Tuesday, July 23, 2013

More Moore part 21: The Killing Joke

The Killing Joke (1988)

I don't like The Killing Joke.

I figured I'd get that out of the way first thing. Barring a dark horse that I expect to be bad coming out of nowhere as a masterpiece, like if "Violator vs. Badrock" is the true successor to Watchmen, I suspect this will be my most controversial opinion for the duration of this series. Everyone loves The Killing Joke, from Batman fans, to Joker fans, to industry insiders, to people who have never read a single issue of Batman outside of this one. It's dark, it's edgy, and even I have to admit it's stunningly well-drawn. But to this critic, that's all it is, and stripped of Brian Bolland's painstakingly detailed artwork, there's just nothing underneath.

Granted, there is one other person who agrees with this sentiment: Mr. Moore himself. He's been quoted with his dissatisfaction on the work as well, calling it, "[not] a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting." So where's the problem? Why is The Killing Joke hailed as such a game-changer if it doesn't have anything interesting to say?

The Killing Joke was designed, from its very start, as the quintessential Joker story. Like Watchmen it cuts back and forth between the past and the present through flashbacks, to flesh out the Joker origin story first dreamed up in 1951s "The Man Behind the Red Hood" in which Batman discovers that Red Hood, a criminal from his past that he could never catch, was The Joker, pre-chemical bath. Moore takes the story's thin premise and expands on it, giving Joker his origin as a failing comedian, so desperate to make ends meet that he agrees to put on the red hood and ends up taking a bath after a botched robbery attempt. Now in the present, Joker attempts to make Commissioner Gordon's mind snap like his did, by taking away everything that Gordon holds dear, most notoriously by blasting Barbara 'Batgirl' Gordon through the spine, paralyzing her for the next 23 years until the New 52 reboot. Gordon shows his mettle by not buckling under the pressure of Joker's sick game, and when Joker is cornered by Batman, the police closing in, the worst he can do to the Dark Knight is tell a joke (admittedly, a pretty funny joke) before he's presumably taken away, off-panel, at the end.

And the problem woth the novel is that there's just not much more plot to tell. It's thin before it even gets off the ground, and no amount of violent realism is going to change that, because The Joker's already been done violently before this, most notably in Frank Miller's 1986 The Dark Knight Returns Denny O'Neil's 1973 "The Joker's Five Way Revenge". Brian Bolland's art is better than either of those works, sure, but it's not backing up anything of substance, just cheap violence to shock and titillate readers who could have read gritty, 'realistic' works with more meat on them long before. The Killing Joke actually reads like an Alan Moore wannabe, like some fledgeling author caught up in the majesty of Watchmen who wanted to tell a similar story without knowing how. It feels cheap, gaudy, a swipe for the lowest common denominator that Alan proved on his very first major work he was already above. It's that cynicism that makes The Killing Joke less than The Ballad of Halo Jones, because though Halo was boring, it had a heart that Joke lacks. Halo Jones is just a dull book, whereas The Killing Joke is an offensive one, a too-little-too-late bit of hackwork that gives us almost nothing worth remembering. Almost

And that almost is the one positive from this whole debacle: in shooting out Barbara Gordon's spine, Moore laid the groundwork for the character to become a very positive, sympathetic character that DC most certainly needed: as wheelchair-bound information broker Oracle, Barbara was strong-willed, brilliant, and able to overcome any limitations put on her, a positive role model for girls and the disabled in a medium that often has trouble with both, let alone at the same time. I won't deny it: 20 years after The Killing Joke, when Babs lifted herself out of her chair and beat down Spy Smasher even with two useless limbs in the pages of Birds of Prey, I cheered. And then of course 3 years later the reboot happened and now she walks again. Oh well.

We started off with a Moore quote and we'll end with one too: "...there've been worse Batman books than The Killing Joke." The sentiment is absolutely true of course; for as much as I give the book a hard time, there were worse Batman stories before, and worse after, by droves. Mostly the feeling I get from the Killing Joke is disappointment: Brian Bolland is a brilliant artist and Alan Moore is a brilliant writer, so they should have made something equal to the home runs that Moore had already hit: 1988's Watchmen or Swamp Thing or Marvelman. but instead we got a slight, nasty piece of work that would be repeated over and over for the next 23 years by authors who wanted to be 'dark' and 'edgy' like Alan Moore without recognizing the humanity underneath that made his works so brilliant. Maybe someone can give a really strong, persuasive argument to the merits of The Killing Joke, but as of now it's just something unpleasant.


Best quote: "All these years and I don't know who he is any more than he knows who I am./How can two people hate each other so much without knowing each other?"


Up next: The little things. DC short works.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

More Moore part 20: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (1986)

As previously stated, 1986's Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot changed the face of DC forever...for a little while. At the time though, it was a pretty radical direction to take with their 50-year-old property, to dump everything and essentially start over. In September of '86, after the Crisis but before the official reboot, the decision was made by longtime DC editor Julius Schwartz to give Superman a sort of proto-Elseworlds treatment with his last two issues before the reboot hit, a "what if?" closing out the stories of Superman, his friends, and his foes before the post-Crisis world fully began. Schwartz originally wanted Superman creator Jerry Siegel and Curt Swan, who had then been drawing the character since 1948, to take a crack at the 'last issue', but Siegel wasn't able to work on the book due to legal hoops that needed jumping through, so our ol' buddy, our ol' pal Alan Moore, then flush with success from Swamp Thing and about to launch into the stratosphere with Watchmen (chapter one of which came out the same day as chapter one of ...Man of Tomorrow) was given a crack at writing the final chapter in pre-reboot Superman. The result is Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, partly-groundbreaking, partly-safe, a Superman story where nearly everyone ends up dead that still feels innocuous and even a little forgettable. But is it bad? Not really, it's just proof-positive that they can't all be knocked out of the park, even with a character as iconic as Superman.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? uses a framing story an interview with a middle-aged Lois Lane, with all the main action taking place in Lois' flashbacks about the day that Superman vanished. Lois is now married with a child, as Lois Elliot to her husband's Jordan Elliot, which is about as clever as the Devil in Angel Heart calling himself Louis Cypher, so I don't blame you if you figure out the plot twist in the first couple panels. Her story details all of Superman's enemies suddenly getting more vicious and homicidal, goofy b-listers like Bizarro (and d-listers like the Fearsome Funsters) picking off Superman's pals and even outing Clark Kent as the Man of Steel early on in the plot. While Supes has his hands full of the losers, the real threats in his rogue's gallery start to stir as well; Lex Luthor's brain and body are hijacked by Braniac, who leads an assault on the Fortress of Solitude to eliminate Superman once and for all.

Even early going, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? has a surprisingly high body count for a Superman story, though merely average for an Alan Moore one. Pete Ross, Kryptonite Man, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, even super-dog Krypto (with no tears shed from me) all bite the dust as Braniac-Luthor assaults the Fortress. He seals off the area in an indestructible bubble, which leads to a great scene of the Justice League trying to superpower their way in...Batman and Robin reduced to hitting the thing with clubs. Moments before her own death, Lana actually manages to break Luthor's neck...and in easily the most chilling moment in the novel, Lex rises again, his dead body still manipulated by Braniac until rigor mortis sets in.

With the dust cleared and everyone pretty much dead, it's revealed that the one behind all the death and destruction is none other than Mr. Mxyzptlk, the prankster god of the Superman world  who, like Bizarro, is usually confined to goofing around until Supes gets tired of his annoyances and banishes him back to the Fifth Dimension. Well after 2000 years of being a magical pain in the ass, Mxy has decided to try being evil, so he manipulated minds and events to bring down all the terrible things that have happened so far, which I have to admit I actually kind of enjoy as a motivation. It gives him an arbitrary cruelty somewhat like The Joker, and fits in nicely with my earlier assessment of Superman's trickster god status, like Loki or Susa-no-o. Superman wins in the end, of course, but only by breaking his own rule and killing Mxyzptlk. Grief-stricken, Superman walks into a vault of Gold Kryptonite, stripping himself of his powers, and vanishes. We cut back to modern day, where Lois finishes her interview and her husband Jordan grins like a doofus and winks to the camera. Curtain call, goodnight Superman.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is the closest Moore's ever come to doing a kind of Christmas special-type comic like A Christmas Story. Even with the body count, it feels surprisingly safe and corny, with Curt Swan's silver age style artwork not helping to diffuse that feeling (though incidentally I wonder what his thoughts were killing all these characters that he had a hand in making what they eventually became). I used to loathe it, it was possibly the first Alan Moore comic I really didn't like, though looking back at it now I don't know, it's not so bad really. Like those selfsame Christmas specials, it's hokey and will make your eyes roll, but it's not a bad way to close that chapter in Superman's life and is kind of a fun look back at his first 50 years. It's incredibly slight, I had about as much to talk about in the entire novel as I did with a couple chapters of Watchmen, but it never overstays its welcome. Moore was asked to finish off Superman before the reboot, and he did alright. Ten years after this, in the midst of the '90s, this might even look like one of his highlights.


Best quote: Now, two thousand years later, I'm bored again. I need a change. Starting with your death, I shall spend the next two millennia being evil! After that, who knows? Perhaps I'll try being guilty for a while."


Up next: Being mad isn't bad in The Killing Joke

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

More Moore part 19: Watchmen chapters 10-12

Watchmen chapters 10-12 (1987)

"After so much music, love, and flowers, she felt benumbed/Thunder struck by this psychedelic Götterdämmerung." - M. Torgoff


By chapter ten, Watchmen is in a free-fall. The crystal that formed the first half of the book, that began to shatter in the early going of the second, has turned organic, a spectracolored mess of pulp and bone. The shifts and changes are still there, but they're frantic, schizophrenic, slipping from the muddy browns and reds of Rorschach and Nite Owl in Archie to the garish carnival colors of Ozymandias' Antarctic retreat. When Tales of the Black Freighter appears unannounced among the creeping paranoia, it takes a moment to register that we've gone into a different comic; the main character's ragged, hurried stares don't look much different than Rorschach's near-catatonia. Now instead of the meter ticking back and forth between scenes and colors like a metronome, each scene has its own individual palette, saturated in reds and browns, browns and purples, or blues and yellows. Thematically, chapter ten is the journey to finally discover who killed Edward Blake, and put to rest the mystery that had begun in the second panel of the first chapter. And that the reveal is so anti-climactic I have no doubt is part of Ozymandias' game: once Ozy is revealed to be the killer, he starts to talk...and talk...and talk... to anyone who will listen, and I have no doubt that he engineered Rorschach and Nite Owl to find the one thread in his plan just so he had someone to brag to. I'm almost surprised that he didn't leave the password already entered on the computer, just waiting for Daniel to hit enter.

Ozy's biggest speeches come in chapter eleven, 'Look on my Works, Ye Mighty' which mostly functions as his origin issue, and most certainly is the wordiest chapter of the entire novel. Ozymandias tells his story, first to  his beloved pet Bubastis, then to his servants as he drugs their drinks to keep their spirits in his fortress forever, and finally to Rorschach and Nite Owl as they arrive and are quickly pacified by the Smartest Man in the World. Ozymandias' plot is simple: he removed Dr. Manhattan from the equation to ratchet up world tension, and then teleported a fake alien into New York as a sort of organic atomic bomb, as an invasion from outer space to deflate the tension, hopefully permanently. In the world of 'realistic' comic books this strikes one as absurd, but it's also a perfect comic book scheme, something a pulp villain would try to do to take over the world, but instead done by a delusional superhero to try and bully the world powers into peace. And because Ozymandias is a pulp villain planted into the real world, he doesn't blab his plan to the heroes, giving them time to stop it...he already carried it out before they even arrived (I always liked the fact that, if you pay attention, you can see him teleport the creature away at the very beginning of the chapter, no ceremony, not even any dialog...a finger on a button and it's done).

And of course the ridiculous part of all of this is the fact that it works. Rorschach and Nite Owl find themselves completely helpless at the end of chapter eleven, and chapter twelve opens with six beautiful full-page illustrations of New York in utter ruins, the creature's psychic shockwaves having killed millions. Among the wreckage you can see several minor characters we've grown to know, charred and lifeless, and if the pages don't quite reach the level of horror seen at the climax of Marvelman, it's that recognition that sets it apart: Marvelman is a story about gods, and Watchmen is a story about men. While Kid Marvelman's rampage was unspeakably vicious, it was against the faceless population of London. Here we can see the two Bernies, Rorschach's psychiatrist, knot-tops, a Gunga Diner waitress, the fighting lesbian couple...even as Ozymandias claims that killing millions will save billions, we see people we recognize among the throngs of dead, and we know that his methods are unforgivable. However, as news reports flood in, there's no question that Ozy's fix worked, if only temporarily...the nations are laying down their arms to defend against an attack from the unknown.The world was swindled into peace. Rorschach, absolutionist that he is, would never live such a lie of course, and so he's permanently removed from the equation. Everyone else assumes new identities and moves on with their lives.

But is it enough? One of my favorite scenes, and among the biggest disappointments that they cut it from the movie, was Ozymandias' final conversation with Dr. Manhattan. The World's Smartest Man asks the story's one true superhuman if he made the right choice, if the fighting is really over, and Dr. Manhattan, the being that experiences time fractally, intones that 'nothing ever ends'. It humanizes Adrian, strips him of his ego in the very last scene he's featured in, and shows us a man that, underneath the posturing and speeches and grand plans, really does want to help the world. That it was cut from the movie damaged Ozy's character irreparably, because it's the only time we see Adrian Veidt as he truly is. And of course Dr. Manhattan's final words set up the last panels of the novel, with one of the survivors of the attack about to put his hand on Rorschach's journal, which spells Ozy's whole scheme out page by page. But even if he picked it up, would anyone believe it? Or is all of Ozymandias' planning about to crumble before the dust has even settled?

We're nearly 30 years on since Watchmen was published, and countless numbers of clones have sprung up. Yet the story is still visceral and urgent. It still is all sharp edges and teeth. The dialog is still shocking, and the clones that have come since still pale in comparison to the one true king. Watchmen is a reflection of Marvelman, Moore's first foray into the graphic novel realm: each book is a treatise on what happens when the superhuman is out of control among the human, when Gods play sport with men. Marvelman sets its sights loftily, with the Gods in their palaces, looking on the men as playthings, whereas Watchmen is a view from the gutter, the men among the filth trying helplessly to stop the Gods. It may be that all these years later, to look at Watchmen with contempt is in vogue: no king can reign for so long without attracting those who claim he's been naked this entire time. The movie, all sound and fury signifying nothing, didn't help matters either (though there's little more enjoyable than the 3.5 hour long 'Ultimate Cut', a large bottle of something potent, and several friends who love the novel. A night well-had by all). But still to this day, when I crack open Watchmen, I am impressed by, even with all the 80s political caricature, its sense of timelessness. The king isn't dead yet, and may he live long.


Best quote: "But you'd regained interest in human life..."

"Yes I have. I think perhaps I'll create some."


Up next: Alan says good-bye to DC's first 50 years in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?