July 22, 2004

Batman: The Long Halloween

This trade, written by Jeph Loeb and pencilled by Tim Sale, retells the origin of Two-Face over a year fairly early in Batman's career, when every holiday brings a new murder by the serial killer called Holiday. Now, origin stories can be tricky. It's never easy to explain how an otherwise ordinary citizen can wake up one morning and declare, "Today, I am going to put on a goofy costume and go fight/commit crime!" Long Halloween draws this process out, suggesting that Harvey Dent (later Two-Face) cracks under the relentless pressure of the year and his frustration in dealing with the Gotham Mob. Unfortunately, it's just not enough Harvey's story for this to work; it's Batman's, with occasional peeks in on Harvey to set up the progression. We don't get a strong sense of Harvey's personality before the year starts and we especially don't get enough of a sense of his relationship with Bruce and/or Batman, though we're supposed to gather it was a good friendship. There's enough to evoke momentary flashes of sympathy, but not enough to sustain a whole book. If Two-Face were a new villain, this might work as a way of building suspense, but we know what's going to happen to Harvey. All the interest lies in the how, and how that affects those around them. It weirds me out to say that I found a Loeb plot more solidly conceived than Loeb character work (the mystery isn't brilliant, but it basically works, and the pacing is good), but there it is.

Tim Sale's art here is beloved by many with taste, and I admit I have idiosyncratic and not-fully-formed standards for comics art, but I had mixed reactions to it. I thought it worked well for the many mobsters--it conveys the sort of pugnacious solidity of the women particularly effectively, and the weaselliness of the minor corrupt characters--but not for many of the main characters. Especially not Selena, who looks like a jumped-up Jersey girl with a bad wave rather than at all glamorous and whose costume looks more chipmunky than catlike (most cats don't have round ears). Harvey seems half-grotesque, half-decayed, even at the beginning of the year--not at all "Apollo" the handsome, crusading DA--and Bruce really lacks those firm lines that are essential to the character for me. The conception of Ivy (radically different from the Dini/Timm style) was pretty nifty, though. There's a general atmosphere of lushness, fever, and organic decay which is (at least in my experience) an unusual approach to take to Gotham, so it's at least worth looking at.

Two-Face, as a villain, is fairly repetitive and tedious unless well-handled, but I believe there's a really good Harvey Dent story waiting to be told. Alas, this isn't quite it.

Posted by Sarah T. at 11:54 AM | Comments (0)

July 20, 2004

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Really funny, laugh-out-loud moments are few in this movie, featuring Will Ferrell as a smug, airheaded 70s anchorman whose scripts go from his TelePrompter to his mouth without ever actually visiting his brain. Ferrell is genial enough, in a mild way that at least leaves you feeling like something hilarious could happen any second, and the director pulls a few amusing stunts, but what's missing here is any willingness to jump onto a concept and ride it all the way into the surreal. (The laughs are superficial enough that I'm not sure there's anything in the film that could sustain real zaniness, a point underscored by a manic cameo by Jack Black, who appears to have zoomed in out of a different comedy altogether.) Also, if I could shoot whichever SNL writer first developed the idea that a setup in a comedy bit which is deliberately awkward and unfunny is therefore on a meta-level the funniest thing ever, I would. However, Anchorman moves quickly, keeps the gross-out jokes in their proper place, and is ultimately good-hearted enough not to offend. It's a weekend afternoon rental.

Posted by Sarah T. at 12:09 PM | Comments (0)

July 15, 2004

Mystique: Drop Dead Gorgeous

Like many and many a wee!fangirl of the 80s, I cut my comics teeth on Claremont's first X-Men run. Say what you will about its flaws, it had verve and heart and appealing characters and adventures! in! space! (My all-time favorite issue of any comic, anywhere, remains Uncanny 150, the double-sized issue that marked the beginning of Magneto's reform, and I've never forgiven what's happened to him afterwards.) Even though I essentially stopped reading comics for about a decade after I turned 14, it always pained me to notice that the X-titles had become the epitome of the industry's marketing excesses and aesthetic imbecilism in the 1990s. Maybe things have improved, but the books are still really not aimed at grown-up readers, even those willing to enjoy a good honest tale of explosions and a little character development. Although I enjoyed X2 quite a bit, not even Joss Whedon could lure me into spending my limited comics budget of reading time and money on a core X-title.

Mystique, however, is blessedly disconnected from the Great Dismal Swamp that is X-continuity. It's such an obvious premise the only wonder is that it wasn't done before: in a La Femme Nikita-esque scenario, Xavier rescues mutant-rights terrorist Mystique from execution and promises to shelter her from the authorities so long as she undertakes missions that are too politically sensitive (read: morally dubious) for the X-Men themselves to handle. This lays the basis for a series of loosely interconnected missions all over the world while Mystique considers the place she wants in the new mutant order.

Mystique, who never really achieved her potential in the X-titles, is a great protagonist. She's cynical, ruthless, unrepentant, and absolutely unwilling to buy any bullshit about her situation or that of mutants in general. Always remembering that she's a Marvel hero, in fact, she's amazingly amoral and adult (toned down slightly for the series, but not so much as you might expect--there's only one false move on this point in the TPB, and I'm really hoping they don't soften her up later in the series). The writer (Vaughan) doesn't shy away from reminding us that she's middle-aged, at the very least, though of course that's easier to do when the middle-aged character can still look young and hot. She also hasn't given up on her ideological commitments, revelling in kicking the asses of mutant-haters, and it's easy to go along with her. Seen through her eyes, Xavier is a far shadier, more hypocritical figure than he must appear in his own books, and it's an intriguing take. The other supporting characters so far--her "support staff," Forge and a new character, Shortpack--are still a little on the dull side, but I'm willing to at least give the latter a chance (I can't remember a time when Forge wasn't boring, honestly).

Drop Dead Gorgeous focuses on capers in exotic settings, infiltrations, and last-minute twists: it's good solid spy-thriller plotting and it's well-used in classic fashion to illuminate Mystique's character. New subplots start to click into place just where they ought to be to keep the action fresh in the future. The art, however, is sadly pedestrian. It does manage to stay just this side of grow-the-fuck-up T&A, but it illustrates the story rather than adding much to it. Given Mystique's character and the situations she's in, the art really needs a more subtle, nuanced approach to get across what's going on in her head. This book cries out for noirish atmosphere, and I hope this eventually dawns on Marvel.

If you still quietly resonate with the basic scenario of the X-Men world but just can't bring yourself to buy the variant-cover edition du jour, if you enjoy thrillers featuring kick-ass chicks with stompy boots, you'll probably like Mystique. I understand the book's sales are unimpressive, so buying the trade (which is really the better format for this kind of story anyway) would probably be helpful to its continued survival. Unless, you know, you'd rather read another title about muscly cybermen with wacky powers doing the exact same thing they're doing in all the other books.

Posted by Sarah T. at 12:35 PM | Comments (0)

July 14, 2004

Leo Marks, Between Silk and Cyanide

This was an oddly unsatisfying book. It's a memoir of the author's time as a cryptographer for British intelligence during WWII, during which he apparently pioneered (at least for his own country) some vital encryption techniques. Marks has a pleasingly self-deprecatory style--the book could have been subtitled Portrait of the Writer as a Young Blighter--and his constant awareness of the subordination of his work to that of the field agents is refreshing. The relation of his discovery through analysis of the kind of traffic alone that England's Dutch spies had almost all been captured was properly interesting and chilling. I was also intrigued by his largely throwaway references to life as a Jew during this time period, which can't have been easy.

However, as a portrait of the times, Between Silk and Cyanide suffers from the peculiarly English fault (Anthony Powell being another notable offender) of being utterly unaware that the reader may not be of the author's social milieu and hence able to fill in all blanks and look at everything in some broader view. The general effect is of examining a picture taken with the lens jammed up against one interesting detail of the subject, with absolutely no context or perspective. For a study of life in cryptography, the book avoids virtually all technical details, presumably on the grounds that the reader wouldn't get them, but that leaves the book disappointingly vague when a greater attempt to communicate Marks's craft to the layman might have made it more interesting and challenging. For a book of several hundred pages to be mostly repetitive office politics seems like a wasted opportunity.

I suppose this book will appeal to those who gobble up any and all WWII-related materials. Others are advised to skip it.

Posted by Sarah T. at 04:57 PM | Comments (1)

Nightwing: Ties That Bind

This trade, following up on Batman: Prodigal, collects the first few issues of Nightwing, plus a special, Alfred's Return. Despite my love for the character, it's eminently forgettable. The story arbitrarily couples a throw-away plot with what should be fairly important character progression--for once, a DC character is actually making serious, life-altering decisions that will determine his path for the next decade, instead of just being reset with the next creative team--but since the two don't actually have much of a connection, Dick's declaration of new-found purpose at the end of the story can draw only a "Huh?" As for the art, Dick is drawn with great hopes of providing fanservice but a complete unawareness of what his body actually ought to look like (he's a gymnast! He's not just a shorter version of Bruce!) and an absolutely hideous mullet that he also wears in an equally hideous rat-tail. It's old-fashioned art, which means basically inoffensive and workmanlike, but also essentially uninspiring.

Alfred's Return is a little more fun, but that's mostly because I have a soft spot for cranky old folk kicking ass and taking names, and the writer does succeed in creating a gently melancholy atmosphere as Alfred reflects on the paths his life might have taken.

Basically, this volume is something you ought to read once, to get a basic idea of what Dick is doing in Bludhaven, but there's no need to own it.

Posted by Sarah T. at 04:43 PM | Comments (0)

July 05, 2004

An American in Paris

As far as I can tell, An American in Paris is the Titanic of its time--a popular sensation that won a slew of Oscars which people now look back on and wonder, "What were we smoking?" No, it's not a dreadful movie. Even mere recycled Gershwin and coasting Gene Kelly are enough to prevent that. However, it's scattered, saccharine, painfully padded-out, and overblown. It also shares with the far superior Singin' in the Rain that film's one sour note: a really unpleasant and distasteful treatment of the older and powerful woman who has the misfortune of getting in the way of the hero's romance with the ingenue. Buy a couple of Gershwin CDs if you want to listen to the music, and give this film a miss.

Posted by Sarah T. at 01:10 AM | Comments (0)

Spiderman 2

I don't agree with Roger Ebert that Spiderman 2 is the best comic book movie ever, but it is very good. Like last summer's X2, like the Buffy series before it, Spiderman 2 is blessed with a director who understands that the secret to a comic book movie's success isn't simply the ability to produce a whiz-bang spectacle. Sam Raimi produces plenty of spectacle, but he also seeks to convey the very real, accessible feeling that the best comic books address (express themselves though they may in the awkward idiom of the fifteen-year-old boy), the lyricism amidst the goofy costumes and over-the-top dialogue. Peter Parker is being crushed by responsibilities he never asked for, as well as guilt he at least partially earned. That's something we can all empathize with, even if we've never donned a spider-costume. Raimi, and Tobey Maguire, who may not be the finest actor in the world but brings geeky charm and gentle sympathy to Peter, make sure we don't forget it.

One of my favorite moments in the film is a quiet one: the daughter of Peter's boozy Russian landlord, a shy, gawky teenage girl named Ursula, stumbles into Peter's rathole while he's brooding and offers him some chocolate cake. He agrees, and she nervously risks further, "And a glass of milk?" This scene doesn't "go anywhere"; no romance or revelation comes from it; but it serves beautifully to connect Peter's anxieties with our own, more humble ones, to remind us that courage can be expressed by tackling mad scientists with mechanical legs, but also by daring to overcome our own insecurities and try to make a connection.

The film is also a touching paean to New York City. Comics have a special affinity for urban environments--where everything is so amazing and out-of-scale, it doesn't seem quite so ridiculous that a person could fly, or throw fire with his mind--and the odd proliferation of city buildings in their fantastic diversity is the constant backdrop for Peter's webswinging adventures. S2 handles tenderly the little hopes and dreams that the young people of the city bring to their squalid, tiny apartments. It was almost enough to make me sentimental about my own apartment (roughly the size of Peter's). There's nothing quite as unsubtle as the (apparently looped-in) dialogue of the crowd on the bridge in the first movie, but Raimi still makes it plain that the city can mock its heroes in one breath, but will embrace them in the next. The film's NYC is a place worthy of its freaks, the heroes and the villains.

The film has its share of flaws. Mary Jane, the female romantic lead, continues to scuttle as mechanically as any film cybermonster between the men in her life without actually appearing to care for any of them, and her indifference to the consequences of her own behavior rises almost to the sociopathic by the end of the film. Kirsten Dunst doesn't bring her life, but I'm not sure what any actress could have done for her as written. Fortunately, and contrary to what the voiceover at the beginning of the first movie says, the film is not about this girl. Mary Jane is always more of an idea than a person--that allows her unattractiveness not to sink the film, though it leaves the film sadly limited in other ways. There are some sequences that could have been trimmed, a few anvils that didn't need to be bounced off the viewer's brow. The desire to set up the sequel means that the film wastes a well-wrought ending in favor of what is essentially a trailer for the coming attraction. If you're fond of Raimi's early Darkman, a film ahead of its time, you may also note some recycling of shots and concepts with a raised brow (though slightly less than in the first). However, Spiderman 2 is still a film that delightfully gets it, that leaves you with hope that a genuine modern American art form need not be ghettoized forever.

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