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Bad News for Geeks: The Oscar for Achievement in Popular Film

And the Award for the Worst Idea for Awards Shows 2018 goes to. . .  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announcing an award for “outstanding achievement in popular film.”

It’s stupid, it’s pandering, it’s condescending, and also potentially racist.

On first glance, geeks might rejoice! “Finally, a category that will reward the movies I love — Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park!”

Well yes. And no.

The Academy is correct in identifying that fewer and fewer people are watching The Oscars every year. But this won’t help with that– at all. Yes, please, add more categories and ones that will represent the best in pop geek cinema. In fact, I identified five such ideas earlier this year. I quote myself:

“Most of the Best Picture nominations have made less than $100 million. NONE of the top 10 grossing movies of 2017 are nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. While we should in no way conflate box office with artistic merit, … it’s no wonder the public tunes out– because the Oscars celebrate what Hollywood likes in its movies, but not necessarily the rest of the country. In fact, of the top twenty best performing films of 2017, you only have two that received Best Picture / Best Director nominations — Dunkirk (16th) and Get Out (18th).”

My personal favorites of 2017 included blockbusters and artsy movies. While I would never expect to see Atomic Blonde nominated for Best Picture (it was also only a minor box office success), I am surprised that amazing films like Coco and Your Name are not. (Note: I am talking about the time-travel-starcrossed lovers anime Your Name and not Call Me By Your Name). But why are they not nominated as Best Picture?

Because they are animated films, and animation has its own separate category. Films like Zootopia, Inside Out, and The Incredibles deserve Oscar buzz. But they will never get it because they are stuck in the same situation we are about to put “popular” films in. This is the same problem documentaries have– films like Man on Wire, The Act of Killing, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, or 13th should all be considered amongst the best films of their respective years. Ditto for foreign language films.

The Academy should be asking, “Is how we choose Best Picture, Director, Writer and Actor nominees maybe not considering a whole slew of great films because our voting population is mainly old, white men who are susceptible to lobbying/bribery/marketing from the major studios and bullies/abusers like the Weinsteins?” Instead they’re saying, “Maybe if we nominate one of these superhero movies it will get these rubes off their tractors and turnip trucks.”

In the wake of controversies like #OscarsSoWhite, they are trying to increase the diversity of what films they consider, but this will ultimately backfire. Let’s be 100% real — if this category had existed last year, Get Out would’ve been in it. How do we know this? Because at the Golden Globes, it was nominated in the “Musicals and Comedy” slate.

It’s not hard to posit that the following conversation took place:

A: “They’re going to call us racist if Black Panther isn’t nominated for Best Picture.”
B: “Well, what if we designed a new category it can be sure to win, so we don’t have to worry about it?”
C: “Yes! A separate, but equal, award for. . . best popular movie or something.”

Or maybe the answer is just make sure the people voting are given the option to, you know, vote for Black Panther. And maybe extend your voting to enough people to make sure it can happen. And you don’t have to pander. You don’t have to condescend. But that, of course, would require you to make Hollywood less of an old-boys-club run by suits looking at spreadsheets. The key is having a younger, more racially diverse, more equal in terms of gender ratios group of voters, which means having more of those people making the films we love. But nah, let’s just make a popularity award.

This is not at all to poo-poo “popular” movies. I will fight you why Captain America: Civil War was the best movie of 2016 (and Captain America: Winter Soldier the best of 2014). Of the 100+ films I’ve seen and reviewed this year here on Graphic Policy and elsewhere, Black Panther has so far received my highest score. It shouldn’t be nominated for an award because it’s “popular”– it should be nominated because it’s a damn fine movie. Again, I will fight anyone who says differently. I love nothing more than sit down and obsessively talk about the minutae of Ryan Coogler or Rian Johnson’s work.

Do I want The Last Jedi to be nominated for Best Picture? Sure! The original Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture and should’ve won against Annie Hall, and Rian Johnson’s masterpiece is in that same echelon of great Star Wars movies. (Yes, @ me if you must, because I will die on this hill and am happy to block tons of trolls on Twitter)

But what I don’t want is every year or so for a Star Wars film to get a participation trophy because it made so much money. It doesn’t need a popularity award– it just made a billion dollars! It’s @#$%ing Star Wars — one of the most culturally ubiquitous things on the planet. That’s enough. If you’re going to reward it for its cinematic achievement, then do so. But don’t do it because you think it will get more eyes on a tv broadcast. (SPOILER ALERT: It won’t.) That path leads to the Dark Side. . . and the Star Wars Holiday Special.

What it will do is ghettoize great films just because they are popular.

Let’s play this out. This year’s nominees will likely include Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Mary Poppins Returns. . . yes, those are all Disney films. Add in Deadpool 2 as a soon-to-be-Disney property. Anyone see a problem with this? First, if you’re literally any other film, why even bother? Second, remember that the Oscars telecast is on ABC. If this category — even just for this year — is just an extended commercial for Disney’s corporate holdings, then, again, why even bother?

The biggest tragedy will be if groundbreaking genre films like Sorry to Bother You, Hereditary, or A Quiet Place get relegated to this category.  Again — 100%– Get Out would have been in this category last year. So would Logan and likely Wonder Woman. We shouldn’t be content with this, but instead demand that real artistic work be taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand as though “Best” and “Popular” are largely mutually exclusive categories. Both James Mangold and Patty Jenkins deserved to be nominated as Best Director and their films nominated for Best Picture. Instead, we get Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Darkest Hour. 

It’s precisely that kind of bullshit that makes people not tune in. Another movie about Dunkirk? (and the absolute worst of the three released in 2017!) And a misguided discussion about forgiveness that completely misses the mark, especially when it comes to issues of race? Yeah, no. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Ghettoizing Get Out, Logan, The Last Jedi, and Wonder Woman into a “popular movies” category wouldn’t fix that.

Apologies for using the word ghettoize. I do not do so lightly. I do so in the literal sense of segregating people based on outward characteristics in order to provide them with substandard services.

While The Academy would like to be more diverse, this category will serve as a “runner up” category to keep films like Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, A Wrinkle in Time, Crazy Rich Asians AND their filmmakers away from the podium.

That’s not fair, and it’s not ok. I made a joke earlier about a “separate, but equal, category.” That’s what this is. As long as it exists as a consolation prize while “real” art gets nominated for Best Picture, it will serve to “other” deserving filmmakers.

While this will be good news that early next year we can stop remembering that the only recent movie based on a comic book to win an Oscar is Suicide Squad (executive produced by supervillain Treasury Secretary and therefore fifth in line for the presidency Steve Mnuchin!) that is likely the only good thing about this situation. Sure, Ryan Coogler might get to accept an Oscar, but he deserves to be in the same category as Spielberg and Scorcese.

On Chris Hardwick, Comic Conventions, and the Presumption of Innocence

(Trigger Warning for discussions of rape, abuse, sexual assault,etc)

In this article I’m going to attempt to deconstruct what’s happening around allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in various areas of nerddom. Rather than try to prosecute the facts of each individual case, I want to talk about systems and how we got to this point, and what we can do about it.

“Innocent until proven guilty.”
“There are two sides and we can’t know.”
“Rush to judgment.”
Chris Hardwick. FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention#metoo

It is as predictable as the sun rising in the east that whenever there is an allegation of harassment, rape, abuse, or other predatory behavior that these are the responses we’ll hear first. So let’s talk about these ideas and where they fit in with our current cultural conversation.

First (and this may surprise you I’m starting here) these are good standards. They have served us well in western civilization because they are standards with specific intents.

For instance, it’s ENTIRELY VITAL that in the criminal justice system, a person have a complete presumption of innocence. It is the government’s job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of your peers that you committed a crime in order for you to be deprived of your freedom or property by being put in jail or having to pay a fine. In the case of the law, innocent until proven guilty is sacrosanct. Hence, the legal proceedings against Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, etc.

But then there’s the court of public opinion. Who says that in this case a person must be given the presumption of innocence? Does literally anything else get this same standard? Does science? (I wish, right?)

No. Because that’s not how it works. So why should what is appropriate for due process in a criminal case be applied in the case of a victim coming forward? Do we apply other similar legalisms in our daily lives?

And so then a lot of people will say, when all the evidence comes out, it comes down to a “he said / she said” situation (or another variation based on the genders of the people involved– as abuse and harassment occur among all people — but in this case I’ll keep with the colloquial “he said / she said” because we’re talking about specific instances of alleged abuse).

The end point of this, though, is that a person is supposed to throw up their hands and just say “Well, I guess we can’t know. There’s two sides to this story and the only people who know are the two of them.” It’s the societal equivalent of a hung jury– we just don’t know — OR an acquittal where we say the victim never proved their claim beyond some standard of reasonable doubt.

So, what happens? The net effect of “innocent until proven guilty” and “two sides” is that the accused is always advantaged. There is a seriously high bar to overcome to be able to prove an allegation– and the more prominent and powerful a person is, the higher that bar gets.

And so we wonder why victims are afraid to come forward? BECAUSE OF THIS. Because prima facie we are conditioned to not believe them. Because it’s important to understand that “innocent until proven guilty” and “two sides” are systems created by western patriarchal order specifically for the judicial system — which have served us well in terms of balancing government tyranny vs law and order — but which do NOT protect victims and were never created for society at large. Using legal standards in place of a broader sense of morality and justice is not only foolhardy– it’s why Jesus hated lawyers. (Apologies to my friends in the legal profession. Jesus loves you very much.)

We face an epidemic of rape and sexual assault– 1 in 4 women will be assaulted. That is sickening and MUST change. But rape cases are unlikely to be prosecuted because we have to convince a jury of 12 individuals a rapist is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Get ONE person on that jury who holds sexist attitudes about “She was leading him on.” “She was wearing the wrong clothing.” etc, etc, etc and the accused will not be punished. Get a judge who believes we shouldn’t ruin a person’s life over one mistake, and the person will not be punished. Innocent until proven guilty is a high bar. And is it intentionally so, because the basis of our law is “It is better for 1,000 guilty men to go free than one innocent man be punished.” Emphasis on “men.”

It is the systems of presumption of innocence and hearing both sides that have created the situation we are in. They were tools of a patriarchal western culture which, intentionally or not, have always advantaged men over women. They are the petri dish in which rape culture flourished and grew. And we will not, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, be able to tear down the master’s house using the master’s tools. And so “presumed innocent” and “both sides” will never get us the justice we need.

JFK wrote “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” We have made solving these cases nearly impossible through our criminal justice system. And so instead we have to turn to the callout, the public shaming– the vague article on Medium that doesn’t directly name your accuser but we all know who you’re talking about. These are also imperfect systems, but they’re basically all we have.

Government is supposed to have a monopoly on the use of violence in society. And shunning, isolation, shaming– those are acts of violence. It’s why we should react so viscerally to The Scarlet Letter, The Handmaid’s Tale, to women being beheaded for adultery or acid thrown in their faces– BECAUSE extra-governmental forces (in these cases, religion masquerading as law or individuals acting under a faux religious mandate) are enacting violence. Also, government is not acting as it should with the necessary due process. And the violence is horrific. But even in the more subtle violence of these– the shame circles, the public labeling — we see what we don’t like about callout culture. Because it is a form of mob justice, and one which does not have norms or rules around it.

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And because they can be misused, people are skeptical, and begin trying to rationalize against it. And we retreat back to “innocent until proven guilty” and “he said / she said”– all of which serve to protect the accused and indict the victim. And, it should be noted, the closer you are to a person who is accused, the more you might depend on them for something, the less likely you are to believe they are capable of this. And so we say, “we don’t want to harm someone over unfounded allegations.”

Some have even called this “the internet lynch mob.” Let’s unpack that for one second. Thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of people, mostly African Americans, were lynched in the US. People were murdered. It was done to incite terror and uphold white supremacy. For me, it rings just as hollow to talk about women working to stop sexual violence — especially when it is women of color (and queer women of color) who are the largest victims of sexual violence and harassment in the US — as a “lynch mob” as it does for Richard Paul Evans to talk about being a white male being like a Jew during Nazi Germany. It rings hollow because it destroys the historical paradigm of oppressor and victim and flips it on its head– now the historical victims of oppression are suddenly the bad guys? And to talk about someone being called out for bad behavior as being morally equivalent to taking someone’s life? Spare me.

Because it harms literally no one to believe a victim when they come forward. What will the consequences be for Chris Hardwick? At most, it will be a loss of reputation which will almost certainly be temporary.

Chris Brown is still making albums. So is Dr. Luke. It’s unlikely that even if they lose their civil suits they will be living on the streets, having lost everything. Devin Faraci, who was accused of assault, got a job with Alamo Drafthouse/ Fantastic Fest less than a year after the allegations came out against him — and he would have continued in that role if it had not been exposed. Even Bill O’Reilly is mounting a comeback tour. So let’s not pretend that people are going to be ruined.

For those not following the controversy around sexual assault and harassment at Salt Lake FanX (previously Salt Lake Comic Con– the third largest con in the country by attendance after San Diego and New York) here is a primer. But it’s bad. If the con’s owners, Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenberg, were to sell Salt Lake FanX or convert it into a non-profit (as many of their critics are calling for, pointing to toxic behavior on their part as well), they stand to gain more than can be imagined– and more than they stand to lose if they continue to let this drip drip drip continue about the harassment and abuse they have covered up. If we choose too believe the victims who have stepped forward, they will still be millionaires no matter what. Same with Hardwick.

So, again, it DOES NOTHING to simply believe victims when they come forward. In fact, every argument of “innocent until proven guilty” and “hear both sides” insulates abusers and harassers. It prevents victims from coming forward because they know the people around the accused will rally around them and prosecute the victim– call her unreliable, question her motives, ask why she didn’t just leave the situation in the first place (obviously you have no idea how abusers operate and can’t see the pathological ways they all work).

In the case of gaslightng or calling into question the accuracy or motives of victims, above all others, there is actual harm perpetrated against people who have already been victimized when we choose to hide behind “we can’t know” or “innocent until proven guilty” or “the internet lynch mob.”

There is a massive change trying to happen in our culture right now. There are people who have been oppressed in order for us to make the progress we’ve made. There are people who are still disadvantaged by the status quo. Our choice is whether we decide to side with the status quo as “good enough” or whether we want to break down systems of oppression and side with the disadvantaged. And if you’ve decided to stay neutral in this fight, or ignore it and pretend it isn’t happening, you’ve already chosen a side.

Believe victims. It doesn’t harm anyone, except the patriarchy.

About that [Spoiler] at the end of Solo: A Star Wars Story

solo-official-poster

NOTE: This article contains spoilers. Don’t read unless you have already seen the movie! 

I really liked Solo: A Star Wars Story. I pretty much word-for-word agree with my colleague Brett in his review here, which you should also go read.

But several of my friends asked me the same question. . .  “What the heck? Darth Maul?”

His inclusion is brilliant. A theme of Solo is that everyone has a boss, everyone answers to someone. And so Han’s motivation almost the entire film is just to get a ship and fly away from it all — to be free. It’s a very interesting parallel to Maul, who continually flees from his would-be Sith masters/oppressors and trying to be his own man. However, Han Solo truly just wants freedom. Maul wants revenge.

It’s a masterful inclusion that not only works as perfect nerd candy, but also goes directly to the heart of the theme of the film.

A word on spoilers (looking sideways at you, Variety, and other mainstream outlets whose headlines scream DARTH MAUL!!!! without a thought of spoiling the movie. Of course, none of my friends are terrible enough to spoil the movie in the open– we’re asking in private messages, spoiler-devoted Facebook groups, and so on. Please be like them. Let people enjoy this, because, for me, it was one of the most beautiful reveals in the film. (The others were cameos by both Warwick Davis and Clint Howard and a mention of Teräs Käsi, a reference to the second worst Star Wars video game of all time.)

But back to Darth Maul. Most fans — even big fans — will go into this and say, “Wait. . .  isn’t he dead?”

I will admit, this was my first thought as well, since Maul met his final end on Tatooine in a beautiful duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi in Season 3 of Star Wars Rebels.

But then you remember, Rebels is taking place only a few years before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope (or, in uber-nerdy in-canon parlance, Before the Battle of Yavin [BBY] or After the Battle of Yavin [ABY]). Maul died approximately 2-3 years BBY, and the events of Solo take place anywhere from 10-13 years BBY.

But, wait, how is Maul still alive after getting chopped in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of The Phantom Menace? 

To that, we need to go to to the Star Wars comics and The Clone Wars cartoon, which have a bunch of great Maul-centric episodes and arcs. Let me lay some of them out, and then you can use these handy links to watch them on Netflix. (Really, you should just watch all of Clone Wars. The first season is a bit uneven, but it gets REALLY good.)

Backstory:

Season 3, Episodes 12-14: Count Dooku has a secret apprentice, Asaaj Ventress (again, you should really watch the whole show!), and he is ordered to eliminate her and goes to replace her. His replacement is Savage Oppress, who bears a striking resemblance to Darth Maul (except he’s yellow instead of red).

Darth Maul Returns:

Season 4, Episodes 21-22: Brothers / Revenge: Savage Oppress goes on a quest to find his long-lost brother, who he feels is alive. He finds him — insane — on the junk planet of Lotho Minor, where he has built himself crazy spider legs out of junk and has somehow managed to stay alive. The one thing Maul clings to is revenge against Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he and Oppress leave on a mission to take it. They end up fighting Kenobi and Ventress, who only barely escape. This leads to. . .

Season 5, Episode 1: Revival:  Maul and Oppress rampage across the Outer Rim, beginning to put together an underworld gang of pirates. This is the first time Maul refers to himself as a “Crime Lord.” When the face off against notorious pirate Hondo Onaka teamed up with Obi-Wan, they escape again, only barely alive.

Season 5, Episodes 14-16: Maul and Oppress put together a crime syndicate backed by Black Sun, the Hutts, the Pykes (who are also namechecked in Solo as a rival gang to Crimson Dawn), and rogue Mandalore clan Death Watch. (Of note: Pre Vizsla, the leader of Death Watch, is voiced by none other than Jon Favreau, who also voices Rio Durant in Solo)

Together, under the name of  The Shadow Collective, they take over Mandalore, drawing in the Jedi and exacting a personal price on Kenobi. I maintain that the episode “The Lawless” is better than a lot of the prequel trilogy in its stakes, emotions, and cinematic achievement. Worth a watch, for this scene only:

At the end of “The Lawless,” we see Maul and Oppress defeated and in retreat and then facing off against a very angry Darth Sidious / Emperor Palpatine. At the end, he says, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. I have other uses for you.”

And then The Clone Wars was cancelled.

Luckily, some of the unproduced scripts outlined what Palpatine’s plans were for Maul, which were then published in the comic series Son of DathomirDuring this, we see Maul go to war against General Grevious and Dooku, and his Shadow Collective in ruins.

Apparently, from this, Maul has been working in the intervening years to form Crimson Dawn, the criminal group that Qi’ra and Dryden Vos work for.

Wait, but is all this canon, you might ask?

Yes. 100% it is.

Back when Lucasfilm hit the reset button on their Extended Universe and turned all of that content into “Legends,” they kept all six of the produced films as canon, along with The Clone Wars, and then all comics and books from thereafter would be officially canonized.

So, that’s how Darth Maul makes sense being included in Solo. One of the best things I can say about Solo is it makes me want a sequel. I’d love to see what happens next as the stories of Han Solo, the Hutts, Lando, Qi’ra, and Darth Maul all are destined to intertwine some more.

For more of my thoughts on Solo in podcast form, check out the Bored as Hell Podcast

Why Does Rise of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Dip Into Racist Asian Stereotypes?

Nickelodeon‘s new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series Rise of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has come under criticism for numerous reasons; changes to the dynamic of the Turtles, the stylized look of the series, and drastic difference in the Turtles’ depictions. I have no opinion, no really care about all of that. Beyond all of that, the thing that stood out to me about the brand new trailer is the use of the Fu Manchu/Yellow Peril stereotype in the character of Splinter.

In the first official teaser released Friday, we get a look at what we can expect from the series and a better idea of the characters. We also get a look at Splinter who with his “slanted/slit” eyes, buck teeth, and delivery of lines, is hard to not see a racist Asian stereotype. There’s even a top knot!

This ethnic stereotype (which has no place in a kids show let alone modern society) has its roots in “Yellow Peril,” Western imperialism, racism, and led to exclusionary laws enacted against immigrants here in the United States. In entertainment it’s common and popularized in characters such as Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan both of which tread in stereotypical looks that persist to today. One scratches their head why the creators of this show thought it’s appropriate in 2018.

While there’s movements and individuals fighting for better representation of Asians in entertainment, to see a kids’ animated show perpetuate this hurtful imagery for a new generation is not only misguided it’s downright regressive and has no place on television let alone Nickelodeon which has had a history of excellent children’s programming.

You can watch the video below and see the problematic speech patterns at the 44 second mark and 53 second mark.

Why I’m Relieved Ta-Nehisi Coates Is Writing Captain America

Although it’s been widely rumored for months, Marvel only lately announced that the next writer of Captain America will be Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is excellent news for a couple reasons: first, because after Nick Spencer’s disastrous run where Captain America became a Nazi, the book and the character badly need not so much a “Fresh Start” as a bold new direction – and Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer who is not afraid of taking established characters in bold new directions, as readers of his continuing run on Black Panther can attest to. Second, more than almost any hero, Captain America is a character who is about political ideas, and as a top-flight political essayist, Coates is better suited than most comics writers to do just that.

Read more

For Conscious Nerds: When the Television Revolution is Not Enough (or My Review/Love Letter to Black Panther)

WAKANDA FOREVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This was the battle cry that has been heard around the world since Black Panther debuted in theaters and the world has not been the same since. This is what fans all over the globe have come to realize that we now see the “normalization” of the superhero genre, that all of us can be heroes, and it is not quite monochromatic as Hollywood would make us believe.

As nerds of color, much like our brothers and sisters, we have yet to see a hero that feels like they belong to us, until NOW.

In the past year, the rise of Black Lives Matter due to the rise of hate crimes, unjust police killings, and devaluation of black bodies has been felt everywhere, so as good art does, it starts to reflect what has happened in the world. This reality has been seen in docu-series such as Time: The Kalief Browder Story and Strong Island. Then, shows like Shots Fired and the recently released Netflix series Seven Seconds has further enforced why people of color feel like they are the target as their lives are constantly prescribed to their surroundings. This is where children of color, like other kids, had to find superheroes who they could identify with and for the longest time, most of us has had to find the altruistic values which echo who we are.

For me, it has been, Batman, who I saw on Superfriends, as I fancied myself smart and I wanted to be rich, maybe one day, but life made sure to let me know that I am not white, and I will never have the same privileges. This finding of heroes like me changed when my Dad introduced me to comics, which is when I found the world to not be so monochromatic, but a kaleidoscope of funk, as I found Power Man, Black Panther, Black Lightning, Turok The Dinosaur Hunter, and many more which are still part of my cherished pull boxes and of course, it became even more blessed when Milestone Comics came on the scene . As I grew older, there were variations on the Black superhero no television and in the movies, but none that any of us would love to dress up as, until Blade made a splash back in the 1990s. Since then, it has become quite monochromatic once again, with the sprinklings here and there, like Falcon or War Machine in The Avengers movies, but not one with them headlining.

Television has been more progressive in that sense, showing prominent storylines and featuring regular characters occupied by actors in shows like Arrow, Runaways, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Smallville, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That is why shows like Luke Cage and Black Lightning are so important, both shows very different than every other genre show from their respective studios, and each embodying the culture from which their character is from, from the music, the sights and their villains, as the days of making the black version of something, has for the most part come to a close and these characters silver screen portrayals showcase superheroes that feel and look like us.

This is why when it was first announced that Black Panther was going to have his own movie, I had my doubts since John Singleton and Wesley Snipes tried to travel this road back in the 1990s but when I heard they were getting Ryan Coogler, who directed one of my favorite movies Fruitvale Station, I had a feeling it was in good hands. The main thing I wanted to know is how they will bring Wakanda to life, so when the trailers started to hit the internet, as this rendering (below) is what felt the nation would look like, but the vision that Coogler ended up putting on the screen, exceeded my expectations

Which reminded of a book I read about Timbuktu and its king, Mansa Musa who was thought of be the richest man in the world. Then there is the look of the costumes:

Each costume pulled from tribes across the continent of Africa: Zulu, Masai, Himba, Mursi, Surma, Igbo, Basotho, Yoruba, Ndebeleh, and Touareg tribes. The filmmakers did not only stop there they infused the Wakandan language with two different mother tongues, Xhosa is a Nguni Bantu language with click consonants and one of the official languages of South Africa, which was the spoken Wakandan language but the written Wakandan language was Nsibidi which were used by the Igbo peoples, and all the actors made it sound cool. This leads me to the stars of the movie, primarily, the women, who are the strength of the movie.

The character of Nakia, as played by Lupita Nyongo, whose character became the villain known as Malice in the comics as her advances to T’Challa proved to be unsuccessful, but in the movie she still has his heart. Then there is Okoye, as acted by Danai Gurira, who proves to be T’Challa’s right hand which is equal to what she is in the comic books. The character of Ayo as played by Florence Kasumba made her presence known in Captain America: Civil War. Here she still caries gravitas but I am one of those disappointed comic book fans who had hoped her storyline form World of Wakanda would have carried over. The legendary Angela Bassett of course plays Ramonda who is T’Challa and Shuri’s mother in the movie. In the comic books she was a stepmother to T’Challa and T’Chaka’s third wife. Lastly, clearly the breakout star of the movie, Letitia Wright who plays Shuri is not only T’Challa’s sister, but she acts as Q to T’Challa’s James Bond. in the comics she eventually takes over the mantle of Black Panther.

Now let us get to the men, let me start with Ulysses Klaue, who doesn’t resemble his character at all, as played by Andy Serkis. His arm cannon comes close what he has in the comics and feels like a nod. Then there is Agent Ross, as played by the brilliant Martin Freeman. In an average movie his character would have played the “white savior”, but as can be seen throughout the movie, he was the one needing saving. M’Baku silenced him in his court but he did end up using pilot skills to shoot down the plans carrying weapons. The character of T’Chaka, as played by John Kani and Attandwa Kani (yes they are father and son) although dead , looms large throughout the film, for a reason I will get to in a minute Then there is the character of N’Jobu as played by Sterling K Brown, brother of T’Chaka , probably replacing Siya in the comics, who held the title after T’Chaka. This version betrays Wakanda as he sees their seclusion as overprotective and his death drives Killmonger to his returning to Wakanda. The character of W’Kabi as played by Daniel Kaluya serves as T’Challa’s best friend and in charge of National Defense, much like in the comics. Zuri, played by Forrest Whittaker serves the same purpose in the comics but looks vastly different than he does in canon., and plays a huge part to the plot. M’Baku as played by Winston Duke is largely different from how he is portrayed in the comics, as most fans know his “Man-Ape”, which is racially insensitive and connected to ethnic slurs, but his portrayal here is probably one of the most balanced in the film.

Eric Killmonger as portrayed by Michael B. Jordan looks vastly different from his character in the comics but is probably the best villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever seen as the reasons why he is so good because he was complicated. His intentions were not of his own self-interests but to empower indigenous peoples around the world, in New York, Hong Kong, London, which incidentally are the same places Doctor Strange has sanctums. Therefore, I feel he really is an antagonist, one who likes to see better results but takes extreme measures to get there, which underscores the rise of oligarchs around the world, one where their extreme measures cause power shifts.

Lastly, there is T’Challa as portrayed by Chadwick Boseman whose nonverbal acting and poise made him the perfect actor to take on the mantle and undergoes the hero’s journey as he leaned on the end of T’Chaka about keeping their borders as he says in the end scene” the wise build bridges, the foolish build barriers”.

Now let’s get to the major themes, as the plotline is tied to one lie, one which T’Chaka, Zuri and N’Jobu are all tied to, one in which one of them dies, and this is the reason Killmonger comes to Wakanda to take the throne, shows that lies have long lasting effects. This film also talk of the differences between Africans and African Americans, as no line speaks volumes to difference in ideologies , when he said “bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped ship, because they knew death was better than bondage”, as the difference between Eric and T’Challa, is one watching black lives being diminished by the lack of access to power, money and technology like herein America while some parts of Africa have flourished better. This movie more than proves to the world that movies having most people of color can make money if it is good. The other thing about the movie is this is one the few MCU movies which are self-contained, as you don’t see another character, except for Bucky, in the final post-credits scene. Lastly, the reception the movie got before audiences even watched the movie was powerful, as either they cosplayed or dressed in African Dashikis or other African clothing, to express their love for the movie, as can be seen below:

The movie was simply fantastic, the best movie I have seen this year, and best movie to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one I will watch again. Until then I am booking my flight to Wakanda.

An Encomium to the Black Experience: Why I am excited to see Black Panther

Colonized, broken, subservient, destitute, poor and reliant on aid. These are the common motifs that typically come to mind  when some give an errant thought to the continent of Africa. There is a deep history, explaining aspects of these considerations, mostly colonial but they are not the whole picture. Africa has a rich legacy, a cultural tapestry that stretches back to the dawn of time, achievements that have been unsung or even suppressed. I have been doing a lot of reading lately, mostly on literature that have undertaken a bold and honest look at the history of humankind. I have been studying how the legacies of colonization persist in modern day vestiges of prejudice and systematic disenfranchisement. I have also been looking at how language and narrative can exhibit and perpetuate invented divisions. Two books come to mind here and I would love to suggest them to you, They are Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harrari and Dialogical Self Theory by Hubert Hermans, and Agnieszka Hermans-Konopka.  

The former is an exquisite exploration of the journey of humankind, showing the many paths we have taken, niches we have settled in. It is exhaustive and holistic account of the different cultures that have been weaved, as well as how our tools, worldview, philosophy, most importantly how empire has shaped both the earth and ourselves. The latter takes a look at how language and narrative can either build bridges and understanding of the “other” or perpetuate divisions we have come to know. The book does an amazing job at explaining the source and drivers of threat perception upon the globalized stage. Critical to this is the examination and distinction between Monological and Dialogical communication. Monological being a top down and rigid form of discourse that limits the bandwidth of communication. Dialogical communications opens all possible channels, is inclusive and seeks to holistically deal with misperceptions, born from countering positions. 

Racism and prejudice are sterling examples of monological communication. Communication that serves to assuage a perceived grievance or rationalizations oriented towards a particular end, typically division, suppression dominance or protectionist impulse. Think here of the Trump White House’s worldview on immigration, or the attitude of noblesse oblige that continues to plunder African through the Charitable Humanitarian Complex” I count myself very fortunate to have lived in a country where my personal encounter with racism has never gone beyond the threshold of mere offence. My life has never been threatened, nor my personal or professional pursuits limited due to my race. Nevertheless I recognize that a system of suppression and oppression are firmly in place with various degrees of manifestation. As a black male in Canada, I cannot discount the full and complete legacy of  dispossession and disenfranchisement that continues to be the plight of my aboriginal brothers and sisters. Nor the strained relations between law enforcement and many people of colour as well as other vulnerable minorities. There is a system and it persists.

Black Panther, a story of the technologically superior and unconquered super power of Wakanda, is a welcome opportunity to buck the exaggerated and monological narrative surrounding Africa and perhaps other culture served the same treatment in history.

I do not know as much as I should about my deep ancestry, but my Grandmother has told my family she is descended from the Maroons. A group of West African slaves taken to the greater and lesser Antilles to fill the void left by the indigenous genocide that took place there. I am very proud to know that the Maroons were among some of the first slaves to revolt against their cruel masters in Jamaica. Knowing that I have that blood in my veins has been everything for me. For years I have pondered at the level of cultural and spiritual dispossession that European colonialism has dealt to my people, I have wondered about the cultural traditions I was torn from as a result and the Gods I have not had the opportunity to worship. My orientation towards Africa has always been a curious wonder, deep longing and pain that I do not know it as well as I should.  When I think about achievements like the Library of Alexandria, and the strength and monuments built by many on the continent I wonder about the real life Wakanda’s that have evaded modern western history’s record, narrative and respect.

Will there be some who are put off by this film? Of course, the symbol of the Black Panther and Black Panthers has always been controversial and weary by those determined to subvert and twist it for some of the reasons listed above, none of that will detract from the beauty and majesty of this re-presentation of black culture.

What I am most excited for is the generation of black boys and girls who will look to the big screen and see towering and talented heroes who look just like them. I look forward to those seeking reconnection and a homecoming, I look forward for the dialogical discourse that this film will no doubt launch. I look forward for the raising of a voice so often distorted or muted in the media.  I look forward to the day when parents no longer have to warn their children about walking at certain hours or wearing hoodies….they can wear capes….they can learn science. They can clothe themselves in vibranium, be bulletproof and achieve epic feats.

Whether in Marvel’s Wakanda, or DC’s Vathlo Island (Krypton), Afrofuturism is a welcome balm for those seeking reconnection with their motherland, inspiration and an invitation to a deeper understanding of race relations.

If we can confront historical grievance and misunderstanding in an inclusive and dialogical way, without suppression, there is no limit to what we as a human species can achieve or heal. I am proud of this opportunity, and it moves me deeply. Wakanda Forever!

I wrote this after watching Kendrick Lamar‘s video All the Stars, featured on the Black Panther original soundtrack. It almost brought me to tears. Take a look, a beautiful tribute to African dress and culture.

Valiant Entertainment Has Been Sold. Will History Repeat Itself?

Valiant Entertainment has been fully acquired by DMG Entertainment, who sought to increase their former 57% stake into full ownership in order to expand into film, television and other media platforms.

“This is about taking it to the next level,” says Mintz, a former filmmaker-turned-entrepreneur. “I am not looking on expanding from a publishing standpoint but from a motion picture standpoint.”

Originally founded in 1989 Valiant became a successful comic book company by focusing on creating compelling characters with a focus on story telling, much like the relaunched company set out to do in 2012.

Why did Valiant require a relaunch?

In the mid 1990’s they were purchased by Acclaim Entertainment with intent to expand their reach in the video game market. You’ve never heard of Acclaim? That’s because the company went bankrupt in 2004, and cutting a long story short the Valiant characters were sold off. Eight years later Valiant Entertainment, with CEO Dinesh Shamdasani at the helm relaunched those same characters into one of the best shared superhero universes.

With DMG Entertainment purchasing Valiant, and three of the executives resigning (Dinesh Shamdasani, Gavin Cuneo, and Peter Cuneo via Newsarama, although Gavin and Dinesh are reported to be staying on as consultants), one has to wonder if the past is repeating itself if the company’s new focus is less on the comics than on expanding to new media, leading to a marked drop in the quality of the company’s comic book output.

Obviously only time will tell, but I’m remaining cautiously optimistic that, at least in the near term, the quality of the comics won’t dwindle – although I’m less than thrilled at Shamdasani leaving the company and characters he helped return to prominence, I’m less concerned about the repetition of history regarding Valiant’s comic book universe fading into the ether as DMG already owned a majority of the publisher and presumably could have taken these steps toward other media regardless of full ownership.

One still has to wonder why the creative shake up? Were there opposing opinions on the way the company should head creatively? Based on this tweet from Dinesh Shamasani, it’s possible, but it’s likely we’ll have to wait awhile before the full details emerge – if they ever do.dinesh tweet.PNG

(via The Hollywood Reporter)

5 Ways the Oscars Can Improve

Well, for the first time in several years, the Academy Awards nominations are out and not head-scratchingly out of touch. While Wonder Womana hit both critically and at the box office, was strangely completely shut out, most of the nominations actually reflect some of the best work this year, with Get Out and The Shape of Water (two of my personal favorites) receiving multiple nominations. We’ll have to wait to talk about Three Billboards another day, but tl;dr– it’s a good movie, but perhaps not as deserving as the multiple nominations it deserves.

I’m still mad that we’ll give an award to Gary Oldman wearing a fatsuit as Winston Churchill but not Andy Serkis wearing digital makeup as Caesar, but at least we’re seeing a diverse (and deserving!) group of nominees.

I was especially happy to see Get Out, Lady Bird, The Big Sick, and Mudbound get nominations. While in the Best Director category I’d rather replace Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson with… I dunno– Patty Jenkins, Rian Johnson, Denis Villanueve, Kathryn Bigelow, but that’s just personal taste. 

It’s so odd that it’s 2018 and this is the first time a woman has been nominated for cinematography. And while Rachel Morrison‘s work on Mudbound is definitely worthy of nomination, it’s supremely unfortunate she is competing against what may be Roger Deakins‘ best work ever — and that’s saying something for the prolific master with his 14th nomination.

So, all in all, Oscars? Not bad.

But…

Let’s face it: the Oscars kind of suck. But in admitting this truth, we can recognize the ways the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences needs to adapt, improve, and revitalize their relevance.

The biggest problem with the Academy Awards is they don’t really award the best in the film industry. The voting is so political– and not political in terms of awarding diversity or political as in reflecting our actual politics. But Academy voters generally have seemed more focused on rewarding current less good films from those who were snubbed in the past that it then snubs those working on the bleeding edge of film today.  Hence, this is likely Deakins’ year– not only because of the masterwork that is BladeRunner2049, but also for all of his other works.

They took a giant step forward last year in awarding Best Picture to Moonlight and recognizing Barry Jenkins‘ excellent work in it. Despite that, there is still Hollywood’s diversity problem– and yes, this is a system-wide problem that is directly reflected in the Academy’s voting.

While on both of these complaints there is some improvement, but just because Guillermo Del Toro, Jordan Peele, and Greta Gerwig are nominated this year, let’s not kid ourselves that they’ve fixed the problem. This is, however, a giant step forward. But Greta Gerwig is only the fifth female director ever nominated. Jordan Peele is also only the fifth black director ever nominated. And Del Toro’s nomination is only the fifth time a Latino has been nominated– and three of those were for Alejandro Iñárritu.

Still? Progress.

Also, things have just changed with movies. We need to simultaneously bemoan the fact that fewer members of the public enjoy seeing groundbreaking cinema, while also recognizing the artistry that goes into making a Last Jedi or Logan or Wonder Woman.

Most of the Best Picture nominations have made less than $100 million. NONE of the top 10 grossing movies of 2017 are nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. While we should in no way conflate box office with artistic merit (C’mon– my favorite movie of 2017 was a complete flop) but it’s no wonder the public tunes out– because the Oscars celebrate what Hollywood likes in its movies, but not necessarily the rest of the country. In fact, of the top twenty best performing films of 2017, you only have two that received Best Picture / Best Director nominations — Dunkirk (16th) and Get Out (18th).

But let’s focus less on what is wrong and more on what we can do to make it right. Here are five simple ideas, including three new awards, that would revitalize the Oscars and make them more meaningful. And for each one I’ll look across dimensions to Earth-2, where these already exist, to give you some ideas of past winners and this year’s nominees.

1. BEST SPECIAL PERFORMANCE – MOTION CAPTURE, PRACTICAL EFFECTS OR DIGITAL ANIMATION

Think of it like the award for “Best Makeup.” Instead of putting people in masks and prosthetics, modern movie makers are covering some of our best actors in tiny dots and green spandex to create digital characters just as real as any actor on screen. And every year they keep getting better. This award should go to the actor(s) creating the characters as well as the animators themselves, and should be for both traditional animated films as well as live-action films with digital characters. And because sometimes more than one actor is contributing to the amazing work here, films and their producers can nominate a single actor or multiple for consideration, as well as the VFX/animation teams responsible.

Yes, this is how we get Andy Serkis the Oscars he already deserves but will never receive. It was salt in a wound to see Serkis announcing the awards this year– you knew he wouldn’t be nominated. But it would also be a way to recognize animation and voice-over work in a film like Toy Story where animators are capturing actors’ facial performances to inform their animation. Likewise we should recognize excellent puppetry work and practical creature effects, or in combination with digital effects like this year’s Yoda cameo in The Last Jedi or Doug Jones’ performance as the creature in The Shape of Water.

And because these types of performances are most often used in big budget blockbusters, it’s a great way to get people involved in watching an awards show where they actually have seen some of the top films. Let’s start the Oscar campaign now for Gypsy Danger in Pacific Rim 2, shall we?

Past winners:
2017 – Guy Henry, Ingvild Deila, Alan Tudyk and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
2016 – Lupita Nyong’o and Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2015 – Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel and Guardians of the Galaxy
2014 – Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Doc Shaw, Judy Greer, Lee Ross and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

2018 nominees:
Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary and War for the Planet of the Apes
Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor and Coco
Mark Ruffalo, Taika Waititi and Thor: Ragnarok
Doug Jones and The Shape of Water
Liam Neeson and A Monster Calls

2. BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

Sometimes no single actor is worthy of an award, but the rich alchemy of what a director brings together means everyone deserves some accolades. And because no one seems to be able to decide what is a leading and what is a supporting role anymore, this offers some flexibility, as well as the opportunity to reward multiple supporting actors for their fine work.

This would help the Oscars’ diversity problem, as there simply aren’t enough leading roles for people of color, but they very often inhabit secondary roles, but maybe not the ones who get Best Supporting Actor/Actress nods.

Also, given the star-studded casts of our blockbusters, this is also an opportunity to reward a film along the lines of The Fellowship of the Ring or a film like last year’s Moonlight  where three different actors play the same character and it’s next to impossible to choose which one is better than the others.

Past winners:
2017: Moonlight
2016: Spotlight
2015: Selma
2014: The Wolf of Wall St

2018 nominees:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Get Out

The Shape of Water
Marshall
The Post

3. EMERGING VISIONS

Think of it like the Grammy for “Best New Artist.” Since the Oscars so often neglect groundbreaking work from up-and-coming directors and screenwriters, let’s award some of the new blood in the same way a lot of film festivals do.

And rather than being too strict on the rules, broadly define the category as any sort of “Breakthrough” film. It could be a director known for independent work who finally saw some mainstream success (so this wasn’t technically their first film.) Or it might be their first film.

Oh, and to make it especially fun, it can be awarded to the writer OR director (or both), as well as the producers in the same way Best Picture rewards the entire film.

Past winners:
2017: Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
2016: Alfonso Gómez-Rejón and Jesse Andrew – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
2015: Ava DuVernay – Selma
2014: Ryan Coogler – Fruitvale Station

2018 nominees:
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Kumail Najiani and Emily Gordon – The Big Sick
David Leitch – Atomic Blonde
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Trey Edward Shults – It Comes at Night

4. STOP GHETTO-IZING ANIMATION

Perhaps the biggest snubs every year are the animated features that don’t end up nominated for Best Picture. This is more a change of mindset than anything else, but it is ridiculous that in the history of the Academy Awards, only three animated films have ever been nominated for Best Picture.

While this was supposed to have been ameliorated by including a new category for Best Animated Feature (and the expansion of Best Picture nominees from 5 to as many as 10), it’s still incredibly hard for a movie to be recognized as the achievement it is. The same is true for documentaries, where no documentary film has ever been nominated.

Especially where in the last few years we had some of the best animated films we’ve had in a long time, it’s time for members of the Academy to start voting for animated films for Best Picture. It’s an even bigger hill to climb for anime — voters need to start recognizing films made by Japanese studios other than Ghibli, especially given the stellar quality of films like Your Name. 

Past inclusions:
2017: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, Zootopia
2016: Inside Out, Shaun the Sheep
2015: The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls
2014: Frozen

2018 inclusions:
Coco
Your Name

5. ALWAYS HAVE 10 BEST PICTURE NOMINEES . . . AND 10 BEST DIRECTORS

It’s unclear why the Academy chooses the number of Best Picture nominees it does. But considering their use of “IRV” or instant-runoff voting, films are ranked by the voters and then the winner is truly the consensus winner.

Considering that point, it’s completely odd that the Academy would choose to honor ten films, but not ten directors. When Selma is nominated for Best Picture, but Ava DuVernay is not (and Bennett Miller is? Two years later, does anyone remember Foxcatcher? Didn’t think so. . .Again, another example of the Academy trying to award mediocre work in exchange for snubbing Bennett’s previous excellent work on Capote and Moneyball) it raises some very serious eyebrows.

Why not celebrate ten directors? The same reason why you wouldn’t want a full slate of ten films for Best Picture. Which is no reason at all. So stop doing it.

Cast a wider net, celebrate more people and their contributions, and you’ll find diversity (and brilliance, and cutting-edge work) celebrated more often and the Academy honoring grey-haired white men only when they truly deserve it.

Best Director additions:
Denis Villanueve – BladeRunner 2049
Patty Jenkins – Wonder Woman
Kathryn Bigelow – Detroit
James Mangold – Logan
Edgar Wright – Baby Driver

Best Picture addition
Coco

Flashback Friday: Robinson’s Starman: The Unrepentant Collector

starman logo

As comic fans, we often share a similar, repetitive request when people we meet find out about our fandom: “What comics would you recommend?”. Whenever someone asks me this question I invariably respond with the standards–Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, March, and so on. Of course the conversation eventually steers towards superheroes, and I’ll spotlight Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and more of that great–yet gloomy–work.

But for those close friends of mine, those with refined eyes and a discerning taste, the superhero comic I always endorse is James Robinson’s Starman.  Brilliantly embellished by Tony Harris at first, and then suitably replaced by Peter Snejbjerg, this series succeeds on many levels: bringing heart to each character, big and small, hero and villain, person and place; it also adds intricacies for the intellect, with a story that unfolds in more and more complexity–never sacrificing clarity, though–and reveals itself as a Russian doll, full of more secrets with each new doll opened.

starman opal

But that doesn’t even touch on the best serving that Starman brings to the table: a heaping helping of pure geekery.  This is possibly most notable when considering the plot of the series as a whole: one that pays tribute to the decades of DC history and it’s most popular characters plus a few of its most unsung ones; one that uses time travel mixed with that continuity to tie together loose ends; one that jumps across worlds in the solar system the way Star Trek does; one that tries different narrative techniques with each new arc; and even one that uses history, architecture, art, and more to bring Opal City and its citizens to life.  This attention to detail betrays the obsessive nature of most geeks, myself included.

Now, comics have always been closely connected to geek culture, but Starman brings that connection to a new level, to a perfect degree of alignment with both geek culture and its bastard offspring–collecting culture.  After all, Jack Knight, the titular hero, is a pawn shop owner, highlighting for the reader a collector’s mindset that’s touched on in many places through this saga.  jack as collectorRobinson’s focus on collectors and their mindset happens most prominently in Jack Knight’s moments of narration, which sometimes seem like the stream of consciousness inhabiting a collector’s daydreams.

To make collecting even more important, Robinson even creates a story arc about a demon that lives in a Hawaiian shirt, one of the world’s most dangerously collectible items.  And, as a geek and collector myself, perhaps that’s why I can’t sell these comics, why I continue to reread them, even when I’ve purged most of my superhero comics over the last few years to make extra space and money (being a teacher and a self-publisher doesn’t really earn me the big bucks).

starman_jack_knight_symbol_wp_by_chaomanceromega-d51faz2

My geek and collecting origin probably shares many similarities with many of you, dear readers.  Before I even got into comics, I was a nerd.  *Note* I tend to separate geeks and nerds this way: nerds are in love with academic knowledge whereas a geek is in love, actually obsessed, with a certain subculture that isn’t as valued.*  Comics are seeing increased value, yes, because of their success on the big screen, but most Americans value STEM byproducts more than artistic showcases.  I realize this distinction is mainly something I’ve created, not found in a dictionary, but it’s helped me view the world with greater perception, something that typically is a hallmark of both nerds and geeks (well, except for in the one area we tend to lack perception, leading to that other hallmark of these special clans: poorer social skills, less social awareness and limited social perception).

To give birth to a nerd, my parents dropped workbooks full of math and reading practice in my room every summer that I was in elementary school; to make those summers even more fun, they’d sign me up for enrichment summer school courses.  During the school year, my mom even volunteered herself (and me!) for the school’s before-school book club, a memory that remains dear to me.  I can’t remember if I fought against this book club at first, but if you’re a gambler, the odds would favor placing a bet on “No–young CJ immediately embraced this opportunity”.

This love of words was fostered by my older brother into a love of certain geeky genres, ones that paved the way for my later geeky travels into comics: I had discovered fantasy and it’s inextricable cousin, science-fiction.  My older brother had voraciously consumed the Redwall series (almost like he was eaten one of the many mouth-watering feasts described in each tome), leading me to test those waters.  I was soon diving in, and not just with other Redwall books.  mapmossflowerIn elementary school–after exploring Mossflower, Salamandastron and other unknown lands until they were known–I ported to another series, as a third grader easing myself into The Lord of the Rings with The Hobbit; I wouldn’t finish The Lord of the Rings until I was in fifth grade after two years of off-and-on reading.

61IJnlA7qpL._SX463_

But I didn’t lose myself in fantasy only: I loved Star Wars, even reading books set in the universe that have since been jettisoned from the Star Wars canon.  That doesn’t say much uniquely about me, of course, but it led me to other science fiction stories that were more my speed at the time, like the My Teacher is an Alien series (don’t ask me why I, a self-professed nerd, loved a book that played to most children’s judgement of and disgust towards teachers; I must have just been so sucked into another world that I didn’t think about the intended audience of that series or its satirical implications towards education).

50274-4605-65731-1-x-men

In the midst of this geeky perfect storm, my parents did the one thing that would thrust me deeper into the ocean of geeks, a move that would end up washing me onto the shore of comic collecting–bear with me, we’re slowly getting back to Starman.  Toward the end of elementary school, they gave me a box set of 25 X-Men comics, a move that sparked my lifelong love of comics, and a move that possibly burned down other potential interests, along with a move that possibly postponed my first girlfriend.

Soon I was having my parents chauffeur me to comic stores (one time, I convinced them to take my step-brother and me to a store that was about an hour away, since its collection was more thorough than a nearby store.  My parents regretted agreeing to this the moment our car sputtered to a stop.  Luckily–for me anyway–another family member drove out to pick us up and finish the journey, my dad and step-mom waiting at the car for AAA or some other highway help).   About once a month–or twice if I was really lucky–I’d walk by racks of comics, pointer finger pilfering through bagged and boarded back issues, calculations running in my head about what the best deals were, what stories I needed to have told to me and what stories I could live without.

I even started forming lists, the most valuable tool in a collector’s arsenal.  Sometimes my lists were comprehensive: a notebook contained every issue title and number that I owned, separated by the boxes they were stored in.  Sometimes they were looser, more directed by others: at the back of many trade paperbacks, publishing companies had lists of the most important storylines to collect.  In the back of Spider-Man: The Alien Costume Saga, I checked the books I had (actually marking the book, something I shortly stopped doing as a collector, only starting again to annotate texts I read for college or to teach to my high school students–but I still never started annotating graphic novels again, just traditional texts).  When I was done checking those books I owned, I stared at the ones I didn’t, as if that alone would put them in my possession.

blueberry cover

It took me about a decade to reach the summit of my comic collecting, a weekly Wednesday trip to the comic shop when I was in college (by this point, I’d already read Starman, and Jack’s unrepentant passion towards pawnbroking had spread to me, costing me far too much money, but it’s an experience I wouldn’t change).  I even bought what could be called a Comic Collector’s Bible, the Sling and Arrows Comic Guide.   That brought a whole new level to my comic collecting: the global world of comics, little explored by me before except with Lone Wolf and Cub, became my new obsession.

I discovered Blueberry for the first time, collecting the long out-of-print 80s translations, so valuable because they let Moebius’s artwork shine in its colorful glory, unlike other more recent, black-and-white reprintings.

 

The-adventures-of-Tintin-tintin collection of book covers

And after that, I traveled with Tintin, gloried with the Gauls in Asterix, and many more (yeah–these aren’t really underground global comics, but they seemed that way to my limited experience).  If you still want to look down on me with the same snobbish collector’s smirk I give others–a smirk in all our toolbelts, I’m sure–feel free).

jack knight logo starman alternate

So, why did a mere comic help condone my collector behavior so much that it multiplied it tenfold?  Why was it the first comic to pop into my head when I decided I wanted to write a Flashback Friday?  And why do I have some anxiety about my copies of the comic, currently lent to a friend, an anxiety that will only be alleviated when I have all volumes of Starman returned to me?  Well, the answer to the last question has something to do with the quality of the comic, but it probably has more to do with the collector’s mindset and anxiety I have, one that wants to control the world through items, through comics in my possession.  The answers to the other two questions, though, all have to do with the quality of the comic, a quality that hasn’t reduced on any re-reading.

Part of Starman’s impact on me stems from Robinson’s love of DC’s continuity: at that point, I’d never done a deep dive into DC comics, staying in the shallow end of the pool, populated by Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Justice League, and the other A-listers.  I’d never before cared about the Shade, Solomon Grundy, the Sandman (although I liked Neil Gaimain’s Morpheus), and–most central to my argument–I didn’t care about the original Starman.  If anything, I just thought he was goofy, but other than the few times I’d thought that, I just didn’t think about Starman at all.

the shade

This changed because Robinson’s love of continuity–in addition to helping him create a more complex, intertwined plot and set of secrets–made me care about all of these characters, and not just the “current” incarnation.  I loved the Shade who was cultured, who had a relationship with Hope O’Dare, who had a moral code all his own that didn’t always make him a superhero.  But that code didn’t always make him a supervillain either.  And this ambiguity made me even more curious about his earlier appearances, ones that showed only the typical, one-dimensional bad guy.  Perhaps knowing that would be most reader’s reactions, Robinson made that mystery a slow-burning, central plot point, one that would blow up in the magnificent The Grand Guignol storyline.

sandman starman crossoverI’m saying that every single connection to larger DC continuity shines.  As much as I love Captain Marvel, the story arc involving him doesn’t seem to further much of the plot or reveal much in terms of character.  But that misfire is worth it for the all the dead on shots taken throughout the rest of the series, especially Jack’s adventure with the original Sandman (and if you haven’t read Sandman Mystery Theatre, check that out after Starman!)

Similar to how Robinson’s Shade pushed me into past versions of the character, Robinson’s relatable, atypical portrayal of Jack as a reluctant superhero who had a punkish attitude, made me care even more about Jack–and through extension, his dad, the original Starman.  But, before I elaborate on his dad, there’s one more point about Jack that bears mentioning in more depth.

As described earlier, part of the appeal of Jack is the running stream of collector’s consciousness he displays the whole series.

This is perhaps seen most prominently, because of contrast with the other characters’ also offering narration, in “Sins of the Past”.  mikaalIn this arc, Robinson starts each chapter by returning to the beginning events of that arc but with a new narrator, building characters and conflict to a level that creates more sympathy and suspense.

o dare starman chapter

This is a big reason I fell in love with Jack as a character (and the others), but he’s not a one-note character, only about collecting.  In fact, Jack experiences tremendous growth in the series, like his resolve to never take another life after he’s haunted by a murder–done in self-defense–haunted by his own conscience and by the consequences thrust on him by those close to the person he killed.  Other than that character growth, Jack experiences a realistic romance full of ups and downs, one that is part of the realistic closure mentioned earlier.  starman75a with babyFinally, one of the biggest ways Jack grows is in his relationship with his dad, one that started off with distant antagonism and ends with close compassion.

And speaking of the original Starman, the more Robinson peppered in past exploits of Ted Knight, the original Starman, the more I researched his past appearances.  And that led to another mystery: the one featuring Ted’s retirement and  the Starman right after Ted, an unknown Starman only revealed in the final volume of the series–if the reveal of Shade’s secret in The Grand Guignol was earth-shattering, the reveal of this Starman’s identity was out of this world, much like the previous journey to help the space-borne Starman!

1144714-gavynThis last revelation, though, was made even more impactful  because of the time-traveling element that allowed Jack to peer behind the scenes–Robinson always excelled at making Jack and characterization the central element, even more important than the intricate plot.  Jack got some answers, but he also found some closure on another note, seemingly unrelated, just like we did as readers.  And I dare you to name many superhero stories that actually end with closure instead of a return to the status quo, a return that prevents true character growth and thematic completion.

Not only were these plot points so intricate as to be worthy of rereading–justifying the need to collect Starman a little more, so we don’t have to get it at the library or pirate it–the style they were told in was revolutionary for superhero comics of the time.   Most of my focus this whole essay has been on Robinson’s strong writing (and I’ll be the first to admit that he doesn’t always equal this caliber; Justice League: Cry for Justice, I’m looking at you).  But focusing so much on Robinson’s writing is truly a disservice to the strong artists in this series, one I’ll try to rectify, but I might not be able to, since–as a writer–I’m better equipped to talk about other writers.  Still I’ll give it a try…

Having such a dense, fully outlined, years-long plot is often standard in today’s comics, but a 70ish issue superhero story in Robinson’s time was almost unheard of. And Robinson–accompanied ably by Harris and Snejbjerg–brought a mature sense of storytelling rarely seen in superhero comics, then and now.

Anyone familiar with Harris’s work will see that he brings more of the same, but different enough to keep our interest (the fine balance every artist walks to gain and keep audience approval).

tony harris starmanHis trademark tableus, sometimes reminiscent of J.H. Williams III, are still there, offering variety past the only-linear, strongly similar to storyboards-style dominant in so many comics.

tony harris starman tableau

But when he needs to get traditional, he can–shining more, though, because of the strong shading, level of detail, and color pallette that typifies his work.  starman_blimp

As much as I love Snejbjerg, it’s a shame Harris couldn’t finish the series, although he stays on for covers, offering some more creative consistency, a creative consistency often lacking in most modern, factory-model comics (and I love DC and Marvel, so I’m not trying to say that approach is bad: it just limits singularity of vision).

Tony-Harris-Starman-art

Snejbjerg took over from Harris about halfway through the series, offering a distinctly different artistic voice that would seem to clash with Harris’s.   starman75 supermanSnejbjerg has more linear storytelling, sometimes adapting the storyboard approach, but he still maintains some tableaus (albeit in his own style) to offer variety and some consistency with Harris.  snejbjerg black and whiteMoreover, he elevates the more traditional linear storytelling with a crisp line–more reminiscent of the European clean, clear line approach (ligne claire) than the hyper kinetic, overly detailed art done by Marvel and DC.  This clean line makes the story feel more mythic, which is what a superhero story should feel like (even though Starman is also grounded in reality through its complex characters).  It’s no surprise that Snejbjerg has worked on other mythic masterpieces, like Vertigo’s Lucifer and The Unwritten.   Another byproduct of this mythic, clean line is that it makes the characters more relatable, something that is consistent with Harris’s approach and Robinson’s vision.

I could keep going on, but you’re starting to get the picture.  It’s not like I have a magnum opus critique for Starman; Robinson plotted out a magnum opus, and that’s good enough for me.  But–like any collector–if you feel the need to dig into more nooks and crannies, looking for that hidden treasure of a tidbit that will make you appreciate this work on an even deeper level, there are plenty of places you can go to.  Tell them Jack sent you.

jack the collector

 

CJ Standal is the writer of Rebirth of the Gangster, a neo-noir masterpiece.  Follow him on Twitter: cj_standal or like him on Facebook or visit the site of CJ Standal Productions.

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