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For as long as I can remember, Brian Wood has been one of those writers who has — to his credit — shared copyright ownership on all of his various projects with the artists involved and, in the case of the just-concluded Image series Starve, even the colorist. So if you’re an indicia-reader like myself, the “Copyright 2016 Brian Wood” in the fine print of the first issue of his new Dark Horse-published title, Briggs Land, is something of a surprise. We’re used to the artists being cut out of the action over at Aftershock, but why was Mack Chater — who does a bang-up job on this book, as you’ll see in the art reproduced below — not given co-creator credit here?

Well, the answer to that is simple : this comic has already been optioned for television and is, in fact, being developed simultaneously on the printed page and at AMC. When — or even if — it’ll hit the small screen is anyone’s guess, but make no mistake : Briggs Land reads very much like a not-yet-produced TV pilot because that’s precisely what it is. That would mean that the artist (the aforementioned Mr. Chater) and colorist (respected industry vet Lee Loughridge) were brought in well after the characters and concepts were developed (at least that’s my assumption), but still — I mean, these stories don’t draw themselves, do they? My best guess is that Wood probably had pretty solid visual ideas about how he wanted everyone to look and what have you when the rest of the team was brought on board, but this growing trend of creator-ownership for writers only — well, it kinda bugs me, because it means that if Briggs Land goes on to become the next Walking Dead, only one of the people involved with the comic is going to get rich off it.

Still, the artist knows that going in, I suppose, and hopefully he’s being paid a nice page rate, but this is a wrinkle that bears paying close attention to in the coming years — is “writer-only” creator ownership ethically and legally preferable to publisher/corporate ownership?  Sure, no question. But it’s just as much a certainty, in this critic’s view at any rate, that full-on creator ownership that spreads the wealth among artist and writer alike — in other words, the traditional creator-owned model — is ethically and legally preferable to this emerging “writer-as-sole creator” model. After all, if a book has shitty art, no one’s gonna buy it — yet the view of the artist as essentially little more than a “hired pencil” and the writer as the “brains” behind a comic is, at the end of the day, the same bullshit that Stan Lee has been trying to sell us all on for years, even though most of us know damn well that Jack Kirby and/or Steve Ditko more or less created all the characters (and even plotted — at the very least — most, if not all, of the stories) that Lee now takes credit for. So I’d say it pays to be very aware of what sort of creator ownership the purportedly “creator-owned” titles you read and enjoy really have going on. In the case of Briggs Land, it may very well be that the entire idea sprang whole-cloth from Wood’s mind, but shit — somebody still has to draw the book, right?

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Admittedly, if this first issue is any indication, this entire enterprise has been laid out in advance to a “T” — the various characters are all quite distinctive, the basics of the premise are fleshed out quickly and, it has to be said, rather magnificently, and all the principals involved have very distinctive voices, motivations, mannerisms, and agendas. Our protagonist, for instance, is Grace Briggs, a fifty-something woman who literally embodies the “strong female lead” archetype : she’s been operating as the de facto day-to-day leader of a secessionist/separatist community set on 100 wooded acres while her husband, the outfit’s official head honcho, is serving multiple life sentences for the attempted assassination of the president of the United States (which president is never stated). As our story begins, however, she’s taken it upon herself to let her old man know that his “services” — whatever they may amount to given his current residency — are no longer required, and that from now on, she’s in charge. Backing her up in this quiet coup is her youngest son, who’s just returned from a tour of duty with the Marines in Iraq, while her eldest son seems intent on remaining loyal to his dad and the middle son is — well, his allegiances are anyone’s guess, but first and foremost they seem to lie squarely with himself. So all our various bases are covered in the game of “who’s-on-who’s-side-here-anyway?”

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Taking all this in, and acting as our own “eyes and ears,” we’ve got a pair of FBI agents who are monitoring the shady (to say the least) financing of this “breakaway sect” — and who also happen to be sleeping together — and a Godfather Part II-style attempted “hit” on the family right where they live makes it clear that this power struggle has the potential to be a very violent one indeed. Throw in some philosophical differences between Grace and her husband (he’s a hard-core white nationalist while she’s a “non-racist separatist” — an idea that strains credulity every bit as much as a flying man in tights, truth be told) and all the ingredients are there for a really electrifying comic — and, yes, TV show.

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Which kinda brings us back full-circle to my original point : yes, this is a damn good comic. I enjoyed every single page of it and found myself immediately hooked. I’m sure I’ll pick it up religiously month in and month out. A lot of that is because of Brain Wood’s intriguing storyline, sharp dialogue, well-realized characters, and the palpable sense of tension he imbues the proceedings with right from jump. But a lot of it is down to Mack Chater’s evocative, dynamic, highly expressive art, as well (and having the always-amazing Tula Lotay on as cover artist certainly doesn’t hurt, either). He may not be a “co-creator” of this book, but he’s definitely a “co-author” — and in an ideal world, he’d be compensated as such.

 

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Way back in the dim and foggy past — as in, less than five years ago — DC rolled out their “New 52” publishing initiative, and while the then-new line was understandably heavy on books that fell under the loosely-defined “Superman Family” and “Batman Family” umbrellas, a certain amount of space was also carved out for “weird” or “offbeat” titles like Dial HFrankenstein, Agent Of SHADEJustice League DarkI, VampireOMACAll-Star Western, and others that trod a path somewhat less beaten. It was something of a gutsy call, and while most of these series were given a pretty short sales leash (with a good many of them biting the bullet sooner rather than later), I gave ’em props for being willing to throw a lot of shit at the wall in order to see what would stick.

And what stuck, of course, was the tried-and-true, an inevitability that was as depressing as it was unsurprising — yet even that started to run out of gas, and when the time came for DC to “start all over at number one again” this year with Rebirth, the list of “new” comics was decidedly heavy on Super-,Bat-, and Justice League-themed books, with nary a “marginal” offering to be found. Clearly, then, if somebody wanted to do something a little different, they were going to have to find a way to do it within the confines of one of DC’s extended super-hero “families.”

You can forget the Bat-books, of course —  there was simply no way that Warner was going to risk the surest thing their comics imprint has to an ATM machine in any significant fashion. And other top-tier heroes like The Flash, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern were all promising a “back to basics” approach to boost their lagging sales, as well. So I guess that left only Superman’s corner of the universe as one which might see some significant infusion of the new.

Old Supes’ status quo was certainly ready for a shake-up, given that his “New 52” iteration was so unpopular that they actually went ahead and killed him, and in the wake of that no-doubt-less-than-final demise a pretty convoluted situation was left : the original, “pre-New 52” version of the character (you know, the one married to the Lois Lane of “his” Earth, and with a ten-year-old son named Jon) would assume the mantle he’d been eschewing while living with his family in secret and watching that other guy risk — and eventually lose — his ass, while the powers that the now-“dead” Superman had would be passed on to others via some sort of “solar flare” that occurred at the moment of his purported “destruction.”

If all of this sounds confusing, rest assured that it is : I guess what it all boils down to is that we had two Supermans/Clark Kents, two Lois Lanes, and one kid named Jon. And when the “Rebirth” line-up was announced and titles like New Super-ManSuper Sons, and the book we’re looking at today, Superwoman, were in there, the picture became even less clear — but more interesting. I mean, we didn’t even have a solid idea of who the main characters in most of these books were.

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Now, of course, thanks to the pre-release publicity machine that never stops cranking, we have some idea : that new “Super-Man” is a cocky teenage kid in China; the “Super-Sons” (who we now won’t be seeing in their own book until sometime next year) are Jon Kent and Damian Wayne; and the latest version of “Superwoman” — a name that any number of characters have adopted for short spells over the years — is “New 52” Lois Lane.

Or is she? The title of the opening story arc for this series, “Who Is Superwoman?,” seems pretty apt given that there first appears to be one woman (Lois) who absorbed some of Superman’s powers — then we learn there were actually two (Lana Lang being the other) — and at the end of the first issue we might (or, hey, might not) be back down to one, given that one of them supposedly (again with the air-quotes because its permanence in comics is always an open question) “dies.”

And if that isn’t enough, the chief villain in this issue is yet another Superman — of the self-declared variety, mind you, since none other than Lex Luthor has constructed a “battle-suit” with a big old “S” on the chest for himself and assumed the role of protector of Metropolis because, hey, that’s what bored rich guys can do.

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Veteran “steady hand” Phil Jimenez is taking care of both the script and pencils on this monthly (thank God!) title, and while it was a given that the book would look great, he’s largely untested as a writer, so it was anybody’s guess how it would actually read. Fortunately for us all, we can say “so far, so good” on that front, given that he’s served up an opening salvo that, while admittedly “text-heavy,” doesn’t get bogged down with too much exposition despite, frankly, needing to cover a whole lot of ground before he can even get the action started in earnest. And once the action does get going a mere few pages in, it’s brisk, believable (as far as these things go), and thoroughly satisfying. Jimenez hasa real knack for rapid-fire characterization, his dialogue is crisp and authentic, and he controls the pacing of his story — alternating between flashbacks to the recent past and “present-day” trials and tribulations on Luthor’s new fucking battleship (that he built, of course, to “safeguard” his city) — with masterful ease. This is a substantive comic that packs a lot into its 2o pages of editorial content, but it never feels “weighty” or “overburdened” — in fact, it just feels like you’re getting solid value for your $2.99, a rarity these days.

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Matt Santorelli’s inks and Jeromy Cox’s colors combine to give the finished pages a very clean and polished feel that complement the goings-on quite nicely, and if this team can hold together for the foreseeable future, all indications are that we’re most likely in for a fun and even memorable ride here. We may not know, strictly speaking, who Superwoman is yet — or, to be more specific, how many of them there are — but I’m game to find out, that’s for sure.

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It’s no secret :  apocalypse has always loomed large in the works of Alan Moore — from Adrian Veidt’s duplicitous, engineered “brave new world” of Watchmen to the celebratory “wrap party” of all as we know it to be in Promethea, one way or another, as Rorschach himself would almost certainly put it, the end is always nigh. In Dez Vylenz’ documentary feature The Mindscape Of Alan Moore, the author himself opines that, in his considered view, apocalypse is essentially synonymous with revelation, and that it needn’t be feared in the least — but apparently he didn’t pass that memo along to one of his own characters, the ever-hapless (not to mention clueless) Robert Black, who experiences perhaps the most personal Moore-scripted apocalypse to date, yet also the one with the most profound and far-reaching (not to mention harrowing) consequences, as he comes to find out that he is an unwitting agent for, essentially, the re-writing of reality itself — to the way it’s always been?

Operating under the theory that ignorance is bliss, Black has been busily rationalizing all his less-than-commonplace (readers of this series’ backmatter will groan at that one) experiences throughout haunted New England circa 1919 either as a defense mechanism for purposes of retaining his own sanity, a knee-jerk reaction based on his cosmopolitan rationalism, or both, but let’s not us kid ourselves in the same fashion — he’s been due a come-uppance of the sort he can’t just explain away for some time, and in the pages of Providence #10 it finally hits, first through his conversations with H.P. Lovecraft, wherein the still-amateur horror scribe unwittingly gives away something of the “hidden hand in all things” (leave it to Moore to reveal  that a character who’s been there all along but who we’ve never actually met — and probably never will — is arguably the most pivotal figure in the whole story)  and then in a momentous — in the strictest sense of that term — encounter with The Courtyard and Neonomicon central personage Johnny Carcosa, who, in memorably horrific fashion, drives home what all the talk of “The Redeemer” and “The Messenger” lurking in this title’s periphery has been about. I’d say “nothing is ever going to be the same,” but let’s be honest — nothing in Providence ever was, anyway.

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Literary references fly fast and furious in this issue, as we’ve come to expect (with Lovecraft’s The Haunter Of The Dark coming as close as anything to assuming the mantle of “anchor story” this time out), but it’s Moore’s ruminations on the nature of literature — and, indeed, of all fiction — that are of utmost import here, with Carcosa “flickering” between two-dimensional “existence” and solid, physical “reality” as he drops tantalizing hints about the nature of the “invented” world and the phenomena of post-selection that will blow the minds of even the most veteran travelers of the psychedelic realms. Simply put, if you can wrap your head around the idea that Lovecraft’s “Old Gods” dreamed this world into being in order to create the conditions by which humans, in turn, would eventually imagine them into being you might be coming close to what’s being intimated at here — but with two issues left to go, I have no doubt that most of the bigger picture still remains tantalizingly beyond the grasp of us mere mortals at this point, and that Black’s revelations will prove to be both concurrent with, as well as pale in comparison to, our own.

For those more inclined to focus on the prosaic, “surface-level” concerns Moore and Burrows (who ups his own ante considerably on the art for this installment, pulling out all the stops when it comes time to delineate what can barely even be adequately described, much less drawn) have been toying with since the outset of their “Lovecraft Cycle,” rest assured that those aren’t ignored in these pages, either — for instance, if you’ve been wondering why Carcotha talkth the way he doeth, that mythtery ith finally tholved (it ain’t pretty), and the obvious ties that bind Black’s journals to Lovecraft’s forthcoming literary works are finally stitched together, as well. No doubt, for a comic that consists almost entirely of two characters conversing with each other (either Black and Lovecraft or Black and Carcosa), there’s a whole lot going on here.

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Perhaps that’s a largely-unacknowledged part of the real genius that’s quietly been underpinning this entire enterprise from the start — there hasn’t been so much as a single punch thrown in ten issues here, and indeed little to no “action” of the traditional sort has been on offer at all, yet has there been a more intellectually, philosophically, or artistically “exciting” book on the stands in the last who-knows-how-many years, never mind one that shakes its readers’ very conception of reality, the universe, and anything and everything associated with both/either to the degree this one does? If you’ve been reading this comic — and, honestly, shame on you if you haven’t — you already know the answer to that.

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I dunno — I feel like I’m literally a different person now than I was when Providence started, even if I was always meant to be this way. Or already was and just didn’t know it. Or never will be. Or, heck, maybe I’m still, eternally, in the process of becoming it  — whatever “it” is. Whatever I am. Whatever anything is. I’ve long felt that contemplating the apparently-unfathomable is not only life’s highest calling, but in the end is the only one that really matters. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows are facilitating that exploration in ways I could never have begun to imagine and, crucially, providing me with the tools to continue on from this point once they’ve (regretfully) concluded their business here. I have no doubt that when I look back on this whole thing we call “life” from wherever it is I am five or ten years down the road, that Providence #10 — one of the single-finest comics I’ve ever read and one of the best works of “fiction” (a term we can now safely say that we need to use very  loosely) I’ve ever experienced in any form — will stand out as a watershed moment where everything that I was thinking about, well, everything took a quantum leap forward.

 

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If there’s one thing that’s even more pathetic than the “Marvel Guy” vs. “DC Guy” debates that have been raging among comics fans for years, it’s seeing those same arguments steroid-pumped beyond comprehension now that four-color funnybooks have become the go-to “IP source” for multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbusters. “Marvel movies are the best!” “You take that back, DC movies are the best!” — it’s all so mind-numbingly tedious.

Not to mention fundamentally dishonest. Just as neither publisher deserves to have anyone rooting for them given their sorry ethical histories and largely substandard product of recent vintage, the same is true for both cinematic universes — by and large, they’re entirely unexceptional on their best days, offensively mediocre on their worst. 2016 hasn’t bucked this trend in the least to date, with Marvel’s Captain America : Civil War being yet another bland two-and-a-half hour TV episode with lots of guest stars, and DC’s Batman V. Superman : Dawn Of Justice being a largely grim and self-serious effort that, while being nowhere near as lousy as its numerous critics allege, still doesn’t manage to rise above the level of being anything more than a visually interesting, painfully over-earnest slugfest. But damn if people haven’t succumbed to their most base tribal impulses and self-segregated into camps according to which celluloid super-hero brand they think is better.

The internet is the battlefield of choice for these less-than-noble unpaid warriors for the Dinsey and Warner media conglomerates, which I suppose is better than watching folks fight it out in the streets, but the gusto with which each camp promulgates its ultimately untenable position that either one or the other is all that good has given way to the sort of excesses that usually only emerge in the philosophical or political arenas, and there they can be can at least be understood to a degree (if not excused) given that the subjects under debate actually matter — which, I’m sorry, is hardly the case here. Whoever ultimately wins the battle for your super-hero dollar at the box office, be it Disney/Marvel or Warner Brothers/DC, isn’t going to put food on your table, educate your kids, stop global warming, eradicate nuclear weapons, curb police brutality, or block a mentally unstable sociopath from being elected president. They don’t care about you —- who why should you care about them?

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And yet, care about them people most certainly do — to a degree that can only be called alarming, at this point. For evidence of just how absurd it’s all become, look no further than the petition swirling around online to shut down Rotten Tomatoes, the aggregate-score movie review powerhouse website, simply because the appraisals pouring in for DC’s latest mega-blockbuster, Suicide Squad, are wretchedly poor on the whole. This will go nowhere, of course — but the fact that there’s even one person out there, never mind thousands, who would like to permanently silence opinions that run counter to their own is a troubling sign of the insanity that has gripped some of fandom’s more unfortunate quarters. Shit, it’s bad enough when folks try to drown out the originators of dissenting viewpoints, but RT is nothing more than a conveninet clearing-house for opinions that have already been expressed elsewhere. Do get a life, people.

Still, it’s not like Marvel fans can claim any particular moral superiority on this front, either. Earlier this year, when an entirely more reasonable petition emerged (on Rotten Tomatoes, no less!) asking for Disney to stop paying critics for phony positive reviews, it was met with howls of derision and racked up several million “dislikes” to only a few thousand signatures in its favor. The hard-core Marvel fans want their insular worldview protected at all costs every bit as much as their DC-loyalist counterparts, and they don’t even mind that supposedly “impartial” critics are getting paid to do the reinforcing.

And here’s where things get really frustrating for somebody who just wants to hate ’em all and be done with it like myself — idiot-ass anti-RT petitioning aside, the more rational DC fans do sort of have a point, because the boat-load of negative reviews that Suicide Squad is attracting to itself like flies on horse’s backside are proof-positive that plenty of critics are, in fact, completely in the tank for Dis/Mar.

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I don’t offer that opinion simply because they’re saying it’s bad, of course — all art is subjective and you can like or dislike something for any reason at all according to your whims or, preferably, logic — but because of why they’re saying it’s bad. The big knock on Batman V. Superman was, of course, that it was “too dark” and “no fun,” and while writer/director David Ayer has certainly concocted another dark flick with Suicide Squad, it’s all kinds of fun, riddled as it is throughout with gallows humor, intense action, memorable characters, superb performances, standout effects work, sharp and witty dialogue, and breakneck pacing that doesn’t give you too much time to think about its gaping plot holes. In short, it has almost everything the paid gatekeepers of public taste said the last DC flick was lacking  (and certainly everything you could ask for in a brainless summer “popcorn movie”)— and yet they still uniformly despise it. I may not have a whole lot of respect for DC/Warner as a corporate entity, but damn — I still know when the fix is in, ya know?

For those unfamiliar with the particulars here, they’re fairly basic : concerned by the threat posed by super-powered villains in world where Superman is now (presumed) dead,  cold-blooded Pentagon operative Amanda Waller (portrayed with Oscar-worthy calculating menace by Viola Davis) assembles a crack team to beat the baddies at their own game that’s composed entirely of — super-powered villains? Well, okay, who better to fight ’em than their own kind, I suppose, and she’s got herself a crackerjack crew here consisting of assassin-who-never-misses-a-mark Deadshot (Will Smith), gang-banger who can control fire El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Aussie burglar extraordinaire ( I needn’t tell you what his weapon of choice is given his name) Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), scaly and amphibious monster of the sewers Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), honest-to-goodness immortal witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and the Joker’s even-crazier-than-he-is girlfriend, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). In the field, the misfit army is led by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the most highly-decorated special forces operative in US military history, and his back is protected by Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a modern-day samurai warrioress with a soul-trapping supernatural blade. And every one of these already-unstable reluctant soldiers is corralled into service via a combination of manipulation of their weaknesses and/or personal blackmail — and a nano-tech bomb implanted into their skulls that will go off the second they break ranks. The best they’ll get out of the deal is ten years shaved off their respective prison sentences. The worst is they’ll end up dead and the government will deny ever sending them in the first place, given this is a strictly “off the books” operation. If you’re thinking it all kinda sounds like The Expendables with super-powers, you’re absolutely right.

And, like all the films in that venerable trilogy, this thing is an absolute blast of stupid, high-voltage hijinks from start to finish. The set-up is minimal, we get plunged right into the action when the Squad is tasked with cleaning up a mess of Waller’s own making )after one of her conscripts “goes rogue” and threatens to destroy and entire city on the way, of course, to world conquest), and it never lets up. Any flick that eschews conventional three-act story structure as blatantly as this one does is bound to be a bit wobbly when it comes to “Plotting 101” basics, but Ayer weaves in any number of brief-but-effective character “beats,” the team’s chemistry is fantastic on the whole (particularly the “caretaker/caretaken” relationship that forms between Deadshot and Harley), the threat they face is formidable enough to warrant serious concern, and everyone gets to contribute to the final victory. The acting ranges from good (Courtney, Kinnaman) to great (Davis, Smith, Robbie, Hernandez, Akinnuoye-Agbaje), there are fun and even essential cameos from Ben Affleck’s Batman and Ezra Miller’s Flash, Jared Leto’s highly-anticipated new iteration of The Joker (think Cesar Romero on a “cocktail” of PCP, Flay Agaric, and high-grade crystal meth) steals every scene he’s in,  and long-time comic book readers even get treated to a smattering of respectful “Easter Eggs,” such as when the gang rescues Waller from the “John F. Ostrander Federal Building” — a nod to the legendary scribe of most of the seminal Suicide Squad stories of the 1980s. In short, those last-second re-shoots that Warners ordered appear to have paid off as there’s literally something in here for everyone from seasoned fans to the most casual of “newbie” viewers,  and yet none of it feels forcibly shoe-horned, so expert is the execution. Yes, it’s packed to the gills and beyond with stuff both vital and less-than, but it all works. In short, this is the DC movie that everyone who says they don’t like DC movies has been asking for — heck, it even offers all these folks  nearly every specific thing they claim was missing in previous efforts.

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And yet, for all that, the knives are still out, and for all their millions, DC and Warner still can’t seem to catch a break. I won’t go so far as to say that I “feel sorry” for them — they’re a rich corporation and this movie, negative reviews and all, is still going to rake in a ton of cash and make them even richer. But I know a crock of shit when I see (and smell) one, and I would be remiss in my (mostly voluntary, it must be said) duties if I didn’t call out the well-organized “whisper campaign” against this film for exactly what it is. So fuck all the naysayers, it’s never been more clear who’s lining their pockets (free passes to the local preview screening of the next Marvel Studios flick and empty promises of a “potential set visit if you’re ever in the LA area” is usually the going rate to buy “major” critic or blogger, if you must know) — Suicide Squad is easily the most fun you’ll have at the movies this summer.

 

 

 

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“Go ahead and cripple the bitch.”

Those were the words of then-DC executive editor Dick Giordano to editor Len Wein, who in turn relayed them to Alan Moore, writer of the seminal Batman/Joker tale Batman : The Killing Joke, and the subject of the order was Barbra Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl. Moore had originally planned for he and Brian Bolland’s one-off story to be something of an “Elseworlds”-style tale (before there was such a thing), set apart from standard DC continuity and positing both a potential origin of The Joker (draped over a skeletal framework that dated all the way back to the Clown Prince of Crime’s first appearance ) and a potential conclusion to comics’ most famous feud — one that would ultimately be left to the reader to discern for themselves, but that strongly hinted that Batman flat-out snaps at the end and kills his most troublesome and famous adversary. What could possibly drive Batman to this extreme? Well, The Joker was going to murder Batgirl.

But as the script pages starting arriving at the DC offices, editorial got the strong feeling — correctly, as it turned out — that they had not just a hit on their hands, but a bona fide comic book blockbuster. A story that would be hotly debated for years, if not decades, to come, and sell in the millions of copies.  Moore’s idea may have been to do his ultimate take on the Batman/Joker relationship, but his bosses wanted to morph it into the ultimate take on the Batman/Joker relationship — and so they decided to play it coy when it came to the question of whether or not this would be an “official” DC Universe story. They figured that they wanted The Killing Joke to be able to be woven into regular Bat-continuity if fan reaction proved to be as strong as they suspected it could be. And you can’t kill Batgirl in a comic that they might decide to shoehorn into the established Batman mythos. Or can you?

Apparently there was some heated deliberation on this question, and in the end, a calculated compromise was reached — they wouldn’t kill her, but they would cripple her. That way, their asses were covered no matter what happened — if fans howled in outrage after reading the book they’d simply say it was a “non-continuity story” after all, but if fans loved it, then Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair would be the new status quo.

We all know what happened next — the book sold out multiple printings, was re-issued in any number of new formats (each more expensive than the last), and the story went down in history as, in the minds of most, the single-greatest Batman/Joker tale ever told, while Barbra Gordon, for her part, was eventually afforded the opportunity to have a long and prosperous “second act” as Oracle, a super-hacker who provided key “mission intel” to various and sundry DC super-heroes from her hidden computerized command center, also becoming something of an icon for disability rights advocates along the way (so much so, in fact, that many readers were downright outraged when she regained her ability to walk thanks to an experimental spinal cord surgery and re-assumed the mantle of Batgirl as part of DC’s “New 52” relaunch).

It’s worth remembering, though, that this fan-favorite character — this strong representation of disabled empowerment and even feminist empowerment — was once viewed so cavalierly by her corporate owners that they told the most talented and celebrated writer to ever work for them that they wanted him to “go ahead and cripple the bitch.” The Killing Joke would prove to be Moore’s last original work for DC. Gee, I wonder why?

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I bring all this up in relation to the new animated version of Batman : The Killing Joke from WB Animation (a project that, looking back, I’m surprised didn’t happen well before 2016) because, hey, we like to think that we’ve moved on from the dreary misogynist mindset of the late 1980s, right? Dick Girodano has passed away. Len Wein is a mostly-retired occasional freelancer. A whole new gang is in charge at DC. And yet, if anything, Barbara Gordon is treated even worse in this film (which I purchased digitally, but is also available on Blu-ray and DVD — and may even be playing a theater in your area, depending on where you live) than she was in the comic.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they had to pad out the runtime of this one — for all the years DC has spent insisting that The Killing Joke is a “graphic novel,” 46 pages of story and art is anything but. Shit, the old Annuals of days gone by gave you more bang for your buck at 80 pages or so. But the way in which they “extended” the story here — well, leave it to Brian Azzarello to fuck that up royally.

Remember when this guy was good? Well, the writer who gave us 100 Bullets seems very far removed indeed from the writer who’s currently doing Dark Knight III : The Master Race, the screenplay for this monstrosity, and a tie-in comic for a beer company currently being published by Image, but once upon a time he was really on top of his game. His run on Hellblazer, in fact, was so superb that none other than Alan Moore broke with his long-standing policy of not endorsing any DC product in order to provide a glowing “pull-quote” for a trade paperback collection of the Azzarello-penned Constantine stories.

And good old Brian has been “thanking” him by pissing in his face ever since, first with his participation in the debacle that was Before Watchmen, and now with this. How do you do Barbra Gordon even worse than she’s already been done? You tack on a pointless extended “prelude” where she and Batman, more or less out of the clear blue and despite their obvious age difference,  have sex on a rooftop and he doesn’t call her back — then you cripple her.

Yes, friends, not content with merely putting a bullet through Barbara’s spine, she’s now a jilted lover, as well. And Batman is a massive douche.

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All of which undercuts what is otherwise a very strong production. Animation living legend Bruce Timm is back onboard as executive producer for this one (although the actual nuts-and-bolts work is still being farmed out to a Korean animation studio that pays its workers something like 90 cents an hour), and as such the film has the depth, quality, and texture we’ve come to expect from projects bearing his imprimatur. Veteran WB director Sam Liu guides the proceedings with his usual steady hand. The voice cast is every Batman fan’s dream with Kevin Conroy back under the cowl in the lead, Mark Hamill reprising his role as The Joker, Tara Strong as Batgirl, and the great Ray Wise (“one chance out between two worlds — fire, walk with me!!!!!!!!”) breathing more life than ever into a tested-to-his-limits-and-then-some Commissioner Jim Gordon. On a purely technical level, then, this flick is a marvel to behold.

And, ya know, once all that offensive-beyond-words new material is out of the way, this is a very faithful adaptation of Moore and Bolland’s work. In fact, it’s a note-for-note cribbing. The problem is that, given the greater context of what has now come before, scenes that packed an emotional wallop in the original printed work like Batman’s visit to Barbara in the hospital after she’s been shot by The Joker now have so much troubling subtext surrounding them that one scarcely knows where to begin when pondering the question of “Dear God, what were they thinking?”

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It’s all such a shame,really. DC had the chance to do something very rare indeed here : actually unite all of fandom behind a quality adaptation of a beloved story while addressing its inherent problems head-on. Instead, they’ve magnified them tenfold. And  a lot of people who did a lot of great work did it in service of a product that is, at its core, indefensible.

Barbra Gordon deserved better, absolutely. But so did Alan Moore. And Brian Bolland. And Sam Liu. And Bruce Timm. And Kevin Conroy. And Mark Hamill. And Tara Strong. And Ray Wise. And so many others who voiced, drew, animated, produced, or otherwise poured their hearts into this film.

And so, dear reader, do you. Ugly warts and all, Batman : The Killing Joke in its original printed interation is still very much worth your time to read if you haven’t — and to read again if you have. The film, unfortunately, is best ignored — and if it’s too late for you to do that, maybe just look at it like I’ve chosen to : as an “Elseworlds”-type story that never “really” happened at all. How fucking ironic is that?

 

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In case it’s not already obvious, I’ve been on a semi-massive “found footage” horror kick lately, and while I suffered through a lot of sub-standard crap last week, the weekend brought with it a welcome spate of much-worthier efforts (all of which — including the one under review here — were found on Hulu), and perhaps none have been better (so far,at any rate) than Delivery : The Beast Within, a low-budget indie effort lensed in 2013 in, I believe, the Los Angeles area by director Brian Netto, who also co-wrote the script along with Adam Schindler. The flick got a little bit of play on the horror film fest circuit, but it’s obvious this was intended as straight-to-video fare from the outset, and as such is duly available on DVD (though not, interestingly, Blu-ray), as well as any number of major streaming services (with the notable exception of Netflix).

The set-up for this one is refreshingly different, with the first chunk of the film taking the form of an aborted — sorry, bad pun — episode of a “reality” TV show focused on the trials and tribulations of expectant parents Rachel Massy (played by Laurel Vail) and her husband, Kyle (Danny Barclay). This helps to head off at the pass assumptions (shared by yours truly going in) that what we have here is little more than a Devil’s Due knock-off (even if it kinda is), and as events play out we discover in pretty short order why this particular program never saw broadcast. Simply put — as if you hadn’t guessed as much already — Rachel is acting stranger and stranger as her pregnancy progresses, and there’s plenty of weird shit happening around her, as well. Still, all is not lost, as the show’s producer, Rick (Rob Cubizo) is apparently so moved by the couple’s plight that he returns to their home, ostensibly with an eye toward “helping” them through this difficult time. Uh-huh —

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The horrors in this one are predominantly of the psychological variety, but what the production lacks in balls-out effects and viscera it more than makes up for in tense and unnerving foreboding. You’re not surprised in any way when things get worse, of course, but the manner in which they’re successively laid out is highly effective, and if you can put aside one glaring plot inconsistency (sorry, but the idea that a mother-to-be enduing a “high-risk” pregnancy would choose to have her baby at home with a midwife rather than at an actual hospital seems in no way realistic, especially since given the fact that her complications are both mental and physical) and go with the flow, you’re likely to find this an enjoyably bumpy ride from start to finish.

Of course, demonic possession — or the distinct possibility thereof — looms large over the proceedings here. and there are some religious overtones of a different sort sprinkled in due to Rachel’s Catholicism and Kyle’s lack thereof, but it never gets heavy-handed or annoying, and a semi-deeper understanding of the characters like this really helps to ratchet up the tension when their inevitable relationship strains emerge more fully — if understandably — right in the middle of everything else. If a clusterfuck of bad stuff crashing down on a couple of nice folks is your idea of a good time, then you’ll find a lot to like here.

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When it comes to the ever-crucial finale, Netto has a searing and brutal one in store for his viewers here, as elements that were telegraphed earlier converge with any number that — hallelujah! — weren’t, and the film’s strong production values and above-average acting , put to good service throughout, really come up trumps in terms of delivering (sorry) a concluding act that could easily “go the other way” in less-capable hands, but borderlines on knock-your-socks effectiveness here. Well done all around, folks.

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So, yeah, this is one you’ll want to check out ASAP if you haven’t already. If you’ve lost all confidence in “found footage,” as many have, Delivery : The Beast Within will likely convince you that this old dog can still hunt after all.

 

 

 

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When you really sit down (or, heck, stand up) and think about it, no two horror subgenres are a more natural match for “cross-breeding” purposes than Sasquatch stories and “found footage” flicks. The 1970s were absolutely rife with low-budget “In Search Of Bigfoot”-type documentaries, so it’s something of a wonder that once the “shaky – cam” craze took hold in earnest in the wake of the enormous critical and commercial success of The Blair Witch Project that it took several years before intrepid (and, perhaps crucially, broke) indie filmmakers chose to chronicle the exploits of “mockumentary” crews out for a weekend of ‘squatching. As a matter of fact, I foolishly believed that Bobcat Goldthwait’s admittedly-quite-good Willow Creek was the first of its ilk, but I’ve recently discovered that my assumption was — contain your surprise, please! — wrong and that he was beaten to the punch a year earlier by director Corey Grant’s low-budget 2012 offering Bigfoot : The Lost Coast Tapes (or simply The Lost Coast Tapes, as it was originally known during its brief run on the horror film festival circuit).

The plot for this one revolves around disgraced “reality” TV host Sean Reynolds (played by Drew Rausch), a guy who was pretty big shit a few years back but whose career was derailed when a purportedly “paranormal” lead he was following up on proved to be not just a dead end, but a hoax. In short, he was “punk’d,” and now he’s looking for a big comeback. He thinks he may have found one — or not — when northern California resident/outdoorsman Carl Drybeck (Frank Ashmore) tells him that he’s in possession of a real-life Bigfoot corpse, and that for a mere $75,000 the “exclusive” of a lifetime can be all his. Who could say no to that, right?

Sufficiently intrigued — and prepared to air a very public “debunking” of Drybeck if he turns out to be full of crap — Sean duly heads north, cash in tow, with his LA-based crew consisting of producer Robyn (Ashley Wood), cameraman Darryl (Rich McDonald), and sound technician Kevin (Noah Weisberg), hoping to snag a story that will re-establish his credibility whether it’s true or false. And, needless to say, Grant and screenwriters Brian Kelsey and Bryan O’Cain are determined to keep us guessing every step of the way.

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Most of the acting, believe it or not, is pretty good in this one, with Ashmore in particular standing out as a semi-stereotypical “mountain man” type who can spin an enthralling yarn with the best of ’em but seems downright cagey when it comes time to follow through on his big promise. Events move at what I can only assume to be a deliberately slow pace for most of the film, but taking his time with the build-up works in Grant’s favor as he actually manages to establish a full ensemble of reasonably-fleshed-out characters — and as they delve deeper and deeper into a mystery they don’t understand, we’re right there with ’em in the “confused but ultimately intrigued” department. The director makes some questionable choices as far as his camerawork goes, it has to be said, but that’s not too terribly debilitating a flaw given the “rough-cut” trope he’s exploiting, which relies on feigned — or even actual — unprofessionalism in order to sell audiences on the “truth” of what they’re seeing. All in all, then, this is a quality production that everyone involved with can and should be proud of.

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Unfortunately, it also succumbs to the customary “third-act stumbles” that so many flicks of this nature do, and while the ending itself redeems some of what immediately preceded it to a degree, those who don’t care much for ambiguity would do well to take note that it leaves you with many more questions than it does answers. If you don’t mind being forced to think for yourself and come up with your own conclusions, though, you’ll probably like the open-ended manner in which things are left every bit as much as I did, which is to say quite a lot indeed. Certainly the possibility of a sequel exists — although one has yet to materialize — and if it happens, I’d be more than game to check it out.

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Bigfoot : The Lost Coast Tapes is available for streaming on Hulu right now for free and at Amazon for $4.99, and is also available on Blu-ray and DVD from XLerator Media. I’m not sure that it’s quite strong enough to recommend purchasing it in either of its physical-storage iterations — and I didn’t, so I can’t comment on their particulars — but it’s most definitely worth a look at least once, and truth be told if it sticks around on Hulu for awhile I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I gave it another go sometime down the road.