Thursday, November 05, 2009

EXTRA MEDIUM #4: V for Vendetta - Everything I Need to Forget, I Learned from 9/11

Before the week that followed 9/11 was over, I started hurting myself in my sleep. The first time, I sat up in my sleep and threw myself backwards against the wall; I awoke just in time to feel my head crash against it. For a little over a month, it continued. Sometimes, while asleep, I stood up, grabbed something like a small bookshelf or my desk chair and threw it at the floor. Sometimes I threw myself at the floor. Once, the metal edge of my bed frame caught me inches away from my eye. Once, I fell asleep in my bed and woke up sitting on the toilet. Perhaps the strangest incident happened after the nightly violence turned into sleepwalking. As I sleepwalked, I dreamed of myself teaching a class about my sleepwalking. The dream ended with me tapping a wooden pointer against a blackboard and saying, "And this is the part where Mick falls on the floor and hurts his knee." I awoke, already falling, and landed on my knee. One of the last incidents ended with me waking to find my hand hovering over the knob of my apartment's front door.

When I finally saw a doctor, I was diagnosed with Sleep Apnea, but that alone didn't explain why I was sleepwalking or beating the nocturnal crap out of myself. Apnea occurs when your throat closes during sleep. Your body wakes you up so you don't choke, but it's so brief you don't remember. It causes sleep deprivation because the apnea prevents you from reaching the kind of real, deep sleep in which you actually get rest. But it doesn't generally cause people to go on sleepwalking rampages. My doctor suggested that the best explanation was that the apnea opened the door for trauma to manifest itself during sleep, but it didn't cause the trauma. That was the best explanation I ever got.

I am painfully aware how this might read. As I debated whether or not to include this story in this piece, all I could think of was BJ Novak's character on The Office telling his on-again/off-again girlfriend that he'd treated her so poorly because, in part, he hadn't "really processed 9/11." Unlike far too many people, I can't unfold any tragic stories that would explain it. I lost no friends or family on 9/11 and I wasn't in New York City. Regardless, when I tell you the Me that existed on September 10th was a different animal than the Me that woke up on September 12th, I expect most of you may know what I'm talking about.

September 11th made me afraid. I didn't fear terrorism, or at least I didn't fear it any more than I feared anything else that could kill me, nor did Arabs seem any more dangerous than every other stranger. It was simply that the reality of death finally found its way to my consciousness, and it made me simultaneously terrified and enraged. The fact that all that I am could be snuffed out without warning or mercy was a horrible crime and I had no one to complain to about it. I was afraid to fly. While I wasn't afraid to drive, I was afraid to be a passenger in a car, bus, or train. Walking outside at night became a rare event, only if necessary, and never unwarily. For the first time in my life, I considered buying a gun.

The portrayal of death in film or television was something that could ruin my entire week. Horror films became strictly forbidden, particular zombie films. I almost walked out of Shaun of the Dead. Not because it wasn't good; it was. Not because it wasn't funny; it was. Not because I wasn't enjoying myself. I was. But when they got the jerk with the glasses (you know the part I'm talking about), all my laughter ended. The movie was ruined. For a week, that grisly scene ran a loop in my mind over and over.

The worst were nature programs. I still will not watch them. In particular, I recall a show in which a pack of hyenas and a pride of lions fought over a kill. After a brief scuffle, the hyenas were chased off, but not before one of the lions snatched up a hyena pup and carried it back to its siblings. The terrified pup cried out for its wounded parents, who stumbled away, sparing a few sad glances back at their pup. The narrator commented that the lions must really have been hungry, because they would almost never resort to taking a hyena pup as food. The scene has stayed with me over the years, as happy as I would be to be rid of it, maybe because it's the best analogy for the specific fear 9/11 gave me - being made helpless, alone, ripped from the people I know and love, and everything I am and ever could be smothered under the hungry breath of strange, alien bastards.

Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta was one of many comics which, until very recently (as in the last few weeks) was on my "must read, what the hell are you waiting for" list. So when V for Vendetta was released in theaters, I had little idea what it was about. In fact, not only did I not feel an overwhelming urge to see it, but for a while I was very much against seeing it precisely because I wanted to read the comic first. When my girlfriend of the time finally pressured me into going, I certainly had no clue that it would reduce me to tears.

It was a clarion call. It was an anthem. It wasn't the first. Despite Bush's re-election (or simply election, depending on who you talk to), it isn't like the Wachowski Brothers were the first people to make powerful creative statements about the administration's fear-mongering. By 2005, Jon Stewart alone had bloodied his knuckles over and over on Bush's jaw and, like Iraq and Afghanistan, no end was in sight. But V for Vendetta was different. V was miraculously defiant in its treatment of 9/11. It took our real history and turned it on its head. It took the event that was such a horrific, deadly defeat - the terrorist destruction of iconic buildings - and made it the film's conclusive victory (of course, V's destruction of Parliament is spared the loss of lives, other than his own). The fact that the story's setting is England likely helped it enjoy success in the United States. If it were set in America, I don't know that thoughts like "...the world needs more than just a building right now," or "...with enough people behind it, blowing up a building can change the world," would've been tolerated from the same population that would later suspect our current President of terrorist subversion because his last name had more vowels than consonants.

The reason why V for Vendetta had such a profound impact on me had less to do with its indictment of contemporary politics, however. Its true enemy was fear; the kind of fear that immobilizes us all - at one time or another if not perpetually - and stops us from living the lives we want and desperately need to live. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the film for me was Evey's imprisonment. The emotional power of that sequence springs mainly from the story of Valerie - the test subject who was incarcerated for being a lesbian and wrote her story on a piece of toilet paper for Evey or any other prisoner to find. The line that still makes me cry - not purely because of sadness but a deep, almost primal defiance against the fears that 9/11 unleashed - both in the film and the comic from which it originates is Valerie's simple proclamation "...for three years I had roses, and apologized to no one."

The film struck me so deeply that I easily forgave the kinds of things that would make me groan in any other film. V's miraculous survival after being riddled with bullets, the unmasking at the end revealing dead characters, and Evey's I'm-V-You're-V-He's-V-She's-V-Wouldn't-You-Like-to-be-V-too speech would, in any other film, stink far too much of a Hollywood pseudo-statement to have any impact on me, but in this case it was the perfect ending to a film that made me feel like I had been waiting for nothing but that film for 4 years.

Afterward, I assumed the film followed the comic relatively closely. I didn't read it. Didn't check. But I assumed it to such a degree that I believe in conversations I actually told people, "Yes, they're fairly similar." I wasn't lying. I mean, I guess somehow I was lying, but not consciously. The film had been so important to me, that I couldn't imagine the filmmakers had strayed far from the spirit of the comic. Not to mention that in spite of the widely publicized conflict between Moore and the filmmakers before V's release, it proved to be not only the best adaptation of a Moore comic I've seen, it remains the only one that wasn't so frustratingly stupid it made me want to punch a baby (though I have yet to see From Hell, so have no opinion on that either way).

When I decided to write this article, it was obvious that it was finally time to read the comic. As I read and noticed the many differences between the comic and the film, it was almost shocking to see just how much had been changed. I don't mean the cold, hard facts of the plot or the timeline. Sure, different stuff blew up and blew up at different times. Prothero was a radio propagandist rather than a TV propagandist, and he was driven insane rather than being murdered in his shower. The film didn't mention the supercomputer Fate. The Creedy of the comic didn't even show up until towards the end. Tons of important characters in the comic were jettisoned, there was no mention of bio-terrorism, and Finch dropped acid. But none of that stuff mattered to me. In discussions of adaptations, I've always said that if the spirit of the story remains the same, then, within reason, everything else is negotiable.

My appreciation of both the film and the comic challenges that notion, however, because it's now clear to me that the "spirit" of the two stories are very different. There are similarities, obviously, and more than just cosmetic ones. The story was retooled for a post-9/11 world, and the power of the original story is blunted.

The first thing that surprised me was Evey. Evey is a hooker in the comic, not a secretary like Natalie Portman's version. More importantly, Portman's Evey is fairly educated by the time she encounters V, whereas the comic version is rather ignorant until the later chapters of the series. My initial assumption was that the filmmakers worried Evey wouldn't be sympathetic to audiences if she were a prostitute. During a Making Of special on the V For Vendetta DVD, director James McTeigue claims the changes were to make the character stronger and more independent. One could argue that misses the point; that Moore purposely wrote Evey uneducated as an indictment against a government that was willfully trying to produce less educated, and hence more easily controllable, citizens. In the comic, Evey is the best candidate for a reflection of ourselves. While we can bicker about whether or not some of us live in an "actual" democracy, I would think we can all agree that neither the UK nor the US suffers under the kind of blatant police state that's depicted in V for Vendetta. For a time, neither does Evey. Once V shelters her in the shadow gallery, she is safe from the oppression and even from the responsibility of supporting herself. We see her lounging comfortably watching old movies, and by the nearby scattered tapes on the floor, it seems clear that this is just about all she does. The world needs change and in response she drowns herself in mindless entertainment. Sounds kind of familiar.

Of course, there's V himself. After reading the comic, it's difficult to deny just how watered down Hugo Weaving's V is. The filmmakers claimed they wanted to make a morally ambiguous character but, at the end of the day, there's very little that feels ambiguous about him. If we coldly examine every single action he makes, sure. But he feels like a good guy, and it feels like we're supposed to think that's what he is. I don't think as an audience we ever have much doubt about it. Sure. He kills people. He isn't Spider-Man. But one of the most popular comic book (and now movie) heroes of the day fights evil by punching steel claws through people's skin. In Bay's second Transformers adaptation, Optimus Prime, the hero of a kids cartoon, blasts off helpless decepticons' heads after saying, Dirty Harry style, "Any last words?" And when we watch Uma Thurman in Kill Bill wade through dozens of men who will soon be nothing but chopped up meat and bone, we laugh. And we're meant to. Compared to just about every other action hero out there, Hugo Weaving's V might as well be Gandhi. In fact, while the film's V vengefully pursues the half-dozen or so bigwigs from the concentration camp where he was experimented upon, in the comic it's suggested he eventually killed every single employee of the camp - over fifty people.

The V of the comic is a different animal. When I first read the comic, it struck me how much V reminded me of the Joker. While he displayed theatrical tendencies in the film, we never see him do something along the lines of having one-way conversations with statues he's about to destroy. As I mentioned before, rather than poisoning Prothero in the shower, in the comic V doesn't even kill the propagandist. He catches up with him on a train, kills his bodyguards, and brings him to a very Joker-y funhouse presumably somewhere in his subterranean home. Earlier on, we learn Prothero is a prolific doll collector, and V destroys all of his dolls before his eyes. In a very classic Joker move - really in a classic super-villain move, not just Joker - V takes over the airwaves to address the population. While in the film, the citizens of England are given a rousing, freedom-loving speech from a mysterious hero, in the comic, V ends a satirical retelling of the history of the world by threatening that if the citizens of England don't get their crap straight, he's going to kill them all.

Throughout the film, we never really get a clear idea of what would be an ideal world to V. He wants to topple the government, but we never learn what he wants in its place. The anarchy comic book V envisions seems much more important to him than it is to the movie V. Ironically, the result is that while the comic book V is much darker, his counterpart in the film seems more driven by revenge than by political change. The comic book V very clearly wants anarchy and gives us an explanation of how he sees it. The world he wants is something I would guess most readers would question, if not outright reject. What we we get from the film is much more palatable. He tells Evey "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people," which would seem to suggest he wants something closer to a democracy, not anarchy.

The comic actually shows at least a little bit of the aftermath of V's conflict with the government. A once powerful woman begs Finch to save her from a group of men camping outside who, she claims, she is forced to sleep with for food and shelter. This isn't the world that we imagine remains after the destruction of Parliament in the film, and the willful creation of such a world raises a lot more questions. There is, in other words, real moral ambiguity in the comic. Not so much in the film.

More than any other changes, the omission that bothered me more than just about anything else was the lack of any discussion of race in the film. It's made clear in the comic that one of the worst consequences of Adam Susan's rise to power is the wiping out of the black race. I may be wrong, but I cannot remember a single mention of this in the film. Thinking back on it, the only non-white faces I can recall seeing in the film were those of prisoners in the concentration camps, but I didn't notice at first because it isn't explicitly mentioned in the film and it isn't like a lack of non-white faces is particularly rare in major motion pictures.

Watching the Making Of feature on the V for Vendetta DVD didn't help my steadily dropping opinion of the film. I'd say the first 5 minutes or so of the feature is taken up with the various filmmakers and actors very defensively (in some cases, they really do seem a little nervous and twitchy) justifying the differences between the comic and the film. There are no explicit insults about Moore, but there's certainly a healthy amount of condescension. Perhaps what annoyed me the most was McTeigue claiming he had decided to not reveal V's face because he wanted to go against audience expectation. It just seemed to me that, with everything they had - for better or worse - changed about the story, it was a little disappointing to hear the director take credit for one of the few things he simply lifted directly from the comic.

It took me some time before I could decide upon what I would write in this column. I don't know that I've ever felt more ambivalent about a film. V for Vendetta is a blunted version of the comic. It's watered down. It does not live up to the spirit of its source material.

I don't care. I needed V for Vendetta.

Obviously, a movie alone didn't and couldn't purge me of anything. I'm still afraid. I struggle with it. I have to force myself during simple, stupid things, to let go and stop being afraid. Ask my girlfriend how long it took me to be able to be a passenger while she drove without tensing up and gasping every few minutes. I sometimes double-check, triple-check (or more), the locks on my front door. Just in the past few weeks, during the bus drive home, when it takes a particularly nasty curve of bridge over the Hudson and some silly part of my brain tells me the bus is top-heavy and it's going to topple over the guard rail and squash me into nothing, I've learned to not do it - to not tense up my legs, to not grab onto the seat in front of me for dear life while trying to not look horrified to the other passengers (who, unlike me, keep reading or lounging, as comfortable as they would be in their own living rooms). But before I learned to stop myself, before I learned to even begin facing the fear, I needed someone to tell me what's really important. What is really important is not that what I fear at any given time won't happen, because that's a lie. It might. And ultimately, in one way or another, it will. What's important is that if the worst happens, if they take me behind the chemical shed and shoot me, I need to remember what it is to always be afraid, and know there are worst things than dying behind the chemical shed.

Friday, October 23, 2009

EXTRA MEDIUM #3: Hulk vs. Hulk

Believe it or not, a comparison between Ang Lee's Hulk and Louis Leterrier's Incredible Hulk is often one of the first conversations I have with people. It's not on purpose, I don't ask for it, but sometimes it's inevitable. I get introduced to someone, the introducer mentions my interest in comics and my sometimes obsessive attachment to the Hulk, and the person to whom I'm being introduced will usually say something along the lines of "Oh yeah, I liked that last movie with Ed Norton. That one before it though, MAN, did that suck." I don't agree, but I'll usually nod and say something like "Yeah, it did drag in parts."

I think Lee's Hulk gets a bad rap. It's a deeply flawed film to be certain, but it doesn't deserve the space it's enjoyed on most viewers' mental scorecards -- somewhere around Batman and Robin and Elektra. Sure. I can't deny it. I'm a huge fan of the character so there's definitely bias. But I still have problems with the film. They just seem to be different from the problems everyone else has with it.

Most haters of Lee's film mention the computer-generated Hulk right off the bat, and my response to their criticisms makes me feel very old. All I can think is, "What the hell did you expect?" Yes. You're right. The giant green monster looked like it wasn't real. I guess as someone who was just barely old enough to see the first Star Wars film, I'm used to giving the filmmakers a break when it comes to bringing fantastic creatures to life. Considering the possible alternatives -- a muscle man in green paint or a "Hulk suit" like the Thing suit Michael Chiklis endured two years later in Fantastic Four -- I didn't think I was straining my disbelief-suspension muscles nearly as much as I might have otherwise. Lee's Hulk never fooled me into thinking he was real, and yeah he could've been better, but he could've been worse too. I think, more than anything, we were all spoiled by The Lord of the Rings. Don't get me wrong. The creators of those films deserved all of the accolades they got when it came to the special effects, but let's not forget something fairly important. Jackson and co. brought us stunningly rendered fantasy creatures living in a fantasy world. Lee's Hulk, on the other hand, is a creature of the fantastic set against the backdrop of the real world. There was no way he was going to look like anything but a cartoon.

Leterrier's Hulk is certainly an improvement, mainly because of lessons learned from Lee's film. To make him look more realistic, Leterrier shrinks him, both making him shorter and a bit more lean and sinewy. His Hulk is also a much darker shade of green and it helps to minimize the cartoon-y contrast that helped damn Ang Lee's version. But I'd be curious to see what Leterrier and co. would've come up with if they didn't have Lee's version from which to learn. The Hulk of Incredible Hulk is certainly better and, physically, more believable. But he's still a computer puppet in the real world, and it shows.

The place where both films unquestioningly pale in comparison to LotR's Gollum is in the inability of either Lee's or Leterrier's computer-generated Hulks to convey a full range of emotions. You can't fall back on the fantasy/real contrast excuse here. The movie Hulks of both 2003 and 2008 have exactly three different kinds of facial expressions -- anger/pain, dull/expressionless, and what I call the Betty Face. It's just a slight variation of the dull/expressionless face that looks just a little more pathetic, like a monkey about to fall asleep, to convey that Betty is nearby.

Incredible Hulk, I think, also got the sound of the Hulk in a way that Hulk just didn't. I remember, maybe 10 years ago, I wanted to put together a desktop theme for the Hulk, complete with some kind of sound that would play whenever I booted up my PC. I tried different soundbites from the '90s cartoon, the opening theme from the '70s show, and finally settled on something that sounded like the Hulk I imagined even though it wasn't from any media involved with the Hulk franchise - the sound of the T-Rex roaring in Jurassic Park. The Hulk should sound big - bigger than he actually is. But the green goliath we got in Hulk hardly even sounded like a particularly loud person. He snarls, grunts, and growls, but he sounds like a small, choked animal. In Incredible Hulk, though, I have to say, they really got it right, particularly during the few instances when he speaks, like when he roars from the shadows "Leave me alone" or his "Hulk smash" towards the end.

Computer puppetry aside, visually there are some truly stunning moments in Hulk. To go along with the the film's message of interconnection, Lee blends wildly different settings seamlessly. One of the things that impresses me the most about his ingenuity here is that, in spite of using a plot that necessitated jettisoning quite a bit of the source material, he pays homage to the original comic visually, and in ways that make it seem quite a bit more than mere homage. They almost make it seem like metafiction.

For example, in the origin story Bill Mantlo added in Incredible Hulk #312, a story that laid much of the groundwork for Peter David's historic run on the book, as a child Bruce Banner watches his mother endure physical abuse at the hands of his father until he finally beats her to death. This is one of the most powerful and important stories ever told in the comic, because it introduces the notion that, at least in some sense, the gamma bomb blast didn't create the Hulk so much as set loose what had already been created by emotional trauma. This is presented differently in the film. There is no recurring abuse in the film, but Banner's father still kills his mother. Lee merges the murder scene with one of the discarded aspects of the original comic - the gamma bomb blast. Earlier in the film we see that Bruce's crazed father caused a meltdown at the military base where he was stationed, and in the murder flashback we see that his mother died the very moment the base exploded in a green mushroom cloud. After being stabbed, Bruce's mother pushes her way out of her house, crawls across the ground, and finally reaches towards the sky at the very moment the green of the gamma blast flashes across the desert. As a Hulk fan, it's a moment that's absolutely heartbreaking. And it unquestionably beats homages like putting file folders on computer screens named after past X-Men storylines.

Unfortunately, there's some bad here too. Lee tries a lot of visual tricks in Hulk, and they don't all work. In particular, his use of comic-book-panel-like splits largely comes off as gimmicky: something that might have been novel if Hulk had been the very first film to be based off a comic. I want to think it was more than a cheap gimmick, but there are a lot of instances in which I genuinely don't get what he's trying to convey. And in other cases, I get what he's doing, but it just doesn't work. In a lot of cases, like when he splits the screen to show two different points-of-view of the same conversation, it looks like a cheesy long distance phone commercial. In some, it just seems useless. For example, after the military captures Bruce Banner, we watch a bunch of helicopters transporting him across the desert. Lee uses his panels to show us four different points-of-view of the same helicopters doing the same thing and I can't even really say I know what the point was. There are some instances when it's interesting and even inspired, but not often enough to forgive the bad.

Leterrier, on the other hand, doesn't really seem to want to do much visual experimentation in Incredible Hulk, which is unsurprising because of the movie he makes. For better or worse, it's just another superhero movie. That's not meant to be dismissive. It's a good superhero movie. In fact, I was surprised by how much I liked it. But visually it looks exactly like I expected it to look -- like a slightly Michael-Bay-ish movie that seems to want to say "I could be a car commercial, just longer."

As far as the various actors' performances, it's tough to say in the case of Lee's Hulk. Most of the actors were well cast in their roles, but unfortunately I think the dialogue ruins most of it. You get the feeling that the writers got lost trying to take a story meant for adults -- because of tone, not content -- and rewriting it to be accessible to children. Out of all the actors, the only one I have a strong opinion of either way is Nick Nolte, who makes for one of the most wonderfully twitchy and believable supervillains on film.

I've been saying for a while that Ed Norton, who built his career playing characters that could be doormats one minute and intimidating macho types the next - most notably in Fight Club and Primal Fear -- would make the perfect Bruce Banner. Unfortunately, Incredible Hulk failed to touch the more emotional side of the character. If you spend the extra dough to get the special edition DVD, you can watch a very brief impromptu therapy session between Bruce Banner and Leonard Samson, but it hardly scratches the surface. We never really see any of the Hulk in Norton and never learn much about his past at all. He still does a good job, but it's such a wasted opportunity. The rest of the cast is fine. Liv Tyler is a far less annoying Betty Ross, William Hurt is an unexpectedly un-William-Hurt-ish General Ross, and if a sequel does see the light of day I wouldn't mind seeing Tim Blake Nelson return (presumably, next time, as The Leader). Tim Roth is okay, but I don't believe his character, mainly for physical reasons. I understand that he's supposed to be an older soldier, and that that's part of why he fixates on the Hulk and harnessing his power for himself, but I just don't buy it. He not only looks too old to be an active special ops guy, but looks far too unshaven to be in the military at all. And it has to be said, while I fully admit that this may be nothing more than the memories of other movies coloring my impression of Incredible Hulk, there's something about Roth's demeanor that says "gangster" or "thug" more than "soldier."

What I have to say about these movies may seem contradictory. It may even seem just plain fanboyish somehow. Overall, I think Incredible Hulk is the better film. But I like Hulk more.

Incredible Hulk is a better film in the sense that it succeeded at being what it was trying to be -- a summer money maker. Leterrier succeeded in taking the Hulk and fitting him into the proper superhero formula. Audiences bought tickets to Hulk and didn't know what the hell they walked into. The movie was too long, there wasn't enough action, and the Hulk took too long to show up. But Leterrier gave us exactly what we've come to expect. We got a lot more action, we got a villain from the comics, a love interest denied because of the hero's heroism, and we even got something not too different from that moment towards the end of most superhero movies when the hero stands astride the rooftops of his city victoriously (except rather than standing astride a gargoyle or a flagpole, he's leap-frogging away from a helicopter spotlight). Incredible Hulk succeeded in being what it was trying to be, but what it was trying to be was something we've already seen again and again.

I like Ang Lee's Hulk more because while it failed to be what it was trying to be, it failed because it was trying to be something more than the next funnybook-inspired popcorn flick.

I can't tell you that I know what Lee was trying to say with Hulk. At the risk of sounding like a wise-ass, I suspect Lee wasn't completely sure himself. When I look closely at Hulk, I see a mishmash of ideas, but nothing that unites it all.

In particular there's a lot going on with nature. We see Banner as a toddler associating his mother with nature as he watches her garden. Later as an adult, he keeps some kind of moss-covered rock by his home computer which Lee makes sure we see him water and care for. When he temporarily escapes the army, the Hulk only stops to ponder Zen-like over strange plants and rocks far from civilization. When Betty Ross first meets Bruce's alter-ego, he is initially hidden when his skin blends in with the shadows of the massive sequoia trunks surrounding her cabin. Along with plants, there's a lot of animal imagery in the film. As early as the opening credits when we see David Banner performing his dangerous genetic experiments, he has a veritable zoo he sacrifices for his science and later when Bruce Banner is hit with the gamma radiation in his lab, the zoo reappears in flashes, suggesting that part of what makes the Hulk who he is has been culled directly from the animal kingdom. In the final scene, as Banner's eyes flash a dangerous green and it's clear he's about to change into the Hulk again, the camera raises to reveal a green parrot perched nearby and a green frog hugging the brim of Banner's hat. As the camera shot takes us to a bird's eye view, the green of the jungle completely swallows the scene.

The suggestion seems to be that Lee's Hulk is meant to somehow be an agent of the Earth or nature, not radically different from how Alan Moore envisioned Swamp Thing; not in the sense that the Hulk is supposed to be able to control nature or that he's an elemental, but that the Earth is his "mother" in a very literal sense. This seems to be supported by Lee making the Hulk a modern version of Hercules. He battles the three hulk dogs just as Hercules battled the three-headed Cerberus, and the climactic battle begins with the Hulk's father absorbing the electricity of San Francisco to become something suspiciously like Zeus (and Zzzax). Just before he turns into Big Daddy Zeus, David Banner screams wildly about his son becoming a hero like those who "walked the Earth long before the pale religions of civilization infected humanity's soul!"

The political relevance of Hulk is potent, though it seems to be something that was overlooked or ignored at the time of its release. The environment has been a hot topic since the '90s, but more than that it needs to be remembered that Hulk was released 2 years after 9/11. It doesn't seem to mean so much now, but consider the immediate Post-9/11 environment. Consider the anger and the fear of the time. Consider why, and then consider a movie about a superhero who spends most of his time fighting the United States military. In the desert. With Arabic music playing the background.

There's a lot of potential here, but none of it seems to go anywhere. There are messages about manhood, and emotional trauma and repression, but it's all a jumble. You get the feeling Lee didn't really know how to turn it into a united, cohesive message but convinced himself otherwise. It's messy and ultimately I just don't know what the hell to make of it. If nothing else, I think it's safe to say Hulk is the most unique superhero film we've seen so far, and I think that's precisely why I like it more than Incredible Hulk, even though of the two Hulk is the lesser film.

I think we like to use words like "bold" and "risky" and "courageous" for certain artists and their work, but ironically most of us fail to use those words precisely when the artists prove just how bold, risky, and courageous they are by trying something and failing. I think if we only recognize brave artistry when the bravery is rewarded with unquestionable success, then it kind of kills the meaning of the word "brave." And I would like to think if the choice were put to me, rather than opting to succeed at what's easy, I would choose to fail at something great.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

EXTRA MEDIUM #2 - Wildstorm's World of Warcraft

(Warning - This column contains SPOILERS for the series World of Warcraft)

I've lost more hours than I'd like to admit on the online game World of Warcraft. Eventually, I decided it was taking up far too much of my time. I haven't played it in months. However, while I was still trying to secure raid spots for Naxxramas and ancient Ulduar, I heard of the Walter Simonson scripted World of Warcraft series published by Wildstorm. I was curious, but never bothered to pick it up. Since I kicked off Extra Medium writing about a video game based on a comic, I figured it might be cool to look at the opposite - a comic based on a video game

A friend who collects the series loaned me what he had. I managed to get through the first eleven issues before I simply couldn't take it anymore. Simonson's story is rushed and convoluted. The series is, not surprising, pretty action-heavy and that's unfortunate because Ludo Lullabi's action sequences tend to be a little confusing. Lullabi is replaced by Jon Buran in issue #8 and it's an improvement, but honestly not enough of one to keep me reading.

More than whether or not the comic is good or bad (and it's pretty bad), I'm confused as to what the point of the whole thing is supposed to be. I'm not naive. I know the folks at Blizzard didn't gather around the conference table and say "Let's make some ART!" But I assume that, along with making money off existing players who also read comics, one major goal was to cast some fishing lines into the geek sea in the hopes of reeling more folks into paying $15/month for the privilege of experiencing the world of the comic book more directly. Whether we're talking about pandering to existing WoW players or finding new ones, the creative strategy of World of Warcraft seems weak.

First, readers unfamiliar with Azeroth would experience a fair share of information overload reading World of Warcraft. They're not eased into the world at all, and while the artists are able to capture the landscape quite accurately, there's no time for the uninitiated reader to really experience or appreciate the world. Simonson ping-pongs the heroes all over the game world without giving anyone a chance to breathe. By the beginning of issue #3 they're still enslaved gladiators, and by issue #4 theyr'e two countries (or game zones) away, leading an army of elves against the Horde.

Second, I don't think rushing the plot pace or hurrying the reader through the different settings of Azeroth would be appealing to existing WoW players either. Just the opposite, in fact. The very first panel of issue #1 illustrates exactly what I imagine would be refreshing to WoW players. A pair of orcs travels through Durotar. One says to the other that he hopes to reach Orgrimmar - the capital of the orcs' adoptive homeland - by nightfall. Any WoW player would have to chuckle a little bit reading that. The idea of it taking any more than maybe 10 minutes or so to travel from one end of Durotar to another sounds laughable. Even if your character in the game is too low level to own a mount, you'll hardly be hoping to get to Orgrimmar "by nightfall."

One of the more appealing aspects of the best fantasy fiction is the journey. It takes time and effort for the heroes to get from point A to point B. Complainers about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films would do well to remember a literal adaptation would not only be around 900 hours long, but would be filled with almost nothing but the heroes walking, singing, eating, and then more goddamn walking. Even Jackson said one of his favorite parts of the books was the chapters in which Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli run through Rohan in pursuit of the orcs who capture Merry and Pippin. Not when they wage war on the orcs attacking Helm's Deep, or give future filmmakers the chance to do really cool shit with animated elephants, but a couple of chapters out of The Two Towers where they do nothing but run for days and days and days.

The journey is something that is completely lost in World of Warcraft. Players can travel from one country to another, from one world to another, in less time than it would take you or I to drive to the next town. It has to be that way, of course, otherwise the game would be unplayable. But that's just it - while the game necessarily jettisons the epic journey, why does a comic have to do the same? In fact, it would seem to me that one of the truly great opportunities inherent in producing a WoW-based comic or prose novel would be to extend those oh-so-brief trips the players have in the game to something that would make Odysseus proud. Why not spend an entire storyline in a single country/game zone? Hell, why not spend an entire storyline in one town? One of the things that first drew me to World of Warcraft was its rich back-story. It boasts a lengthy, complex history and you can see that history realized in its virtual landscape.

But rather than take advantage of this, Simonson and co. speed you through Azeroth like impatient tour guides. The result is that reading World of Warcraft feels like playing the game, but with crappier animation, characters who gain levels a lot more quickly, and you don't get to actually do anything with them, you just watch them while they try to kill things and pretend they're not checking out the blood elf's chest.

Third, there are volumes of information that go unexplained, but which seem necessary to any reader new to Azeroth. I wouldn't normally say Simonson would have to go in-depth with everything. For example, you don't need to know the minutiae involved in the enmity between night elves and blood elves to know why the night elf Broll and the blood elf Valeera are initially at each others' throats - the fact that they each have different words in front of "elf" is enough and anyone familiar with fantasy fiction knows race dictates character more there than in just about any other genre. But Simonson's blurring pace leaves little time to explain anything. The history of Azeroth can be pretty confusing. Just about everyone is at war with everyone else, there are alternate worlds and otherworldly portals, there are dozens of different raging deities trying to smash their way into the world to cause all sorts of badness, it all has something to do with the plot, but Simonson hardly explains any of it. To someone already playing WoW, no problem. I know who the Blackrock Orcs and the Dark Iron Dwarves are and I know why they're fighting, but while it's difficult for me to turn back time and see from the point of view of someone fresh to Azeroth, I find it tough to believe they'd be able to make heads or tails of this series.

Fourth, when it comes to drawing in WoW players, there's a question as to why the series doesn't have a subtitle. The fact that it's called simply World of Warcraft seems to set it up as the main story based on the game, which forgets something important about WoW. In the game, there are 10 playable races (soon there will be 12) and each race is in one of two warring factions. Humans, gnomes, dwarves, night elves and draenei (blue-skinned, hooved aliens with face tendrils - I call them "squid-chinnies") make up The Alliance. Orcs, trolls, tauren (basically minotaurs with a mythical Native American flavor), undead, and blood elves make up The Horde. While it certainly isn't true of everyone, many WoW players are fiercely loyal to one side or another, not unlike hardcore sports fans. Take a few trips to Blizzard's official forums and you will find - amidst plenty of other craziness - players of each faction arguing with each other like disgruntled siblings over whether the game developers more heavily favor one faction over another. My brother plays with a group of local friends. They get together every Friday night and play WoW. Back when I was still playing WoW, I went with my brother one night and brought my laptop. Upon spotting me running through Azeroth on my dwarf hunter, the house's owner placed a firm hand on my shoulder and said, "Uh, Mick? This is a Horde house." To be fair, he said it half-joking. But, to reiterate, he said it half-joking.

The story of World of Warcraft, however, pretty much focuses on the Alliance. It opens with an amnesiac human being pressed into a gladiator team with a night elf and blood elf. Later, the team wins at the Dire Maul arena where the human earns the name Lo'Gosh, escapes while visiting the tauren capital of Thunderbluff, and through a series of confusing and mostly unnecessary adventures, Lo'Gosh learns he is Varian Wrynn, the lost king of Stormwind - the last powerful human kingdom.

It leaves me wondering whether or not Horde players would ever have any interest in the book. Horde characters are treated sympathetically. In fact, it's a tauren who gives Lo'Gosh the means to escape his captors, but the Horde races can't help but come off like villains in certain parts because we're seeing everything from an Alliance perspective.

While neither Blizzard nor Wildstorm asked my opinion, I can't help but think the absolute best format for a World of Warcraft comic would be an anthology, not unlike Marvel Comics Presents. Or, at the very least, maybe a comic with one main story and one or two extra stories. Give the writers and artists some room to breathe. Let them explore Azeroth for exploration's sake and recapture the sense of journey. Like I said, I'm not naive. I know at the end of the day Blizzard just cares about how much dough they can rake in. Something I think many WoW players would agree with, and probably something others would find hard to swallow, is that the storytellers of the game have created a mythology that, in the right creative hands, could give birth to fantasy comics as impressive as Conan or ElfQuest, and I would be willing to bet could bring in more money. No bullshit, I could easily see a creative team using the mythology of WoW to make a comic that people with no interest at all in the game would want to pick up every month regardless. But rather than trying, and failing horribly, to recreate the game experience in the comic, they need to focus on what they can't already give players in the game.

More coming soon, swear to Hulk

So far my revival of Superheroes, etc. hasn't been much of a revival. I've been focusing most of my online efforts over at Comic Book Galaxy's group blog, Trouble with Comics and most of my posts here have just been cross-posts with TWC.

That will change soon. I'm working on a series of reviews focusing on comics with rebirth or return themes (e.g. Daredevil: Born Again, Swamp Thing, Vol. 6: Reunion) as well as what I hope to be a weekly Hulk appreciation column, every Friday called "HULK IS THE STRONGEST ONE THERE IS!" But realistically I don't think I'll be ready to kick things back into high gear for a couple of weeks - the week of Oct. 19th at the earliest.

Until then, I've got a weekly column over at TWC called "Extra Medium" (the second installment was posted today). I can't recommend the blog strongly enough. Reading TWC is one of the best parts of my day, regardless of whose pieces are up. All the guys over there are gifted, insightful writers and I feel privileged to be a part of the blog.

So, if you've stumbled upon this site, please come back soon. I'll have more for you shortly. And in the meantime, feel free to check out the sidebar at reviews I've posted here and elsewhere.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Mick Reborn #3: They're All Gonna Laugh at You!

Mick Reborn #1
Mick Reborn #2

Last week I wrote about feeling a little lost as far as this whole return to comics is concerned. The price of comics has inflated to the point where trying to keep current with the weekly stacks would conflict directly with my ability to pay bills. And either the quality of the average Marvel/DC superhero stuff has dropped considerably, my tastes for it have waned, or both, so that even my considerable self-destructive money-spending tendencies would not allow me to overspend because Dark Avengers just ain't worth it.

This left me feeling confused about what I was supposed to do. I don't think I can convey to you the overwhelming sense of This-Is-RIGHT that grabbed me when I decided to start reading and writing about comics again. I didn't want to lose that, but at the same time how can I review comics if I can't afford them? And how can I be taken seriously as a comics blogger if everyone's reviewing Spider-Woman #1 and I'm waxing nostalgic about Incredible Hulk or The Defenders?

I went to the library. I've moved into a new county recently, and the library had almost no superhero books. A Bendis Daredevil trade, a Superman dailies collection, and Batman: Year 100 - that was it. So I decided to finally try to get serious about considering non-superhero books. I'd tried in the past and largely failed, particularly when it came to the non-action books. I still haven't flipped open the American Splendor collection someone bought me right after the film release. I literally fell asleep reading Ghost World.

Certain things have occurred in my life recently that you don't need to, or want to, hear about. Nothing particularly saucy or wild. If it were of the more juicy variety, I'd gladly write it all down. But it's not as exciting. Epiphany. Inspiration. A bit of willful personal historical revisionism (I only chickened out of asking that girl out in the tenth grade because I believed in states' rights). Among other things, when I think of things in my past or present that I'm not very happy about, I challenge myself with an obvious, simple, yet slippery notion. Namely, that maybe things are the way they are in my life not because of my failure, but because that's the way I want it. Maybe I failed to do something important because I knew it would make me lose something more important. Maybe I didn't apply to that better job because I knew it wasn't really better. Maybe I chickened out of asking out the girl because deep down I knew she was the wrong girl. It may not be truth, but if you're going to try to make peace with your life while taking responsibility for it, there are dumber paths to travel.

I find this personal revisionist tool to be my only explanation for what happened when I borrowed a stack of graphic novels (all non-action, non-superhero stuff save for Batman: Year 100). I couldn't stop reading them.

I began by leaving Craig Thompson's Blankets in my bathroom, figuring I'd drag myself through a few pages at a time. I soon ended up bringing it to the bedroom and being unable to leave until I'd reached the end. There was so much about the story that I felt like I should have hated. Anyone who knows my usual tastes would guess that a book with so much space dedicated to a couple of teenagers "being deep" would expect me to have nothing to do with Blankets other than things that involve matches and lighter fluid. I should've hated it, but I didn't. Blankets is sweet and sad and at times horrific, but utterly real and wonderful.

After that, I wanted more. I put aside the prose novel I'd been reading and practically raced through the rest of the stack. I read Joe Sacco's The Fixer, James Kochalka's The Cute Manifesto, Dark Horse's compilation Autobiographix, Gilbert Hernandez's Sloth, Brian Fies's Mom's Cancer, Alfred and Ka's Why I Killed Peter and Jeffrey Brown's BigHead. I made enemies in my building when I forgot I had laundry in the washer while I finished Allison Cole's Never Ending Summer in one sitting. I brought them all back and borrowed another stack - a silly stack. The kind of book stack you see someone like Rupert Giles carrying around that you know is going to come toppling down any second with Xander or Buffy waiting to make a snarky remark. I took out every Joe Sacco book they had, Jimmy Corrigan, Preacher, V for Vendetta, From Hell, A Contract with God and more.

Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron is sitting in my bathroom now. I don't think my sanity could survive taking fewer than 5 or 6 sittings to read it. Thankfully, I already hated seafood.

I feel like I've discovered something essential to the rest of my life, like when I heard my first Dead Kennedys album or when I read The Lord of the Rings. I've found something that's going to change me and will be present for the rest of my time. What's different is that, unlike other examples, I've known about this stuff. When I blogged about comics previously, everyone was talking about this stuff. I have specific memories of the releases of books like Sloth, Jimmy Corrigan, The Fixer and The Cute Manifesto. I remember the other bloggers going crazy over them. I didn't listen and didn't care.

This is where the personal revisionism comes in. My only good explanation for why I'm so enthralled with these books now, whereas before I couldn't even stay awake to read some of them, is that they scared me. Not that they're all horror stories or that there was some stark reality about the books that knocked me off kilter, but, well. I was a comics blogger. Give me a comic to read and I would feel an almost Bushido-like obligation to write about it online. The idea of reviewing something like Blankets scares me.

I've reviewed non-super/non-action stuff before. I reviewed Cheat and Barefoot Gen and, particularly in the case of the latter, the fewer people who read the reviews, the better. Not that they're bad. They might not be. I don't know. I just know that, as I wrote them, I was scared out of my mind that I would come off like I didn't know what I was talking about. That fear persists. Even when it comes to superhero stuff, there are certain comics I haven't touched. I have yet to attempt a review of Watchmen or anything by Alan Moore now that I think about it. Nothing by Grant Morrison. I recall being almost certain I would seem incoherent in my review of Daredevil: Love and War. In fact, it just now occurs to me as I write this paragraph that if I were to ever come up with a top 10 list of my favorite graphic novels, almost nothing on the list would be something I've actually reviewed.

I honestly wonder now if maybe the reasons I gave in the first installment of Mick Reborn for my departure from comics blogging had less to do with it than my fear that, as that annoying Adam Sandler character always harped, They're all gonna laugh at you!

So that's it. I'm back, my mind is expanded, and I'm a little scared. I can either fade quietly away so I never have to worry about some linkblogger smartly trashing me for writing something stupid about an artist I'm too plebian to understand, or I can try to stop caring about the things that aren't worth carrying about and celebrate a medium I love.

I'll probably pick the first choice. I don't know what the hell else I'm supposed to do while I'm at work.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Invention of Lying - Hilarious, but meant to be much more

Just got back from The Invention of Lying. Ricky Gervais plays Mark Bellison - the only man capable of being dishonest in a world where everyone tells the absolute, blunt truth. It's reminiscent of Life of Brian not only because the lead is an Englishman, but because like Graham Chapman's hapless character in the earlier film, Bellison accidentally starts a religion. In fact, he does Brian one better. He creates the very concept of religion. He eventually reaps all the worldly benefits one would expect one could receive in such a position, except for what he wants most - the love of Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner).

The Invention of Lying is a very funny movie. In many parts - perhaps most memorably a scene in which Gervais delivers the precepts of his made-up religion to the masses on the backs of two pizza boxes - it's utterly, cruelly hilarious. There are parts that tend to drag on a bit and transitions between scenes that seem awkward and forced, but overall it's a great comedy with wonderful cameos by Tina Fey, Ed Norton, Christopher Guest, Jason Bateman, Philip Seymour Hoffman and more.

Unfortunately, I can't help but think Gervais and co. missed a wonderful opportunity here. Bellison's stumbling upon religion comes about when he consoles his mother on her deathbed. He tells her she has more than eternal nothingness to look forward to, and essentially invents the concept of Heaven. The doctor and nurses overhear this, and soon the whole world learns that some guy has figured out what happens after you die, forcing Bellison to come up with more lies to cover his ass.

In other words, the film's concept is based on the presumption that religion is a lie. The only way the fictional world of The Invention of Lying could be introduced to the concept of the afterlife is through its only liar. The filmmakers are not at all subtle about turning Bellison into a Christ figure. He is treated as a prophet, the entire world believing completely that he's the only person capable of communicating with "the Man in the Sky." By the end of the film, you're treated to a Ricky Gervais with a long head of hair, a scraggly beard, shuffling around his mansion in his bedsheets which look suspiciously like robes. No one cried out "heretic" at my viewing, but then again I saw it in a Central New York art house. I wouldn't doubt we'll be hearing stories of angry God-fearing folk storming out of theaters in the next few weeks.

But this very promising concept, a wonderfully inventive tool at exploring religious belief, ultimately goes nowhere. The filmmakers whittle it down to the point where it's really nothing more than a slightly off-kilter romantic comedy. I'm not saying that every film has to be a willful statement about religion, but this movie felt like it really wanted to be something along those lines and just lost its courage on the way.

It is a funny movie, don't get me wrong. I busted a gut. It's just a shame the filmmakers decided to take something with so much potential and purposely break it down into something mundane.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

EXTRA MEDIUM #1: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Comic books don't stay in comic books, and that fascinates me.

It's hardly a phenomenon. I know. It's part of the point. For better or worse, most comics - certainly the superhero ones - are produced in the hopes they will lead to films, cartoons, action figures, video games, backpacks, beach towels and bubble baths.

Regardless, there's something about the process of adapting a story from one medium to another that intrigues me. Maybe it's an intellectual curiosity that comes from nothing more complicated than the childlike surprise at seeing characters I had previously known only as frozen subjects on a page become more defined in a film or even a cartoon. Maybe it's because Hollywood's continuing trend of adaptations and remakes has so overtaken film that it seems like adapting a story from one medium to another has almost become an art form in and of itself.

Or maybe I'm just pissed off about organic webshooters. I don't know.

Extra Medium is a (weekly? bi-weekly?) column about this fascination of mine, of what happens when the stories in comics end up in films, television, books, and even video games. I may also explore the opposite: when stories from other media end up in comics. We'll see. This is something new to me and I don't have a lot of rules just yet.

For my first subject, I decided to look at the new PC/Console game Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's a fitting choice because, as I realized while I considered what to write about in my first column, the game is indirectly responsible for Extra Medium. It was a commercial for Batman: Arkham Asylum that renewed in me the desire to own a game console system - my last was a PlayStation 2 which I sold around 5 years ago. My lovely and generous girlfriend bought me an XBox 360 for my birthday, and since then I've been stunned by how utterly cinematic video games have become. I've been thinking a lot about whether or not certain video games could even be correctly called "games" anymore, rather than interactive movies. So when TWC formed and folks were asked what they wanted to write about, since I already had the blurring lines between media on the brain, Extra Medium was the result.

So, without any further delay other than a caveat that I have never even considered reviewing a video game before today so I hope I don't sound too dumb, I give you the first installment of Extra Medium.

- - - - - - -

Batman: Arkham Asylum
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Platforms Offered: PlayStation 3, XBox 360, PC

The Joker goes in and out of Arkham so often, they may as well rename it "Harley." This time, he plans to stay for a while. Backed by an army of muscle from Blackgate Prison and a handful of Batman's deadliest nemeses, the Joker plans to put Batman through the most hellish night of his life in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

In his BATMAN ALWAYS WINS column, Matt Springer wrote "There is no such thing as a "definitive Batman."" It's a strong statement, one I agree with, and it's part of what makes something like Batman: Arkham Asylum a challenge to create. Unlike Batman games of the past, Arkham Asylum isn't attached to any specific Batman film or TV show. That left the creators (among them, writer Paul Dini) with a long history of different interpretations of the dark knight from which to choose.

The result is a perfect marriage of the more recent and successful incarnations of Batman. In spite of the stellar success of Nolan's films, visually most of the ideas in Arkham Asylum seem to come from the comics. Characters like Joker, Scarecrow, and of course Batman himself look much more like the guys you'd find in the funnybooks. Of course, Nolan's influence is there in other ways. The game's music sounds mostly to have been culled from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, though every great once in a while you're treated to a thunderous clanging of bells and singing that sounds like it could be a Danny Elfman contribution to one of Tim Burton's films. Also, during some truly disturbing Scarecrow sequences, things like the distortion of Scarecrow's voice and the red glow of his victims' eyes resemble how the character was depicted in Batman Begins. Batman: The Animated Series isn't forgotten. Arkham Asylum's creators recruited some of their talent from Batman: The Animated Series veterans including Kevin Conroy as Batman, Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, and of course Mark Hamill as the Joker.

Along with Joker, players will find themselves locking horns with Harley Quinn, Zsasz, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc and Bane though they're hardly the only super-baddies in Arkham. Just about any lover of superhero comics will love all the references - obscure or otherwise - to the broader mythology of Batman. Early in the game, the Riddler makes radio contact with Batman and challenges the dark knight to find dozens of objects Riddler's hidden on the island. They're not necessary to complete the game but you get rewards for completing challenges (I don't know them all, because honestly while I've finished the game I never managed to find everything). Some are simply "Riddler trophies" in hard-to-get-to spots. Some are patient interview tapes with inmates like Joker, Croc, Ivy, etc. Then there are certain items comicdom's favorite smart-ass didn't hide himself, but have to be identified with only his riddles for guidance, and many of these are objects belonging to, or newly emptied prison cells of, the absent members of Batman's rogue's gallery. While the villains don't appear in the game, players will find references to Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face, the Ventriliquist, the Calendar Man, Mister Freeze, Mad Hatter and more. Mentioning my favorite of these fun additions would be a bit of a spoiler, so simply allow me to say the developers figured out a very inventive way to include Clayface in the game. And of course, all of these little references have potential to be more than simply references should Arkham Asylum enjoy a sequel, since Joker's actions have allowed for most of the aforementioned bad guys (including Riddler) to run free.

Also, while Batman: Arkham Asylum isn't the video game version of the Grant Morrison/Dave McKean GN of the same name (that would be one trippy damn video game), there's obviously a lot of inspiration from that story, as well as numerous direct references. The dark, tragic story of Amadeus Arkham is told in the game directly from the mouth of Arkham's ghost. Chapters of the tale can be accessed when the player finds stone tablets hidden in secret chambers, caves, and other various nooks and crannies throughout Arkham. Readers of the Morrison/McKean GN may notice the shapes of beetles littered throughout the architecture of Arkham's buildings. If you care to, you can even find Arkham's gravestone.

As far as its playability, controlling Batman is surprisingly easy. I'm still new to the most recent generation of video games, and I was worried there would be a complex button combination for every single move, but instead Arkham Asylum uses what the developers call a "freeflow" combat system. In other words, while there are maybe two moves that require specific button combos, for the most part there's one button to hit, one button to counter. The game decides exactly what Batman is going to do when you hit either button (e.g., whether he kicks a guy in the face or punches him in the stomach). It sounds almost too easy, but it's difficult to truly master. Eventually, you'll find yourself in the middle of crowds of literally a dozen or more thugs - some with automatic rifles, electrified batons, knives, and sometimes even boxes or cinder blocks they'll toss at your head - along with a Bane-ified thug or two, and it won't seem like child's play then. There's also a series of great stealth attacks. You can grab bad guys with grappling guns and pull them off catwalks. You can hang below them from a ledge, reach up, bang their heads on a railing and then throw them off. You can hang upside down from gargoyles (you had to know there'd be gargoyles), grab a thug, pull him up a wall and then hang him from the gargoyle. You can even wait until another thug walks under the first guy you strung up, cut the rope with a well-placed bat-a-rang, and take out the thug with the unconscious body of his buddy. As the game progresses, you get more and more gadgets (starting out with only bat-a-rangs), and your options just multiply from there.

What becomes more and more clear as you progress in the game is that the developers were committed to bringing gamers an experience that truly felt like a Batman story, and that came as close as possible to making the players feel like Batman. One interesting thing to note is that, as far as I can tell, there is no way to kill anyone in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I've tried a number of ways and so far I haven't been able to do it. First, I tried pulling a thug off a security tower. As the thug fell, a rope appeared on his ankle and he dangled rather than splatted. Next, I tried using Batman's grappling gun to pull a bad guy into an electrified pool of water. No matter how close I pulled him to the pool, like an overprotective parent at the beach, the game wouldn't let him go in the water. Finally, I tried using the same grappling gun to yank a bad guy into a seemingly bottomless pit. I succeeded, but just as I thought I had changed the dark knight forever by making him take the life of another, the game produced a splashing sound. And mind you, Batman: Arkham Asylum is no kiddy story. There are some fairly gruesome and scary bits. So I doubt the developers went out of their way to stop Batman from being able to kill bad guys because of worries about keeping it kid-friendly. They did it because that's who Batman is.

It also helps that Batman: Arkham Asylum feels like a video game created to accommodate a story, and not the other way around. Maybe more experienced video game reviewers would disagree, but to me it felt like the game had very few honest-to-God Boss Fights. While you eventually defeat each bad guy, the story doesn't follow the usual model of getting through a level, ending with a bad guy you fight, and then on to the next level. There are some villains you never really fight in a face-to-face sense, and there are some you never even capture. You could even argue, in at least one instance, that defeating the villain means escaping him, not beating him up or capturing him. It makes it feel like a genuine Batman story. With the exception of, if you so choose, spending hours and hours finding all of Riddlers hidden extras, Batman: Arkham Asylum feels like something that could easily be a story in a comic book. Nothing about it would feel awkward or forced.

I have to make a special mention of one aspect of the game that is absolutely stunning - Scarecrow. Three times, Scarecrow hits you with his fear gas, and the sequences that follow are the best reasons to play this game. As Batman, you find yourself in a nightmarish abyss, with howling vortexes spinning above and below while you try to navigate floating islands of reality to hide from a Godzilla-sized Scarecrow with a Freddy-Kruegger glove sporting syringes instead of claws. I really don't want to say too much about these sequences because, of everything that happens in the game, these are the last things I would want to spoil. Suffice to say they're scary, they're brilliant, and in one part they lead to something I really never thought I'd see - a video game's retelling of the deaths of Bruce Wayne's parents that is genuinely touching and powerful.

I guess I'll follow the best thing I can say about this game with my biggest complaint, and it's fitting because they're related. The only thing I HATE about Batman: Arkham Asylum is that it uses an auto-save feature. In other words, the game automatically saves your progress in certain spots, and writes over everything you've done. Meaning you can't just, for example, save the moment before a Scarecrow sequence starts because you love it and just might want to play that part again and again and again.

Overall, anyone who has ever cared at all about Batman's exploits should be thrilled at the idea of playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's a testament to how the advances in video game technology have made it possible to not only make games that are more fun, but games that are more cinematic, aesthetically pleasing, and even emotionally powerful. It just depends on who's holding the reins.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mick Reborn #2: You Can't Go Hulk Again

This was my first comic book, and really it had to be. I bought it at Arthur's Pipe & Gift Shop on New Scotland Avenue, right across from St. Peter's Hospital. There's a pizza place there now. At least there was last time I cared to notice.

I think at the time I recognized some of the characters on the cover. I'm sure I recognized the Hulk from his live-action show and his Saturday morning cartoon. I probably vaguely knew who some of the others were. Captain America. Iron Man. Maybe the Fantastic Four. The Vision looked exotic and almost scary to me, which seems pretty silly now.

What follows is no pop psychology, no retrospective reinterpretation. I was very conscious of why I bought the comic. The cover made it appear to be a story in which the Hulk faced down the rest of the world's superheroes. Later it turned out that wasn't really the case, but that didn't matter. I was a lonely and angry kid. I felt like the other kids at school would like me if they just tried to get to know me, and I dreamed of the day that would happen. In the meantime, every day on the playground felt exactly like the cover of The Incredible Hulk #278. The thing that never occurred to me until I saw the comic was that maybe on that playground I was the hero, and all those bastards who made fun of me, they were the assholes. After all, it was obvious to me from the cover that the FF, the Avengers, and the rest of them, they were the bad guys in the comic. How could they not be? They were facing off against the Hulk, and it's his comic. Duh!

When I eventually stopped blogging about comics, the story of the Hulk's exile to another world by the Earth's heroes - Planet Hulk - was, maybe, three-quarters of the way done. Everyone knew World War Hulk, the story of the Hulk's return to Earth, was coming. During a time when I was hardly reading any other comics, World War Hulk was one of the few trades I made sure to pick up as soon as it was out.

In spite of the fact that it really wasn't published very long ago, it's one of the most worn trades in my collection. Strangely enough, while I have reread it numerous times, usually I only flip through one specific scene: the standoff between Hulk and the Avengers.

Apologies if I'm misremembering, but I think it was Dave Campbell of Dave's Long Box who immortalized the phrase, "FUCK YEAH! Moments?" To me, World War Hulk was nothing but one FYM after another. Just a trailer of money shots.

For me, World War Hulk had nothing to do with Reed Richards and Iron Man and the rest exiling the Hulk into space. It had nothing to do with the death of his wife, the destruction of his alien world, a poorly timed IRS audit or any other inconveniences. World War Hulk came hot on the heels of Civil War, which was about as close as Marvel has ever come to attempting a complex, mature concept in a company-wide event. The Hulk rocked into the Earth like a mad, stripped-down Superman to punish the world for getting so goddamned high-minded. Dressed like a gladiator, like the ancient mythic heroes to whom Superman owed so much inspiration, the return of the Hulk was an apocalypse brought about by the world's Proto-Superhero - the World's Forgotten Boy - reminding his descendants of nothing more or less important than the simple fact he's the strongest one there is. No debates. No recruiting. No plans.

Punching and property damage.

More than that, World War Hulk was the realization of the promise the cover of my first comic made but never delivered; the Hulk declaring war on the entire mutie-loving world and pounding its heroes to tar. It was a conflict I'd waited decades for, and not to settle any stupid "Hulk vs." debates. I wanted to see my favorite green goliath smash the other heroes of Marvel because they deserved it. For denying him, for misunderstanding him, for hunting him and for hounding him, I waited decades for the day when I would see a triumphant Hulk clutching enough bloody capes to fill the last few minutes of 300.

It is possible that, sometimes, I over-identify.

Regardless, it seemed natural upon my decision to return to reading and writing about comics that Hulk would be my go-to guy. After all, as I wrote last week, I feel a little unsure of my footing here. It's been a while. Attaching a lifeline to the character who served as the comic book icon of my childhood seemed a good idea. Not that I would only write about the Hulk, but that he would be my doorway to the rest of the funnybook world. I don't know what's different about comics since last I was writing about them, and I need something familiar to anchor myself. Something familiar. Something dependable. Something-

Christ-on-a-space-shuttle, who the fuck is that?

The Loeb/McGuinness Hulk disappointed me as much as any comic ever could. McGuinness draws the Hulk like a Cartoon Network parody. Loeb's stories, in every way I could imagine, don't make sense. I'm constantly convinced I skipped something. Hulk will be free and at large at the end of one issue, and imprisoned at the beginning of the next, meaning the character who has been hounded by the military since his birth is now willingly submitting to imprisonment? Including going BACK to prison after he's already freed himself? I can't decide whether or not his Hulk is more or less unreadable than his Superman/Batman. His Hulk lacks the Supes-Said/Bats-Said narration that rendered Superman/Batman immediately annoying, but it has its own host of boring, vapid gimmicks. One issue features, once again, the Hulk switching back and forth between his green, savage self and the gray-skinned legbreaker "Mr. Fixit." Then, later...WendiHulk. As in a Hulk-ified Wendigo, or a Wendigotten Hulk, whichever you like better. And his time at DC has apparently left him with the notion that every comic needs enough superhero guest appearances to fill a clown car. Yes, I understand the dollars-and-cents logic of "guest appearances increase sales," but that really only tends to work with guest appearances by popular characters, right? I fail to see how Moon Knight and Brother Voodoo are going to increase Hulk sales, especially when they really add nothing to the story. Someone will say "Hey! We need some magic crap done!" and poof! Brother Voodoo shows up, does some magic crap, and leaves. It all takes place in the space of a couple pages. Wow. That's chemistry.

Some years ago I wrote a commentary piece for CBG called "WHY WON'T PUNY HUMANS JUST LEAVE HULK ALONE!?!?" My argument was that, rather than doing anything genuinely interesting with the character, writers had subjected Hulk to constant, radical change. Gimmicks disguised as depth. Rather than reproduce the entire article, I think this says it all: "We've had smart Hulks, gray Hulks, mute Hulks, evil Hulks, suicidal Hulks, psychotic Hulks, incestuous Hulks, Hulks borne of Skrulls, Hulks that don't even have to turn into the Hulk to get all Hulky, and Sybil-Hulks who change from green-to-gray and smart-to-dumb every day. We've even had a Rick Jones Hulk. Imagine if Mexican wrestlers broke Bruce Wayne's back every few years, and Spidey endured clone sagas bi-annually. That's what Hulk fans have dealt with for the past two decades." Loeb's Red Hulk proved my argument better than any Hulk run I can remember. Between the red Hulk, the gray Hulk, the green Hulk and the Wendigo Hulk, Loeb scrambled to grab any tired BS he could rather than scrounge up an actual idea.

More than any other faults I could list about the comic (and ho-boy, are the opportunities there), the Loeb/McGuinness Hulk was such a disappointment precisely because I desperately wanted to like it. Reading the Red Hulk trade as part of my re-introduction to the comic book world was kind of like a lapsed Catholic visiting his church after 5 years and walking in on his priest doing something a little too newsworthy with an altar boy.

And speaking of little boys, the Hulk's little kid didn't help much either. I knew about Greg Pak's Skaar: Son of Hulk. I think I saw an issue of it in a Barnes & Noble some months ago. When I went to the comic shop last week to clumsily rediscover my path into the comics world, I prepared by checking out Diamond's list of releases for that week, and was surprised to see the Skaar tpb was scheduled for the shelves. I found it, flipped it over, and had to blink my eyes a couple of times when I saw the $24.99 price tag. I thought maybe I was reading the Canadian price or something, but no, there it was, in black-and-white, $24.99. What the hell, I thought, That's HC prices! I "realized" that the trade must have reprinted more issues than I initially thought. I read the back description, sure I would find something saying it reprinted 12 or so issues - no dice. Seven. Seven and a little bit of an eighth.

No. I just wouldn't buy it. No way. Sure, it was written by the guy who wrote the World War Hulk I gushed over like a lovesick girl, featuring a Hulk-like character on the world Pak created for Planet Hulk, but $24.99 was too much. I'm no cheapskate. Hell, there are quite a few credit card companies, banks, and collections specialists that wish I was a hell of a lot more of a cheapskate. I might be willing to pay that much if we were talking about a comic I knew was just absolutely spectacular. If Skaar was a Morrison/Quitely book or a Brubaker/Phillips book, maybe I'd splurge. I never read a single issue of Skaar. I loved Pak's stuff on Incredible Hulk, but it wasn't like I'd seen any of his other work. After all, I loved Loeb's The Long Halloween, but that didn't make Red Hulk anything less similar to what belongs in a litter box.

Eventually, I realized it was foolish of me to expect anything more out of Hulk, particularly after reading the other books I brought home. I hadn't bought many floppies, but the books I did buy were largely confusing, boring messes. Dark Avengers hardly featured the Dark Avengers, which was particularly disappointing because I'd only bought the goddamn thing to find out who the hell they were. Moon Knight was, as Chris Allen wrote the other day, unfortunately what you would expect from the first issue of a chronically third-tier Marvel superhero. New Avengers was, as I remembered it, not horrible.

As the general cloud of ho-hum settled, it occurred to me that I simply could not afford this shit. I'm sure this has received plenty of discussion on the Net, I'm sure I'm just another geek complaining about it, but $4 a pop for a floppy is far out of my range. I can't do it. I cannot do it. I can't justify that much money to try new comics, to get comics just so I can review them online, or to keep myself stocked up on nostalgia junk food.

The comic that keeps springing to mind is Immortal Weapons. I adored Immortal Iron Fist and would've loved to check out this mini. It isn't very common that spin-offs live up to the original, but still I would've at least given it a shot. But for $4? No way in hell. And now, unlike before, there isn't even the chance that I'll "wait for the trade" since, if there is a trade, its price will be just as inflated as the floppies'.

The point is that superhero comics have proven so undesirable that the idea of purchasing one - unless I'm familiar with the creative team and know that they're a cut above the rest - is absolutely laughable. I can't imagine ever caring enough about the Avengers to spend $12/month on their exploits. For $12/month I could pay my water bill. I could pay half my cable bill. I could buy, like, at least five 2-liter bottles of Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi. Maybe six if there's a sale or something.

I am being forced, finally, to do what the Hulk has asked everyone to do for years - Hulk just wants to be left alone. Short of a finding a job that that pays a hell of a lot more, I don't see any other option. Hulk's going to get what he wants, and that's really not what makes me a little sad. What makes me sad, is that I have difficulty imagining there's anything bad about that. I'm not particularly worried that I'm missing the next great superhero comic. But at the same time, by missing out on the capes, I feel a little lost.

The dirty secret about me is that I've never cared about, or particularly liked, non-superhero comics. Well, that's not completely true, but even most of the non-superhero comics I've followed in the past were still action-adventure books (and someone could make a strong argument that Conan or Ogami Itto are as much superheroes as Hulk or Batman). I don't know why. There are plenty of stories I enjoy that have nothing to do with violence or irradiated heroes, I just prefer them in films or on television or in books. Something seemed inherently boring about using a comic book for non-action, non-violent stories. When I blogged years ago, and other bloggers would rave about Jimmy Corrigan or Ice Haven or Palomar, I would nod and smile and think "Yeah, that's great, whatever, when's House of M coming out?"

But here I am, desperate. I just don't have the money for this superhero thing anymore. At the same time, I know if I did have the money, there's so goddamn little that comes out that's worth it. There are so few superhero books that meet the bare minimum requirement of being more entertaining than my Xbox 360, much less the singular superhero stuff that truly soars as high as its subject matter.

So I got a new library card (my old one was all chewed up, I had some fines on it, and I moved to a new county anyway). Pretty much all they had was kind of stuff that, previously, I wouldn't have bothered with. Autobiography. Drama. Stories featuring talking animals who somehow managed to be serious. I borrowed a pile of books and brought them home, not feeling very excited about the whole venture. I took the thickest of the books and planted it on top of my girlfriend's bathroom cabinet, figuring I might flip through it if I was bored on the can. This is the book.

Luckily, I eventually took it out of the bathroom. Otherwise I probably would've been in there for three hours.

So, yeah. I changed my mind about some things.

More next week.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

TWC and Wikipedia

I'm honestly having trouble keeping up with my fellow reviewers over at Trouble with Comics. I'll visit it in the morning, won't have time to read it at first, and then by the time I come back later in the day, there are two more posts already. It's insanity! Good insanity, but still insanity.

I finally found some time today to read the work people posted in the last few days.

Chris Allen reviews Manhunter.
Alan Doane discusses creator rights.
D. Emerson Eddy reviews Batman & Robin.
Marc Sobel reviews Disappearance Diary.
David Wynne looks back at Grant Morrison's Zenith.

As the days go by and the posts multiply, I'm more and more grateful for the opportunity to be a part of TWC. Everything I read there makes me think, "Wow, I'm one of these guys."

Also, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Superheroes, etc. has been linked to from Wikipedia. One of the very first online reviews I wrote was for AC Comics' Fighting Yank #1 at Comic Book Galaxy. The review was later reprinted in Fighting Yank #2. I re-posted the review here on Superheroes, etc., and Fighting Yank's wiki page has a link to that review on the bottom of the page under "Footnotes." Not a huge deal, but it's kind of cool to be on Wikipedia, if a little indirectly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

All you need is HULK

This is perhaps the single funniest comic book-related humor piece I have ever read on the Net, written by Gail Simone. It's from 2000, and I was reminded of it by the recent revival of necrophilia Beatlemania.

(it may not show up for you correctly if you're not using Internet Explorer-My Firefox displays it correctly, but everything's flushed far to the right for some reason)

Civility: It's fine and you're stupid

I realize it may seem strange for one of the first posts on my comic book blog to be about something not particularly comic-book-y, but. You know. Whatever. It's my blog. Bite me.

A couple of days ago, USA Today asked "What happened to civility?", citing Kanye West's drunken intrustion during MTV's Video Music Awards, tennis star Serena Williams going all Anglo-Saxon on a judge, and finally Representative Joe Wilson's outburst during the President's address to Congress.

I realize I'm a little late to the party, but since I haven't heard or read it anywhere else, I wanted to ask - Does anyone else think we're seeing mountains but looking at molehills?

First, the VMAs have never been sleepy, polite tea parties. I haven't watched MTV in years, but upon hearing of the "controversy" West stirred, I could immediately recall a handful of VMA incidents as bad or worse. I remember Bobby Brown capping a performance of "It's My Prerogative" with "We the FUCK outta here" and the Beastie Boys likewise dropping an F-Bomb in a VMA performance of "Sabotage". Perhaps the VMA I remember better than any other was when Nirvana scared MTV shitless by opening what was supposed to be their performance of "Lithium" with the first few bars of "Rape Me", then performed the song they were booked to play, destroyed their instruments in a rampage that made their meltdown on Saturday Night Live pale in comparison, and taunted fellow pop stars Madonna and Axl Rose from the stage. You have to admit, compared to stuff like that, some poor little girl having her precious moment stolen from her doesn't seem all that newsworthy. I'm sure her bank account will console her.

Second, as far as the Williams incident is I the only person who remembers John McEnroe? I mean, let me clarify here, I know next to nothing about tennis. I know there's a ball, a net, and people generally wear white. But even I know about John McEnroe because his temper tantrums were so goddamn legendary that there was a while there when it seemed like just about every comedian in the world either had a McEnroe impersonation, a hefty cache of McEnroe jokes, or both. Now, I don't want to whip out the race or gender cards, but it's tough to avoid here. Considering the noise this incident caused, the fact that the "offender" was a black woman, and the fact that someone like McEnroe could practically build a career doing this without anyone predicting the death of civility makes me think Williams's race and gender have more to do with the reaction to her blow-up than people would like to admit.

Third and finally, there's Representative Wilson. No doubt, it was a stupid move. Considering the recent track record of politicians from his state, if I were in his shoes, I'd probably be shutting the hell up as much as possible. Not to mention what he said and the way he said it were both just so silly. "YOU LIE!" I mean, even if you assume Obama's wrong or lying about covering illegal immigrants, Wilson made it sound like Obama had some kind of nefarious plan. What could he possibly think the ulterior motive would be? Is Obama going to get all of the nation's illegal workers into hospitals so government doctors can build him a cyborg army?

Still, has anyone ever seen the Prime Minister's Questions on CSPAN? Oh. My. GOD. They make that speech look like gentle love-making. All they do is yell at the British Prime Minister. They ask him questions that have NO point other than to inspire the Prime Minister to answer in a way that makes everyone yell at him. And he always has a binder with him. It's nutty. And frankly, it's damn fine TV.

So, you know, everything's fine. Civility isn't dead, or if it is then West, Williams and Wilson are hardly the Horsemen of the Civility Apocalypse.

Though, looking at their names, they may be the beginning of a website address. Cool.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mick Reborn #1: Confessions of a Dizzy Bastard

Not all who wander are lost.

But some dizzy bastards are.

I loved writing about comics online. I began by reviewing floppies for Comic Book Galaxy. Eventually I started my own blog, The Daily Burn. Eventually, for reasons I honestly don't even remember (I think I just liked the name better), The Daily Burn made way for Superheroes, etc. I had fun. I wrote all the time. Other bloggers, even a few pros, visited my blog and commented on it. Then I just stopped and didn't come back.

Why? Time, pain, and addiction to a dream world. Or, more correctly, addiction to the wrong dream world.

When my blogging initially slowed, it was due mostly to school and work. I just didn't have the time. However, eventually the problems school caused had less to do with time and more to do with subject matter. I wrote an undergraduate English honors thesis about how 9/11 impacted the storytelling of Marvel Comics. I began the project excited and sure I'd burn through it with a passion and intellectual agility that would put the other honors students to shame. By the end of it, I didn't want to look at a comic book unless I was looking at a big, oil-soaked pile of them and was holding a belching flamethrower.

If you've ever seen the episode of The Office when Steve Carell orchestrates an ill-advised "Run for Rabies" and uses the even more ill-advised strategy of filling up on pasta alfredo before the race, Carell's slow, painful stagger across the finish line will give you an idea of how I felt when I finally finished that goddamned thesis and earned my degree.

Oh. And if you've seen that episode, you may also remember Carell puking up the pasta moments after the race's conclusion. Well, something happened to me that makes the analogy complete. Weeks after my graduation, my girlfriend of 5 years left a note on my desk letting me know we could still be friends, our cats would soon forget who I was, and that I'd be returning to the apartment soon like a timid burglar to figure out which DVDs were mine.

My life unraveled in an instant, and there was no one to talk to. Since returning to school I had been working at night. Working the same schedule as Batman teaches you quickly why he's such a moody fuck. Your social life dies like a sad, unpopular sidekick. When the 5-Year-Bitch told me to hit the road, I was still working a crimefighter's schedule, so there was no one to help me through one of the most emotionally turbulent times in my life.

So I turned to the only friends I had available to me.

I immersed myself in a fantasy world of passion, war, magic and nobility.

A land of philosophy and reason.

A world of intrigue.

A World of Warcraft.

When you work nights, you're out of step with the world. When I was going through the aftermath of a wrecked relationship, I couldn't just call a friend during my usual waking hours and cry over the phone at them. My friends all have children and jobs and mortgages. But in WoW? Logging onto WoW at 3 am is never lonely. Evil on Azeroth never sleeps, after all, and neither do its warriors.

Along with substituting for my social life, WoW helped me feel better about the situation. There was no insistence that I move out of the apartment, but one of us had to and her family was on the other side of the country. So I moved back in with my parents. When I finally found a new apartment 4 months later, the only place I could afford was an attic apartment in a neighborhood many of my friends were afraid to visit. But while in my real life I suffered rejection, humiliation, and poverty, in World of Warcraft, I was a powerful dwarf hunter decked out in epic armor captured from godlike foes with a fictional bank account brimming with gold. I was the first in my guild with the epic flying mount, one of the first of my guild to the broken world of Draenor. In World of Warcraft, I was healthy. I had concrete accomplishments I could point to. I could fly.

I hesitate to say it was a mistake. It was what I needed at the time and I still have a handful of friends from the experience. But it couldn't last. Well, that's not true. It could've lasted, but it's a good thing it didn't.

Perhaps the most important person I met in WoW was a guy, whose username I can't even remember, who never heard of Spoiler Warnings. During a casual conversation in my guild's chat channel about comics, he gave away the ending of Planet Hulk. I was almost completely severed from the comic book blogging world by then, reading only GNs and TPBs and was very proud of myself for being so patient with Planet Hulk and its angry child World War Hulk. Spoiler Man was not my best friend, and the exchange reminded me that I had given up writing about a wonderful art form for the sake of an endless video game filled with faceless strangers whose friendships with me would always rank, at best, second to the game itself.

Even after I gave up the game, I couldn't come back to blogging. It wasn't even something in the forefront of my mind really. It was just a little nagging thorn rubbing against my side; not enough to break the skin, just barely enough to piss me off so mildly that I wasn't even aware I was pissed off about something.

When I was able to force myself to think about it, my prospects didn't seem good. Who would take me seriously if I came back after such a long absence? I had been out of the loop so long, I wouldn't be able to find my ass with both hands stitched to it. I wouldn't know who was still blogging, who had gone away, what comics were around, which ones had died. I wouldn't know any of the trendy blogger jokes. Do people still joke about the Internet cracking in half? Is Peter David still writing angry, public letters to Quesada every few weeks? Is everyone still reviewing Eightball #28? Hell, at least 4 or 5 Marvel crossovers have lived and died in the span of my absence from blogging. People who hate comics but watch The Colbert Report know more about the state of the Marvel Universe than me. It'd be like steering Mr. Magoo into a mine field.

Things changed for me. I made positive steps. I said goodbye to World of Warcraft. I found a lovely woman, moved in with her, and our cats know who I am. I quit smoking. I started exercising more. I stopped working nights. I got better.

When ADD sent out an e-mail to CBG alumni proposing nothing more than simply getting something going, all the doubts about coming back to blogging melted away. I felt like Christopher Guest running on stage at the end of This is Spinal Tap (not that ADD and I had ever had an angry spat over anything, or that I had news about Comic Book Galaxy hitting it big in Japan). It just felt right. I felt as if in more ways than I'm willing to mention here, I left my path. Immersing myself in comics again, writing about them for public consumption, and forcing my way into a broader discussion about them - this feels right. This feels like part of returning to the right path.

While it's questionable whether or not I can afford it, I have a fistful of bucks from the ATM, and tonight I'm going to buy some of those funny cartoon books down the street. Earthworld Comics, right near the corner of Central and Manning. I've been going there since junior high. I know the way.