Sunday, October 27, 2019

No, Really, Why So Serious? Or, Why JOKER Doesn't Work.

There are lots of times when my opinions on pop culture don’t line up with the mainstream. That’s been the case my entire life. But there are also times when I find myself at odds with people of usually like-minded opinions. Such is the case with a movie most of my fanboy friends are rallying behind, one that left such a bad taste in my mouth I had to take to these here Internets to get some things off my chest about JOKER.

SPOILER ALERT! Many spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.

From the initial announcement, I was not really jazzed about this movie. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Batman mythos, and think the Joker is perhaps the greatest supervillain of them all. But one of the things that makes the Joker so great is that, since his introduction in Batman #1 in 1940, he’s remained a mystery. In eight decades of Joker stories in the comics, he’s never had a real name or a full backstory (aside from a 1951 explanation of how he got his distinctive appearance). Sure, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke gave him an ostensible origin, but that tale was (a) not supposed to be considered in-continuity (despite becoming so retroactively) and (b) acknowledged in-story as perhaps being an unreliable memory of the Joker (“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”). Gee, that sounds familiar, no? 

We know that the Joker is nuts. We know that he’s dangerous. That’s really all we need to know. As such, the prospect of a full-length motion picture origin for this character wasn’t something that held any interest for me.

Also, I rankled at the idea of making Joker the protagonist of a film. True, he’s popular enough to warrant it, but that doesn’t matter. The Joker without Batman is like doing a Professor Moriarty film without Sherlock Holmes. What is the point? In the 1970s, DC Comics gave the Joker his own solo series, one that lasted only nine issues. One of the reasons for the title’s failure was that DC found it difficult to make the “Clown Prince of Crime” function as the lead. He worked best… worked only, in fact… as the villain, as the antagonist, preferably towards the Batman. Numerous “solo” Joker graphic novels in the decades since almost (if not) always included the Caped Crusader as a nemesis.

The view from my apartment
But I decided to go see JOKER for two main reasons: First, parts of the movie were filmed in the towns where I live (Newark, NJ) and work (Jersey City), and I was curious to see them onscreen. The entire opening scene of the movie takes place on the very block on which I live (I could see the set from my window), and some friends and I dumpster dived for set memorabilia after Market Street had been returned from its faux 1980s Gotham City dilapidation to its current actual dilapidation. 

The other, primary reason I had to see JOKER is that once it came out, practically every person I’ve ever met in my life was asking what I thought.

So I went (by myself, hoping not to set off any alarm bells amongst the incel-fearing staff). And yep. My instincts were right. Didn’t like it.

It’s not that JOKER is poorly made. It accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s just that I hate what it sets out to do. By giving the Joker a sympathetic backstory and making him the anti-hero of the tale, JOKER commits the cardinal sin of comic book adaptations: It utterly misses the point and the essence of the character.

Now, before you start accusing me of being an intractable pedant, I understand what Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix were trying to do. I get that this is a different take on a well-established character. But in every conceivable way, it’s wrong. Arthur Fleck never feels like the Joker. He feels like (as was widely presumed from pre-release materials) an amalgamation of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin in clown makeup. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance reeks of pathos, anxiety, depression, delusion, paranoia, and instability, but he never comes close to evoking the terrifying, sheer anarchic malevolence of (you knew I was going here) Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT.

I realize that this movie ain’t that movie, but comparisons are inevitable (to this and every other version of the Joker). Prior to TDK, we had Cesar Romero’s campy gagster (fine within context) and Jack Nicholson’s wannabe artiste (too likeable and Jack-Nicholsony, just one of innumerable flaws in Tim Burton’s stiff melodrama), neither of which truly captured the essence of the character created by Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and/or Bob Kane (the precise creative provenance will forever be in dispute).

But then came 2008, and Christopher Nolan’s Bat-masterpiece, THE DARK KNIGHT, at long last giving Batman fans a Joker for whom they’d longed. What Nolan (along with co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer) understood was that in order for the Joker to be a truly horrifying, existential threat to the Batman, as well as all of Gotham—cops, crooks, and gen-pop alike—he had to remain a mystery, an “agent of chaos,” someone for whom money, order, or any semblance of normalcy felt like a complete anomaly. Heath Ledger’s performance, with all its verbal and physical tics (contrast his long fingernails with Phoenix’ gnawed nubs), took what was on the page and brought it to indelible and unshakeable life. The white may have been makeup, the rictus a scar under lipstick, but godammit, this felt like the Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck isn’t the embodiment of anarchic malevolence. He’s just… pathetic. Pitable. Except of course, when he’s killing finance bros and exploitative talk show hosts. Then you’re supposed to… what, cheer for him? I guess? Or at least revel in his numerous slow-motion dances to questionable soundtrack selections?

It just felt… off. And not the kind of “off” that was the point of JOKER’s far superior antecedents, Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY. It felt like the work of filmmakers who thought they were making something entirely different than what ended up onscreen. At least to me. I didn’t get any deep treatise on mental illness or metaphor for heartless capitalism, I just got... Ugly. Superfluous. And worst of all, self-indulgent.

(Also, if I can veer off of character and into plot for a second, the entirety of the Murray Franklin part of the story strains credulity at every angle. Showing the [how’d they make that?] video [without permission] in the first place [it’s not that funny], inviting Arthur on the show, letting him go on in clown makeup during a riot in which criminals are running around in clown makeup and masks, not vetting his material [or even giving him a pre-interview], not running a security check on him, letting him call the shots [pardon the pun] on his appearance, not cutting to commercial and having security haul him off the second he admitted to the subway killings, the entire subplot is comically ridiculous. If, as some have suggested, Arthur's appearance on the show is yet another of his delusions, it makes more sense, but only adds to the pointlessness of the whole thing.)

In another boneheaded twist, JOKER also gives us Thomas Wayne as a villain. Depicting Batman’s doomed dad as a power hungry, tone-deaf, rich asshole goes against the character as much as Jonathan Kent being a callous paranoiac in Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL. If Thomas Wayne has no empathy for the downtrodden of Gotham City, if he’s not using his wealth for philanthropic purposes, then his death isn’t a tragedy (or not as great a one, anyway). Also, if Thomas Wayne is Donald Trump, then that means Bruce is Donald Jr., and you know who Donald Trump Jr. doesn’t become? Motherfucking Batman, that’s who! Hell, this movie even makes Alfred into a dick! So who cares what happens to them?

Oh, right, we’re not supposed to care about the Waynes, we’re supposed to care about Arthur. He’s the star. He’s the hero. Sorry, anti-hero.

All of this role reversal might’ve been a bit easier to stomach if the movie didn’t bow to so many Batman conventions. Despite his claim of JOKER not being a DCEU film, Phillips really wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Not only do we have to yet again witness the murder of the Waynes (cascading pearls and all), there’s also an homage to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the form of the bank of TV screens after Arthur kills Murray. That’s a lot of Batman in a movie that’s not supposed to be a Batman movie.

But, as I said at the beginning, this is another case of me being woefully out of touch, with both the mainstream and much of the comic book cognoscenti. And while I’ll take this opportunity to toss in my mantra of “it’s all subjective,” this is also one of those cases where I simply do not understand how a dyed-in-the-wool Batman fan can get behind this film.

The other day, one of the dozen or so ads for bootleg memorabilia that scrolls into my social media feed on a daily basis pictured a Joker tee-shirt that redrew an old Irv Novick image (of a character called Willie the Weeper from the cover of The Joker #2) in the Joaquin Phoenix outfit and makeup (which I hate, by the way…forgot to mention that), with the tagline in the ad reading, “He is the hero, not a villain (heart emoji)!” I mean, seriously… what the fuck?

Loving the character (which I do) is one thing. But you’re not supposed to side with the Joker. And, perhaps even more egregiously, when he kills people, you’re not supposed to think that’s a good thing. Unless you’re, you know, John Hinckley Jr. Or maybe Jared Leto (oof, at least the silver lining here is that hopefully we never see that guy again). 

The bottom line is, the world of JOKER is not a world where I wanna live, fictional or otherwise (even if it on my block).

But hey, I guess that’s just me. The damn thing just became the most successful R-rated film of all time. So you guys go ahead, paint on a happy face, dance to music by pedophiles, and let the darkness wash over you. Me, I’ll go watch THE DARK KNIGHT for the 400th time and revel in a world that’s not exactly sweetness and light, but where you can at least tell the good guys from the bad.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

SSJW (Super Social Justice Warriors)

Social media. Ugh. Am I right, people?

Recently, I saw a comment on an Instagram post about Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) picking up Mjolnir to become the God of Thunder in Thor 4 that whined about “damn SJW” versions of comic book characters (people were up in arms to a lesser extent when this happened in the comics four years ago). The conservative mandate is that Thor MUST wield a penis in addition to his mighty hammer. I was gonna weigh in on the post, but over a hundred other people had already taken this Alt-Right moron to task for his misogyny. Still, it got me thinking…

The Right tends to try to co-op a lot of things they don’t seem to understand, from Johnny Cash to They Live to the Constitution of the United States. But when they try to lay claim to superheroes, well, now that’s going too far.

To those who are not versed in the genre, superheroes might seem to be a perfect symbol for the kind of nationalism espoused by the far Right: They are supremely powerful, and use their might to battle their enemies into submission. They represent order and the establishment.

But that’s an overly simplistic take that doesn’t really fit most of the iconic characters that are dominating pop culture today.

In fact, superheroes are more in line with activists and societal rebels than they are figures of authority. They use their individual gifts to work outside the system, to fight for a kind of justice that might not align with that of the police or the government. Heck, they even wear flamboyant costumes and kinky accouterments!

Even Captain America, as patriotic a character as they come, has butted heads with his country numerous times, both in the comics and in the MCU. Steve Rogers’ idea of America doesn’t always line up with The Man’s, which makes him an embodiment of the spirit of America, not merely a jingoistic symbol of whatever this country represents at the time.

Similarly, and in some ways, to an even greater extent, there is a contingency that views the Man of Steel in a nationalistic light. Certainly, Superman has been depicted as an American icon… particularly during World War II (along with every other superhero), but also in the George Reeves television series, at the end of Superman II (when he replaces the flag at the White House), and in many other iterations. Fox News even threw a little hissy fit (imagine that!) when 2006’s Superman Returns rephrased the 1950s version of what the character stood for as “Truth… justice… all that stuff!”

But, as with Cap, to label the Man of Steel as a paragon of conservative American values is a huge mistake. From his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938, Superman was a “champion of the oppressed,” often battling establishment figures (from corrupt public officials to dishonest businessmen and foreign despots). He was… LITERALLY… a Social Justice Warrior.

And yet when I did a little digging on the commenter who trashed the notion of a female Thor, it turned out that he sells Trumpesque merchandise, including a shirt bearing the word, “Superpatriot,” which—you guessed it—co opts the classic Superman logo, with the telescoping, curved lettering.

Dude. Not only is Superman NOT nationalistic, he’s the ultimate illegal immigrant as well as a journalist, and hence an enemy of the people! You rail against immigrants and poor people and anyone else you see as a danger to your precious White America. Don’t you get it, man? You’re a BAD GUY. SUPERMAN WOULD NOT LIKE YOU.

Superman has a long history of fighting against the kind of xenophobic rhetoric being spewed by so many Trumpers… DC Comics published many Public Service comic strips over the years depicting the Last Son of Krypton fighting against prejudice and intolerance. A few years back, a poster (repurposing a 1949 book cover distributed by DC) on which Superman tells a group of school kids that being racist is “UN-AMERICAN” went viral, inspiring DC to offer a hi-res version for free download on their website.

(Ironically, DC’s later PSAs in the 1970s and beyond were way more conservative, more concerned with warning against such misdemeanors as shoplifting, smoking, or graffiti than battling prejudice.)

And yet, there were some people who derided the Superman “All-American” poster as ANTI-American (to the point where Snopes even devoted a page to affirming its validity). We live in a time where people are so polarized that any online discussion of this kind of stuff instantly becomes a slinging of inflamed rhetoric on both sides… but, as we’ve learned repeatedly, there are NOT necessarily always good people “on both sides.” 

I’ve quit most of the online comic book groups to which I belonged in part because I find it offensive that they ban ANY political content. Granted, like I said, it devolves quickly, but that shouldn’t lead to outright censorship of serious discussion, particularly when we are currently living in a time that has more than a little eerie and terrifying resonance with another point in the history of another country that didn’t end well. I understand the plight of online moderators who often have to put out these kind of fires, but outright censorship… just doesn’t feel right, gosh darn it.

If there were social media in the 1940s, would comic book fan groups have shot down any posts about Captain America punching Hitler in the face? A decade later, would they have deleted any discussion of the McCarthyesque attacks on the horror comics? Would the classic Green Lantern / Green Arrow debate on social justice have been permitted as a topic of discussion on a Facebook comic book group in 1970?

The comic book Public Service strips of the past may have been so effective because of the medium… a short story on a comic book page in which Superman points out the evils of prejudice was able to take root in a kid because there weren’t hundreds of naysayers looking over their shoulder, screaming in their ear about immigrants taking away their jobs and undermining their values. It was just a good guy giving a good lesson to that one reader at that moment.

I’m posting a handful of the classic Superman (and one good Batman) PSAs (all ©DC Comics) below not just because I think they’re awesome, but there’s an ulterior motive as well.

Maybe, just maybe, some Alt-Right idiot doing a search on “SJW” and “superhero” will stumble across this page and be forced to view empirical evidence that, in fact, superheroes have ALWAYS fought AGAINST what those who would halt progress believe. Superheroes (not counting anti-heroes like the Punisher, Deadpool, Spawn, Rorschach., et al) are more than just adolescent power fantasies and escapist junk culture… at their best, they help to teach the difference between right and wrong, to look beyond our own purview, and inspire us to remember to always fight the good fight.

Up, up, and away!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Asshole America

In 1987, after being acquitted in a high profile racketeering trial, New York mob boss John Gotti earned the media nickname, “The Teflon Don” due to the inability of any of his charges to stick. Gotti was eventually sent to jail in 1992, and died a decade later of cancer, but even if he had avoided those fates, he’d still have to abdicate the nickname to the true “Teflon Don,” the melon-tinged, racist, wannabe autocrat who currently holds the position of President of the United States, one Donald J. Trump.

Adam Zyglis
When the failed businessman (if we’re being honest) turned reality TV star was elected President in 2016 despite decades of recorded conduct that would’ve rendered any other candidate ineligible, there was a contingency that opined once he took office, he’d straighten up, tone down the coarseness and the divisive rhetoric, and become more “presidential.” 

Only that didn’t happen.

If anything, as Trump’s delicate, yet oversized ego began to get even more inflated by the power and the glory of his new office, he doubled down on the kind of behavior that is—shall we say—unbecoming of a world leader. He continued to call opponents “losers” and other schoolyard pejoratives, he used his position to further the financial interests of himself and his cronies, he embraced despots while alienating longtime allies on the world stage, he did everything in his power to try to derail a legitimate investigation into collusion with Russia… oh, hell, you guys know the list. It’s unending.

Rob Rogers
And with each new twist of the knife into the heart of the Republic (and for which it stands), a chorus of hopefuls would think, “This is it! This’ll finally turn Uncle Joe and Aunt Dotty against him! This is the thing that’s going to take him down!” 

But none of them did. Not taking Putin’s side over ours (“I don’t see why it would be!”), not the Mueller report (“Completely exonerated”), not another round of accusations of sexual misconduct (“She wouldn’t be my first choice, believe me”), not the constant tweeting of racist dog whistles (“Go back to your countries!”), none of it has made a dent in his base or his support in the Republican party. NONE. OF. IT. STICKS.

How can this be? Why is this unrepentant asshole so untouchable? I think the answer is simply… because he is an unrepentant asshole. If someone is totally unpossessing of shame, humility, empathy, and self-awareness, it’s kinda hard to cut through that armor with things like empirical evidence and civility. It makes him invulnerable to criticism. And so every assholish thing that this assholey asshole does and gets away with only solidifies his support amongst Asshole America.

John Cole
We need look no further than his rallies. Those fucking rallies (over FIFTY since taking office!). Arenas and auditoriums and expo centers full (or partially full, anyway) of mewling sycophants who gobble up every mouth turd that falls out of his puckered face hole (that probably smells like a mix of rotting meat and Life Savers): Lies and self-aggrandizement and race baiting and lies and media bashing and let’s not forget the lies. Speaking off the cuff, he rambles and dishes out his greatest hits and says absolutely nothing of substance, but to many of his base, (and please forgive my repeating myself) WHAT he says isn’t as important as HOW he says it. That sniffling, gravelly tenor of his, punctuated with barks and growls and the occasional “Am I right?” has the same Pavlovian effect on his base as chirping, “Who’s a good dog? You are! Yes you are! You’re a good dog!” to an excited Jack Russell Terrier who doesn’t understand what you’re saying, but really wants to go outside and chase his own tail for an hour.

If you need any evidence that the tone is key, look no further than the rally in June of 2018 at which he declared, “We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses and apartments, we got nicer boats, we're smarter than they are and they say they're the elite. You're the elite, we're the elite!”

Dr. Jack & Curtis
Putting aside his usual poor grammar, let’s look at the content. He’s presuming that everyone at the rally is (a) super wealthy, (b) possessed of a MENSA level intellect, (c) living in the finest appointed homes, and (d) spending their weekends on the water in their yachts or some such conveyance.

But he made this speech at a rally in North Dakota. A landlocked state. And yet still, they whooped with wild enthusiasm (if that’s redundant, I apologize, I’m a little worked up). Did anybody in the crowd turn and look at the person next to them and say, “I don’t have a boat. Do you have a boat? Also, I’m living paycheck to paycheck in my parents’ basement, what the fuck is he talking about?”

David Plunkert
It’s doubtful (and not just because I’m sure there were some people there who WERE well off and maybe even owned a boat, that’s not the point). For many people in Trump’s crowds, they FEEL his anger, they can taste the bile in his throat as if it were their own. Whether it’s borne of fiscal anxieties, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, whatever happens to be their own particular peccadillo, it doesn’t matter if he speaks to it directly or not. He’s mad. And so are they. 

Asshole America just loves being validated by the person holding a job that was once considered a bastion of dignity and restraint. Unlike other Presidents who strove to inspire and unite, this one is content to JUST BE PISSED AND DIVIDE. Rather than those snooty college boys telling you to “ask not what your country can do for you” or some similar kinda highfalutin’, unselfish bullshit, they finally got a leader who just bitches about brown people and those damn furr’ners and his own personal enemies and who (again, no doubt disingenuously) brags about the size of his mushroom shaped joint. 

Trump revels in his anger. It defines him. That’s his message to Asshole America: “Go ahead and be an asshole!” They’ve never been so fully and completely sanctioned by someone whose job it is to lead (you know, aside from Grand Wizards). If the most powerful person on this doomed planet can be such a colossal dick and get away with it, then why can’t they? Why CAN’T they be openly racist instead of just behind closed doors? Why CAN’T they be rude and demanding at a restaurant? Why NOT park in a handicapped spot if they want? Hey, let’s buy some more guns! Where’s the nearest Walmart? Anyone who thinks it’s a coincidence that hate crimes have increased in the past two and a half years is either kidding themselves or holding office as a Republican. Or both.

I’ve watched pundit after pundit after pundit try to parse this seemingly inconceivable state of affairs, wringing hands over uneaten plates of breakfast pastries, begging historians for hopeful precedent to end this national nightmare, asking Democratic POTUS hopefuls how they can defeat Trump next November, all digging way deeper than they need to.

It’s simple. It’s superficial. It’s the ultimate triumph of anti-intellectualism, greed, hatred, and selfishness. It’s more insidious than Idiocracy. We’ve officially become Asshole America. And I honestly don’t know if we can ever recover.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Chameleon Schedules 1995-96

Wrapping up this series with the (just shy of) two years that I did the schedules for Lancaster's Chameleon Club. My life went through a lot of changes in these two years, culminating in a move to New York City (via Hoboken, NJ, just across the river) in the spring of 1996. I kept doing the schedules (and MAILING them to Rich Ruoff!) for a handful of months, but after I got a job at Warner Bros. Records in July, I realized it was time to sever this tether to my hometown. As a tip of the hat to my early years working for Chameleon, I hand illustrated the artwork for one of the final schedules.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Kalligrafonts stickers!

Hey! Are you on Instagram? What's that? You ARE? Well, then you should be following both of my accounts, Pops Gustav (there are a lot of posts of my stuff) and Kalligrafonts (not my first choice of name, but I had to take what was available and worked), highlighting my hand-lettering work. AND SPEAKING OF, here's a spankin' new set of Kalligrafonts stickers (featuring quotations from movies and TV shows I happen to love), which can be YOURS for the low, low price of five for $5 (mix and match), postage included! Paypal to, Venmo, checks, money order, cash, barter, whatever.