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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The final Review written in 2011 (Grant Morrison's Flex Mentallo)


You've been participating in the world's first fully interactive quantum comic book, starring us! 

I discovered my secret magic hero word in a crossword puzzle my future self passed me. 

2012 is the year of many endings and the one beginning. 

Thank you for your participation. I love you. Look up!







Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Quick Review of Wolverine and the X Men Issues One and Two

Post Civil War, the Marvel Universe has been in the market to shake things up considerably every few months in terms of character development and overarching "big change for reals" story-lines.

Also, Wolverine is everywhere.  The Avengers, Uncanny X Force, X Men, his own title, multiple mini-series, a new animated cartoon, and every single cover of Wizard the Guide to Comics ever printed.

It should come as no surprise then that one of the new X-titles to make its way onstage claims a "bold new direction" for mutantkind as well as featuring our favorite vertically-challenged Canadian with an indestructible skeleton.



Wolverine and the X Men is, on its surface, the natural outcome of the Schism story-line that ran itself into the ground anticlimactically a scant few months ago. The plot for that so-called "Civil War of mutants" was pretty pat and shook the few remaining mutants of the world up, ever so slightly.  A new generation of the Hellfire Club (literally children) opened itself up to not simply exterminating mutants but making a tidy profit off the fears of mankind with the latest Sentinel tech, a tried but true X-trope (see: Claremont's Nimrod, Morrison's nano-Sentinels).  When the latest "suitcase" Sentinel is aimed at Utopia, the last bastion of mutant hope just off the Pacific coast, a rift between Wolverine and Cyclops emerges, interestingly enough with Cyclops taking the more militant position, and Wolverine seeking to follow Xavier's old premise of a "school for gifted youngsters".

After some unnecessarily proverbial team-divvying around a metaphorical campfire, the new title is born, rejuvenating the long-bombed-out Westchester County mansion.  Hope is a scarce thing in the Marvel Universe, on a best day.  Wolverine calls in Shadowcat, Beast, Iceman, Husk, Doop and others as teachers and administrators, and populates the school with all the easy-to-relate-to quirky mutant teens floating in editorial limbo since the school was last blown up.



The initial issue starts with the seemingly mundane task of passing an inspection by the state board of education.  Predictably, things go sour from the start.     Second one features a new leimotif common enough in Marvel these days: Pym particles mixed with bioengineering, replicating a power or a creature, Sauron and Wendigo, Frankensteins with Flame Throwers. Chris Bacchalo's art is the sort of complicated scenework that keeps fanboys rereading.   His expressions have always been down (evidences available for Logan and Oya) but he seems to have expanded his sense of motion since Generation X and his work in the Ultimate Universe.  The writing is fluid if predictable. Playing on obscure tropes like the Living Island Krakoa, keeping pace with new concepts such as Danger Room being a constant hardlight physical challenge, Professor X's dry humor regarding the eventual and seemingly inevitable destruction of the school.



All in all, the title shows great promise, despite Wolverine's overexposure at all times. Give the snail's pace of art and plot a few months, we may see something pan out in the Kid Omega subplot, followed by more problems with the Marvel Evil Youth League popping up all over.

Speaking of popping up everywhere, please note the Nightcrawler imps Bacchalo has a blast drawing, mentioned ever so casually by Hank McCoy, the supposed ace-in-the-hole candidate to charm the inspectors, shortly before hurling a coffee pot at them.

But more than that we can see the expansion of Bobby Drake, Iceman, via actions taking place in a recent issue of Uncanny X Force, another winning blend of good art and complex plot that takes no prisoners.  Iceman defeats the Frankenstein soldiers using a multiple man trick, expanding his consciousness into avatars.  Rachel Summers seems somewhat free of her usual clumsiness in a plot, Kitty Pride is a Jewish goddess, and Doop of the old X-Statix team would seem to be in charge of Registration.  There are throwbacks to the Sh'iar in the arrival of old egomaniac Gladiator himself with the introduction of his son and bodyguard...




The writer and artist have found a competent inker, a good crew of colorists, and a couple dozen interns to churn out this particular pile.  Their villain is children, seemingly growing more common in Marvel 616, with his own secret assassin squad in Uncanny X Force having murdered a reincarnated child form of Apocalypse which would inherit at accursed villain packed with Celestial technology.  But not really, because Fantomex, AKA Weapon XIII, misdirected everyone into thinking that was what happened, and has seen fit to keep En Sabah Nur in a laboratory protected by Weapon XV. Right. Meanwhile?

Wolverine's constant exposure pays off greater dividends, surely, or they wouldn't farm him out so much.  Touches for characters like poor Toad, old veteran of all the incarnations of the Brotherhood of Mutants... he's gone through so many changes over the decades, and if there is one thing in this new series relevant enough to note is that Toad's a janitor. Finally. At last.

And the toilets shoot fire.

Four and a half stars out of five for the inevitable delay of the book. Bacchalo takes forever to draw. But he's worth the wait.







A Quick Review of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

If you were to ask me my personal opinion of what Alan Moore's enduring legacy as a writer will prove to be, I'd be straightforward. In my opinion it's his run with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.


The evidence speaks for itself.  The initial serial exploits of this League were compiled into two volumes, and after a long wait the Black Dossier arrived (with 3D glasses!).  Now, via Top Shelf, the latest (though hopefully not final) three part series runs through the amalgamated literati universe inhabited by the very fictions we have as a culture cultivated, to be adapted, patch-worked like a fine quilt, in the manner with which we have become accustomed to the Northampton magician.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore


The initial premise sounds like a promising pitch, collecting classic characters such as Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and his Mr. Hyde, colonial hero Alan Quartermain, and set them under the direction of Wilhelma Murray (once the focus of Dracula's affections, if you recall), all in the service to late 19th century England, God save the queen, etc.  Coupled with the supremely talented Kevin O' Neil (of Judge Dredd fame), Moore sets these gaslamp understudies in adventures that at the outset play with conventions of literary heavyweights, icons that got to play opposite of Abbot and Costello.  Moore is a writer who likes playing with the toys of others, so to speak, in a world where many, and perhaps all fictions Moore is aware of, in some capacity, collide, coagulate in an ancient and more resonant sense of storytelling.  Cut him or any other writer free of restrictions, and if they're smart, talented, driven, or all of the above, they'll stay consistent and prolific.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Linked Afterword concerning Marvel

We'll be dealing with the repercussions of Fear Itself for a year at most. Characters will receive new haircuts... and Bucky, who shouldn't have been alive to begin with, will be resurrected through a series of contrivances. Paris will be repopulated with migrants from Israel or something. Ever notice there are no Israeli mutants?  Or Palestinian mutants. Or are there? And if so, what would their respective powers be? I mean, the possibilities are... um...  I should stop.  But the question bears analysis, given that the inception of comicdom, at least the mainstream superhero style, is almost exclusively an American Phenomenon. 

Let me get this straight though. . .



Are all comic books produced by Marvel required by some comic code to contain at least 10% Wolverine? Seriously.

He can't die of physical injury, sure. Except that time he did

But can he die of overexposure?

Feh.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Quick Review of FEAR ITSELF




Growing up, I was more or less a Marvel Maniac.  DC had the enduring icons, sure, but for Young Me, and yes, to Older Me, the real crux of a comic book character came in how textured they were, how driven they were by internal struggles; not by their flawless archetype, but their flawed humanity. 

So it is that with a character like Superman, very little deviation could be explored unless the writer found a fashion to properly tweak his iconography, usually giving him a mostly external problem to solve in his boy-scout fashion, with varying degrees of difficulty or support.  His humanity all too often proved incidental to his invulnerability, though of course exceptions have and will always continue to be profitable.  Clark Kent is, as fabled movie assassin Bill once said, Kal-El's critique of humanity, the mask behind which the alien hides.

Peter Parker, on the other hand, is driven less by external schematics than internal dynamics, though anyone can easily see that the best stories involving him borrowed elements of both.  His rogues would affect him less as flavor of the week excess, but rather, at their best, needling him through some psychological and often personal consequence.  Writers harped on this to greater or lesser extents, succeeding and failing over the years.  In his best moments, his presence as a human is always at the forefront.  At Marvel's best, they have had this in mind within the framework of the story, and at their worst, they have discarded this for gimmick or trite contrivance (see: Clone Saga, 1994-1996).

Perhaps one more slight degree of personal back-story should be allowed to flavor my review of Fear Itself, Marvel Comic's most recent crossover deluxe.  My very first comic book, that is, the first comic book I ever sat down and read, was New Mutants #37.  Imagine coming to comics at the age of six or so with no concrete idea of any major character and being thrust into a comic where young mutants in yellow spandex are being brutally butchered one by one by a honky of nigh-infinite cosmic power sporting a leisure suit and a Jheri Curl.  This was my entrance into the world of Marvel, as the New Mutants faced off with The Beyonder and failed to the point that they were literally eradicated from existence.  This was an aside to the old Marvel crossover Secret Wars 2, which decades later I would finally find copies of in a thrift store, five for a dollar, good for a laugh.  At the time I was confused and intrigued.  I had no context with which to approach this story, and the brutality was such that it fixed itself strongly in my mind, an indelible imprint giving me the impression that comic book characters could be fragile transitory beings.



With that in mind, before hitting the main event of Fear Itself, I'll try to give a very rough summation of Marvel Universe history as a preface. Once upon a time, crossovers in comic books were an annual or semi-annual event that would coordinate the disparate stories of multiple titles along a specific "event".  Late 1990's through early 2000's saw a dominance of mutants in the M.U., often "crossing over" in fashions that would affect the whole cloth of the universe.  As the X Men sold like nothing else in the stable at that time, and Wolverine made an appearance on every single issue of "Wizard, the guide to comics" for six years running... stories like Onslaught and Age of Apocalypse and Heroes Reborn and Heroes Return would center roughly the nucleus of X-Men on one layer or another.

Then Joe Quesada took over the role of Editor in Chief at the House of Ideas in 2000, and soon thereafter the shop as a whole started to see shifts in what comic books meant.  Gradually, fanboys could come out of the shadows, and the sunlight, it burned so good.  2001 saw the dispersal of the long-outdated Comics Code Authority for Marvel, and the expansion of new ratings systems, opening doors for Marvel MAX (mostly a failure), and the new stable of Marvel movies expanding mainstream appeal.  Certain storylines ebbed and flowed.  The fantastic Grant Morrison came on board with New X Men, committed genocide on the mutant nation of Genosha via Super-sentinel, then oversaw the death of Jean Grey, the Phoenix.  A lot of stories around this time were becoming more conscientious of these characters reaching a larger audience as a whole.  So in the spirit of house-keeping, The House of M (2005) marked the end of mutant dominance in storylines, with a finish in which the Scarlet Witch (Magneto's cray-cray daughter) wiped out most mutants in the M.U. with her reality altering powers. Around that same time, a new team of Avengers formed, with Spider Man and Wolverine incorporated as mainstays, echoing efforts in DC to actually draw people to Justice League of America with heavy hitting popular characters. Also around this time, retconning introduced a Superman-like psychologically-tortured hero known as "Sentry".  Finally, with the storyline Civil War (2006-2007) Marvel attempted to create an "event-to-end-all-events" that would pit heroes against heroes in a contentious debate over the rights of superhumans to act as "licensed heroes" in a country-wide Initiative (2007-2008).  At some point, Captain America was assassinated on orders given by his arch-rival the Red Skull.  Thor had long since vanished, was cloned badly at one point in the Civil War, became ruler of Asgard, died, or something, but basically returned just in time for the crap-fest Secret Invasion (2008), where it turns out shapechanging Skrulls have been sneaking around for a while, but oh wait, it doesn't matter.  Oh, and Bucky, the Robin to Captain America's Batman that died nobly battling Baron Zemo way back in the 40's? At some point during Secret Invasion he takes on the mantle of Captain America. Because nobody stays dead in the Marvel Universe except Uncle Ben, period. The M.U. base of crap heroes expanded along with titles that swelled and shrank with popularity.  Storylines muddled in Dark Reign (2008-2009) where old Spidey villain The Green Goblin managed to gain boss status over the Initiative heroes/villains of the M.U.  Thor showed up in the middle of Oklahoma, of all places, with the floating city (city?) of Asgard, setting the stage for Siege (2010), seeing the overreaching and subsequent toppling of the Green Goblin (as well as the murder of gods Ares and Loki at the hands of Sentry, who also knocked Asgard out of the sky... and was subsequently thrown into the sun), and The Heroic Age (2010), an attempt to recapture the spirit of the "good old days" with a reformatted Avengers.  Oh, and apparently Steve Rogers came back from the dead, but lets Bucky keep his old duds. Ta-da!  Finally, some stability. Finally, a new Status Quo, same as the old one.

Enter: FEAR ITSELF.



Now right off the bat, I'd have to give credit where credit is due: Matt Fraction is the best thing to happen to Marvel Comics writing stables in a long while.  The real breakthroughs he's accomplished since coming onto the mainstream scene have earned him all sorts of awards, Eisners, Pen Centers, Eagles and No-Prizes.  Rightfully so.  A good comic book writer understands pacing on the macro and micro level.  A good comic book writer is capable of handling nuance of character as well as convolutions of plot.  They understand that you don't accomplish an instant reread (fanboys know what I'm talking about here) of individual serials or the trades as a larger whole without having something substantial on each page for the reader to digest.  As such, Matt Fraction's work with Fear Itself stays true to each and every character while housing elements of the storyline in easily digested and straightforward manner.  Keeps the readers coming back, in other words.  It's a crossover that, unlike every single major crossover of the M.U. since Civil War, needs little preface outside of an understanding of the individual characters and their respective origins (long-since absorbed into the mainstream thanks to the success of certain movies). The ease of entry is partially due to the main villain, The Serpent, an unknown up until this storyline, freed by the Red Skull's daughter Sin at the outset.

Also, the timing of this largely Thor-centric crossover does well, given the recent movie.
So The Serpent, this unheard-of brother of Odin has spent thousands of years imprisoned in the deepest trenches of Earth's oceans, guarded by dragons, awaiting the chosen one that would free him and begin a reign of terror.  Literally.  No other motive than the spreading of fear, at the outset.  Quite simply, his powers feed off of the collective fears of humankind.  To empower himself along these lines, he summons seven more hammers from deep space, each akin in some fashion to Thor's Mj√∂lnir, to seven superhumans of already-great-to-moderate power throughout the M.U. Earth. C-List villain Grey Gargoyle murders all of Paris, waylaying Iron Man, who ends up vomiting in his own suit (ha!).  The Hulk tears through South America and New York.  Juggernaut tramples cities through the Midwest and fights the X Men in San Francisco.  The Fantastic Four's Thing completely destroys his old stomping grounds of Yancy Street.  Attuma, an obscure Atlantean warlord, starts slaughtering schools of Atlanteans off the coasts of Canada. B-List villains Titania and the Absorbing Man open a gate to hell in China.   Sin, who started the whole thing, gathers up hordes of swastika-brandishing mech-suited Nazis (still somehow plentiful) and annihilates Washington D.C.  






As soon as Odin notes the Serpent's awakening, he gathers up Thor and all his people and turns tale for Asgard Space. Odin's plan, at this point, is to prepare his forces to decimate the earth's population and starve The Serpent of their collective fear.  This of course makes sense only in an action movie sort of manner, as many actions taken throughout mainstream comics go.  But hey, why quibble?  As a quick side note, the recently reincarnated Loki plays around with the implications of these events, as well as his own reincarnation in a subplot present in Journey into Mystery coterminous to these events... of all the Fear Itself spin offs, this particular thread is the most intriguing, best illustrated, and ably written. 


Overall, again, the key to the main story's dramatic tension is on one hand its sense of grandiosity, on the other the sense of helplessness that ordinarily extravagant superheroes have in the face of such power.  Underlying this is the idea that things will be shaken up, and the characters involved are fragile transitory beings, that the Status Quo is at risk of damage.  Fraction reinforces this right off the bat in the third issue, with Sin outright murdering Captain America (the Bucky version of course), after ripping off his bionic arm, and burning a H.E.R.B.I.E. sized hole in his chest.




The following issue sees the return of Thor, the gathering up of Steve Rogers back into his old duds, and a tactical move by Iron Man to prepare for the final battle.  Three clever points of interest: one, Thor is fully aware of a prophecy that fortold his death at the hands of the Serpent should he succeed in felling him, two, Captain America arrives at the location of Sin's latest point of attack, and she can't believe her luck quipping "Do I actually get to kill Captain America twice?" and finally, in a sure and certain implication of characterization that again shows what a clever monkey Fraction is, Iron Man arrives at Fallen Asgard with a bottle of wine and pays tribute to Odin by sacrificing his sobriety (played up as a rather big deal in a recent "A.A. issue" of Iron Man #500.1, again courtesy of Fraction), on the off chance that he can get a crack at the mythic workshops plus Odin's blessing to even out the "evil hammer problem".

The pacing is gorgeous, and again, any Nordic mythology buff knows that this prophecy is in keeping with a descriptive run of Ragnarok, the final battle of the Nordic pantheon. By neccessity the "main" storyline is tightest and usually follows only the heavy hitters, that is, the most recognizable names.  The best "action" is to be had in the "main" storyline. So it should come as little surprise when, for the first time in Marvel history, upon confrontation of the Serpent, when Captain America throws his trademark shield, the Serpent catches it and shatters it like it was made out of peanut brittle. Oldboy Serpent then declares himself God and knocks out all the Marvel heroes in one swing, without killing any of them.  Again,this only makes sense in an action movie kinda way.  But dude. He broke Cap's shield.




Okay, all joking aside, as the storyline unfolded more and more I found myself confronted with "Marvel Architect" ads, shameless self-promotion that features comic book creators like Fraction as the next sexy thing in the world of whatever.  Seeing these, I start to imagine the various meetings in that legendary Marvel Bullpen or whatever sterile office passes for it these days.  At what point was it established that someone, even a god, could shatter Cap's Shield? Who gave the go-ahead on the murder of Bucky Barnes?  Or the murder of all of Paris, for that matter?  As the storyline progresses, and the bodies stack, every now and then the classic "shot from television" springs up, reporting food riots, autism rates skyrocketing, suicide bombers, and other scenes of mass global carnage and chaos.  This is to give the reader a sense of scope, of immensity.  You start to wonder if this is something that will actually impact the Status Quo or if it's just grandstanding for the sake of sales.  Or both.  Certainly it should wake comic book reading people up in much the same fashion that Blackest Night was the metaphorical equivalent of DC Comic's balls dropping.  But, digressions aside, is the term "Marvel Architect" going to stick around a while?  Is that how these guys introduce themselves to people at parties? Does that end up on a resume? Whatever. Anyway.

Onward to the next issue, where Thor, after getting shunted away from the Serpent, right into the rubble that is New York City, face to face with Hammertime Thing and Hulk.  He just about murders Thing (at which point I realize, as Franklin Richards uses his reality altering powers to save him, where's Reed Richards during all this?) and has a knock down drag out brawl with Hulk before shooting him into the stratosphere (not unlike an old "Spider Man as Captain Universe" solution years back).  Also, Iron Man takes a leap of faith into boiling Uru for Odin's blessing on his armor and the weapons he's designed. To this I say big whoop, we all know that in the end, no matter what cool weaponry these folks get, in the end it's gonna get thrown out.  Status Quo must be maintained to keep relevance standardized, so new readers are not alienated and old readers are reasonably satisfied.  To summarize: Iron Man's new mythical weaponry: Big Whoop, Transitory Gimmick.



Let's try to get back on track.  Again.  Thor naturally gets properly stomped, and where we can see some aspect of the immensity of the battle is in the fact that, unlike most superhero slugfest brawls in New York (every five minutes, if you're a Spider Man reader), this one seems to have destroyed nearly every single building in sight.  Imagine Ground Zero, everywhere.  It should be noted Stuart Immonen (with whom I first became infatuated in now-defunct Nextwave) carries each scene with an admirable aplomb of pencils, complimented ably by Wade Von Grawbadger.  The heroes carry Thor through a gate to get healed up by Odin, and Captain America smack talks Odin right there on the rainbow bridge.  You can almost hear Sir Anthony Hopkins in Odin's dialogue, again a credit to Fraction's abilities.  The heroes get shunted back to Broxton in the rubble of Fallen Asgard, and prepare to make their last stand.  Meanwhile, the Serpent and his floating island of hell runs straight at them.  A note: Thor's final scene with Odin as he tends to his wounds is masterfully realized. The prophecy holds that in final battle, Thor will die with the Serpent.  "We have our cycles and refrains," as he puts it.  Odin gives him his armor, a sword named Ragnarok (straight out of Final Fantasy Tactics, yo!) and sends him on his way.  "Are you man or god?" Odin asks.  "A man. The man you made me," is Thor's reply.

And of course the much anticipated final issue of Fear Itself plays out precisely as prophecy would hold.  In the midst of battle Captain America takes up Thor's hammer, the "Mighty" are given their respective weapons by a "in-the-knick-of-time" Iron Man and dwarf assistants, and the "Worthy" (minus Hulk, apparently fighting Dracula and legions of monsters elsewhere) are taken down when Thor kills the Serpent, in his "final dragon big bad boss" form.  Somewhere in the midst of all this, the momentum that this months-long debacle seems to lessen.  In the final wash, we have a humanizing element in the form of a chubby bald native to Broxton who stands side by side with the Avengers as trolls and Nazi mech suits and Hammer-wielding megapowers rain down around them.  Of course Thor dies.  It was predestined.  The heroes even prepare a final viking-like pyre for him, Odin teleports all his Asgardian cohorts to Midgard, and takes his brother's body back to Asgard proper, his "brother's keeper" at last.  A two-page splash presents us with the heroes looking at... something off-panel, and Cap declares that they will rebuild the cities, the world, together.  Something about this polished finish seems less well-maneuvered than the build up, though it makes sense in the fact that Marvel Architects seem to leave some aspects open-ended (Hulk in the epilogue seems to discard the "Hulk Family" storyline, Sin reawakens to cyborg Nazis in her service, and other vague allusions to future storylines that pique zero interest to me, personally).

Since we all know that retconning is the rage these days, as ever, let's discard any deaths occurring in this event outright. Where the Marvel Universe is concerned, death is never final.  Thanos once killed half the universe with a snap of his fingers, remember.  If Bucky returns, it'll be cheap and stupid, even worse than some Mephisto-based twist to get Spider Man single without the specter of divorce.  If Thor returns, it will mean the return of the Serpent.  Mark my words, Thor will return in time for the Avengers movie.   The canon never really dies.  By 2040 some clever writer will have addressed this.  The important thing for writers and editors to remember is characterization and evolution that keep readers coming back for more must be maintained, in some form or fashion.  Gimmicks are excusable in superhero comics, but not in excess.  Somewhere in the midst of all crossover, the Speedball subplot of attempted redemption for that incident that kicked off the Civil War came up, and was ably handled.  A few other threads are wrapped up or ignored, leading into what is yet to be.

In the end, what resonated with me concerning Fear Itself is the same thing that resonated with that fateful issue of New Mutants all those years ago.  Mighty heroes falling low, seeming fragile despite their fantastic abilities, overcoming extravagant odds or falling and being appropriately mourned until such time that spectacular contrivances conspire to resurrect them.  This will be reinforced in the months and years and reams of paper yet to come dedicated to Shattered Heroes and the like.  Eventually, if the most notable promo in the final pages is any indication, the much-ballyhooed Phoenix will return.  Even the mutants of Earth will return, with club skank Scarlet Witch hooking up with Victor Von Doom, of all people.  Comics as a medium, specifically this superhero branch, must maintain a delicate sense of what the readers want and what they can handle, two very different things in some instances.  Marvel Architects must maintain respect for the old readers to keep them coming back, and only borderline disgruntled, while keeping these stasis-soaked figures fresh enough for new readers to stumble into.  Maintaining a sensible mythology, especially with a major event such as this, is of primary import.   

So long as they honor that, these Marvel Architects can keep their pretentious title.


Friday, October 21, 2011

A Quick Review of Neil Gaiman's Episode of Dr. Who

Before we start, it is my duty to inform those of you not already aware that The Sandman is to comics as Shakespeare is to literature, as much as Watchmen is the comic geek's Bible.

Sandman's writer Neil Gaiman is a household name, for all intents and purposes, isn't he?  Besides numerous kid/teen-friendly novels, a collaboration concerning the Apocalypse co-written with Terry Pratchett, he's also the writer for a plethora of comic mini-projects, finds the time to co-ordinate a love affair with Amanda Palmer on Twitter, a contentious court battle with hotshot douche Spawn magnate Todd McFarlane, a deep and abiding friendship with Tori Amos, but also is attentive to his blogs, and his NPR interviews, and much much more.

Maybe you saw Coraline, or less likely, Mirrormask? Mr. Gaiman does in fact moves more seamlessly between mediums than most comic book writers, the television series Lost being an example of an exception, where Marvel scribe Brian K. Vaughan could really express his talent for easy character development on a sensational prime-time phenomenon writ-overblown.  So it's not easy to sum up how Gaiman fits perfectly in any one niche, but by the very nature of having collaborated with so many brilliant people, he exudes success.  It drips from him and his work as honey from a beehive.  He can very nearly do no wrong, so far as a portion of the fanboy population is concerned, and should get an award every single year for something, anything, whatever.

It comes down to the fact that he's a solid writer and observant to the nature of human beings, which might arise from his origins as a journalist.  His sense of plot and pacing is often perfect, his characters project honest intent in their given archetype, regardless of whatever that may be.  Even when he's coasting, as in the Marvel project 1602, he's triple the talent of most hacks or editor-harried stable-boys working the trenches.  It is this critic's opinion that if the world at large were able to see full uncut trade paperback versions of Miracleman (recently hints of this have been emerging, with Marvel releasing oldschool pulpers of that title after finally wrangling the rights from aforementioned douche McFarlane), which he took over after Alan Moore's ground-breaking work, they would see even there the elegance of his earlier efforts, before the Major Phenomenon that would become his run on The Sandman, ostensibly his crown jewel of accomplishments (being an import from the U.K., after all, imported over the pond like so many of his contemporary and wildly successful comic book scribes).

Perhaps it seems like I am gushing and working out Gaiman's history in toto, needlessly.  Rather, all of this near-fellatio assessment prefaces an open-ended appraisal of an episode that Gaiman wrote for the "6th season" (actually, post ret-conning, following a hiatus, factoring in radio-serials, more like the 27th or 30th) of the BBC series Dr. Who, aptly titled "The Doctor's Wife".

[To those unfamiliar with Dr. Who, f you get the chance, give it a shot.  Start with Season Five if you want to start on the newest incarnation or, if you want a real treat and some almost indigestible camp, start from season one, then shortly thereafter observe the glory days of David Tennant in the role he wished for as a young child and received as a rich reward, though to reinforce that sense of camp, it should be said his first action as the Doctor was a scene in which he started out fighting a Christmas tree. All you need to know going in is that the Doctor is a Time Lord.  The Time Lords as an ancient cosmic race are dead, save him.  The Doctor sent them all to "Hell" when they threatened to destroy the cosmos in their war with the Daleks. Twice.  He travels in a time/space-traveling police box. Let's not even begin to get into the time he killed Satan.]


The episode in question is what Dungeonmasters would likely refer to as a side-quest in a demi-plane. The Doctor's mode of conveyance, the TARDIS (an acronym: Time and Relative Dimension In Space, for the uninitiated), has picked up a distress signal from a fellow Time Lord named The Corsair.  After briefly relating that they knew each other intimately, The Doctor locks in and follows the distress beacon (dragging along a recently-wed couple pivotal to the audience's engagement of the story, one being his faithful companion Amy Pond, the other Rory Williams) they end up in what would be referred to by some as a pocket dimension, or bubble sticking to a bubble, as The Doctor puts it, although not at all, where an asteroid is inhabited by three badly stitched and oddly familial characters, Auntie, Uncle,  and Nephew (an Ood).


Now, postponing our shot at the plot for the moment, let's look at structure. Gaiman's obviously a longtime fan of the series, as many "inside joke" throwaway lines in this episode indicate. Since he's accustomed to working within the constraints of mainstream comics, where short and punchy and to the point is the name of the game still, but always keeping with a rough sense of continuity and content and relevance (though not necessarily canon). 

The plot involves another old Dungeonmaster trope, and somewhat more dialogued than Lost's take, the Sentient Island, or in this case, Sentient Asteroid, referred to as House, collecting the refuse of the universe, luring in and trapping Time Lords for the occasional snack of their variations of the TARDIS, itself containing a Time Vortex which gives off energies for said consumption.  Easy enough, but in order to do so, the Asteroid in question transfers the "consciousness" inhabiting the TARDIS into a woman suspiciously similar in appearance to Helena Bonnam Carter.  It makes sense to draw the connection. The same people consuming The Sandman series in its time of serialization and after were the precise sort to enjoy something like Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare before Christmas, produced by Tim Burton, who of course went on to marry HBC.  So-called Nerd Culture recognizes these things, however subtle or unconscious.


The syntax of the inhabited subject's dialogue/running monologue is yet another example of Gaiman moving fluidly with language.  Her phrases are garbled with clips of the future, the present, and hints at the next few episodes.  Overall she speaks as a time in relative dimension in space construct inhabiting a human host should, that is, confused and confusing.  The TARDIS is not accustomed to talking, in the strictest sense, nor will it be in future episodes (that would spoil things).

We have heft in all characters, we have a plot that carries itself in the one-shot comfortably without the cliffhanger notches so common in Dr. Who.  Amy Pond and the erstwhile husband Rory go back to the TARDIS for the Doctor's sonic screwdriver, then are promptly  taken away in a swirl of green mist by House, eager to be off after realizing no more Time Lords and their TARDISes will be arriving.  After taking over, House poses the question to them "Why don't I just kill you right now?"  Here it is important to note that Gaiman is directly lifting a cue from The Arabian Nights, wherein puny characters are confronted with an entity of severe power (much as a djinni) and must be quick-witted in order to survive.   Effectively Amy's response is "It won't be fun to kill us immediately."  This buys her and Rory time as they run through the presumably near-infinite structure of the TARDIS (what does "bigger on the inside" mean?).  Of course House can play with their senses, shift bits of the TARDIS through space and time, and again Gaiman is clever in how he presents this within the constrains of the medium and characterization.  House blinds them, separates them, presents illusions in which Rory dies, and so forth.  Basically runs Amy and Rory ragged.

Meanwhile the Doctor and his "Wife" are having their first real conversation, her half non-linear and kooky.  Turns out he calls her "Sexy" when they are alone, and that's her chosen name.  To get after the TARDIS/House they need to jury-rig a new TARDIS composed of the husks left over by House after his consumption of them.  Effectively chasing a prize rooster out of the hen-house with an animated pile of chicken bones. Okay, not at all like that.  But here we have a grandiosity of parallel "coolness" playing well with the running power of the Doctor's mythology.  Some Dr. Who episodes are formulaic (the "little kid as secret alien" has played out well repeatedly over the years) but this particular one is fresh and distinct.  The calls for sets and special effects to pull this episode off without a hint of hokiness (okay, maybe just a hint) make for good television.  Somewhat sentimental, sure, but not too contrived that repeated viewings will ruin the effect.  On the contrary, multiple viewings of this episode will enhance the series as a whole.  It could be, in a fashion, viewed as an apocryphal episode. Somewhat disposable in the long run, but overall enhancing the ongoing mythos.


To give a direct play-by-play of the plot would also become tedious.  Needless to say, there are elements of the story I am not and will not explore, but to sum up, we get a better sense of the bond and history between the TARDIS and the Doctor (we can extrapolate from their dialogue that he "stole" her from a museum, while she maintains that she "stole" him) and safely note that every single episode in which the TARDIS transports them into a crazy situation beyond the Doctor's intent is a textured Deus Ex Machina ("I always took you where you needed to be," she tells him). 

 Of course they survive. Of course they get away.  The manner in which all this happens is a natural matter of course.  Gaiman respects each character he inhabits and conjures, as a good wordsmith should.  Should Dr. Who get accolades for episodes like this? Absolutely. It's well in keeping with the mythology of the storyline, adds positive aspects to the running narrative, specifically in the realm of character, the Doctor and the TARDIS are drawn into a more intimate relationship, for the first time ever in decades of the series run... I would hazard to say that making Neil Gaiman head writer for the series, if he was so-inclined and well-disposed, to have him structure not just an episode but an entire season, would give the whole series as stark shot in the arm, bringing the best of the comic world to the best of the science-fiction/fantasy television world, a space that seems more barren and sterile with series such as Fringe, more crude and nonsensical with a series such as True Blood, and likely more contrived and dare I say it hokey with certain other attempts at the genre which shall not be named.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that Neil Gaiman can do no wrong, so far as the evidence he has provided us thus far infers.  He shines well selectively and within certain subjects.  I would embrace any further episodes of any show he deemed worthy of his talents, but am especially enamored of his work with the mythology of Dr. Who in "The Doctor's Wife".  Let's give him a hand folks. No, seriously. Standing ovation.  Twitter-bomb him.  Call for an encore.

 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Quick Review of The Tree of Life



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Far more qualified individuals than myself would surely have more specifically technical accolades than I am going to provide in my review of Terrence Malick's esteemed new film The Tree of Life, but given that my movie-going experience is often selective, and given my deep emotional reaction to the film, I thought I would commit to the technological archives a few points brought up in the film and how they resonated with me.
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The quality of silence informs the preciousness of many scenes.  Dialogue, monologue, float freely in and out of scenes.  The cinematography is flawless in its perspective. We shift among the various members of the family, the youngest of three brothers not given a voice. The point of view we are given for this microcosmic portion of the film, the thread throughout, often rises from below, simulating the point of view of any given character. We interweave between them, and alternate throughout, but most note-worthily  the beginning and end, a more cosmic thread represented with views of planetary formations, stellar phenomena, the creation and cultivation of life forms, and so on.  What is sought in this film is answers to questions. The loss of innocence. The pull and push of nature and grace.  We receive, if we view the film without an ironic or arrogant glaze, a sense of mortality and the utter beauty of existence.
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Following the family thread of story, we find Mr. O'Brien represents a strict patriarch of the family unit. Pitt shows his depth as an actor in each expression, representing a man struggling with his own demons, while steadfastly seeking a better life for his much-loved family, perfectly expressing the tumultuous nature of the masculine in America during the time period in which the film is set, roughly the 1950's through the 1970's in Waco, Texas, on into the era deemed present day. Penn fills the role as a man of means, tortured by his own past, feeling like the walls are closing in. This is contrasted with his workplace, an open well lit building in the heart of a metropolis.
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A plesiosaur regards its mortal wound on a Mesozoic beachfront.  A parasaurolophus lying and possibly dying on a river shore is regarded with curiosity by another dinosaur.   A mother receives notice of her son's death, presumably in the Vietnam conflict.  A chorus sings as jellyfish fill the screen. Due to a flawless soundtrack to compliment the camerawork, the shift through time and space and intimately familiar interactions between the tiny cast of characters is painless, seamless, and altogether enriching. This movie is a rewarding experience.
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The title can be explained both in the recurring tree, shot from below, that emerges onscreen again and again. It can also be extrapolated in the parents of the protagonist as pillars, much as the tree of life in Kabbalistic theology, wrestling, as the film does, as Job did, with the psychological make up of God. The mother represents the passive principle, the pillar of mercy or as it is presented in the movie Grace. The father in turn represents the active principle, the pillar of judgment or as it is presented in the movie Nature. The protagonist, Jack, possesses a recurring name in fairy tales and folklore, and fits so far as protagonist rogues go, he's the center pillar, the grey middle path all men seeking balance must walk.
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It is of course always interesting to note the audience's reaction, that conversation you have with your date or your friend as you leave the theater. The man in the seat behind me that laughed when the parasaurolophus appeared on screen was muttering something about someone popping in a Planet Earth DVD.  A young art school student was heard to start off with "I was thinking about a Warhol film at a certain point..." and the most frequently murmured statement among teenage boys was "What was up with the dinosaurs..."
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I couldn't help but notice telephone screens flash up throughout the audience towards the end of the film, people checking the time.  The film's setting hearkens back to an age if not any more innocent then at least less complicated by the binds of social technology than our own. If one appraises the film with an eye to the message and has anything invested in that message they will walk away enriched for having seen it.  To people more oriented towards esoteric cinema, it is shiny hip and soon to become old hat, or at the very least a good conversation starter.  To the masses, the sort that would say, determine their viewing of the film solely based on the fact that Pitt is in it, there might be confusion and even churlish disregard for the filmmaker's ample contribution to cinema, a film designed to make a person feel a sense of the spirit which animates all life, the inevitability of mortality, and the importance of love within one's family.  This was a beautiful film and I am pleased to have taken the time to assess it in my own fashion, for whatever that is  worth.  

Lane Williams
6/11/11
Chicago, IL