Saturday, June 03, 2006

Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight #4, Zatanna #3

Seven Soldiers rocks on with two issues from my favorite series so far. I wasn't sure how each individual sesries would end, Grant claimed that each series would have a standalone beginning and ending, and in this case, that's not quite true. I suppose Justin's character arc is fulfilled, but I definitely needed a little more when things ended. I guess that's what Seven Soldiers #1 is for.

The issue itself errs a bit too much towards action and the real highlight is Simone Bianchi's beautiful drawings. Bianchi is a master artist, and each panel is gorgeous. His design of the queen is fantastic, and I love the double page spread of Vincenzo emerging from the cauldron.

The end of the issue forges a lot of connections between the other series. Apparently, the Queen is married to Melmoth from Klarion, which raises the question of whether Melmmoth is working for the Sheeda or against them. The issuse also introduces the idea of a girl knight, who we now know is Misty.

The two page spread of the Don firing two Tommy Guns while riding a flying horse is just as good as it sound, and Justin's defeat of Galahad is another great fight scene. Things end with Justin gunning for the queen's head. I'm not a huge fan of ending with the flashback, I feel like the emotion of the story was in the now, and I would have rather went out with Justin holding the head. On the whole, this series has two fantastic issues, the middle ones, and a couple of solid issues that were hurt by the fact that they focused a bit too much on fighting. However, it's a critical piece of the overall Seven Soldiers project, giving us the most information on the Sheeda and what their plans are for the modern world.

Zatanna #3 is the best issue of the Seven Soldiers project so far. Last time, I mentioned that Zatanna reminded me a lot of Gilmore Girls, and this issue takes that even further, with more self deprecation and pop culture references from our gorgeous, but deeply insecure heroine. As Zatanna says, she and Misty have been having "Thelma and Louise meet Bewitched" misadventures, such as the episode at the beginning.

I really like the confrontation with the Tempter because it ties into a lot of classic Morrison themes and also works as a showcase for Zatanna's wit. She defeats this guy through witty banter, tying into the idea that words themselves are magic spells. On the larger level, Zatanna and Misty are working, like nearly every Morrison hero, to eradicate outdated ideas and move humanity forward. The Tempter is essenitally the traditional idea of Satan, and in our world, the idea of the devil actually tempting you to do stuff seems ridiculous, hence the destruction of his corporeal form here. I'm intriuged by the idea of "logical immunity," Morrison doesn't discuss the concept in depth, but from what I can tell, it's the idea that in the past, people used to be more accepting of the supernatural, however, our knowledge of how the world works, logic, has overwhelmed superstition and made it impossible for a guy like The Tempter to exist.

Next, they run into Ali Ka-Zoom, who burns his cabinet, a ceremony that is clearly part of moving beyond this plain. Morrison deals a lot with the idea of people having a specific role to fulfill, John a Dreams in The Invisibles moved through time to perform specific tasks in the service of a goal, individuals are small parts of a larger machine moving humanity towards a specific endpoint. When he burns the cabinet, Ali says "Sometimes it's like there's mystery string holding everything together," unseen forces manipulating people to specific points in space and time. This is Ali's final task, and once he's done, he can return to the bus and move off to the other realm.

The moment where they stumble upon the massacre from Shining Knight is fantastic, the most powerful connection between the series so far. It's odd to see these characters I was so used to seeing in Bianchi's style rendered in Sook's, but it works because it allows us to view the events from Zatanna's perspective. The moment where Misty sees the spider and cries reminds me of a bit from The Invisibles where King Mob is overwhelmed by pure emotion and starts crying. It's one of the things that Morrison does well, it doesn't feel melodramatic, it legitimately feels like the character has come into contact with some higher intelligence and is so moved, they have no choice but to cry.

In light of this issue, it seems that most of Zatanna's guilt stems from the revelations about brainwashing in Identity Crisis. I read that series a few weeks ago, so it was cool to see a tie in.

However, the big moment at the end is the revelation that Misty the stepdaughter of the Sheeda Queen sent through time to the present. This revelation is brilliant because it ties the series together and gives us a picture of how large this conflict is. This is a totally unique storytelling experiment because it truly is one story, we're just seeing different pieces of it through the different characters' experience. This is a direct followup to Shining Knight, without actually featuring any of those characters. It's really exciting to see the pieces connect across the stories, it's like reading a superhero Magnolia.

The best stories usually feature fully realized worlds, where it feels like you're getting a peak into their lives, and after the work ends, they will continue. That's the brilliance of the original Star Wars trilogy for me, it never feels like someone sat down and decided how things would happen, it's like someone stumbled on another world and took a piece of it, but it continues offscreen. The structure here makes this even more notable because we get to see plot elements existing free of the confines of their specific story. So, Don Vincenzo dies in Shining Knight and we don't really need any more, but this issue gives us a bit of a coda for him, as well as providing emotional closure for Ali Ka-Zoom. It's exploring this world through seven unique sets of eyes.

Reading this issue had me so excited about the story Grant had created. The revelation of who Misty was puts everything that happened before in a different light, and connects the seemingly random adventures with the overall story of the Sheeda. But, we still get to enjoy the banter and character work that made the series great. It's not that Zatanna takes on the mythic style of Shining Knight with this revelation, it's more about looking at the same elements filtered through multiple lenses. It's a story that proves what is said is really determined by who's saying it.

EDIT: I just got the third volume and reading through the 'previously,' I found out that the Queen's comment in Shining Knight about "blood of the womb" and the "girl knight" are not a reference to Misty, it's actually meant to reveal that Justin is a girl in disguise. Reading through the issue, that makes a lot more sense, it was just something I didn't catch.

Related Posts
Seven Soldiers #0 (5/17/2006)
Seven Soldiers: Manhattan Guardian #4 (6/5/2006)
Seven Soldiers: Zatanna #4 (6/15/2006)

Friday, June 02, 2006

X-Men 3

Been behind on this one, originally when I saw it, I didn't think it was worthy of a review. But, reading peoples' reactions to it has brought up some things I felt needed to commented on. X-Men 3 is a decent film, it was fun to watch, but there's clearly some major flaws in the narrative construction.

The film takes on way too much, I would have loved to seen all these plots interweaved in a 4-6 hour miniseries, but trying to fit everything in a 100 minute film prevents us from actually becoming engaged with any of the characters. The Phoenix is one of the core elements of X-Men mythology, and the choice to handle it as such a small background piece of this film was very odd. The whole point of the Phoenix story was to show that absolute power corrupts, and in the comic, this was wonderfully conveyed by having the use of that power seem attractive. Jean was drawn out of her shell, dropping her inhibitions as she became more powerful, facilitated by her attraction to Jason Wyngarde.

I think the filmmakers made the right choice when they chose to drop the space stuff from the Phoenix storyline, that was nonsensical at the time, and nearly any time Claremont's X-Men headed into space, things went awry. However, I think the choice to make the Phoenix a part of Jean's mind is a mistkae. The Phoenix storyline was all about the conflict between Jean the person and the Phoenix, this superpowerful entity, and in the end, Jean's innate goodness allows her to overcome the corruption of the Phoenix. Of course, we've already seen a wonderful film adaptation of the Dark Phoenix saga in Buffy's sixth season.

But, things still could have worked without that. The big issue I have with the storyline is that they skipped the best part, the whole Hellfire Club thing. That's the funnest part of the original Dark Phoenix stuff, and the moment where Claremont really came into his own. There's an issue that ends with Wolverine rising out of the sewer, ready to bust up the Hellfire Club, and in that moment he becomes an icon. Wolverine was never meant to be the spotlight X-Men character, but in that one panel, Claremont puts the character into history.

So, that's great stuff, and would have given Wolverine a badass moment that he lacked in this film. He just kind of went along, without Cyclops to play off of, it's tougher for him to misbehave. The one scene that really crackled was when Jean tries to seduce him, I would have loved to seen him have sex with her right there, and then deal with the consequences, rather than the lame refusal. It would have created more complexity and given Jean a better reason to go over to Magneto.

Jean had basically nothing to do the whole film, so her acts of evil feel like they're just there to justify killing her later. You get no sense of her joy at being bad, and that's what the whole Jason Wyngarde seduction in the comic was about, making being evil seem attractive.

So, that was rather botched, but it's not a huge surprise because the world the films created doesn't really accomodate the more outre aspects of the mythos. The cure storyline makes a lot more sense, but the major issue here is that our "heroes" have no real stance on the issue. They're bothered by it, but don't seem to actively oppose it, as Magneto does. What this means is that Magneto and his crew have all the narrative agency, and the X-Men seem to stand in the way. Magneto, while he was a bit more extreme, was the most charismatic character in the film, and I thought Wolverine was being excessively sadistic when they give him the cure dart. At that point, they should have killed him, the way it was played felt cruel.

The cure could have supported its own film, and allowed for more philosophical exploration. A major problem with the film is that nearly every conversation exists to convey some information. So, the opening dialogue lets us know what everyones' powers are, and later on, there's all matter of infodumps going on. If the film had another hour or so, we could have had some more indepth exploration of how these people feel about the cure.

I would have liked to see someone argue with Rogue about her choice to get the cure. Rogue's power doesn't really help her, and I think it's perfectly legitimate for her to want to lose it. But, it should have been more about her, and less about just wanting to get together with Bobby.

One of the best characters in the film was Kitty Pryde. She feels just like Claremont's incarnation of the character, and you could easily fill in her parents' divorce as another reason she's so depressed after Xavier's death. The ice skating scene was really nice, and her chase with Juggernaut at the end was well done too.

The other really well done character was Beast, who came across as a fully developed character in a brief amount of screentime. I thought he was more interesting than Logan or Jean in this film. I wish we got a bit more insight into Angel, because as it was, there wasn't much of a point for having him in the film. Whenever I saw him, I would just end up thinking back on his time on Six Feet Under.

The final moment of the film was absoultely ridiculous and basically rendered everything that happened before pointless. If Magneto has his powers back, then the whole conflict over the cure is irrelevant. This is the equivalent of Raiders of the Lost Ark ending with some guy in the warehouse saying "Oh wait, this isn't actually the ark," then cutting to credits. All the fighting has been for nothing.

Despite the harshness, I actually this film is only a little bit weaker than X2. Certainly on a narrative and character level, X2 is much tighter, but the pleasures of the two films are the same, seeing some classic moments and characters represented on the big screen. I would argue that it's actually impossible to make a satisfying two hour X-Men movie. The reason for this is that the Claremont run was 190 issues, and there's been hundreds more after he left.

X-Men is very different from Superman or Batman in this respect. Those characters are icons, with a certain set of characteristics, but around that, you can tell pretty much any story. Batman in the comics has been through so many different incarnations, whatever movie you make, you can probably find a comic it's similar to. X-Men actually has a fairly linear narrative, and for Claremont and Morrison's time, nuanced characters who grew and changed.

To try to condense this history and character development into a two hour film is like trying to make a movie adaptation of the Buffy TV show. There's so many villains and stories, you can't make a satisfying two hour film, inevitably supporting characters will get short shrift. This film is the equivalent of making a Buffy movie that combines the season two Angel going evil arc and the battles with the Mayor in the third season in two hours. It's just not going to happen.

If someone wanted to make a real adaptation, I would love to see a high production values, TV show adaptation of the Claremont run, or Grant's stuff. Obviously, a lot of Claremont does not hold up, but that'd be a much better venue to tell the story in. The best you can hope for in a two hour film is either a total reconfiguration of the mythos, which X-Men 1 and 2 did to some extent, or just a collection of interesting sights that recall moments from the comic.

I will admit that my view point is very colored by reading of the comic. Right before seeing X2, I was reading the Morrison run, and Singer's version of the mutants couldn't match up to Grant's ultra stylish, pop incarnation. I watched this coming off the complete Claremont run, and the character interaction just isn't as strong.

I hate to give the typical fanboy "it wasn't as good as the comic" critique, but sadly that's what I'm doing. I chose that angle, because if I wasn't relating this to the comic, I'd see it as just an overstuffed, unremarkable action film.

Related Posts
Astonishing X-Men 2/6/2005
X-Men: 94-138 (9/17/2005)
X-Men: Wrapping It Up (3/14/2006)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Seven Soldiers: Manhattan Guardian #2-3, Zatanna #2, Shining Knight #3, Klarion #2-3

Moving along with Grant Morrison's massive Seven Soldiers project I'm consistently impressed by his construction of both the individual stories and the overarching narrative driving the enterprise forward. He's using similar concepts and story elements in each of the miniseries, but they're filtered through a different generic template, appropriate to each book. So, a mystical, medieval relic in Shining Knight becomes a pirate treasure in Manhattan Guardian. Very cool.

Guardian #2 is a big action issue, covering the confrontation between the pirates AllBeard and NoBeard. This has to be a reference to the Morrison/Alan Moore feud, he poked fun at Moore similarly in the classic 'Beardhunter' issue of Doom Patrol. It's always seemed amazing to me that the two best comic book writers are both interested in these same magical concepts, complimenting each other perfectly, and have the whole opposite hair thing going on. Moore and Morrison are creating the best work of anyone right now, in any medium. No one in film or novels can match them.

Anyway, this was a pretty good issue, I like the throwback to the guilt monster from SK2 on the first page. I like the action, but so far, this has been Morrison's least serious Seven Soldiers book. I really enjoyed the finale where NoBeard and All Beard duel over the six sided god-machine. This is a recurring element throughout the books, and I'm not exactly sure of its significance yet. It could be a reference back to the quote, "God does not play dice with the cosmos" that Morrison used back in Animal Man.

The issue's final moments, as Jake escorts the shellshocked passengers out of the tunnel and attends Carla's father's funeral are the emotional highlights, and nicely undercut the spirit of adventure we saw previously. The sadness of the funeral scene, the reality of "action" contrasted with Ed's enthusiasm is wonderful, a throwback to the juxtaposition of extreme thrills with extreme sadness from Seven Soldiers 0, and it nicely segues into issue 3.

This issue seems to recall the Libertania issues of The Filth, where we saw a contained environment break into anarchy. The idea of a community that represents the entire Earth in a small space is a throwback to the basic concept of The Filth, which was all about the idea of "As above, so below," that all systems have the same properties, it's just that some are larger than others.

The juxtaposition of the emotion and action here is something I've seen done before, but it works, and underscores one of the basic points Morrison is making with both this series and Seven Soldiers #0, the idea that being a superhero is frequently an attempt to cover for personal difficulties. Jake goes out and beats up this community of robots as a way of trying to come to terms with Carla dumping him. This culminates in the fantastic two page spread of Jake in the fire. That page tells you everything you need to know about his personal life.

And even with all this perosnal drama, Morrison and Stewart manage to stock the book with crazyfantastic imagery all throughout. The robots are great, particularly the stereotypical Spanish and French ones. The finale with a giant-head baby talking about the "secret history of the original newsboy army" is just such classic Morrison, over the top weird and intriuging like only he can do.

In the context of the larger Seven Soldiers story, this, like the destruction of Camelot in Shining Knight, is used to tease the potential fate of the Earth should our soldiers fail in their mission. It's another "as above, so below" moment, with the robots standing in for the Sheeda. The Sheeda seem to be the force that pulls humanity down, preventing it from reaching its full potential by destroying civilizations at their peak. Being a Morrison work, another valid interpretation is that they create change, preventing societies from falling into complacency and keeping things moving irrevocably forward.

Zatanna #2 isn't quite the masterpiece that #1 is, but it's still a lot of fun. I love the mentor/protege dynamic between Misty and Zatanna, the pop culture references again ground this series in a very realistic millieu. As I mentioned before, I love the way things are refracted through their specific books, so Manhattan Guardian takes place in a very Batmanish world, while here we've got an even more realistic single girl in the city vibe, with the only weird thing being that she happens to do magic. To that end, we see another appearance of the "six-sided God machine," in the die that Misty used to find Zatanna.

In terms of look and character, Misty and Zatanna remind me a lot of Rory and Lorelai on Gilmore Girls. I would love to see Lauren Graham play Zatanna if they were ever do a film of this series. I love just watching Zatanna at work battling this magical entity, particularly the finale where she shatters the mirror into hundreds of pieces. Seeing this guy spinning out on the panes of glass is another classic Morrison image.

The end of the issue reveals that she's converted her "ideal man" into a miniature bald fellow, who could be either Grant or one of the Seven Unknown Men. I could see some interesting combat happening on the micro level between this guy and the mini Sheeda scouts. And the issue closes with the return of the Phantom Stranger, who looks straight out of a 1930s pulp comic. And he's got the fantastic entrance line "Did someone use a sentence involving the word 'stranger.'" Morrison is able to create lines that just boggle the mind in their ridiculous popness, no one can write stuff that's just so overwhelmingly fun and cool, that entrance just puts a smile on your face.

Even as I'm loving Zatanna, issue 3 of Shining Knight might be my favorite thing from Seven Soldiers yet. Justin's series seems to be carrying most of the "mythology" of the series, he's the only one who's actually encountered the Sheeda, and on the whole, his struggle seems to have the most direct impact on the fate of the Earth.

I was a bit confused by the start of the issue, wondering why so much time was being spent on these two detectives. Helen Helligan was a well sketched character, but we seemed to be getting a lot of exposition. I liked how Helen was a very real character in this crazy world, hoping to cut out of work to go to her sister's wedding. It's these small touches of realism that make the project unique, we're looking at a world of superheroes from the perspective of the ordinary citizen.

But once they meet Justin, things go crazy. I loved the revelation that Gloria was actually the Sheeda queen, and her transformation is really well done. There's a lot of interesting panel layouts here, keeping the heavy dialogue visually interesting. The Queen is really interesting looking, I love the two page spread of her and her crew killing the police. This leads to the incredible page where Justin fights back, grabbing a gun and shouting "Camelot Lives!" in one of the coolest panels in the history of comics. It's such a joycore moment, and confirms Justin's reclamation of the role of hero for this new age. He's not in this issue that much, but it follows up on the development in issue 2, where Justin reclaimed the mantle of protector. He may be stranded in a new world, but he's going to do everything he can to save it.

Then I was shocked to see I, Spyder from Seven Soldiers #0 back, working for the Sheeda Queen. So, apparently she didn't kill them all, she's taken at least one of them into her service, and possibly more. I'd love to see The whip return, we shall see. There seems to be some kind of Sheeda zombification, and Helen seems to be going through that process now.

If we're to take it that the Seven Unknown Men and the Sheeda are locked in some kind of eternal war, it's appropriate that they would both try to remake people to fit their image. So, as the series begins, they remake Spyder, then the Sheeda take him and remake him again. So far, Justin is the only hero who's been explicitly remade, though you could read Ed's transformation of Jake as a similar reinvention.

For the finale of this series, it looks like we're going to see Gallahad and Justin dueling, and running into Don Vincenzo. I'm really psyched for it, this series has come together in a really interesting way towards the end.

Finally, we've got Klarion. I wasn't a big fan of the first issue, but things come together a little bit as the series progresses. Two is cool because we get to see Klarion moving into our world. I loved seeing Klarion moving through the same space that was just featured in The Manhattan Guardian, the Guardian's helmet even makes a cameo. I like the idea that there's a whole secret world underground, and between the two series, we get a pretty vivid picture of it. Plus, his enthusiasm at elements of our world is exciting. The art and dialogue combine to give you the idea that this kid is just thrilled to be moving into this new world.

Issue three shows us more of Klarion's wonder at this new world, as he's manipulated by Mister Melmoth, a guy who's seeking to find the Croatoan society. I'm not sure if he's a Sheeda agent, or just a nasty guy. The issue is all about the loss of adventure and wonder that comes with moving from childhood to adulthood. Klarion is the ultimate child, someone for whom everything that we take for granted is new and exciting. It's a very Peter Pan thing, when Billy reaches sixteen, he's taken away from the gang of kids and turned into a slave for Mister Melmoth, the ultimate representation of restrictive adulthood. Melmoth says he likes the fact that "Everyone's looking very professional," and they're all dressed the same, that's what the adult world is all about, a major contrast to the varied outfits and styles of the kid gang.

Klarion seeks to walk away from his responsibility as a leader of the gang, he will not take over for Billy, only to be forced to move on when he gets older and numb to the wonder of the world. He seeks to be live only for himself, but he is soon drawn back to Croatoa. He may not like that world, but he can't allow it to be destroyed either. So, he sets off to return.

I still think this is the weakest of the four series, but it's got some good stuff, and I'm excited to see the conclusion. On the whole, I'm wondering how most of these series will end, do they all lead into Seven Soldiers #1 with a cliffhanger, or is it more that they close out their stories and then the heroes move on to the final battle in the final issue.

I'm loving this project. It's a totally unique thing in comics, and Morrison is taking advantage of his structure to do all kinds of different things. The need to do so many series is taking him out of his comfort zone and allowing him to explore some new concepts and character types. Right now, I'm wishing that all of these were ongoing series, every character has the potential to sustain a long term narrative, and perhaps Morrison will return to some of them after he finishes this series.

Related Posts
Seven Soldiers: #0 (5/17/2006)
Seven Soldiers: Part I (5/21/2006)

Upcoming Dates of Note

6/2 - Super Furry Animals at South Street Seaport
6/4 - The Sopranos Season Finale
6/9 - North at Delancey
6/10-6/11 - Promoting Division Shadow at MoCCA
6/17 - Shooting a Music Video for Victoria Rocks
7/4 - Belle and Sebastian at Battery Park
7/7 - A Scanner Darkly released
7/21 - Clerks II released
7/22 - Elysian Fields at Joe's Pub
7/28 - Miami Vice released
8/8 - Manderlay on DVD

And the biggest date of note in the near future is:

10/13 - The Fountain and Marie Antoinette released

This presents a conundrum for me, namely which film do I see first, and how long does it need to sit before I can see the next one. I'll probably do The Fountain on the Friday and Marie Antoinette on the Saturday, that's going to be one ridiculous weekend for cinema.