Saturday, June 07, 2008

Doctor Who: 'The Doctor's Daughter' (4x06)

The Doctor’s Daughter is a glass half full episode. If you choose to focus on what worked, there’s plenty good here, if you focus on what didn’t, you could easily call it a failure. But, I choose to see it half full, and thought this was a pretty enjoyable episode. And, I’m guessing once the season ends, the purpose of the episode’s going to be a lot clearer.

My biggest issue with the episode was the perfunctory introduction of Jenny. If we’re supposed to really view her as his daughter, it should probably take longer than five seconds for her to appear out of the clone tank. And, shouldn’t the Doctor be more worried that they’ve created this weird clone of him? Is she a clone, what is she, how much is him, how much is her society? There’s a lot to explore, and admittedly we do get some emotional stuff with him and Donna, but in general, there’s not enough time spent to make it feel like, yes, this is really his daughter, and thus make the end of the episode really work on an emotional level.

What does work is The Doctor’s eventual realization that in some ways at least, this is his daughter, and consequently, he is no longer the only Timelord. The Time War itself returns, and we are reminded that The Doctor had at one time destroyed both Timelords and Daleks. The nonviolent aspect of the Doctor’s character has been hammered home the past few episodes, and that’s something I didn’t really get back in the Eccleston era. Knowing this is a guy who is so hesitant to kill makes his decisions back in “Parting of the Ways” even more layered.

I liked Jenny, I think she had a good amount of the Doctor’s spirit, but I would have liked more time to explore the dynamic between her and the Doctor. I think this story would have benefited from being a two parter, rather than the lackluster “Sontaran Strategem.” The story wouldn’t necessarily have had to be expanded, rather we could get more scenes with the makeshift family of Doctor, Donna and Jenny. What worked best in this episode, and the season as a whole, is the dynamic between the Doctor and Donna. She continues to challenge him and push him out of his comfort zone in a way neither Rose nor Martha did.

I like Martha well enough, but seeing her up against Donna, it becomes clear that her character’s main purpose was to be Rose redux, and never quite match up to the original. She has her own personality, but her dynamic with the Doctor isn’t as interesting as Donna and the Doctor. My favorite scene in this episode is Donna challenging the Doctor, saying he talks, but never says anything, which prompts him to tell her about the Time War.

Back in “Sontaran,” the main plot was a bit clumsy, but the scenes between Donna, the Doctor and her Grandfather really hit me emotionally. I love the idea that Donna, like Rose, has fully embraced this new kind of existence. She’s happy to travel everywhere, she’s seen some bad things, but understands the kind of changes they can make. I think she understands the Doctor better than any of his other companions, and I’m curious to see what will happen with her when Rose turns up. I’m sure we’ll get one last “No, we’re not a couple” gag, but beyond that, it’s unclear.

On the whole, I enjoyed this one. I think it could have been a lot better, but Jenny has a lot of potential, and I’m curious to see what they can do with her in the future. Will she show up for the guest star bonanza that’ll close out the season? We’ll see.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Flex Mentallo #1: 'Flowery Atomic Heart'

My epic series of posts on The Invisibles from last year covered Grant’s definitive work on our world, the nexus of his philosophical worldview, simultaneously the source and culmination of his ideas about our universe. But, there is another world, the superhero world, and for him, it’s a world that’s just as valid and alive as ours, if not more so. Flex Mentallo is a philosophical treatise on the superhero comic, the definitive exploration of what makes the form work and why it’s important for the world as a whole. Superhero comics are a guide to a post human world, and Flex Mentallo is our first step on that journey. It follows up and expands the themes of Doom Patrol and Animal Man, and provides inspiration for what he would do later in Seven Soldiers and All Star Superman. It’s the definitive superhero story, a synthesis of sixty years of stories that mashes up everything that came before and spits it out with a new vision for the future.

Let me start outside the book with the story of how I found Flex in the first place. The book has never been reprinted after is original single issue release, which means there’s probably something like 20,000 or 30,000 copies in the entire world. I think that’s helped to build the legend of the series, you can’t just walk into a store and buy it, you’ve got to hunt it down. Admittedly, torrents have made it easier, but I still prefer reading on paper. I bought issues 1, 3 and 4 from a comic store in 2002. I walked in, asked if they had any and got those issues. I picked up issue 2 on Ebay and had the whole series for about 30 bucks.

Will Flex ever be reprinted? I hope so, but on some level, it’s cool that it’s so valuable. There’s a forbidden mystique around the issues, you’ll probably never see a Flex Mentallo movie, it’s not going to be a mainstream hit, it just is what it is, a tripped out acid trip journey through the border of our world and the comics world.

The series begins with a big bang, a cartoon genesis. In The Invisibles, John a Dreams steps outside the game and serves a variety of roles to move the universe towards its predestined ending. The Fact is a similar figure here, he exists at different moments in time, and serves as the catalyst for both Flex and Lt. Harry’s quest. If, as the end of the series posits, our world was created as a place for superheroes to hide in, it would stand to reason that the big bang would be a cartoon bomb, which spirals off into a million pieces of cosmos.

I love how screwy scale gets in this opening zoomout, as we journey back The Fact to the cosmos to The Fact again, this time rendered in blue and white, like the kid on drugs’ view of the cosmos in issue 2, and eventually out to a diner where our hero stands tall. One of the things that jumped out to me reading this first issue after going through the whole series is the subtle change Flex’s visual presentation goes through over the course of the four issues. Here, he’s very much the uncomplicated squarejawed hero, almost a cartoon. He gradually gets ‘realer’ as the series goes on, less out of place in the universe. It ties in to the general progression of the series from Golden Age to Silver Age to Bronze Age to New Age.

I think Quitely is the greatest comics artist of all time, and this series, like everything he does, is a visual masterpiece. In terms of sheer technical skill, We3 is the best thing he’s done, but on some level, I don’t think he’s topped this series. The variety of scenes he draws, the worlds he creates, are all amazing. And, throughout, the storytelling is totally spot on. To paraphrase Coppola, this comic isn’t about an acid trip, it is an acid trip. You can read this straight and still go on a mind bending journey, right from that first panel on.

Having just read Doom Patrol, I was wondering how this series fit in to the mythology there. It would make sense that this would be Flex’s next journey after what he went through in the Pentagon, but this Wallace Sage is alive, he died in DP. It doesn’t seem to be a direct continuation, rather it’s an alternate universe take on the story we saw in Doom Patrol, expanded into its own narrative.

This series frequently causes issues for readers, it’s pretty difficult to follow because of the linking narratives. There’s a desire to know which is ‘real,’ is the Flex story just a vision of this guy who’s tripped out on acid? That would be the logical conclusion, but in the Morrison universe, it doesn’t quite hold. Each story is equally real, Wallace is alive in a world close to ours and Flex is alive in a world of his own, a world which Wallace Sage created. The act of telling a story is the act of traveling to another world that exists in your own mind, but ideas don’t come entirely from your mind. That’s what we get to later, when Wallace travels to the place where ideas come from. There is something outside ourselves that we channel into stories, and that’s the place where Flex is. Wallace gave Flex life through the comics he drew, and eventually Flex will save his creator.

Flex and Lt. Harry talk about Faculty X, an organization that’s devoted to “showing us how fragile the whole system is.” It eventually is revealed that Faculty X is the multi-dimensional form of The Fact, and what he’s doing is preparing them for the imminent return of the superheroes. That’s why we see paraphernalia from the Legion of Legions in Harry’s desk. Notably, the bombs The Fact throws aren’t real, but people still behave like they are. The idea of a bomb, the image of a bomb can make people react in the same way as a ‘real’ bomb.

This gives way to Wallace Sage reading a story about The Fact and Wax Worker. He talks about how you don’t think and analyze yourself when you’re a kid, “you just do.” The dichotomy between childhood awe and wonder and adolescent doubt is central to the series. Wally gets so wrapped up in his own issues, he loses sight of the wonder of the world around him. He can’t lose himself in those simple pleasures anymore because what once was amazing now just feels kitsch. That’s what happens to a lot of people as they grow up in our world, this layer of irony grows around you, wrapped up in your own failures and perceived inadequacies and it becomes hard to enjoy the world.

Comics are a medium that still struggle to grow beyond “Zap! Bif! Pow! Comics aren’t Just for Kids Anymore,” and so much of that becomes overcompensating. Wally may have been a geeky, lonely kid, and on some level he still is that kid, hating who he is, hating the stuff he liked. As we find out at the end of the series, it’s that adolescent self hatred that’s the real villain, the inability to love the world the way he used to.

Flex says that both he and The Fact are fictional characters created by Wallace Sage, and that Wally died in his arms. This is what happened in Doom Patrol, which could mean that Wally created an alternate fictional version of himself who also came alive in Flex’s world. I love the fact that Flex knows he is a work of fiction, but is none less real for it. He has come to life somehow, and is going to do his thing.

Each issue features a page or two discussing a specific age of comics. On pages 12 and 13, Flex reflects on the simpler times that were the Golden Age. Much like he’s doing with Batman now, Grant considers the entire history of comics as a series of events in the same lives. So, it’s not like a different Flex lived during the Golden Age, this Flex was alive in the wacky Golden Age and is left to reflect on why his world has become so much darker and more subdued. While I love some deconstructionist superhero stories, it can’t be too much fun for the heroes themselves to have their worlds torn down.

Things start to get weird when Wallace flashes between petting his cat and standing in the rain. I love the way the series manipulates time and realities. It’s hard to create any sort of liner narrative or strict definition of what’s real, it just sort of flows from moment to moment. I feel like that’s how our minds actually work. When I’m not directly engaged with doing something, I shift between the world around me, a story I’m creating, my own memories, stories that I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, all bleeding together.

So, who’s mind is this work taking place in, whose worlds are we moving through? The logical answer would be Grant’s own. Grant started to fashion himself as the rock star of comics around this time, and always played in bands, so Wallace would be a logical alter ego. I can’t say for sure, but this feels like the most autobiographical work Grant’s ever done, an attempt to integrate all kinds of experiences from his own life into a kind of coherent narrative, bleeding between real memories and the stories he’d created. So, Flex moves into the school in his story, where he sees eight year old Wally. The times blur because fiction and reality don’t exist on the same tracks, Flex exists at various moments in Wally’s life, always the same even as Wally changes. That’s how it is for superheros, the world changes around them, but the archetype at its core remains the same.

One of the things I really like about Flex is the way it explores the actual experience of reading comics, how much of an influence it can be on kids. That’s what sticks with him in the end because it’s what helped shape Wally’s view of the world. It’s simultaneously something to aspire to, and an impossible thing to match. Our world can never be as exciting as theirs, at least not until it is.

Lying in the hospital, we get a throwback to Barbelith from The Invisibles. This universe’s Barbelith is a giant green lamp hanging over his hospital bed, “an alien intelligence, watching me, conducting some kind of experiment on me.” Barbelith is typically an enlightenment experience, later on, the color green is associated with Limbo, the Third Eye hero who guides Wally to the place where ideas come from. He’s got to suffer through this experience on his journey to enlightenment later in the series.

At the school, Flex speaks to the janitor about the lack of role models for kid sidekicks today. Grant has said that the reason he writes superhero comics is because he sees the superhero as the model for future versions of humanity. So, if this model is dragged down in violence and muck, what will become of humanity? We need someone to save us, but we’ve trapped our heroes in the ‘real world,’ we’ve taken away what makes them wonderful. The Janitor says “It’s just people who need saving. The World’s fine as it is.” We can create change through individual action, we don’t need to shift some cosmic paradigm.

The issue ends with Flex stopping another bomb and narrowly missing The Fact once again. The Fact is the spark that ignited the universe, he is in many ways God. And he’s also the person Wally is speaking on the phone this whole time. So, the whole conversation that frames the story is a discussion with God, it’s Wally trying to figure out what his life means, and whether he should give up and die, or grow beyond his adolescent self and embrace who he could be. He has the crossword puzzle, he just has to find out the magic word. And, in the end, it’s his own creation who will save him, a being who emerged fully formed out of his own mind will rise up, take his hand and show him a better world. That’s what art can do, that’s what comics can do.

The work of Grant’s that comes closest to Flex Mentallo for me is All Star Superman #10. In each case, he uses the superhero as an aspirtational figure, a perfect being we try to live up to, who inspires and saves us when we’re down. All of Flex is contained in the one page where Superman stops Regan from jumping off the building. That’s the essence of this series, when things are at their worst, channel the heroes, live like them, if Superman can destroy an evil sun, surely we can get over a bad breakup, or a bout of depression.

Hopefully tomorrow I’ll post my thoughts on issue two, a trippy journey through the Silver Age and more strangeness. Stay tuned!