Friday, February 20, 2015

The Pantheon





1. Daft Punk - Homework (1997)


In 2001 Daft Punk released Discovery, an album of 70s-influenced electro pop that proved to be one of the decade’s most enduring achievements. It placed at #3 on Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the 2000s list, ahead of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and The Blueprint, beaten for the top spot only by Funeral and Kid A. It was a good album that received fair-to-decent reviews on release, but which grew significantly in stature as the decade continued. (In 2004 when Pitchfork compiled their Best of 2000-04 list, the album was featured at number twelve, to give an example of the album’s ascent in critical hindsight.)

Looking back, it’s easy to see why the album succeeded so well over the long term. Even if, at first, the album appeared to be little more than a pastiche of the most guilelessly appealing sounds of the 1970s, wrapped up in a slightly cheesy dance-pop bow, it proved startlingly prescient. In a few years half of everything on the radio was trying to sound like Discovery. The duo’s sincere pastiche surpassed its (seemingly) disposable origins and became one of the most influential sounds of the decade: maybe not the specific way that album managed to replicate Supertramp’s electric piano or the bassline on Steely Dan’s “Black Cow,” but the general mood of reverential nostalgia that gripped so many of the previous decade’s most significant artists.

Discovery was and is a great album that deserves its reputation. The problem was, when the album dropped in March of 2001, it wasn’t what I wanted. The first single, ”One More Time,” baffled me. What had happened to Daft Punk? To put it bluntly (which was exactly my reaction at the time), where were the beats?

It felt like a betrayal. It appeared to be a dodgy retro pop move from a group that had previously seen fit to grace the world with one of – if not the – best house LPs ever recorded – 1997’s Homework. In hindsight (once again) it’s easy to see that this was an unfair comparison. Discovery wasn’t a straight-ahead house album, and it was never intended to be. It was something else, and it became clear as the decade wore on that they had no interest in going back to the sound that initially made them famous. And, to be fair, the beats were there on Discovery, they just sounded a bit different. I eventually outgrew my initial dismay.



But 2001 was four years after 1997, and so four years after the high-water mark of the so-called “electronica” push that American record companies conjured up in a desperate effort to replicate the success of grunge just five years previous. (Of course, they needn’t have worried: teen pop was waiting around the corner, right about to come back in a big way, and just in time for the death of the CD era.) Homework wasn’t an obscure gem. It was a major release on Virgin records, spawning a handful of popular singles (“Around the World, “Da Funk”), and memorable videos that made it into frequent rotation on MTV. (For those who remember the glory days of M2, the intro to “Revolution 909” was used in network promos for a couple years.) But 2001 was a different world from 1997: “electronica” was a dead letter, conventional wisdom once again affirmed that dance music would never take flight as a national concern, and the kids who had bought Homework had thrown the CD into the back of their car before moving on to Significant Other. When Discovery premiered, it gained traction with hipsters and critics who still liked electro pop but had long since had their fill of “dance music,” and its reputation grew in the interim, while Homework languished.

2005’s Human After All met a muted response. That was a shame, as I quite like the album: it’s off-the-cuff sound, recorded fast and cheap over just a couple months, brought to mind Homework’s “Rollin’ and Scratchin’” and “Rock’n Roll.” But again, even if the album initially underperformed, it grew in hindsight: in just a few years that albums harsh and staticky sound would be everywhere. When Kanye West wanted Daft Punk for Yeezus, he didn’t want the understated funk of “Get Lucky”he wanted the electronic buzzsaw from Human After All. (And hey, I called it back in 2007.)

But for me, and I’m sure a few others, Homework will never be surpassed.

I remember, when “Get Lucky” first dropped, I expressed my disappointment – a recurring theme, here – that the song wasn’t house. The response I got was, in essence, why would Daft Punk want to waste their time making cookie-cutter EDM? (I, uh, threw a tantrum here, but again, I eventually came around to Random Access Memories, even if their failure to continue the cover theme of their first three releases still stings.) And the answer is simple: Daft Punk never made cookie-cutter “EDM,” they made house music.

It’s funny, considering I never liked dancing, how much I love house music. House music means a lot to me. I love the history, I love the sound, I love the mythology. I realized recently that Homework wasn’t actually that much different in design and execution from their follow-ups. It was, like Discovery and Random Access Memories before it, also a kind of pastiche. They came up in the world of French house, and French house always had a kind of candy-colored sheen that American and British dance music never managed. It probably has something to do with the fact that disco never died on the continent. In the late seventies and early eighties, dance music in the United State went underground, rejected by middle America but embraced by the outsiders, racial and sexual minorities living in urban areas who built a musical culture based on models of tolerance, cooperation, and optimistic futurism. (The long version is a bit more complicated than that, but this is the ideal.) Listening to Homework now, it’s a grab bag of different styles and modes from the first twenty years of house history, from old school New York garage (“Revolution 909”) to UK acid house (“Rock’n Roll”) to cheeseball Eurodisco (the deathless “Around the World”), slathered with high-gloss production that accentuated every detail. (The only thing missing was a full-on diva track, but they checked that off the list on Discovery). As the track “Teachers" suggests, the album was kind of, well, a dissertation on dance music history. House music – being a singles genre – doesn’t have the best track record with full-length LPs, but Homework managed 74 continuous minutes without a dud in the bunch. It was a window on a world that was already beginning to fade.

That world is dead now. Like CBGB’s, the Paradise Garage is long since gone. Larry Levan has passed, so too Frankie Knuckles. Big festival EDM has become the breakthrough dance music that “electronica” and house could never be, with all the attendant baggage. So it goes. You can’t really get mad at the kid in the Green Day T-shirt for not knowing who the Vibrators were, anymore than you can get mad at the dudebros moshing to Skrillex for not being able to pick Carl Craig out of a line-up. The history is there for those who want to look.

Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter returned from the wilderness in 2001 dressed as robots, hiding their faces behind two now-iconic metal masks. As much of a gimmick as it may seem, it’s well in keeping with dance music’s tradition of relative facelessness. Deadmau5 wears a helmet, too, and for much the same reason. The Chemical Brothers are just two normal looking blokes you could imagine working in a bank or an IT department. It doesn’t matter who you are when you play house music. You could be anybody or anything. What matters is the sound, the feeling, the history, and the future.

And that is why the album ends with “Alive.” It’s not just any stereotypical “end of album” epic. It’s remarkably simple, really, maybe the simplest song on the record: just one big beat, with two different synth riffs coming in and out of the mix. And yet, the song manages to take these ingredients and turn it into the most massive sound imaginable. When the two riffs synch up, it sounds like the pressure drop from an explosion, the labored breath of an ancient space god arising from the depths of the ocean. It’s bigger than anything else, bigger than you and bigger than me.

And that is house music.



Friday, February 13, 2015

Neat Stuff!



Hey everybody, it's a big day for stuff! In case you were wondering if I had an opinion about DC's new, well, whatever the hell they call relaunching half their line, I do, and it's here. They cut a bit of stuff from the essay on the subject of DC's addiction to T&A books - which I can understand, but it still needs to be said that it's a good thing they're cutting some of their gory T&A books, even though some of them do sell.

Also, the new Party Jam is up here at Mixcloud! Mazel tov!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight





"Gothic" by Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson


If "Shaman" was an ambitious misfire, "Gothic" is the story where Legends of the Dark Knight finally came into its own and fully embraced its remit. It's important to remember that, back in 1989, there really wasn't much in the way of a track record for Batman stories like this. The three models for "mature readers" (I'm putting that phrase in necessary scare-quotes) Batman stories that LotDK was initially pulling from were 1988's The Killing Joke, 1987's "Year One," and 1986's The Dark Knight Returns. The same year that LotDK premiered also saw the release of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum graphic novel. The idea of a Batman story designed to be read by an audience that didn't include young children was still new. We take it for granted now that many - if not, unfortunately, most - Batman stories currently published just aren't appropriate for kids. But back then the idea was, pardon the pun, novel, and it was this revelation that served as the inspiration for hundreds of subsequent "Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore" headlines. It was a strange idea for many, many people to wrap their heads around.

Even though "Shaman" lacked the Comics Code seal, there was nothing in the story that would have proved problematic for the Authority. Denny O'Neil was an old hand, and even though the story was concerned with "heavy" themes such as myth, cultural theft, and ritual murder, it was still essentially a Batman story of the kind that could have been told at any point in the previous twenty years, just told with a darker color palette. Not so "Gothic." This was a story that couldn't have been told with pre-1986 Batman. The violence, the intensity, the presence of explicit violence and (not so explicit but still upsetting) sex was new. It didn't go as far as Arkham Asylum, but it also wasn't anywhere near as abstruse. Although many of Morrison's early habits were well in place, the story was more brutal and direct than its more highbrow cousin. This was a murder mystery that touched on child murder, sexual abuse, satanism, and rape in the course of its unraveling.



Morrison has written many Batman stories in his career, and much of his later work is prefigured in "Gothic." For one, Morrison wasn't afraid to cross the line separating Batman's mundane crime-ridden Gotham from the kind of supernatural horror elements exemplified by the story's villain, Mr. Whisper. The idea that Gotham is somehow a genuinely haunted, specially cursed placed was one that would become more and more central to the mythos. Now it's often a given that Gotham city, rather than merely an exaggerated vision of 1970s urban hell New York, contains some kind of Mephistophelian affinity to the literal hell. (For modern examples, see Snyder and Capullo's Batman, as well as Batman Eternal.) Morrison also introduces the idea that Thomas Wayne was a deeper and more significant figure in Gotham history than previous writers had intimated. And finally, even though "Gothic" is close to being a straight horror story, Morrison also has fun mixing and matching a few motifs from previous Batman eras: in the midst of a heavy supernatural mystery, he finds time to strap our hero into a Rube Goldberg deathtrap straight out of the 1960s TV show. The idea that all of Batman's diverse and thematically inconsistent histories coexisted as parts of the character's development was one that Morrison would return to later.



The story begins with the a series of murders of Gotham's most powerful criminals. In desperation these criminals turn for protection to Batman, who scoffs at their attempts at negotiation before setting out to hunt the killer himself. (Oh, yeah, I guess these are spoilers for a 25-year-old Batman story?) Morrison performs an extremely clever maneuver here: in the early pages he leads the reader to believe the story will focus on the crime lords being hunted and killed by some mysterious force. But it turns out that the crime lords' purpose in the story is mainly to give Batman (and the audience) a red herring. The actual plot has little to do with the mob bosses. Mr. Whisper is killing them, but more out of boredom while sitting around Gotham waiting for his real plan to kick in.

The "real" plan actually involves a 300-year old serial killer who made a deal with the devil, and his plan to murder every man, woman, and child in Gotham as a means of escaping this obligation. There are allusions peppered throughout, from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus to de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, the latter of which he would return to in the second arc of The Invisibles. Meanwhile, the catalyst for Mr. Whisper's crusade of vengeance against Gotham's underworld is revealed to be, basically, the plot of Fritz Lang's M. Morrison here is still operating very much in the mode of fellow "British Invasion" writers Moore and Gaiman - processing literary and artistic influences in a very literal-minded way, plucking plots and themes directly from older works to create a thick metatextual stew. Morrison would, of course, largely outgrow this tendency over the course of the next decade, with the aforementioned Invisibles acting as his own version of The Sandman, a means for a young creator of digesting and reflecting a large mass of influences through the lens of familiar genre fiction signifiers. Like Moore and Gaiman, Morrison would become a far more subtle writer with age, but his earlier work retains a pleasing density sometimes missing from his later, more streamlined efforts.



If anything could be said to account for the story's relatively low profile compared both to other early attempts at "mature readers" Batman stories and in the context of Morrison's well-plumbed oeuvre, it may be Klaus Janson's art. Janson is, it must be said, an acquired taste, a master of mood and setting (he can draw castles and gothic cathedrals for days), whose figurework often suffers from a merely expressionistic relationship to reality. I happen to like Janson's art, the occasional strange potato-head notwithstanding. Something Janson gets which many more superficially polished artists do not is how to make a fight seem painful and punishing without also appearing pretty: the brawl between Batman and Mr. Whisper that takes up much of the story's last issue is brutal, with broken bones and bloody knuckles, and Batman facing down an opponent who may be nowhere his match in terms of martial skill, but simply can't be stopped, not even by a speeding subway train. It's exhausting to read, and Janson's Batman - far from the invincible paragon he is often portrayed as - feels the rattle of every blow.

"Gothic" isn't a perfect story, despite its many virtues. Some of its defects are still present in Morrison's work down to this day: for instance, pacing can seem a jumble. Each episodic set-piece is exquisitely measured by Janson, but the episodes themselves can seem abrupt. The series' mandate of tying each adventure so closely to the "Year One" era results in a questionable continuity implant that sees Thomas Wayne on the verge of solving a series of brutal child murders on the very day he's shot and killed (while also raising the question of whether or not the Waynes' murder was as random as believed, which carries regrettable implications for the character's origin). The same over-enthusiasm that made Arkham Asylum interesting and frustrating in equal measure can be discerned here, even if Janson's art provides a much firmer grounding for the writer's earnest digressions. Arkham Asylum is ultimately redeemed not despite but because of its excesses - it's a ludicrously overstuffed, ungodly pretentious monstrosity that works because of its deep commitment to every overwrought and underbaked bit of juvenile psychodrama. There isn't nearly as much at stake with "Gothic", and Morrison is far more restrained. Despite the surprisingly cosmic scope, at its root it's still a murder mystery with a bit of supernatural horror thrown in for good measure. If the story seems to overreach at times, its portrait of Batman is perfectly balanced, a human, fallible hero who nonetheless manages to triumph in the face of unearthly evil due to his demoniacal singularity of purpose.



Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight





"Shaman" by Dennis O'Neil, Ed Hannigan, and John Beatty


For all the conventional wisdom that superhero movies don't sell comic books (an iffy proposition, if not altogether incorrect), the perpetual exception that proves this dubious rule for armchair market watchers remains Batman and Batman, ca. 1989. Batman the movie ended up selling a lot of comics, and also a lot of everything else. As strange as it may seem now in the year 2015, there were only two regular Batman titles on the stands at this time: Batman and Detective Comics, both continuing their numbering from the Golden Age. So the premiere of a new ongoing solo Batman book was actually an event worth noting, even if the release had been catalyzed by a juggernaut motion picture.

Legends of the Dark Knight was, at the time, an altogether different kind of monthly comic. Instead of launching with a stable creative team, the book was conceived from the get-go as an anthology, with rotating creators switching arcs. Additionally, the book was not set in the present of the DCU, but in the past - specifically, the "Year One" period popularized by Frank Miller in his work (with David Mazzucchelli) of the same name, which had also served as one of the stylistic influences for Tim Burton's movie. So while LotDK was designed to fit into the then-modern post-Crisis continuity, filling in the gaps of Batman's early years, it was still, like "Year One," at a distance from contemporary goings-on. What this meant in practice - although this mandate loosened as time wore on and the "Year One" period became increasingly crowded - was: no yellow Bat-symbol, no other superheroes, and especially no Robin. Oh yeah, the Comics Code was conspicuously missing as well - although, at least for this first arc, the lack was often academic.



The series' first story had all the ingredients of a hit: longtime Batman writer / editor Denny O'Neil paired with experienced draftsman Ed Hannigan for a paired-down, atmospheric mystery starring a young and still inexperienced Dark Knight, in a brand-new mature(er)-readers Batman book. Unfortunately, the end result ended up being, well, not so auspicious.

The story begins in Alaska, just south of the Arctic circle. Young Bruce Wayne is still in his training period, this time following a famous bounty hunter as he tracks a desperate criminal across a windswept snowy mountain pass. (You have to wonder, just how many experts did Bruce shadow in his apprentice years? Did he train under a master sommelier somewhere? The world's greatest cabinet maker?) Anyway, things go awry and everyone dies except for Bruce, who is also about to die before he just happens to be saved by an Inuit medicine man and his comely daughter, who nurse him back to life with the aid of a magical story about bats. After he gets better, Bruce returns to Gotham and decides he's ready to begin his crimefighting career.



Parts of the story take place literally between panels of Miller's "Year One," and not surprisingly "Shaman" manages to step on the toes of that other, far superior story. For instance, the bat story / legend Bruce hears while recovering in Alaska precedes the fateful moment where the bat flies into his study. Think about that for a second: instead of the iconic image of the bat crashing through the window and Bruce deciding just then to become Batman, in O'Neil's version the bat flies through the window and Bruce thinks, "oh, a bat, that reminds me of the bat story my Alaskan friends told me. I think maybe I should follow that inclination and dress up in a bat mask, just like the helpful shaman, and this other bat here which was more incidental than anything else."



There's some other stuff here to pad out the five issue arc. A death cult based on a syncretic combination of Alaskan and Santa Priscan myth pops up in Gotham to take advantage of the fact that Gotham gang members really are stupid enough to believe ritually killing people will grant them mystic protection. It turns out that Bruce Wayne really did those Inuits a solid by telling everybody about how awesome they were because within a year the outside world had descended on the small community, built an airport and tourist industry from scratch, and plunged the previously-seen natives into poverty and drunken dissolution - all within a year if you follow the story's time frame. Bruce feels guilty about this but doesn't really dwell on it. Would you believe the killer turns out to be the guy from the beginning of the story who you thought died by falling off a mountain, but it turns out survived and just so happened to figure out Bruce Wayne was Batman? And of course, when Bruce tries to return the stolen bat-mask to its original owners, they let him have it because he's now . . . The REAL Bat-Shaman.

I could go on but there's no point. O'Neil was obviously stretching here, but the best intentions in the world do little to elevate the story beyond regrettable. If this story had come out thirty years earlier, the cover caption would have invited readers to wonder "What Is The Mystery Behind Batman's First Mask?" That's essentially what this is: another pseudo-origin story superimposed over another, better origin story, adding in details that don't make a lot of sense for no reason other than it seems to be the series mandate.



Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Notes on a Crisis

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Because you know I had to get in on that action, I have officially put down my two cents regarding the impending, er, well, whatever the fuck it is they think they're doing with Secret Wars. But not here. Over here! Where I get paid for my opinions, which is pretty cool. Anyway, the first draft of the piece was almost 3,000 words long, and I needed to cut ~500 words of continuity trivia and completely superfluous digressions into stuff that the more general readership of the A.V. Club probably does not care about. But like a good butcher I never let any part of the animal go to waste. So, for the edification of my readership, here are the organ meats, AKA the footnotes. 

http://images.sequart.org/images/Crisis-on-Infinite-Earths-1-660x499.jpg

The original title of the piece was 
 
The Sky Is Falling! Unless It Isn’t. (It Probably Isn’t.)
Marvel’s New SECRET WARS Promises to Change Everything. Again. (Maybe.) 

On the one hand I can understand why they shortened it to simplify the meaning. On the other, the changed title slightly misrepresents the main argument.  


Crisis on Infinite Earths was written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by George Perez. Wolfman spent years doing research for the series, research that also became the genesis of the first, contemporary Who’s Who series. Who’s Who was DC’s belated, and somewhat less officious, response to Marvel’s Official Handbook series.

Earth 4 for all the heroes from the defunct Charlton, Earth S for the Fawcett heroes (the S stands for Shazam, naturally), and Earth X for the Quality heroes.

Earth 2 was the universe where the Justice Society had fought in World War II, so most stories on Earth 2 dealt with the children and grandchildren of the original Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and company. Other Earth 2 changes: Batman was dead, the Justice Society disbanded because of the HUAC, and for seemingly no good in-story reason, Quebec was independent.

The “early blips” following Crisis were results of creators and editorial alike not knowing what was and was not canon on the new Earth. Early mistakes made in regards to Hawkman crippled the character for decades (some would say he’s never been completely fixed). The event hurt the Legion of Super-Heroes so bad they were eventually rebooted completely, in the pages of the next “crisis,” Zero Hour. The first story to explicitly play around with the ghosts of the Crisis was Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, and Morrison would later contribute a great deal to the unraveling of Crisis in the 2000s, following his return from Marvel. 

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The first Secret Wars was also an early example of multi-platform synergy originating from comics IP. A toy line and other merchandising emerged from the comic series, a move that was soon copied by DC with their Super Powers event and toys. For what it’s worth, the Super Powers toys are remembered on much fonder terms than the generally disliked Secret Wars line.

Contest of Champions came out two years after it had been originally scheduled as a tie-in to the 1980 Summer Olympics. You may recall that the US boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow, which is the reason the series had originally been taken off the schedule, before being resurrected long after the fact and scrubbed of any topical references.

A few examples of short-term changes wrought by Secret Wars: the Thing fell out with the rest of the Fantastic Four, and didn’t rejoin the team for another couple years. Iron Man came back with some weird alien machine parts in his armor that later turned evil and fought Quasar. The Hulk, who began the wars in one of his intermittent intelligent phases, had become savage and dumb by the end. Colossus had an affair with an alien healer, which resulted in his split from Kitty Pryde (to which most people said: well, good, that was always kind of squicky). Venom, however, is still a player in the Marvel Universe to this day, as this week’s Guardians of the Galaxy #23 attests.

The designation of the mainstream Marvel U as “Earth 616” is, oddly, Alan Moore’s greatest contribution to Marvel. The label has stuck – to Tom Brevoort’s chagrin – even though the reference began as an off-hand joke in an issue of Moore’s Captain Britain.

Think of the situation for Captain American: instead of waking up after “only” nineteen years in the ice, in the midst of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement and Beatlemania, Cap now woke up after around sixty years in a post-9/11 world almost completely alien from the one he had known.

Magneto’s origin is irrevocably tied to being a survivor of the Holocaust. Unlike Cap, Magneto lived every day of the preceding century, although he was de-aged once, which is most likely the only way he can conceivably still be alive and look approximately 45-50 years old.

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Although they haven’t made a big deal about it, they quietly updated the Punisher to being a Gulf War Vet a few years ago – which Gulf War being itself, I think, an ambiguous designation. I don’t think the character works the same without Vietnam in his backstory, but otherwise he’s at least seventy years old, so I guess it’s a necessary compromise.

It’s worth noting that every change, no matter how seemingly inconsequential or necessary, ruffles some feathers.

In regards to fans’ predictions of an impending reboot: even if they only said it once back in 1998, you’ll still be hearing a great deal of “I knew it all along!” in the weeks to come from hindsight prognosticators.

One of the other “blips” from the early days of the post-Crisis was the appearance of the old Earth 1 Superman in the first few months of New Earth, despite the fact that when Superman was re-introduced in the first issue of John Byrne’s Man of Steel he was considerably different. It was a weird time, and things were in flux for longer than people probably remember. 

Another strike against the long-term health of the Ultimate line was a number of irreversible deaths (dead was usually dead in the Ultimate universe) that left the line bereft of marquee characters such as Wolverine, Captain America, and even Peter Parker (I know, I know, Ultimate Peter Parker supposedly came back a few months ago. Supposedly. Who knows how that plotline will play out, especially with the Wars impending.)

Other threads cast in the lead up to Secret Wars: The events of Axis led to Tony Stark’s permanent heel turn, which promises to factor heavily into the resolution of Hickman’s Time Runs Out, the immediate run-up to the Wars. Thor lost his hammer after the events of Original Sin left him (undoubtedly temporarily) “unworthy.” The Hulk appears to be taking a dark turn towards becoming the evil Maestro in the present-day. Time travel stories in Peter David’s Spider-Man 2099 and X-Factor may also be feeding into Secret Wars.

In terms of the event’s high profile, it certainly does not hurt that the first chapter of Secret Wars, issue #0, is being released on Free Comic Book Day, which just so happens to be one day after the release of a little movie called Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Let's Look At Secret Wars II Crossovers!



Fantastic Four #285



If there's one thing you should have picked up on by now, I genuinely love Secret Wars II. I think it was an ambitious and endearingly odd experiment, a massive line-wide crossover - only the second ever, really - masquerading as a weird personal statement on the part of Marvel's then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter. To fully understand SWII you really need to follow it up with Shooter's Star Brand and his later Solar - Man of the Atom, in order to see him return again and again to the idea of a normal human being granted godlike powers, and in turn denied the pleasures of domestic bliss taken for granted by the rest of the population. You can read what you wish into Shooter's choice of reluctant gods as authorial proxies, over and over again . . .

However, not everyone working at Marvel was on Shooter's wavelength at the time. So while a number of SWII crossovers were interesting, many were also unmemorable, and a few were actively terrible. Those books fortunate enough to be scheduled for a crossover during the early months of the series - mainstays such as Iron Man and Captain America - lucked out with superfluous tie-ins that needed do little with The Beyonder. Later scheduled series were forced to shoehorn the character into their ongoing storylines - which worked well in the case of a handful of soon-to-be-cancelled series that needed well-timed deus ex machina plot devices, such as The New Defenders, ROM and The Micronauts. But the worst victims of the crossover were, oddly, Marvel's then-highest selling books: Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and Fantastic Four. Whereas most of the Marvel line was on the hook for only one crossover issue, these five were stuck with a mandated three crossovers each - four in the case of The Avengers, which was also allotted the dubious honor of featuring the main series' aftermath as well.

Marvel's attitude towards crossovers is far less compulsory now. Often, lower selling titles participate more in high profile crossovers for the purpose of boosting sales, while higher-selling titles feel comfortable sitting out all but the biggest of big deals. Not so in 1986: your reward for producing one of Marvel's highest-selling titles was being pressganged into participating in the EIC's vanity crossover sequel not once but thrice. To their credit, Chris Claremont and John Byrne rose to the challenge and produced some of the crossovers' best efforts. For instance, in many ways Uncanny X-Men #203 is the series' "real" climax, with Secret Wars II #9 serving as that book's denouement (which, come to think of it, might itself have been a form of passive aggression on Chris Claremont's part). Fantastic Four #288 was a similarly climactic tale, featuring the Beyonder brought low by Dr. Doom and Reed Richards, while also cleaning up the last great dangling plothole from the original Secret Wars (again, any resemblance to actual animus between Jim Shooter and John Byrne is completely coincidental, I am sure.)

But, and this is putting it mildly, Fantastic Four #285 is no Fantastic Four #288.

Fantastic Four #285 isn't just a genial goofy misfire. It's not a clumsy, ambitious overreach. It lacks the charm of Peter Parker teaching the Beyonder how to use the bathroom, or even the sheer absurdity of the Beyonder curing cancer with a wave of his hand. No, this is worse: this is terrible, maliciously terrible. This is a wrong-headed comic with an inconceivably awful and profoundly confused "moral" that leaves a rancid taste in your mouth. I thought it was terrible when I first read it almost three decades ago, and it's still awful now. And the worst part is that the story hasn't been forgotten. It placed at #40 on Marvel's recent 75 Greatest Marvel Comics anniversary poll. It even made the deluxe Omnibus commemorating said anniversary. It received a sequel a few years later in Fantastic Four #342. Its endurance is astounding, considering just how blatantly, irredeemably offensive the story actually is.

Our story begins at the ending, with a coroner's report. Whose report? Why, little Tommy Hanson, age 13. Who is this mysterious Tommy Hanson, you ask? And how does his story intersect with that of the Fantastic Four?



Already on the first page Byrne tips us off the perceptive reader that this is going to be a heavy trip. Dead children! Sad professional brunettes! This isn't your father's Fantastic Four! This issue is going to be about . . . Issues.

It turns out that young Tommy Hanson is actually a member of that most harried and abused minority . . . a fanboy. And not just any fanboy, but a Human Torch fanboy, which is about as sad as it sounds. Especially since all the "cool kids" in the seventh grade know about Tommy's, er, proclivities.



Seriously, what's going on here? There's a new celebrity gossip rag out with a big feature on the Human Torch. Instead of being all, hey, I'll buy it with my allowance next time I'm in a 7-11, our pal Tommy immediately signs over his lunch money for a month, and agrees to do this guy's homework until Christmas. Even if lunch only costs a couple dollars a day, that's still at least $30 or $40. This was the 80s so a new copy of People magazine would have been, what, $1.50? I'm not even a mathematician and I can tell you that's a pretty steep mark-up.

So now you've met Tommy, in all his denim-on-denim glory. Let's be frank here: Tommy is a sad-sack without any redeeming features, in terms of the junior high pecking order. He's thirteen years old and 3'6", which is pretty sad all on its own. It's conceivable, based on the evidence here, that Tommy has serious medical problems besides just being a nerd.

Anyway, Tommy's joy over getting his seriously overpriced magazine is cut drastically short when Ms. Welsh discovers him reading the magazine in class.



Oh boy, there's a lot going on here, and none of it is good.

One of the more uncomfortable facts of life for many kids growing up liking stuff like comic books, sci-fi, or fantasy is that the reason they gravitate to these pursuits is because they have a hard time fitting in. It's often a chicken / egg situation - did you start reading comic books because you had a hard time in school or did other kids give you a hard time in school because you read comic books? When your peers were repeating dirty jokes they heard from their older brother and talking about which supermodels they wanted to bang, did they call you "faggot" because you didn't have an opinion one way or another? Or did they pull a pile of comics out of your backpack, spot some overly-muscled male superhero, and, well, you see a pattern here? Lots of sexual insecurity on display from all directions. Those examples aren't from personal experience, but they loom large in the racial memory of certain kinds of comics fans.

And this is where the story tips its hand. Because Tommy isn't just any kid, he's a Reader Surrogate. Not in a good way, mind you. He is standing in for the comic book nerd's worst possible self-image: the undersexed, physically weak, hopeless geek with nothing to live for besides his precious superheroes. But it's OK, you see, because Tommy doesn't have a crush on the Human Torch, no sir. He just really likes the idea of a flamboyant, flaming young muscular man.

Byrne has a, let's be politic here, questionable track record when it comes to homosexual characters. Of course they didn't talk about these things openly back then. But read his Alpha Flight, or his Namor. There are clearly gay characters in both series, but they're also not the best possible portrayal of LGBT characters. In fact, both Northstar and Desmond Marrs play up different angles of similar kinds of noxious gay stereotypes - finicky, flamboyant, scheming, bitchy. (Also, they both have strangely intimate vaguely incestuous relationships with twin sisters, which is . . . weird?) So gay people do exist in Byrne's world. But Tommy Hanson isn't gay. Because there is no way that Byrne could ever have given a sympathetic portrayal of a kid with ambiguous or confused sexuality. And because he's our perverse audience surrogate, Byrne has to bend over backwards to state as explicitly as possible that there is nothing at all gay about liking superheroes.

Anyway, we see the rest of Tommy's day, and it doesn't get any better from here.



Absentee mother? Check. Absentee masculine role model? Double check. But, there is someone around . . .



Here's Joss. What the heck is Joss doing here? Well, Joss is a guy wearing a leather vest with no shirt underneath, long hair in a ponytail and a Mephistophelian goatee. He also has to "call the office" when he gets a call on his "pocket beeper." Given that we know Joss spends his spare time tinkering with remote control airplanes and playing around with his own special formula of rocket fuel, because real rocket fuel isn't good enough for his toy airplane, what possible "job" could our pal Joss actually have? Does it involve selling special herbs from a van? Or does he spend his time driving around the countryside with three friends and a dog, supposedly "solving mysteries" but really just following the Grateful Dead's tour itinerary?

Anyway, in case you needed the help. Because the story really is just too subtle. Byrne provides foreshadowing. Did you miss the foreshadowing? Here's the foreshadowing again, in case you missed the foreshadowing:



Meanwhile, in case you forgot who the main characters of the book are, it's the Fantastic Four! At this period in their career, the Baxter Building had been demolished and the team spent a few months living in Avengers Mansion while their new building, Four Freedoms Plaza, was being built on the site of the old. And, oh yeah, the Beyonder was still skankin' around, somewhere, doing somethin' - nobody knows what! Will that be important? Who knows!



Now, the good thing about being on a team with Reed Richards is that you know he's going to spell out every plot point and thematic element precisely and at length. Now . . . I'm only partially joking here. From the series' very early days Reed was the obnoxious know-it-all lecturing to his best friends about anything and everything. But one of Byrne's better tricks writing for the series was subtly and not-so-subtly aging the other members of the cast so that they weren't completely dependent on Reed to provide all the series expository gravitas. If you recall a few weeks back when I tackled the Thing's participation in SWII, one of the themes of Byrne's run on the characters was the fact that the other members of the team - especially Ben - had grown resentful of Reed's treating them like children. This scene, which begins with Reed lecturing Johnny, turns out to be a reasonable conversation between more-or-less equals. It's a nice character piece that also touches on some of the themes of the main crossover. Byrne may or may not have resented the imposition of having to participate in the series, but he still had a good understanding of what Shooter was trying to accomplish with the Beyonder. He also managed to tie in the Beyonder's presence with themes Byrne established in the then-recent "Trial of Galactus" storyline.



But look who it is, it's that lady doctor from the first page. Which means that try as we might, we're not going to be able to forget that other, awful-er plotline . . .



You know how I said that Byrne matured the team a little bit? Well, even though Johnny was going steady with Alicia Masters (who would later turn out to be a Skrull, you know, so just think about the fact that he was married to a Skrull for five years), he still finds time to flirt with the woman doctor in the maroon pantsuit. Good job, Johnny, way to class up the joint.

Anyway, upon hearing that Tommy Hanson is dying in the hospital, Johnny beats feet.



"I only did it to be like you . . ."

Fans with long memories might remember that the Human Torch was excluded from the late 1970s Fantastic Four cartoon, replaced with longtime fan punching bag H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot. The rumor for years was that the character was kept off the show for fear of inspiring stupid children to set themselves on fire to emulate their hero. This was false. But the rumor stuck, and even though the series lasted a scant thirteen episodes, everyone hated H.E.R.B.I.E. so much that during Marv Wolfman's run (which immediately preceded Byrne's, and for which Byrne was partially the artist) the robot became mentally controlled by Dr. Sun and was subsequently destroyed after trying to kill the team.

So as absurd as it may seem, the grimly specific nature of Tommy's death was actually a reference to an urban legend about a cancelled TV show that remained a bone of contention with thin-skinned fans for many years.



Tommy's parents are, understandably, a little upset about what happened to their son. How exactly are readers supposed to read this scene? On the one hand, you have grieving parents who are reacting against the most proximate cause of their son's death - i.e., his emulation of his superhero idol, who also happened to be a man on fire. On the other, we've been given every reason to think that the Hansons are simply awful parents, leaving their son alone all day, oblivious to his problems at school, perfectly willing to let him spend his free afternoons with "Joss." So whose fault is Tommy's death? Is it Johnny's? Or his parents? The clear answer is that Tommy fell between the cracks, let down by his parents, his teacher, and his only "friend." But if there is one thing that the story goes out of its way to communicate, it's that the only person completely undeserving of blame is Johnny Storm, the actual guy who inspired the kid to set himself on fire.

Johnny reacts, I think, how most of us would in the same situation, rightly or wrongly:



OK, that's the end of the story. The Human Torch retires, never uses his powers again, and spends the rest of his life working for children's charities. The rest of the Fantastic Four carry on, and the world keeps spinning. The End!

















































Oh, shit. It's still not over.



Yep. This happened during the brief period where the Beyonder was on his whole life-affirming kick, teleporting around the planet in order to help people better fulfill themselves. So he hears Johnny's words in his moment of anguish and decides that there is no better time to pop in and help out by giving a timely pep talk.

Johnny doesn't take too kindly to the One From Beyond showing up to help, considering he - like the rest of us - remembers that just a few months back the Beyonder was taking potty training lessons from Spider-Man.



Just about everything about the issue up to this point has been remarkably offensive, but . . . this is simply ghastly. It's disgusting. It's the kind of "moral" that only makes sense in the wind-tunnel of comic book fandom, a world in which living vicariously through fictional heroes is somehow considered a legitimate alternative to "real" life.



Sure, we've all been there. We've all had those moments or those years where spending time with fictional friends has been far preferable to real friends. For some of us, comic books (or gaming or fantasy or whatever) were what we needed to get through hard spots in life. Tommy is that kid. That much is obvious: we're supposed to sympathize with the kid whose life was so bad his only respite was collecting celebrity gossip rags with Human Torch photo spreads in them. But how sublimely self-serving of this comic to tell us, the readers, that it's OK to be losers so long as we keep buying Marvel comics. It's OK because there is no way, no sir, that we're gay. Because that's obviously a fate even worse than setting yourself on fire.

To say that this "message" is garbage is an insult to garbage. The story stacks the deck against poor Tommy Hanson, giving us the worse possible model of the socially maladjusted, physically disadvantaged, sexually backwards adolescent nerd. There is nothing going on in this kid's life but reading comic books and being a fanboy. But that's OK! Nobody should feel bad about reading too many comic books and getting beat up at school because it's just fine and dandy to live vicariously through comic books. Why has this story lingered in the imagination of aging fanboys? Is it because it's provides the perfect excuse for growing up and into the kind of maladjusted Eltingville Club monsters who use their bad childhoods as all the excuse they need to spew abuse and harassment across the internet? Lifelong resentment against bullies both real and imagined provide all the rationale necessary to turn against the world that hates and fears you. It's OK because Marvel Comics are your only real friend. Marvel will never leave you.

Not only is the reader's expected sympathy towards Tommy heavy-handed, but the story's supposed life-affirming message is disconcerting and self-absorbed. Every ounce of sympathy towards Tommy dissolves the moment you realize the story is solely intended to make its readers feel better about being nerdy outcasts. The message isn't "it gets better" or that you need to be confident in yourself or stand up to bullies or that you should reach out for help to other people when you feel alone - the message is that some nerds are so far gone that the best they can hope for is a quick death. Is there a single coherent message to be salvaged from the story, or is it futile to even try?

And because this is a self-important superhero comic, we can't be expected to get off without a ham-fisted literary quote:



Tommy wouldn't say it had a happy ending. Nothing about this even vaguely resembles a happy ending. This is a shitty ending about how the world is a shitty place and even though shitty things happen, pretty people will always find ways to make themselves feel better about those shitty things, even when the shitty things are partially their fault. What's more, it's OK to be pretty and oblivious because it makes the peasants feel better about themselves to be able to look up and admire their betters. Or something?

I am confident in asserting that this is one of the worst comics Marvel has ever published. It's stuck in the middle of one of Marvel's most celebrated runs by one of its most celebrated creators, so not only has it historically received a pass, it's been celebrated for its toxic "message" by successive generations of fanboys too stupid to tell when they're being insulted.

Oh yeah, in case you were wondering:



Yep, even as Secret Wars II marches on, life continues, and the resurrection of Jean Grey for the purposes of launching the first non-Claremont X-Men spinoff was a story too important to wait. You know Byrne just had to get in on that action.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Munchausen Weekend



The Hobbit - The Battle of Five Armies



Have these Hobbit films been any good? Well, that depends.

Were they absurdly stretched out? Were they leaden and somber where every word of the source material was light? Was every conceivable detail magnified to Brobdingnagian proportions, often flying in the face of narrative sense or common decency? Did the movies, which depended for their existence on an absolute fealty to every sentence of a short book still somehow take enough liberties to obscure everything charming and memorable about the original story? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions must be yes.

These movies were made the way they were made because there was money to be had, and without the participation of the Tolkien estate there will be no more films, leastwise until the rights change hands. (This is something of a shame, because there's lots of material in The Silmarillion and related texts that might make for decent films, without needing excessive padding.) Peter Jackson tried to resist but sure enough he loved playing around with these toys, and his affection - if not his fidelity - is manifest in every frame. Will I ever return to them? Probably not. I don't see them holding up as well as the Lord of the Rings films have, for all the same reasons why they are nowhere near as good as the previous series. But I don't regret having seen them in the theater, either. They were fun, if just that.

I long ago made peace with the fact that there is no use getting upset about the liberties these movies make with their source materials. I dearly love Tolkien's works and his world, and the quality or lack thereof of any movie adaptations does nothing to efface a single period or exclamation mark in the books themselves. (Let's just put aside the fact that, if Gandalf really did know for certain at the end of The Hobbit that Bilbo had the ring, there's no reason in the world they shouldn't have just marched to Mordor to destroy the thing as soon as possible. Cool story, bro.)

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 1



I enjoyed this one far more than I think I probably should! I don't have the time to devote to actually reading the books themselves so I don't have any opinion on how good a job they do with these adaptations, but they feel sturdy and well-constructed in a way that too many similar YA adaptations do not. Get a good cast, some decent material with surprisingly heavy themes, and you're off to the races. There are some images of Katniss and her crew walking over mountains of cremated skeletons and rubble that genuinely surprised me in a movie of this pedigree.

The One I Love



Now here is a movie from which I expected very little but which actually turned out to be very good! We sat down to watch this more out of a sense of obligation to the people in it than anything else - Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass usually have very good instincts as far as these things go. Expecting some kind of bland mumblecore-esque relationship drama, we got . . . well, here's the thing. It is kind of that. But I can't say what else it is. It's bad enough that I even have to hint at something else to entice you. I've already said too much. Just ... go see it for yourself. I'll wait. Quite satisfying.

Housebound



Here's another movie that zigs when you think it should zag, only difference being that this a horror movie and these things are expected here. It's a New Zealand movie, and if you didn't know that going in you could probably pick it up from one of the many aspects of the film that are poached wholesale from Dead Alive (AKA Braindead if you're feeling pedantic). There's also the small matter of the Wes Craven influence . . . but telling you which of his films Housebound borrows from most liberally would be spoiling the whole game.

So I'm of two minds. On the one hand, it was a very well made, enjoyable film that was genuinely unpredictable and featured game performances from a handful of charmingly deadpan actors who I've never heard of before. It wears its influences gamely on its sleeve and has a lot of fun riffing on the audience's expectations. But on the other . . . some of the decisions made in the second half of the film seem to actively undermine the potential of the first half. It's one thing to watch a movie and be surprised when what you thought was one thing turned out to be something else all along, but another to be left thinking that the first thing you thought might well have been more interesting than what you actually got.

The Fall (2006)



I knew in advance this movie would be terrible. I watched it anyway. It was terrible. Why did I watch it? You're better off not knowing. The best part is when Thranduil from The Hobbit tries to trick a little girl into helping him kill himself by stealing morphine from the hospital pharmacy. Oh wait, that's all the movie. Yay?

The Interview



James Franco is the most absurd person to ever walk the planet, but I do have a soft spot for the movies where he spends the entire running time making fun of himself. It's a good look on him. And that's basically what The Interview is about, geopolitics notwithstanding: Franco is a self-centered idiot who doesn't understand why no one else takes him seriously, and in this he finds common cause with a genocidal dictator. It's a good look. The dick-and-shit jokes are slightly above normal caliber, and a splendid time is had by all.

That a movie this intentionally modest and silly became a cause célèbre on the field of international relations is weird. That the movie has been adopted by some North Korean exile groups, not because of its quality but precisely on account of its pervasive dumbness, is interesting. An argument I've heard from more than one source is that the film, being a bog-stupid comedy, works better at undermining the regime than the most powerful dramatic treatment could. It's flattering to the sensibilities of an America that prefers its political engagement as disengaged as possible, but there's some truth there as well.

Obvious Child



This isn't the first time you've heard anyone talk about how great this movie is and it won't be the last, but it doesn't lose anything from hearing it again. it's a good movie! Not just because of the fact that it's got an abortion in it or anything, that's what it's "about" but it's only what it's really about if you're uncomfortable about the idea of an American movie treating abortion in anything but a critical manner. It's a character study of a fucked-up girl in the same way that we get a seemingly infinite number of character studies of fucked-up boys - the only difference being, if this were a boy's movie Jenny Slate's character would be played by Jonah Hill and the budget would have been somewhere around $40 million dollars instead of a half-eaten bag of shoestring potatoes and some Kickstarter spare change.

But most importantly, it's funny. In another world movies like this would get made all the time - you know, movies where being a woman isn't a problem to be solved but a fact of life for half the population. Calling it feminist just for existing is a poor complement, but that's the shitty world in which we live.

Trailer Park Boys - Don't Legalize It



By all rights Trailer Park Boys should have passed it's sell-by date a while back. The idea that a show about white trash Canadian petty crooks and the trailer park in which they live would have lasted fifteen years without any real interruption - even allowing for the series' rights changing hands in 2012 - is pretty improbable on the face of it. But they've managed to tap a surprisingly deep vein of class antagonism and scatology. Even if every season and movie from the very first tells the exact same story, they have shown remarkable ingenuity in switching around the component parts in such a way as to make it seem new with every turn.

The movies take place at a slight remove from the show, in terms of continuity and characterization. Whereas the show, eight seasons in, does a good job of maintaining a pretty rigid stasis for each character - the point being that they're all trapped in Sunnydale forever doing the same thing over and over again until the day they die - things change in the movies, people get married, actions have vague consequences. To wit, Bubbles finds out his parents have died, leaving him their "house." Ricky drives to Ontario with the purpose of protesting the impending legalization of marijuana, with the understanding that if pot is legalized, "small business owners" such as himself will be pushed out of the market for good. And Julian figures out a sure-fire way to make a lot of money selling clean piss from the nearby military base. As you might expect, none of these plans go exactly right. I keep expecting not to laugh anymore, to see that the jokes have gotten stale or the slapstick performances less inspired. But it hasn't happened yet.

Marmaduke



If you're clever you can figure out the common thread between this, The Fall, and The Hobbit. That's how I spent my winter vacation.

Thing is, I'm a sucker for talking animal movies like Garfield is a sucker for lasagna. I enjoyed this more than The Fall, and probably more than The Hobbit. The only thing this movie didn't have was a scene where Billy Connolly rides a pig, and honestly I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Chrimbus!



Those who follow my Twitter feed, and those who pay attention to the sidebar, already know that for the last few months I've been uploading my podcasts to Mixcloud - my page, with all my uploads, can be found here. I release a new podcast more or less monthly, and I've put the last couple years' of older podcasts up as well.

I just put up a double shot of podcasts dedicated to the best music of 2014 - Party Jams #52 and #53. Those with long-ish memories might recall that I used to post the earliest podcasts on here until I received my first and only Cease & Desist letter, but so far Mixcloud seems to be a safe and legal alternative. In the years since I stopped featuring them here, I've distributed them primarily through e-mail and Twitter - anyone who wants to have access to actual downloads instead of just online streaming can e-mail me to be added to the list.

Et voila!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Final Exam - ENL 3 - Fall 2014



Below are four questions. For your final exam, please answer two of them. Each answer should be 400-500 words long, and will be worth 75 points. You have two hours to finish the exam. When you are finished, please upload your answers to SmartSite. You may leave when you are done. Have a good holiday break!
1. Color symbolism – specifically the juxtaposition of black and white – recurs throughout The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Cite one instance of Poe’s use of color and explain its significance.

2. Both Pym and At the Mountains of Madness end ambiguously – we don’t know what Pym and Dirk Peters experience after the abrupt end of the novel, and we never learn exactly what Danforth sees after their final escape from the hidden city. Why is this ambiguity significant to the effectiveness of horror stories?

3. Both Poe and Lovecraft make extensive use of mythological imagery – in Poe’s case, through many references to real-world myths and religion, and in Lovecraft’s, through the elaboration of an intricate and original myth system. How is the use of myth significant in either of these stories?

4. Explain the relationship between At the Mountains of Madness and the idea of scientific progress.


Extra Credit
10 Points


Imagine for a moment that Edmund Burke finds himself magically alive and well in the year 2014. After watching “Too Many Cooks” he decides to write a new chapter of A Philosophical Inquiry, explaining the significance of this viral video to our understanding of the sublime. What is his argument?