Thursday, February 21, 2013

2008 in Film: Reading Recommendations for Four Recent Movies

This article originally appeared on JHU Online in January 2009.

Of 2008's slate of superhero movies, there were some definite hits (Iron Man, The Dark Knight) and some definite misses (Punisher: War Zone, The Spirit). I know when these films came out, folks were asking for the adaptations of the movies, but neither Marvel or DC have put out adaptations for their recent films. However, we can direct you to some excellent collected editions that may have provided the inspiration for the films, or make excellent companions.

This summer's Iron Man movie is widely regarded as one of the better superhero movies ever released. The film-makers did not choose a specific storyline from Iron Man's past, but chose instead to take elements from past stories, and the essence of who Tony Stark is, and crafted a fun, political, action packed sci-fi thriller. A good companion for the movie for those who may not have read much Iron Man is definitely this year's new Invincible Iron Man by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca, now available in hardcover (coincidentally, on my best-of list for 2008).

This new Iron Man series has been a smash hit with both critics and fans alike, and for many good reasons. Until recently, a B-List character who shines more in team books, Iron Man has become the lynch-pin of the Marvel Universe: His side came out victorious in the superhero civil war, he is the leader of the Avengers and the director of SHIELD, and the world depends on the technology his multi-billion dollar company makes. But instead of jumping into the mire of Tony Stark's place within the Marvel Universe, Fraction wisely tells a story a bit more close to home for Iron Man. The story follows Stark as he tries to defend his company, his life, and the lives of millions from the son of an old enemy with a serious bone to pick. The book, with stunning art by Larroca, is the best solo Iron Man book put out in years, and is packed with action, humor, cool surprises, and nifty little moments (I got a kick out of the casual game of chess with Reed Richards and the quiet moments between Tony and the ever loyal Pepper Potts). This book provides an excellent introduction to the character for those unfamiliar with him, and primes the reader for the changes to come in Tony's life as a result of Marvel's big Secret Invasion event. Fraction and Larroca's Invincible Iron Man is the new solo it-book for the Marvel Universe and one of the best superhero books on the stands.

Like Iron Man, this summer's smash-hit masterpiece The Dark Knight doesn't have any single influence, but many.

One of the easiest to find is certainly the highly regarded The Long Halloween by the noted team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. The focus of Long Halloween is a murder mystery - someone is killing mobsters, and it is up to Batman to find out and stop it. At the same time, district attorney Harvey Dent is struggling to prosecute both the murders and the mobsters, despite the corruption all around him. The Dark Knight uses the essence of Long Halloween's depiction of Harvey Dent's journey from savior to fallen hero quite effectively, and mirrors the story's greater focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman as an active, skilled detective.

Of course the main focus of The Dark Knight is the Joker, and a good example of who the Joker is and just how far he will go can be found in the seminal Batman story The Killing Joke by comics master Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. While accross nearly 70 years, many great stories have been told of the Joker's twisted actions and his even more twisted relationship with the Caped Crusader, The Killing Joke is widely regarded as one of the best - and one of the best single comics ever made. In one issue, we see Joker go farther than he has before with his enemies in the police department in terms of sheer brutality and psychological violence, (what may be) Joker's origin, and we see in just a few pages the essence of the relationship between two troubled men in costume, inexorably tied to each other for the rest of their lives. DC recently re-released The Killing Joke as a deluxe hardcover, and for anyone interested in reading the definitive Joker story, this is the book to get.

There have been several notorious attempts to bring the Punisher to the big screen, and last month's Punisher: War Zone excited fans with obvious intentions to finally "get it right." Apparently, to the producers, getting it right meant seeking out the source material, specifically Garth Ennis's defining run with the character in Punisher from Marvel's MAX Comics mature-readers line of books. Punisher War Zone, like Punisher MAX, is a brutally violent work. But unlike Ennis's Punsiher, it is a profoundly stupid one. It has all of the brutality of Punisher MAX, with none of the context.

Let me explain... In Punisher War Zone, Frank Castle wages war against the worst criminals alive, and what is presented is brutal, gory, and completely without context. The violence is glorified. Certainly the level of violence in Punisher MAX is at levels almost unseen in superhero comics, but in Ennis's books, it is presented simply as is. There are certainly cool looking moments, but it is not glorified. The brutality presented, is simply what used to be off-panel or hinted at in previous incarnations - if Frank Castle really did what he set out to do, this is what it looks like. The reader sees these images, and must come to a moral conclusion about what he or she is seeing within the context of the story. In Punisher MAX, characters within the story argue and debate the merits of what Punsiher is doing, the effect on society his actions have. You question the nature of vigilante justice - not just the nature of what Frank Castle is doing, but the nature of what all vigilantes do. The reader never loses sight of the fact that the Punisher is a murderer, not a superhero, that he kills people in cold blood, bad people. And that his war on crime, and the wars of his past, have left him a deeply scarred person. Castle's tragic past - his experiences in Vietnam, the loss of his family - is never used as an excuse by himself or others... again, it is simply presented as is: this is what happened, here is where he is now, you the reader must decide whether or not this is right, just, moral.

If you were as frustrated by the recent Punisher movie as I was and want some Punisher stories with depth as well as the violence expected from someone like him, then Garth Ennis's Punisher MAX is the title to read. Ennis has had a long and storied association with the character, who he redefined in the several fun series from Marvel Knights (indeed, Marvel recently released a nifty Omnibus collecting all of Ennis's pre-MAX Punisher work). Under the MAX banner, Ennis, along with several different talented artists, took Frank Castle out of the world of capes and superheroes and into our own. His enemies are frequently involved in organized crime and the simply corrupt. Castle encounters the full gamut of the worst that humanity can inflict on its own, and he metes out the appropriate punishment to those who would kill, maim, enslave. He goes from the streets of New York to take out gangsters, to the barren tundra of Siberia to save a life and stop a plague from getting into the wrong hands, to Miami to eliminate corrupt businessmen. The ten volumes comprising Ennis's Punisher are largely self-contained individually, though I would read them in order. As the series progresses, the levels that his targets will go to defend themselves increase - as does the response from law enforcement to capture the Punisher at all costs, and there is a loose overall arc the whole series follows. Part espionage thriller, part mystery, part brutal exploration of the nature of vigilante justice, this series has it all, including a surprising and moving climax in the final volume.

Will Eisner's seminal work, The Spirit, was turned into a feature film directed by Frank Miller. The version of the Spirit presented by Miller is nothing at all like any version of the Spirit ever put into print - Denny Colt, Eisner's masked crime fighter, has no superpowers, and the overall vision Miller put forth is more similar to Miller's own works, and bears almost zero resemblance to Eisner's masterworks. Hopefully, by now, this is known by most comic fans... but, if you are unfamiliar with The Spirit, where to start?

The best place, of course, is Eisner's original works. Enough cannot be said about Will Eisner's importance to the comic medium. He is widely regarded as inventing, or at least popularizing the graphic novel (yes, there were antecedents, but it was Eisner who had the earliest critical and commercial success with the form). But just as important is his contributions to the language of graphic storytelling in his Spirit strips. Created as a seven page newspaper insert in the summer of 1940, The Spirit would re-invent how stories are told in comics. Previously, comics stuck to a pretty rigid panel/grid structure... Eisner's Spirit radically broke free from these constraints, with images that burst out of the panels and spread across entire pages. The construction of the images allowed the manipulation of both the perception and pacing of the story, and allowed a much greater artistry. Everything we take for granted about the construction of the comic form that allows for a depth in storytelling that prose or film simply cannot achieve were created by Eisner in these strips. There are so few truly revolutionary reinventions of the form in comic's history, and Eisner's The Spirit represents one of those important, influential changes.

But what about the stories? Not only does Eisner experiment with language of comics, but he also used The Spirit to play with different genres, going from noir (one of the first examples of comic noir in graphic fiction) to crime dramas to love stories and horror and comedy and, of course, mystery, or some inventive combination thereof, all keeping the humanity of his wide and colorful supporting cast front and center. All of Eisner's work on the Spirit has been collected by DC in a series of wonderful hardcover archive editions, and just like DC's archive series, the stories are presented with vibrantly reconstructed colors on archive-quality paper. The Eisner Archive series also collects the work of other contemporary artists on who worked on The Spirit while Eisner was serving in World War 2, including Jack Cole, Jules Feiffer, Joe Kubert, Lou Fine, Wally Wood and more.

Eisner published The Spirit between 1940 and 1952. Eisner put out a handful of new Spirit stories in the 1960s and 1970s. Starting in 1996, many notable comics creators tried their hand at the Spirit including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Paul Chadwick, Paul Pope, Neil Gaiman and more. Eisner's final work on the character appeared in The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #6. After Eisner's passing, DC put out the wonderful new Spirit series written and illustrated by the modern master, Darwyn Cooke. Cooke's take on the Spirit brought him into the modern world without changing the feel of the original, with Cooke's specific style perfectly suited to the colorful cast of characters inhabiting Eisner's world of noir crime-fighting and mystery. Cooke's work has been collected in two hardcovers, and the current Spirit series continues, written by Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones.

For anyone looking to get into The Spirit, either the Eisner archives or the current Cooke collections are a perfect place to start. DC also recently released a couple of trade-paperback collections containing some of Eisner's best work, in The Best of The Spirit, and The Spirit: Femme Fatales.

c) 2009, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson 

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