DC Comics

The Books of Magic (1993-2019)

Books of Magic v1Books of Magic

Original series and recent “Moveable Type” trade paperback

Back in 1991, DC decided to let one of their successful new writers, Neil Gaiman, fresh from his success with The Sandman, an opportunity to play in the sandbox with a bevy of their silver age B list characters, weaving them into the origin of what they hoped would be a new success, The Books of Magic.

It concerned the big four of these lot, and their concern and involvement on what the universe handed them was a new disciple of the mystic arts, and whether he was up to standards and was either to be allowed or eliminated, depending on this trial phase.

Books of Magic introduced Timothy Hunter, a young English lad thrust into a world of magic and mysticism, that would later perhaps influence another English writer into “inventing” a similar character, with similar attributes, with an owl familiar with whom most of you know of already. That DC’s parent company, Warner Bros., would have huge success producing a series of movies based on the best selling books of the later incarnation, would give us the pathway of what turns the money world and how it forms decisions at a corporate level. If Tim Hunter were privately owned by Gaiman and not work for hire, Harry Potter’s place in history might have turned out to be a very different story.

Warner Bros.’s handling of the situation is illuminated well by the almost thirty years that have passed since his first published tale.

Books of Magic, a four issue, prestige formatted book given four different and highly talented artists, was indeed a good vehicle for keeping Gaiman busy and happy at DC, an exercise in giving him reign over some of the mystical “heroes” and incorporating them into Timothys story, allowing him access to, and eventual “certification” to belong and influence events in this portion of DC’s universe.

The books themselves took young Tim on a journey throughout each book, with the b list characters leading the way, showing him bits and pieces of what came before him in the DC supernatural mythos, and whether he wanted to or even could assume his place among them.

Here is Gaiman’s strong suit as a writer of comics, his love of English fictional lore, and his ability to take previously invented characters and weave them successfully into the tapestry of the DC Universe, yet still giving him some freedom to pick and pull at the characters, reinventing them for a new modern feel, giving them relevance they really didn’t have before as B listers of the past.

And weave them he did, much like the Sandman before him, Books of Magic, while not reinventing the wheel, provides a decent respite from the previous ham fisted depictions of magical lands and environment that had escaped DC before. Each of the four comics more or less completes a chunk of Tim’s introduction, along with the weight of deeper roles Gaiman obviously enjoyed depicting.

By the series end, Gaiman brings it all around, and with the help of the artists, completes a grand tale that pretty much satisfies the hunger of readers of such things, and more importantly, brings forth and refreshes another portion of the DC portfolio to explore and publish stories about.

While I must confess, fairies and mythical monsters aren’t my sort of thing, but I got the set of them cheap at a comics fair during my hunts, and wanted to see what the fuss was about in a manner that allowed me to sample them inexpensively. All in all, I thought it was a successful series, imbued with solid visual storytelling skills from the artists (the Charles Vess issue is outstanding), and Gaiman’s writing, while not my cup of tea, kept me interested, and by its finish, I felt none the worse for having read it. My time invested didn’t exactly enhance my experience with comics, but I didn’t feel there was a couple of hours of my time wasted either.

Many years later, DC Comics would move its offices from New York where it had been since the invention of comic books themselves, to the west coast, incorporating itself fully both in it’s physical and etherial presence within the sconces of the Warner Bros facilities proper.

In the meantime, Books of Magic had gone on to an aesthetically successful run of seventy five issues and numerous appearances in the DC comics canon. I noticed while attempting to acquire a collection of this run through my local library that a collected book of the most recent series published after their move was available, so I reserved it and read it.

Now according to the cover blurb, Tim is published under them banner along the top as part of the “Sandman Universe” with the Vertigo imprint still used as a differential label to distinguish itself from the rest of their mainstream properties. Gaiman’s name is listed as a co creator, but really none of his presence other than utilizing his regurgitated universe seem to show evidence of his presence here.

The six issue mini series that is collected here pretty much goes through the tropes of once again revisiting and reintroducing the characters, perhaps to make it more accessible to a new audience, which is a solid goal for these things. The problem is, after reading it, I’m no closer to actually reading an actual story than I was when I started. We seem to be going through the chore of not just reintroducing characters, but one of plot as well. You can checklist this book entirely through its more or less stereotyped events that comics of this sort have already demonstrated; sadly this comes off as if you’re watching an old rerun of a television show you’ve already seen many times. Worse yet, after six issues and almost identical page count to the earlier saga, we are woefully short of an actual story and no closer to one by the series end. It has served merely as a prologue to a larger event that continues on in what I imagine will be the next volume.

Now this is where some modern published comic books seem to have hit a wall, both in terms of garnering a new audience, and giving value in the time spent reading it. The creators here, I imagine through no fault of their own, shall remain nameless because a creative person needs to work. They have turned in what looks entirely like an editorially mandated exercise, checking off the points it needs to hit, along the way to offering a product that lives off its own previous success. It doesn’t provide any new creativity or invention, and is produced to seek out the most common denominator in finding a customer, giving them the impression something is actually going on here, hooking them into investing themselves in the next volume to continue or perhaps complete the story.

At short of twenty dollars with tax included, readers would be better served by studying and referencing other comic stories and creators, an easy task these days with as much access to information as we have, and searching out material that has been vetted and written about to give inspiration to find such things.

This current volume of Books of Magic isn’t about introducing the reader to a new fascinating character and mythology, but more about the numbing of creativity, franchising a copyrighted product and fooling its consumer into buying something that looks like the real McCoy, but sure doesn’t taste like it, akin to eating a fast food burger and wishing it were made with real ingredients by someone that puts creativity, invention, and love into it. Sadly, the hour it took to experience this book gives neither satisfied taste buds, and the impression my time could have been better spent elsewhere. The dearth of invention displayed here makes it look like an undernourished imitation of the version that came before it. How sad.

Sorry Harry, oops, I meant Tim.

Better luck next time.

Hitman: A Rage in Arkham (1993-96)

Hitman A Rage in ArkhamA Rage in Arkham is the first Hitman collection, but it’s not all the first Hitman stories. There’s his first appearance, during the Bloodlines crossover—which I can’t forget to address, in a Garth Ennis and John McCrea Demon annual, then a Contagion tie-in with Hitman and Batman, then the first three issues of the ongoing, an arc titled… A Rage in Arkham.

But there’s more Hitman before Rage in Arkham; I’m guessing the most informative would be the other Ennis and McCrea Demon comics. Who knew.

Because Rage in Arkham (referring to the collection from now on) makes some fast moves. Not just when considering it with Hitman (aka Tommy Monaghan) in mind as the protagonist. Because in the Demon summer crossover annual written by Garth Ennis, words I never expected to type… it’s still all about Tommy. It opens with him getting his powers after being hit with an Alien inner mouth only not dying. It’s not an Aliens crossover with Dark Horse—did people mention at the time the villains, “a race of monstrous dragon-like aliens who killed humans for their spinal fluid” (thanks Wikipedia)–were unintentionally absurd and generally terrible. It’s like they were trying to come up with transforming action figures but gross or something. Is there a good behind-the-scenes story to Bloodlines?

So the Demon annual is just Demon and Tommy teaming up to take on the bad guy who attacked Tommy in the first pace. Lots of good writing from Ennis, who loves doing the Etrigan stuff, and good art from McCrea. They sort of do it as a spoof of gangster comics. And the humor’s very obvious but also way too dry for American comics. I think I’m going to read that series too.

Anyway.

Then there’s the Contagion crossover story, which just introduces Tommy and Batman. It’s all about Ennis’s characterization of Batman, who comes across like a really dopey jock. It’s awesome. Because Tommy’s can read thoughts and has x-ray vision—he’s also just an awesome shot, which is why he’s a hitman already—we get to hear all of Bruce Wayne’s thoughts. Again, awesome.

And really nice art from McCrea, whose style for the comic seems to fit Tommy a lot better. Glen Murakami’s colors are a nice compliment.

And it’s immediately rough going from those nice Murakami colors to whatever’s going on with Carla Fenny’s colors in the first issue of the ongoing. Fenny’s doing a lot of the shading work, so McCrea’s art actually regresses a bit. It gets better immediately on the second issue and then is fine for the third; what happened? Issues two and three have a Heroic Age color separations credit supposedly.

Because when the colors are doing the light angles… they’re a lot more important.

The Demon annual opener is only ten fewer pages than the “feature” story and with Ennis’s excellent pace, the arc is a bumpy—though sometimes entertainingly so—ride. The last part has a somewhat clunky wrap-up, which Ennis is able to save at the last minute, but only because he’s been doing so much background character development. The issues also might seem clunky because we’re jumping ahead in character development whereas Ennis at least wrote that progression.

Tommy in story one isn’t Tommy in story two isn’t Tommy in story three. So the first issue of the ongoing is coming with a different set of baggage. Might explain for the bumpy.

But, again, Ennis makes it work. He’s got a particular humor about Hitman and, once he gets comfortable narrating with the character—the first arc in the ongoing is basically a pilot for this character as narrator, a newly created DC antihero guy. There’s a lot of smart commercial decisions in Rage, though I’m not sure Batman as buffoon was going to ingratiate the book. At least not at the time. But even as a buffoon, Batman’s still Batman. It’s a very awkward characterization and always intriguing.

Tommy’s a good lead. The arc introduces some supporting cast, including a non-hitman sidekick, and the villains (literal demons trying to hire him for hellish purposes) are excellent.

It’s a lot of fun. Even when Ennis pushes too hard trying to qualify an assassin protagonist in a mainstream DC comic. I’m also curious how they decided the main bad guy would have a swastika tattoo while in Hell but not while on Earth. I’ll bet there are a lot of interesting notes from Hitman.

So. Really good comic. This time—the third time I’ve started it—I’m definitely going to finish it.

Justice League: The New Frontier Special (2008) #1

Justice League The New Frontier Special  2008  1It would be wrong to describe Justice League: The New Frontier Special as hack work. Darywn Cooke’s art on the feature, even his plotting of it, is not hacky. Neither is the Robin and Kid Flash story’s art, courtesy Dave Bullock and Michael Cho. Even the Wonder Woman and Black Canary go to a Playboy Club art by J. Bone isn’t… hack work. Bone’s cartoonish style does what it’s supposed to do.

Now, the writing on that last story might be hack work. Cooke opens with a gentle jab at political correctness, confirms Bruce Wayne is a pig in his off time, and then has Wonder Woman slut shame. It’s not quite cringe because it’s six pages, but it’s definitely eye-roll.

And the Robin and Kid Flash story is more just annoying. Between Robin’s hep cat narration and the proto-groovy dialogue (and the “commie” villains?), it’s tiresome. But gorgeous art. Arguably better looking than Cooke’s feature, which is… something.

The feature tells the untold tale from the original New Frontier (this not at all special Special tied into the release of the lousy New Frontier animated movie)—Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Greater Good. Besides getting some insight into how Cooke would write Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman if he’d written them more in the original comic (good thing he didn’t), it also has more of dickhead Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sends Supes after Bats. I remember reading something about (Canadian) Cooke thinking we needed Eisenhower back—when asked about his politics during Iraq War II, where there was only one right answer—which adds a layer to the comic.

If Cooke liked Ike… it’s hard to imagine how he’d have written him if he didn’t like him. Killing a puppy maybe?

The feature’s twenty-four interminable pages, with Cooke clearly not spending a lot of time on the art. The Batman and Superman fight itself is pretty good, rather drawn out, but with a goony resolution. It’s also one hell of a retcon of the original series.

Overall the most successful thing in the comic is the one page prologue with Rip Hunter telling everyone not to take it seriously.

All of a sudden, I’m real glad I don’t have one of the New Frontier collected editions with the Special included. If I’d read it on publication, I forgot about it. I hope I can forget about it again.

DC: The New Frontier (2004)d

DC The New Frontier  2004Darwin Cooke’s most impressive achievement with The New Frontier isn’t the art, which is a mix of sublime, grandiose, muted, and bombastic, or keeping track of all the characters (there have to be hundreds), but the voice he finds for characters. He starts big, with Losers member Johnny Cloud narrating the team’s adventures on Dinosaur Island. New Frontier is heavier with the science heroes and war heroes than with the superheroes. The Losers, Task Force X (the Suicide Squad), the Blackhawks show up, there’s a bunch with the Challengers of the Unknown—all of the mask-free, government sanctioned hero types, they play the biggest part in the New Frontier’s main plot, figuring into both Hal Jordan and John Jones’s plot lines and then consuming them. Though everyone’s plot is consumed by the finale.

Cloud’s memoir sets up the comic both in terms of Cooke’s approach—it’s going to be fantastical comic book action, but with a lot of heart in its heroes (New Frontier doesn’t have much in the way of human villains, as it turns out, just heroes who aren’t being heroic yet and then the politicians… they’re all bad), so awesome art and simple, sincere narration—as well as the main plot. Dinosaur Island’s going to figure in a lot.

After Cloud, Cooke cycles through the same main “leads”—Green Lantern-to-be Jordan and not yet Martian Manhunter Jones. There are tangents, but it’s their story for most of the comic. The big three—Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman—figure in a little. Wonder Woman and Superman more because they become government stooges and head off to Southeast Asia when tasked, which has long lasting ramifications and figures into their (scant) character development arcs. Cooke’s not telling a Wonder Woman or Superman story—despite showing up every issue, Superman’s basic ground situation still comes as a bit of a surprise at the end. Batman’s just there to support other characters, whether Superman or Martian Manhunter (without knowing he’s a Martian).

There’s also a possible plot hole with Wonder Woman knowing Eisenhower from the war but it’s unclear in what capacity because the superheroes weren’t involved in World War II (because “Spear of Destiny,” which means B.J. Blazkowicz failed his mission in New Frontier-verse). Cooke is cagey with the ground situation, which is fine when it works and he’s able to have a surprise reveal or little plot twist, but he’s intentionally manipulating. So when it doesn’t work, it’s real obvious.

As present as Wonder Woman and Superman is Lois Lane. She comes in early and stays to the end, often getting onto a soapbox to rant about the government wanting to control all the superheroes. See, the Red Scare goes to them too, not for being communists but for wearing the masks. Cooke does a fantastic job with the science heroes and how they exist in the world, but there’s nothing about how the regular folk regard the superheroes anymore. Tying them into McCarthyism when they would’ve been fresh in the public’s mind for do-gooding (presumably). It’s weird.

Of course, there’s not a lot of opportunity for Cooke to expound recent history because—outside the various narrations—the only expository device he’s got is the occasional article from some in-world reporter, Lois, Vicki Vale, Iris West, and they wouldn’t be appropriate for too much historical exposition.

The big fight at the end—will the United States’s earnest heroes be able to get over their fears and band together to stop an unimaginable threat, leveraging their individual abilities and the latest in Silver Age technology? Of course, it’s a superhero. It’s rather well executed, even if some of the details—Cooke’s design of the final boss seems like the physiology-free sketches of a child (in the Fifties, natch) and, well, something out of Max Shea’s imagination (obligatory Watchmen mention)… because New Frontier very much feels like Watchmen only with the DC Universe heroes. The Wonder Woman and Superman stuff… it does not exist in a vacuum. Cooke is showing off the potential for the regular stock of DC characters but does it too well.

The Flash, who gets less than stars Hal Jordan and John Jones but definitely more than Superman or Wonder Woman, fits really well in the 1960s context. Ditto Hal Jordan. In proving the characters relevance to their original historical context, Cooke makes everything else seem, well, second best. Again, with the caveat he’s very much gearing their characterizations—as expressed in their narrations—to fit his story. But you don’t get done with New Frontier and want to hunt down the latest Flash or Green Lantern issue. It’s interesting see these guys—and the comic definitely leans almost all male (it passes Bechdel because Wonder Woman chastises another Amazon’s fighting ability and a woman compliments another on her blouse)—as they struggle with their internalized jingoism and so forth. Cooke’s subplots often are just texture to promote this internal turmoil, like Hooded Justice—sorry, sorry, John Henry—who fights to KKK in Tennessee to national acclaim but is a local criminal. Cooke talks around the vigilantism stuff; he doesn’t have a character who can really get into it. John Jones does a little because he’s a cop in Gotham City, but supervillains aren’t really a thing yet.

Cooke takes huge bites and thoughtful chews.

The epilogue, set to John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (get it, get it), is clearly a labor of love for Cooke but also unnecessary if not wholly unsuccessful. Kennedy and speechwriter Ted Sorensen were not writing for DC Comics and Cooke’s juxtaposition of text about social injustices with the corresponding comic book images… it comes off a combination of callous, opportunistic, and forced. New Frontier reaches, which is just right, it ought to reach, but Cooke reaches a little too far in the end. He ends up derivative instead of innovatory, which is exactly what the comic shouldn’t do.

But it’s still a masterpiece of superhero comics, setting an insurmountable bar because—even with plot holes and pitfalls and rushed subplots and epilogue problems—Cooke’s four or five hundred pages of art aren’t ever going to be surpassed. It’s a gorgeous, affecting tribute, homage, and eulogy to the Silver Age of DC Comics.

Sleeper: Season One (2003-04)

Sleeper Season One  2009Some of Sleeper doesn’t age well. There’s a whole plot line about the secret society running the world and, in 2020, it seems like a very dated trope. To be fair, it was dated in 2003 when Sleeper came out, but writer Ed Brubaker was at least utilizing the trope to sabotage it. There’s also the lack of Internet-backed technology in the futuristic setting, which was apparently where what all futurism somehow missed. And when they try to mainstream the book in the last few issues, brightening up Sean Phillips’s blacks, slimming his lines, it’s a mistake. Ditto going from the handwriting font for the protagonist’s narration to a really slick italicized font. Doesn’t read well in the context of a collection; there ought to be a footnote about how they were desperate to save the book from cancellation.

I’d also forgotten the book takes place in the Wildstorm universe, featuring TV news cameos from The Authority; Brubaker does a great job of not making those connections matter much, outside providing an established universe with super-powered good guys and bad guys. The crossover character is Machiavellian crime boss Tao (created by the Original Writer himself!), which doesn’t come up much throughout and even when Tao’s giving his origin story it’s barely a footnote.

Origin stories are a big deal in Sleeper, something the protagonist, Holden Carver—good guy spy turned double agent, posing as a bad guy super-powered spy for Tao’s organization—and his colleagues do when they’re bored. The villains sit around and tell their stories. Except it’s only for the newbs and Holden hangs out with the seasoned veterans so it takes a while to coax their origins out of them, whether it’s Holden’s best bud, Genocide Jones, or his lady friend, Miss Misery.

Where Sleeper doesn’t age—can’t age—is in Brubaker’s plotting of the series, which spends the first nine or so issues with a two steps forward, one step back approach to revealing Holden’s story. We don’t find out how exactly he got roped into the super secret mission—and we still don’t know how his handler, Lynch, got put into a coma right before the series started. Issues take place weeks apart, sometimes following up on the previous issues’ cliffhangers and finales, sometimes not. Brubaker and Phillips end each issue for effect, sometimes dramatic, sometimes tragic. So it really burns when the narration lettering gets cheesy at the end, just as Holden’s having some big moments of revelation. You want the personality of the character in those passages, not feeling like you’re being handled so DC can try to sell the book to its stupider readers.

Sorry, it’s been sixteen years but I’m still not okay with how badly they bungled this series.

The first issue does a fine job establishing Holden and some of the world, enough about his mission, enough about Tao’s villainous organization, but focuses on Holden’s friendship with Genocide. Genocide’s an indestructible big lug thug. After Holden starts sleeping with Miss Misery—a chainsmoker who needs to inflict pain or damage in order to live, literally—Genocide’s the only one he can tell about it because Holden shouldn’t be sleeping with his coworkers. Especially not when she’s an occasional squeeze to Tao and Tao’s right hand man, Peter Grimm, mad crushes on her and already hates Holden.

Holden’s basically indestructible, thanks to an interdimensional artifact. His body heals, but builds up a charge of pain energy (he doesn’t feel physical sensations anymore, unless there’s some kind of pleasure and pain mix, which makes him perfect for Miss Misery). He zaps people with the pain energy; it can be lethal. Otherwise he shoots people a lot. There’s a lot of shooting in Sleeper. It’s not the most exciting visual (at some point you wonder how Phillips is still ginning up the enthusiasm for the action sequences, given none of the main characters is actually capable of being hurt).

The book starts getting really good in the last third, after the illuminati subplot, as it becomes clear just how much Holden is breaking down undercover and what’s going to happen when a lifeline appears. He’s got to question whether the lifeline’s real, but then the further question becomes… is it better or worse if the lifeline’s real. Has Holden crossed the line in his undercover operation. Sure, Genocide Jones and Miss Misery are far from the worst compatriots in a hive of scum and villainy—Genocide’s likable and even sympathetic, while Miss Misery gets the very odd combination of female tragedy and male gaze (even if it’s arty Phillips male gaze… there’s a lot of it in the comic)—but what does it say about Holden.

Brubaker’s character development work on Holden is somewhat ramshackle, thanks to the fractured timeline and narration, but once he reveals himself to be something of a softy, it’s not at all unexpected. Or unwelcome. A little sincerity goes a long way in Sleeper, which is effective, engaging, excellently executed (enough Es), but definitely feels like commercial product. Brubaker’s scripts reward the reader’s attention without ever dragging things out too long. Holden’s narration cushions the plot twists and reveals, with Phillips art capturing what usually ends up being sadness in the moment. He’s really good at tragedy and desperation. Less so the super-powered gun fights or the occasional superhero fights. They’re not bad in any sense, but they’re not where Phillips excels in the book. You can tell he’s not interested in them. The supervillain outfits, for example, get a good setup panel and then otherwise seem like a chore.

But there’s a lot for Phillips to draw in this book and it’s impressive how well he gets through it all. Like, he’s got to be doing supervillains and superheroes one panel and then Disneyland two panels later. It’s seriously globe-trotting, which isn’t always great as far as the character development goes but… delayed gratification on that front. Brubaker and Phillips don’t work to make Holden a sympathetic protagonist even after things start falling apart. He’s presented matter-of-factly, which probably hurt the book’s commercial potential to some degree. Though who knows. If the last sixteen years of DC Comics has revealed anything, it’s they actually didn’t have a chance with their dedicated reader base.

Sleeper was also one of the first comics to do the “Season One” thing, even though it wasn’t intentional… they had to try for a new number one to get the series some interest because trying to force good comics to become hits is difficult. The “season” ends on an interesting narrative note for what’s to come for sure, even if the thinner Phillips line work and the gaudy lettering leaves it in a visually far less interesting spot than it started.

Did it read better month-to-month back in 2003 and 2004? Probably. But it holds up rather well, especially given the many aforementioned caveats….

Like, I think there’s at least a boob every issue, which makes you wonder if it was an editorial mandate… did DC have data on how many copies they sold based on bare boobs? And while they’re sometimes arty boobs—Phillips is classically trained, after all—sometimes they’re just boobs for boobs sake, maybe three lines. It gets to be an eye-roll after a while.

Though… it’s not like there’s much characterization to the (two) female characters in the comic, which maybe you can get away with because it’s Holden’s perspective and all, but them both being exhibitionists is a little weird. No fetish shaming just… what are the odds. Are there odds? Do female espionage agents prefer exhibitionism? It, like an apology for that second lettering font, needs a footnote at least.

Shadow of the Batgirl (2020)

Shadow of the Batgirl  2020Shadow of the Batgirl is a bit of a bummer, though I’m not exactly sure why. It’d be nice if it were good. It’s not bad… not if you’re getting it from the library versus spending the sticker price. And there’s a big library subplot in the book so it’s appropriate. It just feels stretched out. The chapters are very contained and the break between them messes up the pacing. There’s also a lack of immediate danger in the middle chapters, which is kind of… a lot to accept given the protagonist is a teenage girl experiencing homelessness living in a crime ridden city’s public library while her father the international assassin sends agents out to find her.

The tone writer Sarah Kuhn and artist Nicole Goux is fine but… only if you forget how dang traumatizing being in that situation would be. It wouldn’t be cute and Shadow of the Batgirl is often pretty cute. Cassandra’s a likable protagonist, even if her character development arc is sort of spotty. It never seems like the character is going to realize around other people—because she’s such a loner—but Kuhn and Goux always make it happen. The book’s got its successes and they can be impressive.

They can also be Cassandra’s sidekicks, Barbara Gordon, librarian, and Jackie, tea shop owner, who aren’t particularly impressive. They’re fun. They’re sometimes really fun. But they’re not particularly complex characters. Even if you ignore the nagging questions about how Barbara got in the wheelchair and what happened to the previous, retired Batgirl. The book even has some thoughtful exploration of heroism in the superhero world. It’s just for a bit and it’s not too deep, but you can tell Kuhn’s thought about a lot of it.

But also about how to make it aspirational, which shouldn’t be such a concern. It makes Shadow feel methodical. And, after a certain point, something’s always going wrong with Cassandra to move the plot forward. Just anything to get her to run away, spy on Barbara and Jackie, come back and be forgiven, everyone understands she’s a confused teen assassin. It would actually be a great structure if the comic were at all psychological but… it’s not.

Kuhn’s dialogue is good and she can get to heartfelt scenes, but the plotting always seems forced. Goux’s art is solid. Nice changes in style depending on the distance. No real fighting stuff—it’s not a kung fu comic—but it’s professionally executed.

It just never feels like it isn’t product. It’s competent and inventive, but it’s brand product.

Jonah Hex (2010, Jimmy Hayward)

If you ever find yourself not believing in the idea that White people of wanting talent can fail upward, watch Jonah Hex. Every one of the principals from the film worked again when, based on the film as evidence, maybe John Malkovich should’ve gotten another job. Sure, Josh Brolin isn’t terrible in the lead, but it’s not like he acts enough you’d think there’s something to him as a talent. Michael Fassbender and Megan Fox are just plain bad, though Fassbender’s failing at a part, Fox isn’t even acting a part enough to fail at it. Of course, she is sympathetic because Hex really likes victimizing Fox, the only woman in the cast with a speaking part.

At least, with multiple scenes and a speaking part.

The film runs an indeterminable seventy-five minutes (eighty with end credits); it feels closer to a couple hours just because it’s so boring in its badness. The only times Hex gins up any energy is when it’s being surprisingly bad in some way or another, like when Black man in 1876 Lance Reddick has to tell Brolin he knows he wasn’t racist when he was a Confederate soldier, he just didn’t like following orders.

Hex is a heritage not hate bunch of nonsense from 2010. It’s a very lazy film and could have just as easily not had the sexism, the racial optics, some ableism, and given everyone less work and based on everything else in the picture, they’d have embraced it, but screenwriters Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor had some very definite places they wanted to go with the film. Ick places.

It’s a stunningly bad lead turn from Brolin. Yes, it’s clear director Hayward has no idea to direct actors—or even whether or not he should be directing them; I swear in a couple scenes it looks like Fox is glancing off screen for some kind of guidance. Or editors Kent Beyda, Daniel P. Hanley, Tom Lewis, and Fernando Villena just do bad work. Yes, all four of them for a seventy-five minute movie. Hex reuses at least three minutes of the same footage, bringing the “original” footage runtime down to seventy-two, then throw in another couple for the opening animated sequence, which Brolin narrates and recaps what happens between the prologue and the present action, and you’re down to seventy.

And for a seventy minute “intense Western action” adaptation of a comic book… Jonah Hex is still surprisingly bad. Incompetent might be the best word, but no worries, both producers failed up.

The only reasonable performance is Malkovich, who gets through it without any exertion or ambition, but without any failings either. He’s perfectly fine as a Confederate general who fakes his death so he can come back and firebomb the U.S.A.’s first centennial celebration with a steampunk super weapon. Sadly it’s about the only steampunk thing in the film, outside some explosive crossbow guns Reddick makes for Brolin; steampunk might at least be interesting.

Hayward’s a terrible director. He’s not good at action, either with explosions, guns, horses, fists, knives, or whatever else. Jonah Hex makes you realize what truly bad ideas Hollywood producers have about what makes something good.

Maybe the only thing I’m grateful about with Hex—other than the runtime—is not recognizing Michael Shannon, who seems to have a cameo and I do remember seeing someone who looks a little like him but thinking it was Neal McDonough. Wes Bentley’s quite recognizable and quite bad. One has to wonder what Malkovich thinks of acting opposite people who can’t make bad material palatable.

Will Arnett and John Gallagher Jr. have small parts I hope they talked to their agents about recommending.

Jonah Hex is a crappy movie and not in any interesting ways.

Oh, and Aidan Quinn. Poor, poor Aidan Quinn. He too hopefully had a long talk with his agent.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jimmy Hayward; screenplay by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, based on a story by William Farmer, Neveldine, and Taylor, and the DC Comics character created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga; director of photography, Mitchell Amundsen; edited by Kent Beyda, Daniel P. Hanley, Tom Lewis, and Fernando Villena; music by Marco Beltrami and Mastodon; production designer, Tom Meyer; costume designer, Michael Wilkinson; produced by Akiva Goldsman and Andrew Lazar; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Josh Brolin (Jonah Hex), John Malkovich (Quentin Turnbull), Michael Fassbender (Burke), Megan Fox (Lilah), Will Arnett (Lieutenant Grass), John Gallagher Jr. (Lieutenant Evan), Lance Reddick (Smith), Wes Bentley (Adleman Lusk), Tom Wopat (Colonel Slocum), Michael Shannon (Doc Cross Williams), and Aidan Quinn as the President of the United States.


Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass (2019)

Harley Quinn Breaking Glass  2019Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is a Young Adult graphic novel reimagining of Harley Quinn, set in high school, with Harley making friends and enemies while living with a delightfully supportive group of drag queens, fighting gentrification and 1% incels. It’s also almost two hundred pages of Steve Pugh art. It’s the new Mariko Tamaki too, bring real YA graphic novel cred to the project, but it’s two hundred pages of Steve Pugh art. It doesn’t get cancelled halfway through. We don’t have to wait three years for a third issue, it’s just… lots of Steve Pugh art. All at once.

It’s glorious.

And Pugh’s even able to keep a straight face in the denouement, which introduces all the possibilities of the future. See, Breaking Glass is realistic (enough). Ivy is a Black girl in a “progressive” White school, trying to force them to drop the quotation marks. Their nemesis, John Kane, is the rich White kid who runs the film club. He’s basically Ferris Bueller if Ferris got a car instead of a computer. He only shows White men—Tamaki gets in some great digs about film noir but I feel seen with the Kubrick—anyway, the first act of the book is the high school stuff. It’s overly dramatic but not soapy; Tamaki and Pugh both have this focusing style and it plays well in the high school environment. The scenes focus on conversations, Pugh focuses on the speakers. Tamaki and Pugh are most in sync when Harley’s with other normal people—Ivy, the drag queens—not when she’s with the Joker.

I forgot the denouement. Okay, so after pushing for some kind of realism throughout, the denouement turns it into a CW teen show. But checking in on the possible familiar face of Breaking Glass’s Gotham City. So kind of like a teen drama version of “Gotham,” next year on HBO Max. Though, in all seriousness, the comic companies ought to launch a monthly subscription reading club and center them around a single release (but with old stuff too). I got Breaking Glass from the library, read it on a whim, but definitely would’ve paid five to seven bucks to read it on my iPad. Getting to zoom in on the Pugh art? Homer Simpson drool. There’s not a lot of action–or it’s rushed action—but the level of mastery Pugh’s working at in Breaking Glass is stunning.

And it’s a good read. Tamaki’s narration is just the right amount of too cute without ever being cloying. It’s occasionally a little wordy, which has a fun resolution in the third act.

Not a fan of Ivy and Harley’s friendship getting shortchanged as far as page count—once Ivy brings up race, the comic runs away. Knowingly and responsibly, but it runs away. Into the Joker, who’s problematic. It’s fine. But pretending the Joker is the best mainstream comics can do has gotten exhausting. Tamaki also cops out on really showing Harley’s infatuation because the comic’s not willing to go that subjective. The Joker’s objectively a shit-heel, even viewed through a fifteen year-old’s lens, which also becomes a bit of a plot point.

Thankfully it’s not a Joker comic, it’s Harley’s and it’s good. She doesn’t get too annoying until just before the end, which is more about Tamaki’s hammering of the foreshadowing finale events. Or racing to get them.

But Breaking Glass is a good comics read. Finite. Successful without too many qualifications. Hundreds of Pugh panels.

Watchmen (2019) s01e09 – See How They Fly

I’ve been trying to gin up enthusiasm to write about this “Watchmen” finale all day. Though, if I think hard enough, I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with a compliment. Something like… thanks to “Watchmen: The Series,” Robert Wisdom’s most… unappreciative recent casting is no longer “The Alienist.” Wisdom shows up in this episode as the newspaper vendor who gets to do a newspaper vendor stand-in for the end of the world (again), though this time he gets paired with Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons).

And, I guess if I’m continuing on the qualified compliments… Irons is a lot better this episode than expected. Sure, it’s because Hong Chau is not, but it’s not like Chau is James Wolk or something. Wolk is truly godawful. Chau’s just disappointing.

Jolie Hoang-Rappaport’s still good as Chau’s assistant though. “Watchmen: The HBO Event Mini-Series”’s successes are few and few between. Cherish them. Even if they don’t make the viewing experience any less ponderous. Though, yeah, if you’re willing to let “Watchmen” get away with a lousy Clair de Lune accompaniment, maybe you’re going to let it get away with a 2001 rip-off. I mean, after the Schindler’s List thing, doing an obvious 2001 callback… well, no, the former is just an excruciatingly cynical eye-roll, the latter is actually comically godawful.

But if you’re willing to cut “Watchmen” that amount of slack already… who cares if the ending is an intentional cop-out, but before that cop-out lazy and trite. I mean, at least the original score functions like an old John Carpenter score again?

I do like how little respect the show has for its audience, when it draws attention to things and tells the viewer to pay attention, then does a flashback anyway because it doesn’t trust them to pay attention. Just like Watchmen the comic. As well as short-changing the entire cast. Because Watchmen the comic did the… oops, no. No, it did not.

The show uses some cheap tricks to get things done in the episode, which “corrects” the ending of the original series. Or something.

If Damon Lindelof had any gumption, he would’ve done a show about trying to adapt Watchmen and why everyone fails at it and sequelizing it. Or do something about how DC and Warner Bros. screwed Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, lying to them for years. Not to mention propping up the Watchmen trade sales while waiting for Hollywood to figure out how to exploit the property.

But he doesn’t. Because Lindelof’s got no gumption. No spoilers but he’s a lot more Return of the Jedi-era George Lucas than anything else… which makes him perfect for a “Disney Star Wars” show.

I think the most disappointing thing is I really thought the show was going to give Lou Gossett Jr. a great mainstream role.

It does not. But it gives him even less of one than expected. And expectations have been dwindling for a while.

As for Regina King… she doesn’t make it worth watching, which is a travesty. It wastes her. Completely.

Back when the Watchmen movie came out a friend who I don’t think had read the comic said it (the movie) proved you could do a different kind of superhero narrative, even if Watchmen didn’t do it successfully. The TV show doesn’t even reach that level; it doesn’t prove its conceptual case, much less do it successfully. It really does make me wonder how people experience reading the comic book, because clearly they’re getting something very different from it than I ever do.

All that said, I really hope I remember not to get roped into Season Two in a few years after they say they’re not doing another season then do another season a little later than expected; maybe an HBO Max exclusive.

A sellout’s adaptation of Watchmen needs the sellout Alan Moore and Damon Lindelof is not the sellout Alan Moore. I mean, have you ever read a Damon Lindelof comic book? They’re terrible. Like his TV shows. Sellouts can make good sellout product, which Lindelof utterly fails at doing here.

Watchmen (2019) s01e08 – A God Walks into Abar

This episode of “Watchmen” gets, quite nicely, to the heart of the matter. As the episode goes through its meme-ification of Dr. Manhattan (albeit prestige HBO series starring recent Academy Award-winner Regina King memes), where King and Dr. Manhattan—who’s always visibly obscured when he’s not assuming the appearance of his surprise reveal identity—sit and talk (he walks into a bar to find her, her name’s Abar, it’s… really dumb writing) and there’s not just no chemistry between King and the disembodied voice in the performances, there’s none in the direction or the script. More on Nicole Kassell’s direction in a bit.

But in general, the episode reveals that great conundrum of Watchmen, i.e., what the hell do people who like terrible things like “Watchmen: The HBO Event Series” like about Watchmen the comic book and is it the same thing as people who don’t have terrible taste and, if so, where’s the disconnect. I get the show is mimicking Alan Moore’s narrative devices for Dr. Manhattan only doing them shitty and nonsensically on television but so what. Damon Lindelof’s story for the show is basically the same as what they did in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; you, fanboy turned show runner, can’t imagine what comes next so you just regurgitate the source material and package it in a new shiny, then stir the vomit for nine episodes.

“Watchmen” goes the extra mile of adding the racial subtext so it can claim some indisputable seriousness but… no. Really no.

This episode reveals not just the inevitable creative bankruptcy of the project, which—frankly—has already been laid bare (so I guess this episode just revels in that shiny bucket of puke), but also how little scope Lindelof had for it. Less, arguably, than any other Watchmen spin-off. Insert eye-roll emoji.

Oh, right, Kassell. So besides the not great direction between King and Dr. Manhattan on their various encounters, there’s also the Regina King with an automatic weapon taking out white supremacists action sequence, which the show sets up—in dialogue—to be some spectacular action sequence.

It is not. It’s not incompetent, but it’s also not any good. It’s long enough to get boring, boring enough to wonder why it isn’t better directed, better choreographed, better written. “Watchmen” manages to stay out of the incompetent—the actor playing Dr. Manhattan does way better than he should, all things considered (his scene with Jeremy Irons presents the first sympathetic Irons in a while, because the show reveals the bad Irons ideas aren’t Irons’s), even if it comes at the expense of King, who just got the show taken away from her permanently (she’s now an entirely unreliable narrator)—but it’s always in the inept.

At least since the third episode or whatever.

I’m so glad no one listened to me when I said watch the show after the first episode. I’d be so embarrassed.

Scroll to Top