Thursday, September 11, 2008

Self-Titled

Watching the real-time replay of the coverage of the events of the day on MSNBC, I was struck by the surreal experience of knowing what’s coming, that at 9 am another plane was about to strike and at 9:37 the Pentagon would be hit; That just before 10, the south tower would fall, and at 10:27, there was one minute left until the same fate would befall the north tower.

And I knew that I would again watch George Bush say that he would seek and bring to justice the “folks” who perpetrated the attack. Aside from the offensively benign colloquialism, we all know how well that worked out now, don’t we?

The other night, in the midst of an argument with some Republicans about the election, a woman pulled 9/11 out of her ass and asked me how Barack Obama would protect us. I responded first by asking how John McCain would protect us (given both the nature of terrorism and McSame’s stellar military record, which apparently we’re not allowed to assail since he’s a “hero”), then pointed out that it’s doubtful Obama would ignore a memorandum stating “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Within U.S.” That, as the ostensible CEO of the country, he would surround himself with smart people whose advice he would actually comprehend and, more importantly, heed. (He’d also probably stop reading “The Pet Goat” and get to work right away.)

I don’t live my life in fear of another terrorist attack. There's really very little we can do about it. But I do live in fear of what we’re doing to ourselves, to our infrastructure, our economy and our standing in the world. I mostly live in fear of our freedom being slowly chipped away in the name of “national security.” Yes, September 11, 2001 was horrible. Yes, we did reap a bit of what we sowed. And yes, it could happen again. This is the price we pay for living in the country that, at least on paper, prides itself on liberty. The Right is so fond of pointing out that “Freedom isn’t free,” but they choose to ignore the more difficult, but more important tenet that Freedom also isn’t safe.

Me, I’d rather be free.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Batmanna!

In late June of 1989, I wrote a full nine handwritten pages in my Movie Log about a film that I wanted to love so much I convinced myself it lived up to its phenomenal hype. I defended against its detractors, professed my admiration for its novelty and came up with excuses for its faults. That film, of course, was Tim Burton’s BATMAN, a movie that over the years, I have come to admit is pretty damn awful. But in 1989, maybe BATMAN was as much as we could hope for in terms of a dark comic book movie.

Cut to: Tuesday night. Ten friends and I line up inside the Union Square Regal Cinemas for a sold out showing of a movie that (to its credit) doesn’t have quite the ubiquitous cultural presence of BATMAN, but is unquestionably a phenomenon. Finally, five films and nineteen years after Burton’s Batman, comic book fans can revel in an unqualified masterpiece.

THE DARK KNIGHT succeeds on every level, as an action film, a superhero movie, a crime drama, and most of all, an intense psychological character study. And at the center of the film is a basic tenet of the character that’s been downplayed, if not outright ignored in many previous incarnations of Batman: The line he will not cross, his refusal to take a life, no matter how vile. In THE DARK KNIGHT, almost every character is forced to examine how far they would go to stand up for their beliefs, what they would sacrifice and what they would not. Everyone is tested: Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon, Rachel Dawes, Lucius Fox, even the citizens of Gotham City are put to the test. Some prevail. Some do not.

As for the Joker, yes, Heath Ledger’s performance is a tour de force. He manages to wipe away four decades worth of spurious depictions from Cesar Romero’s slight gag-man through Jack Nicholson’s likable Dadaist and craft a truly primal force of malevolent chaos. Even his most mannered choices, the tics and grunts and long fingernails all work; nothing feels forced. He is, as I had hoped, sans backstory or any logical motivation for his madness, the perfect adversary for the Batman. (Still, would Ledger be getting Oscar buzz had he not died in January? Probably not.)




Finally, it feels like “THE Batman” is the correct vernacular. Christian Bale’s performance is every bit as impressive as Ledger’s, perfectly straddling the line between obsessive dedication and psychosis. His bored playboy shtick is hugely entertaining and he deftly traverses the separate aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality, creating the most sympathetic and believable superhero ever put to screen. But EVERYONE brings their A-game to the table in this movie. As the love-triangulated Rachel Dawes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement over Katie Holmes so vast it cannot be measured (in fact, I wonder if I’d have felt anything but joy at her ultimate fate had Holmes reprised the role). Gary Oldman again gives Jim Gordon an endearing sincerity so great that a bunch of us applauded along with the characters onscreen when he’s promoted to Commissioner. Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine all give performances as good as anything this side of MICHAEL CLAYTON or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Yes, seriously.

Of course, a lot of credit goes to the man behind the camera. The real star of THE DARK KNIGHT is Christopher Nolan. Working closely with his co-screenwriting brother and producing wife, Nolan kept this project close to the vest, and while it’s inappropriate to refer to Warner’s biggest franchise as an auteur project, this feels as singular and indie as a big budget blockbuster can. This is not a compromised movie made by committee. This is a work of art by a brilliant visionary (as opposed to the drama-challenged one-note Burton).

The action sequences are spectacular. Limiting the use of CGI as much as possible, Nolan is one of a handful of filmmakers who realizes that an audience can tell when something’s real and when it’s not, and in this gritty, realistic Gotham he’s created, the more in-camera FX the better. Batman’s battles are wince-worthy, his (real!!) perches atop skyscrapers vertiginous, the chases befitting of Steve McQueen and the destruction bone-rattling. The entire Hong Kong sequence is worthy of the best James Bond film. I only wish they’d have left the tractor trailer flip out of the advertising, as it lost some of its contextual impact after seeing it so many times.

Even the soundtrack is something at which to marvel (whoops, to DC). Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score eschews the typical confluence of character-based recurring themes in favor of a more subliminal, haunting escalation of staccato strings and booming brass. It’s as if Bernard Herrmann scored a Batman movie!

For fanboys, there are a few particularly nice bits. Bruce Wayne’s residence in the penthouse atop Wayne Industries harkens back to a period in the late 1960s and 70s when the comic book Batman, upon Dick Grayson’s departure for college, sealed up the Batcave and moved to the heart of Gotham, the better to keep tabs on the city. And for the first time EVER, we get to see a live action Batman with whited out eyes! You may think this a silly detail to get geeked over, but, well, we are geeks.

Still, the overall arch of Batman’s limitations, both innate and imposed is what endears this film most. Nothing made me angrier about BATMAN and its sequels than the filmmakers’ cavalier dismissal of the edict that Batman DOES NOT KILL (“These are darker times, they call for a darker hero,” sneered one screenwriter in an interview, basically taking a dump on the very essence of the character). At the climax of TDK, when, in direct contrast with the ending of BATMAN ’89, the Joker is saved by Batman as he plunges from the building, I let out a loud, enthusiastic “YES!” and punched the air.

If I have any complaints, they are mostly minor to the point of nit-picking. While esthetically, I’d prefer a simpler costume, I understand the medium’s need for the complicated armor, but still, I wish the chest bat-emblem were larger and more prominent (and the nose on the cowl a bit smaller). I’m still not crazy about the Tumbler, so I was happy to see its demise (I liked the Batpod, but worried about Batman’s cape getting caught…). It might’ve been nice if Anthony Michael Hall’s newscaster character were Jack Ryder (even if they’d never follow up on it). And this is another movie that continues the sad prevalence of no main titles at the beginning of the film.

But my primary (and only real) complaint is that we barely got to know Harvey Dent. Killing off Two-Face may have been necessary to fulfill the movie’s destiny and pull Gotham back from the brink by replacing its fallen White Knight with the Dark that it still needs (as well as set up some conflict for the third film), but Two-Face is such a great character that his short screen time seems a cheat. I really thought the movie was going to merely set up the villain to be the adversary in the next movie, but even with Two-Face dominating the final act, this feels nothing like the overcrowded bad guy menagerie of BATMAN FOREVER or SPIDER-MAN 3. And who knows, maybe that fall didn’t actually kill him…

Still, we have to wonder, where do we go from here? If Nolan continues as the franchise’s guide (please, please, please) it’s a given that none of Batman’s more fantastical enemies will make the cut. We’re not going to see Clayface, Man-Bat or Mr. Freeze. A far more human Killer Croc is unlikely, but not impossible (it is a skin condition, after all). Catwoman could work, but there’s almost too much of a been-there, done-that vibe to her (yes, even more than the Joker, whom had never been done right before). The Riddler is just too slight. Poison Ivy could feasibly fit if she used external chemicals rather than powers gained from a blood infection, but her motivation still seems off for the more urban crime of this series.

No, it feels like if Nolan’s going to raid the comics for the next adversary, it’s probably going to be another more grounded villain like the mob boss Black Mask, super assassin Deadshot (sans costume) or Hugo Strange, the twisted psychologist who longs for Batman’s identity. It’s a shame Ra’s al Ghul was altered to use in BATMAN BEGINS, as his comic book incarnation would be the perfect villain for a third, globe-spanning epic (with Talia in tow, of course). Then again, the character has risen from the dead (thanks to the good ol’ Lazarus Pit) many times in the comics, so who knows.

Fanboy speculation is fun (and unavoidable), but it’s hard to imagine Christopher Nolan topping THE DARK KNIGHT. But based on the movie’s record breaking performance, it’s a sure bet Warner Bros. is going to do whatever they can to keep him in the Batcave, and, along with millions of other thrilled Bat-Nerds, I really hope he rises to the challenge.

With the success of the smart IRON MAN earlier this year, THE DARK KNIGHT reaping almost universal critical praise and WATCHMEN building buzz for next year, maybe the inundation of comic book flicks over the past decade has finally inured the general public to the idea of a superhero movie not automatically being kid stuff. It’s worth noting the relative lack of DARK KNIGHT kiddie fare on the shelves… if you hit Party City looking for Bat-Decorations (as I did for a pre-TDK Bat-tacular last weekend), all you’ll find is plates, cups and napkins adorned with the comic book or animated Batman. Sure, there are DARK KNIGHT action figures and dress-up cowl / cape combos in the toy aisle at Target, but compared with the onslaught of Batcrap in 1989, the pickings for the kiddies are slim this time around. And, happily, that goes most of all for the movie itself.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bronze Beauties #27: The Joker

BAT-BRONZE BEAUTIES part 5 of 5

As with Batman, the story of the creation of his greatest nemesis is in dispute. The Joker’s fathers were, in one capacity or another, Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, with actor Conrad Veidt in the 1928 film, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS the undeniable visual inspiration. But exactly who contributed what is lost to history. Which is fitting, considering that the character himself remains an enigma after almost 70 years.


Introduced in BATMAN #1 in 1940, the Joker was as terrifying and deadly a villain as comics ever produced. Ironically, he was almost killed off in that first issue, but a wise editor realized the character was too good to not use again. The Joker would return to terrorize Batman and Robin many times over the next decade, always just eluding capture or death. In DETECTIVE COMICS #168 (1951), an explanation was finally given for the Joker’s peculiar visage. Turns out, he was a thief called the Red Hood (named for his, um, red hood) who robbed a playing card company and escaped capture by the Batman by swimming through a chemical disposal system, emerging with white skin, green hair and ruby red lips (the rictus is apparently natural). I had no idea that making playing cards required such nasty chemicals, but that’s why comics are such a great educational tool!

But that story fell short of giving the villain a name and a further backstory. Wisely, all it did was explain why the Joker LOOKS like he does, leaving his insane motivation a mystery.
Even Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s THE KILLING JOKE, 1988’s ostensible origin of the Joker contains an internal disclaimer, as the villain admits to remembering his past differently from day to day. Combined with a completely psychopathic personality and a lack of true identity (despite what Tim Burton would have you believe, his name is not Jack Napier and he did NOT kill Bruce Wayne’s parents), the Joker is the perfect evil id to contrast the Caped Crusader’s Superego.

When Batman comics got silly in the 1950s, so did the Joker, becoming a harmless prankster who simply tormented Batman with stupid gags and crimes. By 1964, when Julius Schwartz took over editing Batman’s comics, the Joker was practically gone. But in 1966, when Cesar Romero slapped white makeup over his mustache, the DC suits mandated the return of the Clown Prince of Crime. But it wasn’t until Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ 1970s Batman stories that the Joker was brought back to his full malevolent greatness (see Bat-Bronze Beauty #24).

And then, in 1975, the Joker earned the distinction of being the first major DC super villain to receive his own comic book. This oddball series, lasting a mere nine issues, pitted the villain against a number of different DC bad guys and heroes (one notable exception being the Batman). THE JOKER #2 (July 1975) finds the Grinning Gargoyle help a criminal genius named Willie the Weeper overcome his compulsive crying and discover the joy of villainy. The cover (supposedly by Ernie Chua, but really looks like Irv Novick to me) utilizes a classic Batman motif, that of the oversized character or prop.

Issue #4 (Dec. 1975) finds the Joker falling in love with flower shop owner Dinah Lance, aka the Black Canary, the super-girlfriend of Green Arrow. The tale (by Elliott S! Maggin) is just okay, and the beautiful pencils of José Luis Garcia Lopez are tempered by the anemic inks of Vince Colletta, but I love the Chua (nee Chan) cover, awkward perspective and all.

Following THE JOKER’s cancellation, the character remained one of the key players in the Batman universe, his place as Batman’s arch-enemy cemented even before he crippled Batgirl and killed the second Robin, Jason Todd (since resurrected). As much as Batman, the Joker inspires creators to put their own stamp on the character, both dramatically and visually.

As for the Joker’s media adaptations, up to now, they’ve never come close to capturing the depth of his homicidal madness. Cesar Romero, obviously, was just a joke. The various animated versions of the Joker could only be so dark, although no doubt Bruce Timm would’ve loved to be able to have his animated Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) live up to his comic book antecedent. As for Jack Nicholson… well, let’s just say the Joker’s not supposed to be likeable and leave it at that.

For that reason, I am very excited to see Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. While the purist in me branches just a wee bit at the white face and green hair being makeup, the idea of the chemical bath just doesn’t work in Chris Nolan’s realistic Gotham City (I doubt we’ll ever see Clayface or Killer Croc in this series). I’m far more interested in the character feeling right, and this may well be the first time the non-fanboy audience sees the Joker the way he was meant to be. That is, terrifying.

My breath is bat-bated. I can’t wait.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Bronze Beauties #26: Batman Family

BAT-BRONZE-BEAUTIES pt. 4 of 5

In 1974, a Super-Consolidation took place at DC Comics, as the publisher combined a number of cancelled titles featuring Superman’s supporting cast (being LOIS LANE, JIMMY OLSEN and SUPERGIRL) into a new series called THE SUPERMAN FAMILY. The following year, Tarzan and Batman each got their own FAMILY titles (along with the awkwardly titled SUPER-TEAM FAMILY, implying that the Challengers of the Unknown did some breeding with the Teen Titans or something).

BATMAN FAMILY contained a mix of new stories and reprints starring Batgirl, Robin (often teaming up), Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Man-Bat, Batwoman and more of the Dark Knight’s supporting cast. In fact, Batman’s roster of friends and foes is widely regarded as the richest in comics (with Spider-Man being his only arguable competition).

Sadly, most of the stories in BATMAN FAMILY were kinda forgettable, as they were often done by some longtime DC workhorses who, shall we say, had a tendency to phone it in (the oft-vilified Vince Colletta’s inks graced these pages often). I used to own BATMAN FAMILY #11 (June 1977), but don’t remember it. Still, this cover (by Jim Aparo) is a hoot. I love the idea of superheroes fashioning formal wear in the style of their costumes, and it must have been a nice change of pace for Robin to wear long pants! Robin and Batgirl had some romance over the years, but you know what can happen when all a couple has in common is their work.

With #17, the comic book became one of DC’s 80-page Dollar Comics and the head of the family was added to the roster. Suddenly BATMAN FAMILY was worth picking up. #19 (Sept. 1978), a comic I DO still own, features “The Tomb of the White Bat” by Batman’s best Bronze scripter, Denny O’Neil, with the terrific (and rare) art team of Michael Golden and Craig Russell. The cover by Mike Kaluta is even better (and really makes me wish he would've drawn the character more).

When BATMAN FAMILY was cancelled with #20 (featuring a great Jim Starlin cover with Batman meeting Ragman, another character due for a BB treatment), the “Family” theme was temporarily transferred to DETECTIVE COMICS, which became a giant sized book from #481-495. In years since, the various versions of Robin and Batgirl as well as Huntress and Catwoman have gotten their own comics, both ongoing and limited series. In fact, of all the Batman Family, I think only Alfred never got his own book. Poor Alfred. Everyone takes the butler for granted.

NEXT WEEK: The final Bat-Bronze-Beauty: THE JOKER gets his due!


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Smiley Face Button

THE COLBERT REPORT recently featured a hilarious story about a Sean Hannity Fox News Report on America’s awesomeness in which he proclaimed, repeatedly (I shit you not) that the USA is (and I quote verbatim, honest) “THE GREATEST, BEST COUNTRY GOD HAS EVER GIVEN MAN ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH!

Now, the fourth grade phrasing of the sentiment aside, upon exactly what is Hannity basing this conjecture? Our disastrously low world rankings in education, health care, environmental issues, literacy, GNP, healthy life expectancy, exports and world opinion? Oh, maybe he’s talking about how much we kick ass when it comes to gun ownership, national debt, obesity and energy consumption. Oh, and being able to transmute serious subjects into hollow rhetoric. At that, we stand unparalleled.

The new issue of ROLLING STONE features an interview with Barack Obama by Jann Wenner. The relatively short Q&A touches on Obama’s primary agenda, his relationship to pop culture and the kind of campaign that is no doubt just amping up. I’m sure we have just begun to hear about his secret Muslim leanings, his lack of patriotism, his drug use and of course, the hidden subtext of the terrorist fist jab!!

The “Lack of Patriotism” tag cracks me up in particular. Why is it I’ve never seen a member of the DNC refuting this ludicrous charge by pointing out the simple fact that THE GUY IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT. Seems as if being a patriot is kinda a prerequisite for even choosing to enter that particular arena. Oh, but he didn’t put his hand over his heart during the Pledge and he only recently started sporting that all-important gauge of national fidelity, the FLAG PIN!

I love the cover of the RS issue. It can certainly be interpreted a number of ways, but I like to look at it as Barack Obama chuckling over the absurdity of this meaningless piece of jewelry that he ultimately decided is not worth fighting over. Because it is meaningless. A flag is merely a symbol, and symbols are desecrated by the hypocritical actions of their followers ALL THE TIME. To my mind, trying to ban flag burning is every bit as antithetical to the meaning of that symbol as the act itself. That those nominal “patriots” who would alter the Constitution to LIMIT a freedom (the nation defining, and hard-to-reinterpret-to-counter-the-argument-that-increased-technology-renders-it-anachronistic 1st Amendment) can’t understand the true meaning and importance of freedom is truly sad to me. There are hundreds of American politicians who stick a flag pin on their clothing and then go to work and betray their oath of office every single day. Implying that Obama doesn’t love America because he didn’t wear a flag pin is as ridiculously superficial as attacking someone for their haircut or cleavage.

Now, I realize that imagining that Obama is laughing AT the flag pin only buys into that other accusation that drives me to distraction, that of his supposed ELITISM. If “elite” is construed to mean “the best in a particular group” then I Goddamn hope he’s an elitist! To paraphrase Bill Maher, look at what seven and a half years of our current mouth-breather have given us! Don’t we WANT a President who’s BETTER than we are? Smarter? Stronger? Faster? Oh, wait, that’s the Six Million Dollar Man. Still, you get the point.

As a rule, I don’t get excited about things before they happen just because I’m cynical enough to assume the worst. A life of low expectations yields fewer letdowns and makes the triumphs that much sweeter. I don’t consider Obama a lock for November by any stretch. I do feel that for a large group of Americans, all that matters is the traditional God, Guns and Guts (screw any substantive discourse, and don’t even talk about sacrifice!). As the election draws closer, the mudslinging aimed at Barack Obama will make John Kerry’s campaign look like a tiptoe through the tulips. And for those who dig no deeper than an ignorant shouting point, the mud could stick. After all, a lot of Americans “have had ENUF of HOO-Sane!

But unlike John Kerry (who ran a campaign so inept I couldn’t decide whether to be angry or embarrassed), thus far Obama has risen above the fray, chosen his battles carefully and stuck to message. He’s brave enough to admit when he’s changed his mind about something (such as public financing, and before you accuse him of flip flopping, ask yourself: When was the last time you checked the “donate” box on your income tax return?) and sincere enough that he won’t back down on some tough medicine that we all need to take (to steal from the right, “freedom ain’t free!”).

And heck, he even knows how to use modern technology! Ain’t that a hoot!

My fingers are crossed. Money has been donated. Opinions have been shouted, both sober and hooch-amplified. I remain a cynic, but never so much as to surrender. And I genuinely believe that Barack Obama is maybe our only chance of repairing the incalculable damage done by the current administration to the Greatest, Best Country God Has Ever Given Man on the Face of the Earth.

Here’s to Hope. Here’s to Change.


Monday, June 30, 2008

Bronze Beauties #25: The Brave and the Bold

BAT-BRONZE BEAUTIES pt. 3 of 5
DC ComicsTHE BRAVE AND THE BOLD began in 1955 as an adventure anthology featuring such literary styled heroes as Robin Hood, Viking Prince and the Silent Knight. From #25 (Sept. 1959) through #49, B&B was a tryout comic ala SHOWCASE, introducing such series as Suicide Squad, the Silver Age Hawkman and most successfully, the Justice League of America. But with #50, the title introduced the concept of the one-on-one superhero team-up book, something that would become a staple of comics through the 1980s. Originally pairing seemingly random characters from the DC Universe (picked out of a hat?), by #67, the book became a Batman team-up book (with the exception of a handful of issues).

What made the book so interesting is that Batman, as a rule, works better as a loner. There are certain denizens of the DCU that work well with the dark night detective: the avenging spirit, Deadman; Steve Ditko's The Creeper; Green Arrow; Wildcat. But some of the more memorable issues of B&B were ones that paired Batman with some rather incompatible heroes: The sci-fi hero, Adam Strange; Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle; the postapocalyptic Kamandi; Supergirl; and Lois Lane.

The vast majority of these stories were written by Bob Haney, a longtime comic scribe who had a hard time adjusting to comics’ increasing emphasis on continuity and verisimilitude. Some seriously goofy Batman stories took place within the confines of B&B. The irony is, they were usually drawn by two of the most evocative Batman artists of the era: The first Batman stories illustrated by Neal Adams took place in B&B in the late 1960s (Batman entering The House of Mystery was a particular treat). He did more covers than interiors, however, and this awesome face to B&B #89 (May 1970) featuring the Phantom Stranger may be my favorite of them all.

In issue #98, the Phantom Stranger returned to team with Batman in a story drawn by the former’s regular artist, Jim Aparo. Aparo almost immediately became one of DC’s go-to artists for the Caped Crusader. Aparo took Adams’ realistic style and gave it a gritty edge, so visceral you could practically smell the garbage in the Gotham alleys and Commissioner Gordon’s omnipresent pipe. Aparo penciled almost every issue of BRAVE AND THE BOLD from #104 through its cancellation with #200 in 1983.

Here’s Aparo’s cover to B&B #108 (Sept. 1973), a pairing with Sgt. Rock in a tale combining Nazis, the Devil and religion (a recurring theme for Haney). Could this cover pass muster today? Probably not, and while personally I’m not wild about a religious Batman, it’s a powerful image nonetheless.

POSTSCRIPTED BEAUTIES:
BRAVE AND THE BOLD #92 (Nov. 1970) by Nick Cardy
BRAVE AND THE BOLD #147 (Feb. 1979) by Jim Aparo
BRAVE AND THE BOLD #165 (Aug. 1980) featuring the amazing image of Man-Bat with a babysling by Jim Aparo






 

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bronze Beauties #24: Batman

BAT-BRONZE BEAUTIES part 2 of 5

As this week’s Bat-Bronze-Beauty tackles the Dark Knight’s eponymous title, I thought I’d talk a little bit about one of Batman’s most appealing characteristics: His look. Simply stated, Batman may well be the best-designed superhero in the history of comics.

Again, Bob Kane took the lion’s share of the credit for Batman’s design, but Bill Finger was instrumental in coming up with some of the most iconic aspects of Batman’s design. Kane’s original Batman (nee Bird-Man, then Bat-Man) wore a red union suit with no gloves, along with a simple domino mask and Da Vinci-inspired bat-wings. It was Finger who suggested the cowl and scalloped black cape, as well as losing the bright red in favor of a more nighttime-friendly black and gray color scheme (over the years, as with Spider-Man, colorists’ usage of blue highlights on the black parts of the outfit came to be interpreted as the primary color, turning Batman’s costume from black and gray to blue and gray… or, as the 1969 Big Little Book led me to believe, blue and purple).

By the early 1940s, Batman’s costume had evolved to what it essentially remains today. There was a brief (no pun intended) period in the late 1990s when Batman lost his outer shorts (lots of fanboys hate that fading sartorial superhero choice), but you can’t muck around with an icon. He just didn’t look right, and so the shorts quickly returned.

Much of the genius lies in how certain elements of Batman’s design are ripe for a wide range of interpretations. Artists, especially in recent years, have given much thought to the size and shape of Batman’s cowl (eyes and ears particularly), chest-symbol, cape, utility belt, even gauntlets and boots, creating dozens if not hundreds of unique variations on the basic costume design.

Most of these variations owe a huge debt to Neal Adams. In the late 1960s, Adams was breaking new ground in comics, bringing an illustrator’s mentality to the medium. While he never lost sight of storytelling (the primary objective, after all), Adams combined realism with stylization to unparalleled effect. His Batman looked like a real person, but reality went out the window when Batman lept across the Gotham rooftops as his cape suddenly billowed to a hundred feet. It didn’t matter that the varying cape length made no sense, it looked AWESOME. The effect was immediate: artists were liberated, and every Batman artist since has taken from Adams, either directly or indirectly.

Adams drew the cover and interior for BATMAN #251 (Sept. 1973), one of the greatest Batman comics of all time. “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” written by Denny O’Neil returned Batman’s greatest arch-enemy to his original homicidal madness after decades of being portrayed as just a clownish robber. Featuring some gruesome murders, the return of the toxic Joker venom, Batman battling a shark and a final chase across the beach, it’s one of the most reprinted Batman stories in the character’s history. (Although it should be noted that Adams' fashion makeover of the Joker, putting him in a modern business suit and tie, thankfully didn't take hold, and I have to wonder why Bats is strapped to an Ace of Spades and not a Joker up there).

My second choice, ironically, is by an artist who was not usually right for Batman. Curt Swan was THE Superman artist from the 1960s through the 1980s, until John Byrne’s yuppie revamp of 1986. Another illustrative cartoonist, Swan was best known for his realistic depictions of people, which left his Batman often a bit stiff and unimposing (by contrast, his Superman seemed casual and regal, something captured perfectly by Christopher Reeve on film). But, teaming with inker Murphy Anderson, Swan’s cover to BATMAN #223 (Aug. 1970) is a thing of beauty. This giant issue reprinted some rather tepid globetrotting tales from the 1950s, but the cover (complete with alliterative captions) raises the bar on the whole package.

It’s breaking format, but what the heck, I’m adding a third cover to this entry (there are just too many great BATMAN covers). BATMAN #313 (July 1979) by José Luis Garcia-López makes exemplary use of the design motif of Two-Face, another of Batman’s greatest villains. First introduced in 1942, the scarred former District Attorney Harvey Dent was killed off after a few appearances and resurrected (often with different aliases) sporadically over the years, finally returning as a major player in (you guessed it) the 1970s.

Due to his gruesome visage, the character was never used in the BATMAN TV show, nor any of his early cartoons. BATMAN FOREVER’s ridiculously over-the-top depiction of Two-Face (mysteriously renamed “Harvey Two-Face”) was one of that film’s innumerable problems. The 1990s BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES made great use of the villain’s scarred dual-personality, and I am jazzed to see Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal in THE DARK KNIGHT.

Next Week: Batman teams up in BRAVE AND THE BOLD!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Heroes, Not Super

As of today, I have paid over $500.00 for the honor of merely having my job, while being made to feel like a criminal for the fifth time in ten years.

A chunk of Hoboken bureaucratic bullshit known as THE BAR CARD requires bar and restaurant employees in our little mile square to pay $110.25 every two years for a card that allows them to work in the proximity of booze. There’s no reason for its existence other than to add to the city’s coffers, and why those of us who work in one of its most profitable and ubiquitous industries are singled out remains a mystery that nobody’s every been able to answer for me. I think the simple reason is “Because they can.”

As if it doesn’t suck enough to have to pay for the privilege of having a job, the police at the window where you fill out your forms and pay your money (two different money orders, thank you very much) invariably treat you like a criminal. And I don’t just mean because you have to be photographed and fingerprinted (as far as I know, my fingerprints haven’t changed in the past ten years, but they now have five sets of them). The impatient, gruff attitude that these peace officers display towards us bartenders, waiters and security peeps just enhances my opinion that many (if not most) cops…. are jerks.

I know, I know, you’re not allowed to say that in our post-9/11 world where police officers, firefighters and the military are our unchallenged HEROES. To question their motives or behavior is verboten (even after Abu Ghraib). And yet, we have to. About the only thought-provoking thing I ever saw Andy Rooney say was a statement he made in 2004 along the lines of “I was in the Army. And I can tell you that not all soldiers are heroes.” (Actually, his wording was awkward, saying "all soldiers are not heroes," but the meaning is obvious).

The fact is, many people join the military because they don’t have any other option. Jobs are scarce, and lots of them have three kids to support by the time they’re 20 (don’t get me started on THAT). The armed forces are pretty much the only job that any young person in America is practically guaranteed. And then there are those soldiers for whom military service is a legacy, something they’re not even allowed to question (a phenomenon also common with cops and firemen). Some people enlist as a last ditch effort to straighten out lives of crime or addiction. And, sadly, but undeniably, some people join up in the hopes that they will be able to kill other people.

Does this make their sacrifice worthless? Of course not. Regardless of the impetus, they’re still taking a risk that my tiny, wussy balls would never dare and, as much as I hate its dominance of our federal budget and policy, I am well aware of the necessity of a military. (I do NOT however, buy the tag line that they are necessarily protecting “our freedom.” Under our current, criminal administration, they are tragically risking their lives to protect corporate interests more than anything else. That’s not their fault, but it’s something that everyone, especially those who serve and their loved ones should be furious about).

As for fire fighters, I have nothing bad to say. That is a truly honorable, brave job that requires a level of sacrifice and selflessness that most people don’t possess. If there were a God, I’d ask him to bless ‘em.

Cops, however…

Cops are like teachers in that there are two very distinct and disparate types of people who enter both professions. With teachers, you have two extremes: (1) People who realize how supremely important the job is, and who are on a mission to make the world a better place by giving children a GOOD education. These are among the most important people on Earth. Conversely, there are (2) People with no real passion for anything who couldn’t figure out a major in college. So they become teachers. Bad ones, who ultimately do more harm than good. We all can, in retrospect especially, remember which teachers taught and which ones could give a shit.

With cops, the two types are even further apart. There are many police officers who joined the force because they genuinely want to “serve and protect” the public. To those brave, honorable men and women, I tip my nonexistent hat and say “Thanks.”

But my experience over the years, along with that of my friends, has been that many of the boys and girls in blue are little more than government-authorized bullies, people who wanted to have a job where they could mess with people, ignore the rules of society, abuse power and get away with all of it. Free coffee is the mere tip of the iceberg. Even just in the context of a bar, lots of us have seen cops flash a badge in lieu of paying a cover charge (and go ahead and dare to refuse it as admission). Especially for those of us who live in an urban environment, it’s hard to find a person who doesn’t have a story about a cop abusing authority, be it as minor as parking wherever they want or as major as roughing someone up unnecessarily. But we’ve ALL witnessed the swaggering arrogance of some bad lieutenants. And the fact that it even makes me a wee bit nervous to merely WRITE THIS DOWN is proof of the pudding (I always wanted to use that phrase).

One mo’ time, I’m not saying ALL police are jerks. But to ascribe universal altruism and unassailable valor to the entirety of law enforcement is not only naive, it’s stupid, and endemic of an ever-spreading tendency in our society to question NOTHING, especially authority. Which is not only dangerous and short-sighted, it’s downright un-American.

Phew. Okay, don’t worry, next week I’ll get back to talking about heroes who wear spandex and are much less complicated. Yay!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Bronze Beauties #23: Detective Comics

BAT-BRONZE BEAUTIES part 1 of 5

It seems that over the years of my interweb posting, I’ve not written that much about Batman (as opposed to Superman, whom I believe I’ve mentioned a few times). I did a REWIND column in 2005 about how shitty Tim Burton’s BATMAN was (an opinion I hold like a cause), but for the most part, my thoughts on the caped crusader have been kept to a minimum.

It’s not that I don’t love Batman. I do. I think he’s the yin to Superman’s yang, a really interesting character that’s infinitely appealing and remarkably adaptable to different interpretations and media. As a kid, Batman came a very close second to Supes in my geeky heart. I think the reason I’ve kept mostly mum about Bats is that he doesn’t need my help.

Unlike Superman, people GET Batman. Batman’s iconic cool status is pretty much unchallenged, and even people who think superheroes are stupid are amenable to his exploits.

But with THE DARK KNIGHT approaching, I thought it might be time to take Bronze Beauties into the Batcave for a look at some of the (many, many, many) terrific comic book covers that graced the character’s books in the 1970s.

Batman made his debut in DETECTIVE COMICS #27 in 1939, in a story credited to one Rob’t Kane, although history has gone to tell that Batman’s creation was in fact a collaborative effort between the marginally-talented (but supremely egotistical) Kane and writer Bill Finger (with artist Jerry Robinson quickly refining and adding key elements to the legend). [See HERE for a fascinating look at the still-too-secret origin of the Batman]

While Batman was an instant smash, superheroes fell out of favor after WWII and comics moved towards other genres, with the few remaining costumed crimefighters trying to adapt. From the 1950s onward, Batman comics became light and silly, bringing in elements of science fiction which ill-fit the character. Finally, in 1964, as sales continued to sink, new editor Julius Schwartz made the decision to bring Batman back to his roots, encouraging his writers to emphasize the detective aspect of the hero and enlisting artist Carmine Infantino to help give Batman a modern, sleek,"new look."

The revamp was somewhat dampened in 1966 by the success of the BATMAN TV show, whose campy tone was foisted upon the source material by the DC Comics suits (the company has a long, sad tradition of letting movie and TV adaptations be the tails that wag the dogs). After Batmania subsided a few years later, maverick writers such as Denny O’Neil, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman successfully re-darkened the Dark Knight with grim stories featuring moody, naturalistic art most notably by Neal Adams. Adams’ striking covers in particular had perhaps more impact on the character than any visual interpretation up to that point.

DETECTIVE COMICS #398 (April 1970) has special resonance to me as it’s one of the very first comic books I owned. To this day, almost four decades later, I can remember the feeling of awe I had at first glimpse of this spectacular Neal Adams cover on the spinning rack at Thrift Drug (my first pusher). As was often the case in the day, the story inside didn’t quite measure up to the promise of the cover, but no matter. I was hooked, and Neal Adams quickly became my first favorite artist.

DETECTIVE #408 (Feb. 1971) lives up to its Adams cover, with a creepy haunted house story that taps into the Batman’s greatest fears (a disintegrating Robin being just one of them, alongside Superman not giving him any respect!). Everything about this cover works for me: The art, the tilted logo, the masthead figures of Batman and Batgirl, the placement of the word balloons, the yellow-black-blue color scheme, to me, comics never looked better than this (be prepared to witness more Adams as this series continues).

NEXT WEEK: Bat-Bronze-Beauties Part 2: BATMAN.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Super Circle Jerk


I came across this lot of action figures on eBay and couldn’t stop laughing at the photo. I have the Superman version of this particular figure, part of the Mego line known as Comic Action Heroes. According to the terrific Mego Museum website, this hard plastic 3&3/4" line debuted in 1976 following the company’s highly successful 8” superhero line. The design of the figures, with the crouched legs and bent arm is to allow for them to fit into separately-purchased vehicles and accessories. But out of that context, these toys really just look like superheroes jerking off.

I mean, seriously, didn’t anyone at Mego look at the design of these toys and say, “Hmm, you know what, fellas, maybe we should move the arm with the fist a bit to the side so it doesn’t look EXACTLY like Batman and Robin are having a bat-circle-jerk the Batcave?” Even the hole drilled in the fist (which was to accommodate accessories for a few figures) seems custom-designed for a phallus. Which makes me wonder what’s up with Wonder Woman (again, you have to see here).

Anyway. The photo brings new meaning to the term “Super Friends.” Damn, I wish I would’ve bid on this lot.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Master Thespians!

I’m (along with the gyrlfriend) just getting into BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Like so many serial shows these days, you can’t jump into BSG if you haven’t been watching from the beginning (some day I’ll need to do the same with LOST). And for some reason (perhaps my distaste for the source material, which I hated at the time), I had no interest in this Sci-Fi series. My mistake. After hearing too many people whose taste I trust rave about the show, I decided it was time to get caught up. So Y and I began renting BSG and quickly got hooked on its novel take on science fiction (both in story and design… BSG features the best battle sequences in SF history).

Sure, there are problems. We’re currently three episodes into Season 2.5 and I’m frankly sick of Adama bawling all the time. The “Final Cut” episode was utterly unbelievable and too many characters have been snatched from the brink of death to keep the drama sharp (and the Cylons are really, really lousy shots).

But my biggest beef with BSG is the acting. Tricia Helfer’s jaw-clenching Cylon No.6 would drive me crazy if she were in my head all the time, too. Why does she speak like she’s handling a ventriloquist dummy, keeping her teeth closed, over-pronunciating her sharp consonants, hissing every line? I know she’s supposed to be evil, but it’s beyond grating. Jamie Bamber as Apollo is so boring I almost nod off every time he’s on screen. But worst of all, Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck epitomizes my most hated stripe of performer: The OVER-ACTOR: That overtly self-conscious thespian whose every acting choice, verbal and physical is carefully planned. Watching Sackhoff’s performance, you can tell that she’s thought about every nuance, every inflection of every word, every bite of the lip, every… single… movement. There’s nothing natural about her performance at all, and every time she’s on screen, I never forget that I’m watching someone ACTING (to quote Steve Carell’s Michael Scott quoting Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian).

Of course, she’s far from alone: Alyssa Milano. Hilary Swank. Scarlett Johansson. Tom Cruise. Most soap opera stars. Brad Pitt. Jennifer Jason Leigh. And of course, Kevin Kline and the many theater-bred actors who somehow never realize the different requirements of acting for the stage (where overacting can be necessary to project to an audience) and the screen. To me, the most annoying practitioner of this is Kevin Spacey.

In every performance and every appearance, you can smell how impressed Spacey is with himself. If you watch him on talk shows, he’ll pull impressions out of his hat that aren’t that good, then beam with self-satisfaction. He is an actor who is always concerned with impressing the audience at how actorly his acting is. And so you never forget that it’s him and not his character. Try watching THE USUAL SUSPECTS today and see if you can believe that he’s Verbal Kint OR Keyser Söze!

There’s an early Spacey moment in SUPERMAN RETURNS that bothers me every time I see the movie. During the scene on the Gertrude where Lex Luthor is talking to Kitty Kowalski (the similarly overacting Parker Posey) about Prometheus and the history of power on Earth, he climbs the spiral staircase and says, “I just wanna bring fire to the people,” then pauses, and says , “And… I want my cut.” But it’s a physical bit that Spacey does during the pause that grates me every time… he slowly slides his hand along the banister of the staircase. It sounds like no big deal, but trust me, it’s distractingly actorly.

Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic, BEYOND THE SEA (which he wrote, directed and starred in) is fascinating because it’s the work of a wannabe auteur who’s not half as good as he thinks he is telling the story of a wannabe auteur who wasn’t half as good as he thought he was. Bobby Darin had his moments, to be sure. I think “As Long as I’m Singin’” is one swingin’ chunk of vinyl. But for the most part, his music was bland piffle (“Splish Splash?” Ew. And sorry, his “Mack the Knife” pales to versions by Ella, Louis and pretty much anyone else who ever tackled the Weill standard) and his acting utterly forgettable. Darin, despite what he and Spacey thought, never came close to the sheer star power and virtuosity of Frank Sinatra, as Kevin Spacey is no Jack Lemmon or Johnny Carson. What Spacey and Darin share is that tendency to overthink every creative choice.

Holy crap, maybe Spacey’s a Cylon!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Bronze Beauties #22: The Incredible Hulk


I know, I know, I promised a Batman Bronze Beauties series, and that’s still coming, but then I remembered that THE INCREDIBLE HULK comes out this week and thought I should stick with my habit of featuring comics that are about to hit the big screen. So here’s an entry for Marvel Comics’ not-so-jolly green giant.

If I sound underwhelmed about both the character and his upcoming movie, well, I am. As a 1970s-bred fanboy, I had read some Hulk comics and naturally every Friday night at 8pm, I was tuned to CBS as Bill Bixby fought to purge the raging demon that dwelled within him. But the Hulk was always a one-note character to me, never one of my favorites.

Part of the problem was his design. It’s really hard to make the Hulk look interesting because he’s just a shirtless, barefoot giant in purple pants who’s usually screaming about himself in the third person (something I cannot abide). The relative proportions of the Hulk’s features have varied widely depending upon the artist. While he was originally drawn as kind of a Frankenstein monster, there were times in the 1970s that the Hulk really looked like a Mego action figure, rather stiff and broad (he was the only character that Marvel art director John Romita couldn’t draw well).

Of course, things didn’t get better in the hyper-stylized 1990s as artists started putting the Hulk on gamma-steroids, drawing him with veined tree-sized arms branching from a tank sized torso, often topped with a teeny tiny head. I guess one could make the argument that he’s one of the few mainstream comic book characters that’s been open to such broad interpretations (Batman is another), but few of them have clicked with me.

As for the Hulk’s media adaptations, as much as I loved the TV show, even as a kid, I thought the action was kinda lame (and always noticed when you could see Lou Ferrigno’s streaked makeup and green slip-on sneakers). I never saw any of his various cartoons. Ang Lee’s much-maligned 2003 movie HULK (sans article and adjective) was awkward and overwrought, but I thought it was at least interesting (and not just because of the presence of Jennifer Connelly). My pal Chris pointed out that it was a weird juxtaposition of eastern sensibility foisted upon a totally western piece of pop culture. As for the new movie, I’ll go see it, but I don’t have very high hopes. For one thing, is it just me, or does the CGI look even worse in this one than in Lee’s film? Oh, and dollars to doughnuts that shot of Edward Norton smiling with the green hulk-out eyes is the last shot of the film, as he’s learned to control his inner beast. The character, that is, not the actor/uncredited co-screenwriter, whose much-reported involvement in all aspects of the project doesn’t feel like a good omen (remind me to tell you the story of the time I saw him play air guitar at the bar where I work).

But there are some HULK covers that do ring that sweet nostalgic bell for me and here are two of them. THE INCREDIBLE HULK #140 (June 1971) features a Herb Trimpe cover for a soap operatic tale by obstinate prick Harlan Ellison called (honest) “The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom!” in which the Hulk falls in love with a little green woman named Jarella in a microscopic world called K’ai. #197 (march 1976) pits the anti-hero against Man-Thing on a rare Marvel cover by Bernie Wrightson. They fight. Hulk smashes. You get the gist.

NEXT WEEK: Bronze Beauty Batman Begins (or should I say DARK KNIGHT debuts?)

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bronze Beauties #21: Captain Marvel

As much as drug culture was having an impact on rock music in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was also altering the universes of comic books, and not just the undergrounds. The late Silver and Bronze eras were a mighty cosmic time for some costumed crimefighters.

One such acid casualty was Marvel Comics’ CAPTAIN MARVEL (not to be confused with the Big Red Cheese).

Debuting in MARVEL SUPER HEROES #12 in 1967 and quickly graduating to his own series, Captain Mar-Vell was a member of the alien Kree race who was sent to scout out Earth for possible conquest, but came to love our little planet (much like the Silver Surfer) and rebelled against his masters. Designed by Gene Colan, the original Mar-Vell was clad in a rather unique helmeted white and green outfit. When sales proved less than spectacular, writer Roy Thomas revamped the character into a sci-fi pastiche of SHAZAM!, as a Negative-Zone-stranded Mar-Vell now shared the persona of teenager Rick Jones (former sidekick of the Incredible Hulk and Captain America), who could switch atoms with the hero by banging his “nega-bands” together. Artist Gil Kane redesigned the costume into a red-and-gold, starburst-emblazoned supersuit.

The changes weren’t enough to save the series, however, and CAPTAIN MARVEL was cancelled with #21 in 1970. But two years later, the comic was revived. Writer Gerry Conway and artist Wayne Boring (best known for his 1950s barrel-chested Superman) continued the tale for a handful of issues until #25, when young artist Jim Starlin began penciling the book, soon moving to plotting, then scripting the whole shebang by #29. The concept of the strip was again changed, as a cosmic entity named Eon released Mar-vell from the Negative Zone and gave him the small task of protecting the entire universe (especially the trippier parts of it).

Under Starlin’s watch, Captain Marvel became a trippy, outer space philosopher, searching for meaning while battling the death-obsessed Thanos. Art-wise, Starlin used Steve Ditko’s surrealist space-scapes from DR. STRANGE as a launching point, giving it an acid rock twist that the conservative Ditko probably found offensive. Additionally, Starlin made Mar-Vell’s hair longer (and sadly changed its color from its original silver to a more youthful blonde).

This “most cosmic superhero of all” (as the covers blurbed) blew my little adolescent mind just a bit (as did Starlin’s WARLOCK, coming someday to Bronze Beauties), and while CAPTAIN MARVEL was never one of my favorite books, it is a great example of how far-out superhero comics got in that era. Starlin left the book with #34, but returned to kill off the character in Marvel’s first graphic novel, 1982’s THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL.

Here are the covers to #32 (May 1974) by Jim Starlin & Klaus Janson and #37 (March 1975) by Gil Kane & Janson.

COMING IN TWO WEEKS: The first in a series of five weekly Bat-Bronze Beauties leading up to the release of THE DARK KNIGHT!