Thursday, March 31, 2011

Batman Brings the Fun!

Like most comic fans who grew up in the 80's I got my mind blown by the massive upswing in quality led by Alan Moore and Frank Miller.  The darkly verite so called 'grim and gritty' style they exemplified has been used hard and put away wet since then, so its hard now to remember how fresh and revelatory it seemed at the time.

Moore went on to rue the way a style that came out of, as he put it in 2001, 'a bad mood I was in 15 years ago' became omnipresent and associated with the lamest of writing and cheapest of reader exploiting tactics.  Miller, after pushing the style into realms of absurdity has descended into self parody and almost desperate reiteration.

The style is still  dominant in the superhero genre and nowhere has it been more overt than with the character of Batman.  Frank Miller's one-two punch of The Dark Knight and Batman: Year One, respectively the last year and the first of Batman's superhero career, combined into such a strong vision of the character that the obsessed and grim avenger of the night became the only version imaginable for literally years.  Only now is the character beginning to emerge from its shadow.

Grant Morrison has been in charge of the character for the last few years and has been operating with the exhilarating approach of embracing all of Batman's history and persona from the comics, both the warrior of darkness and the cheerfully heroic comic book superhero he was portrayed as years ago.

The experiment has reached it's most recent artistic peak with issue 4 of Batman Incorporated.

This is, quite simply the best superhero comic I've read all year. A brilliant display of raw technical writing  ability with its meta-fictional conceits and narratives nesting within narratives, like exquisite Russian dolls brilliantly merging the Golden/Silver Age Batman, with his modern counterpart.  A lot of credit has to go to artist Chris Burnham who expertly and imaginatively matches the art style between the modern darkness and light hearted flashbacks.

This a Batman that embraces multiple, seemingly contradictory conceptions of the character seamlessly, a rare feat.

The other place where the light-hearted Batman is experiencing a resurgence is the animated cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold.  This is a Batman who is a serious professional superhero but not one with no life outside of combating evil.

In the latest episode he teams up with a giddily wonderful Silver Age Superman to fight crime in Metropolis for a day because it sounds like 'fun'.   This is the classic comic book Superman of the Curt Swan/Wayne Boring era, with tons of tributes to old comic covers from the 50's and 60's spoofed in a matter of minutes.  The voice acting is particularly fun with Sirena Irwin in particular doing a great Rosalind Russell/Hildy Johnson voice - perfect for Lois Lane - and almost as good as Jennifer Jason Leigh's version in The Hudsucker Proxy.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Animating the Superhero universe

Superhero cartoons have been riding a serious high since Bruce Timm brought Batman to the small screen. Currently there's a nice mix of action, whimsy and intensity in superhero animation.

The Avengers is a slick production, re-telling the earliest days of the Marvel super-hero team but with an eye to backstopping and reinforcing the big screen interpretations in existence or pending. Young Justice (Don't call them the Teen Titans) brings the more realistic and glossy design and animation of recent superhero straight to video movies like Justice League: Earth 2 and Batman Under the Red Hood to television animation. Batman The Brave and the Bold goes a completely different direction emphasising the campy kid friendly approach that is an equally valid take on Batman as the grittier, darker versions are.

The Avengers is a straightforward superhero action cartoon with great hero/villain battle set-pieces. It's essentially the classic 60's line up but with the enjoyable and interesting narrative decision to ask what if The Hulk, the sullen but not completely stupid version he was at the time, hadn't left the Avengers and had actually stayed on the team.  This offers a clue that suggests that Joss Whedon's take on the Hulk in the Avengers movie will be based on a smarter more talkative version as he's been portrayed in the comics lately.

Classic Avengers villains and stories are referenced but with the advantage of being able to take years worth of continuity and incorporate them into a cohesive story arc.

Some great voice acting - Lance Henriksen as the villainous Grim Reaper is a standout - kid friendly designs and kinetic animation make this one of the best of the animated Marvel universe cartoons.

Young Justice adapts the Peter David written comic series with the addition of recent DC Comics interpretations of Aqua Lad and the new character Miss Martian.  It's also Peter David who brought back the intelligent but mean version of the Hulk in a big way although others explored it before him.  More people see the cartoon version of these characters than read the comic book versions, so Peter David is exerting a lot of influence on the public perception of both the DC and Marvel universes right now.

The Superboy is the cloned version introduced in the death of Superman story-line with lots of young teen clone angsty goodness.

By far the darkest and most superhero realist take on the comic book hero genre, Young Justice features dark conspiracies, complex character beats and grand cinematic scale to lesser seen corners of the DC universe.  A high point was the most recent episode with its in depth exploration of the Atlantean society of the DC universe with a beautiful visual interpretation of an underwater city.

Batman The Brave and the Bold goes the exact opposite way with an appropriately boldly cartoony version of Batman and the DC universe.

Some fans of superhero cartoons have been taken aback after the more quasi-realist approach has been so dominant for so long but in fact The Brave and the Bold succeeds and it does so completely precisely because its creators bring the fun.

Most recently, the impish other dimensional fanboy Batmite who perfectly personifies this sunnier Batman cartoon hosted a special episode animating some of the odder interpretations of Batman in comics and cartoons including an early Kurtzman  Mad Magazine Batman parody, Bat Manga and another sequence celebrating the long alliance of mighty heroes between Batman and Scooby Doo.

Writer Grant Morrison has suggested that the DC universe can be viewed as a real universe constantly accreting detail and even sentience.  Universes are vast, they can contain multitudes.

Honorable mention to a cinematic version of the classic superhero/supervillain diad in Megamind, just out on DVD.  This is the hero/villain war paradigm as joyful game and simultaneously unresolved childhood complex.  Fun and well worth picking up.

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