Cape TV

Normally what I watch on TV can be reduced to Stephen Colbert, the NBA and shows with Gordon Ramsay. This fall season, I've rededicated myself to following a select few new shows. They're all based on DC comics, yes, so maybe I'm not so much getting into TV as I am keeping up with comics. The reboot of all DC Comics continuity was designed to be a jumping-on point for new fans, but it also functioned as a jumping off point for readers like me. My hands washed free of continuity, I had no reason to care about these new characters that had replaced my old favorites.

When I heard that DC was going full bore at a slate of TV shows based on their characters, I was interested. I especially enjoyed how different all the new properties were -- different networks, different genres, different audiences. They all debuted in October and I got my money's worth of Hulu Plus subscription.

The first show to debut was GOTHAM, a Detective Jim Gordon series that takes place before Batman, but post-Wayne murder. The idea is that it's an origin story for everyone except Batman. All of these villains, power structures, reputations and more are being formed in this deeply corrupted city, the lowest point of Gotham history before the realization of Batman.

Unfortunately, as Grantland said, this also means it's a story about people before they did anything interesting. The only interesting thing about these characters is that some day they will be a piece of fabric in the web of the Batman mythos. Right now it's just a little girl hugging a plant. When her mom calls her "Ivy" we're supposed to go "OH I GET IT" but in reality it just makes you cringe.

Yet, I wouldn't call it a bad show. What it is is an up & down show. There are completely joyless episodes where nothing makes me want to stay past a commercial break, and there are episodes where I feel like they're on to something. The most consistent joy you can get from this series is just by looking at it. The series is full of vibrant but saturated sets, luxurious art-deco sets, and character actors hamming it up on a variety of seedy archetypes. Technology is roaring 20's based, except when it needs to stray from it, and the diverse populace of Gotham are doing outrageous theater. It creates an interesting atmosphere, almost a weird crime-fantasy show, as opposed to a DARK KNIGHT also-ran.

The tone occupies this weird space between BATMAN FOREVER and THE DARK KNIGHT -- sometimes it's coldly realistic and subdued, other times a colorful villain murders people by tying them to a weather balloon. Without any caped characters, it's really more of a Dick Tracy show, and that's not a bad thing. I certainly wouldn't want the show to devolve into a realism-based police procedural when it, sometimes, does things that you can't find on TV right now.

The prequel pretense is troubling though and robs it of the drama. We know Gordon will never catch the Wayne murderers, we know Penguin won't ever be killed, we know Carmine Falcone will eventually end up on top of the gang war. These characters are robbed of any suspense. Meanwhile, any originals -- like Fish Mooney -- are almost assuredly going to be killed or written out before the dust in Gotham settles. It's a tough spot to write and I frequently wonder what they can do to make the show vital and unpredictable. That curiosity is what keeps me watching it more than anything.

The 2nd show to debut, and DC's best, is THE FLASH. I'm not normally a CW television show watcher, where everything is just a little bit above low-budget cable and all the principle roles are played by young models. But The Flash works as an optimistic, thrilling, and easy-to-like superhero show. Not a gritty crime show, not dark and foreboding. There's enough wonder and heroism here that it's a genuine joy to watch. It's not heady television with big themes, sure, but neither are a lot of comics. You get joy just seeing characters interact, seeing The Flash pull off some well-scripted stunts, and the occasional one liners from a cast that is entirely likeable. The CW's other superhero show, ARROW, is an unabashed low rent Batman show. A wealthy urban vigilante saving his city because for whatever reason they couldn't/wouldn't use Batman. THE FLASH, then, is CW's Superman -- science fiction powers, high on spectacle, and based on inspiring good over justice & vengeance. I am shocked at how much I've been enjoying the show, the stories, and the performances. It even made me check out ARROW, which I hear starts out okay, gets bad, but then gets really good. I'm currently waiting for it to get good.

In last place is the paranormal themed CONSTANTINE on NBC, based on one of Alan Moore's premiere contributions to DC Comics. What I was hoping this would be was a grimy, character-driven, paranormal procedural. Take the bastardness of House, apply it to X-Files mystique and give him a world and lore built on mythology and magic. All we really get is the aesthetic of John Constantine: the accent, the look, the spells, but there's no charm or soul to any of it. NBC's John Constantine dresses up in his trademark brown trenchcoat and red tie, but it feels like he's playing dress up. The fact that his tie is always slightly undone no matter what makes it feel like a Constantine that is constantly concerned with looking cool. I know that's what it's like when they draw Constantine in the comics, but coolness isn't just a look, it's a demeanor. He should look that way because he just so happened to arrive at it without a care in the world.

There's also the problem of magic. Magic storytelling is always tough, even in the comics, because it gives the writers the ability to write forward motion in stories without any tension. If you need to move a story along or get someone out of a pickle, just throw in some magic spell that we didn't know about before. How do Constantine & friends find out who killed a dead DJ? There's a spell for that (it comes at a cost of a few days of Constantine's life, but I'll be surprised if that ever makes a difference in the show's run.) How do Constantine & friends find out what the villains are planning to do next? Their visionary pal just so happens to see a white tiger right at that moment, and, wouldn't you know it, there's a college radio station with a white tiger mascot.

It's not Deus Ex Machina, but it's close. Magic fight scenes are similarly devoid of any anchor that you can connect to. Participants just point at each other and things happen. A few latin words and the bad guys explode into a portal to hell, or something, because he can do that. He doesn't do it often because then that solves all problems, and magic is mysterious so they'll never explain it. I recognize that it's tough to work within those parameters, but it's hard to forgive when everything surrounding is devoid of life, charm and character.

More than anything, superhero television should have a ton of character to it. They've been refined for decades -- sometimes 70+ years. The work has been done for you, and it's disappointing when their small screen adaptations don't have any of the soul that has driven them on the page for so long.

Dispatch From WonderCon

Warren Ellis described San Diego Comic Con as the only place that resembles SECOND LIFE, the mid-2000s virtual world video game that was limited only by your imagination/perversion. The same could be said for any major convention built on the values of chaos and costumes, or at least I had hoped that would be the case for WonderCon, my first non-San Diego convention adventure.

As we lurched and stopped in Anaheim traffic, smoke rose from the car's hood, first in a faint wisp, then in a full-bodied spill. In a video game world, this would mean the car was about to explode. In reality my friend's Scion XB was overheating, so we pulled into a lot to tend to the developing situation. It was maybe our third or fourth hang up in trying to get to WonderCon; there were lost tickets, brothers arguing and forgotten ID cards thus far. It seems that even at smaller conventions, there would always be trouble.

I went to WonderCon last week. In my imagined nerd ecosystem, the convention is the music festival. It represents a higher ranking level of cred and dedication to your hobby. It's the difference between a person that likes Radiohead and a person that likes Radiohead so much they camp out at Coachella to see them. In this system, SDCC is Coachella; it's a mainstream, 100,000 strong convention in the heart of San Diego, where comics, movies, television and general pop culture fandoms collide in one big fire hazard. WonderCon would be like Downtown LA's FYF Fest -- a smaller affair, but if you want a more manageable and intimate experience, it's a worthwhile alternative. This year I convinced myself that FYF was better than Coachella. I thought I could do the same with SDCC.

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Let's Put Superman In Jail, Y'all

This is the recently released movie poster for Man of Steel, the forever incoming Superman movie reboot directed by WATCHMEN and 300 guy, Zack Snyder. The image of Superman subordinated, especially in cuffs as a reversal of one of Superman's most iconic poses, is an attention-grabber, but also a gimmick. It's the kind of imagery that could only be done with this character to acheive this level of intrigue. It wouldn't imply the same things if it were Batman or The Punisher or even Captain America, certainly not on the same level. It takes advantage of Superman's cultural place as the father of all superheroes, and yet, it's not an instantly cool poster.

My initial reaction was skepticism. People seem to love a powerless Superman, from the beatdown scene in SUPERMAN RETURNS to the 1990s comics event THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN. While the premise of a powerless Superman can create good stories, the reason people love a weakened superman is silly: they think his power is boring, or they think he doesn't face enough adversity. In short, the fans who feel this way aren't Superman fans. They're Iron Man fans that want Superman to be Iron Man.

It might seem like they're doing it again here, trying to make the boyscout appealing to non-fans by taking away what's great about the character. Instead of showing people why optimism, morality and hope are actually cool, they instead infuse the character with grit and weakness. If any character in superhero comics should be about daylight and saviors, it's Superman, and they no one wants to seem to be into trying that out. At least, that's the first impression, probably spurred on by the muted colors and kind of faceless soullessness of everything so far in MAN OF STEEL.

But upon closer inspection: It's a flimsy pair of cuffs. It's not so much Superman subordinated as it is Superman going quietly and willingly, deferring to civilian authority. It's a different way to display strength and morality -- still a quick gimmick about shifting the power dynamic, sure, but true to the character's 80 year history. Maybe it's an alright poster and maybe Zack Snyder won't go for the quick dumb gratifications he did with WATCHMEN.

I guess the worst thing you can say about it thus far is that it brings to mind that ridiculous body builder arrest photo that was big on the internet a couple years ago.

Dwayne McDuffie

On Monday, comics writer and animated television producer Dwayne McDuffie died unexpectedly, of complications after emergency heart surgery. He is most well known in mainstream American pop culture as one of the co-creators of Static Shock, co-founder of Milestone Media, and producer/writer of the Justice League and Ben 10 cartoons. But to describe the man simply by what work he leaves behind is only part of what made him great.

There have probably been hundreds of blog eulogies, of all sizes, since Monday. I don't have the ultimate one, or even a definitive, all-encompassing one to offer to the big RSS feed in the sky. I just have a few words that keep coming up in my head about what his work and philosophy meant to me, and how it profoundly shaped my creative goals. I can't claim to be the biggest Dwayne McDuffie fan. I haven't read many of his notable works, and my mind isn't full of McDuffie trivia. But for a while, I wanted to be a Dwayne McDuffie.

McDuffie, to me, was an activist in pop culture. He understood the nuances of racial politics, of inclusiveness versus tokenism, and on top of all that, he was a damn good writer. With other comics creators of color, he helped found Milestone Media, a publisher that had the most diverse comic books of the 1990s, as well as some of the best written. He had the talent, willpower and know-how to do what a lot of struggling, claustrophobic artists of color wished they could: Start their own company, do things their way, and be a success.

For those that don't dabble in the artistic communities of ethnic groups, there are piles and piles of starving artists trying to make it on their own, and have been for a very long time. They have their own labels, produce their own music, make their own films, fund their own projects. And a lot of them, for whatever reason, either never grow beyond the insular community that bred them, or fall by the wayside. Very rarely do they ever "break out" into mainstream success. It can be disheartening, as an artist of color, to believe that making work about your ethnic community can be a damning hindrance to your wider aspirations.

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Interrobang: Understanding Comic-Con

When she saw me take out my camera, the pretty girl dressed as a Green Lantern held her ring out toward the direction of a giant, plastic model of a Green Lantern battery. I thanked her and took a picture, and turned around to see a small child waddle up dressed as a Lego robot. I had to capture that, too. I made my way down the hall, slowly taking in the overwhelming colorful spectacle, and was cut off by Pacman being chased by 3 ghosts. I almost bumped into Domo-kun.

"Sorry," I said to the giant brown-furred box with gnashing teeth. I don't know if the thing inside could even hear me. I continued on, through the Chun-Lis, through the Iron Men, through the Pikachus, and of course, through the Stormtroopers.

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I Read Persepolis

In my quest to eat up the best that the comics medium has to offer, I turned my hunger onto PERSEPOLIS, a two volume graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. It's one of the latest admissions to comics canon, a modern critical darling, and was even most recently animated as a feature film. It's a memoir about her time during her time, first as a child and then as a teenager, during the Islamic revolution in Iran.

There is an issue in the non-fiction genre, particularly with memoirs, about whether the storytelling/craft of writing is actually good or if someone  has just lived through, what my non-fiction professor called, "craaaazy shit." Because anyone can be (un)lucky enough to be born into an absurd, extreme situation (Augustin Burroughs), but not everyone can tell that story well. It is even rarer to find a writer who can make the mundane, ordinary life seem full of universal power.

I kept this in mind in trying to decide which side of the fence Satrapi fell on. While I'm not keen on being one of those reactionary douchebags that likes to hate things that are popular or critically acclaimed, there are some significant annoyances that hindered my enjoyment of the book. The big picture is this: Satrapi has had an interesting life, and tells it well enough. But giving it MAUS status as one of the must read graphic novels might be a little much. She might certainly have the potential to craft a masterpiece, but this seems only an indicator of her potential.

The art is the soul of the comic, and Satrapi uses a flat, stark black & white cartooning style that is passable in terms of ease of comprehension. I don't mind that it doesn't have a lot of flashiness to it; I am, in fact, a big fan of minimalist art styles. But it tends to be flat a lot in Satrapi's work. Too often are characters draped in pitch black forms, whether in Iran or Vienna, and they become difficult to distinguish especially since the writing context doesn't always help and characters will change hairstyles. While there's something to be said about difficulty vs. ease in comics, the way Chaucer is harder than Hemingway but both are good in different ways, this feels like the type of story that would benefit from ease.

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Review | I Read Jimmy Corrigan

Some day, I'd like to write a comic. It doesn't have to be superhero, though that would be great, it just has to be something with pictures to go with my words, told sequentially, and have dialogue trapped in little bubbles with a funnel pointing at the principal's head. In order to make this pipe dream a little less pipey, I need a wealth of knowledge of the medium. So I decide to make my way through the classics and the acclaimed: Gaiman, Moore, Tomine, Eisner, Hernandez, Satrapi, Spiegelman, Morrison -- There's a lot of them.

Recently, I decided to pick up Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth by Chris Ware. You've probably seen it around in stores. It's that odd, long, rectangular book in the graphic novel section with the flat, basic shape art. It exudes differentness, that is, you can tell it's arty and difficult because it doesn't give a shit about fitting nicely on your bookshelf. What follows is my amateur thoughts and ideas, having now finished the thing.

My first exposure to Ware was a curious cover/comic he did for an edition of Voltaire's Candide for Penguin Classics. It was weird and even out of place, but that just made it seem like a daring choice. That's the basic vibe I get from this book too: an overall strangeness that is a little difficult  read, but the investment brings you in closer overall.

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