Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer_poster

Film, 2013

Snowpiercer has a cast filled to the brim with brilliant, entertaining actors and a director whose back catalogue is, for my money, closer to perfect than any other working director’s. Despite this, I didn’t go into it with high expectations, mostly due to some pretty dull trailers. And my fears were confirmed. Whereas Bong Joon-ho’s previous films are delightfully entertaining with complex themes so subtle that engaging with them is basically optional, Snowpiercer is as direct and hard to move around in as the train it takes place in. I can see how the stripped-down nature of the concept could seem like an exciting one for an action film; A train full of Earth’s last survivors where poor people live in squalor in the back and rich people live in decadence in the front, and the journey from one end to the other. It’s a concept that travels along with its plot, and has momentum built into it; It’s probably the most inherently action oriented concept for a movie since Speed. And the themes of class are sound, they’re astute and well constructed. But after seemingly endless monologues from multiple characters who exist only as mouthpieces for said themes, you start feeling sorry for the dead horse Boon-ho is beating long before the end of the movie. This is a movie where they dress Tilda Swinton, hamming it up like never before, like a cartoon character and then make her endlessly deliver dialogue like “We must occupy our pre-ordained position.” and “Know your place.” Stating this outright once would have been hand-holding, but practically all the dialogue in the film is merely restating it. Then you have to sit through Ed Harris explaining it all again like three or four more times.

Who can say why Joon-ho decided to abandon subtlety for Snowpiercer. It sure wasn’t for a wider appeal, not in his home country anyway. He’s basically the James Cameron of South Korea, helming many of the top-grossing films in their history. Was it a concession to the English speaking audience, this being his first movie primarily aimed at them? (If so, that blew up in his face- the US distributor was apparently worried that this movie wouldn’t play well domestically and crippled its distribution when Joon-ho wouldn’t let them re-edit it.) Did he just simply want to try something new? At the moment we don’t know, but it feels like the release of the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty; A whiff so hard from someone previously so consistently excellent you can’t help but struggle for an explanation.

Adding insult to injury are the action scenes. The one or two that work, work because they’re excellent ideas, not because they’re presented especially thrillingly. The rest of the action scenes, the bulk of them, present us with no specific action, just signifiers of action; frames filled with people swinging objects at other people with no apparent effect or consequence. Noise. The action in The Host, the most action-oriented of Joon-ho’s previous films, worked as anti-action; It was a monster movie in broad daylight, everything happened slowly, there were very few surprises. It radiated subversive glee. In a movie as direct as Snowpiercer, if the action doesn’t carry the weight, the whole affair doesn’t land with a thud, it lands in a puff of air.

Gambit #9 (2013)

imageComic book, 2013

I was ten in 1993, so nothing charges me with nostalgia like the X-Men. Gambit was my favorite. As such, today buying and reading Gambit comics is something I enjoy doing but take little pride in. Partly because I have considerable disdain for Marvel Comics due to their poor treatment of creators, and partly due to the fact that Gambit comics are almost always complete garbage. If Gambit has a prominent role in a comic, which is something that doesn’t happen terribly often, I’ll give it a look. If it’s bearable, I pick it up new off the racks. If it’s not, I wait for it to hit the dollar bins. I usually get to save my money. I sure did with this Gambit solo series that launched in 2012. James Asmus’s stories and dialogue were hollow and dull, qualities that were reflected aptly by Clay Mann’s stiff, lifeless, photo-esque art. (Mann did occasionally produce an image that I enjoyed however, a few of his covers were quite good.) To make matters even worse, the series had frequent, even worse fill-in artists. If history is any indication, Gambit will have another solo title in about five years. I hope it’s better than this one was. In the meantime, he’s a main character in All New X-Factor and, while the writing is only approaching bearable, I like the art quite a lot, so I’m pretty happy.

Credit where credit’s due: There’s a bit in this issue where a super villain pays someone in advance with shrunken money (which the recipient examines with a magnifying glass), and promises it will be restored to normal size upon completion of their deal. It’s an Adam West Batman caliber gag.

Rain Comic #1

image

Comic book, 2013

Rain Comic #1 is a recent release in a series of anthology comics published by Mickey Z and featuring work by her, Patrick Kyle, and Michael Deforge, each focusing of a different subject (Basketball Comic #1, Xmas Comic #1, etc.) Sometimes the subject, as with the most recent release, Butler Comic #1, contains thematic elements so intrinsic that they can’t help but surface in each author’s piece, no matter how far outside the realm of human experience and perception they twist it. So I was interested to see how they handled the subject of rain, possibly their most thematically broad topic yet. Reading it, I was surprised at how central the authors managed to make rain to their stories, both to the plot and thematically. In the various stories, ranging from one to six pages long each, rain is used to talk about legacy, experience, and as a transformational agent. All in all, only a couple of the one page strips seemed to say “oh, and it was also raining”. After I finished the book, I remembered what James Kochalka did with the same subject in his Hulk Vs Rain story, and felt silly for not realizing ahead of time that, in the hands of a storytelling lineup as strong as this one, a broader subject could actually serve as an even more direct tool.

League of Gentlemen, Season 3 Episode 4 ” The Medusa Touch”

image

Television, 2002

When a serialized work evolves into something distinct from its initial form, it can sometimes be hard not to miss the bits it shed in order to make room for what it became. Is it a creator’s duty to maintain the work’s original aim, or to at least guide its evolution in a way that will mitigate any disappointment on the part of the audience? Certainly not, but it does call into question whether it’s a good idea to keep referring to it by the same name.

This, as you may have guessed is the difficulty I’m having with the third season of League of Gentlemen, a season with big differences from the two that came before it. In my view, so far, there are two departures of note: the absence of a laugh track and the relative mundanity of the characters. The inclusion of a laugh track in the early seasons was something that took getting used to for me. Distracting at first, but once I was able to tune it out it became a part of the ambience, a part that brought out the humor/ horror juxtaposition I previously discussed being central to the show. Without it, we’re no longer watching a network comedy gone delirious, we’re watching something delirious of its own free will, which is much less exciting.

Although it might stand to reason that this would free Gentlemen up to extend the boundaries of its insanity even further, it opts for just the opposite. This season consists of human interest stories- characters fall in love under difficult circumstances, experience career setbacks, and maintain extra-marital affairs. While those elements were always presented in the show, they now dominate it. Royston Vasey is no longer home to the monster children of deranged shopkeepers, menacing circus demons, and malicious psychic twins of seasons past. Where these characters had their roots in nightmare, season there’s characters have their roots in reality.

The thing that compensates for these loses somewhat, and what I imagine what the show’s creators intentionally sacrificed these things in order to achieve, is deeper stories that relate more directly to humanity. And it’s certainly not a failure on that front. But with the depth of its comedy and the heights of its insanity cut off, you’re forced to wonder if it’s really the same show.

League of Gentlemen, Season 2 Episode 4 “Death in Royston Vasey”

image

Television, 2000

League of Gentlemen is a show I’ve heard mentioned here and there over the years, most notably a few back when the Kids in the Hall reunited to produce a miniseries that was said to be a weak xerox of it. But that’s selling the Kids in the Hall short, as League of Gentlemen clearly owes much to their original work as well. “If Kids in the Hall made Twin Peaks” is how I’ve been pitching it to people after having made my way through half the series over the last few weeks. As much as it owes to Kids in the Hall (the limited male cast portraying a wide array of characters including cross-dressing for the women, the rapid fire nature of sketch comedy, the off-beat sense of humor) it owes equally to Twin Peaks, with its recurring cast of oddball characters populating a small town, the sagas and mysteries of which continuously spiral forward, often ending up in very dark places. The place where those two distinct flavors, humor and horror, clash is where the show draws much of its power, as you’re often left to wonder, as you’re watching something absolutely ghastly or downright viscerally terrifying unfold, “How is there a laugh track on top of this?” But the loose and dangerous structure of the show, in addition to being an ideal vehicle for the creators’ wild imaginations, showcases intricately structured, and unexpectedly emotionally intelligent, storytelling.

New Jobs

image
Comic book, 2013
 
Dash Shaw has put out very little work since the 2009 release of his Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD short story collection, and New Jobs is the first of the burst of new material he recently released that I’ve read, so I feel like I’m more or less back at square one with experiencing and interpreting his work. And that’s the biggest strength of Shaw’s comics- whether you enjoy them or not, they’re layered and complex in a way that fosters investigation and discussion. Even people I know who don’t enjoy Shaw’s work spend a few minutes explaining what they don’t like about it, seemingly unable to simply dismiss it.

New Jobs is dense, packing a lot of moments onto each of its tiny pages, in contrast to the fluffier, widescreen cinema method of storytelling currently in vogue in mainstream comics. I call them moments instead of panels because there are no borders. In fact there’s a complete disregard for the grid system at work here. Moments are placed with only pacing in mind, which, in addition to the Sharpie-imbued smoothness of the drawings, gives the reading experience a fluidity that suggests a different cinematic experience- animation. The drawings seem to move as they melt into one another. 

Shaw has a similar stripped down approach toword genre. New School isn’t quite science-fiction, but he adapts the society the characters live in to suit the themes of the story. By only using the most efficient parts of the various storytelling strategies at play, Shaw has managed to pack a lot of ideas into a very small package.

Zombie World: Champion of the Worms #3

 

image

Comic book, 1997
 

There are three Pat McEwons known to us, and they’ve appeared in this order. Work for hire Pat McEwon, who, early in his career, turned out many issues of work for creative interests other than his own. Then came Pat McEwon the auteur, who released a few inventive short stories from anthologies such as Dark Horse Presents and Dave Cooper’s Weasel. Then came milk carton Pat McEwon, who’s been largely absent from the comics scene for years, apart from one short story (for the Madman 20th anniversary book) and one graphic novel (Hair Shirt). Zombie World: Champion of Worms #3 (the only issue of the series I’ve read) occurs at a bridge between work for hire McEwon and auteur McEwon, being a work he created for someone else while still possessing many of the hallmarks of his auteur work. In it he’s paired with an early instance of Mike Mignola as a writer only, and the result is a Hammer horror tinged take on Tintin. It’s a good match, but not a perfect one- McEwon’s layouts and characers pack the appropriate amount of whimsy, but his ghouls are too cartoony to be truly menacing. As for Mignola’s side of things, this is writer-only Mignola pre-John Arcudi, so seemingly all consideration is given to plot, with none apparently given to characters. But if you’be got a kid edging up on feeling too old for Tintin and might respond to something a little darker, I imagine this would work like a charm.

 
 
Super Inside Baseball, How The Sausage Is Made Bonus Round: Zombie World appears to be an attempt on the part of a comics company (Dark Horse) to create a franchise while sharing the rights with the hired talent (Mignola and McEwon), and the indicia is fittingly tangled, giving copyright for the text and illustrations to the creators and the publisher, the title trademarked to the publisher, the characters trademarked to the creators, and so on. It seems like Dark Horse planned for the series to continue without its original creators. From the editor in this issue’s letters page: “Thanks to Pat McEwon and Mike Mignola for getting this series off to such and interesting start. The books in coming months, from a lineup diverse enough to include…” continuing into a list of future contributors, many if not all of whch I believe were actually released. I’d be curious to check the indicia of future issues for McEwon and Mignola’s names. Interesting, and I assume an experiment on the part of the publisher in creating a franchise while keeping the creators properly in the loop. If this is true, their hearts were certainly in the right place. But, to go out even further on a limb, I’d guess that the franchise, concept and all, was publisher mandated. (“Make us a world of zombies, we’ll call it Zombie World!”) Catching lightning in a bottle can be tough, but you couldn’t hire two better creators to attempt it with.

Transformer

image

Comic book, 2012

Josh Bayer’s drawings sure let you know they’re working hard- beads of sweat fly off the character’s furrowed brows as they struggle to convert simple thoughts into comprehensible communication. After seeing his work online for years as one of the more visible faces of the current alt-comics scene, Transformer is my first time reading one of his actual books (barring the Suspect Device series he edits, in which all his contributors seem to adapt his visual language to varying degrees). It’s a comic about comics, in the way I suspect his Raw Power series is about punk. Furthermore, it’s a comic about making comics, almost making it self-referential twice over. Postmodernism can often feel impersonal, but Bayer seems to be able to overcome this. It’s just as easy to imagine the beads of sweat flying off the protagonists of Transformer are Bayer’s own as they are the artistic icons they ostensibly represent.

Curse Of The Molemen

image

Comic book, 1991

Charles Burns’s Curse Of The Molemen barters heavily in 50′s science-fiction and horror, not unlike another comic of its time I recently read, Clowes’s Lloyd Llewellyn. Curse Of The Molemen, by contrast, casts a decidedly more ironic gaze upon its subject matter, effectively launching a much sharper jab at the faults of that era. (Specifically as depicted here, domestic violence.) Because of this, and the heavy use of surreality, comparisons to Blue Velvet would be apt. The main difference, besides being a lot more direct about its heritage, is that its protagonist, Big Baby, is actually a part of the surreality. Or, perhaps he is the only true piece of surreality, as all other depicted aspects of it could be attributed to his imagination. To be honest, I don’t quite understand the meaning of the Big Baby character, but this is the only story featuring him that I’ve read, and I’m under the impression there are more.

Lloyd Llewellyn #1

image

Comic book, 1986

It’s difficult to view early work by a great artist outside the shadow of their later, more substantial achievements (if that’s the trajectory their career in fact took). This is the case with Lloyd Llewellyn #1, the debut solo book of the great Dan Clowes. The work stands on its own, with style and personality to spare, but what it has in those areas in volume it lacks in density, clipping much of that personality from a certain irony-tinted nostalgia for 50′s swank and masculinity. It’s an area of interest that comics doesn’t support any more. (I can think of a number of artists that paint with a similar broad, lively brush who stopped releasing work a number if years ago, although Steve Mannion recently seems to have found a new way to funnel interest for it via Kickstarter.) This could be due to a shift in the interests of comics readers, a shrunken industry no longer being able to support work this insubstantial, both, or something else. So it’s a good thing Clowes made the shift in his work he did- he went from this, to having his characters be into this, to this being only one of a variety of hues that color his work- because he saved his career, and helped shape the industry, by doing it.