Posts Tagged ‘Sam Liu’

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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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As far as the 2013 summer blockbusters go, it’s probably fair to say that, at this point, Man Of Steel has pretty much sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Oh, sure, Iron Man 3 has made more money — at least to date — but its success was essentially a given, and a nervous studio (and an at-least-as-nervous comic book publisher) didn’t really have a tremendous amount riding on its box office performance. Add  in the fact that the last Superman flick  under-performed rather drastically in comparison to its pre-release expectations, and you’ve gotta concede that plenty of “suits” over at Warner Brothers, Legendary Pictures, and DC Comics are breathing a fairly huge collective sigh of relief right now. Plus, people are talking about it. There’s a tremendous amount of internet “chatter” — good, bad, and indifferent — about both its relative artistic merits and the reasons for its breakaway box office success going on right now, all of which ramps up the likelihood that, no matter which of the already-released and/or forthcoming big-budget popcorn extravaganzas come out on top in terms of cash earned at the turnstiles, 2013 will, in all probability, go down on record as the summer where Man Of Steel ruled the roost. Or at least the interwebs.

Of course, for those of you who’ve read my own armchair musings on the film both here and over at Through The Shattered Lens, you’ll know that I found it a mixed bag at best. I appreciated its amazing visual stylings and some of the smart chances it was willing to take in terms of the character’s backstory, but by and large I felt that its reach exceeded its grasp in terms of the “uber-mythic” slant it attempted to give/graft onto the character, and the end result was a cold, emotionally distant film that tried to hide its flaws by, simply put, clobbering you over the head so hard time and again that you were either too awed (if you liked it) or worn out (if you didn’t) to notice them. Superman is a character that works best when both parts of his name — the “Super” and the “man” — strike a delicate (and admittedly tricky) balance and learn to not only co-exist with, but also complement, each other — and at the risk of repeating myself to those who did, in fact, read my Man Of Steel review, I feel it gives up on trying to establish the “man” all too quickly and goes all-in on the “Super,” ultimately to the detriment of both.

Still, what’s done is done, and we can — and probably will — debate what Man Of Steel got right, and what it didn’t, for a long time to come. Movie geeks are like that, and comic geeks, bless us one an’ all, are even more like that.

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Still, if I were one of the legion of die-hard, instant Man Of Steel fans that are out there defending my new favorite movie from any and all detractors (or even semi-detractors like myself), the question I’d pose (to, uhhhmm, myself, I guess) at this point would be : “okay,hotshot, you talk in these big, high-fallutin’ terms about ‘delicate balances’ an’ all that, so name me a Superman flick that you think gets it right.”

It’s a perfectly apt question (even if I do say so myself), and fortunately you don’t even have to go too far back to find it — just a couple of years, in fact, to 2011 and the DC Universe animated feature All-Star Superman, adapted for the (small, since it was a straight-to-video release) screen from the highly-acclaimed 12-issue mini-series of the same name by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely by the late, great Super-scribe Dwayne McDuffie and director Sam Liu.

Here we have another in a long list of  hypothetical “last Superman stories ever told” (my personal favorite still being Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s legendary “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?”) done with heart, humor, and intelligence — a story that embraces the admitted absurdities of 1950s/60s era single-issue Superman tales that had him (and know in advance that he only does some of these things here, but it’s the thought that counts) getting amnesia, revealing his secret identity, turning into a gorilla, or going back in time and saving Krypton from destruction (only to have all of these monumental changes immediately cancelled out by some ultra-convenient plot contrivance on the last page, naturally), translates them into a form palatable to modern, supposedly “sophisticated” audiences, and ends up reminding us just why it is that we love the character, both “Super” and “Man,” in the process.

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Okay, sure, it’s not without its flaws — this is a story that definitely works better on the printed page, as a series of interconnected “one-offs,” than it does as an animated flick, where its  entire litany of plot developments — Superman gets solar radiation poisoning and learns that he’s dying, then has a big, bad confrontation with an ultra-pumped-up Parasite while trying to keep his identity a secret from Lex Luthor, then goes ahead and reveals said secret identity to Lois Lane, then gives her his powers for 24 hours as a birthday gift, then solves the Riddle of the Sphinx, then has a final, winner-take-all battle with Luthor, then has to save the sun itself and thereby the Earth in the process, perhaps at the cost of his own life — feels a bit rushed at best and disjointed at worst, but trust me — that ear-to-ear smile you’ll have from start to finish will be sending a signal to your brain that says “who cares, just go with it,” and ya know what? You will. And yeah, while I’d have preferred to see a bit more of Quitely’s unique and, heck, amazing art style translated into the animated proceedings, enough of its awe-inspiring grandeur and childlike sense of innocence and wonder survives the leap in formats for me to not have much to complain about on that front. This is, both script-wise and art-wise, a Superman who dazzles and inspires us not because he’s apart  from us, like Zack Synder and Christopher Nolan’s take on the character, but because he’s a part of us. He’s an ideal for all of us to strive for, not something too awesome, too other, too alien,  for us to ever hope to emulate.

As far as the voice casting goes, James Denton is — as always — pitch-perfect as both Superman and Clark Kent, Christina Hendricks projects secure, confident humanity as Lois Lane, Anthony LaPaglia clearly relishes the chance to “evil-genius-it-up” as Lex Luthor, and little touches such as having Edward Asner on hand as Perry White and Frances Conroy as Ma Kent show that some real thought went into this thing from top to bottom. I hesitate to use grandiose terms like “labor of love,” but this sure feels like one to this usually-too-cynical-for-his-own-good critic.

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All-Star Superman is available on a few different home video iterations from Warner Premier — either as a single-disc DVD, a single-disc Blu-Ray, or a two-DVD “special edition.” The single-disc DVD contains some preview material for other “DCU” titles but is otherwise essentially a bare-bones release, while the two-disc version and the Blu-Ray feature a fairly intriguing “making-of” featurette and a handful of tangentially-related episodes from various Superman animated television series selected by Bruce Timm as bonus features. Widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are stunning no matter which option you go for.

All told, if you like myths that you can actually relate to, and you prefer your Superman to be a bit more accessible than the Godlike,  Nietzchean ideal of Snyder and Nolan, I think you’re going to find All-Star Superman  right up your alley. And hey — even if you did love Man Of Steel to pieces, I still think you’re likely to dig this populist, universal take on the character that really does bring the legend to life in a way all of us can appreciate. This is a movie that leaves you saying to yourself “gosh, that was neat” and not feeling the least bit self-conscious for doing so.

 

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What the hell, these reviews of titles in Warner Premiere’s “DC Universe” straight-to-video animation line seem to be getting a reasonably healthy response around these parts, so let’s plug away and do at least a couple more until I’m bored with the whole thing and feel like getting back to horror, exploitation, and all that other good stuff, shall we? And seeing as how our first entrants in this little sidebar series took a look at the two-part Dark Knight Returns, based on Frank Miller’s justifiably legendary take on the “omega” phase of Batman’s crime-fighting career,  it seems only right that we next turn our attentions to 2011’s animated adaptation of Batman : Year One, based on Miller and artist David Mazzuchelli’s take on the Caped Crusader’s “alpha” period.

Again, a little background for those not steeped in comic lore : hot on the heels of the success of The Dark Knight mini-series, Bat-books editor-at-the-time Denny O’Neil (a fairly accomplished author of numerous well-regarded Batman stories in his own right), approached said title’s creator, Frank Miller, with a proposal to essentially give him carte-blanche to retell the Gotham Guardian’s origin story as a way of “re-setting the table” on the regular monthly Batman series. Miller agreed, but only wanted to write it, bringing in as his artistic partner on the project one David Mazzuchelli, with whom he had collaborated on a recent run of stories for Marvel’s Daredevil book. Mazzuchelli bought a distinctly noir-ish and cinematic sensibility to the proceedings, and the end result , while admittedly a fairly basic, if extrapolated, take on events we already knew which sees Bruce Wayne return to Gotham to embark on his one-man war on crime, form an uneasy alliance with then-Lieutenant Jim Gordon (who seems to be one of the few honest cops in town), have his first series of encounters with a prostitute-turned-cat-burglar named Selina Kyle, and go after the beating heart of the city’s organized crime operation in the form of Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, is nonetheless a deeply resonant character-driven piece with a pleasing “pulp detective” artistic sensibility that feels both nostalgic and oddly contemporary at the same time. If the word timeless comes to mind from the brief run-down just provided, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark, as this brief-but-no-doubt historic four-issue Batman run, which has since been collected in near-innumerable paperback and hardcover iterations, feels as fresh and vital today as it did when first published way back in 1987.

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The real genius of what Miller chose to do story-wise,though,  is that, despite the fact that we are granted numerous takes on the events depicted from the vantage points of both Batman and Catwoman, this is more or less Gordon’s tale, and we see get to see both the cesspool of corruption and vice that is Gotham City, as well as witness the dawn of a new age of weirdos in costumes, through his eyes. Miler’s version of Gordon is hardly a flawless hero — he’s stepping out on his pregnant wife with one of his colleagues on the force (who long-time Bat-fans will know becomes the second Mrs. Gordon at some unspecified future point), for instance, but by and large this is a decent guy trying to make sense of circumstances, and a city, that he can’t quite get his head around.

The powers that be in the suits at Warner and DC wisely decided to retain this Gordon-centric narrative structure when they adapted the story for home video release in 2011, and even more wisely opted to cast Bryan Cranston as Jimbo’s voice ‘artist,” so needless to say — expect some great things here. Yeah, okay, again it would have been nice (and frankly pretty gutsy) for directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery to have their animators hue a bit more closely to Mazzuchelli’s visual style, but the finished product probably would have been considered somewhat inaccessible for, at least, a non-comics audience (although I gotta wonder how much a “non-comics audience” would even care about this thing in the first place), but at least most of the characters in this one look like real people rather than the non-green Hulks of (the otherwise generally excellent ) The Dark Knight Returns.

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As far as the rest of the cast goes, Ben McKenzie positively nails it as Bruce Wayne/Batman, GreyDeLisle is pitch-perfect as the suffering-in-silence Barbara Gordon, Katee Sackhoff is suitably sultry as the object of Jim’s extra-curricular affections, Detective Sarah Essen, supposed “nerd culture” sex object Eliza Dushku inhabits Selina Kyle/Catwoman quite nicely, and it’s an out-and-out treat to hear the great Alex Rocco giving vocal “life” to Falcone. It’s Cranston’s show all the way, but these folks add plenty of spice to the stew.

On the technical specs front, Batman : Year One is available on three different home video formats : single-disc DVD, single-disc Blu-Ray, and a double-disc DVD “special edition.” All three feature superb widescreen picture and a genuinely dynamic 5.1 sound mix, as well as a rather risque but otherwise generally uninteresting Catwoman short, and a smattering of promo stuff for other entrants in the “DCU” line. The Blu-Ray and two-disc DVD also feature a pretty sold little mini-documentary on the genesis  of, and influences on,  Batman : Year One in its original comic book form, and a couple of episodes of the Batman animated TV series that are at least tangentially related to the main course on offer here (again with the food metaphors, sorry — haven’t eaten lunch yet).

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Final verdict, then : as with Miller’s Dark Knight, this is a seminal Bat-story that most definitely live up to all the hype, and its home video animated offspring is a faithful, exciting, well-constructed work that sticks to the character-driven narrative design of its printed-page progenitor for a highly-accessible translation that retains both the boldness and simplicity of Miller/Mazzuchelli while smoothing out its rough (but oh-so-lovely) edges just a bit.

Hell, just writing about it puts me in the mood to watch it again.