Grant Morrison Week #1: TALKING WITH GODS (Review)

Source: grantmorrison.com

When I was in high school and The Dark Knight came out, like millions of other people, I got excited about Batman. Unlike most people, I actually tried to get into current Batman comics. However, while Warner Bros. had a certified monster hit on their hands, getting millions upon millions of people excited about a guy named Bruce Wayne who dressed up as a bat and punched criminals in the face for the first time or the first time in a long time, DC Comics, their subsidiary that had originated the character had done perhaps the worst possible thing they could do for this moment:

They killed Batman.

Ok, to be fair, he was actually zapped back in time by the Omega Beams of the omnipotent despot Darkseid, but we found that out later. Now, Batman was definitively dead, with former Robin Dick Grayson forced into taking up the mantle instead.

These circumstances were due, I was told, to writer Grant Morrison, who had killed Batman off in the pages of the big “crossover event” of the year, Final Crisis, while simultaneously driving Bats crazy through the psychological torture of the evil Black Glove organization in the concurrent “Batman R.I.P.” storyline in the pages of the eponymous comic. I read both those storylines and came away very, very confused.

Final Crisis was bursting with an insane amount of ideas–the most prominent of which involve the superhero/New God Orion dying and Darkseid finally obtaining the “Anti-Life Equation” by unlocking the components in people’s minds through the Internet and gaining complete control over every sentient being in the universe–but it’s a fevered mess that resolves in a really trippy, goofy way. (I should stress that I haven’t read the story in years, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth).

“Batman R.I.P.” felt similarly muddled and rushed; I felt like I had wandered in late to something. It turns out I had. Beginning with the introduction of Bruce’s biological son, Damien, in the Batman and Son” storyline, Morrison–across multiple titles and with the help of various artists including Frank Quitely, Cameron Stewart, Andy Kubert and Chris Burnham, among others–embarked on a gigantic story putting Batman through hell and back. One of the big things Morrison stressed was that every Batman story ever written–going all the way back to 1939–had actually happened to the character.

Again, that’s a hell of an idea. The kind of big, showy thing that Morrison–who crossed over into American comics in the 1980s as part of the vaunted “British Invasion,” alongside Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore–has spent his entire career doing. But excised from the whole, “R.I.P.” confused the heck out of me, although I have gone on to read some more of his Batman run and enjoyed it immensely (particularly his amazing Batman & Robin run). Whether I just got bad advice or DC’s marketing department didn’t clarify well enough, I was left cold on Morrison.

But then when I turned 18, I received both volumes of his amazing, transcendent, lovely All-Star Superman for my birthday and fell in love with his reverent-but-not-too-reverent approach to comics history and his optimistic, awe-struck view of the Big Blue Boy Scout. The following year, I asked for his memoir/superhero comics history Supergods. Again, I was swept away by his captivating, bombastic prose and rock-and-roll personality (although his more out-there views I was a little less than sold on). His Action Comics run in DC’s New 52 reboot was something I also enjoyed, and I’m looking forward to his long-awaited The Multiversity series when it comes out in trade.

I tell you that rambling to tell you this: if you’re in a similar place where I was with Morrison, you owe it to yourself to check out the Respect Films/ Sequart documentary Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, released in 2011 and available on Hulu.

Constructed chronologically through several interviews with Morrison himself–shot in several locations, as indicated by the sudden changes in background and outfits he undergoes–as well as his friends and fellow industry pros, Gods is a brisk eighty-five minutes. No particular area of Morrison’s life and career feel shafted. Director Patrick Meaney shoots his subject in straightforward ways, and isn’t afraid to make the images on screen abstract–whether it be a shot of Morrison walking or a strange panel from one of his comics–when Grant’s voiceover goes into the obtuse range.

Meaney and DP Jordan Rennert–who, I must add, are delightful gentlemen in person–construct and compose their talking head shots with maximum clarity. While Morrison is the foremost voice on display here, he’s not the dominant one. Having so much outside perspective allows the viewer some distance from the more hard-to-take anecdotes Morrison offers, such as his claim that a visit from fourth-dimensional beings where he was shown the true nature of the universe inspired his Vertigo series The Invisibles. Conversely, in Supergods, readers had to take Morrison’s claims at face value.

The one fault I have with this movie is something I suspect the filmmakers had no control over. When Morrison’s wife, Kristi, enters the narrative, she’s praised by all who talk about her as an overwhelmingly positive influence on Grant’s life and work (she also acts as his manager). It’s bizarre, then, that she’s never seen outside of photographs and not even interviewed. Maybe she declined to be on camera, which I can understand, but her importance to Morrison that the film stresses is undercut by her absence.

Regardless, this is a well-done independent film and a good documentary that will make you sympathetic to someone who’s a rather polarizing figure in comics culture. It is very much worth your time.

NOTE: As the header says, this is the start of Grant Morrison Week. We’ll be back Friday with a look at one of Morrison’s most famous works.

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Guardians of the Galaxy–Review

Source: Wikipedia

It’s become sort of a hallmark of the Marvel Studios films to toggle back and forth between using original material and incorporating wholesale storylines from the comics canon. Barring the S.H.I.E.L.D.-heavy connection, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was basically a straight version of the Winter Soldier’s introductory storyline. Iron Man is essentially a feature-length version of the character’s updated origin from the “Extremis” story by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, things are different. Here, writer-director James Gunn–rewriting an earlier script by Nicole Perlman–is taking the incarnation of the team put together by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the past few years and giving them a wholly original story to play around in. There’s backstory, sure, but the specifics are brand new.

After a heart-rending prologue in which a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) loses his mother to cancer and is then abducted by a group of alien thieves called the Ravagers, the present day of the film finds an adult Quill, going by the name “Star-Lord” (Chris Pratt), sashaying and sliding his way across an abandoned alien temple to ’70s music from a Walkman while retrieving a mysterious orb on behalf of his boss/surrogate dad, Yondu (Michael Rooker) so it can be sold for a heavy price. However, he’s accosted by Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou), who tries to steal the orb from him for his boss, the fanatical Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).

Quill escapes and tries to sell the orb directly to the buyer on the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps. The buyer refuses once he learns that Ronan–who’s threatening to destroy Xandar despite a Kree-Xandarian peace treaty–wants it and Quill winds up being pursued by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s been loaned out to Ronan, along with Nebula (Karen Gillan) as muscle by her adopted father Thanos the “Mad Titan”(Josh Brolin, going uncredited). Gamora, Quill and bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel)–who try to capture Quill for the huge bounty Yondu has placed on his head for muscling him out of his share of the orb–all wind up being thrown in jail by the Nova Corps.

There, they run into Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a morose musclebound giant who dreams of killing Ronan as vengeance for his murdered family. The group reluctantly bands together and breaks out, with Gamora–wanting to break away from the grip of Thanos and Ronan–leading them in a plan to sell the orb to someone else and split the money 5 ways. Of course, things go wrong.

What follows is perhaps one of the best movies of the year. It’s definitely in the top tier of Marvel Studios films–stronger, I’d dare to say, than The Avengers, if not quite as great as Winter Soldier–as well as being one of the best sci-fi/action movies of recent vintage.

It’s a funny thing. Despite coming from a superhero studio, this really isn’t a superhero movie. What it is is perhaps the best example of post-Star Wars SF filmmaking yet. The world and tech is lived in; big, crazy concepts are introduced and mostly brushed aside. In short, it’s easygoing and loose, something that a lot of blockbusters miss.

Key to the film’s joyful, groovy atmosphere is the cast, particularly Pratt. The Lego Movie might’ve been the first sign, but this film proves that without a doubt, he is a goddamn movie star. He’s charismatic, he’s goofy and he can shift to serious when it calls for it. In short, it’s like watching Firefly, but if the cast was one person. Trust me when I say that his work alone sells this movie.

However, he’s not the only draw, cast-wise. Everyone involved does outstanding work, from Pace’s over-the-top villainy as Ronan (which straight up nails the bombast of the character’s original appearances) to the soulful melancholy of Bautista as Drax. Also, all one needs to do is look at any given fight scene with Drax to wonder just why a major movie studio put a pro wrestler in its space movie.

Rocket and Groot, of course, are the big draws and they deliver on all fronts. Cooper–who provided the voice and was filmed gesticulating by the animators for reference, while the role of Rocket on-set was played by Gunn’s brother Sean–nails the wiseass tone of Rocket. And as the vocab-impaired Groot, Diesel turns in what is without a doubt his best performance since The Iron Giant. I’m not ashamed to say that I gasped and nearly cried at his big emotional moment; Diesel is that good.

Unfortunately, as they tend to be in this kind of movie, the women are sidelined. Saldana and Gillan are both great here, don’t get me wrong. But they get the shaft at points and it’s rather annoying, particularly with Nebula; I could sense that there was something we were missing and it kinda stank.

Now I’m not familiar with Gunn’s other work–although Super has been in my Netflix queue for a good long while–but as far as mainstream debuts go, this is a winner. I wrote on Twitter earlier after seeing this movie today that the little kids who see this today will be the George Lucas of tomorrow, creating whole new worlds out of cloth.

Reflecting on that, it seems like James Gunn was one of those kids. This was a long shot for a lot of reasons; the fact that millions upon millions of people now know who the Kree, the Celestials and Rocket Racoon are is mind-blowing. Folks: see this movie. You won’t regret it because there’s very little to regret.

In closing, let me just say that if you’ve already seen this movie and loved it like I do, please consider donating to the ongoing medical expenses and care of Bill Mantlo, the writer who co-created Rocket Racoon in the ’80s. Mantlo, a beloved comics writer, was in a near-fatal hit-and-run accident in 1992 and now requires round-the-clock help in an assisted living facility. You can find out more about his condition here; please consider donating a buck or two his way. Thank you.

 

 

Top 5 Comics of 2012

Hey folks, how was your Christmas? Mine was great! I got to see my new baby cousin, the first season of Homeland, and over $100 in Barnes & Noble gift cards!

Speaking of books, if you’ve been following here for a while, you’ve probably noticed by now that I like comics. A LOT.

But rather than try and count down my top 5 comic book issues of the year (because that would be really hard and several people are much better suited than I for such work), I figured I’d just list my top 5 favorite ongoing series. OK? OK, here we go…

#5–Superman/Superman Family Adventures

In talking with a friend about Superman recently, I mentioned that DC policy thus far has been to rotate the creative team every six issues, which equals out to the length of one storyline generally.

“So, basically, ” he said, “it’s an anthology?”

I said yes at the time but now I think it’s more like each arc is an episode of a TV show: each team is telling their one largely self-contained story (the current crossover being the exception), with their own style, while still contributing to one vision. It’s not always the most interesting or captivating book, but it’s entertaining and has got plenty of shots of Supes fighting the good fight, which I like.

Family Adventures, while having that whole episodic feel– each issue is self-contained, but there’s obviously some big plan being cooked up by Lex Luthor–is still a bit of an anomaly. I honestly never thought I’d be buying a kids comic, let alone one drawn and written by the dudes behind the famously-drawn-in-crayon Tiny Titans series, but when I saw the buzz it was getting, I had to check it out.

Man, is this book fun. Clean drawing, simple yet brilliant stories, really fun tweaks on the Superman mythos, like, say, Otis from Superman: The Movie becoming the Parasite…this book is great. Check it out for sure.

#4–Action Comics

Because it’s written by famed author Grant Morrison–best known for turning out the incandescently amazing All-Star Superman and being incredibly damn weird–Action Comics had the biggest hype arguably of anything going into DC’s New 52 relaunch because people were wondering which version of Morrison would show up. Well, with one issue left to go in his stated 16-issue run, I’d say by and large it’s been the one who can turn out amazing; at his best, Morrison writes high-concept stories that still feel understandable to the neophyte while celebrating the love of the longtime fan. Although the run hasn’t always been perfect (a head-scratching two-part story with the Legion of Super-Heroes comes to mind), it’s always been intriguing and the backup stories by Sholly Fisch have done a great job filling out the world and its inhabitants. This run will no doubt be discussed by comic book scholars for years to come.

#3–Captain America

If you had told me I’d be reading a Marvel book in 2012, even with the roller-coaster of awesome that was The Avengers, I’d have laughed. See, by and large, here’s how the storytelling policies of Marvel and DC Comics work. DC tries to make stories about gods (Superman, Wonder Woman) and god-like humans (Batman, Green Lantern) very simple and straightforward; Marvel, on the other hand, tries to make stories about simple humans with powers (Spider-Man, Wolverine, etc.) as complex and interconnected as possible.

Laugh at DC all you want for having rebooted 3 times in the past few decades, but they understood that their continuity had gotten too complicated for layfolk to understand; Marvel, on the other hand, has a “sliding timescale” policy similar to the newspaper comics comic books sprung from: i.e. the stories are always set in the present, but everything that has happened to their characters, unless stated, has always happened, creating a giant web of context that’s darn near impossible to navigate.

So why do I like the new Captain America so much then? Because it takes place outside of that web. In the first issue, Steve Rogers, investigating an abandoned subway line that’s mysteriously begun operating again for S.H.I.E.L.D., boards the train–which turns out to be full of monsters–and is whisked away due to another dimension, escapes his captor, the fanatic Armim Zola, and with a genetically engineered baby of Zola’s design, wanders the alien landscape trying to figure out a way home and how to survive. So yeah, it’s The Road but with spandex, basically.

John Romita, Jr’s art is well suited to the surreality of “Dimension Z” as it’s called, as well as the flashbacks to Rogers’ ’20s Bronx childhood that Rick Remender’s scripts call for. Speaking of Remender, while I’ve never read anything of his before, this is great: his pacing and the way he constructs his scenes are great; only 2 issues in and I’m already reeling from a cliffhanger that cries out to be delivered in a splash page, but isn’t. Instead, it’s a wide panel at the bottom of the page. It’ll cost you only $7 to pick all 2 issues of this up and I’d heartily recommend it.

#2–Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye

I’ve been a fan of Transformers since I was eight but I’d been holding off on diving full-throttle into the current comics because of the strange way they were published but this series allowed me to dive in with full force. The great thing about this book is that, like Captain America, it’s largely set apart from the rest of what’s going on.

Here’s the setup: the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons is over, with the two sides back on Cybertron trying to rebuild their damaged planet. Meanwhile, Rodimus–the guy in the middle there–has gone off  with several other Autobots to try and find the fabled Knights of Cybertron–the first inhabitants of the planet who were sent off on a mission of piece eons and eons ago, fyi–and persuade them to come back. But shortly after takeoff, they accidentally go through a wormhole and wind up roaming the galaxy all by themselves. Of course, it only gets crazier from there…

Key to the series is the astonishing artwork of Alex Milne for sure but the real star is the script power of James Roberts. Although everyone who works in comics nowadays is a fan-turned-pro, Roberts is particularly special: a founding member of the huge Transformers UK fanfiction community, Roberts eventually wrote Eugenesis, a novel-length fanfic that actually has astonishing literary skill behind it, believe it or not, and sunk about 1000 pounds of his own money into putting it into print. Eventually, when IDW Publishing had picked up the license, he was tapped to write a few stories here and there and then given full control of this book. What makes his writing work for me is that he imbues all these characters–some new, some established characters–with enough personality and charm that they stand on their own, even if you aren’t familiar with them. As somebody not familiar with the ’80s Transformers continuity, this is a big help for me and I look forward to this book every month.

But there’s one I look forward to even more…

#1–Saga

I had heard of writer Brian K. Vaughn (Y: The Last Man for Vertigo and Runaways for Marvel) and artist Fiona Staples (Marvel’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents) but I had never read anything by them until I saw the first issue of this science fiction series for $1.99. I picked it up as an impulse purchase, but one look at the terrific worldbuilding and gorgeous gorgeous artwork and I was hooked. Just look at this stuff:

If her art doesn’t get nominated for anything big next comics award season, I’ll hate everything.

At its heart, this is a star-crossed lovers story. Marko–the ram-horned guy–and Alana–short-haired chick who, although you can’t really see it, has wings–are soldiers on different sides of a bitter interstellar war. Alana hails from the technologically-advanced planet of Landfall, while Marko comes from the magic-using people of the planet’s moon Wreath: the two planets have been in endless conflict but when Alana, a prison guard, and Marko, a prisoner, fall in love, bust out and have a baby named Hazel (who narrates the series as an adult), the war gets a new focus. In addition to their own peoples hunting for them, they also have bounty hunters on their trail and Prince Robot IV from the Robot Empire following them. So yeah, pretty tense yet typical stuff. But Vaughn’s terrific scripts and Staples’ amazing art make this stand out from the rest.

The series only has 8 issues right now because it started in March and, after the first story arc, the book took a 2-month break to allow the two to rest and for Staples to get ahead on artwork. But the first trade collection is out now and it’s only for $10 so you have no excuse, people. Check it out.

Well, that was fun. Given my update schedule, I won’t post another one of these until after New Year’s Eve, but hey, I know y’all won’t mind.