Friday, March 29, 2013

The Slow Breakdown of the Mutant Metaphor (Op/Ed)

Presenting: The early front-runner for the
most controversial comic of 2013
So, what a mess, right? This one almost flew past me, as I don't follow a lot of comic creators on Twitter. Even after I found out about it, I wasn't sure what was wrong about the scene - from the comic pictured to the left - until it was made pretty clear by other Twitter users. To make matters worse, the writer didn't react well, leading to a big mess.

I'm not really planning to talk about this issue. For one thing, Joe Hughes and Andrew Wheeler have already covered it definitively at Comic Alliance. For two, I'm a straight white male; I don't exactly have anything to add here. It's more about the fact that some seem to fear this damages the metaphor for mutants representing minority struggles.

The trouble is, I think Marvel broke that metaphor a while ago, with this just being the latest hit an already bleeding concept has had to endure.

Not too long after Grant Morrisons New X-Men - a personal favorite of mine - Marvel put out House of M. This, I think, was ground zero. Almost immediately after the "No More Mutants" proclamation, the X-Men shifted to a different mission statement. They were now the endangered species. Survival was the concept at the heart of the team. The X-Men began to resemble an army, not a group of people unfairly prosecuted for their differences.
Ed Brubaker sort of got the ball rolling when he disgraced Xavier in Deadly Genesis, which led to the character losing any influence on the team and losing his purpose. This is important because his entire deal was that he was for peace and acceptance. He was the figure offering a better way, even if it was harder. Now, he was off the team, with many mutants disillusioned regarding him and his message*. It didn't stop there, with most of the questionable moments centering around Cyclops.

The school was trashed again, only this time the X-Men left instead of rebuilding. Education is essentially the root of fixing the problems of the world, but now the X-Men weren't teaching much of anything beyond combat. When someone he doesn't like comes into power and causes problems, Cyclops packs his people up, herds them on an island made of Asteroid M just off the coast of San Francisco and declares them their own nation. The idea of the teenage X-Men being child soldiers is pretty apparent**. Cyclops puts a kill team together to take out the people who could cause mutants the most damage. After a split with half the X-Men, Cyclops named his group the Extinction Team and decides to send the world an ultimatum essentially saying they weren't going to put up with their BS and that they would retaliate if someone even looked at them cross.

Then there's that whole thing about Cyclops being willing to gamble with the planets life over whether a giant fire phoenix will revive the mutant population - even after they know it nuked a planet on its way to Earth - but, uh, that one might not have any implications beyond the fact that Cyclops is kind of a dick.

In fairness, it's not a straight one to one comparison to real life. The X-Men have never been a one to one comparison to any minority group. It's very easy to do great stories without using the racial metaphor at all. But it's a concept embedded in the franchise, meaning that when Marvel greenlit all this, they essentially had the stand-in for minority struggles engage in all of those very questionable acts.

You can see how this might be a problem.

Marvel obviously wants to go back to the well, now that the "endangered species" era is effectively over. Trouble is, how do you really come back from that? I mean, sure, you can do whatever you want in fiction, but how does it work after all that, save a continuity reboot?

But try they will, only trouble being that now we've got a real problem in the dynamic. Cyclops and his group have, to be frank, become a representation of extremists. Even if you think that, in light of Marvel continuity, enough is enough and agree with their position, they are definitely not the good guys here. That leaves Uncanny Avengers to be the other side of the coin. But that is now out the window as well.

So, where's the middle ground here? Cyclops is obviously wrong. People have made it clear Havok is wrong, intentions aside. Not a good situation to have.

Can it be salvaged? Sure. The right writer could theoretically put the house back in order. But the franchise has spent close to ten years slowly breaking the metaphor. It will take a lot of work and even then I'm not sure it can ever be completely fixed. I guess only time will tell.

* And now he's dead - killed by Cyclops - because Marvel couldn't find something to do with the guy who taught peace and understanding.

** Marvel was at least aware of this one; it was central to Schism, where the X-Men split into two groups over it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Superman vs Muhammad Ali (comic)

Writers: Neal Adams, Denny O'Neil
Artist: Neal Adams
Original Graphic Novel

It could only have happened in the 70's.

Think about it. Ali was still in his prime and while the Silver Age had been winding down, it would still be a while before COIE and men like Frank Miller and Alan Moore would put it to rest for good. Try and pitch it just a few years later and the idea would probably have been laughed out of the DC Offices. Trying it any sooner wouldn't work either; Ali's exile from boxing over Vietnam cost him several years of his career. It feels like one of those circumstances where, had the stars not aligned just right, this book wouldn't even exist.

Which would be a shame, because I had a good time with it.

The cover doesn't lie. This is indeed about a boxing match between The Greatest and The Man of Steel. Obviously, it goes a bit further than that - an intergalactic empire decides to waste Earth unless the winner of the titular bout can defeat their champion in the ring - but it's window dressing to justify the fact that Superman is just straight up chillin' with Ali and at one point trading punches.

It's almost goofy in how very Silver Age it is. The aliens, the fact that it's decided that a boxing match would be a pretty bitchin' way to decide the fate of the planet, the other aliens being moved to turn against the warlord by the courage and honor of the title characters. It is ridiculous.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Personally, I have a rough time with Silver Age comics. I love the crazy anything-can-and-frequently-does-happen nature of the era. But those comics are very, very dated; I've said this before, but as much as decompression is decried, the format of comics changed for a reason. A lot of Silver Age comics - because almost all of them had to end in twenty two pages or less, as was the sensibility of the time - end up reading like a still clip show. As though someone arranged a bunch of pictures, with no fluid motion or connectivity, and attempted to make a story out of it.

Superman vs Muhammad Ali does not have that problem, because it's illustrated by Neal Adams in his prime. Adams is a master of his craft, able to craft dynamic page layouts and tell a coherent story with his art. Portraying the intricacies of a boxing match in the comic style of the time has to be a tall order, but Neal Adams is good enough to pull it off.

Of course, the writing is also handled by Neal Adams, which normally would be cause for alarm. Yeah, his usual partner - similarly legendary writer Dennis O'Neil - has his name on the cover, but as the intro explains O'Neil was forced to drop out of the project fairly early. For a man who understands sequential storytelling like few others, Neal Adams is a notoriously bad writer. Skateman is the stuff of bad comic legend, while Batman Oddessy is so off the wall bad that it loops back around to being enjoyable for it.

I'm not sure if it came down to the editing or the approval process - as the text pieces explain, Ali's people pored over the book extensively and had final say - but Neal Adams manages to hold the story together fairly well. Oh sure, it's still goofy as all get out, but it's the fun sort and not the kind that requires bleach for the brain. A bit too wordy - this is still a comic from the 70's, after all - but not as overbearingly so as many old comics tend to be.

The hardcover is in DC's Deluxe Edition*. It really is a nice looking book. I guess they even managed to get all the proper permission, because the original cover is used and included for the book**. It's a nice package and well worth putting on your bookshelf. The Deluxe Edition format is well liked for a reason.

The Score: 8 out of 10

It's ridiculous. It's outrageous. But more importantly, it's a lot of fun. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a classic or one of the best OGN's of all time, but it's a really good time and well worth putting on your shelf. You just don't get stuff like this anymore.

It's only fitting that the greatest duo receive the greatest hardcover.
* I'm not sure, but I think DC may have retired the Deluxe Edition since the New 52 started. I may have missed them, but I don't recall seeing any since the New 52 started to hit trade. Shame. They make for a nice package.

** The cover of Superman vs Muhammad Ali has a who's who of 70's celebrities in the audience. Pretty much everyone you can think of is there, including Jimmy Carter. You'll also notice assorted DC superheroes and DC staff of the time if you're particularly eagle eyed. There's a ton to pore over in that one cover. The hardcover included a key in the back for identifying each crowd member.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Op/Ed: Who Deconstructs the Deconstructors?

About a week or two ago, I was doing the usual Twitter bullshit. You know, dicking around, not accomplishing anything of note. This is when I come across a discussion where one participant basically says "how does this horror film even work in a post-Cabin in the Woods world?" It brought back a question lingering in the back of my head for a while now.

What is with these people who think a deconstruction automatically destroys its target genre?

This is not to single this person or instance out. It's not unique. I've seen similar comments for years. I could swear I've even seen Alan Moore quotes from back in the day where he seemed convinced he'd just destroyed superhero comics with Watchmen, but don't quote me on that. It might have just been the journalists of the time. If you've been paying any attention at all, you're aware that prediction was exposed as bullshit a long time ago.

Cabin in the Woods, for the unaware, is a deconstruction of the horror genre. It's pretty distinctly a Joss Whedon thing, but it's also a fairly slick skewering of horror films. The basic gist is that every so often, a bunch of asshole scientists have to get together and kill off a group of teenagers in gruesome ways to appease some higher beings, or else the world is destroyed. Since it's a deconstruction, you've probably put two and two together and realized the higher beings are meant to be us as we partake in these displays of wonton murder. They manage to break the cycle and doom the world in the process just by virtue of surviving.

Like Watchmen, the effect on the long term health of the genre is going to be jack and shit. Slasher flicks already go in and out of vogue as it is; you'll get a period where there's a glut of them, then you don't see much for a few years and then suddenly ghosts are popping out of televisions and Rob Zombie is, for some reason, given the keys to a bunch of slasher icons. But they don't die out completely.

I wonder, what is it about a deconstruction that causes people to think the targeted genre or tropes are irreversibly broken? Everyone is different and that's probably true for some, but for the most part it's just another story looking at these things in a different way. It doesn't suddenly make the type of stories it positions under the microscope unenjoyable.

Watchmen is a classic, but if you think it ruined superhero comics, I've got a bridge to sell you. They've been trucking right along for twenty five plus years since that story came out. There have been bad times, but they've survived despite Moores magnum opus. There have been some amazing stories with superheros since then. That doesn't make Watchmen any less important a story. It just means that it's not a genre killer.

Cabin in the Woods will end up in the same boat. Maybe it will go down as a classic. Maybe it will even force slasher films to evolve*. But it won't destroy them, because there's a demand for those type of films.

Anyone else see the Nightmare on Elm Street remake from 2010? Every time some interesting twist is added to the plot, it's shot down ten minutes later. I've seen worse, but it was still a waste of time. Didn't matter. Even adding in a decent figure for advertising, it still made over twice its budget. Before you say anything, I get that it came out two years before Cabin. Doesn't make a difference. Freddy's a horror icon and people want to see him. Cabin was only a modest success anyways, so you have to wonder just how many people saw it.

Noir has been deconstructed. The femme fatale trope has been torn to hell and back. They're still here. So can we stop pretending deconstructions are all important? It's a valid avenue to explore, no question. But just because you can tear something down doesn't mean someone else can't build it back up.

* It sounds like this is what Whedon was shooting for. I guess it was meant to take a shot at torture porn too, judging by his comments. I can agree with that. I'm far from squeamish, but some of those films end up going too far.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Paranormal Activity 4 (movie)

Starring: Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Aiden Lovekamp, Brady Allen, Stephen Dunham, Alexondra Lee, Katie Featherston

Some Spoilers Ahoy: I try to keep away from spoilers as best I can, but sometimes it's next to outright impossible. Sometimes you need to go in depth to pin down what is wrong with a film. This is one of those times. Proceed with caution.

How long have I been doing this blog? Three? Four years? I've lost count. Somehow, I've gone this long without reviewing a movie. I guess I just never had much to say until now.

In the last year or so, I'd watched all three of the preceding movies. Hollywood has a habit of missing what made the original film of a franchise work. There are exceptions, of course, but the word exception implies a far greater number in the opposite column.

Paranormal Activity was one of those exceptions. Could be that the first was so bare bones that there happened to be a ton of room to add things. Could be a happy accident. Who knows. All I can say is that, in my opinion, the third film ended up being the pinnacle of the series thus far.

Part of what made the third work the best for me was that it felt like it added the most. The second built on the first, but it was the third that seemed to imply something greater than just a demonic presence throwing furniture at a couple families for kicks. It set up a greater mythology surrounding the hauntings, asking more questions at the same time as it answered a few.

Perhaps that's where the fourth film goes wrong. It's not completely wretched, but it's probably the worst film in the franchise so far. It seems almost like its spinning its wheels, with few to no true additions to the mythology, a final scene that feels almost recycled from part of the climax of three and the entire film hinging on a plot twist or two that make zero sense. The only thing that's really new is the fact that we're following a girl named Alex and her family, all of whom are not in some way related to Katie. Spoilers after this point.

The first twist is one that, well, not much of a twist in that we expected all along. Mainly that the "Katie" character would show up in some fashion. She is the anchor of the series. It's the surrounding situation that makes no sense.

Katie is wanted for multiple murders - and clearly never bothered to change her appearance in any way - yet somehow she ends up with a house. Did she buy it? How the hell is that possible? Did, I don't know, someone from the cult buy it and she and the kid end up there because of who lived next door? She supposedly ends up in the hospital at the films start - which, since we're offered no other explanation, we end up taking the film at its word on - and I guess not a single person runs a background check or attempts to figure out who their patient is? It's not like she's on the other side of the country; we're in Nevada, the next state over from where she killed an asshole and her sisters family. For that matter, how the hell did she get the kid?

Ah, yeah, Robbie, the kid. That's the new thing here; Katie has what the family we follow assumes is her kid and we assume is Hunter. The entire movie hinges on the reveal that not only is Robbie not Hunter - the kid Katie abducted at the end of two - but Alex's brother Wyatt - who we only find out is adopted super late into the film - is actually Hunter. This makes no fucking sense. So, what, Demon Katie abducted the kid and then put him up for adoption? Part of the entire point of the mythology is that the demon wanted the first born son of Katies family line. It got him at the end of the second film, only to give him up? Where the hell did the other creepy kid, Robbie, come from? How did she get him? I'm pretty sure adoption services don't hand kids over to known murderers. The central reveal of the film has plot holes big enough to drive a mac truck through them.

So, the plot itself falls apart if you think about anything you see for more than two seconds. Does the film at least make up for it in other aspects? I personally never thought the films were frightening, but they were good at building tension until it boiled over. Others felt they were scary. I don't think anyone is going to walk away from the fourth film at all shaken.

On top of all that - and this might just be me having missed subtler "activity" - it feels like the whole knife movin', chair slidin', hair raisin' ghost antics are fewer and further between this go around.

To get back in the plus column, the cast isn't bad. Paranormal Activity on the whole has been pretty good at throwing actors at us that manage to feel like real people. Most of them aren't too pretty or too ugly or too thin. They're all rather good at acting like the goofy, often uncomfortable people we all can be in front of cameras. Though it's kind of tough to tell if that's good acting or because they're bad actors with "found footage" films.

Nothing is really resolved by the end and it's clear there will be a fifth film. Despite thinking they blew it with this one, I'm all for it; there are still questions I'd like expanded on from the previous films. I just hope that Paranormal Activity 4 is a bump in the road and that the franchise hasn't pulled a Saw*.

The Score: 4 out of 10

With low chills and virtually no thrills, Paranormal Activity 4 is, without question, a bad entry. I'm looking for five to turn things around. If it does, PA4 does so little of note it'll be easy to forget about. If it doesn't... well, it might be time to think about burying the franchise and leaving us to pretend there were no others beyond 3. Feel free to skip it unless you're really, really into the series.

* Pulling a Saw is basically having a great opening trilogy before dropping into the doldrums from the fourth film on. Also known as "Pulling a Star Wars"**.

** I hate myself for making this joke. One, because Star Wars jokes are beyond easy and cliche. Two, because I can find enjoyment in the prequels despite the fact that they are undeniably of lesser quality.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Uncanny X-Men by Kieron Gillen vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artists: Greg Land, Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #5-10 (2011)

The library insists on stocking a bajillion X-Men books, so you can scratch my statement a while ago that I was done with Cyclops team. I'm not thrilled to get my hands on a volume, but Kieron Gillen is a good enough writer that it's worth borrowing. If it were anyone else writing I probably wouldn't have bothered; as you recall I was not a fan of the Fraction run at all.

Uncanny X-Men seems relegated to aftermath duty this volume, as it tackles the leftovers of an Uncanny X-Force plot. Seems a temporal distortion created a pocket world within it, which went through millions of years in the span of the outside worlds day. Some people who went in to investigate are now missing and Cyclops seems to figure a rescue is in order.

Gillen looks to do some world building in this arc, but I had difficulty connecting with it. It's very exposition heavy and Tabula Rasa frankly did nothing for me. I guess Gillen is setting up a new locale for the Marvel Universe to have some adventures in. Fair enough. Gillens skill managed to keep me interested long enough to make it through the arc. He's very good at injecting levity into proceedings with a well timed gag or sharp line of dialogue. Plus he writes a hell of a Namor; dude will straight up seduce anything if he needs to, to Hopes disgust and our amusement.

If there's a downside, it's that the other two plots are, frankly, pointless. The Colossus and Magik part spans maybe five pages across all four issues and doesn't serve any purpose higher than giving Colossus a chance to reflect on how close the Cyrotek gem brings him to being a monster. Hope chillin' with Namor in the river is given more time - and is the best part of the arc - but it's clearly there mainly to give the two something to do.

For some reason, we're stuck with Greg Land for these four issues. At least he remembers Psylocke is supposed to be asian. Seems like most artists forget that part in their haste to draw her ass into whatever panel she appears; not that Land is above the ass shot, but he does it less here than most. I don't know, standard complaints about Lands art stand, but it feels as though it's not as questionable as it usually is? There are some rough patches but I found less to hate. I'd still prefer someone else.

The other two issues* are ten times better. Carlos Pacheco is back on art for those two issues and Gillen uses the cast to play with the toys he created in the SWORD miniseries**. We don't see that much, so whenever Gillen manages to fit them in is a treat. The only downside here is that it only lasts two issues; it doesn't even require having read SWORD, so anyone can jump in and enjoy it. On top of all that, they have some relevance to other events as well; this is where we start to see the seeds of the conflict to come with the Avengers. These two issues are great reading.

It's a good thing too, because those two issues save this volume; had they been pushed to another volume I'd have said this volume was worth skipping.

The Score: 7 out of 10

The first arc isn't bad, but it's nothing spectacular. It's the last two issues that make the volume worth reading. Pick it up for those issues.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: He's really not that bad in this volume. Still, he basically ditches the Avengers - who rightly note that Cyclops has, like, four other teams to either do the rescue or back the Avengers up - to charge headfirst into battle without any idea what is going on or how to handle the situation. Granted, it's trouble involving Hope and it isn't like the Avengers aren't the best heroes in the world, but the X-Men totally dropped out on them with barely a moments notice. Cap, being Cap, doesn't even get mad; just states that Cyclops basically went against his word that the world is his number one priority and proved otherwise. Which, of course, seems to piss the X-Men off judging by the art, because I guess Captain America has no right to question how they do things? Nevermind that it would have taken all of three seconds to send the order for another team to go back the Avengers up.

* Holy crap! Six issues? In a Marvel trade? Shocking, isn't it?

** SWORD was supposed to be an ongoing, actually, but Marvel being Marvel they canceled it before the first issue had even released, cutting it off at five and making it the equivalent of a miniseries. Low pre-orders or something, I guess. They pulled that with She-Hulks as well, a book that clearly suffered for the switch. Hell, they outright canceled a Doctor Doom miniseries because of it. It's one of those habits of theirs I hate.