Saturday, October 8, 2005

Crazy-Ass Weekend

First off, let me apologize for not updating lately; it's just been an absolutely hectic couple of days. But I've got a lot to talk about today, so let's get right into it.

Comics Review #2 for October 8 consists of Spider-Girl #91. That's two weeks in a row where, of all my monthly reads, only one was actually giving something approaching a done-in-one story. But that's where the industry trend is at the moment, so there's not much that can be done about it. Truth is, I'm very ambivalent when it comes to the "6-part story vs. done-in-one" argument... on the one hand, you could make the claim that the reason most books are losing sales is because, in effect, readers are only getting two storylines per year. As sprawling or decompressed or eventful as they are, they're still only two stories. Alternatively, the main reason why "done-in-one" stories fell out of favor is because there's only so much you can do in 22 pages; more often than not you end up being forced to tell, rather than show, events that deserve more space.

Which leads us to Spider-Girl. I have to confess that my enthusiasm for this series has dwindled in recent years; I was, at one time, a very vocal advocate for its continuation when it was faced with cancellation. It's never been a high seller, but it held consistently in the 20K range and seems to do well in digest format. But the problems started when Marvel just refused to give the book any kind of stability, threatening a forced conclusion every six issues.

Of course, it's damn-near impossible for any creative team to work well under the assumption that every story you make just might be your last. Writer Tom DeFalco would end up going for bigger, more grandiose plots each time but always found himself reverting to status quo, just in case another stay of execution would arrive. As a result, the last two years of "Spider-Girl" have been dominated by stories that go for big bangs, but end up being utterly inconsequential. Oh, the creative team certainly goes through the motions - such as Spider-Girl's switch to a black costume to commemorate the series' 75th issue - but that plotline ended up fizzling out, with no real effect on the character. Spider-Girl herself has settled into something of a rut, and that makes it very hard to care about the Mystery of the Day because you know that whatever the story is, it's not going to matter.

Of course, it's possible that I'm approaching this from the wrong angle. After all, "Spider-Girl" is a series very much in touch with its Silver Age roots: it's retro, applying conventions that were standard fare before I was born, and before modern sensibilities overtook classical narrative styles. In that context, I suppose Spider-Girl is no different from any other superhero, in that the stories she participates in don't necessarily have to have any consistent or consecutive effect on her.

Taking that into account somewhat mitigates my feelings towards "The Shocking Secret of the Spider Shoppe", in which May "Mayday" Parker, Spider-Girl, enters the treacherous world of... high fashion. No, that's not a typo. Apparently, Daniel Kingsley, brother of Hobgoblin Roderick Kingsley, has started a line of clothing based on Spider-Girl's costume. This happens to threaten a local "Spider Shoppe" that also offers spider-based outfits for every shape and size (except May's). At the same time, a new vigilante, "La Fantome", has arisen and is threatening to destroy Kingsley, while Shoppe clerk Sandi organizes a rally to support the little business being faced with the huge conglomerate. Spider-Girl must determine La Fantome's identity, and find out why she's not getting a cent of royalties from the Shoppe... and then, of course, there's the question of just who owns that shop.

As mysteries go, it's a pretty clumsy one - you've only got one possible suspect for the Fantome, and it turns out to be true. And there's no real investigation into the identity of the Shoppe's owner: May hazards a guess on the last page, and gets it right. The Fantome is a really annoying character who keeps repeating how she and Spider-Girl are on the same side and should team up, and May refuses because innocent people could be hurt; it's the same reasoning she's used against any potential allies who turned out to be loose cannons. Even if you agree with her, it's so repetitive after four or five times that you wish May would consent, if only to do something unexpected.

And that, I think, is the biggest problem currently facing Spider-Girl: granted that it's old-school, and represents a haven from the incessant rapes and murders currently rampaging across the mainstream, but somewhere along the way it also divested itself of drama in the process. This hasn't always been the case; rather, it's like all the major storylines - the romantic tension between May and Normie, the deterioration of May's social life and her relationships with her ex-boyfriends, her struggle to get out of her father's shadow, her expulsion from the New Warriors group she founded and more - gradually trickled to a halt without actually being resolved, with no substitute in sight.

But... "Spider-Girl" is precisely the kind of "feel-good" series that makes it hard to genuinely dislike it, warts and all. If you take a charitable perspective, you could say that any book that reaches 91 issues, with the same writer, is bound to hit a slump or two sooner or later. And with #100 coming out next year, it's still possible that the current problems will be rectified.


Next up, a brief comment on the movie "Timeline". It would have been a review except I didn't make it through the whole thing.

You know, there are certain things you can do to make sure your audience is entertained by your movie. Ideally, you round up some really talented actors to hold our attention. Failing that, you can make sure your scriptwriter has put together a workable, exciting plot. If that doesn't work out, you can always take the character-centric route and at least give us a cast with stories we want to hear. And if all else fails, just get a bunch of attractive men and women to take their clothes off. It may not be intellectual, but at least it gets smiles.

"Timeline" miraculously misses the mark pretty much everywhere. The actors are subpar, woodenly reciting terrible dialogue. To make things worse, they're constantly talking over each other, so the movie is dominated by this mass of indecipherable babble. The characters are cardboard cutouts who fail to pique interest. And to drive the final nail in, they've got Paul Walker in a leading role and he spends the first half-hour of the movie fully dressed.

Well, that's just adding insult to injury. After twenty-five minutes of tedium, I stopped watching. On the one hand, I suppose it's possible that the movie picked up after I tuned out; on the other, I'm reasonably patient when it comes to movies which take time to develop, and if I couldn't be bothered to sit through "Timeline" anyway... well, that says something too, doesn't it?


I've been watching episodes of "Xena: Warrior Princess" lately. I missed the show the first few times it aired, but a local channel has been running it daily for the past few months and I found myself tuning in every now and then. We've just completed the third season.

Generally speaking, it's pretty entertaining stuff. The show seems to fall into a very interesting dichotomy: episodes seem to randomly fall into either comical farce or serious drama/action. While most of the episodes I've seen tend to belong to the latter category, if the comedies are all as amusing as "Been There Done That", a third-season "time loop" episode, the balance certainly works out.

The cast is pretty diverse; Lucy Lawless is exquisite as the experienced, sometimes world-weary warrior woman redeeming her dark past. And unlike other would-be feminist icons like Buffy Summers or Ally McBeal, Xena manages to get by just fine without making men the center of her existence. Of course, that might be where the alleged lesbian subtext comes in, but - and keep in mind I haven't been watching consistently so I might be totally off about this - I don't really see any homoeroticism between Xena and Gabrielle. At least not deliberately, not consciously on the part of the writer. In fact, the only character who really gave off a quasi-lesbian vibe was Callisto, but I'll get to her in a minute. :)

Gabrielle strikes me as a slightly less interesting character, particularly because - unlike her partner - things have a way of happening to and around her without any real action on her part. In the first season, she becomes an Amazon princess just for being at the right place at the right time; in the second season she gets married, but only because the guy seeks her out and proposes. And in the third season she apparently has an evil demon baby. She is, in a way, the perpetual victim, and the type who preaches against killing but has no problem if Xena dirties her hands instead. But it's clear why she's needed: her naivete and innocence are a direct counterbalance to Xena, who at times seems like she's seen too much. Of course, in another contrast to Xena, Gabrielle is actually the character who grows through the seasons while Xena is immutable. And, based on summaries of the series finale I've read, it seems that, in the end, Gabrielle becomes Xena, or something very similar to Xena. Interesting way to conclude her character arc.

Joxer is the comedy relief, but it really is best if you take him in very small, very infrequent doses. I had the misfortune of watching three episodes in a row heavily featuring him, and it wore thin, fast. The gimmick here is that he's a wannabe; the thing he desperately wants is to be a warrior like Xena, but he's so pathetic he ends up playing the court jester instead. Rather stereotypically, he also has a heart of gold, which is supposed to make us not want to rip his throat out after hours and hours of his antics. Ted Raimi plays the part a little too well, IMO: he's ultra-annoying when he's supposed to be, and somewhat sympathetic when he needs to be, but really, not a guy you want to see much of, at any frequency.

As for the villains... well, there are two primary antagonists that pop into mind when I think of the show, although the "archvillain per season" pattern wasn't really applied here. Ironically, both villains are fixated on Xena; an attempt was made to give Gabrielle a nemesis in Velasca, a rogue Amazon, but she never reappeared after her introductory episode.

The first villain is Ares, God of War. We gradually learn that he was Xena's mentor when she was a conquering maniac; naturally, he doesn't approve of her departure from that path and is constantly trying to pull her back into darkness. Kevin Smith (no, not THAT one) starts off nicely, very slick and seductive with an undercurrent of malice... but as time went on he seemed to lose a lot of his potency. Whether it's because he was entangled in a subplot with Xena that couldn't be resolved - ie: she'll never return his affection, but if he loses interest there's nothing to stop him from killing her - or because he was used so often that the threat diminished is hard to say.

But regardless, the other primary villain outshines him on every level: Callisto, played masterfully by Hudson Leick. The basic idea is one that's so simple, and yet undeniably clever: when Callisto was a young girl, she witnessed the murder of her parents and the utter demolition of her village at the hands of Xena. Fast-forward about ten years later, and Callisto is a grown woman, utterly and incurably insane, molded by her rage into a warrior of almost equal ferocity and strength. In the process, she becomes even worse than Xena: she assembles an army that kills men, women and children, not for the sake of conquest, but just because she can. The irony, of course, is that she's so busy focusing her fixation on Xena that she doesn't even notice what she's doing. Leick and Lawless click on every conceivable level, playing characters who are mirror images of each other. And, of course, there's the lesbian subtext I mentioned earlier: hints that Callisto's madness reaches the point where her fixation on Xena is a thing of unquenchable hate and unbearable love. All kinds of creepy, there. :)

Callisto's character arc is also one with distinct forward movement: she goes from warlord to murdered specter to immortal to goddess. There's a wonderfully poignant moment in the third season where Callisto finally gains her revenge on Xena, killing her enemy's only son... only to discover that it doesn't diminish her own pain at all. Instead, the completion of her quest leaves her adrift, without direction. Unfortunately, her character weaved in and out of XWP's companion show, "Hercules: The Legendary Journey", so her progress isn't always consistent from episode to episode. But still, she makes a very memorable archrival.

All in all, "Xena: Warrior Princess" seems to be a fun show. Not one that demands you take it seriously, at face value, at all times, but a nice way to kill forty minutes every now and then.