Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Comics Review: Wolverine, Chris Claremont & Frank Miller

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

When Marvel Comics emerged in the 1960s, its editor Stan Lee heavily hyped the notion that its costumed superheroes were more grounded in the real world than those published by other companies. This isn't to say the characters' adventures were any less fantastic--the opposite was often true--but that the heroes' personalities and lives were closer to those of real people. In short, they had the same kind of personal problems as everyone else. Reading the strips, one finds this aspect of the stories was often schtick. It was rarely integral, and the personal conflicts were often too undeveloped and easily resolved to take very seriously. The company's features were generally at their best when they eschewed this material altogether. The one exception was Steve Ditko's Spider-Man. The protagonist's personal conflicts were taken to their logical conclusion, which made the character a more intense, driven, and alienated personality. However, according to Blake Bell's critical biography Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, Ditko's treatment was met with consternation by Lee and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, which contributed to Ditko's departure from the feature (and the company) in 1966. Lee, working with Ditko's successor John Romita, then softened the character's hard edges, which boosted his appeal and set the stage for his continuing mass-media success.

Ditko, though, had sown the seeds of something that would flourish later on. In the late 1970s, a revamped version of Marvel's X-Men strip caught fire and quickly became the company's top-selling title. The feature took off partly because of the crisp plotting of scriptwriter Chris Claremont and cartoonist John Byrne, as well as Byrne's sleek action storytelling. But its staying power was due to Claremont's inclination to give every character the sort of intense, alienated personality that Ditko gave Spider-Man in the mid-1960s. However, Claremont was nowhere as successful as Ditko in this. The characterizations were rarely integral to the plotting, and on the few occasions when Claremont was able to build the stories around the characters' personal conflicts, the results were often hilariously overwrought. The most notorious example is The Dark Phoenix Saga, in which whitebread heroine Jean Grey got in touch with her inner bad girl and ended up threatening the universe's existence. Claremont's scripting was shamelessly earnest, though, and that blinded his adolescent-male audience to the silliness. (I write from experience: I was among them at the time.) After Byrne left the strip in 1980, Claremont got worse in most respects--the storylines meandered on endlessly--but he was occasionally able to improve on the material, such as when he redefined the X-Men's leader, Professor Xavier, and their principal foe Magneto, as former friends who became enemies when their philosophies and goals drove them apart. But this and other revisions were often tangential to the ongoing strip. It wasn't until the first two installments of the movie franchise, both directed by Bryan Singer, that Claremont's retroactive improvements to the feature were effectively integrated into the main stories.

But everything came together for Claremont once. In the four-issue 1982 series Wolverine, he took the title character and substantially reworked him. Claremont was able to successfully build the story around the character's personal conflicts, and better, he managed to successfully redefine the character into the more complex and dynamic personality he's been ever since. Before this story, the character--easily the most violent of the X-Men heroes--was a wild-card supporting player whose main purpose was to jack up the excitement in the strip's action scenes. Afterward, Wolverine was still rash and often murderously violent, but there were now the counterpoints of a conscience and a sense of justice that found such behavior shameful. The creation of this dynamic made him the best realized of the X-Men characters, and he was soon the backbone of the feature. Wolverine is now easily the most prominent character to come out of Marvel since Spider-Man. The film treatments have made actor Hugh Jackman a star, with his fourth go-round in the role due out later this week. In Claremont's introduction to the trade paperback collecting the Wolverine series, he writes that the goal was to destroy the character and rebuild him as something better. He certainly succeeded.

For the uninitiated, Wolverine is a Canadian superhero whose powers include heightened senses and the ability to heal almost instantaneously from any injury. His past is murky; all that's known is that he was once a government agent, and that somewhere along the way he was subjected to a radical medical procedure that coated his skeleton with a steel alloy called adamantium. It also gave him claws: two sets of three adamantium blades, implanted in his forearms, that he can extend through the backs of his hands. He's a surly, roughneck personality, but despite his enthusiasm for beer, cigars, and fighting, he's also quite reserved. He gives away no information about himself without beng asked: it took years for his X-Men teammates to learn that his real name was Logan, or that, among other things, he could fluently speak and read Japanese. He also has a hair-trigger temper, and he has no compunction about using his claws in a fight.

In the regular X-Men series, Claremont gave Wolverine a love interest in Mariko Yashida, a young, tradition-minded Japanese heiress, descended from nobility, who serves her country at their embassy in New York. At the beginning of Wolverine, she has inexplicably returned to Japan. All of Wolverine's letters to her are returned unopened, and his efforts to reach her by telephone go nowhere. Angry at the way he's being treated, he flies to Japan to confront her in person. Once there, he discovers that she is newly married--her father, Shingen Yashida, has returned to her life after many years, and he promised her hand in marriage in order to settle a debt. Wolverine is furious over this, but he resigns himself to the situation and resolves to return to New York.

However, Shingen is offended by Wolverine--a foreigner--presuming that he has any right to Mariko's feelings. After seeing that Mariko still cares for him, Shingen decides to destroy Wolverine in her eyes once and for all. He has a bodyguard ambush and drug Wolverine, and then challenges him to a mock battle with wooden swords so he can demonstrate his worthiness. It's a rout--Wolverine is hazy from the poison, and Shingen knows how to use a sword to strike nerve clusters in a way that disables an opponent. Wolverine tosses away his sword and pops his claws to defend himself, but he can't overcome Shingen's skill. Worse, Mariko watched their combat without understanding what Shingen was doing. All she saw was that when Wolverine was faced with losing a mock battle, he attacked her father with his (lethal) claws in order to turn the tide. In her eyes, he's dishonored himself. Shingen has him dumped on the streets of Tokyo, presumably like the garbage he considers Wolverine to be.

Shortly thereafter, Wolverine encounters Yukio, a female mercenary with Yakuza ties who likes him just the way he is. She is awed by his fighting prowess, which she sees firsthand when he finds himself in the middle of a fight between her and a gang of rival mercenaries. She also loves his impulsive, roughneck manner. If Wolverine wants her, she's his, and he takes her up on the offer. But no matter how hard he tries, he can't put Mariko behind him. Claremont uses Yukio and Mariko to illustrate the two paths Wolverine has before him: should he just accept himself, violent nature and all, and live and let live, or should he strive to rise above his failings and live up to the ideals of honor, justice, and self-discipline? He of course chooses the latter, and Claremont sets up the story to provide an easy path to redemption. Unbeknownst to Mariko, Shingen is a Yakuza lord, and Wolverine resolves to dismantle his operations, reveal him for what he is to Mariko, and personally defeat him in honorable combat. He is under no illusion that he'll get Mariko back; he even accepts that his actions may make her his enemy. He is after justice and self-respect--taking down Shingen is the honorable thing to do.

Claremont was blessed to have Frank Miller provide the cartooning. Miller was probably the best adventure cartoonist working in the U.S. when this story was first published, and he was near the height of his powers. His draftsmanship is characteristically unpolished, but the visuals are presented with a striking degree of economy and clarity, and his dramatizations of the various characters are never less than spot-on. His pacing of the story is just remarkable. The action sequences are thrilling--they're modeled after the work of Japanese cartoonist Goseki Kojima, but there are no swipes, and Miller's use of Kojima's style is so assured that one would think that he was born to it. The quieter scenes play eloquently, and Miller may be the only cartoonist to ever get a good rhythm going with Claremont's typical overwriting of the narration and dialogue. The large blocks of text never overwhelm the panels; they're very cannily integrated into Miller's pages, and they create an effective counterpoint to the pictures. Claremont's work with John Byrne is generally considered his best, but the two never presented a story as artfully as he and Miller do here.

The story has flaws. The frequent references to Japanese honor codes are anachronistic; they owe more to stories set in medieval Japan--such as Akira Kurosawa's samurai films--than anything taking place in the country in either the 1980s or today. And a subplot in which Wolverine is tricked into killing a rival of Shingen's doesn't hold up upon reflection--the plot to manipulate Wolverine is so byzantine that I doubt a chess grand master could have worked it out. But no matter. It's a terrific adventure comic overall--probably the high point of Chris Claremont's career, and an excellent reminder of how good Frank Miller was in his heyday. The promo spots for the new Wolverine movie prompted me to pull the book off the shelf and reread it. I'm finding myself fascinated by the character all over again. Here's hoping the new picture can follow the lead of the two Bryan Singer X-Men films, and, at the very least, hold its own with the comics. Something tells me that this weekend I'll go to find out.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fiction Review: "On the Lake," Olaf Olafsson

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Reading "On the Lake," a short story by Olaf Olafsson, is like walking on ice on a pond and suddenly noticing the surface cracking with every step. The cracks become more pronounced as one continues, and one can only think of two things. The first is reaching safety, while the second is wondering when it exactly was that the ice first started to break. Suddenly, one falls through the ice. The water isn't anywhere near deep enough to drown, but the shock of its cold is enough to knock one silly, and it may also spur one's memory of the small, almost imperceptible sound of the ice when it first began to crack. Later, after one is out of the water and safe, that memory dominates all one's recollections of the event. All one can think about is that sound and one's failure to heed it at the time. In "On the Lake," Olafsson portrays a marriage that suddenly comes apart at the seams. It's easy to pass by the moment the unravelling begins when one reads it, but the story's ending brings it back so sharply that one is left slightly stunned. Rereading the story, one finds the memory of that crucial moment reverberating through every sentence and scene.

The story's protagonists are Oskar and Margret, an Icelandic couple spending spring vacation at their lakefront cabin. Jonas, their six-year-old son, is with them, and the story begins after he and Oskar were in a boating accident earlier that day. Oskar attempted to turn the boat too quickly, which caused it to capsize. The water is still dangerously cold, but Vilhelm and Bjorn, their neighbors on the lake, manage to rescue them in short order. No harm is done, but afterward, Margret seems suddenly estranged from Oskar. The two thank Vilhelm and Bjorn by having them over for food, drinks, and cards that evening. However, by the time the night has ended, Margret does something that seems almost calculated to end her and Oskar's marriage, and the moment she lost her faith in him is revealed.

And, as Olafsson makes subtly clear, this is a marriage based on faith, at least on Margret's part. There are women who never outgrow the need for a father figure; the men they take as lovers and husbands are ones whom they're convinced are strong, omnicompetent, and able to take care of them through thick and thin. Before the boating accident, Margret saw Oskar in this way. Olafsson writes:

She had spent her childhood summers by the lake with her mother and her siblings, her father coming out as often as he could. She had hoped it would be the same for her and Oskar. Until this evening, she had been confident that it would.

Marriage for Margret has been a way to maintain the security of childhood. The cabin is something of a synecdoche for what Oskar represents (or had represented) to her. It's the proof that he is a strong provider and protector: he successfully built it from the ground up, and the cabin is an improvement on his father-in-law's--which his father-in-law even acknowledges. Margret has gone from father to husband, with the two men filling the same role at different times of her life.

Oskar's ability and drive have their flipside. He's a deeply egotistical man who looks for ways to demonstrate how much better he is than everyone else. His target before the events of the story has been his father-in-law. But after the rescue, Oskar is clearly humiliated by the fact that Vilhelm rescued him and Jonas, and he never misses an opportunity to belittle Vilhelm later on. He exaggerates his own role in saving Jonas and downplays the danger the two were in from the near-freezing water. He loans Vilhelm some dry clothes after they come ashore, but he can't help but mock how Vilhelm looks wearing them. Much of the evening that follows is spent playing cards, with Oskar boorishly criticizing Vilhelm's playing at every turn. Hints scattered throughout suggest that Oskar senses that the rescue has caused Margret's regard to shift from him to Vilhelm, and he thoroughly resents it. Vilhelm saved him and Jonas when he was helpless to do anything. Margret now sees him as weak and Vilhelm as strong. By the end of the story, it is clear that the foundation upon which Margret and Oskar's marriage was built has been destroyed.

Olafsson masterfully builds the tensions between Oskar and Margret to a climax. He never overstates Oskar's insecuritites, and he keeps the reader guessing at Margret's exact thoughts until the very end, when all is revealed. The repeated references to her looking away in response to Oskar are particularly notable; they almost function like a refrain. Overall, the pacing has the feel of an instrumental piece in which every note is made to count and be savored. Every sentence contributes to the story's momentum and overall effect. Flaws, such as the question left hanging of Vilhelm's exact relationship with Bjorn, are piddling. Olafsson takes a marriage suddenly faced with collapse, and gives it the tempo of a thriller. It's a superbly crafted piece.

”On the Lake,” by Olaf Olafsson, is featured in the Winter 2006 issue of Zoetrope All-Story. It is also included in Olafsson's collection Valentines, published by Pantheon, and in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008, published by Anchor Books.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Comics Review: Swamp Thing: The Curse [Book 3] and A Murder of Crows [Book 4], Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, et al.

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alan Moore's initial goal with the Swamp Thing series was to divorce it from the self-pitying tone that had hobbled the efforts of his predecessors. When Moore took things over, the character was a man whose body had been transformed into a monster's, and his purpose was to find a means of changing himself back. Moore identified this premise as a metaphor for denial. The solution he came up with for the problems it posed was ingenious: turn it inside out. The point of the strip became the character's implicit quest for self-fulfillment. The hope of returning to the life he led before his transformation was abandoned in favor of embracing the happiness to be found in his present circumstances. The crux of this was his relationship with Abby Cable, which blossomed into love in "The Rite of Spring," the final episode of Book 2. Moore began with what he called a "Hamlet covered in snot," and ended with a "happily ever after" moment--sort of.

The material was originally published as part of an ongoing monthly comic-book series, so after Moore reached this endpoint, he had to answer the question of where to go next. He responded by taking the character's engagement with the world around him to the next level. The "American Gothic" storyline, which comprises Book 3, The Curse, and Book 4, A Murder of Crows, of the collected series, begins with Swamp Thing in a state of self-absorbed contentment. But this is no happily ever after. His body dies after being accidentally poisoned, which leads to the discovery that he can grow new bodies at will. He also meets John Constantine, a British occultist and psychic who goads him into a series of confrontations with supernatural phenomena across the U. S. The journey is a parade of evil and horrors, with Constantine in many ways acting as the Virgil to Swamp Thing's Dante. One of Constantine's goals is to bring Swamp Thing to a greater understanding of the nature of good, evil, and how they function in the world. This sets the stage for the storyline's climax, an apocalyptic encounter between divine manifestations of good and evil in which Swamp Thing is a full participant. Ultimately, the knowledge he has gained from his experiences is what brings things to a peaceful resolution. The "American Gothic" has him grow from an individual to a citizen. The story ends with him becoming one who takes responsibility in making the world a better place. At the very least, he is now one who works to keep things from getting worse.

In essence, Moore continues to see denial as something to be overcome; he just moves his focus from the personal to what denial means relative to society. "The Nukeface Papers," the two-part episode that begins things, is built around the issue of one of the most conspicuous examples of societal denial: environmental pollution, specifically the handling of nuclear waste. No one Moore presents can think beyond their personal circumstances. Two nuclear-industry workers pitch drum after drum of nuclear waste into a bog, telling each other, "outta sight is outta mind... an' what the eye don't see... the heart don't grieve over." The local sheriff is too caught up in his card game to pay much mind to local troubles. As for Swamp Thing, he is completely caught up in his happiness with Abby, seeing everything outside of it as "the carefully logged hysteria of a world he no longer belongs to." Everyone's so oblivious to the pollution and its dangers that they might as well be boozing it up with the stuff, and Moore gives us a character who does exactly that: Nukeface, a wandering derelict who downs the toxic waste as if it were the finest cognac. Everybody has their preferred poison, after all, and Nukeface, figuratively speaking, introduces everybody to the latest in throwing up and hangovers--the sort that would leave everyone nostalgic for the old kind. They'd at least survive.

"The Nukeface Papers" doesn't come to a proper resolution--everyone just keeps going their own way. This seems fitting, as the evils the story illustrates really can't be resolved. Crimes of convenience, indifference, and denial are a constant in life. The same is true of the other evils Swamp Thing encounters, which are explicit metaphors for such things as the cycles of violence between men and women, different races, opposed communities, and others. None of these resolve themselves in a way that leaves Swamp Thing with any sense of pride or accomplishment, but Moore has him recognize that they are, to a degree, the extreme expressions of constants. Good and evil feed each other, and the best that can be hoped for is that the two maintain a balance be maintained. It's this knowledge that allows Swamp Thing to bring about the resolution of the storyline's climactic conflict.

Moore constructs the "American Gothic" storyline in order to give Swamp Thing (and the reader) a metaphysical understanding of good and evil, and the climax turns the character into something of a metaphysical politician. Moore makes Swamp Thing a negotiator--one with no sense of guile--and the character's earnestness is highlighted by pairing him with Constantine, who's a different sort of political animal: a manipulator. But, repellent as he is in some respects, Constantine is a do-gooder at heart. He knows the danger that is coming, and one senses that he jerks people around because he knows he couldn't get them to do anything otherwise. Almost everyone whose assistance he needs is either an egomaniac, a flake, or some other kind of headstrong personality. Constantine talks in hints and circles, and as infuriating as that can be for Swamp Thing and others, it's the quickest and, at times, only way to get them where they need to go.

"American Gothic" has flaws. The episodes that comprise Swamp Thing's journey through the American landscape are fine by themselves, but they seem arbitrarily placed relative to one another--they feel as if they could have been presented in almost any order. The knowledge Swamp Thing gains in one episode has no bearing on the ones that follow until the storyline arrives at its climactic section. The material might have been more effective if Moore had dramatized Swamp Thing's accumulation of wisdom--if the character had confronted each of the individual horrors using the knowledge he had gained in his dealings with the previous ones. The material's format as an open-ended serial also becomes annoyingly conspicuous at times. One can comfortably read these volumes without having read the first two in the series, but about halfway through Book 4, Moore introduces a subplot involving the Abby Cable character that has no relevance to the other material. Worse, it's left hanging after it's been developed to a crisis point. One needs to come back for Book 5 to find out where it's going. Serials do not make for tidy reads.

But one is more than willing to come back for Book 5. The reasons go beyond Moore (complemented by the able efforts of artists Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, and others) making the "American Gothic" a compelling read in its own right. He builds on the thematic material of his first two Swamp Thing collections to leave the reader with a more complex starring character and philosophical worldview. The "American Gothic" is far richer and more resonant than what's come before, and it leaves one happily anticipating what Moore will use Swamp Thing to bring the reader next.