Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Dark Deco Knight

Batman: the Animated Series and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Review by Kerey McKenna.

For our next entry in Noir November I wanted to take a look at the movie and TV series that more than any other imprinted noir and pulp sensibilities into my young mind: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Batman: the Animated Series. Not only are they among the best iterations of the Batman mythos; they're also a loving tribute to classic film noir.

In 1992, Warner Brothers Animation launched Batman:The Animated Series to much fanfare by old and young fans alike, a pulpy action cartoon with classic film noir aesthetics and sensibilities. Only a year later the production team managed to take their version of Batman to the big screen with the feature length Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, resulting in what I propose is one of the best Batman motion pictures ever made.

The narrative of the film actually takes place in two time periods, the “Present” of the TV series (a version of the 1990’s that looks uncannily like the 1950’s; more on that later) in which Batman is well-established as the protector of Gotham, and ten years prior, when a college-aged Bruce Wayne is about to begin his costumed crusade against crime. Going back and forth between the two eras is actually a great way to do the “Superhero origin story” and I’m a bit disappointed no millennial superhero movie has lifted the trick. A fully formed Batman bursts into action in the very first scene, and over the course of the film we get to peer back in time to see the moments that informed the man he would become. Unlike some origin stories of popular characters, these flashbacks don’t obsess about trying to explain every little piece of Batman’s iconography and signature weapons. Instead the grand insight offered by the flashbacks is Bruce Wayne’s state of mind in becoming Batman; along the way they also provide crucial clues to a mystery playing out in the present.

The film begins with present-day Batman doing a bit of gang busting to break up a counterfeiting ring. However things go sideways when a mysterious cloaked figure uses the chaos of the fight to single out the gang’s ring leader and dispatch him with lethal force.

While trying to uncover the identity and agenda of this mysterious Phantasm, Bruce Wayne is haunted by thoughts of more sanguine times, thanks to the return of old flame Andrea Beaumont to Gotham. We learn that ten years ago, just as young Bruce was taking his first forays into vigilante justice, he crossed paths with Andrea, and his caped crusade almost ended before it began. Andrea could have undone Bruce's plans for vengeance by offering him the alternative of a loving and happy life. Unlike the other women of high society—flighty, vain, and gold digging—Andrea knew tragedy through the death of her mother and could relate to the serious and brooding orphan Bruce Wayne on that level, while still offering him a chance at normalcy.

However it seemed destiny had other plans. Andrea mysteriously called off their engagement, leaving Bruce no choice but to throw himself wholeheartedly into his one-man war on crime.

Meanwhile in the present, the Phantasm appears to be targeting specific mobsters for a very personal, but as yet unknown grievance. A grandstanding politician pins the murders on Batman and sics every cop in Gotham who isn’t Commissioner Gordon on Batman’s trail. Further complicating matters, Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker, is on the Phantasm’s hit list and the Clown Prince of Crime decides the best defense is a good offense...and lots of explosives.

The past and present begin to converge as we learn how the Joker, the politician, the targeted mobsters, and the loss of Bruce’s lady love ten years ago are all connected.

With great pacing and a character-defining voice cast (Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, voicing Batman and Joker respectively, would reprise these roles many times over the next twenty odd years), Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a great entry in the superhero canon. But why am I bringing it up as noir?

Dark Deco Design

In 1989, Tim Burton’s summer blockbuster Batman introduced mainstream audiences to a Gotham far more grim and dark than they remembered from Adam West's 1960’s campy romp. Yet the new gothic take on the material didn’t deter kids (and adults) from shelling out millions of dollars for enough bat-themed bric-a-brac to fill two Bat Caves.

To coincide with the release of the sequel Batman Returns, Warner Brothers turned to their animation studio to keep the momentum going and further capitalize on the character with a Saturday morning cartoon show.

Instead of a toy-centric cash grab, however, the show’s creators set about creating a high quality program that would stand on its own merits as something beyond a movie tie-in. They kept the darker aesthetics of the Tim Burton movies and then leaned hard into anachronisms in the set and prop and character designs to create a style that would be referenced in Warner Animation well into the next century, Dark Deco or Deco Noir. The sets, props, and even the characters themselves have a geometric and streamlined look that is characteristic of the art deco movement, which had experienced a revival during the 1980’s. I believe this was also done as a statement of respect and homage to the Max Fleischer Superman Cartoons of the 1940’s which until then had been the high water mark for realizing a superhero in animation.

Viewers of Phantasm could be forgiven for believing the movie is set some time earlier in the 20th century. Gotham City appears to be stuck in the golden age of art deco design—1930's Streamline Moderne, to be precise, which would dominate city skylines for decades to come. In the TV show, unless it was a very specific piece of technology like a VCR or a supercomputer necessary for the plot, the denizens of Gotham appear to have universally decided nothing designed past 1960 was aesthetically pleasing. Eagle-eyed fans did spot on-screen calendars and documents indicating the show was taking place in the 90’s. However when I poured through the film for this review, I couldn’t spot any obvious anachronisms that would be alien to the 1950’s, save for Batman's crime fighting technology and Joker’s uncannily accurate mini auto-gyro drones.

Adding to the sense that the viewer is looking at something from another time, the creators translated era-appropriate editing and visual effects, such as certain screen wipes, vignetting, and discretion shot pan-aways. Speaking of discretion shots, since this Batman was ostensibly for a family audience, the creators had to work within constraints similar to those classic noir creators laboring under the Hayes production code. While mainstream “neo-noir” creators of the 90’s reveled in the freedom of R-ratings, Batman’s writers used the tricks of the trade of the 30’s and 40’s to sneak a bit of sex and violence into their noir tale but always left the most explicit material to the audience's imagination.

These 1930-50’s film aesthetics were then realized with an often dark palette. Famously, many visuals for the series and the movie were actually created by painting the art on black paper instead of the animation industry standard white. The creators were very careful with their use of light and shadow and the result was a film and TV series that didn’t look like anything else produced by American studios at the time.

Friends from out of town

Any film student worth their salt could tell you that a drastically tilted shooting angle in film can help convey unease, tension, or even madness. It was a popular technique in the film noir canon and also the often psychedelic Adam West Batman. The technique is referred to as a Dutch Angle or Dutch Tilt as it was introduced to American filmmakers primarily from German (Deutsch) impressionist films, and even actual Germans (and other Europeans) who came to the West after the two world wars and wove their own sensibilities into film production.

The Batman animated projects that launched in the 90’s also have another international influence on their style—the influence of the Far East. To meet their TV release schedule and a theatrical production time about one-third of what it took a contemporary studio like Disney to get something to the big screen, Warner Brothers

Akira (1988)
animation had to subcontract a lot of work overseas. For the film, they collaborated with Ong Yang Animations of South Korea and Spectrum Animation of Japan. And while American animated films and cartoons of the time typically weren’t dealing with more “cinematic” shot composition and mature subject matters, a lot of Eastern animation was.

In addition to providing resources for the tedious process of hand drawn animation, these two Asian studios brought much needed experience in how to produce the effects Warner Brothers was looking for. This resulted in…

Standing the Test of Time

A lot of work went into creating an animated Batman that would be taken seriously, and I argue that Batman: The Animated Series and its companion movie Mask of the Phantasm represent a definitive take on the character and mythos. At a time when a Marvel Cinematic Universe would have been considered a fever dream, an animated DC universe of interconnected TV series and further films had already sprung forth from this iteration of Batman. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill have been called upon again and again to reprise their roles because to fans of my generation they are the voices of Batman and Joker. In this version of Batman, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. played Alfred not simply as a loyal, unquestioning servant, but as a man struggling to make sure that Bruce’s quixotic quest doesn’t end in more tragedy. This is the tone struck by every subsequent version of the character in TV and film. As for breakout character Harley Quinn, known to more recent audiences from her central role in 2016's Suicide Squad, she was invented for this series.

In honor of what this version of Batman has meant to fans, this Veterans Day weekend Warner Brothers is airing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm in select theatres throughout the country. If you, like me, are a longtime fan, or if you somehow missed it but are intrigued by anything I’ve described for you, I would highly recommend trying to get yourself a seat for a screening this holiday weekend.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Noir-sferatu

Already Dead: Joe Pitt Casebooks Book 1 by Charlie Huston.
Book Review by Kerey McKenna.

Now that November is here and things are getting darker, it’s time to turn the clock back a bit here at Nerds who Read. Not just by an hour for a bit of extra shuteye this Sunday morning. Instead, back to a time and genre where hard-boiled men wore their hats just so in mean city streets and the haze wafting around a femme fatale might be from her smoking cigarette—or her smoking gun.

Yes, readers, it’s time for a series of reviews I like to call Noir November, where I look at tales crafted in the style of classic pulp mysteries. Now this being Nerds who Read there has to be a bit more of a gimmick than just a clever bit of alliteration; my editor insists upon it. I’m not just going to be dusting of some Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler for you. So the subjects of this month’s reviews will have some kind of nerdy angle to them. Sometimes it will be the subject matter, sometimes the medium, and sometimes the way the story mixes classic noir with a nerdy genre like Sci-Fi, horror, or superheroes.

As it is November 1st and the Halloween decorations are just about to be given the bum’s rush to make way for Christmas, I thought we might borrow a creature of the night or two for our first entry in Noir November, Already Dead. The first in Charlie Huston’s six-part Joe Pitt Casebook series of novels, Already Dead follows the adventures of Joe Pitt, a vampire in New York City, trying to make an un-living doing the dirty work of the city’s feuding vampire clans.

First a little introduction to the genre of Urban Fantasy. In broad strokes Urban Fantasy is what happens when you take the mythical and magical creatures of folklore—ogres, wizards, boggarts, werewolves, and what have you—and pave over their lush forbidden forests and decrepit keeps with cities of steel and concrete. Like owls, raccoons, and foxes foraging in dumpsters, some creatures don’t actually change that much; they exchange the dark corners of the forest for the dark alleys of the city, growing fat because nobody looks too closely at the missing persons or even murder rates of a large city. Other creatures make something of themselves in the city and take quite well to “civilization.” An enterprising witch opens up a shop for hipsters looking for “organic alternative medicine.” Trolls and ogres use their muscle to start protection rackets. Furthermore the cities attract people from all over the world and those people bring their own spirits, monsters, demigods and demons. A Dullahan, the headless horseman of Celtic myth might trade in his nag for a Kawasaki and tear through the streets of Tokyo while half a world away a Kitsune, a beguiling Japanese fox woman, might ensnare an eligible bachelor in Manhattan. Urban fantasy offers up a metropolis full of possibility as mythologies mix and mingle and creatures have to survive in the big bad city. As film noir and the pulps wrote much of the book on how to tell stories set in the city, it should be no surprise that many urban fantasy stories are also…noir stories.

Which brings us back to Joe Pitt. His stories don’t just take the teeny bopper glitter off the vampire left by the Twilight and Vampire Academy YA series. They take the romantic gothic horror and aristocratic tropes from Stoker to Rice and cover them with urban grime and grit. Then they rough up those tropes for being in the wrong part of town and leave them curled up in an alley after rifling through their pockets for walking around money.

Joe Pitt is by no means the first vampire (or vampyre as the book insists) urban fantasy protagonist...but in some ways he is more real and down-to-earth than the more celebrated undead. He isn’t all that long in the tooth and therefore doesn’t share the angst of vampires who belong in another age, like Angel or Michael Knight. He doesn’t have the cutting edge equipment or fancy martial arts of the daywalker, Blade. He most certainly does not have the flashy wardrobe and pretentious nom de guerre of Alucard.

What Joe does have is street smarts and a burning desire to survive on his own terms. He “doesn’t drink...wine,” because when he’s not discreetly sneaking some plasma he’s knocking back whiskey with the rest of the gray-collar criminals and working class of the city.

The Pitt series doesn’t go in for elaborate mythology or flashy magic powers. Joe’s world consists of navigating the human and vampyre underworlds of the city doing enough odd jobs, chiefly investigator, enforcer, and bodyguard. The virus (or vyrus, Huston loves that y for i substitution) that creates vampyres is a grab bag of strengths and weaknesses. Humans stop aging and become more resilient when they become a vampyre, but they are by no means impervious to conventional weapons. While they will be unravaged by age and resistant to most poisons, direct sunlight will melt them in under a minute. While the vampyres are in no hurry to “come out of the coffin” and human vampyre hunters are a distinct possibility, the greatest danger for an urban vampire is other urban vampyres.

Joe is an independent contractor in an island full of vampyre clans vying with each other for power, territory, and the limited supply of human blood that can be discreetly syphoned from the donor supply. While Joe has friends in The Society—a group of “youngish” vampyres styled after the 1960’s-70’s radical left—he values his own autonomy over their political agenda, that agenda being chiefly tussles with the corporate and old money vampyres of the Coalition faction. To further complicate matters, the Enclave—the only group of vampyres explicitly interested in the occult—have their own plans and prophecies concerning Pitt. In Already Dead, Pitt has to navigate the precarious detente between the rival gangs to find a missing heiress, stop an outbreak of zombieism, and along the way make enough money to pay the rent and keep his stash of refrigerated blood sufficiently full that his friends and neighbors don’t look like four-course meals on legs.

As I said urban fantasy offers a world of possibilities as a genre. If you like your crime fiction and your gore full of blood and pulp, the Joe Pitt novels would be a good place to start.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Middling Murakami

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.
Book review by Michael Isenberg.

Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore, was released in English this month, following its Japanese premiere back in February.

I didn’t love it.

First a little back story. Commendatore is Italian for Commander. A knight or a military officer. The Commendatore is a character in the story of Don Juan, best known from Mozart’s operatic version, Don Giovanni. The opera begins with the Don’s unsuccessful seduction of Donna Anna, who rather noisily refuses his advances. The fleeing Don is confronted by her father—the Commendatore. They fight. The Commendatore is killed.

The episode figures into Murakami’s book in the form of a painting. The narrator—an artist of no real fame, whose name we never learn—has recently separated from his wife. A friend of his offers to let him stay at his father’s house in the mountains. The friend's father—a famous artist—is in the advanced stages of senility, confined to a nursing home, and therefore no longer able to reside in his now-empty mountain abode. The narrator takes his friend up on the offer. A short time after he takes up residence, he hears something moving in the attic and goes up to investigate. An owl, it turns out. But while he’s up there, he discovers a painting wrapped in paper and hidden away. It is labeled “Killing Commendatore” and despite its Japanese style, and the traditional Japanese garb of the figures in it, the scene and characters from Don Giovanni are readily identifiable.

The painting is an enigma. Clearly a masterpiece, why had the artist hidden it—alone among his works—from the eyes of the world? What meaning did it hold for him and did it have something to do with his involvement in a plot to assassinate a Nazi official in 1938 Vienna? And who is the grotesque figure poking his head through a trap door in one corner of the painting—the narrator calls him “Long Face”—the only character not recognizable from Mozart’s opera?

“Dragging a painting like that out into the light could well have been a mistake,” the narrator tells us. “By discovering it, I had set a cycle of some kind in motion.”

Such cycles are common in Murakami’s works and must be allowed to run their course. Before the circle is complete, the narrator is awoken by mysterious bells ringing in the night, discovers an underground chamber of unknown origin and purpose, and comes face-to-face with the Commendatore and Long Face—not as intimidating as it sounds, since they’re both about two feet tall, their actual sizes in the painting. Finally, his neighbor, the thirteen-year-old Mariye, goes missing. In order to save her, the narrator must journey through a bleak supernatural underworld, cross the River between Presence and Absence, and confront his lifelong fear of confined spaces.

All the elements we’ve come to expect from Murakami are there: classical music, food, astral projection, alternate dimensions, and finely crafted passages like this one:

Low patches of clouds hung over the surrounding mountains. When the wind blew, these cloud fragments, like some wandering spirits from the past, drifted uncertainly along the surface of the mountains, as if in search of lost memories. The pure white rain, like fine snow, silently swirled around on the wind.

Really makes me feel like I'm there. Or perhaps seeing it in a Japanese painting. In my imagination, a cello plays a mournful sonata.

With all of Murakami’s trademark elements in place—and I’m a fan of Murakami—I’m not sure why the book didn’t work for me. But I think a lot of it had to do with the narrator. I just wanted to slap him. Even before the trauma of learning his wife was sleeping with another a man, he was dead inside. “At some point in my life,” he tells us, “I had given up on new music. Instead, I listened to the old stuff over and over again. Books were the same. I reread books from my past, often more than once, but ignored books that had just come out. Somewhere along the way, time seemed to have come to a screeching halt.”

The screeching halt goes far beyond his tastes in music and literature. Although he has other relationships after he leaves his wife, and the sex is good, it all seems rather mechanical; he derives no joy from it that I can see. He is effete, unable to act. He mainly watches while the characters around him drive the story. He is aware that one of them might be using him, and although he should be resentful of that, he isn’t. “I remained, as ever, the impartial observer.”

Most significant of all, he is stunted artistically. Even while he was with his wife, he lived off commissions for the kind of formal portraits of company presidents found in board rooms. Not what he wanted to be doing, but it paid the bills. After he leaves her, he shows some promise of developing as an artist. But I don’t think it’s a spoiler to remind you that he describes the course of the story as a “cycle.”

Even the climactic journey through the underworld, with all its trials and ordeals, is ultimately pointless. It is never made clear how it did anything to help Mariye, who we eventually learn was never in any real danger. Maybe it’s more a journey of discovery for the narrator than a rescue mission for Mariye. But the narrator doesn't seem to have discovered anything.

It doesn’t help that the book is sloppily edited. There is at least one misspelling, a split infinitive, and some minor inconsistencies. At one point we’re told “Menshiki, I, and the Commendatore were seated at that large table,” followed two pages later by “The Commendatore finally made an appearance in the dining room, though not at the seat at the table prepared for him. Given his short stature, he would have only come up to nose level, hidden by the table. He plunked himself down on a kind of display shelf diagonally behind Menshiki.” Of greater concern, from an editing point of view, is the novel’s repetitiveness. The narrator tells us multiple times—each time as if it’s the first—that he’s separated, that he had a sister who died when she was Mariye’s age, that this, that, or another woman reminds him of her.

Killing Commendatore often seems profound. And yet, its profundity doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Commendatore tells us he’s an Idea incarnate. Sounds deep, but what idea is he? Freedom is an idea. Is he freedom? Marxism? Archimedes’ method for measuring specific gravity? Similarly Long Face is a metaphor, we’re told. A metaphor for what? We’re never told explicitly. As for the River between Presence and Absence, what is it that’s present, and what’s absent?

Maybe I just wasn’t bright enough to figure these things out. Or maybe I’ve outgrown Murakami. I hope that’s not the case. Despite Killing Commendatore, I’m still a fan.

Check out Mike’s Nerds who Read review of Murakami’s 2004 novel After Dark, “Vignette Films get the Murakami treatment.”

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Monday, October 22, 2018

Back to Basics

Daredevil Season 3.
Review by Michael Isenberg.

The Marvel Defenders universe is in trouble. After an enthralling start in the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the subsequent entries in the franchise just haven’t had the same punch. In the past few months we’ve had a second season of Luke Cage in which the title character might just as well have stayed home washing his hoodie, and an Iron Fist installment which was just like Black Panther but boring. There was practically zero buzz about either. Two weeks ago, the news broke that Netflix had cancelled Iron Fist, followed by last week’s announcement that there would be no third season of Luke Cage either.

So it is encouraging that Season 3 of Daredevil, released on Netflix this weekend, gets back to the fundamentals that made the franchise so great to begin with.

The first season introduced lawyer by day/Daredevil by night Matt Murdock, his law partner Foggy Nelson, and their office manager (not secretary) Karen Page. They teamed up to fight organized crime in Hell’s Kitchen in a taut and gripping story.

Season 2, in contrast, was all over the map. The force of multiple plotlines spun the team of Nelson, Murdock, and Page in three different directions.

But if Season 2 drove them apart, Season 3 brings them back together. It’s a bumpy road—they act at cross purposes more than once—but eventually, they reunite. As if to symbolize their return to their roots, Daredevil even wears his Season 1 homemade black costume, instead of the custom-made horned red body suit traditionally associated with the character. What brings them back together is their Season 1 nemesis, the Kingpin himself, Wilson Fisk.

Fisk is a fascinating character—thanks to his contradictions. Despite a brutal disposition—he began his violent career at age 12 when he murdered his father by smashing his skull in with a hammer—he would move heaven and earth for those he loved: his mother Marlene, and his romantic interest Vanessa. He’s so protective of the latter that he might not, to coin a phrase, beteem the winds of heaven visit her face too roughly (Whether Vanessa wants that degree of protectiveness is another question, one that is answered in Season 3). Fisk was also a man of vision: he wanted to demolish the slums of Hell’s Kitchen and replace them with gleaming, modern towers. That anyone might oppose that vision—the people who call those slums home, for example—was a source of genuine bafflement to him; one almost feels sorry for him. At least until the next time he beats the bloody crap out of someone with his bare fists.

The plot of Season 3 starts slow. Daredevil is broken in body and spirit as the result of having a building collapse on him at the end of last year's The Defenders. It takes an episode and change before he begins to Daredevil again, and this part is a little boring; it’s not like there’s any suspense as to whether that’s going to happen. The Kingpin meanwhile, who was imprisoned at the end of Season 1 and barely seen in Season 2, has cut a deal with the FBI to transfer him from the slammer to house arrest in a luxurious penthouse hotel suite, in exchange for turning state’s evidence. Daredevil and friends don’t like that and start poking their noses into the situation. Kingpin retaliates by getting his own Daredevil. Ah, the Marvel Universe, where there’s always a fight between superheroes with similar powers. It’s not until mid-season that we discover just how much the Kingpin has manipulated the FBI—and that he has a larger plan than merely getting better accommodations.

The Kingpin’s plan involves a certain amount of political intrigue, and this being 2018, those are perilous waters. Anyone creating a series for mass consumption must navigate a narrow channel to avoid pissing off one side of the political divide or the other. Daredevil manages to pull this off using the same solution as the recent season of The Man in the High Castle: give something to everybody. Conservatives will see parallels to current events in the way that the FBI has been thoroughly corrupted by the Kingpin’s machinations. And for my left-of-center friends, they will see their calls for Medicare for All vindicated by the character arc of FBI agent Ray Nadeem: it's set in motion when his sister-in-law’s health insurance is cancelled in the midst of cancer treatment, bringing financial ruin on the family (didn’t Obamacare fix that?). And then there’s this speech, which Kingpin delivers at a press conference:

You’ve been manipulated, poisoned into believing the news media’s fake story, that I am evil, that I am a criminal. Quite the opposite is true. Because I challenge the system, because I’ve told the truth and tried to make this city a better place, the people in power decided to tear me down, to tear me down with false allegations.
Sound familiar? Well, the Kingpin is a Manhattan real estate tycoon.

As with most entries in the Marvel Universe, Daredevil 3 has its share of plot weaknesses, if not actual holes.

There’s a big reveal about Daredevil’s past which, IMHO, is lacking any real emotional resonance. It merely serves to pad the run time by having Daredevil sulk for an episode.

We get a big reveal about Karen’s past, too. It takes up large chunks of Episode 10. Like Eleven’s Chicago journey of discovery in the latest season of Stranger Things, it’s a complete side quest that temporarily derails the arc of the season.

As for the heroes’ plans, none of them seem to work. At one point, a discouraged Karen complains to Foggy, “Do you know what happens when you make a plan? Fisk has already thought of it and he’s made it part of his plan.” Trouble is, the Kingpin is so adept at delving one yard below the mines of Daredevil and company that he would have had to foresee things he couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

Then there's the final three-way battle between Kingpin, Daredevil, and the other Daredevil. It’s got some good fighting—the two Daredevils match the Kingpin’s brutality blow for blow—but it’s completely pointless. The season would have ended exactly the same with or without that fight.

And yet, despite these flaws, I couldn’t turn it off. I binge watched all thirteen episodes in two days. There were other things I needed to do this weekend, but every time I started on one, I ended up saying, “I’d rather be watching Daredevil.”

Daredevil is back, baby, and I hope it marks a turning point for the battered but still standing Defenders franchise.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Photo credit(s): IMDB

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Staffel Null

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
Book review by Michael Isenberg.

Season 3 of The Man in the High Castle dropped on Amazon this past weekend. I binge watched it and found it to be an exciting ten episodes, with important character development for most of the leads and a gripping climactic scene. Politically there's something for everybody. My left-of-center friends will no doubt see themselves in the Resistance, and will also be gratified that the writers delivered on the hint they dropped in Season 2 that one of the characters will come out as gay (as will several others). My right-of-center friends, meanwhile, will see chilling parallels to current events in the Nazi plan to wipe out American history by destroying statues and other memorials to our past.

But since this is Nerds who Read, rather than dwell on the series, I’m going to review the original Philip K. Dick novel which started it all. Think of it as Season Zero.

Philip K. Dick is not generally thought of as part of the 1960’s New Wave movement in science fiction. Nevertheless, he contributed to New Wave anthologies like Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. More importantly, his work shared the salient characteristics that distinguished New Wave works from earlier generations of sci fi: the writing is exceptional, intended for a more literary, avant garde audience. And it had more imaginative plotlines; it didn’t limit itself to the earlier “Space travel—yay!” kind of story. Both features are to be found The Man in the High Castle.

For those not familiar with the series, MITHC takes place in an alternate universe where the Axis won World War II. It is by no means the first alternate history of the War. Stories of a Nazi-dominated dystopia began appearing in print almost as soon as the guns fell silent, beginning with Laszlo Gaspar’s We, Adolph the First (1945). Isaac Asimov touches on the theme in his 1956 short story, “Living Space.” So although this was well-worn territory by the time The Man in the High Castle was published in 1962, MITHC is definitely one of the best entries in this sub-sub-genre, and thanks to the Amazon series, has definitely become the best-known.

In the world of MITHC, the victors have carved up America between them. The Greater Nazi Reich rules the East Coast and the Midwest; the Japanese control the Pacific States of America. The Rocky Mountain States, a wild and lawless throwback to the Old West, serve as a much-needed neutral zone between the fascist powers, whose relationship is often uneasy. That relationship is expected to only grow more hostile, now that a senile Hitler has been packed away to a nursing home and the remaining Nazi leaders jockey for power.

The Germans and Japanese have brought to America all their loathsome ideologies about the superiority of their own races, along with the hideous practices of their secret police. The Jews in the East have been exterminated; those in the West are subject to extradition if caught. But some time has passed since the war, and for the most part Americans have come to terms with being second class citizens in their own country, and are getting on with their lives.

Then a bestselling novel threatens to disrupt everything. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy depicts an alternate alternate universe in which the Allies won the war. This alternate history within an alternate history is a clever plot device. Freely circulated in the Rocky Mountain States, banned by the Germans, inexplicably enjoyed by the Japanese, Grasshopper seems so realistic that absolutely everybody is talking about it. Many dare to find hope in its pages for a different future. Little is known about its mysterious author, Hawthorne Abendsen, but according to the cover, he has taken refuge in a High Castle, bristling with defenses to protect himself against the onslaught of Nazi assassins. But as the heroine of MITHC, Juliana, will learn, Abendsen is not what the marketing hype says he is.

Fans of the Amazon series will notice that some parts of this is familiar, others not so much. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was a collection of films in the series, not a book, and Abendsen was collecting them, not creating them (although there’s a new twist on that last point in Season 3). The same sense of familiar-yet-different applies to the characters and plotlines. Many characters from the series are in evidence—the Jewish machine operator Frank Frink, his friend Ed, his love interest Juliana, her love interest Joe, the antiques dealer Childan, Trade Minister Tagomi, and his “Swedish” visitor Baynes—yet they aren’t the same. Frank and Ed have a very different plotline from the series; in the book, Ed and not Frank is the stronger character, and the leader of the duo. Childan is far more layered, thanks to the power of novels to tell us what the characters are thinking.

Some characters from the series don’t appear at all, which is to be expected when a 250 page book is made into 30 hours of television and counting. Takeshi Kido, the Inspector Javert of the Kempeitai, is nowhere to be found (sadly, IMHO. He's one of my favorites). The story takes place entirely in the PSA and the RMS, so the New York and Berlin characters don't appear either. No Smith Family Fascism, no Obergruppenf├╝hrer discount Christopher Walken, Hitler Youth Wesley Crusher, or Desperate Housewives of Nazau County. I'm less sad about that; I despise Nazis regardless of how hard the writers work to make them sympathetic. Especially American Nazis. F--king collaborators. (Mr. Dick planned a sequel to MITHC. He never finished it, but two chapters appear in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. The first takes place in upstate New York, and elements of it are found in Season 3 of the series.)

But it is Juliana who differs the most. Even her name is different. She’s Juliana Frink in the book. Frank’s ex-wife. Not his girlfriend. He doesn’t even know where she is. “She was wrong for me,” he realizes, “I know that.”

Juliana—the best-looking woman he had ever married. Soot-black eyebrows and hair; trace amounts of Spanish blood distributed as pure color, even to her lips…

Beyond everything else, he had originally been drawn by her screwball expression: for no reason, Juliana greeted strangers with a portentous, nudnik, Mona Lisa smile that hung them up between responses, whether to say hello or not. And she was so attractive that more often than not they did say hello, whereupon Juliana glided by. At first he had thought it was just plain bad eyesight, but finally he had decided that it revealed a deep-dyed otherwise concealed stupidity at her core…[But] he still never saw her as anything but a direct, literal invention of God’s, dropped into his life for reasons he could never know. And on that account…he could not get over having lost her.

Clearly Book Juliana is very different from TV Juliana—a knockout with a size 38 bust where TV Juliana is slim and merely pretty. Book Juliana is stupid where TV Juliana is cerebral, and she has a bit of gold digger in the mix, as we learn when Joe takes her up to Denver for a big spending spree. And yet some things are the same. As Abendsen tells his wife in the final pages,

She’s doing what’s instinctive to her, simply expressing her being. She didn’t mean to show up here and do harm; it simply happened to her, just as the weather happens to us. I’m glad she came.

In both the book and the series, Juliana, without planning to, puts the story in motion and a lot of people get hurt.

Given the whole familiar-yet-different vibe, fans of the series should enjoy the book, and yet still feel like they’re getting something new. If you finished Season 3 and still want more, I highly recommend you read it.

It’s almost as if the characters you know and love are in an alternate universe.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Photo credit(s): Amazon.com

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Mob! A Lavender Scare! A Witch Hunt even!

The Snagglepuss Chronicles: Exit Stage Left by Mark Russell, illustrated by Mike Feehan and Mark Morales.
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna.

DC Comics has been doing some interesting things for the last few years with their stewardship of the Hanna-Barbara cartoon characters. Some choices seem fairly straightforward from the point of view of corporate synergy, like launching Future Quest, a massive crossover event linking action-based characters like Johnny Quest to the Herculoids. Or getting superheroes like Birdman and Space Ghost back to their jobs as superheroes instead of self-referential parodies on Cartoon Network. Scooby Doo was re-imagined as post-apocalyptic survival horror. The Jetsons and The Flintstones were both reconstructed into dramedies (See my review of the latter here).

But in The Snagglepuss Chronicles: Exit Stage Left, classic Hanna-Barbara characters Quick Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound, and the titular Snagglepuss are placed in a scenario I never would have expected: a drama about homosexuality and politics in the McCarthy Era. The premise is so out there it hit with all the surprise of an El Kabong attack.

With both sides of the political aisle invoking the shadow of McCarthyism, and the contentious issue of writing previously straight comic characters as gay or bisexual (Alan Scott the Green Lantern, Iceman of the X-Men, and the Rawhide Kid to name a few), I thought this might be an interesting read.

So first things first: who was Snagglepuss originally and why reboot him into a period piece about the 1950’s? I must confess I only have vague memories of this cartoon character and even then only as a supporting member of Hanna-Barbara cartoons that brought their funny animals into one big story, with Yogi Bear getting top billing. I could only remember the pink lion having a laid back attitude and a collection of catch phrases and verbal affectations like “Heavens to Murgatroyd!” “Exit Stage Left!” and his signature conjunction “even.”

In the comics world there is a bit of debate (either a raging storm or a tempest in a teapot depending on who you ask) about writing previously established characters as gay or bisexual. One argument against the trend is that it subverts original authorial intent, creating character traits and interpretations that had never been there. In this case though, I think it’s pretty reasonable to say that the original character of Snagglepuss had a lot of subtext. He’s a pink lion that’s in show biz and sounds like this:

Yeah, that is one dandy lion. In fact a lot of his verbal shtick invokes Bert Lahr’s portrayal of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939) (Lahr actually sued).

Okay, so what does the graphic novel do with this walking collection of gay stereotypes? Well, it tries to turn him into a complex fully rounded character that is living as a closeted gay man in the 1950’s. Well, a gay lion-man anyway.

Seemingly following in the footsteps (or paw prints?) of Netflix cartoon Bojack Horseman, the world of Snagglepuss is a world in which animal people and humans exist side-by-side with no explanation given or really needed. Also like Bojack, Snagglepuss is a celebrity and he mixes and mingles with real celebrities of the era. Parallel to Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, Snagglepuss left his boyhood home in the rural south for the bright lights of New York City to pursue a career in theater and the emerging gay scene.

Establishing himself as a celebrated playwright, Snagglepuss straddles the line of what is acceptable in the 1950’s. To keep up appearances, he has a marriage of convenience to a lioness to serve as his beard, but his reputation is such that Joe DiMaggio is not concerned with Snagglepuss spending time with his knockout of a bride Marilyn Monroe (turns out Jumpin’ Joe should have been watching out for another NYC playwright, Arthur Miller).

However Snagglepuss’s place in society is threatened when the House Un-American Activities Committee wants him to name names and point them towards communist sympathizers from his social circle.

The story explores the intermingling of art and politics and the tension between conformity and freedom, from the individual to the societal level. Even if Snagglepuss can survive the pressure with his characteristic nonchalance, can his near and dear ones survive the ordeal intact? Can he maintain his ideals and still keep his name off the infamous blacklist?

In a daring move, the book takes this premise and plays it completely straight. Well, not completely straight.

The creators use the “funny animals” to act out a mature adult drama, something that has been done since at least the 1970's in the independent comics scene (Fritz the Cat, Maus, and Blacksad, to name a few), but to my knowledge this has never before been done with mainstream established characters. One wonders why the creators chose to do this when a little tweaking here and there could have made them recognizable analogues but more distinct. However, there’s a method to their madness.

Metaphorically, film and television compress flesh and blood actors into cartoon versions of their public personas. Breathy blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe has been immortalized in film, but the public doesn’t really remember Norma Jean, the stuttering, insecure factory worker, the real person who couldn’t bear the weight of constantly being Marilyn. Similarly, in this novel, the “funny animals” we know and love from our childhoods, always taking pratfalls and getting in and out of trouble, lived complex lives before being preserved forever as cartoons.

The art and dialogue are superb, but I did have a few bones to pick about the book’s politics and reading of the pertinent history. My issues aren’t that it is a political book, or even most of the politics involved, but rather a matter of historical accuracy: I was disappointed that the creators ignored or omitted aspects of the history that would have made the tale a bit more nuanced and projected less of a modern mindset onto the past.

My first point of contention is whether Snagglepuss really needed a beard. Although most gay men in the 1950s did live in the closet—the conformism of the era, sadly, made that necessary—there were exceptions, including some members of professions considered to be “eccentric”—like writers. As I mentioned, Snagglepuss here is clearly based off real life writers Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, both of whom at the time this novel was set were living openly as homosexuals, or at least as openly as a man could in that time and place.

There is also some modern projection in that the politics of the gay community as portrayed in the book are drawn along modern battle lines. The story features two gay members of the supporting cast on opposite sides of the political spectrum: Snagglepuss’s Latin lover Pablo the Cuban revolutionary, and Gigi Alan an anti-communist government operative (and barely closeted lesbian). Gigi is the Inspector Javert of the story, diligently working to root out Communist sympathizers even if she has to out closeted homosexual men. She appears to be a gender-swapped version of McCarthy operative Roy Cohn. Pablo fled the oppression of the Batista Regime but runs off to Cuba to join the Communist Revolution; by the end of the story we find him having adopted a bushy beard and military fatigues, and working diligently as an official within the Castro Regime. In real life Pablo is going to be in for a real shock when he finds that the violent government crackdowns on homosexuality won’t just continue under the Castro regime but perhaps even increase. He himself might very well be purged from the regime and imprisoned in a labor camp. The graphic novel is so focused on the Lavender Scare in the US it makes the mistake of assuming that the grass was greener on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Again I feel like a dramatic opportunity may have been missed here. With a few lines of dialogue the actions of Gigi Allen (who I don’t think the authors wanted us to see as a complete villain) would make a bit more sense. Yes, she is defending a system that does not make life easy for people like her, but looking at the persecution of homosexuals in the USSR and Soviet Bloc States she could rationalize that communist rule would be much worse.

There is also the issue of Snagglepuss’s trademark idiom. In a book about a character whose most memorable aspect is his verbal mannerisms, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to imagine this version of Snagglepuss speaking with his classic inflection. I feel like a visual flourish or two could have indicated times when Snagglepuss was speaking with his characteristic affectations vs when he is speaking more naturally (perhaps even indications that he reverts to a southern accent when in private or under stress). It seems like a missed opportunity. A mistake. A misstep. A faux paw, even.

But in general I liked this book’s daring in trying to take so many risks with characters that had previously always existed as lighthearted cartoons. As I said, subversions of “funny animal” stories have been a fixture of the independent comic scene for decades. But even a more mainstream success like Bojack Horseman feels the need to zigzag between maudlin existential dread and madcap slapstick and puns. In consistently using these characters for a serious period piece, The Snagglepuss Chronicles show that “gritty reboot” doesn’t need to mean “add more muscles, guns, and swearing.”

Should classic cartoon and comic book characters be rewritten as gay or bisexual? And does it make a difference if the original character already "had a lot of subtext?" Please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Longyear vs. Jemisin

A Nerds who Read Smackdown.
Dual Reviews by Michael Isenberg.

Enemy Mine by Barry Longyear and the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K.Jemisin are similar in many ways. Both are tales of survival on a hostile planet. Both won Hugo awards—and in both cases the awards were controversial. And both deal with the same theme—racism. But what they say about racism differs substantially.

Enemy Mine began life in the September 1979 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The publication was relatively new at the time and Asimov lobbied heavily for Enemy Mine to win the 1980 Hugo for Best Novella, prompting a rant by David Langford in Ansible:

The success of Barry B Longyear (“The man's a f--king illiterate!” – J. Nicholas. “I'm not a Jackie Lichtenberg fan any more. I'm a Barry B. Bongyear fan now” – C. Priest) with his “Enemy Mine” in Hugo and Nebula is an indication of the new Isaac Astral award-grubbing technique: millions of copies of the story were sent to SFWA members with glowing recommendations from the Doctor.

Despite the controversy, the award launched Enemy Mine on its way to a 1985 movie starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. Later Longyear expanded the story to novel-length in the 1998 “author’s cut.”

It is the tale of two enemy fighter pilots, the human Willis Davidge and the Drac Jeriba Shigan (or as Davidge calls him, Jerry). Humans and Dracs have been at war for some time over competing claims to alien planets and many on both sides have lost friends and loved ones. Davidge has literally been trained to hate the three-fingered, yellow-skinned Dracs—there was a briefing on the “Draggers” at flight school where Davidge learned that “the smell is terrible,” and if he sees one, kill it. In a dogfight over Fyrine IV, both Davidge and Jerry end up crash landing on the planet. Although they initially fight, they soon figure out that on a barren world of monstrous tsunamis and long, bitter winters, they are going to need to cooperate in order to survive. Over time they learn each other’s languages and cultures. Davidge even learns to read the Drac bible, the Talman, and to recite the names and accomplishments of two hundred generations of Jerry’s ancestors, the all-important lineage that means everything to a Drac.

The story of enemy spacemen marooned on a planet had been done before—Captain Kirk and the Gorn come to mind. I thought that in Longyear’s version, the enemies come together a little too readily, very early in the story, without either Davidge or Jerry having to do much soul-searching. But Enemy Mine has a unique twist that really makes it work [SPOILER ALERT]. About halfway through, the hermaphrodite Jerry dies in childbirth. Davidge must deliver the baby from the corpse of his friend and raise it as his own.

The racial metaphor is driven home later on after Davidge and the child are rescued. In a segment left out of the movie, Davidge returns to Earth, where he’s shunned as a “dragger-lover.” Note the similarity between “dragger” and a real-life racial epithet that we’re not supposed to say. Davidge later travels to Jerry’s home world. The Dracs talk openly in front of him about how ugly he is and how badly he smells and they make him sit in the less comfortable front of the bus with other “outcasts.”

Nevertheless, Davidge seeks out Jerry’s family. He doesn’t know whether they will welcome him, but he is inspired by the words of the Talman: “Passion is a creature of rules. This does not mean do not love, do not hate. It means that where your passion limits talma [problem solving], you must step outside of the rules of your love and your hate to allow talma to serve you.”

 

*                     *                       *

 

Jemisin’s Broken Earth series also revolves around two races who face each other with daggers drawn—both literally and metaphorically. Broken Earth was published in three installments: The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017). All three won Hugos for Best Novel, an unprecedented occurrence. The awards were controversial because women swept nearly all the literary and professional categories all three years, and some have suggested that the contests were rigged, decided more on the basis of identity politics than on merit, a suggestion which Ms. Jamisin denounced in her 2018 acceptance speech.

In the world of Broken Earth, the minority Orogenes have the power to control what lies beneath the ground, to move rocks and quell earthquakes. But careless—or malevolent—use of the powers can kill. This makes the Orogenes feared and hated by the majority Stills.

Jemisin is a skilled writer; the reader shares the Orogenes' pain, which covers the whole range of racial injustice, from the historical evil of slavery, which we all agree was monstrous, to more nebulous and disputed injustices like micro-inequities, and everything in between. The analogy to African-Americans is intentional. The Stills call the Orogenes “ruggas;” those who sympathize with them are “rugga-lovers.” Some Orogenes, especially the younger ones, have adopted “rugga” as “their" word. Note the similarity between “rugga” and a real-life racial epithet that we’re not supposed to say. Orogene children, if they’re not killed by their non-Orogene parents, are turned over to the Guardians, who use magic of their own to keep the Orogenes under control. It’s slavery with comfortable living arrangements and a measure of self-government, but slavery nonetheless.

The Stills take their name from the Stillness, the continent they share grudgingly with the Orogenes. The name is ironic: the Stillness, subject to chronic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, is anything but still. From time to the time, natural disaster spikes, plunging the land into a “Season,” a volcanic winter that lasts for years. Ash falls from the sky like snow. Crops don’t grow. Death comes to the unprepared, those who haven’t stored up food or shored up their defenses against wandering bands of looters. But food stores don’t last forever. In the longer Seasons, death eventually comes to the prepared as well.

The series begins with a mother mourning over the “broken little body” of her dead child. The mother is Essun, an Orogene, who had spent the last decade living in hiding in a remote village, married to a man who didn’t know what she and their two children were. When he finds out, he kills their son Uche and flees with their daughter Nassun, his favorite, to a place where she can be “fixed.” Driven from her home by her neighbors, who now know she is Orogene, Essun takes to the road to find her husband and daughter, just as a new Season descends upon the earth.

Essun has suffered a great deal at the hands of the Stills (and I’ve only told you a fraction of it). And yet she’s a surprisingly unsympathetic character. But don’t take my word for it. Here is how Ms. Jemisin, writing in her blog, describes her own creation:

I expected people to hate Essun. She’s so many things that readers dislike sight-unseen and story unread: a middle-aged mother, a collaborator, a revolutionary, a mass murderer, a woman who refuses to be sexy or nice. She’s traumatized for much of The Fifth Season, and she displays this in ways that don’t tug the heartstrings, because trauma doesn’t usually look sympathetic. It’s angry. It’s distant. It’s violent, and sometimes harmful. I wanted readers to feel this intensely, but I also wanted them to feel the disassociation of her, the not-all-here of her.

Jemisin struggled with how to “bridge the empathy gap” and in the end, “decided to trick readers into caring about her.”

The trick is quite clever, and doubles as a neat plot twist. But ultimately it doesn’t work. At least not for me. I still didn’t like Essun. I just couldn’t get past the mass murderer part, which Jemisin sandwiched so casually between “revolutionary” and “woman who refuses to be sexy.” Over the course of the trilogy, Essun uses her powers to kill hundreds of thousands of people, both Stills and Orogenes, most of them innocent, and even when the victims are fair-game combatants, the murders are unnecessarily cruel. Even Jemisin admits this. “Heroes don’t summon swarms of nightmare bugs to eat their enemies,” we're told.

I don’t want to be overly moralistic here. I don’t want to be that stuffed shirt in the 80’s movie who’s determined not to let his little town be overrun by dancing. But I don’t think that drawing the line at mass murder makes me excessively judgmental.

In any case, Essun proceeds on her quest. It’s a thrilling tale. As I read the climax of each novel, my inner monologue was breathless. Eventually Essun comes to the village of Castrima, which is run by another Orogene Ykka. Castrima is located underground, inside a giant geode. The various apartments are carved out of crystal, all of which glow with the technology of some long-dead civilization. Give Jemisin credit for imaginative and beautiful world building.

Ykka works day and night to build a community where Orogenes and Stills live in harmony, cooperating to survive the Season, like Davidge and Jerry on Fyrine IV. But Essun is skeptical. “You’re from so many places. In every one of them you learned that roggas and Stills can never live together.” Essun is certain it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops.

That never happens. And yet, Essun, and later her daughter Nassun, remain unmoved. In the final pages, Nassun laments that the Stills are “not going to choose anything different” than persecution.

“They will if you make them,” the ancient and wise narrator tells her.

Ms. Jemisin never tells us what “make them” means. I suppose you can “make” someone accept you by means of a charm offensive. But that doesn’t fit the brutal world of the Stillness. In that universe, the only sense of “make” that makes sense is the use of force. A race war. And given that the Stillness is such a thinly disguised metaphor for America, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Jemisin is calling for a race war in real life. When everything’s said and done, the Broken Earth trilogy is 1,200 pages of hate. In my humble opinion, the antidote to hate is not more hate.

Anyway, that's my two cents. So what do you think? Is Longyear right or is Jemisen? Is conflict between the races inevitable, only stopping when one side “makes” the other stop? Or is it possible to live together in harmony and “step outside of the rules of your love and your hate.” Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com