Didn’t Ever Plan to Come Back

2012 has largely been defined by monoliths. Between the presidential election, the news cycles grinding through the various tragedy-cum-controversies (Trayvon Martin/Aurora/Sandy Hook), everyone shouting about them with zero actual concern for the people involved, and our consumer culture, there’s the impression we’re all bouncing off these enormous, indifferent beasts, hoping not to fall to the ground and get squashed. Least, that’s how it’s been for me. Last year I started doing comics criticism semi-professionally (my roundabout way of saying I’m still an amateur), which has been a joy, but 2012 has left me drained. Not because of that macro-level stuff–I’ve known for a while how despicable people are and can be, this year just really brought it out–but rather from watching various friends and relatives go from one health fiasco or serious injury to the next like some parade of horrors. That these things happened while this country turned into even more of a clown act than it normally is just made things worse. Then, the last month of 2012 saw someone really close to me die suddenly. It’s something I’ve not quite processed yet.

Writing anything after has been tough, and I’m not prolific to begin with. I know it’s supposed to help (and I even managed to drip a few capsule reviews here and there), but all of it, especially the sort that I do and the “Year in Review” crap that I am trying to write here, seems meaningless next to all that. I certainly don’t feel like January 1 brought me any kind of clean slate, so I’m more than a little sympathetic to Sean Witzke’s 2012 piece. Probably aping more than I would care to admit, too.

Since that’s the case, it’s probably fair to segue into mentioning his slasher marathon – While I credit David Brothers as inspiration for making the leap into criticism, this was the thing last year I wish I could have written. Witzke wastes no words, and his insights are brutal and often surprising (he compares Maniac Cop 2 to The Dark Knight); across 83 movies, he maps the genealogy of a genre often misunderstood and mistreated. More importantly, he reminds us why Halloween is much more than a movie that began some silly tropes.

Spec Ops: The Line – There’s little chance I’ll ever play this again. Maybe give it to someone else and let them play it, but this one got to me. I was never into shooters, especially not the Call of Duty franchise and all the militarbation that went with it, so this was refreshing even as it made me feel horrible. The demolished Dubai, the citizens holding on for dear life as gun-toting yahoos play hero, the main character deteriorating mentally, physically, and emotionally (“I want him fucking dead!” might be the most terrifying words I’ve heard all year,) as he realizes the horrors of not just war, but of himself? It’s a very bitter reminder we’re all complicit in the War on Terror.

Moonrise Kingdom – Where do I begin with this? It’s such an honest movie about broken families and that need to connect with people, how one can fuck up the other, or the inverse, where one mends the other. It’s also a great movie about childhood on the cusp of adolescence, where the kids do everything casually, especially the Big Drama Moments, since they don’t grasp (or aren’t interested in) all the hangups adults have. This is one of those rare movies I literally cannot think of any faults it has.

Infernal Man-Thing and Cleveland – Nothing quite reminded me of how much poorer comics culture has become than the release of these two posthumous books. Their respective writers, Steve Gerber and Harvey Pekar, were (and remain) two of the most fascinating in the industry*, sharing an angry, cynical sense of humor and social awareness along with an appreciation and encouragement of their artistic collaborators to experiment with the form (sorely missing in these days of Robert Kirkman/Brian Bendis/Geoff Johns/Nathan Spencer/So On/And So Forth); they even share a bent towards autobiography, albeit Gerber does his through fiction. Infernal Man-Thing revisits Gerber’s classic Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man, re-examining his optimism in the context of someone who got ground down by the corporate structure even after he dazzled the world (it’s sad how Marvel can publish this stuff, but either never gets the hint or just doesn’t care); “happily ever after” is no longer in the cards, and even the amount of peace that realization brings is marginal (Man-Thing, an emotion mirror, doesn’t even react to it). Pekar tells the rough history of his hometown, a sort of meta-autobiography, and how Cleveland just keeps plugging away through the harsh and often ludicrous mishaps and disasters it suffers. Both express frustration at the modern world, but remained doggedly in the fight to point out and mock what’s wrong with it; their respective artists, Kevin Nowlan and Joseph Remnant, turn in fabulous work of course, but it always was Gerber and Pekar’s show.

*When I was in the shop a few weeks back, someone tried saying Dan Slott was like Steve Gerber because he does “humor, too,” logic I immediately called bullshit on. Gerber’s humor was biting and aimed at those in power; Slott is like Bendis, relying on sitcom beats and saying nothing.

Murder By Death, “Lost River” – I haven’t listened to all of Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon yet, but this song is likely the album’s most compelling. Quieter, more contemplative than what the band usually does, it’s also their best synthesis of metal and Johnny Cash yet.

Armond White Vs. Superhero Movies – While I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, I was pleased to see White knock these movies and their obnoxious fanbases down a couple rungs on the ladder (and he didn’t even bother with that Spider-Man reboot, which speaks volumes about how worthless it was). This year has been packed with dipshit fanboys polluting the planet with misogyny, racism,  and homophobia every time a critic didn’t like some over-hyped Hollywood vehicle, and he shoved their fealty right in their faces. When he says, “Avengers is neither good nor important,” White strikes a blow against those overeager to declare it the Second Coming for purely geek reasons, and thus justify the vile rhetoric of its fans.

Seven Psychopaths – “Everyone dreams … … … … not just fags.”

Alabaster: Wolves – Far and away my favorite comic of the year. Like Spec Ops, it takes the glamour out of murder, where every fight Dancy Flammarion gets in is a grueling, skin of the teeth brawl; the very act taints her. It doesn’t just show up in Caitlin Kiernan’s narration, but in the sweat and wounds Steve Lieber and Rachelle Rosenberg bring to the artwork as Dancy slogs through a ghost town populated by werewolves and other nasty things. Evil isn’t just some nebulous force here; it’s tactile, and it seeps from everything. All of Dancy’s justifications, her religious conviction, don’t dispel wickedness, and it’s a realization she has by series’ end.

The Grey – It took me a second viewing to realize just how cathartic this movie must’ve been for Liam Neeson. All that pain and anguish on his face, with everything that can go wrong going wrong. His character, Ottway, grows close with his fellow survivors due to their shared fate, only to lose them one-by-one, and it all feeds back into his grief over the loss of his wife, his unresolved issues with his father, and his faith (or lack thereof) in God. By the end, all that’s left is to continue on, which ends up being all we ever had. Probably all we ever needed.

Fatale – Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips juggle a lot of balls with this one. Of course, they’re doing a noir-tinged horror comic, complete with Lovecraftian eldritch abominations and all that. They’re also showing how history kind of stacks in on itself, since corruption never really dies, it just births a new generation. And, they also are self-examining their own love of genre, with Josephine going from mysterious, menacing other to miserable shut-in to liberating herself, breaking down the very idea of the femme fatale over the course of ten issues. There’s a formula to all of it, but these guys (along with Jess Nevins’ genre histories) really do prove it’s the telling that matters.

Battleship – Three reasons why I pick this: 1) the scene with the chicken burrito is the most hilarious thing put out by a Hollywood movie last year; 2) Peter Berg had the audacity to do a rock’n’roll, fast-cut, Jerry Bruckheimer, ra-ra military montage set to all the legless/crippled veterans going through physical therapy, and somehow none of his handlers caught the “fuck you” there (then again, neither did critics); 3) the elderly veterans saving the world simply because they knew how to operate old equipment. Berg’s really just rolling up a newspaper and smacking audiences in the nose with it, letting them know this is dumb and they’re dumb for liking this kind of trash to begin with. The middle act is torturous, being the most po-faced, but its first half-hour and last half-hour are so rewarding.

The Darkness II – Another example of a shooter that is actually rewarding. Weirdly, it’s based on a Top Cow comic. The previous game won hearts and minds for its sweet moments where players (as Jackie Estacado) hung out with Jenny (Jackie’s girlfriend), watching To Kill a Mockingbird. Paul Jenkins recreates that in the game’s script with a subplot involving Jackie’s hallucinations of Jenny (who was killed in the first game), a psychological angle that goes from bittersweet to nightmarish over the course of the game. Even though there’s some moving parts in this game–namely a three-way battle between Jackie and his mob crew, a secret society trying to steal the Darkness from Jackie, and the Darkness itself trying to break free, along with the hallucinations–Jenkins keeps the focus on Jackie’s need for closure. Minus the multiplayer mode, the result is something that starts lean, then whittles away from there until all that’s left is the emotional arc.

Chronicle – If it wasn’t shot as a “found footage” movie, this would’ve been a classic in the making. Josh Trank and Max Landis’ conceit–the put-upon loner who grows into megalomaniacal supervillain–will probably look like it anticipated Aurora and Sandy Hook in hindsight, and it certainly handles the subject matter of a boy lashing out at the world with far more sensitivity than the ghoulish news coverage and internet postings following those real world tragedies ever did. It’s enough to overlook how annoying the camcorder gimmick is.

Prophet – Say what you will about Rob Liefeld, but Marvel and DC would never let guys like Brandon Graham and Simon Roy completely overhaul their characters. He did. Graham, Roy, and their stable of artists show so much confidence, in their near-myth narration, or the staggering level of world-building, or the way every issue refuses to simply maintain a status quo. They keep switching locales, characters, and sympathies as readers are dropped in a vast, uncaring universe. No half-measures, no hand-holding, no gimmicks. Works for me.

Looper – If anything summed up what last year was like, it was that montage of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe going through the daily grind of his sci-fi hitman career. With the way businesses work, every job that isn’t “running a multinational conglomerate/syndicate” is always going to feel like you’re being exploited (because you are). A lot of the movie relates to that: Bruce Willis (playing the older Joe) wants to undo his wife’s murder, so he sets out to murder a child that will cause it in the future; Gordon-Levitt is out to save his skin, so he uses the boy as bait; Jeff Daniels is exploiting the Loopers for profit, knowing full well his own bosses plan on murdering them in a few decades. Everyone’s scrambling to step on each other to win this game, even though the end result is always going to be them losing. Rian Johnson uses time-travel as metaphor as well as plot device, and his solution to the problem is to break the rules of the game. 2012 could’ve used a solution like that, and 2013 might just need it, too.

As if we could be so lucky.

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