Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Monday, May 28, 2007

New comics 5/16/07 and 5/23/07

Would have gotten these up last night, but the traditional Memorial Day allergies started to kick in....

MAY 16, 2007

The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #12 (written by Marc Guggenheim, pencilled by Tony Daniel, inked by Art Thibert) is a fairly decent issue which suffers somewhat by the behind-the-scenes murmurings about Bart Allen's fate. I give it a lot of credit for setting up an inescapable doom-trap, but at the same time I have to think that the doom-trap won't actually kill Bart. I mean, that would be a little too grim, even for someone like me who still can't get past the arbitrary nature of his promotion. My appreciation of said trap is therefore blunted somewhat. I'm also kind of ambivalent about whether I want Bart to escape. I don't want him to die, but at the same time I don't think he should be the Flash just yet.

How was the book itself, you ask? Decent, like I said. No one seems to be out of character, but Bart himself is still such a cipher that it's hard to say at this point what would be in character. Daniel's storytelling skills are fine, but Thibert's inks are inconsistent. The "weight" of characters on the page varies, and more often than not the Flash especially looks two-dimensional. Still, there is that doom-trap, and the Black Flash, so I don't feel bad about coming back.

Countdown #50 (written by Paul Dini, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Justin Gray, pencilled by J. Calafiore, inked by Mark McKenna) has already been dissected by many of you, so I will just add some brief observations. First, if the cover suggests that the Joker has targeted Jimmy Olsen, that implies a much more exciting story than Jimmy happening to end up at Arkham Asylum for a stereotypical Hannibal Lecter conference. I'd want to read Joker vs. Jimmy, and I'd be lukewarm about Joker Talks To Jimmy. Second, the scenes with the Rogues go on far too long: five pages to establish a) they hate the Flash, whoever he might be, and b) Piper and Trickster's bona fides are in question. I thought this scene added nothing to the current Flash arc. I think Countdown is improving, but boy, it's not improving quickly.

Justice League of America #9 (written by Brad Meltzer, drawn by Ed Benes) gets a lot of things right -- the Gorilla City scenes, for instance -- but again, nothing much seems to happen. Teams of JLAers and JSAers just show up and collect Legionnaires like they were checking out library books. At least the three bad guys were revealed.

Action Comics #849 (written by Fabian Nicieza, pencilled by Allan Goldman, inked by Ron Randall) finishes the "Redemption" two-parter about like I figured. There are some intriguing ideas, and Kurt Busiek's social worker from an earlier Superman is used well, but ironically, I think Superman himself comes across as imposing his will on the common folk more than the story's antagonist does. The final confrontation features Superman hovering over the congregation making pronouncements, and while Clark muses later that his moral compass has to be pretty accurate, I don't think the congregants understood that point.

Aquaman: Sword Of Atlantis #52 (written by Tad Williams, drawn by Shawn McManus) finds our hero and his companions hatching a plan to free Sub Diego from Black Manta. This was not a dull issue, and I don't have much of a problem with the art, but the Sub Diego stuff is just not involving me like it wants to. Besides, both Busiek and Williams want Arthur to be The Decider, but so far neither of them have really presented a compelling case for that. Arthur's just a guy who can live underwater unaided and maybe occasionally talk to marine life, and right now that's not enough to get me excited about him. There are exciting and chilling moments in the issue, including the Black Manta fights and Aquagirl's story about the fate of some Sub Diegans, but Arthur should be the compelling center and he's not.

Checkmate #14 (written by Greg Rucka and Judd Winick, pencilled by Joe Bennett, inked by Jack Jadson) is a solid caper story wherein a Checkmate team and the Outsiders infiltrate Oolong Island. As usual, Rucka uses the caper to advance the book's various political subplots effectively. As a crossover, though, I have to say this storyline isn't encouraging me to pick up Outsiders on a more regular basis. Beyond Nightwing, none of these characters seem particularly exciting, and most of them are defined by their sarcasm and air of bad-assery. If Rucka and Winick each wrote their respective team's dialogue, Rucka wins. Bennett and Jadson do well enough, but the big action scene at the beginning suffers from faulty perspective. Specifically, I couldn't tell at first whether the monster was supposed to be looming over the ship or sitting atop it.

Where do I begin with All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder #5 (written by Frank Miller, pencilled by Jim Lee, inked by Scott Williams)? First, I don't think anyone should look to this title for the Platonic ideals of Batman, Robin, or any of the other iconic characters it features. This is not a story about How Batman Should Work. I don't know what this story is about, and it's been five issues. Actually, I take most of that back: this is a story about making Batman first among alpha males, by giving every other possible contender some fatal character flaw. Of the various costumed characters portrayed so far, Batman is the only one who seems to get the colossal joke underlying the very pursuit of superheroics. This makes a lot of sense in light of the basic "Batman" idea, and it could be a pretty entertaining series of issues, but remind me again ... what's the basic plot of this series? Where are the conflicts? Batman is wanted by the cops generally, never mind for kidnapping Dick Grayson, and by the way Dick's parents have been murdered. Five issues in and we're still just introducing all the players. This is starting to feel like the sub-glacial pace of Supreme Power all over again. It's bad enough the issues are so late, but then to have virtually no plot advancement feels like Miller and Lee are just in it to put one over on the suckers.

Fortunately, Grant Morrison, Andy Kubert, and Jesse Delperdang offer Batman #665, which gets a lot of ASB&R's ideas across in a mode that's much easier to digest. "The Black Casebook" ascribes a certain supernatural dread to those old Batman stories no one likes to talk about because they're "not realistic." In this issue, Batman and Robin take out the Bane-themed Batman, in part because Bruce convinces himself that he needs to be, yes, the top alpha male. However, Morrison's Batman is more sedate, and perhaps more self-aware, than Miller and Lee's cackling dervish. He's playing a role, not thinking with his id. The issue also has some fine action scenes, including Batman and Robin both slamming into the Bat-Bane with their respective vehicles.

Star Wars: Rebellion #6 (written by Brandon Badeaux & Rob Williams, drawn by Michel Lacombe) begins a new arc focusing on a character who should be familiar to me, but isn't. He's a Rebel agent who gets found out by the mob boss he's infiltrated, and sent on a mission by said mobster. I liked this issue well enough, even if some parts of it (the opening flashback to Episode III, and an assassination) weren't connected to the main plot. It all felt like part of the comfortable SW setting, and with a book like this, that's what you want.

Finally for this week, Hero Squared #6 (written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, drawn by Joe Abraham) offers the origins of Captain Valor and Caliginous, each told by them in what has to be somewhat self-serving fashion. Captain Valor's is more funny, being a pretty obvious parody of Captain Marvel's (including a Mr. Natural-like Shazam figure), but the emotional heft comes at the end of the issue, when one of the book's main players reacts to Caliginous' story. This is another book that doesn't do much in the way of macro-plot, but at least it offers a fairly complete story in every issue. If, as I have read, it's ending soon, it should probably get to its larger point, but issue by issue, it's still fun.

MAY 23, 2007

Countdown #49 (written by Paul Dini and Tony Bedard, pencilled by Carlos Magno, inked by Jay Leister) uses Jimmy's elastic past to get him out of the cliffhanger with Killer Croc, and the Pied Piper and Trickster get a good double-agent-y scene to establish their bona fides with the other Rogues. The rest of the issue is taken up with exposition-happy Monitors, Karate Kid and Red Arrow trading quips (leading me to wonder about the timing of this issue relative to the JLA/JSA crossover) and a dismemberment-happy Black Adam. The art this issue was pretty good for a team I've not seen before -- very dynamic, although there has to be a better way than facial hair to distinguish the Monitors.

I'm genuinely torn as to whether to continue with Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes (#30 written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Barry Kitson, inked by Mick Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti), because this was a very solid issue, but I think it's Waid and Kitson's last. They go out raising more questions than they answer, with those questions being very intriguing. Will Cosmic Boy join this mysterious new team? What will happen to Mon-El? Most importantly, will the new creative team be any good? I keep saying I want to re-read this series, so maybe this will give me the impetus to do it.

I thought The Spirit #6 (by Darwyn Cooke) was too ambitious. It tries very hard to be a real Eisner-esque story about a new character, with the Spirit in the background, but it just felt so familiar, and not in a good way. It's probably redundant to say that tortured musicians suffer for the sake of their art, and will do anything to perfect it, but there didn't seem to be much new (beyond the sci-fi trappings) of this musician's story. This title will always be worth reading as long as Cooke is on it, because Cooke is such a great storyteller and designer, but this issue falls short.

Wonder Woman #9 (written by Jodi Picoult, drawn by Terry Dodson and Rachel Dodson) doesn't skimp on plot. Superman, Batman, and the Justice League appear briefly, Circe's plans are revealed further, and Diana and Circe square off. The art is gorgeous, as you might expect. Picoult is improving, but her dialogue is still too clever and she can't quite manage all the plot. It continues to mystify me why DC would try to build up this title's profile with a prose novelist, and then plop said novelist right in the middle of a big event.

For some reason Fantastic Four #546 (written by Dwayne McDuffie, pencilled by Paul Pelletier, inked by Rick Magyar) didn't make much of an impression on me the first time around. That's probably my fault, because upon further inspection it's a neat little issue which references everything from the '70s Jack Kirby Black Panther series to Waid and Wieringo's last big FF arc. Oh, and Beyond!, of course, written by McDuffie. I didn't expect to see Reed and Sue back in the book (and apparently on their way to a healthy relationship) so soon, but that was a pleasant surprise, as was the combination of Pelletier and Magyar. Magyar really gives the pencils a good heft and a lot of weight, for a nice Alan Davis look. If this is just a temporary team, the long-term folks had better be absolutely stellar.

Arnim Zola, another '70s Kirby creation, shows up in Captain America #26 (written by Ed Brubaker, pencilled by Steve Epting, inked by Mike Perkins). A series of brief episodes -- the typography of which reminds me of old Spirit stories, for some reason -- check in on Sharon, the Winter Soldier, the Falcon, and Zola and the other villains, all getting back to their lives after Cap's death. Apparently this issue comes after all of those Fallen Son specials Marvel's been pushing since Cap #25, but I haven't read 'em, so this isn't overkill (you'll pardon the expression) for me. Brief glimpses of the Avengers both connect this book to, and distance it from, the larger Marvel Universe. These are people who don't quite fit into the land of crossovers and tie-ins. In that respect they're misfits, not unlike the time-lost Captain America whose memory now links them. If you can't already tell, I like this book a lot.

Aaand speaking of crossovers I haven't read and am not reading, here's She-Hulk #18 (written by Dan Slott, pencilled by Rick Burchett, inked by Cliff Rathburn), featuring Jen's battle with Iron Man on the SHIELD Helicarrier. That's about it, really. This issue uses Jen as a bridge between Civil War and "World War Hulk," getting her from one side to the other. There are some cute moments, but most of those involve Shulkie's regular supporting cast. It's not bad, it's just not as good as the book has been.

Finally, here's a book that may be better than ever: Birds Of Prey #106 (written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Nicola Scott, inked by Doug Hazlewood). Not just the Barda/Knockout fight, this matches up all of the Secret Sixers against the Birds, with Ice slowly regaining consciousness throughout. (Just noticed: on the cover, Barda's mega-rod looks a lot like Luke's green lightsaber....) It's pretty fun, especially the Misfit/Harley Quinn pairing. Nicola Scott's choreography isn't as fluid as I'm used to, so some of the figures are posed a bit awkwardly. Then again, they are fighting, so maybe that's how they're supposed to look. This team has succeeded in making a book I look forward to every month, and it's another situation where the new writer will have big shoes to fill.
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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Into The Woods: Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

I'm always a bit surprised by how much I like Return of the Jedi. There are parts of it I don't like (the Special Edition's musical number chief among them) and choices I think were ill-advised, but I give it credit for its central focus. As much as George Lucas claims the entire cycle is about Anakin/Vader, Jedi is about Luke.

Spooky Luke is in full effect from his first appearance in the film, hooded and cloaked as an obvious combination of Obi-Wan and Vader. Mark Hamill's Jedi-mind-trick voice sounds like it's been hollowed out with a battered wooden spoon, and his eyes are cold and penetrating: "You will bring Captain Solo and the Wookiee to me." Later, when he tells the Emperor "soon I'll be dead, and you with me," he's pretty convincing. He's come a long way from those power converters at Tosche Station. It's no accident that the final Jedi/Sith confrontation takes place high above the rest of the action. It would not have carried as much weight had the Emperor's throne room been a hellish environment, as originally conceived.

The rescue of Han particularly shows Luke in charge, and also ensures that Han will be in a secondary role throughout the film. Han spends most of the sail-barge fight flailing around trying to rescue Lando. He gets to bark orders and fight later on, but he's nowhere near the presence he was in Empire. He's also been separated from the Millennium Falcon, so the dynamic space-pirate mojo he was working in the other films is curtailed here. His presence on Endor, and that of Leia, does make the audience care about the ground battles, and gives Lando a chance to shine in his old ride, but those assignments seem more logistical than character-driven. The principals spent most of Empire apart, so Jedi naturally wants to have them together as much as it can.

There's still something missing from the Luke/Han/Leia relationship, beyond even the hint of a love triangle from the first film. Indeed, with Han and Leia free to be romantic, the Unresolved Sexual Tension which sparked their interactions in the previous films has been dimmed. One can see how they will grow into an old married couple in this film, but one still misses the "I am not a committee!" style of banter which made them appealing in the first place.

I tend to think that Leia gets the short end of the Jedi stick in this movie. I understand why, mind you; I just think Luke could have done a bit more planning, and maybe passed along a few simple Jedi exercises, before he strode off to face certain death at the hands of the Sith Lords. She does get to strangle Jabba with her chain, but her dealings with the Ewoks make her more of a nurturer. Obviously this is in keeping with the implication that she and Han are to breed the next generation of Jedi.

Like Han, Vader takes a more subordinate role in this movie. In this respect the prequels do Jedi a favor, showing us how fearsome Palpatine was (and may still be), but except for the beginning and the end, Vader is back to the same level on the organizational chart he had in Episode IV. Only in his climactic duel with Luke, when he ponders evilly the prospect of turning Leia to the Dark Side, does the Vader of Empire peek through.

For his part, the Emperor hasn't lost much from his last big appearance in Episode III. He's not as seductive or as scary, but he is more of a presence than Vader in the scenes they share. He's just as manipulative, too -- by making the Rebels aware of his Death Star visit, he sets the same kind of trap for Luke that he did for Anakin at the beginning of Episode III. When push comes to shove and he realizes he'll have to kill Luke himself, it connects him most clearly with the end of Episode III.

We'll come back to that in a moment, but I do want to talk about some technical aspects. Jedi has a very organic look, not surprising for a movie that spends most of its time in the redwood forest. It goes along with the general breakdown of structures that the two Star Wars trilogies chronicle. The Death Star is only half-finished, the Rebel fleet is an ad hoc collection of starships and fighters, and in fact the only major man-made structures in the movie belong to bad guys: Jabba's palace, the shield generator bunker, and the Death Star. (If memory serves, Yoda's house and the Ewok villages are the only other buildings.)

(The sight of the half-finished Death Star is nice and eerie. When I saw the first preview images back in 1983, at first I thought it was the wreckage of the old one. As it is, it's like a great metal skull made of scaffolding.)

However, the location scenes, especially on Endor, don't feel right somehow. The less built-up they are, the more they remind me of live-action role-playing. Aside from the original movie, and the prequels' Tatooine scenes, Star Wars tends not to do well with location shooting. I got the feeling the camera couldn't follow the Endor battles as well due to real-world restrictions, so they aren't quite as involving as the Hoth battle or especially the prequels' large-scale combat. Obviously, Jedi's space battle scenes could be choreographed more flexibly, and are more satisfying as a result.

The Ewoks can get annoying, but I still enjoy their schtick in moderation. Besides, the film doesn't take them all that seriously. Considering they're cuddly teddy bears who were more than ready to cook and eat Han, Luke, and Chewie, they're a lot like the killer dolls in Barbarella -- cute and fanged. Sure, given the choice, I would have liked a planet of Wookiees rising up against the Empire, but a) that would have been a much shorter battle and b) the Ewoks in large part buy time for the Rebel strike force to blow up the shield generator. In fact, I would put an Ewok village up against a village full of out-of-shape, overfed Hobbits any day. Last I heard, the Hobbits hadn't perfected hang-gliding.

Indeed, watching the Ewok flip switches knowingly in order to steal that speeder bike, I wondered whether the Ewoks weren't really just the last remnant of a more advanced civilization the Empire had subjugated a decade or ago to build this second (bigger, more powerful) Death Star. That would explain the Ewoks' "Gilligan's Island"-level of technology. It would also fit perfectly with the broken-systems motif I've been flogging throughout these disjointed little essays. The Ewoks are rebels too, of course, trying to throw the occupying Imperial forces out of their backyard, so they can go back to living in harmony with nature, or whaterver it was they were doing before.

Star Wars isn't an ode to anarchy, because it does believe in some systems -- remember Obi-Wan trying to convince the Gungans that they lived in symbiosis with the Naboo humans? It just doesn't like the artificial systems which can preoccupy the ruling classes of hominids. Its heroes are unconventional Jedi, whiny farmboys, politicians-turned-freedom-fighters, outlaws, and robots with minds of their own. Luke triumphs through the Power of Love, which isn't exactly the most original solution in all of fiction ... except that he does so while channeling a Force that's not supposed to favor such "attachments." Apparently, the Force needed Anakin to destroy the Jedi Order so that Luke could rebuild it. As the last of the Jedi, and the first in a long time with no exposure to the Order's practices, Luke is free to remold his students as the Force guides them.

Moreover, Jedi sees absolutely nothing wrong with Leia being a Jedi, a spouse, and presumably a mother, all at once. I've said before that through the Skywalkers, the Force sought to make itself more egalitarian, and I still see nothing to contradict that.

Accordingly, Jedi wraps up the cycle pretty well. It gets a bit draggy and repetitive for a good twenty minutes, when it bops back and forth among the Death Star, Endor, and space-battle threads, but watching it this time the end snuck up on me, and that gave the big climaxes an extra kick. Being a sentimental old softie, I still enjoy the brief surveys of Bespin, Tatooine, Naboo, and Coruscant, and the hugs-all-around montage. I even like the insertion of Hayden Christensen. He looks a little embarrassed -- as he should -- but it connects Anakin's experiences more to Luke's, and makes Anakin's journey more poignant as a result. The circle is now complete, indeed.

Fireworks, anyone...?
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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Who's Your Daddy? Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

There's an odd moment early in The Empire Strikes Back that encapsulates the halting pace of its opening scenes. It's the last shot of Leia in the "scruffy-looking nerf-herder" exchange, right after Han gets the last word. She really looks angry, like Han's just kicked her dog. It gives the scene a tension that probably wasn't intended, because the exchange moves just slower than it should and Leia's Look of Death is the capper. She seems madder there than she will later on when she lets Chewie strangle Lando.

The opening scenes play out mostly against blurry white backgrounds, giving them a kind of abstract unreality and not really grounding them. The exception is the sequence with Luke in the cave, which is dreamlike on purpose.

Everything kicks into high gear at the 20-minute mark, when Vader is introduced in a great little "big, bigger, biggest" progression. Vader was the henchman of evil bureaucrats in the previous movie, but Empire rightly capitalized on his popularity. His costume has been tweaked slightly and shined-up, so he appears even bigger and more imposing, and he is totally superbad. He wasn't exactly middle-management last time, but here he's the senior VP.

Han is Empire's other star. I don't know whether director Irvin Kershner made a big difference, Ford was just more accustomed to the role, or some combination thereof; but Han owns every scene he's in. He gets to do a lot, too: slapstick, seduction, swashbuckling, and points in between.

Not to say that the scenes with Luke and Yoda are somehow inferior; although prequel viewers might well think Yoda's gone off his nut when he first appears. Yoda questioning Luke's dedication also rings a bit hollow, considering that the Jedi are clearly best served training him. The Dagobah scenes build on the Wampa escape and transform Luke into the serene, somewhat scary character of Return of the Jedi. Whiny Luke was fun, but Spooky Luke seems more appropriate.

The raise-the-X-wing scene particularly illustrates why the Jedi recruited their padawans so young: kids don't know that things can't work. There are religious overtones in that too, of course, and also in the "I don't believe it"/"That is why you fail" bit that closes the scene. However, Luke's -- I hesitate to call it "insecurity," but there doesn't seem to be a better word -- gives him a strength of character that Anakin lacked. Anakin knew he was operating from a position of strength, and Luke's similar chosen-one status is similar, but Luke has the advantage of not knowing how powerful he can become, and not being cocky as a result. In fact, Vader gets progressively more angry as the climactic lightsaber battle goes on. At the beginning he's parrying Luke's swings one-handed, but by the end he's almost in berserker mode. Luke might be on the edge of panic, but he never gives in, and ultimately he sacrifices himself rather than join Vader.

As for Leia, aside from the aforementioned Look of Death, she has a pleasant Gillian Anderson-like quality in this movie that makes her appealing to this nerd even without the gold bikini. I keep thinking she doesn't have any chemistry with Han, but it's there; he's not the only one trying to make the relationship convincing.

The movie itself does the most with its raw footage. It's beautifully lit (by director of photography Peter Suskitzchy), with rich, warm, vibrant colors. The armor of Vader and the stormtroopers is sleek and glossy. The overall effect isn't as immersive as the previous film, although with the small spaces of the Falcon, Yoda's hut, and the carbon-freeze chamber, it's almost claustrophobic at times. Its characters and vehicles really move more too, and while that might sound hard to reconcile with the "non-immersive" and "claustrophobic" comments, that's how I see it.

For me it all comes together when Luke realizes Obi-Wan truly can't help him, and reaches out to Leia. It's the payoff for the end of Episode III, uniting both twins through the Force. It's a shame the Special Edition breaks up the flow of the sequence with its shuttle landing. The Falcon moves like a ballet dancer, rolling and juking away from TIE fighters and Star Destroyers, and you just don't interrupt that kind of thing.

But I digress. Luke spent a lot of the previous movie, and the first part of this one, being saved by other people. Although he has to call Leia to pick him off the bottom of Cloud City, he's still being proactive. He doesn't know (and apparently neither did Lucas, at this point) that Leia's potentially as strong in the Force as he is, so he has no idea whether he's broadcasting enough for her to hear. In other words, just like at the end of the last movie, he's taking a risk and trusting the Force.

I forgot to mention in my discussion of Attack of the Clones that Anakin is perfectly willing to stay on Tatooine and not try to rescue Obi-Wan. He might not be happy about it, but he's bound to follow orders. Instead, it's Padme who finds the "loophole" by "forcing" Anakin to "follow" her to Geonosis. Similarly, in Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan begs Yoda not to send him to kill Anakin, but Yoda rebuffs him: Sidious is too powerful for Obi-Wan. Empire offers a combination that appears to have inspired both prequel scenes: Luke chooses for himself, despite Yoda's protests about Vader's power level. For me, this raises the issue of "attachments," which I think is at the heart of the entire cycle, and about which I have already written at length. Luke's battle with Vader doesn't end well, but he's still not punished for his attachments as much as Anakin was for his. Arguably, Luke's attachments aren't as strong as Anakin's, but that may be splitting hairs.

Really, what can you say about Empire that hasn't already been said? It opened up Star Wars in new and different ways, it showed that the characters and situations could flourish outside of George Lucas' direct control, and it gave everything a new polish. Episode VI would have a lot to live up to....

Next: the big finish!
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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Here To Rescue You: Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope)

The original Star Wars doesn't offer a lot of explanations. (Quick quiz: when's the first time in this movie someone says the name "Skywalker?") It gets by pretty well nevertheless, mostly by focusing on on one thing at a time. First there are spaceships, then droids, then laser battles, then a desert planet populated by wondering gnomes. We who have just watched the prequels are oriented as to time and place (i.e., about 20 years later, above Tatooine), but those just being introduced to the Galaxy Far, Far Away aren't lost either.

The movie really commanded my attention a lot more than I thought it would. Coming out of seven hours or so of CGI, I figured the low-tech approach would make it even easier to divide my attention between screen and keyboard, but oh no -- that steady focus demands to be watched, and invites careful scrutiny. It's almost diametrically opposed to the full-to-bursting CGI backgrounds of the prequels, but it's more captivating. The physical props themselves turn out to be a kind of silent commentary on the bygone world of the prequels. The sandcrawler's hold especially calls to mind all those CGI robots flitting around, now humbled by substance (ooh, arty!) and tossed in a junk pile. This is a different galaxy than the one the Empire came to rule, and we're looking at it from the bottom up.

Just noticed -- the big double-sunset scene comes at about the 25-minute mark, and the movie already feels like it's accomplished more in terms of plot advancement than at the same point in Revenge of the Sith. I lauded the latter's opening battles yesterday, and I stand by that, but jeez, I'd forgotten how fast the original moves.

(I love the double-sunset scene. It's one of a few that take me right back thirty years. I can feel the heat radiating up from the sand, and no matter where or when I see it, it's always a stuffy, clear, sweet-smelling summer night.)

Things really get going once Obi-Wan shows up. Ewan McGregor was ingratiating in the role, but Alec Guinness was just such a phenomenal actor. His few lines, and the look in his eyes, after Luke mentions "Obi-Wan Kenobi," pretty much made the prequels possible. There's so much emotion, and such a suggestion of rich backstory, even though Guinness disavowed Star Wars later on and probably thought he was slumming at the time.

Obi-Wan lays a massive guilt trip on Luke too, even before Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen get flash-fried. Qui-Gon Jinn had his own agenda, but he didn't put quite the persuaasive inflection into lines like "you must do what you feel is right, of course," and "only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise." Despite his "it's too dangerous!" protestations, Obi-Wan also doesn't do a lot to stop Luke from racing back to the Lars homestead. I bet even an older Obi-Wan -- who's actually just in his late 50s, according to the prequels -- could have Force-pulled Luke out of the speeder cockpit if he'd wanted.

For those of you wondering how much time to allow for bathroom breaks, Han Solo shows up at the 47-minute mark. His presence, especially in the early Death Star scenes, really remind me of The Hidden Fortress. The movie slows down a little at that point, but considering that's just after the one-hour mark, that ain't bad. Once Han, Luke, and Chewie shoot up Cell Block 1138, and Leia enters the mix full-time, there's no looking back. Her "who's the professional terrorist here, anyway?" attitude is a great complement to Luke's idealism and Han's practicality.

It's that combination of viewpoints which makes the original trilogy run. None of these new characters are the hypercompetents of the prequels -- not yet, at least. (In fact, Artoo seems to be the only hypercompetent character to make it to Episode IV relatively unscathed.) In a sense, both trilogies are about the subversion of implacable systems. In the prequels, Palpatine and his apprentii turn the Republic into the Empire; and here, Leia and company try to turn it back.

Of course, what they're trying to to involves constant reference to the Force. I suppose by this time it's a rallying cry, intended to remind the Rebels of the fallen Jedi, and the Republic they represented, kind of like "Remember the Alamo." Interestingly enough, Vader's main allegiance in Episode IV also seems to be to the Force, as shown by his "technological terror" speech. If Anakin was all about fixing things, and playing by the rules, maybe the Force is the only thing he really believes in anymore? That sounds like a religion to me, and indeed, I think this movie is the first to call belief in the Force a "religion." Both times the word is used, it's derisive -- the Imperial officer to Vader, and Han to Luke. Still, the Force looms unseen, waiting to be tapped, whether by Vader, Obi-Wan, or Luke. Obviously, the end of the movie gives the most play to Luke's newfound Force skills.

To me that goes back to Qui-Gon's "always a bigger fish" line. There has to be a bigger fish; otherwise, there's no conflict, and therefore, no story. Battle droids sliced up by lightsabers can be fun for a while, but you can't build a movie on it. (I say that, and the next thing I know, it's 2010 and the big-screen version of "Gauntlet" is the big summer blockbuster to beat.) I liked the prequels well enough, most times despite their flaws, but they can't help but have a different style. Their artifice and baroque qualities have finally been broken down by the time of this movie, and as we'll see, this trilogy implies strongly that it won't return. Instead, the Force seeks to reassert itself, first through Anakin/Vader, and now through Luke.

And here I thought this was going to be a simpler film. To be sure, this movie had it easier than the prequels. It only had to play off the audience's expectations of westerns, B-movie sci-fi, serials, etc. The prequels had to a) convince viewers they were back in the GFFA, b) establish how the Republic was different from the Empire, and c) start dismantling the Republic, all while d) meeting heightened audience expectations. The prequels also didn't have Harrison Ford.

Still, it's fun to note how the prequels change expectations and backstories with regard to the secondary (and at least one of the primary) characters. Obi-Wan and Artoo must remember each other, and it's hardly a coincidence that Yoda's old pal Chewbacca is in Mos Eisley when Obi-Wan needs him. I've long thought that Leia was Plan A for dealing with the Rebels' "most desperate hour" -- when the time came, Bail would send her to Tatooine to pick up Obi-Wan and Luke, they'd all take out the Death Star, and then head to Dagobah for Jedi training. The way it turned out, though, Obi-Wan had to improvise, leaning hard on Plan B to blow off his aunt and uncle and come to Alderaan. It's another broken system, isn't it?

(Answer to the "Skywalker" question: around the 1:16 mark. "I'm Luke Skywalker -- I'm here to rescue you!")

I have to mention that it's no exaggeration to say that Star Wars led directly to my blogging. I started writing out what came to be called "the manifesto" -- prequel predictions, mainly -- somewhere around 1996. That led to a brief stint with a StarWars.com fan site where the manifesto took on HTML form, which led to the TrekBBS, which led here. Star Wars was the first work which inspired fannish feelings in me, and it's never really relinquished its hold.

Next: The Empire Strikes Back!
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Monday, May 21, 2007

Scenes from the Nativity: Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The first 23 minutes of Revenge of the Sith are made up of very-well-managed action sequences which flow naturally into each other, leading the viewer from the great orbital Battle of Coruscant into the rescue of Palpatine and the crash of Grievous' battleship. Anakin and Obi-Wan's friendship is portrayed much more effectively here than in Attack of the Clones, mainly because they have moved past being master and student. They are more appealing as equals and colleagues, which of course makes the rupture of their relationship more painful.

ROTS follows its bravura opening with an unfortunate scene on Padme's balcony which appears to confirm that bad romantic dialogue isn't Anakin's exclusive province. The movie slows down for several minutes of exposition after that, and the tension between Anakin and Obi-Wan rolls them back to AOTC mode.

Before going too further, I have to make up for the deficiencies in my coverage of Ewan McGregor. He's a constant highlight of both this movie and AOTC, having taken over the viewer-guide role from Qui-Gon. The other actors all appear to have at least brief moments of fun with their roles, but McGregor seems to be the most consistently playful. Sir Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan did so much heavy lifting, especially in the original Star Wars, that it's easy to forget the twinkle in his eye -- again, especially in the original.

Even throughout the exposition, Revenge of the Sith never exactly explains its title. Obviously it's a reference to Darth Maul's line from Phantom Menace, and dialogue from that movie and AOTC indicates that the Republic's formation is tied to the Jedi's obliteration of the Sith, but piecing that together requires some attention. Palpatine's opera-night speech to Anakin also suggests that he killed his Sith master Darth Plagueis. I take this to mean that the Sith never truly went away, just underground for a thousand years' worth of masters and apprentii.

Speaking of which, Anakin's eventual descent into darkness is a pretty chilling scene that presents no easy answers. Indeed, Anakin's intervention in the Mace Windu-Palpatine battle is perfectly in keeping with his reluctance to kill Dooku at the beginning of the movie. In fact, Mace may have been close enough to his own dark-side triggers that one way or another, a Sith would have ended up ruling the Republic. That gives the scene an extra oomph which makes the movie's apocalyptic last hour virtually inevitable.

Up to that point the movie has been a sprawling action-adventure with maybe a hint of doom, but then it takes that last turn into tragedy. The purge montage is heartbreaking, because whatever one's feelings about the prequels as movies, the Jedi are still the good guys, and it hurts to see them cut down mercilessly. I said earlier that neither trilogy does a whole lot to convince us of the Empire's evil, but I stand somewhat corrected: the purge, including Anakin's butchery of the younglings, goes a long way towards fulfilling that requirement. Sith reverses Clones' wonderful/terrible juxtapositions very effectively.

I went into this movie thinking that it functioned better as the last movie in the series, not the end of the first half, but I think a lot of that is based on ROTS's final Tatooine-sunset scene. Viewing the scene in context, I think it works fairly well as the lead-in to intermission. It's an homage, sure, but it also indicates a glimmer of hope, and that's the point, isn't it?

The question then becomes whether Revenge of the Sith works as well if you don't know there will be an Episode IV. It clearly indicates a sequel's basic outlines, with Anakin's twins poised to fight him and Padme's dying words that there is still good in him. Sith's heroes aren't complete failures, either: by crippling Anakin, they reduced Vader's potential power level.

A couple of final notes: Anakin turns to the Dark Side to learn powers ostensibly exclusive to it, but the end of the movie reveals that Qui-Gon has learned a similar power. This might just be covering a nitpick from Phantom Menace, but it provides a neat counterpoint. Also, I have to note that the end of the "Frankenstein's Lab" scene is truly a moment of melodrama worthy of the great Calculon himself.

Revenge of the Sith is clearly the best of the prequels, and not just because it comes closest in spirit to the best of the originals. It builds on its predecessors, introduces the requisite number of new characters and gewgaws, and keeps everything moving. Lucas is more active with the camera than in any of the films he directed -- at least, I noticed the camerawork more -- but unlike, say, Attack of the Clones or even A New Hope, the camera moves actually do their job, enhancing the viewer's involvement in the scene. This is the one prequel that tells me George Lucas actually learned something in the twenty-eight years since he directed the original Star Wars, so it's a peculiar notion that the next movie will be the one that made it all possible.

Next: A long time ago...
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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Instant Army's Gonna Get You: Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Attack of the Clones starts somewhat tentatively, but it finishes well.

Actually, it's a little strange to describe AOTC's opening as "tentative," since it features the destruction of a big chrome Naboo cruiser. After that sequence, though, the movie takes what I would call a turn towards "aggressive exposition" -- as you might guess, exposition with a lightsaber. Because Teen Anakin is the only character unfamiliar from Phantom Menace, the movie has to present him as both a convincing Jedi and a convincing suitor for Padme. Obviously, the Jedi side has the easier job.

It is not quite an act of faith to accept Anakin and Padme's love, but the movie doesn't make the best case. Anakin's fumblings and emo tendencies can be rationalized in large part by his bizarre upbringing: child slave thrust into a seedy adult world and just as suddenly taken out of it for an adolescence filled with adventure and monastic discipline. AOTC offers viewers the first look at Jedi younglings, clearly younger than Anakin was at the start of his training, and no doubt possessed of much greater control of their emotions. With ten or so years having passed since Phantom Menace, Anakin has gone through the bulk of puberty consumed by the visions of his fantasy woman, probably waiting and hoping for the chance to see her again -- but bereft of anyone else in his life who'd encourage those feelings or at least get him to work on his social skills. I daresay Anakin didn't run the "sand" speech by Obi-Wan before putting it to the test.

Padme's side of the relationship is harder to figure. Perhaps there's some idealization of Anakin on her part too. He did risk his life -- twice -- to help her. Anakin and Obi-Wan may even represent Padme's ideal of the Jedi role in the Republic: great power used wisely, and under the direction of the Supreme Chancellor. Padme is clearly older than Anakin, though, making it very unlikely that she would have any romantic feelings for him back then. Her physical attraction to him, together with the knowledge that as a Jedi he's almost certainly not involved with anyone else, might have combined for the final push over the cliff.

(That's either one of the more insightful things I have ever written, or one of the more embarrassingly clueless -- U-Decide!)

In any event, they do have some chemistry, especially by the time they team up to rescue Obi-Wan. It wasn't hard for me to believe they would be together after that point. Their secret wedding is both the movie's logical "happy ending" and a nice cliffhanger, considering what we know about Anakin's future. Similarly, the climactic reviewing-the-troops scene is also presented as a triumphal moment, assuming that the troops' ultimate development is unknown to the viewer. Attack of the Clones succeeds in making its heroes' achievements wonderful and terrible at the same time.

It also has the advantage of playing with the viewer's reaction to Phantom Menace. The destruction of the Naboo starship is just the first step in "dirtying" TPM. Jar Jar is pushed to the background and manipulated by Palpatine, Shmi is brutalized, and Nute Gunray and Watto are tragic figures, trying to make up for their TPM failures.

The locations AOTC explores are also more rugged than Naboo: the isolated Lars farm, the lower-rent areas of Coruscant, the perpetually stormy Kamino, and the rocky wastelands of Geonosis. AOTC feels more like a Star Wars movie because Star Wars isn't supposed to be pristine.

Most of this movie is made of action sequences, and these are all pretty entertaining. The CGI flows freely, sometimes betraying the actors' best attempts to keep up, but on the whole the illusion is effective. In fact, the CGI camerawork occasionally seems more authentic than its human-guided counterpart. There are some impressive "handheld" CGI shots, but for the humans, the standard camera move seems to be just a slow push in on an actor's face. This especially occurs at the beginning of the movie, and I guess it indicates "intensity." Overall, though, the movie is put together better than Phantom Menace, and it held my interest more.

I still can't quite accept the clonetroopers' equipment. I can buy that an army of clones was grown over a period of ten years based on an order from an obscure Jedi whose identity was stolen, but to then have them outfitted with heretofore-unknown starships, aircraft, and ground-support vehicles, seems a bit much. I didn't see any shipyards on Kamino, but maybe they were on the other side of the planet. Or, maybe Palpatine threw some black-budget money at one of his defense-contractor buddies ten years ago, and was just waiting for all the clones to come of age.

Doesn't look like I'll get to "Clone Wars," so next up, Revenge of the Sith!
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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fish Story: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace

With the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Star Wars coming up on Friday, May 25, it's incumbent on me as an old stooge to blog about the films this week. No promises about "Clone Wars"; we'll just have to see how the week shakes out.

Today was The Phantom Menace, which as it happens premiered on this date eight years ago, and which I don't think is entirely terrible. It labors under the necessities of a) laying out the Republic's major players, b) setting up the falls of both the Republic and Anakin Skywalker, and c) being big, bombastic, and entertaining. Some sacrifices had to be made, and these are largely in the areas of dialogue, acting, and directing. Otherwise, it's a handsome, nice-sounding movie, and it sets a decent stage.

A disclaimer before we get too much farther: I was interrupted in the early moments of TPM by a persistent telemarketer -- and yes, watching the film was the better alternative -- and I "rested my eyes" a couple of times during the big quadrophenic finish, but other than those things I watched it straight through with few distractions.

Phantom Menace's unofficial motto comes from Qui-Gon's line "There's always a bigger fish." For eight years I have wondered what the sea-monster chase scenes had to do with the rest of the movie, beyond showing the Jedi calm under pressure. Watching the sequences today, and considering the bigger picture, the fish-on-fish violence seems to warn about life's inherent unpredictability. (See also the Tusken Raiders taking potshots at the pod racers, and Empire's space slug.) The film suggests that the Republic runs on predictability, structure, and systems, chief among them the Senate and the Jedi Order. I've long thought that TPM's fascination with parliamentary procedure, midichlorians, and other minutiae was really criticism of such systems and the complacency they breed. Maybe that comes from watching too much Star Trek, but it seems to be a viable reading.

Thus, into these set systems come the film's two movers and shakers, Qui-Gon Jinn and Senator Palpatine. Both know how to work their respective groups, and both are otherwise willing to use their power to steer outcomes their way. Unfortunately, I can't quite figure out why Palpatine wants Naboo under Federation control so badly. Back when this was the only prequel, I thought Naboo had, or was, some unique resource that would allow the Sith to rule the galaxy. Watching the film today, the best explanation I could think of was that Palpatine simply wanted an excuse to force the Senate into a vote of no-confidence in Chancellor Valorum, and the obviously unfair balance of power between Naboo and the Federation would by itself provide that excuse. The more suffering the Naboo endured, the better, because the more sympathy it would engender in the Senate.

(Which, of course, reminds me of the Imperial commander's line about Leia's capture generating "sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate," but we'll get to that....)

I suppose it's therefore appropriate that Naboo is treated like a chessboard (somebody even says "we've captured the Queen!") and we never actually see any of its people mistreated. There's room in TPM for fart jokes and other shenanigans, but not for the horrors of an occupation force. Still, this isn't The Battle of Algiers; and in keeping with the backhanded defenses, there's not a lot of evidence of the Empire's oppression later on either. As the "kids' movie" of the bunch, Phantom Menace especially isn't supposed to be bloody, saving the most graphic violence for the ends of Qui-Gon and Darth Maul.

Speaking of Qui-Gon, Liam Neeson might give a detached performance, but he ties the whole movie together. He's perhaps the most plugged-in character next to Palpatine, but he also functions well as the viewer's guide. It's probably because his character is the most free to behave like a member of the audience, occasionally stepping outside of his assigned role to take matters into his own hands. He tries to ditch Jar Jar (understandable) until the latter leads him to Gunga City (also understandable); he tries to convince the Jedi Council that he's found their messiah; and he does all the negotiating that drives the plot. (Palpatine and Amidala have their own roles in the plot too, but they're not as prominent.) This is not to say that Qui-Gon acts entirely out of self-interest. Rather, his perception of the common good seems to be slightly different than what his peer group might indicate, so he influences events accordingly.

This is most obvious with regard to his discovery of Anakin. Another plot point which I thought cried out for future reference is the use of the Force with regard to the die-roll which determines Anakin's fate. Qui-Gon could have freed your mother too, I imagined Palpatine murmuring. He did not, because he wanted you to join the Jedi -- and the Jedi frown on children basking in their parents' love.... Again, the Jedi Code is unapologetically spartan, but the movies only dwell on it with regard to romance. Interestingly enough, there' s a hint of affection -- but just a hint, per Lucas' direction -- between Qui-Gon and Shmi Skywalker, subtly reinforcing the notion that Qui-Gon doesn't quite follow all of the Jedi dictates. Accordingly, Qui-Gon turns out to be Mr. Foreshadowing: his manipulative tendencies appear again in the older Obi-Wan, and of course his rebelliousness prefigures the attitudes of both Anakin and Luke.

Phantom Menace is loaded with foreshadowing and parallel references, the most obvious of which concern the Trade Federation. Their designs anticipate those of the Empire so much so that I imagined Palpatine engineering a "hostile takeover" of the TF to build his clone military. (As we'll see, almost the opposite happened.) The treatment of droids sets up the later heroics of Artoo and Threepio. Whole sequences of this movie are intended to remind viewers of similar awards ceremonies, asteroid chases, and multi-front battles in the originals. I'll never be able to speak to the experience of this being my first-ever Star Wars mvoie, but in terms of watching them all in "intended order," the foreshadowing and the references can get pretty heavy-handed, which is a nice way of saying they occasionally don't make much sense unless the movies are watched in release order.

Overall, this time The Phantom Menace reminded me of the first Harry Potter movie. It wants so much to remind viewers of its bona fides that it makes sure to point out when they should cheer, boo, and laugh. It proceeds in fits and starts, with the podrace as the centerpiece. At times it has so many plates spinning that there's no room to connect with any one subplot. Still, just about every main character gets a good moment that resonates. I'm trying to think of Jar Jar's ... probably the "When yousa thinka wesa in trouble?" line, so yeah, he peaks early. It's an overstuffed movie which invites fanwankery and continuity maintenance. I'm sure there are books, novels, and comics which explain all of the inconsistencies, and on some level I wonder if that wasn't the point. Just as Qui-Gon falls victim to a "bigger fish," Phantom Menace sets the stage for bigger and bigger developments in the still-complacent Galaxy Far, Far Away.


Next: Attack of the Clones!
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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Playoffs, hype, and "Friday Night Lights"

"Friday Night Lights," one of my favorite new shows, has been renewed for a second season. I liked the first season very much, and I found it much more endearing from the start than either "Heroes" (which grew on me) or "Studio 60" (which squandered its potential). I don't watch a lot of TV anymore, but I will gladly make time for "FNL."

It's a hard show to define. It focuses on a small-town Texas high school's football team, so there are lots of sports metaphors, but there are also meditations on the nature of fandom, religion, family life, and growing up. It has a large cast, but all of the characters have at least some nuance; and while It's not teen-centered, it sure doesn't put the teens in the background. Mostly, it deals with the obsessions a small-town success story can produce, and the expectations which go along with those obsessions.

Last season, the team struggled to cope with the first-game loss of their star player, and (SPOILER!!!) their trip to the state championship. Accordingly, the TV season spanned a total of about 3 months, from late August/early September to late November. This gives "FNL's" second season some options. It can tell some stories from the remainder of that school year, but those won't have the constant pressure of each week's football game as a backdrop. It can also pick up at the start of the next year's season, with the players that much older, but the viewers having missed out on their maturation.

What's this have to do with comics? Well, sometimes I thnk that superhero world-maintenance has a lot in common with athletics. The average "Hero A fights Villain B" story, like the average scrimmage or game, shows our hero flexing his muscles in a natural, everyday setting. Individual games have meaning in football, more so than in other sports, but as "FNL's" Dillon Panthers showed last season, you can lose a few games and still come back to win it all. Therefore, not every game has to be the one to change everything.

However, a team in the playoffs will quickly find itself in a lose-and-go-home situation. In that sense, the stakes are a lot higher, because every game is potentially the last -- maybe for the season, maybe (if a player's gone as far with the sport as possible) for good. Of course, a lot of good teams come out of the playoffs having been eliminated, and depending on how good the team was supposed to be, often that elimination can seem premature. Thus, those outcomes combine with fan expectations to color the perception of that particular team for a long time. Big crossovers, and big events generally, are like the playoffs, because the hype is front-loaded and we fans are conditioned to expect the same kinds of altered perceptions. However, while it might be reasonable to expect to see superheroes in the "playoffs" on a regular basis, the real growth happens between the games and in the off-season.

I wanted the Dillon Panthers to win the state championship this season, because for a show on the ratings bubble it might be the only shot they had. Now that I know it's not, the question then becomes how they will handle losing the next year. Not that a high-school football team can't repeat; but it's not dramatically plausible. This season was about fulfilling expectations, so next season can be about coming up short (just not in the ratings department, I hope!). Sure, the playoffs are important, but fans shouldn't feel entitled to a certain lofty outcome year in and year out. Likewise, superhero publishers and fans shouldn't have to rely on big events to produce those lofty outcomes year in and year out.

"Friday Night Lights" demonstrates that a show about football can put football in the background a decent amount of the time and still be dramatically successful. I'll be waiting for its return, to see how it builds on that success.
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Saturday, May 12, 2007

New comics 5/9/07

My browser crashed just before I could save the first attempt at this roundup, so these might be a little shorter and more to the point than usual....

We begin this week with Countdown #51 (written by Paul Dini, pencilled by Jesus Saiz, inked by Jimmy Palmiotti), a big hash of disconnected subplots which features exactly two of the characters appearing on the cover. It's the weakest Paul Dini script I've seen in a long time, with expositional dialogue and a very thin central storyline. It might look better in a few weeks, and the next issues might improve on this one, but for now, there's not a lot to latch onto. The art is pretty good, though, except for Darkseid's shell-casing head.

Much better is Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four #2 (written by Jeff Parker, pencilled by Mike Wieringo, inked by Wade von Grawbadger), in which the invading aliens turn everyone in New York against our heroes, and hilarity ensues. This doesn't aim to be a series of any consequence, unless you count well-done old-school superheroics consequential. Instead, it's a team-up that seems natural but doesn't happen often enough. My only complaint is with the Thing's proportions -- I don't remember him looking quite so candy-corn-shaped in Wieringo's FF issues.

Outsiders #47 (written by Greg Rucka and Judd Winick, pencilled by Matthew Clark, inked by Art Thibert) is Part 2 -- or, really, the second Part 1 -- of "Check/Out." It picks up with the team in Checkmate custody and Nightwing (of course) busting them out. It's not as good as the Checkmate issue, because the dialogue is a little too arch and the art is too heavy on gritted teeth and meaningful eye-closeups. It does a fine job of introducing everyone to each other, setting up the mission, and explaining the differences between the two groups. Most of it is a big romp involving an Outsider running around with her butt hanging out, and unfortunately that goes on a little too long.

Nightwing assembles yet another team in his own title, for Nightwing #132's conclusion of "Bride and Groom" (written by Marv Wolfman, drawn by Paco Diaz). While I appreciate the nod to Dick's team-leader capabilities, isn't this the book where he takes out bad guys on his own, without a random set of ex-supervillains I've never heard of? Basically they spend the whole issue wanting to kill B & G, and Dick says he's hip, but that's not how he rolls. I still don't understand Dick's emotional journey through this arc. Diaz' guest artistry gets the job done, but it's a different style from regular penciller (still, I hope) Jamal Igle, and it contributes to the feeling that the whole thing has gone slightly awry.

JLA Classified #38 (written by Peter Milligan, drawn by Carlos D'Anda) presents Part 2 of "Kid Amazo," and while it's a good installment of what looks to be a good superhero story, I have a few nitpicks. Although I did like being reminded that John Stewart is liberal and Wally West is conservative, I thought J'Onn J'Onzz and Amazo himself were somewhat out of character. J'Onn seemed too irreverent, and Amazo seemed too together. Still, the title character's main conflict was presented well, and I do like D'Anda's art -- bulky and expressive.

The Mogo-turns-everyone-evil subplot in Green Lantern Corps (#12 written by Dave Gibbons, pencilled by Patrick Gleason and Tom Nguyen, inked by Nguyen and Prentis Rollins) has been going on for an issue or two too long, but other than that this was another good floppy. I especially liked the Soranik Natu scenes. Nguyen's pencils also fit well with Gleason's style, and appropriately enough, they remind me of Dave Gibbons'.

Finally, guess which part of Tales of the Unexpected #8 I blogged about in Grumpy Old Fan this week? If you picked the Spectre (written by David Lapham, pencilled by Eric Battle, inked by Prentis Rollins), you lost!! The Spectre story did try to tie all of its carnage together into a unified look at one particularly evil tenement building, but it was just too nihilistic for me. Much more life-affirming was the conclusion of the Dr. 13 story "Architecture and Morality" (written by Brian Azzarello, drawn by Cliff Chiang), to which I wrote the aforementioned love letter. I know I'm not alone in saying a) I paid $3.99 a month for each 16-page chapter of this story, and b) I'll pay for the collection when it comes out as well. More of Dr. 13 by Azzarello and Chiang, please.
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New (at the time) comics 4/25/07 and 5/2/07

(sigh)

Yes, it's been another three weeks without a new-comics recap. I'm not going to dwell on that, though, so let's jump right in. Should have the 5/9 comics recapped by tonight or tomorrow.

4/25/07

52 #51 (written by Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Grant Morrison, and Mark Waid, breakdowns by Keith Giffen, pencilled by Joe Bennett, inked by Jack Jadson and Belardino Brabo) ... yeah, you know, it was fine. The space heroes got their reunions, there was a nice bookend to the first issue with the Superman/Superboy memorials, and it was a good way to wind down the bulk of the series. I can't help but see it as the first part of a 2-part conclusion to the series, given what happens in #52, but we'll get to that later.

Wonder Woman #8 (written by Jodi PIcoult, drawn by Terry Dodson and Rachel Dodson) and Amazons Attack #1 (written by Will Pfeifer, drawn by Pete Woods) are joined at the hip(Polyta -- oh, I hate myself), so I'll talk about 'em together. It occurs to me that AA does a better job of starting Wonder Woman's "rehabilitation" than the main title does. Not that I didn't like the Allan Heinberg issues, because they were on the whole pretty clever. It's just that you'd think the Big Novelist Arc would overshadow, or at least color, the Big Event Miniseries, and it's turned out the other way around -- and the ironic thing is, that's probably for the best. WW #8 is more of the same "save Nemesis from Circe" plot, now in its third issue; and still making with the contrivances for the sake of humor.

I may like AA better simply because it seems to give everything some direction. In fact, it hews more to a traditional superhero-story introduction: it establishes the threat, presents the stakes, and shows the heroes beginning to respond. Sure, the Amazons are bloodthirsty, perhaps excessively so; but I have a feeling the excess may be part of Circe's prompting. Both books look fabulous, so that helps a lot.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Justice Society of America #5 (written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Fernando Pasarin), the wholly nondescript cover notwithstanding. (I almost didn't get it because -- unlike the Phil JIminez variant for sale for $10 behind the LCS' counter -- it didn't say anything about being Part 2 of the JLA crossover.) Anyway, it's part 2 of the JLA crossover, and oh boy stuff happens! Batman, Sandman, Starman, and Geo-Force fight "Batmen Through The Ages" and Doctor Destiny in Arkham Asylum! Superbo-- er, Superman gives the teen JSAers the Fortress tour, complete with Madame Toussaud's Legion of Super-Heroes! Wildfire vomits up Batman's utility belt, last seen on Rick Jones in Avengers Forever! Okay, that last part isn't quite true, but it kind of gives you the feel for where all of this is going. I liked this issue well enough, although Pasarin's art is just a little too much over-rendered. Also, unless those are animatronic Legion statues, I'm kind of disturbed by how expressive they are. Also also, as I clumsily indicated before, his Superman looked at first a little too Superboy-ish. Hope part 3, in JLA #9, is at least as good.

I now prefer to think of the final issue of Firestorm 2.0 (#35 written by Dwayne McDuffie, pencilled by Pop Mhan, inked by Mhan and Steve Bird) as Part 3 of the special bridge-the-gap Firestorm miniseries. Looks to me like the Dan Jolley/Stuart Moore-written plots and subplots all concluded satisfactorily in #32 -- because this issue ends on a terribly disappointing cliffhanger. It's good because it means Firestorm will be popping up later in other DC books, and might get enough new exposure for a revival, but it's bad in terms of narrative cohesion. It's the Gotham Central non-ending, pretty much. The plot is also kind of hard to understand, because it hinges on some use of Firestorm's powers that he takes great pains to set up ... but when he does it, the setup doesn't appear necessary. Basically it's a big fight scene, rendered and choreographed well, except for that one part.

Action Comics #848 (written by Fabian Nicieza, pencilled by Allan Goldman, inked by Ron Randall) continues the fill-ins with Part 1 of a 2-parter about a superhero who gets his powers from God. Well, faith, prayer, something like that. The new guy destroys a squad of soldiers in an African country because he's there to protect missionaries -- which he does -- but he can't control his powers otherwise. The religious angle causes Superman to question how much he should be interfering, because clearly he's got his own history of religious belief. It's a good start for a story, but as you might expect, it 's not too subtle. I'll be surprised if the folks behind Jarod (the new guy) aren't broadcasting their own powers through him, and not really acting on direct orders from the Lord. The story isn't helped by Goldman's pencils. They're serviceable, and his storytelling is fine, but his figures are awkward and his perspective falters occasionally. One scene, with Clark and Lois getting ready for bed, features an overmuscled Clark and a Lois whose back arches too far, apparently so she can display her hinder more prominently.

Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #29 (written by Tony Bedard, pencilled by Kevin Sharpe, inked by Mark McKenna & Jack Purcell) was a weird fill-in, if indeed it is such and not just the start of the Bedard/Sharpe Era. It basically spilled the beans on 52 a week early (in the comics themselves; Dan DiDio did it first, of course), explaining why the Dominators hate the Earth, and the Legion in particular. The issue is nothing special -- the Dominators' history is told against the backdrop of the Legion trashing their planet -- and the art is decent at best.

Batman Confidential #5 (written by Andy Diggle, pencilled by Whilce Portacio, inked by Richard Friend) is another issue-long fight scene, as first the Batplane and then the Batcycle are used to attack Luthor's secret robot warehouse. It took me about three minutes to read.

For the first time in a long time, I didn't get a whole lot out of Astro City (The Dark Age Book Two #3 written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by Brent Anderson). Maybe the Ron Burgundy cameo threw me off. I had the same reaction to Planetary Brigade: Origins #3 (written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, drawn by Julia Bax).

Thankfully, the same was not true for Fantastic Four #545 (written by Dwayne McDuffie, pencilled by Paul Pelletier, inked by Rick Magyar), which did a lot with the new FF, the Silver Surfer, and Gravity. I'll echo the blogosphere's concerns about some of the physics in the issue, but overall it continues to be very good.

5/2/07

I talked about 52 #52 in the 5/3 Grumpy Old Fan. Short version: yay multiverse! Slightly longer version: a big jumble of a story that felt more like a Big 52 Special than an organic ending to the series. Also, I'm not sure, but I think it broke out of the "this happened this week" mold in large part for the last issue. Still, a good end to the series.

Probably the worst thing about Green Lantern #19 (written by Geoff Johns, drawn and colored by Danlel Acuna) is the continued existence of the new Star Sapphire costume. Otherwise, it would be this issue's notions about the beginnings of a Star Sapphire Corps -- which, okay, makes some sense, but that doesn't mean you have to do it right on the heels of the Sinestro Corps. I did like seeing Carol in a Green Lapphire costume, and the Hal/Carol scenes are fine, but there's some really weak dialogue here -- mostly predictable "first dates are hell" stuff. Acuna's art is good, but it's so different from the Pacheco/Reis school of finely-rendered figures that it takes some getting used to. The "Sinestro Corps" backup continues to be good and scary, in every sense of the words.

Detective Comics #832 (written by Royal McGraw, drawn by Andy Clarke) showcases the return of the Terrible Trio, a '50s-era threefer of theme-gimmick villains now bent on killing each other off. I figured out the twist about halfway through. Not a bad issue, but not a standout either.

Checkmate #13 (written by Greg Rucka and Judd Winick, pencilled by Joe Bennett, inked by Jack Jadson) begins "Check/Out," the Outsiders crossover, with the Checkmaters taking out the Outsiders one by one. Not much plot beyond that, and it's a good way to introduce someone who's never read any Outsiders (i.e., me) to the team. It also makes Checkmate look capable without making the Outsiders look like chumps. Bennett and Jadson are the new art team starting this issue, and they do their usual fine job.

(The All-New) Atom #11 (written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Eddy Barrows, inked by Trevor Scott) concludes the Atom-vs.-zombies story, and not an issue too soon. As much as I want this series to show how it can handle different subgenres, this story just felt shoehorned into the book to get it out of the way before the big Ray Palmer arc. I am still rooting for Ryan Choi, but I'm eager for the more science-y stuff to return.

Welcome To Tranquility #6 (written by Gail Simone, drawn by Neil Googe and Billy Dallas Patton) also wraps up its arc. While I think WTT is a very ambitious book, and deserves a look because of it, it hasn't really hooked me. I'll probably re-read these six issues before deciding whether to continue.

Jeff Smith's Shazam! The Monster Society Of Evil #3 was good as usual, with some familiar Sivana-vs.-Batsons action at the center of the issue. The manner of Billy's escape is particularly fun. However, maybe it was just the way the story broke out, but this issue's cliffhanger isn't all that suspenseful. Oh well; it's not like I won't get #4.

Finally, Superman #662 (written by Kurt Busiek, pencilled by Carlos Pacheco, inked by Jesus Merino) offered a decent bridge into the second half of "Camelot Falls." Some have complained that nothing happens, but I thought Superman's examination of his role in Earth's history was done well. It's not really the "Must There Be A Superman?" question, because Superman's allegedly not making humanity weaker as much as he's making the bad guys stronger. I can see where someone who didn't read the previous Busiek issues might wonder what all the fuss is about, but since I did, and since that particular future was about as apocalyptic as one could get, I was invested in Superman's musings from the start.

Now for the 5/9 books, and maybe some more new content besides.
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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

In which I dismiss Steve Trevor, and probably reveal a hideous double standard.

Avi Arad said this:

In the comics, the easiest way to bring real life into the life of the hero is to give him a spouse. [...] Lois Lane and the other women, in the comic books, the woman is the other world that represents all of us, and she is there to support, she is there to demand, she is there to observe and to make you think of her as an ambassador of the rest of us. [...] Otherwise, there is never a personal story to bring all of us into the room.


Ragnell added

Steve Trevor can not be replaced in this aspect and we lost so much when they threw him to the background after Crisis.


Well, I dunno. I like a lot of the ordinary-human spouses/significant others. I didn’t have a problem with the Lane-Kent or Watson-Parker marriages. Heck, I wrote 5000 words on Silver St. Cloud and the other Bat-girlfriends a couple of years ago. Regardless, I never liked Steve Trevor, and twenty years after he was thrown into the background, I still don’t think the idea of Steve Trevor as Diana's soulmate is critical to the Wonder Woman setup.

Granted, I am not really a WW scholar, because I didn’t start reading regularly until the George Pérez revamp. However, the idea that Diana would leave Paradise Island at least in part to follow Steve back to Man’s World seems to diminish her a bit. I feel the same way when the genders are reversed: Clark is a reporter first, and an admirer of Lois Lane second. The mission is the important part of the setup, not the romance.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, apparently Steve became more patriarchal, such that if Wonder Woman ever decided to settle down with him, she’d give up everything that made her super. I don’t know how Steve changed in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, apart from dying and being resurrected a couple of times. The Pérez revamp connected him to Diana through his mother, a WAAF pilot who crashed on Themyscira and became Diana’s namesake. Steve was thereby aged out of Diana’s eligibility range.

Steve’s audience-identification replacement then got split into a handful of characters: Julia Kapatelis, a professor specializing in Classical Greek; her teenage daughter Vanessa; and Diana’s publicist Myndi Mayer. In effect, Julia became Diana’s surrogate mother and Vanessa her surrogate sister, with Myndi representing the practicalities of the real world. There’s probably some significant dynamic at play among those three characters, but it’s not quite a Maiden-Mother-Crone situation, nor is it exactly a Virgin/Whore. Anyway, I don’t know if it was intentional and I don’t know enough about those archetypes to take that line of thinking much farther. Besides, Myndi didn’t last long, and Diana was left with just Julia and Vanessa (and sometimes Lois Lane) as guides to Patriarch’s World.

I thought the Pérez run was a good revamp overall, because it put Diana’s focus back on her mission and actually distinguished her from Superman and Batman. By not having a secret identity, she didn’t have to deal with “identity issues,” including the classic WW/Steve/Diana Prince love triangle. It also made her less of a traditional superhero, because it gave her a defined purpose and viewpoint. She wasn’t on an eternal crusade to beat up bad guys, she was a social reformer and the representative of an existing functional society. She seemed to spend a lot of the Pérez issues aghast at the inhumanities of which Patriarch’s World was capable, but she wasn’t entirely naïve. She was also more fully realized as a character than Pérez’s other wide-eyed warrior woman, Starfire.

Ragnell puts it best:

You see, the secret is that, even though none of us can say we know who Wonder Woman is, its always been very clear that she knows who she is. There's trouble connecting with other people, and the gods, and her purpose, but Diana has always been centered in herself. Confident. She knew exactly what she was inside.

To me, that suggests Diana doesn’t need a love interest to “complete” her. (Perez and John Byrne both offered cops as potential suitors, but Diana never took Perez's Ed Indelicato seriously, and I can't even remember Byrne's cop's full name -- Mike something.) In this respect she does remind me of Batman, because conventional wisdom suggests that Batman is so driven he also doesn’t need romance. Both appear so devoted to their respective missions that for them to have wistful “If only...!” moments puts chinks in their armor. It’s different for Superman and Spider-Man -- they’re just normal guys at heart, trying to do the right things, trying to fit in. Naturally we want them to hook up, because that’s part of their yearnings. Batman left normal life behind a long time ago, and Wonder Woman was never normal.

Maybe it’s just me, but I never thought of Wonder Woman as “attainable,” so I never needed to picture her as “virginal” either. Or -- wait -- maybe all that stuff about “the mission” actually is my substitute for her virginity ... but that’s not right either. Is wanting Diana to be “pure for the world” the same as wanting her to be “pure for me?” I don’t think so. I just don’t think the setup lends itself to romance.

Now, at the same time I would not be opposed to a new Bat-romance with a normal person -- I liked Vesper Fairchild, before all the unpleasantness -- and therein lies my fear of a double standard. However, with Batman I think it would be a welcome change after so many years of stone-faced “Bruce Wayne is the real mask” stories. With Wonder Woman, even under the current “Agent Prince” setup, that break from a calcified status quo isn’t necessary, because even in the secret-ID days Diana never seemed to have those kinds of issues.

Again, it goes back to Pérez, who placed the reader-identification characters pretty far out of bounds in terms of romantic possibilities. That’s definitely affected my perspective, but I grew up with Lynda Carter and “Super Friends” too and I still knew WW was out of my league.

I’m not saying she can’t have a romance (or a Batman-esque series of romances) with a normal person outside the superhero life. The Trevor Barnes subplot was okay, but it never really took off, and now poor Trevor’s got little hope of returning. It would probably have to be done with some subtlety, so that readers wouldn’t be turned off immediately.

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s necessary, but I'm not opposed to it. Ms. Simone...?
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