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Jem and the Holograms: Why the Heck Not

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, honestly.

I don’t mean why I’ve been on hiatus so long. That makes sense, to me at least. What confounds me is why I’m reviewing what I’m reviewing.

A while back I admitted to being, to my own bafflement, a adulthood viewer of the tacky, cheesy, badly animated 80’s girlie cartoon Jem, starring the band Jem and the Holograms. I’m still not sure why. The show’s terrible in that particularly 1980s glorified toy commercial kind of way, the music is hit-or-miss at best, and the animation is so stilted it’s like a musical put on by a company of badly-assembled paper dolls. I didn’t watch it as a child (as far as I remember), and genre-wise it’s a ways out of my orbit.

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Out with the old…

As I speculated whilst eviscerating the even worse live action movie trailer, it might be partly that it is cut from the same cloth as my early childhood, but since I actually encountered it by way of fanworks, I think it’s also because the fans have done a surprisingly good job at keeping it alive by working on the subtexts, implications (intentional or otherwise) of the show’s creators, and all that they’ve learned about storytelling as they’ve grown up.

Which meant that, despite the manifest weaknesses of the source material, I took notice that IDW is running a comics version that’s been attracting some positive press. I’ve acquired the first three volumes through my local library to check out.

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…and in with the new

Quick recap: in the cartoon, Jerrica Benton assumes the secret identity of Jem using a hologram-generating AI built by her late father, to lead her sister and foster sisters in a band in order to support her private foster girls’ home and retain control of the family record company. Her nemesis, promoter Eric Raymond, tries to undermine her by the success and general hell-raising wrought by the rebel band the Misfits. Jem/Jerrica has to hold their schemes at bay, support the so-called Starlight House children, and maintain her disguise from even her beloved Rio.

That last point is the biggest stumbling block of the cartoon once you’re in double-digits ages, because for one thing, there’s no apparent reason why Jerrica has to assume a secret identity at all, and it makes no sense to keep Rio, the band’s road manager and her boyfriend, out of the loop. For another thing, since Rio was notoriously depicted as a short-tempered, possessive jerk who dallies with Jem not knowing she is Jerrica and then goes off about hating deception, the double-standards and outright creepiness, while presumably unintentional, are a bit of a deal-breaker.

The comic, meanwhile, creates a much more reasonable scenario: Jerrica and her sisters, Kimber, Shana and Aja, are in their own garage band, which volunteers with the Starlight Community Centre. They are trying to record a video for a contest sponsored by their idols, the Misfits. Jerrica is an excellent singer but has crippling performance anxiety that renders her mute in front of cameras. In her hour of need, she discovers Synergy, the AI her father had created prior to his early death, who is able to use holographic projections to both jazz up the band’s music video and alter Jerrica’s appearance to create a persona for her to hide behind, called Jem. The band thence becomes Jem and the Holograms. The Misfits find themselves upstaged in the contest they themselves were sponsoring, and the jealous and hot-tempered Pizzazz, their frontwoman, leads the way in a war of popularity between the two bands, with the abetment of their manager, Eric Raymond and his right hand man, the computer whiz known as ‘Techrat.’ At the same time, members of both bands deal with their own relationships to each other and such romances as come their way, including Rio, here a music journalist who covers both the Misfits and the Holograms, and Kimber’s star-crossed romance with the creative talent and softer side of the Misfits, Stormer.

So right off the bat the premise certainly makes more sense than the original, ridiculous nicknames notwithstanding. Jerrica has an actual reason to need a cover identity. Rio’s character is recast into someone you can actually stand – crucially, he hasn’t known Jerrica since childhood, and when offered the chance to dally with Jem behind (as far as he knows) Jerrica’s back, he angrily rejects it. Eric’s self-destructive conniving is wound down to simply being a weasel – and a halfway competent one at that. Pizzazz actually cares about music itself as well as her own ego, and however much she despises the Holograms, her schemes aren’t as illegal or suicidal as they tended to be of old. Shana and Aja get much more character development and the Misfits are less of a sackful of angry cats. Synergy herself has much more of a character, which drives the Dark Jem plot in volume 3 when she temporarily goes a bit HAL 9000.

It’s been said that the cartoon has accidentally become something of a period piece of the 1980s. The comic is set in the modern day, and the contrast is both fascinating and hilarious. Because friends of mine currently wear their hair this way, I was particularly struck by characters like Kimber and Pizzazz rocking the long-on-one-side, buzzed-on-the-other style, in contrast to the bouffant look of their original incarnations. I’ve spotted one or two costumes that are clearly 2010s updates of their 80’s-wear, and a couple of characters share some of my contemporaries’ inexplicable fondness for adult-sized onesies.

Character design generally is really cool. All of them look recognizably like their cartoon selves, but more varied. In the cartoon, it’s not hard to see that both bands are mostly made up of copies of the same figure with different hair. In the comic Roxy, the Misfits’ drummer, is built like Avatar Korra, Jetta is now an Afro-Briton (middle ground between the original cartoon conception and what she ended up becoming). Stormer, and Aja to a lesser extent, are big, curvy women instead of Barbie dolls, whereas Kimber is flat-chested and scrawny.

Beyond that, there are lots of little touches that show just how far we’ve come since the 80’s. Twitter, text messaging, video streaming and social media all form important parts of the plot. Techrat goes from the mad inventor archetype to the more modern hacker/troll. The general art style has gone from 80’s Hanna-Barbera to a more manga-esque look. Apt since, in the absence of the 80’s, anime and manga are the logical place to look for over-the-top hair, but the drawing of eyes and use of abstract facial expressions derives from Anime too. The original cartoon gets lots of little nods, such as Jem having the word ‘Outrageous’ written up the leg of her pants in one scene, as does current pop culture, with one issue making references to things like the recently-revived Star Wars and Mad Max franchises. The writers are clearly fans of My Little Pony too, but I try to ignore that. However happy I may be watching kids’ shows, becoming a ‘brony’ is where I draw the line.

Interest in picking apart and interpreting the cartoon has persisted long enough among fans who grew up with it that the series’ fanworks evolved a number of conventions, known to Tropers as ‘Fanon.’ Arguably one of the comic’s major selling points was running with the most common piece of Fanon, that Kimber and Stormer, the respective songwriting talents of the Holograms and the Misfits, are romantically interested in one another. While Kimber and Stormer’s situation is fairly star-crossed, the fact that they’re both women doesn’t enter into it. Kimber is loudly unselfconscious about being queer, and when Aja inadvertently makes a homophobic comment early on, she apologizes instantly. The rift between them is the rivalry between the bands, not the bigotry of others.

That aspect has, I gather, gotten some criticism, not so much because of the relationship, but more because of how fast it progresses. Kimber is crushing on Stormer before they’ve even met; they’re saying ‘I love you’ after having been on maybe two dates, and while that is in character for Kimber, who is wont to love not wisely but too well, it all seems too neat and abrupt.

But then, I feel that way about the stories of a lot of comics I’ve tried out, like Saga or Gotham City Sirens. I think the format is one that makes pacing difficult by nature. In general, it all speaks to me of a story that is good, but in many respects kind of shallow.

While the Holograms all get better characterization, Jetta and Roxy over in the Misfits get less in turn. While acknowledged, their rough backgrounds haven’t really been used for anything. This may be to avoid the trap the cartoon accidentally set, whereby the Misfits were actually more interesting to some fans – Pizzazz still has a knack for stealing the scene, though, and they’ve got a spinoff series all to themselves, apparently.

While a lot of the good character interpretations are carried through from the cartoon, others seem to have gone unquestioned. The Jerrica/Jem duality could be deepened. Some fanon sees the buttoned-down, responsible Jerrica using Jem as a way to cut loose and go, as it were, Lady Ga-ga. But as in the cartoon, Jem and Jerrica don’t really seem that different. Jem looks taller and flashier than Jerrica, but they more or less act the same way. It’s particularly glaring when Rio interviews Jem for his magazine after they’ve been dating for a while, and he doesn’t recognize her unchanged mannerisms. In other words, Jerrica doesn’t bother doing the Clark Kent thing of altering her behaviour to reinforce the disguise.

The old saw that Stormer is supposed to be the ‘nice’ Misfit who doesn’t quite fit in with the band’s punk/rebel image is discussed in the comic. It’s not as bad as the cartoon, but the contrast, while compelling, is still overdone. Stormer is so nice that it doesn’t seem like it’s in her nature to write the kind of songs that you’d expect from a band like this.

Speaking of ‘a band like’ the Misfits, what kind of band are they? What kind of band are the Holograms? This one might be partly my fault since I tend to skim over the song lyrics. But the dichotomy – the Holograms are the happy, sunny ones, the Misfits are the edgy, tough ones – doesn’t seem to exist for any reason than just because that’s the premise the story came with. Pizzazz’s jealousy is almost all that seems to drive the rivalry. It isn’t clear to me what artistic vision unites each band. Incidentally, the Dark Jem arc, where Synergy malfunctions and starts brainwashing the Holograms into a dark, Goth/Emo style not their own, is clearly bad but inadvertantly seems to imply that that style and genre is somehow innately villainous.

Look, I realize I’m slipping into a ‘this isn’t how I would have written it’ tirade, but as much as I’m enjoying this series, it lacks a certain bite I can’t quite quantify. I think that the series is aimed at younger readers – certainly it’s aimed at a generation who can be counted on not to find queer characters surprising. There’s minimal swearing, and somehow it keeps bugging me that despite the main characters all being rock stars, even the ‘bad girl’ band doesn’t have a reefer between them. Kimber’s lackadaisical personality never seems to carry any consequences for her, her relationship with Stormer seemingly the only driver of her character arc.

I think another reason why I find this franchise interesting is that at about the same time I started watching the cartoon I was also re-watching Ken Burns’ Jazz series. The biographies of the musicians, especially during the transition from the Swing to the Be-Bop era and beyond, are hugely compelling. So the idea of applying one’s imagination to the history of a fictional band, especially with some daft sci-fi thrown in, is oddly alluring. Not that I want any of them to go the way of Charlie Parker, of course, but a little extra grit wouldn’t hurt. That said, it’s also worth remembering that this series is basically an origin story about them breaking into the industry, whereas in the cartoon they pretty much hit the big time first time out and go from there.

I don’t know if I like the cartoon as a guilty pleasure, or just study it to understand the better examples of the fanworks it spawned, or because I’m an obssessive who gets into things and it’s best to let it run its course. But I definitely like the comic. It’s progressive, characterful, visually appealing and well written. I like the dialogue a lot, it being very Whedonesque. Kimber reminds me a lot of Michelle Trachtenberg’s character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, actually. And Pizzazz’s character arc is hitting my ‘bad-guy-redemption’ buttons. I’m looking forward to the resolution of the series. While it didn’t get as edgy or mature as I might have hoped from a millennial-nostalgia-reboot, it’s a fun read. Outrageous, even.

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Posted by on March 9, 2017 in Comic

 

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Saga: An Awesome Epic

Back when I reviewed Babylon 5, I argued that with sufficiently different trappings, even the most standard storylines can be fresh and exciting.

And comics, with the benefit of visuals and a willingness to be ‘edgy,’ can help make the story look as well as read different.

A friend recently recommended via Facebook the ongoing series Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and drawn by Fiona Staples, currently up to volume 3. Despite the strangely bland title, I was sanguine that it was worthy of my attention when I saw the cover:

Epic battle couple side by side? Nothing special. Epic battle couple of mixed ethnicity side by side, the lady breastfeeding their baby? Unique. So I grabbed it at the first opportunity.

In a galaxy far, far away (I assume), the people of the planet Landfall have been at war for so long with their moon, Wreath, that it’s become a habit. But since the destruction of one would destroy both (being as they orbit each other), they take the Cold War approach of pitting proxies against each other.

It’s a war of forces: the Wreath folk (distinguished by their peoples’ various horns and antlers) use magic in tactical applications, while the Landfallians (distinguished by having wings) use more conventional, if advanced, technology. Indeed, one of their proxies, the Robot Kingdom, are advanced technology.

Marko, of Wreath was, like so many, a fresh-faced young soldier who, sickened by his first sight of combat, surrendered to Landfall on the spot.

Alana, of Landfall, was a regular grunt, stuck on prisoner duty when she hesitated to bomb civilians.

Marko, as previously mentioned, was a prisoner. As they came to share their mutual doubts about the rightness of the cause, they fell in love, and at the point we commence the tale, they’re on the run, while also welcoming their new baby daughter, Hazel.

Neither of the warring leaderships are pleased by this development. Ostensibly for the purposes of general morale, both want Alana and Marko dead, while the Wreath leaders, at least, want Hazel captured alive for reasons as yet unclear.

Marko and Alana remain on the run, picking up, at various points, a teenaged ghost babysitter, a rocketship grown from a tree, and Marko’s hardboiled but gentle-hearted mother. All the while, Prince Robot IV (as in ‘four,’ not ‘the Fourth,’ I think) of the Robot Kingdom, despite his own new family and his wartime trauma, is sent by his Landfall puppeteers to hunt the couple down, while Wreath has contracted a freelancer known as The Will, a sombre killer with a soft spot for innocents, who ends up with his own band, comprising his living lie detector the Lying Cat, a rescued slave girl and Marko’s Amazonian ex-fiancee.

The setting is both awesome and slightly ridiculous. It clearly owes much to Star Wars, but it reminds me of ElfQuest in that, apart from taking place in space, it has the hallmarks of a classic fantasy: the Landfallians and Wreathfolk both look like the types you’d run into around Oberon’s court. A lot of the other ‘aliens’ look like anthropomorphic animals of various sorts. They curse and use military jargon a lot more than average. Oh, and did I mention that they grow rocket ships out of trees?

Then you have the Robot Kingdom, made up, seemingly, of silvery aristocrats with televisions instead of heads and, for robots, very enthusiastic sex lives. Then there are the freelancers – sort of like what you’d get if the bounty hunters in Star Wars were unionized – who all have aliases starting with ‘The’ like ‘The Will,’ ‘The Stalk,’ ‘The Brand,’ ‘The March’ and similar.

A universe structured thusly is wonderfully fertile ground for interesting characters, and not only did Vaughn and Staples do that, they did it with more flourish and daring than most fiction even today has the gall to do.

People of colour abound, including but not limited to Alana – given her appearance and tough-gal demeanour, if this was a movie I think she’d be played by Zoe Saldana. Neither Wreatheans nor Landfallians lack for diversity in appearance. There’s a B-Plot involving two investigative journalists who are also a gay couple. No Steven Moffat-esque jokes at their expense, their relationship is just there, and apart from suffering cultural persecution on their homeworld, it isn’t a dominant part of their story so far. Being gay isn’t the point of their character, as is so often the case.

The villains – or perhaps I should say antagonists – are very nuanced characters: The Will may be a cold-blooded mercenary, but he’s got a strict code and a soft heart worthy of Commander Vimes. Prince Robot IV is a snob and a racist, but the war has messed with him pretty badly, and his desire to see his wife and start a family makes him, for want of a better term, more human.

And something the authours seem to love is mucking about with gender roles. Our heroes are quite the juxtaposition: Marko is a buff warrior man, but his natural disposition is gentle, fussy, and nurturing. He might rip into anyone who threatens his family, but you’d have to push him far before killing comes into his range of options. That said, he’s uncompromising, flawed and possibly a bit whiny.

Alana, by contrast, is aggressive, curses like a sailor, would drink like one if she weren’t pregnant and then breastfeeding, and has a quite spectacular appetite for sex, food and corny literature, and then can turn into a gooey-eyed puddle when her baby smiles at her. She’s also abrasive and insecure. But unlike a lot of tough action girls in fiction, she has a soft side that she can show without forever discarding the toughness.
Fair warning however, that the daring of the story does come with a certain discomfort factor: sex and nudity and foul language are not spared, and are often quite graphic. When the time comes to break out the gore, it’s done with vivid aplomb, and some of the gore and monsters are so extreme it’s actually legitimately nauseating.

Unlike my sometime nemesis Game of Thrones, however, the gore and general spectacle isn’t in every single frame. It comes in exactly as often as it needs to and that’s part of why it’s so very effective. It’s deployed for maximum punch and not just splashed across everything. Juxtaposition of imagery is done quite well. A good example is Isabel, the star couple’s ghostly babysitter. A wisecracking, rather gangsta teenager who loves babies, you’re reminded her being a ghost is no joke by the entrails hanging out past her t-shirt, the product of having been killed by a landmine.

Other than that the only thing that I find jarring about the story is a criticism I’ve felt about a lot of comics: the medium does not lend itself to indepth or paced storytelling. We get dropped into the tale in medias res, as they say, and the plot proceeds in a way that’s so brisk it can seem like it’s skimming by too fast. Characters come and go really fast, and keeping on top of their names can get tricky. Having said that, the addition of the visual element lets you remember character profiles if not names, and as the numerous elements pile up, over time they add up to a sense of the wider universe you’re in.

Saga, therefore, is unique. It’s built on classic tropes and then painted over spectacularly. It’s truly bold – sometimes a little overpowering – but fresh and different, in ways that hit so many socially important notes.

For the beauty of its art, for the depth of its characters, for the colour of its universe, for its socially responsible storytelling choices, Saga is well worth checking out!

“This is an original fantasy book with no superheroes, two non-white leads and an opening chapter featuring graphic robot sex. I thought we might be cancelled by our third issue.”
– Brian K. Vaughn

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in Comic

 

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Saturday Supplemental: Marauder Shields

I occurs to me that in a number of my past articles, I’ve been using the term ‘fanfiction’ as a byword for ‘creatively bankrupt.’ Mostly I’m trading shamelessly on its popular image: Indulgence. Immature. Prurient. Of no interest to the serious-minded. As with comics, I used to write off the whole endeavour as contemptible and dirty.

And while, by gods, a lot of it is awful, then it probably isn’t a larger part than of normal fiction that’s tiresome rubbish. Joss Whedon, among others, encourages his fans to participate in this fashion, and legitimate authours like Neil Gaiman and Naomi Novik partake of the practice themselves.

So I am reconciled to the phenomenon. They have the potential to be avenues of active participation by fans in their favourite stories. And one of those stories where participation is particularly enthusiastic is in the fandom of Mass Effect.

The ending of Mass Effect 3, as I and others have documented, was a source of deep creative difference between the developers of the game and its fans, a dispute pressed particularly hard given the amount of creative freedom the player has in the game’s story, and which the Extended Cut downloadable content only superficially addressed. Vast numbers of ‘Fix Fics’ offering alternative outcomes sprang up, but only one of them has achieved fame outside of fan fiction circles, to the point of being written up by gaming journalists and, now, being reviewed by me: the web comic Marauder Shields.

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Koobismo’s own ‘cover’ for the comic

Authoured by DeviantArt contributor koobismo with the aid of several like-minded chums, Marauder Shields is a play on a popular meme that sprang from the Retake Mass Effect campaign.

The last enemy you gun down in Mass Effect 3 is a middleweight monster called a Marauder, and when you aim at it, as with any enemy in the game, the name “Marauder” appears onscreen, along with a bar showing its shield strength, thusly:

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The joke, as thirty seconds on YouTube will show, is that Marauder Shields was in fact the name of a hero who died trying to save you from the sloppy and incomprehensible ending of the game.

Koobismo took the premise and ran with it. The first five ‘episodes’ of Marauder Shields are a comedic parody, representing the author venting his frustration, but from episode 6 onward (up to 53 at time of writing), the comic changed into a serious attempt to reinvent the ending of the trilogy.

Each episode consists of a dozen-or-so-frame strip, and has been telling the story of the decisive battle against the Reapers on Earth, which formed the final set piece of Mass Effect 3.

Commander Shepard, our hero, has been struck down and critically wounded on the cusp of accessing the super weapon devised from ancient plans to stop the Reapers. We see Shepard’s squad, the group who we came to know and love as Mass Effect fans, struggling to save their leader, and to hold the line against the Reapers. Acts of bravery and comradeship are shown on all fronts, while in the background, sinister plots-within-plots begin to hatch, suspicions arise about the exact origin of this ancient super weapon plan, and while friends struggle to reach the place where their leader fell, a single Marauder stands guard there, its behaviour increasingly unexpected.

Now, it must be said that if you haven’t played Mass Effect at least once, this won’t make enormous amounts of sense. The characters, their species, and their technology come pre-established; the situation they’re currently facing is already underway, indeed nearing its conclusion, so if you’re innocent of the background, it will take some pretty heavy deduction or an extended visit to the Mass Effect wiki to figure out what’s going on.

If you have played it, then you are in for a treat. The artist uses a combination of his own, quite luminous paintings built around stills from the game, for accuracy and expediency. The dialogue, while a little pedantic in places, matches the manner of the characters it’s given to. The events of the story thus far have captured the friendships, loves, sacrifice and courage of all the characters in the new alliance forged to fight this battle, to much the same standard as was set by the game’s own storytelling. Koobismo even creates separate versions of each strip featuring one of the two characters you have to choose between saving in Mass Effect 1. The author and his cadre have also created ‘audio book’ versions of several chapters, and the sound effects, music and lines are mixed very well, and the performers, amateurs that they are, do remarkably good impressions of several of the characters.

The downside of all this beautiful sound and fury is that, since the story really kicked off, we’ve gotten 48 chapters in and not an awful lot has happened, plotwise. We’ve gotten caught up on our heroes, several threads have been established, lots of suspense and hints have been dropped, but while the turning point is clearly at hand, this does feel like an unnecessarily long wait, while the many subplots being hinted at are growing so numerous that I’m starting to get less engaged and more confused. Many of the strips include flavour text to provide context or bonus information, modeled after the Codex in the game itself, which I almost invariably skip. The audio book segments are very impressive from a technical point of view, but some of the performers are better at imitating the characters than they are at actually acting. Depending on your range of reading, it can be a little strange to go from the Canadian/American production of Mass Effect itself into the comic; koobismo’s DeviantArt page says he lives in Poland, but certain stylistic hallmarks in his writing would ordinarily mark him as an Englishman.

Marauder Shields, apart from being a worthy endeavour by and on behalf of Mass Effect fans, is visually impressive, emotionally charged, intriguingly intricate and quite creative. It’s a charmingly grassroots approach to role-playing games and fairly plausible in the context of Mass Effect’s mythos (more than the original ending managed, in some cases), and a valiant undertaking by a group of talented amateurs. So far it’s been a little bit slow-building, and it’s going to have to pick up speed soon to maintain interest. But it shows every sign of doing that. It’s biggest challenge is going to be trying to find middle ground between giving the series a satisfying alternate ending and remaining open to the many different choices Mass Effect players can make getting to the end of the game in the first place.

So if you are a Mass Effect fan or enjoy a well-made fan project, check it out, on koobismo‘s page on DeviantArt or at the independent website, koobismo.com. Hope is Alive! Hold the Line!

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2013 in Comic, Saturday Supplemental, Video Game

 

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Kill Shakespeare: Gently to Hear, Kindly to Judge

One of the running themes that’s developed as I’ve added to the Library of Alexander has been the voyage of discovery I’ve been on in the land of comic books and graphic novels.

After ElfQuest, I tried to take some initiative and paid a visit to the new release tables at Toronto’s FanExpo convention, where chance would have it that I met Conor McCreery, Anthony del Col and Andy Belanger and bought the first issue of their new intellectual property, the alarmingly-titled Kill Shakespeare.

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Being a fan, though by no means an expert on William Shakespeare’s remarkable plays, the title alone caught my attention, and so, autographed copy in hand, I dived in, ultimately reading the two complete volumes of both arcs – so far at least – of the series.

Our main character is Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Exiled after killing Polonius, he is shipwrecked on the shores of England, where the hunchbacked King Richard tells him a terrible secret: that his fate is part of the machinations of a mysterious puppeteer, whose followers attack Richard and threaten his rule.

Richard puts it thusly: “These…zealots rally around the banner of a man. Some say he is a god, others say he is merely a wizard. You are meant to stop him, Hamlet. You are meant to save us. Will you free us from the tyranny of William Shakespeare?”

Hamlet, prophesied as the Shadow King, the one who can reach Shakespeare’s hiding place, is thus sent by Richard to find William and take his quill, with the promise that Richard will use its power to restore him to his rightful place in Denmark.

Hamlet is separated from the King’s party and ends up being led by the hedonistic knight Falstaff, who brings him to the Shakespeare loyalist faction, lead by ‘the Lady,’ Juliet Capulet, and her chief man-at-arms, the Moor Othello.

Richard, not surprisingly, has his own agenda, along with his ally, the sorceress Lady MacBeth, who supports his armies against the followers of Will.

Hamlet, now in the keeping of the pro-Will faction, begins to see the damage done by Richard’s tyrannical rule and how much worse it could be if he gets his hands on the quill.

Initially lost in his own personal tragedies, he begins to connect with Juliet over their past suffering, and for love of her, he aids the rebels and seeks to find Shakespeare and find out why his power has gone so awry.

The story’s premise is that Shakespeare actually exists in the world he created, but he gave his creations free will. Richard and Lady MacBeth, with Othello’s rival Iago in tow, are seeking the quill to claim its power for themselves, while the Prodigals, led by Juliet, Falstaff and Othello, all of whom have learned from the experiences set before them, fight against tyranny in the name of Will.
I love Shakespeare. The stories and characters he created and especially the stunning words he used to tell of them are with good cause the benchmark for storytelling in English. And, despite the title, Kill Shakespeare is a love letter to his stories.

It’s an all-stars gathering of some of his most iconic characters: Feste from Twelfth Night, Falstaff, of Henry IV, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor, Iago and Othello, Richard III, MacBeth, Lady MacBeth and the three witches, Juliet and Hamlet himself, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Having said that, the writing shows occasional signs of loving Shakespeare without always understanding him. For one thing, the dialogue is full of flourishes and ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and so forth, way moreso than the Bard himself ever used them. Indeed, some have said that Shakespeare’s writing was, by the standards of his time, considered quite crude and informal in places. I can recommend Bill Bryson’s digest of Shakesperean scholarship, Shakespeare: the World as Stage for more. Another thing that is notable is that the characters don’t speak in blank verse, which Shakespeare characters usually do. Possibly you’d have to be looking for that to notice, but the lack of its rhythm (usually denoted as te-tum, te-tum, te-tum) makes all those thous and forsooths a little tricky to wrap the tongue around.

The story itself is an intriguing quest with a lot of imagination and hints at the nature of the world and the power and influence of Shakespeare, while the great mystery is what Hamlet will find when he arrives. There is a theme about the responsibility of a storyteller to his creations which I find really intriguing, and an empowering one of second chances and making the best story you can out of your life. The story also has a pleasantly earthy sense of humour, with the odd off-colour joke, mostly coming out of Falstaff. I like it because I think people tend to assume that Shakespeare is all high-minded purity, when in truth his stories are the definition of ‘human.’

I feel that a lot of questions about the exact nature and limits of Will’s power are left open-ended. There are some ‘bonus chapters’ that imply that some of the characters have reincarnated through different time periods of Shakespeare’s writing – Cleopatra and Lady MacBeth, for example – whether this is supposed to be canonical or are just poems by the creators about the universality of certain character types I don’t know. It serves the second purpose alright, but I’m not sure what the point is beyond that.

Hamlet’s character arc is one of discovering the reality of people around him as more than elements in his plans or shadows on the wall. He often gives the impression of being lost and purposeless, which gives him room to grow. On the downside, he often comes across as just going along with the motivations of everyone else, doing things because the plot requires him to do so, not because he wants to, and I‘m not clear on why he in particular is qualified to be the prophesied Shadow King. He gets better as things progress, though.

So Kill Shakespeare is a great homage to the range of characters and immortal stories that William Shakespeare created, and spins a charming yarn of humanity and the power of creativity. The plot driving it is a bit generic and muddled and the prose misses the mark by being too fancy, more like a send-up of Shakespeare. It’s fun, if not profound, and well worth a try, just for a lark.

For we are such stuff that dreams are made of.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2013 in Comic

 

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Batgirl: Volume 1: the Darkest Reflection

It being Halloween, I thought a good choice for a review would involve a character that more than a few people are likely going to dress up as.

I recently scooped up a big sample of graphic novels and comics to help broaden my horizons, and focused in large part on ones by DC. After having enjoyed Batman: the Animated Series as a child and continuing that fascination right up to the spectacular Dark Knight Rises, I felt I should investigate the source material for a change.

Oddly enough, however, the sample that impressed me most didn’t centre on Batman himself, but on one of his disciples, Barbara Gordon, alias Batgirl.

Nahnah-nahnah-nahnah-nahnah, Batgiiirrl!

Normally I regard the extended ‘Bat-Family,’ including, at its fullest extent, something like five masked crimefighters in addition to the Dark Knight himself, with scepticism. One masked vigilante is unique, striking and powerful, both to the reader and in-story, but a whole society of them dilutes the effect for me a bit.

A few things drew me to the first volume of Batgirl: the Darkest Reflection anyway; it’s a fairly recent release so I’m on or near the crest of the wave for a change; it’s part of the New 52, DC’s controversial reboot of its entire universe, and it’s written by Gail Simone, who is distinguished as being one of the comic world’s precious few prominent female writers. And I think that after a lifetime of things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Golden Compass and Sabriel, I’m drawn primarily by female protagonists almost by default.

Batgirl: the Darkest Reflection features Barbara Gordon in her persona as Batgirl. Many years prior, she had been put out of frontline action when she was shot in the spine and left wheelchair-bound by the Joker (an event that formed the catalyst of Alan Moore’s justly renowned graphic novel the Killing Joke). Now, having been the subject of a revolutionary new therapy, she has regained the use of her legs and is working on getting her life back on its old track, and that includes resuming her duties as Batman’s female counterpart, helping keep the scum of Gotham City under control. The tension ramps up as a new killer, Mirror, appears and starts working his way through a hit-list which includes Bruce Wayne, not to mention both Batgirl and Barbara! In confronting the killer, Batgirl also has to test her new physical limits, work through the psychological pressures of resuming a double-life that brought her such trauma, and confront what it means to be a hero and a survivor.

The ‘traumatized hero regaining their confidence’ chestnut is an old one, and I’ve seen it done badly more times than I care to remember. It basically adds up, mostly, to the hero having a setback and moping about it for an episode.

I needn’t have worried here. For my money, Batgirl absolutely nails it. Barbara methodically processes her situations with a charming wit akin to a Joss Whedon character. She doesn’t wallow in self-pity, nor does she take pity from others. She pushes herself hard to prove to herself and the other masked heroes that she’s up to snuff. Having said that, we still get to see the strain tell on her and her personal life, but at the same time, she actually seems to have fun in being a masked hero, and you have fun watching her at it. Better yet, the men in her life, her father, Batman and Nightwing, while caring about her and taking an interest, neither smother nor condescend to her.

The art style is also right in my comfort zone. Not too simple, nor overly stylized. I keep fixating on the fact that Batgirl’s costume is very detailed, not just a second skin whose only purpose is to be recognizable. I just adore the fact that she has grip-pads on her gloves. No cartoon or comic of a superhero I’ve ever seen did that, but it makes total and complete sense.

In short, Darkest Reflection makes Barbara/Batgirl a well-balanced and totally believable person, not burdened by angsty melodrama or one-note toughness. The characters share tension, friendship and genuine respect, and the story is emotionally harrowing, thoughtful and a solid mystery/action tale too.

So all that being so, why the ‘controversy’ I alluded to earlier? This is arguably a case of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t. In the original canon of DC Comics, after her paralysis, Barbara became a full-time hacker and information broker to the Bat-Family, using the identity of ‘Oracle.’ She became justly famous as a brains-centric figure and also a rallying point for disabled comics fans, and a symbol of potential new diversity in comics. So letting her recover (by means not very clearly explained, so far at least, this being only volume 1) undoes that stretch of diversity.

Another thing to keep in mind, however, is what her paralysis represented in the context of the comics world. Gail Simone is particularly well-known as the founder of the website ‘Women in Refrigerators.’ Strange name, I know. What it does is document the trend of female comic characters being used, in effect, as sacrificial objects to motivate heroes to action or raise the dramatic tension. Over the history of comics (and indeed fiction in general) there has been of a tradition of women connected to the (usually male) heroes being murdered, maimed, raped or otherwise horribly mistreated as a way to raise the stakes.

It’s a little like the Bechdel Test; any one story can make this device work (it was certainly very powerful in the Killing Joke) but taken as a trend over time and many works it exposes some pretty disturbing currents running through our society and our fiction. The New 52 reboot of Batgirl, whatever else it might be, is making a statement that this tendency should be confronted and subverted where possible. On a related note, another thing DC’s reboot is taking a lot of flak for is that a lot of the female character redesigns are, even by the standards of comics, reckoned to be pretty over-the-top and exploitative.  The feminist blogosphere pounced quite early on DC cover art featuring heroines in poses that were both gratuitously revealing and physically impossible. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the art in Darkest Reflection is very expressly not doing that with Batgirl. Her costume is form-fitting, but her figure and acrobatics seem realistic and she isn’t showing absurd amounts of flesh.

Both interpretations of Barbara have value, and while the New 52 ended Barbara’s time as Oracle, I don’t think they erased it from continuity.  Barbara, while still nervous about whether the treatment will fully work, doesn’t come across as being ashamed of having been wheelchair-bound, and her computer and investigative skills are still one of her most essential tools as Batgirl.

At the end of the day, whether taking disabled heroes out of the DC roster, or using women as pathos-generating punching bags is the greater evil is up to your tastes as a reader. Taken on its own, though, Batgirl: the Darkest Reflection absolutely blew me away. The main character is witty, strong, vulnerable, compassionate, tough, a well-rounded human being. It is precious rare that I encounter a fictional character whose behaviour and speech make me feel as if this is a person I could meet on the street, but this is definitely one such. It’s the best expression of the elusive ‘strong female character’ I’ve seen in a long time. If the Woman in Refrigerators trend (even if you didn’t know it by that name) grates on you, this will be a breath of fresh air.

Godspeed, Batgirl!

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Comic

 

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Transmetropolitan: First Impressions

Start with a decadent setting, like Airstrip One, the Capitol in the Hunger Games or Rome at its worst. A place where sex, drugs and pop religion have rendered the population mindless and vapid, letting the government stamp on and exploit them at leisure.

This situation has been conjured up many a time before, challenged by its outcasts, its downtrodden, who confront the evils of their rulers head-on in a thrilling revolutionary battle. As I alluded to in my Hunger Games review, this formula has been redone many times to the point where making it fresh and exciting is an important challenge.

So how to refresh this plot? How do you confront these themes and acknowledge their subtleties, the lack of moral absolutes? How do you examine it from the inside, and get at what it really means to live in such a world?

You send in a journalist. Better yet, send in a gonzo journalist.

Now there’s a face you can trust!

I recently achieved a breakthrough in my assault on the mysterious world of comics with volume one of Warren Ellis’ and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan. If Hunter S. Thompson had lived in a cyberpunk future, it might well have been like this.

For those of you who don’t know who Hunter Thompson was or what cyberpunk is, I shall expand….

It’s some hundreds of years in the future, and the setting is the City, a hedonistic meat grinder crowded with people fed a constant diet of legal drugs, sex, violence and consumer goods. Political corruption, religious proselytizing and vapid advertising are everywhere.

Sickened of the superficial existence and unable to “get at the truth anymore,” renegade journalist Spider Jerusalem has spent the past five years living in squalid, blissful isolation in the mountains. However, he has an outstanding contract to produce two books. Menaced with a lawsuit, he abandons his fortified and booby-trapped hideaway and returns to the City. He needs a job, and stages a commando raid on the Word, whose editor is an old friend. With that, he starts trawling the City for his first story. A slum district of the City his threatening to secede, its population, a subculture of people blending their DNA with those of aliens, essentially locked inside by a bullying and repressive government. Spider can see exactly what kind of horrors this is going to bring about, and uses the only weapon he has. As he says, journalism is like a gun. You can only fire it once, but aim right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world.

Thus begins Spider’s new battle with the hollowness of City life, the lies of government and society, and his demanding editors, who saddle him with a student and personal assistant as his foil.

Transmetropolitan is a product of the Dark Age of Comic Books, debuting in 1998, which as I mentioned in my ElfQuest review, was a time when superficial gore and exploitative sexuality was pretty thick on the ground. Indeed, upon first inspection of Transmetropolitan, I suspected this was precisely what I was dealing with (randomly alighting on the image of Spider flashing an evangelist and screaming “Read my scripture!” was not a promising start).

Further consideration found this story more worthy than I had feared – and a good thing too, given what comics cost, but that’s another story…

Transmetropolitan is certainly gritty, but it doesn’t lack for depth, which is the main problem with a lot of things trying to be ‘gritty.’ The thing that first surprised me about Spider is that while he is most definitely a parody of Hunter S. Thompson – drugged out of his mind, foul-mouthed, rude, misanthropic and distressingly heavily armed – it rapidly becomes obvious that, like Thompson, he has genuine insight and compassion for the poor benighted sheep around him. His descents into raving violence are born, as often as not, of genuine anger at injustice, as opposed to the superficial selfishness that pervades much of the society.

My second pleasant surprise was that, far from the relentlessly grim and oppressively dismal story (a la parts of Sin City) I had been expecting Transmetropolitan is really funny.

It’s dark, cynical humour but I laughed really hard at some points. In one part, Spider spends the day watching television to write about just what place it has in the City life, and without him uttering a word, I was laughing myself silly watching him, frame by frame, slide narcoleptically from his chair.

As over-the-top as the City seems, the more you think about it, the more believable it starts to feel. We’re currently living in an age where consumerism pervades everything, advertising is inescapable and there’s so much information floating around that getting at ‘the truth’ seems well-nigh impossible. A lot of the technology is also very plausible, and while its predictions aren’t quite as dead-on as some, it gives all this a realistic texture which is the mark of great cyberpunk. Then again, William Gibson and Philip K. Dick usuallygo maybe 50 years into the future, not 300…

Spider’s assistant, journalism student, part-time stripper and foil Channon gives him a chance to explain his worldview to someone and thus to us, and to her credit she holds her own quite well in the presence of her psychotic boss, and there’s genuine respect between them, even if it’s swimming in vitriol.

I look forward to seeing where Spider Jerusalem’s adventures take him, but I wanted to put the word out because it’ll take me forever to get through them all. It is a superb story. It’s quite vulgar and definitely not for the under-fourteens (although you may know some youths made of sterner stuff than I do) but it’s a fine expression of the positive side of the Dark Age of Comics and a well-rounded, deep story in general. I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes. Feel free to join me!

“I don’t have to put up withthis shabby crap! I’m a journalist!”

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2012 in Comic

 

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ElfQuest: My First Step into Comics

I’ve been trying on and off for years to break into reading comics. Apart from some of the isolated volumes of note, like Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns, I haven’t had much success. When I was growing up the comics world was going through a phase of gritty, dark, violent and salacious themes and stories, the period now called the Dark Age of Comic Books, making them inaccessible, as well as undesirable, to a straight-laced and stiff-necked pre-adolescent.

I enjoyed the spinoff cartoons and films, but actually accessing the source material is very challenging because you’re talking about entering an entire medium separate from novels, television shows or movies, and that has had a parallel existence as old as, and more prolific than any of those.

That said, a stroke of luck a few years back led me to stumble upon one of the long-running comic arcs that I actually have managed to experience in its majority.

Available online, ElfQuest by Wendy and Richard Pini began in 1977. Independent from the big labels like DC and Marvel, it stood out in an era filled with caped superheroes, hardboiled detectives, and constant action. Into the midst of this, the Pinis brought forth a character-driven sword-and-sorcery series that owes a good deal, visually, to the then-obscure Japanese manga.

ElfQuest takes place in an alternate world, usually referred to as the World of Two Moons for its most unique feature, and centres around a tribe of small, pointy-eared primitive forest-dwellers named the Wolfriders. Living alongside their wolf companions, these elves are persistently hunted and tormented by their stone-age-level, religious fanatic human neighbours. They claim descent from ancient otherworldly beings called the High Ones, but have dedicated their tiny culture to living in the nocturnal wilderness and the ‘Now of Wolf-Thought.’

 When their obsession with destroying the elves drives the humans to burn down the forest, Cutter, Chief of the Wolfriders, leads his people on a desperate search through the desert for a new home. They find another community of elves living in a settled, agricultural society in an oasis. After nearly breaking out into open warfare with each other, the two cultures begin to face challenges of re-integration; both elf cultures thought themselves to be the only elves in the world. Their complex relationship centres around the ‘Recognition’ of Cutter with Leetah, magic healer and de facto princess of the Sun Folk. Recognition is an effect of the elves’ telepathy, where two people with fundamental compatibility become psychically linked and caught up in a drive to mate and have children. If you’re a Trekkie, then this is a situational version of Vulcan pon farr. Outside of Recognition, it’s almost impossible for elves to get pregnant, and so this is usually considered a joyous occasion. It does eventually drive the reconciliation of the two cultures.

Eventually, with the threat of humans looming again, Cutter, his friends and young family lead a quest to find out if any other elf tribes split off from the ancient High Ones, with the aspiration of reuniting elfkind and reclaiming their shared heritage.

There are limits on how much more I can say because I don’t want to spoil too much and because there’s several decades of work to cover. In short, the Wolfriders and Sunfolk begin to make themselves part of the greater world, confronting the dark side of their own people, the complexity of humans, and the ancient grudges that stem from their origins.

On the face of it, ElfQuest is hard to take seriously. The title is corny, no doubt. The Wolfriders all have names like ‘Treestump,’ ‘One-Eye,’ ‘Dewshine,’ and most egregiously ‘Strongbow’ that ring pretty ridiculous. The art style, while lavish, comes across, at first impression, as an unsettling blend of a Saturday morning cartoon with the campy musculature and cleavage of a Conan the Barbarian illustration. Think He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and you have the general picture.

Having said that, the writing, while quite pedantic at times, is, I would argue, the positive, emotionally satisfying kind of camp, if camp it is. The stories overall are well-constructed, although the archetypes driving them are pretty straightforward and flat. The Quest, obviously, is one. Harmony in difference, traditions vs. progress, and the importance of the ‘little picture’ not getting lost in the ‘big picture’ are some of the most obvious. Really, ElfQuest is a tale of adventure, grandiose heroism and melodrama, and is not pretending to be anything else. As far as that goes, it’s fun but perhaps a bit shallow.

The world-building is really nice. There is here a nice marriage between science fiction and fantasy, or perhaps a case of putting a fantasy paint job on a science fiction premise. Ancient aliens leading directly into sword-and-sorcery works surprisingly well. The Pinis also took the concept of elves in fiction in a different enough direction to avoid looking like a Tolkien clone. The elves aren’t much more advanced than humans, they aren’t esoteric nature-communers, not all of them are absolutely good, and only a few are absolutely evil. The dark side of the proud, haughty elf is made very clear, and, most strikingly, they’re actually about the size of Hobbits!

Character is where the series shines. Wendy Pini put an astonishing amount of effort into making every character, main or secondary, very visually distinctive and their basic personalities are also well-established, so that secondary characters remain very tantalizing to hear from when you get the chance. Character development and drama drive a lot of the story, especially in later arcs like Kings of the Broken Wheel, my personal favourite. The Pinis also did an absolutely superb job of putting male and female characters on equal footing.

The best illustration is the Wolfriders’ B-couple, Redlance and Nightfall. Redlance is quite a buff fellow, though his wife would be called Amazonian if she weren’t three feet tall, but she’s shown as being the dominant, more outspoken one of the pair, and this is done without the slightest implication that Redlance is stifled or emasculated by her in any way. Indeed, one of the early B-plots shows just how much they adore one another. Neither they nor anyone else is uncomfortable with Redlance being the more passive half of the relationship.

Which brings me neatly to the subject of sex. One is inclined to roll one’s eyes and dismiss sex in comics as pornography for underage boys. Indeed, this is a brush I myself once used to deride the entire medium. Sex is in no small quantity in ElfQuest; apart from the story’s many happy couples, the Elves have open relationships and engage in sex for pleasure with their friends, regardless of gender (although this is just implied; this was the 70s after all), and forming three-way relationships is considered a perfectly acceptable way to deal with Recognition-induced love triangles. Toward the end of the first ElfQuest arc, an orgy is even used as a character-building set piece.

Cynic that I am, my first instinct is to write this off as pandering to the lowest impulses of readers. However, one of few things I’d be willing to assert with absolute certainty is that if you find this content low, gross or exploitative, then you’re the one bringing those hangups to the table because the Pinis definitely don’t see it that way. It’s definitely erotic, mind you. That plus the bloody and costly battles might make it unsuitable for the under-twelves. If your kids are reading this, even if it is under the cover of night and possibly one-handed, then they are reading about sexual relationships that, while unconventional, are totally consensual, mutually satisfying and affectionate even when they aren’t flat-out romantic. They aren’t fetishized, excessive or degrading to any of the participants.  Recognition does on at least two occasions force a bond between unwilling persons, but in those cases, it’s treated as a crisis, a tragedy, and part of the dilemma of the elves’ precarious existence. Furthermore, the participants may need to consummate the bond, but they are never treated as having any obligation to one another afterwards.

ElfQuest is one of those things I feel embarrassed telling people I like. The title itself is so cliché that makes you feel silly to say it. For all that, however, it is fun. The art style is vibrant and beautiful, even if it is pretty retro. The emotional arcs of the stories hit just the right notes for me. The characters are really fascinating people and there are enough of them that you can probably find at least one to root for especially, and the powerful, deep and sex-positive nature of their relationships give their story a lot of punch. There’s enough of the franchise itself that if grand quests, fantasy lands, high romance and adventure are your cup of tea, then there should be at least something in here for you. It’s kind of campy, but that’s not a sin, and there are plenty of nitpicks to make, although you’d have to go arc-by-arc to analyse them. Best advice I can give is to give it a try and see what happens.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2012 in Comic

 

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