May 28, 2004

Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty

I've always been intrigued by the mundane side of the existence of supernatural characters, whether it be the problem of finding a babysitter while a mutant's out saving the world or the weird impact having superheroes in your neighborhood could have on the local dating scene. Batman is, of course, not technically a supernatural character, but he's close enough for government work (more on that some other day). The concept of Gotham Central is therefore so obvious it's amazing it wasn't done earlier: examine crime-fighting in Gotham from the point-of-view of the cops always getting shouldered aside by the Bat-family. What keeps them going, when in their universe they can border on the useless? How do they feel about the high-powered vigilantes that keep preempting them on both sides?

In the Line of Duty collects issues #1-5 in this series, and it has some of the problems you might expect from a new series. The characters are either new or at best secondary characters from other series, meaning the reader doesn't know much about them (or what she knows is untrustworthy, filtered through the superhero lens), and this is a particular difficulty for this sort of series. Say what you will about them otherwise, a memorable backstory, colorful powers, and snappy patter go a long way towards sketching in the broad outlines of a superpowered individual's character; building characterization through the routine of police work, even on the big cases of the Major Crimes Unit, takes much longer. Hence, it's not easy to get an immediate grasp on the characters (or, due to the somewhat generic figure-art, even tell the men apart). The characters slowly begin to distinguish themselves as the story moves along, but you have to be willing to make the initial investment, and to trust that the process will continue in future issues.

But there's still a lot to like here. The death that leads off the series is shocking and brutal, but it feels extremely appropriate--it's the sort of thing that would happen if the series is to be at all realistic, and so it gives you confidence to see that the creative team is willing to go there. The detectives are a diverse bunch, and the seeds of personality conflicts and office politics are clearly being planted in these issues. The plots are at least serviceable, with the first case especially providing some real moments of tension. There is humor to vary the tone, though it's fairly standard cop-show stuff. The art, while at times verging on the abstract for the figures, is effective in the cityscapes, and, no, you won't have to wince and skim past any grotesque depictions of women's bodies. Finally, a cop gets to tell off Batman, and as I've rapidly acquired more Batman Issues than, you know, Batman issues, I was glad to see it.

Being stubborn about these things, I'll probably wait for the next trade to go any further with the series (to be honest, I shudder at the thought of trying to keep track of one of the investigations from month to month), but I will pick up that next trade, and you should, too.

Posted by Sarah T. at 03:30 AM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2004

Halldor Laxness, Iceland's Bell

This is the story--more or less--of a poor Icelander in seventeenth-century Iceland who stole a piece of cord and found himself unintentionally caught up in the fate of a whole nation and a great literature. It is a book of wondrous deadpan black humor, fantastic descriptive set-pieces, and oddly appealing, yet unmistakably grotesque, characters.

However, you are not going to like this book unless you can bring yourself to appreciate an approach to prose different from the modern English. I've seen Tolkien take enough ill-informed shellacking in fandom for his style that I feel I have to say this here. It's not a problem with the translation. Laxness writes in a style heavily influenced by the Icelandic saga (as Tolkien did, only less so), in which the dialogue is epigrammatic and terse, the action abrupt, and character motivations almost never explicitly offered. Why the sagas aren't generally taught to English-speakers is beyond me (I managed to get through a high-quality liberal-arts education without more than a dim consciousness that they even existed); they are actually closer in form to the modern novel than any contemporary works from other European nations, but they aren't familiar to us, and if you haven't worked on decoding them, you're likely to find Laxness alien. Even if you have, he's puzzling to the point of vexation at times.

And yet the rewards are there, too, if you're willing to accept the challenges.

An old man with a dog walks over through the lava rocks and steps out on the path before the travelers.

"And who might you be?"

The fat one answers: "I am His Majesty's emissary and hangman."

"You don't say," the old man mumbled hoarsely, in a voice that seemed to come from a great distance. "All the same, it's the Creator who rules."

"I have a letter to prove it," said the king's emissary...

The old man didn't want to risk coming any closer to the travelers, so he sat down on the remains of the wall encircling the courthouse and looked at them. He was not different from any other old man: he had a gray beard, red eyes, a chimney-cap, and gnarled legs, and he clenched his blue hands around his walking stick and leaned forward upon it tremblingly. His dog came over inside the wall and sniffed at the men without barking, as dogs do when concealing their savagery.

"No one had letters in the old days," murmured the old man softly.

Swarthy, the pale man's guide, exclaimed: "Right you are, pal! Gunnar of Hlidarendi had no letters."

"And who are you?" asked the old man.

"Oh, this is a cord-thief from Akranes..."

The black-haired man spoke up and sneered, baring his gleaming white teeth: "That's the king's hangman from Bessastadir. All the dogs piss on him."

It took me most of a term to read this book; it's exceptionally concentrated in tone, and I often wanted a break, even from the dark humor. However, I have the feeling I'll be reading it again soon.

Posted by Sarah T. at 06:40 PM | Comments (1)

May 21, 2004

"Covenant"

"God said to Abraham, go and kill me a son..."

Last season ended with a distraught Clark running off to escape his problems. That Clark at least had the excuse of feeling that he was bringing destruction to every life he touched. It was dumb, it was selfish, it did far more harm than good, but his flight to Metropolis was ultimately a good-hearted (and rock-headed) gesture.

This season ended (or would have, without Jonathan's intervention) with Clark, having learned NOTHING, apparently, from all the hurt he caused before, making the exact same mistake--and this time for the utterly selfish reason that he feels abandoned and betrayed by some of the people around him.

Clark's been fucking up a lot this year, but I was willing, mostly, to call it growing pains, even if I didn't call it very attractive. It seemed to me that the show was increasingly stressing the way his bad choices were causing pain to other people, and I thought the season finale might finally bring that home to him in a way that allowed him to acknowledge his mistakes and grow. That would have shaped the whole season into something meaningful.

Instead, we get Clark making the same stupid, inexcusable blunders as before and essentially getting a pass for them. What the hell else was this season of unsympathetic Clark *for*, if not for him to learn something?

Clark had learned nothing by the end of "Covenant" except some tidbits about Lex's interior decorating style. And I fear, with LaT, that Millar & Gough are going to try to do his character development off-screen.

That doesn't leave me very happy looking forward to next season.

Posted by Sarah T. at 01:29 AM | Comments (0)

May 14, 2004

Bruce Wayne: Fugitive

Bruce Wayne: Fugitive isn't really as satisfying as its predecessor storyline, collected in Bruce Wayne: Murderer? (reviewed here). Although Fugitive does share some of Murderer's strengths, like a strong ensemble focus, and the solution to the mystery is largely a good one (the qualification being due solely to the fact that one of the people responsible was ruled out in Murderer, and no good reason is given for his sudden resurrection as a candidate), the emotional through-line is a lot less clear. Unlike Bruce's crackup in the previous volume, which was perfectly foreshadowed, his turnaround strikes like lightning and with less obvious cause. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's completely arbitrary, but the motivation remains opaque. The storyline itself essentially ends up in vol. 2; vol. 3 is wrapup, in some ways necessary wrapup, but I think marketing it as part of this TPB set is deceptive.

There are some very pleasing moments: Superman's brief cameo is outstanding, and Sasha gets to kiss and dismiss Bruce in a way he more than amply deserved. But I say get this one used (the set runs $45 new!), and mostly if you were left demanding at the end of Murderer, "What happens next?!?!?" That ought to be most readers, actually.

Posted by Sarah T. at 07:07 AM | Comments (0)

"Forsaken"

Dear Millar and Gough,

It's the second-to-last episode of the year. It's the fulcrum of at least three plotlines, including one of your regulars actually leaving the show, one threatening to leave, and one getting hauled off in handcuffs.

Do you give this choice assignment to a writing team that can't plot their way out of a wet paper bag? No, you do not. Although this episode did have its characterization moments, its plotline was so painfully cobbled together it was embarrassing to watch. Yes, more embarrassing than the "Ancient spirits of evil! Transform this decayed form to Mumm-Ra, the ever-living!"-style Kawatche mysticism of the previous episode, and that's saying something.

Also, while writing Pete off the show shows a surprising, and pleasing, willingness to cut your losses, given that he's an actual Superman character, it would have had a lot more impact had you actually bothered to set up this plotline. I know it would've been touch and go, but your audience probably would've survived losing one go-around on the Chucklehead Twins' Carousel of Non-Dating in order to seed the story. You don't get all that many chances to axe a credits character, gentlemen! You need to make them count!

Next week, I vote Chloe gets to be the one to rip Lex's shirt open.

Not much love,
Sarah

P.S. You know how I said two years ago that the only thing that might make me drop the show is if a serious Clark-Lex-Lana triangle developed and contributed significantly to the deterioration of Clark and Lex's friendship? I meant it. I'm still saying "might," but...you don't want to test me on this one, gentlemen. Manipulative Lexana is proving surprisingly tasty. Don't spoil it.

Posted by Sarah T. at 06:50 AM | Comments (0)

May 05, 2004

"Talisman"

"Talisman" spoilers...

I don't like the cave-mythology, and I like it least when the actual "Kawatche" are hanging around; they're really kind of an embarrassment. Because Ken Biller has skills, they weren't anywhere near as bad as in "Skinwalker," which I think may well be the worst episode of the show ever, but I still did a lot of wincing. (Does anyone else think Professor Willowbrook had better start rethinking his parenting/mentoring techniques before he produces another killer? With Kyla and Joseph, he's two-for-two. Hell, he's a more lethal parent than Lionel at this point.)

However. I can forgive anything for the emergence of smart Lex, subversive Lex, the Lex who can turn a paradigm inside-out and outthink them all. This may be, after all, the value of his extraordinary experiences, even his plunge into madness; he knows in those kryptonite-irradiated bones that there's more in heaven and earth, and he's smart enough to discover it. Finally, Lex has come to consider the possibilities that fanfic writers and critical analysts alike have been pointing to for seasons now, about the possibly positive (or at least necessary) nature of his own role in the mythos, and it is very satisfying to see.* When his insight is matched with a spine as well--I loved the way he handled Clark at the TA's office, making it plain that he knew Clark was being a big hypocritical liar and giving nothing away himself--it's a beautiful thing. God bless you, KB.

Lana needs to be beaten to death with a shoe. This is nothing new, nor is it out-of-character. I just feel the need to say it again. No, really, sweetheart, you can't cash out of the Talon to go to Paris and at the same time continue to control what happens to it. If you want to preserve an investment, you actually have to, you know, remain invested in it. People aren't going to keep running the world just the way you want while you run off and have fun somewhere else just because you want them to. When you consider that the only reason Lana is part-owner at all is because Lex gave her a share...*shakes head* I strongly prefer to think that Lex's distressed expression at the end of their last scene was not because he can't bear to be losing his pure-hearted partner, but because he feels a little guilty about manipulating her so much.

I said it last week when we witnessed the revival of the Lionel/Martha flirtation, and I say it again: Jonathan's dying in the season finale (or over the course of the cliffhanger, if they insist on having one again), and Lionel will survive.

I'm not sure what to make of the Pete subplot. Did the writers suddenly just wake up and realize they'd forgotten to give him any meaning or relevance all season long? Still, nice to see SJIII's chest again, and Chloe getting to be more sympathetic, and willing to back off, after her not-particularly-attractive turn in "Truth."

*(Yes, it would take someone more grownup than me not to be a little gleeful about seeing the show taking the same approach as "Immanence" when it comes to Clark/Lex and the same approach as "Self-Portrait, Still Life" when it comes to Lex-Lana. There was one line of dialogue that was nearly identical between "Talisman" and "Self-Portrait," and I am eight years old enough to jump up and down and say, "I guessed right!!!")

Posted by Sarah T. at 10:18 PM | Comments (0)