Monday, April 20, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight





"Prey" by Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, and Terry Austin


If the Batman vs. Superman trailer that leaked last week proves anything conclusively, it's that the positive influence of Frank Miller's late 80s work on Batman ran out of gas a long time ago. The people in charge of the franchise don't know anything else to do, really, but keep aping Miller's work (and Burton's films, which followed naturally from Miller as well as Moore) onscreen as well as in the comics themselves. Accordingly, there's a certain breed of comics fan who gets very upset - pants-wetting territorial, really - about any deviation from these same well worn Batman formulae laid out during the Reagan administration.

This wasn't always the case, and the immediate of success of Legends of the Dark Knight is a testament to that fact. Rather than serving up issue after issue of Miller / Moore pastiche, each early arc takes a completely different approach to the idea of telling a "mature readers" Batman story. "Shaman" was a thematic misfire from a veteran creator still stuck uncomfortably between paradigms. "Gothic" was a success that eschewed the strictly ground-level noir of Miller and Mazzuccheli's Year One in favor of an engagement with the supernatural, a horror story well within the literary genre from which the story took its name. "Prey" is something else entirely.

This isn't Batman as supernatural avenger, the "Dark Knight," or even Miller's shadowy hard-boiled detective hero. This is Batman as a man, a fighter and a scrapper without magic gadgets or Super Saiyan finishing moves. He gets cut, he bleeds, he almost drowns, he ends up stranded in the wrong part of town and has to walk through the sewers to get home. This is also, crucially, Batman as a man with definite psychological trauma, one whose scars are never quite so deeply buried as he would like to think.

"Prey" was also notable for reasons other than its status as a Batman story. Although this isn't the first time either Moench or Gulacy worked on Batman - and isn't even the first time they worked on Batman together - it was nevertheless a big deal to see one of comics' most storied teams working on a lengthy prestige format Batman epic. (Remember "prestige format"?) One telling detail here is that while Miller's influence has loomed larger and larger over each successive generation of creators, Moench and Gulacy (as well as Denny O'Neil and, for obvious reasons, Klaus Janson) were either Miller's peers or elders. While the existence of Legends of the Dark Knight is directly due to Miller's success with the character, his vision of Batman was still only the proverbial first among equals - not, as it would later become, the default. I doubt Moench and Gulacy felt particularly intimidated by Miller's influence, even at that point in his career.

(The question of Grant Morrison's debt to Miller is another topic entirely. It's almost tempting to read Morrison's later Batman work as an attempt to come to terms with Miller's disproportionate shadow by forcing the post-Miller Batman to confront the most scandalous elements of his long history - objectified as the "Black Casebook" stories that many longtime Batman fans believed to be dead and buried. Miller himself spent time in the 00s trying to disown his Batman, by tearing him down in The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman. The attempt failed, in any event.)

But anyway, to cut to the chase, this is an excellent story. Maybe one of the best unsung Batman stories, and certainly the best story yet in Legends of the Dark Knight.



"Prey" observes the letter if not the spirit of the series' "no supervillains" mandate by offering the first post-Crisis appearance of Dr. Hugo Strange. Strange occupies a unique place in Batman's rogues gallery. Although he predates the Joker and Catwoman by a few months, he's never been a mainstay, appearing only sporadically and rarely to any lasting effect. The most memorable thing about him is his name - and even that, for obvious reasons, serves as much of a hinderance as a help to his larger career. He began as a super-villain before the rules governing super-villains were established. He was initially another in a long line of interchangeable mad scientists who bedeviled the first generation of super-heroes. His first gimmick was the invention of a super smoke machine to help his gang rob banks. After a couple follow-up appearances - and different gimmicks, like deadly zombies and fear powder (an idea to which the franchise would return) - he got put in the freezer for thirty years, and has appeared sporadically ever since.

In the last few decades creators have mostly defined Strange as a criminal psychiatrist - that is, a psychiatrist who treats / profiles criminals while also being a criminal himself. "Prey" takes place, like the two stories that precede it, in the post-Year One period wherein Batman's circumstances were not yet solidified. "Prey" picks up on Miller's use of the police as early foils for Batman, setting out to tell the story of how Batman won the trust of he police department and the mayor's office after his early splash as, essentially, a violent vigilante at odds with the city's most powerful citizens. James Gordon is stuck in the middle between Batman and the mayor: after Year One, Gordon knows Batman is on the side of the angels, but sticking up for the vigilante could jeopardize his job.

Enter Hugo Strange. After a debate on a local public affairs program (yeah, you can tell this was 25 years ago), Strange catches the mayor's attention. The mayor hires Strange to advise an anti-Batman task force being put together in the police department and to be led by . . . James Gordon.



Moench wastes no time in showing how twisted Strange is. He's a profoundly ugly man with an even uglier attitude towards women - he keeps a blonde department store mannequin as his confident, and seethes with jealousy over Batman's physical prowess and (imagined) erotic potency. He builds a homemade Batman costume in order to inhabit his enemy's mind. But despite all this, he's not stupid: with just a little bit of help from the police, he manages to deduce Batman's secret identity while at the same time framing him for a series of copycat crimes performed by a member of the anti-Batman task force who has been brainwashed into believing himself to be some kind of anti-Batman.

You can tell that Moench and Gulacy were mainstays of Bronze Age Marvel, because there's a lot of plot going on here. It works, though: there are many moving parts, but everything moves logically from one character to the next over the course of the narrative. Although there's a copious amount of actual fighting, the real battle is the contest of wills between Batman and Strange. (Middle-aged Strange, it goes without saying, represents no physical threat to Batman.) With Strange manipulating both the police and the mayor in order to tear down Batman, Batman has to piece together a counter-plan that depends on trusting Gordon in perhaps the most critical moment of their friendship - although we, the readers, know that Gordon eventually becomes Batman's most trusted ally on the police force, they both have to earn this trust, and Gordon's reluctance to fully embrace the vigilante is understandable. The wild card in this relationship is Catwoman, who also appears - in a follow up on her supporting role in Year One - during the early phase of her career, still at the time an unknown quantity who isn't very happy about being caught in the crossfire of the police force's war on Batman.



Although the ideas explored weren't exactly new, the story gains a lot from the assumption of a slightly older readership. Strange is a Freudian, so his ideas about Batman are both on-the-nose but also, as Miller himself acknowledged, fairly accurate. Baseball bats and swords represent masculine overreaching. Caves are dank and dark wombs. Women symbolize either childhood innocence or adult transgression - with Strange himself representing the kind of misogynistic arrested development that Batman needs to move past in order to grow up. Batman's burgeoning flirtation with Catwoman is an acknowledgment of the existence of adult relationships beyond the shallow Madonna / whore complex that fixates Strange, and which threatens to derail Bruce Wayne as he struggles to overcome the grief over his parents' deaths. While Strange is still stuck play-acting sexual aggression, Batman has to embrace the feminine - literally descending into the (womb-like/chthonic) earth of the Batcave in order to be reborn as a cohesive individual, able to overcome Strange's emotional manipulation.

But, really, you're reading a Batman story by the team behind Master of Kung-Fu, so you want to see the fights. Which are uniformly excellent. Gulacy is one of the best fight choreographers in the medium, and every battle throughout the story has a convincing verisimilitude. Instead of random figures colliding over monocolored backgrounds, Gulacy give us real bodies existing in concrete relation to other bodies. If you see a blow in one panel you see the counter blow in the next panel, with scrupulous attention paid to staging throughout the fight. Gulacy's Batman is a superb acrobat but no Superman: he takes as good as he gives, and there's a sense of real peril throughout. Years spent translating the filmic language of martial arts into the language of comics pays rich dividends.

Moench and Gulacy's Batman is one of the best: human and fallible, nowhere near the supremely competent Bat-God that he would become as the 90s wore on and Miller's characterization of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns became the standard approach. You believe that this Batman can be hurt, and that means everything in the context of a franchise where the hero's infallibility is usually accepted as his only weakness.



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction (2015)





On a dry planet on a distant arm of a distant galaxy, there was war! The wheels of conquest and heroism had rolled across the barren sands of the unnamed world, grinding the bones of the weak under the tread of laser tanks, and greasing the gears of the nuclear-powered rail guns that leveled entire mountain ranges with a single titanic shot!

The war had begun eons ago, on another world in another universe, but so far there had been no winner - could be no winner - as long as one last warrior on either side lived to hold a weapon! This was a war of extermination in which there could be no prisoners and no retreat - only death!

But one day there came upon the beautiful fields of combat a terrible truce. The generals of one army strode across the empty desolate plains to parlay with those of the other, and their troops, the finest intergalactic shock commandos in a dozen realities, took advantage of the rare quiet for a day of rest. What would be the result of this truce? Could there be . . . peace? No one dared guess.

On a distant mountain on a far plateau of this desert world there stood a concrete box, approximately five feet by five feet, closed on all sides. There was a muffled sound from within, the sound of steel cables tensing as if to burst. In the afternoon heat of this desert world the heat was unbearable, but through the miracle of an unknown endothermic reaction the box seemed to absorb all heat around it, such that the concrete was actually cold to the touch. There was a moment of silence when the titanic movements within the box seemed to pause, and then the front face of the box began to slide open.

Far away on battlefield where the generals discussed their truce, they heard the sound of a distant explosion, as if the bonds holding an ancient Titan of old had broken in a violent conflagration! What was happening? This planet was distant and empty, there were no other sapient beings for parsecs on any side. What could this strange event foretell?

Suddenly there came a silence, like the calm before a dreaded Bargoxian Ammonia Storm. The general rumble of armies at peace faded and all present knew they were on the cusp of something epochal. A man came into view striding from the desert, unhurriedly and yet with the supreme confidence borne of a total mastery of all natural and logical processes. He was clad simply in robes and wore nothing on his feet even as he marched across the burning sands. He wore no covering on his head and yet did not squint in the afternoon sun. His hair was cut short and his skin was bronze, the color of cooling iron after it has been tested by the forge. All present knew at once they were in the presence of a singular creature, a MAN who would and could change the destinies of every living being, if he so chose!

He was a MAN of uncommon bearing. His muscles rippled and twitched in the light, never truly still, constantly tense under the burden of perfection, a burden he carried in the desert heat with as much heat as a camel might carry a sheet of fine white paper ten thousand miles on a lonely trek.

Finally, the MAN approached the clutch of generals in their repose, arrayed around a table festooned with beverages and other delicacies. All along the plains where two armies stood motionless silence reigned, as all present held their breaths to hear what this potent stranger might say.

He paused at the table and stood without movement. Finally, he opened his mouth - but instead of moving his jaw and articulating his tongue, the words simply flowed from his mouth like waves crashing on a rocky beach. His words were THUNDER and his speech was LIGHTNING, and it seared the souls of all those who attended him.

WHERE IS THE WAR?

The generals were afraid to speak in the presence of one so much greater than they. Finally, one brave warrior, older and more esteemed than all the others, rose on his spindly legs and addressed the stranger.

"We have warred for generations, but we have come together today to broker peace. Because we are tired of war."

BUT WAR IS LIFE.

"We have lived on this barren rock for longer than I have been alive, fighting one another for control of nothing. We wish to make peace and to leave. We no longer wish to be at war with one another."

BUT WITHOUT WAR, IS WEAKNESS.

"We have fought for centuries and tested our resolve against our enemy. We have earned valor uncountable. But we grow old and our numbers no longer replenish themselves."

YOU HAVE SUCCUMBED TO WEAKNESS, AND FROM WEAKNESS UNTO DEATH, AND FROM DEATH TO DISHONOR.

"We have fought long enough to satisfy honor."

I UNDERSTAND YOUR WORDS BUT NOT YOUR MEANING. THE ONLY GOOD DEATH IS DEATH BY BATTLE, ALL OTHER DEATH IS DISGRACE.

The elder sat down in defeat. Another rose, from the same side of the table, to answer the proposition. He was not so old, and not yet so weak.

"We have forgotten why we fight."

YOU DO NOT NEED A REASON TO FIGHT. IT IS NATURE TO DESTROY, NATURE FOR MEN TO SWEEP THE EARTH OF ALL RESISTANCE AND ANNIHILATE THE WEAK.

"But sir," the second general began, "many among us no longer wish to fight."

NOT MANY MEN ARE TRUE MEN. WHO DO YOU FIGHT.

A figure from the opposite side of the table rose and began to speak. Before she could address the stranger, he spoke at her.

WHO ARE YOU TO SPEAK TO ME?

"I am the leader, the highest general of my army."

BUT YOU ARE . . . NOT MALE.

It was true! The general who now addressed the MAN was a woman, old and wizened, but still strong underneath the delicate ceremonial armor which she wore in the desert heat.

"That is true, I am a woman."

THEN HOW CAN THIS BE. YOU ARE WEAK.

The second general from the other side of the table arose and spoke. "They are women, yes, but they are warriors true. They have fought us across the universes, to a standstill, and at great cost to both sides."

ARE YOU MEN?

"Yes, we are -"

NO, YOU ARE MALES. YOU ARE MALES BUT YOU ARE NOT YET MEN. TO BE A MEN IS TO UNBURDEN YOURSELF OF THE CLOAK OF WEAKNESS THAT ALLOWS YOU TO BE STYMIED BY NOT-MALES.

"But sir -"

SPEAK NOT AGAIN LEST I DESTROY YOU WHERE YOU STAND.

The MAN tensed his left and right biceps and the sound of an earthquake filled the ears of all those present.

IT IS SAID THAT TO STRIKE WITH THE OPEN HAND IS TO STRIKE WITH LOVE. DO YOU STRIKE WITH THE OPEN HAND?

"No, sir, we strike the the fire of a thousand thousand suns. The fearsome might of our blitzkrieg is hailed across the known realms, from Asterum to Zeenig."

YOU STRIKE WITH THE OPEN HAND, BECAUSE YOUR ENEMY - NOT-MALES - YET LIVES. WEAKNESS IS LOVE, AND LOVE IS WEAKNESS. THEY ARE BUT NAMES FOR ONE AND THE SAME THING, WHICH ARE BOTH SIGNS OF THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH. TO STRIKE WITH THE FIST IS TO STRIKE WITH HONOR, TO STRIKE FOR DESTRUCTION AND FOR HONOR AND DIGNITY.

"Sir, we have fought across the universes -"

AND YOU HAVE NOT WON. I KNEW I WAS RIGHT TO LEAVE THE WORLD OF MALES BEHIND.

"You were once one . . . of us?"

I WAS NEVER LIKE YOU. FROM A YOUNG AGE I PERCEIVED THE LOGIC OF STRENGTH. I TOOK THE RED PILL AND I KNEW THE FUTILITY OF ALL RESISTANCE.

"But sir, we have taken the holy Red Pill as well! All of us have pledged our lives to destroy the Adversary."

AND YET YOU MAKE PARLAY WITH YOUR ENEMY.

"We have fought long and hard. We have upheld our honor."

IF YOU HAD UPHELD YOUR HONOR I WOULD STILL BE AT PAUSE IN MY EXILE. MANY EPOCHS AGO I RECOGNIZED THAT I WAS THE ONLY MAN ALIVE - PERHAPS, IN MY TIME, THE LAST MAN. I EXILED MYSELF FROM THE WORLDS IN ANTICIPATION OF THE DAY WHEN I COULD ONCE AGAIN COME AMONGST YOU, MY PEOPLE, AND BE NO LONGER ALONE. I WAS TO BE - THE FIRST MAN. BUT I SEE THAT MY EONS OF REST HAVE BORNE BITTER FRUIT. THERE ARE NO MEN, ONLY WEAK AND SIMPERING MALES, AND LESS THAN MALES.

The MAN turned to address the commanders of the second army, resplendent in their molybdenum polymer armor, ritual war lasers at their side.

NOT-MALES, WHY DO YOU FIGHT?

"Sir," the eldest general replied, "we are warriors for social justice. We have crossed the known realms and laid barren whole galaxies to prosecute our cause with great zeal."

YOU FIGHT FOR - SOCIAL JUSTICE?

"Yes."

WHAT IS - JUSTICE?

"Why, justice is equality and fairness - equal representation and fair access. It is the right to be addressed with dignity and respect by equals."

THERE IS ERROR IN YOUR WORDS. YOUR IDEALS CANNOT WITHSTAND THE KEEN BLADE OF REASON.

"We welcome free debate -"

THERE IS NO DEBATE. THERE IS NO DELIBERATION. THERE IS MERELY THE STATEMENT OF TRUE AND NOT-TRUE PROPOSITIONS. YOU HAVE STATED NOT-TRUE PROPOSITIONS.

"What is 'not-true' about the desire for justice?"

YOUR PREMISE IS FATALLY FLAWED. JUSTICE DOES NOT EXIST.

"Justice is human and fallible, but no less necessary -"

ALL REASON BEGINS WITH THE PROPOSITION THAT A=A. THE PRINCIPLE OF IDENTITY PROCLAIMS THAT OBJECTS CAN ONLY BE EQUAL TO THEMSELVES. JUSTICE IS PREDICATED ON EQUITY BETWEEN NON-IDENTICAL CATEGORIES, HENCE IT IS A FALLACY.

"We fight to defend the universe from your ideology."

THEN YOU FIGHT A FUTILE WAR! A=A! A CANNOT EQUAL B! TO BELIEVE THAT ANOTHER IS EQUAL TO MYSELF IS WORSE THAN A FALLACY - IT IS THE WORST KIND OF DEATH, EGO DEATH!

"But we are all of us equals."

THEN WE ARE ALL NOTHING! EQUALITY AND JUSTICE ARE MYTHS PERPETRATED BY THE WEAK TO MAINTAIN THEIR STATUS AS BLESSED VICTIMS. IN TRUTH, THE WEAK SHALL INHERIT ONLY - DEATH! THE ONLY TRUE ACT OF THE STRONG IS TO DESTROY!

"But if destruction is your finest aspiration, how can you survive?

TO BE MALE IS TO EMBRACE DESTRUCTION AS THE ONLY POSITIVE ACTION. TO BE A MAN IS TO ACTUALIZE THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL CREATION WITH EVERY LIVING BREATH. THIS IS TRUE AND GOOD.

A QUESTION: IF A MAN SPEAKS, IS THE ACT AN ACT OF CREATION OR DESTRUCTION?"

"To speak is to create."

NO! TO SPEAK IS TO DESTROY SILENCE! IF A MAN SPEAKS IN THE PRESENCE OF A WOMAN, HE DESTROYS THE POTENTIAL FOR HER TO SPEAK. IF A GENETICALLY PURE MAN SPEAKS, HE DESTROYS THE SPEECH OF OF A IMPURE MONGREL RACE SPECIMEN.

"But why can't there simply be room for all to speak their peace on an equal basis?"

A=A! A CAN ONLY OCCUPY THE SPACE OF A! A AND B CANNOT COEXIST! IN ORDER FOR A TO REMAIN A, IT MUST ANNIHILATE B! A CAN ONLY REMAIN TRULY A UNLESS ITS EVERY ACT IS DESIGNED TO ASSERT AND REASSERT IT'S IDENTITY!

"But why can there not be room for everyone?"

TO BE FULLY ACTUALIZED IS TO ACCEPT THE MANTLE OF SUPREMACY. TO REJECT SUPREMACY IS TO EMBRACE WEAKNESS. TO BE WEAK - TO ACCEPT MULTIPLICITY AND RADICAL EQUALITY - IS TO EMBRACE DEATH, FOR ONLY IN THE EXERTION OF POWER AND DESTRUCTION IS THERE LIFE AND FREEDOM.

The general who first spoke, aged and wizened, rose again and addressed the demigod who now walked amongst man.

"It is obvious from your words that you are the prophet who has been foretold, the MAN above men who will lead the male race to its position of genetic and ideological purity over the mongrel and not-male. But we have fought long and hard to fulfill your ancient teachings - how have we failed?"

YOU HAVE FAILED BECAUSE EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE HEARD MY WORDS YOU HAVE NOT LISTENED TO THEM. YOU LIFT THE CUP TO YOUR MOUTH BUT TURN AWAY BEFORE YOU DRINK.

"How best can we follow you?"

FOLLOW ME? YOU BETRAY YOUR IGNORANCE WITH EVERY WORD! YOU CANNOT FOLLOW ME. I AM NO LEADER. THERE ARE NO MEN AMONG YOU, BECAUSE NO TRUE MEN ARE CONTENT TO LEAD OR BE LED. IF THERE WAS ONE MAN AMONG THE THOUSANDS OF YOU, THEN THERE WOULD BE ONLY ONE MAN. HIS ACTUALIZATION WOULD MEAN THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL FALSE PROPOSITIONS, ALL NON-ACTUALIZED MALES.

"So there can be only one?"

IF THERE WERE A MAN AMONG YOU, HE WOULD KNOW THAT SURVIVAL OF THE SELF DEPENDS IN ALL INSTANCES ON THE DESTRUCTION OF THE OTHER. IF THE OTHER IS ALLOWED TO SURVIVE, THEN THE EGO IS DIMINISHED, MADE WEAK, RENDERED UNTO DEATH.

"But then how can there be society?"

SOCIETY IS AN ILLUSION AND A LIE TOLD BY THE WEAK IN ORDER TO BE ALLOWED TO SURVIVE UNDER THE SKIRTS OF THEIR BETTERS. TO BE ACTUALIZED IS TO RECOGNIZE ONE'S AUTONOMY, AND TO RECOGNIZE THAT SOCIETY IS A DISEASE OF COMPROMISE.

"But how can men survive alone?"

MAN CAN ONLY SURVIVE ALONE! TO INTERACT WITH OTHERS IS TO ADMIT WEAKNESS!

"What can a man truly do, then?"

MANY EONS AGO I LEFT THE WORLD OF MALES AND NON-MALES TO BEGIN MY EXILE AND REST UPON THIS DISTANT WORLD. I BUILT MYSELF A SHELTER OF STONE, A CLOSED BOX WITH NO WINDOWS AND NO DOORS. IN THIS BOX I HAVE SAT, MOTIONLESS, FOR MILLENNIA, THE ONLY SOUNDS THE TRIUMPHAL STRAINING OF MY STEEL MUSCLES IN PERPETUAL ISOMETRIC SELF-ANNIHILATION, MY ONLY THOUGHT THE ENDLESS RECITATION OF IDENTITY - A=A! A=A! AND IN THAT STATE OF DIVINE MASCULINITY I COULD HAVE HAPPILY REMAINED UNTIL THE END TIMES.

"Why have you come upon us now?"

I HAVE LEFT MY SUBLIME MEDITATIONS ON MANHOOD TO EXAMINE YOUR CONFLICT - TO SEE IF, AS I HOPED, THE ERA OF TRUE MEN HAD ARRIVED. I SEE NOW I AM WOEFULLY MISTAKEN. I SEE NO MEN HERE - ONLY WEAKNESS AND DEATH.

"How will we know when the age of True Men has arrived?"

YOU WILL KNOW FROM THE ANNIHILATION OF ALL FALSEHOOD. A=A! ALL NON-MEN SHALL BE DESTROYED, AND IN THIS ACT OF DESTRUCTION ALL FREEDOM SHALL EMERGE!

"But if we can only destroy, how shall we propagate the race?"

PROCREATION IS WEAKNESS! DO YOU ACCEPT YOUR NEGATION? DO YOU WILLFULLY SUBJUGATE YOURSELF TO THE WILL OF ANOTHER? DO YOU EMBRACE IMPERFECTION? THEN YOU PROCREATE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE THAT YOU SHALL BE SURPASSED IN TIME BY ANOTHER. TO ACTUALIZE YOURSELF IS TO REJECT PROCREATION, IS TO EMBRACE THE THESIS THAT YOU ARE ALREADY THE PINNACLE OF ALL! YOU SHALL NOT POLLUTE YOURSELF WITH THE ACT OF PROCREATION! TO GIVE LIFE TO ANOTHER IS TO TAKE YOUR OWN!

"How will we know when the final age is upon us?"

YOU WILL KNOW BECAUSE THE ONLY LIVING BEINGS WHO REMAIN SHALL BE THE SELF-ACTUALIZED, THE POWERFUL, THE TRUE MEN OF MEN. AND THEN IN THE FINAL DAYS WE SHALL MAKE JOYFUL WAR, TO DESTROY EACH OTHER AND THE UNIVERSE THAT EMBRACES THE WEAKNESS OF ALL LIVING THINGS. IN THE END OF ALL TIME, ONLY ONE MAN SHALL REMAIN, ONLY ONE MAN SHALL STAND VICTORIOUS OVER ALL CREATION! AND THEN IN THE FINAL ACT OF FREEDOM THAT MAN SHALL DESTROY CREATION, EXTINGUISH EVERY SUN AND DISINTEGRATE THE EARTH BENEATH HIS FEET, FINALLY ACHIEVING TRUE MASCULINITY. UNTIL THAT MOMENT, WE SHALL BATHE IN WEAKNESS AND COMPROMISE, DAMNED TO DRINK THE FILTH OF THE UNWORTHY AND TO FEAST ON THE OFFAL OF THE UNCLEAN.

"And what then, will the Last MAN do, at the end of time?"

THE FINAL ACT OF DESTRUCTION SHALL BE THE OBLITERATION OF THE SELF, THE FINAL FLEXING OF INVINCIBLE MUSCLES THAT SHALL UNDO THE POTENTIAL OF ALL THAT EVER WAS AND ALL THAT WILL EVER BE! IN THE FINAL MOMENT OF ECSTATIC SELF-OBLITERATION SHALL THE LAST MAN KNOW TRUE PEACE!

"So, the true fate of MAN is to uncreate the universe!"

YES! TO ACTUALIZE THE MASCULINE IS TO EMBRACE THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL THAT IS! TO REJECT THE ILLUSIONS OF JUSTICE AND FAIRNESS! TO UNDERSTAND THAT COMPASSION AND EMPATHY ARE THE INTOXICANT OF THE WEAK! TO KNOW THAT CREATION IS ABOMINATION, AND THE ONLY TRUTH IS POWER - REAL ULTIMATE POWER - THE POWER TO ANNIHILATE!

"By the great moons of Gargolax, we have been wrong, we have wandered weak in the valley of suffering! Give us a new gospel, bring us the truth of all existence and uncreation!"

On a dry planet on a distant arm of a distant galaxy, the MAN who was above all men spoke again, and his words were burnt into the soul of every space-warrior present. They knew that they were present at the end of the beginning, of the beginning of the end of all things. The imperfect prophets of yore had failed to adequately prepare the human race for the Final World, and it would fall on every soul present to spread outwards from this remote and war torn world with the new gospel of Man, to save and redeem the universe through fire and steel.

A=A!

SOCIETY IS COMPROMISE!

COMPROMISE IS WEAKNESS!

DIFFERENCE IS WEAKNESS!

WEAKNESS IS DEATH!

PROCREATION IS SELF-DEATH!

SELF-ACTUALIZATION IS POWER!

POWER IS DESTRUCTION!

DESTRUCTION IS SELF-ACTUALIZATION!

SELF-ACTUALIZATION IS LIFE!

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Let's Look At Secret Wars II Crossovers!



Cloak & Dagger #4



Let's talk turkey: no one likes Cloak & Dagger.

I hear you sputtering and frothing, your monocle plopping off and tumbling into your bowl of French onion soup as you stare in disbelief at the words on your computer screen. No one likes Cloak & Dagger, you say? Why I never!

Before you get offended, think about it for a minute. Cloak & Dagger first appeared in 1982 in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, created by Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan. They spun-off into their own mini-series in 1983, followed by the launch of an ongoing series in 1985. This series ran for 11 bimonthly issues before being folded into a relaunched Strange Tales anthology, with Dr. Strange as the co-feature. After 19 issues of that, Cloak & Dagger and Doc were once again split into separate series. The new Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme book ran for 90 monthly issues, whereas The Mutant Misadventures of Cloak & Dagger lasted for 19 bimonthly issues - and in that time crossed over with Inferno, Acts of Vengeance AND The Infinity Gauntlet.

The important thing to remember is that this was a period of historic success for the comics industry. In the late 80s and early 90s, getting canceled required a significant effort. And it's also worth noting that Dagger's "costume" is that she is a skinny blonde girl with perky breasts in a translucent body suit that manages to involve both cleavage and and an exposed belly-button. They tried everything: Spider-Man was practically a co-star, they were pals with the New Mutants, they had two Marvel Graphic Novels, one of which was even a team up with Power Pack. (OK, maybe that last one wasn't exactly a recipe for commercial success, but still.) Marvel really tried with these guys. They saw a Cloak & Dagger sized hole in the market and tried their best to fill it for seven long years. Unfortunately, it really wasn't as big of a hole as they thought.

That doesn't really say anything about the books, or the characters themselves. I admit that even though I've never been a big fan, I've always thought the duo had some potential, even if that potential has usually been hidden under a pile of regrettable crud. They've got a memorable, if kind of racist visual, after all - literally the whitest white girl you can imagine juxtaposed against the darkness of Cloak's, er, cloak. The problem is that in addition to this memorable / problematic visual, everything else about the premise has also dated terribly. (And hey, if you think that 1982 was probably one of the last moments when an interracial couple like C&D might still carry a bit of heat in mainstream culture, you'd be correct. This is especially true if you also filled the book with racists who spent half their time telling Tandy that Ty was a literal demon. Why, you might even say some racial panic was baked right into the premise. But in 2015 that part of the characters can be very easily ignored since in most parts of the country interracial relationships have become, you know, relationships.)

Do you remember the 1980s? Do you remember what everyone was worried about in the 1980s? I mean, besides nuclear war, the homeless, decaying manufacturing capacity, and growing wealth inequality inspired by Republicans having adopted trickle-down economic policies inspired by the nonsensical Laffer Curve? Yeah, I'm talking about drugs, as in, The War on Drugs. Conservative and conservative-leaning politicians across the country - and much of the rest of the world - ginned up a moral panic over surging rates of drug use. Whereas in a better world the viral spread of crack cocaine and resurgence of other hard drugs would have inspired government to mend the holes in the social safety net that enabled illicit drugs to pour into ruined inner-city neighborhoods (and even white suburbs) across the country while also establishing a drug abatement philosophy that treated addiction as a medical condition instead of incarcerating addicts, the good old U-S-of-A decided it was better simply to criminalize and demonize. If you're "of a certain age," you undoubtedly remember this PSA, or some variant thereof:



The War on Drugs, and the Rockefeller-inspired drug laws passed in its wake, backfired immensely. To begin with, look at the basics of drug education during the period. Remember D.A.R.E.? It stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. This was a program that sent armed cops into classrooms all across the country to lecture kids about the dangers of drugs. All drugs. Marijuana remains a Class-1 narcotic in the United States, in case you forgot, meaning that on paper it's as dangerous as heroin or cocaine. The first and worst lesson kids took away from D.A.R.E. was that all drugs were equally bad, which meant that every single anti-drug lesson the student learned in primary school was completely erased the moment the high schooler took his or her first hit off a joint. My parents were and are recreational pot smokers and I could see with my own two eyes that half of what they told us in D.A.R.E. in the mid-80s was bullshit - stuff like, smoking marijuana once can under certain circumstances put you into a permanent coma (for instance, that's an example from memory). The other half was simple common sense stuff about peer pressure and the like, but because it was so intimately intermingled with bullshit the whole message was irreducibly tainted.

Mighty Marvel never met a trend it couldn't bite - be it disco, punk, or Iran-Contra, Marvel has found a way to capitalize on every passing fad or current event since Stan sent the Fantastic Four on their fateful rocket mission to beat the Soviets to the moon in 1961. 1982 predated the crack epidemic by a couple years (crack came into use in the early 80s as a response to the collapse of the cocaine market due to oversupply), but coincided precisely with the rise in heroin abuse that accompanied Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. (The Mujahideen flooded the west with cheap poppy in order to fund their insurgency by buying weapons . . . often from the same United States that was coincidentally also experiencing a surge in heroin use. This was the same Mujahideen who later formed the core leadership of al Qaeda and who were considered staunch allied of the United States until, well, they weren't.) So what were the kids into in 1982? Heroin! Oh, I kid. Sort of.

Cloak & Dagger were created to be every 1980s parent's worst nightmare: two latchkey kids - one from a posh upbringing, one from, er, Boston - who banded together as runaways, only to be kidnapped and given experimental drugs. These "experimental drugs" - essentially a kind of synthetic super-heroin that had killed all previous test subjects - left Tandy Bowen and Tyrone Johnson alive but in the possession of amazing powers. Dagger generated and could throw knives of pure light, whereas Cloak became, er, a giant cloak that could swallow people into a universe of absolute darkness. He could also teleport himself and others, which is a useful and surprisingly rare power that meant Cloak always got an invite to massive events where teleportation powers gave the writer an easy logistical cheat (such as the aforementioned Infinity Gauntlet, Maximum Carnage, House of M, and Civil War). But these powers did not come without a price: Cloak was left with a permanent hunger for Dagger's "light," and if he didn't receive regular infusions of said "light," he experienced symptoms similar to those of drug withdrawal. This led, in turn, to him being a bit of a whiny bitch, and creepily possessive of Dagger, to the point where his sole function in many Cloak & Dagger stories is telling her that he doesn't want to go off and play with the other super heroes.

For a while Cloak & Dagger were mutants whose powers had been awakened by the super-heroin. (Just typing that makes me feel dumber.) Then it turned out they were the pawns of Marvel's 17th greatest demonic mastermind, D'Spayre. Then after a while they joined Norman Osborn's short-lived "Dark" X-Men, and subsequently joined the real X-Men, only to be told that they were never actually mutants to begin with, at which point they left the X-Men, only to have their powers magically reversed during Spider-Island, of all things. Their new look is kind of cool, but so far as I know no one has used the characters since.

(And while we're on the subject, just why do you need synthetic "super-heroin," anyway? Isn't heroin already plenty addictive? Giving someone a more potent dose of heroin usually just kills them. And the whole reason behind the heroin epidemic at the time is that it was cheap, so a synthetic version would probably have been unnecessarily expensive. Comic book criminals are fucking stupid.)

With that said, there were rumors a while back that Marvel was looking at developing Cloak & Dagger as a TV show for ABC Family, which would be perfect, since supernatural adventure stories with star-crossed lovers aimed at teenagers are kind of a "thing" right now. Just, you know, drop the super-heroin angle, because the last thing they need to do is inspire a new generation of junkies to try heroin in hopes of gaining awesome superpowers.

So yeah, no one likes these guys. Before you burst into the comments with an angry jeremiad about how Cloak & Dagger are the most underrated duo in comics - think about the fact that your opinion is a statistical anomaly, and that if enough people cared about them to support a book at any point in the last 25 years, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Cloak & Dagger aren't terrible: for the most part they're just . . . there. (When they aren't also being just a teeny-tiny bit racist.)

Based on this preamble, you can probably tell their run-in with the Beyonder is going to be fun.

The mid-to-late eighties was also the era in which the Punisher first rose to prominence, so it's not as if there wasn't a legitimate demand for street-level urban vigilantes (mostly) fighting on the front lines of the War on Drugs. But alas, Cloak & Dagger were no Frank Castle. Until the day I die I will regret the fact that the Punisher's solo series did not begin until after Secret Wars II was nothing but a memory, and so there exists as yet no official meeting between the Punisher and the One From Beyond. (I did, however, write my own, even if the image link is long dead.) But there does exist an editorially-mandated crossover between the Beyonder and Cloak & Dagger, which is as wonderful as you hope.

Out story begins, as most do, with the Beyonder wandering the mean streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side, which looked significantly different thirty years ago than it does now.



Now, of course, the Beyonder doesn't understand poverty, which is understandable, because to an omnipotent being from another universe seeing Earth for the first time, poverty is a pretty weird thing.



Now who do you suppose just happens to be hanging out on a rooftop right near where the One From Beyond decided to take his nocturnal stroll down the mean streets of not-yet-gentrified urban hell New York City?



There are a few things that usually come up in any discussion of Secret Wars II: there's the bit where the Beyonder turns a building into gold, the part where the stupid kid sets himself on fire because John Byrne wants to prove an even stupider point, but most importantly, the issue where Peter Parker teaches him to go to the bathroom. This one comes in for a lot of criticism because of the fact that, well, it is goofy. But the incident makes more sense in the context of the issue in which it occurs - Secret Wars II #2 - which is itself a relatively light-hearted and humorous installment of the series, focused on a child-like Beyonder learning how to do things like eat, defecate, and use money. In context, it makes sense. Therefore, I'm always surprised that more people don't know about Cloak & Dagger #4, because I believe this represents the event's true goofy zenith. There is no context in which the events of this comic book can be said to make sense.



The Beyonder, thinking that these strangers are sincere in their desire to satisfy his desire, happily accompanies them into the tenement. This does not sit well with our heroes, who also use the incident as an opportunity to expostulate on their ethical prerogatives.



At this point . . . well, here's where shit get real.



So, to wit: the Beyonder has entered a shooting-gallery and is about to be rolled over by a few dealers. They apparently plan on giving him an overdose of heroin, instead of just - you know - hitting him on the head and taking his wallet, which would undoubtedly save them the trouble of using up valuable inventory. But then, of course, we would be spared the unseen spectacle (thanks, Comics Code!) of the Beyonder actually shooting heroin.



Being the killjoys they are, Cloak & Dagger show up just in time to interfere with the whole operation. The Beyonder, as you can imagine, isn't too happy with this turn of events.





Cloak & Dagger was never exactly a subtle book when it came to its religious allusions. You may have found yourself wondering, when you began reading this article, whether or not the scene depicted on the cover - that of the Beyonder crucifying Cloak & Dagger - actually transpired in the story itself. And now you know the answer is yes. The Beyonder crucifies Cloak & Dagger because they beat up his drug dealers.



And that was the end of Cloak & Dagger, as the dysfunctional duo were cured of their self-destructive powers and set free to start a new life, which included marrying and settling down, opening a bakery in Williamsburg that just happened to take off a few years later when the neighborhood began to change, and subsequently ending up as recurring guests on Martha Stewart Living because of their famous shortbread.

Oh, wait, the story isn't over. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkkkkkk.



And so, I give you the greatest moment of Secret Wars II, and maybe, just maybe, by extension, the greatest moment in Marvel history, and as such, the greatest moment in the history of all comics: the Beyonder getting high on smack.

Are you ready?









































Are you sure?









































OK, here we go:



You aren't imagining it: this scene is so hot that the letters are burning right through the page, rendering them completely illegible. Eighties printing at its finest.

But in all seriousness, it wasn't until a few years ago that I was actually able to make out what this page was saying. When I got the Secret Wars II Omnibus (because of course I got the Secret Wars II Omnibus, are you kidding me? It has its own special pedestal and we record all births, marriages, and deaths inside the flyleaf) the first thing I did was turn to page 550 and see if the improved printing allowed for the page to be read. It did, just barely. It reads:
The being from beyond "allows" himself to experience not only its "rush" - that overpowering, initial sensation of pleasure - but also the agony known to every abuser of papaver somiferum from time immemorial. He could end his descent into this poisonous purgatory at any instant and yet he allows the horror of it to sweep over him, so that he can expand his awareness of both the drug and a world where its availabllity is commonplace. An underworld where what is sold in the name of happiness begets hunger - where hunger begets desire - where desire begets need - where need begets crime . . . where crime begets retribution and so on in an endless cycle of addiction - world without end!
Now, the last thing I want to do is pick on poor Bill Mantlo. He's been dealt a rotten hand by life and deserves every ounce of support and well-wishing we can muster. But. This is a thing that happened. The Beyonder shot heroin on his watch. Not only did he shoot heroin but he also magically experienced the rush and the comedown from a massive dose of the drug in what appears to be the blink of an eye - which, you know, I'm no expert in intravenous drugs, but I'm pretty sure that's not quite how heroin works.



The Beyonder, being a child with the powers of God, overreacts just as you would expect, by wiping out the drug dealers and then returning their powers to Cloak & Dagger in order to carry on the War on Drugs in his name. They're not thrilled by this fact. He seems surprised, despite their having explicitly told him just a page ago how happy they were to be free of their powers. Not that bright, this one.



So the One From Beyond obliterates the drug trade in New York City by destroying every drug dealer. He can do that, you know. In case you forgot. Here's American domestic drug policy in the 1980s in a nutshell: because drugs are seen as an absolute moral wrong, the Powers That Be decided to crack down in as vicious and permanent a way as possible on those who use and sell narcotics, while the bleeding-heart left sat on the sidelines and wondered whether or not drug offenders might not need to be reformed (while actually doing very little to stand in the way of draconian sentencing laws because they proved to be very popular with the same electorate who elected Reagan twice).



Well, seeing as how New York drug use rates didn't drastically plummet in 1986, you can guess what happens next. Because Cloak & Dagger apparently didn't get the memo about this being Reagan's America, they obviously sympathize with the subhuman scum the Beyonder saw fit to scour from a city where decent people are afraid to walk alone at night.



As goofy, strange, terrible, ludicrous, and amazing as this story is, you could also point to it as being perhaps the archetypal Cloak & Dagger story. This, after all, is the one where God comes down and explicitly explains the series' core metaphors: "Cloak represents the darkness - the despair a man may expect as his punishment should he commit a crime - while you are the light of his salvation. Who also just happens to be a bangin' blonde chick while the face of criminal punishment in America is, coincidentally, a young black male."



Superheroes are strange people. You'd think, after encountering a man with the powers of God - not "a" god but capital-"G" God - able to kill thousands in the blink of an eye and then magically resurrect them moments later - they might be slightly . . . affected by the experience. You might even say this could be a life-changing experience for any sane person. But not our heroes! Just another day in the office for ol' Cloak & Dagger.



And so now we have seen the War on Drugs through the eyes of Marvel Comics ca. 1986. As awful as parts of this story may be, it's also premised on a degree of sympathy and compassion for drug users that was not necessarily to be expected in the period. This was the era of Arnold and Sly, after all, who enthusiastically took on crime with both guns blazing. Marvel had it's own answer to these type of inherently right-wing law & order fantasies waiting in the wings, in the form of the aforementioned Punisher. The Punisher was a success where Cloak & Dagger had failed, perhaps on account of the fact that the liberal pieties with which Mantlo approached the drug war were simply out of touch with the times. People wanted to see drug dealers being blown up with rocket launchers, so by God that's what Marvel gave them.

After Mantlo left the book, Cloak & Dagger migrated away from street-level stories and towards more supernatural superheroics - part and parcel of sharing a book with Dr. Strange, one suspects. That direction, of course, proved no more popular. Cloak & Dagger remain oddballs - borne of equal parts opportunistic fear-mongering and liberal sentiment, a concept with never-fulfilled potential relegated to the margins of the Marvel Universe, and predicated on regrettable racial imagery. When it comes to Marvel, of course, you can never say never - the greatest proof of that is another Mantlo creation with a far more unlikely pedigree, whose toys can currently be found clogging the aisles of a Wal-Mart near you. Will we live to see Cloak & Dagger redeemed, plucked out of the unfortunate circumstances of their creation and modernized sufficiently in order to allow the characters to shine? Perhaps. Only the One From Beyond knows for sure.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Monday Magic



In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Plaguemaw Beast (Mirrodin Besieged, 2011)



Ladies and gentlemen, Plaguemaw Beast!

clap clap clap

How are you, Mr. Beast? It's been a few years since you were in the spotlight. What have you been up to?

Well, Jim, it's been a rough few years, but I'm hanging in there.

Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

Yeah, you know how it is. That's the way the world works: if you're a Magic card, even a good one, you really only get one shot. If you're lucky, you're good in limited, which means you get a year or so in the spotlight. If you're really lucky, you see a little tournament action. Only a few folks get to stick around for too long after that.

You do have an advantage over most green Beasts, though - you've got a very popular keyword on you - Proliferate.

clap clap clap

That's true, but honestly, Proliferate is as much a gift as a curse. Sure, people love it. They love being able to use me to sac tiny guys to put more counters on their Planeswalkers or their opponent's poison total. That's fun. Problem is, Proliferate - it was pretty powerful. Players like it but design has problems, you know. Not a lot of design space left, they say. Don't look at me, I don't know these things. And even if they did bring it back, they'd want to bring back something flashy like Thrummingbird. Not a five CMC Beast that dies to a Lightning Bolt. But hey, I'm not terrible. I even won a few games, back in the day. Say, for instance, you've got your opponent up to nine poison counters, but you've only got one creature - me. I can swing for four damage, yeah, but without another creature to sacrifice, I don't have Infect or anything. Your hand is empty. You opponent's itchy because he knows the game hinges on the next draw - then BAM you pull a card, slap down a Chimney Imp, tap me and BOOM, the fat fuck opposite you is poisoned.

Why . . . why would anyone be playing a Chimney Imp with you? No one plays Chimney Imp. You weren't in the same block as Chimney Imp, so you're implying someone would choose to construct a deck years after the fact with both you and Chimney Imp in it.

Look it was just a figure of speech, you know? That's what my ability did: no matter how crappy the card, I could bury it and Proliferate counters. Any counters, not just poison.

Also, in that scenario, couldn't you just sacrifice yourself to yourself to get the Proliferate effect?

. . .

What was that?

Next question.

Sorry?

I don't like to remind people I can eat myself to get the effect. Some guys forget, and that's OK with me.

Oh, I'm sorry if it's a sore -

It's unpleasant, you know? I've had to do it a bunch. It feels weird. It's not fun.

Well, er, let's move on then!

clap clap clap

Ah, which brings me to my next question - you've known some Planeswalkers in your time, haven't you?

Yeah, I knew 'em. I was in Standard with Zendikar, so I -

Jace.

Jace. Yeah. Everyone asks about Jace.

Is it a sore subject?

No, no. Jace is a nice guy. Real down to earth, you know? You wouldn't think so, I mean, being the first banned Planeswalker. The guy dominated. Dominated. People were hocking jewelry for a foil playset of that guy, you know? That's not the type of stuff that happens anymore. He still does well for himself, you know. Not very many cards get to go on to Legacy. I saw him a few weeks back, he dropped into the office to say hi to the old gang.

Of course, you weren't in Standard with Jace for long.

Nah. It's a shame, really - they should have known. Him and those Squadron Hawks and Batterskull - it was trouble waiting to happen. I mean, don't look at me, I don't have a lot of experience with tournament decks. It's Greek to me. I'm five mana so I don't usually get out until at least turn five, but those Caw-Blade decks . . .

It was a rough time.

Yeah. The ban wasn't a surprise, but at the same time, they should have seen it coming. Me, I still don't understand how those Hawks carried those damn Swords in their beaks like that. I mean, I've carried some equipment in my time, even though I don't have hands, but I'm big enough I can make it work. Gimme a sword and I can hold it in my mouth. Put an invisibility cloak over my shoulders, I'll make it work. But those birds, they're just too small. I don't get it. And now I see they're printing four-ability Planeswalkers again - it's like playing with fire. They never learn.

So what does a day look like for you now?

Well, some days are pretty quiet. It's cool, I took up gardening a few years back. I'm from Mirrodin, so you know, everything's metal there. It's a nice break to go home in the evening and put my feet in the soil. Soil that isn't filled with pieces of jagged steel because, you know, did I mention that Mirrodin is made of metal? I still see some action. Poison decks will always need something to fill out the mana curve in the mid-game. Maybe some idiot puts me in a green Superfriends deck - I mean, come on, let's be honest here, if you've got a mug like me defending your Superfriends, you're probably going to lose, but who am I to say. I do what I'm told. I eat little creatures and crap out counters. It's a living.

clap clap clap

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Well, Lookie





So, a new piece of mine just went up on the AV Club - a comparison of the most recent season of House of Cards to one of my favorite all-time runs, Warren Ellis' Doom 2099. Ellis' run is something I've wanted to write about basically forever but just never got around to. I don't think I've done the subject justice here, as its nowhere near being the comprehensive overview the series deserves. The word limit, along with the TV show connection, translate to a piece that reads - to me - rushed. But that's part of writing for an outlet like The AV Club, learning to once again write compactly and precisely, trying to reign in my natural tendency towards digression.

It makes me both appreciate the outlet of a personal blog like this all the more, while also chiding myself slightly for the fact that I've grown wooly and savage in the years since last I worked under an editor. Also, I'm a complete hypocrite, considering the fact that I regularly break all the guidelines that I lay down for my own writing students. Do as I say, not as I do, kids!

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Pantheon





1. Daft Punk - Homework (1997)


In 2001 Daft Punk released Discovery, an album of 70s-influenced electro pop that proved to be one of the decade’s most enduring achievements. It placed at #3 on Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the 2000s list, ahead of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and The Blueprint, beaten for the top spot only by Funeral and Kid A. It was a good album that received fair-to-decent reviews on release, but which grew significantly in stature as the decade continued. (In 2004 when Pitchfork compiled their Best of 2000-04 list, the album was featured at number twelve, to give an example of the album’s ascent in critical hindsight.)

Looking back, it’s easy to see why the album succeeded so well over the long term. Even if, at first, the album appeared to be little more than a pastiche of the most guilelessly appealing sounds of the 1970s, wrapped up in a slightly cheesy dance-pop bow, it proved startlingly prescient. In a few years half of everything on the radio was trying to sound like Discovery. The duo’s sincere pastiche surpassed its (seemingly) disposable origins and became one of the most influential sounds of the decade: maybe not the specific way that album managed to replicate Supertramp’s electric piano or the bassline on Steely Dan’s “Black Cow,” but the general mood of reverential nostalgia that gripped so many of the previous decade’s most significant artists.

Discovery was and is a great album that deserves its reputation. The problem was, when the album dropped in March of 2001, it wasn’t what I wanted. The first single, ”One More Time,” baffled me. What had happened to Daft Punk? To put it bluntly (which was exactly my reaction at the time), where were the beats?

It felt like a betrayal. It appeared to be a dodgy retro pop move from a group that had previously seen fit to grace the world with one of – if not the – best house LPs ever recorded – 1997’s Homework. In hindsight (once again) it’s easy to see that this was an unfair comparison. Discovery wasn’t a straight-ahead house album, and it was never intended to be. It was something else, and it became clear as the decade wore on that they had no interest in going back to the sound that initially made them famous. And, to be fair, the beats were there on Discovery, they just sounded a bit different. I eventually outgrew my initial dismay.



But 2001 was four years after 1997, and so four years after the high-water mark of the so-called “electronica” push that American record companies conjured up in a desperate effort to replicate the success of grunge just five years previous. (Of course, they needn’t have worried: teen pop was waiting around the corner, right about to come back in a big way, and just in time for the death of the CD era.) Homework wasn’t an obscure gem. It was a major release on Virgin records, spawning a handful of popular singles (“Around the World, “Da Funk”), and memorable videos that made it into frequent rotation on MTV. (For those who remember the glory days of M2, the intro to “Revolution 909” was used in network promos for a couple years.) But 2001 was a different world from 1997: “electronica” was a dead letter, conventional wisdom once again affirmed that dance music would never take flight as a national concern, and the kids who had bought Homework had thrown the CD into the back of their car before moving on to Significant Other. When Discovery premiered, it gained traction with hipsters and critics who still liked electro pop but had long since had their fill of “dance music,” and its reputation grew in the interim, while Homework languished.

2005’s Human After All met a muted response. That was a shame, as I quite like the album: it’s off-the-cuff sound, recorded fast and cheap over just a couple months, brought to mind Homework’s “Rollin’ and Scratchin’” and “Rock’n Roll.” But again, even if the album initially underperformed, it grew in hindsight: in just a few years that albums harsh and staticky sound would be everywhere. When Kanye West wanted Daft Punk for Yeezus, he didn’t want the understated funk of “Get Lucky”he wanted the electronic buzzsaw from Human After All. (And hey, I called it back in 2007.)

But for me, and I’m sure a few others, Homework will never be surpassed.

I remember, when “Get Lucky” first dropped, I expressed my disappointment – a recurring theme, here – that the song wasn’t house. The response I got was, in essence, why would Daft Punk want to waste their time making cookie-cutter EDM? (I, uh, threw a tantrum here, but again, I eventually came around to Random Access Memories, even if their failure to continue the cover theme of their first three releases still stings.) And the answer is simple: Daft Punk never made cookie-cutter “EDM,” they made house music.

It’s funny, considering I never liked dancing, how much I love house music. House music means a lot to me. I love the history, I love the sound, I love the mythology. I realized recently that Homework wasn’t actually that much different in design and execution from their follow-ups. It was, like Discovery and Random Access Memories before it, also a kind of pastiche. They came up in the world of French house, and French house always had a kind of candy-colored sheen that American and British dance music never managed. It probably has something to do with the fact that disco never died on the continent. In the late seventies and early eighties, dance music in the United State went underground, rejected by middle America but embraced by the outsiders, racial and sexual minorities living in urban areas who built a musical culture based on models of tolerance, cooperation, and optimistic futurism. (The long version is a bit more complicated than that, but this is the ideal.) Listening to Homework now, it’s a grab bag of different styles and modes from the first twenty years of house history, from old school New York garage (“Revolution 909”) to UK acid house (“Rock’n Roll”) to cheeseball Eurodisco (the deathless “Around the World”), slathered with high-gloss production that accentuated every detail. (The only thing missing was a full-on diva track, but they checked that off the list on Discovery). As the track “Teachers" suggests, the album was kind of, well, a dissertation on dance music history. House music – being a singles genre – doesn’t have the best track record with full-length LPs, but Homework managed 74 continuous minutes without a dud in the bunch. It was a window on a world that was already beginning to fade.

That world is dead now. Like CBGB’s, the Paradise Garage is long since gone. Larry Levan has passed, so too Frankie Knuckles. Big festival EDM has become the breakthrough dance music that “electronica” and house could never be, with all the attendant baggage. So it goes. You can’t really get mad at the kid in the Green Day T-shirt for not knowing who the Vibrators were, anymore than you can get mad at the dudebros moshing to Skrillex for not being able to pick Carl Craig out of a line-up. The history is there for those who want to look.

Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter returned from the wilderness in 2001 dressed as robots, hiding their faces behind two now-iconic metal masks. As much of a gimmick as it may seem, it’s well in keeping with dance music’s tradition of relative facelessness. Deadmau5 wears a helmet, too, and for much the same reason. The Chemical Brothers are just two normal looking blokes you could imagine working in a bank or an IT department. It doesn’t matter who you are when you play house music. You could be anybody or anything. What matters is the sound, the feeling, the history, and the future.

And that is why the album ends with “Alive.” It’s not just any stereotypical “end of album” epic. It’s remarkably simple, really, maybe the simplest song on the record: just one big beat, with two different synth riffs coming in and out of the mix. And yet, the song manages to take these ingredients and turn it into the most massive sound imaginable. When the two riffs synch up, it sounds like the pressure drop from an explosion, the labored breath of an ancient space god arising from the depths of the ocean. It’s bigger than anything else, bigger than you and bigger than me.

And that is house music.



Friday, February 13, 2015

Neat Stuff!



Hey everybody, it's a big day for stuff! In case you were wondering if I had an opinion about DC's new, well, whatever the hell they call relaunching half their line, I do, and it's here. They cut a bit of stuff from the essay on the subject of DC's addiction to T&A books - which I can understand, but it still needs to be said that it's a good thing they're cutting some of their gory T&A books, even though some of them do sell.

Also, the new Party Jam is up here at Mixcloud! Mazel tov!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight





"Gothic" by Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson


If "Shaman" was an ambitious misfire, "Gothic" is the story where Legends of the Dark Knight finally came into its own and fully embraced its remit. It's important to remember that, back in 1989, there really wasn't much in the way of a track record for Batman stories like this. The three models for "mature readers" (I'm putting that phrase in necessary scare-quotes) Batman stories that LotDK was initially pulling from were 1988's The Killing Joke, 1987's "Year One," and 1986's The Dark Knight Returns. The same year that LotDK premiered also saw the release of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum graphic novel. The idea of a Batman story designed to be read by an audience that didn't include young children was still new. We take it for granted now that many - if not, unfortunately, most - Batman stories currently published just aren't appropriate for kids. But back then the idea was, pardon the pun, novel, and it was this revelation that served as the inspiration for hundreds of subsequent "Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore" headlines. It was a strange idea for many, many people to wrap their heads around.

Even though "Shaman" lacked the Comics Code seal, there was nothing in the story that would have proved problematic for the Authority. Denny O'Neil was an old hand, and even though the story was concerned with "heavy" themes such as myth, cultural theft, and ritual murder, it was still essentially a Batman story of the kind that could have been told at any point in the previous twenty years, just told with a darker color palette. Not so "Gothic." This was a story that couldn't have been told with pre-1986 Batman. The violence, the intensity, the presence of explicit violence and (not so explicit but still upsetting) sex was new. It didn't go as far as Arkham Asylum, but it also wasn't anywhere near as abstruse. Although many of Morrison's early habits were well in place, the story was more brutal and direct than its more highbrow cousin. This was a murder mystery that touched on child murder, sexual abuse, satanism, and rape in the course of its unraveling.



Morrison has written many Batman stories in his career, and much of his later work is prefigured in "Gothic." For one, Morrison wasn't afraid to cross the line separating Batman's mundane crime-ridden Gotham from the kind of supernatural horror elements exemplified by the story's villain, Mr. Whisper. The idea that Gotham is somehow a genuinely haunted, specially cursed placed was one that would become more and more central to the mythos. Now it's often a given that Gotham city, rather than merely an exaggerated vision of 1970s urban hell New York, contains some kind of Mephistophelian affinity to the literal hell. (For modern examples, see Snyder and Capullo's Batman, as well as Batman Eternal.) Morrison also introduces the idea that Thomas Wayne was a deeper and more significant figure in Gotham history than previous writers had intimated. And finally, even though "Gothic" is close to being a straight horror story, Morrison also has fun mixing and matching a few motifs from previous Batman eras: in the midst of a heavy supernatural mystery, he finds time to strap our hero into a Rube Goldberg deathtrap straight out of the 1960s TV show. The idea that all of Batman's diverse and thematically inconsistent histories coexisted as parts of the character's development was one that Morrison would return to later.



The story begins with the a series of murders of Gotham's most powerful criminals. In desperation these criminals turn for protection to Batman, who scoffs at their attempts at negotiation before setting out to hunt the killer himself. (Oh, yeah, I guess these are spoilers for a 25-year-old Batman story?) Morrison performs an extremely clever maneuver here: in the early pages he leads the reader to believe the story will focus on the crime lords being hunted and killed by some mysterious force. But it turns out that the crime lords' purpose in the story is mainly to give Batman (and the audience) a red herring. The actual plot has little to do with the mob bosses. Mr. Whisper is killing them, but more out of boredom while sitting around Gotham waiting for his real plan to kick in.

The "real" plan actually involves a 300-year old serial killer who made a deal with the devil, and his plan to murder every man, woman, and child in Gotham as a means of escaping this obligation. There are allusions peppered throughout, from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus to de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, the latter of which he would return to in the second arc of The Invisibles. Meanwhile, the catalyst for Mr. Whisper's crusade of vengeance against Gotham's underworld is revealed to be, basically, the plot of Fritz Lang's M. Morrison here is still operating very much in the mode of fellow "British Invasion" writers Moore and Gaiman - processing literary and artistic influences in a very literal-minded way, plucking plots and themes directly from older works to create a thick metatextual stew. Morrison would, of course, largely outgrow this tendency over the course of the next decade, with the aforementioned Invisibles acting as his own version of The Sandman, a means for a young creator of digesting and reflecting a large mass of influences through the lens of familiar genre fiction signifiers. Like Moore and Gaiman, Morrison would become a far more subtle writer with age, but his earlier work retains a pleasing density sometimes missing from his later, more streamlined efforts.



If anything could be said to account for the story's relatively low profile compared both to other early attempts at "mature readers" Batman stories and in the context of Morrison's well-plumbed oeuvre, it may be Klaus Janson's art. Janson is, it must be said, an acquired taste, a master of mood and setting (he can draw castles and gothic cathedrals for days), whose figurework often suffers from a merely expressionistic relationship to reality. I happen to like Janson's art, the occasional strange potato-head notwithstanding. Something Janson gets which many more superficially polished artists do not is how to make a fight seem painful and punishing without also appearing pretty: the brawl between Batman and Mr. Whisper that takes up much of the story's last issue is brutal, with broken bones and bloody knuckles, and Batman facing down an opponent who may be nowhere his match in terms of martial skill, but simply can't be stopped, not even by a speeding subway train. It's exhausting to read, and Janson's Batman - far from the invincible paragon he is often portrayed as - feels the rattle of every blow.

"Gothic" isn't a perfect story, despite its many virtues. Some of its defects are still present in Morrison's work down to this day: for instance, pacing can seem a jumble. Each episodic set-piece is exquisitely measured by Janson, but the episodes themselves can seem abrupt. The series' mandate of tying each adventure so closely to the "Year One" era results in a questionable continuity implant that sees Thomas Wayne on the verge of solving a series of brutal child murders on the very day he's shot and killed (while also raising the question of whether or not the Waynes' murder was as random as believed, which carries regrettable implications for the character's origin). The same over-enthusiasm that made Arkham Asylum interesting and frustrating in equal measure can be discerned here, even if Janson's art provides a much firmer grounding for the writer's earnest digressions. Arkham Asylum is ultimately redeemed not despite but because of its excesses - it's a ludicrously overstuffed, ungodly pretentious monstrosity that works because of its deep commitment to every overwrought and underbaked bit of juvenile psychodrama. There isn't nearly as much at stake with "Gothic", and Morrison is far more restrained. Despite the surprisingly cosmic scope, at its root it's still a murder mystery with a bit of supernatural horror thrown in for good measure. If the story seems to overreach at times, its portrait of Batman is perfectly balanced, a human, fallible hero who nonetheless manages to triumph in the face of unearthly evil due to his demoniacal singularity of purpose.