Thursday, July 2, 2009

Review - Batman: Mad Love

Batman Adventures: Mad Love
Written by Paul Dini
Art by Bruce Timm
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Single Issue

I don't think it should be much of a surprise that I have never been a fan of Batman. The conventional wisdom when it comes to superhero comics is that there are a Batman fans and Superman fans; fans of pulpy adventure stories and fans of the strange concepts. Since my affection for comic books comes from the science fiction angle I've generally gone for the more outlandish fantasy.

There have been times when something Batman has caught my eye. Dini and Timm's Batman: The Animated Series television show was one of those. It was limited by the fact that it had to be created for a children's audience but even then episodes were among the best superhero action you'd find on any screen.

That brings me to Mad Love. It was one of the earliest comic book projects that Timm and Dini worked on and it was firmly connected to their animated work. They explore the beginnings of Harley Quinn, the female counterpart to the Joker created for the television series. Consequently they made a disturbingly light book about an abusive relationship.

After Harley screws up a plan and a punchline the Joker's tolerance for her drops. She decides that the best way to get their relationship on track is get rid of Batman. So she pursues this on her own while reminiscing about how she met the Joker and began her criminal career.

Part of what makes Mad Love really special is that they clearly recognize just how twisted the relationship is. There's a superficial level of slapstick humor as the Joker pushes Harley aside but there's an undercurrent of genuine abuse in it. As Harley keeps returning despite being hurt by the relationship the reader can see how she defines the relationship. Her views on it are extremely divergent from the reality of the situation. Harley is the star of the show in this book and her willingness to absorb the abuse and blame Batman for it.

The plot is light beyond the character study but this is a forty page story and there isn't really room for a whole lot when you consider how it's paced. Dini tends to linger on scenes longer than in most superhero books and it works to Timm's benefit since he uses that extra space for the sake of telling the story in the art.

One of the reasons that I'm doing Mad Love now is that it is a very art driven book. I generally prefer comic artists who come from animation. They tend to have simplified but expressive figures and a wonderful grasp of of motion and panel composition.

Bruce Timm's art seems to be channeling storyboards at several points and I don't mean that in a bad way. There are a lot of silent pages like the one from above where Timm carries the weight weight of the story so smoothly you'd almost think you were watching the cartoon.

Mad Love was so well received that it was adapted into an episode of the show that the comic was based on. It wasn't my favorite episode of the series but it came awfully close. The original comic is just as terrific. The only real hang up in it are the basic assumptions of a superhero story and if those bother you then I think Mad Love isn't good enough to get you past that stumbling block. For everyone else it's a great looking, well told story that's more textured that it may appear at first glance.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Giving Alan Moore a Conniption Film Festival

Reviews of Eisners will pick up again tomorrow with something a bit lighter than what I've done so far. However, I can't go past talking about From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen without talking about the films that those comics spawned. Alan Moore has had an adversarial relationship with Hollywood and not without cause. When you consider that the movies are seen by a hundred times more people than the books a terrible movie can hurt his reputation more than most people associated with it. So Moore refuses to associate with films based on his book to the point that he exploded when the producer of V for Vendetta claimed they had Moore's support.

Both are "adaptations" in only the broadest sense of the word: they share the title with the book, some of the characters have the same names, and the same broad plot concept. I'm not a guy who thinks that any change when switching mediums is sacrilege; the most important aspect to an adaptation is getting the spirit of the original correct. Neither of these films even comes close to that. From Hell the graphic novel can be distilled down to, "The most historically accurate take on Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories possible." The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen summed up in one sentence would be, "Victorian superheroes with as many literary references as you can cram into one book." From Hell the movie overlooks the "historically accurate" part of the theme and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen dispatches the literary references as fast as possible.

Ignoring the adaptation problems From Hell is the better movie: it has a plot, it is competently directed, and the stars do a reasonable job with the material. That doesn't make it a good movie however. In this version Johnny Depp plays Inspector Abberline who investigates the Ripper murders using his psychic powers when he's not lounging about in opium dens. As he works his way to the heart of the conspiracy behind the murders he finds time to romance one of the potential victims.

From Hell the book is a history; From Hell the movie attempts to be a mystery but it's one of those Hollywood mysteries where they give you one obvious suspect so you know it's the other character who has a major speaking part that did it. Despite how played up Abberline's psychic powers and addictions are at the beginning of the film they have no actual bearing on the plot. It's a poorly told mystery in the end which can just go on the pile with other Jack the Ripper stories.

I have to point out the production design in From Hell because it stinks. They copied panels from the comic at a few points (the usual sop given to fans of the original material these days when a filmmaker decides to change everything else) but those images are out of context. For the most part the world of Victorian London prostitution looks like a cheery Dickensesque story (yes, I recognize the irony in there). Crushing poverty? Overcrowding? Poisonous atmosphere? The filmmakers prefered to gloss over those minor details as much as possible. And don't look for the archetecture of magic in the movie; a few passing glimpses is all you'll see. The staging is closer to a BBC production than a Hollywood movie.

And that's the better of the two.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen struck me as the movie that set out to outdo Michael Bay. I am not exaggerating when I say that during action sequences shots rarely lasted longer than a second. That turns the most important part of the movie (since this is a straight adventure film) into meaningless noise.

In the last days of the nineteenth century Europe is being pushed to the brink of war by the schemes of a villain calling himself "the Warlord". He is raiding government institutions with mechanized war machines and escaping so that blame is being placed on foreign governments. To stop him the British government recruits Alan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, and Henry Jekyll. They also get a vampiric Mina Murray, a invisible cat burglar, Dorian Gray, and a young Tom Sawyer.

Obviously the filmmakers abandoned the "all the stories are true" approach that Alan Moore used pretty much immediately. Sawyer, to use an obvious example, would have to be over fifty by Moore's measure since he was a boy at a time when slavery was legal but for this film he's around twenty for the sake of a ridiculous, simplistic surrogate son connection with Quartermain. An example of a small change that grates because of how it departs from the core concept is how the Nautilus in the film is solar powered; there's a reason why the only solar powered submarine is a jokey proof of concept one off and a reason why the first nuclear submarine created was called the Nautilus. And dont' expect any Oscar Wilde quality quips from Mr. Gray.

I can't even talk about the plot. And that's not because it's so convoluted it would all be spoilers. It's an assembled thing of major events that don't make any sense in context. It's as though the whole movie was assembled from sequences that would look good in a trailer rather than what works as a film. A perfect example is the opening sequence where the Warlord attacks London with a tank so that he can steal some da Vinci drawings that are necessary for the next phase of this dastardly plan. Drawings which Captain Nemo pulls a book off a shelf so that he can examine the exact same ones. So the Warlord just needed to pop down to the local Barnes and Noble rather than smuggling a tank into London, training a crew to operate it, and engaging in a dangerous attack on the city. That's the kind of thinking that went to the script.

If you're looking for a good movie I wouldn't recommend either of From Hell or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. From Hell is just a bland nothing of a film. League on the other hand I can recommend if you enjoy watching aggressively stupid movies for the sake of making fun of them; they don't come more aggressively stupid than it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Review - "Goddesses", "Daddy's World", and "macs"

It feels strange to me when I'm coming into the current decade as I follow my lists. It's one of those odd thresholds like when I start reaching books and stories that I read when they were new. Now I've reached stories that are essentially "current" (at least in my view; I know some people take a shorter perspective on that).

by Linda Nagata
2000 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

The opening to this story is very promising. A young executive for a corporation in the distant future of 2012 is given control of a state in rural India. His given goal is to improve the quality of life in the province and consequently earn a percentage of its revenue. What this western man finds is a culture that's resistant to change even though their own decisions are creating a looming crisis: thanks to the abuse of birth control implants almost no women are being born. The population disparity is already causing problems and there is no simple solution.

These problems come to a head for the executive when he encounters a fifteen year old girl cowering on his doorstep. She has been turned out by her family because her husband died of AIDS. In trying to help her the executive triggers a confrontation with the patriarchs of this community.

That sounds like a pretty good set up for the complications of the first world imposing on the third. The gender disparity in Asian countries is a problem that I haven't seen confronted in SF. Not to mention the exploration of how private industry management could try to elevate a state instead of run it into the ground as most SF posits. It's a complex, morally ambiguous situation that's established and it could go anywhere.

Where it goes, unfortunately, is straight into a lot of preaching. The story isn't just heavy handed, it pounds its points into the ground and then keeps beating on them apparently because Nagata assumed that the reader wouldn't be able to pick up on the subtle hints. The theme of the land that the poorest people live on being poisoned is fine. Making the point again with illegal dumping of toxins in broad daylight in the middle of a city street with many witnesses in the United States during the 1990's is wrong. The pollution is a regular occurrence and a real problem (China shoving their pollution problems out to underdeveloped areas is a timely example) but not in the United States in the 1990's. If someone rolled a tanker of toxic waste up to a playground in South Central LA in the 1990's and dumped it out in front of children it would be on the national news by 5 o'clock. That's the problem with "Goddesses"; Nagata didn't know when to stop.

The characters exist mainly to preach to the reader on the necessity of more social services in developing nations. Or how microlending inherently makes everything better (Muhammad Yunus has done some great work but he'll be the first to tell you that it's not a magic wand). About the only thing that Nagata doesn't pound into the reader by having a character show up and explain it in small words is the resentment of those in developing nations against outsiders coming in and trying to enforce changes in their culture. Since she simply paints those attitudes as the villains of her story she just skips over the difficulties of cultural imperialism.

Consequently "Goddesses" is an unpleasant story to read. You'll get more out of reading your favorite in depth news magazine than you will from this. I wanted more from the story than preaching and there just isn't anything else to it.

"Daddy's World"
by Walter Jon Williams
2000 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A young boy has an idyllic life in a fantasy land where his education and needs are cared for. Eventually he learns that it isn't real; he's a back up copy of a dying boy's mind running as a simulation to keep his family happy. With that knowledge his begins a rough adolescence.

I think the real point of this story is "What if your perfect world was actually made as the perfect world for someone else?" Taking it from that perspective and the family dynamic Williams explores "Daddy's World" is terrific. It gives the story a cruel edge that most "mind inside a computer" tales lack.

Williams also keeps a very tight focus on the growing boy. The only other human who plays a major on stage roll is his sister who goes from playing along to trying to help. The perspective of a child who can never escape from under his parent's thumb just makes it more effective. He acts out just as someone of his mental age should which helps make it heartwrenching.

In the copy I have there is an afterword where Williams says that he wrote this story to be about the downside of living as a mind in a computer. I personally think of it as the problem of living in a controlled world run for someone else's benefit. He creates an atmosphere of oppression in "Daddy's World". I can't recommend it highly enough just for that.

by Terry Bisson
2000 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

There's this thing that gets on my nerves in SF. It's used a lot by bad writers though it turns up from time to time from better authors. I don't like that thing because it results in awkward sentence construction and circular paragraphs. It's also predictable once the reader recognizes what is occurring (usually by the end of the first page).

I'm talking about stories where a vital piece of information that everyone in the story is aware of and is talking about is withheld for a plot twist. It results in strange dialog where people dance around the subject for the benefit of the unseen reader.

I can't even say much about this story because it's backward construction makes nearly everything about it a spoiler. There's this fellow who is following a trail of punishment and that's about all I can tell you without giving away some aspect of the "twist".

I did like Bisson's concept and following this story around could have been very effective. But by turning it into a guessing game for the reader I think the concept gets undermined. It's not a bad effort, I just found it to be told poorly.