Saturday, May 17, 2008

Showcase Superman Volume 1

I’ve read a lot of articles/interviews where people talk about the deconstruction of superheroes, how Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s seminal 80s works changed the medium and took away a lot of the fun. For a long time, the only older comics I’d read were 70s X-Men, which aren’t exemplary of what these people were talking about, with their heavy angst and emotional soapiness. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I started reading Showcase Presents Superman that I really got the zany craziness that people talk about when they discuss 50s comics. These comics are totally insane, as crazy, if not more so, than anything Grant Morrison’s come up with, with a total disregard for real world logic or narrative consistency.

I’d always heard the premises of these 50s Superman books, Superman has a lion’s head, Superman shoots a tiny Superman out of his hand, etc. and thought that’s a great concept, but the comic itself probably isn’t as good. Well, if Superman inexplicably has a lion’s head sounds like a great story, then buy the book. It won’t disappoint. It’s astonishing to me that this book was popular entertainment, it’s so insane, every single story full of bizarre narrative gaps and logical jumps that blow your mind. It feels like somebody on an LSD trip throwing out the craziest thing he can think of, then scrambling to get things back to normal within ten pages.

You really can’t approach these comics as any of sort of sustained narrative, like today’s books. It’s not a coherent universe, or evolving milieu, it’s basically a sitcom. Every character has one trait, Superman is ultra-powerful, but constantly scared of having his identity discovered. Jimmy Olsen is his loyal friend, aiding in his schemes. Lois Lane desperately wants to marry Superman, but is foiled at every turn by Superman’s scheming.

The stories are very formulaic. Usually some outrageous premise is thrown out that disrupts normality, like Superman losing his powers. Then, Superman struggles to maintain the illusion of normalcy, in that case through his crazy schemes with Jimmy, and ultimately everything returns to normal, with Superman winking to the audience. The reason it works is because everything is so nuts, you don’t get mad at the deus ex machinas or narrative shortcuts, you just laugh at them. The creators seem to know how wacky the stories are, they’re in on the joke, and the joy is the journey through the story, not the destination. Notably, we’ve got no cliffhangers, and very rarely is Superman in real danger. The only one who suffers emotional consequences is Lois, who always comes this close to marrying Superman, only to have her dream foiled.

Reading these comics provides a startling twist on the societal myth of the 50s as a time of boring conformity. Yes, these stories are ultimately about enforcing the status quo, but brimming under that status quo are a myriad of psychological issues and deep seated fears. Why does Superman have such a fear of people discovering his secret identity? Why does he cruelly maintain the illusion of Clark Kent, even planting a room in his Fortress of Solitude dedicated to Clark so no one will find out his secret identity after he dies.

The opening story of the collection, “The Super Key to Fort Superman” is still my favorite. In it, Superman and Batman play an elaborate game of pranks on each other, which culminates in Superman pretending his powers have been disabled and they’ll both be trapped in the Fort forever. This comes after Batman has spent days infiltrating the Fortress, apparently leaving Gotham undefended. And, the reason all this happens is because Batman was shopping for a birthday present for Superman, but couldn’t find anything. If people say Batman the TV show wasn’t like the comics, point them to this and they’ll be in for a rude awakening.

Reading this, I can see why people would feel like something major has been lost in comics. First off, these issues contained three crazy stories in one, each a complete done in one tale. If you want to know why people don’t read comics like they did in the 50s, I think it’s clearly due to the fact that they’re just not a good value at all. These issues entertain for a while, and are easily accessible, not like the bloated super epics out there today. I’d be much more likely to buy books in single format if they were like this.

And, the stories are just so imaginative, it’s hard to believe what’s going on. I would think books like this, not 60s Marvel, would be popular with the counterculture. Morrison’s All Star Superman was not exaggerating the craziness of these early days. Superman barely even fights crime, he mostly battles identity issues played out through these crazy sci-fi conceits.

But, I think the stories are missing something. Morrison is able to keep these crazy concepts, but fuse a strong emotional layer on there as well. These stories feel like the crazy childhood of Superman, All Star is his adulthood, he’s more mature and able to recognize that there’s more to this world than just protecting his own identity. All Star Superman feels much closer to this guy than the Superman seen in JLA recently. That’s probably due to the fact that these are the archetypal Superman stories, where all the elements that persist to the present were established.

It’s interesting to compare what Morrison does with All Star to the way Moore approached Superman in Miracleman. I absolutely love Miracleman, I think it’s pointless to criticize Moore for doing his deconstruction work, Watchmen and Miracleman are such great works, it’s worth having them even if it means ‘losing our innocence.’ And, I think comics are stronger having gone through that dark period, Morrison and Miller have since found a way to integrate the insanity of these old comics with the darkness of the 80s.

Frank Miller’s masterpiece, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, takes the insane concepts and willful disdain for logic of these 50s comics and applies them to a post deconstruction world. I think it’s one of the greatest superhero comics of all time, and a perfect model for what comics can be.

Things have changed and we can never return to the style of these 50s comics without playing it as pastiche. The best thing we could get is something like Moore’s “Untold Tales of Supreme,” which ape the style and form of these 50s comics, but also have a tinge of dislike for the original material. It’s pastiche, and while these guys in the 50s had a sense of humor about the work, I don’t think they would like to be reduced to a series of formal tics that Moore emulates. It’s a form of storytelling that just can’t feel uncalculated in today’s world, we’ve moved on.

But, I think there’s still a lot of great lessons to be taken from these books. The embrace of craziness is something a lot of books could benefit from. Throw out crazy ideas on every page, and don’t necessarily focus on Superman fighting someone every issue. Superman very rarely faces a major villain in these stories, and they’re more interesting because of that. His greatest villain is his own nature, and his struggle to figure out what role he should play in this world.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

John From Cincinnati: The Rewatch Concludes

I finished rewatching John From Cincinnati last night. Seeing the show again reminded me just how amazing it is. Particularly in that last episode, there are moments as incredible as anything in cinema, most notably the epic pan through clouds to John and Shaun on the water that opens the episode. That is as perfect and exhilarating a moment as can be captured on film. It’s such a rush to descend from the clouds and see them again.

Most TV shows are decidedly fiction. They may exist in a realistic world, or comment on real world issues, but they don’t feel ‘real’ in the way that John From Cincinnati does. Even The Wire feels more artificial in some ways, that show depicts a world I’m not that familiar with and brings it to the attention of the viewer. John is on the surface a less realistic show, filled with its strange characters and inexplicable floating. But, I’d argue the show is more realistic because it takes place on a subconscious mental plane. It just feels so important, in the same way that The Invisibles did.

I think The Invisibles really is one of the only comparable works to JFC. Both are about conveying their creator’s philosophy within the context of a narrative. The DVD features a video of David Milch talking about the big ‘speech’ in episode six, where John lays out the series’ philosophy. The essential message of the series is that art, the representation of reality in writing or film, can be used to alter actual reality. “Cass’s Camera” is synonymous with the power of art, and it’s through her camera that the world will learn about John and what he means to reality. And, on a meta level, it’s “Cass’s Camera” that brings the whole story to us.

I said it before when the show was airing, but what really strikes me about the series is just how positive it is. It’s about people overcoming their innante prejudices, and personal hang-ups to come together and help make the world better. In the end, Mitch says that “We’re them,” which makes him worried, but in actuality is the essence of the series. It’s about erasing the borders that divide us and embracing our oneness as a single human organism. It may worry Mitch that he’s a part of Stinkweed, but it also means that Stinkweed is a part of him, and by merging with the enemy rather than fighting it, you can control it.

By the last episode, everyone is doing what they want to do, functioning in harmony as a single entity. I love a lot of the little flourishes, Cass telling off Palaka in her New York tough guy voice, she’s totally out of regular reality, channeling the power of John’s father into the world. And, the montage of the parade sequence is another burst of fun and energy, I wish it wouldn’t end. The series isn’t always consistent, but at its best, it’s a transcendent spiritual experience, never more so than when John and Shaun fall out of the sky, back to the water.

I think it’s hard for people to reconcile the spiritual elements of the series with the cursing and hard edged atmosphere. But, that’s the world we live in. Even if Butchie flips off a beach cleaner, he’s still keeping the faith. This is one of the greatest TV series of all time, filled with wonderful characters and performances, I’m hoping the world will catch up soon and realize just how good it is. In Cass's Camera, season two is starting.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Doctor Who: 'Planet of the Ood' (4x03)

It’s strange for me to think that both Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica are in the fourth season. Thanks to the many lengthy delays in its broadcast run, it feels like BSG has been on forever, while I’ve watched all of Doctor Who in the past few months and it still feels like a ‘new’ series to me. But, thankfully, both shows are at the top of their game in the fourth season.

Typically, the fourth season is a stumbling point for series, Buffy, Angel, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under all aired clunkers in their fourth year, and needed to be reinvented in the fifth year. But, both Who and BSG are ‘ending’ after this year, BSG for real, Who for its Davies tenure. And, the last season seems to liberate producers to be a bit bolder, raise the stakes and pay off more story points, knowing that they won’t have to keep things going for another year. These past few episodes of Who haven’t had that much explicitly dealing with the upcoming ending, this episode’s end of the song reference is the only notable one here, but the mood feels different, heavier, more reflective and subdued, like the Doctor’s finally having to really examine the weight of his years of travel.

Surprisingly, Donna has become the most interesting companion on the show so far. I still like Rose more, but Donna’s perspective is making every story she’s in more interesting, and forcing the Doctor to examine himself in a way he never has before. The best scene in this episode is the Doctor and Donna outside the Ood cage, when he lets her hear the song. In a moment that feels so real and sad, Donna says that she wanted to go out in the world because she thought it would be better, but now she just wants to go home. Much like with Martha, the Doctor’s companion is finding that it’s not all fun and games out there.

The Doctor can never turn off the song like Donna can. He’s always got to live with this, and much of the season so far is about the burden he’s got to carry, living as a god, forced to let people live or die according to the structure of history. As I said last week, this flows really well out of the Master arc. The Master grievously abused his power as a timelord, he remade the world in his image, and the Doctor must be thinking about whether he could do that too, only for good. But, he’s bound by the rules and can’t intercede.

The opening half hour or so of this episode was all great stuff. We’re first made to associate the Ood with slaves from the past, and are wondering how a civilization could allow this to happen. But, everything’s upended when the Doctor talks about how the Ood are the same as the third world laborers who make our clothes, and ensure that we can have the cheap consumer goods that fill our homes. The implication is every society is built by exploiting the labor of its poorest citizens, and it’s surprisingly easy to justify or ignore their presence.

This was a great looking episode. The concentration camp/meat packing plant imagery was powerful, and the snow over everything was beautiful. The chaotic Ood riot at the end wasn’t quite chaotic enough, but that’s a frequent problem with the series. A lot of the scenarios are so ambitious, you can’t help but be a bit disappointed when it feels like only ten Ood are breaking out instead of ten thousand.

The episode drags a bit on the road to its conclusion, particularly the time spent with hair losing scientist guy. We pretty much know this guy is going to get his just desserts at some point, and the time spent with this one dimensional guy isn’t as interesting as time spent with Donna and the Doctor. However, the end is effective, as the enemy becomes that which he hates most, and we get the wonderful scenes of the Ood raising their brains and linking up again.

The final scene is on the one hand pure tease for future episodes, but it also works as a way to show Donna that sometimes the tough times are worth it because there are moments where they can make a difference. It renews her faith in what the Doctor does, and deepens their partnership again. I love what they’re doing with her this season, and Catherine Tate is doing a great job of distinguishing herself from the previous companions.

It’s appropriate that Who should be airing as the summer blockbuster season revs up since this show is pretty much a great summer blockbuster every week. More than the vast majority of big movies released in the summer, the show gives me that feeling I remember from watching big, crazy action movies as a kid. It’s the mix of spectacle and emotion that I love. That’s why even though a scene like the crane chase is essentially pointless for the story, I’m glad it’s in there because it’s just crazy fun. I think it’s that joy that’s missing from a lot of blockbusters today, you get the sense that the characters are having fun and really care about what’s happening. And, ultimately, the show’s about the characters. It’s a great season so far, hopefully they’ll keep it up.

Battlestar Galactica: 'Faith' (4x06)

So far, this has season of Battlestar Galactica has been nailing every episode in a way that none before has. Season three may have started out with the four best episodes of the show’s run, but it slipped up after that. While these episodes haven’t matched the heights of the New Caprica arc, at least yet, they’ve got me much more optimistic about the future of the show. Each new story turn opens up a lot of interesting possibilities, and thankfully it seems like we’re staying focused on narrative and character development, not random standalone stories. There’s so many interesting threads in play right now, and on an intellectual level, the show is far beyond anything else currently on the air. This episode is a perfect example of what science fiction at its best can do.

As I mentioned last week, Kara has been so on for me since she went off on the Demetrius mission. They’ve finally reconciled the destiny-having, mystical believing Kara Thrace with the badass pilot fighter Kara, and she’s once again the most fascinating character on the series. Just from the way she moves her eyes, you can see the internal conflict seething within her, and her struggle to balance her need to keep the trust of everyone on the ship with her desire to realize her destiny and reach Earth.

She’s always been someone whose passion overflows, and watching her speak to the hybrid, you can sense her yearning for some kind of purpose, a direction, proof that she’s doing the right thing and isn’t just insane. Earlier than that, I love the moment when she sees the basestar suspended in the planet’s atmosphere and realizes that her picture has come true. It’s absolutely gorgeous aesthetically, and such a triumph for her, even the onslaught of meteorites afterwards can’t shake her confidence.

The sequences on the basestar are a triumph of forward planning. It feels almost like a well executed farce, with everyone who shouldn’t be meeting running into each other at the most inopportune time. There’s so much potential tension all around, a closeted cylon, a cylon playing human, and others all keep things full of tension.

Let’s start with one of the episode’s strongest scenes, the confrontation between Six and Barolay. I got so distracted by the possibly there lesbian subtext of her admiration for Kara that I didn’t even realize we had a classic red shirt aboard, and her death had me genuinely worried because I want this cylon/human alliance to happen so much. I’ve always been partial to the cylon characters, and ever since Downloaded, this is what I’ve wanted to see. So, I was on edge when Kara returned and tried to guide them to a truce.

The real star here is Tricia Helfer, who killed it in that scene with herself. It was so well shot, perhaps by necessity using those really tight close-ups, lit so we can barely even see their faces. Throughout the episode, the lighting was really low, and I liked that. Glowing neon colors barely casting light onto the characters’ faces made for beautiful scenes. The scene is evidence of how much Natalie needs this alliance to happen. Without the humans, they are doomed, and she’s willing to sacrifice a piece of herself to make it happen. But, at the same time she indicts the humans for their bloodlust. The Six probably would have died anyway, but this way, she shows them how wrong they are to want to kill. Really powerful stuff.

Also interesting throughout the episode was Sharon’s struggles to deal with her own identity. As much as I wanted Sharon to find a place within the fleet, I think the character loses something when played as a completely loyal soldier. Here, we get more insight into what’s driving her, she has to totally commit to this side, go overboard, because if she doesn’t choose a side, she’ll fit nowhere. This is the only way to keep Hera safe, it’s the only way to be with the man she loves.

That said, I have to wonder why the Eight who dies at the end of the episode says that Athena Sharon was right. Doesn’t she lose something by totally betraying her culture? I suppose the Eight winds up dying alone, and nobody wants that. But, is actively fighting against your own people any way to be. I suppose that is a part of the character’s problem, the fact that at this point she must hate herself to be accepted, and that is made literal during the scene where she tells off the horde of Sharons seeking her out.

Also struggling with his identity on the journey is Anders. He sees the base star as the place where he can find out who he really is, and that’s why he shoots Gaeta rather than risk getting taken back to Galactica. I’m sure there will be repercussions for that, though it may get overlooked when the basestar returns. If I had to guess where things will go at this point, I think there will a split of factions within the fleet, echoing what we saw in the cylons earlier this year. The hardliners will say that it’s folly to go with the basestar towards Earth, to bring the fleet’s greatest enemy within them to what should be the sanctuary from this war. Gaeta will be one of these hardliners, as will Adama, while Roslin, Baltar and Kara side with the Cylons, who offer a way to Earth. But who knows what will really happen.

On the basestar, Anders seems to be perpetually on the edge of snapping. I love the moment where he reaches for the watery thing, a potential source of answers to who he is. The other great scene is his moment of kindness towards the Eight after Sharon rejects her. He at least won’t let her die alone.

The episode closing hybrid revelation sets up a potential path towards both Earth and the revelation of the fifth. I love the scenes with the hybrid, it’s hard to believe that it’s really a person in there, and that’s a testament to how well the actress playing her does the role. It’s crazy stuff going on, but everyone grounds it in emotional reality.

Elsewhere, we see Roslin getting ready to embrace both death and Gaius Baltar. Long time enemies, it seems like Baltar is really onto something this time if he can get Roslin over to his side. The cylon god though he may be, he offers comfort to the dying, and that’s what she needs at this moment. The episode closing scene with her and Adama is beautiful and tender, even as it hints at a possible schism between the two. Adama refers derisively to Baltar’s “horse manure,” which she’s clearly starting to believe. I’m looking forward to the next meeting between the two of them.

This was one of the best episodes of the series’ entire run to date. It’s filled with incredible images, and really emotional sequences. The basestar sequence was a perfect example of how to use the long term character development possible in a series to set up really intriguing and tense narrative situations. We’ve been with these people so long, there’s such history, it’s easy to feel how fragile the d├ętente is, and how much ill feeling exists between these people.

And, perhaps most importantly, the episode opens up a world of fascinating story possibilities. How will the Galactica react to the arrival of the basestar? Will Baltar embrace them as religious brethren? How will the final four react? And many more, this season is fantastic so far, and looks like it’ll only get better. I only wish it wasn’t ending so soon, it took me a couple of episodes to get back into the world, and I don’t want to lose it so soon.