Friday, December 2, 2016

Westworld and Superman

This post contains a very revealing spoiler for the first season of HBO's Westworld. Do not read ahead if you have not watched the season but intend to enjoy it later.

The premise of Westworld, a new series based on an old film, is that a high-tech (in fact, science fiction) theme park uses robots (in the series internal euphemism, "hosts") to let visitors have simulated experiences in the world of the Old West. The hosts are so realistic that the experience feels real, but visitors face no legal culpability for killing them in simulated gunfights and – perhaps – no ethical culpability for the sexual interactions they have with the hosts.

In any narrative with very realistic robots, a potential plot point is to have ambiguity about whether or not a given character is a real human – this is central to the plot of, for example, Blade Runner. Westworld, however, raised the possibility in a few scenes in the first two episodes, but always ended the ambiguity very promptly, before it became a true mystery. With Blade Runner in mind, I watched from episode #3 onward waiting for the series to slip a mystery like this into the plot, setting up a shocking reveal when we find out that a seeming human is actually a robot. By the fourth episode, I saw who this was – the senior technician Bernard, played by the incomparable Jeffrey Wright. Bernard had a seemingly-irrelevant backstory concerning the death of his young son. This seemed like the sort of planted memory that other "hosts" had, and this, indeed proved to be the critical clue – Bernard is a robot, and that memory was planted, and never actually took place.

Later, as Bernard confronted the unreality of that painful memory, I was reminded of another powerful narrative. In Alan Moore's For The Man Who Has Everything, Superman imagines a life that he might have lived if Krypton had not exploded. As the story narrates, he has a life and family, and is an ordinary Kryptonian instead of the god he became on Earth. But as he faces the fact that this fantasy is a weapon used to distract him from reality, he tears himself out of the story from within it, most painfully telling his fictional son in the story that he's not real.

And it was with that recognition that I noted that one of the writers of Westworld is Ed Brubaker, a comic book writer with credits for DC, Wildstorm, Marvel and others over the past 25 years. Brubaker has co-writing credits for one episode of the series, and he certainly must be familiar with the classic Superman story. Did he, or some other writer familiar with Moore's work, introduce the idea of a man saying goodbye to his imaginary son from FTMWHE to WW? Perhaps not. But the story in Westworld, excellent on its own merits, also brought back memories of Superman's imaginary life, and possibly lent another clue as to the nature of Bernard's memory of his son, which was an imaginary story. Aren't they all?

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Retro Review: Jack Kirby's Jimmy Olsen

In 1970, Jack Kirby was already one of comicdom's most accomplished creators. To an uncommon degree, he moved from company to company during this phase, working for several different publishers and syndicators of content, sometimes in freelance, sometimes under contract. He – also to an uncommon degree – worked as a part of prominent pairs, working with Joe Simon in the Forties and Fifties, then Dick and Dave Wood, and teaming up with Stan Lee to spectacular success in the Sixties. Working with those various partners, Kirby co-created the likes of Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Magneto, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Black Panther, and teams of staggering prominence – the Newsboy Legion, the Challengers of the Unknown, the Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and X-Men. By Kirby's account, which Lee disputed, Spider-Man was also a Kirby-and-Simon creation, and therein one sees the central tension in Jack Kirby's career. As an artist who frequently teamed up with writers, Kirby was often edged out of the principal credit – and the financial gains – for many of the characters he created, or helped created. Kirby possessed a remarkable imagination, to say nothing of his skills in bringing passion to artwork, but ended several creative and business relationships on bad terms. This brought him, in 1970, to DC (the heir of comic companies he had already left on bad terms, years in the past) for a new chance at a fresh start.

One of the most mind-bending incongruities of Kirby's work for DC in the Seventies is that the master creator with such impeccable credentials began his new career working on such a minor title. While Kirby planned work on multiple new series featuring mythical ideas that he had begun to explore while working on Thor, he was first given writing and pencil duties on Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen. It is hard to imagine a title and a character more obviously subordinate to another chracter – a powerless young man with no superpowers, dubbed the mere "pal" of Superman. Inarguably, Kirby used the small title to introduce some very big ideas, making early-Seventies Jimmy Olsen prominent in big-concept comics history, far out of proportion to its small concept origin.

Kirby's Jimmy Olsen brought together several aspects that might seem incongruous, but were a perfect fit for the circumstance. If there's one thing that distinguished Jimmy Olsen from DC's most prominent characters, it was his youth. Kirby took over the title the year after Woodstock, at the height of student protests against the Vietnam War, when language and fashion developed around a counterculture that defined its era. Jimmy Olsen, far more than, say, a Batman title, was the perfect venue for incorporating those ideas. Kirby makes the youth culture that was prominent in the Woodstock Era an important element in his story, and that is the one area in which Jimmy Olsen has unquestioned superiority over Superman.

Kirby injects youth into his title by introducing two different groups of youngsters (furthermore, young men). One from his own past, the Newsboy Legion, was the a creation of Kirby and Simon in the prewar years, and was therefore a property of DC that he was free to use again. In order to use them as newsboys despite the intervening decades, he introduces a team of newsboys who are the sons of the originals, each of them virtually a doppleganger for his father. The younger generation of newsboys promptly adopt Olsen as their leader – old enough to earn their respect, but not so old as to lose it. Kirby also shows the older Newsboys, now men, as supporting characters, and a clone of the Guardian to fill in for the deceased superhero who operated with the original Newsboys.

The other group of youths in this story is the Hairies, who are a mashup of so many disparate influences that a lengthy essay could profitably discuss the Hairies alone. The Hairies, for the visual trait that earned them their name, visually resemble hippies and other counterculture figures of their time, nearly a decade before this facet of one's appearance became the title of the massively successful Broadway musical Hair. Appearance is only a superficial characteristic of the Hairies; they are otherwise distinguished by their origin as creations of the DNA Project, a biotech initiative run by the older generation of Newsboys. The Hairies, products of human cloning and genetic engineering, are superior to ordinary people in spirit and in intellect, and left the DNA Project to live in homes and vehicles produced by the superior technology that they themselves created.

Olsen's relative youth lead both the Newsboys and the Hairies to recognize him as a leader; in this way, there is a perfect harmony between the title character, Kirby's plot, and the Woodstock era. Kirby, the master writer, thereby made his assignment on a minor title starring a minor character a brilliant one, with Olsen's youth, Kirby's ideas, and the current culture all coming together in a uniquely appropriate way.

That said, Kirby's ideas are so far-reaching that virtually anything would intersect with them in some way or another. In current parlance, Kirby's work in Jimmy Olsen is a mash-up – of so many different cultural and technological perspectives that it is simultaneously disorienting, all-encompassing, and wonderful. Virtually every scene begins by plunging the reader in some fresh, exciting domain, soon adding qualities or perspectives from other domains. There are secret government organizations, secret armies, strange aliens, famous celebrities from real life, strange religions, adherents of countercultures, monsters and villains, mysterious cryptozoological species, futuristic technologies, miraculous vehicles, and dose after dose of biological engineering. Kirby mashes up these different fantastic story elements in multiple different ways in each issue. It's always exciting, entertaining, unpredictable, and perhaps in some way educational.

At times, it is apt to make many readers find it too unpredictable, too erratic, too kooky. In one very strange feature, Kirby includes a text essay in issue #135 that rambles almost disturbingly about the Hairies, and it is hard to say in what voice Kirby is speaking. The Hairies are not real, but he writes in the first person as though they might be real, or as hypothetical entities who might come into existence one day. He describes their science fiction underpinning as the result of DNA engineering, but emphasizes their moral and cultural qualities, as idealists who live in perfect harmony. He writes of them with unadulterated admiration as though they embody an ideal society that, in Kirby's view, should exist in a perfect world, but he goes on to say that mankind should feel threatened by the Hairies because they're better than we are, and that it is inevitable than mankind seek to kill the Hairies, exterminating them. At the end of the essay, Kirby concludes "I felt great, writing that! It made me feel that all's right with the world, that my place in it was secure. It made me feel like a man!!!" This emotional ramble would sincerely make me worry about Kirby's sanity if that concern were still relevant. Perhaps he was a masterful creator who enjoyed getting swept up in the emotion of his creations. This essay makes him appear, perhaps, to be swept up to an unhealthy extent. The quality of what is in Kirby's stories makes it intriguing to consider every recorded aspect of the man and his thoughts, perhaps clues as to how work of this quality is formed.

The wild worlds that Kirby created hosts a cast of heroes led by Jimmy Olsen. As Olsen triumphs against bizarre alien conspiracies led by Darkseid and shines as a man of action, he becomes a top-rate hero in the DCU, more relatable than most, as a young man with no superpowers, no super powers (usually), and no super origin. He simply rises to the occasion time after time. When he encounters an amazing vehicle, he soon starts piloting it. When he learns of an enemy base, he infiltrates it. When he is transformed into a hideous monster  – twice! – he ends up being un-transformed back to his normal self. The series is the epitome of a "normal" man going up against cosmic forces, coping with them just as well – at times better – than his superpowered pal Superman. And it is strange to contemplate that DC's most cosmic foe, Darkseid, was introduced in a title headlined by that common young man, Jimmy Olsen.

Thus DC lore inherits the improbable and disproportionate quirk that the master creator Kirby and his most amazing creations began at an arbitrary midpoint in a title named for a non-superpowered sidekick. The combination was probably too odd to survive, and lasted less than a year and a half before Kirby focused on titles of his own concoction. Soon, both the Jimmy Olsen title and Kirby's most productive work at DC were at an end, but the legacy endures in the Fourth World creations of Darkseid and Apokolips. Kirby's work in Jimmy Olsen stands as a historic turning point in comic history, and those issues remain worth reading as a record of how great storytelling in comics is done.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Retro Review: Grant Morrison's Batman Run, Ten Years Later

In September 2006, Grant Morrison began a stint as writer of the Batman title with issue #655. His more-or-less unbroken tenure jumped from one title to another, ending seven years later with Batman, Inc. (vol 2) #13, after a total of 75 issues across four titles, plus a handful of scenes in three other titles. Morrison portrayed three different heroes (and briefly, a fourth) as Batman, not counting a number of villains and proteges who posed as Batman or variants of Batman. In terms of the stature of the writer, the character, and the number of issues, it's a run that has been matched rarely if ever in DC's history. Now its beginning is a full decade in the past and its ending went on sale three years ago.

According to Morrison, he originally pitched a run 15 issues in length, and did not foresee that his tenure would end up five times that length. The entire body of work breaks down into three major stories averaging about two years each, augmented by a six-issue miniseries and then a few special features here and there. Even the first of those three major stories, though, ran past its planned length of 15 issues, to at least 23 by the most conservative count, before it looped back to include four more issues of Batman in related Final Crisis crossovers and a gem of an anniversary issue in Batman #700 that was largely separate plotwise from Morrison's other Batman work.

The stories making up the bulk of the run were:

• The Black Glove's attempt to destroy Batman, Batman #655-681.
• The battle between Batman (Dick Grayson) and El Penitente in Batman and Robin with the Joker playing his own game against both sides.
• Bruce Wayne's odyssey through time in Return of Bruce Wayne, trying to escape the doom planned for him by Darkseid.
• The effort by Levitathan to destroy Gotham and get final revenge against Batman, as chronicled in Batman,Inc.

The three longest arcs have certain distinctive characteristics that make them alike: Each lasted about twenty issues and told the tale of one master criminal plot headed by a single master villain who was, in each case, unknown to the reader until deep into the story. Those master villains worked through intermediaries, who themselves made formidable foes in their own right, challenging Batman – the various Batmen ­– to a respectable degree before a final round in which Batman squared off against the ultimate evil force in the story.

This mold was established in the first of those three, with the Black Glove's master plan revealing its first subtle – and at the time, inscrutable – clues in Morrison's very first issue, with Dr. Simon Hurt being revealed only very gradually, as a pair of hands holding binoculars, then a voice without a face, then as a figure in uncertain memories, never appearing on-panel in the present with Batman until the final pages of the second-to-last issue of Batman, R.I.P. The patience with which Morrison developed his story and its signature villain is nearly unmatched anywhere in the history of the medium of superhero comics. The lingering mystery, "Who is the Black Glove?", propelled Morrison's story to a high degree of notoriety, enthralling many fans while the plot's ambiguity and psychedelic weirdness frustrated others.

That first long arc in Batman also, eventually, turned out to follow themes that Morrison had shown in his earlier works. His very first Batman story, published only in a British publication as a text-only story, had Catwoman invade the Batcave. R.I.P. adapted the idea of a femme fatale inside Batman's sanctuary by having lover/enemy Jezebel Jet strike at Bruce Wayne inside the Batcave. Arkham Asylum showed Batman entering the titular institution to face a pack of enemies led by the Joker; this is what happened also in R.I.P. as the carefully-orchestrated "danse macabre" of Doctor Hurt. And Gothic, Morrison's classic four-parter from the early days of the Legends of the Dark Knight title, showed Batman in a supernatural story involving an ageless man who'd made a deal with the Devil. R.I.P. dropped clue after clue that Simon Hurt might be the universe's ultimate evil until Batman himself considered the possibility, a reveal that confused many readers, prompting Morrison to clarify that it was, indeed, "the story of how Batman cheats the Devil."

One of the great contributions of Morrison's run was in tying together so much of Batman's history, sending readers to the archives through whatever means they had, to investigate the Black Glove mystery by seeking clues in older – much older – stories. Morrison, like Steve Englehart before him, wrote a new Batman story that referred to considerably older ones, not from the past two or five years, but stories from decades earlier. Astonishingly, Morrison used a nameless character who appeared in one story in 1963 as the basis for his big, new villain. Using the freedom provided by Infinite Crisis' soft reboot, he made many minor changes to Batman's backstory, altering the 2005 status quo in order to bring back many miniscule facets of Batman's history such as Professor Nichols' time machine, Professor Milo's mind-altering gas weapons, and many long-forgotten Batman wannabes. As 2008 went by, readers were poring through the archives for the purpose of looking for Black Glove clues, but learning a heck of a lot about Batman lore as they went.

The first of Morrison's three long story arcs was what was originally planned as the entire run; when the next two came along, they copied that first once closely. The second, with replacement Batman Dick Grayson as the target of El Penitente, turned out to have the exact same villain, and many parallels to R.I.P., though turning, eventually, into a farce with Doctor Hurt slipping on a banana peel. The third, with a mysterious Leviathan who attracted an army of followers in Gotham, began according to a very similar script, though Talia was the villain this time, a "bad mother" instead of the first two stories' metaphorical bad fathers.

Given that the first run carried out Morrison's plan to fruition, at nearly double the originally-anticipated length, how does one perceive the rest of the run? As a corporation capitalizing on a business success by soliciting more of the same product from the same source? As a creative mind exploring fertile territory, going deeper and deeper? Both of these are true. While the Batman and Robin and Batman, Inc. stories were far less original in their architecture than the original run in Batman, they were finer in their craftsmanship. The Batman who began Morrison's run as overly gruff and self-admiring to the point of parody ("Hh. You didn't know I had a rocket.") turned into a finely-tuned and plausible optimum man by the work's end. The purple prose of the "Clown at Midnight" text-only Joker issue, the bombast of the adult Damian in issue #666, and the acknowledgement of Batman's silly past with the Club of Heroes and appearances by Bat-Mite struck many readers as overreach on Morrison's part; such judgments are subjective, but such fan criticism became rarer during the second and third long arcs. The Batman and Robin work is particularly noteworthy for Morrison's use of different pencillers, blending his scripts with each artist's visual style in virtuoso fashion. By the time Batman, Inc. began, Morrison was perceptibly more in command of his starring character and his world, with an Argentine tango of death, the daring of Batman's Matches Malone identity, flashbacks to Kathy Kane, and the passion of Damian Wayne all having just the right effect. Perhaps the second two long stories were refinements of the first, and perhaps one might imagine the three long arcs merged into one idealized version combining all of the three arcs' merits and none of their flaws, but we are richer for having the three, and to see Morrison's Batman evolve from the brooding loner who throws the Joker into a dumpster to the impassioned altruist who understands his destiny and is compelled to return from a brief retirement to start his war on Gotham's criminals anew.

Arguably the run's most prominent legacy will prove to be the character who was introduced (earlier inspirations withstanding) at the end of the first issue, Damian Wayne. It was a bold assertion by Morrison and his editors to add Batman's son to the mythos, one that was done with hesitation. Originally, Morrison planned for Damian's seeming death at the end of #658 to be an actual death, but the character returned, only to die near the end of the Batman, Inc. series, only to be brought back yet again by other creators.

Other innovations from throughout the run have been erased – at least for now – by DC's two new fresh starts, which make Bruce Wayne's revenge on Joe Chill a memorable scene that is no longer in continuity. The ambiguous clues suggesting that Doctor Hurt ordered the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne seemed to build to a possible reveal that Morrison never got around to, and any possible intentions to that effect are now irrelevant insofar as 2016's continuity is concerned. However, the New 52 era of Batman, still largely in continuity, was led by Scott Snyder incorporating many Morrisonian inspirations, including an evil organization of wealthy Gothamites going far back into the past and led by central figures possessing unnatural longevity. Snyder's Court of Owls is sufficiently like the Black Glove to be perceived as an homage to Morrison's invention if not a needless reinvention of it.

In the era of trade paperbacks collecting the monthly titles, Morrison's run will be for sale indefinitely, and acquiring new readers at some rate far into the future. It is unlikely, though, that any of them will get the original experience had by readers who were picking up the new issues, particularly the middle portion of the run in 2007–2010. At that time, the monthlies had a tangled chronology – partly because Morrison's story involved flashbacks, hidden reveals, and time travel, and partly because different titles were simply giving us the story out of order. Sometimes this was jarring and seemed like an uncontrolled accident, as when the other Batman titles had R.I.P. Crossover on their cover and seemed to be telling stories set after Batman, R.I.P.'s conclusion, but whose writers, in retrospect, probably didn't know the ending of Morrison's story. In other cases, the big company-wide events linked up with Morrison's story out of sequence, most notably when his own Final Crisis involved Batman but was published concurrently with R.I.P. but was set after it. Thus, we were shown Bruce Wayne operating as Batman in a timeframe set shortly after R.I.P. even though R.I.P.'s climax as well as R.I.P. crossovers showed Dick Grayson and others mourning Bruce Wayne's seeming demise. Much later, a couple of extra Morrison issues showed us that Bruce simply swam out of the river and returned to the Batcave, making the climactic helicopter crash a mere inconvenience. Morrison and his editors tried to have their cake and eat it too, with big reveals that only seemed big at the time. This also played out with Simon Hurt's last stand as the Devil – or something that might as well be the Devil – but then getting a later backstory that made him something far less. And yet again, with Bruce Wayne "dying" in his confrontation with Darkseid, and the shock of Superman holding Batman's shriveled corpse proving to be, eventually, not at all what it seemed to be. To experience Morrison's run in the best way, those endings – the helicopter crash, Doctor Hurt's ambiguous reveal as the Devil, Superman holding the corpse – have to be endings for the reader, ones that last for a while before the plot reverses them in a do-over. For a new reader going through the story now, able to transition immediately from one ending to the next beginning, those retractions will seem weird or weak. And that's assuming that the reader is able to read the stories in the original print order, which scrambled the publication order with the logical and chronological order of the story, epitomized by Batman and Robin being published concurrently with Return of Bruce Wayne and dropping clues in a carefully-planned order even though their literal timelines were centuries apart. Simply put, it's almost impossible for any reader who picks up the trades to get the original experience, and that's a shame because the original experience was so fine.

This is another way in which the expansion of the run from 15 issues as planned to its eventual 75 came at a cost. If there was a carefully cultivated aspect of the first part of Morrison's work, beginning with the Joker killing "Batman" in front of disabled children and ending with the helicopter crash at the end of R.I.P., it was mystery – often achieved through ambiguity. In that first scene, with a fake Batman dying and shooting the Joker as his life fades, we were told that we couldn't believe our eyes, and that Morrison was going to feed us unreliable narration because, with the Joker speaking Morrison's thoughts, "I love messing with your head." Ambiguity and mystery remained at the forefront when we saw a pair of black-gloved hands holding the binoculars that watched Bruce kiss Jezebel, when Damian fought the Devil's servant in the (a? the?) future, when Bat-Mite seemed maybe to be real with a creepy insect-like alien behind him, and maybe to be imaginary, when Bruce spent a day with Honor Jackson, who turned out to have been imaginary or a ghost. We never got a clarification as to the reality of those things, with Bat-Mite humorously telling us, "Imagination is the 5th dimension" when he was asked point-blank for "one straight answer." But this made it clear that lingering, unresolved mystery was precisely Morrison's objective, with Doctor Hurt turning out to be "the hole in things, the piece that can never fit" who was simultaneously several things at once – possibly Bruce's father, possibly the Devil, and possibly neither of those. Morrison wanted us to know that R.I.P. was the story of how Batman cheats the Devil, but he also wanted us to know that we didn't truly know anything as a definite fact. This was what Bat-Mite's non-answer told us quite clearly about Morrison's story while it told us nothing about the facts. If Morrison's run had ended with Doctor Hurt on the helicopter, the mystery would have lingered at its fullest, and that was his original plan. The price of the run being tripled to quintupled in length is that the ending became a transition and not an ending at all, and the mystery became much less of a mystery with eventual expositional reveals, such as Simon Hurt being a pawn of Darkseid and the "bad" Batman who attacked Dick Grayson being a clone, being necessary to the plot but also a bit ugly as they defused Morrison's original objective of mystery.

What we got in exchange for the loss of mystery was, yes, more good storytelling, but also a deeper examination of the fictional ideal man, Bruce Wayne. Some of Morrison's finest work was when backstory was told with murky memories, such as the revenge on Joe Chill that Bruce imagined while experiencing cardiac arrest, and the synopsis of everything when Bruce was fighting death after expunging the Hyper-Adapter from his body. And what Morrison told us, in deeply and frankly psychoanalytical scenes, was that Batman was a man who lost his family and found life in his friends. He had a symbolic "bad father" in Simon Hurt, a bad wife (or co-parent) in Talia, two lost parents and a lost son – no family of any kind to count on. But he recompensed by finding four virtual sons, and the major climaxes in Morrison's run ended with each of the Robins saving Bruce's life once – Dick Grayson in R.I.P., Tim Drake in ROBW, Damian at the mid-point of Inc., and Jason Todd at the very end of the swordfight with Talia. And after Morrison admitted that it wouldn't make sense for the Justice League to fly in and save Bruce at the end of R.I.P., he ended ROBW in exactly that way, with Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern beating the Hyper-Adapter in a fistfight, and it felt right. Rather than being a cheap deus ex machina, Bruce Wayne having powerful friends upon whom he can rely was something touching and quite natural. Of course the ultimate man is going to have the ultimate friends, just as he is going to have imitators (the Club of Heroes) and need to summon greater resources around him (Batman, Inc.). Morrison doesn't skimp on giving Batman unparalleled stature in the DC Universe. After cheating the Devil, Batman gets out of bed to escape from Darkseid's death trap and wounds the dark god. Ultimately (in more senses than one), Batman goes to the end of time and becomes the central figure in the universe's final moments.

The central riddle in Morrison's Batman #700 was, "What can you beat but never defeat?" and the double answer was "Time and the Batman." The ten years that have passed since Morrison's run began passed quickly for me – your mileage may vary. DC has, remarkably, begun its world anew not once but twice since then with the monthly Batman title having restarted at #1 twice in the 2010s after having only one start in the seven decades before that. In the calendar of comic cosmology, I often think of the transition from the last JSA story to the first Barry Allen story as the time between epochs, but that was only five and a half years, and now since Morrison's long, contradictory, wonderful story began, we've had ten. The world has moved on and seems to be doing so at an accelerating pace. The Batman cinematic franchise that began the year before Morrison's run is also long in the past, with another actor having played the character twice while another actor plays him on TV. Batman's history is long and sprawling. These are the words with which Morrison ended his run: "Batman always comes back, bigger and better, shiny and new. Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will." There will always be a new Batman for readers and viewers to enjoy. It's possible that there was never a better time to be reading Batman than during Morrison's run.