Friday, June 24, 2011

Sucker Punch, the Musical


Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige encouraged us to watch closely, to see the trick within the narrative, but also warned us that we wouldn’t find it, because we aren’t interested in knowing the truth: we want to be fooled.Maybe Nolan should have included a similar style of disclaimer at the beginning of Inception, given the proliferation of websites explaining the layers of the dream to confused theatre-goers. Add the challenges Black Swan presented viewers in discerning reality from madness, and you’d think we’d have accrued some savvy in making sense of fractured narratives in virtual and psychological spaces. I’m dubious about the depth the average movie-goer views a movie at, but after reading a number of reviews for Zack Synder’s SuckerPunch back in March and April, I’m even less hopeful. Consider Ron Porter’s "brilliant" assessment that the insane asylum protagonist Babydoll is sent to “is actually a front for a brothel/dance club.”  I’m not sure if Mr. Porter was in an actual brothel/dance club when he saw the film, but anyone who’s mistaken the bordello level for reality wasn’t paying any sort of attention at all. 

In my line of work as a University English instructor, I am often reminded of how little we as viewers or readers pay attention. Jay Bardyla, owner of Happy Harbor Comics in Edmonton says the same of comic readers who skim their issues rather than actually reading both text and image. Many reviews of and responses to Sucker Punch, both positive and negative, illustrate how little North American film goers, both professional critics and average Joe, are paying attention, or thinking critically about what they're watching.

Consider Big Shiny Robot's complaint about the mental disorientation Snyder ostensibly produces playing “fast and loose with time and place at every level of the story”:

The insane asylum is vague vintage Americana circa 1950s or 60s. The whore house is Gypsy Rose Lee Burlesque in look – but they dance to contemporary artists like Björk. Then the fight sequences are just all over the place merging the past with futurism etc etc. Which makes you ask the question; How the HELL does Baby Doll imagine this stuff?!?!

Big Shiny Robot has done a fine job of assessing what he saw: he has described all three layers of Sucker Punch's reality with brilliant concision. Let's review those layers before moving on. First, there's the "vague vintage Americana circa 1950s or 60s." Big Shiny Robot gets an A for his alliteration of vague and vintage, but also for how spot on this estimation is. The first level of reality is vague, it is vintage, and it's definitely circa, not a particular year.Furthermore, his choice of "Americana" is brilliant, as it denotes a collective grouping of items or visuals that evoke America. We know this isn't taking place in Asia, or even Europe. The look has an American sensibility to it. Beyond that, we can't say with precision where in America this story takes place. Overall, it has that "once upon a time" aspect of fairy tale films, like Edward Scissorhands, which was vague contemporary/gothic mashup, circa 1980s. There is a sense that this is happening in a past, but not a terribly particular one.The first level of reality is characterized by a desaturated, cool color palette akin to that of the virtual world in The Matrix. The girls are not made up, and wear tattered, ragged clothing.
 
Observe the following images from The Art of Suckerpunch, as they demonstrate how the visual design of the film was intended to blur the levels of reality. Clearly, however, we're dealing with a different narrative space, even if the characters are in the same actual place
 Level Two is the whore house, which Big Shiny Robot describes as "Gypsy Rose Lee Burlesque in look." Again, Big Shiny Robot (BSR)has astutely placed the visual aesthetic: but Gypsy Rose Lee performed Burlesque prior to the 50s and 60s BSR already mentioned. Already the temporal feel of the film is blurry. The viewer can now conclude one of two things: Zakk Snyder has made a terrible period picture, or this film will be playing fast and loose with historical looks and styles. This is not Stand by Me. The look of this level of reality contains a warmer colour palette, though the hospital green still finds its way into the background. The girls are no longer bedraggled mental patients, but gorgeous dancers. The hospital staff have become the manager and bouncers of the burlesque club. Babydoll's father has become a Catholic Priest, again underscoring how ridiculous it would be to miss the difference between levels one and two.
The third level of reality, of Babydoll's pure imagining, is "just all over the place merging the past with futurism." Again, yes. It's all over the place. It merges the past with futurism. So do music videos and video games, both styles of filmmaking Sucker Punch was pejoratively compared with. Zakk Snyder is again playing fast and loose. Everything BSR said is true - but does that necessarily make it a poorly made film, or has it simply not lived up to BSR's expectations? This level is characterized by the girls looking like they stepped out of an Anime, armed to the teeth in outfits unsuitable for combat, as open to the Male Gaze as their burlesque costumes. Again, note the similarity between the Asylum/Whore House architecture and the design art for the castle. As Snyder notes in The Art of Suckerpunch, "each combat fantasy [features] a building - the pagoda, the cathedral, the castle - all of which are reminiscent of Lennox House in one way or another" (168).

So Big Shiny Robot is aware that this film plays loose and fast with history and styles. Yet despite admitting this, BSR then asks, as many did, a literal question of correspondence, "How the HELL does Baby Doll imagine this stuff?" BSR has mistakenly assumed this is a period piece. Like detractors of Snyder's earlier film, 300, the assumption is that Synder isn't playing fast and loose with time and place in either film. 300 was panned by historians for its lack of historical accuracy, when 300 was a dead accurate cinematic creation of its source material, a comic by Frank Miller. Likewise, Sucker Punch draws its stylistic tool box from a style of film BSR would likely hate: Moulin Rouge!, which Katherine Monk astutely compares SuckerPunch to. Even without Snyder’s open admission of  inspiration from Baz Luhrman’s mashup of classic pop/rock with cabaret, courtesans, and the can can, similarities are evident, such as the trademark Red Curtain opening at the very beginning of the film. The observant viewer will note that there are two Red Curtains in that moment, signifying the layers of reality we will soon be party to viewing. Additionally, it also shows that the "reality" of Baby Doll's home life is taking place on a stage set, further problematizing the ontological stability of any of the story's layers. Note the design art again, which shows the stage inside Lennox House, mirroring this first stage. Stages as spaces of performance before an audience's gaze, primarily male, appear regularly in the film.
 Perhaps audiences would have understood the Luhrman influence better had Synder gone full gonzo and filmed the opening scenes with Emily Browning lipsyncing her own vocals to the film’s goth-styled cover of Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams.” Suckerpunch: The Art of the Film features a photo of “all the ladies together, practicing a musical number with compose Marius de Vries,” sheet music in hand (21).  
 
Another section of The Art of the Film, “The Theater,” contains images, both conceptual and completed, of at least three large-scale musical numbers. A still shot captured from one of the trailers shows the girls engaged in one of these dance numbers. Another still image showcases Vanessa Hudgens dancing, which certainly explains why an actress best known for her performance in High School Musical was cast in this film. Snyder wasn’t casting an “action-fantasy-thriller,” as Wikipedia purports; he was casting an action-fantasy-musical. I had concluded as much during the end credits of the film, which gave Snyder an opportunity to show footage of Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac performing a cover of Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug.” I began to wonder how many other musical numbers were abandoned along the way or left on the cutting room floor due to studio pressure.
 
 
Consider the soundtrack of nine covers intended to “bring all of the baggage” memories of the original songs would evoke (Snyder qtd. in Rosenberg). Detractors of the film spoke of a lack of depth, but ignored the extra layer of meaning the soundtrack provided. Not lyrically, necessarily, but in the poetic sense of what the song might stand for. Take the remix of Björk’s “Army of Me” featuring Skunk Anansie, a UK hard rock band fronted by Skin, a black female model who once described the band’s music as “clit rock” (skinmusic.net), and stated that at one point in her career, "Every interview … started off by describing me as a scary bald bisexual black six-foot-four Amazonian.” The combination of Björk and Skin singing “Army of Me” evokes more than the song’s lyrics, which are about Björk’s perpetually jobless younger brother. After the inclusion of this song on the Tank Girl soundtrack, it seemed to become an anthem for strong women. This is the sonic backdrop of Babydoll’s battle with the demonic Samurai: so while we only see Emily Browning onscreen, we effectively have three women represented. This is why Babydoll can imagine Björk’s music: not because it makes sense from a factual or historical standpoint, but because it makes sense from an stylistic, ideological standpoint.
Of the soundtrack’s nine covers, only one is performed entirely by men, a mashup of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “I Want it All” featuring rapper Armageddon. The music plays over the introduction to the dance stage of the bordello reality, giving voice to lust of the Mayor, Blu, and other men ready to leer at Babydoll’s performance. Two of the remaining eight songs are duets, while the rest are sung solely by women. Consider further, that many were originally sung by men: “Seek and Destroy” by Iggy Pop, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, “Where is My Mind?” by the Pixies, and “Asleep” by the Smiths. In addition to “Army of Me,” only Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” were sung first by women. This may seem incidental, but if we view Suckerpunch as a musical, or in its released form, a long-form music video, it isn’t incidental, but important: the songs construct another layer of story. The film may lack character development, but so do most music videos, replacing coherent narrative with dynamic camera motion, dancing, rapid edits, and the lyrics, tempo, and mood of the music to communicate an idea. 

What idea is Suckerpunch trying to communicate, you ask?  That Was Junk offered "ten points" to anyone who could decipher the message. Again, I’m a little saddened people didn’t get it, but seeing as most arguments around Inception centered on whether “he’s still in the dream” at the end, or viewers Pan’s Labyrinth wonder “was the fairy tale real or not,” we’ve had years of practice at missing the point. In both those cases, there is no definite answer to those questions: if that’s all you got, you’re missing the point. In Inception, the ending is a character moment – he puts down the top he’s been so obsessively spinning throughout the film, effectively communicating he doesn’t care whether he’s in the dream anymore or not. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the fairy tale elements mirror the resistance and rebellion of the war story. They are thematically consistent.

Likewise, anyone looking for perfect equivalencies in Suckerpunch is asking the wrong questions. Emilíana Torrini’s cover of “White Rabbit” reminds us we’ve gone down the rabbit hole, into a world with the logic of Lewis Carrol crossed with Heavy Metal. Many reviewers pejoratively compared SuckerPunch to video games and music videos, as though montage and stylistic visuals are incapable of rendering Snyder’s message worth taking seriously. Yes, SuckerPunch works like a music video, and that’s precisely why it mashes up B-52 Bombers over Mordor-like battlescapes. It is an over-the-top pastiche of major action film tropes: war, martial arts, fantasy, science fiction, and horror, all rolled together without regard for convention liminality or temporality.

The film is self-reflexive, painfully aware of how rote many of its moves will be. Consider the cliches Scott Glen delivers throughout: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Many critics mistook this for deadpan serious, but not in the Alan West way they should have. Everyone on screen knows such pithy statements are bullshit, but they are the stock-in-trade of the male-dominated action picture: if they’d painted Glen’s face up with blue woad and put him on a horse in front of Scotsmen yelling those lines, perhaps he’d be up for an academy award. Posters told us “You Will Not Be Prepared.” Obviously, we would be prepared for the imagery of the combat fantasies, derivative of any number of blockbuster pictures. But I'd argue the film is aware of this obvious move, based upon Sweet Pea's words when we first enter the second level of reality: "This is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what's this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?" This is the line that indicated Snyder knew what he was doing with this bold film. Partial Objects did a hell of a job following this line of inquiry up shortly after the film was released, and I concur with much of what he says there. 
What I suspected when I saw the film was that all levels of reality were prisons. Not one of them was a space of freedom, whatever any supporter of the film has said about the emancipation of women as represented by ass-kicking chicks in badass armor killing zombies and dragons. Babydoll's dance doesn't allow her to escape. Every level is a trap. Compare these images from The Art of Suckerpunch showing the layout of Lennox House and the WWI trenches in the second combat fantasy:
If all of the levels are prisons, then the answer to the question "why would a woman escape into a fantasy of strippers or ass-kicking in scantily clad armor?" becomes, "she wouldn't. You would." I'll give the floor to Partial Objects, as he's done a fine job of making this point:
But the movie is self aware. Are the women hot, like the audience would expect? Sure. Do they do ninja acrobatics as the audience wants them to? Hell yeah. Which explains why Babydoll told, in level 2, “if you do not dance, you have no purpose.” Hey, she’s right.
And self-aware means aware of the audience. Why would a 20 year old girl, to escape the horrors of a retro mental asylum, create the fantasy that she’s in a bordello?
She’s doesn’t: we do. Putting a hot girl in an asylum immediately sexualizes it– the possibility/hope that vulnerability means penetration is considered by us, and the director just makes it explicit. The prostitutes in the movie have to dance for their clients; the actresses in our movie have to dance (ninja style) for ours.
And this is the prison the women of Suckerpunch are trapped inside: one Male Gaze fantasy after another, and each one done with wild abandon, exposing how troublesome each one is. People have asked me if I really think Synder is this smart: I would point them to the final moments of the film, when Sweatpea is about to board the bus that will take her...home? She is wearing a demure outfit, and yet remains a target for the Male Gaze of all men around her, save the Wise Man, Scott Glen's character, who in Wizard of Oz fashion, is now in the "real" world. As she steps on the bus, he states "We've still got a long way to go." And insofar as the liberation and emancipation of women, we do.

This isn't just about skimpy costumes and Barbie doll figures wielding two-handed swords with ease. It's about trapping others in an expectation, an objectification, where a person is no longer a thing, but merely an object to stick something into. This is what Babydoll becomes when she is lobotomized, no different than a sex doll or pornographic image. This is no longer a person, but merely an orifice. And if our reaction to her lobotomy is horror, then that is the right one to have. Many of us are like Madame Gorski, complicit in the system that keeps women trapped in these spaces. Others are like Babydoll, railing against the system. And this is what is meant by the closing narration, and the line that drives one of my colleagues absolutely batshit:
Who honors those we love for the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time, things that will never die? Who teaches us whats real, and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live, and what we’ll die to defend? Who trains us, and who holds the key to set us free? It’s you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!
I'm convinced that the "you" in this monologue is the audience. The fight we're being encouraged towards is one of equality, of feminism. The weapons are not the ones we've seen throughout the film. Babydoll's tragic accident involving a handgun at the beginning of the film is proof enough of that. Further, the weapons the girls use in the combat fantasies are also proven impotent. Some other weapon is required. Granted, Snyder may not have suggested the weapons to us, but at least we have the discussion on the table once more.
Ultimately, I don’t care if people like Suckerpunch or not. I just wish that critics and viewers alike were watching more carefully. But why should I be surprised people aren’t paying that close of attention? Movie soundtracks rarely reward the listener with another level of meaning: too often they are the descendants of the Godzilla soundtrack. The only connection between that soundtrack’s songs and the movie were samples of the big G’s roar. We haven’t seen a pop-soundtrack of Suckerpunchs caliber since The Crow. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a generation raised on soundtracks “inspired by” movies (but having nothing to do with them short of marketing strategy) aren’t listening very closely to the music in the background. Combining a close read of the film with the soundtrack and the Art of the Film book has made for a rewarding study. It's extended my viewing of the film beyond the screen, and taken me to a deeper place of contemplation and research than merely giving the movie a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Suckerpunch is a musical, or at the very least, the result of a filmmaker who grew up along with MTV, who was likely forming up plans for future movies while watching the storied videos of Kate Bush, David Bowie, or Michael Jackson. I’ve been told Sucker Punch is bad film, and maybe that’s true. But as a two hour concept video, or quasi musical, it kicks my ass. When the extended DVD comes out next week, I'll be getting mine, in the hope more of the musical is up on the screen.

NOTE: I can't recommend Sucker Punch: The Art of the Film enough. It opens up a whole new layer of understanding the film, from the dance numbers and architectural concept art shown here, to the intricate tattoo-style art on Babydoll's katana and gun. Really gorgeous book, well worth having.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Interview with Micah Harris of Heaven's War

Shortly after I finished my review for Heaven's War in 2004, Micah Harris contacted my to thank me for the review, which I had also posted over at Amazon.com. I asked if he would be interested in doing an interview with Gotthammer and he was gracious enough to do one via email.  The following image is my "fan art" version of one frame from the book. Since it's in black and white, I've long thought it would be fun to colour it, just to see how it changes the dynamic.



What was the inspiration for Heaven's War, and why choose the Inklings as the protagonists?
 
The roots of "Heaven's War" go back to a prose novel I wrote, which was a conspiracy thing, and towards the end of it, one character made reference to the Inklings as being one "front" for this secret society which was combating the demonic forces of the kingdom of the air. That was a seed for a follow-up prose novel, which I actually began, but I mentioned the idea to my friend Nathan Massengill. He encouraged me to develop it into comics form, because he thought he could sell that idea to Caliber (an independent publisher from the '80s and '90s) where he had some contacts. (Nathan has written for Caliber himself, but he has mostly done a lot of inking, most notably for Marvel's Deadpool and Harris's Vengeance of Vampirella).   
So I went back and started turning the story into a comics script (only a fragment had been written in prose). Nathan would edit it, and he also got me in touch with Michael Gaydos to draw it (this is all back in the mid 90s, by the way). It took years for it to finally come to fruition, and in the interim, Caliber went out of business!
    
We jumpstarted the project with a presentation booklet that consisted primarily of the first chapter drawn and lettered. Michael, by this time, was working on "Alias" for Marvel. He took the booklet around to publishers at the San Diego Con and soon I had an e-mail from Jim Valentino of Image saying they liked Heaven's War and would like to publish it. Needless to say, Image's response was VERY appreciated by everyone on the creative team.    
I chose Charles Williams as the protagonist instead of Lewis and Tolkien because Williams had a more "colorful" background that connected him (though very slightly) with the occult society in England around the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries. I personally enjoy Lewis and Tolkien as writers more than Williams, but he was the more interesting guy, whose backstory -- as well as his theories of the nature of time -- loaned themselves more to the kind of story I wanted to tell.  

Have you gotten any feedback from the readers? 

Reader feedback, I'm happy to say, has been mostly positive on "Heaven's War," judging by the internet postings. It CAN be a challenging read and I can understand if some folks lose patience with it. A couple of reviewers have found it "dry" or just boring or too talky in places. But the conflict here is between scholarly intellectuals, not Thor and the Hulk. I think the scene where Lewis and Tolkien tackle Crowley is a pretty funny one because the physical heroics are obviously NOT really their thing. Those who've stuck out "Heaven's War" tend to find it well worth the effort. Of course, I always intended "Heaven's War" to require some pondering, as I tend to enjoy that kind of entertainment myself, things like "2001: A Space Odyssey," the last episode of "The Prisoner" and the films of David Lynch, or the short fiction of Jorge Luis Borges. And, of course, none of those examples are to everyone's tastes, either.  
:Tell me about the endnotes. 
Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's "From Hell" was my model there, as indeed that graphic novel influenced the approach to certain themes in my own about the nature of time. Such philosophical musings about Time were in the air at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century and Charles Williams' called his particular version "Under the Arch of Eternity." 

"Heaven's War" seems to be a synthesis of religious and magical points of view - the Inklings are obviously Christians, but the cosmology of the story assumes that while God is God in His heaven, there are certain magical correspondences that still work. This prompts several  questions: do you see the universe as having magical correspondences, even though as a Christian you would still believe in the sovereignty of God, or were you just allowing Williams to inhabit the secondary world of his novels to some extent?

 I don't think the book promotes any kind of harmony between the Biblically Christian cosmology and occult or "magical" elements also in Heaven's War. Note that the "occult elements" the references to use of, in this case, "sex magick" combined with astrology (the pattern of the planet Venus etched over the Rennes-le-Chateau landscape) -- are not presented as being effectual as a means of conjuring. Consider this: we are told, in the text of Heaven's War, that both Father Sauniere and Aleister Crowley have performed these sex astrological rites, but if you look at it, these actions ultimately served no "magical" purpose. There would have been physical gratification, and, for Sauniere, something of a "show" to impress his clients, but none of that effort opened the portal to the Kingdom of the Air. It made not one whit of difference. After all, Williams passes through the extra-dimensional portal without going through Crowley or Sauniere's "exercise" in magic. Of course, that brings us to the "sacred geometry" of Solomon's inner temple creating the portal into the heavenly realms. Please don't think I'm endorsing Feng Shui. The Scriptures only indicate that the literal presence of God was in the most holy place of the temple, not that there was a doorway opened up to heaven by its geometric cube shape. But I took imaginative license there, to say, okay, heaven met earth in that spot, in a manner of speaking, so what if it would become a translation point? So "magic," I don't think, is particularly operating in the universe of "Heaven's War," though God and the supernatural are. It's interesting that you bring this up. I'm currently writing a mini-series I hope to pitch called "Strange Passages," which I'm plotting with the artist, Loston Wallace, and one of the characters that we've worked up in that is closer to a "Christian mystic," certainly more so than Williams or any of the other Inklings in "Heaven's War". This character is only referred to by his title as "the Duke," which is homage to Dennis Wheatley's Duc De Richleau character of his occult novels. However, I hesitate to say that OUR Duke is a "mystic" of any kind, including "Christian" (in contrast to Wheatley's character, as portrayed by Christopher Lee in "The Devil Rides Out" -- aka "The Devil's Bride" -- whom our character is NOT. He has his own back story as part of a medieval monastic warrior order of sorts which I'm not aware has any parallel with Wheatley's character). I'm really not comfortable with the actual practice of "Christian Mysticism" -- calling up angels for protection, for example, seems like blending Christianity with New Age ideas -- and one thing I was keen on was that the Duke in "Strange Passages" NOT be casting spells and mystic bolts of energy or force, like Dr. Strange or even exhibiting the kind of powers a Jedi knight might employ. You can say he has his "talismans" in "Strange Passages," but it's more like what an exorcist would employ, not a wizard. And by the way -- I don't condemn the Harry Potter stuff, or there being good witches in The Wizard of Oz books. I don't think they're promoting devil worship. They're fantasy, in their own secondary worlds, and of course there is plenty of "magic" in Tolkien and Lewis, good and bad. Although, I DID read an interesting essay contrasting the concepts of "power" in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter universes.  

Do you actually believe in the supernatural? 

Yes, I do believe in the reality of the supernatural. I've experienced the numinous -- an awareness of the presence of God -- at certain times in my life, and there was no doubt while that was happening about whom I was sensing. It was apparent. Also, my brother was healed divinely of an incurable, fatal kidney disease, what was then known as "Bright's Disease". And -- my father was a minister -- there have been other manifestations of God in my family. My mom is NOT a fanatical fundamentalist, the kind Hollywood likes to make representative of Christianity as a whole; she is, in fact, very sensible, and embarrassed when Christian people act "unseemly" -- she would NEVER endorse "snake handlin'" for instance. And she tells me that once, during one of my father's revival services, during the altar service; she witnessed a ball of fire fly in through the church window and scatter over the altar. Now, I think my mom's response to that adds to her credence as a witness. She thought, "I didn't see that." And THEN -- it happened again! Others witnessed it as well. Some sinners in the back of the church who weren't praying got up and left. So, yes, I do believe in the supernatural.  

Do you see the supernatural as primarily religious or magical? 

 I might need you to clarify the terms there for me. "Religion" to me indicates ritual and practice and can be completely devoid of the supernatural (Paul spoke of people having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof) and magic, to my thinking, is an attempt to harness the supernatural, not the supernatural itself. 

Do you share the Christian worldview of Williams, Tolkien and Lewis? 

Yes, I hold to many of the Christian beliefs of my story's real-life protagonists. Lewis in particular has been an influence on my way of thinking, probably more influential on me in my personal life than any other writer. (Although I hold Tolkien to be the superior fantasist of the group). "Heaven's War" is a very personal statement.  

Has there been any response to "Heaven's War" from Christian communities? 

As far as Christian response to Heaven's War goes, what I'm aware of so far has been very good. The book was a first for one Christian fiction review web site that had covered only prose before. The critic gave us an "A." Also, a couple guys at "Cornerstone" and "Jesus People" up in Chicago tell me they enjoyed it a lot. In fact, they've invited me this year to their annual international convention to do a couple seminars, one of which will be on Heaven's War.

Heaven's War is certainly not a stereotypical look at occult or Christian concepts for that matter. Have you found that other Christians are uncomfortable with what appears to be a "comfortability" with occult concepts?

Thanks for the comment that "Heaven's War" broke away from the stereotypical view of Christian concepts. That's what I was hoping for, something largely alien to the usual imagery. Not that I was suggesting what I necessarily think the Kingdom of the Air is really like, but I wanted, primarily, to convey a sense of strangeness and otherworldliness, even eerieness. And, as C.S. Lewis noted, and followed this idea through with his chronicles of Narnia as well as his "Ransom" space trilogy, Christian imagery that has become overly familiar no longer carries the power of evocation it was meant to or once did.     To that end, a lot of my Kingdom of the Air iconography was inspired by extra-Christian sources such as the "room" at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the recursive "red rooms" of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. And, of course, that type of strangeness was perfectly in line with Charles Williams' off beat creative vision, which was Christian but odd in relation to traditional Christian concepts. So, yeah, as you noted, my goal was indeed "to allow Williams to inhabit the secondary world he himself created."    As for other Christians being uncomfortable with the occult elements of "Heaven's War . . ." I haven't heard from any! I'm assuming that people who would choke on that are not the kind of Christians who are actually going to pick up the book to start with.  

Is this your first foray into comics, and what other projects are you working on now?

This was my first graphic novel, but I've been wanting to break into comics for something like 20 years now, starting back in the mid-80s. I've worked on several projects that unfortunately never were accepted by a publisher.      I'm very excited about my next comics project, a mini-series that I JUST the other day finished the rough draft of the final issue. I'm working with Loston Wallace, who is drawing and co-plotting the story with me. Loston has done merchandising art for DC comics featuring their animated style Superman and Batman. He's also done a fill-in for the Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip and some sequential comics for a couple independent publishers as well. He's a wonderful artist, very versatile (our project will be more along the artistic lines of the work of Steve Rude, Dave Stevens, and Mark Schultz than the animation style he employed for the animated merchandizing). For both of us, this is a dream collaboration and we're having a lot of fun.

Loston has done character designs and we'll soon be ready to begin developing our "pitch" package. The book is called "Strange Passages," and it's a 1930s style pulp adventure, a genre Loston and I both love. It's a lot more action oriented than "Heaven's War," though I think you'll find the same philosophical, metaphysical type underpinnings as those of my and Michael's graphic novel.  

When Lost Passages was finally released, it was titled The Eldritch New Adventures of Becky Sharp: I just ordered my copy via Amazon, and will be writing about it at Steampunk Scholar at some point. When that happens, I'll let you know! Micah and Loston have a new one-shot comic book out, called Lorna: Relic Wrangler. Check out info and sample pages HERE.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Heaven's War by Micah Harris & Michael Gaydos

This review was first published at my website, Gotthammer.com in 2004. Along with the interview with Micah Harris, it was one of the more popular hits on the site. I haven't had a home for it for quite some time, and Triple Bladed Sword is definitely the right place for it 


I was ecstatic when I first caught wind of Heaven's War, a graphic novel depicting the fictional adventures of the Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams in a fight against the plots of the infamous Aleister Crowley. It's one of the few times I've preordered a book, based on some preview pages over at artist Michael Gaydos' site. 

I'm a fan of all three of the primary Inklings' work, with a special place in my heart for Williams as he is the least known of the three. The best way to describe Williams' writing is as the precursor to urban fantasy, or perhaps horror, although his writing rarely crosses over into graphic violence or shock value. Appropriately it is Williams who is the protagonist of Heaven's War.
     
The book opens with a quote from T.S. Eliot, who once stated that if he ever had to spend a night in a haunted house, he would have asked Williams to stay with him. Writer Michah Harris obviously thought the same thing, and creates a Charles Williams who, rather than merely writing about people who have a foot in both the real world and the spirit world, actually does.     

The premise is nothing new, but the use of historical characters brings a nice twist and a very different flavor, due largely to the book's surreal approach. The book's villain is Aleister Crowley, a man who identified himself with the Great Beast 666 from the Book of Revelation and was a self-proclaimed drug and sex addict. The Inklings discover that Crowley has somehow found the gateway to Heaven itself and means to enter there. Their quest, while grounded in actual events from their lives, takes them on a fantastical journey.     
In what is probably a first for graphic novels, Heaven's War contains a series of annotations to the storyline in the back of the book. These annotations will serve as guideposts for those unfamiliar with the trivial facts about the Inklings, Crowley and other characters. Micah Harris is obviously a very intelligent and well-read writer, which serves Heaven's War very well. For fans of these writers, something more spectacular and senstational would have been crass. Harris' writing, while at times esoteric, honors the memory of these amazing creative powers. The annotations give a sense of verisimilitude, that this story could actually have taken place.    

Heaven's War is definitely worth a read, for a certain type of fantasy fan. If you're one of the millions caught up in Tolkien fever and are thinking this sort of graphic novel will include moments of John Ronald Ruel wielding a two handed mock-up of Narsil, stay away from this book. If you're a childhood fan of Lewis' Narnia chronicles and love a whimsical fantasy involving talking animals, stay far, far away from this book. If, however you have had the distinct pleasure of reading one of Charles Williams' fictional pieces and enjoyed it immensely, then you need to pick up Heaven's War.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

Darrell Sweet's crappy cover of the Great Hunt


A warning to the neophytes: these reviews are full of spoilers, and are really intended as ruminations for old fans of Wheel of Time.

Cover to Part one of the Youth Edition of the Great Hunt.

Whereas Eye of the World has one of my favorite openings and what I deem an uneven final quarter, The Great Hunt starts out clunky and uneven (which is where it loses points), but finds its stride somewhere around the middle, after Rand has reclaimed the Horn of Valere and Egwene and Nynaeve are firmly ensconced in the White Tower. At this point, the narrative takes off, maintaining suspense and tension both within the chapters as well as the overall story arc, a method Jordan will perfect over the next few books. It is the basis for why I suggest that Wheel of Time would make a great television series, as the chapters are often of an episodic nature, containing conflict and resolution as well as unresolved tension in encapsulated installments. Furthermore, the Jordan formula mirrors television seasons in the way the climactic scenes both bring closure to the current novel, while leaving enough open-ended aspects to keep readers eagerly anticipating more.

Jordan has stated in an interview with Audible.com that one of his goals with the series was to explore how realistic self-interest would figure into the heroic epic fantasy. Jordan develops this theme throughout The Great Hunt, laying groundwork for the three male protagonists dislike for the larger-than-life roles they will be playing in their own story by the middle of the series. It finds its apogee in this book in the scene where Rand begs Thom Merrilyn to accompany him further on his adventures. Thom's refusal is based on his acceptance of a rather domestic possible future, an entirely self-serving basis for his rejection of the heroic quest. With consummate balance however, Jordan writes Ingtar's death in the reverse of Thom's decision; his earlier self-interested motivations are what drive him to a classic fantasy trope, the flawed hero's redemption through self-sacrifice. His final moments are evocative of the 300 Spartan's defensive gambit combined with the tragic hamartia of Boromir: "One man holding fifty at a narrow passage. Not a bad way to die. Songs have been made about less" (653).

What is most fascinating about a return to the beginnings of the series after having made one's way through the completed works to date, is the vast scope of Jordan's vision. It is difficult to know without access to Jordan's notes how much he knew of the narrative arc, but it is safe to say that contrary to his critics, he has never wasted time on inconsequential characters. Nearly every time a character steps into a scene with a lengthy, detailed description, I'm recognizing them: some of these are only walk-ons at this point. Many characters who will play pivotal roles in the later novels are introduced and developed in The Great Hunt. We meet nobles from the great houses of Cairhienen who will be Rand's allies and antagonists in future volumes, see relationships begin in animosity which will someday turn to amour, and understand Min's viewings better than she can. I am more aware in the re-reading how monstrous the Seanchan are perceived, all the more poignant knowing how very human some will be rendered in the later novels. One can also see the youthful, hopeful Rand slipping away, and the cold, calculating man he will have become by the end of book five beginning to emerge. In fact, if the first book is characterized by the phrase "in the stories," then The Great Hunt is characterized by the phrase, "we aren't the same anymore," a thought that passes through the minds of the three men from the Two Rivers on several occasions.

My theory that Egwene and Nynaeve are also ta'veren is also strengthened in this novel. Even as Rand is Forrest Gumping his way into Daes Damar, the Machievallian Game of Houses, Egwene finds herself the roommate of Elayne, heir to the throne of Andor, while Nynaeve's testing results in her doing things no other Aes Sedai has done before. The idea of ta'veren is an explanation for the contrivance of this small group from the same geographical area all having exceptional abilities, and its absence in explaining the women seems conspicuous. One wonders if it is not Jordan who overlooked the ta'veren nature of the women, but just the characters in the novel, given that the worldview regarding ta'veren seems to be that only men can be such.

I also continue to be amazed by how satisfying the idea of ta'veren, and by extension, the weaving of the Wheel as secondary world philosophy explaining why the Emond's Fielders are not only exceptional, but attract exceptional people to them, ultimately proves to be. It addresses the vast scope of the series as a weaver would a fabric - the integration of the weave into the pattern is not arbitrary, but transparently contrived, and is a justified contrivance. The ontological stability of the secondary world Jordan has created rests upon this weaving. Again, detractors would state that he never completes the weaves, but without having read the finished work (now having passed to another weaver's hands to find conclusion) none of us can state this with impunity. Most fantasy novels create such deus ex machina to explain the extraordinary amount of coincidence these narrative necessitate, but few do it in as self-reflexive and in regards to narrative, satisfying fashion. Beyond the contrived ontology, a conversation between Thom and Rand underscores the goal of Jordan's project concerning the instability of truth over distances, be they geographical or temporal. When Rand asks Thom about the Karaethon Cycle, Thom's response reads like literary theory: "The Old Tongue has music in it...Translations don't have the same sound, unless they're in High Chant, and sometimes that changes meanings even more than most translations" (386). One could write an essay on literary theory regarding Jordan's ontological loom. It's something I bat about in my head as I listen to the books this time around.

Casting call merited some new possibilities, keeping in mind I am positing a hypothetical television series, not movie: While I know this will likely be controversial, I think Eva Longoria Parker would make a decent Moirane, based on her height and ability to play a woman with stubbornly adversarial inclinations who is, nonetheless, physically attractive. I think Parker also has a certain ageless quality to her features requisite for the Aes Sedai characters.
And I've decided on a Thom Merrilyn. I would cast Richard Roxburgh, who proved as the Duke in Moulin Rouge! and Dracula in Van Helsing he possesses the diverse vocal dynamic for delivering those bardic moments; can dance; and under duress, could likely sing. As for juggling, when you've got the option for a cutaway edit, you can be made to look like you're doing just about anything. I think he's old enough to age with makeup believably, but young enough that the physical demands of the part wouldn't require a double aside from stunt work. His facial features would work as Thom, given a set of long mustaches.

One final word on the television idea: The season finale would of course involve the battle between Rand and the false Ba'alzamon as well as the women's escape, but I would frame the entire episode with intercut scenes of people telling the rumors of what happened at the battle. For example, I would show Child Byar reporting that Perrin was responsible for the double-cross, and then cut to a scene involving Perrin, or show a person in a pub talking about how Rand had appeared in the sky, and then cut to Rand fighting "Ba'alzamon".



All images except covers by Seamus Gallagher, the best WoT artist ever.