Thursday, July 31, 2008

Yup, I was right. No way.

So I just now found out that I am NOT actually going to be joining the Chicago choir for Bang Camaro at Lollapalooza.

I'm not that bummed about it, cuz I don't think I really believed it was ever happening. Ah well, there's always the next Chicago show.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dude. No way.

Remember that post about Bang Camaro earlier in the week?

When I made that post, I wasn't sure this was happening. In fact I was pretty sure it wasn't, because, what the hell?! But now I am pretty sure it is.

I am going to be performing at Lollapalooza this week, on stage with Bang Camaro!

Friday, 11:30 AM, MySpace stage.

I say again... what the hell?! Is this really happening? I half-expect to show up to sound check and the band will be like "oh, not YOU." But as the days go by that looks less and less likely.

From what I've been told... I get a VIP pass for Friday. That means I go backstage, at least on the MySpace stage. Which, by the way, Bang Camaro is sharing on Friday with with Rogue Wave, the Kills, Mates of State, and Steven Malkmus & the Jicks... an impressive line-up of indie rock to be sure (these are all bands, by the way, my college radio station played when I DJed there. Except Bang Camaro. I wonder if they have jumped on the Camaro bandwagon yet). I'm not sticking around at Lolla the whole day (not long enough, for instance, to see if I can get backstage at Radiohead) but I will certainly be there long enough to at least meet Rogue Wave, which is a band my brief exposure to has made me pretty sure I like.

I'm just so elated about all this... geez.

And in case you're wondering, this post does have a point or two. I swear. Point one is that I'll be able to have something of a Lolla report from the inside (let's call it "inside-ish"), and that's fun. I'll try to get pictures and document stuff like I did on my last couple road trips. Point two is fuck you, this is my blog and I'll write about what I want to.

But no, seriously. In a way, I want this blog to be a document of my life and thoughts at the time of writing, and so it is that I can't go without covering this. Sorry guys. I'll get back to criticizing comics next week, I swear. For now... let's ride this.

(But, I mean, what's the deal with Black Panther, anyway? Am I right?!)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Freakazoid came out on DVD for the first time today

and I think the world is a better place for it.

For those of you who don't remember Freakazoid, it was an animated show brought to us by Steven Spielberg in the mid-90s, following The Berg's (that's his hip, abbreviated name... didn't you know?) hit cartoons Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs. But it was also bred out of the sensibilities of the WB's other hit cartoon, the one I talked about ad naseum a few weeks ago... the one starring this guy...

Who is that handsome devil, anyway?

... At any rate, Freakazoid was a show that was part comedy, part superhero, and was even originally being developed by Batman's Bruce Timm and Paul Dini (according to the features on the DVD, they left the show when it took its more comedic bend, and the character of the Creeper we see in one of the later-day B:TAS episodes resembles what their Freakazoid would have been like). And the interesting thing about Freakazoid, the thing that made me hunger for purchasing the DVD today, is that it is really funny. Like, still. Especially for those of us who grew up on a steady diet of Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Batman.

I don't really want to go into a huge dissection of Freakazoid's humor, mostly because I'm no expert on comedy, but also because the show is just, to use a word I kind of hate, completely random. The senior story editor says it best on the DVD featurette: there was no formula Freakazoid episode. Every episode was different, and anything could happen from one to another, from fighting cultured cavemen complete with a New Englander's snooty drawl at a school dance, to our hero wondering at a gummi museum with Ed Asner's cop character Cosgrove, to an argument with Wakko Warner and the Brain on whose show Spielberg likes best. But don't take my word for it...

The point is that this show's humor could come from anywhere. Some of is it silly and slapsticky, other bits play off having a fair understanding of the workings of fiction, while other aspects still rely on non-sequitur lines and characters (this is, I think, my favorite part of the show, and Ed Asner's Cosgrove embodies it). It all adds up to a really satisfying, surprisingly funny watch... I daresay that episodes of Freakazoid could live alongside middle-year Simpsons and The Critic in pretty good harmony. It may not reach the heights of those shows, but seriously... it is really good.

Hooray for DVDs!

Monday, July 28, 2008

It is really weird to find a video of yourself on YouTube

but kind of cool, too.

I don't know why I didn't think to search for this before, but last night I got the urge to see if anyone had put up video from the couple of Bang Camaro shows I'd performed in, and I did indeed find a capture of one song, from the June 5th Milwaukee show. You can hardly see me in the video... I'm on the far left in a Masters of the Universe t-shirt (which got a lot of compliments that night), and you definitely can't hear me, but it's still cool. Plus I'm pretty sure you can hear my friend Laura hoot when the lead dude says something about "the guys who came up to rock with us on stage."

Though generally I am against using blogging as a form of self-aggrandizement, I am pretty proud of having done this with such an awesome band as Bang Camaro, and besides... they may be popping back in my life later this week...

(what does he mean?!)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I'm not really a "manly" kind of guy

believe it or not. I'm not fascinated by cars. I don't drink any beer labeled with the words "Bud," "Miller," or "Coors" (well, okay... maybe Miller... if there's nothing else to drink and I really want a beer). I'm not fascinated by shooting and/or killing things. I'm not threatened by intellectual women... I think. But there is one thing I do that is totally part of the macho, manly world of man-ness. I play fantasy football.

It all happened very slowly, you see. A couple years ago was my first season with the Chicago Bears (watching them, not... you know). I started being a loyal viewer because a local bar offered a free halftime buffet during their games, and a couple of my friends invited me to go early on in the season. Well, who am I to say no to a free buffet? Needless to say, this became a near-weekly tradition. Then a year later, my friend Mark sprung a trap on me. "You watched football last year, so now you're ready for fantasy" was something like what he said (I am going to dramatize this conversation to make it seem cooler, and to make up for gaps in memory). "I don't know," was my response. "I hardly know anything, except that I like the Bears." "It's easy," he replied, "and we're just playing in an auto-draft league, so you can learn stuff as you go along." I didn't even know what "auto-draft league" meant in those days. Ah, to be young again.

I think at first I said yes just to do something fun with my friends, at Mark's insistence that it would indeed be fun. But then...

Then I started getting really into the game. I learned a little about the positions, the points, the players. And I started to win. Well, okay... the first week I lost TERRIBLY. Like, got clobbered. But THEN I started to win. The more I won, the more interested I got, and it helped that a few of the ten people in the league were equally in to it, because this pushed me to constantly check my roster and research my players to end up with, hopefully, the best possible starting team come Sunday afternoon. I ended up winning the season, though technically the final game tied between me and my friend Steve, so we had to have an unofficial playoff in which I slaughtered him.

But WHY do I find fantasy football interesting, when almost no other sports fascinate me? I mean, I'm not trying to say I think sports are boring... I'm just not a sports kind of guy. I can enjoy an occasional game of baseball, basketball I just don't find that fun, and hockey is awesome but I know dick about it. So why does football, fantasy football, intrigue me so?

I'll tell you why. No, I'll show you.

It's because I've been playing these things for years and years.

I love role-playing games. My favorites are the ones that are turned-based strategy where you move guys of different classes and abilities around a map and try to vanquish your opponents, like the above-pictured Final Fantasy Tactics. I cannot tell you how many hours I've spent playing this game. I think I've been through it three times in total, which may be a record for video games I own (at least ones more complex than Super Mario Brothers 1). It's ridiculously fun and engaging, for me in no small part because of the necessity of figuring out how character classes and abilities best compliment each other to make, if I may say so, the "winning team."

Obviously trying to figure out what weapons best compliment your resident Chemist or if you should upgrade him to a White Mage for better healing abilities is not exactly the same as deciding whether or not to sit a risky Quarterback when he's got home field advantage against an easy team but a string of off weeks behind him. But the parts of your brain engaged in making these decisions are, I think, the same. What's also the same is that thinking up strategy for these games will take over your life. You will sit at a computer and read up on tips, thinking about whether or not to risk losing your level 34 Archer with awesome equipment in a battle against an evil demon lord, or whether or not it's worth it to drop a great kicker on bye week because you don't have any other free slots and you need to pick someone up for a couple points. And in the end, I think that's what keeps me interested in these types of games... the fact that you have to think about it a lot, and that if you think about it the right way, and have some luck, you can triumph over evil (your friends) and win back the magic of the kingdom (bragging rights).

above: Drew Brees debates whether to throw downfield to Andre Johnson, or to cast Firaga on Morgana the Terrible.

And so I've gone from last year playing in a 10-team auto-draft league to this year gearing up for a 16-team, make-your-own-damn-squad slugfest. I'm really pumped, and I've started my research on who should fill what positions (bummer: no Bears are projected to be any good at anything). So, for the next few months, I will be the proud manager of the Vancouver Roughriders. And if you're wondering why I picked that name...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Oh wow.

This is, I feel, the most appropriate response to The Dark Knight. It's how I felt Friday at about 2:30 AM, and it's how I feel now.

This was an intense movie. There were a couple times when I forgot I was watching some constructed piece of art because I was so caught up in what was going on on-screen... and that hardly ever happens to me anymore. The movie was excellently written, acted, and directed... I think it may be flawless. It's easily the best comic-book movie of the year, maybe the best comic-book movie of all time, and maybe the best movie of the year period.

Obviously the big story here is the Joker. I will always love Mark Hamill, but Heath Ledger has just taken the title of the Joker. There has never been a better portrayal of the character, ever. Like, not even in the comics. This is a rare case where a comic-book adaptation has surpassed its source material... the best us fans can usually hope for when movies tinker is a lateral move that keeps the quality roughly the same while changing some of the details, such as V for Vendetta's updating of the book's Reagan/Thatcher politics for a Bush/Blair era. Usually, though, it seems comic fans are up for disappointment, as "updates" to a character are almost never good... movies tend to dumb things down, simplify them, and in the process remove most things that are special about a character (see: anything at all about Spider-Man 3). But what the Nolans have done here is more than an update... they have defined the Joker, case closed.

And what I love about their Joker is that he takes bits and pieces of most of the key Joker stories from comics. From Killing Joke, we get a Joker bent on showing Batman that all it takes is a little nudge to make a man go insane, and we also get the (excellent!) idea of Joker's ever-changing backstory. From Arkham Asylum we get hints that the Joker is not insane but supersane (of note: his speech to Batman in the prison that he's "a little bit ahead of the curve" when it comes to living in the modern world... this would make Grant Morrison proud). From lots of stories but primarily, I believe, Batman #1, we get the televised threats that people will die each night if Joker doesn't get what he wants, and the byzantine plans to accomplish this.

But while Dark Knight incorporates pieces of all of these, they're so subtle and well-woven into the texture of the film that one hardly notices, and thus the movie avoids re-telling any story we've seen before. Instead, it takes the best facets Joker's character has previously had to offer, combines them all into one, and then makes things better.

Joker is funny. He's sadistic. He's confused. He's genius. He's the most dangerous man in Gotham, and he's a puppy waiting to get put in its place. He's a schemer and a victim, he's right and he's wrong, he's supernatural and he's incredibly human. He's the ultimate villain for Batman but maybe he's also, kind of, a hero.

And of course, Joker is played amazingly by Heath Ledger. I can honestly say that, when he died a few months ago, I felt nothing. I had only seen a couple Ledger movies, and while 10 Things I Hate About You is a funny flick, I never had any emotional investment in him or his characters. But by the Joker's second scene in this movie, I missed him. It is a real shame that we will never see Heath portray the Joker, or any other character, again.

Finally, as a film, Dark Knight gives me hope. Sometimes I think my standards for movies are too high, because I end up really liking very few of the films I see. I find many films too obvious, too cheesy, too easy on their viewers. And yet... here is a movie that is subtle, that never says what it means, that throws up conflicting messages left and right. It makes you work for meaning. And yet, it manages to provide a feast for the eyes and the heart that would make Jerry Bruckheimer jealous. I kind of think that's what all movies should do.

Last year, I saw Transformers probably five or six times in the theater. The last time I can remember doing that was when The Lion King came out. I was so young then that I can't honestly remember how many times I saw it, but I'm willing to bet it was about the same. I think that, by the time this summer's over, a third movie will rival those numbers.

Rating: * * * * *

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I'll leave you with one more Batman item before we all see Dark Knight

and it is a clip from the animated series. It may have been a mistake on my part to leave out the two-part "Feat of Clay" from my list of the top animated episodes (as I said, the race for top 5 or even top 10 is tough) but I think that the scene below, from "Feat of Clay" part two, may be my favorite among all the episodes of Batman: TAS, possibly my favorite in all of the Timm-verse, and it definitely holds its own against any other animation I've ever seen.

It's stuff like this that makes us all love Batman.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

We're probably all going to be spending a lot of time waiting in line this weekend

and the horrible realization of just how much of my life will be slipping away waiting to see a movie I already have tickets for... twice... got me thinking about the etiquette of cutting in line, especially in the instance that you have a group of friends way up ahead in the line and you want to get a piece of that sweet action.

No, wait. I don't want to talk about the etiquette of cutting in line. That's far too pedestrian. No, my friends, I'm here to bring you the philosophy of cutting in line.

(Putting it in bold makes it authoritative).

And so it is that I, a humble undergraduate of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign with a double-major in philosophy and English, would like to propose this, the Law of Line- Cutting (see?). I believe this law to be complete, meaning that there are no circumstances that it does not cover; however, if time proves this wrong, I shall come back and append the law as needs dictate.

Here is the law:

One may only cut in a line if one has associates already planted at some place in the line, and these associates welcome the cutting. The number of total allowable cutters per group of friends may not exceed the number of friends who originally staked that position in line, and this number does not change based on newcomers--it is always determined by the original number in the group. For instance, if three friends get to a movie early and wait in line, then no more than three of their friends can ever join them at that point in the line.

Think of it like a restaurant refusing to seat a group until a certain portion of the entire party is present, and then it will make sense (except instead of refusing we're allowing, see?). I think this rule works because it prevents total dickery (one guy waiting in line will not end up letting in 20) but also allows for those tricky and frustrating circumstances that pop up in day-to-day life like car trouble, a late start, or not wanting to wait for hours on end to see a movie I already have tickets for.

Obviously as this is a new law, many will be ignorant of it, and thus may deny its application. Certain people (the "cool") will, upon hearing the law explained, be totally alright with it, and maybe spread the gospel of the cutting law to their friends and loved ones. Other people (the "lame") will rigidly insists that no one cuts, ever, and to them I say "chill out, broseph." Thus spake Ericthustra.

Monday, July 14, 2008

I almost cried

when I saw the just-announced list of songs for Rock Band 2.

I am obsessed with Rock Band. I admit it. It is my number one leisure activity (especially as comics and rock-n-roll are semi-work). Rock Band is the one thing I do that is all fun. And I eat it up. I can play for hours a day. I am seriously going to take off work the day Rock Band 2 comes out just so I can play through the 80-some new songs in one day, because I won't be able to go to bed happy until I've played everything new.

I have posts in mind about why Rock Band is great, why it's silly that people say "I don't need to play Rock Band, because I'm in a real one" or something like that. Let's just assume that's dumb for now and bask in the glory of these new songs:

1. AC/DC “Let There Be Rock” 1970s
2. AFI “Girl’s Gone Grey” 2000’s
3. Alanis Morissette “You Oughta Know” 1990’s
4. Alice in Chains “Man in the Box” 1990’s
5. Allman Brothers “Ramblin’ Man” 1970’s
6. Avenged Sevenfold “Almost Easy” 2000’s
7. Bad Company “Shooting Star” 1970’s
8. Beastie Boys “So Whatcha Want” 1990’s
9. Beck “E-Pro” 2000’s
10. Bikini Kill “Rebel Girl” 1990’s
11. Billy Idol “White Wedding Pt. I” 1980’s
12. Blondie “One Way or Another” 1970’s
13. Bob Dylan “Tangled Up in Blue” 1970’s
14. Bon Jovi “Livin’ on a Prayer” 1980’s
15. Cheap Trick “Hello There” 1970’s
16. Devo “Uncontrollable Urge” 1980’s
17. Dinosaur Jr. “Feel the Pain” 1990’s
18. Disturbed “Down with the Sickness” 2000’s
19. Dream Theater “Panic Attack” 2000’s
20. Duran Duran “Hungry Like the Wolf” 1980’s
21. Elvis Costello “Pump It Up” 1970’s
22. Fleetwood Mac “Go Your Own Way” 1970’s
23. Foo Fighters “Everlong” 1990’s
24. Guns N’ Roses “Shackler’s Revenge” 2000’s
25. Interpol “PDA” 2000’s
26. Jane’s Addiction “Mountain Song” 1980’s
27. Jethro Tull “Aqualung” 1970’s
28. Jimmy Eat World “The Middle” 2000’s
29. Joan Jett “Bad Reputation” 1980’s
30. Journey “Anyway You Want It” 1970’s
31. Judas Priest “Painkiller” 1990’s
32. Kansas “Carry On Wayward Son” 1970’s
33. L7 “Pretend We’re Dead” 1990’s
34. Lacuna Coil “Our Truth” 2000’s
35. Linkin Park “One Step Closer” 2000’s
36. Lit “My Own Worst Enemy” 1990’s
37. Lush “De-Luxe” 1990’s
38. Mastodon “Colony of Birchmen” 2000’s
39. Megadeth “Peace Sells” 1980’s
40. Metallica “Battery” 1980’s
41. Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Where’d You Go” 1990’s
42. Modest Mouse “Float On” 2000’s
43. Motorhead “Ace of Spades” 1980’s
44. Nirvana “Drain You” 1990’s
45. Norman Greenbaum “Spirit in the Sky” 1960’s
46. Panic at the Disco “Nine in the Afternoon” 2000’s
47. Paramore “That’s What You Get” 2000’s
48. Pearl Jam “Alive” 1990’s
49. Presidents of the USA “Lump” 1990’s
50. Rage Against the Machine “Testify” 1990’s
51. Ratt “Round & Round” 1980’s
52. Red Hot Chili Peppers “Give it Away” 1990’s
53. Rise Against “Give it All” 2000’s
54. Rush “The Trees” 1970’s
55. Silversun Pickups “Lazy Eye” 2000’s
56. Smashing Pumpkins “Today” 1990’s
57. Social Distortion “I Was Wrong” 1990’s
58. Sonic Youth “Teenage Riot” 1980’s
59. Soundgarden “Spoonman” 1990’s
60. Squeeze “Cool for Cats” 1970’s
61. Steely Dan “Bodhitsattva” 1970’s
62. Steve Miller Band “Rock’n Me” 1970’s
63. Survivor “Eye of the Tiger” 1980’s
64. System of a Down “Chop Suey” 2000’s
65. Talking Heads “Psycho Killer” 1970’s
66. Tenacious D “Master Exploder” 2000’s
67. Testament “Souls of Black” 1990’s
68. The Donnas “New Kid in School” 2000’s
69. The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat” 1980’s
70. The Grateful Dead “Alabama Getaway” 1980’s
71. The Guess Who “American Woman” 1970’s
72. The Muffs “Kids in America” 1990’s
73. The Offspring “Come Out & Play (Keep ‘em Separated)” 1990’s
74. The Replacements “Alex Chilton” 1980’s
75. The Who “Pinball Wizard” 1960’s

Bonus Artist Bonus Song Title Decade
76. Abnormality “Visions” 2000’s
77. Anarchy Club “Get Clean” 2000’s
78. Bang Camaro “Night Lies” 2000’s
79. Breaking Wheel “Shoulder to the Plow” 2000’s
80. The Libyans “Neighborhood” 2000’s
81. The Main Drag “A Jagged Gorgeous Winter” 2000’s
82. Speck “Conventional Lover” 2000’s
83. The Sterns “Supreme Girl” 2000’s
84. That Handsome Devil “Rob the Prez-O-Dent” 2000’s

This is a great setlist. There are a few songs I don't know, and a few bands I despise (Linkin Park) but mostly I am super-thrilled to have these songs at my disposal in roughly two months. Since it's kind of been my blog's thing lately to do "five-lists," let's do top 5 songs I'm most psyched for:

5. Megadeth: Peace Sells

Megadeth is my favorite American metal band, by far, and this is a KICK-ASS song. This one is gonna rock.

4. Ratt: Round And Round

I love hair metal, and this song is one of the catchiest examples of the genre. Unfortunately, my favorite part of the tune is the harmonized crazysolo at 2:41, and harmonized parts don't transfer to Rock Band completely, but hey... still a great song. Besides, Rock Band is low on hair metal at the moment, so this is a very welcome addition.

(PS--this video is amazing. Watch it!)

3. Bob Dylan: Tangled Up in Blue

It shows great intelligence and foresight on the part of Rock Band developers Harmonix to travel a little outside the straight rock genre. The 80 songs above show a few examples of that, but none are as great as Bob Dylan. I feel that it's a major coup for Rock Band to be the ones to stick this genius/American icon into rhythm music games. Can a Bob Dylan DLC pack be far behind? (my votes: All Along the Watchtower, Like a Rolling Stone, Hurricane)

2. Tenacious D: Master Exploder

This song is going to be crazy. Crazy.

1. The Replacements: Alex Chilton

It is a little strange, I grant you, that of all the amazing songs in the list above, this is the one I'm most excited about. But, what I can say? I love this song, and it was just so unexpected... I never in a million years would have thought that this song, that I got to know as a DJ at my college radio station, would ever show up in a game like this. I can't wait to play it over, and over, and over again.

Dark Knight better be good

because I'm seeing it twice on Friday... once at 12:01 AM and again some time in the night. The last time I did that with a movie, it was Star Wars Episode III, which I actually loved, and it was totally worth it (I should note, too, that those particular viewings were broken up by a straight-shot drive from Toronto to Champaign via Chicago at rush hour on an hour and a half of sleep. That was the first, and only, time I have had coffee).

I figured since I did my Batman: The Animated Series post last week, I should do one now about Batman in comics. Unfortunately I am not nearly as familiar with this aspect of Batman... unlike Superman, whose essential stories are all, I believe, on the printed page, it seems to me that the best Batman stories are found in some kind of motion picture, be it the cartoon or Christopher Nolan's excellent first Batman film. In addition, I haven't read a lot of what people consider the key Batman stuff... no O'Neal/Adams (I have read their Green Lantern/Green Arrow, though), no Kane/Finger, no Kane/Sprang. But I've read enough to be able to comment on my top five Batman comics stories, so I will do that now.

5. Emperor Joker

As you might have guessed from the image, Emperor Joker is a Superman story with not a whole lot of Batman in it. And yet, having read it many, many times, it's safe to say that Batman is the focus of Emperor Joker, the point on which the whole story pivots. And it's far more essential to Batman than it is to Superman (although, it is a really kick-ass Superman story).

Though Batman is in maybe 10 pages of Emperor Joker, the story reveals to us two very interesting things about Batman's world. One: that the Joker cannot exist without Batman. This is the dramatic crux of the story: Superman tells a God-powered Joker to simply imagine a world without Batman, and he can't. I'm not sure if that says more about the Joker, or about Batman, but it definitely says interesting things about the both of them.

The second thing, to me, is even more interesting: at the end of this story, after Superman's won the day, Batman is left with all the torturous pain Joker put him through while he was a god: dying every day, and resurrecting every night just to be torn to pieces again. This proves too much for Batman to bear; he actually goes insane. Superman, knowing that the world needs a Batman, does the unthinkable: he takes Batman's pain. If you couldn't tell from what I had to say about "Epilogue" in my last post, I really like stories where Batman fails... it's a great reminder that he is, after all, only human, and despite what he thinks, he can only take so much. And I also really like the idea that, though he could never know it (and Superman won't tell), his buddy Clark was essential in helping him out of a tough spot. This is a really great twist for such a willful loner character, and it's one that I think could bear a lot of fruit, if DC wasn't so interested in seemingly ignoring most of the events of Emperor Joker.

4. World War III

Some people didn't like what Grant Morrison did with Batman in JLA, making him a "Bat-god" who was always, somehow, on top of things. I loved it. I mean, the whole point of Morrison's JLA run was making the League into modern-day gods... why not give Batman this "power"? It's really just a logical extension of his incredible will to be the best anyway.

World War III is the absolute tops of Morrison's Batman for me, though, for mostly one reason. See, there's this part where a villain called Prometheus has stormed the Watchtower, and Batman is the last line of defense. Prometheus has the ability to upload fighting skills into his helmet, allowing him to mimic the abilities of any of the world's greatest fighters... even Batman (this, in fact, proved a "humbling" experience for Bruce before). But now Batman's ready to fight back. Using Oracle's help, Batman has uploaded a new person's set of neural and physical skills into Prometheus's helmet:

Sure, it's kind of a cheap laugh. It's also awesome. Suck it, Prometheus.

3. Tower of Babel
This is the story that got me reading DC Comics. In it, Ra's Al Ghul takes down the JLA using Batman's own files on how to do it. Meanwhile, he gives Batman one of the toughest choices of his life: stop Ghul's wicked plot, or allow him to use the Lazarus chambers to bring Bruce's parents back to life?

I had thought of a plot like this years before I ever read Tower of Babel... I mean, the notion of bringing Thomas and Martha Wayne back from the dead via Lazarus? Seemingly obvious, yet also inspired, and Mark Waid executes it expertly. That plus Waid's understanding of Batman's obsessiveness and general mistrust of everyone who's not him makes this just an amazing story. You've gotta read it.

2. The Long Halloween
This book reads a lot like an episode of the animated series, so maybe it's cheap to pick it. Whatever. It's a great story. Tim Sale's artwork really nails the noir feel that birthed Batman in the first place, and Jeph Loeb writes an incredible and dark mystery story that will keep you engaged with the book until its very end. As a bonus, this book acts as a tour for Batman's rogue's gallery, the finest in all of comics (side note: I think it would be an interesting post to rank comics' rogues galleries. Thoughts?). It also seems to be the first place that Solomon Grundy becomes more or less a Batman villain. I always wondered why this happened, but whatever. Long Halloween is a fantastic read through and through.

1. The Killing Joke
Okay, first of all: Brian Bolland could draw anything and it would probably be awesome. This book is beautiful to look at, case closed.

But more importantly: Alan Moore is one of the masters of comics--maybe their best-ever writer, as even a glimpse of his resume (Watchmen, Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta) would argue. His superhero stuff isn't always amazing. But this is. The Killing Joke is a crazily well-crafted one-shot that gives us a close-up look at the Batman-Joker relationship. It shows us just how far Joker will go in his heinous crimes, and more importantly, it shows us that his driving philosophy of insanity is wrong, that not everybody is "just one day away" from being crazy. Among the best moments in the book, for me, is when Jim Gordon, who's just been through hell, who's just seen the Joker's pictures of his daughter shot, naked, and otherwise brutalized... when Jim Gordon insists that Joker is brought in "by the book." "We have to show him that our way works!" Right on, Commissioner.

Of course there is the issue of Joker's backstory, to which this book gives a significant contribution. But even though the supposed flashbacks that cut throughout Killing Joke's narrative tell a very sad human story that seems totally believable, I prefer to think of it as just one version of the story Joker tells himself to get some kind of interpretive foothold on his life. As Joker himself says of his past, "sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another...". My feeling is that the way Joker remembers his life at any given moment has to do with what kind of feeling he wants to evoke in himself or others... if he wants to appear sympathetic, as he does in Killing Joke, he may convince himself this story is true; if he wants to feel like a criminal mastermind, perhaps he remembers things the way a recent story-arc of Batman: Confidential has it. Though this is only one fan's guess, I think that, at present, it may be the best way to connect all the various Joker origin stories without invalidating any of them.

But anyway. The Killing Joke is awesome. If you haven't read it, please do so.

Man, I can't wait for Dark Knight.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Batman's been on my mind a lot

and I'm sure it has something to do with the new movie coming out in, holy crap, 10 days! In the time between now and my viewing of the midnight premiere of Dark Knight (in IMAX!) I intend to re-view Batman Begins and Gotham Knight, in order to more fully immerse myself in what fans are calling the Nolan-verse. However, as a precursor to this journey, I couldn't help but look back at what I (and many of my peers) consider the definitive Batman universe... Batman: The Animated Series.

Simply put, this must be one of the best cartoons ever. The series premiered in 1992 and sixteen years later it is still as dramatic, emotional, and exciting as it ever was... perhaps moreso, because B: TAS seems to be one of those series that kids can enjoy but that adults will really get. I know that I sure didn't understand the driving motivations behind Bruce Wayne when I was in third grade, but I still made it my business to watch every damn episode of that show. To quote my friend Marc Fishman, "Batman: The Animated Series was my religion."

An element of the show that I had never really thought about struck me last night, and I think that it was the key to the show's critical, if not commercial, success (because, let's face it, kids will watch ANYTHING that's called "Batman"... for instance, The Batman)--Batman: The Animated Series was HARDLY EVER ABOUT THE TITLE CHARACTER. This is the genius of it. We all know who Batman is, we know his basic story and motives and gadgets and stuff. So it seems that, for the most part, we can forget about him. Bruce Timm & co. seemed to reason that it was much more interesting to do stories that focused on other people... villains, maybe, or just random denizens of Gotham City with a hard-luck story (the first story that is really about Batman in this series, I think, is the movie Mask of the Phantasm, which puts such an excellent twist on Bruce Wayne's backstory that dammit, it should be canon). In doing this, B: TAS gave us a stunning number of incredibly human characters, even if they only appeared for one episode. For instance, my roommate's favorite episode is called "See No Evil," about a petty crook/lab assistant who steals an experimental cloaking fabric just so he can spend some time with his daughter, something his ex-wife would not otherwise allow. I'm reminded of Will Eisner's middle Spirit comic strips, which also liked to spotlight the townspeople. And to make us care about some no-name guy or girl in 22 minutes... that's pretty amazing.

Any time a serious conversation about B: TAS comes up (and it happens a lot, in my line of work), I'm invariably asked to name my favorite episodes. This is really hard, because there are over 100 of them, and almost none of them are bad (I recall not liking the ninja ones as a young'un, but beyond that I can't offer up much criticism). But I think that, if I had to choose, these five would be my "can't miss." They are, in broadcast order:

Beware the Gray Ghost

Even though I just said that B: TAS episodes were seldom about Batman, this episode is partially an exception, as it delves into the youth of Bruce Wayne and shows us his favorite childhood hero, the Gray Ghost. When a series of crimes across Gotham are found out to be straight from the plot of an old Gray Ghost episode, Bruce has to track down his old hero for help, but the man behind the mask isn't exactly who Bruce expected. This is a really touching episode that has some cool moments of male bonding, some good insight on what it means to be a hero and an inspiration, and also some genius voice casting (the Gray Ghost is none other than Adam West, and the villain in this episode is voiced by Mr. Bruce Timm). A classic.

Almost Got 'Im

This one almost goes without saying, and it's on everybody's list, so I'll leave it be, except to say that this was mine and probably a lot of other kids' first serious introduction to telling a fairly mundane story in a really unique way, and for that this episode deserves every ounce of praise it gets.

Old Wounds

Unlike some, I liked when the series moved to the WB, because it opened the show up to a little bit more adult themes, characters, and situations. I kind of doubt this episode, which explains why Dick Grayson quit being Robin, could have been made on Fox, because my favorite scene in it probably wouldn't have flown with the censors: Batman and Robin break into an apartment to get information out of one of the Joker's hired goons, but his wife and son happen to be home too. Batman threatens to beat the snot out of the guy in front of his kid, and, seeing the horrified child, Robin tells Batman to drop it. Batman refuses to back down, and Robin walks out. This scene only lasts maybe a minute, but is one of my favorite moments in all of the Timm-verse. Oh, and the rest of the episode is really sweet too (the other greatest moment: in the heat of the moment, Robin tells off Batman and then PUNCHES HIM. Damn).

Legends of the Dark Knight

This episode, which gives us animated versions of the Dick Sprang and Frank Miller versions of Batman, also probably goes without saying, but it's just so inventive and cool that I have to put it on here. Besides, any episode that takes a potshot at Joel Schumacher has gotta be at least top 10, right?


Picking this episode might be cheating, because technically this is a Justice League Unlimited episode which primarily stars characters from Batman Beyond... but you know what, I don't care. To me, this episode, a love-letter and last goodbye to fans of Beyond, is what Batman is all about. What happens is this: Terry McGinnis, future Batman, learns that he doesn't just wear Bruce Wayne's old costume... he has his DNA. Terry is outraged, assuming that Bruce has set his whole life up from the start just so the world wouldn't be without a Batman, so he goes on a fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of things. This episode masterfully ties together nearly all of Bruce Timm's DC projects (including, at long last,a nod to Mask of the Phantasm!) and hits with a rough emotional punch at the end, as Amanda Waller (pictured above) tells Terry how to step out of the shadow of Bruce: "You want to have a better life than the old man? Take better care of the people who love you. Or don't." To me, this line gets at the heart of the character of Batman... this is his greatest tragedy. And much like I love DC One Million in part because it shows us that in the end Superman gets his happy ending, I love "Epilogue" because it shows us that in the end, Batman doesn't... at least, not Bruce Wayne. He never totally learns to bring others in to his life. But the episode also gives us hope that, even if Bruce can't, maybe his legacy can, all while keeping alive his constant vigil for justice. If this is not an essential Batman story, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

WizardWorld Chicago

was great. Well, I had a great time, anyway. The convention was okay.

I think, in all honesty, the Chicago show has been ruined for me a little bit. Experiencing the New York Comic Con a few months ago has taken a lot of the luster out of the old Donald E. Stephens Center. But I have to think that Wizard could be doing a bit more to salvage things on the homefront. And I'm not even necessarily talking about stuff like the caliber of guests (which were definitely better than at last year's Chicago show, but not nearly as good as NYC's) or the amount of exclusives available (presumably, there was a scheduling conflict that forced this year's show to fall before the San Diego convention, thus cutting the number of exclusives down to precisely one), although those are certainly frustrations. I'm talking about simple stuff, like organization and communication, both of which were in short supply this year.

Basically, the problem with WizardWorld Chicago is this: if you want to do anything that a lot of other people want to do, you are going to have a harder time doing it than you should. This was true in trying to get tickets for the screening of Batman: Gotham Knight (or the Alex Ross signing, or the Image founders signing, or some fourth thing I don't remember), and this was ESPECIALLY true once one got to the screening. There were lines that went every which way. The screening was overbooked by, I kid you not, probably around a HUNDRED people (or more!). It was standing room only, for an event you had to stand in a maze of lines to get tickets for anyway. That shouldn't happen. And I think the thing that galls me the most is that all Wizard would have had to do is take ONE EXTRA PERSON from their staff to seat people at Gotham Knight to fill in the gaps in seats that invariably caused at least a few people to stand... but somehow, they didn't think this was a good use of their resources. Better to let the know-nothing hired help of the Donald E. Stephens Center's own goon squad stand around and tell people where they're not supposed to be.

That is the problem with WizardWorld Chicago, and with Wizard. They don't seem to think about simple things. You'd think that a company in the business of conventions would be able to handle something as simple as a line or a crowd, but they can't. And going to New York does make a difference for me here, because it sure seems that the New York Con had their shit together a lot more... it was always clear where I was supposed to be, and I was always happy when I got there.

So that's my rant. WizardWorld Chicago is not organized well. This much seems evident to most of the attendees and dealers, who don't really have many kind words to say about it. And I do not want to disparage all of the Wizard staff, because some of them were very helpful, but somewhere along the line, I think someone needs to do their job a little better.

That said, here is the part where I'm happy... this was an AWESOME weekend. If I had gone to the Chicago show purely as a fan, I might be disappointed, but I also went for business reasons. And business was good. And the couple fan things I did, although maybe frustrating, were totally worth it... Gotham Knight is an amazing movie, totally worth standing for (and also purchasing), and meeting Brian Michael Bendis (one of my top five comic writers) was definitely satisfying.

I will say, too, I think the quality of dealers at the Chicago show is better than New York (and no, I'm not saying this because Stand-Up Comics doesn't deal there). That may be due primarily to geographical factors... Chicago is more centrally located than New York and thus easier for a larger portion of the country to get to (plus it's probably cheaper to get a table in Chicago)... but at any rate, I found more variety amongst the sales floor of Chicago than in NYC. For instance, we were placed next to a really cool jewelry booth (that has a website here), and just down the aisle was a store that specialized in Japanese Transformers (see here!). Rest assured, those guys got all of my money for the weekend (and then some). I am relatively sure neither type of store was represented in New York, and if they were, I don't know... I just think Chicago has a better mix. And it may be weird to complain about booths selling nothing but comics at a comic convention, but hey, you know what they say about variety and spices.

And, oh, the company was fantastic. It obviously is not an objective measure of the quality of the Chicago convention to say this, but I had a fantastic time with the people who helped out at the booth, and this made for an all-around wonderful weekend. So, thanks to all you beautiful people!

So, in closing, I'm not trying to say Chicago is a bad show or anything. I mean, it's fun to shop at, it's fun to hang out at, and it's fun to make money at. I'm just saying it could be better. And, you know, I kind of have a vested interest in the Chicago show rivaling New York and San Diego, being a Chicago local and all. Maybe that's just a pipe dream, but it couldn't hurt to try.