Saturday, June 16, 2012

Watchmen and Goodfellas: A Post in Which Neither Shares Anything But the Post, Except Maybe Also A Theme That Came to Me At the End

So I'm going to write about a few different things, because everything I want to write about at the moment is bits and pieces.  So!  You're going to get a few small thoughts about things.  And some of them won't even be comics!

1.  Earlier today, Goodfellas was on TV.  It's right at the point where Joe Pesci kills Phil Leotardo from The Sopranos for saying something stupid (doesn't Joe Pesci kill everybody for that reason in the movie, though?).  In any case, I started watching from there (because who needs context when you've watched the movie a million times?).

A thought struck me, about halfway through my viewing; it came right at the moment when Joe Pesci gets word he's gonna get made (and there are SPOILERS from here on out, so beware!!!!), and Robert DeNiro tells him, "He's gonna get made!  This guy's gonna be boss one day!"  Except, and maybe this is colored by me watching The Sopranos, he's probably a little too old to be boss.  And then it struck me: this whole movie's about the myth of the American dream, more specifically, the myth of hard work.

See, everybody who works hard in this movie doesn't make it out alive or okay.  The people involved in the Lufthansa heist?  The only one who lives is DeNiro, and he ends up going to prison.  And that was hard work.  Hell, even Maury, the furniture salesman who hangs out with the guys and masterminded the whole heist, gets an icepick to the neck before he ever gets his cut of the thing.  Pesci gets killed when he thinks he's going to get made.  When Ray Liotta goes to prison, he keeps on telling his wife that they're on their own.

So everybody keeps working in the hopes that they're going to get paid or made or just be able to have an easier life.  But they don't.  The only way Liotta manages to be remotely successful at the end is to sell out; in other words, it's a stroke of luck.  It seems like everybody's success, even DeNiro's temporary one, is built on the backs of others.

2. A couple weeks ago, I bought the first issue of Before Watchmen.  It was largely because, hey, man, more Darwyn Cooke comics are always a good thing.  But.  Part of it was also because, man, tons of people were hating on it because of the politics of the whole thing.

For instance, here's a post on it by David Brothers, one of my favorite comics bloggers, but one with whom I vehemently disagree on this time: "Before Watchmen is Comic Book Poison".  So, let's go over a few points really quickly:

A.  I understand that the title's supposed to be incendiary, but man, I didn't feel any worse after reading the thing.  But!  Wait!  I was sick yesterday!  Maybe it's because I read BW?  No, wait, it's because it was 95 degrees out, I forgot my water bottle, and I walked to work, and no amount of rehydration could help me out.  (Sorry for the sarcasm, but I couldn't resist.)

B.  Apparently, my buying BW is a vote for
"-A comics industry that prizes properties over creators
-A comics industry that will effortlessly use its legal muscle to screw over creators
-A comics industry that strip-mines the past at the expense of the future", which isn't something I agree with.  For one thing, it's a vote for more Darwyn Cooke comics, at least buy me.  For another, it's a vote for comics where I don't have to worry about politics or who's getting screwed by which company, or whatever.

Honestly, and this is probably very un-liberal of me, but I'm kind of tired of everything I buy or participate in or whatever being part of some huge movement.  I feel like everywhere I turn these days, so many things are begging me to put my money in one place or another.  Watching The Avengers?  Spend just as much at the Hero Initiative (a charity for comics creators) because Kirby's estate isn't getting anything for it!  Buying Before Watchmen?  You must want creators to suffer!  Things like that, and not just in comics.  But y'know what, my money's scarce enough that I can't just givegivegive.  I understand creator rights.  In many cases, I even empathize with them.  But I simply can not allow them to restrict what I read/watch/listen to.  Because, see, if I start doing that, I either end up not enjoying anything or getting endlessly myopic.

An example of the latter point: recently, one of my favorite podcasts had one of the 'casters debating, basically with himself, for weeks on end about whether or not he would continue to read Marvel comics, because he just wasn't comfortable with the way Marvel was handling the Jack Kirby lawsuit or with the work conditions at the Marvel offices (referenced here and here).  And the thing that kind of vexed me was that his moral dilemma started with the work situation post and exacerbated from there.  So I went and read about the work situations, and...I can't.  I just can't.  Because, see, those work conditions?  So incredibly, incredibly familiar.  That's what nearly every public place is like these days.  Every single public place you go to these days has a staff that is utterly focused on endless numbers that supposedly reflect your performance or your value as a worker, and these numbers are being forced to stay up while the capability to perform every single one of these tasks is being cut and cut and cut.  This is corporate America.

And hey, I'm not saying don't buy because you're uncomfortable with something.  I should really, really point that out.  If you're utterly uncomfortable with something, don't buy it.  But do two other things first, please; firstly, don't force your views on others, and secondly, please please please apply that point of view to everything in your life.  It's simply not fair otherwise.

(PS: David Brothers and Jeff Lester, I want you to know that yes, I do love what you're doing, even if I disagree with you at times.  Just so you know.)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mr. Freeze: Beginnings

WARNING: There are spoilers for Batman Annual #1, which just came out yesterday.
Animated Mr. Freeze

Mr. Freeze is an interesting character in the Batman mythos.  He was first introduced in the 1950s, and he was just a crazy rogue scientist whose freeze gun backfired on him.  Nothing special, other than using cold to commit crimes (which is so extremely Silver Age, it's not even funny).

Then things got rewritten with Crisis on Infinite Earths, and, in 1992, Batman: The Animated Series had a very interesting episode, "Heart of Ice".  It recast Freeze as being more tragic than crazy.  In it, we learn that Freeze was previously Victor Fries (it's pronounced the same way as Freeze), a cryogenics scientist who's trying to save his wife's life while performing research at a science firm.  Eventually, his funding gets cut off, and, while he's begging the CEO to help him, the CEO kicks him into some chemicals, and his whole condition gets started.  This origin eventually became "canon" for the comics character, and pretty much everything since then has taken off of that.

After that, he has two main goals: revenge and saving his wife.  What I find fascinating about the character, especially in relation to the various other Batman villains, is how very different he is.  Yeah, he's crazy and working outside the system, but he has a goal: so many of the other Gotham characters perform crime for crime's sake, only there to antagonize Batman or Gotham or Robin and get attention and basically ruin everybody's day.  They're outside the system because they were always going to be outside the system, because it's the only way they know how.  Freeze, however, is outside the system because he's found that the system doesn't work for him.

(Tangent: I was just reading the Onion AV Club's review/recap of The Sopranos episode, "Luxury Lounge", and the recap talks a lot about how the character of Artie Bucco would, basically, rather fail than live outside the system, and I find that an interesting inverse to this character.  Heck, there might be an essay there...but that's for another day.)

So this is all established, and has been the story for 20 years.  Then Batman Annual #1 came out yesterday, and we got the "nu52" version of the character.

nu52 Mr. Freeze, from the Batman Annual

In the issue, we see events unfold, seemingly, like they always had, with a bit of streamlining.  Fries has been working at WayneCorp on cryogenics, one of his test subjects is Nora Fries, Wayne cuts out the project (he finds it morally objectionable because none of these subjects actually have a say, and...I kinda see it and kinda don't, because they've already agreed to be cryogenically frozen, you know?  If Walt Disney ever does get a chance to get out of the deep freeze, nobody's going to object because he can't choose to come out of it.  In any case, it's a little specious, is what I'm saying.), Fries tries to sneak in and bring her back after he's been barred from the premises, Wayne catches him, there's an accident, Fries becomes Freeze.


Except except except.

It turns out that Nora isn't Nora Fries; she's Nora Fields, the first person to be cryogenically frozen in 1943.  Fries had done his doctoral thesis on her, and went to WayneCorp just so he could test on her.

Oh, and he killed his mother when he was a kid.

So, in other words, Freeze is crazy and always has been, it's just that he eventually got a special freeze suit to go with it.  Quite honestly, I don't know what I think about it.  For one, it makes him just like every other Bat-villain.  He does what he does because he can, because that's how he would always operate.  There's no choice in the matter, it's his nature.  He isn't who he is because of somebody else's ignorance or callousness, which was always the tragedy of the character, he is who he is because he's insane.

But.  It's still a slightly interesting take on the character, and the execution of the issue isn't bad.  It's just...I liked him a little better the old way.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Man, The Myth, The Legend...unfortunately

So I have a deep, dark secret to tell: I would love to be Kenny Powers.  No, I don't think he's a good person, nor a role model, nor anything admirable.  But man, to get away with that much for that long, and still get the girl?  Not that April's a catch or anything.  But still.  (Yeah, I'm in a little bit of a weird place this time around; whatcha gonna do?)

But to wit, and to take us back to the beginning: Kenny Powers was a wunderkind pitcher who flushed it all down the drain with drugs and alcohol and every other possible addiction.  When we start in the first season, he tries to come back from being a gym teacher; from there, he gets the girl a first time, leaves her and goes to Mexico because he can't deal, goes back home, "deals" with the perils of single fatherhood, fakes his death, and then gets the girl again.  All in a trademarked outlandish, politically incorrect fashion.

There's some skill to this story: take a guy who's basically the biggest douchebag you'll ever meet, and make you root for him.  In spite of his casual racism and sexism and constant drug use (when his "best friend" ODs on cocaine in the third season, he makes sure he snorts up all of the rest of the drugs before moving on to clean the place up and steal the guy's car), you want to see him succeed.

That's an idea I've been wrestling with a lot: rooting for heavily flawed lead characters.  Whether it be mob movies, noir writing, or whatever else, all of us, at one point or another, want the protagonist, awful as he is, to make it out at least a little bit okay.  In many cases, it's because we see at least a little of ourselves in the characters.  But in this case, I think it's because Kenny has cast himself as the hero, and everybody else reinforces it, especially Stevie.  It helps that every single one of Kenny's enemies is even worse than Kenny is, especially Will Ferrell's Ashley Schaefer.  Man, what a JERK.

So yeah, Eastbound & Down: the hilarious show about one of the worst people you'd ever have the misfortune to meet.  Highly recommended, though not for the faint of heart.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A short introduction, and some opening thoughts

So the whole point of this blog, I guess, is to get down thoughts of mine on a variety of works in a variety of media, be they unfinished or finished.  In the coming time, I'm hoping to cover comics, movies, TV, books, what-have-you.  If you're interested in something, I'd love to hear about it; if you agree with me or think I'm an idiot, I want to hear about it (the latter, of course, civilly).  Some future blog posts, hopefully, will cover things like Bendis' mammoth Avengers run, the HBO show Luck, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and yes, the entire original GI Joe series (the stuff by Hama, even the Special Missions series and the Yearbooks), because I absolutely love some GI Joe.

But, right now, I'm gonna be talking about something that I finished a while back, Rick Remender's run on Punisher.

Now, the Punisher's an interesting character.  He was borne of a very 1970s fixation on revenge-driven, break-the-rules heroes, like Charles Bronson in Death Wish or Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, or any of a million other action heroes.  He slid easily into the '80s, where action heroes were big and loud and grimy and over-the-top, like Schwarzenegger in Commando or Stallone in, yes, Cobra.  But all of a sudden, the '90s hit, and nobody had any idea what to do with him (I have an inkling this is because the creators stopped watching the action movies of the time, and I'm being completely serious about this).

But then the aughties hit, and Garth Ennis came along, and he made the Punisher the villain of his own book.  All of a sudden, aside from just being the character who got to do what everybody else wished they could, he was the guy who got his old friends and the mother of his child (unknown to him) killed.  He was the one the government wanted to use because they simply didn't make killers that way anymore.  The time when he gets somebody to act like him?  She can't handle it and kills herself.  Anytime he intersects with anybody outside his world, they end up dead or scared stiff or horribly, horribly damaged.  This then went on to inform other writers, like Jason Aaron (who I'll talk about later), Greg Rucka, and the aforementioned Rick Remender.

Remender's run starts in media res, and the first 10 issues or so hinge on the big Marvel event of the time, Dark Reign.  Granted, if there were ever a Marvel event for the Punisher to sink into so wonderfully, it's the one where the bad guys are in charge.  Anyways, Frank's (Frank Castle is the Punisher's real name) starts off trying to assassinate Norman Osborn, chief baddie in Dark Reign, and failing horribly, because nobody's got his back.  From there, he goes after Osborn by going after his money, attacking casino after nightclub after hideout.  In a truly breathless five-issue sequence, he gains a new sidekick/analyst, a new arsenal (including Pym particles and an Ant-Man helmet), and, eventually, the eyes of his enemies.  Oh, and he manages to treat his new sidekick, Henry, like crap.

Which is sort of the point.  Frank isn't the villain anymore; he's a screw-up.  It's just that his life is writ so large that his screw-ups are, too.  He attacks the top cop of the country without any eyes into the situation, and he gets a huge target painted on his back.  He works too hard at going after the bad guys, never letting up, and they come after him even harder, by digging up his family and potentially resurrecting them.  And on and on it goes.  If there's a central thesis, it's this: If you're just one thing, you're no good at it.  Henry's a good analyst, but he's even better because he can leave it.  The Legion of Monsters are good protectors because they're more than that and they realize it.  The bad guys are even good at what they're doing because they're wearing a few different masks.

But Frank...Frank has to go off and kill the bad guys and steal their stuff.  And then do it again.  And the next day, he goes off and asks for more work and kills some more guys.  And he kills them and kills them and kills them.  And he does that all day, and he doesn't notice it when he's in over his head and gets himself killed (yes, killed), and even when he gets to be Franken-Castle, he does a barely tolerable job and only comes out ahead because of others.  As much as others think of him as some great soldier, he manages to stumble his way through.

Oh, yeah, Franken-Castle.

That happened.  Frank died and was resurrected by monsters and became an enforcer for them, and he was only good at it because he got incredibly, incredibly lucky.  It was a great storyline, and did a fantastic job of encapsulating Remender's entire run in microcosm.

So, I hope you enjoyed that.  Thanks for reading, and I hope you come back for more.