1/31/2010

Joe the Barbarian #1

Because a certain unfortunate review that I'm not even going to link has cast a big, lunkheaded shadow over Joe the Barbarian, any review since then, is going to be something of a defense for the comic.

This one won't be any different, however, it's important to note that the comic totally doesn't need to be defended. None of the accusations thrown against it really stick. Namely, the sense that it's written for the trade--is just well, bullshit. If this were a one-shot, it'd be perfect. Like the Morrison/Quitely Weird War Tales story from a bunch of years ago. A weird, deceptively simple, even careless story that opens wide and flips your shit at the end. The reason twist ending were invented.

But this isn't the only issue of Joe the Barbarian and as a first issue, it does everything it needs to do and much more. The problem with first issues, even good ones, even classic ones--especially the classic ones in a way--is that you can just sorta feel the gears turning.

You never feel the gears turning in Joe, even though they most certainly are. By the end of page three, you know that Joe's dad died in the Iraq War and that his Mom is having financial trouble. You're then treated to a deeply moving, very telling two-page spread of Joe at the cemetery where his dad's buried.

The next three pages link Joe's home life to Joe's life at school, which also sucks. It's presented as expected--though the use of "homo" as an insult is funny, and non-PC and very real--but you know, this coupled with just finding out that Joe's dad is dead adds some emotional weight to it all. As does a really touching, panel of a girl on the bus sending out a sympathetic eye Joe's way. It wouldn't surprise me if she factors into the story significantly later, but for now, it's the kind of gossamer, matters and doesn't, dash of sympathy that makes school suck less and suck more--it'd be easier to deal with if you just felt like everybody was against you. Same kind of buzzing, punky, but emotional sense that Morrison's Kill Your Boyfriend's got.

We then enter the apparently controversial sequences of images of Joe's walk home. Now, like the sympathetic girl, it's possible, no, it's more than likely, that these images all have an importance to be revealed later--as in, they'll be paralleled in Joe's make-believe world--but they work as just a stretched-out presentation of Joe's walk home. This isn't bad writing, this is great writing because the images are operating on at least, three levels.

The first, they just look wonderful. Sean Murphy's art is just beautiful and warm and just really moving. It's sensitive. Second, there's the "these'll be important later" factor, but that's not something I can speak on yet.

Third, and most importantly for now--they put you in Joe's head. The longest part of his day is this walk home because it's this crappy, rote, time between school (which sucks) and home (which sucks but can kinda rule). I can recall being Joe's age and as every bullshit part of my school day rattled around in my head, I'd feel like the walk from the bus to home was endless. Every house, mailbox, turn in the road could was palpable. I think that's what Murphy and Morrison are doing here. That it'll end up being a big plot point is like, an added bonus.

And then there's the final bunch of pages, where the plot or the conceit of the series kicks in. It's a cool one alright, a tried and true one--a kid escapes into a fantasy world and maybe it's not a fantasy world--but it too, is wrapped in something immediate and rarefied: Joe's toys. Especially this thing that's true of every person's childhood, but rarely makes it into media presenting childhood. The way that you know, your G.I Joes become say, the Joker's goons when you're playing Batman or that sometimes, your toys all just become some sort of other world, disconnected from their respective TV tie-ins and whatever else and you're just all inside your head.

You can read the first issue of Joe the Barbarian in five minutes or so. Probably less. But that doesn't mean it's slight or undercooked, just that it's the sort of pitch-perfect in every way comic that you don't even really read, but just sorta absorb by osmosis; a mix of archetypes, formalist plotting, and weird sideways memories from childhood, mixed around in twenty-something pages...for a buck. What's there to complain about?

1/29/2010

The Amazing Spider-Man #617 or Why I Love The Rhino

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I don’t read Spider-Man, no matter how amazing, spectacular, sensational, or friendly of a neighbor he is, he’s boring. Anything with the Rhino though--I’m sold.

My love for the character comes from Peter Milligan’s story “Flowers for Rhino”, from Spider-Man: Tangled Web issues #5-6. A take on Daniel Keyes’ classic, Flowers for Algernon, The Rhino realizes life may not just be about breaking through walls with your head, and decides to get an operation to become smarter. The end result is he becomes too smart, and can’t find enjoyment in anything, so he turns to suicide. Seconds before ending his life, he makes the decision to go on living, but has his operation reversed, the effects rendering him even less intelligent than before, but happier because he's smashing through walls horn first, once again.

With the Rhino crashing through the three variant covers, picking up The Amazing Spider-Man #617 was easy. I was skeptical but the beautiful Milton Caniff-inspired art plays perfectly with the seriousness of what Spider-Man is---melodrama masquerading as a super hero comic. Ultimate Spider-Man worked so well because Bendis pumped-up the melodrama even further, superheroes were almost besides the point. Spider-Man is brilliantly bright against the darks of his surroundings, it’s the cartoony world Spider-Man lives in, while still being in the same city gritty-dude Daredevil runs across the roof tops of.

The Rhino, now out of his big rhinoceros suit and just plain Aleksei Sytsevich, has turned his back on his life of crime and has found something more valuable than breaking through walls or the money that lay behind them: love. Working a steady job at a casino on security detail, he’s decided to walk the straight and narrow, earning for him and his new wife and walking away from the life of crime he lead as a super villain.

Sick of running and tired of his dead end life, during the super hero Civil War, Rhino turned himself in. S.H.I.E.L.D. used their best scientists to remove his superstrong polymer rhino suit, allowing him to be transfer to Rykers instead of the jail Reed Richards had made in the Negative Zone. Ignoring break-outs and offers to join prison gangs, Aleksei serves his time as promised and is released into the world a reformed man.

One of the only success stories out of the Registration Act, Rhino is content to work and be with his woman. Unfortunately there is a new Rhino in town, determined to take the name for himself he challenges Aleksei to a battle of pride over the name, to which Aleksei declines, kneeling in front of the man begging to just be left alone.

Aleksei knows the kind of man that the new Rhino is, and nearly goes back to his old ways, but Spider-Man stops him. Spidey has seen so much bullshit in his day that he just can’t take seeing Aleksei putting on the Rhino suit again, and convinces him to keep on being a normal member of society, just a dude with a wife. Aleksei can’t understand why not his, but the Rhino’s, greatest enemy would want to help him or see him succeed. The short conversation between the two men shows what makes Spider-Man a human and why people relate to him, he’s not just looking to take down villains, he just wants people to be happy and safe. Understanding this, Aleksei turns the other cheek and goes home with his wife, having made a friend of an old enemy.

Although it’s in continuity, it’s really a stand-alone story, it has all the Spider-Man jumps and flips and big villains Web Head fans want, but it’s also sad and beautiful in this relatable way that's attractive to people who are much more into the deconstruction of well-established heroes, who want something deeper in their comics but still want them to read like comic books. Even the continuity aspects (Rhino's past, stuff like registration from "Civil War", etc.) adds emotional weight to the story.

It's really a Rhino story, allowing Spider-Man to take a backseat and become the hero, not for punching the Vulture in the face, but for talking someone out of something they'd regret. Allowing Peter Parker to take over a minute, to talk to someone, man to man, makes him way more of a hero than sticking to walls and fighting baddies.

1/27/2010

The Niggling Subversion of Oishinbo - À la Carte


A professor of mine once expounded a theory that he'd developed, according to which the Japanese people figured out long ago that concerning oneself with the doings of the power elite or other larger issues pays insufficient dividends and thus they've instead turned their focus inward, concentrating on—one might say obsessing over—and perfecting all of the little quotidian aspects of life that Americans largely take for granted. Like most broad assertions of this nature, the idea has its limitations, but it goes a long way in reconciling for American minds such things as elaborate tea ceremonies or the bewildering attention to detail displayed by even a mediocre cosplayer. It's also useful for understanding a culture that can produce and sustain Oishinbo, a 25-plus year, continually running weekly manga about food and culinary culture.

Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki's culinary comic ends its brief foray on the American scene with Izakaya: Pub Food, the seventh volume in Viz Media's À la Carte edition. Regular readers will recall my lament over the unfortunate editorial arrangement of Oishinbo for the American market, in which chronology and continuity are disrupted in favor of volumes which anthologize stories based on type of cuisine. But despite this comparatively minor complaint, Oishinbo ultimately proves upon multiple readings to be one of the more culturally enlightening and intellectually interesting comics to show up in the last year, though perhaps not always in the ways one might expect.

The basic structure of Oishinbo is quite simple: reporters Yamaoka Shiro and Kurita Yuko are currently engaged in preparing the Ultimate Menu, a celebration of the pinnacle of Japanese culinary culture commissioned by their employer, the Tozai News. The paper's chief rival, the Teito Times, has commissioned Yamaoka's estranged father, the celebrated ceramicist and imperious proprietor of the Gourmet Club Kaibara Yuzan, to develop the competing Supreme Menu. Virtually every story consists of the same basic elements: the appearance of a particular culinary or moral question leads to a competition between the Tozai News and Teito Times teams to create a superior dish, which addresses or reconciles the issue at hand.


The immediate appeal of this model stems from the wealth of culinary detail that is dispensed in the course of each story. The series' most obviously successful volumes—particularly the first, Japanese Cuisine, and the third, Fish, Sushi & Sashimi—afford a considerable education in the bewildering range of ingredients and techniques employed by traditional Japanese chefs. More importantly, virtually all of the series' extended culinary disquisitions manage to avoid slipping into the sort of pompous pedantry that generally makes discussions of food and wine such a grand bore. Kariya manages this in part by frequently setting Yamaoka's knowledge of Japanese culinary culture in direct opposition to such pedantry, employing such displays as the catalysts for many of the series' competitions.

Let's be real, though, there are only so many circumstances under which the daily lives of a couple of food reporters would plausibly lead them into an Iron Chef-style cooking competition. Just as often as not, the particulars of any given story defy believability, such as the Tozai News employee who decides to resign his position rather than accept a major promotion which would relocate him to Paris because he hates French food—this hatred stemming from a hangover caused by drinking cheap, knock-off Champagne—or the famed literary critic and liquor connoisseur who blames the lack of a great Japanese literary tradition—where, of course, there is no such lack—on the fact that there is no great Japanese distilled spirit. This isn't really a drawback, however, because Oishinbo is ultimately a deeply problematic comic, whose real charm stems from a splendid array of contradiction, socio-political anachronism and the absurdly implausible.

Let's return to our literary critic, Furuyoshi Shinichi, for a moment. This story, which appears in what is perhaps the series' most problematic volume, Sake, is resolved when Yamaoka and Kurita take the drunken Furuyoshi to Okinawa so that he can sample Kusu, which is made by aging a traditional Japanese spirit called Awamori. Furuyoshi insists that Awamori is a rough, unrefined spirit that could never compete with the great spirits of the Western world. Of course when the group begins to sample the variously aged stores of Kusu, Furuyoshi is suitably impressed, even stopping the tasting after sampling the 40 year-old Kusu so that he can return after sobering up a bit to sample the rest. The ending of the story is what is most bizarre, however, as the page below demonstrates. After discovering the wonders of this traditional Japanese spirit, Furuyoshi apparently gives up on literature altogether, opting to devote his life to getting soused on Kusu. Really?



This sort of posing of Westernization as a negative value is common to many of the stories in Oishinbo and at first glance it seems a fairly non-controversial stance. But upon further consideration in the context of other details from the series, this fairly ordinary celebration of Japanese culinary culture against the encroachment of Western influence provides just the first window into the larger political stance assumed by the series, many aspects of which might come as a surprise to broad sections of Oishinbo's American audience.

Of course, much of this reflects some of the ways in which Japanese society differs from the West. A prime example is the position of women. Though Yamaoka and Kurita work as a team—and eventually marry and make babies—Kurita clearly plays a supporting role to the far more knowledgeable and talented Yamaoka. The culinary ideas almost always come from Yamaoka's vast experience and though Kurita consistently demonstrates a refined palate, she is more often presented as some sort of well-mannered side-kick whose job is to provide quiet, acquiescent support to Yamaoka and only rarely does she originate the ideas for the Ultimate Menu.


This respect for a traditional patriarchal hierarchy gets really interesting in the dynamics of the relationship between Yamaoka and Kaibara Yuzan and the results of their competitions. Kaibara is presented as a domineering, autocratic figure. Membership in his exclusive dining establishment, The Gourmet Club, is by invitation only and can only be obtained by those who demonstrate a superior sense of taste. Further, a member can be permanently ejected from the club as a result of a single serious dining faux pas. As we learn early in the series, Yamaoka blames Kaibara for the death of his mother, who toiled thanklessly to satisfy his domineering culinary demands. After her death, the teenaged Yamaoka destroyed every piece of his father's ludicrously valuable pottery in the house and struck out on his own.

Thus there is more at stake in each of the competitions than culinary bragging rights. Though Yamaoka is something of a stubborn figure, he is ultimately sympathetic and likeable. He has a remarkable degree of knowledge about Japanese cooking methods and ingredients and always puts considerable thought and effort into the competitions. Kaibara, on the other hand, comes off as pig-headed and chauvinistic, referring to Yamaoka and any others who happen to associate with him as "pigs and dogs with no sense of taste." He repeatedly makes it clear that his aim in assisting with the Supreme Menu is not simply to demonstrate his vast knowledge of food and share the heritage of Japanese culinary culture, rather he is intent upon humiliating Yamaoka and ultimately destroying his career. And yet, time after time and with only a handful of exceptions, Kaibara and the Supreme Menu team triumph in the competitions and they do so in a way which is personally humiliating to Yamaoka.


It would be dishonest, however, to suggest that Oishinbo is simply a reactionary celebration of Imperial ideals. Numerous stories, such as the story about the Chinese noodle shop in Ramen & Gyoza expressly expose and combat such antiquated notions as the pervasive attitude of Japanese superiority over the Chinese. Yet what Oishinbo does is nigglingly subvert some of the ways in which Western attitudes in general and, more specifically, the attitudes of the series' American audience differ from the Japanese.



This is especially true of the series' attitude toward animals as culinary ingredients. In several stories, the series openly adopts a position toward culinary wildlife that its American readers might find objectionable or downright offensive. For example, in "Live Fish," from Fish, Sushi & Sashimi, a character pulls a live white trevally from a tank and uses it to prepare a dish called Ikezukuri—literally "prepared alive"—which the volume's notes helpfully define as "a method of serving fish or other sea creatures where the sashimi is cut from a living fish. The meat is then returned to the still living animal and served immediately to the customer to demonstrate its freshness." What the definition here doesn't mention, but the video embedded above does, is that the live-ness of the fish is demonstrated by the fact that it is still moving on the plate. It is of secondary importance that Yamaoka ultimately demonstrates how preparing sashimi Ikezukuri-style does not necessarily result in the freshest-tasting fish. What matters here is that methods such as this, or the dish in which live squid are simmered in soy sauce are presented as a matter of course, without the sort of squeamish sentimentality that Westerners often evince in relation to culinary wildlife.


Probably my favorite instance of this subversion of Western attitudes toward culinary wildlife appears in "Companions of Rice," from The Joy of Rice. As the panel above shows, at the beginning of this story, Kurita thanks the Deputy Prime Minister for his help with an issue concerning whaling. As an American reader encountering such a representation of a journalist thanking a major politician for his help on a whaling issue, my assumption is that the assistance would have been in opposition to whaling. But as the panels following this exchange demonstrate, the situation is quite the opposite and in the view of the Yamaoka—and presumably the series' creators—the ban on commercial whaling impedes upon the expression of Japanese culinary culture.


Now, I'm not going to attempt to adjudicate this issue. My point in highlighting this aspect of Oishinbo is that it is precisely these sorts of moments that allow the series to transcend its position as culinary curiosity into something that legitimately wrestles with issues of moral contingency. Indeed, repeated readings of the volumes in the series awaken the moral complexities that the creators subtly express. As a sort of coda, I'm including a few videos from some anti-whaling expeditions in which my good friend's uncle—who, curiously enough, is of Japanese descent—took part against the Japanese "research" whaling fleet. Of particular interest, about 1:20 into the third video, note how a member of the anti-whaling organization mocks the pronunciation of a member of the Japanese whaling fleet in an archetypically racist fashion. I suppose we all have our moral failings.





1/25/2010

MONDAY LINKS TEAM-UP

A new feature! We'll see how this goes. A bunch of links to stuff you may or may not have read, heard, seen...

-More than Slave Leia and Sexy Storm Troopers, Star Wars Burlesque has sexy C3PO and um...Jabba the Hutt?

-Benjamin Marra's Night Business left everyone talking after SPX last year and Night Business #3 just came out, you can get all of them over on his blog so DO IT.

-Few remember Sega's direct Nintendo Entertainment System competitor, the Sega Master System, it's games weren't really as good, and like most Sega hardware, it was ahead of it's time. The covers to these old games, however, are worth a second look. Grid based minimalism with hand drawn pictures that give no indication of what the game is might have been the reason it wasn't more popular. Check out the Robocop and Rocky ones, hell, look at all of them.

-Some jerk writes the worst review ever of Joe the Barbarian over at Comics Should Be Good. This same guy was all aggro over here a few weeks ago when he decided to misread something Sammy said and call him on it. The world sucks dude, but find a place other than the internets to vent like this. Doubly sad because Joe the Barbarian is just a perfect comic, really. A few things though...An "establishing shot" is not any or all shots of exteriors from a medium to wide angle. Sorry. As commenters over there pointed out, it seems clear that environment will be important later, so maybe that's why we're getting all this visual information now, but it's also just mood-setting in the sense that, when you're a sad-ass kid around Joe's age, every little detail of your shit-walk home become vividly real. There's pathos in Sean Murphy's beautiful artwork. Expect an appreciation of Joe the Barbarian from us later this week.

--Original Ross Campbell art is being auctioned off to aid the incredibly fucked the fuck up situation down in Haiti. Also, check out Jay Smooth's video on Haiti.


-Most of y'all don't care, but there's a new mixtape from the great Fabo! He raps about space and 3-D a lot. That's comics-related, no? Check it out over here.

-In other non-comics news, Joseph, a frequent commenter over here, released his band No Gang Colors' EP. It's called This Is Your God and it destroys. Check it out here.

- I'm not a big fan of cutesy, quirky comics, but Scott Pilgrim does an incredible job of being funny, sad, memorable and sorta beautiful while not talking down to itself or its fans. It's nostalgia-heavy, full of video game and nerd references, but also about the true life shit we all have to go through--most importantly how it both sucks and rules to be 24 and unmotivated. I was originally a hater of the upcoming movie, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, but after the casting and the above screen shot, I think I'm ready.

-Jack Kirby's Visual Interpretations of God. These images are especially interesting because they are three of the, "very few pieces of his own work that Jack Kirby displayed in his home" and therefore in some way closest to his heart. Part of the reason why Kirby always managed to be interesting was because he managed to slip his ideas about the world and religion into his comics. There's a look and a power to Kirby's God here and he could easily be substituted for Galactus in these images. He looks onto an insane Boschian world with cold but power filled eyes doing nothing. Without the humanity of Crumb's version, this old testament God feels more like an alien than anything close to humanity.


-Hey, you see that? The new Elephantmen trade features a quote from this blog! Funny that it's a quote from the very first post on the site. Elephantmen remains one of the best monthlies out there. Every issue starts out kinda weird and nearly rote, like you've seen this all before, and then slowly page-by-page, Starkings builds up the ideas and smaller details until it just sorta leaves you blown away by the final page.

1/20/2010

Daytripper #2: A Real Chill Comic, Brah.

Man, here's the deal with Ba and Moon's Daytripper. The main character is interested in like you know, seeing the world and experiencing stuff and like, man, think about how everything is just like by chance and you know, you could be just swimming in the ocean while your best bro takes photos and bam, you take a break to chill on a boat and you meet a real fine chick (#2) or like, you're taking a few moments for yourself at a crappy bar but like, it's cool the bar's crappy because that means it's authentic, and you really need a drink because your dad is famous and getting some mad important award and you're not famous or getting awards and that sucks and then like man, some real aggro dude comes in and needs some "H" so he fires his gun and yo, he totally ices you (#2). Maybe. It's about chance and fate so maybe it isn't what we think. So deep and heavy. Like films by that French guy Gaspar Noe or Quentin Tarantino or even Crash--I sold my DVD of Crash though, my African-American studies prof told me it wasn't as insightful as I thought it to be.

Before reading Daytripper, I knew Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon were brothers, but it was only reading two issues of Daytripper that I realized they were, yes, bros. To steal from Hipster Runoff they're chill, alt-bros to be exact.

Now, it isn't that a comic book or any kind of art can't be about the privileged or the well-to-do or the plain clueless, that even the tiniest of existential crises aren't worth delving into, but Daytripper takes it all at such face value, so sincerely, that it becomes deeply insincere. It all kinda becomes really clear when Bras and the girl in the boat are wandering through a Brazilian tchotchke shop with Bras' best bro, who's busy taking photos of everything. The girl explains to Bras: "It's through his photo that he tells us his dreams".

Okay? Seriously. Fuck this girl. Look, it's 2010. Can you make any piece of art about a bunch of attractive well-to-do people experiencing foreign places via nazel-gaving journaling or douchey photographs and not sorta, kinda, maybe question it? Even just a bit? Now, I'm not saying it's the Sao Paulo-born brothers' duty to approach stuff from this angle, if anything is clear in Daytripper it's that you don't have to be a dopey white guy to grossly misrepresent and misunderstand cultures, even your own, but it's kind of amazing that they could approach a group of characters without any insight. There's not even a kind of jabbing and playful, yet serious and sympathetic critique of traveling and self-discovery as seen in say, Darjeeling Limited, this is just all at face value.

Probably not very fair--but this isn't a fair review--but I finally got around to Tardi's West Coast Blues last night and one of the most fascinating aspects of it is how the main character, George Gerfaut is having a sort of existential crisis, something of a real one too as he ultimately leaves his nice life for vagrancy for a while, and how the comic never presents this as hip or cool or searching or anything. It's depression. Not ennui or a rejection of the middle-class. Just a selfish guy being a fool. You still feel his sadness, his confusion, but it's always put into focus. That's an approach that would've helped Daytripper a bit.

But really any kind of something would help Daytripper. To even say Ba and Moon are journaling here would imply they reveal anything about the character or his feelings in an interesting or touching way. They don't. Because they don't need to. The audience for this work feels the same way as the brothers and their character. All of it's just sorta absorbed through osmosis. So slip off your Urban Outfitters Vans, put your Animal Collective LP on, and chill out to Daytripper, bro.

1/18/2010

Punisher: FrankenCastle

When I was a kid, Punisher was a comic book reserved for my friend’s older brother--far too mature for me, a reader of “pussy” comics like the X-Men and “faggy” characters like Captain America. Punisher isn’t a name like “Spider-Man”—a title used to hide his secret identity--it is his identity, it’s what he is. Frank Castle was not a super hero, as my friend’s older brother reminded me over and over, but a regular man who was on a revenge mission to kill the criminals who took the lives of his family.

But now it’s 2010, and there are two comics with the character “The Punisher”. One of which is the gritty, hard-ass gangster comic Punisher Frank Castle: MAX, which satiates the need for those violent stories that I associated the character with for so long, and what most people want when reading an issue of Punisher. They are continuity based within themselves, they don’t touch the “Marvel 616” events and they're pretty good.

The other is the re-launched Punisher, which is completely within Marvel continuity. Where the MAX title is violent and based more in gritty comic book “reality”, Punisher has Frank Castle using secret caches of weapons containing Pym Particles and Goblin pumpkin bombs.

The comics are the two sides of the same skull encrusted coin, one a gangster fighting, machine gun wielding dick-kicker and the other being a guy who hunted Spider-Man and has fought the Hulk. Both books have a purpose for the character, but honestly, I don’t care about that gangster shit, and like the character much better when he’s a Batman who will fire a gun. And I like him even better as a zombie-type Batman who will fire a gun. Which brings us to the in-continuity weirdness that is "Frankencastle".

Taking chances with a simple character is what makes comics great and when there's two series, and one satisfies actual fans of the series--all those older brothers still out there--it doesn’t matter if you do something crazy like make Punisher a Frankenstein because anyone who wouldn’t want to read it could just read the MAX book. As long as it makes sense and is, you know, good, there isn’t a problem.

Recently, in Punisher, Frank Castle has lost it all, having killed his own resurrected family, and lost his sanity and motivation to do anything but kill Norman Osborn and end his “Dark Reign”. Making Osborn’s “List”—a literal to do list compiling the names of the last few things holding him back from complete power—Frank Castle is hunted down by H.A.M.M.E.R. agents, who are led by the son of Wolverine, Daken. Not The Sentry, not Bullseye, Daken.With no healing factor or set of super powers, Daken overpowered the physically and mentally drained Punisher, literally cutting him to pieces.
Adding insult to injury, Daken threw Castle’s body into the sewers and the grunts of H.A.M.M.E.R. were sent in to pick up the pieces, flying in on Goblin Gliders only to find Moloids picking up the limbs of the murdered man.

Picking off the blind subterranean humans like they were sub-human, the men find themselves face to face with Man-Thing, who burns them with his Touch of Fear, protecting the cowering Moloids, and the Punisher puzzle pieces in their arms.

Punisher finds himself awakening surrounded by a legion of monsters, in fact, The Legion of Monsters, staring down at him. Castle begins attacking everyone in the room, until Morbius the Living Vampire, with the help of the sight of his new face, snap him out of his rage.

Castle finds himself in an underground city, populated entirely by monsters. Not just by big names like Morbius and Man-Thing (those are big names, right?), but every monster you can think of. Every Marvel dragon from issues of Strange Tales, all the Jack Kirby lumpy headed weirdos and red skinned trolls--they all live there. They can’t live on the surface so they’ve made a home for themselves underground.

Morbius and the other League of Monster members have become their leaders, but more importantly, their protectors. Most of these monsters are simply trying to live, they aren’t huge or vicious, they are husbands and wives with children. They don’t have the means to defend themselves when a group of stereotypically Japanese samurai called “Hunter of Monster Special Force” start killing and kidnapping the citizens. Too ugly and scary to live above ground, but hunted in the sewers, they live in fear.

As all of this weird, awesome information's provided for the reader, Morbius is keeping Frankencastle alive with pills that help his brain stay active and keep his mind from turning as ugly as his new exterior. With nothing to lose, nothing to win, with nothing period, Punisher just wants to be left alone, to die in peace. With Osborn in control, and having lost one of the most important fights of his life, he is completely broken. He doesn’t care about the surface anymore, or fighting crime, or living. The Punisher is no more, and even FrankCastle is just a patchwork of flesh and metal designed to keep him alive. He has nothing to un-live for.

Existing on live rats caught with his bare hands, Castle takes one of his pills just to straighten out enough to kill himself when a small, crippled Moloid walks in, one deformed arm and a Devo shirt, brings the suicidal Castle a candy bar, and invites himself to sit down to watch the Fear Agent movie on Frank’s little nine inch television.

This little Moloid, named Kid, but most likely not actually a kid, affects Frankencastle, turning him from monster back to a man. Something that Frank Castle has lacked since the death of his family is compassion. His whole existence since their murder has been rooted in anger and a need for revenge. Now there’s no chance of him ever stopping all the bad men in the world: They are in power, the Green Goblin is an America Hero. However, that’s on the surface, down in the monster’s world, he has the chance to make a difference.

On a tour of the underground facilities, Frank Castle realizes the scale of their operation. It’s not a few abandoned subway stations and a utility room like the Morlocks had, it’s an actual city, with buildings and markets, creatures of all kind live here, united only because they fall under the banner of “Monster”. Seeing a museum of weapons that have been used against monsters, Frankencastle understands what they’ve been against. The character known for his lack of compassion, his hard-lined, hard-nosed, take no prisoners attitude begins to feel something.

Sleeping in his small room, Castle is startled awake by an explosion, and Kid at his door. The small, mute child doesn’t even have the chance to run across the room when he’s shot down by the monster-hunting samurai. Dying in Frank’s arms, Kid dies slowly, and Punisher has a change of heart. Falling apart but stitched together, Punisher is reborn, no longer just seeking to kill the “bad guys”, but to protect the good guys, the little guys, the ones who can’t protect themselves.Frankencastle, the monster, the Punisher, is even more of an unlikely hero than he was while alive, but more importantly, he has a lot more heart. The Punisher has done everything for the memory of his family, but his hate blinded him into killing any and everyone. But it's through a Moloid in a DEVO shirt that The Punisher regains focus and purpose...and it's tempered by something not so problematic as "I'm going to kill any and everybody evil because my family was killed."

"FrankenCastle" is an unconventional approach to reinventing a character, but works better than just having a few one-shots (Wolverine) until the main series comes back, or in Punisher’s case, relying on the MAX series until he has a place in continuity again. Punisher is too bad-ass, and if you think about it, irresponsible and basically a horrible person. There's nothing for a reader to care about, except the violence. Literally taking the character apart and putting him back together again, "FrankenCastle" puts emotion into the character. You root for him because you believe in what he’s doing, not just because you want to see him kill someone. This in-continuity, for-all-ages reboot is as radical and weird as all the canonical superhero deconstructions...and it's a lot less cynical. Your friend's older brother would hate it.

1/14/2010

Hellboy: Bride of Hell


It's sometimes hard to comprehend Mike Mignola's consistency as a creator, writer, and still occasionally, artist. He has been exploring the same sort of themes, with the same character, and with the same sort of quality writing for so many years. This time Mignola continues developing Hellboy’s relationship with the Catholic Church and his relationships to other demons but throws into "The Bride of Hell" a fascinating parallel and then, startling contrast between Hellboy's employer, the B.P.R.D, and the many other secret organizations at work in Mignola's universe.

Though it's quickly stuffed into the background, it's important to remember that the root of the story is the search for a missing girl and the missing girl's father turning to the B.P.R.D. Most of this story is Hellboy going at it alone, in the shit so to speak, but it hovers in the background of the story, only showing up on the first page or so. The B.P.R.D. isn’t even mentioned by name, just hinted at in the press release narration and made clear via the silent official drinking from his B.P.R.D. mug staring straight at the reader. It's a memorably strange intro to one of the weirder Hellboy stories.
Mignola doesn’t show the organization's inner-workings but he does make a special point to note that it is a special branch of the U.S. government and is made a shining beacon when contrasted with other organizations like the Catholic Church, the Knights of Saint Hagan, King Solomon, and the Asmodeus’ disciples. Even though Hellboy doesn’t complete his mission, the truth of the situation is revealed and solved...and it's all the more disturbing because it doesn't have a healthy conclusion.
The B.P.R.D. shines because Hellboy is its figurehead and main agent. Hellboy lives in a world of grays while Asmodeus and Hagan’s disciple, Fitzroy, live in a world of absolutes. This gets at the main thrust of the Hellboy universe: Hellboy is a descendent of the old world but becomes a hero for the modern world. It’s the cycle that every generation goes through: the young replaces the old. Interestingly, "Bride of Hell" puts all characters and sensibilities up against the wall.

This tension between the past and present, from shifting values and sensibilities to more apparent things like how the world has physically changed is what's going on in something like Ware's Jimmy Corrigan too. Each generation of Corrigans adds its own weight to the succeeding one ultimately dooming the modern incarnation to a muted worthless man-child. Hellboy sees these dying institutions for what they are--demons of the past, like relatives trying to hold him back--and sheds them off with a quip, then punches them in the face. Of course, that’s not enough to get through unharmed. Hellboy kills the demon but his mission is essentially a failure. Even though he’s a champion of practicality and reason, it’s not enough to overcome the brute force of a harsh world and he's confronted with a character he can't save...because she doesn't want to be saved.

That I can review a comic drawn by the legendary, gets-better-with-age Richard Corben and not mention the art is a testament to how strong the writing is in "Bride of Hell".

1/13/2010

Powerful Panels: West Coast Blues by Jacques Tardi



There is something very curious that happens when the theoretical French get their hands on a bit of American low culture. Whether it is the transformation of the early hard-boiled detective novels of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett into what we know as the existential novel or Jean-Luc Godard's sometimes brilliant, always maddening reimaginings of gangster films, musicals, road movies et cetera, the French look into our pulp and see . . . possibility. There are few better examples of this phenomenon than Jacques Tardi's adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel West Coast Blues, which mashes together elements of American noir literature and films with a bit of jazz and blues and even superhero comics into something that is self-consciously formalistic and inventive, yet always great fun to read.

Briefly, West Coast Blues tells the story of George Gerfaut, a middle-aged salesman with a wife and two daughters who is going through something of a mid-life crisis. Gerfaut is being hunted by two hitmen--Carlo and Bastien--as a result of his unwittingly saving the life of a man the two had been contracted to kill. The panel we're looking at here is one of several circular inset panels that Tardi employs throughout the book with varying strategies. In this case what we have is a close-up detail of the ice cream cone ditched by Bastien as they spot Gerfaut swimming in the sea and head in after him.


At a basic level, this panel highlights the particular cinematic quality of Tardi's visual narrative strategy. By cutting in for a close detail on an incidental object, a technique used frequently by filmmakers such as Luis Bunuel, Tardi is identifying himself with a more avant-garde sort of visual storytelling. In highlighting this detail within an oddly shaped panel, Tardi demonstrates his comfort with leaving the storytelling apparatus on the surface, keeping the fact that we are reading a comic book in the front of readers' minds. There is also a rather weighty significance in that peculiar double-scoop cone. In the first place, it is almost comically phallic, as though Tardi were worried that if Bastien had tossed a traditional single-scoop cone aside, some readers just might miss the significance. Of course he probably had little reason for concern and yet this sense of self-conscious intentionality is felt throughout the book and lends in the reader a sense of detachment that oddly resonates with Gerfaut's own internal crisis.


Looking at the panel in the context of those that precede it, the representation of Carlo and Bastien imbues a sense of homoeroticism that meshes nicely with that phallic cone. These dudes clearly work out and are not afraid to show up at the beach in Speedos, even if they are here to murder some schmuck. As Carlo dutifully scopes the beach for their mark, Bastien leans coolly back on their vehicle, leisurely licking his double-scoop cone. This erotic linking of Carlo and Bastien, the sense of a partnership that extends beyond the professional takes on greater significance as the story progresses, culminating in Carlo's death at Gerfaut's hand, an event which leaves Bastien suddenly terribly alone.


In what is perhaps the most comical and yet emotionally real moments in the entire book, Bastien is shown preparing to bury Carlo's locker in the absence of his charred body. As he rummages through his dead partner's possessions, the sight of his spare pair of khaki briefs moves him to tears. Then he comes across Carlo's copy of the French Spiderman, which the narrator helpfully explains is unrelated to the Marvel superhero whose stories are published in Strange magazine. As he reads from his partner's comic book--the figure of the French Spiderman watching approvingly over his shoulder--he emotionally vows to track down Gerfaut and avenge his buddy's death, setting up the sequence of events that will carry the story to its end.


Returning to the sequence initiated by that drop of the cone, we see that the series of panels depicting Gerfaut's defensive strategy against his would-be killers enhances the foreshadowing function of the cone/phallus in a more direct, tactile sense. Finding himself pushed underwater by Carlo, Gerfaut reaches out for whatever is in front of him, which happens to be Bastien's crotch. So, using the universal defense of victims of male attackers everywhere, Gerfaut first exposes and then ruthlessly squeezes Bastien's balls, resulting in a confusion that ultimately allows him to escape. The carelessness with which Bastien treats his edible cone/phallus is almost karmically linked to the vulnerability of his testes.


This sequence again highlights the peculiar tension between the slapstick comic and the emotionally real that propels the story as a whole. At the same time we see the cruelty and ridiculousness of Carlo and Bastien, we also feel the latter's pain when his partner is killed. On the same token, while the rules of narrative dictate our identification with Gerfaut as the hero, we are just as often baffled or even disgusted by his actions as we are sympathetic to his plight.

1/06/2010

Doctor Who Week: Grant Morrison's Doctor Who #2 - "The World Shapers"


"Time? You don't understand the first thing about time!" This line, spoken by the Doctor at the climax of "The World Shapers"—the three-part story that comprises the second issue of Grant Morrison's Doctor Who —seems to me to get at what Doctor Who is really about: time. That might seem sorta obvious, but I'm not talking so much about time in the teleological or implications-of-time-travel sense, but rather of time as an almost aesthetic concept.

Doctor Who is a demonstratively complex figure; that dour imperturbability tinged with a knowing nonchalance—what Italians call sprezzatura—coupled with his submerged, yet still irrepressible need to do good peg him as an expression of the English Romantic temperament. The Doctor is unique, though, in blending the populist strain of Romanticism of Sir Walter Scott—"Mad" Jamie seems to have stepped right out of Waverly and into the Tardis—with the more theoretical High Romanticism of, say, Wordsworth or especially Shelley.


Of course Romanticism, with its political radicalism and rejection of contemporary literary culture, was born out of a complex aesthetic/ethical relationship with time. Thus as the Doctor repudiates the gaudy ostentation of the dead Time Lord's late-model Tardis, one can hear echoes of Wordsworth's rejection of 18th century poetic embellishment—or even Ruskin's association Neoclassical precision with slavery, but I'm getting a bit off track.

But what is really special about Morrison's treatment of Doctor Who in this story, and indeed what seems to place him firmly in the tradition of the Tom Baker era (even though the character is a different Doctor), is his reversal of conventional storytelling values. In a narrative that by any measure is remarkably economical, Morrison takes his luxurious time in drawing out incident. Panel after panel is spent in relishing the anachronistic oddity of the motley-clad Doctor milling about the Scottish highlands and glorying in the way the wind blows through his lavish curls. There is also the prolonged meditation on the pathos of the aged, "Mad" Jamie slowly decaying in his peat-roofed hovel.

The 'important' bits, on the other hand, are handled with a peremptoriness that borders on the comical. When the Doctor and Jamie finally confront the highly evolved Voord—who, I might add, are billed as a race of amphibious assassins—armed only with the Scot's slightly ridiculous sword, the "battle" is dispensed with in a mere panel. Then, after the anticlimactic defeat of the Voord, Jamie is allowed to run right through the force field that thwarted and killed the maintenance operative Maxilla a few panels before, though admittedly is does cause him a great deal of pain.

But just when it feels like the scales have tipped inexorably to the ridiculous, Morrison swerves sharply back to the downright poetic: first with Jamie's grand chivalric 'slaying' of the World Shaper machine and finally with the story's coda, which, echoing Genesis of the Daleks, shows two Time Lords concluding that the coming golden age of sentient life will be worth the several million years of suffering that will be wrought by Cybermen. I feel it almost superfluous to point out this moment's illustration of Shelley's conception of poets as "the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present." What matters, though, is that Morrison has somehow managed to translate the peculiar slapdash-serious of the television series into its comics equivalent, but without ever giving us the sense that he was trying to do so. Even more importantly, he has demonstrated the poetry of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who Week: Grant Morrison's Doctor Who #1

The few reviews and discussions I've seen of these issues plays the rather easy game of "spot the Morrison trademarks" which is interesting and all, but this stuff's more interesting in terms of how Morrison's style kinda fits Doctor Who than the other way around. It's more feasible--and way more interesting--to think about the probably huge influence Doctor Who had on a young Grant Morrison which in turn, made him write some good Doctor Who stories, which after like 20-plus years of comics writing, some of these weird Who-isms look like total Morrison trademarks, especially if you haven't seen a whole lot of the TV show.

Still, a few aspects seem particularly Morrison-like beyond a superficial "this is bat-shit crazy like a Morrison comic" reading. In the first story "Changes", about a shape-shifter that's gotten inside the TARDIS, Morrison moves the reader through a particularly malleable and strange series of landscapes all the while moving the story towards the inevitable cliche of every shapeshifter storyline: The shapeshifter turns into a member of the crew and they have to play "Which is the real one?".

It's a good example of Morrison's interests in genre expectations and also playful, genre explosion. He leads us towards the inevitable and then jokingly switches it up, as the "which one is it" tension last a single panel before Frobisher points out "[The Shapeshifter] can't duplicate clothing" and so, Peri's necklace on the false Peri is colored to look like the real Peri's necklace but is in fact, "fused into the flesh". Reading it, especially knowing this is licensed comic, you're really expecting it to stupidly "go-there" and so, it's doubly jarring and extra funny when Frobisher's just like, "Dude, it's obvious which one is the real one" and then, the Shapeshifter freaks out and turns into a Tiger...Frobisher turns into a Tiger too, and they fight it out. That's Morrison in a nutshell and it's Doctor Who at its best, a grand mix of exactly what's expected and some very clever reversals and deconstructions.

The second story "Culture Shock", with art by Bryan Hitch (also interesting to note that Richard Starkings is credited as "Editor" on this story), is very Morrison-esque but again, not because it's full of trippy, from-another-world weirdness and a quasi-visionquest, but because of it's overarching warmth and optimism. What the best work from Morrison has-- be it Doom Patrol or All-Star Superman--is a spectacular understanding and presentation of the fucked-up, darkness of the world and a touching refusal to give into that darkness. Morrison stories often end happily, just not the simplistic "happy" you see in most comics or movies.

"Culture Shock" presents a self-doubting Doctor Who unsure of what or why he's doing what he does. With the TARDIS parked on the edge of picturesque cliff, overlooking the sun setting on water, he asks: "What's the point of all this bumming around time and space?". A few frames later, perched on rock, he tells the TARDIS, "You're almost as old and useless as I am!". This is intercut with a virus speaking to the reader and apparently heard by the Doctor as well. Even in this moment of self-doubt, the Doctor thinks to respond to the "telepathic cry for help" and jumps into action.

What makes it cool and extra affecting is how at first, you think the Doctor's apathy will win out ("I don't supposed I need to get involved...too many cooks spoil the child as they say") but then, he changes his mind and acts, encountering a slowly dying (and shrinking) Brontasaurus from which the telepathic cries stemmed. He quickly helps it, injecting it with "maxenshudicea" (whatever that is) and drops it in the ocean. Then, the Doctor playfully strolls back to the TARDIS swinging his umbrella, and says "Well? Don't just sit there. We've got people to see, places to go, things to do!" and the TARDIS flies away, ending the story. The shift from self-doubt to self-assurance is palpable and framing all this crazy space stuff around the basic idea of helping a sick animal (it just happens to be a purple Brontasaurus here) and re-gaining an understanding of purpose is brilliant in being both down-to-earth and relateable, while still being grand and cosmic and all about mortality and life/death and stuff.

Doctor Who Week: Doctor Who Comics

If you want to know why Doctor Who isn't simply about plot or character or whatever, go read some of the comics. Dunno, maybe if you stayed up for a few days and played old scores from Dudley Simpson or Peter Howell as you read it, they'd work, but as it is, they just kinda melt away moments after you read them. Much of the wonder and weirdness and charm of the show doesn't translate to comics. Not that it even really should because I'm sure back when the show was on and everything, these added doses of Doctor Who on the newsstands were fairly exciting.

Now though, they're significantly more interesting for who worked on them and well, a ton of really interesting people did some Doctor Who comics. Dave Gibbons drew a bunch of them, Steve Moore wrote a whole lot of them, and, just from memory here, Alan Moore, Bryan Hitch, Pat Mills, Walt Simonson, John Wagner, Steve Dillon and most importantly--to me at least--Grant Morrison. Like the show itself, these comics, in retrospect are all about form and limits and those limits being stretched.

Trying to spot the aspects of a whole bunch of personality-filled artists and writers working within the confines of a super-established character is really fun. Additionally fun because so many of these are medium-length "strips" sometimes in multiple parts over a few issues, sometimes self-contained, and most notably, because all these comics auteurs weren't comics auteurs quite yet. Where their styles begin or end and where Doctor Who begins or ends and where editors stepped in--though some of the editors too, are of note, like Richard Starkings--is all awesomely muddled.

Today, David and I are going to review Grant Morrison's Doctor Who stories which were reissued by IDW last fall as Grant Morrison's Doctor Who issues 1 & 2 last fall and were recently collected in the trade called Doctor Who Classics Volume 3.

1/05/2010

Doctor Who Week: Doctor Who & Hypnagogic Pop

In the August issue of the British music magazine Wire--subtitled "adventures in Modern music"--there was a piece on an American music movement that writer David Keenan dubbed "hypnagogic pop", defined as this:
"Hypnagogic pop is pop music refracted through the memory of a memory. It draws its poweer from the 1980s pop culture into which many of the genre's players were born, and which is only now being factored into underground music as a spectral influence. Hypnagogic realms are the ones between waking and sleeping, liminal zones where mis-hearings and hallucinations feed into the formation of dreams."
Like a lot of crazy, still-being-formed trends, "hypnagogic pop" is more one of those "you know it when you hear it" type sounds. The way I've been selling it to people though is "Imagine if Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald tried to recreate the soundtrack to say, Blade Runner while high on painkillers". Of course, that makes no more sense than Keenan's definition, but that's kinda the point.

It's warm, trippy electronic music that sounds like a lot of stuff from our collective pop culture past but very new and different. The sounds, tones, and feeling of all the popular culture you grew up on if you're between twenty and forty just minus the "popular" part, so the songs can last for forty minutes or crib from pop hits of the even further past and just kinda in general, wander around in their own sonic spaces.

I won't and can't vouch for every artist under the umbrella of "hypnagogic pop", but the whole scene is interesting, whether it's Washed-Out out yacht rock-ing "yacht rock" or Ducktails turning like, party time TV bumper music into it's own kind of bliss-out or slightly more popular groups like Wavves and Girls (who fit Keenan's definition, though no one except for me is putting them under that label).

Still, the music's a bit weak and navel-gazing--save for Wavves and Girls, whose music is about navel-gazing--and as far as I can tell, the only artist really worth something is James Ferraro, pictured at the top of this post, next to Tom Baker. Ferraro's work is significantly more out-there than the rest of the hypnagogic pop-ers' work: He releases dozens and dozens of CD-Rs every year, songs are usually 20 to 40 minutes long, and it's all wrapped around a late 70s to early 90s fuzzy, warbly VHS, Reagan-inspired doomsday conceit. Or something. One of my favorite releases of his was this year's Citrac, a 2-LP set of songs from past releases with titles like "Computer Chipped Police" and "Flesh Circuit" and "Liquid Metal".

The cover (pictured below) is an S & M dude standing triumphant in front of a scene that's a lot like the place where the finale of Cobra takes place. Reverse side is a messy still from CNN International from the inside of a fighter plane; the inner sleeves are a collage of stuff from Left Behind and Robocop and Lawnmower Man. In a way, I sorta think the "statement" being made is kinda obvious but well, something about the rather disastrous current state of the world sent through the lens of 80s action movies and weirdo Christian pop-culture phenomenons. It's nonsense and it's not.
That all these releases are very much handmade, worked-on, and thought out, and totally free of all the usual music bullshit even "indie" artists are a part of now--most of Ferraro's stuff is only available on super limited CD-Rs--adds to their appeal: They're rejecting the smoothed-out, super-clean, computer assisted everything of this decade. This is where "hypnagogic pop" and Ferraro especially, intersect (for me) with Doctor Who...and why the new Doctor Who is not only bad, but kinda like, morally problematic. Interestingly, Keenan's "hypnagogic pop" article invokes the sense of half-dreaming, which isn't all that different from the whole "3am" vibe I was just babbling about in Doctor Who.

I also think the music is working on a level not all that different from Doctor Who: Messing with the collective unconscious of science-fiction and genre in general, and bending it all kinds of new weird ways. See, Doctor Who came about at a very interesting time in science-fiction history--the early sixties. The 1950s had seen a kind of tipping point for sci-fi, where it was no longer the pieces here and there, in a Poe or Verne or Wells story, in Lovecraft's conflation of hell and the outer limits, Buck Rogers and Superman but an increasingly dominant aspect of popular culture. And so, episodes of Doctor Who just kinda jam all this stuff together and cleverly update or flip it.

"Genesis of the Daleks" is just a WWII allegory sent into space without losing all the complexities of the actual event. Check out "The Power of Kroll" which is a Lovecraft story but minus that whole pesky, racial superiority thing Lovecraft injects into everything. Doctor Who is taking sci-fi tropes and making them weirder and cooler, in part because it's sent through Tom Baker's meta-smirking--which helps the whole real/not-real, hypnagogic, 3am vibe--and in part because it was using technology of the era, which just happens to be stuff that still looks awesome in 2010.

And though Ferraro's consciously using the past and Doctor Who was to some extent, employing the cutting-edge, or the cutting-edge on a BBC budget, it was still indeed an aesthetic choice. One that thirty of so years later is still totally awesome, but may actually hold more power now. Think of it as how something like Fantastic Mr. Fox is not only really cool on its own, but how it brings stuff like those old Harryhausen movies back into context. A continuum of the hand-made and thoughtful. Inverted images, dirt-cheap green screen, third-generation video quality due to overlapped effects, etc. are a huge part of Doctor Who's appeal because it's in part, an aesthetic experience--and all you nerds gotta remember that.




1/04/2010

Doctor Who Week: The Cliffhanger Cut-Away


Last post was all about the happy accidents of Doctor Who. The limiting factors that ultimately make the show better and weirder. This post though, is about the two acts of intentionality that anchor each episode...and always make it better and weirder: the theme song and the end-of-episode "cut-away" that teases the next episode.

Listen to the way that rubbery, from-space bassline meets up with some synth or theremin noises, all essentially scoring a slightly more "Pop" version of Dave's trip in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It gets you pumped. It's a classic, telling theme song. The same way the Full House song gets you ready for family comedy wackiness or, like, that sad-sack joint from Cheers gets you amped to empathetically chuckle along with some losers in a bar, the Doctor Who theme prepares you for the odd, always 3am alternate reality, hung-over-but-heady pace of the show.

That's the thing about Doctor Who: it's this strange, kinda boring but engrossing show, and just as you're nodding off or whatever from the flat, mostly music-less tone, that space-prog theme song kicks-off the new episode and you're just like, "Oh shit, how's Sarah--who's kinda bangin' by the way--gonna escape the Wastelands?!". It's on. That signature, extended ping sound and bassline though, serve an even greater purpose when it comes to the end of the episode cut-away.

See, each show always does this super-abrupt, kinda avant-garde, mid-word, mid-action jump to the credits. It doesn't fade-out or wrap-up nicely, it's this odd, a-few-seconds-before-you-expect-it cut-away, just as each episode's action is about to come to an end or building up to something that won't wrap-up in the next 18 seconds. You know it's coming because the Doctor Who theme starts rising out of the soundtrack to warn you, but it's always jarring when, just as the bassline chugs through, the credits arrive. Here's a fairly typical example from one of the show's best serials, Genesis of the Daleks. Just as a new, obviously important character arrives...the cut-away:


Now that, though, is still sort of a typical use of TV (or just serialization in any kind): End theme on a shocking twist or new piece of information. It's especially cool and fucked-up, but it's still working on the need to have questions answered and all that. The best use of the Doctor Who cut-away though, when it kinda becomes its own thing, is when it's employed at episode's end almost to like, let you have a breather or chill-out when things have gotten too crazy and the stakes too high. Because it's sci-fi, people's lives or the universe's fate is often seconds from destruction, so this happens quite a lot.

But there's just something so perfectly disturbing about letting an episode build to this moment of fear and disaster and just as it seems like too much--go to credits. See below, where it's not even something like explainable that's happening, it's just that Davros is yelling "DESTROY" and it's weird and fucked-up feeling and there's nowhere to go but the credits. I'd advise, if you can spare the entire five minutes, even if you don't know what the heck is going on in the clip, to watch the whole thing. You'll get a better sense of the palpable sense of apocalypse that the cut-away relieves you from:


An argument can be made that this adheres to the main goal of TV: to keep you coming back. It's an especially cool and effective way of doing so, and while it has the strange byproduct of making you relieved the episode's over, you'll return next week or load your next tape in because nothing's completed. But even when an entire serial's over, the cut-away remains. Notice how this serial wraps-up quite well, the Doctor even imparts some kind words and junk, but the cut-away's as awkward as ever:


I think it has something to do with the never-goes-away, onto another adventure reality of a character and series like Doctor Who. That weird dread or jarring unexpectedness never's totally gone, the show can never effectively wrap-up. There's always somewhere else to go. And so, that abrupt jump to the credits, as the theme song rises in volume is always there. This is especially moving in episodes where something very significant occurs.When say, Sarah is dropped off on earth or when Leela stays on Gallifrey.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Tom Baker's Doctor Who is how he's both this totally chill bro and this very awkward, kinda emotionally stunted weirdo. He's really bad at goodbyes. He often smirks or jokes around instead and bails out a few moments before he really should. The Doctor's essentially immortal (or something) but he acts like he's always running out of time. Everything is temporal and unstable, he's always keeping chaos at bay. Comfort lasts a few moments, duty and responsibility return and you'll be up against a creeper like Davros or some Cybermen or some Sontarans soon enough whether your sidekick is gonna accompany you or wed some fruity Gallifrey-an (?). The cut-away is a structural trick, a kind of well-used piece of television grammar that imparts some of that same, temporal feeling onto the audience.

1/03/2010

Doctor Who Week: 3am Television

There's a rather notable quote about famed "worst director ever" Ed Wood's most infamous movie, Plan 9 From Outer Space: "No matter what time of day you watch Plan 9 From Outer Space - it always feels like three in the morning." I've also read of this concept--"3am cinema"--being applied to David Lynch's work.

The point of the quote is, Wood could sustain a mood and though the movie's awful, the acting sucks, and the dialogue is embarrassing, one doesn't forget Plan 9 in part because of that "three in the morning" feeling it transfers over to viewers. A narcotic, whirlpool of images and sounds with some semblance of plot poking out here and there. I'd like to append the term to the old Doctor Who series. Call it 3am television.

There's often a weird, hard-to-articulate power in work that though, edging towards the amateur or unprofessional, can also tap into something a more polished, more corporate thing just can't. This is what marks the resurrected Doctor Who series from its 1963-1989 incarnation(s). Inscrutable plots come off lot worse when the whole thing's coated in CGI and shot single-camera style. There's no room for chaos. The new Doctor Who is like a fan-film with the biggest budget ever. A lot of the ideas are there, it's all put together with love, but it's a heartless facsimile of the real thing.

All the things smoothed-out, made shiny and nice by the new series is precisely what made the old show so good. The way episodes would lumber back and forth between a shot on video soundstage scene and filmed on-location action sequence. The weird balance between really awesome effects and "that'll do" stuff, sometimes occupying the same sequence. Tom Baker both totally selling the reality of the show and possessing a kind of ironic detachment from it all, teetering on making the show meta. The same corridor presented as three different corridors and they've only slightly changed the lighting. A very real-world location (an indoor swimming pool, a rock quarry, etc.) presented unadorned and sold to the viewer as another world. A scene that's full of theatrically-trained actors and guys in weird suits as whirling, droning synths quiver in the background.

But there's something perfect--almost form meeting content--about a show dealing with time travel and displaced time that features a schizophrenic mise en scene that indeed, gives the viewer the feeling of it being three in the morning, right?

Doctor Who Week Begins!

So later tonight, some new Doctor Who special wraps-up and it'll mean another bunch of days of people asking me about it, talking about it, and unfortunately, using the new series as a way to disparage in one way or another, the old series which is um, infinitely better than the latest metrosexual version(s).

As a kind of antidote to all that, I'm holding a "Doctor Who Week" in which I (and maybe a few of the others around here) celebrate and pontificate on the old serials, particularly the "Fourth Doctor", Tom Baker Years. Enjoy! For very a smart, even-handed approach to the latest group of specials, I'd encourage you to head over to The House Next Door who've been doing really great coverage of the series for years now.