Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
When it comes to obsessively policing the "correctness" of works within their chosen genre, nobody beats horror fans.
Sure, sci-fi readers may have us matched when it comes self-defensive knee-jerk reactions to what we perceive as anti-genre bias in the mainstream. But nobody can get as hot when proposing what should and should not be considered as a valid addition to our pet genre. You couldn't find a mystery fan who, even if their tastes ran towards the hardest of hardboiled crime fic, would not recognize the elegant classics of Elizabeth Daly, the juvenile Nancy Drew series, and the aw-shucks slapstick of Kinky Friedman as all belonging legitimately to the genre. Sci-fi guys regularly lay down definitions RE the scientific rigor of the romances they read, but they know it's bullshit: Not a one of them wouldn't count Philip K. Dick among their number and his works are about as scientifically rigorous as The Great Space Coaster. I can't imagine you hear many romance novel readers say, "I don't consider romances between nurses and doctors to be real romance. It's either lusty pirates with good hearts and the clever, but sheltered - don't forget sheltered, sheltered is the whole thing! - daughters of wealth shipping magnates or nothing!"
There's a lot to like about Lisa Hannawalt's comics/doodles/stream of consciousness/what have you as presented in this pair of minicomics. (A third, Mistakes We Made was one of the Ones That Got Away from me at MoCCA 2009). For starters, she can draw like a motherfucker, with a razor-tight line that lends itself perfectly to manically detailed portraits of nattily attired human bodies with animal or insectoid heads. Those things are sort of like if Matt Furie based his similar work on wintertime Macy's catalogs from the early '80s, and could easily make her the toast of a hipster-illustration world that, bizarrely, seemingly can't get enough of weird animal stuff these days. But she's also got the mind of a sketch comedian, or perhaps more accurately an observational webcomics cartoonist of the sort who's equally popular in an entirely different segment of the illustration-appreciating population. Her list-based strips, rolling out her thoughts on topics such as "Ideal Wedding Plans," "A Typical Week," "12 Things I Think About on My Way to Work," and the strip on unlikely things that are sexy that gives the first mini its title, progress in a rewardingly and amusingly haphazard fashion, alternating short-and-to-the-point deadpan entries with lengthy and baroque ruminations that you have no doubt plagued her brain for minutes on end. In that "On My Way to Work" strip, for example, entry #9 is "Car Crashes"; entry #6 is this:
What Does the Factory Where Money Is Made Look Like and How Do They Keep Employees From Stealing It. Paper money is printed in large strips which must be cut by giant scissors. All of the little 20s must be furiously stamped by hand onto every $20 bill. Employees must strip naked and place clear packing tape over their genitals and bodily crevices. They receive excellent benefits and are exempt from paying income tax.
Needless to say, that's all illustrated, in all its packing-tape-covered-buttcrack glory.
But if the goofiness of the gags conceal Hannawalt's self-exposure with silliness, other parts of these minis do no such thing. Speaking as someone who suffered through a loooong car commute of his own for several years, I instantly related to her frequently referenced obsession with car crashes, and her unnecessarily detailed drawings of animals and entrails (occasionally combined), all of which I saw and/or thought about way more than was healthy during that time. Her approach to sexuality is similarly infused with a sense of "I just can't help it"--witness the uncomfortable gag (no pun intended) about how she distracted herself at the dentist by thinking of oral sex, and the shame-tinged images that conjures for her; or the juxtapositions of imagery and text for the strip about things that are sexy, several of them hinging on dominance, submission, or even violence in a disarmingly direct way. ("A healthy appetite is sexy, and so is the act of obediently eating what has been given to you"; "Being patronized or humiliated can be sexy.") Hannawalt's skill set is varied and unique; she's going to be part of Buenaventura's damn-the-torpedoes alternative-comic-book line, and I'll be looking forward to it.
* Matt Maxwell continues to beat the San Diego Comic Con into submission with his word-mace: here, here, here. I think Matt's perspective is valuable in that he's a smart guy with articulately argued taste, but also because he's writing about the show from a the insidery perspective of a seasoned pro, but leavened with plenty of open and honest acknowledgment that he's still in some ways an outsider. To be frank, most comics commentators are too busy swinging their dicks around to be that candid, making Matt's observations all the more worth noting.
* Deep in my mental "someday, Sean, someday" file is a thinkpiece on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!'s use of horror as comedy. We may never get there, but in the meantime there's this interview with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim at VanityFair.com, in which they explain that for them, the horric awfulness of a disturbing David Lynch scene and the comedic awfulness of an awkward scene from The Office are essentially playing the same notes. (Via Whitney Matheson.)
* I ought to have linked to these before, but Douglas Wolk and Chris Mautner both reviewed David Mazzucchelli's excellent Asterios Polyp. One thing to keep in mind about that book is that it doesn't feel like homework at all--it's a lot of fun to read!
Best of all, this interview is just the first in a loooooooooooooong series. When all is said and done, I expect to have interviews up with everyone involved in Strange Tales. As you can imagine this has been no small undertaking, and many thanks to Ryan Penagos, Aubrey Sitterson, Jody LeHeup, Ben Morse, Arune Singh, John Cerilli, and all of the creators for helping to make it happen.
* Heidi MacDonald's San Diego Comic-Con report contains the most detailed and useful chronicle of the show's possible security/traffic-management overreach and missteps this year that I've seen. For the most part, overreach and missteps are what it sounds like, as opposed to, say, the thoroughgoing lack of planning and dearth of informed staffers that made the first New York Comic Con such a mess. Fortunately, a lot of the problems Heidi describes seem like they could be solved by beefing up requirements for pro and press passes and subsequently really making them mean something in terms of access. Providing guest lists for the panels to the security guards would obviously help, too.
After her rundown of the security issue, Heidi moves on to the Great Hollywood Douchebag Invasion. I complained about this a bit last year myself. It's not the Hollywood component of the show per se, it's the (in the immortal words of Tool) smiley gladhands with hidden agendas who go with it that irk. Nothing infuriates the part of me that got beat up in fourth grade for liking G.I. Joe than seeing these moneyed jackasses descend upon my beloved Nerd Nation.
But then Heidi segues to a complaint about the big swanky exclusive Hollywood parties, which she laments that comics people can't even get into. Here's the thing: If they're so full of douchebags, why would comics people want to get into them anyway? Who cares if they're not inviting Darwyn Cooke?After all, it's not like Spike TV took over the altcomix beach party and threw Kim Thompson out by the scruff of his neck. Before the Hollywood Invasion, these giant glitzy shindigs didn't exist, and they're not ruining anything that did. If comics people want to party so badly, they should throw their own parties. Yeah, they probably won't be as lavish as the studio soirees, but comics isn't as big as the motion picture industry, so why would they be that big? I don't see why comics folks should feel entitled to hang with the Hollywood types just because the Hollywood types have an overactive sense of entitlement. Two wrongs don't make a right and all that. And in my old age, discovering that other people nearby are having a more fabulous time than I am has ceased to rankle. I'd rather sit around a dinner table and talk to my friends than stand around amid hundreds of people I don't know and shout to them. (I see Tom Spurgeon had many of these same thoughts.)
* Here's another thing: I love the Con as a cultural phenomenon and therefore I love giant reports on the Con as a cultural phenomenon, whether as a reader or a writer. I am an all-purpose nerd, and Comic-Con is my Disney World. I think that for many media outlets, combining comics with general geekery is logical and desirable--I pushed for it at Wizard, for example. But here in the Comics Internet, we have the ability to generate giant reports solely on the comics news and comics releases and the overall comics presence at the con--and we should! I think it'd be very useful for more of the comics press to generate big after-action reports that didn't have a single mention of stormtroopers or cosplayers or Twilight or Iron Man 2 or long lines or the party scene or what the flight was like or anything but interesting comics stuff. Next time I go to a big show I'll try giving that a shot. If we want the comics component of Comic-Con to get more attention, we might as well be the ones who start paying it!
Comics Time: Whiskey Jack & Kid Coyote Meet the King of Stink and Monsters & Condiments
Whiskey Jack & Kid Coyote Meet the King of Stink
Shawn Cheng, writer/artist
Partyka, June 2009
$3 Buy it from Partyka
Monsters & Condiments
Matt Wiegle, writer/artist
Partyka, June 2009
$1 Buy it from Partyka
I can't pretend to be an unbiased observer of these comics. Matt and Shawn are friends of mine from my bright college years; I've collaborated/am planning to collaborate on comics with both of them; I've even worked the Partyka table at conventions (though I've far more often freeloaded off of them). But this pair of goofy minicomics is as good an excuse as any to explain what I like about their skills as cartoonists and as packagers of their cartoons.
Whiskey Jack is a prequel of sorts to Shawn's The Would-Be Bridegrooms, which itself was kind of like Kevin Huizenga's Fight or Run before Kevin Huizenga's Fight or Run existed. Instead of fighting each other to win the hand of a fair maiden, this time around the titular pair of shapeshifting braggarts fight a giant skunk to save the fair maiden's life. They make a hash of it and the fair maiden proves more capable than either of them, as you'd expect. Shawn's a specialist in combat, as Bridegrooms and his collaborative fight comic On the Road of Knives would indicate, but that's not really the point here--the goal of Whiskey Jack is pretty much to show a Godzilla-sized skunk running around making fart jokes. The pleasure of the thing stems from how well-drawn the fart jokes are--I could watch Shawn's intricate use of zipatone and his fine geometric character designs play out all the live-long day. I suppose your mileage may vary with a hand-stitched minicomic that culminates in a gigantic shit explosion, but I got pretty far with it.
Matt Wiegle puts out one or two quick gag minis a year, and Monsters & Condiments is his latest. It's a series of seven monster portraits, presented as dishes from the menu of one Hercule Van Helsing: "Nosferatu with dried bonito flakes over mayonnaise," "Redcap Dwarfs with trio of dipping sauces," "Eldritch Horror from Beyond with fresh guacamole," etc. It's a treat for all you fans of the creepy-cute out there, that's for sure, and if Matt did webcomics it'd be highly meme-able--but Matt makes exquisite little minicomics with silkscreened covers instead, so it's presented with po-faced grandiosity that makes the conceit all the funnier. He's got a real way with monsters, too (which I've taken advantage of in my collaborations with him), and in particular his use of black in each portrait creates pleasing and impressive transitions as you flip back and forth. Stop by the Partyka table at any given small-press show and there are any number of similar pleasures to discover.
* Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman pens a nice little paean to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as "the template for modern horror." I think that's true, Dawn of the Dead's recent rehabilitation notwithstanding. Romero's a hipper name to drop than Hooper (not surprising given their comparative oeuvres), his films combined horror and social commentary in the more-or-less explicit fashion mainstream critics appreciate, and there simply couldn't be a zombie craze without him; but while Dawn was more haunting and/or biting than actually scary, watching Texas Chain Saw for the first time leaves you feeling like you've been in a car accident--a feeling aimed for not just by torture-porn standards like Hostel, but everything from The Blair Witch Project to the French horror wave to the modern zombie movies themselves. Tonally, the opening segment of Zack Snyder's Dawn remake, and the entirety of the two 28 Days movies, owe a lot more to Leatherface than Flyboy. (Via Jason Adams.)
I didn't laugh once while reading this book. Weird, right? The status of Brunetti's previous gag-cartoon collections Haw! and Hee! (from which Ho! is largely compiled, though whether as a best-of or a complete collection is unclear to me) as trailblazers in the realm of going-way-too-far comic-book comedy is unquestioned; Brunetti made his bones while Johnny Ryan was picking up cheerleaders. And generally speaking, I'm down for the rough chuckles. In comics terms, I obviously really like Ryan and the astonishingly black comedy (or comic blackness) of Josh Simmons. Meanwhile, my favorite Monty Python movie is the nihilistic Meaning of Life, and among my favorite Tim & Eric sketches are the savagely misogynistic Carol & Mr. Henderson bits, Steve Mahanahan's Child Clown Outlet, the Lynchian vignette where Casey Tatum gets kidnapped by Mahanahan and vomits in terror, and the "Business Hugs" video in which Leland Palmer instructs us on the best way to comfort a man after his wife suffers her third miscarriage. This shit should be right down my alley.
So what happened? It's difficult to say why something you don't find funny isn't funny to you, particularly in a case like this, where Brunetti is intentionally working with material a lot of people would find anything but funny. But I'm not on their wavelength--it's not the extreme nature of the gags (and they get fucking extreme) that's turning me off. I suppose it's the disconnect between the material and the execution? Brunetti's impeccable line looks like it'd be more at home in the pages of The New Yorker than Sleazy Slice, which I imagine is the point, but for me at least, this just neuters all but the most vicious jokes--otherwise it's just a litany of beautifully drawn dick/poop/pedo jokes. One that has likely been robbed of much of its power to shock and entertain by the similar work of Johnny Ryan, whose more buoyant, energetic line and use of the more expansive strip form rather than the one-panel cartoon gives his midnight-black gross-out stuff a brio Brunetti lacks.
To be sure, Brunetti occasionally serves up an amusing twist or wrinkle to the calvacade of horrors. I'm particularly smitten with the gag where a man's wife walks in on him and the dog in flagrante delicto thanks to his strategic use of frosting; the guy's sidelong glance and pause for thought before attempting to act shocked ("Um...Bad doggie! Bad doggie!") is a hoot. The new comics Brunetti includes in the back of the book, drawn in his current, even more simplified style, are a fine show case of his geometric character designs, all round heads and curvilinear arms. For my money, the best jokes are barely jokes at all, but rather virtually unfiltered violence and rage: A man waving goodbye to his baby as he fills its bath with acid, another man shooting a woman in the head and barking "NOW you look sexy, whore," a pair of men sitting in a bathtub filled with the blood of the dead woman hanging from a meathook above them and agreeing that this is better than sex. It's enough to make you wonder if the gag cartoon's potential for horror has ever been fully explored.
* Eric Heisserer wrote a multi-site web-fiction horror story called The Dionaea House that scared the shit out of me a few years back. Now I guess he's a big-shot screenwriter who penned the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and is rewriting Battlestar Galactica helmer Ronald D. Moore's screenplay for the prequel to John Carpenter's The Thing.Heisserer talks about his Thing to Bloody Disgusting.
* I'm several days late and dollars short on this, but it sounds like Robert Rodriguez really is making a movie out of his Grindhouse faux-trailer Machete. Unlike John Carter of Mars and Red Sonja and Barbarella, this one actually has more people in its officially announced cast than Rose McGowan, so I think it might actually happen. And seriously, the cast is ridonkulous: Robert DeNiro, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Cheech Marin, Jeff Fahey, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, and Danny Trejo. This is giving Stallone's Expendables a run for its money.
* Colin: A Zombie's Tale is an independent horror film from the zombie's perspective. Sure, I'll eat it. (Pun not intended, per se, but it's not like I scrapped it and wrote something else, is it.)
* A hearty congratulations to FourFour's Rich Juzwiak on his forth blogiversary. It's been a long, long time since I went in for blogger triumphalism, but I think the emergence of a writer who could speak equally eloquently on America's Next Top Model, the state of contemporary R&B, adorable cat videos, and Cannibal Holocaust was exceedingly unlikely prior to the emergence of blogs, so thank goodness they gave us Rich Juzwiak.
I finally saw Duncan Jones's science-fiction character-piece-cum-thriller Moon, and was glad I braved the sweat-soaked journey down to the Landmark Sunshine to do so. Moon is very, very much a creature of its own influences, and owns up to this repeatedly--and wisely, I think. If you're going to do a suspense story about a man stranded in a cabin-fever outer-space environment with a soft-spoken computer for company, what's the sense of playing cat and mouse with Kubrick? Better to run at 2001 head on and smack people in the face with it so we can put it behind us. I think you also see elements of Battlestar Galactica's lived-in, clunky equipment, Alien's sinister Company, the instantly dated futurism of Epcot center (those fonts!), AI's pathos-inducing automatons (there's a bit here that hit me as hard as any robot-driven emotional high point since the teddy bear handing the kid the lock of hair), and some fairly direct links with the first great science-fiction work of director Jones's dad David Bowie, "Space Oddity." (Which in turn was a fairly direct riff off of 2001--A Space Odyssey, duh--which will bring us back to Do.) By using all of this as visual shorthand (though to be fair it adds flourishes of his own, including all those gorgeous lunar landscapes and one really breathtaking shot of the Earth), Moon has the freedom to focus on Sam Rockwell's compelling, bifurcated performance. I'd really rather not come right out and spoil the central conceit of the film, but it requires Rockwell to take his character, Sam Bell, in a couple of very different directions, both of which must remain true to what has gone before. He pulls it off, and when it dawns on you that it's happening, it's pretty magnificent.
At times, the movie was difficult for me to watch. It deals with death very directly, and not in a "BANG YOU'RE DEAD" way. The body breaks down as the mind's comprehension of what is about to befall it grows, while others are helpless to do anything about it. I've gotten to know this feeling pretty well lately, and having the film hold up a mirror to me in that regard was...bracing, I guess is the word. Bracing and moving and good.
The Amazing, Incredible, Uncanny Oral History of Marvel Comics
You have no idea how happy I am to announce that in the new issue of Maxim (September 2009--Milla Jovovich is on the cover), you'll find a hefty oral history of Marvel by yours truly. This sucker was the result of over a half-year of work, and comprises interviews with Stan Lee, Joe Simon, Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers, Jim Steranko, Roy Thomas, Herb Trimpe, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, Jim Shooter, Gary Groth, Walt Simonson, Louise Simonson, Frank Miller, John Romita Jr., Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Bob Harras, Tom DeFalco, Tom Brevoort, Sam Raimi, Louis Leterrier, Tom DeSanto, Joe Quesada, Bill Jemas, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Brian K. Vaughan. I haven't had a chance to get a good luck at the final published version--my initial draft was 13,000 words long, so a lot of it had to end up on the cutting room floor--but I do know it has a pretty sweet original illustration by JRJR. I hope you enjoy it.
* If you've read Asterios Polyp, you owe it to yourself to read Ng Suat Tong's review/reader's guide over at The Comics Reporter. Tong pulls together a plethora of visual analyses by various critics (including yours truly) and adds his own extensive insights to the mix as well. But the most provocative part of the post is where he takes issue with the coat of unreality Mazzucchelli slathered across the story--ostentatiously naming characters after characters from The Odyssey or giving them monikers like Stiffly and Ursa Major, tons of easy-to-grok symbolism and layout tricks, etc. Tong argues that all the multiple layers of meaning and artifice Mazzucchelli freights his characters with prevents them from ever actually becoming people, as opposed to representations of ideas.
Now, a part of me is quite sympathetic to this line of attack; after all, I've gone on at tedious length about how much I dislike fiction that exists to be decoded rather than read or watched. On the other hand, you're talking to a guy who listed Final Crisis as one of his favorite comics of the year. If watching concepts in human form slug it out in an impeccably thought-through Crisis of Infinite Metaphors isn't a problem for me, what Mazzucchelli is up to in AP ain't no thing either. Moreover, the thing's just too breezily drawn and fun to read to make you feel like you're sitting through an ARG, or a comic where once you solve the author's equation, you need never think about it again. And contrary to Tong's apparent reaction, I really was moved by a few of the squences. (I'll grant him that it's tough to get super-super-invested in the cartoonish Majors.) My beef with the book is how well-trod a path the story itself is, and I know that somewhere inside me is a review that tears the book to pieces on those grounds, but at some point early on I decided it would be more fun to like the thing.
* B-Sol at the Vault of Horror issues an impassioned defense of Frank Darabont's The Mist. Whom he's defending it from, I'm not so sure. Apparently people really hate this movie? All I ever saw were people saying "It had its moments, but I didn't like the ending/the CGI/Mrs. Carmody." That was pretty much my take, though a) my problem with the ending wasn't its existence but how quickly it seemed to come after the previous events--it felt unearned--and b) I thought the CGI was only crappy in the opening tentacle sequence, which is a shame since that's the first effects sequence of the film and probably soured people on what came after--the creature designs were uniformly strong, though. Anyway, I think I've said this before, but of the trinity of monster-apocalypse movies that came out in the winter of 2007-2008, I initially preferred I Am Legend because Will Smith's character and performance were so much stronger than anything comparable in Cloverfield and The Mist...but as time went by, IAL became my least favorite of the three because the monsters were just so, so weak. In that light, CRwM's review of The Mist seems to me to have it about right: "honestly, the film would be better served by cutting it up in flick that ditched the preaching and emphasized the monsters."
Ultimate Comics Avengers #1
Mark Millar, writer
Carlos Pacheco, artist
Marvel, August 2009
Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1
Brian Michael Bendis, writer
David LaFuente, artist
Marvel, August 2009
I'm sorry, but there's simply no way Mark Millar could open his return to the Ultimate Universe with Nick Fury saying "What the %@#&? I disappear for ten minutes and the whole place goes to hell" without intending it as autobiography. After essentially establishing the superheroes-as-paramilitary-unit tone that mainstream comics--certainly Marvel Comics--would have for the decade in The Ultimates, Millar left the franchise in the hands of Jeph Loeb for two arcs, the first of which sold pretty good but made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen look like Chinatown and had little if anything in common with the vibe and characterizations established by Millar, and the second of which never even came out. Instead, Loeb destroyed Manhattan in the event miniseries Ultimatum, then decamped for more buoyantly awful comic-making in the main Marvel line, leaving Millar and his fellow Ultimate-line pioneer Brian Bendis to pick up the pieces.
Of course, since establishing the Ultimate Universe, Millar and Bendis (who never left, though his Ultimate Spider-Man series has had arguably the lowest profile of any of his books over the past couple years) have been given free rein over the Marvel Universe proper, which as I've said before is probably a big reason why the Ultimate books lost their unique luster. So I imagine it's a matter of pride for the pair to return to their rebooted books guns blazing, proving that what they can do here, they can't do anyplace else.
Mission accomplished to an almost alarming degree, if you ask me. Ultimate Comics Avengers #1--retitled to capitalize on the still-stunning-to-me popularity of the main-line Marvel team upon which the book is based, said popularity owing to Bendis's revamp of it and soon to lead to movie megastardom--reads like Millar is intent on doing everything he does best. So you have some of his irksome tics, like unnecessary commas between adjectives and Tony Stark holding forth while drunk and surrounded by strippers, but you also have the kind of rock-solid widescreen action that you'd think a decade of aping Hollywood blockbusters would have made more superhero writers better at by now. Honestly, Millar is aided immeasurably by the real star of the issue, Carlos Pacheco. I've long thought Pacheco could be a truly ideal superhero-slugfest artist--his layouts are dynamic and when he keeps them on-model, his squarejawed superheroes look like they're just dying to pound the shit out of someone. Here, that's exactly what they do, as Captain America gets his ass handed to him in midair by the Red Skull in panels so full-bleed they look like the edges were deliberately cropped--like the pages can't handle combat this two-fisted. Pacheco did yeoman's work as a Final Crisis fill-in, and he's looked beautiful colored by Dave Stewart in Kurt Busiek collaborations like Arrowsmith and Superman, but this is so much better than anything I've seen from him before. It's like the detail of Bryan Hitch combined with the oomph of John Romita Jr. It was gonna take a lot to get me back aboard the Ultimates bandwagon after Loeb, not to mention Millar's own lackluster "second season" of the series, but hey how about this, I'm in. Amid all the superhero comics I'm reading because of their imaginative concepts or clever execution, surely there's room for the equivalent of Invasion U.S.A..
Bendis didn't have as tough an act to follow--he's been writing Ultimate Spider-Man non-stop for, what, nine years, and his recent work with Stuart Immonen has been quite strong. But there's always a risk of diminishing returns, and those did set in for a while in the late-double-digit issues. Plus, there was all that uncertainty over whether or not Ultimate Spidey would actually live be the star of his own book post-Ultimatum, though in the end his survival ended up revealed in a weird pair of "Requiem" issues that read more like a framing sequence surrounding inventory stories they needed to burn off. And no, this reboot issue isn't entirely free of residual Ultimatum ickiness--it's nice that the line has the freedom to kill everyone in Manhattan, but this isn't the kind of franchise where the characters can adequately process a trauma of that magnitude or where the societal and economic ramifications of destroying the most important city on the planet can even be touched on, not by a longshot.
But that aside, this is prime Ultimate Spidey. And again, it's a new artistic collaborator who really makes it shine. David LaFuente feels like a bionic Stuart Immonen--the character models are similar, particularly Peter Parker's increasingly preposterous hair, but everything's slicker, younger, shinier, at times looking like anime (not manga, anime). I'm not sure who's responsible for the overall look, LaFuente or colorist Justin Ponsor, but I could really get used to it. There's a moonlit make-out scene with a lovely looking Gwen Stacy that's absolutely sumptuous. There's a great opening splash page that twists into some comic business at a fast-food joint, there's a USM-trademark scene where Spidey shows up late to a fight, and after yet another ludicrous explanation for how well-known murderer the Kingpin can come back to New York and carry on business-as-usual, someone kills him. (I hope it sticks!) I was entertained throughout and surprised at the end. Keep it coming.
So excited was I about the release of the oral history of Marvel Comics I put together for Maxim that I neglected to mention I also have a piece on Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos's Filthy Rich in that very same issue. Come for the comics, stay for the campus cuties!
PWCW: Who are some of the young cartoonists whose work you are most excited about?
ER: What is young? Unsurprisingly, many of my answers would be people from Mome. But that's the great thing about comics unlike other art forms, you don't need to be "young" to establish yourself if you have something to say.
* Speaking of stuff I was thinking about very recently, I've loved carnivorous plants ever since I first learned of their existence. Something about them is just so wrong--don't plants know how the food chain is supposed to work? So I was delighted to hear of the discovery of a new species of giant pitcher plant that can eat rats atop a mountain in the Philippines. The same expedition spotted another species of pitcher plant that has been thought extinct for decades, and a brand new species of sundew, another variety of meat-eating plant. Poison Ivy, call your horticulturist. (Via Loren Coleman.)
Glenn Eichler, writer
Nick Bertozzi, artist
First Second, 2009
$17.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
While I can't say I recommend this book without reservations, I also can't say I've ready very many comics about the moral and ethical issues surrounding the depatriated, taxidermied body of an African. Along with Nick Bertozzi's always elegant, full-of-life cartooning, it's that subject matter that will get Stuffed! over with those for whom it'll get over. In Colbert Report writer/Daria helmer Glenn Eichler's story, two estranged brothers--happy, if harried, suburbanite Tim and acid casualty Free--come into the possession of the stuffed human remains of a man from Africa, who'd been displayed as a curio in their surly late father's rinky-dink museum of weird stuff. Tim hooks up with Howard Bright, an African-American anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History, in hopes Bright and the other Museum staffers can help locate "The Savage"'s country of origin and return him home. The quite contrary Free, who's not all there, instead argues that the best way to honor the memory of both the African and their father is to keep the former on display. Various didactic contretemps ensue between Tim and Free, Howard and Free, Howard and his wife, Free and Howard's wife, Howard and his son, Howard and other museum staffers, Tim and diplomats from a pair of African countries where the stuffed guy may have come from, and so on. Yeah, there are a lot of arguments in this book, the kind of arguments where conflicting worldviews are represented and, in the aftermath of one pivotal argument, catharsis is achieved. You may be tired of those kinds of arguments in dramas, and honestly I don't blame you. But it's tough to get tired of watching Bertozzi draw them. Despite occasionally acidic coloring by Bertozzi and Chris Sinderson, his figurework and body language looking more than ever like a down-and-dirty Will Eisner, rough-edged and inky where Eisner was smooth and cartoony. His characters seem to move around within their panels with real vitality, breathing breezy readability into what could have been tedious talking-head scenes in lesser hands. (It's easy to spot the lingering influence of the Modernist painters he chronicled in The Salon, too.) And I have to say it's rather refreshing to read a graphic novel in which every character is essentially working toward advancing basic human decency, even in misguided ways. And that's the heart of Stuffed!--a legacy of tragedy and brutality has been reduced to kitsch, so how do we expand it back out of spearchucking stereotypes and past racism and oppression into the full-fledged humanity this person was entitled to? It's a provocative and engrossing question, and your interest in the answer can get you past Stuffed!'s shortcomings for the curios to be found inside.
* So it sounds like Bryan Singer will be re-remaking Battlestar Galactica. I've been friendly with frequent Singer collaborator Tom DeSanto for a long time, and the two of them have had their hearts set on this for at least that long. I'm as baffled as everyone else as to why Hollywood's willing to take this chance, you all know how much I love the Moore/Eick BSG, I think it'll be very different, but different doesn't necessarily equal bad.
* I enjoyed the most recent installment of Jeff Lester and Graeme McMillan's podcast, in which they discuss Geoff Johns's Blackest Night in some detail. Mostly they mull over whether the Black Lanterns will be used as a specific exploration of death in superhero comics and how characters in that world might regard it, or whether they'll sort of devolve into "big evil monster everyone has to fight." They seem awfully hesitant to accept that all the other Lanterns will team up and Hal Jordan will become the White Lantern, though--folks, this has been crystal-clear since the last page of The Sinestro Corps War, if not before.
* Speaking of Blackest Night, the identity of the storyline's big bad was recently revealed on the cover of an upcoming Previews catalog, and turns out my friend TJ Dietsch's theory was right. Well done, Teej!
* I do not own Rock Band; can't convince The Missus it's a worthwhile investment. But looking at the complete track listing for The Beatles Rock Band, this may have to change. Getting a chance to shred on George's "Taxman" solo or one of Ringo's trademark "ba-DUM-bum, ba-DUM-ba-bum"s?
Red Riding Hood Redux (Red Riding Hood, The Wolf, The Grandmother, The Mother, and The Hunter)
Nora Krug, writer/artist
80 pages per volume
$5 individually, $20 for the set, if I recall correctly Buy it from Bries Visit Nora-Krug.com
I'm going to make Nora Krug's multifaceted, wordless retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story sound dreary and depressing if I say that it's about the ugly business of adult life: Grief, greed, alcoholism, joyless sex, irrevocable mistakes, brutal dominion over animals. The thing is, it's not not about those things--they're present in the five interlocking little volumes, each presenting not just the point of view but the literal eye-view (and sometimes mind's-eye-view) of a different character in the story, that are bundled together with a rubber band to form the overall package. But Red Riding Hood Redux is also about vivid and skillful use of color, clever formal play, astute visual shorthand, baroque and virtuoso storytelling, funny comic business, and the sheer pleasure of telling a shaggy dog tale. Krug deftly reintroduces us to the specifics of the Red Riding Hood story, from the stuff we all remember ("What big ears you have!") to the stuff we thought we'd forgotten (Grandma and Red filling the sleeping wolf's belly up with rocks in order to dupe him into still feeling full after the hunter frees them). Oftentimes she presents us with only the half of key sequences and conversations that our current POV character can see, leaving us to fill in the blanks first mentally and then, with great pleasure, through the other side of the story when we get to the other characters' versions. But just as much fun, if not more, are the aspects of the tale Krug concocts on her own. Maybe there really was a love triangle between Red's mom, the hunter, and Red's dad, who by the way was imprisoned for the accidental killing of Grandpa, but I sure never heard it in the versions of the story I was told; Krug imbues this whole bedroom drama with heart, laughs, and real regret. At other times she gets fanciful, creating a bizarre Journey to the Center of the Earth-style world-within-world inside the Wolf's belly, and continuing the Wolf's story post-mortem in a fashion that delighted this animal lover to no end. Krug's simple line and deft coloring are both perfect fits for the project, keeping things childlike while still able to convey all kinds of information and emotional content within the sparse one-frame-per-page set-up she's using. Heck, just the way she drew Grandma and Red's views when they get drunk was worth the price of admission. If you can snag this, by all means do so.
I have at least a couple of District 9 reviews bookmarked but unread; I want to write this while they remain so. I don't want to have my molehills made into mountains for me. I think there are elements of the film that skeptics (and I'm surprised I haven't heard of more of them; I think a couple days ago its Rotten Tomatoes rating was 99%) will seize on, and I'm not sure I blame them--particularly after the long final action-movie act, which was long enough and action-movie enough to give lie to similar complaints against Children of Men. When there's more than one instance of a bad guy receiving a kill order and taking his sweet time with actually pulling the damn trigger the better to savor the moment, when there are seemingly more saved-at-the-last-minutes than there are actual last minutes, when a giant robot uses a pig as a weapon, it can be pretty easy to write off the preceding hour and a half as summer-movie cliche. And there are certainly summer-movie cliches are present in the film; my biggest gripe was the wife's non-character, and most of the bad guys from whatever faction are solidly one-dimensional. But these cliches are really, really, really not the sum total of the film. At all.
Though I had not been closely following the pre-release hype for District 9, I'm obviously at least semi-plugged in to most horror movies and genre movies generally, and have an affinity for whatever Peter Jackson gets up to as well. So as far as I knew, this was an interesting little genre movie from abroad, given Peter Jackson's seal of approval the same way Guillermo Del Toro's name on The Orphange got that movie a little more traction here in the States. I expected something on the scale of The Host, in other words. Lo and behold, today I hear it was the number-one film in the country this past weekend. I can only imagine what the Transformers 2 audiences made of this fucking thing. From the initial mockumentary set-up (complete with audience-alienating shakicam) to the South African accents to the almost confrontational unpleasantness of the aliens, we're a long way from G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, even before you get to the lengthy, relentlessly and creatively gory, catalog-like depiction of inhumanity and brutality that gives District 9 its power. And at that point--shit, even I had a hard time watching.
District 9's best trick (aside from realizing that you can get contemporary audiences to swallow a five-minute opening infodump provided you use the now-familiar mockumentary format) is perhaps an accident of its creation. Its South African setting gives its central sci-fi metaphor, squalid alien refugee camps, a historical background everyone can instantly understand, but simultaneously places it at a remove from the analogous situations that dominate the news today. Yes, there's a tinge of Blackwater here, torture cover-up there. But mostly, instead of seeing, I dunno, occupied Palestine, or occupied Baghdad, or Minutemen vs. Mexicans, you just see beings, oppressors and oppressed, and how oppression rots away the social and moral fabric of both. It's bad enough when you think you're just going to watch Pythonesque bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe and a bunch of xenophobic assholes with guns in their hands and a corporation at their backs roll into a slum and start treating sentient beings like less than dogshit--the butterflies in my stomach never left during that whole long first act. But when you see just how bad things get, in a sequence that's like some nightmare cross between Hostel, Brazil, Starship Troopers, and (at least to me--it's something in Wikus's voice) the baseball bat scene in Casino...the audience on 34th St. gasped in horror, the couple in front of me clung to each other, and I literally fought back tears. Even though you've still got most of the movie to go before you reach the final shootouts, I think that sequence is where my patience with the explosions and derring-do at the end was earned. You watch it and you believe that yes, this is what we're capable of, and you think that if you saw it really happening and had the chance to help those you once hated by hurting people who hate them even more than you did, you'd probably take it just like our formerly Gervaisian hero Wikus does. These are uncomfortable and complex thoughts to be provoked by your late-summer action thrill ride.
* Meanwhile, the latest Strange Tales Spotlight interview I did is with John Leavitt.
* Here's something an industry friend of mine said to me about the San Diego Comic-Con yesterday that I thought was really smart: While the complaint that "it's not about comics" is a hardy perennial, the increased degree to which comics folks seem to have "discovered" this fact this year is probably attributable to the Hollywood component of this year's show's lack of big comics-centric movies to promote. I think his exact quote was "Last year, everyone was talking about Dark Knight and Watchmen, so it felt like comics were a bigger deal." That sounds about right.
* You might recall me repeatedly defending Final Crisis's sales performance last year even as I criticized others for talking about it at all. This is because I'm an asshole, of course. (Okay, that's not quite how it went down, but still.) But one of the specific arguments I remember both hearing and making in terms of Final Crisis #1's second-place finish behind Secret Invasion #2 the month both came out was that that's about the best you can expect out of a DC event versus a Marvel event at this point in time given the two companies' positions in the marketplace. Well lookee here, Blackest Night #1 came in second to Captain America: Reborn #1. Unlike last time, where I loved Final Crisis and didn't care for Secret Invasion, I don't have a dog in this race: I'm not 100% sold on either Blackest Night or Cap Reborn but I like them well enough so far, and have greatly enjoyed their writers' lengthy runs with these characters, and fully expect to enjoy both when all is said and done. Plus it's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison: Reborn's a first issue that got a herculean PR push from Marvel. But while several pundits blamed Final Crisis's supposedly weak performance on its failure to give fanboys what they want, that's clearly not an argument that's being made about Blackest Night even by its detractors--quite the opposite, if anything. Meanwhile, reaction from those fanboys seems to be pretty positive. So all told, I think this bears out my theory that when pitted head to head, Marvel events will beat DC events irrespective of their actual content or quality, because right now Marvel is beating DC.
* Now that I've weighed in myself, I'm catching up on District 9 reviews. In the pop-culture sphere, Jason Adams offers a qualified rave, if there is such a thing, while The House Next Door's Matt Maul offers a qualified pan. On the "nerds who have popular political blogs" end of things, Matthew Yglesias sees the film as a breath of Aliens-style smart-blockbuster air after a slew of astonishingly dopey sci-fi-action popcorn flicks this summer, while Spencer Ackerman casts a critical eye on the movie's portrayal of various African nationalities (leading to a pretty interesting debate in the comments until, right on cue, someone shows up claiming that the orcs in The Lord of the Rings represent the dark-skinned Other).
* At PopMatters, Marco Lanzagorta takes a stab at identifying all the big horror-movie waves since the dawn of cinema: the German Expressionist films of the '20s, the Universal monster movies of the '30s and '40s, Hammer horror in the '50s and '60s, gory American indie horror in the late '60s and '70s, Italian horror in the late '70s and early '90s, American slashers in the '80s, Asian horror in the '90s and early '00s, American remakes in the mid-to-late '00s, and brutal French horror throughout the '00s. He obviously misses a few, from American sci-fi in the '50s to the torture-porn cycle here in the States recently, but it's a fun flow-chart-in-article-form, and moreover it's skeptical about the whole "show me a horror-movie movement and I'll show you a country in the grip of sociopolitical turmoil" school of thought, which I tend to appreciate. (Via CRwM.)
Professor Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his surname and not a typographical mistake) and colleagues wrote: "We model a zombie attack using biological assumptions based on popular zombie movies."
What does Kevin Phillips-Bongggggggggg think of this? (Via Robot 6.)
One of these comics features a giant monster made of semen, a guy who shoots acidic puss out of his body acne, and a slug who sucks cock. The other is a Johnny Ryan gag-strip collection.
Yes, both of these books are like kryptonite to good taste. But there are a couple of big differences between what Johnny Ryan is doing in Comics Are for Idiots!, his latest Blecky Yuckerella strip collection, and what he's doing in Prison Pit, his ultraviolent action-comic debut. The most obvious is he switched from brush in the former to pen in the latter, stripping himself of his secret weapon: one of the lushest lines in comics. Turns out it was a smart move. With Blecky, the buoyancy of his slick black swooshes and swoops is reflected in his figurework: everyone's googly-eyed, grinning and chortling like, well, idiots, and if they're not doing that then they're gasping or being knocked out of the panel, feet flying in the air, their shock or disgust just as joyous as their glee. That's how gags about curing brain tumors by exposing them to dogshit or throwing babies in the trash (and to be fair, this is nowhere near as bad as things have been getting in Angry Youth Comix lately) still manage to get you to laugh along with them--they're just so exuberant!Prison Pit, on the other hand, is all business. Yes, tongue's in cheek to a certain extent--in addition to the gross-out bits I mentioned above, all the characters look like rejected He-Man concepts, there's gratuitous swearing and swastikas, the portentous opening chapter heading reads "FUCKED" while the second chapter is called "MEGA-FUCKED," and Ryan has said he's swiping liberally from ridonkulous action manga like Berserk. And yet the tone feels as serious as a heart attack, thanks in no small part to a line that's gone wiry and vicious, able to evoke the doom-laden skies of Gilbert Hernandez's Chance in Hell, the nightmarish stone wastelands of Mat Brinkman's Teratoid Heights, the seedy body-horror of Josh Simmons, the painstaking monumentalism of Tom Gauld. At times when the visuals are at their most abstract, you'd be hard pressed to recognize Ryan in them at all.
The second big difference is one of pacing. The four-panel Blecky strips often feel like a breakneck race to the punchline through some kind of bizarre obstacle course requiring the basic premise of the gag to get more ridiculous with each panel. It's not enough for Blecky to get a pair of x-ray spex--she has to use them to spy on Wedgie's kidney, and the kidney has to be anthropomorphized, and it has to be going through the personals column, and it has to be circling ads for both men and women, so that the ultimate joke is that Wedgie has a bicurious vital organ. Maybe the best distillation of this kind of set-up features Blecky's Aunt Jiggles getting her ass caught in a jelly jar, her boobs caught in a coffin lid, and her head caught in a bird's vagina one panel at a time, for a payoff panel of Blecky saying "You're the coolest person I've ever met." Rapid-fire ridiculousness is the height of virtue here. Compare that to Prison Pit, which opens with an abstracted, dialogue-free spaceship landing that lasts for four pages. Similar space is given to the protagonist getting wrapped up in someone's prehensile intestines, or cutting someone's head off, or falling through the sky, or tumbling down a mountain, or simply losing consciousness. This meticulous rolling-out of physical business is occasionally contrasted with dramatic splash pages--from an x-ray view of the hero's circulatory system to a disembodied portrait of his penis--but for the most part, this giant fight scene feels disconcertingly quiet, lonely, and loveless, right down to its skin-crawling coda. Ryan's rep as altcomix's premier overgrown juvenile delinquent is well deserved--and don't get me wrong, you can absolutely enjoy Prison Pit on that level--but the poetic savagery he depicts here is the work of a grown-ass man.
Apparently there's an article out there about how comic book movies never sell comics, which is so obviously wrong as to make me too lazy to find the link again. Some comic book movies sell comics. Here's my formula for figuring out which ones will do so:
1) It must be a property civilians were not already aware of in its comic book form prior to the release of the film
2) The number of books available to be sold must be limited in number--one movie/one book is best, but a number in the single digits will do
3) The movie and the book must have a clear relationship in terms of tone and content that's easy for civilians to detect
4) The book must be well-regarded enough in comics circles for civilians' comics-savvy friends and comics-interested journalists to be likely to recommend it
Hence the movie-spurred sales of Ghost World, Watchmen, Hellboy, Sin City, 300. I expect the rebranded American Splendor collection and Persepolis got a healthy bounce too.
Of course this is pretty much a roundabout way of saying "Big Two shared-universe superhero movies don't sell comics." There are too many books to choose from, the companies very rarely get behind one or two as the book to get if you liked the movie (Marvel always churns out some miniseries featuring the villain, but that doesn't count), and most people have long made up their minds as to whether or not they're interested in buying (say) Spider-Man or Superman or Hulk comics.
The big exception is Batman. That's because it fulfills 2 1/2 to 3 of my criteria: It flops on point 1, but 2) there actually are a relatively small number of Batman books that DC seems to push when those movies come out (and which moreover have a track record as perennial sellers in comic shops and bookstores), and 3) they actually do jibe the content of the films, and 4) comics people really like them--The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, and now Joker.
* Because I am a webcomics moron I haven't read Vito Delsante and Rachel Freire's FCHS, but I've gotta say this 17-page preview of the high-school drama's forthcoming AdHouse Books collection makes it look pretty appealing. I mean, it's difficult to tell from the opening pages how well-rounded everyone ends up being--as the recent postmortem lionization of John Hughes goes to show, people love high-school stereotypes--but Delsante's pacing and dialogue and Freire's line and character designs are all refreshingly calm and no-bullshit. It doesn't hit you over the head with OMG ADOLESCENT EMOTIONS RUNNING ON HIGH in every panel like a lot of teen books do. (Via Kevin Melrose.)
My friend and collaborator Matt Wiegle has illustrated a video summary of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell for Sparknotes.com. And holy smokes, are those illustrations ever gorgeous. Here's your exclusive first look at a few.
In a book like this, where a cartoonist is adapting a novel you haven't read, it's difficult to say who deserves credit for what. All I know is, someone deserves a lot of credit. As slim, smooth, and hard as its attractive, Adam Grano-designed album-style hardcover format, West Coast Blues is as strong a crime comic as you're likely to see this year (or until whenever the next Gipi Wish You Were Here Ignatz book comes out). So maybe it's weird for me to start by talking about the problems I had with it, but let's get them out of the way: Certain basic character components are things you've seen many times before. There are hitmen who banter innocuously between dispassionate murder attempts, a torturer who loves his dog, and a protagonist who doesn't seem attached to anyone but his own hide. Which is weird, since the protagonist, George, is just an average joe. Maybe there are people out there who, when suddenly targeted by murderers, would be able to ditch their families and entire lives without feeling much of anything about it, but I don't think I know any, and I'm certainly not one of them. All I do is feel. Sometimes I think crime fiction would be a lot more effective if, as is often the case in real life, the crime really visibly fucked the victims up. (Though to be fair, there are other characters we come across for whom it's done exactly that.)
What the book does right makes for a much longer list than what it does wrong. For starters, there's Tardi's art, a master class in spotted blacks and lines like garrote wire. Tardi juxtaposes cartoony figures against frequently photorealistic backgrounds and objects like a manga-ka, but his characters of a rubbery Rick Geary look that's at once lighthearted and ugly. This makes them perfect vessels for the story's sudden bursts of apocalyptic violence, which appear out of nowhere, rain mayhem all over a couple of pages, and then vanish like a summer storm, returning us to our taciturn hero and his quotidian environments. I think everyone will talk about the beach attack, for instance--how well Tardi conveys a Jaws-like seashore scene so sunny and crowded with swimmers that a man could be assaulted and drowned without even those closest to him realizing that anything was going on but horseplay. It was a stroke of genius for this to be the first big setpiece, sending the message that bad shit could go down anytime, anyplace. Just as impressive, and just as well-choreographed from an action perspective, is the book's central one-two-three punch: a chaotic shootout, an assault by a ghoulish hobo, and the tumble from a train through a seemingly Mirkwood-like forest that's seen on the book's cover. After a prolonged period of Godot-like waiting for something to happen, it all seems to happen at once, leaving both George and the viewer dazed and confused amid Tardi's riot of a woods. George emerges from the other side of this sequence as another person, in a literal sense, and it's such bravura storytelling we can innately understand why.
The end of the book (and the beginning) seem to want to raise bigger questions than the basic plot--essentially, "no good deed goes unpunished"--would appear to offer. I suppose it's to Tardi and Manchette's credit that they try to address my complaint about George's weird stoicism more or less head on, though I'm not sure I buy their explanation. But it left me thinking, I'll give them that, and a book that can leave me thinking after keeping me turning the pages as fast as I can is a book that got it done if you ask me. I even liked how people's howls of pain were simply portrayed as giant letter A's. This sucker's good.
Blackest Night #0-2
Geoff Johns, writer
Ivan Reis, artist
32 pages each
#1-2: #3.99 each
Despite months of "Prelude" issues (whole story arcs, actually), a zero issue, and a "Prologue," in Green Lantern #43, it's the official first issue of Geoff Johns's years-in-the-planning event comic Blackest Night that counts. And to be honest, my first read-through left me cold, largely by way of contrast.
That first Sinestro Corps Special a few years back was a first-round knockout--nutso heavy-metal character designs and all-out ring-on-ring action by Ethan Van Sciver, a Humpty Dumpty Green Lantern getting shot in the head, and a final "holy crap, this is going to blow you away if you're a giant fucking nerd" secret bad-guy reveal splash page that, since I am a giant fucking nerd, blew me away. By comparison, BN #1 doesn't have a whole lot going on. The "hey wouldn't it be neat if..." idea of different-colored Lantern Corps isn't new anymore. Both the comic's general premise of dead heroes being brought back to life as killer zombies and the identities of many of the specific heroes to be revived were already common knowledge for most semi-savvy superhero fans. Van Sciver's career-best art, and Doug Mahnke's star turn on the tie-in issues of the main Green Lantern title--both of them weirder and harder-edged than mainstream comics need to be, with Mahnke in particular edging upward toward the top mainstream tier of Quitely, Romita Jr., Cassaday, and Frank--are replaced by the stalwart but pretty traditionally superheroey art of Ivan Reis, looking like Jim Lee scaled back toward Neal Adams a bit but somehow muddier and murkier than he's been on GL in the past. There's no last-page reveal at all. And the violence is extreme even by dismemberment enthusiast Johns's standards.
But I think that this was ultimately a case of me expecting something different than what Johns was attempting to deliver. He doesn't need to launch several years' worth of future stories here--instead, he needs to tie several years' worth of past stories by writers across the DC line together. He doesn't need to kick off a thrilling saga of space-faring combat--he needs to start telling a horror story about dead superheroes coming back to life and murdering their friends. He doesn't need to redefine and reinvigorate a character and his mythos--he needs to serve up a series of snapshots of multiple characters and the mythos of the entire DC Universe.
So rather than writing a review of BN #1 the second I bought it, I sat on it, keeping it in my backpack and pulling it out every now and then for another flip-through, another read. Now that I knew what to expect, I started to enjoy it, and the following issue, a lot more. I could admire how Reis made the Black Lantern versions of kindly old superheroes like Martian Manhunter and Aquaman into hulking, uruk-hai-style physical and existential menaces. I could get a kick out of his little flourishes, like the impressive Green Lantern hologram display of all the DCU's dead heroes, or his riff on Rags Morales's hyperthyroidal Hawkman (now the standard portrayal of the character, much to my amusement and delight). I could chuckle at the "jump scare" of turning a page on a quite rooftop conversation between Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara to suddenly find Hal Jordan's plummeting body smashing the Batsignal into pieces.
For as long as I've been reading it, Johns's superhero writing has consisted almost solely of finding ways to express through action and dialogue exactly what each of DC's superheroes means. As they fight, heroes will explain what it is that makes them tick and what iconic qualities they represent in DC's pantheon, while villains will berate them for failing to live up to those demands. If this sounds boring or precious, most of the time it's neither, because Johns just happens to be really good at identifying those core components of each character and basing fun action adventures around them. With the exception of the Justice Society of America--there's just no way to remove the smell of mothballs and Ben-Gay from a team full of septuagenarians, guys in gimp masks, and (oddly) perky teens--his major recent works, lengthy runs on Action Comics and Green Lantern, have been like a carefully curated retrospective of Superman and Green Lantern's careers, enemies, and milieux. At this point, if my comics-curious best friend from high school asked me to loan him comics that would inform him as to why Supes or GL are awesome, they're what I'd hand him.
I guess that the idea behind Blackest Night is for Johns to take aim not so much at any particular character or even set of characters but at a basic fact of life for the DC Universe itself, the simultaneous omnipresence and impermanence of death. Everyone's always getting killed (editorially speaking, Dan DiDio's tenure at the top has been like a Robespierrian reign of terror for the men and women in tights) yet everyone's always getting brought back to life (at the same time he's been reviving more dead people that Jesus and George A. Romero combined). The power of the Black Lanterns reanimates dead heroes as extremely violent and extremely douchey killing machines, who taunt and mock the heroes they target for death, who are then brought back to life in the same fashion to continue the cycle. Depending on how much credit you're willing to extend Johns, you could argue that this concept makes literal the way the constant death/rebirth cycle makes a metaphorical mockery of whatever import these characters' adventures are supposed to have with us. If it's all a wash eventually, what the heck difference does all the blood sweat and tears, all the rage and avarice and fear and will and hope and compassion and love that drive the multicolored Lanterns, even make?
Chances are a lot of you are simply saying "Jimmy crack corn and I don't care." Unless you have some basic investment in the idea that these characters can still be used to tell involving stories, this probably won't mean much to you. Moreover, unlike Grant Morrison, Johns's evangelical belief in the power of superheroes isn't accompanied by the experimentalist brio that'll hook the hipsters. He's simply trying to make a really good superhero comic book. But here's the thing: A little faith is all you need. As other people have gone into in great detail, Johns strove to make this thing as new-reader friendly as a comic that culminates in the Elongated Man and his rape-murdered wife rising from the dead and slaughtering the umpteenth incarnation of Hawkman and Hawkgirl can be. Obviously I like superhero comics and have read quite a few, but without having read them as a child, I lack the masters degree in minutiae that many fans, particularly self-identifying DC fans, seem to view as a necessity. Therefore, while I think I'd heard the names of, say, Aquaman's little posse of Garth and Mera and Tula and Dolphin before, I had no idea who the hell they were when they all showed up to fight over Aquaman's grave. But because Johns's writing is always primarily concerned with explaining and exploring each character's role in the pantheon, I didn't need to know who they were--it was explained to me between, and during, punches. So then it becomes a scene not about trivia questions, but about characters' past mistakes and biggest failures literally coming back to destroy them. It's quite effectively done. It's not knocking me on my ass the way Final Crisis did, but who says it needs to? It's a fun, violent superhero comic that has a sense of weight, a sense that within its confines, what's happening to the characters, despite all the dying and rebirthing, matters to them. Clearly it matters to Johns, and I think his ability to translate that into writing that's creative and entertaining rather than insular and pathetic is his personal power ring.
* The 2009 Ignatz Award Nominees have been announced, and there are quite a few ADDTF faves in their number: Tim Hensley, Josh Simmons, Ron Rege Jr., Gabriella Giandelli, Jordan Crane, Acme Novelty Library #19, Kramers Ergot 7, loads more. The winners will be chosen by ballots from SPX's attendees and awarded on Saturday, September 26th. It sounds like I'll be presenting one of the awards, which is an honor. (Via Peggy Burns.)
* The great Frank Santoro interviews the great Ben Katchor, back in 199friggin6. When I think about what I was interested in in the '90s when people were still trying to carve out lives in altcomix, my mind reels. Frank Santoro and Ben Katchor were making their bones when I was picking up cheerleaders.\
* In a quartet of posts found here, here, here, and here, Curt Purcell compares Geoff Johns's Blackest Night to Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen's Great Darkness Saga in terms of villain reveals, technical advances in coloring, the purpose of clunky old-school dialogue, the concept of spoilers, and more.
...the whole thing has so many twists, turns and game-changers that it's like reading several runs bridged together by a shared author and tone, but almost as if it were a long-running TV series that switched things up as cast members aged or departed and now you're getting the box set.
By the time I graduated high school I'd pared down my reading to essentially four titles, and David's Incredible Hulk was one of them, though only Sin City and The Maxx survived the move to college. (The fourth title was the animated-style Batman Adventures.) David has some tics that I have a hard time with, like dragging supporting characters through every book he writes, and I haven't really read him in years. But it seems to me that of all the writers working in the '80s and '90s he probably had the surface storytelling sophistication that became the norm in the more writer-centric '00s--I certainly remember it standing out at the time. I'd place his Incredible Hulk run just behind Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon on a short list of long-running superhero titles headed for critical reappraisal among people for whom superheroes aren't the be-all and end-all in the next couple years.
* There's a new World of Warcraft...expansion, is it? called Cataclysm coming out, and here's a trailer for it. Rob Bricken is right about how cheesy it is--wayyyyyy too much po-faced narration for my, or surely anyone's, taste. I remember when the trailer for Wrath of the Lich King came out--I've never played WoW for a second and yet I watched that thing over and over and over again, it was so perfect at expressing its ersatz Tolkienisms. This, on the other hand...Well, I sure wish Shift-T were a going concern so I could be told what to think about it.
* Curt Purcell continues his series comparing Blackest Night to The Great Darkness Saga with another pair of posts. First, he tackles the changing nature of superhero violence. One thing I think's a little odd about Curt's superhero blogging so far is that he primarily cites The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in terms of their use of bloody/realistic violence and its influence on later comics. But neither of those comics is particularly gruesome in that regard (indeed one of the big complaints about Zack Snyder's Watchmen was that it was bloody all the way up to the end, at which point it became bloodless, as opposed to the comic which more or less worked the other way around). I actually think the increased use of graphic violence in superhero comics is the least direct of their legacies. I also think he's slightly misreading Dirk Deppey's "superhero decadence" concept by using it synonymously with "stuff that would get these comics an R-rating," when I think the more crucial element is the debauched nature of contemporary superhero comics as art primarily concerned with itself, its own continuity and conventions--an increasingly artificial edifice built on shaky foundations and displayed for an audience with no interest in ever looking at anything else. But Curt does brush up against that aspect in his second post on the topic, this one focusing on superhero comics going meta. Of course most meta-superhero comics contain some kind of critique of the genre, while the true decadents in the Dirk Deppey formulation are perfectly content just to create ever more baroque variations on Captain Marvel.
(1) The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle -- all things that we have always condemend as "torture" and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies ("torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering . . .") -- reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.
(2) As I wrote rather clearly, numerous detainees died in U.S. custody, often as a direct result of our "interrogation methods." Those who doubt that can read the details here and here. Those claiming there was no physical harm are simply lying -- death qualifies as "physical harm" -- and those who oppose prosecutions are advocating that the people responsible literally be allowed to get away with murder.
Comics Time: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder
All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder Vol. 1
Frank Miller, writer
Jim Lee, artist
$19.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
Now that this first volume of Frank Miller and Jim Lee's, uh, controversial Bat-book is out in a nice fat trade paperback, I finally sat and read its nine issues' worth of comics from start to finish for the first time. Then I sat around and tried to figure out what to say about it. One phrase kept leaping to mind no matter how much I tried to come up with an alternate approach, so fuck it: That phrase is "mentally ill."
But I mean it in the best way!
I understand that Miller's staccato and repetitive dialogue and narration is enough to give some people aneurysms. Ditto, and more so depending on whether you're talking about some of my former coworkers at Wizard, his new take on Batman as a cackling, grinning, foul-mouthed, stubble-sporting, child-abusing psychopath. For pete's sake, former editor Bob Schreck's introduction to the volume is nothing more or less than an apologetic for what follows. But I know self-parody when I see it--and honestly, even if Miller really isn't capable of writing in any other way anymore, that doesn't make it any less of a self-parody--and I have no attachment to some platonic ideal of Batman. In point of fact I actually have long felt Batman would have more fun pounding the bloody bejesus out of criminals than we've been led to believe. In the immortal words of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.
And you know, the thing really is (to quote Grant Morrison's Mad Hatter) very much cleverer than its rep as a goddamn-Batman meme generator would indicate. Miller is constantly getting Lee to play around with panel layouts in memorable fashion, from the Bendis-like talking-head array during Batman and Dick Grayson's conversation in the Batmobile to the gigantic splash-page extreme-closeups of the Robin and Superman logos (the impact of which is muted somewhat by similar treatment of other images to fill up space in the collection, but still) to the outrageously over-the-top barroom banter juxtaposed with an image of a burning fuse during the Black Canary's introduction. There are even a couple moments that recalled the genuine madcap wit of mid-period Miller (roughly from The Dark Knight Returns through Hard Boiled)--a great jumpcut reveal of Dick's kidnapping ruse during the Dynamic Duo's confrontation with poor befuddled Green Lantern, and that massive multi-page fold-out of the Batcave that just keeps unfolding. By the time I got to the fourth fold, I was laughing out loud. Though Jim Lee has aged into his "nicest guy and biggest artist in comics" role very gracefully, he'll never be the formal innovator (or popularizer of others' innovations) that Miller has been, but even still, all these moments shine quite aside from his primary selling point of drawing DC's characters as heroic and awesome and eye-poppingly big-big-BIG as possible. Put it all together and it's a pleasure to flip through this book.
That's not to say that the "this goes to 11" tone works all the time. There's just no way to carry off any kind of emotional nuance if everyone sounds like a manic cross between Raymond Chandler and Matthew Perry's Chandler. At one point, you're supposed to infer from Vicki Vale's speech pattern that she's in shock, but she just sounds like everyone else (I imagine that was intentional, but it's still a bit flummoxing). Meanwhile, the selling point of Miller's Joker, back since DKR, is that he's unsmiling and quiet, but his internal monologue is as chatty as all the other characters'. It doesn't help that the Joker has always been one of Lee's weakest interpretations of DC's characters, the nose too pointy, the face too demonic. And honestly, Lee's polished work is the reason that this book, at its best, will always just be really entertaining, whereas I truly think that the raw power Miller's own The Dark Knight Strikes Again (or his crazy gorgeous alternate covers for ASB&R, reprinted here) is like a message from an alternate future for superhero comics.
But having the first nine issues of the book collected in one place does a lot to clarify what's going on. For example, no longer does the Batmobile ride seem to go on for weeks (though Miller inserted a joke about that)--it just seems like one more feverish element in a story paced like a series of exclamation points. And tackling those initial, hostile conversations between Batman and Robin just a few minutes before you come to this arc's comparatively quiet graveside denouement helps you realize that hey, this book just might be about Robin's buoyant presence dragging Batman back from the brink of lunacy as we were promised after all! It certainly makes a convincing case that running around dressed as a bat and hospitalizing people all night for a year or so would drive you, well, batshit. Maybe that's the quality, the tone, that Miller's trying to capture more than anything else. I mean, there's an issue where Batman and Robin lure Green Lantern into a room painted from floor to ceiling in bright yellow--so are they, though unfortunately we don't see how that came to be--and Robin steals his power ring and crushes his windpipe so they have to perform an emergency tracheotomy on him. Mentally ill, meant as a compliment.
* Well how about this: My World of Warcraft-playing friend Ceri B. has started a great new WoW blog expressly dedicated, in part, to answering my questions about the game. I win! One of her most interesting points so far is a bit about the intended audience for that goofy Cataclysm trailer the other day--it's geared toward a die-hard convention-going crowd, rather than something intended to serve as a bonafide movie-trailer-style commercial for the world at large.
* Good art for a good cause: Anders Nilsen has assembled the 46 Million Art Auction and Benefit, raising money for TV ads supporting the public option for health care reform by auctioning off art by John Porcellino, Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Dan Clowes, Jeffrey Brown, Paul Hornschemeier, Kevin Huizenga, David Heatley, Lynda Barry, Lilli Carre, Sammy Harkham, Nilsen himself, and many many more. Yowza. Bid early, bid often!
* Remember around the time Cloverfield came out and Diary of the Dead was announced and there looked like there'd be a wave of Blair Witch-inspired first-person mockumentary horror? That kind of fizzled out--Cloverfield and [REC] did pretty well, Quarantine was just a carbon copy of [REC], Diary of the Dead was atrocious, and I'm not sure The Poughkeepsie Tapes ever even came it out--although mockumentary-style filmmaking is now widely grokked enough for District 9 to be able to bounce back and forth from it at will and not lose audiences. Anyway, one of the big stars of that early pre-wave, in terms of advance word of mouth, was Paranormal Activity, a supposedly shit-scary "surveillance cameras in a haunted house" movie. Looks like it's finally headed for a limited theatrical release. Sign me up--as it turns out, supernatural horror (as opposed to monsters or murderers) seems to be the only kind that can get me terrified just thinking about, say, The Exorcist while standing around doing my dishes in the kitchen late at night. (Via Jason Adams.)
* Speaking of the shockumentary genre, is this a viral video for Cloverfield 2? Even if it isn't, it is, I suppose. (Via Topless Robot.)
* Holy moley, Brian Chippendale is blogging aboutMarvel comics. How often are you gonna see an Uncanny X-Men/Dark Avengers crossover juxtaposed with a Ron Rege Jr. page? Also, fun fact: Chippendale is working on owning the complete 500-issue run of Daredevil. (Via Heidi MacDonald.)
* Every once in a while a critic latches hold of an unlikely candidate for praise and jams his body in the doorway to hold it open for other critics to come through and have a look. Tom Spurgeon on the Luna Brothers is one of those cases.
Of the three action comics I reviewed this week, the most thrilling, best choreographed, most suspenseful, most pulse-pounding was not the Frank Miller/Jim Lee team-up or the Geoff Johns event comic but a little black and white story about birds. In this antepenultimate installment of Anders Nilsen's long-running magnum opus, things come to a head between our "hero" birds and the big black crows who've been harassing them throughout this bleak story about how difficult it is to process tragedy. Because it has been so bleak, the tension here is almost unbearable. As the crows make a mockery of the birds' noble but feeble attempts to defend themselves, just one big question filled my brain: Just how far will Nilsen take this?
As the action picks up the panel borders disappear, leaving Nilsen's already feather-delicate images feeling more vulnerable and exposed than ever. Each image is a marvel of composition and clarity as the black and white birds clash, calling to mind everything from yin and yang to that incongruous cover image on the original hardcover versions of Stephen King's The Stand. Each visual beat is so strong, and complemented so chillingly with the crows' callous dialogue, that even as I raced to find out what happens, I couldn't help but linger on every panel, trying to squeeze out every last bit of detail. I refuse to spoil the ending, whether devastating or joyous--frankly, everyone should experience it for themselves--but I will say that it made me more confident than ever that Big Questions is a masterpiece in the making.
* Curt Purcell turns his Blackest Night/Great Darkness Saga series toward examining the changing definition of "universe-wide" superhero stories. Where once the all-encompassing import of a big storyline--the Dark Phoenix Saga, say--was conveyed simply by having a handful of guest-star panels showing characters from other franchises reacting to the goings-on or some other within-one-series tie-in, nowadays these things spill across entire publishing lines and necessitate multiple new miniseries. I've gotta think that there's a business reason for this, in that the creation of the Direct Market enabled companies to spread a story across dozens of issues and titles while counting on its audience to be able to find them, whereas the less dedicated newsstand market couldn't guarantee that kind of regular, predictable access.
* Every once in a while I'll run across a story of paranormal phenomena/forteana that freaks me the hell out. For example: Meet the Grinning Man. Indrid Cold, I presume?
* Finally, Happy 92nd Birthday to Jack Kirby, the King of Comics. Tom Spurgeon's celebratory image gallery is a thing of wild wonder. Jack Kirby is the revelation, the tiger-force at the core of all things. When you cry out in your dreams, it is Kirby that you see!
This week I'm guestblogging at Robot 6, filling in for the illustrious JK Parkin. So head over there Monday through Friay for comics coverage with that unique Collins stamp, and stick around here for all the movie and horror and other junk I talk about coverage, and some reviews, probably.
Flash: Rebirth #4
Geoff Johns, writer
Ethan Van Sciver, artist
DC Comics, August 2009
If you know Geoff Johns, and particularly if you know his work on this project's thematic predecessor, Green Lantern: Rebirth, you knew this was coming. This is the issue where Johns redefines, organizes, and expands the Flash mythos, tying together various elements and explaining how revived hero Barry Allen is an indispensable part of them all. The following thoughts about this aren't quite Flash Facts--maybe they're Allen Opinions?
This was nowhere near as elegantly done as the reveal of the "emotional spectrum" concept in Green Lantern, or even the "Parallax was a separate entity" reveal from GL: Rebirth. I think that's because the core concepts being utilized here aren't as easy to instantly grasp. With Green Lantern, if you were gonna bring back mass murderer Hal Jordan you had to come up with a reason why it's okay for us to like him again, and "he was possessed by a demonic yellow fear elemental at the time he killed all those people" is a pretty easy one to get behind. And once you've established that arch-enemy Sinestro's power ring is fueled by fear in much the same way that GL's ring is fueled by willpower, it's a logical leap to other colored rings being fueled by other states of mind.
By contrast, the big revelations here...well, I've never quite understood what the heck the Speed Force is supposed to be anyway. For years I labored under the misapprehension that it was some pseudomystical thing, like what J. Michael Straczynski did with that horrible "Spider-Totem" idea in Amazing Spider-Man--so that instead of that accident with the lightning striking Barry Allen while he was holding some chemicals giving him his powers, that just opened up some portal to the Speed Force or something, just like how in JMS's justly ignored origin revamp the spider was magical and the radioactivity was just a coinicence. I've since learned that I was wrong and the Speed Force was just something out there that people who got super-speed through whatever means became able to commune with or tap into or whatever the proper term might be. Either way, this is a much wonkier concept than "rainbow of space armies," and so rejiggering things so that now Barry Allen's accident created the Speed Force doesn't have the same oomph as "the reason Green Lanterns were vulnerable to yellow is because of the giant yellow Fear Monster inside the Power Battery."
Same with the revelation that there's a Negative Speed Force embodied or utilized or whatever by Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash. To convey this idea, Johns and Van Sciver tie it to the fact that the Flash's speed lightning is yellow while Zoom's is red. Frankly, I'd never noticed this before--it's certainly not a famous concept like Green Lantern's green ring vs. Sinestro's yellow one, or even just "the Flash wears red while the Reverse Flash wears yellow." Without that easy-to-envision visual hook, it's a much tougher sell; all Van Sciver's little design flourishes and neato ways of showing superspeed Van Sciver can't quite make up for it.
However, there were quite a few things I liked in this issue. For starters, I appreciate the way Johns has shifted the generative spark for the Flash's powers back to that lightning/chemicals accident instead of positing some preexisting speedster ether floating around out there. Now it's all a result of Barry's accident, ripples from which apparently spread throughout all of time and space--which moreover is as good an answer as any to the question "Why is this Flash different from all other Flashes?" Plus, I feel like we're closer than ever to a speedster team book called Speed Force, which is far past due, and since I don't have a dog in the Jay vs. Barry vs. Wally vs. Bart vs. Max Mercury vs. whoever the hell else race (no pun intended), it could star any of these guys and I'd be fine with it. The prospect of the Flash Family being its own little squad centered on one of DC's coolest superhero concepts, like the Green Lantern Corps or Batman and his Robins or the Super-people, is pretty appealing.
But I suppose the main reason I'm not letting my problems with Johns's solution to the Flash equation is that I'm not convinced we've seen the end of it. For example, I have to assume an explanation is in the offing that ties the new, time-jumping Zoom in with Professor Zoom's negative Speed Force. Maybe Johns will explain (by which I mean invent, of course) why non-Speed-Force-using Superman is able to keep pace with the Flashes. Maybe that turtle villain who slows things down will be revealed as some sort of Slow Force avatar. Maybe there's some sort of Superhero String Theory in the offing that connects the Speed Forces to the Emotional Spectrum to Anti-Life to the Purple Healing Ray to New Order's "Blue Monday," I dunno. I appreciate the effort of imagination needed to put it all together and await its continued rollout.
"I'd rather die than give you control." (or Adolf Hitler, Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, and Trent Reznor walk into a blog)
You may recall that a while back I took a break from reviewing comics thrice weekly. I'd done it for a year and a quarter or something like that and felt I'd accomplished what I set out to accomplish. I was also getting a little sick of feeling obligated to read and review comics--the second something becomes homework I want nothing to do with it--and was looking forward to reading some prose for a change. Because I am a strange and in some ways fundamentally unpleasant person, the prose book I chose to read during my break from comics was Ian Kershaw's 1,072-page Hitler: A Biography. I learned a lot from that book. One of the things I learned was that after the war took a turn for the worse, for Germany that is, Hitler pretty much stopped making any kind of public appearances, even radio addresses. During the darkest years of the war, his public addresses literally numbered in the single digits. Try to imagine the President disappearing from public view 362 days out of the year, as enemy forces bomb the hell out of you while your sons and husbands freeze to death in Russia, and you can imagine what this would do to morale in America, let alone a country that had been trained to worship Adolf Hitler as the personification of the nation. But no amount of cajoling, even from his fanatically loyal propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, could persuade Hitler to re-enter the spotlight while his "plans"--sneer quotes richly deserved, since they basically amounted to "if we want to win really, really bad, we'll win"--were busy being shown to be the ridiculous delusions of grandeur that they were. He didn't want to lose face, but perhaps even more revealingly, he simply didn't give a shit about the suffering of the German people. After all, if they were losing, it stood to reason that they didn't want to win badly enough, and therefore didn't deserve his recognition and consolation anyway.
This leads to the second major thing I learned reading that book, about appeasement. During the years I spent vociferously supporting the war efforts of an administration whose vice-president is now voluntarily appearing on television to publicly proclaim how very, very proud he is of an interrogation system that involved holding power drills to people's heads, threatening to rape their mothers, and of course killing them, appeasement was the ugliest word around. One of my proudest moments, and by proudest I mean most retrospectively nauseating, in a literally physical sense, involved thinking of post-3/11 Spain as a nation of Neville Chamberlains. (I don't remember if I actually wrote this--Jim Henley might, but I don't--and I don't have the stomach to dig through the archives to find out; I ask you to take my word for it.) But what I learned is that the actions of Chamberlain and the other European governments prior to the war had nothing to do with being giant pussies who didn't have the balls to go kill them some Nazis and defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world. What it had to do with was remembering how around 20 years earlier, the nations of Europe had collectively fed themselves into a nightmarish meat grinder, and could we please try to avoid slaughtering tens of millions of our children in the near future. After reading Kershaw's book, I don't get the sense that Chamberlain's appeasement at Munich had anything to do with a moral defect on the part of Chamberlain or anyone else, anyone else but Hitler that is. They might have done better to heed the warning signs, but they felt they were acting out of an abundance of caution, caution about plunging Europe into yet another ruinous Great War. Their great miscalculation was believing Hitler felt the same way. Unfortunately, as Kershaw documents at great length, Hitler literally couldn't have cared less about human suffering. The potential death of millions of people of any race, even Germans, was vanishingly low on his list of concerns. Chamberlain's screw-up was playing chicken with a sociopath, just as Germany's screw-up (among many!) was casting its lot with one--through ignorance, through chauvinism, through bloodthirstiness, through complacency, through conformity, through fear, through compulsion, through a little of it all. The same inhuman lack of empathy that led him to attack Poland and France and the U.S.S.R. was the same inhuman lack of empathy that caused him to abandon the people on whose nominal behalf he ordered those invasions.
The third thing I learned from that book was that he had nine lives like a cat. Hitler survived something like eight assassination attempts. Not plots--attempts, as in bombs with fuses lit. But schedules were changed, explosives failed to detonate, table legs blocked blasts, and history's greatest monster lived to sit in his compounds and bore his captive audiences with rants about Wagner and American cinema and the character of International Jewry and the prowess of Stalin another day.
The fourth thing I learned from that book was that Hitler loved the movies.
Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's, I dunno, sixth or seventh film, posits a world in which movie violence fights against real-world violence, specifically the violence of Hitler's Nazi regime. The film's first act of violence involves the machine-gun slaughter of a Jewish family; the second involves a guy from The Office scalping German soldiers, a crazy anti-Nazi German serial killer reaching his hand down an SS officer's throat, and the director of Hostel beating a Nazis to death with a baseball bat onscreen. The first outburst is led up to with nearly unbearable tension, in one of the lengthy, dialogue- and closeup-driven short-films-within-a-film that have become Tarantino's trademark. We have a feeling we know where it's going, as do the characters involved, and it makes us sick and revolted. The second outburst, naturally, is therefore greeted with cheers and laughter. This isn't despite it being much more graphically violent than the initial massacre--it's because it's much more graphically violent.
This second outburst of violence is movie violence, the violence of Tarantino's much-ballyhooed "movie movie" world, operating at a layer of unreality above a normal movie. This movie violence is pitted against the backdrop of unspeakable and very real barbarism unleashed by Hitler's regime, and we root for it to prevail. And it's not like Tarantino's being subtle about this, either. He cast the biggest movie star he's worked with yet in the lead. He cast a fellow director in a key supporting role. He cast (spoiler alert!) Mike "Austin Powers" Myers as a veddy veddy British intelligence officer, and formerly glorious specimen of manhood Rod "The Birds" Taylor as Winston Churchill, and the instantly recognizable voices of Tarantino repertory company members Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel in notable voiceover parts. Within the story itself, one of the main characters is a German movie star turned spy, and another is a German soldier turned movie star, and yet another is the German propaganda minister turned director and studio head. There's a key conversation about King Kong, famously one of Hitler's favorite films. The whole movie centers on a plot called "Operation Kino" that climaxes in a movie theater during the premiere of an ultraviolent German propaganda film based on "real" events. Actual film is used as a weapon for god's sake. But it didn't take me any longer to suss out this theme than Brad Pitt's utterance of the line, "Quite frankly, watching Donnie beat Nazis to death is the closest we get to going to the movies." Even the characters realize they're perpetrating movie violence. And as those who have seen the whole movie can no doubt attest, to say that this is the "movie movie"est movie in Tarantino's oeuvre is to understate the case considerably. Considerably. I mean, the very idea of the movie calls attention to its own movieness. You know how a movie about a plot to kill Hitler has to end, right?
In that sense Inglourious Basterds may be the punkest movie I've seen in I can't even think how long. Maybe ever. It's about nothing less than the power of art to destroy evil. It's about how important it is to love film more than the likes of Hitler hate life. It's about how movie violence, art violence, art designed as a FUCK YOU, can help you deal with the violence that so terrified Chamberlain's cohorts and to which Hitler and his cohorts were so indifferent. It's Woody Guthrie's "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS" guitar slogan made literal. It's a lingering closeup on the bloodlust-saturated eyes of Eli Roth, the beautiful Jewish torture-porn poster boy and enemy of good taste, as he empties a machine gun into the bodies of members of the Third Reich. And it's a total fucking fantasy. Yet that's what makes it so vital. I mean, I'm pretty sure Johnny Rotten wasn't actually the Anti-Christ, but in the end, did it matter? Well, I suppose it did. Punk toppled nothing. But it gave people the power to topple themselves. It gave them a psychic survival mechanism. I guess you could see that as the ultimate con-job of art. I think it's noble. Glourious, even.
Last Wednesday I attended Nine Inch Nails' supposedly final New York City performance ever at Terminal 5. This took place 15 years and three months after my first Nine Inch Nails concert--my first concert by anyone--at Roseland in May of 1994. I attended both with my best friend and AllTooFlat.com major domo Kennyb. I'm not a big concertgoer anymore, I tend to prefer spending $12 or whatever on an album and listening to it in the comfort of my headphones than plunking down $30 or $75 dollars and standing around in some sweaty venue in NYC, then taking the long Long Island Rail Road ride home and getting like six hours of sleep, but no way was I missing NIN's final New York concert. They were my favorite band, identified as such for more than half a decade, and I still love Trent Reznor.
This turned out to be an excellent decision, one of the best I've made in a long time. The evening proved to be enormously cathartic. I screamed along to every word, pouring a year's worth of awfulness out of my mouth and into the sweat that passed for air. "Broken, bruised, forgotten, sore, too fucked up to care anymore." "Still stings these shattered nerves--pigs, we get what pigs deserve." "Hey God, I think you owe me a great big apology." "I'm gonna burn this whole world down." But also: "I want so much to believe." "I am trying to see, I am trying to believe." "What if this whole crusade's a charade?" And ultimately: "I'd rather die than give you control." What was I singing about? The disease that is probably going to kill my poor cat? The addictions and mental illnesses that leveled my family? Whatever-it-was that killed two babies in my wife's womb? The vote I cast for George W. fucking Bush? The town hall screamers? A non-existent God? My ex-love interests? The popular kids I hated for years? My wife? Myself? Human nature? Life? My solipsistic self-regard for thinking any of this matters to anyone else? All these things. As Ryan Dombal said in his review of the band's show at Webster Hall a couple days earlier:
Reznor turned the tiny crowd's unrequited dread into bliss yet again. Just like he did back in high school, or junior high, or even during a irrationally black college-and-beyond bender. Nine Inch Nails may be going dark, but confusion, anger, and despondency will abide.
When I was in high school, Nine Inch Nails was the king cool band among my circle. This is pretty far from the case at this point. But I'm still confused and angry and despondent a lot of the time--a lot more deeply so than I was in high school, in all probability. Screaming these lyrics back at Trent Reznor, which honestly is what they were tailor-made to do, I realized all that, and realized how wonderful it felt to vomit all that back out into the world again. As Trent sang "Bow down before the one you serve, you're going to get what you deserve," I raised my hands in the air, palms open and facing the stage, and suddenly noticed that half the audience had spontaneously done the exact same thing. We were somehow screaming out our fury at conformity, and acknowledging how all of us owed this band the exact same debt for enabling us to do so. I could feel myself getting better, somehow. It was magical.
A while back, I noticed during one of my rare schleps through my rudimentary referrer logs that a blogger who I think used to enjoy my writing called me a twat. (I'm not gonna say who it was or link to the diss. I don't want this to become some kind of lame pissing match. I only bring it up because I'm a big crybaby, not to kick off some kind of blog battle. Those days are long gone. Besides, I've been a giant asshole to people on this blog many times, so it seems churlish to reprimand someone else for turning the tables.) He wouldn't say why he felt that way, but as evidence for my twatitude, he cited this mix I made of my favorite Nine Inch Nails songs, which he characterized as slow-songs-only desperate plea for validation. Leave aside for a moment the fact that this mix included "Wish" and "Gave Up" and "Burn" and "The Becoming" and "Happiness in Slavery" and "Just Like You Imagined" and "10 Miles High," some of the metalest fucking songs in the entire NIN catalog. Leave aside the fact that at the end of the post I promised a completely different mix of songs that I posted a week later, featuring nothing but NIN's booty-shakin' dancefloor bangers. You can even leave aside the fact that it's tough to think of an artist whose work could get you less validation from the critical populace than freaking Nine Inch Nails. The music itself, the emotions it calls to mind, that's all the validation I need. It really doesn't matter what anyone else thinks, or what effect it does or doesn't have on anyone else, or whether it ever gets me anywhere better than where I am now except for the moment. The art is enough because it's saying something that's in me. It's giving me control for as long as it takes me to sing that chorus. No matter what happened in the real world, there's value to Eli Roth shooting up a room full of Nazis.