Superman: Red Son and Batman: The Long Halloween

by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, and Walden Wong; and
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

 

After more than six years of blogging, and as I approach an unpleasantly round number of years on this Earth, I find myself having less and less time to do things. Things that I want to do, and things that I have to do. I want to be good at playing banjo. I want to be well-read. I want to have a blog that actually chronicles my experiences in something close to real time. I want a hundred other things. Unfortunately, sometimes doing all these things start to feel like work. Sometimes the things I want to do require too much effort, and I end up doing nothing. Sometimes, stuff just gets lost.

But I’m trying to be better! I’ve got a backlog of reviews I need to start and/or finish, and this is my down payment on that.

And while, yes, this makes two straight graphic novel reviews, which makes it seem like I only read comic books now, I actually do still read books without pictures, too. Sometimes they just take a little longer.

Regardless, following the precedent set by my last post–yes, half a year ago–I am dedicating this review to a pair of graphic novels, respectively starring the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader. And, following precedent, I will now give you a quick rundown of each book.

Red Son

I make no secret of the fact that I’m not too big on Superman, but I love a new twist on an old story, so I figured if I was ever to give him a shot, this would be it. The book takes place in an (alternate) alternate universe in which Superman doesn’t land in Kansas–growing up believing in truth, justice, and the American way–he lands in Ukraine, and places his faith in collectivization and Soviet egalitarianism. Instead of Ma and Pa Kent, his hero is Uncle Joe Stalin. So on, so forth, you get the idea. Retaining his morally righteous streak even within a totalitarian society, Superman finds himself a hero of the Soviet Union, accruing ever more political power and making ever more powerful enemies. Lex Luthor, on the other hand, is still American, and still hates Superman, elevating their personal and ideological differences to a struggle for global domination, with each contributing to and drawing upon his nation’s Cold War arsenal. (Also, Batman exists, and he’s a crazy Russian dissident with a goofy Russian hat.)

The Long Halloween

Like Hush, my first trip to the literary Batcave, The Long Halloween is a pretty traditional comic book story. Our hero, battling Gotham’s criminal element as both Batman and Bruce Wayne, becomes entangled in what’s starting to look like an inevitable war between the Falcone and Maroni crime families. As the mob finds itself squeezed between Batman, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and the less-corrupt elements of the Gotham police, the last thing anyone needs is for a new psychopathic killer to show up threatening civilians, honest crooks, and supervillains alike. Which is, of course, exactly what happens. This new baddie, notable for his apparent inclination to kill only on holidays–though not distinguishing between federal holidays like Christmas and Hallmark holidays like April Fool’s–attracts attention pretty immediately, bringing a new wave of chaos and fear to a city that wasn’t exactly a model of safety and stability in the first place. The Holiday Killer even rubs both Batman and the Joker the wrong way, which should be some indication of just how big an asshole he is.

So that’s that.

To start with Superman, I’ll just say I enjoyed it. Superman himself seemed like a fresh character to me, in a way that shouldn’t be possible for me or frankly for anyone. As Americans, we have this innate idea of Superman as the perfect citizen, or even the perfect human, to the point that we don’t have to have read a Superman comic or seen a Superman movie to understand the connotations of his name and his symbols. Yet here he was in Red Son, immediately recognizable but very, very off. I dug it.

Add to that eeriness the specter of an unimpeded Lex Luthor running amok in America, using his country’s fear of Superman to slowly build up his own prestige and power in the shrinking corner of the world free from Superman’s influence. Superman, for his part, initially recoils at the idea of leading the Soviet Union, but America’s persistent threat forces him to take on the mantle of leadership and to expand his “utopia” to cover as much of humanity as he can. In his opposition to Luthor, Superman has both the moral authority and the edge in raw power, but Luthor never takes his eyes off the ball, forcing Superman into increasingly dangerous and morally gray choices.

The Long Halloween had no similar twists, and was pretty straightforwardly Batman. I don’t know how common it is for Batman stories, but I did like that Halloween, along with Hush, follow the beats of a detective novel or movie, rather than those of an action adventure. The personalities in Halloween, including Batman/Bruce Wayne as well as Harvey Dent and others, are established through a combination of quick characterization and the reader’s prior knowledge, allowing the story itself to have a direct and immediate impact on the characters. Instead of, say, learning who Batman is while we’re also learning what’s happening in Gotham, we know who Batman is, and we experience the story more or less as he does. We likewise get to live the frustration and danger of being Gotham’s District Attorney, and even if we all kinda know where it’s going, we’re not just waiting for the second half of the book so that the hero can fight the villain three times before ultimately prevailing. It might sound counterintuitive, but there’s tension to be derived from our familiarity with Batman and the other characters.

That being said, maybe we do know Batman too well. Don’t mistake me, he’s still and always my favorite superhero, but seeing Batman brood over yet another mystery, all the while coping with his parents’ death as well as keeping up with his Bruce Wayne shit, makes me wonder whether there’s anything original to be said about Batman, at least in the comic book format. Perhaps there are nuances I’m just not picking up on, me being so new to the genre and all, but having just read Hush, Halloween seemed pretty dang familiar. (Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, seemed like a truly unique experience.)

I mean, I liked Halloween, and I looked forward to reading some of it before bed every night, which is just about the only metric I have nowadays. I just don’t know if it brings anything unique to the Batman oeuvre. Perhaps it doesn’t have to. It kept me entertained, and it added another interpretation to Batman’s mythos, which is really good enough.

These books are short, so I don’t really feel the need to write a treatise or anything. Just for fun, though, and because I need to get this off my chest, I’m gonna take a moment to nitpick. One thing that bothers me about graphic novels, something I didn’t know before I started reading them, is that they’re kind of poorly edited. I realize that books have mistakes too, some more than others, but the text-to-typo ratio in the few graphic novels I’ve read is absurd. Sometimes, the words don’t match up with the pictures. Other times, the text is just wrong. In The Long Halloween, they literally fuck up and identify Falcone’s daughter as alternately Sofia and Sophia. Seriously, who is editing these things? Pay someone fifty bucks to take a quick look, for fuck’s sake.

As an aside–really just to end on a positive note–it was interesting seeing the influence of The Long Halloween on Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight. From the mob war backdrop, to the courtroom assassination attempt, to the creation of a triumvirate between Batman, Gordon, and Dent, many of the plot elements seen in Halloween are imitated in Nolan’s work, as are many of the themes. It was fun for me, as a Dark Knight fanatic, to see the genesis of some of those ideas.

And while we’re on the subject of movie adaptations, what if DC made a Red Son movie instead of butchering their franchise with a black-and-white, confused-looking Superman and a gun-toting, murder-happy Batman? Wouldn’t that be better than the gar-bage they’re putting out now? Just a thought.

The Long Halloween was a pretty good read, and if you’re into Batman or graphic novels, I think you’d probably like it. Red Son, while goofier in a way, actually probably has wider appeal; it’s fun to see familiar-yet-twisted versions of our favorite DC characters navigate an alternate Cold War, especially because Superman has to live in a morally gray world, for once. So, while I thought The Long Halloween was fun, I’d have to say I preferred Red Son. Not that it’s a competition between the two–this isn’t the exquisitely titled cinematic masterpiece Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

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Hush and Arkham Asylum

by Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, and Scott Williams; and
Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

 

In a Bored and Literate first, I’m going to take a shot at two books in one post. Alright, technically I’ve done it before, but only when reviewing two or more books of the same series, by the same author; Hush and Arkham Asylum, while both well-known graphic novels starring my favorite superhero, Batman, are very different stories with very different aesthetics.

And while not a Bored and Literate first, this is personally my first foray into the graphic novel genre. I read Persepolis a few years back, when it was assigned for a women’s studies class in college, but other than that, I’ve read nary a panel; no Batman, no Spider-Man, no X-Men, nothing. The closest I’ve come is the funny pages in the newspaper which, while containing a long-running Spider-Man strip, aren’t exactly comparable to reading a book.

But friends of mine–and friends of the blog–know that I do get down with comic book characters, with Batman being far and away my favorite. (I even had to review The Dark Knight Rises, a movie I saw at midnight on a Thursday, despite having to be at work at nine the next morning.) I love the characters, themes, aesthetic, and even the relative plausibility of Batman, and I love the ongoing meta-commentary about what Batman’s meaning and presentation. So this past summer, after a tempting visit to a comic book store, I resolved to finally visit the world of popular graphic novels, starting with Batman. But which books to choose? Luckily, that choice was made for me when a friend revealed his heretofore unknown comic book collection, insisting that I borrow Hush and Arkham Asylum.

With my Batman books in hand, it didn’t actually take too long to get through them, and here we are. Since I haven’t done this before, and I’m just making up the rules as I go, I suppose I’ll start by describing the books separately, before getting into the similarities, the contrasts, the subject matter, the format, and whatever else there could possibly be to discuss.

Hush

HushFor someone already familiar with Batman from movies, TV, and his place in the broader popular imagination, Hush was an incredibly easy transition into a new medium. The book begins with our hero chasing down leads to thwart a kidnapping plot, leading him to Killer Croc and Catwoman before a life-threatening injury forces him to retreat to the Batcave. He eventually follows the clues and encounters just about every rogue in the gallery, from the Joker to the Scarecrow to Superman–even the Green Lantern and Lex Luthor make brief appearances. As he grows frustrated with his pursuit, Batman also reflects on how his persona has, in many ways, destroyed any hopes he might have had for a life as Bruce Wayne.

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Arkham AsylumIf Hush was crowd-pleasing and easily accessible, if somewhat uninspired, Arkham Asylum was small, dark, and surreal. Rather than depicting a mystery unfolding over the course of many days and nights, Arkham Asylum invites Batman–and the reader–to spend one night at Gotham’s infamous mental hospital, necessitated by an inmate takeover of the asylum and made urgent by the Joker’s sadistic and believable threats to Arkham’s staff. As Batman ventures deeper into the labyrinth, the audience is simultaneously given the twisted history of what had once been a private home and an exploration of the twisted minds of its current residents; the story of Amadeus Arkham, a man driven to the brink by Gotham’s cruelty, mirrors Batman’s own experience in the house.

Basically, these books could not be more different in style or tone. Broadly speaking, while both had beautiful art, Hush was much more centered on its plot than was Arkham Asylum, which instead used nightmarish visuals and heavy symbolism to tell its story.

I don’t know if I could say which I enjoyed more, though without a doubt I became more engrossed in the story of Hush. For one thing, the plot unfolded over the course of several days, with red herrings, betrayals, new leads, and dead ends. It was action-packed, but the separation into chapters gave the book room to breathe, allowing Batman to wax philosophic on his own existence. Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, was claustrophobic, and intentionally so. Taking place overnight, and across a century of Gotham’s history, Arkham Asylum nearly begs the reader to finish it in a single, two-hour sitting. So while I don’t think the story of Arkham Asylum was as good, each book accomplished what it set out to do. Hush succeeded in creating a serialized adventure with interesting characters, and Arkham Asylum was a thoroughly engaging and disturbing fever dream. On the plus side, as someone who has had trouble finishing novels recently, I can honestly say that I was never bored and I never lost focus with either book.

In addition to telling their stories differently, the two books also diverge in their depiction of Batman himself. Hush‘s Batman, as I mentioned, has time to reflect on his mission and his history; the book’s action is accompanied by Batman’s narration, which eschews the extremes of seriousness and silliness for  a quiet, self-aware internal monologue. While Loeb’s Batman often seems to see the humor in his situation, it is clear that he takes his role seriously, seriously enough to carry out his responsibilities even when they seem most futile.

With Arkham Asylum‘s treatment of Batman as a character, on the other hand, the first thing you notice is his appearance: McKean draws him as a dark, almost demonic figure, usually lacking a face or anything that would identify him as human. Indeed, befitting the book’s exploration of the line between reason and insanity, Arkham Asylum depicts Batman as a creature that would perhaps be more comfortable within the hospital, among its patients, than in the outside world. Unfortunately, while Batman’s visual depiction is thematically coherent and amazing to look at, his character, as created by Morrison, is largely reactive, especially towards his primary opponent. Not only does Batman only show up at Arkham at the Joker’s request, his silence stands in marked contrast to the Joker’s boisterous sexuality, to which Batman responds with obvious discomfort.

Yup, this happens

With respect to the artwork, I was much more drawn to that of Arkham Asylum than that of Hush. As I mentioned, Hush is story-driven, while Arkham Asylum allows the visuals and the atmosphere to take the lead; for me, it created a more immersive experience. With Hush, I never forgot I was reading a comic, but you could get lost in the insane and impossible images of Arkham Asylum, a credit to McKean’s craft.

So that about sums up my first foray into the world of graphic novels. It was a long time coming, but I’m very pleased with the books I chose. Hush and Arkham Asylum, while displaying different facets of Batman and his world, were both incredibly satisfying for me as both a Batman fan and a graphic novel noob. Hush told a grander story, but it also hinged on an incredibly stupid plot point that casts a childish light on the whole book, which is bad news for a medium already considered childish. Pressed, I would say I liked Hush better, though it’s almost like comparing a novel to a poem. (I’m just sounding pretentious now, so I think I’ll call it a day.)

The Spy Who Loved Me

by Ian Fleming

 

The Spy Who Loved Me was an experiment for Fleming, who felt it so different from his other Bond novels that he claimed in the prologue to have received the book as an anonymous manuscript. He also seemed to have regretted publication, later ensuring that the Bond movies wouldn’t adapt the novel. (They did not: the film producers took The Spy Who Loved Me for their title, but used an entirely new story, new characters, new settings, and a new plot. Luckily, we got a great song out of it.) Maybe Fleming was right; the book was seen as a break in the formula–which it absolutely was–that failed to live up to the high standards set in previous books.

The main departure for this book involves James Bond’s own presence, or lack thereof. He is, in fact, absent from about two thirds of the novel, which follows French Canadian Vivienne Michel’s unfortunate decision to watch over a secluded motel for the last week of the tourist season. But the first chunk of the novel isn’t about that, either. The Spy Who Loved MeAct one recounts Vivienne’s life story, from Canada to England and up to her travels through the mountains of upstate New York. The trouble then begins when two gangsters show up with orders to burn the place down. Bond makes his entrance when the gangsters, who have no incentive to let Vivienne live, are deciding exactly what they want to do with her.

As a Bond fan who’s been critical of both the rigidity of the formula and the inconsistency of its results, I actually welcome this change. Waiting around for Bond to receive his assignment, get the lay of the land, and start working his way towards the villain gets a bit stale after a while. Spy solves this problem by showing us the action through the eyes of someone else, and by having Bond simply stumble upon the plot, which is entirely self-contained. Actually, Spy has an appeal similar to the short stories of For Your Eyes Only, with smaller threats and cozier casts of characters. Vivienne, Bond, and the two gangsters are the only characters in the novel, and their motivations are neither grand nor complex. Simple characterization isn’t always a positive, but to me it was a breath of fresh air.

The bad guys are just two mobsters, Sluggsy Morant and Sol Horror, who are sent to the motel in order to burn it down for their boss. While I admit that they’re not the most well-rounded villains of all time, or even of the Fleming oeuvre, it’s nice to have a different set of tensions and stakes than in, say, Goldfinger or Thunderball. Since we’re introduced to these characters through the eyes of a young foreign girl, who has no idea who the men are or what she’s gotten herself into, I’d argue that they’re scarier than the supervillains Bond usually faces. Sure, Bond has been tortured and whatnot–pretty regularly, actually–but he’s a double-oh agent. He knows what he’s getting into every time he leaves his desk in London. Vivienne, though confident and self-assured in other ways, is simply not equipped to handle these things. From this perspective, regular gangsters can be just as scary as megalomaniacs, especially when they plan to kill Vivienne and show no qualms about raping her in the meantime.

If you think it odd that Fleming writes from a female perspective, and that he uses rape as a threat to this heroine, I hear you. It’s uncomfortable for me too. But to me, Vivienne is Fleming’s attempt to write about a woman who’s had to deal with dicks like Bond (and Fleming) her whole life. By the time we meet her, she’s a self-sufficient woman in her twenties, but in her earlier years she got involved with dudes that undervalued and mistreated her. To me, that sounds a lot like how Bond treats the average Bond girl throughout the series. Maybe Fleming is absolving himself here, by making Bond the knight in shining armor, coming to rescue Vivienne from the big bad men of the world, the run of the mill kind as well as the gangsters. Maybe Fleming just sucks at writing women, and can’t imagine a woman that could resist Bond’s charms. I don’t pretend to know what he was trying to do, but I found the shift in perspective to be a welcome change, though it might not work for everyone.

The last thing I’ll say is that Fleming creates a mood that is much more consistent than many of his other outings. Again, it reminds me a lot of the short stories, which seem to be a real strength of his. It’s not as if the Bond novels are weighty tomes, but they push Fleming’s writing style to its limits. Spy is an intimate and concise novel with clearly defined boundaries, few characters, and a tense plot, making it a unique entry into the series, and one which showcases the strengths of Fleming’s writing.

In The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming breaks the mold and creates a new kind of Bond novel. Whether you like the end result probably depends on how much you liked the formula to begin with.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

 

On Labor Day weekend, after attending a party in Falls Church where much cornhole was played and much beer was drunk, I found myself (and my ride) unwilling to make it all the way back to DC; we ended up sleeping at my ancestral dwelling in Arlington. I didn’t bring a book, and my phone was dead, so in the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep, I decided to pick up a novel that would kill some time, something I’d read before, something that I could potentially finish quickly. If you’re good at following clues and taking hints, you know what book that is.

Actually, clues and hints aren’t a bad segue into Curious Incident. The title refers to a dead dog discovered by a teenage boy with undisclosed behavioral and emotional disabilities, perhaps most similar to the autism spectrum. Upon finding the dog’s body, the boy, Christopher, takes it upon himself to discover who might have killed the animal. Despite his reticence with and fear of strangers, Christopher identifies and interviews suspects in the neighborhood, following the clues and crossing people off the list as he gets closer to uncovering a major conspiracy.

I love that the plot of Curious Incident both follows and deviates from the whodunit structure that Christopher lays out. He realizes he’s writing a mystery novel, dutifully following clues wherever they may lead him, but he remains almost completely oblivious to what’s really going on, no matter how many of his “suspects” hint at the truth. Curious IncidentOn one level, yes, the mystery of the dead dog is the plot of the book; the search for the killer’s identity drives the first half of the novel, while the second half reckons with the killer’s motivations. However, were we given a more conventional narrator, the dead dog might better be described as the catalyst for the novel, rather than its central mystery.

As you can probably tell, the unique narration plays a huge part in the novel. On top of treating a neighbor’s dead dog as a Sherlock Holmes novel, Christopher omits composite numbers from his chapters, digresses into math or scientific fact at inappropriate times, and, most importantly, fails to even realize what his own novel is about. In one sense, he’s an unreliable narrator; we can’t trust him to accurately report on the goings-on around him, simply because he doesn’t always understand what’s happening. He misinterprets the intentions of strangers and loved ones, and he fears everything that he’s not familiar with. On the other hand, he is always truthful, especially with his own thoughts and feelings. He explains why he hates certain colors, why he likes to listen to white noise at full volume, and any other behaviors that most would consider “abnormal.” He’s honest to a degree that is unusual for fictional characters, especially in the noir world of mystery novels.

One important question will come to anyone who picks up this book: Does it accurately reflect the way autistic people think, feel, and experience the world? I couldn’t possibly answer that; I have no personal experience with it and I’m nowhere close to being qualified. I think it’s comforting to believe that the book is accurate. I mean, for one thing, Haddon is such a good writer that we desperately want his words to be a reflection of something real. Christopher’s narrative is so believable, and his line of thinking so logical, that we’re tempted to assume it must be grounded in either expertise or first-hand knowledge. But more importantly, I think we all want to believe that people on the autism spectrum, especially the more extreme ends, are more similar to non-autistic people than behaviors show. I’m guessing that this is why the book’s publisher, and the public, latched onto the notion that Christopher’s behavior was not only a portrayal of Asperger’s, despite the author leaving us without a diagnosis, but an extremely accurately portrayal of the syndrome. It would be reassuring, in a way, to think that a simple, short novel could bridge the gap between those with autism and those without.

Alas, I don’t know if these beliefs are warranted. I’m not saying they’re not; I really just do not know. I have read conflicting opinions on whether this novel portrays autism realistically, and I’m not going to jump into the fray with people who know way more than I do. Haddon himself does not specify what disabilities Christopher might have, and readily admits that he’s not an autism expert. Some might think of this as a cop-out, given the book’s marketing strategy clearly hinting at autism or Asperger’s.

I tend to side with the author, though. To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the writing is real, or whether it corresponds in some way to a specific disease. Haddon’s goal in this case was to portray a way of thinking that is both human and alien at the same time, and in that he succeeds beautifully. Christopher appears to feel emotion like we do, but is simply unable to express it in the way that most people would. His preference for touching his palm to a loved one’s over a hug shows that he understands and sympathizes with the need for intimacy, even if he himself is terrified by being so physically close to another. These characteristics humanize behavior that might be jarring for someone encountering it for the first time, to the point where, towards the end of the novel, Christopher’s unique behaviors begin to elicit the same emotions in the reader that more “normal” behavior might; Christopher’s acceptance or rejection of an open palm gesture comes to mean the same thing as the acceptance or rejection of a hug, which is itself only a symbol of the acceptance or rejection of unconditional love.

The wonder of Haddon’s book comes not from the mystery, but from his ability to bridge the gap in understanding between narrator and audience. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time accomplishes this and more, breaking down and brushing aside human symbols and embracing the pure emotions behind them.

Doctor No

by Ian Fleming

 

In keeping with tradition, this will be brief.

This is one of the better Bond books. Our hero travels to exotic locales, meets a few interesting people, and generally either kills them or leads them to their deaths. Such is the life of a double-oh agent. The plot here involves M sending Bond on what should be a relatively easy mission investigating the disappearance of an MI6 agent in Jamaica. Knowing Bond as we do, however, that’s obviously not what we get.

Fleming’s, ahem, biases, this time come down primarily upon the ethnic Chinese minority living on Jamaica. Fleming calls them Chinese Negroes or “Chigroes,” a term that I can only assume isn’t used with the kindest of intentions. Doctor NoFleming also has an obsession with ascribing traits to specific nationalities, a tendency not unlike science fiction’s predilection for creating a whole race or planet with the same characteristics or vocation. (Why are all Kaminoans cloners? For that matter, why was the plot of Episode II so needlessly complicated?) In Fleming’s mind, the Chinese population of Jamaica stands together as a criminal syndicate, led by our eponymous villain Dr. No, himself only half Chinese. (Since his other half is white, he’s a genius, whereas the “Chigroes” are little more than henchmen.)

Fleming, if you weren’t dead, this is the part of the post where I’d ask you to drop that kind of nonsense from your books. Those ideas kind of fell out of fashion a while ago. Luckily for us, the modern James Bond is much more politically correct, though his decision in Skyfall to surprise a sex trafficking victim in the shower is questionable, to say the least.

The appeal of the book comes when Bond decides to take action by visiting Dr. No’s stronghold on Crab Key. Bond and an old accomplice infiltrate the island under cover of night and wake in the morning to discover Honeychile Rider, the prototypical Bond girl played in the movie by Ursula Andress, collecting sea shells on the beach. She’s naked, of course; Bond immediately decides to make her part of the squad. From there, the book becomes fights and chases and torture scenes, interrupted briefly by Dr. No’s introduction and megalomaniacal spiel.

Dr. No seems like the book in which Fleming realized he had a formula and embraced it, warts and all. Parts of it are ugly, but you can’t say it’s not exciting.