A Bucket of Blood (1959)

It’s like riding a bicycle apparently,¹ though not very complicated to be sure. The weekend was ending, and I’d managed to corral my other interests (comics, primarily!), only to find myself with a mere hour or so before I’d intended on crawling into bed for the upcoming work week. My original plan (Melville’s L’armée des ombres) was less “cutting it close” and more “severing it completely”, so I perused my collection for something unwatched and short. Drop back a few decades and shave the budget down pretty far, and you find movies with runtimes like this one–sixty-six minutes, title to credits. Like many a release, it’s been sitting in my collection for almost a decade now, unwatched. It felt like it would likely be an easy watch to get into alongside its short runtime, unlike, say, early Sam Fuller, though we’ll see if that holds to be a clever assumption at a later date.

Walter Paisley (Dick Miller, in his ninth [!] Corman flick up to the filming) is a lonely schlub of a busboy at The Yellow Door, a beatnik-y art club-slash-café run by Leonard de Santis (Antony Carbone, who would do a few more Corman productions as well, but mostly focus on television roles²) and frequented by pretentious poet Maxwell Brock (Julian H. Burton, not a Corman regular at all, and primarily a television actor over time). Nursing a nervous crush on Carla (Barboura Morris, almost exclusively a Corman actor), who also works at the club (perhaps co-owns it?), Paisley dreams of being famous and respected enough as a thinker to catch Carla’s eye. When his phenomenal memory fails to impress (also hitting upon the wall of Brock’s pretension, via his insistence that “repetition is dead”) and his attempt at home to sculpt fail, an unhappy accident turns to a happy one when he brings to Carla and Leonard his new sculpture: “Dead Cat”. Touched with the wisps of fame and the respect of Brock, Walter finds himself in need of a new piece but has no idea how to replicate the success of his feline-encasing sculpture, when fortune again intervenes…

I saw that Leonard Maltin got a pull-quote on the back of this sucker calling it “a nifty semi-spoof of dead-bodies-in-the-wax-museum genre” (perhaps most disturbingly, “genre” is a fairly justifiable term in context)–knowing how and when I bought this, that is likely related to my decision to pick it up, as I carried a Maltin film guide around in those days³ and gave the movie 3 stars (his scale was 4). Of course, starring Dick Miller never hurts anything–perhaps the quintessential genre cult character actor (I know him best as Murray Futterman of Gremlins fame).

This is not only a Corman-directed movie, it’s one written by Charles B. Griffith, who wrote something like 20 Corman pictures, including this one and the more famous Death Race 2000 and the original Little Shop of Horrors (filmed, apparently, on the same sets, and returning to the well of “loveable schlub who gets caught up in murdering people for love and continued fame”). Anyway, the point is: this was done on the cheap. But Corman and co. work with what they have. The club comes off as beatnik-y without becoming laughable (though I was struck with the urge to confirm or deny the snapping-applause trope after plain clapping followed Brock’s opening poem), and the murder shots and sculptures are sufficiently effective in their relative horror.

Miller and Carbone play things perhaps most broadly–Miller sinks into himself to be the eager, dullest-in-the-toolshed Walter (an extra layer of sympathy does come from Walter’s clear inability to fully comprehend what’s going on around him, nevermind what Brock’s poetics metaphorically mean), emotionally immature as well as intellectually. Carbone really goes for it as the only one who has put together what’s going on, making sure the audience has no doubt that he understands the ramifications of Walter’s new pieces. Burton and Morris, in contrast, play the straight foils; Burton is actually rather larger-than-life himself, but this is in keeping with a character like Brock, who would be called a character even as an actual person, while Morris brings some nice reality and believable artistic intellectual thought to Carla.

There are weird tinges of humour like the reactions of Carbone and Myrtle Vail (who plays Walter’s landlady, Mrs. Swickert) to any number of things, but there are also two constantly-high frequenters of the Yellow Door–Oscar (John Shaner) and Will (John Brinkley)–who irritate Brock and have the uninhibited commentary of two wits under the influence, as well as the muted or questionable reactions. There are plenty of broad strokes, such as the actually rather clever decision to have Walter repeat half of what he hears, supplanting the voiceover-for-plot-reminder, but also colouring in Walter’s mental state nicely. But there are also some more subtle nudges here and there that hold the audience’s hand less readily for a morbid or dry (or both!) joke here or there.

In the end: it’s only about an hour, and it’s a pretty fun and complete one–plus, hey, it apparently led to Little Shop, so you’ve got to give it that at least.

¹Discounting the fact that I never learned how to do that in the most literal of senses.

²And eventually play the titular “Jack” in the Tales from the Darkside adaptation of Clive Barker’s “The Yattering and Jack”, from his Books of Blood. This isn’t a point of reference meaningful to many, I imagine, but it pleases me.

³The Maltin rule, according to me: If he says it’s good, it is. If he says it isn’t…probably watch it yourself, because who knows.

Seconds (1966)

I don’t recall the specifics, but my father introduced me to this movie–perhaps he was watching it at the time, or perhaps he’d just purchased it. Either way, I recall gathering the concept and Frankenheimer’s involvement and deciding that I would wait to watch it until I had my own copy of it. I immediately discovered it was out of print–that oh-so-human impulse made it that much more alluring–even as I stepped away from movies and collecting of DVDs,¹ it was the one movie I had enough of an itch to poke for when I’d wander through shops, hoping for an unwittingly cheap copy to appear. Oddly, it was on a whim in checking on a shelf of used Criterions that I discovered not only the copy I just watched, but that there was indeed now a Criterion edition of it.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a man walking through life–as many protagonists seem to be–in a marriage, job, and life that has last its lustre. His wife Emily (Frances Reid) makes her attempts, but between his standing feelings and a mysterious series of notes and phone calls seeming to come from his deceased friend Charlie asking him to follow some rather vague instructions–go to an address, give his name as “Wilson”–that he finds himself following. In a strange and nondescript company, he has peculiar experiences and meets Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey), who explains the process Charlie has been encouraging Arthur into. And so Arthur becomes Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson), a successful but minimally famous painter, and meets fellow California resident Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), and works at his new life.

The most striking elements of this movie are readily apparent, and rapidly so. Cinematography from James Wong Howe was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for his work. Indeed, even more obvious, is the choice to film in black-and-white (in 1966, when even television was broadcast in colour!–also the last of Frankenheimer and Howe’s black-and-white films). But comfortably and carefully constructed frames, off-kilter camera angles, hand-held shots, and actor-mounted cameras decades before their most prominent usage are expert in creating both cinematic atmosphere and emotional description of all of the characters. There’s an uncomfortable intimacy in the shots where our protagonist is “still” Arthur: it’s fascinatingly different from the discomfort Howe and Frankenheimer manifest in the post-Wilson transformation, where there’s not a sense of a hollowness and itch to find a spark, so much as a fear and concern about the sudden oppression of fully available freedom.

It should not be suggested that the crew controls all of the quality elements of the movie: Hudson and Jens work very hard to paint in the facets of the primary characters, while Corey, Reid, Will Geer (playing the founder of the mysterious company, in a far cry from anything you’d find on The Waltons, despite the externally genial demeanour), and Tony’s live-in acclimation assistant John (Wesley Addy) all create memorable impressions. Along the same lines of the seeming supremacy of the visual choices, Jerry Goldsmith’s minimal and expressive score, which carries strong notes of tension-laden intrigue tinged with unexpectedly positive notes in an otherwise unhappy movie.

It’s unsurprising that Seconds was apparently booed (!) at its Cannes debut, and also unsurprising that it has now achieved rather firm status as cult classic. I was immediately struck with waves of familiarity in this oppressive visual and weird style–touches of Lynch (Eraserhead, anyway) and Aronofsky (or rather, Shinya Tsukamoto, from whom he blatantly stole the style for Pi if one is to watch the latter’s much earlier film, Tetsuo: the Iron Man²). It feels noticeably out of place in 1966–or, perhaps, like some sort of weird hybrid of architectural, craftsman-like, story-focused and deliberate film-making from years past and the stylism and narrative erratics of the art-house, or maybe touches of the French New Wave. Curiously, the elements that seem to drift in from past film-making are more the work of Howe and camera operators than they are the actors who were present in the sorts of dramatic films that came to mind–not that Howe didn’t work in the business for decades prior himself, but it seems a more deliberate choice as a result.

¹I’ve still failed to move on to Blu-Ray. I don’t think this will ever change.

²Why this connection has always been referenced so mildly, I’ll never know. Unless I’ve completely lost my mind, there are scenes practically stolen wholesale. Pretty sure I haven’t lost my mind–at least, not on that bit of knowledge.

Get Out (2017)

In terms of essential premise walking in, Get Out is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is taking a road trip with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her parents Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener). Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) questions the decision, and Chris himself is uneasy, as he tells Rose–asking if they were warned in advance that he’s black. Rose assures him everything will be fine, if awkward–Dean will inevitably mention that he “would have voted for Obama a third time if he could”–and the trip out itself is only marred by an unexpected but common event on a drive through the woods. Upon arriving, Chris finds himself as alone as expected considering his race in the home of his white girlfriend.

At its core, Get Out is a melding of racial tensions and horror. This isn’t surprising, as writer/director Jordan Peele, as part of Key and Peele, has made his interest in both quite apparent. Even on Key & Peele, he and his partner in the show, Keegan-Michael Key openly profess their love of horror, as well as steeping many a sketch in broad horror conventions (tones, musical elements, particular shots, etc), plenty of which even do so in service of commenting on racially-invested perceptions. This is an almost-straight realization of that core concept, albeit with a Last House on the Left (the original, at least) styled interspersion of comic relief from Lil Rel as Chris’s friend.

Peele and company manage all of this admirably: Lil Rel’s comic roots are built into his character, not in terms of Rod being a stand-up comic himself, but in the sense that Rod is a character who addresses few things seriously, a kind of person plenty of us know (or are). That’s a pretty drastic improvement on, say, Craven and Cunningham’s over-the-top slapstick-y cops in Last House, while scripting a character who serves essentially the same purpose. The tension, too, is absolutely palpable: while I’ve heard it said that the movie is “predictable”, this is comes off as utterly intentional in most senses. If one isn’t expecting something of what’s to come, the turn will come so far out of left field (erm, no pun intended) as to seem completely unhinged. All the same, the constant discomfort of Chris is both visible and readily transferred to the audience, even for someone not directly familiar with what Chris is experiencing. Rose’s concern for Chris’s feelings, and his reluctance to state most of them openly works perfectly to the film’s aims, managing to keep the perfect balance between understanding Chris’s concerns and his dismissal thereof throughout.

While character and writing are extraordinarily important to maintaining the right tone and suspense in a good horror film, there are many other necessary tools, even if plenty of them blend somewhat into the writing. A good shot–establishing or otherwise–is very helpful in setting or propagating a tone, as you can see in the master class on such subtle choices in John Carpenter’s Halloween. Even moments like a sudden and unusual silence that didn’t quite get the jump or unsettling feeling that was the aim at least came off smoothly, with no tilt over the line into unpleasant cliché.

This doesn’t mean the film is absent problems–there’s a single, manipulative jump scare in place, which is frustrating simply because an effectively creepy shot would, in this rather peculiar context, be difficult to manage the effect of otherwise. There’s nothing quite equivalent to a lurking Michael Myers, so moments that are relatives of that kind of shooting need auditory cues to clarify that sensibility–otherwise they would be unremarkable. Still, it comes off very strangely because of the fact that there was not another such moment I could think of to even the tone of that choice out. Similarly splintering the mood a bit was a character I’ve yet to mention: Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). Jeremy is a deeply weird character, which seems to run counter to the intentions of Peele in formulating the movie–which is to emphasize the undercurrent of racism in modern society. This isn’t to say that that undercurrent is never blatant (here or in reality), so much as that Jeremy immediately comes off as a threat, when there’s no shortage of discomfort and unease without the need for that explicitness.

All that said, Peele did exceptional work for a first-time horror feature director–for all that there’s credit to be had in his experience working on his sketch comedy show and in Keanu, the cinematic language of horror is not something that falls out of a tree, as many an attempt readily illustrates. Helpful and insightful commentary on additional scenes (and an alternate ending) colours in the shades of the movie’s goals without seeming to reveal anything that wasn’t clear from the film itself–maybe it’s just the satisfaction of, “Aha! I thought that was what he was trying to do!” but that sense works to confirm that the viewing experience matches with the intent, which is rarely a bad thing. Hearing the logic behind the ending he chose for the film and the one that was also filmed was also quite interesting, in that it articulated pretty clearly everything I expected about the ending, and made me respect the choice made there even more than I already did in finding it the right choice.

Alien Legion, Vol. 1 (1984)

So, Alien Legion.
I’m five issues in and wrestling a bit. There are some great ideas, some strength to the world-building, some complexity to the characters and perspectives–but a bunch of things just keep kind of wiggling in.
I’m addressing them because I feel the need to vent this as I go.

 

  1. A Good Bit of Heinlein-Style Bias (with All Arguments about the Existence Thereof Entangled)
    From the first issue–though, admittedly, I first read it half-asleep and I think ascribed some comments to the wrong characters–there’s a clumsiness to some of the expressions. It sometimes carries a waft of difficulty in expressing an opposing viewpoint. This also comes through in an overbearingly…simplified complexity? The first issue has the Legion constrained by the TGU’s directive to avoid interference with the still-evolving lifeform of the rathrosaurs there (think Prime Directive, I suppose).

     

    They have weaker, “simpler” weaponry, as compared to their standard fare. The government (via the Galactors, iirc) references “Soldiers, but only Legionnaires” to ham-fistedly suggest their utter disdain for our protagonists. This comes up again in the third issue, which also employs a certain level of confusion in plotting/illustration. On the first page, a member of a guerrilla pacifist group, responding to a proposed forcible conscription act seemingly shoots a guard. Then they all spend the rest of the issue emphasizing their non-violent pacifism, never commenting on this. Was it a stun, perhaps? I have literally no idea. I read it two or three times and couldn’t make sense of it.

     

    The corruptions and the perspectives that aren’t militaristic (a spectrum there, to be fair) are pretty poorly portrayed much of the time: Chief Lanx’s local police corruption in the same third issue; the simplistic (and super-Heinlein) notion of military service via Montroc in the fourth issue…so on and so forth. It feels like someone on the cusp of being able to represent viewpoints other than their own, but failing miserably to do so with full respect or acknowledgment of how one could hold that viewpoint.¹ It’s held that these perspectives are the end, final truth–something especially (seemingly) emphasized in Montroc’s internal struggles in the fourth issue.

     

    There’s just enough respect and complexity in these “opposition” characters much–but not all–of the time to avoid being flat-out offensively simple-mindedly dismissive of others,² but it still doesn’t achieve a balance of respect–not to go out of one’s way to suggest that an opposing viewpoint is entirely reasonable, but rather that one can arrive at it without being a cartoonish villain.

  2. Logical Contradictions and Stretches to Serve Those Biases (and Maybe a Bit of Plot)

    Plenty of comments abound about the limitations the refusal to issue HEL-guns saddle the Legion with as they try to remove an un-restricted piratic mining operation from Wedifact IV. But the restriction, honestly, seems illogical even given the reasoning: they want to avoid leaving technological remains or interfering, but a “laser scar”–the most often given reason–doesn’t seem like a meaningful indicator of technology. It’s an interesting idea, but when you’re inserting logic to explain the plot, it has to make sense. This doesn’t make sense. Compressed-gas-propelled darts are still leagues ahead of the rathrosaurs’ technology. Just because the dart decays doesn’t make it different from a laser (which sure as hell doesn’t stick around…).

    This comes up again in the third issue, with the aforementioned pacifistic group’s seeming murder, the convenient flip-flop of governmental perspective on violations and value of the Legion, and the inconsistency in response to internal crimes (it seems as if violently attacking another member of the Legion is taken less seriously by the Legion itself, which seems insane).

  3. The Letters (Thoughts in General)

    The letters pages–one of the lovely benefits of single issues over many/most trades–are an interesting mix. Appropriately, many place Frank Cirocco’s (excellent!) art and character design (with inking from the great Terry Austin, and great colours from Bob Sharen) as the best feature of the book. Often the plotting is held up next, and the writing itself held as “strong” or “good”, but often with far more caveats.Someone brings up the (almost?) universally male composition of the Legion as an odd point. The editors respond that the letter-writer is making assumptions! But, of course, we have profiles in issues 1 and 5 of many members. Every single one says “he” and “his”. Sure, there are assumptions, but the statistical probability given by the first issue’s profiles, all of the dialogue prior to the letter’s publication and so on make it a reasonable (and, to this point, seemingly accurate…) conclusion. This bothers me primarily because of the flipping of points–a dangerous thing to mention, in that I’m wary of some modern incarnations that feel, to me, excessive in choosing to see a response as ignoring or dismissing a problem. This read exactly like that–it was an editor (presumably) writing on behalf of a writer, with no evidence to support the claim, and plenty against it that only further supported the letter writer’s accuracy.

    Perhaps most frustrating was reading a letter from the famous letter-writer (seriously) T.M. Maple. Maple references the hypocrisy of pacifist activists in reference to issue three, calling out events in his native country (take a wild guess from that name!) that were performed rather contemporaneously by “Direct Action”, aka “The Squamish 5“. They were not, so far as I can see, avowed pacifists. Indeed, they rebelled against nonviolence as means of protest, hence the self-applied name “Direct Action”. Maple (real name Jim Burke) applies these events anyway, then goes on to make numerous terrible leaps of logic (Paraphrasing–“If they’re part of the peace movement, it implies the other side is against peace!” and “I’m opposed to any side claiming a monopoly on morality”³) before establishing a last flimsy footnote of declining to express where he falls (it’s obvious, man…).

    I do think I find this clumsy writing fits with my impression of Zelenetz, who took on a smattering of first-volume Moon Knight issues, as well as the entirely misguided and very much cut-short second volume (Fist of Khonshu) in that there are legitimately good and interesting ideas, marred somewhat by questionable execution.


¹Should one think this is unreasonable to expect of “Perspective X”, I submit Nick Spencer’s portrayal of both the Red Skull and the mind-tampered Captain America. These are human and complicated characters who definitely have vile perspectives, but the way they arrived at them and how they justify them is clear and not condescending.

 

²My counter example here might be C.S. Lewis’s portrayal of the Calormenes in The Horse and His Boy. Perpetually referencing fair skin as a glorious and beautiful thing, condemning the dark-skinned, making–for all the (accurate!) claims to its polytheistic and otherwise slightly modified elements–a bunch of not-unsubtle references to Victorian-esque perceptions of the Middle East (turbans! pointy shoes! scimitars!) and then having Aslan say, “Anyone who does a good thing, even if they worship that other guy, they’re actually mine. And anyone who does a bad thing? Yeah they’re ACTUALLY worshiping the Calormene God.” Considering his stances on Islam, I don’t see a way around this that doesn’t involve some serious contortions. For all the this-or-that Calormene character isn’t bad, it comes off more like, “But some of my great friends are ___!” as Aslan’s proclamation definitively seals it as “Aslan=good, Tash=bad”, and anyone who claims otherwise is accidentally saying the exact same thing or secretly/accidentally evil.

 

³It should be noted that no group or movement is ever likely to be devoid of some percentage that represents the bogeyman version of that group or movement. Hesitance to associate on those grounds I find understandable, particularly where there is sufficient popular disagreement as to whether the group/movement has the boundaries some members assert or not. Decrying said entire group/movement as fully and accurately represented by those individual parties, however, is a different and altogether dumber idea.

Goliath (2016)

My inclination is generally not to review things like television series–not even one that’s self-contained into a generally delineated block like a miniseries. It’s a lot of ground to cover, a lot of hours, and an experience that relies heavily on the sequential knowledge  of the series itself and the obvious room for events to layer themselves across it, for characters to develop (or reaffirm) traits throughout.

I’m struck, however, by the desire this time. Maybe it’s the restraint of general commentary I’m putting myself through, maybe it’s the visceral reaction I’ve had to the series throughout–or both, or neither. I can’t really be too terribly certain about the subject, except for the reality of that desire.

Goliath is a David E. Kelley production, who I personally know best for Ally McBeal and Boston Public, never being an active watcher of L.A. LawBoston Legal, or The Practice (though I was around their showings growing up, thanks to my mother’s viewing habits). I did not initially realize that his was one of the minds behind it, instead being drawn in by the prospect of a leading Billy Bob Thornton.

Thornton is Billy McBride, washed up attorney of questionable character, excess alcohol, estranged marriage, and peculiar companions. He’s surrounded primarily by Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda), Brittany Gold (Tania Raymonde), his daughter Denise (Diana Hopper), and, kicking off the case at the center of the series, Rachel Kennedy (Ever Carradine). Patty is a fellow lawyer, struggling to turn a no-name degree into a practice, and Brittany is a prostitute Billy has represented and haphazardly employs as a paralegal–Patty, though, also introduces him to Rachel, who insists that her brother-in-law Ryan Larson did not kill himself as his widow believes. This spirals into the associations of Larson’s former employer, Born Tech, headed by Wendell Corey (Dwight Yoakam), and represented by Cooperman/McBride. That McBride is no longer Billy, but is his ex-wife Michelle (Maria Bello), while the Cooperman is Donald (William Hurt). The firm’s namesake is not the primary counsel in the case, that honour belonging to Callie Senate (Molly Parker), Lucy Kittridge (Olivia Thirlby), and Leonard Letts (Damon Gupton).

Before I proceed, I’m going to note that it’s very probable that I’ll feel compelled to spoil parts of this series, because of the elements in it that I wish to discuss.

The cast needed to be named, because the cast is what sells every moment of the series. Regardless of the nature of the characters, the cast works with their material and makes the material work.

Which is where things start to sink a bit. Cooperman, Kittridge, and Senate are repulsive. Utterly, cartoonishly vile. There are attempts to humanize, attempts to shift–but they’re all futile. As the series proceeds and the fishy elements compound (starting, to belatedly submit information to explain a pun, with chumming Billy’s car), no one seems to question their position. People turn up dead, injured, coincidentally involved in other crimes–it’s believable that Senate, as a character, would gloss over the effects on others and regard this entirely from the perspective of its effects on the case, but it’s still a stretch. Of course, Cooperman is so blatantly evil that it’s nothing like a wonder he doesn’t care: he laughs hysterically at Billy being beaten by a paid cop (who proceeds to taze Billy’s daughter…). Kittridge and Senate vie for the affections of Cooperman, primarily as employer, but neither seems to be concerned with his manipulations of them, demanding sexual rewards for deigning to let them work cases, nor with his erratic and insane (also, re: clicker–irritating) behaviour.

This only gets worse when we factor in Michelle. Bello deserves some kind of award for certain, for managing to keep Michelle innocent and sympathetic, while she is a complete fucking moron devoid of either intelligence or moral compass in witnessing the living pieces of shit she chooses to work with. Billy’s crimes–and they aren’t minor–are hard to remember against a backdrop of torture, murder, fraud, war crimes…and yet, Michelle doesn’t seem to care or concern herself. Not even after her daughter is tazed. One would think at least that might give her pause. Her daughter is also insanely irrational, not looking at the serious problems that should perhaps give Billy reason to drop the case, but on how it affects her and her mother alone. The sheer mounts of narcissism in the show are insurmountable, and further confuse things by making Billy–perhaps largely due to Thornton’s excellently likeable performance–the only one who seems aware of the concept of empathy.

The show is intensely engaging, and had me hooked from a moment in the third episode, but my roiling, burning loathing of everyone at Cooperman/McBride was hard enough to stomach that I considered abandoning the series entirely. It didn’t manage to tweak things the “right” way for that (liking Billy avoided my problems with Breaking Bad, and the way the conspiratorial elements were set-up danced around explaining how they were unnoticed with a few of them being clever–setting up a drunk for a fake DUI is pretty believable to have go unnoticed–and otherwise being, well, not really explained meant it didn’t hit the House of Cards inability to suspend disbelief).

And that’s, then, the weird thing: alongside the performances, there’s an intelligence to the construction of the show. It manages to work so well in spite of itself. In spite of having the most repellent, unpleasant, taking-‘love-to-hate’-a-bit-too-far villains, it generally works. I’m still not sure how, because the volume of “Oh, come on…”-type moments from those characters is quite high indeed. That no one ever seemed to notice or call them on it kept me teetering on the edge of giving up on the sheer absurdity of it all, but it never quite dumped itself off that cliff. It’s weird, for that–and enough to make me quite enjoy it overall, while still leaving me with the need to express this reaction.

On the Mutual Exclusivity of My Favourite Comics Characters and Mass-Production (So to Speak)

I’ve just finished a re-read of Lucifer, the Mike Carey Sandman spin-off that was first recommended to me over a decade ago, that I picked up for a brief handful of single issues in its initial run on that recommendation, and then gathered in the earliest days of my lengthiest occupational foray, as purveyor of written entertainment (much though my instincts let me pretend I was moreso that of the auditory and visual).

As I read, as I saw the distant protagonist of the book–distant in the sense that in many issues he appeared as a background character, if even that–I realized that he shares a peculiar commonality with two of my favourite characters in a universe that doesn’t quite share the lofty critical heights of the Vertigo imprint from which Lucifer was derived (and, in that eponymous form, fully published). There’s a detachment, a brutal pragmatism in Carey’s Lucifer that is not meaningfully distinct, in and of itself, from the same qualities in both Starlin’s Thanos and his interpretation of Adam Warlock. There is a cold disinterest in the fates of others that reflects an arrogance and pride that is supreme in all of these characters, a pride and arrogance that also shares the quality of justification. They are as above those they care nothing for as they believe themselves to be.

This isn’t an admirable quality, per se, nor an enviable one. One hopes none want to be above nearly all else, by plan and scheme even when out-powered, at least. It’s not described with explanations of analogous ants, at least not as the personal justification, it’s just how they operate, above and outside the normal realms. There’s something fascinating about this: beings who treat others as playthings, less maliciously than simply as a matter of course.

Mind you, they have their unusual moments:

Thanos is first driven by an adolescent love, and tends toward raging dismissal, in those days, of those whom he sees as displaying errant disregard for him (none moreso than the mouthpieces of Death herself, who relay her responses to him and haven’t even the time to regret where their service leads). He holds a deeply denied affection for his adopted daughter, Gamora, but broken and splintered by the prism of his view of reality; he doesn’t think of her as a daughter so explicitly, nor as detachedly as a legal ward, but some mix of the two, tempered by a refusal to let others–other than, for a time, Mistress Death, of course–have a say in the course of his destiny. He’s also known to relish, on occasion, the simple-mindedness of those he manipulates, setting him, on occasion, to something pettier than his otherwise justified disdain for others might allow

Adam Warlock is tortured by a history of extremes and confusion: the utterly remorseless and unfortunate child-like Him, the almost-past-analogy-to-literal saviour of Counter-Earth, and the cold logic of his Supreme self, which notoriously includes his expulsion of “all good and evil”. He gathers fellows around himself, sometimes out of a Machiavellian interest in being owed favours…and sometimes because there’s something in him that still wants companionship, as most beings do.  He is driven by a need to right things, a moral compass that was his totality on Counter-Earth–but he often finds his will faltering when faced, yet again, with the need to act as the one being the rest of the universe can’t manage to be in the face of a threat which said being is necessary to thwart.

Lucifer is no exception either. While he might kill seven thousand to serve his purposes without even the slightest shudder, he acts on behalf of a select few with something like a shrugging whimsy–a moment of defiance and refusal to acquiesce even to his defiant, willful, self-interested nature itself. That willful defiance is even more central to him, though, as he will forego even segments of self-interest if it involves anything like capitulation to the will of another.

All of this adds up, as I say, to fascinating characters, but what it doesn’t leave is characters that can be readily dropped in, casually, to the stories of others, and, more generally, into the reams of mass-produced media like network television or big-budget movies–despite all efforts to do so anyway. This is what causes that eternal frustration: these are fascinating characters, unique even as they share that concrete and unyielding core of aloof and accurate movement through a universe composed primarily of entities beneath, if not their notice, then at least their deep concern.

To make Thanos a villain, or Lucifer a regular protagonist, they have to be stripped of the quality that defines those characters, as adaptations of both–or usages outside their most prominent creators or stories–makes plain. For all their villainy, it doesn’t boil with the heated malevolence of a Sandalphon or Basanos, of a Magus, or a Man-Beast. They aren’t motivated by an antipathy toward their opposers–they have no patience, time, or respect for the principles of Gabriel or the Silver Surfer, but nor do they lay out plans to explicitly dominate or crush that opposition, except as reaction to attempts to thwart their own designs.

A Thanos or Lucifer set out to cause evil for its own sake is not a Thanos or a Lucifer. Pausing to maliciously, if “playfully”, respond to a traffic stop is beneath Lucifer, as much as relying on Ronan to assist in acquisition of an Infinity “Stone” is anathema to Thanos¹. This isn’t who those characters are: Thanos would destroy the universe (or kill half of it) to make a show of his love for Death, to attempt to openly display that affection, and would do so on his own for these self-same reasons. Lucifer is too above humanity to slum about in “curiosity” over them, is essentially incapable of taking an interest in their day-to-day doings–he’s hardly got time to deal with his brothers, the Lilim, or any other significantly more powerful beings. Humans are utterly beneath even his contempt–in the sense that he is that realization of the true opposite of love: apathy.

These aren’t characters that one necessarily sympathizes with–beyond, perhaps, those fleeting moments of understandable affection or feeling–so there is no use for them to the public at large, certainly not, most especially, in the place of “protagonist” on a television show, nor does a role as villain–however spread between films–allow for any particular character to shine through. In both, their rougher and more complicated edges are sanded down until there’s nothing left but a husk: the executive producer of the “Lucifer” television show is quoted thusly:

“We take our cues from the comic book character, the one that Neil Gaiman created and Mike Cary [sic] developed, which is the devil is the son of god. He’s not evil, he’s just a rebellious son who decided that he wanted what his dad had and doesn’t understand why he didn’t get it,” said Henderson. “He’s mischievous, he’s playful, he’s honest, and he embraces his desires… Lucifer is all about exploring humanity and exploring desires. When he talks to people in Los Angeles there’s no pretense. He just wants to do whatever he sees in front of him.”

This is a fundamental misapprehension of the character. There are a few accurate statements: he’s not evil (depending on how one defines that), he’s a rebellious son, and he’s honest. He is not “mischievous”, “playful”, “all about exploring humanity and exploring desires”, and does not want “what his dad had”, “[not] understand why he didn’t get it”, nor want “to do whatever he sees in front of him”.

But that’s it, isn’t it?

The Gaiman/Carey Lucifer is a character fascinating for character study, not for popcorn, mind-off entertainment. He has to be stripped of planning, intelligence, power, and character to be something that fits into that paradigm. There can, by necessity, be nothing left of that Lucifer when turned to episodic, network television. And so: there isn’t.

By the same token, a being like Thanos that acts on a scale so far outside the Avengers–to say nothing of the already reduced scale of the MCU’s Avengers and Guardians–as to make them utterly irrelevant is, inherently, a poor choice as a villain for those characters, despite the asinine writings of folks like Brian Michael Bendis, who simply did the same thing as the movies, but in a comic book context–stripping the character of everything that makes him who he is so that he could be slotted in to a comic in which he doesn’t belong.

These are the inevitabilities of attempting to shoehorn complicated, other-worldly characters into a context in which they simply do not belong.

This is why it’s angering. Because, by necessity, these usages require the stripping of character from characters. And if you strip the essence from the form, it’s a lifeless husk, masquerading as something far more than it truly is, and blurring the definition of that greater thing to a larger audience. These characters are interesting because of how they operate–not simply because they are “super powerful” or “the devil”. Removing the former to leave only the latter is not just a disservice to those of us who like the characters and their stories, not just an insult to the work of those who wrote those stories (in the sense that it suggests that the only thing of value in their characters is “powerful purple guy” and “the devil”, dismissing all of the blood, sweat, and tears in developing them beyond those things), not just an insult to the audience (suggesting the only thing that they can manage to process of those original incarnations is “powerful purple guy” or “the devil”), but it manages to damage the previous works in its way.

While I thought once thought it only hypothetical, I’ve witnessed those who decided they may or may not read Lucifer depending on their opinion of the show. Already, the show is, for that person–who no doubt represents more, even if not in truly significant numbers–a lens that re-frames a work that it has nothing to do with, simply by dint of association. It says that this Lucifer is in some way like the one on the show–thus creating false expectations about what is to come from it, inserting itself between a possible reader and the work by positioning itself as a meaningful alternate truth for the concept. It creates a conflict, however periodic, by pointlessly setting the two “versions” against each other by pretense of their alleged singular origin. To deny this is to foolishly deny the decades of branding and advertising that so successfully managed to hold our interest in all these years. This is how the human mind operates: we’re told these two things are related and, in general, we take this as a statement of truth, unless evidence we’ve been exposed to exists to the contrary.

I’ve come to the conclusion recently that I would indeed simply rather they not bother adapting. I would like to see these characters come to life, but I won’t settle for these dead-eyed shells, skins and costumes painted over re-written, tired banalities. If no one wants to adapt the characters, then: don’t. Don’t try to trade on the majesty of a better work with a finger-painted facsimile on mass-produced plastic. If you wish to film Devil Cop, do it. But don’t pretend it’s something it isn’t. If you take issue with the way a character is written in a universe that is centered on continuity, don’t maliciously re-frame the character to take them down a peg: just acknowledge that they are clearly not a character appropriate for the stories that you are telling.

I write this knowing that my wishes are entirely futile; such is the nature of art married to a capitalist system. Such is the nature of those who have no interest in, taste for, appreciation for, or understanding of these kinds of characters, that they’ll be dressed down in the fashion of impertinence (Squirrel Girl), or ignorance (Infinity). Would that those who took no interest in something would leave it be–but there is nothing whatsoever to encourage that.

So it goes.

¹Thanos gathered the Infinity Gems twice. First, as relayed in brief by Warlock himself, through his communion with the soul of the then-passed Gamora (Avengers Annual #7), and then again in The Thanos Quest miniseries. In both instances, Thanos gathered the gems himself, never, ever indirectly, as there’s no way on Earth (or elsewhere!) such a schemer would risk the will of others on such acquisition. Indeed, this is made more plain by how he deals in the second instance, significantly less brief–it is, in fact, the totality of that miniseries to watch him acquire the six, one-by-one, for a second time–and his tendency to rely on the ignorance of most of the beings who currently hold them to assist in his gain.

Starter Kit

Aggressively personalized (but not saturated by my more eccentric tastes), this is my Comic Book Starter Kit.

The assumption is made that you are familiar with the “core works”¹, at least in name, and that almost anything anywhere will recommend them to you if you bring up comics.

Some other caveats:

This is Western-focused. That’s where most of my experience is, and it tends to be what’s at issue in discussions of “comic books”. This doesn’t degrade or dismiss the works of even slightly-less-west Westerners (like Hergé or Goscinny/Uderzo, and so on), nor is it intended to imply a superiority. It’s just that those are not typically considered “comic books” but other forms of what Scott McCloud so succinctly and clearly defined as “sequential art”.

Now, with all that said:

1) Lucifer

Legitimately one of my most recommended titles–even by proxy, as I recommend writer Mike Carey’s Felix “Fix” Castor books a lot, too–Lucifer is an elaboration upon the devil developed by Neil Gaiman in the Sandman (see, that’s how cornerstone that book is). The titular character is not always even the protagonist, nevermind being a hero. He’s cold and cruel but ultimately disinterested in that which does not serve him. He maintains a semblance of sympathy or identification anyway, though, as he seeks to blaze his own path in the universe, unencumbered by the identity and occupations God has set for him. What it has over on books like its “parent” is a pretty absolute focus: while it encompasses a 75-issue comic, a 3-issue miniseries, and a one-shot, it is a clearly defined overarching story–while things like The Sandman can have some problems with meandering off into side-stories and experiments Gaiman found interesting (albeit successfully!).

2) Swamp Thing (“Saga of”/Volume 2, ~20-64)

To my strange and peculiar tastes, this is the crowning achievement of Alan Moore. It sits next to Marvelman/Miracleman comfortably, in his 80s run of respectful reinvention. It, for all its horror, doesn’t have anything as unpleasant as Miracleman‘s climax (about which I will say no more, but it’s filled with graphically violent images–earned and ‘necessary’ to address the story and its point, it should be said, but nonetheless disturbing) and has a significantly larger amount of emotional investment, as well as the genesis of the great John Constantine (whose name can be ‘heard’ pronounced by the demon Etrigan: it’s Constan”tyne” not Constan”teen”)

3) The Maxx

Sam Kieth is a peculiar artist, and a peculiar storyteller. What was advertised at the time (I was about eight, myself) was “a violent new hero”. What was offered was a strange book about a large purple-and-yellow homeless guy who was friends with a social worker, the two of them harassed endlessly by a smugly knowledgeable sorcerer/serial rapist. The latter part isn’t involved overly graphically, nor as a means of conveying “edgy” material, so much as being part of overarching themes. It’s a difficult book to describe without simply giving it all away, but it’s filled with Sam’s unusually wonderful art, aesthetic and ideas.

4) Animal Man (volume 1) 1-26

Grant Morrison’s breakout work, it’s unusual in the extreme and does suffer from some of Morrison’s preachiness, but can be somewhat excused by its well-executed relevance to the main character. It’s definitely in the realms of “required reading”, in any case. It’s another where you’re best off just reading it without knowing too much.

5) Daredevil (Miller/Janson: v1 158-191, 227-233; Bendis/Maleev: v2 26-81)

The first (Miller/Janson) is classic, in all senses. The peak of Miller’s writing (sadly, at the early end of his career…), and perfectly matched with his own pencils or Janson’s, and definitely Janson’s inks. Matt Murdock is absolutely put through hell, and the depths of his dealings with Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk (who was originally a Spider-Man villain, but lost almost unequivocally to DD at this point). Bendis and Maleev’s is a thematic return to this, with perfect art for the story from Maleev.

6) Justice League ([America|International|Europe])? (1-6, 7-25, 1-36, 26-60; Formerly Known as the Justice League 1-6, JLA Classified 3-9 [“I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League”], now Justice League 3000 1-15, Justice League 3001 1-ongoing)

Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, one known most for comedy, one known most for pathos (though both are capable of either and both) take the Justice League denied its most famous elements (no Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Hal Jordan or John Stewart as Green Lantern, and even Batman only lasts a few odd issues) and turn them into a bumbling, inefficient group of also-rans filled with heart, will, desire, jokes, comedy, and actually a fair bit of oft-unremembered real drama.

7) Planet Hulk (Incredible Hulk v3 92-105, Giant-Size Hulk #1)

Requiring some of the most minimal of background, the Hulk is unwittingly exiled from Earth by its foremost minds and his foremost–seeming–friends (Tony Stark, Reed Richards, et al). Stuck on a hellish planet, Hulk is forced to find his way through the minimalist society that exists there, and is driven by a raging need to take revenge on those responsible.

8) Suicide Risk

Mike Carey has written superhero books for the Big Two, but this was his own creation. And yet…it turns out it just may be something entirely other than a super hero book as it goes on. Another self-contained and clean series by Carey.

9) The Question

Dennis O’Neill is responsible, somewhat more quietly than a lot of the Brits who followed him and were eventually his contemporaries (or writers under his editorship) for a lot of classic works. But his peculiar book with penciler Denys Cowan is an achievement outside the shadow of characters like Batman. Sure, Ditko invented the rather ridiculous Objectivist Question decades earlier, but O’Neill’s unusual take on Vic Sage is more philosophical and interested in the world as it actually functions, and is married to the signature pencils of Cowan.

10) Current ongoings:

Rick Remender’s anything (Black ScienceLowDeadly ClassTokyo Ghost)

DescenderBlack MagickCopperheadManifest DestinyRat QueensRumble

¹SandmanWatchmen especially. Other Moore can be an acquired taste, some moreso than others, but Watchmen is a medium-defining moment.