Friday, April 6, 2012

Tintin vs The Joker

File this in the improbable pairing department:  Tintin vs The Joker.

I recently reread the pair of Tintin stories Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon.  Tintin books are the kind of thing you settle in to read after a long day at work.  The Evil guys are dastardly and mean, Tintin is heroic and young, and Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus and Snowy and the Detectives are all there for comic effect.  Tintin gets excited when he gets to drive a cool tank on the moon and you can feel his boyish thrill.  The mean guys show up and knock Tintin out—Tintin undoubtedly had a serious problem with concussions in his old age.  Tintin is a little bit clever and a lot bit brave and saves the day with sheer determination.  Over and over, book after book, the same basic story unfolds. 

I also recently read a pair of comic books written by Brain Azzarello and illustrated by Lee Bermejo:  Luthor and Joker.  These are of much more modern vintage.  They are supervillain books—the superheroes show up, but are really the side characters in a story about the villain.  Both are good, not great, just good.  They are also quite different as befits the difference in the two villains.  It is the difference between these two villains that intrigues me. 

As any good Calvinist will tell you, at our heart, none of us are good.  But, that’s just a euphemism.  We are all totally depraved.  Yeah, I know people don’t talk like that anymore, but just a little introspection reveals that fundamentally the desires of our heart are evil.  “Darkness is a harsh term, don’t you think?/ And yet it dominates the things I seek” is how Mumford and Sons puts it.  (This is rapidly, yet unintentionally, turning into a Good Friday sermon.)  There is quite a bit of variety in our Darkness, though.  And that is where this pair of books comes in.  The test:  Are you more the Joker or Luthor?  The Joker is Chaos and Destruction; he laughs at the world and destroys it for the Pure Joy of it.  Luthor is Arrogance and Pride; he wants to mold the world in his own image.  In neither world is there a role for Good or Love.

Reading this pair of books was thus, if I am honest with myself, disturbing.  The Joker?  Well he has no appeal to me; I am happy to see the Joker fail; I feel no sympathy for him.  I suspect he is the more popular villain though; many people like the idea of smashing things.  But, Luthor?  Disturbingly, I read his tale and realize part of me is just like him.  He hates Superman, hates the idea of a force more powerful than Man, a force which would come to earth to Save us from Ourselves...Save Me from Myself…well, part of me also wants to resent that idea…it’s is so…humbling.  Cue St. Matthew’s Passion.

Now combine these two pairs of comic books.  Imagine if Tintin came up against the Joker?  Who would win?  Sadly, it doesn’t seem like much of a contest.  To beat the Joker, we need a hero much more powerful than a good, decent, heroic lad.  

…and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Sequel Problem

Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a masterpiece, one of the landmark comic books which reenergized the genre.  He wrote a sequel: Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again.  I first read the sequel years ago.  My conclusion then:  it is a total mess.  Lynn Varley’s art was Garish at best, the plot was…well was there a plot?  It was all simply too much of...what?  A disaster of a book.  I figured I would never look at it again.

So, what possessed me to read it again?  I’m really not sure.  Really, I have no idea.

My conclusion this time:  It’s not nearly as bad as I originally thought.  The reason I hated it so much before was pretty obvious on a rereading.  It’s no Dark Knight Returns.  Not even close.  It isn’t even trying to be DKR.  It’s the classic sequel problem: how do you write a sequel to a masterpiece?  DKN did things in a comic book which made your jaw drop.  Indeed, you can almost infallibly tell if a Batman tale is before or after DKN.  You can see it in the movies too.  Adam West is pre-Miller; the Burton/Michael Batman is at the turning point; the Nolan/Bale Batman Begins is post-Miller. 

So, when you have written a comic book which changed a genre, how do you write a sequel?  You can either a) do another one just like it, or b) try to change the genre again.  The first route is what everyone expects, but it is really difficult to pull it off.  (Think again about the movies—the second Burton/Keaton film is not nearly as good.  (Interestingly, the second Nolan/Bale film is better than the first.  Maybe having the Joker in your movie is the key?))  Option b) is the bigger risk; you run a chance not only of not doing it well, but also of alienating everyone who liked the original.

Miller clearly aimed to change the genre again in DKSA.  It fails.  Indeed, it is not terribly original at all.  The art in DKN is subdued and gritty.  It’s very well-done and it fits the tale.  The art in DKSA is loud, bright, splashy, loud, colorful, and loud.  Well, its louder than that.  Every page is a blaze of bright color.  Page after page of bright, loud colors.  It is a veritable assault on the senses.  The pictures are crudely draw.  It is a book full of Neon Cave-Paintings.

And the plot?  It is also abrasively chaotic.  Which is the point.  The story, such as it is, has Lex Luthor creating a Police State.  (Nothing original there—Luthor is always trying to create a run the world.)  Batman is an anarchist.  (Nothing original there—Frank Miller is an anarchist.)  So, we have a comic book which is a visual depiction of anarchy overthrowing order—which is a good thing in this world—fortunately for the tale, we never have to see how the whole anarchy thing works out.  We get rid of Lex Luthor, get to watch Superman, the epitome of TurthJusticeandtheAmericanWay, get beat up, and then imagine the nice world where nobody ever tells us what to do again.  And those Neon Cave Paintings?  Well, perhaps that was just Miller and Varley’s subconscious selves screaming that anarchy is going to return us all to the caves of our ancestors. 

The one theme that runs through both books is that the media is a superficial, feckless bunch.  I’m not sure why this is in both.  The media in DKSA is, of course, louder and more chaotic.  But, I suspect Miller just liked the idea of telling his tale through the lens of TV.

In the end, DKSA is not even remotely Miller’s best work.  But it isn’t the complete disaster I once thought it was.  I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone, though.