future was full of doubt. (More on this later.)

With so much attention being spent on the ongoing Marvel / Image conflict, DC was ignored. The triangle boxes on the covers of the Superman family of titles were symbolic of the company's drastically old-fashioned approach to publishing. You could be assured that if you bought a Superman title you would receive a consistent, competent reading experience, built on the same solid soap opera foundations that Marvel had pioneered in the 60s. And, of course, this consistency was exactly why the titles sold so poorly. Consistency was anathematic to the popularity of Image: for some odd reason, seven creators who had (more or less) consistently produced comics on a monthly schedule for years suddenly fell into black holes of incessant delays. One of the founding books of the Image launch, Wilce Portacio's Wetworks, didn't even premiere until 1994. (At the time, this seemed like the biggest controversy in the universe, but that was before the days of Ultimate Wolverine / Hulk and Daredevil: The Target.) Consistency didn't matter - still doesn't really matter - it was a question of mass appeal. The kids would forgive late books if the content was hot (until, of course, they didn't, and until the retailers who had ordered books which they could have sold six months ago received unsaleable books six months late and went out of business as a result).

Valiant, another upstart that had met with great success parallel to Image by doing the exact opposite of everything Image did, prided itself on its machine-like consistency and overarching editorial vision. Valiant's output was some of the squarest comics that had ever been published - the line was based on two old Gold Key sci-fi heroes, for God's sake. They were incredibly consistent in terms of both quality and scheduling. A lot of effort was put into making the comics both good - by the standards of the time Magnus: Robot Fighter reads like fucking Proust - and on-time. The company just happened to be in the right place at the right time to capitalize on the growing interest in comics as collectibles. Early issues of Magnus, Solar, Rai and Harbinger had absurdly low print runs, even by 2008 standards - the first half-dozen or so of all the titles had, I seem to recall, print runs in the low thousands. There was genuine scarcity, and the consistency of the company defied the current conventional wisdom regarding the necessity of hot artists. People who read the Valiant books genuinely liked them - they could never have become hot solely on the virtue of, say, Art Nichols or David Lapham - and when the scarcity of the early issues became known the feeding frenzy commenced. (Seriously, there was a long period in the early 90s when Harbinger #1 was the most-wanted comic on the planet. Seriously.)

As could probably have been predicted by anyone with an IQ above fifty, the moment that consistency was threatened - the moment Jim Shooter left the company - the careful, methodical growth of the company's first year-and-a-half was all upturned. They started putting out million-selling collectors' items like Bloodshot #1 and Turok #1 - but given that these comics weren't rare, and that the company's quality control grew ever-more spotty the further the company expanded, and it's not hard to see why they didn't survive the subsequent bloodbath. (If Shooter hadn't been forced out of the company, I'd bet good money the company would have managed to avoid the more disastrous mistakes of the post-Unity years, and would probably have survived the crash in some form.)

Hmmm. We seem to be having trouble with digressions . . .

Anyway, DC's problem was very simple: they weren't hot. They didn't have anything that could remotely be considered hot in the same way Image or even Marvel did. As I mentioned before, they had the Tim Drake Robin, and his first two mini-series were very popular - although, DC went overboard on the variant editions and "collectors' item" promotions. Even at the time, the promotional gimmicks for Robin II were criticized by fans as excessive. Lobo was hot for a brief spell, and considering the fact that the character was satire, it's amazing he had as good a run as he did - but overexposure did eventually kill the commercial appeal. (The only people not in on the joke, it turned out as, was DC.) Superman and Batman were mired in inextricable squareness. But they were icons - in a way that no one had really realized until then. The idea was simple: if they could learn to capitalize on the characters in their capacity as extra-textual "icons", they could maybe appeal to a broader base than those who tuned in weekly for the ongoing continuity.

People paid attention when things happened to these icons. People may have been aware of the formation of Image - I remember the event made a lot of mainstream news coverage at the time. But when DC said they were going to kill Superman, well, that was different. People didn't know who the fuck Spawn was going to be, and the intra-industry politics were mainly a business story. But people knew Superman. Everyone knew Superman. People lined up around the block to buy the copy of Superman #75 with the black armband. (Me, I bought the regular old un-bagged copy.) In retaliation to the escalating stakes of the Marvel / Image conflict, DC had dropped the proverbial hydrogen bomb, bringing a new wave of fresh customers to the store who would never have been attracted by anything so mundane as Cyberforce or X-Men. The problem was, these readers were expecting some kind of return on their investment, and were unprepared for the eventual revelation (so intuitive that it didn't even merit articulation to anyone in the comics industry), that this was just a temporary stunt, and not really the death of one of the most beloved fictional characters in the world.

But it wasn't just a stunt - although, obviously, it was. The Death of Superman was structured differently than most similar stunts: using the organizational advantages of the DC brand to good effect, they were able to capitalize on a singular event with far more alacrity than Image, which was essentially composed of seven (six, once Wilce Portacio dropped back from "founder" status) disparate and often feuding personalities. This provided DC with a tactical advantage in the cutthroat climate: with Marvel scrambling and Image beginning to sag under the weight of sudden success (and an inability to meet deadlines!), there was an opening through which a third party could catch both companies flat-footed, at least for a time. The problem was that DC wasn't the only company that saw an opening, and in the summer of 1993 saw many, many other companies did as well. Many of these companies hoped to appeal to the horde of new readers who had supposedly decamped for good on the industry's front lawn. But who of these hypothetical new readers really wanted to insulate their garage with crates of unsold Turok, Dinosaur Hunter #1s?

More on that later. But first, here's Wizard's market report for November, 1991 - just before everything exploded:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


(* Yes, that is perhaps the most obscure pun I've ever made on this blog.)

I'll set the scene:

The early 90s was a time of almost unprecedented success for the mainstream American comics industry. Hot titles were typically selling half a million copies per month, and special "event" comics were regularly selling in multiples of millions. It was a pretty heady time. And, for historical perspective, these weren't 10-cent issues of Dell Four Color - comics back then cost at least $1.25, and some series with higher production values cost as much as $2. I remember, at the time, it seemed almost criminal to charge $1.95 for a regular 32 page comic - just a year or so previous, Marvel & DC's annuals had cost $2, and those were something like three times as big as a regular issue.

So, lots of money being spent on comics, and lots of excitement as well. In the early 90s, kids and teens entertainment was still fairly deracinated, tame stuff - the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, Saved by the Bell, The Little Mermaid was huge, stuff like that. People back then were already complaining about the growing crassness of kids entertainment, but it was all still fairly PG. Folks complained if there was so much as a fart joke in a Disney movie. Just a few years later, Disney movies like A Bug's Life would incorporate coprophilia gags. Times changed fast, and then the president got a blowjob.

Why this digression? Well, even though it doesn't seem like that long ago, the early 90s was still an entirely different world from the world we know today. The Simpsons was seen as a strange, counter-cultural, anti-family perversity - The Simpsons! Is it even possible to imagine, nowadays, a more universally beloved cultural touchstone - practically a cornerstone of modern American society - than The Simpsons? It was a time when politicians could still get away with name-chacking The Waltons in an unironic fashion. People still cared about things like Murphy Brown having a baby out of wedlock - how bizarre is that to anyone born after 1995, for whom movies like Junoi are considered heart-warming family fare? Yeah, there was schlock and there was also transgression - Hellraiser came out in 1987, after all - but it was still a remarkably kid-friendly world, with clear distinctions between kids media and grown-up media. Things like the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth movies were popular with little kids precisely because they were taboo in a way that I don’t really think we still have in today’s culture (plus, plainly cartoony and ghoulish in a formulaic manner that undoubtedly appealed to the young, just like Joe Camel). I don’t want to overemphasize the point because it would be easy to dispute anecdotally, but those who were alive back then should know what I’m talking about: things were slightly different, and for anyone under the age of about 16, access to racy or violent media was extremely curtailed. There was no 24-hour pornography machine in the living room, and mom and dad would probably think real hard before taking Jr. to see Terminator 2 (maybe even – gasp! – go see the movie themselves beforehand).

Imagine, then, being a kid in this environment. Imagine becoming hep to a form of entertainment that - for the most part - existed below the radar of most parents, featured increasingly frank depictions of sexual titillation, extreme violence and borderline sociopathy. Is it any wonder that X-Force hit the nation’s youth like a ton of bricks? For God’s sake, it was like they were taking a needle full of adrenaline and jabbing it straight into the libido of every 12-year-old boy in America. Back when porn and sexualized media were still fairly well-guarded, it was pretty amazing to pick up an issue of Uncanny X-Men and read Chris Clarement’s sexed-up stories – so steeped in S&M and fetish conventions that the creators themselves probably didn’t even realize it at that point – with special attention paid to Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee’s X-babes, and of course Todd McFarlane’s ungodly pneumatic Mary Jane. (Early Marc Silvestri still holds up as some of the most remarkably sexy superhero art ever drawn – partly because he knew how to make his men nearly as sexy and idealized as women, but also partly because, well, Madelyne Pryor as the Goblin Queen:


What could DC do to compete with this? The revolution in increasingly sexualized and violent content that Marvel was riding all the way to the bank had left DC behind entirely. It is not without significance that of the original seven Image founders, three of them had begun their careers as journeymen artists on mid-list DCU titles – Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane, on Hawk & Dove, Doom Patrol and Infinity, Inc., respectively. So, not only did DC not have anything near the fanatically popular artists Marvel (and later Image) had, but they were seen – with good reason at the time – as being merely the “farm team” for major-league talent, a place where hot artists got their start before moving on to bigger and better things. DC was, for lack of a better word, staid. There was a period after the advent of Image where DC moved from being the rock-solid #2 in the American industry, to a distant #3. At the time it was hard to predict just how quickly the wheels would come off Image’s initial push, so it was not inconceivable that the publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman might be permanently eclipsed by the publisher of Spawn, Brigade and Cybernary.

Take a look, for comparisons’ sake, at the state of the comics industry circa summer 1991, the high-water mark of Marvel’s early 90s market dominance.

X-Force #1, cover-dated August 1991:

Spider-Man #13, cover-dated August 1991:

Uncanny X-Men 279#, cover-dated August 1991:

And now, Batman #467, cover-dated August 1991:

Superman #58, cover-dated August 1991:

New Titans #78, cover-dated August 1991:

Now, this is in no way intended to be an aesthetic judgment on the above comic books – but take a look and tell me, if you were ten years old in 1991, would you have given those DC books a second look? They aren’t bad, by any means, in fact, they probably have more in the way of solid craftsmanship to offer than any of the Marvel books with the possible exception of Claremont & Lee’s X-Men. But still – these books are the product of a corporate culture that was left totally flat-footed by a sudden change in the marketplace, and scrambling to catch up left them looking even worse. I mean, the then-new Tim Drake Robin was probably the closest thing DC had to a “hot” character, but he was still stuck in some resolutely square stories. I mean, a hot chick with an eye patch and a missile launcher? Maybe if Rob Liefeld drew it, but drawn by someone with at least a passing familiarity with human anatomy, the concept falls flat. And who the hell is that giant hobbit attacking the Titans? (Yes, I know it’s Jericho, don’t scream at me in the comments.) The Titans were the closest thing DC had to an X-Men level supergroup – and they even tried to pull an “X-Force” with the invention of the Team Titans the following year – but the book had obviously seen better days. Attempts at introducing a convoluted X-Men-lite Days of Future Past-retread storyline in order to launch a new spin-off team spearheaded by Leprechaun Cable was rather – well – shall we say, misguided?

In case you missed it the first time around, here’s Leprechaun Cable:

So, what did DC have? Well, the one real and undisputed asset they had in a crowded market - filled with flashy, new-fangled hyper-violent super-soldiers with impossibly round plastic breasts and razor-ship knives growing out of their nipples - was the characters themselves, the proverbial Crown Jewels of super-hero comics. Superman was still Superman, and Batman was still Batman, and no amount of mediocre or boring stories have ever been able to strip them of their premium, blue-chip status – because God knows, the company has tried.

They had the characters that everyone knew, and along with that they had the then-55-odd years of accumulated continuity that went with them. They had, in addition to Superman, Lois Lane and Perry White and Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang and Lex Luthor and all that jazz – maybe changed a bit from, say, 1955, but the overall shape remained the same. Given that, is it any wonder that DC’s editorial culture had become far more conservative, static and editorially-driven even than Marvel?

Marvel became so dramatically successful at the time because they lucked into a crop of young artists with an intuitive feel for what would appeal to kids – some of them, as with Rob Liefeld, weren’t that far from the demographic themselves. Marvel was smart enough – or, given what happened, dumb enough – to realize that they could reap incredibly rewards by essentially letting the madmen run the asylum: allowing the artists to follow their eccentricities and preoccupations to their logical conclusions, with all the requisite problems that entailed. No more sending shoddy anatomy and horrid foreshortening down to the Bullpen to be tweaked, that kind of shit was what the kids wanted. No more time spent building long-term plots and sub-plots and supporting characters, lets just introduce a bunch of cyborgs with pouches and multicolored biker jackets, who all hate each other for unrevealed reasons that probably will never actually be revealed. It got the pulse racing in eight-to-fourteen year-olds across the country, is what it did.

DC couldn’t do that. Looking back at the Superman books, they didn’t have a superstar creator among them (Dan Jurgens would be briefly elevated to the status of superstar by virtue of the fact that he was the man who actually killed Superman), and the company’s editorial culture actively discouraged that type of star-system. The stars at DC were the folks who had been there for years and come up through the ranks by being team players. Ironically, DC had a better record for cultivating top-shelf talent in the form of writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, but that has more to do with the fact that DC felt comfortable stretching the limits, content-wise, of what they allowed their marginal-selling tertiary books to get away with, in addition to the historical accident that they just happened to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of a historically gifted group of up-and-coming British writers. (Let’s have fun for a minute and imagine how the comics industry would have looked if Len Wein hadn’t stumbled upon Moore’s work when he did – say, if Jim Shooter had snapped up the young turk who was doing such great work in their UK offices and given Moore a poor-selling book like Ka-Zar or Dr. Strange.)

But a superstar writer is a different breed than a superstar artist. Writers, even the most prima-donna “artiste” imaginable, by definition have to be team-players, at least to some extent, or their comics would never move past script stage. Artists on the other hand can exercise a disproportionate (or, as the Image founders would have said, long-overdue) influence over the finished product. A popular artist can force out the writer who had almost single-handedly defined the company’s number one title for seventeen years. A popular artist can have entirely new series created strictly as a spotlight for their own talents. Most importantly - a popular artist can leave when he realizes he could be making all that money by himself.

DC didn’t have to worry about that - and in any event, even when they did piss-off Alan Moore, he didn’t drop everything and immediately go into direct competition with Superman. But Marvel’s problem was their problem, too, because while the advent of Image meant that the overall pie got a lot bigger, DC’s piece of the pie got a lot smaller. The long-term mismanagement of Marvel’s star system – the mismanagement that resulted in the creation of Image - probably created just as many headaches for DC as for Marvel. Suddenly, there was a new arms’ race in the comics world, and DC was stuck between two nuclear-armed superpowers with only a handful of muskets and horse cavalry with which to protect their territory.

All they had left was a massive stunt so shocking that no one ever even imagined they’d have the balls to pull it off. But, pushed up against the wall, facing commercial irrelevancy and rapidly-changing tastes, you could almost say their hand was forced . . .

More later, and more on how the cover triangles were a crucial element of DC’s return from the cusp of oblivion.
No Time For Love, Dr. Jones

Was going to blather on more about triangles, but got sucked into the Bermuda Triangle, AKA trying to post an item on eBay. Three hours later, I have posted an item. How is this cost effective? Does it get easier the more often you do it? I've only ever tried to sell one item before and it didn't sell, so this is all quite new to me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Triangle Man, Triangle Man

Do you know off the top of your head why this comic is important? (Relatively speaking, that is?) Chances are that if you do you've probably wasted as much of your life as I have. But we can cry about this later.

For now, we must discuss the Second Coming of one of the most distinctive aspects of 90s DC Comics - the triangle numbers. It's amazing to think there may be a whole generation of readers for whom the idea of the triangle number is a new, fresh development intended strictly to facilitate ease-of-reading across a sometimes-confusing assortment of closely related titles. The . . . well, enthusiasm would probably be too strong a word . . . let us say, the interest with which this development has been met by assorted nerddom is somewhat surprising. (I have seen more than one positive comment!) Because, for those with long memories, the idea of returning to triangle boxes means returning to some of the darkest times in the history of mainstream comics.

Yes, let's look back at the mid-to-late 90s Superman family of titles. The problem with the triangle number, as much as it was meant to simplify the reading experience, is that it was symptomatic of a creative process that ultimately ended up producing some of the blandest, most forgettable, least interesting comics that the world had ever seen. You could not call late 90s Superman bad by any stretch of the imagination, because they were was just so boring that the titles didn't even register as sensory input at all - put an issue of any late 90s Superman title down on the table and you'd have a hard time telling it from the tablecloth. Remember Conduit? Remember the Trial of Superman? Electric Blue Superman? Freakin' Dominus?

Now, of course, you can't blame these faults on the triangle, as I said above it was a symptom of a larger problem. But the problem was real: since the very beginning of the 1986 Man of Steel relaunch, the Superman books prided themselves on an extremely tight continuity, unusual at the time and still unusual to this day. Remember back in the day when it seemed like Batman and Detective sometimes occupied different planets? (Hell, those days are still with us now.) Or, better yet, let's look at Spider-Man - there was a period during the 90s when he had four different ongoing titles - and the quarterly Unlimited - and each title was so different in tone and execution that the direct comparison could be jarring. But it seemed to work pretty well for a time. Obviously, Amazing was the flagship, with the marquee superhero action; Spectacular was home to slightly darker, more street-level stories that emphasized (at least under JM DeMatteis) a more psychologically grounded milieu; and Web of Spider-Man dealt more with Spider-Man's extended supporting cast and many of the long-running soap-opera storylines that the other two titles had eased away from. (Spider-Man at the time was something of a lost child. It honestly should have been canceled after Todd McFarlane left the company, because the attempt to turn it into a Legends of the Dark Knight-ish rotating spotlight title resulted in a pile of extremely forgettable comics.) The point is that other lines tried to create a sense of variety, with different "flavors" being offered up in different titles: if you liked action, Amazing was the title for you; if you liked more focus on Peter and Mary Jane's marriage and their relationship to people like Aunt May and Harry Osborne, Spectacular was your joint.

But the end result of the Superman titles' close relationship was that they began to blend together. Rather than let each individual creative team tell the types of stories they preferred to tell, more often than not the whole line was preoccupied with large-scale macro-stories that, more often than not, did little credit to those individual creators who comprised the very large Superman team. It was, essentially, a weekly title for the duration of the 90s. Long before 52, they succeeded in making sure there was a Superman book on the stands every week for approximately ten years. Furthermore, they were so concerned with keeping the ongoing continuity intact that they even created a quarterly title, Superman: Man of Tomorrow, for the express purpose of putting a Superman book on the stands during the quarterly skip weeks that resulted from the monthly schedule. (Do the math: 12 issues a year x 4 titles = 48 issues, not 52.) That seems positively perverse now, but really, it happened, and the major selling point - the only discernable selling point - of the series was precisely that it filled a Superman-shaped hole in the quarterly schedule.

To a large part, the titles were also victims of their own success, namely, the success of the Death of Superman. I seem to recall that before the Death, the individual titles had still maintained some resemblance of individual identities, but for the duration of the subsequent year-long Death and resurrection sequence, the books were for all intents and purposes a weekly narrative, and they never really stopped that kind of tight coordination from there on out. And the success of the Death meant that for the next half-decade or so they kept trying to recapture the incredible popularity of that storyline with a series of similarly-themed Earth-shattering "events", each one a case of gradually diminishing returns. They were often titled using the repetitive formula, "The ____ of / for _____", i.e., "The Death of Clark Kent", "The Trial of Superman", "The Battle for Metropolis". (To be fair, there was also "Dead Again"). But, you can only kill the guy once, and these subsequent storylines got progressively worse.

More later.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Quick Detour Through Hell
Part Two: Apocrypha

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)

Crap, crap, crap.

The first straight-to-video installment, and not a good sign for the future of the franchise. The plot is pretty simple: there's an asshole cop who finds a puzzle box. He opens the puzzle box. Nothing happenes, but over the next few days things keep getting weirder. Finally, the shock twist at the end of the movie reveals that (SPOILER!) he's actually been in hell the entire time, which is something that everyone knew since the twenty-minute mark.

At its core, there's a not-bad idea for a movie here - basically, an asshole cop gets tormented and by the end of the movie you realize he really does kind of deserve it. But, as with III and IV, in order to tell the story the filmmakers want to tell, they have to mangle the mythos beyond recognition. Pinhead doesn't torment people because they're bad and deserve to be punished - he torments people because they fell into his clutches, and most often this occurs because, on some level, they wanted to do so. Most of the folks who end up opening the puzzle box are drawn towards it by their obsession and depravity: as we saw in Hellbound, Frank's immoral sexual obsessions define the nature of his torment in Hell. But there is no moral element involved in the formula, and the end of Inferno leaves the viewer with the strong impression that the cop is being punished because he is bad, and not merely, as with the early films, as an incidental fact relating to the circumstances of his opening the gateway to Hell. The moral element may seem like a fine distinction to draw, but the essential amorality of the Cenobites motivation is crucial to the franchise's early success. It's the primary reason why they're so imposing - so disturbingly inevitable - in the first two movies, and why their later descent into cackling matinee villains is very unconvincing.

Incidentally, this is the first Hellraiser film to feature CGI Cenobites, and they look horrible. The only reason this film even gets a single puzzle box is that as bad as it is, it's still better than Hellworld.

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

Not bad, but not great. Hellseeker marks the return of Ashley Lawrence as Kirsty Cotton to the franchise. The movie itself is something of a mess - like Bloodlines, it tries to tell a complicated story in a non-linear fashion, and also like Bloodlines it trips over the large gap between ambition and execution. I can't honestly say I remember a lot about it, except my surprise at the fact that somewhere between Hellbound and Hellseeker Kirsty because really cold-blooded - she kills, like, five people here. It also seemed kind of a big coincidence that she would get married to a guy who would just happen to find a puzzle box - in the Hellraiser universe those things must be like the old AOL CD-ROMs that used to be glued into all the magazines.

(Incidentally, for those with long memories, it's been established that there are Lemarchand puzzle boxes in the Marvel Universe - the first issue of Terror, Inc. shows the titular protagonist playing with a puzzle box before being told in no uncertain terms to put it down.)

Not really a lot more to be said - it looks pretty nice - these straight-to-video films have surprising high production values. This is also the first of these straight-to-video joints to be directed by Rick Bota, who would also direct the next two. He's about as flavorless a director as can possibly be imagined, and is blamed by many fans for single-handedly ruining the franchise. I'd blame the weak scripts, myself.

Hellraiser: Deader (2005)

This movie began its life as something totally separate from Hellraiser, and the script was retrofitted to fit the mythos in order for it to be produced. As such, it plays exactly as you'd expect any movie that started life independently of a franchise only to be shoehorned into said franchise after the fact. There are some nice setpieces throughout - including a particularly effective knife-in-the-back scene - but overall not very compelling. You get the feeling that trying to tie the original idea into Hellraiser resulted in the loss of quite a bit of the original idea's impact. The tangential mythos connection is fairly vague and never really defined very well - I defy you to watch this film and tell me in what way it actually is a Hellraiser film, other than the fact that it's got about ten minutes of Pinhead.

The only element that sets this apart from the other STV installments is that it looks gorgeous. It was filmed on location in Bucharest and the cinematography, by Vivi Dragan Vasile, is pretty astounding. They get the most out of the surrounding, and the decaying post-Soviet architecture and ruined industrial landscape is appropriately creepy.

Also, it must be mentioned that lead actress Kari Wuhrer is not exactly hard on the eyes. Incidentally, she played Abigail Arcane on the live-action Swamp Thing TV show, so there's your gratuitous nerd connection. (And, hopefully, a link from Mike.)

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

And this is the nadir.

Hellworld was an attempt to reinvigorate the formula by making some kind of meta-statement - remember when meta-horror was the "big thing"? Like New Nightmare and Scream and many other better movies, Hellworld takes place in the "real" world where the Hellraiser films are just that, films, in addition to being an addictive online RPG. (The moment I said it took place in the "Real" world you probably guessed what the "surprise" twist at the end actually is.) A bunch of kids get obsessed with the game. One of them dies. The kid's father sets one of those insanely intricate revenge schemes into motion that you can only imagine working in a movie or an episode of Scooby-Doo, with the kids running around a huge mansion hopped up on psychoactive drugs thinking that the Cenobites are chasing them.

But they're not, it's just Lance Henriksen. Yeah, this is one of those examples of a late-entry franchise film bringing in an actor famous from another genre franchise in the hopes of creating some kind of resuscitating "synergy" - and it works here about as well as you'd expect, which is, not at all. But fun for all the Millenium fans in the house, i.e., my parents. (It's a well-established scientific fact that my parents are the only people who actually liked Millenium.)

This is horrid in every conceivable way. It finally finishes the slow transformation that began with III, of turning Hellraiser into a by-the-numbers slasher series, featuring a maniac chasing young, nubile teens around a haunted house with a knife. Worse of all, it ends with an absolutely unnecessary homage to The Vanishing, a movie I didn't particularly care for but which is still seventy-bazillion times better than this pile of steaming shit. (But, I guess, that means the sequence in Kill Bill where Uma Thurman gets buried alive is also an homage to The Vanishing? Unless there's another famous "buried alive" movie I'm forgetting.)

And, hah! There's still the shocking surprise twist ending, wherein Lance Henrikson, distraught over the failure of his plan to avenge his son, picks up one of the box props he had purchased in his revenge scheme, finds himself strangely drawn to the puzzle (SPOILER!), and subsequently opens up a real gateway to Hell, out if which pours Pinhead and his latest interchangeable desultory henchmen. That would qualify as a shocking twist if every single person on the planet hadn't seen it coming from the moment the movie's premise was announced in a press release.

It's a pretty low note on which to end the franchise. But then, considering the fact that the film franchise basically consists of two excellent films and six sequels of varying craptitude it was probably too much to expect anything different at such a late date.

So that's all she wrote, until this supposed remake gets made. I was excited about the remake when Barker was attached. Reportedly, he had responded to the idea with enthusiasm, and even wrote a forty-odd-page treatment for the proposed film. From the sound of it, he saw it as a chance not necessarily to "re-do" the original, but to play around with some alternate ideas and concepts that he couldn't pull off in 1987 with a shoestring budget. The last I heard his treatment was abandoned in favor of a script to be written by the guys who won the third season of Project: Greenlight and wrote Saw IV and V.

I would guess this happened for two reasons: one, Barker's treatment was probably more disturbing than the studio wanted for what could potentially be a franchise-reviving tentpole feature; and two, as such it was probably more expensive than they required. Horror films are a low-risk, relatively low-reward enterprise whose profit margins are dictated by the proportional size of their budgets: Saw V cost $11 million to make and took in $52 million. Do the math: an ambitious dark-fantasy horror film that cost even so much as $30 million to make - chump change for some Katherine Heigl rom-com - would probably be too much of a risk for any horror studio to take.

As you can imagine, I'm not particularly optimistic about these developments. But if you've gotten this far, you know I'll still be there, probably on opening day, if for no other reason than the fact that I've already proven myself to be a masochist of positively Hellish proportions.

But the good news - there is good news - is that Barker is planning a return to Hellraiser after all, just not on film. His next non-childrens' book is purportedly a return to Hell - entitled The Scarlet Gospels - featuring Pinhead as well as Harry D'Amour from "The Last Illusion", Everville, and the Lord of Illusions film. Of course, since it was first announced the project has been pushed back by Barker a number of times, so it's likely we won't see it anytime soon. But still. It'll happen one of these days.

(Of course, I say the same thing about an ALF revival, so there's that.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Quick Detour Through Hell
Part One: Canon

Hellraiser (1987)

The first, still the best, and one of the best horror films ever made - hell, one of the best genre films, any genre, ever made. It usually ranks fairly high on lists of horror fans and critics' lists, but I'm convinced the reason it doesn't rank higher is that, as explicated in the previous post, the frank psycho-sexual weirdness in the film makes a lot of people - even gorehound horror fans - extremely uncomfortable. The later films drop the sexual element almost entirely, or diminish it to the simple level of hetero titillation.

(I remember reading an interview - or was it a director's commentary? - with Tony Randall, director of Hellbound, who stated that during an early scene in the sequel where a mental patient flays himself with a straight razor, Executive Producer Clive Barker insisted they film an FX shot with the mental patient cutting off his penis. The director said something like, "well, that's just Clive". Well, no, that's Hellraiser in a nutshell: a psychotic man cutting off his cock with a straight edge razor on a bloody mattress.)


Considering that this film was made for a reported $1 million dollars, it's easily one of the best-looking "low budget" horror films ever made. Considering the Faustian bargain that Barker reportedly made in order to have the film made his way - signing over future franchise rights to New Line and agreeing to a paltry budget in exchange for the chance to direct his own book - the fact that it looks as good as it does is something of a minor miracle. Especially if you consider the fact that Barker was himself a novice filmmaker, with just two experimental shorts under his belt as a director. It's a shame, in a way, that he's not temperamentally suited to working in the film industry, because if he had chosen to focus his energies he probably could have been a director for the ages. As it is, he's probably a better writer, but still, the prose world's gain is film's loss. (And the first person to mention Lord of Illusions in the comments gets bopped on the head.)

It never loses its ability to shock and dismay.

Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1988)

A great sequel, almost as good as the original in some respects, but you can begin to discern how the wheels might come off in future installments.

A lot of people call this movie "cerebral", and I can see why - certainly, whereas the first film was almost exclusively focused on sexual metaphors, the second film is much more concerned with exploring the dark side of intellect. They spent a lot of time crafting some truly disturbing images, and they obviously had more money than the first film with which to do so. If you've ever been to a mental hospital - let alone been in a mental hospital - certain sections of this film are almost unwatchable. There's the aforementioned scene with the straight-razor, there's a lobotomy scene, there's a man getting a hand blender stuck on the end of demon phallus drilled into his skull . . . and then there's a scene in an elevator that is probably the single most horrifying sequence I've ever seen on film. It's not even that gristly a scene in the context of a movie where even the monsters get eviscerated and torn limb from limb, but I swear to God I almost never enter an elevator without thinking of the scene where Dr. Channard gets turned into a Cenobite. If you've seen it you know what I'm talking about.

But still, the movie suffers from an almost unintelligible third act. At a certain point you realize you have no idea why things are happening onscreen, and while they may be suitably gruesome and horrifying, you still don't understand why the man with the demon phallus thingie coming out of his head is killing everyone indiscriminately. A lot of its reputation for being "cerebral" comes, I think, simply from the fact that the plot is kind of vague in places, and it requires some thought to put all the proverbial pieces together. It's hard not to feel that just a little polishing on the script would have improved the final product inestimably.

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth(1992)

And here's where it all falls apart.

If they had continued in the vein of the first two movies, the series would have devolved into some kind of unwatchable hybrid of Shinya Tsukamoto / early Cronenberg. But apparently the powers that be at New Line figured that the best way to continue actually, you know, making money with the franchise was to scale back the ambition and intellectual pretensions and make something more resembling a straight slasher film. And this is pretty much exactly what Hell On Earth is.

At least they try to give an in-movie explanation as to why Pinhead would go nuts and start spouting off sub-Freddy Krueger one-liners while dispatching bar-goers with floating CDs. But the problem is that instead of making a good Hellraiser film they decided to try and make a Pinhead film, and as I implied before the storytelling engine was just not designed to tell stories specifically about the monsters themselves. Getting to know Pinhead's "human" side and learning that he became Pinhead as a result of the grotesque charnal horror of the First World War - well, it's all rather besides the point, and it's all rather boring. At least, on a meta-level, there is some acknowledgment that turning the concept into a slash-by-numbers horror franchise essentially means bending it almost entirely out of recognition.

Hellraiser: Bloodlines(1996)

I've got an odd fondness for this film even if I also realize it's not very good. The first thing you need to know is that this is an "Alan Smithee" film. Kevin Yagher was the original director, and the cut he delivered to the studio was reportedly a half-hour longer than the finished film that was eventually cut to the bone and supplemented with post-production work by Joe Chappelle (who apparently later worked on The Wire). The extra half-hour of Yagher's cut was destroyed, Yagher subsequently took his name off the film, and the result was an awkward, defanged mess.

And yet, it's still kind of fun. The central idea is good: showing the history, not of Pinhead or Hell, but the puzzle box itself, by tracing the lineage of the man who unwittingly created the means by which Hell was able to begin its war on humanity. There are sequences in pre-Revolution 18th century France, contemporary America and, heh, the 22nd century in a floating space station. If you don't like horror in space, well, this probably isn't for you. (I mean, it's no Leprechaun 4: In Space, but what is?) Seeing the space marines (right out of Aliens, no less) take on the Cenobites is fun, even if - again - it deviates from the tone of the original films so dramatically that you can't imagine a Hannah Montana crossover would be much worse. There's even a cute Cenobite doggie - yes, a doggie.

Originally, the film was intended as more of an anthology, with a clear through-line from the French sequence all the way through the movie's concluding future sequence. The changes imposed after Yagher left the production resulted in the three plot threads being spliced together in a matter that could best be described as "haphazard". The ostensible reason for the changes was to keep the audiences from bristling at the lack of Pinhead until after the half-way point of the movie - but it's worth pointing out that Pinhead probably doesn't appear on screen in the first film for more than seven or eight minutes, tops. By this point, all the great thematics of the first two films have essentially been discarded: there's nothing too weird about hell anymore, it's just a slick vaguely Marylin Manson-ish place filled with evil demons who want to take over the earth. All of which has fuck all to do with the concept as introduced in The Hellbound Heart, but hey. You can sort of see the outlines of Yagher's attempt to hew closer to the spirit of the original film by introducing other denizens of Hell with conflicting goals from those of the Cenobites (a female demoness named Angelique), as an attempt to inject some mystery and sensuality back into the deracinated series. The mangled result ends up pretty predictable, but you can just barely discern the outlines of a superior film.

Turning Pinhead into the focal point of the mythos weakened the soup almost beyond recognition. He was never meant to be Freddy Krueger or Jason or even Hannibal Lector: he's scary because he's so mind-bogglingly weird and evil that you honestly can't conceive of anything worse than having him walk out of a glowing doorway and drag you to hell. Focusing the camera on him for any length of time ruins the mystique. Having devolved into just another slasher villain, he's a disappointment, just another cackling cinema boogieman to be easily dispatched in the space of 90 minutes. Bloodlines ends with a giant space station turning into a magic transformer and blasting Pinhead into smithereens with the power of the sun, or something - it might as well have been the Care Bear Scare. It's not very good but it gets points for style.

Monday, November 10, 2008

So Many Monsters, So Little Time

You know how this blog works by now: if I say I'm going to write about something, that invariably means I'm not actually going to write about whatever that thing is. So, almost two weeks ago I said I was going to write about my favorite horror movie, after I spent a great deal of time talking about one of my least favorite horror movies, Last House on the Left. The idea was to get it posted by Halloween. Well, surprise! Happy Thanksgiving!

Anyway, we're still alive, so let's get to it.

I still wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats from Hellraiser. It's been twenty-one years since the movie's initial release - twenty-two since the publication of The Hellbound Heart - and it's still the gold standard by which I judge all subsequent horror films. I don't have a lot of patience for slasher films, and must admit to having seen almost none of the recent crop of "torture porn" movies: supernatural (or sci-fi) horror is my preference, although I admit that a well done terrestrial horror film like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre or William Lustig's sublimely weird Maniac gets my respect. But for the most part I don't see the appeal of horror based in these kind of (relatively!) realistic milieus - for my money, reading a book about someone like Albert Fish is far more horrifying than watching a movie about a fake Albert Fish. (For the record, I don't recommend actually reading a whole book about Fish - I did, once, and I will regret it for the rest of my life. There's horror, and then there's horror.)

This is why I like H.P. Lovecraft so much. The horror at the heart of Lovecraft is less physical fear than existential dread, the logical extension of 19th century American gothic literature by folks like Poe, Melville and Hawthorne. The fear is not really the fear of death or pain, but the fear of displacement and insignificance - the idea that there is a much larger realm of reality just outside the boundaries of our own, in the context of which we are less than vermin. When this world comes into contact with our own, however briefly, the result is nothing less than transcendental, in the purest Kantian terms: the "real" universe, in its purest form, is unimaginably hostile to life, all life, and especially our life on Earth. More than a knife in the dark, that is primal fear: the fear that, in the final analysis, humans are absolutely superfluous, and that the all-consuming fear of the unknown which dominates human society since time immemorial is in fact the only healthy, rational response to an uncaring universe. It's not particularly pleasant. There is no gratifying reconciliation at the end of the story after the alien menace has been vanquished and the ethical status quo restored.

Speaking purely in terms of style, Clive Barker could not be more unlike Lovecraft. For one thing, Lovecraft had no time - literally, no time whatsoever - for sex. Sex, and physicality in general, is banished from his stories. The "action" in a Lovecraft story is usually entirely cerebral, with the realms of sensual experience confined solely in pejorative terms, usually in an explication of "primitive" ceremony and superstition (see "The Call of Cthulhu", with it’s portrait of a savage and unholy African “voodoo” ceremony, for a great example of early 20th century racism at its most virulent). Barker, however, is all about the sex. I haven't read everything of his, but of what I have read - the Books of Blood, Imajica, and of course, The Hellbound Heart - sex is foremost among Barker's preoccupations. Sex is magic, sex is power, sex is fear, sex is terror - sexual imagery surrounds us and confronts us on a daily basis. The body itself is a canvas in Barker, as in Melville. Physicality is not inviolate.

But in many ways Hellraiser (and The Hellbound Heart, but I'll refer mainly to the film adaptation from here on in) plays like a Lovecraft story, if Lovecraft decided to hang out in S&M clubs. Which is flip, obviously, but bear with me: the plot of Hellraiser is centered around the circumstances by which an unknown, inherently sinister and supremely powerful universe of unending cruelty and pain comes into brief contact with our own. The representatives of this universe - the sadistic Cenobites pictured above - are implacable, irresistible forces of inevitable evil. Once summoned, they cannot be dismissed until they take their rightful tithe (with the rare exception of a propitious bargain). Their purpose is largely unexplained. There is no way to "vanquish" them except by means of temporary abatement. As with Lovecraft's "Great Old Ones", the mute god Leviathan who sits in the middle of the infernal labyrinth is incommunicable. There is no consolation, no appeasement, no remorse. The Elder Gods communicate their unknowable desires through their emissary Nyarlathotep, just as the Cenobites follow the ominous will of their master.

But arguably the most important element of Hellraiser’s unique structure lies in the fact that although the Cenobites are certainly monsters, they are not actually villains. (At least, that is, in the first two films and the book – everything afterwards gets progressively more off-model.) The villains from the first film are the people trying to escape the Cenobites’ grasp – Frank Cotton and his lover Julia. Frank opened the puzzle box and was taken to Hell by Pinhead and Co. After Frank’s disappearance, Larry inherits his brother’s house, with his wife Julia (who, unknown to Larry, had conducted an affair with Julia on the eve of their marriage). Larry accidentally spills some blood in the house, opening up a tiny gateway through which Frank can return to Earth from Hell. Once there, he enlists Julia to aid in his escape – which means, he needs living blood and flesh in order to restore his desiccated body. This is supplied by Julia, who lures a string of hapless victims to Frank’s room.

It’s remarkable how many classic horror archetypes Barker manages to touch upon in the course of his story. Obviously, the plot hinges on a haunted house, occupied by a revenant spirit both figuratively and literally connected to the past sins of its occupants. Frank and Julia are both demons of a sexual nature – an incubus and a succubus, to be precise – and Frank’s appetites for life-nourishing blood make him a vampire. Towards the end of the film he even skins Larry and steals his face – becoming a chameleon, stealing his brother’s identity and usurping his family life. And, of course, the movie is driven by a series of Faustian bargains the main characters make – or attempt to make – with the hellish Cenobites who relentlessly pursue them.

It is also necessary to point out the context – perhaps blessedly distant at such a late date, but important nonetheless – that at the time of the movie’s release, Clive Barker was an openly gay writer working in the mid-80s. In particular, he was writing about sexual transgression, and the process by which people are remade and destroyed by their desires. It’s something of a canard that horror films are ruthlessly conservative in their sexual attitudes: young men and women – especially women – who transgress against cultural norms (by going out in the dark woods to make out with their boyfriend, for example) are routinely dispatched by sinister forces of reactionary propriety. The Cenobites, however, are not anti-sensualists: they are the ur-sensualists. The puzzle box is ostensibly a key to a universe of untrammeled sensual experience, pain and pleasure intertwined. The book makes the connection far more explicit: when Frank opens the box in The Hellbound Heart, he experiences the most intense, unbelievable orgasm he has ever experienced in his life. This is both prelude to and in conjunction with incredible, never-ending physical and emotional torture – for the Cenobites, the two sensations of pleasure and pain are inextricable. Their willingness to transcend all boundaries in order to experience the most extreme forms of sensual abandon is one shared, at least ostensibly, by the poor souls who open up the box and summon the monsters. You can’t make the argument that Frank didn’t know exactly what he was getting into when he opened the box: he wanted to push the conventional limitations of sensuality. That he couldn’t guess how far these explorations would take him is merely incidental to the Cenobites’ agenda. They are extremely enthusiastic sexual evangelists.

So, is Hellraiser another in a long line of AIDS metaphors? I think the Cenobites’ nature as unmistakably sexual creatures complicates rather than simplifies the question. Certainly, pursuing sexual gratification to its illogical conclusion leads to absolute degradation and physical abasement. But it’s not as strictly puritanical as that. There is a pro-safe-sex message nestled deep within the thorny heart of the film, wrapped in the fact that the Cenobites are creatures of extremity, alien to the concepts of moderation or restraint. Frank and Julia, the ghoulish lovers whose attempts to avoid the strict consequences of their transgression bring about their ultimate demise, are morally bankrupt. Julia, despite Frank’s obvious inhumanity, remains devoted to reclaiming their sexual freedom regardless of the cost. When Frank’s niece Kirsty opens the box out of morbid curiosity, on the other hand, there is no sensual element, merely infelicitous curiosity. What is needed is not to dismiss the sensual, but to moderate the sensual, to insert a judicious prophylactic between the natural impulse of sexual curiosity and the wretched consequences of imprudent impulse. The problem is not sex but the consequences of sex - a fine but important distinction.

Sex is dangerous and leads the viewer to strange places. The Cenobites are symbols of unbridled sexual energy turned dangerous and deadly – gleaming leather sewn into pale flesh, self-mutilation turning from expression into compulsion and from compulsion into ritual. Monsters should be repulsive and fascinating at the same time, grotesque and glamorous in equal measure. All the great movie monsters combine a strong visual with a distinctive personality: from the graceless exterior and childlike naiveté of James Whale’s original Frankenstein, through to the mute, silent hunter of Ridley Scott’s original Alien on through even to the (tasteless but certainly memorable) corny jokes of child-murderer Freddy Krueger. The Cenobites (especially Doug Bradley’s “Pinhead”) combine the appearance of physical abandon with the cruel implacability of aristocratic authority – authoritarian charm. They are every inch sexual beings, and as such they confront and threaten the most intimate, most carefully guarded caverns of human appetite and fear - not merely mortality, but something far more disturbing.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Fuck You, California

Hey, let's all be happy Barack won, at least for a minute. It's nice. I'm officially not pissed at Ohio anymore, and I'm ready to forgive Virginia for that whole secession thing. Florida, however - you got us in this mess to begin with, you've still got a ways to go to get off my shit list.

But before we let the warm & fuzzies overwhelm us, let's focus our attention on California. Now, I think I've mentioned this before, but I grew up in California. Spent the first two decades of my life in California. My parents still live in California, my best friends too. Hell, I'd like to return to California again myself, hopefully sooner rather than later.

But maybe not quite so much now. There are a number of reasons I am ambivalent about living in Massachusetts, but one reason I am proud to live here is that we're not afraid to give equal marriage rights to all citizens. I would have thought before yesterday that California, being almost as progressive as Massachusetts in most respects, would follow suit. But no.

It's not like I need to tell gay people to keep fighting - obviously they're going to do that whether or not they receive my papal imprimatur. But I think it behooves everyone else to keep up the invective. A while ago I heard one of these pro-discrimination wingnuts on the radio, talking about Prop 8, saying that all of the setbacks to their reactionary "movement" came as a result of the fact that the opposition succeeded in defining the struggle as essentially a civil rights struggle, which necessarily painted the "defenders of traditional marriage" into the unenviable rhetorical inevitability of being bigots. I thought this was an incredibly perceptive comment from an ideological perspective not exactly known for incredibly perceptive leaps. It's 100% true, although not in the way the undoubtedly intended: they are bigots, pure and simple. Talking around the problem or being conciliatory or trying to hew a path to moderation won't work. Racism and sexism didn't become topics of serious national conversation until minority and feminist groups had successfully redefined the terms of struggle in such a way as it became obvious to a growing majority that opponents of equal rights and equal protection were bigots and chauvinists. Sure, the argument became shrill, the opposition was fierce, but progress was made.

So, I say: use every opportunity possible to loudly decry the results, and don't hesitate to use the most incendiary language possible. It's a question of bigotry, pure and simple, accompanied by its usual lackeys, hatred and fear. Monday was a setback, true, but not a permanent one - time and inevitability is on the right side. Let's hope the state of California gets sued by every one of the 18,000 couples married to date. I'm not a lawyer but I know that it's going to get ugly - and I for one hope it does. With the wind at our back it's time to wage our own culture war - a war for common sense, decency and equality.

Shame the bigots, and shame the children of the bigots. Because if you cast a vote in favor of Prop 2 in California, you are a bigot. There is no way around this, and we are going to keep screaming it in your face until you realize it.