Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Batman: The Dark Knight - Mad (comics)

Writer: Gregg Hurwitz
Artists: Ethan Van Sciver, Szymon Kudranski
Collects: Batman: The Dark Knight #16-21, Annual #1

Three volumes in and The Dark Knight seems to be settling in to its own niche as the "villain origin" book. Last volume, the debut of Gregg Hurwitz as the new ongoing writer, focused on the Scarecrow. It was decent, but not something I was in a rush to review; if I had, the vast majority of it would have focused on the fact that Batman hooked himself up to a device on the Batplane and bled all over the city to cure Scarecrows latest toxin, because reasons.

Perhaps the most "important" development of this comic has been the introduction of a new love interest for Batman. We almost immediately dropped into familiar territory with that one, with Bruce almost immediately feeling she's "the one". Also familiar is his desire to share his secret identity with her, as well as the desire to retire from crime fighting to foster said relationship.

Do I even need to tell you where this is going? If you answer "they fridged her", well, of course they did. Barring the animated Phantasm movie that kind of development never goes in any other direction. Which leads you to wonder what the point is. Creating a love interest only to kill her off in a short span of time, said event accomplishing nothing, really.

That's really the problem here; familiarity is the death of this volume. It's a Mad Hatter story and it's the exact Mad Hatter story you're thinking of. You know the one. He concocts a Wonderland for his Alice - an unrequited crush from the past - and then attempts to kidnap her. I suppose I understand the desire - Batman: The Animated Series nailed it on the first try, but the comics never really translated it into a "definitive" story - but it adds to that derivative feeling.

One thing I do enjoy regarding Hurwitz approach is his use of flashback. We cut to them fairly often, each one showing the past events that led the villain to their current state. It started last volume with the Scarecrow story and continues here. It's an obvious pattern, but it does allow us to get into the things that made them who they are a little better.

I'm hoping they lay off the childhood trauma bit, though. I can appreciate it in certain characters, but at times it feels like all writers think a villain needs a sympathetic connection to the reader stemming from some form of abuse. While that's a very true to life scenario, it's getting to the point of over-saturation. Sometimes, a villain should just be left as an evil dickbag.

Oh, there's an annual too. It focuses on a few of the rogues this series has handled thus far getting themselves trapped in an old, abandoned asylum for crazy kids and scaring themselves senseless out of fear that it's a trap set by Batman. In an amusing twist, they're at least half right.

The art is by Ethan Van Sciver. I hear he's popular with some folks. His work here is clean and fairly expressive. There's not a lot to talk about. Szymon Kurdanski handles the annual and one issue of the arc. His ark is murkier than Van Scivers. This helps sometimes, especially given the tone of the annual, but on the downside it leads to a few instances of unclear storytelling within his issues.

Overall, I wouldn't say this is a bad volume. There are parts of it I enjoyed. It's just derivative. There are worse things to be. It would be nice if we could get past that whole "create a female character for the sake of killing" deal though.

My Opinion: Try It

Overall, there are some scattered scenes I enjoyed

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Naruto and the Great Disappointment: A Post Mortem (Op/Ed)

Aww shucks, we waited too long to put him down
and now 'Yellers gone rabid
[Note: This manga is long as hell and it's been a long time since I read the vast majority of it. If I get something wrong, it's a memory issue. This manga ran for something like fifteen years; you're bound to forget some things.]

Six years. That's how long I lasted before I gave up. I thought I'd mostly put it behind me and even laughed off the ending for a while when I'd heard about it. But the more time passed by, the more irritated I got. Eventually, all those old wounds re-opened and I had to write something about it.

I'm in a rare position where I really wish I could get the time I wasted following this mess back. When the hell do I ever feel that way? If you've read much of my site, you know I have a tendency to excuse a lot.

But Naruto, I find I can't really excuse, because...

- Narratively, this manga was all over the place

As far as stories go, I generally feel that you can pretty much do what you want as far as structure goes. To the surprise of no one who has read my blog more than three minutes, I'm heavy into superhero comics. Often, they are continuing universes that provide the opportunity to create a rich mythology around the characters and their world, which can be spun into many great self contained stories or runs. But I'm also a fan of manga to a lesser extent, which often attempts to create one over-arching storyline to rule them all, occasionally spinning off from there.

Both approaches are equally valid and have led to amazing things. You know what doesn't work? Throwing out said format halfway through. Take a wild guess what manga pulled that one.

The offending moment that unraveled the series happened past the halfway mark. It was also the first time red flags went up in my head. If you followed the series at all, I'm sure you remember it. After a long arc focused around Shikamaru we checked in on those wacky boys Orochimaru and Sasuke to see what shenanigans they were up to. It was at this point that, without warning, Sasuke decided he hated Orochimarus face and killed him so he could go do absolutely nothing of consequence for a while.

Keep in mind that Orochimaru wasn't exactly a third rate villain. Up to this point, he was very clearly The Big Bad. The Voldemort of Naruto with a dash of Ra's Al Ghul, if you want a comparison. He made his presence felt during the first ridiculously long plotline of the series, gave a sense of focus, made for a clear threat and was positioned to be a driving force for the rest of the manga. He had, by the end of Part One, convinced one of the principle characters that turning his back on everyone who loved him was totally rad (I mean, come on, give it a try, everybody's doing it), killed a Hokage and even had an entourage so powerful a bunch of the ninja kids came an eyelash away from death. In Part Two he'd taken a bit of a backseat while the Akatsuki established themselves as secondary antagonists, but he held his own against a furious, Nine Tails empowered Naruto at a point in time where he couldn't even use jutsu. At one point, Naruto survived against Sasuke only because Orochimaru felt he could still be useful. He was still the evil mastermind behind the scenes.

Keep in mind, the vast majority of this was happening at a time when his body was falling apart. Didn't matter. Even with a failing body, when Orochimaru rolled up to the party, shit went down. Or at least it did right up until he jobbed to Sasuke. So Akatsuki could take his place as a major antagonistic force, I guess? I don't know. The manga wouldn't be known for good decisions past this point.

At the time, I gave the author the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were going somewhere with it. The rest of the manga had, to that point, been tightly plotted and not a lot went to waste. This had to be deliberate, right? Orochimaru would return as a force to be reckoned with, he was just being taken out of sight for a while before he returned to piss in everyones cornflakes.

Spoiler alert: He didn't. Return as a force to be reckoned with. He came back eventually, sure - three billion chapters later - but he would never again be a driving force behind the manga. From what I understand, they never even bothered to wrap up the matter of his ass walking around again before the manga ended. He meant so little by the time they decided to call it a day on the entire series that they up and forgot about him.

From there, the manga didn't seem to know what it wanted to do. Akatsuki took over, but they never held the pure menace Orochimaru did; they started with about nine guys, but they literally could not go a single fight without someone getting their ass killed. I'm serious. I swear, if they so much as left the house someone died. Then Akatsuki Leader was the big bad for a bit while taking the name Pain, because why not, it's not like this fucking thing could get any more ridiculous, right? Then he jobbed out and fucking Tobi of all people ended up being the antagonist. For a while at least. It won't come as a shock to you that the ultimate bad guy turned out to be an Uchiha, because frankly the entire series was more about that family than the title character.

The rest just kind of fell like dominoes, with motivations getting murkier, characters acting like morons and the few gems buried under a mountain of bullshit. But it all started when Naruto threw out its main antagonist for no good reason and never recovered. Truly a life lesson for us all; ADD plotting does not make for a great series.

- The pairings the manga ended with made no sense

Clearly, Naruto mistook his mother for a black haired
woman with crippling social anxieties.
Naruto is, in fact, blind.
The manga ended with the titular character shacking up with Hinata, who you may remember as the character that did absolutely nothing of consequence, pretty much stalked the guy and had a total of maybe three conversations with him throughout the entire work. They even had a couple of kids. Said pairing, like all the others, was revealed in an epilogue so amazingly half-assed that even JK Rowling would have advised a second pass on the script.

Here's how developed that relationship is: They actually needed to focus the last movie of the Naruto anime on fleshing it out so it doesn't feel as fucking stupid as it actually is. It fails. Outside media doesn't matter; if you wanted to do it, you should have in the actual series during the fifteen some odd years you wrote this bloated monster, rather than building the title characters rapport with an entirely different female for the entire thing.

To make matters worse, the sequel story, starring Naruto's son Boruto - yeah, the author didn't even try here - shows a picture perfect portrait of a broken home life. Naruto is barely around. His son hates him for a while. Yeah, that optimistic kid who never gave up on anything or anyone and cares about others a great deal turned out to be a barely present, workaholic father you wouldn't wish on anyone. Just how we all imagined him, right?

Ridiculous relationship two is Sasuke and Sakura. At least this one had some connection early on. Trouble is, the manga - and characterization - marched on. Sakura started as a fangirl for Sasuke, but steadily matured after he left to the point where he was barely a factor in her life anymore. If anything, as the manga wore on it seemed like Naruto loved the guy more than she did, practically breaking apart at his every mention. For his part, he never genuinely liked her and tried to kill her and Naruto on more than one occasion. They weren't even on good terms near the end. So of course, when he came back, she reverted to who she was in part one and ended up marrying the guy. Good luck, I'm sure that will work out.

I remember there was a discussion on a forum I used to go to about all this, asking if the author was bad at writing female characters. There was this one older lady on there who strongly disagreed, saying that the author was a feministic writer and the way Sakura was built was proof. I kind of wonder if she's re-evaluated that stance in the time since. By the way, the answer is yes, the author is awful at writing female characters.

But hey, forget both of those pairings. They're not even the worst. Can someone explain to me where the hell Sai and Ino came from? Did they ever even speak to one another? This is a legitimate question. I guess if any pairing ever illustrated how awful this series is at romance, that would be it.

At least there's precedent for that one though. Remember Asuma and Kurenai? Of course you don't, they barely spoke to each other prior to Asumas death. Then suddenly we find out they hooked up offscreen and she was pregnant with his kid. All in service to the plotline of one of the ninja kids. Specifically, the ninja kid who barely did anything before or after that arc. So it's not like this kind of insane, out of nowhere horseshit never happened before.

Naruto: The Best at Romance.

- There are never any consequences

I admit never may be a bit too strong a word, but the statement is generally true.

The point where I flat out gave up on the manga came two thirds of the way in. Near the end of the Akatsuki shenanigans, the Leader decided to show everyone who was boss by wiping the village of Konoha - home of every character that mattered - right off the damn map. It was shocking, exciting and grabbed my attention at a point where I had more or less checked out. Could he even DO that? What does this mean? What is Naruto going to do? There's barely a village left. Does he take charge of the situation and help rebuild the village? Is there even enough LEFT to rebuild? The possibilities seemed endless and there didn't seem to be a way out of it.

Instead, true to form, the author had said villain make a last minute face turn and basically resurrect the entire village before dying. Because of course he did. Why would he do anything else? It was the last straw; I stopped reading in disgust and only checked in with the old online haunts every couple months to get the gist of what had happened, holding on to a small, laughable hope that maybe the series would turn itself around.

I said true to form, because the worst kept secret around is that the author of Naruto is the King of Cop-Outs. The Colonel of Cold Feet. On numerous occasions, he'd script something bold, then pull back at the absolute last possible minute, almost as if he were afraid of how it might change things. Nothing big ever really happened. No one important ever seemed to die, even if they'd been given the comic equivalent of a eulogy. On the one occasion that someone did, the impact was felt for maybe twenty chapters before it stopped being a thing. Whenever someone kicked the bucket, it was a non-entity like Asuma, who contributed a grand total of nothing to anyone, even in death. Everyone else almost always survived, including Hinata herself, who at one point decided she was going to buy Naruto some time, charged at the Big Bad of the week and was hilariously shut down before she even got a hit in. The villain stabbed her clean through the back. Of course she survived, because she was so important she went on to... uhh... marry the main character out of nowhere in the epilogue?

Now, I'm not saying you have to kill characters for drama or stakes, but if you're very clearly going in that direction either pull the trigger or don't bother building to it.

The earliest example I felt the pull back was the end of Part One. The fight where Neji almost died, in fact. That entire thing could not have screamed "this is goodbye" any harder if it tried, from the symbolism to the word choice to the tone. He's dead Jim. Only, oops, no he isn't. For the longest time, I thought I was just mistaken and he'd never been intended to actually die. I re-evaluated that when the manga made a suspicious number of reversals as it marched on. There may even be an earlier instance, but that was the first that stuck out.

For the record, Neji went on to do absolutely nothing of consequence from there before dying later in a ninja war. Frankly, he'd have been better off dying the first time. At least then, he'd have really made an impact; imagine that last arc of Part One if one of Narutos friends died in the midst of Sasukes abandonment of the village. It was tense as it was, but adding in the death of someone Naruto made a positive impact on would have only strengthened that. But to tell the truth, that's probably why he didn't go through with it; Sasuke was always meant for redemption, however half assed, and directly tying the death of someone Naruto befriended through sheer force of will throws a monkey wrench in that.

Oh, speaking of Sasuke and the utter lack of consequences. He turned his back on his home village to go hang out with the villain that had murdered its leader. He very nearly killed the guy who considered him a brother. He hung out with every one of the three million "Big Bads" of the manga at least once. He even joined Akatsuki at one point. Pretty sure he killed a bunch of people. Oh yeah, and he said on more than one occasion that he wanted to slaughter the entirety of Konoha for supposed crimes against his family of overpowered monsters.

Guest what his fate was. You'll never get it. Not in a million years. Would could possibly be fitting of such a treasonous, outright bastard? Ready?

He's pardoned for every one of his crimes, ends up marrying the closest thing the manga had to a heroine and ended up accomplishing every goal he set out to do.

Proof that it sure is handy being the authors pet if ever I saw it.

- This manga had a nasty habit of forgetting who the main character was supposed to be

Naruto always had a bad habit of meandering, even early on. But back then, those fanciful strolls through drawn out plots at least had the decency to feature the main character and did a good job of fleshing out the world. One also has to give some leeway here; it is a Japanese manga, after all, which are well known for being decompressed to their breaking point. I mean, a lot of these series have an eighteen or so page chapter put out a week, so a lot of it is going to be ponderous, if only to fill space. What do you expect?

Part Two, however, had a bad habit of letting the title character linger off screen for obscene lengths of time. The big Shikamaru arc didn't feature him at all or even accomplish anything, for that matter. It was about lazy genius boy and the death of his mentor.

Then there's the period of time right after Sasuke shivved Orochimaru. They might as well have renamed the manga "Sasuke and his Amazing Friends" at that point, because for a solid six months worth of weekly chapters, Not-The-Main-Character and his team of toadies wandered here and there, boring the audience to tears and making us all question the purpose of life.

Not helping is the fact that the entire arc was also a waste of time; it served the express purpose of giving Sasuke his own group to replace Team 7, whom he betrayed. Guess what they went on to do? Suck air. They contribute next to nothing. If this were an American cartoon from the 80's, I'd assume they were made for no other reason than to sell toys. Hell, they may have been for all I know; I'm not sure how much of that sort of lazy shilling they do in Japan.

These wouldn't be the only occasions either. None of the extended breaks accomplished anything. I'm going to go into ex-fan theory mode for a minute here, so what is to follow is rooted in nothing more than speculation. I've long wondered if the author of Naruto simply got tired of the story he was telling for whatever reason - hey, he'd been doing the same story for, what, eight years by this point and barely made it halfway through, so I could understand that feeling - and decided to throw whatever he could at the wall to rekindle his interest. It would explain a lot, like the long breaks from the main character, the nonsense additions to the world and even why he would simply discard the villain he'd been building for years without warning. I don't know. Maybe we'll never know.

What I do know is that a lot of this manga felt as though it were more about Sasuke Uchiha than the guy whose name was on the cover. Maybe that's why the manga drifted from Naruto a lot in Part Two. He didn't have the authors favorite character hanging around all the time anymore to ensure he'd always be in the thick of things.

- The Title Character accomplished about half his goals, but some were practically handed to him

Lets take a quick look at what Naruto wanted at the outset for a moment, shall we? He wanted to become Hokage. He wanted to win the heart of the girl he cared about. To earn the respect and admiration of the village that had shunned him. All simple goals. Easy to keep track of.

I'm not even going into number two, because that's a touchy subject. Women are not prizes to be "won" or anything of that sort. Obviously. Still, it's worth noting because one of the things the manga did right was build the friendship between he and Sakura from nothing. She hated him at the start, he cared deeply for her. Over time, she began to see him as a true friend and they became closer throughout the manga.

It was one of the most believable personal relationships in its growth over time and still might be a highlight of the whole thing if there were anything else to latch on to. That was thrown all away in the epilogue, for a pairing that lacked even a thousandth of the build or natural story flow. Even worse, what I've heard of the stuff that comes after the main series suggests they barely interact or even care about each others circumstances, which suggests, despite overwhelming evidence over seven hundred chapters, they weren't even real friends. Go figure.

Number one and number three I will get into, because those are tangible goals that don't rely on the feelings of another person. Number three he definitely accomplished on his own. Naruto had finally gained the respect and admiration of the village a good halfway through, just by his very nature and the things he'd done for them. I guess once NaRudolph got to be a semi-famous ninja who'd rescued a few important asses from death and ended up a trusted friend of the sitting Hokage the rest were ready to let him join in their reindeer games.

The Hokage thing I'm chalking up as a failure. I know, I can hear you now. "But he WAS Hokage at the very end". Yeah, because Kakashi - his ascension a convenient plot excuse for Sasukes pardon, because the author clearly felt there was no other way out of that mess - stepped down. The entire point of the characters journey was that he was going to earn the right to be Hokage and make everyone respect him. Instead, it happened years later in-universe in a denouement, after the actual story had wrapped. Just one more thing you can say essentially happened offscreen.

- The big theme of bonds never made a lot of sense

"Hey Sasuke, remember that time we
touched fingers? That meant we're brothers."
"Thanks for ruining the moment with
your creepy stalker shit. I'm going to
stab you now."
Before I really touch on this, I'm going to say up front that this could easily be a culture thing and therefore a difference I probably wouldn't get without explanation. I don't know. It happens. It doesn't escape me that manga, while well loved in America, isn't exactly made for our audience. I'm not belittling the idea of your work having a theme either. It isn't necessary, but theme is important, especially early on when a reader has little to latch on to yet beyond that.

That said, I never felt like the titular "brother bond" made a lick of sense.

For the vast majority of Part One, Naruto and Sasuke were rivals. They barely got along even on a basic level and there was never anything suggesting some deep bond between the two. They came off as rivals who kind of tolerated each others company. Maybe they had a bit of respect for the other guy and appreciated the idea that they were team-mates.

When Sasuke left, suddenly the manga decides to beat us over the head with the idea that these two have a bond of brothers. The proof? A quick scene of a time when, years ago, Sasuke briefly reached out to a lonely Naruto. Nothing more, nothing less. Past that they didn't have much more than the rivalry thing.

Look, I've had friends I considered as close as a brother. It takes a hell of a lot more than that. A hell of a lot more in common, at least. It also doesn't come out of nowhere. Same goes for small moments that have a big impact on us. I've had that happen with actual family. They're fond moments I look back on. I still don't excuse said family members bullshit and, to this day, hate their guts long after they died. Even family - we're talking genuine blood family - doesn't mean you excuse everything they do.

So, we're left with a theme that had zero buildup when it appeared. That left it on shaky ground. If your big bonding moment doesn't ring true, how can anyone buy into what you're selling? How can they look at a moment and think it flows naturally from what we've been shown?

From my own perspective, there came a point when Narutos desire to bring his "brother" back got a bit disturbing. Sasuke did a lot of bad things in the manga and was, for the most part, not the most mentally stable character around. None of this was reflected in Naruto. Rather than some character moments or reflection on why bringing Sasuke back was so important, he doubled down.

There were points where Naruto felt as though he were becoming obsessive. Maybe even as far as an obsessive, stalkerish ex-boyfriend. He cried, he couldn't talk about the guy without plummeting into depression, he even physically fought anyone who came to the fairly reasonable conclusion that "this guy is causing us some serious problems and we have to do something about it". Some of this is a natural exaggeration of emotions and expressions that can come with a visual medium, especially in a work that is mainly action. There's still a point where it becomes too much.

The main character became creepy in service to the theme, which may be a sign you've either taken it too far or you simply flubbed the execution and now the whole thing doesn't make any sense.

- With the series wrapped, it's now clear the emotional journeys of the characters meant nothing 

This may be the one that hurts the most out of any of them.

Take a look at the epilogue. Look at the situations they have found themselves in and the resolution to plotlines. Did anything that really happened in Part Two make a lick of difference?

I mean this in several ways. At the start of the manga, Naruto wants to be hokage and secretly kinda worships Sasuke. At the end of the manga, Naruto is Hokage and still kinda worships Sasuke. Sakura starts as a viciously immature girl who hates Naruto and has a straight up fangirl crush on Sasuke. At the end, she's a housewife to the guy she had a shallow crush on at fourteen. Sasuke started out as the coolest ninja in the room with his family bloodline granting him the best ninja power of all and his family name guaranteeing he had the respect of everyone. He ended the manga having accomplished all of his goals, marrying a girl he didn't even like - he magically accepted her two plus years past feelings for him in the last couple chapters, because good writing - and even got to have a kid to continue his doomed bloodline.

You notice what you don't see in there? Anything that happened in Part Two. Because the epilogue made it clear none of it mattered.

Much of the development of the characters ended up having little effect on where they ended up. Naruto learned so much in the meantime, skillwise and emotionally. He deepened his friendship with Sakura. He became one of the best ninja around. Didn't matter. He ends up Hokage only when his mentor steps down, well after the manga itself has basically ended. Sakura pushed herself, began to emotionally move herself past said crush, became a strong emotional pillar to her friends, became a fighter so strong she impressed a lot of people and became the best combat medic you could ask for. She reverts back when said crush comes back into her life and ends up a doting housewife.

Oh, and Sasuke? Sasuke pulled every villain trick in the book, right down to declaring he was going to slaughter the entirety of the village he grew up in. Didn't matter. He was pardoned by his one time mentor, paid for nothing he did and didn't even really have to deal with personal consequences for his gross violations of trust, broken friendships and the aftereffects that would naturally occur after you try to murder a couple people.

My point is that the epilogue made no sense after everything that happened. The only way you can really draw a straight line between what we saw and what we ended up with is if the manga stopped at the Chunin Exams, skipped everything that happened after and went right to the epilogue. Which makes you wonder... why the hell did I even read this crap for so long?

- The series has a boatload of missed potential

You've been reading my blog a while, right? If not, one trait you'll probably find if you read more is that the works that make me the saddest are the ones that have all the potential in the world and end up squandering it. I find these projects fascinating - it can be fun to dissect them, figure out where they went wrong and what could have been changed - but they're equally depressing. Naruto is one of them. Look, I wouldn't have kept reading for a little over six years if I didn't think this manga could be something special. I still think that, for whatever flaws it had, Part One and the first quarter of Part Two had all the right stuff and could have led to something great. There were so many great moments, the series felt as though it had purpose, everything felt planned.

Now, it exists to me as a curiosity. Something I once enjoyed, but went so very wrong that the entire endeavor ended up a ruined mess. Did the author get burnt out? Was he forced to continue it longer than he wanted to? What was even the point? What was he trying to say with this? Was he trying to say anything? Was it ever intended to run this long? Would it have ended sooner - with a better overall ending - had it not become a global phenomenon for a time? Was there a point it could have been salvaged?

Those questions hang over Naruto. We'll probably never have the answers. It simply exists as it is, a series that could have been something but ultimately ended up a failure. More than anything, that makes me sad.

It also makes me want those six years back, but we can't have everything. The next time I read a shitty superhero comic, I can take heart. At least when the current writer leaves, there's a good chance the next will take the characters I love and do something amazing with them. You'll never see that with Naruto and his friends. I'm still deciding whether that's the saddest part of all.