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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Watchmen

by Alan Moore (illustrated by Dave Gibbons)

Watchmen 1986 - Chapter 1 CoverEvery once in a while, a book or movie or, in this case, comic, comes around and totally changes the game for all future books/movies/comics. In the comic book world, Watchmen (1986) is the best example of that. Watchmen is the wild brainchild of Alan Moore, who built a completely new world around the modern Superhero in this franchise. Ditching the hero vs. villain concept, Moore forces us to see a spectrum of morality in which heroes sometimes look and act like villains and villains sometimes look and act like heroes.

The premise is that superheroes are real – they just don’t have super powers. In the 1940s and 1960s, there forms a band of masked vigilantes known as the Minute Men. The game changes when a research physicist is exposed to a blast of radiation. He uses his immense brain and will power to bring his atoms back together and build himself a human-esque shape. Now able to transport himself through space and time, Jon (now the blue Dr. Manhattan), becomes the first true super human, leaving the rest of the world in a vulnerable state.

The nonlinear story is told with flashbacks and subplots throughout, sometimes in the same panel. The main plot takes place in 1985 New York City: The United States is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, and vigilante crime-fighting is now illegal. Most of the Minute Men have retired, except for the two government-endorsed heroes, the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, and one outlaw, Rorschach. The story begins as Rorschach discovers that the Comedian has been murdered. He believes that this, along with allegations against Dr. Manhattan, is evidence that someone is seeking to take down all past and present vigilantes. This becomes the main storyline: Rorschach seeks out the other Minute Men to share his suspicions and track down their shared enemy.

This is paralleled throughout the graphic novel through a kid who reads a comic, “Tales of the Black Freighter”, in which a sailor floats home on the backs of his dead crew to warn his town of approaching pirates. Let us pause and take a second to appreciate Alan Moore’s genius in this: the kid is reading pirate comics. In a world where superheroes are real, almost commonplace, kids read pirate comics instead of superhero comics – How clever! Anyway, as the unnamed kid reads Tales, the comic reflects events going on in the world around him. Meanwhile, there are several flashbacks in each chapter, explaining how and why the masked men (and women) took on their second persona, and how they all came together to fight crime.

In the end, what makes Watchmen so special is the psychology of Moore’s characters. Superheroes are, underneath it all, just human. They make choices, mistakes, sacrifices. They choose to compromise their morals, or not, in the face of dire circumstances. Despite immense power and influence, there are consequences. Ultimately it is unclear which character is morally superior. That is the brilliance of Alan Moore. He doesn’t tell you which character does the right thing. He has the characters ask the question, and allows the reader to decide for herself – what price should we pay to avoid war? Is the preservation of human life worth sacrificing our humanity?

Who watches the watchmen?

Prey

by Michael Crichton

 

I’ve been on a big Jurassic Park kick of late, yada yada yada, I found myself reading Prey. I’d only ever read the one Crichton book, but I knew his schtick: use whatever science/technology has been making advances lately, embellish a little but not so much that it seems unrealistic, and then write a thriller that scares the shit out of people. Not a bad formula. It certainly worked for Park. Instead of genetic manipulation and dinosaurs, however, Prey gives us the convergence of nanotechnology, computer science, and emergent intelligence to create swarms of nanoparticles that evolve predatory behavior towards humans.

Here’s the thing: nanoparticle swarms aren’t dinosaurs. In my opinion, Park has two main things going for it: the simplicity of the (admittedly dubious) science and the audience’s familiarity with dinosaurs. With Prey, Crichton has to pretty much start from scratch explaining the technology and why we should be afraid. Sure, I’m familiar with nanoparticles and I know what an algorithm is, but Crichton spends a lot of time describing the various technologies that he incorporates into Prey. It’s as if he constantly needs to convince us that this menace is legitimate, and not some pseudo-scientific nonsense. It’d be kind of like showing you the t-rex, and then explaining exactly what its teeth would do to you and how unlikely it’d be that you’d escape, and then politely returning you to the story. Since there’s nothing viscerally terrifying about the swarms, Crichton tries to explain to us why they should be logically terrifying.

That said, the book is still a hell of a thriller. People use the phrase “page-turner” these days as a backhanded compliment- the first book to come to mind when I hear it is The Da Vinci Code, which everyone read, enjoyed, and now pretends to hate- but some books just grab you, and that’s a good thing. PreyThe first third or so introduces Jack, a stay-at-home-dad who’s having some career and family issues, as he slowly becomes entangled in some mysterious goings-on. He ends up flying out to the Nevada desert- Prey‘s Isla Nublar, for Park fans- to work as a contractor for his wife’s company, which apparently needs help debugging some of his old computer code. The whole thing turns into a big shit show as soon as he gets there, and by this point I was hooked.

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. You know that horror cliché of people in movie theaters yelling at the screen, “Don’t go in there! The one-armed killer clown is in there!” No? Whatever, I don’t watch a lot of horror movies. Jack does a lot of dumb shit in this book, is my point. Pretty soon after he gets to Nevada, they establish that the nanoswarms are hostile and lethal, but that everyone will be safe as long as they stay inside their hermetically sealed lab. But Jack keeps fucking going outside! First, it’s to check out a dead animal that the swarms just killed. “Good idea, that. You just watched a swarm take down this rabbit, but whatever, go check it out.” Jack survives. “Good. Oh, you’re going back outside, even though you barely survived that last outing.” Miraculous escape. “Oh, going out again. Alrighty.” I just wanted to have a heart-to-heart with Jack, and find out whether he’s got a death wish or he’s just a moron. But I guess that’s what puts the thrill in thriller.

The moral of the story: don’t fuck with science. Now, I’m a little unclear on whether Crichton thinks that humanity itself isn’t great at handling discovery, or if corporations are uniquely arrogant. It doesn’t matter much, but I’m inclined to believe the latter, given that Crichton’s scientists always work for companies with names like Xymos, InGen and MoloDyne (Crichton’s ability to come up with terribly dystopian conglomerates is key to his success). Nobody called Xymos is up to anything good. These corporations, whose only goal is profit, embody our collective greed. They’re ideal antagonists for stories about our rush to discovery outpacing our humility and ethics.

But I don’t think that really matters. Sure, it’s a cautionary tale, but only in the same way that Avatar‘s a cautionary tale. As in, “I get your point, but this is too silly to take seriously.” I can get behind the idea that corporations cut corners sometimes, and that diffusion of responsibility can lead to ethical lapses, but these ideas aren’t really fleshed out, making them almost a distraction in Prey. This is a thriller about tiny robots that are smart, indestructible, and hate people, and that’s all we really need.

Prey was tight. It’s basically Jurassic Park with nanotechnology rather than genetics, but it doesn’t quite live up to the earlier novel’s standard. Still, if you’re into thrillers, you’d probably enjoy.

Timequake

by Kurt Vonnegut

 

Timequake (1997), the last novel that Vonnegut published (so it goes), is what I would classify as semi-autobiographical meta-fiction. The story is presented as if Vonnegut were re-writing a previously published work, dubbed Timequake One, in which on February 13, 2001, everyone is suddenly zapped back to February 17, 1991. The nature of this “timequake” is such that every person must relive each minute of each day exactly as they did the first time. This means that every mistake you made in 1993 the first time, you make again the second time, and though you are aware that it is a rerun, you are unable to alter your personal history. Essentially, free will is completely lost during those ten years.

Much of the novel is told through the mouth of Vonnegut’s alter-ego Kilgore Trout, an eccentric writer that has great ideas for stories, but has never had a successful writing career. TimequakeTrout is a fascinating character. To me, he is the epitome of human bleakness, or what I like to call the existentialist’s burden. He is not so bothered by the timequake, as he spends most of those ten years writing, and “rerun or not, he could tune out the crock of shit being alive was as long as he was scribbling”. Throughout the novel, Trout talks Vonnegut through his unorthodox views on human existence. For an example, read Trout’s explanation of the rapid spread of diseases such as AIDS (found here). My other favorite Trout-ism is his version of the Book of Genesis, but I’ll let you read the book to find that one.

Back to the plot. After the rerun ends (on February 13, 2001, Take 2), Kilgore Trout realizes without a shred of doubt what has happened. But as he begins to execute free will again, he also realizes that nobody else seems to have figured it out. Everyone has grown so accustomed to playing out a script that they do not know how to carry on after the timequake. Ting-a-ling. So he begins spreading the mantra “you’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there is work to do” to encourage people to grasp a hold of their lives again.

Trout, however, is not a huge fan of free will. This is exemplified when, at a writer’s clambake post-rerun, Vonnegut asks Trout his opinion on John Wilkes Booth. He responds that the murder of President Lincoln was “the sort of thing which is bound to happen whenever an actor creates his own material”.

There are a few moments in Timequake in which Vonnegut mentions that he is getting old, older than he ever expected to be. There are many side-stories culminating in last words — by characters in history or characters in Vonnegut’s life. My personal favorite is a fictitious account of Hitler’s final moments, in which he considers his options for last words. He ends up saying ” I never asked to be born in the first place”, then shoots himself.

I think Vonnegut knew this was going to be the last novel he published. I think this book is his way of making sure his readers grasp his philosophy on life, as though he wants to get his final two cents in. As he puts it, when thinking about writing, Vonnegut asks himself “why bother?”, to which he responds, “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'” He uses Kilgore Trout as a device through which to describe all of his eccentric and extremist views, to find comfort in determinism. He uses the last words of others to say goodbye to his life as a storyteller. He uses the clambake as a goodbye party, and Trout’s speech as an epitaph for himself, written by himself. Perhaps he is just “much too old and experienced to start playing Russian roulette with free will again.”

For any Vonnegut fan, Timequake is an absolute must-read; it is so unique and special. The premise of the blip in time followed by a ten year rerun is not fully formed, but I was very willing to look past that. Vonnegut’s fictional anecdotes (as well as some autobiographical ones) are enough to make this book well worth a read. His philosophy is presented so hilariously, and parts of this book would make great short stories. As important as this novel was for me, I think it would not appeal to anyone who is not already a fan of Kurt.

If this isn’t nice, what is?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6

Created by Joss Whedon

 

Oh yes, there will be spoilers. And if you’ve seen the show, feel free to skip the first section.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows a group of friends (the Scoobie Gang) as they fight demons and navigate the challenges of young adulthood. Buffy Summers is a “Chosen One” type, and every season involves her fighting a “Big Bad” antagonist who threatens her world with apocalypse. Since twenty-two episodes is way too many for a single story arc–shorter seasons are one thing that I think HBO/Netflix/the British have actually gotten right–there are plenty of one-off, “monster-of-the-week” episodes, and in the earlier seasons especially these are often meant to symbolize problems that teenagers and twenty-somethings have. ScoobiesTypical examples: Willow, Buffy’s computer nerd friend, meets a boy on the internet who turns out to be a demon; Xander joins the swim team only to find that their recent success comes from exposing themselves to (Soviet-made, if I recall correctly) chemicals that make them better swimmers but eventually turn them into fish monsters; Buffy’s awful college roommate actually turns out to be a demon. These are metaphors for, respectively: the potential for meeting creepers on the internet, seemingly a huge moral panic from the 90’s; steroids; and the difficulties of the transition to college and living with strangers.

Later, the show moves away from after school special issues, and begins to explore key themes without needing to insert a monster as a stand-in for each problem. The fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons explore relationships, family, and the transition to adulthood, without being tied down by any particular formula. Personally, I feel like the show grew with the characters; as the characters aged, they took on more responsibilities, and the show set its sights higher, as well. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with that, and I can respect that opinion. Perhaps it’s because I’m only now watching the show at age twenty-five, or maybe people want different things in TV shows now. Maybe it defies explanation; it just is what it is. Continue reading