My 2013 Media Highlights

I wasn’t planning on doing any sort of year in review post, mostly because (unlike 2010-12) I haven’t been keeping an active list of my favorites. But as the time drew nearer and everyone began posting their respective retrospectives I thought I might as well take stock and see what I came up with.

As it turned out, my top tier of all the year’s media contained exactly thirteen items, and since hey this year had a thirteen in it too I figured I’d arbitrarily rank them and do a little write-up.

There’s plenty I didn’t get around to, not to mention a couple of things I’m probably forgetting, but these were more or less the new releases (across all media, so the ranking is very arbitrary) that had the strongest effect on me over the last twelve months.

13. Orange is the New Black

This prison drama—er, comedy? Either way it’s by far the most impressive Netflix original content, and the first of their offerings that can deservedly stand beside the best of what the cable networks put out. It’s often described as a secret ensemble piece, with Piper Chapman as our conduit to the rest of the women, and while that’s true to an extent (and the rest of the women are all so fantastic) I still never lost interest in the central narrative’s sometimes predictable but always enthralling trajectory.

There are some amazing casts on TV right now, but in terms of gender diversity Orange dominates them all. A trans character with depth and nuance? And she is played by a trans woman? The air, it is so very fresh.

I’m not sure how the second season will be affected by the departure of Laura Prepon, whose Alex Vause is far and away my favorite character, but for now let’s be optimistic and appreciate a damned fine season of incarcerated splendor.

12. Captain Phillips

From the so-so trailer to the bad-bad title I wasn’t expecting much from Paul Greengrass’s latest, but even if I had been this maritime thriller would have floored me.

With incredible direction, a performance that stands out as one of Hanks’ best, and a near-hypnotic debut from Barkhad Abdi as lead pirate Muse, Phillips ratchets up the tension early on and never lets up until a climax that subverts expectations by foregoing catharsis for daringly realistic trauma.

This is a movie that could have taken the easy way out, but instead gave nuance to a simple story without compromising its breakneck pace. While by no means the more impressive cinematic achievement, when I look back on the year I can’t deny that I found it more exciting than Gravity.

11. Sex Criminals

The current run of Hawkeye proves that Matt Fraction is a pretty excellent comic book writer. But this new series—only three issues in at the moment—pretty much marks him as a genius.

He takes an absurd premise (what if your orgasms could stop time?) and comes up with a story that has a healthier, more honest view of sexuality than almost anything else being produced in popular media today.

It is also laugh-out-loud-yes-audibly-so hilarious. From the intentionally overlong recaps to the background jokes in a sex shop to the wickedly irreverent letters column and the insane fourth-wall-shattering consequences when they couldn’t get the rights to a certain song in time for print, this is easily the funniest comic I’ve ever read, with two of the most believable, likable lead characters you could ask for.

10. Masters of Sex

And on the dramatic end of explorations into human sexuality, we have this Showtime series about pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. At first I was worried it would just be an obvious period piece, an attempt by Showtime to piggy back off some of that sweet Mad Men acclaim, but it achieves far more than that.

The show ignores the easy-reach conflicts of its conceit (It’s SEX, everyone! At a time when people were WAY MORE REPRESSED ABOUT ALL THAT) by grounding everything so heavily in character that, yes, their lives and problems are just as relevant today as they were then. Tremendous credit due to all the actors. Lizzy Caplan is so very human as Johnson, who could have easily been little more than a manic pixie dream girl. Instead it’s other characters who objectify her and learn (or don’t) the errors of their ways. Sheen’s Masters effects stoicism, but you can always see the well of emotion just below. Every moment where he lets the wall down really counts.

They gave a great foundation, but this season was never more confident than when dealing with the marriage of Dean Scully and his wife (Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, the latter in particular owning every second of her screentime). It was tender, tragic, and beautiful.

But even without that I’d have to give special mention to the the fifth episode, which just about destroyed me. Let’s hope Showtime doesn’t ruin this series too.

9. The Act of Killing

Documentaries can be powerful, earth-shattering, life-changing. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any that evoked an intense, horrific fever dream. This beyond-chilling exploration of former enforcers of Indonesian genocide shows just how true it is that history is written by the victors.

After slaughtering roughly 1,000 people (like cattle, as he’s happy to demonstrate) in the communist purges of the 60s, Anwar Congo went on to live a perfectly consequence-free life, revered as one of the forefathers of the paramilitary organization that came to power in the aftermath of the killings. And compared to some of his friends he seems like an ok guy.

The stories director Joshua Oppenheimer got out of these retired killers are unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Some of the men are boastful, and some are trying to downplay it, but the worst ones? They shrug and tell it like it was.

The good news is this movie is creating some real change in Indonesia, but it still contains some of the most unsettling truths and upsetting quotes I’ve ever heard. It’s proof that we can soak in blood and go right on living.

8. BioShock Infinite

Not a big year for gaming on my part. I especially regret not exploring all of the indie titles that seem to have stolen the spotlight from many of the AAA releases.

But of those releases, I’m happy to say my expectations were more than satisfied by the sequel to Irrational’s modern classic tale of a man behaving kindly. The world of Columbia was strikingly realized, with an opening hour or so that served as such brilliant immersion that I never wanted it to end. But when it did, in the best introduction to combat I’ve ever witnessed in a game, I was more than ready to shoot a lot of sky-racists.

Beyond the world, I adored Elizabeth and the infinitely quotable Luteces, as well as a story that was comfortable exploring some truly complex ideas. Perhaps I could have flipped a coin and put The Last of Us here instead…and maybe in some other universe I did.

7. Short Term 12

Brie Larson gets most of the credit for this one (because she’s amazing) but the whole cast really was perfect in this unflinchingly honest look at the staff and residents of a halfway house for troubled youths. It’s a straightforward movie, but one that grabbed me pretty much immediately and took me so far within the lives of the characters that it felt like an intimate experience.

It contains some of the best scenes of people telling each other stories that I’ve ever witnessed, with the fable of the octopus and the shark just about tearing me in half.

6. Game of Thrones

The season I’ve most anticipated since first reading the books, I feel like the show really came into its own this year. Mixing faithfully adapted moments (Jamie in the bath, the Hound and Lord Beric, the liberation of Astapor) without being afraid to flesh out some characters (Margaery Tyrell, Varys, Stannis) for the adaptation, Weiss and Benioff really distilled the lion’s share of Storm of Swords to ten episodes of thrilling television.

And the Red Wedding was exactly the cultural event I was hoping for. In the age of Netflix and binge watching, this is one case where you still need to gather round with friends (be they book readers or no) for some real event viewing. Season four’s going to be wild.

5. Saga

The comic that even people who don’t read comics should be (and many of whom are) reading, Brian K. Vaughn’s weird yet somehow familiar tale of star-crossed lovers trying to keep their daughter safe might be the most compelling piece of graphic media currently being published.

Every character and idea explodes onto the page in strokes of mad genius, a thousand disparate elements blending together flawlessly into a pseudo space opera that manages to be epic, personal, riveting, heartbreaking, and hilarious in equal measure. And that’s not even getting started on the incredible art from Fiona Staples.

This bears every mark of a classic in the making.

4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I moved this around the list a lot, because it’s almost impossible for me to compare something from Neil Gaiman to the works of others with any kind of objectivity.

This is a short book, but a brilliant one, and in many ways encapsulates the themes of memory, magic, bravery, childhood, and story that Neil’s explored for his entire career. It can be read in one sitting, making it so easy to return to, and I can confirm that rereading it does yield some very nice discoveries. An elegant and near-perfect tale that I can recommend to basically anyone.

Full disclosure: I type this as I’m looking up at the three signed copies on my shelf.

3. Hannibal

Just when you thought we’d had our fill of serial killers, here comes a take on Hannibal Lecter (of all the tired-out properties) that gives us something we’ve never seen before.

It’s Gothic horror on the small screen, a psychological assault on the senses that manages to transcend exploitation by elevating its violence to the realm of the artful grotesque, with killers who seem to have far more in common with the monsters of Grimm fairy tales than with their would-be contemporary psychopaths on other procedurals.

The most striking visuals on television, a deeply sympathetic Will Graham by way of the stellar Hugh Dancy, and a Lecter whom Mads Mikkelsen plays as if he were the Devil himself. It all adds up to the biggest surprise of the year: A franchise re-imagining that has the potential to become the definitive take on the material (provided NBC keeps it around long enough).

It’s like Bryan Fuller was given an abandoned, hollowed-out gold mine, and with the first swing of his pick-axe struck black oil.

2. Her

Adaptation has forever solidified Spike Jonze as one of my favorite directors, but even then I was unprepared for the brilliance of his latest effort.

So much more than just Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with his phone, this is a sci-fi masterpiece that exemplifies the best of the genre by focusing on entirely believable characters and using their relationship with technology (haha) to show some of the essence of what it means to be human.

Funny, true, devastating, and ultimately life-affirming, I believe there’s every chance we’ll look back on this movie decades from now as it becomes increasingly relevant to the times.

1. Breaking Bad

The cultural event of the year. As far as I’m concerned, nothing was more satisfying than seeing this final batch of episodes from one of the best shows of all time enthrall millions and dominate the public discourse…except for the episodes themselves.

Walter White’s saga came to its tragic and inevitable conclusion, as we knew it had to, but the way it got there was just as compelling as it’s always been. Perhaps Jesse didn’t get as much of the spotlight as he deserved, but aside from that this was a final act that will cement the show’s classic status for all time.

“Ozymandias,” in particular, was one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen, and I’m confident in calling Breaking Bad my favorite thing released in 2013, as well as the greatest show I’ve had the pleasure of watching.

And that just about does it for 2013. Special shout-out to Dexter for the worst final season and series finale ever unleashed upon a civilian populace. As usual, here’s to the stories of 2014, and all they have to teach us.

Adapting the Governor, Sexual Assault, and the Mishandled Aftermath Thereof on The Walking Dead

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 3.16.56 PMWhen it comes to killing zombies, The Walking Dead is the best show on television. Judged by most other criteria—writing, acting, characterization, storytelling—it’s certainly alright, but to put it kindly, airing on the same night as Boardwalk Empire and Homeland doesn’t do it any favors. That said, this year it’s definitely stronger than ever thanks to some new characters (who we’ll get into shortly) and a plot with far more forward momentum than all that nonsense on the farm from last season. All told, the recent improvements have done just about enough to raise it from the level of guilty pleasure to a viewing experience that, if not quite transformative, is at least plenty interesting. It also can’t be overstated that the zombie killing really helps hold my attention.

Not to say it’s shallow per se, but I can’t deny that most of my appreciation for the series can be attributed to its world class make-up and effects team. Thematically, it’s not going to challenge anyone too deeply, and previous attempts at doing so haven’t been anything to write home about (“Should we kill this guy?” “Yes.” “But what would that make us?!” “BUT WE HAVE TO!” “NO! ” Repeat for five episodes). So when a recent installment featured a scene of sexual assault, I was more than a little nervous. That’s not an easy event to tackle. In fact there are a litany of reasons that make it one of the most difficult: Trying to give it the desired impact, realistically portraying both perpetrator and victim, taking every measure not to exploit the act in the interest of titillating the audience or as a quick and easy way to provide character motivation. It’s not something to approach lightly, and needs to feel both necessary and natural to the story being told or else it’s just not worth the risk.

All that said, I was actually impressed (if that’s at all the right word) with the way they went about it. Before getting into specifics, though, I need to set the stage a bit.

With its third season The Walking Dead has been adapting the most renowned storyline from the comic book source material. Integral to these events is the Governor, leader of a group of survivors in a town called Woodbury. In the comics he’s a complete monster. A long-haired biker type who’s clearly bad news from the moment you see him, he’s an unrepentantly sadistic psychopath with no redeeming qualities. In bringing him to the screen, however, the makers of the show decided to add a few shades of grey. Played by David Morrissey, AMC’s take on the Governor is older, kempt, and charismatic. He shows compassion towards those who depend on him for protection, and though his methods are extreme enough to leave no question as to whether or not he needs to be taken down, he’s not quite the soulless villain from the comics.

Yet the show has this really weird thing going on where the writers want the Governor to be more believable, but aren’t willing to entirely sacrifice any of the bizarre, over-the-top character traits that made him so memorable in the first place. So on the one hand he seems stable enough that eighty or so people would put their trust in him, but on the other he has a giant aquarium full of silently moaning zombie heads that he stares at to unwind. It’s strange. Thankfully, at least one change was handled well.

The Governor as originally written is a violent rapist. After capturing Michonne (a total badass zombie slayer with a katana, of all things—as far as I can tell she’s nearly identical in the comic and the show) in the original version of the story, he repeatedly rapes and beats her as a means of torture, and there’s no question that he enjoys it. Robert Kirkman’s original comic, if it needs to be said, is some really bleak stuff—gut-wrenching on a level that I doubt the television series intends to fully embrace. Not that the show can’t be intense (one character death this season actually was darker than I’d ever thought they’d go), merely that the comic reaches a level of graphic brutality that sets it apart from just about anything else.

So the show’s dilemma here becomes how to keep the Governor less entrenched in the moral black zone than his comics counterpart while still including the proclivity for sexual violence that made him stand out as a villain in the first place. The way they go about it works quite well.

First of all, in the show it’s not Michonne who’s captured, but Glenn and Maggie—a romantically involved couple who, unlike the aforementioned katana-wielding badass, are not modern day samurai. They lack Michonne’s near-superhuman fortitude and, as such, it’s much more nerve-wracking to see them in danger (sidenote: Glenn was also captured alongside Michonne in the comics, as well as the lead character Rick. In that version, Glenn makes it through with the least trauma). The Governor and his men interrogate the two of them in an effort to learn the location of the rest of their party. Glenn is savagely beaten by the Governor’s Number 2 man Merle, and then has a zombie let loose on him while still tied to a chair (he kills it—awesome).

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 3.16.41 PMMeanwhile, the Governor interrogates Maggie. After untying her, he opts first for the diplomatic approach, cordially asking for the information he’s after. When that fails, he asks her to stand up. She refuses, and he drops the polite facade, now ordering her to stand in a voice so icy you can practically see his breath. He tells her to remove her top, or he’ll chop off Glenn’s hand (a shout-out to the comics, where the Governor does just that to Rick). Once she’s standing there half-naked, he gets out of his chair, very deliberately removes his holster, and strides over to her. He brushes her hair with his fingers before forcefully bending her over the table and asking one last time whether she’s going to talk. But Maggie won’t break. She tells him to do whatever he’s going to do, and that he can go to hell. At that, the Governor backs off. He was bluffing.

The contrast between the two versions of the Governor is fairly clear. They’re similar in that they both find sexual assault an effective means of torture, but whereas the original had no qualms about raping Michonne, the live action version predominantly uses the threat of rape to get what he wants. He makes it apparent that he has absolute power over Maggie and could do to her whatever he pleases. It’s pure intimidation. He draws out the process, forcing her to strip and gradually building up to the moment when he actually touches her. The scene isn’t about what he does to Maggie, it’s about what he could do. It’s an exercise in suspense, made effective thanks in large part to strong performances from both actors—David Morrissey’s Governor dominates the room while Lauren Cohan as Maggie tries to stay strong in a situation where she’s utterly powerless (incidentally, much of The Walking Dead’s cast has some degree of British accent in real life, and these two follow suit—Morrissey more so). The anxiety from watching it play out is guaranteed to make even a mildly empathetic viewer’s skin crawl.

With this scene the show did exactly what it wanted to. The season’s antagonist is further established as a loathsome fuck who sexually assaults one of the female characters, but the way he goes about it allows them to avoid showing or implying graphic rape. There’s also no question that it makes the Governor more interesting, specifically because of the subplot involving the relationship between him and another female character with whom he has consensual sex. That he has no trouble behaving romantically one minute and using sex as a weapon the next might make him just as despicable as his original incarnation. In the scene with Maggie, his own physical gratification isn’t a factor. He does it purely because he knows it will hurt her. If he enjoys it on any level, it’s due to the rush of power he gets from threatening a defenseless woman.

Essentially, while the Governor on the show is different from the comics, that doesn’t mean he’s any better a person just because his actions are less explicit—he’s simply a bit more complicated. Does that complexity arise in part from the writers trying to have their cake and eat it too? To give us a grounded, charismatic antagonist with so many touches of over-the-top villainy that he isn’t quite believable if we try to take him in all at once? It’s possible, but I’d argue that at least in this one instance he’s been perfectly adapted into a Governor who, while less intense than in the comics, is just as big a threat and every bit as twisted as the source material dictates.

Now forgive me, but none of what I’ve just discussed inspired this post. I’m not trying to waste everyone’s time (purely incidental); that was all necessary set-up and contemplation better taken care of before we dive into the actual scene that got me thinking so intently about how The Walking Dead‘s adaptation process has affected its sexual politics.

It’s a scene of aftermath that occurs a few minutes into the next episode, which also served as the mid-season finale. Glenn and Maggie sit together, trying to hold it all together after their respective interrogations. When they were reunited, Maggie was still topless, shoved over to Glenn by a disturbingly affectionate Governor. Glenn knows nothing else of what she went through, so naturally the horrible mystery of it is killing him. More than anything he wants Maggie to be ok, and to know the specifics of whatever the hell she suffered. So he breaks the silence, starting to ask “Hey, did he—”, when she immediately cuts him off with, “No, he barely touched me.” She’s more concerned that Glenn’s alright—understandable, considering that Glenn looks much the worse for wear. But then Maggie, after briefly reflecting on the potential cruelty of man, comments on his appearance, to which Glenn answers “It doesn’t matter. As long as he didn’t…” and Maggie once again interrupts, assuaging his fears. “No, I promise.”

As I was watching it, their entire exchange simply didn’t sit right with me. I could tell the writers were trying to be as tactful as possible, but that they’d definitely made some misstep. By all rights I should have shrugged and moved on (especially considering a moment later Glenn rips a bone from a corpse’s arm to use as a weapon GAH have I by any chance mentioned that this show handles violence in a highly compelling manner okjustchecking), but I just couldn’t help contemplating the scene and its exact choice of dialogue over and over again and now here we are.

The problem is that the phrasing of Glenn’s questions puts the emphasis on the exact logistical nature of the Governor’s actions. It’s not “Are you ok?”, it’s “What did that man do to you?”. Now don’t get me wrong, his behavior is incredibly realistic. In terms of accurately portraying how most men in his situation would word their concerns, that’s spot on. And Maggie’s response also makes sense. All of the characters on this show have gone through a hell of a lot just to survive, and while the sexually threatening nature of the Governor’s interrogation was a different kind of trauma than the series has previously depicted, Maggie being able to hold herself together jibes well with the fact that, frankly, if these characters weren’t all incredibly level-headed in a crisis they’d be dead.

Not to mention she could even be feeling guilty, in a way, as Glenn certainly had to endure more physical punishment than she did. Her language backs up that interpretation. In her own words she was “barely touched,” while Glenn is drenched in his own blood. One objective of the scene that I wholly commend is how it establishes that they’re both primarily concerned for each other’s well-being. I must admit it makes their relationship more involving; I never really had strong feelings about the couple either way until they were put in danger, whereas now my response to a small portion of their arc has just crossed the two thousand word mark. My issue, then, isn’t with the portrayal of the characters, but with the way the show executes what I perceive to be the scene’s other objective.

This is a big episode, with a lot of moving pieces. Rick is leading a group into Woodbury to rescue Glenn and Maggie, Michonne is out to kill the Governor*, and a new group of survivors are introduced in an entirely separate storyline. Juggling it all isn’t easy, and if there’s one thing that viewers need to have clear it’s the emotional and physical state of the characters. Primarily, this means establishing that recent torture victims Glenn and Maggie are able to cope with the action to come.

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 3.17.10 PMAnd that’s admirable. It’s important that Maggie’s emotional state wasn’t taken for granted, but instead communicated to the audience. Unfortunately, the language of the scene suggests that Maggie is ok specifically because she wasn’t actually raped. The questioning is emphasized in such a way that I couldn’t help but feel like the writers were popping their heads out and letting me know everything’s really alright, don’t worry, because a penis never went inside her, you see, so she was only violated in a superfluous and tasteful manner.

Now once again, the fact that she’s able to cope with the event is perfectly acceptable, but the implication here is that Maggie is still functioning because the Govenor spared her. It’s not about her personal reaction to the assault, but rather where her experience belongs on some scale of objective sexual trauma. As if, purely by knowing what happened to her, we’ll somehow suddenly understand how she feels. In no way is that the case. There is no easy way to deal with trauma because it isn’t a routine, predictable thing that can be easily assessed. Every scenario is different because the people involved are different. Knowing what happened is next to useless when compared with how the person actually feels, and though the scene is clearly concerned with Maggie’s reaction, it goes about it the wrong way, using the event as an indicator for what she’s “supposed” to be feeling instead of assessing her reaction as a consequence of what happened. It goes backwards. “This is what happened, ergo Maggie will be ok.” instead of “Maggie is ok because this is how she feels in regards to what happened.”

It’s an easy, all too common mistake. The scene was done with the best of intentions, and the characters were behaving realistically. In terms of sexism and misogyny on TV there’s infinitely worse content every day, and there’s just as many things to praise about the way The Walking Dead handled the subject matter as there are to criticize. Maybe even more.

But fuck that’s why it’s so damned upsetting. Here, even in one of the most supposedly mature series out there, in a scene where they were obviously conscious of the difficult ground they were walking and trying to get things right, they still wound up with dialogue that could be uncharitably interpreted as “Now be honest with me, were you legitimately raped, or can I stop worrying?” So that’s kind of not good.

Of course, I didn’t actually want a twenty minute scene of heartwrenching empathy with Glenn and Maggie baring their souls and weeping into the night. Like everyone watching, I wanted them to get the fuck out of there and kick some ass. But that could have just as easily happened after Maggie said she was fine for now. Or that she wasn’t fine but they had more immediate things to worry about. Or that she was more worried about him. The fact that she had to swear to Glenn that nothing had happened to put his mind at ease, of all things, was just so frustrating. Just think about what it actually means for Glenn to have said, “As long as he didn’t—”. Well hey, what if he did? What if he had raped her? Then what? Then that’s not ok, she’s doomed, there’s no coming back from that?

I understand that his character wouldn’t be thinking—in that particular moment—about everything that his statement could possibly imply and that he has no experience with a situation like this. But the authoritative perspective of the show seemed to me to suggest that it was the right thing for him to say in his position and it wasn’t.

Why is that a big deal? Why do I care? Because no one watching The Walking Dead is ever going to have to survive the zombie apocalypse. And that’s alright. Few people believe in the value of the fantastic more than I do. But if you’ll permit me to take a moment to step away from heightened reality, genre fiction, and gleeful carnage to say this:

I guarantee that hundreds—hell, make that thousands—of people who watched this episode are, at some point in their lives, going to have to help someone cope with sexual assault. Like Glenn, there’s a very good chance they won’t be sure what to say in whatever scenario they may be facing. It’s not something we prepare for. As minimal as it might have been, there was an opportunity for this show to do a bit of genuine good simply by depicting positive, supportive behavior. I’m not saying it should have been a wholly didactic scene, or a “very special installment” of The Walking Dead or anything remotely that extreme. I’m only saying that stories matter. We learn from them, even (and especially) when we don’t realize it. They influence our behavior. So it upsets me when this scene, which could have been truly progressive, instead propagated what I perceived to be mostly negative attitudes in response to sexual assault. I’m sure that wasn’t their intention, but if we want to make things better it’s most important to address the passive errors, because they’re the ones that we have the greatest chance of fixing.

It’s possible I’m overreacting—that I misinterpreted things, or even that they plan to explore Maggie’s feelings in greater depth. But I doubt it. Believe me, I don’t relish the chance to be offended. This isn’t the sort of thing I go looking for. It was just there,  and I couldn’t ignore it. I can’t deny that it got my head absolutely spinning about the adaptation process the series has gone through (something I thoroughly enjoy pondering) and at the very least it allowed me to start what I hope can be a useful dialogue. Because ultimately, if such a short scene—so innocuous at first glance—can contain so many upsetting implications, the odds are we’ve got a long road ahead if we want to make things better.

So please, share your thoughts whether you have a response to this specific example or to some other story where you couldn’t help but notice the ways in which it dealt with attitudes towards gender, feminism, assault, sexuality, or anything that this post brought to mind. Because really, the only thing I know about improving this stuff: We have to talk about it.

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*Another interesting point: The fact that the Governor doesn’t rape or torture Michonne in the show is notable considering that she kills his zombified daughter and gouges out his eye at the end of this episode. Whereas in the comic she was getting revenge (and did far, far more damage than David Morrissey’s portrayal suffers here. Oh he loses the eye, sure. But from a glass shard. In Kirkman’s black and white pages she scooped it out with a goddamn spoon. After she nailed his genitals to a board. Yeah, really can’t stress this enough: Comic is fucked up), on the show she beats him in a fair fight. A brutal one, but it’s not torture. And at the end of it, she’s done more to him than he ever did to her. A much different conflict from the way it was originally depicted, and all because of the route they decided to go with the characters in regards to sexual assault.

Botching the Watchmen

I attended the LA Times Festival of Books over the weekend (well not so much “attended” as “groggily awoke to find myself surrounded by,” thank you University of Southern California) and, while I missed out on the likes of Michael Ian Black, John Cusack, Betty White, and Julie Andrews, I managed to catch the panel on the upcoming Before Watchmen prequel comics with DC higher-ups Jim Lee and Dan Didio. It was a fun little discussion during which I was able to decide once and for all that I’m completely against the project on every conceivable level.

Lee and Didio were fairly upfront about their motivations for moving forward on creating new Watchmen-related content for the first time in twenty-five years. The comics industry isn’t doing well. Watchmen is a massive seller. People will buy a Watchmen prequel.

They assured the audience time and again that only the best of the best are working on these stories, and that’s entirely true. But it wasn’t as if they were saying “We’re really excited about the great material these writers and artists are going to produce” quite as much as “This sounds like a terrible idea, but with the caliber of talent we’ve got handling it, we have a far smaller chance of ruining things.” That’s what irks. They know it’s a bad move, but their attitude is that they can no longer avoid it. For a quarter century the fact that Watchmen should stand on its own has outweighed the fact that there’s some money to be made by exploiting it. It comes across like DC is so creatively bereft of options that they no longer have any choice in the matter. This is their last resort.

The fact that the people involved are being as diplomatic with the fans as possible doesn’t erase the fact that it’s simply wrong, for so many reasons, to produce more Watchmen content.

The obvious one: Alan Moore is against it. DC really fucked him over on the rights to Watchmen, and during the panel it was hugely upsetting to see Lee and Didio talk about how they legally had the rights to the story, so really it was all good. No one is questioning the legality of the situation; it’s the morality that’s obviously at issue.

But let’s look past that. Plenty has been said on the severing of creators from the things they’ve made and how terrible the comics industry is in particular when it comes to that practice (most pointedly by Moore himself). But even if the rights to the story were a non-issue, even if Moore approved or was long-dead, this is still an astonishingly bad move for the simple reason that Watchmen is not a mythology, no matter how one looks at it.

Jim Lee equated comic book properties with toys in a toybox and for ongoing series, he’s right. He mentioned how he created the character of Hush in a (pretty damn good) Batman storyline, and then allowed other writers to revisit the character in stories he hasn’t even read. He knew this would happen, because the world of Batman constantly evolves.

Watchmen doesn’t evolve. It’s an entirely self-contained story. There is no difference between exploring the Comedian’s origins and writing a prequel novella about how Jay Gatsby got rich. We can’t learn anything from seeing how it happens, because the original story tells us literally everything we need to know.

I, for one, think it’s absolutely crucial to the story of Watchmen to understand what has happened to the characters in the decades of alternate history before the Comedian’s murder. So did Alan Moore, which is why he showed us through extensive flashbacks.

If you intend to stay true to the characters, which Before Watchmen will do according to Lee and Didio, there’s nothing left to say. So while I think Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo could create the best possible Rorschach story, I’m also confident that the best possible Rorschach story would be an unnecessary retread of the character and themes associated with him that Watchmen explored in full.

Watchmen shows how all of the pertinent characters became who they were, and then the main narrative definitively ends all of their stories. So unless anyone thinks J. Michael Straczynski’s Dr. Manhattan prequel has a chance of exploring that character in a more effective manner than the fourth issue of Watchmen, what, honestly, is the point?

Watchmen isn’t a big, vibrant Universe with all these stories left to be told. It’s the simple, densely packed account of how a handful of would-be superheroes changed the world.

That’s the greatest flaw in Lee and Didio’s thinking. I asked the last question at the panel, but I was far too polite to get my point across. I started off by observing that the reason Watchmen is so successful is precisely because there aren’t all these Watchmen stories that a series of writers have penned over decades that readers have to find some kind of entry point for. It’s a novel. You hand it to someone, they start on page one, they read till it’s over, and then that’s it. It’s an easy sell.

I asked if the goal, then, was to turn Watchmen into another one of these comic book mythologies. They took that to mean that I was hoping for more Watchmen stories.

Not quite.

The implicit part of my question was that treating Watchmen like another one of their properties is an idiotic idea. Maybe these Before Watchmen stories will be a huge success. What then? Find a way to further expand Watchmen? Eventually the comics just wouldn’t be as good, and fewer and fewer people would buy them, until only a small, dedicated following remains. If that sounds familiar, it’s the business model that Lee and Didio started off the panel by very flatly stating isn’t working at all. The entire industry is stagnant right now, and instead of finding a way to attract talent on Moore’s level to produce stories that might connect with a readership beyond their usual audience (an option they themselves have sabotaged with their shoddy treatment of creators) they’ve decided that, instead of trying to be new or daring, they’ll simply apply their proven-to-fail methods to the bottled lightning on their shelf and hope for the best.

If that’s not a stop gap measure, I don’t know what is.

Holy Musical Batman! is the Superhero Parody we Deserve

Ah, internet parody musicals. Truly a burgeoning art form, always good for a laugh, and I don’t hesitate for a second to crown Starkid Productions as the obvious champions of creating staged, lyrical tributes to culturally relevant phenomena.

I discovered Starkid before they won over any kind of a following, when A Very Potter Musical had about eight thousand views on Youtube and wasn’t yet titled A Very Potter Musical. It took maybe until Darren Criss sang the line “No way this year anyone’s gonna die” that I was completely sold, and since then I’ve followed the activities of the University of Michigan-originated group with great enthusiasm.

A couple of months ago I was ecstatic to learn that their next show would be Holy Musical Batman!; no doubt it would offer a brilliant take on the caped crusader and his world. It premiered online April 13th, and I’d say I was was…pleased if not blown away.

What stuck out the most was the streamlined nature of the production. Batman! runs for around two hours, a reasonable time to expect someone to invest that vastly cuts down on last year’s Starship and especially A Very Potter Musical and its sequel, both of which are sprawling, wide-eyed epics that lack any sense of restraint. I sort of loved that about them, and making the story more straightforward while only really fleshing out some of the characters diminishes the fun of what Starkid can achieve.

I also got the impression that they simply had less to say about Batman and the DC Universe than they did about the world of Harry Potter…or maybe I’ve just thought about Batman enough that nothing they could go for would feel all that original.

But those points aside, I still adored the show. Joe Walker is phenomenal as the emotionally idiotic Dark Knight, the guy doing Alfred deeply upsets me simply by virtue of how not terrible his Michael Caine impression is (why can’t I do that, dammit?), and Brian Holden is a pretty fine Superman.

The songs are adequate. Alfred’s lament in part 3 and then the song between Superman and Batman were the only ones I found especially wonderful. Darren Criss did all the music for AVPS and Starship; clearly he’s the most talented in the songwriting department, so his absence here hurts a bit.

Ultimately, everyone owes it to themselves to watch every Starkid musical. They’re just phenomenally well done. If I sound reserved it’s only because I was hoping to swing from the rafters with praise for Batman!, but it turns out it’s just really good. So check it out, just don’t expect the best thing a group of fans have ever done for the franchise (which is what I’d call A Very Potter Musical).

And apparently sometime this year they will indeed put on a third and final Harry Potter-centric show. My most anticipated entertainment release for the rest of 2012? Well that would be absurd…

Miyazaki’s Non-Ghibli Endeavours

Only twice have I made a conscious effort to view a director’s entire filmography. One is Christopher Nolan, who I’m sure I’ll discuss plenty this summer, but considering what came out in theaters today let’s talk about the other: The be-all, end-all in the world of anime, Hayao Miyazaki. I said a lot of what I needed to about him in a piece on the films of Studio Ghibli to commemorate Arrietty‘s US release, but there are a couple of his works I didn’t cover.

His earliest thing I’ve seen, totally unrelated to Studio Ghibli, is The Castle of Cagliastro, a little adventure film starring Lupin, an enigmatic thief and popular character in Japan. I’m unfamiliar with any Lupin stuff outside of this film, but I’m pretty sure this is as good as it gets. Very great clock tower finale, and it’s a lot of fun, but I will note this is Miyazaki’s only movie where I couldn’t have told you he was involved after seeing any random ten seconds of it.

More interestingly there’s the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga, all of which was written and drawn by Miyazaki over something like a dozen years. The first couple volumes cover more or less the events of the film, but then it becomes the most sweeping, epic story he’s ever told. Perhaps the most thematically similar Miyazaki films are Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke, and after reading the manga that the former was based on (which continued long after the film was released) I feel like I finally understand why. It’s like he used Mononoke to explore, in a complete animated feature, all of the more complex variants of the same themes that Nausicaä eventually grew to encompass in Manga form. It’s a hugely ambitious story, and definitely worth checking out for anyone who loves all that Miyazaki has done.

 

Our Sins died for Superman

I saw this video posted on a few sites over the last couple of days but for some reason didn’t get around to watching it until just now, which was a mistake, because it’s pretty damn amazing. Max Landis, screenwriter behind the newly released pseudo-superhero found footage movie Chronicle (it’s good go see it) got a bunch of very talented people together so that he could make a stylish, fifteen minute plus rant about that time Superman died. It might be the most well-done self-indulgent airing of geeky grievances that I’ve ever seen.

I have no idea why famous people agreed to be in this thing, or how much effort must have been required to act out, illustrate, or otherwise depict everything he says in such a madcap yet coherent fashion, but I very much appreciate it. It’s so obvious Landis has wanted to get all these complaints off his chest for over twenty years, so it’s more than a little satisfying to witness his righteous, nerdy catharsis.

Not a big Superman fan myself (pretty much for the reasons he lays out at the beginning) but I do think that the way people react to the character and his place in history are pretty important, so this video is as valuable as it is entertaining. I especially like the realization at the end that Superman essentially managed to single-handedly defeat the concept of death throughout an entire industry.

Very well done, very worth a watch, and seeing this right after seeing Chronicle gets me very excited for Max Landis’s career.

On the Continued Watching of the Watchmen

Let’s all give a big round of applause to DC for resisting the urge to do a Watchmen prequel for a good 25 years. Unfortunately, they’ve inevitably succumbed to the obvious financial incentives of such a project, and so Before Watchmen is slated to hit shelves later this year.

I’ll start with the good, because there are some genuinely promising things about the prequel. Basically, the talent lined up is suitably impressive. Not “Alan Moore” impressive, obviously, but as inherently wrong an idea as it is to tell more stories in such a perfectly constructed, over-and-done-with world, the very idea of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo handling the Rorschach miniseries is painfully enticing. These are the guys who did JOKER, a graphic novel that I have no trouble whatsoever putting alongside The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight as the greatest Joker story ever told. It’s the only thing that’s ever made me afraid of my favorite villain, so I grant those two a lot of leeway. Azzarello is also doing the Comedian issues with J.G. Jones, and a bunch of other talented people (who’s things I haven’t read) are handling the other stuff. It’s pretty clear the project line is “We know how good Watchmen is. We’re treating this whole thing with the utmost reverence, we promise.” And I believe everyone involved understands that if they fuck this up they’ll be crucified.

Yet the very idea is flawed. I don’t think anyone has ever read Watchmen and come away wanting more. No matter how good any of these prequels are, none of them have the potential to tell us anything we don’t already know about the characters. Hey, Dr. Manhattan was just a normal guy, but now he can’t relate to humans because he’s a god! The Comedian is a nihilist! Rorschach is uncompromising! There is literally nothing left to be said, because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons said it all in one of the greatest literary works ever produced. The story is entirely self-contained. Anything a prequel can show us would be either redundant or (far worse) contradictory to what those twelve issues already contained.

I’ll be reading it, of course. So will everyone. But no matter how impressed I am, I doubt I’ll come away from the prequel glad that it was made. Other comic book series are mythologies, meant to be explored and endlessly retooled. Not Watchmen. DC understands that, or it wouldn’t have taken twenty-five years for this project to come together.

But as unnecessary as it may be, it’s also obvious that this might be the biggest thing to happen to comics in a hell of a long time, with potential shock waves far beyond the usual comic industry crowd (with which I’m little more than tangentially associated). So get ready for a lot of Watchmen talk over the next few years, because this is only the beginning. However this all turns out, Before Watchmen is now one of the most significant releases on the entertainment calendar. There’s always been talk of this happening, but it’s finally real. For those who’ve stepped up to write it and the fans anticipating it, it’s now five minutes to midnight.