Thursday, October 18, 2012

Arrow - Honor Thy Father

The second episode of Arrow was as strong (and as weak) as the first. We get a bit more progression of what happened to Ollie on the island and an indicator of where the scars came from. There's a colorful and equally skilled villain for him to face off against in the white haired Asian woman China White. We see the bodyguard Diggle being actually useful and showing some ability himself. Quentin Lance is probably the most interesting of the characters, with more sides to him as his relationships and motivations logically differ depending on who he's interacting with: overprotective parent of Laurel, disapproving and dislike of Ollie, honest cop and upholder of the law against vigilante. It helps that Paul Blackthorne manages to wring some worth out of rather hokey or cheesy dialogue and seems to be about the only actor in the show that really knows how to act with more facial expressions than just glower.

With Ollie, we get a lot of the character conflict that helped Smallville as well as similar themes in how to best honor the wishes of the father. In Smallville a large part of that conflict was due to Clark having two fathers often with opposing goals, as well as the excellent John Glover playing the part of Lionel Luthor, Lex's father. Here, the conflict is out of the type of man the father was, a flawed businessman who made big mistakes and whose dying declaration is for his son to fix those mistakes. Ollie is trying to make good on that mission without actually exposing to the world the type of man his father really was. Redeem those mistakes so that in death, his father's legacy will be the truth of what it was pretended to be in life. And, we see Ollie struggling here as it means he's forced to maintain three identities: the driven and enlightened to his self and the ways of the world, the masked vigilante, and the false shallow playboy from before. And, this episode shows he recognizes that it is a juggling act and that he has to become more comfortable with the latter identity, the one that's more false than the others, if he's going to be successful as the second. But, it's a juggling act he's not good at because when in private with people that he likes, it's the new, enlightened Oliver Queen they see.

The episode falls apart mainly with the resolution. In stereotypical superhero fashion, Oliver shoots arrows around the bad guy while interrogating him, all the while secretly recording the man's confession. He then gives this to the cops and this somehow clears up the investigation/trial with the clear implication that the confession is sending the man to jail. This is a cliche and it's a bad cliche, especially considering one of the writers used to write for Law & Order! There's no way a coerced confession, especially by a vigilante, would ever be admittable in a court of law. If anything it would make the case more difficult, not less. They want to distance themselves from superheroes and be considered a bit more of a crime/action drama, these are the slack storytelling cliches they need to avoid. It's not the costumes, names and powers that sink superheroes. It's the bad storytelling that often goes hand-in-hand, that as soon as the creators see that it includes costumes or powers, it gives them a pass to be sloppy.

The show is already beginning to show some chinks as well. Turns out that it's not the name changes that's annoying but the disregard towards names. We've seen this in the superhero movies. Black Widow not being called that in Iron Man II, Hawkeye not being called that in The Avengers, Catwoman never being called that in Dark Knight Rises and her friend Holly Robinson is not called by name in the film or how the British member of the Howling Commandos in Captain America had his name changed to Brian Falsworth but not actually called by name in the movie... it's a name change via credits only. Some of this is just basic bad storytelling, not giving us the names of people as they appear in the movie despite giving them names in the credits. In many cases though it's the people being afraid of the source material. The show is called Arrow but the show goes to great lengths to not call him by name. He's referred to twice now as "Robin Hood" and as "the archer". I can possibly understand the reasoning behind changing the name of the show, but avoidance of the name in the show itself smacks of shame. The name "Green Arrow" for a character didn't seem to hurt Smallville any. Likewise, the Triad villain in this episode. If she was called by name in the episode I missed it. For all I knew, she was a tv version of Cheshire or Shiva. Had to look it up on IMDB (interestingly, the actress has voiced Cheshire on Young Justice). Next week's episode features Deadshot. Will he be called that.

The other chink is from the pics, it looks as if all the superhero/villain characters go to the same tailor with a large surplus of dark leather. Personally, I think both Deadshot and Deathstroke not only have striking costumes, but ones that could translate fairly faithfully. Dull the colors some, downplay the latter's boots but make them distinctive beyond a few trinkets. The Marshall Rogers and George Perez designs are strong, distinctive designs which would look wonderful as faithfully realized.

There is a bit of irony that a show that is trying so hard to distance itself from the term of "superhero" and seems embarrassed by the characters is racing to include as many comicbook heroes and villains as it can. Deadshot next week, we already have seen hints of Deathstroke and is promised soon. Somewhere soon is the Huntress and in the wings in the distance Black Canary and Merlyn cannot be far behind.

The last chink is one of repetition. The show has a dual mega-story it's telling. What happened to Ollie on the island, and the redemption of his father's name by going after people in the notebook. This gives the show some depth and mystery, a well to draw upon for stories. But, it can also choke a series to death. Tie the story too closely to the mission and you run into future problems such as the show becoming a caricature of itself, unable to move beyond the mission. Richard Kimble cannot find the one-armed man, Jack McGee cannot uncover the truth behind the Hulk, Fox Mulder cannot discover the whole truth, Sam and Diane/David and Maddy cannot become a couple, etc. Eventually the episodes are covering the same beats, the same monotonous tone week in and week out. More importantly, we are seeing that mega-story series fail as often as they succeed. For every Lost, there seems to be about a dozen The River, The Event, Alcatraz etc. Instead, the model should be for the mega-story be more about concept that allows a variety of stories with smaller, major arcs that can be threaded through it such as Persons of Interest. While there are episodes and recurring themes that reveal more of the mysterious backgrounds of the principle characters, it's organic and allowing for many different types of stories. The other major problem of making the show too much about the mega-story is that it becomes impenetrable to casual or new viewers. Miss a couple of episodes and you are lost. Too much effort to get back into.

Maybe I am judging the last a little too harshly based on just two episodes, but I see that this kind of plotting and storytelling driving comics of the last couple of years. A year into Aquaman and we're still on the same mega-story. So far the episodes of the tv show are better at being done-in-one while furthering the ongoing sub-plots, but here's hoping we'll see some of the main plots of the episodes having nothing to do with the mega-story or sub-plots of the same episode, that not everything is connected. For it is there that you will find variety and opportunity for the show to grow beyond its basic setup.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

CW's Arrow

The CW aired their pilot of Arrow, the tv series of Green Arrow. The show has received quite a bit of flak (some of it deservedly so) of comments made by show's creators concerning the distancing from the character's superhero roots. Especially since two of the creators have written comics and the show IS about a superhero. And, they choose to bring in other superhero/supervillains into the mix. Like Smallville before it, it wants to be a superhero show while escaping from the stigma of the show. Thankfully, the trailers released for the show made it look more interesting and taking itself more seriously than most superhero shows. Forget Smallville, No Ordinary Family, The Cape and Birds of Prey. This is more tonal in quality to shows like Supernatural, and Alphas. It's still a superhero show, no bones about that. But, it's more back to basics with the concepts of superheroes.

Overall, I liked it. Very pulpish take which is fitting, considering the roots of the character and superhero comics. It starts off with playboy Oliver Queen who's been marooned on an island for five years and presumed dead rescued. He is welcomed by family (mother and sister) and best friend and they seem eager to have Ollie back. Only through flashbacks, we learn that he's changed. Before he died, his father charged him with correcting the mistakes he had made, that dear old dad was not the saint that people thought he was. His girlfriend is not happy to see that he's returned as Ollie was on the boat with her sister and who went down with the ship. He pretends to embrace the old lifestyle while he uses mad skills that he gained on the island to carry out the mission his father charged him with.

On one hand, this is fairly faithful as far as comic adaptations go. The marooned origin is basically the Silver-Age Simon & Kirby origin of the character. Although Oliver having an extended family and surviving members of it are new. I can see where they don't want to get into the teen sidekick but are using his kid sister nicknamed Speedy to touch on the responsibilities he feels now as a role model and how he has not lived up to it in the past.

The most annoying aspects really are the name changes. Laurel Lance is using the secondary names of the heroine known as Black Canary which prompted me to try to explain the convoluted history of the character. If there's no GA or previous Black Canary, there is no reason for her last name to be Lance. Heck, it might have been MORE interesting to have her as Dinah Drake (her original pre-crisis name) and Paul Blackthorne's character be rival love interest Larry Lance. Having him be her father instead and then changing his name to Quentin Lance? I guess Larry would have been too close to Laurel... but again, why is she going by her middle name? I'm hoping maybe there is a plan for Black Canary, that her mother was a masked heroine. Although, if they go the Black Canary route, they should have switched the actresses playing her and playing her sister. The sister has the build for the costume.

What will probably kill the show for me will be the lack of faith in having costumes. Bringing other superhero characters in, but in variety of plain clothes styled costumes. The Green Arrow outfit works. It's kept in shadow, obviously leather which makes sense and not too different as an amalgamation of various costumes he's worn. Could stand to be a little more green though. When you start bringing in the likes of Deathstroke and Deadshot among others, you need to go a little larger than life than trenchcoats and leather jackets. The colors still can be subdued, but don't name them after costumed villains if you aren't going to use them. You can have the codenames, powers and costumes without being cheesy. Look to the Dini & Timm animated Batman series. It managed to encompass all the tropes and still wring pathos and solid stories out of them. It is possible to take yourself too serious and lose the fun aspect of the show. Speaking of Deathstroke, did I see his mask on a stake when Ollie got rescued in the beginning?

Which is where this show is going to be interesting. There's a lot of background, mystery, plot and character development and interaction going on here. It reminds me a bit of Crusoe only in reverse. There, the mystery that was slowly unfolding was the plot and machinations behind the scenes that lead to him getting marooned on the island. The immediate mystery of the flashbacks here will be what he discovered on the island, how he it changed him beyond simply his father giving him a mission. How he developed these skills, not just the skill with the bow but the ability to fight and take out trained men bare-handed.

In regards to how the ship went down, I think this show will go there as well, especially with the reveal at the end. That ship didn't simply go down in a storm and flashbacks will show just how corrupt his father's business dealings were. A twist on the Batman template of which Green Arrow is built. He's not out to avenge his father's name but redeem him and himself.

A shame that this show and Person of Interest has better fight scenes than the big budget Batman movies. Of course, part of that is they don't put the characters into outfits they can barely move in. But, in the pilot episode alone and I get the feel that he could kick movie Batman's butt. In that regard alone, this show is already more of a superhero story than the movies have been in that they haven't forgotten that at the heart of it, it's supposed to be an action story.

Not my favorite tv version of Green Arrow. That would probably be Justice League Unlimited, where they got the swashbuckling, fighting for the little guy, and stubborn s.o.b balance down pat. But, this is still early in the character's career. Hopefully, we'll see some of that come out as he learns to let some joy back into his life. For the most part, I liked Green Arrow in Smallville. In the later seasons, he was often the better part of the show and played as a complicated character. Their biggest mistake was he rarely actually used the bow and arrow but instead crossbows. But, I thought the actor did a good job with the character and it's a shame that he couldn't continue in that role. A pity the comics featuring the character aren't near as good to any of the small screen appearances.

The naming of the show and the design of the character, the cynic in me says part of it was to secure the tv trademark as it is very similar to this guy who's public domain but the comic book trademark is currently claimed by Dynamite.

Monday, October 08, 2012

CROP and a few comic strips

I try to walk an hour or more several days a week in effort to live a healthier life. Today, it was cold and dreary and I debated whether or not to skip it today (I didn't). This Sunday, I'll be walking for a cause as my wife and I will be walking as part of Greensboro's annual CROP Walk. My first CROP Walk was in 1983 as part of my Eagle project for Scouts. It was ten miles long and in the summer. I then helped my Church organize and be part of Rocky Mount's first CROP Walk, also ten miles. Since then, I've walked in many such walks when I could and sponsored others when I couldn't. I've walked in Rocky Mount, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh. This will be my first year walking in Greensboro's.

At some point, they've gotten shorter, 10 kilometers so more people can get involved from the youngest to the oldest. One of my buddies was doing training for a marathon and he ran his a couple of years ago. I'm not complaining as I'm not sure my feet would let me walk ten miles these days. But, the sad truth is around the world, people walk not because of simple exercise benefits, to enjoy nature or the company of others. They walk because they have to. To get food. To get water because there's no well in their town much less at their home. To get their children or themselves simple check-ups from visiting doctors. We choose to walk because they have to.

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I often enjoy the Zits comic, a few times it's even laugh out loud funny. I see a lot of truth in its depictions of teen-age life. I often wonder if the zig-zag pattern that's in almost every strip isn't meant to be a nod to the late great Charles Shulz, reproducing the pattern of Charlie Brown's shirt. This one made me wonder something different. I associate the depiction of laughter as "bwa-ha-ha" pretty much with Giffen and DeMatteis stint on the Justice League, in fact it's often referred to in comic circles as the Bwa-ha-ha League like the JLA it replaced is called Justice League Detroit by its fans and detractors. Are the comic writer and artist fans of that era of the League? Or has the sound-effect actually entered the lexicon of public acceptance for depicting laughter?

Their heads are made out of rubber...
I am not a huge fan of "Rhymes with Orange". It's sometimes funny and I kind of like my comic strip artists showing some kind of talent with actual art and storytelling. But, I have to admit this one had me laugh and going "bouncy bouncy" all the day long.

Bad Pun
Stephen Pastis came to town recently. Unfortunately, not conducive to my schedule but I would have loved to hear him talk. Pearls Before Swine is often a wonderfully irreverent strip, one that even takes pot shots at its own creator. No one is spared Rat's judgment.

Sometimes it just seems as if comic strip artists talk with each other before submitting their strips. I remember one day where it seemed half the strips chose to tell golf jokes. Not only that, but two actually told the SAME JOKE! This isn't quite in the same category as only two strips the other week seemed to borrow the same idea. I have to wonder how many people under the age of 30 actually would recognize Harold and the Purple Crayon? Still a great idea and totally works for the Lio strip. 



Monday, October 01, 2012

Aquaman #0: If you don't like Geoff Johns' current style of writing, this won't change your mind. Not only are there three consecutive pages of nothing more than landscaped panels of Aquaman swimming... no text or words or thought balloons giving internal thoughts, there's also a couple of pages of him pretty much silently fighting a huge shark and then a string of coincidences that'd be worthy of Edgar Rice Burroughs - Aquaman is looking for Atlantis. In a moment of kewl display of super-strength he rescues a couple of American boaters who just happen to know a man who lives in Norway that might know where Atlantis is, and are presumably able to give Aquaman accurate directions. He finds this man (Vulko) who is conveniently just got back home since he had been away looking for Arthur since his existence was made public. At least Paul Norris gets creator credit for the character.

To add insult to injury, the comic ends on a cliffhanger. That's right, this ZERO issue in addition to interrupting the flow of the monthly story in progress, is nothing more than an introduction to a whole new story arc that has yet to appear in the regular series. Guess people at DC need some counting lessons. The issue # that follows 0 is 1, not 13, 14, or whatever the Ocean Master storyline will be starting on. We now have a comic that can neither be filed numerically as it doesn't belong before issue 1, or by date since it isn't part of the ongoing storyline and delivers nothing new or relevant for it. All we need is a couple of fish-jokes and a gratuitously graphic death scene and this would be a complete pastiche of bad Geoff Johns writing. Only really written by Johns.

The art team of Ivan Reis, Prado and Rob Reis (who deserves probably more credit than he gets on the colors of this book) should take one of the Silver-Age Aquaman Showcases, break several of the stories back down into scripts and re-illustrate them. I think modern fans' minds would explode at seeing just how much is really being carried by the art team here and seeing stories that aren't decompressed but full of creativity and yet complete reads.

Talon #0: According to the "logic" of the reboot, I shouldn't get this comic. After all, I don't buy any of the Batman books so the only continuity of the character and concept underlying it is what I can gleam from the previews/blurbs of the Batman books that I've read. But a couple of things going in, 1) this is more of what I'd expect or want from something like the reboot, which is actual new characters and not retreads of pre-existing ones. 2) I was struck by the artwork in the previews. With Joe Kubert's death still a recent memory, the art here looks a lot like Kubert's. Close enough to be mistaken as being done by one of his sons, only a lot better than they have been recently. Enough to over-ride that I really hate the costume he wears on the cover. Guillam March is a name that's worth keeping an eye out for.

Even the colorist deserves an 8/10 score. His subtle colors often mimic brush work more than obvious computer filter gradients. The only place he really falls is that the modern style of coloring doesn't allow for just solid flat color, or solid white. Imagine if Alex Toth, the master of balancing white space with blacks was colored by today's colorists. Every open shape would be filled with colorized texture, undoing what he achieved through contrast, space and negative space. There are places, most notably backgrounds where relatively simply defined shapes or spaces, the colorist has taken to add color with texture and in those places, it sticks out like a sore thumb. March's linework is so lush and capable at providing depth, shadow and weight, it doesn't need the colorist trying to fill in the places where he left space open and kept it simple. Don't fight the artist, follow his cue.

Despite having a backstory, I'm not privy to, the comic actually delivers everything you need to know in-story. See, continuity and history does not have to be a detriment to good storytelling. Other than a passing reference to Haley Circus and the Flying Graysons, there's nothing in the comic that links to Batman or that this concept has appeared before. It's a set-up for a series, but it also tells a story. We see the growth of the character Calvin Rose from boy to trained escape artist to talented recruit to the Court of Owls to his disillusionment with the organization and escape. Told from Rose's point of view, we get into his head, we get what he's feeling and going through at all times, his frustration, despair, and growing resolve. A refreshingly dense read.

The story isn't terribly original when you think about it. We've seen the same story in Kirby's Mr. Miracle and Big Barda (part of it even seems directly inspired by that story), Azrael, the Nolan Batman trilogy and even the Bourne movies of the recent years. It wouldn't have been too hard to not create the Talons and the Court of Owls and just used the League of Assassins or the Order of St. Dumas and make this a Richard Dragon/Bronze Tiger/Shiva/Azrael story instead, take your pick. Heck, I would have LOVED to see this as a Richard Dragon book. But, the familiarity doesn't subtract from that it is still very well done and that character of Calvin Rose makes for an interesting protagonist.

The only place the story really falls is his big moment of conversion (out of The Bourne Identity), when he decides to not kill his targets but instead to help them escape. By this point, the Court is so well set up in their single mindedness and capability, one has to wonder how much he actually was able to help them. Because we know the Court would send other Talons, near as good as he is. It is imperative from their point of view that this mother and child are history. He does not have the resources to really help them escape beyond their reach. From the start we see he cannot even avoid them finding him.

Despite getting the zero issue, I probably will only being getting this book in trade (paperback, please, very few comics are deserving of hardback treatment and cost). See, what drove me from the Batman family titles years before DCnu 52 is still in place. You cannot buy one Batman or one Superman title. Eventually, not if but when, a single story will cross the whole family, no matter how distant the relation. War Games was the story that ultimately killed my interest in Birds of Prey and Catwoman. A year into the reboot, and it already has happened with Batman with the very Court of Owls storyline, crossing over into even the Jonah Hex comic. And, the current previews promises to do pretty much the same with Death of a Family story. So, as much as I like this comic and it being pretty much exactly what I would want from a comic and nuDC, I know it's not worth it to get as a monthly because DC hasn't really changed in the ways that they operate.

Reboots vs Continuity: since I touched on this a little bit, there's a fallacy behind the whole idea of the reboot and many of the defenders of nu52 seem to preach it as if gospel. That is the idea that the reboot was needed because continuity was too complex for new readers and this allows them to all be on the same page.

That's not really what DC has done though. If that was true and really embraced by DC, there would have been no Justice League book in the first roll-out, much less THREE of them. No Teen Titans. No Red Hood and the Outlaws. Zero issues after a year wouldn't be needed to explain the gaps. Batman and Green Lantern wouldn't continue as if nothing really happened. In fact, neither of those characters have ever truly been rebooted. We have never seen in the main continuity a new Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, meeting the Joker for the first time, training Robin etc presented as if it was happening just now. We've gotten flashback minis and stories giving us the retcon version of events, but significantly, they don't change what was happening in the book at the time. The closest was when Jason Todd was given a whole new origin, and previous couple of years of Batman titles was rendered a bit conflicting. Despite the new origin, somehow Killer Croc was still in continuity. So a few stories obviously didn't happen the way we saw them, but Batman himself was still the same guy as before and still operated as before. And, some of those Jason Todd stories still worked, it didn't matter too much that his background had changed.

What DC has done is not start continuity from scratch so that readers can get in on the ground floor, but replaced the continuity with another one. A new reader picking up the Red Hood and the Outlaws is going to have the same problem as before. These aren't new characters. Despite the changes, in some way they are still predicated on there being name recognition for them to be relevant and a draw. He's still going to be facing a book with characters and history he doesn't know as before. The differences being that this time it's intentional and there's no reason to go to back issues or ask the store owner or another customer or even some of the writers. They don't know either! The comics are no more accessible to new readers than they were before. What they are is equally inaccessible to established readers! They cannot lift the new readers up, so they throw the existing readers down so that everyone is on the same page, the same boat.  If continuity was too complex and was keeping people away, how will a NEW and SECRET continuity actually attract new readers and not drive the existing fans away? I don't know. The crazy thing is that somehow this translated to good numbers starting out as if everyone got the same kool-aid.