Thursday, July 02, 2009

Batman and Robin #2: "Batman Reborn: Part 2: The Circus of the Strange"

Batman and Robin #2 is a lot like the first issue, in that much of the first half is spent on a fight scene seemingly designed to show off Quitely’s unparalleled storytelling abilities, and outrĂ© design sense, and then spends the second half picking apart the emotional impact of recent events in the characters’ lives. I like the way that Grant doesn’t do the story as a strictly continuous series of events, you get the sense that things happen off camera and inform the way the characters behave.

Most of the time when I talk about comics, I talk about the writer primarily, with the artist as kind of an afterthought. That’s because most writers don’t take full advantage of what the medium can do, and most artists aren’t doing anything particularly innovative. But, even working with the best writer in comics, it’s Quitely’s work that leaves the biggest impact here. I love the design sense of his Batman and Robin. The costumes are barely altered from traditional looks, but the gray pants on Damian’s outfit, and the green boots make all the difference in turning one of the lamest costumes in comics into one of the coolest. His Batman also looks great, making the classic grey suit look very fresh.

Quitely’s design sense got the most attention on New X-Men, with its emphasis on “pop sexy” characters, and his work there was great, but he always makes his superhero characters look so much cooler than anyone else. He makes their clothes look like something you’d actually want to walk around in, even more so than any of the movie Batman outfits. I still wish that someone would make a line of clothes based on his X-Men outfits, I’d love to wear those.

His storytelling is fantastic here, and the aesthetic he creates is what lingers after the issue. I think he’s just gotten better and better as time has gone on. Something like Flex Mentallo was beautifully rendered, but he’s gotten more and more formally inventive as time has gone on, and the experimental approach of We3 has given way to the almost three dimensional action feel of All Star Superman and this book. This book feels a bit grittier than the day-glo clean of Superman, fitting in light of its subject matter. The one misstep for me is the obese man in a tutu, who feels like a stock Quitely grotesque. But, everything else is great.

I don’t’ have too much to say about the fight scene, it’s fun, particularly the buildup with the roof meeting, but the real gem on a writing level is Alfred and Dick’s discussion in the cave. Here, we see the Dick/Damian relationship as a kind of adopted child thing. Dick can never live up to Bruce, who Damian now deifies, despite having little respect for him when they first met. So, Damian is rushed into both the role of Batman, and the role of adoptive parent of the world’s worst child.

Damian’s criticism only makes it even clearer to Richard what he sees from people like Gordon, he’s only impersonating Batman, it takes something deeper to be the real Batman. Alfred shortcuts that by suggesting that Richard take on the role of Batman, and channel his spirit as an actor would.

This series so far has seemed generally disconnected from the rest of the Morrison’s Batman run. The renumbering signals a clear break, but the approach is also very different. I loved the death metal heavy ambience of RIP, but I think it was smart do a break like this, to reflect the introduction of the new Batman. But, a scene like this one ties back into a lot of the key stuff from RIP. That storyline had a heavy emphasis on Alfred as an actor, raising the question of whether he was behind what the Black Glove was doing. Telling Dick to “play” Bruce calls back to the questions that were raised there.

In addition, it brings the series much closer to Morrison’s core thematic concepts than the first issue was. Much of Morrison’s experiments with magic and drugs in the 90s were about turning himself into the person he wanted to be, through the medium of the fantasy persona King Mob. He chose to abandon his previous incarnation, the low key guy we saw in Animal Man, and reinvent himself as a comics rock star. Did something just click and change in him one day? No, he chose to become the person he wanted to be, and that’s what Alfred is telling Richard here, to just play Bruce until it becomes real.

It ties in to a lot of stuff from previous Morrison comics, the characters in Division X for one, and Magneto’s performance as Xorn in particular. In that case, Magneto played the role so well, he created a character that people liked more than his actual personality. So, the inspirational message here is don’t worry about your “true self,” just be the person you want to be, and the world will catch up. It’s a magical act of transformation.

Things close out with Damian getting overwhelmed by the creepy doll henchmen from last issue. It’s a great visual moment, colored in neon day-glo shades. It also sets up a nice redemptive moment for Dick in the next issue. While those closing images are great, my favorite drawing in the book is Damian speeding along on the bike, a spectrum of color streaming out behind him.

So, I really liked this issue. I think it deepens the world we saw last time, and raises some deeper character stuff, keeping the arcs from the previous Batman stories in mind. It’s a totally enjoyable book, and I’m eager to see where Morrison goes with it next.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Dusk is nothing if not timely. Written by David Doub and drawn by several artists, it’s an independent graphic novel about Vampires, and with the success of Twilight and True Blood, there’s clearly an appetite for this kind of material. But, with the plethora of vampire stories already available, what distinguishes Dusk? After checking out this first volume, of which there’s still more to come, that’s not totally clear. The basic setup has main character Eve working as the assistant to vampire Ash, in exchange for a daily dose of his blood to keep herself strong.

As a girl slaying vampires, Eve can’t help but bring to mind Buffy, and in general the first few stories hit territory I’ve seen a bunch of times before. I like vampire mythology, but I preferred the skewed take Buffy had to the more straight forward approach of something like True Blood or this book. There are some attempts at humor, but generally it plays as pretty dark and classical, with Ash in the position of noble, old morally ambiguous vampire and Eve as the girl drawn to him.

The book is structured as four chapters, each a kind of standalone story. The first sets up the world, and later ones delve into Eve’s back story and feature an excursion to a snowy mountain to hunt a vampire. The most compelling of the stories is the final one, which centers on a high school outcast caught up in Eve’s world.

The book has three artists, and the final one, Franc Czuba, is easily the best. The first couple of chapters are plagued by murky art that conveys the action, but doesn’t give us a real sense of character emotion. The third chapter has some strong moments, recalling Chris Bachalo, but isn’t consistent. The characters in the final chapter are more expressive, being able to see their faces instead of shadows makes it easier to empathize.

Unlike the other stories, Eve is only a peripheral character. The story centers on Teddy, a gothy high schoolers who’s hated by the “normal” kids and decides to use magic to get back at them. It sketches out a world efficiently and does a good job of humanizing some potentially stereotypical characters. By expanding the world of the series, the story gives an idea of how things could develop in a subsequent volume.

I think there are some major issues with the book, but there’s also some good stuff. Paired with the right artist, writer David Doub could help the series grow. The audience for this book is definitely out there, and hopefully he can get a boost from people wondering, "Where do I go after Twilight?"

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lost: 3x13-3x16

Each of these four episodes was a success on its own terms, and in general, the show is building some nice momentum. The story is moving forward again after a protracted period of stasis. One of the most intangible elements of any long form series is the viewer’s need to see the next episode. That’s ultimately the goal of any show, to make you want to, need to see the next episode. Be it high brow stuff like The Sopranos and The Wire, or lower brow shows like Buffy and Angel, the shows I love most are all ones that engaged me on that level of absolutely needing to see the next episode, to the point that I’m thinking about the show, theorizing about the show when not watching it.

I think in general that’s one of the things that makes serialized TV, when done right, a more compelling experience than film. It dominates your thoughts not just in the time you actually spend watching it, but when you’re between episodes as well. It’s a long term engagement that enhances the experience of the episodes themselves. In the case of Lost, I spent most of season one, both on the rewatch and the first time through, interested, but never really needing to see the next episode. With season two, the Henry Gale arc was something that had me consistently wondering it would go next, and everything after Michael’s return demanded to be watched. Season three lost that urgency in its first half, but it’s getting there. There’s a lot of threads I’m interested in seeing develop, and all the stories are at a pretty solid place right now.

But, what got them there? Let’s back track to “The Man From Tallahassee,” the payoff to pretty much all the long running arcs from the first part of the season. The story is married to yet another Locke and his dad storyline, but thankfully this one answers the major question from his past, and does a good job of setting up why the island is so important to him. While I generally don’t like the more supernatural side of things, I prefer the mysteries to be science based, I do love both Locke and Ben’s belief in the island as a kind of supernatural life force, taking care of them and giving them what they need.

Ben was riveting in the second season during his incarceration as Henry Gale, but he hasn’t been as effective this season. I think a lot of that is due to the fact that he’s best when he has no power, and has to use his psychological tactics to fight his battles. With Jack, Sawyer and Kate imprisoned, he’s got nothing to do. Confined to a wheelchair with Locke, he’s got to use his wits to survive, and he does so expertly.

I also particularly like Locke’s reasoning that he’s more in tune with the island because Ben’s the one in the wheelchair. Locke this season has seemed vaguely unhinged. He lost his faith last season, and felt that he was wasting his time by pushing the button. His faith was vindicated when the hatch exploded, not only did it show he wasn’t wasting his time, the explosion also sealed the island off from the world, ensuring that they won’t be rescued, which would force John back to the life he hated.

The question arises, why would Locke be so scared of Jack and Juliet leaving the island. He seems to believe that everything on the island happens for a reason, everyone has a part to play, so leaving the island would mean that things wouldn’t happen as the island intended. He is forced to act in the island’s interest to ensure things happen as intended.

And, when he fulfills the island’s will, he gets what he wants. He can walk, he can live the dream of adventure he sought when he signed up for the walkabout experience, and now out of the island’s “magic box” comes the final specter of his old life, his father, imprisoned and powerless before a dominant Locke.

When Ben talks about the “magic box,” I see it as the island’s universal will giving people what they want. He needed a spinal surgeon, one came to him. To trust in the island, to subsume yourself to its natural direction is to get everything you ever wanted. As the flashbacks have so relentlessly clear, everyone has myriad traumas in their past, and time on the island could be a way to come to terms with those traumas. That would explain why so much time has been spent on peoples’ pasts, rather than developing them in the present, but I’d argue that’s more of a coincidence than the writers’ design.

A few episodes later, we find out that Locke is going off with the Others to wherever they’re going. I loved this scene, and it’s got me really excited to see what’s happened to him. Ben told him that the reason he was coming to the camp was to bring John back, because he’s one of the good ones. John has bought into this, and has went over to the other side. Was the same true of the people the others took from the tail side of the plane? Are all the people on the beach side of things not good enough to be part of the Others community? There’s definitely a cult Jonestown kind of feel to things, and I think that’s a really interesting dynamic. Locke believes he has found his place, that he’s chosen, and that’s why he’s leaving the others behind.

Elsewhere, “Expose” is a fun episode that pokes fun at the show, and also does some nice character development with its time jumping story about Nikki and Paolo. This reminded me a lot of a season six era X-Files episode, in its self aware in jokes, and meta comment on the show itself. I thought the opening with Billy Dee Williams was great, and in general I enjoyed the alternate island history, but I think more could have bee done with that. Not that much was done to tweak the existing scenes, there was definitely room for more radical reinterpretations.

One thing I did really enjoy was how Nikki and Paolo find all this stuff in the jungle, and see Ben and Juliet for instance, but don’t tell anyone. On the one hand, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t tell anyone about this stuff, but I seriously doubt Jack and co. update the bulk of the castaways on what they’re doing. We see Jack as the leader, but maybe Nikki and Paolo don’t consider themselves part of that civilization. I think they made a mistake on the show by having 40 people among the castaways, instead of just the fifteen or so major characters. I suppose they wanted to have a pool of characters to draw on should they want to kill someone or introduce people. The problem is, we have no sense of who these people are at all, or how they relate to things. I don’t think they should have all been developed or focused on, certainly the show can barely service the characters it has.

But, The Wire can easily manage a world with 50 or 60 major people. Why not have more consistent faces in there, people who we may not know as anything more than “that guy,” but still know, and give them stuff to do every once in a while. As they chose to run the show, it would make a lot more sense to only have 20 castaways than to have thirty totally passive people we don’t engage with not doing much of anything on the island.

That’s why I think characters like Nikki and Paolo were a fun addition to the show, since they brought these other characters’ uselessness to the fore. They’re only concerned with themselves, and maybe all the other people there are too. I think the reason they were so hated is because they sucked up screen time at a point in the show when it was stuck in a rut, and they got blamed for that. I’d have liked to see them stick around as background personalities, in the vein of a Bernard and Rose. I also think they were nice comic relief in their absurdity.

But they’re dead now, and their final burial sequence was a really nice Tales from the Crypt or Twilight Zone style farewell. They got what they deserved I guess, and in the process we got another light, but fun episode, with a couple of serious bits. Sneaking the revelation about Sun’s attack into that episode was a smart choice, since the seriousness of what was done to her constrasted well with the generally goofier tone. But, successful though the episode was, I think it could have either been a lot more illuminating, or a lot funnier. As it was, it was too much clip show not enough recontextualizing.

Next up was a fun, though illogical episode centered around Juliet and Kate running around the jungle handcuffed together. You can practically hear the Grindhouse voiceover as they battle each other and get drenched and soaked in mud through the course of the episode. I thought the fight scene with the two of them cuffed was great, and in general it was a really fun scenario. How did Juliet learn to fight like this considering she was a scientist? I guess that’s a question for another flashback, but it worked well here.

What doesn’t work so well on this episode is the totally illogical moment where Juliet uncuffs them all of a sudden and reveals to Kate she’s been running a con. So, the plan was to gain her trust by telling her that she was lying to her about the plan to gain her trust? Seems a bit off to me, particularly when they were almost back to the Other camp, and she could have “found” the key there.

The Smoke Monster is one of the elements of the show that doesn’t really work for me. The use of recognizable real world sound effects, like receipts printing a roller coaster going up chains is distracting, and it doesn’t make too much sense in a reality based context. So, I wasn’t thrilled to see it back here.

Regardless, the next episode is another solid one, as Juliet heads back to the camp, and we find out that she’s running a con on them, or perhaps a double con and is actually double crossing Ben. I guess we’ll find out, I do find the constant cons on the show a bit exhausting. But, the episode worked, and did a better job of integrating and recontextualizing old scenes than the Nikki and Paolo episode.

And perhaps best of all, I’m really excited to see what happens next. There’s a lot of interesting plots running, and Juliet’s presence in the camp will probably incite a lot of lingering tension. Perhaps she’ll also pay off all these coincidental connections in the flashbacks and reveal that Claire is Jack’s sister and other things like that. What will be the point of that? I don’t know, but it’ll probably happen.

The episode also gives us some insight into the world of the Others. The Flame station looks like it was quite a place before Locke blew it up. The connection to the outside world is definitely something he’d want to be rid of, and perhaps Ben knew he’d be going there, and made it easy for him to destroy it.

What is the Others’ master plan remains unknown? But, they become even more like the cylons in Battlestar Galactica here, with the revelation that they’re just trying to have kids. I believe the missing ingredient was love, perhaps that revelation is coming up. But beyond that, what’s the goal? What’s worth fighting and dying for? Maybe we’ll find out more as Locke goes behind the curtain of the Others and gets initiated into their world. I just hope one episode ends with a sad montage of Tom and Jack staring out at the water on their own separate beaches, thinking back about the good times they had together.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lost: 3x07-3x12

The second phase of Lost’s third season is a big improvement over the trouble’s of the first batch of episodes, but still struggling a bit to regain narrative momentum. Some stuff happens, but I don’t have a sense of the overall direction of things, and that makes the continuing spiral of lies and missed opportunities for answers more frustrating.

“Not in Portland” resolved the initial captured by the Others arc in a satisfying way, and gave us just enough hints of what was going on with Juliet, and how she wound up on the island to keep things interesting. For all the criticism I have for the show, it manages to create some really weird moments and images. Karl getting brainwashed in the rave room can’t quite match the Orientation video from last season, but it’s the best moment of the season to date. It’s both a really successful scene in the moment, and full of intriguing hints about the future, and the real mission of the Others.

In light of the behavior we see from Cindy, and later Jack, it also raises questions about how the Others control the people they have imprisoned. Did Jack undergo a similar treatment, is that why he’s so happy to play football with Tom at the end of “Par Avion”? That would make sense, though I prefer to believe that Jack is just sick of being on this island and decided to embrace the creature comforts that the Others offer. It’s always more interesting to see characters consciously choose to do something transgressive than have them do it as a consequence of brainwashing.

If we accept that Jack has been pushed to the limit, and believes Kate has left him for Sawyer, it would make sense that he’d tell them to never come back, and then cross over to the other side, first for this football game, presumably with the hopes of getting off the island with Juliet in the future. Regardless of how it turns out, the episode closer with Jack and Tom tossing the ball around was one of the best misdirections on the show in a long time.

I suppose part of the point of “Stranger in a Strange Land” was to set up a slightly more unhinged Jack. Though I’d agree that it’s far from a good episode, I think parts of it worked, and it was better than doing another run through the standard Jack flashback milieu. Still, I think at this point we don’t need another Jack flashback at all. What did work was the surf noir feel of the early scenes, and the idea of Jack spiraling into this weird relationship with Bai Ling. What didn’t work was bringing in the ridiculous idea of the tattoos as a “gift,” and the fear that everyone seems to have about what Jack’s tattoos say about him.

That element, coming right after Desmond’s time travel journey in “Flashes Before Your Eyes” raises questions about the nature of mystical elements on the island. Season two seemed to be about coalescing the mythology of the first season under a single umbrella, a psychological experiment gone wrong. There’s some elements that don’t quite fit with that, but that’s fine, the show was figuring out who it was. However, now, the presence of the lady who tells Desmond about the nature of universal destiny, or the gifted tattoo artist who somehow curses Jack seem decidedly mystical, and I’m not really sure how to reconcile it with what we’ve seen before.

I’m guessing the tattoo stuff will never be mentioned again, and that’s probably for the best. But, Desmond’s time travel is something full of story potential, and clearly important to the development of the season. I thought that episode was great, and a nice spin on the flashback conceit of previous seasons. The way I interpreted it, after triggering the hatch’s fail safe, his consciousness was flung back in time to the moments he’d already experienced, and he experienced them again in a kind of fugue state, somewhat in control of his actions, but always destined to do the same thing.

The question that arises is, what is the nature of time in the series? Based on what’s presented, there’s two clear options, one is that Desmond is imagining the scenario he’s going through, as some kind of justification for the hellish imprisonment he’s been in, both the years in the hatch, and his return to the island. He’s told that the universe has a plan and we’re all subject to it. If he’s making this up, it could be an attempt to give meaning to his imprisonment by declaring that he “had” to be there, nothing he did could have averted it, and also that by pushing the button he is saving the world. This is the destiny the universe has chosen for him.

I don’t like the notion that it’s all in his subconscious though. I think there’s an eerie poetry in the idea of him literally getting a chance to redo the past. Perhaps the anomaly created by the destruction of the Hatch fractured time and led him into a newly created parallel universe where he has the chance to do something different. However, there’s a kind of universal governance directing things to ensure that they turn out the way they’re supposed to. So, even though Desmond gets a second chance, things are still going to turn out the same way, they have to, that’s the universe’s plan.

This could lead to the creation of a time loop recalling the end of The Dark Tower, where Desmond will have to relive his life over and over again until he does the one thing that will make things right. In light of the last scene of season two, I could see Desmond going back in time again and telling Penny that he’s going to disappear, but she has to watch for an anomaly, that’s the way to find him, leading to the South Pole team in season two calling her with his location.

I’m inclined to believe the flashback is more than Desmond’s subconscious, rather he’s floating in a kind of out of time state. The stuff in the present day, with him trying to save Charlie reinforces that. However, that raises the question of who the woman who tells him about the nature of destiny is. How would she know that he’s “supposed” to not buy the ring? Is she a higher dimensional being, a la John a Dreams from The Invisibles, or is part of the Dharma experiment about time travel and making sure the universe runs a certain way?

Speaking of Dharma, there’s a lot of teasing about the nature of the Initiative and its relationship to the Others/Hostiles, but nothing too definitive yet. It’s particularly frustrating when Sawyer and Kate have Karl with them, a guy who has no reason to lie, and they don’t ask him such basic questions as how long have you been here, and what’s the ultimate goal of the group?

That said, I did like the little mini arc with Karl and Alex Rousseau. She’s a very Buffy kind of character, and it’s fun to see her running around with the slingshot roughing up the Dharma group. I’m assuming that she’s not actually Ben’s daughter, since Rousseau sees Ben in season two, and gives no indication that she knows him, let alone once had a child with him. Though, she does say he is one of the others to Sayid, so perhaps getting him captured is some kind of elaborate revenge for what happened. That’s pushing it though, even for this show.

Also interesting in this batch of episodes is the Juliet flashback, which seems to support the concept in Desmond’s episode that destiny exists, and the universe will work outs its will no matter what we do. Juliet had to come to the island, and if it took a bus crash to do it, so be it. The question that arises now is whether that destiny is a general universal thing, or whether it’s all manipulated by the Dharma group. Were these people brought together on this island for a reason, or is it mere happenstance?

The sheer amount of coincidence would support a universal agenda, but that could also be the writers link characters together in the past as a way of justifying the increasingly irrelevant flashbacks. Even Juliet’s flashback only had moments of interest, and was wrapped in another domestic drama storyline that felt a bit played out.

I did really enjoy Hurley’s flashback episode, if only because it was a nice tonal shift from what we’d seen recently. And, the on island story about getting the bus running was fun in the short term, but also further hinted at the utopian dreams of the Dharma group. There’s no symbol of 60s dreams like the VW bus, and supposedly, these scientists went insane and attacked people. What led to that? The video that Locke sees in the Flame Station supports the idea that the Others/Hostiles and Dharma are separate people, but it could be a new video created just to mess with him.

Also introduced in this batch of episodes is Jacob, who seems to be the leader of the Others, and has a list that Kate and Sayid aren’t on. Was Ben not lying when he said he came to get Locke and bring him back because he was good? Jacob is also mentioned in the video that Karl sees. I’m sure we’ll see more of him down the line. For now, it seems like Locke is ready to cross over to the other side, more concerned with finding out what’s going on than protecting the people around him.

So, the show’s back on track to some extent. I think there’s still some issues with the constant lying and untruths, making real narrative progression difficult. But, there’s been some stronger character moments, and I think the show is another strong episode away from a real turnaround.

And as a side note, I'm reading the episode recaps at The House Next Door as I go through each episode, and it's pretty funny in retrospect to read so many people talking about Lost needs to learn a lesson from Heroes, a show that burned out incredibly quickly, and was never that good to begin with. I have a lot of issues with Lost along the way, but at least it intrigued me enough to get me to come back and give it another try, nothing's bringing me back to Heroes.