Monday, July 06, 2015

Meet the New Boss

Hey, kids, do you like punk rock?

Remember back in the halcyon days of this morning when the comics internet was up in arms that DC had hired a coterie of aging white male comics writers to create new series featuring some of their signature characters? You know, like Marv Wolfman writing Raven and Len Wein writing Swamp Thing? Dan Didio has already been execrated for saying that "[their] task was to 'freshen up and contemporize' . . . We want the best writers working on our characters, and these are the best writers for these characters." If he had simply said that these were the best writers for the characters at hand, that may still have been a questionable point, but it would at least be an arguable point. You would have a hard time arguing that Len Wein, for instance, wasn't a good choice to write the character he co-created, after all. But he went a step further and said that these writers were tasked with "[freshening] up and [contemporizing]" - which brings to mind the idea that perhaps these original creators aren't the best choices to go when looking for something new. It's simply disingenuous to assert that these men are the best people for that job.

Which isn't to say the books might not be good. They could very well be. But whether or not they are fresh and contemporary remains to be seen.

And then the other shoe dropped and it was announced that Grant Morrison would be taking over as the new EIC of venerable hesher institution Heavy Metal. All well and good, you might say.
“We’re trying to bring back some of that ’70s punk energy of Heavy Metal, but update it and make it new again,” says Morrison, 55, adding that his first comics work, in the Scottish comics mag Near Myths, was directly inspired by Heavy Metal. “One of the things I like to do in my job is revamp properties and really get into the aesthetic of something, dig into the roots of what makes it work, then tinker with the engine and play around with it."
The average age of the writers hired by DC to head their new "fresh and contemporary" initiative is 62.3. Grant Morrison is 55, but it's that 7.3 years that makes all the difference - the difference in this case being whether you roll your joints on a Hawkwind LP or snort amphetamines off a Plasmatics 7".

But what other secrets does the press release have to offer? "Morrison plans to write comic strips and prose material for the bimonthly magazine, too. He says he’s just beginning to reach out to talent in hopes of recruiting them. On his radar: Past collaborators Chris Burnham (Nameless) and Frazer Irving (Annihilator)." When asked to name future contributors to his magazine, he lists off two artists he knows personally, both competent journeymen mainstream comics artists, neither of whose personal styles would have seemed particularly out of place in the old Heavy Metal:

If posting promotional materials from their respective Batman runs seems like a cheap shot, well, it is. Instead of occasionally interesting if mostly puerile European imports, the magazine is going to be giving us the cream of the American mainstream's occasionally interesting if mostly puerile creators, now free to draw all the tits they want.

Is that a cheap shot, too?

Grant Morrison has never been a professional editor. He likes to put his face and his name on things - books, movies, conventions, and apparently the cover of Heavy Metal. Probably more important is the announcement that Brian Witten will be the new President of Heavy Metal, the company. Witten is a Hollywood producer with copious experience in genre film - stuff like the 2009 Friday the 13th reboot, and 1997's Spawn. He got his start in Hollywood by partnering with Rob Liefeld, so he has lots of experience working with egomaniacal flakes.

Morrison doesn't have the best track record in looking outside the bubble of his immediate surroundings. His Heavy Metal - inasmuch as we will be able to call it "his" since the actual day-to-day editing work will almost certainly be someone else's responsibility - will probably not feature an influx of new indie creators ready to take real chances. This won't be Kramer's Ergot 2015 - nor should we expect it to be. It'll be a facelift designed for the express purpose of leveraging a soggy brand name into a "bleeding edge" IP farm. It will be very interesting to see when and if the new Heavy Metal contracts leak - who will own what rights, and for how long? They wouldn't be hiring someone like Witten if they weren't poised to write a new business plan as a prelude to a capital influx, and inevitably what investors are going to want is not to be attached to a creatively ambitious white elephant futurist magazine, but an established brand name with ambitions of being an adult version of Marvel Studios.

And oh, hey, what else does the EW press release explicitly say?
While Morrison works reinvigorate Heavy Metal magazine, [brand owners] Krelitz and Boxenbaum are looking to build up Heavy Metal in other media. There’s now a Heavy Metal record label with BMG. There are television shows in various stages of development. And Krelitz is mapping out a bold plan for a shared movie universe, comprised of different Heavy Metal-branded franchises, analogous to the Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment philosophy. Where Marvel and DC make PG and PG-13 films, Heavy Metal will make PG-13 and R-rated films. The goal is to develop live action movies, in the vein of Avatar, not animated films. Says Krelitz: “It’ll be a series of films leading into a Heavy Metal movie, with another series of films leading into a another Heavy Metal movie.”
Grant Morrison is a past-his-prime creator who has in the past shown great sympathy for corporate properties at the expense of the creators themselves. (The original point was made by Matt Seneca, who apparently deleted his blog a while back, which I either missed or forgot at some point.) I would seriously suggest that any creator, veteran or new, take a close look at any contract they might be offered by the company going forward.

So this is Morrison completing the career arc that began when he accepted a pseudo-editorial position at DC, finally stepping behind the lines to become The Man, an editor, fully committed to getting his pals on board to create original IP for a burgeoning content farm explicitly styling itself in the mold of Marvel Entertainment - only "for adults." Morrison built a pretty good Brand, and it works for him because he's become what he always wanted to be: a marketable meme ready to be consumed by unsuspecting customers eager to take a ride with a talented showman.

Punk rock? Actually, yeah, pretty much.

Friday, May 29, 2015


Convergence #8

To begin, if we can be said to begin, we must ask the question, what is the superhero?

If, as perhaps we are likely to conclude, the superhero is a figure, a human figure, clad in brightly colored clothes and set loose upon a Manichean universe in order to impose an understanding of justice outside the boundaries of law, through the exercise of force - is there any more apt figure to illustrate our idea of justice? In order to enforce justice we must create an collective imaginary in which justice actually exists, and can furthermore be grasped, fondled, manipulated by creatures whose ethical advancement lends them the appropriate authority to do so.

So before we begin, before we can even ask the question of what the superhero is, who he is, what he is (is it a he?), we must establish the means by which the superhero can exist. The premises we must accept are simple, in fact, they number only one: that a man can be right. Every other consideration pales before this assertion. If, as we might posit, a man could ever for a single instant consider himself right, then the laws of nature themselves would bow before him, would prostrate themselves. So impossible is the premise of a tangible eruption of justice in the world, even a momentary glimpse of such an ideal, that it is nothing less than the perfect fantasy. Of course, if we could know the form and figure of justice, we would not balk at a man flying, or a man carrying an automobile over his shoulders. Such feats would simply take their place in a long line of miraculous eruptions - but if we lived in this world of miracles, the extraordinary would itself long since have become surpassingly quotidian.

So then the superhero himself, does he have a name? A face? A story? Or is he merely a shifting locus of ideas, attributes, impulses, and abrogations? Because they do not exist we can posit any manner of virtues they might possess, if they did, in the same manner as we can imagine so many dispositions for celestial beings, safe in the knowledge that we will never be disproven. But any virtues aside from that singular, spectacular rightness are secondary.

Because there are no superheroes we can imagine as many as we like, with as much overwhelming variety as we can conjure. Therefore we come into intimate contact with the immateriality of our own imaginations. There is an ideal. We can measure the means by which various characters rate in accordance to this ideal - how they fall short, how they struggle, how they wince in the sunlight of their imperfections. How do we define this ideal? This ideal cannot exist, and yet persists, une certaine connaissance of an object that exists nowhere else but in our minds. Superheroes, like justice itself, exist as a singular ideal refracted through a multitude of lenses, a lens for each spectator. We refer to the idea of "the superhero" and expect that our singular impulse towards ideality is shared by our audience, are certain that the form we envision is coeval with those of so many others. But there is no universal justice.

There is only one superhero. When we refer to multiple figures, we define these phantoms by their distance from the ideal, the central image we project from the mechanism of our own inadequacies. We place a label on this one superhero: the Superman. It is he who holds pride of place, he from whom all others are derived, he whose primary-colored costume serves as a model for so many others. This division of red, blue, and yellow, clean and precise, enacts a fable of impermeability. It is the painter's palette at its most basic, unadulterated. The Batman by comparison is a mere shadow, a grey and black blur ensconced in the cracks between certainty and frailty. The painter has mixed his colors into a desultory mush, and if we see ourselves reflected in this imprecision it is on account of our own failure to attain the impossible.

But this superhero, this Super-man, does not exist. There are many - hundreds - thousands - of incarnations of the Superman. Different interpretations. Different shades of red and blue and yellow. The original, imaginary Superman is undiluted by the myriad shades. The original, imaginary Superman that we envision never appears, and so is never supplanted. If we must put a name to this Superman, the invisible ideal that is always already present but never arriving, perhaps we can say that this originary figure is the Supurman. Phonetically, there is no difference in the pronunciation. But to speak Supurman is to trace the ghostly demarcation of the idea as distinct from the reality (or "reality"). Here there is graphological evidence of the undetectable originary: the replacement of the er with ur recalls the Germanic ur, the primitive, the original. Supurman exists prior to our conscious understanding of Superman: from the first, he is the theory of rightness that we cherish, even as we grow to acknowledge the impossibility of justice. The primary colors never blur or smudge in our minds.

Supurman is constructed from fragments and shards of stories, a grab-bag of moments and memories, isolated scenes from motion pictures and cartoons, single panels of dialogue or discrete action sequences. The Supermen who appear in the pages of comic books may at times approximate this image, but only briefly. The very instant of specification, when the idealized form of Supurman becomes embodied in the figure of a fleeting Superman, he begins to die.

Creators may try to approach the Supurman, but in doing so they reveal the impossibility of his incarnation. A text such as All-Star Superman strives to iterate the most universal notion of the Supurman, but fails. It does not fail for lack of effort, it fails because the very attempt to animate the character's most iconic tendencies instead results in tragic exsanguination. An icon is an image, a still image, a symbol that carries far more weight than any individual specimen. It is a static image. The comic book can capture the infinitesimal duration of a single moment as an illustration, and in that instant the icon is revealed in its resplendence.

But one image gives way to a succession of images, to compose a sequence and then, out of multiple sequences, a narrative. In order to become a dynamic force in a living story, a Superman must move. The act of movement rends the illusion of iconicity, and so even if we may have believed for a moment to have captured, finally, a glimpse of the Supurman, he is gone before we have registered his presence. Perhaps in the single still image, the pin-up or the cover, we can come closest to imaging the ideal of Supurman: one picture, shorn of context, containing all the infinite potential of the fantastic, suspended in a moment just prior to actual engagement. In that isolated moment justice shimmers tentatively, still defiantly un-impossible. Through this brief intimation of justice we can imagine the Supurman as a true contingency in our own lives.

And so we must be unsatisfied. All the many, many Supermen who exist are merely shadows. As the genre continues its march towards senescence, it is common to see multiple Supermen appear side by side, multiple reflections. For all the Superman who exist, there can never be a definitive interpretation, because the orignary idea exists beyond the realm of interpretation. The Supurman exists in a state of permanent abeyance, his place filled by a succession of stand-ins and substitutes. If you dislike one, wait a moment and another will appear. Attachment to any one Superman is revealed to be a perverse adherence. You can have 10 Supermen in a single book, 100 Supermen, an infinite number of Supermen, all unique and yet all derivations, and still be no closer to the unconcealment of the one, true Supurman, who exists only at the border of our peripheral vision, locked in the Phantom Zone of our Ideal-ich, inaccessible save through intimation.

Not so with the Batman, Superman's eternal shade. There is no ur-Batman. There are many Batmen, each equally entitled to represent the idea of Batman. The Batman is changeable, perhaps, because he does not represent the ideal of justice as Superman does - rather, the Batman is premised on an engagement with the actual, the impossibility of justice; he represents the necessity of accommodation (an ontological necessity observed by Batman mostly in the breach). The child-like Bruce Wayne's desire to impose order on an inherently chaotic world emphasizes the impossibility of such an act, whereas Supurman is a liminal figure, existing in the perpetual potential of order to assert itself, for the world to be remade as utopia through the exercise of ethical force. The Supurman is revolution.

It does not matter what form these characters may take, what specific incarnation may survive or perish in the duration. Every Batman remains equally solid, and every Superman remains equally ephemeral. We are all of us in the shadow of Supurman, whose perfection - contra Anselm of Canterbury - is predicated on his nonexistence, a necessary condition of his absence. He remains the first and only superhero, the absent father whose prophesied arrival still carries the promise of peace.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Top Ten Things I Learned from David Letterman

10. The Best Things in Life are Worth Staying Up For

David Letterman has been at CBS since 1993. Even back in the 90s when the so-called "Late Night Wars" were at their peak, there was a sense that late night TV was a dying enterprise. When Johnny Carson retired, it was clear that he could never be replaced, and not simply because of his talent or personality. The culture was already moving past the idea of three-network dominance, appointment viewing, late-night button-down white guys sitting behind a desk telling jokes. It wasn't just Arsenio Hall, and it wasn't just cable, but those were big parts of it. The idea of a monolithic American culture apparatus (if such a thing ever existed outside of the idea itself) was already splintering, and would not leave the decade intact.

In that sense, at least, David Letterman was a perfect fit for the times. He wasn't Carson, and would never have the ability to reach across demographics the way Carson had done. He was rough, with too many sharp edges, and - fatally - without the ability to reassure his audience that they were always in on the jokes. He was cool in a way that appealed to college kids and city dwellers. He took risks to be funny, and part of those risks was alienating people who weren't willing to meet him halfway.

It's odd to think of it, now - he had a nightly talk show on NBC for over a decade, but the media landscape was such that he could still be considered a cult proposition. Your dad or grandpa turned the TV off when Carson was over, and that was when the kids turned in to Letterman. It wasn't quite like that in my household. My parents were always fairly agnostic on Carson (they are both - from my perspective - remarkably anti-nostalgic in regards to the pop culture of their youths), but they were Late Night fans from very early on, and they passed that on to me. So this was the game: Friday nights, holidays, and Summer vacation, it was time to stay up and watch Letterman. Maybe if I was lucky I could make it through the monologue, the Top Ten list, and the first guest. I figured out how to use the VCR (which wasn't that easy) so that I could record the show when I wanted, when the TV Guide said there was a good musical guest. There's a chance that old VHS tapes containing episodes of Letterman with They Might Be Giants and Richard Thompson as musical guests still remain hidden somewhere in my parents' house.

And this was what the cool kids did in the 1980s. And if that sounds facetious, it wasn't, not at all. Irony had not yet conquered the world, but Letterman was the prophet.

9. It's OK to be the Smartest Guy in the Room

Letterman didn't give a fuck what you thought about him. That, especially, is hard to discern now: it's not like his attitude has appreciably changed, but he's become an elder statesman by default, avuncular and deeply respect and beloved even by the kinds of people who slept through his 80s heyday. But if you go to YouTube and watch any of the old episodes of Late Night archived there, you immediately see the difference.

He was born in Indiana but every bit the New Yorker. He spoke fast and thought faster. He wasn't afraid to filet any guest who dared cross him. Of course that would have rankled people. If you were used to Carson's kind patience with guests of all stripes, from the A-list to 15-minute-famous civilians, the idea that a talk-show host might bite back must have seemed not simply strange, but utterly mean-spirited.

But the rules were simple: if you came to play, Dave was more than happy to play. If you weren't on board with that, you might be in trouble. Tony Randall was one of Letterman's greatest guests, and not just because he happened to live in the neighborhood and could always be counted on to fill-in for a last-minute cancellation. Randall liked to play, and Dave liked having someone on board with whom he could spar for fifteen minutes. It was unpredictable and sometimes disastrous, but when it worked it was sublime. Guests who would have been completely DOA on another format - folks like Andy Kaufman, Harvey Pekar, and Crispin Glover - were welcome to be as cranky or unpleasant as they could be, because the understanding was that a disastrous interview was more memorable and enjoyable than a mediocre chat. Even late into his CBS run he was able to conjure up magical moments like Joaquin Phoenix's dada interview, humiliating on the face of it but riveting for the obvious relish Letterman still enjoyed at being able to sharpen his wit against a moving target - who had, regardless of his motivations, obviously come to play.

He nourished long-term public feuds with the likes of Cher because it was funny, and the rough-edges were part of the appeal. If Letterman hadn't existed, it would have been necessary for Madonna to invent him - the perfect rascally foil, unwilling to play the same old celebrity game with someone so obviously adept at playing that game to their own advantage. His later attempts to manufacture a spat with Oprah, while less engaging, were still funny because they proved he was still adept at leveraging other celebrities' supposed strengths into surprising vulnerabilities. For Letterman, there was and remains nothing more absurd than the idea of being a celebrity, and if you didn't get that, you weren't going to get on well with Dave.

8. It's OK to be a Smartass

Letterman is an intelligent man and the impatience with which he sometimes confronted his guests was matched by the impatience he approached much of the rest of the world. The banality of stupidity has always been one of the major motors of his comedy. That's one reason why even his most absurd bits carried a bite. The world is a pretty silly place, and sometimes the only rational response to this kind of silliness is to become silly yourself.

This is the worldview of the smartass, the guy cracking wise in the back of the classroom because his mind is working twice as fast as everyone around him and he just can't be bothered to slow down or pretend not to care. It's a form of cynicism, sure. But cynicism has a bad rap. No one wants to be called a cynic, but there's nothing dishonorable in holding fast to the belief that humans are often motivated by greed, ignorance, or self-regard. That observation is central to most forms of comedy, certainly most memorable comedy, from Aristophanes through to Richard Pryor. So while Letterman has often been criticized for being a prime contributor to the rise of irony in the 90s, and the corollary culture of cynicism pilloried by conservative and centrist ideologues for the past few decades, any critique that focuses on the negative effects of cynicism ignores the root cause of such cynicism - that is, the deep gulf between ideal and reality, and the corrosive effect of hypocrisy. Don't blame Letterman for ushering in an age of ironic disconnection (as per David Foster Wallace), blame the age which mandated the use of irony as a necessary survival mechanism.

7. Tradition is Important, Except When it Isn't

As much of an iconoclast as Letterman has always been, he is also a sincere traditionalist. He was Johnny Carson's anointed heir, after all. For over thirty years he used his shows as a venue to introduce new talent, both comedic and musical, in much the same way as Carson had done for him. He deeply respected longtime broadcast fixtures like Regis Philbin and Jack Hanna. He never missed an opportunity to spotlight older comedians who had influenced him. He loved nothing more than spotlighting older artists who had perhaps been left behind, figures such as Warren Zevon and Darlene Love. Even though he was an Indiana Presbyterian, he maintained a vital connection to the tradition of New York Jewish comedians of the kind who rose to prominence in Vaudeville and the resorts of the Borscht Belt. He was careful with those jokes, because they were antiques.

But his respect for these traditions was matched by his willingness to warp and break convention when necessary. Although he worshiped at the alter of Carson, his show was largely defined by the conscious attempt to break away from Carson's mold, a necessity bred by the network's insistence that Letterman avoid simply replicating Carson's formula an hour later. Late Night, especially in the early years, was defined by an enthusiastic desire to break from formula, to take conceptual risks, to potentially alienate anyone who wandered in simply because they didn't feel like turning off the television after the credits rolled on The Tonight Show.

6. Humility First, Last and Everything in Between

Letterman has never been shy about broadcasting his anxieties and insecurities regarding his own abilities. He's a notorious grump, a tendency born from an oft-repeated conviction of his own shortcomings.

With this in mind, Letterman's most endearing trait is his willingness to lean into his own imperfections. He gets a lot of mileage out of his face, not conventionally handsome by any standard, gap-toothed and curly haired, a face made for radio if ever there was. Gaffes and bloopers, both his and others, became one of the show's most enduring preoccupations. Even after he had moved to CBS and the show became a much slicker, far less (intentionally) ramshackle affair, he still maintained a looseness that belied the slick craftsmanship required to produce a nightly talk show. This was a stroke of genius, as it allowed him the freedom to embrace accidents when they occurred. Even through to the very end, Letterman maintained an air of wry dissatisfaction, a faux-ironic exasperation that you might associate with a man who long ago made peace with his status as an imperfect creature in an imperfect universe - "trapped in a world he never made."

5. Living Well is the Best Revenge

The Late Night Wars seem in retrospect like the silliest pop culture phenomena conceivable. Two larger-than-life TV comedians fought a brutal dynastic struggle over possession of The Tonight Show. NBC gave the spot to Jay Leno, despite Letterman's success in the 12:30 AM spot, and regardless of Carson's own probable preferences.

As awful as it might have seemed, NBC made the logical choice. Letterman wasn't quite ready for prime time, certainly not in a way that would ensure a smooth continuity between Carson's tenure and that of his successor. Jay Leno was at one point a very funny man, highly respected by his fellow comedians. But when he accepted the job as Carson's replacement the understanding was that he would continue to steer the ship with the same kind of centrist mass appeal that had made Carson such a beloved figure. And he did. Sometimes he was even still funny.

The problems for Leno were twofold. The first obstacle was that, despite his success as a host and brand caretaker, he accepted the job as a kind of poisoned chalice. For most of his tenure he maintained a respectable lead on Letterman, capturing the larger part of the mythical "middle American" viewer who simply disliked Letterman on principle. But for critics and fans of comedy, he was forever branded, uncool at best and a betrayer at worst. He may have been consistently more popular than Letterman, but he could never close the "cool" gap.

The second problem was a media landscape teetering on the brink of seismic change. The age of monolithic consensus figures in American broadcasting was coming to a close. Johnny didn't need to be "cool" and he never suffered from being "uncool" - he simply was, in the same manner as Walter Cronkite. (I'd argue that the closest we still have to such a figure, oddly, is Alex Trebek - his eventual departure from Jeopardy will represent almost as significant a shift as Letterman's goodbye.) But suddenly there were choices, and in a world of choices the very idea of centralized media landmarks became laughable. Jay Leno was no Johnny Carson. The culture no longer needed Johnny Carson.

Fast forward to 2010. Regardless of his success, Leno's broadcast career shuddered to a close in the most dismal manner possible. Despite a well-intentioned attempt to avoid the same rancor that had marked Leno's ascension to the post, his retirement from The Tonight Show proved even more contentious than Carson's. Leno publicly named Conan O'Brien as his successor. He left amicably and O'Brien took over. The problem was that O'Brien was even more of a niche figure than Letterman had been, and ratings fell accordingly. NBC tried to stem the bleeding by giving Leno a new slot at 10:00 PM, essentially an opportunity to do The Tonight Show an hour earlier, to appease affiliates desperate for a stronger local news lead-in. The attempt failed. O'Brien was fired. Leno returned to The Tonight Show for another four years, before retiring again in 2014, his reputation obliterated.

Because Letterman was widely perceived as having been betrayed by NBC in 1992, he had the moral high ground throughout the decades of his competition with Leno. He grew in stature while Leno shrank. He leaves The Late Show universally adored and respected, a towering figure in American broadcasting history. Leno leaves no legacy, save as a cautionary tale.

4. Don't be a Creeper

Unfortunately, Letterman fell victim to his own vices. If he had more professional integrity than Leno, he occasionally overstepped the bounds of personal propriety. He has an uncomfortable history in regards to his treatment of attractive female guests. Sometimes it was all fun and games, and sometimes he veered into shady territory - as a respected male authority figure, sitting across the desk from some of Hollywood's most attractive starlets, crossing boundaries in a manner that seems more regrettable with every passing year.

Of course, some of his strongest bonds were forged with female guests with whom he shared a sincere affection, and even attraction - stalwart friends such as Teri Garr, Julia Roberts, and even Blake Lively. But sometimes his randy old man schtick became too much, and because of his authority the behavior passed mostly unremarked.

3. When You Do Wrong, Fess Up

It seems perverse to praise a man simply for apologizing when caught in the act of wrongdoing, but that's the world we live in. Considering the degree to which almost every celebrity or political scandal is met with evasion, obfuscation, lies, or legal action, the spectacle of a famous man - one of the most famous men - stepping in front of the scandal and admitting his mistakes in the most candid manner possible was remarkable. It remains remarkable. What should be regarded as the rock bottom of human decency - the willingness to admit wrongdoing and meaningfully apologize - is so rare that Letterman's principled admission immediately became the gold standard for public accountability and integrity. It could even be argued that the novelty of his admission deflected a great deal of legitimate criticism that might otherwise have further corroded his public image.

But whatever else can be said about him, Letterman abhors hypocrisy. He couldn't stand the idea of being a hypocrite himself, so much so that when cornered by the evidence of his own malfeasance he faced the consequences as boldly as possible. He hurt a lot of people and acted terribly, but rather than compounding the problem by prolonging the conflict he simply admitted his liability and expressed his contrition. It's not our responsibility to forgive him, but his actions in the years since the scandal reveal a chastened man, deeply dedicated to his family and conscious of the ways in which his abusive behavior nearly cost him everything. Better men have lost their careers for less, but his unexpected apology saved him. He'll always have that asterisk on his legacy, but it will be paired with another enduring lesson: the virtue of a man lies not in perfection, but his confrontation with imperfection.

2. Even Pioneers are Forgotten

Last week I was having a drink with friends and mentioned that, since learning that Letterman was leaving, I had set a recording on my DVR and was watching every show leading up to the finale. The folks I was out with were just a few years younger than me - but just a few years was enough. No one at the table understood why Letterman was a big deal, had been one of the most influential personalities in the history of TV. Wasn't he just another old white guy behind a desk?

Of course, in the heat of the moment you can never find the words to marshal the perfect rebuttal. I stuttered out something bland about being "influential." Nothing particularly convincing. But in that instant it clicked for me that in order to understand why David Letterman was important, you needed to have been alive and paying attention during a surprisingly narrow window of time. Letterman made his name in the 1980s, and although he's been consistent and consistently good for most of his career since, the reason people who know speak with such reverence is that they remember when there was nothing at all like him on the television. Now, everybody is like him, in some way or another. No one with an ounce of conviction wants to be Jay Leno.

His medium was transient. He never had a string of best-selling comedy records that new generations can rediscover for years to come. He never did movies. He hasn't done stand-up in decades. The innovations he introduced over the course of many years have been so subsumed into the television landscape that simply just explaining that he was the first to do or say or be something or other isn't enough - there's no existing context for how strange it was, at the time, to put a TV camera on the back of a monkey, or get into shouting matches with belligerent guests, or pay a weird old man with coke-bottle glasses to stand there and scream at the camera. There was no such thing as viral video back then, so if you saw something truly special on Late Night the best you could do was hope to pick it up on summer reruns, or find a friend who just happened to have been recording the show on their VCR. Because that's something we did back then.

But that's OK. Even if talk shows are the most ephemeral of all television programs he'll be remembered for a while to come, even if the specifics of his career and influence eventually fade. For historians and scholars, he'll remain important. The people who were inspired by him will, in turn, inspire others, and so on for the foreseeable future. Those of us who remember his prime will cherish the memories for as long as we're around, but our children will cherish other memories, and that's OK, too.

1. The Only Safe Target is Yourself

It's been remarked so often that it threatens to become a cliche: comedians should always punch up, never down. Letterman, in his decades-long crusade against hypocrisy, did a good job of observing this rule. Sure, there were jokes at the expense of small-town yokels and clueless tourists, the usual late-night fare. But he always reserved the larger part of his scorn for politicians, corporations, ignorant celebrities, and other men and women of influence. If you were famous, if you took yourself too seriously, you were fair game.

But the biggest target was always himself. His insecurity, his anxiety, his goofy looks, his shortcomings as a comedian and a host, his moral and ethical lapses - the cruelest wounds were self-inflicted. And this is vital, if you appreciate Letterman for no other reason, you must remember that as scathing and cynical as he could be, he was never more critical of anything or anyone than of himself. That imprinted on me at a very young age. You can't be critical of others if you can't be critical of yourself. Honesty in regards to your own faults is disarming. Self-critique can also become a means of protection. If you broadcast your faults with honesty, you're cutting your critics off at the knees.

Making fun of yourself is endearing because so few people do it effectively, and it can also make people uncomfortable when wielded strategically. Maintaining control of a situation while acknowledging the element of unpredictability is one of the most valuable skills a person can have. Loyalty matters. Acknowledge your elders before rejecting them. Make time to thank everyone. Enjoy every sandwich.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


It's a familiar story. I'll bet you've heard it before.

It was the late fifties. The comic industry was still in a state of suspended animation following the dramatic events of the anti-comics backlash of the Wertham era. Atlas was a small outfit whose greatest asset in a rapidly shrinking marketplace was the business acumen of its publisher, Martin Goodman. Atlas' in-house distribution company had been shuttered due to lack of volume. Their second distributor, American News, collapsed in short order. Goodman made a deal with National's distributor, Independent News, to piggyback on the company's newsstand access.

But Atlas was still dying. Almost the entire staff had been laid off following the discovery that the company had enough unpublished inventory to run for the better part of the year. Even that wasn't enough to keep the doors open. And so, the story goes, a man named Jack Kirby walked through the doors. He had just split with his longtime partner Joe Simon, after their publishing company had collapsed. (1954 was not the most auspicious year to start a comic book company.) He couldn't find work at National (later DC) on account of a failed lawsuit. Kirby and Atlas were both grasping at straws in an industry that, aside from major publishers such as National, Dell, and Archie who emerged from the Wertham era relatively unscathed, was circling the drain.
I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! ... Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn't know what to do, he's sitting on a chair crying — he was still just out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says, "Go in to Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I'll see that the books make money".(*)
Or so the story goes. Kirby later on had reason to emphasize his significance alongside Lee's impotence, just as Lee had his motivations for denying Kirby's dramatized version of events. Lee was also 35 when Kirby returned.

The important facts are this: Atlas had been a company named Timely. The company had been founded by Goodman, primarily a publisher's of men's magazines and pulp adventure books. Stan Lee was Goodman's cousin by marriage. He joined the company at its start, working as an assistant at age 16, and editor by 19. Aside from a stretch in the army during the war, Stan Lee never worked for another company besides Marvel. It was the family business. Imagine his chagrin when, years later, in the flush of over a decade's worth of sustained success, people began asserting that his company's success was due to Kirby, alongside Steve Ditko and others. How galling. Lee had been there from the beginning.

Marvel Comics is the offspring of Stan Lee's perpetual frustration. For all the dispute over credit that has dogged Lee and his company for over fifty years (even further if you consider Simon & Kirby's unhappiness regarding Captain America), the character of Marvel Comics was all Stan. This was the myth you bought into when you became immersed in the books. They were hip, they were happening, they were cooler than Brand X. Marvel was what cool college kids read - literally, your older brothers' comic books, not like those staid Superman magazines you read as a child. Marvel Comics was on the verge of world domination, and Stan was the man with the plan.

It was an attractive myth because everyone but young children knew it was just that - a myth. Marvel was cool and the books were better than National - and all their later imitators - and all that was true, at least for a while. But they remained stuck playing the role of perpetual underdogs even after the reality had shifted. Even into the 1970s, long after Marvel had escaped their distribution deal with National and become the dominant force in the marketplace, they still nourished the illusion of outsider status. It was a great thing to become a Marvel fan: it was like becoming a member of a secret club, and long after you should have known better, the identification somehow stuck. DC, for their part, (somewhat unwittingly) embraced their status as the Evil Empire: DC was a place where men wore suits and ties to work, with offices staffed by old pros who consistently dismissed their upstart competitor until it was too late to reverse the damage. Marvel was the place where a few crazy middle-aged men had accidentally created a counter-culture incubator, as the company became increasingly dominated by younger men (and even a few women) who had grown up reading the books and very much wanted to be a part of the clubhouse Stan had built. The company depended on the perpetuation of these myths to maintain forward momentum.

As successful as Marvel became, the company never outgrew Lee's frustration. There was a ceiling to the company's relevance. DC was bought by Warner Brothers, and Warner Brothers in turn produced a few successful (and not so successful) movies based on DC's IP. Lee spent many years after leaving day-to-day operations of the company trying and failing to sell Marvel's IP to Hollywood, with very little success. A handful of cartoons. A few live-action TV shows, only one of which ever amounted to anything. One big-budget debacle that ruined the company's name in Hollywood for years after. But above all else, the main product of these years of mostly wasted effort was dozens and dozens of hints and half-promises made in the pages of Stan's Soapbox over the course of decades. James Cameron was going to direct a Spider-Man film for something like a decade. Lee first announced the development of an Ant-Man film in 1990. That never happened, obviously.

The history of Marvel in Hollywood is a history of near-misses and missed opportunities. Lee never gave up hope. Even after he ceded control of his own company, even after the company changed hands, even after a lifetime of creative controversies began to take a serious toll on his public image, he persisted as "Mr. Marvel." And to a degree, at least, he personally remained something of an underdog: the man who had co-created the Marvel Universe, the guy whose uncle had founded the company, adrift in a larger, indifferent world. He never got around to writing the Great American Novel, and he never made a movie with Alan Resnais, and he never got out of Marvel's shadow. Why would you want to? He was The Man.

At their creative pinnacle in the mid 1960s, Marvel succeeded creatively by being both more primitive and more sophisticated than their rivals. But in terms of their business, Marvel succeeded the same way they always succeeded: they flooded the market and undercut the competition. As soon as Marvel regained distribution capabilities in 1968, they expanded precipitously. In 1971 they tricked DC into shooting itself in the foot by faking out the competition with a (seeming) line-wide price hike from 15 to 25 cents. DC responded by doing the same. Marvel's price hike lasted one month, after which they reduced prices to 20 cents, but DC was stuck with the 25 cent experiment for months afterwards. In the time it took DC to course-correct, they permanently lost market share. Marvel began to franchise their most popular characters into multiple books. By the late 80s, soon after Jim Shooter left the company, Marvel set out to flood the market in earnest. This was the beginning of another disastrous boom/bust cycle - a boom made even worse by subsequent mistreatment of prominent talent, who left the company to form a third major publisher, Image. (The books continued to sell after the talent left, once again reinforcing the idea that the Marvel brand would always be bigger than any individual creator.) There were a number of factors involved in the mid-90s industry breakdown, but Marvel made the worst mistakes, and the mistakes were big enough that they barely survived.

Marvel 2015 is still fundamentally the same company it was back in the mid-50s, when Martin Goodman found a cabinet full of inventory and used it as a pretense to fire everybody for six months. For all the criticism aimed at Isaac Perlmutter, he's still playing from the Goodman / Lee handbook: flood the market, undercut creators, and pray you survive the next bust. With Disney at their back they no longer need to fear the bust, and have proceeded accordingly.

Left unchecked, the company has recreated the entertainment industry in its own image. The occasion of Avengers 2 has provided movie critics and industry observers another opportunity to bemoan Marvel's success, and its not hard to see why they'd be so resentful. As bad an industry as Hollywood has always been, Marvel is worse in almost every way. Instead of franchises taking two-or-three years between installments, Marvel has figured out a way to keep successful franchises in theaters twice a year. They've proven so successful that every other entertainment conglomerate is changing their business model to compete - even Disney itself is looking to Marvel as a model for its resuscitation of the Star Wars franchise. Right now Marvel Entertainment has a hold on the popular imagination, and the imagination of the industry, that simply defies comparison: there's never been anything like it before. Even if the superhero bubble burst tomorrow, the structure of the entertainment industry will already have been permanently altered.

And it's no accident. They got to where they are today by importing Lee's playbook intact from the company's heyday. Marvel isn't a company, it's an experience. If you buy a ticket for a Marvel movie, you're buying into the experience of being part of something larger than a single movie. Everyone loves Marvel, and if you love Marvel too, you're part of a special club. People cheer when the red Marvel logo comes onscreen, and they get excited about recognizing obscure plot points from comic books they've never read, but have read about.

People have been predicting the end of the superhero movie boom for almost fifteen years - as long as there have been superhero movies, basically. The gloomiest predictions always seem to come from comics fans themselves, who recognize in themselves an incipient exhaustion with the genre that simply has not yet manifested in the general public. There are decades worth of stories left to strip-mine for basic parts. If Marvel keeps a tight ship they'll be in a good position to ride the bubble in perpetuity. If they (and Disney) are smart they'll be able to pivot when the market goes south, leaving their competitors holding the bag, selling the equivalent of 25 cent comics in a 20 cent market.

But what about Stan?

Stan lived to see his company take over the world. After decades of trying and failing to expert Marvel, it finally happened after he was no longer directly involved. He's still the figurehead, naturally, and for so long as he lives he will continue to receive his rote cameo in every Marvel movie and TV show. The problem is that the ideology Lee cultivated in the 1960s, when Marvel was a legitimate underdog in an industry that had spent the past decade trying to run his family company out of business, doesn't carry the same meaning. Marvel isn't the dark horse anymore, they're the heavy favorite. They are owned by the largest entertainment company on the planet, and they are possibly the most valuable arm of that conglomerate. The grasping ambition that Lee once cultivated was charming, in its day, part and parcel of a fantasy where Marvel was in a state of constant siege. They were self-effacing and ironic, and it was them (and you, True Believer!) against the world. The problems began when Lee started to believe his own press, and were compounded when his personal insecurities were inflated into a corporate ethos. This is the world he and his uncle made, whether or not they foresaw the consequences.

Marvel Entertainment are not nice people. They like having an avuncular mascot to trot out and reassure people that these entertainment products are made by the same kind of people who hand-crafted the original comics, but that's a lie. It's not about people at all. It's about a company with a seventy-five year track record of scorched-earth business tactics doing everything they can to maximize their leverage on largest scale possible, the kind of scale not even Lee himself could ever have imagined.

You can't root for Marvel anymore. It's like rooting for McDonalds. Once upon a time Stan Lee believed himself to be Ray Kroc, but for a while now he's been Ronald McDonald.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #56

And remember, you can always listen to this and lots of past mixes by clicking the link in the sidebar!

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #56 by Timoneil5000 on Mixcloud

Friday, April 24, 2015

Crime and Punishment (Groan)

Considering the hazards inherent in writing a character like the Punisher, it's curious that Marvel has managed, for the most part, to avoid turning him into the kind of noxious right-wing caricature for which he could easily be mistaken. That the Punisher has been traditionally embraced by certain sections of the right is no surprise, but for much of his existence the stories themselves have gone to great lengths to draw a more nuanced picture.

Garth Ennis is responsible for two of the character's great defining runs - reinventing the Punisher once as pitch-black comedy and then again as a dead-serious crime book with political overtones. In both instances Ennis saw the Punisher not as a mouthpiece but as a cautionary tale. The best Punisher stories often highlight precisely why the Punisher is not - or at least, should never be - a wish-fulfillment character. He's the exception that proves the rule. No one should want to be the Punisher, and we should understand exactly why - even if we may receive a fleeting twinge of satisfaction from seeing Frank annihilate the drug dealers, rapists, and mass murderers of the world - he represents an inherently destructive and untenable moral infection in the body politic. He's a right-wing revenge fantasy as it might have been designed by left-wingers who understood the precise limitations of the type.

(Of related interest: I wrote about this subject back in 2009 in reaction to the Watchmen film, and my opinion on what Snyder got right about the character of Rorschach and vigilantes of this type, even in the context of a film that got so very much wrong.)

My favorite Punisher will always be Mike Baron's Punisher. It's an interpretation of the character that has mostly gone out of fashion, less the rugged sociopath and more the super-competent anti-hero of men's adventure novel series like The Destroyer. Baron's Punisher was a wry globe-trotter, an intelligent and articulate vigilante with a dedication to retribution, not merely vengeance (which are not synonyms). His actions were still, of course, morally repugnant, but the stories took place in a universe that acknowledged that the Punisher was on the wrong side of the law and existed primarily in dialogue with - and as a foil, not a corrective - to more traditional superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman. This despite legions of literal-minded fans arguing the contrary, largely in contradiction to the stories themselves.

The most recent Punisher series, written by Nathan Edmondson, comes down on the wrong side of this argument. From the very beginning the series has presented a version of Frank Castle directly at odds with much of his previous 40 years of established characterization. In doing so, Edmondson has highlighted just how well previous generations of Punisher creators - men and women on both sides of the political divide, it should be emphasized - have dealt with the challenges and pitfalls inherent to such an essentially problematic character.

This is a page from the third issue of The Punisher (2014) by Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads. If you aren't familiar with the Punisher, it might not immediately occur to you as to just why this passage is so problematic, fitting as it does nicely into current political arguments regarding gun rights and the philosophy of self-defense. But for anyone who does have experience with the character, it should jump out as immediately problematic.

The Punisher is not, and has never been, portrayed as reflexively pro-gun. On the contrary, despite the history of the character as someone who fetishizes firearms and other weapons of war - even to the point of having had a series devoted specifically to his weapon collection - he's always taken great pains to illustrate the principle that guns belong solely in the hands of trained professionals. The Punisher - as an ex-Marine - reveres soldiers and police officers. He doesn't shoot cops, and even crooked cops have traditionally been a blind spot. On the contrary, one of the most frequent tropes in the Punisher's history is his disapproval of copycat vigilantes and bloodthirsty fanboys. The stories themselves bend over backwards time and again to show that the Punisher is an exceptional case, and every other example of a proactive vigilante figure is a negative one. Even on those rare occasions where Frank takes a protege, it's always temporary, as even the most well-intentioned followers inevitably fall short of his standards.

For an illustration of this concept, take this page from the aforementioned Punisher Armory, issue #4 (1992), by Eliot R. Brown. This series comes in for a lot of criticism, almost all valid, but just look at how different the conversation over the Punisher's firearms usage was just 23 years ago.

Here's the text in a larger format:

Here's another editorial from Brown, this time from issue #6 of the same series:

Although I don't doubt (based on his enthusiasms, if nothing else) that Brown and I differ considerably on politics, I think this is nevertheless as good and defensible a description of the Punisher's rationale as you're likely to find. It's maybe fun - or at least cathartic - to imagine a world in which an extra-legal vigilante such as the Punisher can effectively operate, just one step further down the slippery slope that characters like Batman always manage to negotiate. But we don't live in such a world. We live in a world of laws, lawyers, and juries, and as imperfect as that system is it is nevertheless better than any alternative. In reality, the Punisher could never be as perfectly unerring as he is presented. Because of his superhuman competence - never making mistakes, always keeping to his primary objective with a laser-like focus - the Punisher is pure fantasy, and should always be regarded as such.

The Punisher doesn't exist to highlight the ineffectiveness of law enforcement, which is precisely the kind of right-wing fantasy Edmondson's current run seems to be asserting. For the Punisher to state that only fools place faith in the government's ability to protect them undermines the character in the most profound way. For decades the Punisher has consistently maintained that guns are dangerous and belong only in the hands of trained professionals. If there is one thing he hates as much as drug dealers, its incompetency (hence his distrust of amateurs such as Spider-Man and Daredevil). Seeing guns in the hands of millions of improperly trained paranoids, marching under the banner of a fundamentally misguided belief in self-defense as an absolute right, goes against everything the character represents, and everything that makes the character at all defensible even as a kind of fantasy. The necessary element to any fantasy, after all, is the acknowledgment of impracticality.

Elsewhere in the pages of the Armory, Brown spends a great deal of time talking about gun control in what was - for 1992 - a remarkable even-handed way, as someone who was a self-admitted (though not without reservations) member of the NRA. While it would obviously be a mistake to read Brown's words as the Punisher's, I think Brown's ideas represent what was at the time considered to be a fairly orthodox interpretation of the character, which itself represented what was (at the time, remember this was over two decades ago) a fairly centrist position on guns. That is: guns are legal, and as long as we have private gun ownership the only people who should have guns should be people who use them in an educated and responsible manner. The familiar analogy to car ownership is made more than once. The Punisher doesn't want more people to have guns. The idea that he would encourage citizens to take up arms in the face of police indifference not only flies in the face of decades of characterization, it takes what has traditionally been the character's unexpectedly nuanced ideology and demolishes said nuance in favor of signaling allegiance with precisely the kind of uninformed and dangerous political program to which he could never cosign, precisely because of its potential for unanticipated collateral damage. Where others see ideology, he sees practical consequences.

To put it another way: the Punisher represents the apex of conditional morality. That is, he acts selfishly, rationalizing his actions as the end result of certain specific conditions that dictate his specific actions. He could never endorse anything resembling a categorical imperative. He would never assert that every person who has lost a loved one to violent crime should act as he does by taking the law into his own hands. Rather, his existence is predicated on the necessary condition that his exception can only remain a singular exception. To do otherwise would undermine the illusion of ethical exceptionalism that provides his rationale. In the context of a Punisher story, it is a given that he is the smartest guy in the room, able to see every angle, to have answers for every conceivable problem, to ensure that bullets only go where he wants them to go. He can't cede that respect to anyone else, and neither can the story itself - lest the mere existence of the Punisher become license for negative anarchy. If Edmondson's interpretation of the character becomes the new standard, then he has finally and irrevocably become the indefensible right-wing paranoid fantasy his critics have always projected, but his creators often resisted.

Another essential part of the Punisher's mythology is his status as a Vietnam vet. This is part and parcel of his status as a creature of the 80s - even if he was born in the 70s, he could only have rose to prominence in the context of a culture then in the throes of systematically rejecting the narrative of American failure that arose as a direct response to the war. But again, the Punisher is rarely used as a mouthpiece for the kind of betrayal fantasies so prevalent among the right - the proverbial "stab in the back" myth that posits that the American military can only fail if undercut by domestic infidelity. (This is the kind of thinking that leads to the belief that government conspiracies are afoot to deny the truth about fallacious POW / MIA numbers, for instance.) Rather, the Punisher is most often used as an example of a particular left-wing narrative of the Vietnam period, a narrative that posits that American soldiers were betrayed by a government that used them poorly as collateral in an futile war fought primarily at the behest of defense contractors and misguided ideologues. Although this was a persistent theme of Ennis' run on the character, this is a part of his background going as far back as, again, the Armory series, this from issue #8 (1993).

(Again, though, note the presence of the MIA tag alongside the statement of the war's futility.)

Therein lies the crucial difference between the Punisher as initially conceived and developed, and the character as he exists now. By necessity, considering the character's age, his roots in Vietnam have been scrubbed. Now he's a veteran of one of the recent Gulf wars (the stories themselves being, I think, intentionally vague on this point). And right now in American culture there exists a sharp and contentious divide between those who celebrate these wars unconditionally as exemplars of American heroism, and those who regard the whole enterprise with sharp skepticism. The culture that promotes the likes of Chris Kyle will have no problem lionizing a character like Frank Castle as the patron saint of the "Righteous Kill," as opposed to a cautionary tale of an already-damaged human being destroyed by the trauma of a tragically unnecessary conflict.

It's the difference between defining a hero as a someone who takes on the responsibility to do the worst regardless of personal cost, or as someone who takes on the responsibility to do the best regardless of the difficulty. The Punisher has never been a hero, but he's often been an interesting character. Making him a hero renders him uninteresting in the most ugly and banal way conceivable.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight

"Prey" by Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, and Terry Austin

If the Batman vs. Superman trailer that leaked last week proves anything conclusively, it's that the positive influence of Frank Miller's late 80s work on Batman ran out of gas a long time ago. The people in charge of the franchise don't know anything else to do, really, but keep aping Miller's work (and Burton's films, which followed naturally from Miller as well as Moore) onscreen as well as in the comics themselves. Accordingly, there's a certain breed of comics fan who gets very upset - pants-wetting territorial, really - about any deviation from these same well worn Batman formulae laid out during the Reagan administration.

This wasn't always the case, and the immediate of success of Legends of the Dark Knight is a testament to that fact. Rather than serving up issue after issue of Miller / Moore pastiche, each early arc takes a completely different approach to the idea of telling a "mature readers" Batman story. "Shaman" was a thematic misfire from a veteran creator still stuck uncomfortably between paradigms. "Gothic" was a success that eschewed the strictly ground-level noir of Miller and Mazzuccheli's Year One in favor of an engagement with the supernatural, a horror story well within the literary genre from which the story took its name. "Prey" is something else entirely.

This isn't Batman as supernatural avenger, the "Dark Knight," or even Miller's shadowy hard-boiled detective hero. This is Batman as a man, a fighter and a scrapper without magic gadgets or Super Saiyan finishing moves. He gets cut, he bleeds, he almost drowns, he ends up stranded in the wrong part of town and has to walk through the sewers to get home. This is also, crucially, Batman as a man with definite psychological trauma, one whose scars are never quite so deeply buried as he would like to think.

"Prey" was also notable for reasons other than its status as a Batman story. Although this isn't the first time either Moench or Gulacy worked on Batman - and isn't even the first time they worked on Batman together - it was nevertheless a big deal to see one of comics' most storied teams working on a lengthy prestige format Batman epic. (Remember "prestige format"?) One telling detail here is that while Miller's influence has loomed larger and larger over each successive generation of creators, Moench and Gulacy (as well as Denny O'Neil and, for obvious reasons, Klaus Janson) were either Miller's peers or elders. While the existence of Legends of the Dark Knight is directly due to Miller's success with the character, his vision of Batman was still only the proverbial first among equals - not, as it would later become, the default. I doubt Moench and Gulacy felt particularly intimidated by Miller's influence, even at that point in his career.

(The question of Grant Morrison's debt to Miller is another topic entirely. It's almost tempting to read Morrison's later Batman work as an attempt to come to terms with Miller's disproportionate shadow by forcing the post-Miller Batman to confront the most scandalous elements of his long history - objectified as the "Black Casebook" stories that many longtime Batman fans believed to be dead and buried. Miller himself spent time in the 00s trying to disown his Batman, by tearing him down in The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman. The attempt failed, in any event.)

But anyway, to cut to the chase, this is an excellent story. Maybe one of the best unsung Batman stories, and certainly the best story yet in Legends of the Dark Knight.

"Prey" observes the letter if not the spirit of the series' "no supervillains" mandate by offering the first post-Crisis appearance of Dr. Hugo Strange. Strange occupies a unique place in Batman's rogues gallery. Although he predates the Joker and Catwoman by a few months, he's never been a mainstay, appearing only sporadically and rarely to any lasting effect. The most memorable thing about him is his name - and even that, for obvious reasons, serves as much of a hinderance as a help to his larger career. He began as a super-villain before the rules governing super-villains were established. He was initially another in a long line of interchangeable mad scientists who bedeviled the first generation of super-heroes. His first gimmick was the invention of a super smoke machine to help his gang rob banks. After a couple follow-up appearances - and different gimmicks, like deadly zombies and fear powder (an idea to which the franchise would return) - he got put in the freezer for thirty years, and has appeared sporadically ever since.

In the last few decades creators have mostly defined Strange as a criminal psychiatrist - that is, a psychiatrist who treats / profiles criminals while also being a criminal himself. "Prey" takes place, like the two stories that precede it, in the post-Year One period wherein Batman's circumstances were not yet solidified. "Prey" picks up on Miller's use of the police as early foils for Batman, setting out to tell the story of how Batman won the trust of he police department and the mayor's office after his early splash as, essentially, a violent vigilante at odds with the city's most powerful citizens. James Gordon is stuck in the middle between Batman and the mayor: after Year One, Gordon knows Batman is on the side of the angels, but sticking up for the vigilante could jeopardize his job.

Enter Hugo Strange. After a debate on a local public affairs program (yeah, you can tell this was 25 years ago), Strange catches the mayor's attention. The mayor hires Strange to advise an anti-Batman task force being put together in the police department and to be led by . . . James Gordon.

Moench wastes no time in showing how twisted Strange is. He's a profoundly ugly man with an even uglier attitude towards women - he keeps a blonde department store mannequin as his confident, and seethes with jealousy over Batman's physical prowess and (imagined) erotic potency. He builds a homemade Batman costume in order to inhabit his enemy's mind. But despite all this, he's not stupid: with just a little bit of help from the police, he manages to deduce Batman's secret identity while at the same time framing him for a series of copycat crimes performed by a member of the anti-Batman task force who has been brainwashed into believing himself to be some kind of anti-Batman.

You can tell that Moench and Gulacy were mainstays of Bronze Age Marvel, because there's a lot of plot going on here. It works, though: there are many moving parts, but everything moves logically from one character to the next over the course of the narrative. Although there's a copious amount of actual fighting, the real battle is the contest of wills between Batman and Strange. (Middle-aged Strange, it goes without saying, represents no physical threat to Batman.) With Strange manipulating both the police and the mayor in order to tear down Batman, Batman has to piece together a counter-plan that depends on trusting Gordon in perhaps the most critical moment of their friendship - although we, the readers, know that Gordon eventually becomes Batman's most trusted ally on the police force, they both have to earn this trust, and Gordon's reluctance to fully embrace the vigilante is understandable. The wild card in this relationship is Catwoman, who also appears - in a follow up on her supporting role in Year One - during the early phase of her career, still at the time an unknown quantity who isn't very happy about being caught in the crossfire of the police force's war on Batman.

Although the ideas explored weren't exactly new, the story gains a lot from the assumption of a slightly older readership. Strange is a Freudian, so his ideas about Batman are both on-the-nose but also, as Miller himself acknowledged, fairly accurate. Baseball bats and swords represent masculine overreaching. Caves are dank and dark wombs. Women symbolize either childhood innocence or adult transgression - with Strange himself representing the kind of misogynistic arrested development that Batman needs to move past in order to grow up. Batman's burgeoning flirtation with Catwoman is an acknowledgment of the existence of adult relationships beyond the shallow Madonna / whore complex that fixates Strange, and which threatens to derail Bruce Wayne as he struggles to overcome the grief over his parents' deaths. While Strange is still stuck play-acting sexual aggression, Batman has to embrace the feminine - literally descending into the (womb-like/chthonic) earth of the Batcave in order to be reborn as a cohesive individual, able to overcome Strange's emotional manipulation.

But, really, you're reading a Batman story by the team behind Master of Kung-Fu, so you want to see the fights. Which are uniformly excellent. Gulacy is one of the best fight choreographers in the medium, and every battle throughout the story has a convincing verisimilitude. Instead of random figures colliding over monocolored backgrounds, Gulacy give us real bodies existing in concrete relation to other bodies. If you see a blow in one panel you see the counter blow in the next panel, with scrupulous attention paid to staging throughout the fight. Gulacy's Batman is a superb acrobat but no Superman: he takes as good as he gives, and there's a sense of real peril throughout. Years spent translating the filmic language of martial arts into the language of comics pays rich dividends.

Moench and Gulacy's Batman is one of the best: human and fallible, nowhere near the supremely competent Bat-God that he would become as the 90s wore on and Miller's characterization of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns became the standard approach. You believe that this Batman can be hurt, and that means everything in the context of a franchise where the hero's infallibility is usually accepted as his only weakness.