Archive for the comics Category

Batman v Superman: Brawl of Jaundice: Some Thoughts

Posted in comics, criticism, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2016 by drayfish

batman-v-superman-trinity

[SPOILERS, obviously, for Batman V Superman…]

As is no doubt already evident, I was not a huge fan of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.*

Beyond that, there’s probably not much else that needs to be said.  It’s been a few weeks since its release.  The initial rush of the film’s critical panning, and the reactive rush of its defenders (usually accusing reviewers of being shameless Marvel fanboys involved in some grand conspiracy  concocted by Disney and funded by the illuminati), has, for the most part, subsided.  At this point the film can be judged on its merits…

And it’s a train wreck.  People can see well enough for themselves what a stain this film has been on the DC universe.  Admittedly there is fun to be had in this flop, but it requires work.  If you can somehow divorce yourself from what a sophomoric hit job it does on three of the most iconic characters in modern history (Wonder Woman escapes this dumpster fire with the most dignity by virtue of being largely disconnected from the plot), it is actually kind of hilarious.

Not intentionally, of course.

There’s not a single successful joke or moment of levity in this whole turgid squall of unconvincing CGI. But it does take one of the (literally) stupidest plots ever conceived and treats it with such unearned gravitas and self-seriousness that it is impossible not to be amused. It’s like watching a Dumb and Dumber sequel directed by Werner Herzog.

‘This is all super deep and heaps philosophical and stuff,’ it pouts, before Lex Luthor jitters his way into frame, starts spouting gibberish, and the whole thing reveals itself to be based on an unfinished Power Rangers script.

The film even, ironically, ends up offering a better description of itself than any of its enraged film reviewers managed:

It’s an exploding jar of human pee.

If it only weren’t so interminably boring that kind of self-destructive numb-nuttery could be respected.  But the film simply is what it is: exactly all that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are capable of producing.  They threatened as much with their tone deaf, moronic Man of Steel, and they followed type here, leaning in to their own failure with an obstinate, unearned arrogance.

Countless articles have already agreed on the same handful of points.  Yes, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a twitchy Max Landis/Mark Zuckerberg caricature, insufferable to watch and unfathomably ridiculous in his motivations.  No, none of the characters had any emotional or psychological coherency.  Of course the film doesn’t follow through on any of the trite, pseudo-philosophical concepts it name-checks in its opening half.  The fights were a grey mush with cartoon physics.  The editing was disjointed.  The dialogue stale.  The pacing baffling.  Zack Snyder’s juvenile fetishistic objectivism infected every frame of film.  And yes, its best attributes, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, were sidelined to make room for two-and-a-half interminable hours of watching a pair of narcististic, asshole psychopaths beating on everyone in sight because they are both too stupid to have a conversation that would literally clear up the entire plot in a sentence.

And if you make the mistake of trying to scratch the surface of the film’s meandering tangle of inane plot logic, you simply tumble down a well of idiocy from which there is no escape.  Why did Luthor try to get Superman all riled up about Batman if he was just going to kidnap his mother anyway?  Why did Luthor create an unstoppable killing machine?  Who did he think would be able to stop it once it killed Superman?  Why did Luthor …in fact, why did Luthor do literally anything he does in this film?  Literally.  Why did Wonder Woman think she could steal back a digital picture?  Does she not realise how computers work?  Why is phantom Pa Kent stacking rocks on a mountainside?  He can’t be a memory, because he tells Clark a story that he had never told him before, so either Clark is just hallucinating some meaningless nonsense, or he’s talking to a ghost.  Does this universe have ghosts now?  And ‘Save Martha’?!  On and on and on and on and on…  Down the rabbit hole of stupid lazy narrative contrivance.

Similarly, there is no point dipping into the slew of incredibly ill-conceived ‘think piece’ articles that arose in the wake of the film’s simultaneous bad critical reception and mammoth opening weekend.  Anyone trying to argue that the ‘age of the critic is dead’ or that ‘fans don’t care about quality’ is just wilfully peddling redundant clickbait.  The reason for that momentary disparity is – and was at the time – painfully clear.  Fans have been clamouring for a Batman and Superman film for generations – there is a reason why the World’s Finest comic crossovers have always sold out.  But that doesn’t invalidate the cinema score of B, and a second week record drop off in ticket sales of 69% when it was facing no competition.  The result is clear: the film’s initial monster box office prove that the idea of this film, not the film itself, drew people in.  Sight unseen it broke box office records; once the audience got a look they rejected this mess completely.

But despite all this, I did want to share some of the thought that occurred to me as I watched this thing unfold.  Not because I think they are particularly insightful or original, but because this film led me through a rollercoaster of realisations, some hopeful; at least one truly horrifying. So what follows is a kind of reverse director’s commentary (because it is the director I am frequently commenting upon)…

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IMAGE: ‘Yeah, hi.  We get the messiah imagery, Mr Superman.  Thanks.  Can you please just save us from drowning now?’

About ten minutes in – once the flashback within the fantasy within the dream sequence had already strangled the script into incoherency – I became aware of something that actually helped me let go of a lot of my anxieties.  I realised, all at once, that neither Batman nor Superman actually appear in this movie.  And I mean that literally.  There are characters labelled ‘Superman’ and ‘The Bat’ that show up, characters that wear vaguely similar (if gothed-down) costumes, but even if there were a way to bring this up on a charge of copyright infringement, the case could ever be proved.  Because nothing else of the history of the Batman and Superman characters remain.  Every defining characteristic has been jettisoned so as to refashion them into the most derivative ultra-hardcore-awesome version of them possible.

Here, Superman mopes and abandons the world because he doesn’t like it when humanity asks him to please stop crushing them like bugs.  Here Batman kills and uses guns.  Here the death of his parents didn’t inspire him to try and prevent others from ever having to feel that same pain; it instead taught him to become a sociopath:

‘I bet your parents taught you that you mean something; that you’re here for a reason.  My parents taught me a different lesson.  Dying in the gutter for no reason at all.  They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.’

This narrative is, I realised, just an Elseworlds edition, written by an angsty eleven year old.  What, it asks, would it be like if Batman was a murderous, mutilating lunatic, hypocritically exploiting the death of his parents as an excuse to indulge his every urge for wanton mayhem because awesome?  What if Superman was an aloof ubermensch, bored with the world and training himself to ignore its pain, who just wanted everyone to leave him alone for like five minutes, dad?!  Geez!

In a move that serves as more of a commentary on his own psyche than anything that these icons have ever represented, Snyder – either profoundly misunderstanding the characters, or just not giving a damn because it looked superficially ‘cool’ – has hollowed out both figures into the narcissistic power fantasies of an entitled, self-righteous douchebag.  You can almost hear the echo of teenage Snyder’s inner monologue moaning about how hard it is to be rich and powerful when everyone expects you to succeed.

At this point, around a third of the way through the film, after Metropolis and Gotham had been geographically established to be one city, I was becoming more and more surprised at exactly how much latitude DC and Warner Bros. had given a hack storyteller like Zack Snyder to cripple the world-building of their cinematic franchise.

To use just a couple of the several examples that present themselves during the film: Snyder decided that it would be hilarious to take the character of Jimmy Olsen – in the history of the Superman story, traditionally Superman’s loyal ‘pal’; overeager, if accident prone cub photographer – and immediately put a bullet in his head:

“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”

He thought it would be fun.  You know – like a psychopath.

And it struck me how absurd, and obtuse this decision was.**  Because to non-fans watching the film Olsen appears as just some random CIA operative, killed as a display of hostility.  The only people for whom this ‘joke’ lands, therefore, are those who are fans of these characters and their histories.  To a fan – and only to a fan – the ‘joke’ is that a pivotal component of the mythos they love has been unceremoniously slaughtered for no reason.  His death is not shown to have any unique impact upon any of the characters in the movie.  It’s not done to make a point about sacrifice, or heroism.  He’s just killed because, ha ha, you liked him and probably expected more.  (Also, if you like Mercy Graves, Luthor’s assistant, don’t get too attached either.)

Snyder’s ‘gags’ consist of weaponising the history of Superman against the people who love it the most.  What the viewer loves and recognises is used to hurt them.  On a textual level it is analogous to the way Luther is later shown baiting Batman with the death of his parents, or ghoulishly blackmailing Superman by kidnapping his mother.  Snyder aspires, apparently, to be like the unhinged jag-off he places as the antagonist of his hysterically buffoonish plot.  And to his absolutely-no-credit, he succeeds.

His botched characterisation of Batman too shows a similar contempt for the future of the franchise.  Because although having Batman indiscriminately use guns and murder criminals might be cool in the short term (‘Wow, he set that guy on fire!’ ‘Whee, he crushed that guy’s face with his car!”), it immediately undermines any future appearance of the character.  Not only does it make him boring – any moron can grab a gun and run into the street to kill someone; what makes Batman extraordinary is that doesn’t resort to his enemy’s cowardice – it also means that in future there is no reason not to kill Joker or Two Face.  Given that he has now proved himself willing to kill innumerable common street thugs (and knowingly brand them so that they can be killed by other people later) he cannot suddenly become precious about murdering his rogues gallery.  The next time the Joker turns up in a film and Batman doesn’t immediately kill him, he will look like a hypocritical fool.  And I don’t say that happily – I never want Batman to be judge, jury and executioner – I am merely pointing out that by this idiotic film’s own logic, his character has tipped over into a realm of murderous vigilantism from which he cannot return.  They’ve either made him a boring killer, or a hypocrite.  Either way, he is to become the mass-murdering, gun-toting, fascist head of this universe’s now thoroughly compromised ‘Justice League’.  And that’s not the origin story of a team of ‘heroes’, it’s Dick Cheney’s dream journal.

Batman v superman MARTHA

IMAGE: ‘Well my dad’s name wasn’t Jonathan, SO YOU DIE NOW!’

Later, I would be even more shocked to recognise the wealth of source material that DC had allowed Snyder to burn off.  Not only does he waste The Dark Knight Rises’ battle between Superman and Batman, but the Death of Superman story also gets worked over in a ‘surprise’ third act ‘twist’ (honestly, calling this a ‘twist’ is such a ludicrous capitulation to this story’s gormlessness that it beggars belief, but whatever).  Rather than allowing Snyder to take a swing at one adaptation of an iconic story as he sought to set up their future franchises, for some reason they let him strangle two at once.

The Death of Superman, in particular, is a controversial storyline.  It’s not that beloved, but it is famous.  It’s iconic.  More importantly, it’s a storyline that could have been used to great effect in a larger arc of movies, something built to over multiple films that would have been enormously impactful and bold.  Instead, it was turned into a weird narrative Hail Mary at the end of an already overstuffed film, robbed of all of its gravitas.  It simultaneously removes all stakes from both Superman’s death (instead of the world losing a Superman that they admire, everyone is just freed the headache of having this super-powered alien stomping around their major cities) and his inevitable return (once it becomes clear that he can just die and come back from the dead arbitrarily, what future stories can threaten him?)

And it probably goes without saying that the clumsy setup for the larger DC universe was underwhelming.  Crammed into the lead up to the title fight by way of an unnecessary cameo by Wonder Woman (don’t get me wrong, I liked Gadot’s take on Diana Prince, but she had no reason to be in this plot), the best the film could concoct was a USB filled with trailers for Warner Bros.’ upcoming cinema releases?  Suddenly Lex Luthor, the inept bad guy whose greatest success was sneaking a jar of piss into a government building, has proved himself so bad at his job that he actually gathered together and named the members of the Justice League, just cause?  He even gives them logos!  Just like shoving Gotham and Metropolis across the bay from one another; just like making Batman a murderer because it’s cool; it’s narratively expedient (read: lazy), but shrinks this universe into a series of hackneyed conveniences.

Bafflingly, Warner Bros. and DC allowed a film to be made that leaves almost no wiggle room to build a future universe.   While Marvel’s long-term storytelling gradually thread individual stories into an expanding whole until The Avengers burst through the screen, Batman v Superman tries to immediately barf a universe into existence at once, and fumbles it on every level.  Narratively.  Thematically.  It paints future directors and artists into corners from which they cannot escape.  In their kneejerk response to the catch up to the Marvel franchise, DC seems to have allowed Snyder free reign to burn down their enterprise before it is even gets started.

By the time Superman helped armed terrorists get away by smashing up Batman’s car and the two ‘heroes’ were shoving each other through buildings, it became clear to me how utterly Snyder had even missed the point of each of the graphic novels he was ‘adapting’.  Snyder, in countless interviews, has bleated on and on about what a fan of comic books he is.  They are his source material, he claims.  His bible.  He has actors read them on set to help achieve the vision of the original work.  But it became clear that had he actually bothered to read any of the material from which he was stealing his aesthetics, he would have noticed the innumerable, direct contradictions in his plot points that bastardise the spirit of the original texts.

Snyder has repeatedly justified his presentation of the Batman character by citing Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a story he said shows Batman drinking and killing and using guns.  But even a cursory glance at the source material reveals every part of this statement to be factually wrong.  The retired Bruce Wayne stops drinking when he becomes Batman again.  His no killing rule doesn’t waver – he cannot even bring himself to kill the Joker.  That becomes the whole point of their final conflict, Joker kills himself just to ‘win’.  Batman uses rubber suppression bullets in is Batmobile (honest).  He even makes the opposite argument about using guns himself.  In a pivotal moment of the story Batman holds up a firearm and states unequivocally to his forces: This is the weapon of the enemy.  Of cowards.  We don’t use these.  That’s right: even the gristled old fascist, secessionist nutbag Batman of Frank Miller wont resort to the weapon that slaughtered his parents.

dark knight rises guns

IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises by Frank Miller, which Zack Snyder totally read.

Similarly in the Death of Superman – a pretty dumb story, frankly, but one that is illustrative of what makes the character of Superman great – the point was not that Superman is so stupid he blindly runs in and gets himself killed by a storming rock monster.  It’s that he is willing to literally be the last one fighting.  The fact that in Snyder’s contrived ending Superman ignores Wonder Woman’s help – she who could have gone in and stabbed Doomsday with the kryptonite spear without dying immediately – is just another sign of how woefully myopic Clark is in this version.

It has always been obvious that Snyder is not the ‘visionary’ his advertising material declares him to be, but rather a mimic.  For years he has been humoured for taking comic book panels and slavishly recreating them on film.  His 300 and Watchmen films were in good part just live action restagings of the original books’ imagery (smothered with grain and sepia filters).  But that’s not adaptation.  At the very best it is translation.  In another context it would be plagiarism.  It’s certainly not evidence of someone with a vision, but rather a person who has to ape the work of others to make up for their own shortfall in creativity.  What is surprising, though, is that the decisions he makes in Batman v Superman show that despite his apparent adoration of all the pretty pictures, Snyder clearly never bothers to read the words coming out of the character’s mouths.  He takes a comic book medium too often unjustly accused of superficiality and, by transporting them to the screen actually does just turn them into empty pictures.

And all this made me realise, as I watched the myriad ways that the DC universe was collapsing in on itself, that Batman v Superman might very well be the most cynical, spiteful film ever made.  It hates its characters.  It hates its own world, and goes out of its way to undermine any subsequent worlds that might be built upon its ashes.

Most of all it hates you.  The audience.  The viewer.  Anyone foolish enough to want to go on its gaudy, wilfully asinine journey.  It clearly thinks that you – that I, that all of us – are stupid.  It does patronising things like telling us – multiple times – that there are no civilian casualties in the smouldering wreckages of Metropolis and Gotham, and it actually believes its audience is obtuse enough not to question that logic***.  It runs trailers for the perpetual forced franchise it wants you to invest in amidst a single film that has already descended into unintelligible drivel.  It alters the characterisations of its heroes to make them actively moronic and thuggish.  Thomas Wayne takes a swing at his mugger, endangering his wife and child with his pigheaded heroics.  Batman is tricked by Lex Luthor into behaving like a narrow-minded goon.  Superman is a self-loathing blank slate.  Mythic, complex characters are stripped of all their poetry and grace as Snyder’s inane, nihilistic, masturbatory slurry takes everything good, or original, or unique about these characters, and turns it into the same shallow, washed-out slow motion show reel he has been making for the past dozen years.

Batman-v-Superman-filming-Superman-rescues-Lois-Lane

IMAGE: Why does no one appreciate my super city-destroying powers?

And it was around here, in this cascade of bad will, that I had the darkest, most horrific realisation that has ever flittered through my mind.  Truly, I am about to utter words that have rocked me to my core.  Watching Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, I thought to myself:

I wish this had been directed by Michael Bay.

That’s right.  Michael goddamn Bay.

You have no idea the amount of loathing I had for myself at that moment – but it was true.  Watching the man who had shown such contempt for Superman in Man of Steel get his hands on Batman too – seeing Snyder turn another character defined by their compassion and moral fortitude into facile grimdark slurry – it broke me.  As did knowing that he was about to get his fingerprints on Wonder Woman too.  Having the ‘motivational’ speech of the film, Pa Kent’s ghost/dream/whatever speech to Clark on the top of a mountain for no reason, be yet another reminder that trying to be good, and trying to help others only ever ends in disaster – I just snapped.

I thought to myself, has there ever been a more asinine and adolescent vision of heroism in the history of film?  In the history of narrative?  Why, I wondered, is Zack Snyder telling these stories if heroism for him is just a gigantic pain, where the hero hates himself, the people hate him, and nothing is motivational or aspirational; it’s all just a ridiculous power-fantasy where the guy in the cape just spends his time moping because everyone doesn’t love him unconditionally enough?  I was watching my favourite characters, and the whole DC universe around them, mutate before my eyes into a dreary, cynical mess in which heroism is not just actively discouraged, it must be constantly reiterated as futile; an enactment of Ayn Rand’s objectivism in colourful spandex, superficial and selfish and vile.

It was a bleak world view so puerile and oppressive that I started to realise: literally the only thing this film has going for it is spectacle.  I realised that Warner Bros. have allowed Snyder to sacrifice the heart of their franchise for empty pyrotechnics.  They wanted to do Transformers business: ragingly success films largely devoid of character and plot, that function purely to move from one expensive spectacle to the next.

And if that is what they want, I realised, they should just get Michael Bay.  I realised – feeling a swell of revulsion as I said it – that I would easily rather have Bay direct a Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman film than Zack Snyder.  I would actually prefer his signature cheesy, brutal, obtuse filmmaking style over all this unearned nihilistic posturing.

Because then, at least, you get your spectacle.  Whatever else you might think of Bay – and I don’t think much – the man can film explosions.  But more than that, his weird fetishism for Americana – his obsession with soldiers portrayed as gods on earth, with hot apple pies and American flags waving – would, albeit clumsily, actually speak to some of the themes of these characters.

Bay, in spite of himself perhaps, would present a Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman that were symbols of hope.  It might be a very childish vision of hope – and of truth and justice – but you would certainly get your ‘American way’.  It might look, in cinematic terms, like a child’s crayon drawing, but it would at least capture the thumbnail sketch of these heroes with some neat looking flames thrown in for good measure.  (On second thoughts, you might want to get someone other than Bay to direct Wonder Woman or things could get disturbingly pervy. )

Snyder, despite being equally juvenile in his output, is the complete opposite of Bay’s spirit.  In his efforts to set up a ‘cool’ alternate universe, in which truth and hope are ignored, while never actually deconstructing or examining those ideas, what he actually reveals is that he and his universe are devoid of vision.  You cannot even enjoy the pretty pictures then, because they become representative of nothing.

So thanks for that Warner Bros.  You made a film so bad that I would actually welcome Michael Bay getting his grubby, baby-oil slathered fingers on my favourite iconic characters.

I need a shower.

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IMAGE: The best thing in the movie; barely in the movie

But this brought me to my final realisation.  It’s now the end of the film; the characters have waved at a CGI monster on a green screen for twenty minutes, and I have watched Superman arbitrarily die  …and  felt nothing.  I, who at twelve years old fanatically bought every comic leading up to the death of Superman.  I, who stood in place (it only felt right to stand as I read that issue), stunned as I opened that final fold-out page and saw him slump back dead into the dirt.  I, who ridiculously bought into the hype that he really was gone, and felt genuinely haunted by what I had just read.  I watched that story enacted on the cinema screen, and felt nothing at all.

And if that moment had so little effect on me, I can only imagine how miniscule the impact must have been for average viewers who had no such adoration for the character.  It got me thinking.  About the second week skydive in ticket sales for this film (which puts it in the category of Green Lantern and Wolverine: Origins)****, about the critical backlash (it remains pinned at 28% on Rotten Tomatoes), about the horrid word of mouth.  I wondered if it was this emptiness of spirit, symbolised by this hollow ending, that audiences have been rejecting?  The lack of genuine ideological conflict in the clash between these two characters – so contrived that it can be resolved by a piece of comic book trivia?  Martha indeed.  Because once you’ve seen the only thing that Snyder can offer – the spectacle – there is nothing to return to.  No aspiration.  No joy.  No subtext.

Snyder has traded on eighty years of good will and audience investment in these characters.  He has taken figures that have built mythologies and made them unrecognisable, emptying their narratives of meaning.  And now that  Warner Bros. and DC have tried to build a world upon a foundation of nihilism and cynicism, without replacing the elements of  that universe that they let be desecrated, all that is left is a universe devoid of substance.  Nothing for an audience to return to, to mull over or take inspiration from.  And if heroes don’t have morals, or ideals, or identifiable struggles, if they are all just CGI splash and grating sonics, they fade instantly.  Their films die near immediately at the box office.  They themselves dissolve near immediately in the mind.  Once the spectacle is consumed, it instantaneously fades.

And that made me, amidst all of this despair and mess, cautiously hopeful.  Because this film’s relative failure – initially buoyed by the hopes of an audience that were dashed upon seeing the final product – is a harbinger of the failure that awaits the DC cinematic universe if they follow the patented Snyder brand of dreary, superficial mediocrity.  And since Warner Bros. cannot afford to risk a repeat of this scenario – audiences are less likely to fall for this trick again – that doesn’t look so likely as it had before.

To end on a happier note: it’s for this exact reason that so many viewers have become fixated on Gal Gadot’s smile.  Wonder Woman’s flash of excitement is the one thing that shines bright amidst this turgid, dreary mess of a film.  Because that smile implies joy.  It implies hope.  Amidst all this droning CGI carnage, that one movement the lips implies a depth of character – or at least just another layer to a character – that is lacking everywhere else on the screen.

And what that suggests to me is that Warner Bros., if they have the clarity to see the audience reaction for what it is – unbridled excitement for the film, and complete disinterest in what Snyder and Goyer presented – it could signal a fundamental redirection for this universe.

And the signals are there that this could already be happening.  The upcoming Suicide Squad has now gone back for reshoots to bump up its character interaction, something sorely missing from Snyder’s film in which Superman and Wonder Woman do not even speak; the director of Aquaman, James Wan, has already distanced himself from Snyder’s oppressive, joyless tone.

But as the film finally sputtered to an end after several tedious fake-outs, I realised that even if none of these dreams come to fruition, even if in two years Zack Snyder is still turning Justice League into a seven hour joyless, glowering dirge, at least I still have The Flash and Supergirl to watch – shows that aren’t embarrassed by joy and inspiration.  Shows that actually like their own characters, and respect their audience, and that are comfortable enough in their skin not to need to pose and posture and misquote philosophies they don’t understand just to sound cool.

And with that I fired up the Supergirl/Flash crossover episode again, and happily lost myself in a world where superheroes still have something worthwhile to say about life.

flash and supergirl

IMAGE:  So much better than anything in this film it’s embarrassing

* If you want to hear my opinion of the glowering, dour sociopath that was Snyder’s Man of Steel, read here.

** To be clear, it was only after reading the credits that I realised murdered photographer was Olsen, but the meaninglessness and callousness of that death, so early in the picture, had been weighing on me the whole time, proof that Snyder had happily refused to learn anything about the criticism Man of Steel had received for its cavalier brutality.

*** Presumably Snyder’s feelings were hurt when people criticised the gleeful collateral damage of Man of Steel, but he could only be bothered paying the most glib lip service to that complaint.

**** As I type this during its third weekend after release, the film was beaten outright by critically panned Melissa McCarthy comedy The Boss.

Whedon Need No Stinking Branded Entertainment

Posted in comics, criticism, literature, movies, philosophy with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2015 by drayfish

avengers_age_of_ultron_team

IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

Don’t you hate product integration?

You know, when you’re watching a film and it becomes painfully clear that some company or piece of merchandise has been shamelessly shoehorned into the scene. Like when Spiderman uses every object ever stamped with the Sony name in both his private and crime fighting life. Or when a character (maybe in a teen horror film), searches for information online (perhaps for the dark history of werewolves), and decides to inexplicably ignore the existence of Google, bouncing instead straight over to their to Microsoft PC to load their Microsoft Internet Explorer program and type ‘Werewolf’ into Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Also, later in the film that werewolf will be using a Zune.

It’s just cheap and tacky, and always so blatantly obvious that it ends up insulting its viewer, who is suddenly ripped out of the film/television show to realise, in a disorienting rupture of the fourth wall, that what they are watching is an insidious, corrosive ad. A narrative experience compromised (or at least uncomfortably massaged) by the need to shill for more cash.

Anyway. Apropos of nothing, I went to the movies the other day to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron.

[WARNING: Mild, mild spoilers for the first five minutes of Age of Ultron to follow]

I was (as most of the world seemed to be) a big fan of the first one. Writer/Director Joss Whedon had danced a merry, impossible jig: wrangling multiple, franchise-carrying stars; blending wholly disparate genres (Iron Man’s playful action snark, Hulk’s body horror, Thor’s Shakespearian Sci-Fi, Captain America’s unapologetically hokey heroism); he gave the world a proper Black Widow (seriously: where is her solo movie, Marvel?!); and he wrapped it all up in a smart, snappy, romping spectacle that insulted neither the film’s audience nor its material. He validated the universe building of the Marvel movie franchise – something so audacious and unprecedented that I find it somewhat extraordinary how infrequently it gets mentioned.

An interconnected web of big budget franchises shouldn’t, on any rational level, be possible – but Avengers defiantly, proudly proved it could be.

So obviously I was keen to see the next one – the next major tent pole in the Marvel bid for world domination film franchise, written and directed by Joss Whedon while he sits on his surprise announcement of Serenity 2 (DON’T TREAD ON MY DREAMS!)

The cinema lights went down, I weathered the previews dancing at me like I owed them something, and the film began. And straight away, there it was: the party from the first film still raging. No, ‘We have to regather the team to face the encroaching blah blah blah…’ Just, ‘Everyone, keep doing that thing you’re doing…’ And it was great. Perhaps a little jarring straight out of the gates, but that’s clearly the point. I’d joined them mid-climax. A cohesive team. Game ready.

Avengers gif

IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

I watched happily, already lost in the deceptively effortless interplay of the characters. Saw them carve through a soviet base full of cartoonish bad guys and crack wise. Saw that same frenetic ballet of ‘splosions and bons mots. And then, in the middle of the fray, Tony Stark – Iron Man sans the suit – was creeping around a lab, looking at a giant behemoth hanging from the ceiling. When suddenly the creature roared awake, tore through the roof, and shredded everything in its path of destruction!

And oh, no…

There they lay, all of the Avengers, dead and dying. Stark looking down as they each eased out their last breath, the broken detritus of a dream for colourful heroism scattered.  Defeated.

No doubt it was just a dream. That woman who looked like the Olsen twins seemed to have worked some dark magics on Stark before he freaked out (one might even say she was a Witch, some sort of scarlet-hued witch), so he was probably just having a twisted prophetic vision.  But still, all appeared to be lost…

And then the whole cinema switched off.

The projector died, the sound dissolved, and the lights reduced to a lone emergency globe, a feeble gleaming above the exit.

Controversial choice, I thought. Make a film that runs only ten minutes. Don’t have the villain show up at all. Brutally kill off all of the titular Avengers. And most egregious of all: there was no after credits scene. …There weren’t even any credits!

Joss Whedon seemed to be making some bold choices in this, his final Marvel franchise film. No wonder critics have been childishly snitty and whining about this sequel. No wonder ‘fans’ have been throwing heat at the movie online.

Eventually we were told by a weary cinema attendant that the power to the building had gone out, and that they weren’t sure when, or if the movie was going to be able to continue.

Wow, I thought, this Scarlet Witch hallucination is really elaborate. Joss Whedon has gone super meta this time.

Turns out there really was a power outage. The whole complex was down and I would have to return another day to see what would come of this dire hallucination, to know what carnage was wrought from Tony Stark’s existential dread. But as I sat in that darkened space, the narrative stalled so unceremoniously in a state of murky, unresolved anticipation, I suddenly wished that I had something to read – something to help pass the time that might offer me insight into Joss Whedon’s oeuvre, and his numerous experimentations with genre and form.

And it was then that I remembered the new publication from Titan Books, The Joss Whedon Companion (Revised & Updated Edn). Oh, how I wished I had a copy of such a fine collection to while away the hours, waxing lyrical on Whedon’s many triumphs.*

‘But, aren’t you published in that book?’ said a voice in my head. I think his name was Shame. ‘Yeah, haven’t you got an article on Cabin In The Woods published in that? …So isn’t this all just a brazen, insulting, misleading plug for your own work?’

Shut up, you! I said to myself, and sat twisting in self-loathing in the darkness.

Product placement, I thought. What an insidious, underhanded practice it is.

And then I went out and bought all of the Stark Industry products I could find.

It just seemed the right thing to do.

So, anyone want to buy a War Machine suit, slightly used?

Joss Whedon Fully Revised Cover

IMAGE: The Joss Whedon Companion (Titan Books)

* Isn’t it funny how people confuse the phrase ‘while away’ with ‘wile away’? The correct usage means to fill up time, to spend a ‘while’; the other means to be cunning or sneaky, to use your ‘wiles’ to disarm or dissemble. Don’t know what made me think of that. ALL THE COOL PEOPLE READ BOOKS!

The Phantom Drone: Prelude To A Rant…

Posted in comics, criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2013 by drayfish

Seriously, I am about to rant in the lead up to another, equally tedious rant.  If you loved Man of Steel, have an understandable hatred for futile whining on the interwebs, or just generally care for your own mental health, I suggest you don’t bother reading the following post. 

The TLDR version is: other people liked Man of Steel – and that’s fine.  I resoundingly did not enjoy it (which is also fine, by the way) – but I foolishly tried to analyse why, and almost lost my mind in the process. 

This is that story…

man of steel general zod

IMAGE: General Zod from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

I made a mistake.

Two months ago, the granddaddy of all super heroes, the original man-in-the-tri-colour-onesie – Superman – returned to cinemas.  It had been decades since the Richard Donner vision of the prototypical comic book champion was so watered down by his progressively inferior sequels that the franchise had faded into a mockery of itself.  A new millennium had come upon us since the (thankfully) stalled Kevin Smith/Tim Burton/Nick Cage ‘dark’ re-visioning of Krypton’s son, Superman Lives, was jettisoned into the whispers of movie studio lore.  And it has been years since Bryan Singer (leaving the X-Men franchise to collapse in on itself under Brett Ratner’s profoundly mediocre directing*) had seen his resurrection of the saga stalled with a lukewarm (to hostile) audience response.

Superman had certainly lived on in comics (been killed and reborn, had his powers altered and gotten married), and he had thrived in the phenomenal animated Superman and Justice League programs (executive produced by Bruce Timm who likewise helmed the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series**), but it took until this year for Kal-El to return to the silver screen in Man of Steel, a big budget spectacle designed to reintroduce the Superman tale to a whole new audience, restarting the narrative from the beginning.

I was warned ahead of time that this version of the tale would probably not appeal to me – that I might, in fact, get quite angry at this depiction of the character.

I didn’t listen.

But that’s not the mistake bit.  Not yet.  The mistake comes later.

‘Pish-posh,’ cried I, when I heard their cautions.  ‘Why, adaptation is the lifeblood of all mythologies that seek to remain valid!  It is the responsibility of each new generation to re-contextualise the elements of these adventures to speak to their own experience!  Ergo, the details will change, the tone will fluctuate, and the familiar will be remade anew!  Forsooth!  Egads!  Harrumph!’

Flinging my martini into the fireplace, I then repositioned my monocle, bid everyone a good day (‘I said, Good Day, sir!’), and clambered up onto my penny-farthing, to pedal as swiftly as I could to the nearest moving-pictures show and pay for a ticket – keen to discover for myself how this new-fangled Superman was rejuvenating the stuffy and old with a fresh perspective.

…Okay, to be honest I wasn’t quite so philosophical.  While I desperately hoped that the film would deliver a rollicking, triumphant and introspective journey (Superman is a character that can frequently be dismissed as cheesy or old-fashioned, but I legitimately believe him to be more important in our current cultural climate than he ever has been) there had been some major warning signs hanging over the production that gave me pause.

Namely, Jack Snyder.

To put it mildly, I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work.  To me it has consistently been the very definition of cinematic style over substance – and considering that I’m not really a big fan of his perpetually washed-out-metallic-sheen aesthetic either, there really is really very little to endear me to his canon.  I know many loved the film (and I am glad for them) but beyond its faithfulness to the source material’s bold visuals (and near-fetishistic masculinity), I saw little to love in 300.  The Watchmen likewise perfectly recreated the page layouts of the comic, but its characters and symbolism fell flat (again, just my opinion).  And the less said about what I consider to be his grotesquely misguided (and mystifyingly tone-deaf) ‘feminist’ treatise Suckerpunch, the better.  So far his filmography has seemed to me to be stylistically thumping but narratively scattershot; emotionless, inhuman, and lacking anything that even vaguely resembles subtlety, character depth, cohesive narrative, or the capacity to linger in a moment of meaningful quietude.

Having said all that, however, I legitimately went in to Man of Steel hoping to be surprised.  Under the presumably watchful eye of producer Christopher Nolan, the man who rescued the Batman franchise from Joel Schumacher’s neon fever dream, and the screenwriting potential of David Goyer, who (sure, while he also wrote Ghost Rider) collaborated with Nolan in the Dark Knight trilogy to turn it into one of the most diverse, multifaceted explorations of terrorism yet committed to film, there was every reason to believe that this could be the project that would give Snyder the guidance he needed to finally evolve as a storyteller.

Similarly, I am not some slavish fanboy of the old films (so however the following criticisms may sound, they truly do not come from a ‘They did it better back when…’ place).  I know that to many this will sound like heresy, but aside from Christopher Reeves’ masterful shape-shifting double-duty playing both a mythic god and a bumbling country boy, I find little in the original films worth salvaging.  Superman’s 4 and 3 are cheap (really, really cheap) goofy kitsch; film 2 (no doubt due to its drama behind the scenes) feels slightly schizophrenic in tone (and what was with that cellophane symbol Superman Frisbees about?); and even the original (admittedly the best of the bunch) is at times plodding, contains that mystifying anti-musical number when Lois sing-speaks ‘Can you read my mind?’ in her head, and most egregiously of all, is marred by possibly the laziest piece of deus ex machina drivel ever committed to film in the narrative’s climax, as Superman spins the earth around the other way  to turn back time (!!?!!).***

And while I’m not a pure hater of the Superman Returns – it did attempt to recapture some of the wonder of Donner’s original – Singer’s soft-reboot never quite carved out an individual identity beyond its almost-plagiarising homage.  …Not to mention that, when looked at objectively, Snyder’s vision of Superman was both a dead-beat dad, and something of a creeper.  I’m almost certain these two lines of Lois Lane’s dialogue were cut, last minute, from the theatrical release:

‘Wait, is that someone floating outside my window x-ray visioning into my most private family moments?  Oh, no. It’s just the guy I used to date – a dude who dumped me, ran off, and was leading a double life so elaborate it was like he was two different people…’

‘Hold on, has someone sneaked into my house so that they can leer over my sleeping child like a psychopath?  …Oh no, it’s just an omnipotent, moody alien with boundary issues wearing skin tight lycra.  It’s fine.’

So while it may not sound like it, when the house lights of the cinema went down, I truly was eager to believe – given the subject matter of the narrative and the pedigree of its actors and producers – that perhaps both Man of Steel and its director could ultimately soar…

…I was wrong.

But again: this too is not the mistake of which I speak.  That’s still to come…

No doubt many others did and continue to enjoy Snyder’s take on Superman a great deal (in fact, I know they have; I scarcely remember a time I’ve seen such vitriol directed by supporters of a film back at those who criticise it), but for me it was a resounding miss.  Indeed, a completely baffling miss.

Illogical, over-wrought, weirdly tonally jarring; the makers of the film seemed to hit every cliché in the narrative with over-earnest pretention, but simultaneously remained almost belligerently ignorant of the subtext they themselves were ordering the audience to embrace.  Between the incongruous religious allegories, the hackneyed terrorism analogies, the completely nonsensical way it cannibalised its own mythos rather than communicate a coherent plot, the whole thing seemed to thrash about wildly, a cluster bomb of clichés.  Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Even the action, which I have heard many people celebrate, struck me cold – eventually leaving me utterly, stupefyingly numb.  Sure, there was spectacle (after all, aside from Singer’s more restrained vision, this is the first time special-effects technology has been at a state where the guy in the cape can really let fly with the ‘splosions and feats of strength), but after about fifty unbroken minutes of it, the carnage tipped over from breathtaking epic clash to indulgent, meaningless noise.  I do recall involuntarily shaking my head as the film gormlessly telegraphed Superman’s decision to slaughter his enemy, but even then, I felt almost nothing.  The whole thing seemed like little more than a CGI tech demo, with cardboard cut-outs of beautiful people danced in front of the screen, and dialogue so stilted it was like placeholder notations for a second draft that never came to be.

And so, when I left the cinema I was surprised to find that I wasn’t, as my friends had warned me, angry.

In truth, I was mostly just bemused.  Sure, part of that was probably just a product of being stunned by the film’s aimless sensory overload.  That final hour really does wear you down.  Indeed, through some kind of unnerving magic, it becomes a hyperactive tantrum of punching and crunching so monotonous that the countless deaths it depicts actually transmogrify from horrifying to utterly boring.  But overall, between the hysterically rampant product placement, the creaking script, and the asinine allusions the film was ham-fistedly trying to employ, it was all far more humorous than aggravating.

Yes, there was the immediate vulgarity (that many others have already cited) of Superman arbitrarily killing his enemy and having the narrative implicitly celebrate it – but even this was handled in such a clumsy way as to become absurdly comedic, an act of scriptwriting laziness more than any kind of moral statement.  After all, Superman had, until that point, been nonplussed to watch countless people crushed and blown up and stomped on (often as a direct consequence of his own blind fury) – but suddenly, in the final ten minutes, Zod threatens a family escaped from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue and he is so tortured that he both snaps Zod’s neck (mortal damage that he has magically been unable to do before that very second) and rears back to unleash a Darth Vader-style ‘Nooooooooo!!!’ scream to the heavens?

To give Snyder the benefit of the doubt for a moment, he may well have been thinking of Superman’s reckless and willingness to resort to murder in his first outing as a hero in the terms of an origin tale such as Spiderman, where Peter Parker had to start by being irresponsible (let the mugger go) so that he could learn to be responsible in future (to stop other innocents like Uncle Ben dying as a result of his apathy).  Sure, it would still be the laziest of possible resolutions (aside from spinning the Earth back around the other way, of course), but Snyder might have been thinking that by indulging such extremes you can later cobble together a tale of heroism and moral fortitude out of remorse and redemption.  You know – like Spiderman’s guilt…  Except, of course, that Spiderman didn’t personally gun Ben down.  He didn’t plunge his hand through his chest and shout, ‘Responsibility!!!’ into the sky as lightning crackled overhead.****

But I digress…

No, ultimately the whole of Man of Steel felt too tacky and self-indulgent to get mad about.  From the derivatively mopey emo tone they tried to slather over every scene (even though there was never any specific reason offered for why being superhuman, good-looking, popular with the ladies, and awesome, should be such an onerous drag); to the endless expositional pontificating by poor Kevin Costner’s (apparently suicidal) Pa Kent;  to the embarrassingly insincere attempt to manufacture pathos by ripping off the origin stories of other heroes.  The whole thing seemed to be so desperately trying distinguish itself – to shout ‘This isn’t your grandma’s Superman!‘ – that it collapsed over into a weirdly joyless farce.

Nonetheless, when I got home from the cinema, I decided that the whole experience should not be for nothing.  There had to be something worth talking about in the shambolic mess I had just witnessed…  The film certainly seemed to want to say something, even if it kept contradicting itself and indulging all of its laziest impulses.

And here comes the mistake bit…

Hmm, I thought.  That messiah stuff was kind of weird.

That fundamental contradiction between the sacrificial analogy the filmmakers were ponderously trying to draw and their character’s own behaviour, seemed so preposterous, so juvenile, that I decided to write a short, playful response to it.

And that was it.  That was the mistake.  The white rabbit had scampered by, and the moment that my fingers touched the keyboard to start unpacking that obnoxiously irrelevant Jesus imagery I was tumbling down a nonsensical hole that felt like it stole weeks from my life.

man of steel dream sequence

IMAGE: Dream sequence from Terminator 2 Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

Suddenly, all those once-humorous contradictions started piling up.  The aimless, artless, facile equivalencies the film tried to evoke, all while belligerently ignoring the implications of its own message, steadily began overtaking me, started rubbing me raw.  Now it wasn’t just the Kal-El-is-Jesus comparison (which, to be fair, was stolen from Donner’s film, Donner just handled it far more elegantly), it was the clumsy endorsement of Nietzsche’s notion of the ubermensch; the exploitatively cowardly sensationalising of 9/11; the terrorism analogies that ironically embrace rather than discredit the use of ideological horror; the pretentious hypocrisy of all the film’s rote philosophising about ‘restraint’ (they even throw in a Plato reference, despite going on to wholesale contradict everything Plato was arguing); the way that the empty rhetoric of ‘hope’ and moral fortitude that gets vomited up in stilted dialogue but never validated by the plot; the complete nonsense of having characters drone on and on about what Superman is ‘meant’ to represent, only to then show him embodying the complete opposite of these qualities at every significant moment…

I tried to remain rational, tried to stay as detached, and objective and analytically unbiased as I could manage – but a strange gravity kept pulling me in.  Perhaps it was the realisation that, despite what people who scoff at comic books might think, super heroes have a substance, have an inspirational mythos that they carry with them; and to see it so callously maligned kind of stung.  Perhaps it was irritation at the film’s faux-philosophical self-satisfaction, despite the fact that even it didn’t seem to know what it was saying.  Whatever it was, I found myself spewing out a tedious analytical screed so lengthy it felt at times that it would never end (I literally checked the word count at one point to find, with horror, that I was already over eight thousand words in) all while trying to comprehend a film that I had previously sloughed off as inordinately expensive B-movie cheese.  (Not to mention that here I am doing it all over again…)  At times, when I allowed myself the egotism of such hyperbole it felt like I had spent more time thinking about the plot and its themes than the film’s creators ever had – and then that thought (petty as it was) got on my nerves too.

There is a Phantom Zone in this film (though they don’t call it that), where time and space are immaterial, where the void swallows you whole, where logic and physics are meaningless.  It is a prison, one that Zod gets thrown into for being arrogant enough to question the social order – the Kryptonian council who want to pretend that things are great, and that no one need worry about any of it.  In scratching the surface of Man of Steel’s themes I shared Zod’s fate; I felt I had stared into that same abyss.  It was an impossible, immaterial vacuum, where images at first appeared to have substance, but remained disturbingly, nonsensically one dimensional.  Where words like ‘honour’ and ‘hope’ and ‘sacrifice’ were hollowed out and stripped of context, but still flaunted in a vain display.  It was an act of analysis that, of I’m honest, left me feeling peculiarly grim – something that I most recently remember feeling when trying to discern the ‘feminist’ message of Snyder’s repugnant Sucker Punch.

The result of this foray into critical madness – following Snyder’s Kurtz into a superhuman heart of darkness – can be found on the PopMatters journal website: ‘A Man of Steel That Sinks Like Lead’.  If you are particularly self-loathing, you can inflict it upon yourself there (although I will probably republish it here sometime in the future).  Upon its publication it was immediately torn to shreds by fans of the film as being needlessly nitpicking and of taking the film too seriously.  ‘It was just a film’, seemed to be the overwhelming catch-cry.

And although I did (and do) say to those commentators that my experience is in no way meant to discredit their interpretation – that I am glad for them that they enjoyed Man of Steel, I just did not share their point of view – perhaps there is some truth in what they say.  After all, it was long, and exhausting, and frankly I feel only worse having written it; and like the film itself, there is an inescapable stench of futility hanging over the entire enterprise.  The people who love the film will continue to love it no matter what (and they are more than welcome to it); meanwhile the people who hate Snyder’s vision will no doubt find nothing within my screed they have not already noticed themselves.

As I look back on this little purge of mine, I realise that the word that keeps resurfacing is ‘Indulgent’ – and I think that’s where I personally land on Man of Steel.  To me, it is the exemplar of lazy and indulgent filmmaking, in all of its gaudy excess.  It gratifies only the most fleeting of superficial desires for bombast and spectacle; its characters are no more than mouthpieces to advance the most flimsy of plotlines; it wallows in adolescent nihilism; it affects subtext in order to ape significance but follows through on nothing it evokes; and it shamelessly trades on the good will of its predecessors, offering nothing new to an audience itself.

But there was one further indulgence that I hadn’t considered: that of my own unwillingness to just walk away.

After all, I don’t like writing long, boring, tracts of criticism that dig for meaning and come up empty.  It’s a chore that, believe me, is even less fun to write than it is to read.  So why – when there have been plenty of other shallow action spectacles that have pilfered iconography they didn’t understand to ape gravitas they didn’t earn – why was I unable to shake loose of this one when I saw that analytical Phantom Zone open before me?

Perhaps it was some selfish affection for the Superman character, who I felt was being twisted into something unrecognisable; perhaps it was some personal contempt for Snyder himself, and his hackneyed, empty symbolism; perhaps it was just sanctimonious reprisal, petty revenge for feeling that I had been tricked into digging for substance where there was only exploitation.

In any case, whatever it was, it was a mistake.  One that I vow I shall never make again.  I free myself both of the burden of hoping for something better in Snyder’s work, and of tilting at his windmills in critical analysis.  Superman has weathered worse than him, and there are far more substantive texts still out there to explore…

You have no more power over me, Man of Steel.  Do whatever you wish, because I won’t let you plague me any more.

All right.  Good.  Now that all of that is out of the way, let me move on with my life and get back to checking the internet blog-o-sphere to see what’s going on in the world.

Let me just click on this first link here and –

Hmm?  What’s this?  The next Superman film is going to have Batman in it?!

Wait.

…Snyder is going to do Batman?!

And played by Ben Affleck!?!?

Oh, gods no…

No…

Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

Sigh.

All right.  Fine.  You win.

Just let me kneel down on the ground here and…

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

man of steel scream 600x338

IMAGE: Emotions from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

* Who used his extraordinary reverse-Midas powers to turn one of comic books fiction’s most celebrated  dramatic arcs (and the gathering propulsion of the preceding films) into a muddled, affected soap-opera, sprinkled with poorly-staged CGI explosions.

** Truly, his smack down with Captain Marvel alone nails every epic note that Man of Steel failed to hit, and the debate over his political and social responsibilities in the Cadmus story arc make a joke of the clumsy military posturing in Snyder’s tale.

*** …Also: ?!??!!!?!!?!!

**** Not to mention that I think it’s fair to say that in superhero terms, committing an act of murder is usually considered to be in the wheelhouse of ‘letting the toddler  touch the stove top’.  It’s enough to just tell them no, and let them figure out for themselves why it was the right thing to avoid.

The Persistence of Mockery: Garfield and Surrealism

Posted in comics, criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2013 by drayfish

Surreal Garfield October 23 1989

IMAGE: Garfield by Jim Davis (October 23, 1989)

I remember a time (many more years ago than I would care to admit) when I read Jim Davis’ Garfield comics lovingly.  Indeed, I know many others who have shared a similar experience, most often in their youth, and almost all eventually growing out of this phase and looking back on the experience with a nostalgic (if somewhat puzzled) glow.  There seems to be a curious shared history in Garfield, with the comic and its titular character operating as cultural touchstones, at one time so ubiquitous that even those who didn’t faithfully follow the strip – seemingly by some kind of referential osmosis – somehow still recognise the fat orange cat, are familiar with his hatred of Mondays and his penchant for sleeping, and know of the way in which he can unhinge his jaw to devour a whole tray of lasagne.

Garfield, as I remember it, was my entry point into the daily strips, that childhood wonderland that once filled out newspapers pages and sprawled across a rainbow-coloured lift-out on Sundays – a space that has since dwindled to the microscopic remnants still hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the cryptic crossword.  There was a time when his were the first panels I would flick to, the first gags that I would drink in to titter at the cat who thought he was people…

But if I’m honest, when I look back on the strip now, I cannot really articulate what it was that I once enjoyed.  Instead, it is  growing out of my affection for Garfield that I most accurately recall.  I remember suddenly realising that Garfield had none of the emotion, and imagination, and sumptuous visuals of Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (although what does?); it was devoid of the wit and subversive absurdism of Gary Larson’s The Far Side; it even lacked the sense of character and universe-building of Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse, or (‘AACK!!!‘) Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy.  While many other comics seemed to be evolving and adapting and growing, Garfield remained happily shackled to the same handful of predictable set-ups and pay-offs, never bothering to look beyond its own introverted world to expand its horizons.

In a fantastic article on the website Wondermark, a writer going by the title The Comic Strip Doctor discussed the decline in quality of Davis’ strip over the (now thirty-five) years of its run, charting Garfield’s slide from anarchic, narcissistic sprite, to bloated, over-merchandised behemoth, sagging under a cache of exhausted one-liners worn into redundancy.*  And although I was struck by The Doctor’s astute diagnosis (and it really is a great article; do read it), I’m not sure I entirely share his faith in the material’s original greatness…

If you go to the Garfield website (and manage to machete your way through the advertisements and merchandising), there is a daily comic to read, where, above the panel, there is a button that says ‘Random Strip’; push it, and the site provides you with a sample from the fully digitised collection of Garfield’s past three and a half decades.  And what immediately becomes clear is that aside from the change in art style – the visuals get cleaner; the pencil millage more sparse – the strip seems to have always exhibited an almost belligerent unwillingness to evolve or expand or explore.

A real Garfield strip 3

IMAGE: Garfield by Jim Davis (June 24, 2013)

The jokes remain the same recycled derivations of the exact same handful of one-note premises that have been there all along: Garfield is fat and lazy; John is a socially awkward loser; Odie is dumb.  Garfield doesn’t want to get out of bed; John gets insulted by his date; Odie gets kicked off the table.  Now there are even seasonal retreads of gags, with Garfield every year lamenting his encroaching birthday and sneering at the reminders of his age.  The jokes aren’t built off these foundations, they just restate them endlessly.  Indeed, I was surprised how often (particularly in more recent offerings) Garfield literally looks out at the reader in the last frame and actually announces the joke, as if somehow, someone missed it.  For all of its superficial anarchic energy – for a cat who repeatedly proclaimed himself to ‘not play by anyone else’s rules’ (when I was younger I think I even had a mug with him printed on it stating that) – ultimately Garfield has always been wearyingly conventional.

As a direct reaction to this stagnation, in the absence of any variety or evolution on Davis’ part, others have taken to adapting and playing with Davis’ creation to give it new life.  One of the first such re-appropriations occurred in the form of the Garfield Randomiser.  A reader of Garfield believed that given the comic’s weary predictability, it was actually funnier to randomly splice together three panels of old Garfield strips and see what happened.  He/she programmed a website to do just that, and the result is often inspired…

I swear to you these strangely self-aware examples were the first things that popped up when I tried:

Garfield generic example

Garfield repetition

Garfields strange foresight

IMAGES: Examples from the Garfield Randomiser by Jim Davis and …Me, I guess

And as I goofed around, amusing myself wildly, it struck me that in many ways this playful reclamation of the series – finding a means of shaking out its tedium and investing it with new meaning – was a lot like the poetic Surrealism that arose in the wake of the Dada movement at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Dada movement had been a scathing reaction against society, and the old, established ways of creating art.  Enraged, and enflamed with a wickedly acerbic humour, Dada, in the wake of the first world war, sought to blow up all of the conventions of the way that art was created, exhibited, and interpreted.  It celebrated and actively cultivated nonsense, with its proponents, including figures like Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, and Hans Arp, tearing down traditional culture with radical manifestos of such crazed non-conformity that they even denied their own existence; with poems that defied all interpretation or reason; and visual art that desecrated the seemingly sacred (Duchamp painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa and exhibited a urinal with someone else’s name written on it).

When the scatological fury of Dada faded, a number of the members of the movement in Europe eventually went on to explore some of these contradictions of meaning that they had been manufacturing in more detail, and – rather ironically – came to find meaning within them.  So instead of merely self-destruct poetry and art by randomly aligning words and images and pretending that they had meaning, writers and painters including Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Suzanne Muzard and Salvador Dali began exploring what meanings might genuinely be produced by randomly colliding images and language.  In doing this, they started researching the way in which the production of a poem (its poesis) could consequentially reveal unspoken truths about the mind and all reality; what deeper meaning an artful collage could reflect back at us about ourselves.  After all, they reasoned, this kind of weird collision of imagery was precisely how dreams seemed to function.  They therefore titled this exploration into the subconscious connections that could be drawn from these artworks: Surrealism.

Andre Breton in his ‘Manifesto of Surrealism‘ (1924) describes it thus:

‘ENCYCLOPAEDIA.  Philosophy.  Surrealism is based upon the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.

In exploring these connections, in finding new meaning in their art and poetry, these surrealists would play games together to try to access these subconscious spaces without allowing boring rational thought to get in the way.  And frankly, things got pretty trippy when they did.  They would gather together in one another’s houses for extended periods and stage ‘language-events’: hold lengthy ‘automatic writing’ seminars in which they wrote endless passages of material, freeform, without stopping, for hours; they tried hypnotism, trances, some drugs; and most significantly for the correlation I am about to draw with Jim Davis’ narcoleptic feline, they would play games.

In two of these games the surrealists would write images on slips of paper – sentences that began ‘If…’ or ‘When…’; or sentences that were either questions or answers – and shuffle them up.  The results, when these images were drawn randomly and assembled, were extraordinary:

When Children slap their father’s face

all young men will have white hair.

(Yves Tanguy, Andre Breton)

…..

If orchids grew in the palm of my hand

Masseurs would have plenty of work.

(Benjamin Peret, Andre Breton)

…..

What is daylight ?

A naked woman bathing at nightfall.

(Suzanne Muzard, Andre Breton)

…..

What are eyes?

The night watchmen in a perfume factory.

(Suzanne Muzard, Andre Breton)

By accidentally colliding rational, traditional imagery, they created something unexpected – something more surprising, more sublime.  And this is precisely what seems to result when three decades of tiresome predictability is fed through the Garfield Randomiser, regurgitated, and left to stand on its own.  Indeed, some of what is created appears wonderfully surreal indeed:

Garfileld and plants

Garfield and biting

Garfield surrealism

IMAGES: More examples from the Garfield Randomiser (with art by Jim Davis)

Currently, another website called Garfield Minus Garfield, owned and operated by Dan Walsh, likewise repurposes old Garfield cartoons, this time by removing the pasta-obsessed tabby entirely from the strip.  Like the Garfield Randomiser, the alterations elevate the original’s stale material, but in Walsh’s product, what remains is a more cohesive long-form exploration of John Arbuckle, Garfield’s one-time owner, who now lives alone, talking aloud to no one as his dateless, jobless, friendless, aimless existence stagnates in seclusion.  As Walsh’s mission statement blurb for the site describes:

Garfield Minus Garfield is a site dedicated to removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle.  It is a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb.’

Extraordinarily, the resulting comics are, at times, quite hilarious, and strangely affecting.  With the character of John no longer tethered like a prop to the increasingly rote antics of his cat, or thanklessly offering the fodder for banal put downs (gone are Garfield’s lazy appeals to the reader’s incredulity, his ‘Whaddya think of this guy?!’ breaks through the fourth wall).  Instead, John becomes a forlorn, vaguely unhinged figure with a fascinatingly deep subconscious.  Staring at a telephone spouting self-loathing non-sequiturs; asking rhetorical questions yet still looking hazily insulted in the absence of a reply; his mood swinging wildly from hopeful bliss to numb shock on a whim; this John seems to be genuinely wrestling  with some inner personal turmoil that bubbles out into his abstract daily routine.  And since Jim Davis long ago stopped bothering to add any excess detail to his strips, leaving his backgrounds as non-descript one-colour slabs, John even seems to float in an empty transom, his bewildered self-assessment echoing into the uncaring void.

Garfield Minus Garfield March 04 2013

Garfield Minus Garfield March 26 2013

Garfield Minus Garfield April 27 2013

IMAGES: Garfield Minus Garfield by Jim Davis and Dan Walsh

And while neither of these projects, Garfield Minus Garfield nor the Garfield Randomiser, have fed directly back into the creative enterprise of Jim Davis and restored any vigour to his work**, it is worth noting how fruitful removing the most iconic figure of the original text, or shuffling his antics up, can prove to be for an audience that has long since grown tired of the predictable baggage of its overly-familiar gags.  Like the surrealists before them, who managed to reinvent an artistic milieu that had grown stale with familiarity – breaking the conventional to seek out new associations of representation and thought – these playful re-contextualisations of Garfield take hackneyed pratfalls and redundancies and breathe new life and meaning into them.  They return what has been sorely lacking from the original comic for many years (arguably the entire length of its run): nuance and the capacity to surprise – the primary ingredients necessary to elicit a laugh.

Garfield surrealism 2

IMAGES: Example from the Garfield Randomiser by Jim Davis and Me

* As The Comic Strip Doctor also notes, there is a Slate article from almost a decade ago that argues Davis’ intent was in fact always to create a purely marketable commodity: a character and premise as inoffensive as possible, that filled a targeted niche, with recyclable gags that could be spun into endless profitable merchandising.

** Although to Jim Davis’ credit (and no doubt financial gain), he has given his blessing to Walsh’s endeavour, even allowing selections from the site to be published in a book, also titled Garfield Minus Garfield.

Alone Together: The Bat-Family and Narrative Trauma

Posted in comics, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by drayfish

Batman Crew Rooftop by Damion Scott

IMAGE: The Batman Crew by Damion Scott

Last month the comic book iteration of the ongoing Batman saga suffered a savage blow when the most recent incarnation of Batman’s protégé, Robin, was killed in action.  In this current version of the narrative, the boy wonder was Bruce Wayne’s own son, Damian Wayne (his mother was Talia al Ghul) – thus his death marks not only the loss of Batman’s partner in his crusade for vengeance, but also the devastating personal tragedy of losing a child.*

DC comics decided to symbolically acknowledge the enormity of Wayne’s grief by stripping away some of the primary narrative devices with which the comic book medium communicates.  Written by Peter J. Tomasi and illustrated by Patrick Gleason, Batman and Robin #18 (the first in that series set after the murder of his son) was an issue that made the bold choice to be conveyed entirely in silence.

Gone were speech bubbles and narration.  The cacophony of internal monologues and explosions and fisticuffs fell away.  Batman was depicted alone in a sorrowful quietude, trying to fill the numb, yawning hush that enveloped him by beating down a gauntlet of thugs, using them to tangibly manifest his rage and self-loathing, and brutalising himself for the selfish folly of adding another victim to the altar of his quest for vigilante justice.

It is a powerful vignette in the history of Batman, a reminder of the familial trauma that first set Wayne on his subversively heroic path – inspiring him to remake himself into a symbol of fear – and offering new proof of the ultimately sacrificial nature of this Sisyphean quest.  Damian is, of course, not the first loss that Batman has faced in his expansive, multifaceted career.  Indeed, another Robin – hot-headed street kid Jason Todd, had already similarly been killed, savagely beaten down by the Joker (only to be subsequently brought back from the dead)**; Batgirl was gunned down and paralysed, also by the Joker (although she appears to be currently healed); and one-time ill-fated Batman replacement Jean-Paul Valley, or Azrael, eventually gave his life in the pursuit of justice (Joker wasn’t involved as far as I know, so maybe that one will stick).  But even with the tragic evidence for Batman’s ruinous journey continuing to stack up, Wayne still finds himself surrounded by those who choose to join him in his fight.

It is also a tale that (silently) speaks directly to a strange incongruity at the centre of Bruce Wayne’s psyche: his justified fear in endangering those dearest to him, and his irrational longing to nonetheless share a fundamentally solitary calling.  And it is this repeating pattern, this seemingly unavoidable gravitational pull toward creating a makeshift crime-fighting (sometimes literally) family, that reveals a wonderfully complex and irrational contradiction at the heart of the Batman mythos…

Because when one thinks of the image of Batman, the picture that springs to mind is often the lone vigilante, waging a one-man war on crime – a stark, solitary silhouette cutting the skyline from his perch above, and abstracted from, the human community he seeks to protect.

He works alone.  Solitary.  One man against the cold unfeeling void…

And yet…  There’s Alfred.  And there’s Robin.  And Nightwing.  And Batgirl too.  And Oracle.  And Azrael.  And Red Robin.  And Huntress.  And both Commissioner Gordon and his moustache.  And the Birds of Prey.  And Catwoman, sometimes.  Even Superman gets a guernsey on occasion.  …Indeed, from what I understand, the storyline in which Damian died was actually part of a continuity where Wayne has effectively corporatized the Batman identity, turning the urban legend of ‘The Batman’ into a worldwide, crime-fighting industry with a sprawling staff.***

Even in the most recent Nolan film – part of a brooding trilogy that depicts Wayne as a broken, sorrowful figure, alone on an introspective quest for peace that is literalised in the disquiet of Gotham’s criminal underworld – Batman still manages to pick up a sidekick.  In the figure of John Blake (real name ‘Robin’), a devoted police officer who becomes disenfranchised by the bureaucratic restraints and deceit of a corrupted legal system, who decides to follow in the wake of the resurrected Batman, eventually, perhaps, going on to take up his mantle…

Likewise in Frank Miller’s acerbic take on the dénouement of the Batman saga, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), the colourful sprite fighting alongside the Goya shadow is an integral, unavoidable part of the equation.  Just as the gristled, alcoholic, almost burnt-out Wayne is reconditioning himself to reclaim the cape and cowl, he is soon training Carrie Kelley, the tenacious thirteen year old, to likewise take up her predecessors’ tragic mantle as the new Robin.

Somehow, despite himself, this character, wracked with inconsolable sorrow and introverted rage, inevitably amasses a family of likeminded misfits, inspired to follow him on his impossible journey to curb the felonious extremes of the social order….

In Batman and Me (California: Eclipse, 1989), Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, recalls the conception of the Robin character, remembering the intentional contrast, both aesthetically and emotionally, that the inclusion of this companion would provide:

‘The brightness of Robin’s costume also served to brighten up the visuals and served as a counterpoint to Batman’s sombre costume.  More significantly, the addition of Robin gave Batman a permanent relationship, someone to care for, and made him into a fatherly big brother rather than a lone avenger’ (p.46).

Robin (and arguably all those other companions that have followed in his wake) allowed other aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality to be refracted and revealed through their interactions.  Batman consequentially grew in complexity and purpose, and his solitary vigil, ironically, was granted dimension by being shared.

Sure Batman is badass, and sure, some of the heroes he peripherally inspires simply want to ride alongside the smart guy in the sweet car with the nifty gadgets, but the true faithfuls, the ones who not only fight with him, but invest enough in his mission to emblazon themselves with his insignias – the Robins, the Batgirls, the Batwomans, the Nightwings (okay there’s only one of him) – those who, in the case of Dick Grayson and John Blake, are even willing to literally take on his mantle if need be; these figures are drawn to the man behind the mask, which informs and deepens the sacrificial poetry of his purpose.  And so, even in Frank Miller’s cynical vision, when the aged Bruce Wayne is walled up in his mansion like a psychotic Howard Hughes, we still see him travelling with the flash of bright colour that is the new Robin, her vibrancy and hopefulness still invading his world to offer a stark relief to his plight.

Even more than the contrast that such a character evokes, Kane foresaw that Robin would provide a compelling imaginative invitation for readers, a window through which the audience could project themselves into the Batman legend:

‘young boys reading about Batman’s exploits would project their own images into the story and daydream about fighting alongside the caped crusader as junior Batmen.  I thought that every young boy would want to be like Robin’ (p.46)

We were able to ride along with this tortured icon, to aid him in his fight, even if we could not truly share his pain.

Again and again it appears that Batman presents a flame to which his cadre of vigilante moths (and the audience that they embody) are inexorably drawn – inspired by his mission statement, no doubt, but ultimately stirred by the man himself, by his tenacity and purpose.  Whenever people get near Bruce Wayne they see a man so broken, so torn up with grief that his only means of profitably controlling that emotional maelstrom is to funnel it into an ultimately self-destructive altruism.  They, and we, feel compelled to help him, to try and save him just as he longs to save others.  But he’s certainly not going to see a psychiatrist, and his moral code is so engrained that any chance of taking solace in a healthier ‘normal life’ seems to him to be a betrayal of his social responsibility.  So instead – ultimately buying into the beneficial role that he serves – we join him in scampering across rooftops and helping kick bad guys in the face, resigning ourselves to an abstracted hope: if we can’t beat those personal demons, we’ll just facilitate smacking around some physical ones and hope that the metaphor eventually sinks in…

And so, this recent killing of Robin operates on a curiously self-reflexive and disturbingly experiential manner: the narrative itself is grieving the absence of the audience’s own invested point of view, both their unique perspective upon the depicted events and the sounding board that they would usually provide to the experience.

Both literally and metatextually, in the aftermath of this killing, Batman is left with no one to talk to – a fundamental dialogue between reader and text egregiously fractured.  Thus Bruce Wayne is left wordless, fighting through a silent void in the wake of his loss.

Batman and Robin 18 silent issue

IMAGE: Batman and Robin #18, by Patrick Gleason

* I apologise that I do not know the finer details of the ongoing story arc, but I am reliably informed that he was killed by an adult, cloned version of himself (?!)  Man, comic books love them some surreal dramatic irony…

** And there is a tragic foreshadowing, perhaps, in Damian’s decision to steal Jason Todd’s costume to begin fighting crime against his father’s initial wishes.

*** Even Bat-Mite pops in from time to time to spread anarchy in his sycophantic emulation of the Dark Knight.

The Walking Smurf: Smurf Village and the Birth of Modern Zombie Fiction

Posted in comics, criticism, literature, movies, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Walking Dead (Telltale Games)

In my first few weeks at college (sometime back around the Mesolithic era), I remember being flushed with the joy of sitting around a table with friends, and together, gleefully over-analysing the shows that we had loved as children with our newfound, half-misunderstood academic jargon.

We handily rationalised away He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) as the colourful delusions of a spoiled young socialite, Prince Adam, who was clearly a raging drug addict.*  As we saw it, Adam – after taking some ‘Power of Grayskull’ (total euphemism) – would lose himself in a world of paranoid hallucinations, only to see his personal demons made manifest as hairy bodybuilders and hideous fluorescent beasts.  In fact, poor Skeletor was probably a sponsor Adam’s parents had hired to clean up his act.  Adam’s sworn ‘enemy’ was always trying to steal He-Man’s powers after all (trying to convince him to pull out of this narcotic death-spiral, more like), and as thanks he gets pictured as a flamboyant Grim Reaper.  Nice.

The Smurfs (1981), we decided, was a subversive, indoctrinating endorsement of Communism.  The clues were there.  In Smurf village everyone has their assigned roles in a working class that functions to serve the greater good.  Papa Smurf, the leader distributing all that material wealth based upon need, is depicted wearing a red cap.  Brainy always gets booted out of the community whenever he sneaks into Papa’s private hoard of literature and starts trying to educate himself above his station.  Even Gargamel, always trying to turn the Smurfs into gold, could be a symbol of Western Capitalism, trying to lure these Communist faithfuls away from their cooperative social structure and into doom…**

As we sat around riffing on these analyses, spooling out the connective tissue of each metaphorical leap, we thought that we had broken new ground – unravelled a mystery with a heretofore undiscovered interpretive key.  It was… genius.  Stupid, pointless, momentary genius.  And we were laughing ourselves giddy.  …This was, of course, before the time of Google (yes, as hard as it is to recall now, there was a time before Google), where a 0.00013 second search of the terms ‘Communism’ and ‘Smurf’ would have immediately (or in 0.00013 seconds) obliterated our smug, pioneering reverie (in fact, here are some right now…)

Papa Smurf Comic Book

IMAGE: Joseph Stalin Papa Smurf (Peyo)

My slightly tangential point is: The Smurfs have been accused of many things over the years – as this cackling table of cartoon revisionists exhibit.  Some have indeed seen them as a subversive endorsement of Communism; some have seen them as an animated metaphor of a creepy hippie commune (‘Hey, put on a shirt, Hefty! And I think the FDA wants to check the chemical composition of those ‘Smurfberries’ you’re cultivating, Farmer Smurf’); some have lamented the mutilation of language that inevitably occurs when you replace every third word with ‘Smurf’.  (I mean, is it as a verb?  A noun?  An adjective?  I heard one of them once use it as a preposition.  It was enough to make me lose myself in a fit of Smurfing profanity.)

But one thing for which, until recently, I was unaware that I had Smurf Village to thank, was its impact upon the modern Zombie genre.  Yes:

Zombies!

(This could well be old news to many people currently reading this post and rolling their eyes at my ignorance – but it was a surprising revelation to me.  So please bare with my naiveté as I chase this realisation down…)

Like Vampires before them, Zombies are incredibly hot right now.  The Walking Dead (after a second season slump) is once again winning rave reviews on television; World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, has become a bestselling work of popular fiction and is coming soon to a cinema near you; narrative collisions like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies have given birth to a whole new shelf-space for genre pastiche in bookstores (whether you want them to or not); videogames like Left for Dead, The Last of Us, DayZ, Call of Duty’s zombie modes, Dead Space, everysinglegameanywhereever, have embraced zombies as metaphors, as narrative devices, as bullet sponges; and zombies have even seeped into political campaigns, such as in Joss Whedon’s hilarious Mitt Romney ‘endorsement’ for President in 2012 (here).  It has seemingly never been a better time to be an aficionado of the zombie genre – or rather, a devotee to zombie fiction has never had so much material to consume.

When one thinks of zombies, the first images that springs to mind are likely blood, gore, rotting flesh, and head cavities popped open like salad bowls to expose their tasty brains…  A tale about magical woodland sprites that live harmoniously in mushrooms is probably not top of the list, but in fact these creatures came to offer one of the earliest articulations of the modern zombie fiction popularised by George A. Romero’s revolutionary Night of the Living Dead (1968) – a text that itself was reiterated upon in his canon of sequels, and that came to inform the countless other works (28 Days Later; Shaun of the Dead; Warm Bodies) that have emerged in their wake.

The Smurfs (or Les Schtroumpfs) were originally created by Belgian comic artist Peyo in 1958.  They were a spin off from Peyo’s earlier strip, Johan and Peewit (Johan et Pirlouit), seen for the first time when the titular characters encountered a group of tiny blue pixie surrogates in white clothing.  The Smurfs were a hit, and soon got their own strip that elaborated upon who these creatures were, where they lived, their currency (communists, remember?), and what their daily adventures were like.  And it was in their very first solo adventure, ‘The Black Smurfs’ (‘Les Schtroumpfs Noirs’), that they would unwittingly establish all of the hallmarks that have come to typify the zombie genre (here).

Within the story, one of the Smurfs (I shall call him: ‘Nonspecific Smurf’) gets stung by a bug that turns his skin black.***  With this transformation his personality is wiped away, and he instantly becomes an insatiable, non-verbal predator.  He sets off on a path of destruction, biting the other Smurfs on the tail (with the nondescript sound of ‘Gnap!‘) and likewise infecting them.  By the end of the story the whole village is overrun, every single Smurf has been infected by the plague no matter how desperately they ran for freedom…   Until, at the very last second, an antidote brewed by Papa Smurf is accidentally released (actually after Papa himself has been bitten and turned), and at last all of the Smurfs can revert back to themselves, allowing normality to at last be restored.

…Yeah, that’s right: they were all infected (or ‘gnapped‘, I guess).  The whole village was lost.  Bet you didn’t see that coming.

As this brief glimpse at Peyo’s end-of-days reveals, The Smurfs have always exhibited all the hallmarks of modern zombie fiction, and this – their first adventure printed a decade before Romero’s defining take on the genre – actually offers the first and most pure articulation of that structure…

After all, at its heart, like all horror fiction, the zombie genre is more about making manifest human fears and neurosis, and playing them out through the hyperbolic lens of an encounter with an otherworldly beast.  Vampires are frequently about confronting our latent sexuality and narcissism: all the way back to Dracula these creatures have been typified by an erotic, preening affectation, and ever since remain riddled with angst for being eternally young and beautiful and super-powered (yeah, I really feel for you Edward, you’re so deep).  Werewolves are the animalistic and primal in our psyche given license by the whim of the natural elements.  Split personality beasts like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde can be seen to explore the dangers of the uninhibited id let loose.

Superficially, zombies are always about the mass, about the horde.  They embody our fears of mortality and death (what of us lingers after we are gone?) and frequently exhibit our neurosis of becoming, or being prey to, otherness.  Whether as a parody of consumerism – shuffling, insatiable, mindless beings driven solely to consume (even depicted tearing through a mall in Dawn of the Dead, 1978) – or as a manifestation of terrorism – they could be any of us, they could come from anywhere, they look like us but we can’t understand what they want (see: 28 Days Later, 2002) – zombie fiction often gives license to what it is that we fear our society at large might soon become as we fight to hold on to the individuality and self-hood that defines us.

In the more intimate, us-against-them, scramble-to-survive moments depicted in these post-apocalyptic scenarios, we see localised opportunities to test human frailties against an uncaring, merciless force of will.  Indeed, we watch as our personality traits are put on trial, and frequently found wanting.  From the cowardly guy who drives off in the rescue vehicle, only to himself be ironically devoured by the zombie he failed to notice in the backseat; to the parent, blinded by irreconcilable grief, who willingly lets her undead child back in through the door with tragic consequences; to the smug patriarch who will pretend that he wasn’t bitten back on that last run, and that even though he’s now coughing up blood, he isn’t being effected like all those other people were…

And here we see that elemental tie to The Smurfs

The Smurfs, above all else, are a tight-knit community, whose greatest danger ultimately comes from within.  Gargamel may plot and scheme and gnash his teeth, but we know instinctively that he will never succeed in tearing this little fungus-hut cooperative asunder; together they are more powerful than they are apart, and this unity will ultimately liberate them.  This happy equilibrium is only ever truly thrown into turmoil when one of their own turns antisocial, non-communicative, and cannibalistic – literalising the fear of the other within the familiar, just as we see in all zombie fiction.

Similarly, despite being three apples tall, bright blue, and having an incredibly specific form of verbal aphasia that replaces every second word with ‘Smurf’****), they are utterly human.  The Smurfs embody all of our human strengths and weaknesses: our industry (Handy Smurf; Baker Smurf), our skills (Painter Smurf; Hefty Smurf), our spectrum of emotional instability (Grumpy Smurf; Weepy Smurf), our hubris and narcissism (Brainy Smurf; Vanity Smurf), our ability to …to be female?  (Yeah, having Smurfette’s lack of a Y-chromosome be her primary defining feature indicates that the Smurfs weren’t the most gender progressive species ever…)

Nonetheless, the Smurfs are a community of human quirks and traits refracted into the multiplicity of a shirtless pixie enclave.  In many ways, they are an expansive metaphor for the ideal, harmonious human psyche, able to play out internal psychological struggles in order to resolve the whole:

‘Jokey Smurf, you’re driving everyone crazy with that one stupid joke…’

So Jokey feels excluded, and eventually decides that he needs his communal bonds more than he longs for his self-indulgence (and really, how many times can you trick people into opening an exploding gift box before they start curb-stomping you?), so he agrees to moderate his impulses and return back to the fold, the community at large sighing in relief at this resolution.

The metaphor is repeated and reiterated endlessly: in order to remain a happy, healthy Smurf village (human society; human mind, body, and soul), each attribute has to be regulated with an eye to the greater good.  Sure, you can get grumpy sometimes – but you better cool that nonsense down every so often, or you’ll throw the whole social/psychological ecosystem out of whack, and Smurf yourself up irreparably.

It’s this same elaborate symbolic struggle that plays out in all zombie fiction, again and again – although the punishment for failing to live up to the challenge of self-restraint, ingenuity and cohesion is to be devoured by the omnipresent other that presses in; to be stripped of all those human attributes that you should have better harmonised before your impending undeath.

If you’re greedily sitting on a stockpile of food and weapons that you are unwilling to share with the ragtag team of survivors knocking on your gates: ‘Gnap!’  You’ll get zombied.  If you’re boasting yourself up to everyone as a stone cold hero, despite internally being an incurable coward: ‘Gnap!’   If you’re an irrational sexist: ‘Gnap!’  A hatemongering racist: ‘Gnap!’  A sleazebag: ‘Gnap!’  Responsible for cancelling Firefly: ‘Gnap!  Gnap!  Gnap!  Gnap!  Gnap!’

…And then driven over by a makeshift armoured RV.

Ultimately, despite their divergence in tone, it’s from this same well of self-assessment and a terror of otherness that both Smurf village and all zombie fiction spring, each, in their own curious ways, playing out the most fundamental anxieties that surface in our therapeutic drive to better comprehend our own nature.

That’s not a realisation that we came to, all those years ago, sitting around a table sniggering at Handy Smurf’s proficiency with a hammer and sickle, but perhaps that was because there was no ghoulish mass of animate corpses pounding on the windows, reminding us all of what it is in our personalities that we should cherish, or that (as is more likely the case) would inevitably condemn us to death.

IMAGE: Les Schtroumpfs Noirs (The Black Smurfs) (Dupuis)

* How else do you propose to explain Orko?

** The Snorks (1984), try as we might, could not be fashioned into anything other than a cynical rip off of The Smurfs.

*** An unfortunate choice that one sincerely hopes had only accidental racial implications.

**** I am being flippant – in reality I was surprised to learn that there are elaborate rules for the application of the word ‘Smurf’, with one such disagreement shown to balloon out into a linguistic civil war between ‘Northern Smurfs’ and ‘Southern Smurfs’ that is believed to be an analogy for similar disputes between Dutch and French speaking peoples in Belgium (http://smurfs.wikia.com/wiki/Smurf_Versus_Smurf).  …In any case, someone needs to show me in a Dictionary what ‘Smurftastic’ means.

Marauder Shields: Fanning the Fiction

Posted in comics, literature, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Marauder Shields by Koobismo

Fan fiction has long had a rather turgid reputation.  For many people, the first images that spring to mind when hearing the word ‘fanfic’ are probably sappy fantasies of Mulder and Scully moving to Miami and having babies; weird psycho-sexual encounters between Harry Potter characters; or stilted, universe-collapsing crossovers titled BattlestarWarsTrekGate* – but in truth the history of fan-made art is a far more complex and fruitful than one might at first presume.  Indeed sometimes, as is arguably the case in the extraordinary Marauder Shield’s series – an alternate fiction designed to retroactively contextualise the controversial ending of Mass Effect, it can be seen as a way of rescuing the original franchise from itself.

Fan fictions have long been a way for those most enamoured with a text to try to engage directly with the work, to project their own identity into the material through the most overt possible act of homage – carving out their own imaginative space within a universe they admire.  But there are many other reasons for undertaking this form of intellectual reappropriation – not all of them merely an attempt to exist within a beloved imaginative landscape – and there are many surprising works of fiction that can emerge from the pursuit.

One can see this diversity of intent by just looking at a few of the most immediate examples that spring to mind.  Aspiring screenwriters looking for work have long been encouraged to develop speculative scripts for established programs that they can then go on to use as evidence for their skill when applying for work – an act that is technically a form of fanfic.  Indeed, Donald Glover of Community fame has an unproduced Simpsons episode going idle that I am going to arrogantly speculate would be funnier than anything the show itself has delivered in the past ten years.**  Secondly, the current publishing sensation E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey,reportedly began writing her novel as a form of Twilight fan fiction (although I cannot begin to express the wellspring of loathing I have for both franchises…)  Indeed, even the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire, a subversive take on The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch, or Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean, an officially endorsed continuation of J.M. Barrie’s tale, are both technically forms of fan fiction.***

And then there are those works of unsanctioned fan fiction that can be seen to transcend the term, that capture (or even eclipse) the original work so effortlessly that they become, for many fans, the abiding canonical experience.  For some fans (full disclosure: myself included), one of the only good things to have emerged from the whole debacle surrounding the conclusion to Mass Effect 3 earlier this year has been the emergence of an ‘alternate ending’, created by a fan named Koobismo, called Marauder Shields.****

For those unaware, the character of ‘Marauder Shields’ was a meme that surfaced as the disappointment over the Mass Effect ending was at its earliest and hottest stage – indeed, I had already heard of ‘Marauder Shields’ by internet osmosis well before I had any idea what to expect by the actual details of the ending.

To briefly summarise: at the original conclusion of Mass Effect 3, the designers of the game had chosen to conclude their narrative in a dialogue scene with a character called the ‘Catalyst’ – the mouthpiece of the genocidal enemy the central character, Shepard, had been trying to stop all along.  This Catalyst forces Shepard (and by extension the player) to chose one of three vulgar options with which they must end their journey: they must either commit an act of genocide; genetically mutate every living being against their will; or brainwash the enemy in order to themself become the new totalitarian overlord of the galaxy.  It was an alarmingly nihilistic ending, in which a war crime was the price of victory – and to many fans seemed in stark opposition to the inclusive, hopeful message that the series had until that very point, championed.

On March 14th (only a week after the game was released), a player on a message board 4chan noted that because this Catalyst conversation effectively overtook the end of the game in an elaborate depressing cut-scene, this therefore meant that the ‘final boss’ the player encountered was a lowly Marauder (a stock-standard enemy type that recurs constantly throughout the game; his last name, ‘Shields’, came from the graphic above his head that showed, literally, his shields).  In fact, it was soon posited, this Marauder had tried to ‘kill’ the player to save them from seeing that awful ending.  He was, in the greater scheme of things, a misunderstood hero, and if only the player had listened to him and just died, they would have been spared a greater pain…

Koobismo, creator and still guiding hand of the Marauder Shields comic, took this notion of the ‘final boss’ and used the character to make a satirical screw you to the end of the game, actually showing Marauder Shields to be a more complex, introspective and soulful figure, intent on righting the wrongs of a narrative conceit gone haywire.  It was highly comedic, but in truth had nowhere to go once the mighty Marauder blew the Catalyst away, spitting out his resignation like a synthetic Dirty Harry.

Since those first few snarky strips, however, the work has grown and evolved into a full-fleshed and compelling narrative, a genuine and passionate alternate world in which the fiction of Mass Effect continues on, not derailed by the artless deus ex machina and arbitrary moral surrender of the original.  In contrast, the work has rather become emboldened by the act of declaring a loud narrative and thematic ‘No’ to such nihilistic compromise.

The battle in which the characters and player were engaged at the end of Mass Effect 3 still rages on, and ironically, while the player avatar Shepard still functions as the nucleus around which the depicted characters spin, he/she is not directly visualised in the comic – only referred to as another hostage of the drama playing out for his/her sake.  Some characters, who in the original text abandoned their commander, remain fighting by his/her side; others who were offered arbitrary deaths in the final moments of the game, live on to fight tenaciously; perhaps even more extraordinarily, major plot points (like: Why are the Reaper’s even focused on London?, What were the other strike teams doing?, What was the Illusive Man up to anyway?) are offered answers that were ignored, glossed over, or never intended to be justified, in the original.

But above all of this continuation of the story, what Koobismo’s rich, self-aware alternate universe truly offers is the rescue and resurrection of the primary theme that Mass Effect had, until its ending, always abided by, and which it unceremoniously sacrificed (both figuratively and literally) in its endgame.  As Koobismo so perfectly articulates in a written response to the additional paid ‘Leviathan’ DLC: Marauder Shields was an attempt to recapture what had been lost in that ending, what had repugnantly twisted a universe that was so beloved into a shade of its former beauty…

Because, of course…

Of course it had to be…

That emotion that has driven every narrative that has ever meant anything to we precocious little creatures of flesh; that sensation that has ever given breath to our silly, but surprisingly resilient beliefs.  That fire that has burned within us since we first stared out into the immensity of an existence that seemed to vast to comprehend all at once – a universe that we have ever since tried to compartmentalise with myth and legend and fiction…

Obviously it was always going to be hope.

As Koobismo states in that statement of poetics:

One could argue that the solutions presented by the [Catalyst] grant you some kind of hope… And one would be wrong.  The very philosophical themes of the ending indicate that nothing matters, neither in the past (all choices become invalidated), nor the future (everything can be invalidated once again, by another godlike creature with an even stupider plan – these are the new rules of the narrative).  Your hopes, presented to you over the course of the narrative, were false – this is why it stings so much to return to the previous games, this is why replayability gets murdered by this finale.  Let me emphasize this… The crucial emotion of Mass Effect was HOPE.  Believing in a positive outcome fueled by your efforts and sacrifices, which is invalidated retroactively.  You can hide away the “it’s about the journey” asspull – how can you take the same journey again, how can you hope again, if you know that it’s just a lie?****

And for many players (although it is fair to say not all), Koobismo is perfectly, heartbreakingly right.  The seismic shock of that final repugnant end, being forced to rob the universe of the very freedoms that allowed it to yearn and dream, to fight to live not merely survive, ultimately devastated any capacity to return to that narrative, to engage again with the fraud that lies at its core.

For many, there is, at present, no more hope in the original text of Mass Effect 3 – only a love note to moral relativity.  For now, the only place that one can find that sensation again is in the realm of what began as fan-fiction, in Koobismo’s spectacular work Marauder Shields.  For it is here that the characters have not yet given up the fight; here that the audience and author have not abandoned the luminescent hope that always made this narrative grand.  Indeed, it is a belief so immense that it has now carved out a whole new universe, free from the contamination of the old, and the thematic betrayal that undermined the entirety of the journey.

Indeed, it explains why (and I am not ashamed to admit this), after the Extended Cut of Mass Effect 3 was released, I choked up to see the banner rallying-cry  with which Koobismo had signed that week’s release:

FUELLED BY NOTHING BUT FAN LOVE / MASS EFFECT LIVES ON

Damned right it does.

And for that, I cannot personally thank Marauder Shields enough.

Postscript:

In the past few weeks, a mod for the ending of the game Mass Effect 3 has been released by an ingenious and artful modder named MrFob.  Answering the call of many fans who were disheartened by the arbitrary sacrifice of the hero and the total moral surrender of the ending, MrFob tweaked the details of the conclusion to offer an alternate resolve.  The ending plays out much the same, subtracting only to forced genocide of an innocent race of allies and the surrender of the main character to the whim of his/her intolerant enemy’s nihilistic bargain.  Details of this ending, and links to video can be found here: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/368/index/14795358/1#14795358

 

IMAGE: Marauder Shields by Koobismo

* I call copyright on BattlestarWarTrekGate.  Look for it in theatres never.

** Something he revealed in his appearance on the Nerdist podcast.

*** The Wall Street Journal has quite a nice summary of the history Fanfic that cites many more such examples: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303734204577464411825970488.html

**** Marauder Shields (http://koobismo.deviantart.com/gallery/#)

***** ‘The Leviathan and the death of Hope’ (http://koobismo.deviantart.com/#/d5d7f66)

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