Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Authority: Under New Management

When I was first getting into comics, around 2000, The Authority was the biggest thing going in superhero comics. But, even then it was breaking down, and the years since have seen the ‘brand’ diluted and rendered essentially toothless in the marketplace. I read the first trade of the series, Relentless, back then, and didn’t really like it. I had issues with the fact that I didn’t really know, or care about any of the characters. It was all big action, with no emotional substance. I had the same critique of Morrison’s JLA, but since then I came around on JLA and came to appreciate the scale and joy of what it was doing. It wasn’t about character arcs, it was about spectacle, joy and wonder.

The Under New Management TPB opens with the final Ellis arc. It’s a pretty solid comic, though one that, like much of Ellis’s work, is more interesting on a conceptual level than in execution. They are fighting ‘God,’ but in this case, God is just a giant asteroid threatening planet Earth. The ending of the arc involves the team standing around on their ship, describing the cool stuff that happens outside. It’s got its moments, but after reading the arc that follows, it feels very lacking.

‘The Nativity’ starts Mark Millar’s run on the title, and his first issue is a bold statement of a new era for superhero comics. It’s not necessarily the basic idea that’s so radical, a superhero team that goes after evildoers, rather than just responds to threats, that seeks to alter the status quo rather than preserve it. That was the foundation of much of the ‘edgy’ early 90s work done by the Image creators, it’s the jump from X-Men to X-Force. The thing is, with Quitely on art, and a heavy political dimension to the proceedings, the book does feel genuinely revolutionary. The ensuing arc doesn’t always quite match what the first issue sets up, but it’s all giddy pop fun illustrated by arguably the best artist in comics today.

When I say arguably, I’m mainly talking about an internal argument with myself, with Quitely and J.H. Williams vying for that best artist title. The winner is whoever’s book I read last. Reading J.H’s work of Batman: Club of Heroes, I was so wowed by the varied styles and page layouts he brought to the title, it seemed pretty indisputable that he was the greatest artist in the world. But, then I read this book. Quitely’s renderings are so far beyond anyone else in comics, the very nature of the art is totally different. There’s a tactile quality to the art, a three dimensionality that’s unlike anyone else.

And he just keeps getting better as the book progresses. One of my only issues with Quitely is that all his faces look similar, but in the last issue of the arc, he manages to do some of his best emotional storytelling. My favorite pages are the ones where Swift speaks to Krigstein, Quitely does a great job of capturing the emotion in her face. There’s a subtlety that other artists can’t match. Throughout this book, you can feel what the characters are feeling, and that’s a huge testament to his art.

Bryan Hitch is one of the most beloved artists in comics today, but compare his stuff to Quitely’s and it looks utterly flat, like something out of the 50s, not the crazy future renderings of Quitely. Ellis frequently has panels where the characters marvel at something they’re seeing, and it’s kind of marvel-worthy, but every single panel that Quitely draws is a work of wonder. He owns these characters, each one feels like it was designed specifically for him to draw.

I’ve heard some people crack on Quitely as not being the right artist to match the sexy model aesthetic Grant wanted for his X-Men relaunch, but in this series, he manages to make every member of the team have their own dirty sexy feel. I particularly like the scenes where they’re just hanging around the ship, Quitely manages to give them a lot of humanity, but still maintain the power. There’s been countless “what would superheroes really be like” stories, but I think this is one of the most effective. They can change the entire world in theory, but there’s still a lot of forces resisting. It’s not quite Miracleman #16, these aren’t gods, they’re people who just happen to have huge powers.

I think those first few moments of #13 are the most giddy and full of potential, as Millar re-introduces the team as a group that isn’t going to put up with shit anymore, that’s going to try to make the world a better place. Reading the book in a post 9/11, post war in Iraq world is pretty interesting. How is what they do in Southeast Asia at the beginning of the book any different than what Bush did in Iraq? Well, a big part of it is the motivation. The Bush illegal invasion of Iraq was motivated by corporate profiteering, while The Authority’s attack is essentially motivated by the desire to liberate people from this oppressive regime.

The question is, can you just remove the bad man and make everything better? I don’t think so, and the end of the storyline gives us a legitimate solution to help build a new world order. In between however, there’s a whole bunch of superhero action. If it wasn’t Quitely drawing, it’d be easy to say that it’s essentially mindless violence, but Quitely turns every scene into something beautiful to behold. And, this is The Authority, violence and destruction is a big part of it. Millar comes up with some fantastic scenarios, I can think of few images as perfectly superhero as Giant Man pulling a plane out of the sky and smashing it into the ground. Ellis Authority and Morrison JLA took superhero comics up to 11, this comic keeps that volume, but brings them down to a more Earthbound level. It’s not gods in conflict, it’s a whole bunch of superpowered people fucking each other up.

In Ellis’s Authority, I always felt like there was a surplus of characters, particularly in that final arc, most of the team is just standing around. But, Millar manages to find something for everyone to do, and make each of the character their own kind of badass. The Midnighter and The Engineer are my personal favorites, but everyone gets some great moments that take advantage of their unique abilities. The fight scenes are innovative and exciting, and each issue feels dense with material. Reading a Quitely comic takes me a lot longer than most artists because I spend so much time with each of the images.

In the end, The Authority decide that it makes more sense to use Krigstein for good than just kill him. So, the new world order they propose is one in which those with great physical power clear out the bad people and leave those with great mental power to rebuild the world. It’s a great paradigm for a superhero comic. The political dimension here isn’t that deep, but it does give you some things to think about, and that makes the book a bit more than just stuff blowing up.

Things end with the new world order in progress and everything looking up. I loved that last issue, it’s a really exhilarating superhero comic, the whole arc is. It’s a huge jump from what Ellis was doing, and another bravura art performance from Quitely.

It’s a shame the series ran into so much trouble later on. I’m going to grab the next TPB, but my hopes are lower. Even the great Chris Weston can’t match what Quitely was doing, and it sounds like the last arc of the series was a huge mess, almost as big a disaster as Morrison’s relaunch of the series. Maybe it’s an idea whose time has passed, if it is, this run was a fantastic way to go out.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1x06 - 1x12

The second chunk of Evangelion episodes lighten things up a bit, and focus on building the characters over the vague feeling of menace that hung over the early days of the series. I’m getting more hooked on the show, though I still have issues with some of what they’re doing.

The major event is the addition of Asuka to the cast. She ups the energy level of the whole piece, and alleviates some of the issues I had with the fact that they’ve got kids piloting the Evas. She behaves like a fourteen year old probably would if they were able to pilot giant robots, it’d be pretty awesome. Both Shinji and Rei were like old soldiers, committed to what they’re doing, and not getting any joy out of it. Asuka ups the energy of the whole piece and makes the other characters stand out more.

Their dynamic coalesces in the power outage episode, where we finally start to understand what’s up with Rei. She’s the perfect soldier, always knows the right thing to do, but seems devoid of human feeling. She shows up Asuka constantly, leading the group despite her almost total refusal to actually take charge of things. Shinji is in the middle, a bit more at home in standard social situations, but lacking the self confidence Asuka has. He’s getting more comfortable with what he has to do over the past few episodes, and in the end of that episode, we see them working together as a great team.

That episode also raises the question of what’s up with Commander Ikari. He’s harsh to Shinji, but we see that he’s got total confidence in the kids, preparing the Evas so they can go into battle. I like the way Asuka refers to them as the “first child,” or “second child,” it makes it clear that these kids are chosen for some reason, not just randomly picked to be Eva pilots. But, it’s still unclear exactly what that reason is. And, I’d like to get more insight into how Ikari feels about what his son is doing. There’s barely been any scenes with him and Shinji, and he shows no signs of fear when Shinji is out on missions. I’m also interested in how his relationship with Rei develops, is it a father/daughter thing, or more of a sexual relationship?

Another really strong episode was the synchronized dance one, particularly that closing sequence where the Evas battle to a backdrop of classical music. That was an example of the show using the comedy/domestic side of things to its advantage, to deepen the characters and forge their bond. In this type of film, an action scene is what a dance scene is to a musical, and the episode made the parallel obvious.

The strongest scene in the episode was Shinji and Asuka in bed together. He sees her at first as a potential sexual partner, but is surprised to hear her reveal her vulnerability. It’s a really well done scene, our first glimpse beneath the confident personality Asuka wears on the surface.

So, the show is definitely improving, but there’s some stuff that still bothers me. Shinji’s two friends from school are always cringe inducing when they appear. I love a lot of what anime can do, but the exaggerated behavior of those two is not one of them. Hopefully the addition of Asuka to the cast means we won’t see much more of the two of them. A lot of the domestic stuff doesn’t work so well. I guess the goal is to attach us to the characters, but any time that goofy house theme music comes on, I cringe a bit. And I seriously hope there’s no more female character dressed in minimal clothing, male characters look at her breasts and freezes in place, female character freaks out and calls him a pervert moment. Still, the dance scene was a big success, so all these rules can be broken.

I think it still comes down to the treatment of the characters. Is it something normal for these kids to be piloting the Evas, or are they special and chosen? If they are chosen, the whole premise makes a lot more sense, ultimately, they are victims of this military industrial complex, sacrificing their childhoods to save the world. That’s some powerful stuff. Of course, my issue with this basic premise could be largely due to unfamiliarity with the genre tropes. I’ll just accept a bunch of kids being superheroes in a US comic, but I have issues with these kids doing much the same.

I do still have issues with the show, but I’m getting more attached to the characters and am eager to see how things develop. The threat of the week format can get a bit tiring, but there’s a sense of evolution as the show goes forward, and that makes it all worth it.

What is the Greatest TV Show of All Time?

With The Wire about to end, for the second time in a year, we’ve got people mourning the “greatest TV series of all time.” But, does The Wire truly match its HBO brother The Sopranos, how do you measure the ‘greatness’ of a long form work like a TV series? The gang over at The House Next Door have a podcast about Milch vs. Chase vs. Simon, and the question of the greatest TV drama ever. For me, it’s a bit more complicated than just the three shows they’re mentioning because the question of greatest and favorite blur into a kind of messy uncertainty.

It’s always tough to objectively assess art. If I had to talk about the TV show that gripped me the most, the one that had me thinking about it nonstop for the months I was watching it, and cast a shadow over everything else I watched for a long time, it’d have to be Buffy. I’ve never connected to the characters in a show the way I did to those people, I never had so much wrapped up in the character arcs, or such a need to see the next episode. There’s a specific kind of engagement that comes with a long form narrative like that series, and I’ve never been so involved in a series as I was with Buffy while watching its fifth and sixth seasons.

But, as much as I love the series, I’ll admit that it’s nowhere near the level of filmic art that either of the HBO ‘holy trinity.’ The show, with a couple of exceptions, is shot in a fairly straight ahead TV style, with traditional TV score and production values. The acting is beyond traditional TV expectations as is the writing, but in general, the filmmaking isn’t anything special. Whedon may talk about not wanting to do “radio with faces,” but only occasionally is the show not that.

The Sopranos is the most well made show in TV history. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the filmmaking is working in service of the story. It truly is a filmic experience, everything is contributing to the overall thematic push of the work. Chase did a phenomenal job of selecting directors that fit within the show’s style, but still managed to stand out as quality filmmaking. He raised the game for what’s possible with television.

For me, Deadwood isn’t close to The Sopranos or The Wire. I liked the show, but it never really grabbed me in the way the best shows do. There were pieces that I was engaged with, and I liked it all, but it just didn’t do it for me. The Milch show I really loved was John From Cincinnati, which picks up on what Twin Peaks was doing, another legitimate contender for greatest series of all time. What I love about John From Cincinnati is the way it built a universe over the course of the series. That was what Deadwood was about, but I responded more to the modern day angst and lack of purpose, broken by the appearance of this prophet from another place.

Part of what makes The Wire and The Sopranos such vital pieces of art is what they have to say about the world we live in. The Wire shows the state of the under class, which is struggling to survive in a world that’s increasingly devoid of legitimate ways to make a living. The Sopranos focuses on people who’ve “made it,” and explores what happens once you find out living the American dream isn’t enough for happiness.

For me, The Sopranos is more relatable. The mob elements were the hook, but the show is really about the contemporary middle to upper class, and the existential issues they face. I saw my world reflected on screen in Meadow’s struggle to get into college, AJ working at Blockbuster, the struggle to find purpose in a commoditized world. These characters were me or people I knew. Every genre work is about taking real world issues and spinning them into something more extraordinary through the genre’s lens. So, struggling to keep your job and lifestyle stable becomes struggling to keep your crew afloat in a mob war.

The Wire offers a different kind of life, one where people really are trying to survive, not pay off their vacation home. When I was first watching the show, I thought of The Wire’s gang story as kind of a prequel to The Sopranos, Avon and Stringer are like Tony’s father, the people who built “this thing of ours,” the people who the next generation can never live up to. In the later years, things change a bit. The gang life becomes less about accumulating luxury and ascending socially and more about surviving. Marlo has no interest in going legit, he wants to rule the streets, that’s it, no more.

But, which show is better? Which is TV’s greatest artistic achievement? John From Cincinnati, much as I love it, doesn’t quite match the emotional scope of The Wire or The Sopranos. But, I would place it in my all time top ten. Another HBO show that deserves consideration is Six Feet Under. The show is a bit overtly soapier than other HBO shows, but there’s moments in that show that touched me more than anything in The Wire or The Sopranos. Perhaps the saddest image I’ve ever seen in a TV show is Brenda sitting in the Quaker church while Nate is off with Maggie. It probably seems a bit petty to say that’s the saddest thing when you’ve got something like Dukie on the street walking to the Araber in the most recent Wire episode, but everyone’s life matter, and just because she won’t be shooting dope on the street doesn’t mean that being betrayed by Nate like that isn’t as absolutely devastating for Brenda.

I have a lot of affection for Six Feet Under, but I will admit that from a thematic and cinematic scope, it doesn’t quite match up to the other two. Still, much like Buffy, I have so much affection for the characters, I have to give the show high marks. I think there is a legitimate difference between calling something your favorite show versus calling something the greatest show. Buffy and Six Feet Under fall more in the favorite column, things I love more because of my emotional attachment to the characters than because of their inherent artistic quality. That’s not to knock them at all, creating characters so emotionally engaging is a major achievement in its own right.

So, the question remains, which is the greatest TV show of all time, The Wire or The Sopranos? For me, the emotional pull when watching the shows is totally different. In The Wire, the institutions work as a giant force, boxing the characters into awful situations. As the season goes on, we’re faced with increasingly awful scenarios, where characters we love come into irrevocable conflicts and suffer. I’m thinking most of season four’s final two episodes, where a season’s worth of random acts lead the total destruction of many lives. “Final Grades” is just a devastating episode, a legitimate contender for best TV episode of all time. The characters are pushed to the edge, to the point where they have to lash out, giving us those heartbreaking moments like Carver in the car, McNulty hearing about Bodie’s death, the death itself, and the sad fate of the kids.

The Wire is a show about people who lack control over their own lives, who try to do good things, but invariably wind up knocked down and destroyed by a system bent on preserving itself. I think it’s a hugely important show, and extremely relevant for many, many people in our world. But, I personally find The Sopranos more relatable. The Sopranos is about people who do have control over their lives, but invariably wind a way to mess things up, hurt others and do bad things all to help themselves.

The emotional pull with The Sopranos is between our attachment to the characters, our desire for them do the right thing and get out of the life versus the inevitable failure to actually save themselves. The quintessential episode for me is “Long Term Parking,” in which Christopher is offered the chance to run away and restart his life with Adrianna, however, upon seeing a white trash family at a gas station, he decides it’s not worth it. It’s a totally selfish bastard moment from him, one of the critical turning points of the series.

Now, it may be the fact that I’m from a world closer to The Sopranos than The Wire, but I find The Sopranos a more personally relatable show. Both shows have fantastic characters, but I think The Sopranos’ gang, Tony and Chris in particular, are a bit deeper and more complex than anyone in The Wire. Simon frequently talks about how story is paramount, which it might be for him, but its characters who hook me on a show. Ultimately, that’s what makes me give Sopranos the edge.

The Sopranos kept its quality remarkably consistent across the run. I know a lot of people say season one is the best, but for me, it’s either season five, or the final run of episodes that’s the high point. As the show went on, it became increasingly less reliant on story and became an extended look at the psychological troubles of all the characters. I loved that, even the much maligned season six part one plays brilliantly on DVD. “Kaisha,” which I called a disappointing finale when it first aired, was riveting on rewatch. Yes, season four is a bit off, but on the whole, I can think of only a handful of stories that didn’t work over the run of the series.

If The Wire was only seasons three and four, I’d give it the nod over The Sopranos. Those two seasons are about as perfect as any season in TV history, the other three seasons are more of a mixed bag. Season one is pretty great, but a bit simpler than The Sopranos or what follows on The Wire. I have a bunch of issues with season two, it’s still great, but the inevitable tragedy of Frank Sobotka just felt too one note next to the moral complexity of season one. Season five feels a bit hurried, and has the good, not great newspaper storyline hanging over much of it. It’s still absolutely amazing on the whole, but when you’re talking about the greatest show of all time, absolutely amazing with some flawed bits might not be enough.

And, from an artistic point of view, I think The Sopranos did more interesting things with film as a medium. The Wire is a wonderfully shot and acted show, it does exactly what it set out to do. But, I love the psychological craziness of an episode like “Fun House” or “Join the Club” and The Wire doesn’t have any equivalent. It wouldn’t fit in the universe they created because The Wire is all about showing the whole. It’s about showing the complex interactions of the city, but in many ways, a single human brain is more complex than this organism we call civilization. It’s an endless mystery, and I don’t think any show did a better job of exploring it than The Sopranos.

But, that’s not to diminish what The Wire does at all. The two shows are the definitive cinematic statements of the early twenty first century, a chronicle of a post 9/11 world. When people think about this era in film history, they won’t think about the movies, they’ll think about these two shows.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1x01 - 1x05

Anime is a mixed bag for me, I absolutely loved Cowboy Bebop, it’s one of my top ten shows all time, and I really enjoyed the followup series, Samurai Champloo. However, there’s a lot of formal tics that bother me when watching animes. But, I’ve heard really good things about Neon Genesis: Evangelion, and hearing there was much debate about the abstract ending put it over the top for me. I love to experience a work that demands interpretation, so I picked up the new DVD set of the series and have watched five episodes. So far, it’s pretty great, but there’s a few things that bother me.

What I really like about the show is the mood. There’s frequently goofy stuff that bothers me, but every episode has at least one sequence that does a fantastic job of creating a feeling. The show uses silence like few others I’ve seen, making these oppressive moments of loneliness that just hang in the air. I’m thinking of Shinji lying in bed, reflecting back on the battle, or the scene with Misato after Shinji’s running away. Even a scene like Rei coming out of the shower, which feels more than a bit exploitative, is saved by the pain and distance that hangs over the scene.

Along with this atmosphere, there’s a lot of moments of fantastic psychedelic spectacle. I’m not as interested in the giant robots themselves as I am in the things they do to the pilots inside. The scenes where Shinji and Rei merge with the pilots are fascinating, with a Cronenberg like dirty, organic feel. The opening credits feature a random appearance of the Kaballah’s tree of life, so I’m hoping there’s more crazy psychedlic metaphysics to come.

What bothers me most about the show is the illogical nature of its premise. I’m sure there’s some justification for why these fourteen year old kids are piloting the ships, and on an extranarrative level, it’s just a genre conceit, but it still bothers me. I think what makes it really troubling is the fact that they still have these kids in school. If these kids really are such valuable assets, wouldn’t they have private tutors, not go off for doofy comedy segments with other school kids? Every school scene takes me out of the story, and the rampant misogyny of those scenes doesn’t help.

If there’s one thing that really bothers me about anime, it’s the constant sexualization of female characters. Rei is supposed to be fourteen, yet we see her wandering around her apartment naked. It would be one thing to just sort of gloss over that, but we’d just seen her in school. It maximizes that dirty old man element of watching the show. I have no problem with showing the female characters as sexual beings, but I don’t like seeing them presented solely as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewing public.

Other than that I really like Rei. I love the idea of her as this victim of scientific experimentation, and the scenes with her and Shinji’s father hint at a potentially complicated relationship. The best way to deal with the premise that fourteen year olds have to pilot these ships is to turn it into an allegory for war. Are these kids so different from the eighteen year olds we’re sending to Iraq? No, and if the show took away their life in the outside world, it would make the allegory more powerful.

Another issue for me is that Shinji is a pretty bland protagonist. He’s sort of a blank slate, constantly numb to the world, and I don’t have a particular stake in him. The other characters are much more interesting, and I find myself wishing they’d spend more time on Shinji’s father and the blond woman.

So, the show’s got a lot of potential right now. The animes I’ve seen all get much better as they go on, so if these are the weak episodes, that bodes well for the future. I’m eager to see this trippy finale as well and find out just how bizarre things get.