Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Multiversity #1

In 2006, Infinite Crisis #6 reintroduced the Multiverse. At least, the event that produced 52 separate vibrationary dimensions, each with its own Earth, took place in that issue. DC revealed the existence of the new Multiverse only gradually, with teases and hints before a final reveal near the end of the weekly series 52. The new Multiverse was a realm to explore, for creative talents to stake out territories and develop them, making the DC Universe a rich tableau of great variety.

Curtain falls. Seven years pass. Curtain rises.

As 2014 passes the midway point, the Multiverse still has been discussed only very sparingly. With the exception of a few “Earths,” the creative playground that DC introduced eight years ago has barely been touched. Until now.

Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity is perhaps the most ambitious event that DC Comics has undertaken, a mapping of dozens of fictional worlds. Crisis on Infinite Earths destroyed a thousand fictional worlds, almost all of them eliminated off-camera, with glimpses of ten or so along the way, and that was still vast in scope. Multiversity will put dozens of worlds on-camera, giving us teases of their individual richness while building a larger structure around them with its own logic and chaos. It takes within its scope previous works of Gardner Fox, Jack Kirby, Neil Gaiman, Morrison himself, and many others, including – through obvious Marvel surrogates – Stan Lee. We’re obviously going to see an enormous amount of detail in the nine issues of Multiversity, and the first issue gets that well underway.

The story begins by showing a smaller creature on a flea, which is a reference to a poem by Jonathan Swift that states that microcosms thereby extend into boundless new microcosms, ad infinitum. The narration speaking of the ubiquity of life unites this into a message about stories and fictional worlds, which continue into infinite variety, and this is the lead-in to the infinite (well, at least 45) worlds Morrison will address.

Nix Uotan, the Monitor seen in Final Crisis, is once again living as a young man in shabby surroundings, hounded by the mundane facts of existence. He reads a comic book and communicates with some apparently extradimensional Mister Stubbs, an anthropomorphic chimpanzee in pirate clothing who shared a detention cell with Uotan in Final Crisis #5. The plot of Multiversity is kicked off by their examination of a sinister comic book which is haunted and directly addresses the reader (both Uotan and YOU, the reader of the actual comic). This fourth-wall addressing of the reader is a familiar Morrison trope whose most prominent antecedent was the cover of Flash #163, where the Flash tells the reader, “Stop! Don’t pass up this issue! My life depends on it!” (Fourth wall narration was, incidentally, used by Gardner Fox as far back as 1940.) Morrison has also referenced that cover’s wording in Final Crisis #2, the issue in which he brought Barry Allen back to life.

The “haunted” comic book that begins this story is Ultraa Comics, the final one-shot issue of Multiversity which will be published in 2015. It concerns Ultraa, the lone superhero of Earth-33, which is the real world which we live in, also known as Earth Prime. Ultraa was introduced in a 1978 issue of Justice League of America, and Morrison obviously intends to use Ultraa to bridge the gap between superhero comics and our real world, something previously developed by the 1978 story of Ultraa and Kurt Busiek’s Superman: Secret Identity.

At this point, Nix Uotan changes to his Monitor identity and begins a voyage through the Multiverse on the Ultima Thule, an interdimensional craft introduced in Superman Beyond, and in short order, he finds a demonic infestation that seems right out of the works of Neil Gaiman destroying a Marvel-esque world of superheroes on Earth-7. This destruction, however, was merely bait to attract Uotan and fill him with despair, killing his interest in comics. Interestingly, the demons call themselves The Gentry, perhaps suggesting that “good people” too upright to read comic books are the metaphorical problem in this story.

And so, the Thunderer, an Aboriginal Australian version of Marvel’s Thor, is sent off to collect a team of superheroes from all the worlds of the Multiverse to defeat this threat. The rest of the issue is spent gathering a virtual Justice League from the Multiverse, something we’ve seen before in Superman Beyond, Final Crisis, and, befitting the appearance of Harbinger, Crisis on Infinite Earths. This interdimensional team will, we can be sure, lead the attack against the demonic threat, and introduce us to their worlds along the way.

Given the most screentime is the black (African-American; in truth, Vathlo-Kryptonian) Superman, Cal Ellis, previously used by Morrison in Final Crisis #7 and Action #9. Ellis leads the all-black superheroes of Earth-23 (perhaps not incidentally, Michael Jordan’s number). But only Ellis, pursuing the origin of a mysterious robot attacker, is selected for the interdimensional team, which also has Captain Carrot. Captain Carrot remembers meeting Ellis (in FC #7), but Ellis doesn’t remember meeting him, a conflict which will seemingly be resolved later. Other members of the team are Dino-Cop of Earth-42, an Aqua-Woman from Earth-11, and a speedster named Red Racer from Earth-36, whose Superman was vanquished in a battle with Superdoom, the Superman-Doomsday pastiche from Morrison’s Action Comics. Notable in their absence are the characters of Earth-0, the main DC Universe. We learn that the characters of various Earths often appear in the comic books of other Earths, a concept that goes back to the introduction of Barry Allen, a fan of Jay Garrick’s Flash Comics, in Showcase #4. We also learn of Valla-Hal, a Monitor Watchstation number ∞, with the implication that these characters are the equivalent of gods.

This task force, however, ends up on Earth-8, not Earth-7, where they find a different set of Marvel-like characters unknown to the Thunderer. Here, a Doctor Doom stand-in named Lord Havok is consumed during contact with the demonic forces. At the end of the issue, the heroes find that Nix Uotan has become corrupted, reminiscent of Mandrakk, the darker manifestation of Uotan’s father, Dax Novu, seen in Superman Beyond and Final Crisis. Obviously, the next part of the story involves a battle for Uotan’s soul, and by extension, for the good in comics to win out over the worse aspects of them, as seen by Morrison.


Moving forward, Morrison has many challenges to face. His knack for wide-scale invention of new characters and new worlds is well established, and he’s surely up to that challenge. He will also need to do justice to the magnificent works of his predecessors as he places them, in rather summary fashion, into a larger narrative structure. Perhaps the greatest challenge that he is taking on is the goal of showing that comics are essential, that they are embattled, and using his story to help lead them to become something better. Morrison portrayed his Superdoom character in Action as “a brand” with “maximum cross-spectrum, wide-platform appeal, a violent, troubled, faceless anti-hero... a global marketing icon.” Is DC launching a major event that criticizes their own products and cross-licensing? Will Multiversity be a voice of protest against other works? It’s curious to see what statement Morrison is trying to make and what result it might have.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces

The 23-year interval between 1991's Twin Peaks series finale and the 2014 release of Fire Walk With Me: The Missing Pieces set, probably, several records for requiring an audience to wait for the plot of a TV show to advance. But then the timing of the series was always subject to uncertainty. After the ABC network forced the show's creators to solve its central mystery ("Who killed Laura Palmer?") in the second season, ratings plummeted and the show began a death spiral that nearly killed it off before the artful, cliffhanger finale that ended its run on broadcast TV. That was followed the next year by a cinematic relase, Fire Walk With Me, primarily a prequel with significant time-jumping in the narration, which padded the backstory of the series but left its mysterious plots relatively untouched. The show itself made reference to a distant future, labeled "25 years later" and certain occurrences timed to conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn (which take place every 20 years), so there's something timely about a return to the series after 23 years with the release of archival material.

The show's success stemmed from one compelling general observation: That American life has a dark side that lurks in the woods, that lurks at night, where vices become secrets and secrets can become deadly. The central figure of this passion play was Laura Palmer. Outwardly, she was a small town's beautiful prom queen who volunteered to help the needy. Unknown to most, she was also a drug-addicted prostitute juggling eight or more sexual relationships and scars from a lifetime of abuse.

Twin Peaks gave this darkness a terrible reality beyond that of mere human urges. The show and its prequel portrayed a spirit world whose nature was gradually revealed to contain a demon, BOB, who committed rapes and murders on Earth, then fed on the emotions of fear and pain that his crimes caused. Possessing Laura's father, BOB was the real killer of Teresa Banks, Laura Palmer, and Maddy Ferguson, and in the show's final moments was shown to have possessed the show's hero, Agent Cooper, while Cooper's girlfriend Annie lay injured, perhaps dead.

And so the show was laid to rest until now. Lynch filmed about five hours of footage for Fire Walk With Me, but less than half of it made the 1992 release, leaving fans wondering what was left out and whether they would learn more about the mysteries that were left hanging. The 2014 release, Missing Pieces, is 91 minutes long, revealing much of the unused footage with a small amount of footage identical to the theatrical release, which allows certain scenes to play out in more complete fashion. It's not clear that that was necessary. Missing Pieces is not in any way a standalone film. It consists of shots and scenes that might have been inserted into a long, four-hour, cut of Fire Walk With Me, but on their own do not convey the central events of the story.

Missing Pieces is generally structured as follows: 84 minutes of moments from the week before Laura Palmer was killed, then less than 6 minutes of events that take place right after the end of the TV show, therefore extending the narrative just a bit into new territory.

Almost all of the first 84 minutes shows major characters and minor ones going about their lives in fairly ordinary ways. These scenes are entertaining and well-filmed, but just a few of those scenes pertain to the interaction between the spirit world and Laura Palmer or Agent Cooper, and that is limited to three short scenes which are re-cuts of scenes that were already in Fire Walk With Me.

It should be noted here that the release of Missing Pieces includes essentially nothing that was not leaked to the Internet in the Nineties in the form of the FWWM shooting script, which can still be found online. About 90% of Missing Pieces, including all of the 6 minutes that follow the television finale, were in the shooting script. There is, therefore, exceedingly little in MP which was not already known to the most devoted researchers of the series. MP adds just a few short lines by spirit world characters that were not in the shooting script. Meanwhile, the shooting script adds several lines that were not heard in FWWM or MP, so the shooting script is the most complete of the three.

What is added? FWWM has a scene in which Agent Jeffries, who disappeared in 1987, mysteriously appears in the Philadelphia FBI office in 1989, narrates something he witnessed while visiting the spirit world (it is referred to as being over a convenience store), and then disappears. MP adds to this that Jeffries disappears from a hotel in Buenos Aires, teleports to Philadelphia, and after giving his story, teleports back to Buenos Aires, terrifying two people who witness his reappearance. It is possible that time travel was also involved, because Jeffries is surprised by the calendar he sees in Philadelphia. It is unclear why Jeffries does not try to report to FBI Headquarters from Buenos Aires in a more conventional way. Everything that was added to this scene by MP was already contained in the shooting script.

The shooting script and MP also add a substantial amount of dialogue spoken by the spirit-like characters in the "convenience store." This scene is narrated by Agent Jeffries to the other FBI personnel, but we see it on camera. This scene probably a significant number of cryptic clues about the spirit world, but all three versions of the material have different dialogue, somewhat overlapping with the other versions. Below, I offer a guide to all of the dialogue in the three versions of the convenience store scene. The codes S, F, and M indicate which of the three versions – the shooting script, FWWM, and MP – contain each line. Several characters are involved, but who says which line changes in some cases from version to version.

  M: The chrome reflects our image.
  M: Electricity.
S M: We have descended from pure air.
S M: Going up and down.  Intercourse between the two worlds.
  M: Animal life.
 FM: Garmonbozia.
S  : Light of new discoveries.
S  : Why not be composed of materials and combinations of atoms?
S  : This is no accident.
SFM: This is a formica table.  Green is its color.
S  : Our world.
S  : With chrome.  Any everything will proceed cyclically. Boneless.
S  : Yes, find the middle place.
S M: I HAVE THE FURY OF MY OWN MOMENTUM.
SFM: Fell a victim.
 FM: With this ring, I thee wed.
 F : Electricity.
S M: Fire Walk With Me...
S  : Fire Walk With Me.

This cryptic dialogue seems to focus on one central message: That the characters from this spirit world (BOB, Mike, the Man From Another Place, Mrs. Tremond and her grandson, and the woodsmen) can visit the material world and interact with it, and BOB's crimes serve a purpose for them, obtaining an abstract kind of food (shown as creamed corn) they call garmonbozia. This idea was already clear to fans simply from watching Twin Peaks and FWWM.

The other moment that MP adds consists of a conversation between The Man From Another Place and Agent Cooper that takes place in the red room seen in Laura's dream. The one line in MP and the shooting script that was not in FWWM is:
Man From Another Place: Is it future? Or is it past?

This reinforces the idea, abundantly demonstrated elsewhere in the show and movie, that time in the spirit world is not linear like time in the real world.

All told, the dialogue added to FFWM by MP's first 84 minutes is pretty thin stuff, and there is almost nothing in MP that was not in the shooting script. Then, in the final six minutes, we see scenes that were already recorded, rather faithfully, in the shooting script. In these two scenes, we learn that Annie survived her experience in the Black Lodge, and gives a warning that the good Dale is still in the lodge. Then a nurse steals from Annie's finger the cursed ring that previously led to the deaths of Teresa Banks and Laura Palmer and disappearance of Agent Desmond. (It should be noted that the theft of a ring by a nurse brings a curse down upon her in the classic 1963 horror film, Black Sabbath, so this crime by Annie's nurse may prove to be extremely unwise.) Finally, in a bathroom in the Great Northern Lodge, Agent Cooper, under the control of BOB, follows the smashing of his head into a mirror (as seen in the TV finale) by lying on the floor and acting very oddly when Harry and Doc Hayward break in to assist him, saying that he found his head injury funny and expressing undue concern that he didn't get to brush his teeth.

Fans who had not read the shooting script learn this: That Annie is still alive, and BOB's control of Cooper may be full of bizarre giveaways that could eventually lead to others detecting the problem, but we already knew that Major Briggs had been told explicitly that Dale is in the Black Lodge. Fans who had read the shooting script learned essentially nothing with Missing Pieces, although the cinematography is excellent, and there is an amusing and educational scene between Josie, Pete Martell, and an unsatisfied customer at the sawmill.

All told, we know at the end of MP just what we already knew: There is a spirit world that sends dark forces into the area of Twin Peaks. Annie is alive. A subsequent effort, led by Major Briggs, to liberate Agent Cooper from the Black Lodge may or may not succeed. And there it ends, with no further elaboration. Correspondence recorded online between Twin Peaks writer Harley Peyton and a fan indicate that the writing process on the show was to create cliffhangers, then figure out later how to handle them, and so there was no overarching plan beyond this point. So, it must be concluded, there simply is no future for Agent Cooper or BOB or the world of Twin Peaks. Agent Cooper will never escape from limbo and neither will the rest of the show. The spirit of Twin Peaks, however, has lived long past its swift demise.

It may be argued that David Lynch's Twin Peaks gave birth to Internet discussion of cult TV shows; in the early Nineties, before the World Wide Web, a forum on Usenet kept the fans talking in the months and years after the last episode had aired. The show was profound and bizarre in a way few shows before it had ever approached, and its influence on everything that came after is inestimable. No Twin Peaks, no X-Files. No X-Files, no Breaking Bad. The face of modern dramatic television was shaped in large portion by Lynch's brief foray from the cinema to the small screen. The show itself is gone, but its spirit lives on, which is much what the show told us about temptation and many of its characters, both evil and good. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Retro Review: Watchmen

If a single work were to be selected to illustrate the merits of illustrated superhero fiction as a medium that has yielded great art, Alan Moore's Watchmen is arguably the best choice. Published by DC, the story features original characters adapted from the Charlton Comics roster purchased by DC in 1983, although the themes and style completely overwhelm the particulars or history of the characters.

Moore was, by his own account, impressed by the direction of The Dark Knight Returns in providing a finale for a world of superheroes. Other stories Moore wrote for DC in this era ended other heroes and worlds: The death of Abin Sur portrayed as a brilliantly conceived murder, Krypton portrayed as a society in decay rather than a futuristic paradise, Mr. Mxyzptlk as a homicidal sorceror, Superman's career ending with the hero voicing Moore's criticism of the character as a concept. His planned, but never unpublished, Twilight of the Superheroes would have shown an end to DC's heroes as a battle between ruling houses, Game of Thrones style, some decades hence. In all of these stories, Moore did not merely end the lives or careers of the heroes, but he first demolishes the qualities that made then children's favorites. Superman called himself "over-rated and too wrapped up in himself" on the final page of Moore's Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow? Watchmen adopts this approach with a set of superheroes in some other world, breaking down their heroic qualities before leading to a finale in which each of them is dead or permanently taken off the stage. This treatment was, if not fully original, still quite unlike what readers were accustomed to in 1986, and many scenes come to the reader as a revelation – surprising, shocking, and often suggesting a higher truth, more realistic than the nice and neat comics of old.

Watchmen, like many Moore works, and unlike almost all superhero comics that came before it, adopts the stylistic devices of good literature to the extent that many highly-regarded novels do. He refers to political, cultural, and scientific realities of the real world. He finds fine moments for one part of his story to refer to another. While intersplicing two narratives, he often creates correspondences that work in two ways at once, often one of them grim. For example, as someone pushing an elevator button says "Ground floor comin' up," we see Edward Blake begin a deadly fall to the ground. A page later, as Blake's fall continues in slow motion, an unrelated line of dialogue contains the phrase "drop out of sight." The juxtaposition of darkly ironic double meanings with mundane exposition is illustrative of Moore's entire approach: Everything light has a darker side.

The central and most wonderful example of this is an extended metaphor that is so deep and compelling that any novelist could envy it: The notion of a broken watch, which functions on several levels at once:

• There is a literal broken watch, which the father of Jon Osterman was about to repair when he decided that his occupation had been made obsolete by nuclear science.

• There is a world that is philosophically deterministic, Newton's clockwork universe, which was destroyed by Einstein's work.

• There is the conventional perception of sequential time, which is broken by Dr. Manhattan's unusual perception of time out of sequence.

• There is a standard linear narration in comic books which is broken by Moore's highly nonlinear narration.

• A second watch, in Jon Osterman's hand when he is accidentally caught in an atomic test chamber, is broken and left to record the same instant forever after.

• There is the world of the Watchmen superheroes, brought to a definitive end by the events Moore depicts.

• There is the world of conventional superhero comics, exemplary people living in cyclical patterns, facing new villains each month without real consequence, broken by Moore's work which shows them rise, prove to be corrupted, and fall over five decades.

On each of these levels, there is a symbol of time, a "watch," which is broken, literally or figuratively. In word and in image, Moore repeatedly relates these different "broken watches" to one another. It's just the type of sophistication that students are asked to notice and record in graded essays, and in part, Watchmen serves to elevate the medium from light entertainment to an art form.

Central to all of these broken watches are the Watchmen themselves. Some of their behavior, particularly in having complicated sex lives, is simply more adult than comics previously portrayed. But we also see the superheroes fail, morally and otherwise. One hero goofs up and is shot. Others grow old and fat. Another is a delusional sadist who avidly kills in the line of duty. Worse still, another rapes and kills for his own selfish purposes. The only one with true superpowers is rendered almost completely inhuman and devoid of compassion. The remaining hero adopts, from the perspective of traditional superhero comics, the vanity and Machiavellian means of a villain, and may have succeeded in killing millions as a means to an end only to fail in his purpose anyway.

Like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen uses the real threat of nuclear war as a compelling backdrop for a superhero story. Like DKR, the awesome superhero on the American side tips the balance of power in NATO's favor, but not enough to neutralize the Soviet threat. Both stories show Republican presidents remaining in power decades beyond what current term limits allow. And both stories describe a Cold War threat which subsided in the real world a few years after the stories were published, making the plot a bit less compelling for later readers than for those who read them in the Eighties.

It's art, and it's powerful. It's compelling, eminently re-readable, and was eventually adapted into a successful and critically-acclaimed film. Compare it to any other work in comics, and in at least one way if not many (Dave Gibbons' art, extremely good if not revolutionary, among them) Watchmen is a superior work.

And yet: As in all of those Eighties stories in which Moore destroys a superhero, their values, or their world, we see no indication that Moore actually likes superheroes. He may, in fact, hate them. And while that's a respectable opinion as a matter of taste (Perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber hates superheroes? Perhaps William Shakespeare would have?) it makes Watchmen into a bitter paradox, a work that is perhaps the best of its genre, whose primary message is that its genre is inherently flawed and not worth reading. Moore himself quit the genre, before he was able to publish his intriguing plans to kill off the DC Universe, in certainly fine and artistic fashion, as he did the world of the Watchmen. I have read Watchmen many times, and I will read it many more, but the experience is somewhat spoiled by the bitterness Moore brings to the topic. One wonders why he would bother creating a work in a genre he so dislikes, and that's obviously a conclusion he soon thereafter reached.

To similar effect, one wonders whom he is trying to persuade, and of what. We see that superheroes would probably not interact well with the society of the real world, but whoever thought that they would? We see that superheroes bestowed with real adult complexity make poor characters for childrens' stories, but whoever thought otherwise? Seen as a polemic, Watchmen is an argument against several viewpoints that nobody ever held. Despite its great merits, Watchmen has all the warmth of an angry old shut-in yelling at kids to stop playing on his lawn; in fact, for them to stop playing even away from his lawn, for that matter.


Watchmen changed comics, and is certainly a true work of art. In my view, its greatest legacy is to have paved the way to other works of considerable complexity (more so than the comics of the Seventies, if not matching that of Moore) by writers who are actually fond of superheroes and let that love show in their work.