Sunday, March 28, 2010

1985, Clear Cut Heroes, and...Mark Millar?

In my review of Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, I ended with a question: Can Millar throw off the Watchmen-influenced deconstruction and the emphasis on violence and profanity as "realism" to portray truly heroic characters? His future development of these characters will reveal whether or not he is sincere or a coward.

So imagine my surprise while walking through the comic shop to glance upon 1985.

The first thing I noticed was the retro cover; I honestly it was a product from that time. (The cover art reminded me specifically of the first issue of The Transformers.) But when I saw the name Mark Millar on the cover...well, I was curious...I thought this must be an older book, which it is, but not by much, from 2008. (Just a month before this blog started, actually...something must have been in the air...) So then, I thought that this must be some kind of ironic stab...

I was pleasantly surprised...and just a little confused...

Surely there was something I was missing? Some subtle subtext? I remarked previously that I wasn't even tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt, and then this...So I did some online research, and came across a couple of interviews where Millar explains himself...

What to make of this? Well, I don't feel so bad about doubting him, considering that Millar himself acknowledges that this book was not his usual...modus operandi...His explanation for his dual artistic persona comes off as a bit Jungian; and I have to wonder how one reconciles such views philosophically (and psychologically). I find the political implications revealing ("I hope we've been able to imbue the book with same thing for the Obama era, something shiny and glossy, you know?"). On that topic, I'm not surprised at the "bait and switch." And as an "heir" to the Watchmen legacy, I find it ironic, after pointing out Alan Moore's own return to superhero comics, that Millar has echoed that move (and do I have to point out that 1985 was the last year before Watchmen?) But then there's this: "I think people want to see our characters being heroes again. Clear cut heroes." Is this the same "Mark Millar" who is celebrated in the introduction to his Superman: Red Son for seeing the world in shades of gray? I'll score that as a victory for Ayn Rand! Still, a statement like that doesn't address the fundamentals of what defines a hero, and one man's hero is potentially another man's villain.

But surely it deserves some recognition on a site dedicated to heroes in exile.

With that said, Millar deserves a fair hearing, so here are the the relevant comments in their respective interviews.


From "World Without Heroes: Millar Talks Marvel '1985'":

"I think it's coming along at exactly the right time because right now superheroes are all fairly cynical and controversial. They're all fighting each other and have some unlikable traits," Millar continued. "And there's something very pure about this. It really reminds you of the comics of your childhood without being old fashioned. Because you're seeing them done in a whole new way it makes you remember why you love Marvel Comics. It's terrifying, but it's also heartwarming; quite an unusual change of pace for me."

From "Mark Millar Takes Marvel Back to 1985":

CB: I’m not sure if this is what you were looking for originally when you went into it, but one of the things I think will be most noticeable to readers when they see the pages is that this has a very silver-age superhero feel to it. Obviously with a title like "1985," it’s set in the year before comics really turned gritty with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (both published in 1986). In a lot of ways, 1985 is the last year of purely superhero comics. Did that influence your choice for the time and setting of this title?
MM: That’s a big part of why I chose the year 1985. If you look back at when I wrote Wanted, one of the themes was that the world changed in 1986. That’s when the super villains took over and the world becomes a very dark place. I kind of see it that way. '86 is also the end of my childhood. That’s when I turned sixteen, and it was the end of my comic book childhood in a way. Just like you said, that’s when Watchmen, Dark Knight, and all those matured content books came out.
I really wanted to create a book set in the slightly more innocent Marvel Universe of old. It's where heroes were absolute heroes, and the villains were creepy villains. That’s 1985. It’s the end of that nostalgic Marvel, for me certainly. There is something lovely about writing the heroes as they were when I was a kid. Captain America was Captain America. Spider-Man was Spider-Man back then. It was quite simple then.
And the characters haven’t changed that much in twenty years, but it felt like I was trying to capture the essence of those heroes as they were supposed to be.
CB: To build off your previous response, I'm going to play the devil's advocate here and say you know comic fans. They’re going to be on the message boards after reading this interview saying you are the guy that’s partially responsible for darkening the Marvel U. with Civil War. Is this a chance for you to go back and write these guys as heroes for the sake of being heroes?
MM: Well, absolutely!!! This somewhat stems off my launch last month in Fantastic Four. I very consciously started bringing my writing around to a lighter style. I think Civil War is as dark as Marvel Comics should ever get. The way I look at it, there’s no correct way to write or draw these characters. There are just certain times when it’s appropriate for them to be dark and periods when they should be light-hearted. I feel like we’ve just come out of a VERY dark period in comics, which was great! People have responded so well to the Ultimate line up until Civil War. In retrospect, I see Civil War as a turning point, and now I think people want to see our characters being heroes again. Clear cut heroes.
So 1985 is a response to that. I was writing it at the same time as Civil War, but I remember thinking "this is the next step", ya know? Likewise, Fantastic Four is very traditional as much as it is forward-looking. We’re moving the concept on, but it’s come back to being a traditional superhero comic. 1985 epitomizes everything I love about superheroes, everything I love about the Silver Age. Although it still has a lot of frightening moments, and it’s almost a horror story in a lot of ways, there’s superhero integrity to it that hopefully comes through. In many ways, I think this project is the complete opposite from what people expect from me.
B: And this just shows a different dynamic from you as a writer. It’s a different tone than what people normally expect from a book that has "Mark Millar" on the cover…
MM: Oh definitely. It's probably got all the little nuances and bits I bring with it, but I consciously moved this in a different direction. I’m trying to make people cry with this one as opposed to making them feel sick [laughs].

From "Mark Millar talks Wolverine, 1985, Kick-Ass"

IGN Comics: … Wow. See, that's interesting. I finished going through 1985 last night and noted that it in some ways doesn't feel like a Mark Millar book. Hearing that and recalling what's been going on in this series, it's clear you saved it all up for this. –laughs- I mean from some of the things you've told me…
Millar: -laughs- See I think it's good! You've got to exercise both sides of your brain. I really loved doing Superman Adventures. In a way it was the beginning of my career. But for 18 issues I couldn't even have the word "damn" or anything. Or anything horrible! So I loved doing the Authority and having babies exploding and everything. I love jumping between the two.
1985, for me, is kind of a Spielberg movie. It's The Goonies or a Zemeckis film – 1980s or Back to the Future or something. And Old Man Logan is Mad Max meets Unforgiven or something. Every day is exciting going to work when it's different. I've always been amazed with guys that use the same style all the time because even Fantastic Four I think has a different feel from Wolverine. It's more of a sci-fi… I don't want to say retro, but in a way how the Fantastic Four worked during the Kennedy era, I hope we've been able to imbue the book with same thing for the Obama era, something shiny and glossy, you know? So yeah I just love jumping around between genres.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

RED SON: Not an "Elseworlds" Tale

I was going to review Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, but then I saw this. Taken at BRAVE NEW WORLDS Comics in Philadelphia, PA, just blocks from Independence Hall, the Birthplace of Liberty...

It's out in the open, true believer..."Nuff said.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Crisis on Two Earths: A Documentary

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. A documentary of 2010 America where the Superfriends are the tyrannical Chicago-mob-styled villains and Lex Luthor is the freedom-fighter-what? It's not a documentary? Are you sure? Their "Earth-2" sounds an awful lot like our Earth...

Ya know, it's a lot easier just to say America's turned Fascist.

Anyway, great animation, dynamic action, fantastic sound design, humorous in the right places, well-done.

But America has still turned Fascist.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Quote of the Day: Paging Dr. Hendricks...

“I quit when medicine was placed under State control some years ago,” said Dr. Hendricks. “Do you know what it takes to perform a brain operation? Do you know the kind of skill it demands, and the years of passionate, merciless, excruciating devotion that go to acquire that skill? That was what I could not place at the disposal of men whose sole qualification to rule me was their capacity to spout the fraudulent generalities that got them elected to the privilege of enforcing their wishes at the point of a gun. I would not let them dictate the purpose for which my years of study had been spent, or the conditions of my work, or my choice of patients, or the amount of my reward. I observed that in all the discussions that preceded the enslavement of medicine, men discussed everything—except the desires of the doctors. Men considered only the ‘welfare’ of the patients, with no thought for those who were to provide it. That a doctor should have any right, desire or choice in the matter, was regarded as irrelevant selfishness; his is not to choose, they said, but ‘to serve.’ That a man who's willing to work under compulsion is too dangerous a brute to entrust with a job in the stockyards—never occurred to those who proposed to help the sick by making life impossible for the healthy. I have often wondered at the smugness at which people assert their right to enslave me, to control my work, to force my will, to violate my conscience, to stifle my mind—yet what is it they expect to depend on, when they lie on an operating table under my hands? Their moral code has taught them to believe that it is safe to rely on the virtue of their victims. Well, that is the virtue I have withdrawn. Let them discover the kind of doctors that their system will now produce. Let them discover, in the operating rooms and hospital wards, that it is not safe to place their lives in the hands of a man they have throttled. It is not safe, if he is the sort of man who resents it—and still less safe, if he is the sort who doesn’t.”
-- Ayn Rand, from Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957


Although there are more important things to do, I would be remiss if I didn't note how cool the trailer for Tron: Legacy looks; I've been waiting for an update for some time, and it's finally here...but look, it has to be said: if you give a damn about the future of this nation, the time for breads and circuses is over. Don't give up art and entertainment; it is your spiritual fuel to get through the real-life battles.

Eat, drink, and be merry...

Through the Looking Glass...

I was going to review Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. I was going to say that Tim Burton did a good job visually. I was going to say that storytelling-wise, he added a point to a meandering story, infused with with a archetypal "hero's journey," but one mixed with Victorian romanticism that falls victim to the reason-emotion dichotomy. I was going to quote from Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto, the rejection of reason by the "Byronic" romantics, and explain how the links between creativity and madness in Burton's film are best understood as a rejection of the "classicism" and "rationalism" of conventional thinking, and that Alice, in the end, fuses creativity with a pro-business mind.

That's what I was going to say. I'd love to elaborate, but you'll have to work with that and figure it out for yourselves, since America, with the passage of this god-damn health care bill, has fallen down it's own rabbit-hole to becoming a socialist nation where up is down, square is round, and freedom is slavery. There are more immediate villains to fight than red queens, knaves, and Jabberwockys.

This ain't chess, this is real. And I'm mad as a hatter right about now...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

KICK-ASS: The WATCHMEN of the Myspace Generation?

A sequel to Watchmen? No, Kick-Ass just seems to be the Watchmen of the Myspace generation...and about just as deep... If the movie poster isn't enough of a tip-off, consider this line from the introduction to the hardcover version, written Liefield:

"It used to be that you had to be grim and gritty in order to grab everyone's attention. Now you most definitely have to Kick-Ass."
Ya would be easier for me just to call it as it is: nihilistic trash. Still, an in-depth look does provide me with an opportunity to discuss a larger point, so let's have at it...

"My plan, actually, was to create a generation of superhero comics, the same way that Stan [Lee] did back in the 60s. He created a whole universe of characters entirely different from the DC stuff of the Thirties and Forties, and I wanted to do some now that were just as different again from that. And what I'm finding out, almost by accident, is that people want three-dimensional superheroes. Each generational shift is slightly more realistic and radical than the previous. So Dave Lizewski, the hero of Kick-Ass, follows that lineage, back through Peter Parker to Clark Kent." –Mark Millar

"Almost by accident?" Read Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto. If you get that far, you'll know that real heroes are nothing like the ones Millar claims to write, and, far from being some kind of innovator, Rand has his number long before he was even born.

But first, let's talk about the Watchmen connection. The common theme is the idea that if superheroes existed in the real world, they wouldn't be noble, but psycho and/or fascist. And throughout Kick-Ass is the motif that "this is why there are no superheroes," only villains and regular people, and that to even attempt to become a superhero is a path to destruction. Now, when Millar says "superheroes," you might think he means "super-powered heroes," and who'd argue? But no, he means "heroes." What emerges at the end of the story is not a underdog triumphant, but a transformation of the everyman into a monster.

As much as I disagree with Alan Moore and Watchmen's take on heroism, he is a thoughtful writer, and he does know his craft. Kick-Ass isn't even a good imitation of Watchmen. But I do have to comment on the irony that this is the legacy of Watchmen, a book originally intended to end the superhero drama. Even more ironic that Alan Moore has moved on and returned to writing some of the best damn comic books in years, including superhero books. As described in the Alan Moore biography by Lance Parkin, Moore had "created a revolution, then disowned it." He even speculates that Moore wrote Supreme as an "act of atonement" for "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?". What's the story here? Discussing Moore's Jack Kirby-inspired series 1963, Parkin says that it "seen by many critics as a retrograde step by the writer of From Hell," but that "[i]t's now clear that Moore was actually ahead of the curve":

"The pendulum was starting to swing back to allow the return of the more kitsch and camp elements into superhero stories. Writers and readers were starting to realize that whatever real-world elements were introduced, superheroes could never be truly 'realistic'. Comics like Flex Mentallo, Astro City, and Powers have come along, stressing how different a world with superheroes would be, rather than trying to imagine how they would operate in ours. Superhero comics have come to embrace the absurdities of their own internal logic, rather than trying to rationalize them. Superheroes are allowed to be entertaining, uplifting, and heroic, rather than 'dark' and 'gritty'."

Parkin's take is something of a back-handed compliment, but I agree with that last part wholeheartedly. What Millar doesn't get, what Watchmen doesn't get, and what the "grim and gritty" school never got, was that the issue is a battle between Naturalism and Romanticism, so let me take the moment to correct Parkin's passage with a better explanation from Ayn Rand. Rand wrote of this phenomenon in The Romantic Manifesto, and while she considered herself a "Romantic Realist," she defended genres (at their best) typically seen as "escapist," popular fiction such as sci-fi, mysteries, and Westerns, not for their vices, but for their virtues: "Philosophically, Romanticism is a crusade to glorify man's existence; psychologically, it is experienced simply as the desire to make life interesting...Detective, adventure, science-fiction novels and Westerns belong, for the most part, to the category of popular fiction...their emphasis is on action, but their heroes and villains are abstract projections, and a loosely generalized view of moral values, of a struggle between good and evil, motivates the action." She describes "thrillers" as a dramatized abstraction of the basic pattern of: choice, goal, conflict, danger, struggle, victory."

In other words, Romantic fiction presents life "not as it is, but as it might or ought to be":
"The Romanticist did not present a hero as a statistical average, but as an abstraction of man's best and highest potentiality, applicable to and achievable by all men, in various degrees, according to their individual choices...the Romanticists presented heroes as 'larger than life'; now, monsters are presented as 'larger than life'–or, rather, man is presented as 'smaller than life.'"
How else would you explain the difference between the scrawny heroes and mountainous villains of Kick-Ass?

One can say that
Millar is criticizing the genre cliche of "superpowers," but does it wash? Sure, David, at the end, claims a certain victory: "I'd reshaped the world the way I 'd always wanted it, and it doesn't get much better than this." But it's less a matter of what is said, and more of how it's said"; Millar's ending is an ironic juxtaposition for a "post-ironic" Watchmen-shaped world.

But even if I give
Millar the benefit of the doubt, why the ambiguity to begin with? Rand describes the phenomenon as "Bootleg Romanticism." Rand goes a step further, discussing the "parasites" of Romanticism, those who mock the genre and the attempts at heroism in favor of "realism." Rand was dissecting Watchmen and Kick-Ass decades before they were written. Where Parkin justifies the "uplifting" and "heroic" aspects of comics by their "kitsch and absurd" qualities, Rand calls such tongue-in-cheek thrillers cowardice
"What are such thrillers laughing at? At values, at man's struggles for values, at man's capacity to achieve his man the hero."

She describes how Hollywood bastardized James Bond, and how the creator of
The Avengers tv show got upset that the audience took the show seriously: "A heroes-seeking people is what they cannot admit into their view of the universe."

But superpowers are unrealistic, you say? While Rand was a "Romantic realist," she understood fantasy as a legitimate form of storytelling, when it served as an abstraction:
"An abstraction has to be 'larger than life'–to encompass any concretes that individual men may be concerned with, each according to the scale of his own values, goals and ambition. The scale varies; the psychological relationships involved remain the same. The obstacles confronting an average man are, to him, as formidable as Bond's adversaries; but what the image of Bond tells him is: 'It can be done.'"
And she exposes the true motivation behind cape-tugging: "Only an arrested-modern mentality would go on protesting that the events portrayed in a thriller are incredible or improbable, that there are no heroes, that 'life is not like that'–all of which is thoroughly irrelevant."
"Nobody takes thrillers literally, nor cares about their specific events, nor harbors any frustrated desire to become a secret agent or a private eye. Thrillers are taken symbolically; they dramatize one of man's widest and most crucial abstractions: the abstraction of moral conflict."
This, I submit (even though he may object), is why Moore disowned his Watchmen revolution to the world of superhero comics. "What people seek in thrillers is the spectacle of man's efficacy: of his ability to fight for his values and to achieve them. What they see is a condensed, simplified pattern, reduced to its essentials: a man fighting for a vital goal–overcoming one obstacle after another–facing terrible dangers and risks–persisting through an excruciating struggle–and winning. Far from suggesting an easy or "unrealistic" view of life, a thriller suggests the necessity of a difficult struggle; if the hero is "larger-than-life," so are the villains and the dangers."

After reading
Kick-Ass, I wish I could say I'm tempted to give Millar the benefit of the doubt, but I'm not, despite quotes from Millar that make me want to, such as "I'm honestly as happy writing Superman Adventures as I am writing Wanted," and, "Likewise, I see no shame in writing Captain America or Wolverine." But I have to ask, after reading Kick-Ass, "Why? So you can destroy it, spit all over it, and throw heroism to the gutter?" The "heroes" of Kick-Ass certainly do overcome one adversity after the other over larger-than-life odds, or, at least larger than their lives. But their heroism is never really defined, and you'd think that would be the first thing on the agenda for someone trying to radically change the superhero landscape. That might be too much for the Myspace generation, it would take more thought and concentration allowed than a Twitter message would allow, beyond the movie's tag-line of "Shut Up. Kick Ass." However it's defined, it's quickly undercut by the cynicism.

If art is a "selective recreation" of one's values, then Millar's choices show us what he truly values by de-emphasizing nobility and virtue while overemphasizing violence and gore. Yes, those things exist, they are real. But so what? Why does the gutter have to be the standard of what's "real?" There's still the issue of a superhero motivated not only by boredom but by an altruistic justification to "help others" to the point of self-sacrifice (pretty much literally; is he reimbursed for the medical bills incurred by the beatings and torture he receives? He's less of a hero and more of a masochist.) Can Millar throw off the Watchmen-influenced deconstruction and the emphasis on violence and profanity as "realism" to portray truly heroic characters? His future development of these characters will reveal whether or not he is sincere or a coward.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Carl Jung, Murderer of Heroes....

"But whom do people kill? They kill the noble, the brave, the heroes. They take aim at those who do not know that with these they mean themselves. They should sacrifice the hero in themselves and because they do not know this, they kill their courageous brother...If men kill their princes, they do so because they cannot kill their Gods, and because they do not know that they should kill their Gods in themselves."

-Carl Jung in The Red Book

Yeah, whatever, Carl. Talk about your false dichotomies...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

How to Score with Kristin Kreuk

Easy: Just start your name with a "C" and end with "ck." I mean, Kristin Kreuk on Smallville: Lana and Clark. Kristen Kreuk on Chuck: Hannah and Chuck. Lana, Hanna, Clark, Chuck...Is there a pattern here?

Monday, March 1, 2010

On Redemption and Puppies

I didn't have time to finish the movie tonight, but I watched the introduction to Batman/Superman: Public Enemies. So far I just have one "major" thought on the initial premise.

Lex Luthor comes to power as the United States President. It's a fairly easy concept to set up; I'm with the movie/comics so far. Luthor wants superheroes working along side the government instead of on their own and accountable to no one. It's certainly a valid logical debate that's been covered in such great stories as Squadron Supreme, Kingdom Come, Watchmen and most recently Marvel's Civil War. Luthor has personal reasons for this stance, but also logical ones that he can use as talking points. I'm still on board with the concept.

Luthor introduces his first recruits. The first, Powergirl (Superman's cousin), ties in to the Justice Society. Second is Black Lightning, one of the first major black superheroes who brought hope and heroism to the hopeless in Suicide Slum. Third is Captain Atom, a military man with an impeccable service record who consented to some extreme experimentation for the love of his nation. The final one introduced is Major Force. Major Force is a supervillain who is primarily remembered for being the inspiration behind the term women in refrigerators.

You lost me.

I'm sure this film can eventually get me back on board, but this is quite a bit to swallow. I'm all for seeing villains find redemption. The Black Widow turned against the totalitarian regime that trained her. And there's a laundry list of skilled thieves who turned heroic, once given the right motivation: the Black Cat, about half of the Flash's rogues gallery,
Catwoman, and even Plastic Man. And then you have characters like Magneto, who do some pretty despicable things based on a faulty premise, that are never more than one step away from real lasting redemption.

But then there's Major Force, primarily known for killing the (then) rookie Green Lantern Kyle Rayner's girlfriend Alexandra
DeWitt in a rather brutal fashion in cold blood.

With the examples I listed above, redemption is a total possibility. I think a good form of motivation for people like this would be a puppy. It's the kind of responsibility that would make a person think twice about putting themselves at risk in a way which would put the puppy at risk. Self-interest is the most important of human motivations, but sometimes it's hard to see that unless you have a good reference point.

Also, in the case of people drawn to acts of horror in service of their ideals, I doubt it would be as easy to do so if they had to look their little puppy in the eyes right before performing a major act of terrorism.

But I'm sad to say... Major Force does not deserve a puppy and he does not deserve to stand beside real heroes, whether it's a scam to dilute true heroism or not.