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Link Dump: #67

This week’s kitty is from Scary Movie 2, and it’s a lot less benign than most. I mean, it’s been beating the shit out of Anna Faris, and now it’s giving her the finger! Bad kitty! But still, it’s a kitty. Anyway, here’s a bunch of cool links…

We just have one particularly over-the-top search term this week: “violence horror pussy bloody operation.” That says it all, really.

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The Dark Hype Rises

By Andreas

The forthcoming conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, isn’t really a movie anymore. It’s an ad campaign sprawling across time and space that might just metamorphose into a movie somewhere down the line. It’s a monotonous buzz slowly rising in volume as we approach July 2012. Hell, it’s a presidential candidate in a vote-with-your-wallet election, greedily nabbing up real estate in your head in order to make you forget you ever heard the word “Avengers.” (Does this make it the Sarah Palin of superhero movies?)

First a Bane image, then a teaser poster, then another Bane image, teaser trailer, and most recently the “Catwoman” photo you see above. Each one’s an event, even though it’s a fraction of a fraction of the movie itself. It garners endless speculation and whets nerdy appetites everywhere. Why is Anne Hathaway dressed like that? Did she steal Batman’s motorcycle? We want to know! But wait: if every single chunk of publicity bric-a-brac is accorded “event” status, will there even be any “event”-ness left when The Dark Knight Rises is released to theaters?

If you, like me, follow pop culture news sites on a day-to-day basis, you’ve seen each one of these no-context photos analyzed, appraised, critiqued, and celebrated, as if they were ambiguous scriptural tablets passed down from the heavens. As if piecing them together at the right angles could give us a little window into Christopher Nolan’s brain. If you’re like me, you’re probably also suffering from pretty severe teaser fatigue right about now. Maybe studio PR folks have found a way to speed up the “adoration, backlash, anti-backlash backlash” cycle of fandom by advertising for years in advance, so that the finished product is practically an afterthought.

That way, no one will remember a time before The Dark Knight Rises. Will it be good? we’ll ask in July 2012. Bad? Won’t matter: it’ll be a fact of life. Although I must admit, the ad campaign for The Avengers might be even more diabolically clever: releasing countless feature-length preludes like Thor and Iron Man 2 across this summer, last summer, and the summer before, converting movie theaters themselves into giant, revenue-generating billboards. With both upcoming movies, a droning onslaught of scoops and insubstantial teasers has drained away my curiosity as an a priori superhero nerd.

At this point I hardly care if I get to either movie in the theaters. The Dark Apathy Rises.

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Memento, Batman, and Beyond: Notes on Christopher Nolan

With this Friday’s release of Inception, director Christopher Nolan will add one more entry to his increasingly compelling oeuvre. To celebrate this blessed event, and Nolan’s status as one of the most intriguing directors now working in mainstream American cinema, I’m participating in the Christopher Nolan Blogothon at Things That Don’t Suck. I’ve seen three of Nolan’s films – Memento (previously written about here), The Prestige, and The Dark Knight – and found much to recommend all three (as well as some common faults), all of which makes Inception easily my most-anticipated wide-release film of the summer. So here, in somewhat piecemeal form, is my take on the career of Christopher Nolan. (Also note that given the nature of Nolan’s films, this piece is almost entirely spoilers.)

1. “John G. raped and murdered my wife.”

Khan once said that revenge is a dish best served cold. This doesn’t hold true for Nolan’s protagonists, who crave immediacy in their payback: for them, it’s the hotter the dish, the better. Memento‘s Leonard Shelby wants to wipe out the semi-mythical “John G.” as soon (and, perhaps, as often) as he can, willfully altering his own “evidence” to expedite the consummation of his bloodlust. Angier and Borden in The Prestige let other motivations like love and professional success take a back seat to revenge, until both men are consumed by their own labyrinthine, continent-spanning death traps. And Batman, of course, is on a quest for revenge so storied and complex that it has transformed into a nocturnal heroism, as he projects his response to his own familial tragedy onto the criminal class worldwide.

With his brother Jonathan, Nolan has built these criss-crossing stories of stimulus and response, cause and effect, the two of which are often confused. Obfuscation abounds on every level of his films, whether diegetically embedded in the film’s subject matter (Leonard’s brain injury, The Prestige‘s stage trickery, Batman and the Joker’s exchanged illusions1) or in the Nolan bros.’ layered and intentionally duplicitous screenplays. These tendencies prevent us from ever answering the question “Who started it?” and strand us on a morally relative battleground. All we really have is the knowledge that a woman (Leonard’s wife, Angier’s wife, Rachel Dawes) died, and the characters’ subjective assertions that the guilty party must be punished. Should Batman have saved Rachel instead? What knot did Borden use? Is John G. to blame for his wife’s death, or is it Leonard himself? Unable to obtain satisfactory answers, Nolan’s anti-heroes toss aside the questions and get revenge.

2. “How about a magic trick?”

Even after the rest of the film would seem to have dispelled its mystery, I still love the contextless opening image of The Prestige: dozens of top hats lying in a field. Whether or not you know the image’s real place in the film, it produces, like the whole of Memento, a sense of being temporarily thrown off-balance and forced as a viewer to ask yourself, like Leonard Shelby, “Now, where was I?” As Nolan’s stories grind on inexorably, even mechanically, it becomes easy for us and the characters to lose track of where we are amidst the dense twists and turns of the narrative. But like a dove out of a handkerchief, some resolution emerges from the story’s logic, usually with a disconcertingly fatalistic thrust. Leonard, for example, trustingly follows his tattoos’ guidance, but the audience doesn’t learn until the end/beginning that he’d predestined his own beginning/end all along. And all it takes is an explosion and a pep talk for the Joker to turn Harvey Dent from a White Knight to the monstrous Two-Face.

Thus, it’s their own pathological obsessions that, when coupled with a myopic unawareness of the broader picture, undo these flawed men. As the Joker says with reference to the cops and criminals of Gotham City, “they’re schemers… schemers trying to control their little worlds.” The Joker and Memento‘s Teddy can see beyond themselves, and sink their teeth into the protagonists’ drives and delusions. Angier and Borden attempt to pull similar tricks on each other, but are too caught up in their own fixations to realize the pointlessness of their mutual grudge (and both end up paying for it). Between their slippery subjectivities, the inevitability of their characters’ fates, and the bitterness of their finales, Nolan’s films mark him as one of the most consistent latter-day masters of neo-noir.

3. “Do you know how I got these scars?”

Nolan’s greatest triumph has been his ability to carry these predilections over into giant-budget superhero filmmaking. In a genre where anonymity is king, where authors in print and film are expected to defer creatively to the characters’ ongoing sagas, Nolan turned out an unusually personal and unexpectedly great work. For all its obvious blemishes and political superficiality, The Dark Knight is still an impressive example of an intimate story told on an epic scale. Rather than letting them be a hindrance or become the substance of the film2, Nolan plays with all the trappings of the superhero lifestyle, either in a light action-movie way or by working them into dramatic conceits (like the hero/archenemy rivalry). He also directs performances that are subtle variations on broad archetypes – embattled Dark Knight, incorruptible White Knight, paternal butler (with some riffing on Michael Caine’s 1970s screen persona), culminating in Heath Ledger’s villain-to-end-all-villains.

Why is Ledger’s Joker so compelling? Is it the sloppiness of his makeup, the griminess of his hair, or how the costume design somehow makes his cartoonish purple suit believable? Is it his voice, which sounds like Bugs Bunny3 doing an impersonation of Daffy Duck, or how he can dart from Groucho-style one-liners to threats of mass murder without taking a breath? Is it his proudly anarchic, amoral ethos, his unwillingness to commit to a single back story, or is it how Ledger has so knowingly incorporated these multitudes into his cheap vaudevillian persona? Whatever it is, he’s the class of criminal that Nolan’s Gotham deserves, because he’s the missing link in the director’s dark vision of humanity. In my review of Memento, I described Carrie-Anne Moss’s Natalie as “damaged [and] secretly predatory.” This, I think, gets at what unites these three films: portrayal of individuals as the sums of their damages, as an accumulation of scars tissue4 and conditioned responses. All of which makes Nolan a perfect match for Batman.

4. “Don’t trust his lies.”

This brings us to Nolan’s future, which starts on Friday. It feels so right that Inception‘s characters will hazard into the geography of the mind, since that’s the terrain that Nolan’s been circling around all these years, albeit more metaphorically. His films, by and large, explore the distortions imposed by fallen men onto their own realities, and that space between perception and truth. From the looks of the trailer, Inception will see Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and others (!!!) entering that space and working around those distortions. With that cast, that premise, and the directorial prowess behind it, this is one journey I’ll be shelling out $8 to take. And you know I’ll be taking notes to see what Inception adds to my understanding of Nolan’s style.

Thankfully, as well, Nolan’s future will continue in July 2012 with the release of the as-yet-untitled Batman 3. Whether it’s in the form of comic-book operas or ambitious stand-alone projects, I hope we hear a lot from Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan in coming years. Many of the trends I’ve cited, like the nonstop obfuscation and the mechanical natures of his scripts, can negatively impact the finished films, but at his best – as, I’d say, represented by Memento‘s hard-boiled cunning and The Dark Knight‘s action-packed grandeur – Nolan has directed some of the smartest, most exciting commercial cinema of the 21st century. So, thanks to Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck for providing an excuse to write this piece, and now I turn it over to you, dear reader. Am I ridiculously overrating Nolan’s work? (Maybe.) What am I missing? Penny for your thoughts.

1By which I’m referring to the multiple Batmen, the decoy Batmobile, Gordon’s faked death, the Joker’s constant lies and disguises, and the minions-as-hostages ploy during the climactic showdown.

2Cf. Joel Schumacher’s 1998 anti-opus that enabled Nolan’s entrance to the franchise.

3While mentioning Bugs, I must also mention Ledger’s Looney Tunes-style cross-dressing turn as a hot nurse – an interlude I spent marveling at how convincingly (and attractively) he pulled the outfit off.

4And since superhero comics are intensely melodramatic, psychological wounds are always externalized, as with Two-Face and the Joker, the latter of whom has only his face as a record of his past. As Gordon asks, “What’s he hiding under that makeup?”

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The Avengers, Batman, and superhero auteurs

I don’t talk about film news that often, but there’s been a nexus of superhero movie headlines that I couldn’t ignore. Recently we’ve had both directors and release dates announced for The Avengers and Batman 3: Joss Whedon and May 2012 for the former; the returning Christopher Nolan and July 2012 for the latter. So, why don’t we ponder for a moment the ramifications of these announcements?

One big reason I usually don’t talk about film news is because there’s so much speculation and industry politics involved; to be honest, it gets pretty boring. I don’t especially care about the financial angle, and therefore tend to ignore Variety-style announcements about budgets and contracts and so on. But this is big news, on a cultural level. And it’s especially interesting because of the contrast between these huge, highly anticipated projects. Whedon’s Avengers movie will be the final result of a giant, corporate engine turning out a half-dozen superhero movies to set it up; it’ll be the full realization of Paramount/Marvel’s ambitions, and filmmaking on an epic scale.

Meanwhile, Nolan’s Dark Knight follow-up will still be the mainstream of a corporation, in this case Warner Bros. But it looks like it’ll be based much more in the decisions of creative individuals, namely Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan. I might be oversimplifying how much of a binary this is, especially since I have no idea how much of an authorial imprint Whedon will leave. But this much I know: Whedon will be picking this project from where Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Joe Johnston, and Kenneth Branagh left off. Nolan came in and revived a disgraced franchise through the strength of his talent and ideas. If you can’t tell, I find myself increasingly drawn to Christopher Nolan, and how well he’s maintained his creative integrity while directing big-budget action epics.

I’m not too well-acquainted with Whedon’s work, but the man’s admittedly a nerd deity and one-man sci-fi/horror empire. Still, I’m very curious about how this will translate into working on Marvel’s franchise-defining mega-project. To sum up: this news raises lots of questions about the place of the director in superhero movies. Questions that interest me as a fan both of superheroes and auteur cinema. Like comics, superhero movies have often been classified as below art simply by virtue of their subject matter, and I think Nolan’s helping to change that by taking Batman very seriously, and by giving his films the qualities you’d expect of any good/great movie. The Dark Knight had solid – sometimes extraordinary – performances, a labyrinthine narrative of anarchy and revenge, and some amount of thematic weight. This is the blockbuster action movie striving toward something higher.

So expectations are understandably high for Batman 3, as well as Nolan’s upcoming Inception. I’m skeptical about whether The Avengers will achieve similar crossover success, but anything could happen. Mainly I’m impressed by the sheer coordination necessary to get this project into the air. By the time it’s released, it’ll have 6 different feature-length origin stories behind it, so it’ll have a lot to live up to as well. And with such a huge, diverse ensemble… well, this movie should ample opportunity to become a sprawling chaotic mess. I won’t deny it: I love an enormous, well-told story. I love small, personal stories better, but I can’t resist something if it’s overwhelmingly huge, like the LOTR and Star Wars trilogies. Batman 3 will probably have a monopoly on intelligent, brooding superheroes in 2012. So come on, Whedon: dumb or not, impress me with a story so nerdy in flavor and epic in scope that I’ll have no choice but to enjoy it.

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Seduction of the Innocent: cartoons and sex

I’ve often discussed on this blog the things that affected my sexuality as I grew up and a lot of those things are cartoons. Almost all kids watch cartoons. And lots and lots of cartoons have some kind of subtle sexual things going on, or some sexual or oversexualized character. I’m not here to discuss the worrying sexualization of things like Dora and Strawberry Shortcake. I’m not really talking about that kind of thing; it’s more of an inherent sexuality that, in its own gentle way, reflects that life is sexual, humans are sexual beings. It’s not pornographic or vulgar (most of the time). BUT there were many, many images of female characters, female characters with some kind of power, that impacted my sexuality greatly as a child. So this post is going to be dedicated to all those wonderful characters.

Jessica Rabbit

Ohhh, Jessica. Many a young person, of any gender, has swooned over your luscious, heavy-lidded, Veronica Lake-inspired visage, your impossibly, surreally curvy body and your mysterious, aloof disposition. Possibly the animated femme fatale to end all animated femme fatales, I had the HUGEST crush on Jessica Rabbit from about age 6 to…now. I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit all the time as a child and was completely smitten with her. But she wasn’t just a sizzling sexpot or homage to noir femme fatales; she was pawn in a plot against her husband, one of the many people caught up in something they couldn’t control. Her motives become clearer as the story goes on and she transcends what she originally seems to be. I <3 Jessica Rabbit.

The Sailor Scouts

I’ve discussed at length the impact Sailor Moon had on my sexuality. I was attracted to practically every single scout; they were part of some of my earliest sexual fantasies. At 13, I had a very large clothe scroll image of the Inner Senshi…in swimsuits. There’s no denying the incredible affect this show had on me. Hot girls in short skirts kicking ass? Yes, please. Young me was totally excited about it. And young me also wasn’t stupid enough to buy that Haruka and Michiru were cousins. And thinking back on it, it’s very possible that Michiru and Haruka’s relationship, thinly veiled as it was by the censors, made me feel more comfortable with my own lesbian fantasies. All in all, this show was a fucking godsend for my sexuality, regardless of all the fucked up messages it sent out.

BulmaAfter Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z was the most important anime of my childhood. It was the “masculine” to Sailor Moon’s “feminine” and I liked the balance. And Bulma was the complete opposite of our ditzy lead Senshi, Usagi: she was an all around well-rounded character almost from the start. She felt very real to me: she had issues, she had a flawed love life, she was very, very intelligent (a scientific genius actually; it runs in the family) and kind-hearted but she was also temperamental and immature at times. She had believable progression as a character, as did all of the Dragon Ball characters (the series starts when Goku and Bulma are quite young). She goes from fifteen year old kid genius adventurer to believable young woman to mother of two children. Pretty intense character development for what was deemed ‘a kid’s show’. I was drawn to Bulma as a character, not just because she was attractive (very attractive) but because she seemed like someone I could know in real life.

Catwoman

Specifically the Batman: The Animated Series incarnation but really, any Catwoman will do. I loved Catwoman so much when I was younger that I would pretend to be her all the time. I had this hideous pair of leather boots that looked like elephant skin and went up to my shins that I called my Catwoman boots and I wore them EVERY WHERE. I would take black driving  gloves (that were my mom’s) and put needles, point out, carefully in the finger tips to give myself claws. Catwoman is another femme fatale archetype; a sleek, sensual pussy cat who sexually teases Batman while committing all kinds of crimes. And she has a whip; she’s into bondage and that’s awesome. While Catwoman may not be a supervillain and rather more of an anti-hero than anything else, she was still a very compelling character, especially once you delve into her history and all her different incarnations.

Esmeralda

This is another character that I’ve talked in depth about in the past so I won’t dwell on it here too long. Other than being in the film that first exposed me to the idea of repressed desires and tormented sexual psyches, Esmeralda the character was defiant, rebellious and concerned for the rights of her people. She represented a marginalized group and wouldn’t tolerate injustice. But during all this she maintains an air of good nature and flirtatious mischief. And something that I’ve only started to think about recently: Esmeralda expresses sexuality (through the power of pole dancing) and yet, she is not set up as an immoral character; rather it is the puritanical Frollo who is represented as the monster.

Ms. Sara Bellum and Sedusa

It’s no great surprise that Ms. Bellum from The Powerpuff Girls, what with her uncanny resemblance to Jessica Rabbit, should draw my attention (as I’m sure she did with many other viewers). The ironic humor of the character lies solely in the absence of her head: despite the fact that visually she is nothing more than a very sexy body she is the brains behind the mayoral office that runs Towsnville. The Mayor is nothing more than an incompetent manchild. The mix of quiet confident intelligence with that surreally curved body creates an overall delightful and incredibly attractive character.

Sedusa, on the other hand, is completely insane. She is all the negative feminine stereotypes people believe wrapped into one ball of wicked energy: maniacal, dangerous vanity (in the form of her killer locks); sexual teasing and coercion to turn men into idiots that will bend easily to her will (as demonstrated quite well in “Mommy Fearest” and “Something’s a Ms“; the latter of course is an awesome clash between Sedusa and Ms. Bellum); huge temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. She’s not quite the femme fatale that, say, Jessica Rabbit or Catwoman are. But she’s a great villain and honestly, sometimes there’s nothing more attractive than a great female villain in a tight suit.

Red Hot Riding Hood and the burlesque mouse from The Great Mouse Detective

Red Hot Riding Hood is a kind of unfortunate character: she exists solely to be looked at and drooled over (quite literally). There are a few different incarnations of her: Swing Shift Cinderella, Little Rural Riding Hood, Wild and Woolfy, and a few others but they are all basically the same character and all serve the same purpose.  This is one of the few characters that I was drawn to almost entirely because of the way she looked; she was very sexualized and the cartoons were so energetically sexual and suggestive that censors actually demanded that some of the scenes be cut! And I think that with the mix of oversexualization and fractured fairy tale, it was easy to get drawn into.

The burlesque mouse, as I call her, from The Great Mouse Detective serves a similar purpose. She’s a sexy little mouse who sings a suggestive song in a seedy bar. This was one of my favorite parts of the movie. But why do I consider these two characters, who aren’t really much of characters in terms of development, as something that impacted me? Because I found them really, really sexy and was attracted to the way they looked; THAT impacted me. And they were the first exposure I had to burlesque; both characters are something that you’d be hard pressed to get away with in children’s entertainment now. They’re overtly sexual and I responded to that in a big way when I was younger.

So there’s a short list of some of the cartoons that had an affect, big or small, on my sexuality. I can look at all of these characters and figure out how they fit into my progression as a sexual person. And you may be wondering, well, why are they all girls? Did these cartoons make you queer? Of course not; there are hundreds of girls out there who watched these same characters just as much as I did and are straight. I gravitated towards them because I was attracted to the female form before the male. These cartoons sparked some of the earliest sexual attractions I had; I was naturally drawn to these female characters and they helped me further understand myself sexually. I appreciate the willingness of some animators to NOT shy away from the fact that humans, and yes, children, are sexual. Including sexuality of some kind in a cartoon or cartoon character does not pervert it or make it pornographic. These are all subtle forms of sex and sexuality. But they speak volumes. I appreciate every one of these characters for helping me understand myself, for helping me recognize the beauty of the female body without demonizing it, and for making me feel like it was okay to touch myself while thinking of women. These cartoons are fucking amazing.

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Batman rides a horse and Joker gets away

It sucks to only have Internet access at the library, it sucks more to have to drive around a lot, and it sucks most when those two factors together prevent me from blogging for a week. So, to make up for the suckiness, I am finally here blogging again. So, where to start with what’s happened lately? I saw It Happened One Night and Bride of Frankenstein at the Edina Theater’s 75th birthday celebration, and won a $10 iTunes gift card for correctly identifying Ernest Thesiger as the actor who plays the ghoulishly immoral Dr. Pretorious in Bride. Of course, that gift card is next to worthless, since what am I going to buy through iTunes that I couldn’t just illegally download with the press of a button? Oh well.

Also, several days ago, my portable DVD player stopped working. I bid farewell to my ol’ Nextplay 7″ after 1 1/2 years of good service, and have since ordered a $92 Audiovox 9″ portable DVD player. Will it work better? Will it work at all? For the answer, I must wait till it arrives in the next 2-10 days. I really, really like using portable DVD players. They’re intimate, cozy, personal, and generally functional. I’ve watched several hundred movies on them since I received one, miraculously, in a raffle at our high school graduation party. I just wish they had longer life spans. Hopefully Audiovox (a somewhat more reputable electronics purveyor than “Nextplay,” whoever the fuck that is) can go some length toward restoring my faith in portable DVD players’ longevities. If not, maybe I’ll just buy a cheap, non-portable player and start using a TV for the screen. Either way.

Also in the past week, I read two Batman graphic novels: Frank Miller’s landmark The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison’s phantasmagorical, best-selling Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Both were interesting in their own ways. With Dark Knight Returns, well, I liked the boldly noncontinuity stance of the book: none of this really happened, but it could; the Joker really dies (and has a laugh doing it); nuclear war shuts down non-Batman law and order in the USA (?!?); oh, and Superman fights Batman, for real. Superman kind of wins.

A beautifully iconic cover for an icon-shattering graphic novel

I guess it kind of reminds me of another “what if?”-type story I read years ago: 1963’s totally ridiculous Superman Red/Superman Blue, where some weird Kryptonite experiment leads Superman to split into two people, who then, um, erase all evil or disease anywhere on earth, restore Krypton, marry both Lois Lane and Lana Lang, and live happily ever after. The word “absurd” doesn’t quite cover it. And so, even though Dark Knight Returns may make a lot more sense, it still shares a little of that “continuity be damned, we’re plowing forward” spirit; this is one of many possible futures. And it’s a dark, gloomy future, too, which helped, with Watchmen, to create this new conception of superheroes as often unhappy, deeply imperfect people. We find Bruce Wayne, 10 years after retiring his cowl, watching a Gotham City on the brink, or even the verge. Jim Gordon’s retiring, a gang called the Mutants are raping and mutilating civilians, and Harvey Dent’s supposedly been “cured.” Naturally, the situation has only one answer: the despondent Bruce, increasingly alcoholic, must return to the streets as an old man and remind everyone that crime doesn’t pay.

It’s a damn well-told story; constant news coverage is superimposed over battle sequences where Batman often remarks that he’s not as young as he used to be. Questions of vigilantism, terrorism, and constitutional rights are brought up; we get a new Robin and a new police commissioner, both female; and politics messes up everything – Superman alludes to events preceding the novel akin to Watchmen‘s Keene Act, and an unnamed, folksy, Reagan-like president plays an important role in negotiating with the Soviets and refusing to comment on the Batman situation. Ultimately, the book says, this is a new, hypothetical world that doesn’t really have room for superheroes. It’s harder to manage with a cape in the middle of the Cold War. I don’t think it works as well as Watchmen when it comes to being a self-contained work of art, but its greatest accomplishment is as one more reworking of a big, dark, winged myth. Also: the indubitable Crowning Moment of Awesome in a book that even has Oliver Queen shooting a Kryptonite arrow at Superman’s heart? Batman rides a horse.

Batman rides a horse.

On the less-awesome side, I didn’t really see the need for the younger characters’ Nadsat-like, unexplained slang – shiv, billy, etc. All it really did for me was make half of girl Robin’s dialogue incoherent. But who am I to talk? I’m not Frank Miller.

On a radically different side of Batman, we have Arkham Asylum, which I found even better than Dark Knight Returns. It’s illustrated by Dave McKean, which means it’s pretty much unlike any comic book you’ve ever read (unless you’ve read something illustrated by Dave McKean). It fluctuates between photorealistic faces and hands and maddening meshes of prose and picture, and Batman’s costume becomes an impressionistic blur in this most serious of houses. McKean’s labyrinthine art works works well with Morrison’s arcane writing, drawing on Jung, Crowley (both of whom are met by Amadeus Arkham in the book), tarot, mythology, and more. Like Miller’s Batman, Morrison’s is flawed and vulnerable, but whereas Miller concentrates on the long-term effects of crimefighting, Morrison zooms in on Batman’s perceived psychosexual hang-ups: he’s terrified of physical and sexual contact (he reacts violently to Joker’s playful gay-baiting and fears Clayface’s infection); he’s emotionally frozen and unable to sustain a relationship. He’s also petrified by the idea that, like the homicidal maniacs he’s put away in Arkham, he might also be crazy.

A phobic, paralyzed Batman rejects the Joker's suggestion to "loosen up, tight ass!"

This is the basic premise of Arkham Asylum, and it’s carried out more like visual poetry than a straightforward superhero comic book. While Dark Knight Returns sees Batman flying, driving, and riding all over the place, becoming a force of law and order in the face of Armageddon, Arkham Asylum involves more battle with inner demons like the loss of his parents than with the reconceived rogues gallery that surrounds him. It’s impressive how effectively Morrison’s psychoanalytic approach to Batman, Two-Face, Killer Croc, and others fits with McKean’s abstract, oneiric, mixed-media artwork: we get a demonic, wide-eyed Joker celebrating April Fools’ Day for all its worth, a burnt-out pedophilic Mad Hatter, and the father of the serious house, Amadeus Arkham, who succumbs to its mentally degenerative atmosphere after the death of his wife and daughter. It’s a multifaceted exploration of madness in its many incarnations, and the tale of one (Bat)man’s arguably successful battle with a world gone mad.

Two-Face lets fate make his decisions in Arkham Asylum

Overall, it’s a somewhat difficult book – much understanding of the plot and themes has to come from intuitive impressions, since between McKean’s vague style and Morrison’s grounding in esoteric mysteries, every panel has a number of meanings. Perhaps ironically, it’s also the best-selling graphic novel of all time, a fact which Morrison attributes to the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie. It’s a very interesting book which you can certainly read over and over, seeking new clues and new signs of madness.

That’s all the Batman graphic novel reviewing I have for the moment, but I hope to return to the library to blog maybe tomorrow or the day after. Potential topics: outsider art and music, more Jack Chick, another favorite movie. We shall see.

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