Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Not Batman vs. Superman

The Batman/Superman Movie: World’s Finest
Review by Kerey McKenna

Cold Chill To kick off my series of reviews of great Batman/Superman (and sometimes Wonder Woman) crossovers, I will start with the first time I saw my two childhood heroes together on the same screen: The Batman/Superman Movie: World's Finest (1997). This animated TV film (full running time just over an hour) officially bridged the successful long running Batman: The Animated Series and its Superman companion series. Much as the new DC Comics movie, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice attempts to found a shared cinematic universe, World’s Finest is a crucial link in a chain of animated projects in a DC Animated Universe, culminating a decade later in the TV series Justice League Unlimited.

Using the established worlds of both shows, World’s Finest hits the ground running. Given the iconic characters and brisk pace, even someone with only a passing knowledge of comic book lore can follow the character motivations and plot. The Joker (played with fiendish glee by Mark Hamill) steals a large chunk of kryptonite, heads to Metropolis, and asks a king's ransom of corrupt business mogul Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) to eliminate Superman once and for all. Fortunately Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) is fast on the Joker's heels; he teams up with Superman (Tim Daley), and they form the "World's Finest" team to stop Luthor from ruling the city and the Joker from tearing it down.

I feel that this really works as a Superman/Batman project (and not a Superman versus Batman project) because it simultaneously creates a unified world that nevertheless contrasts the realms of Superman and Batman. The art has a classic feel to it (deliberately inspired by the Max Fleischer Superman shorts of the 40's). Gotham, with its tommy guns, fedoras, and art deco buildings clearly invokes the pulp origins of superheroes. In contrast, the retro-futurism of Metropolis reflects the space race era optimism of the post-World War II era when Superman was at the height of his popularity.

Instead of building up to a contrived slugfest between the title heroes (they soon reach a d├ętente), the tension between the two is over Lois Lane (Dana Delany): it looks like Bruce Wayne just might win her heart and whisk her back to Gotham faster than a speeding bullet. Also, while conventional thinking holds that it is a challenge to script a conflict in which Batman can stand up to Superman's enemies, we see here that Superman also has quite the challenge: keeping up with a twisted and wicked intellect like the Joker’s.

Speaking of the Joker, a common critique of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (which I predicted, based on the trailers) is that Jessie Eisenberg seems to be playing some kind of Joker/Lex Luthor mashup with the resources of a business tycoon and inventor but the tics and love of chaos-for-chaos’s-sake of the Joker. In contrast, World's Finest demonstrates the opportunity that Dawn of Justice lost by not having the Joker and Lex in the same story. In a tenuous alliance or at each other's throats, these two characters are a hoot to watch.

While the creators of Dawn of Justice claim that an R-rated director's cut is headed to DVD that smooths over some of the plot holes in the theatrical release (and delivers more violence), World’s Finest provides a more general-audience-appropriate take on these iconic characters.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts on May 7, 2016. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Cold Chill Out of the North

Stand Still, Stay Silent. Written and Illustrated By Minna Sundberg
Webcomic review by Kerey McKenna

“The First Rule for survival outside the safe areas: If you come across a Beast, a Troll or a Giant do not run or call for help but stand still and stay silent. It might go away.”
—Minna Sundberg,
Stand Still, Stay Silent

Cold Chill If, like me, you choose to start reading Stand Still, Stay Silent during a cold New England winter night, I recommend you do so with a cat nearby. As we learn from this webcomic, according to Scandinavian lore, cats can sense malicious trolls and spirits. Having one softly dozing on the couch beside you might help re-assure you that the creaks and groans of a house settling at night isn’t something nasty scampering along your roof or tapping on your windows trying to get in.

Written and Illustrated By Minna Sundberg, Stand Still, Stay Silent (updated an impressive three times a week considering the high quality of the artwork) is an ambitious project to tell a post-apocalyptic horror tale from a Scandinavian perspective.

Ninety years after a mysterious pandemic killed numerous people and animals or twisted them into murderous abominations, the nations of Scandinavia (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland) eek out an existence in isolated and fortified settlements. In many ways they follow in the footsteps of their Dark Age Viking ancestors, huddling in their keeps to ward off the cold and the monsters that lurk in the darkness, while knowledge of the outside world ebbs with each generation. Many have even returned to the pagan gods and magic of their ancestors in order to ward off the monsters, a strategy that is eerily effective.

Also like their Viking ancestors, some of those living within the safe areas are growing restless; they wish to retake lost territory and rediscover hidden treasures from the outside world. A small band of explorers, too young to know any better, or with too many bad marks on their records to find less suicidal work, are sent out into the “silent world” to explore and loot. Drawn from the five nations of the Scandinavian alliance (with no one member speaking the native languages of all their comrades) this ragtag crew travels through a landscape which is one part modern apocalypse, populated with crumbled buildings and overturned cars, and one part primeval forest, infested with monsters and spirits.

With an inviting, painterly style, Sundberg draws upon her Swedish and Finnish upbringing to enthrall the reader with a world rooted in Scandinavian geography and mythology. The beautiful but stark landscapes, gut-churning monsters, wonders of ancient shamanism, and warmth of a community huddling against the cold and dark all come to life with her lush artwork. Writing for an English-speaking audience, Sundberg provides plenty of helpful footnotes and visual cues to make this very Nordic world accessible to readers from outside the region. She provides tabbed links to character profiles, world maps, and other key information in case a reader feels the need to revisit exposition from earlier episodes (Wait—which flag is Denmark and which is Norway? What areas are safely occupied? What role do cats play in anti-troll warfare?). Initially, the pacing is a slow burn as the earliest chapters undertake world building and the horrors of the silent world are only hinted at. However, when the time for action comes (an impressive sequence in which a monster attacks an armored locomotive), Sundberg knows how to crank up the tension before unleashing a wave of other-worldly horror.

I highly recommend giving this a look, whether you are an old hand at post-apocalyptic fiction, a newbie who would like to explore it more deeply than The Walking Dead does, or someone who has grown weary of the same old post-apocalyptic tropes and iconography (desert wastelands, ruined national monuments, a regression to America’s frontier days, or the adoption of outlandish Mad Max-style punk costumes) and is looking for an original take. Stand Still, Stay Silent is a breath of fresh arctic air. It is available free online at sssscomic.com, with three updates a week, or for purchase in collected e-book or print formats from the site’s webstore.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts on May 7, 2016. Learn more at www.watchcityfestival.com.ke.