Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Is the COMEDIAN Getting a New Punchline?

Reading the second issue of Brian Azzarello & J.G. Jones' COMEDIAN made me wonder if I was a little too harsh on their last outing. So I reread that first issue and I stand by my criticism that the kinder, gentler Eddie Blake rang false. The Kennedy cameos were forced and exploitive, and interaction between the Comedian and Moloch belittled a pivotal scene from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' original series. This second installment of the Before Watchmen prequel corrects all of the overstepping of the first but by the absence of the titular anti-hero.

Observant consumers will immediately notice the Vietnam-shaped bloodstain trailing the river water behind the Comedian on the cover of issue #2. If the previous front cover promised macabre sadomasochism undelivered, this would seem to indicate a high body count that (here) continues unfulfilled. However, the arrogant man of action we've been expecting is finally in full attendance –when he is present at all, that is.

I've said it before and I'll say it until I'm blue in the face: the page count (or rather lack thereof) is a detriment to accomplishing a complex narrative.

The comics that have proven Azzarello's greatest successes have been prestige format books where he's been able to lay out a pace that rewards patience by bunching scenes of extended violence that would otherwise be out of place or too concentrated in a short page-count title. The counterfactual history lesson we are given in this month's COMEDIAN is well written and necessary for setting up what I expect will be Blake's great disillusionment, but it doesn't tell us anything about the main character. I like that the Greek chorus of real American politicians has been toned down; in fact I sort of wish that this had been the first issue, and the connection between Blake and the Kennedys could have been left unspecified. That might have added a Machiavellian mystery to the Comedian's nature allowing loyal readers to speculate on exactly what involvement (if any) he's had in the JFK assassination. As a first issue this type of set-up would have been perfect; as a follow-up issue it's a bit less satisfying.

I would be remiss if I didn't articulate to the greatest of my ability that I prefer this issue to the first by a ratio of no less than ten to one, but the covers for the two remaining issues have been posted online and seem to indicate that this entire series takes place in Vietnam. While the J.G. Jones we all know and love is back in top form and Brian Azzarello has seemingly found his bearings with the character, with one quarter completely wasted by half time, what can we expect for a final score except for something anecdotal at best? It all seems very reminiscent of the issues of Marvel's 'NAM that guest starred Sargeant Frank Castle (aka The Punisher), which I challenge anyone to remember in any detail.

I'm along for the ride, and at least I feel a lot better about the proceedings now than I did after closing the back cover on the last entry. Also on a positive note, this issue's two pages of Curse of the Crimson Corsair were the only thus far that made me want to see a third page, so perhaps Len Wein and John Higgins are finally catching their stride as well.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Dark Knight's Rise Interrupted by Real-Life Bane

Last night one of the most anticipated sequels in film history opened. Along with millions of other Batfans, I attended a midnight premier screening of The Dark Knight Rises in a packed theater. It was a night filled with anticipation, excitement and optimism for the final chapter in the most critically acclaimed comic book movie trilogy of all time.

At 12:39 AM in Aurora, Colorado, a PhD neuroscience student burst into theater 9 of the Century 16 movie complex with two canisters of smoking explosives and a hailstorm of bullets followed. By the time he was in police custody, ten innocent people were dead on the scene, two more died at hospitals and fifty (or more) others were wounded. In a scene that could have been pulled from the script, a lone wolf's inhumane act of terrorism will forever be linked to the film being watched at the time of his attack. All screenings at the theater have been cancelled through August 1.

My thoughts are with the victims and their families, but also with comic fans who are likely to suffer a sort of guilt by association. This morning on my way to work, I heard talk radio pundits call for the banning of cosplay at movie premieres. It's been less than 12 hours since the terrible event took place, so not much is known about the gunman Aurora police identified as 24 year old James Holmes –except that he was dressed in "full ballistic gear," including a vest, a helmet, a gas mask, and other body armor, and as such probably looked like an enthusiastic comic book fan. How he made it through the parking lot with a shotgun, an assault rifle and a handgun will likely become apparent in the days that follow as security camera footage surfaces. Holmes was taken alive (relatively rare for a spree shooter), so his own testimony may prove illuminating as the case against him proceeds. Inevitably, his mode of dress and modus operandi will be compared to Bane,  the villain of The Dark Knight Rises. Which is all well and fine as long as he doesn't become the poster child for "crazy comic fans."

To me, his appearance and actions bear much more in common with the Guy Fawkes inspired anarchist from V for Vendetta, but thus far without the political rage.

It's probably not so much an incident of coincidence as a mere question of opportunity that this attack happened one week after ComiCon, but I'm sure mainstream media will pick up on that, too, when they realize the shooter is from San Diego.

There can be no greater shame than the loss of innocent lives, but it is a shame nonetheless that Christopher Nolan has made such an incredible film with as intricate a plot as has ever been conceived for the live action counterparts of characters with sequential art origins, and it will be overshadowed by the malicious actions of a lone nut. The Dark Knight Rises is an undeniable masterpiece that combines elements of its first two predecessors to close out the best three movies about a costumed crime fighter that will likely ever be made in succession. Tom Hardy might get an Oscar nomination. An incredible feat when considering that he performs beneath a mask for the entire film. Anyone worried about the Catwoman screen treatment in Nolan's hyper realistic Gotham can relax; the costume works. Anne Hathaway's performance is nuanced, layered and believable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has been so good in so many films, finally gives a star-making performance. The high notes in this film are very high, and while there is nothing on par with Heath Ledger's Joker, the threat is bigger, the journey is longer, and the outcome more satisfying.

Do yourself a favor and get to the theater this weekend before you read or hear something that will hamper your enjoyment. I'm going to wait a couple weeks before I dig into the plot, so you needn't worry about spoilers from me until then. As the smoke clears in Colorado, we'd all do well to remember that it's always darkest before the light. And The Dark Knight Rises is a film that has plenty of both. In many ways, viewing this film could be a crucial first step in overcoming the tragedy that befell its debut.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Silk Spectre Goes Psychedelic

Joshua Middleton variant cover
Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner's SILK SPECTRE #2 trips headlong into the id of the psychedelic 60s via a sinister plot right out of... Josie and the Pussycats?

While not as strong as the debut issue in relaying Laurie's inner monologue, there's a playful use of irony in which the visuals conflict with the narration (something that would have benefited OZYMANDIAS greatly). Conner's artwork is as expressive as ever and Cooke has abandoned the incidental song lyrics that served little purpose in issue number one, so this second volume of SILK SPECTRE stays the course as the plot gets a little more far out. In other words, it's a resounding sequential success for the Before Watchmen line, which has had little else to champion thus far.

The Pussycat reference is not hyperbole. In the heart of Haight-Ashbury, dark forces are manipulating the love generation via programmed narcotics that subliminally encourage rabid consumption. If that sounds familiar, it's because this is a similar conspiracy to the one addressed in the Josie and the Pussycats film from 2001. Cooke has expanded the theme of compromised-integrity-on-the-road-to-commercial-success into a veritable indictment of the consequence of selling out as a culture (as opposed to just going Hollywood). If the Hippies were compromised in their later incarnation as Yuppies, this narrative serves up a scathing social critique (albeit, a heavy-handed one) of misguided idealism. Whether or not this reflects the writer's feelings about either the Occupy Movement or the Tea Party is for him to say, but it's easy to draw parallels between the subjugation of the 60s Peaceniks and the recent overthrow of grassroots movements on the right and left of today's political landscape. Some might even conjecture that Cooke has served up a thinly veiled mea culpa for his own participation in DC's crass commercialization of the original WATCHMEN series. Whichever way you take it, his message is not delivered as a sermon, but as satire in the Swiftian vein. 

Amanda's colorful pencils appear in direct contrast to the dark motives at work behind the scenes at the Sand Doze nightclub, and this is a juxtaposition that works. Her classic nine-panel layout lends a certain sobriety to this tale of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll that never sinks to cheap exploitation even though Laurie is presented as a minor when she leaves town with her high-school boyfriend. In other words, all the sex and partial nudity presented in this comic is actually between two, underage characters, so while it isn't cheap, it is technically exploitation.

The artwork in the ongoing backup story, Curse of the Crimson Corsair, has been getting progressively better, but as such is getting further and further away from the look of a classic EC PIRACY comic. Joe Orlando's Tales of the Black Freighter in the original WATCHMEN was pitch perfect because Orlando had actually worked at EC. John Higgins' pencils are far more reminiscent of his 80s contemporaries Stan Woch, Steve Bissette and John Tottleben, which is fine, but anachronistic. The plot continues to meander, but in two-page installments, what else can be expected? In point of fact, we've never been told that this new swashbuckling, gore story is supposed to be from any specific era, so any criticism of how contemporary looking the art is or isn't may be moot. But the line is called Before Watchmen, so speculating that the backup story should match the era presented in the imprint in which it appears is valid. Of course, if a sub-genre of popular comic books based on EC's PIRACY had proven incredibly influential, it is possible that Ghastly Graham Ingels might have had the impact on pirate and horror comic illustrators that Jack Kirby had on superhero pencilers. Higgins' graphic and gruesome style might represent a natural evolution of the prevailing look of those earlier comics –just as Bernie Wrightson and Richard Corben were doing comics in the late 60s and early 70s that channeled Ingels' work from the 50s. Len Wein has done a good job of replicating the feel of his early work for Warren Publications like CREEPY and EERIE, so in a way, he is the man for the job today in much the same way that Orlando was the natural choice back in 1987. That may make an argument for authenticity, but it doesn't make much of a case for quality. Crimson Corsair neither enriches or detracts from the feature, which makes one question its necessity.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Minutemen & Metabarons: Now this is more like it!

The marquee title in the Before Watchmen relaunch is MINUTEMEN. Before it was announced that there was going to be an entire imprint dedicated to WATCHMEN prequels, I became aware that Darwyn Cooke was working on a back story for the Pre-Keene Act adventures of the first generation of costumed crime fighters from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' alternate universe. Of any possible or inevitable attempts at cashing in on the success of the recent film, this made the most sense and Cooke's award-winning NEW FRONTIER made him a natural choice.

The first issue had the unenviable task of encapsulating the known history and adding a bit of flavor to characters absent from comicdom for two and a half decades. I argued then and I'll mention now that 22 pages is not enough space to establish a story, but Cooke has certainly made the most of the allotted page count in the second issue. MINUTEMEN #2 is exactly what I hoped it would be and re-established some of the faith lost in the last three weeks of Before Watchmen titles. 

It is worth noting that thus far, the only two titles that have enriched rather than detracted from the original WATCHMEN series (the jury is still out on J. Michael Straczynski's NITE OWL) have been penned by Darwyn Cooke. His framework of using the publishing date for Hollis Mason's autobiography, "Under The Hood" as a springboard to travel back in time to tell the tabloid reality of the entire first generation of heroes works splendidly. The intersecting eras are not only separated by narrative cues, but by songs, poems and attention to pop culture detail.

Darwyn Cooke
is a real professional, as good (some might argue) as Alan Moore. And that's the calibre of talent necessary for pulling off a rewrite of the greatest superhero story ever told. As fine as the other Before Watchmen writers are, I don't think any of them are in that same league. They really needed to enlist people like Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Peter Milligan –and while I'm sure they probably approached one or two of them, what benefit to any of them would this project be? The Brits have probably all crossed paths with Northampton's patron curmudgeon and thought better to steer clear of this particular, potential fiasco. Morrison was denied a shot at MARVELMAN when it was still being published in WARRIOR, and Gaiman's final chapter to that hero's story is still yet to be published, so the track record for people looking to follow in Moore's footsteps is there and it's not encouraging. While I'm a bit offput by the first issue of COMEDIAN, I'm still very much looking forward to Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo's RORSCHACH, though I hope they lay off the "Hurm." I have to admit that I'm more excited than I had initially anticipated for the J.Michael Straczynski & Adam Hughes take on  DR. MANHATTAN, possibly because there is far less chance of being let down by a character in which I'm least invested. The preview art I've seen thus far is awesome, and I've been hoping that someday, somebody would team Adam with a writer worthy of his talent. I'll have to wait and see...

Definitely NOT a letdown is the Humanoids Publishing omnibus of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Gimenez's THE METABARONS. This slipcased, complete hardcover edition is limited to 999 numbered copies. Regrettably they are not signed, but having been involved with a Jodorowsky project or two, I can attest that getting him to do menial things like signing books could have taken a mythic eternity. And signed or not, readers are treated to one of the most epic sci-fi tales in the history of sequential storytelling, presented on deluxe paper in a tome worthy of the hefty price tag ($129.95).

By the time Jodo and Moebius brought their masterpiece L'INCAL to print in 1981, the director's dream project, DUNE, had been taken away from him after spending close to a decade in development. Jodorowsky's DUNE would have featured Salvador Dali as the emperor and introduced Swiss Surrealist H.R. Giger to film production design. So long was the project on hold that elements of what was to become Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon were originally planned to be the film's score. Pregnant with ideas for a film that was no longer under his creative control, Alejandro wrote the first parts of a grand space opera in the tradition of Frank Herbert that would introduce sci-fi fans to private investigator John DiFool and bounty hunter The Metabaron. Hugely successful in Europe, these tales were originally serialized in English in Marvel's EPIC Magazine. They've since been acquired by DC's Humanoids imprint, and from 1992 to 2003, Jodo & Gimenez's prequel, the SAGA OF THE METABARONS, was released via a series of graphic novels, bound together here for the first time in THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION.

The plot revolves around a tribal, nanotech, warrior civilization and covers heavy metaphysical themes using symbols of Tarot and The Zohar and to address progressive ideas about governance and sexuality. It's deep sci-fi from one of the greatest plotters in the history of either cinema or comics, and this omnibus offers a great, jumping-off point for would-be Jodorowsky fans. Cinephiles who lament the director's brief output of transgressive films would do right by delving into his first love, comic books. Previous to Alejandro's career in film, he wrote and drew a comic strip, ANIBAL 5, which predates all of his feature films, and is eclipsed only by his mime and theater work. Always plagued by budget restrictions, in comics he is allowed to dream big on paper. His concepts are often freely adapted by American and British writers, and some of Grant Morrison's chaos magick influenced comics like THE FILTH or THE INVISIBLES are less groundbreaking to those familiar with Alejandro Jodorowsky's bandes dessinées.

It's unfortunate that many of the greatly talented European comic artists go unnoticed by American audiences for their refusal to work in the superhero medium. They are so well-treated and well-paid in Europe that there is really no need to schlep on American strips, or cave into editorial pressures against nudity, violence or unpopular political thought. In the past two years since I've completed the first Pop Sequentialism exhibition and overseen publication of the first show catalog, my appreciation for French comic books has reached a near fever pitch, and this week I'll be nailing down the specifics for the first Pop Sequentialism exhibition in France. I tip my hat to the folks at Humanoids who have been single-handedly carrying the torch for European comics here in the states. The editions are beautiful, their title selection impeccable, and courage exemplary. I'm looking forward to the omnibus edition of TECHNOPRIESTS, which tells another aspect of the Jodoverse L'INCAL. I'll probably have to wait a few years, but if this volume is any indication, it'll be well worth the wait.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Before Watchmen Week 5: Blizzard of Oz

I finally caught up with the latest release in DC Comics' Before Watchmen line which pairs important writers and artists for new stories concerning the main characters of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' WATCHMEN series from 25 years ago.

Of all the new titles, OZYMANDIAS is perhaps the one I looked forward to the least. While Oz is the man behind the curtain of the original WATCHMEN series, he wasn't as badass as Rorschach or The Comedian, and he wasn't as conflicted as Nite Owl or Silk Spectre. Dr. Manhattan is possibly even less interesting than the Oz man (as we already got his complete back story), but I've been very jazzed to see what J. Michael Straczynski can bring to the table via superstar penciler Adam Hughes. Jae Lee is also a tremendous talent whose artwork graces comic books far too infrequently, but Len Wein isn't a name that one expects to see on a list next to Darwyn Cooke, Brian Azzarello and JMS, so my expectations were fairly low for this.

Visually, Jae Lee has delivered the most beautiful interior pages since J. H. Williams III's Batwoman feature in DETECTIVE COMICS a few years back. If Williams channelled Mucha, Lee has resurrected Leyendecker for a fancy art nouveau composition that is really quite breathtaking. Unfortunately, the writing doesn't match.

The narration is straight out of the Bronze age: preachy, obvious and somewhat juvenile. While it's no secret that Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias has a very high opinion of himself, he would never expose that vanity to anyone –not even himself, so the journal motif exposes a failure by writer Len Wein to capture the nature of the main character. By relying heavily on narration to tell the story, he forces his hero to be the sole revealer of his own tale, and anyone whose seen the various versions of BLADERUNNER with and without narration can attest to the weakness of the narration as a storytelling mechanic. It has been a staple of comic book plotting for decades, but this line of comics was pitched as a collection of cutting edge creators presenting original ideas that would enrich the fictional histories of some of comicdom's most beloved and best protected characters. Instead, OZYMANDIAS #1 is a stale concept wrapped in decades of cliche.

Moore's Ozymandias was not pompous. He was shrewd. He was not the type of guy that tips his hand until the game is over –in fact the character even addresses his own nature at the climax of the original series. At one point in Wein's script, Veidt refers to his own hair fetishistically, which is exactly the kind of comic book villain trait that Moore's presentation steered clear of. I don't mean to be unkind, but Wein is not of the same calibre of Moore and does not have the narrative gift for expressing the hero's vanity without hitting readers over the head with it. Veidt is the most subtle of any of the WATCHMEN cast and here we are given a very heavy handed story with unnecessarily flowery diction, and the whole affair comes off like a Roy Thomas AVENGERS story from 1968 that's been tarted up a bit for second decade, post-millennial circulation. If this had been a PETER CANNON, THUNDERBOLT comic from that era it would've been ground breaking, but in 2012 it's merely old hat. Perhaps worse than being written in the wrong voice in an archaic fashion, it messes with information that we know from Moore's original story. Just as Azzarello exonerated The Comedian from JFK's death, Wein removes Veidt from implication in the deaths of his parents. The one thing that these new titles absolutely should not do is counter-factualize the official cannon, and in five comics there are already two that have done just that.

It would have been far more interesting if Veidt's recollection of his life was staged as a monologue in complete antithesis with the images that accompany the script (like the red carpet speech in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN). That's the angle that someone like Moore might have taken, or Peter Milligan for that matter, who would have been a far better choice for this assignment. It might also have been a little less precious if the entire framework had been an excerpt from Veidt's autobiography instead of this Fantasyland confession which apparently takes place immediately before the climactic events of the original maxi-series. This time signature as a plot mechanic seems forced and doesn't ring true at all.

As an editor, Wein's record is solid (CAMELOT 3000, WATCHMEN, TEEN TITANS, etc.), and as a fan of both SWAMP THING and the X-MEN, I recognize and appreciate his contributions in helping create some of my favorite characters, but outside of his Clayface revival in DETECTIVE COMICS as part of Marshall Rogers' run on the title I can't say that I've ever been as impressed with his writing as I have been with his front office skills.

Alex Ross is helping to relaunch the Peter Cannon character over at Dynamite with writer Steve Darnall and artist Johnathan Lau (and Jae Lee has even provided a cover) so it'll be interesting to see if a reboot of the hero that Moore repurposed as a villain winds up being better than the relaunch of the character it inspired.

I'll let you know in September...

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Does Spider-Man Fall Short of Amazing?

Yesterday being a holiday (happy belated Independence Day!), and therefore most of my favorite comic shops being closed, I didn't have a chance to pick up Len Wein & Jae Lee's OZYMANDIAS #1, so I'll have to review that tomorrow.

But the big comic book news this past week was the release of Marvel Studios reboot of The Amazing Spider-Man.

This new franchise starring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spidey and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy sticks pretty close to Brian Michael Bendis' ULTIMATE SPIDERMAN origin and boasts an impressive supporting cast of Oscar® and Emmy® winners & nominees (Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Dennis Leary), so it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it was that fell flat. A reboot so close to the last film in the first series is certain to leave a bit of been-there-and-done-that, and people unfamiliar with the last decade of the comics may find the new origin a bit too contemporary, but the real problem for me was the overall predictability of the film.

Garfield has the right physique for the lanky Spiderman and this is perhaps the only film to truly capture the talkative, wisecracking hero of the comic book, but as Peter Parker, there was a slight disconnect. The awkward high school interactions between Parker and Stacy are believable, but something in Garfield's performance as Peter lacks believability. There is no guilt-ridden anguish as there was in Toby Maguire's performance, which made the daydreaming Parker a far more likable guy than this new brooding version. And while Martin Sheen is a fine actor, this film didn't seem to know what to do with him –or with Sally Field, for that matter. Sam Raimi's handling of the characters in his first two Spiderman films carried the care to attention of a lifetime fan. His experience in directing actors to award-worthy performances and his cross-genre gift at mixing action, comedy and drama matched perfectly with the tone of his films. Raimi's first Spider-man movie didn't feel like a mere set-up for more films, and though the tank had run out of gas by the third installment, the first two films are masterpieces of comic book cinema.

Marc Webb  has almost no film making experience and it shows. His 500 Days of Summer and The Office episodes he directed help to reveal his gift for capturing awkwardness (which may have been the sell point for Marvel execs seeking a post-Twilight emo audience), but was no help in setting the pace of a blockbuster Hollywood movie. The film looks great and some of the POV shots really do give audiences the sense of being inside the costume at times. In fact, all of the action sequences were quite well done, but there was no sense of urgency to them. When an injured Spidey miscalculates a ledge and he tumbles off a rooftop, the long pause before his imminent return via crane was accompanied by zero gasps. The audience had seen this before and knew that the threat was non-existent. The whole film had a going-through-the-motions feel to it.

It could be said that a superhero movie needs a great villain to truly succeed and The Lizard seems like a third string sequel villain at best –not the guy that helps relaunch a franchise. This is not to say that Rhys Ifans gives a poor performance; he was fine. He's just not the Green Goblin. By choosing Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane Watson as love interest it's clear there are plot reasons that necessitate withholding the goblin until later, but where Christopher Nolan succeeded in saving The Joker for the second Batman film, The Lizard is no Ra's Al Ghul. Consequently, even the tried and true tricks fail here: Marvel Studios has made the post credit roll sequence a staple to which audiences look forward, but the bonus scene we are given in The Amazing Spider-man is confusing and lack-luster. Norman Osbourne's name gets dropped like panties on prom night all through this movie but where does it go? Nowhere. Since the first franchise is so fresh in everyone's memory, the big reveal turns out to be something we already knew, compounding the staleness of delivery with ho-hum fanfare. Regardless of these and other problems, it was a box office hit and plans for at least two more sequels are in the works.

Since I've mentioned the excellent work of Christopher Nolan, I have an excuse to share a fan art teaser poster for The Dark Knight Rises (special thanks to Messenjahmatt). Follow that link for a full page of fan-produced posters. The countdown continues...