Saturday, May 31, 2008

Doom Patrol: Another World, A Better World

I finished my reread of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol yesterday, and my feelings about the run as a whole pretty much echo my initial impressions on the reread, there’s some moments that are absolutely amazing and among the best stuff Morrison has done, however there’s also some run of the mill storylines that just throw out weird concepts, but don’t really click emotionally. However, he ends on a superlative high note, with one of the best single issues he’s ever written, the beautiful “Empire of Chairs.”

“Empire of Chairs” synthesizes all of the series’ major themes in one issue, in which the Doom Patrol faces their most troubling enemy of all, the real world! Crazy Jane was sent to hell by the Candlemaker, and it turns out that hell is a world that’s pretty much our own. Colored in flat sepia tones, Jane is treated as she would be in real life, her multiple personalities are a problem, the adventures she thinks she had delusions.

It’s notable that this issue on the surface undermines the reality of everything Morrison’s ever done. He appears to reduce all the stories of the series to the delusions of a mentally ill woman, and deconstructs them, pointing out the similarities between the series’ villains and the simple underlying meaning of everything. He makes us realize how absurd and unbelievable everything that’s come before seems.

But, the central message of the series is that it’s okay to be different, that normality is boring and the crazy lives of the Doom Patrol are far more interesting than the lives of traditional superheroes. The Mr. Nobody arc is all about Cliff confronting this fact. Cliff clings to normality, he may be a brain in a robot body, but when Jane presents herself in the Scarlet Harlot outfit, you can sense how embarrassed he is by the attention she’s drawing to herself. However, his innate caring for Jane makes him realize that he’s more worried about her getting hurt than what people think of her.

In the ‘Magic Bus’ arc, Rebis and Jane realize that there’s nothing particularly worth protecting about the world they live in, so they’re not worried about Mr. Nobody disrupting it. Cliff decides that people should have the right to choose their own world, ignoring the fact that maybe they’d rather have Mr. Nobody’s world than the one they’re in. Cliff, at the beginning of the series, is a pretty conservative guy, he clings to authority figures, like the Chief, and longs to have a normal life. However, as the series goes on, he learns to change, and accept who he is.

As the series ends, Rebis and Dorothy float off to uncertain futures in the magical Danny the World. However, Cliff stays behind, he’s not quite ready to disconnect yet. He’s still got to decide whether or not he wants to leave the regular world behind. He’s been through so much awful stuff, but he clings to that normalcy. One of the most important issues of the series is the secret history of the Doom Patrol, as revealed by the Chief. On the one hand, it’s a really courageous story structure because Morrison reveals the villain behind the whole series, sets up this huge confrontation, then completely subverts it when the Candlemaker rips Caulder’s head off.

But, on an emotional level, it’s really significant because it tells us a lot about both the old Cliff and present day Cliff. As the chief tells us, old Cliff was not a particularly nice guy, he was someone who lived mainly for himself. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, in a lot of ways it’s normal, but that Cliff had little of the soul that Robot Man Cliff develops over the course of the series. It’s notable that Cliff has to lose his body and virtually everything that previously defined himself to finally learn who he is. Cliff clings to the Chief because the Chief saved him, made him the body he has and let him live. But, it turns out that Cliff is a victim of abuse that’s not too dissimilar from what Jane went through. His father figure betrayed and used him, and left him a broken shell. It’s not as bad as the explicit sexual abuse Jane suffered, but both of them went through the experience of having their worlds shattered, and their minds left in disarray.

Both of them shut themselves off from the world to deal with the trauma. Jane creates the elaborate network of alternate personalities, while Cliff throws himself into his work, into preserving the Doom Patrol and saving the world. Only after plunging into the world of the nanobots and saving the world does depression really set in, does he realize that Jane is gone, as is his best hope of ever feeling more. But, there is a better world.

Much of the series centers on the Doom Patrol’s nebulous relation to order and chaos. Sometimes they’ll find themselves fighting on the side of chaos, trying to prevent things like the Pentagon horror from destroying the world, other times, they fight for order, trying to stop the Candlemaker or Mr. Nobody from disrupting everything. Through it all, the constant remains a desire to stop people from getting hurt, a desire to make lives better and end destructive conflict. The Invisibles makes a big deal of there being no sides, so it’s appropriate that the allegiance of the Doom Patrol should shift so often.

In the last issue, Jane finds herself caught up in the conflict between the need for normalcy and the room for individual expression. In the Doom Patrol world, her psychological trauma turns her into a superhero, and her battles over the course of the series help her cure herself. But, in our world, we don’t process problems that way. We see something out of the norm and try to medicate it out of existence. There’s no room for Jane’s fanciful imaginings, here they just mark her as insane.

The real tragedy of the issue is that I think that most people in our world would want to ‘cure’ Jane if they knew her. They’d want to return her to our reality and give her a functioning life. But, is that desire motivated by helping her, or is it more about making ourselves feel okay. When someone’s in a psychological delusion, it’s not necessarily them who are being hurt, it’s us, unable to deal with something so out of the norm. Now, it’s not plausible for Jane to live in our world the way she was, but as the issue makes clear, that’s not her fault, it’s the fault of the world.

We live in a world where that which is outside the norm is treated as illness, and every attempt is made to bring people to the same mental place, with the same kind of feeling. Alan Moore has talked a lot about this, particularly in From Hell, where we see that mental illness used to be considered the intrusion of gods into this world, but now we view it is an anomaly to be cured.

The issue raises a lot of questions about the nature of reality vis a vis the rest of the series. Was everything simply the delusions of Kay Challis, an attempt to deal with the sexual abuse she’d suffered? Or is it the world she’s plunged into, our world, that’s the creation, born by the Candlemaker as the ultimate hell? That’s a bold call, to make our world hell, but it works in this story. In Morrison’s cosmology, it’s the boring, uninterrogated life that’s worst of all. In his reality based works, characters generally exist in relation to pieces of fiction, King Mob and Robin dream of being like characters in the books they grew up reading, and are excited when they find out that they grew up and became those characters. One of my favorite single issues of all time is The Invisibles 2.20, in which a young Robin (aka Kay) talks about reading The Invisibles and imagining herself into the story until it all became true. Similarly, Flex Mentallo’s Wallace Sage finds himself reflecting on the shitty comics he read, imagining an alternate world where they’re what’s real and he’s what’s fake.

Ultimately, Jane’s story here echoes those other stories. In each case, the character writes themselves out of the everyday world and into a fantasy world that’s more alive. It’s about moving beyond the real/not real dichotomy and choosing to live in the world we want. People want to minimize the struggles we go through, so called ‘realistic’ works are all about not much happening, but in my own perception of my life, the trials I go through are huge. And, that’s why I think superhero stories, like Doom Patrol, are important. Morrison understands that our own depression isn’t best depicted as a guy sitting alone in a dark room while it’s raining, it’s best depicted as a giant black hole that will engulf the entire universe if we don’t stop it because that’s how it feels in our own mind. If you die, your world ends. To the world at large, it may not matter, but to you, and the people around you, it’s a huge deal. Jane’s story is insignificant to the world at large, she was just the girl at a shop, ringing you up, going about life alone, but in her mind, she was involved in these huge, world changing struggles. You never know, the person you pass on the street might just have saved the world the night before.

And, in the end, she chooses to abandon the dull, boring ‘sane’ life and embrace the craziness of life with the Doom Patrol. Does Jane kill herself at the end, is that what we’re meant to perceive happened in the real world? Perhaps that’s what happens in the ‘real world,’ but it’s not what really happens to Jane. Jane moves into Danny the World, the other world, the better world that must be out there.

It’s a really beautiful story, and a perfect conclusion for the run as a whole. I think Morrison’s a bit more consistent today, works like New X-Men or Seven Soldiers are slicker and have fewer weak arcs, but there’s very little he’s done that has the emotional impact of that issue. Back then, Morrison was an outcast, struggling to find his place in the world, a feel that runs through his work until The Invisibles Volume II, when he decided to become King Mob, at which point everything became a lot slicker and cooler. I love that hypersigil pop period of work, but it’s occasionally nice to go back and read the stories of a bunch of ordinary, but incredibly strange people. That’s what the Doom Patrol is about, recognizing that no matter how strange someone appears on the outside, we ultimately all want the same thing.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Final Crisis #1

I’ve been waiting for Final Crisis for a long time. It’s designed to be the conclusion of Morrison’s last twelve years of work in the DCU, from JLA to Seven Soldiers to 52, as well as a kind of alternate conclusion/continuation for Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga. And, it’s a followup to Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis, all of which I’ve actually read, so I was eager to go into a crossover knowing what was going on. Of course, I didn’t read Countdown or any other DC stuff since 52, so perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. But, it reads perfectly fine for me, I’ve got all the major concepts, and am really liking it so far.

The tagline of the work is ‘The Day Evil Wins,’ and that feels pretty accurate so far. It’s a heavy series, filled with foreboding and darkness. Our heroes have very little agency, they’re mostly subjected to a series of troubling images and events, with the only hope lying in the past/future collision of Kamandi and Anthro. Knowing Morrison’s style, I think the forces of good will resurge and eventually win the day, wiping away the darkness and beginning a new age for the DCU. Morrison considers this his final statement in the DCU, and usually his works conclude in a pretty definitive way. I’m guessing the end of the book will work simultaneously as a new beginning and a great way for the DCU as a whole to end.

A lot of the book’s cosmology comes out of Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle. When I first read that series, I was pretty baffled, but on a second read, I loved it. The basic conceit is that the New Gods have been decimated and are hiding out as homeless people on the street, while Darkseid’s crew have entrenched themselves in positions of power in society. It’s a surreal, David Lynch-y journey that ends with Shilo bursting out of the prison universe and back into ‘reality.’ But, it seems that his prison is escaping the black hole and becoming real. Darkseid is wearing the same flesh suit he wore in that series, and the New Gods themselves are apparently dead.

I missed Death of the New Gods, but it sounds like an awful series. However, if it fits into Morrison’s Mister Miracle worldview, I’m cool with it. The basic status quo appears to be God is dead and Darkseid reigns on Earth. Now, there was a lot of speculation that this series would end with humans being elevated to the status of gods, kicking off the fifth world. That would certainly fit with what we get here.

The series opens with Metron giving Anthro fire. The opening scenes echo 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also chronicled humanity’s path towards Godhood, and is probably the closest thing to Morrison’s work we’ve ever seen on film. The gods give humanity fire, and they can use it to combat evil. That opening sequence could easily be a microcosm of this whole series, only the fire of the present is the super powers of the New Gods, the counterpoint to Darkseid’s oppression.

But, that oppression is on heavy here. My favorite scene was Turpin going into Club Dark Side and seeing the children who are victims of the anti-life equation. The anti-life equation is one of Kirby’s most potent concepts, and it’s exciting to see Morrison and Kirby do a kind of team up here. This Darkseid is totally menacing, a great reinvention of the concepts from Kirby’s work.

In SS: Mister Miracle, we saw Metron inspire Shilo, put him through an awful trial so he could come out stronger, come out ahead of death. When does that resurrection occur in relation to the events of the series? We see him on a billboard here, but I’d really like to see Shilo in the series, and find out how he’s been changed by his experience. Is he the equivalent of Anthro for the present, spreading the teachings of Metron and helping to elevate humanity?

Along with the SS/Fourth World stuff, there’s a bunch of other DCU goings on. I’ve never been that into the Green Lantern cosmic kind of superheroics, it’s enjoyable enough here, but not as emotionally engaging as the other stuff. Similarly, the death of Martian Manhunter is so offhand, I’m assuming he must return at some point down the line.

Libra is more interesting conceptually. What he’s trying to do is essentially flip the moral polarity of the DCU. It’s a world where good always triumphs over evil, he’s not content with the status quo and is trying to reverse that. Like a reverse Metron, he spreads a new gospel of what’s possible in the serve of darkness. Much of Morrison’s work is about moving beyond the limits of what’s deemed possible, what does it mean when someone tries to move to a place that’s worse?

So, I’m pretty happy with the first issue. Not every bit works but it feels like he’s going hit a good mix of cosmic insanity and emotional focus. And, I think it will be a fitting conclusion for all his DC work to date. JG Jones’s art isn’t as standout as Frank Quitely or JH Williams, but it works really well for straight up superheroics. My only gripe is having to wait a month for issue two.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I’ll be curious to see how the future treats Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Coming out of The Matrix: Reloaded or Revenge of the Sith, I think most people were pretty charged and liking what they saw. However, they soon got cut down repeatedly on the internet, and the consensus narrative became these movies were bad. That’s a valid opinion, but I think it says more about peoples’ expectations than the movies themselves, and the inability to live up to an idealized original. The new Indy film isn’t perfect, but I think it has the same flaws and same strengths as the originals, and was an incredibly satisfying experience on the whole.

I loved the first half hour and the last forty-five minutes or so of the film, and felt that the middle dragged a little bit. One of the major reasons for this is that Cate Blanchett totally killed it in her role as Irina Spalko. Indy films have never been known for their villains, there’s guy with the black hat from Raiders, guy who rips out hearts in Temple, not exactly memorable characters. Irina isn’t exactly a character, she’s a presence. By that, I mean it feels like she came right out the pure essence of B movie, a villain who doesn’t have any particular emotional complexity, she wants what she wants and is going to do whatever she needs to do to get it, while at the same time, our hero is going to do whatever he can to stop her.

Watching this performance a couple of days after rewatching her work in I’m Not There makes a pretty strong case for her being the best actress of her generation. The range is astonishing, and as Lucas’s recent Star Wars prequels show, it’s not easy to do this kind of acting, to find that mix of fun craziness and some kind of emotional believability. It’s easy to act in quotations, to reduce the work to some kind of pastiche, it’s harder to play these absurd situations totally straight, and yet not overly serious. She pulls it off, and most notably, she’s just a lot of fun to watch, she owns the screen whenever she’s on, and gives this movie something that none of the others have had.

Everyone else was pretty solid as well. Harrison Ford made it believable that Indy could still do these things, it was great to see him acting in a good movie again, not the kind of schlock he’s been in recently. He’s not the world’s most versatile actor, but he does what he does better than anyone else out there, and his mix of charm, humor and action ability was on full display here.

For me, the part of the film that really lingered was the sequence inside the temple UFO at the end. If you’ve been reading for a while, you probably know of my love for scenes where characters confront universal forces, and interact with other, higher dimensions. But, I was not expecting to see one in this film. I knew aliens would be involved, but I wasn’t expecting the metaphysical experience to follow, the spinning aliens coalescing into one, or the great moment where Irina comes face to face with an alien, prompting her mind explode. It’s definitely a throwback to the classic faces melting in the ark scene from Raiders, but I think that appropriation says a lot about the film’s implicit point.

The previous movies have been about characters coming into contact with relics of major religions. People can accept the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail would have this power because we’re culturally conditioned to believe in magic in the past, but not the present. Much of America believes that a man parted the red sea, that a man came back from the dead, but if you said it happened today, they would never believe. In a lot of ways, aliens became a modern mythology, not unlike gods of the past. They exist outside our world, leaving no proof of their existence, but still dominating our dreams, our cultural idea of the other.

On top of this, we’ve got the classic idea that aliens were the ones who originally brought life to Earth, that aliens were the gods the ancients worshipped. So, there’s a basis in past mythology, but really, what the end of the film does is raise a b-movie concept to the level of religious experience. The implicit message is that the religion of today is movies, it’s movies that ignite our dreams and form our view of the universe, particularly of God, of what’s beyond us. It’s made quite literal when the classic flying saucer emerges from the ashes of the temple, the gods of the past giving way to our current perception of god.

So, if we’re to view aliens as the gods of today, wouldn’t that make Indiana Jones the Odysseus of the present? He’s a cultural icon, with his own totems and symbolic representation. Lucas has talked a lot about creating his own mythology with Star Wars, and that’s what they’re exploring here, the intersection of pop mythology and religious tradition.

I really loved that, and I think it’s a surprisingly deep set of ideas to explore in a film like this. Aside from the interesting philosophical stuff with the aliens, the whole chase through the jungle sequence is fantastic. Yes, the monkey bit is goofy, but it feels right in context. I always hate reviews that say you have to just accept something what it is, but in this case, that kind of feels right. The movie exists in a world where logic is slightly removed from our own, you can either enjoy it, or nitpick it. Here, it’s not like you have to turn your brain off to enjoy the film, it just hits a different part of the brain.

I’ll sometimes get into debates with people about why I don’t enjoy “mainstream” movies, why I can’t get into an Adam Sandler comedy or something like that. The problem is most so called ‘fun’ movies aren’t fun at all, they have no intelligence or layers, and most of all, they’re not actually fun. People use dumb as a synonym for fun, the movies I find fun are like this one, intelligent enough, and expansive in their pop scope. There’s some ideas mixed in with some really well executed set pieces. I’d love it if more ‘mainstream’ movies were as good as this one. I’ve got issues with the weird, soft look of the film and some of the dragging in the film’s center, but on the whole, it’s a great success.