Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Comics Review: The Lagoon, Lilli Carré

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

(Note: A somewhat revised assessment of The Lagoon appears in my review of the cartoonist's "The Thing About Madeline." Please click the link at the end of this post.)

The most interesting aspect of Lilli Carré's The Lagoon is its principal formal affectation. The story is paced through the use of sounds: the ticking of a metronome, taps on a window, the hooting of an owl. These and others are used to punctuate the story and set its rhythms. One has come across this technique here and there in various comics stories over the years. The two instances that immediately come to mind are the asylum-cell scene in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke, with the smacking of playing cards against a tabletop, and Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg's "The Sound of Her Wings" from The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, in which dialogue is juxtaposed with the sounds of a soccer ball being kicked around a park. But The Lagoon is the first story I can recall in which the technique is used to structure the entire piece. I was especially taken with the counterpoints Carré develops between the various percussive noises and more "melodic" sounds, such as the characters' dialogue, the yowling of a group of cats in unison, or the siren song of a swamp creature. Carré brings a whole new meaning to the notion of "orchestrating" a story.

It's not hard to imagine the technique giving a striking texture to a great comics story down the road, but the reason it's so conspicuous in The Lagoon is that there's nothing else of interest going on. The story is otherwise shapeless. It's ostensibly a slice-of-life piece about a three-generation household on the outskirts of a swamp, but Carré doesn't establish much in the way of conflicts or a dynamic between the characters. The most memorable scene involves members of the family and their neighbors gathered around a pond to listen to a swamp creature's singing, but the set piece is mostly notable for its weirdness. There doesn't seem to be any point being made, and when the siren-like song leads two characters into the waters--never to be seen again--the moments of their descending are completely affectless. The characters aren't defined enough for the reader to care what happens to them. Carré also inexplicably ends each chapter with full-page panels of, at different times, a grove of trees, underwater bubbles, and a dwindling woodpile fire. One assumes they're metaphors, but the analogies are opaque. Carré doesn't do much to develop them as tropes during the story. As a literary effort, The Lagoon is a wash.

One appreciates Carré developing a complex technique to construct her stories with, but one wishes she would develop a story worth telling. I look at the work of her and so many of her contemporaries, and I can't help thinking that we have a generation of cartoonists who have no idea of how to create a story that's effective in dramatic terms. They don't know how to build a narrative through conflicts or contrasts, nor do they know how to effectively develop tropes. These ambitious talents, admirable in so many ways, seem to turn every story into an inchoate meander, and The Lagoon is no exception.

Reviews of other work by Lilli Carré:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Comics Review: The Moth or the Flame, Joshua Ray Stephens

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

A prefatory note: I'm personally acquainted with Joshua Ray Stephens. I've also had professional dealings with him, which involved commissions for advertising design work during my time as a book editor in New York. That said, I'm approaching this review the same way I would any other, which is writing down my honest reactions to his book. I hope Joshua can forgive me. He is a nice guy.

The Moth or the Flame takes up the question of exploitive relationships, specifically, who is more at fault? Is it the exploiter, who simply follows his or her rapacious instincts? Or is it the exploited, who, in voluntary situations, sacrifices long-term well-being for short-term happiness? Stephens frames the issue with the story of a sugar-daddy relationship between his two main characters: the wealthy Tempest McGillicutty and a young woman named Tealeaf Rosewallow. Explicitly allegorical, it's a Faust parable at heart, and like most such stories, it's a cautionary tale. The moral is pat: the exploiter is contemptible and perhaps evil, but the exploited is responsible for her doom.

Stephens dresses up his narrative with a number of disparate elements, including absurdist satire, magic-realist surrealism, and children's-story fantasy trappings. However, he doesn't do much to dramatize it. The only dynamic literary aspect is the development of the principal metaphor, a giant black raindrop that signifies the climax of McGillicutty's masturbatory exploitation of others. The characterizations are shallow, with McGillicutty and Tealeaf existing more as ideas than personalities: he's aggressive and predatory, while she's a wide-eyed pleasure-seeker who lives only for the moment. In the most notable Faust story produced in comics, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's "Goodman Goes Playboy," the doomed hedonist gradually reveals the depths of his depravity through his interactions with others, including conflicts with jealous friends and his "angel's advocate" Goodman Beaver. But McGillicutty and Tealeaf never challenge each other, and in the instances where they're challenged by others, the scene is either extraneous (as in the office scene between Tealeaf and her friend Violet), or it didactically spells out things that one's already inferred. It's belaboring a point for McGillicutty to tell another character, "I am a hunter. For me this is the only way. We all have our role. You just fulfill yours and allow me to worry about mine." The story is so thinly realized that it often reads like an illustrated summary.

Stephens' visual treatment, though, is so extravagant that the book's narrative weaknesses almost seem beside the point. His style is extremely reminiscent of RAW alumnus Mark Beyer's. The draftsmanship is primitivist, with positive shapes and absented backgrounds obsessively rendered with their own unique patterning. Some may find his art more engaging than Beyer's. The characters are more fluidly drawn, and they're far more emotionally expressive. But Stephens' cartooning certainly resembles Beyer's in its overall effect: one is more compelled to appreciate the panels and pages as works of art in their own right than to treat them as components of a story. The lavish printing of The Moth or the Flame, which includes hardcover binding and signatures of different-colored paper, further promotes the feeling that the book is more of a monograph than a graphic novel.

I did have a great time looking at it, I must say.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Film Review: Rachel Getting Married

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme's latest film, is an extremely welcome return to form. He may have hit his pinnacle of commercial and critical success with The Silence of the Lambs back in 1991, but it seemed to mark his turning his back on the films of his I loved. In movies like Melvin and Howard, Handle With Care, and Something Wild, he showed a remarkable sympathy for the eccentricities of his characters. The stories seemed like opportunities to explore their world and get to know them better. Demme's style wasn't about manipulation or making "points"; it was relaxed, open, and suggestive. With the possible exception of Robert Altman, no U. S. filmmaker has captured more of the texture of everyday life. That changed with The Silence of the Lambs, a cold, ugly exercise in working the audience over. The films that followed (such as Phliadephia) weren't as off-putting, but they came across as bloated attempts at Hollywood prestige filmmaking, with every point spelled out in block letters. Rachel Getting Married, directed from a script by Jenny Lumet, is a considerably leaner and more daring effort. It banks on Demme's ability to create a slice-of-life atmosphere and suggest instead of show. He hasn't worked this way in twenty years, but he hasn't lost his touch. The film is a beautifully realized portrait of a semi-dysfunctional family, with its bonds, tensions, and disconnects.

The film begins with Kym (Anne Hathaway), the family's black sheep, waiting to be picked up from a rehab facility to go home for the weekend. Her older sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married at their father's house, and Kym's been granted a leave for the occasion. But apart from her father (Bill Irwin), no one's the least bit happy to see her. Kym's drug abuse led to the death of a family member years earlier, and the pain of the loss is still vivid for everyone. And to add insult to injury, Kym is insufferably self-absorbed and insensitive to others. She cracks jokes about Rachel's teenage bout with bulimia, seduces the best man (Mather Zickel) within minutes of being introduced to him, and throws a tantrum over Rachel's best friend Emma (Anisa George) being maid of honor instead of her. Kym's boorishness reaches its nadir at the rehearsal dinner, when she turns an impromptu speech congratulating her sister into an embarrassing ramble about her progress in the twelve-step program. Rachel can barely stand Kym, and her contempt for her sister goes much deeper than aggravation: she's convinced that Kym uses her problems to manipulate everyone. When Rachel discovers that Kym slandered the family in rehab to gain sympathy, she's so incensed that she's ready to kick her sister out of the wedding altogether.

The conflict between Kym and Rachel is extraordinarily vivid, and it stands out because Demme does such a tremendous job of dramatizing the harmony between almost everyone else. The affection Kym and Rachel's father has for them is palpable, as is the love between Rachel and her fiancé Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). Rachel and Emma have an easygoing rapport with one another, and Emma's teasing, good-natured speech at the rehearsal dinner helps emphasize what an ass Kym makes of herself during her turn at the mike later on. The warmth of the bonds among Sidney's extended family is especially sweet; whenever they take center stage it's hard not to look at the screen and grin. And Demme is unsurpassed when it comes to staging parties. The rehearsal dinner, wedding, and reception scenes have such immediacy that one almost feels as if one is among the attendees.

His handling of the key dramatic scenes is also remarkable. At one point Sidney and Rachel's father get into an impromptu competition over who can most quickly and fully load the dishwasher. Various family members gather to cheer them on, and Demme catches one up in the happy atmosphere only to pull the rug out from under it--an unexpected reminder of past tragedy stops everything cold. It's a masterfully paced sequence, and the quiet, dramatic shift from joy to sadness leaves one slightly stunned. The word stunning doesn't do justice to a confrontation scene between Kym and Abby (Debra Winger), her and Rachel's mother. As bad as things are between are between Kym and Rachel, their conflicts are nothing compared to the one between Kym and Abby, a charming but distant woman who can barely bring herself to acknowledge her daughters. The scene between her and Kim momentarily erupts into violence, and those two slaps are more shocking than any of the gruesomeness Demme served up in his most famous film.

The problems between Kym and Abby aren't resolvable; Abby's smiling, placid exterior runs so deep that she can't acknowledge anything's wrong. That slap was more about shutting Kym up than anger over what was said. Her relationship with Rachel isn't much better; the two are civil, but Abby can't help but blithely remind Rachel that she simply isn't a priority. The film calls out for a reconciliation, and it ends up being between Rachel and Kym. The scene is simple and wordless: on the morning of the ceremony, Rachel sets aside her anger and calmly gets her sister cleaned up and dressed. Demme handles the scene with a lyrical grace, and it's the most affecting moment in the film.

It almost goes without saying that Demme gets fine work from his cast. The three main actresses are especially outstanding. The defining feature of Debra Winger's Abby is her poise, and Winger effectively uses it to emphasize both Abby's callousness and her inability to acknowledge discord. Anne Hathaway's Kym is the showiest role. Hathaway lost a shocking amount of weight for the part. Her hair looks like it was cut with pinking shears, and her complexion is almost ghoulishly pasty. She also affects a gratingly flat voice, and the contrast of her appearance and manner with her more familiar glamour-girl looks and charm has a number of people predicting an Oscar nomination. It's an excellent performance despite that. Hathaway effectively conveys the character's bratty sense of entitlement along with her terror that she might not be able hold herself together. She also makes it clear that the first isn't a mask for the second; the tendencies are just two different aspects of Kym's personality. Rosemarie DeWitt has the most difficult role; she has to communicate that Rachel is the eye of calm in the hurricane of her family's relationships. She also has to balance that with Rachel's upsets dealing with her mother and sister. DeWitt has to convince one that Rachel is strong, caring, and at times capable of an almost vindictive anger, and she does a fine job of handling the challenge. Her performance embodies the feelings one takes from the film. For all the anger, pain, and competition of family relationships, love--and forgiveness--can occasionally prevail.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Comics Review: Swamp Thing: Love and Death [Book 2], Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, et al.

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Rereading Alan Moore’s run on DC Comics' Swamp Thing series, one notices that the trade paperback collections aren’t ideally divided. The run is collected in six volumes, but in terms of thematic and other story concerns, there are only three overarching storylines: the revamping of the character featured in Saga of the Swamp Thing and Love and Death, the “American Gothic” story arc reprinted in The Curse and A Murder of Crows, and the homecoming travels in Earth to Earth and Reunion. I note this largely because, in retrospect, I should not have reviewed Saga by itself; it and Love and Death would have best been considered together. Both books are about discovering and embracing the joys of one’s present circumstances. It's an affirmative approach to life that necessitates accepting the past as the past and ultimately putting it behind one.

Love and Death opens with “The Burial,” an episode that unambiguously dramatizes this theme. The story begins with Swamp Thing being haunted by the ghost of Alec Holland, the scientist whom he once believed himself to be. Knowing that, in absolute terms, he never was Holland, he angrily rejects any suggestion that he and Holland are the same person. He asks himself, “How deep? How deep do you need to bury the past before it will stay dead?” The answer is that, as he shares Holland’s memories, he can’t deny that past, and his wrestling with recollections of Holland’s dead wife and his murder only emphasize the dilemma. Swamp Thing ultimately realizes that denial cannot be a part of moving on; mourning is necessary. Moore dramatizes this in simple, effective terms: the story resolves itself by Swamp Thing locating Holland’s lost bones near where he was murdered, and giving those bones a proper, if humble, burial. The story closes with Swamp Thing thinking, “He [Holland]’s there. I know that he is there. And I know that he is smiling. But I don’t look back.” Swamp Thing’s personal account with the past is settled, and he can now go on with his own life. It’s a modest episode, with none of the spectacle one associates with adventure comics, but it is extremely affecting nonetheless.

The bulk of Love and Death is taken up with a four-episode sequence featuring Swamp Thing’s final battle with his most popular recurring nemesis prior to Moore’s run: the mad scientist Anton Arcane. Moore isn’t settling the character’s account with the past with this continuity; he’s settling the series’ account with its hackneyed recurring storylines and characters. The major goal seems to be to get rid of Arcane once and for all, and Moore’s disinterest in the character and his assorted schemes is obvious. This time around, Arcane’s worldbeating plot relates to having dead criminals rise from their graves and descend on the local community, but Moore spends so little space on it that he might as well skipped including it at all. Arcane’s defeat at Swamp Thing’s hands isn’t particularly interesting either--all Swamp Thing does is clobber him with his fists. The victory is notable only for its finality: Moore makes clear that this time Arcane is dead, and he isn’t coming back.

Arcane is a dull antagonist, but the episode arc featuring him isn’t dull at all. That’s because the drama doesn’t center around the conflict between him and Swamp Thing. Its focus is the crisis of well-being--both emotional and physical--for the Abby Cable character. Moore established her as a deeply sympathetic presence in the Saga of the Swamp Thing episodes, and he takes her conflicts to their limits in this sequence. As seen in the first volume, her marriage to the Matt Cable character is in its final stages. A once-promising intelligence official, he’s become a slothful drunk. He deeply resents any demand on Abby’s time that takes her away from him, specifically her job as a caregiver to autistic children. (One imagines that her friendship with Swamp Thing might be an issue as well, but it’s never highlighted.) The story begins with Abby finding hope that Matt and their marriage have turned around. He’s stopped drinking, he’s found a well-paying job, and he even moves them in to a beautiful new home. He’s become confident and supportive in every way. The rug is horribly pulled out from under her when she realizes that Matt has become possessed by Arcane's consciousness. (It's especially disturbing because she's had sex with him since he's been possessed; her uncle has used her husband to rape her.) Her dream becomes a nightmare, and Arcane ultimately uses her in an attack on Swamp Thing. He ostensibly murders her and damns her soul, and the only reason is to demoralize Swamp Thing over his inability to save her. Swamp Thing’s easy defeat of Arcane is ho-hum by itself, but the combination of that triumph with his failure to save Abby gives the sequence its power. He has won a Pyrrhic victory; it's an irony that invariably makes for powerful fiction, and this continuity is no exception.

Everything of course works out in the end, and Abby is returned to her old self, but Moore has put the final nails in the coffin of the series he originally found. Swamp Thing’s self-pitying quest to regain his human identity is past, the cheesy archenemy is gone, and Moore even clears the deck of the distraction of the Matt Cable character. Swamp Thing and Abby are the series protagonists, and the volume’s concluding episode shows their relationship taken to its logical conclusion: their rapport has gone beyond friendship and becomes love. Couples in adventure comics before Swamp Thing and Abby never really seemed to be in love with each other--the feelings always came across as mutual infatuation. There was lots of kissing and “I love you,” but there was never much of a rapport between the characters. (This can also be seen in the movie adaptations of the material; just look at the way the Peter Parker and Mary Jane characters interact in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.) Swamp Thing and Abby come across as loving couples do in real life: they find comfort and a sense of security in each other’s presence. The outlandishness of a romance between the two aside--as Moore has Abby say, “I mean, it’s just so ridiculous, right? It’s impossible, it’s bizarre, it probably isn’t even legal”--the relationship Moore depicted rang truer than any shown in adventure comics when these episodes first saw print in the mid-1980s. It was a signal achievement in the field.

But like most innovations, its handling was imperfect. Moore has Swamp Thing and Abby consummate their relationship in a shared hallucinogenic trip, and he uses it to indulge the worst aspect of his writing: namely, the purple verbal incontinence he falls into whenever he writes descriptive prose. His ear for voices is terrific, and his expository prose is admirably concise--the dynamic he creates between it and the images is especially effective. But when Moore is called upon to be descriptive, he launches into a faux-poetic extravagance, and the reader gets passages like this:

A smear of platinum scales breaks the surface, rolling, resubmerging. There is a delicious ambiguity. Looking up through his eyes: The pale woman gazes down, a burning waterfall adrift on the milk waterfall of her hair. Its lank tips draw clear sable brushstrokes between the lichens engraving my chest.

There’s just one descriptive trope piled on one after another; Moore doesn’t develop them into a conceit, and he doesn’t create a dynamic between them. It’s rhapsodic blather. The context offers some justification, as the passage reflects perceptions while intoxicated, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable to read. It’s most reminiscent of song lyrics from ‘70s acid and progressive rock bands, and I find those embarrassingly indulgent as well.

The trip sequence is somewhat redeemed by the gorgeously hallucinatory art provided by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, ably complemented by the work of colorist Tatjana Wood. Their work throughout the rest of the volume is superb as well, with their atmospheric handling of settings being particularly strong. I also was struck by their effective use of near-abstract rendering in facial close-ups. The weakest aspect of the art is the occasional use of fill-in talent. Rick Veitch does a seamless job of substituting for Bissette in one episode, but Alfredo Alcala’s collaboration with Bissette in another lacks the delicacy of the latter’s teamwork with Totleben. Shawn McManus and Ron Randall’s styles seem completely incompatible with that of the Bissette-Totleben team. McManus’s renderings have an exaggerated sculptural dynamism that comes on too strong in comparison, and Randall’s work is tacky in the manner of Hammer horror films: a woman in a nightgown is embarrassingly used for cheesecake fodder, and everything’s blowing in the wind. Bissette and Totleben have a sense of nuance and propriety that most of the substitute artists lack.

In Love and Death, Moore completes his redefining of the Swamp Thing series. The character’s new core is the fulfillment he finds, both in his acceptance of his circumstances and his relationship with Abby. It’s also clear that the foundation of the strip will be the tension between maintaining the happy aspects of his life and the demands on his sense of duty. Moore starts and ends with a self-centered hero, but he gives the character a self-centeredness that is admirable: Swamp Thing now has faith in the present rather than the past. And uniquely among superhero characters, he trusts the world around him. The effectiveness with which Moore and his collaborators bring it off clearly mark his Swamp Thing as one of the most noteworthy strips in the superhero genre.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Comics Review: The Complete Popeye, Volume III: "Let's You and Him Fight", E. C. Segar

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Complete Popeye, Volume III collects E. C. Segar's daily Thimble Theater strips from June 9, 1932 through December 9, 1933, the Sundays from October 9, 1932 through November 26, 1933, and a 1933 advertising insert featuring the Thimble Theater characters that promotes the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago. This collection doesn't have anything comparable to the absurdist highs of the Volume II strips. The satirical impulse behind the "One-Way Bank" and Nazilia-Tonsylania War storylines isn't as conspicuous. Segar's focus this time out is all but exclusively on slapstick and character comedy. He does it well, particularly with his handling of the Wimpy character, who dominates the Sunday strips featured here. Overall, though, the book doesn't quite escape the damning-with-faint-praise label "of largely historical interest".

However, it should be said that there is a great deal of historical interest present, particularly in "The Eighth Sea" sequence that covers Chapters I-III. The animators Max and Dave Fleischer licensed the Thimble Theater material for adaptation around the time these strips were originally published. "The Eighth Sea" gave them their recurring antagonist for Popeye: the bearded, musclebound sailor/pirate Bluto. It's not hard to see from these strips why the Fleischers and later animators chose to use Bluto as Popeye's perpetual nemesis. He's completely malevolent, he competes with Popeye for the same goals, and he's the only character who can hold his own with Popeye in a fight. The climactic brawl between the two takes up two full weeks of dailies. What's most surprising is that Segar, at least in this volume, never brings Bluto back. (Segar was certainly happy to include the spinach from this point on. Popeye's love for the vegetable--it gives him "strenk an' vitaliky"--first appears in this sequence as well, and it becomes a recurring element of the strip.) A good hero is almost always defined by a good villain. Bluto, who is so greedy that he steals the gold fillings from his henchmen's teeth, comes closer to being Popeye's antithesis than any other character.

Bluto (and spinach) aside, "The Eighth Sea" sequence is the strongest of the daily continuities in this volume. Segar structures it in distinct sections, all of which have their defining piece of slapstick. The story revolves around Popeye's quest to find Dooma, "a lost city of gold in an unknown sea." His journey is hampered by one complication after another. A "black Chinese parrot" is the only way of finding the island, but Popeye finds it quite uncooperative. It tells him to learn to speak English before trying to talk to it in Chinese. Olive Oyl insists on coming along, but Popeye won't hear of it. As they're not married, he feels she needs a "shappyroon" if she's to accompany him. Anyway, it's bad luck to have a woman along on a treasure hunt. His crew feel the same way, and after Olive forces Popeye to take her along (she parachutes onto his boat once it's at sea), he has to quell a mutiny. The battle royale with Bluto is the sequence's centerpiece scene. A good deal of time is also taken up with Merlock Jones, a stowaway detective who confounds the various characters with his mastery of disguise.

The satirical tack that distingushed the dailies in Volume II isn't entirely absent. Popeye returns to Nazilia at the end of "The Eighth Sea" adventure, and King Blozo is now flush with gold for the nation's treasury. Popeye tells him he should share it with the nation's citizens, a course of action that Blozo, despite his initial objections, eventually goes along with. But when every citizen receives the gold, they all choose to retire and live a life of luxury. The country of course grinds to a complete halt, with the citizenry complaining, "How can we spend the gold you gave us? All the stores and shops are closed. There ain't no place open." The Nazilia sequence also features some sharp absurdist bits, such as the time Blozo decides to give a condemned prisoner clemency. The callousness on display is hilarious:

KING BLOZO: Well, if you haven't already cut off his head, why, don't cut it off--I've changed my mind.
EXECUTIONER: I think you're just trying to save my sixty-cent fee--you know my business has been bad--please let me execute him.
KING BLOZO: You say you need that fee to buy shoes for your kid?
KING BLOZO: Oh, all right--go ahead.

It just isn't right to pay people unless they earn their keep.

The continuity that follows the initial sequence on Nazilia is disappointing. Popeye convinces King Blozo to let him have a neighboring island on which he can found his own country of Popilania. The text panel that introduces the story raises hopes that the story will reach the satirical heights of the Nazilia-Tonsylania War storyline. It describes Popilania as a utopia where "trouble will be unknown" and "spinach will be the national crop," but it gets bogged down with Popeye's dealings with a prelapsarian native population. A war with the nation of Cuspidor seems to mine the same vein of humor as the Nazilia-Tonsylania conflict, and the competition between Popeye and King Blozo for Nazilia's citizenry just seems frivolous, if not outright juvenile. Some humor hasn't worn well over the decades. Jokes about attracting single young men with comely brides who don't speak a word of their language now seem fairly gross.

The bright spot of the Popilania sequence is the addition of Wimpy to the daily strip's cast. The storyline highlights what an articulate and well-mannered coward he is. He's refreshingly straightforward in his insights, such as when he describes a diplomat as "a person who gives the worst sort of deal in a nice way." He's also quite honest about himself. Popeye berates him for abandoning Olive Oyl to the natives, and when Wimpy is asked why he replies, quite simply, "Self-preservation." Wimpy's insistence on good manners leads to some delightful moments as well. Popeye brutally insults a soldier in the Popilanian army, and Wimpy will have none of it:

WIMPY: You mustn't talk like that--do you want to hurt our army's feelings? Shame upon you!
POPEYE: Aw, pipe down!
WIMPY: There... there now, Mr. Shultz... don't you cry. Everything will be all right.

There's never any excuse for poor manners.

Wimpy really comes into his own in this volume's Sunday strips. Segar's treatment of him in the volume's dailies highlight other aspects of the character. But considered against the Sundays, they're just the icing on the cake. The Sundays feature him in all his mooching glory. Wimpy is always trying to cadge food out of the proprietor of the local diner. He constantly makes his classic promise, "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger to-day." This is often accompanied by the less well-known "I want you to come to my house sometime for a duck dinner--you bring the ducks." His battery of tricks for getting food knows no shame. He steals fish from the city aquarium, and when he takes a job as a waiter, he can't resist temptation long enough to serve the customers' orders. He can't even follow through on a small act of charity. He buys a homeless man a hamburger and then eats the sandwich off the poor fellow's plate. Wimpy is sloth and selfishness incarnate, but the comic force of the character comes from his complete obliviousness to how self-centered he is. There's nothing the least bit self-conscious about him, and his shamelessness makes him oddly endearing.

It's hard to tell from this volume if there's a tension on Segar's part about which approach to stories he feels most comfortable with. Farce and slapstick are the strip's foundation, but he seems to be pulling back from the sharp satirical approach that's distinguished the best of his work so far. It's possible, though, that the volume reflects something a dry run. The final two daily continuities, which feature Popeye's adventures as a reporter and then as an amnesiac trying to take care of the baby Swee'Pea, are rather dull reads. Segar's reputation as a cartoonist is most based on the work in the years that followed this material--strips from 1936 through 1938 in particular seem the basis of his stature--and the work in this volume, though uneven, certainly doesn't dissuade one's anticipation of it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Comics Review: Love and Rockets: New Stories #1, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, and Mario Hernandez

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The first issue of Love and Rockets: New Stories, the latest incarnation of the showcase anthology periodical for Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez's work, finds them both at a low ebb.

Gilbert, in particular, appears to be just blowing off steam. Since the previous Love and Rockets series ended last year, he's completed a full-length graphic novel in Speak of the Devil, and it's easy to see the nine pieces he contributes to this issue as fun-to-draw, for-the-hell-of-it efforts meant to recharge his batteries. They include three oddball strips in the daily-newspaper format, a goofy funny-animal story featuring a gambling kangaroo, and a madcap tribute to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis imitators Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, done up in the sort of story one might expect in the DC Comics Martin & Lewis series from the 1960s. The experimental piece "?" plays around with aspect-to-aspect panel progressions and Caligari-style surrealistic distortions. "Victory Dance" is apparently a send-off for Juan Julio, a featured character of Gilbert's in the last Love and Rockets series. The most interesting moment in the piece is the ending, which arbitrarily ties into the ending of another story. "Papa" is a meandering effort that looks like it could intersect with the Palomar material but never does. These strips aren't much of a read, but they fly by quickly enough, and Gilbert's cartooning is as energetic and expressive as ever.

"Chiro el Indio," which Gilbert cartooned from his brother Mario's script, is the most entertaining story in the issue. Set in what appears to be a 19th-century Central American village, it's an amusing slapstick piece that pits traditional Latino Indian religion against the governing Roman Catholic faith. The main characters are the forever squabbling Indian couple Chiro el Indio and Preciosa, and much of the story revolves around their arguments over who will bring rain if prayed to: the "Beer Hen" Mary or Quetzaquatl, divine king of the Toltacs. The central joke is that everyone defines his or her life through religion without having anything resembling a spiritual connection to it. The various characters--the impulsive, high-strung Chiro, the cynical-but-gullible Preciosa, Chiro's sexpot "savage" sidekick Moom-Fah, the randy monsignor, and the exasperated town mayor--show comic potential that would seem to go beyond this one short, and one looks forward to Mario and Gilbert doing more with them.

The story that dominates the issue--it takes up half of the hundred pages--is Jaime's "Ti-Girls Adventures No. 34." It's a remarkably vapid strip that reimagines the superhero genre with Jaime's standard-issue fantasy girlfriend characters. Jaime's central flaw as a cartoonist is that he doesn't really write stories; he commits his daydreams to paper. (He may load them up with grit and angst, but they're daydreams nonetheless.) His pieces are rarely worked out in terms of dramatic conflicts or narrative effects; one thing just happens after another, and the reader's interest is largely defined by how much one shares Jaime's infatuation with the girls he depicts. I quit finding the ding-a-ling behavior of late teenage girls charming somewhere in my mid-20s, when my hormones cooled down enough to look at them and not fight the temptation to drool. Jaime's pushing 50, and he still hasn't gotten over them. His delight is palpable in moments like the one when two girls are putting on make-up and happily exclaim, "Oh, look at us. We're so gonna look like whores." And he's obsessed with their bodies; he rarely indulges in drawing overt cheesecake, but one can tell he's thought out every aspect of their figures and poses, and with a big grin on his face the entire time. I have no doubt his favorite visual detail in the story is how one girl's skin-tight top keeps riding up over her belly. "Ti-Girls" seems like a complete waste of time, largely because it doesn't feature much of the well-observed social detail that helps one through the "Locas" material. It also doesn't have any characters like Izzy Reubens or Terry Downe, who have an urgency for Jaime that snaps him out of his daydream mode and compels him to think like a proper storyteller. "Ti-Girls" is just a jokey good-girl superhero piece, and it evaporates while one is reading it. The story's supposed to continue in the next issue, but I doubt anyone will care if Jaime drops it in favor of something else.

It must be said that Jaime's art is phenomenally good, though. I prefer Gilbert's looser, more expressive style, but Jaime's draftsmanship is just astonishing. As impatient as I get with his story material, there's no denying the skill and sophistication of his visual treatment. His sense of black-and-white design is peerless, as is his precision with delineating character expression and gestures. The action is clear and uncluttered, and there's not a lapse anywhere in the drawing of figures or settings. So much ability that so little worthwhile is done with. Jaime is alternative comics' answer to Alex Toth, another masterful cartoon dramatist who wouldn't have known a good story if it hugged him.

A number of reviewers have observed that Love and Rockets: New Stories harkens back to Gilbert and Jaime's earliest efforts at the start of the 1980s--pieces like "BEM" or the Maggie the Mechanic material. There may be something to that; the key difference with Jaime's "Ti-Girls" piece, at least, is that the execution is much more polished. But the Hernandezes' reputation was built on their expanding comics' capacity for handling extended realist narratives. They may have gone as far with that as they can go--it's always possible the realistic material might stop having expressive urgency for them. But one hopes the first issue of the New Stories doesn't signal a new direction for their work. It's hard to feel they're doing anything here besides spinning their wheels, which is guaranteed to get everyone nowhere fast.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Comics Review: Saga of the Swamp Thing [Book 1], Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

It’s funny how time overtakes perceptions of things. Twenty-odd years ago, when Alan Moore first came to prominence, the Swamp Thing series he wrote between 1983 and 1987 was considered his signature work, with projects like Watchmen treated like tangential undertakings. There was even a concerted effort on the part of Moore’s principal publisher, DC Comics, to distinguish Moore from the renaissance in comics he spearheaded with creators such as Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller. With the help of journalists in the mainstream U.S. press--Rolling Stone's Mikal Gilmore is the name that immediately comes to mind--they tried to create the perception that Moore, like prose author Clive Barker, actually should be considered part of the avant-garde in horror fiction.

Today, Moore isn’t seen as a horror writer at all. He is firmly identified with comics and graphic novels in the publishing community, with Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell seen as his major efforts. Critics by and large view him as a versatile postmodernist who specializes in deconstructive treatments of the superhero genre. His reputation has all but entirely eclipsed that of figures like Clive Barker, and Swamp Thing’s stature has faded as well.

The ebbing of its reputation is not entirely undeserved. Swamp Thing was undertaken as a journeyman assignment by Moore, and the editorial demands of adventure-comics series demanded that he reconcile his material with the work of the writers and cartoonists who preceded him on the feature. The creative personnel who followed him were also free to modify the concepts he introduced as they saw fit. As such, Swamp Thing has less of a stand-alone quality than any major project he’s worked on. By his own account, it wasn’t even a job he was terribly enthused about at the time. But it still deserves to be considered a major work in the artistically modest superhero genre. (Swamp Thing is not what one would comfortably call horror fiction; it is best described as a superhero series that occasionally employs horror-genre elements.) The episodes are finely crafted suspense pieces, and in terms of its values, it is perhaps the warmest, most humanistic work ever seen in adventure comics.

Moore’s initial goal in taking over the series was to get out from under the conceptual baggage that had dogged it since its first publication in 1972. As created by writer Len Wein and illustrator Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing was originally a scientist named Alec Holland. He had been working with his wife Linda in a swamp laboratory on a "bio-restorative" formula that was intended to speed up rates of crop growth. Saboteurs shot Linda and attempted to kill Holland by blowing him up in his lab. Holland was doused with the formula during the explosion, and, on fire, he ran running into the swamp waters. Some time later, he emerged metamorphosed into a humanoid plant monster. The series followed his adventures while he sought the people responsible for his wife's murder. He was also looking for a way of metamorphosing back into Alec Holland's human body. Moore, by his own account, was not impressed by the premise. His opinion of it was best summed up during a 2005 BBC interview (transcript here):

The whole thing that the book hinged upon was there was this tragic individual who is basically like Hamlet covered in snot. He just walks around feeling sorry for himself. That's understandable, I mean I would too, but everybody knows that his quest to regain his lost humanity, that's never going to happen. Because as soon as he does that the book finishes.

Moore's first order of business in taking over the series was to find a way of writing the character's adventures that didn't rely on this pathos.

Saga of the Swamp Thing, the first of six volumes collecting Moore’s run on the series, begins by revising Swamp Thing’s origin. The character’s fixation on finding a way to turn back into his human incarnation is treated as denial of what happened. In Moore’s treatment, Swamp Thing was never physically Alec Holland. The doctor’s consciousness had been absorbed by plant-life mutated by his formula when it consumed his body. The Swamp Thing’s body was simply that consciousness’s effort to reconstitute itself as Holland. The volume’s seven episodes follow the character’s efforts to come to terms with this reality and embrace the happiness to be found in his present circumstances, particularly his friendship with a young woman named Abby Cable.

Moore had to develop this narrative idea in the context of adventure material, so he begins by treating the episodes’ antagonists as counterpoints to the personality-ideal he has devised for the hero. The initial episode, titled “The Anatomy Lesson,” is centered on the characters of General Sunderland and Dr. Jason Woodrue. In the episodes previous to Moore’s run, Sunderland’s interest in the alleged transformative aspects of Holland’s “bio-restorative” formula has led him to try to capture Swamp Thing for study. Just prior to the events of “The Anatomy Lesson,” Sunderland’s men had apparently killed Swamp Thing in a shoot-out, with the body being brought back to Sunderland's headquarters. Woodrue was then hired to determine exactly how Holland’s transformation occurred. Moore immediatey sets Woodrue and Sunderland up for conflict. They are both exceptionally unpleasant and self-absorbed egomaniacs who prefer to deal with other people as little as possible. They naturally can’t stand each other, and Woodrue ultimately decides to kill Sunderland in response to the older man's belittling treatment. Moore expertly orchestrates this narrative strand with that of Woodrue’s gradual discovery of Swamp Thing’s true origin. The tension he builds is extraordinary. When Sunderland’s murder finally comes, it hits with the force of a crescendo. But what’s most horrifying about the climax is not the circumstances of Sunderland’s death. It’s the realization of how vicious a personality Woodrue is. The story is ultimately a portrait of a genuinely evil person.

Moore expands on the negative ideal he creates with Woodrue in the subsequent episodes. Swamp Thing suffers a catatonic breakdown after learning the truth about himself. His metaphysical journey back to sanity runs parallel to the scenes of Woodrue’s descent into psychotic megalomania. Woodrue identifies himself more and more with what he sees as the concerns of the world’s plant life, and when he finally goes insane, he regards himself as “"Wood-rue, green messiah [...] annihilating agent of the thorns." He sees it as his calling to avenge humanity’s despoiling of the environment, and having the ability to control plant life, he goes on a murderous rampage through a local town. (In his climactic moment of madness, he threatens a woman with a chainsaw, telling her, “"Close your eyes and shout 'Timber.'") Woodrue's every action is guided by his need for self-aggrandizement and his willingness to subjugate others through violence. Like all real-life villains, he’s a hero in his own mind, and it’s satisfying to see him brought down when it’s impressed upon him that his actions are entirely selfish and work against the plant kingdom he thinks he's championing. Swamp Thing, in contrast, doesn’t view himself as a hero; he just acts like one. He is always shown as selflessly concerned about the needs of others, and he helps in any way he can. He’s oblivious to achieving glory. Moore highlights the difference between Woodrue and Swamp Thing with a pair of images. When Woodrue insanely believes he’s found his messianic calling, he reaches to the sky in triumph. Swamp Thing does the same after he comes to terms with the truth about himself. It signifies how happy he is with his circumstances now that he's accepted them. It's a potent reversal of meaning--an uplifting moment of fulfillment versus a sick, twisted one--and it makes for a fitting ending to the Woodrue story.

The collection’s final three episodes develop a complement to Swamp Thing's personality with the character of Abby Cable; she enhances the positive traits Moore is setting up for him. An easy rapport between the two is quickly established, and Abby's empathy and altruism spurs his own along. The depiction of Abby and Swamp Thing dramatizes how a friendship brings out the best in both people. One only wishes the thriller story that showcases their relationship was more imaginatively realized. It centers on the autistic children with whom Abby works being threatened by a supernatural force, and it follows the basic reactionary structure of most superhero and horror stories: a threat emerges, and then it is contained. Fantastic elements are ladled on, such as a demon ally against the threat who speaks in rhymes of iambic pentameter, but none of these feel particularly integral. The best part of the plot is its resolution: an autistic boy’s affection for Abby is what defeats the threat to the children. Evil is defeated by transcending oneself and reaching out through one’s regard for others.

Like virtually all of Moore’s work, this volume’s seven episodes are exceptionally well-crafted. He makes deft use of flashbacks, parallel plotting, and elliptical structures, and his pacing is nothing short of remarkable. He often uses narrative captions to move the story forward, but his use of them goes far beyond accompanying the pictures with text. He creates a dynamic interplay between the words and images, and the effect is like listening to a masterfully played duet between two musical instruments. Each makes the other's contribution more effective, and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The artwork, by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben (with occasional assistance from Rick Veitch) almost doesn’t need this heightening. The layouts create dynamic contrasts of their own, and the attention to detail in character gestures and facial expressions is exceptional. These strengths are only exceeded by their atmospheric realization of the swamp setting. Gorgeously rendered images of greenery and fauna abound, and they’re integrated seamlessly with the story’s action. Everything seems organic and interdependent, and given Moore’s emphasis on self-realization through embracing one’s circumstances, the art is ideal for the stories they illustrate. Saga of the Swamp Thing is modest in its goals, but it achieves many of them masterfully. And while it doesn't rate consideration as one of Moore's finest achievements, it does provide some of the most enjoyable reading out there for fans of the superhero genre.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Comics Review: Superman: "For the Man Who Has Everything," Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alan Moore’s 1980s superhero stories are frequently constructed around critiques of the superhero genre. They take an especially cutting view of the escapist and nostalgic impulses that are typical of superhero protagonists. When confronted with a character who seems devoted to a rosy view of the past, often in rejection of one’s present circumstances, Moore’s response is to pull the rug out from under that character’s fantasies. His 1985 Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything...,” produced in collaboration with Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, is perhaps his most overt use of this thematic approach. (The story was originally published in Superman Annual #11 (1985). It has been reprinted in the collection DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.)

The story’s taking-off point is Superman’s birthday. Batman, Wonder Woman, and a novice replacement Robin named Jason Todd meet outside the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s Arctic retreat. Once inside, they discover a catatonic Superman with a strange plant wrapped around his chest. It’s gradually revealed that the plant immerses anyone it bonds with in a fantasy of their heart’s desire. It is part of an attack on Superman by an alien villain. The scenes in the Fortress of Solitude are intercut with Superman’s imagining of his life on his home planet of Krypton if it had never exploded.

Like Snoopy in his daydream battles with the Red Baron, Superman finds no satisfaction in his fantasy world. He’s content with his imagined wife and children, but his being the son of Jor-El undermines his happiness. The fantasy Jor-El, once Krypton’s leading scientist, was permanently discredited when his predictions that Krypton would explode turned out wrong. He’s become a reactionary crank and radical-group leader who’s estranged from most of his family, and he castigates his son for being a terrible disappointment to him. Worse, Jor-El’s invention of the Phantom Zone banishment for criminals decades earlier is viewed by many as a means of torture. As a result, a fringe protest group has targeted members of Jor-El’s family for violent attacks. After Superman’s cousin is hospitalized after an assault, he and his family are forced to flee the city where they live. The heart’s desire of Krypton’s survival becomes a nightmare.

Moore constructs the story so that engagement with the circumstances of one’s present life constitutes a triumph. On the one hand, Superman cannot escape the villain’s clutches until he rejects the fantasy of Krypton’s survival. On the other hand, the villain is defeated by the one character who consistently engages with the reality around him, no matter what anxieties or frustrations it holds. Superman isn’t the hero of “For the Man Who Has Everything...” The Jason Todd Robin is. Moore opens the story by showing how intimidated Jason is by everything he encounters. He doesn’t know what to make of Wonder Woman’s brief outfit, he feels embarrassed by his failure to remember one of Superman’s powers, and he’s all but unnerved by Superman’s catatonia and the alien’s attack. But he ultimately overcomes his fears. Through his own initiative, he manages to contain the alien plant, and it is he who defeats the alien villain. He lacks the older heroes’ assurance and skill, but he’s not hobbled by their illusions, either. His courage and determination allow him to take advantage of a serendipitous moment and prevail.

The story’s moral about the desirability of rejecting fantasy outlets is a pleasant one, but it feels a little too pat in execution. In a rather heavy-handed metaphor, Moore has Batman’s birthday present, a specially-bred rose called the Krypton, crushed underfoot during the battle with the alien. When Superman is told, he says, “Perhaps it’s for the best.” And Moore isn’t able to create enough emotional resonance with the scenario to make it feel like much more than a better-than-average superhero story.

On the other hand, I appreciated Moore’s implicit view of Superman as someone who cannot avoid being dissatisfied with what life presents him. This is what led him to fetishize a homeworld he never knew, and it’s what enables to him to escape the alien’s fantasy prison. Moore underscores Superman's inevitable dissatisfaction with his circumstances during the exchange between him and Wonder Woman in the story’s epilogue. She kisses him, and he replies with, “Mmm. Why don’t we do that more often?” She jokes that it would be too predictable, to which he resignedly says, “You’re probably right.” Something in him resists real-life happiness when it presents itself. (One can read this tendency in his traditionally frustrated romance with Lois Lane.) In real life, it’s a psychological block characteristic of adolescents, and it represents something to grow out of. It’s fitting that Moore, whose work with costumed heroes has done the most to transcend the genre's adolescent appeal, should be the one to highlight, however subtly, the presence of that tendency in one of the greatest adolescent fantasy figures of all.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Comics Review: The Complete Popeye, Volume II: "Well, Blow Me Down", E. C. Segar

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

The second volume of The Complete Popeye contains E. C. Segar's Thimble Theater dailies from December 22, 1930 to June 8, 1932, and the Sunday strips from March 1, 1931 to October 2, 1932. The first volume in the series was entertaining, but it was largely of historical interest. This second collection is something more. One can see Segar gradually developing the characters for which the feature is famous. Two of the daily continuities are of special interest: Chapter II's "A One-Way Bank," and the Nazilia-Tonsylania War in Chapters III-V. The sequence set in Nazilia (no pun was intended with the country's name) is the better-realized of the two, but both have moments of brilliant absurdist satire, and both are worthy of the considerable stature Segar's work on Thimble Theater enjoys.

At the beginning of the "A One-Way Bank" sequence, Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Castor Oyl have each received a $50,000 reward for breaking up a cattle-rustling ring. Apart from having money for pipe tobacco and a place to sleep, Popeye doesn't need the reward--he'll just blow it on craps games. So he decides to open a "one-way" bank for poor people. He reasons that people with money have banks where they can cash checks, so people with no money should have banks where they can cash checks, too. This is Segar's description of the concept:

Money goes one way only--out! No more hard times--every town should have one! Success is certain because everybody will patronize this bank! A run will be considered good business!

A bank that serves poor people instead of the rich--"no millionaires allowed unless busted"--is an inspired satirical concept. It turns the usurious function of banks inside out, and it highlights the fact that a bank is not a beneficial enterprise. One can see the idea of the "one-way bank" having considerable satirical resonance during the Great Depression, when banking follies wiped out people's savings and left millions destitute. It's also germane today, when banks are accepting hundreds of billions in emergency taxpayer funds to ostensibly thaw out credit markets, but are actually using the money to finance acquisitions, pay shareholder dividends, and bolster cash reserves--credit markets be damned. A bank treats it as better to receive than to give. Segar emphasizes the unjustness of such an ethos by positing the idea of a bank that does the opposite.

Segar uses the "one-way bank" as the springboard for a number of hilariously absurd moments. Popeye wonders if the other banks will resent him because he'll be getting lots of business by giving money away. Castor Oyl angrily responds, "Let 'em get sore! What do we care! Everybody for themselves is my motto." When Popeye goes to a landlord to negotiate rent for the operation, the landlord calls him cheap for wanting to pay less than the asking amount, but Popeye has become so conceited with the idea of his generosity that he responds by paying the landlord double. The bank begins disappointingly: there are no customers because none of the local poor population can believe it's for real. And once things get going, Popeye has to put up a no-kissing sign after a female customer gets overly demonstrative with her gratitude. Remember, he's into giving, not receiving. The "one-way bank" is a rich source of humor for Segar, but one wishes he'd been able to build the ideas in the sequence to a climax. The second half depicts a series of scams that wipe the "one-way bank" out. While it's amusing on a moment-to-moment basis, the satire is nowhere as sharp as it is in the first half. The story starts strongly and peters out.

The shapelessness of the narrative structure in "A One-Way Bank" is probably attributable to the daily-strip format. The strips were meant to be read a day at a time, rather than as a whole in one sitting, and Segar's main concern was undoubtedly to make the daily episodes amusing in themselves. Effectively developing them into a larger story wasn't his main priority. But the strength of the premise leads one to expect a comically explosive resolution to Popeye's folly. It's hard to imagine that the people who read the episodes as they were originally published weren't disappointed with the conclusion, where one discovers the bank's failure when Popeye asks another character for some pocket money. Segar seems to need a story foundation where narrative development and climax are beside the point, one where things only a matter on a moment-to-moment basis.

The extended Nazilia-Tonsylonia War continuity gives him that foundation, and it's by far the most successful section of The Complete Popeye's first two volumes. The outcome of the story is irrelevant. No one knows how the war that provides the setting has started. One also doesn't sense anything will change when it ends. The narrative is free to proceed arbitrarily. The premise simply gives Segar the opportunity to play the conceits and pretentiousness of military and government leaders off Popeye's no-nonsense personality, and to exploit the setting and characters for absurdity. King Blozo is a fretful, excessively ceremonious ruler who, among other things, is embarrassed that the war is making him a laughingstock to other countries--it's been going on for six months, and not a shot has been fired. The soldiers fight for the distinction of being called the biggest coward. The head of the armed forces, General Bunzo, is an egomaniacal Napoleon wannabe with whom Popeye gets into a perpetual battle of wills. At one point, he says to Popeye, "My man, do you know you made a jackass of me?," and Popeye replies, "I didn't make you a jackass--I jus' proved you are one." Bunzo harbors dreams of assassinating Blozo and assuming the throne, but when Blozo tries to abdicate at one point and gives him the crown, he recognizes the mess he's inheriting and hands the crown over to a subordinate. (Nobody wants to be king, and the crown keeps getting handed off until it's being worn by a dog.) Segar scores off the setting and the characters with one comic high note after another. His absurdist treatment of government and military folly ranks with Dr. Strangelove and Duck Soup.

The evolution of the feature toward its classic incarnation is apparent throughout the volume. Of the strip's three original principals--Castor Oyl, Olive Oyl, and Ham Gravy--only Olive Oyl remains as a regular character. Ham Gravy is entirely absent from this collection. Castor Oyl disappears from the Sundays in June of 1931, and from the dailies that August. Castor, who commanded center stage through much of the first volume, disappears so quietly that one wonders if Segar got so caught up with other aspects of the strip that he just forgot about him. (One also wonders if there were significant reader inquiries about him at the time. Castor receives a brief mention in December of 1931 that explains his absence, and then he isn't heard from again for the remainder of this volume.) Popeye is the main character throughout, with Olive Oyl joining him as a love interest and ultimately supplanting Castor as a constant foil. One also sees new characters of prominence emerge, such as King Blozo, General Bunzo, and, most notably, the well-spoken, hamburger-loving moocher Wimpy.

One also sees trends emerging in Segar's treatment of the Sunday and daily material. The differences go beyond the Sunday installments being self-contained narratives. The dailies seem more varied even within their continuities. The Sundays invariably use one of two premises: Popeye's efforts to win Olive's favor by promising to swear off brawling (he never succeeds in keeping his word), and Popeye's boxing matches. The Sundays are also far more dependent than the dailies on the spectacle of slapstick violence. (That's not to say the dailies don't feature a great deal of fighting, but they aren't defined by it to the degree the Sundays are.) There is an aesthetic justification for the disparity: the Sundays allow for greater visual opportunities. There's more space, the art is printed larger, and there's more compositional freedom. The Sunday panels are far less crowded and constricted than the dailies, and Segar takes advantage of it to indulge his genius for action choreography. Segar's fight sequences are second only to those of the great superhero-adventure cartoonist Jack Kirby. They are beautifully realized ballets of movement and energy--comic-strip slapstick at its best.

Despite the effectiveness of the Sunday visuals, as well as the strength of the Nazilia sequence and moments from "A One-Way Bank," one isn't entirely convinced that the stature of Thimble Theater is justified--at least not from the work in this volume and its predecessor. The characters' resonance is comic, not emotional, and the effectiveness of the strip is entirely dependent on Segar's inventiveness. He hasn't quite broken through to the fecund, anything-goes anarchy that one would think marks the epitome of his style of humor. But the work in this collection is considerably stronger than the material in the first, and the occasionally inspired quality raises one's hopes. A part of me has often wondered whether E.C. Segar deserves banishment to Woody Allen's Academy of the Overrated, but the more I see, the more I'm sure he doesn't. I look forward to the subsequent volumes.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Comics Review: Black Hole, Charles Burns

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, completed in 2005, replicates many of the tropes and conventions of North American horror films from between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s. One sees the same emphasis on teenage protagonists, the use of horrific material as a metaphor for adolescent anxieties, and the superficially secure suburban setting of John Carpenter’s Halloween combined with the primeval woodlands setting of the Friday the 13th franchise. David Cronenberg employed physical disease as a metaphor for alienation in his films of the period (all were horror genre pieces), and Burns does as well. However, Burns’ approach is not sensationalistic: the horror elements aren’t there to shock an audience. Instead, he brings the subtexts of those elements to the forefront, and uses them to create a poetic narrative about adolescent alienation.

The story's setting is ostensibly the Seattle suburbs during the mid-1970s. There are a number of characters, but the main focus is the different but occasionally intersecting lives of Chris Rhodes and Keith Pearson. Chris seemingly has everything going for her: she’s a beautiful, popular, straight-A student. Keith, on the other hand, at first appears far more poorly adjusted. He’s shy around girls, and he’s fed up with his friends. All they do on their own time is smoke, drink, and do drugs. But Keith’s heart isn’t in it, and he’s almost desperate to find a new direction for his life. As one of his friends says to him, “You always want to be somewhere else.” As it turns out, Chris behaves as self-destructively as Keith and his friends do: for her, all life has to offer away from school is smoking, getting intoxicated, and casual sex.

Burns takes care to show that the hedonism reflects a need for the kids to make contact with one another. It’s a social activity. He also recognizes the irony of their actions. Intoxication in particular has the effect of making one more psychologically isolated than ever. Burns dramatizes this in small ways and large ones. In one scene, a girl who smokes cigarettes to socialize finds that it cuts her off from her friends. They’re in front of a mirror in a public bathroom talking while, unbeknownst to them, she’s partitioned away smoking in a stall, using the cigarette to lose herself in her thoughts. In another scene, a girl wistfully describes Quaaludes as “the perfect buzz. You just sit there and don’t give a shit about nothin’.” When her troubles catch up with her, and she breaks down crying, she screams at a person who comes up to her to leave her alone. Keith permanently dumps his friends when he walks up to talk to one and finds the fellow so high that he’s completely oblivious. Keith’s description of him:
His face had changed. The skin was all pulled back in a horrible grin and his teeth were showing. Suddenly his body started shaking and he let out an awful barking sound. It took me a while to realize he was laughing.
Burns emphasizes with this and other moments that getting intoxicated ultimately comes at the expense of one’s humanity. One can’t connect with others, and one ultimately loses touch with oneself.

There is a second, smaller community of teenagers outside of the high school students. They live in the woods, and they are all in the advanced stages of a venereal disease. Early on, Burns shows them sitting around a campfire roasting hot dogs, and he renders the fire-cooked frankfurters so that they resemble penises with running sores. The metaphor points up a similarity between the disease and herpes, and like herpes, it doesn’t appear to be a direct threat to the sufferer’s long-term health. Someone who is afflicted just becomes disfigured; the signs of the disease are benign sarcomas, permanent rashes, and molting or permanently withered skin. In the two oddest instances, the disease leads to the development of a small tail and a vestigial second mouth. In narrative terms, the disease is a metaphor for adolescent anxiety about sex: the terror of how having it signifies that one is making the transition from childhood to being an adult. A girl who manifests the disease on her back (where she can keep it hidden) looks at her face in the mirror thinking, “I shouldn’t look like this. I look normal but I’m not. I’m a monster.”

Teenage sex is viewed as ultimately as alienating as the drugs and alcohol; in fact, it’s portrayed as a later symptom of the same anomie. The disease speaks to the terror of having had it, and through Keith’s point of view, Burns creates one unsettling visual metaphor after another for his anxiety over not having it: the chest incision into a biology-class dissecting frog, a cut on a girl’s foot, the tear through which a disease victim has shed a skin layer like a snake—all are deliberately rendered as vaginal imagery. The anxiety is so emotionally disruptive for Keith and the other characters that they employ drugs and alcohol as a catalyst for sex. The only rapport is shared intoxication; there’s little or no emotional connection between lovers.

Burns doesn’t treat sex as inherently unhealthy; he simply recognizes that the self-absorbed milieu perverts it. The impulses of goodwill upon which strong emotional relationships are built are certainly present. Keith, who’s attracted to Chris, helps her tend a wound after she’s badly cut herself in the woods. He has to overcome his considerable squeamishness at the sight of blood, but he succeeds, and the act of helping her is genuinely fulfilling--he even looks at her blood on his hands as a sign of communion. In another scene, a girl who’s found the beginning of a rapport with a boy comforts him even after he reveals he’s upset over being rejected by another girl. “Shhh, of course there’s a girl,” she says to him. “It doesn’t matter.” However, despite his own attraction, the boy rejects her when he fears being with her will make him look uncool to his friends. Chris doesn’t respond to goodwill, either: her relationships with others are also predicated on glamour and looking cool. She’s oblivious to Keith despite his help, and later in the story, after she’s run away from home, she becomes dependent on a boy in the advanced stages of the disease. She rejects him as well, which being the latest in an unbroken string of emotional defeats for him, sets him off on a murderous rampage.

However, Burns doesn’t lapse here into the reactionary tendencies of the horror genre; he’s not creating a sympathetic monster through whom society rediscovers its communal values by destroying. He doesn’t go out of his way to make the murderer sympathetic; the killer is kept on the periphery of scenes throughout most of the book. And the fellow’s not a threat to people in the greater community; his only act of violence there, although over the top, is one of self-defense. His only victims are the other diseased residents of the woods, and his violence is just a later stage of the deterioration that alienation inflicts upon society. The group of disease victims in the woods is the only place where communal values of goodwill have reasserted themselves, and the killing spree destroys it. Those that survive disperse and flee to parts unknown, and Burns makes it clear--explicitly in some cases and implicitly in others--that they have nowhere worth going. At best, they are pursuing fantasies that will leave them lost and alone.

The book is masterfully executed. The dynamics of the story feel more poetic than dramatic. It doesn’t develop by emphasizing narrative conflict; Burns constructs the scenes by using the action to create powerfully resonant metaphors and epiphanies. These combine to create a narrative world of extraordinary emotional complexity. The story structure is remarkable, and so is Burns’ cartooning. His draftsmanship is excellent, and the hyper-controlled rendering of the art seems almost mechanical--it emphasizes the emotional sterility of the milieu. It also abstracts the horrific and violent elements to such a degree that one views them almost clinically; the imagery is fantastic at times, but it’s never shocking. A film version is in the works, and one can’t imagine how a cinematic depiction could treat Burns’ visuals without sensationalizing them; the book works because Burns’ medium is comics, not despite it. Black Hole is easily one of the most accomplished graphic novels to date.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Non-Fiction Review: Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert, Bill Schelly

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Bill Schelly's Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert is a fine portrait of the pioneering comic-book cartoonist. It also works as an entertaining non-fiction companion to Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. In Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel, he presented the world of the early comic-book industry through the eyes of two dreamers. One was a geeky, meagerly talented fan-turned-pro who saw this world as a way to status, and the other was a talented and idealistic artist who came to view it as the means for fulfilling his muse. Schelly, on the other hand, gives us a real-life comics-industry dreamer who charted another course.

Joe Kubert didn't see the industry as a short cut to status, and his primary motive wasn't to follow and satisfy artistic impulses. A better-adjusted personality than either of Chabon's protagonists (and probably most of his peers), he treated the field as an opportunity for professional and entrepreneurial achievement. By keeping his feet on the ground, he succeeded remarkably well. Now in his eighties, he is considered one of the finest craftsmen in comics history, and his great success as an entrepreneur, the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, is the best kind of business venture: one that meets a need and contributes to the profession it was designed to serve. He has all the status he could want, and the artistic fulfillment came as well. Kubert's cartooning chops are as strong as they ever were, and over the last two decades he has turned out a number of graphic novels that include journalistic non-fiction, historical adventure pieces, and fictional explorations of the New York immigrant community he grew up in. In many ways, he is an exemplar of the American dream.

The best section of the book is the opening chapters. Joe Kubert was born in the Jewish shtetl of Ozeryany, Poland in 1926, and his family emigrated to the U. S. soon after. Schelly provides a vivid account of the Kubert family's life in the East New York section of Brooklyn during the 1920s and '30s, and he catches one up in the enthusiasm of the young Joe for the popular culture of the time: classic radio shows, the seminal monster and gangster movies, and, of course, the newspaper comic strips. Kubert's favorites were the great adventure strips of the day: Harold Foster's Tarzan, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. They sparked his interest in drawing. When comic books exploded with the debut of Superman in 1938, they compelled him to seek out the comics publishers and production shops in Manhattan. Packagers such as Harry Chesler took a liking to the precocious eleven-year-old, and the cartoonists took time out from their work to give him drawing tips. Kubert received his first professional commission when he was just shy of thirteen. His relationship with editor Sheldon Mayer is of particular note. He describes Mayer as "my first real mentor," and the editor's interest in the young cartoonist paid off. By the time Kubert was twenty, he had become one of the top illustrators in the field. Schelly conveys the joy and sense of accomplishment of the young Kubert, who saw his dream come true almost as he was dreaming it.

Schelly takes care to keep the reader aware of the burgeoning horror and chaos in Europe. Hitler's miltary adventurism was of personal concern to the Kuberts, as their relatives lived in the regions that were of most interest to the Germans. Passages dealing with the experiences of Kubert's relatives in Poland are juxtaposed with the accounts of Joe's rise in the comic-book field. The upheaval of Ozeryany after the invasion of Poland, Jews being shot in the city streets, and others being slaughtered in the Belzec concentration camp--all are given attention. Schelly concludes these sections with a restraint that is both admirable and deeply disturbing: "What is known for sure is that none [of Kubert's relatives in Poland] survived the war." According to Schelly, the horror of what happened to his extended family haunted Kubert, and it informed the development of the somber, moody style of adventure cartooning he became famous for.

The middle sections of the book go by quickly and enjoyably. Schelly devotes time to a wide variety of subjects: Kubert's family life, his briefly successful entrepreneurial efforts with 3-D comics, and his experiences working on the Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, and Hawkman comic-book features. The chapters dealing with his work on the Tales of the Green Beret newspaper strip and his time editing the war-story and Edgar Rice Burroughs lines at DC Comics are particularly fascinating, largely because both projects became caught up in stressful editorial conflicts. These periods were clearly not enjoyable times for Kubert, but Schelly's treatment emphasizes his view of Kubert as "the consummate professional." Kubert's personality compelled him to see a project through both good times and bad.

In many ways, the book treats the founding of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art as the culmination of Kubert's career. The respect for the mentor-student relationship Kubert had with Sheldon Mayer, the respect for an illustrator and cartoonist's craft, the ability to see a project through to the end--all contributed to the impetus to establish the school. The descriptions of the work involved in setting things up are enjoyable in the way stories of most entrepreneurial efforts are: the principals are obviously figuring out how to do things as they go along, and that keeps the narrative lively. One also appreciates the unheralded contribution of Kubert's wife Muriel, who was, judging by Schelly's account, absolutely indispensable.

The final section of the book is largely a celebratory discussion of Kubert's late-period graphic novels, including Abraham Stone, Fax from Sarajevo, and Jew Gangster. Schelly makes it seem like the icing on the cake of a life well-spent, and one leaves the book with happy admiration for the prolific cartoonist, influential educator, and successful businessman. Kubert describes himself as "the luckiest man in the world," and one wishes him well. The book is intended as a biographical tribute to Kubert, and in this it is successful.

It has flaws as a history. Schelly occasionally presents things that run counter to accepted versions of what happened, but he doesn't bother to acknowledge or reconcile things when he goes against the grain. For example, he includes a quote from Leonard Maurer that describes MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman's resignation from the magazine differently than any of the numerous accounts out there. According to Maurer, Kurtzman quit the magazine in disgust over publisher William Gaines' conduct during a lawsuit against Kubert, Maurer, and Maurer's brother Norman. Every other account claims that Kurtzman quit after unsuccessfully demanding a controlling interest in the magazine. I'm not claiming Maurer is wrong, but Kurtzman's resignation from MAD was a fairly significant event in comics history. If Schelly sees fit to include this contrary view, he has a responsibility to discuss it relative to the common version of what happened. This is minor, but it and other examples raise questions as to what else Schelly is neglecting.

Schelly's failure to acknowledge the standard views of subjects extends to his critical discussions of Kubert's work. He devotes the most space to Fax from Sarajevo, Kubert's 1996 graphic novel about the real-life experiences of a family friend during the Bosnian Civil War. The book's approach is likened to that of such "non-fiction novels" as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. It is an interesting comparison, but Fax from Sarajevo's most obvious antecedent is Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a graphic novel that was also constructed around dramatizations of firsthand wartime accounts. Schelly doesn't mention Maus other than to note that its commercial success opened the door to publishing graphic novels that weren't aimed at children or traditional comics fans. Given the stature of Maus--it is perhaps the most prominent and respected graphic novel yet published--the failure to discuss the similarity of Fax from Sarajevo's approach to Spiegelman's seems almost obtuse. The book also generated some controversy among critics and cartoonists who felt Kubert's romantic-melodramatic cartooning style was inappropriate, but apart from a brief quote from Gordon Flagg's review in Booklist, Schelly doesn't discuss that either.

Most of the problems with the book are attributable to the fact that Schelly is not a trained historian, and he doesn't strive for the objectivity that a professional scholar would consider imperative. (Although one wishes he and the editors had gone through the book with The Chicago Manual of Style handy. The copyediting is substandard, and the numerous errors are distracting.) Man of Rock is a general-audience biography, and its intent is to celebrate its subject. Schelly provides a detailed view of the various periods in Joe Kubert's life, and he offers an enthusiastic appreciation of Kubert's most notable work through the decades. It is all presented in a breezy, brisk style. For those interested in one of the greats of adventure cartooning, or in the history of comics in general, Man of Rock is a delight.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Comics Review: Miracleman: The Golden Age [Book 4], Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Miracleman was Alan Moore's first major work, and it features the basic approach to story material that defines his style. He identifies the central discourses that inform a concept, and he then reconstructs the concept in ways that critique the original discourses and offer new resonances. In Miracleman, he recognized that an aspect of a superhero's appeal is that such a character speaks to a desire for divine intervention. On some level, people hope for a god to resolve the conflicts and injustices of the world. Moore crafted the story's conclusion to play off this. He had Miracleman abandon all connection to his earthbound life and assume the role of a god. The character took over the world's reins of power, reordered human society, and brought about a utopia with no material or psychological wants. Moore had reimagined the concept of a superhero as divine agent probably about as much as it could be done. Neil Gaiman, his successor on the strip, appeared to have nowhere to go.

Gaiman's response to the challenge was probably the only reasonable one. He didn't try to build on Moore's ideas, and he certainly didn't rehash them. Miracleman: The Golden Age, illustrated by Mark Buckingham, takes an approach to Moore's material that is best described as tangential. It borrows the milieu Moore created, but the characters and story material are all but entirely Gaiman's. The book is a collection of sketches and short stories dealing with the lives of everyday people in Miracleman's utopian world, and unfortunately, most of it isn't very good.

There are some highlights. The best strip in the collection, "Spy Story," is told from the point of view of an erstwhile British spy whose mind is so caught up in the paranoia and suspicion of intrigue that it's driven her mad. It's a sharp, well-crafted piece that builds tension by creating a counterpoint between the reader's recognition of the character's irrationality and one's concern that her terror is justified. Gaiman develops the suspense to a fever pitch, and he resolves the story with a clever anticlimax. "Trends" is enjoyable as well, although it isn't so much a story as an entertaining scene of oneupmanship and flirtation among a group of teens. But the rest of the stories are quite dreary--one pointless study in alienation or self-absorption after another.

The major problem is Gaiman seems to think that once he's struck a tone his job is done. It's not enough for a story to be somber. Unless there's some dynamic at work in the narrative and the characterizations, it isn't going to carry much resonance or interest. Gaiman often tries to end the stories on an epiphanic note, but he lurches into the concluding insights about the characters and situations, and they just aren't that interesting. In fact, they're often quite banal, such as a woman finding solace in a children's-book fantasy while her family is falling apart, or an emotionally and intellectually vapid artist coming to the realization that a remarkably disagreeable acquaintance can't stand his company.

Gaiman tries his hand at a faux-confessional narrative in the poorly-titled "Screaming," but he can't make it work, largely because his protagonist isn't idiosyncratic enough to be engaging. The only narrative tension comes from the context: the main character relates parts of his life story to the girl he's just lost his virginity to. But he's quite oblivious to her, and Gaiman doesn't seem to realize how boorish he is. I kept waiting for the girl to get fed up with his self-absorption and leave. (I was disappointed.) Gaiman's relatively eccentric protagonists also don't work very well. The main character of "Skin Deep" is a recluse whose obsession with physical beauty blocks his ability to relate to women emotionally. One waits for him to set his attitude aside and learn to love--it's an obvious conclusion. But all he ends up doing is reconciling himself to a dull, loveless relationship with a physically plain woman. One doesn't know why one should care about this fellow, and I don't think Gaiman knows either. He doesn't bother to suitably craft his ideas.

The weaker examples of Gaiman's work here aren't entirely devoid of interest. He has a good ear for dialogue, and he knows how to pace a story effectively. He also has a good partner in illustrator Mark Buckingham, who often particularizes the styles in the stories. The look of "Trends," which recalls the work of Jaime Hernandez, is perfect for the piece, and the Xerox-abstracted photorealism of "Spy Story" heightens that strip's noirish, nightmarish tone. Buckingham's most compelling work is featured in "Notes from the Underground," where he makes dynamic use of a variety of artistic styles, including German Expressionist woodcuts and most spectacularly, the appropriation-repetition approach of Andy Warhol. He's a strong illustrator, and his versatility shines throughout.

The book's better aspects aside, though, I can't help but feel indifferent to this material being kept out of print for legal reasons. It's infuriating for Moore's Miracleman work to be forcibly consigned to the pit of the collector's market--it's an influential and landmark work in a major genre of popular narrative. But Gaiman's efforts are poorly developed for the most part, and even the stronger pieces are so irrelevant to the strip's core concepts that they feel like they've been shoehorned in. The legal mess involving Miracleman's ownership has kept a lot of interested readers from seeing this book, but at least they can take some consolation in that they're not missing much.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Film Review: The Counterfeiters

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film earlier this year, and it's not hard to understand why. The two best foreign films of 2007--the year's two best films, period--were Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Both were eliminated from contention in the foreign-film category by the Academy's arbitrary rules and convoluted nominating process. That left a weak field, and given the Academy's traditional fondness for movies about the Holocaust--it seems like one walks off with a major prize every year or so--The Counterfeiters had the inside track to the award. The film holds one's interest (although in a way one resents), but there's nothing especially artful or compelling about it. The Holocaust setting deserves something more accomplished.

The film tells the story of Operation Bernhard, a Nazi plot to destablize the British economy by flooding the country with fake currency. A team of Jewish artists, engravers, and printers was assembled at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Kept in relative comfort, they set out to solve the assorted logistical and practical problems involved in, at first, perfectly counterfeiting the British pound, and then the American dollar. It is estimated that the phony British currency they produced amounted to four times the value of the actual money in circulation, which made the effort the largest known counterfeiting operation in history.

Ruzowitsky begins the film after the war has ended, where we see his protagonist, Saloman Sorowitsch (Karl Marcovics), at a Monte Carlo gambling resort. He's carrying a briefcase full of banded cash with him, and he uses it to check into a luxury hotel and idle his time at the casino. He is revealed as a Jewish concentration-camp survivor after a woman he picks up notices the tattooed number on his arm. He then flashes back to his life in Berlin before the war, where he used his considerable artistic talents for counterfeiting and passport forgery. After being apprehended and sent to prison, he finds himself at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he begins working with the other prisoners to successfully forge the pound and the dollar.

The film is never compelling on more than a melodramatic level. Ruzowitsky's sole means of generating narrative interest is by keeping one in dread of what may happen next. One is given the obligatory scenes demonstrating the guards' capacity for arbitrarily abusing and murdering the prisoners. Ruzowitsky also keeps one aware that once the prisoners succeed in counterfeiting the currency, they will have outlived their usefulness to the Nazis. They will be either be killed or returned to the general camp population, which could also mean their deaths. The difference between the camp commandant, who treats the Bernhard prisoners relatively humanely, and his second-in-command, a murdering sadist, is also exploited--one sits uneasily waiting for when the brute inevitably takes over the camp. And there's the prisoner who has tuberculosis--when will the guards discover his condition and kill him?--as well as the prisoner who becomes suicidal after he discovers his family was murdered at Auschwitz. The film prepares the viewer for one awful development after another, and the only questions are when they will take center stage.

Ruzowitsky does develop a narrative strand with possibilities for dramatic conflict. One of the prisoners, Burger (August Diehl), was an anti-Nazi agitator before being sent to the camps. He is sabotaging the efforts to counterfeit the dollar. He's an idealist with absolutist moral views, and Ruzowitsky presents him as a counterpoint to the pragmatic Sorowitsch, who feels little compunction in collaborating with the Nazis, as it means he will live another day, and it can create opportunities to help the other prisoners when they're in need. Burger's attitude, if left unchecked, could get them all killed. The film raises the question of whose behavior is the more truly moral, but it answers it too easily in Sorowitsch's favor. There's little sense of a potent right-against-right conflict between the two characters, and Ruzowitsky can't resist treating it in melodramatic terms: Will the Nazis become so frustrated with the failures that they kill all the prisoners, or will the prisoners relent and turn Burger in? It becomes just another opportunity to fill the audience with dread.

The conflict between Sorowitsch and Burger is also hampered by the film's inability to create any rapport between the audience and the two: one is always left on the outside looking in. Ruzowitsky clearly intends for Soroswitsch to be sympathetic--he's always shown helping the other prisoners, and he refuses on principle to snitch about Burger's sabotage--but the film never allows one to identify with him. Part of the problem is in the writing, but some of it lies with Karl Marcovics' performance--he's just too stoic to make one feel Sorowitsch's conflicts. One understands them intellectually, but the emotional resonance just isn't there. August Diehl is somewhat better--he effortlessly conveys Burger's fervor--but the script doesn't develop the character enough for him to give Burger any dimension beyond the first view of him.

The film is ultimately affectless, and Ruzowitsky's screenplay and direction never rise above mediocrity. One understands the Holocaust's appeal to filmmakers--it allows for a tense, thriller-like atmosphere, and the circumstances allow for moral questions that can occasionally be profound. But it also allows for a film to have an inflated aura of importance that the filmmaker doesn't justify. The appeal of The Counterfeiters is middlebrow, and rather disgracefully so. The Holocaust was a great human tragedy, and it should be treated with the utmost respect. It certainly shouldn't be grist for the mill of unimaginative filmmakers in their quest to win awards and impress people.