Thursday, March 9, 2017

"A Man Has to Be What He Is, Joey." (Spoiler Free Pontification about Logan)

I caught a late show of Logan the other night, and I'm very comfortable saying that in the years that follow, when people look back at the genre of "Comic Book Movies," this is one of a few that will stand above the rest. I'm also willing to go so far as to say that Logan is to "Super Hero/Comic Book Movies"  what The Searchers is to Westerns.

Logan explicitly references a different Western, Shane, a few times, it even references it sub-textually about 3/4 of the way through during an episodic break set at a farm house, but I'm sticking to my Searchers comparison because of how both films operate meta-textually.

Others have compared the similarity of these two genres before, including the observation that the popularity and eventual market saturation of the Western drove it to extinction and that films based on Marvel and DC properties are headed towards the same fate. Its interesting here, because in both cases, the genres had to exist like they had in order for these two films to have been made. The Searchers without John Wayne, who was at the height of his popularity after years of playing heroic figures in a legendary vision of American history, would just be a completely different -- lighter, less substantial. Wayne's turn from the hopeful, plain spoken and pragmatic cowboy and solider in films like Big River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon into the broken and vicious Ethan Edwards is what gives The Searchers its power.

The same is true of Logan. The film stands well enough alone, but by using an actor that has been so closely tied to the same character, it also works to bring all previous films/performances into context. Just like with The Searchers, you see Ethan not as a new character just introduced, but as a vision of how the character you've known and watched for years has ended up.

Coincidentally, John Wayne's breakout role as "Ringo Kid" in Stage Coach (1939), an affable gun-toting cowboy that serves as the model of his persona in Westerns, and his turn as "Ethan Edwards" in The Searchers (1956) are 17 years apart; the same range in time as Jackman's first appearance as "Wolverine" in X-Men (2000) and his "last"* in Logan (2017).

Its a story about a man who once tried to make amends for his past. Who had tried to go against his grain and be a hero, but in the end all he's accomplished is outliving everyone he's ever cared about. Resigned to that fate, he starts to break down, and that's where Logan opens. Certainly, the character of Wolverine has always carried an heir of doom around him, so this kind of story is a natural. But it succeeds where other "grim and gritty" takes on comic book characters have failed (Batman V. Superman etc.) because it built to it organically. It really succeeds though, in that it doesn't just drive the hero into the dirt, it gives him a final chance to redeem himself not only through truly heroic self sacrifice -- but by literally meeting alternate versions of himself, fighting off the bad one** and guiding the good one to live the life he wasn't able to.

Just like The Searchers (and Shane, too) its a very compelling, dramatic and human story, that is told while still using all of the genre elements you'd expect (here mutants, cyborgs, genetically modified living weapons with metal claws instead of horses, injuns and six-guns). That's not to look down to Avengers: Age of Ultron or Fort Apache, but those are films that are content to just meet generic expectations, not to use them to push somewhere else.

The performances are all fantastic, especially from new comer, young Dafne Keen with her intense and feral portrayal of "Laura/X-23." The pacing, dialogue, photography are all also top notch -- Its classic Hollywood story telling in the best possible way. Go See it.

*The official word is that Hugh Jackman is retiring as the character that made him a household name, but we've all heard stuff like that before. Jackman reprising the role again sometime wouldn't surprise me, but whatever happens, Logan will remain a perfect swan song ending.

** Ok, so slight spoiler here -- you're warned -- Maybe my one complaint with this movie is a character described in the credits as "X-24," basically a full grown male clone of Logan who the bad guys set loose after the Reavers fail. X-24 looks like a younger, more ripped Hugh Jackman, and acts like a crazed feral Wolverine. He works in the plot pretty well as an example of what Laura/X-23 could become and what Logan wishes he had never been.

But -- its a little boring. X-24 is just a little too on the nose as a "dark mirror" version of the hero for me. But what a perfect opportunity to use Sabertooth? That's the role he played in the comics, and the character has never really gotten a fair shake on film, so it really seems like a missed chance.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ghost Rider #3 July 1990: "Deathwatch"

Here we are at issue 3, the finale of the first story arch for this all new, all different Ghost Rider. Short version: stuffed between Danny Ketch's discovery of a haunted motorcycle and that erasable Blackout's shenanigans, there's the plot. The case that the Cypress Pool Jokers stole from Kingpin while Deathwatch was trying to steal it (witnessed by Danny and Barbara Ketch) turned out to be full of some weird canisters. Those canisters have finally be reclaimed by Deathwatch & Co. and he promptly fills us all in: 

They're full of a deadly biological weapon which will cause half the population to die outright, and the other have to turn into homicidal monsters. Deathwatch wants to release this stuff because the only thing that gives him pleasure is other people death (so he can watch). 

Kingpin's man shows up, and there's a fun page breakdown where a huge army of Kingpin thugs appear at the snap of a finger. I love all the shades of blue and the great rhythm the panels set up -- slowly moving to the "snap" and then the dutch angle extreme close up of Deathwatch's surprise followed quickly by the wide shot of the 50 dudes that just showed up out of nowhere.

Deathwatch basically gives up at this point and splits, so Blackout takes advantage of the situation by slashing the Kingpin's rep's throat, gouging out the eyes of Deathwatch's thug, grabbing the canisters and taking a female CPJ member hostage. 

I like this page layout for a few reasons. The colors are pretty great for one, with the bright red ninja in the foreground moving across the panels on the bottom, and the deep blues on top. Also love that GR hits him so hard the whole panel vibrates. 

Also love that Blackout is basically just speaking in metal lyrics at this point. 

GR catches up to Blackout, and they finally throw down. Blackout bites him, apparently puncturing GR's jacket, and gets half his face scorched off by an explosion of Hellfire (TM). He survives, disfigured, and runs off. 

Weird side detail, the narration box says "Blackout's mechanical fangs"...they don't look mechanical, but if that's the intention, that's some more gold to mine with this character.  

The day is saved and we get to peek in on  Wilson Fisk as he ponders the skyline and and wonders what Punisher and Daredevil are up to. I like this bit because it's some nice characterization of the Kingpin -- he's a criminal, but he's also a legit businessman. More or less he just operates in all possible business ventures and doesn't really have much (if any) concern for the law, just results. Destroying the world would be bad for business, so he intervened. He has a lot in common with Doctor Doom in this regard. 

The issue closes with Barb Ketch still in a coma and Danny feeling guilty and unsure about everything.

The issue closes out with a fun Stan Lee's Soapbox entry, where Stan waxes poetic about why Marvel comics are the best. He even throws around "Marvel Zombie." 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Ghost Rider #2 June 1990: Do Be Afraid of the Dark

Ghost Rider #2 keeps up the momentum in terms of story and action, gives the read more of a sense of GR's methods and abilities and most importantly introduces your new favorite villain. 

First, a fun little aside -- Issue #2 features a shot of the Daily Bugle with a fairly typical headline: "Ghost Rider Terror Spreads," and of course, big photos of dead bodies. This doesn't really stand out that much on it's own, but it is a pretty strong contrast to what we saw in a panel at the very end of issue #1:

See the difference? "Alleged Criminal Ghost Rider Saves Child"? J. Jonah Jameson never "alleged" anything in his life. Should read: "Ghost Rider Threat to Child's Life" or something. Obviously, the copy editor responsible for that headline was sacked immediately. 

Anyway -- back to the mater at hand. GR is making up for lost time terrorizing street urchins. This is a cool page layout that shows some of his "enhanced interrogation techniques" and his nifty ability to ride straight up walls. He sort of did this in issue #1, but it was a little ambiguous. Here, its very clear he can pretty much defy gravity. 

The page layout is noteworthy in the way it expertly leads your eye around the page with the bright yellow cues from GR's flames. Gregory Wright was the colorist on these issues and that's a job that's easy to over look, but very important to the finished product. Wright really gets to shine in this issue, as you can see in this next sequence: 

When I mentioned your new favorite villain, this is what I was talking about. The face-punching action takes a break and you get a low, cinematic sequence introducing a character and moving in close. Suddenly the lights go out, the color shifts and gets darker on every panel. 

The next page is in near total darkness as the man discovers the intruder in his house - an intruder who is immune to his attacks and threatens to murder the man's family right in front of him. The frames tighten in because they're just showing essential action in total darkness -- until it flashes open on a big panel showing the intruder, still in shadow but his presence dominates the page. 

After an elipis, its still dark. In a typical super-hero comic, you probably wouldn't get this page -- it would have just ended with the threat and picked up later without showing what may have happened. Here, you see first that the man is not only dead, but hanging from the ceiling. The family he was trying to protect is also dead, and the intruder is smiling and covered in blood. 

The "intruder," of course, is none other than M-F'ing BLACKOUT!

I've expressed my love for Blackout repeatedly during the "Month of Midnight Son-Days," but his first appearances really show you why he's such a great villain. This introduction is classic horror stuff, with perfect pacing and delivery -- and it sets up a great visual gimmick that works just like the music in Jaws.   

 The very next page opens with the a slight variation on the blues we'd just seen, and Danny is startled by hearing a noise. Is it the same intruder?

...nope, its just his mom (flash change to brighter colors). Classic slasher-movie style fake-out scare. But later, a parallel sequence is set up with one of the Cypress Pool Jokers (who are apparently a gang of 6th graders). Establishing shot with narration, interior of potential victim (great product placement: "Man this Nintendo is HOT!"), sudden change in lighting...

Screams in the dark. Close-ups and then -- surprise: Blackout is there. 

"Oh yeah, and while you were playing Nintendo, I MURDERED YOUR PARENTS!"

After making sure the kid has a chance to fully absorb the horror of his family's brutal death by his hands/teeth, Blackout cold throws the kid out of a window. FYI -- its been about 3/4 of the issue of his first appearance, he's been on maybe 7 pages total and his body count is at 5 innocent people going on 6. 

So, while Blackout is a horrifying unrepentant splatter-punk monster, this is still ultimately a super-hero story so the kid is miraculously rescued by Ghost Rider. The story falters a little here though, because they've set up a really compelling and thematically appropriate adversary - Ghost Rider's whole thing is getting vengeance when innocent blood is spilled and Blackout is basically dumping it all over the neighborhood - but their first meeting basically boils down to: "Uh, yeah so...I'm just gonna split. See you later, pal." 

Pretty anti-climactic, to say the least. Also a little confusing. It looks like Blackout and GR are maybe a yard apart, why doesn't he chase him? 

Blackout's super powers get stated explicitly during a little exposition break with Deathwatch. They describe it as "light dampening abilities" - which sounds suspiciously like mutant talk to me. He's also able to tolerate Deathwatch's weird psychic surgery/death memory power, which is why they're best buds I guess. Blackout does the killing, then Deathwatch, well, "watches." 

Its also suggested that Blackout has light sensitivity which could be a "skin condition" as they say on this page, but its also implied by his big teeth and bloody mouth that he may also be a vampire. Its pretty ambiguous, but those details don't really matter all that much. In fact they basically enhance his mystique. As does his apparent lack of motivation outside of a desire to murder. 

Anyway -- we'll see more of him later. This being a standard comic, it has some fun extras in there, including this "Stan's Soapbox" column written by Stan "The Man" Lee telling you how loyal readers can demand the Spider-Man newspaper strip in their local papers. 

Also of note were these sweet Nintendo game ads -- 

This one promises that YOU could win a shopping spree with a ninja! How awesome right? The kid in the shopping cart kind of looks like the Cypress Pool Joker who got a visit from Blackout. I wonder if that kid was playing "Wrath of the Black Manta?' 

There's also this great full page ad for Double Dragon II. I have very clear memories of studying this drawing and copying it in my sketchbooks. Awesome example of promo-art from this period. Love how it looks like an action movie  poster.