Sunday, June 19, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Batman Begins… To Rock!

This column goes to print on my 27th birthday, although I actually write it at 2:01 AM, CST some four days earlier having just returned from the evening’s last showing of Batman Begins. The reason for this is so that I may write while the film is still fresh in my mind. And just so there’s no worries at the start, this entire review will be spoiler free.

I went into this movie with high hopes and only one expectation: it would be better than Batman and Robin. I will grant that this is a very low expectation but after Constantine and Catwoman you will forgive me for being on guard at yet another WB comic book adaptation. But all my early optimism proved to be justified. This is easily the best Batman movie EVER. Yes, that includes the Burton films and I expect to be thoroughly stoned by the goth community I am part of for that statement. Regardless, I would like to include a quick three-point bullet list for all Warner Brothers executives for future reference regarding the Superman movie, the Wonder Woman movie and the inevitable Batman sequel.

1. Have a Writer and Director Who Respect the Material

All the successful comic book adaptations, both in terms of financial and critical success, have had directors and writers who, if not fans of the original comics, at least respected the source material. By way of a comparison, Spider-Man 2 had Sam Raimi and Michael Chabon – fanboy since childhood and Pulitzer-Prize winning comic-book writer. This movie had Christopher Nolan and David Goyer – reportedly a fan and an actual honest-to-gawd comic book writer. Now compare this to Daredevil, which was reportedly dropped on the guy whose biggest project to that date was “Grumpy Old Men”, who was quoted as of saying that his biggest challenge was finding out how the character was different than Batman…

2. Get GOOD Actors, not famous ones.

This is not to suggest that you cannot have big name actors, which I know is very important to the executive types. Just remember that you should get GOOD big name actors. By way of another for instance, Batman Begins had a lot of good big name actors in supporting roles. Michael Caine. Gary Oldman. Morgan Freeman. Liam Bloody Neeson! And this made the movie all the richer because there was talent in all the right places. Compare this to Catwoman, Constantine or… well, anything that was created as a solo-piece for one big star even outside of comic book movies.

3. Take Your Time

You don’t need to throw $100 million dollars worth of special effects onto the screen right away. Take some time to introduce the characters and let us see who they are under the masks before throwing them into action. Batman Begins opened with a leisurely introduction that showed us the entire life of Bruce Wayne. I didn’t glance at my watch, but we had to have been at least an hour in before Batman showed up. And I didn’t care. Because the story was interesting without the need for flashy entrances, big explosions and a dramatic car chase at the very start.

As for the movie itself, I shall say very little save that the stigma surrounding the DC Comics superhero movie has been removed. The direction is superb and the story magnificent. The design is amazing, with Gotham City coming off as the missing link between modern day Manhattan and the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. And with one glaring exception (Katie Holmes, who looks like she should be getting ready for junior prom rather than working for the DA’s office), the acting is top notch.

I imagine that some fanboys will be outraged that some changes have been made from the core Batman story. How Lucius Fox never worked for R&D during his time with Wayne Enterprises or how Jonathan Crane never worked at Arkham Asylum. Then again, perhaps they will be too busy admiring how the script for the movie seems to draw off some of the best moments of the last 20 years of Batman history. Elements of the story seem to have been drawn from Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, The Long Halloween, Knightfall, No Man’s Land, and Legacy.

Let them grouse. For the rest of the common movie goers, this movie will be a welcome treat this summer. And for us fans who can tolerate a little bit of change (or persuade ourselves to call this an Elseworlds) this will exist as proof positive that there’s at least one group of people in Hollywood who know what they are doing.

Tune in next time. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Looking To The Stars: It Keeps You Reading...

With all the talk in this past week’s The Roundtable filling my mailbox as I’m trying to focus on constructing a website devoted to graphic novels for children, I found myself thinking a lot about the books I don’t enjoy. And saying more than I intended about the writers whose works I don’t enjoy.

It is easy, working in a comic shop, to develop a negative attitude towards the hobby itself. Constant exposure to whinny fanboys, speculators, Marvel Zombies and the DC equivalent that I’ve never heard a corresponding nickname for and all the Comic Book Guys everywhere – it can really make you question why you bother with the hobby at all.

That is why, in an effort to put a little more good will and positive thought out there, I put forth this list of twelve writers who keep me reading comics whenever I think about quitting.

1. Neil Gaiman

While this list is in no particular order, Neil would probably be at the top if I had any desire to organize the writers I like by “first favorite” and “second favorites” like a schoolgirl organizing her crushes. Simply put, I have yet to read anything bad this man has written which is more than I can say for most other comic writers. I do not believe it is possible for Neil Gaiman to write a bad story. That is the best compliment I can pay, I think.

2. James Robinson

While he hasn’t written a comic in a while, his influence is still felt throughout DC Comics. His Starman was the first book to spark a movement among DC Comics writers to take the long-neglected and ignored parts of the worlds’ oldest comic company’s universe and try and breathe some life back into them. At a time when DC was content to let the Justice Society die out, Robinson kept their legacy alive with his Golden Age mini-series and the many Times Past comics of Starman.

3. Geoff Johns

If Robinson is Socrates, then Johns is Plato- the philosopher who built upon the works of an earlier master to achieve even greater acclaim. Johns is pretty much THE Man at DC Comics today and it is well-deserved. A fan who made good, Johns is almost single-handedly responsible for correcting the biggest continuity snafus of the past ten years, with his work on countless titles. What is all the more amazing is his gift for characterization and telling the history of the comics he loves without boring the reader with statistics as some writers do.

4. Dan Slott

Marvel needs to give this man a lot more work. His Spider-Man/Human Torch mini-series has been the best limited series this year by sure virtue of the fact that he did something that only Mark Waid and Paul Jenkins had managed in recent years- he made a fun Marvel comic. Not just funny, but fun. Slott is a man who knows his fun and packs more into everything he writes before 9 am than most writers manage all year.

5. R.K. Milholland

Some may blanch at me including a web-comic writer/artist in with all these professional writers. But make no mistake; the author of such on-line comics as Something Positive, New Gold Dreams and the brand new Midnight Macabre is very much a professional by any standard. Not only are his comics the funniest thing on the Internet, but they are delivered on-time at the same high level of quality on a regular basis. What is more, he managed without even trying seriously to become a fully-paid artist following a half-hearted pledge drive made in response to complaints about misspelling and late comics. He told his readers that if they thought it was that important, that they could donate money so he wouldn’t have to work so many hours and that if they matched his salary for one year, he would quit his job. The fans put up, and Milholland has been living the dream of many an amateur since.

6. Mark Waid

The one writer who can get me to try any book, no matter what, simply because of the way he always puts a spin on it. The man who has done the impossible twice this year; he got me to read a Legion book and he made the free City of Heroes comic readable.

7. Mike Grell

I’ve been a fan since reading Green Arrow: The Wonder Year after retrieving the series from the dollar bin of my first comic shop in Victoria, Texas. He was by far the best writer ever to tackle Oliver Queen and one of the best writers to every work in comics period. With a new regular John Sable: Freelance series out from IDW and the original series slowly coming out in TP format after a relative eternity, I am as happy as a pig in mud. You will be too if you give Mr. Grell’s work, old or new, a chance.

8. Stan Lee

I know it’s a cliche, but if you ever find yourself hating comics- not modern comics, but just comics in general, pull up a collection of old Stan Lee. Fantastic Four or Spider-Man – pick your own poison. It’ll cheer you like nothing else.

9. Gail Simone

If Sting hadn’t already written Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic some two decades ago, comic fans might have to write that song about Gail Simone and her work. I’ve gushed over Gail enough in the past, so rather than tell about my own experiences, I will tell the story of my friend Scott. Scott is one of a dying breed- an old school fanboy who still hasn’t forgiven DC from depowering Superman after the original Crisis. Scott has had few kind words for anyone who has written Superman since 1985 and he holds an especially deep loathing for John Byrne. Imagine my surprise then when, upon my recommendation, Scott picked up the latest Action Comics with John Byrne’s name on it (though just doing artwork) and declared that it was actually good.

10. Mike Carey

From Lucifer to Red Sonja, from Spellbinders to Hellblazer, Mike Carey is perhaps the most versatile writer working in comics today. He has proven capable of writing every genre there is, from sword-and-sorcery to modern magic and mythology. He’s also handled urban drama (in his Ultimate Elektra series) as well as, this week, old-fashioned superheroics with Ultimate Fantastic Four.

11. Kurt Busiek

If I’m going to mention the co-writer of Red Sonja, I have to mention the man who writes the best Conan since Robert Howard himself. His superhero work is not that bad, either. And by not that bad, I mean superb.

12. Brian K. Vaughan

Last, and definitely not least… well, if you aren’t reading Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina or Ultimate X-Men by now, anything complementary I have to say will probably not drag you out from under the rock you live under.

Tune in next time. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.