The Tone Without Fear

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What a strange time to be alive! The coolest superheroes are Iron Man, Black Widow, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of the best TV series are skipping the broadcast networks and being produced by streaming services! One of the most fun and entertaining translations of comics to television is a woman-focused period piece miniseries spinoff of Captain America! A movie featuring Batman and Superman together is finally coming out, and the trailer makes it look like a dire, boring, outdated and uninspired mess. And people are getting really excited about Star Wars again!

Every time Marvel comes out with another solid movie or TV show, I go through the same process of gee-whiz-that’s-a-surprise, even though they’ve been so consistently strong — with enough missteps to prove that they’re far from infallible — that it shouldn’t be surprising anymore. But to somebody who read comics in the 1990s, it still feels like DC and Marvel did a Freaky Friday-style switch in mindset: DC’s spent the past decade and a half trying to make itself dark and gritty and realistic, while Marvel’s been focused on storytelling, world-building, and characters.

For Mature Audiences

I was one of the few people defending Man of Steel when it came out, but any remaining good will I had towards that movie’s decision to play up the “Superman as alien” angle dried up as soon as I saw Guardians of the Galaxy and how it made the combination of superheroes + science fiction seem effortless. And actually managed to have fun doing it, instead of wallowing in self-important meditations on What It Means to be an American in cloying montages straight out of a commercial for Ford Trucks.

But still. Netflix’s Daredevil series is a tough sell to me. Make Iron Man a romantic comedy with fight scenes, and I’m sold. Play up the X-Men angle of non-conformity and prejudice, and I’ll even think Wolverine is interesting. Give Joe Johnston the budget to make Captain America as a romanticized The Rocketeer-style period piece, or Kenneth Branagh the chance to present Thor in much the same spirit as a modernized Shakespeare tragedy, and those characters actually feel relevant for once. Take a license I’d never heard of and make it a sci-fi comedy adventure, and I’m in the theater even before you’re even finished with your elevator pitch (showing Chris Pratt in the trailer with his shirt off is pretty much overkill at that point).

But Daredevil has always been the one Marvel character that doesn’t just not interest me, but actively repels me. (Okay, sure, Cable and the Sub-Mariner, too, but get back to me once they get their own movies). I like Batman, so I always assumed I’d like Marvel’s version of Batman. And one of my favorite comic books of all time was Batman: Year One, which I’d long heard was influenced heavily (if not entirely) by Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil. So I’ve tried reading what have always been recommended as the standout Daredevil stories, and they just don’t do it for me.

The reason is that they take the basic premise — Marvel’s version of Batman — entirely literally. It drains almost all of the fantasy out of the Batman universe, distilling it almost entirely to what I think is the least interesting part, the “lone vigilante against crime” angle. All the dark gothic history of Gotham City is subbed out with Hell’s Kitchen in 1970s New York. The larger-than-life supervillains are replaced with mafiosos. Interpretations of Batman have always had a hard time getting the balance right between camp and seriousness, but Daredevil always struck me as being so afraid of camp and so eager to be taken seriously that it’s perpetually stuck in the mindset of an adolescent boy in 1981. (In case that seems too harsh, keep in mind that the replacement for Catwoman is a Greek female ninja assassin with “low-level mind control and telepathic communication”). I’ve re-read Batman: Year One in recent years, and it doesn’t really appeal to me anymore, for much the same reason.

Martha Wayne’s Pearl Necklace

Which is all background for why I’m not in the target audience for a Daredevil TV series, and why it’s so surprising that I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Granted, I’m still only two episodes in so far, so it could all fall apart. But it would take something pretty catastrophic to unravel everything built up by those first two hours. (Apparently Drew Goddard stepped down as show runner after the second episode, so maybe I should watch more before I go on gushing about how great the series is).

The thing that sold me in the first episode was the cleverness of the premise and the confidence in which everything was established. It checks off all the boxes of a comic book adaptation — the origin scene, the scenes with his father, the gym and the boxing matches, the glasses, the confessional, and even a scene standing watch over Hell’s Kitchen on a rooftop at night — but seems to understand exactly how and why they’re important to the story. It’s too early (for me) to tell, but this might be the first real case of a live-action graphic novel: feature films are always trying to cram decades of continuity into an hour and a half, and weekly episodic series are always conscious of having to state and re-state their premise with each episode. Daredevil seems designed with Netflix and binge-watching in mind: the episodes are more like chapters instead of installments, and it’s developing its own rhythm of introduction, repetition, and reinforcement that seems to be telling the story at its own pace, without fear of losing the audience.

The confessional is a solid example. Every Daredevil story I’ve read is pretty ham-fisted with the religious allegory, as if we might forget the “devil” part of the name, or forget that we’re supposed to be conflicted about a hero using violence to do good. But the series takes what could be a stock scene and uses it for character exposition. The last line, where he asks “forgiveness for what I’m about to do,” actually works, and it doesn’t just feel like the kind of line a writer high-fives himself for squeezing into a scene.

The “origin story” is an even better example. Even though it’s been 15 years since X-Men made comic book movies cool again, and we’ve seen so many comic book adaptations that they’ve gone through at least two rounds of backlash, and the last person to do anything novel or interesting with an origin story was Tim Burton in Batman Returns, we still get the origin story every single time. Because everybody assumes that’s just what comic book adaptations do. And, I assume, everybody wants to be the one who makes the definitive version, to come up with the thing that becomes as indelible and iconic as Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace.

Daredevil splits the difference: it doesn’t act as if it’s showing us something we’ve never seen before, but neither does it assume we’re so familiar with the story that it can use shorthand like Grant Morrison did for Superman. We’ve all been around the block enough times to know that if you save somebody’s life but get blinded by hazardous chemicals in the process, you’re going to get super powers. Daredevil isn’t even all that subtle about it:
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but in terms of comic book adaptations, it’s a paragon (I was about to say marvel) of restraint.

I saw two tweets today with criticisms of the show that I completely disagree with. One complained that the cool thing about Daredevil is that he’s blind, but the show ignores that. Another complained that “there’s no clear taxonomy [of sound], helping the audience understand what he does“. I think these are both examples of the same thing: we’re so used to comic book adaptations behaving a certain way, that it’s surprising to see any attempt at deviating from that with any kind of subtlety.

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When I saw the opening credit sequence, with all the iconography of Daredevil and New York City taking shape as it’s slowly covered with red wax, I thought I knew exactly what we were going to get: lots of fancy CGI sequences of outlines taking shape out of the darkness, to illustrate Matt Murdock’s echolocation. (My brain has mercifully blocked out all memory of the Ben Affleck movie, but if I remember correctly, they did exactly that). If the VFX team got ambitious, a crucial fight would take place in the rain, being the defining element that either saves the day or almost causes Daredevil to lose the fight, depending on however the writer decided rainfall would affect somebody with superhuman senses.

Instead, so far at least, there are frequent reminders that Murdock is actually blind, gradually more explicit indications that his other senses are becoming more sensitive (like young Matt reacting to a boxing ring bell or hearing a conversation on the other side of the room), Rosario Dawson’s character repeatedly asking how a blind man can smell someone through walls a couple of floors down or accurately drop a fire extinguisher several stories down a stairwell to hit someone at exactly the right moment, and generally, an implicit assumption that the audience can understand that super powers are happening without the aid of a visual effects crew.

Powers Beyond Those Of Mortal Men

And the reason I think it’s enough of a big deal to drag out is because the second episode, “Cut Man,” is just masterfully constructed. I’d say it’s as strong as Battlestar Galactica’s “33” in that both are seamlessly orchestrated self-contained episodes that also confidently and definitively establish the tone of the rest of the series.

Throughout the episode, what impresses me the most is the decision what to show and what to leave implicit. It’s the first episode where we really see the extent of Daredevil’s powers as something super-human, but it’s almost entirely conveyed via Claire Temple asking him how he’s doing all this. It took the setup from the end of the pilot — a child is kidnapped by a human trafficking ring — and immediately advance past his super-heroics to a shot of him lying in a dumpster near death. The bulk of the episode is his recovering from his near-fatal injuries while Claire recounts the standard “birth of a super hero” adventures that we’d normally get in a montage sequence.

And of course the final sequence really is a masterpiece; I’ll be very surprised if anything else in the series is able to top it. Again, it’s because of the restraint. The previous episode ended with a montage of all the horrible atrocities the bad guys were committing, to make it clear that Daredevil was hopelessly outnumbered against an insurmountable evil. The bulk of the second episode is spent making it clear that he’s broken and beaten, and that there’s a very real chance he won’t survive the night.

But then the final climactic battle is slow and almost quiet. It just trucks slowly — even self-consciously — up and down a long dark hallway, and we see the fight spill out from side rooms into the hall. We still get to see all the bad-ass highlights of a standard cinematic superhero fight, but the events of the fight itself aren’t presented as if they were part of the story. And neither is showing explicitly how he’s predicting his enemies’ movements or fending two or three of them off at a time. The story doesn’t deem it important to show how he fights crime; what’s important is simply to show that he does it.

That’s huge. In terms of just plain good storytelling, it’s what keeps the action from devolving into “movie musical number” territory that fight scenes and car chase scenes almost invariably end up being. It’s a super-hero story, so the ending is a foregone conclusion: he’s going to win. So there’s always a disconnect to see extended sequences of stunt people punching and kicking each other, presented as if it were advancing the story, when it’s actually just stopped the story to show you something cool.

The “story” here is that Daredevil is at one end of the hall, and he’s going to go to the other end of the hall and rescue this kid, or he’s going to die trying. The fight spills out into the hall not just so we can see some cool martial arts choreography, but to show that he’s beaten and he’s impossibly weary, but he’s not going to give up.

There’s no indication that he can’t see any of what’s going on, and no indication of how he’s hearing movements or heartbeats, because that would be worse than irrelevant. It would turn the story into one about a guy who fights crime because he has super powers, instead of a guy whose super powers make it possible for him to fight crime.

That’s a distinction that Superman and Batman stories have been wrestling with for decades. Superman’s only interesting when you play up the idea that he’d be a good guy even without his powers (which is why putting him against General Zod and other Kryptonians right off the bat was one of the few good decisions Man of Steel made). And most of the “serious” Batman stories put all the focus on how the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents drove him to make himself a hero. Everything in “Cut Man” — including what would seem like an unrelated “B-plot” about Foggy keeping Karen company through the night — establishes Matt Murdock as a hero driven to help people solely because it’s something that needs to be done.

Marvel Universe

My other favorite aspect of the series is something I’ve never seen mentioned in reviews or comments: the central conflict that sparks the series is all a result of crime bosses fighting to take over Hell’s Kitchen after the destruction caused by the climactic battle in The Avengers. It’s just an ingenious way to modernize it while still making it feel like a timeless premise, and a perfect way to tie it in with the rest of Marvel live-action continuity without a Special Guest Appearance or cross-over. I’ve been watching The Flash on CW and enjoying it a lot, but its frequent cross-overs with Arrow just bring to mind the most negative connotations of “comic book adaptation.”

But really, that’s just one part of what makes The Flash seem like perfectly enjoyable (seriously!) but by-the-numbers episodic television comic book adaptation. There’s something about the entire series that just feels safe. You get the impression that when the idea came to develop a Flash series, their two main questions were how to do the running VFX, and how to work some racial diversity into the main cast. The rest writes itself: season-long intrigue, monster-of-the-week format, opening and closing voice-over that put the events of the episode into “larger” perspective, etc.

Which goes back to my old shorthand of “DC = fantastic, larger-than-life, fun storytelling; Marvel = adolescent obsession with ‘realism’ and ‘maturity,'” which probably hasn’t been true in at least 20 years. And seems to fall apart as a valid metric anyway, considering that the reasons I’m enjoying Daredevil so much seem to go directly against all my assumptions: it’s a more mature, realistic, and understated take on a super-hero comic book setup.

I think it comes down to tone, and walking the tightrope between wallowing in grim self-importance and floating off into irrelevance. “For Mature Audiences” in comic books has traditionally meant anything but maturity: it’s been dominated by reactionary, adolescent, and defensive attempts to make comic books more than “kids stuff” by slathering everything in violence, sex, profanity, and “adult content.” And Daredevil‘s standout creators in comics have been some of the worst offenders. Sure, Sin City, for example, is a self-conscious attempt to build on lurid pulp comics and novels, but it’s also so enamored of the pulp that it stops making any kind of commentary on it. It becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.

I’m definitely not going to suggest that Daredevil the TV series is “light:” the first episode’s montage of all the evil going on in the city includes a sweatshop full of silent slave workers measuring out drugs for distribution, and they’ve all been visibly, violently blinded. Not to mention all the human trafficking, or the blood, or the pervasive paranoia, or the murders and murders made to look like suicides.

The Seduction of the Innocent

But still, there’s very much a sense of “comic book mentality” that carries throughout. Part of it is just the presentation: Murdock’s apartment and its intrusively bright LCD sign, the boxing gym where the bulk of the flashbacks take place, and the water tower on top of Claire’s apartment building, all have a very simple, iconic, and graphic feel to them. You watch a scene and can immediately imagine how the panels would be laid out on the page.

More significantly, it’s a comic book adaptation in that there is a very clear delineation of good guys and bad guys. There are crooked prison guards and corruptible or arrogant people, but there also exist characters who are Good and characters who are Evil. That’s the comic book aspect; the maturity comes from the way the first two episodes don’t attempt to milk any kind of artificial conflict out of the delineation. Claire advises Daredevil with little hesitation exactly how to jam a knife into a guy’s eye socket to inflict the most pain. And Daredevil uses should-be-lethal force so often that it makes Superman and Batman’s “no killing, no guns” philosophies seem almost as juvenile as Frank Castle’s.

That’s another way that the series benefits from being on Netflix instead of broadcast television, or even HBO. It doesn’t have to dance around questions of violence or profanity that make it seem even more artificial. A lot of “for mature audiences” material (see: True Blood, most FX series) seems as if it were written by people who found out they can use the f-word and then freak the fuck out. Daredevil has characters saying “shit” when a real adult in 2015 would say “shit.” And fight scenes that cause believable bodily harm with blood and broken bones.

Oddly enough, while watching the Daredevil series, the comic book that keeps coming to mind is Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer. (And I better not get started on what an enormous disappointed the Constantine TV series turned out to be, or I’ll go on for another 3000 words). There was a real sense that its first motivation was to be a good, compelling story, and everything else was a product of that. It showed an innate understanding of its medium: it wasn’t attempting to tell a story that begrudgingly used the comic book format, or make a masterpiece that would elevate comics to some “higher” level of relevance, but used all the strengths and weaknesses of the format to tell its story. It understood that “mature” often means subtlety, but it didn’t shy away from being graphic. It understood that “adult” meant weighty questions of ethics and morality that couldn’t be summed up with some clumsy allegory, but also that a huge part of what makes comic book storytelling so appealing is its simplicity and abstraction.

Ultimately, it feels like something made by people who love comics and love television (and love martial arts choreography), instead of being made with some preconceived notion of what people who love comics are supposed to like. However they did it, if they can take my least favorite Marvel character and turn it into such a compelling show, I can’t wait to see what they do with Gambit, Jubilee, or Dazzler.

Krypto-Bigotry

KryptoalexrossLast week, Chris Sprouse withdrew himself from the first issue of the upcoming series Adventures of Superman, in which he was originally going to illustrate a story written by Orson Scott Card. That decision effectively put an end to the anger and indignation a lot of comics readers (myself included) felt at seeing DC Comics put a spotlight on the work of a virulent, outspoken homophobe like Card. It started a whole new wave of indignation from people on the internet who insist they’re very invested in the First Amendment.

As for why the issue angered so many people, you’re not going to find a better summation than Glen Weldon’s essay on NPR.org:

But when we do see [Superman] for the very first time, these are the first words that appear directly below, the first epithet applied to this newly-minted creation as it was unleashed upon the world:

Champion of the Oppressed.

There it is, coded into his creative DNA from the very beginning: He fights for the little guy.

And that’s why this bugs me, and why I’m not the least bit curious about what Card’s Superman might be like.

DC Comics has handed the keys to the “Champion of the Oppressed” to a guy who has dedicated himself to oppress me, and my partner, and millions of people like us. It represents a fundamental misread of who the character is, and what he means.

(Incidentally: I think that a lot of other writers, when trying to summarize the whole story, over-sold the idea that the character of Superman has particular resonance with gay people. I don’t think he does; Weldon does a good job making it clear that Superman is everybody’s hero, and no particular group has any special or specific ownership of him. It is an interesting idea, though, that Superman is a long-lasting and purely secular symbol of goodness, truth, and justice, which could appeal to a lot of gay people who feel that religion has abandoned or betrayed them).

As for me, I’m really glad to see Card being held accountable for his statements and his actions. Even if it is just in the court of public opinion, since DC stuck with their decision to hire Card, and Sprouse distanced himself from the controversy but not Card himself. Still, blogs and comments can be enough in this case. There tends to be a kind of lazy defeatism disguised as cynicism whenever ethics meets commerce, where we hear “It’s just business!” used as an excuse for everything from giving production money & producer credit to a bigot, to publishing “speculative” fiction from a murderer.

It’s nice to see more people slowly realizing that only courts and governments are obligated to remain impartial. Commerce, on the other hand, is all about playing favorites, rewarding the people that you like and refusing to support the ones that you don’t. Anybody who tells you that’s not the case — whether it’s in regards to comics, advertising campaigns, or chicken sandwiches — has an agenda of his own.

That’s what started me down this train of thought: a few hours spent following a chain of links across the internet, the kind of thing you can really only do when you’re supposed to be busy doing something else. It started with this series of articles about comics retailers’ reactions to the Adventures of Superman controversy, then eventually made its way to comics writer & editor Mark Waid’s twitter feed and his attempts to deal with pinheads talking about the freedom of speech.

It’s not about homophobia, or misogyny, or racism: certainly not. The people eager to defend Card, or Frank Miller, or Mark Millar, are eager to explain that the big picture is about the importance of the free exchange of ideas, even if those ideas are repugnant to us. In the past, I’ve always tried to keep an open mind and accept arguments like that at face value. I still think they’re dead wrong, but I never thought they were being duplicitous. It was just a different viewpoint and different set of priorities than my own.

But last week I started following some of the commenters on those blog posts, and the people screaming at Mark Waid on Twitter. And I was genuinely surprised to find that without exception, every single one of the people insisting that it was about freedom of speech and not homophobia, could be found elsewhere on the internet arguing against marriage equality.

And you don’t even have to look that closely, and you certainly don’t have to get into creepy invasion-of-privacy territory; it’s right there in their twitter feeds or comments on other blog posts. I’d always assumed that there was a bell curve to these discussions, with the actual outright homophobes being a relative minority, but it turns out that I’d just never bothered to actually follow up on that assumption. It’s revealing to see the free speech that free speech advocates actually engage in when they think nobody’s listening.

Am I claiming that it’s impossible that people could be arguing for Card’s freedom of speech without undermining the rights and equality of gay people? I don’t ever like to say something’s “impossible” — for instance, I’m not willing to completely rule out the possibility that a man can fly. I’ve just never seen anyone do it.

I’m not claiming that everybody who waves the freedom of speech flag is a homophobe, just that a depressing majority of them are. One obvious exception would be comic book (and occasionally video game) writer Peter David. He’s an outspoken proponent of marriage equality and gay rights in general, has been since long before it was “fashionable,” and he’s been awarded for his support. (I also just found out through a web search that Mr. David recently suffered a stroke, and his website has information on how you can help him recover and help with his medical bills).

He also wrote dialogue for a video game that was based on an IP by Orson Scott Card. A few years ago, that game created a controversy similar to that around Adventures of Superman. In response, Mr. David vehemently argued against a boycott of the game, describing the “chilling effect” that can happen when an artist’s work is punished for the views of the artist himself.

It’d be idiotic to even imply that Mr. David’s argument was homophobic, but he was still dead wrong. The problem is that it’s not possible to defend Card’s rights without undermining the rights of me and other gay people.

Obviously, there’s my right to get married without some lunatic Mormon threatening to overthrow the government. Most of the media coverage around the issue of marriage equality is phrased in terms of opinion polls and the turning tide of sentiment among particular demographics and popular votes. That can make it sound like equality is a matter of opinion, like your favorite color or whether you enjoy bacon. But the fact is that there’s a blatant inequality in the US. Thinking of it as a difference of opinion is much like asking someone’s opinion whether the Earth is flat or dinosaurs coexisted with humans. The situation is unfair; the only difference of opinion is whether you believe it’s all right that it’s unfair.

On top of that is the attempt to frame it as a question of freedom of religion — President Obama and others have been extremely careful not to offend any religious groups by asserting that adults in the United States should be able to marry the people they love. The unspoken message there, of course, is that everyone else’s right to freedom of religion trumps our right to marry.

It’s the same whenever an artist’s work raises threats of a boycott: the artist’s freedom of speech is sacrosanct! What’s unspoken is that Card’s right to say that homosexuals are weak-willed and mentally ill trumps my right to say that nobody should give money to a bigoted asshole. We’re told that by trying to silence Card, we’re killing a society that thrives on the free exchange of contrary ideas.

Bullshit. In fact, the usual response to that is to point out the basics of free speech and commerce: it’s not censorship because we’re not trying to silence opposing viewpoints, we’re merely choosing not to support them. I don’t think that’s even necessary. I sure am trying to silence Card. His writing is toxic and provides absolutely no benefit to society. He deserves to be silenced. We needn’t entertain his opinions any more than we should be encouraging those who advocate teaching creationism as science, or making anti-vaccination claims that have no basis in science.

Chastising me for advocating a boycott against a homophobe is like seeing me take an antibiotic and protesting for the right to life of the bacteria. It fails for the same reason that right-wingers’ idiotic complaints of “liberal intolerance” against bigots are idiotic: because there’s no false equivalence or moral relativism involved; there’s right and wrong. The idea that any of us are obligated to support people who are in the wrong is ludicrous. And the idea that their right to spread their toxic beliefs trumps my right to call them toxic is offensive.

So the next time I read someone making a passionate statement in defense of a bigot’s right to express himself, I’m going to think about Superman. And how often he saved Lex Luthor’s life from some disaster of Luthor’s own creation, because it was the right thing to do, and that’s what Superman’s all about. And how every time, Luthor would immediately turn around and start thinking about how to destroy Superman. And how, after the first few times I saw this same cycle repeat itself, Superman started to seem like a real chump.

Some Assembly Required

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If I had anything genuinely novel to say about The Avengers, I would’ve come up with a more original title. But it seems wrong somehow to have a nerdblog and not write something about it, especially since I’ve seen it twice now in two days. It’s pretty much the perfect super-hero team movie, and just might be the perfect super-hero movie, period.

Which is pretty amazing when you stop and think about the billion opportunities it had to go horribly wrong. It should’ve collapsed under the weight of its own hype — this is a movie that hasn’t just been getting buzz since a Comic-Con trailer; it’s been building up across post-credit sequences for years. But while I’ve never been a fan of The Avengers in any incarnation, I have seen and really enjoyed almost all of the lead-up movies (I passed on both attempts to make The Hulk interesting on his own), so I wasn’t able to sufficiently lower my expectations. And still, I loved it. I’m considering myself lucky that I wasn’t a fan of the comics, because I’m not sure how I would’ve handled it otherwise.

It could’ve fallen victim to Spider-Man 3 syndrome, desperately trying to cram so many characters into one summer blockbuster that they all get lost in the noise, and the whole thing falls apart. I was already concerned about that going in, so it was alarming to see them come right out of the gate with Robin Sherbatsky as another character I’m supposed to get semi-attached to. And yet, it’s near-perfectly balanced: it’s not just that characters aren’t overlooked; each character actually gets the chance to steal a scene. The most obvious danger was having the two “underpowered” characters become completely overwhelmed by everything else, but Black Widow and Hawkeye each get multiple opportunities for bad-assery. The movie hits exactly the right tone there: acknowledging that they’re humans fighting alongside super-humans, but not dwelling on it.

At almost two and a half hours, it could’ve very well turned into either tedium or numbing spectacle. But as I was watching it, it seemed like the perfect length. In fact, there were several points during the movie (Black Widow’s initial interrogation scene, and the assembled group arguing on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier) where I found myself wanting it to be an ongoing television series, immediately. “I don’t want to stop watching this. I want it to last at least another 20 hours.”

JosswhedoncaptainamericaAnd of course, it’s written and directed by Joss Whedon, which means that it could’ve easily ended up teetering on the knife’s edge between brilliant and insufferable. The dialogue could’ve been self-consciously clever; instead, the script seems to transition effortlessly between the romantic comedy banter of Iron Man, the ostentatious monologuing of Thor, the naive pulp comic conversations of Captain America, and (what I imagine to be) the tortured-and-haunted-genius dialogue of The Incredible Hulk. Then it seamlessly blends them all together.

It’s even got several of the what-have-now-come-to-be-expected Whedonisms, but they don’t feel like gimmicks or directorial tics. There’s one line of dialogue that sums that up perfectly: “They needed something to avenge.” We never hear the last word, because we don’t need to; we already know how it goes. The line has to be in there, because that’s just how these things work. But finishing it would’ve been too over-the-top. It’s exactly the right level of restraint. In all the breathless reviews and comments I’ve read online, I’ve seen multiple people say, “This is the movie that Joss Whedon’s entire career has been building up to.” I don’t think it’s that much of an exaggeration.

In fact, I think that the aspects of Whedon’s other projects that had me so skeptical — the self-conscious dialogue and the self-satisfied “look how much I just subverted that stereotype” — are what made him perfect for this movie. You can’t build a career out of subverting expectations without first understanding how traditional stories work and how audiences interpret them. When Whedon turns off the irony and lets the earnest Marvel comics fan take over, the result is an innate understanding of how to bring together movie fans, comic book fans, and fans of these characters in particular.

The perfect example of that is the way The Hulk is handled. Everybody in the audience knows the character; there’s nothing to be gained by pretending that it’s a mystery, or that there’s the need for an origin story. Most attempts at handling the character have either been too shallow — he’s just a big, stupid, unstoppable force — or way, way, way too maudlin — a tragic figure desperately looking for a cure for the beast he can’t control and also he’s psychologically damaged by child abuse. Whedon understands that neither of those are going to work, and the most clever bit of all is that he actually winds up getting both.

For the entire first half of the movie, he builds up this aura of foreboding around the Hulk. We see Black Widow, immediately after establishing herself as a bad-ass super spy, react with dread at the thought of having to run up against him. People, including Banner himself, are reluctant to mention him by name. We see brief flashes of his attacks on video screens. He’s established as the one thing powerful enough to tear apart the entire group. The movie doesn’t take it too far — Tony Stark’s there to make it clear that we all know who and what The Hulk is, it’s not like we’re supposed to be genuinely surprised. And then The Hulk’s first appearance turns out to be as horribly destructive as we’d been led to expect; it’s not Hulk as super-hero but Hulk as super-werewolf. But after giving us all of that build-up and the requisite pay-off, then the movie can deliver one final twist on the character: characters have been asking Banner repeatedly how he maintains control, and he’s been reluctant to answer. It’s not just a case of Dr. Jekyll desperately suppressing his Mr. Hyde; it’s not a completely separate personality, but something he has some degree of control over. Hulk as super-werewolf and super-hero.

The nearest I can come to a complaint: there is one gag that’s used repeatedly — one character gets interrupted as another suddenly comes in and knocks him off-screen. And yet somehow, it never stopped working.

Ever since Iron Man took me completely by surprise, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why Marvel’s had so much more success translating super-heroes to film than DC has. Sure, Daredevil and Elektra were abominations, and I’m still waiting for them to make a third X-Men movie (hopefully it’ll come out before they make a sequel to Aliens). But it’s not just that they’ve avoided a string of disasters like Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s desecration of the Batman franchise. (If you still think that Tim Burton’s first Batman movie wasn’t that bad, then I suggest you haven’t seen it recently enough). They’ve actually managed to produce a string of good-to-outstanding movies. I’ve never been interested in Marvel comics but have loved DC, while with the movies, it’s the opposite. I even liked Thor.

I’ve speculated on why that is, exactly: for one thing, pairing directors with the franchises they’re ideally suited to handle, and letting them put their unique mark on each one. But watching The Avengers finally made it clear. It comes down to the oldest and most obvious observation you can make about the comics: it’s New York City vs. Metropolis and Gotham City. DC’s characters have always been inherently fantastic and larger than life, and their adventures are in fictional cities. Marvel deliberately made its characters human and flawed and placed them in real-world settings, so they’d be more relatable to angst-ridden teens. DC heroes are the ones you aspire to be, Marvel heroes are the ones you identify with.

That’s why Christopher Nolan’s interpretations of Batman are fine as movies but simply don’t work for me as Batman stories, and why The Avengers is the perfect capstone to Marvel’s string of successes. (It’s also why DC works better in animated formats than Marvel tends to). It’s because translating Batman (or Superman) to the real world inevitably drains them of something. Translating Marvel’s characters to film makes them come alive. They’re already designed to be real humans placed into fantastic situations. No matter how bizarre their stories get — and Marvel’s had some of the most bizarre and convoluted continuity imaginable — there’s still something tethering them to the real world. Even Thor’s got family issues and an annoying kid brother.

So you can have a moment like a $10 bet between Nick Fury, one-eyed commander of the paramilitary spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D., and Captain America, the super soldier who fought Nazis and the Red Skull in WWII before being frozen under the ocean for 70 years, that he’s about to see something he’s never seen before. And it’s a moment that actually works.

Eerie Tales of the House of Mystery

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In my defense: I’ve been hearing about Locke & Key off and on for years. It’s one of the tentpole comics for IDW with plenty of coverage at comic conventions, it’s won several Eisner awards, it was getting buzz for being turned into a movie or TV series that resulted in an unaired pilot, and I’ve been hearing recommendations from people online and from my boyfriend.

So I had it on the to-read list, and I’d assumed I knew how it was going to play out just based on the premise: a bunch of kids living in an old, unfamiliar family house, discovering magic keys that open mysterious doors, each with its own power. I’d expected another urban fantasy comic, maybe similar to The Unwritten, inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe with some House of Mystery and House of Secrets mixed in.

That would’ve been fine. But what I found when I read the first volume was a lot more compelling and more layered than I’d imagined.

It goes for the slow burn. I’d already plotted out the first issue in my mind: get the kids to the house, one of them discovers the first key, they all get pulled into the mystery, they confront the bad guy, and they set up the rest of the series. But there’s no quick pay-off in the first issue. Writer Joe Hill gradually lets the prologue unfold over the entire first volume, devoting an issue to each of his characters instead of just having them serve as interchangeable protagonists.

It retains the style of the “classic” horror comics. I admit I was turned off by the art of Gabriel Rodriguez at first; it seemed too stylized to work well with the tone that the writing was trying to establish. But after a couple of issues, I grew to realize that it was perfect — the book frequently makes subtle and not-particularly-subtle references to William Gaines and the old EC horror comics, and the art keeps it rooted in that tradition. (In fact, Rodriguez’s art in Locke & Key reminds me of a particular comic artist from the late 70s and early 80s, but I’m drawing a complete blank on the name. Anyone have any ideas?)

It puts a modern spin on several different eras of horror stories. Locke & Key is unabashedly a horror comic, even more than I’d expected it to be — axes to the head, knives to the eyes, attacks with crowbars and bricks, all rendered in splash pages with gouts of blood. But while Hellblazer always seems firmly rooted in the 90s, DC’s horror comics rooted in the 70s, and Tales from the Crypt unmistakably from the 50s, Locke and Key‘s influences seem to span several decades — from gothic (with the creepy old house and the town name of Lovecraft) to modern.

I realize it’s probably bad form to draw comparisons to Stephen King when talking about Joe Hill‘s work, but the greatest achievement of King’s first novels was how well he took traditional horror stories and translated them into contemporary settings. Locke & Key does something similar for comics, but without feeling “millennial.” Looking back at the first few issues of The Sandman, the influences of EC Comics and Berni Wrightson are immediately apparent, and the introduction has the feel of a deliberate reinvention of classic horror. Right out of the gate, Locke & Key seems to acknowledge the influences without letting them become overwhelming. Classic horror comics provide the tone of the story, not the purpose.

Finally, It’s smart. Again, probably because the art grounds it in a heavily stylized, almost cartoonish atmosphere, the writing and plotting can be introspective and realistic without either coming across as mundane or as pretentious. Instead of lurid descriptions of horrific acts of violence, we get matter-of-fact descriptions of them. Instead of monologues or dramatic soliloquies, we get natural, realistic dialogue. Literary allusions — much of the back story revolves around a school production of The Tempest — don’t come across as forced. And while none of the characters is complex enough (so far) to be the focus of an entire story, they all work together well and are given enough depth to keep from collapsing into caricature. Somehow, Hill puts just enough spin on them that they seem to be characters who just happen to fit into a stereotypical role.

At this point, I’ve only gotten through the first issue of the second volume. (Possibly the best single issue of the series I’ve read so far). There’s still twenty-three issues for it all to completely fall apart, or worse, to turn into something as solid-but-predictable as I’d originally expected. For now, though, I’m happy that my first impressions are being proven wrong. And I’m reminded of being a freshman in college, just discovering The Sandman and Hellblazer and learning that there was a whole world outside superhero comics.

Edit: I forgot to mention that he does have a kid who lives in San Francisco call it “Frisco.” But apart from that, it’s all pretty good.

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sintitulopanel.pngSin Titulo is a free webcomic by Cameron Stewart, and it’s kind of brilliant. It won the Eisner Award for best digital comic at Comic-Con this year, in addition to several other awards since starting in 2007. It’s a little annoying that someone who’s that good an artist could write so well, too.

Then again, it kind of makes sense — what’s most remarkable about Sin Titulo is its pacing, which should be familiar to someone who’s got a career laying out comic panels. But that doesn’t account for how natural the dialogue is. Or some of the unexpected and genuinely creepy turns the story takes. Or how well the mood is conveyed throughout, building up the tension and unease to just above unbearable and then pulling back for a flashback or the relief of a narrow escape.

Okay, I’m jealous.

The only problem now is that I’ve read three years’ worth of content in a few hours, and now I’ve got to wait days or weeks in between story updates. It’s like having to watch Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive (except you care about what’s happening to the characters), but in interrupted spurts of five minutes.

(Also notice the donate button on the site, since it’s a self-funded comic separate from his commercial work).