Thursday, November 01, 2007

X-Men: Messiah Complex

So, despite my better instincts, I decided to pick up X-Men: Messiah Complex yesterday, and perhaps embark upon a thirteen issue crossover. What are my reasons? One is I have a bunch of money coming in, and pass a comics store everyday, so it would be pretty easy to follow. The other is that I do have a lot of investment in the characters, and am curious to see what’s going on in their world. While this isn’t the world’s best comic, it’s pretty solid, and is probably going to get me to the second issue of the tale.

This week, I’ve been reading the first hardcover collection of Mike Carey’s X-Men run. While no Claremont or Morrison, it’s a thoroughly entertaining look at the characters, stripping away a lot of the convoluted backstory to tell a fairly straightahead story. The big event driving these characters is M-Day, a really dumb plot twist, but one that makes more sense once it became clear that they would undo M-Day sometime in the near future. The basic deal with M-Day is that after a lengthy alternate reality storyline, the Scarlet Witch rewrote reality to remove most mutants’ powers. Conveniently, most of the X-Men were unaffected, but it has given them a new focus, fighting to protect the mutants that are out there, and searching for a cure for others.

The issue with M-Day for me is that if you change things in an alternate reality, it undermines the reality of the story you’re telling. If something so drastic can be altered, why doesn’t someone just go back and unalter it? Opening that door makes it hard for anything to have consequences. If you really wanted to go this route, why not just have mutants spontaneously start losing their powers, until there’s only a few left. That would raise a lot of key questions within the concept, like, do most of the people want to go back to being mutants, or are they happy to be ‘normal’?

My bigger issue is that the M-Day thing removes most of the story’s real world relevance. Morrison made mutants more like real life minorities, hated at times, but also central to popular culture. He simultaneously addressed human evolution and social evolution in what I’d consider a suitable finale to the series as a whole. Nothing is needed beyond Here Comes Tomorrow, to some extent everything after, from Joss’s run to this, feels like fanfiction.

Still, it’s cool to see a lot of the Morrison stuff still in place. We’ve got Cerebra, cat Beast, Cyclops and Emma together, etc. I love the Cyclops/Emma relationship because Emma has all the power, her cutting cynicism always able to put Scott down. That said, Scott’s outfit is awful looking, like a giant condom. Why couldn’t they just stick with the Morrison jackets? Those were fantastic.

That said, most of the people in Carey’s crew look pretty cool. I really like Rogue’s hooded outfit, and Chris Bachalo makes all the villains look stylish. I didn’t particularly like Bachalo’s work on “Assault on Weapon Plus,” but I’m digging it here. I really miss him when the fill in artists come in. He’s not the best storyteller, but he’s got a fantastic sense of style.

Ultimately, the best thing I can say about Carey’s X-Men is that it feels like it’s moving forward, not just servicing a trademark. I want to see what happens with these characters, and the glimpses of larger goings on, with Exodus and Sinister, are great. I’m a huge Mister Sinister fan, for no apparent reason. I had the action figure when I was younger and I’ve always loved the design of the character. The character is really theatrical and over the top, but he’s a great villain, and looks fantastic in the Simone Bianchi drawn pinup in the back of Messiah Complex.

As for the Messiah Complex issue itself, it’s pretty strong, though clearly just a prelude, not anything in itself. We get the real sense that something’s going down, something important. The art is nice, and our brief glimpse of the Marauders is cool. However, it’s going to take a couple of issues to see what the series is really about.

I’ve been reading a ton of superhero comics lately, primarily because reading one invariably leads to another story and then to another. Seven Soldiers led to Morrison’s JLA, 52, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis and I’m sure more soon. This book is going to lead to lot more, as well as an effort to catch up on some previous X-Men stuff. It’s nice to check in with the characters every once in a while, and at least here they’re competently written. I don’t know if I’ll make it through the whole crossover, but I’ll at least give it a chance.

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse

Great news came out of nowhere today with the news that Joss Whedon’s going to be doing a new show, Dollhouse with Eliza Dushku. I’d hoped that he’d go back to TV at some point, but wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon, so this was an out of nowhere great surprise.

As for the show itself, it’s definitely got potential. It sounds at first like it’ll be a bit standalone heavy, but the beauty of a Joss show is the evolution of it. Watching the first season of Angel, I wasn’t thrilled with things, but as it went along, it really picked up. My big fear is that the show will get screwed like countless other Fox shows and not get a chance to develop. It would be pretty tough to take a cancellation after seven episodes, or a summer burnoff for the series. At this point, Joss has a pretty big fanbase, hopefully it will be enough to get the series up and running. If nothing else, there’ll be a lot of chatter about it online.

Joss seems to have acknowledged that he pretty much failed to make a go of it in the movies. There’s a different sort of storytelling in film, and I don’t think his talents are particularly suited to it. While he clearly can do really powerful, visual storytelling, as in Restless of OMWF, I don’t think that’s his default mode. For Serenity, he went with a fairly straightforward visual style and straightforward story. It’s a good movie, but it’s not much better than any given episode of the Firefly series. From that point of view, why should we want two hours of Joss every couple of years when we could twenty hours every year?

Ultimately, TV in its current incarnation is just a much better medium for storytelling than movies. When done properly, which admittedly it isn’t most of the time, it can allow for a vast canvas of stories that don’t require the three act structure and obvious character arcs of most Hollywood movies. In The Wire, you have no idea who’s going to die or be successful, there’s just so many people in there, anyone is expendable.

For me, movies today should move more towards Wong Kar-Wai or Malick style storytelling, the sort of atmospheric style immersions that aren’t possible on a TV schedule. That’s a reason I’d consider The New World and Miami Vice the best films of recent years, they weren’t so much about story as about going to a place and lingering there. If The Wire was a movie, I’d enjoy it, but not in the same way as the series.

Next year looks like it’s going to be an incredible year for TV. We’ve got the last season of The Wire and the debut of Alan Ball’s True Blood and Joss’s show. A lot of really great shows have ended over the past couple of years, and now it looks like we’re finally getting the replacements in.

And speaking of good news, it’s also great to hear that Terence Malick has a new film in the works. Not much is known, but the title, Tree of Life, certainly sounds intriguing. Malick is one of the most distinctive, visually skilled filmmakers ever. He uses the medium like no one else, and is coming off his best movie. Obviously, it’s a long way from starting, but I really hope this movie happens in the near future.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Infinite Crisis

A while back, I read Infinite Crisis, the followup to DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, and another series that is full of odd, convoluted storytelling, put over the top by the sheer epicness of everything that happens. It’s not a great story, but it’s got enough good stuff to carry it along. Most importantly, it’s something that’s uniquely comics, relying on a huge amount of past continuity and fan familiarity with the concepts to make it work.

It’s a pretty direct sequel to the original Crisis, plucking four other Earth characters out of the ‘heaven’ they went to at the end of the first book and returning them to current continuity. This is done primarily as a way to engage in a bunch of meta commentary on the state of superhero comics. The DCU has moved in an increasingly dark direction, so we bring in the Earth 2 Superman to point out just how far the heroes have fallen. On one level, it’s a pretty clear knock on contemporary comics, ironically housed in a book about conflicted, fallen heroes and some of the most over the top violence seen in a mainstream superhero book.

However, the reading that made the book work for me was to think of Superboy Prime and Kal-L Superman as representatives of the Bush government. They are people who think the world has fallen into decadence and moral uncertainty, and seek to use their power to restore moral order to the world, no matter how much violence in takes. Superboy Prime in particular is reminiscent of Bush’s temper tantrum my way or no way at all behavior. The big setpiece for him is the rush through the Titans, tearing limbs off b list characters, all the while chastising them for their immoral behavior. That irony is the key to Bush’s misguided worldview, everything he does is right because it’s in the service of something good, everything we do is wrong.

That would make Alex Luthor the Dick Cheney of the piece, secretly trying to reshape the world behind the scenes, and Earth 2 Superman the entire older generation, who’s been duped by Bush’s war mongering. For me, that reading takes the book beyond an echo chamber look at comics and gives it some overall relevance for the world. Was it intentional? I’m not positive, but it fits so well, it doesn’t really matter.

Of course, we’ve also got a clear tie back to Miracleman. The extreme violence made it jump out for me, but Superboy Prime is basically Kid Miracleman. Things never reach the operatic heights of the definitive superhero fight, Miracleman 15, but pretty much no series since has, so that’s not something you can knock it for.

As for the book outside that, much like the original Crisis, it’s epic and thrilling most of the time, even if the end loses a bit of the momentum. It’s interesting that people condemn the book for being so continuity reliant when if this was a literary work, people would be hailing it for the complexity. Well, maybe not exactly, but nobody cracks of James Joyce for taking a lot of effort to decipher. There’s something cool about having sixty years of story behind a single narrative. Morrison’s talked about the DCU becoming sentient, and in this case, the sheer amount of backstory involved means the narrative takes on a life of its own, commenting back on the previous stories that have been told.

The series benefits from some fantastic Phil Jiminez artwork. Unfortunately, like his run on The Invisibles, the perfect polish and style of the opening slips a bit by the end as we get fill in artists and messy inkers. But, it still looks really good, and even though I’m sure JG Jones will be great, I’d love to see Phil work with Morrison on Final Crisis.

And Final Crisis is the main reason I read this book. When Morrison’s miniseries comes out next year, I want to be fully acquainted with the backstory and ready to tackle whatever he comes up with. Having gotten caught up in the DCU recently, I’m really excited about that series and finding out what Morrison’s going to do for his final statement in the DCU, at least for now. IC is already full of characters from Seven Soldiers, I spotted everyone in there at some point, always putting a smile on my face. Hopefully he’ll bring some of those guys back and nail that series. If anyone can write something that’s truly forward thinking with the DCU, it’s Grant.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Batman and Son

Grant Morrison and Batman aren’t an obvious match. He wrote a fantastic version of the character for his run on JLA, but that was as part of a larger, crazier world than Batman usually encounters in his solo title. Reading the first trade of his run, it’s pretty clear this is a minor Morrison work, engaging in very little of his typical philosophical exploration. It’s the weakest thing he’s wrote in a while, or at least the least ambitious, but he did manage to bring a freshness and excitement to the Batman mythos. It’s a rollicking, very funny book, and does represent a kind of growth for Grant.

The thematic center of the series is Batman rediscovering Bruce Wayne, which takes the form of a performance. One of the central themes of superhero comics is the notion that putting on the costume allows the real person to come out. Batman Returns, the definitive superhero film, gives us Selina Kyle, mild mannered secretary, constantly struggling to please her boss. However, after she transforms into Catwoman, she becomes a hedonist pleasure seeker, feeding her own appetite for destruction and power. Wearing the costume allows her to engage in a part of herself that society doesn’t permit.

The interesting thing here is the reversal of that trope. Bruce has become so enmeshed in his Batman persona, he’s forgotten that Bruce Wayne can be a fun guy too. So, we get the emergence of this ultra-smooth playboy version of Bruce, dazzling the ladies at a party. It’s fun to watch as people fall for what we know to be a performance. Bruce has put on a new fiction suit, discarding grim and gritty Bruce Wayne for a Bond like character. That’s the thematic area where the series meshes most closely with Morrison’s previous work, the taking on and discarding of identities, this personal reinvention paralleling the evolution of the character over decades of comics.

Fittingly, the new foe menacing this Bruce Wayne is his illegitimate son, Damian. Damian is the breakout character from this book. Before he appeared, I was liking the series, but it hadn’t really hooked me. He kicked things up a notch, moving the series into a bizarre comic world. I love his ridiculously violent attempts to find a place in Bruce’s life, killing Robin and delivering the head of a villain being two of the most grievous. It’s so ridiculous, this little kid going around killing people, but it works as absurdist comedy and just straightforward drama. Is he an annoying character? Yes, but that’s the whole point. In Damian, Bruce sees a reflection of himself, and the old grim and gritty Batman is made into a parody.

The stuff with Bruce, Damian and Talia is all top notch. I really like the over the top selfishness of Talia, and her shameless attempts to use Bruce. However, the series slips a bit when dealing with other stories. The police Batman story is alright, but not that impressive, however I’m thinking that the three Batmen will play a crucial part in the series’ mythology moving forward. The apocalyptic Damian in the future story is reminiscent of “Here Comes Tomorrow,” an entertaining, but not quite cohesive dystopia.

The oddest story here is the Joker prose story. Morrison’s prose is very tactile and imagistic, but the cheesy computer illustrations let him down. I would have much rather seen Dave McKean come in to illustrate this. The story once again brings the notion of self reinvention to the fore, and it’s a quite entertaining vignette, but ultimately feels removed from the rest of the series.

My major problem with the run is the lack of substance next to Morrison’s other work. It’s not that he can’t do thematically substantial stuff on a mainstream title. His New X-Men is full of important themes and ideas, but that’s a series that’s a perfect vehicle for him. Evolution is at the center of Morrison’s worldview, but how do you fit that into a Batman comic? I think he does a great job of making a fresh, fun comic, but it’s clearly a minor work.

Even though I’m a bit frustrated that he’s spending his time on this book instead of something more substantial, I do admire the attempt to move beyond his usual concerns and write a new kind of book. He’s never done something this funny before, and the street level work is different from his usual cosmic focus. I’m eager to read more, particularly the JH Williams arc, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if this run ends at 20 issues and he moves on to creator owned stuff.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Wire: Season One and The Start of Two

Earlier today, I finished the first season of The Wire, and have since watched the first two episodes of the second season. It’s been a lot of Wire this weekend, viewing that was encouraged by the serial nature of the plotlines. I’ve frequently heard the show referred to as novelistic, and the ending of season one certainly confirms that, wrapping everything up in a pretty satisfying way. At that point, there’s not necessarily a need for more, contrary to what a lot of Sopranos viewers will tell you, life goes on is a perfect acceptable ending.

I absolutely loved season one. The show’s greatest achievement was its blurring of emotional lines due to the multiple perspectives of the narrative. I wanted the police to make their case, to get people to flip and testify, but at the same time, any time people even went near them, I was worried, knowing that it couldn’t end well. Wallace is a perfect example of someone who is struggling with things, goes to the cops, and winds up getting killed when they forget about him.

Of course, Wallace is a prime example of one of the show’s central themes, that systems exist to trap people in specific roles and never enable to change. The end of the season sees new people rising to fill the roles vacated by our main characters, with Herc and Poot repeating the speeches given to them by their mentors earlier in the season. The ‘kids’ have grown up and enthusiastically started running things while the older characters are all disillusioned, paying for what they’ve done over the course of the season.

McNulty is sent out to the marine patrol unit, while D’Angelo is sent to prison. The D’Angelo scenes in the final episode are great because they show how hard it is to get out of the system. He wants to leave, but everything he knows is pushing him towards drug trafficking. His family is drugs, he can’t get out of the game without leaving everything he’s known.

This is the same sort of thing that was central to final seasons of The Sopranos. I would argue that The Sopranos represents a more evolved form of gang life, one where your life isn’t in jeopardy every day. There, Tony can sit down and have a meal with the feds, you wouldn’t get that with the crew on the streets. The reason for that is Tony comes from a fundamentally different social world. He has a choice about the life he’s leading, the people on the streets don’t. Tony has psychological conflict precisely because he has everything he could want and still isn’t happy. People like Bodie or Wallace are just struggling to survive, they’re worlds away from him.

Where the shows are similar is in the depiction of criminal life as an all consuming force. Without the belief in and total devotion to a cause, the entire thing would fall apart. In working on the other side of the law, people are drawn together and they’re all willing to adhere to a code that can mean taking jail time. Unlike the characters on The Sopranos, these guys are all willing to take the years. It’s a big difference leaving the projects for jail instead of leaving a comfortable middle class existence for jail. Part of the resentment Phil has for Tony in the final season is precisely that Tony never had to deal with real hardship. The next generation of Barksdales will be more like Tony, growing up with everything they could want, but still trapped in the life.

Over with the police, the dramatic high point of the season is Kima’s shooting and the subsequent reaction. The series spends most of its time on the mechanics of investigating, there’s a lot of drama and conflict, but very rarely do things escalate to that level. Watching all the police around the crime scene, the scope just shoots up. The genius of the show is that even as I want the police to go get revenge on the people who shot her, I’m hoping that Stringer can get his crew together and avoid getting charged for it.

Stringer is one of the most interesting characters, fleshed out in small, but telling details. The scene where McNulty follows him to community college tells us so much about him. He sees this as a business, and wants to make as much money off the copy store as he does off the drugs. Avon has an attraction to the drug game, but I could see Stringer pushing to move the family out of drugs and towards more legitimate operations. Looking at the end of the season, it seems like Stringer used Avon as a front, taking the heat of the investigation while he walks away.

The show sometimes hits that same us against the world vibe that I loved on The X-Files. McNulty is like Mulder, the spark that sets off a far reaching investigation that throws everyone into question. He comes up against the same kind of conspiracy that controls everything, only this one’s out in the open. The show is a startling indictment of government bureaucracy, from the internal push for something to show off at the expense of real results, to the way that our electoral system inevitably ties the government to special interests, in this case, criminal interests. As we see with Daniels, it’s near impossible to break these cases because the people involved are going to do anything they can to maintain their position.

Watching the start of season two was a bit tough. After getting used to the crew and all the characters, we’re dropped into the world of the ports. While our regulars are still around, it’s frustrating to spend time with these new characters and not catch up with the others for a while. It reminds me a bit of Buffy’s “Anne,” which left me just wanting to get her back with the crew. It’s hard because even as I rag on shows that limp back to the status quo whenever possible, I kind of want the team back together.

But, after watching two episodes, I’m getting more used to the new status quo. Ziggy is really annoying, but other than that, the new people look like they should be interesting enough. And, with Carver and Prez’s involvement in that storyline, it’s becoming clearer how everything could eventually piece together. My guess is Stringer will eventually have to run drugs through the ports, connecting the two stories a bit. But, there’s not a need for that connection. The show is a portrait of a city, and it is possible to just have a bunch of stories happening without any direct connection. It would get a bit overwhelming if a whole new crew is added each season, but for now, it could work.

Ultimately, I have to give a lot of respect to the show. Season one was a virtually flawless piece of television. It was so far removed from convention and the easy narrative shortcuts most shows use that the few moments that felt like normal TV really jumped out. It’s ridiculous that a good, but not great, movie like The Departed wins best picture, but The Wire can’t even cop an Emmy nomination. The show is just so far beyond virtually everything else out there, there’s no way a two hour movie can compete with this.

There are things you can do in a two hour movie that a show like this can’t do, mainly stylistic things. Malick or Wong Kar-Wai are doing work that is tailored for the feature, but if you’re just telling a story, it’s hard to go on when a work like this, or The Sopranos or Mad Men, is out there. The Wire is just another example of what TV has done recently, give us windows into worlds, not just tell stories. It’s something totally new and exciting, and it’s made it hard for me to enjoy even good movies.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I watch more, at this rate, I’ll catch up to season four before it even comes out on DVD.