7/31/2011

More NonSense: The Kirby Ruling and Dan DiDio


Marvel Entertainment won an important summary judgement against the family of the late Jack Kirby: Judge Colleen McMahon denied the family any claim to the copyrights for the characters or comics Kirby co-created when working at Marvel. Kiel Phegley and Andy Khouri report on the judgement. Rich Johnston  has a copy of the full ruling.
"At the outset, it is important to state what this motion is not about. Contrary to recent press accounts... this case is not about whether Jack Kirby or Stan Lee is the real 'creator' of Marvel characters, or whether Kirby (and other freelance artists who created culturally iconic comic book characters for Marvel and other publishers) were treated 'fairly' by companies that grew rich off the fruit of their labor. It is about whether Kirby's work qualifies as work-for-hire under the Copyright Act of 1909, as interpreted by the courts, notably the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. If it does, then Marvel owns the copyright in the Kirby Works, whether that is 'fair' or not. If it does not, then the Kirby Heirs have a statutory right to take back those copyrights, no matter the impact on recent corporate acquisition or on earnings from blockbuster movies made and yet to be made.
I conclude that there are no genuine issues of material fact, and that the Kirby Works were indeed works for hire within the meaning of the Copyright Act of 1909. Therefore the section 304(c) Termination Notices did not operate to convey any federally-protected copyrights in the Kirby Works or the Kirby Heirs. Marvel's motion for summary judgment is granted. The Kirby Heirs cross motion is denied."
Responses from Tom Spurgeon, Matthias Wivel, Jeff Trexler (via Heidi McDonald), Colleen Doran, Steve Bissette (via Tom Spurgeon and Rich Johnston), Michael Dean, Christopher Allen, followup by Matthias Wivel,

Kirby family lawyer Marc Toberoff, who also represents the Siegel family in their fight over the Superman copyrights with DC Entertainment, vows to appeal the decision.

The furor over Dan Didio's infamous answer to the question on DC's measly practice on the hiring of female creators for their relaunch only increased when a recording of it was put on the web. Tom Spurgeon commented "I'm not sure I thought this possible, but the full response somehow manages to be more ludicrous that its panel-report description." Heidi McDonald, who was in attendance, posted  "Is it SO HARD (emphasis hers) for Dan DiDio to say “We are trying to get more women involved...” The controversy prompted Laura Hudson to write a long response. Her conclusion:
"To answer Dan DiDio's question: There are many, many very talented women working in the industry who could infuse something very valuable into DC Comics, at a time when they probably need it the most. As a female fan, I desperately wish he would consider their aesthetics and contributions to the industry as viable options for the superhero books I want to read so badly but feel so chronically alienated by, something that honestly breaks my heart on a regular basis..."
DC took the unusual step to directly address fan concerns on their official blog, adopting a conciliatory attitude: "We Hear You." This seems to have placated some of the critics, according to JK Parkin, Laura HudsonDavid Brothers.

A. Nathaniel Ommus on navel-gazing in comics.

Ryan Holmberg on Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s Black Rainbow.

RC HarveyJohn Goldwater, the Comics Code Authority, and Archie.

Chris Mautner on Jack Cole.

7/30/2011

Poster Illustration: The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra by Joshua Middleton

Bad Movies: Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Most of the works I've ascribed the label "bad movie" to haven't always been truly abysmal, just commercial products somewhat lacking in insight, passion, or originality. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is on a different level of bad. Sure, it's another slickly produced movie. And it's loud, obnoxious, and incredibly stupid. But director Michael Bay has managed to turn what was originally a glorified TV commercial selling a popular toyline into an advertisement promoting the US military. Now obviously, this isn't the first time toys have been used to extoll militarism, but this is about as naked and crass an effort as I've seen from contemporary Hollywood. The Autobots carry out the dirty work of the US government, like entering generic Middle Eastern countries to wreck their illegal nuclear weapon sites. They're under constant supervision from their military handlers, who keep them under lock and key. Americans can sleep well, knowing that their badass army officers command less than a dozen giant robots ready to quash those dirty savages. Imagine how the GI Joe movie would have turned out had Bay directed it.

As with the last two films, the Transformers aren't the stars of their own movie. The humans are. Unfortunately for us, the hero of all the films is the unbelievably annoying Sam Witwicky, played again by Shia LaBeouf. He spends his day whining to his girlfriend about how the world doesn't recognize what he did for the Autobots. Naturally, his girlfriend (who is no longer Megan Fox) is sexy, smart, gainfully employed, and willing to prop his wounded ego. They also have no onscreen chemistry.

Walter Cronkite and Bill O'Reilly both appear in the movie. Thankfully, not together. Archival footage was used of the former, so at least he has a good excuse.

Buzz Aldrin also makes a cameo playing himself. But even his participation can't lend any credence to the complete mess the film makes of lunar geography. What's funny is that the error is proudly written into the film's title.

Some of the Transformer designs start to approach the uncanny valley, or are at the very least confusing in appearance. What's with all the hair? One of the Autobots sports something that resembles Albert Einstein's messy coif.

This time around, the idiot political figure is Frances McDormand playing a short-tempered Secretary of Defense. You know she means business when she doesn't like to be called ma'am. She must be a lot of fun at reunions. And like her predecessors, she automatically distrusts the Autobots. No wonder she and John Turturro's character (the rough equivalent from the first film) get along so well.

I'm glad that Ken Jeong is getting work these days, but this was just awful. His big scene has him pulling down his pants in front of Sam in order to retrieve some important information on him. Naturally, someone has to walk in and get the wrong idea. Asian guy the butt of insensitive queer jokes? Yay!

And then there's Leonard Nimoy playing former Autobot leader Sentinel Prime. Yes, he quotes Spock from Star Trek. I'd like to think that Spock would not have been impressed.

If you've seen the other films, you know what to expect. The action is discordant and confusing, with the sound turned way up. The robot movements still have no solidity and weight to them. I watched this in 2D, and can't fathom being able to tolerate it in 3D. There's plenty of mass destruction - this time Chicago takes the brunt of it. It's a jumble of action sequences that are difficult to place, and harder to recall. The climax of the story is a three-way assault on the Decepticon (the evil robots) HQ from the military, a couple of irregulars following Sam, and the Autobots that went on way too long. It often felt like the characters were running around with no sense of direction, and bumping into each other at random intervals. Towards the end, there's this fight between Sam and a Decepticon collaborator played by Patrick Dempsey that felt completely gratuitous. You know what would make watching a city-wide robot war more exciting? Watching two thoroughly unlikable humans duke it out.

There's an unintended parallel between Autobot leader Optimus Prime's rejection of his home planet Cybertron for Earth, and Jake Sully's rejection of Earth for Pandora in Avatar.  And they're coming from opposite points of the ideological spectrum.

The end of the battle was in no way heroic, except that it's presented, without a hint of irony, as heroic by the movie.

We've come a long way from the 80s cartoon for kids. Or put another way, the cartoon grew up with its audience. Under Bay, the franchise has morphed into a thoroughly unpleasant film series that celebrates its nastier impulses as moral righteousness. I suppose its tremendous popularity can be blamed on the current zeitgeist. Or maybe Michael Bay is an idiot savant, and Transformers is a presage to a near future when we celebrate the regime's glorious robot warrior race.

7/27/2011

7/26/2011

More WW sketches from Ben Caldwell


Go to: Robot 6 via Michael May and Purge Theory by Ben Caldwell

7/25/2011

More NonSense: 2011 Comic-Con Edition

Congratulations to all the 2011 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards winners. The same goes for the recipients of this year's Inkpot Awards.

Matt Seneca on the decadent appeal of Geoff Johns to the hardcore fanbase.

John Parker on the mod-era Wonder Woman.

Jeff Trexler on the final victory of the infamous Comics Code.

A bevy of manga sites launched in time for Comic-Con: Square Enix Manga Store for North America, Viz Media Online Manga to celebrate its 25th anniversary (via Brigid Alverson), the JManga site "...which was created by a group of 39 Japanese publishers to serve as a manga portal... The site will include some series that were licensed for the U.S. and then dropped... and it will include a mix of well-known and lesser-known titles, in order to bring the latter to a wider audience." (via Brigid).

Top Shelf, Dark Horse, and Marvel announced their own digital comics initiatives.

Guy Delisle has a new book Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City.

Image announced a bunch of creator-owned projects.

IDW announced Will Eisner’s The Spirit Artist’s Edition.

Abrams announced The Art Of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist.

Marvel announced the return of Cable.

David Uzumeri on the Superman panel. They're making it way too easy to hate on Jonathan Caroll - what a douche.

David Uzumeri on DC's 52 titles relaunch panel. Speaking of, should it surprise anyone that no one came to the reboot protest?

Fantagraphics announced at its company panel that it will publish the EC Comics Library of William M. Gaines Agent, Inc.

Fantagraphics also announced plans to publish The Complete Zap Comix.

Andrew Garfield is the latest high-profile actor to claim for himself the nerd badge of honor.

Frank Miller, Holy Terror.

Superman, Supermuslim.

Kevin Keller is getting married. Let it be Archie Andrews.

Frank Santoro, wingnut.

David Welsh and this week's installment of Manga Moveable Feast: Fruits Basket.

Tom Spurgeon has a wrap-up for this year's Comic-Con.

ComicsAlliance summary of Comic-Con.

Milton Griepp's sobering analysis on the growth of the digital market, and the decline of the direct market.

J. Caleb Mozzocco on Comic-Con.

Ben Child looks at the geek subculture of Comic-Con from a more mainstream vantage point.

Deb Aoki on three manga trends to watch.

Kevin Church on the new DC and women.

7/23/2011

Favorite Uncle

Go to: The Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch

Hipsters

Go to: Diesel Sweeties by Richard Stevens

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter film franchise has finally come to an end. There aren't any surprises here for anyone familiar with the fantasy genre. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is at least different not just for concluding the entire series, but for being mostly an action movie: the exposition-heavy first act being covered by Part 1. So it's a nice change of pace to see Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley getting right to it rather than waiting for some vague threat to materialize like they usually do. This more proactive approach started in Part 1, but got bogged down by a middle section which was composed mostly of the intrepid trio camping out in the woods as they figured out their next move.


The highlight of the film has to be the raid on Gringotts. How often do you get to see a blind, deathly pale, skinny, and abused dragon claw its way out of a bank in the middle of downtown London? Or maybe it's just the vicarious thrill of seeing a greedy financial institution get completely wrecked? But the image of our trio riding bareback on a mythical beast while flying over a very modern city skyline has a certain whimsy to it.

In comparison, the siege of Hogwarts is less striking, if only because we've already seen similar sieges staged with typical CGI grandiosity in other films. It could have actually been bigger. It was nice to see the stone warriors, giant spiders, and giants wielding battle axes. But where were the werewolves, unicorns, or centaurs? where was Grawp? It's not boring by any means, but nothing sets it apart.

There are a lot of cameos for characters that haven't been seen for some time: Harry's parents, Sirius Black, Professor Sprout, Professor Trelawney, Madam Pomfrey, Cho Chang, Dumbledore's Army etc. The whole movie gets pretty cluttered towards the end. Even important supporting characters like Hagrid, Luna Lovegood, and Professor McGonagall get little screen time. I realize this movie is meant to sum up everything, but someone's going to end up disappointed that their favorite character didn't receive more attention.

I died a little when the movie played to shippers demands and paired Neville Longbottom with Luna. This is one of those all too obvious romantic pairings, which is to say it lacks any imagination. The same is also true with Harry and Hermione. But at least there's a more solid basis from witnessing the way the characters interact both in the book and onscreen.

Speaking of Neville, I expected him to look a lot more battle-hardened when he finally showed up. I like that he's managed to retain his dorkiness throughout the series. But give the man more prominent scars. Muy macho!

Professor Severus Snape continues to be the most interesting character in the series, and a lot of that is due to Alan Rickman. This time we get to see him do more than sneer in contempt. I kind of wish he exhibited his vulnerable side before, but the film is being faithful to the book in that it's only revealed at the very end.

The biggest problem with the movie is all the stuff that occupies the areas between the spectacle. There's always been a certain obligatory quality to Steve Kloves' scripts. Even at this late stage, there's still a fair amount of exposition for the actors to chew through. But I doubt that anyone watching this film cold will be able to grasp certain pertinent details: What's the difference between Horcruxes and Hallows? What exactly drove a wedge between Professor Dumbledore and his brother? Wait, How did Harry become a Horcrux? How did the Elder Wand end up serving Harry? And why couldn't Voldermort kill Harry at any time? I need to read the book again to confirm this, but the film might have oversimplified the explanation for Harry's "resurrection". It's perhaps inevitable, but in reducing the densely plotted story of the books, the films can often feel like a collection of highlights.

The final confrontation between Harry and Voldermort has more visual spectacle than emotional oomph. Lots and lots of sound and fury. But not delivering the satisfying conclusion I believe the audience wants and expects after watching eight massive films. I felt more drained than invigorated by the experience after the credits rolled.

When one considers the many failed attempts to establish a fantasy series in the wake of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter is a remarkable achievement. For example, the Chronicles of Narnia franchise looks like its on life support after an anemic third entry. Film adaptations of Bill Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy or Jeanne DuPrau's Ember series were quickly dropped after their initial films bombed at the box office. Fantasy may now predominate the theater, but getting a franchise of the ground is a lot harder than most think. The Twilight series comes closest in terms of commercial success, but appeals to a different and perhaps less inclusive fanbase. Ditto for the present ititeration of Avengers-oriented superhero movies from Marvel. For all its faults, Harry Potter contains an imaginary universe that few franchises have matched in their execution, embodied by a sizable cast that grew up and/or aged in front of the camera. It might take awhile before we see an equally impressive collection of talent assembled for such a purpose again.

7/22/2011

50 Girls 50 #1

By Doug Murray, Frank Cho, Alex Medellin, Nikos Koutsis, Thomas Mauer, Mike Toris

50 Girls 50 feels like one of those awful science-fiction films that go to die on Cinemax. There's a premise that relies on flimsy pseudoscience. There's some space travel involved. A couple of weird alien critters show up to threaten the crew. The female characters are all pneumatic babes. Actually, the entire crew is composed of 50 women. See, in the near future humanity has ravaged the Earth like they always do. In a desperate bid to search for new resources to feed and power civilization, scientists develop an interstellar drive that uses wormholes for travel. Unfortunately, this technology is deadly to all humans except those born with a rare triple x-chromosone. With that excuse for an all-female crew out of the way, we're then informed that the first such ship, the Savannah, is returning from its maiden five-year mission. But there's a problem, and it ends up in uncharted space, orbiting a strange planet. To pass the time, the crew sends some people to explore it. Much hilarity ensues.

In an afterward, co-creator Doug Murray promises that the next issue will get more into why the crew are all gorgeous twenty-somethings. Now, any explanation Murray and Frank Cho can come up with can't possibly make this any less sillier than it already sounds. That's par for the course. It also can't really excuse the fairly limited composition of the main characters - they're mostly caucasian-Americans with the token asian and african ancestry thrown in for racial inclusion. No Chinese nationals? Again, that's also pop culture tradtion. They're all types rather than individual personalities, such as the inventive scientist or the action hero. The dialogue is probably meant to be funny, but it just feels unoriginal ("I hate bugs"). It soon becomes apparent what the real point of this comic is when the crew is shown walking around in form-fitting uniforms. The fanservice continues in the aforementioned planet-side escapade, when circumstances force the crew out of their spacesuits and into cavegirl outfits. Did I mention that they dive into the mud battling some slimy bugs?


Given the cheesecake factor, knowledgeable readers would want Frank Cho to do what he does best: draw buxom women. Alas, art duties were handed to newcomer Alex Medellin after Murray and Cho conducted a talent search. This doesn't speak well to the low priority Cho places on the 50 Girls 50, and Medellin isn't up to the task. He certainly tries hard and supplies a lot of slick surface polish. But aside from exhibiting minor rookie flaws with his figure drawing like giving the characters the same shaped head and nose, his art is just not sexy. Medellin's line is too stiff to imbue the cast with the appropriate sensuality. One thing that I find personally off-putting is his tendency to draw his figures with elongated torsos. There isn't a strongest sense of structure underlying them, so his poses come across as weirdly contorted at times. His page layouts are often crowded with small inset panels, which are themselves crammed with speech bubbles and talking heads doing their best to fill in the negative space. As a result, the page doesn't always flow particularly well.

This is an fruitless effort. Nothing is learned and nothing is achieved by the characters. Unless the world-building improves drastically by issue #2, or a more clever twist is inserted into the campy sci-fi formula, all that's left is twenty-odd pages of less than engaging "good girl" art.

7/18/2011

Evolution


Learn about it...

Site Administrator Navel-Gazing

I've never bothered to sit down and look at my Blogger Stats before. But hey, there's a first time for everything and all that. My curiosity was recently piqued as to what posts generated the most incoming traffic. Rather than just listing the all-time most popular content, I broke it down to certain areas of interests. Now this blog is far from a major website that receives thousands of unique visitors a day, so the results are hardly indicative of general industry trends. Really, this is just a blatant form of wankery. Move along if you don't care.

I'll start with Filipino comics. By far the most popular komiks post is my takedown of the adolescent romance Love is in the Bag. I can think of any number of reasons for this, but at the end of the day this is the only book that seems to generate sustained online interest from an actual fan contingent. Reviews on other works seem to generate a temporary spike in popularity at most, then peter out to the occasional page view.

But "Bag" pales in comparison to my two-pronged attack on the terrible-to-mediocre Ninja Girls and Samurai Harem, my all-time most popular manga-related post (by contrast, a very distant second place is my review of the lovely Emma). It continues to bring in web traffic. I partially (or mostly) attribute this on pervert fanboys googling for nudie picks of Ibuki. Just as well, since this isn't my best written review. Its popularity doesn't negatively impact more recent material, which by themselves will generate considerable interest.

By far the most popular "alternative" comics post is my review of the excellent biography of the always controversial figure Louis Riel. But interest is flagging now. The popularity of these posts wax and wane, and are much more dependent on linking from other sites for incoming traffic.

My first, and all-time, truly popular superhero-related post is my summary of Captain Marvel's woes at DC. While older writimgs bring in traffic occasionally, my most popular material at the present tend to be the more recent ones, such as Incredible Hulk vs, Superman or Hellboy. As with manga, interest in superhero articles is strong, but cycles in and out quickly.

But according to Blogger Stats, The pound-for-pound champ, now and for all time, is my first post on the racebending controversy of the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie adaptation. I've since covered this topic repeatedly (this being the second most popular post), but I suspect that its popularity has less to do with my erudition (or lack of) on the topic than to Google Image Search and DeviantArt. The shipping is strong in this one.

Is this still technically shipping now that it's official? Via avatarspirit.net

That's all I will reveal.

7/17/2011

More NonSense: Monkey Talks



Ryan Holmberg on Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s "Black Rainbow".

Philipp Knall talks with Bryan Lee O'Malley, and Kentaro Takekuma and Koji Aihara, the creators of Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga.

Shaenon Garrity and the history of webcomics.

Tim Martin presents a mainstream view of the superhero comics industry.

Patrick Galbraith on the importance of the works of Osamu Tezuka now being made available on the iPad.

Kristy Valenti concludes her analysis of Kate Beaton's webcomic Hark! A Vagrant

7/15/2011

Join the dark side: +1 me

Go to: Diesel Sweeties by Richard Stevens

Should have posted this earlier. It does seem inevitable that for social networking sites, many users get sucked into the game of accumulating the largest possible number of online contacts. That's probably already the case with Google+, regardless of what kind of "circles" are being used to manage one's contacts. A hierarchy of sorts develops anyway based on popularity and name recognition. Doesn't Leo Laporte's ego get stoked from having so many hundreds of people placing him in their circles? In how many new ways is G+ going to end up fortuitously fostering this behavior?

The PC Weenies has its own funny take on the subject.

7/14/2011

No more Akira


It appears that the troubled Hollywood adaptation of Akira is truly dead. While I've never been emotionally invested in seeing the critically lauded manga series being turned into a live action film, I find myself feeling ambivalent about the news of its demise. It's interesting that the project attracted so much high-profile attention, from George Takei's strongly worded denunciation of Akira's casting, to virtually every actor being courted to play the lead often rumored to be turning it down. It's in no one's interest to produce a horrible movie that will tank at the box office. But this quitessentially Japanese product almost seems to have been treated as something toxic by the glitterati, and its failure to make it to the big screen makes me wonder why Hollywood is so prone to engendering such a clusterfuck.

Update: Huh? Apparently reports of the movies death were premature.

Blog: Covered





Go to: Covered by Robert Goodin

It's not Facebook

Go to: xkcd by Randall Munroe

When Google applied its programming expertise into cracking social networking, they came up with a social network that appeals to techno-geeks. What that means is that Google+ is a bit more discriminating in managing user's personal data than Facebook. Whether the control is just illusory is another matter.

Atlantis

Go to: NASA Image Gallery

Astronauts get the best views.

7/09/2011

Spidey's Dreams

Go to: Peter's Muscle by Michael DeForge at What Things Do (via Sean T. Collins)

Wonder Woman, Red Sonja, and Xena go to school

Go to: Teenage Archive by Dave Kiersh (via Sean T. Collins)

Don't be a teenage sidekick

Go to: Comics, Everybody by Curt Franklin and Chris Haley, at Comics Alliance

Harry Potter by Lucy Knisley, Complete

Blog: They Boldly Went


littlepunkryo: On the set of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, there was a little boy supposed to shoot Sulu’s big scene with George Takei; however, the boy’s mother was hovering so badly that the boy was a silent, nervous wreck. When Leonard was made aware of the situation, he had two AD’s distract the mother, and, as Takei explained,
“Clad in the robe he wore throughout the movie, Leonard got on his knees in front of the boy, smiled, then pointed at George, asking ‘Do you know this man?’ The kid grinned a little, nodded, and…now, right before our eyes, Leonard miraculously transforms from a curmudgeon to cheerleader. He starts bopping up and down, smiling like crazy, tousling the kid’s hair, trading high fives, and by the time he’s called back to set, Leonard’s performance has left the kid laughing.”
Go to: They Boldly Went by Kevin Church and Ming Doyle

Bad Movies: Clash of the Titans, and Avatar


Sam Worthington is my idol.

A false idol, mind you. His career-defining role in Terminator Salvation demonstrated what passes for acting these days. Worthington manages to get away with so little of it. He struts around with a near-constant scowl, punctuated with the occasional snarl or scream for emphasis. The cast around him then works hard to fill the emotional void he leaves behind. So yeah, I'm impressed that given his acting chops, he snatched the lead to his next two films, Avatar and the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans. Worthington is to some degree a throwback to an older era of he-man action heroes. That's not necessarily a bad thing, depending on one's tastes.

The first Clash of the Titans was the swan song of special effects guru Ray Harryhausen. His stop-motion animation techniques were then giving way to a new, more kinetic, style of film-making practiced by emerging directors such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron. The newer Titans is in many ways a nadir of this approach. There's plenty os shaky camera work, close cropping, and frenetic intercutting to keep the audience guessing. And the film takes full advantage of computer generated imagery to stage its fairly ridiculous action sequences. Like its hero, the story lurches from one set piece to the next with minimal introspection or sensitivity. The new Titans movie perfectly embodies the philosophy that blockbusters need to be less about the story and more about the thrill ride. By  those standards, I think it succeeds quite well.

Notwithstanding the insertion of a new character named Io, it's amusing to see how far the remake has gone to stamp out the female presence found in the first. The plot of the 1981 film was partially driven by the intrigue amongst the goddesses Thetis, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, as well as queen Cassiopeia. The remake is all about the sibling rivalry between Zeus and Hades, and the complexity of the Olympian pantheon is replaced by a more simplistic Manichaean dualism. All the more easier for Worthington, playing the hero Perseus, to direct his righteous anger at some convenient target. So much time is spent fueling his feelings of revenge that the traditional love story between Perseus and Andromeda is completely jettisoned. Just as well, because Worthington has yet to exhibit a genuine romantic streak. Overall, this is one uncouth movie.


Far more refined is the 2009 film Avatar. Director James Cameron combines the instincts of a pulp artist with the ambition of a poet. Every so often, there's an earnest desire in him to tell something grand and mythical, but he inevitably resorts to hackneyed storytelling devices in order to get his point across. The end product can come across as schmaltzy. His most successful works use a combination of trite characterizations, basic plots, and visual spectacle. More than most, Cameron has invested in groundbreaking visual effects to convey the emotional impact of his stories. This often leads to films that can be described as amazing technical achievements, even if everything else suffers by comparison. Take Titanic for example. The movie was a sumptuous recreation of the historic ocean liner and its fateful journey. Its cast was clumsily defined in terms of class conflict and man's hubris, and in the end merges with digital extras to become fodder for the ship's elaborately staged sinking.

Avatar has an equally unsubtle conflict at its heart - about a white saviour helping the natives defend themselves from the evil colonists. Only this time the unspoiled eden is the alien world Pandora, the native stand-ins are the Na'vi, the colonists are the Earthlings, and the white saviour, Jake Sully, is played by Worthington. Stephen Lang's warmongering marine and Giovanni Ribisi's corrupt capitalist are as broadly painted as Titanic's wealthy snob played by Billy Zane - thin, two dimensional villains designed to contrast in about as obvious a way possible against the noble, pantheistic Na'vi. Jake Sully's conversion from colonist infiltrator to Na'vi leader feels rote, not to mention his relationship to a Na'vi female called Neytiri. It happens because that's what ussually happens. But beyond the formulaic plot, Worthington isn't able to give his character a lot of individual personality, which is both due to the limitations of the script and his own stiff onscreen persona. That's too bad, because even Cameron at his most techno-centric has hugely benefited from strong casting to bring his characters and ideas to life. Worthington's no Linda Hamilton, or Sigourney Weaver (who has a role in Avatar), or even a Leonardo DiCaprio or Arnold Schwarzenegger. As with Titans, he's dependent on the supporting cast to give him greater depth.

I happen to concur with the opinion that it would be nice if Hollywood could move beyond such hoary narratives. Deliberate or not, there's something insidious about the habit of turning white people into native leaders from within, in addition to the centuries-old tradition of imposing leadership from without through the use of brute force. But there's also something equally insidious and inadvertently clever about Worthington's transformation. Sully is a paraplegic who circumvents the confines of his body by having his mind remotely link with a synthetic Na'vi body - the "avatar" of the film's title. When he does so, not only does he regain full mobility, but he's able to enjoy the sensual pleasures of Pandora.

This is where Cameron's techno-geekery comes into play. Pandora and the Na'vi are highly rendered CGI creations. There's so much care and attention in the fashioning of this world that watching the human actors and CGI elements interact is more seamless than even Peter Jackson's adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. Resembling a blend of Asian and South American rain forests with the deep ocean, Pandora's environment is an exotic, mesmerizing, and immersive experience. It's this part of a Cameron project that's celebrated as a stunning technical achievement. No wonder Sully would rather stay there. Pandora's unspoiled environment is differentiated from the dying wasteland that is the Earth. The Na'vi's spiritual beliefs that nature is a vast interconnected information network is watered-down and rehashed pablum designed to work on well-heeled urbanites (it even echoes the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "The Swamp"). But even as pretty a world as Pandora still looks as artificial as any hyperrealistic computer simulation. It doesn't help that a lot of the visual elements, like the day-glow life forms and the floating mountains, are already sci-fi cliche.

And that's the central paradox of Avatar which undermines its own environmental messge. It idealizes Pandora and the Na'vi as natural, but at no point does it fool the audience (certainly not myself) into thinking that they're not unreal. Worthington's character wants to escape into Pandora. But he does so in the movie through the use of cyber-technology. And since what he's escaping into isn't convincingly organic, but a virtual reality mediated by Cameron, it feels like he's indulging in a post-colonial fantasy. When Sully finally swaps his humanity for a Na'vi body, what Avatar heralds isn't a return to the old, or a more innocent age, but the coming of a new cybernetic order.

In short, Avatar is reconstructed nature for nerds.

7/05/2011

Super Dinosaur #1-2 and Origin Special

By Robert Kirkman, Jason Howard, Rus Wooton

Robert Kirkman reaches back to 1980s kiddie cartoon formula in his latest comic book series Super Dinosaur. It's a high concept premise calculated to sell toys. Dinosaurs are cool. Futuristic weaponry is cool. Fighting dinosaurs using futuristic weaponry is extra cool. Imagine the action figures, lunch boxes, t-shirts, and video games generated from the intellectual property. If this sounds cynical, well yes it is. But as someone who grew up watching those cartoons, I won't deny the inherent appeal of a talking tyrannosaur being a lonely boy's best buddy - Super Dinosaur is a genetic experiment who turns against his evil master Max Maximus to side with his good-guy counterpart Doctor Dexter Dynamo and his son Derek Dynamo.

Dinosaurs firing missiles! How cool is that?
And the series is chock-full of the kind of dippy, playful ideas that my twelve year old self would have found absolutely enthralling: A hollow earth populated by prehistoric creatures. Mutant sentient dinosaurs created by mad scientists. The easy-to-grasp good vs evil plot-line involving family loyalties. The G-rated violence involving high-tech gadgetry (There's a lot of emphasis on the constant upgrades to the title-character's armor). Exotic power sources. The silly code names (Doctor Dynamo, Max Maximus, Dynore, Tricerachops, Breakeosaurus, Terrordactyl). The appealing designs of artist Jason Howard. Howard's clean, animation-style line art ably manages the already large ensemble of humans and "dino-men". Unfortunately, it's not quite matched by his cluttered color palette, resulting in unnecessarily muddy page layouts.

Next to the art, the characterizations are relatively weak. As the POV character, Derek suffers too much from the Wesley syndrome. It doesn't help that he keeps proclaiming that he's awesome at everything. Super Dinosaur doesn't say much, lacking any kind of personality other than a willingness to jump into action at every opportunity. Supporting characters in the form of a married couple of mechanical geniuses named the Kingstons and their two teenage daughters are barely fleshed-out at this point. As for the antagonist Maximus, he's the standard world-conquering villain, which is fine when considering the intended audience. So far, the only interesting character is the anti-hero Tricerachops, who works for a third party neither aligned to Dynamo or Maximus.

Shut up Derek.
As an "all ages" read, Super Dinosaur doesn't strike me as having a lot of crossover appeal with adults, unless they're the type who want something to feed their Dino-Riders, Centurions, GI Joe, ThunderCats, Transformers etc. nostalgia. Of course, I realize there are plenty of comic book fans who might fit that description. But everyone else can probably wait until their kids start bugging them about buying them the toys. Awesome!