12 May 2021
Dr. Irony’s Irony Iron
No point blaming Tarantino for everything (apart from Death Proof which is still criminal) but what is this if not a comic caught in the eternal wake of the Tarantino speedboat from decades ago, its characters rolled up into their own talk like a poster squeezed into a tube?
Self-propelled one-man neo-noir factory S. Craig Zahler, whose films are wordy but not that wordy, has made a graphic novel motivated apparently by pure affection for the comics form, and to say the least struggles to get the words and pictures to cooperate for a greater good. Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus, with a title that waves a big neon sign saying Grindhouse, is clearly keen on Benjamin Marra comics and look here’s Marra doing the title cards for a film Zahler scripted…
Zahler… …and Marra
…but Zahler’s words and pictures cohabit like an unhappy couple on the outs, puffing up a hill. There’s also the inevitable Irony Issue, a briar patch Marra’s comics swan-dive into constantly without puffing any more than he intends, and which Zahler himself has sometimes made lighter work of than this—assuming of course that Dr. Divinus is intended to be ironic in the first place, the alternative being the kind of scenario that leaves critics breathing into a paper bag.
What would light work even look like at this point, a sincere un-ironic comic of pop-culture cop-culture horror starting from over here and aiming for over there? Even allowing for the not-left politics that Zahler habitually leans towards (the working class don’t get very far in Dr. Divinus but they don’t do anything about it either, apart from the one who becomes a criminal and makes a fortune), there’s also the small matter of a road well travelled. Sexcastle from Kyle Starks came out years ago to mock (tribute, it says here, but the distinction might be moot) the kind of B-movies that became A-movies in the 1990s, while Dr. Divinus is intended as a tribute (likewise, same) to pre-Code horror comics from an era before that, a story of the city “as a cave into which predators can crawl”—Christopher Sorrentino’s phrase about Death Wish, said in admiration, and they don’t make them like that any more.
When everything that already exists is just data to play with, the results might be admiring but are always a game. Dr. Divinus and Sexcastle play the same game and end up looking similar, and “looking” in this case has to skirt around the fact that Zahler is by his own admission drawing as a fan of comics art rather than a comics artist. You could skirt a bit less and say that there are fanzines containing art which asks fewer questions than this, questions such as who is that person over there and what are they doing exactly.
A review of Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus and why polite art goes round in circles maybe for The Comics Journal website. Several far more favourable reviews of it are available elsewhere, which is another topic entirely.
See also: Film directors writing comics
And also: The S. Craig Zahler Way of Death
And yet also: Death Wish 2, Critics 0
27 March 2021
Film directors writing comics:
Madi: Once Upon a Time in the Future (2020)
Duncan Jones with Alex De Campi and in this bit James Stokoe
Noah (2011 and 2014)
Darren Aronofsky with Niko Henrichon
Alexandro Jodorowsky with JH Williams III (2002)
Southland Tales (2006)
Richard Kelly with Brett Weldele
The Fountain (2005)
Darren Aronofsky with Kent Williams
Trip to Tulum (1989)
Federico Fellini with Milo Manara
Anibal 5 (1966)
Alexandro Jodorowsky with Manuel Moro (not shown here)
21 March 2021
Formerly known as the Justice League
Darkseid being dictator (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) Darkseid reading dictator (JLI #21 1988)
For Sight & Sound a brief look at a lengthy thing, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, in which the plot hinges on the bad guys forgetting where they left the car keys and Amber Heard’s Mera now speaks in Heard’s best English accent even in the bits that are re-used from the first Justice League when she did not. These and similar mysteries just seem willed into existence by the man with his name in the title, unhindered by committee. In 2013 Snyder had Superman kill a man and after fans were vocally unhappy he had Batman kill a few dozen, so if anyone is telling him to stick to the safe data points he’s apparently escorting them back out to the car park. I didn’t bother pointing out the most noteworthy fact, which is the upbeat reception currently being given to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Have the mutterings of discontent over the Marvel movies reached the point where something cast in a very different form couldn’t be downplayed any longer? Was everyone really that keen to take Joss Whedon out for a walk?
I wrote about Snyder’s films before and on the whole I like them more now than then, especially the one in which Mark Zuckerberg storms the US Capitol; but ZSJL has enough character in almost every minute to justify the extreme number of them you end up sitting through, and enough inventive imagery to send the Russo brothers off to draft a new hot-air Directors Statement. Snyder’s body-consciousness, about his characters and his actors and ultimately about himself, isn’t discussed enough—presumably people can’t get past 300 which is built almost entirely out of the stuff—but attempts to claim he’s a man of Misogynist Cinema sound thinner than ever in the face of this four hours of newly submitted evidence for the defence.
You should resist psychoanalysing film directors but sometimes they walk in and lay on the couch themselves. I said in S&S that the coda stands for your Forever War of choice, with a conversation between Batman and the Joker specifically about dead adopted children, after which Bruce Wayne awakens to be told that no relief is in sight. After four hours the look on Ben Affleck’s face at this point is not the heroic-jawline with the Hans-Zimmer-D-minor chord of fate, but instead looks like relief, acquiescence, acceptance. He practically shrugs. Even the Forever War is a way forward of a sort. Films constantly show characters surpassing grief, closing the door on it, moving on. A more complex message, of not shaking trauma off at all but finding a way to go on living in the company of it anyway, is a mark of some form of adult art.
Adam Hughes art from JLA #32 (1989)
Irony of ironies that it falls to the Justice League to receive this cinematic boost of weightiness from the far end of the periodic table, when it was also the Justice League which proved that you could channel the rhythms of peak US TV comedy if you hired the right craftsmen, a whole 1980s DC Comics franchise in which entirely serious plots were elevated by being discussed in voices from Cheers and Batman’s bat-ears were squashed by his hazmat suit, while somewhere a young Joss Whedon glimpsed a future full of ironic chatter.
17 March 2021
Milligan and Hewlett
Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett in The Warhol Dimension
Hewligan’s Haircut in 2000AD #703 (1990)
15 March 2021
Terry & Rachel Dobson achieving more life with pens than Warners could with $200 million
Zack Snyder’s Justice League looms ahead like the Cirque du Soleil performing The Book of Revelation. But first:
The purpose of Wonder Woman 1984 probably seemed clearer to the board of AT&T Incorporated than to anyone watching the film. Finding things to praise about it—there are a couple—has to coexist with pointing out that it might be one of the worst written films ever to receive such high-profile attention, and critics urging people to see it—there are a couple of those too—just proves how other factors now weigh down the simple job of telling people when a film is held together with string.
We are up to our necks in an era where fantasy films think a story must be just a list of data points, but WW84 does the whole dubious system a service by showing all of its working out and deletions. Witness: Diana tells a story about a suit of golden winged armour used when a legendary Amazon did a 300 Spartans routine against impossible odds. Come the climax she specifically detours to fetch it—before wearing it to fight four blokes and a cat for two minutes. Because the armour is irrelevant. What actually matters is that it’s a visual data point from a 25-year-old comic painted by Alex Ross and that the data point is ticked, the whole machine tipping over to poke the knowledge and dopamine receptors of a subset of a subset of the audience. You assume this rotten Easter egg came from co-writer Geoff Johns, and if so then the time has probably come to lock the comics writers out of the shipyards now and let actual screenwriters build these oil tankers, if they must be built at all. (WandaVision, just concluded on TV, looked as if it was playing this game a different way with its sitcom callouts but capitulated at the end into the compulsory big battles, greenscreen cloud monsters casting all the usual animated lightning, and the pop-culture nods were just superfluous fluff.)
WW84 says that people have to pull together as a collective and get real, which by the standards of the Disney Industrial Complex is practically socialist. Everyone gets to wish for what they want and it’s all fun and games until the nuclear missiles rise in the background. As with the X-Men franchise, one character pleading with the better nature of another remains the strongest sight these digital punch-ups can realistically go for, but all the other plot elements going nowhere pile up in a heap. Diana is (vaguely, apparently) immortal, but why this woman of all women needs to resurrect one man of all men in order to jump him is never pondered. One old photo seems to show her involved in liberating the Nazi camps, a philosophical dot the film never joins back up to, although the nationality of the actor comes to mind unbidden. It does when she rides a missile fired at some Arab children too, along with wondering if anyone really looked at this stuff on the page.
But all that is content, and as usual it’s the form that really drives the hangover. Ever since Captain Marvel a realisation has finally hung in the air that this form, these specific kinds of sights and sounds and rhythms and music from the Hans Zimmer anvil chorus, are at best a small-c and probably a capital-C Conservative broadcasting service whose calculations were increasingly unsubtle as the strains in the mechanism started to build up even before Covid arrived. Now that it has and things like WW84 are rocking up in your living room, surely it’s the discrepancy, the let-down, the big void between the implied humanist message of the data points and the empty impersonal way they are actually delivered, the colossal overemphasis on prosaic repetition of the same material when that material is such small-scale acting and myth-less visual non-flair, that sits at the root of the problem, one huge all-encompassing Irony in this the age of irony that just cuts viewers adrift. And then WW84 ends with a scene in which Lynda Carter walks on, the film irising down and down onto one last small insular and Forty Five Year Old data point which oh look happened to reappear on HBO Max at the same time as the film, disappearing down into its own cells like it’s Fantastic Voyage.
Coincidence, or not, that We Can Be Heroes, the latest of Robert Rodriguez’s young-adult films for the young at heart made for roughly the cost of the WW84 catering, has a similar dig at stupid presidents and a big central message of taking collective responsibility for sorting out the planet—which in Rodriguez’s case means letting the young rehabilitate the damaged Earth while anyone over 35 just gets out of the way. All of which breezes by in a candy Android app store that makes WW84 look as dulled as a something dug up from an Athenian flea market.
30 January 2021
Revere: Tarot card XII
In 1991 Revere was good news if you wanted 2000AD to look over the Channel at slick painted European things like Métal Hurlant and less great if you wanted something dirty and subversive. But since the door had been found it would have been dim not to go through it. From 30 years further down the time tunnel the lake of overused acrylics in which this road petered out can be seen in the distance, but Revere has the fire of an early adopter, John Smith and Simon Harrison calling for revolution in a Britain rebuilt as a Tory machine for so long that the whole edifice was cracking. All Revere’s LSD and Tarot business is like Alejandro Jodorowsky coming down a crackly phone line, although I was surprised to find that it’s still considered in some quarters to be beyond the WTF threshold. It’s not that hard to see what’s going on: Smith is thinking about standard esoteric history and Steve Ditko comics and Harrison is thinking about modernity and Salvador Dalí among others.
The modernity now is in the publishing plan since Rebellion is putting out Revere as digital-only, which might be a zero-sum game. Decoding Harrison’s art on an iPad screen, rather than on paper after a printing mechanism has done its best to reproduce the images properly with smoke rising from the cogs, can only be a shortcut to the intended enlightenment. And they never work.
I reviewed the digital re-release of Revere for the Tripwire web site.
The Avenging World: global storming
Steve Ditko’s fingerprints are all over Revere once the character sets off on self-improvement, and doubly so after reading Zack Kruse’s new book on the artist Mysterious Travellers—cunning title, Fellow Travellers being a phrase from the opposite end of the political Earth to Ditko. Proving that I was completely wrong after Ditko’s death to think that the existing biographies would be mostly unmodified, but completely right that lazy political labels stuck on an artist have to be addressed for their accuracy at some point, Kruse grapples with how Ditko’s mind materialised in the art, in the figures and plots and pen lines themselves. Which means defining what that mind actually thought and not just repeating what everyone always says it thought. After carefully claiming the word Liberal for one aspect of Ditko’s position rather than any label from further over to the right, Kruse lowers himself into the Ditko mines on a rope.
Kruse’s book goes on my shelves next to ones by Marc Singer and Brannon Costello as accessible books by scholars about comics which not only set sail into culture and politics too, but gently call for higher standards in comics criticism (not so gently in Singer’s case - it’s the whole book). This isn’t the only reason to think film criticism could do with a few comparable holistic and critical texts right now, books suggesting that some things about criticism have to stay measurably objectively valuable to people outside rather than unmeasurably subjectively good for self-expression or a formerly paying trade will become an unpaid pastime. But it is a pretty big one.
Lipstick Traces is on that shelf too, a book about punk and music and artists kicking the doors in at regular intervals like a sunspot cycle. A dimension in which Steve Ditko and Guy Debord overlapped would be more explosive than any cosmic punch-up Ditko drew, but there’s the Avenging World against scraps of newsprint and pulp, looking like something cobbled together with paper mache backstage at Cabaret Voltaire, Spiegelgasse 1, before being thrown out as too easy to understand.