Monday, February 19, 2007

Comic musings for 2/14

It was a very strange week in the comic box. Especially given Grant Morrison's Batman, it looks like everyone is being experimental with mixed success. What with the upcoming 3D issue of Action coming up and the new twists on stroytelling out this past week, it appears that DC is somehow falling back to the late 80s, using gimmicks to tell their stories rather than letting solid writing and art do the work. More below.

Spoilers ho!

Batman 663 -- So Grant Morrison takes an issue to write out the story prose style, with a relatively unknown artist illustrating the story as if it were a children's reader. Of course, the subject matter in this case is the Joker, not exactly kids' fare, but we've seen this before and better. There are two failures with the issue--first, to make this work, the story has to be good, not only plotwise but stylistically. And honestly, this is just not good writing. The idea that the Joker goes through phases helps to explain how he can act so differently in various appearances, but then so does the explanation that he is insane. Morrison does add a nice touch, that when Joker changes his phase, he gets rid of the henchmen left alive at the end of the previous phase. Harley Quinn is very significant to the latest phase of Joker, but we don't realize she is being set up by the Joker until she does. And this is all set up nicely by the opening scenes of the clown's funeral, as former henchmen for Joker lay one of their comrades to rest.

No, the problem here is the style of Morrison's prose. An example: "The eyes of the two men lock into place like dancers in a tango. It's as dangerous to look the Joker in the eyes as it is to train a telescope on the sun, they say, but Batman has faced down this blue-hot lunacy before." Maybe to some readers this just sings, but to me it is forced and clumsy...and perilously close to a mixed metaphor.And most of the writing is like that, metaphor piled on slightly different metaphor, image beside incongruous image. Perhaps the style is meant to suggest Joker's insanity, but ifthat was the goal, itdoesn't have to be so heavy-handed and, ultimately, obtuse.

The other problem is with the art. John Van Fleet uses a computer for photo-realistic illustrations through the story. The images themselves are okay, even though they have that artificiality of screenshots from your favorite computer game. Some are fascinating and some are unrecognizable. But more troubling is the strange placement the pictures have in the book; sometimes the art literally gets in the way of the words, so that the path through the text is uncertain. And the last page, with its very few words, is very difficult to parse. Either Batman has been shot in the head or he's growing a rose from his head, like one of the Meanies fom Yellow Submarine. But that image doesn't quite fit in with where the last words of the story take us. So I've spent a good 15 minutes reading adn studying that last page and I can honestly say I have no idea what's happened.

I like the story being told, I really do. I'm just not sure the story was worth the cost of the offputting writing and art.

Green Lantern Corps 9 -- I've been enjoying this arc, "The Dark Side of Green", as writer Keith Champagne has introduced the Green Lantern Corpse. Led by a Durlan (and it's nice to see a militant Durlan rather than the usually passive Cham of Legion of Superheroes), the Corpse acts much like the Impossible Missions squad--they take the missions no one else wil ltake and if anyone dies along the way, the Guardians disavoew any knowledge of them. Recruiting Guy Gardner into that group seems natural enough, and their foe, a genetically enhanced Dominator, is a very nice change of pace. Add into the mix a new Green Lantern, R'amey, an ultra-cute alien who looks like nothing less than a full-grown fairy, and there appears to be tension galore between the philosophies of the members of the Corpse. But by the end of the issue, when we find that R'amey may actually be the most powerful of the bunch and her mild exterior hides the soul of a radical warrior, the story turns the reader's expectations on its mutual ear. Guy protests the killing of the Dominator is not necessary when they capture it and is shocked when the luminous fairy rips the Dominator to shreds. Then the capper comes when the Durlan tells Guy he is not good enough for the Corpse because (surprise surprise) Guy has a conscience and will not blindly follow orders. Of course, Guy has never been as extreme as his stereotype paints him, and this issue just emphasizes that.

Of some concern is the fight scene, but it is not a breaker. I had to parse the battle sequence a number of times to figure out what exactly happened, but elsewhere, the art is stylish and effective.

The end of the issue implies that we have not seen the last of the Corpse or the Dominator, and I hope that this is the case. I would like to see more intelligently written science fiction comics about these characters.

Y The Last Man 54 -- I have thoroughly enjoyed the run on this title, but this one issue has to be the most dissapointing so far. This issue features the return of two side characters, Cayce and Henrietta, the sincere but lost ultra-feminst artists who showed up a few issues ago. The story opens with the two of them trying to make a move about empowering women, but their actors quit the movie with complaints that is just another action flick. They argue for a bit with Cayce tossing out this explanation, straight from the feminist handbook of the 70s--"We're appropriating the trappings of male-dominated cinema, and subverting them to make the first truly female action hero." When pushed on other female action heroes, such as Ripley and Sarah Connor, Cayce replies "That's not the point! those movies were all made by men for men."

The irony here is stupendous, since there is only one man left in the world and he is neither making the movie nor likely to see it. Vaughan's point about the inability of true believers to release their beliefs even when they are no longer valid or necessary is clear. Later Cayce and Henrietta pick up a comic book that some young girls have been reading. Inspired, Cayce decides to switch media to deliver her message and creates a comic book for herself. The story is very familiar; all of Earth's women have been killed in some sort of plague, leaving a sole survivor to wander the world. The last few panels find our hero Yorick reading the comic and expressing his disapproval of it.

Perhaps this issue will be the starting point for an arc, but in and of itself it is terribly unsatisfying. Maybe the creators felt the reader needed some whimsy following the events of the last few issues and as we are about to begin the final arc, but I think there are better stories that can be told. I'll have to hold final judgment until the next issue, but this issue itself felt like we were treading water and not given anything of value for our being forced to stand still. However, I do believe this is one of the best titles coming out of Vertigo right now, and I'll miss it when it's gone.

Tales of the Unexpected 5 -- Forget the lead story in this anthology, that of the Spectre and his new host working out their relationship. What's more interesting is the back-up story featuring Dr. 13 and his daughter fighting Nazi gorillas with a lisping ghost, a vampire and old-time boy hero, Genius Jones. Up to now, the adventues that the team has been sharing have been whimsical and fun, harking back to the golden ago of DC, but with no real sense of purpose. The stories acted like serial for serial's sake. All of this changed, though, when someone got around to talking to Genius Jones about why the group has gathered together (Genius Jones, for those who are unaware, was stuck on a desert island with all the books in the world...and he read every one of the books, so now he knows everything there is to know. Give him a dime and ask him a question, and he will answer it.). Suddenly the fourth wall is broken down as Jones explains that the team is gathered together because the architects don't believe the members need to exist. When pushed to explain further, he explains that the architects decide "who's who...and who isn't. They are the official guides to the universe when it was decided that one fashioned by the architects that preceded them didn't make cents...they knocked the old one down and built a new one. This is the fourth time it's happened--in this universe." Brian Azzarello's sly commentary on the existence of universes based solely on how much money they bring down is funny and somehow poignant all at once. Don't the charactrers have a right to have their story told? They certainly believe so and decide to confront the architects. The issue ends with some of the long-suffering characters being trapped under the foot of a giant monster with the heads of four dead presidents in yet another image of the power of our dollar over their lives. It was fun before just to see these strange old heroes being brought back, but now that they are actors in a metacomic and talking to the reader, I'm really looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

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