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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Justice League: War (Review)

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So by and large, I’ve been pretty happy with DC’s New 52 since it debuted. Granted, I’m only keeping up with Superman (through Superman and Action Comics) and Batman (through Batman, in trade) and most recently, Wonder Woman (in trade), but while I stick to my preferred characters, thanks to the Internet, I’m pretty aware of what’s been going on in the entire DC Universe these past couple years.

I’ve also been aware of DC’s generally excellent series of direct-to-video animated films with top-tier talent based on popular storylines. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen all of them yet, but I plan to one day.

So, for Valentine’s Day, when my roommate gave me a Blu-Ray of Justice League: War, an adaptation of the first arc of the current Justice League comic, I couldn’t wait to watch it. And rightly so: this is a damn good movie, with well-paced action, really great casting, excellent animation, and some welcome takes on some great characters.

The plot–adapted from Geoff Johns’ and Jim Lee’s apparently not-very-good story Origins–opens with Green Lantern (Justin Kirk) investigating a series of mysterious abductions carried out by a bat-shaped figure. He’s patrolling in Gotham City when he sees a woman kidnapped in front of him by what turns out to be the winged monster known as a Parademon. The Parademon nearly kills GL, but he’s saved at the last minute by Batman (Jason O’Mara). The Parademon attacks both of them, and they head into the sewers, where it charges a mysterious box and then explodes. Realizing the box is extraterrestrial in origin, they decide to head to Metropolis to find Superman (Alan Tudyk) and see if he knows anything.

Elsewhere in Metropolis, as star high school quarterback Vic Stone (Shemar Moore) is prepping for the big championship game, he’s brimming with rage that his dad won’t be there, spending all his time and energy working at S.T.A.R. Labs investigating another mysterious box given to him by the Flash (Christopher Gorham). While Green Lantern and Batman have a huge knockout fight with Superman, moody, sullen teenager Billy Batson (Zach Callison) sneaks into the big football game, steals Vic’s jersey and confronts another of the mysterious winged monsters, which he gets rid of by turning into the superhero Shazam (Sean Astin). Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Diana, princess of the Amazons (Michelle Monaghan), is on her way to meet the President, but exacerbates her military liaison, Steve Trevor (George Newbern), by refusing to play the diplomat’s game.

And on the planet Apokolips, the evil warlord Darkseid (Steven Blum) plots his invasion of Earth…

The curious thing here is that Aquaman, present in the original story, is here swapped out for Shazam (the New 52 moniker for Captain Marvel), largely because, as a post-credits teaser hints, they’re working on a solo Aquaman movie. That’s fine for the interconnected New 52 universe DC is building in these movies now, but it’s an odd absence. Happily, the way he’s been written here by screenwriter Heath Corson, Shazam more than fills the gap, and while a pissy teenage Billy Batson could have come off horribly wrong, here, it’s entirely believable.

Corson’s screenplay also gives us perhaps the best version of Wonder Woman I’ve ever seen and definitely the best use of Green Lantern ever. Seriously, for the first time ever, there’s finally more to GL’s power ring than “that thing that shoots laser beams,” with a steam train and all sorts of creative constructs on display. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman is not only painted as a kick-ass warrior, but she’s also given ample opportunity to be funny and endearing. The rest of the heroes are rather spot-on, although Superman was a bit more ruthless towards the end than I prefer.

By and large, the cast helps sell this. Fitting for a Johns-derived story, Green Lantern is the center here, and Kirk sells it, investing each wry quip with force and verve. This guy even has the nerve to call out BATMAN as a “phenomenal douchebag,” which might sound petulant in print, but is awesome here. O’Mara sounds a little old to be as young as Bruce Wayne is supposed to be here, but you warm to him by the end and I look forward to see how he’ll tackle an older Batman in the upcoming Son of Batman.

Monaghan is absolutely terrific as Wonder Woman, and I hope they keep her bravado warrior shtick around. Moore, perhaps best known for Friday Night Lights, is the emotional core of this movie, and he’s great as a good kid who gets caught up in something beyond his imagining. Tudyk makes a fine Superman, but I wish they had given him more to do. And Blum, the undisputed king of cartoon villains (seriously, look him up), is fine as Darkseid, but his voice is so electronically distorted, I can’t tell it’s him half the time.

Director Jay Oliva does some great staging with the battle scenes and I give him credit for taking what could have been a slog and making it great. This is pulse-pounding, hard-hitting action. Definitely worth checking out.

JL8, Justice League and Why I Love the DC Universe

I read a lot of webcomics, as this blog has documented in depth, and one of my favorites, introduced to me this past fall by a friend of mine, is Yale Stewart’s JL8, which imagines a world where Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Power Girl and Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz) not only have their powers, but are all in grade school together at–you guessed it–8 years old.

Stewart’s art is cartoonish and pleasing, and his writing accurately captures what it might be like to be a kid with superpowers, while also incorporating shoutouts to longtime DC fans. After a long hiatus (mostly due to him, among other things, actually getting professional comics work), he started updating again and it’s been great. (If you’re interested, you can start here.)

Besides that, another thing has reminded me of how much I love the DC Universe. And that’s Justice League, the Bruce Timm cartoon that ran for 2 seasons on Cartoon Network before transitioning to Justice League Unlimited for three more seasons.

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I didn’t actually have Cartoon Network when this show came out, but I owned the pilot movie (split into three episodes) and a DVD containing the first 2 stories (which, like every story of this show, are both two-parters) and I loved them, so I’d rewatch them over and over again. I found out both this show and JLU are on Netflix so I’ve been getting back into it, just finishing the first season the other night.

Some people have complained that the show focuses too much on Batman to the detriment of the other heroes, or that Superman is consistently made to look like a loser, and while I get those points, for me, the show encapsulates just why I love the DC Universe.

Despite all the darkness that’s crowded around it in recent decades, the DCU, as a whole, is about people from all over the universe recognizing they have extraordinary abilities and using those to save people, to help people and to inspire them. If comic books are our modern mythology, the DC Universe is a particular strand that’s, for the most part, optimistic. DC heroes may fight or have differences, but they can put them aside whenever people are in danger.

(I should also point out that it truly is an all-encompassing mythology. The Fanholes Podcast discussed recently a twopart miniseries called History of the DC Universe that ties every character (well, in 1986 anyway) into one grand timeline encompassing the history of the universe, and it’s fascinating in its cohesiveness and consistency.)

The sheer icons that stand out–Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and so on–are the easiest to think of, but even the more obscure, like, say, Mr. Terrific, have the same goal in mind. They don’t want to rule or enslave, but they want to guide. They want to protect. They want to help.

It’s that compassion–that resolve to protect everyone or to make sure that what happened one night in Crime Alley never happens to anyone again–that defines these heroes and their stories.

And that’s why I keep coming back.

Superman: For Tomorrow

So before we start here, I’d like to thank everybody who viewed, liked or commented on my post about the passing of my professor and friend, William J. Vande Kopple. It was a very hard post to write–probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever written–and to have seen such a response is overwhelming. So from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.

And to those who have decided to follow this blog in the wake of the post, well, here’s the kind of post that we usually have around here.

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Despite the fact that DC Comics rebooted their entire universe in 2011, in their marketing departments and “Essential Stories” lists, they still hold up several storylines from the prior incarnation of the DC Universe, colloquially known as the “Post-Crisis” DCU, up as gateway stories to read if one wants to know about their characters.

Superman: For Tomorrow, which ran for 12 issues in 2004-2005, is one of those stories; although in abstract, it always seemed to me an odd choice, as it’s an event storyline with no real major changes for Superman nor anyone in his supporting cast, after finally reading the complete edition from the library recently, I understand why. This is an ambitious, epic story that humanizes the one superhero more often called “overpowered” than anyone else and tells a tight, suspenseful tale while doing so.

The scope of this story is shown by the fact that it begins in media res: we open with Superman visiting young priest Daniel Leone in his church. Leone is both apprehensive and slightly confused as to why someone like Superman would come to him. Supes begins confiding his immense guilt over the fact that, while he was out saving Green Lantern from a disaster in space, over a million people–including Lois Lane, who at this point he was still married to–vanished without any cause or explanation. He begins mediating about sin, then tells Father Leone, “My sin…was to save the world.”

Not too long later, Superman appears to Leone again, telling him how he traced the source of the Vanishing, as it’s called, to an unspecified Middle Eastern country in the midst of a civil war. Discovering that the cause was a strange mechanical device held by military leader General Nox, hellbent on taking over the country, he tries to confiscate it. Nox refuses and sics his minion Equus, a sort of cyborg horse-man thing with no moral compass whatsoever, on him. In the chaos, Equus gets ahold of the device  and vanishes himself along with 300,000 other people. Not surprisingly, this gains the ire of both the world at large and the Justice League.

Meanwhile, Father Leone, who is actually suffering from cancer, is confronted by a mysterious man named Mr. Orr, who describes himself as a mercenary for people who have “80% of the world population working for them in one way or another,” who wants to find Superman and the device.  But for what end…?

Writer Brian Azzarello has been a staple at DC for a long time now–starting with his creator-owned series 100 Bullets, he’s currently writing Wonder Woman–despite the fact that he has openly stated he doesn’t care for superheroes. So whenever he does wind up writing them, he writes them differently from the standard portrayal for purposes of storytelling. The biggest tell of that is here, we get an introspective Superman; Azzarello perfectly nails the query of “If you were the most powerful person you know, yet you couldn’t save your own wife, what the hell would that do to you?” A lot of people have opined both to me personally and online that Superman sucks because he has no limitations seemingly. Azzarello gives him some, but they’re psychological, which helps give this story a unique and distinct tone amid all the required punching.

Jim Lee, the comic art world’s Alex Rodriguez in terms of his popularity and ubiquity–and who is currently co-publisher of DC and artist on Justice League–is on pencils here and he does a bang-up job. Even as someone who’s not intimately familiar with the majority of his work, I can’t help but acknowledge his immense talent. The way he handles both the big fight scenes and tense dialogue-filled moments is propulsive and compelling in equal measure, and it shows you just why he’s such a big deal.

Overall, this is a terrific story that doesn’t require no more than a little above baseline knowledge of Superman to get, a terrific suspense thriller as well as a great exploration of Superman’s psyche. I wasn’t even done with this book before I told my friend, an avowed anti-Supes man, to check this out, and I suspect you’ll like this too. Recommended.

Why I Love Superman

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So yesterday was the 75th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. In celebration, Brian Cronin over at Comics Should Be Good polled, tabulated and ranked the 75 greatest Superman stories of all time. It’s a great list and got me thinking just why I love this character more than any other superhero.

But first, some backstory. I wasn’t always an active Superman fan. I was aware of the character from an early age, as I think most are. One of my earliest memories is watching the 1940s cartoon where he fights a giant ape at the circus. I remember enjoying the ’90s cartoon and Lois and Clark enormously as a kid. And I’m proud to say I own an original copy of Superman #80, the climax of the “The Death of Superman” storyline. As a matter of fact, the very first trade paperback I ever bought was The Return of Superman, which contains that issue.

But it wasn’t until I got serious about comic collecting in high school that I realized it. My pile of trade paperbacks had gotten so large that I knew some stuff needed to be moved or else risk destroying my shelf.

I looked and noticed I had about six or seven Superman trades. “Huh,” I thought to myself. “I guess this means I’m a Superman fan.” Not too long after that, I watched the first Christopher Reeve film and fireworks went off in my head. Now here, I thought, is a superhero!

When DC rebooted their whole universe in 2011, I was ecstatic. At last, I had a chance to get in on the Man of Steel from the ground up. I’ve bought every issue of the new Superman and Action Comics that’s come out and I love them.

Superman was also the focus of some of my earliest published writing. Long before I started this humble blog, I wrote two pieces for the world’s biggest Superman fansite, the Superman Homepage. It was a wonderful learning experience and I love the community on that site (my user name is TomCon, fyi).

So happy birthday, Superman. You’ve been an inspiration to legions and hopefully will be for the next 75 years and more. I cannot wait for your new film and I’ll keep finding more to read watch and learn about you. Thanks for doing the right thing because it’s the right thing every time.

Y’know, I never have sat down and watched Smallville