The Ties That Bind, or, The Vision

thevision

Keeping up with the Visions

Maybe it’s because I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen live four times this year (it is) but I can’t help but draw parallels between The River, the Boss’ double-album exploration of the commitments and confines of family, and writer Tom King and artists Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire’s run on The Vision, which ended last week with issue #12.

The Vision favors androids and artificial intelligence to cars and working class Joes, but like Springsteen’s The River, it is a work concerned with what it means to create a family and live alongside of them in society. 

 

The book sees cybernetic Avenger The Vision settle down in the suburbs of Northern Virginia with a cybernetic wife and two cybernetic children of his own creation. When an old enemy shows up at the house events are set in motion that, when all is said and done, feel unavoidable from the start.

 

The book posits the notion that having a family opens one up to the possibility of certain inevitabilities. Familial ties bring with them certain triggers or buttons that, for better or worse, when pulled or pushed, create predictable responses. 

 

The Vision winds up being the perfect character for exploring these themes as, from the most cynical point of view, spousal and parental relationships can feel like programming, like binary switches imposed upon a being that execute particular, predictable processes should the correct motivation arise. If one’s family is threatened one can be predicted to respond with aggression, as if the entire interaction, from threat to recourse, is as straightforward as ones and zeroes.

 

Looking back on the events of The Vision’s twelve issue run the story that unfolds feels at once utterly unavoidable and utterly human. It’s as clinical as a series of interconnected if/then statements and as profound as a mother lifting a car to save her child. 

 

You’d be forgiven for thinking The Vision had been written by a dogmatic bachelor. At times Vision’s commitments to marriage and fatherhood feel like a surrender of free will, a forfeiture of control. And there is a certain surrender involved in Vision’s pursuit of family life, a surrender to those potential inevitabilities. But there is also the potential, within those constraints, of profoundly affecting the world around you. Like Neo seeing the code of the Matrix fluttering before him, an understanding of the interconnected ties that bind oneself to the world around them brings with it a power all its own, to manipulate those ties like a giant mech suit made of family members and exert more influence on the world than you could as an individual.

 

And yet, be it shackles or springboard, The Vision presents family as still something more. A phenomenon. An unknown. Why do we create replacements for ourselves who will one day create replacements for themselves and so on and so forth ad infinitum? What is the end game of family?

 

The Vision never answers those questions, but it displays the fundamental humanity behind asking them in spectacular fashion.

Advertisements

So That’s What the Expanded Universe is For, or, Marvel’s Darth Vader

darthvade-no1

There’s really no good reason to ever hold a lightsaber like this. Unless you’re BAWLER AF.

I didn’t follow the old Star Wars expanded universe. I knew just enough about the characters and events of the legions of books and comics to recognize when something was being eluded to on The Clone Wars, but I never actually read any of the adventures of Jaina and Jacen Solo or Cade Skywalker, or Jaxxon. So when Disney (who I have still not entirely forgiven for the unjust, early cancellation of the aforementioned Clone Wars) acquired the rights to Star Wars and stripped the old expanded universe of the sacred label of canon, I couldn’t have cared less. And I certainly couldn’t understand the fervor of EU fans when all those novels and comics were downgraded.

With the recent conclusion of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca’s Darth Vader comic book, I’m beginning to empathize.

Set firmly in place in the new Disney Star Wars cannon, the Marvel Comics Darth Vader series takes place between the events of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back and finds the iconic Sith Lord taking his lumps for allowing the Death Star to be destroyed. Over the course of 25 issues the book details how Vader went from spinning out of control in a TIE fighter to standing authoritatively on the bridge of a pimped-out Super Star Destroyer.

That isn’t a series of events that I ever had an overwhelming need to know about, which I feel can be the downfall of the EU. Just because there isn’t a canonical accounting of any lapse in time between any two events in Star Wars doesn’t mean there needs to be. But Gillen and Larroca fill in the blanks so well that I’ll likely never watch Empire the same way.

Gillen and Larroca give us a Vader that hasn’t truly been seen since Empire Strikes Back. Their Darth Vader isn’t a tragic, fallen war hero. He’s an unadulterated force of nature. After the prequels and Clone Wars and even Return of the Jedi, we know so much about Darth Vader that at times it can be hard to remember he’s a villain. Not an anti-hero, mind you. A straight up bad guy who does and has done terrible things. This is the Vader we get in the Marvel comic books. He’s intimidating, mysterious and frightening.

More impressive still is the fact that Gillen and Larroca were able to sustain that depiction of Darth Vader through 25 issues of storytelling without diluting or overdoing it. They preset Darth Vader as if he is the shark in Jaws, or Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

Their story never lapses into tragic flashbacks or dopey internal monologues. You can surmise what Darth Vader might be thinking at any given moment, but you never know for sure, and the character becomes all the more fascinating for it. The writing and art around the thoughts we aren’t privy to is so good that it almost feels like the whole series was written with thought bubbles that were erased before publication. The amount of pathos, contempt, rage and satisfaction Larroca is able to elicit from the same iconic, emotionless mask is absolutely staggering. It borders on a super power. Not enough can be said about Larroca, who did the art on every single issue of the series month after month, consistently turning out inspired work.

Gillen and Larroca’s Darth Vader book is one of the best Star Wars stories I’ve come across. It’s the kind of story that can make a believer out of someone who previously rolled their eyes at fans squabbling over the contradictory scraps of the expanded universe. Well, maybe not a believer, but someone who makes an effort to turn away from the squabbling before rolling their eyes.

Stories like Gillen and Larroca’s Darth Vader are the reason expanded universes thrive.

As a side note, if you’re hankering for more old school, villainous AF Darth Vader, be sure to check out Star Wars Rebels, where James Earl Jones reprises the role.

Luke Cage, or, Eat Your Heart Out Hell’s Kitchen!

luke-cage

I got nothing. This is badass as hell.

Much as I love Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, there’s something of an underlying buzzing in my ears I get the entire time I watch them. Nothing huge, but it’s there. A small, persistent nagging in the back of my head throughout the adventures of the first two Defenders. As much as I hate to use such a word when referring to any sort of genre entertainment, there’s a part of those shows that just doesn’t feel realistic. I know, I’m rolling my eyes too, but stay with me. I don’t mean Jessica Jones’ superpowers or Matt Murdock’s hyper senses. I mean the neighborhood.

Hell’s Kitchen sucks.

Not the real New York neighborhood, mind you, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recreation of it as Frank Miller’s wet dream. It can require a big enough suspension of disbelief that the events of two seasons of Daredevil and a season of Jessica Jones take place in a neighborhood that is less than one square mile in size, but I don’t have a problem with that. Superheroics are built on suspending your disbelief. What I do have trouble grappling with is just how unbelievably crappy and unlovable Hell’s Kitchen is. It doesn’t feel like a city worth saving, because it doesn’t feel like a city. It feels like an antagonist with one defining characteristic: utter shittiness. Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t a place people live, it’s a place ninjas and human traffickers go to get strung out and collect STDs.

And it’s not just Hell’s Kitchen. This is a trend throughout gritty, realistic vigilantism. Gotham City is cool because that’s where Batman lives. Other than that, it’s pretty terrible place filled with pretty terrible people. Similarly, I really couldn’t have cared less if the fictionalized Hell’s Kitchen burned to the ground. Not because it’s portrayed as a bad neighborhood with a high crime rate, but because it’s portrayed as a high crime rate possessing the concrete and steel of a city block.

Netflix’s latest Marvel outing, Luke Cage, has gotten no shortage of much-deserved praise for its representation and portrayal of anyone that isn’t a white dude, but it also does something else few, if any, other superhero stories have managed to do: create a setting that feels alive and breathing.

The Harlem of Luke Cage doesn’t just feel like a real neighborhood, it feels like a community. The MCU’s Harlem has history. It has heroes and villains that can’t fly or deflect bullets. It has hangouts and landmarks. I feel like I can imagine the places kids would be playing Pokemon Go.

Harlem feels like a community where people live, where people sleep at night and go to work in the morning. That believability goes a long way when a stranger with bulletproof skin comes to town. Not only does it serve to ground the series, it serves as character motivation for Luke Cage himself. I believe that Luke Cage wants to defend Harlem because I want him to defend Harlem because I can believe the Harlem the show presents is an actual human being’s actual home.

Those characters who call Harlem their home play just as big a role in instilling the show with a sense of life.

Luke Cage may be the most intellectual superhero story committed to film. Sure there are plenty of superhero adventuress that boast smart writing and cerebral themes, but Luke Cage boasts smart characters. Not quippy or clever, mind you. The characters that inhabit Luke Cage’s Harlem are intelligent. You gain insight into who they are based on the books they’re reading and their opinions of them. Conflicts in Luke Cage are just as likely to take the form of discourse as fisticuffs.

It’s an exciting development for superhero storytelling. We’ve seen smart heroes before. Peter Parker is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Reed Richards is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Luke Cage and his opponents and associates are smart. We know they’re smart because they engage in intelligent conversation and express and discuss thoughtful opinions about the world around them.

The prospect of discussing a piece in The Atlantic with Luke Cage is just as daunting as the prospect of arm wrestling him.

Like the show’s depiction of Harlem, the intelligence of its characters breathes life into the fictionalized world of Luke Cage. Its characters are aware of the world around them. They read about the world around them and they talk about the world around them because they have a stake in the world around them, which ultimately makes the audience believe in the world around them.

I love Daredevil and I love Jessica Jones, but after watching Luke Cage get shit done in Harlem, it’ll be hard to go back to the relentlessly bleak matte painting of a gutter that is Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen.

 

Jessica Jones, or, Better Late Than Never Right? RIGHT!?

While collecting my thoughts on the first season of Marvel’s latest Netflix offering, Luke Cage, I realized much to my dismay (and after an embarrassing amount of perusing my own blog) that I’ve yet to post anything on the first season on Jessica Jones. This is particularly inexcusable given I watched the entire first season the weekend it came out. What am I doing with my life, am I right? Egg on my face! Given how thought-provoking that show is and how much I enjoyed it I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss it before I post about Luke Cage later this week.

jessicajoness1

Telephone!

Jessica Jones is the follow up to Netflix’s premiere foray into the Marvel Universe, Daredevil. Like its gritty, TV-MA predecessor, Jessica Jones amps up the sexuality, language and general bleakness and is probably two or three episodes longer than it needs to be. But Jessica Jones is no Daredevil retread. In fact, Jessica Jones is the furthest thing from the tropes and expectations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to ever come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That starts with Jessica Jones herself, brought to life by Krysten Ritter, who absolutely inhabits the role. Ritter’s performance feels like it’s being circled by the same historic prestige that’s latched on to Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman. Jones isn’t what we as an audience have been groomed to think a superhero is. She never goes on self-righteous, brooding rants about “my city” this and “my city” that. She doesn’t have a crusade. She doesn’t partake in hallway fights. Jessica Jones is not a costume with delusions of grandeur trying to overcome overwhelming odds on behalf of a populous that is unaware she’s taken ownership of. She’s a woman with her sights set no higher than survival.

Queue arguably the most fascinating antagonist the Marvel Cinematic Universe has birthed thus far, the subtlety named Kilgrave, a man with mind control and zero moral or ethical shackles.

Kilgrave is as deplorable and terrifying as he is intellectually stimulating, due in no small part to the performance of David Tennant, who I guess has done some genre work in the past. He is a force of unchecked power and prosperity that Jessica Jones and her friends and acquaintances can do little more than hope to survive. He is the living, breathing personification of the patriarchy, a white man to whom the rules simply do not apply. His true power is privilege, a privilege he may not have specifically asked for, but one he deftly wields and refuses to apologize for nonetheless. When Kilgrave walks into a room, everyone else in the room begins living a life stacked in someone else’s favor.

Ritter’s Jessica Jones squaring off against Tennant’s Kilgrave is truly binge-worthy, but more than that, and more so than anything else Stan Lee has made a cameo in, the first season of Jessica Jones is a story that deserves thoughtful consideration.

The first season of Jessica Jones is the paragon of what Netflix’s brand of more mature superhero storytelling can be. It isn’t content to simply trade in bright colors and quips for violence and nudity, it trades in villains wearing Halloween costumes in the making for villains that embody systemic sexism, racism and oppression in the modern age.

Good luck finding your kid that LEGO set.

 

Batman v Supermen (and Women), or, I Am Gotham

batman1

A bunch of friends having a great time.

The world will disappoint you. On particularly heinous days it can be almost impossible to keep that disappointment from lapsing into loathing. It’s a battle for our own outlook that we wage with ourselves every time we read a headline and it’s the conflict at the heart of writer Tom King’s first arc on the newest volume of Batman (issues #1-5).

When Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo ended their run on Batman I thought there was a chance my compulsive need to analyze Batman might’ve taken an arrow to the knee, but King, and artist David Finch have crafted a fantastic, timely Batman story that won me over entirely by the end of the first issue. This is a story I’ll be wearing down the spine of when it comes out in paperback.

I Am Gotham finds Batman confronted with the prospect of two new super-powered allies, Gotham and Gotham Girl, who’ve been inspired by the Dark Knight to defend their city. It presents Batman with a question that’s been lobbied against him since his first meeting with Superman decades ago: in a world of superheroes with godlike powers what heroic relevance can one ordinary man really have? It’s a point that is beautifully illustrated in that aforementioned first issue in which nearly the entire contents of the book are dedicated to Batman figuring out how to solve a problem that takes Gotham and Gotham Girl all of a panel to solve.

But by the end of the arc King makes it clear that Batman’s power doesn’t lie in his money or gadgets or training. If Batman does have a superpower it’s his relentless belief in his city.

Batman’s disappointment in the world around him never lapses into loathing. He does not hate Gotham, he does not give up on Gotham and he never will. No matter how atrocious the headlines it produces are, Batman will never give up on his world’s potential to be better, and that requires an internal fortitude beyond flight or super strength.

Tom King’s Batman is as much a pillar of perseverance as he is a pillar or fearlessness and bravery and after the conclusion of “I Am Gotham” I couldn’t be more excited to see where he’ll take the character next.

 

About That Bro’s Batman T-Shirt, or, Dark Night: A True Batman Story

dark night

JOKER SO METAL \m/

People tend to think of cosplay as something that happens at comic book conventions, but you’d be surprised the amount of Supermen and Wonder Women you see at marathons and other races.

Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Captain America, even The Punisher. Superhero iconography is present in abundance at races. And yet, if I asked the runners in Batman shirts what they thought of DKIII so far, or if I asked the runners in Punisher getups about whether they thought Lexi Alexander would be involved with the latest onscreen iteration of the character I’d be willing to be they wouldn’t have much to say. Which isn’t a bad thing, mind you. It doesn’t mean they aren’t true fans, rather, it means the iconography of superheroes has far surpassed its humble, comic book beginnings. The bat and the skull and the S and the W have meaning beyond comic shops. They’ve become meaningful to the culture at large, symbols in a sort of modern, mythological vocabulary.

Author Paul Dini deftly wields that vocabulary in his new autobiographical graphic novel, Dark Night: A True Batman Story, which he co-created with artist Eduardo Russo.

Dark Night is a coming-of-age story unlike any other. It takes place well into Dini’s adulthood, shirking the idea that we’re done developing after some seminal moment in our early twenties. It pivots on an act of hauntingly random violence, following the aftermath of a brutal mugging Dini fell victim to in nineties. And, most notably, it walks the reader through the stages of that aftermath using the aforementioned vocabulary of superheroes, in this case Batman and his gallery of rogues.

I recommend Dark Night to anyone. It is in turns deeply upsetting and inspirationally uplifting. And that’s to say nothing of how fascinating Dini’s use of Batman and company is.

The conversations Dini imagines himself having with the likes of Batman and The Joker and Poison Ivy are imaginative and well written, but even without the specifics of Dini’s intelligent dialogue the reader can surmise a great deal about his emotional state at various points in the story based on the characters he’s interacting with. Even for those unfamiliar with Batman’s B-list villains the Dark Knight and the Joker immediately evoke specific connotations. Despite being corporate intellectual property and a cog in a billion dollar entertainment franchise, at the the end of the day the bat symbol does communicate something to the culture at large, be it fearlessness or prowess or just general badassery.

Dark Night is an excellent read and a prime example of why there are so many Supermen and Wonder Women at marathons. When you push aside toy sales and box office performance and comic book reviews superheroes do mean something. Their histories reach back far enough and their cultural impact has been effective enough that whether they’re “important” or not, they can effectively symbolize and communicate cultural ideals that are.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, or, Comics Are Cancelled Forever!

Spoilers ahead for Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, Superior Iron Man #1 and Batman & Robin Eternal #1

cap#1

RUN ATTACK!

I’m not concerned with the controversy surrounding writer Nick Spencer and artist Jesus Saiz’s recent debut issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers so much as I am fascinated that there’s any controversy to speak of.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 sees the return of Steve Rogers to his strapping young self after a brief stint as an old, old man (classic Steve). The issue follows Steve as he takes on a noticeably-extremist Hydra more attuned to the terrorists of today than Nazis, and in the twist heard round the world Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 concludes with Cap throwing an ally out of a plane and saying “Hail Hydra.”

Oh shit!

There are less interesting reasons to be surprised that the controversy surrounding Cap’s dope new catchphrase exists. It’s a comic book, a largely serialized medium that ends on a cliffhanger with a reliable enough consistency that you can set your watch to it. It’s the first issue of a comic book and the debut of a new creative team, which is pretty much a flashing neon sign that the character will be heading in some sort of new direction that upsets the status quo. And to reiterate, it’s the first issue, so the story has barely left the ground.

But what fascinates me about the Captain America backlash, and boy oh boy has there been backlash, is that this is the character that crossed the line.

Good guys have gone bad left and right and plenty of these villainous benders have taken place recently. But Captain America’s hailing of Hydra is the only one I’m aware of that got written up in the New York Times. Yes, I read.

Last year there was an entire book based on the premise of Tony Stark’s maniacal ego getting the best of him. Superior Iron Man saw Tony Stark first give away an Extremis app that let the public enhance their looks and abilities, then charge exorbitant fees on the app when everyone got addict to their new and improved lives. Nefarious. And yet Superior Iron Man #1 didn’t go flying off the stands in a whirlwind of fury and curiosity, nor did it spawn a million think pieces. It just kind of happened.

To be fair, Superior Iron Man took place after the events of Axis, a storyline that saw Tony’s personality inverted, and it also choreographed suspicion in Tony’s cognizance pretty quickly. But the first issue of Superior Iron Man also saw its protagonist be a huge dick throughout, rather than in the final panel.

Superior Iron Man isn’t a fantastic analogue for Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. But it isn’t the only instance of a beloved hero turning against everything they believe in in recent memory.

I would argue that Batman & Robin Eternal #1 is a one-for-one equivalent.

Much as CA:SR #1 showcases Steve Rogers presumably allying himself with his sworn enemy, Batman  & Robin Eternal showcases Batman gunning down a boy’s parents in front of him in a dark ally.

Same character-180. Same first issue revelation. Entirely different, arguably non-existent, fan reaction.

So why can Tony Stark become a techno drug dealer and Batman can apparently murder parents in front of their children to little or no backlash, but Steve Rogers saying “Hail Hydra” lights Twitter on fire?

I have no idea. But if I had to wager a guess I’d say it’s all Chris Evans’ fault.

I’m not the first person to compare Evans’ performance as Captain America to Christopher Reeves’ Superman and I won’t be the last, because it’s a damn good comparison. There’s an inherent goodness and a deep sense of responsibility that Evans’ brings to Cap. As exciting as it is to watch him kick the shit out of pirates and terrorists and robots, what really defines Evans’ Steve Rogers is that at his core he’s a good guy. A solid bro, if you will.

Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne aren’t awful human beings by any stretch of the imagination, but where Iron Man is a smartass superhero and Batman is a brooding, vengeful, insane superhero, under Chris Evans’ stewardship Captain America has become the superhero.

Maybe the reason every other comic book reader with a Twitter account feels the need to send death threats like an eight-year-old animal-mutilator is because Captain America has replaced Superman as the very mold of what a superhero is, the foundation that is tweaked and twisted into endless variations. Maybe the twist at the end of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 is upsetting not because “THEY MADE CAPTAIN AMERICA A NAZI” or “THEY MADE CAPTAIN AMERICA A GIMMICK,” but because it’s scary. It implies that evil can’t just get to smartasses and brooding, vengeful psychos, it can get to solid bros too. And if Hydra can get to Captain America they can get to the core, the essence of modern superheroism.

Or maybe they’re just a bunch of dumbasses.