Friday, June 05, 2009

Batman and Robin #1

Morrison and Quitely’s Batman and Robin isn’t anywhere near as profound or majestic a work as their recent collaboration, but it is a really fun comic, that sets out an interesting new status quo for the characters, a shift in approach for the next chapter in Morrison’s great Batman novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed the issue, I think there’s a lot of great stuff in there, but I’ll admit that it didn’t move like the over the top insanity of Batman RIP. What the issue does best is set up a really strong world and a new outrĂ© threat for the characters. A lot of that change in feel is due to Quitely’s art, which feels so much cooler and futuristic than the Tony Daniel art on RIP. It’s a new pop world, which needs a different Batman and Robin.

Morrison’s economic characterization is a large part of what makes him so great as a writer in comics specifically. He tells everything we need to know about the Dick Grayson/Damien dynamic from their brief interactions with each other. Damien sees himself as the real heir to the Batman identity, and is supremely self confident, while Dick expresses uncertainty about taking on the identity of his legendary mentor. But, it’s not done in a really emo way because they’ve both got a job to do, and that takes priority.

I admire the artistry of the opening action sequence, or the cool cut away view of their Gotham apartment building, but it wasn’t until the ending that the issue really took off for me. The introduction of The Pyg is really creepy, bringing a horror movie vibe to this otherwise rollicking adventure. Morrison described the series as David Lynch directs the 60s Batman TV show, and that’s the sequence where I really felt that coming to life. This is the same doofy theme villain with a gang of identical henchmen you’d see in the series, but with a creepy twist to it that makes it really disturbing.

The first part of Morrison’s Batman was largely about confronting the horrors within. Everything that Doctor Hurt did to Bruce was designed to send him down a self created spiral of insanity, to destroy Batman’s ability to be Batman. In the series, every criminal that Batman fights is really a prismatic reflection of his own confrontation with death, his own thogal. Hurt is designed to be a deliberately ambiguous worst nightmare ultimate enemy for Bruce. So, he may be Thomas Wayne pretending to be the Devil, he may be the Devil posing as Thomas Wayne, either way, he’s the worst threat that Bruce could imagine.

Morrison played with the idea that Bruce was really the one behind the Black Glove, creating an enemy so strong he could never defeat it as a way of preserving his own purpose. The whole thing was that kind of bizarre psychological journey, and I loved it, but I still respect the change in approach he’s going for here. It’s almost like the change in the identity of Batman necessitates a kind of back to basics fighting crime approach. I’m sure things will become more twisted and psychological as it goes on, but for now, I enjoyed this issue as a fun romp.

Though, I’ll admit the most joy I got from the whole thing was seeing Doctor Hurt holding the keys to Wayne Manor on the teaser page. For whatever reason, that character totally resonated with me. I love his outfit, I love his over the top lust for destruction, and I’m eager to see him come in contact with this new Batman and Robin.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

X-Men Documentary

I’ve mentioned earlier on the blog about my in the works Grant Morrison documentary project, but that’s not the only comics documentary in development. I’m also working on one about the history of the X-Men, with a primary focus on the first Chris Claremont run. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get the chance to film with Claremont, Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti, the three people who presided over the X-Men during its rise in popularity during the 80s. The three of them hadn’t been together in over ten years, and we were lucky enough to be there to film the reunion.

I’ve written a lot about Claremont on here, so it was pretty surreal to be sitting there, watching the three of them talking about working together on those stories, and how they came about. It was really fun to see them talking, particularly when they went through a box of stuff Ann had that had all kinds of artwork from the era, including a bunch of original Art Adams pages, which were just beautiful.

I don’t know that there were any huge revelations, but as someone who loved reading those books, there were a lot of interesting stories detailing specific aspects of their intentions and what happened. But, more than that, it was interesting to hear about the spirit of Marvel at the time. It sounds like it was a really fun place to work, and less of a corporate entity than today. There’s always a tendency to romanticize the past, and I’m sure people like Bendis and Quesada could reminisce in the same way twenty years from now, but the Marvel they described doesn’t sound like the one that exists today.

I’m going to cut together some sample footage and put it online soon, probably not as elaborate as the Grant Morrison trailer, since we don’t have as much footage to work with, but something to check out.

And in terms of the next step in documentary production, we’ve got a few things lined up. In a couple of weeks, I’m heading down to Wizard World Philadelphia, and we’re going to shoot some stuff there for both Grant Morrison and the X-Men projects. Then, in July, it’s out to San Diego Comicon, the mecca of fandom. I’m excited for that, and hopefully we’ll get to interview even more interesting people.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lost: One More Time

TV used to be the most mass of mass media, but in the past ten years or so, it’s splintered into niches. And, with the rise of the internet, there’s a subset of people who support a bunch of ‘quality’ shows. If you believed the internet, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire and Arrested Development are the most popular shows of all time. I’ve seen most of these internet buzz shows, and loved them. For the short list, refer to shows that get weekly recaps at The House Next Door. As I make my way through Breaking Bad, I think I’ve seen every show that they do weekly recaps for. But, there’s one major one I’ve never finished, one that’s one of the most discussed shows in the blogosphere, Lost.

As I’ve mentioned on here before, Lost is a show that I’ve tried a couple of times, I watched the first season live, then ‘cancelled’ the show. After hearing how great season two was, I decided to watch again and saw about ten episodes before giving up again. The show always sounds amazing, like exactly the sort of thing I want to see, but there’s always a mess of structural issues that prevent me from enjoying it. That said, once again, hearing vague things about this most recent season that sound amazing, and after some solid recommendations, I was thinking about giving it another shot. Then, watching JJ Abrams’ Star Trek film turned me around on him, and I decided to give the show one more try, and watch it all from the beginning.

As of now, I’m twelve episodes in, and liking it, but also still feeling a lot of the issues I had with it the first time through. I first watched the show on a 13 inch TV, or my computer monitor back in college. Now, I’ve got a 58 inch HDTV, and the thing that really jumped out was how great the show looks. The locations they have are gorgeous, and put pretty much any other show on TV to shame. Even when the stories aren’t working so well, there’s some really nice stuff to look at, and the show is always shot in an exciting way.

My central complaint about the show the first time through was the narrative structure, with its reliance on flashbacks to develop the characters. For the first few episodes, I was like, why did I hate this so much? The first Kate flashback is a solid story, and “Walkabout” is still great, even knowing the end twist. Those stories do a great job of setting up the mindset of the characters, without trying to resolve everything in a neat little short story structure. Jack’s flashback works really well also, because it’s just a sketch, not an attempt to tell a whole story, and it’s a nice contrast to his persona on the island. That said, that episode is where the flashbacks start to fit a bit too neatly into the events on the island, it’s one thing to parallel the stories, but the more implicit the parallel the better.

Things go awry in the first Sayid and Sawyer flashback episodes. Sawyer’s doesn’t work because of an ending that takes away all his edge, and makes no sense. We’re supposed to believe a hard edged con man not only leaves the $160,000 he stands to make, but also his own $140,000 simply because a kid walks into a room. If he’s conning rich wives, I think he’s conned families with kids many times before. The story would have worked just as well, if not better, by having him still take the money, thus giving him somewhere to grow on the island.

Sawyer is a problematic character because he’s meant to be a morally ambiguous badass, but winds up coming off like the Fonz, a network TV idea of a bad guy, one who really has a heart of gold. At first, he seems to recognize there are no rules on this island, and he can control things if he wants, but after the lame flashback story, and his inevitable capitulation to Jack and crew, he becomes a paper tiger, with no real spine. Sawyer/Jack/Kate is a riff on the classic Spike/Angel/Buffy archetypal triangle, or the bad boy vs. good guy for morally ambiguous girl, but Sawyer is not as legitimately dangerous as Spike.

And, most of the flashbacks feel kind of same-y. The person is going along, something bad happens to them, they feel bad about it, story ends. Particularly as we enter the second round of flashbacks for characters, the flashback segments feel so unnecessary and just take away from the real reason for watching the show. The flashbacks do reveal some character details, but I’d rather see that development happen in the present, in conjunction with the forward motion of the narrative.

Now, you could argue that all these criticisms are actually part of “the plan.” The reason so many of the flashback stories feel similar is that this group of people were all chosen for a reason, they all have pain in their pasts that need to be resolved in some way on the island. That’s what’s hinted at in “Raised by Another,” where the psychic ensures that Claire was on the plane. And, perhaps there will be some mindblowing revelation that will place all the flashbacks in a new context, and make it clear why time was spent on them.

But, that gets to the core problem with the Lost viewing experience. The show is based almost entirely around questions. Why are they on the island? Who are the others? What’s in the hatch? And, that makes the actual in the moment viewing experience almost less important than the speculation about where things are going. The flashbacks are problematic because they detract from time that could be spent on present day character development that would flesh out more about people feel about their new lives on the island. I’d rather see fifteen minutes of people just living their lives in a new way each episode than spend time on the flashbacks.

And, ultimately, the answers to these questions don’t matter. A TV show is about the experience of watching it in the moment, and I think the writers here sometimes forget that. Even if it does piece together wonderfully, will my retroactive enjoyment of these episodes make up for the frustration in this moment. There’s a line between an investment in a series and just wasting your time. I enjoy the show enough in the moment to persevere, but a large part of that is my curiosity to see what happens in the newer seasons, which sound great.

Lost is all about making you ask what happens next, while I think the best TV shows are more about the why than the what. But, I’m going to stick with it, and see how things develop. I am eager to get past the episodes I’ve seen and see what went down from the backhalf of season two on.

Top Ten Grant Morrison Works

Since everyone’s doing it, I figured I might as well jump into the fray and offer my own Grant Morrison top ten list. It’s not definitive, but this is how I feel about the stuff now…

10. Batman - To speak what may seem like a heresy to some, Morrison’s Batman before Tony Daniel are some of my least favorite comics of his, but starting with the three part torture chamber arc, the run took off into some of the most exciting, darkly psychedelic Batman stories ever told. I totally loved All Star Superman, which was released concurrently, but it was so remote and perfect, it was at times hard to even engage with. Morrison’s Batman is a lot messier, the art is nowhere near Quitely, but it was in some ways more exciting, full of weird concepts and surreal moments that brought the character to new, surreal heights. And, I even think Daniel worked for the story being told. His generic Image style only made it even more surreal when Batman rocked the purple and yellow costume, or Bat-Mite made an appearance.

9. Animal Man - Animal Man is another slow starter for me. The first four issues are really weak, and the mid section takes a while to get going, but the final ten issues or so are right up there with the best stuff Morrison’s ever written, emotionally devastating and surreal, the perfect epitaph for phase one of Morrison’s career.

8. Marvel Boy - Midway through The Invisibles, Morrison segued out of his subdued 80s style into a glamorous pop world, and Marvel Boy was all about bringing that pop approach into the Marvel universe. It’s his best collaboration with JG Jones, full of wild ideas, and really great energy. This is the purest dose of Morrison ever to drop in the Marvel U.

7. All Star Superman - This is in a lot of ways the most well realized Morrison work. The art is perfect throughout, and reading it, it’s hard to believe that a story this definitive could be getting released in the present day. It feels like this story always existed, it’s the greatest Superman story in the characters’ entire seventy year publishing run. Issue #10 in particular is a masterpiece.

6. We3 - This work is a perfect collaboration between Morrison and Quitely, each innovating new methods for telling stories in comics. It’s a technical marvel, but the real strength is the emotion. I don’t even like animals, and this really got to me, it’s one of Morrison’s simpler stories, but perhaps his most emotionally potent.

5. Kill Your Boyfriend - A concentrated dose of teenage rebellion, KYB riffs on films like Natural Born Killers and Badlands, while also serving as a meta commentary on The Invisibles. Unlike a lot of GM’s work, it hews closer to the rules of our world, and the characters are recognizable as the kind of people you might meet, or might have been. I first read it at 17 or so, and it tapped perfectly into this need for rebellion, while at the same time criticizing that violent rebellion. And, the Bond artwork is just sublime.

4. New X-Men - I love a lot of Morrison’s DC work, but I think I’m at a disadvantage there because I didn’t grow up reading or loving those characters. I got to know them in his JLA, but there was no inherent change to reading about Martian Manhunter or the Huntress. The X-Men were the characters I loved growing up, and Morrison’s work on the title is the perfect collision of his philosophy and the soapy character based plotting that typified Claremont’s finest work on the title. The art has its ups and downs, but I think it’s the most satisfying of any of Morrison’s long runs on a major superhero title.

3. Seven Soldiers - This is the book that made me love the DCU, and it’s the core experience of this work that helped me appreciate JLA, 52 and Final Crisis. Seven Soldiers is structurally unlike anything else I’ve read, this book is the next evolution of the interactivity of The Invisibles. Fully understanding the book requires detective work to piece the disparate pieces of narrative that are spread across the seven miniseries. I love bits about all of the individual series, but Zatanna in particular was the one that just blew me away, and in four issues made me totally understand and support this character. And, it’s also got some of the best art of any GM work, with each individual artist perfectly complimenting the story they’ve been chosen to tell.

2. Flex Mentallo - Why does Morrison spend so much time writing superhero comics? The answer’s in here, it’s because they’re out there somewhere, trying to move us forward into a better world, and the only way they can talk to us is through the comics. Simultaneously riffing on the complete history of superhero comics, serving as an alternate world biography of Morrison, and a delirious acid trip origin story for the entire universe, this is the definitive statement about why superheroes matter, and what our fictional heroes have to say about our society. It’s also one of the most surreal reading experiences you’ll ever have. And, Quitely instantly proves why he would become Morrison’s most valued collaborator with his dazzling art. Every other superhero comic he’s ever written

1. The Invisibles - No question here. It’s not only my favorite GM work, it’s my favorite work of fiction period. It’s a living, breathing entity that burrows into your mind in a way nothing else can. Morrison has talked a lot about how he lived the events that went into the book, and hearing him talk, it’s clear that even calling this a work of fiction is a bit off. It’s fiction in the way a dream is fiction, a heightened reflection of the world around, mixing real events and fantasies into something totally unique. It’s a great action story, it’s a great character story, and it’s a great mindbending piece of philosophy. The Invisibles changed my life, without it, and played a role in many key decisions that led me to the place I am right now.

1. The Invisibles
2. Flex Mentallo
3. Seven Soldiers
4. Kill Your Boyfriend
5. New X-Men
6. We3
7. All Star Superman
8. Marvel Boy
9. Animal Man
10. Batman