Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ceci N'est Pas Une Filme

The last time I reviewed a movie here on my blog, I was dealing with a sweet and well-realized love story with a very human, charismatic core, but wrapped around it was a half-baked SF/fantasy premise that the filmmakers hadn’t thought through properly. In Time is practically the exact opposite of that: the premise is clever, hooky, and well-developed, resulting in a well-constructed and clever world that comments effectively on ours. But the movie built around this premise barely exists, and certainly isn’t engaging.

Justin Timberlake (who I generally like as an actor but who is badly miscast here) plays Will Salas, an industrial worker in an indeterminate future where everyone’s effectively immortal due to genetic engineering. The only thing is that you’ve got a clock branded into your arm that’s perpetually counting down to zero, and you need to keep replenishing it by working. Yes, the whole movie is built around the double entendre of “time is money”. Essentially, you can choose between the security of knowing you have a substantial amount on the clock, or paying your bills. Down at the lower end of the spectrum, in the de facto ghetto (people are segregated in “time zones” based on their wealth—I did mention that this movie likes groan-worthy double-meanings, right?) people are often forced to live “day to day”, barely keeping ahead of the clock, working non stop just to make sure they have enough not to die in their sleep. A mistake in their calculations, a poorly-thought-out indulgence, or even just a failure to get where they need to go fast enough can be fatal.

One night, Will comes across a man (Matt Bomer) in a bar behaving erratically, almost suicidally. Will saves his life from a local gang of thugs, or “Minutemen”, at which point the man reveals that he’s fantastically rich—over a hundred years old, with another century on his clock—gives him an inkling of just how corrupt and rigged the system in which they live is. The next morning, Will wakes to find that he’s been gifted with the man’s time, right as he lets himself die (rather stupidly, if he was trying to help Will, as the immediate appearance is that he’s murdered him and stolen his time). Will goes on the lam to the logical place, buying himself into the highest-income time zone, to get a look at how the other half lives. Soon he’s hobnobbing with the ultra-powerful Philip Weiss (the ever-reptilian Vincent Kartheiser, playing an old man in a young man’s body) and falling in love with his daughter Michelle (Amanda Seyfried, another miscast actor who I normally like). But of course, the heat, in the form of “Timekeepers”, led by Cillian Murphy, catch up to him, and soon Will is in even more desperate straits than he started, on the run with Michelle and trying desperately to find enough time to stay alive.

Reading a synopsis of In Time, it sounds like a really smart, exciting action/SF film. The trouble is that writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) seems to have been so satisfied with the synopsis that he didn’t really take the next step and make it into a movie. I’m barely exaggerating—whole scenes are built around characters telling each other what the scene is about instead of, y’know, showing us. Likewise, whenever an “action” scene starts up, it’s so perfunctory you can almost see text popping up on the screen reading “insert exciting car chase here”. The most emblematic moment of this, as the Onion A. V. Club pointed out, is a moment where Will has to “arm wrestle” a Minuteman (time is exchanged by pressing forearms together, so this is literally a competition to drain the other guy’s life force). It would be exciting…if we had any idea what the rules were, or how it is you can drain time from your opponent without letting him drain you. The perfunctory explanation we’ve received from Will earlier about his secret method of winning arm wrestling competitions makes no real sense, so we’re left with a scene that’s just “Will gets in an arm wrestling competition. Will wins. Next scene.” We in the audience are forced to use our imaginations to fill in what would normally be the crucially entertaining moments of the film.

There’s one exception, a moment early in the film where Will’s mother (Olivia Wilde, who IS well-cast as an older woman in a young woman’s body) has to race through the streets to replenish her clock after overspending, which is legitimately exciting, but otherwise, this is practically a stage play.

I feel kinda bad ragging on the movie for this stuff; lord knows we get far too many supposed science fiction movies where the action and dazzling visuals are literally the whole game, and there’s nothing resembling an idea in sight. But Niccol’s seemingly overcompensated by making a movie that’s literally nothing BUT ideas, with no execution. While he has overcome some of the issues that dogged his earlier work (the sledgehammer-subtle symbolism, for instance, or the look-how-clever-I-am narration of something like Lord of War, his last movie) he seems less grounded than ever in the needs of cinematic storytelling. Niccol’s a good writer who could even be great if the right director would keep him in line (as almost happened with The Truman Show) but as a filmmaker he’s shooting first drafts.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: (Orion of) The New Gods #3--"Death is the Black Racer!"

I’ve never been sure exactly how well the Fourth World books did in terms of sales when they first came out, and it seems I’m not the only one. The series was, of course, cancelled before its time, supposedly due to low sales, but there sure seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence to indicate that they were both popular and much-discussed at the time. For example, in the afterword to the first omnibus volume, Mark Evanier writes how the publishers reported to Jack that the readers “loved all the new characters in each issue”, which certainly doesn’t sound like a description of a struggling book. This same conversation apparently also led to Kirby inserting a new character into Orion of the New Gods #3, a character he had planned for a separate project. That character was…Death, the Black Racer.

There are so many things wrong with Death, the Black Racer (whom I will hereafter refer to as DTBR) that it’s not even funny. Actually, it is funny. That’s why all those things wrong with the character are actually things right with the character.

That's him on the cover above. First of all, the “Black” in his name doesn’t refer to his costume, obviously, but rather his skin colour. Like much of comics (which tended to follow Kirby’s lead anyway), Kirby was belatedly realizing that he had been unfairly ignoring black people for decades, and attempting to make up for it by awkwardly inserting a bunch of black characters in his work, many of them unfortunately stereotypical or featuring “black” in their names for no real reason.

Secondly…a suit of armour could be a good look for an embodiment of The End of Life, but a garish red, yellow and blue one? And…and…


OK, so Kirby had hit the bullseye a few years before with a cosmic surfer of the starways, and that must have seemed just as unlikely…but…but…


Let’s just get started.

OBLIVION!!! I face oblivion!!! I am the quarry of a power that challenges all power!!” bellows Lightray in this issue’s opening splash page. Not wasting any time, Kirby’s introduced us to DTBR right off the bat, and he’s chasing Lightray for…no reason that I can see. I mean, OK, he’s the embodiment of Death, and he claims all things, and (in a nice bit of metaphor) even the supremely fast Lightray can’t actually outrun him, just outmaneuver him for a while. But…I mean, why is he chasing Lightray at this particular moment? Was Lightray playing with matches or running with scissors moments before? Because I don’t think it’s fair if Death gets to actually cause your death. I thought his job was just to take you away afterwards. Apparently the New God of Death is a more proactive sort.

Anyway, it’s time to check in on Orion, back on Earth. As you may have noticed, this particular comic is falling into a neat little formula: we start with cosmic goings-on back on New Genesis and environs, then cut back to Earth as the story starts. It builds a nice rhythm, with a sense of growing tension, as we wait for these cosmic characters to arrive on Earth and join or hinder Orion.

Orion’s still hanging back at the pad with his disciples. For the record, these are Dave Lincoln, P.I.; Claudia Shane, token female; Harvey Lockman, annoying teenager; and Victor Lanza, perpetually nervous insurance salesman. Quite a posse you’ve got going there, Orion. But at least they’ve been able to procure clothes for him! In only two issues!

Orion goes into the back room to change…in more ways than one. While indulging in a typically Kirbian soliloquy about how he has to hide his true nature and blah blah blah, Orion reveals to us that he’s not actually the good-lookin’ stud that Claudia’s been drooling over; his true face is one that’s just as grim and ugly as a scion of Apokalips. If you haven’t figured out what the deal is with Orion yet, based on all these clues Kirby keeps dropping, you may want to find some new reading material more your intellectual speed, like “Dick and Jane”. Or Spidey Super Stories.

Meanwhile, back in space, Lightray’s prospects are looking dire as he slams into an asteroid—but just as the Black Racer is almost upon him (“It is the end, Lightray! It could only end this way!” It could only end on a planetoid in deep space, via a homicidal renfest reject on skis? Yeah, how could he have not seen that coming?) a Boom Tube opens up and draws the Black Racer off to another plane of existence. Lightray’s rescuer is Metron, natch, who tells Lightray off for not thinking to do this himself. It seems that, in traditional mythological fashion, the only New God who has any brains is the one with “intelligence” as his special purview. Also in traditional mythological fashion, Metron’s kind of a pompous dick about it.

The Black Racer--where is he now? Where has the Boom Tube taken him?” asks Lightray, a question answered by the splash on the following page, where DTBR proclaims, “So, destiny has changed my course and takes me here—to Earth!!! Uh, dude, that wasn’t destiny, that was Metron. What was I saying about this guy being proactive? So first he chases Lightray around space for no reason, then as soon as he’s diverted, he just gives up and starts harassing the locals? DTBR apparently has ADD.

“There, below—a place of black men!” he narrates, referring to a ghetto. Yikes. “Those who fight to live—others who risk my presence!” He watches as we meet to participants in a gun battle: Screamer, dressed in a natty gangster suit, and Sugar-man, who’s straight out of Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song. Screamer is apparently a stool pigeon, and Sugar-man is, you guessed it, working for Inter-Gang. He ices Screamer (“Your last scream won’t be to the law!”) and then notices the presence of an onlooker. This is one Sergeant Willie Walker, Vietnam hero, wounded in the line of duty, who now lies in a bed, unable to move or speak. So Sugar-man decides he can’t leave him alive as a witness. He decides that the guy who can’t move or talk is going to rat him out somehow. Sugar-man is not a genius.

OK, that’s not fair. It also sort of plays out as Sugar-man being a jerk who can’t resist taking out an easy target, or maybe even thinking he’s doing Willie a favour by putting him out of his misery. Nevertheless, he’s prevented from pulling the trigger by the Black Racer, who causes the gun to explode in his hand and sends Sugar-man running away, clasping his burned face. Um…so why is the Black Racer, who was so happy to arbitrarily kill a perfectly healthy New God a few pages ago, now preventing the death of someone who, we learn in a second, is pretty much crying out for euthanasia?

Well, it turns out, ol’ DTBR is about to give Willie a special gift—by inhabiting his body. First Willie finds his hand moving, stretching out towards the stranger—then he gets up, finding himself able to speak—then he tears away the brace from his neck and, as you’d expect, gets pretty excited. “It’s happened! I’m whole! I’m strong! I’m no longer half-alive!” At which point the Black Racer collapses to the ground and…dissolves? Leaving his armour behind. Willie, after a moment of befuddlement, realizes that he is changing, and…well, it happens between panels, so it’s not clear if he puts on the armour himself or it somehow materializes around him. Either way, Willie now realizes he is now the Black Racer, and passes through the wall to jump on his skis and head out to hunt the doomed.

Got all that? Because the first thing I thought of when I read this was Hermes on Futurama bellowing, “That just raises further questions!!!”

I mean…why does the Black Racer need a body to possess? None of the other New Gods needed to do this to come to Earth (though it might have been cool if they did, and in fact some later writers like Grant Morrison have had the New Gods inhabiting human bodies). The new, Willie-ified DTBR seems to be just as invisible and intangible as his cosmic counterpart, and the old Black Racer was clearly capable of touching and affecting things, based on what he did to Sugar-man’s gun. And on top of everything, in spite of his claims to the contrary, he didn’t actually kill Willie! Or maybe the idea is that he…took Willie’s place…or something…but again, why does Death need a secret identity? I mean, things are dying all the time. This brings a whole new level to the traditional image of the superhero deciding he’s needed and changing into a new form in order to swoop off and do his duty. Instead of zooming to the rescue, death changes into his cowl in a phone booth and races to a scene of disaster to sweep away human souls.

I guess you could argue that DTBR is simply the Death of New Genesis and Apokalips, and that’s why he doesn’t bother with non-New God related phenomena. Although that would suggest that no one can die on either of those two planets as long as he’s kicking back on Earth. What a slacker, that Death!

Meanwhile, Orion (or “O’Ryan”, as his minions suggest he should call himself while on Earth) has donned the guise of Dave Lincoln’s new partner and set out to find the people who kidnapped the foursome in the first place. “It is best we do this alone, Lincoln! The others need not risk their lives in this venture!” “They lack the experience, at any rate, Orion!” agrees Dave. “Also, they’re a bunch of obnoxious boobs with no useful skills whatsoever, and I’m happy to get away from them for as long as possible!” OK, so he doesn’t actually say that last part, but you can tell he’s thinking it.

Orion and Dave use Mother Box to find the hideout of yet another branch of Intergang, this one overseen by a human gargoyle named “Badger”, who looks astoundingly like a cross between Telly Savalas and Fin Fang Foom.

He’s sort of mockingly consoling Sugar-man on his horrific facial injuries, then telling him to shut up as they go over the details of their nefarious plot. They’ve been paid to set off an Apokoliptish bomb in the heart of the city—I’m going to assume this is Darkseid’s fallback plan now that Superman stopped the Project from going nuclear, and man, that guy really wants to destroy Metropolis—but of course, Orion and Dave know an opening when they see one. Orion “literally smashes through concrete and metal walls” (as opposed to metaphorically smashing through them) and trashes the goons, despite their Apokaliptish weaponry. Actually, Mother Box just short-circuits them as soon as he enters the room, but they hold them off long enough to let Sugar-man get away with the bomb. He leaps in the van and drives away…but is pursued by DTBR, who’s swifter than any early-70s model truck. Sugar-man sees the Black Racer in his rearview mirror, but can’t get away from him as he passes his ski-pole through the truck to the bomb and triggers its, um, anti-gravity circuits. Of course. Because what city-destroying bomb is complete without an anti-gravity device capable of sending a truck flying into outer space? It’s just common sense, really.

Despite the fact that we just saw DTBR do this himself, Orion takes credit on the next page for levitating the truck with Mother Box, then blows it (and Sugar-man) to smithereens at a safe altitude. Hmmm…so I guess either DTBR is a glory hog, taking credit for other people’s work, or Orion is amazingly lackadaisical about letting people get away with city-destroying bombs. “Say, Orion, didn’t we just let the bad guy get away?” “Not to worry, Dave Lincoln, I’ll use my…um…magic box…to levitate the truck into the air…c’mon, Black Racer, you owe me one!” “Say, that’s neat. Any particular reason we didn’t use that same technology to beat up these goons from a distance instead of risking our lives?” “Dave Lincoln, I find the warrior’s fury growing in my breast!” “Forget I asked.”

A job well d…OK, a job done, the Black Racer returns to Willie’s apartment and changes back to the paralyzed, helpless Willie Walker, just in time for his primary caregivers, his sister and her husband, to come barging through the door, castigating themselves for leaving him alone. Which, yeah, I have to kind of agree, even if Willie’s brother in law mentions that they arranged for the neighbours to check in on him, in a truly awkward bit of retroactive plot spackling. The neighbours didn’t show up because they were busy with “all that trouble tonight!”, which sounds an awful lot like they got drunk and passed out, but let’s let it slide. The issue ends with a creepy closeup of Willie’s eyes—“He now knows his next quarry! Who is it? Him? Her? YOU?!?

I don’t know if the Black Racer reappears anywhere in the Fourth World saga—you’d think he’d show up every time someone died, kinda like the other DC Universe version of Death, the Sandman’s sister. He does seem a bit shoehorned in, which isn’t that surprising given that the comic was apparently planned without him and editorial suggested adding him in at the last minute.



Coming up next: the moment we’ve all been dreading, as Goody Rickels makes his terrifying first appearance…

Friday, November 18, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #138--"The Big Boom!"

Wow, Superman meets Doomsday? We’re about 20 years early on that particular encounter!

I think it says something about the Fourth World epic that I could manage to grow bored with a storyline that features a secret civilization of hippies living below the Earth’s surface, clones of the Newsboy Legion, a Hulk-Jimmy and a Four-Armed Thing, but bored I have become. The fact of the matter is that, in about half the time it’s taken for this storyline in SPJO, Orion has infiltrated Apokalips and come to Earth, Mr. Miracle has begun his act and escaped his archnemesis, and the Forever People have arrived, moved in, had their apartment blown up, and been captured by religious fundamentalists. Compared to that, even as wild a storyline as this business with “The Project” is going to seem to drag on.

Of course, considering what’s coming in the next issue…

But let’s repress that for a while and pick up where we left off. As you may recall, Darkseid’s minions Simyan and Mokkari had accidentally, but conveniently, managed to breed exactly the kind of life form they needed: a four-armed yellow rock monster who feeds voraciously on nuclear energy. Said four-armed terror had smashed his way into the Project and was on the verge of causing a massive hull breach in the Project’s power plant, thus exploding the entire Wild Area—and the city of Metropolis, above. Superman had zoomed to head it off, and Jimmy Olsen and the Newsboys had followed him for God only knows what reason, given that Superman didn’t want them and they only got in the way. They all ended up trapped in a bizarre molecular pink rubber egg. Obviously.

Meanwhile, on the first of several splash pages, the Newsboy Legion’s dads are demonstrating from whence the Newsboys Mk II get their recklessness and stupidity by piling in after Superman, taking the Golden Guardian and several transport carriers full of troops with them. “The Evil Factory has jammed all communications with our atomic power plant! We can’t warn them!” Proclaims one of the military types as they streak down the zoomway through the underground chasms. OK, but, uh, warn them of what? I mean, it would be nice, I guess, but again, these guys are headed towards ground zero of a massive nuclear detonation (in fact, last issue there were already a bunch of explosions going off, but Kirby seems to have forgotten about those). Superman is there already, and either he’s going to stop the monster himself, in which case their efforts will be unnecessary, or else he’s not, in which case it seems unlikely that a truckload of ineffectual army men are going to make a difference and are fairly likely to just get fried. But hey, this is a Kirby comic, and heroism and reckless endangerment go hand in hand!

Kirby begins a countdown—apparently the events of this issue span a mere fifteen minutes, and you could cut the tension with a knife. Superman is finding that the “big, stupid alien egg”, as Scrapper dubs it, is too flexible and yielding for him to work up the necessary leverage to burst their way out, which is actually a clever way of taking him out of action. The Newsboy’s efforts to break free result in their bouncing back and knocking each other around like pinballs.

TOMMY: Well, that does it! Whad’da we do now-- just wait till we’re hatched?
SCRAPPER: Yeah! Dis is some yolk!
SUPERMAN: Cool it, men! Let’s think--not panic!
JIMMY: I’d rather panic than listen to those jokes!

I mention this exchange because it’s virtually the only memorable thing Jimmy says or does in this issue of his own comic. Not that I’m particularly complaining about a shortage of Olsen.

Meanwhile, on the sixth splash page of what is so far an 8-page story—ah, Kirby—the yellow rock-monster is gouging his way towards a typically ornate power plant. Apparently the monster is smart enough to know to dig up and under the feet of the guards, but the guards aren’t smart enough to be able to tell that the tremblors the monster is causing are coming from directly below them.

Back at the egg, Superman (with, OK, some help from Jimmy) has figured out that the egg’s surface will respond to energy, and generates a blast of static electricity by rubbing his hands together at top speed. That actually almost makes sense, sort of—it even ties into what we saw last issue. Gasp! We’re now seven minutes “to fiery end!” so Supes has to hustle. And we have to—

Check in with Perry White! Wow, hey, another Superman cast member. As you may recall, one of the elements of the current Superman storyline is that the Daily Planet has been bought up by Galaxy Broadcasting, which is apparently a front for Intergang, and its head honcho, Morgan Edge, has been openly conspiring with Darkseid and trying to kill Superman. I’d kind of assumed he’d given ol’ Perry the boot, but, great Caesar’s Ghost! Here he is, still doing the hard-boiled editor bit! And sexually harassing interns!

No, just kidding. He’s having a perfectly normal conversation with Terry Dean, a character apparently left over from the pre-Kirby storyline. She does play a part in the story much, much later on, but I’m not sure what the point is of bringing her in now, when having Lois Lane would have made a lot more sense. But, since all the traditional Superman characters were being redrawn against Kirby’s wishes, I guess he wanted to avoid that when possible, so no Lois. The only point here is to establish that Perry’s suspicious of Morgan Edge, so let’s move on.

The old Newsboys, the Guardian, and the troops burst out into the wild area and locate the Legion’s Whiz Wagon. Watching via one of those omniscient viewscreens that seem to come standard with every villainous characters’ evil headquarters, Simyan and Mokkari apparently believe that these guys pose a threat to their plans, despite the fact that they’re already facing Superman, so they teleport the rest of their four-armed brood over to the Project to wreak exponentially more havoc. Man, these guys can see most of what the heroes do, and can send monsters over to harass them at will? That just makes it all the more pathetic when Superman beats them.

But what of the villainous Morgan Edge? I’m sure you’re dying to know. After a perfunctory demonstration of his eeeeeeevilness--he fires his secretary--Edge gets a call via the secret monitor in his desk, telling him to split for a copter on the roof, because Metropolis is about to go up in a gigantic mushroom cloud. Taking this in stride, Edge heads to the door and then, amusingly, has to act casual while walking past his employees to the elevator.

What? Oh yeah, there’s a life-or-death struggle going on back at the Wild Area. I forgot. “Three minutes to violent eruption!” Proclaims Kirby in his narrative caption. Superman bursts in and tussles with the maddened rock monster, only to be thrown across the room and hit with the power plant’s damper rods, with the monster throws at him. They shatter on Superman’s chest, natch, but the reactor is about to go critical! “It is one minute to blow-up!” Kirby reminds us. I get the sense he was struggling with his vocabulary while writing this issue, because the next box reads, “As if to nail down this fact to Superman, the glistening threshold appears—and from it pours an army of D.N.Aliens!!!!”

And they’re met by the army troops!

Again, Kirby was a WWII vet, and it’s pretty obvious he believed that the army was capable of meeting any crisis, but come on. ONE of these things bested Superman—now they’re facing a whole army of them? Kirby tactfully leaves the “bullets bouncing off them as they charge in and create total carnage” offscreen, but it’s pretty obvious that’s what’s happening.

The Guardian, rather unbelievably, manages to put down a rock monster with his fists—that’s his big contribution to the issue—as Superman kills two birds with one stone. Picking up the overloading reactor (“ thirty seconds to Eternity!”) Superman carried it down the corridor to a series of tunnels that were being built to tap into the core’s geothermal energy, and throws it into a very large, deep pit. Not only does the blast take place a safe distance underground, but the rock monsters, blindly seeking the atomic energy that is their nourishment, hurl themselves down the pit after it “Like maddened lemmings!” Good thinking, Superman!

Returning back up the corridor from this apocalyptic scrape, Superman finds Jimmy sulking over the fact that he’s been sidelined in his own comic. Some sub-He-Man level humour wraps up the issue…

And the Project storyline! Whoo-hoo! Alright! Not only is Supes about to get back to fighting crime on the surface (where, you’d think, Lex Luthor would have pretty much conquered the world by now) but we’re about to leave the Newsboy Legion behind for a long, blessed stretch of time! And begin one of the stupidest, most ridiculous low points in the entire Fourth World saga!

Uh…wait…Simyan? Mokkrari? Got any more monsters to throw at us? Please?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Comics Quickies: American Vampire

Just read the first collection of American Vampire, a series co-created and co-written by Stephen King, though the other writer, Scott Snyder, seems to be a true partner (according to his afterward, he created the central character of Skinner Sweet). It's a clever "mosaic" story with two threads in each issue; the first, set in 1925 and written by Snyder, stars wannabe starlet named Pearl who falls afoul of an evil, bloodsucking Hollywood producer. And also he's a vampire. BA-RUM-PUM! The second is written by King, set in the wild west, and tells the story of the aforementioned Skinner Sweet, a particularly nasty outlaw who ends up antagonizing the same ancient vampire, at this point a railroad baron, and is seemingly brought to justice by a hard-eyed but good-hearted sheriff. The two stories interweave in all kinds of clever ways, slowly revealing more and more about the various characters and suggesting an epic story that will probably move forward across the 20th Century in later issues. In the meantime, King's really on his game here--I haven't read much of his stuff since the mid-90s, and nothing since the Dark Tower ended, so I don't know how his batting average is these days--but this has all the best qualities of his work with none of the flaws that used to rankle me (it actually has a tight ending! Which doesn't rely on the characters suddenly developing magical abilities!). His dialogue and characterization are strong as ever, with Sweet being an instantly memorable character, and the conflict between two evils, with a good man caught in the middle, being an interesting one. Meanwhile, Snyder matches him beat for beat in the Pearl storyline; I'd argue his dialogue is sometimes a bit too contemporary for 1925 (though I suppose Hollywood was the cutting edge of culture) but like King, his characterizations are sharp and the use of vampires as a metaphor for Hollywood is just cute enough without being overplayed. Then there's Rafael Albuquerque, who draws both stories. His art is kind of amazing, expressionistic and even "cartoony" without losing a realistic, gritty feeling, and his characters are just as instantly distinctive art-wise as they are in terms of the writing. Sweet in particular, who looks like Kid Rock's great-grandpappy, is always instantly recognizable no matter what timeline he pops up in, which is of course crucial to a story that jumps between decades and viewpoints.

For those of you who, like me, were rather disappointed by the Dark Tower comics, this is proof of how good a Stephen King comic can be.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: The Forever People #3--"Life Vs. Anti-Life"

You probably don't need me to describe the many and various ways in which comics' growth were stunted over the decades. The long and the short of it is that being confined to disposable kid's entertainment for so long meant that the innovators often weren't quite able to shake off the status quo when attempting to do something "important" and "meaningful" within the comics medium. This was probably most evident in the early 70s, when comics started to enter a true adolescent phase--meaning that they started yearning for "adulthood" (being treated as a respectable medium) but, for the most part, weren't sophisticated enough to know how to go about it. The results were often strange, to say the least. This is the era in which Spidey bucked the comics code by having a friend fall to heroin addiction, Steve Ditko created a string of Objectivist superheroes, and Green Lantern and Green Arrow teamed up for a really heavy-handed commentary on America and everything that was wrong with it. The results fluctuated between "interesting" and "painfully self-important", but the fact of the matter is, trying to shoehorn "serious issues" into what had until very recently been a defiantly juvenile genre was a very ill fit. It would take a lot of tinkering before we started to get superheroes who could mesh comfortably with the "real world" and all its messiness, and some would argue that we never really got there.

Kirby, ambitious scamp that he was, was not immune to this impulse--in fact, he and Stan Lee had essentially opened the floodgates with their original Marvel line-up (which, let's not forget, included a weapons manufacturer who was a POW in Vietnam and a gang of mutants constantly on the run from prejudice). The main difference there, though, was that the politics were just part of the backdrop, spice to stories that were otherwise focused on the important business of long underwear types beating each other up. When superhero comic writers moved political commentary to the fore, they were generally unable to deal with it except in the straightforward, black-and-white, over-the-top manner in which they'd handled alien invasions and world-shattering conflicts.

Kirby was no exception to this; it's just that his world view was so vast, and so bizarre, that the Deep Important Meanings frequently went past self-importance and awkwardness and became just another ingredient in the surreal landscape of Kirby's world.

Frequently, but not always.

In The Forever People #3, Kirby tackles an issue that's proved just a tad divisive over the years: organized religion. Given the countercultural bent I've noted so often in these essays, I don't think you'll be surprised by Kirby's take on the subject. The story starts with a quote by Adolf Hitler, an army of blank-eyed citizens spouting hatred of those who are different, and a freakishly magnetic red-haired cult leader who has them in his thrall.

What? No, it's not Jimmy Olsen! It's Glorious Godfrey, who makes no secret of his Apokaliptish affiliation, his reverence for Darkseid, and his worship of the Anti-Life equation. The only thing remotely subtle about this four-page sequence is that Kirby doesn't outright refer to Godfrey as a religious leader. But come on: the guy's followers meet in a giant tent containing a huge organ, and Godfrey wears white, billowing robes while standing at a pulpit. And his name is God-Free. I'm kind of surprised there wasn't more of an uproar over this comic, but then, this wasn't the 50s, with Wertham and whatnot. This was the 70s, and America had a lot more to worry about than some subversive comics.

"Life has pitfalls! Anti-life is protection!" Proclaim the unsubtle banners toted by Godfrey's followers. "Life will make you doubt! Anti-life will make you right!" And, most crucially, "You can justify anything with anti-life!" More on this in a moment, but for now, you can see how this relates to what I was talking about, above. No real wannabe totalitarian would advertise himself as promoting "anti-life" or honk on about how he was giving you the right to kill and inflict pain. Real-world villains always make it about something else, something that nobody could disagree with, while sneaking in their more pernicious and mean-spirited views in a roundabout way. But because this is a comic, we have to have it spelled out in broad strokes.

But while he may have been unsubtle, Kirby was canny. Godfrey's creating an army of "Justifiers" who do his bidding mindlessly--the name coming from their ability to justify doing anything in the name of Godfrey, Darkseid, and Anti-Life. It's still cartoonish, but that is pretty bang-on. Kirby's point is that a lot of religious fanatics are concerned less about doing whatever's necessary to save their souls than about using their religion to justify their own violent or hate-filled impulses. I'm having a hard time arguing with that viewpoint, personally...

On literally the next page, we see Godfrey's methods bear bitter fruit for our heroes. With no explanation, a Justifier stands in the middle of our hairy, unwashed heroes' new home base, shaking down lil' Donnie--that's the Tiny Tim lookalike from the last issue, remember him?--and demanding to know where the Forever People are, despite the fact that they're standing right behind him. "Motherbox has bent the light around us--scattered the sound vibrations!" Explains Vykin hurriedly. Oh, OK...that explains one aspect of this scene. But how did this guy get in? How did he know the Forever People lived there in the first place? And if his bosses knew, why did they send a single guy, instead of an onslaught of Justifiers?

Well, we get a partial explanation for that last one, as the Forev Peeps rescue Donnie and bail out of the apartment (Big Bear literally goes through the wall.) See, the Justifier is carrying an Apokoliptish bomb, and he's capable of, as Beautiful Dreamer reminds us, justifying his own death. Yes, that's right: the Justifier is a suicide bomber. Ouch. That's almost painfully prescient.

The FPs just barely escape by diving into a convenient bulldozer-dug hole, and pause to reconnoiter. Realizing that the Apokolips war/invasion has begun in earnest, and that there'll be no more zany hippie monkeyshines for them, the gang decides to abandon the apartment they spent much of last issue furnishing, and hit the road. Well, the apartment is pretty much a smoking crater by now anyway, but even if it wasn't it would still be the right decision. Having these guys hang around the poor neighbourhood of Genericburg isn't nearly as interesting as having them pull an Easy Rider and take a trek across that weird old America. Which is especially weird when Kirby's drawing it.

This, of course, means they have to abandon Donnie. HOORAY!!!!

Sorry to be so blunt about it, but it doesn't seem like a particularly emotional parting for the FPs, either:

BIG BEAR: On board! On board!
BEAUTIFUL DREAMER: Goodbye, Donnie! We leave you what cannot die--love! Friendship!
SERAFIN: It is so in New Genesis! It can be here!
DONNIE: You must come back! You must!
BIG BEAR: Preparing for phase-out!

And then, in a flurry of really dumb technobabble and paying no further heed to Donnie whatsoever, the FPs blast off into the sky.

Good thing, too, because the Justifiers are about to launch their attack on the city. Declaring that "the people we've chosen as targets live here," the Justies pour out of their flying box in a wave of dickishness:

JUSTIFIER #1: Don't bother to discrminate! The women and children are as hated as the men!
JUSTIFIER #2: Waste no time on mercy! Drag them out! Treat them rough!
JUSTIFIER #3: Listen to their cries! I've been waiting to do this for years!
JUSTIFIER #4: Get going! We'll show what we do with your kind!

Man, dig that naturalistic dialogue. I know I've been wasting entirely too much time on mercy these days. Many's the morning where I'll just sit in my breakfast nook, unable to get going on the day's work, because I'm just feeling too darn merciful.

Seriously though, what "kind" are we talking about here? Nothing's specified, and for once I think that has less to do with Kirby's awkward writing style than the fact that he wanted to tiptoe around editorial and the comics code. The obvious suggestion is that the Justifiers are Nazi-ish, which would make the people they're rounding up Jews (of which, I need hardly remind you, Kirby was one). But like I said above, everything else in the book points to the Justifiers being religious cultists, and the comparisons to totalitarianism aren't helped by the fact that the Justifiers mention repeatedly that they want to avoid the police. Oh, and the quasi-medieval clothing seems more Spanish Inquisition than Fourth Reich, too. Though I guess those guys weren't fond of the Jews either.

There's also a brief nod to Fahrenheit 451, as a Justifier enters a library and torches it with a flamethrower, to prevent the spread of dangerous ideas. That would be somewhat more effective if there weren't thousands of other libraries throughout the country, but OK. Godfrey watches through his dressing room mirror-slash-omniscient viewing device as another one defaces a store:

Well, it's still more logical than "S" for Shakespeare. (Scroll down.)

Godfrey uses the power of technobabble to determine that the Forever People are still alive, and prepares for an invasion of tonight's ceremonies by...well, not doing anything, really. By the way, does it seem like Godfrey's assistants in the panel above are modeled after someone in the real world? I'm guessing some kind of early 70s evangelists or religious leaders. Anyone know?

The FPs land just out of view of Godfrey's revival tent and do what they always do: call on Deus Ex Machina Man, I mean Infinity Man, to solve everything. This month, Infy can pass through solid rock at will, and bend lasers--or rather, "Omega beams"--fired at him by the Justifiers, turning them back on his enemies.

"You fool!" Cries Godfrey to Infy's back. "Do you think your spectacular gimmickry can stop this operation?" Huh, apparently Godfrey likes to compliment people as he's insulting them.

GODFREY: The forces of Apokolips are many! --And mighty!
INFINITY MAN: Your secret is wind, Godfrey! An evil wind that rushes from your throat--

Lord, I hope it's from your throat...

INFINITY MAN: --And this Demon's organ! Which must be destroyed!

Ooooooh, I get it. It was the organ all along!

Actually, that's kind of interesting--the Apokoliptians are seeking the Anti-Life Equation, which will make everyone do their bidding, but it seems like Godfrey's organ got them pretty close already. Granted, properly deployed, the Equation can control everyone in the Universe, but still, it seems to me, just follow the Borg model of assimilating everyone into Justifiers, and you've got a pretty good head start. Except Infinity Man just smashed the organ, so back to square one, I guess.

SUDDENLY! An ominous gloved hand lands on Infy's shoulder! "Turn about! Look at me!" Instead of spinning and punching him in the face, Infy looks vaguely up and to the left and soliloquizes. "That voice! It chills the spirit--like the coming doom of all living things!" It's Darkseid, natch...he just happened to be in the neighbourhood, apparently. Or, OK, I guess this is what Godfrey did to prepare for Infinity Man's incursion: called the boss to help him. Fine, fine, whatever.

Anyway, Darkseid shoots cheesy beams into Infy's eyes--through his goggles, yet--and disburses him back into the various Forever People. Apparently the power of cosmic love from beyond infinity is still no match for Darkseid. Or else the plot required him to take a dive.

No sooner have the Forev Peeps reappeared than Desaad pops up and neutralizes them all with a "nerve beam" which, we're told, causes them to yelp loudly before they collapse. We're told this because Kirby apparently couldn't be bothered to draw it, which is weird given that he proceeds to devote the remaining three pages to Darkseid describing the plan he's been implementing for ten issues now, Godfrey jealously vying with DeSaad for Darkseid's favour, and Desaad cacklingly describing the horror that awaits the FPs in his "Camp".

So, at the end of the day, I'd say Kirby pulls off tackling deeper subjects pretty well, without forgetting to give us a neat comic book. Furthermore, with the FPs leaving their pad behind and hitting the road, the book finds its groove. And on top of that, it's a neat cliffhanger in which Infinity Man, for once, doesn't provide a magic solution to the gang's woes. You can definitely sense Kirby finding his feet and gaining in confidence.

The next couple of issues of The Forever People continue the trend of satire and social commentary. Will Kirby lose his way, or gather steam? Stay tuned, true believers...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

TV Thursdays: Life on Mars

As always, SPOILERS follow.

It’s taken as read that endings are crucial to fiction, but is it possible that, in the medium of television, they might not be as important? I can see arguments both ways. I believe the ending of “Lost” is a genuine disappointment, one that completely fumbles the balls the series had been keeping in the air up until that point, but large swathes of the show are still well worth watching, and aren’t significantly diminished by where the story ended up. I think the ending of Battlestar Galactica is good—not great, but good—but it doesn’t change the fact that the show went off the rails in its final season. The finales of Star Trek: The Next Generation (good), The X-Files (bad), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (mediocre) don’t change the respective quality of the series as a whole.

But then, I have to admit, one of the reasons I can blow off The X-Files and Lost in particular is that I became convinced pretty early on that they weren’t going to stick the landing, that the “big reveals” they’d been implicitly promising throughout the show weren’t going to come together dramatically, even if we technically learned everything by the end. X-Files tripped over its own continuity and narrative coherence one too many times by around the third season to convince me the writers had a plan, and if there’s a more obvious example of TV writers stringing their audience along ad nauseum than Lost’s first two seasons, I can’t think of it. Again, I like both these shows, but I decided not to put my trust in a logical meta-narrative and just enjoy it on an episode-by-episode basis early on.

Conversely, when Life on Mars set up an intriguing meta-story in its pilot, I figured it was going somewhere cool. Not an unreasonable assumption—the show was smartly written from the start, it was well-reviewed, and given that it was British, there was a comparatively short run of episodes, so it wasn’t unreasonable to think that they might have told a tight, 16-part story with a satisfying payoff. So the fact that said payoff completely failed to arrive may have coloured my outlook on the whole series more harshly than it otherwise might have.

The show concerns Sam Tyler (John Simm), a cop in Machester, 2006, who’s in pursuit of a serial killer. When his girlfriend and partner (which…I don’t know much about how the police operate in Britain, but that seems like a bit of a stretch, that you would be allowed to have an open romantic relationship with your partner) pursues a hunch and apparently gets snagged by the killer, Sam races frantically to catch her and is hit by a car. To his befuddlement, he wakes up in what seems to be Manchester, 1973, an exaggerated Starsky-and-Hutch-style TV cop show reality where everyone is a slightly (or heavily) corrupt chain-smoker and heavy drinker, women are only there to be harassed, and police methods involve slapping suspects around until they talk. This brave new world is embodied by Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt, played by the magnetic Philip Glenister as a perpetually pissed-off man’s man’s man who takes a blunt-force approach to police work. While questioning the reality around him, Sam also finds himself bringing his modern, logical, and liberal sensibilities to bear on reforming the system, confiding in WPC Annie Cartwright about his former life and providing the voice of conscience for Hunt and his fellow officers.

As with Mad Men, the show focuses on the culture clash between the past and present, more literally in this case, with episodes about the racist and sexist atmosphere of the police station and England in general, the more sexually freewheeling era (masking a heavy level of male privilege), and the corrupt and slapdash nature of police work, compared with Sam’s more meticulous, logical, and by-the-book methods. 1973 tends to come off rather badly in these comparisons, though there is one heartfelt episode decrying the state of soccer/football, and how it’s become a haven for thuggery and pointless tribalism when it’s supposed to just be a fun game.

The real “hook” of the show, though, is discovering exactly what’s going on with Sam and his altered reality. The show suggests very strongly that Sam’s in a coma and imagining everything—he occasionally hears voices from the present on the radio and television discussing his medical condition, and there’s also a series of dreams and hallucinations, including a creepy little girl who occasionally crawls out of his TV set to further muddy the water—but early on Annie points out that the world he’s inhabiting seems far too tactile and detailed to be a hallucination. This sets up just enough doubt that I spent the series expecting Sam’s coma to be an elaborate fakeout…leading to some serious disappointment when the show does, indeed, seem to confirm that Sam was in a coma the entire time and that 1973 was all a hallucination.

This isn’t the only way in which the show seemed like it was leading me on, only to drop the ball at the end. Remember the serial killer business I mentioned above? While the pilot episode focuses on Sam trying to catch, apparently, the same killer back in the 70s, the actual killer—you know, the one who abducted his girlfriend, who he was racing to catch, sending him back in time in the first place?—is apparently apprehended and his girlfriend saved offscreen, while Sam’s in his coma. While I expected this to simply be a temporary resolution that would lead to a more elaborate storyline down the road, it turns out that, no, that’s all the writers cared to do with the concept; the serial killer stuff is completely abandoned after the first episode, lending everything an aura of perfunctoriness. Likewise, the girlfriend that he was so desperate to save is basically abandoned in the second series—while it’s understandable on her part (Sam’s been in a coma for something like a year at this point, and she feels the need to move on with her life), it undermines the earlier relationship more than a little.

Individually, these kinds of issues are nitpicks, but the show is built, at least at first, around Sam’s struggle to escape the world of 1973 and get home, yet the show slowly removes all of Sam’s reasons to want to do so. Thematically, this makes sense; the show ends (somewhat predictably) with Sam abandoning his grey and dreary world of 2006 by jumping off a building and returning to 1973 to save his friends in the middle of a shootout, which wouldn’t make sense unless 1973 had become his real home. But dramatically speaking, undermining the things that drove the plot forward in the early going makes the show more than a little disappointing, in much the same way that Lost’s half-assed focus on weird metaphysics while basically ignoring or only halfheartedly tying up the central mysteries that grabbed us in the first place felt like a copout on the writer’s part. I’m not adverse to a show attempting this kind of sleight of hand, but not at the expense of the drama, and the ending’s ambiguity, again like Lost’s, feels more like the show simply couldn’t commit.

Of course, all the above comes with a caveat: I haven’t watched the “sequel show”, Ashes to Ashes, which I’m told does develop the time travel/coma/afterlife mystery somewhat further (though whether it resolves things in any satisfactory fashion, I couldn’t tell you). I guess this is the problem with British TV: I expect it to be self-contained in a way that North American TV isn’t. Maybe that’s not fair of me? I suppose I’ll have to come back and do a follow-up review if I ever get around to watching Ashes to Ashes…though I have to admit the ending of this show didn’t really compel me to do so. I'm being kind of harsh here, as this can be a very entertaining series on an episode-by-episode basis, but I think it's unfair of this show to dangle an interesting long-form plot and then yank it away by the end.