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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I actually enjoyed the first Transformers movie quite a bit. I think the sequel may be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It fails on every conceivable level. People will tell you it’s just a big dumb glorious action movie. Those people are wrong. There are half-hour stretches in which NOTHING HAPPENS, as though the writers were stumped about what to do next, and left to go think of something — but LEFT THE MOVIE RUNNING while they did so. At no point in the making of this film was the question “why?” ever asked, by anyone. Nothing matters, nothing makes sense, and not even the explosions are interesting. Not sexy, not funny, not thrilling. And did I mention three hours long? Please, go watch Armageddon or Die Hard 4 or something. Save your money.

That was the most surprising part — that the movie would fail so completely at even being an entertaining summer action flick. Other, ancillary frustrations:

  • The pervasive neocon ideology. Aside from the military boosterism (expected from Michael Bay), there is literally a scene where the White House spokesman yells at Optimus Prime and over the course of the argument, the terms “planet Earth” and “United States” are thoroughly conflated. Because they’re the same thing, you see.
  • Transformers, the franchise, was designed to sell toys. The TV shows and comics understood this, and made the most of it — they clearly diagrammed who was who, gave all the transformers distinct personalities, and made you fall in love with them, so that you would want to own them. After watching Revenge of the Fallen I can’t even visualize more than three or four of the 30+ featured transformers, let alone name them or describe their personalities. What are kids supposed to do? “Thanks, mom! It’s… Sideswipe? Remember him from that half a frame he was in during that one explosion scene?” You couldn’t follow this with a scorecard.
  • The “twins” are every bit as bad as you’ve heard.
  • One of the “themes” of the film (if there are any, there are like twelve, all stillborn like a litter of malnourished puppies) is that being an Autobot or a Decepticon is not an inborn characteristic (like race) but a choice (like religion). At least two characters, the biggest and the smallest, are shown to switch sides and become “good guys.” This adds a horrific angle to the already-disturbing scene near the beginning, where the US military-Autobot alliance is shown hunting down a fugitive Decepticon (who is never shown doing anything wrong) and killing it in cold blood.
  • I can’t emphasize enough how incoherent the screenplay is. You know how there were twelve Superman scripts floating around Hollywood, all wildly incongruous, before they eventually picked Superman Returns? This is like they took a dozen Transformers 2 screenplays, put them in a Large Screenplay Collider, and fired them at each other at a considerable fraction of lightspeed. Then they picked up the pieces and filmed the result. You can almost make out the remains of Jon Peters’ giant robotic spider. For more on Michael Bay’s ecstatic transcendence of logic, see Rob Bricken at Topless Robot:
  • What follows is the most spectacular part of the movie, as Sam and Mikaela try to run the several miles back to the military camp during a massive Decepticon attack where the military has dropped Optimus Prime’s corpse.
    Why is that awesome? They could drive back in one of the Autobots and be there in a minute or two.
    They don’t do that.
    What?
    They walk.

EDIT: And another thing!

I want this guy to pop out at the end of every scene of every movie and explain how we are supposed to feel about what just happened. Just like he does in Transformers: Revenge of the Large Screenplay Collider.

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in a supreme irony, it took me forever to compose this

By and large, Rolling Stone may be the poster child for the obsolescence of the print magazine, but one thing they’re still good at is the in-depth, Cameron-Crowe-style artist profile.

Reading through Mark Binelli’s Lil Wayne profile in last month’s issue, we learn a few facts about the “best rapper alive”:

  1. Lil Wayne is always stoned.
  2. Lil Wayne releases tons of music for free over the internet.
  3. Lil Wayne goes to a recording studio every day.

Now, I don’t know what to make of the first one (as I understand it from the article, he literally chain-smokes weed. His assistants roll blunts and put them in packs which he carries on him at all times. Like Lyle and Ray’s Perfect Jays.). But #2 and #3 made me think:

Lil Wayne is to music as webcomics are to comics.

It was #3 that surprised me, but it’s starting to make a lot of sense. Studio time is expensive if you are a garage band, but not if you have the #1 album in the world and you own a dozen studios. It’s also pretty easy to do it yourself these days, even for garage bands. And if you are prolific and talented and like making music, why would you ever not be recording?

It’s a completely opposite model to the standard rock process (write songs privately, spend intense time in the studio perfecting the recording, then release your finished masterpiece into the canon). In music, call it the U2 or Zeppelin model. In comics, think of Craig Thompson or David Mazzucchelli.  It’s also distinct from the corporate deadline/assembly-line model, exemplified by the early pop singles industry, the syndicated comic strip, or the Big Two comic book.

Instead, it’s what people have been saying about the Internet for years: removal of middlemen, instant delivery, zero barriers between creation and distribution. Lil Wayne (or Randall Munroe) has an idea, he gets on his computer, he lays it down, he clicks a button, and 50 million people download it.

Art as blog.

Andrew Sullivan (who does more or less the same thing for political commentary) has written thoughtfully on blogging:

The blogosphere may, in fact, be the least veiled of any forum in which a writer dares to express himself. … The wise panic that can paralyze a writer—the fear that he will be exposed, undone, humiliated—is not available to a blogger. You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts

Apparently Wayne doesn’t even write his lyrics down anymore, he just records whatever comes to him during his (again, daily) recording sessions. Webcomic creators like Chris Onstad and Jeph Jacques improvise on a similar day-to-day basis.

And that’s what makes blogging as a form stand out: it is rich in personality. The faux intimacy of the Web experience, the closeness of the e-mail and the instant message, seeps through. You feel as if you know bloggers… When readers of my blog bump into me in person, they invariably address me as Andrew. Print readers don’t do that. It’s Mr. Sullivan to them.

That matches my impression of both webcomickers and Lil Wayne: the immediacy and unmediatedness of their work is intoxicating, and they blur the line between personal diary and product, between friend and fan (with sometimes frightening results).

I hasten to add that I don’t think this is the sole future of artistic or literary production. It’s just one part of the cultural ecosystem. We will always need thoughtful, well-crafted, large-scale pieces in every medium. Some creators are better suited to one type or another (God knows if we were all bombarded with Twitter updates and Myspace diss tracks from Bono or Thom Yorke we’d shoot ourselves in the face). Some can tackle both, just as Sullivan finds time apart from his blog grind to compose the occasional essay or book.

But as for the New York Times’ much-mocked anxiety about the upcoming xkcd book — if this comparison holds, Munroe doesn’t have much to worry about.

Review: FIGHT OR RUN by Kevin Huizenga

fightorrun

FIGHT OR RUN: Shadow of the Chopper
Kevin Huizenga
Buenaventura Press, November 2008
$3.95

Huizenga, as ever, blows minds six times per page without breaking a sweat, but my first read through this project felt unsatisfying. On almost every page I found myself asking “why did that happen?” and resorting to “because he felt like it, I guess.” The victor of each fight is pretty arbitrary, which I don’t mind, but in some fights the apparent loser is declared the winner — which has a certain rock-paper-scissors logic (what the hell does a rock care if it’s covered by paper?) but still struck me as unfair.

Fight or Run is described as “an open source comics game” on the back cover (H doesn’t even list his full name anywhere in the book), which implies that other artists are encouraged to try it out for themselves — it’s an activity rather than a story. Things happen less because of logic and more because Huizenga simply enjoys drawing them. A character has two heads? Let’s go ahead and have him grow another! And then another and another! But what if the head-stack gets severed? Ooh, then each head could sprout its own body — wait for it — made of heads! Once you get into it, the goofy improv fun of the thing is infectious. Of course, Huizenga being Huizenga, he doesn’t even make it halfway through the book before he’s already diagrammed out the Platonic algorithm of the concept, broken his own rules (with a sub-fight taking place between the personified “Fight” and “Run” options themselves), and conducted a deconstruction of the old cartoon dustcloud “fight” symbol.

There’s also a lot of classic animation influence here, I think, where you have two characters engaged in a battle for completely arbitrary reasons (Tom & Jerry, Roadrunner & Wile E., Bugs & Elmer), giving the animators license to just come up with goofy visual gags and tables-turnings. No consequences, just fade to black and fade in with the next gag.

It does seem like a great loosening-up exercise, along the lines of the 24-hour comic, with the added benefit of not requiring 24 hours… and also (though Huizenga doesn’t explore it) the possibility of collaboration. James Kochalka has done similar projects (both “The Conversation” series with Jeffrey Brown and Craig Thompson and the monster fights with his son Eli). Mostly it made me want to hang out with a bunch of cartoonists and try it out… New SPX tradition, anyone?

As a demonstration of the possibilities of a new game, FIGHT OR RUN: Shadow of the Chopper is definitely successful, and certainly worth your $3.95. But like most games, I bet it’s more fun to play than to watch.

on Swamp Thing

I’m kind of stunned at Steve Bissette’s account of SWAMP THING abuses, inspired by some production errors in the latest edition of that title.

I was (pleasantly) surprised when visiting Neil Gaiman’s home last November that they were sending page proofs of The Absolute Sandman to Neil — to proof color, too, if I recall correctly. Nothing like that has ever, ever been asked of any of us connected to Swamp Thing. This shows where we sit in the DC/Vertigo universe pretty clearly — I’m just glad the generation after us (Neil, Grant, etc.) are afforded more caring and better treatment.

On the one hand, DC doesn’t consult Bissette or Totleben regarding reproductions of their work (despite the presence of multiple known problems with DC’s files, which the artists have offered to help correct). On the other hand, they not only run the new Sandman pages past Gaiman but also pay Todd Klein to completely re-letter Absolute Death, including 8 hours to design a totally new font for a single character. I have nothing but admiration for Todd (who’s done a bang-up job on our new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and bravo to him for convincing DC to let him make the project everything he always intended it to be. And I realize that Absolute Death is going to sell huge quantities and generate revenue that easily dwarfs the expense of Todd’s time. With the amount of money DC has made from Neil Gaiman books, they could well employ a full-time Gaiman Liason who stays in touch with Neil and makes sure he approves their every move (by my understanding, Scott Dunbier played something close to this role for Alan Moore for a while, though there was considerably less “approving” going on). Very few creators sell in those kind of numbers, and publishers unfortunately can’t afford to give everybody the full VIP treatment. But is not making your creators hate you really such an impossible task?

Oddly enough, Scott Nybakken seems to be the editor for both Absolute Sandman and the Swamp Thing hardcovers. Here’s him and Gaiman in 2006 calling for original art buyers who could help them reconstruct early Sandman pages. And the results were well worth it: Absolute Sandman is a revelation on par with the best film restorations, making Sandman (especially the Sam Kieth pages) a completely new, more beautiful book, thanks to Daniel Vozzo’s recoloring. The Kirby Fourth World restoration by Dave Tanguay and Drew R. Moore, edited by Anton Kawasaki, is flat-out incredible. When the budget and passion are there — even if the original creator is not — it’s clear that DC can produce outstanding editions. On Swamp Thing they seem to have had neither budget nor creator cooperation (though original series creator Len Wein contributes a helpful new introduction).

As a fan, I’m sorry to see that no recoloring has been done — Tatjana Wood made some great, bold choices, but many of them have become extremely dated, not to mention the color separations which were inaccurately placed to begin with:

swamp-thing-244(Note the sloppiness of the green along the bottom third of the page, the extra orange under Woodrue’s crotch, the arbitrary swaths of pastel painted across the detailed dead guys in the middleground, and the total washout of the background in screaming red. I guess Totleben’s inking style (with delicately inked shading and textures instead of bold Kirby outlines) simply didn’t lend itself to 1984’s color-separation techniques… By 1987 colorist Sam Parsons was making Totleben look gorgeous in Miracleman at Eclipse, I’m not sure by what process. And I confess I don’t remember the later Totleben/Wood Swamp Things from 1986; maybe they’re great?)

The linework beneath is stunning, from page one onward, but I’ve personally watched new readers pick up Swamp Thing and immediately put it down because “it looks bad.” If you’ve come straight from Fables and Y: The Last Man, exactly as Vertigo hopes you will, or if you saw the Watchmen film and have picked up another title from the same author and publisher, exactly as DC has paid money to suggest you do, you’ll have a really hard time getting over the hump of these colors. Again, I have seen it happen. Would the book sell better with a modern coloring job? Definitely. Enough to cover the expense of reconstruction? With the additional publicity, more enthusiastic endorsements, stronger word-of-mouth, and the possibility of paperback sales, quite possibly. While I’m at it, I also wish they hadn’t used this weird sticky semi-reflective ink/paper. Also, I want a pony.

More importantly, as a member of the industry, I’m even more frustrated that Moore, Bissette, and Totleben have become so estranged from their own work. It’s as though they were “grandfathered in” to the company with a certain level of respect written into their contracts, and while the industry has grown around them, DC is determined to keep them at that (low) level.

The Best Little Comics Scene in Australia

The irrepressible Jessica McLeod and Edward J Grug III (who have contributed a ton of great stories to Top Shelf 2.0) sent over the most amazing care package last week. Check this out!

Grug & Jess haul

One of the buttons (with the Bad Yeti on it) is missing because my girlfriend already nabbed it for herself! But otherwise, they say, this is everything they have in print! So go yell at them via Livejournal (Jess and Grug) and or possibly this online store URL make them sell you these amazing comics!

The fine wares include:
Bad Yeti by Jess
Yeti Party by Jess
A Big Fish in a Little Pond by David Garrett & Grug
The Bug That Inherited a Spooky Mansion and the Crazy Stuff That Happened in It!: A Choose Your Own Adventure Comic by Grug
Crushes Forever by Grug
Henry & Gil vs. the Infinity Engine #1 by Grant Watson & Grug
Henry & Gil vs. the Infinity Engine #2 by Grant Watson & Grug
The Indefatigable Miss Manners by Jess
Intrepid by Grug
Love Puppets #1 by Jess & Grug
Love Puppets #2 by Jess & Grug
Mungo Bean by Jess
Plague by Grug
Two-Fer: Osborn & Reynard / Mr. Churchill by Grug

Thanks, guys! You’re the best! And an easy lock for Most Adorable Soon-to-be-Married Comics Couple in Australia!

Art by Ainsley Seago

Have you ever been struck by lightning? It hurts.

My brother pointed out something today that I had never thought of but fully agree with.

We already had a fantastic film adaptation of Watchmen. It was called Magnolia.

Shadows in the fog: WATCHMEN

Like everyone else remotely connected with comics, I’ve been considering the Watchmen film all week. My reactions to it (in the aftermath of a Wednesday night advance screening, thanks to some very kind local connections) are kind of strewn around the internet, largely on my Twitter feed, but also commenting on posts by Sean Collins and Pádraig Ó Méalóid.

[Edited to add: for the sake of preservation, here are those comments:

  • leighwalton accepts that Zach Snyder probably made the best movie he could 1:18 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton do I just love movies less than most people? Guess I don’t see why a pretty-good WATCHMEN film is so fulfilling (aside from book sales bump) 11:42 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton for my personal take, I’m somewhere between Walter Chaw (http://is.gd/m3og) and Tasha Robinson (http://is.gd/m3oG) 11:54 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton “he would ejaculate only energy”: I’m not sure how to feel, seeing Roger Ebert encounter WATCHMEN for the first time http://is.gd/lVIJ 8:53 PM Mar 6th from web
  • leighwalton Ebert is working SO HARD to reconstruct the graphic novel from the movie – seriously, dude, it’s a $20 book. DC will send you a free copy. 9:03 PM Mar 6th from web
  • leighwalton Ebert:300 was empty. but WMEN, “maybe it’s the material, maybe it’s a growing discernment on Snyder’s part, but there’s substance here” ARGH 9:06 PM Mar 6th from web

reply to Pádraig:

Aside from some big-picture considerations (e.g. the tone wandered all over the place), I was frustrated by a lot of stilted line-readings. Oddly enough, a lot of the unconvincing lines were actually Moore’s — in WATCHMEN as in much of his writing, he often leans upon a line to carry double or triple meanings, so of course it’s going to sound unnatural if you take it “straight.”

It was most obvious to me during the Chapter III scenes — did the screenwriters really not understand why the TV man says “that’s certainly dark enough for my purposes”? Or that when Laurie says “shadows in the fog” she is hidden behind the steam from a teakettle? Without that double meaning, it’s an idiotic line (especially delivered by Malin Akerman, but let’s not go there). Snyder kept holding these long interpersonal scenes, which are not his forte — look, man, you’re an MTV-style director; make an MTV-style film! The book shows you how to do it! Cut rapidly between scenes, with lines bleeding over from one to the next! If you’re going to use the book as storyboard, friggin’ do it!

Your point about wasting time with the opening fight scene when so many important things were left out is right on. Why the hell was there so much emphasis on the Gunga Diner (and its Pink Floydian floating elephant blimp)? It’s a pun that Moore and Gibbons tossed off in a single panel, and it’s not even particularly relevant thematically. Meanwhile, where was the Gordian Knot Lock Company? Veidt’s decision makes less sense without the model of Alexander’s legend. Why include Bubastis at all? And why, in God’s name, change “I did it thirty-five minutes ago”?

It’s certainly a better film than most crews would have made. But I guess it’s just good enough to fall into the uncanny valley where we take its virtues for granted and see only its flaws.

Reply to Sean:

I thought it was cold when it needed to be flashy (no alternating jump-cuts between scenes? did they READ the book?) and flashy when it needed to be cold (fight in Blake’s penthouse, fight in Antarctica, bone-protrusions).]

The task of writing a full review of the film is daunting, and I’m afraid the perfect may be the enemy of the good in this case.

watchmen-1227-veidt

What it ultimately boils down to, where I’m sitting right now, is that Snyder et al adapted Watchmen more or less exactly as they would have adapted Kraven’s Last Hunt or Emerald Twilight or Secret Wars II. “Here’s a great comic book story, and we’ll bring it to life on the big screen.” But Watchmen is fundamentally unlike those other stories — there’s a reason Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo put it on their 100 Novels list (as you’ve heard ad nauseam), but declined to include Crisis on Infinite Earths. Spelling out what sets Watchmen apart could take a year, but broadly it’s 1) the self-conscious ambivalence of its thematic approach and 2) the Byzantine grandeur of its storytelling. Both are missing in Snyder’s film.

This is Watchmen without the irony and without the technique, which is still pretty fun, but it’s not the Watchmen that I read anymore.


Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.