Right out of the gate, Men In Black 3 feels dated. Not like something out of the 1960s, which is when most of this film's story is set, but like something out of the late 90s/early 2000s. Director Barry Sonnenfeld ---- who's had a hell of a time getting other projects off the ground in Hollywood despite helming up two incredibly successful "blockbuster" franchises (
It's funny how our expectations going into a film shape our perceptions of it while we're watching it and, ultimately, our final opinions about it after we've seen it. Case in point : yesterday on this very blog I was talking about Snow White And The Huntsman, a movie I frankly expected nothing from, and about how, even though it delivered nothing but a substance-free series of pretty pretty pictures to look at, I wasn't too pissed off about spending my hard-earned money to see because I wasn't even sure it would deliver that much (or that little).
Having proven yesterday how little I know about all things vampire with my review of Abraham Lincoln : Vampire Hunter, I figured I'd take a crack at another mythic genre, namely the fairy tale --- or "folklore," if you prefer --- today. Why stop when you're on a roll, right?
To be honest, though, I guess what we're here to talk about isn't even "folklore" per se so much as the…
I'm not exactly sure what the advertising tagline is for this film --- as a matter of fact, near as I can tell it doesn't seem to actually have one --- but I know what it ought to be : "Silver --- It's Not Just For Werewolves Anymore."
Look, I don't consider myself to be a scholar of the vampiric arts (or whatever they're called) by any means --- I've never seen…
Clocking in at a downright staggering 672 pages, the first thing you notice about cartoonist Craig Thompson’s Habibi is, needless to say, it sheer mass and heft. Lovingly presented by Pantheon Books in a handsome hardback that looks like it came through a wormhole or time vortex of some sort reaching back into distant Arabian antiquity, the book has a lovingly detailed design sensibility that belies its modern, assembly-line, mass-production origins. You hold the volume in your hands and honestly wonder if it might be the only one of its kind.
The second thing you notice is, no surprise, the art. Eschewing the more minimalist sensibilities of his contemporaries in the field of so-called “alternative” comics, Thompson’s lavishly-detailed, bold, and often majestic line work and brushstrokes don’t sparse on the details — each and every panel, no matter the size, has the look of a genuine labor of love, often-times excruciating in its precision, yet consistently (and quite paradoxically, I might add) maintaining a free-form, almost organic flow from start to finish. Thompson combines the eye for detail of place of fellow “travelogue”-style comix artist Joe Sacco with the strong compositional balance between black and white of Will Eisner and the feverish, romantic representations of the mythic found in the works of, say, an Eric Shanower or a Barry Windsor-Smith. Again, the word staggering comes to mind.As one would expect, the story here is as epic as the artwork — set in a Middle East both ancient and modern (the actual time-frame is never firmly established — nor, frankly, should it be) , Thompson creates a world where brutal contemporary slave markets exist side-by-side with Arabian Nights-style mythology, and the result is a tale that, while flawed, does manage to often seamlessly bridge the gap between history and modernity and show that the problems humanity faced then are not so different from the problems we face now. Following the trek of his protagonist, Dodola, as she goes from illiterate child bride to sex slave for nomadic tradesmen to fugitive from an execution squad (be on the lookout for some terrifically-rendered, genuinely breathtaking action sequences in this book) to prisoner in a brutal dungeon to “kept woman” in a sultan’s harem and beyond, the scope of the story here is truly vast.
And yet, at its heart, Habibi is, in fact, a love story, albeit one of a decidedly different sort than the autobiographical one Thompson presented in his previous major effort, 2003′s autobiographical Blankets (Thompson produced Carnet De Voyage, an annotated sketchbook of his travels in Morocco — the influences of which are, needless to say, quite obvious in Habibi — in the years in between) as this is a love story between Dodola and the black slave child, Zam, she adopts as an infant and to whom she serves as both mother and older sister. Her efforts to protect, care for, and even rescue Zam form the book’s emotional core and ground this sweeping tale in the kind of universal humanistic framework to which we can all relate.
As mentioned earlier, though, Habibi does have some rather serious flaws. For one thing, Thompson places his characters in jeopardy so often that it begins to feel a bit repetitious, and the story would probably have been well-served by paring these back a bit. Similarly, the sheer length of the book (brevity has never been Thompson’s strong suit — Blankets is 580 pages long) actually serves to lessen the emotional impact of some of what he’s trying to achieve here by creating something of a “we’ve seen this before” attitude in the reader. And on the ideological front, while I’m generally sympathetic to Thompson’s anti-capitalist views (his despair at how the marketplace turns literally everything about human existence into a commodity to be bought and sold is certainly evident throughout), a few examples would have communicated this more effectively than literally dozens of them, and again, while I applaud his “can’t people of all Abrahamic faiths learn to get along?” message (his illustrated representations of the Koranic versions of several Biblical stories are particularly poignant and heartfelt), it too begins to grate after awhile when he lets the earnestness of his message drown out the trajectory of his story.
Those minor quibbles aside, though, Habibi is a terrifically ambitious work that doesn’t always achieve everything it’s hoping for, but certainly can’t be accused of not giving its all in the attempt. Sweeping, majestic, emotionally literate, and genuinely humane, this is a work of tremendous scope and power whose only “sin” is that it tries to do maybe a little bit more than it can handle. It’s certainly one of the most impressive pieces of work the comics medium has ever produced, but if it scaled back its ambitions and reined in its passions just a tad, we might also be talking about it as one of the best.
Finally! I guess the third time’s the charm, because Before Watchmen : Comedian #1 finally shows that DC is capable of delivering on the “promise” — limited as it is from the outset — that I thought this whole Watchmen prequel project might have going for it (and I use that term with caution, since the idea that these to-my-mind completely unnecessary books have anything much “going for them” at all is highly debatable, to say the least) : namely, that while they probably in any just universe not ruled by the forces of predatory capitalism wouldn’t even exist in the first place, but since we live in this rather soulless and benighted one, the best we can hope for is some decent storytelling that has something interesting to say about some admittedly quite compelling characters.
To be sure, writer Brian Azzzarello and artist J.G. Jones aren’t adding anything extra to the figure of Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian, that we absolutely need to know, but it seems like they are, at least, interested in providing a fresh take on him that seeks to do a little bit more than just recount some story from his past that’s either complete retread material (a la Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen) or simply the exact kind situation we could easily envision these one of these characters in ourselves, no problem (Cooke and Amanda Conner’s Silk Spectre).There’s no doubt that at his core, the Comedian as scripted by Azzarello and drawn by Jones (brief aside — my biggest gripe with this issue is, in fact, Jones’ artwork — it’s not actively bad, by any means, but it’s just standard, garden-variety superhero-type stuff that’s frankly the very essence of the term “nothing special”) is in no way fundamentally different than the character we were introduced by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the original Watchmen mini-series, but this story does, dare I say it, almost show something of a softer side to the guy. He’s still a rat bastard at heart, as shown by how he rather casually murders a famous woman he was only just sleeping with (I won’t say who, but if I tell you that the story is set in the early ’60s, you can probably guess), but he’s also shown here to be very nearly developing something of, dare I say it, an idealistic streak. He actually seems to believe in something — or, more specifically, in someone (again, I won’t say who, but again, given the time period in which this story takes place, you can pretty easily guess). He is, in fact, supposed to be on his way to meet that someone when he’s detained by an obviously hastily-arranged little time-waster of a “mission,” and while he’s tending to that pesky n’ pointless matter, that certain less-than-mysterious someone whose name I’ve studiously avoided mentioning is killed (and let’s face it — if you still haven’t figured out who I’m talking about by this point, there’s absolutely no hope for you).
And that’s probably where things are going to get dicey for a lot of Watchmen purists (what are you doing even reading this book in the first place?), because it directly contradicts something that was hinted at in the original series and that was explicitly shown in Zack Snyder’s film. However, it’s quite apparent that solving this “whodunnit?,” as well as its attendant question of “why was The Comedian kept away from it?” is going to be the driving force behind the plot of this six-issue series, which should be heavy on the political intrigue and conspiratorial overtones.
All that being said, it’s pretty obvious, it seems to me at any rate, where this whole thing is going to end up. The Comedian is going to find the perpetrators of the crime within our own government, be coerced or explicitly forced into helping them shape their decidedly right-wing agenda for America’s future, and what little idealism (there’s that word again) he was almost threatening to develop is going to be buried under the crushing wave of cynicism, if not outright nihilism, that solving this case engenders in him. He’ll go to Sally Jupiter/Juspeczyk for comfort at the point where he’s at his lowest, sire her daughter, and when she makes it clear she won’t allow him to play any part in his baby girl’s life, that decision, coupled with the loss of faith in pretty much anything and everything that will result from his investigations over the next five issues will result in Blake becoming the hard-assed, completely unlikable scumbag we’ve always known him to be.
Still, it’s a convincingly-written, thoroughly readable book (Azzarello seems to have something of a flair for solid, realistic dialogue), and it at least has some ambitions beyond DC’s apparent remit of “just don’t screw anything up.” I won’t be buying it in its three different variant covers (as reproduced above and drawn by Jones, Eduardo Risso, and Jim Lee, respectively), but I didn’t feel too bad about shelling out four bucks for the one copy I did get. Even though the ending might as well be telegraphed in more or less from the outset, I’m sufficiently intrigued at this point to see just how it is that we’ll arrive there.
Wow. It’s hard to believe that 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of former Raw editor Art Spiegelman’s classic comix narrative Maus. It’s enough to make a guy start feeling kind of old! But if any so-called “graphic novel” (and in the case of Maus that’s a term that actually applies) deserved a big to-do to celebrate the quarter-century mark, this one does.
For those of you with short attention spans, or who either weren’t there or were too young at the time to remember now, Maus was one of the works, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, that the mainstream media chose to focus on in the mid-80s as proof that the comics medium had finally “grown up.” But whereas Dark Knight and Watchmen were both revisionist takes on the superhero genre that comics are, for better or worse, still pretty much synonymous with, Maus represented a broadening of the medium’s focus to include stories and issues from the “real world” as well, and whereas Miller, Moore, and Gibbons all emerged from the “mainstream” comics industry, writer-artist Spiegelman emerged from the so-called “underground” milieu of the 1960s and 70s, and so brought to his work an entirely different sensibility than the creators he was being “bundled up” (so to speak) with. In practical terms, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with the differences between so-called “mainstream” and so-called “alternative” comics/comix, is that he never cared much for guys in tights and capes fighting crime, and while he was far from the first, or only, cartoonist to eschew the costumed adventurer as the primary focus of his sequential narratives (Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Greg Irons, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, and frankly too many others to list were both forebears and contemporaries of Spiegelman), his was the first non-mainstream work that the wider world really paid any attention to , coming as it did at at ime when, again, the mainstream was thought (falsely, as it turns out, since the only lesson the “Big Two” publishers seems to have taken from the critical acclaim and commercial success of Dark Knight and Watchmen was that audiences wanted their heroes “grittier,” “darker,” and “more realistic”) to be finally maturing.
Sure, Maus still employs another tried-and-true trapping of comics tradition — namely the “funny animal” genre (not that there’s anything funny about these animals) — as its central narrative conceit, but this is definitely a harrowing portrayal of unfabricated and unvarnished all-too-human complexity, focusing as it does on the grim realities of the Holocaust (with mice standing in for the Jews and cats for the Germans) and the effects of that dark period on those who survived the ordeal. Based on the recorded conversations Spiegelman had with his own Holocaust-survivor father before his passing, it’s a harrowing, deeply personal, emotionally resonant work that will engross you from its first page to its last and haunt you long afterwards. Critics of far more established pedigree than I have called it “the most affecting portrayal of the Holocaust ever rendered in any medium” and “a masterwork,” and you know what? They’re absolutely right.As far as the art goes, it’s simply stunning. Elegant in its simplicity, it’s brooding, atmospheric, and yes, heavy, but it needs to be in order to accurately represent this subject matter with candor and sincerity. Spiegelman’s drawings have a raw (if you’ll forgive the pun) and unsophisticated look to them that belies the almost-agonizing complexity to their construction that sometimes can’t be appreciated on first glance. In short, these are images that need to be studied to be fully appreciated, but if you do take the time to do that you’ll be richly rewarded for your efforts, as the pictures on display here are every bit as emotionally affecting as the words that accompany them.
Now back to the whole anniversary thing. Pantheon books, in late 2011, finally released a collected hardback edition of the complete Maus (it had been released in two separate, smaller editions — both in hardcover and paperback — previously), complete with a new cover, and also published an absolutely exhaustive (again hardcover) companion volume, titled MetaMaus, that runs nearly 300 pages and collects nearly what one would imagine to be almost every scrap of detail relating to Maus’ creation and also features extensive interviews with Spiegleman, his wife, and his children, elaborating on not only how and why Maus came to be, but how it has affected their lives, as well. It’s a compelling and genuinely illuminating volume showcasing the efforts that went into the creation of a work that, let’s face it, deserved a lot more than a new introduction and/or afterword to mark its silver anniversary. Also included with companion volume is a DVD that features a digitized reference copy of Maus in its entirety linked to various and sundry complementary archival material such as pages from Spiegelman’s sketchbooks and private notebooks, historical documents, and even excepts of the audio interviews with his late father that provided the genesis for the entire project in the first place. The two books retail (full price) at $35.00 apiece and are more than worth every penny.In closing I’d just like to wish Art Spiegelman and Maus a very happy happy 25th anniversary. As relevant, thought-provoking, significant and, yes, poignant today as it ever was, this remains an unequaled work in the field of graphic historical (and personal) narrative. Pick it up for yourself and find out why it’s required reading in so many college courses , not just on comics but on history, these days.
What a long, strange trip it’s been for iconoclastic Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s Ed The Happy Clown —starting life in the early ’80s inside the tiny pages of self-published mini-comics that Brown sold on Toronto streetcorners before moving on to become the serialized lead feature in his seminal solo comix series Yummy Fur, the (we thought at the time) completed work was collected in trade paperback format by Brown’s at-the-time publisher, Vortex, in 1988. Nothing too circuitous about any of that, right? So why the “long, strange trip” bit?
Well, because it turns out things weren’t quite as over and done with as they seemed. In 1992, Vortex returned with a second edition, subtitled “The Definitive Ed Book,” which added a new four-page “extra ending,” if you will, to the original collection. Brown himself moved on to Draw & Quarterly publications at roughly the same time, and while he pursued other projects under their publishing auspices such as the still-unfinished Underwater, the highly-acclaimed historical series Louis Riel, and most recently the autobiographical (and highly confessional) graphic novel Paying For It, somewhere in between all that he found time to revisit Ed yet again, when D&Q reprinted the entire run of stories in the early 2000s in single-issue magazine form, complete with new (and stunning — one of them is reproduced below the next paragraph, so see for yourself) covers and extensive liner notes written by Brown detailing the thought processes that went into nearly every page, if not each individual panel, of the story.
Now, in 2012, it appears the Ed saga might well and truly be over, as D&Q have seen fit to release a handsome hardback edition of the complete story that includes the covers for the single-issue reprint books (mostly in all their hand-colored glory, although sadly a couple aren’t) and the footnotes Brown did for those issues. Aesthetically speaking, it’s a really nice package and should stand as the final word on all things Ed (although I’ve thought that once or twice before, so we’ll see), and it’s as someone who’s followed the whole thing since nearly the beginning (I can’t claim to have any of Brown’s old self-produced mini-comics in my possession, sadly) it brings a wide smile to my face to see this material finally get the absolutely comprehensive treatment it deserves.
As for the story ,well — if you’re unfamiliar with the mind-numbing universe (actually, that should truthfully be parallel universes) of Ed The Happy Clown, suffice to say you’re in for a wild ride. Ed himself is quite likely the most hapless character in the history of graphic fiction, yet isn’t presented as a tragic figure, really, at all, despite the fact that literally nothing good happens to him from start to finish. The actual plot itself is a tricky thing to describe with a straight face, though, so I’ll just say this — be ready for a healthy (well, okay, unhealthy) dose of scatological fixation, religious obsession, and an overall narrative tone that absolutely reeks of well-placed disdain for hyprocisy in all its forms. When this material first saw print in the 1980s it’s fair to say that a lot of people thought Ronald Reagan was a dickhead — in Brown’s story he really is a dickhead. Throw in sewer-dwelling pygmies, werewolves, vampires, and a TV science show and you’re got all the ingredient for a heady surrealistic stew.
On the artistic side, the drawing style employed by Brown goes through a lot of changes as things go along, since he was still experimenting (you could fairly argue that he still is, I suppose) with different panel sizes, uses of form, and even basic linework throughout this period, but even though the first page and the last look remarkably different to one another, there’s undoubtedly a sense of consistency clearly visible in each step of the artistic evolution on display here. Simply put, it all works, somehow.Like a lot of the films we take a look at around these parts, it’s certainly more than fair to say that Ed The Happy Clown isn’t for all tastes. If you go for artistic formalism, straightforward linear narrative, or take yourself too seriously, then you’re better of avoiding this altogether. But if you find the finished (again, I assume) product of an unfettered, unpretentious, and frankly even unhinged imagination to be a thing of at least interest, if not outright beauty, then this is a book that you’ll be glad to have in your collection and that you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.
One thing I’ll say right off the bat when it comes to the first issue of the second Before Watchmen miniseries, Silk Spectre — the art, by the very able Amanda Conner (who also co-wrote the script along with Minutemen writer/artist Darwyn Cooke) is absolutely stunning. Conner utilizes the familiar Watchmen nine-panel grid developed by Dave Gibbons (yay! glad to see it back!) in the original series, but whereas Gibbons put his grid to use depicting grim n’ grimy urban decay, Conner delivers a modern update on the good old-fashioned romance comics look, with smooth, flowing lines that capture the youthful innocence (and naivete) of her central character, a teenage version of Laurie Juspeczyk/Jupiter, better known to all of us Watchmen aficionados as the (second) Silk Spectre. The lush and wide-ranging palette employed by colorist Paul Mounts complements Conner’s guardedly-optimistic pencil and ink work perfectly, and the result is an evocative, even forlorn at times, visual feast. You get the sense from looking at this book that Laurie knows her innocence is coming to an end, and is both eager to cleave to whatever elements of it still provide her comfort, as well as to shed those parts of it that are holding her back.
And speaking of holding her back — that’s exactly how she sees what her mother, Sally, the original Silk Spectre, is doing by forcing her to become a second-generation costumed crime-fighter. While it’s painfully obvious to anyone with a pulse that Sally’s trying to relive her own youth vicariously through her daughter, it’s also abundantly clear that Laurie doesn’t want much to do with the profession her mom’s chosen for her, and that central tension is what will lie at the core of the book, at least by all indications from this first issue.If that sort of typical coming-of-age fare doesn’t grab you, though, then neither will Before Watchmen : Silk Spectre #1. Because the other various plot elements sprinkled in — Laurie being ridiculed at school over who her mother is and what she used to do for a living (both during and after her spandex adventuring career), then falling in love for the first time, then running off with the guy she’s so smitten with — are pretty standard tropes as far as this whole genre goes, as well. It’s not a bad read, per se, by any means, but it’s not a necessary one, either, and while it’s rather interesting, as an exercise in variety if nothing else, to see the teen romance thing filtered through the prism of the Watchmen universe, this first issue, like last week’s Minutemen premier, doesn’t really add anything to our knowledge and/our understanding of the character. It’s just telling some story from her youth that so far doesn’t seem in any way especially compelling, even if it is pleasant enough lightweight reading.And it’s that word right there — lightweight — that pretty much sums up my disappointment with the first couple installments of this Watchmen prequel bonanza in a nutshell. Both Minutemen and Silk Spectre have been throwaway reads that don’t do much apart from look nice and avoid explicitly contradicting what’s come before. They haven’t proven that these books actually have any point apart from crass commercial considerations (speaking of which, this also comes packaged in three different covers, as shown above, by Conner, Dave Johnson, and Jim Lee, respectively). Not upsetting the apple cart might be enough to satisfy some readers, but when you’re packaging your books specifically as an extension of the Watchmen legacy, it’s probably fair to say that a good number of us are expecting something more challenging, thought-provoking, and dare I say even revolutionary than what we’ve seen so far. We’ll see what the first issue of Comedian has in store for us later this week, and whether or not it can finally — hopefully! — justify why these titles are even being published in the first place. So far, though, it seems that Alan Moore’s — uhmmm — vociferous reservations about the whole enterprise were entirely justified.
While many of his contemporaries from the late-80s/early-90s “alternative comix” scene have either mellowed with age or disappeared completely, Eightball creator Daniel Clowes — perhaps best known to regular readers of this blog as the screenwriter of Ghost World and Art School Confidential — seems to be gaining a deeper, if ultimately more pessimistic, handle on the human psyche over the years, and while new work from his strikingly able pen appears at what could generously be called a snail’s pace at best, the meticulous nature of both his artwork and his economic and incisive scripting demonstrates that he’s certainly not resting on his laurels.
Case in point — The Death-Ray, originally published by Fantagraphics Books in 2004 as (to date) the final issue of his previously-mentioned Eightball series and recently reissued in a handsome, oversized hardcover edition from Drawn & Quarterly, is nothing less than a disarmingly bleak masterwork that’s stunning to look at and oftentimes painfully, albeit gorgeously, misanthropic in tone. The title of one of Clowes’ earlier lengthy serials was Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, and this book definitely packs a wallop underneath its lush, even soothing at times, visuals.
The story presented here of orphan-turned-teen-outcast Andy, a casually misanthropic (mostly) loner who acquires remarkable super powers through remarkably outrageous means (see the panel reproduced above for a clue) and also happens upon the titular “death-ray” gun that can instantly wipe anyone or anything completely out of existence, is, on one level, a pretty simple meditation upon the old “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” slice of conventional wisdom, but it’s also much more — a stark portrayal of deepening alienation that sets in slowly over the years and it’s resultant heart-hardening and conscience-numbing; a requiem for lost loved ones we never really knew; and a simple yet profound study of two friends who drift apart over time, all related through a series of what by all rights should be hopelessly disjointed short comic-strip vignettes that vary nearly schizophrenically in tone and style, yet flow from one to the next with grace, ease, and confidence in service of producing what ultimately reveals itself to be a jaw-droppingly seamless whole.It’s also a perfect example of how to subvert reader expectations — the more we see of Andy as the years progress, the more distant he becomes; the more we find ourselves able to predict his actions (and his targets), the less we can relate to him; the more casual and nonchalant his violence, the more it shocks us. As we watch a tragic figure devolve into a monstrous one, we can’t seem to fight it when our pity turns to despair turns to disgust. It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride delivered with a dead-pan, entirely matter-of-fact sense of almost clinical detachment. Camus in the American suburbs.
Andy’s story doesn’t end so much as it simply stops, with Clowes presenting the reader with a number of potential conclusions to the story in “choose your own adventure” style, but in all honesty, while this sounds like a bit of a cheat, if you’ve gone with his flow to this point it actually feels not only fitting but necessary, since a hard-and-fast resolution would, in fact, betray the tone of everything that has gone before by interjecting hard-and-fast authorial manipulation into a work that’s been meticulously constructed to avoid any semblance of it from the outset. Clowes’ style here has the distinct flavor of a true documentarian, even if the people and events he’s portraying are entirely fictitious.If there’s one minor quibble I have with The Death-Ray, it’s that $19.95 (assuming you pay full price) is an awful lot to shell out for a book that’s only 48 pages in length, even if those 48 pages are dimensionally more than generous and reproduce the varied-in-style-but-uniformly-stark-and-exquistite artwork in luscious, vibrant detail. It’s a just a damn hefty price tag, plain and simple. Still, this is a work that rewards rereading and careful analysis and can be viewed and interpreted in so many different ways that it’s downright impossible not to ultimately get your money’s worth from it. As rich, complex, and challenging a piece of graphic fiction as you’re ever likely to find, that presents no easy answers — or any answers at all, for that matter — yet resonates with an internal truth all its own, The Death-Ray numbers among a small handful of books that well and truly show comics to be a medium as limitless in terms of their possibilities as film or literature.