Archive for comics

Wonder Woman: She Stood Up

Posted in comics, criticism, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2017 by drayfish

 wonder-woman-gal-gadot-ultimate-edition-1024x681

If nothing else, Wonder Woman finally proves that DC is willing to allow a woman to have a confusing, weightless, CGI-heavy third act of her own.

And that is something.

Yes, I’m being snarky, but don’t let that obscure the important takeaway here:

Wonder Woman is important.  And I loved watching every second of it.  Loved it.

With an asterisk.

Because in order to discuss what is deservedly praiseworthy about this film, you unfortunately have to acknowledge the pedestrian material that surrounds it.

So to get this out of the way:

This is a film with a fairly workmanlike screenplay.  At times characters blurt exposition at one another and the plotting is stiff.  There appears to be character arcs and side narratives that, to me, were clearly either lost in editing, or left half devised during the drafting process.  There are moments of levity amongst the characters, but you would be forgiven for thinking that these brief flashes were whipped together on the day of shooting rather than a tonal feature of the script.  The bag guys are so disposable you often forget about them while they are still on screen.  Some of the action continues to bears the fingerprints of Zack Snyder’s obsession with empty, slow-motion plasticity.  And you can still hear echoes of the original studio pitch-meeting that decreed this film should be a mash-up of Thor and Captain America (an observation I have seen others critics make).  Indeed, it can be argued that the story this film seeks to tell was already presented, more successfully, in last year’s Moana.

The whole production is abuzz with reasons to sink away and be forgotten.

Except for her.

Wonder Woman – both Gal Gadot inhabiting her, and Patty Jenkins behind the camera – proves just how shameful it is that it has taken this long to put this extraordinary hero on film.

Because, as Wonder Woman shows, a great hero, portrayed with respect, rises above whatever dreck they might find themselves in.  Patty Jenkins may have been hamstrung by a weak script, she may have been fending off interference by studio executives (I’ve not heard anything specific, but since Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad it certainly sounds like the DC films are lousy with intrusive meddling), and she may have had her aesthetic choices hampered by the established Syder-universe style of sepia funk, but she clearly respects her character, and recognises the significance of presenting her as an inspirational figure for generations of viewers to come.

And this ability for a hero to rise above their narrative is nothing new.  After all, it’s not just that Batman v Superman is awful; it’s that the Superman it presented was a psychotic emo twit and its Batman was a bro-sociopath Frank Miller wet dream.  In contrast, the Richard Donner Superman film is ridiculous, straight up lame at points (why is Lois rhyme-singing?!  Why the hell does turning the Earth the other way reverse time?!), but it treats Clark and Kal-El with deference, and allows Christopher Reeve to do that magic trick he perfected of playing both sides of the character with commitment.  The Dark Knight Rises is likewise pretty silly, but it gets Batman’s self-sacrifice and struggle to defy the temptation of his own darkness right.

So when Jenkins show Diana as a child, a smile of ambition and defiance breaking on her lips, it lights up the screen – even if the idyllic society in which she is both beloved and feared is so thinly sketched.  When Wonder Woman rises out of the muck of war to cross No Man’s Land (a land where no man can go, as the script not-so-subtly insists), the moment her determined gaze and burnished armour rise above the trenches, the film too transcends its limitations – even if the CGI matting washes everything out and the spatial relations of the characters are not always tracked.

Rather than treating her character as some myth to ‘deconstruct’ and debase (although in truth nothing in the DC movie universe so far actually constitutes an actual deconstruction of these characters, more a cynical revision), Jenkins valued what Diana, Princess of Themyscira represented enough to unapologetically embrace it.

Love.  Hope.  Compassion.

wonder-woman

In the Snyder universe these notions have so far been belittled and mocked as outdated.*  Its two most prominent ‘heroes’ have instead been motivated by self-interest and lost in their own narcissistic funks; Superman mopes around like Krypto the Dog just died and only seems to spring into action when either Lois or his mother are in danger; Batman has become a brutal fascist, literally trying to force the world to fit his world view; and even when the two of them decide to stop posturing and work together it’s because their mothers have the same name.  Screw altruism, or idealism, or service to humankind; the greatest superpower in the universe is apparently ego.

But out of this affected, self-indulgence, Wonder Woman arises, unsullied.  Embracing the incommunicable charisma of Gal Gadot’s performance – a magnetism that stole and solely justified last year’s asinine funeral dirge Batman v Superman – Jenkins allows the character’s radiance to operate as it should, like a sun around which everyone else orbits; from which everyone else draws light.

The result spills out into every other aspect of the film, elevating even the DC universe’s most generic tropes.  Here Diana’s supporting characters aren’t merely plot devices to be imperilled and spout emphatic one-liners for the trailer; we see them inspired by their time with Diana, and they are allowed moments of quietude in which to exhibit personality that in turn helps shape Diana’s world view.  Similarly, the slow motion CGI fights no longer overwhelm.  Jenkins uses them more sparingly, with a less lascivious gaze than in the previous DC films.  It is actually possible to follow the action, rather than descending into over-edited, incomprehensible mush.  And even that awful oversaturated brown aesthetic Snyder favours is more pointedly utilised here.  Jenkins employs it in the bulk of the second act – when Diana is traversing the murk of London and the front line of the war; both environments choked by male oppression; but this second act is preceded by the verdant paradise of Themyscira, and is later burned away by the reveal of Diana’s vibrant costume, which becomes something of a beacon shining through the gloom.

Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is: it shouldn’t have been this damned hard, DC.  You finally made a movie that’s pretty good, with all the same ingredients as before, except that this time the hero was not afraid to stand for something, rather than dissolving into a puddle of half-baked pubescent nihilism.

But in hindsight, of course it would be Wonder Woman that showed the way.

After all, Wonder Woman has always been created to answer a lack.  In the fiction of her origin she was fashioned from clay by a mother who longed for a child.  In reality, she was designed as a response to a comics industry that was devoid of strong female characters.

Comic books in the late 1930s were still a relatively new entertainment, and found themselves accused of being sensationalist, masculine garbage, filled only with violence and vice that must surely be corrupting its readers.  Much of the criticism was hysterical, but it reflected a real absence, both of inspirational heroines, and of role models who solved the world’s problems with more than flamboyant kicks to the face.

William Moulton Marston, an American psychologist, saw the potential for comics to do more, to offer more.  With the help of his wife Elizabeth, Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941 to prove this potential true.  She was strong, capable, intelligent and loving.  As powerful as Superman, but seemingly more aware of the further role she could play as a symbol for change.  She sought to better the lives of those around her, encouraging human kind to aspire for more.  To fight for equality and truth (truth even literalised in her lasso), and to treat each other with compassion in the face of fear and division.**

And so, Wonder Woman stood up.  She remade the comic medium.  Not by breaking and reinventing the form, but by showing how that form could be better employed.

And happily, history has repeated.

So far the DC films have created a garbage pile of machismo, garbled pseudo-philosophy, and wilful stupidity.  They have been (rightly) maligned for being so busy dithering about in their Juggalo redesigns and empty pretentiousness to offer even the most basic of heroic iconography.

And once again, Wonder Woman stood up.

She climbed out of the stagnating trench of the DC universe, sloughed off the baggage of the perpetual sequel/prequel franchise to which she is still beholden, and shone brighter than all the turgid, inward looking-posers around her.

Wonder Woman may not be the kind of film that reinvents the medium in terms of its script or its themes – this is no The Dark Knight or Captain America: Winter Soldier – but Wonder Woman the character, as presented here, is the kind of hero who has now remade our expectation of all future blockbuster films to come.

Shamefully, for all of the success of the Marvel movie empire, they still have yet to place a female hero at the centre of a film (it is straight up insulting that at this point Black Widow has been the most dynamic thing in several of their films and yet never been the star).  And despite pumping out several films in their entangled universe, DC has yet to actually present a hero.  But Wonder Woman – both character and film – proves how pitifully reductive this thinking has been.

But with this foundation in place, there is now finally a chance that things might truly change.  That the cowardly, whining idiots on the internet who are fearful of women having superhero entertainment that also reflects their experience will be drowned out by the film’s success (please, please, please let this be true).  That studios will finally shake up their tired formulas of using women as mere props and damsels.  And perhaps, with a luminous presence like Gal Gadot inhabiting her, Patty Jenkins keen to do a sequel, Joss Whedon’s take on Batgirl in pre-production, and a deep bench of underutilised female characters waiting to get their moment to shine (where’s my Supergirl at?!), DC might actually be able to get out of their own way and remember that they have the opportunity to create diverse, dynamic entertainment that actually speaks – albeit in grand spectacle – to human truths.

It would be a fitting addition to the history of a trailblazing cultural icon.  Because despite appearances, Wonder Woman was always standing there.  It just took until now for some to notice.

wonder woman Gal-Gadot-jpg

* Before anyone mentions it: yes, I know that Snyder is credited as being partially involved in devising the story for this film, but he was also, if the scuttlebutt is true, swiftly nudged away from the project when the feedback on Batman v Superman emerged.

** There were also some more themes of bondage and Sapphic love in the subtext, but that is for a more comprehensive discussion of Marston’s philosophy…)

Vale DrawQuest: CTRL ALT DELETE

Posted in art, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by drayfish

Whats sizzling in the pan 1

IMAGE: ‘What’s Sizzling In The Pan?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Only late last year I was bleating on about how great DrawQuest was.

A free program designed to offer the canvas, tools, gallery, and daily inspirational prompts for aspiring artists and procrastinating doodlers to express their creativity in an encouraging environment, DrawQuest was like a sweet, supportive oasis.  It was a place where pop culture and classical art, established and original characters (and the occasional shamelessly redundant request for followers) mingled in blissful, free-associated abandon.

At any moment you could be scrolling through a five-year old’s adorably slanted drawing of a house with puffy smoke coming out the chimney, a near photo-realistic portrait of Beyonce, or a fresco of Princess Bubblegum dissecting SpongeBob SquarePants in a soundproof lab.*

So naturally enough, when I spoke of the program I compared it to the birth of all art and imaginative expression: humankind’s very first cave paintings and the revolutionary conceptual evolution that they continue, to this day, to represent.

Yeah.

‘Cause that’s not an overreach.

In any case, while I have to admit that it’s been a month or two since I’ve dropped in on DrawQuest, my fondness for the program has remained strong.  So I was greatly disheartened to hear earlier this month that DrawQuest had closed down.

As their announcement states, the program had been the target of a hacker, and while it was unclear whether any sensitive information had in fact been gathered, the owners and operators of the program decided in the wake of this breach to protect against further intrusion into their clients’ privacy by closing down the whole production.**

Aside from being a loss for those who used the platform to feed their creative spark, it’s also a sad reminder of just how transitory the world wide web can be as a means of archival preservation.  In my previous post, I spoke of the way in which the internet gave we desperate, expressive humans the opportunity to spread ourselves even further beyond the limitations of this our mortal, corporeal form.  No longer were we constrained by the need for physical space and temperamental mediums – suddenly we could reach into the nebulous, wild expanse of the digital eternal…

Except of course that now, with all of DrawQuest’s galleries and social functions shut down, we instead see hundreds of thousands of users discovering that material they had poured countless hours of love and effort into could be dissolved in an instant.

Bet those cave walls don’t seem to ‘antiquated’ now, huh?

…Wait, who am I mocking?  Me?

I’m confused.

Although to their great credit the creators and curators of DrawQuest have promised to try and restore those galleries somewhere, somewhen in future, the truth is that they appear to be a small handful of very kind, very underfunded volunteers, and a library of that magnitude will probably be cumbersome, and prohibitively expensive to wrangle.  Ideally, they will indeed find a way to return, but at present, all of that work – months of labour, passion, and effort; a testament to the enthusiastic community DrawQuest had fostered – is gone.

Thankfully, for those users (like myself) who were egomaniacal enough to link up their tumblr feeds and facebook histories and twitter twoots and flickr whatevers (why do none of these programs use capital letters, inquired the very old man typing this post?), their pictures live on, however ephemerally, in other internet galleries.  These echoes of what DrawQuest was remain, the artworks given life through its collaboration preserved – likewise, no doubt, all tremulously poised upon the precipice of another encroaching oblivion…

So to mourn the loss of a truly wonderful little community and its lovingly generous original mission statement to ‘foster a community of budding creators’, I offer some more of of my own stupid pictures.  As you scroll down this gallery, feel free to imagine me weeping, blurting the lyrics to ‘Memory’ in your ear…

Let the memory live again
Every street lamp seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
Soon it will be morning…

Wait. Those are the lyrics to that song?  Those are some of the stupidest lyrics I’ve ever heard.  Forget it.  Pretend I’m singing The Black Eyed Peas:

My hump my hump my hump my hump my hump, my hump my hump my hump my lovely lady lumps.

That makes about as much sense.

But all my stupidity aside, thank you for everything, DrawQuest.  You provided people a great deal of joy, and you will be missed.

 What are they learning today

IMAGE: ‘What Are They Learning Today?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Whats In The Wardrobe

IMAGE: ‘What’s In The Wardrobe?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Finish Building the Pyramid

IMAGE: ‘Finish Building The Pyramid’ by DrawQuest and Me

What's inside the shell

IMAGE: ‘What’s Inside The Shell?’ by DrawQuest and Me

put up a notice on the bulletin board

IMAGE: ‘Put Up A Notice On The Notice Board’ by DrawQuest and Me

* I never actually saw this one, but suddenly want to draw it immediately.  And yes, it is soundproof because of the screaming.

** In truth it appears to be the proverbial final straw for the company.  As the creator of DrawQuest, Chris Poole, recounts in a heartbreaking post from January of this year, the program was already running at a loss.

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.

The Dark Knight Rises: Postmodern Prometheus

Posted in comics, criticism, literature, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2012 by drayfish

[Enormous SPOILERS for The Dark Knight Rises throughout…]

IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros.)

Previously I have written about the way in which modern superhero narratives speak to, reinterpret and re-contextualise ancient mythologies.*  I spoke of how Flash embodies the powers and design of the ancient messenger Mercury; how Wonder Woman was literally sculpted and brought to life by the Gods on the Amazonian Island; and likened Superman to an Olympian Immortal.  In every case, these enduring superhero characters operate in much the same way that legendary figures did in the earliest oral histories, offering adaptive, collaborative narrative spaces in which to use mythology to reflect deep human concerns, making manifest the fears and aspirations of our communal psyche.  They function as multifaceted ciphers into which we as a culture can pour our expressions and explorations of our communal identity.  In such a context the Hulk was not merely a big smash-monster (although that part is certainly fun); he traces his lineage back through modern tales of scientific hubris exposing the beast within (Jekyll and Hyde; Frankenstein), all the way back to epic sagas of how unchecked rage let lose can ravage the world pitilessly, dehumanising even the greatest figures into little more than ghouls (see Achilles in The Iliad).

When I spoke then – wildly citing the allusions that can be made to classic myth – the best analogy that I could offer for Batman was Hamlet.  In order to capture my favourite superhero I was compelled to shift from the godly sphere to the quintessentially mortal, referencing perhaps the most human of all men, a character so obsessed with death and morality that faced with the burden of revenging his murdered father he chews himself up in self-loathing, tortured by the thought of becoming the very thing he despises.  Both characters, I noted, lose their parents to crime (Hamlet’s mother still lives, but has debased herself by remarrying her husband’s killer); both are wealthy young men who must put on an act in front of their friends and family to mask their true purpose; both lurk in the shadows of a corrupted society that was once the pride of their family; and both are wholly adverse to killing (although Hamlet eventually decides to give it a go).*

Having now soaked in the concluding film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, I submit that the simile still works (although Hamlet never had to weather the true suffering of trying to parallel-park a Batmobile), but I have been struck by another, arguably more revealing analogy.  Because there is indeed another character from ancient myth that is entirely fitting for Gotham’s protector: he is Prometheus.  Batman, the ironically titled ‘Dark Knight’, is in actuality humanity’s ultimate deliverer of light.

Please, allow me to tediously pontificate –

I mean, explain…  Allow me to explain…

The story of Prometheus is one of the foremost creation myths of humankind.  Prometheus was a Titan – one of the immortal, earlier gods that would go on to be overthrown by the younger Olympians and their charismatic (if sex-crazed) leader Zeus.  He is generally regarded as the god who created human beings (fashioning them from clay and giving them life), but is more famously celebrated for his later, rebellious act of delivering mortals from darkness: stealing light back from the gods (after Zeus had thrown one of his signature tantrums and hidden it away) and returning it to humankind.  For his crime, Prometheus was chained to a rock where he daily has his liver eaten out by an eagle only to have it grow back again – a physical and psychological torture from which he can find no respite.

It can be argued that Prometheus is humanity’s foremost supporter, and the ancient god most sympathetic to our plight (indeed, his punishment can be said to only further this empathy: he, like each of us, is trapped on a rock subjected to ceaseless mortal pain).  Having gifted us with light and intelligence – both literal and metaphorical illumination – he banished ignorance, allowing humanity to grow beyond the constraints imposed upon them by a cruel universe filled with dispassionate gods.  People need not fear anymore, and could potentially become the masters of their own fate.**

Since the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I have read a surprising amount of criticism that claims the film does not have a thematic through line, or that labels the narrative as cluttered, sprawling and discordant.***  Some have even unjustly compared the film to The Dark Knight – a spectacular sociological debate between order and chaos that spills out into the streets of Gotham with a cacophony of carnage and explosions – and found it lacking.  In truth, however, the two films cannot be so artlessly compared; and to accuse The Dark Knight Rises of failing to replicate its predecessor’s message is to utterly miss the point of the film, and the role it plays in the larger architecture of the trilogy.

Fundamentally, it must be noted that despite appearing to be a story about a rich kid called Bruce Wayne who one day had a very bad night at the opera, Nolan’s Batman films have always, at their heart, been focussed upon society, and the way that people respond to fear.  All three films are in fact part of a larger dissertation on civilisation’s response to terror and terrorism – indeed it is no accident that the only villain that recurs in all three movies is Scarecrow, whose primary weapon is dread.  Each movie therefore speaks to different moments in the human response to fear, and each develops its themes on a unique scale, and to very different ends.  Pairing one against another to posit which was ‘better’ at making its point implies a stagnation of argument to which, happily, the films never surrender.

To be clear: I would never try to argue that on its own merits Rises is as structurally sound, or elegantly crafted as The Dark Knight – I’m not sure anyone would.  But Dark Knight was a question.  It laid out a premise, asking whether compromise and deception can ever be a valid (or even short-term satisfying) response to fear.  It ended on a mildly hopeful note, but the darkness was clearly closing in; Rises, in contrast, is finally the answer to that original query.  The one necessarily compliments and responds to the other; and although it is perhaps not fair that the later film must rely on what preceded it to fully articulate its meaning, this is not a failing of its structure, rather evidence that Nolan had something more expansive and multidimensional in mind.

Once again, while the series may at first appear to be about a rich boy, in pain, in a cape, in actuality the series has always been about Gotham, with the city itself as the expression of a human soul in conflict.  Nolan taps into a whole history of Greek and Shakespearean drama, where society is a manifestation of the individual (where something is rotten in Denmark; or Scotland plunges into unholy eternal night), and puts the Batman right where he belongs: centre stage.  As such, he is here much more of a communal construct, a collaboration, than he appears in other versions of the Batman mythology.  Nolan’s universe makes it abundantly clear that although Bruce wears the mask, there would be no Batman without Alfred to stitch his wounds, without Lucius Fox to make his gadgets, Commissioner Gordon with whom to collaborate, the Mayor to turn a blind eye, Harvey Dent to advocate, the history and training of the League of Shadows – and in this latest film: without Catwoman and a certain new young detective to rely upon.  Nolan’s vision is about the construction of a symbol, the kind of emblem in which a mass of people need to invest themselves to fight oppression and inspire change.

The whole trilogy is about fear – how we as a peoples respond to cultures of fear, how we can strive to confront and not be governed by the faceless terrors that numb our souls to apathy.  In many ways a superhero film has been the best (perhaps only) means through which to best explore in fiction our social crisis in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’, providing an often uncompromising space in which to play out our negotiation of idealism and concessions of freedom for security.

In Batman Begins Gotham is on the verge of tearing itself apart through a slow surrender to dread.  While condemning the city to be purged with fire, Ra’s al Ghul declares it a society that has degenerated into crime and inequity because it allowed itself to be terrorised by the will of the unjust.  Good people have failed to stand up for what they believe, and fear has corrupted the very soul of the state – a decay that is exacerbated and literalised at the end of the narrative when a nerve gas leads everyone to descend into paranoia and violence.  Bruce Wayne, his own parents victims, therefore creates Batman as the answer to this demoralising fugue state, believing (while striving to maintain a moral code), that he can bring fear to those who would prey upon the fears of others.  In his vigilante crusade he strives to show that criminals have reason to be scared when people refuse to be cowed.

The second film however is a mediation upon the compromises that are made in the face of fear: those lines that we are willing to cross in pursuit of safety and order.  The Joker, a creature of anarchic devastation tears through the city, seemingly unmotivated.  He is terrorism personified: beyond reason and seeking to tear down civility by any means necessary.  By the end of the film, in response to this chaos, there is no one who has not compromised themselves and their ethics: Gordon is willing to perpetuate a terrible lie for a greater good; Lucius agrees to see his technology turned into a violation of basic freedoms; Alfred burns the letter from Rachael, concealing a truth that he feels would be too painful for Bruce to know; and Harvey Dent (the bipolar face at the heart of the narrative) has his own very bad day…  No one gets through that film both alive and unscarred by the events that they have survived.  The Joker measures the human spirit with pressure, and – although ultimately, it does not break – it is damaged, perhaps irreparably by the experience.

More than any other character, Batman, over the course of The Dark Knight,uses several morally and legally objectionable techniques to combat crime and terrorism – he performs an act of extraordinary rendition; he savagely interrogates a prisoner; he constructs an elaborate bat sonar that invades to privacy of every citizen in a free state.  He takes extreme measures, using tools of deceit that violate basic freedoms in order to protect the lives of his fellow citizens, but in the end it is not his amoral allowances that save Gotham, it is Gotham’s spirit itself.  When the Joker devises a moral power play in which two boats are tasked with killing others before killing themselves, neither side proves capable of making that final selfish choice to take another’s life before their own.  The Joker, despite being an astute observer of human behaviour, had misjudged the very fundamental good at the heart of humanity.  We value the life of others, and in doing so validate the worth of our own.

At the end of The Dark Knight Batman has not yet learned the lesson of his trilogy yet, and so takes upon himself a new lie, deciding to accept the blame for the death of Harvey Dent.  In order to give the world a white knight to idolise and emulate, he provides an appealing lie around which Gotham could build a corrosive fiction: Batman is a villain; Harvey Dent was an uncorrupted victim and champion for good.  In an effort to protect and inspire the good in others, Batman had compromised himself and sacrificed the very freedoms he would seek to cherish – and at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises we see where this deceit has led the city, and Bruce Wayne himself…

Hence why Batman now has a limp.

Indeed, everyone starts the concluding chapter still nursing the metaphorical and literal wounds of the previous film: Jim Gordon is a weathered shell of a man, weighed down by the enormity of the lie he has perpetuated in the city’s idolatry of Harvey Dent; Alfred lives with the sorrow of seeing the child left in his care now a sallow hermit wallowing in grief and self-loathing; even Lucius Fox sits chafing in a boardroom, stunted from growing the company he stewards and itching to unleash a batch of new toys with comical ‘Bat’ prefixes.  And Bruce Wayne, physically worn down and spiritual sapped, a Spruce Goose blueprint away from total breakdown, awaits the excuse to suit up again and end his suffering via street-punk assisted suicide.  Fear has pressed in on each of these people; it has led them to compromise themselves; led them to fabricate lies; to hide beneath falsehoods in the service of a ‘greater good’.

And so, in contrast, this final act in the trilogy is about finding a way, at last, to genuinely ascend beyond the governance and definition of fear.  Indeed, this theme of ascension is built into every aspect of the text: in Bruce Wayne’s climb from prison; in Batman’s rise from being broken and left for dead; from the rise of the citizenry (both in the wake of Bane’s fabricated social inequity, to their subsequent genuine pursuit for justice); to the restoration of the police officers who crawl back into the light to restore order; from Selina Kyle striving to escape the limitations of her identity, finally inspired to stand for something more than herself; to John Blake stepping onto a platform that lifts him toward a whole new path in life…

The film therefore concerns itself with exploring the way in which society can transcend intractable cycles of behaviour, how it can confront truth and ascend beyond the stifling limitations of moral concession.  The opening shot of the film is a Batman symbol being formed in cracking ice, and it’s the perfect metaphor for this narrative: the glacial stress of all this injustice in the name of order, all this compromise to terror in the name of peace, has been building for some time, and the events of this movie are its final cathartic eruption.  Society will be changed, people die, but they will die knowing that they fought for what was right, not bowed down or compromised, finally not permitting themselves to be dictated to by fear.

Foremost, as the narrative reveals, division and demonization does not offer an answer to the threat of injustice.  Some have argued that the ‘uprising’ depicted in the film concerns class injustice (a number of reviewers have accused Nolan of making some definitive statement on the Occupy Wall Street movement), but it should be remembered that the instigator, Bane, is not at all concerned with the issues of the ‘rich’ versus ‘poor’.  Indeed, he’d be fine if the conflict tearing at Gotham’s citizens was My Little Ponies versus Transformers.  All Bane seeks to do is sew social division through the demonization of the other, whatever that other may be.  It is a tactic of partition in which terror and suspicion allow morality to be negated in yet another toxically flawed pursuit of ‘justice’ – another cycle of fear-mongering that leads to only more recrimination and amorality.  It is only by wholly dissolving such falsehoods, the narrative reveals, that there can be any hope for healing a fractured society.  As Alfred states at a pivotal moment in Bruce’s journey: it is now time for the truth to have its day, to trust that as a society we are all adult enough to deal with it.****

And that’s why in this film we no longer only see Batman in the shadows.  By the end he’s standing in broad daylight, no longer just a redirected piece of the dark – a product of fear used to terrify the fearsome – he is now a symbol of so much more.  He is resilience; sacrifice; a belief in a cause greater than oneself that can only be achieved by remaining just, and not weaponising deceit for the ‘greater good’.  In this context it is clear that everything spoken of as ‘supporting’ rendition, covert spying, and media control in The Dark Knight was merely setting the stage for this, the actual message of these films.  Batman, manifestation of our culture’s soul, was driven to his breaking point – was almost broken – but in clawing his way back from it, by not tipping over into absolute compromise, he is able to reassert himself, to stand for something more.

Nolan therefore finds a way to end the Batman mythos, while keeping its spirit alive.  The Bruce Wayne Batman ‘dies’ – sacrificing himself for the city, taking upon himself the devastation that such recrimination and division has wrought – but in that act of sacrifice he inspires others.  Thus Batman the myth does not die, instead he erupts in a messianic dispersal.  More than just a man in a suit, he reveals himself to be an idea, a symbol, one that in its cultural diffusion has more power, more influence, than a single man with a grapple gun and pointy ears ever could.  The symbolism of light throughout the work, climbing out of darkness, longingly yearning to ascend, both culturally and personally, from a state of mire and oppression to an illuminated burst of freedom, is one potently literalised with a ball of white igniting the horizon.  Batman reveals himself to be Prometheus: he snatches the light from the seemingly all-powerful and distributes it to the frightened masses cowering in fear.

Batman, throughout the three films – but most particularly in this final statement of purpose – is a construct, the collaboration of a community (from the physical man in Bruce; to the funds from his family; to the partnership with the police force in Gordon; the collaboration with the DA in Dent; the gadgets from Lucius Fox; the medical treatment from Alfred; the mask identity perpetuated by Alfred; the strategising of purchases from Alfred; the sandwiches Alfred makes; Alfred’s building a freaking Batcave …um, Alfred is kind of important).  Anyhoo: Batman here is a pastiche figure, one that, although tethered to the body of one man, could not operate without the support structure of many.

So blowing him up – annihilating the individual to bring salvation to the many – literally disperses him back amongst the populace that brought him into being.  Batman, in an act of destruction, is ironically only then truly created: now no longer localised around one perishable man and a bunker of gadgets, but ascending to the role of a guiding aspiration.  Postmodern Prometheus, with that final illuminatory burst he transcends the status of urban legend and becomes an ideological compass, now so engrained in the minds of the people, so central to their faith in themselves, that he comes to be immortalised in statue form.  He stands at the heart of their city, representative of a newly restored longing to fight oppression, to remind the populace they no longer need be bowed by fear; that in their unity, and their belief in justice, such measures need never be necessary again.

It may, of course, seem peculiar that at the end Gotham has been left almost a wasteland – an entire devastated infrastructure, criminals wandering the street, while erstwhile protector Bruce Wayne appears to be laughing it up, sipping espressos in the European sun with a pretty lady.  But rather than abandoning his post, he knows finally that he has given everything that he can to that role.  The Batman has ascended beyond him, and the best thing that he can do, finally, is to embrace that newfound life that Selina, and Alfred’s long-held wish for peace, now offer him.

Wayne originally became Batman, he tells Blake, because he wanted to be a symbol, a symbol to frighten those who would bring fear to others.  Criminals would not know who or where he was:

Batman would be real: he would be out there; and he could be anyone.

But the series reveals that this kind of vigilantism is short term.  Fear fighting fear; terror begetting only more (if displaced) terror: it is in such a landscape that creatures like the Joker prosper, an entity vomited up from the darkest recesses of the human psyche, to shake the cages of the rational world and expose the noxious raging id beneath the demure surface of the superego.   Ultimately, order cannot not be imposed upon chaos through deception, by using the tools of terror to combat terrorism.

Batman may have begun as a tool to redirect horror, but the concluding film shows that Batman’s ultimate purpose was to reveal to us how to dissolve fear itself.  The only way in which to combat terror, to overcome dread, is to bring it into the light.  As Alfred says, pleading for Wayne not to waste himself in an act of meaningless self-immolation: ‘I am using the truth, Master Wayne. Maybe it’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day.’

And in coming into the light, stepping out of the shadows in order to sacrifice himself to something greater, Batman does indeed become a true symbol:

Batman is real: he is in here; and he is everyone.

No longer would people live under the yoke of lies to numb themselves from responsibility.  Batman is in all of us, an ideal, a truth to be cherished, and a heroism we all can all aspire to uphold.  Batman, Postmodern Prometheus, sinks himself into shadow in order to ultimately deliver us light.

And that is why Bruce Wayne could not die.  Death would be too easy; death would be yet another slide into an easy fix; a surrender to the nihilistic self-destructive impulse that his grief had driven him toward.  The harder thing, he comes to see, is living: fighting each day to stand for something, to prosper and do good.  By finally embracing his place alongside his fellow humanity, Bruce finds the strength to do the most remarkable thing of all: to believe in life itself.

And besides, in some versions of the ancient myth, even Prometheus gets untied from the rock.

IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros.)

* https://drayfish.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/lord-what-fools-these-mortals-be-batman-and-the-new-gods-of-the-super-heroic/

** In Greek Prometheus’ name translates as ‘fore thinker’; he is a character who uses his brains to plan out his actions.  Batman is known for his physical resilience and strength, sure, but he is foremost  the Greatest Detective.  It is his mind that sets him apart from the other heroes, and his subversive cunning that proves his most valuable tool.

*** One analysis in particular by Film Crit Hulk (who writes under the gimmick of typing in all caps), offers a rather mystifying reading of the narrative in which he dismisses the film as ‘cynical’, accusing it of having no narrative cohesion whatsoever.  He does, however, base much of this upon his utterly subjective speculation about what he thinks Nolan might have done with the story had Heath Ledger lived.

**** A moment in which Michael Caine is acting his heart out.  I salute you, sir.

‘Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be’: Batman and the New Gods of the Super-Heroic

Posted in comics, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2012 by drayfish

In the wake of the release of The Dark Night Rises the popularity of the world’s greatest detective is currently at its peak.  Earlier this year a copy of the first issue of Batman (Batman no.1, 1940) was sold in Dallas for $850,000.* Two years ago, the comic book in which the character Batman first appeared (Detective Comics no.27, 1939) was sold for over $US1 million.**  And only days earlier, the first issue of a comic in which Superman appeared (Action Comics no.1, 1938) sold for exactly $US1 million.  Aside from answering, once and for all – and forever – which hero is the greatest (psst: It’s Batman…), I think these extraordinary sales can be seen to say something of the significance that these characters have as legitimate social artefacts.  And with The Avengers having just Hulk-stomped the box-office in wholly unprecedented ways, it’s worth exploring why it is that these super heroic narratives are so embedded in modern cultural iconography.

When we think of comic books it is easy to be put off by the lesser, gratuitous works that can be seen to litter any medium: works of adolescent sensation where Lady Spandex and Captain Forearms fight the ferocious Explosion Monster (I’m copyrighting that by the way).  But if you cast your mind back to the characters that have lasted – some for almost a century – who have been revived and re-contextualised with each generation, you can see some quite intriguing archetypes on display.  Most obviously there are the early superhero characters that have their origins in Greek and Roman mythology: Wonder Woman is an Amazon; early artwork of The Flash depicted him as an exact replica of his mythical antecedent, Hermes (or Mercury) messenger of the gods; but the superhero genre as a whole is a modernisation of these ceaseless epic tales.  These are Gods among humankind, warriors granted unearthly powers; and like myths in their time, which sought to rationalise the human experience through fantastic tales of morality and fatalism, these superhero narratives, and the heroes they gave rise to, often speak to the concerns of the modern world (with equal smatterings of violence).

Consequentially, there is inestimable pleasure to be had dissecting the many allegorical facets of these seemingly innocuous adventures.  Like Gothic fiction before it, where social angst could be played out with the aid of invasive, inhuman vessels into which our paranoias might be poured – Dracula as the personification of our xenophobic terrors; Frankenstein’s monster as the scientific desecration of the natural; the Werewolf as our primal desires stirred alive to roam free – comics can likewise play out collective neurosis and escapist ideologies.  Sure, we don’t see the Hulk stooped to recite Milton in the flickering of a fading fire, but he still speaks something of a retribution visited upon mankind for its foray into unnatural science (gamma radiation, wasn’t it?), or the id left unchecked to rage and destroy.  Superman, often seen as the adolescent fantasy (the underestimated Kal-El hiding his true power under the awkward mask of bespectacled Clark Kent), is also the ultimate American immigrant magnified.  …And in a cape.  Spiderman is puberty.  The X-Men are (perhaps a little heavy-handedly) intolerance in all its forms.  The Silver Surfer is… Well he’s… Okay, I don’t know what the hell he is.  The dude is naked and surfs through space.  That’s weird.

I assume that I am not the first to draw this comparison, but to me Batman is the modern Hamlet.  Sure, he’s a little more proactive, is perhaps a little kinder to his sidekicks (he doesn’t send them off to get executed, at least), and doesn’t have quite as unnerving a fixation upon his mother, but the thematic similarities run deeper.  Both are characters whose narratives are born in the death of their parents (Hamlet’s mother is just as lost to him in her debasement), both are Princes motivated by revenge to seek justice, both are contemplative, melancholy, and use artful deception (skirting the edges of madness) to bring their opponents down.

“That I, the son of a dear father murdered,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Should don a cape and cowl and leotard,

Punch clowns and freaks and ne’er-do-wells,

drive a hellacious car and date a Cat…”

…Okay, so maybe I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far.

Perhaps most tellingly, however, is the parallel between their environments.  Something is rotten in Denmark, and the entire state reeks of this corruption.  The new King is morally poisoned; wise figures such as Polonius sink into drivelling inanities; dear friends like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray and are betrayed; Ophelia is lost to insanity when she forgets to use a floatation device.  The world is a manifestation of the turmoils within Hamlet’s mind, and the forces waging to tear his psyche apart.  And in exactly the same manner, Gotham City is Bruce Wayne’s inner monologue projected outward on his urban sprawl.  The city is awash in lawlessness and vice, its colourful criminals manifestations of a perverted communal consciousness – indeed, there is profit in reading the entire Batman narrative as merely the elaborate delusions of a rich kid named Bruce lost in the haze of a dissociative disorder, sitting in his own Arkham Asylum cell.  Thus, few of Batman major villains are superhuman.  In most cases they are intriguing psychological tropes: Two-Face is the self-loathing schizophrenic; Joker is the psychotic unchecked by the superego; Poison Ivy is the environmental militant blinded by her convictions; Penguin is the social climber haunted by an inferiority complex; Riddler is the sad, self-sabotaging egomaniac.  And king amongst them all is their antagonist, Batman, who nightly wages war on the excesses of these personal demons, never able to kill them, but outwitting them, beating them into submission, and returning them to the momentary quiet of the subconscious where they fester, waiting to spring forth again.

And so he occupies a unique space in the comic book pantheon.  He is a terrifying figure, not noble and bright, but slinking through the shadows, almost Goya-esque, heroic not because he is granted super powers he is obliged to use, but a mortal man (now over seventy years old), battling against the neurosis that threatens to overtake us all, and haunted by the profoundly human realisation that his struggle can only end with death.

* http://www.suntimes.com/news/nation/12456511-418/batman-no-1-comic-sells-for-850000.html

** http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-02-26/news/27057382_1_action-comics-comic-book-detective-comics

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