Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: March 25, 2009

Also out this week: Mark Waid and Marcio Takara’s The Incredibles: Family Matters #1 from Boom! Studios.

If I’d known it was written and drawn by the inimitable Roger Langridge of Fin Fang Four fame, I’d also have checked out Boom!’s new Muppets comic, of all things. Maybe I’ll get it next week, if there are any copies left.

* * *

The Amazing Spider-Man #589, by Fred van Lente, Paulo Siqueira, et al. Contrary to what the track record of both the writer and the character would suggest, Mr. Van Lente doesn’t play the Spot for laughs—at least not in the usual, funny-ha-ha way. Rather, this one-shot story goes for a tragicomic interpretation. And why not? Unexpected is good, and the Spot’s ability to travel through self-made holes in space that can take him—or parts of him—anywhere he wants is a pretty handy and frightening one to have for an assassin. But ultimately, it doesn’t go far enough: The Spot’s motivation should be driving the story, the way things are set up, but it’s not. I’m not sure why so much space is devoted to the generic Russian bad guy. If the new direction for the Spot sticks, at any rate, he desperately needs a new costume design. The basic idea of the black spots on a white background isn’t bad, but there has to be a more visually appealing way of arranging them than this.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Captain America #48, by Ed Brubaker, Jackson Guice, et al. Can I just be glad that this is over and hope for better times? I don’t get why Bucky let himself be captured without a back-up plan. I don’t get why Namor, who’s been Righteous Head-Cracking personified throughout this story, was overwhelmed and imprisoned off-panel. I don’t get what the point of the last six issues is supposed to be in the overall storyline. If there has been any character or plot development, I must have blinked. The idea of Bucky wanting to “salvage” something unspoiled from the Good Old Days is workable, certainly. But like this, tacked on the last page as a last-minute justification for the whole mess? Shame on you, guys. Please try harder next time.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C-

* * *

Daredevil #117, by Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, et al. Well, at least Daredevil comes out of hibernation after a couple of uncharacteristically dodgy issues. There’s nothing here that knocks my socks off, mind you. For much of the issue, Mr. Brubaker still appears to be on autopilot, playing for time with conventional situations rather than to tell the story with all guns blazing. But that said, I’m still relieved to see that the book has found back to a certain basic level of solidity: Characters are confronting each other, things are happening—all that jazz. And the artwork, as usual, is just stunningly beautiful. I don’t think I’ve read any other comic lately with backgrounds, settings, environments as rich and authentic-looking as the ones in here.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B-

* * *

Fantastic Four #565, by Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, et al. Last month, Mr. Millar perfectly botched the first half of this story. Supposedly, you recall, it was meant to subtly set us up for the fact that something was not quite right in that little town in Scotland. It was kind of undercut by the revelation, on page two, that BABIES ARE BEING EATEN THERE!!! This second half, now, is where all hell properly breaks loose. As you’d expect, Mr. Millar is rather more at home with hell than with subtlety: Hell is his roommate, subtlety is the little place behind the house where the two of them go to take a dump. Still, there are some panel-to-panel storytelling issues here. During the fight, it’s not very clear what’s going on a few times, for instance—and how on earth did the monster fit through the door of that vehicle? (And what, for that matter, was the point of getting it through if the whole stunt doesn’t work, anyway?) But overall, this is great fun. If you’ve got the Fantastic Four smashing monsters, you might as well move them to Scotland and really go to town—no pun intended.

(Marvel Comics, 27 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #5 (of 6), by Gerard Way, Gabriel Bá, et al. “Killing Time” would also have been an appropriate title for this issue. Two different fractions of the Umbrella Academy are stranded in the early sixties—one wants to kill President Kennedy, the other wants to save him. One of them arrived three years too early, and so they’re now fighting Vietcong Vampires and giant resurrected mummies and the like. It’s all gloriously mad, but still makes perfect sense. Once again, Mr. Way and Mr. Bá demonstrate what a brain, a pencil and an empty page are good for when they’re not inhibited by all kinds of strange and imaginary things, like conventions or editors.

(Dark Horse Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

* * *

Next week: Seaguy! Finally!

The Incredibles: Family Matters #1 (of 4)

Boom! Studios/Boom! Kids, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Marcio Takara
Colorist: Andrew Dalhouse
Letterer: Jose Macasocal, Jr.
Cover artists: Michael Avon Oeming, Nick Filardi

The Incredibles is one of the two titles launching Boom! Studios’ new line of licensed comics for kids, aptly titled Boom! Kids. And if you’re in the market for a line of licensed comics for kids, then The Incredibles certainly is one of the best, most promising properties for you to be pursuing right now. The film was a big success, after all, both commercially and critically, and it’s made the characters household names for Disney and Pixar. Plus, for any North American comics company in the business of producing periodicals, the fact that it’s also, on top of being well-known and popular, a superhero property can only be further incentive.

Now, the good news is, as a licensed comic, this is pretty far up the scale. Mr. Waid does a very good job re-introducing the characters, their abilities and powers and relationships, and Mr. Takara does equally impressive work capturing their likenesses, and generally makes it a comic that looks pretty and attractive and amazingly close to what people are familiar with from the big screen. The creators have managed to produce a story that’s well-told and effective in what it sets out to do—the composition of the camera angles and perspectives is just plain fantastic—and that broadly captures the spirit of the film and its characters. It’s not an easy feat by any means, and the vast majority of adaptations don’t get that far.

So, where’s the problem?

Well, a lot of the time, “captures the spirit” translates into telegraphing the broad strokes of the kind of stuff we would expect to be going on if this were a Disney/Pixar film, while at the same time being emphatically aware that it’s not. For instance, we remember the subtle rapport between Mr. and Mrs. Incredible that was so brilliantly communicated through dialogue, gestures and facial expressions in the film. And the comic certainly tries its best to recall it. But it’s just not on the page. The same goes for the interplay between Violet and the neighbors’ son. The same goes for the fight with the robot. And for much of the rest of what’s going on.

Take the last six pages, for instance, in which Mr. Incredible sneaks into the zoo at night and tries to retrieve a bomb from amid a pride of sleeping lions. It’s by far the story’s strongest sequence, and it does some stunning work, all things considered. But mainly, what stands out about it is how much more it could be doing. Why isn’t that lion’s leg wrapped around the bomb when Mr. Incredible first discovers it, resulting in a new variation of that particular old chestnut? Why—and this one’s unforgivable, really—why don’t we see Mr. Incredible’s face peeking from behind that rock in the background in the middle panel on the next page, when the lion briefly wakes up? Why doesn’t the story make much more of Mr. Incredible’s attempt to bend the bars of the fence?

The answer to these questions (not the second one, though—that’s just a tragic oversight) is this: because it’s a 22-page story. And therein lies the rub. Unlike, say, Mike Kunkel’s Billy Batson & The Magic of Shazam! series over at DC Comics’ kids line, which sometimes has—to great effect!—up to 15 panels per page, The Incredibles: Family Matters wants to be a “big,” “decompressed” comic. Most pages don’t have more than four panels, and the story even indulges in the luxury of a double-page splash.

Which is fair enough in principle, but not for a 22-page comic, and most definitely not for a 22-page comic starring The Incredibles, where 99 percent of the appeal comes from watching how the characters’ faces and bodies react to whatever is going on in a given situation. In 22 pages per month, utilizing what’s come to be called “decompressed” storytelling,” you simply cannot do that. You can’t.

Right now, the book is visibly struggling to get all the plot in and still give the characters enough play. And, while there are plenty of moments showing that the creators have the right idea in a general sense, it’s still failing overall. In terms of plot, it’s all very well-constructed. On the final page, we get to a point that makes sense, in theory, and that would be a reasonable break-off point for any superhero story. But this isn’t any superhero story. It’s The Incredibles, a property that works for much different reasons—reasons which require much more storytelling space than they’re granted here.

This is a valiant stab at adapting The Incredibles to comics, and it fares better than a lot of adaptations do. And who knows, maybe the kids will love it, after all. To me, though, this is still disappointing, because it seems too flat by design—on its own terms and certainly compared to the film. This either needs to be ten times more economic with its storytelling space than it is right now, or it needs to be a series of original 96-page digests that give the characters the spotlight they deserve.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: March 18, 2009

Sorry for posting these a few days later than usual—lots of stuff out, and it’s been a busy week.

* * *

Air #7, by G. Willow Wilson, M. K. Perker, et al. I haven’t been keeping track of the series, but this episode seems like an unfortunate choice for a low-priced introduction. Surreal things are going on: people reliving other people’s lives, giant snakes showing up, a steampunk airplane appearing out of nowhere. In itself, it’s all good and well, and the two principle characters—Blythe and Zayn—have potential. But the story fails to communicate what any of this means to them, why it’s more than random stuff, why it matters. I get the sense that things happen not because they’re motivated by anything on the page, but because the plot needs them to. For instance, Zayn refuses to introduce his girlfriend to his parents at one point, and he briefly turns radical at another. Both developments come out of the blue, and they aren’t leading anywhere, either. Air does seem like it’s trying something different, and I want to like it for that. It’s not quite there, though.

(DC Comics/Vertigo, 22 pages, $ 1.00)

Grade: C

* * *

The Amazing Spider-Man #588, by Marc Guggenheim, John Romita, Jr., et al. Overall, “Character Assassination,” the five-part storyline that concludes here, has been improving tremendously, but it’s still not very good. Despite creating a number of interesting set-ups, the story never takes the time to really get into any of its characters. It stays on the surface, and what’s left is a plot that’s predictable and repetitive, with characters that occasionally act in puzzling and frankly stupid ways. Spider-Man telling me that he hasn’t been “hurt like this since Morlun” (who?) in yet another scrap with Menace (the second in this arc? Or the fourth?) isn’t much good when the fight itself looks so pedestrian. It fails to convince me that the hero is suddenly resigned to the idea of being beheaded, certainly—and that’s just one of a number of key moments throughout the story that don’t work at all. I’ve liked the series overall since last year’s revamp, but this one is a miss.

(Marvel Comics, 32 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: C-

* * *

Amazing Spider-Man: Extra! #3, by Marc Guggenheim, Joe Kelly, Phil Jimenez, Fabrizio Fiorentino, Patrick Olliffe, Dale Eaglesham, et al. The three stories in here serve as epilogues to a couple of recent storylines. In the strongest and most interesting piece, by Mr. Kelly and Mr. Eaglesham, Harry Osborn revisits a childhood memory involving his father Norman. It’s a good idea, conceptually, but it stops just short of giving any real insight into the characters; and the less said about the tacked-on last two pages, the better. Mr. Guggenheim’s story retreats some familiar ground (Is Spider-Man responsible for what’s been happening to Peter Parker’s friends?) without bringing anything new to the table, and it suffers from an awkward and gratuitous point-of-view shift from Peter to his roommate Vin in the middle. The final piece, written and drawn by Phil Jimenez, is the weakest of the bunch; it regurgitates the events of the recent “Kraven’s First Hunt” story, all for a plot development that it doesn’t even seem terribly interested in. A missable package, all told.

(Marvel Comics, 32 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: C

* * *

Groom Lake #1, by Chris Ryall, Ben Templesmith and Robbie Robbins. Groom Lake has two things going for it. The first is a cigarette-smoking little alien. The second, more important one is Mr. Templesmith’s artwork, which, as usual, is great to look at. Mr. Ryall’s writing, however, seems awfully unimaginative and tired. The plot and characters are derivative of every bog-standard alien-abduction story you’ve ever seen, while the dialogue brims over with dreariness, obvious jokes and a lack of timing. I’ve never tried to write a comics script, but even I can figure out about five ways to make the gag with the third hand on page 7 more effective than it is right now. If anybody’s been looking for a less funny, less inventive version of Men in Black lately, then grow a third hand and raise it—Groom Lake is your big chance.

(IDW Publishing, 22 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: D+

* * *

Mysterius #3 (of 6), by Jeff Parker, Tom Fowler, Dave McCaig, et al. Arriving at the halfway mark, Mysterius continues to be a fun if superficial mystery romp. Which is frustrating, because it could easily be more if Mr. Parker would only give his characters some room to breathe in all that plot. It’s a nice, competently woven plot, certainly, but it’s also the least interesting part of the comic. Thanks to Mr. Parker’s dialogue, and thanks, once again, to the lovely artwork by Mr. Fowler and Mr. McCaig, the characters are just very entertaining to watch doing whatever they happen to be doing. It’s a shame that the story never pierces the surface for any of them. Three issues in, I still have no idea what drives Mysterius or Delfi. They’re cardboard cutouts—pretty and intriguing ones, certainly, judging from their one-liners, their sense of dress, their gestures and facial expressions, but cardboard cutouts nonetheless.

(DC Comics/WildStorm, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B-

* * *

Uncanny X-Men #507, by Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, et al. This issue, readers are in for a treat: a true character moment. It’s a first for Mr. Fraction’s run. By “true,” now, I don’t mean consistent with the character’s 35-year backstory. It certainly is, but more significantly, the story empowers me to believe in that particular moment. When Colossus, after smashing through a group of slave traders, just breaks down, hugs his teammate and comes to the realization that “I just want someone to hurt as bad as I do,” then that’s a moment that I can totally buy. That said, it’s all the more disappointing that the book continues to be a disjointed mess overall. Completely unrelated storylines and subplots are competing for space in a way that’s nothing but detrimental, and, as if that weren’t bad enough, plot threads from other series keep spilling in and out. Isn’t the Beast’s storyline precisely the same one he had in those backup stories a year or so ago? There’s some promise here, and I’m starting to see hints of what I like about Mr. Fraction’s work in Invincible Iron Man. What this series needs badly, though, is focus. Given that the next big thing on the horizon is a crossover with Dark Avengers, I doubt it’s going to get better.

(Marvel Comics, 24 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

X-Factor #41, by Peter David, Valentine de Landro, Marco Santucci, et al. “I don’t even feel the gun slipping from my hand,” Madrox says on the first page. Well, given that the story is told from his perspective, that’s kind of an odd thing to be observing about yourself, isn’t it? The previous two issues of X-Factor were promising, but this is a retreat. Dystopian future timelines, Sentinels, peddlers of anti-mutant weaponry, “hard-light projections,” yawn. It’s all solid and competent enough, and there are still some neat bits, but let’s be clear on this: I’m in it for the characters, and this doesn’t do a whole lot with them that’s very interesting to me.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

X-Men: Legacy #222, by Mike Carey, Scot Eaton, et al. This X-Men story has a bunch of generic space aliens and a generic robot in it, and half of what’s going on is a generic holographic recreation of other, older X-Men stories. Why is this such a terribly dull and soulless comic? Have the cool, imaginative X-Men stories all been told? I’d like to think not, but Mr. Carey may yet convince me that I’m wrong.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C-

* * *

Last week’s review of Waltz with Bashir is still up, and so is a look at the new Transmetropolitan #1 reprint DC put out there as part of its “After Watchmen” promotional offensive.

Transmetropolitan #1 Special Edition

DC Comics/Vertigo, 24 pages, $ 1.00

Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciler: Darick Robertson
Inker: Jerome K. Moore
Colorist: Nathan Eyring
Letterer: Clem Robins
Cover artist: Geof Darrow

(The comic reprints Transmetropolitan #1, first published in 1997 by DC Comics/Helix.)

“Special Edition,” in this case, means that the comic is part of DC Comics’ “After Watchmen … What’s Next?” program, which tries to foist more of the company’s product on people who, for some reason or other, vaguely liked Watchmen. With Transmetropolitan, which is set in a not-too-distant future and stars an eccentric reporter named Spider Jerusalem who’s loosely based on Hunter S. Thompson, the connection is more strenuous than with some of the other participating comics—it’s not superheroes, it’s not by Alan Moore, and it’s generally not very much like Watchmen at all. I mean, all right, it’s a comic; and it’s written by an Englishman and it’s kind of cynical sometimes. Evidently, that’s good enough for the publisher. Desperate times, you know.

And, by the way: It’s probably not a very good idea to tell people that Preacher, 100 Bullets or The Invisibles are “books for mature readers” in the house ads. At best, it’ll make them scratch their heads; at worst, it’ll make them think they’re porn. How many film or prose publishers are advertising their stuff as being “for mature readers”? (Then again, maybe making people think their comics are porn has been Vertigo’s strategy all along.)

Turning to the content, this is still very much as good as I remembered it to be. Given that it’s been ten years since I last read this story, that’s something of an achievement. Mr. Robertson’s art may be less refined than it is nowadays, but seems much looser and more dynamic here—and, frankly, a lot more fun to look at. Mr. Ellis’ writing is at once more whimsical and more controlled than his more recent work.

It’s more whimsical because Spider does stuff like randomly insulting and assaulting people, blowing up his favorite pub with a rocket-propelled grenade, invading his old newspaper’s building like it’s a beach in France and discovering that one of the futuristic doohickeys in his apartment is on drugs; and it’s more controlled because, through all of this, Spider has a clear and present desire that gives the whole thing some tangible urgency: He needs to produce two books, hence he needs to leave his mountain refuge where he can’t write and return to the City, hence he needs a job to support himself, hence he goes back to being a journalist.

“I couldn’t get at the truth anymore,” Spider Jerusalem says at one point, trying to explain why he left in the first place. It’s a great example how to cut through the surface antics of a character and give them some depth that makes the audience want to learn more about him next month. And while there is the aforementioned cynicism, the book isn’t drowning in it—on the contrary: Coming back to this, I’m surprised by the fair share of optimism and the sheer joy at the chaos of human existence that’s on display on every page.

So, all told, the story is holding up very well. Even 12 years after its initial publication, it’s making me want to go right on to the next issue, which is a lot more than most current comics can manage.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Waltz with Bashir (Film)

Sony Pictures Classics, 2008, 87 minutes

Writer and director: Ari Folman
Animator: Bridgit Folman
Art director and illustrator: David Polonsky
Producers: Ari Folman, Yael Nahlieli, Bridgit Folman, Serge Lalou, Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul

Even before it switches, at the very end, to actual live footage recorded in the aftermath of a 1982 Beirut massacre, Waltz with Bashir, an animated film by Israeli director Ari Folman, manages to create a world that is intensely real.

But let’s be clear on the terminology first. I’m sure you could argue all day whether it’s justified to classify Waltz with Bashir as a documentary. In the strictest sense of the word, it’s obviously not “documenting reality,” by virtue of being an animated film—but then again, the same goes for any footage: Arguably, the perspective of whoever does the filming and decides what to show suffices to discard any notions of an objective “documentation of reality.” That’s why scholars generally agree that the term “documentary,” as far as film is concerned, does not mean a simple reproduction of reality; rather, it refers to a “creative treatment of actuality,” as 1930s filmmaker John Grierson first put it. And that’s a definition which is certainly broad enough to include Waltz with Bashir.

Why bring that particular discussion up here? Well, Mr. Folman may insist that he’s not interested in categorizing films, but at the same time, he concedes that he did choose to label Waltz with Bashir a documentary in order to sell it—he could also have called it a fiction film, he says, and then nobody would have raised an eyebrow about the fact that it’s also an animated film. More to the point, though, the film itself is clearly aware of those questions. It actively invites them, in fact, and it plays with them quite a bit. It’s fair to say they’re one of the story’s central concerns, so a discussion of Waltz with Bashir can’t really be complete without addressing them.

The film’s narrative gets underway when Mr. Folman’s own persona in the story meets an old friend who is haunted by nightmares resulting from his experiences back in the 1982 Lebanon War. Prompted by the conversation, the animated Ari Folman realizes he has lost any memory of the war, despite serving as an Israeli soldier in Beirut when the Sabra and Shatila massacre occurred. In said massacre, between 328 and 3,500 Palestinian refugees (the number is contentious), nominally under the protection of Israeli troops at the time, were murdered by Lebanese Phalangists. All the film’s version of Mr. Folman remembers about the event is a surreal, dreamlike sequence that’s repeated several times in the film.

And so he begins to investigate his own past: by seeking out friends who also served in the war, by talking to psychologists, and by interviewing fellow soldiers who were also in Beirut at the time. Step by step, the story’s Folman retraces the events that led to him being in Beirut during and after the massacre. At one point, he compares filmmaking to psychotherapy—certainly an old chestnut when it comes to any creative endeavor, but the real Mr. Folman gets away with the line. After all, his animated counterpart is literally trying to unlock his memories and come to terms with his own role in the massacre, so the psychotherapy parallel is actually very fitting, in this case.

As indicated earlier, in addition to being a “creative treatment” of the “actuality” of the 1982 Lebanon War, Waltz with Bashir also challenges the notion of a documentary. Its quest for remembrance raises a number of questions that cut right to the core of the genre: If our brains “fill in the blanks,” how reliable is memory, anyway? Where does objectivity end, does subjectivity begin? And how objective can a documentary—any documentary—really be, when the form inherently has to leave so many blanks to be filled in by the audience? These questions are not new by any means. The fact that the film is not just aware of them but actively engages them while telling its story, however, makes it all the more worth your time.

It’s been said, now, that the film’s story itself is not nearly as impressive as its method of delivery. I agree with that, to an extent. Aside from the fact that they’re animated, many individual scenes—and the points they drive home—ring familiar, and don’t seem that much different from previous war films in terms of what’s shown, or in the way it’s staged. And while the film’s character development is very effective, it doesn’t go far enough to give me a sense of what the war really means to any of these people in the wider context of their lives, simply because we don’t get to know a lot about anybody’s life before the war. Viewed as a cinematic treatment of war, Waltz with Bashir doesn’t reinvent the wheel.

Stylistically, in fact, the film’s approach to the subject is not unlike that of Full Metal Jacket or Black Hawk Down: War and violence are portrayed in an extremely stylized fashion. Images and sound turn the experience of war into something esthetic, surreal, rhythmic—so rhythmic, in fact, that you can dance to it, as one of the soldiers in the film does, thereby inspiring its title. Waltz with Bashir certainly looks very different from the aforementioned films by Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott, of course, but Mr. Folman still uses the same stylistic toolbox.

Now, the one-million-dollar question is this, of course: Can an animated film really portray a war and a massacre that happened in reality, less than 30 years ago, without coming across as shallow and callous? The scenes in which it puts a beat and a soundtrack to images of death and destruction might send a shiver down the audience’s spine for the horrors they portray, but they might just as easily come across as a glorification of war and violence. It’s a very fine line to walk.

Waltz with Bashir pulls it off, because it never loses sight of the human dimension of what’s happening on screen. Right at the beginning of the film, a haunting sequence shows the recurring nightmare of a soldier whose job in the war was to kill the guard dogs of every village his unit passed: He killed 26 dogs, altogether, and he remembers every single one of them, because they keep visiting him in his dreams. It’s just one of a number of anecdotes in the film showing that violence has consequences—for its perpetrators as well as for its victims.

However, the film’s biggest achievement, in the end, remains its examination of the human capacity for guilt. Waltz with Bashir doesn’t just trace the ways we tend to process the notion of having done something wrong, but dissects it: rationalization, justification, repression, denial, confrontation—layer by layer, the film peels off the different human responses, tracks how they blur and shift over time.

Toward the end, a few lines of dialogue skid close enough to excusing the protagonist from his responsibility to make me raise an eyebrow; but even as the film suggests it might spin off in that direction, it draws attention to the ways Germans have responded to the Holocaust after World War II. By the time the merciful veil of animation is pierced by live footage from the aftermath of the massacre in the film’s final seconds, it becomes abundantly clear that excusing anyone from their guilt is not among Mr. Folman’s concerns.

Waltz with Bashir deserves praise for its stylistic sure-footedness, certainly, and for the fact that it very successfully applies animation and an array of modern storytelling techniques to the cruelty and absurdity of war. What really makes it an indispensable and unique work, however, is its unflinching, sharp-witted look at the length and breadth of the human response to guilt. In that respect, it’s as profound and insightful as anything you’re likely to find on film.

Grade: A-

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: March 11, 2009

The saddest thing about Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, the more I think about it, is that it’s such a terribly unambitious film.

Say what you will about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story: At the very least, it was groundbreaking and influential, both as a superhero narrative and as a comic.

The movie’s highest ambition, by contrast, seems to be to slavishly re-enact a comic that was groundbreaking 25 years ago.

Isn’t that a terrible waste of potential, as well as a great disservice to Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons’ work?

On that note, here are this week’s comics.

* * *

Action Comics #875, by Greg Rucka, Eddy Barrows, et al. I was hoping for the kind of character-driven work that made Mr. Rucka’s contribution to 52 so compelling, but no such luck. This, in comparison, seems awfully perfunctory. Instead of endearing me to new protagonists Nightwing and Flamebird by giving me an inkling of who they are, what they want and why I should care, the story keeps throwing loads of supporting characters at me, along with lots of exposition on seven different fractions of Kryptonians and what have you. I’m sure all of this means something to people who’ve followed the various Superman books over the last few years. As someone who’s just looking for a good Greg Rucka story, though, I find it terribly unexciting. The best part of the comic is the editorial page, which suggests that Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely are collaborating on a Batman comic. That’ll be fun.

(DC Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

* * *

The Amazon #1 (of 3), by Steven T. Seagle, Tim Sale, Matt Hollingsworth, et al. This is a dusted-off, newly colored version of a miniseries first published 20 years ago by Comico. As such, the story looks very pleasant, and it holds up nicely compared to what’s produced today. Like a lot of current genre material, though, The Amazon fails to really develop its characters to a point that makes me care about something beyond the plot; and, you know, the plot has some U.S. journalist wandering up and down the Amazon River investigating the disappearance of an American who may have gone mad. If you’ve read Heart of Darkness or seen Apocalypse Now, there’s really no reason to expose yourself to this comic, which never rises above being competently generic. The small print, which says that “the distinctive visual likeness” of the protagonist is owned by Mr. Seagle, is very funny, by the way: Dude, Edgar Allan Poe is on the phone, and he wants his face back.

(Dark Horse Comics, 26 pages, $ 3.50)

Grade: C

* * *

Captain Britain and MI13 #11, by Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, Mike Collins, et al. Mr. Cornell slows down time effectively in here, by switching to several paragraphs of prose on one page, while two of the characters are in a free-fall after their plane blows up. I’m not sure doing yet another invasion story so soon after “Secret Invasion” is a particularly good idea, but the creators take care to stay close enough with the characters for it not to matter. In terms of superhero ensemble books, Captain Britain is one of the best ones you can get right now. It’s refreshing to have a writer who doesn’t go with the most obvious storytelling option in every panel.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B

* * *

Charlatan Ball #6, by Joe Casey, Andy Suriano, et al. Well, to paraphrase Caesar, the not-so-little white rabbit on steroids: Shite! According to the rather ambivalent editorial page, this is it for “Season One” of Charlatan Ball. In fact, the way the creators are working themselves into the story here recalls the final issue of Mr. Casey’s Automatic Kafka series, which also came to a premature end. Presumably, sales and the fact that Mr. Suriano actually gets to do some paying work for DC are related to the decision, but at least the creators don’t seem to have given up on Charlatan Ball entirely yet. Overall, I should point out there hasn’t really been any character development throughout the series, which is certainly a major flaw. But then again, Mr. Suriano’s dynamic in-your-face art and storytelling and Mr. Casey’s delightfully demented dialogue (“He eats aggression! He craps punishment!”) have still made Charlatan Ball a blast. I hope this isn’t the last we hear of it.

(Image Comics, 18 pages, $ 2.50)

Grade: B-

* * *

Ex Machina Special #4, by Brian K. Vaughan, John Paul Leon, et al. It’s another detective story. Ho-hum. As usual, Mr. Vaughan throws in a lot of commentary on all kinds of things, but much of what’s going on here seems random—what’s the point of the fight flashback in the middle, for instance, other than to provide a cheap red herring and serve the fisticuffs quota? The increasing self-referentiality also seems grating, because it’s now left the realm where it makes sense for the story. Am I really supposed to buy that the mayor of New York City worries about what paper comic books are printed on? Mr. Leon’s artwork is great to look at, as usual, but Mr. Vaughan seems on autopilot. Don’t get me wrong: Brian K. Vaughan on autopilot is still much better and more character-driven than what you find in most superhero books, but I don’t get the sense that these specials are actually contributing anything to the overall story, or that they’re at least stories that particularly screamed to be told.

(DC Comics/WildStorm, 32 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: B-

* * *

Ghost Rider #33, by Jason Aaron, Tony Moore, et al. Visually, this issue is much of an improvement on the last few. Not that I don’t like Tan Eng Huat’s art—quite the contrary, in fact—but when he cancelled his subscription to the school of thought which says that backgrounds and textures are advisable in action comics, his work on Ghost Rider became a little boring and sad. So, Tony Moore: much better. The story sets out to map the history of the Ghost Riders here, from the distant past to the future, intercut with new sidekick Sara’s quest for meaning in her own life. There’s a lot of stuff with potential in here, but the writing ultimately fails to break the surface and add some depth to Sara. Instead, the material seems rather flat and obvious—it appears Mr. Aaron was more excited by the one-panel existences of the Ghost Flyer of World War I, the Undead G-Man of the 1930s and Devil Rig and Hell-Driver of the 1970s than by the story he happens to be telling right now. Why not just go and tell the story of the Burt Reynolds Ghost Rider, then? Maybe it’s exciting.

(Marvel Comics, 23 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Invincible Iron Man #11, by Matt Fraction, Salvador Larroca, et al. You wouldn’t guess it from Mr. Fraction’s work on Uncanny X-Men, but his Invincible Iron Man remains one of the smartest, most engrossing superhero action series in the market right now. There are minor storytelling issues like the full-page splash of Pepper Potts early on that doesn’t go anywhere, while the subsequent brawl between Iron Man and War Machine could certainly have used the space. Other than that, though, the level of depth and invention that’s evident in characters, lines of dialogue and plot twists here is superior to pretty much everything else that’s happening in superhero comics this side of Grant Morrison right now.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

* * *

Also this week: The Life and Times of Savior 28 #1, by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Cavallaro.

A review of Waltz with Bashir is in the pipeline and will be up shortly. I also bought the comic, which happens to be by the same creators, so I might review that one as well—should be interesting to compare and contrast the storytelling choices between the two media.

The Life and Times of Savior 28 #1

IDW Publishing, 22 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: J.M. DeMatteis
Artist: Mike Cavallaro
Colorist: Andrew Covalt
Letterer: Neil Uyetake

Mr. DeMatteis is the writer of some of my favorite Spider-Man stories—I haven’t read those comics in a while, but in my memory, at least, the “Kraven’s Last Hunt” storyline with artist Mike Zeck and a later run on Spectacular Spider-Man with Sal Buscema, in particular, stand out as being much more concerned with character than a lot of the superhero stories produced at the time. I liked them as a teenager, even though I only had access to badly translated German reprints.

The first issue of Savior 28, unfortunately, doesn’t seem very concerned with character at all.

The story’s premise is quite intriguing. The book’s title character is James Smith, aka Savior 28, a Captain-America-type superhero who, through a string of tragic events, realizes that punching things is actually not a solution to anything. And so Savior 28 becomes a pacifist and starts holding anti-violence speeches. Naturally, he’s chastised for turning his back on people, and he ends up being shot dead by a sniper. We’re left with Dennis McNulty, Savior 28’s former sidekick. McNulty, who generally admires Savior 28 but seems to have quite a different tack on the whole violence thing, serves as the story’s point-of-view character.

As far as set-ups go, this is certainly intriguing—not just as a commentary on the superhero genre that, curiously enough, I don’t recall anyone attempting before, but also as a story on its own terms. (Arguably, it might be a comment on Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, as well, which also has the title character shot by a sniper and replaced by his more violent sidekick. And, incidentally, Mr. DeMatteis says he originally intended to tell the story in Captain America himself when he was writing the book 25 years ago; he says it ended up being shot down—no pun intended—by Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter.)

In theory, I’d be very interested in reading this type of book.

Once you get down on the page, though, it all falls apart. Virtually the entire story is told in flashback mode, narrated by McNulty, who keeps telling us what Savior 28 does or feels in a given moment. This is problematic for two reasons.

For one thing, the narration puts a strain on plausibility. How on earth does McNulty know, for instance, that, “like an automaton he [Savior 28] surfed from station to station, watching the footage again and again,” which occurred while Savior 28 was supposedly alone and withdrawn at home? It doesn’t make sense, and it’s distracting.

Second, and more significantly, the point of view puts a considerable distance between the reader and the characters. It prevents me from giving a toss about what’s going on with Savior 28, because hardly anything is dramatized; I’m told the plot, and I’m supposed to care about the plot because I’m told about it, and that’s just not how it works. It could still enable me to empathize with McNulty, at least, but it doesn’t do that, either, because I’m given too little context on his character—he’s barely ever in the story he tells, and once he does take center stage, the impact is nil. What should seem like a big twist just makes me shrug and wonder why I should care.

So, with the best will in the world, I’m afraid this is a misfire. Savior 28 has the kernel of a good idea, which the first issue completely fails to communicate in a compelling fashion. The storytelling is a throwback to some very bad 1980s habits that have long been ousted from comics, and justly so.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Watchmen (Film)

Warner Brothers Pictures/Paramount Pictures, 160 minutes

Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter, Alex Tse
Producers: Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Deborah Snyder
Cast: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, et al.

(Based on the comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.)

The first cinematic adaptation of Watchmen is not without its innovations. Thanks to Zack Snyder, Hollywood superhero films now have their first prominent penis, and it is blue. Disappointingly, though, Mr. Snyder is too chickenhearted to take his vision all the way. At the film’s big climax—no pun intended—the director fails to really go to town and show Dr. Manhattan’s big wang (affectionately christened “Lower Manhattan” by Sean T. Collins) in all its erect glory, wildly ejaculating radiant blue supergoo as he goes, to the tune and lyrics of The Flaming Lips’ “The W.A.N.D.” Now that would have been a memorable achievement.

Now, I don’t think Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons’ Watchmen comic, for all its merits, is a once-in-a-lifetime, can-do-no-wrong achievement of creative rocket science. But compared to Mr. Snyder’s Watchmen, which goes to work on the audience’s sensory, aesthetic and intellectual faculties with a sledgehammer for a never-ending 2 hours and 40 minutes—which is, you must know, about the time it took the Titanic to sink—, it might as well be.

The film’s major problem is, it adapts the comic’s surface elements so closely that the actors never get the chance to imbue it with a life of its own. Mr. Snyder, it seems, simply lacks the skill to adjust and vary the pacing, the volume—anything, really—according to the demands of any given moment or scene. It doesn’t matter whether the heroes are having a supposedly revelatory character moment, make love, or are beating up and shooting protestors in the street: The film races through each and every scene with the same indiscriminate, wood-chopping tunnel vision, and it’s all cranked up to eleven, all the time. The creators’ helpless response to the resulting lack of atmosphere, empathy, understory and everything else that makes the comic worthwhile is to add more blood and gore.

The soundtrack, widely noted as being stunningly obvious and unimaginative, is emblematic of the degree of subtlety that keeps lurching through every aspect of this picture like an elephant on an ice rink. Mr. Snyder’s choice of “The Times They Are A-Changing,” “The Sound of Silence” and “99 Luftballons” makes me wonder  who talked him out of using “Summer of ‘69,” “Smoke on the Water” and “Stairway to Heaven.” They would have fit in seamlessly.

There’s plenty of sex and violence in Watchmen, and they’re depicted in the same adolescent and emotionally stunted fashion we’re accustomed to from Mr. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and 300. Like 300, the film celebrates its unreflected, latently fascist admiration of violence and wears it like a badge. Like Dawn of the Dead, the film doesn’t mind sacrificing plausibility and immersion in the story if liberal splashes of blood and gore are to be had.

When Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre have sex—to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which is as close to having a sense of humor as the film gets—the scene evinces the sensuality and distinctiveness of a 1980s soft-porn flick. When they fight, cripple and kill their way through a hapless gang of hoodlums, Mr. Snyder treats the scene with all the reflection and insight of a 13-year-old Counter-Strike enthusiast who just discovered the work of Leni Riefenstahl.

Sequences showing Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) fighting in Vietnam and the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) shooting a pregnant woman at point blank are treated with the same giddy, obnoxiously manipulative Look How Cruel, Isn’t It AWESOME sheen. This heavy-handedness stifles any genuine sense of horror or unease and, worse, lacks the awareness how disturbing a lot of these moments could be if they were part of a much better film—one whose creators have the vision and the skill to engage the issues they raise, rather than to just revel in their surface thrills.

Watchmen is very much not that film. The “more realistic” portrayal of superheroes it aspires to could have generated shivers, but the picture is bereft of any such potential by its overall failure to create a credible world. In the place of toning things down and earning that credibility through appropriate storytelling, the film restages—of course—the assassination of John F. Kennedy by—of course—the Comedian, and other such silliness. The most obvious storytelling choice is always good enough for Watchmen.

Its version of Richard Nixon reminds me more of Danny DeVito’s Penguin than of any American president. Its TV commentators resemble those from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The depiction of these characters and others doesn’t even strive for authenticity—they’re all caricatures. The setting that results from this is over the top in a, dare I say it, very generically “comic-booky” way. But if I can’t even buy into the world as a real place, how am I supposed to take the superhero elements seriously?

The film’s many martial arts scenes seem exhausted and perfunctory, doing little more than rehash, in less exciting fashion, what The Matrix did 10 years ago. Mr. Snyder’s all-purpose weapon for making them at least a little bit distinctive: add more blood and gore. In terms of the special effects, the portrayal of Ozymandias’ pet tiger and (sometimes) Dr. Manhattan once again demonstrates that computer-generated images are not quite yet what Hollywood would like them to be.

On the plus side, it’s fun watching Mr. Morgan, Mr. Goode and whatever is left of Mr. Crudup’s face at work, and Mr. Wilson and Mr. Haley do a fantastic job as Nite Owl and Rorschach, respectively. The film has its best moments when it allows the two of them to bounce off each other; those are the few scenes where things gain traction, where I’m beginning to be invested in the story. It never lasts, though, due to the inept pacing and slapdash editing, which undercut any dramatic effect the actors, against all odds, might have been able to generate.

The cast and some of the special effects save the movie from being boring all the way through, but its thrills remain cheap and shallow, and its execution poor. Watchmen is a depressingly dumb, immature and emotionally retarded film without an identity.

Grade: D-

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: March 4, 2009

I’ve had some thoughts and conversations on the matter of genre/pop/commercial fiction versus art/literary fiction in the last few days, so, for those of you following the discussion, I’m definitely not done with the topic.

Meanwhile, this week was rather light in terms of new releases of interest.

* * *

Batman: Cacophony #3 (of 3), by Kevin Smith, Walter Flanagan, et al. Instead of reaching a conclusion, Mr. Smith’s first and only Batman story just stops dead in its tracks. Viewed as a whole, the miniseries is oddly jumbled; villain Maxie Zeus, who played a major role in the two previous issues, is nowhere to be seen in the final one, and the hints that Onomatopoeia might get something approaching an origin story or a motivation are just dropped. The big, supposedly climactic fight changes nothing and resolves less: Onomatopoeia goes home to his secret identity, and that’s that. Batman has an argument with Jim Gordon that seems terribly phony, just like his subsequent talk with the Joker; none of the two confrontations are remotely as compelling as they would need to be to support the weight Mr. Smith places on them. Also, the less said of Mr. Flanagan’s attempt to draw the Joker with a beard, the better. Structurally and thematically, Batman: Cacophony is awkwardly lopsided; in terms of characters and plot, it’s generic and seems more than a little bit exhausted. There’s no hint of insight or urgency here, let alone satisfaction.

(DC Comics, 30 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: D

* * *

Daredevil #116, by Ed Brubaker, David Aja, et al. On the one hand, the story succeeds in making me curious what’s next; and Mr. Aja’s work, once again, is jaw-droppingly beautiful. His rendition of the Kingpin, standing in the pouring rain on the Spanish coast, awkwardly holding an umbrella that Marta, the small, shy woman off to his side, just handed him as they’re both staring out at the sea, says more about the situation than a thousand words could; plainly, this is in a different league from what you usually get in North American superhero comics. The bad news is, I’m not sure if the story merits it. For starters, I’ve got no clue what Marta sees in the Kingpin (who, in turn, seems awfully well-adjusted here, given his history). She remains a stereotype that’s convenient to the plot, but never emerges as a proper character. The ending doesn’t come as a great surprise, either. The story could have been much more insightful if it had been told from Marta’s perspective, for instance. Unfortunately, we don’t even see what the characters are actually talking—or bonding—about while they’re together, so what we’re left with is another tough guy’s generic internal monologue, leading us by hand through a painting-by-numbers plot. It is getting old. The story looks great and sets up some interesting things, but taken on its own terms, like much of Mr. Brubaker’s more recent work, it fails to make me give a toss about any of the characters.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

* * *

Jersey Gods #2, by Glen Brunswick, Dan McDaid, et al. It seems like the series is pretty much headed where I expected it to go, only at a much slower pace than I anticipated. This doesn’t have to be a problem, per se, but I’m worried: The creators spend an awful lot of time on their New Gods stand-ins here, instead of developing the part of the story I’m really interested in. Which strikes me as redundant. Isn’t the whole point of using New Gods stand-ins to save you the trouble of having to establish the generic superhero stuff and allow you to focus on your New-Jersey-girl-meets-superhero-from-outer-space romance story instead? That is, I hope that’s the story they’re going for; the last six pages and the cliffhanger certainly don’t fill me with a great deal of optimism, though. I like the book enough to give it a couple more issues to make up its mind, but to be honest, I couldn’t care less about what’s going on in the last third of the story. I’ve already got those Fourth World Omnibus hardcovers on my shelves. I don’t desperately need a monthly comic covering the same ground.

(Image Comics, 23 pages, $ 3.50)

Grade: C+

* * *

So much for the new comics. I’m hoping to catch Waltz with Bashir and Watchmen in the next couple of days, so I may be back with a review or two.