Thursday, August 29, 2019

Does Martian Manhunter #8 herald the return of one of comics' most gloriously stupid villains?!

Yesterday, I read Martian Manhunter #8 and, as a result, I have a theory.

It's rather out on a limb, but I can't shake it.

This odd miniseries---well, it's Martian Manhunter, how could it NOT be odd--has focused mostly on two things in its eight (wow, that's a lot given how little has happened) issues: J'onn's less-than-honorable background on (extremely weird) Mars as a crooked cop and his relationship with his police partner, the visually memorable Diane Meade:

SO memorable, she makes it hard to sleep.

While wending its way through J'onn's backstory, the creators have shown us the Vulture organization and Mr. V:

In Diane's case it should be VO5.

For the unknowing, "Vulture" and "Mr. V" are from Martian Manhunter's secret agent phase back in the late '60s.  

The story also name-drops "Dr. Trap", a villain from J'onn's time as the Bronze Wraith in the Justice Experience (a sliver retconned into his past by the Kate "Manhunter" Spencer series, the one that tried to make create a Mary Sue to serve as the Jack Knight of all DC's manhunter-named properties).

Based on these throwaways (and some other incidents too spoilery too share), the miniseries seems interested in folding in some pretty diverse aspects of Martian Manhunter lore.  Which is why THESE have me thinking:

On the one hand, moths could just be a metaphor for the Martian race; drawn to the flame that destroys them, and all. That would be a rather naturally grab for someone writing about DCU Martians.  

On the other hand....


I certainly hope so, and that his updated version shines with all the glory he deserves. If that happens, DC, there is much I will forgive you for....

Monday, August 26, 2019

Apex Lex is discount Neron

I have been wondering lately why no one but me seems to be rolling eyes at DC's current crossover schtick. I mean the "Doom" one with "Apex Lex" (which slows me down every time I type or read it, because I need to involuntarily eyeroll). Not the one with Leviathan.  Or the one with the Doomsday Clock.  Or the one that I probably don't even know about that probably involves Aquaman, because isn't there ALWAYS some Aquaman-based crossover happening at all times now...?

Doom is the one where they have cobbled together some folderol about Lex dying but getting better and embracing nihilism so that they could find some storyline excuse for the name "Legion of Doom", and being empowered by the latest new Cosmic Entity that is Beyond, Above, and Before all the OTHER previous Cosmic Entities because now we know the real story of the universe / multiverse / omniverse / metaverse / diversiverse / free verse.  Speaking of pretentious entities, all you kids who laugh at Silver Age names like "Starro" and "Despero" and "Amazo" can get off my lawn and read your comics about "Perpetua" and "Apex Lex" somewhere else.

Now-cosmically-empowered Lex is skittering about Earth offering Faustian power upgrades to any and almost all villains like he's the Exchange Counter in a DCUO game; "I'll offer you Spiked Synthium Shoulderguards and a Soder Cola if you agree to continue to be evil, which you are already doing for nothing."  

This ridiculous "Let's Make a Deal" routine is SUCH a clear copy of the demon Neron in the "Underworld Unleashed" storyline that I've been amazed that no one seems to be noticing it. But then I realized : Underworld Unleashed was 23 years ago, so a lot of readers just don't remember it.

In short, the '90s was the era in which DC, as part of its neoPlatinum age, made a statement of rejecting the moral relativism of anti-heroes and turned up the moral contrast between its heroes and villains.  Underworld Unleashed complemented this approach by using a convenient plot device (a magical demon from Hell!) to give power-ups to whatever villains DC wanted to make sexy again.  

That's part of a era-based cycle in comics. Over time the hero gets more powerful or SEEMS to be, because he keeps defeating his Rogue's Gallery again and again.  In short, Batman (or any other hero) always starts out like this:

What's this? The Cape Crusader pwned by the Penny Plunderer?!

and winds up like this:

Darkseid, killed by the man who was pwned by the Penny Plunderer

One of the signals that a continuity cycle is re-initializing is when the hero is de-powered or his villains get powered-up.  "Uh-oh! NOW you must BEWARE the Polka-Dot Man!"

"In exchange for your soul I shall give you...
this baseball bat!"

Villains who rely on gadgets for their abilities are granted "power internalization"; cold guns are replaced by ice powers, heat guns are replaced by pyrokinetics, the Prankster gets nanobots with which to craft props out of thin air.  Never forget that Underworld Unleashed turned Killer Moth into "Charaxes" and tried to sell us that as an improvement.

"What If...."
"...Alan Moore had created Killer Moth?"

"Apex Lex" is doing the same thing now, and, I note, making some of the same offers to the same villains. Somehow even though Carl Sands' original shadow-suit was eerie and powerful and then Neron gave him an upgraded one and now he's getting ANOTHER upgraded shadow-suit from Lex, he STILL comes off as a yutz.

Somehow you know that the Shade would STILL kick his ass, and without scuffing his shoes.

Lex's DoomShopping Network is also skipping some of the same villains previously skipped, such as the Riddler, who gets no offer from Lex (and demands to know why), who refused any offer from Neron, and who, you'll recall, was the only major villain in the "No Man's Land" crossover to do the sensible thing and just leave Gotham City.  The Riddler is immune to power upgrades because what he can do has nothing to do with 'powers'; his only limitation lies in what the WRITERS can do with him.

Lex, like Neron, is giving villains upgrades mostly just so that they can be bigger pains in the ass for heroes and as part of some Bigger Picture where he benefits from The Triumph of Evil.  Despite Lex's OWN upgrade from "Perpetua" (*snort*), his QVC-level offers seem pretty crappy.  Giving Cheetah a mystical artifact of the kind archeologist Barbara Minerva could dig up herself? Giving Black Manta a giant black mecha, which is the kind of thing Black Manta puts together in his garage on the weekends?  Giving Brainiac his 10,000th upgrade? At this point, I'm just hoping for a Steam version of Brainiac, so that the upgrades are automatic upon login.  Silver Age Lex, I remind you, could have outdone all this with some bed spring coils and the warden's busted transistor radio.

Yup; Lex Luthor invented Twitter.

The only difference this time around is that Lex seems to be making offers to heroes as well (Batgirl, Red Hood, Martian Manhunter), but, of course, those come to nothing. Those are mere exercises in showing us how good the good guys are by refusing to make a deal with the worst person they know, who is currently trying to bring about the end of the universe.

The end result of this event is certain: the DCiverse will NOT be destroyed, any classic villains who were powered up will, over time, return to their classic forms, and a few less-than-classic villains will retain their power ups, get a few good licks in against their traditional foe, and either take their place on a higher tier in their respective Rogue's Galleries or it will be collectively, silently decided that they are more useful as background Z-list bad guys, so their power ups will fade away until they finally move to Star City to fight Green Arrow.

I think there are a LOT of villains in Star City who'd love to hear from you, Apex Lex.  Then again, they are fighting Green Arrow... do they really NEED upgrades?

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Cinematic Greasepainting

Speaking of movies about the Joker...

The forthcoming Joaquin Phoenix film will probably be great.  Everyone involved seems good at their trade, JP's acting chops are unquestionable, and it seems so far to be rich and well thought out.

It's almost too bad it's not about the Joker.

Alternative interpretations of a character are fine; they are part of what makes a character mythic rather than merely literary.  I am not one of those people to complain "The REAL Joker would use more conditioner on his hair!"  Although that's probably true; he's rather vain.  

It's important to remember that these two pictures are of the same character.

But when an interpretation seems so entirely off-base that it lacks the character's central elements that make him recognizable, then I start to frown.  And that's the case with Joker.

The film tells the story of hard-luck stand-up comic Arthur Fleck in 1980s New York (even if they call it "Gotham") City.  After being dealt one too many bad hands by life, he cracks and becomes a clown-like public menace.  

The elements of this that miss the mark are pretty clear.  The Joker has a name, and a (tragic) backstory; he's a character for whom we will feel sympathy.  It's not surprising for a Hollywood film: these are near essentials for most cinematic storytelling, of course. They aren't a story so much as basic requirements for a protagonist. 

But those are elements that the character of the Joker, from a mythic perspective, LACKS and always has. It's part of the character's appeal--well, let's call it 'genius' or 'schtick', rather than appeal.  The fact that some characters (such as the Joker or the Phantom Stranger) do not have proper names, backgrounds and origins isn't some kind of oversight, a convenient lacuna that a later creator can "helpfully" back fill to suit their tastes.  It's an essential part of the character. Something that Dan Didio doesn't get, by the way.

"This" = Dan Didio

These characters aren't PEOPLE as much as they are concepts; the Evil Clown or the Mysterious Stranger. Much of their mythic power comes from that abstraction; if you rob them of that, there is little reason use to them. Unless they are just greasepaint to make your otherwise hard-to-sell movie suddenly salable, which the creators of Joker have nearly explicitly said it is what they are doing:

"[Director Todd} Phillips said it does not "follow anything from the comic books... That's what was interesting to me. We're not even doing Joker, but the story of becoming Joker." Rather, he used elements of the Joker lore to produce an original story." [Courtesy of Wikipedia.]

THAT is literary greasepainting. That's the kind of approach that turns the Phantom Stranger into one of Jesus's disciples or gives you Halle Berry's Catwoman.  You can focus on whether the results are good or not (Joker is likely to be a better film than Catwoman, for example), but don't ignore the role the 'greasepaint' method has in that and the longer term effects.  If the film is bad or flops, an opportunity was wasted and comic book movies take it on the chin.  If the film is good and succeeds, you are training creators that the key to using comic books as sources is to ignore as much of the original material as you can, except perhaps for the character's general appearance.

Not only does greasepainting happen with 'comic book movies', it's happening in comic books (writer Tom King's run on Batman isn't so much issues of Batman as is it Tom King's issues) and movies (Ari Aster's execrable work putting on a monster mask to pass as 'horror' rather than merely horrible). You could make the case that Bob Haney's body of work is almost entirely greasepainting.

Batman wants to live.
That's why he regularly jumps off tall buildings and gets himself put in a deathtrap every week,
same bat-time, same bat-channel.

In the case of Joker, Alan Moore is, of course, partly to blame for not getting the Joker right and in the vicious and crappy Killing Joke, convincing a generation of readers that the Joker is a tragic victim, the product of the world's callousness, and that at one time he was just like you and me. And if you don't believe my condemnation of what Alan Moore did with the Joker, maybe you'll believe Alan Moore himself:

"I’ve never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it. It was too nasty, it was too physically violent. There were some good things about it, but in terms of my writing, it’s not one of my favorite pieces.  
"I was naively hoping that there’d be a rush of fresh and original work by people coming up with their own. But, as I said, it [my work] was meant to be something that would liberate comics. Instead, it became this massive stumbling block that comics can’t even really seem to get around to this day. They’ve lost a lot of their original innocence, and they can’t get that back. And, they’re stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend."
putting more melodramatic weight on a character than appropriate and
 being stuck in a kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis.

It IS an interesting story, it's just not the JOKER's story. It's much more like Harvey "Two-Face" Dent's story (normal guy cracks under the pressure of a hard knock and turns against society).  In fact, most of my criticism of the Dark Knight's plot would vanish if the entire plot had been Two-Face's story with no Joker to be seen.  Meticulous planning to manipulate both sides of the law?  Dismantling the mobs by stealing their money AND catching them on RICO charges?  Pitting a boatload of good citizens against a boatload of bad criminals in a "Prisoner's Dilemma" to make a point about the arbitrary distinctions between good and evil?  Really, what could be more Two-Face-y than that? Why is the Joker in Two-Face's movie at all?

The Joker's original origin (in the idiotic "Man Behind the Red Hood", Detective Comics #148, 1951) at least knew well enough to preserve several essential elements of the Joker (with the efficiency typical of Golden Age comics stories, I might add):


  • you don't get to know his name;
  • you don't get to see his face before he becomes the Joker;
  • he was already a crook and terrible person BEFORE his accident;
  • he was a schemer and inventor (he designed the red hood device to allow him to enter inhospitable environments like chemical plants)
  • he was goal-oriented ("I will steal $X and then retire!")
  • he had style and showmanship (really, even in Gotham, who dons a tuxedo to rob a chemical plant off-hours?);
  • he was opportunistic ("I'll use this to my advantage!"); and
  • he was thematically-oriented and brand conscious ("Ooo, the Joker is a much better schtick than the Red Hood!")

Even in this crappy throwaway detective story, Golden Age writers knew not to mess with the character's core.  Even Golden Age writers, the creators who gave us penny-themed villains and stories about milk racketeers, even THOSE people would have laughed at the foolishness of positing that the Joker, Batman's archenemy an all-around threat to society, was some poor schlubby hack who just had a bad day that somehow magically turned him into a criminal genius.  How can modern creators and readers have less common sense than the people who put giant props in every commercial property in Gotham City?!

This movie SHOULD have been Joaquin Phoenix as JOE COYNE, THE PENNY PLUNDERER.
Because THAT would have been awesome. That would have been ART.

The Joker is:

  • not a tragic figure; he's a figure who finds comedy in bringing tragedy to others;
  • not someone undone by his accident, he's someone who turned it to his advantage;
  • not normal or average;
  • not good or sympathetic;
  • not poor or pathetic.

The Joker is not society's victim; he victimizes society.  It may not be fashionable any longer to believe anything OTHER than the idea that society creates its own victimizers.... but that's not the Joker's story.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Jimmy Foal-son

I don't know about you, but Whinny Olsen was EXACTLY what I needed today.
Thank you, Matt Fraction (and comics in general).

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

No, I do NOT like Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, thanks for asking.

Recently, the Rotten Tomatoes-eating public voted Heath Ledger's entrance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, the most memorable cinematic moment in the last 21 years.  This, of course, is patently absurd, since most viewers would AT BEST be able to quote the line "I kill the bus-driver" and be unable to describe much of anything else done or said in the scene.

It goes without saying that this says MUCH more about the cinematic habits and discernment of the average movie-goer than it does about Ledger's performance.   I mean, really now.  Need I remind you that THIS scene from Deep Blue Sea (1999) also occurred within in the last 21 years...

Related image

If you have seen both films, there is no way you remember the Joker's entrance in The Dark Knight MORE than you remember Samuel L. Jackson suddenly getting eaten by a shark in Deep Blue Sea in mid-sentence during a Standard Rousing Bad-Ass Speech.

It also says a lot about how Fanboys Be Representing when such things arise, since their are a lot more Batman/ Joker/ Dark Knight fanfolk than there are DeepBlueSea-fanatics. ARE there Deep Blue Sea Fanatics?  I'm not sure I want to know.

And it says a lot about people's ability or willingness to follow instructions; clearly, people voted based on whether they LIKED a moment, not how memorable it was.

Heck, Ledger's entrance as The Joker in The Dark Knight wasn't even as memorable as the one it was based on: Cesar Romero's first entrance as The Joker on Batman'66:

The difference, as Megamind would say, is presentation.  NOBODY makes an entrance like Cesar Romero's Joker.

Now, THAT is an entrance. No bus driver required.

I know that many people revere Ledger's performance as The Joker but for most part it seems like boilerplate adoration, without much critical analysis.  Look, Ledger certainly did a better job than anyone had a right to expect, especially since much of his past movie work wasn't all that... deep.  Hat's off to him for proving that he was more than just a pretty face while he was with us.

Very pretty, in fact.

But Ledger's Joker, while admittedly intense, was also clearly ... not genuine.  There was little sense that this was an actual crazy person or an evil genius with a wicked sense of humor.  Ledger's Joker was an act, a put-on, a disillusioned man putting on a crazy act to convince others, and himself, that he didn't care about anything. But he did care; he was a nihilistic ideologue DESPERATE to prove his point to others, and painfully needy.  He didn't leave chaos in his wake; everything he did was painstakingly choreographed.  He seemed like a sad clown, eager for approval by the audience; a tough guy, eager to show much he didn't care; a tragically realistic man, eager to come off as a lunatic.  Ledger's Joker was... just a terrorist.  Because I guess that's what scares current-day audiences.

The script is to blame, of course, but Ledger didn't help.  Most viewers were just impressed that Ledger's Joker seemed menacing, because the Joker can seem pretty silly and nonthreatening if done wrong.  And Ledger's Joker was menacing... because both the character and the actor were obviously working really hard to MENACE.  The Joker shouldn't work hard at being menacing, he shouldn't have to try to seem crazy, and he shouldn't really care what you think.  I can't believe I saying this (because I didn't like Jack Nicholson's Joker all that much) but... Jack Nicholson got all of that. Nicholson's Joker had no idea anything was wrong with him, had fun during his schemes, and certainly didn't care whether you got the joke or agreed with his worldview.

And, as you can see, he's a lot happier.

Cesar Romero's Joker never tried to seem threatening... but was deadly all the same; that was part of the point of his performance.  His Joker actually just thought it was really funny to feed you to a giant clam.

Never forget.

Ledger's neurotic tics and slimy speech patterns were clearly affectations of both the actor and the character, suitable more to that homeless guy you avoid in the park than Batman's archenemy.  To top it all off... Ledger couldn't laugh.  There are thousands of people in the world who can do a Joker laugh; why can't Hollywood ever find someone who can?

Even THAT guy could probably do a better job at it!