Monday, March 19, 2007

The Authority lurches on, ever so slowly, ever so infrequently

If this review seems a bit late, a bit short, or a bit lackluster, it's probably because the slow and cautious deliberation with which the Authority is building – combined, of course, with the nearly half-year break between issues 1 and 2 – makes it hard to write with glowing admiration about what the comic does well. It takes some degree of sustained excitement or interest on the part of the reader to sell a slow and subtle narrative progression over the course of multiple introductory issues. And as much as I liked the somewhat baffling and mysterious first issue, I need more than this.

This said, what the issue does do, it does well. Morrison lets us know that, first issue aside, this is still very much the Authority of Ellis and Millar. The team is torn between its ostensible mission to save the world from itself, Midnighter is poised to do some entirely unnecessary damage, and the feature character from the first issue, Ken, is left wondering whether the Authority might actually be ignorant to the fact that they’re actually super-villains. Some spot-on stuff, the last of which has often been addressed but never to my satisfaction, and so I look forward to Morrison’s attempt to answer it.

Also to Morrison's credit, we learn in this issue that he has indeed moved the Authority to 'our' Earth – and proves as much with a so-cute-it's-groan-worthy moment in which Jack and the Doctor steal copies of Ellis’ and Millar’s runs in trade format. (Is it fair to guess that he'll ignore the forgettable stuff that was published in between? My guess is 'yes'.) The decision is a good one, to my mind. While there was a certain sameness for me in Ennis' Midnighter series – how many times can we see him beat up homophobic footsoldiers before it just gets monotonous? – the closing scene here, in which he lines up against 'real' American soldiers in the 'real' Afghanistan, has reacquired the sense of wonder and dread that a team of superhumans capable of conquering the planet should inspire.

(A brief aside: I've read elsewhere that this is an indication of increasing verisimilitude in comics, but I'm hesitant to agree. Am I right, perhaps, to guess the opposite? Given that this first encounter between the Authority and the American armed forces is occurring on an Afghan plain, could there be a 'desert of the Real' joke in here somewhere? Or am I only even noticing this because Jean Baudrillard died a week ago?)

I just wish that it wasn't building so slowly and the issues weren't so infrequent - either would be totally forgivable if it weren't for the other. The issue centers around one room and two conversations with brief interruptions, and is hardly going to win over the people who complained that nothing happened in the first issue. Maybe this will be a better read in trade format. Not that you should wait that long if you care - at this rate, it should arrive in, what, late 2009?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Children of Men, from affect to allegory...

I saw Cuaron's 'Children of Men' back when it was released in January, but find myself appreciating it more on reflection - but for completely different reasons, interestingly enough.

Briefly, 'Children of Men' takes place in a world where no human baby has been born for decades, and so the pressure to locate the source of the problem and its cure has led to widespread hopelessness, anarchy, and the partitioning of Britain - our setting - from the anyone that would seek to enter it and disturb their precarious balance. The movie's selling feature is, of course, the unbelievable cinematography. While it seems the apocryphal claim that several long sequences were done in one continuous take was pure myth or outright deception, the hand-cam-wielding pseudo-documentary shots are impressively visceral - even in an industry where this is becoming increasingly common. From Wikipedia:

It took fourteen days to prepare for the single take where Clive Owen's character searches a building under attack, and five hours for every time they wanted to retake it. The take ended with blood splattered onto the lens, which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki
convinced the director to leave for the final cut.

In the Bexhill refugee camp - where the shot that this quote specifically refers to occurred - the movie reaches perhaps its highest and most disturbing point of simulacra. Where the movie had been a dystopian possible-future and so somewhat distanced, it now resembles something all-too familiar: civil war footage from Afghanistan, Iraq, or the former Yugoslavia. The hand-cam effect also manages to more or less 'embed' us in the action - the screen rumbles and bobs up and down as the camera chases Clive Owen's Theo through the streets and ducks behind walls.

This sort of affect is hardly unique to "Children of Men", though. What brings the film into relief, for me, is the subtle ways in which it rewrites one of England's most foundational myths - King Arthur. This is most obvious at the end of the film, where a dying Theo and Kee - the world's first pregnant woman in decades and a black refugee in a country that has an aversion to both - escape England in the hope that they'll be found by members of The Human Project. (I'd also add that Clive Owen has played King Arthur in the past. Though I can't imagine that he was cast for that reason, it's a wonderful and nonetheless meaningful coincidence.) Appropriately, the Human Project is an entirely speculative organization that, like the mysterious Avalon, may or may not exist and purportedly operates a utopian community from an island somewhere off the coast.

Though this final scene recalls the slain Arthur being cast into the mists of Avalon upon his death so that he might be healed and returned to England in a future time of need, there is a subversive twist to this iteration of the myth. As this is not a myth, we know that Theo/Arthur will not be returning. Instead, Kee's baby - who she has told Theo will be named after Theo's dead son and so maintains some connection to the metaphorically Arthurian line - will be the one to grow up in our pseudo-Avalon and eventually return home. In a way, this is a more faithful interpretation of the Arthurian legend than most; it's generally agreed that Arthur was of Roman birth or decent, and so he himself was a foreign conqueror. It takes a particularly good film to tap that kind of hope and anxiety simultaneously.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Marvel Civil War Wrap-Up...

“I'd like to comment on the Morrison X-Men, but I disliked it. A lot.
Heck, I used to think I hated it. Then Civil War taught me what real hate was...”

-a blogger

Maybe hate is overstating it, but I think that the final issue of Civil War (Did I say final issue? As if this series told a complete, beginning-middle-end styled story? Ha!) filled me with an overwhelming sense of ennui – pure, stupefying boredom. And reinforced my distaste for “Big Event Comics” of all sorts. Civil War, of course, was marketed as the self-contained focal point of a much larger Marvel Universe “Event”, and Quesada claimed long ago that “you don't have to read anything but the CW main series to get the whole story.” This isn’t actually the case, of course.

For one, you had to read or read about a whole lot more than this mini in order to understand what was developing and why. Without the supplements, the Civil War series itself was nothing more than a really long super-fight in the vein of The Infinity Gauntlet, where the composition of each team seems arbitrary, motivations are almost totally absent, and non-fighting sequences are just filler between the widescreen, big-budget battles. (Which, mind you, Steve McNiven manages to lay-out and detail with impeccable skill.) Meanwhile, the explanations – like, as to why is Captain Marvel alive again – come via other mini-series and ongoing titles.

For two, I fail to see a “whole story” anywhere in this series. Certainly, this issue offers very little in the way of closure – though Cap has been captured, some of his group continue to oppose Tony Stark’s new world order. The legislation remains in place, as it was at the start, but it’s still resisted, as it was at the start. We shouldn’t be surprised, though, I suppose. Just as Civil War was spun from the threads of Big Event Comics House of M, Decimation, and Disassembled, it’s also the jumping-off point for more Big Event Comics like World War Hulk. It seems that Marvel and DC are fast at work in creating a state of perpetual Big Event Comics, and the whole story will always be just another massive crossover and mini-series away. (This, not coincidentally, is why the only Marvel and DC comics I regularly buy tend to be wholly disconnected from crossovers and their influence.)

And for a third, I don’t see where they could possibly be going with this. Tony Stark has become Adrian Veidt, near as I can tell, but without any sense of irony or literary purpose. Veidt’s decision to murder millions because it might save billions situated him structurally as the villain of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but a villain with scrupulous ethics and who remained an enigma. Importantly, the story ends at the moment where Veidt would become its hero and his intentions and feelings would need to be revealed to us – perhaps because the substitution of villain for hero is an uncomfortable or too complicated one, or perhaps because Moore was attempting to tell the superhero story to end all superhero stories and it should appropriately have an ending. There will be no ending here, though – and it’s unlikely that Tony Stark will become the cold, even villainous, logician that Veidt was, especially with a film coming in the near future.

As a single comic, taken in isolation, Civil War #7 reads like the final five minutes of a World Championship Wrestling pay-per-view event from 1998. The nWo’s Hollywood Hogan and WCW’s Sting square off in the middle of the ring while nWo-ers The Outsiders fight the WCW’s Steiner Brothers at ringside. Someone throws a chair into the ring and it becomes clear that all bets are off. Another wrestler emerges from the crowd and joins the fray. And then another runs in from the dressing room to fight him. From now until the end of the show, a steady stream of bodies appears from nowhere to join in the melee, the audience and announcers screaming ever louder with every additional wrestler until, eventually, every single man on the roster is duke-ing it out somewhere in the arena. And then they cut to the credits and the show’s over with no clear resolution. Only we know that it’ll begin again the day. Maybe Sting will be in a wheelchair and cursing his loss, but we know that he’ll get out of it again. Maybe Hogan will have been promoted to president of the company, but we know that it’s only a matter of time before he’s toppled. Maybe it’ll happen at the next pay-per-view – which, conveniently, the announcers plug right before your feed cuts out.

But, then, I stopped watching wrestling a long time ago.