Posts from the ‘graphic novels’ Category

Scott Pilgrim vs my brain


I don’t know where to start with this movie. It was intolerably irritating, and also one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. Often at the same time. It has a surly blue-haired girl wielding a giant pixellated sledgehammer, which alone should quality for a special award.

It often feels like Wonderfalls, a brilliant show doomed to fail as it was the best show of the mid-nineties, with the misfortune of airing in 2004. Scott Pilgrim references 8-bit video games and Seinfield (a trope namer for a very relevent concept) in the lives of early-twentysomethings…ie, people who were in diapers when Jerry Seinfeld was anything but a Bee Movie shill and never unironically played a non-3D Mario brother. This film, like Wonderfalls (and, now that I think of it, most of the references in Juno), is written from a Gen-X perspective and awkwardly grafted onto Gen-Y characters.

That’s probably why I enjoyed it so much, and why it doesn’t really hang together.

Kick-Ass is a Millennial movie in a way this isn’t. It hearkens back to the hallowed 80s trope (like goddamn everything in the last seven years) embodied by Anthony Michael Hall then and Michael Cera (…usually) now, in which a bitter, unsocialised loser boy would discover the magical solution of “confidence” that would let his inner awesomeness out, snagging the personality-free Hot Chick, thus instantly attaining maturity forever.

(Go right to hell, Nathanial Brandon. Ayn’s waiting with a carton of unfiltered Camels.)

Scott has already passed through this stage, full of unearned self-confidence and even a bit of a Casanova, why not. He’s also a complete tosser, despised by his friends and exes (everyone except his ultra-fetish fuel underage girlfriend, who is temporarily blinded by inexperience), and needs to properly grow up. The entire point of the film is that both he and his potential love are emotional idiots utterly lacking empathy. Since puberty, they’ve run through significant others like kleenex, promising relationships while actually using them as disposable props for whatever self-image suited them at the moment. Ramona’s a little ahead of the game; she’s been on the receiving end of that treatment and taken it as a mirror, making a vow to change with no clue how to go about that. Scott‘s still a dick, using the very cool Knives Chau only as proof that he’s over his last break-up and cheating on her without a thought for her existence, let along feelings.

Their bad karma catches up with them, metaphorically, as they both do battle with their own and each others’ wounded exes; the battles are wonderfully over-the-top for representing two people just coming to terms with their crush having had a life before them, and that they may be only another interchangeable future ex. Spoiler alert: by the end, they manage to grow up, realising that neither love nor self-esteem are magic unbeatable weapons, and that the best you can do is be honest with themselves and others…and try not to be such a dick. Great stuff.

And yet, the lead characters are both such horrible people! I wanted them to fail! Fail horribly, while everyone else got ponies! Especially Wallace, who took as much joy in Scott’s failures as me!

Also very 90s: the utter lack of parents, not only as characters but as any sort of presence. Video games have given these people more moral guidance than their self-obsessed boomer parents (if I learned anything at all from Reality Bites). The hangover-80s apartment furnishings and club design, setting off the retro-slacker milieu (or possibly Canada today, in the words of Tom Servo). The social circle is one of inertia, relics of high school and blood relationships and held together by schadenfreude, one meant to be left behind like chrysalis (all of whom seem to be encouraging Scott to vamoose for exactly that reason), rather than maintained forever by a complex web of social networking.

The only part that was truly irritating (in a not kinda-on-purpose way, like Scott and Ramona’s repellent immaturity) was the forced happy ending. They’ve both realised they need to get out of their niche and grow up in order to make new, less sociopathic relationship mistakes, but they bring each other along. Their relationship has been successfully argued as an extension of their mutual issues – they barely know each other, and have used each other as identity props. Scott wants to be cool, and he thinks Ramona’s cool. Ramona wants to be nice, and she thinks Scott’s nice. Together, they can only backslide into vapidity trying to keep their happy ending.

It doesn’t even fit the genre. Sure, Mario rescued the Princess, but he doesn’t marry her. At best, she non-metaphorically bakes him a cake.

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

mostly not about the Joker

Harvey Dent / Two-Face

Harvey Dent / Two-Face

The Dark Knight

2008

The Dark Knight is a Zizekian study of identity and the nature of corruption, a deconstruction of comic book vigilante v criminal mores, and a damn fine sorry-parents-but-so-not-for-wee’uns summer movie. If Orson Wells had read Alan Moore’s Watchmen at an impressionable age, Citizen Kane would have resembled this billionaire instead of the gently rotting Hearst figure.

2005’s Batman Begins charted wee Bruce Wayne’s diversion from adulthood’s inevitably lost ideals and progression into the Batman, the embodiment of his terrors that would take on the corrupted city that created them. Three years later, he has settled into both roles, both the caped crusader and the airhead heir, and desperately wants to be free of both. Past the novelty and constant progression of establishing himself as a force to be recognised and reckoned with, Gotham’s Dark Knight seeks his own permission to escape the years of grinding danger and compromise ahead and have a normal life…a nebulous conception including his oldest friend by his side and all responsibilities taken up by others.

The Dark Knight begins with “the Batman” (Gotham has not yet accepted him enough to be on a first-name basis) tying up loose ends. He successfully catches the Scarecrow—Cillian Murphy in a surprising but appreciated cameo—and a handful of the city’s last remaining mobsters despite the interference of Batman wannabes: thrillseeking fratboys with hockey padding and machine guns. Batman mopes despite his success: he had hoped to inspire a general laundry of Gotham’s soul, not a new gang of brutal thugs. The possibility that this is the best positive sign the deeply stained Gotham could manifest after only a few years of a nascent law and order does not occur to the man, who is sporting more scars than when we saw him last. The Batman is tired, of both the nightly fighting and the daily fopping, and yearns to dump the burden on someone who will inspire lawful imitators. He is not yet the driven borderline sociopath of the earlier whimsical films, graphic novels, or the animated series, but a man who craves an ordinary life, or at least a good nap.

Harvey Dent is the man to relieve him of his burdens, he decides: the flashy and dogged District Attorney hero that Gotham needs (but doesn’t deserve). The Batman wilfully ignores the obvious facts: without a moralistic thug in the shadows backing him up, Dent would be doubly handicapped by fighting crime in the light. He must maintain a spotless image for his prosecutions to hold, both in his own actions and what the well connected criminal network is able to concoct, and he must be a target with none of Bruce Wayne’s money or Batman’s physical protections.

Blinded by the potential loss of his oldest friend and bridge to normality to a love rival—Harvey Dent himself—Wayne selfishly insists that the Batman must disappear after propping up Dent in his stead, despite the proof that Gotham’s White Knight can’t prosecute criminals or even continue to live without the city’s other knight, who can break the same rules the criminals do and deliver them into Dent’s jurisdiction. Even the soon-to-be-Commissioner Gordon admits to Dent that his elite crime unit, established in the wake of the Batman’s first housecleaning, is staffed with formerly dirty cops who continue to be deeply enmeshed in the city’s criminal culture. He has to work with what’s available. Both Dent and Gordon need outside back-up, because Gotham’s legitimate authority isn’t ready or able to stand on its own.

Throughout the film, all the major characters save one choose to break into a new identity, sometimes foolishly, and all are forced by chaos and destruction back into their old molds, sometimes tragically. Rachel Dawes suffers in this the most. She has moved on from her childhood friend Bruce, while keeping his dangerous secret, and established a relationship that is nurtured by her career and ideals, not in conflict. Bruce, meanwhile, has come to see her more as a symbol than his friend, as his “last hope for a normal life.” He asks her to wait for him, and she wavers, but chooses instead to marry the man who is more her partner, and is targeted for assassination because of her work and position—not solely for her connection to a male protagonist.

Rachel becomes a Woman in a Refrigerator, but in an interesting way: textually, she refuses to be defined as part of either man’s self-image and chooses her own future, one that abets her own crusade. After all, it certainly would have been easier to live as the wife of a billionaire, protected and wanting for nothing, than to actively face intimidation and assassination (and more immediately, the hours and numbing drudgery) as a prominent civil servant. Her death is her own martyrdom—she is chosen as a victim not because she is Batman’s girlfriend but because she is an effective, and legitimate, prosecutor. She is part of the Joker’s criminals-and-crimefighters paradigm, not a bystander.

In the fallout from her death, however, both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent focus on her not as a victim but as a life taken from them, and make her the motivation to retreat into the black-and-white identities of Batman and Two-Face. The text doesn’t put her in the refrigerator, but the two men she loves do. Textually, this is as much a tragedy as her death: Dent, who grew from a lawful crimefighter to an amoral, self-centred vigilante, is made an icon of Gotham’s legitimate authority, while Dawes, who died in service to the city, is denied a memorial—except as secret motivation for the Batman’s continued vigilantism, which she refused to support in life.

Only Alfred, the most genre-savvy of the gang, knows the truth of Rachel’s life and death, but chooses to leave Wayne with his misunderstood loss. Himself a former enforcer of rough justice, Alfred knows a hero’s mental limitations.

Aside from one, all characters are asking themselves the same two questions: who am I, and by extension, what is Gotham? In nearly all cases, the fight for Gotham’s soul is an excuse for self-serving choices: Dent wants to be the hero, Wayne wants to abandon being the hero, the gangsters want money and power. Gotham itself is deeply entrenched in corruption and will not be affected by the angsty turning points of these individuals, only by generations of effort. Only Lt. Gordon, with his understanding of compromise and canny long view, is rewarded with a better position in which to fight criminals, and his increase in power is immediate: he saves the vulnerable Batman.

That last character, however…he explodes the delusions these characters have that their destinies are ruled by their own whims, along with several buildings and bodies. The Joker, as Alfred observes, is one of the few on the world who want nothing more than to watch it burn, and hopes for himself only to keep flicking the matches.

As an aside: the Joker is referred throughout the film as a terrorist, and the threats he poses feel like terrorist threats, making the citizens of Gotham powerless and reactive. Terrorists, however, are defined by their ends-justify-the-means goals, their manifestos, the twisted lessons they want to impart to the world. Terrorist efforts have a point, if not one the rest of the world would agree justify their actions. The Joker…if he had a point, I missed it while cowering behind the seat in front of me. He sees himself simply as an agent chaos, looking for someone strong and twisted enough to destroy him. His actions are only twisted love notes asking for more of his chosen other half’s attention.

It’s only a side effect that the Joker’s carnage hammers home to the Batman and the legitimate authority that the fight against crime will not be a one-sided victory.He iH

“for the discerning reader”

bedsit_journal.jpg

The Bedsit Journal No. 1
Various artists
2005
Found: Mega City, Camden Town


Set in Dublin and refreshingly bitter. The artwork is loose and conversational, varying in topic and quality, generally circling the bedsit lifestyle of those who either attempt to live from their art or compromise with a soul-leeching office job.

The point of view for the entire collection could be the rat who, realising he’s been poisoned, dies a long Shakespearean death. These are the people who have no place in the city’s boastful, goodtime craic culture. They may be too intelligent or individual to fit in, or just socially repellent; which of these, only time will tell. The collection offers an example of both: one, Pat Keenan, who made nights out more interesting—and safe—with his unreasonable demands, and another, a hammy old stage and tele actor who plans a drunken advice session with a young actor to turn into a creepy seduction attempt.

Most of these characters, keenly aware that they will turn into one or the other depending on future artistic success, are living forward in retrospect, mostly paralysed. Isolated in grim little boxes, they are without dependable friends to provide perspective, and are easily overwhelmed by the demands of greedy acquaintances. Painfully familiar amusing stuff that left me recharged to get on with my own neurotic efforts.

Overall: intimate and promising series.