5/25/2017

More Nonsense: Kung fu Kenny Edition

Go to: DNA, by Kendrick Lamar

Marvel had to release a statement to reassure fans, due to the backlash over its latest event Secret Empire.
At Marvel, we want to assure all of our fans that we hear your concerns about aligning Captain America with Hydra and we politely ask you to allow the story to unfold before coming to any conclusion.
1978 documentary The World of Comic Books is now available online. It's an interesting time capsule of the Bronze Age comics industry, complete with onomatopoeia (pow, swoosh, boom!), canned sound effects, and accompanying bombastic narration that could have been written by Stan Lee himself. The documentary even gets to throw shade at the casual sexism of comics fandom. But the best part is seeing artists such as Neal Adams, Jim Steranko and Trevor Von Eeden in their prime.

Nicola Streeten reports on two comics exhibitions: Shoah et bande dessinée and The Inking Women.

Jia Tolentino profiles G. Willow Wilson.

Christopher Butcher talks TCAF.

Tom Spurgeon reports from this year's TCAF.

It's time for the Jedi to end. And it just took 40 years.

Shawn Setaro on the connection between kung fu cinema and hip hop culture.

Robert Foyle Hunwick on the rise of Chinese fight clubs.

Maren Williams on the sedition charges brought against Fahmi Reza for portraying Prime Minister Najib Razak as a clown.

Charles Pulliam-Moore on the death threats levelled against transgender webcomic creator Sophie Labelle.

It boggles the mind that there are racist Star Trek fans who reject the cast of the latest series Discovery. It's Star Trek!

R.I.P. Roger Moore (October 14, 1927 –  May 23, 2017). He was the James Bond of my generation.

5/21/2017

Libby's Dad

Libby's Dad, By Eleanor Davis.
By Eleanor Davis.

Libby’s Dad examines how children tackle what is for them one of life’s great mysteries, the grownups who control them. What exactly is it that drives their behaviour? Do they even share the same feelings we experience? The setting is a pool party attended by several prepubescent girls, held at the newly purchased house resided by Libby. The titular character is largely absent from the comic, but is the source of the girls’ attention once one of them passes along a piece of gossip regarding the recent divorce of Libby’s parents. They try to square this information with the hospitality they’ve experienced first hand. How could Libby’s dad be the bad guy when he allowed the girls to hold a pool party, eat cake, and even bought them delicious KFC? The vast gulf between perception and reality is only magnified by the immaturity and very limited outlook of children.

Eleanor Davis draws a brightly colored, but claustrophobic milieu. The girl’s own simplified world view represented by lineart rendered entirely in colored pencils, and figures drawn with flattened perspective. Backgrounds are minimal, with Davis eschewing conventional panel borders for strong color fields. The same visual elements which envelop the girls in comforting familiarity are flipped halfway through to become immediately terrifying when they begin to seriously reconsider the validity of the rumors. The broadly defined art’s lack of subtle gradations capturing the girls’ constant inability to comprehend the moral ambiguity of the surrounding adult world. Everything about that place just fades to white.

Libby's Dad, By Eleanor Davis.

Off course, the comic is written from an adult’s viewpoint of children’s behaviour. Davis doesn’t bother to answer the questions raised by the girls about the true relationship between Libby’s parents. Only to show how the girls are easily misled by the different scraps of information they’re fed. They’re quickly swayed by the comforts of the house, an elegant example of sleek mid-20th century modern design. They have a child’s obsession with associating with the proper brand identity, hence the affection for the aforementioned KFC, or a cutting remark about the right kind of cereal people should be crying into. The girls share the inability to sustain any kind of introspection typical of children their age. And there’s a casual cruelty to their value judgements that reduces everything to a zero sum game, familiar to any kid caught in an argument about who has the coolest parents.

So there’s a lot about the comic that feels surprisingly complex and nuanced, not to mention true to life when regarding how children often fail to process much of the world around them. And it’s beautifully drawn with tools that rarely receive this level of prominence.  If there’s  one criticism I would level, it’s that Libby’s Dad ends with a bait and switch that can feel a little premature. Or maybe I’m disappointed that its young characters didn’t really acquire any real insight. I guess, every child needs their reassuring illusions.

5/13/2017

Flash #21 & Batman #22

Flash #21 Story: Joshua Williamson Art: Howard Porter Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Steve Wands Variant Covers: Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson, Mikel Janin  Flash (Barry Allen) created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino.
Flash #21
Story: Joshua Williamson
Art: Howard Porter
Colors: Hi-Fi
Letters: Steve Wands
Variant Covers: Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson, Mikel Janin

Flash (Barry Allen) created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino.

At the end of the last installment, Barry Allen scurried over to the Batcave only to find a bloodied and unconscious Batman, and the burned corpse of Eobard Thawne, aka the Reverse Flash. This issue of The Flash opens with another superhero joining the time-displaced Saturn Girl in knowing that something is terribly amiss with the DC Universe. An aged Johnny Thunder screams his magic word to the heavens, only to wait in vain for his faithful Thunderbolt. He clearly remembers the existence of the Justice Society of America. Not that it helps when a bunch of orderlies show up to drag him back to his room at the retirement home. Johnny is just the first sign of the returning pre-New 52 Universe. This issue then keeps tapping into fandom’s nostalgia for DC's past.

To begin with, Barry admits to the convalescing Batman about experiencing visions of the Helmet of Mercury. But Johnny’s returning memories would indicate that Barry is actually foretelling the return of his predecessor Jay Garrick. And if that’s not enough, Barry later shows up at a cavernous Justice League storage room filled with artifacts that should not exist in the New 52. What could the Flash want from this outlandish and never before seen collection? Oh right.

Flash #21 Story: Joshua Williamson Art: Howard Porter Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Steve Wands Variant Covers: Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson, Mikel Janin  Flash (Barry Allen) created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino.

The Cosmic Treadmill is a familiar Flash plot device, but has been virtually absent since the New 52 era began. So its reappearance means that some weird sh#@ is about to go down. Barry plans to use the treadmill to trace Thawne back to wherever he came from. He’s joined by the still injured Batman, because no one really talks him out of an investigation even when his health is on the line. Where do they end up? A most impossible place.

Batman #22 Story: Joshua Williamson, Tom King Art: Jason Fabok Colors: Brad Anderson Letters: Deron Bennett Variant Covers: Tim Sale, Brennan Wagner  Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.
Batman #22
Story: Joshua Williamson, Tom King
Art: Jason Fabok
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Deron Bennett
Variant Covers: Tim Sale, Brennan Wagner

Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

According to Barry Allen, Flashpoint should not exist. Flashpoint isn’t an alternative reality, but a badly damaged DC Universe. Barry should know, since he was there when it was erased and then replaced by the New 52 timeline. Barry also sounds like every irate fan reading this comic. And that’s because he and Batman are somehow back at Flashpoint as if Barry never left. And they’re both facing this timeline's Batman, Thomas Wayne. Then they get to fight a bunch of Atlanteans and Amazons, because the issue needs some gratuitous violence to distract from dialogue that is basically a trio of superheroes arguing about their metafictional status. The big takeaway of their conversation is that only something immensely powerful could be messing with the DC Universe, since this mysterious entity can sustain an entire nonexistent timeline. At this point, I’ll be disappointed if no one less than Geoff Johns doesn’t show up at the end to explain his nefarious plan to control all reality by roofying Doctor Manhattan with the aid of Donald Trump.

Otherwise, this feels like an excuse to have Bruce Wayne meet his would-be father as an adult crimefighter. Batman has so far been pretty much a passenger on Barry's inter-dimensional chase. And it’s not as if Barry alone couldn’t have quickly mopped the floor with the bad guys while fixing his damaged treadmill. But at least fans get to witness just how awkward the imagined reunion would have been between these two emotionally stunted males who both like to cosplay as bats. The only weapon Thomas has left to fight the Atlantean and Amazon forces storming the gates is the gun that was used to kill his child. But fully-grown Bruce quickly swats it away. Did he forget just how severely injured he still is from fighting Thawne, or is Bruce just that much of a self-righteous prick? Still, Thomas gets the last word in when he tells his son that he doesn’t need to be Batman anymore.

Batman #22 Story: Joshua Williamson, Tom King Art: Jason Fabok Colors: Brad Anderson Letters: Deron Bennett Variant Covers: Tim Sale, Brennan Wagner  Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

Hey, the story arc is finally rushing to its conclusion. Where will the dynamic duo end up next? Will Bruce heed his father's sensible advice to raise a family? Maybe we'll finally get some real answers? Hah. Just kidding.

5/07/2017

The Circle (2017)

The Circle (2017). Director: James Ponsoldt Writers: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers Stars: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega  Based on the book by Dave Eggers.
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Stars: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega

Based on the book by Dave Eggers.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is a young woman who lands a job at The Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company. Think of it as a mashup of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple. Its signature product is TruYou, an ill-defined piece of software that’s every social media platform and cloud service all rolled into one convenient online identity. The Circle’s company motto is “Sharing is caring”, and CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) advocates for a form of radical transparency, which he intones with the words “Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.” Eamon is first spotted at one of the company’s regularly held Friday meetings, run like a typical slick keynote staged within a large auditorium. Hanks applies his trademark charm when plying his character’s own version of a reality distortion field. So is he supposed to be another tech visionary freeing the world from its petty vices, or a rapacious business person who will end up destroying it? Or is he just failing to practice what he preaches? The film never comes to any answer. Its message becomes increasingly muddled until it arrives at an ending that apparently wants to play it more than one way.

This is seen in Mae’s journey through the film. At first she’s a little incredulous of The Circle’s corporate culture. This part of the film plays like a satire of contemporary Silicon Valley, which is presented as a hive mind passive-aggressively encouraging every employee to maintain an active online presence, then rates the quality of those interactions. Any dip in quality or drop in activity sends some other employee concernedly scurrying towards Mae to enquire if anything’s gone wrong with her life.

The Circle (2017). Director: James Ponsoldt Writers: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers Stars: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega  Based on the book by Dave Eggers.
via cinema vine

But the story takes a half-hearted turn towards conspiracy thriller when Mae befriends Ty Lafitte (John Boyega), the creator of TruYou. The disillusioned co-founder has become suspicious of his company’s increased monopolistic presence. He seems intent on recruiting Mae for... something, while she still hasn’t fully drunk the kool aide. But nothing comes of it, and Ty is reduced to a scowling presence in the background. On the contrary, Mae turns into a full-blown evangelist for The Circle’s goals, even becoming a guinea pig for the company’s latest experiments in total transparency. A couple of plot twists later, and Mae has changed her mind again. Or has she? Mae is always looks very earnest, but also exists in a state of perpetual confusion. In the end, she doesn’t seem to know what she wants.

The Circle is the second Hollywood feature this year to explore similar themes. The first was the critically panned Ghost in the Shell. Both are stories about the hero's conflict with a powerful technology corporation peddling an attractive form of utopianism while hiding a more unsavory underbelly. The latter follows a much more formulaic route. It ends with the clear defeat of the bad guys and the validation of a triumphalist brand of individualism. The Circle aims for greater social relevance, but mostly succeeds at being broadly alarmist. It hints at philosophical introspection, but is a little too wedded to our present. I get the impression the filmmakers were made to write a more conventional ending instead of logically following the premise to arrive at a more interesting conclusion. Or maybe they suffered from a loss of nerve.

The Circle (2017). Director: James Ponsoldt Writers: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers Stars: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega  Based on the book by Dave Eggers.
via cinema vine

5/03/2017

Animation: Hate for Sale

Go to: Vimeo, by Anna Eijsbouts (via Cheryl Eddy)

Hate for Sale

Hate for sale. All the very best
Hate for sale. Vintage stuff.
Do my cries excite your interest?
Lovely hate. Your life is rough.

Buy my hate. You'll come right back for more.
Hate for sale. Enough to start a war.
Hate the rich, the brown, the black, the poor.
Hate is clean. And hate will make you sure.

Hate for sale. You'll feel superior.
Hate for sale. You'll make the news.
Hate the families who come here fleeing war.
Hate the gay. The trans. The new. The Jews.

Don't need to care who you detest
Hate makes you feel a whit less scared
To know that your group is the best
And burn to ashes all the rest
Who will not face the real test
But showed up naked, unprepared
To be sent back, or drowned, or hurled
back into the abyss. Your world
will be so safe, so clean, so great.
And all you needed was some hate.

Hate for sale. All the very best
Hate for sale. Vintage stuff.
Do my cries excite your interest?
Hate for sale. Never enough.

- Neil Gaiman

4/29/2017

Action Comics #977 & Batman #21

Action Comics #977 Story: Dan Jurgens Art: Ian Churchill Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Rob Leigh Covers: Andy Kubert, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Action Comics #977
Story: Dan Jurgens
Art: Ian Churchill
Colors: Hi-Fi
Letters: Rob Leigh
Covers: Andy Kubert, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson

Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The “Superman Reborn” story arc had literally merged the two most recent variants of the titular character (the version who had existed since Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the newer New 52 version) into one, marking the first step towards another line-wide rewriting of the DC Universe. But what exactly does that mean for its already impenetrable continuity? And what is Superman’s personal history like this time? This issue of Actions Comics introduces yet another retelling of his origin story. And it’s a darn familiar one. How often can one re-arrange the same primary elements over and over again? Lone survivor of the doomed planet Krypton. Raised by the Kents on a farm in rural Kansas. Reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. Possesses fabulous powers from absorbing the rays of the yellow Sun. If this comic is any indication, the comparatively rich history of the Post-Crisis era is returning in a big way. But with a few tweaks.

The comic opens with Clark working at the bullpen of the Daily Planet as if the the exposure of his secret identity and his untimely death had never taken place. The image is a fairly reassuring return to the status quo. His cubicle is cluttered with photographs indicating that Lois Lane is still his wife, and that their son Jonathan was born on this Earth and not during the weirdness that was Convergence. Everything is right with the world, except for the nagging feeling that something is seriously wrong. So Clark flies to the Fortress of Solitude to ask its computer to play back his entire life story, via the neat trick of immersive holographic simulation. That’s such a Star Trek thing to do.

Action Comics #977 Story: Dan Jurgens Art: Ian Churchill Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Rob Leigh Covers: Andy Kubert, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Krypton again looks like a Silver-Age scientific utopia, blending various elements from all past incarnations, rather than a genetically engineered dystopian society that denies all emotion. Martha and Jonathan Kent find baby Kal-El and decide to pass him off as their own biological son, much like in John Byrne’s comic retelling The Man of Steel. Clark grows up with Lana Lang and Pete Ross. But in a concession to Smallville-inspired reboots, Lex Luthor is also a childhood acquaintance. And just as before, Clark reveals his powers to Lana, instead of hiding his abilities from anyone like some vagrant until he reaches Metropolis. Suck it Zach Snyder!

The retelling in itself is fairly pedestrian. It’s mostly a bullet list summary of the main plot points of Superman’s early life. And it wisely leaves plenty of room to add new details in the future. The significance of this comic is more in how it demonstrates that DC is carrying out their promise to clean out much of the New 52 history if it’s deemed unsuccessful. But who can they blame for this mess? Read on.

Batman #21 Story: Tom King Art: Jason Fabok Colors: Brad Anderson Letters: Deron Bennett Variant Covers: Tim Sale, Brennan Wagner, Mikel Jannin  Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Flash (Barry Allen) created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino.
Batman #21
Story: Tom King
Art: Jason Fabok
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Deron Bennett
Variant Covers: Tim Sale, Brennan Wagner, Mikel Jannin

Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.
Flash (Barry Allen) created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino.

So, way back in DC Universe: Rebirth #1, Batman found the Comedian’s smiley-face button inside the Batcave. In this issue, he’s still puzzling over how this thing got into his secret lair. The stymied detective calls the Flash for assistance, since he suspects this is all related to the Speed Force. Batman's not wrong, given the reappearance of Kid Flash heralded the Rebirth. Unfortunately for him, all hell breaks loose when the Flashpoint version of Reverse Flash comes back from the dead and proceeds to kick the living crap out of him. It is a pretty brutal beatdown, as that iteration of Eobard Thawne was and is a huge dick. It also doesn’t help that he remembers that it was his timeline’s Batman who gave him the shaft.

The comic also does an amazing job trolling the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Thawne has a brief vision of someone he calls “God”, the person probably responsible for stealing ten years away from the DC Universe and heavily implied to be Doctor Manhattan. Artist Jason Fabok et al. further strengthen the connection to Watchmen by mimicking Gibbon's nine-panel grid in most of the comic's pages. He actually makes a good case for the technique by showing how it can stretch out time. Thawne’s assault on Batman lasts barely a minute. But it must be the longest minute in the Dark Knight’s career.

What else? The comic’s first appearance of Batman has him standing in front of the Batcave monitors while a hockey game is playing. This reads similar to Ozymandias’ own habit of having numerous monitors playing in the background while he keeps his own company. The bloodstained smiley face motif recurs throughout, from the markings at the center of the hockey pitch, to a poster in the background while a number of Arkham Asylum patients (including a time displaced Saturn Girl) watch the same game on television, to Thawne’s grinning visage being covered with Batman’s blood-soaked spit.

Batman #21 Story: Tom King Art: Jason Fabok Colors: Brad Anderson Letters: Deron Bennett Variant Covers: Tim Sale, Brennan Wagner, Mikel Jannin  Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Flash (Barry Allen) created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino.

So... DC still won’t officially reveal the story's true universal threat, but keeps brazenly telegraphing the integration of the Watchmen characters into their cosmos while drawing out this not so compelling mystery. What’s not to love?

Video: A.D. 1363, the End of Chivalry

Go to: Vimeo, by  Jake Mahaffy (via Cheryl Eddy)

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.