You know what I love? Junior Mints. I bought some at the store earlier, and right before I sat down to start pounding out me newest comics column, I cracked them suckers open and funneled 'em down my maw.
You know who else loves Junior Mints? This asshole right here:
That's Don King, and he loves Junior Mints, which explains why he is currently hopping up onto my desk and trying to get in my mouth to find all those minty round things. He knows where they've gone ... he just doesn't quite know how to get to them.
So if my blogging seems even more disjointed than usual, know that I'm having to fend off feline mint cravings every sixty seconds or so. It doesn't make for sustained blogging. On the plus side, it's cute as hell.
Let's dive into this week's comics, shall we? First up:
|American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares #1|
Last summer, Scott Snyder and Vertigo got very solid results with a miniseries spun off from American Vampire called Survival of the Fittest. This summer, they're shooting for similar success with a new spinoff miniseries, and if the first issue is any indication, they may have struck gold twice.
The setup: crusty old Agent Hobbes is visited by a mysterious guy who seems to want something Hobbes is not prepared to give. Soon, the London base for the Vassals of the Morning Star is under attack by unknown enemies, who are obviously intent on taking whatever it is they want.
By the end of the issue, you will know what it is that they want, and you will know why Hobbes and the Vassals do not want them to have it. It's a doozy, and I'm not going to spoil it here. Read it for your own self, fool!
The art on this series is by Dustin Nguyen, who does very solid work here. His style is similar enough to that of series regular Rafael Albuquerque that it does not distract at all. (By the way, in case I've never mentioned it here before . . . I always feel like a bit of a fool when I start trying to say why I like an artist's work. I can typically verbalize negatives, but positives? Not so much. It all ends up being some variation on "I like it 'cause it's purty." I hope to improve on this count someday, but, clearly, this ain't that day.)
I've said it before and I'll say it again: American Vampire is consistently one of the best comics out there. If you are even vaguely a fan of comics and horror fiction, you ought to be reading it.
I love Scott Snyder's work. I really do. And I've got to tell you, this month's Batman really doesn't do anything except increase that. It must feel like I sometimes, in these columns, spend a lot of time waxing Snyder's car. If so, all I can do is say that when and if Snyder writes something I don't like, I'll call him out on it. Want proof? Check out the previous installment of this column, wherein I spent some time being unenthusiastic about both Swamp Thing #10 and Batman Annual #1.
None of that this time out, no sir.
It all starts with that excellent cover, which strongly implies that somebody 'bout to get they ass whooped by Batman. And ass does indeed get whooped. Want to know whose?
Remember a few paragraphs back, when I resolutely stated that I absolutely would NOT spoil the ending of Lord of Nightmares #1 for you? Well ... there's just as big a spoiler in this issue of Batman, and I ain't revealing it, not no way, not no how. It's a whopper, though; it's what this entire "Court of Owls" storyline seems to have been building toward, and (barring any last-minute reversals in the story as it currently stands) it is inarguable that with this issue, Scott Snyder has left a permanent imprint on the entire Batman mythology.
Here's the question: is that a good thing?
I'd answer that it's too early to tell. Let's see how the rest of the story plays out, but for now, I think it could end up being a very good thing. One way or another, this is a good issue, with excellent art by Greg Capullo. It's real purty. The second page consists largely of a big angry-Batman face, which is kinda glorious.
Meanwhile, the backup story -- "The Fall of the House of Wayne" -- continues this issue, and some quality time is spent on fleshing out Martha Wayne as a character. It has resonance with some of the major revelations of the main storyline, so it's interesting, but on its own, I'm not sure it works all that well. The art -- by Albuquerque -- is good, but I'm a little confused as to what the final few panels are depicting exactly. Presumably, the next issue will clear that up, but it ended the issue on a bit of a down note for me.
Still, overall, this is is fine stuff. Snyder continues to deliver in his role as Batsmith. I'm not anxious for him to leave the book any time soon, but I would definitely love to see what he could do writing other notable characters one of these days.
|Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1|
I enjoyed the first issue of Before Watchmen, and it made me optimistic about the odds that the overall endeavor might end up being worthwhile. It's hard to base anything on one issue of a 36-issue series, though; it's hard to base much of anything on two issues, either, for that matter. However, I enjoyed the second issue just as much as the first; maybe even a little bit more. So my optimism continues.
Last week was The Minutemen #1, this week it's Silk Spectre #1.
One of the major concerns with a work like Before Watchmen is that, seeing as how it deals with characters whose traits are well-established already and whose character arcs are already defined, there isn't a heck of a lot that can be done to flesh those characters out, unless the writers commit the unforgivable sin of trying to change the very nature of the characters. You can get away with that if you're talking about a legacy character who has been written by dozens and dozens of other writers; if you're talking about characters who have been written only by Alan Moore, it's another matter.
Instead, writer Darwyn Cooke seems to have settled for the very agreeable stance of simply fleshing out the idea of what types of situations a defined character could conceivably find herself in. So, we know the Laurie Juspeczyk of Watchmen was a reluctant teenage crime-fighter with serious mommy issues, right? Right. Cooke doesn't seem to have any interest redefining that. Instead, in this issue, he decides to explore the idea of what it might have been like to be a teenager in 1966 whose mother is a semi-infamous retired costumed heroine. Might that cause boy problems? Might that cause peer problems? Might that cause self-image problems? Might that involve training with mother to fight crime for fame and money? Might that involve sneaking out at night, hitchhiking with hippies, and fistfights in malt shops?
It just might.
I thoroughly enjoyed this issue. Laurie is not one of my favorite characters from Watchmen, but I like her well enough, and this teenage version of her is intriguing and appealing. Her home life is screwed up, but not so badly that it makes you feel like Laurie would end up psychotic; broken inside, yes, but not psychotic. She jibes extremely well with the Laurie of Watchmen, and I'm looking forward to seeing where her portion of Before Watchmen leads.
The art here is by Amanda Conner. I've heard of Conner, but I'm not familiar with her work. It's excellent here, though. She seems to be very good at capturing emotion. She's also got a good sense of comedy; I especially like an ongoing gag where Conner reverts to an overtly cartoony style to illustrate unstated emotions Laurie is feeling (hatred for her mother, swooning romantic feelings for a boy, etc.). In some ways, that tone is ill-suited to a prequel to Watchmen, which is not exactly a laff-riot. However, it works well for the teenage version of Laurie, and it's also worth pointing out that while Watchmen may not have much in the way of comedy, many other Alan Moore works are frequently hilarious. Don't believe me? Might I suggest Top Ten or Tomorrow Stories?
As with last week's issue, we get a two-page installment of "The Curse of the Crimson Corsair," a pirate story by Len Wein and John Higgins. To be frank, I didn't get much out of the first installment; I didn't get much out of the second one, either. Maybe it's a slow burn.
Next week: Comedian #1. The series is two-for-two so far; let's hope the streak continues.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first three issues of Saucer Country, but this issue was not quite as good. It isn't bad; it just felt a bit like a transitional issue, one designed to put some of the players in position so that the story can begin to go in new directions.
The art by Ryan Kelly continues to be one of the best reasons to check the book out. The first page is a lovely little full-page depiction of a man punting a bunny as though it were a football. That may seem unpleasant, but if you've been reading the series, then you empathize with the punter. There are other quirky touches here and there, including malevolent bunnies, a guy punching an alien, an alien who appears to be about to perform some kung fu, ray guns, fetuses, derrieres, and urinals.
Not the best issue, but overall, still rather good.
Sunnydale San Francisco...
Overall, I've very much enjoyed these Joss Whedon-sanctioned continuations of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On occasion, however, I feel like they don't quite manage to come together.
This is one of those occasions.
In fact, it's been one of those occasions for the past three issues or so. The big villain of these issues has been a rogue Slayer named Simone, and, like, I guess I'm supposed to remember who she is and why she's important, but I totally do not. Is this because the writers are assuming too much, or is it because I am too forgetful a reader? I'll let you be the judge of that. Either way, it results in me not much caring about these issues. Conversely, this year's season finale of Mad Men featured a cameo appearance by a character who appeared in, like, two scenes in one episode four seasons ago; and yet despite the lack of screen time, the cameo was highly effective. Maybe I watch television better than I read comics; I dunno.
I was also not overly pleased by the fact that the plot of this issue involved Spike's crew of sentient bugs went into attack mode and were mostly slaughtered. Much "comedy" was made shouting their names -- "Sebastian!" -- as they get picked off, and I'll admit to chuckling, but this doesn't feel much like the route Joss Whedon would have taken. He's be more prone to set the bugs up as comedic relief, and then rip our hearts out by having them get killed. Here, them getting killed IS the comedy, and that seems like a totally wrong move to me. The issue also seems to bring a recent major plotline to an end for two characters, and yet there is zero resolution of any kind for one of them; that, too, feels like totally the wrong move.
Not this comic's finest hour.
I've been enjoying the tales of Miles Morales, the new Spider-Man in Marvel's Ultimate universe. I was, however, highly skeptical when Marvel announced there would be a crossover between Miles and the original Peter Parker (i.e., the Spider-Man in the main Marvel universe).
With Brian Michael Bendis at the helm, though, it seemed like it had potential, and sure enough, the first issue is fairly good. However, it is mostly about setting up the mechanics of how the crossover can happen, and given that the series is only five issues, it seems like a lot of wheel-spinning happened here. Roughly a fifth of the length of the series being devoted to the setup is not a particularly encouraging sign.
Also not encouraging: the fact that I have no idea when this thing takes place chronologically. Not in terms of either universe. Will that be addressed? Probably. Does it matter? Maybe; maybe not.
Still, I enjoyed the issue. Bendis is simply gifted as a writer of Spider-Man, and of Peter Parker; his dialogue is the best reason to read this issue.
I'm onboard for the rest of the series; I just hope it is a bit more efficient than the beginning indicates.
Let's move on now to a brief review of one of the summer's most-anticipated new movies, Prometheus. I'm going to try to not delve too deeply into spoiler territory, but I'm also not going to make any promises on that count.
"I think of it as Lovecraft in outer space, mankind finally going to the Elder Gods rather than they coming to us."
That's Stephen King writing about Alien (and also proving himself to be oddly prescient in terms of what Prometheus is) way back in 1981, in his excellent Danse Macabre. He named Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi flick as one of the twenty scariest movies of all time, and while the intervening decades may have robbed Alien of some of its visceral punch, it certainly has cast a long shadow over the subgenre of sci-fi horror. It also, of course, spawned a series of sequels, including Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien Resurrection, plus two mashups, Aliens Vs. Predator and Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem. Of all of those, it can arguably be said that only Aliens is a worthy successor.
So, it was relatively exciting news when Ridley Scott announced he would be returning to the universe for a prequel, which ended up being titled Prometheus and seemed to promise to explore the origins of the aliens themselves, or at least of the crashed ship where they are discovered in the first movie.
In interviews, however, Scott was careful to specify that Prometheus was not really a prequel to Alien, that while the two had similarities -- they "shared DNA," he said -- they were not necessarily linked. And thus began a campaign of obfuscation that probably ought to have been a warning sign, even to those of us who were completely bowled over by the trailers.
Prometheus is an odd movie. I've seen it three times now, and I can say with no hesitation that I enjoyed it all three times. I can also say with only mild hesitation that it is a bad movie. I can, simultaneously, also say with only mild hesitation that it is a great movie.
If I seem to be contradicting myself, well, all I can say is that I have very complex and contradictory feelings about the movie. Hence me saying it is odd.
Let's deal with some of the negatives first. The biggest negative here is the screenplay. It is, to be frank, awful. It is b-movie-level at best, but that may be overly kind. The screenplay to Alien was trumpeted as a b-movie chiller, but the writers at least had the sense to restrict their ambitions; they were interested only in applying sci-fi concepts to a traditional haunted-house scenario. They succeeded admirably, and Ridley Scott's handling of H.R. Giger's (and Ron Cobb's) designs elevated the material into a different level of quality.
Here, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof have loftier ambitions: they (presumably at Scott's behest) want to do no less than deliver a treatise on the nature of life itself, and also want to mix in a complex meditation on notions of faith. Nothing wrong with any of that, except that they fail to do so in a meaningful way. BOY do they fail. Nothing in this movie makes sense. Questions are asked; answers are not necessarily given, but it seems to be the case that answers are intentionally not given, because it's the very process of asking questions that seems to be motivating Scott's interest in the movie. This is not entirely inappropriate: after all, Alien itself begs more questions than it answers, but in that film, mystery is allowed to tantalize. This film doesn't seem to realize that there is a major difference between a mystery and an unanswered question; they are similar, but distinct, concepts -- a mystery is a question we don't have the vocabulary to ask, and can therefore not answer for ourselves. An unanswered question is something that is being purposefully withheld from us.
Some of this movie's proponents will insist that we are not meant to have all the answers, and that's fine for them to think. However, the movie has massive failings that cannot currently be explained away. (I say "currently," because I hold out hope that the inevitable extended cut will address some of my concerns. This is likely false hope.)
Example: the title of the movie comes from a space ship that is sent by its owner on a scientific expedition to find the origins of life on Earth. Now, let's pay attention to that for a second: this is a scientific expedition. Furthermore, it is funded by a business tycoon who is evidently so wealthy that he may as well have been named Stevebill Jobsgates. This man, Charles Weyland, was wealthy to a level that he could likely afford to permanently hire the best individuals in any field.
Given that, the quality of crew that the Prometheus has is shockingly poor. If this were somehow part of the narrative, it would be one thing; it is not part of the narrative. I suspect that Scott and his writers wanted to replicate the colorful cast of blue-collar characters who helped make Alien and Aliens so vibrant. Wanting to replicate Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton and Bill Paxton is not a bad impulse, so I sympathize. However, in Alien the crew were space truckers, and in Aliens the crew was space Marines; here, the crew are scientists, people who are presumably at the absolute peak of their professions. And yet, none of them behave like scientists. They behave like idiots.
Example: a biologist, who has been in hypersleep for over two years and has flown to another solar system, ends up on the surface of an alien planet, and finds himself a member of an expedition that discovers a 2000-year-old alien corpse. This is, hands down, the most important discovery in the entire history of biology. What does he do? He decides to go back to the ship with one of the other scientists, a geologist who gets a little freaked out by the whole thing.
What happens then? The biologist and the geologist get lost on the way back to the ship. They soon find themselves confronting what amount to an alien cobra, which is all white and menacing looking. The biologist is all of a sudden interested, and begins treating the space cobra like it is a lolcat, talking to it and trying to pet it and whatnot. Things go poorly for this character from that point forward.
Here, you have multiple levels in incredibly bad writing. First, it makes no sense for a biologist to freak out over an alien corpse; he ought to be fascinated, and it was THAT which got him in trouble, it's be fine. Instead, he is freaked when the screenplay needs him to be freaked, and fascinated when it needs him to be fascinated; the two scenes simply cannot be reconciled.
There is a two-part plot twist at the top of the third act which makes just as little sense. In both cases, the plot twists involve information that is being withheld from both us and the crew of the ship. However, upon examination, it makes zero sense for the info to be withheld from the crew; the info is only withheld from them so that it can be used to surprise the viewers.
The screenplay also has a remarkably lame approach to the idea of faith. In an early scene, two scientists -- anthropologists, I assume -- discover a cave painting that seemingly depicts an alien pointing toward a far-flung star system. Similar cave paintings have been found elsewhere in the world. "I think they want us to come and find them," says one scientist to the other. This is a leap in logic that is so broad that it is almost admirable. Later, another character calls her out on it; "it's what I choose to believe," she says, echoing a dream sequence in which her father tells her that Heaven is what he chooses to believe in in terms of where people go when they die.
You don't choose to believe something. You either believe it or you don't; you can choose to act as though you believe something, but you cannot choose to believe. Choosing to believe implies an attitude along the lines of "Well, gosh, I kinda think that whole God thing may be a bunch of crap, but I'm gonna just play along with it anyways." God is not fooled by that, methinks.
The scientist who is saddled with this viewpoint wears a cross. She encounters evidence that implies quite strongly that the Bible is full of crap, and yet at no point does this seem to bother her, or sway her from her beliefs. If Ridley Scott wanted to imply that he thinks Christians are lunatics, then I have to congratulate him on a job well done. However, I think he wants us to think that Dr. Shaw's faith is a positive attribute, and since it makes her do some awfully odd things here, I can't find myself agreeing.
And yet ... after all, the movie IS titled Prometheus. Prometheus tried to bring fire to mankind, and was severely punished for it; his is a tale of the cost of arrogance in the face of the infinite. With that in mind, it is not inappropriate to look down the nose at the seekers of knowledge in this movie. You want to know God?, the movie asks; well, what if God doesn't want to know you? I have no problem with that idea; it's just that the message would be SO much more effective if the knowledge-seekers were competent. They are not, and their incompetence weakens the movie badly.
Now, all that said, the movie nevertheless has a lot to recommend. For one thing, the movie is consistently entertaining; even the poorly-written scenes involving the biologist and the geologist are well-made and entertaining, provided you can force yourself not to focus on how illogical they are. In other words, if you check your brain at the door, you may have a great time. (Although for a movie that wants you to ask Big Existential Questions, you ought to be alarmed by the suggestion that you would also need to check your brain at the door; these things do not go together.)
More importantly, Ridley Scott has always been more adept at creating striking visuals than he has at telling a good story, and his visuals here are nothing short of awesome.
The movie begins with a thrillingly beautiful prologue in which an alien -- Engineers, Dr. Shaw nicknames them (they engineered us) -- does ... something. It's not entirely clear what he does, exactly. Actually, that's not true: it is totally clear that he takes off his robe, drinks something out of a cup, breaks down at a molecular level, falls into the water, and dies. The actions are totally clear; it's the import of those actions that is ambiguous. Hell, we don't even know for sure that he is on Earth. Might be, might not be. Visually, it is a striking sequence, yet because of the fact that the screenplay wants to keep us guessing, we don't know what the hell it all means; even by the end of the movie, we can't be sure; we can only form our pet theories and either choose to believe in them or not. (This is another possibly-unintentional suggestion that the Bible is nothing more than fanfic.)
From there, we get gorgeous shots of outer space, beautiful design work, exceptional 3D, some excellent horror imagery ... in terms of the movie's look, there is scarcely a misstep. And some of it became instantly iconic. There is a scene in a mapping room that is among my new favorite scenes in all of filmed science fiction. A massive storm that has silicon hail is also awfully impressive. And so forth.
Visually, the movie is absolutely gorgeous, and because of that, it simply cannot -- and should not -- be written off. After all, a movie IS more than a narrative, and even a failed narrative like this one can result in genuinely beautiful imagery.
I would also say that most of the acting is quite good. For example:
Here's Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo, playing Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. Shaw is a lousy character, but let's not blame Rapace for that; she does the best she can. In the above shot, she is playing the character after the shit has hit the fan, and Rapace is especially good in those scenes.
Michael Fassbender plays David, an android who is a bit like Spock if Spock could not be trusted to not be a total dick once in a while. On the whole, David is probably the most successful character in the movie, although even he is saddled with some major inconsistencies. Fassbender is terrific in the role, though, especially in an extended scene toward the beginning in which he walks around the ship while everyone else is in hypersleep. Frankly, I could have watched that for a entire movie. He watches Lawrence of Arabia and does a spot-on Peter O'Toole imitation; he plays basketball; he rides a bike; he takes language lessons. On its own, that sequence is a marvel, and again, for reasons like that, this movie simply cannot be totally written off.
Here's Charlize Theron, playing Vickers. Vickers is the on-board executive from the Weyland Corporation, the company that funded the expedition. In short, she is everyone's boss. As you know, business types have not exactly been role models in the Alien series: in the first film, "The Company" issued orders that the entire crew was expendable; in the second, Burke is more than happy to sacrifice first an entire colony, and anyone else he needs to; and every other film in the series (Requiem being a possible exception) has some equivalent of this plotline. With that in mind, you just know Vickers has some sort of secret agenda. In one of the film's worst scenes, a scientist actually asks her if she has agenda she isn't telling the scientists about; it's one of the worst bits of dialogue I've heard in recent memory, and while I'll admit the possibility that it is supposed to offer up a knowing laugh for the audience, if that is the case it failed totally in execution. And yet, Theron is so smarmy in her response that the scene comes close to working. Theron does good work generally, in fact, and this despite the fact that her character is almost literally pointless. But, again, this is not the actor's fault, so don't blame her for it.
Here's Idris Elba, playing the captain of the ship. He's a contentious fellow, in a loveable sort of way, provided you aren't Meredith Vickers. Does it make sense that Vickers would hire someone she seems to loathe? Not really, no. Does it make sense to hire Idris Elba, a Brit, to do a redneck accent, given that the character's nationality is utterly irrelevant? Not really, no. It's double sneseless given how shitty Elba's accent is. Otherwise, however, he's rather good; charismatic, funny, heroic.
I also quite liked the music (by Marc Streitenfeld and Harry Gregson-Williams), although others have found it insufferable. The cinematography is good; the production design is top notch; the visual effects are as good as visual effects are currently capable of being; the sound is excellent. As a technical achievement, this is top-of-the-line stuff.
Let's wrap things up by talking about the movie in terms of how it works as a part of the Alien series. Ridley Scott is on the record as saying this isn't really a prequel to Alien, but that's a load of horseshit; OF COURSE IT IS. It's got xenomorphs (sorta), face huggers (sorta), crescent-shaped spaceships, a company named "Weyland," a distress beacon, a space jockey, an android, an incredible basketball shot that is seemingly a shout-out to Alien Resurrection ... hell, the designation of the planet even begins with "LV." This, of course, is a reference to the designation for the planet in the original film, which we are told (in Aliens) is "LV-426." Here, oddly, it is LV-223. Meaning that this is not actually the same planet (and yes, I do know it is a moon rather than a planet), which means that we are not dealing with the same ship (or the same space jockey, or the same distress beacon) as in Alien. Hence, presumably, Scott's insistence that this is not a prequel to Alien.
But why, from a storytelling standpoint, would you make that decision? Why make a prequel that is not a prequel? And if you are determined to do so, why not put more distance between the two than is the case here? Very, very odd decisions were made in conceptualizing this film. It is theoretically possible that Scott intends a potential sequel to address these concerns; it is just as likely that he intends the sequel to go even farther in a different direction.
So, on the one hand, Prometheus offers up a relatively satisfactory explanation for who and what the space jockey in Alien is, and he also offers up a satisfactory explanation for what the alien in that movie is. On the other hand, there are certain aspects of the life-cycle of that alien that don't seem to make complete sense when viewed in the light of the first couple of films in the series. It's a very strange case; the film both works and fails as a prequel, in ways that I can't get into without being spoilery.
My final verdict: Prometheus is perhaps the new Best Example Ever of the idea of the "interesting failure," or the "flawed masterpiece." The technical savvy is genuinely awesome. However, the story itself is exceptionally poor; the project seems to have begun with solid ideas, which were then poorly developed and ended up resulting in a near-complete failure of concept. How disappointing this is; with a solid screenplay, the movie would have been an instant classic.
(Final note: the screenplay was co-written by Damon Lindelof, one of the two main writers on Lost. I was thoroughly disappointed by the final season of that series, which utterly failed to answer most of the questions the series had posed, and also failed to come to a compelling resolution. I'd been wondering if maybe I'd been too hard on the final season of that show. Well, since this movie has many of the same story problems, I now feel certain that I was actually too kind. In retrospect, the final season of Lost now begins to seem even worse than it seemed originally. All that way for a glowing cave? Nope, sorry, Damon; you've lost me.)