Friday, February 09, 2007

X-Factor: More Lies! More Guilt! More Betrayal! (#9-16)

After a very shaky start, X-Factor settles into a really nice groove in this run of issues, capturing much of the interpersonal and interspecies angst that made 80s X-Men into such a successful and beloved series. The book may be the Scott and Jean show, but that’s fine because they’re some of the most interesting characters in the X-Verse, and certainly have enough issues to carry a book.

The review title comes from the next issue teaser in issue 15, and it's as good a summary of these issues as anyone could come up with. I love the fact that they're promoting an action comic with the promise of more guilt. Only in the X-Men...

Issues 9-11 tie in with the Mutant Massacre, which also crosses over into Thor and Power Pack. I think the X-Men side of the crossover has more urgency. There, you get a greater sense of the damage done by the Marauders to the Morlock world, and you also get a heavier personal impact for the team. Of course, some of the impact here might be numbed by the fact that I’d already read the issues, back when I was passing through the X-Men run, so moments like Angel getting nailed to the wall didn’t have the impact they did on the first read.

I do like the line blurring ironies of having the team battling Freedom Force. By working with the US government, Freedom Force is trying to rehabilitate the reputation of mutants, show that they can work within the system. X-Factor is actually contributing to prejudice by fostering anti-mutant feeling, yet they also claim to be secretly helping mutants. It’s hard to sympathize with the X-Factor crew when they fight Freedom Force, since Mystique and her team are playing by the rules and doing good. It is only the old grudges carrying over, but they are now in a world that’s more complex than a simple good/bad dichotomy.

My favorite Freedom Force moment is when Rogue and Mystique fight together before she goes off to sacrifice herself during Fall of the Mutants, I always have a lot of sympathy for villains trying to go good, and not so much for what X-Facotr is doing here. Throughout the book, all the characters in X-Factor are struggling to return to the world they lived in when they were X-Men. They can’t deal with the fact that their former adversaries are now fighting for good, and Scott is trying to move back to a more naïve emotional place with Jean, forget about the troubled relationship he had with Maddie. They’re all living a fantasy, and that fantasy comes crashing down as the series moves forward.

A sequence that’s still striking in the end of issue 11, where the police gun down some Morlocks. It’s powerful because it’s played for realism. This is a crossover without easy resolution, it’s an awful event that will echo for a long time on.

The thing I really enjoyed about these issues is that we didn’t have any of the goofy villains who populated the first few issues of the book. Instead the focus is on interpersonal conflict between the team. There’s two major issues facing the team, one is Warren’s injury, the other is Scott and Jean’s relationship.

Warren has defined himself by his mutant identity, and the thought of losing that which makes him unique is too much to bear. The arc is well done, given enough issues that we can understand his descent into depression. I’d imagine his ‘death’ was more powerful when it originally happened, I know he’ll come back as a horsemen of Apocalypse, so I get no emotional charge from his loss. It’s not like the hints aren’t already there, but there’s a difference between thinking he might eventually return and knowing that he’ll back in a few issues for Fall of the Mutants.

The reason that the X-Factor book exists was to get Scott and Jean back together. At this point, Hank and Bobby don’t have much of a personality, and rarely get interesting material to work with. They’re just there to fill out the team, the core of the book is the troubles that Scott and Jean are facing.

I really liked Scott’s surreal journey to Alaska. Constantly hallucinating, he walks the border of sanity while searching for Madelyne. I like that he’s finally forced to deal with the consequences of walking out on his family. In some respects, I still feel like it’s not enough, but he suffers a lot of pain here, and I guess there’s only so much one man can go through.

This incarnation of Master Mold has a lot in common with the Sentinels that Morrison would use, feeding on whatever technology is available to rebuild themselves. It’s a great idea, and better than the original giant purple robot concept. Scott’s battle with him has the feel of a Shinya Tsukamoto film, a messy blend of mechanical and organic, emotion and blankness. It’s pretty epic, and ends with an appropriate lack of real resolution. Scott returns to New York and finds that his friend has killed himself in the interim. The man has gone through a lot, likely Louise Simonson recognizing the need to punish him for his actions in the first issue. The message, be responsible and don’t lie to your wife or all around you will die.

The stuff with the younger X-Factor team plays well as a lighter counterpoint to the heavy drama of the adults. This dynamic is a rare time when we see the X-Men actually teaching, another precursor to Morrison’s run. The final issue of the book, where Rusty and the young crew take Masque to the hospital, barely features the old X-Factor and still works, a testament to the character building of the younger team.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed these final few issues. I love the universe and the characters, and this stuff is a prime era in their development. I’ll be on hiatus for a bit, reading The Invisibles, but after that I’ll return for Essential X-Factor Volume 2.

The Invisibles #3: 'Down and Out in Heaven and Hell: Part 2'

Issue three picks things up a bit, continuing the story of Dane’s initiation, laying out more of the themes that would become the base for the series to work from. These issues are the first experiment in Grant’s hypersigil process, as much about initiating the reader as they are about initiating Dane. In that respect, it’s unlike the vast majority of fiction out there, because the story itself is secondary to a greater philosophical purpose. The Invisibles, like Alan Moore’s Promethea, works as both a philosophical text and a standard narrative...

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Invisibles #2: 'Down and Out in Heaven and Hell: Part 1'

Following the hyperbolic first issue, Morrison scaled things back for an arc that’s probably my least favorite in the whole run of the series. I can see his goals, and I think he sets up a lot of interesting themes, but for me, The Invisibles isn’t really The Invisibles until the whole team’s assembled and things start moving forward. I feel like there’s a massive change that you can sense in the series once Morrison goes through the abduction experience, until then he’s writing fiction, after that he’s writing autobiography. At this point we get some of the imagery that would become important, but it lacks the lived in urgency of future events, such as Dane’s trippy journey in 1.16....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Invisibles #1: 'Dead Beatles'

“And so we return and begin again.” That is the first line of The Invisibles #1, a sentiment that appeals to the rereader more than the first timer. If you’ve already read the series, you’re aware of the fallacy of linear time and also in tune with the meta commentary the line entails. This is Morrison speaking to you, aware that you are again embarking on a journey through the work.

One of the things I love about The Invisibles is the fact that it is so thoroughly developed in advance. Elfayed’s words in the second panel are as good an explanation for the Supercontext as anything we get later, and even beyond that, we get reference to King Mob’s trip to Paris, which will only make sense forty issues down the line. Particularly after his abduction experience, you get the sense that Morrison had the whole thing in his head, and it was just a matter of getting it down on the page. I think a lot of Morrison’s work is like that, he’s always one step ahead of the reader, and the actual finished product is less important than the mental image that informed it. This can lead to some sloppiness, as in ‘Here Comes Tomorrow,’ or the screwy art of ‘The Invisible Kingdom,’ but it also means the work functions well as a whole, not just individual pieces that are strung together.

The first page conveys the two simultaneous interests of the series, the philosophical evolution of man, and the fact that “some people will say anything to be thought of as clever or interesting.” Much of what these characters do is posturing, acting as ultra cool assassins to cover some internal doubts about their own purpose. This shows up most in Volume II, when the characters take on the persona of American action heroes, and King Mob finds his humanity slipping away. But, that statement applies equally to Dane in this issue, who has taken on the role of rebellious punk kid, and must suppress his own intellectualism as a result.

The dead beetle portent has a number of potential readings, obviously tying in to the Egyptian myth that Elfayed talks about. A critical idea that develops as the series progresses is the notion of time as soil for humanity to grow in. We must pass through the dark times because it is those times that give us the strength to grow and change. Much like humanity, the mummified beetle is in a state of stasis, not fully alive.

And that’s the first page. We next hop over to Dane, youthful rebel, and his gang. It’s jarring to return to this incarnation of Dane because he’s something of a bastard. On the first read, I took Dane as my point of view character, cheering on his youthful rebellion, his stand against the system. I was just as impressed as he was with King Mob’s ultra cool assassin posing. But, the whole point of the series is to force Dane to recognize that there is little moral difference between The Invisibles and the people of Harmony House, both are working for an agenda, and it is the conflict between order and chaos that ensures humanity can grow and change. Reading it the first time, you’re meant to believe in what The Invisibles are doing, and I think their world is still preferable to the Outer Church world, but I’m also more aware of the wanton destruction of their actions. Dane’s assault on the school is an act of petty rebellion that winds up destroying information about a real, meaningful revolution.

My mental image of Dane is the ‘little Buddha,’ conversing with the Chessman in Kissing Mister Quimper, the first really evolved human. That’s a character I like, this one, not so much. His talk about wanting an atom bomb to drop on Liverpool is adolescent posturing, perfectly capturing the self involved destructiveness of people at that age. I first read the series at seventeen, right around Dane’s age in the book, and I was just enamored of what he was doing, though not as enamored as I was with King Mob’s coolness.

Then we jump over to Paris for a brief conversation with King Mob and Edith. The obvious tie in here is to the events that will happen in ‘Sensitive Criminals,’ and it’s odd to think of Edith having lived seventy years while Gideon hasn’t aged. It also is the first hint at the true nature of time as revealed by the series. It’s not like King Mob goes into the past and changes it, when he goes into the past, it’s to fulfill something he’s already done, a mission that’s similar to what Robin must do during her time in the 1990s.

Over in the classroom, we get the first appearance of the man who will become Mister Six. One of the critical themes in the series is the idea of taking on roles, wearing ‘fiction suits.’ As a reader, I think we choose to experience the work from a different perspective each time. The first time through, I was wearing Dane, this time I tried on a more objective suit, trying to see what Six is saying here and even understand Gelt. In Volume II, I, like Morrison himself, got drawn into King Mob’s persona, even buying my own version of his target shirt and the round sunglasses.

All works of fiction allow engagement in this way, but rarely do we see the characters in the work actively taking on fictional personas. Malkie is a suit that Six wears because it is part of his job in educating Dane McGowan. In Volume II, King Mob wears the suit of ultra cool, ultra violent assassin until the morality of his actions punctures through the identity and he becomes a new more zen character. The ultimate fiction suit wearer is John a Dreams, who is outside the boundaries of three dimensional reality, able to insert himself in any guise at any point in time. But more, much more, on him later.

Malkie asks Dane about the anarchist who denounced the Bolshevik movement. I’m not that familiar with this period of history, but it is likely that this anarchist denounced the Bolsheviks because they got bogged down in violence and bureaucracy and lost sight of the real dream of revolution. The obvious connection is Dane as the one who will denounce the faulty, violent revolution of King Mob and co., and eventually save him from corporate enslavement in 2012. Malkie is subtly trying to make Dane aware of his destiny, despite Dane’s refusal to cooperate. Malkie gives Dane a typical teacher lecture, telling him “don’t let the deadweights drag you down,” further preparation for Dane’s role as something special in the overall scheme of things, but Dane is still at the point where a false sense of rebellion matters more than actually trying to change things.

The scene with Dane’s mother gives us some context for his rebellion, though it won’t become really important until his return there later in the volume. His encounter with the Beatles is more baffling. In this issue, we’re given indication that Dane can perceive outside of time, both this incident and his comment that he feels like he knows King Mob from somewhere. In the issues from prior to the abduction experience, there’s not the tight cosmological clarity the series would eventually grow into. This scene is cool, but its place in the series as a whole is not exactly clear. The critical line for me is this exchange:

Stu: We could be dead and not know it.
John: More like we’re fucking alive and don’t know it.

The obvious reading is that, to us, they are dead. But, for humanity in general we’re connected and alive in ways that we’re not aware. People who have died aren’t really dead, they haven’t even been born yet.

Next, Dane is menaced by the first appearance of an Archon in the series. In this case, the Archon has much in common with the guilt monster we saw in Shining Knight #2. He conveys a feeling of darkness on Dane, who is left feeling totally alone, not caring about anything. This encounter prompts Dane to engage in another act of youthful defiance, stealing a car and blowing up the school. It’s likely that the Outer Church is trying to woo Dane in the same way that King Mob and his crew are. They sent the Archon specifically to motivate Dane to steal the car and get sent to Harmony House. As we see in 3.2, Dane is a critical part of the overall plan, and throughout the series, they will try to claim him for their own and fail.

It’s important to view the Outer Church as not just a vague evil force, their actions have motivations, to take out elements that could be potentially dangerous to the status quo. The Filth is a work that takes on that point of view, following a guy who is trying to just keep things ordinary against revolutionary forces like The Invisibles. Ultimately, both works come around to the same message, that bad stuff happens so we can grow, but they begin with radically different points of view.

Dane assaults Malkie and in a fantastic moment announces that he did know the answer, he just didn’t say. Dane has taken on the role of delinquent, but he really does have so much more potential. However, society has taught him that he must rebel, that is the role of young people, that is what is cool, to destroy, rather than collaborate. On a larger scale, the whole team will eventually have to face up to this reality, that solely destructive acts are juvenile and must be outgrown.

Concurrent with this, we get the first real act of magic within the series, King Mob summoning Lennon as a godhead. It’s a fantastic couple of pages, opening up the idea of liberating magic from dusty old gods and embracing new pop gods. Few pages are more pop than the psychedelic craziness of King Mob’s séance, punctuated by a swirling mix of Beatles lyrics. While I may be taking issue with some of the characters’ practices in this issue, I still do think that their general priorities, of tearing down the old and replacing it with new, pop exciting life are good things and should be valued. I love that King Mob summons Lennon rather than an ancient god, and I love that Morrison recognizes the value of contemporary figures as much as traditional ones. I believe Morrison himself conducted a similar summoning of Lennon sometime before the writing of the series, the first of many examples of mixing his own life with the work.

Dane is sentenced, and taken by Miss Dwyer to Harmony House. If you listen to the speeches from the people there from an objective point of view, it becomes clear that their motivation is not just some wanton destruction of random people, it’s to create total stability in society by removing those things that cause trouble. As Gelt says, they want to create people who will serve society as cogs in the machine. We’re naturally inclined to hate this and want to assert our individuality, but isn’t it also true that asserting our individuality requires an environment that’s safe from the immediate danger that juvenile delinquents like Dane pose? If everyone was rebellious like Dane, society would descend into chaos.

At Harmony House, they remove peoples’ brains and sex organs, the things which make us essentially human. All of Dane’s rebellious actions are motivated either by a desire to impress girls or a kind of intellectual disdain for all that’s around him. So, take off the brain and the penis, and he’s got no reason to do anything other than go along as society wants him to. That is what has happened to Gelt, he has sacrificed his human organs and become a slave to the Archons. In his slavery he finds purpose, an easy belief in absolute control, but he has lost much of what makes someone human.

In the cafeteria scene, we see people playing a card game holding only two type cards, one labeled yes, the other labeled no. This perfectly sums up the Manichean worldview here, control and authority yes, individuality no. Similar in purpose is the poster with emotions, either happy or sad listed as bad, and neutral listed as good. While their goals in wanting to create a stable, safe society may be understandable, in doing so they cut out the humanity that makes society worthwhile. They want to remove the difficult parts of life, but it is that difficulty, that suffering that allows us to grow and eventually move on to a higher stage of consciousness. Time is soil in which we can grow.

Over with King Mob and Robin, we get a scene that further explores magic and its role in their everyday life. Having read so much about Morrison, this comes off as a bit expository. The entire series could be summed up as “The Darkness that gives birth to light,” though there are countless other lines we shall encounter that could serve as easy summation of the whole series. Another crucial line is when King Mob says he wanted to grow up and live in a 60s spy series, his wish has come true, much like Morrison’s wish to become King Mob became true. There is little distinction between fiction and reality, wish and intention.

Back with Dane, they pass an odd virtual reality machine. The red coloring ties it to the similar virtual reality that Robin experiences in 2005, though here it’s being used to turn people into just another cog in the machine. The fact that both groups use similar tactics in recruiting members is just another tie between them.

The King in Chains appears to Gelt, demanding Dane. As I mentioned before, the Archons have a purpose in mind for Dane, he will give birth to their new form, as we shall see in 3.2. They have literally taken away his eyes and forced him to view things only from their perspective.

Dane wanders into the embryo room, something right out of The X-Files. That’s a work that is critically tied to The Invisibles, both obsessed with government conspiracy and issues of freedom vs. security. Particularly in Volume II, The Invisibles will use a lot of the visual and conceptual language of The X-Files. To some extent, this emphasis on conspiracy paranoia is a distinctly 90s phenomena, in the 00s we’ve been made aware that the conspiracies aren’t secret and they’re not supernatural, they’re right there in the open, but the people are powerless to change. These are distinctly pre 9/11 works. Now, the Archon is on the throne and no one seems to care.

In the end, King Mob shows up and frees Dane from Harmony House. The first time I read this, I remember being in awe of King Mob’s ultra cool violent liberation, much like Dane is. When he says “So you just go around killing people and blowing things up? That’s brilliant,” I was right there with him. It is a cool scene, with all the snappy action banter we’ve been conditioned to associate with death.

However, after reading the whole series, and particularly after ‘Best Man Fall,’ it’s impossible to feel that way about the scene. He’s killing Bobby Murray here, a nice enough guy, and that’s nothing to feel happy about. Even if Gelt is decidedly evil, the people working for him aren’t, they’re just trying to help their families, caught up in a war that’s much larger than them. King Mob in this first issue isn’t nearly as sympathetic character as he’ll become down the line. On the first read, he’s the enigmatic embodiment of cool. On the reread, he comes across more as a cold killer, more concerned with image than humanity.

The next page gives us a moment that The Matrix homaged, our hero being led through a crowd of people by a bald trenchcooated mentor, being lectured about the nature of the universe. Dane asks why they’re called The Invisibles, but before he gets an answer, King Mob is gone and Dane is again alone. We know this is all a setup, so he can be trained by Tom, and grow into the person who can help them win the war, but it’s still pretty jarring for him.

Why are they called The Invisibles? The obvious interpretation is that they’re working behind the scenes, striking at the heart of the establishment and helping out regular people unbeknownst to us. I’m not sure of a deeper meaning, it’s something I’ll have to ponder as the series continues.

In Morrison’s canon, I would point to The Invisibles as the primary transitional work, from the more lowkey everday surrealism of his 80s/early 90s output to the hyperpop craziness of the latter days. The art here has little in common with the slick, pop spectacle of Jiminez or Quitely, who would define the latter days of the book. It looks more like Richard Case’s steady, workmanlike Doom Patrol renderings. Volume II is still right there with the defining idea of cool in the present, and we haven’t yet reached the coolness of Volume III, but this issue feels totally ordinary. That’s not to say it’s outdated, I think the ideas are still fascinating, and the narrative still works. It’s just that the aesthetic isn’t quite there.

On a narrative level, the issue packs a lot in, but does so in a linear, easy to follow way. By Volume III, Morrison began more narrative experimentation, presenting just the essential parts of the story and allowing the reader to build the rest on his/her own. This approach reached its peak in Seven Soldiers, where every reader can assemble their own master narrative out of the pieces we were given. There’s some obscure comments, but this is a pretty easy to follow first issue, pretty much following the three act narrative structure. There’s nothing wrong with that, particularly when setting out a cosmology as complex as this, it’s nice to have a base from which to draw from.

Going back into this work is always a daunting prospect. I’ve built it up to such massive levels in my head, the actual physical reality of it struggles to compete, particularly because this issue has a more conservative structure and viewpoint than what we’ll eventually reach. Having already read the series, I know the futility of this violence, but it’ll take a while for the characters to realize that.

But, it’s great to be back, exploring this universe again. There’s so much to analyze here, this is more than 3,000 words on one issue. And even though I’m trying to approach it from a more objective point of view on this read, there’s still moments of just unbelievable cool, when I want to be right there in the book with them, and that’s the best testament to Morrison’s hypersigil at work.

For more of my writings on The Invisibles, check out Our Sentence is Up, my new book, featuring issue by issue analysis of the series and an extensive interview with Morrison himself.

Babylon 5: 4x10-4x13

This run of episodes suffers a bit from a lack of direction. The episodes immediately following the end of the Shadow War had momentum and novelty, as a new status quo was set up. However, as we move further away from the end of the war, the novelty wears off and the show floats a number of different directions in which things could go. There's a lot of narrative experimentation in these episodes, and I admire that, but rarely do all the elements come together for really strong episodes.

As in the earlier episodes of this season, there are a bunch of subplots snaking through each episode. I like that we're getting to see more of the universe, outside of the station, but I think splitting the characters all around makes the show lose focus a bit. In the aftermath of 'Z'Ha'Dum,' there was a lot of narrative energy and mystery uniting the events on Centauri with G'Kar's quest and the stuff on Babylon 5. AT this point, that urgency is lost, so each the subplots must carry their own weight, and make up for the fact that we're not getting as much character interaction.

While I do love the show, I think there's only a few characters who can carry their own subplots. Marcus's charisma is responsible for most of the appeal of the Mars stuff, but he's not on the same level as Londo or G'Kar, who are always able to command the screen. Delenn, while great with Sheridan and Babylon 5, can't make the Minbari intrigue work in the same way that the Centauri stuff did. It reminds me of the period in Claremont's X-Men run where everyone was splintered across the globe and we wound up with issues that just focused on Banshee and Forge. Those didn't quite work, and these episodes run into similar issues.

A large part of the problem is the lack of focus following the Shadow War. There's still a lot of interesting things going on, it's not so much a plot problem as it is a character problem. I feel like the characters were continually pushed and stretched by fighting the Shadows. In the latter half of this season, they seem to have neglected serious character development, only Garibaldi is getting really good material, the rest are just sort of there, doing their thing and not changing much.

I guess a major issue is that we've been conditioned to center around the station and its goals. We know the people there and support the mission. It's a lot tougher getting involved with the intrigue on Earth, where we don't know the players and have a more marginal understanding of what's happening. This is what stops the Marcus/Franklin mission from being totally interesting. I didn't really care that they succeeded because the place of this mission in the overall arc isn't quite clear. Babylon 5 is making allies to try and reclaim Earth, but this isn't a situation like 'Severed Dreams,' where the station's survival is at stake, it's less urgent.

There is an attempt to create urgency by discussing the goods shortages on the station, but we're just told about it, we don't see it. If we saw people starving and revolting against the shortages, it would hit home harder. As it is, we don't get any sense of whether ordinary people are suffering or it's just a theoretical problem.

I did like the interaction between Marcus, Franklin and Number One. Franklin once again woos an attractive woman, while Marcus remains awkwardly on the sidelines. He said that after the war was over he'd go after the woman he loves, Ivanova, but we haven't seen any progress there. That's the kind of character development that would fit nicely during this lull in events, but they've barely had a scene together in a long time.

The other really interesting thing on the Mars trip is the second appearance of a Keeper in the present. Presumably this is connected to the Drakh, and will play a larger role in future events. If Franklin has the Keeper, couldn't he have worked on developing a cure and got one to Londo before he died? Perhaps that's what Sheridan was down there seventeen years in the future. Not likely considering the way he was greeted, but it's possible. In general, I'd like to see further followup on Sheridan's trip to the future, has he even told Delenn about their son? Does he remember all of what happened? This remains unclear.

The Mars stuff had some good moments, but was ultimately hampered by the fact that they spent all their time in a warehouse. You don't get the sense of this as a radically different place and it wound up looking like a cheesy sci-fi show, not a real environment. But, that's a budget constraint, I'm not sure what would have been a better way to do the story.

Elsewhere, we get the appearance of the Drakh, who will presumably be the new enemy facing our heroes. They don't have the power of the Shadows, but will continue to be a menace for at least seventeen years. The voice of the Drakh we saw was a bit cheesy, but their ships were good and they have long term potential. The skull like mask face can't compete with the primal, terrifying image of the Shadows. While I may criticize some of the visual choices the show makes, the Shadows tapped into some kind of subconscious horror, and particularly in their early appearances were completely otherworldly and frightening.

I like the idea that there are echoes of Shadows in the world, that their disciples continue the battle even after the war is lost. Particularly when dealing with an area as vast as space, there's always going to be holdouts. But, the fact that this force is out there will inadvertantly lead to the strengthening of the Alliance, and perhaps ensure a stable, peaceful galaxy in the future. As 'Rumors, Bargains and Lies' makes clear, a common foe makes it a lot easier to negotiate internal matters, by keeping the Drakh around, Sheridan and Delenn may be able to control and maintain the alliance.

'Conflicts of Interest' intensifies Garibaldi's arc, as he does his first job for his new associates. I like the fact that they mixed up the status quo and made him independent. For one, it gives Zack some more to do, and some nice mentor/protege conflict. For Garibaldi, it returns to the troubles that were hinted at in the first season, forcing him to define himself outside of his job, to see if he can resist slipping back into old, destructive patterns.

This episode brings back a first season character I had forgotten about, Garibaldi's former fiancee, Lise Hampton. It's a nice callback, forcing him to reassess where his life has gone. The action stuff is fun, though I have to question JMS's obsession with bar fights. Has there been one bar scene in this show in which a fight did not break out? At the episode's finale, Garibaldi slips right back into Head of Security mode, but his relationship with the station establishment remains uneasy at best. It's tough to watch him delete the message from Lise, he seems to have given up hope of having a personal connection like that again. The episode's closing, where he gets a job offer from Elise's husband raises some interesting potential stories, and could put him in an intriugingly compromised position should Sheridan attempt to liberate Mars from Earth control.

This episode features a brief scene with Londo and G'Kar, who are sorely missed at this point in the series. I guess their stories are in a kind of lull, but with both essentially purposeless, the series is missing a major part of its appeal. I want to see Londo and Vir back together, scheming on Centauri, or Londo dealing with the new freedom of Narn. They haven't gotten anything major since 'Into the Fire,' and I think that's one of the major things pulling these episodes down. We also don't have any Lyta Alexander, who's got a bunch of interesting stuff going on with her.

The episode also introduces the new 'Voice of the Resistance' on Babylon 5. This is a smart move by Sheridan, countering ISN's propaganda with his own news. However, while interesting on an intellectual level, it's just not that riveting to watch. I did really enjoy Ivanova's trip to Epsilon to see Zathras, the other Zathras, but there just wasn't that much inherent conflict in the story.

I think the major issue is we've heard a lot about how bad Earth is, but we haven't seen as much of it. What made the Shadow threat so powerful and immediate was watching those ships decimate Narn vessels. Other than in 'Severed Dreams,' we never get that same immediacy with Earth. Plus, there's less complexity. With the Shadows, there was the whole Londo's betrayal thing wrapped up in the larger arc. Here, it's an easier good/bad dichotomy. The characters have an issue because they had prior loyalty to Earth, but I don't feel the same as a viewer. I have a lot of animosity towards ISN, but it's a different sort of feeling that I had towards the Shadows, an intellectual dislike rather than a gut level hate and fear.

The other major happening is the conflict on the Minbari homeworld. I never had the same interest in Minbari goings on that I did in the Centauri or Narn, so this conflict isn't of particular interest to me. The character who stands out here is Lennier, who is always sacrificing himself to help protect Delenn. She is the one with the vision, but he has the practical awareness to ensure she can bring her vision to fruition. Knowing that he loves her makes it even tougher when he sacrifices so much, but can never have her. That one line affects the perception of everything that he does.

So, this run of episodes has a bunch of issues, but it's still good viewing. I'm hoping that this lull will lead to a renewed conflict and some more character development and issues. The season's titular episode is coming up and those never disappoint.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Major Change of Everything Forever

I mentioned a major change for the blog in this post, and at the time, I was referring to the commencement of The Invisibles reread, but as fate would have it, a major change actually has emerged. I decided to join up with the site Blog Critics, which means that my posts will now be presented simultaneously here and there. I'm still not clear on how exactly everything will work, but as far as I know, things shouldn't change here, the stuff will just be in an additional place.

What will change? For one, I'll be getting free copies of stuff to review. This will probably benefit me more than you the reader, but it'll give me reason to review a wider variety of stuff. So, if you're uninterested in Babylon 5, this is great news. It also means I'll probably do a closer edit on the articles, so they'll be clearer and easier to read.

For now, it looks like everybody wins. We'll see how things go though, if this doesn't work out, I'll give up the dream of getting free stuff and return to the old way.


Baise-Moi belongs to the wave of French movies that make use of extremely graphic sex and violence. While I don't necessarily love all these films, I respect the filmmakers behind them for trying to push the boundaries of what's possible with the medium. Watching Irreversible is a totally unique experience, one that really challenges you as a viewer, and though I don't think Baise-Moi is as good on the whole, but it is similarly powerful in the way it breaks you out of typical viewing patterns.

Reading about the film, I've seen people criticize it for being excessive, yet the excessive style is the entire point of the film. If you tell this story in a typical Hollywood, or even indie, way, it's no different from something like Thelma and Louise. That's a fine film, but I think we've seen the two people go on a rampage thing enough times. What makes this different is the realism, manifested in a number of ways.

The most obvious is the sex. It's jarring to watch a rape scene that is an actual recorded sex act. Even if it's not actual rape, there's a realism to the moment that is difficult to watch. I think the staged rape in Irreversible is still more jarring, but what we have here is a powerful, confrontational scene. One of the most disturbing things about the scene is Manu's reaction, barely even caring. I think the core of the film can be found in her speech, when she says that she says that she has nothing valuable in her 'cunt,' so all she got was some dick.

It's so different from what we've been conditioned to expect from a rape scene, that the woman be made into a victim, presumably setting up a male revenge scenario. I love the scene where Manu rebukes her boyfriend for caring more about getting revenge than how she feels. She is taking this violent act and reclaiming it, using it as a chance to divorce herself from a male-dominated society, reassert her authority. Because she is a porn star, the actual physical act of being raped is less effecting than the total loss of power she suffered. So, she sets out to reclaim that power and assert a new, more powerful identity.

Concurrently, we follow Nadine, who has also commodified her sexuality. She draws a line between her work, which is satisfying men, and her pleasure, which is satisfying herself. There doesn't seem to be a direct connection between the two, what Manu offers is the chance to use men in the way that they used her previously. Together, the two of them leave behind all the conventions and restrictions of society, using the world as a device to give themselves pleasure. So, the essence of the film is that these women who have been exploited all their lives are now choosing to exploit the world around them, particularly men.

It took me a little bit to get into the flow of the film. The early going, particularly the rape scene, is tough to watch. Without knowing these characters, the real sex comes off as somewhat exploitative, drawing into question the line between this film and pornography. Around the time when Nadine gets fucked while watching Noe's I Stand Alone, I started to understand the film better. By the time Nadine and Manu begin their road trip, the intent is clear, the film is about two women who are transgressing all the boundaries of society, made by two women who are transgressing all the typical boundaries of cinema.

I like the fact that they never have a crisis of conscience. They have moved beyond that kind of morality, which makes it easy to use and then dispose of the people they encounter. The film does a lot of meta commentary on their situation, most notably when they talk about not being able to come up with good lines on the spot. It may be a bit obvious, but it's still a funny moment, adding another layer to the movie.

Of the encounters they have, I think there's a couple of critical moments. One is when the man asks Manu and Nadine to go down on each other. The obvious way to do this film would have them engage in a lesbian relationship, moving beyond men. Here, they instead use women like we typically see men use women. You'd never see a woman ask two men to go down on each other in that situation, and they're reacting against the prison of gender expectation when they force him out. They always want to be in control, giving the orders, not taking them.

Another critical moment is when they go to the rich man's house. Here, we see the typical victim who gets the sympathy of the killers moment. He wants to believe he's in control, keeping it cool, making jokes. This is not the case, and they react against his perceived control by killing him. That's another moment where our expectation is subverted, brought down by cold violence.

A more puzzling moment is when Manu humiliates the guy who wants to put on a condom, then kills him. Considering the feminist message of the film, it's odd to have her prevent him from doing that, but again, I think it's about transgressing typical morality. The implication of him putting on the condom is that he believes she's been quite promiscuous. She reacts against that, and kills him because of this comment.

Finally, there's the symbolic money shot of the film, in which Manu violates the sex club owner with a gun and shoots him. Considering the film's title is 'Rape Me,' this is the ultimate revenge moment, in which Manu perpetuates a rape on this guy and kills him with her shot. It's a nasty shot, but it works on a thematic level, the ultimate act of penetration that she can perpetrate.

The film that this reminded me most of is Asia Argento's Scarlet Diva. Both use low end DV photography, an aesthetic that realy works here. What this kind of DV does is take away the artifice, making the audience aware of the reality of things rather than the filmic fantasy. When you're trying to make a film that apes Hollywood style, this ends up looking like a cheap imitation. When you're going for a movie that emphasizes reality, it's a great match, as in this case. I love the way this movie looks, I think the camera work brings a lot of vitality to the events, blurring the line between porn and art film. I'd rather see a film that's shot on DV and is full of energy, like this, than a more traditionally 'well shot' film, that emphasizes 'proper' composition and lighting. This film feels alive.

Along with that, there's a wonderful sense of pop throughout. The soundtrack is fantastic, I can think of few things that say France to me more than two women dancing with each other in lingerie while house music pounds on the soundtrack. There's a lot of fun, memorable moments, like Nadine listening to music while posing with her gun, or the sequence in which they have sex next to each other.

I don't think the real sex was strictly necessary, but it adds an element of realism. It's not so much the penetration itself that makes it feel real, it's the fact that no one's got a sheet strategically placed over their breasts. In a Hollywood movie, I feel like there's always a self consciousness about the nudity, it's either there to excite you or to jar you after a violent act. In this film, the first ten minutes or so are fairly jarring, but after that, you get into the rhythm of the film and just accept it. By the end, I barely even noticed the reality of the sex, it's integrated into the film in a way that something like 9 Songs doesn't acheive, largely because it's not a movie about having sex, it's a movie with sex in it.

For me, this film really worked. I was challenged, entertained, and left with plenty to ponder. It's not an easy film to get into, but I'd like to see more films that push the boundary of cinema like this one did, not just in terms of violence or sex, but also in its thematic exploration.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Invisibles: And So We Return and Begin Again

Over on Barbelith, there's been a proposal for a group reread of The Invisibles, which begins here. I'd been thinking about revisiting the series for a while now, and this provides the impetus to finally start it up. Seeing as it's perhaps the most densely layered work in the history of recent fiction, it's prime material to blog about, and in conjunction with participating on the Barbelith thread, I'll be doing extensive posting here, pondering the mysteries of the series. I'll be starting up the reread tonight, but before beginning, let me set the context and discuss my history with The Invisibles.

I first heard about The Invisibles sometime in 1999 or 2000, when I read somewhere that The Matrix took many of its ideas from the series. Now, you could fill a library with all the books that people claimed The Matrix took its ideas from, but I was suitably intrigued. I remember being in a Borders, looking at the Bloody Hell in America TPB, but not buying it. Before I read it, I heard that you could read the series backwards or forwards, it worked in any order. This raised a lot of questions for me, and in May 2002, I finally bought the first trade, Say You Want a Revolution.

I read this book, and really enjoyed it. After that initial reading I thought, yeah this is better than The Matrix, but I had no idea how much better it would eventually be. I read the rest of the series over the course of that summer, finishing Kissing Mister Quimper in August 2002. The final TPB, The Invisible Kingdom, was not out at that point, and I had to wait until November 2002 to finish the series.

In preparation for that release, I reread the first six volumes over the course of a month or so. I was a senior in high school at the time, and this was a mindblowing journey. I remember getting a revelation off nearly every page, taking a half hour for each issue of Kissing Mister Quimper, taking time to ponder all the details. By the end of the Mister Quimper reread, I felt like I had at least a basic understanding of the series. I finish Quimper late at night on the day I bought The Invisible Kingdom. I was planning to go to sleep and start the new volume the next day, but it was there, and I read the first two issues.

I continued the next day, reading four issues during the day, and finishing the last six issues in one overwhelming session. I was thoroughly confused by the end of 3.2, annoyed at the shifting art styles and wanting to see more of the main characters, not the new Volume III people. Then I read 3.1, I didn't understand everything, but I knew it was something profound and special. The moment when Robin comes out of the Supercontext was overwhelming and even without knowing exactly what was happening, the final pages just felt right.

In writing the series, Morrison set out to create a hypersigil that would spread his ideas and create other people like him in the world. The Invisibles is a series designed to create Invisibles. If you had told me about this back in 2002, I would have said, "What's a hypersigil?" and probably dismissed the idea of fiction as magic. But, The Invisibles changed the way I perceive fiction itself. I had always kept a strict division between what is real and what is fiction, but The Invisibles completely changed the way I looked at the universe. In pondering its mysteries, I reconceived my notion of time and the way that we can exert control over our environment. That a fictional work could change my life in reality meant that it was just as real and valid, if not more so, than what actually happens.

This is a critical thing to understand, and I'd just never thought about it before. I'd loved works of fiction, and they'd influenced my life, but never in so profound a way as I did this book. I pondered it for months after, seeing everything through its lens. Concurrently, one of my friends started practicing a form of trance meditation. He sent me an e-mail describing an experience he had, in which he hallucinated various things and seemed to come in contact with a higher power. This was someone I'd known for years and trusted, and hearing that he had done this, without drugs, made me realize that this was a real world basis for much of what Morrison was describing in the series. I believed his alien abduction story, but it didn't apply to me on a personal basis until I saw my friend trance meditate and understood just how much he could alter his consciousness. Since then, I've been very reluctant to rule anything out, in that moment I saw magic as a possibility in the real world.

I explored some of the consciousness altering practices Morrison described in his pop magic book, but ultimately I found that the place for me to put his techniques to use was in my own works of fiction. I began to make a bunch of films, many heavily influenced by him. Even outside of magic and cosmological issues, Morrison's conception of pop played a major role in how I assess works of art. Not only was Morrison exploring complex philosophical topics, he was doing so with the coolest characters in the coolest situations possible. Reading a work like Black Science II makes it difficult to go back to traditional philosophy. Morrison fuses everything, philosophy, narrative, pop and emotion into the ultimate work of fiction.

The spell that Morrison crafted with The Invisibles worked on me. It totally changed my life and informs much of what has happened to me since. I've gone through a lot of stuff in the nearly five years since I first read the series, but the series still marks a major turning point in my life. If I hadn't read it, perhaps something else would have come along that'd affect me in the same way, it's impossible to tell. All I know is that it was a crucially important work and I feel like I came to it at exactly the right time in my life.

So, going forward I'll begin by addressing the first isssue, and go on until I've reached the end of the series. If you have read the series, I'd encourage you to jump over to Barbelith and participate in the reread. If you haven't, don't read these posts yet, since there'll be a lot of spoilers, but do check out the series, it's a work like no other, and one everyone should experience.

To read my complete writings on The Invisibles, check out the new book Our Sentence is Up, written by me, and published by Sequart, featuring issue by issue analyses of the series, along with an extensive Grant Morrison interview.

Weekend Update

Technically it's not the weekend, but there's a bunch of random issues to address, so I shall cover them here.

Upcoming Concerts

Luckily, a bunch of interesting concerts are happening while I'm on break. On March 3rd, I'm going to see The Scissor Sisters at MSG. I've heard they're great live, and I'm a huge fan of both albums, so it should be cool. Then on March 10th and 12th I'm going to see The Raveonettes. I saw them back at Across the Narrows in October 2005 and they stole the show. While I'm less than thrilled with the prospect of a duo show, with no drummer, the chance to see them in a venue as small as Mercury Lounge is pretty lucky. The new songs on their MySpace are great, but I'm really looking forward to hearing stuff off Pretty in Black. And, I'm also hoping to get tickets to The Pipettes at Bowery Ballroom on March 13th. Those are going for a lot on Craigslist, but I feel like I can probably grab one at some point. After that, on March 20th, I'll probably go see Explosions in the Sky.

Oscar Race

I'm not too excited by this year's Oscar race, the acting categories are pretty much a foregone conclusion, and I just feel like we've had these same Best Picture candidates for months now. While I did love The Departed and Babel, I don't feel like I've got the personal stake in those films that I did in some others this year. When a movie is less successful, you can make it more your own. In the case of Miami Vice, I feel like it's been a personal mission to rehibilitate the film's reputation, you don't need to do that with Babel. I'm just hoping that Little Miss Sunshine doesn't win Best Picture, while it's an alright movie, it's just nowhere near The Departed or Babel.

Pan's Labyrinth

I finally saw this the other day and while I liked it, I think I saw it much too late in the hype cycle. With a movie, expectations play a huge role, after months of critical praise, I was expecting something so overwhelmingly good, I would leave the theater in awe. While the film was good, it just didn't come close to its reputation, not the 98% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes nor the #68 all time ranking on the IMDB Top 250. If I had seen it before the hype, I probably would have enjoyed it more, but at this point, it just didn't match the expectations. It's similar to the experience I had with Children of Men, a film that, while good, couldn't quite live up to the hype. Note, this is a different hype than studio press, this is the critical and internet buzz that is more likely to indicate an actual great movie. But, I think they overplayed it with these two. Of the 'Three Amigos' films, I would consider Babel easily the best.

And stay here because shortly there will be a major blog announcement...that will change everything...forever!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Babylon 5 - 'Atonement' (4x09)

I've been having some major issues with my DVD player, so I've been unable to watch an episode since watching 'Atonement' a few days ago, but they've been resolved and I'll be moving forward again shortly. But, I shall write up this episode anyway, while it's still at least somewhat fresh in my mind. It's something of a departure for the show, focusing exclusively on one character, Delenn, on her journey away from the station, a journey into the Minbari cultural past.

Flashback episodes are tricky because presumably we've already seen everything that's crucial to a character's development, if a character is well developed, there shouldn't be some magic key we can get four years in that will make everything that's come before click into place. This episode doesn't try to do that, so much as add in a pain that Delenn is dealing with, one that has haunted her and perhaps influenced her closeness to humans.

The episode reminds me of Battlestar Galactica's 'Hero,' in which we find out that Adama may have been responsible for the start of the Cylon War. Of course, it's not a direct responsibility, but there's still the need to deal with guilt about how one bad decision may have brought on the massive destruction of the war. I think this episode handles the issue better than Galactica, largely because Delenn has a more logical reason to feel guilty. In Adama's case, he was only obeying orders, Delenn had an emotional lapse that led to the escalation. That's a more compelling issue to deal with. I also like the fact that this episode doesn't have Delenn find some easy solution to her issue, she's already dealt with what happened, found a way to live with it, even if it is troubling to her.

As for the twist itself, I think it fits, but the episode in general suffers from the fact that we don't really care about Dukhat. He just pops up here, so we don't share Delenn's rage at his death. If we did, then the moment would be more powerful, but we'd have to go through a whole bunch of backstory to establish Dukhat, and that's not really needed. Ultimately, I'm more interested in what's going as things move forward than in revisiting history, so this revelation isn't of huge interest.

The other major revelation is that Delenn is a distant descendent of Valen a.k.a Jeffery Sinclair. I think this fits better, and creates a nice loop of connectedness between the three who make up the one. One thing I'm uncertain of is how much Sinclair knew about his past life when he was on Babylon 5. He had a connection with Delenn, but it would presumably be her who was drawn to him, he wouldn't have known that she was a descendent of his. So, in something only possible by the time travel loop, Delenn's sheperding of Sinclair helps to eventually bring about her own birth. One thing this leaves me pondering is if Sinclair had stayed on the show, he and Delenn would have presumably had the relationship that she now has with Sheridan. So, then I'm guessing she wouldn't have his DNA. So, I'm not sure how this whole story would play out, the idea of Sinclair marrying Delenn doesn't match up well with him being Valen.

Visually, the most interesting element of this episode was the Dreaming. I liked the smoke filled room, though I wish they could have somehow incorporated the scenes from the past into that room rather than doing them as simple cutaway flashbacks. I'm assuming this was a nod to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. I also noticed that the Gaim aliens, named after Gaiman, are apparently modeled after the headgear that Morpheus wears in the series. Very cool, I'm eager to see the episode that he wrote for season five.

It was odd to see Delenn back in the season one makeup. When she first changed, I remember thinking it was odd looking, but now they are styling her to look more and more human, most notably in the scene earlier in this episode where she's wearing the slinky dress. The primary technique seems to be to put her hair lower over her face, to cover the lack of eyebrows. Going back to the bald head look was jarring, and a bit tough to accept this as the same character. I guess that's evidence of an effective character transition over the course of the series.

So, this episode was pretty solid, but not too noteworthy. I am curious to see where the Marcus/Franklin mission goes, and to get further into the new status quo post Shadow War.