Friday, April 11, 2008

The Authority: Earth Inferno and Brave New World

The end of Mark Millar’s run on The Authority was one of the most troubled in recent comics history. I was somewhat into the comics scene at that point, so I remember seeing articles about how much stuff had been changed and messed with, but I didn’t actually read the book. Reading it today, I think it holds up as one of the defining superhero books of the decade, a run that raises a lot of interesting questions about what power can do in the world, and delivers just a really fantastic superhero story. There are some bumps along the road, but in general, this is a fantastic piece of work.

A lot of the book’s greatness is due to Frank Quitely’s amazing art. Chris Weston is one of my favorite artists, his run on The Invisibles is my favorite of any comic, but even he can’t come close to matching what Quitely does on the book. Looking at them back to back, there’s no contest. That said, the art shift in Transfer of Power is a bit easier to deal with because we’ve got four issues of Dustin Nguyen’s shitty art separating Quitely and Art Adams. Art Adams isn’t quite up to Frank’s level, but he’s still really good, and it’s not until Gary Erskine comes on that the art tails off a bit.

But, no one can match Quitely. My favorite issue in the back half of his run on the book is the battle with the original Doctor that closes out Earth Inferno. It’s an epic issue, and gives Quitely a lot of interesting stuff to draw. I think Millar’s greatest strength writing the title is that unlike Ellis, he always finds a role for everyone in every story. Each member of the team is an essential piece of the larger machine that defeats the villains. Frequently, it comes down to the Midnighter taking someone out, but along the way, everyone gets to do something. I remember when I first read Relentless, I was confused about who all these characters were, but reading these books, everyone has a role and something of a personality. It’s by no means a character focused book, but I do care about them.

Again, I think much of that is owed to Quitely’s art. Hitch draws pretty, but blank people. Quitely’s are grittier, more relatable and real. He’s a master of giving everyone an individual body language. This is most noticeable over in All Star Superman, with the division between Clark and Superman, but you can see a real difference in the way Jack Hawksmoor carries himself versus the way the Doctor carries himself. Quitely has so much more emotional detail in the panels, going from him to someone like Nguyen, who just draws pretty pictures, is a major step down. Quitely is like Wong Kar-Wai or Terence Malick in the sense that he makes you reassess what is possible with the medium. Every detail of every panel has a reason and tells us something about the story and the world.

But, that’s not to say that this only Quitely’s achievement. Millar’s hit or miss for me, Ultimate X-Men was pretty bad, The Ultimates has its moments, this is the only work of his that totally succeeds for me. He’s a writer who’s often out to shock, and with a book this over the top, the shock value stuff works better. As these last two storylines show, Millar’s writing is at its best when he’s at his most sadistic. He does a great job of coming up with massive threats for the heroes to deal with, throwing them down a hole and watching them dig themselves out.

The buildup in Earth Inferno is solid, I really like the scenes where the team has to save people who are drowning in New York City. I think this book has a lot to say about a post 9/11 world, and I’m glad scenes like that exist. Seeing the real destruction makes it more real and grounded. I can see why people had trouble with it at the time, but it’s better to deal with and question these issues than just leave 9/11 as this event that happened, but can never be dug into deeper than just it’s a tragedy.

But, the real joy of Earth Inferno is the last issue, when the evil Doctor battles the team. It’s a huge confrontation and Millar brings out a lot of great character moments within. My favorite is the devastating scene where the Doctor goes back in time and molests Angie as a child. It’s a totally sadistic moment, but if the goal is to show a character who exists beyond traditional morality, that’s the way you have to play it. At this point in the series, just blowing up a building doesn’t cut it anymore, this kind of psychological assault is harder to watch. This is the ultimate foe, someone who can travel through time and destroy you anywhere you are.

But, the sadistic assaults the characters encounter throughout the series can be a bit tough to take. The backhalf of Brave New World is largely about watching the characters suffer through a series of degrading psychological tortures. On the one hand, I do love this kind of altered perception stuff, and the tortures are pretty awful. They’re all about wiping away identity completely, removing the essence of who the person was and leaving behind a shell for the corporate gangs that rule the world to mess with. However, there’s just so much bad stuff piled on them, it becomes a bit icky. The Swift scenes in particular did this for me, particularly after seeing the altered art from #27. At what point does it stop being about pushing the characters down so they can rise up and start being just about enjoying torturing the characters?

But, if we’re looking at the book as superhero comics to the nth degree, shouldn’t the foes be even worse? I don’t really care about the ‘god’ attacking Earth in Ellis’s run, but I do care about what happens to the characters here, and I feel emotionally engaged in watching them fight back later in the story. So, it works in that respect. I will say that the last issue of the series is fantastic, full of great payoffs as the team finally regains their dignity and takes reality back.

I think the series’ political engagement can be a bit overstated. There’s not that much political content here, Earth Inferno is great, but not particularly groundbreaking superhero stuff. However, reading this book in a post Iraq context raises a lot of questions. The Authority are all about not heeding the will of governments who want to maintain the status quo, they will overthrow dictators and fight to make a better world. How is that different from what the US is trying to do in Iraq? Why are the same liberals who are outraged we’re doing nothing about Darfur so opposed to our attempt to make Iraq better?

That’s why I think the last storyline is important, and provides a kind of answer to the question. The corporate and governmental interests who control the world are interested in maintaining the illusion of change. We can go to war in Iraq because it will make them a lot of money without disrupting anything. We’ve already been there, and it’s an area that’s perpetually at war, so we’re not really changing anything. To invade somewhere like North Korea would require a huge change in diplomatic philosophy, and invading Africa wouldn’t benefit our business interests in any way, so Iraq it is.

But, that still raises the question, wouldn’t every Authority intervention lead to the kind of chaotic power vacuum we’ve got in Iraq? That’s part of what I think Morrison’s run was going to explore, the idea that the Authority can overthrow a dictator, but they can’t save one man’s marriage. You can never make everyone happy, so what’s the best way to make a better world?

The thing I like about the series is that it’s an essentially optimistic work, it’s saying that change is good, and we should work to evolve beyond the status quo. There are a lot of bastards out there, but it’s still worth fighting to change things. I feel like people may see the team’s frequently debauched behavior as an attempt to shock the audience, but it’s more about evolving beyond traditional morality. It’s okay to have two gay characters on the team, it’s ok for people to sleep with each other, they’re not bound by the restrictions of society, and that’s a large part of what bothers the corporate interests they’re opposing. Those guys are as debauched as anyone, but they keep it behind closed doors. That’s why they support the new Authority, they may be even worse than the originals, but they don’t flaunt it in public.

Ultimately, Millar’s The Authority is one of the seminal superhero works of the decade. In the future, I think we’ll see people doing throwback widescreen comics in the same way you see Silver Age throwbacks today. But, it’ll be hard to match what Millar did here. There’s the feeling that this matters, and is real and vital in a way that other Authority stories don’t. The best way to tell how good Millar’s Authority is is to compare it to the absolutely awful Joe Casey annual, which features all the typical beats of an Authority story, but just doesn’t work. I’ve got my issues with Millar’s work, but it feels fresh and exciting, a new paradigm for superheroes. It’s a shame the book ran into so much trouble in its later days, but read today, it holds up as a really great story.

Reading this made me even sadder that Grant Morrison’s Authority has ran into so much trouble. I think he had a really interesting take on the characters in the two issues that were published, his could have been the first really important take on the characters since the Millar run. But, in a lot of ways, the concept seems to belong to that moment, and perhaps it’s best to let it die with issue 29. There’s not that much inherently interesting in the characters or concept, it’s more the energy that Millar and Quitely brought to it in that moment, the series of amazing images they created together.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Doctor Who: 2x01 -3x06

So, I’ve finished the second season of Doctor Who and am halfway through season three. Regarding season two, I think the season is stronger in some ways than the first year, there’s none of the embarrassing moments like the farting slitheen, but there are some clunkers that clunk worse than anything in the first season. And, while the transition between Eccleston and Tennant is smooth, I think something is lost with Eccleston’s absence from the show. But, along the way we get a lot of great episodes, and the final moments of season two are a perfect capper for Rose’s story.

The major difference between Eccleston and Tennant for me is that Eccleston’s Doctor felt a bit more conflicted about what he was doing, he had a more alien feeling that was gradually broken down over the run of the season, as he got closer to Rose. I don’t know that much of the backstage history, but I feel like there was a conscious decision to go with an edgier Doctor in the first series, to make it clear that this show was a Battlestar Galactica style reboot, a little darker, a little more intense than before. Tennant has an interesting mix of lighter comedy style and emotional distance. I suppose the point is the Doctor has come to terms with his past, and after realizing that Rose is an equal partner, not a burden, he can open up a bit.

Along with that, with the concept established, Rose moves to the background a bit. We no longer see most of the stories from her perspective, there’s not as much focus on the sheer wonder of everything. The moments that salvage even the weaker episodes are when we get an insight into how Rose perceives these different times and place she travels to, when she understands just how lucky she is to be a traveler with the Doctor. For her, this life is an escape from the boring everyday routine of working in a shop, for the Doctor, the travel is everyday life. What that means for him is one of the big questions underlying the series? Would he give it all up for a regular life?

The most emotionally powerful episode in the first chunk of the season is “School Reunion,” where we see what happens to the people the Doctor leaves behind. Sarah Jane struggles to go on living her life without the Doctor, and in her, we see Rose’s future. She will get old, the Doctor will not, and eventually he will leave her behind. I also really like the stuff with K-9 in this episode, he’s a goofy looking metal dog, but it’s still pretty sad when he dies. And, it was good to see Anthony Head getting some work.

But, most of the episodes in the past still didn’t quite work for me. “Idiot’s Lantern” was a bomb, the worst episode of the series to date. The werewolf episode wasn’t as bad, but still didn’t feel particularly original or exciting. There was an attempt to tie it into the series’ overall mythology with the origin of Torchwood, but one cool allusion does not make the episode worthwhile. The best part of that episode was definitely Rose trying to get Queen Victoria to say she was not amused. “The Girl in the Fireplace” was the best of the period episodes because it had that really interesting bouncing back and forth through time. I particularly liked the design of those clockwork robot foes.

My major issue with this season is the fact that Rose’s character arc is basically resolved at the end of “Parting of the Ways.” She chooses to stay with the Doctor and continue to go on adventures. So, there’s less emotional conflict, and the episodes live or die on their own merits, there’s less of a backing narrative arc to get us through the weaker episodes.

But, the end of the season is pretty spectacular, a fitting close for the show’s first two years. I really liked the supporting cast, so it was nice to see Jackie and Mickey get the spotlight. The battle with Daleks and Cybermen was pretty spectacular, the moment where they open the Dalek prison ship was amazing. However, I can’t help but wish that this was a three parter. I think they could have done more with the Daleks, it was cool to have them, but it felt like they were there just because people expect them to show up every year, it didn’t really add anything to the narrative.

However, regardless of any issues I’ve got with the rest of the season, the final ten minutes or so was brilliant, an incredibly sad piece of character pain that would make Joss Whedon proud. Rose has chosen the Doctor over her family, she wants to keep going on adventures, and her mother knows this. But, she’s pulled away and forced to spend the rest of her life not only cut off from the Doctor, but with her parents knowing that they were her second choice. Musically and visually, this is the show at its best. But, it’s the performances that really stick. Tennant and Piper are better than they’ve ever been, and the knowledge that he won’t even get to say he loves her, she won’t get to hear it stings. The Doctor has to face living the rest of his life, living an eternity, without ever seeing Rose again. Now, I’ve heard she appears in season four, so it won’t be forever forever, but still, it’s a great, tragic moment.

It’s a testament to what Tennant does that I was cool with entering season three without any of the people who were on the show at the beginning, Rose and the supporting cast are gone, it’s a new world. I do miss them, I think Jackie and Mickey were critical to grounding the show in real emotion. Without characters like that, you just take for granted the sci-fi reality the characters live in, because we’re watching a sci-fi show, we don’t flinch when weird stuff happens, but if you want to keep your show emotionally grounded, you need the characters to feel things on a real level. And, that’s what those characters made Rose do. One of the most emotional moments of the whole series remains the scene at the restaurant in “Parting of the Ways,” where Rose is crying, unable to face returning to ordinary life after what she’s been through.

Having watched a bunch of season three, I find the show missing something. Martha’s a good character, but I just don’t care about the characters in the way I did in season one. The conundrum is, if they develop Martha’s homelife, it feels like a retread of Rose, if they don’t, I’m not going to care about her as much. The episodes are a little more consistent than earlier, but there’s no real great ones, nothing like “Father’s Day.”

My two favorites of the season so far are “Smith and Jones,” which recaptured the wacky energy of season one, and made it easier to see the Doctor as alien again, and “Gridlocked.” The latter was a really fantastic piece of sci-fi, with a great concept and strong execution.

“Shakespeare Code” fell prey to the same jokey referencing a historical figure that annoyed me in the Charles Dickens or Queen Victoria episode, and just wasn’t that exciting. The Dalek two parter had its moments, but felt like a dilution of the original menace of the Daleks. The more times they meet the Doctor and don’t kill him, the less effective they are as villains. Plus, that story really hit some of the same beats over and over again, it felt a bit padded.

One of my central issues with both seasons two and three is that there’s a feeling of routine. Maybe it’s because I was totally new to Who with season one, but it felt really exciting to know that anything could happen next, they could go anywhere and anywhen. Now, things feel a bit routine, and I think they’re doing a less satisfactory job of linking the standalones together to keep a feeling of progress throughout the season. The Doctor/Martha relationship does evolve, but it’s stuck beneath a lot of plot of the week angst.

Ultimately, “Parting of the Ways” may have just been too good, and skewed my perception of the rest of the series. That episode was so good, full of so many things that I love, it made me overlook a lot of the flaws of the season, and it made it hard for everything after to follow up. Increasingly, the show feels like one of those bands that can make amazing singles, but can’t really put together a good album. But, the episodes that are good are good enough for me to stick around, and none of the bad ones are that bad. Except for “The Idiot’s Lantern,” that was just awful.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

All Star Superman #10

This was a big week for Frank Quitely comics. Earlier in the week, I read The Authority: Earth Inferno, and yesterday I finally caught up on All Star Superman #10. Reading these books, it became clear that Frank is the best comics artist of all time, edging slightly ahead of JH Williams for me. His work has such a unique quality, going beyond realism to a kind of hyper-reality. And, he always seems to make creators kick up their game to compete. Grant Morrison always writes good comics, but you get the sense that his Batman is just a fun diversion, he wouldn’t deliver a Batman script to Quitely. If Quitely’s going to spend months working on an issue, it’s got to be worthy of his time, and this issue definitely is.

There’s a number of things that are striking about All Star Superman #10. But, what really jumped out to me is just how satisfying it is as a single issue. Much as I love the medium, I think there’s virtually no books on the market today that are satisfying to read on an issue to issue basis. There’s just not enough material there to make it worth your money or keep you sated for the long gaps between issues. If people are saying it’s too frustrating to wait a week between 45 minute TV episodes, how are you going to keep them occupied during month long gaps between 22 page stories? That’s why I read most of my books in trade.

But, if every single issue was like this, this dense and emotional, comics would be a lot more popular. So much happens in the issue, there’s so many ideas, and so much feeling, I want to read more, but I don’t need to, it’s a totally satisfying experience as a single part of a larger work. I always take longer to read Quitely comics because I love to get lost in the pages, to just study the artwork and linger in the moments. It took me probably double the time to read this book than it did the average single issue, and the longer I spend on a comic, usually the better it is.

The thing that Morrison does better than any other writer out there is combine his huge ideas with a very real emotional base. One of the many outstanding moments in the issue is Superman sending the Kandorians out to save the kids in the hospital. It’s a loopy sci-fi concept, the notion of these miniature people being injected into Superman to try and save him, but Morrison brings you into a headspace where you accept that, and roll with it. Then, the moment where Superman sends the Kandorians out to heal the kids becomes incredibly beautiful. It’s a single page that’s just totally invigorating. It’s like all the joy and possibility of humanity is contained in that one single panel.

There’s a lot of moments like that in the issue. We see what Superman means to the people in the world, the way he is able to save a whole city and a single girl, and each of them feels equally significant. The scenes on Mars are amazing, you can practically feel the wind blowing through Superman’s hair, Quitely is able to convey the tactile experience of the place simply through the visual.

The notion of freeing a city of small people feeling inferior next to someone so large is a perfect metaphorical encapsulation of humanity’s feelings towards Superman in the comic. For Luthor, it’s hard to deal with knowing he’ll never be able to be as good as Superman. Even if Superman dies, Luthor will still live in his shadow. However, for a lot of the humans, Superman functions as an ideal, something to aspire to and be inspired by.

This is captured perfectly in the scene where Superman saves Regan from committing suicide. In that single page, Morrison and Quitely capture everything amazing about the character. Other writers put Superman in more traditional villain battling stories, but that doesn’t work for the character. I love Morrison’s vision of him as this pacifist ideal, someone who does want to save everyone. The implicit message of a lot of hero stories is once we clear out the bad guys, we can make a better world, but they never make it past that beating the bad guys part. Here, Superman isn’t battling villains, he’s battling the very force of negativity itself. So, saving Regan is equally important as saving Kandor, it’s all part of the same push for something better.

So, does that make Superman the ultimate Morrison hero? In The Invisibles, we saw King Mob move away from guns and try to create some kind of zen war practice. Superman is above the game, he’s not battling people, he’s just trying to save lives. He is as enlightened a character as Morrison has ever written, and reading this issue, you can see why he is the top hero, why he’s such an enduring myth.

That’s what Morrison makes explicit in the wonderful meta elements of the infant universe Qwewq. It was awesome to see Qwewq back, the beloved character/concept from Seven Soldiers. It’s been present in much of Grant’s DCU work, and I hope to see it return in Final Crisis. Qwewq has always been the stand-in for our universe, a world without heroes. So, it turns out that Superman has invented our entire universe as a means of seeing what the world would be like without him. And, it turns out that we would have to invent him. Those final pages are exhilarating, as we zip across plot lines and stop briefly on the birth of Superman in our world. He is an idea so powerful, he will always be around in one form or another.

I always love the metatextual elements that Morrison uses in his work, and this book ties in wonderfully with Flex Mentallo. Flex was all about dealing with youth, with the feelings of inadequacy that come with adolescence. This book follows it up, as Morrison, and the character of Superman, come to terms with getting older, becoming more aware of imminent death. I need to reread Flex and compare it with this book, but what both books uniquely have is the sense of wonder about superheroes. There’s some inherently unknowable about this Superman, some piece of him that remains beyond us. Morrison told that classic story about meeting Superman before writing this, and finding it all from talking to the guy who said he was Superman. The character feels like something beyond Morrison’s imagining, like he’s writing this series to have an accurate record of who he is.

I don’t know that the universe of Qwewq stuff will factor in the rest of the series, but I love that Morrison got it in there. It’s part of what makes the issue so good, the onslaught of ideas and concepts, Morrison struggling to fit in all the ideas he had for the character with only three issues left. You stack Qwewq on top of Regan, on top of the bottle city, on top of the kids at the hospital and you’ve got a crescendo of emotion coming off the book.

I really love the scenes with Superman and Lois as well. Quitely draws her so beautifully, and as shown here, she is his rock, the one person who can keep him going when he gets down. And, of course, he can’t just stay with her, he can hear everyone, hear all their pain, and knows that he can save them if he tries hard enough.

I think this is without question the greatest Superman comic I’ve ever read, and I find it hard to believe anything out there could top it. In the character’s seventy years of existence, this is the best story that’s been told about him yet. The Superman we normally see, here on Earth-Q, is but a flawed reaction of the man himself. This is the platonic ideal, who Superman should always be. I think I dwell so much on Quitely’s art because it doesn’t feel like Morrison is writing the series. I can see much in common with his other work, but I almost don’t want to delve too deep, to deconstruct it. I want to let it linger as this series of perfect moments, of single pages that say more than years of stories can.

I’ll admit I was a bit lukewarm on the series after loving the first four or five issues, it dipped for a bit. But, this issue brings it fully back, it’s everything a comic should be. It is the greatest Superman story ever told.