Saturday, January 26, 2013

Batman: Year One - Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli with Richmond Lewis

The opening page has something very titillating:

by Slam Bradley
Gossip diva Vicki Vale got her legendary, notoriously firm, shapely fanny tossed into the hoosegow yet again after trying to lift an estimated $11,320.00 worth of merchandise from the Sprang.  The cutie klepto pled guilty.  After paying for the loot and promising on a whole big heap of bibles to seek counseling, she got off with a wink and nod to the judge.
Leave us say the dame knows how to wink.
One juror says she even blew a kiss to the horny old fart.
You can't make this crap up!

It is with something of a heavy heart that I cannot recommend Batman: Year One as highly as some of the previous comic books reviewed here.  Make no mistake--Year One is a good read--but I came into it expecting The Long Halloween to get blown out of the water.  Now, Year One may be a "more perfect" and "concise" work than The Long Halloween (and indeed lacks the "triple-twist" which perhaps undermines the rest of the story of Halloween) but it is not as creative or imaginative as Red Son, Watchmen, or The Dark Knight Returns.  In short, the last review (of The Long Halloween) included a statement by Jeph Loeb that Year One was the true masterpiece in the Batman graphic novel world (even though The Dark Knight Returns possessed the greater cultural cache).  I cannot agree with him.

There is really very little to complain about here, and so this review will likely be short.  The story opens and closes with Lieutenant Jim Gordon.  He and Batman share equal billing in this volume--Gordon may even get higher billing.  This could be a flaw of the book--that Batman's character is not as well-developed as you would expect for his "origin" story.  Bruce Wayne does appear, on the second page, returning to Gotham City after 12 years "abroad."  He has not yet become Batman, and (while I do seem to be dismissing the praise this book has received) there are a few excellent scenes where he takes his first stabs at crime-fighting.

Bruce Wayne appears in public as a "playboy" who is given to drunken excess and womanizing.  This is all a ploy to detract attention from his new role.  In his first "fighting scene" he walks through Gotham's red-light district and gets solicited by a very young looking prostitute, who is also not very experienced.  Her pimp explains that she is doing it all wrong, and that she is picking out the "wrong" type of client--that Wayne in his disguise (which is really just a scar he makes across his face) could be "vice."  Selina watches from a window above, making catty comments: "Oh.  Geez...Can't be Vice.  We're Paid up.  Just some idiot out to get himself killed....You know what I hate most about men, skunk?  Never met one."  (11)

Selina (or Catwoman) makes a couple appearances and, as usual, establishes herself as neither an ally or enemy of Batman--though certainly leaning towards the former.

This book is not really about Batman so much as it is about Gordon and the corruption of the Gotham City Police Department.  D.A. Harvey Dent does not get a much bigger role than a few choice scenes.  The Mayor of Gotham and the Commissioner are corrupt.  Many police officers are just as bad as the criminals, and are in fact in cahoots with the criminals (Carmine "The Roman" Falcone--who is a major character in The Long Halloween, makes a brief appearance towards the end of this story).

It is mainly about Gordon fighting corruption within the Department, but also about Batman's fumbling first attempts, which are quite entertaining:
"The costume works--better than I'd hoped.  They freeze and stare and give me all the time in the world...I come in close on the one who looks the strongest--throw him a growl I've brought all the way from Africa----and suddenly everything falls to pieces.  The one to my left calls for his mother----to my right the other collects his senses and leaps to position--he'll be trouble----the strong one gets scared--too scared--No----I'm no killer----he screams like a girl----can't be older than fifteen----a child--just a child----the one I was worried about takes his shot----he's trained--kick's got power--" (31)

Probably the strongest part of the book is Chapter Three: Black Dawn, in which Batman is trapped in an enclosed area and surrounded by cops who are intent on killing him.  He uses a device that he has not yet tested out on these conditions.  This is probably the best scene in the entire book, in terms of Batman action. And that is a lot of what this book is about--action and fighting sequences.  I would have liked to see more character development.

Lieutenant Gordon, as noted, gets the majority of that.  In fact, there are a few nice panels that certainly bring the paintings of Edward Hopper to mind (and are referenced accordingly) and show that Gordon is certainly not perfect, either.  This is the first time (maybe the only time) that he takes a somewhat immoral tack, and for that alone it is significant.  By the end of the story, Gordon has made a few strides in his war on crime, and has befriended Batman (at something of an arm's length) and is waiting for help because someone named the Joker has poisoned the Gotham reservoir.

So, the opening page, which seems to identify this book as The Dark Knight Returns Pt. 2 sadly does not come to pass.  Vicki Vale is just a name, not a journalist as in the Tim Burton film.  We don't get to see her, or her apparent fall from grace.  There is no Robin, male or female.  There are no bad guys who are trying to hide their identity.  There is just police corruption.  So in one sense this book is the "most realistic" of the Batman comic books, but that quality also makes it the most mundane.  It is well-done on the whole, but lacks the sort of excitement and imaginative excess that the other pieces boast.  It is not long and it is probably worth reading--many others seem to view it as the epitome of the "Batman renaissance" in the comic book world, so I suggest you check it out before buying into my view.  But I can't help the way I feel--for my money, The Dark Knight Returns is the book that will really "knock your socks off"--Year One will just serve as a nice ottoman as you relax by your fire.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress #19: Fighting Words and the Reading Period

          On the morning of December 2, 2012, a group of ten students gathered in the lobby of Brooklyn Law School, waiting for the library to open. It was 9:05 AM and several students found the prohibition on entering the library unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious. One student in particular was a worker at the library (hereinafter the “off-duty librarian”)—indeed he had opened up the library the previous day—but was told that he was not allowed to open it today, since it was not his shift. This set another student off.
          While several students became extremely vocal about the ridiculousness of the situation, one student became noticeably more upset than the others, and threatened to have the students responsible for opening the library at 9:00 AM—sharp—fired.   The off-duty librarian, who had repeatedly requested that everyone “calm down” and “relax,” was dealt the harsh blow of the vague-sounding threat, “I’ll deal with you later.” 
          The off-duty librarian became upset and said that he was getting his feelings hurt.  The other student responded by saying that their feelings were being hurt too.  At this point a couple other students emerged from the student lounge and further suggested relaxing and calming down—they were then told to “stay out of it.”  By this point, the other extremely vocal students had quieted down to a degree—a consensus seemed to be developing (perhaps the marketplace of ideas and counter-speech were effectively combating the threat of violence).  The security guard in particular was subjected to verbal abuse.  
          The off-duty librarian attempted to maintain peace, but the abusive speech would not abate.  He finally took out his First Amendment Law casebook and sat on the ground in front of the security guard table, outside the view of the anxious mob.  At roughly 9:10 AM, the on-duty librarian arrived, the doors were opened, and the anger subsided.

          Never before has there been such a shocking display of the “50/50 Rule[1]” as this incident.  If anything it was near perfect proof of the truth of the theory (at least amongst the early-risers of the law school): of the 10 students present in the lobby, about four were un-cool and six were cool. 

          The situation was also extremely ironic in light of First Amendment concerns – these were fighting words if any – and though some readers may be laughing at the prospect of such a situation, it was certainly plausible that a fight was about to break out.  If one other student had accepted the invitation to threaten more severely as a rejoinder, it would have come to blows.  There was no better illustration of the misery that other law students can heap on their innocent classmates. 

          Afterward, this off-duty librarian was shaken and upset, fearing the other student now, indeed worried about the threat to be “taken care of later.”  The off-duty librarian may, for once, make a colorable claim for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress.  Indeed he fears for his safety, and the incident left him so distressed that he could not concentrate on his work—indeed threatened to keep him out of the law school entirely—merely because he wanted the mob to “settle down.” 

          I would list damages at $25,000—or the cost of one semester—if indeed this precluded the off-duty librarian from attending exams.  But this off-duty librarian does not like to take chances in court.  Indeed the injury may be viewed as a de minimus from a certain perspective.  However, from a different perspective these are fighting words indeed, and outside the protection of the First Amendment, unless we are to attach crucial importance to the word “later.”  See, e.g., Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105 (1973).
          One hopes that an apology is forthcoming.  However, the “40%” never fail to amaze me with their utter indifference to common human decency, fueled by their sense of entitlement.  I expect this to be “war” and a conflict that is only going to end with more destruction in its wake.
          It may indeed be time for the school to purchase a puppy for the library to help students relieve stress.  Violent verbal assaults should be reserved for the uneducated masses and the people who exploit them – not students that seek to define how a “reasonable person” should react in a certain situation.
Christopher J. Knorps is a 3L at Brooklyn Law School.  He works at the library and enjoys studying Constitutional Law and Bankruptcy Law.  He does not like fighting.  He is organizing a 2nd Annual Open Mic with proceeds going towards Sanctuary for Families.  Please e-mail him at if you are interested in reading or performing.

[1] The 50/50 Rule was first stated in writing on March 14, 2012 here  It was later amended to the 40/60 rule on April 19, 2012 (the un-cool students now outnumbering the cool students) which is documented here  It will now stand as the 60/40 rule—as the numbers of this all-too-clear situation must dictate.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Bond Project: The End?

The Bond Project Wrap-Up

by Jay Maronde

                Well Dearest readers, as we’ve come to the end of a very long road, I would personally like to offer my extreme thanks to the entire Broccoli Family and the EON productions team, and also to the original spymaster himself Ian Fleming, for without this cadre of genii  none of this could have ever been possible. I, however, would most of all like to thank my fantastic editor Mr. Jack Knorps because again without his tremendous encouragement and editing none of this could also be possible.  Now having considered all this, my tremendous, gracious, and wonderfully understanding editor Mr. Knorps has asked me to write this wrap up. To wit: how could I refuse such a wonderfully respectful request from such a dear friend?
              Now, I initially thought that this wrap up would be much easier as we had earlier discussed a formal interview sort of context. During the course of our interviews it quickly became apparent that the big question most of all would be a ranking, a full and complete ranking of all the films. This is extremely difficult for me, like asking a parent to choose their favorite out of 23 children, and then rank the rest, so there was simply no way I could complete this task just off the top of my head. I assured my dear editor that I would sleep on this scenario and do my best to rank them. 

              I also want to note that my initial idea for this article was more of a “best of” type compilation, so please continue to read even after you reach the final end of the ranking because I think some of my favorite gems may come later on, but without further ado…

                If you read my reviews it was probably most apparent that this was my favorite. Director Marc Forster set out with a very specific goal of making a tight, hard-hitting action film that was “like a bullet.” Forster’s vision for this shorter, hard-hitting Bond is perfect for what is the only direct sequel in the entire franchise. Further, his allusions to other great films (including the demise of the lovely Strawberry Fields) comprise some of the finest filmmaking  in the entire Canon. (Less charitable review here)

#2  Skyfall
                Bond 23, the movie whose formerly impending release inspired this entire series of reviews, was more than worth the wait. The actors are fabulous. Dench and Bardem are the biggest snubs of this season’s awards shows' nominations. If the film were only slightly shorter I would have probably made it #1--it's really a personal preference (and a strong one) that I feel all films should be short so as to force the director to really tell his story concisely. But Skyfall is nonetheless amazing, I saw it in the theaters numerous times, and I will probably wait in line to purchase the Blu-Ray on release day. It was the first Bond to be filmed in large format, and if you still have the chance I would highly suggest viewing it in IMAX as it’s totally worth the extra cost. Bond simply cannot ever be big enough, and Skyfall Is a huge film that such an epic Canon deserves. (Slightly less charitable review here)

                I know, I know, I know, “How could I put all three Daniel Craig Bonds right at the top of the list?” No, I'm not just obsessed with the newest things.  Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond is beyond reproach! He is fantastic, and in this film during a discussion with M, Bond asks, “So you want me to be half monk, half hitman?” For me this statement is at the crux of why Daniel Craig is so fantastic in this role: he’s so fucking cold I want to offer him a cup of tea.  Like geez--warm up a just little bit!  He's so cold and so perfect that it makes you ask yourself: what you would be like if you killed people every day for your job?  I feel like Craig asks himself this question every morning before filming Bond. This film could have easily been number one on the list except for the fact that if you are to watch it without watching Quantum immediately afterwards you are left feeling almost a little empty inside.  (Equally charitable review here)

                The man with the Midas touch! This could easily be Sean Connery’s finest Bond.  It’s the first time we see the DB5.  It has Oddjob and Pussy Galore. It has Jill Masterson covered in gold in a scene which was so iconic that it’s been referenced by other films in the series. The Shirley Bassey theme is delightful and unforgettable, and I think what really makes me choose this of all the Connery Bonds is that he seems so comfortable in the role, he’s smacking asses and really playing the role as a classic cad, in way that all other Bond’s up till Daniel Craig have tried to emulate.

                Classic early Bond. Watching this film you can easily realize why the franchise has become so successful. Connery is young and lithe, and the scenery and sets are fantastical in a way that the franchise is still seeking to emulate.

                The Tom Jones epic theme song is outstanding--it's honestly the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of this movie--but a close second is that this is the only Bond film ever to be completely remade. The remake, NeverSay Never Again, could be the worst thing ever to happen to the James Bond franchise and if I were forced to include that tripe in my evaluation it would easily be the very last film on this list, as the essentially-bribed-Sean Connery was sooooo old in the remake that the Health Clinic should have been a convalescent's home*. The original film was very good though, and for the time the special effects were beyond reproach: the underwater sequences are still a blueprint for those making underwater films.

#7 Dr No
                The original Bond. Sean Connery & Ursula Andress. Nuff said.

                This could be the most under-appreciated Bond, and as such I wanted to rank it highly. The movie suffers from one glaring flaw: it was the very end of the Roger Moore era, and Moore is beyond geriatric.  Not even all the best plastic surgeons in the world could make him look any younger. That being said, Christopher Walken not only is fantastic but completely redeems all of the film's other flaws.  He’s so perfect, and he's so evil in a way that only Walken could be. Further, the sets and locations are remarkable and very memorable.

#9  Moonraker
                Again, I hate to rank the Roger Moore Films so highly, but the fact that the producers brought Jaws back, coupled with the outstanding scenery, sets and plot (Bond & Jaws save the world while in outerspace) really does it for me. Also many many people I know always say Moonraker is their favorite, as it in some ways is one of the more "approachable" Bonds.

                The sets, scenery, and characters are exquisite. Plenty O’Toole is a super classic Bond girl name. The reason I put it here is Connery was a little bit past his prime and the “camp” value is a little too high for me.

                I like Connery, I really do, But the only notable parts of this film are Ken Adam’s ridiculously amazing volcano set, and Bond’s Adventures one the mini chopper “Little Nellie.” The Volcano makes up for a lot though, and without a doubt a critical entry in the Canon.

                Telly Savalas is downright fantastic and easily the best of the Blofelds. Everyone hates George Lazenby, but I personally think he's great as Bond: his athleticism, youth, and enthusiasm shine through.  The problematic and singular reason why this very important film ranks so low on my list is Diana Rigg’s distaste for Lazenby.  It is so palpable throughout the whole film that it's almost like someone wrote “I was promised Sean Connery” across her face.

                Pierce Brosnan’s first entry into the World of Bond was a fantastic restart for the series. He was my initial Bond, and GoldenEye was the first Bond I ever saw. The women of the film are utterly perfect in their roles, the plot was ahead of its time as Republican presidential candidates were still discussing EMP’s during this past election cycle. And while I don’t necessarily like Bond in a BMW, the use of the Z3 is still considered the world’s most successful cross promotion ever.

                Blaxploitation Bond!  Everyone loves Jane Seymour but me; I just don’t feel as though she's dynamic enough to be a Bond Girl. However, as much as I hate Moore I feel this movie is critically important to history as it’s a very British take on the entire Blaxploitation genre and provides an important historical perspective from an outside viewpoint.

                I really liked this movie, and if Brosnan been able to take the role, it would have been much higher on this list. Again, Moore’s aged-ness is completely distracting. Q has an amazing role, and the India scenes are wonderful. And let’s be honest, Bond diffuses a nuclear bomb in the middle of a circus while wearing a clown suit.

                I like this film, I even like Timmy Dalton (a great deal actually).  I like the plot, I like the girl (she always brings back very strong feelings of the epic Daniela Bianchi in From Russia with Love), but unfortunately, the villains are like some sort of bad joke, and not even all the great “sledding in a Stradivarius Cello case” scenes can make up for villains that can barely even make you laugh.

                I feel like the initial Jaws film should have been a little higher on this list, but I completely loathe the plot and the Bond girl. Roger Moore is hard pressed to get any love from me.

                I wish I could rank this movie higher on the list as Carey Lowell is easily one of my favorite actresses ever, and the opening scene where Bond sky-hooks Sanchez’s plane is epic to the point that Christopher Nolan borrowed it for his new Batman trilogy. Benicio Del Toro alone makes the film worth watching, but the concept of having Bond quit, (almost exclusively so Bond can pursue a villain the British would have no jurisdiction over) is too contrived for me.

                I really like this film also. I really wish I could put it higher on this list. Brosnan makes it look way too easy, Denise Richards (while a gorgeous Bond girl) is a horrible actress, and a villain who is not dead even with a bullet in his brain, but is a complete sucker for love,  is just too much for me to swallow.
                AKA BUY ANOTHER DAY. Everyone hates the Vanish, but I think for Bond to have an invisible car is cool. My problems are essentially that we have already seen the space laser plot, that there is too much early CG looking very bad, and the rampant cross promotion really detracts from the film. I’m also told the Korean being spoken is atrocious.

                I  hated this movie. I Loathe Roger Moore. I don’t think that this film makes much sense at all.
                You Only Live Twice part 2.
                I hated this film. A lot. I really, really, really, hate the way Roger Moore beats up women to increase his macho factor in this movie.  The only redemption is HervĂ© Villechaize.
*I have idea what Mr. Maronde is getting at by this statement but I felt the need to include it.  -JK

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Rules of Attraction - Bret Easton Ellis

The context in which one reads The Rules of Attraction may color one’s view of it.  That was the case for me, at least.  The first time I read it was in September of 2003.  I was 20 and going to Paris for the semester.  I seem to recall reading the entire book on the plane flight from New York to Paris.  I seem to recall considering it a very good book for the reason of such speed—considered it to be on the same level of Less Than Zero.  Recently I have felt the opposite—that Less Than Zero is clearly the superior work, and that The Rules of Attraction is the “weaker sophomore effort.”  This is not the way I felt about The Beautiful and Damned (which oddly enough is the most popular review on Flying Houses—and by a long shot) and people tend to think of Bret Easton Ellis and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a similar vein.  For one, they both go by three names, which people generally do not take as a sign of pretension, but may be so (think of the “stature of the artist” view—or maybe just an attempt at accuracy for the names they were called).  They both write about young people and how their social lives affect their interior and exterior selves.  They both had success when they were very young (Ellis younger, however) and both were tagged as emblems of the generations they sought to capture in literature.  Popular films have been made out of their novels and short stories—and they continue to be made. 
They have also both been equated with the characters they portrayed.  And it would be too hard to ignore Ellis’s recent doings: the recent New York Times article about The Canyons is more than an instructive exercise.  In it, Ellis is painted as a screenwriter who has seemingly abandoned the novel writing for which he is known and generally admired.  It is worth noting that Ellis is not known for having written the screenplay for anything yet—so a good deal of whether this latest entre into film remains to be seen.  But I will make a small prediction that The Canyons is going to be about as memorable as The Informers.  Which is to say, nothing compared to Less Than Zero or American Psycho.  The Rules of Attraction and Glamorama get mentioned as secondary works (though I personally believe there is a strong argument that Glamorama is Ellis’s best work—but see also this present review, regarding re-assessment of Ellis as one ages) and most people only know about Imperial Bedrooms or Lunar Park if they are devoted readers of Ellis.  Maybe Ellis has achieved his goals in literature and is now seeking success in film—but it is irresistible to question whether this is just another fact by which to compare him to Fitzgerald—that late Hollywood period, when he had to write for the movies to make a living, and where he burnt out too young.  Fitzgerald died at 44 and Ellis is currently 49 but there have been advances in longevity.  Rumors have flown about Ellis (hardly ignored by the author in his two most recent efforts) and whether he shares certain characteristics with his literary creations.  I will just say that personally, I have my views on this matter (okay I went to NYU and more than a couple people I met claimed personal connections to him—then again one kid in Los Angeles claimed that B.E.E. read his self-published first creative non-fiction book and as time as passed I have increasingly felt that the kid was a liar) and no review of The Rules of Attraction should fail to mention its obsession with “gossip,” but I will decline to offer any personal tidbits that might paint an unfortunate view: we will respect the separation between artist and art object in this review.
                To return to context, then: I liked The Rules of Attraction much better when I was 20 than I liked it when I was 29.75 years old.  Maybe it’s because of something that’s captured in one scene: dismay over the reality that you have reached a certain age, which Sean experiences when he finds out that a centerfold in the pages of Playboy is 19 years old—two years younger than him—when he has always seen centerfold models as being “older”:
“This girl is younger than me, and that does it—instant depression.  This woman, this flesh was always older and that was part of the turn-on, but now, coming across this, something I’d never noticed before upsets me more than thinking about the conversation that Lauren and Judy must have had.” (210)
And perhaps it summarizes my view when I say I don’t consider it a spoiler to tell the reader that Sean has had sex with Judy while Sean was going out with Lauren.  This is because I seriously doubt any reader gets into the nitty-gritty details of this text—draws a massive chart detailing every relationship and how they are part of a larger intelligent design—but also seemingly rough outlines of variations on the same theme: spoiled brats at a small liberal arts college, drinking and doing lots of drugs and having lots of sex. 
It is hard not to mention the context in which I viewed this book at age 20, too.  Briefly, from September through December of 2002, I was the editor of the film review section of the NYU student newspaper.  That context matters for two reasons.  First, the film version of The Rules of Attraction came out while I had the editorial reigns, and I published a vaguely positive review of the film while not feeling an especially strong urge to go out and see it (this in contradistinction to American Psycho).  Second, New York University is a college filled with the same types of characters as those that populate The Rules of Attraction.  So the book is successful on the second front.  If you have been to college—and more specifically, this “type” of college—then you will be able to identify with this book in at least some small way.  Even though the characters are ensconced in the mid-1980s, one may indeed be shocked by how little youth culture has changed—apart from “screen time” which is vaguely anticipated in certain scenes, such as when Sean thinks Lauren will think he is cooler if he says he is majoring in Computers….but I cannot find the page that this detail emerges in.
And that is one important thing to note about this book: it is either one long chapter, or about 80 mini-chapters (maybe I’m off on that number—it’s just off the top of my head—I don’t want to spend the time to count up every single number of times that each character speaks in an attempt to make some sort of numerological quotation, nor do I believe that Ellis wants us to do this)—and if that parenthetical is any sign, it’s harder to view it as the latter.  This plot evolves over the course of one fall semester—roughly the months of October and November.  This includes Halloween and it is worth noting here that it bears a similarity to Daylight Savings Time, in ways that I did not even think about.  Really, I must have considered this book to be of such an inspiring nature that I adopted one of its narrative techniques: present tense first-person shifting narration (except that I kept it in third-person).  Indeed some of the scenes we both include probably share some of the same “one-liners at party” dialogue.  I wrote Daylight Savings Time when I was twenty-three and twenty-four, and Ellis published The Rules of Attraction when he was twenty-four, and while I would not suggest that I was on the same level of Ellis at that age, I would suggest that our “mental age” was probably not far off.
                This can be interesting material—but generally it is not.  It suffers from the same problem as Palo Alto (recently reviewed here) by James Franco: we don’t know which character to root for because we’re not sure of what they care about, or how smart they really are.  It appears that Sean is smarter than he appears, but we never really get any satisfaction out of seeing that side of him, except maybe in the scene at Vittorio’s (a 70-year-old poetry professor relocating to Italy that makes passes at Lauren)—that is, we do not know whether the things he tends to remember have significance or not.  At one point Sean mentions how his "hippie" ex-girlfriend knows to talk about Ginsberg, but then does not realize he wrote “Howl.”  I suppose Sean is supposed to appreciate that he can see through her “feigned coolness,” but the reader is never exactly sure how much of the behavior of the three major characters is “feigned coolness.” 
                This is most apparent in Paul’s interactions with Sean, and perhaps less apparent in Sean’s interactions with Lauren.  Which leads me to recognize that I have not provided a plot-line for this novel yet.  It concerns Sean Bateman (younger brother to Patrick Bateman, who makes an appearance and even gets his own “monologue-mini-chapter”), who rides a motorcycle and says “rock and roll” and “deal with it” in response to other people’s random statements, Paul Denton, who is bisexual but seems more gay than straight, who is from Chicago and generally seems the most “stuck-up” of the characters, and Lauren  Hynde, who pines for her boyfriend Victor who is “spending some time in Europe,” who keeps  changing her major, who slept with Paul before the action of the novel “starts” and who sleeps with Sean in the course of it, and who may be the social conscience of the book itself.  These characters attend the same school as Clay from Less Than Zero (who also has his own “mini-chapter monologue”): Camden College.  Maybe it says something when I recall that Clay’s “excerpt” is one of the best parts of this novel, and apparently shows that Ellis has not “lost his gift” but has just shifted it in a less interesting direction.  This is not to say that the subject matter of this book is boring: it takes on a topic which is rarely examined in literature and provides a somewhat fascinating resolution of that issue.  The issue is sort of referenced in Less Than Zero but attacked head-on in this book—but maybe it’s the case that a good deal of the allure of Less Than Zero is its almost mystical, mysterious quality.  This is not as strongly the case here, and though Ellis begins and ends the novel mid-sentence and includes a “blank” Lauren mini-chapter, he generally is content keep his authorial gaze fixed upon “society” as the “topic” of the book. 
                Maybe I am putting words in his mouth or providing my own interpretive gloss but I swore I once read an article where B.E.E. claimed to be inspired by Balzac’s La Comedie Humane and that his work was his take on that sort of vision.  If this is the case, the problem mentioned above (i.e. the same problem with Palo Alto) makes this attempt a failure.  But, like Palo Alto, it is a book that I read very quickly the first time around, and that will certainly remind liberal arts B.A. holders of scenes from their own life and maybe cause them to write books vaguely imitating its literary style that lack sufficient quality for publication.  However I doubt that any of them had as much sex as occurs in this book.  Aside from the hypersexual element, the book is generally true to life, and thus good.  However, I would consider it to be a notch below even Imperial Bedrooms, which, while no masterpiece, at least involved a more mature narrator.  For the uninitiated to Ellis, reading about a Dressed to Get Screwed Party and then holding your own Dressed to Get Screwed Party is reason enough to experience this book once—just don’t expect to be as blown away your second time around.    

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Batman: The Long Halloween - Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale

The Long Halloween will be the first comic book/graphic novel that I review here that gets less than a perfect review.  This is not to say that it is a bad book, but it cannot touch any of the four previously reviewed works (which all very well may be nearly impossible to equal).  At the very least the introduction (by Jeph Loeb) states that Batman: Year One is actually the "preferred" classic in both his and Tim Sale's opinion, "while not as much the pop culture icon" as Frank Miller's other highly-acclaimed Batman book (reviewed here - it all seems so long ago....).  Ultimately, this "failure" is understandable, as The Long Halloween is a collection of a 13-issue series.  So it is more like a regular comic book than any of those previous four.  And that tends to show.

Now we cannot fault Loeb & Sale for filling in the "latecomers" to the series and repeating information previously reported in earlier issues, but this is the primary defect I can state.  This book is 370 pages long and I read it in one day.  That may sound impressive but it's really not.  Red Son is 151 pages long and took me two days to read.  Watchmen took me a very long time to read (mainly because I wanted to savor the experience).  The Dark Knight Returns took me a good four days or so to read.  The only one I read faster was The Killing Joke and that is only a single-issue "one-off" (and it was also much more dense than The Long Halloween).

And yet this book is definitely worth reading, even if it goes down too fast.  It seems like finally here, we have the closest influence on the new Batman trilogy.  This is a story about Carmine "The Roman" Falcone--who is a mob boss--and his competitor Maroni--both of which appeared in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (The Dark Knight Rises did not have the "mafia element" in it, from what I recall) respectively.  That I cannot recall their "subplots" in those films with any confidence is perhaps a sign that when Batman tries to weave into "Mafia territory," general interest seems to dip.  Still, this is a good story.  It is, however, a little bit cheap in the way three or four twists are introduced in the final 30-40 pages (and especially the epilogue, which, while not terrible, stands in deep contrast to the peerless ending to Red Son).

The story concerns Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and D.A. Harvey Dent (it is worth noting that this book was especially useful for me as I continue to visualize Batman in Brooklyn) and their efforts to bring down Falcone, whose family is the "evil" that is terrorizing Gotham City.  There is nothing particularly strange about this Batman or this Gordon--but this Dent is perhaps the strongest element of the book and probably the most compelling portrayal of the character thus far.  I will not reveal the manner in which Dent "becomes" Two-Face in this, but it does happen, and while The Dark Knight certainly gave a better treatment to Two-Face/Dent than Batman or Batman Forever, it seems modeled off of this book, and dressed up for greater dramatic effect.

However, Falcone is not the main focus of the book--that would have to be Holiday--which is the name of the serial killer that drives the plot of the book, killing another person (generally from Falcone's extended family) on each holiday.  The identity of Holiday becomes the major question in the book and as mentioned above, is ultimately somewhat unsatisfying.

Yet along the way there are an insane number of other villains: Catwoman (?), the Calendar Man, the Joker, "Solomon Grundy (?)," Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, The Mad Hatter, The Riddler, and even the Penguin (though I must say his appearance is abbreviated).  There is no Robin, and there is no Batgirl (no Superman either, though Metropolis is referenced once).  They may be getting used to add "padding" to an otherwise thin plot, but I really don't want to be too uncharitable to this book, because it really is a fine effort.  I would give it four out of five stars (if I am using a 5 star system for books instead of a 4 star one) and all previously reviewed comics five stars.

Again, it is not very easy to transcribe passages from the work, but there is one part that stands out:

"My father had an old Dictaphone.  He kept it in his study.  He would make recordings.  I can still hear his voice...'When faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem...your only option is to act swiftly, some might even say irrationally.  Removing the most dangerous elements first....and methodically attacking each subsequent challenge in a separate, but deliberate manner.'  He was surgery." (347-349)

I hope this review has not come off too harshly, because the book itself is drawn extremely well, and it is never boring (if it were boring I would not have read it in a day).  So I recommend it--but not ahead of the other two Batman books previously reviewed.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Superman: Red Son - Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Killian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, and Walden Wong

Superman: Red Son is a three-part graphic novel/comic book that is on par with The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke, and nearly rises to the heights of Watchmen.  In short, while I hasten to note that my education in comics is still pretty elementary, this must stand among the best comics ever done.  It may be that I am more obsessed with Batman at the moment and so have not given Superman my fair attention--but it seems to me that Red Son is not as highly-touted as either of the above-two mentioned Batman comics.  This is a mistake and more people need to know that this is out there (of course I may be extremely ignorant and this may be common knowledge to even the most casual reader of comics--but I have to believe I am more objective than that and have a realistic understanding of the common knowledge of mass culture: if this story was part of it, then it boggles the mind that it had not been turned into a movie--there were rave reviews of the new Man of Steel trailer and one hopes the film will incorporate elements of this book's tone).

Where Watchmen has an alternate version of 1985 with Richard Nixon still President, Red Son has an alternate version of 1978 with John F. Kennedy still President (and with Nixon assassinated in 1963).  Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern all show up, and Lex Luthor becomes basically the greatest American hero of all time.  The creativity in the book is summed up nicely in a quick conversation between Superman and Wonder Woman as they are flying through the air:

"'So, how was America?'
'Disgusting, Superman.  Absolutely disgusting.  It's Nineteen Seventy-Eight and children are still sleeping in the streets over there.  Why does Kennedy cling to this capitalist dogma when it's quite clearly tearing his country apart?'
'Pride, I suppose.  He'll come around eventually.'
'I told him he should devote more time to his crumbling economy and less to those painted movie stars he seems to pursue with such vigor.  That country has never been the same since Nixon was assassinated in Nineteen Sixty-Three.  I still maintain that was the beginning of the end for them.'" (75)

In the introduction to the book, Tom Desanto writes that Red Son is "a sharp social commentary on capitalism vs. communism and current American foreign policy."  That gets it about right.  It is really amazing what insights can be made when a classic comic book is re-imagined from the perspective of the Other.  Superman basically becomes a totalitarian leader, and Batman symbolizes the underground rebellion.  Lex Luthor saves America from economic ruin and re-establishes capitalism as the global norm, but all in an effort just to destroy Superman, and with the irony that his end goal of perfectionism of the human race is basically the same as Superman's vision but under a different name.

There is much more I could say about this book in terms of plot, but like the review for Watchmen, that would spoil much of the fun of reading it.  It is just worth reiterating that the entire DC Universe is perfectly accommodated by the story.  It is hilarious at times and profound at others, and the ending is masterfully done.  Perhaps one day in the future this will be made into a movie, but I am afraid that it would require enormous resources and be difficult for a studio head to get behind--even though this subject matter is not really "controversial" anymore, it may be regarded as an extremely subversive plot line.  Regardless, like Watchmen it is hard to imagine that a movie could match up to the experience of reading the book itself.  I read it in about two days and it was nice to be reminded that I can still be blown away by something that hasn't been hyped to death.