Saturday, November 25, 2017

Doomsday Clock is the Walden 2 of major publisher event comics

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

The highly personal reasons I was wrong about the third season of "Twin Peaks"

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.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Billy Joel's "Piano Man" is full of nightmare visions if you take it literally

When I was a small child, my mother was a huge Billy Joel fan. She listened to his albums just about every single day; as such, I developed a very high tolerance for his music. This tolerance remains with me to this day, at least through An Innocent Man.

But, I had some trouble with some of his songs. I was very literal minded. “Piano Man,” in particular, was problematic for me. That song was full of terrible booby traps that completely befuddled my seven year-old self. The lyrics were… well, if you took the song literally, the lyrics were bizarre, even hateful.

Very early in the song we get the following line:

There’s an old man sitting next to me, making love to his tonic and gin.

I knew what “making love” meant. I didn’t see this line as metaphorical, so I thought that the old man was literally making love to a glass with tonic and gin in it. This struck me as something that might happen in a bar in a Steely Dan song (I was and remain a big fan of theirs and spent a lot of time listening to them)—but what in the heck was Billy Joel doing singing about that?

But given the fact that “Captain Jack” appears on the same record, I figured that in fact Mr Joel had “gone there.” Weird. Strange. Disturbing.

Then it gets slightly more disturbing:

He says son can you play me a memory,
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes

Now this is a very poet and elegant (“polegant”) way of saying that the man was younger when he knew the song. But the way my literal mind took it was that he’d stolen the clothes of someone younger, and had worn them, but for some reason he’d forgotten what he’d heard while he was wearing this younger man’s clothes.

That’s just flat-out weird.


Now Paul is a real estate novelist

Who writes novels about real estate? Is that like a J. K. Huysmans kind of thing? (Full disclosure: I didn’t know who J. K. Huysmans was when I was seven.) Seemed a very niche market to me.

The waitress is practicing politics

Wha—? She’s running for office?

I did understand the “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness” line, though.

For me, the worst line came very near the end:

And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, ‘Man, what are you doin’ here?’

That sounded absolutely horrible to me. I didn’t understand that “bread” meant money, that they were tipping him because they liked his playing, and that they were asking him “what are you doin’ here?” because they thought he could do better.

Instead, I thought they hated his playing, and they were stuffing actual bread, as in slices of white bread, into his tip jar to prevent anyone actually tipping him. And that “Man, what are you doin’ here?” was a threatening question. “Why are you here? Why don’t you get out? WE DON’T WANT YOU IN HERE!”

I was afraid for the Piano Man, who was playing in a very bizarre, strange, hateful place, full of menacingly odd people.