Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Men 714: Person to Person

Don Draper dresses better, talks better, works better, and plays better than anyone you'll ever know. Paired with that blessing is his curse: He makes more and bigger mistakes than anyone you'll ever know. We knew that in Season One, and it's carried him through to the finish. We've seen him fall down, pick himself up, and fall again. It's a credit to writer-creator Matt Weiner and his team that the cycle could stay fresh enough that Don standing on a cliff in the show's final minutes could tease the possibility of a leap and turn into something completely different.

Everyone got their send-off. For some it was love; for others it was career; for Betty it was the grave. That plot seemed to set up Don's fate: If the Draper kids were going to lose their mother, maybe Don would become a full-time father. As Betty saw it, that's not a role the otherwise omni-talented Don Draper can fill. And so, his high-speed dash across the desert led him not East, to home, but West, to the house of the original Don Draper, whose name Dick Whitman stole. There, he found Stephanie, whom we last saw a year ago, pregnant and broke, sent packing to Oakland by a lie told by Megan. Stephanie was far from a major character on the series, but here she filled a particular role: Her abandonment of her child, and the shame she feels for that put a focus on Don having abandoned, at one time or another, absolutely everything. Faced with this, Don offered to become some sort of partner in her life, a ludicrous misplacement of the energy he'd withdrawn from all of his existing responsibilities. Stephanie runs from the resort (clearly filmed at, and representing, the not-named Esalen Institute) and leaves Don with a temporary transportation inconvenience and a hole in his conscience big enough to swallow him inside. Don's frustration ends with the outburst, "People just come and go and no one says, 'Goodbye.'" He's far too intelligent not to see his own sins in that line.

The title of the episode, "Person to Person," is a manner of billing telephone calls that no longer exists. The episode has six telephone calls, most of them showing modern technology as a way to keep people apart when they really should be together. The fragility of telephone conversations is demonstrated in the first call when Sally ends her call with Don and he can't do or say a thing about it. (Incidentally, a similar but more futuristic kind of "hanging up" victimizes Jon Hamm's character in the Christmas episode of the BBC's Black Mirror in which he starred.) Soon, Don – who placed a call to Peggy to try to make up for his own coming and going without saying "Goodbye" – inflicts the same punishment on her, cutting off their call and leaving her worried for his sanity and his safety.

That was the episode's fifth phone call. The one before that was one that ended a relationship, with Joan choosing to talk to someone distant, about business, and shut out Richard, who is present, about love. And so she loses him, for better or worse, for richer or poorer.

But the episode's final phone call goes the opposite way. Stan and Peggy start by talking about business, but soon, and stunningly (and probably with too little build-up) pledge their love for one another. Stan realizes the absurdity of a phone taking the place of human contact, and runs down the hall to kiss her.

In a show about modern media (print, radio, or television) blasting opinions unilaterally into people's brains, the telephone is an apt metaphor. It's another form of long-distance communication, although it works in both ways instead of just one. In that sense, the old landline more closely resembles its mobile offspring that have more completely taken over our world than anyone could have foreseen in 1970, mediating our interpersonal relationships as well as serving up corporate ads. The Mad Men finale may say more about the devices that keep us apart in 2015 than it does about 1970.

But Stan is twice the voice of reason in the episode. He also realizes that Don's flight and escape are temporary. "He always does this, and he always comes back," Stan tells Peggy. He's exactly right.

Steve Jobs was vocal about alternative forms of consciousness having enhanced his creative powers, and there's some of that in Mad Men's final two scene. Don, having shed the New York coat and tie for a meditation circle on the Pacific coast, hums "Om" the last time we see him. And then, the gut-punch ending is the 1971 Coca Cola television ad that anyone who lived in America in the Seventies saw countless times, and we realize that Don's epiphany along the Pacific was not an escape from work, but ultimately just an inspiration for his greatest success, as he went on to return to New York and write that ad, the single most prominent television ad of all time. Don Draper gets credit for the commercial, "Hilltop," that belongs in real life to an ad man named Bill Backer, and in so doing, achieves the fame that he always had the potential to achieve.

In the first episode of Mad Men, Don sits across a table from Rachel Menken and, en route to winning her as a lover and a client, tells her, "I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one." And now, the show is over, and for Don Draper, there isn't one.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Multiversity 2

Multiversity is a long and winding road, a story of stories, with multiple universes facing their doom, and a cast of characters so vast that the cameos and allusions stretch out numerous and almost invisibly into the far distance. The finale, Multiversity #2, has many of the hallmarks of a grand triumphant ending, big and chaotic, with the heroes more than matching in power and goodness what the villains offer in power and evil, until a final ceremonial victory celebration. As with much of the rest of the series, the finale is more than it seems at first glance.

Warring through a chaotic set of interlocking battles, a large number of heroes, some of whom have never been seen before, hurl themselves across the page, winning many small fights which are small only in comparison to the main battle, which is so large, it name-checks Darkseid as a side threat without bothering to show him.

With fights breaking out all across the Multiverse, it's the most humongous superhero battle of all time, which distracts from the most significant fact, which is that it's all completely real.

The reality of what's happening in Multiversity #2, as real as the stakes in the previous issue, Ultra Comics, is driven home at the beginning, when the font and second-person narrative speaks to us, literally to us, in a panel stylized as many pages, one after another, and an eye. The story goes on, with or without you. Whether we read or stop reading, whether it's from boredom or death that we stop, the story goes on. Last issue, this was Ultra's salvation and his curse, that his story goes on with or without us, forever. After we die, someone else will read Ultra comics, and someone else will read Multiversity and the comics that come after it. That's the first truth of Multiversity.

Later, when the overt threat of the bad guys called the Gentry have been defeated (Or have they?), and the Empty Hand makes an ominous debut and disappears, Superman of Earth-23, Cal Ellis, looks right at us as he refers to Earth-33, our Earth, and though he uses third-person, he's speaking to those around us in the real world, fans and creators alike: The source of all the heroes' troubles is really in our world, not theirs, and that's the fight that he and the Justice League of the Multiverse called Operation Justice Incarnate, must fight. Maybe Grant Morrison hopes that this team of alternate Justice Leaguers will appear in more comic books in the future, but that's not the real message. What Multiversity has been about since the beginning is the threat to comic books, the fact that its spirit and business wax and wane, and the things which sustain the industry could be corrupted or damaged critically in the future. The Gentry, a wave of unpleasant content, is defeated for now, by the idea of the Justice League and superheroes in general, but more threats remains.

And the bottom line threat is right there on the last panel. Cold, hard cash. If there's anything the comic book industry needs to survive, it's ultimately that. Even as movies and video games have made superhero stories more profitable than ever, the comics face a long-term existential threat to their business model. For now, the comic industry goes on, but the looming threat of The Empty Hand is always out there, to return when it chooses.

This is the multipronged message of Multiversity, and it drives the allegorical story from start to finish. A gothic miniadventure with a vampire Sivana invading the dark Earth-13 ends in victory for the heroes as the demon Etrigan patterns himself after Superman and a Zatanna-like curse produces the first of several laughs in the issue by making vampires crave coffee instead of blood. Then, the Marvels defeat Hannibal Lecter Sivana, and the story patterns itself around Crisis on Infinite Earths, becoming what comics have in many ways become, "an endless event." To the credit of penciller Ivan Reis, it's in this sequence that Earth-26's Lincoln Memorial with a cartoon-looking goat as the central figure becomes the issue's second laugh. Bizarro Adam Strange ("Adam Familiar") follows soon after.

The pivotal battle turns around Nix Uotan solving a Rubik's Cube, seeking, as seen in Final Crisis, a way to do it better than ever before, demonstrating the power of nerds to perform miracles. Now he's corrupted by the Gentry as he does so, and the greatest perversions of sweet, innocent characters take place. The Lil Leaguers are shown to be robot spies for the Gentry and Nix Uotan beheads Captain Carrot. If there's a place where the corruption of the genre would be more harmful, it would be in the variants intended for the youngest readers. The alternate Batman, Aquaman and Flash lead the charge, with Red Racer, the superhero who – like Barry Allen – is a comics fan, referencing both Crisis on Infinite Earths and stories in Morrison's own JLA series. Ultimately, the combined power of the alternate Justice League and the Marvel-Comics-inspired characters overwhelms the Gentry, and Nix is turned good, for now. The ambiguous victory with The Empty Hand fading away with a threat to return on his own terms gives readers the usual, formulaic win for the heroes while reminding us of Morrison's overarching warning: The comics face threats; if you love them, take those threats seriously.

Multiversity is sure to be collected and read by fans far into the future. Its best issues are of the highest level, and they alone would be enough to make it a classic. The guide to the Multiverse is likely to be a significant reference for many years to come. The heavy message yoked to those elements is Morrison's good-bye (for now?) to monthly superhero comics, and it's a message readers and creators will thus be reminded of long into the future. Will they heed it? Morrison is likely talking to himself, and of his own retirement, in the opening panel of Multiversity #2. The story goes on, with or without you.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Doctor Hurt RIP

Not with a whimper, but a bang. The dark and convoluted path of Doctor Hurt comes to an end (apparently, for now) in Convergence #3 as the second Batman of the fourth-or-so Earth Two sets off an explosion that kills himself, Hurt, and some of Hurt's lackies in order to save Dick Grayson. In an unacknowledged quirk, this is Thomas Wayne (the father of the New 52's Bruce Wayne) killing Thomas Wayne (an 18th-century ancestor of New Earth's Bruce Wayne). So, it's a fitting time for an obituary for the villain of Batman R.I.P., and one of Grant Morrison's finest creations.

Hurt was visually designed to match the unnamed doctor who appeared in the "Robin Dies at Dawn" story back in 1963. This benign and largely-undefined character was brought back in cameos starting with Batman #673 (though his hands, perhaps, were seen holding binoculars at the end of Batman #665 and his handiwork was on-panel as far back as #655) and was gradually, hint by hint, developed into the major villain of Morrison's two-year run on Batman, and then played a similar role in Morrison's Batman and Robin and concurrent Return of Bruce Wayne. Otherwise, he has hardly appeared at all. Presumably, his long life span would let him remain alive and very unhappy where the Joker buried him on the grounds of Wayne Manor. He appeared in a singularly dark role in Batman, Inc. vol. 2 #5, as an adviser to the President of the United States who convinces the Commander in Chief to destroy Gotham City with nuclear weapons. This was in a possible future which was averted, but it did assert that Hurt remained a piece on the table who could appear again. In Convergence #3, Jeff King writes his apparent finale.

I think the saga of Doctor Hurt proves the power of the unseen, and conversely, the weakness of the obvious, the flaw in storytelling that lays everything bare. In a few tantalizingly brief appearances strung out over a year and a half, Grant Morrison made Doctor Hurt into a villain of tremendous intrigue and potential, someone who could perhaps out-plan Batman, someone who could perhaps have become a major villain on a par with Luthor or the Joker, but who was instead dismantled into a mere raving thug, first by Morrison, and now finally by King. There was an unrealized potential here, and DC Comics are the poorer for it.

At the end of Batman #680, with Doctor Hurt hosting the Black Glove party in Arkham Asylum, with a maddened Batman falling prey to Joker toxin while Jezebel Jet smiled with evil joy, who was Doctor Hurt? We didn't know. The set-up, as we understood it, was that the mystery "Who is the Black Glove?" was the greatest mystery we'd seen in comics for a very long time. It had gradually become apparent that Doctor Hurt was the Black Glove, not the henchman of a higher-up, but who was Doctor Hurt? It was a mystery, and everybody had a guess.

What, at that point, did we know about Doctor Hurt? Very little. We knew that he was evil, ran the Black Glove organization that met annually to bet on life and death, and that evil itself, rather than power or riches, was his apparent motive. We knew that he especially hated Batman, and that he had been planning for a very long time to make this one, decisive bid to destroy the caped crusader. And with a promise that Bruce Wayne would be sidelined from DC Comics, it looked like he was going to win. In a sense, he did.

I believed that Doctor Hurt was the Devil. And this was the correct idea, to a point. To the extent that Batman #681 was going to reveal anything, that's what it was going to reveal, and I thought this had been made clear a few issues earlier. Eventually, a Grant Morrison interview revealed as much: "This is the story of how Batman cheats The Devil." But it was an ambiguous reveal, to fit the tone of Batman, R.I.P. to its logical (non)conclusion.

Morrison's run on Batman was intended to homage and exemplify spooky, ambiguous stories. The original Zur En Arrh story seems to be a dream, but Batman ends it with a gadget called the Bat-Radia in his hand, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. A revamped Bat-Mite (called "Might") appeared with no explanation as to whether he was real or a fantasy. It was only later that I realized the artful ambiguity of the word "Might" itself: It can mean power, or it can be the modal verb "might" meaning "may" or "can be." Bat-Might was ambiguously real. He might be a figment of Batman's imagination, or he might be a magical fifth-dimensional imp. Finally, in a laugh line, he tells a frustrated Batman that imagination is the fifth dimension. Was he imaginary or from another dimension? Yes and no. Neither answer is right, and both are. This ambiguity, playing everything right down the middle, was also behind the nature of a minor character named Honor Jackson. A struggling, drugged, mind-zapped Bruce Wayne spends one day wandering the streets of Gotham with Honor Jackson only to find out that Honor Jackson had already died. Did Batman imagine him, or did a magical Bat-Might resusitate Honor Jackson so he could spend a day redeeming his failed life by helping Batman? Yes and no. The story works hard to avoid giving us a clear answer. And we were being given half the answer right then of "Who is the Black Glove?" Meaning that we weren't going to get an answer, or that we were going to get a spooky answer that begs a follow up. "Doctor Hurt was The Devil… or was he?"

So, yes, Doctor Hurt was played right down the middle the whole way, as a "man who may or may not have been some manifestation of the Devil" (in Bruce's words) or as something else. But that something else was never defined. The story teased that perhaps Doctor Hurt was Bruce's father, but this possibility was never in keeping with DC's sacrosanct lore, and was eventually refuted. But that something else remained vague. Whatever Doctor Hurt was, where was he five years ago, or twenty, or fifty? Where did his timeline begin? When Doctor Hurt was at his best, we didn't know, and we would never know. Like the long-teased, but never-delivered (well, for a long time, anyway) origins of the Joker or the Phantom Stranger, the ambiguity of Doctor Hurt was what made him interesting. He was evil, a master planner, a perfect foil to Batman, and inspired Damian's remarks in a possible future: "I know The Devil exists, or at least something which might as well be The Devil. I've met him."

When Doctor Hurt returned in the second season of Morrison's Batman work, the mystery was maintained for a while. We saw that Hurt had somehow survived (even Batman didn't know how) and stepped into the role of a Mexican drug lord, and had an army of intriguing cronies who had been broken and made into slaves. This was all in keeping with the ambiguous (and oddly psychological) evil of Doctor Hurt as the focus of evil in the world, "the hole in things." A brilliant scene in Batman and Robin #13 showed us a fantasy that couldn't be real, of Doctor Hurt killing the Waynes then taking over as an evil Thomas Wayne. This ambiguity remained and remains: Did Doctor Hurt order the murder of the Waynes? Would Bruce have died had not Joe Chill lost his nerve because he'd had a boy of his own? Did Bruce's survival of the hit ruin Doctor Hurt's plan to become the dark lord of Wayne Manor? It's a compelling vision and made more powerful by its ambiguity. We don't know. We may never know.

And then it unraveled. A few scenes, beginning in the "Western" chapter of Return of Bruce Wayne, then elegantly reprising "Dark Knight, Dark City" and an old World's Finest tale, unmasked Doctor Hurt as an older member of the Waynes, coincidentally named Thomas, who had sought a deal with The Devil and inadvertently summoned a force sent by Darkseid and was changed by it. It all fit, it all made sense, it tied things together, but Doctor Hurt the master became Doctor Hurt the servant, and there went the mystery.

Still, ambiguity remained. Still, he arguably embodied the central evil in the universe. But the myth was weakened. I think there was a lost opportunity to build Doctor Hurt into a pivotal force in DC Comics. There was no logical way to salvage his debut as a villain with one really big, years-long plan, but maybe he could have been kept lurking in the shadows, part of something big and dark and mythic. But the end of Batman and Robin's first year and a half dismantled that possibility.

And now he ends here. His final line is a disappointingly cliché, "And I say, first we kill this Batman, then we kill the other one, and his boy!" He's simply an opportunist, looking to stick someone with a knife when the occasion arises. It's like seeing Doctor Fate sit down in his boxers, turn on the television, and eat peanut butter out of the jar. The mystery is gone. And so is Doctor Hurt. But it's the mystery we'll miss more.