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.