Tag Archives: Batman

B is for “Bad” Bob Booth and Beeny

Cover to Prog 1517Robert L. Booth – aka “Bad” Bob Booth – is, in Dredd continuity, the last president of the United States of America. Following a disastrous global nuclear war, he was overthrown by the Supreme Court, which invoked the Declaration of Independence:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Booth is not executed but, rather, held in suspended animation, which is how he manages to be not just a key historical figure but, eventually, a key antagonist.

Booth has only appeared three times in the series, once in a flashback (The Hunting Party: Fog on the Eerie, progs 1037–1040, 1997). His first appearance was in the Cursed Earth (progs 61-85, 1978), the first bona fide Judge Dredd epic. Written by Dredd’s first editor, Pat Mills, the Cursed Earth is important in several respects, not least of all because it established a number of aspects about the strip’s pre-history which have gone on to become central to numerous stories ever since.

Although Booth’s shadow falls across the entirety of the Cursed Earth (after all, the nuclear wasteland it is set in was created as a direct result of Booth’s policies and actions, and it concludes with Dredd fighting off Booth’s robot army), he only appears fleetingly. Kept in suspended animation in Fort Knox, the life support system has begun to malfunction and the robots in charge of ensuring he survive start preying on the local populace to keep him alive. Discovering this, Dredd decides to revive Booth and put him to work for the townsfolk.

At the time the Cursed Earth was published, both Dredd’s creators had an ambivalent relationship to the strip. Although John Wagner was still writing the strip, both he and Carlos Ezquerra were focused on making Strontium Dog a success for 2000AD’s short-lived sister publication Starlord. It is a tribute therefore to Pat Mills that, 30 years later, they both came up with Origins (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535, 2006-2007). In many ways Origins is a direct sequel to the Cursed Earth, filling in the history (from Dredd’s personal perspective) and also set in the nuclear wasteland that is all that is left of central North America. And of course this is where Bob Booth makes his second significant appearance.

Origins revolves around the revelation that the body of former Chief Judge Fargo, the founder of the Judicial system and Dredd’s clone-father, has been found in the Cursed Earth and is being held for ransom. Unknown to all but a few, Fargo had not died in 2051, but had in fact been kept alive and kept in suspended animation. With the possibility that Fargo is still alive, Dredd is given the task of recovering him and, over the course of the story, reveals to his team of Judges the secret history of the Justice Department. Eventually it emerges that the body is in the possession of Booth himself, who is revealed as the leader of the New Mutants Army, a growing force in the Cursed Earth. Dredd defeats Booth, destroys the army and recovers Fargo.

It is interesting to note how the portrayal of Booth changes between the two series. While it is not spelt out, it is implied in the Cursed Earth that Booth is something of an incompetent. When he appears, he rather resembles Jimmy Carter (Carter himself appears in the Cursed Earth rather improbably as one of the faces on Mount Rushmore). By contrast, the portrayal of Booth in Origins borrows more than a little from George W. Bush.

Cadet BeenyIt is highly appropriate to write about Judge America Beeny in the same article as Bob Booth because in many respects the two characters neatly summarise the past and future of the Dredd strip. As you will know from reading my entry for A, Beeny is the daughter of America Jura and Bennett Beeny. First appearing in America II: Fading of the Light (Judge Dredd Megazine vol 3, 20-25, 1996) as a small child, that story concludes discordantly with her father dead and her being inducted into the Academy of Law.

Skip forward 10 years and Beeny reappears in America III: Cadet (JDM 250-252, 2006). Dredd tests her ability and commitment to the Justice Department by assessing her investigation into her father’s death. She passes the test and impresses Dredd sufficiently that after graduating from the Academy, she becomes a core member of the Dredd supporting cast and one of his most trusted colleagues.

How are Beeny and Booth connected? Well, Booth is quite literally the justification for the Judicial system which Dredd has sworn to uphold. The America stories which comprise Beeny’s origin represent a refutation of that system, explaining how the system works against the interests of ordinary citizens. Beeny herself is a reformer, but is committed to working within the system.

Dredd himself has flirted with the idea of reform himself. In the past, he has become so disillusioned with the system that he actually resigned and took the Long Walk (a self-imposed exile into the Cursed Earth), which eventually leads to the Necropolis storyline (progs 674–699) and a referendum on whether or not to restore democracy (democracy loses). Origins, in which Dredd discovers he has mutant relatives and is told by a dying Fargo that the system has failed, forces him to again re-evaluate his position. In this he finds a core ally in Beeny, another exile (this time not self-imposed) and the events which lead to the Tour of Duty storyline (progs 1650 – 1693, 2009-2010).

Without wanting to go into too much detail at this stage, in summary, Origins marks the end of an era for the Dredd strip. Ever since then, Wagner has been slowly but surely picking the world he created apart. The apex of this thus far has been the recent Day of Chaos storyline (progs 1743–1789, 2011-2012) in which the vast majority of the city’s population has been wiped out and the judges’ reputation is in tatters. Beeny represents the generation of judges that will inherit this brave new world. Left distraught at the end of Day of Chaos, I get the impression her story is not over yet.

Highlights – President Booth:

  • The Cursed Earth (progs 61-85, 1978). Reprinted in the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files Volume 2.
  • Origins (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535, 2006-2007). Reprinted in Judge Dredd: Origins.

Highlights – Judge Beeny:

  • America III: Cadet (JDM 250-252, 2006). Reprinted in Judge Dredd: America.
  • Tour of Duty (progs 1650 – 1693, 2009-2010). Reprinted in Judge Dredd: Tour of Duty – Backlash and Judge Dredd: Tour of Duty – Mega City Justice.
  • Day of Chaos (progs 1743–1789, 2011-2012). Not yet reprinted.

B is also for…

Banzai Battalion
A team of tiny gardening robots who talk and act as if they are in a World War II film who end up foiling a number of crimes and being recruited by the Justice Department.

There have been four Judge Dredd – Batman crossovers to date, the most critically acclaimed of which was the first, Judgement on Gotham (1991), written by John Wagner and Alan Grant and illustrated by Simon Bisley, in which Judge Death escapes to the DC Universe, teams up with the Scarecrow, and Dredd, Anderson and Batman work together to stop them. A sequel, Die Laughing (1998) – in which the Dark Judges team up with the Joker – was commissioned to coincide with the release of the Judge Dredd motion picture but original artist Glenn Fabry ended up taking so long to paint the story that The Ultimate Riddle (1995) was commissioned to fill the gap. Featuring the Riddler, it also coincided with the release of the film Batman Forever (in which Jim Carrey played the Riddler).

A personal favourite however is Vengeance on Gotham (1993), which featured Batman villain The Ventriloquist, originally created by Wagner and Grant.

Oola Blint
A mass murderer, also known as the “Angel of Mercy” who would go door to door euthanising her unwilling neighbours. She was a recurring character in the late 90s and early 00s.

Dark Knight Rises: the threequel we needed but not the threequel we deserved (SPOILERS)

Let me begin by saying that, on balance, I quite liked the Dark Knight Rises. Overall, I think it stands up and has something interesting to say. I don’t agree with its politics (which are not that coherent in any case as I will explore), but you have to be fairly insecure in your views to not like a film simply because you don’t agree with the ideology behind it. A well executed film has a point of view, even if that point of view is tosh. The Dark Knight Rises certainly has one, which is better than most Batman stories which simply glide over the pro-capitalist, authoritarian wish-fulfilment which is at the core of the character.

As a geek, the film was also fun in terms of spotting all the references. One of the most fun aspects of the Nolan Batman films is spotting all the references and nods to some of the best strips we’ve had over the years. Batman Begins mashes up Year One with Ra’s al Ghul lore and some of the Long Halloween; The Dark Knight has a lot in common with Dark Victory (especially the fall of Harvey Dent), but with lots of nods to The Killing Joke and the other better Joker stories. The Dark Knight Rises, of course, is a mash up of Knightfall and The Dark Knight Returns. But for me, the nods I most enjoyed were references to lesser known bits of the canon such as the underrated No Man’s Land and Year Three (the bit when Blake declares he as always known about Bruce Wayne being Batman is clearly a nod to the revelation by Timothy Drake, the Robin he most closely resembles in terms of temperament).

Threequels which satisfyingly tie up the series are a distinct rarity (yes Spider-Man 3, I’m looking at you), so the fact that this film manages to take the series back to the beginning, as well as satisfyingly coming to a full stop, is something to be grateful about. Ra’s revelation in Batman Begins about wanting to revenge the death of his wife now looks, in retrospect, as if the Nolans had planned this all along. The direct comparison to the prison and the old well Bruce falls down as a child, was also particularly enjoyable. Overall, I can’t say I was disappointed; this is a solid piece of work I’m sure I will get more out of on repeat viewings.

And yet.

I can’t help feeling it missed a few tricks. It was a worthy follow up to Batman Begins, but as the sequel to the Dark Knight it was fairly underwhelming. We get to see that Gotham has prospered under a lie (that Dent is a martyr and Batman a traitor), but the film utterly fails to spell out how that decision leads to Bane’s eventual success. The Dent Act would appear to be some way of keeping the gangbangers under some kind of permanent detention, horrific from a liberal point of view but also quite expensive and impractical. Are we really meant to believe that this hasn’t lead to lots of innocent people being locked up and that, with all this unaccountable power, the police have become less corrupt, not more? It’s a situation that doesn’t satisfy either the liberals or the authoritarians: the authoritarians can’t be happy that this approach is seemingly responsible for the eventual destruction of the city; the liberals can’t believe it could possibly have lasted as long as it did.

I didn’t like the way they handled Bruce Wayne at the start of the film. Part of the problem was that they were going, very self-consciously, for a mirror image of the start of the Dark Knight Returns. While the Gotham of Returns has sunk to a new low, the Gotham of Rises is experiencing a renaissance. Similarly, while the Bruce Wayne at the start of Returns is a philandering playboy, the Bruce Wayne of Rises has become a recluse (both of which evoke different faces of Howard Hughes, but that’s another matter).

I understand why they took this choice, but it didn’t work for me. Essentially, we are being asked to buy into the idea that Bruce Wayne has sat in the same room for eight years; it doesn’t ring true, and it makes it pretty likely that Wayne is Batman (even if you hadn’t figured out that he must be a billionaire with access to military technology by that point). This isn’t a fallen Dark Knight, this is a Dark Knight in suspended animation. Worse than being unconvincing, it’s boring.

Because his fall from grace amounts to little more than a stumble, it makes his rise far less interesting. Indeed, it’s barely noteworthy at all. Possibly, this is deliberate because Nolan wanted to make the broken bat subplot that much more impactful later on, but it means the first act never really gets moving.

The film’s portrayal of Catwoman is… mixed. On the plus side, this is clearly relatable to the Selina Kyle of the comics. However much I might love Batman Returns (and I do), Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman takes as many liberties with the source material as, well, Danny DeVito’s Penguin.

It is interesting that they chose to dress her in the same way she is depicted by Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Merriweather in the 60s TV series and not, say, as designed by Darwyn Cooke in the iconic 2004 reboot – a vastly more sexy (and less exploitative) version. As it stands, at time her character seems quite out of place in a film which is struggling to retain a cynical and gritty vibe: I kept expecting the POW!!s and WACK!!!s to appear onscreen the first time she fights Bane’s henchmen with Batman.

Anne Hathaway’s casting made people nervous, even 7 years after Brokeback Mountain (if you can’t get over the fact she was in the Princess Diaries, that’s your problem), but she delivers all anyone could have expected of her. The problem is, she isn’t given much to do, and this is a real problem for me. Given the very obvious influence the Jeff Loeb/Tim Sale iteration of Batman has had on the films, it was surprising they didn’t tie her back to the Falcone family who were such a central part of Begins and the Dark Knight. Without such an arc, she ends up as a femme without the fatale – indeed, someone who is destined to become little more than Bruce Wayne’s wife (I’ll come back to that ending later). In this respect, the Catwoman of Batman Begins is a far more interesting character, one who has far more less reason to walk away and yet does anyway. It was downright cruel to offer us the glimpse of an interesting, kick-ass Catwoman only to spend three hours taking her away from us in slow motion.

I read a lot of people say that Gotham is a character in her own right in Nolan’s films; personally, I’ve always been disappointed by his portrayal of the city. Admittedly, to an extent I just have to get over the fact they didn’t reuse Anton Furst’s designs or get another artist in to reimagine the city from the ground up. But for me, Nolan’s Gotham just looks like a generic urban sprawl: on location shots of New York and Chicago with all their iconic buildings strategically avoided or digitally removed (which is exactly what it is). If you want to give a city a personality, you have to give it a face.

But more than that, the populace of Nolan’s Gotham don’t seem to have much of an identity either. The Spider-Man films invest New York with so much personality that the point in which the ordinary people help Spidey out has become a cliche (it was quite wearisome in Amazing Spider-Man – you could see it coming a mile away). The people of Gotham, by contrast, are just used as fodder in this film. At least at the end of the Dark Knight, the people on the ferries have a Noo Yawk moment of their own (oh yeah, about that bit when the prisoners refuse to kill the citizens: how does that square with the city going on to pass the Dent Act); in Rises they don’t do anything at all.

Again, as a sequel to the Dark Knight, this sucks. We are invited to think of the Joker’s reign of terror as a sort of 9/11, so why doesn’t Rises explore that at all? Instead, once again we’re in suspended animation territory, with the huddled masses sitting around waiting for either the police (who spend three months underground yet emerge neither deranged or even noticeably unshaven) or Batman to come and save them. Are we meant to believe no one, apart from the police and a few business executives, would do anything to resist Bane? It is at this point that the film slips from authoritarian wish fulfilment and into swivel-eyed Atlas Shrugged territory. As I said, this doesn’t fit with the setup of the Dark Knight at all.

I’ve been harsh here. I’m not a fan of Bane, but I did like Tom Hardy’s portrayal and the way they integrated his backstory quite cleverly with Ra’s al Ghul’s. Anyone who knew the comics could see the Talia reveal coming a mile away, but even with that said it was well done. If you focus on the Batman bits, and ignore the frankly confused story about Gotham, it’s a neat little story. The only bit that really struck a wrong note for me in terms of the Batman story was the final shot in the film, which had been foreshadowed earlier in the film, in which Alfred spots Wayne and Kyle in a Parisian bistro.

This was a horrifying way to end the film, and quite odd for Nolan, the king of ambiguity, to finish off his series. It is a bit like him deciding to end Inception with the spinning top falling over. If the film had ended with a close up of Michael Caine’s face, his eyes lightening up, I would have been entirely happy. But that final shot of Bale and Hathaway diminishes their characters. The strong implication was that, after an adventure, they were looking forward to a life of conventionality and mediocrity. I know they could have just been dressing up for Alfred’s benefit and that in reality, Wayne was now Selena Kyle’s gimp who she lead around on a leash, but that final shot meant the film ended on a full stop and not a question mark. However much Nolan wanted to make it clear he would be making no more Batman films, this was a bad note to end it on.

So in the end, while the Dark Knight Rises delivers in ending a series in a perfectly workmanlike way, it is clear that it could have been so much more. The politics, as rightwing as Batman has ever been, ultimately undermine a film that had a lot of more interesting avenues to explore than this frame could allow. The quest for the perfect threequel continues.

Why Barbara Gordon should stay in the wheelchair

So it turns out that my article about the DC ‘reboot‘ was pretty offbeam. DC are now making it clear that it is merely a relaunch and won’t apparently result in a significant shift in continuity. So essentially ignore all my guff about Geoff Johns’ Corps Wars and Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated storylines coming to a close and Damian Wayne possibly being written out of continuity. Not going to happen. I will still stand by the significance of DC’s switch to same-day-as-print for its digital output, a move which is far more significant than any passing continuity change in any case.

Just to compound matters though, in the comments I poured cold water on Andrew Hickey’s suggestion that Barbara Gordon might suddenly be ‘healed’ and return as Batgirl. Well, the precise details are still yet to be confirmed, but it looks as if I could not have been more wrong.

One reading of this decision is that it is actually quite positive. Gail Simone, who will be writing the new series, is responsible for kickstarting the debate in comics fandom about Women In Refrigerators Syndrome – the tendency for comic writers to maim, abuse and kill off female characters in the interests of (male) character development. Anita Sarkeesian gives a pretty good overview here (transcript here):

From a feminist perspective then, it could be interpreted that this move to restore Barbara Gordon’s spine is actually a positive step: she’s being ‘defrosted‘. So why am I, and others, less than pleased? Four reasons:

Firstly, if there are precious few positive female role models in superhero comics, there are even fewer positive disabled characters. And Barbara Gordon, in her guise as Oracle. was very much that. Here I take issue with Sarkeesian [1]. Sure, Gordon is crippled and very possibly raped in a heinous way – the Killing Joke is a highly problematic story – but her story arc ever since is that of a survivor.

Secondly, if you look beyond the superficiality of assessing characters in terms of their physical capabilities. Gordon-as-Oracle is a far more powerful character than Gordon-as-Batgirl. The latter was a second-stringer; she didn’t even count as a proper sidekick. She is defined by male character: Jim Gordon’s daughter; Dick Grayson’s girlfriend; Batman’s copycat.

Oracle, by contrast, is a central character in the DC Universe, one who works closely with all the heaviest hitters. She’s the character Batman and Superman go to when they need help. She’s played a central role in saving the world on more than one occasion. You’d have to be pretty superficial indeed to see it as anything other than a massive demotion.

As a character, Oracle was not defined by her disability: yet, ironically, as Batgirl she will inevitably be defined by her physical prowess. Will she be able to survive as a just another poutingly gorgeous female acrobatic martial artist? Throw a rock in the DC Universe and you’re liable to hit one of those; very few have ongoing series that last very long.

To cite a related example, Cassandra Cain is the fourth character to assume the identity of Batgirl. A radically different character to Barbara Gordon, she could best be described a 5-foot mute ninja in a gimp mask. When she first appeared, she was an immediate fan-favourite. Then someone had the bright idea of ‘curing’ her muteness. As a result, she was sidelined and was eventually replaced. Just another boring epitome of physical perfection. In this particular case, it was made slightly worse in that one of DC’s few Asian characters was replaced by a blonde white girl.

Thirdly, this would appear to be filling a vacancy that doesn’t exist. Even leaving aside the fact that Stephanie Brown only recently took on the Batgirl mantle, the comic about a red-headed female Batman-copy that fandom is currently waiting for with baited breath is J. H. Williams’ Batwoman #1. Unlike Batgirl, Batwoman is a character with her own, independent continuity – only tangentially connected to Batman’s. And, having only sporadically appeared over the past 5 years, she’s got plenty of story to tell.

Fourthly, if it emerges that she gets to come back because of some kind of time paradox (this isn’t mere speculation, this whole relaunch is being precipitated by Flashpoint, which is all about a villain’s attempt to muck about with events in the past), it’s boring. There’s a reason that DC have flirted with the idea of bringing her back on at least two occasions and rejected it. It is the ultimate lazy plot device. One of the things we were promised with the Blackest Night saga was that there would be no more, or at least fewer, incidences of characters ‘recovering’ from death. True, Gordon isn’t dead, but this is just as much of a cop out. It isn’t remotely interesting from a dramatic point of view.

I may be wrong. It could be that Gail Simone has gone something pretty spectacular up her sleeve and Gordon will be coming back in a way that doesn’t leave the reader short changed. It may well be that she manages to retain what is best about Oracle with the added bonus of the main character being able to literally kick arse once again. This could be the most genius, misunderstood move yet in the twisty-turny life of the character. But on the face of it, this appears to be a very poor choice, not just from a feminist and ableist perspective, but from a dramatic and commercial one as well. And with 51 other new DC titles to choose from during the month this makes its debut, why risk it?

[1] I actually take issue with Anita Sarkeesian in one other important respect. In one crucial aspect, she is factually wrong: Stephanie Brown is actually an example of a character whose “death” actually results in her coming back more powerful than before as Batgirl (and with her own series): she’s actually an example of a female character who “defrosts”, to use the jargon. Ironically, with Gordon now taking that mantle back, she’s now just another bit-player.

The DC Reboot: new dawn or twilight?

Cover to Justice League #1 (2011)The news that DC will be rebooting its entire superhero line with issue 1s from September has been whizzing through my mind all week. It’s going to have profound ramifications, not just for the DC Universe but for the so-called comics ‘industry’ as a whole.

This promises to be DC’s biggest stab of the reset button since the start of the Silver Age. The Crisis on Infinite Earths resulted in a number of titles going back to basics, most notably in the case of John Byrne’s Superman, but for most of the line it was little more than a hump in the road.

Zero Hour and its Issue Zeroes promised much but ended up being a damp squib. The Infinite Crisis and One Year Later was far better handled but only really offered a jumping on point of existing storylines.

By contrast, the post-Flashpoint DC Universe looks like it may end up more closely resembling the Ultimate Marvel line – and the launch of that line didn’t result in the existing Marvel Universe cancelling at the same time.

Personally speaking, it feels a little too soon. According to Dan Didio’s introduction to the collected Infinite Crisis, Julius Schwartz told him that all comics lines need to refresh themselves every 10 years or so and that sounds about right.  Certainly, DC left it too long last time. On the other hand, ending the current continuity on a high is arguably no bad thing.

And, thinking about it, the series I have enjoyed do appear to be coming to a close. Geoff Johns’ complex ‘Corps Wars’ storyline has pretty much run its course. Very few mysteries remain. Grant Morrison’s Batman run similarly seems to be running out of road; he’s done a good job at answering the question: where do you go after bringing Batman back from a timespanning cosmic odyssey, but does Batman Incorporated really have more than half a dozen issues’ worth of storyline to go?

Better this I suppose than what happened to Superman post-Reign when, having run out of story to tell the strip ended up just recycling plotlines from Lois and Clark and, a little later, Smallville. The setting that John Byrne had established was quite radical in its own way but it ended up collapsing under the weight of its own self-imposed restrictions.

More broadly, the same could be said of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe. They had established for themselves a clear set of rules on time travel and parallel universes all of which fell apart quite quickly for the simple reason that this is a line of superhero comics and they were attempting to tell them with an arm tied behind their back. One hopes that they won’t repeat this mistake with the latest reboot. Somehow I doubt they will (they’ll make all new mistakes) and the fact that they are launching with 52 new number ones may be a clue. I doubt they would be as radical as to set each of the new first issues on a different one of DC’s alternative Earths, but neither do I see them scrapping the multiverse any time soon.

The crucial question though is to what extent the new “main” Earth resembles the current “New” Earth (are you lost yet?). The real problem isn’t so much the main guys: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al won’t be going anywhere. But what of the sidekicks? Specifically, what happens to Robin? Will Dick Grayson be donning the green tights again? Since he grew up and became Nightwing (let alone Batman), we’ve had Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown and now Damian Wayne.

All this is of fascination to the plans but does rather highlight why it all needs paring down. Something tells me that the current Dick and Damian Batman and Robin won’t be making the cut, which is a shame because they’ve been fun. I’m sure many more fans out there feel a lot more strongly about it than me.

But is it worth getting that energised about? One thing that comic fans don’t appear to have noticed is that just because a character or plotline becomes out of continuity, it doesn’t mean that the comic itself suddenly disappears – plenty of wives and mothers will testify to this fact. The Dark Knight Returns and All Star Superman weren’t any weaker because they were out of continuity.

Regardless of its official status, only real way to understand DC continuity – and comics continuity more generally is Hypertime. I’m quite confident that Damian will be back sooner or later, just as I’m entirely unsurprised that DC are currently publishing a Batman Beyond comic 9 years after that animated series ended.

The final question is: will I stick along for the ride? The risk with jumping on points is that they serve as terrific jumping off points as well. That was certainly the case for me with Zero Hour. Can I really face going through it all over again or should I, as a 36 year old, really use this as a convenient point to move on?

Clearly it depends on what exactly DC have to offer. I’ve become a bit of a fan of Geoff Johns’ work and the creative way in which he manages to weave old and new together, so that is a real plus point for me, so I’m currently inclined to pick up the books with his name attached. Beyond that, I don’t know.

I am however extremely inclined to stop buying the floppies, in favour of going entirely digital. DC’s decision to simultaneously publish online has the potential to be the real game changer here, and that’s what makes this reboot more significant than anything else.

I’ve been reading an increasing amount of my comics online over the past year-and-a-bit and despite the fact that I’ve been reading it all on a non-HD iPod Touch, I have to say I’m a convert. Up until that point I had associated online comics with sitting at my desktop; comics were the things I wanted to read when I wasn’t at my desk. It was clear from the word go however that the iPad was going to change this completely: in terms of both size and function, the thing seems tailor-made for comic reading (far more so than reading prose, which the Kindle does much better).

DC have been experimenting with same-day-as-print since they went onto Comixology, and it would appear that they have been happy with the results. I’d like to be able to reassure Gosh! Comics that I won’t be ditching them to embrace digital, but I can’t. Not only is it more convenient, but it means I can keep my collection in my back pocket rather than in an ever growing pile of boxes in my bedroom.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on physical comics entirely. I could never abandon my 2000AD sub and there’s nothing better than a thoughfully produced collection. I took the radical decision of buying all the Starman Omnibuses rather than read them digitally for the simple reason that they look gorgeous. The best stuff that I read online, I will no doubt end up buying an all-the-trimmings physical copy of.

With that said, and here’s the rub, I’ll be doing most of that purchasing online where the prices are typically quite dramatically cheaper. So the question remains: what is to become of shops like Gosh? In the short term, there will still be plenty of things for me to buy there but I can’t see myself continuing in five years time. I feel guilty even writing this, but I’d be lying if I claimed I’d stay loyal. Signings have very little appeal to me. Talks, maybe? I hope they’ll figure something out, but at the end of the day, a comic shop isn’t like a village post-office. There aren’t any obvious pro-social externalities worth hanging onto here and it is a type of business that didn’t even exist 30 years ago.

All in all, then, September 2011 will mark the passing of one age and the start of a new one. Whether this new era is a bright, exciting and happy one remains to be seen.

Nine wishes for 2009 #5: Comics I care about

Yoink! These nine wishes for 2009 were meant to be done and dusted by 31 December. Nevertheless, I shall plough on…

I’m a geek, to paraphrase Nick Clegg, by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing (the latter is all too true – my dad made me watch Alien when I was 8 FFS! He would also blare out War of the Worlds at 11pm. My earliest memories were reading science fiction and horror mags on my parents’ bed and the excitement surrounding Star Wars and Close Encounters – really was there any hope for me?).

So it comes as no surprise that, despite being in my mid-thirties, I have an unusually large comic collection (the only geek I know who doesn’t read comics is Will Howells. Bad Will! No biscuit!). But I have this problem: they aren’t exciting me like they used to.

My first comics were the Beano (but not the Dandy – rubbish!) and the eighties Eagle. From there it was but a short step to 2000AD during its bog paper, black and white glory days and with the eighties UK comics brain drain in full swing, moving onto US comics was all but inevitable. Highlights have included: too many Judge Dredd stories to mention, but in particular Block Mania, Chopper’s escape to Oz and the revelation of the identity of The Dead Man; Nemesis the Warlock; Halo Jones (I could mention loads of Alan Moore stuff, but this is the one that inspired me the most, oddly); Grant Morrison’s greatest hits (Zenith, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, The Invisibles); The Sandman; Preacher; The Adventures of Luthor Arkwright. More recently, Nikolai Dante has had its moments. Morrison’s run on X-Men was good and Joss Whedon’s follow up was great too. I whizzed through Mike Carey’s Lucifer last year after, wrongly, assuming for years that it was just another worthless Sandman spin-off (Vertigo have only themselves to blame for that assumption, but that’s another story).

But the sort of buzz I felt during the late eighties and nineties isn’t there any more. Don’t misunderstand me, I recognise that to an extent I am merely a little jaded and that is unavoidable. And there is still good stuff out there. Buffy Season Eight, while patchy, is generally strong. 2000AD has been consistent (but not amazing) for a good decade now going through a very bad period before. You can’t switch brilliance on like a tap but I don’t think 2000AD can be accused of doing anything to piss on their chips.

I think my dilemma is threefold. Firstly, the demise of Comics International. To be clear (last year I bemoaned the state of the magazine and got ticked off by Burt for my trouble), it does appear to be a going concern and at least one of the problems for its erratic publishing schedule over the past couple of years has been the editor’s ill health, but it is a far cry from the rigorous monthly schedule that Dez Skinn managed to work to for 15 years. I hope that if they do get it back up and running, they go back to basics. When it was launched, CI was a free newsheet printed on newsprint which offered news, reviews, and pretty much nothing else. I don’t miss anything else; I do miss that basic service. It is a bit of an embarrassing thing to admit as somone who likes to think of himself as generally web-savvy, but I can’t get my head around using the web as a news source for my comics. Something does not compute. Nothing feels as natural as a few pages of news I can pore over on the tube home from the shops (I depend on Empire for similar reasons).

Secondly, I find it really hard to get into the indie-scene these days. Even though I’ve never actually lived in the East Midlands, I occasionally used to go to Page 45 for some of their special events. In particular, they ran a great open day in 1996. Ostensibly a day to promote Dave Sim‘s latest UK tour (I continued to collect Cerebus up until it ended even though I basically gave up reading it during the last few years as he seemed to get increasingly bonkers – needless to say I don’t share his views), they invited lots of other independent comic creators as well. Since the queue to get stuff signed by Sim and Gerhard was so long, you ended up going around and talking to all the creators. I ended up buying stuff from pretty much everyone, discovering a passion for, among others, Kane, Sleaze Castle and Dix (the cartoonist on the brilliant Roll Up! Roll Up! which ran in the Guardian a few years ago before they criminally cancelled it. Thanks to the magic of teh internets you can now own a collected edition – buy it now!). But as you’ll have seen by following those links, those particular wells of creative talent have either mutated (Jack Staff is good, but nothing like as good as Kane) or dried up entirely.

Are Page 45 still organising such open days? If they are, I never read about them even when CI was coming out regularly. Back in London these days, the closest to Page 45 is Gosh! – they often do signings, but don’t seem to use them as an opportunity to do something more ambitious. Maybe in 2009, this might change.

My third problem though seems much more intractable. I’ve always tended to read DC more than Marvel. This is simply because DC used 2000AD as a recruitment brochure in the eighties and took a lot of the fanbase with them. Slowly I got sucked in, loving Keith Giffen’s take on the Justice League and the post-John Byrne Superman (an era which effectively ended with the death and rebirth storyline). Having stayed away for a few years, I ended up picking up 52 and some of the other Infinite Crisis spinoffs and tie-ins.

Now, 52 was a well executed and enjoyable series – a year in the life told in real time. The problem is, it was such a success that they immediately issued a sequel – Countdown – which in turn was a prequel of Final Crisis – which in turn was a sequel to Infinite Crisis (and sort of a sequel to Seven Soldiers of Victory) – which in turn was a sequal to the Crisis on Infinite Earths (and that’s just the simplified version). The idea that the Infinite Crisis had created 52 alternate universes (after the Crisis of Infinite Earths destroyed the “infinite” alternates and merged them into one, the revamped eighties DC universe), is essentially lame, lazy and, as you will have seen by reading this paragraph, incredibly confusing. Add to this the “is he? isn’t he?” death of Batman at the end of last year, and an alternate timeline in the latest weekly series Trinity, and you have a terribly stodgy mess. The problem with all these tie-ins, cross-overs and spin-offs is that it utterly alienates the casual reader. DC seems to have decided that their future lies in giving the hardcore dizzyingly complex onanistic wank. I’ve put up with it for a year longer than I should have done and expect to more or less drop all my DC titles later this year.

Marvel also seem to be going out of their way to alienate readers by producing company-wide meta-narrative after company-wide meta-narrative even if by all acounts they are doing it much better. But again, how do you get on board? Browsing through trade paperbacks in Borders and the specialist shops, I haven’t the foggiest where to start with, say, Civil War.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is rooted in the fact that both of these companies have discovered that they have such large back catalogues now that the casual reader has plenty to churn through before running out and wanting to look at the latest stuff. Want to get into Batman? Most “top ten” lists include Killing Joke, Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Long Halloween and Arkham Asylum. Most of the Marvel films are mining stories from the sixties which you can read in their Masterworks series of books. So even if they did make the new stuff more accessible, I suspect they would get very little out of it in terms of improved sales.

As someone who is more than a casual reader but much less than the hardcore, this is a problem. Are there really so few of us out there though? I just think it is a real shame that as comics finally enter the mainstream, they seem to be having such a creative lull. And while there is undoubtedly good stuff out there to be found, finding it seems to be becoming harder and harder. Anyone got any suggestions?


Related to my previous post, I was a little disappointed by this article, which promised so much yet failed to deliver.

The last time the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, Gillian Anderson wore pants. There were two Star Trek series at once, which promoted women and minorities and looked at the dark side of the Federation. Cyberpunk reigned supreme. The future was a shiny place — but with dread lurking just beneath its polish. Now that the Democrats have finally scored another grand slam, are we going to see the return of sunny-but-questioning science fiction?

The main thing it lacks is a contrast between sci-fi under Bush with sci-fi under Clinton.

First of all, let’s be clear that Star Trek: The Next Generation was a product of the Reagan/Bush Snr years: there were only one-and-a-half seasons under Clinton; its optimism was entirely driven by the ending of the Cold War. DS9 and Voyager are authentically Clintonian and they took the franchise down a much darker path than their predeccessor. TNG’s two greatest contribution to Star Trek were the rich development of Klingon culture and, of course, the Borg. The former was a rather more optimistic look at Middle Eastern culture than would ever have emerged post-9/11 while the Borg is of course influenced by communism (although these days, anxieties about assimilation of the individual would no doubt be presumed to be anxieties about Islam).

DS9 and Voyager by contrast gave us ideas about living in a divided society. Both Bajoran and Human societies have their culture wars. The Bajorans are also “good” arabs (Bajor = Kuwait/Saudi Arabia) while the Cardassians are the mean old Syrian/Iranians. Meanwhile, with the humans, Trek was able to explore what was increasingly becoming a divided USA, the Maquis being all but cheerleaders for Ruby Ridge and Waco. You could easily imagine B’Elanna Torres blowing up the Oklahoma Federal Building.

How does all this contrast with Star Trek in the Bush Jnr era? I’m not the first to observe that Enterprise was the Bush Doctrine in Space. Captain Archer even resembles Dubya. In the first series they seemed to stumble from one major diplomatic incident to the next. The Xindi were as transparent an analogue of Al Qaeda as you are ever likely to get. As for the fourth season… well, I couldn’t tell you because I had given up by that point.

The main difference between Clintonian sci-fi and Bushian sci-fi is that the latter is far more miserablist. Dare I say that doesn’t necessarily make it bad? In Buffy we had a superhero learning that life was hard, while in Angel we had a vampire discovering that superheroics is equally complicated. Both have in spades something which all too often Star Trek lacked: drama. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica may be darker than the original, but it is far superior.

And while in the post-9/11 world we may have lacked the spectacle of Independence Day, we still have hope. Children of Men is about as dark a film as you can get outside of Schindler’s List, but its ending is far more emotionally uplifting than any 90s cheesefest managed to deliver. As I wrote in my Watchmen post below, entropy is a key theme in 90s sci-fi, but there is always some measure of hope, and that leads to a pretty mighty payoff when it is made to work well. Think the ending of Sunshine or the flashes of hopefulness during the darker points in Spider-Man (1 & 2 – the less said about 3 the better, sadly).

How will this change under Obama? Well, the io9 article cited above already points to the new Star Trek film and its return to a 60s ethic. But the transition film, thinking about it, may yet end up being The Dark Knight. Characteristically Bushian in its darkness, the film is riddled appeals to hope and optimism. In a year characterised by elections, one of its key motifs (borrowed from The Long Halloween) is the election slogan “I believe in Harvey Dent” – Obama might have used that one. There surely can be no doubt that this theme about how the hopes and dreams of the people can be embodied in a single good man (even if it is a blond, white man rather than a dark-haired, mixed race man) was tapping into the same undercurrent that Obama’s campaign was also taking advantage of. It ends with not only The Joker defeated, but The Batman recognising the best thing he can do is disappear. The time of madness is at an end.

So, we can probably expect a period of greater optimism in our science fiction. Let’s hope they don’t get too carried away however and shut down their critical faculties. Bush may not have done much for world stability, but he’s been a gift for sci-fi.

Pulling off The Watchmen (SPOILERS)

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the upcoming Watchmen film and comic book films for ages. Having just read the first chapter of Dave Gibbons’ memoir of his experiences drawing the comic, Watching the Watchmen, I’ve finally decided to put finger to keyboard.

For a lot of us avid comic book fans, especially those of us who were weaned on Alan Moore’s work in the 80s, this is an extremely anxious period for us. We have experienced the utter awfulness of From Hell and League of Gentlemen. Then we had V for Vendetta, a film that was actually not bad and which swayed between being an almost scene-for-scene reproduction of the comic and a bastard hybridisation with The Matrix. Yet it has made its mark in some quite surprising ways, inspiring the whole Anonymous movement and cropping up here and there in the popular media. It has made its mark.

Factor number two is Zack Snyder. A hitherto hack-resembling director who committed the heinous crime of having his zombies run in his remake of Dawn of the Dead (sidenote: Simon Pegg has now started his Slow Zombie movement, presumably akin to Slow Food), he went on to direct the ridiculous 300. Like the other Frank Miller adaptation Sin City, this was a very close adaptation of the comic original. Also like Sin City, I found bits of it cringingly embarrassing. Unlike Sin City however, I did get the impression that both director and actors were enjoying themselves slightly subverting the material. Or did I just imagine this? I’m genuinely undecided as to whether all the scenes of Spartans cavorting with one another were done with a wink to the audience or with the same level of hyper-heterosexuality of the writer-artist’s original that just happened to come across as camp as a row of tents.

The key question for Watchmen therefore is there more to Zack Snyder than meets the eye? Is he capable of viewing the source material with a critical eye or will we just get another soulless carbon copy like Sin City?

Another factor is The Dark Knight. The Nolan Brothers (I have yet to figure out their relationship with the Nolan Sisters) have made what for me is the best ever “superhero” film, but they did this not by simply adapting an original work but by mashing up some of Batman’s greatest hits, specifically Year One, The Long Halloween and Killing Joke, while the ending serves as a kind of prologue to The Dark Knight Returns*. Alongside Lord of the Rings, it functions as a rebuke to the received wisdom that a comic book adaptation has to be a literal translation of the source material (sidenote: another slight challenge The Dark Knight represents to Watchmen is that fact that the former film has borrowed the latter comic’s idea of using scarring to represent The Joker/The Comedian’s grin). I can’t pretend that the apparently less literal Paul Greengrass version, with its apparently more overtly political edge, sounded fascinating. Is there a danger in sticking rigidly to the source material that it will end up being a period piece about the 80s?

It was interesting rereading the original over the summer. For those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, nuclear holocaust was something we grew up with. Although I didn’t see it at the time, I remember the buzz in the playground when the BBC showed Threads. I remember the horror of When the Wind Blows, a book which still holds enough power over me that I haven’t read it from cover to cover or watched the film. And then there were the more allegorical expressions of nuclear-anxiety such as the BBC’s adaptation of the Day of the Triffids and Survivors. It was this undercurrent in popular imagination that Watchmen was feeding into (even its contemporary, The Dark Knight Returns, revolved around a nuclear explosion and views Superman as having an influence on foreign policy in a very similar way to how Alan Moore regards Doctor Manhattan).

Modern anxieties are somewhat different. In place of a fear of apocalypse we have this more generalised angst about entropy, the death of hope and a nostalgic longing. Those themes, ironically, are picked up in Watchmen, but as the features of a world changed by the existance of a superhuman in it. In Watchmen, the US has had 18 years with Nixon in the White House. In 2008, we’ve had the best part of 28 years with a Bush in the White House. Watchmen offered a vision of a world similar to our own with dashes of unimaginable high technology thrown in, being treated as normal. Imagine how someone from 1985 would imagine today’s world of iPhones and Facebook (sidenote: it is interesting how wrong Alan Moore got it in this respect: the presence of a walking fusion bomb in the government’s pocket like Doctor Manhattan would more likely revolutionise communications technology than it would transportation, although he was probably more on the money when in comes to how fabrics technology would transform fashion). In short, what Watchmen shows us is very representative of the world we have today. That’s a real problem for a film maker approaching the book like it was a period piece. And with that rapscallion Barack Obama going and getting himself elected on a wave of hope and no doubt still in his honeymoon period by the time the film comes out in June 2009, it may be that Snyder finds the Zeitgeist has moved on.

What’s more, the ending of Watchmen – a big explosion in central Manhattan killing thousands of innocent bystanders (sound familiar?) – was supposed to sort out the world’s problems. We now have empirical evidence to show the world doesn’t work like that, but then we don’t live in a world of two opposing Super-Powers any more (two Super-Powers which, in the comic, are duking it out over a little-known country called Afghanistan; how times have changed!). Perhaps the world was that simple back then. Either way, it makes the ending of the comic come across as unbearably naive to these jaded eyes, although in fairness the ambiguous ending with the New Frontiersman editors possibly about to unearch Rorschach’s journal might end up undoing all that. There is simply no way Snyder can get away with not changing the ending without looking like an idiot.

In short, time has not withered Watchmen, but the world has moved on. A slavish adaptation won’t reflect that, and that will be potentially lethal to the whole project. We have just a few months to find out.

* I have to say, I do hope that the Batman threequel ends up being an adaptation, of sorts, of The Dark Knight Returns. It looks to me as if all the foundations have been set, with the main character walking off into self-imposed exile. What better way to kick off the third film, by fast forwarding fifteen years?

I also note they were extremely careful not to show Barbara Gordon’s face in the second film. Set for a return as Batgirl/a female Robin perhaps? Of course, in my dream, it would include the iconic imagery of the Frank Miller original – the horseride into town, the titanic struggle with Superman – but those may be a little too fannish for polite company. Still, they kept the iconic moments of Year One in the first film, so why not?

KAPOW! Batman grows UP!

Holy censorship Batman! The Villainous Passportiser is attacking us again with “Do You Know Who I Am” press release gun.

Apparently, people have been shocked to discover that the new Batman film isn’t for kiddies. A year’s worth of advertising centering around the horrifically disfigured villain, plus the fact that it is a sequel to the already dark Batman Begins, wasn’t enough of a clue.

Vaz has a brilliant line in logic here:

“The BBFC should realise there are scenes of gratuitous violence in The Dark Knight to which I would certainly not take my 11-year-old daughter”, said Mr Vaz. “It should be a 15 classification.”

No one is forcing you to take your 11-year-old daughter to see anything Keith! Instead of insisting that every film gets reclassified to your exact specifications, why not simply exercise some parental judgement? If you are incapable of that, then what the hell are you doing chairing a Parliamentary committee? Hmm? HMMM??!!

The ratings system has always been a bit kablooey at around the ages of 11 to 17. The 12 rating (of which IIRC, the 1989 Batman film was the first to have that rating) was widely abused simply because it was impossible to enforce. The main problem was that parents would insist on taking younger children to 12-rated films. Having responded to public pressure then, the BBFC are now getting harranged from the other direction.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that The Dark Knight has dark themes and violence in it. The last film was pretty dark as well and The Dark Knight Returns, Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum have been on the bookshelves for 20 years now. It isn’t even as ambiguous as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Lazy parents who refuse to take responsibility for their own research don’t have any excuse in my view, and giving Keith Vaz the opportunity to jump on yet another bandwagon is simply unforgiveable.

In praise of comic book movies

March’s Empire has a special section on comic book movies, to coincide with the releases of V for Vendetta, Mirrormask and X-Men 3. Irritatingly, they’ve gone for a 1960s Batman “pow! bang! smack!” pastiche for the cover(s) but we’ll let that pass.

The first bit of (potentially) good news is that V gets a good review. 4 stars in fact. I’m not going to punch the air yet however, because the reviewer wasn’t sufficiently critical of From Hell (it wasn’t “so so” it was dreadful!), but it definitely looks as if it may have potential.

Alan Moore still won’t be going to the premiere though, and I have to admit I admire his obstinacy. For those of you who don’t know, Alan Moore has for years had a series of rows with publishers over his intellectual property (or lack thereof) and thus when his work came to the attention of Hollywood there would inevitably be fireworks. After a bizarre legal incident whereby he was sued for copyright theft over the film version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (screenplay by Susanne Lamido‘s brother, Lib Dem trivia fans!), he’s taken the extreme solution of demanding that his name be removed from all the work he has written but doesn’t own.

Moving on, Empire publishes it’s list of the Top 20 all time best comic book movies:

  1. X-Men 2 (2003)
  2. Superman the Movie (1978)
  3. Batman Begins (2005)
  4. Spider-Man (2002)
  5. Blade (1998)
  6. Road to Perdition (2002)
  7. Oldboy (2003)
  8. Sin City (2005)
  9. A History of Violence (2005)
  10. Superman II (1980)
  11. Hellboy (2004)
  12. Danger Diabolik (1968)
  13. Akira (1988)
  14. Mystery Men (1999)
  15. Hulk (2003)
  16. Dick Tracy (1990)
  17. Popeye (1980)
  18. Batman Returns (1992)
  19. Ghost World (2001)
  20. Constantine (2005)

Hmmm… controversial. I can’t comment on 7, 9, 12 and 20 as I haven’t seen them (bizarrely in 9s case given my love of the original and its writer). I think it is strange though that this list includes Superman 2 but not Spider-Man 2, which is surely superior? Batman Returns and Ghost World are too far down on this list in my view while Sin City (a triumph of style over substance is not, in itself, a triumph) and The Hulk are far too high. 2,3 and 4 are all superior to 1 in my view (I’d settle for any of them in first place) and where’s Flash Gordon (given my trouble yesterday, I wouldn’t dare allege a Ming conspiracy!)? For that matter, given some of the dross here, what about Men In Black?

As for the “greatest unmade comic book movies,” I have to say I’m not slavering for a Watchmen or Preacher adaptation. My general rule is that good comics make bad films – a rule that doesn’t necessarily apply the other way round and is constantly broken, but it is a trend nonetheless. Thus, hoping that someone will make a good comic into a film is a mug’s game.

Personally though, if you want a really ace film, my dream would be Skizz directed by Danny Boyle. Skizz, written by Alan Moore Smithee, is Brit-antidote to ET; basically alien crashlands in rundown 80s Birmingham, befriends a teenage girl and is hunted by a South African lunatic. It isn’t the best comic in the world, but it has moments of brilliance and the opportunity to subtly deconstruct Spielberg’s more saccharine version (in fact, Skizz was written before ET was released, but it was a deliberate cash-in) would be delicious.

I saw Millions last week and loved it, and the John Williams’ ET mobile phone ringtone convinced me that Boyle’s the man for the job. Are you reading this, lottery moguls?