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X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014 Director: Bryan Singer

The first 10 minutes of Days of Future Past were pure fan service, delivering cool moment after cool moment and making this X-Men fan boy squee uncontrollably.

I’ve largely enjoyed Fox’s X-Men movie franchise (with the exception of The Last Stand which is pure garbage) but I very early on had to separate them from the X-Men I know and love from the comics. The X-Men films were largely their own thing, much more like a conventional action movie than a translation of the storytelling style of the comics to screen.  This is fine of course. When you adapt something from one medium to another, changes will occur and that’s a good thing. You also have to remember that X-Men was basically the first film that kicked off the modern age of super-hero films. They were taking a big risk adapting the X-Men and were understandably cautious about many of the things they were trying. Hence the all black costumes, the action scenes which borrow far more from the Matrix than from X-Men comics and the original plot rather than any attempt to adapt an existing comics storyline.

Times have moved on though. Captain America can wear his comic book costume in all its four color glory in The Avengers and no one bats an eye. Super-heroes are common and accepted by audiences now and so you can push the boat on what aspects of the comics you use in your film rather than trying to be conservative.

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As such that first few minutes gave me teams of mutants, working together and using their powers in interesting ways! Costumes with colour and that aren’t just black uniforms. Blink! Goddamn Blink in all her pink face tattooed glory. The Blackbird! Sentinels! Iceman using Ice slides! ICE MOTHERFUCKING SLIDES! I was in nerdvana let me tell you.

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The scenes with the future X-Men bookend the film but the confidence that you can take the audience further and do more daring things than a conventional action film permeates the rest of the movie. One of my favourite things about super-heroes is the creative ways their powers can be employed and X-Men: DOFP is full of scenes that show this off in startlingly original and visual ways. Blink’s portal powers are stunning and some of the stuff Magneto does is very clever but the real star of the show is Evan Peters’ Quicksilver who gets one of the most unique set pieces in action movie history and absolutely steals every scene he’s in.

There’s more fan-service too including cameos from basically every X-Man to appear in the franchise thus far (the only omissions are Nightcrawler because Alan Cummings wasn’t prepared to undergo the make-up again for a cameo and Angel because everyone wants to forget Last Stand.) and plenty of Easter Eggs.

But the fan-service stuff is mostly confined to the beginning and end of the film. For most of its running time the story it’s telling is at once not at all like the X-Men and actually something right at the core of the franchise.

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X-Men: DOFP is of course an adaptation of the seminal “Days of Future Past” story-arc by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. In that tale, Kitty Pryde is sent back in time from an apocalyptic future to stop Mystique from killing Senator Kelly. Kelly was an advocate for a piece of legislation called the Mutant Registration Act and his death increases anti-mutant sentiment which leads to more support for the Sentinel Programme (a programme that builds giant mutant hunting robots) and eventually to the apocalyptic future.

X-Men: DOFP starts from the same premise with a few tweaks. Rather than killing Senator Kelly Mystique is trying to kill Bolivar Trask, the creator of the sentinel programme because Kelly is dead in the movie continuity. Also rather than Kitty Pryde being sent back it’s Wolverine. Whilst I am annoyed that both the character of Kitty Pryde and Ellen Paige’s performance get thrown under a bus in favour of more Wolverine I completely understand the film maker’s decision to use him. He is by far the biggest and most popular character in the franchise whereas most viewers might not even remember who Kitty Pryde is from her brief screen time in X3. Also if we use the mind transfer plot device from the comics then the only candidates for time travel are Wolverine, Magneto and Prof X and obviously the film wants to be about the 1970’s versions of Prof X and Magneto so that only leaves Wolverine. To make up for it Kitty randomly gets new “I can send people back in time powers” that she nicks off Rachel Grey. Because adding Rachel Grey to the movie continuity would have been way more of a headache than was worth it for anyone.

DF-11515   Peter Dinklage is Dr.Bolivar Trask in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Wolverine doesn’t actually get to do a huge amount in the film though. He gets some nice making fun of the 70’s gags but he’s largely just there to move the plot along after that and have some short character stuff with Ryker. He doesn’t even get into a decent fight scene which seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity (although we do have 5 films of Wolverine fight scenes already). In fact most of the characters in this film exist either to move the plot along or to have a brief cameo and do something cool with their powers. Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask, for example, is supposed to be our villain but he plays basically no part in the climax and has only one direct confrontation with the heroes. He gets juuuuust enough screen time so that he comes across not as a one dimensional villain and Dinklage is one of those charismatic actors that makes their character feel real and lived in even without much screen time.

 

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In fact, the acting in this film is uniformly excellent. The X-Men films have generally been graced with excellent casting as one of their strengths. One of the reason’s the first three worked as well as they did is that old pros like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen can elevate a poorly written script with very well considered performances.  DOFP is no different and the film is generally at its best when it just lets two performers in a scene act at each other. There isn’t anything in here to hit the heights of ‘Magneto Nazi Hunter’ but stuff like McAvoy and Stewart’s cross time Xavier meet-up is joyous and McAvoy and Fassbender retain their fascinating screen chemistry.

And it’s a good thing they do because for most of the film this is a triple header between James McAvoy’s young Professor X, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique.

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The film set’s these three up as a trinity opposed along different extremes with at various times one character in the centre, generally Mystique. So for example Mystique is the active character for most of the first act opposed to Magneto imprisoned in a cell and Xavier imprisoned in drugs and emotional crisis. Then we get Xavier preaching non-violence in stopping Mystique opposed to Magneto wanting to kill her and Mystique as the target. Or we get Magneto as a proud mutant who wears a costume proclaiming it versus Mystique who is a proud mutant but can hide who she is versus Professor X who is literally taking a drug so that he stops being a mutant.*

The main trinity of course is between Xavier’s dream on one hand, Magneto’s on the other and Mystique in the middle, someone who was part of the X-Men and part of Magneto’s Brotherhood but is now striking out on her own. Xavier tries to win Mystique back to his side, of a dream that mutants and humans will co-exist and that the best way to do this is to set a good example, showing humans they can be heroes and saviours. Magneto argues that humans will never trust mutants and the only way to survive is to instil a terror of mutants in the humans, to set themselves up as rulers so the humans are powerless to attack them. Mystique sits in the middle, wanting a better world for mutants but unsure of the method to achieve it. She is pragmatic and cynical in what she is prepared to do but she has not yet killed to get what she wants, not yet crossed the line into terrorism and it’s the battle for Mystique’s soul that the film really concerns itself it with.

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This battle of course is one of the driving forces in the X-Men comics but despite Magneto being in 4 X-Men films to date this is the first one to really concern itself with that central issue. And unlike many X-Men stories where you are inherently on Prof X’s side the film plays fair with it. Magneto’s viewpoint is bolstered by the fact that the future where Human’s hunt Mutant’s to extinction happens, it’s shown to us at the start of the film and despite everything Xavier and Magneto do it still seems to be inevitable. And yet the day is ultimately saved when Mystique chooses Xavier’s path, showing compassion for her enemies and not giving in to violence to achieve her arms. It’s only when they truly give Xavier’s dream a shot that the future becomes a better place.

The 70’s setting gives this theme a rich resonance too with the dreamers of the 60’s the civil rights activists, sexual revolutionaries and of course the X-Men literally destroyed by the Vietnam war leaving a more cynical, less compassionate and more pessimistic America in its wake. First Class did something similar using the backdrop of the sexual revolution of the 60’s and the Cuban missile crisis to give the illusion of depth to its story but First Class basically rhymed with history to seem smart. DOFP in contrast has actual themes which parallel history but could also equally apply to today. The whole Sentinel aspect, for example, could be read as a cry to use compassion in winning the war on terror rather than drone strikes.

It’s this thematic depth that ultimately makes DOFP stand above any of the other X-Men films, and indeed most Super-Hero films. I’d still probably rate X2 as the most entertaining X-Men film and the best composed as an action piece but for what its worth I think DOFP might be the best X-Men film now.

It’s not without weaknesses though. A Super-Hero film necessitates action and DOFP seems to know this but to be singularly uninterested in it. Sure enough an action scene comes along approximately every 10 minutes according to some script writing guide somewhere but most of them are perfunctory and devoid of tension or excitement. Mystique beating up the ambassador for example is neither exciting, nor tense, nor an interesting use of her powers, nor building of character. It is a scene that exists purely because we haven’t seen anybody hit something for a while and it’s exactly the kind of Hollywood laziness that DOFP generally avoids. DOFP has three and a half really good, inventive and well shot action sequences but it really needed one more. Still that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent film.

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*As an aside this plot point is something of a stroke of genius. Clearly at some stage two production/story problems emerged. Firstly they were going to have one of their main characters in a wheel chair, which causes a nightmare for the production and lots of headaches that I’m sure they’d rather not have to deal with. Secondly Xavier’s power set is so powerful that he could legitimately end the story in about 5 minutes if he was working at full capacity. The plot device that the “cure” for Xavier’s paralysis dampens his psychic abilities not only deals with both issues at a stroke but it adds the idea of Xavier as a kind of metaphor for the downfall of hippies as the 70’s rolled in. His ideals of peace and love have decayed into drug abuse and mental problems. His self-identity as a mutant/hippie/campaigner has been crushed much like the dreams of hippies everywhere were by Vietnam. It’s an inspired McGuffin.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

X-Men DOFP is the first example I can think of where a film employs a ret-con. For those who don’t know a ret-con is short for retroactive continuity and it basically means that what you saw before in a story didn’t happen the way you thought you saw it. A good example from comics is Swamp Thing. Originally conceived as Alec Holland, a scientist who was reborn as swamp monster after an experiment gone awry Alan Moore ret-conned the origin so that Alec Holland died and the Swamp Monster created by the experiment merely thought it was Alec Holland.

Other films, especially sequels, have played fast and loose with continuity before and chosen to ignore other films in the series. Superman Returns, for example, is a sequel to Superman and Superman 2 but ignores Superman 3 and 4. DOFP however is the only film I can think of that provides a reason in the context of the story for how one of the previous films you watched, namely Last Stand, never happened. Basically it uses time travel as an excuse to undo the huge amount of damage that disaster did to the franchise. This made me happy, really happy. We might never get a film set in the timeline of the first 3 films again but if the future shown for he X-Men in DOFP is all we get I’ll still be satisfied.

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The 70′s setting is realised quite well until we get to the Sentinels who in no way shape or form look a thing like 1970′s technology. They look like I-Pods with guns.

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The X-Men films have not been shy of plundering the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe for some obscure characters before (First Class had Azazel  in it for fuck’s sake from the one X-Men story we all collectively decided did not happen the moment it ended) but I still cannot believe that Ink is in this film. He gets no dialogue and nobody names him or explains his deal but that is unmistakeably Ink. For those who don’t know Ink his power is that whenever he gets a tattoo he gets a new super-power that relates to the image of the tattoo. Now X-Men fans are prepared to accept as part of the suspension of disbelief that mutant powers can give you such diverse super powers as the ability to teleport through space, the ability to absorb other people’s super powers by touch, the ability to  make copies of your own body out of seemingly nothing and a million and other powers that shit all over physics and give biology a swirly. However Ink was where we all collectively cried, bullshit. No, nobody has that as a mutant power. That is dumb. They made it slightly less dumb when they later ret-conned it so that Ink didn’t have super-powers, his tattoo artist did, and his power was to give other people super-powers and the tattoos just served to define what power they got. That at least explained how Ink’s body somehow new that the biohazard symbol would make people sick but it was still stupid. Ink was quickly put into a coma and nary a single fuck was given about him since. I honestly can’t find you a more despised X-Man, and yet, here he is.

 

 

It’s all coming together.

Last year I wrote a piece explaining why I thought Disney had chosen Big Hero 6 as their first Marvel property to turn into an animated film and highlighting some of the issues in adapting the comic in a racially and culturally sensitive way.

I’m pleased to see from this trailer that a lot of what I talked about has come to pass. However, Disney have opened up a whole new can of worms with some of their decisions.

Let’s start with the good. I love the tone this trailer gets across. The low key slapstick, the mixture of humour with a genuinely threatening villain and the easy going heart to it. I wish more Super-Hero stories in any medium had this tone and it certainly gives me Incredibles vibes.*

They’ve also chosen to focus on ” a boy and his robot” as their main story telling angle which I think is a good choice. Big Hero 6 is not a thematically dense concept, it basically amounts to “Hey Japan is different, lolz” so grabbing onto something in the property that shows more promise for exploration is a good idea. A boy and his (insert noun here) stories work well for animation and children’s cinema and some of the greatest animated films of the past 20 years (The Iron Giant, How to Train your Dragon) have used it as a basis.

The animation is good, as to be expected of Disney, although you can now add me to the chorus of people who are getting a little sick of how samey Disney’s character designs are getting.

Also is that Lord Deathstrike?

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I mean, I know that the odds that a character named Lord Deathstrike will appear in a Disney movie are about as likely as me voicing him but he sure does look like him doesn’t he?

big hero 6 lord_deathstrikeWhere this goes wrong is San Fransokyo. Oh my, San Fransokyo.

When it was announced that this film would be set in an amalgam city of Tokyo and San Francisco I thought it could go one of two ways. Either it could be clever and cute, a good way to point out cultural differences and make some gentle jokes about them, or it could be horribly, horribly offensive combining every stereotypical Japanese thing the creators could think of.

What I did not expect is that they would get the wrong country. Because San Fransokyo looks great, it it’s meant to be San Beijing.

Seriously, those “Japanese” touches like the lanterns and the roofs that flare up at the corners. Those are Chinese. You will find them in Japan, in fact they’re not uncommon but that’s because China has had an incredible cultural impact on Japan. But in the style and colours used in this trailer they feel way more Chinese to me than Japanese. And even then they’re a touch that goes back to the pre-Meiji era and are only seen nowadays in temples and other historical buildings. There are so many icons of modern Japan you could include and other than some Katakana and Kanji Disney simply hasn’t!

What San Fransokyo really looks like is the China Town in San Francisco expanded out to encompass the whole city. And while I know a lot of Japanese people live in the San Francisco China Town, guys the clue is in the name as to which country it more closely resembles.

Here’s hoping the trailer just gives off a wrong impression and the film gets it better.

The stripping out of Japanese culture though continues onto the characters. Big Hero 6 is a team composed of 1 robot and 5 Japanese people or Japanese-Americans. Big Hero 6 in the movie? 2, maximum. That’s a big cut Disney. The premier Japanese super-hero team now has Japanese members as the minority. I know why you’ve done it, the setting demands a mix of Asian and Caucasian people to reflect the mixed up Asian and Western architecture and you don’t think an all Asian cast will fly for American audiences. In fact you’ve actually increased the team’s diversity in one way by adding a black man to the mix, which I applaud, but, I still feel like it has missed the point a little bit.

In fact let’s dig into the characters a bit more. Starting with our hero, Hiro, and his pet robot Baymax.

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Here’s what I wrote about Hiro and Baymax in my original piece.

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Hiro and Baymax are clearly affectionate homages to a number of Japanese characters. Hiro is a super-genius kid who builds a robot protector for himself. That’s an idea that mixes bits of Getter Robo, Tetsujin 28 and even the Kenny’s from Godzilla.

And here is some info from screencrush.com

Ryan Potter portrays Hiro, a robotics prodigy who has “the mind of a genius—and the heart of a 14-year-old. His state-of-the-art battle-bots dominate the underground bot fights held in the dark corners of San Fransokyo. Fortunately, big brother Tadashi redirects Hiro’s brilliance, inspiring him to put his brain to the test in a quest to gain admission to the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. When a tragic event changes everything, Hiro turns to a robot named Baymax, and they form an unbreakable bond—and two-sixths of a band of high-tech heroes on a very important mission.

It sounds to me like Hiro is largely unchanged from his comic incarnation of “boy genius.” I suspect that Hiro is the character that Disney saw the most potential in, making him the hero and basing the film on him. To that end he is basically the same character. Baymax however has been tweaked considerably.

Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) cares. That’s what he was designed to do. The plus-sized inflatable robot’s job title is technically Healthcare Companion: With a simple scan, Baymax can detect vital stats, and, given a patient’s level of pain, can treat nearly any ailment. Conceived and built by Tadashi Hamada, Baymax just might revolutionize the healthcare industry. But to the inventor’s kid brother Hiro, the nurturing, guileless bot turns out to be more than what he was built for—he’s a hero, and quite possibly Hiro’s closest friend. And after some deft reprogramming that includes a rocket fist, super strength and rocket thrusters that allow him to fly, Baymax becomes one of the Big Hero 6.

Baymax in the comics was designed and built entirely by Hiro. However, when Hiro’s Father died he used some of his Father’s brain engrams to program Baymax. That makes Baymax a combination of Hiro’s friend, his bodyguard his father and his nanny. Disney however have switched the tragic death from Father to Brother and also made Baymax a construction of Hiro’s Brother. This simplifies the relationship considerably emphasising that Baymax and Hiro are in effect brothers. It’s a bit more conventional than the comic’s version but riffs on many of the same emotions and probably works better in the limited running time of a film.

Next up is our only other remaining Asian, Go, Go Tomago, played by Jamie Chung.

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She’s tough, athletic and loyal to the bone, but not much of a conversationalist. Popping bubble gum and delivering well-placed sarcasm are totally her speed. The daredevil adrenaline junkie is at her best on wheels, and when Go Go joins forces with Big Hero 6, she rolls like never before, using maglev discs as wheels, shields and throwing weapons.

Big Hero 6 Go Go Tamago

Wild rebellious Go Go was the Wolverine of the group, the bad ass outsider who don’t take no bull. She’s been de-aged and her criminal past is gone but her personality and team function are largely the same. Also her name is still misspelt. She should be Go, Go, Tamago i.e. the Japanese word for egg. Although considering they changed her powers the egg joke doesn’t work any more anyway. I dig the new costume too, it’s both more sentai than her original sentai inspired outfit and more modern.

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Fred, voiced by T.J. Miller, has been de-aged, gone from Asian to White and gone from having a Godzilla shaped ki aura to just turning into a Monster.

Big Hero 6 Fred

Other than that he’s mostly the same, a stoner in a hat with badass monster related powers. He’s the comic relief of the group and it looks like he’ll continue to be playing that role. Also, I like his new Monster design. It does feel quite Asian without specifically referencing a particular monster design I can think of. I will miss his Devil Dinosaur t-shirt though.

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So that is what Honey Lemon, who will be voiced by Genesis Rodriguez which is a Super-Villain name if I ever heard one, looks like in the film. Here is what she looked like in the comics.

Big Hero 6 Honey Lemon

…..

…….

That’s, um, that’s quite the change.

Honey Lemon was a play on Cutie Honey, a popular anime character who is mainly famous for being full on naked during her magical girl transformations. Honey Lemon the comic character is consequently, sexy, confident and playful with some stuff from other anime characters (most notably Doraemon) thrown in.

From the character design alone it’s clear that Honey Lemon in the film is not going to be the same character. Other than a power-set and a name they have nothing in common. Problem being that now Honey Lemons’s power-set and name don’t make sense. She’s called Honey Lemon as a play on Cutie Honey, a character she now no longer resembles. And her power-set is grabbing things from her purse, not exactly the most subtle of satirical jabs.

That said I am not surprised they changed her. Whilst Honey Lemon was hugely inappropriate for a kid’s film the bigger problem is that she’s a parody character, not a character intended to work on her own merits and she needed something done to her to appear in this film.

Finally we get to Wasabi, formerly Wasabi no Ginger.

Here is what Wasabi no Ginger looked like in the comics.

Big Hero 6 Wasabi No Ginger

And here is what I wrote about him.

Finally there’s Wasabi-no-Ginger which is a name that is simply unacceptable. Honey Lemon is stretching it but Wasabi-no-Ginger isn’t a clever pun so much as it is the equivalent of a Japanese comic introducing a morbidly obese character in a cowboy hat called Burger McRanchdressing. Try and count the stereotypes in this short character description guys. He’s a sushi chef (1) but also a samurai (2) who fights by using katana (3) and sushi knives (4) that he makes from his body whilst wearing wooden sandals (5) and a Hawaiian shirt (6?). Whilst the other characters are a spin on existing Japanese characters Wasabi-no-Ginger is the result of throwing everything Chris Claremont knows about Japan (sushi, samurais…Hawaiian shirts?) into a blender and calling the result a character. You know in the Super Friends how the Native American guy who grew got called Apache Chief rather than something that described his powers like Giant Man, or Gigantor. That is the level of patronising we’re dealing with here in Wasabi-no-Ginger.

I hate, Wasabi no Ginger.

Now, here is what he looks like in the film.

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Wasabi (voiced by Damon Wayans Jr.) is committed to precision. He’s super smart and just a touch neurotic, but the big and burly neatnik can’t help but join the cause when Hiro needs him most. As part of “Big Hero 6,” Wasabi amplifies his martial arts skills with jaw-dropping plasma blade weaponry. Sharp doesn’t even begin to describe this guy.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

He’s not a sushi chef. He’s not a Japanese stereotype, he can’t be because he’s not Japanese. He doesn’t wear geta, he doesn’t fight using katana and he has a personality beyond “everything Chris Claremont knows about Japan.” Even his name makes more sense since both wasabi and plasma are hot. Plus, he adds further diversity to the team and avoids being a black stereotype too! It’s such a low bar to hurdle but thank you, thank you so much Disney for doing it.

So based on all this info I’m still looking forward to Big Hero 6 and cautiously optimistic that this will be another Incredibles. I’m nervous about San Fransokyo but Disney’s last 2 films have really clicked for me and I’m hoping they continue on with their mini renaissance.

 

*The Incredibles is in my top 5 favourite Super-Hero films and until Marvel got their shit together was basically number 1. It still remains the best Fantastic Four film ever made too.

 

The New Teen Titans Vol1 Issue 1 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

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Plot Synopsis

The issue starts with a mysterious alien princess known as Koriand’r breaking out of an alien space craft operated by what she calls slavers. Using bolts of energy from her hands she defeats her captors and escapes in a small space craft to parts unknown.

Cut to, Dick Grayson aka Robin, having bad dreams. He has visions of a team of New Titans battling a protoplasmic blob and losing. He wakes up from his nightmare to find one of the women from his visions, Raven, is standing in his room. She tells him that the visions were planted in his head by her to prepare him because a great evil is coming and a new team of Titans must form.

Raven gives Robin the phone to call Wally West, Kid Flash, who has quit the super heroing business. Before Robin can ask any more questions she disappears with instructions to find Wonder Girl.

Raven guides Robin to an abandoned building where Wonder Girl is helpfully expositing her origin for no apparent reason. It seems Changeling, another super-hero with green skin and the power to turn into any animal so long as its green, has also been guided there. Kid Flash also shows up, apparently he changed his mind when Raven told him to come.

The 4 follow Raven again as she guides them to newcomer Victor Stone aka Cyborg, who is presently showing off his cybernetic body to his sports coach who tells him that now he is a cyborg he can’t compete with normal people. Vic doesn’t take this particularly well.

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He also explains that he was turned into a cyborg by his father in order to save his life.

The other heroes show up and Cyborg decides to join them since they’re all “freaks” like himself.

Raven then gets a psychic impression that the final Titan has arrived and needs rescuing so the team move off to do so and find the aliens from the prologue attacking a normal apartment building. Inside is Koriand’r, babbling in an alien language and seemingly exhausted by her flight to Earth.

The Titans fail to stop the aliens who escape through some kind of star gate with Koriand’r in tow. They also wreck the apartment of Grant Wilson and his girlfriend Carol in the process. Thanks to Raven’s teleportation powers though the Titans are able to follow and eventually free Koriand’r from her captivity, destroy the spaceship and escape back to Earth.

 

 

Of course, this isn’t the first issue of the Teen Titans at all.

Going way back to Brave and the Bold #54 in 1964 there was a team consisting of Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad and eventually Speedy and Wonder Girl. Wonder Girl was famously a continuity error. Wonder Girl was the teenaged version of Wonder Woman and not a separate character to her like Supergirl was to Superman. She was included as a separate character in Titans comics though and went on without an origin of her own for nearly 5 years until 1969’s Teen Titans #22 which established her as a non-Amazon orphan, rescued by Wonder Woman from an apartment building fire. Unable to find any parents or family, Wonder Woman brought the child to Paradise Island, where she had eventually been given Amazon powers by Paula Von Gunther’s Purple Ray.

That story was written by Marv Wolfman, writer of this issue, and it represents some of his earliest comics work.

Wolfman broke into comics at D.C. and worked there extensively during the 60’s, principally on the original Teen Titans and Blackhawks. But in 1972 he moved to Marvel and became such a Marvel guy that he eventually rose to the position of editor-in-chief, generally considered to be the highest ranking role on the creative side of the business. Wolfman oversaw some of the most important comics of the decade at Marvel including many of those influential X-Men tales. He kept his hand in writing too being the author of Tomb of Dracula one of Marvel’s biggest commercial and critical successes in the 70’s.

When he went back to D.C. in the 80’s then to write New Teen Titans he was in a unique position. He was familiar with these characters, with the rich continuity of the DCU and its history. He had even been part of shaping it as the creator of Wonder Girl’s origin. However he was a Marvel writer through and through at this point, trained in the house style at the time. This tension really informs New Teen Titans in its early years.

In terms of story this issue makes me nostalgic for the number 1s of days past. This is a very functional issue, more concerned with establishing characters than telling a great story in its own right but still giving us a beginning, middle and end with tension, some super heroic fisticuffs and some mysteries along the way.

The main thing this issue needs to do is establish the characters, establish the set-up for the team and plant the seeds for a few future plots. It does it very effectively hitting all the necessary story beats with aplomb whilst still throwing in some excitement for the story itself.

Every character gets a moment to shine here and show off their powers. Raven drives the plot popping in and out and teleporting the team to safety. Robin gets to lead the team and give orders. Changeling gets to turn into a mouse and fix some circuitry and Cyborg also gets to play with computers. Starfire gets to blast things, Wonder Girl gets to be strong and Kid Flash races halfway across the country in an instant. Personalities and origins are sketched in but present and we quickly get a sense of who these people are.

In particular Wolfman chooses to start with the characters that have already appeared in comics previously, Robin, Kid Flash, Changeling and Wonder Girl. He doesn’t bother to establish an origin for these characters, trusting that readers will know it already, except for Wonder Girl who is the least well known of these. What he does do though is establish that these four have a prior relationship immediately drawing on the history of the team.

What Wolfman does take the time to do, and this is quite Claremontian, is show off every character’s angst in the first issue. The problem they’re currently wresting with in life. Wonder Girl is angsting about her origin and not knowing who her parents are.  Kid Flash angsts about whether he wants to be a hero and there is also the mystery of his connection to Raven and why he changed his mind when she told him to. Robin angsts about being in Batman’s shadow and we get something you don’t see anymore these days, Smoking Jacket and Cravat Batman.

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Man he used to wear a smoking jacket non-stop back in the day. I haven’t seen that thing in years.

Raven and Starfire’s deal is less clear although Starfire clearly has escaped slavery and Raven is trying to prevent some kind of coming doom. Cyborg gets the most screen time of the three newbies but unfortunately his portrayal in this issue is as the cliche angry black man. Cyborg has a good reason to be angry, his father has turned him into a freak and whilst he may have gained super-powers and would have died if his father had not intervened he has seemingly lost everything he cares for in life.

The only angst free character is Changeling who provides absolutely cringe worthy comic relief and hits on Wonder Girl.

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If you want me to hate you Changeling then you’re onto a really good start.

One thing that connects all these characters is that their angst stems from their relationship with their parental figures. Wonder Girl is an orphan and seeking to find her identity because she didn’t have normal parental figures. Cyborg is angry with his father for his treatment of him and seeming abandonment. Robin feels stifled by his father figure and wants to forge his own identity separate from Batman. Kid Flash has a great and healthy relationship with his parents and worries about jeopardising it by becoming a hero.

Teen Titans then is a book with a central theme to it, the stories are all about being a teenager and the relationship between teenagers and their parents. in this way TT is also very similar to the X-Men. Unlike books like The Avengers of JLA, TT and X-Men have a central idea at the heart of the book that drives what kind of stories get told. For the X-Men its the metaphor of Mutants as outsiders from normal society, hated and feared. It’s a very flexible metaphor being able to stand in for race, sexuality, disability or even the disenfranchisement felt by teenagers and that’s partly the reason X-Men resonates to well with a readership of teenaged nerds.

The Teen Titans theme is less flexible, it is explicitly about the issues facing teenagers but whilst more limited than the mutant allegory it does provide plenty of fertile ground to inspire different stories all reflecting back on the themes of being a teenager and how they relate to the world and their parents. Also TT isn’t restricted to the Titans being seen as outsiders. Being a teenager can be wholly positive and good, as we see in Kid Flash’s relationship with his family.

As well as establishing characters and themes we also get some plot threads established that will pay off down the line. Chief amongst these is the threat Raven formed the team to stop. At this stage we know nothing about it other than that it requires these particular people to defeat it. We’ve also got Grant Wilson asking some mysterious shadowy figure to destroy the titans, Kid Flash’s weird change of face and the mystery of Koriand’r.

The New Teen Titans Issue 1 is never going to be held up as a masterpiece of the comic medium but it accomplishes all the goals it sets out to do and leaves the reader interested in these characters and wanting to read more. As such, it fulfils the brief for a first issue.

Artist George Perez is of course one of the most respected and influential artists in the medium and was so even back in 1980. Perez is usually praised for his detail. He draws backgrounds and figures with far more detail than most artists and he thinks about the realism of objects more so than most so that his anatomy, machinery and architecture feel far more realistic than many of his contemporaries. A great example of Perez’s strengths as an artist is how he’ll draw characters with very different body types but all with quite realistic anatomy. Kid Flash is svelte but with powerful calves and thighs that represent that he’s a runner.

He’s also famous for his layouts which use non-conventional grids that pack in tonnes of panels and details in a single image. He isn’t without weaknesses as an artist. Perez’s panel to panel story telling is good but never particularly inventive. He’s a great artist to look at, to stop reading and admire the artwork but not the best storyteller. He is also a dreadful costume designer and regularly creates characters which look okay when he draws them but that other artists can’t replicate due to the detail in their appearance. And he has a fondness for assymetric designs I’ve never understood.

Perez was already a superstar when he started New Teen Titans but he isn’t half the talent he’ll become by the end of his tenure and one thing I am looking forward to with this project is seeing him grow as an artist.

This is good stuff, even in this issue though. I particularly like this page.

New Teen Titans 5

The top 4 panels use a grid but Perez has them getting gradually larger with one panel being part of the next one. It gives the impression of the reader zooming through the skylight and into the apartment. It’s not earth shattering and it’s subtle enough that you normally wouldn’t notice the effect but it just demonstrates that Perez takes so much time and care in his art.

Then you get a double page splash like this one that really shows off what Perez can do.

New Teen Titans 7

 

 New Teen Titans 1Part 1: Introduction 

Superhero fans usually cluster around a few key characters that form their thing. You’re a Spider-Man guy, or a Batman guy, an Avengers fan or a Justice League fan.  Sure every character is somebody’s favourite and I’m sure that somebody had a Maggott Geocities page back in the day but there are a few A-list titles that have been perennially published and which sort of carve out their own corner of the universe, with spin-offs, villains and recurring characters all their own.

For me, I’m an X-Men guy. That doesn’t mean I don’t read other comics or that I uncritically appreciate every X-Men book without questioning its flaws. It means that my primary interest in super-heroes is the X-Men. I have a love for them that goes far and above how I feel about Spider-Man, Superman or Batman even though I’ve read great stories with all of those characters. It means that I get as much Batman as I want to read from one title but I currently subscribe to about 8 X-books.

300px-Giant-Size_X-Men_Vol_1_1

And for people of my generation being an X-guy is pretty common. From the early 80’s through until the mid-90’s Uncanny X-Men was hands down the most popular and best selling comic on the stands and it was able to support a line of successful spin-offs, New-Mutants/X-Force, X-Factor, Wolverine and Alpha Flight. X-Men #1 from 1991 remains the biggest selling single issue of a comic of all time. The X-Men were a juggernaut that the industry had never seen before and probably never will again.

And the effect of the X-Men’s success was that many books morphed into X-Men clones. Chris Claremont along with stellar collaborators like Chris Cockrum, John Byrne and Paul Smith established a storytelling language and conventions for super-hero teams that would be imitated by basically every other super-hero team to follow right up until the early 2000’s and the development of “decompressed” storytelling, The impact was comparable to Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four. That had brought forward the ides of inter-team conflict, of filling a book with strong distinct personalities that clashed. Claremont extended this to turn team books into soap operas that treated characters as real people with stuff going on in their lives other than fighting bad guys. He would dedicate issues at a time to characters hanging out with each other adancing sub-plots and character development but conaining no big super villain of the month beat downs. Plot threads would build over years before coming to a conclusion. And angst, so much angst. Nearly every X character had some tragic flaw they could angst about. Not only could they all have a big whine about being mutants and being discriminated against but Wolverine had amnesia, Cyclops had a dead lover, Colossus loved a girl too young for him, Storm had lost her connection to the earth, Nightcrawler is an outcast even amongst outcasts, Rogue “cahn’t touch yuh remy.”

Stop, right there. Why are you talking so much about the X-Men in a review of Teen Titans?

Well, because I want to establish some context. I’m an X-Men guy, most people who got into comics from the 80’s and early 90’s are X-Men guys. But the other big group, they were the Teen Titans guys.

The Titans are D.C.’s equivalent of the X-Men. They were never as popular but when they launched din the early 80’s they became D.C.’s number 1 book. They wouldn’t stay at that position forever but they captured as much excitement in the D.C. audience as X-Men did for the Marvel zombies. Titans is not a rip-off of X-Men in any way shape or form. It builds on D.C. continuity very effectively and has its own stories to tell but in terms of tone, content, it’s use of continuity, storytelling style and place in the overall universe TT was clearly D.C.’s answer to The X-Men, a comparison Marv Wolfman has never denied and which is patently obvious when you consider the Teen Titans/X-Men crossover book jointly published by Marvel and D.C.

New Teen Titans X-Men

So in theory I should like TT, since I like the X-Men and they have similar styles. However, I’m not a Titans guy, or a D.C. guy. I know very little about the team and don’t have the strong emotional connection to them that many fans do. I have read Teen Titans volume 3 (the 2003 – 2011 series) which I mostly enjoyed and I tried to read the New 52 version before I gave up but I haven’t read any of these stories before. My main knowledge for Titans history is the Teen Titans cartoon that aired in the early 00′s and the recent Young Justice cartoon.

New Teen Titans Cartoon

I’m therefore going to be looking at them from a different lens to your typical fan. My intention with this project is to ultimately review every issue of The New Teen Titans Volumes 1 and 2 and probably the New Titans as well. This is the first time I’ve read any of these issues and whilst I might know a few things (Terra isn’t going to be much of a twist for me for example) almost everything here will be brand new to me.

 

 


D.C. has a diversity problem. DC has a diversity problem 11

I’m no fan of D.C.’s current editorial direction. I was all in favour of the New 52 reboot back when it was announced. It was exciting, a chance to do something huge and new. To start again without making the same mistakes. To free comics from the problems of 30+ years of continuity.

 

What were those problems? Honestly the issues with Big 2 comics as a business are too numerous to go into here but I can highlight a few that are relevant to my point. Continuity was the biggest issue, new readers perceive comics as having storylines going back to the 30′s and whilst this may be technically true, in practise usually only the last decade of comics featuring a character matter to the stories being told with them today. Even so having a big sign that says “you are jumping into this story a decade in progress” is a turn off to the Netflix generation who are used to starting at the beginning of a story and working their way through. Big new number 1′s, characters appearing for the first time, reinventions of problematic characters, changing characters to be more in line with how the wider public perceive of them in media like the JLU cartoon or Nolan’s Batman films. These were all good ideas to get new readers in. D.C. managed to botch nearly all of these ideas in less than a year but that’s a topic for another time.

 

DC has a diversity problem 1

And bring in new readers they did. Sales were through the roof delivering the highest figures D.C. had seen in a decade. The stunt nature of the reboot, the excellent marketing around it and a general up tick in interest in the public’s interest in comics combined to turn the New 52 into a monster hit.

Now that D.C. had the eyes on them they needed to keep that attention. And to do that they had to fix one of the other big problems with big 2 comics. Lack of diversity.

Let me clarify here. I’m using diversity very broadly. I don’t mean simply that D.C. added more characters of colour, although they did, but to mean that characters were of different races, ages, body types, sexualities, religions, genders, countries, etc. And as well as having characters that were all very different the stories and settings which those characters featured in were also varied and diverse. At some level super-heroes played into everything which is less than ideal but somewhat expected for a superhero publisher, but even within that confine we had cosmic stories, westerns, war stories, spy stories, magic, horror, romance, mythological narratives and whatever the hell Voodoo thought it was doing.

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Looking at the initial new 52 line-up it is the most diverse offering from a big 2 publisher, probably ever. You’ve got 8 titles with female leads (not counting team books) which is far from ideal but on par with western pop-culture generally and much better than Marvel which at the time had 0 non-team books with female leads. There are 9 non-team books with a lead of an ethnicity other than white which is pretty fantastic by any standards (although again, much less than the perfect ideal). D.C. publishes its first ever book with a homosexual lead character (Batwoman). We’ve got a range of ages and lifestyles presented including a whole line of teenaged super-heroes and a married Animal Man. Books featuring adult single, male, white leads clock in at 20, less than half the total. I’d prefer closer to a quarter but that’s still a good number.

Now compare it to D.C.’s current line-up.

Justice League

Justice League 3000

Justice League United

Aquaman

Aquaman and the Others

The Flash

Green Arrow

Wonder Woman

Earth 2

World’s Finest

Secret Origins

Batgirl

Batwing (although cancellation has been announced)

Batwoman

Birds of Prey (also about to be cancelled)

Catwoman

Red Hood and the Outlaws

Harley Quinn

3 Batman books and 1 he co-shares with Superman + Batman Eternal + 2 more that have recently been announced

Grayson

3 Superman books +1 with Batman and 1 with Wonder Woman

Superboy (also about to be cancelled)

Supergirl

Green Lantern

Green Lantern Corps

New Guardians

Red Lanterns

Sinestro

All Star Western

Infinity Man and the Forever People

Suicide Squad

Star Spangled War Stories

Justice League Dark

Swamp Thing

Phantom Stranger

Pandora

Constantine

New 52: Futures End

 

I count 24 books head up by young single straight white guys out of 44 total. More than half the line taken up by young, white males. And it’s about to get worse. Of the two books with a black lead character (I’m counting John Stewart as the lead of Green Lantern Corps) one is about to be cancelled. Of the three books with teenage characters one is about to be cancelled and frankly I don’t think Infinity Man is long for this world either.

Compare that to the starting line-up or some of the second wave titles and the books that show some diversity are overwhelmingly the books that have been cancelled. The only books D.C. have published since the New 52 with a young woman of any ethnicity in the lead are Voodoo and Katana, which lasted 12 issues and 10 respectively. Male ethnic leads? Vibe, gone. Firestorm, gone. Mister Terrific, gone. OMAC, gone. Blue Beetle, gone and on and on. Books with prominent disabled lead characters (The Movement and Demon Knights) gone.

What about Teenagers? Teenagers have always done well in comics, we’ve had teenaged super-heroes  holding down their own books since the 40’s. Well books led by teenagers have been devastated in the New 52. That whole line of teenager led books called “Young Justice,” Not one single title from that line still remains. The only teenager led books are Supergirl, Superboy and Infinity Man and I suspect the last two are not long for this world.

So how did D.C. screw the pooch?

DC has a diversity problem 3

Oh, gosh, in lots of ways some of which are their fault and some of which are issues in the industry that nobody has been able to sort out.

The first and biggest mistake they made was that most of the New 52 comics were garbage. They represent the nadir of comics published by D.C. in the better part of a decade. Some stuff was good (Demon Knights, OMAC, Batman, Animal Man, Swamp Thing) but a lot of it was worse than similar work creators were doing before the new 52 (Blue Beetle’s New 52 series was worse than his pre-52 series, ditto Firestorm, Green Lantern, Stormwatch, etc) or just downright dreck (Suicide Squad, Batman: The Dark Knight, Voodoo). Of the initial wave of casualties with the exception of OMAC all the comics that got cancelled were bad, and unfortunately many of these bad comics were also the ones where D.C. tried something new.

DC has a diversity problem 8

But as always happens in comics, some good comics got cancelled too. Demon Knights was a fantasy-superhero comic with disabled characters, characters of different ethnicities, a trans-character and it was great. It’s first arc was probably its worst, sadly, but once it hit its stride Demon Knights swiftly became my favourite comic D.C. were publishing. It was fun, smart and unique in comics at the time and it was cancelled due to low sales. And only that, low sales. D.C. actually fought hard to keep this book on the stands, giving it second and third chances when other titles had got the chop. I’m not suggesting for a moment that D.C. cancels comics for any reason other than that these books have low sales.

The sad truth, however, is that nearly every title with a lead that isn’t a young, single, straight, white male has tanked hard in the sales charts.

But I don’t think that’s because they’re minorities.

I think it’s because they’re relatively new concepts.

My evidence for this is twofold. Firstly it isn’t just the books with diverse characters in them that have been cancelled. We’ve also seen plenty of young, white single dudes get the chop. Grifter, Deathstroke, even Talon. Talon was a Batman character spinning off a big event., short of launching it with a super star writer like Geoff Johns you can’t ask for a better push in this marketplace than Talon got, and it still failed.

Secondly, if you look at the titles with diverse characters that have stuck around then you’ll notice a trend. Batwing, Batwoman, Supergirl, Green Lantern Corps. They are all spin-offs of more popular characters with large, established fan bases.

And when D.C. have had to cancel books for low sales they have doubled down on these popular core characters. Every time a Voodoo or a Mister Terrific gets cancelled we get a new Batman or Superman book.

I don’t begrudge D.C. that as a creative or a business decision. They need to maintain a certain level of sales to keep operating and if that means publishing 1 Superman title to recoup the same sales as 3 lesser known properties then they need to do that.

DC has a diversity problem 2

 

The problem is D.C. knows these books will sell at a certain number regardless of the creative content. Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, Superman, Green Arrow; some variation of these titles will always be published at D.C. and will always top the 40,000 sales mark even when the stories have been actively terrible. D.C. knows this, and used to have a rough policy that if these books sold regardless, let’s make these books the place to put more diverse characters. Now I’m not saying Superman should turn into a black guy but not everybody needs to be a young, straight, white, single dude. Superman used to be married. Flash used to be married with mixed-race kids that he went on adventures with. Green Arrow was old enough to have an adult son. Green Lantern used to be Korean. Batgirl used to be in a wheelchair and was the most prominent disabled super-hero outside of Prof X or Daredevil. The Justice Society now is fairly diverse with a gay lead, a mixed race Hawkgirl, a mentally ill mixed race Dr Fate and a black superman analogue but it used to be massively more diverse with a cast drawn from all over the world and octogenarian leads.

 

DC has a diversity problem 9

All that diversity meant more diverse stories. You could tell a story with Wally West, super-hero dad that could be told by no other character in the DCU. Green Arrow used to be defined by his regret, his infidelity and his hypocrisy as much as his liberal politics but without the long history you get from a character pushing 50 those stories all disappear. Oracle used to serve such a useful narrative function that she would make as many guest appearances as Batman but now she’s just another bat vigilante character.

The net result of the New 52, a project which aimed in part to increase the diversity of the DCU, has been to reduce it. In only 3 years we’re back to a level of homogeneity that D.C. comics hasn’t possessed since the 70′s.

And that is the clue to the real problem.

Green_Lantern_Rebirth_1_variant

Because this problem actually started before the New 52. Really the problem starts with Green Lantern Rebirth. That storyline brought Hal Jordan back as Green Lantern, replacing a young Korean-American artist with another young white single dude. And it sold. Buckets. Green Lantern Rebirth turned Green Lantern from a 40,000 a month book to a 70,000 a month book and one that routinely topped 100K when timed with events. It turned it from an also ran to the spine of the DCU.

The reasons Green Lantern Rebirth worked are complicated and hard to replicate but not mysterious or magical. D.C. did it right. They promoted the book as an event with house ads and plenty of promotion in the comics media. They started with a mini-series and then a brand new number one for a character with a book whose issue numbers had been in the hundreds, always a good way to draw attention. They put a high profile artist and a superstar writer with a proven track record of hits on the title. And the superstar writer seemed like the first guy in years who was passionate about the character and wanted to write Green Lantern specifically. Even better, he had some genuinely new and exciting ideas for the book and the character and these caught on with the audience. It’s all these factors that made Green Lantern rebirth a success.

The lesson D.C. took away from Green Lantern rebirth though was, make everything like it was in the Silver Age.

You see the real reasons GLR worked are hard to replicate. Good artists, promotion and press cost money and writers who are both talented and passionate about your IP are rare. And you never know if what they want to write will click with the readers.  But the surface reason it seemed to work is easy. GLR was all about brining Hal Jordan back right? Well let’s just bring back all the Silver Age guys. And so in the years to follow we got the Silver Age versions of the Flash, the Legion of Super Heroes, Supergirl and many more back, each time replacing the more modern versions which had been careful to add more diversity.

Then comes the New 52 and gives D.C. the excuse to de-age Green Arrow, divorce Superman, un-cripple Barbara Gordon and every other backwards looking decision they’ve made since. Why not make Amanda Waller skinny or The Justice Society young?

Or make Niles Caulder fucking walk!

So now we have a problem.

The diversity that D.C. had prior to the New 52 was the result of approximately 30 years of slow growth and acceptance, small changes to improve the line that built upon each other gradually to bring the core DCU books more in line with the real world. With the New 52 D.C. undid all of that growth in one fell swoop and gave us the Silver Age plus a load of new concepts, none of which stuck. Now D.C. is in a situation where it’s core group of reliable sellers all feature straight, white, unmarried dudes in their 20′s + Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Catwoman and a few Justice League books. Any new concepts and books they launch seem doomed to fail because this economy is hostile to new ideas from the Big 2.

So D.C.’s choices going forward are;

DC has a diversity problem 6

1. Burn it down and start again.

Which they won’t do. Doing so would be a tacit admission that the New 52 failed. It did fail of course, it increased sales in the short term but it has added no diversity, brought it no new audiences and launched few new concepts. The only long term successes are to give Batman a shot in the arm, add Cyborg to the Justice League, launch Batwoman, boost Wonder Woman’s sales and maybe Justice League Dark. The only one of those that required the reboot explicitly was adding Cyborg to the Justice League and really that’s only important when and if a Justice League movie gets made. Nonetheless they can’t reboot again in such a short time frame. The audience would call shenanigans and the massive sales boost they got from the last time they tried it would undoubtedly not reoccur.

2.  Admit defeat and go back to the pre-52 universe.

This seems to be all negatives. Doing this would have all the bad press of admitting the New 52 failed without the benefit of a deck clearing exercise or a sales stunt. Plus there is no guarantee that the more diverse elements of the old universe would return or would be successful if they did. Asian Batgirl, family man Flash and Octogenarian Justice Society were all already cancelled once, there is no guarantee that bringing them back would do anything other than see them get cancelled and replaced with young straight single white people again.

DC has a diversity problem 5

3. Make a big push for new concepts and give them a buy until they build a readership.

I’m not an economist nor am I privy to the inner workings of D.C.’s finances but my feeling as an outsider is that if this worked then they’d have done it already. Look at any sales chart and you’ll see that even the most critically acclaimed titles with the most popular characters still generally lose sales month on month. The mechanism behind this isn’t arcane either. Readers have a limited ability to buy titles and new titles are always coming out. As you read a comic you may decide that you no longer enjoy reading and drop it. You can now put that money into a new title. Now you could put that money into issue 7 of Captain Marvel since you’ve heard it’s good but you’ve missed the first 6 issues of story already, and oh this issue is part way through an arc too. Maybe I’ll try that new Marvel Number 1 instead.

People almost never start reading a series after issue 1 anymore. If they hear it’s good but its already part way through the run they might buy a trade but that won’t impact on the month to month sales and that’s still the cornerstone of the big 2′s business. Critically acclaimed books with low sales can sometime stick around when the economics dictate that similar books would be cancelled if the trade sales are big enough (see, everything Vertigo publishes for evidence) but generally your best bet if you have a critical hit with low sales is to cancel it and then relaunch it with the same creative team. Marvel does this trick a lot and it works for them to varying degrees of success.

With the New 52 Future’s End seemingly being based entirely around some of D.C.’s better received cancelled concepts I suspect this approach is coming. At the end of Future’s End I would not be surprised if we got new Mister Terrific, Frankenstein, Grifter and Firestorm books. The thinking being that the audience gets to know these characters in a big event and then is interested to buy them when their new series launches.

4. Fuck it, cancel everything and just sell Justice League,  Batman and Superman.

This is inevitable if D.C. doesn’t try to do something. On the plus side whilst total sales might decrease I’m sure their average dollar share will shoot through the roof.

5. Slowly grow the DCU’s diversity back through supporting characters and gradual changes,

This, in combination with number 3, is what D.C. is doing to try to fix its diversity problem. that’s why we’re getting a new black Wally West as a supporting character in Flash.

This approach has the massive advantage that it is going to work. We know because it did previously. It also has the big disadvantage that last time around it took the better part of 30 years.

Let’s hope it’s a little quicker this time.

This has nothing to do with anything but is too awesome not to share. Check out more at http://billwalko.deviantart.com/gallery/?offset=240

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Island_of_dr_moreau_ver2The Island of Dr Moreau (1996)

Director: John Frankenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a picture of what Marlon Brando wears in one scene of this film.

Mummyboon The Island of Dr Moreau 2

Need I say more?

 

The Island of Dr Moreau is a very special bad film indeed. Most bad films are because they’re low budget, independent efforts and the lack of experience, talent and money are the main sources of their badness. Dr Moreau though, features some very talented people (Stan Smith on make-up, Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer and Ron Perlman acting, Richard Stanley on the script) trying very hard to produce something with genuine artistic merit and instead winding up with a campy and confused mess for the ages. It’s like if you left all of history’s greatest artists in a room together with tools, brushes, paints and materials and then came back at the end of the day to find that all they’d managed to do was leave a single turd in the corner. It’s almost amazing that they’d get everything so wrong given all the opportunities available to them.

The Island of Dr Moreau, the book and to a lesser extent this film, is the story of a mad genius. A scientist who believes he can turn animals into men and possesses the intellect to do so, but not necessarily to question if he should do so.  For whilst he tries to instil in his creations some morals and ethics they are ultimately torn apart by their own instincts and his experimental society devolves into an orgy of violence and destruction.

It’s kind of a fitting metaphor for this film.

 

Let’s start with the script which is just as much a creation of mad science as Moreau’s own beasts. This movie had no fewer than 5 full rewrites, three of which happened on set after filming had begun and each script emphasising different themes and ideas. The original screen writer, Richard Stanley who is responsible for a number of cult efforts including Hardware in 1990, worked on this film for over 4 years and it was a real labour of love of him and his first attempt to make a big Hollywood film. He was also slated to direct but was fired after just 4 days on set.  His replacement, John Frankenheimer whose career stretches from classics like The Manchurian Candidate to crap like Reindeer Games, ordered not one but two re-writes whilst on set meaning that actors that had been brought on board because they liked Stanley’s work, such as Val Kilmer, were suddenly contracted to work on a script they loathed. It gets worse though, because Brando threw his not inconsiderable weight around to get his own re-writes done. In fact Brando seems to have an unusual amount of freedom and control over the production for an actor, even for a legend. For example, he controlled his own wardrobe which means that outfits like this…

Mummyboon The Island of Dr Moreau 1

…are entirely Brando’s choice. What’s more Brando’s midget side kick who wears the same clothes as him and at one point plays a miniature piano whilst Brando plays a real one, was also his idea entirely.

Yes, you read that right. And you may be thinking, ‘wasn’t a scene of a mad genius duetting with his midget clone on the piano played for laughs in Austin Powers?’ And you’d be right, they got it lock stock and barrel from this film where it is presented to us with gloriously awful sincerity. Just, can’t look away, mind-blowing amounts of what the fuck were they thinking?

The end result of all these re-writes is a Frankenstein’s monster of a script that pulls in different places. The Island of Dr Moreau is not an adventure or an action or even a horror movie. It’s largely a sci-fi movie, only one that contains exactly one scene of “science” being done. Moreau holds up a test tube and says something to the effect of “My god, the colour. It’s practically turned orange.” Then turns to his assistant and says “do you know what this means?” He doesn’t and the film never ever bothers to explain it. But science is all holding up beakers and test tubes and watching liquids change colour right? RIGHT?!

Being a sci-fi film of the old school the film is all about ideas and themes and exploring the implications of a scientific breakthrough. Problem with that being that every script had a different theme in mind and they all pull in different ways and contradict each other. Brando clearly wants to play the film as an environmental message. Now there is nothing in the original book to support that but we’ve got mad scientists dicking with animals so you can extrapolate that out to “human’s mess with nature too much” as a theme to explore. Problem is Brando’s idea of doing this is to turn Moreau into a hippy dippy love child that recites poetry and that characterisation is somewhat undercut by his magic disco medallion that gives everybody electric shocks. Oh and his outfits. Brando actually delivers a fairly good performance here, he’s more engaged and energetic in this role than anything he’d done in the previous decade. He’s clearly trying and sometimes, it nearly has the power to correct all the madness. However everything he does is undercut by the fact that he’s wearing an ice bucket on his head.

Mummyboon The Island of Dr Moreau 6

Similarly parts of the film seem to be about how man is inherently evil, or the nature of evil, or the nature of instinct. Whereas others are clearly to do with the morality of animal experimentation. And I’m not saying that a film can’t explore different themes but parts of the script that are about plot a clearly contradict plot b. For example, Moreau claims that he has found the devil in his microscope, cut it up and created creatures without evil. Except of course he has to control them with his magic disco medallion of electric reinforcement. Oh and a cocktail of drugs too, including, according to Val Kilmer’s character, uppers, downers, morphine, mescaline and a little magic mushroom. Because that’s a great plan Val. Give psychoactive drugs to the animals that you’re worried could regress into becoming violent and dangerous, I can foresee no possible drawbacks to that.

 

 

 

Which brings me onto Val Kilmer. Val famously took one look at the new script and tried to flee from this movie like he was a Japanese fisherman and it was Godzilla. The studio thought different and demanded he be in it as he was recently coming off the success of Batman and he was one of the biggest financial draws in the film. He eventually showed up to set two days late having clearly learned no lines nor done any research for his character.

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Kilmer plays Moreau’s assistant as a frazzled a pot head that messes with the doctor’s experiments seemingly just for the sake of it. Nothing Kilmer’s character does makes any sense of has any logical motivation it’s just pure chaos. Now I have a theory why this is. I suspect that in the script Kilmer’s character had reasonable motivations and behaved like a somewhat sinister underling determined to usurp the doctor’s role and steal credit for himself. Instead what happened is that Kilmer showed up to the set blazed out of his gourd and just said and did what he liked forcing the crew to try and cobble together his behaviour into something usable no matter how little sense it made. The following conversation is something I am certain happened.

 

John Frankenheimer: Where the hell is Kilmer?

Runner: We found him sir. He was lying in the radio station set drinking a bottle of tequila and telling everyone he’s Batman. Then he put a flower in his mouth and stared at us. It was creepy.

John Frankenheimer: Oh for fuck’s sake. Does he have clothes on?

Runner: Sort of sir. He’s topless and wearing a sarong and cowboy boots.

John Frankenheimer: At least he has clothes on, that’s better than yesterday. Alright, film whatever he’s saying and we’ll cut it next to Thewlis looking concerned.

 

If that didn’t happen then it means that someone in the production team decided that having Kilmer wear a sarong and cowboy boots was somehow a good idea and I refuse to believe that the Universe I live in makes that little sense.

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There’s a scene in the film where David Thewlis’s character (ostensibly our protagonist) has to steal some keys from a sleeping Kilmer. I am wiling to bet money that, that scene as originally written required Kilmer to be awake and they decided to film him whilst asleep because it was just easier that way.

Needless to say everything Val Kilmer does in this film is utterly delightful.

 

Most of the other actors seems to have realised fairly quickly that they were in a stinker too. Fairuza Balk actually tried to escape the production but was caught at the airport and sent back to the set. If your film is so bad actors try and flee the country you may not be making art but instead are committing some kind of war crime. David Thewlis seems to have adopted the strategy of doing and saying as little as possible in the hopes that nobody will ever notice he was in the film, which is a time honoured strategy for embarrassed actors trying to pick up a pay cheque everywhere but quite difficult to do when you are the “hero” (hah!) of the film.

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Even Ron Perlman sucks, although in his defence his entire job is to drone monotonously.

 

This combination of terrible script, actor’s either not trying or in the case of Brando trying to do something that we mere mortals cannot comprehend, a hack director, a very hostile production and a subject matter that is already fairly weird produces some of the most incomprehensibly odd imagery I’ve seen since Zardos. The Island of Dr Moreau is a film of such staggeringly bad choices that I almost wonder if its some kind of Kaufmann-esque anti-film and the joke is on the audience.

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The only thing in the film that works purely on its own terms is the make-up which is really great. Ron Perlmans’s goat man is particularly good but all round the animal-men look the business.

 

So you should you watch The Island of Dr Moreau? Oh god yes! They really don’t make stinkers like this anymore.




lifeforce_posterLifeforce 1985

Director: Tobe Hooper

In the not too distant future (next Sunday AD) the space ship Churchill (and as the name implies, it is a British spaceship, providing probably the most fantastical element of the entire screenplay) is on a joint British and American mission led by Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) to investigate Hayley’s Comet for… reasons.

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Their mission takes a turn for the bizarre though when they come across an enormous spaceship filled with giant dessicated bat creatures and what appears to be 3 young, attractive and naked humans, two men and one woman, in some kind of suspended animation pod. This strikes the crew as not entirely normal so they decide to take the pods back onto the Churchill.

 

Things can’t have gone very well after that because the next time we see the Churchill it’s a month later and another missions has been launched to try and discover what the hell happened to it. This second team finds one hell of a mystery, a burnt out space ship, a missing escape pod and the same three people in the same three pods.

 

Taking them back to the Space Research Centre in London various scientists begin to pontificate upon just what the bloody hell happened and what the hell they’ve brought back to Earth. Said pontificating quickly ends when the female body (played by Mathilda May of checks imdb something called Naked Tango) gets up and reveals herself to be some kind of energy vampire. This has gruesome results for the poor guy that was tasked with watching her because he soon resembles a tasty jerky snack far more than I’m sure he’d want to.

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Two missions are then launched, find the girl and find out what the hell happened to the security guard. Mission one becomes a lot more urgent when during his autopsy the guard gets up and repeats the energy vampire trick on the pathologist ending up naked and rather confused but decidedly not dead. It becomes even more urgent when more human jerky starts showing up in London parks and it becomes downright frantic (well as frantic as the British establishment could get in the 80’s meaning that our scientists have switched from earl grey to builder’s tea) when the two male vampires get loose as well.

 

You would think finding a naked woman wandering around mid 80’s London wouldn’t prove too tricky, and you’d be right. Unfortunately our target has a couple of sneaky abilities including the ability to possess bodies and all hope seems lost. That is until Col Carlsen turns up in Texas in the missing escape pod with a helpful new set of psychic powers that let him track our mysterious lady down. And they’d better hurry too because that spaceship is now in an ominous orbit over London that probably isn’t going to be a good thing. What’s more the two male vampires have been quite busy making friends all over London.

 

A brief summary of Lifeforce might not sound like an Oscar winning masterpiece but it certainly has a lot of elements that should add up to a fun schlocky time. Based on a novel with the somewhat on the nose title of “Vampires from SpaceLifeforce features about 30 minutes of completely nude attractive space vampire ladies, an apocalyptic London overrun with vampires, a gigantic space ship full of monstrous bats, Patrick Stewart possessed by a sexy space vampire lady that he physically transforms into at points and a climax that involves not one but two car chases, a swordfight and a sex scene in St Paul’s cathedral atop a mountain of corpses.

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Surely all of those elements must guarantee at least some amusement right? Well maybe in another film but not even Mathilda May’s considerable artistic merits (both of them) can save Lifeforce from its main problem, it is terrifically boring.

 

 

Lifeforce clocks in at nearly two hours and a good hour and 15 minutes of that* consists of three men standing in a room and expositing. Not talking, not developing character or delighting us with well written dialogue just blandly explaining what is happening in the plot. Worse still they just seem to know what’s happening without investigating it. One of the characters is an “expert” (a death expert specifically which does raise the question of why the UK’s Space Agency feels the need to employ a death expert) and his catchphrase seems to be “As I feared” aka “I’m bullshitting that what has just happened is exactly what I thought would happen all along to maintain the illusion that I’m an expert in anything.” Another character is literally psychic and thus knows what is happening and what will happen next. Lifeforce is obsessed with telling where it should be showing with nearly every possible moment of interest and excitement replaced with more sodding exposition. The most egregious example being when the death expert phones his friends and tells them that he just had a sword fight with one of the male vampires. You know movie, a sword fight might have been a fun scene to watch, I’m so glad you decided to show our two main characters making a phone call in a helicopter instead.

 

Later on London gets overrun with vampiric hordes, would it have been more interesting to relay that information visually maybe instead of hearing about it from a military guard.

 

And it’s not like Lifeforce has a particularly complicated plot either, space vampire escapes, psychic dude pursues her across London. There I did 90% of the plot in one sentence. But the film insists on explaining stuff again and again and even explaining stuff that has no relevance whatsoever to the plot all at the expense of anything that could be fun to watch.

 

I know why of course. Lifeforce ran monstrously overtime and over budget and it is a hell of a lot quicker and cheaper to film three men in a room talking than a London overrun with vampire hordes but that doesn’t make the film any less terrible.

 

It isn’t all bad though. Tobe Hooper is not up to the task of bringing any life to the interminable talking scenes but when a set piece does happen he rises to the occasion and reminds you why we all liked Tobe Hopper to begin with. There is a scene where they tie one of the jerky corpses (which despite my mocking are actually a very well done special effect, especially in a film that is otherwise so cheap) to a table to see what happens when it wakes up. The scene is genuinely horrific, frightening in that way where you want to look away but can’t.

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Despite a few good scenes though it is definitely not a good film nor is it so bad its good. Lifeforce’s main claim to fame back in the day was the copious amount of nudity it provided for poor desperate perverts.** Now we’ve got the internet though? Lifeforce just doesn’t have anything to offer.

 

 

 

 

*The remaining running time consists of 15 minutes actually interesting stuff and 30 minutes bewbs.

**aka teenaged boys.

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