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.