Friday, June 29, 2007
I'd like to say that "Shrek the Third" is every bit as successful, as well-written, as hilariously delightful as its predecessors.
I'd like to say that. I probably would say that, except that the film has this teeny, tiny flaw:
Oh lord. Ohhhh lord. It's probably my fault for thinking Justin Timberlake couldn't possibly be any more irritating in movies than he is with his music; that sort of blind optimism just screams out to be punished.
As far as I'm concerned, it really is Timberlake and his character Artie who send things awry. Here's a series that derives its primary comedic and dramatic strength from its ability to invoke and undermine cliches - Shrek both is and isn't a typical ogre, Fiona is and isn't the princess-in-distress, the Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming aren't quite as benevolent as their names and appearances imply, etc. And at first, "Shrek the Third" continues that proud tradition of subverting expectations: you have the possibilities of Shrek as a father and Shrek as a monarch being put forth, and it's pretty much the Anti-Princess Diaries. Meanwhile, Prince Charming's scheme to usurp power hinges on a rather unorthodox appeal to his fellow fairytale villains.
All well and good... until we meet Artie. An unpopular high-schooler with daddy issues who's in love with the most popular girl in school and gets picked on by the jocks, only to be revealed as a figure of great destiny - a destiny he initially rejects only to come around at the last minute and grow into the role.
Could there be a bigger walking cliche?
It's all the more jarring because the rest of the cast - Shrek, Donkey, Puss, Fiona and the various supporting characters - are very much in step with that irreverent, iconoclastic tone that made them so endearing in previous films. Artie, by contrast, is a two-dimensional cutout (and Timberlake does us no favors by playing the role painfully straight, without the slightest bit of affectation), so utterly predictable that you can literally guess the entire span of his storyline after five minutes of screen time.
Without giving away the ending, I should also add that said ending is heavily sabotaged by Artie's character in what may have been an attempt to break the pattern of the previous films in terms of climactic showdowns, but ends up becoming an ill-advised and unsatisfying resolution that's at odds with the narrative thrust of the entire story - in other words, an hour and a half is spent building up towards an event that never actually happens. "Disappointing" would be putting it mildly.
On the other hand, there are quite a few amusing moments strewn throughout the movie: Shrek imagining fatherhood, his catastrophic attempt at playing the part of king, the "baby shower", the addled Merlin offering our heroes hugs, Lillian's surprising talent, Prison Break Starring Fiona and Friends, and much more. As a story, it pretty much falls apart towards the end, but taken as individual sketches, the comedy is every bit as solid as the first two films. And for that alone, it's worth a look. Just don't expect it to hold together quite as well as its predecessors.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Kristofer Straub's "Starslip Crisis" makes for an interesting parallel to Brad Guigar's "Evil Inc." in that, while they share certain generic, thematic and format-related aspects, Straub's series has that one critical component that "Evil Inc." lacks: variety.
There are certainly enough similarities to sustain a comparison: both strips poke fun at a specific genre (superheroes in "Evil Inc.", sci-fi in "Starslip Crisis"), both are littered with simple yet tremendously funny characters, both are well-written, and both use the daily punchline technique within a larger structure of ongoing storylines.
The main point of divergence, I think, is the way each series runs those storylines. For the most part, "Evil Inc." has a singular focus; all storylines are tethered to the company and its employees. The arcs aren't necessarily contingent, but Guigar typically has one narrative unfolding at a time while everything else is on hold.
"Starslip Crisis", by contrast, bounces back and forth between a number of plotlines all running simultaneously - earlier in the year, one of the series' protagonists went off to military school, and Strauber started alternating the focus between the school and the rest of the characters. Going further back, a war that had been discussed in the periphery suddenly took center stage as the cast blundered right into the battle. Events are constantly occuring outside our field of vision, and that has the added effect of broadening the scope of the story. It also allows Straub to stray from the A-plot from time to time, and that helps break up any tedium that might set in over an extended period of time.
The fact that Straub is able to milk the science-fiction genre for every drop of parodical comedy will probably come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work; truly, the best thing about "Starslip Crisis" is that it manages to take the most basic aspects of science fiction and make them funny. You don't even need to be familiar with the genre to "get" the jokes; there's no direct appropriation of, say, "Star Wars", that would require insider knowledge. The humor is for everyone. :)
Anyone who samples Straub and finds him to their liking would also be advised to read "Checkerboard Nightmare", Straub's previous series which chose, as its subject matter, the very medium of webcomics itself, and managed to be every bit as amusing.
Friday, June 22, 2007
I'm not quite sure why I'm still reading this; lack of a proper jumping-off point, I suppose, coupled with the fact that I'm more bored with it than genuinely displeased or irritated. It's not that "Evil Inc." has changed for the worse, far from it; if anything, Brad Guigar has remained remarkably consistent since spinning this series off from "Greystone Inn" two years ago.
And that's really my beef with it; it's too consistent. The humor just feels less effective to me these days, and I find I've lost interest in the storylines and characters. Inertia's keeping me going at the moment, but I doubt that'll last much longer.
Still, it's worth reiterating those traits that drew me to "Evil Inc." in the first place; a lighthearted parody of the superhero genre, executing the gag-a-day format very nicely. If it rocked the boat a bit more often, I'd still be aboard.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Down to the last two, and believe me, I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with more. Either I'm not quite as well-read as I like to believe, or there really aren't ten notable, obvious picks for important women in mainstream comics. I went ahead and bent the rules for the last entry, just because.
9. Barbara Gordon (Batman, Birds of Prey, etc., DC): I'm very ambivalent when it comes to good old Babs. On the one hand, she's a sidekick who made good, graduating out of the male identity she co-opted to create her own entity, Oracle, a far more formidable and distinctive force than Batgirl ever was. On the other hand, Barbara is very much the typical woman victim at DC: crippled as an afterthought in a story that had nothing to do with her, for purposes relating solely to the motivation of the male protagonist, and she was left in that state permanently while other heroes (read: men) bounced back from similar or worse injuries on a regular basis. I fondly remember her animated counterpart becoming Commissioner of the GCPD in "Batman Beyond" (since "The Killing Joke" never took place in the Timm&Diniverse), but overall I still have trouble reconciling those two aspects of her character, Perpetual Victim and Self-Defined Heroine.
10. Gail Simone: Granted, being the most prolific female writer in the Big Two isn't saying much (who's her competition, Devin Grayson? Fiona Apple?), but it's my hope that Gail Simone's continued success and high visibility in the industry opens the door to many other female writers in the future. Also, as lolcomics would say, she can rytes teh komiks gud.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Sunday, June 10, 2007
"The Order of the Stick" started out as a hilarious D&D parody that spoofed the conventions of the genre (ie: six diverse adventurers enter a dungeon in search of treasure and monsters). Over time, it evolved into a more ambitious story, and yet despite the larger scale - the current storyline featuring a war that would put Peter Jackson to shame - the strip has never lost sight of its humorous nature. Rich Burlew has a knack for creating characters we either instantly love (Elan, Haley, even Xykon) or instantly hate (Miko!), and he has a strong sense of pacing, always aware of exactly how long a subplot can run before it wears itself thin.
Some readers might be turned off by the stick-figure artwork, but to be honest, I feel it adds an extra layer to the series: the simplicity of the visual imagery makes for a great contrast to the complexity of the storylines.
"The Order of the Stick" is pure fun, one of the best fantasy/adventure webcomics around. Definitely worth a look.
I hate summers in the Middle East. The heat just squats on your head and refuses to leave, and any act of mental concentration becomes a real chore...
7. May "Mayday" Parker (Spider-Girl, Marvel): This one practically explains itself - the daughter of Marvel's most recognizable and popular icon, consistently depicted by Tom DeFalco as being equal, if not superior, to the original (the cover of Spider-Girl #100 remains one of my favorites). At first, DeFalco made every effort to catapult Spider-Girl out of her father's shadow and make her more than just a distaff clone: she acquired her own enemies, had her own life, and often devised solutions to problems that Peter couldn't quite crack on his own. This direction was rewarded with an unshakeable fanbase that, while comparatively small, kept the series alive for so long that Spider-Girl became Marvel's longest-running female-centric series. Unfortunately, both the character and the series started getting bogged down with debris from Spider-Man's history (the return of the ill-conceived Scriers being a recent example), and as a result, "Spider-Girl" has become more of a continuity patch than a vehicle for the next generation.
8. Jenny Sparks (The Authority, Wildstorm): Kevin Church recently referred to Warren Ellis as "one of the most casually feminist writers in comics". I disagree with that assertion, primarily because Ellis uses stock characters in a way that neutralizes gender - yes, Jenny Sparks and Miranda Zero are examples of strong women, but their femininity means nothing because they're variations on the same trope Ellis always uses: chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, booze-swilling cynics who, in their heart of hearts, want to be heroes and do what's right. There's no real distinction between Jenny Sparks and Spider Jerusalem in terms of characterization, so the best thing I can say about Ellis is that he negates chauvinism by depicting women exactly the same way he depicts men (which misses the point, IMO, but it's better than the dominant trends these days). For this reason, Jenny Sparks almost didn't make the list, but unlike most Ellis protagonists, she actually got a send-off that was noble and poignant and self-sacrificing without being cliche. A far cry from being chopped up and stuffed in a refrigerator, Jenny Sparks goes out on perhaps the highest note a superhero has ever achieved, and that counts for something in my book.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Here's a question I often ask myself when con season rolls around and panel reports start coming in: where the hell are the women? I'm not talking about female creators like Colleen Doran and Gail Simone; I'm talking about women in the audience, women like Ragnell, Kalinara and Karen Healey, who have a lot to say about certain practices by the Big Two. Why is it that when Frank Miller holds court, there are no women with rotten tomatoes handy to show him what they think of Vicki Vale's ass?
It's sort of an extension of what bugs me about WizardWorld con reports, where EIC panels are so banal, so heavily involved in mutual masturbation (Joe Quesada: "Hey, kids! We've got a new 80-part crossover coming!" Audience: "BOOYAH!"), and if someone does step up to the plate, it'll usually be some incoherent fanboy who embarrasses himself by, I don't know, screaming that Brian Vaughan is a racist (based on... what?). In effect, Marvel and DC go unchallenged at the one venue where they're on equal ground with their readers and the comics press. And because there's no backlash, because no one contests the assertion that yes, we really need another weekly series to tie-in to other books that set-up the next crossover, the companies keep doing wrong what they've been doing wrong, and nothing changes.
What's so shocking is that there's an entire blogosphere of intelligent people like Lea Hernandez, Paul O'Brien, Graeme McMillan and Heidi McDonald - people who see the flaws, and can express themselves in a way that can't be ignored or laughed at by company administrators (see above, re: "BKV's a racist!"). So why do we never see such clear-headed individuals at cons, stepping up at a Cup of Joe hype session to announce "Joey, you've gotta lotta s'plainin' to do!"?
You just know that Paul O'Brien would reduce Quesada to tears and possibly seppuku in under five minutes; we'd all be better off.
Monday, June 4, 2007
Apologies for lateness; my pal Tink got me hooked on Showtime's "Weeds" (review to follow), and I scored a huge cache of 2000AD progs, so things have been a bit busy. :)
5. Pearl Penalosa (Ultra, Image): Neanderthals of the comics industry, take note - this is how you write women in the 21st century superhero genre. I don't think many people expected Joshua and Jonathan Luna to debut as strongly as they did with this Image miniseries, which depicts the everyday lives of three superheroines looking for love. The Lunas reportedly pitched their story as "Sex and the City meets Powers", and there's a degree of truth to that, except that those two templates tend to focus exclusively on one theme: with "Powers" it's violence, with "Sex and the City"... well, the name says it all, really. "Ultra" goes beyond that restriction, while keeping the problems Pearl and her friends face very true-to-life and genuine, without the reverence (or, in defiance of that, irreverence) that accompanies mainstream spandex stories. They were women first, superheroes second.
6. Edie Sawyer (X-Force, Marvel): Edie Sawyer was not a good person. She and the other members of Peter Milligan's X-Force were mutants, but Claremont would have a seizure if he'd seen them - loud, obnoxious, amoral celebrities who drank, used drugs, and had a turnover rate higher than just about any Marvel series. Edie stands out, though; despite her outrageous behavior, there was something accessible about her,especially when we'd catch glimpses of her life before she became a member of X-Force. And her death - a meaningless accident - resonated with the team long after they'd supposedly moved on. I put Edie on this list because, to me, she represents a certain breakthrough in female characterization; she's a very flawed individual, but she's not vilified for those flaws, as Jean Grey was, nor are the unhappy circumstances of her life exaggerated to make her a whore or an unsympathetic bitch. I should probably note that this place was originally occupied by Jessica Jones, an even greater representative of the notion that women can be imperfect without spiralling into madness or evil (or both), but as much as I loved her in "Alias", this list would require me to take "The Pulse" into account, and I'm more comfortable disavowing anything Bendis did with the character once "Alias" concluded. Edie wins out by virtue of consistency.
Friday, June 1, 2007
3. Christine Spar ("Grendel: Devil's Legacy", Dark Horse): You've heard this story a hundred times before. Tragedy strikes a family, leaving a sole survivor who dons a mask and stalks the streets, seeking vengeance. Batman. Punisher. Daredevil. The Crow. Here's the thing, though: women don't usually get in on that action. Oh, there's no lack of vengeful women in comics, but that urge for payback is usually expressed in subtler (or more over-the-top) forms. It's very, very rare for a woman to pick up a sword or a gun and actively avenge herself; how fortunate, then, that Matt Wagner has provided us with Christine Spar, heir to the mantle of Grendel in "Devil's Legacy".
A bit of backstory is needed for this one: Christine was the granddaughter of Hunter Rose, a highly intelligent socialite who, out of boredom, became the criminal mastermind Grendel (oftimes referred to as "the Devil"). When his adopted daughter, Stacy Palumbo, learned who he really was, she went mad and orchestrated his demise. Christine was born to the unstable Stacy and spent her life trying to extricate herself from her bloodstained legacy... until her son was kidnapped. Frustrated by the failure of law enforcement, Christine did the unthinkable and stole Rose's mask and signature pitchfork, becoming Grendel herself and wreaking mayhem on her enemies' lives.
Christine is a rare example of a legacy character who sidesteps the archetype of the weaker, distaff ripoff. Her identity is, on the one hand, inherited from Hunter Rose, but she quickly establishes herself as the antihero Hunter Rose never could have been. What's more, every Grendel that follows her in the line of succession inherits Christine's rage at the corrupt society around her and is motivated to change it, rather than indulge in the sort of playful scheming that made Rose a master criminal. It's ultimately her legacy, not Rose's, that shapes the destiny of the world.
4. Anne Merkel (Why I Hate Saturn, Vertigo): Anne doesn't break any paradigms. She's not the first credible female lead in a sci-fi magazine, she's not the first woman to lead a superteam, and she's not the first legacy character to overpower the shadow of her template. Anne Merkel is just a snarky, witty, down-to-earth lady who reacts to atypical situations in typical ways. I know women like Anne; I see myself in Anne. And even as Kyle Baker draws her into an adventure that can best be described as "wacky", she retains that sense of normality, of being an average real-life woman. There's nothing special or unique about her at all, and that's the whole appeal of her character.