Tags: comics


unknown soldier

Joshua Dysart's reboot of Unknown Soldier, a superhero comic (!?) about the LRA insurgency in Uganda, should by all rights be terrible. But somehow it instead manages to be the most compelling, humanizing, thought-provoking, morally complex treatment of contemporary African conflict I have read since Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. There are no good guys or bad guys, no simple solutions, no magic white dudes galloping in to save Uganda from itself--it is a realistic central Africa, in which things are so fucked up that even superheroes are ultimately powerless. In short, it is the exact opposite of Iron Man flying over to Basra to singlehandedly save Iraq (and, verily, the two token white characters in the story, far from being a point by which American audiences are intended to relate, are bewildered, helpless, and generally ineffective).

The visual storytelling is some of the best I've ever seen in comics, with all-too-familiar dewey-eyed UN-style rhetoric ironically juxtaposed with horrifying yet intensely human images of the frustrating, impossible reality of the situation on the ground. (There's an image, early in issue 7 or so, in which the titular protagonist digs up a cache of AK-47s wrapped in a UNICEF satchel. He inserts a couple new rifles claimed from child soldiers he has recently killed, pauses to contemplate what he is doing, and buries it again. It's never clear whether he's using it as a burial ground or a weapons cache, and the moment expresses the series' troubling ambiguity perfectly.) This series is easily a new landmark of the comics medium, almost on par with Maus.

And it's being cancelled because no one gives a fuck about Africa.

Which, somewhat prophetically, volume 2 of the trade paperback is about. That entire arc is framed in the uncomfortable perennial question posed by diplomats, NGOs, and journalists seeking foreign intervention in the conflict: Why is the life of thousands of nameless Africans worth less attention to the Western media than the life of one white American visitor? And it brings the implications of the usual easy, comfortable answers to that question to some unexpected, unsettling, inevitable conclusions, all the while casting light on how the question itself is problematically racist. If you like feeling good about yourself, or being right in your view of the world, this book will fuck you up.

The main character of issue 21 is an AK-47. Not a superhero with an AK-47. The rifle itself. Just one. The comic traces the life of the weapon from its creation in a factory in 1976 through the lives of its many owners throughout Africa, each of whom carries it for different reasons, with a few consistent themes through each of their narratives. The gun may be mute, but its report is always loud.

This series is being cancelled, people. For shame.

(edit) Hey, look at that. A New York Times article. Why are more people not picking this series up?

drupal is my mutant power

Over the weekend I made a generic CMS-driven website for the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, a private school for privileged teenagers in San Francisco. I had fun deliberately making it the least original school website ever.

But hey, that's what they get for getting me to do it for free. I really don't think they care, anyway; it's almost like the entire school is a front for something else. I mean, they've got the biggest supercomputer I've ever seen but they couldn't shell out $15 for their own domain...

Good practice, though. Gotta keep those skills sharp.

k-on: the later years

Sun: 62. Kevin: 0.

Yesterday I got a graphic novel in the mail! Solanin, a one-shot manga by Inio Asano. It is about a group of friends in their twenties, fresh out of school, unemployed and penniless in Tokyo in the middle of an unprecedentedly terrible recession. They strike a difficult balance between their dreams and the demands and responsibilities of new adulthood: Meiko is supporting her live-in boyfriend Taneda through a soulless office lady job, Taneda struggles with his job as a part-time illustrator, Kato hates how he looks in a suit but needs a desk job to pay tuition for his sixth year of school. What brings them all together now is what brought them all together in the first place: in college they were a band, they were members of the music club; they played all these awesome shows and rocked the fuck out and had Dreams and Ambitions and the future was dazzling and glorious in front of them. And now they're still meeting twice a week and still banging away at the same old instruments, but seriously, what for? No more school festivals, now, no more student concerts--they don't play live anymore, they're not good enough to record. They do it because it feels real, because it's a connection to their past and their dreams, but the moment they put down that bitchin' '76 Fender they're back to the world of photocopiers and convenience store aprons and perverted salarymen, of looking for work and lying around in their dingy little apartments all day and watching the money run out as everything they've ever wanted to be, whatever it is they want to be, if they ever find it, vanishes into thin air.

My, doesn't all this sound familiar.

What's really fascinating about the art is that none of the characters are drawn to look particularly heroic or attractive. Unlike the Scott Pilgrim series, which elevates the role of the post-undergrad everyman to that of a superhero in an epic cosmic struggle, the protagonists of Solanin are ordinary people. Dorky, lovable, idiosyncratic ordinary people, but ordinary nonetheless. Their doubts and fears over whether they'll ever have a future as a band are accentuated by the fact that none of them look like rock stars. The frontman wears a ridiculous pair of Buddy Holly glasses, his groupie girlfriend has freckles, the bassist is obese, and the drummer looks like he'd be more at home in a metal band; these guys are the total antithesis of JRock. They lack verve, style, and confidence, and their ambitions are plagued by doubt; when they talk about what they do, they look and sound like a bunch of close friends throwing around one of those impossible pipe dreams that they know they'll never actually do. And yet, whenever they get together and play...they are transformed. The rock-out faces these guys put on look like portraits from the Cleveland Hall of Fame. Six days a week Taneda's just a goofy dork with bad posture and low self-esteem, but put a guitar in his hands and he channels Hendrix. Draw away all their doubts and fears and insecurities, and these guys are the face of absolute sincerity. A sincerity priceless, magical, and transcendent--it makes them, for a brief moment, so much more than who they are.

Even if, as they constantly fear, they're really not all that good.

I read the whole thing in one go. I can't say more about the story--which is excellent--without spoiling anything, but it's pretty evident that whoever sent me this manga knows me very well. Someone must have read through it one day and thought, "Hmm, this reminds me of something erf_ wrote in his livejournal." I certainly had that feeling every five or six pages...

The return address on the envelope is in Columbia, Maryland, and the sender is simply marked as "CHEN." I assume, then, that this is a random gift from Heather, Cynthia, or Eric. Whichever one of you it is, domo arigatou! I enjoyed it a lot.
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drinking to forget

The Internet has been pretty unkind to Wolverine: Origins. Schlock Mercenary cartoonist Howard Tayler said it's "the sixth best movie I've seen this summer," which is damning with feint praise, since (according to him) the Hollywood summer season begins in May, and the film came out on May 1. My friendslist has been pretty unenthusiastic about it too; aesvir had little to say about it except that Hugh Jackman was in various states of undress for most of the movie (that kind of thing always gets aesvir's attention). A friend in the film industry commented to me that there had been some commotion (read: heads rolling, throats slit, EVERYONE MUST DIE) because someone had leaked a near-complete cut of the film onto the filesharing networks a week before release, and reaction among the p2p community was so bad that, well, 20th Century Fox isn't optimistic about the opening numbers.

Tonight I went down to the theater at Union Square and saw it for myself, and goodness, guys. You are all a really tough sell. Not only was it not nearly that bad, I would have liked it even if I hadn't come into the theater with rock-bottom expectations. I mean, it was no Watchmen or Batman Begins. It's a far cry from the greatest comic book movie of all time, and a year or so from now I'm probably going to forget it ever existed. But I got my twelve dollars' worth.

(Twelve dollars...sigh. I remember being pissed off when the price of movie tickets went to six...)

I mean, yeah, the film isn't exactly brain candy, and the pacing is kind of breakneck. (How do you fit thirty years of comic books into a two-hour film, and still leave a minimum of die-hard fans bitching that their favorite Major Comics Event wasn't included?) It's a movie about an angry, confused, brooding antihero discovering his identity and dealing with horrible changes to his body--the idol and role model of generations of disaffected, alienated teenage comic book fans. Of course it's going to have an adolescent level of depth. And if that experience doesn't speak to you, of course the plot is going to seem silly and contrived. Aside from a bunch of really awesome fight scenes and an amazingly stirring soundtrack, this film doesn't have much to offer a mature, well-adjusted individual who enjoyed adolescence and grew up in the company of a loving community of friends.

If you spent your high school years in a swirling rush of anger, fear, confusion, helplessness, and intimidation, however, and you are the type of person who feels no shame about waking up early one morning to sit on a hilltop and watch the sunset and brood--in short, the demographic that unexpectedly elevated Wolverine from a random throwaway character to the patron saint of geekdom--then this film is for you. Not nearly as animalistic, uncompromising, and brutally self-reflective as Fight Club, but very much in the same vein. This is a film as misunderstood as its protagonist, and if you spent your high school years planting chopsticks between your knuckles and wishing all your problems were as simple to deal with as clawing your way through the chimney of a nuclear reactor, this film is so absolutely for you.

Don't get me wrong, I've seen lots of movies about brooding antiheroes that play up the brooding antiheroness, and all of them suck. (Batman Begins doesn't count, because Bruce Wayne manages to move beyond that, somewhat.) This isn't one of them. Not only because it doesn't suck, but because, to everyone's surprise, it doesn't play up the brooding antiheroness. The film wisely avoids the obvious approach, employed by so many of his incarnations in the comics, of playing up Wolvie as an angsty, predictable one-note character. Remember when Hugh Jackman hosted the Oscars this year, and was magnificently silly, and people joked that they would never be able to take him seriously as Wolverine again? Jackman was only preparing us for the inevitable. Considering that he's playing a character whose thought process generally follows a thought process of 1) stab, 2) brood, 3) drink, Jackman's demonstrates impressive range in his portrayal. As with any good origin story, we see the pieces of Wolvie's trademark personality come together bit by bit--not just his animalistic rage and his pathological mistrust of other people, but his guilt complex, his blunt sense of humor, and his conflicted sense of compassion. We see that little glimmer of conscience, with unusual convincingness, that makes him more than just another brooding antihero. We discover the roots of his alcoholism, his fear of flying. There's even elements of goofiness reminiscent of his incarnation in Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run...a much welcome silliness to a character who many writers have made the mistake of taking far too seriously. We see Logan light-years beyond his current angry, tortured, badass self--a Logan from a time when he was just a scared, gentle, goofy kid, running from his destiny and his sense of self. The film doesn't explore the character nearly as deeply as the comics--especially the unrelated run of the same name--but it hits all the right notes. It captures the real reason every teenage loner looks up to Wolvie--not because he's a badass, but the exact reverse. Underneath that badass shell there's a lost, confused, directionless ten-year-old boy. Though he grows, and matures, and becomes a sadder and wiser man, that part of him never changes. And that makes his journey into badassery all the more compelling.

Plenty of geekporn for the testosterone crowd, too (despite the amusingly high proportion of male to female nudity). The directing, sound, and camerawork for the fight scenes is some of the best I've ever seen. You'd expect little tension from the fights considering that Logan is nigh invincible, but the pacing, the stylish choreography, and the real sense of force behind each shot and stab delivers a remarkable sense of spectacle. You really get that sense of comic-book epicness from all the feats of superhuman strength and agility, this sense of titanic forces at war, something that every big-budget superhero movie tries for but few actually achieve. It's not just the CG--it's the fluidity and pacing of battle, the delicate dance of sound cues and hand-to-hand and environment props. The fight choreographers must have studied an awful lot of Hong Kong martial arts films because the influence really shows. Lots and lots of "holy shit" moments--and not just the special effects set-pieces. (Which are pretty impressive though!) And, of course, since this series takes place before X-Men, we see lots of little nods and in-jokes from that series. If you enjoyed identifying all the minor mutants in the X-Men films you are going to have plenty of opportunity to do it again here. Deadpool, Gambit, and very young Cyclops and Emma Frost are the obvious cameos in this film, but if you look closely you'll also see Nightcrawler, Toad, the Stepford Cuckoos, and countless others that I am sure more devoted comics fans will have the patience to find.

Speaking of minor characters, Korean Agent Zero is my new favorite super-henchman. Gunslinging supervillains are nothing new, nor are hard-edged gangster types. Agent Zero is neither of these. Agent Zero's awesomeness comes not from his guns or his attitude but his utterly absurd reflexes. I won't spoil anything, but there's a scene at the beginning of the film where he takes on an entire defensive garrison with just a pair of semiautomatic pistols, and it's just shooty shooty bang EVERYTHING IS DEAD. In the most awesome way possible! And he's not cocky or brooding or melodramatic--he's not a hard-boiled Korean soap opera villain. "Badass" isn't quite the right word for him, even though he fits the image to a T. He has a cocky grin and a silly sense of humor and an overachiever streak, and a weird relationship with authority. He is, essentially, Hollywood's first memorably, truly post-immigrant Californasian evil superhero. And he is a complete douchebag, in all the expected ways, without being a stereotype. Wonderful acting for such a minor role.

Hell of a lot better film than X-Men 2.

in which kevin reviews things he has finished recently

Kingdom Hearts II for PlayStation 2: Five hours of startlingly poignant, compelling story, with fifty hours of bad Disney crossover fanfiction sandwiched in between. Oh well--I suppose that's the only way to carry such a terrible concept and make it work. (Rumor has it that the game was conceived when a Square exec and a Disney exec were standing an elevator at a graphics conference, and one of them said to the other, "You have a highly marketable franchise! We have a highly marketable franchise! Let's make a game that will sell lots and lots of spinoff merchandise.") Gameplay-wise, it's God of War for kids, which is in no way a bad thing, unless "giddy combo-mashing fun" is a bad thing to you. Just the right level of challenge, too--I've beaten the game on Proud and Sephiroth still kicks my ass. Oh, and I know half the Internet has said this already, but I don't care what the cosmology of the game says--Roxas is a far more genuine and interesting character than Sora.

The Adventures of Chairman Mao on the Long March by Frederic Tuten: A short but bold experiment in creative plagiarism. If you went into this book not knowing anything about its premise, you could be excused for believing at first that it is a dry, textbook account of the father of Chinese communism's rise to power. By the time you get to the parts with the uncredited excerpts from Jack London novels and the historical account of 1920s silent film actress Greta Garbo seducing Mao from the hatch of a tank, it's pretty obvious that Tuten is fucking with you. Apparently Tuten was a good friend of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein (the cover of the current edition was actually painted by Lichenstein himself), and his book is written with much of that same deconstructionist playfulness. Like his contemporaries, it's often hard to tell whether he's trying to make a serious point or whether he's just trying to trip every bullshit detector in criticdom. Highlights include: a scene where Mao fantasizes about the wives of other famous dictators through history, a bullshit-heavy parody of a paper on academic deconstructionism, and an end-of-book interview in which Mao reveals himself to be a hipster. Art, English, and history majors will adore this book to pieces, but other folk will probably go wtf.

I had a very special experience reading this book outside the World Financial Center at dusk. I saw rays of blood-gold sifting through the Manhattan skyline, glittering across the river, casting shadows of tables and chairs up a five-story flight of stairs, to rest on a gaggle of New Yorkers watching a crane lift a piece of the new World Trade Center into place. If only I had a 360 degree camera. That had depth perception. And no fisheye. Oh well, I guess some moments weren't meant to be preserved.

New Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo DS: A great tribute to the first four Super Mario Bros. games, but not a particularly memorable experience in itself. For a DS game, it's annoyingly non-portable, given that you have a finite number of saves for the entire game. Has its moments, though--plowing through a level when you are almost as big as the level itself is always fun.

Neuromancer by William Gibson: Okay, holy shit. I knew that this book was influential but I had no idea it was this...ambitious. I know this book inspired the Matrix trilogy, the Shadowrun role-playing games, and the entire genre of cyberpunk--not to mention the names of half a dozen real-life technologies, of which "cyberspace" is but one--but no one told me that all that stuff was based on the first five chapters. Gibson creates not only a imaginative yet chillingly familiar post-1980s future city (at least, if you read the book two decades ago), he writes an imaginative yet chillingly familiar post-1980s world. The universe of the novel spans five different countries--two of which are in orbit--each of which has entered the cyberspace age in unique yet plausible ways. And while Gibson was wildly off on some thematic and geopolitical counts (nobody expects the Japanese recession!), some technological observations were so accurate that I frequently had to remind myself that the book was first published in 1984. A lot of his observations, like the jury-rigged cyberspace nodes in the Middle East, have become true in spirit if not in fact. Now-timeless characters, a gripping story, and some astonishingly beautiful prose make this novel exceptional in its own right, not merely a fine work of science fiction. Which sets it apart from pretty much every other sci-fi novel written during the 1980s. Or the 1970s or 1960s, for that matter. Fucking starry-eyed machine worshippers.

Great Dream of Heaven by Sam Shepard: I'm willing to be the reason why this book is only worth four dollars, despite the fact that Shepard is a Pulitzer winner, is because the very very small number of people who actually read literary fiction thumbed through this at the bookstore and realized the first story, about a boy who helps a horse doctor rescue a trapped stallion, is absolutely awful. Like, dear goodness how the hell did this get published awful--it's disgusting and cruel, and there's no depth to any of the characters other than the sly but not subtle pedophilic and bestial overtones. It's a bit of a surprise, then, to discover that most of the other short stories in this anthology are actually pretty excellent. Fiction seems like a weird medium for Shepard, who won his Pulitzer for playwriting, but Shepard compensates by drawing from his phenomenal talent for dialogue. Every story is dialogue-driven--there's some exposition, some sense imagery, but all the tension and the all the character development comes from what the characters say. It's like reading a novel through a telephone, which would be a negative criticism for anyone but Shepard, who manages to spin not only believable but completely human characters from a few short pages of words. He's got a knack for finding compelling stories in the most mundane of plots: a woman's car breaks down by the side of the road; a dude at a casual restaurant asks a waitress about a sign; a Jew walks into a bar. (Okay, I made that last one up.) As my own prowess with dialogue is severely lacking (how am I supposed to write talky bits when I'm a recluse in real life?), this book is worth having to study as well as to read.

Tropic Thunder: If you've seen the trailer, you already know what to expect. Surprisingly enjoyable for a Ben Stiller film--the only Ben Stiller film I've ever seen where the audience broke into applause at the end--and squeefully meta (it's a movie about real life for people making a movie about real life!)--doubly so when you realize that most of the characters who are actors are scathingly self-deprecating parodies of the actors who play them. Manages to be much funnier than a typical Ben Stiller movie while being only half as stupid. And yes, that is Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, and no, it's not as crass as you might believe. Also, UNEXPECTED TOM CRUISE AAAAAAHH.

Welcome to Tranquillity Vol. 1 - by Gail Simone and Neil Googe Written by Gail Simone, famed feminist comics historian and talented comics writer in her own right. Drawn by Neil Googe, who I'd never heard of before, but has a knack for gorgeous pastel tones and clever panel designs. It's a very tongue-in-cheek series about a retirement community for Silver Age superheroes and their families. The protagonist is the sheriff of the town--an ordinary black woman with no superpowers. A sampling of this series's brand of humor: In the first chapter, a young hooligan from out of town comes into the Chik-N-Go to cause trouble. His name? Emoticon--and he wears a mask over his face that always shows the ASCII representation of what he's feeling. He wears a giant bling necklace around his neck that reads "EMO" in glittering studs. Hilarious, and a real delight to read, especially if you have some general knowledge of comics history.

Guitar, Month 3: exit valve for the heart.

heath ledger's joker is terrorism

Saw The Dark Knight tonight. It has displaced Batman Begins as my favorite Batman film ever. There's not much I could say about it as I agree with much of what has been said about it already (fantastic performances! brilliant, elegant soundtrack! Heath Ledger's Joker makes me want to laugh, punch him, and shit my pants in fear, all at once!). I was exceptionally surprised by Aaron Eckhart's Rudy Giuliani Harvey Dent--he's astoundingly convincing in no-bullshit lawyer mode.

(Edit: Why do I always start with "There's not much I can say" and then go on for paragraphs?)

Amazing script, too; not at all like a superhero movie--light on the fanservice, frugal on the setpieces, and subtle. And not just subtle for a superhero movie, but subtle for Hollywood in general. There's a surprisingly complex exploration of the nature of good and evil, and some interesting insights on cynicism--nothing that will have philosophy majors scratching their heads but a far cry from WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY LOL.

Batman's the anti-Superman. He can't be everywhere at once. You can't sleep safely under his vigilance. He's not infallible, he's not universally loved, and he can't be counted on to save the day. There are too many crimes, too many victims; all one man can do is try to bring some of the perpetrators to justice. In this film he's not even so much of a hero, he's just a really effective vigilante cop. That's it--at heart The Dark Knight isn't really a superhero movie at all. It's a cop drama.

Due to caffeine anxiety I still have the Joker's theme stuck in my head. It's just two violins playing the same two notes over and over again, with horns playing an ascending scale in the background, but sweet Angus does it make me feel jittery.

On the way back from the movie theater, around midnight, I saw an angel on a bicycle. She was wearing shiny silver pants, so I imagine she was coming back from a burlesque or a costume party. Her white feathery wings hung out of her open backpack, fluttering in the wind, as if Pacific Street was her runway and it was only a matter of time before she got enough lift. I shouted, "Hey, nice wings," but she ignored me. I think she thought I meant her breasts.

who watches the watchmen

Oh my.

I just finished Watchmen, and...dear God. I need to hold something. Someone. Anything.

This is more than a mere comic book. This is quite possibly the most seminal work of fiction I have ever read. In any medium. It was written twenty years ago, but it fits the post-September 11 era like a bad sock.

What's it about? Lots of things--the impending nuclear holocaust, the annihilation of American moral identity, the death of the superhero genre. All things that have, thankfully, never come to pass. But that is hardly an adequate description. It betrays the story's inherent timelessness. The best I can describe it is that it is a story about the powerlessness of (super?)human existence, and how terrible and precious it is.

That description isn't completely accurate. And I know it doesn't say a lot. But I don't think I could say it better than the book itself.

Two weeks ago, while waiting for Spider-Man 3 to open at the Apollo:

Me: Do I have twenty dollars to spend on this?
David: No. Don't bother.
Tom: Well, that depends. What are you looking at?
Me: Watchmen.
David: I take that back. The answer is YES. For Watchmen, the answer is always YES.
Me: ...But that's a day's worth of food.

Me: All right, all right...I figure I could live for a few miserable extra days, or I could let the time I have be enriched by a wonderful graphic novel.
Matrix Games clerk: I like how this guy thinks.
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never read about superheroes on wikipedia

To understand a single character's backstory you have to cross-reference a bajillion other characters, for which you have to cross-reference a bajillion other characters, and so on. And as you piece things together, even the most remotely curious among you will want to place them in context by reading about those characters' recent story arcs, which are further contextualized by other story arcs, and so on. Wikipedia has enough information on comic books to fill tomes. Tomes. It is a black pit of madness from which there is no escape.

Quoth the clerk at Matrix Games: "Wikipedia has more information on major superheroes than it does about U.S. presidents. And don't even get me started on the minor superheroes."