Monday, July 14, 2008

Cloverfield and Final Crisis

I just watched Cloverfield on DVD. It was fun. Having heard criticisms and letting the hype pass no doubt made it work better for me.

I watched one of the "making of" shorts. It's the one where they discuss designing the creature. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Everything they said made sense, that it's a "baby" and is propelled by fear. That makes sense. I even thought that a few of the cries/roars of the creature sounded a bit scared or defensive, but that's a common trope in monster movies, so maybe i heard that b/c i expected it. Anyway, it all makes sense. It works. But it's not in the movie. There's nothing in the movie to tell you that the monster is newly hatched and acting on frightened instinct.

There's also the bit in the short where J.J. Abrams says he was inspired to make the movie by all the Godzilla toys he saw in Japan. Wouldn't it be cool if America had its own monster? Sure, it would be cool. That's not in the movie, either. The monster is barely seen in the movie, and it certainly does not lend itself to toys. More importantly, the movie isn't about the monster. The audience can't sympathize with it.

The ideas that went into designing the creature are interesting. The designers apparently put a good deal of thought into creating some feasible alternate biology. It's impressive. It's not in the movie, either. In the movie, we see that the monster moves strangely, that its body is oddly put together, that it has weird critters that fall off of it (there's probably a well thought-out explanation behind that, but it's not in the movie), etc. But just seeing glimpses of that stuff on the screen (the dark, shadowy, constantly shifting screen) doesn't convey all the thought and intended coolness of the design.

This makes me think of Final Crisis. When i read an interview with Grant Morrison, the ideas and rationales he gives for FC make sense. They sound cool, even. But they aren't in the comic. (Or at least not #1, which is the only one i've read. From the reviews and message board posts i've read, they aren't in #2, either, or not so as people can spot them.) For example, the idea that the Fourth Worlders are becoming like ancient polytheistic gods, "possessing" people when they dive into whatever concept a particular god embodies? That's a very cool idea. It ain't in the comic.

I've wondered before if there were aspects of Countdown or One Year Later that weren't being conveyed from the creators' brains to the page. Like, if you could sit in on the conference call where the big ideas are hashed out and the broad plot outlined, you'd get a lot more out of the comic than when you just read the end product. Apparently the same is true of Cloverfield: if you know all the stuff that went into designing that weird kaiju, you'd probably have a whole other level of appreciation for the movie. But you can't get that from the movie, b/c it didn't make it from the creators' brains to the screen.

It feels a bit like listening to someone tell stories about cool stuff that happened in their Dungeons and Dragons or WoW campaign. If you're a player in the game, it's fun and exciting to reminisce about all the killer monsters and wicked maneuvers, and barely-made saving throws, etc. But if you weren't a player in the game, and you're just hearing about it after the fact, it's really boring. Sure, you can follow the plot, but the cool factor doesn't translate. You have to be in on it to get the full--or any--effect.

This phenomenon is no big deal when it comes to telling stories about D&D campaigns, or that crazy thing that your friend did in college that only you and your buddies thinks is funny, or in some fanfic for a niche audience, but when it becomes a factor in something intended for a wider audience, it's a problem.

I don't know what you would call this, but maybe it's something that science-fiction-y geek-culture-y things are more prone to?

Note, i'm not saying that either Cloverfield or Final Crisis are bad. I liked Cloverfield, just not as the "Godzilla for America" thing that it was apparently supposed to be (in fact, i doubt that was the actual intent, regardless what Abrams says; maybe it started out that way, but...). I didn't like Final Crisis #1, but maybe i'll like the whole thing when it's done, but i won't be surprised if i like it for something other than the grand re-imagining of Kirby's Fourth World that it's apparently intended to be.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Water Baby
by Ross Campbell
156 pages, black and white, paperback, $9.99

Ross Campbell has established a very distinctive style, not just in how he renders things, but in tone, themes, and those little elements that make a writer's work recognizable. There are hot girls in tiny, punky outfits (often dirty and ragged), but the hot girls have different body types and do unhot things like pick their noses. There are some really creepy visuals. The settings are always kinda rednecky and lowdown. There's a nihilistic vibe. Some of the same bands are referenced that are referenced in Wet Moon, but i don't know if they're real, or he's just using the same made up bands.

Brody is a teenage (?age not given?) surfer in Florida. She has lots of tattoos and skull-themed swimwear. A shark attacks her and takes her left leg. The rest of the book is obliquely about how she recovers from this. Well, not all of it is oblique. Some of it is directly about the physical recovery. It's the psychological stuff that is appropriately oblique. This takes the form of Brody's relationship with a worthless leech of a guy whom i wouldn't mind to have seen shot named Jake. I'm not sure how well that part of it worked. It performed its narrative task, but it didn't feel significant. Getting shed of this bum didn't feel like an emblem of Brody conquering her injury as much as her finally ceasing to be an embarrassing pushover.

The plot is straightforward, but has a loose flow. The second half of the book is a road trip, and that always lends itself to a jangly, episodic, meditative form or story, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The purpose is to give the characters room to reveal themselves to the reader in a casual, organic way. You know who they are through dialog, mannerisms, and those sorts of character work. There are no info dumps or exposition-disguised-as-dialog. This is how Campbell's series Wet Moon works, too. The best moments in that series are when Cleo obsesses and when Trilby dorks out or gets disproportionately offended by the least significant slights.

Unexpectedly, Water Baby is darker than Wet Moon, even though WM is very gothic (in both the Southern Gothic and Siouxsie Sioux sense), has more drooling rednecks, physical oddities, and decay. But WM does have bright spots like Trilby's manicness and a sense that the characters are moving and having a bit of fun along the way. In Water Baby, there are fewer bright spots. Brody and Louisa are friends, but we don't know how much they really care about each other. Brody is moving forward by the end of the story, but it's slow, and the nature of her moving forward involves getting tougher, harder. She starts off cynical and sarcastic, so getting harder doesn't make her more sympathetic.

Where her vulnerable side comes through, and this is pretty effective the more i think about it, is in the dream sequences where her trauma about the shark attack manifests itself in various bizarre, horrific images. In these scenes, her anxieties play themselves out via dream logic, and in the moments before she falls asleep and after she wakes up, we see the same emotions in her body language.

Campbell is a major talent, IMO. His pages look incredible. He marries beauty and grotesquerie not only in the horror elements, but in the mundane (i.e., hot chicks picking their noses). His shapes are amazing. The balance of detail and expressiveness is just right. His interest in the macabre and in unconventional beauty will likely keep him outside the mainstream of direct market comics, but could easily garner him a sizable following outside of it.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Short Reviews for the Week of July 2nd 2008

Billy Batson & the Magic of Shazam #1 - If this represents the state of kids' comics, kids are darn lucky. This comic looks great. It's full of color, energy, and movement. There's also a ton of story here. You get about four times the plot of a normal superhero comic. The panels-per-page ratio is high; and it flows well and is never crowded. Who is this Mike Kunkel? Where have he and his serious comiker skills been? Playing tether ball with a wrecking ball? That's superhero brilliance.

Trinity #5 - The fight with Konvikt reminds me of Superman's first fight with Doomsday: the JLA has gotten beaten up by this mysterious, one-dimensional badguy who came out of nowhere, and it's up to Supes (and Wonder Woman and Batman) to take him out. I like when WW is shown to be Supe's equal. If she isn't quite as strong, she's a better fighter.
When Bats is questioning him about his spaceship, Graak says that he isn't a "sciencelizard". Could that refer to the Psions of the Vega system? They're lizardy, and into the kind of superscience that could create and/or contain someone of Konvikt's power level.
Now the Big Three are clued-in that someone else is in on the cosmic stuff from issue one, so maybe that thread will develop further next issue.
In the second half of the book: So, Gangbuster is related to Superman b/c he used to operate in Metropolis, and we can assume that Tarot corresponds to Wonder Woman in this "street level" triad b/c of her connection to the magical/mystical (and her gender), so that leaves the Batman slot open. Who could the third member of this group be? I think this story is happening on the west coast, so maybe someone from Busiek's Power Company series?

Buffy #16 - It's cool to see Fray and her world again. Karl Moline's Buffy is really tall. We get another peek at what Twilight and his crew are up to, but not much. I hope that thread gets some decent development before it comes to a head. It would kinda suck to get an info dump about it just in time for the big fight. I wonder how all these elements will tie together, too. Dawn's changes, time travel, Dracula, the scythe, etc. Maybe they won't. Maybe this series isn't following the TV season model literally, where the season ends with its plot threads wrapped up, or at least repositioned for the next season. Maybe it's more like old serial comics, with subplots that move at their own pace in relation to the major plot.

Fables #74 - I loved this issue, just like the last one. The title, "A Very One-Sided War" is very accurate. The Fabletown forces are p0wning the Empire at every turn. What's best is that they're doing so by being smart--by planning, by innovating, by anticipating. When big scary orcs are getting shot in the face by rabbits, it's not a battle, it's a humiliating rout. The Emperor sums it up when he says "Our real sin was a lack of imagination." It tweaks that part of my brain that loves strategy and tactics. Good stuff. Of course, since things have gone so well for Fabletown so far, you know that there's a huge bucket of shite just waiting to fall on them. I don't know what the Emperor's last ditch plan is, but it's gonna be nasty.

Jack of Fables #23 - Continuing a tale from Jack's past, this issue has Jack in New Mexico in 1883. There's a great two-page spread (pages 2 & 3) of the town, Lilly of the Valley, which i think much have been drawn from reference material (it's convincing in its detail), but doesn't have that annoying photo-referenced look. It looks like a real slap-dash, ramshackle frontier town. Bigby Wolf is tracking Jack. I think this will be their first encounter, so Jack must have 'ported over from the Homelands sometime in the mid 19th century (we saw him in the Civil War in an early Fables issue). Both of these characters work well in an Old West setting, Jack as the greedy bastard, Bigby as the bar-brawling, New World barbarian. Of course we get another funny non-sequitor page of Babe the Blue Ox's daydreams, too.

Dynamo 5 #14 - Jay Faerber's comics are rooted in the superhero comics of the Bronze Age, it seems. (This is a good thing IMO.) That's true for a lot of writers, but where Faerber differs from some contemporaries, is that it never feels like he's trying to deconstruct or recast or re-imagine the superhero genre. He continues the tradition, adding some new elements, but never taking it apart. In Dynamo 5, the team's origin is that their superpowered male genetic contributor, Captain Dynamo (a superman type), had affairs with their mothers, and they each inherited one of his powers. It's easy to imagine that concept being worked into a series the point of which would be the fallibility of heroes, disillusionment, moral ambiguity, etc.; it would drown in self-importance and faux sophistication. Dynamo 5 does touch on some of that more "serious" stuff, but it doesn't dwell on it. It never forgets that it's a superhero comic.
In this issue, the fallout from an attack on the team's headquarters continues. With their leader/mentor/drill sergeant (and Captain Dynamo's widow) Maddie in a coma, the 5 have retreated back to their families. None of these are in Tower City, the city D5 is supposed to defend. Thus, the city is being overrun by supervillains. The only 5ver in Tower City is Myriad, and he's too busy philandering to fight crime (he inherited skirt-chasing as well as shape-changing from Capt. Dynamo). Maddie is under the care of Doc Noble (from Noble Causes), and when Scrap visits her there, she gets some good advice from Zephyr Noble.
Meanwhile, a new hero going by Vigil is trying to fight the invasion of villains in Tower City. At first i thought maybe Vigil was Scrap in a different costume, but that's not the case. From what's in this issue and what i've seen in Previews, it looks like the next few issues will see an alternate Dynamo 5, with Scrap, Vigil, and others yet to be determined. Now, that's an old trope in superhero comics (most often used in Fantastic Four), but somehow i'm still excited about it here. Maybe it's the execution, maybe it's that Dynamo 5 is creator-owned so it's more possible that the status quo could actually change.

Noble Causes #35 - The "pitch" on Noble Causes is that it's superheroes as soap opera. All superhero comics have that element, esp. superhero teams, but here it's really played up. There are moments that are just ridiculous, but at the same time fun, in that soap opera way. The Nobles are a super-hero family. Doc Noble is married to Olympia (his first wife, Gaia, is in prison). The kids include Rusty (in a robot body), Zephyr, Frost, Surge and Minutiae. Celeste and Slate married in.
Here's an example of the super soap opera of Noble Causes. It's a minor spoiler from an early story. Doc's first wife cheated on him with his doppelganger in an alternate universe.
Current plots come to a head in this issue, as the Nobles discover a traitor in their midst, and the adversary who put the traitor there. They don't figure it all out at once, though. Different subsets of the team are discovering different elements, but it's all hitting the fan at once. Surprise follows surprise, building suspense, tension, and the anticipation that next issue will be a knock-down drag-out.
Artist Yildiray Cinar has some strong moments here. There are some well-laid out pages here that do a lot to convey action, and surprise.

Blue Beetle #28 - Pfeifer guest-writes again (new regular writer Matt Sturges beings next issue) with a very entertaining one-shot that incorporates the legacy of the original, Golden Age Blue Beetle and gives a lot of page time to one of this series' strengths: the supporting cast. A supervillain who fought Dan Garret back in the '40s has apparently resurfaced in El Paso. Jaime, along with his friends, Garret's granddaughter, and Peacemaker (a sort of reluctant mentor, and metatextually, a tie to the 2nd Blue Beetle's origins in Charlton Comics) have to figure out why and how an octogenarian supervillain and his monster have become a threat again. The answer is surprising, and fits perfectly with the tone of this series, wherein the hero is always able to find a solution that's better than the obvious one.

Madame Xanadu #1 - There's a very cool world here that's inviting because of its visuals and intricacy. DC fans will find some cool and intriguing takes on the continuity around Kirby's take on the Arthurian mythos. This issue sets up a lot: who Xanadu is, or who she was to start with, her connections to other important characters like Merlin, the Phantom Stranger, and Morganna, and the world around her. Matt Wagner brings the strong script as you'd expect, and young artist Amy Reeder Hadley shows serious chops of her own. Her characters look great, they act well, her backgrounds/environments are convincing and interesting to look at, and her storytelling is smooth. I wonder how it would look with some heavier lines here and there, but that's not a criticism. Big props also go to Guy Major on colors, who contributes greatly to the mood and sense of place.
I'm excited about to see where this one is going. It's full of narrative corners to explore, and characters i want to see more of.

Jonah Hex #33 - The Darwyn Cooke art is what convinced me to pick this up, but i've read a few other issues of this current Hex series, and i've enjoyed all of them. As usual, this is a done-in-one story, and it shows, in the age of (sometimes thinly) drawn out mega-parters, that a great story can still be told in 22 pages. Hex haunts this story, as it's told by someone who was rescued (sort of) as a boy by the devil-eyed bounty hunter. It's got the grit this series is famous for: the unforgiving environment, the heartless villains and perhaps as heartless protagonist. This is a great issue.