Harley Quinn Fever

Thanks to HBO Max, my wife and I have now watched Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and the Harley Quinn animated series. We loved them both.

My wife prefers Margot Robbie’s depiction, and Robbie is certainly doing a fantastic job, really raising the profile of the character in the public consciousness and providing a fun, whimsical, zany take. She was fun in Suicide Squad, but that movie had plenty of baggage. Birds of Prey is starring, written, and directed by women and presents its female antiheroes as flawed, bizarre, unusual birds of a feather, portrayed as complex and whole people, with a general avoidance of the male gaze. Quinn is coming off a breakup with the Joker, bouncing back from heartbreak, moving on from a life in the supervillain’s shadow, and finding both freedom and danger now that she is out of the Clown Prince of Crime’s bubble. She quickly becomes wrapped up in the lives of three other women and a young girl who are all caught up in taking down the criminal organization of the chillingly psychopathic Black Mask. The narrative chronology is a little more twisted up than it needs to be, but filtered through the unreliable narration of Harley Quinn, the film’s a blast. While the Joker is a driving force behind who Harley Quinn is at the start of the film, he’s entirely absent. This is largely to the film’s benefit, as it can then be about Harley and her new “friends,” but it is a curious choice, given that the film presents itself as a continuation of the same character from Suicide Squad. Sure, the Joker’s not good for Harley, and he was just as monstrous to Dr. Quinzel as any other version of the character, but the two seemed closely bonded and reciprocally loyal. What changed between them?

I really enjoyed Birds of Prey, but I actually favor Harley Quinn. This show provides Harley, voiced here by Kaley Cuoco, a little more autonomy from the get-go, as it is she who breaks up with the abusive Joker. He puts quite a lot of effort into getting her back at first, and then trying to kill her, and then trying to use her, but thanks to her close friendship with Poison Ivy, she is able to persevere and move on, forming her own criminal crew first to get back at Joker and later to do her own thing. Cuoco endows the character with considerable up-beat manic energy, sometimes disrupted by a depressive low (often when finally taking a moment to contemplate how her actions have hurt someone else, or how the Joker or her parents have traumatized her in some way), and sometimes masked in her conversation with Joker in cutesy line delivery straight out of Batman: The Animated Series. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in the series is how it draws on a variety of past representations of characters to distill something new, like the elements of Quinn drawn from that older series, among other comic and film interpretations. Other great examples: Bane is basically a parody of his The Dark Knight Rises version (with some DCAU influence mixed in), Lex Luthor feels straight out of the DCAU, Joker’s appearance changes over the show’s timeline to mirror different versions of the character, Kite Man has his “Hell yeah” catchphrase from his more recent comics incarnation, and Mr. Freeze is given an arc that at first appears to subvert his tragic story from the DCAU only to ultimately play it straight. Some versions of characters are just wacky and new: Commissioner Gordon is a shadow of his former self, lonely and rambling, teetering on the edge of insanity; the Penguin is a hardened criminal mastermind but also something of a family man; the Riddler is a little unhinged, a little weird, quite the survivor, and eventually really buff. The mixing of backgrounds and characterizations, and references to deep cuts from the comics and shows, quickly establishes a rich and varied timeline, of which we’ve only seen bits and pieces. It makes Harley Quinn and her gang feel like just a small (though significant) part of a much bigger world, benefiting from the depth of accumulated storytelling to quickly achieve a sense of a lived-in setting in a way that Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice also used to great effect. And I especially like that under all the layers of comics lore, the show is still fundamentally about a woman figuring out who she really is as she sets out in a newly independent life and tries to set aside the traumas of her past. There are only two seasons so far, but I sure hope we get more of the show.

Both of these versions of Harley Quinn are very good. The former is a good movie and the latter is a good show. I recommend them both. You can easily watch them both on HBO Max now. (Blessedly, Warner Media is moving away from the DC Universe / HBO Max divide. For all the evils of these mega corporations, the least they could do is provide all their television and movie offerings on a single streaming service.)

Super-heroic Legacies in Classic Comics Collections

I’ve been on something of a superhero kick, seemingly out of nowhere. If there’s been a theme, it’s been legacy and historicity–stories where heroes are grounded in particular moments in time, where they age, where they are phased out over generations. Stories that can really only exist when there are decades of superhero comics to build on and reinterpret. I love these sorts of stories, and amazingly, the classics I’ve been perusing lately are works that I haven’t seriously touched before (though they all owe some debt to Watchmen, it’s safe to say, and I’m certainly familiar with Alan Moore’s perhaps most-well-known work).

So far, I’ve gone through Marvels (written by Kurt Busiek with art by Alex Ross), Kingdom Come (written by Mark Waid, with the story and art from Ross), and DC: The New Frontier (written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke with colors by Dave Stewart).

As usual, the local library system has impressed me with the range and quality of its collection. After going through these comics, I’m eager to get my hands on The Golden Age (written by James Robinson with art by Paul Smith, and a series which must have informed the three limited series I just read and which most certainly influenced New Frontier) and to start working through Astro City (another Busiek/Ross collaboration with art from Brent Anderson as well). If you have other suggestions that fit the collectively shared themes of these works, please let me know–I probably haven’t heard of them!

My reviews follow, but these are of course well-regarded classics, so I don’t really expect to be saying anything new! Then again, if anyone reading this hasn’t heard of (or taken the time to read) any of these works, maybe this will be encouragement to do so.

Marvels: The Remastered EditionMarvels: The Remastered Edition by Kurt Busiek

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marvels shines in two primary ways: its fantastic, often hyper-realistic, dynamic, densely packed, homage-laden artwork, and its way of creating a sense of real history for the Marvel universe, retelling stories from the earliest days up through the 1970s through the lens (literal and metaphorical) of an everyman photographer who wrestles with his feelings about superheroes and his place within a city (and world) full of them even while he makes a career snapping their pictures.

You can trace the themes of generational continuation and change of legacy superheroes and realistic treatment of superheroes and their impact on the world into later projects of writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross. It also had an obvious influence on later works by other creators. Its impact is significant, and it was a pleasure to read.

I don’t have much more to say, other than that I also enjoyed the ancillary materials included with this volume.

Kingdom ComeKingdom Come by Mark Waid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alex Ross was not only the artist but also the originator of the overall plot for this story, and his imprint, visually and thematically, is strongly felt. Together with writer Mark Waid, Ross tells the story of inter-generational conflict between superheroes: the increasingly out-of-touch old guard, and the violent and irreverent younger “heroes.” That latter group consists of many descendants of the older heroes, sometimes children and sometimes bearers of a legacy title. In truth, both generations seem to have lost touch with the people they should be serving. While the younger generation is reckless and uncaring, the older generation begins to see control rather than service as the only way to keep the world orderly and safe.

The old guard is led by Superman, retired for about a decade since the Joker killed many in Metropolis, including Lois Lane, and was in turn killed by the violent hard-liner hero leading the new generation, Magog. Superman left, heartbroken and disillusioned, disgusted that Magog not only was acquitted of the cold-blooded murder of the Joker but gained popular support of a public exhausted by the mass mayhem caused by supervillains. Superman reemerges after Magog’s reckless antics lead to the accidental devastation of the heartland of America, sending the nation and the world into a spiral of lawlessness and economic instability. Superman feels it is his responsibility to restore order and bring the younger heroes into line, no matter what. Pushed by an increasingly militant Wonder Woman, he almost accidentally begins to form a fascist pseudo-government. The world comes ever closer to a superhero-induced apocalypse as sides are drawn: Superman’s new world order, the rebellious anarchy of those metahumans who chose to resist, and Batman’s secret army eager to preserve freedom in the face of the superhuman threat. Stirring the pot is a conspiracy of surviving supervillains, hidden under the banner of a society eager to preserve human liberty. And this whole narrative is framed through the eyes of a pastor, close to losing his faith, who begins to have apocalyptic visions and becomes the human host of the Spectre, chosen to witness and pass judgment on this brewing metahuman war.

It’s a complicated narrative and it’s so deftly told. Frankly, I wasn’t happy with every character choice, but at the end of the day, it’s a story about superheroes losing their way and gradually finding their humanity, and purpose, once more. It’s an interesting, if extreme, examination of the relationship between Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. It pushes the three in ways to see what would make them break. Superman loses everything that tethers him to humanity, then has the public reject him to choose a suicidal path. Wonder Woman is deemed a failure by her people because they do not see sufficient progress at improving the world of men; they strip her of her royal title and cast her adrift. Batman has spent a life broken and battered by his dogged pursuit of justice, alienating those close to him. Yet they all react in interesting and organic ways. Superman, in particular, never loses his faith in truth and justice, but his rejection of his human side leaves him open to forcing order on chaos. Wonder Woman becomes increasingly militant and violent, probably straying the furthest from her principles and pushing Superman down a dark path. But Batman is almost liberated, no longer masked and using a patrol force of robots to keep order in Gotham; he seems the happiest and most contented of the bunch, and maybe the most human. These were bold character decisions, and I can appreciate that.

What I really loved was the sense of generational change and the cultural clash between younger and older heroes. Every panel was so packed with characters, referencing the fates of heroes who did not have a major role in the plot and creating so many “heroes” for the new generation. There is such a sense of history, significance, lineage, legacy. This can be felt not just in the existence of aged interpretations of iconic characters, or the inclusion of Gold- and Silver- age characters along with the new ones, or even the incredibly deep-cut comics references, but the distinctly unique styles of the generations, down to the ’90s “extreme” looks of many of the younger heroes. And truly, there are so many stories just barely being glimpsed in the background, or even among the secondary and tertiary characters. There’s a barely glimpsed three-generation story about the Bat Family, and an even more unspoken three-or-four-generation story about the Arrows and Canaries. It’s like Star Wars; there’s a whole rich world to get lost in here, beyond just references to other comics (of which there are plenty).

On that note, while the story itself is great, I almost enjoyed the supplementary materials more, especially the genealogies and character sketch sections filled with little details about the heroes and villains of this world.

It would be easy to read Kingdom Come as the sort of grimdark story I wouldn’t normally like, but by the end, it feels more a metatextual challenge of exactly those sorts of stories, a statement that even if superhero stories maybe lost their way in the dark, in all the moral grey, they can still find their way back. No matter what comes at Superman, he’ll always be a true hero.

(By the way, it seems obvious to me that Injustice: Gods Among Us took heavy inspiration from Kingdom Come. But that video game franchise chooses to ignore the uplifting message, instead showing heroes truly unhinged. In comparison, Injustice is, to me, the clearly inferior work.)

The New FrontierThe New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I arrived at this collection in a meandering way. Before I’d realized his involvement with many DCAU projects, I first became aware of Darwyn Cooke through the direct-to-video Justice League: The New Frontier. I instantly fell in love with that movie; the large cast of characters, sense of grounding in a real moment, and combination of so many threads of comic book and real-world history were absolutely lovely. Yet I didn’t seek Cooke’s limited series out for quite a while, even as I explored many of his other projects.

I’m happy to have finally closed the gap and read this beautiful collected edition of DC: The New Frontier, written and drawn by Cooke, with additional materials including previously uncollected stories set in this particular universe. It’s everything I loved about the film and more. I especially loved the broader focus on an even wider cast of characters, and the intermingling of Gold- and Silver-age characters with those of war stories and other weird sci-fi comics. It’s a fascinating reconfiguration/recombination of so much DC lore into a streamlined, consistent narrative. And it has the benefit of so much comics history, and the benefit of hindsight into the historical trends in the period in which these comics were written, and the benefit of being able to freely express itself and draw from real-world events and to combine previously segregated genres of comic stories without censure (or, for that matter, censor). Plus, the artwork is absolutely gorgeous, and it feels as much a physical product of the 1950s as it is a story set within the period. (Also cool: it uses Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to powerful effect, yet it can have this iconic trinity present without dominating the plot; they’re all secondary characters, and the real stars are the Suicide Squad, the Challengers of the Unknown, Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, and J’onn J’onnz.)

I’ve always loved stories that took the history of a genre to full effect, building on disparate elements to suggest a deeper shared history. That’s true of the Star Wars EU, and of the later Marvel movies, and of projects like Justice League Unlimited or the Young Justice series, and of New Frontier. And its effort to condense so much comics history (in-universe and out) into a single story is exactly what I wanted to see. When I was younger, I was fascinated by the idea of a comic series that retold the origins of its heroes in ways that more clearly intersected across character and genre lines and drew from the history of the era, with new characters introduced into the timeline as one reached the year of their real-world first publication. This series is exactly that project.

This series is certainly a product of so many comics and creators in the decades preceding its release; Cooke is generous with his attributions and tributes to the artists who influenced him. I am sure that New Frontier will, in turn, influence many other works.

View all my reviews

DC Universe: Week One

My very DC weekend led me to trial the DC Universe app for some very DC week nights. Over the week, I’ve read some comics and watched plenty of Titans episodes. I’m just wrapping up Titans, and I’ve greatly enjoyed it. I’ll get to a full review of the season after I’ve, well, watched it in full. But with only an episode left, I can strongly recommend the show. And if you’re in the US, then I’d definitely recommend the one-week free trial of DC Universe to binge the eleven episodes of the first season.

But while I think I’ll continue with a paid subscription, at least for the first full month, I’m not sure that I can recommend the app–yet.

For starters, there are a lot of digitized comics available, but it doesn’t have nearly the back catalog of Marvel Unlimited, which obviously represents the preexisting competition from DC’s biggest comics rival. DC Universe is supposed to offer a “curated” selection, but it seems haphazard. Sure, it was “curated” in that the film and TV properties being marketed right now had plenty of associated comics to read through. But it still seems poorly thought out. Just in example, much, though not all, of the Rebirth arc is available through the app. The omissions are annoying when the digital comics even include a checklist of series in the arc (just a scan of the checklist, not something you can actually interact with in the app). Heck, the flagship DC Universe: Rebirth references comics issues from separate lines that you should read before starting it, but the app doesn’t have them. It begins to feel like DC is charging you a subscription to pay for the privilege of ads and teasers.

The app’s comics reader seems to ape what other digital comics readers do. You can read page to page or in a more dynamic panel-based mode. You can skip around in the comic via a page browser option. I haven’t played with the options very much. I found that reading issues would occasionally be interrupted by some sort of refresh that would kick me out of full-screen and panel-based modes and that would push me back a few panels or pages. It’s not an optimized tool yet, but it works.

The television shows and films are where I found the most appeal. There’s a rich collection of television shows, animated movies, and older live-action films. The original content already promises a lot of excitement, even if still small in scope: Titans is excellent, and I’m eager to resume Young Justice following its continuation exclusively on DC Universe. The app is especially inviting for any animation fans; old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, most of the DCAU series, the old Teen Titans cartoon, and even Super Friends mingle with other series.

Still, it seems a missed opportunity that most of the Arrowverse shows (except Constantine, if that counts) and none of the DCEU films are on the app. But there’s still enough, for now, to make a subscriber’s time worthwhile.

The app itself is not especially user-friendly. I can give content a thumbs-up, but not a thumbs-down. There doesn’t seem to be much built in to make recommendations based on what you’re reading. I can’t even tell if it’s tracking what I’m reading and watching–and if it is, it would seem to be exclusively to the benefit of DC and Warner Bros. You can create public or private lists of things to watch and read. To view your lists, you have to click first on your profile, then on “My DC,” and then choose the “Lists” tab–but that feels like what you should see on a home screen. There are also tabs for Videos and Comics, but it only seems to show me whatever I might currently be watching. Once I’ve completed a comic or show, it disappears into the ether. Curiously, that means that “my” videos and comics might only show things I abandoned for lack of interest; my Comics tab annoyingly announces, “You haven’t read any comics yet.” Search functionality could be improved–and it would be nice if it didn’t always dump me into the middle of the results (especially since they appear to be sorted by relevance). The app isn’t available for any consoles, which are what I’ve historically relied on for home entertainment.

There’s an online encyclopedia of characters, which seems cool, but not worth paying for, especially in the age of ever-more-granular wiki sites. (Actually, I think the encyclopedia might be a free feature.) And there’s a store with tchotchkes for discounted prices, or something–I don’t have much interest in collectible baubles, so that element has no appeal for me.

Most of these things are open to improvement. More comics, shows, and movies can be added–will be added. I’m sure we’ll continue to see more original content (like Titans season two and Doom Patrol). I read a support page that suggested that DC Universe might soon be made available on more devices. I imagine that there will be user interface improvements over time that should address my gripes. Still, for now, DC Universe feels incomplete, a work-in-progress. It’s as though continuing my subscription at the start of next week is really a way of paying to beta test a service. That’s disappointing for a service that launched in Q3 2018, but in the big scheme of things, that’s still very early going. For what I get in return, for now, I still think it’s worth it for me. But I don’t think I’d pitch it to anyone else. Not yet! But hopefully soon.

DC Weekend

I’ve been dealing with a cold since the end of the week, and I definitely hit bottom after running a variety of errands during the snow storm in Indy on Saturday. Since Saturday afternoon, I’ve largely alternated between sleeping, imitating sleep, and watching dumb movies and TV while prone or semi-prone on the couch.

It’s at this point bedrock tradition for me to watch dumb television and movies while sick. I don’t normally like to sit for hours binging a show or movie after movie (though I’ll do the same for a book or game without complaint), especially if of only mediocre quality or worse, but sick days are my big exception to the norm. Brain idling, entertained by pretty moving pictures, waiting out the discomfort: it’s downright pleasurable to me at such a time.

Though not always the case, this sick weekend had a theme: DC movies and TV. I re-watched Suicide SquadBatman v Superman, and a good portion of the first season of Arrow; I also watched the 2017 Justice League film for the first time.

None of these things are great, but that’s the point. They’re dumb, and they’re enjoyable (enough) to watch. My Arrow re-watch might even continue, as I was surprised by how charmed I was yet again by the campy soap-opera take on superheroes. And, confession here, I actually like the DC franchise films. They’re not good, but most of them fall solidly in the B- to B+ range. They’re all overly long, overly dark (in terms of color saturation and narrative tone), and burdened by poorly considered plot contrivances. But they’re largely just a counter-cultural product to the smooth Marvel formula (counter-cultural to the extent that a big corporation can be counter-cultural, a Pepsi to Coca-Cola). DC movies are oddly ragged, ungainly films that all feel desperate to say something, if only there weren’t a dozen different creative and corporate hands meddling with the final product each time. And, well, I just like DC characters more.

I’m not a “comics guy.” I’ve read comics, and I will continue to do so. I’ve always preferred graphic novels to serialized comics, though, and not for particularly pretentious reasons, but simply because I prefer a more contained, tightly honed story. I prefer graphic novels to comics like I prefer films to television and like I prefer standalone novels to book series (not sure I’d go so far as to say I prefer short stories to novels, even though I do think I prefer the crafty efficiency of a good short story–I just tend to read novels more consistently). And I’ve typically preferred non-superhero comics to the superhero kind. I’m also largely bipartisan (or simply agnostic) when it comes to Marvel versus DC. That all said, my childhood rooted me in part to DC: the Tim Burton Batman films, the Teen Titans show, and the DC Animated Universe strongly influenced my tastes regarding caped crusaders and the like (the only Marvel counterpart I particularly recall in my formative years was X-Men Evolution). And in more recent years, Young Justice and the CW collection of shows carried my interest forward (even if the latter eventually became simply too much for me to keep up with).

What I’m trying to say is that, while I do have a familiarity with superhero franchises, I don’t feel like my identity is bound up in these characters. While the cinematic versions of DC characters have typically been darker than what I might prefer, I don’t feel like I have to treat anything in this territory as “canon” or a “defining” vision. It’s all just fun times, and these new films are at least offering something that does feel different.

In that context, I’d avoided Justice League for a while because it looked like a fairly generic superhero team-up film in a genre flooded with that type of apocalypse-punching, alien-invasion scenario. But I found that I greatly enjoyed the film, generic plot and all. Maybe I was just loopy enough to get peak enjoyment out of it. But Ben Affleck was absolutely delightful as Batman; this version of the Dark Knight not only provided a nice redemption arc from the previous title but was also one of the funniest versions of the character I’ve seen in a while. He was lighthearted; he smiled; he said authentic things. Plus, the film provided plenty of fodder for anyone partial to shipping Batman and Wonder Woman. For that matter, Wonder Woman continued to be a badass warrior, and she also had her own opportunity for inner growth that felt like a natural progression from her solo film–she was returning to the world, processing her grief and trauma from the Great War, and taking up the mantle of a leader. The Flash was hilarious and awkward and lovable, Aquaman was about as interesting and cool as Aquaman could ever hope to be, and Cyborg had enough screen time to feel defined if alien (though to the extent that Cyborg works, I’d credit Ray Fisher’s acting rather than the rather mundane dialogue that he delivers). Superman remained a weak point for me, though after some initial Super Dickery on his inevitable resurrection, he actually got to act like the superheroic ideal for the closing minutes of the final act.

Look, it’s not the greatest film out there. But no superhero film is. And sure, Justice League isn’t even the best superhero film, or the best of the new DC films. But it was a fun ride, and I’d watch it again. Especially on another sick day.