Home for the Holidays, or, The Court of Owls

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BAM! BIFF! POW! OWL!

The recent Batman: Noir release (a format presenting seminal Batman stories in black and white inks without any color) of writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion’s The Court of  Owls has proven an excellent opportunity to revisit a story that has cemented its place as a Batman classic despite being less than a decade old.

The new Noir formatting of the story is not exactly the second format I’ve encountered this story in. I read it first as individual comic books, then as a nicer pair of hardcover trades. There’s an excellent version that is just Capullo’s original pencils and, of course, the academic, oversized Absolute Edition. Anytime the opportunity arises I find myself eager to reencounter Snyder and Capullo’s first Batman collaboration in a different light, as I consistently find myself drifting back to the tale once or twice a year. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, which I saw a dozen times in the theater because I was a high schooler on summer vacation and the world was my oyster and time had no meaning, Court of Owls is the Batman story I interact with the most.

But why?

There are plenty of Batman stories I love, but none that I inevitably meander back to with such frequency.

DC Comics already regularly markets The Court of Owls as a Batman essential alongside the likes of Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, but more than perhaps any other Batman story, Court of Owls has the mythological backbone of a near-universal rite of passage.

For those unfamiliar with The Court of Owls, the story concerns a Batman at the height of his prowess discovering an illuminati-like organization that has haunted Gotham’s past and is pulling the strings to manipulate the city’s future. Readers are introduced to a Bruce Wayne who can and does readily wax philosophic about Gotham. It is his city. He knows it to the marrow. He informs the reader of Gotham’s history, of Gotham’s architecture, of its heights and depths, and he does it with the sort of offhanded virtuosity one would provide an oral history of their closest friends and family.

And then he discovers that that knowledge is at best incomplete, and at worst an elaborate façade.

In The Court of Owls, Batman undergoes a rite of passage most, if not all, of us will confront at some point in our lives: the subversion of his perception of home.

Court of Owls challenge Batman by calling into question the structural integrity of what he believe Gotham to be. The worst part? Nothing about Gotham City has actually changed. The threat Bruce Wayne stumbles upon is one that dates back centuries. The adversary he faces is ingrained in Gotham and has been for longer than he ever can be. In grand, mythological fashion, Batman’s undertaking in Court of Owls mirrors the sort of realization that comes with hearing the unabridged, adult version of the history of the town you grew up in, or with returning home after that first semester away from college to find everything so different and so eerily similar. It’s a story about our relationships with home, about how home can define us, betray us and strengthen us, about how even when everything  we think we know about our home suddenly feels false the inherent truths we hold about our home can still ring true.

In Court of Owls, Batman, like each of us, has to contend with those aspects of his relationship with Gotham that are concrete and those that are fluid and the fact that what makes those aspects concrete or fluid may be entirely out of his control. It’s a struggle that is gorgeously rendered by Capullo in the story’s unforgettable middle chapters (originally published as Batman #5 and #6) in which Batman is stalked through his new nemesis’ stalking grounds.

I find myself returning to the Court of Owls time and time again because it so beautifully articulates and examines our relationships with home. It is Batman punching and kicking his way through the internal monologues we have when we return home for the holidays and wander through neighborhoods that suddenly seem so much smaller. It’s a batarang to that weird sensation of finding out some grown-up you knew as a kid is actually an utter jackass, or some mean old lady you rolled your eyes at was a saint. More than an excellent Batman story, the Court of Owls is an excellent human story, one that deals with the horrifying sensation of tectonic plates beneath our parents’ house shifting that we all find ourselves experiencing at one point or another.

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Doomsday Clock #2, or, How to Keep it Real in a Fictional Universe

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Ah yes, my favorite Watchmen character: Box of Assorted Clothing and Cosmetics

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Spoilers ahead for Doomsday Clock #2…

The second issue of writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s Watchmen/DC Comics crossover event Doomsday Clock spends very little time exploiting the sense of dread and impending doom so masterfully curated in the debut issue, instead seeing those nuclear fears realized and moving on to an examination of a  spectrum of perceived reality amongst superheroes.

In the opening panels we’re introduced to the concept of a sort of identity vendor within the Watchmen Universe who sells costumes and monikers, which, Doctor Manhattan aside, is all a superhero really is in the Watchmen Universe. Rorschach, the Comedian, Ozymandias, names and costumes the lot of them. And yet, even within the world of Watchmen there is a spectrum of realness and legitimacy which those characters have and so many others who buy monikers and costumes do not.

The new villain introduced last issue, the Mime, is a personification of this sort of nebulous discrepancy between real and fake superheroics in a world that only actually has one real superhero. Last issue we saw the Mime retrieve his pantomimed “guns” from a storage locker and this issue we see them in action, so to speak. Watching security camera footage of a bank robbery carried out by the Mime and the Marionette, we see him successfully coercing information from a bank teller by miming pointing a gun at her. We never see him fire psychic bullets or whack anyone with an invisible pistol, but the gun is perceived by the bank teller nonetheless. There or not, in effect the gun is real.

Perhaps then, in the Watchmen Universe, the reality of a superhero or supervillain is a matter of imposition of will, a scale of how deftly one can wield their own imagery and mythos within the world around them, their true power being influence. We see this influence reflected in the same bank robbery in a picture of the bank teller’s son, who we see cradling an Ozymandias action figure. Ozymandias is not only a moniker and a costume, it is a moniker and a costume that penetrates the surrounding culture, that means something to the world around it.

In crossing over to the proper DC Universe, Ozymandias, Rorschach, the Marionette and the Mime enter a world in which that influence and legitimacy might just translate to something more, something palpable. In the DC Universe, the Mime’s pantomimed lock pick works.

DC’s universe has always carried with it the weight of myth, their characters less a reflection of the world outside our door than monuments to ideals and beliefs. It’s fitting then that Doomsday Clock seems interested in exploring the potency of myth as its narrative moves across universes more and less like our own.

In its inaugural issue Doomsday Clock concerned itself with very real world fears. Its second issue sets up an exploration of what effect, if any, very unreal world stories have on those fears. When Batman saves Gotham, what effect does that have on the DC Universe? What effect does that have on a separate fictional universe in which Batman is a fiction? What effect does that have on our world, here and now, and how real is the effect of that fictional salvation, particularly in the face of very real dread?

And to think at this point Doctor Manhattan hasn’t even gotten involved in the proceedings. Two issues in Doomsday Clock promises to be one wild ride.

Doomsday Clock #1, or, True Grit

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That guy who’s way to excited for the Justice League movie.

When the intermingling of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s comic book classic Watchmen and the rest of the DC Comics universe was first teased last year in the comic DC Rebirth it was immediately framed as a battle between hope and grit, between the wholesome hope of old school Superman and the intellectual grit and despair of Doctor Manhattan. After 30 years, the Superman of yore was finally going to stick it to the grime and misery that has pervaded superhero comics since the heralded arrival of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and bring back hope and color and fun.

Enter last week’s Doomsday Clock #1, the first issue in the aforementioned crossover, written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank.

Much of the first issue of this twelve-issue limited series is concerned with setting up the status quo of the world of Watchmen after the events of the original series, and it’s a status quo that is a slog to internalize. Set in 1992, the world we’re shown in Doomsday Clock is a frightening one. It’s funhouse mirror reflection of our world today make it particularly upsetting and paranoia-inducing. I found myself becoming more worried about the real world and what could become of it while reading the pages of Doomsday Clock. And then I found myself wondering, “is this what it was like to read Watchmen in 1986?”

One of the first comic books I read, I encountered Watchmen on a summer vacation in 2008, after having seen the trailer for the then-upcoming film adaptation during repeated viewings of The Dark Knight. It blew me away and still does every time I read it, but for me it will always be something of a period piece. The world it satirizes and discusses is one that predates me and so while I can read it and understand that it is gritty and grim, that grit and grim has always been mostly aesthetic rather than directly indicative of the world around me.

And perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps that’s why so many were quick to sick a colorful, smiling, curlicued Superman at the patient zero of grit and grime like a cheerful attack dog. Where the vein of bleakness in Watchmen was a direct reflection of the world that produced that work, in many works since then that darker tone has become an imitation of Watchmen itself, a reflection of a reflection that loses its poignancy somewhere between mirrors.

Doomsday Clock #1 isn’t the condemnation of grit some might have expected, rather it’s a recontextualization of it. A reminder of why Watchmen was the way it was. Doomsday Clock is more a reconstruction of the equation behind Watchmen than the end result. The darkness in this first issue isn’t an imitation of its predecessor, it’s an imitation of its own time and place, which makes it incredibly effecting.

As a reader, by the end of Doomsday Clock #1 I felt more concerned about the world than I had before I read it. That’s a vulnerable and unpleasant journey to be taken on by a story. After Doomsday Clock’s first steps I’m left to wonder about what I suspect will make or break this story: what will the issues to come do with the vulnerability the first issue elicits from me, and how authentically will it be done? One expects some semblance of hope to prevail, but would that hope ring as true as despair does here?

Classic funny books!

The Ties That Bind, or, The Vision

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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.