Basically, We’re Screwed (But Damn, We Got Some Great Movies)

2012 was not a good year. By all accounts, 2013 was not any better. All the usual politics hyped up to catastrophic levels for anyone who works/cannot work for a living (government shutdowns, furloughs, the push to cut more from assistance programs, that sort of thing), more war, more shootings (and more shootings of unarmed kids by supposed adults), Barack Obama pushing hard to finally meet his goal of being exactly like Ronald Reagan, basically the entire Republican party dropping even the most cursory pretense of concern for actual people from their platforms, Detroit being forced into bankruptcy by Michigan’s Governor Snyder and his corporate toady Kevyn Orr (to the obvious catcalls of Americans oblivious of the same misfortunes brewing in their own backyard)–an ongoing story which resembles less an attempt to fix the broken structure of one of America’s greatest cities and more like a bunch of mobsters trying to dump a body after putting a bullet in its head. People in other countries dying because of shoddy work conditions, which pundits who advertise themselves as right or left seem to agree is okay, because, hey, slightly-less-expensive jeans, yo. People dying in this country because of shoddy work conditions, which pundits just seem to be unaware is a thing, still. Comics and video game nerds competing over who can have the worst attitudes towards women/blacks/gays//etc, only to be beaten at the last minute by Duck Dynasty fans. Which is embarrassing, really. It’s a fakey-fake-fake reality show about some fakey-fake-fake millionaires pretending to be good ol’ boys (why, they worship Jesus and have tacky, matching camouflage outfits!), whose only goal is to sell their cheapo merchandise to white people who complain about how their rights are oppressed by gay people–with their “not wanting to be beaten to death in the street simply for being grown, consenting adults fucking other grown, consenting adults of the same gender” agenda–all while snuggling up to T-shirts made by people in countries who actually are being oppressed (Brand synergy, motherfuckers!).

I mean, seriously: Duck Dynasty? That’s what Americans will be moved to stand with?

Anyway, enough of that shit. Here’s the entertainment I consumed and felt best defined 2013:

Pain & Gain: Back when it came out, I tried writing an essay about Michael Bay’s black-hearted comedy (had the title “The Grossest, Most Beautiful People” in mind), but never got around to finishing it. This was an absolute surprise, a Coen Brothers movie on testosterone and aimed at cutthroat capitalism–represented by an intense Mark Wahlberg as Danny Lugo (the leader of the real-life Sun Gym Gang) and a caustic Tony Shaloub as a sandwich shop magnate Lugo kidnaps and extorts. The way Lugo and his buddies (Anthony Mackie and scene-stealer Dwayne Johnson, as a cokehead/ex-con/born-again Christian) are seduced and corrupted by the American Dream, the way they leave people dead and broken (Johnson, as the closest the group has to a conscience, has sympathy for the victims), the way they indulge in every gaudy, lurid fantasy Bay ever committed to celluloid, and the way their situation spirals out of control is perfectly nasty, hilariously disgusting, and smartly cutting. The ease with which Lugo gets around tepid regulations of bank practices (bribing his boss, a notary, into falsely approving a transfer of assets) turns the mid-90s crimes upon which the movie is based into a perfect metaphor for the housing market collapse (doing for that crisis what The Dark Knight did for the War on Terror). If Michael Bay’s career as a Bruckheimer hack was the plot of a film, this was the third act twist. The pulling back of the curtain to reveal Bay as a much smarter director than anyone (myself included) ever gave him credit for. Transformers 4 could be the worst piece of shit on the planet, Pain & Gain still justifies its existence.

Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us: Voice actor Troy Baker’s year was defined by one theme: emotionally scarred, cynical men escorting teen girls through a sci-fi nightmare (in both, the girls are, for the most part, only vulnerable to the psychological wounds the game inflicts). The Last of Us was standard zombie apocalypse fare, with Baker’s Joel escorting foul-mouthed Ellie (Ashley Johnson) across America. Gameplay was divided between genuinely tense stealth moments (where scrounging for supplies was dangerous, yet could pay off in a tight spot) and the same cover-shooting and Quick Time Event action setpieces which defined Naughty Dog’s one-dimensional Uncharted games, but also took the time to marvel at the elegant mix of beauty and horror in nature reclaiming civilization. Joel and Ellie bonding, becoming co-dependent (she a surrogate for the daughter he lost years ago), makes up for the script’s lame attempts at deconstruction (only once does Joel kill someone who is neither threat to him or Ellie, and only after the game goes out of its way in the third act to tell us he’s a crazy, murderous psychopath).
Bioshock Infinite, however, was the more complete experience: its entire world, the floating city of Colombia, defined by violence and oppression. The bourgeois class, led by Comstock (Kiff VandenHeuvel), enjoys so much leisure they refer to their metropolis as “Heaven, or the closest you’ll get in this life,” but rest on the broken backs of slave labor (a cross-section of early 20th century black and immigrant communities) who routinely get mangled by unsafe work conditions, if not killed for sport. This inspires justified revolution (The Last of Us‘ Fireflies didn’t have real motivation…they were a plot device), except it goes so far as to murder children. Baker’s character, thug-for-hire Booker DeWitt, only adds to the chaos, with motivations for extracting teen psychic Elizabeth (Courtnee Draper) more personal than he realizes. Redemption and baptism figure prominently in the narrative, with Booker trying to “wipe away the debt” even as more and more blood gets on his hands. Pundits mistook this critique in a first person shooter as ludonarrative dissonance, forgetting that any story about the effects of violence has to have violence. Those sprinkled moments of quiet throughout the first half–Booker and Elizabeth wandering Colombia, or when they hide out in a bar for awhile, performing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”–are about these two finding some grace, but it always exists in a fragile bubble amidst carnage they leave in their wake. Ken Levine and his Irrational team chase these themes down a rabbit hole of alternate universes and time travel, until we get to one, single conclusion: the damage we do can’t be fixed by simply repenting.

The Long Journey: Boulet’s infinite canvas webcomic doesn’t just capture modern frustration. With a story which only builds, and never really ends, as his avatar goes beyond humdrum reality to backpack across surrealist landscapes, he finds beauty in expressing that frustration. Boulet wishes to escape the world, yet keeps coming back to incidents and images he sees everywhere (graffiti being the most prominent). What he finds is the need for connection, with himself, with people, with life. The nuances within the monotony of existence, which keep us going when all is dark and the end is never in sight. Boulet finds out he can go on a little more.

Horror movies: The genre had a minor comeback this year with three movies. First was the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Evil Dead remake/sequel/thing, a vicious allegory about the plight of addicts. Fede Alvarez borrows superficially from Sam Raimi’s original movie (the isolated cabin, Book of the Dead, possession, girl being raped by tree) but fixates on the self-mutilation the Deadites force upon their hapless victims (two lose their hands, one as a morbidly funny bit of misdirection), calling to mind the amputation of Jared Leto’s arm in Requiem for a Dream. In a worse year, this would’ve easily been the best horror flick, but it was just warm-up: after this came Rob Zombie’s American giallo Lords of Salem, contemplative in the ways all his previous movies were (about violence, sexuality, drug use, music, and Americana) but with a much more assured hand. The big winner, though, is You’re Next, a movie as much a window into the fucked-up dynamics of an upper-class family (as seen through the eyes of Sharni Vinson, playing the fiance of A.J. Bowen’s meek middle brother) as it is the latest in the new wave of home invasion thrillers. Adam Wingard neatly divides the movie into halves, allowing the relationships between the siblings (especially Bowen’s antagonism towards his cocksure, passive-aggressive older brother) to be the core around which the movie revolves. In a way, their bourgeois affectations expose the rottenness of most Hollywood dramas and mumblecore (both about the troubles of pretty, rich, white people), while Vinson gets to portray the working-class, can-do attitude of a John Carpenter anti-hero. I cheered for this.

Arrested Development Season 4: I’m really not sure what people were griping about. Instead of wasting the new opportunity provided by Netflix cruising on fan-service, Mitchell Hurwitz and crew took Arrested Development in a bolder, meaner direction. Splitting apart the Bluths, embroiling them in schemes which became increasingly sad and pathetic extensions of their own isolated misery (George’s loss of masculinity and Maeby still going to high school), and even more explicitly attacking the American political system (Terry Crews is better at being Herman Cain than Cain is), this was exactly what the show needed to be.

Star Trek Into Darkness: Just kidding, this sucked.

XCOM: Enemy Within: It’s not often a game’s expansion pack adds thematic depth as well as content. Opening with a new, foreshadowing quote from Buckminster Fuller–replacing the too-common Arthur C. Clarke one of Enemy Unknown–the Firaxis team fills out the premise of sacrificing humanity to achieve victory with a slew of upgrades in addition to the neat tech and psychic powers: genetically modify your troops, giving them secondary hearts or the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or cut them up and turn them into cybernetic MEC Troopers (complete with an international crew of voice actors impersonating Peter Weller), players are presented with choices as existentially horrific as they are really fucking cool. A new human faction, EXALT, gives one pause when realizing how closely they mirror XCOM itself (scientist Dr. Valen hypocritically remarks about how little responsibility they show with their genetic tampering), even as their allegiance leans towards the alien invaders.

Pretty Deadly: 2013 comics were a sorry state of affairs. The mainstream littered with the jack-off fantasies of bald(ing) white men–the Brian Bendis-written non-event Age of Ultron springs to mind–and giant corporations flooding the market with crossover tie-ins, accelerated release schedules, and tightly-managed-yet-poorly-edited “content.” Even good superhero comics–Fraction/Aja Hawkeye, Gillen/McKelvie Young Avengers, Nocenti/Sandoval Catwoman, Dial H,–couldn’t maintain momentum under those circumstances. The bigger creator-owned publishers (Dark Horse, Image, IDW) didn’t fare much better, with TV pitch-comics and fake-liberal Brian Wood on Star Wars being the norm. The small guys were off doing their own thing (most of which I’d have to tread the murky realm of buying online, and I’d rather not because I’m a total Luddite when it comes to Amazon and PayPal). There was plenty of good and even great work, but almost all of it was continuations from previous years (honorable mentions: Prophet, Fatale, The End of the Fucking World, Rachel Rising).
Then this happened: a magical realist Western created by the invaluable Emma Rios and the respectable Kelly Sue DeConnick. Deploying manga tricks and the surrealist touches of Sam Kieth’s The Maxx or Todd McFarlane’s Spawn (minus the latter’s high-school philosophizing), the duo turned out three virtuosic issues transferring song and good old fashion myth into the tale of a blind gunslinger, the Native American girl he cares for, and the death which chases them. Prodding, divisive, and experimental, this was the rare comic worth arguing about. And it’s a comic worth reading more of.

Music: There was plenty of great music this year. Neko Case had a new album. I saw Murder by Death in both Detroit (at the Magic Stick) and Chicago (at Reggie’s Rock Club). There were some other songs and albums which caught my attention, but my opinions on music aren’t as strong as with other things. But still: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight. The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Such a great album.

The World’s End: So much to say about Edgar Wright’s final Blood and Ice Cream movie. About how great Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are (here having completely switched roles), how smart and crisp the dialogue and imagery is (“There’s nothing between us!” goes down as my biggest laugh of the year, followed only by a line from Inside Llewyn Davis), and how the fight scenes are coherent and inventive. It’s also about getting old, trying too hard to cling to youth, and watching gentrification creep up and claim everything unique and interesting in the name of mediocrity and propriety. As funny and cool as it is, it’s about as biting as satire gets.

Nemo: Heart of Ice: A small, unassuming entry in  Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, revolving around a failed Antarctic expedition. It was Moore/O’Neill’s racist/hyper-capitalist interpretation of pulp character Tom Swift, a thorough condemnation of science fiction’s often gleeful championing of imperialism, which drew the most attention. It’s also Moore and O’Neill addressing the legacy of Victorian fiction (Janni attempting to conquer what her father, Captain Nemo, could not: Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness), its decline (Swift’s partners are fading, English predecessors), and the way literature corresponds with its respective empire. Before Watchmen never had a hope for being this good.

Inside Llewyn Davis: I could talk all about how the Coens articulate grief, the way Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a failure at everything but music, and callbacks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Especially gripping were the scenes where Llewyn is presented with an opportunity to do something noble or decent, but passes it up because he’s just pent-up and confused and angry and desperate. Basically, the only closure he gets is a modicum of comfort over the tragic suicide of his musical partner, even if he will never get over it. And all of that is wonderful, touching, and resonated with me on a personal level, but I really included this as an opportunity to type these words: “WHERE IS ITS SCROTUM!?”

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard 2: David Petersen’s small publishing hit churned out another round of anthologies. All of varying quality (the best was Christian Slade’s “The Love of the Sea”), but each a celebration of storytelling and art, from its roots in oral tradition to modern publishing for the masses. Utterly charming.

Drug War: An allegory for Hong Kong/Chinese relations, Johnnie To’s first mainland action movie found humanity within the inhumane systems of crime syndicates, Chinese communism, and the global War on Drugs. Everyone here is a person–the cops have each other’s back for gas money, the crooks pay true respect to their dead friends by burning their profits, delivering 2013’s single greatest scene–which makes it all the harder to watch when the bullets fly and bodies drop. To effortlessly displays the ways even decent people, whether they have a badge or cook meth, fall prey to systems designed purely to steamroll over them.

Happy 2014.

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Mark Wahlberg’s Power Animal Is an Overly-Excited Puppy

About the only big thing happening in comics things over the last week was the “Artists V. Writers” debate flaring up yet again. It’s actually a good, much needed discussion, and David Brothers chronicles many of this round’s more enticing bits here. At this point, my $0.02 is gonna matter even less than it usually does, but I will say it’s because this discussion is ongoing that I try (and often fail) to comment on as much of the production of a comic as I can in any given review. Most of the time, I end up fixating around one or two elements that I think encapsulate how I react to that particular comic. Sometimes it’s the writing, sometimes it’s the art, other times it’s the politics or the use/misuse of advertisements. Usually, it’s a combination of the first two. And, come to think of it, I hardly ever mention the inking or lettering of a comic, which isn’t exactly fair.

And yet, I continue to have nothing to say about those things in the following reviews. Not much of an epiphany, is it?

Batman Incorporated #13
Art by Chris Burnham
Writing by Grant Morrison
Published by DC

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The credits, a two-page spread of Batman and Talia dueling in front of an ouroboros, seems to be the key to this finale and the run that it concludes. Everything cycles back to the beginning, eating its own tail, with nary a second’s thought to changing course. Batman may get scraped up, may lose a sidekick or two, a villain may or may not die, but these things get brushed aside and more Batman comics will come out, without fail. It won’t matter how cleverly you deconstruct all the tropes, or how great your artwork is (and Chris Burnham’s inset panels of Batman and Talia making out while Leviathan and Batman Inc. battle in the streets of Gotham, and the weird gender war thing it represents, shows what a great damn storyteller he is), you’ll get replaced on that long conveyor belt to the snake’s mouth. This becomes the problem with superhero meta-fiction, which Grant Morrison’s final issue clearly is: futility and corporate servitude are the only conclusions. Even when a victory is as satisfyingly unsatisfying as the one Batman has, it’s not an ending, just a stopping point, because there’s more or less the same thing coming out next month. The only parts that matter are the little stops along the way, because even someone with as big a God Complex as Morrison realizes the broad storyline’s never going to matter with these things, because it’s just going to continue spiraling inward on itself. Morrison even has Commissioner Gordon narrate “It never ends”: Batman will brush off the wounds, get a snazzy new sidekick (and maybe a spinoff or two), and here we go again. While reading this series has been a pleasure, the inevitable fake-ending would and will leave me feeling queasy.

Lenore #8
Art and Writing by Roman Dirge
Published by Titan

Roman Dirge’s big success with Lenore is how the grotesque and the childlike overlap. Dead girl Lenore behaves exactly like a little kid, and similarly shows little understanding of the very real consequences of violence and death inflicted upon mere mortals by her guardian/buddy Taxidermy (who is revealed in the prologue to be an Egyptian protection god of children). This itself leads to her imagining a Ghost Hunters-style TV host (looking to film her and become rich) as a butterfly when she is informed that is what’s being done to him. Taxidermy himself, who is only barely seen in the comic (Lenore‘s other characters, Pooty and Ragamuffin, provide most of the interaction), attempts to balance his violent tendencies (killing people who harm children) with consideration for children themselves, which leads to the comic’s most hilarious moments (the words “You’re welcome. P.S.: I left you a sack lunch” are written for a child in the blood of his abusive parents). All in all, a charming comic.

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The Wake #3
Art by Sean Murphy
Writing by Scott Snyder
Published by Vertigo

I’m not sure if I’m meant to take this seriously anymore. The tone and direction of The Wake changes so quickly, so dramatically, it renders any real analysis of it moot. Solemn, silent pages where Sean Murphy depicts the origins of life are immediately followed by Sci-Fi Channel-movie monster-on-the-loose action sequences, and characters we’re barely familiar with are given big, dramatic moments–a poacher has a one-sided Predator standoff with the escaped merman. Problem is, that stuff only works if your audience becomes familiar with the character in question. This is usually the problem for superhero crossovers like Age of Ultron, and Scott Snyder tends to write on that soap operatic level, where interesting hooks are introduced and then paired with scenes pandering to the lowest common denominator (it’s to Snyder’s credit none of his dialogue is as dumb as “Ow! My ass!”). The Wake makes the same mistake as Age of Ultron (and Secret Invasion, House of M, and Siege, basically all of Bendis’ Avengers work) of not bothering to flesh out either characters or ideas.

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But, where that comic started as garbage and got less interesting as it dropped one hook after another as if daring readers to stop buying (a dare which I accepted and won), The Wake remains interesting. Even as the plot plays out like a stage performer going to great lengths to debase himself for the amusement of its audience, Murphy and colorist Matt Hollingsworth create a unified aesthetic that does more to make the disparate parts whole than the writing does. The last two pages have the same structure as the first two pages, with an explosion marking a dramatic shift in environment, as if we’re seeing bookends to specific epochs of Earth. It also helps Snyder isn’t forgetting about any specific aspect: the future stuff doesn’t appear, but the opening pages do recall that flooded world. The result? I’m actually willing to keep at it with this.

3 Guns #1
Art by Emilio Laiso
Writing by Steven Grant
Published by Boom

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Clearly getting the jump on the Hollywood franchise machine (this follows 2 Guns, a movie of which is now out in theaters), 3 Guns wears its action flick ambitions on its sleeve. Every page features either violence, the threat of violence, or a woman in a tight-fitting dress. Often, there are highly skewed angles and scenes at ass height in the manner of Michael Bay excess (not an insult. Rafa Sandoval’s been doing roughly the same thing in Catwoman, and it’s been great). While Steven Grant turns in a decent enough script based around plans within plans, a fight comic should really be an artist’s showcase; problem is, the art fouls up.

A lot of the action Emilio Laiso draws is sloppy: when ex-DEA agent Bobby ambushes a militia that’s pursuing him, he manages to grab their leader right after he got out of a car that had just parked. Later, when Bobby gets in a fight with his 2 Guns co-star Marcus (who is working with Russian mobsters), he ends up punching the ground while Marcus is mid-fall. There’s no consideration for time and space, like with Paul Gulacy or Guiseppe Camuncoli, or even the stylized pose of Frank Miller, just placeholders for movie storyboards. Moreover, the junk food nature of the material would be better suited by the bright, primary colors of Matt Hollingsworth’s Hawkeye work, rather than Gabriel Cassata’s shiny, muted coloring (it certainly lacks the oppressively hot oranges and whites of the film). About the only worthy visual moment is when Grant and Laiso get contemplative: Joey, a diner girl seemingly allied with the militia, asks Bobby what is basic about human decency, with the panel half black and half brown as if to indicate the confused moral state of these characters. Everything else is apathy and cash-in.

The Long Journey
Art and Writing by Boulet
Self-Published

Calling Boulet’s The Long Journey a great webcomic almost seems a disservice. In a genre more overloaded with crap like Ctrl+Alt+Del or PVP than even mainstream publishing can get away with, this goes outside that circle altogether. It becomes refreshing and vital.

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Nominally, Boulet adopts the style of retro video games (read: 8-bit and 16-bit), although really more detailed with closeups and changing camera angles. He does carry the surrealist logic of Nintendo platformers, though, with his avatar leaving the humdrum real world through his toilet and into an ongoing fantasy land (the weird English translation adds to the effect). The comic is one long vertical mural utilizing the Infinite Canvas, forcing readers to scroll downwards. The effect is evocative of both Legend of Zelda‘s overworld and flipping through the pages of a comic book, yet is a rare instance of a webcomic that could only really work in the format of the internet (that is, unless someone wants to loan Boulet a skyscraper and let him go all Christo on it). And as the reader scrolls further downward, encountering giant plants, demons, Nazis, sea creatures, a T-Rex, and more, they are immersed in Boulet’s own escapism. The opening, a dreary rain in a gray city, is all we get of the real world, and it’s enough to go along with the deliberate nonsense that follows. Boulet at length writes about fantasy worlds like Narnia, and expresses frustration at the familiar (he shouts “Of course!” repeatedly). He even mocks the idea of traveling the world to escape as cliche (“If the world bores me, I don’t think the solution can be more world”), though the arc he follows is remarkably similar: encounter new places, note common themes (graffiti showing up in unlikely places), get in scrapes, meet a girl (a mermaid in this case), moments so brief they can hardly seem real. It’s introspective in all the right ways, with Boulet discovering his passion for life as he debates the metaphysical nature of his existence and his art, which he admits is based on whimsy. And where he arrives is beautiful.