Archive for March 2009

Fire Flying

March 26, 2009

Ni hao! I may be the last goram feller in the goram ‘verse to find out about Firefly, but I think it may be the best goram vid on the whole goram cortex! Take a gander if you’ve a notion! It’s shiny!

Translation: Hello! I may be the last person in the (ahem) gosh darn universe to find out about the television show Firefly, but I think it may be the best darn TV show available on the whole darn internet! Go watch it if you would like! It’s excellent!

A high-speed internet connection is a marvelous thing; it allows me to waste time in ways previously unimaginable, visiting sites such as YouTube.com, CBS.com, and Hulu.com and watching classic (and not-so-classic) TV from years gone by.

My latest discovery is the late, lamented science fiction/Western hybrid Firefly which ran for only 11 of its 14 scheduled episodes on the Fox network in 2002 before it vanished from the network’s lineup. There was such an outcry from fans that the show’s producers decided to release the entire series as a DVD boxed set, which led in turn to a cast reunion and a big-screen movie, titled Serenity, in 2005. The movie was designed both to fill in crucial gaps in the characters’ backstories and tie up loose ends created by the series’s abrupt cancellation. The Firefly boxed set and Serenity movie are available for sale at Amazon.com and the Serenity movie is also available for rental and streaming internet playback to Netflix.com subscribers. I’d heard good things about the show for years but missed it during its original all too brief network run. When I saw it was available on Hulu.com, I started watching the pilot and was immediately hooked.

Firefly comes from the fertile, somewhat twisted imagination of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series Angel. I’ve never been a big fan of the horror genre in general or vampire stories in particular, so I was never a big Buffy watcher. The few times I did happen to catch the show while channel surfing however, I had to admire its truly original premise, smartly constructed plots, well-drawn characters, and some of the wittiest dialogue on television.

Those same characteristics are much in evidence with Firefly. As a brief prologue to the later episodes explains, in the 26th century when Earth’s resources are exhausted, humanity begins moving out into space and converting other planets into replicas of Earth. The most powerful planets form a technologically advanced but corrupt and authoritarian Alliance and attempt to force all the planets to join. The “independents” or “browncoats” refuse, and a bloody galactic civil war follows.

After the browncoats are decisively defeated at the battle of Serenity Valley, the remaining independents move to the far fringes of settled space, where representatives of the Alliance are scarce and high technology is hard to come by. Hence, Firefly’s vision of the 26th century looks and sounds a lot like the 19th–with a few twists. Characters speak a bizarre blend of Mandarin Chinese, slang invented for the series, and a rustic dialect of English that sounds as if it came from every Western movie ever made. In battle, characters are just as likely to reach for six-guns as they are for ray guns, and desperadoes on horseback coexist with stormtroopers in battle armor. The show’s musical score is just as likely to feature fiddle, banjo, and guitar as it is the orchestral music or electronica that you might find in more conventional science fiction. The final image of the opening credits, a starship hovering over a corral, perfectly summarizes the show’s blend of space opera and horse opera motifs:

Sergeant Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds is a survivor of the battle of Serenity Valley and an embittered browncoat. In an effort to start over again after the war, he’s promoted himself to captain, bought a rusting, obsolete “Firefly” class freighter, dubbed her Serenity, and assembled a ragtag crew: former war buddy Zoe, as tough as any man, as his first officer; Wash, Zoe’s wisecracking husband, as pilot and navigator; the eternally pert and perky Kaylee as ship’s mechanic, who, despite her girlish demeanor, is a whiz with machinery; Inara, a highly trained and officially licensed “companion,” or courtesan; and Jayne, the hired muscle, whose mercenary temperament leads him to try to betray his captain more than once.

In the show’s 90-minute pilot episode, the starship Serenity picks up three more passengers: Book, a “Shepherd,” or minister for an unspecified, perhaps pan-Christian denomination; Dr. Simon Tam, a brilliant young surgeon; and his sister River, a child prodigy whose mind has been cruelly damaged by horrific experiments at the hands of Alliance scientists. Simon has sacrificed his promising career to rescue River from the “Academy” where she was being tortured, and now the two of them are wanted fugitives. Somewhere in the deeply troubled recesses of her mind, River holds secrets that could bring down the Alliance.

Over the course of the series, characters grow, change, and reveal more sides of themselves. Mal, for example, has an almost Victorian moral code, and I mean that in the best possible sense. He can’t stand to see a woman abused or mistreated; so much so that he’ll risk his life and his crew to defend a bordello full of prostitutes who are being terrorized by a local bigwig. He hates the fact that Inara, whatever she may call herself, is a prostitute, and shows signs of being in love with her, feelings she may secretly reciprocate. When he finds he has stolen a load of desperately needed medical supplies, he’ll risk his life to return the supplies to their intended recipients and willingly incur the wrath of the vicious gangster who hired him to steal the supplies in the first place.

Shepherd Book, for his part, seems to have more knowledge of military and security matters than a clergyman otherwise might, suggesting that he too has a troubled past. It’s clear that Mal has lost his religious faith as a result of the events at Serenity Valley, and had the show continued, I would have liked to have seen the relationship between the two men develop further and the writers grapple more with issues of faith and belief.

In short, Firefly has a little bit of everything: plenty of action, quirky, unconventional characters, Emmy-winning visual effects, and–I almost forgot–bloodthirsty space-going zombies called Reavers–truly something for everyone 🙂 If you like science fiction or Westerns or wonder what a blend of the two genres might look like, head on over to Hulu.com today and start watching. The browncoats need you.

Who Watches the Watchmen? Not I

March 20, 2009

Watchmen / Alan Moore, writer; Dave Gibbons, illustrator /letterer; John Higgins, colorist. New York: DC Comics, © 1986-1987.

I finally found something to rouse me out of my torpor and motivate me to start blogging again. I recently finished reading Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, which, judging from the adulation heaped on it and the hype and ballyhoo surrounding the release of the movie version, is the biggest thing to hit comics since colored ink. Here’s a sample of the blurbs on the back cover:

“A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium,” says Time Magazine. They rate it as one of the 100 best novels (not just graphic novels, but novels, period) since 1923. Why 1923, I don’t know.

Watchmen is peerless,” says Rolling Stone.

“Remarkable . . . The would-be heroes of Watchmen have staggeringly complex psychological profiles, says the New York Times Book Review.

“A brilliant piece of fiction,” says The Village Voice.

“Groundbreaking,” says USA Today.

“A masterwork representing the apex of artistry,” says Entertainment Weekly.

“The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced,” says Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost.

Most of the reader reviews on Amazon.com are similarly glowing, but a significant number are not. I beg to differ with the majority view and firmly register with the minority.

My opinion? Somewhere between “Meh,” and “Yuck,” leaning heavily toward the latter. I found Watchmen a grim, joyless, dispiriting work with an atheistic, nihilistic, and pessimistic worldview that deliberately and consistently inverts, subverts, and perverts everything that makes reading superhero comics fun and enjoyable in the first place. The book’s title is based on a quotation from the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?) that was used as the epigraph for the Tower Commission’s report on the Iran-Contra affair in 1987. Like the Tower Commission, questions about the abuse of power and authority and the nature of good and evil are clearly on Moore’s mind here. He uses the conventions of the superhero story to try to make points about larger issues, but I disagree about as profoundly as I possibly can with his point of view and his conclusions.

Nevertheless, I wanted to read the book because about a year ago, as a relative newcomer to the world of comics, I created some superhero characters myself and started trying to create a fictional universe for them to live in. I wanted to see if the kinds of stories I had in mind for these characters would sell, so I set out to do a little unsystematic market research. I wanted to read titles that seemed representative of the market for superhero stories as a whole, and I wanted to read books that were considered essential and highly influential in the comics industry. Watchmen was a name that kept coming up on both counts.

Before reading the book, I knew Watchmen had a reputation for being much grimmer and grittier than the average mainstream superhero comic, and was something of a landmark for having largely introduced this element of darkness and grit into comics as a whole. I knew the journey into the world of Watchmen might not always be fun, but I thought it would at least be interesting and instructive. It was not. I started reading the book before Christmas but gave up about halfway through because I found it so relentlessly bleak and depressing. When I heard about the release of the movie version I decided to dig out the book again and push through to the end before making a final decision about it. I thought perhaps I had misjudged or misunderstood the work. I had not. My initial assessment still stands. I did not enjoy this book and cannot recommend it. I don’t get the hype. What makes it so wonderful?

The story begins in 1985 as someone is murdering or otherwise eliminating the members of a defunct and discredited team of masked amateur crime fighters, the Minute Men. The latest victim is Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian, a thug and a rapist every bit as brutal as the criminals he fought against. Another former member of the group, the paranoid and psychotic Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach, who plainly enjoys intimidating and torturing real or perceived enemies, is conducting his own investigation into The Comedian’s death. With the reluctant help of two other former vigilantes, Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl, and Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Silk Spectre, Rorschach follows the conspiracy to its source: Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt, another former masked adventurer who has given up crime fighting, become a multimillionaire, and established a reputation as “the smartest man in the world.”

Veidt has concluded that simply fighting crime isn’t enough. He concocts an insane plan to remake the world in his own image by fabricating the appearance of an alien invasion, destroying half the population of New York City in the process, and forcing humanity to put aside its internal conflicts and unite in the face of the supposed alien threat. Ironically, Veidt’s plan works to perfection. Not even the godlike abilities of Dr. Manhattan, the only member of the team with “superpowers” in the traditional comic book sense, can prevent the catastrophe; in fact, Dr. Manhattan refuses to intervene, for his own reasons.

The messages behind the book seem abundantly, almost unmistakably clear to me. Chapter VI, Rorschach’s horrific origin story, ends with this declaration by his psychiatrist:

Why do we argue? Life’s so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud suspended in endless nothing . . . . The horror is this: in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.

None of the subsequent events of the book do anything to challenge the psychiatrist’s pronouncement. The power of God will not save the world because there is no God. If Dr. Manhattan is meant to symbolize God in any way, he will not intervene to save humanity; in fact, he destroys Rorschach for refusing to go along with Veidt’s plans and decides to leave Earth forever to visit other “less complicated” galaxies. When Veidt points out that Dr. Manhattan has regained an interest in human life, the doctor replies, “Yes I have. I think perhaps I’ll create some,” and vanishes.

Moore also seems to imply that conventional heroism will not save humanity because in the end there is no moral difference between the so-called heroes and so-called villains. The Comedian and Rorschach are just as brutal and sadistic as their alleged enemies. The US government recruits The Comedian for all manner of despicable “black ops” missions that the government can later deny. The only “supervillain” we actually see, the former Moloch the Magician, is no longer a master criminal; when Rorschach terrorizes him in order to gain information, Moloch is just a sick old man dying of cancer who wants only to be left alone. Nite Owl, the character most like a conventional superhero, with a genuine desire to do good, is literally and figuratively impotent, both in the sense of being unable to affect the story’s outcome and in the sense of being unable to consummate his desire for Silk Spectre–unless he is wearing his Nite Owl costume.

In his essay, A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls, written more than a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton argued that popular fiction, ranging from fairy tales to the epic adventures of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and even the “penny dreadfuls,” or mass-produced sensational fiction of his time, served two purposes. It fulfilled a basic human longing for stories of heroism and adventure and it taught a basic moral code. Chesterton responded to the so-called intellectual sophisticates of his time who looked down their noses at “penny dreadfuls” even as they looked down their noses at the moral codes contained therein:

And with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German professors) whether morality is valid at all. At the very instant that we curse the Penny Dreadful for encouraging thefts upon property, we canvass the proposition that all property is theft. At the very instant we accuse it (quite unjustly) of lubricity and indecency, we are cheerfully reading philosophies which glory in lubricity and indecency. At the very instant that we charge it with encouraging the young to destroy life, we are placidly discussing whether life is worth preserving.

Chesterton argued that in many respects he preferred the simple morality of the “penny dreadful” and the people of the lower classes who read them to the fashionable despair of the intellectual elites:

So long as the coarse and thin texture of mere current popular romance is not touched by a paltry culture it will never he vitally immoral. It is always on the side of life. The poor–the slaves who really stoop under the burden of life– have often been mad, scatter-brained, and cruel, but never hopeless. That is a class privilege, like cigars. Their drivelling literature will always be a “blood and thunder” literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven and the blood of men.

I would suggest that the pulp novel, the old time radio show, and the Golden Age comic book of the 1930s and ’40s were the successors to the “penny dreadfuls” of Chesterton’s day. No one could possibly confuse the high-mindedness of Superman or the Shadow’s stern warning: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay!” with the nihilism and brutality of Rorschach and The Comedian. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Superman. Some days I still wish I could be. Who would want to be Rorschach?

I would also suggest that in Watchmen, however, we have what Chesterton might have regarded as the worst of both worlds: a work of popular fiction infected with the nihilism and cruelty of the intellectual elites. It’s the product of a “paltry culture” indeed, if reviewers think that such a thing qualifies as high art. Watchmen is not “on the side of life;” it is, at its heart, on the side of death. It reeks of hopelessness and despair. It holds that the thunder of heaven is merely thunder and never the voice of heaven; and that men and women never spill their blood for any good purpose, even to save their country, their family, or each other.

Who watches the watchmen? Not I.

Some Curry With Your Kryptonite?

March 20, 2009

Here’s an unintentionally (?) hilarious little clip from an extremely low-budget Superman movie knockoff produced by India’s film industry (sometimes referred to as Bollywood). Supes looks to have put on a few pounds, and I’ll swear the guy’s wearing a false nose. Lucky for us, the person who originally posted this video has helpfully provided English subtitles which add to the hilarity. Hat tip: Saint Superman.