Posts Tagged politics
When I was chatting with Dylan Horrocks about his newly reprinted Hicksville collection, I quizzed him about his time writing Batgirl for DC Comics. The following didn’t make it into my Bookslut piece, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
“When I was writing stories set in Gotham City, I was very conscious that the whole Batman ethos presents a vision of the modern urban environment that I don’t think is true. I don’t mean that people dress up in tights and capes – people do! It’s that it presents the city as a kind of urban jungle, full of predators preying on innocent citizens. They’re poisonous, they’re corrupt, and so on.
“And the only way to protect innocents in that kind of setting is to be more violent than those predators. You have to become a predator who preys on the predators. That’s what Batman is. He uses violence – really nasty violence – and his stock and trade is torture.
“I was writing Batgirl at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal. I felt like this vision of how the world works presented by these comics went perfectly with the one the Bush administration was pushing on us. We’re engaged in a war on terror and, in the comics, Bruce Wayne is engaged in a war on crime. So it’s not just that I rejected Batman’s tactics – I rejected that whole view of the world.”
He’s not wrong. I mean, I love Batman – if pushed, I’ll admit that Batman might be my favourite character in the entirety of fiction – but he’s not wrong. One of the things about these iconic characters, though, is that they’ve been around so long that there can never be one coherent ideology throughout their thousands and thousands of stories. It’s how the Huffington Post can run a piece suggesting Batman would be pro-immigration and anti-jail for drug offenders, while conservative newspapers happily claimed The Dark Knight as a blockbuster with a Bush-friendly subtext.
So allow me to offer up proof that Batman cares, and from an unlikely source: the infamously grim Batman: The Killing Joke one-shot from 1988.
I know, I know. It’s the Batman story where poor Barbara Gordon gets crippled, right? And maybe raped? All in the Joker’s bid to convince Commissioner Gordon that the only thing between sanity and madness is “one bad day”? That’s the one. Even its writer, Alan Moore, doesn’t like it. He says it’s “a terrible book. I mean, it doesn’t say anything. It’s talking about Batman and the Joker, and says that yes, psychologically Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other. So?”
Ignore all that – even Moore – and remember how The Killing Joke begins with Batman visiting the Joker, imprisoned in Arkham Asylum. “Hello,” Batman says. “I came to talk.” And he continues:
“I’ve been thinking lately. About you and me. About what’s going to happen to us, in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we? Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you. Perhaps sooner. Perhaps later. I just wanted to know that I’d made a genuine attempt to talk things over and avert that outcome. Just once.”
Sure, it turns out that Batman’s not talking to the Joker at all, but just a stooge in white facepaint who’s taken his place while the Joker organizes the lovingly-drawn horror that follows. That’s not the point. I can enjoy the gritted teeth of near-fascist Batman; I can enjoy the gaudy and ludicrous BIFF! KAPOW! 1960s TV Batman; but my favourite Batman is the one who’ll do anything to avoid more violence and death…
…even sitting down with his psychopathic arch-nemesis in a heartfelt – and inevitably pointless – attempt at conversation.
My favourite Batman is the one who hates goodbyes.
Here’s my quick review of Michael Moore’s latest documentary – now out on DVD – from the new issue of jmag. That’s a genuine question at the end, too: noble, or naive?
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
Directed by: Michael Moore
“Capitalism is evil”. That’s a direct quote from Capitalism: A Love Story, the latest of Michael Moore’s documentaries about what’s wrong with America. (In case you’re wondering, the answer is: a lot, actually.)
In his sledgehammer style, Moore wades into the US economy: families evicted from homes; hilariously evil memos leaked by major companies; profits made on human misery; all ending with post-Katrina New Orleans and demands for revolution.
Fans of his mid-90s TV Nation series will find even fewer stunts this time, and those that remain – like driving an armoured car to bailout banks and demanding money back – are weak. Instead, Moore relies on sincere voiceover, melodramatic music, and ironic stock footage to spice up his interviews.
It’s effective enough, too. It’s just hard to watch Moore using the same leading questions, manipulative visuals, and fear-mongering that are usually considered the domain of his political opponents. Does refusing to use those same underhanded tactics make you noble – or just naive? I honestly don’t know.
Other reviews this month: Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs in cinemas, and Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl, Paranormal Activity, and FOX’s Glee on DVD.
Issue #38 on sale now.
When I first heard that comic books were air-dropped onto war zones, I remember thinking it must be a goodwill gesture. Something fun, something bright. Something to distract the suffering children.
Yes, I’m an idiot.
It somehow didn’t click that the thousands of comics, say, dropped on Iraq in the early ‘90s were more likely show Saddam Hussein cutting off his own head than a cheery selection of Calvin and Hobbes.
I was planning to discuss psy-ops and propaganda comics while writing about Joe Sacco’s Footnotes In Gaza for Bookslut, but Sacco distracted me with his hundreds of pages of heartbreak. Would it have been too tenuous to compare his work with Captain America punching Hitler back in 1941? They’re both designed to win hearts and change minds, after all. And comics have a long history of being used as propaganda – whether to rally support at home like Hitler’s glass jaw above, or loaded into cluster bombs and dropped on the enemy to destroy morale.
Sometimes, however, the pretty pictures can have the opposite effect. During World War II, the Japanese reportedly dropped leaflets designed to convince American soldiers their wives were busy being unfaithful at home; they were illustrated – ahem – graphically enough that they became collector’s items. “Our guys loved it,” says military historian Stanley Sadler. “They’d trade them like baseball cards.”
That same article by Ian Urbina references a failed use of superhero-specific propaganda, too. In 2000, DC Comics made special Superman and Wonder Woman comics in multiple languages to illustrate the dangers of land mines. But… umm… what were those weird, word-filled clouds hanging over the heroes’ heads? Urbina explains:
“Though widely understood in some contexts, thought bubbles appearing above a cartoon character’s head left some readers, especially rural ones, completely baffled, according to press accounts.”
The perceived simplicity of comic art is what makes it so appealing for cross-cultural propaganda. Unfortunately – and setting aside the possibility that this story is another example of the “caveman panic” rumour circulating around the Lumière train – it’s never that simple. Read this fascinating piece on the attempts to cure “The Forever Problem” at a New Mexico nuclear waste vault. Once you set aside a shared written language and a shared visual vocabulary, how do you communicate grave danger to humans living a thousand years from now?
Comic books have hundreds of specific visual conventions, from the wavy lines above an angry man’s head in the newspaper funnies to the ornate font Marvel’s currently using to imply that Thor and their other Norse Gods sound kinda ‘Ye Olde’.
And superhero comics may be many things – daft, adolescent, awe-inspiring, overtly sexist and conceptually daunting – but they’re rarely simple.
I’ve been disappointed with most CGI-heavy films over the last few years. It started with Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. I mean, how is it possible to watch a giant monkey fight a giant dinosaur and be so bored? Then Michael Bay’s Transformers movies managed to give clashing giant robots all the visual impact of differently coloured paints mixing together.
So despite a predictable childhood obsession with James Cameron’s Aliens and Terminator 2, I approached Avatar with a healthy dose of skepticism. With its maybe $300 million budget – and the swirling rumours of much, much more – I was afraid that no matter how good a film it might be, I’d be stuck staring at the price tag dangling invisibly from the corner of the screen and wondering if it was worth it.
But Avatar successfully stopped me thinking about its dollar signs. It’s a massive 160 minutes long and I didn’t once look at my watch. Yes, it trades in clichés – ‘naive scientists’, ‘evil corporations’, ‘noble savages at one with nature’, and (perhaps unfortunately) ‘white man saves the day’. Some are already complaining that the story’s too simple. Well, ‘complicated’ doesn’t equal ‘good’ – Matrix sequels anyone? – and Cameron’s simple story is masterfully told.
It’s far too deliberately paced for action fans, and barely a sci-fi at all. Cameron has little interest in exploring any ideas behind the projecting-human-minds-into-alien-bodies technology that provides the film’s title. It’s a deeply earnest and old-fashioned adventure story. If anything, Avatar is a conceptual, mirror-world sequel to his Aliens from 1986. Imagine if one of Aliens’ marines had a change of heart and decided to fight alongside the creatures with acid for blood. It even has a new Paul Reiseresque corporate stooge!
And here’s the ultimate compliment for Avatar’s special effects: they’re so good that I don’t feel much of a need to talk about them. Yes, the world of Pandora and its giant blue inhabitants is visually overwhelming at first. Too busy, too day-glow, too outdoor rave. Once you adjust, Avatar is completely immersive. The Uncanny Valley that turned films like The Polar Express into horrific parades of undead fleshbots is nowhere to be seen – thanks to being artfully subsumed into alien facial features.
I’m nervous about saying it in case Avatar completely falls apart on a second viewing, but there were brief flashes where I felt like a kid watching Star Wars for the first time.
All Avatar‘s above pleasures, however, depend on your ability to process this pair of facts: it’s about a noble indigenous population fighting corporate greed and American imperialism in defence of their world’s vibrant ecosystem… that also happens to be the most expensive film ever made.
As Alanis Morisette might say: that’s the black fly in your chardonnay.
Does the production of a film affect your enjoyment of it? Read this unmissable New Yorker piece about Cameron’s creative process on the set of Avatar, and wonder if we should dismiss all art made with money that could have been better spent. I think it’s only human to hear an obscene Hollywood budget like this and have a flicker of thought about starving third world children – but if you follow this logical path, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the cost of any art at all.
Is the disjunction between Avatar’s moral message and its decadent production an unforgiveable hypocrisy? Or is the fact that Cameron convinced his backers to throw hundreds of millions at a film that’s so overtly anti-corporate and anti-America the ultimate act of insider subversion? Does it matter?
If it sounds like I’m making excuses, I don’t mean to be. It’s perfectly reasonable to think the amount of money spent of Avatar is repulsive, and avoid it for that reason alone. It’s to James Cameron’s credit, though, that I was so completely taken in by the movie that these questions didn’t even occur to me until after the credited rolled – and after the hideous Titanic-style ballad began.