Blank Generation

A look at Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith

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European comics tend to be focused on stories serialized in about 8-10 pages in magazines such as 2000 AD, Warrior, or Heavy Metal, mostly in black and white. It’s a similar set up to that featured in the manga industry without the insane demands that are placed upon mangaka. The format can be somewhat tough many authors to adapt too. At this point they would have clawed their way through tons of short comics (in the case of 2000 AD these short comics are its Future Shocks features which are short twist based Sci-Fi stories), and are suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar world of trying to make a long form series told in short pages. Despite the fact some of the formatting can lead to awkward storytelling, this is a seen as as a stepping stone in British comics almost every major British comic book author having worked on one series, and the format has given us some classics. For example the first 2/3 of both Alan Moores Miracleman and V for Vendetta were released in this format in Warrior magazine, and 2000 ADs most famous work Judge Dredd has reached an iconic status in the comic book industry.

One benefit that was granted to these authors despite the storytelling drawback was the lax attitude towards content. These stories were rife with violence and sexuality at a time when this content was boundary pushing and not played out. These comics were able to play with the tropes and context of many genres through a different light. It was punk debauchery mixed with heady science fiction equal parts titillating and thought provoking.

That brings us to the comic which we will talk about today Grant Morrison’s Zenith released in the late 1980s to the early 1990s at a time in which Morrison was just on the cusp of breaking out into the American comic book scene. In the passage of time it was published Morrison would begin working at DC and publish Animal Man and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. Zenith’s concept is an interesting one, and the thought process behind it is most comparable to the idea behind something like Boogiepop phantom. It’s a comic which was meant as a deliberate fusion between high art and loose comedy with the two main sources cited by Morrison being Watchmen and Strange Days, a lesser known work by Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy before the former broke out into American comics with his vertigo series Shade the Changing Man. It combines the superhero revisionism and alternate history concepts of Watchmen with Strange Days focus on British popular culture and fuses them into a single story beginning with a nuclear bombing of Berlin in an alternate history World War II before cutting to the present of the 1980s introducing us to our protagonist and slowly filling in the history of the world in bits and pieces over the course of 4 different books titled phases.

Phase 1 for the most part serves to detail the history of the world which is a part where Zenith truly shines. Morrison sets up a world in which superheroes of every era reflected their generation, with the first two the British Maximan and the Nazi Masterman being WWII soldiers, while the 1960s had Cloud 9 a group of supersoldiers who quit in protest of Vietnam and became hippie countercultural icons. Finally, there is Zenith who represents the 80s era of british pop, where punk had passed and the mindset was as Chris Ott described it, was simply to have extravagant fun. The first generation died in the Nuclear Blast in Berlin, while the second is mostly out of the picture at the start with the exception of two characters, Ruby Fox who works for a magazine, and Peter St. John a former hippie turned conservative politician.

The main thrust of phase one involves a clone of Masterman being rediscovered and becoming a host, for a Lovecraftian old one here referred to as a “many angled one” and later as a “llogier”, he attacks Ruby Fox who recruits Zenith and a fight ensues. It’s a story that for the most part works as a fun character study of both Zenith and Peter St. John. Zenith comes off as completely self absorbed, and dickish. He is the ultimate idea of a self absorbed superhuman, someone who feels more duty his hedonistic lifestyle and pop career than to any idea to save people. He only joins with Ruby Fox because she promises information on Zeniths dead parents. He is a dick but like the characters in Panty and Stocking he is relatable in a way. Its hard for the audience to really despise Zenith because for all his egotism he never really does anything to bad, he is at the most uncaring about the fate of the world. He serves as a pretty great contrast to Peter St. John who by far is the standout of the series. St. John is a great anti-hero someone who is incredibly devious and unafraid to murder to achieve his goals but who also does seem to give a shit about the world and what’s best for people. If Zenith is inactive St. John is active in all senses of the world. He is someone who is always planning ahead and the fights involving him emphasis his focus on telekinetic strategy. These fights feel almost like out of a shonen battle manga were the focus is on using powers strategically rather than a classic superhero brawl. St. John for all intents and purposes drives the story much more than Zenith.

For the most part outside of some of the battles involving St. John, Phase I is somewhat of a slog to go through at times. Its hard to judge the comics quality at times because the format in which I was reading it was so different than how it was released. For me what came across as a quick introduction of the character Siadwel (an alcoholic imbued with fire powers) who then is killed off for cheap affect would not have come across as such if the chapters were spaced months not minutes apart. In the format I read (that of a trade paperback) it felt predictable as in the course of three chapters Zenith goes from being careless about Siadwels life, to then caring about him, and finally after his death becoming so fueled by rage that he starts to give a shit and fight Masterman (this is all supposed to occur over the course of like an afternoon so it makes just about as little sense in the diegesis of the work as it does outside of it.)

Phase 2 fairs slightly better up to scrutiny as it takes a backseat from the overarching plot involving the Many Angled Ones and instead focuses on backstory and worldbuilding. It introduces for the first time into the plot Thomas Peyne who created the second generation superhumans and is convinced of them as the next step in the evolution of humanity. The main thrust of the plot involves a Richard Branson-esque billionaire preparing to blow up the world and take control using Zeniths child which he bred through the usage of two cloned superhumans, with the help of Thomas Peyne. Zenith is once again cajoled into helping solve this threat by a shadowmen a government psychic designed to fight superhumans. This shadowmen (or rather shadowomen) is quickly killed off though leaving Zenith to quickly stop giving a shit about saving the world so he can fuck the clone superhumans, that is until his life is threatened. Zenith though at the behest of St. John does end up saving the world in by far one of the comics most memorable and probably funniest scenes. Rather than through a fight or quick force Zenith simply walks into the room of the billionaire and points out all the flaws in his plans. It’s a bit of deconstructionism that works of multiple levels. It points out the holes in the work of many supervillains but its portrayal of a billionaire madman intent on saving the world pokes fun at Ozymandias from Watchmen. It portrays the billionaire who wants to save the world with a crazy scheme as not an intelligent calculated figure but as a pathetic, and eccentric man who obviously did not think the plan through. Finally the faith that Peyne puts in superheroes being the next step in evolution is undercut by Zeniths existence as he proves that superhumans are just as petty as humans.

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It also serves as set up to the next two phases of Zenith by introducing the concept of a multiverse to Zenith and a plot by the Many Angled Ones to take over the universe during an even called the alignment.

Phase III is by far the part of the work where I think Zenith truly shines as it sets itself up as a rip roaring multiverse crossover adventure featuring loads of 60-70s British superheroes including the Steel Claw, Hotspur, a parallel universe version of Zenith called Vertex who unlike Zenith, a pastiche of a classic British superhero character called Robot Archie here styled as “Acid Archie” who comes off as a groovy C3-P0, and the anarchist superhero group Black Flag, dressed up like members of various underground music subcultures. They are brought together by an alternate universe version of Maximan to prevent the Many Angled Ones from achieving their goal of controlling the Multiverse.

Eventually it is revealed that Maximan is secretly working for the Many Angled Ones and the heroes have to defeat the villains while St. John and Black Flag psychic face off against Maximan. Of all the parts of Zenith this one feels like the one Morrison had the most fun writing. Seeing him play all these British superheroes against each other essentially fighting Lovecraftian Deities is insanely fun and several moments are incredibly memorable. Acid Archies arrival with a dinosaur to rescue the day is a great moment for such an endearing character, the sacrifice of Vertex in which people mistake him for Zenith is a great send off to his character and seals him as a noble equivalent to Zenith, and of course the classic moment in any superhero crossover when all seems to be lost only for the superheroes to show up in the last moment is as badass as always.

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Phase 4 takes itself in a very different direction, almost being a long form version of a Future Shocks story. Through the eyes of Thomas Peyne who is slowly becoming younger we are told the story of the end of the world. How it came to be under the control of the remaining cloud 9 members besides Peter St. John. It contains numerous reveals and twists some of which work and some that don’t. For example Ruby Fox who in the first phase was portrayed as content to be a magazine editor without using her powers is here portrayed as dead set on world domination and the elimination of the human race AND apparently held these views in the 1960s. That is such a weird turn for that character its absolutely fucking insane to think about. On the other hand the final twist is absolutely genius. Morrison picks up a loose plot thread about a being created by the cloud 9 experiments turned into a crystal and fashions it into a stunning reveal. See the whole time we are lead to believe that the world of Zenith has essentially ended and has been taken over by the Cloud 9 members who have ascended to become Many Angled Ones themselves. It is then revealed though this is all a fiction and Peter St. John has trapped them in the crystal with Thomas Peyne, essentially letting them live out their fantasy within their own little world.

screenshot-168The series ends with Peter St. John becoming Prime Minister through killing off the Labour party leader and Zenith ending the series having learned essentially nothing ready for the next party and for a switch in career. He didn’t grow as a person all that much but there is a certain beauty to seeing the character turn out all right in the end and it underlines the main theme of Zenith, that of looking at generational conflict and pointing out that it is all pretty much bullshit. Cloud 9 turned out to be just as corrupt and evil as they come despite all their hippie ideals and even their nicest member St. John sold out and became a conniving politician who murders people. Zenith is portrayed as no nicer the epitome of the soulless culture of the 80s all intent on enjoying life to its fullest without trying to help anyone. While that is the main message other ideas about generations our explored such as with Thomas Peyne who through the course of Phase 4 is shown to regret what, his metaphorical children Cloud 9 has done to the world, and how he becomes less and less concerned with what has happened as his body and mind becomes younger and younger. It’s even more interesting that the main villains of the plot the Many Angled Ones our portrayed as timeless essentially showing us that the many issues that face each generation inevitably face almost all generations.

My experience with Zenith left me feeling a lot like Zenith feeled at the end of my story, that I on some level went through some shit but wasn’t changed all that much. It felt fun and tense but never special. It’s a work that I feel is best enjoyed from the perspective of a Morrison fan looking at his history or as a fan of 2000 AD rather than as a pinnacle of Morrisons work.

Anyway its been a while since I posted so its nice to get back in the swing of things. Here’s to another year of shitty writings on media I enjoy.

Further Reading

Suggested for Mature Readers did a great series on Zenith here

Chriss Ott on the 1980s Pop music scene

Grant Morrisons book on superheroes/autobio

Batman in the 1980s-Part 2: Hello, I’ve Come to Talk

A look at the Killing Joke

When it comes to the Killing Joke an entire girth of articles have been written about it and its place in pop culture. Its recent animated adaption was possibly the biggest train wreck of any of the DC animated movies, made all the more funny by how hard DC tried to promote it. The adaptation tried to “fix” some of the problems with the most controversial element of the story, the crippling of Barbara Gordon, in some of the most wrongheaded ways possible. One could write another complete post pointing out everything wrong with the film but I am more fascinated by the buzz surrounding the film and the debate that sprung up on whether or not it should be adapted given the ugliness and bleakness of the source material. While Moores work is generally respected this one tends to be the outlier, with a vocal group of people expressing dislike for the book, including Moore himself. He has being quoted as saying “I’ve never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it. It was too nasty, it was too physically violent

By the standards of Moore it is an exceptionally bleak work. Moore’s work especially in the 80s had a darkness to it but in most works there was just as much humanity, humor, and levity as there was bleakness, and depravity. Watchmen, Miracleman, and V for Vendetta are all works that cover the broad spectrum of human emotion and none of them ends as bleakly as the Killing Joke does. It has been theorized by some people that this bleakness may have been a result of his relationship with DC at the time falling apart. Various reports abound over the process of creating the Killing Joke, including that it was done almost solely as a favor for the artist Brain Bolland, or that it started out as an anthology story before being moved to prestige format. Overall it’s hard to pin down what exactly was going on behind the scenes at the time with Moore but one does get a sense he was getting fed up with superheroes at this point. For example his work on Miracleman at the time began to take a turn from superhero deconstructionism to sci-fi utopianism seemingly stating that superheroes would do better working to create a utopia than simply fighting villains. The Killing Joke seemed to be everything Moore saw wrong with Superheroes and one can also feel he to create an end point for the Batman/Joker dynamic (a big obsession with Moore at the time regarding superheroes was creating endings for them as can be seen in his pitch for Twilight of the Gods).

If Dark Knight Returns was Batman filtered through Death Wish, and urban vigilante movies, the Killing Joke is Batman filtered through Greek tragedy, the Book of Job, and horror films. It reimagines the Batman/Joker dynamic as not one of larger than life characters fighting each other, but that of two sad broken men, one unable to help the other. It’s a work that brings the Joker to new levels of depravity but also sympathizes us with him.

For me that is really were the work shines best. True horror is always able to touch us on a level beyond just base shock values and implying that we are only “One bad day” away from becoming a monster like the Joker is incredibly scary. This is made all the more real when one realizes how many similarities there are between Jack (the Joker pre-chemical bath) and Alan Moore. Alan Moore when he was first starting out quit his job to pursue his dream of being a comic book artist. At the time he had a newborn child and a wife. This is incredibly similar to Jacks situation of quitting his job at the chemical plant to pursue his career of being a comedian, with his wife having a child on the way. Moore is able to construct with Jack possible one of the best origin stories of any supervillian ever and recontextualizes years of Joker stories into something completely different. It’s a far cry from Millers portrayal of the Joker, and for many people it is the one part of the book everyone agrees on is amazing.

The flashback sequences are weaved brilliantly into the book through some amazing transitions that are a part of any great Moore work. Doors close in the present only for the next panel to switch to another door in the past opening in another direction. Reflections in the present transition to reflections in the past and panels of laughter in the past lead into panels of laughter in the present. While Millers work was full of deliberately jarring transitions, impressionistic figures, and overstuffed panel layouts, in contrast Moore and Bolland’s work is realistic and precise with smooth transitions and well defined characters and locations.

Where Bollands work truly shines through is in his faces. Bolland has a very select talent in the industry of being able to truly express shock, horror, sadness, and pain with vivid detail. In the Killing Joke he is able to create some of his best work through his illustrations of the Joker. While he succeeds in making the horrific visage of the Joker look absolutely terrifying in some panels, I am most impressed by the ones which portray the Joker as a broken clown, putting on a fake smile meant to mask his inner turmoil.

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While we are on the subject of art one of the various debates that has sprung up on the internet is about the recolor of the work by Bolland in 2008. The recolor eschewed the bright rainbow of colors of the original for a more “realistic” color set.

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Many would argue that this fits the works dark subject matter better which I vehemently disagree with. The original coloring of the book is a sickly reflection of comic books of the time. The spectrum of jarring yellows, greens, reds, and purple serve to create a sense of surreal insanity. It’s the classic color pallet of comic books but oversaturated up to an uncomfortable degree emphasizing how this is a Batman/Joker story that’s amped up to a horrific level.

With the Killing Joke though one aspect of that horror is generally regarded as an Elephant in the Room. The crippling of Barbara Gordon is by far one of the most controversial moments in comic book history and it remains one of the most famous examples of “woman in refrigerators” to this day. It is a moment where Moore’s self-criticism of the book rings true. It is a moment that for many understandably represents a line that was crossed where Moore went too far. As much as I love the work, I do feel that the crippling is a moment that is unnecessary and does play into a lot of negative tropes about women in comic books.

Another aspect of the book that has caused much discussion in recent years is the ending and the question of whether or not batman kills the Joker a theory brought up by Grant Morrison in a an episode of Kevin Smith’s podcast “Fatman on Batman”. If one interprets the ending as the death of the Joker it serves as an effective capstone to the message of the work. Batman finally is broken at the end by the Joker and ends up killing him portraying the Batman/Joker relationship as one of two insane people forever fighting each other. The ending whether you believe he kills the Joker or not is supposed to tell the reader that in reality this eternal struggle is not one of epic fights and daring adventures, but a tragedy about two mentally ill that we should not find funny or entertaining.

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The Killing Joke is a work that on a pure storytelling level is fantastic, but it is also a work squarely of its time. The fan base that surrounds it and obsess over it, are the kind of people that I feel truly don’t understand its message. It’s a work that should make us look at the Batman/Joker relationship in a tragic light and not as “The ultimate Joker story”. It is the darkest one someone had taken Batman at that time, and for the 1980s the novelty of darkness was something new. Sadly the effect both DKR and the Killing Joke had on comic books was a negative one and for as groundbreaking as these works are they have caused the world of superheroes to become on not of childhood wonderment but of prurient violence and destruction. With that thought I leave you off with the two panels from issue 26 of Animal Man, the perfect criticism of the violence and grittiness that these works lead to.

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Batman in the 1980s-Part 1: The World Only Makes Sense when you Force it to

A look at the Dark Knight Returns.

There seems to be a weird reappraisal among comic book fans of some of the rather dark stories of the 1980s that redefined the genre. While you will be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t consider Watchmen to be a classic, other famous works of the era, notably Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s the Killing Joke, have had there reputation tarnished with time. Criticisms of both tend to stem from the same place, as both works bring to the characters to a new level of darkness, unexplored before in comic books at the time, and both have a really uncomfortable misogynistic treatment of woman within their pages. The Killing Joke suffers from this more than Dark Knight Returns and it’s a sad day when Frank Miller is able to say he has a more progressive portrayal of woman in his comic book (In fairness Miller himself only made the new Robin Carrie Kelly female by editorial mandate).

These works were also part of a trend in the 1980s to really redefine Batman’s comics into much darker and harsher titles. While Death in the Family could also be included among this list I think many people generally don’t have as much conflicted feeling about it as they do the other two titles I listed. It for most people is just regarded as kind of a mistake and as a story it really is cringy to read in the modern era, Joker being the ambassador of Iran and all.

I feel though that both of these titles deserve to be looked at through fresh eyes and see how they differ in various aspects. The portrayal of Batman, the portrayal of the Joker, etc. I also want to look at how both these books drastically affected the Batman mythos and really try and understand the point they were trying to get across.

To start I feel we should talk about the Dark Knight Returns and my complicated personal history with it. As a child I was very aware of its existence through various Wikipedia articles and from various histories on comic books I had read. But it was only when I got to be a sophomore that I first read the comic book. At the time I had just finished Watchmen for the first time and was incredibly eager to read more material like it. DKR seemed like the natural follow up given that when you talk about 80s superhero comic books it is generally regarded along with Watchmen as the defining comic of the decade. So I sat down read DKR and generally enjoyed it. Most of its politics I found went over my head a bit. I got the sense that Miller had some problems with women, and I felt it wasn’t as well written as Watchmenm but overall I liked it.

It remained in my mind for a long time though and as I grew more politically aware I constantly wondered what I would think about it when I reread it. That chance only came recently when I was on vacation in a place in central Ohio. I had shitty internet, and only a copy of Upton Sinclair’s “OIL!”, and Pokemon Crystal to entertain me. I did have however my copy of Dark Knight Returns which I had lent to my father to read. He however could not make it through as he felt the work was too dark for him.

So on one fateful night I sat down in the wee hours of the morning in a cabin in Central Ohio, and reread the Dark Knight Returns. When I came out the other end I had a billion thoughts and felt incredibly conflicted on it whether I liked it or not. I did feel though that with this reading I fully understood the work and what it was trying to say about Batman both as a person and as a myth.

As a person Miller explores Batman on a psychological level. He portrays Batman in the early chapters as a man who suffers from intense personal trauma and a repressed desire to be Batman and to fight crime. Bruce Wayne starts the work off as an alcoholic broken man constantly haunted by his past with a death wish, his desire to be Batman manifesting as a hallucination of a Bat. While we can surmise it is a part of Bruce’s internal psychosis it is framed in supernatural turns, a specter of his past that haunts him until he gives in returning to his cowl. When he returns he constantly seems to refer to any danger he is in as a “good death” emphasizing how he is at a point in his life where he desperately desires to die in some heroic way rather than wasting away in some alcoholic miasma of self-pity.

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This insanity is portrayed in a way that doesn’t lionize Batman at first. In fact the end of issue one draws a direct parallel between Two-Face and Batman. While both tried to give up their lives as both a superhero and a supervillian they both ended up succumbing to their insanity. As a self-contained story about two men who are unable to escape there tragic flaws it works brilliantly.

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From there Batmans psyche starts to be pushed to the back of the narrative. While the underlying death wish is still present throughout the story, Batmans becomes much surer of his actions and resolute in who he is. The only major exception to this is his fight with the Joker, one of the strongest moments of characterization throughout the work. Before the fight occurs Batman keeps swearing to himself that this is it, he will kill the Joker. When finally confronted with it he cannot bring himself to do it leaving the Joker to commit suicide in a way that frames Batman for his murder.

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As a myth Miller truly gets complicated in his portrayal. Batman is shown throughout the work as someone who morally stands apart from nearly everyone in Gotham. His resoluteness in his actions and incorruptible moral code are shown early to contrast with how many people in Gotham operate with many average people being portrayed as hypocrites, or people complicit in crimes by accepting them as “just the way it is”. One of the most apparent moments of this comes when Batman confronts a General about dealing arms to the Mutants gang to fund his wife’s cancer treatment. We only see the aftermath of this confrontation with the General shown to have killed himself, Batman holding his corpse draped in an American flag. The message it sends is that Batman’s moral standard is one that is too high for the modern world of corruption that so many people just accept.

Page upon page is spent on various commentators talking about Batmans effect on society whether it be positive or negative. Psychologists try and pin down his mental state while moms worry about his effect on children. All of this serves to parody the talk show filled climate of the 1980s characterizing them as devoid of substance and humanity. The only person who ever seems to express his/her feelings on the societal place of Batman in a way that is not subject to mockery is Jim Gordon who describes him as a akin historical figure, somebody whose actions is above all discussion of morality.

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Through all the debates in the comic and all the interpretations I feel this view from Gordon is the one that rings true to the spirit of the book. For Miller Batman just is, he is a great (great not as in good but as in larger than life) man whose politics cannot be judged in the same way we judge normal people.

Both his psychosis and his political statues are summed up in one single line “The world only makes sense when you force it to”. Said by Batman during the fight between Superman and Batman it is the thesis statement of the work. Its implications are very wide and do not seem to imply very nice things about both Batman and Frank Miller.

Behind that single line is a dark justification for fascist behavior that every person willing to excuse “strong leaders” for their brutal methods rely on. Behind that line is a statement that only through brutal force can the world be made sense of. Behind that line is the implication that might makes right, that at the end of the day only the strong deserve to rule.

It’s a line that is reflected throughout the book in the numerous fights that occur. In two fights in particular the fight with the Mutant Leader and the fight with Superman the implication of might makes right is made clear. In Miller’s world the brutal domination of your opponent is what gives you the right to lead. While Watchmen laid bare the unhealthy masculine ideas of power at the heart of many superhero stories, Dark Knight Returns revels in it. It suggests that this how real leadership is won, while portraying the actual leaders of the land as wimps, hiding behind veils of polite speech that covers up the uncomfortable horrors of what was happening in the world.

Both aspects of Batman, that of the tortured old man, and that of the myth are reborn at the end of the story. After faking his death Batman emerges underground with remnants of his army of ex-gang members ready to take on the American government and having finally gotten over his death wish commenting that “this will be a good life”

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While Batman’s arc is the center stage we are also treated to various stories about his side characters throughout the work. Jim Gordon is portrayed in the beginning as deuteragonist to Batman as the story follows his retirement from the GCPD force and his daily struggles with the Mutant gang. He manages to be one of the few people in the story who comes off as resolutely likeable. One part of his story though where he shoots a young mutant gang member comes off as very uncomfortable and awkward in the modern political climate.

Carrie Kelley the new Robin though is by far the most likeable character. A 13 year old girl with shitty hippie parents (we are treated to more Miller political satire through them) who runs away and becomes Robin is the perfect self-insert character for many teenagers reading the story. As it goes on though Miller does not shy away from the darker aspects of sidekicks. Batman at one point explicitly refers to her as a soldier and later panels show that she is almost irrevocably fucked up in the head by being Batman’s sidekick. What I find interesting is that when I first read the work I completely missed all of the commentary on sidekicks and thought she was just an uncomplicated fun self-insert character.

Catwoman shows up as the head of a Call Girl agency and for the most part has little to do with the story other than being uncomfortably brutalized by the Joker at one point. It’s by far one of the most egregious moments of misogyny in the book and further underlines Frank Millers problems with how he writes woman.

The Joker is portrayed as a figure of pure evil. In an interview once Frank Miller described how he and Alan Moore once got into an argument about the nature of the Joker. Frank favored a view he described as satanic, as an eternal figure of evil tormenting Batman while Moore favored a view that sympathized with the Joker as someone who was mentally ill. This difference in interpretation will become very apparent when we look at the Killing Joke. In the Dark Knight Returns, Joker awakens from a coma as a reaction to Batman’s return emphasizing how his purpose is as a figure of pure evil, forever dedicated to fucking with Batman. This is a Joker who is a silver tongued manipulator and not the cackling maniacal psychopath that he is commonly portrayed as. Its a more restrained Joker that im surprised did not catch on given how influential DKR is.

By far though the most radical interpretation of a character we have comes in the form of Superman. In the Dark Knight Returns he is shown to be the opposite of Batman, a man whose morals do not lead him to rebel against authority but to blindly follow it. He’s a patsy to a decrepit looking Ronald Reagan who is portrayed himself as a total idiot. Superman is a man who knows that he can do better but his dedication to authority leads him to follow terrible leaders. It’s a dark view of the character but not an ill-fitting one and it is shown rather unsubtly through his introduction where in the American flag leads into a close up of the superman symbol.

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In terms of structure and writing it’s hard to argue that Miller was not at the top of his game here. Panels lay crammed together overstuffing a page emphasizing how jarring the events in the comics are and how the media instantly turns events in passionless news stories, something that is shown in this video far better than I could express it.

Art wise Miller is also producing some great work. He draws the characters in his trademark short and stocky impressionistic style. While later his art would devolve into self-parody his drawings in DKR are able to portray brutality and make the impact of a punch work incredibly well. You really feel a lot of the violence in his scenes unlike in other comic books of the era

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For me Dark Knight Returns feels like the most interesting, well-written paper you have ever read that argues for a terrible position that you can’t stand. It’s a work that’s overall message it’s trying to push I find repugnant but the work itself is absolutely brilliant. I can see why it made as big of an impact as it did in the 1980s and it still holds up as one of the best Batman stories ever written.

In part 2 we will finish with a look at the Killing Joke.

Everybody wants Edgy

A look at why edginess appeals to people

For any critic on the internet edgy is an essential buzzword ready to be sprung like Bat Shark repellant from there Critic copter. Some have argued that it has become overused to a meaningless extend but for my money’s worth it still is a useful term. That being said I’m not here to ask whether it’s a good term but try and explain why I think edgy material appeals to many people.

To start I think its worthwhile to define what I consider edgy material. The best answer that I could come up with is material that uses controversial subject matter without fully understanding the ramifications of what using such subject matter entails. For example take a look at say The Boys by Garth Ennis’s use of violence vs the use of violence in Miracleman by Alan Moore. Both are used to produce a sort of gut reaction of shock from the reader but Miracleman underscores the violence with a real sense of weight. The first death we ever see in the series is of a woman named Stephanie. In here very short appearance she is humanized so we truly understand the absolute horror of what has occurred.

This idea of understanding the true pain and effects of violence lasts all the way until issue 15 of Miracleman which to this day stands as the most violent issue of a comic I have ever read. After some truly horrific panels detailing the true destruction that would be caused by a superhuman in reality it ends not on some brutal act of violence but on a sad reflection on those who have died and a reminder that one should not forgot horrific and tragic acts.

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On the other hand we have Garth Ennis whose sense of gore is based around pure shock value. It stems from a juvenile desire to see how fucked up one can go and we know little about the victims of said violence.

The point both are trying to get across is the same. A truly vile superhuman would be someone who would not care for people he perceived as weaker than them. But the difference is Garth while viewing these superhuman as despicable really doesn’t care about the people weaker than the heroes. Moore on the other hand does. It all comes down to not what is shown but how what is shown is contextualized in a larger work. That’s what makes something edgy.

Now that we determined what makes a work edgy we can start to look at what makes edginess appealing to a certain group of people. Freud theorized that human behavior is based of two drives Eros the sex drive, and Thanatos the death drive. Eros was in the broader sense was a desire to create and Thanatos was a desire to destroy (For the record this is an incredible oversimplification). While in modern psychology these like much of Freud’s work are largely considered bunk I do think on some level most humans have some fascination with both sex and death.

For teenager’s especially teenage boys this fascination is at its height. They’re at the perfect sweet spot where they are aware sex and violence, but do not truly understand them. With that mindset they can look at edgy art and appreciate it. They, like the works that I define as edgy lack context.

When I was a freshman in highschool I was a pretty big fan of a manga that was called Freezing. Its plot was basically EVA met Sekerei but dosed with more sex and a ton of gore. The characters frequently lost limbs in combat and the female characters were constantly shown in various modes of undress. It tried and failed pretty miserably to add sexual assault in the backstory of one of its characters and resolved that sexual assault in probably the worst way possible. It’s a work that I think I am more fascinated with because of what it said about me when I read it than the work itself. Out of all the terrible early anime and manga that I consumed I think it’s the one I think about the most looking back on it with a sense of nostalgia for ignorance I had. Its rather funny how much I thought that Freezing was some great mature work of art for all of its violence in sex when it was really my own immaturity that made me like it.

My point is twofold, that there is a reason why edginess appeals to a certain group of people and that for many people an interest in edgy material is just a phase.

Father of Steel

A look at Supermans reboot.

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I remember ages ago reading a quote about Superman concerning 1986 John Bryne penned reboot “Man of Steel” that stated one of the ideas was to move Superman away from being a father figure to more of an older brother.  At the time it must have been a fitting change given that Superman’s father figure persona was probably not the most appealing to the comic book audience of the 80s just getting a taste of the darkness that was seeping into comics. DKR’s portrayal of Superman as a pawn of the American government was easily seen as everything wrong and outdated with the character and by proxy the parents of comic book readers. He was the stereotypical American hero of the Greatest Generation. He fought for workers’ rights in the great depression as a heroic populist, joined the war effort in both the comic and in real life both fighting the Axis forces in the comics and advertising war bonds to American citizens. Then after the war he settled down into a sort of 50s values father figure but blown to epic proportions. He had his superdog Krypto, his niece Supergirl, a surrogate son with Jimmy Olsen, and his nagging girlfriend that he constantly feared commitment to Lois Lane.

Grant Morrison in his book Supergods theorized that the appeal of the 1950s Superman stories was that Superman was in a constant battle of personal stakes and issues. Every weird gimmick and trick would tie back into Superman’s and his extended group’s fragile psychosis. It was a reflection of the time given that without a common higher goal to fight (at least for white American males) there was no real threat but your inner self (or some nebulous communist menace). It was a 50s tv show filtered through the eyes of pre-psychedelic psychoanalysis and childhood imagination.

When the New 52 came around they strived with the Action Comics run to return superman to his 1930s social crusader statues as a hero of the people taking on corrupt businessman at first. And that too reflected the times with the movement of Occupy Wall Street gathering steam and protesting the economic inequality. At least for Morrison’s run this worked, as time went on the Superman comics kind of lost their way and culminated recently in the death of New 52 Superman. Replacing him is the 1986 post-crisis Superman surviving his worlds destruction, but with a twist. Now he’s a father raising a young son with Lois Lane.

It’s a return to Superman’s pre-80s statues as a father figure and it underlines DC Rebirths emphasis on returning the universe to its more classic roots. Rather than the conflicted New 52 Superman, Rebirths Superman is the perfect role model for his son. While at first this may seem like a step back to the 50s Superman it’s really not. 50s Superman was for all his power a rather uncertain and emotionally fucked up man reflecting his status as a surrogate for all the fears and desires of the stereotypical 50s father. This is Superman as not the flawed, insecure father of the 50s but as really the perfect parent standing for everything right in the world.

It’s a return to Superman as an ideal, though not in the usual way. He is no longer an untouchable godlike ideal that we strive for but rather an ideal father and family man. It’s a more human Superman but one that still manages to be conflicted. It touches him into reality without making him the tortured someone callous man he was in the New 52. It achieves making Superman more “human” (something that DC has been trying to achieve) without ruining what makes him special*. He’s the Man of Tomorrow, but he is still trying to raise a kid like everyone else to the best of his ability.

*For the record it has been achieved before, Max Landis Superman: American Alien is among the best comic books of the past few years and its entirely based around a more human Superman.