Saturday, June 30, 2007

Best. Summer. Ever.

Just how awesome can big event comics be? Just how awesome is my summer looking?? Just how awesome is it to be reading comics right now???

This awesome. And this. And this. And especially (warning: spoilers on) this.


Annihilation Conquest: Prologue perfectly captures the strength and flavour of Marvel SF. I don't know how better to describe Marvel's approach to science fiction except to say that its image of deep space is deliciously cold. Because of this, there's a level of grim beauty and high seriousness that acompanies its science fiction stories, giving them a more adult feel than DC's. Perhaps this is Kirby's doing; perhaps it's rooted in the predominance of humanoid races over the wackier alien creations that DC's space books sometimes favour (though Rocket Raccoon gives the lie to this one!). Whatever it is, Annihilation Conquest taps into it in spades. The Prologue, sumptuously illustrated by Mike Perkins, promises great things ahead. Two words: more Moondragon. Two more words: no Skrulls.

And speaking of space sagas, do they get any better than last week's perfectly executed Sinestro Corps Special? The nearly universal praise this Special is receiving is justly earned. I can't recall when I've read such an entertaining 64-pager--much less a single comic so crammed full of surprises. Some might not like Geoff Johns's neo-Hegelian mania for synthesis (even I feel exhausted by it at times), but it's irresistable here. Finally, that last remaining shoe from Crisis on Infinite Earths has dropped! Bonus: Ethan Van Sciver produces the best work of his career to date. Gorgeous.

Last but not least is World War Hulk #1. I rarely read the Hulk, but the combination of John Romtia Jr. illustrating the Hulk's rampage and the inevitable Iron Man beat down was too tantalizing to pass up. The World War Hulk event is genius marketing on Marvel's part: now they get to profit from all the rage and ill-will that have been simmering within fanboys and fangirls over Civil War. Perfect timing. Perfect planning. I can't help but fall for it. Who doesn't want to Hulk-out on Tony Stark and expend their disgust and loathing for the Avengers-Universe by throwing a violent temper tantrum that turns Manhattan into a war zone? Joe Q, your recent decisions have ensured that I won't be buying an Avengers title until well into the next decade, but you are a smart, sneaky E.I.C.! Will the Hulk be paying a visit to Marvel's New York offices in the great 70s tradition of Bullpen cameos, too? Now that would be sneaky--and shameless! FYI: Greg Pak and Garry Frank's WWH follow-up in The Incredible Hulk #107 is all kinds of awesome too.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Narcissus Neuroticus: Eight True Dull Things About Jim Roeg

Here we go. Blame plok!

1. I’ve always had a problem with procrastination—a shocking blogger confession, I know. On the one hand, I find it incredibly productive. Nothing lights a fire under me to do something creative like avoiding “real” work. On the other hand, the avoidance fills me with stress and undermines both my creative projects and my professional life, neither of which is quite as developed as I would like. Maybe the problem isn’t procrastination so much as attention deficit.

2. I love soap operas. They remain the most misunderstood and underappreciated art form in any popular medium. He said, defensively.

3. I don’t like James Joyce and have never been able to make it through Ulysses, much less Finnegan’s Wake.

4. I’ve always hated dieters and gym bores whose ripped bodies and healthy lifestyles seem designed to make the rest of us feel bad. When they jog past me at a swift clip on a hot July day I wonder, where are you going? What’s the hurry? How narcissistic and yet herd-like must you be to worship idealized body images and make yourself a slave to the scale and the mirror? That was then. Now I’m one of them. After a year of lethargy and tubs of Drumstick Ice Cream, I’ve become obsessed with my diet and weight, have taken up jogging and exercise, and have lost 20 lbs since May. And have the nerve to brag about it at the slightest provocation. Ironically, I now hate myself.

5. I’m nervous but excited about impending fatherhood.

6. I have trouble throwing things away. Once, in grade six, I did a major purge of my room and threw out a huge bag of classroom notes passed between me and my friends that I’d saved from the first few years of primary school. I’ve always regretted it.

7. I don’t understand how people are able to both eat and drink at parties that involve mingling. We only have two hands. If one hand is holding a plate and the other hand is holding a wineglass, how do you get the food into your mouth? I made a decision long ago that one either eats or drinks at wine and cheese events. I drink.

8. I hate tagging other bloggers because I worry that tagging will be perceived as an unreasonable demand on their time and presupposes a level of web pal intimacy that might not exist, the revelation of which would wound and embarrass me. I like to relieve my anxiety about this by making coyly humble, endearing confessions like this one. But I also worry that in doing so I will offend the very web pals who were nice enough to tag me in the first place. I’m very neurotic.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dropped Threads: Outfitting Donna Troy

Donna’s scenes in Countdown aren’t exactly setting my world on fire, but I salute the effort and am hopeful that it might ultimately yield something interesting. I’m of course always happy when someone at least tries to repair this beloved character to whom the fates have not been kind.

Despite a good college try by Phil Jiminez and Co. a couple of years back, the doyenne of the New Teen Titans’ heyday has proven almost impossible to rehabilitate. The “Who is…?” heroine’s infamously tortured continuity issues are only part of the problem. While they may have turned her into a punch line to some, continuity tangles alone are not insurmountable in the hands of a committed writer who is prepared to make a virtue of necessity and transform the black hole of Donna’s hopelessly fractured history into a plot point that actually builds the character rather than reducing her to a flat caricature--as Crisis on Infinite Earths and its consequences originally did (yes John Byrne, I’m looking at you, but not only you). All this can still be fixed or (better yet) erased.

The bigger obstacle is Donna’s outfit, which, I’m sorry, just isn’t cool at all. And if there’s one sure way to undermine a character’s chances for rehabilitation, it’s to make them look silly.

It isn’t Phil Jimenez’s fault. Though I am loathe to say it, it’s George Perez’s. It feels blasphemous to say so, considering that Perez defined Donna Troy’s three-dimensionality throughout the 1980s, most memorably in the classic, “Who is Donna Troy?” (NTT v. 1, #38). But it was also Perez who designed Donna’s “cosmic” black threads (borrowed from one of the Titans of Myth) during the reheated epic “Who is Wonder Girl?” (NTT v. 2, #50-55) that attempted to “fix” Donna’s post-Crisis continuity conundrum.

I always hated that outfit. It was fussy, over-designed, and impractical in the way of nineties costumes. And despite Perez’s intention of having the costume change signify Donna’s maturation, the effect was quite the opposite: suddenly, the mature, capable woman looked awkward and self conscious. The outfit seems even to have thrown off Perez’s usually impeccable draftsmanship; on the cover of New Titans #56, Donna appears to be falling rather than leaping through the poster of her former self. Talk about adding insult to injury. The subsequent transformation of Donna into a Darkstar could almost have been an excuse to put her back into some semblance of the simpler, cleaner, more commanding red costume.

Later, when Jiminez redesigned her look, he was clearly trying to synthesize the two Perez versions—but the full body cosmic leotard and the addition of white go-go boots produced risible results. Donna may have switched from red to black, but she hasn’t been blessed with the dazzling costume designs of a certain webslinger who pulled off the same feat with considerably more aplomb.

The good news is that the early teaser image of Countdown puts Donna back in her classic red duds. Indeed, the implication might even be that we are looking at some neo-80s version of the character who, like the Legion of Superheroes that recently appeared in “The Lightening Saga,” may actually be the real McCoy, “preserved” in the amber of the wonderful new Multiverse. (BTW: Where is the Time Trapper these days?) Such, at least, is my hope. I would quite happily forget the last 20 years of character assassination by inches. Moreover, a return to the red costume through the restoration of the actual 80s Donna would circumvent the problem created by Perez’s original costume redesign: how do you restore and earlier, better costume when everything sartorial that’s come after has explicitly signaled development and maturation? How can we have our cake and eat it too? Cool threads turn out to be a problem of Time.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

ENTER: Empire Valley

Just because I don't have enough to do, I've started a second blog--this one about television. Mainly it's an excuse for me to rhapsodize about Twin Peaks (forthcoming), to relive the guilty pleasures of my teens (no shortage of those), and to whine about the idiot writers who are ruining my favorite soap (ongoing; I've ruminated about soaps here before in a post about nonendings, so those who can stomach it can expect more of the same).

Since I've been so good at maintaining a regular posting schedule here on Double Articulation (hawhaw), this whole venture seems rather foolhardy. But what the hell? If there's one thing the world desperately needs, it's another television blog chock full of slavish hype and banal observations that have all been made more eloquently and expansively elsewhere. ENTER: Empire Valley.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Poetry of Death and Difference: X-Men: Endangered Species

This week’s X-Men: Endangered Species one-shot is more of a visual mood poem than a story, and that may be why I enjoyed it so thoroughly and so unexpectedly. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I might be ready to give the X-Men a serious try again.

The issue’s slight narrative concerns the X-Men’s attendance at the funeral of one of the 198 mutants who survived Wanda’s magical interdiction in House of M; largely, it is an excuse for the X-Men to reflect on their new status as “the last of their race”—to reflect, that is, on the nature of death and the meaning of life. There are no earth-shattering revelations here and very little action—almost none in the conventional sense. What we have instead is a series of character pieces that chart a range of responses to the new mutant status quo. These responses span a realistic range of emotions, from fatalistic piety to dignified defiance, culminating in a surprisingly affecting 9-page scene between Cyclops and Wolverine that is the raison d’ĂȘtre of the book and a rare example of effective decompression.

The scene is simple, but it does its work beautifully. It begins with Scott Summers alone in the graveyard after the funeral; he removes his quartz glasses and releases a frustrated eyeblast into the overcast sky, igniting a storm. Scott’s subsequent confession to Logan that he feels guilty for not having successfully recruited the boy to Xavier’s school confirms that Scott’s grief, guilt, anger, and fear center specifically on mutants as an “endangered species.” But then something wonderful happens: Logan replies that the X-Men’s new situation forces them to confront the reality of death as such, not just for themselves as a “species,” but as a universal condition of being alive.

This is pop profundity, to be sure—but it’s no less true nor is it any less affecting for that. It’s also a welcome qualification of the “endangered species” theme, which could very easily be played as a race war in which the theme of mutant “survival” becomes the excuse for reveling in a quasi-racialist discourse of “species survival” for its own sake. There’s a fine line between the metaphor of genetically different mutants as cool but embattled minorities (the reason many of us fell in love with the X-Men in the first place) and uncritical celebrations of group identity. In these paranoid times, I’d prefer my X-Men to be embattled but still alert to what might without too much embarrassment still be called “the universal.”

This danger of overvaluing one’s own identity (“species”) at the expense of what we all have in common is precisely what this issue is about, as the accusation of the angry father of the dead mutant boy make clear. When Scott and Emma try to pay their respects, the man bristles: “You’re paying your respects to a name crossed off your list. You’re just here to mourn your own hard times.” Judging from Scott’s confession to Logan, the shoe fits.

Yet, the conversation between Scott and Logan ends with an affirmation of the two-sidedness of an existence that is always haunted by death and of the will to life that compels us not despair but to keep fighting. Indeed, there is no death drive in Wolverine’s universe: we don’t give up on life because “we don’t know how.” If only that were true! But as fantasies go, it’s one I can’t help but enjoy. Moreover, it’s particularly gratifying here because Wolverine’s gloomy affirmation (spoken in the graveyard just as the rain begins to fall) seems to qualify the vapid consolations of the minister who assures the mourners that “pain—all pain—has a point” that will be understood at the end of history. Penciler Scot Eaton does a superb job of rendering Charles’s skepticism about that bit of biblical “wisdom,” as well as the bored faces of a number of other X-Men in attendance at this public rite. The narrative privilege accorded to Logan’s more sober, implicitly secular account of the individual’s encounter with death as “the only way you know what life is worth…Any life…” puts a very different spin on the minister’s faith in a transcendental justification for suffering.

The last three pages depicting the thunder and lightening of the storm over the cemetary, followed by the breaking of sunlight beyond are obviously symbolic, but like any true symbol, the meaning of these sky pictures is rich and ambiguous. They might be taken to affirm the minister’s view of pain followed by divine redemption, but they might equally affirm Logan’s reflections on the way that death gives life meaning here on earth, or perhaps some nebulous combination of the two.

More generally, the wordless two-page spread of the sun bursting through the clouds concludes the book on a “poetic” note that elevates the resonance and ambiguity of the entire issue’s-worth of vignettes. How? It’s a truism that realist prose fiction conventionally tends to favor literal language over metaphor, whereas lyric poetry conventionally reverses this situation, favoring metaphorical language over the literal. The reason for this is obvious (though perhaps tautological): realist prose fiction is about advancing a plot, moving a story along, whereas lyric poetry is principally about evoking a complex situation and equally complex emotions. X-Men: Endangered Species is nominally a narrative, but it veers repeatedly in the direction of lyric poetry, and it does so by substituting visual images for lyric poetry’s verbal metaphors. All comics do this to some degree, but it is especially prominent here. The visual poetry of this issue (which is, after all, about reflection rather than action) works particularly nicely at the end because the shift to symbolism that is not anthropomorphic strikes the note of universality that Logan’s concluding speech has already sounded.

All of which is to say that Mike Carey does a nice job with the words and that Scot Eaton (with John Dell on inks) does an extra nice job on the pictures. It’s incredible how much Eaton has grown as an artist, isn’t it? His work for CrossGen’s Sigil was a quantum leap from his early work on Swamp Thing; his pencils for New Excalibur and Endangered Species are even slicker. The book couldn’t have succeeded the way it does without an artist as good as Eaton, and I notice that he will be drawing a great many of the Endangered Species back-ups in the X-titles over the coming months. I may actually have to start reading X-Men again after all these years.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Surf Bored: On Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

[Spoilers Ahead]

I was hoping for "refreshing, weightless, and cheerfully dumb." What I got was "a plotless, brainless, witless bore."

I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose. With the exception of Batman Begins and V for Vendetta (both flawed but in a different league than the rest), Hollywood has had trouble making aesthetically coherent, genuinely enjoyable superhero films with first-rank comics properties lately. Like the X-Men films, the Spider-Man trilogy started strong but stumbled with the histrionic weepathon, Spider-Man 3. Meanwhile, the equally grandiose Superman Returns collapsed under the weight of its own ponderousness and narrative bloat. Ghost Rider was a passable distraction, but only because it aimed so low.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer joins this distinguished company of creative misfires, but for different reasons. Spider-Man 3 and Superman Returns both fell short of lofty ambitions for pulp transcendence by taking themselves way too seriously. No such accusation could be levelled at FF2, a movie that reduces Ben Grimm's existential angst to body humour. The occasionally charming imbecility of the first movie was supposed to have been the second film's biggest strength. After the tedious self-importance of Superman Returns and the bathos of Spider-Man 3, how nice it would have been to see a dumb, good-natured, competently-executed comic book romp. Ghost Rider, but bigger and brighter.

FF2 doesn't deliver on even this minimal promise, however. Not simply because half the main players (Alba's Susan Storm, Chiklis's Thing, McMahon's Doom) are unbearable, but because the film's script aims both too low and, in a curious way, too high.

The "too low" is easy to account for. This consists of the reduction of the already slim characterizations from the first movie to entirely one-dimensional cartoons, the film's tireless cataloging of the Thing's bodily functions, and Johnny's dick jokes. When did the Hollywood suits decide that this was the only way to make a commercially successful all-ages film? Has everyone forgotten that kids will rise to the level of the material as readily as they'll sink to it? George Lucas knew that--"once upon a time..."

The "too high" is relative to the "too low." The one good thing about the film (though not enough to redeem it) is the Silver Surfer, who seems to have sailed straight out of the tip of Jack Kriby's pen and onto the silver screen. The anguished cosmic slave takes over Ben's traditional role of eternal sufferer, embodying exactly the kind of nobility and gravitas that one might have hoped to see in the translation of this character from comic to film. Unfortunately for the film, the Silver Surfer's movingly visualized tragic plight seems to belong in a completely different movie than the one we are watching--that is, a movie for grownups and children with IQs higher than a pretzel's.

The incoherent tone produced by the contrast between the Surfer and the FF themselves is evident throughout, but is particularly glaring at the climax of the visually stunning chase between Johnny and the Surfer when, just before being flung back into the earth's atmosphere by the emotionally remote, god-like Silver Surfer, Johnny gets off some moronic wise crack that undercuts the awesomeness of the moment. The later scene in which the Invisible Woman first converses with the Surfer illustrates a related problem: the CGI'd Surfer appears to have more emotional depth and to be more convincingly human than shallow, doe-eyed Susan Storm (who is for some reason written as a selfish, shrewish ditz, leaving Alba once again with the most thankless role in the film).

Needless to say, I have a fair degree of ambivalence about the film's tone. Part of me would be quite happy with a witty, well-crafted adventure pic, something like a super-powered version of the bubbly, ticklish Ocean's 13 that I enjoyed the night before. But another part--the shameless geek who still pointlessly yearns for a truly great FF movie--sees reflected in the Silver Surfer's gleaming form an image of what might have been, and starts to feel decidedly pissy.

Clearly, a "great" FF film isn't in the cards and was never part of the mandate for the sequel, so at best I'm left hoping for the amusing romp. And this is where things get really irritating, because the writers of the film seem perversely intent on withholding even the consolation prize of a half-decent B-movie. How else to explain the script's self-sabotaging impulse to curtail the sprightliness that was its only real hope for conjuring a bit of summer afternoon fun.

What is FF2 about? What's its theme? Forget about Sue and Reed's wedding shenanigans--this one's all about educating Johnny, the only truly puckish one of the lot. Or at least, he was, until the Surfer showed up, scrambled his powers, and tutored him on responsibility and humorlessness.

The pedagocial subtext of the opening air-battle between the Torch and the Surfer is not immediately obvious, but acquires its symbolic meaning retrospectively, at the end of the film when our favorite "narcissist" (as Frankie Raye calls Johnny) soberly takes on the responsibility of saving the earth because he realizes "some things aren't all about me." This goofball epiphany about selflessness and sacrifice is, of course, the lesson of the Silver Surfer's own tragic existence: he serves Galactus to save his planet and the woman he loves. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself to save the earth as well, anticipating and outdoing Johnny's own transformation from horndog to savior.

Thus, in that earlier air-battle between Torch and the Surfer, Johnny trails behind the quasi-angelic Surfer, both literally and morally. That battle concludes with the Surfer extinguishing Johnny's flame and throwing him back to earth--just as his example will later provide the model for the symbolic extinguishing of Johnny's "narcissism" when he is brought "down to earth" by the impending destruction of the planet and the apparent death of his sister. It is of course Johnny who gives the Surfer's board a final boost as the Surfer plunges into Galactus and destroys it in a sort of glorious cosmic crucifixion. Susan's parallel, but more minor, transformation from sullen bridezilla to can-do superwife is similarly informed by the Surfer's example (she reminds the herald of his beloved--why? because she's a woman?).

This would all be fine if the film had enough gravity to convince us that it was sincere about its moral fable. But the movie's indifference to its own moral is palpable, and the moralizing merely bogs the film down. Really, who wants to see the Human Torch mend his ways, anyway? Did we pay our two bits for "hugging and learning"? Is the domestication of the film's only remotely amusing character really a good idea in a series that is already painfully short on the fun it promises to deliver?


Fortunately, FF fans have other options this summer. Despite the destruction of Reed Richards in Civil War, Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Pelletier, and Rick Magyar's The New Fantastic Four is an absolute blast--and it looks sensational to boot. Its just-wrapped Glactus/Silver Surfer three-parter was infinitely more entertaining than the film version. I wasn't sure about Storm and Black Panther replacing Reed and Sue at first, but the shift does liven things up, and Pelletier drawns a mean Black Panther. In fact, the quirky new team is just one other detail that harkens back to the glory days when Steve Englehart, Keith Pollard, and Joe Sinnott presided over the odd but wonderful FF team of Thing, Ms. Marvel, Torch, and Crystal, telling cosmic adventure stories with a classic look and feel. Their work really reignited my enthusiasm for the FF back then; perhaps McDuffie and Pelletier can pull off a similar renaissance for the title today.

As for the movies? I give up.