Available now from Amazon and other places is the first volume of my (probably) ongoing comics series, questionably titled SHARTBOOM. It has some funny stuff. Here is the front and back cover:
The cover depicts me and my imaginary friend/spirit companion/possibly real manifestation of all that is good in the universe, the Flying Robot Tickle Poodle, who makes at least one appearance in the book's interior pages. As you can see, we're doing a variation on the "As above, so below" thing, which might I say might be a clue to interpreting some of what happens within the book.
You can order SHARTBOOM No 1 here.
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Monday, April 30, 2018
Once again I had the pleasure and privilege of appearing on the vastly entertaining and informative FOUR BRAINS ONE MOVIE podcast, featuring the inimitable Bradley J Kornish and Dan Pullen. This time we discussed two films that are very dear to me, HANDS OF ORLAC and MAD LOVE, both of which are based on the book LES MAINS D’ORLAC by Maurice Renard.
I’ve already written a little about both of these films, but that was quite awhile ago. Re-watching them this past week for the podcast, I was struck by the fact that I’ve grown to appreciate these films even more, and for very different reasons than I have in past. At least on a conscious level. Over the last couple of years I’ve been going through some Dougie Cooper-level stuff and over the past six months or so I’ve been actively confronting these issues, and I think that my new outlook on these two films has been actively informed by my own personal journey. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown.
At heart, these movies about a hand transplant gone wrong are about the ways in which humans fail to connect, and how the need to express oneself is vital to their survival.
Also, a killer’s hands probably contain some vestige of their original owner’s homicidal spirit—so be careful whose limbs you have transplanted onto your body.
In HANDS OF ORLAC, Conrad Veidt gives a manic, exhausting performance as Paul Orlac (Stephen in Renard’s original book—I’m not sure why it was changed; MAD LOVE changes it back), a famed concert pianist whose hands are crushed in train derailment. The brilliant but bland surgeon Dr Serral transplants the hands of Vasseur, a man recently executed for committing a series of murders, onto Paul’s arms. Thanks to a highly effective plot to drive him insane and extort money, Paul comes to believe that his hands are possessed by the evil bloodlust that drove Vasseur to commit the crimes for which he was executed.
Prior to the train derailment, much is made of the importance of Paul’s hands. Very early in the film Yvonne is seen reading a letter from Paul, in which he states that his “hands will glide over your hair. I will feel your body beneath my hands.” Later, Yvonne pleads with Dr Serral to “save his hands,” and when Paul awakens after the procedure, his hands still covered in hand bandages (“handages”), Yvonne comments on his “beautiful, tender hands…”
All of this might seem like overkill, and maybe it is—but the fact is, hands are important. They’re specifically important to Paul because as a pianist it’s how he earns his living and how he expresses himself creatively. They’re also an important part of the way in which he and his wife connect with one another. Without the ability to connect with others, we miss out on crucial aspects of ourselves. It’s very difficult to be a wholehearted, satisfied person without connecting with others. When Paul, who has been looking forward to once again holding the love of his life in his arms, and getting back to sharing his musical gifts with the world, learns that the hands that are now on the ends of his arms once belonged to a man executed for committing murder, he understandably suffers a serious emotional break.
He decides that he won’t allow himself to use these new hands to touch anyone else. So, following this major medical trauma, he feels a need to compound his difficulty by walling himself off from humanity. This is on top of the fact that his new hands seem incapable of creating music anymore: In one particularly painful scene, Paul goes to the piano, caresses it. Fearfully, anxiously, a shell of what he once was, he attempts to play. His and Yvonne’s reactions are appalled at the result.
Paul’s struggle is dramatized in scenes that show him almost dancing, with the hands seeming to lead him. He tells the hands, “I feel like it comes from you… along the arms… until it reaches the soul… cold, terrible, relentless…” A knife found planted at his home as part of the blackmail/insanity plot is used to stab at the air—and leads to Paul considering using it to sever his new hands.
In this way Veidt and director Robert Wiene clearly establish the heartsickness, fear, and psychological difficulties that come from Paul’s situation. His new hands are the reasons why he can’t connect with others, either physically or through his Art. Now his blackmailers, Nera and Regine (Yvonne’s maid) really start to twist the knife, so to speak. Nera tells her: “Seduce his hands.”
This is a wildly specific and even humorous phrasing. But it shows that Nera has a deep understanding of the trauma that Paul is still dealing with. Paul has been denying himself connection with everyone, including his wife. Nera knows that Paul can’t keep that up forever without going completely insane, and that the opportunity for actual contact will be too much for him to resist. So he tells her to make that connection with Paul. When he touches her, the look on Paul’s face is one of pathetic, heartbreaking relief. Human beings are hardwired for connection. That connection is often sloppy and open to miscommunication even in the best circumstances.
Then Regine hits him with “Don’t touch me... Your hands hurt... Like the hands of a killer...” she is messing with him on a primal level. She lets him get a taste of connection that he hasn’t had since before the accident and then takes it away in a brutally emotionally violent way.
This leads to Paul visiting Dr Serral, and asking him to remove the hands. Dr Serral responds with stupid platitudes: “The head and the heart lead the body… and command the hands.” Well, Paul’s head is completely twisted up, and his heart is broken. His head and heart are useless in this case, and as Paul has already stated, he can feel the hands’s influence reaching into his soul.
Finally, Nera, pretending to be Vasseur, confronts Paul with his explicit blackmail demands. This leads to the climax of the film, in which we learn that Nera was the killer all along and that Vasseur was unjustly executed. Nera took a wax cast of Vasseur’s hands and created gloves which he used to leave Vasseur’s fingerprints at his crime scenes (slightly reminiscent of the third Fantomas novel, published in English as THE CORPSE WHO KILLS, in which Fantomas created gloves from the actual hands of a dead man). The hands, then, are clean—Paul kisses his hands and touches Yvonne. This ending, taken directly from the book, is an unmitigatedly happy one. It might seem a bit too “pat,” but it’s actually a relief that feels earned by Paul after that incredibly draining performance by Veidt. As the audience, I felt a lot of relief, too.
This is in stark contrast to the ending of MAD LOVE, which is almost unbearably bleak.
MAD LOVE follows the same story as HANDS OF ORLAC, but puts the focus squarely on Professor Gogol—a vast improvement over the bland Dr Serral. As inhabited by the great Peter Lorre, in probably his best performance and one of the greatest performances of all time, Gogol is a deeply disturbing, pathetic, sympathetic, appalling, evil, generous, complicated human being who is ultimately looking for human connections he’s unable to make due to his profound and irreparable flaws.
The director Karl Freund crafted the story of MAD LOVE with a writer called Guy Endore, author of a fantastic novel called THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS (which you should read!), to add an additional psychosexual element centered around Lorre’s Gogol. In this version of the story, Yvonne is an actress appearing at a Grand Guignol-type theater which Gogol visits every night to watch her suffer simulated tortures, which, given Gogol’s expression during one particularly grisly scene of torture, give him sexual satisfaction.
Or is it really sexual? Compare the look on Lorre's Gogol's face with that of Veidt's Orlac in the "seduce his hands" scene screenshotted above. I wonder if this is in fact Gogol feeling an EMOTIONAL connection with Yvonne. It's warped, I know--but Gogol is a warped character.
Or is it really sexual? Compare the look on Lorre's Gogol's face with that of Veidt's Orlac in the "seduce his hands" scene screenshotted above. I wonder if this is in fact Gogol feeling an EMOTIONAL connection with Yvonne. It's warped, I know--but Gogol is a warped character.
After a performance, Gogol visits Yvonne in her dressing room where he’s appalled to learn that she plans to journey with Stephen to England. Stephen’s playing can be heard on the radio in the background and when Yvonne asks Gogol, “How do you think he plays?” Gogol exposes his bitchy jealousy when he answers “Very modern music” in a condescending tone. (Gogol’s good taste in Art is shown throughout the film by his frequent quoting of poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, and Oscar Wilde.) But his attitude changes to outright desperation when he tells her “I’ve come to depend on seeing you every night… I must see you again… I MUST!” She’s creeped out and looks for escape, but Gogol is invited to the afterparty, where the cast and crew present Yvonne with a guillotine-themed wedding cake. Yvonne offers “One kiss and one piece of cake for each…” Bad idea, as Gogol’s kiss is a clear violation. In a great piece of acting, Frances Drake’s Yvonne displays a range of emotions in just a few seconds, going from fearful, to horrified, to saddened, then to a sort of steely resignation to soldier on.
In these few early scenes Gogol’s and Yvonne’s characters and their dynamic are clearly established. Stephen’s character is established by the radio announcer who states that he is “an Artist with a great future,” and, significantly, it’s noted that Stephen isn’t just a pianist but also a composer. The next time we see Stephen he’s riding in the train, composing music. This is contrasted with the arrival of Rollo, convicted of killing his father with a knife and on his way to Paris for execution. Creativity is expression is life—Stephen is asserting his life by composing. This dichotomy is made explicit by the American journalist Reagan, who equates the train’s arrival to “A welcome and farewell party all in one.”
As if that wasn’t enough, later, after Stephen’s handages have been removed and his piano playing is shown to be less than satisfying, he plays a record of a past performance and tells Yvonne, “I used to play rather well. Wonderful invention, the phonograph… keeps a man alive long after he’s dead… These records are all that’s left of Stephen Orlac.” Yvonne responds by stating, “All of Stephen Orlac is left. His tenderness… his genius… and his arms. That hold me close…” Stephen is still alive, he can still touch Yvonne, but he can’t express himself creatively, which was a crucial part of his identity.
Note that by this point in the story in the previous film, Paul Orlac has been told that he has the hands of a killer on the ends of his arms. Stephen still believes that the hands he has are his own, reconstructed. So he has the luxury of being able to hold Yvonne close, at least. Even if he can’t play the piano anymore. But this is going to change in a truly devastating way.
Things take a really sinister turn when a creditor attempts to repossess Stephen’s piano. He throws a pen at him—the pen lodges in the wall just as the pen lodges in the wall of train car when Rollo throws it at the autograph-seeker. The symmetry of this scene is complete when Stephen again states, “This happens to be my pen, gentlemen…”
So it would appear that Stephen has some idea of that he’s got Rollo’s hands—but the audience hasn’t yet seen anything that lets us know for certain that he’s been told. When he confronts Gogol, Stephen tells him, “You and your black magic!… The hands feel for knives… They want to throw them… They want to kill!” Gogol then offers Stephen some bland platitudes, along the lines of Serral’s nonsense in HANDS OF ORLAC; but in this case, Gogol is aware he’s being banal.
When Yvonne confronts him later, Gogol seems to be talking about himself as much as Stephen: “The shock has affected his mind… Get away from him before he ruins your life…” He then delivers one of the great lines horror movie history: “I, a poor peasant, have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love? Don’t you understand? You must be mine!”
This outburst drains Gogol, who seems to go into a sort of catatonic state not unlike that of Paul Orlac in HANDS OF ORLAC. At this point Gogol’s mind completely snaps and he hatches his plan to murder Stephen’s stepfather and assume the identity of Rollo to drive Stephen insane. He tells Stephen that the hands he now possesses once belonged to Rollo, the knife throwing murderer.
At the climax, Stephen throws the knife used to murder his stepfather and with deadly accuracy he kills Gogol just before Gogol is able to kill Yvonne.
Stephen has the knife-throwing skills of Rollo. The hands do in fact want knives! They want to throw them! And they wanted to throw knives—and to kill—BEFORE Stephen knew they’d once belonged to Rollo. This means that the hands are in fact corrupt, and they’re corrupting Stephen. The hands are exerting a powerfully malevolent influence over him. And it’s at this point the film ends.
For crying out loud that is a desperately bleak ending!
Where does the story go from here? What kind of future do the Orlacs have to look forward to? The best they can hope for is that Stephen is able to channel his hands’ bloodlust in “positive” ways, in a sort of Dexter Morgan type future.
By making Yvonne an actress in a Grand Guignol-esque theater, Freund is able to do a PoMo style commentary on horror films and their fans (when Gogol is invited to the afterparty, much to Yvonne’s chagrin, he’s told, “Dr Gogol, you represent our public!”). But even more than that, by making Gogol the main character of the story, Stephen and his plight become a subtle commentary on Gogol and HIS plight.
Gogol is a deeply flawed person who commits bizarre and monstrous acts. But everything he does is in his fumbling and inappropriate attempts to connect with others. He’s unable to connect with others in ways that are “normal” and “healthy.” In many ways he’s a good person—he’s a gifted surgeon who uses his skills to help the poor. He specifically tells Reagan he doesn’t work for money, and we see this altruism in action, in his care for children in need of medical care. Despite his amazing surgical skill, he can’t make meaningful human connections. He’s almost like a character from a Todd Solondz film.
After the procedure Gogol has a conversation with Yvonne in which she is clearly the one with the power. He confesses his true feelings for her in a truly awkward and cringy way, asking for “pity for a man who has never known the love of a woman but has worshipped you…” Yvonne tells him that she knew of his feelings for her, and traded on them in order to get him to take on Stephen as a patient. She then delivers a painful emotional wallop: “Even if not for Stephen, there’s something about you that… frightens me…”
Self-aware, pained Gogol replies, “You are cruel! But only to be kind…” He seems resigned to his loveless fate, but once he concocts his plan to drive Stephen insane and step into Yvonne’s life in a romantic way he delivers his “poor peasant” line. Once again, Yvonne is in control, and she pushes him away in disgust. Gogol, near catatonic, is physically exhausted. He’s made at least three overt attempts at reaching out to Yvonne, and she’s rebuffed him every time.
Clearly, Gogol needs help. Yvonne can’t help him, and she has her own horrifying difficulties to deal with. Gogol’s doomed—his fate is sealed by his lack of human connection. But the devastation that he’s caused will last long after the film’s end.
When I first saw these films, in particular MAD LOVE, I was mostly drawn to their strange psychology and exploration of medical anxiety. The idea of losing control of your own body is truly horrifying. Watching them now, however, I’m struck by the fact that they’re actually about far more universal human issues. The lack of meaningful relationships can lead to disastrous consequences. MAD LOVE and HANDS OF ORLAC are both powerful, affecting dramatizations of the importance of connection and self-expression.
My cartoon mashup of HANDS OF ORLAC and MAD LOVE.
Saturday, March 3, 2018
Warning! While it’s impossible to “spoil” great art (we all know that Charles Darnay and Elizabeth Lavenza get married at the end of “Romeo and Juliet,” but that doesn’t stop us from continuing to listen to the opera), this post does contain very specific information regarding the endings of both THE NIGHT STALKER movie and the novel by Jeff Rice.
Please note the placement of Jeff Rice's name in the upper left corner, hidden amongst all the ballyhoo about the TV movie, while Matheson's name is separate at the bottom. Hm.
A few days ago I had the pleasure of participating in the FOUR BRAINS ONE MOVIE podcast with host Bradley Kornish and Dan Pullen, where the topic was the original Kolchak TV movie, THE NIGHT STALKER. Airing originally in January 1972, it was the highest-rated TV movie up to that point, earning a 54-share, meaning that 54% of all TVs turned on at the time were watching it. Seventy-five million people watched at least some of it. It was a rousing success that spawned a sequel movie and then a short-lived TV series that today maintains a loyal cult following and inspired just about every supernaturally themed TV show that’s appeared since.
In the opening credits of the THE NIGHT STALKER, we learn the screenplay was written by Richard Matheson, “from an unpublished story by Jeff Rice.” Matheson’s name was already legendary by that time. He was the writer of one of the most famous TWILIGHT ZONE episodes of all time, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which featured William Shatner as a panicked plane passenger who sees a hairy man on the wing. He was also the author of the well-regarded story collection SHOCK, and the novels THE SHRINKING MAN and I AM LEGEND, both of which had already served as the basis for very famous films.
But who was Jeff Rice? And why was this story “unpublished”? For that, matter, why mention that particular fact at all?
Jeff Rice was a writer for the Las Vegas Sun in the 1960s. He began writing a novel called THE KOLCHAK PAPERS in 1970, and apparently finished writing it on October 31 of that year. The book was a fictionalized account of Rice’s difficulties in getting stories published about actual corruption in the city—including stories about the mob, crooked and inept politicians and police, editors colluding to hide the truth, and so forth.
Rice submitted the manuscript to Matheson’s agent. Matheson’s agent then turned around and sold the movie rights to ABC, without informing Rice. By the time Rice learned what had happened, he was essentially locked into the deal. He’d sold his first—and as yet unpublished!—novel manuscript to the movies! He must have been excited yet frustrated by this turn of events. Can you imagine being in that situation, in that era? If he turned down the offer and fought to assert his intellectual property rights at that time, it might have caused the whole deal to collapse—and cause him to lose any future opportunities to have his work published. So he went along with that deal, hoping he might at least get a chance to adapt the screenplay.
But, no: Matheson’s agent had already negotiated for his client to write the screenplay as well.
It wasn’t until the show was going to become a series that Rice finally started asserting his rights as the creator of Kolchak. For his trouble he got a settlement that included a “created by” credit at the start of every episode, and the literary rights to the character. But that was about it. He was barred from participating in the show in any way, and a deal to write more novels with Kolchak was cancelled.
Rice’s life took a series of wrong turns from then on. He suffered from depression for much of his life, and was often destitute—sometimes having to rent a room from a friend, or even sleep on their couch.
Reading Rice’s original novel, it’s difficult not to (a) filter the story through the lens of Rice’s own experiences and (b) lament what might have been for Rice as a horror writer. THE KOLCHAK PAPERS is uneven and repetitive at times, but it also has a raw energy and verisimilitude that keeps you reading. It also has a really engaging title character, even if he’s not quite as powerful as the character inhabited by the great Darren McGavin.
The novel starts out with a letter written by Carl Kolchak to Jeff Rice. Kolchak, now reduced to “prostituting my God-given talents as a flack for actors,” has, between bouts of drunkenness, written and recorded a series of notes regarding “the greatest manhunt in the history of Las Vegas”:
“The only clues to the killer’s motive and his “weapon” were so unbelievable, that to this day the facts have been suppressed in a massive snow-job by mutual consent of the law enforcement agencies involved and the local press.”
Following this letter, and one page whose authorship is left unclear in the Pocket Books mass market paperback from 1974, there’s a Prologue written by Jeff Rice, in which he describes meeting Kolchak in Los Angeles. Rice writes: “He was seedy, gross, aggressive, slightly drunk, and a general hindrance to all of us.” He lived in a “shabby one-room apartment”. And he “later lost all his clients to alcoholic excess.” The Carl Kolchak that Rice meets in Hollywood is a desperate, lonely, sad man who has been mistreated by forces completely outside his control. All he wants is to find someone to tell his story. Kolchak’s opening letter signs off with the poignant line “I just can’t fight it alone, anymore.” He believes that Rice is the man to help him finally get his story out. Rice, after some convincing, agrees.
In his Prologue Rice tells us that he intended just to organize Kolchak’s rambling notes and tapes “into a compact, cohesive report by eliminating his endless digressions into unrelated subjects, his endless comments on fellow workers, and dissertations on various mundane aspects of Las Vegas not absolutely pertinent to the facts.” Rice ends up becoming almost Kolchakian himself, furthering his investigation and wondering if he’ll ever have another night of peaceful sleep himself.
Following the Prologue, Kolchak’s manuscript begins with the staccato, hardboiled voice that fans of the movies and TV series will recognize:
“On Saturday, April 25, at about 2:30 A.M., Cheryl Ann Hughes was tapping her foot angrily as she waited at the corner of Second and Fremont streets. She glanced repeatedly at her watch. The young man she was currently living with, Robert Lee Harmer, was supposed to be picking her up for ‘breakfast:’ and then a ride home. Harmer was nowhere in sight. He was at that moment quietly puffing away at a joint with some members of a local rock group, oblivious to the time.
Cheryl Ann Hughes: twenty-three, five feet five and a half inches tall, one hundred and eighteen shapely pounds, Clairol blond hair and light-brown eyes. Swing-shift change-girl at the classic Gold Dust Saloon, a gaudy western-styled casino built when Vegas was younger, smaller, and—some say—friendlier.
Cheryl Ann Hughes: Tired. Hungry. Disgusted at having waited twenty-five minutes for a ride, was now mad enough to walk the eight blocks to the small frame house she shared with Harmer just off the corner of Ninth and Bridger…”
In describing Cheryl Ann Hughes, her situation, the world of Las Vegas at night—Kolchak himself comes to vivid life. That is a distinctive voice. It’s the voice of a series character, feeling at once classically pulp and at the same time unique. This is the perfect character to lead us into this decadent and depraved world.
The voice is so good, in fact, that Matheson seems to have lifted quite a bit of it for his screenplay. (Is it possible Rice or perhaps someone else might have edited it to include Matheson’s voice over scripting?)
The Kolchak manuscript within the novels details the cynical but strangely hopeful journalist’s attempts to learn the truth behind the murders of at least five people between April 25 and May 15, 1970. Over the course of Kolchak’s investigation, he comes to believe that the culprit is a vampire. Kolchak believes that it’s important to let the public know what they’re potentially facing and just what exactly is stalking them. But he’s very much alone in that belief. At least where it counts. When he first tries to get the story told his way, the newspaper’s managing editor, Llewellyn Cairncross, says, “Bullshit! Kolchak, for years I have suspected you were mentally deranged and now I have confirmation of that suspicion. Why don’t you go to Alaska or Florida or anywhere and plague somebody else for a change?”
But the story is published, with heavy redactions. This earns the newspaper a call from the District Attorney, who attempts to intimidate Kolchak and the paper by suggesting that the Daily News should send Kolchak to study mentally ill patients “from personal experience—up in Sparks, Nevada, the Bedlam of the Golden West.”
Later, at an inquest where the coroner has suggested that the killer might actually be someone who has drunk the victims’ blood after biting them, Kolchak feels validated. But the District Attorney quashes the story:
“This ‘vampire’ stuff is to stay right in this room. Until we have the assailant in custody we say nothing about these girls being drained of blood. No more rumors. No reports in the papers,” he added, looking directly at me and ignoring my colleague from the opposition press. “The official opinion at this time is that the cause of death is ‘undetermined and under investigation.’ We don’t want to start a panic. It’s bad for police operations. It’s bad for the people. And it’s bad for business.”
The newspaper is all-too willing to agree with this official position, even going so far as to airbrush away the bite marks on the neck of one victim before publishing their photo. In between bouts of trying to get the story out, Kolchak gets drunk. It’s how he copes with the frustration and powerlessness he feels. There is a deep feeling of sadness that permeates the book. Kolchak continues on, despite one setback after another—somehow expecting he’ll finally win, and the story will be told.
Finally, the police and the local politicians seem to agree with Kolchak, and they take his advice to bring Crucifixes, holy water, and wooden stakes with them in their search for the vampire, Janos Skorzeny. Kolchak even accompanies the police when they find his home and stake it out. While in the movie Kolchak uses an informant (played by the great Elisha Cook, Jr no less!) to find Skorzeny’s home before the police, in the book, Kolchak is brought along by the police when they find Skorzeny’s home. Kolchak is essentially ordered by Detective Jenks to kill Skorzeny with a wooden stake, even as Skorzeny lies at their feet, melting from having holy water poured on him.
This makes the ending of the book even more powerful. In the film, of course, Kolchak takes the initiative himself and stakes Skorzeny. So, tortured as it might be, there’s a kind of a case to be made that what Kolchak did was “premeditated murder.” In the book, the police very deliberately instruct Kolchak to stake him. Then, while they don’t run Kolchak out of town that day, they do make it so toxic for him in Las Vegas that he’s forced to leave, under threat of a murder charge.
The book ends with an Appendix on Jack the Ripper.
Rice tells us that Kolchak shared Rice’s interest in the Ripper murders, and had even intended on one day writing a book about them. (Another book from Rice that we’ll never get!) There are then about two pages of notes on the murders. Why were these pages included? I think there’s a clue to that in the final note from Rice which reads, in part:
“Perhaps, because of my association with Kolchak, and the experiences I had in Las Vegas, I may have become somewhat sensitive to the smell of a cover-up, but I theorize that the ‘Ripper’ was caught, and that he (or she) was someone very prominent, and that it was all hushed up, the killer being quietly ‘put away’ forever. —JR”
This is Rice letting us know that Kolchak’s experiences were very much based on Rice’s own. It’s a highly personal, idiosyncratic book. It’s a real shame that we didn’t get more from Rice, beyond his novelization of the second Kolchak movie. Whatever was the cause, Rice apparently couldn’t bring himself to write more with the character, or to write anymore fiction that he felt he could share.
The character has lived on, however. Speaking of which—the graphic novel I scripted, KOLCHAK: DAWN OF THE DEMONS, should be available shortly, after some lengthy and unexpected delays.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
Watchmen is the greatest superhero comic book of all time. It forms, along with Kazou Koike and Goseki Kojima’s manga Lone Wolf and Cub and Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Gimenez’s The Metabarons, my personal holy trinity of graphic fiction. It is a dense, frustrating, moving, powerful, disappointing, valuable work of art that rewards re-reading. I’ve probably read it all the way, from beginning to end, at least four times, and there are parts of it that I’ve read ten times or more. My reactions to it tend to be based on my mood/mindset at the time of reading it.
When I wrote this essay on DC’s cynical cash grab "Before Watchmen" project I was of the opinion that it was too cold and too meticulously engineered to be emotionally engaging, haha. But I was also despairing at the state of the comics industry, and I’m much less despairing now.
And a big reason for my optimism for the future of comics has to do with DC. And their Watchmen-exploiting event comic Doomsday Clock is a huge part of that optimism.
The writer of Watchmen, Alan Moore, is our greatest living comics writer. He is a powerful creative force who clearly sees himself on a continuum of creativity that stretches back hundreds of years. Artists have always used characters and themes and events that have come before in order to illuminate the world in which they’re creating their work. Watchmen was of course based on Charlton’s characters—but even more than that, it was based on situations from Charlton comics. For instance, did you realize that the Dr Manhattan/cancer subplot came from a Captain Atom story that spanned issues 83 and 84 of his title (November 66 and January 67)?
Reprinted in the indispensable Action Heroes Archives Vol 2, featuring Ditko’s best Charlton superhero work.
Moore either plundered the works of the past as a shortcut in his storytelling, or he sought inspiration in the works of others to advance art in the modern age. Depends on your point of view. Regardless of how you feel about Moore’s work and whether or not he’s a hypocrite for decrying the use of the Watchmen universe by current DC creators, you cannot deny the fact that the Watchmen characters are DC’s Intellectual Property, to be exploited in whatever means they see fit. What we can hope for is that they use that Intellectual Property in a way that is exciting to readers and moves comics art forward.
Doomsday Clock seems to be a decent extension of the Watchmen story that is also serving the interests of commercial storytelling.
One of the most disappointing aspects of Before Watchmen was its very premise: those stories were prequels. Rather than deal with the questions raised by Ozymandias’s incredibly cynical and stupid plan to save the world, they sidestepped the messy implications in favor of telling “stories” (and yes those are sneer quotes around that word because, well—did you actually read the stuff that was published under the “Before Watchmen” banner? ugh) that had no consequence and didn’t advance the story or characters in any meaningful way. Doomsday Clock makes an attempt right from the opening page, as we see a crowd of protesters outside what we come to find is Adrain Veidt/Ozymandias’s building.
Over those images we get narration that’s lettered in a style very reminiscent of Rorschach’s. But while the lettering might at least superficially appear to the same, the voice is off. This isn’t Walter Kovacs. At least, it’s not Moore’s Walter Kovacs. Is the scripter, Geoff Johns, trying to approximate that voice and doing a bad job, or is something else going on?
Clearly this Rorschach read the original's journal ("split open the world's belly"/"tire tread on burst stomach"), but couldn't quite match his let's say "unique" vision and voice.
Johns has become one of the best comics writers working today, and he’s doing something actually really clever with the narration: giving us a Rorschach that’s not Rorschach at all, but someone pretending to be Rorschach. And, like a writer taking on a piece of Intellectual Property he doesn’t fully sympathize with, this character is off by… just a little bit.
Anyway, in a symmetrical nod to the original series we see “Rorschach” breaking into a prison to break someone out. This person is the Marionette, a new piece of Intellectual Property. Rorschach reveals that he’s not the real Rorschach at all. For one thing—this Rorschach is a person of color.
We don’t know yet why the Marionette is needed, but we do know that she won’t leave without her husband, a violent psychopath called the Mime. There are fun few sight gags based around this character, such as the bit in which the three have to sneak deeper into the prison in order to retrieve his weapons which are at best invisible and at worst—well, maybe they don’t even exist at all.
The Marionette and the Mime are, like the main Watchmen characters, based on characters that originally appeared in Charlton comics—Punch and Jewelee.
At the same time rioters are breaking into Ozymandias’s building, we see a group of heavily armed people breaking into Ozymandias’s Antarctic fortress of solitude Karnak—there they find an x-ray (conveniently still hanging on a lightbox) which appears to show a skull with a tumor in it. When Rorschach brings the Marionette and the Mime to Nite Owl’s underground headquarters we learn that his partner isn’t Nite Owl but Ozymandias—who makes a big show of saying that he has cancer.
Now, Ozymandias is a fantastically manipulative man, so there’s no way of knowing at this point whether he actually has cancer or not. He did, after, all, manage to convince people that he was the smartest man in the world—yet he came up with a hugely, massively stupid idea to save the world at the end of the original Watchmen series… so who knows?
Ozymandias reveals that, for some reason, they’ve got to find Dr Manhattan—“Wherever he’s retreated to.” At which point the scene shifts to Metropolis, where Clark Kent has a nightmare in which his Smallville parents are horribly killed. He’s never had a nightmare, apparently.
But: Perhaps most importantly, we see that Clark Kent/Superman’s bedside reading includes B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. Oh, boy—imagine the cheek of that. A sort-of “sequel” to a classic work of literature, which deals with the creation of a utopian society. The means of creating that utopia involves engineering an environment in which human beings are made to believe they’re doing what’s in their own best interests while serving the good of the larger community.
Although utopian by today's standards, Walden Twowas (and is) controversial to the point of being labeled dystopian because of its alleged premises and practices (e.g., Krutch, 1966). Its premises are criticized for dismissing purpose, mind, and freedom, without which social justice putatively has no foundation. Its practices purportedly involved behavioral engineering and mind manipulation (Matson, 1971). Critics also allege that the premises and practices were dictated by Skinner and his science. As one critic put it, Skinner's utopian vision could “change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined” (Jessup, 1948, p. 192). These criticisms, however, miss their mark. They equate Skinner's vision with essentialist premises and practices, whereas these were assumptions or discoveries that were then demonstrated to work, not a priori features of the behavior-analytic utopia.
What does the placement of this book mean? I suppose we’ll have to wait for future issues to find out. But my guess is that Johns and Frank are alerting us to their intentions with this book.
Gary Frank isn’t the most dynamic comics illustrator. His panels don’t necessarily convey movement, but his staging and composition are fantastic, and he does an outstanding job of clearly delineating the story. It’s realized in a way that recalls Dave Gibbons’s original illustrations while managing to feel authentically new. As you can see from the scans I’ve dropped into this review, his work is an integral part of the comic’s success.
As someone who has written comics featuring licensed Intellectual Property, I can tell you that there is immense pressure from multiple sources to construct something that meets a lot of disparate needs… and not all of those needs are what you’d call “artistic.” It appears that Moore and Gibbons were not interfered with in any meaningful way by editorial or legal or marketing people (the early 80s was a different time, though—for crying out loud now EVERYTHING is potential movie/TV/video game fodder and as such EVERYTHING gets touched by some outside hands!). This can’t have been true of Doomsday Clock, which is part of a DC Universe that is vitally important to Warner Bros. The fact that this first issue manages to feel like something more important than just trademark maintenance is a real achievement.
I’m looking forward to future issues!
Thursday, November 16, 2017
This post contains spoilers about my life.
I wrote some pretty snarky stuff about the third season of Twin Peaks, which is to be released on DVD December 5, 2017. In particular, I singled out the character commonly referred to as “Dougie Cooper,” whom I called “Stupor Cooper,” for special derision.
Basically, I saw the character as everything that was wrong with the third season of Twin Peaks. Boy was I ever wrong. Dougie Cooper isn’t just the best character in the Twin Peaks revival, he might be the best Twin Peaks character ever. The reasons for this are highly personal, even painful.
As I was watching it, the third season of Twin Peaks was a frustrating, annoying experience. I even spent a few weeks writing and creating the voice over for a parody video in which I was going to make fun of the people doing explainer videos, and make fun of Lynch and Frost for what seemed to me to be capricious, artsy (as opposed to artful) choices that were preventing us spending time in the presence of the characters we loved from the original iteration of the show, in particular the amazing Agent Dale Cooper.
What we got in Agent Cooper’s place was Dougie Cooper, who wandered and stumbled his way through the show, repeating the last word he’d heard or scribbling lines on paper that would later be interpreted by others as some amazing insights. The repetition got to be unbearable, especially in those moments when it appeared that Agent Cooper was going to come back to us, that Dougie was going to finally “snap out of it” and get back to Twin Peaks for a reunion with Hawk and Lucy and Andy and (dare to hope!) Audrey and so on.
I think now that part of why I resented Dougie Cooper so much is because, well, I have been Dougie Cooper. For awhile. Stumbling through my life confused, befuddled by my place in the world, by my purpose—misunderstanding what I was supposed to be doing. And, more importantly, who I was supposed to be.
Part of me understood that I was living a life that was full of very important benefits and comforts and safety, but that I was still not fully present for lack of a better word. There was something wrong with the way I was living. I needed to change. I needed to wake up! I’ve often had the feeling that all I was doing was mimicking what I saw other people doing without fully understanding the motives behind those actions. Not only that—I have to rely on others to point me in the correct direction—even to the point that I need someone to grab me before I LITERALLY walked into a wall.
When Agent Cooper finally made his appearance, breaking out of the Dougie Cooper stupor, I got very emotional. It wasn’t just the Twin Peaks theme playing in the background, and it wasn’t just his “I AM the FBI” line. I think it was a part of me recognizing that I was in the process of changing.
Change is difficult, and painful.
I love to engage with great art. It’s exciting to encounter something that’s worth the time it takes to actually decipher, to understand the full implications of the point the creator is attempting to get across. Most mass produced entertainment is disposable, and there are multiple reasons for this, both nefarious and benign. On the one hand, the megaconglomerates that produce most of the entertainment we consume have an incentive to keep us interested in as many things as possible, so we’ll keep spending money. On the other hand, most of us have such busy lives that we don’t have the time to devote ourselves to contemplating what a capital-A Artist is trying to tell us.
What David Lynch and Mark Frost showed us with the latest iteration of Twin Peaks was that they are in fact real artists, with some poignant things to say about the way we live our lives.
I’m optimistic enough to believe that there is more great art being produced today than at any point in history. In fact, there’s so much great art being produced that I won’t have the opportunity to engage with even a fraction of it. But what is rare is that I find something that actually helps me to understand my place in the world, and to offer an aspirational message that I can overcome my own stupid limitations.
I don’t consider most of what is popular to be great art. Superhero movies, for instance, don’t speak to me on an emotional level, even if I can appreciate the engineering that goes into them. Maybe you consider them to be great art—and that’s okay with me! It only proves my point that there’s a lot of great art out there!
I was wrong about the third season of Twin Peaks. It wasn’t what I wanted, but in a weird way it was actually what I needed.
I’m not sure that I even care, at this point, what actually happened when Agent Cooper and Diane crossed over. That was a choice that Agent Cooper made after coming out of his stupor—once he’d rediscovered himself he made the decision to continue on with his quest to rescue Laura Palmer. In the process, Cooper became another iteration of himself. And that iteration was the type of guy who kicks rednecks in the balls and drops their guns in boiling grease.
He wasn’t the Cooper that we all knew and loved. Who will I become once I’ve finally stuck that fork in the outlet? Who will you become when you evolve?
In addition to be difficult and painful, change is… unpredictable. Great art explores uncomfortable subjects, thoroughly and honestly. The third season of Twin Peaks did that, even if it made me very uncomfortable watching.