Archive for July, 2012

What a difference an issue makes.

As you may or may not recall, on our first trip through the Before Watchmen titles, I was kinder to the debut issue of writer Brian Azzarello and artist J.G. Jones’ Comedian mini-series than I was any of the others. Okay, fair enough, I said Jones drew things in kind of a standard superhero-ish way that was certainly competent but in no way distinctive, and that rather tame “criticism” still applies to this second issue, but I was generally pretty complimentary of Azzarello’s efforts to tell something more, or at least other, than a typical origin or “missing adventure” -type story, which is exactly what pretty much all the other writers involved in this increasingly-obvious cash-grab seem perfectly satisfied with doing. Azzarello (whose writing I found sufficiently impressive to spur me into picking up another one of his books — the hardcover Joker graphic novel he wrote, which sucked) seemed to have a clear story — with a definite, if predictable, character trajectory— in mind that he wanted to tell, wasn’t afraid to buck the trend of simply filling in character “blank spots” pointlessly as the other titles had been doing (and continue to do), and even left us a nifty little cliffhanger in regards to the whole JFK killing with some lingering questions about why the not-so-good Mr. Blake was purposely yanked away from Dallas on that fateful day.

Along comes issue number two (with two versions of the cover this time around, by Jones and Tim Bradstreet, as shown above, respectively), and things start off decently enough with The Comedian and RFK attending one of the greatest matches in boxing history as  then-Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston (with Bobby implying that the fight was fixed), but pretty soon we’re skipping ahead, Blake’s in Viet Nam, where four pages of a 20-page book are taken up with a lazily-written, nearly wordless (and pointless) battle scene, and after some machinations involving the setup of an illegal drug-smuggling operation run through Air America to finance the war (which as we all know really happened, and was repeated in Central America less than two decades later), it becomes obvious that all “Azz” is likely to do here — although I hope to still be proven wrong — is duck and dive into various parts of The Comedian’s life and show us some scenes that don’t really amount to much, and that we could have pretty well guessed at ourselves anyway, that will supposedly “provide a greater understanding” of how these characters came to be the way they were when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons first introduced us to them back in 1986.

In other words, it’s a big, fat, four-dollar dose of “whatever.” As of right now, after a pretty promising start, the Comedian mini-series is firmly back in the  pack with the other  Before Watchmen titles, content to do the same job that’s already been achieved by the numerous  better-written and better-drawn flashback sequences in the original Watchmen series. My patience is running pretty thin at this point. The writers and artists involved in this project are getting one more issue each to show me that they intend to do anything beyond what they so obviously seem ready to settle for — competently-enough-executed, but completely uninspired (and even more importantly, uninspiring), totally useless, needlessly extended “Secret Origins of the Watchmen” crap. To use a very apt, if painfully obvious,  metaphor — the clock is ticking.

There is a tool of hitherto-unimaginable and historically unprecedented evil in your home. It’s something that we quite often don’t even actively pay attention to — not that it needs us to at this point — and I spend most of my time here on this blog (until recently, at any rate) talking about things that I used it to see. That’s right, no mystery here folks, I’m talking about television. We all know that it’s stupid, time-wasting, energy-sucking, life-draining, and just plain bad for us all the way across the board, yet we seldom go so much as a full 24-hour cycle without it. Television has won, plain and simple, and we all know it, even if most of us never even really consider what its admittedly hollow “victory” actually really means to all of us.

And that, I think, is rather the point — television has created world where nothing that actually happens means anything anymore, and where the two- (and now three-) dimensional representation of life has actually supplanted life itself in terms of its importance to us. Is it any wonder we’re so easily controlled and manipulated? What the shadowy “powers that be” are actually doing to us no longer matters in any real sense, as long as they show us a version of reality that we can all sit much more comfortably with. I think it’s entirely fair to say that in the entire history of domination, there has been no device utilized by our spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and yes, increasingly even physical captors as effectively, or as ubiquitously, as television (although in a few decades, as the power grip of the largely self-appointed “elite” tightens around the internet even further, that may well give the “boob tube” a run for its money). There was a war fought for our very consciousness itself, and television won by lulling us in — and without firing a single shot. In any sane and rational world, this would be the issue of our time, it seems to me, and the fact that television’s dominance was achieved so thoroughly and hidden in such plain sight really speaks volumes about how little rationality and sensibility have to do with the nature of human existence itself. If we mad sense, this situation wouldn’t make sense. And yet we don’t, and so it does.

Not every single mind on the planet has been dulled to sleep, though, and if there’s a list of people out there who could be counted on to wage a proper critique upon the occult (in the truest sense of the word)  nature the bloodless-yet-no-less-deadly-for-that-fact televisual “revolution,” Alan Moore’s name would probably be at the top of it. And whaddaya know, in 1994 he penned a short prose piece, in the more poetic and lyrical style of his “magickal working” and performance-related pieces, called Light Of ThCountenance that is as savage and thoroughgoing an expose on the nefarious nature of the cathode ray tube as has ever seen print. Starting with the story of an aging soap starlet who is having a hard time differentiating between the character she’s spent years portraying and her real, actual self (and frankly having a more and more difficult time understanding what that even means anymore), this hauntingly flowing work then examines the history of TV itself — both in terms of the development and refinement of its inner technological workings and its increasingly vice-like, yet silent, grip on our lives. Moore understands that in the wrong hands — as television has been from the beginning, and was frankly probably even designed by — this video “box of delights” represents the most ingenious extension of some men’s desperate desire, perhaps even need, to subjugate their fellow man that those of a conquering mindset could ever hope for. At the end of the day, it’s not just TV, but the forces, far darker and more ancient, behind it that Moore is illuminating in this largely plotless, but eminently engrossing, work. It takes a certain sort of malignant will to power, if you will, to even dream up the very idea of television in the first place, and that same type of dark mentality would know exactly what it wants to do with its new toy.

I’d certainly say, without hesitation, that’s it’s all worked out very well for our hidden-only-because-we-allow-them-to-be masters, wouldn’t you?

If all of this sound like some pretty “heavy” reading, rest assured that it is, but it’s also vital  and necessary reading, and aiding in the process of getting this (and I absolutely don’t use this term lightly) monumentally important work to a (hopefully) wider audience are Moore’s frequent co-conspirators in recent years, Avatar Press, who in 2009 issued a comic version of Light Of Thy Countenance in both hardcover and paperback formats ,the respective covers for which are shown above in the images above. The original script was “sequentially adapted” (which in this case, as near as I can tell, means spreading out the words over a series of panel descriptions which the artist then renders, since I’ve compared the original text and the comic and they’re pretty much a word-for-word match) by Antony Johnston, who’s an old pro at this point at translating  Moore’s prose pieces into workable comics form  for Avatar, and lavishly painted by Felipe Massafera, whose style fits the rhythmic, lyrical nature of the work perfectly — and incidentally, if your idea of a comics “dream team” is a pairing of Alan Moore and Alex Ross, then this is definitely a book you’ll want to pick up because Massafera’s style is highly reminiscent of Ross’ work, it just so happens that in this case it’s employed not for the purposes of re-mythologizing the superhero archetype, but for landing the exquisitely-delivered the hammer blows of Moore’s revelatory prose with a soft, velvet glove.

I understand that a lot of folks out there are of the opinion that the Moore pieces that Avatar publishes are somehow “secondary” works in his artistic “canon,” if you will, especially those that are of the “adapted from their original format” variety, and that $7.95 in paperback or $17.99 in hardcover is a hell of a steep price to pay for a 48-page book (although either can be found for much less from various online retailers), and yes, I get that this doesn’t need to be read in comics format in the first place since it wasn’t even conceived of or written with that in mind, but the accompanying  visuals by Massafera here are so striking, and the pacing of the “story” is so well-understood by Johnston, that I really do think that it becomes a much richer and more involving experience to absorb the piece in this format, and even if I paid full price (which I didn’t), I wouldn’t feel cheated in the least. And as for this being at all a “secondary” Alan Moore work, piss on that. Light Of Thy Countenance is one of the most relevant, incisive, harrowing, and flat-out haunting things he’s ever written. If it’s not in your library at home, I urge you to get your hands on a copy as soon as possible — and if you do happen to already have it, turn off the goddamn television and read it right now, whether it’s for the first time or the one hundredth. I guarantee it’s better than whatever’s on.

 

Like many of you, I thought that the posthumously-published Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland was going to be the final work from this truly seminal American writer to ever see print, but happily we’ve all been proven wrong as publishers Hill & Wang have just released, in hardback no less, the stunning (in both literary and visual terms) Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, the late, great Mr. Pekar’s examination of the state of Israel’s complex past, present, and potential futures, his evolving views on/relationship with that country as an American Jew (admittedly one with a thoroughly iconoclastic perspective), and hey, to top it all off, it even serves as a bit of an abbreviated history of the Jewish people themselves, all bound together by a Ulysses-style afternoon spent wandering and driving through the streets of his hometown (Cleveland, Ohio in case you didn’t know — but I’m sure you did) in the company of the book’s illustrator, renowned Jewish graphic artist J.T. Waldman.

Pekar’s parents were ardent Zionists even though his mother was decidedly non-religious (she was even — gasp! — a Communist!), and the driving narrative force behind this blue-collar Joycean work of visual essay, if you will, is following the trajectory of evolving thought “our man” (as Harvey himself would no doubt put it) goes through from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age as he explains why and how his views on what he once considered to be, naturally enough, “The Promised Land,” changed from those of an ardent and uncritical supporter to those of someone not only disillusioned with the nation itself, but with the entire religious-intellectual ediffice of Zionism that gave rise to its birth and forms the basis of its continuing existence to this day.

 

I think it’s telling that a work of this magnitude and scope, from two Jewish artists no less, isn’t getting anywhere near the publicity that Pekar’s Cleveland did, even though it is, if anything, an even more engrossing read than that admittedly fine volume was,  even though it’s exceptionally well-illustrated, with Waldman employing a wide array of visual styles (astute readers may pick up on a definite hint of Craig Thompson’s Habibi in some of the pages dealing with the Jewish people’s struggles in times of antiquity, so be on the lookout for that!) all with a fine eye for detail and expression throughout, even though it contains a fine epilogue scripted by Pekar’s widow and frequent collaborator, Joyce Brabner, that serves a very moving tribute to both the man and his work,  and even though this represents arguably the most compelling writing, from a socio-political perspective, of Pekar’s entire career — and frankly, it’s also unsurprising. The debate around the state of Israel has been framed in such narrow terms by the mainstream media here in America that you literally run the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism for voicing even a modestly critical opinion of any of the Israeli government’s actions.

And you know what? You can’t blame “Jewish political power,” or any other such nonsense, for that. You can’t even lay the responsibility for this intellectually stifling state of affairs on the most hard-core Zionists. Within the Jewish community itself — yes, even and especially within the nation of Israel — there is heated, intense debate on the course the country has taken in recent decades, and continues to take. The parameters of the discussion among people of the Jewish faith of all stripes are much more wide-open than they are in the corporate-owned American press, to the point where the reviews I’ve found of this book, critical as it is of both Israel and Zionism,  in the Jewish press and on various Jewish websites have largely been quite positive, even ones written by authors who disagree with Pekar’s conclusions. Spirited, vigorous debate, pursued in a spirit of intellectual openness and honesty, has always been highly valued by Jewish people, all over the world, throughout their history.

 

Who’s to blame, then, for the “you either support Israel 100% all the time or you’re a Nazi” mentality that prevails among the “elite” media class in the US, then? How about the Christian Right? Their warped relationship with the state of Israel — essentially they support it full-throatedly and without exception because, you can’t make this stuff up, they think Biblical prophecy can only be fulfilled when all the Jews return home and then Jesus is gonna come back and kill every last one of them that refuses to accept him as the Messiah (I wish more Zionist groups would keep this in mind when forming political marriages of convenience with these people — seriously with friends like that, who needs enemies?) — and the extent to which they’ve co-opted our political process,  while simultaneously causing the press to be scared shitless of potentially offending them, forms the basis of the decidedly one-sided nature of the debate on Israel here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., and it seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Against that backdrop of moral and intellectual cowardice, works like this one stand out for their stark and unflinching honesty all the more. Harvey Pekar’s fellow American Jews, as well as Israelis, are well used to this sort of entirely-heartfelt polemic, and even those who feel that Israel is, indeed, all that their parents promised them are willing, by and large, to listen to the other side of the argument, as presented in works like this, and have at it. Yet thanks to the noise-machine on the American right, and their cowed stooges in the press, the arguments put forth in this book are something “the rest of us” almost never get to hear. Do yourself a favor — reject this false, black-and-white/with-us-or-against-us dichotomy. Pick up Harvey Pekar’s Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, examine all the issues relevant to the state of Israel fully and from all sides, and then — shock! horror! — think for yourself and form your own opinions.

 

I don’t care who you are, what you do, where you’re at, where you’ve been, or where you’re going — reading the disarmingly confessional comics presented in Joe Matt’s fourth volume of work collected from his late (and lamented) Drawn & Quarterly-published solo series Peep Show, a volume fittingly titled Spent, will leave you feeling pretty damn good both about yourself and your lot in life.

Not because Matt is a master of “self-help” motivational pablum, mind you — just the opposite. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that unless you’re living under a bridge and slowly, painfully, starving to death, your life is better than Matt’s was at the time he wrote and drew the material that eventually became this book. He lived in a shit rooming house, worked very little, had almost no money (and clung to what little he did have like a miser), saw almost nothing of his friends, was obsessing over a particularly nasty breakup with his ex-girlfriend, and his “hobbies” were collecting old Gasoline Alley comic strips, editing together the “best” scenes from various porn flicks into eight-and ten-hour VHS compilation tapes, and jerking off, quite literally, all the goddamn time (there’s a reason there’s toilet paper all over the floor on the cover).

 

See? You’re not such a loser after all, are you? All that being said, while Spent isn’t exactly an enjoyable book to work your way through, it’s definitely an engrossing one — in the same way, I suppose, that train wrecks are. And while it helps that Matt’s clean, cartoonish art style is very pleasing to the eye and that the author seems to be not only fully aware of, but  as downright repulsed by, his own numerous personal shortcomings as we are, make no mistake — this is a grim record of a guy who’s hit rock bottom and is too disinterested at this point to even lift himself back up. It’s a heady stew of depression, immaturity, egocentrism, and inertia, all wrapped up in a toxic bundle of self-loathing that’s enough to make Robert Crumb look like “Mr. Positive” in comparison, and when you consider that Matt’s best friends, legendary Canadian cartoonists Chester Brown and Seth, have actually said that he lets himself off pretty easy in his own work — well, the mind just plain boggles.

So, while it’s tempting to congratulate Matt for his fearlessness in airing out his own dirty laundry here, it’s also worth considering the very real possibility that he obsessively catalogues the mundanities of his own dead-end life for no other reason than that he’s simply so fucking lazy that he can’t be bothered to do the work  that would be required to write and draw about anything else! All of which might make it sound like I’m being pretty hard on the poor guy — unless and until you read this book and realize that, if anything, I’m being rather generous with my assessment here.

 

Autobiographical material has always been something that appeals to a very small “niche market” in comics readership, most of whom would rather read about guys wearing tights and beating each other up (and yet Matt is considered a loser? Figure that one out), but even folks who are into autobio work will by and large find our guy Joe’s stuff to be, at the very least, thematically off-putting. I admit that it’s phrasing things very kindly indeed to simply say that his work is an “acquired taste,” and the fact that, God help me, I enjoy this stuff probably says a lot of things about my own psychology that would bear close examination and analysis if I had the time, money, or guts to pursue them — but like it I do, and quite a bit, at that. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of such solidly-rendered, highly-accessible art (and I find mixing  some greys and greens into the black-and-white mix, as D&Q have done in this handsome hardbound collection, really works even though it sure sounds like it shouldn’t) with such off-putting, inaccessible material that keeps me coming back to Matt’s work.  Maybe I’m looking for someone to feel superior to and just chose an easy target. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. Or maybe I just like looking at train wrecks. Whatever the case may be, I’m definitely a Joe Matt fan — but I’d feel uneasy about shaking his hand if I ever met the guy, knowing where it’s been.

Postscript : Matt has moved on with his life, thankfully. He headed for LA some years back to pursue a possible HBO production deal for a TV show based on his work, and while it ultimately came to nothing, he has managed (somehow) to find himself a girlfriend and do some much-needed growing up. I’m friends with him on facebook (full disclosure) and he actually seems to be settling into middle age quite comfortably, even if it means (sadly) leaving comics behind (at least for the time being) and moving into freelance commissioned painting and illustration work. Hey — maybe there really is hope for any of us.

They say the art of “good” criticism — be it film, literary, or what have you — is to never give away your opinion right off the bat. They also say that rules are made to be broken, and as I’m feeling a bit rebellious today, I’ll just come right out and say it — I’m not sure what the point of DC Comics’ new Batman : Earth One hardcover graphic novel really is.

I mean, I get that the whole Earth One line is supposed to be DC’s approximation of Marvel’s Ultimate “universe,” the goal of which is to prime the company’s economic gas pump by re-introducing familiar characters in new, “present-day” settings, thereby (theoretically) attracting new readers to Batman or whatever other franchise we might be talking about who would otherwise be frightened off — understandably so — by 50-plus years of continuity and backstory. But wasn’t that also, purportedly at least, the goal behind the entire “New 52” relaunch a few months back? I’ll grant you that the Earth One (and by the way, back in the ancient mists of time when I was actually young, “Earth One” was the “main” Earth on which all the DC “present-day” stories were happening, and “Earth Two” was where all the “old time” heroes of the Golden Age lived. There were any number of “multiple Earths,” and then DC imploded their whole “multiverse” in the Crisis On Infinite Earths mini-series and pared it all down to one single fictional “universe.” I understand that they brought the “multiverse” concept back a couple years ago in their Infinite Crisis book, but I guess the universe where the regular monthly DC books take place is not the “Earth One” universe, nor is it “Earth Two,” since there’s a specific DC title relating to that parallel reality. Maybe the “main universe” Earth is “Earth 3,” or “Earth Prime” or “Earth 27” — frankly, I have no idea) thing was already well into the pipeline by that point , but doesn’t that still make one or the other rather, you know — redundant? Besides, if one wants to jump into the Batman world fresh, there’s also been a fairly recent hardcover reissue of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s superb Batman : Year One, in a so-called “deluxe edition,” no less, that’s still readily available. All of which leads me to believe that readers looking for a good “jumping-on” point for the Batman comics would actually walk away more confused than ever about exactly where to begin once they see the plethora of supposedly “good places to start” that are out there.

At any rate, for what it’s worth, DC are certainly marketing this new book, written by current “hot property” writer Geoff Johns, pencilled by current “hot property” penciller Gary Frank, and inked by current “hot property” inker Jonathan Sibal as, at the very least, one of the really good places for newcomers to begin exploring the adventures of the Caped Crusader on the printed page.  But it’s not where I’d choose to start off.

Don’t get me wrong — the art is absolutely gorgeous, apart from Frank apparently deciding to model Bruce Wayne’s facial features upon Tom Cruise. Frank has a hyper-realistic, highly-detailed style that does lend an air of “reality” to the proceedings, and Sibal’s inks are meticulous and quite rich. Colorist Brad Anderson deserves a nod here, as well, for his spot-on-perfect-in-most-instances color palette that provides a lot of welcome variation but maintains, by and large, a properly somber feel throughout. The art may be a little stiff at times, particularly during the action sequences,  the panels of which feel as if they’re designed to be viewed individually rather than in any type of flowing sequential order, but it’s all so damn painstakingly defined and flawlessly rendered that it’s hard to quibble.

The problem here, then, is most certainly not the art — it’s the story. Simply put, Johns shoots his entire creative wad with the tinkering he does around the edges of the Batman “legend,” none of which makes a damn bit of difference in the end, and some of which, like the idea of the villainous Penguin as mayor of Gotham City, have already been tried elsewhere ( inTim Burton’s Batman Returns, in case you’d forgotten, which you probably hadn’t. Yeah, okay, he was only running for the office in that film, but still — the idea was out there). Apart from that, we’ve got is a series of what are supposedly “nifty little touches,” like making Alfred some type of ex-Marine/mercenary, Jim Gordon being a crooked cop, Harvey Bullock being a suave “reality” TV star, etc. that are shoehorned into a limp story about how Mayor Cobblepot is keeping a stranglehold on the city by employing a psychotic, ‘roided-out serial killer called — I kid you not — “The Birthday Boy,” to whom he happily sacrifices the daughters of the rich and powerful if they ever threaten to get out of line. Hey, it’s that’s one way to keep the big-money campaign contributors on your side, I guess. There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory angle uncomfortably forced into the story of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents because the elder Wayne was running against Cobblepot for mayor, but don’t worry — it all comes to naught. As does the story itself, which just leaves us set up for a sequel at the end with a series of dangling plot threads littering the landscape, none of which are particularly interesting. If Johns had put half as much effort into constructing an involving piece of drama here as he did with tweaking the incidental details, then maybe the inevitable Earth One : Part Two would be something I’d be looking forward to, but as it is, I’m hardly holding my breath.

I guess it’s kinda cool, in a fan-geeky way, to see a book where Batman fucks up on the job a lot, wears combat boots, punches out (non-)Commissioner Gordon, and has a costume that actually shows his eyes, but if you’re not a hopeless devotee of Dark Knight minutiae, it’s hard to see how this thing could hold much appeal, apart from the gorgeously-rendered visuals. In short, Earth One is no Year One, and casual or completely “green” Batman readers would probably find Miller and Mazzuchelli’s seminal work a much more rewarding and, frankly, timeless take on the origins, motivations, and earliest exploits of everyone’s favorite masked billionaire vigilante.

Granted, this book is very nearly two years old, but I’m reviewing it now because a) I was concentrating solely on film reviews here at the time this came out, and b) the second part of the as-far-as-I-know untitled “magnum opus” by cartoonist extraordinaire Charles Burns this book marked the start of, The Hive, is coming out in a couple of months here, so it’s apropos, in my own humble view, to re-examine this introductory chapter as we whet our appetites for the the next one.

For those of you who may be largely unfamiliar with Burns’ work, suffice to say it’s really in a class by itself. His career spans all the way back to the early days of Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s legendary Raw, and while certain themes — adolescence and its attendant mysteries (both physical and mental), altered states of consciousness (often drug-induced), inexplicable and frequently grotesque biological phenomena, and a childlike sense of wonder at even (sometimes especially) the ugly side of life — run throughout his oeuvre, it’s probably fair to say that he’s grown both more obsessive about both exploring this stuff and detailing it meticulously via his superb illustrations as time has gone on. He’s been at it for a few decades now, and it still feels as though he’s just getting started.

Put it this way — if you could put Herge, William Burroughs, David Lynch and David Cronenberg into a blender, you might come up with something that approximates Burns’ singular worldview. Oh, and you’d have to throw some seriously potent acid into the mix, as well.

After finishing what many —myself included— considered to be his masterpiece , the sublimely alienated and warped Black Hole, it was an open question as to how he was going to “top himself,” so to speak, and his new series, presented Tintin-style in 56-page oversized hardbound volumes published by Pantheon Books, answers the question for us — he’s heading, as ever, into unexpected, even previously unimagined territory, all the while wearing his influences on his sleeve but striking out on a decidedly independent path (even though the cover itself is an open homage to the classic Tintin adventure The Shooting Star, and the interior artwork bears a closer resemblance to Herge’s style than ever before).

The story in X’ed Out at least seems  to revolve around a loser-ish late-teen character named Doug, who wakes up in a strange bedroom with no idea where he is or how he got there, and a hole in the wall of the room ends up leading him into an Interzone-type world-within-a-world that seems, for some reason, to revolve around the trade of giant spotted eggs. We’re given a series of flashbacks to Doug’s “normal” life as the tale unfolds, but to say we have any idea as this point where things are headed, either in terms of what happened in the past or what’s happening in the present would be premature. So far it’s one pleasingly absurd enigma after the next, and while I admit this may make tough going for a newcomer to Burns’ work — do yourself a favor and go with Big Baby or Black Hole first — for those of us who have learned to trust him implicitly over the years, it represents a very strong start to what’s certain (we hope) to be another groundbreaking, classification-eschewing lengthy work, and all presented in glorious, hand-done color, no less!

On the economic front, I’ll admit that twenty bucks (assuming you pay full price, which I don’t know if anyone does these days) for 56 pages is pretty steep, but this is one of those books where the first thing you’re gonna do when you’ve finished it is read it again, and you’ll find yourself flipping it open pretty often in the days, weeks, months, and yes, at this point even years, subsequently, and that each successive reread will reveal not just new details, but new ways to look at the whole thing (or what we have of it so far at any rate) . Right now I don’t know exactly what it is we’ve even got here, much less where’s it’s headed, but I do know that I like it. A lot.

Posted: July 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

More new stuff for Through The Shattered Lens —

Through the Shattered Lens

I know, I know — it’s really not even fair, is it? To review director Marc Webb’s probably-happening-to-quickly relaunch of Marvel’s Spider-Man franchise in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises seems like setting this flick up for defeat. Truth be told, though, I actually saw this flick on opening night, and held off on reviewing it here on Through The Shattered Lens because, well — everybody else was already having a crack at it on here. I swear. I think this is the fourth or fifth review of this film to go up here. So I held off. And honestly, the fact that I wasn’t rushing home to sit down and review it right away should tell you something right there, shouldn’t it?

Not that The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t a perfectly decent little superhero flick, it is. But that’s all  it is. I can’t find much fault…

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Posted: July 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

Darn proud of this piece I wrote for Through The Shattered Lens website. I think it’s the most cogent analysis of the film available online, even if I do say so myself.

Through the Shattered Lens

At this point, I wonder if it’s even possible to separate today’s tragic events in Aurora, Colorado from any discussion about The Dark Knight Rises and simply analyze the film based on its own merits. If so, it takes a harder heart than mine, so before we even get started here let me say that my heart goes out to all the victims of this completely senseless tragedy, as well as their families and friends. In the days to come we can analyze the motivations, the warning signs that may or may not have been missed, and debate the proper courses of policy action to take in the wake of this absolutely senseless tragedy, and that’s all well and good — we still, and hopefully always will, live in a free society where the open debate and discussion about how best to address any situation, even and perhaps especially…

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Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. While the first issue of Amanda Conner and Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen : Silk Spectre miniseries had a bit more substance to it than the previous week’s Minutemen #1, it still felt more or less like all set-up material and not much else, and it’s only with this second installment that it feels like we’re really getting into the teeth of the story itself. Which isn’t the end of the world in and of itself, I suppose, but it does mean that by the time we actually have some sort of clear indication of where things are heading here, the series is already half over, given that it only runs for four issues, but I’m beginning to realize — not that I actually condone this, mind you — that cheating the customer as far as getting their actual money’s worth from a book goes is part and parcel of the modern mainstream comics industry. But I digress (as I’m so often wont to do).

Anyway, a teenage Laurie Juspeczyk, sick of her retired heroine mother’s meddling in her life, has run away from home with her high school boyfriend, Greg, and now they’re in San Francisco during what I assume to be the height of the Haight-Ashbury period, living with some friends, one of whom has the incredibly stupid name of “Chappy,” in a communal-type Victorian house. Laurie’s got a gig waiting tables, they’re all getting high a lot, and man, they’re just being, can you dig?

There’s a dark shadow falling over the Haight, though — a cat who goes by the handle of (speaking of stupid names) Gurustein (a black hippie with a Jewish-sounding name, way to prejudice the reader against three groups of people in one go!) has devised a plan, together with local mobsters, legendary acid chemist Owsley (who actually makes an appearance in the book) and “Merry Prankster” Ken Kesey (who does likewise) to get the kids hooked on a new type of hallucinogen that will turn them all on to the groovy vibes of mass consumerism now that the corporate world is taking a hit thanks to the “peace and love generation” figuring out that we don’t all need separate washing machines, refrigerators, stereos, TVs, or even clothes and records! Sharing, in other words, is a real bummer as far as “The Man” is concerned.

All of which, goofy as it sounds, has some basis in reality. Sort of. There’s ample evidence to suggest that LSD itself was introduced on a mass scale by our good friends at the CIA in order to de-radicalize and de-politicize the emerging youth culture of the late 1960s before it could actually present a threat en masse to the status quo (after all, you’re less likely to give a shit about all the various causes you’re wrapped up in while you’re spending half the day in la-la land), and — sorry if this bursts anyone’s bubble — there’s also pretty solidly-sourced material out there indicating that leading proponents of “LSD culture” such as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and yes, even Owsley himself were, in fact, intelligence assets in one capacity or another.

Sure, this might all sound like it has nothing to do with a fictional “consumer drug” being developed, but it’s not as great a leap as it might first appear to be when you consider that the first few CIA directors were all former Wall Street men and that “The Company” has basically operated as a clandestine front to advance US business interests from its outset (and, yes, continues to do exactly that to this day). So things here aren’t nearly as far-fetched as they may seem, even if Cooke’s dialogue and characterization are, at times, painfully clumsy (he seems much more at home dealing with the ’40s than the ’60s).

 

Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all this Laurie has her first official “costume” made and goes out crime-fighting on her own for the first time, but that’s almost incidental, at least at this point, to the main thrust of the story here. Anyway, Conner’s art is, as I’m quickly coming to expect, gorgeous as always, it’s great to see her continuing to employ Dave Gibbons’ classic nine-panel grid while not being afraid to express her own style in her own manner, Paul Mount’s colors are flat-out superb, and both covers (as shown, respectively) — by Conner and Josh Middleton — wrap the whole package up in a pleasing form. Cooke’s scripting is still miles away from even attempting to  match Alan Moore in both form and execution, but this series is at least headed in an interesting direction, even if the going is a bit uneven and the gulf between the quality of the artwork and that of the story remains pretty wide.

So, now that we’re onto our first second issue (“first second”? That sounds inherent contradictory, but it’s not) of this whole Before Watchmen prequel-a-palooza, I have just one question (for now — I have a much bigger one that we’ll get to in due course) for writer-artist Darwyn Cooke and DC’s editorial “brain”trust : why didn’t you guys just start with this one first?

Seriously, this has all the makings of a fairly solid first issue — not a whole lot happens (still), but rather than a quick bit of pointless re-introduction to the characters individually (as if anybody reading this series wouldn’t already be familiar with all the principal players in the first place), this time around original Nite Owl Hollis Mason’s reminiscences take us back to the first-ever time the “mystery men” (and women) of days gone by functioned together as a group, a publicity-stunt fiasco of a “mission” that goes wrong, then plunges us, in fairly short order,  into what I assume will prove to be the meat of the story — a child abduction case first worked by the Silhouette, later joined by Mothman and our erstwhile narrator (for all the good they do), and soon, one would think, to involve the rest of the members of the team.

It’s still nothing spectacular by any stretch, but it’s an interesting enough little should-be-first-chapter that’s, unfortunately, seriously let down by a couple of questionable (to put it kindly) choices that Cooke makes at the end. If you don’t want things “spoiled” for you I suggest you stop reading right now (unless you just plain don’t give a damn, that is, in which case why are you even reading this at all ?), but if you’ve perused the contents of this book already, you probably share my absolute bewilderment at just what the fuck Cooke was thinking with those last few pages, to wit —

Our “heroes” enter a warehouse looking for a missing boy, while back at Minutemen HQ, that evening’s team meeting having broken up, Captain Metropolis coaxes Hooded Justice into hanging out for a little bit of lovin’ (there’s an off-“camera” exchange between the two where HJ tells Nelly to “silence your whining” that’s positively priceless) and gets considerably more than he bargained for when the burly fella ties him up to the bed and decides to show him how real closeted gay heroes go about this stuff.

Now, if the juxtaposition of gay sex, even (it could be argued) a decidedly less-than-consensual form of gay sex with child abduction weren’t offensive enough in and of itself, Cooke’s decision to throw in what for all intents and purposes appears to be a flashback to a circus scene in Germany where a child wanders off into some sort of nightmarish unpleasantness while we read a Robert Louis Stephenson nursery rhyme really muddies up the waters. When is this taking place? My initial supposition was that this was supposed to represent Hooded Justice as a kid, since there were vague intimations in Hollis Mason’s Under The Hood text pieces back in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series that HJ might have been a famous German strongman named, if memory serves me correctly, Rolf Muller, and the style of dress and other period trappings clearly suggest a late-1800s time frame, but the scene the kid stumbles upon, which I won’t give away specifically, is more like something right out of the Third Reich, which would suggest that it’s happening roughly contemporaneously with events in this series. To further complicate matters, the appearance of a hooded figure in the distance could either represent a shadowy, mysterious personage that the young Rolf turns to for help, an anonymous friend who proceeds to rescue him from the situation (immediately burning this sort of archetype into his consciousness as a representation of justice, even a savior that, as time goes by, morphs into an unattainable sexual ideal for which he longs and/or strives), or maybe, just maybe, that hooded figure is our guy HJ himself, and the lost kid is the one the other characters have been looking for and, at the conclusion of this segment, find — hanging from a noose in the warehouse they’ve been casing, while HJ’s “costume-noose,” if you will, dangles over Captain Metropolis’s head as he’s being — uhhmmm — ya know, mounted.

Frankly, it’s pretty hard to comprehend what the hell Cooke’s driving at here in Minutemen number two ( the story in question being contained within only two covers this time around — the “main one” being by Cooke and the alternate being by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, shown here in the order I just mentioned ’em), but he’s playing with fire if he thinks drawing equivalancies between homosexuality, even sadomasochistic expressions of homosexuality, and child abduction and murder is, in any way, well — tolerable. The sad truth, even in this day and age, is that way too many people still assume gay men are child-predators, and guys who are into BDSM are probably viewed as being even more dangerous by Mr. and Mrs. Middle America. I’m probably the wrong person to be making this argument, being that sex with another man and sado-masochistic sex are nowhere to be found on my “bucket list” either together or separately, but it’s just a fact that gay folks, as well as folks into BDSM whether gay or straight, are just as harmless and “normal” as me or — I assume — you (whoever “you” might be). These people have to deal with enough prejudicial bullshit as it is, and this kind of thing doesn’t do anything to help matters at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Granted, you could make an argument that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were playing with similar fire with the whole Comedian-tries-to-rape-Silk-Spectre-and-years-later-she-has-consensual-sex-with-him-and-gives-birth-to-his-daughter thing, but that was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. They knew what they were doing and how to handle that dynamite with care and precision. So far, Cooke has done nothing to earn our trust to the same degree, and it’s that same level of belief in an artist’s ability  that’s required to not close the cover on this book with an unpleasant taste in your mouth.

So, the ball is in Darwyn Cooke’s court now (not that it wasn’t from the beginning, but you know what I mean). He’s delivered solid period-piece style art for the last two issues, and this issue things at least got moving story-wise, but he’s left some heavy, uncomfortable question marks hanging in the air here, ones that might reveal some seriously retrograde attitudes about both gay people and people involved in the BDSM “lifestyle” — questions that are doubly offensive to people who are both homosexual and into a little bit of rough fun. He’s gotta thread a really fine needle right out of the gate in the next issue, and the first two installments give no indication whatsoever as to whether or not he’s up to the task. We’re either headed for a complex story that challenges preconceptions in regard to sexual “norms,” or we’re headed into a deep morass of homophobic, anti-“alternative”-sexual-practices nonsense. I enjoy the feeling of not knowing where an artist is going to go with his or her work next, but I’m afraid I might have an ugly inkling as to what Cooke’s got in store. I sincerely hope he proves me wrong.