Wallpaper of the Week: Batman

June 19, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — There used to be Hercules, Arthur, Marduk, Beowulf, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Odin, Samson, Huangdi, Odysseus, and all the other heroes of ancient legend.

When you think about it, Batman is cut from the same literary cloth. Comic book characters are just modern mythological warrior-heroes. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Zeus was just a very popular-selling title of the time.

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And why does the Dark Knight resonate so well with us? Probably because he embodies good intentions clothed in lawlessness. Batman is an ends-justifies-the-means personification. He’s the animated Jack Bauer, carrying out swift street justice using the tools of evil — fear and pain and malice. He’s a natural (and as a vigilante, wrong) reaction to our overburdened, over-bureaucratized system.

So, because his goals are so honorable, we find ourselves rooting for Batman’s antisocial behavior, ignoring how illicit are his activities, how every criminal he captures would be released due to lack of proper arrest and Mirandizing, and how he quite possibly has split personalities or other forms of schizophrenia. We even justify his actions as moral instead of reclusively egoistic and dangerous.

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But that’s television for you.

It was that medium that lured me to Batman in 1992, with Batman: The Animated Series‘ “dark deco” styling and gritty storytelling. Here was a cartoon with noir pacing, relying more on the Bat’s detective skills and character development than explosions (though those were to be found as well).

Warner Bros. let Bruce Timm make a mature, sophisticated take on what superficially could be described as another “underwear” superhero; part of that came from elaborate and often sympathetic retellings of classic villains’ backstories. There were the go-to baddies, sure: Catwoman, Penguin, Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, The Riddler. But some of the best episodes of TAS focused on obscure ones such as the Clock King, Killer Croc, the Ventriloquist, HARDAC, Hugo Strange, Red Claw, and the Sewer King.

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And some of the most interesting twists came when the right question was posed: Was Batman really that different from the criminals he fought? Motive counts for a lot, true, but means and method are also very important. There’s also the Frank Miller alternative to¬† consider: Could Batman actually be insane?

While we’re thinking about Batman and comparative ethics, have some fun with these wallpapers, conveniently sized to 1024×768.

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Obama’s eloquence straightened American spines today

January 20, 2009

165357FROM JASON’S LUNCH ROOM — Everyone today will have an Obama story.

Mine happened in a small, corporate lunch room where about 40 people gathered in absolute silence. Where mainly there’s a deafening rabble of voices, there was respectful silence. All mouths — from 18 to 65, black, white, brown, male, female, poor, less poor, smart, less smart — were clamped shut.

And every eye was on the LCD flat-screen on one end of the room. Every head nodded in unison as the 44th President talked about economic and military crises, and about unity in the face of very palpable threats. A buzz of electric agreement surged through the room when Barack Obama told us to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking.”

My co-workers are not people to remain quiet long; but for 30 minutes today, they listened without speaking. They agreed without dissenting. They prepared for hard work without grumbling.

One giant of a man, who looked like he could crush me with a glance, wiped tears away. When Obama finished speaking, a white man and black man at the back of the room gripped each other in a bear hug and then went separate ways without saying a word. At the end of the 30-minute address, there was no hooting or whistling in my lunch room; everyone walked from the room with backs straight, eyes thoughtful, and minds in a mutual alignment.

The word I’ve been avoiding here is “hope,” because it carries with it the weight of a political slogan. What I can say I saw instead in that room was an expectation of success.

After 12:30 p.m., it was finally right and prideful again to be an American. After eight long years of confusion and embarrassment, we were no longer ‘Merkans. There’s no more need to worry about “strategery.”

It was liberating, and for the first time (especially watching the faces of my black co-workers) I could start to scratch the surface of what it really means to live an historical moment. I thought to myself that if I could magnify my content by a thousand, it might come close to what our black brothers felt in 1964 when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

I couldn’t help questioning the ethics of the swelling patriotism I felt in that lunch room.

The day after the nation elected Obama, I asked a black worker what it felt like to have a black man become president. She told me it was a feeling I could never as a white person understand. She apologized, saying it wasn’t meant to be racist; just that I lacked the cultural lexicon necessary to get it.

This, she said, was validation that a person like her could achieve the highest level of power. All the doors were finally thrown open to her, not on paper but in practice.

She’s right, of course. I’m not sure that I can understand the spiritual release she experienced on election night, or at noon today. I’ve never been shackled with the onus of minority race.

But I can understand in many other ways. My family grew up in poverty. My family accepted government cheese. My family did not often have money for new school clothes, let alone luxuries. My family did not have money to send me to college, and so I paid my way on the sweat of my brow instead of the polish of my spoon.

And here is a man that embodies that golden American upward mobility, that seed of manifest destiny we all want to nurture in ourselves. When I watched President Obama’s address today, I saw myself on that stage even though my skin is white and my paycheck is small.


Justice League: The New Frontier — Kennedy-era problems, Art Deco packaging, grim trappings

December 28, 2008

FROM JASON’S 42-INCH PLASMA — My wife hates cartoons. Can’t stand them. Thinks they’re worthless, for kids. Immature.

Honey, I love you. But you’re an idiot.

(She really liked that line, looking over my shoulder in bed.)

What she just doesn’t understand is that cartoons are just a medium, like paintings, friezes, sculptures, sitcoms, musicals, or ink drawings. There are vapid hour-long dramas on television; there are comic book literary masterpieces; there are ingenious marionette plays; there are worthless 1,000-page epics.

Just like any other medium, there are trashy pulp cartoons and amazing works that can stand with Candide or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

This is the argument the wife and I waged Saturday night as I tuned into Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) on Cartoon Network. Her verdict: Stupid comic book animations with no scholarly value. But if she had bothered to look beyond the pretty colors and the usually-for-kids channel on which they appeared, she would have seen a surprisingly thoughtful story.

This is a tale that starts with a third-person suicide and a point-blank wartime killing in silhouette. It’s grim-edged throughout, exploring justifications for revenge slayings by rape victims, nationalist jingoism, government intrusion on individual rights, space-bound nuclear ethics, profound self-esteem issues, McCarthyism, and the tension between pacifistic and survivalist ideals.

None of these topics get a Boston Legal-level analysis. But they are used to exact a wide range of pressures that drive the protagonists to act as heroes, far more than any of the superpowers that have been thrust upon them. A web of origin stories show why J’onn J’onzz decides to help Earthlings, how Hal Jordan’s resolute pacifism allowed him to wield the unimaginable power of the ring, and how Barry Allen came to terms with his role as a “lesser” hero.

These are Kennedy-era heroes facing Cold War problems with a modern perspective. And they’re coated with an Art Deco face that is as much Mad Men retro cool as it is Andy Warhol-ish. The animation style is at once Golden Age in its optimism and Silver Age in its pesimism.

These are all very familiar hallmarks of the animated DC Universe, and for good reason. The man driving the action is Bruce Timm, creator of Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League. The New Frontier takes Timm’s progressive darkness to a new intensity, and a marked plateau in terms of talent. No sci-fi production is complete without the help of Keith David, and TNF also makes use of David “Angel” Boreanaz, geek hero Neil Patrick Harris, Lucy “Xena” Lawless, Kyra Sedgewick, Brook Shields, John Heard (you’d recognize him if you saw him), and Kyle MacLachlan (think Twin Peaks).

Luckily, this iteration of the Justice League of America lays off the attention to Superman and Batman, opting instead to probe the motivations of “second tier” characters. And it uses the threat posed by a malevolent, Cthulu-esque, psychic, flying island that spawns prehistoric monsters (The Centre) as a plot-driving device and characterization catalyst rather than the focus of the story.

It’s worth a watch, scoring a respectably modest 7.3 on IMDB.


YouTube Cinema: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

June 26, 2008

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

IN JASON’S DEFENSE — There were times when Batman: The Animated Series almost made me pee my pants. The writers never had compunctions about making the Dark Knight… well… dark. And that’s what makes it the greatest super-hero cartoon of all time.

As a young teen, most fiction didn’t faze me. But Batman: TAS was downright grim. The Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, was coldly psychotic, making him rival only Jack Nicholson as the scariest incarnation of the character (which might change once I see the late Heath Ledger’s performance in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Returns). And Bruce Wayne was a shell of a man, almost a split-personality case unable to connect with other people.

In 1993, Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to wrap up the Warner Brothers cartoon’s storyline. Originally intended to go straight to VHS, it was instead released theatrically. Batman survived, though, his popularity carrying him to the Batman and Robin cartoon and then on to The New Batman-Superman Adventures and eventually to Justice League Unlimited.

This movie does what all good superhero cartoons and comics should do: It uses an external villain as an incidental plot device to explore the hero’s soul. This is no jolly Adam West Batman, prancing around in his Bat-boat with Bat-shark repellent. This is a confused, guilty Bruce Wayne, hiding under his cowl, hunted by the police, and self-defeated in the shadow of his parents’ gravestone.

Mask of the Phantasm adds a new angle to the Bat’s backstory. In addition to the death of his parents, the movie says that Bruce’s transformation into a caped crusader is as much a result of his rejection by Andrea Beaumont, his fiancee, who disappeared after her father was caught up with the mafia. In a flashback, Bruce retreats within himself and dons his mask for the first time, a sight that terrifies Alfred.

Years later, Andrea returns to town and immediately recognizes Batman as Bruce. At the same time, a ghostly figure starts hunting down and executing local gangland patriarchs. Police think the killer, who wears a cape and mask, is Batman, and they nearly manage to capture Bruce. Later, we learn that the Phantasm — who is never directly referred to be name except in the title — also wants to kill the Joker, who was a one-time mafioso.

MotP keeps the 1920s pulp feel of Batman: TAS, with Bruce as The Detective and with grainy, noir backdrops in high relief. There are noir cityscapes,harsh angles, and a low-tech aesthetic. The climax is a three-way showdown between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker, set in the later’s inky, dystopic World Fair hideout.

This is what Batman is all about: Heartbreak, unrelenting resolve, pain, a conflicted Bruce Wayne begging his parents’ ghosts to let him be happy, and his demon-haunted understanding that he can’t be.