From the archives: Comics

Or, if you'd prefer, return to the most recent posts.

Watchmaker, watchmaker, make me a watch

Tuesday, 20 February 2007 — 12:40am | Adaptations, Comics, Film

Riddle me this: It’s December 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?

In the famous opening passage of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes the human species as “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” In this way, I am only human. I have worn digital watches all my life. I cannot live without one. It’s easy to tell when I’m fidgeting, because I check the time compulsively. As far as I am able to remember, on only two or three occasions have I been without a digital watch for more than a day, and on every one of those occasions, I panicked like an abandoned child lost on a San Francisco pier (which, come to think of it, is something I’ve also been at least twice). I have probably been without my watch more often than that, but those memories lie safely repressed.

Over the past year or so, my wristwatch dependency has loosened its grip. It still follows me everywhere, and I am still disoriented without it, but I replaced the strap a year ago and never got used to it. It wasn’t because the strap was uncomfortable; it was because I took my watch off with increasing frequency, either to time my own speeches or to permit the unobstructed handling of keyboards (both QWERTY and black-and-white), and never got so accustomed to the strap that I would be at a loss without it. But in any and all circumstances, my watch was never far.

I find that it is just as vital to know when you are as it is to know where you are, if not more so. If you are lost in space, you can find your way out, or you can stay in that spot, and develop a plan from the inferred state of your observed environment. Not so with time – certainly not here, where the winter days are but a few days in length, and the moon and stars lay hidden.

My model of choice has traditionally been the Casio Databank DB35H, mostly because I got very accustomed to its interface, feature set and display after years of use in elementary school; the segment layout is easy to read and familiar to me. It has evolved over several incarnations, and the one I purchased in what must have been 1999 or thereabouts had electroluminescent backlighting, which my first one did not, though it too has had its features extended in the latest revision. That said, given that I don’t really use the databank features, I’m open to superior alternatives like this Waveceptor model. At the same time, my current model suits my needs just fine, and I see no reason to leave it for another. Maybe an obsession with time is born of a desire for stasis and a fifty-metre resistance to change.

After roughly eight years of long service – perhaps longer, as I do not recall with the utmost precision – my battery died last week. For some reason, I don’t remember this happening before. The technical specifications for the latest incarnation of this model estimate a battery life of two years, which simply can’t be right. Perhaps my extensive use of the stopwatch features accelerated its demise. Or perhaps it was nothing more than any old battery expiring of natural causes.

I was at the university when time abruptly decided to stop, so at first opportunity, I went to the Bookstore to buy a replacement cell. Then I realized I was uncertain what battery I required, so I borrowed a screwdriver from the staff and opened up my watch on a counter. As it was already open, I decided to purchase a battery and perform the replacement myself then and there. I’d never been in the guts of one of my own watches before, so this was an autodidactic experience from the get-go. The battery housing was a veritable fortress, and tinkering about in its innards was a dextrous exercise ripe for eliciting a calm eddy of introspection, even if the device was only a digital timing implement and nothing that required me to meddle with mechanics and grapple with gears.

But irrespective of the absence of moving parts, disassembling and reassembling an electronic device and voiding its associated warranties is something I recommend everybody do at least once in their lives. Changing a lousy 3-volt lithium disc may be no big deal to those of my peers who spent their childhoods overclocking their CPUs, coiling solenoids for electric motors, or downloading instructions for building cherry-bombs from a nascent, textual Internet (and actually following them, to the chagrin of the junior-high caretakers); to them, it must seem no greater a task than the humdrum routine of replacing a lightbulb. However, I happen to be a Software Guy, a hands-off theoretician comfortable in his bubble of machine-independent algorithms afloat in the soapy bathwater of Platonic, Turing-computable ideal forms. For me, playing with little springs and unscrewing little screws and jumpstarting circuits with unfolded staples delivers a welcome pretence of handymanliness. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

In a timely coincidence, on that very same day I read about Zack Snyder’s plans for the Watchmen film.

Anyone who has been following my blog for reasonably long knows that of all the movies presently in development, this is probably the one I care about the most. More than the last three Harry Potters. More than His Dark Materials, which actually seems to be coming along very well from a design standpoint, though the jury’s obviously out on the script and will remain that way until the opening day of The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, if they’re releasing it under that title elsewhere). Maybe even more than Indiana Jones and the Spanish Inquisition or whatever Lucasian premise it is we’re not expecting. I do not exaggerate when I say that Watchmen is the Lord of the Rings of comic books, and it’s imperative that it’s done right. I’ve seen it pass from Aronofsky to Greengrass to Snyder, and 300 will hopefully give us a good indication of whether or not Snyder knows how to strike the right balance between aesthetic special effects and storytelling mojo.

All signs are good so far. Everything he says about the direction in which he’ll take the film is exactly as it should be; it’s just a matter of whether it can be done. For one thing, setting it in 1985 as a period piece is absolutely the right choice, if not a necessary one. Everything in the story revolves around the binaristic politics of the Cold War era, and the quest for a third way, a way to undo the Gordian knot. The organizing symbol of Doomsday Clock ticking down to midnight, and all of its consequent thematic material – Dr. Manhattan’s totalizing and reductivist perception of time, relativity’s coming of age with the ushering in of atomic physics, or the temporal suspension of the apocalypse – only resonate the way they do because of a very specific milieu that we now consider historical.

If you look at the James Bond franchise, observe what a paucity of truly consequential political storytelling there was in the Pierce Brosnan era, in spite of the fact that they had possibly the very best actor in the “debonair gentleman Bond” mould at their disposal. Goldeneye is by far the best, and it’s fundamentally a Cold War film; in the other three, Bond was a fish out of water, though things started getting interesting again in the deliberately comical Die Another Day. What was compelling about Casino Royale, from an adaptation standpoint, was how the writers managed to graft a Cold War story into the immediate “post-9/11” (post-baccarat?) present, to give a media cliché another whack on the head. I’ve always thought that the Bond franchise should be grounded in Fleming’s day instead of evolving with our present technology and geopolitical climate, but Casino Royale somehow achieved precisely that effect without moving an inch away from 2006.

It worked for Bond, and I ate my words, but it would never work for Watchmen. Too much of its backdrop depends on the relative parity that exists between two well-defined state superpowers at the zenith of an arms race, and how the iconography of the American superhero grew out of a very specific ideological landscape particular to an era where the theoretical band-aid solution to all matters of military prowess was more atomic power. While I haven’t paid much attention to how the comic-book superhero has fared against terrorists and urban guerrilla warfare in the twenty-first century, I imagine our situation is somewhat different.

But for now, let’s hope that 300 is a good film and a glorious financial success. It will keep the suits off Snyder’s back. Hopefully this time, Watchmen will motor through the production pipeline and come to the silver screen without too many complications; last time around, they only got as far as putting up a teaser website. I’d hate the job to be rushed, but I’m an impatient fellow, and the clock is ticking.

Annotations (1)

Sin City opens; Pope unavailable for comment

Wednesday, 6 April 2005 — 9:45pm | Adaptations, Comics, Film, Full reviews

Lately, I have been putting off the writing of those “movie review” things that certain readers ask me for when approaching me in person at those rare opportune moments when I emerge from my cavern to, among other activities, watch movies. I’ll present my reason, or excuse as the case may be, in the form of several premises.

Dispute these if you must, but let me propose the following. One who is most likely to benefit from a review in the traditional sense is one who has not seen a movie, which then allows me to exercise my relative position of discursive power to encourage or discourage the related expenditure that goes into said movie depending on whether it will lead to the betterment of one’s life and understanding of the much-ballyhooed “human condition” – or, alternatively, fund terrorist cells. Such reviews will normally consist of evaluating the different structural elements of production and how they add up, whilst approaching the narrative in vague terms so as to avoid spoiling the experience.

Reviewing a film, however, is not the same thing as critiquing it. The two are not mutually exclusive, but even when they work together, the former is just an extension of the latter, and reduces to the affixation of value judgments to certain interpretive products. The problem with these stickers that read “this is good” or “this is bad” is that not everything invites the label. As for everything that does, it gets tiresome after a while.

As a writer I far prefer engaging in critique removed from the judgment of whether or not something “works,” where I can tackle something and rationalize it for what it is, and only then go back to evaluate the argument’s validity.

At the level of critique, it is impossible to give a film – or any story, really – an adequate treatment without an examination of endings and spoilers. In other words, I much prefer to discuss movies with a certain audience in mind, that being the audience that has already watched the movie. Sometimes, that audience may never get to that stage without a prior recommendation, which is why I’ll occasionally tell people to get out, see the movie, come back and read the rest of the post.

Of course, there are always the party-crashers who read the whole post anyhow, either because of a slip of the vertical scrollbar or the fallback that “I won’t see it anyway.” So here’s my advice: don’t be a party-crasher. Go see Sin City.

I’d go into what an excellent film it is and justify that claim of excellence with one example after another, but that would get boring after a while. Here’s a capsule summary of my recommendation: Robert Rodriguez has just directed/”shot and cut” his landmark film, the performances driving the three protagonists (Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen) are endearing enough to draw one’s exclusive attention amidst the visual flourish, and as for that visual flourish, wow.

There. That’s your review. Get out, see the movie, come back and read the rest of the post. Now, let’s get a-critiquin’.

You will see a lot of people call Sin City a film noir genre piece and leave it at that. I would argue that it is on the whole quite a different beast, though I should clarify that this is not merely a semantic claim under some authoritative definition of noir, but my effort to draw attention to what makes Rodriguez’s movie unique in substance.

What interests me is how so many people will take a look at Rodriguez’s adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novels, admire it for its production design and say “that’s noir” without identifying any specific similarities beyond the presence of pulp archetypes like disenchanted detectives, pernicious prostitutes and corrupt coppers. Yet they make special note of the amplified comic-book physics as antique vehicles soar above the pavement and a landed punch sends a thug across the room. They cite the explicit violence and casual nudity as distinguishing marks of the film. They fail to notice that the obtuse, centrifugal expression to be found in Sin City places it at the other side of the world from what makes film noir tick.

Film noir is not about sex, booze and violence. It is about concealment and innuendo. The lines of noir dialogue you remember are the suggestive propositions. That is precisely why film noir flourished in the era of Hollywood censorship, its defining female archetype the femme fatale seductress with something to hide. It should tell you something that the narrative mode most closely associated with noir is the mystery, a story of secrecy and revelation. It’s when you don’t see sex, booze and violence that film noir is at its most effective.

Let’s take a look at the Howard Hawks film of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe (the 1946 theatrical cut, for the purposes of this discussion). In many ways, I consider both the film and book to be the defining noir story, even though they differ in some very significant ways, and even if it was The Maltese Falcon that “started it.” The Big Sleep was, at the time of its release, one of the most chilling thriller pictures on record. Promotional posters advertised it as “the violence screen’s all-time rocker-shocker.”

It’s hard to imagine this day and age, but it used to be that even one murder was a big deal. Casablanca was advertised as an action picture on the basis of the gunpoint threats and the grand total of two onscreen shootings. Nowadays we talk about the desensitizing effect of seeing the body count run into the double- and triple-digits within the span of a two-hour trip to the cineplex, but back in the day, every snuffing counted.

In The Big Sleep, the trail of corpses beats a lower bound of seven, in a bullet-ridden domino chain of crisscrossing motives and passions. And still, every snuffing counted. After Marlowe kills Canino, the one death he inflicts in the whole adventure, he feels and expresses a modicum of regret sufficient to warrant a kiss from Lauren Bacall.

The censorship regime did its own wonders for film noir’s self-assertion as a mode of storytelling specific to the cinematic medium. The central act of blackmail that sets the plot in motion – dirty pictures of Carmen Sternwood – is referred to in vague, implicit terms. Carmen is fully clothed when Marlowe finds her posing in front of the camera at Geiger’s residence. Marlowe’s amusing charade with Agnes in the bookstore is as someone with an interest in “rare books,” if you take my meaning. And then there’s the 1946 cut’s addition of that legendary dinner between Marlowe and Vivian, arguably Bogart and Bacall’s best scene together in all their collaborations, where they discuss sexual positions with the euphemistic vocabulary of equestrianism.

Chandler’s novel was itself was a rejection of chivalric ideals in favour of a new, gritty realism. Observe the scene (excised from the film, it goes without saying) in Chapter 24 where Marlowe discovers Carmen lying naked in his apartment, and notices an unsolved chess problem nearby:

I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.

This, from the novel that defined the modern conception of hard-boiled private eye fiction beyond its foundations in Hammett’s Falcon. And to think that on film, yet more of it was left unsaid. Is concealment not what put the “film” in film noir? I hope I have dispensed with the notion with sufficient conviction.

With that out of the way, we lead ourselves back to Miller and Rodriguez with a blunt rhetorical question. Do Sin City and the words “realism” or “censorship” even belong in the same sentence? And I hope you’ve seen the film by now, because in answering that question, I’m going to spoil the film like crazy.

The case for the “no” side is obvious. The exaggerated sensationalism of sex and violence in Sin City places it in an ironic position antithetical to the realism inherent to its generic influence. This is not a negative criticism of the film, but of ignorant critics – both the proponents who will tell you what a good noir flick it is, and the detractors who see it as an exploitative abomination no more than a thin and pale mimetic imitation of the classic noir oeuvre. This is a film to be evaluated on its own terms, and any comparative study would do well to make note of differences instead of merely repeating the observable similarities.

That said, the observable similarities tend to appear in the film at its most critical heights of dramatic tension. For all the amputations, beheadings and castrations in the picture – and that’s just the ABC of Sin City‘s alphabet of gore – it is with the occasional, hardly-noticed spurt of concealment that it makes a brief return to the noir tradition, when what matters is not what you see, but what you don’t.

Perhaps the most noirish scene in all of Sin City is its opening scene, based on the story “The Customer is Always Right” and starring Josh Hartnett as a hitman unaware of his ultimate purpose. The composition exhibits a constructed whiff of nostalgia, and the characters are so fresh off the stock as to remain anonymous. The sudden, silenced jolt as he does away with his unsuspecting “customer” hearkens back to the decisive shot fired at the conclusion of the best noir mystery of the last few years, Spielberg’s Minority Report. Beyond the precision of the staging and the colour palette (black and white, a red dress and blue eyes), it all feels like an elevation of traditional noir conventions to a Platonic ideal. But the movie is just beginning, and something feels off about the scene beyond its manifest artificiality; later, we see that it is a deception in the face of the tone that follows.

The three stories that make up the movie proper aren’t nearly as subdued – what, with Kevin eating hookers and mounting their heads on the wall and Marv subsequently feeding his remains to the dogs in “The Hard Goodbye,” the entire Dwight chapter (“The Big Fat Kill”) centering on a game of hot-potato with Jack Rafferty’s severed head, and Hartigan ripping out a pair of pasty happy-sacks in “That Yellow Bastard.”

The violence does not provoke suspense, though – and it should be noted that it is altogether infrequent next to how some would describe the film. While it is in a sense extreme, it incites disgust at worst, but more often a sort of base and bloodthirsty pleasure. When the skinheaded thug played by Nicky Katt (the voice of Atton in the ending-free computer game Knights of the Old Republic II) is shot through the chest with an arrow, it’s damn funny.

But to me, the violence with the greatest impact is that which is concealed or shrouded – and I don’t mean offscreen. Of all the gunshots fired in the course of this 126-minute thrill ride, the best was saved for last. And you’ll notice that when Hartigan does himself in, it occurs in reverse silhouette, in the same negative space as when Dwight is drowning in tar – backgrounded as what is not present, a white cutout in a blank canvas. It is onscreen, yet it is absent. Or, in the case of the Yellow Bastard’s own ignominious end as he is pounded into a pool of piss-toned gunk, the pounding is obscured, and Hartigan’s rage is all the more visible precisely because the audience is distanced from its expression.

Shot after shot, Sin City drowns you in imagery you cannot fail to notice, thrusting it into the foreground. Film noir doesn’t do that. But every now and then, when you’re not looking, it hits you. It hits you the hardest when you don’t see it hit you, and that’s when film noir rears its shadowy head.

My point, to sum it up, is that one would do Sin City an injustice to praise or dismiss it as merely a parasitic digital-age iteration of a timeless genre infused with the aesthetics of sequential art. It is a dialectic synthesis of different philosophies and as a result, something both original and special.

Annotations (2)

V.F.D. For Vendetta

Thursday, 17 March 2005 — 7:21pm | Adaptations, Comics, Film, Literature, Michael Chabon

One of the films I will mention in my forthcoming mega-post on the films to watch out for in 2005 – when it comes – is the adaptation of the graphic novel V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. If you have never read the original work, I highly recommend that you do so. While it’s no Watchmen – and let’s be honest, what comic book is? – it’s definitely a cut above the norm, and deviates enough from the typical Orwellian future-fascist clichés to be interesting. It has, with good reason, inspired many a serious academic study of its aesthetic and literary content – here, for instance, or here.

As much of a neat little gimmick as it is to target the release of the film for the weekend of Guy Fawkes Day (“Remember, remember the Fifth of November”), I do wonder if it is really that wise an idea to rush the production schedule to meet it. It has a lineup to dream of, with Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond and James McTeigue in the director’s chair. McTeigue is untried, but given his background as an Assistant Director under both the Wachowskis in The Matrix and George Lucas in the Prequels, I have faith in the guy, so long as he doesn’t let too many Wachowski fingerprints get all over his work. That is appropriate for some dystopian movies about post-apocalyptic fascists that rule over a complacent populace, but it would not necessarily be a good fit here.

My big concern – and the major question mark that hovers over the otherwise perfect casting of Natalie Portman – is that the film may lose some of the Britishness of the original source, which I think needs to be retained. Alan Moore is arguably the best living scriptwriter in the comics business, and his work is long overdue for some cinematic respect, especially after the disaster that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Hopefully the film captures some of the more ingenious motifs, both visual and poetic, that lie in Moore’s book. The commodification of Fate and Justice as artificial feminine personifications that cheat on society and the powers that be is of particular note, as is the marvelous sequence in the third act when V, the anarchistic Guy Fawkes figure around whom the story revolves, conducts the destruction of the fascist regime’s power structures to the cannon-fire of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. As Robert Rodriguez will hopefully demonstrate with Sin City, which looks incredible, why reinvent the wheel when the original comic has already provided so much in the way of aesthetic guidance?

On the other side of the literary world lies Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is an almost entirely linguistic experience aside from the great Helquist illustrations and the tag that follows every book offering clues as to the next one. I have now finished all eleven published books, and the series is due to conclude in the thirteenth volume. My original impression after reading the first three, if you will recollect, was that this was a series that dropped plot and story in favour of being very clever about the telling thereof. Well, that changes quite significantly as one progresses, and from about the fifth or sixth volume onwards, it becomes masterful episodic fiction in the serial tradition, with each successive adventure posing riddles that are answered with even more baffling oddities in the next one, capitalizing on everything that has come before. Even given how the author continues to unify each book with a set of idioms or literary devices that he deconstructs with scalpel precision, the series has shifted to the point where the unanswered mysteries in the plot are what generate anticipation for the next entry to come.

I must also admit a total agreement with the axis of good and evil that emerges as the series progresses. Every book has a library motif, and one of the characters in The Slippery Slope (whose identity I will not reveal) comes right out and says that well-read individuals are bound to be the good guys. All the decent people in the books respect knowledge, and amidst all the sobering melancholy in the series, one that explicitly deals with terrible things happening to undeserving innocent children, we see the promotion of what I think is a critical, yet oft-ignored value.

The antithesis of the printed page, and the mark of the enemy, is fire. When the villains employ fire, the tragic loss is always not so much material as it is a loss of knowledge. It’s an axis of conflict you don’t see every day, and certainly not in something promoted as children’s fiction.

Fiction is created, marketed and sold in a way that is completely different from the movie business. Book launches, Harry Potter aside, don’t have anything approaching the opening-weekend culture of movies that saw a revival after The Phantom Menace and reached its peak in the summer of 2001. It should really come as no surprise, then, that my most anticipated works of fiction to be published this calendar year are almost entirely sequels. Couple that with the fact that I have enough classic literature from years past to discover, and this list pales in comparison to what I can say about movies.

With that said, I want to make special mention of the four books coming out in 2005 that I intend to buy the moment they hit stores. Book the Twelfth of the Lemony Snicket series is one. Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception, which arrives 3 May, is another; I much enjoyed the first three, and this one promises to build on the dangling threads of the second whilst balancing them with the bittersweet ending of the third. Then there’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and its inclusion here should be obvious.

Not so obvious is the one non-sequel I already have marked down on my calendar, even considering that it does not have a hard release date beyond a vague promise of delivery in October (though its entry now indicates a delay until 6 March, 2006). This would be Michael Chabon’s next novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, his first big piece since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay after having taken a break with the children’s baseball fantasy Summerland and the Sherlock Holmes tribute The Final Solution.

Chabon, as longtime devotees of this journal should be aware, is a literary wunderkind and one of my favourite novelists of all time. Not only does he write prose that can only be described as beautiful, he somehow never manages to let it overpower the stories underneath; and oh, what amazing stories he tells. All I know about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is that it is apparently an alternate-history novel about a Jewish state established in what we know as Alaska, and I’m already dying to see where he goes with this.

I will finish this post with yet another empty promise of a detailed, extended orgasmic reaction to the new footage of Revenge of the Sith, and pop in an unrelated link or two. The first is an excellent Jim Hill feature article on Eric Idle’s new Broadway production, Spamalot. The second is an obscure, but surreal recording that fittingly, you can only order on the Internet; you know the sort. Or do you? I speak, after all, of The Rap Canterbury Tales. Its inclusion in one of my classes today made that particular course (English 300, “Social and Cultural History of the English Language”) all the more fun in a strange, delightful way. It is, after all, the same course where a recommended reading for an upcoming paper is Going Nucular, a book by Geoff Nunberg of Language Log fame.

Annotations (1)

Comical symmetry (and culture)

Thursday, 20 January 2005 — 5:37pm | Comics, Literature

As a subscriber to The Economist, and a satisfied customer at that, every now and then I feel a need to point out how cool they are. While I maintain that their Christmas edition last month was probably the best issue I’ve seen in the few years I’ve followed the magazine – what, with a year-end summary in verse, discourse analysis, jazz record reviews, the DS/PSP wars and a board game feature – most of what I want to acknowledge, as you probably realized if you clicked on any of those links that just passed you by, is subscriber content in the online edition. If you are a subscriber, you are aware of these pieces already. If you aren’t, then change.

But every now and then, my favourite periodical pumps out an excellent article that anyone can access. Such is the case with this article on the Web as a linguistic corpus, a piece that cites my favourite blog.

And how cool is this: in last week’s print edition, their weekly Obituary page was a feature on Will Eisner (again, subscriber content, but you should really sign up). The Eisner Awards – the comic book industry’s equivalent of the Oscars – are named after the late Will, and not Disney’s resident evil clown.

Curiously, while the otherwise rigorous obituary goes at length about Eisner’s own projects and his influence on the maturing of comic storytelling (indeed, The Economist concurs with the view that he practically invented the graphic novel), it has nary a mention of his masterwork Comics & Sequential Art, which everyone, everyone, recommends as the definitive textbook on how to make a comic book, and with good reason. Eisner literally wrote the book on graphic storytelling. Comics & Sequential Art is highly technical in its focus, but presents itself as introductory in the way it boils everything down to simple design principles. To comics, this book is what The Animator’s Survival Kit is to animation: all the basic principles collected in one place. The true artist doesn’t just stop there – he works his way upwards – but this is where to start.

The definitive book on reading comics is a beast of a different nature, and its name is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Between McCloud and Eisner, we have the foundations of what is a theoretical canon of the medium.

Needless to say, theoretical texts only go so far, and it’s the experience of reading the works of fiction themselves where you see them applied.

The other day I dropped by Wizards Comics & Collectibles across the street and down the road apiece from the Garneau Theatre. It isn’t a great shop for blokes like yours truly who prefer to catch up on the seminal graphic novels and mini-series in the form of a durable trade paperback – in fact, they don’t have much in the way of TPBs at all – but from what I can tell (from my limited experience in such matters), it’s definitely a store meant for single-issue collectors.

In one of the racks, I found several original issues of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, including multiple copies of the remarkable fifth chapter, “Fearful Symmetry”, which shares its title with Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye‘s study of William Blake. It makes sense, since they both take their names from Blake’s poem “The Tyger” – which, if you think about it in the context of Watchmen, is an entirely appropriate allusion.

The thing that makes “Fearful Symmetry” (Watchmen #5, that is) so remarkable is that, well, it’s symmetric. In the 28-page chapter, pages 1 and 28 have mirroring panel layouts, down to the colour coordination of alternating reds and blues. The same goes for pages 2 and 27, 3 and 26, and so on until you get to the pivotal assassination attempt bridging pages 14 and 15. Moreover, each of these symmetric pairs follow the same characters. You see the same juxtaposition of the newsstand and the fictitious Tales of the Black Freighter on page 12 as you do on page 17, and a parallel shipwreck on pages 9 and 20. It opens with Rorschach, and it closes with Rorschach.

A gimmick? Far from it. It doesn’t just preserve the flow of the story, it adds to it. Like the other visual motifs that characterize every chapter of Watchmen, the layout is at the service of the story – and to its credit, this is a prime example of something comics can do that other formats simply can’t. At the end of the chapter, the question at the end of Blake’s poem – “What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” is turned on its head and directed to the reader as a riddle to be answered.

If you’ve read Watchmen and know the solution, look at the question again. The answer lies in that very chapter, embedded in the symmetry itself.

And while on the subject of fearful symmetry – you didn’t think this post was over, did you? – I want to mention the cover of Tuesday’s Gateway, which, for reasons intrinsic to what you can do in print that you can’t on the Web, has not been reproduced in the Web edition.

While I typically keep this weblog text-only aside from attaching the occasional Scrabble post-mortem photograph for illustrative purposes, I feel like saving a thousand words:

Maybe I missed a few issues, but I can’t recall this ever having been done in the three years I have been on campus, and it’s going to take a historian or editor armed with a few bound editions to tell me if it’s ever been done. As with Watchmen, at first glance it’s a simple trick anybody could devise, a gimmick. Here we see two cover stories instead of the usual one, but the real kicker that makes it worthwhile is that they are two opposed cover stories. In this corner, Blatz – in this corner, Amrhein. It’s nice to see a paper take some risks every once in a while – real risks, not just your standard old Transformer blowjobs.

One thing, though: the cover would have been cooler if it were really symmetric.

There’s one more thing I want to mention about this issue, and it has to do with Kristine Owram’s piece in the Opinion section, “English really isn’t teaching English anyway.” To quote:

I couldn’t agree with their arguments more, but I must admit that I find these views of the English department more than a little ironic. After all, this is the same department that completely overhauled its course guide last year to offer a much more theory-based approach to the study of literature. Yep, nothing’s going to teach me how to communicate better than a course called “Textualities: Signs and Texts,” in which students will be introduced to “the structural study of sign-systems and discourses.” Take heart, though, for it will not be “an exercise in structuralism alone”! No, my friends, instead it will provide us with a “comprehensive historical review of the principles of semiotics and the analysis of discourses.”

Now, as someone who actually took ENGL 217 (“Textualities, Signs and Texts”) last semester, I find it rather amusing that Owram pinpointed it as her example. Naturally, this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it is arguably the best and most intellectually exciting course I have taken at this fine institution, and alongside the MATH 117/118 Honours Calculus route, the one I am readiest to recommend to every student who thinks he has the wits, bowels and overall academic machismo to handle it.

See, here’s the thing – the English department’s restructuring last year wasn’t moving in a more theoretical direction. The creation of the Textualities series, that being the 217/218 pair, was a direct result of axing ENGL 216 from the course catalogue. 216, a full-year course in literary theory exclusive to English majors, was effectively split in two.

This entailed two consequences. The first is that now, non-English majors can get their fill of the foundations of sign theory. Of course, according to Owram, critical theory is “only important to someone interested in a career in the humanities, like an aspiring English professor.” You’d never have, say, a Computing Science major take a course like that, so why let them? Everybody knows sciences and humanities don’t mix.

The second consequence is that the two courses no longer go hand in hand – you can take one, but not the other. Unless you take both 217 and 218, you can’t compare and contrast across different intellectual traditions. Moreover, without 216, there is no integrated alternative.

You will also notice that the 300-level catalogue is about as bold a move away from theory as it gets. Take a look: “Postcolonial Literature and Culture.” “Medieval Literature and Culture.” “Early Modern Literature and Culture.” What are cultural studies, if not literature placed in context? What are cultural studies, if not literature applied?

Actually, what’s really interesting is that the 217/218 professor, in his introduction to either course, stated his personal conviction that they should be properly offered at the 400-level, and in fact are at most other universities. That’s an assessment of relative difficulty, really. I think the courses are fine where they belong.

My reasoning here is that an introduction to critical theory is purely that – an introduction. These courses consist of readings that are foundational, and more importantly, interdisciplinary. By cataloguing them in the 200s, you encourage students to take them earlier – which means they can apply those theoretical concepts elsewhere instead of acquiring them at the end of their educational careers, when the theoretical rudiments are but a footnote.

Mathematics courses are analogous, and that’s why I so highly recommend the 117/118 route to entering students. The standard 114/115 path (or for Engineers, 100/101) will give you what you need to proceed along your merry way and work with rates of falling objects, basic electrical circuits and all the other fun stuff calculus is good for. But it’s one thing to have the tools, and it’s another to understand the tools and have an upper hand later on. That’s why theoretical foundations, particularly those that come early in your education, are a good thing.

As it stands right now, if the English department encounters further cuts, it’s actually the theoretical disciplines that you can expect to wither away. It’s a crying shame, because theory is exactly the direction in which university-level English should be moving, but isn’t. Owram states that the common defense of English courses is that everybody needs competent writing skills and a background in major works of literature. If that is really the case – and it probably is, given the department’s reorganization in favour of an easily defensible attachment to culture – it really is a pity.

I posit that it is a defect in K-12 education that students enter university without basic skills in composition and critical reading. Higher education isn’t just about vocational preparation, and certainly shouldn’t be. Theory is only relevant to aspiring English professors? Preposterous. Theory should be what the Department of English exists to offer.

I conclude my discussion of the matter with this morsel of advice: take the Textualities courses. They are, in a word, rewarding.

Among the required readings for 217 was Northrop Frye, whom you may recall from earlier in this post as being the author of Fearful Symmetry. The book that was covered was a more theoretical text, Anatomy of Criticism, which is such an essential addition to your bookshelf (even if you don’t care much for structuralism) that suggestions to keep this material away from casual passersby, lest we scare them away, is really quite unbelievable.

Also on the reading list last term was The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man by the Patron Saint of Wired Magazine and my second choice for the Greatest Canadian. Interestingly enough, much of the book is a critique of print media and layout design. McLuhan would have loved Watchmen.

We come full circle back to comic books as I leave you with this piece of trivia: The Mechanical Bride makes a cameo appearance in The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #4, nestled in a pile of books that a killer robot from the far future studies in his quest to destroy the Escapist once and for all. Industrial Man, indeed.

Annotations (0)

Whatever a spider can, and then some

Monday, 19 July 2004 — 10:42pm | Comics, Film, Full reviews

Two screenings, three weeks and $300 million later, my recollection of everything I wanted to say about Spider-Man 2 is admittedly spotty. Given that virtually everybody who wanted to see the film already has, this will be less of a review in the sense of a recommendation than it is a reflection.

Before I proceed, it is probably beneficial to establish where I sit with respect to comic superhero movies – my value system, as it may be. Of the standard DC and Marvel stables, there is not one superhero movie that I would proclaim to be the hallmark of the filmic subgenre of the comic adaptation. A good many of them make a decent stab at it and grind to a halt halfway through. Take Superman, for example – an epic journey of self-discovery for the most part, then it hits a brick wall with that “Can You Read My Mind?” nonsense. X-Men had some nice character setups going on, then stops and says, “Oh, crap – we need an evil plot in order to lead to a final fight. Bring on the United Nations!”

And speaking of the United Nations, while the campy Adam West Batman and the television series from which it protruded were a pretty close approximation of the colourful, tongue-in-cheek comics of the sixties (and a great deal of fun), it would be a stretch to call the feature film a shining example of cinematic storytelling. Batman – now that’s a character that has never truly been done justice – not even by Tim Burton, even though he was on the right track. With a powerful backstory and the best dramatis personae of supervillainy in any franchise at the disposal of a given filmmaker, I expect better.

The most honest effort I have seen to take a comics franchise to the next level is Ang Lee’s Hulk, which was an example of phenomenal storytelling technique, only it lacked an involving and coherent story to tell. In trying to bridge the occasional gap between art and entertainment, this well-made and underrated character drama veered just a tad far from its prerogative to the audience, but stopped short of living up to its intellectual promise. What was admirable was what Hulk wanted to be. This will become important.

Settling on an answer to what sits at the pinnacle of superhero movies is something to be done begrudgingly, as the best of them are still short of being five-star instant classics in the pantheon of all films, not just the ones derived from panels and text bubbles. By the best of them I refer to X2 and the first Spider-Man, two very different films in terms of what works and what does not. X2 is a very difficult film to complain about, because identifying specific flaws in such a thoroughly enjoyable thrill ride is no easy task. It wrangled a large cast of characters and somehow gave them depth and individuality, means and motives. Unlike its predecessor, it had a plot – a match of wits in which even our chessmasters, Magneto and Xavier, proved fallible. There is so much to like about the movie, what keeps it back is hardly a specific complaint as much as it is a desire to have seen it go further and be iconic in all respects instead of merely very good. It built real-world character dynamics on the foundation of superheroic powers, and left unspecified room for improvement.

Spider-Man, instead of being all-round very good, had its fair share of both milestones and annoyances. Without a doubt it laid claim to the most interesting protagonist, and the presentation of the origin story was beyond compare. However, as a movie not entitled Peter Parker (or even Pavitr Prabhakar), there was a certain imperative to include a few superheroics. Enter a second half with a schizophrenic evil corporate executive with a green helmet and a hoverboard as a thoroughly insufficient villain in a thoroughly insufficient hero-villain conflict.

So with all that said, it should be easy to extrapolate what it was I wanted to get out of Spider-Man 2: cinematically-conscious storytelling that takes advantage of the motion picture medium while remaining true to the comic book aesthetic, complex characters delivering complex lines, the continuation of the insofar compelling Peter Parker story, and a much better handling of “Spider-Man versus the bad guy” – lofty demands, but not impossible.

Lo and behold, I got my wish.

The film begins with a thrilling opening titles sequence. One thing you cannot fault the Marvel films for is their brilliant opening titles, regardless of the quality of the rest of the film – the Braille in Daredevil is a fine example; even The Punisher started with a bang. (Shame about the rest of the movie, though.) Spider-Man 2 outdoes them all with a dynamic sequence of panels that evoke some moments in Hulk and emulate pages of art being flipped in all directions. The panels contain still paintings of the first film’s most pivotal moments, particularly the inverted kiss, in a two-minute recap of the story thus far. It is a fine and innovative example of how to get an audience to sit through a lot of names, and the first of many little things that stack up to make an intruiging whole.

The Peter Parker story is once again the highlight of the movie, and cements him once again as the most human protagonist out of all the movie superheroes, the ordinary boy charged with living under extraordinary circumstances. Time and again, Spider-Man 2 reminds us that these extraordinary circumstances do not absolve him of the trials and tribulations that come with being a fresh-faced, sleep-deprived college kid. Playing the web-slinging good guy does not pay the rent, get the girl or deliver the pizza on time. It’s a realist’s approach to a world governed by the fantastic; no film does it better, and in no film is it more appropriate.

If there was any doubt after the first movie that Tobey Maguire was perfect for the role, the sequel erases it. He demonstrates resolve, sadness, longing, innocence, confusion, reluctance in the face of responsibility, self-conflicted concealment in the face of unspoken truths – it’s all there. In one sequence in the middle of the film that hearkens back to a certain musical interlude from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Peter tries to crawl back into the warm and comfy shell of an ordinary life, Maguire has all the same nerdilicious charm as Ewan McGregor’s scenes in Down With Love when he is masquerading as the astronaut Zip Martin.

Kirsten Dunst, reprising the role of Mary-Jane Watson, evolves with her character. In this movie, Mary-Jane gets a little further in achieving her ambitions of modeling and acting, but what happens at the funeral in the end of the first movie has some personal ramifications that are not forgotten, and serve as the basis for her relations with Peter Parker throughout the movie. She displays a touch of bitterness on her own search for happiness, and there are few complaints to be had about how Dunst handles this. James Franco as Harry Osborn is perhaps the weak link of the trio; Harry has some very strong scenes where his ambitions of being a tycoon like his father show through, and a particularly memorable one at a reception where he is quite intoxicated and takes it out on Peter, but some of the later scenes that require fear, confusion and moral uncertainty are not quite there.

Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) is one of the highlights of Spider-Man 2, and addresses exactly the biggest problem with the first movie, which was an uninteresting and unchallenging villain that the rest of the work was above. (No offense to Willem Dafoe, so much as the material he had to work with, or lack thereof.) In film journalism one often sees the term “comic book villain” used in a perjorative sense, to describe soulless evil clowns written and played in as over-the-top a fashion as is manageable. This is not the case with Doc Ock, who may be the most satisfying megalomaniacal villain in any superhero movie. The Green Goblin, in contrast, was a soulless evil clown on drugs who conveniently murdered Oscorp’s board of directors and still got away with his secret identity intact, with the occasional bout of talking to himself that everybody forgot about as soon as they saw Gollum do it right in The Two Towers. He’s an evil corporate executive who wants his government contract, damnit – oh, and let’s fight Spider-Man since he’s a good guy, and we shan’t have any of those getting in the way.

Doctor Octopus – now there’s a villain: someone whose characterization actually has something to say about mad science, which is by movie standards a really novel idea. He begins as the groundbreaking fusion scientist Otto Octavius, a happily married and well-mannered genius who is secure in his precautionary measures – until the technology goes awry and his sentient robo-tentacles take over. Even then, his motivation is not to destroy the world with his great ball of fire, but a desire to finish his life’s work and show the world that said great ball of fire is harmless, furry and energy-efficient. He fights Spider-Man because the titular arachnid pulls the plug on his invention early in the film – with good intentions, naturally. Best of all, when it comes down to the effects-heavy fight scenes, he is enough of a match for our hero that the combat is interesting. The strategic employment of super power against super power breathes life into the extended, show-stopping action sequences in a way that was never once present in the first movie, where the Goblin hovered around a lot and chucked a few radioactive snowglobes here and there without so much as a “Rosebud”.

Spider-Man 2 is rife with visual symbolism both picturesque and subtle, from a pivotal moment when Peter’s rimmed spectacles shatter on the ashphalt to him standing across the street from an unnoticing Mary-Jane under a theatrical marquee reading “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Oscar Wilde’s text is woven into the film in a way that refrains from being overbearing, but hints at the subliminal relevance of the excerpts in question. There are some genuinely funny moments where the humour is clean, situational and completely derived from the timing of a given shot, like a scene where Spider-Man ascends an elevator in full costume and fuller awkwardness.

Danny Elfman’s score to the first Spider-Man gave the initial impression that it was less memorable than his work on the likes of Batman, without an instantly recognizable theme to trumpet around – but as an audience we have had plenty of time to get used to it over the past two years, and to hear it reprised in all the right spots here is refreshing. Unfortunately, it does not carve out an identity for Spider-Man 2 like John Williams did for The Empire Strikes Back with the Imperial March or for Attack of the Clones with “Across the Stars”, but like the score to the first, perhaps this will sink in.

Does Spider-Man 2 have problems? Well, yes – but that depends on the weight you put on these specific logical gaffes. Spider-Man’s mask comes off quite frequently, though it provides an opportunity to see some expressive facial exertion, without which climactic sequences like the scene with the runaway train would not be the same. He survives some fairly impossible falls without so much as a scratch, which is ambitious by Jackie Chan standards and pushing it even for a comic book. To paraphrase Aunt May (who also makes a welcome return), he’s not Superman, you know.

I do have an issue with how far the stories of the respective characters go in this movie; namely, it may seriously undercut the potential of future sequels, especially if Sam Raimi wants to do another one after the third, which is currently in the germinal stages. I refer specifically to Mary-Jane’s decision at the end of the film, a temporary resolution of the romantic arc just as unsatisfying as the end of the last one, only this time around, the choice is really asking for trouble. In that sense, the ending stretches a bit long, especially because it goes a few scenes beyond my favourite shot in the movie, the one of Peter and Mary-Jane suspended on a web side by side, a scene that has a poetic finality of its own. Still, it can be argued that reasonable choices have no place in dealings pertaining to love, and the choice can still be validated by its consequences, which is something to look for in Spider-Man 3.

Perhaps the most telling observation about Spider-Man 2 is that the set pieces and super powers are but accessories to the weapons with which the real battles are won or lost: individual choices and the determination of one’s own destiny. This is the dramatic ideal, a story pulled along by a chain of dilemmas, actions and consequences instead of web-shooters and robotic claws – just as how the best science-fiction stories are never truly about spaceships and time machines, but ethics and social responsibility in a world where anything is possible. At long last, here is something to point to as the exemplar of everything a superhero movie should aspire to be.

Annotations (2)

« Back to the Future (newer posts) | A Link to the Past (older posts) »