Thursday, October 20, 2016

Iron Doom Begins

Not long ago, I read the early issues of the Brian Michael Bendis/Alex Maleev International Iron Man book in the hope that the creative team behind one of the greatest Daredevil runs of all time could bring some of that same magic to that character. They didn't. The book was a dud. I gave up after 2 or 3 issues. They're together again for the new Infamous Iron Man book and this time, I'm pleased to report, they really are back.

Despite the title, this new book stars Dr. Doom. As I've written here in the past, Doom is one of my favorite comic characters but he's also one who has been in crisis. Some years ago, someone at Marvel had the spectacularly bad idea of putting the execrable Mark Waid in charge of writing the Fantastic Four and in the course of the predictably godawful run that followed, Waid so thoroughly raped this, one of Marvel's finest creations, as to entirely obliterate it. That isn't to say Marvel stopped publishing books of Doom but there was no coming back from what Waid had done. Though a character who bore the name theoretically lived on, Doom was, as long as Waid's garbage remained a part of his history, as dead as disco. In the intervening years, Marvel hasn't really seemed to know what to do with the character. I've checked in on him from time to time but I've fallen behind. No one seemed interested in fixing Waid's atrocity and I just haven't had the heart to read Doom in any sort of regular way.

Along come Bendis and Maleev. Their work on Daredevil was so strong, I guess I'd give just about anything they do a chance. The introductory page of Infamous Iron Man notes that "for reasons that remain his own," Doom, prior to the ongoing "Civil War II" storyline, "assisted Iron Man in averting several world-ending catastrophes." But the intervening events of Civil War II mean Doom's "mysterious mission" was left unfinished. And that's the premise of this book--Doom apparently looking to finish it.

My knowledge of Doom's story post-Waid is spotty. Here, he seems to have either repaired his disfigured face or is employing some technology to mask it. As if to reconnect the character to his past, Bendis jumps right into classic pre-Waid Doom, revisiting, in the space of only a single issue, three of the defining stories of the canon. "This Man... This Demon!" from Marvel Super-Heroes #20 told of Doom's encounter with the villain Diablo. Diablo wished an alliance with Doom but in order to secure it, he tampered with Valeria, the woman Doom once loved. It goes very badly for him. Here, Diablo returns, looking to commit some mischief with S.H.I.E.L.D. Doom is equally unimpressed. The other classic Doom tales, "Though Some Call It Magic" (from Astonishing Tales #8) and "Triumph & Torment" (graphic novel co-starring Dr. Strange), dealt with Doom's efforts to free his mother's soul from the clutches of the demon Mephisto but to learn how Bendis reapproaches those, you'll just have to read the book.

And read it you should, if you're a fan of either Doom or of the creators on this project. I don't want to hype it too strongly based on only a single issue but this is some really good work. When Bendis first appeared, he was a great creator and for years, he did a hell of a lot of incredible work. Since then, he's become much more spotty, often tackling characters and books for whom his talents are ill-suited, never really reaching the heights he'd formerly achieved and, if we're honest, producing a lot of outright rubbish. Any time he and Maleev work together, they're obviously going to be competing with their own legend and for working creators, that has to suck--it's damn hard to live up to a legend. But what if rather than competing with it, they're able to expand it? This book does have that potential. Overtly, the once-great Doom here appears to be on a mission of redemption for all the terrible things he's done in the past. Is this for real? Is he faking a change of heart for his own ends? On that, only time will tell but it's hard not to see in this story a reflection of Bendis's own and it's hard not to see that as a potential recipe for a smashing success. It feels an awful lot like Bendis and Maleev have picked up several threads in Doom's characterization that were developed for a number of years then entirely abandoned when the Waid atrocity was imposed. To borrow a variation on another well-worn cliche, it feels like this is a book that may give me my Doom back.

I didn't expect that. It makes me happy.

--j.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Charles Soule's Daredevil Just Ain't Workin'

It really is time for some frank talk about the current volume of Daredevil. Let's go ahead and say it: this just isn't working. The single word brought most forcefully to mind by these first 8 issues is "superficial." Charles Soule has opted to write the book as a superficial adventure-of-the-month title featuring a central character with almost no inner life and no real supporting cast. Soule's story-structure is overly repetitive--in over half his issues to date, he stages a fight scene then lets everything else play out around it. Worse, the stories themselves are generic, by the numbers--one could plug just about any other hero into the lead role without having to change much and they'd work out about the same. They have no impact, they don't lead to anything and they don't amount to anything.

Soule has introduced some elements that could, if properly worked, make for an interesting book but having introduced them, he has a bad habit of not doing anything with them.

Matt as a prosecutor is an intriguing idea and addresses a longstanding dichotomy in the character, a defense attorney by day and masked vigilante by night. In making Matt a city prosecutor, Soule perhaps underestimates both why that original dichotomy was interesting in the first place and why this new direction is potentially quite problematic but there's a lot of potential there and Soule's own legal background inspired hope that he may be able to bring some life to the scenario. Alas, he's done almost nothing with it. Matt's reasons for wanting to become an assistant district attorney, a fairly major change, remain unexplored. Everyone with whom Matt works in this capacity is a faceless non-entity. They come and go in a few panels and one doesn't even remember their names. The work itself initially tied into the first story arc but that angle was quickly dropped and the job sidelined. Matt himself freely leaves it whenever he wants to go bust heads. He's unfairly blamed by his superior for screwing up a major case and exiled to a minor-league project in order to prove himself, he violates his orders and walks away from that assignment to play Daredevil and a few issues later, he's in Macau, having taken a vacation! It gives the appearance of an author who isn't even keeping up with his own story. Now, obviously, the book is "Daredevil," not "Matt Murdock: Assistant D.A." but why introduce this major change then treat it in this way?

Blindspot, DD's sidekick, is another new wrinkle. Having Daredevil train a protege is something with which a talented writer could work and, of course, Blindspot is a story in himself, a working-class guy from Chinatown, an illegal immigrant who constructed a stealth suit and took to fighting crime. Unfortunately, he, too, has been given very little attention. His training mostly happens off-camera, which seems a waste given that Matt, in this scenario, is taking on the role of Stick, the crotchety old bastard who trained him. It would be interesting to see more of how Matt imparts the same lessons to the youth. Blindspot was theoretically neck-deep in the original storyline of this run but it was all handled very superficially. His involvement, along with his mother, in a criminal cult begs all sorts of questions, questions that are then entirely ignored or barely touched upon. A subsequent and ill-conceived encounter with Elektra--there was absolutely no reason Blindspot should have been there--has, at present, left him sidelined.

Soule brought in Elektra, which, in a DD book, is like invoking the nuclear option, then didn't really do anything with her. Her two-issue arc reads like the set-up for a much more interesting story but Soule walks away from his most spectacular twist--that Elektra had a previously unknown child by Matt--then just abandons the larger story entirely. The child is revealed to be a series of false memories put into Elektra's mind, Matt thinks he knows who did it and thinks it was done specifically to get at him, then Elektra leaves and the next issue just moves on to something else entirely, which can't help but add to the overwhelming feeling of pointlessness this entire run has so far generated. In #8, Matt is suddenly participating in a poker tournament in Macau, the tone is suddenly straight James Bond and not so suddenly, I just don't care.

Soule inherited a book that was in utter creative ruin, as low a point as DD had ever been in its 50+ year history. The big Marvel Secret Wars event offered him the opportunity to simply hit the reset button and entirely delete his predecessor Mark Waid's abominable rape of the character. Whether by choice or by editorial edict, he declined this option and the "solution" he concocted--having Matt somehow erase from every mind on Earth the knowledge of his secret identity--has made an unbelievable mess of not only DD's continuity but that of countless characters with whom DD has interacted over the years.[1] Large portions of his history are now entirely inexplicable. Ben Urich, whose decades-long partnership with DD was built upon his figuring out it was Matt beneath the mask, Spider-Man, DD's friend, confidante and sometimes collaborator who has been in on Matt's secret for 30 years of comic stories, the Black Widow, who actually lived with Matt for some years, his partner in life and in crimebusting and whose every interaction is premised on her knowledge of who he is--it makes my head hurt to even think about the destruction this memory-wipe garbage has wrought[2] and all in the name of preserving that godawful Waid run that never should have happened in the first place. And, of course, how Matt did this remains entirely unexplained, something that drifts around between Matt's thoughts from issue to issue. No resolution to this--if any is ever even offered--is going to be dramatically satisfying or, indeed, anything better than an ill-conceived insult. It's "One More Day" all over again, no matter how it works out. Soule had a reset button available to him in the Secret Wars event. Waid could have simply been erased without ever being addressed. The path Soule has chosen allows Waid to continue to destroy the book long after he's left it, that godawful prior run poisoning not only what should have been a fresh start but DD's entire history.

Though Soule hasn't quite caught up to them yet, his artists have returned some semblance of the proper pulp noir tone to the book. The first story arc, brought to life by Ron Garney and colorist Matt Milla, was, in fact, a great experiment in comic artwork. Visually ambitious, perfectly suited to the character and looking like nothing else coming out of Marvel--a joy to see. Unfortunately--notice how that word keeps turning up?--Marvel can't seem to keep a regular artist on the book. In only 8 issues, there have already been three and the two following Garney--Matteo Buffagni and Goran Sudzuka--just look like they're trying to imitate Garney, an impression furthered by the constant of Milla and his innovative color schemes. The artwork, to be clear, is good  across the board and not really a source of complaint. No one has been able to do Garney like Garney though. The book needs a regular artist.

"Superficial" may be the word much of this run brings most immediately to mind but another that also ranks prominently is "disappointing." Soule needs to seriously shape up. If this is really all he has to offer, it's time for Marvel to find a new writer for this book.

--j.

---

[1] Of everyone in the world, Matt allowed only Foggy to retain this knowledge and Foggy is furious with him over it, so much so that he tells Matt he'll never help him again. And then, of course, he helps him again a few issues later, another example of Soule seemingly not following his own storyline.

[2] Storylines like "Born Again," most of Brian Bendis' run on the book or all of Elektra's interactions with Matt over the years are inexplicable without the knowledge of Matt's secret. How do all the characters involved in them now explain their pasts?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Killing The PREACHER

I was quite ill the day I first sat down to read "Gone To Texas," the first "Preacher" trade paperback collection. I'm not sure laughter was the best medicine in my particular case; the book made me laugh so hard, I actually threw up. Right after throwing up--which seems, in retrospect, an entirely appropriate tribute to the comic--I went online and ordered the rest of the series. Created by Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, "Preacher" was raucous, wildly imaginative, wonderfully offensive, relentlessly iconoclastic, screamingly hilarious--a particularly fine example of comic art that became a personal favorite.

Its story begins with a clandestine affair between an angel and a demon. This union of holy and unholy produces an offspring, a being who theoretically possesses all the power of Heaven and Hell. The only thing it lacks is a will of its own. The lower angels imprison it in a laboratory for study but one day it breaks free, comes to Earth and bonds with the body of a redneck preacher from Texas. The Rev. Jesse Custer (note the initials) learns it has given him the power of the Voice; when he gives a command, it must be obeyed. Discovering that in the aftermath of the lab escape God has retreated to Earth, Jesse, his car-thief girlfriend Tulip and his new vampire pal Cassidy undertake an odyssey to find God and force him to account for the miserable world He's created. That's the basic story of "Preacher": the Rev. Custer vs. God. It plays out over the course of a long series of darkly comic--and sometimes just damn dark--adventures populated by all manner of quirky oddballs (Northern Irishman writer Ennis makes it an extended love-letter to all things American).

In this age of copious comic book adaptations, people have been trying to bring it to the screen for years. Doing so in any recognizable form, of course, presents some big, obvious problems. The scale of it is enormous. Not only is it a long story, something that could only be done in a series of films, mini-series or a regular show, it travels across the U.S. and abroad, involves Heaven, Hell, stories that go back hundreds and even thousands of years and it's chock-full of set-pieces that would be incredibly expensive to bring to the screen. At the same time, the controversial nature of the material--the sex, the gore, the atrocities, the blasphemy--make it a very hard sell for almost any potential venue that could adapt it. It steps on every toe of every crusading busybody who ever raised a sword against the existence of any form of popular entertainment and faithfully bringing it to the screen involves braving the likelihood of it spawning a LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST-style backlash and being mowed over by it. A courageous premium cable channel seemed its only realistic option.

When it was announced AMC was going to produce a weekly series based on the property, I simply didn't think it could be done. Anyone who has ever cracked a single issue of the comic knew an ad-supported outlet where even nudity and cursing was a problem wasn't going to be able to do it justice. AMC in particular isn't noted for its intestinal (or testicular) fortitude; in tailoring THE WALKING DEAD to a whitebread middle American audience, its execs gelded the property so severely they cut out its soul. Any AMC "Preacher" seemed certain to follow in a particularly dismal Hollywood tradition of purchasing the rights to a book, immediately throwing the book in the trash and creating an "adaptation" whose major similarity with the original is its name.

And that's pretty much exactly what happened. AMC's PREACHER debuted last night. This was my subtle dissection of the pilot, composed immediately after watching it:

"Awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, fucking shit accents, fucking shit "humor," fucking shit make-up, fucking incomprehensible, fuck [producer Seth] Rogen, fuck this fucking awful fucking shit."

I wasn't disappointed, mind you. I understood the improbability of the whole affair and my skepticism had been reinforced by all of the promotional material, which downplayed any supernatural elements and from which it was impossible to discern any sort of plot. Though I had a faint glimmer of hope that, regardless of questions of fidelity, something worthwhile would emerge--oh, hopeless optimist, me!-- it pretty much turned out exactly as I thought it would and there's nothing about knowing its probably about to happen that makes it any easier to watch something one loves being raped.

I've never understood the Hollywood preoccupation with casting Englishmen to play Americans (and, for that matter, Americans to play the English).[1] There are apparently no American Southerners who can play an American Southerner, so as with THE WALKING DEAD (where very English Englishman Andrew Lincoln was cast to play a redneck Southern sheriff), Englishman Dominic Cooper is here cast--and badly miscast--as Jesse Custer. He doesn't have the look for the part and, as with Lincoln, his fake accent is just cringe-inducing. To play Tulip, Jesse's love, who, in the comics, was a blonde, saucy Southern belle, the producers chose Ruth Negga, an actress of Ethiopian-Irish background, whose on-and-off-again "accent" is more over-the-top than Kyra Sedgwick's in the early days of THE CLOSER. There is an actual Irish character in PREACHER, the vampire Cassidy. And to play him, the producers chose... an Englishman. Who looks nothing like the character. At all.

If you ever figure it out, let me know.

I wouldn't slam the actors for this; they do what they can with what they're given. They just don't fit these parts. Casting them doesn't make sense.

Nether does a lot of what happens during the pilot, much of which is a disjointed, badly-paced mess of random events and shifts in tone. It  becomes so concerned with setting up various things for later that it doesn't bother to tell an engaging story itself, the primary mission of any pilot. Some mysterious force comes from "outer space," zips through the galaxy and into the body of some preacher in Africa, who promptly explodes. What does this have to do with anything, you ask? Nothing at all. But it happens repeatedly to various clerics around the world as the story proceeds, an utterly needless complication of what had been, in the comics, a straightforward scenario ("the entity comes to Earth, bonds with Jesse").[2] Between these incidents, we meet Jesse, see how badly he sucks as a preacher, follow him around while he interacts with various denizens of the town. Remarkably boring stuff. Cassidy is introduced while tending bar on a private plane in flight. He goes to a bathroom, finds a marked-up Bible then steps out, realizes the plane is flying in a different direction than he thought and picks a fight with everyone on board. His foes immediately pull out an arsenal of archaic weapons and have it out with him but he kills them all, taking blood from the last two before diving out of the plane without a parachute. So he's a vampire and these guys, it would seem, are vampire hunters (one of them pours holy water on Cass). What's the story? Who knows?[3] Tulip shows up much the same way, fighting with a guy in an out-of-control car rushing through a cornfield. She eventually gets the car stopped, puts down her assailant and takes something from him.[4] She meets a pair of random kids, puts them to building a homemade bazooka then stashes them in a storm-cellar while she shoots down a helicopter with it. What the fuck is all of this about? Who knows? More stuff for later. Or not.[5]

This description may make it sound action-packed but it's really quite dull, something a Preacher project should never be, and this made its 90 minutes feel much longer. Viewers have no investment in anything I've just described. These moments come out of nowhere and disappear the same way. The wicked, black sense of humor from the comics is entirely absent here. The ep makes a few attempts at being funny; most of them as bad as the accents. It radically downscales the story as well, probably for budgetary reasons--it appears as if we're going to stay in Annville for the foreseeable future. By the end, Jesse is ready to give up being a preacher. He asks for a sign from God and the entity appears, slamming into him and taking up residence. He decides this is the sign he wanted and instead of stepping down vows to become the best damn preacher in Annville, Texas. If followed through--and there isn't even a hint it won't be followed through--this is a complete negation of the comic story. Instead of "Rev. Custer vs. God," it's "God blesses Rev. Custer with the power and the will to do good in His name."[6]

For the life of me, I can't imagine why this series even exists. Obviously, money is behind the creation of any television show. Existing properties are acquired because, in part, they have an existing fanbase to which the adaptation can be sold but AMC's PREACHER goes out of its way to entirely alienate those who enjoyed the comic. It positively begs the question: Why go through the trouble and expense of buying the rights to something if you have absolutely no interest in bringing it to the screen? Just cut all pretense of any tie to the existing material, call it something else and you'd own it outright. As it stands, AMC's PREACHER fails as an adaptation and fails on its own merits. Miserably. I was expecting the worst and even I was surprised by how very bad it is.

--j.

---

[1] Does anyone in Hollywood know Gweneth Paltrow isn't English? Does anyone know Jamie Bamber is?

[2] The pilot is full of these sorts of ill-advised changes that seem to have no rhyme or reason behind them. In the comic, Jesse's father was a Vietnam vet who became a bartender, a good-hearted tough guy who was eventually killed by his wife's evil family because he wouldn't bend to them. The pilot keeps the angle about his being killed by someone but makes him a minister who worked in Annville. For some complicated reasons--the evil family being an instrument of God--this suggests much of the backstory on that family, which takes up a lot of Jesse's formative years and is some of the best storytelling in the comic, will be discarded.

[3] This sequence threw away what was, in the comic, a great surprise reveal of Cass's vampirism.

[4] It's a paper with some sort of "job" on it. She talks with Jesse about it--the "job"--later but never says what it is or explains that earlier chaos. All we know is that Jesse doesn't want to do it.

[5] The pilot fundamentally changes Jesse's relationship with Tulip. In the comic, he'd met her as a teenager after he'd escaped from his mother's incredibly evil family. His uncles later tracked him down and brought him back to the family compound, threatening to kill Tulip if he didn't come with them. That's how Jesse's initial relationship with Tulip ended--he just disappeared and she never knew what happened until they met again years later. In the pilot, they grew up together there in Annville and just seem to have broken up at some point. This suggests major sections of their respective backstories have simply been discarded.

[6] Elements from a storyline that, in the comics, occurs much later and in an entirely different place and stage of the characters' development are present here, which saws away another huge swathe of the comic. More to the point, the series will presumably stay in Annville and involve itself, for the foreseeable future, with material pillaged from that later story rather than proceeding in the direction of the comic.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Daredevil: Two Origins

I suspect it isn't an overly popular idea (though I have no data to prove anything one way or the other) but among the revisionist origins of Daredevil, I prefer "Daredevil: Yellow" by Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale to "Man Without Fear" by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.


The Miller tale is a good one, to be sure, and it has some of the best artwork of Romita's career (which is really saying something). It just doesn't work for me as a DD origin. Shoot me but I'm big into organic character development and I've always liked the idea, played out over a long stretch of DD's history, that his world became progressively darker and more nihilistic and began to take more of a psychological toll on Matt Murdock, the man in the devil suit. He carries on a crusade that has no end. As he gets older, he's toughened by his experiences, gets meaner, harder. The bad guys seem to multiply and get more violent and creeping behind everything he does is the fact that he's getting a little older and a little slower and they just seem to get bigger and younger and more vicious and to keep on coming.

DDY examines Matt's early career a costumed vigilante through that lens. It's the older, more weathered Matt looking back on his younger days in the wake of the death of Karen Page. To an extent, he's romanticizing them. Villains talked a lot back then, he recalls when facing off against Electro, rather than leaving women in puddles of blood in some back alley. If Matt didn't go through those days, if all of that is erased, it fundamentally changes both his story and him.

DDY is a minimally revisionist tale. Loeb and Sale set their story during the time covered by the first few issues of Daredevil's comic and their various alterations to the originals bring those early stories down to earth a bit--literally, in one case--and make them more personal. MWF, on the other hand, is a wholesale rewrite. Here, rather than developing organically, the ugliness and nihilism of later Daredevil is front-and-center right from the beginning. For a lot of his career, Matt wasn't a killer. More than that, he would sometimes preach against the practice with such self-righteous fury that he became rather unlikable (it was usually a ridiculous overreaction). Over time, he becomes a lot less concerned about the health and safety of the scum he battles--again, an organic development--but he's certainly never become the Punisher, who became his adversary primarily because of this very issue. MWF wipes away all of that history and makes him a killer right from the start. Worse, it has him kill an innocent via a bit of utter stupidity. Matt would never be able to live with himself if he'd done something like that (and this was later retconned away). But MWF Matt is a guy who is so mentally unstable that, as an adult, he attacks some thugs looking to rob him and beats them to a pulp because he sees them as tormentors from his childhood.

I've been a DD fan most of my life and I don't recognize that character.

Elektra and Stick, which were both great elements added to Daredevil's world by Miller during his first run on the book, aren't present in DDY but as with DD's original comic origin tale, DDY doesn't do anything to preclude them.

In MWF, Matt's relationship with Elektra is radically changed. Originally, Elektra was a sort of dark mirror of Matt--a bad path down which he could have gone. Because of the murder of her father, she became a cold and vicious woman who killed people for a living. Her relationship with Matt was a peaceful calm before that storm when the two of them were happy. MWF presents her as a vicious murderer right from the start, who seems to have little regard for human life and, worse, kills because she gets a kick out of it, the latter a characterization entirely alien to the canonical Elektra.

As stories, without reference to where they stand in relationship to the rest of Daredevil's history, both DDY and MWF are quite good and they're both problematic at times as well. Looking at them as revisionist origins though, DDY works while MWF doesn't. Elements of MWF have--unwisely, in my view--been written into the regular book at times but it's unworkable as an origin if we're to keep DD's history as it has existed over the decades. No shoehorn can stuff it in--huge portions of that history, including most of DD's character arc, must be swept away to make room for it. DDY mostly leaves things alone, cleans up some silliness from some of the earlier stories and shows how they aren't so much of a departure from what came later. It's a better origin.

--j.

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Devil of a DAREDEVIL (Season 1)

[Cross-posted to my movie blog]

As Netflix has just released the second season of Marvel's DAREDEVIL series; it's probably about time I got around to delivering on my long-promised review of the first. I'd watched most of it in a fairly rapid burst shortly after its release but then, as so often happens, life intruded. I only just got around to seeing the final episode last week.

My pokiness in finishing it certainly shouldn't be taken as any indication of my estimation of its merits. DAREDEVIL was released last spring to almost-universal praise and it earns it. This is a very good piece of television, one of the best Marvel or Marvel-based productions to date. It works as an adaptation and stands up as a very good series in its own right. That isn't to say it's flawless. One of the pitfalls of seeing this particular series through the eyes of a very longtime Daredevil fan is that one is acutely aware of the potential of such a project and of where it fails to live up to it. On that score, the series sometimes hits and sometimes misses.

DAREDEVIL is the story of Matt Murdock, the son of a broken-down fighter, who, as a child, is involved in an accident wherein he's struck by some radioactive gunk that takes his sight but amps up his other senses to superhuman levels. His father is later killed by gangsters after refusing to take a dive during a fight; Matt grows up, becomes a lawyer as his father wanted but he assumes another identity by night, that of a costumed crimefighter. Daredevil.

This story was adapted to the screen once before, a creative abortion of a feature film from 2003 that certainly did the property no favors. Marvel reacquired the screen rights from 20th Century Fox and produced this series in-house. It was good to see carried over here a heaping helping of the "pulp noir" aesthetic of the book during all of its finer moments and this and the overall quality of the series marked a bit of a comeback for a Marvel Daredevil. At the time it appeared, the comic of the same name had been a mess for years; Mark Waid, its contracted scribe, seemed determined to upend, undo and defecate upon everything that made DD great and unique and had, for nearly four years, been grinding out an overbearingly lighthearted stew of silly, jokey, Silver Agey trash--a "Daredevil" that was still called Daredevil but was otherwise thoroughly unrecognizable. The series wisely steers clear of anything reeking of that particular run. For longtime DD fans, it was good to finally get the character back in a recognizable form and being done well.

This DD is set in a recognizable place as well. When Marvel first announced DAREDEVIL and its other Netflix series were going to be shooting in New York itself, I was pretty skeptical of that decision. Shooting Marvel stuff in New York, where so much of it is set, seems, on the one hand, a dream--something one wishes could always be done--but New York is an extremely expensive place to shoot, needlessly expensive, and my filmmaker bone felt it would probably be better to spend a television budget on recreating the city somewhere much cheaper. It's impossible to argue with these results though. From the waterfront to the rooftops to the view of it all from fancy apartments and expensive restaurants, the city just looks awesome. DAREDEVIL needed even more of it--more broad vistas, more stuff from the street, traffic, people to-ing-and-fro-ing, local color, atmosphere. It isn't enough just to have the characters talk about the city and what they think of it (and there's plenty of that); the series needs to show it, and while DAREDEVIL uses the city well, it doesn't use it enough. Hopefully something future seasons will remedy.

Matt has only just started his nocturnal activities here and his crimefighter persona is still a bit of a work in progress. He's privy to a lot of the ugly things people do to one another, carrying around a lot of anger and at the same time seems afraid of that part of himself, the "devil" in him that makes him want to do very bad things to very bad people. A Catholic, he goes to confession as the series opens and soon strikes up relationship with the priest, Father Lantom, who proves to be an interesting character and counsel as the series moves along.

The entire supporting cast is excellent, not a miss in the batch. When it comes to writing them, the series uses the comic to great advantage. Instead of looking down upon the book and approaching it with the idea of "fixing" it, the series' creators are very respectful and closely port over a lot of what has made the original work for so many years. The characters are strong, their relationships mostly well-played, a terribly watchable tableaux of very human and very likable characters. Some of the more colorful personalities in the Daredevil universe are brought to life with great gusto. Scott Glenn as Matt's ninja-master mentor Stick, Rob Morgan as Turk, low-level hod and Daredevil's frequent informant, Vincent D'Onofrio as archvillain Wilson Fisk, Bob Gunton as his chief money-man Leland Owlsley,[1] Toby Leonard Moore as his well-spoken right-hand man James Wesley. The comic version of Karen Page was a young innocent who worked as secretary for Matt and his law partner Foggy Nelson then, in later years, saw her life take a dark turn into drugs and prostitution. The series version, essayed by the breathtaking Deborah Ann Woll, has her history reversed, her shady future becoming instead a shady past she's trying to escape. In the comic, Ben Urich was a reporter for the New York Daily Bugle who figures out Matt's secret identity then becomes a frequent Daredevil ally; the series reimagines him as a sort of hybrid of the comic Urich and Spider-Man newsman Joe Robertson, giving him a promotion, making him older and changing his race. Vondie Curtis-Hall is rock-solid in the part but near the end of the run, in what's probably the single biggest misstep of the entire series, the writers opt to bump him off. Urich features, often centrally, in a lot of the best stories in the comic--a lot of potential adaptations of great Daredevil lore died with him.

The writing breaks down in a few places. Some sharp dialogue is often made to rub elbows with some significantly less-than-sharp lines. Some arbitrary drama plays out near the end of the season when Matt's law partner Foggy learns of his powers and vigilante activities. Up to this, Matt and Foggy are best pals, thick as thieves going back years, and Foggy becomes way, way too angry upon learning of these things. It doesn't really affect him in any meaningful way and he should be as fascinated as he is upset but he treats the matter as if Matt had sex with his wife--absolutely furious and doesn't even want to know the guy anymore.[2] Throughout the series, Wilson Fisk's criminal empire is shown to be massive, pervasive and he's a master of covering his own tracks but toward the end, when Matt manages to find a key witness and get the guy talking, this empire unravels far too easily. What should have been a gradual process taking months or even years and maybe never touching the man at the top at all is relegated to a brief montage in the final episode and ends with Fisk being marched away in cuffs. Should have been done better.

One thing that probably couldn't have been done any better is the appropriately visceral way DAREDEVIL handles its violence. Villain Fisk is a real sadist--nearly beats one of his own men to death in a pointless rage, kills a Russian gangster by slamming the fellow's head in a car door until it comes off, doesn't mind having old ladies killed. DD lacks super strength or speed and doesn't carry around a lot of anti-personnel gadgets; he puts down his opponents the old fashioned way, by beating them until they don't get up anymore. In one spectacular sequence, he shows up to rescue a kidnapped child from a building full of hoods. In a single shot, he goes down a hallway the thugs have staked out, bashing every one of them to a pulp until he gets to the room at the end with the child. The fight scenes in this first season are excellent, some of the best I've seen in a television production.

The series adopts the noir aesthetic so central to the best Daredevil work. Its darkness is ever-present but not indulged in a silly, juvenile, aren't-we-kewl-to-be-so-"dark" way like MAN OF STEEL (and, by most reports, the just-released BATMAN V. SUPERMAN). A few relatively minor items do, at times, bring it close to that territory. Matt, in the early episodes, walks around looking unkempt and with unshaved beard stubble, the way comic Matt sometimes looks when he's at the depths of a downer. But tv Matt isn't at the depths of a downer at that point and this definitely smacks of a production trying a bit too hard to sell the idea of Dark Character. Thankfully, that bushy look disappears as the series continues. It's also the case that the characters are way too quick to turn to massive amounts of alcohol to deal with their troubles, to a point that it becomes rather silly and feels more like lazy writing. Something to fix in the future. On the other hand, I would have liked to have seen some of the darker thematic elements taken much further, with, among other things, much more Expressionistic cinematography[3] and a more ambiguous wrap-up (as evil that pervasive is never entirely defeated).

There's a lot to like about DAREDEVIL and despite the fact I would do some things quite differently if I was behind it, there isn't a lot to dislike. In an era that so often produces safe, mediocre screen translations of popular comics, it's definitely a keeper and I'm looking forward to taking in season 2.

--j.

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[1]  The comic version of Leland Owlsley is also known as the Owl, a mutant crime-lord. The series mostly ditches the character's comic persona, carrying over only Owlsley's past as a bigshot Wall Street money man. Gunton's ever-acerbic Owlsley is--forgive me--a hoot.

[2] In the comic, Foggy learns Matt is Daredevil only after they've been law partners--and Daredevil had been active and often involved in their lives--for many years. Karen had known of Matt's dual identity for years as well and Foggy is initially angry with her, thinking she must have known Matt was alive when he'd faked his death (a long story). His anger, which was much more justified, doesn't last beyond that initial outburst.

[3] And better-managed cinematography as well. At one point, there's a classic noir moment, two people in an office at night with light coming through the window blinds, but the characters (Karen and Foggy) are having a warm, friendly discussion. This set-up would have been better employed for some of the darker moments that came later but which, paradoxically, often aren't photographed to reflect the mood.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sheenas

In the beginning, there was Sheena.

As a child, Sheena was orphaned when her explorer father died while trekking through equatorial Africa. She was adopted by a witch-doctor named Koba, who raised her in the ways of the jungle until she was virtually a part of it--its queen and its protector. She took on a mate in a hapless hunter named Bob--the usual gender roles reversed, she must rescue him from danger rather frequently--and the two shared many adventures, taking on threats to the peace of the jungle.

While there were jungle girls before Sheena, both in literature and on the screen, Sheena was the first to break into comic books, a creation of the legendary Will Eisner/Jerry Iger team. In much later years, the two disagreed on the details of her creation but both acknowledged the obvious, that she was conceived as a female Tarzan. Sheena is one of the first comic book superheroes of any gender. She predates the Batman. She predates Captain America. Her first appearance in the British publication Wags #1 in 1937 predated Superman's U.S. debut but Superman beat her U.S. debut by 5 months. Hers was one of the strips that spearheaded the entry into the comic field of prolific pulp publisher Fiction House, whose first book, Jumbo Comics #1, marked her first appearance in the U.S. She quickly became the cover feature and central attraction of Jumbo, where she continued for the whole of its 15-year, 167-issue run. In 1942, she achieved another milestone when the spinoff debut of "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" made her the first female hero to have an entire comic book devoted to her exploits and to have the book named after her--she beat Wonder Woman to that punch by four months. 

Sheena's success was explosive and the industry responded with the sincerest form of flattery. Soon, newsstands were bursting with Tiger Girl, Jann of the Jungle, Tiger Girl, Leopard Girl, Rulah, Jungle Goddess, Camilla, Wild Girl of the Congo, Cave Girl and on and on. Sheena may have inspired as many clones as Tarzan himself. This probably played a role in Sheena's undoing as well, as the market became super-saturated with these jungle-based heroines. As the 1940s became the '50s, growing public concern with sexy and violent content in comics led Sheena's publishers to try to tone down the strip, which also helped finish it off. In 1953 and '54, Fiction House left the comic field entirely, bringng down the curtain on the character's first incarnation.

You can't keep a jungle queen down though and a year after the demise of Fiction House, Sheena became one of the first comic book heroes to jump to the small screen (only three years after Superman). Pinup model Irish McCalla portrayed the character in a 26-episode tv series that ran from 1955-56. The series was somewhat hampered by an overly modest budget and the poor decision to--yes--ape Johnny Weissmuller's by-then-familiar dumb ape-man dialogue ("Me Sheena, you Jane") but it still proved incredibly popular. For reasons probably lost to time, its creators opted not to produce a second season. The existing eps ran in syndication for years.

Nearly three decades passed before Sheena returned to the screen, this time in an upbudget 1984 feature production starring the breathtaking Tanya Roberts. Gone was the ape-man-speak and Sheena was given the power to telepathically communicate with the beasts of the jungle. In spite of incredible locations, an obviously healthy budget and the perfect star, the flick was a disappointing failure, an inane, badly-written turd of epic proportions. 

Sheena returned to television in a syndicated series in 2000 starring former Baywatch beauty Gena Lee Nolin. This time, Sheena was given shape-shifting powers that allowed her to assume the form of animals. Alas, the series never really rose above an at-times-entertaining diversion. It lasted two seasons, 35 episodes.

Each of these adaptations have their strengths, particularly in the casting of Sheena--no misses there, and these ladies are a big part of why each of these adaptations developed a fan-base--but the weaknesses have always outweighed the strengths. The addition, in the feature and second series, of superpowers reeks of Standard Hollywood Idiot Thinking and a lack of confidence in Sheena's basic premise, which is unfortunate. While Sheena, Queen of the Jungle is and always has been a perfect property for the screen, the definitive screen Sheena has yet to appear. In this age of copious comic-to-screen adaptations but a drought of comic-heroine-to-screen adaptations, this needs to be corrected.


--j.

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A NOTE: Yes, I know this is a very cursory look at all of this--probably the least substantive thing I've ever blogged here. I put it together last year for one of my Facebook groups as a means of introducing newbies to the character and just decided I'd put it up here. Sue me.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Holy Sexism, Batman!

Lately--usually when I should have been doing something else--I've been going through a bunch of old Batman comics and this morning I came up with a doozy, Detective Comics #371 (Jan., 1968). Its lead feature, "Batgirl's Costume Cut-Ups," is built around what were, even in 1967 and even in a DC comic, utterly dinosaurish sexual politics--unintentionally hilarious, if only because they're so abjectly appalling. The cover tells the story:



And check out the splash:



The plot here follows the bat-family's pursuit of the Sports Spoilers, a gang of criminals who carry out sports-themed capers, but these images tell the real story in play: can a Batgirl overcome her gender's natural obsessive vanity, stupidity and weakness and become an effective crimefighter?

Aren't you just dying to know?

As the story opens, the Sports Spoilers are in the midst of robbing an armored truck. Barbara Gordon just happens to be on the scene. She makes a quick-change into the Batgirl and tackles them on her own. Though significantly outnumbered, she fares pretty well at first but then the pedal on a bike ridden by one of the gang moves her headpiece slightly off center and more concerned with her appearance than the matter at hand, she finds she simply must stop to adjust it. She gets knocked on her ass and most of the gang gets away, though the timely arrival of Batman and Robin results in the capture of one of the hoods.


Batgirl is depressed. "My vanity betrayed me!" This isn't just some one-time random screw-up, you see; the problem is identified as her natural "feminine instincts," which could--and do--flare up at any moment and cause the same sort of trouble. Batgirl becomes obsessed with trying to overcome this, as though merely not acting like a moron  requires the strength of will of a Jedi Knight. She rides around town trying to find a crime in progress so she can test herself but it apparently takes a more brainy--and manly--superhero to manage even that; while she comes up with nothing, she reads in the paper the next day that "Batman and Robin didn't have any trouble finding crooks last night! They bagged two robbers, three holdup men--and half a dozen jewelry thieves! And I came home empty-handed!" The next night, her big idea for finding a crime is simply to tail the batmobile. Let the boys find the trouble.

Batman and Robin trace the Sports Spoilers to a sawmill, where the gang is in the process of robbing an adjacent metal workshop of gold and silver used to manufacture sports trophies. The Spoilers attempts to escape by dumping a bunch of logs in the river--they jump in on top of them and start rolling them away, confident the caped crusaders "never learned" to roll logs. But it's never wise to underestimate the Dynamic Duo! They charge right out on to the logs in pursuit. "They didn't expect us to be expert log-rollers too," taunts the Batman. Who knew?

Batgirl, coming upon this scene, lets out a scream!



The scream distracts the heroes and the Spoilers are able to put them down long enough to escape their clutches. Batgirl has an idea though, to "raise the underwater chain-net that used to restrain logs from piling up in a log-jam," thus cutting off the gang's intended getaway. Unfortunately, one of the Spoilers sees what she's up to and throws a log in the mud in front of her. It doesn't hit her. It isn't intended to do so. The Spoilers know a woman's Kryptonite; the chucked log splatters mud in her face and she's compelled by her "feminine instincts" to wipe it off. "Oh no--not again!" But it's true; this latest pause brought on by her terminal womanliness allows the gang to roll to the nearby forest and escape for a second time.

Though Batgirl is a grown woman, even Robin, who is just a kid, scolds her. "Even such determined fighters are we are... get distracted by a lady's scream!" So there, you girl!

The final act of this dreadful play occurs at a charity ball being held in Gotham Park by a certain millionaire playboy. The Sports Spoilers opt to turn up with the intent of robbing the guests but Batman and Robin have already deduced this would be their next target and are waiting for them. They charge into the midst of the crooks and a devastating donnybrook ensues. Barbara Gordon--Batgirl--is in attendance at the ball. She's a girl, so the only way she can find a crime in this story is to have one coincidentally happen in front of her. She ducks away in the confusion and reappears in her crime-busting duds but as she's about to charge into the fight, she discovers she has, as she puts it, "a bigger problem" than a gang of no-goodniks to fight. "A run in my tights!"

This time, though, her girly problem works to our heroes' advantage--the entire Sports Spoilers gang pause in the midst of their ferocious combat to wolf-whistle and gape at her flash of leg like a bunch of drooling horndogs who haven't been laid in a decade.



This, um, loss of concentration allows our heroes, who are, yes, Dr. Wertham, apparently immune to such charms, to finally put the gang down for the count. "Batgirl's femininity gave us a break this time," raves Robin.

The Batman moves in to impart the moral of this story. "You see, Batgirl? That was one time you turned a feminine trait to your advantage--and the disadvantage of the criminals!"

"It sure was lucky for Batman and me that you tore your tights when you did," adds Robin, "or we might have wound up on the short end of the score!"

Just when one thinks this story must have exhausted the cringing it can induce in the reader, we get this parting panel:



This was a comic that appeared in the midst of the "Batmania" craze spawned by the '60s BATMAN tv series and the bat-books were trying to ape that show. If one wishes to illustrate the extent to which that show is an abominable blight on both the Batman's history and on comics in general, this tale is an excellent example. The appalling sexism on display here didn't start on tv though. It was quite common in DC books. Times move on and earlier this year, a variant Batgirl cover showing the character menaced by the Joker ignited such a furor against sexism that the cover's artist asked that it be cancelled, which was done. That cover commemorated Alan Moore's great graphic novel "The Killing Joke." There are perhaps worse things in heaven and earth--and in comics--than are dreampt of in the philosophy of many of the Keyboard Crusaders who took up arms against that cover and demanded it be withdrawn. And maybe what I've just done here is a better way to address them.

--j.