Friday, January 13, 2017

Superman Comics!


I am and will always be a DC man. I guess it comes of watching all those episodes of Superfriends when I was a kid. It saddens me that DC movies have been so crummy lately, though I do have high hopes for Wonder Woman. But I'm allergic to tie-ins and sprawling media franchises. I've seen only one Marvel movie to date (Guardians of the Galaxy, which was light on crossover stuff), and my exposure to the comics is limited to the inept newspaper Spider-Man.

Really, though, the DC trinity captures everything I'd ever want in a superhero. You've got Superman representing science fiction and planetary romance, Wonder Woman representing mythological fantasy, and Batman representing the purely human. What more do you need?


I read some Batman comics last spring, and enjoyed them so much that I decided to move on to Superman. Superman is, of course, the superhero, the exemplar of the breed, descended from the science fictional supermen of the thirties and the long-jumping John Carter of Mars. He's certainly the first superhero I ever knew about. The only comics I read as a kid were Superman comics.

To get myself in the mood, I rewatched Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, which is, I suppose, the best Superman movie we're ever going to get. That John Williams score still gives me a thrill. What struck me this time around is how closely it follows the life of Christ, with an infancy narrative marked by danger and assumed poverty and a kind of kenosis, a brief boyhood idyll among the green fields and blue skies of Kansas, a coming-of-age and period of testing in the wilderness, and a beginning of work at the age of thirty. The sequel is a lesser movie but still watchable (especially in the recently released "Donner cut"), while the rest of them just go downhill from there.

As I wrote at the time, I was less than impressed with the recent Man of Steel, which replaces the mythic conformation of Superman to Christ's life with a vulgar, superficial, commercially-motivated appeal to Christian consumers (and relentless, painfully overt product placement, which forces us to contemplate an alternate America in which Superman is unknown but IHOPs abound). And I have no desire to watch the grim and superviolent Batman vs. Superman. (Well, maybe just a little desire.)

But we'll always have Superman: The Movie.

*

When I read comics, I'm not terribly interested in consistent character arcs reaching across decades. All the metafictional infinite-earths-crisis stuff just makes my head spin. It also strikes me as unnecessary. For me, Superman is a mythical character like Heracles or King Arthur. The stories don't all have to match up. I'm coming at it from the point of view of a casual, occasional reader, of course. At any rate, I tend to gravitate toward one-off stories that seem reasonably self-contained. I'm also not averse to a little tweaking or even subversion.

In making my selections, I tried to find comic books graphic novels that are well-regarded by fans, with 4+ stars on Amazon. I wanted at least one modern take on the origin story and at least one Justice League story. I also wanted stories meditating on what Superman really means as a pop culture icon.

I had the most fun reading All-Star Superman (2005 – 2008), which follows Superman through a sacrificial death-mission into the sun, an episodic account of twelve mythic labors accomplished as a kind of zany Silver-Age bucket list, and an implied immolation-apotheosis. It portrays Superman as a kind of predestined solar deity while sending him on nutty space-age adventures with all his old friends, from Jimmy Olsen (now a flamboyant columnist) to Krypto the Superdog, as he fights for truth and justice against the likes of Lex Luthor and Bizarro. Time-pretzels and near-death experiences return him to his roots on Krypton and his coming-of-age in Smallville. Lex pontificates on what life is all about in an exclusive interview / supervillain prison riot. Sun-eaters eat rogue sentient suns. Superman descends to the underworld with Lois Lane and arm-wrestles for her love. You get the idea.

All-Star Superman is an exuberant, funny, nostalgic, and poignant celebration of the Superman you grew up with (if you're my age, anyway), and more brightly colored than a bubble gum wrapper containing the secrets of the universe. If someone were to read only one Superman comic in their lifetime, I think this is the one I would recommend.

To satisfy my craving for a good origin story, I tried Superman: Birthright (2003 – 2004). There's nothing daringly new or different about it, but then again that's what you want in an origin story: an update hitting all the main points from a contemporary point of view, an exploration and temporal "localization" of a well-known myth-cycle. Amirite?

That's not to say Birthright isn't genuinely engrossing, however. This is partly because it goes far beyond kryptonite in exposing Superman's deep and very human vulnerabilities. It paints a sensitive portrait of the person behind the artificial Metropolis Clark Kent: there's Superman, of course, but there's also Smallville Clark Kent, which you're made to realize is an integral part of his genuine personality. Smallville Clark is who Superman is when he's just being himself.

Superman is a person with dual identities – last son of Krypton and Kansas farmboy – encountering the same obstacles any child adopted as an infant by parents of another culture might face. Much of the story focuses on his struggles to realize his Kryptonian heritage while dealing with the guilt and fear of betraying his adopted parents' love. The meditations on tribal identity that arise during Clark's coverage of an African conflict mirror his eventual adoption of the Kryptonian "S" symbol as his symbol. The story's climax, which involves his troubled boyhood chum Lex Luthor, is, of course, insanely over-the-top, with giant robots and wholesale destruction, as it should be in an decent Superman story, but also dwells on Superman's need to win the trust of a suspicious public.

I would recommend Superman: Birthright to anyone looking for a sensitive, modern take on Superman's origin story.

Now, you know how Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way? Have you ever wondered what might have happened if his rocket had landed, not in Kansas, but on a collective farm in the USSR? Wonder no more, my friend, but pick up a copy of Superman: Red Son (2003). It's bizarre, terrifying, and a bit sad, with a mind-bending twist at the end. All of which is to say, it's right up my alley.

Life under Superman the benevolent communist dictator is about as fun as you might imagine. Oh, but he has only the best of intentions, comrade! Intentions that gradually transform him from the workers' champion into an incarnation of the all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother of 1984 (complete with compulsory brain surgery), in an arc not unlike that of the pigs in Animal Farm.

Red Son interweaves Superman's public career with an alternate history beginning in the Eisenhower administration, pitting him against chess-wizard supergenius Lex Luthor and everything Luthor can throw against him. Superman's presence in the USSR sparks a kind of superhero arms race. The time around, the USA is on the losing side, growing increasingly isolated and eventually turning into a capitalist North Korea.

Wonder Woman comes into the story, throwing in with the USSR and adopting a Soviet version of her usual costume. Batman is a freedom fighter / terrorist with a distinctly Soviet backstory, a crazy, creepy grin, and a bat-ushanka with earflaps. Colonel Hal Jordan, a.k.a. Green Lantern, is a crazed, commie-hating zealot who went off the deep end after years of waterboarding in an Asian POW camp.

Red Son uses its inversion of actual history infused with heavy overtones of George Orwell to prompt questions about American foreign policy yesterday and today as well as the nature of human progress. Not bad for a comic book. What's more, the art is really cool, resembling Soviet propaganda posters at some points and the old Fleischer cartoons at others.

Red Son isn't to everyone's tastes, but I thought it was terrific.

The Superman mythos is subjected to even closer scrutiny in Kingdom Come (1996), which takes place in the not-so-distant future, pitting an older generation of out-of-touch, retired superheroes – Superman and company – against a younger generation of amoral, violent vigilantes who've begun tearing the world apart in ruthless turf wars. Narrated by a pastor who views and sometimes takes part in events in a series of visions, replete with ominous quotations from the Book of Revelation and fiery visions of angelic battles in the heavens, it looks and reads at times almost like one of William Blake's books of prophecy. It's an unabashedly religious, quasi-biblical comic-book apocalypse whose antichrists are metahumans like the horned Magog and "the Captain of Lightning and Thunder" and whose false gods are the superheroes of yore.

I imagine this hit a nerve in the late nineties, when everyone halfway expected the world to end with the coming of the new millennium.

Kingdom Come is more a Justice League story than a Superman story. It features pretty much everybody you've ever heard of, and probably some you haven't. For me, Batman steals the show. (As he always does.) He's a cynical, hardboiled old recluse whose battered body is now encased in a steel exoskeleton, remotely patrolling Gotham's streets with scary, crime-fighting robot drones from a ruined Wayne Manor. Wonder Woman, as beautiful and high-minded as ever, battles demons of her own as an outcast from Themyscira.

But Superman is the central protagonist, no doubt about it. He swings from bitter hermit to fascist avenger, coming out of self-imposed retirement after millions of people die in a superhero-sparked atomic blast, only to make things worse before he makes things better. The battle that begins as a riot in Superman's Kansas Gulag is like something out of a Brueghel painting, ending in a second holocaust that leaves the barren battlefield strewn with charred superhero skeletons.

Are superheroes really a blessing, or are they a curse in disguise? That's the question Kingdom Come asks without offering a satisfying answer.

The art is quite different from what you typically see in comic books; quite different, and quite beautiful. It was executed in gouache, using black-and-white underpaintings with a transparent color overlay, touched up here and there with airbrush or opaque paint. Lightning flashes. Flesh glows. Metal gleams. Every page is a feast for the eyes.

*

As you can probably tell, when it comes to Superman – who seems hard to write for – I gravitate toward the meta. There are some other Superman stories I'd like to dip in to. Before I do that, though, I may try to acquire some well-regarded, fairly modern (post-crisis) Wonder Woman comics, in anticipation of her upcoming film, the trailers for which look pretty cool. Do you know what Wonder Woman's theatrical debut is? The Lego Movie. Isn't that wrong? For her sake, I hope they don't come out with another stinker.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Noir Reviews: Murder, My Sweet, December 1944

Today we go from a screenplay written by Chandler to a film based on a Chandler novel: Murder, My Sweet, directed by Edward Dmytryk and adapted from Farewell, My Lovely. It appears to be the first movie based on a Chandler novel, beating The Big Sleep by a year and a half. It's also the first film in this series to feature an honest-to-God trenchcoat-wearing, chain-smoking, wisecracking private eye. Maybe Dick Powell's Marlowe is the one all those other laconic dicks are trying to be.

Now, I have to confess here that I'm a bit biased. I've read Farewell, My Lovely many times, which has tended to make me overly critical of Murder, My Sweet. Every little line that's altered, replaced, spoken by a character who didn't speak it in the novel, or repeated because the writer apparently thought it so effective ("cute as lace pants") makes the creative thought-process a little too obvious. Even the change in the title irritates me. Significant plot alterations make it worse, e.g., putting an actual jade necklace into play, turning spunky sidekick Anne Riordan into lady-in-distress Ann Grayle, and making a jealous jade-collecting husband central to the resolution. The omnipresent seediness of the novel is sanitized away. And it's got a cute, happy ending, which is not what we want in a film noir, especially one about a private detective.
A really good detective never gets married. He would lose his detachment, and this detachment is part of his charm. [Chandler, "Notes on the Mystery Story"]
Or, to put it more succinctly,


That said, considered on its own and not as an adaptation of a novel, there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half. Murder, My Sweet packs an insanely meandering plot with an assortment of bizarre characters into an incredibly narrow compass. The world it depicts is dark, dirty, and corrupt. The dialogue, being mostly Chandler's, is fast, sharp, and funny. And there are some interesting special effects sequences, particularly when Marlowe's hopped up on dope.

The femme fatale is played by the versatile Claire Trevor, already a bit past her prime but still with an Academy Award in her future (for playing a past-her-prime torch singer in John Huston's Key Largo). Mike Mazurki plays Moose Malloy. I'm fond of Mazurki, a pro-wrestler-turned-actor. He's not the best of actors, and he's not exactly what I imagine for Moose Malloy, but you can't deny that he makes a good big galoot. Two big galoots from the novel are actually combined into his character, which doesn't help the logic of the plot any, but his interactions with Marlowe are enjoyable to watch.

In general, however, everyone seems to be mouthing Chandler's dialogue rather than inhabiting it. I much prefer Humphrey Bogart and The Big Sleep, though that one also suffers from happy-ending-with-romantic-interest syndrome.

* * *

I give Murder, My Sweet a grade of C for commonplace on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Others will disagree with this assessment. But I've got it in my DVD collection, and I've only watched it twice. What else can I award it?

High points in Murder, My Sweet include...well, nothing much stands out to me, sorry. I kind of like the swirling black clouds that appear whenever Marlowe is struck unconscious, which happens with disconcerting frequency. Takeaway quote:

"Only reason I took the job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck."

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Metapost: 2016

Ah, 2016! To be known to future historians as the Year from Hell. You know what I mean.


On the positive side, 2016 saw the release of my novelette "Salt and Sorcery," which takes place in a salt pan and appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, in August, as well as my novel The King of Nightspore's Crown, the second installment in my Enoch series (reviewed here), which also came out in August. I wrote several other stories, one of which is to appear next month, and am at work on the third Enoch novel.


I also wrote quite a bit on my blog, whose name changed from Alone with Alone to Cosmic Antipodes. Some of my favorite posts from 2016 include:
These aren't necessarily the most popular posts as measured by clicks, but they're the ones I like the best. I also wrote a really nifty glossary, some form of which will accompany future editions of my Enoch books.


Now, most importantly (for me, at any rate), the list of stuff I read in 2016, arranged in reverse chronological order:
There are sixty-four entries in all. Some came in the form of audiobooks, which I listen to while painting, as it relieves the extreme anxiety I typically experience while working on art. But I rarely listen to an audiobook if I haven't already read the book in print -- it's too easy to miss important details. Right now I'm listening to the Parallel Lives of Plutarch, which will probably carry me through a corner of my current painting project. Maybe two corners.


True "literary" novelists on my list include Austen, Conrad, Dickens, and Dostoevsky. Nothing new there! I read quite a few ghost/horror stories, by the likes of Sheridan le Fanu, Oliver Onions, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Edith Wharton, M. R. James, Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King. I also read a number of books having to do with the Soviet Union and the Cold War, including several spy novels by John le Carré and the first two parts of The Gulag Archipelago.


Several entries were read as research for a cycle of sword-and-sorcery stories set in an alternate sixteenth-century Texas and New Mexico. I've completed two, the first of which is due to appear in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly next month, with an illustration by yours truly. Charles Saunders' Imaro stories are a big inspiration for these, as are Robert E. Howard's tales of Solomon Kane. I'm currently in the planning stages of a third, which will be set in the Santa Fe area.

A number of the entries on my list were read-alouds to my kids, currently aged six and eight, including A Wind in the Door, Bunnicula, Howliday Inn, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, My Side of the Mountain, The Hobbit, Five Children and It, The Last Unicorn, The Book of Three, and A Princess of Mars. When asked to select their top three, they both included A Princess of Mars and The Hobbit, naturally. (I should mention that I sometimes "translated" Burroughs' sentences as I read; being a bit of a hack, he never uses a short Saxon word when a convoluted phrase full of polysyllabic Latin words will do. In contrast, Tolkien, who was a master linguist, writes simply and directly. Reading to kids has made me a lot more sensitive to this.) We also read numerous selections from Andrew Lang's collections of many colors, The Arabian Nights Entertainments, and Tales of King Arthur and the Round Table, as well as Edith Hamilton's Mythology and the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series.

2016 also saw our first cautious forays into the world of RPGs. We began by (slowly) playing through Final Fantasy IV together. (We're still not done yet, but we've gotten to the Lunar Subterrane at last.) My kids liked it so much that I decided to start moving toward Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, or something along those lines. We began with Dungeon!, an extremely cool, simple-enough-for-young-kids board-game dungeon crawl that first came out in 1975. Now we've moved up to Wrath of Ashardalon, which is considerably more challenging. However, we successfully completed our first quest together last week. I'll blog about it once we play a bit more.

I also read a few comic books graphic novels in 2016, including:
  • Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
  • The Dark Knight Returns
  • Batman: Year One
  • Batman: The Killing Joke
  • Batman: The Long Halloween
  • Batman: Hush
  • Superman: Birthright 
The first entry is the long-running manga by Hayao Miyazaki, the first parts of which became the animated film of the same name. I'll come right out and say that finding Nausicaä this year was a major event in the life of my imagination. I'll most likely blog about it once I've had a chance to reread the manga. I got a few more Superman comics with Christmas money, so those are next on my list. This is something of a departure from my usual reading habits. Before 2016, the last comic book graphic novel I'd looked into was The Death of Superman, which I read soon after it came out in, um, 1992.

So there's my 2016 in stories and pictures. All in all, not a bad year. Here's to an even better 2017.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Superman and Bishop Ussher

Today I happened to watch some of the terrific Fleischer Superman cartoons from the early 1940s with my almost two-year-old daughter (this is what we do for fun). I'm very fond of them (see here and here for my loving slideshow tributes), less so of the war-propaganda installments produced after Famous Studios took over.

But at any rate, today I noticed something odd in The Arctic Giant, which pits Superman against a thawed-out "Godzilla" clone (though the actual Godzilla was still more than a decade in the future). The voice-over at the beginning announces the monster as having roamed the earth "millions of years ago in the Mesozoic Age." Pleasingly accurate according to the scientific theories of our time. But here's the nameplate on the museum display:


Let's send it through my state-of-the-art html auto-processor:
TYRANNOSAURUS
HABITAT     SIBERIA
DISCOVERED DECEMBER 1940
AGE  ABOUT  2,400  B.C.
DONATED BY ALFRED R. LEY
Stop the presses! 2,400 BC??? That's not what the voice-over guy said!

Being the weird sort of person I am, I couldn't stop thinking about this all day. Then, while washing the dishes, I suddenly recalled having read about Bible-based chronologies many years ago. Various persons, including the Venerable Bede and Sir Isaac Newton, have attempted to construct these, but the most famous is probably the Ussher chronology proposed in the seventeenth century by the Irish bishop James Ussher. I remembered that his chronology sets creation at 4004 BC.

So now I've looked it up, and confirmed my suspicion: according to Ussher's timeline, the Flood took place in 2348 BC, or about the date given on the nameplate.

What's the story here? Is the date a joke on creationists? Is it a subversive visual comment by a creationist animator? Recall that the Scopes Trial had taken place only about fifteen years before. What did the animators know about the voice-over and when? The other "scientific" aspects of the nameplate are so ludicrous that it's possible to see the entire thing as a joke. Especially since Willard Bowsky, one of the two animators, also worked on the hilarious Arabian Nights Popeye cartoons. (Bowsky was killed in action in France two years later.)

Unfortunately, my diligent Internet search for the mysterious Alfred R. Ley failed to turn up further information. In fact, I appear to be the only person on the entire Internet to have noticed the disparity. Hence the post. I'm actually kind of disappointed. I thought this was the sort of thing we invented the Internet for in the first place.

Watch the cartoon here if you like; it's public domain, as are all the Fleischer Superman cartoons. I've been into reading Superman comics and watching the Richard Donner films lately. No doubt I'll have more to say about the Man of Steel before long.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Noir Reviews: Double Indemnity, April 1944

Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?
After the good but uneven Phantom Lady, we proceed directly to the murky, guilty heart of noir, to Double Indemnity, directed by the great Billy Wilder, whose work we'll have occasion to visit several times in this series.

If you don't know (and really, you should; if you haven't seen this movie, go watch it right now), Double Indemnity is a murder story told from the point of view of the murderer. He's a likeable insurance salesman named Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, who one day grabs hold of a red-hot poker and isn't able to let go. (Let those who think film noir is all about private detectives take note!) The supporting role of Neff's coworker and mentor, claims manager Barton Keyes, is played by the immortal Edward G. Robinson, who handily steals every scene he's in.
To me, a claims man is a surgeon. That desk is an operating table and those pencils are scalpels and bone-chisels. And those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation. They're alive. They're packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams. A claims man, Walter, is a, is a doctor and a bloodhound and a – [Phone rings.] Who? Okay, hold on a minute. A claims man is a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father confessor all in one.
He's given a couple of monologues that make me want to stand up and cheer every time I see them, while his final assessment of the case is grimly, delightfully terse: "Walter, you're all washed up." The tableau he and Walter Neff form in the last shot is an icon of of noir tough love.

The femme fatale, on the other hand, is played by Barbara Stanwyck, who can chill you to the bone with a single look. She wears a hideous George Washington wig, a directing mistake retroactively explained as a deliberate artistic decision, and hilariously spoofed by Steve Martin in drag in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Whatever. For my money, this is her best film.

Walter narrates his story into a dictaphone while nursing a cigarette and a bullet wound. His guilt and doom are predetermined from the first moment we see him. That's typical of film noir. There's no emotional hook, no what's-going-to-happen-to-these-characters-I-care-about??? You know from the outset that everyone is damned. In a strange way, that takes the pressure off, allowing the viewer to be engrossed by the mechanics of how, precisely, this damnation occurs. Wilder, who I think understood this very well, later topped himself in having Sunset Boulevard narrated by a dead guy floating face-down in a swimming pool. Your average melodrama, on the other hand, keeps you interested by making you fret about what's going to happen to the people. Its watchability depends on getting your emotions involved, a game that cloys pretty quickly. No one buys a melodrama to watch over and over again. (At least no one I know.)

Double Indemnity is certainly no melodrama. It's not a cautionary tale, either, despite the fact that it's about a crime that doesn't pay. On the contrary, it compels you to connive at a man's murder. You like Walter Neff. The very real love that exists between him and Keyes only makes this all the more poignant. Horribly, you want his plot to succeed and fear his exposure, even though you know it won't succeed and he will be exposed. When he starts befriending the victim's daughter to keep her quiet, you're acutely conscious of what a heel he is, yet you're anxious to keep her quiet, too. Nevertheless, you're aware at each moment of the impossibility of his position and know that an evasion of justice would be intolerable. A lesser movie would either make Walter an out-and-out bad guy or else try to exculpate him in some manner.

Apart from the wig, everything about Double Indemnity is perfect. Though based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was cowritten by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Chandler's influence is felt at every turn. The dialogue is a delight to listen to, abounding in witty repartee and colorful metaphor. (Chandler makes a cameo appearance sitting outside Keyes' office, looking very much the sourpuss he was.)
They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys. And if there's a death mixed up in it, you haven't got a prayer. They'll hang you just as sure as ten dimes will buy a dollar.
The score, composed by the legendary Miklós Rózsa, perfectly captures the feeling of an exciting, relentless drive toward some predetermined destination. It supports the plot, instead of attempting to comment on it or accentuate it, or (worse still) merely providing background noise, as many of the thundering scores of the period do. (Rózsa, incidentally, also scored Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, one of his final films.)

Wilder's direction eschews studio sets in favor of filming on location. There's a wonderful long take right at the beginning, in a midnight elevator ride from a lobby to a big, empty insurance office inhabited by nocturnal workers. Numerous night-for-night scenes make Double Indemnity a true black film, the most memorable being when the body is placed on the tracks, for which each telephone pole had to be individually illuminated by spotlights. The indoor scenes tend to be barred with light falling through half-open blinds.

For me, Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir.

* * *

I give Double Indemnity a grade of A for awesome on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
High points in Double Indemnity include the opening, Walter Neff's practiced "sales pitch," the body-placement scene, and pretty much every scene with Edward G. Robinson, especially the suicide statistics monologue. Takeaway quote:

"How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"