Category Archives: comics

All Crime, All the Time

Posted by Chris

Lately almost all the media I’m consuming spins around the axis of crime, noir, or mystery. Most of the books, movies, television, and comics I’m immersed in, are invariably about solving murders or committing unsolvable murders. I’ve always loved crime fiction. As a grade schooler, I remember being obsessed with the ongoing adventures of The Three Investigators. In contrast to more popular kid-detectives like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, The Three Investigators were compelling because they weren’t just precocious do-gooders; the Three were defined as much by their individual shortcomings as much as by their talents. The fact that as adolescents, the Three struggled as much with the given mystery as they did with their own sense of self 1.

Conversely, Richard Stark’s (aka Donald Westlake) perfect criminal, Parker is a man without doubt and in complete calculated control of his every move. I’ve burned through six of Stark’s  Parker novels in the past two months, and am hooked. If all I had to read for the rest of my life were Westlake novels, I would be content (Westlake was also prolific enough for this to be a viable option). There’s a clarity to Westlake’s prose, plot, and characters that heightens the catastrophic plot twists, when disaster strikes and everything starts going pear-shaped. The Parker books are paradoxically about a master criminal and methodical workman who plans for every circumstance, who finds himself regularly dealing with intractable problems and impossible situations his planning and professionalism is meant to avoid. This is because Parker lives in a world that lacks his ruthless efficiency and logic, so despite himself, Parker continually finds himself running from a cascade of dominoes that propel him headlong into Clusterfuck City (pop. everyone).

On TV, I’ve been following Nathan Fillion’s new show Castle, about a caddish mystery author named Rick Castle (played by Fillion, natch), who assists the NYPD in solving homicides. He is paired with the attractive and flinty Detective Kate Beckett 2, in a Moonlighting-esque pairing that is self-aware and playful, without being too manipulative with the will-they/won’t-they hookup tension that can kill the momentum of similar shows. I’ve been enjoying this series a lot, because its aware of its own limits as a mystery procedural, and like all great stories in the crime genre, does its storytelling in an extremely efficient manner. The main cast is small, only about 6-7 regularly recurring characters with Castle/Beckett getting the lions share of onscreen banter time 3. There’s certainly a formula to it, and again, one that applies as much to the genre and type of show that is 4, as much as to its own particular character as a series– but the show itself is a lot of fun, and it seems like the cast and crew are having a good time making it, an intangible/unknowable quality that can actually add a lot to any performance-based show.

A regular topic of conversation on this blog (and many others for that matter) is the greatness of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip’s Criminal. Suffice it to say that along with titles like Jason Aaron’s Scalped, there’s a renaissance in comic book noir; a fact that’s especially notable for comics’ deep ties to the pulps and the crime genre as a whole. (And in terms of the noir films I’ve been watching, I’m hoping to look at them more in-depth individually in subsequent posts.)

What’s compelling to me about crime as a genre are the essential themes and conflicts built into its fabric and fundamentals. Characters marginalized by society at large. A cruel and indifferent world. Injustice is as ingrained as the government’s bureaucracy (and often the self-same thing). Cynical worlds where the hopeful have the most to lose. I love stories about flawed individuals stubbornly try to carve out their own bit of happiness, despite the brutality inflicted upon them by the world around them. Parker is a great example of how crime stories are about assigning logic and order to a chaotic world; as often as the stories are about resigning yourself to the unpredictable, unknowable and capricious nature of the world we all live in.

1 Former child star Jupiter Jones (Detective #1) is brilliant but vain and egotistical; Pete Crenshaw (Detective #2) is athletic but cowardly; Bob Andrews (Detective #3) was methodical and would rather stay at home than stakeout; all have faults which are mitigated by each others’ strengths and their teamwork. Their adventures were formulaic, but also perfectly pitched for adolescent audiences. Plus, they’re pals with Alfred Hitchcock and would debrief him on their adventures– a random but funny hook for a series aimed at kids.

2 Who has suffered from some unfortunate hair styles or stylists, playing awkwardly with the length and look of her hair. A lot of police shows seem to have a problem balancing the idea of tough female leads having shorter and butcher haircuts to show how “no nonsense” they are while keeping them marketable as attractive and feminine objects of desire. Since these two aesthetics are generally at cross-purposes (generally, I’m not trying to get into a deep 3rd wave feminism read of relative masculinity/femininity of hair-styles right now) it usually results in a style that is mostly unfortunate for the actress wearing it. I know this is a weird thing to bring up, but watch the show and try not to notice.

3 Sometimes I feel like one can estimate how much screentime the supporting cast will get, based upon how high-profile the guest star (or guest murderer, more often) is, and how those salaries and costs factor into the production budget. It’s a well produced show, but it’s clear the crew has an eye on the budget line and that they do a very good job of doing the most they can with the resources they have.

4 I also like the show Psych for similar reasons. On its face, its central storytelling conceit conceit could be limiting:  a pair of amateur detectives fake psychic abilities in order to help the Santa Barbara PD solve a variety of crimes. In execution, the show’s sharp casting, quick pace of its pop-culture references and the self-aware absurdity of its protagonists all add to its charm.

New Fave of the Week…

Chris and I took a BBQ prep detour to the comic shop this weekend and he picked up Batwoman Detective Comics for me. He said it was excellent, and I wholeheartedly agree. I agree so much, I read the thing three times in a row.

Greg Rucka’s dialogue and story is just as engaging and sharp as his Gotham Central work, and J.H. Williams III brings a really beautiful, whimsical (but incredibly clean-lined) art-nouveau feeling to the whole thing. His work on this reminds me of a perfect middle ground between Tony Harris’s super-precise photographic work on Ex Machina and David Mack’s watercolors on Kabuki. And the panel work is INCREDIBLE.

I apologize profusely for my lack of a scanner, but I had to give some sort of example of the awesome:

IMG_8064IMG_8060

This comic is like candy for your eyes and brain. Pick it up. Read it. Do it now!

- Jenn

Watchm–dear god, this thing is over three hours long!

My Watchmen Director’s Cut arrived in the mail yesterday. I watched it. Here are my thoughts…

Liked:

*Dr. Manhattan disappearing all the reporters and cameras, the way he did in the comic, instead of jetting right up to Mars.

*More Rorschach. His character gets more time, and he’s truer to the comic. The psych-evaluation is more detailed, and you get to see more of his weird attitude toward Laurie, and women in general.

*Hollis Mason’s death and Dan’s reaction. This scene was my favorite. Despite the terrible un-scariness of the knot-tops (they look like a bunch of pudgy middle-aged grips and dollies and best boys and whatever other sorts of people work on movie lots), the scene itself was great. When it is switching in and out of Hollis Mason’s perspective and you see that he’s fighting all his old-timey nemeses…it’s quite touching. And very beautifully put together.

*The tiny bit of extra interaction between the Comedian and Laurie in her flashback.

*Sweet holographic cover, dudes!!

*Extra blue wang…j/k guys. I don’t even know if there is more. I have some sort of a blue wang filter on my life goggles that prevents me from noticing it until someone blatantly points it out to me.

*The general feeling that the whole movie makes a lot more sense.

Did not like:

*The extra Laurie. I felt just fine about her performance in the theatrical cut because she was every bit as lame as the Laurie in the comic. The director’s cut adds some long and unnecessary scenes that try to make her out to be some sort of tough no-nonsense badass. It’s in no way true to the original character, only serves to highlight her subpar acting skills and plays like something out of a completely different movie. That said, I DID like that they focused more on her relationship with Jon as a military imperative.

*Not specifically a gripe with the director’s cut, but now that Chris mentioned it, I cannot help but notice the glaring lack of saxophone on the soundtrack.

*Also not a director’s cut gripe, but the old people makeup is still really distracting.

And finally…

Had me going, “WTF??!!”:

*”Mommy, that man in the ship, that man….IS HE JESUS?”

…IS….THAT MAN….JESUS??

I will bet anyone $10 that Zach Snyder LOVED that line. I bet he was like, “YES! YES THIS IS IT!” and everyone else was like, “Man, actually that’s kind of lame. I think we might have to leave that out.” and Zach Snyder was like, “Screw you guys, I’M THE DIRECTOR! It’s goin’ in the director’s cut!”

In closing:

lolowl

-Jenn

Knitting for nerds…

Sometimes, my two favorite things come together and make beautiful babies…

Hellboy (look at his teensy little six-pack!!)

Little Endless Amigurumi

The Most Beautiful Sweater in the World

And of course… the HAT.

-Jenn

Fun with Fallacies…Volume 1: Garth Ennis

To celebrate my recently completing Preacher and being excited about The Boys, I bring you…Fun with Fallacies!…inspired by the things that I am sick to death of hearing when I bring Garth Ennis up in polite company.

FALLACY:

“Garth Ennis is a misogynist pig who HATES and OBJECTIFIES WOMEN!”

TRUTH:

Garth Ennis hates people.  Garth Ennis hates everything. As Jamie says, he’s an equal-opportunity hater. He even hates inappropriate quotation marks:

Garth Ennis writes complex, three-dimensional characters, some of whom (like Herr Starr, above) happen to be misogynists, either knowingly or unconsciously. The reason you might feel uncomfortable is because he’s really good at making sympathetic characters out of the worst people in the world. Some people like their antagonists all-bad and their protagonists nothing less than fine upstanding individuals. Garth Ennis has a habit of mixing it up.

Ennis writes plenty of realistic, strong, sympathetic female characters, and he also writes characters who are parodies of misogynist female stereotypes. He writes horrible, perverted, violent people who somehow manage to inspire some–extremely uncomfortable–sort of sympathy in the reader. He also writes plenty of sympathetic male characters who have serious, potentially deal-breaking character flaws. Ennis may fill his comics with repugnant individuals, but how are you supposed to recognize the good in characters without some real horribleness to provide contrast? If you want your comics black and white, go read some Golden Age Superman.

FALLACY:

“The Boys is unnecessarily crude and homophobic!”

TRUTH:

The Boys is using extremely crude imagery and storylines to shove your own feelings about homo and heterosexuality in your face. Garth Ennis is trying to make a point about homosexuality and sexual deviancy being two very different things. He’s acknowledging that homophobia has many faces, and sexual deviancy comes in all forms. He’s not dumbing it down for you. He’s also not afraid to make his protagonists huge jerks, and he’s not afraid to use disgusting imagery and behavior to provoke a visceral reaction in his readers…reactions that he often uses to flip some shit over on you when you least expect it.  Which brings me to…

FALLACY:

“If you love Cassidy as a character, YOU are a failure as a woman and you are perpetuating fucked up mysogbleah bleah bleah…”

TRUTH:

cassidy

Cassidy is a wonderful character. He is wonderful because he is seriously flawed and completely lets you down…REPEATEDLY. Anything else would be totally disingenuous. You know that book Twilight? That’s what Cassidy would be if Garth Ennis was a misogynist pig. Unlike Stefanie Meyer and her spank-bank-born sparkly vampire, Garth Ennis is not endorsing or justifying Cassidy’s behavior. He’s simply putting it out there for you to process, just like Jesse Custer is asked to process it.

As the story progresses, you as the reader expend an enormous amount of energy hoping Cassidy will DO THE RIGHT THING and you are repeatedly disappointed. You come out of the story either satisfied or angry, depending on whether you decided you could still see the good in this seriously fucked up dude. When it’s all said and done, you aren’t really sure the characters in Preacher deserve to come out on top. But you can’t help feeling happy that they do.

FALLACY:

“Garth Ennis swears too much!”

TRUTH:

Garth Ennis swears just enough.


Next Week…Fun with Fallacies: Bruce Springsteen…

FALLACY:

“Bruce Springsteen sings about cars and ladies and has nothing worthwhile to say!!. . . . .”

-Jenn

Watchmehhhh (see what I did there?)

Went to see Watchmen last night and it underwhelmed in the ways I expected it to. Prior to the viewing, my friend Jenn and I discussed that potentially, this film is inseparable from its viewers’ preconceptions. Those prejudiced against its various adaptive liberties would remain so, and conversely those stoked to finally see it on the screen would probably be invigorated by the whole shebang. This seems to hold water with reviews (held up to preceding levels of enthusiasm expressed) on a few of the blogs I follow . (And with those individual prejudices guiding judgment of the film, there’s a terrible joke about viewings of the film being a viewer’s own Rorschach test.)

Jenn has been ecstatic about the movie’s opening, so much so that in making plans to see it,  I talked her down from waiting in line for the midnight opening showing. She loved it. My girlfriend who only read the first dozen pages or so of the comic and with little to no preconceptions, liked it mostly okay. Her biggest problem was a general sense of missing something about the plot and characters. Rather than getting a sense for Moore’s wrestling with uncertainty and conflict, she walked away with Snyder’s tableau of vaguery. And overall I’m pretty ambivalent about what I saw on screen, with some strong dislikes about its style balanced with some parts and performances that I genuinely enjoyed. So my judgment and assessment falls into a few different categories:

  • Watchmen The Movie™ as adaptation = Mixture of success and failure
  • Watchmen The Movie™ as action movie = Okay
  • Watchmen The Movie™ as merchandizing cash cow = What the fuck is wrong with people?

In a lot of ways this movie is like Paula Abdul’s “Opposittes Attract,” in terms of directorial choices being made, for every two-steps forward– there’s two-steps back. The visual design of the film is phenomenal. I can’t imagine a better looking adaptation of Dave Gibbons’ art, but the flaw isn’t with how it looks so much as how it moves. The slow-motion scenes were excessive and dull, that they took me right out of the scene (although I think the exception is the Comedian’s jump into the rioting crowd), that places the film unironically back into the mold of so many terrible superhero action movies.

Jackie Earle Haley (Moocher!) gives a pitch-perfect performance as Rorschach, but occasionally has to share the screen with the vacuum of personality that is Malin Ackerman’s Silk Spectre. The rest of the cast is mostly fine to unremarkable, but as a whole lacking in cohesion and consistency. It often feels like everyone is in their own separate movie with conflicting tones and feelings1.

Like just about everyone else, I like the opening credits w/ Dylan’s “Times They Are A Changin.'” The opening was indeed great, but sadly for many of my friends, it was their favorite part of the entire film. But after that, all other uses of popular song in the film were uniformly awful. The songs should’ve elevated the scenes or provided an ironic subtext, but in nearly every use, song choices deflated meaning, mood, and tension. Worse still was the original soundtrack, which telegraphed far too much and much too cheesily. There’s something to be said for restraint, and whatever that something is, Snyder certainly never heard it.

Overall, I think he got it wrong. The movie on its own terms is okay, and functions as an average to better action movie. But I was never a fan of the Watchmen for its action-movie qualities. I liked the original’s subversive themes and character deconstructions alongside layers of mystery, conspiracy, and meta-commentary. So, it’s hard to get enthused about it being an o-kay action flick, shitty thriller, and totally unsatisfying exploration of legacy/history/identity.

I know that as I’m complaining about the lack of understanding it shows to its characters, that I’m potentially falling into the archetype of wounded-nerd, hater, super cynic, etc. I like to thinks2 I gave it a fair shot, but as a counterpoint to my largely negative opinions, funny-man Patton Oswalt’s posted an impassioned defense of Watchmen The Movie™, offering that in most nerds’ eyes– no one could’ve gotten it right. And maybe he’s right, but then again he mentions in that blog post how great the show Burn Notice is and that show’s leads are possibly the only people I can imagine being less capable than Malin Ackerman of using their acting talent to escape from a paper bag. (This show also makes me incredibly sad for Bruce Campbell, and the inversion of his tendancy to appear in crappy but awesome projects, into acting in an awesomely crappy project.)

More than anything about Watchmen The Movie™ itself, the thing that’s skeeving me out the most is the attendant merchandising. Specifically the commodifying of the Comedian (aspiring rapist and nationalist stooge) and Rorschach (paranoid sociopath and racist/misogynist/homophobic triple threat) into action figures, potential Legoplaysets, and adorning the walls of both the cluelessly misguided and the outright assholes. Of course, there’s the societal benefit that anyone wearing the shirt pictured at left is easily identifiable as an unpitiable shitbird to be avoided at all costs. Yes there are other villains like the Joker that get turned into toys and Hot Topic shirts– but part of what makes the Comedian and Rorschach marketable now, is the superficial sanitization of their characters3. Like the subtle editing of Rorschach’s opening monologue4, the streamlined film versions aren’t wholly inaccurate but in smoothing over their edges and making them more palatable for public consumption– the movie misses so much of the point of Moore’s original work, that it’s hard to find much solace in Snyder’s fidelity to the dangling blue wang of the original.

1 It almost makes me wish that Haley’s castmates from Breaking Away could’ve joined him, imagine: Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) as Adrian Veidt, Mike (Dennis Quaid) as Dr. Manhattan, Cyril (Daniel Stern) as the Owl, and Rod could be the Comedian (b/c they’re both dicks, gettit?). Almost.

2 Originally a typo, but methinks I should try to popularize this ala the British pluralizing of the “maths”

3 In my reading, the two represent extremes of conservatism taken to its most villainous ideological ends. On one hand, the Comedian as the cynical über-nationalist, whose faith in Manifest Destiny and America’s moral certainty justifies any excess. Rorschach conversely is the extreme isolationist whose xenophobia and fear of influence can’t allow any cracks in his own moral certainty.

4 In the film, Rorschach says, “The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper, ‘no.’ All those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers… and all of a sudden no one can think of anything to say.” Whereas in the original he says:

“The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper, ‘no.’ They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsetps of good men like my father or president truman. Decent men who believed in a day’s work for a day’s pay. Instead they followed the droppings of lechers and communists and didn’t realize that the trail led over the precipice until it was too late. Don’t tell me they didn’t have a choice. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers… and all of a sudden no one can think of anything to say.”

The editing diminishes Rorschach’s sexual dysfunction and larger sense of paranoia, instead tailoring him into a more recognizable but still somewhat extreme conservative ideologue. It’s a separate question whether any editing of the dialogue would have a similar diminishing effect, but in this case the omission in subject and change of emphasis (from universal to specific) does have an impact on the overall meaning and characterization of Rorschach.

Binge-Nerding

So, here’s the trailer for the upcoming game, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2: Fusion (which by the by, sounds more like a concept restaurant that serves Cherry Spidey-tini’s, than a game).

Being a nerd who loves both comic books and video games can be rough psychologically. We overlook gameplay mediocrity in favor of embodying our favorite licensed characters and utilizing their trademark super-powers. It’s Stockholm Syndrome for geeks, as we sympathize with our abusers/exploiters by accepting a substandard product (at premium prices), and just shrug at generic gameplay and nonsensical plots that are underdeveloped by even the hackiest of standards. And the latter is important, because we generally read comics for the stories they tell.

We accept mediocrity, because the union of comics and video games often present a sort of nerd-buffet overgorged with all the characters, powers, and bits of storylines we desire– but with none of the individual voices, quirks and character-defining moments that make us fans of the original work. Sure we’ll get a Spidey one-liner or two, but a few offhand puns don’t define a character and hardly distract from how arbitrary these games often feel. A lobster and steak buffet is great in theory, but it’s usually a vacuum of dread and existential despair in reality.

Basically what I’d like to see is a comic book game that doesn’t feel generic. A lot of the joy of having so many playable characters in the last Marvel Ultimate Alliance game was deflated by the fact that so many characters special powers did the same thing. And while it wasn’t spectacular, one of Justice League Heroes‘ assets was its fairer differentiation between characters moves and relative strengths (although maybe Green Arrow was just a little too useless). The best games of last year (Grand Theft Auto 4 and Fallout 3 imho) engaged and immersed their players into complex stories rich with idiosyncratic characters and sideplots. The gameplay served the story-telling, rather than being an end in and of itself.

With the mediocre Civil War storyline as its basis, all the recent commentary on event fatigue seems relevant, becasuse many of the same issues with characters getting short shrift to serve a particular product are present (though for the record, I enjoyed Final Crisis throughout its run). In general, my hopes aren’t high for MUA 2. (Although in hindsight, Civil War at least had some interesting moments compared to the ambivalence I felt towards Secret Invasion, which will probably be greater than Dark Reign…. et cetera. ) At best, one hopes that there may be multiple storylines/endings based on the different factions involved, and at worst we’ll get the same old crap w/ some next-gen console lighting effects. And unfortunately for many, the same old crap will suffice.