Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Onion: Franz Kafka International Airport

Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport

Most of the time using a literary figure for parody often works through the juxtaposition of things that do not go together -- like Franz Kafka the Musical in Home Movies, or the joke about Dostoevsky at the end of the clip. This is absolutely brilliant because it is only barely more aggravating than an actual airport is. The point here is not that these things would be funny together, but that Kafka was RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING.

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #209

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]


Uncanny X-Men #209 occupies a dubious but distinct place in X-Men history, as the last issue wherein Claremont makes excellent use of the “classic,” Cockrum-created team. “Salvation” effectively climaxes the second-generation X-Men’s monumental, decade-long tenure with a single, huge, multi-faceted fight scene – shrewdly counter-pointed by Spiral’s surreal seduction of Rachel.

The character arcs for four key characters come to powerful conclusions here: first, there is the tentative post-breakup relationship between Shadowcat and Colossus. Though other moments in the series’ recent history hinted at a resolution, the most powerful clarification comes during Kitty’s below-ground rescue of Peter. Descending toward him (she hopes) in pitch blackness, she recognizes that she could die in the attempt, but resolves that she’d rather run out of air than turn back before he’s saved. That she’s willing to give her life for Colossus even after he broke her heart is powerful and inspiring, and visceral proof that – whether friends or lovers – the bond between the two characters is as strong as ever. Later, Claremont lets the key turning point in the battle occur thanks to a reprise of the trick last scene in issue 202, whereby Shadowcat and Colossus merge into a single being. Once again, the pair’s stratagem becomes a strikingly persuasive metaphor for intimacy, even more intense this second time because it occurs at such a crucial moment in the battle. In the milieu of superhero comics, the most convincing metaphors are those that lead to the defeat of a supervillain.

As a contrast to the redemptive quality of the Peter/Kitty arc, Kurt’s recent thread of self-delusion – his relentlessly solipsistic notion that his life is a swashbuckling adventure film, starring him – comes to a head in brutally tragic terms. Despite Storm’s warning not to, Nightcrawler attempts a strategy already used previously against Nimrod. With a jauntily silly exit line (“Don’t worry, fearless lady leader, I’ll be careful!”) he teleports from Ororo’s side and takes on Nimrod, only to be torn to pieces. The seeds for this tragic ending were actually planted in one of Claremont’s very first issues: X-Men #99, which saw Cyclops warning Nightcrawler about treating his role as an X-Man as if he were still a circus performer. (“That kind of flamboyance can cost us if you’re not careful.”) Kurt laughed the warning off and proceeded to flamboyantly bash more Sentinels. Yet now – over 100 issues later – Scott’s words prove tragically prescient, as Kurt’s devil-may-care attitude (again, ironically, against a Sentinel) seems to get him killed. This is the kind of long-term narrative payoff that’s only possible in a longitudinal storytelling project like this. That Claremont was able to achieve this kind of dramatic irony between two moments separated by a decade is a large part of what makes his work on X-Men so special.

Finally, Rachel Summers’ storyline terminates in a manner even more pathetic than Nightcrawler’s. Kurt, at least, falls during a moment of bravery (and doesn’t die, as next issue reveals, though a toll is still exacted). Rachel, by contrast, succumbs to cowardice and essentially gives up her soul to the devil rather than face up to her responsibilities. First abandoning the other X-Men out of fear and spite, she later recapitulates the same role she played in the original “Days of Future Past” – sitting idly on the sidelines while monitoring her friends’ defeats telepathically. This is another fantastic juxtaposition of two temporally disparate moments in X-Men continuity; yet more dramatic irony created via long-term plotting.

Then, seduced by the hallucinogenic esoterica of the Body Shop, Rachel is convinced to let go of all her painful memories. The weakest character – psychologically speaking -- in the entire Claremontian canon, Rachel would rather have her burdens artificially removed than to actually deal with the guilt and shame of her past. Having made her choice, she dissolves, not unlike Nightcrawler, into non-existence.

Not only are Kurt and Rachel taken down in issue 209, but two members of the Hellfire Club are killed as well during the battle with Nimrod. The effect of so many “kills” is to give this story an acute sense of anything being possible, and no one being safe. It’s a breathless climax indeed, and by including so many pieces of the X-Men tapestry – Morlocks, the Hellfire Club, a Sentinel – Claremont creates a genuine sense that THIS is what everything’s been leading up to. That feel is consolidated when all the mutants, in all three factions, actually team up against a common enemy. It’s appropriate that the Morlocks and the Hellfire Club are the two teams who should be part of this seminal moment; they represent two extremes – the Morlocks are the destitute outcasts, while the Hellfire Club sit, quite literally, on thrones of privilege. But, rallied by the X-Men – poised midway between those extremes at this point in their continuity – they all work for the common benefit of mutantkind against a villain who represents the pinnacle (technologically, at least) of anti-mutant sentiment.

So, on multiple dramatic levels – plot, theme, character – Uncanny #209 is a culminating issue. But as was just noted a few entries ago, Claremont’s writing is not really about bringing things together. His inclination is almost always toward disruption rather than resolution.

Indeed, all of the dialogue from Spiral in this issue virtually screams warnings of the brutal changes that are just around the corner. “Endings become beginnings, flowing together apart, out with the old, celebrate the new,” Spiral free-associates at one point, which pretty much lays out Claremont’s mission-statement for his next five years on the title.

On the final page, Rachel abruptly hallucinates an image of the current X-Men lineup, and says two panels later, “No. That’s over. That’s done.” And the last line of the issue, spoken by the personification of chaos itself: “What comes next, I decide!” Everything is about to fall apart, and in the process, Uncanny X-Men will become more interesting than ever.

[This was a particularly good post I thought. One question Jason -- why do you think Claremont would chose Spiral, of all characters, as his mouthpiece here?]

Monday, March 30, 2009

Dollhouse and Kings

Dollhouse: "Man on the Street" and "Echoes." The fabled 6th episode of Dollhouse was not perfect but it was certainly a step up in terms of both acting and plotting. Patton Oswalt was great, Whedon brought some fun dialogue (“I’m sure I’m in serious need of some moral spankitude, but guess who’s not qualified to be my rabbi?”), and they finally justified the concept of the Dollhouse -- you really could not just hire someone to act out this fantasy. The mole in the Dollhouse, as well as the idea that there is a larger evil purpose behind the place, rather than just a kind of fancy whorehouse was welcome (though surely should have been set up earlier). I was not wild about the man on the street interviews though it did provide some much needed context to the show -- what does the average person know or think of the dollhouse? And the revelation that the girl across the hall from Helo was an active was kind of handled in a kick-ass way (and was nicely tied into a sub-plot about a handler who was raping his agent), although she was the most obvious person to be an active, and the way the show reveals actives suggests that Whedon really liked the idea of Cylons. The fight scenes were suddenly better but I still find Topher insufferable. Every time he is on screen I understand why it is that some people simply cannot stand Whedon -- this guy surely embodies everything they hate to such a degree that even I, who like Whedon, despise how cutesy quirky he is. "Echoes" was not fantastic but I have to admit that the overall arc of the show is growing on me to the point that I still want to watch (the fact that there are only 6 more episodes this season is helping as well). Everyone getting high was maybe a too cute idea, and not every actor did it so well or was given good stuff to work with. But the scope of the story is bigger now, and the conjunction of Echo's backstory with the story of how the Dollhouse recruited someone else was smart. The virus thing was kind of a silly device -- no one really needed to stop it in the end, since it stopped itself. I wondered if Echo's boyfriend could be Alpha but it did not seem like that actor had the chops for psycho evil powerhouse.

Kings -- the first four episodes. Ratings on this are terrible so it looks like this will not be with us for much longer. I kind of like it though, perhaps only because it has both Ian McShane and Brian Cox in it as well as religious subject matter, which I enjoy seeing pop culture struggle with. The King James Bible is kind of awesome source material, especially when you realize that all the critics who complain the show is little more than a tricked out soap opera have maybe accidentally gone past the show and are now commenting about the bible, which is totally like a tricked out soap opera -- hilariously this means you can't really blame Kings for how pulpy and trashy it is, which is kind of brilliant. The dialogue and acting are uneven -- eveything about the show screams HBO-lite, a situation not helped by the presence of McShane and Cox and the NEED for some Deadwood style dialogue that almost never materializes (though surely bringing in more from the King James Bible is the way to go here or even just a little more acceptance of the fact that everyone should talk even MORE like they are in a comic book). Still the show gets a lot of little things right -- I particularly like the two Shakespearian clowns even though I suspect I shouldn't -- and is kind of interesting. And you have to respect a massive serious thing like this taking the butterfly so seriously as a symbol.

Friday, March 27, 2009


The last two episodes of Lost, "Namaste" and "He's Our You," have not, in my opinion, been standouts like "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" or "316" or even "LeFlur" (which surprised me by how much I liked it), but have been totally sold LOST episodes. The back to basics approach to LOST continues. This show does reunions like no mans business, and though for Sara the sheer number of them has made all the recent ones descent into bathos they get me right here, ya know, every time. I also had a friend object to "Sawer the Thinker" as he appears in his confrontation with Jack, but I thought it was excellent. Things have of course changed in three years -- it can be hard to remember on this show that they were only on the island for 100 days last time: they have been apart for like 10 times the amount of time they spent together in the first place. But also Sawyer is a con man, so he has always been a thinker. One of my favorite LOST character moments was when Sawyer resisted being the leader of the castaways for a while at the beginning of season 3, then when Jack came back he had to, but did not want to, give up the throne. Here he asserts himself -- and Jack wonderfully defers, thankful to not have to deal with the responsibility, which is in a way even MORE scary for Sawyer than the idea that he wants it back. I also enjoyed Sun meeting Christian -- and more confirmation that it is the smoke monster taking the form of dead people as we see it destroying trees in the distance before Christian shows up. I am very much unclear on why Sun was not taken to the 70s along with everyone else -- and I assume that there is a better reason than the dramatic tension of keeping her and Jin separated.

"He's Our You" I was not crazy about but two friends argued for it, and made the excellent point that this is REALLY back to basics for LOST: the single character flashback, something we have not seen in a while. I do think that the title and gestures toward Dharma's torturer (that awesome dude from Deadwood and Bladerunner) were misleading since he is just a hippie who drugs people up, but I LOVED how Sayid played the drug trip -- he is always so controlled and serious, not one to get caught up in mystical weird pulpy nonsense like Locke does -- but here is is all cackling and crying "YOU ARE ALL GOING TO DIE! I AM FROM THE FUTURE!" Is the Arab guy on the plane Sayid's bother from the flashback, by the way? I will say I thought the flashback story about how he got captured and on a plane to Guam was less than satisfying (surely there is more to it than just the family of this guy he shot, but I would like to have had that hinted at here). I like that they are dealing with little Ben so quickly, and I enjoyed the dynamic there, as well as this feeling that the castaways are going to split along Dharma and Other lines (surely Sayid joins the others or something): I love how looking back at season 3 the people Ben captured were all folks he knew as a kid. But I also thought that the ending was weak because it seemed for a split second to be more interesting that it was -- the initial shock of it is that Sayid has wrecked the timeline, but then you remember all the times the island would not let someone die, and how Ben shot John and left him for dead at the end of Season 3, and you realize Ben will be fine -- and probably healed by Juliet who he will totally crush on, which is why his older self wanted her so bad. Still -- a pretty good episode, just a middle season move em around episode.

My final problem was the scene where Jack and Kate are eating Waffles. I want to see relaxed happy stuff too, but this season has gone too long without establishing the overall sense of what these guys are supposed to be doing, or even what needs to be done before the season finale. There was all this sturm and drang about them having to get back and save everyone from some awful hell, but everyone was fine, Sawyer and Juliet did not want them back, and now they are just hanging out. I know there is a war and a purge coming, but I need more of a ticking clock on this show, at least as of the most recent episode.

Two final thoughts on LOST. 1. Surely Ben is the most beaten on person in this history of television. I would love to see the youtube montage of him getting smacked around by EVERYONE (even Sun hit him with an Oar in Namaste). 2. I cannot believe there are only 24 episodes of LOST left EVER -- as many as in a single season of 24 -- and only 7 left this season. Crazy.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are Trailer

I am kind of seriously excited about this. The choice of The Arcade Fire alone...

(You can see it in better quality HERE.

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #208

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]


The story opens with Claremont working hard to clarify – via Wolverine – the oblique moral distinctions made at the end of the previous issue. He just about pulls it off. Recall that Claremont has finally managed to shift the X-Men paradigm from its original 1960s conception that saw them as counter-revolutionary. Now, the X-Men are theoretically on the revolutionary side – but it was John Lennon who pointed out that revolution does not necessarily entail violence. The uncharacteristic anti-murder rhetoric espoused by Logan in this and the previous issue is Claremont’s overly extemporized version of the simple Lennonian sentiment: “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.” (Horses for courses: Part of Uncanny #208 is set in “the John Lennon memorial garden, Strawberry Fields.”)

Kitty, meanwhile, acts as a mouthpiece for what surely was reader reaction to the end of Uncanny #207 – sheer shock and disbelief that Wolverine would kill a teammate in order to save one of the X-Men’s nastier villains. It’s a shrewd move on Claremont’s part, allowing both the readers to air their grievances and the author – via Wolverine – to clarify his own points.

But there’s only so much room for philosophical debate in an action comic, and after a few pages of back-and-forth, the story launches into a sublime action-thriller. Though the big pay-off occurs in Uncanny #209, we see here the beginning of Claremont’s most ambitiously conceived action set-piece, incorporating four different factions: the Hellfire Club (both mutant members and mercs), Nimrod, the Morlocks, and the X-Men themselves. There’s even a brief allusion to a fifth group, X-Factor (hence Nimrod’s detection of “twelve [mutants] classified as ‘X-Men’” in Central Park, even though the comic only features seven).

Nimrod’s inclusion here contains an intriguing element, as he finds himself confused by the onset of “feelings.” It’s a development not expanded upon in the next issue, which is Nimrod’s final appearance for three years – but Claremont will eventually take this thread to its intuitively logical end-point (i.e., what does a mutant-killing robot do when he finds that he, himself, has mutated?) in Uncanny #’s 246-247.

The final few pages of “Retribution” are superb, as Claremont winds the tension of the X-Men/Hellfire Club confrontation tighter and tighter, then unloads with both barrels with Nimrod’s appearance on the final splash page. It’s one of Claremont’s finest cliffhangers, and sets us up perfectly for next issue’s wildly exciting finale.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #207

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]


In issue 203, which climaxed the optimistic first half of Claremont’s epic run on Uncanny X-Men, Rachel Summers – the daughter of Jean Grey – returned to the planet of the M’Kraan Crystal and, with the fate of the entire universe in her hands, came down on the side of life. The crimes of Dark Phoenix were thus redeemed by her daughter, and a message of hope and compassion was conveyed.

Now, however, we’re on the dark side. In this issue, Rachel’s redemption turns out to have been only temporary. Still haunted by nightmares of the dystopia wherein she once acted as a “hound” who hunted down mutants on the government’s behalf, she spends the duration of “Ghosts” in a state of compulsive, unrelenting shame. The X-Men -- who in any given pre-1986 issue would have treated Rachel’s psychotic level of guilt with compassion – now just don’t have the time for it. Having temporarily holed up in the Morlock tunnels while waiting for Wolverine to heal from his battle with Deathstrike, they are in straits so desperate that compassion, for the first time in their history, takes a back seat to simple survival. This is entirely new territory for the characters and the series.

The focus of Rachel’s dystopian dream is Wolverine, who acts as an avatar for her own guilt and thus – in every iteration of her recurring nightmare – kills her with his claws. The reason for Logan’s role is only hinted at, but it’s a fascinating hint, one that makes superb use of the continuity as depicted in the original “Days of Future Past” story. In the original comics (issues 141-142), Rachel was just another inmate in the prison camp – that she’d been a “hound” before entering the camp was ret-conned in by Claremont in Uncanny #189. Now, we get another piece of that puzzle. “The government sent me to the camp, figuring I’d be slaughtered by the inmates as a traitor,” Rachel recalls. “But the surviving X-Men took me in. ... Kitty – and the others – forgave me. All of them ... [cut to Wolverine] ... save one.”

Indeed, a re-examination of the original “Days of Future Past” shows that, in the sequences set in 2013, Wolverine hardly interacts with Rachel, except one instance wherein Logan notes that the “timeswitch could be a wasted effort.” Rachel replies, “Wolverine, I’m sorry. I just don’t know!” Logan’s response is to ignore her completely. Now, in “Ghosts,” by revealing that Logan was the one mutant who never forgave Rachel, Claremont casts their brief, original exchange in an entirely new light. This is an ingenious use of retro-continuity.

Meanwhile, back in the present, the contemporary Wolverine knows nothing about this – he only knows that for some reason, Rachel is pulling him into her nightmares. In a delicious bit of dramatic irony, he is the only present-day X-Man to be concerned about the self-destructive trajectory of Rachel’s thoughts. (“What’re you ... doin’, girl – to me – to ... yourself?!” he asks.) While he possesses sympathy for Rachel, the other X-Men ignore her need for forgiveness and compassion – which is the precise opposite of her experience in the dystopian future.

A second, more vicious irony ends the story, as Rachel’s dreams turn out to have been prescient: Just as he did in the nightmares, Wolverine claws her in reality as well.

Claremont tries to sell us on Logan’s rationale, but it’s a bit hard to swallow: He attempts to draw a line between killing when it’s necessary, and killing as “murder.” But the very act of stabbing Rachel undermines his moral stance.

A mitigating interpretation can be gleaned when one considers the milieu: They are in the Hellfire Club, and Rachel – in fully powered-up “Phoenix” mode – is facing off against Selene, who – as the Club’s new Black Queen – is an avatar for the dark, corrupt side of Jean Grey. In the original Dark Phoenix Saga, it was the Club that corrupted Jean, and, indeed, only minutes after she stepped outside its walls, she became Dark Phoenix. Wolverine is perhaps trying to prevent history from repeating itself. However, no such interpretation is suggested by the text itself, and ultimately Claremont fails to sell us on Wolverine’s hazily constructed moral lesson.

This issue also marks the first time that the collective name of the Hellfire Club mutants is given as “the Lords Cardinal” rather than the more generic “Inner Circle.” I’m not sure whether there’s a significance to that name that I’m missing, or if Claremont just wanted something generally more regal. (The Claremont-Bolton backup in Classic #7, published eight months after Uncanny #207, will ret-con the “Lords Cardinal” handle as having been the name of Shaw’s inner circle right from the moment it was first established.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

How Should BSG Have Ended?

Brad suggested I put this up after we had a conversation along these lines, and many people since have said to me "Well, what did you want?" Now we are not all screenwriters, but it might be interesting to get some notes toward what we all wanted and did not get.

For me, I think a key question all along has been Does Humanity Deserve to Survive. A good portion of the show had been blurring humanity and the cylons by putting them on the same footing (removing resurrection technology, having them fight with each other, ignoring the super-strength, ditching the sleeper agent thing where it seemed like they could be remote controlled -- ultimately the point of finding out someone was a cylon was you were finding out someone was a traitor, but since that was not the case for the final five it again seemed like a bit of a fake out to have them be cylons at all). So the real question was Does Everyone Deserve to Survive? Once you put that question in play for so long, I think you deny the possibility of some wonderfully happy ending, since if they do deserve to survive it is going to be a close call whether the should have (or why ask the question?). So for me I needed to see a significant number of folks just not make it -- the finale could not even give Helo a heroic death-- and those that did should not be walking though a green and pleasant land. They should be ok, but it should feel like life, not heaven. In fact I think I really could have gone for an ending in which someone made the call to just push everyone into the black hole, because the universe would be better without them, and maybe Hera escapes somehow, the last potential of two doomed civilizations. Maybe like some combination of Batman's resurrection in Final Crisis and Superman's story her little rocket lands on a caveman planet, guided by some less heavy handed version of the device that got everyone to Earth -- except now that I write that it makes no sense, because that radioactive planet needs to be the real Earth and not a fake-out. Brad said that he would have wanted the final five to suddenly "switch on" and do something monstrous, activate the cylon "plan" we have been hearing about in the intro to every episode since season one, and which seemed to have been just dropped. Maybe there was some reason why they needed to wait so long, and even have people accept them as Cylons (and let other cylons on board and paint the ship with cylon goo) before the last phase would begin.

I do not exactly have it worked out. One of the reasons it is so hard to think of a proper ending is that the writers really write themselves into a corner, which is why the God stuff came so heavy at the end -- it is the only way out of the box they were in. I have no idea what to do with Kara. She can't be like the Six that only Baltar can see -- Kara was different because she found her body and questioned what she was. But then I can't think of what she COULD be given how the show handled her. Some people suggested that she was a hybrid, the child of the never seen Daniel Cylon and someone, but I am not sure how that would work out.

Here is how the show should have ended: it should have been cancelled after season three so we could all complain that it was one of the great shows that died before it could have reached what surely would have been an amazing conclusion, like Firefly.

From The Box: McFarlane’s Spider-Man Number 1

by Scott

[Scott: For those of you who missed the first one of these, the premise of ‘From The Box’ is that I go through a box of my old comics and find an old comic to analyze and see if I can determine, basically, whether or not it is any good, why I may have bought it in the first place, how my taste have changed since I bought the comic or, as is the case here, what can be learned in hindsight about the significance of a particular issue. As always, I invite others to join in the fun and dig out some of their old comics and write something up for the blog]

When I first got into reading comics (that is REALLY reading them and following titles on a month-to-month basis), I was a DC loyalist. I thought that they were ‘more-realistic’; to my 11-year old sensibilities this had a lot to do with the fact that DC seemed to be more lenient with the casual swears (characters were much more prone to say ‘damn’ or ‘hell’). Also, with their recently streamlined continuity and emphasis on ‘the grim and gritty’ they seemed much more like ‘superheroes in the real world’, years later, of course, I realize that this was something that Marvel had been doing for years and DC had only recently caught up.

But I digress, it was Todd McFarlane’s work on Spider-man that had the biggest role in my conversion from Marvel to DC (I had, of course, owned Spider-man comics previously but this was before I read titles on a regular basis and, like any kid, would just randomly pick one up here and there). This actually took place well before the issue being discussed here when some relatives, knowing that I liked comics but not knowing my particular taste, got me a box of comics for Christmas. That box contained The Amazing Spider-Man 300, McFarlane’s third issue on the series which also happened to be the first full appearance of Venom, 298 and 299 containing cameos (Fun Fact: I know what a cameo is because of comic books), which also happened to be a milestone/double-sized/anniversary issue. I was immediately drawn to McFarlane’s art which was a lot fresher than anything that I had been seeing over at DC at the time. If I still had this comic it would be the most valuable comic that I own, I think I saw a copy recently priced at something like 75-100 dollars in mint condition in a price guide (Unfortunately, it was stolen by a kid I used to trade comics with). So, when the 13-year old me heard that McFarlane was about to debut his very own ongoing Spider-Man series, he and his friends were totally psyched.

The collector’s bubble is important to understanding the significance of Spider-Man number 1; at the time, this was a major event. It was one of the first instances I can remember of the variant covers: there was the standard retail cover, the silver, ‘direct market’ cover (the one that I am currently in possession of), plus various bagged and reprint editions. A big part of the collector’s bubble was the marketing of ‘superstar’ artists of which Todd McFarlane was, arguably, the first. Before McFarlane, it had been creative teams that were championed: Claremont/Byrne, Wolfman/Perez, O’Neil/Adams etc. Of course, there was the occasional artist/writer like Frank Miller, Keith Giffen, or John Byrne (On his FF run), however, these artist/writers typically had to earn their chops. They tended to ‘apprentice’ underneath a seasoned writer, first getting a ‘co-plotting’ credit then, later, taking over scripting duties. This would change with Spider-Man 1; McFarlane was given complete control over the storytelling of the comic without, as far as I know, any experience in narrative storytelling.

That being said, McFarlane doesn’t do a half-bad job here (this is especially apparent after looking at Liefeld’s Youngblood for my last post in this series); its obvious that he’s emulating Miller circa his Daredevil run here and the stuff with the Lizard can be a bit pretentious but, then again, every comic was being a bit pretentious in 1990. The Spidey stuff is appropriately light-hearted, with him cracking the requisite bad jokes and just enjoying the simple pleasures of web-slinging through the city’s skyscrapers (my friends and I have often wondered what it would be like for Spidey in a town like Radford, where buildings tend to max out a 3 stories). The stuff with MJ is cutesy and fun with the two engaging in the typical newlywed shenanigans; even having a tickle fight. McFarlane draws MJ as super-hot pinnacle of fashion; which works great with a character who is supposed be an aspiring actress/model. In fact, if I recall, I think McFarlane was the first artist to really update MJ’s look from the iconic but, by 1990, slightly outdated, John Romita look. The light stuff is intercut with the ‘Dark’ stuff: the Lizard being summoned by the beating of sinister drums; a more feral, savage version than we have seen before.

What’s interesting in terms of the story contained here is that not much really happens. We have a comic where the primary protagonist never crosses paths with his chief antagonist. This was, of course, the first of a 5 part story entitled “Torment” and so, primarily, this issue was intended as a set-up for the rest of the story-arc but you’d think, at least, we would give Spidey some super-villains to put the smack-down on. Instead, the only action he gets is a simple mugger. So, for a superhero comic, there really isn’t much superheroic-action going on here. With the decompressing of storytelling in comics storytelling these days, an issue like this where virtually nothing happens is not all that uncommon but, in 1990, it was a pretty radical approach to storytelling…. Especially in the first issue of a major new series.

Anything the story lacks is intended to be compensated for by the art, which was the main selling point for the book after all. Some may have issues with McFarlane’s art, but I think it’s pretty good, actually. Definitely a really dynamic artists and, as little happens in this story, the characters still seem to be leaping off the page and every other page features a poster-ready glamour shot of Spidey or the Lizard. While the adult me can definitely see the flaws in the story, the 13-year-old me was totally blown away by the art. Seeing as how the primary audience for this comic was intended to be 13-year old boys, I have to say that it was quite successful in that respect and, even as an adult, I can appreciate the effectiveness of the art and I have to admit that the visual story-telling is pretty tight here: They splash pages are eye-catching and the layouts are pretty compelling.

A word on the rest of the series and the direction that McFarlane was about to take it; this is only the first issue but the remainder of this story arc was woefully dark. Comics were actively trying to be appreciated as a more serious art-form during this period and most creators felt that, in order to accomplish this, the stories had to be more serious. After this arc, it would only get worse; a few issues down the line Spider-man would team up with Wolverine and the Wendigo to catch a child murder/molester. That issue would feature a panel, quite controversial at the time, of Wendigo carrying the body of a murdered child. It did not help the case that the art was rather graphic showing a partially decomposed and possibly dismembered body. Had a more skilled storyteller been at the helm this could have been pulled off but, in McFarlane’s hands, it seemed more sensationalistic and could only be appreciated for its shock-value.

McFarlane’s Spider-man was the beginning of a trend of such artist driven titles in the early 90s. Within a year, Jim Lee’s X-Men and Liefeld’s X-force would debut and, while these artist didn’t take over the sole scripting duties, these comics were marketed based on the art, not the story (and a year after that, Image would be founded where the writers would take even more of a backseat).

[Question for Jason, I think I remember hearing that a big part of Claremont’s departure from the X-men had to do with the fact that Marvel felt that they could continue to sell the series based on the art alone. i.e. As long as they had a strong artist, they no longer needed Claremont. Any truth to this?]

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Series Finales and Twitter

[BSG spoiler below]

I wanted to blog about series finales yesterday and then realized that I could twitter individual thoughts on it. It struck me that this is something twitter does well, and I would like to do more of it. Here are the twitter posts:

Worst Series Finales: X-Files. Rejected the idea of an ending in favor of a clip show that was a commercial for a film that never happened.

Great Series Finales: The Wire. Not a soul left behind, and a montage, so rarely done well, to the only song they could have chosen.

Great Series Finales: Seinfeld. Went full circle and insisted on its misanthropy, and the misanthropy of everyone who enjoyed it.

Great Series Finales: Angel. Went out on a high note of frustrated, doomed defiance, which was the mood when Fox cancelled it.

Great Series Finales: The Sopranos. Audacious, paradoxically aggressive and understated. Punched like the sudden death of a friend.

The one I wanted to put up about BSG, but did not because I did not want to spoil it, was inspired by Brad:

Worst Series Finales: BSG. Cavemen and Angels, the equivalent of paradise, and a patronizing message. What show is this?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The BSG Finale

BSG. The finale was a contrived sentimental load of horse manure. It reminded me of nothing more than the end of Kafka: The Musical in the pilot of Home Movies, in which God says, in a booming, cheery, patronizing voice "Hello Franz Kafka! My name is God! I think you're going to like it here!" BSG has always been good at avoiding typical sci-fi junk such as fetishizing the technology. In retrospect the acting was the thing that made this show great. The acting was good for the finale but it was overshadowed by the decision to avoid sci-fi endings, such as the black hole as a time travel gateway, by going into sentimental melodrama, and relying on gestures toward divinity to justify lazy plotting. Things that were atrocious:

The planet shown at the end of season 3, the one where you could see North America, turns out to be different from the planet Kara found, the one that turned out to be radioactive. Removing all hope from your story for ten episodes is a serious thing to do and it needs to not be a fake out.

After so much conflict among the fleet, everyone universally agrees to get rid of all the technology and live among, and breed with, cavemen. In a show that values realism Earth appears in the most idyllic verdant green fields. Essentially all the characters reach heaven, where they happily forgo all their earlier conflicts to live in a green and pleasant earth. This is not even the same show anymore.

Kara was an Angel the whole fourth season, who disappears in a field when Lee turns away for a moment in the most absurd cliche. The Baltar that appeared only to Six and the Six that appeared only to Baltar turned out to be Angels that like Kara, were working for God to lead humanity to their new home. A key reveal -- when both Six and Baltar can see their Angels together -- was handled like a screwball comedy moment that had no connection to the show around it -- or anything before. "God" is the answer to any questions you may have had. To our mere mortal eyes it may appear to be lazy plotting that an asteroid bumps a ship with dead Racetrack and Skulls inside causing their bodies to shift in such a way as to launch the nukes at the Cylon colony at the exact moment our heroes leave -- so as to wipe out the bad guys without it being anyones decision. But it is just God's plan. It was also God's plan to have the Bob Dylan song contain the co-ordinates to the real earth. If you "assign" numbers to the notes, as Kara did, isn't that arbitrary -- how for example do you decide which note gets to be "one"? But it doesn't matter because her assignation was guided by God. Why did Kara lead them to the wrong earth first? Because that was how God wanted it. The worst thing the finale did was to resolve all the ambiguity of the show into an absurdly happy ending where gesturing toward god resolves every ambiguity and conflict and coincidence.

And the show ends by updating to modern Earth, New York City, for a robot montage. Will the cycle that our characters tried to break be broken. Well dear viewer -- the choice lies in your hands! Be kind to you robots! or Maybe don't make them in the first place. Idiotic. Suddenly this complex ambiguous drama where where the line between good and bad is constantly redrawn now wants to deliver a MORAL MESSAGE? AT me? Was the idea to ditch the tech pointless since we ended up building robots anyway? Also Hera's significance was that she was the "Mitochondrial Eve." This is deeply dumb. The show could not even let Helo die -- everyone gets a happy ending, even the centurions. The ending was basically "suddenly, by divine grace, peace washes over everyone." This is how a child ends a story.

The show was also padded with flashbacks that, in an interview with the creators, turned out to just be backstory from the show bible about the characters that they never got to use. So they were basically a pointless info-dump -- use it or loose it, I guess was the philosophy.

The only parts of the finale I enjoyed was the robots beating on each other, Al from Quantum Leap shooting himself, and the fact that Tyrol's wife's death came back into play when you thought it would all be forgotten about. The Baltar becoming a farmer was ok -- the moment was well handled. I guess I can see that all the roles he has had -- scientist, politician, jailed revolutionary communist, Jesus, Bin Laden -- have all been him trying to avoid this one true calling. I guess. He just does not feel like a character that makes much sense. And what was the point of Adama giving his cult guns a few episodes back?

There may be more to think about. This is a first reaction. Perhaps because of the way the show has been in the past we can imagine the characters will still have conflicts -- Ellen and Tigh surely don't live happily ever after since they are pretty dysfunctional. But the show does suggest that they do. Perhaps an ambiguously identified god is the right ending for a show with so much moral ambiguity -- but to me it just feels like all the ambiguity was pushed onto this higher, ineffable, level so our characters could be happy. Perhaps the fact that we do not know if the cycle has been broken or not is a good ending -- but the semi-direct address -- the aim to go SEE! this is RELEVANT! this is about YOU -- feels ridiculous to me.

I have to give this an F. Seriously. LOST, I am looking at you to be taking notes on how NOT to end a show.

[UPDATE: I talk about the objection that the show has always been about religious stuff in the comments. ]

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Final Scene of the Sopranos (Commonplace Book)

Thinking about endings tonight, having just seen the end of BSG (which I will post on over the weekend). Here is the last scene of the Sopranos, on of the most controversial things ever aired:

Say what you want about it, but I think it is surely the only ending: audacious, shocking, gut-wrenching, insane and understated all at the same time. A lot of people felt like it was a metaphor for Tony getting whacked by the guy who goes to the bathroom (to get the gun like in the first Godfather). But to me, that is neither here nor there. It is a vision of the show getting whacked. Brad pointed out to me that it is like when a friend dies -- all you want is just one more moment with them, anything. But it has to end.

Interview at Sci-Fi Pulse

Nicholas Yanes over at Sci-Fi pulse interviewed me this week. I discussed some things about How to Read Superhero Comics and Why I do not think I have said anywhere else.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #206

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

“Freedom Is a Four Letter Word”

The issue opens with another iteration of Storm vs. street-thugs (the first two occurred in issues 122 and 180), and we’re invited once again to recognize all that’s changed since the last time we saw such a scene play out. The key difference here is that, while in Uncanny #180, Storm was met with fear by the people she saved, now she is applauded – both by the rescued couple and by local law enforcement (personified by Lt. Sabrina “Bree” Morrel, an old supporting character Claremont’s early-’80s Frisco-based comic series, Spider-Woman). The point is to remind readers that the X-Men have found their happy ending: having been forcibly relocated to San Francisco -- an apparently less intolerant city than New York, at least in the Marvel Universe – the mutants are now regarded as local heroes. They have a home, they’ve made some good friends (all old Spider-Woman characters), and their lives overall have settled into a pleasant routine.

But since this is serial fiction, the status quo has to be disrupted. And since Claremont is now on a darker trajectory as of 1986 (possibly influenced by his anger over the “resurrected Jean Grey” fiasco), that disruption takes a notably pessimistic form. Essentially, the X-Men are run out of town by Freedom Force. In another example of the politics of the comic having been flipped, the bad guys are again instruments of the establishment, while the X-Men are the underdogs – just trying to live their own lives, but having their civil liberties trampled on by government agents.

There’s also a motif of usurpation at work here. Pyro refers to himself and his teammates as “good guys,” stealing the role that is supposed to be the X-Men’s. The new Spider-Woman (introduced in Jim Shooter’s first Secret Wars series) is now a part of the government-sanctioned Freedom Force, and thus is now the official, real Spider-Woman, while the old, heroic one – a now powerless Jessica Drew – has also lost her identity. Spiral speaks of stealing Rachel’s life (and will proceed to do so in three months’ time), and usurps Rogue’s body briefly as well. This can be read metaphorically – though it’s perhaps a stretch – for how a sanctioned majority is often able to assimilate the individualism of oppressed minorities. For the first two decades of their existence, as Neil Shyminski has pointed out, the X-Men were often found on the other side of this dichotomy – their original face-off against the Morlocks, for example, wherein Nightcrawler in particular had a naively positive view of assimilation.

Indeed, as an adjunct to the core events in “Freedom Is a Four Letter Word,” we are reminded acutely of Nightcrawler’s naivety. The last page portrays just how badly out-of-sync he is with the times: while the other X-Men have just been ridden out of town on a rail, Kurt is dwelling obliviously in a fantasy of “beauteous damsel[s] in distress to protect” and “arch-villains to hunt down, confound and trounce.”

Ann Nocenti’s Spiral appears for the second issue in a row, now playing a role that bears no resemblance at all to her part in issue 205. Claremont has clearly taken a shine to Nocenti’s six-armed creation, and cast her as a sort of all-purpose instrument of chaos. She’ll continue to appear in X-Men stories of this period – often alongside equally odd Nocenti villain Mojo – and usually motivated by an arbitrary desire to sow random insanity. Indeed, though the character was not created by him, Spiral stands as a perfect icon for Claremont’s writing style. Always juggling half a dozen plot threads and story arcs at once, Claremont is more at home when he’s disrupting the lives of his characters and never seems inclined to stabilize them. And oftentimes, his motivation seems as arbitrary and whimsical as Spiral’s. (The most dynamically chaotic Spiral moment in the present issue is the one in which she messes with Shadowcat’s power, causing Kitty to be literally “smeared” across the panel. It’s a fantastically freaky visual by Romita and Green.)

Finally, Madelyne Pryor shows up in a San Francisco hospital, suffering from “multiple gunshot wounds.” This is Claremont’s meta-commentary regarding the character’s treatment at the hands of X-Factor writer Bob Layton. Earlier in issue #206 Rogue had been shown reading a postcard from Madelyne, one that bore a “really ancient postmark” and which sported a picture of her and Scott and their baby posed together happily. The irony would have been clear for anyone who’d read X-Factor #1, in which Scott cruelly abandons Madelyne and their son to see the resurrected Jean Grey in New York. Obviously, the postcard was sent before those events took place. The juxtaposition of a happy Madelyne as depicted on the “really ancient” postcard and the bleeding, unconscious woman on a hospital gurney gives a clear message about how Claremont felt about the character’s treatment in X-Factor #1.

U2: No Line On The Horizon critique

by Gordon Harries

[Gordon and I were both concerned that this would make too many posts here about U2, a band I never listen to. But ultimately I decided to put this up because it challenges Scott -- and a gentlemanly challenge is good for generating discussion which is good for a blog (I am looking at you, Jason Powell and Doug M.)]

Truth be told, the media offensive built around the latest U2 album’s made me a little apprehensive about listening to it. Bono, for example, has been compelled to repeatedly suggest that U2 have to be relevant because, chances are, you already own a U2 album and therefore he can‘t assume you‘d want another (and dismissing the inherent logic of that for just a moment, they’re can’t be many sights as sobering as the fifty year old rock star still seeking validation.) as if to reinforce this, he’s been claiming that writers, poets and filmmakers aren’t expected to retire gracefully, so why should he?

It’s worth noting that various degrees of reinvention have been in the air for awhile now; witness Radiohead releasing the so-so ‘In Rainbows’ digitally and therefore (at least in my country) making sure that every conversation about the digital distribution of music references them. The ’radical’ reinvention of Oasis which consists of them sonically moving from the late sixties to the early seventies and Coldplay’s Eno flecked ’Viva La Vida’. Also notable is the fact that the latter two obviously tried to wrench themselves away from their respective comfort zones but were simply hobbled by their equally obvious gifts for melody.

Which brings us to ’No Line On The Horizon’ and the latest reinvention of U2.

‘No Line On The Horizon’ opens with it’s title track, a portentous bass line with occasional yelping from Bono. It’s simultaneously one of the best thing’s on the album and illustrates it’s core problem: firstly, that the biggest band in the world have something to prove and secondly, are doing so by invoking the feel of Lou Reed Circa ’Berlin’. Now, to me the title ’No Line On The Horizon’ invokes forward momentum and limitless possibilities. What I hear on this album is a band retreating to the past. The product and it’s packaging are at odds.

Indeed, in other reviews of this record the albums most referenced have been U2’s own ’Achtung Baby’ and ‘Zooropa’. However, those former records possessed a sense of consistency that is simply not present here. It also should be noted that both albums were deeply in thrall to both the early-nineties spirit of ’Madchester’ and the mildly esoteric sound of ’Trip-Hop’. Sadly, it’s no longer the early nineties and aspects of both these sub-genres (and I say this as quite the fan of both Madchester and trip-hop) have dated badly, something both Tricky and Portishead took note of before their recent reinventions.

As has been commonly said, this is an earnest attempt to produce an honest to god album in the age of the track based listening experience and for that U2 should be applauded. However, let’s not suggest that are pioneers on this front; Interpol, Mogwai, Doves, Elbow, Tricky, Portishead, Bloc Party and The National have all produced albums within the last year that are not easily digestible upon first listen and, honestly, this album has far too incoherent a sonic agenda to be successful as a coherent listening experience. (a failing that is common to the U2 album, in my experience.)

I don’t mean to suggest that U2 cannot change tack or reinvent themselves successfully, just that this album is the wrong one to begin a discourse about the relevancy of the stupefying successful U2 with. Because, despite their oft-stated need to prove themselves, the impression this listener came away with was of multi-millionaires playing in their doubtlessly well appointed studio.

David Fincher, circa ‘The Game‘, explained his decision to remain in the province of the b-movie by suggesting that the point at which an artist loses their way can be traced to the point in time he/she began to think about the artistic legacy. If one accepts Fincher’s argument (and I do) then U2 have been struggling against the perception that they’ve already completed they’re masterwork since 1987’s Joshua Tree. Or to put it another way ’I don’t believe in the sixties/the golden age of pop/ you glorify the past/when the future dries up’

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #205

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Wounded Wolf”

Another favorite of Claremont’s from among his own work on Uncanny X-Men, “Wounded Wolf” is the second issue (after #198) to feature full art and color by Barry Windsor-Smith. As such, the story is another treat for the eyes. Again, however, Claremont’s clear awe for Windsor-Smith’s storytelling abilities seems to make the author curtail his own.

The opening sequence – in which Lady Deathstrike is turned into a “cybernetic organism” by Spiral – is striking both for the pages’ boldly colorful design and for the text’s poetic opacity. But the scene is perhaps too opaque– Claremont is importing characters and concepts from other series, but not bothering to explain how it all fits together. For the record, Spiral first appeared – along with future X-characters Longshot and Mojo – in Ann Nocenti and Art Adams’ Longshot miniseries. Having also previously turned up in Uncanny #199 as a member of Mystique’s Freedom Force, the six-armed woman now inexplicably runs something called the “Body Shop,” whose purpose here would appear to be to manufacture cyborgs.

Lady Deathstrike, meanwhile, owes her existence to a Daredevil storyline by Denny O’Neil, and became a Wolverine villain in Alpha Flight issues 33-34. Her three henchmen are the former Hellfire Club mercenaries sliced up by Wolverine back in Uncanny #133. The reader is being asked here not only to recognize everyone without any helpful footnotes, but also to accept without any questions that these disparate characters have somehow ended up together at the beginning of “Wounded Wolf.”

At the end of the scene, Spiral compares herself to the devil, which at least makes plain that we’re looking at a very familiar trope: Spiral’s “Body Shop” is a place where people sell their souls to get their heart’s desire. Fair enough. But Claremont is still testing readers’ patience with such a cold plunge into the doings of esoteric characters whose dealings with each other have no precedent. (Indeed, Spiral shouldn’t even be on Earth anymore after the end of the Longshot miniseries: That discrepancy is explained later, in New Mutants Annual #2.)

From there, Claremont again leaves out pertinent information, as he jumps forward in time to show Wolverine covered in wounds and having regressed to a state of animal savagery thanks to a fight with Deathstrike and the Hellfire trio. How they managed to get the drop on him is left to the imagination, as is Wolverine’s presence in New York; he should still be in San Francisco with the other X-Men.

To Windsor-Smith’s credit, his powerful sense of motion and momentum is so strong that it’s easy to get swept into the story despite all of Claremont’s frustrating narrative gaps. But Claremont pushes things too far when he includes a member of Power Pack as a guest-star. A five-year-old girl whose superhuman ability is to create “power balls,” Katie Power is an absurd inclusion here. No doubt the point is to juxtapose one of Marvel’s most innocently pure superheroes against characters who exist on the extreme other end of the morality spectrum (Spiral and the Hellfire mercs on the far end, Wolverine and Deathstrike somewhere in the middle, etc.). But instead it just feels trite and silly, an effect that’s exacerbated by Claremont’s dialogue for Katie – surely the most unconvincing five-year-old voice ever contrived. (An example of how Katie speaks and thinks, when written by Claremont: “Where’s a telephone?! If I found one, I could call Power Pack to rescue us, or Wolverine’s teammates, the X-Men. Should I leave him ... and go look for one? Suppose I get lost from Wolverine then, and can’t find my way back?”)

This is a worthwhile issue for Windsor-Smith’s storytelling. Particularly fantastic is the Wolverine/Deathstrike fight at the end -- told in tiers of horizontal panels and thus becoming another link in the tradition begun by Miller with his Logan/Shingen sequence and continued by Paul Smith with Uncanny #173’s Silver Samurai battle. (Just as Smith topped Miller, Windsor-Smith now tops Smith.)

For Claremont, though, this one’s a misfire.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Alien vs. Predator": the poem (commonplace book)

This is a poem by Michael Robbins published in the January 12th issue of the New Yorker. Given Scott's post today on pop culture references in literature, I thought it would be a good thing to share today. It is pretty entertaining.

Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk.
We’d stay up all night. Every angel’s
berserk. Hell, if you slit monkeys
for a living, you’d pray to me, too.
I’m not so forgiving. I’m rubber, you’re glue.

That elk is such a dick. He’s a space tree
making a ski and a little foam chiropractor.
I set the controls, I pioneer
the seeding of the ionosphere.
I translate the Bible into velociraptor.

In front of Best Buy, the Tibetans are released,
but where’s the whale on stilts that we were promised?
I fight the comets, lick the moon,
pave its lonely streets.
The sandhill cranes make brains look easy.

I go by many names: Buju Banton,
Camel Light, the New York Times.
Point being, rickshaws in Scranton.
I have few legs. I sleep on meat.
I’d eat your bra—point being—in a heartbeat.

POP! Goes the Reference: Pop Culture References in Literature

by Scott

I finally read Jpod last year and Douglas Coupland quickly rose to become one of my favorite authors. While I must admit that ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ and ‘Hey, Nostradamus’ are probably his BEST novels Jpod remains my FAVORITE. Much of this has to do with the fact that, as a pop-culture junkie, I adore all the pop-culture references. Coupland is a bit of a master at this and his novels ‘Shampoo Planet’ and, my current read, ‘Microsurfs’ continue with this tradition.

Now, while I am a tremendous fan of this sort of thing, I can’t help but wonder, does the use of pop-culture references hopelessly date a literary work? That is, will people reading his works in fifty years be able to enjoy these works on the same level that I do. As I mentioned, ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ and ‘Hey, Nostradamus’ are his best works and I think part of that has to do with how little they rely on pop-culture. Girlfriend in a Coma’s biggest reference is to the X-files which, rather ingeniously, goes unnamed but it is explained that all of the characters in the novel have jobs working behind the scenes on the show which is described as a show about two FBI agents who investigate the paranormal; a male agent who believes and a female agent who is skeptical. Now, to any of us who read the novel, we immediately make the connection to the X-files while readers who pick up this novel long after the show has faded from popular memory are able to understand the basic premise without ever having seen the show. But, my point is, ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Nostradamus’ will endure because future readers don’t need to understand excessive references to our own time in order to, not necessarily understand the novel, but to, at least, fully enjoy the novel.

Dropping a pop-cultural reference in a work of fiction (or poetry for that matter) is a dangerous thing; as fickle as popular taste are, it assumes that future readers will get the reference. It’s a pretty big gamble. To do it in a film is one thing; in a film you can SHOW what you are talking about. If the audience is unfamiliar with a reference, you can MAKE them familiar with it by having characters watch a show or listen to a song. This is something that is much more difficult to accomplish on the page. I’m guilty of this myself in my own creative work; I’ll drop the name of a song or, in a recent example, reference the cover of ‘American Recordings’, the first of Johnny Cash’s collaborations with Rick Rubin, and while, currently, that is a rather iconic image, will it still be as recognizable in twenty or thirty years? Given that many of my students are unfamiliar with references that are even ten years old, I remain skeptical.

To a certain extent, all literary works are subject to being products of their own time; I teach ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and my officemate teaches ‘Watchmen’ and we both find ourselves having to explain the ‘Cold War’ to our students, the ‘War On Terror’ being the crucial global conflict to their generations (Fortunately, both these works lend themselves to very poignant translations of that conflict as well). In a larger sense, if we look at older literary works, the older they become the less accessible they become on certain levels to the reader. When I teach Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” in my American Literature classes, I always have to explain to my students what a ‘Goodman’ is (they usually think it is the character’s first name). And, in their defense, ‘Goodman’ was already a pretty archaic term by the time Hawthorne wrote the story. So, are pop-culture references worse than things like this? Is this confined to literature or will films that rely too heavily on pop-culture references also suffer this fate? In 30 years, will ‘Wedding Singer’ have any resonance to a generation with no direct connection to the 80s?

Friday, March 13, 2009

KO-S: Ballad of Noah (Commonplace Book)

This song is from the album Hymns to Atlantis. It is an amazing album but this song has especially been kicking my ass lately.

I wont print all the lyrics here, but this passage is straight up William Blake-ian: Gnostic, Biblical, Phantasmagoric, and a little bit Cowboy (see Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man for how well Blake chimes with the American West):

under the sky cross the land with a horse.
it felt like a sky and the land were divorced.
the way it wasn't easy, a rock in the past
so what's the matter with you, when the rock just laughed
carrying a load for the conscious untoiling
i went to the water and the water was boiling
the load was heavy and rocks filled my course
my horse drank the water and the water killed my horse
i tried to keep going, weeping to me
a righteous wind blew and it was speaking to me
the way seemed harder since my horse been dead
i couldn't understand everything the wind said
looked up at the sky and seen something strange
returned to my country and my country was up in flames
the trees were bleeding, they said they couldn't hide me
where will i run to without my horse beside me?

if you reach a dead end trail
pray to god it never fails.
we've all walked each other's shoes
so everybody sings the blues.
if you reach a dead end trail
pray to god it never fails.
we've all walked each other's shoes
so you don't have to sing the blues.

Superhero Night Wednesday

I will be speaking briefly at this Superhero event at 94 St. Marks Place in Manhattan hosted by Kevin Maher -- you can find all the details on his blog but basically the event starts at 7pm, costs 7 bucks to get in, and will have a bunch of other folks showing campy clips and talking about superheroes. It should be totally fun. My topic: Superheroes and Fashion, some material we did not have time for when I spoke at the Met.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #204

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“What Happened to Nightcrawler?”

In issue 196, Claremont began a very interesting plot thread involving Nightcrawler. Kurt’s experiences with the Beyonder in the two Secret Wars had seriously shaken him, and led him to a fairly reasonable question, given the events depicted in Shooter’s ridiculously unsubtle stories: Is the Beyonder God? Having grown up Christian, Kurt suddenly realizing that God might be a super-villain had greatly undermined his faith.

Here we finally see the follow-through on that thread, as Nightcrawler agonizes over why the Beyonder left him in New York when he transported the other X-Men to San Francisco two issues ago. Wondering if he was left out of the battle because he was judged “not worthy” by the Beyonder, Kurt is now that much more frightened and insecure. In the story’s opening scene between Kurt and longtime girlfriend Amanda Sefton, Kurt laments the fact that being an X-Man is no longer “fun,” and his depression is so acute that he even masochistically makes it worse by breaking up with Amanda – essentially driving away the person in his life who’s closest to him.

From there, the story morphs into a lightweight adventure story that pits Nightcrawler solo against Arcade and Murderworld. Kurt’s tangible victory over the most one-dimensional bad guy in the X-Men’s rogues gallery cheers him up, and by the end of the issue he seems to have recovered his joie de vivre. Importantly, however, Nightcrawler’s victory over his inner demons is entirely false. He hasn’t truly regained his sense of purpose – he’s deluding himself that he has. Judith’s comment at the end spells it out: “If creeps like Arcade didn’t exist,” she says to Kurt, “you’d have to invent him, just to give your life purpose!”

In a subtle way, Claremont uses this seemingly innocuous solo adventure to signal a change in his approach to X-Men that will take hold in 1986. The optimism that characterized so much of his work on the series up until now will slowly begin to drain into the gutters, replaced by an existential bleakness. Right down to the uncertainty of its title, everything in “What Happened to Nightcrawler?” works as a microcosm for where Uncanny X-Men is headed: Nightcrawler faces an existential crisis, but rather than face it head-on, he seeks solace in artificially recreating a now lost era of his life: a time when being a superhero was fun, and the villains were over-the-top gimmick-characters like Arcade. The artificiality of Nightcrawler’s hollow victory is symbolized in his use of synthetic X-Men – note that that the robot Colossus and Storm both wear their Cockrum-era outfits – the costumes they wore back in the “fun” days.

A few years earlier, Claremont would have ended an arc like this with Nightcrawler facing his fears head on and overcoming them (see: Wolverine in the Frank Miller miniseries or Storm in the “LifeDeath” issues). Instead, Nightcrawler gazes into the abyss ... and cannot bear it. He retreats into happy, colorful nostalgia, convincing himself that he’s gotten over his doubts while even Judith, a woman he’s just met, can tell that he’s kidding himself.

On its own terms, Uncanny #204 is not a particularly outstanding entry in the canon – a competent but uninspired entry in the action genre. But as Claremont’s first existentially uncertain X-Men comic, “Whatever Happened to Nightcrawler?” – published in December of 1985 – is more significant than it seems as first, prefiguring story arcs equally dark in tone and theme but much more extreme in scope, which Claremont will produce over the course of 1986.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Saturday Afternoon Watchmen

Many people alerted me to this, and many more put it up. I am always late to the party, but here it is.

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

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WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watchmen Review from someone unfamiliar with the comic book

[One of the things the comic book fans are talking about after the Watchmen movie is what will it look like to someone who never read the comic? Most of us are able to help it along a bit, with our knowledge of the comic book, adding layers of stuff to what is not really earned -- the embrace between the news vendor and his costumer during the blast for example. So I thought it would be fun to run this review.]

by Finsof72

Before starting I think it’s first necessary to inform any and all readers that I had not even heard of this Watchmen thing before trailers and hype started spreading throughout the internet like an unstoppable epidemic. Within a few months, the mass hysteria over the greatness that was to premier in theaters in March of 2009 was a little too annoying to ignore, so I researched it and discovered that Watchmen is actually a graphic novel by Alan Moore that most comic book readers put up on a pedestal right next to Halo and God. The novel involves colorful characters in costumes going around fighting crime and a secret plot against them all (according to Wikipedia). My reaction: so? It sounded to me like a typical, clichéd, stereotypical crime fighting story with nothing particularly interesting about it except for the fact that it takes place in an “alternate” 1985, where Richard Nixon still rules (I didn’t make that up). Despite my own personal questions about it, Watchmen apparently doesn’t have the same effect on most people, who revere it with the utmost loyalty and have been salivating over the film since it was announced. Naturally, I had to know what all the fuss was all about. I haven’t read the comic, like I mentioned before, but I did feel obliged to get in on the secret that everyone in the world except me seemed to know and go see the movie.

First impressions were positive. It’s always a good thing when a movie can completely dash all doubts about the stupidity of its setting right out of the starting gate. The film opens with a beautiful flashy montage showing the development of alternate history in which it takes place along with the opening credits that made me completely forget about its implausibility and pulled me into the story’s setting quite well. I was impressed. Good job, so far, Watchmen.

Then it goes south.

The story begins with the murder of a former superhero, who gets thrown out of a window by some guy dressed like a rejected version of the Joker. A fight preludes the death that’s complete with slow motion dramatics and loud sounds to cue hit points. It turns out that, according to Rorschach, a vigilante with a shape-shifting mask and the personality of that recently-divorced guy at the bar, has the feeling that there’s an underlying conspiracy to get rid of all former superheroes, who have been outlawed (think The Incredibles if they ended up in a Grand Theft Auto game). This sets off a chain of stories which are essentially all interconnecting origin stories that lead up to about an hour of present time “saving the world” stuff. There’s a blue God guy named Dr. Manhattan (I’m assuming that’s a really, really bad and obvious allusion to the Manhattan Project), this Batman wannabe who isn’t cool enough for bats so he dresses like an owl, a girl who wears the suit from Kill Bill, and maybe another one or two that were lost in the shuffle of goofiness that is the Watchmen.

Now comes the inevitable criticism, and it really stems from one thing: tone. Watchmen is a movie about guys who dress up in very, very colorful costumes and is supposed to deal with superheroes in the “real world,” which in itself is an oxymoron. It’s hard to take the film as seriously as it wants us to when you have giant blue penises swinging around and “Hallelujah” blaring when one of the heroes finally gets it up after saving people from a burning building. Add that in with the fact that it doesn’t even take place in the real world, it takes place in an “alternate” world, which again takes away the suspension of disbelief. The film tries to mix things that look like pieces of a MadTV skit or a Saturday morning cartoon with downright seriousness, something that was attempted before in Spider-Man 3, and look how well that turned out. If you’re going to try and put your superhero in a realistic setting (um…The Dark Knight) then make it a realistic superhero, not a giant fu*king God-like being who’s practically unbeatable and has a summer house on fu*king Mars!

The acting isn’t very good, and jumps around from overacting to underacting. For example, when Dr. Manhattan goes from a geeky scientist to blue Mr. Clean, he steps into some giant machine to get back his watch (Watchmen, get it?), he gets locked in, and the two scientists behind the glass window practically shrug their shoulders, showing very little, if any, dread for what’s about to happen. What the hell is the point of that machine, anyway? Does it have a practical purpose besides turning people blue? Then, later on, you have the Shakespearean overacting, like from Rorschach. I know he’s a moral absolutist and sees the world in black and white, but seriously, dude, you’re wearing the Invisible Man’s outfit and killing people with hairspray torches, crack a joke once in a while!

I hear an expression sometimes when I ask people if they liked a particularly movie: “It’s good…if you’re into that sort of thing.” I can’t think of any better way to describe this film than that phrase. Watchmen is a movie for people who like Watchmen the graphic novel. Just like U2-3D is a movie for people who love U2. I have no doubt that it remains faithful to its source material considering it runs longer than it takes to actually read most books these days; I don’t see how they could’ve left anything of significance out. It feels like it goes on forever, with the stories all winding down to a single 40-minute climax that would’ve been better suited for a mini-series on the SciFi channel.

Watchmen isn’t bad. It has enough action to keep you entertained, the effects may not be dazzling but they do the job, and Rorschach carries the film fairly well when the other characters don’t. Unfortunately it’s bogged down by its contradictory intentions, its silliness mixed with staidness, its confusing back stories and its unacceptable length. This results in what is no more than an average movie for those who aren’t already in love with its source. There’s nothing particularly horrible about it, but nothing great either. Most of the themes explored have been explored in movies many times over (this includes its ending, which really lacks any emotional gravity) and the effects aren’t anything revolutionary. If you love the original graphic novel, then I have a strong feeling you’ll love the film as well. To us, the mainstream, it’s just another super hero movie, but the people who worshipped the novel over 20 years ago I think will be satisfied by what it has to offer, and that it acts as a perfect companion to any previously established Watchmen collection. For the rest of us, it’s been there, done that, with nothing new to bring to the table.

Running time: 2 hours 43 minutes (there was a misprint at the movie theater I went to that read 1 hour and 43 minutes…imagine my bladder’s surprise)

[Some things I found interesting about this review: the observation that the plot is perfectly normal for a superhero book, seeing the Comedian as similar to the Joker, the fact that the movie makes you think of other movies in the shadow of Watchmen such as the Incredibles, and the notion that the oft quoted observation that this is what superheroes would be like in the real world is not quite right. I made a small edit to this post that is discussed in the comments.]

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #203

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]


No one agrees on when the Silver Age of superhero comics ended, or what to call the age that succeeded it. Arguably the Silver Age of the X-Men ended when the original series was cancelled at the end of the 1960s and replaced with a reprint title. But in a lot of significant ways, when the series was revived by Len Wein in 1975 it very much continued the same sensibility that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby began with. Most problematically, the conservative politics of the title characters were still in evidence. As Neil Shyminski illustrates in “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants,” the X-Men’s counter-revolutionary stance was still in full force even as late as 1983, when the Morlocks first appeared. It’s not until 1984 that we begin to see Claremont grappling with the comic’s skewed sensibility, and in 1985 he finally begins to start realigning the comic’s sensibilities. Issue 199 – wherein the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants sells out to the establishment and the X-Men fight to protect Magneto, the quintessential mutant revolutionary – sees Claremont completely up-ending the comic’s Silver Age roots.

That all takes us to the aptly named “Crossroads,” which draws a line under the Silver Age X-Men and brings their story to a close. Tying in once again with Jim Shooter’s risible mega-crossover “Secret Wars II” (the first of its kind, and unfortunately far from the last), Uncanny #203 sees Rachel Summers, the new Phoenix, returning to the milieu featured at the end of Claremont’s first major X-Men storyline: the planet of the M’Kraan Crystal. In the earlier story (from issues 107-108), the original Phoenix drew spiritual and physical sustenance from the X-Men in order to heal the crystal and “save the Universe.” Here, the inverse occurs. Deliberately stealing life essence – even from members of the X-Men who don’t agree to the idea – Phoenix returns to the M’Kraan world. Unlike her mother, Rachel wants to crack open the crystal and destroy the universe, as a means of killing the omnipotent Beyonder.

But when Rachel’s awareness expands throughout the universe, and the X-Men’s along with it, she recognizes – with prompting from Storm – the magnitude of what she wants to do, and chooses to leave the crystal intact. This is Claremont once again attempting to redeem the infamous moment in X-Men history when Dark Phoenix murdered an entire planet. Here, Jean Grey’s daughter is deliberately placed in the position to murder billions, but intellect and compassion win out. Phoenix is redeemed, and Claremont’s X-Men saga comes full circle.

Loose ends do still exist, of course – the most immediate of which is the reference to the New Mutants having been wiped from existence, a large complication that is smoothed out in the final chapter of Secret Wars II and subsequent New Mutants issues. However, in a lot of key, crucial ways, the story begun in Lee and Kirby’s first issue has been brought to an end. Of the characters who appeared in that original story, Xavier has left the Earth to be with Lilandra (essentially married off and retired). Magneto now believes in Xavier’s “dream,” and has replaced Xavier as headmaster of the School for Gifted Youngsters. Four of the five original students have moved on, to be replaced by a new generation of kids wearing the Kirby-designed school uniforms. The fifth, Jean Grey, is dead, but her daughter lives on and has even succeeded in redeeming Jean’s final mistakes. (Actually, Jean is now alive thanks to John Byrne’s insipid ret-con published a few months earlier in Fantastic Four #286 – but in terms of narrative chronology, that hasn’t happened yet.)

As for the Wein/Cockrum-designed X-Men, well ... if the series did not continue past issue 203, they could have enjoyed a pleasant retirement in San Francisco, a city that we are told on Page 5 is apparently much more tolerant of mutants in general and certainly the X-Men in particular.

(Oddly enough, at the time of this writing, the solicits for Matt Fraction’s first issue of Uncanny X-Men read, in part, “What the hell is going on in San Francisco now that the Uncanny X-Men have relocated there? They’ve got a new Headquarters and a new status quo ...” Once again, a “new” development in the X-Men’s tapestry demonstrably has its seeds in Claremont’s work from decades ago.)

All told, this is where Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men ends happily. Matt Brady teased me a bit when I referred to issue 108 as the end of Claremont’s Act I. He’s right. If one were to apply a “two-act play” paradigm to the whole of Claremont’s entire run, then the end of the first act occurs right here, wherein thematic elements, plot threads and character arcs all come together in a giant cosmic event.

Having thus put everything together, Claremont will begin – in next month’s Uncanny #204 – to pull everything apart.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Watchmen (spoilers)

I teach my students MacBeth in my ENG201: Writing about Literature class, and I always like to play one movie in every class I teach -- it is a great morale booster and a much needed break in the middle of the term. I have many options with MacBeth, including a stripped down no frills Ian McKellen and Judy Dench on that is two hours and 45 minutes long. I have Throne of Blood, which is a seriously good movie and has a multi-culti advantage. I know Polanski's MacBeth is taken quite seriously, but when I played it I have to admit that I was a little bored, even though I knew better -- something about it felt over-long, over-serious. It lacked a certain punchiness. I teach my students that the study of literature should primarily be fun; my students find Polanski fun primarily because they seem to enjoy the hell out of his person back-story, being interested in all things lurid. (At their age they consider the huge number of horror movies coming out all year round to be just, you know, life, and not a product of a post 9-11 culture). But at the end of the day I always come back to this 2006 Austrailian movie that plays MacBeth as a kind of modern gang war with these guys with machine guns. This version of MacBeth cuts a lot of important scenes out, and the acting is not always great as they play it like a soap opera; a lot of the important lines and speeches, while there, kind of get drowned out in the bombast, and it is shameless -- playing the witches not as ugly hags but as goth school-girls who get sexy topless (as opposed to the gross toplessness of Polanski's). Some of Shakespeare's thematics get lost too -- you can hear them in the speeches, but lines, for example, in which MacBeth says he cannot kill Duncan because the angels will plead for him are too silly in the context of a criminal empire. But I have to admit I enjoy its trashiness: say what you want about the thing but at least it has energy, at least it knows how to have fun. And Shakespeare is Shakespeare and a good part of that greatness is always going to shine through -- especially if you know the source material to help the thing along a little, to fill in the missing bits.

The final fight scene in Polanski's MacBeth looks like this:

Where as the 2006 ends like this

In these two scenes are the difference between the Watchmen movie as it probably should have been and the Watchmen as it is. The Polanski fight scene -- you have to think that that is what Watchmen's movie fight scenes should have looked more like: meat hitting meat, sad men hacking away at each other. Zack Snyder is so attracted to violence he has to add kung fu punch snaps even to the scene of Rorschach attacking the schoolyard bullies AND had to have the kid, a young kid, just relish in the violence while committing it, just as the adult Rorschach will do, which blurs the point about where this monster came from.

Truffaut said that you cannot make an anti-war movie because movies cannot help but make war look exciting. I am wondering if the thing that makes Watchmen unfilmable is the fact that you cannot make superhero violence look anything other than sexy, at least because it requires a massive budget and budget means people who are not going to let you do violence in a depressing way. Rorschach is a character we are supposed to feel sorry for and repulsed by, but the Watchmen movie makes him as exciting as Michael Corlione in the Godfather, who was supposed to be similarly repulsive for following a similar code of ethics. On the page Rorschach looks petty and small. On screen, I wanted to cheer when he said "I'm not locked in here with you! You are all locked in here with me." He was pretty bad ass, and I enjoy badass. Watchmen the comic is not supposed to deliver that particular thrill, but the movie does, and how can I fault a movie for delivering a thrill?

In his New Yorker review Anthony Lane -- who, in a funny remark said that the actress who plays Laurie seemed like she had trouble playing one other person, much less two -- hated the movie and said that people under 25 will love the violence and people over 25 should hate it. In the theater I kept thinking of one of my favorite Quentin Tarantino comments: "people who do not like violence in movies are the same people who do not like dance scenes in movies." What I like about Tarantino as against Lane is that Tarantino -- the iconoclast as against Lanes stuffed shirt -- actually sees a connection between generations, sees how they value the same thing in different forms where Lane can only come up with something that feels like "Those damn kids!" I like dance numbers and aesthetic on screen violence, and as much as reviewers made fun of the Watchmen-fu overall I enjoyed it, even though it was obviously the worst kind of gratuitousness.

I can understand why a person might complain that the movie ruins the comic book as the violence for example, just goes against one of the key points of the original but I think in getting unprecedented numbers of people to read the comic, the movie gave back what it took in this respect, so I am not moved to take issue on this point. I feel more comfortable getting behind the idea that the Troy movie just kind of ruined the poem more than the idea that Snyder ruined Watchmen -- I see my students reading Watchmen, as they did not read the Illiad.

I enjoyed the hell out of the Watchmen movie in the same way I like the Australian MacBeth. It is a fun movie. It is fun to watch the comic up on a big screen being enjoyed by a big audience. The thing is quite well paced: Dark Knight felt like it too forever to get to the 2 hour and 40 minute mark because it was all one pace: DANGER! Watchmen slowed down between fights for moments of human interaction and the 2 hours and 40 minutes went by much faster. Those "human moments" need a comment. Slate took Watchmen to task for getting rid of all the regular joes like the newsstand guy and his customer, which Slate rightly saw as the point of the comic book. But I thought the story between Dan and Laurie was effecting enough that I felt like this story had a human center even if that poor girl was not the best actress in the world. (She was shockingly good looking, and, since I have no problem being called shallow, I will say that it made her bad acting easier to take). The scene at the end of the movie, in which the boy at the newsstand grabs the newsvendor as they die, is a little more complex to judge. The moment is of course not earned at all and I doubt it will be earned even in the director's extended cut, or in the Tales of the Black Freighter animated straight to DVD. But I could not help but use my knowledge of the comic book to flesh out the moment, and make it work.

Some random observations. The opening credits have been justly praised. I also liked the decision to have Dr. Manhattan go pants-less -- he is inhuman so why would he wear clothes except to pander to the masses. It is the kind of detail I would have expected to get screwed up in the movie -- it seems an obvious place for a test screening objection -- but they just went out and did it. The music for the sex scene was deeply weird, and bothered the hell out of me, and the actor playing Dan ran over one of the key lines in the comic where Dan decides to break Rorschach out of prison (Brad pointed this out to me). I did not like the actor who played Adrienne -- he was just deeply annoying, and totally failed to sell the idea that he was the smartest guy in the world. He seemed like someone in high school who thinks they are gay trying out a gay style they will not stick with. The guy who played Rorschach was surprisingly good and I found Dan surprisingly sympathetic -- name one movie at this expense level that features impotence as anything other than a comedy moment. The music must have been amazingly expensive, as my friend Alex pointed out. Many of the choices were a little obvious. The ending with the journal was unearned. The replacement of the monster at the end bothered me not at all.

At the end of the day I had more fun watching this than Dark Knight, because it was paced better: I would give Dark Knight a C+ and this a B. It is a mess and I would hardly hold it up as an example of great filmmaking; but to deny I had fun would just be dishonest, even if it makes me look foolish. I would recommend it to people only on this superficial level; as an intellectual thing, as a hunt to re-experience the craft and thematics of the book, avoid it I think.

There is a larger conversation to have here maybe, about how my values have changed in the last ten years. Ten years ago, when I wrote the Watchmen chapter of my superhero book that most people tell me is the best part of it Harold Bloom was the book I used to understanding a lot of my aesthetic experience. That has not entirely gone away but I find Robert McKee near me too, and a much more superficial attitude in which I look to see first if I am having any fun, and get into the thematics later if at all. Lane would call me immature -- he would put me in with the idiots under 25 who enjoy the aesthetics of fascist violence, something that is sticking with me as I just turned 30, and what could be more irresponsible than my being a little forgiving of the bad acting because I thought the bad actress was so good looking (Tim Callahan hated her wig; I loved it). Professional reviewers know how to have a more distanced impartial attitude, but I am not a professional reviewer and am not sure I want to aim for that kind of thing.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

TV This Week: LOST, BSG, 24, Dollhouse

LOST. This is the third episode of LOST in a row that has been really good, and the rare LOST episode that is basically really happy too: Sawyer and Juliet find love, Juliet delivers a healthy baby, and those left behind find work and safety -- I feel like there has not been a feel good episode of LOST since Hurley wanted to fix that truck. The best part of the episode was Sawyer's conversation with Alpert. For years now these mysterious Others have known EVERYTHING. They walk up to our characters with detailed files on their entire life and all of them go "How can you possibly know that." For the first time here the tables are completely turned, as Alpert is amazed that Saywer knows about the bomb and the disappearing man who claimed to be the leader of the Others in 1954. (With the time travel stuff it seems pretty clear that the Others got those super accurate files from the castaways themselves 30 years before flight 815 went down). Like The Constant this episode had a really solid emotional core: Sawyer telling Horace that 3 years is enough to get over someone and then confronting him with Kate at the end was just good storytelling. I am a little troubled by some things: I did not like that we saw the statue from the back, because it suggests the front might be some kind of reveal -- and I cannot imagine how lame it would be if the face of the statue turned out out to be someone we know. And just as I was confused about the need to lie the whole "we have to get back to the island to save everyone" is feeling pretty thin right now since the castaways are not in the kind of perpetual hell we heard they needed saving from, AND we had to crash a whole other set of passengers to get back to these five people. And what happened to Rose and Benard and the other 815ers, if there are any left after the flaming arrow attack. Maybe that reveal is coming -- they all became others or something -- but no one seems even a little interested. I keep coming back to the fact that on the plane Ben said of the other nameless passengers "Who cares?" Which on some level is totally how I feel, which makes me complicit with him. Oh, and I adore the ticking bomb of the purge of the Dharma initiative.

BSG. All that remains is the two part season finale -- as little as 80 minutes of BSG or is one double sized? In any case looking back over season 4 I have to say I have lost a lot of faith in this show. The acting and character moments are so often great, and it was dramatic for them to lose Earth as a goal, but now it feels a lot like I am on that ship with the characters, all of whom seem to be waiting around for the series finale. Not having a goal sucks a lot of the forward drive out of a show, and just as the humans lost earth the Cylon "plan" that was appears at the front of all the opening credits seems to be non-existent. It seems like the final things the writers needed in place for the end was that Anders can jump the ship (thanks to the cylon goo, which failed to save the ship -- so this was its only purpose in the narrative) and the idea that Starbuck is the resurrection and the life, and also the harbinger of death. I remember when she crashed into that vortex and came out the other side with a new ship, reborn from her own death. Please tell me the fleet is not going to crash into something and be reborn with a new Battlestar Galactica on a clean healthy Earth. I am not sure what this show needs to end, but I feel like it is going to be something sudden now, like when 6 said "oh, and there is this resurrection hub, lets blow that up." A lot is riding on how this show sticks the landing.

24. The AV Club said about this episode "Probably the best way to view tonight's double-header 24, covering the hours from six to eight pm, is as a low-budget '80's action movie, something that Canon might've put together with Chuck Norris in the lead. It's not that surprising, and the story falls apart if you think about it much at all, but the shooting, yelling, and teeth-gritted seriousness do have a certain charm." Though I will agree that the debates over torture, so painfully loaded and illustrated, are pretty bad I thought this had a lot of charm. 24 has always been some kind republican fever dream about all the things they say threaten America happening, and all their suggestions for dealing with it working. People object to this on principle, and I certainly do not agree with the conservative party on these points, but I love how shamelessly 24 embraces it, and thinks that thought all the way to the end. This episode was STUNNING in that regard. A dozen African men, all very dark skinned, assault the white house and take down the whole thing in less than a hour; and as they kill random people a secret service men ALL the faces are white, and many are women. Even with Obama in the White House, this is the vision of terror they come up with. Amazing and ridiculous. The only thing that should happen in season 8 is Jack Bauer establishes himself as a "benevolent" dictator. You have to admire the sheer commitment to the concept here. This show is as American as pointless wars and SUVs.

Dollhouse -- I have the last two to talk about, but I have a more generally sense of what bothers me about this show. It was invented over lunch between Whedon and Dushku. I imagine that as the idea developed they must have said to themselves that this show was super-resonant: these beautiful men and women who are hired to become other people, but maybe the lose sight of who they are in the process, and forget where they came from -- and maybe the people that manufacture their identities and keep them happy do not have their best interests at heart. This is a show that seemed to have universal appeal over lunch in LA because EVERYONE THEY KNOW is involved in something like this: actors and actresses, producers, PR people, agents and so on. For the rest of us -- not so resonant themes. Mostly it is hard for me to get over the Saturday afternoon adventure series sheen over the whole thing -- as my friend Alex said, maybe this show would be better if they had not spent so much money on the set. Ultimately, the premise still bothers me as I cannot see how a place like the Dollhouse can be justified for reasons other than theme, but the Alpha plot has me interested and I am hoping that will kick into high gear with episode six.