4/22/2017

Black Cloud #1

Black Cloud #1, Story: Ivan Brandon, Jason Latour Art: Greg Hinkle Colors: Matt Wilson, Dee Cuniffe Letters: Aditya Bidikar Design: Tom Muller.
Story: Ivan Brandon, Jason Latour
Art: Greg Hinkle
Colors: Matt Wilson, Dee Cuniffe
Letters: Aditya Bidikar
Design: Tom Muller

“I’m from a place of stories, so big that they defined everything. People so committed to their stories they choose to live in them” intones Zelda, the main protagonist of Black Cloud. “We tell these stories to ourselves... To keep on going.” Zelda is a grifter out to con simple minded rubes with snake oil. She’s part of a long American tradition of hucksters, cheats, and entrepreneurs selling people on a dream of an illusory better world. But creators Ivan Brandon and Jason Latour subvert the conventional trope of a craven villain manipulating honest working folk to part with their meager savings. Zelda is a young black woman, and the rubes she tricks are self-absorbed, rich millennials looking for a relief from their ennui. Zelda isn’t even an Earth native, but an exile from a supernatural realm. She’s probably violating her exile and not a few laws by selling limited access to this realm, without fully informing her clients about the dangers they’ll be exposing themselves to. The comic conveys the experience as something like a drug-induced high, only with much more lethal side effects.

The setup affords Greg Hinkle and Matt Wilson to engage is a number of virtuosic turns. The comic begins with a sepia-colored prehistoric world populated by cave dwellers haunted by giant batlike monsters. But after an awesome display of magical power, the scene quickly shifts to the gleaming spires of a modern metropolis, the neon blue and red lighting of the streets below, and finally to the monochromatic hues of Zelda’s dream world, punctuated by bursts of random technicolor. These shifts from the mundane to the virtual/fantastic recall any number of films from The Matrix to Inception. And the dream world itself possesses an early 20th century milieu vaguely reminiscent of J.K. Rowling’s magical world found in the New York of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Black Cloud #1, Story: Ivan Brandon, Jason Latour Art: Greg Hinkle Colors: Matt Wilson, Dee Cuniffe Letters: Aditya Bidikar Design: Tom Muller.

But that’s also sort of the problem. While visually accomplished, I’m not really sold on whether Zelda’s world is a place where rich young people would want to slum around when trying to relieve their boredom. The place feels more generically terrifying than uniquely exhilarating. And while Zelda spins some great lines convincing them of her realm’s attractions, her 1st person narration throughout the comic can get a little ponderous after a bit. It doesn’t help that it also gets in the way of Hinkle’s more whimsical art.

For all her monologuing, Zelda remains at this point a mysterious character. Her motives don’t seem particularly nefarious, but she’s very cavalier with the safety of her customers. She’s a hero who’s experienced some hard luck, and has decided to survive in this alien world by exploiting the native one percenters. It’s a slight twist to an old tale, but does it truly do enough to turn the tables on them?

4/11/2017

More NonSense: Ghost in the Shell Edition

Ghost in the Shell (1995) directed by Mamoru Oshii. Created  by Masamune Shirow.

Jakob Free provides a primer the comics of Warren Ellis.

Diep Tran on Scarlett Johansson defending the controversial casting of her as the lead character in Hollywood's remake of the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell.

Emily Yoshida provides a primer on the Ghost in the Shell franchise.

[Spoiler alert]
The most surprising part of this otherwise bland appropriation of the 1995 anime is that the lead character Major Mira Killian (Johansson) is within the film's fictional setting a literal whitewashing of Motoko Kusanagi. If the cast and crew exhibited more self awareness, this bizarre plot twist could have been used as a jumping off point to examine the often uneven cross-cultural interactions between Japanese pop culture and Western consumers. Naturally, a few film critics quickly drew comparisons with the reveal in the contemporaneous Get Out.

But there's nothing in Johansson's performance which would indicate any emotional depth beyond the character's immediate concern over her amnesia/false memories. Being "essentially identity-less" apparently means the Major having no discernible personality even after she recovers her real memories. The troubling implications of wealthy white people kidnapping ethnic Japanese in order to plant their brains into android bodies with distinctly caucasian features are completely swept under the rug in favour of a more generic message about the individual will triumphing over venal corporate interests. This is a short-sighted pastiche of much better movies set in a dystopian future, and misses by a wide margin the philosophical introspection of the 1995 feature.
[End spoiler]

Since the film had a disappointing opening weekend, Joanna Robinson wanders if its commercial failure will have a positive effect on future casting choices.

Four actresses of Japanese descent give their opinions on the film.

Barry Blitt talks about drawing Donald Trump for the New Yorker.

Marvel's VP of Sales claims that readers don't want diversity. G. Willow Wilson pens a logical rebuttal. In essence, we're witnessing the comics market outgrow the traditional direct market.
On a practical level, this is not really a story about “diversity” at all. It’s a story about the rise of YA comics. If you look at it that way, the things that sell and don’t sell (AND THE MARKETS THEY SELL IN VS THE MARKETS THEY DON’T SELL IN) start to make a different kind of sense.
Meanwhile, Rob Salkowitz dissects the dysfunction hampering the direct market. These aren't new observations. But it bears worth repeating.
Because of this topsy-turvy arrangement with misaligned incentives and mismatched roles everywhere, the direct market has become a walled-off free fire zone where everyone is fighting for the same dollars, but is structurally incapable of expanding. Everyone wants new customers in theory, but it’s no one’s actual job to reach out to them and serve their needs if they are any different from the existing core. In fact, some people might lose their jobs (or find themselves in jobs they don’t want) if it were to actually happen.
As their site goes into hiatus (again), the ComicsAlliance staff talk about why they love comics.

Congratulations to Alison Bechdel, Vermont's Cartoonist Laureate.

Congratulations to the people working on Ms. Marvel and Black Panther for their nominations for the 2017 Hugo Awards.

Abraham Riesman on the time Don Rickles (May 8, 1926 – April 6, 2017) appeared on Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen.

Ben Judkins asks whether lightsaber combat can ever be authentic.

G. Willow Wilson explains why Ardian Syaf's not so veiled reference (if you're Indonesian) to a Qu'ran passage in the pages of  X-men Gold #1 is a form of bigotry against Jews/Christians. Obviously not a good look for superheroes widely considered to be an expression of pluralism, and Marvel was quick to distance itself from Syaf's message. While not the first time the franchise has courted controversy, this case is more the result of not properly vetting the actions of the artist under their supervision. A cursory examination of the panels in question (as reproduced online) reveals that Syaf only made a minimal effort integrating those references into the setting. It's hard not to notice them, and they're pretty discordant with the rest of the comic's art. But the Marvel staff's relative ignorance of Indonesian politics and Islam probably allowed Syaf to hide them in plain sight, even though they should have at least raised a few questions about the meaning behind the text printed on Colossus' shirt. Naturally, someone would inevitably point them out once the comic was released. This is highly embarrassing for Marvel, and Syaf's tenure on the series will most likely be cut short at the publisher's nearest convenience.

R.I.P. Carolyn Kelly, daughter of Pogo creator Walt Kelly.

4/09/2017

Arrival (2016)

Arrival (2016) - Director: Denis Villeneuve Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker Based on "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker
Based on "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang

Hollywood portrayals of first contact with alien life can range from the mostly benevolent (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact) to the mostly world-threatening (War of the Worlds, Independence Day). Sometimes the aliens stand in judgement over humanity (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Abyss). Or maybe the material circumstances are a lot more petty (Alien, Predator, Fire in the Sky) or desperate (E.T., District 9, Paul). But how many of them posit that an encounter with beings from an alien civilization will be mostly frustrating to us? In most of these films, the aliens possess fairly recognizable motives and behaviors, and sometimes even bear a familiar humanoid appearance. Arrival however begins with the premise that when the aliens do show up at our doorstep, their motives will be opaque to us. And without a universal translator available, we’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time figuring out their language before we can ask the question “What is your purpose on Earth?”

This is what linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has to patiently explain to the less than pleased U.S. Army Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker), a man under enormous pressure to come up with quick answers when 12 lens-shaped spacecraft appear out of nowhere and hover over 12 different locations across the globe. The squid-like aliens have hollowed out a large chamber within each spacecraft where they pump in enough air to allow humans to survive for two hours at a time. The humans can then personally interact with the aliens through a transparent partition. But none of the scientists sent in to communicate with them can make heads or tails of their strange vocalizations, until Weber sends Banks to the spacecraft hovering over rural Montana to decipher the “Heptapod” language.

And even when Banks makes enough headway to start asking the blunt questions her bosses demand, the answers she gets are maddeningly confusing. Meanings found in the words from any human language are often ambiguous enough, let alone the strange writings originating from an extraterrestrial society. Are the Heptapods offering the humans an ultimate weapon, advanced star drive technology, or are they simply sharing information? Are they trying to set the U.S. and China against each other? Every possible nuance in the translation keeps sending the world’s governments closer to the brink of a third world war.

Arrival (2016) - Director: Denis Villeneuve Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker Based on "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang.

I won’t spoil the big plot twist, which involves a very fanciful extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. But the film’s theme of how language can determine our experience of reality is handled with very subtle pacing that ties Banks’ personal life with the larger international crisis. Attempts to coordinate the separate translation efforts of the Heptapod language divides the world and exacerbates cultural misunderstandings like some otherworldly Tower of Babel. But as Banks begins to dream in Heptapod, she experiences visions that seem to collapse her perception of time. Earlier flashbacks of her life which seem completely irrelevant to the main story start to congeal into a pattern that mirrors the Heptapod’s swirling ideograms.

Arrival’s third act revelation shares a few parallels to Interstellar, though the 2014 film’s attempt to mesh relativistic physics with the Power of Love comes across as trite. Arrival’s own reveal isn’t anymore scientifically plausible, but the film’s tighter focus on Banks yields far more convincing results. Shifting the attention towards linguists instead of the usual collection of scientists and mathematicians lends a fresh perspective. Everything takes on greater importance when the fate of two species is dependent on comprehending the other side’s motivations.

But the film’s greatest asset is Adams, as the story could have collapsed under the weight of its own ideas if not for her highly calibrated performance. Adams makes excellent use of her own sweet, unthreatening demeanour to convey a character who’s understandably overwhelmed by the momentous nature of the occasion, but hiding a steely resolve that slowly emerges as the stakes are raised. During their first meeting, theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) quickly dismisses Banks expertise, and by extension the contributions of the entire field of linguistics, as secondary to his own field. But when set next to Adam’s understated brilliance, Renner’s cocksure pose ends up looking brittle and amusingly childish. From that point there’s never any doubt about who becomes the leading voice in understanding the Heptapods, or her own species.

Arrival (2016) - Director: Denis Villeneuve Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker Based on "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang.

4/01/2017

Guardians of the Louvre

Guardians of the Louvre, By Jiro Taniguchi, Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian.
By Jiro Taniguchi
Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian

As cliche as this now sounds, one of Art’s most lauded virtues is its ability to transport the viewer from their immediate surroundings with the power of imagination, and deposit them into a very different place and time. This is a quality exploited with often eye-catching results in the luxuriant watercolors of Jiro Taniguchi. Whether it’s the everyday bustle in the streets of Tokyo, the austere beauty of the Himalayas, or as in Guardians of the Louvre, the majestic halls of one of the world’s great museums, located in one of the world’s most elegant city centers. Taniguchi’s photo-realistic level of detail captures both the works of art on display within, and the architectural splendor of the Parisian skyline. When his fictional avatar beholds the museum’s famous Pyramid entrance and gasps at the structure’s crisp lines, the scene works because the panel reproduces what someone would witness with their own eyes: The modernist blend of steel and glass offsetting the massive Baroque facade of the surrounding palace. The mind-boggling precision of his hand drawn line drawings does not falter throughout the entire book.

The premise of a Japanese artist spending several days exploring Paris, only to fall into a fevered dream which involves the intervention of one the Louvre’s most famous statues, has little in the way of plot. And the educational intent that animated the project doesn’t leave much room for interesting character development. But it does allow Taniguchi to reflect on his artistic heritage. The two most successful chapters center around the artist communing with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Vincent van Gogh, two painters who’ve had an enormous impact on modern Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. His private reverie on viewing Recollection of Mortefontaine allows him to walk in the steps of Corot and wander the landscape until he meets the master himself. A day-trip to the town Auvers-sur-Oise creates a similar occasion with van Gogh. Admittedly, this is a little reminiscent of a similar scene in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, though Taniguchi’s touch is lighter and more deft.

Guardians of the Louvre, By Jiro Taniguchi, Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian.

Recreating the work of Corot, van Gogh, and Barbizon school painter Charles-François Daubigny traces a line linking these artists to Taniguchi’s own body of work. He shares with them a devotion to landscapes, a similar kind of sensuality, not to mention a reverence for a sublime natural order represented in their paintings. His comic panels are not a form of slavish reproduction, but a recognition of an unspoken personal connection.

Not all the museum’s works elicit the same level of emotional investment. The artist follows the usual tourist tradition and visits the Mona Lisa upon entering the premises. But his main takeaway is to be overwhelmed by the throngs surrounding the Louvre's most famous resident. Large crowds being an inescapable part of famous museums is not a particularly original observation. But having acknowledged the Mona Lisa’s undeniable importance justifying the attention heaped upon it, he quickly moves on.

Guardians of the Louvre, By Jiro Taniguchi, Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian.

The Raft of the Medusa, another celebrated work, is only discussed within the context of the Louvre's WW II history. The museum’s caretakers went through a lot of trouble to transport the massive painting to a safe location as the Nazi invasion became imminent. Taniguchi illustrates wartime Paris in sepia tones, imitating archival footage. Sure, this is fascinating stuff in a National Geographic TV documentary kind of way. Moving the museum’s vast (and fragile) collection into hiding was a truly monumental endeavour. But the net effect of Taniguchi’s narrative choices only serves to distance the reader from the story, as his protagonist can only passively observe events from the sidelines.

In the end, this isn't a story about the Louvre. Taniguchi's makes no grand statements and delivers no keen insights about Art itself or the state of art museums. This is a picturesque book about cross-cultural influence experienced by one creative individual, and expressed through the art he produces. The Louvre is too vast a place to be absorbed within a few days visit, or one slim volume. But like Taniguchi's artist, anyone can discover some tiny part that would be of value to them.

Guardians of the Louvre, By Jiro Taniguchi, Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian.

3/30/2017

More NonSense: Fighting Facism

Captain America Comics (1941) #1, by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.

Katie Logan on the growing relevance of Kamala Khan.

Mark Peters on the 8 ways comic book legend Jack Kirby fought fascism.

i09 lists the top 13 performances of the late Bill Paxton (May 17, 1955 – February 25, 2017). I'm sure many are already yelling “Game over, man! Game over!”

Emily Yoshida explains that Laura from the movie Logan is the latest in a line of violent, mute, female protagonists extending back to Leeloo from The Fifth Element.

R.I.P. Jay Lynch (Born: January 7, 1945 - March 5, 2016)

James Kaplan lists 25 great comics from Image.

Beth EldurkinAngelica Jade BastiénStacia M. Fleegal, on the enduring appeal of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Ben Judkins on the spiritual connection between heroines Yim Wing Chun and Buffy.

Abraham Riesman on Image co-founder/Spawn creator Todd McFarlane.

Osvaldo Oyola on the pleasures of serial comics.

Abraham Riesman draws some lessons from the critical failure of the Iron Fist TV series.

Katharine Trendacosta argues for how an Asian American Danny Rand would have made for a better TV show.

Marissa Martinelli lists the 7 strategies for defending problematic TV shows/movies.

R.I.P.  underground comics legend Skip Williamson (August 19, 1944 - March 16, 2017).

R.I.P. Bernie Wrightson (October 27, 1948 – March 18, 2017).

3/25/2017

Superman #19 & Action Comics #976

Superman #19 Writers: Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason Art: Patrick Gleason Ink: Mick Gray Colors: John Kalisz Letters: Rob Leigh Variants: Gary Frank, Brad Anderson. Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Action Comics #976 Writer: Dan Jurgens Art: Doug Mahnke Inks: Jaime Mendoza, Christian Alamy, Trevor Scott Colors: Wil Quintana Letters: Rob Leigh Covers: Patrick Gleason, John Kalisz, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Superman #19
Writers: Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason
Art: Patrick Gleason
Ink: Mick Gray
Colors: John Kalisz
Letters: Rob Leigh
Variants: Gary Frank, Brad Anderson


Action Comics #976
Writer: Dan Jurgens
Art: Doug Mahnke
Inks: Jaime Mendoza, Christian Alamy, Trevor Scott
Colors: Wil Quintana
Letters: Rob Leigh
Covers: Patrick Gleason, John Kalisz, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson


Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

[Spoiler Warning for the two comics]

Every major reshuffling of DC’s shared universe will include a few common elements: it usually begins with some version of the Flash acting as a harbinger of change, and ends with another rewrite of Superman’s story. As Superman goes, so goes the DC Universe. The Superman of the New 52 relaunch attempted to bring him back to his social justice roots, erase his romantic history with Lois Lane, and even strip him of his secret identity and much of his powers. DC even got rid of his iconic red trunks. Did any of this work for DC’s readership? Outside of Grant Morrison’s run, I don’t know. The DC Rebirth rebranding promised to roll back many of the New 52 changes. And just recently, the first indication of a cosmic reshuffling occurred within the pages of Superman #19 and Action Comics #976.

Rebirth introduced the theory that the New 52 was basically the previous DC Universe, only with ten years stolen from its history during the last universal reset, by an as yet unidentified entity. But it was already revealed a year before that the previous incarnations of Superman and Lois Lane were alive and well, living incognito with their son Jon. They’ve kept out of the way of New 52 Superman until the latter died. And they were the only refugees from the previous Universe until Wally West/Kid Flash showed up in the pages of Rebirth. You know who else knows of their existence? Mister Mxyzptlk. And for some reason, he’s mad as hell at Lois and Clark for not bothering to contact him all this time.

Superman #19 Writers: Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason Art: Patrick Gleason Ink: Mick Gray Colors: John Kalisz Letters: Rob Leigh Variants: Gary Frank, Brad Anderson. Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Superman #19 attempts to explain the paradox of two pairs of characters co-existing in the same Universe by going back to the cosmological well one more time - that powerful forces conspired to split Superman’s reality into two parallel versions. It’s not a particularly satisfactory explanation, given how often DC resorts to multiversal shenanigans to tidy-up their continuity. Equally unsurprising is the the well-worn resolution - the two versions must merge. Mxyzptlk has trapped the Kent family inside a limbo dimension in order to torture and eventually eliminate them. But this act inadvertently allows Lois and Clark to make contact with the souls of their dead New 52 counterparts. Presumably, the rest of the New 52 Universe has to somehow follow Superman’s example in order to fulfill the promise of Rebirth and regain those lost ten years.

At this point, this all feels like an elaborate form of hand-waving that doesn’t even begin to resolve the tangled mess created from contradicting other titles like New Super-Man and Superwoman, let alone Superman’s various appearances within the New 52 timeline. For example, what happens now to his established romantic connection with Wonder Woman? And how many times has Superman died in this timeline?

Action Comics #976 Writer: Dan Jurgens Art: Doug Mahnke Inks: Jaime Mendoza, Christian Alamy, Trevor Scott Colors: Wil Quintana Letters: Rob Leigh Covers: Patrick Gleason, John Kalisz, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The end of Action Comics #976 further underlines the cynicism at the heart of Rebirth. As Mxyzptlk flees and the Universe is realigned around Superman’s new timeline, the comic ends with a panel of the planet Mars accompanied by the ominous words “Is it Superman who has the final say? Or him?” Yup, Watchmen character Doctor Manhattan, and not the guys who run DC, is still allegedly to blame for the crappy state of the New 52 Universe.

3/19/2017

Man-Thing #1

Man-Thing #1: Story: R.L. Stine Art: German Peralta Colors: Rachelle Rosenberg Letters: Travis Lanham Covers: Tyler Cook, Francesco Francavilla, John Tyler Christopher, Stephanie Hans, Ron Lim, Billy Martin, Rachelle Rosenberg  Man-Thing created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gray Morrow.
Story: R.L. Stine
Art: German Peralta
Colors: Rachelle Rosenberg
Letters: Travis Lanham
Covers: Tyler Cook, Francesco Francavilla, John Tyler Christopher, Stephanie Hans, Ron Lim, Billy Martin, Rachelle Rosenberg

Man-Thing created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gray Morrow.

Whenever celebrity writers from outside the industry make the jump to working on a comic book series, readers can expect their prose to play an outsize role in the comic. At the heart of the award-winning March are the personal recollections of John Lewis told in casual first person voice. The first arc of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run on Black Panther is a slowly unfolding discourse on the relationship between the state and the people embodied as dialogue between the comic’s numerous characters. So when Marvel hired Goosebumps author R.L. Stine to work on a Man-Thing mini series, the result is a a story helmed by the kind of prose once described as “funny, icky, and just a bit menacing.” Put another way, the usually mute swamp monster now talks like a young R.L. Stine protagonist.

The menacing part (or at least the icky part) is quickly exhibited from page one. The comic opens with a swamp battle between Man-Thing and a hideous centipede creature. Our hero is stymied on how to defeat the monstrosity. But then, the centipede starts talking: “Whoa. I didn't know they could pile human waste that high. Where does the swamp end and you begin?” More surprising is Man-Thing’s internal monologue, represented by a constant stream of thought bubbles. Ted Sallis (Man-Thing’s former human identity) turns out to be a really chatty person.

Man-Thing #1: Story: R.L. Stine Art: German Peralta Colors: Rachelle Rosenberg Letters: Travis Lanham Covers: Tyler Cook, Francesco Francavilla, John Tyler Christopher, Stephanie Hans, Ron Lim, Billy Martin, Rachelle Rosenberg  Man-Thing created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gray Morrow.

Stine keeps piling on the ironic twists. Ted is now a resident of Los Angeles and a struggling actor. His dream of a successful Hollywood career receives a serious blow when a sleazy studio executive bluntly points out “You’re a nice guy - but you’re sickening.” The studio’s instead considering going with Ant-Man. Stupid Marvel Cinematic Universe! When Ted walks the streets, he’s relentlessly heckled by pedestrians for his alien appearance. Artist German Peralta draws a suitably creepy Man-Thing and somehow manages to convey the dejection behind the hulking figure with glowing red eyes by using some pretty subtle body language.

There’s a bit of Peter Parker in Ted’s sack sack behavior, with a dash of Ben Grimm for good measure. His response to the unwelcome attention on the street is “Don’t let my good looks fool you. Deep down inside I’m very ugly.” But Stine’s pulpy approach to horror is on full display when the story goes on an extended flashback of Man-Thing’s origins. “Ted Sallis wanted to build an indestructible killer. He never dreamed it would turn out to be himself!” Whoa. Aren’t scientists who work for the military just the worst?

3/14/2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Kong: Skull Island (2017): Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.  King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.

King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.

In kaiju movies, the giant monster is the star of the show. No matter how large and varied the cast, the human characters are mainly there to anchor the story, not to steal the the big guy’s thunder. And if two kaiju decide to throw down in the middle of downtown, the humans had better get their puny selves out of the way, assuming they want to live. Or as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa from the 2014 Godzilla kept begging the military, “Let them fight.” King Kong is Hollywood’s most venerable movie monster. But the giant ape of Kong: Skull Island doesn’t quite fit into the established pattern of Hollywood’s Kong remakes. This Kong belongs to the MonsterVerse, and must be able to interact with Japan’s king of kaiju on an equal footing. That means the bigger he is, the better.

This also means the removal of the titular character’s classic “beauty and the beast” storyline. As the film’s trailer mentions, our hero keeps to himself, mostly. And he’s provoked into fighting the humans only because they keep dropping bombs on his home. This Kong is closer to Godzilla when he’s acting as curmudgeonly protector of the Earth than to the original besotted leading man envisioned by Merian C. Cooper. Consequently, there are no leading lady roles similar to those played by Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts in their respective remakes. Kong is essentially a misunderstood tough guy who maintains an icy exterior, but with no one left to share an intimate connection. As if to underline this point, the human characters are in one scene forced to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the film’s monstrous baddies while amongst the skeletal remains of Kong’s family. Against great odds, Kong is fighting to remain the last of his kind.

Kong: Skull Island (2017): Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.  King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.

Given the emotional gulf between super-ape and humans, the film’s hugely talented cast is mainly there to lend their considerable star power to the script’s two dimensional characters. The story is set in 1973, so it fills some of the backstory of Monarch, the organization founded in 1954 to study Godzilla. Monarch has convinced the U.S. government to fund an expedition to Skull Island. Their scientists are burdened with much of the expository dialogue, which is a somewhat more detailed explanation of the theories first expounded in the 2014 film. They’re accompanied by a military escort composed of a helicopter squadron who served in the Vietnam War.

The story turns into a ham-fisted message about the War, during which U.S. forces were beginning to withdraw from Vietnam that year. Squadron leader Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) blames the liberal media back home for America losing the War. Except that America didn’t lose, he claims, they exited. His opposite, photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), only confirms Packard’s suspicions when she proudly proclaims herself to be an “anti-war photographer.” WTF? How the heck did she get on this expedition? Caught in between these two extremes is world-weary James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former SAS officer who’s on the expedition because Monarch promised him a big fat paycheck to act as the group’s tracker. Guess who he sides with later on when Packard and Weaver inevitably come to loggerheads?

Kong: Skull Island (2017): Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.  King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.

Once the expedition reaches Skull Island, the cinematography starts to ape (no pun intended) Apocalypse Now, and the soundtrack blasts 70s protest music. Everything goes pear shaped when Kong shows up and takes exception to the military's habit of stomping around with guns blazing. But some sanity is restored when Hank Marlow (a delightfully goofy John C. Reilly) appears with a dozen Skull Island natives (in only a marginally better portrayal, since they don’t try to sacrifice anyone to Kong) to act as the voice of wisdom. His jovial reaction to everything injects a much needed dose of levity to the dour proceedings. A WW II aviator marooned on Skull Island for the last 28 years, Marlow naturally asks one soldier if America won the War. To which he receives the laconic response “which one?”

But everyone’s here to gawk at the king, while of course getting stomped on, torn apart, or eaten by the local mega-sized megafauna. And Kong is certainly impressive to behold. The creature design hearkens back to the chimp-gorilla hybrid with an upright human gait from 1933, instead of later attempts to make Kong look like an oversized gorilla. This allows mo-cap actor Terry Notary to imbue Kong with a humanlike swagger. If the spectacular kaiju-style battle that ends the film is any indication, this Kong is being promoted to the rank of badass, and getting ready to take on Godzilla.

Kong: Skull Island (2017): Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.  King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.

3/09/2017

Logan (2017)

Logan (2017): Director: James Mangold Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen  Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe. Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.
Director: James Mangold
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen

Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe.
Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.

The uneven X-Men film franchise went through a reboot in 2014 with Days of Future Past. In its future setting, the robotic Sentinels have enslaved humanity and hunted the mutants to near extinction. To save themselves, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) sends Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to prevent the creation of the Sentinel program. After Logan succeeds in his mission, he wakes up in his bedroom at the Westchester mansion. Everyone’s alive and healthy, without a single sentinel in sight. Having no memories of the new timeline, Logan confronts Xavier with his conundrum. The film ends with Xavier’s delighted reaction and a promise to inform his friend about the brave new world he helped usher into existence.

None of this is necessary to understand Logan. On the contrary, the time travel shenanigans only serve to make the story both sillier and less accessible. But the contrast between the 2017 film and its predecessors is perturbing. Like Marty McFly, the Logan from the 2014 film finds himself in a much better present than the one he left behind. But this lovely vision is cruelly snatched away from him, only to be replaced by another horrible timeline where the mutant apocalypse arrives as a kind of slow and inevitable demise. There are no flying killer robots in Logan. The more fantastic superhero elements are pushed deep into the background. When they are foregrounded, it’s in the form of X-Men comic books, which Logan openly mocks for only getting it half right.

This meta commentary is a shout out to the increasingly baroque Marvel Cinematic Universe, the televised Arrowverse, the sputtering DC Cinematic Universe, and every Hollywood attempt to sustain a ubiquitous multimedia franchise. As they seek to outdo each other in over-the-top spectacle, larger ensembles, and convoluted continuity, Logan pulls back. The cast is smaller, the set pieces are more intimate, and the stakes are far from world-saving.

Logan (2017): Director: James Mangold Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen  Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe. Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.

But the tonal shift also feels timely. Director James Mangold economically sets up a future America that has become a fascist police state. In 2029, an aging Logan freelances as a limo driver in El Paso. The healing factor which has kept him alive for over 200 years is greatly diminished. He drinks too much. And Logan cares for an ailing Xavier who rants like a mad King Lear. The mutants, once a symbol of a brighter tomorrow, are again endangered. Both Logan and Xavier are haunted by their memories of the “Westchester Incident,” an event from five years ago that spelled the end for the X-Men and the beginning of the end for mutantkind.

This portrait of two aging individuals who’re being slowly destroyed by their own superpowers serves as a more effective way to convey the loss of their shared utopian dream than any attack from a fleet of Sentinels. Logan’s claw openings occasionally spew puss, a possible sign he’s being slowly poisoned by the adamantium that laces his skeleton. With the help of fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan has Xavier tucked away in an abandoned industrial compound located south of the Mexican border, not only to protect themselves from unwanted attention but to also keep anyone from being exposed to psychic attacks unleashed whenever Xavier suffers a seizure. But neither of them is willing to articulate their shared guilt over the loss of the X-Men and mutantkind. When Xavier experiences a moment of lucidity, he simply says to Logan is “What a disappointment you are.” It’s a brilliant performance of someone losing the battle with dementia from Stewart.

If Mangold’s earlier outing The Wolverine drew from Asian martial arts fantasy, Logan is clearly informed by westerns. The two older mutants are very much akin to retired gunslingers scarred by a life filled with violence. The film even directly quotes the 1953 western Shane. Like that movie’s titular hero, Logan can’t quite escape his past. And like Reuben Cogburn from True Grit, he’s been given a chance at redemption by accompanying a young girl on a perilous journey. If that's not enough, helping to convey this message is the music of Johnny Cash.

Logan (2017): Director: James Mangold Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen  Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe. Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.

The girl in question is Laura (Dafne Keen), who is for all they know, the last young mutant left on the planet. She’s on the run from the kind of corporate overlords who rule future America and are raising mutants from birth to become living weapons. It’s also hinted that they’re also responsible for engineering a federally sanctioned act of mutant genocide. As any hardcore X-Men comics fan already knows, Laura has the same mutant powers as Logan. Despite this uncanny resemblance, Logan is hesitant to escort Laura towards a possibly fictive safe haven. But he and Xavier abscond with her once they realize the goons responsible for bringing Laura in are just as happy to target them. What follows is a quiet, melancholic road trip through the more desolate parts of the country’s western interior, punctuated by the requisite gory violence.

And those action set pieces are filled with tension. Keen’s portrayal of a frenzied Laura manages to make her an extremely dangerous combatant while still being a young innocent screaming in terror at her adult assailants. The balletic fight choreography highlights Laura’s diminutive stature and vicious fighting style. She’s constantly sliding between her opponents' legs to slice off their tendons, chopping off arms, or diving claws first into their chests.

As for Logan himself, he’s a diminished figure from his last two solo outings, literally. Jackman’s finally been allowed to shed some of the muscle he’s gained from playing the role for the last 17 years. When he runs through the woods in the film’s taut climax, every heavy exhalation and clumsy step he takes seems to only bring him closer to collapse, if not death. It’s a glimpse of the fragility behind the invincible adamantium frame which makes for a more terrifying throwdown. This is a fitting farewell to Jackman’s star making turn as Canada’s quintessential wild man.

Logan (2017): Director: James Mangold Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen  Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe. Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.

2/25/2017

The Old Guard #1

The Old Guard #1, By Greg Rucka Art: Leandro Fernández Colors: Daniela Miwa Letters: Jodi Wynne.
By Greg Rucka
Art: Leandro Fernández
Colors: Daniela Miwa
Letters: Jodi Wynne

The Old Guard introduces its familiar premise with the famous words once uttered by General Douglas MacArthur, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” The comic takes only the first part of that sentence literally. AndromacheAndy” of Scythia and her comrades in arms Nicky, Joe, and Booker are immortal warriors. They don’t understand the underlying cause of their immortality. But they do not age. Knowing nothing else than how to fight, the quartet has participated in numerous battles, and have yet to die from their wounds. Rather than fading away, they’re imprisoned in a self-imposed hell they don’t seem to be capable, or all that interested, in escaping.

This latest cynical take on human nature from Greg Rucka begins with Andy engaging in sexual intercourse. This scene is quickly overwhelmed by a montage illustrating the many past occasions of Andy repeatedly fighting and fornicating through the centuries. But she constantly frets over two things: She fears about what could possibly terminate her immortality. But she’s already so beaten down by the cyclical nature of her existence that she craves an end to it. “So goddamn tired of life.” Andy intones. “Of going through the motions, of killing time.”

The Old Guard #1, By Greg Rucka Art: Leandro Fernández Colors: Daniela Miwa Letters: Jodi Wynne.

It’s an efficient enough layout, if not the most compelling approach, from Leandro Fernández. The use of deep shadows and silhouettes accompanied by deep, flat tones by Daniela Miwa reminded me of the house style that would come to dominate the Vertigo imprint in the late 90s. In short, it’s a little muddy at times. Fernández is on shakier ground when it comes to character design. Andy’s appearance is fairly generic as an attractive brunette. Nicky, Joe, and Booker are somewhat nondescript. They’re almost background characters.

But Rucka dispenses with individual characterization and moves right into the A-plot. The setup is pretty current to the “War on Terror.” The four immortals are private contractors who seem to to be regularly sought after by western intelligence agencies for their services. The assignment they accept is reminiscent to the real world events involving the 2014 Boko Haram kidnapping of schoolgirls. And then there’s the intersecting B-plot, which involves a female soldier who is part of the US forces deployed in Afghanistan. It’s apparent from her actions that she’ll eventually run into Andy, probably in the next issue.

Needless to say, things go sideways for the immortals. And the issue’s cliffhanger suggests that they’ll be forced to serve at the behest of some shady organization in the near future. But if the basic theme is a little time-worn, the fantastic elements mixing with the present political context could prove to be intriguing.

2/19/2017

WildC.A.T.s #1

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.
By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi
Inks: Scott Williams
Letters: Mike Heisler
Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon

This post is a continuation of an examination that began with Spawn #1.

Image Comics was founded on the conviction that Marvel Comics fans would follow their favorite artists into a new publishing house because they loved their talents more than they loved the properties they were working on. So confident were they that the Image founders initially rejected working with veteran writers, or be subjected to editorial oversight. Their collective stance even set off a mini-debate at the time on which was more important for creating a successful comic: art or writing? Sounds silly, given that Image is now partially known for writers like Robert Kirkman and Brian K. Vaughan. But at least a few of the Image founders had reason to be cocky. For example, the art of Todd McFarlane raised the sales of The Amazing Spider-Man so dramatically Marvel established a second Spider-Man title in 1990 just to keep him from abandoning the character and the company. The first issue sold a breathtaking 2.5 million copies.

Jim Lee had an even more impressive track record. His work on Uncanny X-Men was so popular he was also given his own title in 1991 where he could exercise greater creative control. The first issue of X-Men sold a whopping 8.1 million copies, considered the best selling comic book of all time. His character designs were so influential in defining the look and feel of the X-Men franchise, they wouldn’t receive a major overhaul until New X-Men in 2001. So Lee probably had as much cause as any of the Image founders to parlay his Marvel-bred success into nurturing his original ideas. Like the other founders, he established his own studio, which he named Homage. Lee then partnered with childhood friend Brandon Choi to create a new superhero team, the WildC.A.T.s.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

To anyone who was familiar with Lee’s X-Men, WildC.A.T.s would certainly seem familiar. It’s a team book. Its members call back to recognizable archetypes. There’s the boy scout leader, the berserker with a blade fetish, the psychic woman, the mountain of muscle, the amazon warrior, the rake with a mysterious past, etc. The similarities between the character designs of the two teams are unmistakeable. The WildC.A.T.s could have been inserted into Lee’s X-Men pages as background characters, and no one would been the wiser.

Lee, McFarlane, and Image co-founder Rob Liefeld were developing a distinct new drawing style at Marvel when they decided to jump ship. One that resonated with fans of the late 80s and 90s. It eschewed the naturalism of the previous generation of artists for something more stylized. More mannerist. There were differences between them, of course. If McFarlane emphasized mood and atmosphere, Lee was all about grandiose action. And WildC.A.T.s pretty much embodies Lee’s approach to storytelling, meaning that the first issue is a mess.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

The comics starts out with two pages filled with irregularly shaped panels that are keen to impart a sense of chaos. But the panels are so small and confusingly composed on the page, they effectively obscure some pertinent details. This includes the story’s macguffin. Characters and word balloons are crammed tightly together as leave little breathing space.

But these are hallmarks of Lee’s style even when the rest of the story is drawn with more conventionally-shaped panels. Lee is one of those artists who fears the negative space, so he tends to minimize it with a combination of close-ups and word balloons. He also often resorts to heavy cross-hatching as a substitute for actual background detail or just leaves the space blank, both time saving devices which mimic contemporary shonen manga being translated into english.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

Lee’s unwillingness to illustrate proper backgrounds results in a comic that possesses no clear establishing shots, let alone any sense of the space the characters are supposed to inhabit. If he has to pull back occasionally in order to communicate a wider view of the setting, Lee almost always shrinks the panel, basically sidestepping the need to draw complicated details while minimizing the possibility of being bogged down by the challenge of rendering tricky perspective.

Off course, this makes for a comic informed by an underlying flatness. There’s no variation in mood or emotional content. The pacing is monotonously rushed. Characters are introduced and shuffled of the stage to make way for the next set of characters. This is where the text comes in. Lee inevitably relies on text-heavy narration to properly relay what his art could not. This rereading revealed that he’s a lot chattier than I remembered. But his large cast has yet to find its voice and gel into a compelling ensemble at this point.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

But if WildC.A.T.s is a poor showcase for Lee’s abilities as a storyteller, it exploits his appeal as an artist. The coloring used by Joe Rosas isn’t anywhere as advanced as that found in Spawn, but it manages to convey a shiny world bathed in primary colors that works with Lee’s individual aesthetic. The Image founders drew figures that were highly exaggerated, resulting in action scenes seemed bigger. The behavior of the heroes and villains became more operatic. But if McFarlane’s figures were grimy and had a hint of the grotesque, Lee’s were lithe and flamboyant. It points to the influence of the hyper-real sensibilities of Japanese anime. And Lee is probably the slickest figure artist among the lot of them. The Image style would set the tone for mainstream comics for the next decade, as both Marvel and DC Comics would attempt to replicate it for themselves.

The premise of WildC.A.T.s is a war between two alien factions, although it isn’t examined much in this issue. Rather, this comic is mostly concerned with gathering the heroes tasked with protecting the Earth from their evil counterparts, the Cabal. The WildC.A.T.s founder/benefactor Jacob Marlowe gets the lion’s share of the dialogue. And the other males of the team get to talk more than the female members, especially the gun-totting Grifter. But they’re not exactly the main source of interest. Lee structures the flow of the comic around panels that do double duty as pinup imagery. With the introduction of each female character, their panels noticeably take up more space. When the final member Zealot makes her grand entrance, we’re treated to a glorious two page spread of her poised for battle while accompanied by Grifter’s appreciative commentary. This sacrifice of narrative efficiency for glamour shots which satisfy the fanboy gaze is the organizing principle behind Lee’s popular X-Men tenure. Fanservice follows it’s own narrative logic.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

As with the other Image titles released that year, WildC.A.T.s was a massive bestseller. But just as with the other co-founders, Lee and Choi could not sustain a regular monthly output. The series would fall further and further behind. This chronic lateness from most of the Image titles is often cited as the main contributing factor to the comics direct market crash of the 90s. Lee would eventually leave WildC.A.T.s in the hands of more capable storytellers and initiate other projects. Homage was renamed Wildstorm Productions, and would become the most prolific Image studio. The “Wildstorm Universe” effectively replaced the stillborn Image Universe, until DC purchased the studio and Lee’s creations in 1998. The WildC.A.T.s and the rest of the Wildstorm Universe would be incorporated into the DC Universe after the New 52 initiative. As for Jim Lee himself, the young artist who left Marvel to work on his own characters is now one of the chief architects of the DC Universe. For the last several years, the look and feel of some of the world’s most iconic superheroes has borne the stamp of an Image co-founder.