Tuesday, December 24, 2013

L'Esprit D'Escalier, Final Crisis Edition


Over at Phil Sandifer's always-interesting blog, guest writer Andrew Hickey has written (in the words of the Young Ones) "a highly articulate outburst" relating the generally poor reception of 'Final Crisis' and the subsequent launch of the New 52. And while I think there is something to be said for connecting those two dots--let's face it, a big part of what people complained about with 'Final Crisis' was that they were looking for a grand, Wagnerian finish to the 73-year long story DC comics had been telling all those years, and instead they got a longer version of 'Rock of Ages' that somehow managed not to tie in to 'Rock of Ages' (the JLA storyline that Morrison wrote, that is, not the musical) and that almost certainly sparked the idea of blowing everything up and starting over in Dan DiDio's brain--I nonetheless think that Hickey extends the idea too far by suggesting that DC made a wholesale rejection of quality because they gave their readers the bestestest thing ever in 'Final Crisis', and they didn't like it so DC decided its readers must hate things that are good.

For one thing, he mentions the tie-ins and promotional efforts for 'FC' as though they were some sort of unfortunate summer storm, an event outside of Morrison's control that wrecked the lovely picnic he had planned. Whereas the truth is...look, I try very hard not to swear on my blog, but it is hard to think of the events leading up to 'Final Crisis' without using the words "unprecedented clusterfuck". Nobody working for DC seemed to have the slightest clue what anyone else was doing, and in fact the only thing they did seem to share was naked contempt for each other and their audience. Morrison was out doing interviews where he openly insulted people who thought that Barry Allen's death should be permanent, because death in comics never was and only pathetic fanboys gave a toss...while that same month, DC was marketing the first issue of his new epic with the tagline, "WHERE WERE YOU THE DAY THE MARTIAN MANHUNTER DIED?" Dan DiDio gave months and months of interviews, talking excitedly at conventions about how 'Final Crisis' was the culmination of everything the company had been planning since 'Identity Crisis'...only to have Morrison explain later that nobody had told him any of that, and he'd just been planning to write a fun little story about Darkseid, and 'Final Crisis' just meant that it was the last crisis he was planning to write about, and people needed to either just get over it or stop buying comics if they were going to whine about every single story they didn't like. And that's not even counting the weekly interviews about 'Countdown to Infinite Crisis' with editor Mike Marts on Newsarama, which started out as a fun promotional exercise (a la the interviews with '52' editor Steve Wacker on Newsarama) and gradually devolved into an exchange of insults between an interviewer who patently did not understand how DC could publish such unreadable garbage and an editor who didn't know why he was bothering anymore.

In short, everything about 'Final Crisis' was practically designed, by everyone concerned with the creation of it even tangentially, to make it impossible for the story to live up to anyone's expectations of it. And that includes Morrison, who pretty much threw everyone under the bus including his fanbase in the course of his interviews by suggesting that he just came up with the idea for the story and then went off into the cloisters to work on it for a year or so, like some sort of Zen comic book warrior monk, and came back out utterly flabbergasted that they'd screwed it up so badly. The sad part is that this could very well have been true--goodness knows that DC was inept enough for me to freely believe that they weren't talking to Morrison about their plans for the series he was writing--but Hickey seems to feel that Morrison should be held blameless for never talking to his editors, never reading any industry press about the series he was in the middle of writing, and never thinking to get involved with the PR in any way shape or form until all the money was spent and it was time to start apportioning blame for who was responsible for essentially defrauding comics fans of a couple hundred dollars of their hard-earned money.

Which is something that I think Hickey, and quite honestly most of the people who write about "angry fanboys" miss. We spend our money based on what we are told about these stories. Most comics stores, in the immortal words of every comic book store owner ever, are not libraries. Fans have to rely on what they hear about the series ahead of time, and the marketing strategy ever since 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' has been to tell fans, "You really can't miss this one. So much important stuff happens in it that you'll be totally lost if you don't buy it." And that's worked for a long time, because 'COIE' really was so important that it could not be missed. Fans have been conditioned to believe editors when they said that a storyline was a really big, huge, important development in the metastory, and that they had to read it even if it wasn't that great. (Well, they never said that last part. But it was sometimes implied.) And 'Final Crisis' was the point at which fans realized, en masse, that it was all just a big con to take their money. There was no grand plan. There was, it seemed, no plan at all. To discount that anger, or even to underestimate it, is to completely miss why 'Final Crisis' was so hated when it came out. It wouldn't have mattered what it was, because what people disliked was what it so tangibly wasn't.

Instead, Hickey goes with the tried-and-true sneering disdain for anyone who disagrees with him, the old "Well, it tried to make readers think, and all the people who disliked it were really just stupid and didn't get it." Which, while obnoxious and smug, is really just the flipside to the equally obnoxious disdain for anyone who did like the series, most of whom used the classic "You didn't really understand it either, nobody did, it's just that you're pretending you did so you can act intellectually superior to the rest of us" tactic of disingenuously dismissing their opponents' criticisms without engaging them, so I can't complain too loudly because nobody involved in that discussion ever came out looking very good. (In case you couldn't tell here, I don't actually have a lot of patience for debates about the quality of 'Final Crisis'. I didn't read it myself, because I gave up on DC in general about the same time Hickey gave up on 'Countdown', but I do find the haters and the defenders of the series equally meretricious.)

And so Hickey moves to the ultimate conclusion I mentioned at the beginning. Having misread the reason for the backlash against 'Final Crisis', and having taken as an a priori assumption that the series was flawless, he proceeds to the only answer he can under the circumstances. DC must have decided that it wasn't worth their time doing good comics, and went to the utter clusterfuck that was the New 52 on the grounds that the only thing that mattered was getting buzz in the industry media. Whereas in fact, when you examine the entirety of 'Final Crisis' in light of the year's worth of stories leading up to it, the story was at best an accidental aberration in a sea of editorial ineptitude whose only goal seemed to be getting headlines on Newsarama, and the thing that connects 'Final Crisis' to the New 52 is that they are both the products of a company that is, fundamentally, not very good at its job. The New 52 is a change in direction only cosmetically. The actual direction DC Comics has taken has been unchanged since DiDio took over--wandering randomly, spinning their wheels, and ultimately going nowhere.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Review...ish: The Apple

For the first two minutes, 1980 musical 'The Apple' is perfect. It opens with letter-perfect and savagely incisive parody of a glam-rock stadium concert; the act is Pandi and Dandi, but they could just as easily be the Bay City Rollers or any one of a dozen Iggy Pop/David Bowie wannabes out of the late Seventies. Their anthem, 'BIM's On the Way', is a perfect evocation of the way major record labels repackage independence and rebellion into product--it's a brainlessly catchy tune that seems to have no other purpose but to laud the very same label that endlessly promotes the musicians singing it. ("BIM" is a stab at BMI, a gag I didn't even notice until it was pointed out to me.)

And yet, underneath the empty-headed vapidity of its lyrics, there's a sort of soul-crushing deadness to the lyrics...Pandi and Dandi might sound like a glam-rock version of any number of studio-hyped groups, but their song carries the explicit message that there is no good, no evil, no joy, no shame, nothing but power and the will to use it. And BIM has that power...and by extension, is the only thing worth your adoration. It is, in short, nihilism given a catchy beat and a clever call-and-response bit that invites the audience to join right in with the death of society. ("Be!" "I am!" So's Darkseid, buddy.)

Then people start talking, and that's about when the movie goes downhill. Because 'The Apple' is supposed to be an audacious glam-rock musical bookend to 'Jesus Christ Superstar', telling the story of the Book of Revelations in the same counter-culture rock-and-roll terms that it assumes its audience grooves on--while simultaneously being a scathing indictment of the music industry and the way it grinds up individualism and talent and turns it into pop-culture pablum. That's the goal, and it's actually an impressively lofty one. But...

Setting aside the second musical number, which is supposed to be a welcome antidote to the soulless glam and instead comes off as a schmaltzy salute to the Osmonds...and setting aside all the other musical numbers as well, which seem to have been written according to the well known songwriting technique of, "Sod it, at least it rhymes"...actually, I can't set that aside completely. One couplet goes, "It's a natural, natural, natural desire/to meet an actual, actual, actual vampire." This is not a vampire story. This is not even a story with vampires in it. This is a story where a vampire pops up into shot for three seconds as Dandi sings the above couplet, and then is never seen again for the remainder of the film. I'm not a professional songwriter, but I think that might be a sign that you should rethink your lyrics.

But reluctantly setting the music's flaws aside, the story doesn't do what it's trying to do. Mister Boogalow is woefully miscast and misdirected. He should be kind and warm and friendly and exactly the last person you'd expect to be the Anti-Christ; Alphie should be torn by self-doubt and indecision for breaking up with his beloved Bibi and giving in to his hallucinogenic visions of doom and disaster if he signs on with BIM. ("BIM" = "Boogalow International Management".) But instead, he's a sinister smirker with a goatee and a Russian accent. He couldn't be more obviously evil if he had horns. Which he does, in some scenes...well, horn. Not sure what happened to the other one. Maybe there was a wardrobe malfunction.

With Boogalow obviously evil, Bibi looks stupid for signing on with him. Her journey through the highs of becoming a superstar to the lows of personal destruction and drug abuse, on to her final personal transformation and reconciliation with Alphie, basically just becomes a waiting game for the bimbo to realize what the audience figured out 87 minutes ago.

It doesn't help that the film is catastrophically unsubtle. Don't get me wrong, I understand that a glam-rock Rapture is not the place for subtlety. But that's the wonderful thing about a musical; people get to openly sing about their emotions in big music numbers, getting all that subtext out of the way in a song so that they can be subtle in the actual story. Bibi's getting ready to sign a contract, but she has doubts...so have Boogalow and Dandi sing a song about temptation likening the contract to Eve's Apple. It's unsubtle, sure...but it's the right kind of unsubtle. As it is, Alphie has a hallucination where Bibi is literally presented with a giant prop apple while standing on a set that evokes a downright Ed Wood-ian vision of Dante's Inferno, precisely so that Dandi can sing a song about how she should take a bite of the giant prop apple. The song was already metaphor enough without turning the costumes, set decoration, and dialogue into a walking literalist extension of it.

The film's pacing also has issues. Far too much of the film is spent on Alphie moping over Bibi and Bibi pining over Alphie (while sleeping with other people and taking copious amounts of drugs). The actual plot, such as it is, sort of hovers around in the background trying not to intrude. There are a few scenes where Mister Boogalow's marketing gimmick of a "BIM Mark" goes from being a trendy fashion accessory to a mandatory identification badge, and one where BIM's dancercise show becomes mandatory for every American, but these are so abrupt and unmotivated that the allegory fails. It's now less an allegory, and more some guy wandering past the movie and mentioning, "It's all about Satan, by the way," when he thinks the A-plot isn't looking.

The conclusion, in which "Mister Topps" shows up to spirit Alphie and Bibi away to a new world in his pimped-out Caddy (if this movie does nothing else, it teaches us exactly which machina the deus exes from) is just as abrupt as all the other things that happen. In trying to give us both a savage expose of major record labels and a trippy rockpocalypse, the film really succeeds at neither. But I have to admit, there's just enough of a glimpse of what the film could have been that I can't help but love it a little. It fails miserably at everything it tries...but it tries at something. I don't think there's a single Michael Bay film I could say that about.