From the archives: Comics

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With great power comes great electric bills

Wednesday, 7 July 2004 — 8:13pm | Comics, Literature, Michael Chabon

Ken Jennings update: Not only has he won twenty-six consecutive episodes of Jeopardy!, tonight he swept the “Marvel Comics Heroes” category. I am suitably impressed.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have plenty of time to mull over all the facets of Spider-Man 2 in terms of its content, since the ever-shortening summer movie season is effectively over barring a surprise success on the part of I, Robot. Today, I will instead act like a Comic Book Guy poseur and talk about a few of the mice and men behind the movie.

First of all, Apple has a fantastic article featuring Nels Israelson, a professional one-sheet photographer (“poster boy”?) who designed the outstanding promotional material for the movie. A must-read for any photography buffs out there, it covers how he creates and shoots the superhero poses in a digital format. Naturally, he uses a Macintosh.

Those of you who have seen the film will remember the stunning opening credits sequence, which re-created memorable images from the first Spider-Man (such as its most iconic moment, the upside-down kiss) in dynamic comic-book panels. The art in those panels was by award-winning painter Alex Ross, who rose to fame in the mid-nineties with his distinct romantic-yet-realist tapestries of costumed superheroes in two all-star graphic novels. The first was the Marvel project Marvels, written by Kurt Busiek, which re-created select famous events in the Marvel universe in the eyes of an ordinary civilian, which was a pretty decent concept, but was better as an Alex Ross art book than it was a story, especially to this here reader who was only casually acquainted with such calamitous crises as Gwen Stacy being dropped off a bridge after having seen it happen to Mary-Jane Watson in the movie. (I still don’t know what all that hocus-pocus about the Sentinel robots in that X-Men chapter was about.) His second big hit was a project for DC Comics entitled Kingdom Come, which took your Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Flash, Sandman and a few hundred others, aged them a few decades and made them fight each other. Again, I imagine it would be more fun for seasoned comics fans who actually recognize all the cameos, but the painting was great. All in all, though, while you will never find as detailed and lifelike portrayals of your favourite superheroes as those in the Alex Ross portfolio, I find his art to be much better suited for stand-alone epic imagery than sequential storytelling. In the opening credits to the Spider-Man sequel, however, it is a perfect fit.

Novelist Michael Chabon receives partial credit for the screenplay to Spider-Man 2, which was a significant improvement over Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp’s work on its predecessor. It is hard to discern the extent to which Chabon’s contribution remains in the final cut, but holistically speaking, the impact is noticeable.

Michael Chabon, as I continually inform anyone who will listen, is the guy who got me interested in comic books. (Note that by comic books I don’t mean comic strips – I was weaned on Peanuts from birth – but full-fledged comics, often of the superhero variety, sometimes not; graphic novels and their shorter, monthly kin.) The culprit is that Pulitzer-winner of his, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is a tremendously enjoyable read and alongside J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, my favourite work of literature published in recent years. It is indeed a rarity to find a writer of his calibre who respects the mythology of comics the way he does. If you turn at the last chapter of Kill Bill, Vol. 2 and examine Bill’s monologue about Superman’s critique of the human condition, you can see just what an impact comics had on Quentin Tarantino, and how he longed to express it to a larger audience in a medium that was more firmly entrenched in the mainstream – in his case, film. With Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon pulls off an equivalent in print, weaving a six-hundred-page adventure full of that same reverence for superhero mythology, that same implicit desire to share it with everyone else.

It so happens that back in 1996, before he really exploded on the scene with the likes of Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon was one of many writers approached to tackle the then-in-development-hell X-Men film. His (rejected) proposal, which can be found on his website, is not just your run-of-the-mill screen story treatment; it begins with a full-blown treatise that delineates the appeal of the X-Men into four elements – I particularly like the last one: “Stuff exploding, wild technology, cool powers, fighting. I have this stuff too.” Now that X-Men has actually been made into a film by which I was generally unimpressed, but spawned a surprisingly exhilirating sequel, one looks back and imagines what might have been – but considering that he went on to give us Kavalier & Clay instead, who am I to complain? Happily, it all worked out in the end, and he got to pen a little bit of Marvel’s other A-list franchise, and with admirable results.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay itself spawned a byproduct in the form of a quarterly eighty-page comic paperback, The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist – a realization of the fictitious comic that our titular heroes Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay create in Chabon’s novel. Those of you with long memories or a predilection for digging around in the archives may recall that one of this weblog’s first posts was about that very announcement. After months of hunting around comic book retailers in Alberta in vain, I ordered the first two issues from Things From Another World a little while ago; they arrived at the end of May, but other circumstances have precluded me from reviewing them in full… until now.

To be honest, after the trials and tribulations of publication delays and the small problem of retailers not stocking the series, all the hype for Escapist #1 culminated in a bit of a letdown, perhaps because it was almost too conventional. The book is an anthology of six stories, with a few written segments of invented history interspersed throughout to continue the masquerade that the Escapist is or ever was a real comic book hero that has now been rediscovered by the “history” recounted in Kavalier & Clay. The first one, “The Passing of the Key”, is an origin story that faithfully visualizes Part I, Chapter 8 of the novel – one of the best parts of the original text, a breathtaking encapsulation of comic book panels in the power of prose written in the present tense, a passage that made one wish the comic was real. Well, now the comic is real, and this may sound harsher than I intend, but the book was better.

Make no mistake – the story as it unfolds in twenty pages of full colour is still a fun read – but the scene that stood as originally written in words and words alone made you believe that the art, the story, and the sheer thrill of escapism in that twenty pages were revolutionary. Perhaps this is a consequence of being desensitized to the present-day quality of comic book art now that every budding penciller has had ample time to idolize the visionary Jack Kirby, but the one thing the Escapist cannot escape here is the feeling of being a little ordinary. Part of it is that outside the context of the novel, the thematic significance of various elements are lost – Tom Mayflower’s crutch an expression of Sammy’s battle with polio, the entire concept of the character founded on Joe’s escape artistry and flight from the Nazis, the very idea of escapism as a human necessity.

See, this is what happens when the first two comic books you ever read are Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which are generally agreed to be the two greatest works of comic art of all time and all time yet to come (a claim that, in my brief experience with comics, remains to my knowledge entirely true): you set your standards too high.

Also in Escapist #1 are “Reckonings”, a very contemporary-style and almost dialogue-free retelling of Luna Moth’s own origin story; “Sequestered”, a lighthearted read where the Escapist fights for justice in the form of jury duty, and the best entry in the volume; “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been…”, a mediocre allegory of Joseph McCarthy that never quite connects; “The Escapegoat”, an interesting two-page foray into kids’ comics by way of animal personification; and “Prison Break”, a darker sort of story where the Escapist goes undercover in a maximum-security prison, which features the Saboteur, another character from the novel. The entire project is an enjoyable adaptation, but is unlikely to entice anyone who has not read Chabon’s magnum opus. Of course, in my humble opinion, anyone who has not read Chabon’s magnum opus should remedy that with the utmost immediacy.

The big payoff, however, is in Escapist #2. Part of the original concept of the Escapist comic anthologies was to parallel the evolution of the comic as depicted in Kavalier & Clay, and thus capture a stylistic history of comic books in general. While the first volume hints at this – “The Passing of the Key” has the angular simplicity of the 1930s, the cornball atmosphere in “Sequestered” is reminiscent of the ’60s Batman television series starring Adam West, and “The Escapegoat” is a conceptual children’s work – it is in Escapist #2 that we really see the art branch out into wildly divergent aesthetics, a postmodern collage that finally distinguishes this series from the other comics on the market. The quality of the stories also shows improvement, some of them tackling the motives of heroes and villains in the same abstract, conceptual fashion as the symbolic conflicts in the book.

This collection begins with a Luna Moth story, “The Mechanist!”, the highlight of which is the chaotic pencil work by Bill Sienkiewicz, partially sprayed with colours that run all over the place. The approach is fresh, unconventional, and welcome. But what follows it is the best story in either Escapist volume, “The Lady or the Tiger”, by Glen David Gold (who authored the immensely entertaining novel Carter Beats The Devil). With fine pencilling by Gene Colan underlining a dark and solemn colour palette, it is a moody superhero love story that touches on many of the same ideas of personal desires and responsibility that we see in the two Spider-Man films. The writing is characteristic of an established and respected author, whose one novel to date has very similar appeal to Chabon’s own work.

Then comes “Divine Wind”, a story done in Japanese manga, which is by itself fairly standard but a decent take on the cultural cross-pollination we have already seen with Japanese comics, and which is still quite relevant considering projects such as the Indian Spider-Man. “300 Fathoms Down”, in the style of the Modern Era, brings an aging Escapist out of retirement for a Cold War mission; it is the most conventional of the lot. Escapist #2 concludes with “Old Flame”, a Luna Moth story that does the most we have yet seen with her out-of-costume alter-ego, the librarian Judy Dark.

On the strength of the second volume, I will very likely order The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #3 when it is released next week. This one features the cover art that is a source of controversy and a key element in the novel, the Joe Kavalier drawing of the Escapist decking Adolf Hitler – only drawn by Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy. Hopefully it exhibits the same kind of creative daring that made Escapist #2 worthwhile; of all the styles of sequential art out there, many have yet to be explored.

Oh, right… Spider-Man 2. Next post, I promise.

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Marvel superheroes of Asia

Thursday, 24 June 2004 — 10:27am | Comics, Film, Full reviews

There are two separate items I want to discuss in this post, and the way they relate to each other will be quite immediately evident. The first is, of the two, the more direct example of cross-pollination between the mythologies of America and Asia. The second, and altogether lengthier subject about which I will write the usual thousand-worder about the “storytelling potential of the cinematic medium” and related jargon, concerns a cultural legend of Japan that sports a new look and is worth a trip to the silver screen.

This article on Comic Book Resources speaks for itself:

Eastern Swing: Sharad Devarajan Talks Indian Spider-Man

What’s the hottest comic book topic right now?

If you said Spider-Man, you’d only be half right.

As officially announced by various East Indian newspapers last week and confirmed online this week, the South Asian comics distribution company “Gotham Entertainment” has reached a historic deal with Marvel Comics to publish a new version of Spider-Man in an upcoming four issue mini-series. No, it isn’t just a new continuity: Spider-Man is now an East Indian by the name of Pavitr Prabhakar and the Green Goblin is tied to Hindu mythology. To tell CBR News and its readers a bit more about the project, Gotham’s President & CEO Sharad Devarajan spoke with CBR News.

“Though we will remain true to the underlining mythos of Spider-Man, which is epitomized in the phrase ‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility,’ the character will be reinvented so his powers, problems and costume are more integrated with Indian culture. Unlike the US origin, which is deeply rooted in science, the Indian version is more rooted in magic and mythology. This version of Spider-Man will gain his powers from ancient mystic in order to combat the evil threat of the Green Goblin, who will also be reinvented as a modern day Indian demon from myth.”

Yes, the article has pictures – and yes, an English-translated American edition will also come at some point, though of course, that will lose some of the authenticity. Now, forget for a moment the irony of a company called Gotham doing a Marvel title, and take a minute to let the genius of this idea sink in. I will not claim to be anything less than generally oblivious to Indian mythology, but this sounds like a brilliantly-conceived take on the universality of mythical heroes, which I mention in case I’m not the only one currently reading too much Joseph Campbell for his own good.

Oh, and “Pavitr Prabhakar”? Gold.

Now let’s move on to the more easterly nation of Japan, a country about which I am somewhat less qualified to speak than say, Adam Pauls. I venture a guess that the vast majority of my readership is not too familiar with the Japanese television and film character Zatoichi. If that is the case, go catch up on your readings, and I’ll see you next class. The capsule summary runs thus: Zatoichi is a blind man, a masseuse by day, with a distinctive sword sheathed in a cane, and the sharpened senses to use it. Sounds very much like a certain man without fear, if you ask me. The extent of intentional mutual influence between Daredevil and Zatoichi is unclear; the former first appeared in 1964, the latter in 1962.

The reason I bring him up now is because of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano’s update of the character in the film Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, wherein he both directs and stars. The new Zatoichi is now making the rounds in Canada, having played at the Uptown Stage and Screen in Calgary this week, and currently at South Common for you Edmontonians. It draws Marvel comparisons right off the bat, having initially hit the festival circuit last year on the heels of Ben Affleck bringing Matt Murdock into the mainstream consciousness, but also because Zatoichi’s cane sword in the film is a blood-red cylinder, which is apparently something new – understandable, given that the Zatoichi films of old were in monochrome. But beyond the shared basis of a blind superhero with a cane, and the aforementioned bit about the universality of heroes or whatever, the similarities are few.

Nowadays you see people take the word “postmodern” and spread it like margarine everywhere they go, but the new Zatoichi is where it actually applies. For the most part, it is a throwback to an older age in filmmaking, one of patient, stationary but conscientious shots, and minimal scoring in the musical department. Kitano’s stark blond hair aside, the majority of the film would not look out of place in the sixties. It’s a refreshing break from the over-edited muddle of Matrix imitators that are so excessive in cutting and camera movement that the action is impossible to follow, but casual audiences will find it to plod for stretches between the swift and gory swordfights. It feels like a movie with a sense of first-hand cultural authenticity, unlike the recent crop of American samurai movies, such as Quentin Tarantino’s unabashedly reverent Kill Bill and the faux importance of The Last Samurai.

Occasionally, though, Kitano’s approach is one of experimentation. Early on in the film there is a brief scene of farmers tilling a field, cut in such a way that the sounds develop into almost a techno beat – never mind the tap-dancing festival at the conclusion that stops just short of The Matrix Reloaded, to everyone’s relief. It is almost as if he is asking us to listen to the sounds associated with the images in the same manner a blind man would, without ever bringing us into pitch darkness or superhero sonar-vision. Watching Kitano perform the lead role himself is a delight; he alternates between staggering gambling addict and legendary blademaster with comfort and conviction.

The fights are remarkable given how short they are, forsaking extended clashes of katana-on-katana for a brief swell of anticipation-resolution as the participants strategize, then execute. After all, Zatoichi would hardly be a master swordsman if he took his time slicing and dicing the local goons. If you contrast this with the likes of Hong Kong cinema and its own folk heroes like the martial arts master Wong Fei-Hung (in more films than any character in history, and played by Jet Li in the now-classic Once Upon A Time In China), the difference in style is very representative of how Japanese and Chinese martial arts traditions diverged in their own developmental paths. Hong Kong cinema has the ten-minute fights with fancier flourishes of cloth and blade; Japanese cinema demonstrates the gutting of enemies with a stroke or two apiece.

Now, I do not claim to be too well-versed in Zatoichi lore myself, but where the film is a little lacking is focus; not in the visual sense, but in its focus on the main character. To put it briefly, a lot of time is spent elsewhere. Those of you who have trouble discerning names and faces right off the bat will have a doozy following the tangled web of concealed identities in the plot, which concerns two geisha assassins exacting revenge on the gang bosses who murdered their parents. It does make sense by the time the credits roll, but not so much until then. As I mentioned earlier, Zatoichi is also what one would apologetically call patient, and may not hold the attention of those weaned on the speed of the standard twenty-first century Hollywood action movie. Nor does it ever tread on the literary seriousness of the average arthouse foreign film. In a category-defying self-contradiction, it is both conventional and avant-garde, but thankfully succeeds at both.

On a final note, time to break professionalism and be a complete geek. I just about flipped out when I saw the end credits – specifically, the name associated with the music in the film: Keiichi Suzuki. This is the same Keiichi Suzuki who composed for one of the greatest RPGs in the short history of video games, namely, EarthBound for the Super Nintendo. His versatile soundtrack for that game featured everything from weepy melodies on tinny piano evoking the sentiment of homesickness, to the Blues Brothers stylings of the Runaway Five, to the harmonic distortions of enemies from outer space. While his work for Zatoichi is minimal, it is significant, and just as diverse, covering everything from traditional Japanese folk music to the pseudo-techno breakbeats I mentioned earlier.

But never mind the score for Zatoichi – there is just something inherently cool about seeing a name from a phenomenal element of the Nintendo experience appear onscreen. If only somebody could get Nobuo Uematsu on a movie, we’re set.

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Hooded Justice

Thursday, 22 April 2004 — 11:39pm | Adaptations, Comics, Film

Back in October I wrote about my concerns on the subject of adapting Watchmen to film, particularly if David Hayter was going to direct.

Chuck those out the window. Ain’t It Cool News finally lives up to its name and reports that the director attached to the project is none other than Darren Aronofsky. Hayter is still on board from the writing aspect, which is encouraging, but bringing an established independent-film veteran with a proven record behind the camera is even moreso. This is, in as few words as possible, a step in the right direction.

It’s clear what has to happen from this point onwards. David Hayter, do what you did with X2 and not what you did with X-Men – polish a script that doesn’t get lost in a forest of some of the most well-defined costumed heroes in the entire comics medium. Darren Aronofsky, work the same kind of chilling visual magic and style you brought to Requiem for a Dream. The potential here is nothing short of doing justice to the paragon of comic-book literature in the same way Peter Jackson did justice to the paragon of fantasy literature; you can either beeline straight to the Oscars, or screw it up completely. I would prefer the former.

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Vol. 2 Kills The Punisher

Friday, 16 April 2004 — 8:11pm | Comics, Film, Full reviews

I know, I know. I still haven’t written up my detailed analyses of how The Passion of the Christ can or cannot be approached objectively, the gall of bathing Omar Sharif in the two hours of mediocrity that is Hidalgo, and a valiant attempt at deciphering the villain-side plot of the otherwise entertaining Hellboy – but a man’s got to have priorities.

Step up to the witness stand, Jonathan Hensleigh: you have to answer for The Punisher.

Let’s get this out of the way, first of all: The Punisher is not the sudden and untimely demise of Marvel’s cinematic renaissance, nor is it the coming of the apocalypse with respect to comics on film, as a lot of websites out there would have you believe. It has some pretty bad moments, but by no means are they, say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen bad. Unlike that particular “movie”, I will not be making fun of The Punisher in every subsequent weblog entry I write concerning comic book adaptations. It has some very serious problems, but is not without merit.

In the spirit of being critical, let us first examine the problems.

The biggest issue with The Punisher is tonal inconsistency. To frame it more comprehensibly, it is in all likelihood impossible for anyone to enjoy the entire movie, given how certain sections of the film are diametrically opposed in their ideological approach. The first act of the film, which sets up the revenge tragedy with the obligatory family-killing that happens in every piece of this sort, does everything in its power to avoid being a comic book. The destruction of Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), played straight-up, comprises some of the work’s most brutal and genuine moments of high tension. There is some good filmmaking going on for a few patches here, completely removed from the costumed heroics of the Marvel Universe.

Within minutes, we are suddenly an intederminate period of time ahead of ourselves, when Hensleigh and co-writer Michael France suddenly decided to fast-forward and reveal that like this here reviewer, yes indeed, they have read a Punisher comic – specifically, the Marvel Knights Punisher #1: Welcome Back, Frank by Garth Ennis, complete with Castle’s new neighbours Joan the Mouse (a very miscast Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), and Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette). Without interruption, at this point the hitherto decidedly un-comical film places itself in the midst of three individuals straight from a two-dimensional arrangement of inked and coloured panels – which, incidentally, are the three most human characters in the whole 123-minute sittting. That should not be mistaken for saying much. The worst is when The Punisher exists in a void where it is unsure of whether it should be comic-like or not, and softens itself up to ostensibly be less offensive; for instance, there is no “death by Bumpo” in sight. That’s a minor adaptation complaint that this here author is unqualified to make, but the inconsistent waffling is more than fair game.

Then there’s the matter of story construction, which is, for lack of a better descriptor, illogical. Without spoiling too many of the details, here’s how it goes: Castle makes his intentions of vengeance known to chief villain Howard Saint (John Travolta) via standing around, throwing money out a window and mouthing off to the cops. This results in a death toll of roundabout two. Before you know it, Saint is in a rage about Castle ruining his life and immediately sends out heavy-hitters such as a guitarist who fails to be sufficiently ominous and a hulkster known as “The Russian” (Kevin Nash) – the latter straight from Ennis, minus the superhero obsession and the “suffocating” demise. Then after a lot of sneaking around and double-crossing not really characteristic of an angry guy with a white skull on his shirt out for blood, Castle starts gunning down trivial henchmen in nontrivial quantities.

There is a problem here. The proper order for a back-from-the-dead revenge story is: raise a lot of hell to make yourself known, then reap the hard-earned ire of the chief villain, then start fighting the minibosses and getting really nasty. It’s called a “linear progression”. Case studies: Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator fighting, nay, earning his way up to the bout with Tigris of Gaul. Mike Sullivan in Road to Perdition having a properly ominous miniboss meeting with Jude Law’s crooked photographer. The Bride slicing her way through the Crazy 88s at the House of Blue Leaves before taking on O-Ren Ishii – but let’s save the Kill Bill discussion for later, shall we.

So we are left with a weak and inconsequential villain whose closest associates dress like the Men in Black, but act like they have no idea they are in a comic book adaptation. You can’t have it both ways, folks. We have a story that suffers from what is quickly becoming something that can be termed “Marvel Syndrome” – a severe imbalance between the origin story and the pilot-episode story, and with an unclear dividing line between the two, to boot. By having no secrecy of identity in place, a lot of conventional assertions about the hero mystique fall flat.

But I think I’ve punished this movie enough; time to look at its better aspects. Thomas Jane is a well-cast Frank Castle. He plays the role with the composure of a broken man and the voice to match his ruthlessness. As was mentioned earlier, the first act of the movie has some terrifying moments; there is a very real sense of fear for the lives of doomed characters in the critical scenes where they meet their ends. One would think that of all the overdone revenge-flick conventions, the inciting incident that triggers everything – particularly when it involves the deaths of a wife and child – would be the most stale. Here, the opposite is true. While Joan, Dave and Bumpo seem very out of place in the context of much of the rest of the movie, the interaction between the three and their relationship to Castle are an enthralling dynamic to observe.

The end product: a wishy-washy adaptation of an already trashy comic that intermittently tries not to be so trashy, and instead ends up without a clear sense of identity. It is far from disastrous, but considering its position at the nexus of several subgenres that have been done far better, The Punisher has nothing new to add.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2, on the other hand, is a different story.

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Punchline suppressed for causality reasons

Thursday, 20 November 2003 — 10:16am | Comics

I actually missed a pretty big item in my bout of Gateway-praising last post. It was a review of the new Bob the Angry Flower anthology, The Ultimate Book of Perfect Energy!!!

For those of you out there who have never heard of Bob, go catch up right now. Suffice to say, he is arguably the greatest contibution to society ever to come out of the University of Alberta, and possibly the most culturally significant thing to be associated with the city of Edmonton that isn’t named Bioware. Actually, given how Knights of the Old Republic is crashing on me every five minutes, it darn well trumps Bioware.

Yesterday, creator and all-round cool guy Stephen Notley was selling and signing books in the Students’ Union Building, and I managed to pick up a copy. I can now check “autographed comic strip collection with sketch of main character” off my Lifelong Scavenger Hunt item list.

Quite appropriately, up in the UADS office we now also have this strip up on the wall. And don’t forget to pick up today’s issue of the Gateway for an important grammatical reminder from yours truly, which you can also read online.

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