Saturday, August 6, 2011

Occasionally, Moore Is Less

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have defeated Fu Man Chu, Professor Moriarty, and a Martian invasion. But can they overcome the greatest challenge of all: the era of copyright protection?

To briefly recap: This is the third volume of the LEAGUE comic. Volumes 1 & 2 took place in 1898, and were universally acclaimed. In fact, Vol. 2 won the 2003 Teen Choice Award for Best Non-Consensual Anal Sex (the category was discontinued in 2004, for rather obvious reasons). The original premise of the series was this: What would happen if one applied the logic of modern superhero team-ups to Victorian-era fictional characters? Since then, the series has kept growing and expanding, to the point that series writer Alan Moore now seems set on incorporating every single book, film, and television series ever made into his world, at least as an elliptical reference. So, what started as a fun, goofy side project from arguably the greatest comic book writer ever, has now become a (still utterly fascinating) act of complete OCD.

It’s worth noting here that the first two volumes of the LEAGUE each contained a backup serialized text piece. In Vol. 2, the backup text was a nearly unreadable piece called the New Traveler’s Almanac. The New Traveler’s Almanac was interesting for the way it expanded League’s world, bringing the story back into the 17th century and forward to the mid-20th. However, in between the few relevant tidbits were 40 pages’ worth of crap. That’s right -- FORTY PAGES of Bible-sized print, that essentially amount to Alan Moore showing off how much shit he’s read. The Almanac reads like an uber-dry, facts-only history lesson, except that it of course never actually happened. It’s a cool academic exercise, but it’s not a very satisfying read.

Okay, so the Almanac was a slight hiccup. But as I said, it served as BACKUP material to the LEAGUE Vol. 2, one of my favorite miniseries in the history of comics. As long as Moore’s giving us comics material as fantastic as this, he can be as indulgent as he likes at the back of the book. Right?

Then came the THE BLACK DOSSIER.

A lot of people hated BLACK DOSSIER and cited that as the moment Moore’s indulgence finally took control of the series. I disagree. Certainly, DOSSIER was a game changer. Unlike previous volumes, where the text piece served as peripheral material, DOSSIER alternated pretty evenly between the main comics story and the “dossier” text pieces, building a world where Orwell meets Orson Welles. It holds together brilliantly -- the idea of Harry Lime from THE THIRD MAN becoming M from the 007 movies is enough to send shivers up any film fan’s spine. While DOSSIER is certainly less engaging than the two 1890s volumes, it makes for solid entertainment, in my opinion.

That brings us to the current volume, CENTURY, which will ultimately contain three issues. Issue 2 just came out last week, and I caught myself up, reading both #1 and 2 for the first time on back-to-back days. #1 takes place in 1910, and #2 is 1969. #3 (which was originally scheduled for release in 2009, and will now come out sometime next year) takes place in 2009.

There seem to be two major running threads in this volume. One is the occult -- Somerset Maugham’s character of Oliver Haddo keeps reincarnating himself into different bodies, working over the course of the titular century toward his goal of creating a “moon child.” This seems obliquely apocalyptic, and will culminate in the 2009 issue. The other running thread is the fact that Moore seems determined to work songs (particularly spoofs of Weill & Brecht’s THREEPENNY OPERA) into all three issues, with the lyrics sometimes running through many pages of the comic as other action goes on. This was okay for me, since I have a passing familiarity with the major songs from THREEPENNY OPERA (especially the famous “Mack the Knife”); but if you don’t know the tunes, it just adds another element of obnoxiousness to the proceedings.

#2 is where I really started to feel that Moore was fingering his nose at us, though. Based on the obscurity of the jokes that I DID get (Doug Piranha from MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS is mentioned as a rival gangster, and Radio Jolly Roger from a DANGERMAN episode pops up in the background), I can’t imagine how many thousand more there must have been that flew right over my head. Apparently Moore hasn’t just read every book ever written; he’s also memorized every television episode ever aired on either side of the Atlantic!

For CENTURY #2, we don’t have much of a story, and we don’t have much of a “League.” We have three heroes: adventurer Allan Quartermain and DRACULA’s Mina Murray from the earlier volumes, who are joined by Orlando, the gender-shifting immortal (who has also granted Allan and Mina immortality). The problem is that none of the protagonists do anything interesting: they just run from place to place collecting clues and making obscure references. Yes, there’s a few acknowledgements of the fact that Mina is getting uncomfortable with immortality, but Allan and Orlando completely tread water character-wise up until the end of the book. In the first couple of volumes, Moore had fun with Allan’s overt racism, but I guess in the more socially-aware ‘60s he had to mellow, leaving him without much of a personality. It’s only in the last three pages, in a black-and-white flash-forward to the punk era, that we see Quartermain start to become an interesting character again.

And the story? It feels like Moore is stretching it out to three issues when it should have been one. #2 feels like a rehash of #1, told in a different era. A decent synopsis of both #1 and #2 would be: The League runs around trying to prevent Oliver Haddo from creating the Moon Child, then realizes that he’s not planning to do that until issue 3. The endless stream of fictional British gangsters made me frequently forget who was who, and feels largely like padding.

Another major problem is how oblique Moore makes his references -- often for copyright reasons, but sometimes seemingly just to mess with the reader. A terrific example of the copyright issue is raised when a certain HARRY POTTER character makes an appearance … except I completely missed it, since I’m not that into HARRY POTTER, and Moore can never really spell out who the guy is. It’ll be interesting to see how that particular thread develops. Moore seems to be setting him up as a major character for #3. But presumably, this unnamed character will have lost his nose by then, and will be pretty distinctly recognizable as a certain copyrighted property. As I said, I don’t care for HARRY POTTER, but I am sort of excited to see how Moore manages to skirt the legal issues.

One of the more successful elements of the story is the use of Mick Jagger’s character from the film PERFORMANCE as a stand-in for Jagger himself, building an alternate-reality Rolling Stones around him. This allows Moore to open the book with a (remarkably timely) re-imagining of “27-Clubber” Brian Jones’ death, and also leads to a cool “Sympathy for the Devil” spoof. Unfortunately, it then leads to a parody of the Stones’ tribute concert to Jones, where Jagger released a bunch of butterflies and read a poem. Moore writes his own morbid take on the poem that Jagger read, leading to more self-indulgence … the poem runs through the action for nine pages! No wonder there’s no character development, if this is where his priorities are!

Another aspect of CENTURY that I’ve found interesting is Andrew Norton, a bald man who pops up for a couple of pages in each issue. Apparently he’s from SLOW CHOCOLATE AUTOPSY, a book by a friend of Moore’s. The character of Norton can move through time at will, but CANNOT move through space. He is perpetually trapped in London, existing through all of history and experiencing it all simultaneously. He pops up to throw very oblique clues at our characters, and also to throw out a HUGE range of seemingly random references. Even more intriguingly, he seems to have a knowledge of our real world. While Moore’s universe replaces the Beatles with Eric Idle’s Rutles, Mr. Norton quotes Mark David Chapman’s request for John Lennon’s autograph. He also refers to Donald Cammell, the director of the aforementioned PERFORMANCE, and even informs the League that he “enjoyed that second volume” (!). Norton’s dialogue is more riddled with Arcanum than any other part of the book, but I find the character really fascinating. I can’t wait to see what Moore does with him in #3.

As with previous volumes, there’s a text piece at the back of the book. For the first time, in issue #2, I think I actually enjoyed the text piece more than the comic. It was actually EASIER for me to catch the references. The text piece is (according to an interview with Moore) an attempt to include EVERY SINGLE REFERENCE TO THE MOON EVER IN FICTION in a single story. Again … OCD much? In theory, that concept says a lot about what’s wrong with Moore’s approach to the recent material. He should let the story evolve, instead of shoe-horning in every esoteric reference he can think of. But actually, in practice, I really like the text piece so far. It primarily involves the “Galley-wag” going on a mission with Mina in 1964.

The Golliwog is both a literary character and a very popular doll from early 20th-century Britain. Appearance-wise, it’s a hideously racist caricature of a natty-haired thick-lipped black male. What possessed Moore to even ATTEMPT to include such a character is a total mystery to me, but he obviously had to be very careful about his portrayal. So, in his own deranged fashion, he decided to make the character a giant alien, made of dark matter, obsessed with two living sex dolls, and talking in the most out-there speech pattern imaginable, so that no one would ever confuse it for a black dialect – or ANY existing dialect. (From THE BLACK DOSSIER: “Bread and tits to you, gilded wasp of Elysium. Let the thrup of us entender withdoors, what cheer?”). Even better, whenever he speaks – in comic OR text – he does so in a bold, italicized font, implying (I guess) that he yells constantly. The voice that I hear for the character in my head as I read his dialogue is so hilarious that I wish he had a bigger role to play in the main story.

The main body of the text story, taking place on the moon, ties together the obelisk from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Prof. Cavor from the first volume of the LEAGUE, and the AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON, amongst many other things. It links the obelisk with the pool that gave Orlando immortality. This honestly feels like a much cooler plot thread than the “Moon Child” storyline, and might have made for a better comic if Moore had made it the focus of CENTURY. Maybe it'll come into play next issue.

Anyway, I’ve babbled enough. Please let me know your thoughts, gentle reader, if you're brave enough to pick up a copy. Maybe I’ll write my next blog entirely in Moore's Galley-wag dialect.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Other Prepositional Phrases

I didn't intend for my first blog to be about a Planet of the Apes movie. No one ever does. At least, I ASSUME no one ever does. It's kind of like setting out to date America Ferrera. She's probably got a lot of money, and she seems like a nice down-to-earth girl. Ultimately, it might not be a bad idea at all. but it's not something to strive for. I don't know anyone who wakes up looking at their framed SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS poster and says, "Today, my goal is to hook up with America Ferrera."

(Aside: The SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS poster is actually just a giant ass in a pair of blue jeans. I'm not sure whose ass it is. I mean, I assume the actual ass belongs to an ass model, and not to any of the four lead actresses who starred in the film. But even if we're suspending our disbelief, and assuming it belongs to one of the leads, I don't think anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and physics would think that it belongs to America Ferrera. But then again, we're three degrees beyond hypothetical at this point. I digress.)

Look, I'll admit it: When I was a kid, I liked the original PLANET OF THE APES pentalogy (that means a series of five! -- Word of The Day). I even own a six-DVD set copyrighted in 2000, so I must have had some fascination even at age 16. Don't get me wrong: As a ten-year-old, I KNEW how cheesy the later films were. But I loved the original film, and once my fanboy nature forced me to see the sequels, there were a few things that sucked me in.

One of the main appeals was the Moebius strip of a timeline. For those of you not familiar with the sequels, Cornelius & Zira head into space in the third one, following a nuclear destruction of their futuristic Ape-world at the end of the preceding film. Presumably taking advantage of the same time-dilation effect that brought space traveler Charlton Heston to the future in the first film, the filmmakers plopped the two apes into then-present-day LA when they landed (time travel! Always a favorite of mine). The following two films were mostly concerned with Caesar, their child, played by Roddy McDowall (who had also played the dad Cornelius). Caesar led the ape rebellion that ultimately led to Ape-ocalypse (and yes, I'm planning on trademarking that). To ten-year-old me, there was something undeniably cool about Heston's future actions setting in motion the events that actually led to Ape-ocalypse in his own present-day. There was an element of fatalism about it that I loved.

Another appeal was Roddy McDowall's tour de force performance as Cornelius / Caesar, the Michael Corleone of the simian set, turning from put-upon nice-guy to revolutionary kingpin. Even under super-cheesy monkey makeup, when McDowall set his sights on evil, he could give you chills.

And hell, in the fifth movie, you get John Huston in a career-low performance as an ape! Even as a ten-year-old, I knew Huston as the director of some of my favorite Bogart movies (THE MALTESE FALCON, THE AFRICAN QUEEN), and I don't believe I'd ever seen him act prior to that. To see this man who I'd only known in name--only known for creating high art--dressed in a bad Halloween costume and spouting a bunch of badly-written gibberish to six- and seven-year-olds (also in monkey suits) was a real eye-opener. That may have been the moment when I realized maybe Hollywood wasn't quite as glamorous as I'd thought.

So there you have it: My love-hate relationship with the Apes. Yes, the sequels suck; but no more than the thirty-odd FRIDAY THE 13th or HALLOWEEN sequels that gorehounds idolize and rewatch over and over. SOMEBODY has to be a Monkey Fan. It just fell to ten-year-old me. Sue me, okay?

(And before you ask: Yes, I saw Burton's version in the theater and despised it. The less said, the better.)

So that brings us to present-day, and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the rather interesting and surprisingly enjoyable film that you might call a prequel, or a reboot, or a remake.

Before we get there, however, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I loved the homages to the previous series ("IT'S A MADHOUSE!!!"). I loved the fact that there were loooong stretches of film that were just apes gesturing and posturing at each other, with no dialogue at all. It takes balls to attempt that in a major summer blockbuster, and it takes skill to make it interesting enough to watch. The filmmakers here have both, and the glee I felt at their rebellious act reminded me of Pixar's similar risk in WALL-E. Of course, it paid off for Pixar, and I hope it pays off for these guys.

I loved how sympathetic this movie made the apes. It was like a way better version of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, where you start out feeling bad for Caesar, are rooting for him all along against the humans, and then are horrified when he actually succeeds. It takes a lot to get a film audience to root AGAINST humanity, and I think this film largely succeeds. The violent acts are spaced-out so that they keep their impact, and yet the film never feels slow. While the apes can be pretty terrifying, you can't help asking yourself whether you'd do the same thing in their place.

A lot of the credit goes to Lithgow, who proved what a national treasure he is a couple of seasons ago on DEXTER, and is brilliantly cast here. He's really the heart of the movie. Let's face it: It's not easy to make an audience sympathize with a mute CGI ape. And as for James Franco, well ... Let's just say the mute CGI ape might have made a more charismatic Oscar host. But because Lithgow is devoted to both of these characters, we somehow can't help caring about them, even when he's not onscreen.

And the pacing is terrific. I won't say that it's my favorite "big summer" movie of the year, but it is by far the most well-paced. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and SUPER 8 were both phenomenal for the first hour, then lost their way when they started playing to genre cliches. RISE doesn't fall victim to that: everything that happens feels totally natural. What's more, it doesn't force the plot along just to play to audience expectations. It ends at a moment that feels natural to the story, leaving room for a sequel if box office returns allow.

And that brings us to my question: Is this a prequel? A remake? A reboot? RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the preposition-heavy title in question, clearly takes place in a totally separate continuity from Burton's godawful that's entirely off the table. As far as the original pentalogy (something about that word sounds kind of Satanist, doesn't it?) ... I sketched out the basic plot of the original films above, and it clearly doesn't gibe with the story here. While Caesar still leads the rebellion, this Caesar is not the child of time-traveling talking monkeys ... he's a byproduct of science. Theoretically, this film is a prequel to the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES, and if you watch those two films back-to-back you're in for a hell of a viewing experience. And I think it would work, more or less free of continuity errors. Once the DVD / Blu Ray of this film comes out, I'll probably give it a whirl. However, if you're an Apes enthusiast like myself, then you'll recognize that this film is essentially a remake of CONQUEST and BATTLE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. There's no denying that they borrow certain elements, although it's a way better experience.

What all this boils down to is: They can take this franchise ANYWHERE. They can do a direct followup to RISE that shows the next phase in the simian rebellion. They can skip ahead several hundred years and do a far better PLANET OF THE APES remake than Burton did. Or they can do some other, totally original story.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen the movie? Am I just far too intrigued by the idea of talking apes? Let me know in the comments section, by all means.

My next blog (maybe tomorrow?) will focus on the latest chapter of the LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN comic, taking place in 1969 and titled "Paint It Black." What happens when Alan Moore takes his brilliantly-conceived mashup out of the Victorian era and into the height of hippie counterculture? Find out soon!