Star Wars: The Force Progresses

8 01 2016

I’ve got a spoilery feeling about this…

The major complaint I’m hearing about Star Wars Episode VII is how closely it mirrors Episode IV, beat for beat, motif for motif. That’s accurate, but it doesn’t bother me, for two reasons.

Reason 1: there’s a line in the movie about fighting the only fight, the eternal fight between good and evil. This could be taken to imply an Incal-style cyclical nature of the Star Wars universe; the same events played out by more or less reincarnated spirits in the endless ebb and flow of light and dark. I realize this is a stretch, and far too wooby-wooby for most. And it doesn’t change the simple fact that rehashing a successful original is the lifeblood of Hollywood. Many fans who both love Star Wars and hunger for fresh, rich stories are wishing The Force Awakens had taken more risks.

Which brings me to reason 2: the movie did take two very large risks. It is an action blockbuster starring a woman and a black guy. It shouldn’t be risky to put someone besides a white dude in the spotlight, but again, we all know how Hollywood works. Now, for the first time ever, a woman and a man of color are leading the biggest entertainment franchise in the western world. If the rest of the movie had to be overly familiar to make that happen, I’m okay with it.

Episode VII had to do one thing (besides making boatloads of money, which it could hardly fail to do): it had to redeem the Star Wars universe from Episodes I-III. It had to bring back the magic. I admit, when the music started and the words “Episode VII” appeared on the screen, my reaction was less plunging into a beloved imaginary world and more “holy wamprats, the grip this thing has had on my entire life.” But soon after that, I was hooked. The magic is absolutely back. With that mission accomplished, I’m hoping the movies to come will push the narrative boundaries and strive for real cinematic greatness. But if they end up being more of the same, I’ve still got my Incal-y half-assed karma theory.





24 Hour Comic #11: The Crystals of Kwa-Bulawayo

13 10 2015

It’s been awhile since I got to do a 24 hour comic. Last year it was pretty much out of the question with a 3 month old. But this year, the artsy cartoony community of the Twin Cities came through! Organized by the local chapter of The International Cartoonist Conspiracy, hosted by the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, supported by Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and sponsored by The Source Comics and Games, 20-plus artists gathered on October 3rd to take up the challenge.

targetcomickitA couple years ago, as a joke birthday present, some of our new friends gave me a comic making kit for kids. It came with markers, some sound effect rubber stamps, and two 32 page books of blank panels. While designed for kids, it seemed like a great tool for drawing a spontaneous story. Normally I like to draw on much bigger paper, with fewer panels per page, so I knew I would have to change my style to make it work. I stuck to my larger format for the Bunnirah comics, and held the kit in reserve for a completely spontaneous story. I tried for a pared down style that would read well as very small images. I had a half-formed notion of doing the whole thing after the fashion of Chris Ware’s semi-stick figures, with a static camera, but I didn’t stick to it. I also thought I might have a page or two with lunatic colors and rubber-stamped effects, but that didn’t happen either. Still, I think there are a couple pages with very effective interaction between panels and content. I’m happy with it overall.

tcok_thum01My go-to story seed generator sites are all gone. This time I turned to Wikipedia, and did three random article searches to get a jumping off point. Wikipedia gave me the old capitol of the Zulu empire, a Columbian airline from the 30s, and a bad 2001 caper movie. I knew I wanted a female main character. As a privileged white male doofus I’ve been tripped up by blind insensitivity before, so a black character felt risky, but what’s the point of art if you don’t risk anything? I did some quick image searching for Zulu dress, and tried my best to make Bapoto a real person, at least within the context of my usual cartoon weirdness. I’d also been reading Philip K. Dick and listening to a lot of Legendary Pink Dots, so an atmosphere of post-disaster dystopia crept in. The result is The Crystals of Kwa-Bulawayo.

I still have the second book of blank panels, which I will probably use in a more dedicated attempt at a super-iconic, semi-stick figure comic, but not a 24 hour comic. Next October (or next May if I can make it work) I will go back to my large format for 24 hours.





Mad Men: Bridge to History

19 06 2015

(Spoilers. Why would I do that?)

[This would have been way more relevant back when I started writing it, when the series actually ended. But I’m not bothered if you’re not.]

I always enjoyed Mad Men most as a history lesson. A dramatic, unpredictable, emotionally turbulent history lesson. Surely that’s the wrong way to watch it. The show was never a mere nostalgia fest, but was driven by vibrant, three dimensional characters, as any story should be. Still, I’ve gotten more interested in history in the last ten years or so, trying to form a coherent mental picture of the decades and centuries flowing one into the next. TV dramas have been my primary tool, and probably what sparked my interest in the first place.

I knew some things about the 60s, and didn’t know a lot of things. Of course I’ve always heard about how it was a dynamic time of sweeping social change, but you always hear that in a way that emphasizes the goals and outcomes of the counterculture. Mad Men focused more on the entrenched old guard, and seeing them struggle really brought home the psychological violence of all that upheaval. Even as it happened gradually, almost in real time over seven seasons. The key to the whole series is Don’s reaction to Kennedy being shot: “We’re not who we thought we were.”

The last half of the final season takes place in 1970, the year before I was born. That makes the show a bridge from history to my lifetime. For the kid I was, the 70s was all fun and games. I was too young to understand the cultural vein of deep cynicism brought on by Vietnam, Watergate, economic recession and the failure of the Age of Aquarius to materialize. That understanding I gleaned later on from Philip K. Dick, Network, The Ice Storm, and so on. In Mad Men’s final episodes, we see the seeds being sown.

Out of a dissatisfaction he could never understand or articulate, Don has finally walked away from his whole life; his job, his home, his assets, his identity that was never fully his anyway. His family too, although I had the sense that he maintains a tenuous connection to Sally. He’s gone as far west as there is to go, and fetched up in a new age hippie commune. He attends workshops designed to plumb the emotions and access the truth. And it works, to a certain extent. The efforts of the gurus and the pilgrims are genuine, and the methods make sense in a time when so many longstanding, reliable traditions have been turned inside out. But we know where it all leads. It leads nowhere. The communes all failed, the gurus gave way to crooks, self-actualization degenerated into petty self-interest. (Is my Gen-X mistrust showing?)

The final shot is a cut from a meditating, ohm-chanting Don, with a smile spreading across his face, to the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. The prevailing wisdom among viewers said that Don conceived the ad in that peacenik love den, and brought it back to McCann Erickson (a real ad firm by the way, which really did make that ad), having learned just enough from the Aquarians to exploit their optimism and change the face of advertising forever.

I didn’t see it that way. Because I couldn’t imaging Don going back to the company after disappearing without a word for so long, I saw that cut as Don breaking away from the cynical world of advertising. He had stepped out of his fog at last, learned to see himself objectively, lost all interest in corporate achievement and could maybe start his life over for real. Meanwhile the company, absent Don’s sensitivity, ushered in a new era of advertising with a piece that was highly successful despite having none of the emotional truth of, say, the Carousel campaign.

Except the more I think about it, the more that outcome seems impossible. If Don is our window into history, it’s only fitting that he would design the Coke ad. It’s only fitting that he would transform the promises of the 60s into a cash cow. The Coke ad is the perfect summation of a cultural failure to awaken, and Don is the perfect vehicle to bring it to life.

Maybe it comes down to whether the show is about history, or about its characters.





The Best Opening Sequence

28 04 2015

The Best Opening Sequence For a TV Series Ever, in my expert opinion, belongs to Mad Men.

It perfectly captures the slow but inevitable disintegration of white male privilege, experienced through a cushioning haze of alcohol. With only a couple episodes left to go, it seems Don Draper’s whole life may disintegrate in similar fashion.
Am I wrong? Got a better opening sequence contender? I bet you don’t.





Universe Fatigue

8 04 2015

Mere days after my last post about the upcoming shake-up at Marvel Comics, DC has announced that they will make another round of big changes this summer. The plan is to bring more diversity to creators and characters, and de-emphasize universal continuity in favor of letting stories and characters breathe. Hooray DC!

As for Marvel…I keep searching the internet for some indication that they’re not really moving everything to a patchwork planet where everyone will just duke it out all the time, but I have not found any such indication. Of course, nothing is really permanent in superhero comics, and when everyone gets sick of Battleworld in a few years they will surely return to Earth. Battleworld would make a fun miniseries, but as a master plan, it’s just so aggressively dumb. I guess one way to maintain universal continuity is to throw out those pesky plot points altogether.

I’ve read comics pretty much my whole life. I’ve never tried too hard to get to know the whole universes of either Marvel or DC, until the recent reboots gave me a chance to follow along from the beginning. Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was great for several years, but a pile-up of crossover events and mini-relaunches eventually made it impossible to follow.

(At least, impossible to follow in the trade paperbacks, which are published a year or more after the comic magazines and are generally not shelved in any sensible order in the stores. But I’m sorry, I’m not paying $3-$4 for a 22 page pamphlet that is only a fragment of a story.)

DC’s New 52 was more uneven, and much more short lived than the Ultimate Universe. (For an excellent breakdown of the New 52 launch, and the market forces driving both Marvel and DC, read this.) But over the next couple of years, I’m guessing DC will put the smack down on Marvel. At least in their paper publications.

Marvel Studios still seems to have the lock on the movies and tv series, with several popular, interlocking franchises, and DC/Warner Brothers struggling to get a decent movie out since The Dark Knight. I should be thrilled at the mess of Marvel movies coming out over the next 4 years. (I am super excited about Daredevil hitting Netflix on Friday, despite all my complaining.) But part of me is just tired. It’s great that all these characters live in the same universe, it’s great when they interact with each other, but does every movie, episode, and comic have to be true to a universal canon? Can’t we all just relax a little bit, and accept that different authors will tell different, sometimes contradictory stories?

I read an article recently– and my apologies, the article and it’s author are lost to the mists of the internet– that talked about the difference between keeping an archive and telling a story. I think actually it was a review of The Battle of Five Armies. And the critic felt that instead of telling a story, Jackson was obsessively archiving Middle Earth. And that there is this impulse among nerds to archive all the background and history of fictional worlds, which can be a fine hobby, or (and here I may be mixing the article with my own opinions) an unhealthy variety of escapism that deadens the story by reducing it to a set of statistics.

All that energy spent archiving would be better spent seeking out new authors and new stories, or better yet, creating one’s own. In a worst case scenario, the marketplace gets flooded with remakes, reboots, and tweaks, by people who are better researchers than creators.

Is that where we are? It kinda looks like it. Between the lack of originality and the clear cash-grabbiness of multiple interlocking properties, I wish I could turn my back on the whole thing.

But I can’t. Not yet. Daredevil on Friday!!





Jodorosky’s Dune: Flawed Prophecy

16 09 2014
noxSquare

One of Moebius’ costume designs for Dune. Wings don’t make an angel.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about a movie that was never made. Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, having had great success in Europe with his 1973 surreal western The Holy Mountain, was given free reign by producer Michel Seydoux to make a new movie. He wanted to make Dune. Despite extensive pre-production work, including a complete storyboard of 3,000 images by the legendary Moebius, the film was never made. I watched the documentary. I’ve seen one Jodorowsky film (1970’s El Topo, another surreal western) and I’ve read many volumes of his comics, and I think the failure of his Dune was the best case scenario.

I discovered French artist Moebius as a teenager, when Marvel’s Epic imprint started publishing English translations of his comics. They are pure magic and I devoured all I could find. He collaborated with Jodorowsky to create The Incal, a sprawling esoteric space opera. I picked up The Incal for Moebius’ art, but I was also transported by Jodorowsky’s story, which builds an accessible science fiction world around colossal, reality-plumbing, spirit-bending themes.

As an adult, I find more and more to appreciate in Moebius’ art, but I find Jodorowsky lacking as an author. I still enjoy the wildly cosmic drama of The Incal, but the characterization is thin at best, and the dialog is pretty ham-fisted. The concepts are big and daring, but don’t add up to much in the end. It feels like it was written in a breathless rush of late-night, youthful, mystic self-righteousness… the mental state you get in college before you have to actually get a job.

Jodorowsky tells us that his ambition with Dune was to make a movie that would change the world, provide the effects of drugs without drugs, explode young minds: “…a movie that is a prophet.” I can see similar motives at work in El Topo and The Incal. But like The Incal, El Topo falls short. I found it to be a movie that creates the sensation of expanding your mind, without actually doing it. Which I suspect (I can’t speak from experience) is the same thing hallucinogenic drugs do. It’s a thrilling experience, but ultimately empty.

Can a work of art function as an expander of the consciousness? Absolutely. One might argue that all great art does precisely that. I have to admire Jodorowsky’s audacity, but I feel like while he’s lobbing cinematic missiles at the walls that bind the spirit, he’s neglecting his art. In the end it comes off as self-aggrandizing; he wants to be the guy that brings enlightenment more than he wants everyone to be enlightened. He also clearly has an attachment to violence, which is fine for an artist, but a deal-breaker for a guru (in my humble opinion as an unstudied humanist).

I’m probably coming off as a terrible old stick in the mud. Won’t do drugs, dismissive of youthful optimism, blah blah blah. The thing is, what Jodorowsky wants for his works, I want for them too. I would love to have my mind legitimately exploded. I crave it as much as he craves granting it. As an audience I’m dying to hurl my disbelief into the fire. Sometimes a work of art lets me do it, and I’m thrilled. But many works of art don’t, and life’s too short to pretend they do.

After his Dune movie fell apart, Jodorowsky started writing comics. It seems clear that he poured everything he wasn’t able to say with Dune into The Incal, and a few spin-off series including La Caste Des Meta-Barons, beautifully illustrated by Juan Gimenez. (I found a volume of Meta-Barons on a trip to France in 1995, and have since collected all 8 volumes in French. I have to struggle a bit to read French, but it makes the writing more palatable.) Meta-barons has some mystic elements, but it is more of a straight space-opera than the Incal. Still, it is the most operatic of space-operas, steeped in bloody tragedy and impossible stakes.

My biggest complaint with many film adaptations is that they are so different from the source material, they’d work better as wholly original stories. Jodorowsky’s Dune describes a movie like that, straying far away from Frank Herbert’s book. Jodorowsky, unable to adapt Dune, went out and authored many original stories. And they are aggressively, flamboyantly original, and thus destined to be classics.

I met Alejandro Jodorowsky at the San Diego Comic Con in the early 2000s. His attendance was not well publicized, and I was surprised to find him there. He was humble, eminently friendly, happy to sign a book and to take a copy of the ridiculous zine I was handing out. That encounter is one of the most enduring treasures I took away from Comic Con. It’s lucky– for me certainly, for the world I believe– that Jodorowsky’s Dune never materialized. His comics are a far better legacy.





Obsessives Anonymous

21 05 2014

Silence of the Lambs was on recently. I like that movie, mostly for Hannibal Lecter. I am a fan of monsters, from towering atomic lizards to human beings ruled by inhuman impulses. Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs is a great monster; alien, powerful, horrifying yet sympathetic.

I went on a little Hannibal kick and dug out my paperback Red Dragon, which I hadn’t read for 20 years or so. The writing wasn’t to my taste as much as it once was, but I read on, happily anticipating the Lecter scenes, figuring I would reread the whole trilogy. But I got to Lecter, and was disappointed. He seemed much more materialistic and petty, not so much the lethally wise enigma Hopkins brought to life. I have a lot of books to read, so I put Red Dragon away.

The other movies with Hopkins as Lecter don’t quite measure up either. Something magical happened in Silence of the Lambs, some confluence of acting, co-acting, writing, directing, cinematography, I don’t know what all. But that quintessential Hannibal Lecter exists in that film, and nowhere else. I wanted more of him, more of Clarice, more FBI vs Hannibal, but there is no more to be had. I decided it’s better to enjoy the one movie that really speaks to me than to chase pale imitations.

This is a new behavior for me, with a range of applications. There are many books, comics, movies, and tv series that I enjoy deeply. Many of those are media-crossing franchises. Now, I wouldn’t call myself an obsessive fan. I have seen obsessive fans, some of them are my good friends, and there are levels of collecting and consuming and trivia-mining that I don’t come anywhere near. Still, I have been known to latch onto a book or a show like an escapism-eating lamprey. And once latched on, I’ve been known to eagerly scarf up every new iteration on screen or page. And the experience is almost always disappointing.

The king of this phenomenon is obviously George Lucas. But like the houses of Westeros, plenty of others are vying for the throne. Steven Moffat is gradually ruining Doctor Who. DC comics have placed their faith in crummy filmmakers. Peter Jackson is burying The Hobbit in bloated sub-plots and self-indulgent special effects. Such is the way of the world. A great story maintaining its greatness for many volumes and across media is miraculous. Of course it doesn’t happen every day.

I used to pin gigantic hopes on newly minted iterations of my favorite stories, like all my happiness depended on the film or the sequel or the series finale getting it right. And sometimes they do get it right, and I will always find that thrilling. But if they blow it, they blow it. Whatever version of the story I fell in love with still exists. I will not require it to update or expand to keep me interested.

Now I’m off to see Godzilla!

 

 

 








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