Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 8-9

So I suppose it’s inevitable I’ll just dwell on the same topics.  There’s only so much to be said about Batman & Robin the film, and like how Michael Jan Friedman must have struggled with stretching the movie’s sparse plot out into a book, it’s tricky to not return to some of the same ground in writing this book up.

That said, yeah, even though Michael Jan Friedman is a good writer, this book does more to show why Batman & Robin is an even worse interpretation of the Batman mythos than Batdude and Throbin.

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For instance, there’s more clumsy juggling of “Mr. Freeze the tragic villain” with “Mr. Freeze the punster.”

Fries and his wife were playing with a puppy in a field somewhere.  Upstate New York, he thought – or was it New Hampshire?  It was the height of summer, judging by the brightness of the light and the cut of their clothes.  What was the dog’s name again?  He thought for a moment.  Sunshine?  Sunspot?  Something like that.  It was getting harder and harder for Freeze to remember such things.

Notice the subtle differentiation between “Fries” and “Freeze”?  As if Mr. Freeze no longer even sees himself as the normal human being he used to be?  That’s a legitimately good character moment, but it’s all followed by…

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” said Frosty, “but I got something here you might want to see.”  He held out a newspaper clipping.  Without a word, Freeze lifted his gun and fired.  In a flash, Frosty had frozen solid, still grasping the clipping.  “I hate it when people talk during the movie,” he muttered.

I’m not saying you can’t have actual characterization, much less the occasional poignant moment, alongside old-school camp.  Look at “Batman: The Brave and The Bold” series, which embraced Batman’s goofy Silver Age post but still had effective, genuinely moving moments like the members of the Doom Patrol, who had become cynical and washed-up superheroes, choosing to sacrifice their own lives to save a group of strangers.  Like a lot of good writing, it’s a delicate balancing act, one that’s completely overturned with a barrage of crappy puns coming from an interpretation of a villain the audience is supposed to feel sorry for.  Imagine if Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past went around telling Xavier, “Well, that’s why we’re…polar opposites.

But lets move on before I churn out a whole treatise about this.  Mr. Freeze is planning to steal a diamond being exhibited at some charity gala that will be hosted by Bruce Wayne, but of course the whole thing is a trap.  By a cosmic coincidence, the gala has a botanical theme, and it’s where Poison Ivy chooses to make her true debut, appearing on stage like in the movie à la Marlene Dietrich coming out of the gorilla costume in Blonde Venus. 

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Naturally right away her pheromone magic works on Bruce Wayne and every other dude in attendance.

“Hi there,” said the woman, lifting the man’s chin with a slender forefinger. She winked at him. “And, er, you are…?” he sputtered. “Poison,” she said, smiling. “Poison Ivy.” Poison Ivy, Batman thought, trying to focus on her features. But it wasn’t easy. He left like a man who had drunk a quart of love passion.

Poison Ivy appears as one of the flower-themed girls up for auction. This might be a chance to make some commentary about objectification and Poison Ivy’s rage against men like Prof. Woodrue, but…no, it’s all about Batman and Robin already starting to fight over Ivy by trying to outbid each other, even though it basically means that Bruce Wayne is trying to outbid Bruce Wayne. We don’t really know why Ivy is bothering with all this, aside from the fact that the script wanted her to be there to meet Mr. Freeze. Again, I have to wonder how strictly Michael Jan Friedman was required to stick to the script.

Oh, and I neglected so far to mention one of the most important characters in Batman & Robin.

Then, out of nowhere, Gossip Gerty made a face and asked, “Is it getting nippy in here?”

Does Gossip Gerty get more screentime than Commissioner Gordon in the movie?  Let’s just assume, yes, yes she does.

Anyway, Mr. Freeze crashes the gala and confiscates the diamond from Poison Ivy, who falls in love at first sight.  The feeling is not mutual for Mr. Freeze, who turns out to be completely immune to her pheromones.

“Let me guess,” he said haughtily, dispassionately. “Plant Girl? Vine Lady? Miss Moss?”

I have to admit again, I actually liked that bit…although like with Bane getting drafted as Poison Ivy’s muscle it does hint toward the script’s odd refusal to let Poison Ivy be much of a real villain in her own right, as opposed to the super-serious menace of this movie’s Mr. Freeze.

Mr. Freeze also leaves Poison Ivy with a snowglobe.  Inside is a miniature Gotham with the words “Welcome to Gotham City.”   No, I can’t imagine a more fitting way to welcome a newcomer to Gotham City than by having their super-criminals leave souvenirs to their victims.

Regardless of what I think about the tendency of most of the Burton and the Nolan movies to have at least pairs of supervilllains, teaming up Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy does make more sense than putting together Man-Bat and the Mad Hatter, or Harley Quinn and the Scarecrow (which actually was the plan for the unmade Batman Triumphant). They’re both from the minority of genuinely superpowered members of Batman’s rogues gallery, and as the book itself points out they’re both “elemental.” Plus thematically putting the villain who symbolizes lust and passion with a villain who is a mournful, tragic figure yet believes himself to be dead to emotion does generate some creative currency. I’m iffier on the idea of making Poison Ivy an obsessed fan of a supervillain; shoving her into a spot that better fits Harley Quinn, in other words. i mean, from the very beginning, even though Poison Ivy’s origin has seen a lot of changes, she’s generally been about being a woman who has been hurt by men or a male-dominated society and using sex appeal to force her own way. But I can still see a romantic obsession based on admiration of another’s ruthlessness and inhumanity working, you know, or at least working if this wasn’t Batman & Robin.

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Enough of that, though, as Batman and Robin pursue Mr. Freeze we get the real relationship that drives the story:  the partnership of Batman and Robin, or rather Batman having to put up with Robin’s perpetual motion machine of whining:

“You know,” Dick went on, “in the circus, the Flying Graysons were a team. We had to depend on each other. Each of us had to trust the others to do their parts or we were finished. That’s what whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa the only way to win is by counting on someone else.”

I may have taken some liberties with the text there, but you get the gist.

At least we are left with this,

Bruce smiled tautly. “Be reasonable. You couldn’t even keep your mind on the job at hand. All you could think about was Poison Ivy.” Dick exploded – at least partly…

Hehehehehehehehehehe.  Oh come on, like you don’t think that’s intentional.

Well, we can’t possibly follow that up, so let’s breeze…or should I say, freeze through the rest: Mr. Freeze gets captured and sent to Arkham Asylum, while Barbara shows us that she’s even more of a Strong Independent Woman (TM).  We learn she knows judo and can handle a motorcycle, so it’s totally not out of the blue that she can be an effective vigilante fighting against superpowered lunatics!

Oh well, at least Michael Jan Friedman got away with not having to mention the Bat Credit Card.

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Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Reviews: The Sandman: Overture #1

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DC Comics has been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, with prequels for Watchmen and now a new prequel for The Sandman. Luckily, unlike the Watchmen prequels, The Sandman: Overture is being written by the original creator, Neil Gaiman, himself.  Also, while it’s possible that the main reason this is coming out now about twenty years (God that’s depressing) after The Sandman concluded is that Neil Gaiman got a call from an editor, Gaiman has been discussing a possible prequel in interviews as early as the ’90s.  From what I understand, the two possibilities being openly mentioned were a series about how Delight of the Endless became Delirium or a story explaining why an occultist was able to imprison a virtually omnipotent being like Dream in the first place, the event that began the Sandman saga.  This series, much to the disappointment of some fans I’m sure, is about the latter (but, who knows, maybe some clues about the former will show up as well)…

It’s 1915, and Dream of the Endless is diligently (and ruthlessly) attending to some of his responsibilities as the personification of the act of dreaming.  Suddenly he does what would normally be unthinkable:  stopping in the middle of carrying out in the task.  Something is calling him, a summons so powerful that even a fundamental force of sentient existence can only barely delay answering it.  Longtime readers might assume it’s all because of a quasi-crackpot, quasi-sorcerer in London, but the answer is something a bit more cosmic…

Part of the problem with prequels is their preoccupation with filling in the gaps that only diehard fans really focused on  It’s too soon to tell if The Sandman: Overture will fall into that trap too, but I will admit I was concerned when I heard that the impetus of the prequel is to explain how Roderick Burgess was able to capture Dream in The Sandman #1.  However, it’s clear that this is a story Gaiman wants to tell, and if the main motive is to elaborate on some backstory this issue also ends with Gaiman potentially explaining one aspect of the Endless’s existence that readers of The Sandman have tended to ponder, which I can’t contemplate myself in this space without giving a lot away already.

The art by J.H. Williams III is, of course, gorgeous, whether it’s painting an alien world populated by sentient plant life or a dream of a dreary London office.  As for Gaiman’s script, for this long-time fan of The Sandman it hits all the right notes.  Skeptical readers might worry if the series will succumb to another dreaded problem with prequels, cameo-itis, but while there are a lot of familiar faces even in the first issue all of them carry on the plot.  Still, I hope we will get to see some new characters to add to the already rich Sandman mythos.

As with all reviews of just the first issue of a comic series, this is basically just the review of the first chapter of a novel or the first fifteen minutes or so of a movie.  Nonetheless, I just wanted to add my own little voice to the deluge of promotions for this, especially for those who might be reluctant because of certain well-publicized and infamous…missteps that the management at DC have made recently.  All that aside, despite some recent successes like American Vampire, the Vertigo line, which I have a great deal of fondness for since it played a huge role in teaching me that the medium can do so much more than just superheroes, has been floundering.  Here’s hoping that, much like how The Sandman helped make Vertigo what it was back in the day, The Sandman: Overture can revitalize the line.

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Comics, Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Chaos! Comics Did A 9/11 Tribute Comic

My dear readers, I have failed you.

When I first (literally) stumbled across the fact that Chaos! Comics did a 9/11 tribute comic, I was thrilled, like a conquistador who accidentally discovered El Dorado.  But my initial excitement did not account for the fact that, well, riffing on a 9/11 tribute comic would be…difficult.  And that’s despite the fact that the cover itself pushes the laws of female human anatomy to the limits.

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Don’t get me wrong; it is amazing that this exists, although maybe not for the reasons you might assume.  Perhaps the first thing that will strike comics fans is that it’s actually written by Brian Augustyn of The Flash fame, who did a lot of work for Chaos! Comics in its last years.  The second thing is that this isn’t Chaos! in its wild, gory glory.  This is well after the flagship characters of Lady Death and Chastity have been toned down and made less…well, sociopath-y.  Lady Death isn’t even at this moment in continuity her normal white-skinned, ruling-Hell self, but was at the time a sword-wielding vigilante on the streets of New York (it’s…a long story, naturally).

Still, it’s not enough to riff on, despite my initial excitement.  Really, no matter who publishes it, 9/11 tributes – or tributes to any recent tragedy – are snark-proof.

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Its snark-immunity does not just derive from the fact that I’m an American and this is about the 9/11 attacks, although I have to admit that’s part of it.  No, it’s also that there really isn’t much to say, because frankly it takes conscious effort to botch these things.  Things like this are propaganda in the not-that-bad, pre-Goebbels sense, and as such there’s a definite, fairly simple way of doing them.  That’s not to say that they’re easy to write, per se, just that there’s a formula that’s carved in stone, and even more so than what you might expect in some genre fiction.  Start with some everyday characters right at the center of the tragedy, stir in some moral observations but do not under any circumstances make any references to politics, and show the main protagonists pitching in to help survivors without bringing in the baggage of their own personal stories, and voila, you have a tribute to a contemporary tragedy.

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Just as it’s very hard to screw up such a tribute, it’s also extremely difficult to make these types of stories great.  This is mostly for the same basic reason.  Genuinely the only way to make a 9/11 tribute really memorable for good or bad reasons is to break with the formula and bring in something that has the potential to offend a lot of people.  That’s not what Chaos! Comics’ Unity does, in spite of its publisher’s reputation.

I guess if you just automatically object to having characters like Bad Kitty running around the site of a national tragedy, you might find it offensive, but honestly is it really worse than having Spider-Man or Green Lantern at the site of 9/11?  Especially because here Bad Kitty, as well as Lady Death and Chastity, are portrayed as heroically as they are?  We exist in a pop culture-saturated world, and if you think there’s something wrong about having comic book superheroes meditate on the collapse of the twin towers, well, the argument was made and lost decades ago the second Donald Duck showed Americans what working for the Nazis was like.

Honestly, if you can get past the fact that both Chastity and Lady Death show up to 9/11 in respectable catsuits, the whole affair is (perhaps disappointingly) tasteful and even fairly well done in some respects.  Sure, like with most straightforward propaganda there’s plenty of cheese to be had, like Lady Death assuring the reader that the terrorists are in Hell while the victims are all in paradise, as well as this…

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…but there are a couple of nice touches as well.  The “ordinary person” character, an eastern European immigrant who wants to try to find her husband who was in one of the Towers for a job interview, isn’t overshadowed by the chestier heroines.  Also there’s a scene where a Sikh taxi driver tries to offer his help and ends up being attacked (and rescued by Lady Death, of course). Yes, it’s pretty – to quote TV Tropes – “anvilicious”, but it is an important point to make, especially considering the real life attacks on Sikhs and Muslims following the attacks. All in all, the comic really isn’t that bad for what it is, and on the whole isn’t much worse (or really better) than the Marvel and DC tributes.

For me at least, to get at the whole reason this comic is so noteworthy and strange is you’d have to know a little about Chaos!’s history.  See, in 1999 Chaos! rebooted its own continuity through a story called “Armageddon”, although essentially most of the characters retained their own personal histories and memories.  The reboot coincided with Lady Death becoming more of a traditional (if still hard-edged) heroine, so we get a Lady Death who empathizes with the lives lost and even holds up an American flag while giving an inspirational monologue.

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Although the world has been rebooted, she is for all intents and purposes the same character who turned a child abuse victim into an undead serial killer, Evil Ernie, and sent him on a mission to wipe out the entire human race.  In one Evil Ernie story, back way before the “gentler and softer” Chaos! Comics, this is what happens to New York:

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That’s just before we learn that for half a year Evil Ernie has been single-handedly killing everyone in Manhattan who survived the satellite he sent crashing into the city.  Oh, and he’s the protagonist of his series.  Old school Chaos! did not screw around.  And, of course, Lady Death is all but directly responsible.  That’s why I was more than a little amused to see this comic, although I guess it would have been much worse if we’d seen Ernie and his zombie friends rescue 9/11 survivors.

Still, if you’re a scholar of Chaos! Comics like I am, it’s the weirdness of Doctor Doom and Magneto rescuing 9/11 survivors in Marvel’s own 9/11 tribute, but times at least 7,500.

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