Shadow of the Bat

As an intermission from the somewhat downbeat (if understandable) current nature of this blog, here’s some thoughts that have been burbling around in my head, and which spun out of The Dark Knight…

I was a very craze-driven child. An idea would spark in my head, and I’d follow it completely. My first craze was SF, and most particularly Doctor Who, but eventually I would spread out – and some of my crazes would sometimes surprise me. I can remember thinking “Good lord, those daft metal Citadel Miniatures figures are ridiculously expensive – you’d have to be a complete idiot to be into that”, and barely a year later I was knee deep in them and slapping paint on them like there was no tomorrow. I can also remember thinking the same thing about American comics – I was raised on a diet of Doctor Who Monthly and 2000AD, and the bright, four-coloured universes of American Comics seemed completely alien to me.

Then, however, a few things happenned. I worked out that the same person seemed to have written a lot of comic strips I liked – and his name was Alan Moore. I knew he was writing this US comic called ‘Swamp Thing’- I looked at a recent issue, and it didn’t really look like my kind of thing. Too garish, too comic-y, lacking the grit that made 2000AD work. But then, I picked up a nice black-and-white collected edition of Swamp Thing: Volume Two, and it nearly took my head off. This was creepy, weird and beautifully done stuff, and then I was noticing that a name I recognised from the introductions of various Swamp Thing graphic novels, and a name who’d also written various film reviews in a magazine called Space Voyager (including one about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which led to me watching what was to become my favourite film) was also now writing comics. In fact, there was this new one that had just come out – I didn’t know anything about it, but I loved Dave McKean’s artwork and he’d done the cover, so I thought ‘Why not’? and gave issue 1 of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman a try.

The thing which opened out the world of comics, however, was The Killing Joke. The combination of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland was more than my brain could take – I already knew Bolland for being the artist on the original (and best) Judge Death strips in 2000AD, and his work and craftmanship was simply amazing, resulting in comics that seemed to leap off the page at you. As a result, picking it up for £1.95 seemed like a slam-dunk, and it was the first ‘prestige format’, square-bound and glossy comic I’d ever read. It was also one of the most amazing, even though it took a couple of reads to completely get all the nuances. The main thing to remember about The Killing Joke is that, at the time, to anyone outside the world of comics, you said ‘Batman’ and the instant result was Adam West. The show had been repeated regularly, and was heavily ingrained in pop culture. It didn’t matter that Batman wasn’t originally like that – that was the most recent screen iteration, and that’s what stuck. And I think that’s one of the main reasons why the ‘Graphic Novel’ craze in the late Eighties happenned – while Watchmen attracted plenty of attention (and has, arguably, ended up with more longevity), it was The Killing Joke and especially The Dark Knight Returns that grabbed the limelight, simply because this was a take on a character we simply weren’t used to seeing. Going from Adam West and Burt Ward dashing around a garish Gotham and battling with Cesar Romero’s hilariously overacting Joker, to a pretty-damn terrifying Joker crippling Batgirl, abducting Comissioner Gordon and putting all his effort into trying to drive him insane – it was a major conceptual leap, and there’s a mythic aspect to both Knight and Joke that plays into it as well. It’s seeing what had succesfully been played as a self-aware joke suddenly turned straight – neither side was necessarily wrong (the Sixties Batman show is, while repetitive, also hilarious fun), it was the shock of the new, it was seeing something familiar in a brand new light. I went on to read The Dark Knight Returns, but while Frank Miller’s style and bombast was impressive, it was the insidious creepiness of The Killing Joke that stuck with me, and the way it managed to make the Joker both fearsome and tragic.

It was probably this that meant I went to see 1989’s Batman (as did most of civilisation at the time), and came out thinking “?” Let’s not mince words – the 89 Batman movie is a triumph of production design, but it”s really not a particularly good movie. Tim Burton is a great stylist but as a storyteller he’s hugely dependant on the script, and it also doesn’t help that he’s far more interested in the freaks than Batman himself – a problem that became especially apparent in Batman Returns. The 89 original has a couple of decent moments, and certainly opened up the idea of a darker interpretation of the Batman mythos, but it’s not a particularly exciting movie, and Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker is a shamelessly lazy bit of overacting – a performer who obviously knows his best work is behind him getting paid obscene amounts of money to have fun on a film he wasn’t too keen on making in the first place. It was the first event movie where it didn’t seem to matter how good the film was but how universal the merchandising presence was, and I remember feeling like they really hadn’t gotten it. There were brief aspects of the darker, creepier version of Batman there, but the whole thing was cartoony, played broad, and simply never felt like it completely meant it, combined with the virtual absence of a plot.

The film series spiralled downwards into Shumacher hell with Batman Forever – one of the few films to genuinely give me a migraine – while I went through some serious comic phases, and even picked up Batman itself regularly during one of the OTT multi-issue crossover ‘events’ that were so prevailent back in the early Nineties. Knightfall, where Bruce Wayne is driven to the edge and crippled, and an unbalanced new Batman takes his place, was rough around the edges but had a sense of drama and reality that the films were completely ignoring. It was good, action-packed stuff, even if my attention drifted away as the series started inevitable heading back towards the status quo. I was sensible enough to avoid Batman and Robin at the cinemas – I once attempted to sit through it on video, and only made it about half an hour in before I had to switch it off. The fact that the rest of the world seemed to feel the same was reassuring, in a way, but then the series became mired in development hell, and the idea of anything decent coming out of it seemed absurd.

It was Christopher Nolan who got me interested again. I loved Batman Begins when I first saw it – I still like it, but some of the cheesier dialogue and the ‘blockbuster mentality’ of the final half hour is rather hard to swallow. Most of all, it was a relief to see a Batman film that was actually about Batman, and which approached the whole mythos from a rigidly realistic perspective – taking you in step by step, showing Bruce Wayne finding his way towards being Batman, and making it somehow convincing and believable that a billionaire playboy is dressing up in bat-themed military-spec gear and going out to beat the crap out of criminals. Christian Bale was near-perfect casting – he’s not the warmest actor in the world (it’d be nice, if unlikely, to see him in a comedy) but he completely nails Bruce Wayne as an actual character, and the film served up a whole collection of talented character actors, and a low-key but excellent villain in Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. It’s a far more consistent film than the fun but over-rated Spider-Man 2 – it just didn’t quite get where it needed to be, and there was the sense that a really, really impressive film was trying to get out from behind all the obvious notes from the studio and blockbuster quips.

Well, it turns out that that impressive film has come out – it took Batman Begins to get to The Dark Knight, and it’s an upgrade that makes the increase in quality between X-Men and X-Men 2 look hilariously mild by comparison. It’s not perfect – there are elements in The Dark Knight that are a little tricky, I’m not completely fond of Harvey Dent’s look as Two-Face (It’s suitably grotesque, but feels just a little too extreme and comic-book to fit with the otherwise rigidly realistic world Nolan has created), the plotline with Gordon’s fake death was bewildering and unconvincing (it’s not like they were ever going to kill Gordon off- or even if they did, they wouldn’t do it in such an off-hand manner) and some of the action sequences could do with being a little clearer and less frantically edited – but as superhero movies go – and frankly, movies in general – this was amazing stuff. What’s most astonishing is that, essentially, it’s an epic crime thriller, it’s Batman done as a Michael Mann film, and the simple excess of “Oh my god, they’re not going to – THEY DID!!” moments is something to behold. It’s a 2 1/2 hour movie that doesn’t really drag, and it’s also one of the most fantastically bleak blockbusters I’ve seen – it’s seriously unforgiving, amazingly violent, and with a tone and reach that had me sat there, in my IMAX cinema seat, amazed. (As a note – the IMAX version was amazing, but it was a little distracting at times – the switch between formats would sometimes happen for a single cityscape shot, and I can’t help feeling it would have been better if they could have kept it purely for specific sequences).

And then, of course, there’s Heath Ledger. Watching an actor who’s died young is always a faintly morbid experience, especially in this case as it’s hard to deny that Ledger is anything other than absolutely phenomenal in this role. Together with the screenplay, this is a version of the Joker that’s the closest I’ve ever seen to The Killing Joke – not a capering, quipping rent-a-villain with a fake smile, but a sick, twisted and utterly psychotic clown who’s near-unstoppable simply because of the fact that he doesn’t care about anything except chaos – and yet they actually managed to take the character even further. I know there have been complaints about the level of violence in The Dark Knight – it’s certainly the tough end of the 12A, and yet most of it is in tone rather than visuals, and frankly, it’s a Batman film. It’s a dark story, and if it doesn’t tackle some dark and disturbing stuff, it’s not doing its job properly. Ledger is incredible in this, nestling comfortably in the top-ranks of cinematic villains. It’s tragic that he’s gone, but as last complete performances go, this is a hell of a note to end on.

The success of The Dark Knight is somewhat amazing, considering how pitilessly bleak it is – and it’s rather concerning that as a result of that success, one of the Warner Bros production heads has said that they’ll be marching lots more DC heroes into production, and aiming for the same kind of dark tone as that’s obviously what people want. It’s understandable from a business point of view, but it’s also a major mistake. Bryan Singer’s dour and misconceived (but still occasionally majestic) Superman Returns may not have relaunched the franchise the way WB hoped, but I can’t even see the point of a dark, hard-edged Superman film. The whole principle of Superman is that he’s the yin to Batman’s yang – together they’re the day and night of the DC universe. Superman Returns failed because it was too faithful to the wrong bits of the original Superman films – instead of capturing the fun, Singer went for the angst and the slow pace, and ended up with a film that’s really not that enjoyable (I feel sorry for Brandon Routh – he’s genuinely excellent in Superman Returns, but doesn’t get the film he deserves). Superman needs to be bold, colourful and brassy to work – Superman II is, despite being a hodge-podge of Richard Donner and Richard Lester, superbly entertaining and gets almost all the notes right. And they should also beware, as superhero comics themselves went ultra-dark as a result of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen – suddenly you couldn’t move for vengeful, driven heroes and dark, unpleasent stories. And people got bored.

Dark works with Batman – it’s not going to work with everything. The Dark Knight returns hasn’t made over $500 million at the US Box office because its dark, or even because Heath Ledger is dead. It’s earned it because it’s a very, very good film thats packed with enough good stuff to warrant a re-watch, and if they can remember that when they green-light their next superhero flicks maybe- just maybe- they’ll have a chance….

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes…

I’m almost caught up with everything I’ve missed- but one thing that’s definitely stuck out is the first trailer for Watchmen hitting the web.. Verdict? Well, it’s gorgeous to look at and full of Zach Snyder’s signature 300-style “We are going to tell you this scene is important by putting it in graceful slow motion” directorial approach – it’s both closer to the comic than I expected, and broader in its visuals, with much richer, weirder colours. There’s also a couple of moments that tap into the kind of pure pulp imagery that fills my inner fanboy with glee – but then, there’s also the fact that they’ve chosen a slightly bleary Smashing Pumpkins track as the backing, and the fact that it’s the kind of trailer that shows you plenty without giving you any clue as to what the film’s like. Shots like Dr. Manhattan’s glass retreat emerging from the Martian soil are genuinely gorgeous, and it’s interesting to see they’ve managed to make Doc Manhattan look unearthly but still be a naked blue man (and no hints as to exactly how they’re going to get around the original’s frequent full-frontal male nudity) – I’m still not convinced that it’s necessarily going to make a good movie. Snyder just about got away with the bombastic visuals disguising everything else in the action porn that was 300 – but whether we get an actual film, or just a digest version of the best bits of Watchmen remains to be seen. One way or another, we’ll find out next March…

In the Presence of the Great Beard

Yesterday, I went into London for a signing by Alan Moore at London’s Gosh Comics on Great Russell Street- one of the few events that would get me to shell out £16.50 for the train ticket, and then £49.99 for the relevant book- his and artist Melinda Gebbie’s work of pornography, Lost Girls. Gebbie was supposed to be there but was ill, so it was just Moore- and it was one of those experiences that clicks me into ‘quiet mode’. Part of this was simply having to queue outside Gosh Comics for nearly two and a half hours, and anyone who was outside yesterday afternoon will testify to exactly how cold it was. I have actually interviewed Moore over the phone- it was for an article on From Hell that was supposed to be in a Borders customer magazine years and years ago… and instead ended up being published in a DVD magazine about an issue before it folded- and he’s a genuinely lovely bloke, but also very easy to get talking for a very, very long time. An hour and a half after the signing had begun, they announced they were having to speed things up a bit as there was still a gigantic queue, so it was really reduced to a “Hello”, getting the books signed (A copy of Lost Girls (at least, Volume 1 of the a three volume set), and my copy of Absolute Watchmen) and an enthusiastic farewell, but he was still wonderfully polite, very friendly, and still sporting one of the most spectacular beards in modern history.

He’s a writer who’s had a gigantic influence on me– and I think I can tie most of it down to reading the early stories he wrote for the horror comic Swamp Thing. I’d already read plenty of his stuff, which was why I was reading Swamp Thing, but it was the sudden realisation of what he was doing – that he was taking a setup which was, frankly, ludicrous (scientist gets blown up and transformed into a walking sludge/plant monster, seeks to reclaim his humanity) and turning it into something scary, profound and often jaw-droppingly beautiful. The issue ‘Rite of Spring’- where the long simmering relationship between Abigail Arcane and the creature who thinks he’s Alec Holland flowers into something else is one of the best things Moore has ever done- it’s tender and beautiful and touching and funny, and could have been absolutely bloody awful in the wrong hands. There are works of his I love more than others (Miracleman, for example, I find rather hard work), but I always respect the way he took on stories and made them feel real by treating them right. It’s that kind of emotional reality I try to get in my writing – I’m never sure if I get there, but Alan Moore is definitely one of the reasons I’m trying so hard.

I’m most of the way through Lost Girls now, as well- and it’s an amazing piece of work. It’s sexy and sensuous as well as being surreal, powerful and sometimes very unsettling (there are very few taboos that don’t get dealt with somewhere in the book), and it certainly succeeds in its mission of being a serious piece of pornography. It’s certainly not for everyone (the hefty price tag kind of guarentees that), but there’s something fascinating and adventurous in the way it’s tackling questions a lot of people would rather not ask. Not something I’m going to be reading regularly- but it’s definitely something I’m glad I’ve gotten.

Edit: As a p.s., there was a guy in front of me in the queue who was possibly the most interestingly attired figure I’d seen in a while. Imagine the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor dressed in smart trousers, smart shirt with an Edwardian collar, polka-dot cravat, bright blue blazer festooned with medals and badges (including a golliwog) and a top hat, and you’d be pretty close to the guy in front of me. He was with two others, his name was Marcus (although he’d adopted the nickname “King of London”, preferrably in a cockney accent), and I simply didn’t have the gumption (mainly thanks to the cold) to ask him why exactly he was dressed like that- whether it was his ‘look’, or if he was going somewhere after the signing. He was simply one of those characters who wanders into your life, and wanders out again, but for the brief period he was there, he was an absolute hoot and made the process of queuing a hell of a lot more entertaining.

Warlock Nights

On one of my regular trawls of second hand bookshops in London yesterday, I headed over to the Book and Comic Exchange at Notting Hill, mainly because it’s one of those places which is worth checking 20% of the time. The rest of the time, it”s not worth bothering, but for those 20%… well, having wandered inside, I scanned the shelves, and then had to stop in shock. I couldn’t quite believe it- one of my vices is collecting the old Titan Books editions of 2000AD graphic novels released during the 1980s. They’re the nicest editions that have ever been released of many classic 2000AD stories, and they’ve almost always got fantastic original cover art. Printed in the right format, they look more like Vinyl Albums, and sitting there in front of me was volume 2, and volume 4-8 of gothic sci-fi adventure Nemesis The Warlock- almost all the volumes that I was missing (bar number 9). While the stories have been re-issued recently, the print quality isn’t always outstanding- and the Titan editions are on fantastic paper, and simply feel right. Revisiting those stories is going to be great fun…

Absolute Realisation

A short, insignificant realisation hit me today. Now, I love DC Absolute Editions. Given that I adore beautifully presented books, the idea of huge, slipcase-covered editions of comic books packed with all kinds of extras and unseen art – they’re books as artifacts, and I’ve frequently cooed and gaped over them simply because they’re so gorgeously designed. This has even been the case with comics that aren’t that good. The legendary DC crossover series Crisis on Infinite Earths is, truth be told, an unreadable mess in almost anyone’s book, and yet the gigantic Absolute Edition (with the Alex Ross slipcase art) was so lovely that it almost had me laying down an absurd amount of moolah. My wife got me Absolute Watchmen for my birthday in 2006- and while it wasn’t something I’d immediately put on my list as something I really, really wanted… I’m so glad I have it now. The art has the chance to breathe on pages that large, you can see so much detail, and the whole thing makes it feel like you’re reading it anew. It’s like the difference between VHS and DVD, and the fact that they only produce a small number of them each year only makes them more special. The most recent one I got was DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke, a wonderful retro-look at the birth of the Justice League, and it’s like watching a maginificent animated movie (they’ve actually made it into a DVD feature, due out in a couple of months- although simplifying it down will mean losing a lot of the detail that made it special).

What this revolves around is that they’re bringing out Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman in the Absolute format- an expensive commitment, considering that it’s four giant-sized volumes whose British RRP is £70 (although Amazon has them for cheaper). I got volume 1 for Christmas last year, and I currently have enough to get volume 2… and yet I’ve realised that I don’t desperately want to. It’d be lovely to have– and yet, I’ve already got most of The Sandman (save for one story arc) in normal-sized graphic novel format. There are sections of the story I love, and I’m glad I’ve got them– and yet I don’t love it quite enough to want to buy it all over again.

Now, if it was Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing we were talking about, there’d be nothing stopping me – but combined with this, I was actually a little disappointed with the first Sandman Absolute Edition. It’s been beautifully recoloured and the art remastered and it’s a great way of having those stories… but while the original graphic novels were beautifully designed (by Dave McKean) and had their own identity, the Absolute Sandman feels a little uniform and corporate. There isn’t even any new art on the slipcase, there’s one section where a double-page spread has been split across opposing pages, breaking the flow of the art, and many of the original covers have a rather ugly white border around them. They just don’t feel quite as special as some of the other Absolute editions- and for £70 a shot, they’d better feel special. It’s just the realisation that despite having the collectors urge, despite loving the smell of new books, and adoring the world of comic books… I’m actually happy with my original hardbacks. They may not be as beautifully coloured, but they’ve got their own identity, and they’re good enough for me. Maybe I’ll have another major windfall sometime, and maybe the Absolute Sandman volumes won’t go out of print for a while (unlike the Absolute version of Planetary, which now goes for an obscene amount of money…), but for now, I don’t mind. I’m not sure if that means I’m growing up or getting sensible. I guess it’ll just have to do for now…

Slaine: The Horned God – The Trailer

I have Alec to thank for this– a truly barmy fan film made by a Spanish filmmaker named Miguel Mesas, who’s got some serious backing and has crafted some imaginary trailers for movie adaptations of comic books and anime series. This isn’t four blokes with a video camera- this is some serious design work and post-production that’s genuinely impressive, and while some of the results are a little creaky, the one that really works is an adaptation of celtic fantasy epic Slaine: The Horned God from the pages of legendary comic 2000AD. (Read more about the series here).

Despite all its many problems, one of the things that excited me about 300 was the possibilities of using that stylised form of storytelling on other (potentially more engaging) tales– and it’s genuinely thrilling to see something that actually captures the visuals and mood of Simon BIsley’s artwork from the original series. I want to see the full film, and I want to see it now– even if a Celtic barbarian speaking Spanish might take a little getting used to…

(He’s also done ‘trailers’ for Batman: Arkham Asylumn, and Frank Miller’s Bad Boy, but they don’t work quite as well (especially the spanish-speaking Joker with some rather weak make-up). Much better is the fourth and final in the series, a trailer for anime series Space Pirate: Captain Harlock. The performances may be creaky, but it’s worth it just for seeing characters from anime legend Leiji Matsumoto in the flesh)