Friday Feature: Dickensian Edition

It’s that time of year, everybody. It’s Christmas time. This is our last post before Christmas and when I was trying to think of what to write, I said to myself,

“All the Who’s down in Whoville seem to have Christmas under control,
but I should tell them how the geeks enjoy Christmas! How droll!”

Then I said,

“Why Stewart, that’s broad. You’ll never be able to choose!
You’ll just write in circles until all your readers snooze!
Why not narrow your field, and slim down your pickin’s?
Why not tell them only about your favorite DICKENS!”

Then I decided to lie down and wait for the Rhymitall* to wear off.

When I recovered I started to think about the different versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol I’ve seen over the years. There are almost too many to count and most of them are pretty bad. So I’ve picked three (3) that pass muster. Each for a different reason.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppets. ’nuff said.

But really, you can’t make me not like the Muppets. Or Fraggle Rock. The world lost someone when it lost Jim Henson. Fortunately his legacy continued through his children Disney.

The Muppet’s version of A Christmas Carol doesn’t pull the heart strings for me as much as some other interpretations, but it does have fun little songs, Kermit the frog, Ms. Piggy, Fozzywig (!) and the whole gang.

Michael Cain is also there, and his singing voice is just not as good as his Muppet companions. We’ve forgiven him, however, since he’s the best Alfred there’s ever been (outside of Batman: The Animated Series).

A Christmas Carol (2009)

This might be a contentious choice, but I think 2009’s animated Christmas Carol featuring Jim Carrey (who plays Scrooge and all of the spirits) is far and away the best version of  A Christmas Carol there is. Among a myriad other reasons, this interpretation happens to be one of the closest to Dickens’ original story.

For me, this is also unquestionably Carrey’s best work, and it could have only been so in the context of motion-capture animation. It really was this technology that allowed Carrey to play all of the roles he did in a way that doesn’t come across as strange or distracting. In fact, seeing Carrey’s expressive brand in Scrooge and all the ghosts lends itself to a better story. It cements the idea that the the spirits aren’t teaching Scrooge anything new, but exposing his own, already present raw nerves by peeling away his cynicism.

It’s also worth noting that this movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, avoids the dubious trademark of the director’s previous animated  Christmas film, The Polar Expressthe uncanny valley. By using the advanced motion capture technology with characters possessing exaggerated features (Scrooge’s enormous nose, Cratchit’s comically round face, etc.), A Christmas Carol has characters that are believably human and relatable, without being unsettlingly too like us.

Batman: Noel 

Bet you didn’t see this one coming, eh?

Batman: Noel is a graphic novel which came out in 2011 with art and writing by Lee Bermejo. I don’t know much about Bermejo’s other writing, but I think he does a great job  with this adaptation of the classic Christmas Carol formula for Batman. And Bermejo’s art is crazy good. His is an unbelievably detailed style, to the point where there are pages where I was almost annoyed that any text got in the way of the pictures. Movie costume designers should look to Bermejo’s art for guidance for how to translate super-hero outfits to live action film.

The story puts Batman in the role of Scrooge. I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but the “spirits” are other characters with a relationship to Batman. Noel toys with a Batman motif that’s been popular in the past few years – the idea that Bruce Wayne has lost himself in the cowl. He takes his role a the Dark Knight seriously, and it keeps him from any semblance of happiness and love. I think Bermejo writes Noel well, and shows us how the popular “ideal” of Christmas cheer and generosity can easily be lost in masked crime-fighting.

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And with that I conclude my list of favorite Christmas Carols. If you have one that you feel I left, out, feel free to comment! Just remember your Christmas spirit and don’t be mean. Or Santa won’t bring you any toys.

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*Rhymitall is a prescription drug to for those with an difficulty writing limericks, folk songs, or children’s books. Rhymitall may not be right for all people. Stop taking Rhymitall and contact your doctor if you find yourself unable to write in prose, if you experience an abundance of whimsy, or if you have a sensation of being lighter than air. These are serious side effects and may be linked to a more serious condition.

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Friday Feature: Francesco Francavilla

There’s something really, truly, incomparably wonderful about being full of leftover Thanksgiving turkey and drifting off to sleep on a couch with a comic book in your lap, while the rest of the world gets into fights over electronics at Wal-Marts around the world.

That pleasure was all mine today with a book that I picked up on a whim because, you guessed it, the cover looked really, really cool.

That book was Black Beetle: No Way Out.

I don’t want to focus too much on this, but the production quality of this particular hardback is just way ahead of the curve. The cover price is $20, but it has the feel of a $35 “special edition” book. I think Dark Horse is taking a page out of Archaia’s manual – If your product looks professional and well put together, people will pick it up. Once it’s in their hand, you’re halfway to the sale, even relatively unheard-of creators will get a second or third look when these high-quality books are on the shelf.

Anyway – moving on. Black Beetle is a pulp-mystery-superhero adventure-drama with that old radio-play style that you seem to either love or hate. I happen to fall in the “love” category, so these pulpy adventure stories in almost every iteration I encounter them.

But the true selling point of Black Beetle is the highly stylized, somewhat retro, never disappointing art of Francesco Francavilla. A couple of seconds on his website will show you better than I can the true love that Francavilla has for the pulp genre.

Francavilla is the writer as well as the artist on this title, which is always a treat, and his love for pulp mysteries shines through clearly in the writing as well.

Even beyond the Black Beetle book, Francavilla’s art is always a pleasure to encounter. He frequently creates lobby cards and movie posters for some of his favorite other works. Notably, he created a poster image for tons of episodes of “Breaking Bad.”

He contributed art to the impeccable Batman: Black Mirror, which otherwise featured art from Jock and the writing of Scott Snyder (and it’s about Dick Grayson while he was Batman, and if you’ve previously only Bruce Wayne Batman, you should really check out Dick Grayson Batman).

Do yourself a favor if you’re a fan of comics or pulp adventure stories, and check out Francesco Francavilla’s work wherever you can get it.

Except Archie.

Ok, fine, Archie too.

Friday Feature: Arkham Asylum

So this week’s primary post talked about how mental illness is presented in horror fiction and how Batman comics in particular have handled it. In the article I said that using mental illness to create horror and suspense was a trope of the horror genre. I still believe that’s true, but I wanted to add a little bit to that statement.

Just because a story utilizes a genre trope doesn’t mean it is a bad story or that it was badly written. 

On the contrary, most tropes only become tropes because they began as very effective storytelling tools.

With that in mind, I am going to strongly recommend Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. It’s a phenomenal and evocative story that touches on some very primal and some very cerebral fears.

The cover of the 15th Anniversary Edition of Arkham Asylum.

The story that Morrison and McKean tell is unlike a true Batman story in almost every way. By Morrison’s own admission we know that the story is meant to be a dream sequence taken out of Bruce Wayne’s nightmares.

We witness very little of the Batman we know and love in this story. Instead, we a see fear-plagued pawn in the Asylum’s game. Morrison and McKean manage to present a Batman who is both ineffectual and strikingly cruel – both self-doubting and self-righteous. 

An example of this Batman’s cruelty: He kicks the wheelchair-bound Dr. Destiny down what appears to be a flight of stairs.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the comic than I already have, but it is full of symbolism: religious, literary, historical, and psychological. All of it provokes strong reactions (at least from me). In the midst of McKean’s striking surrealist art style, and Morrison’s disturbed writing, a chilling psychological thrill emerges, and it’s well worth the read.

An expositional encounter with the Mad Hatter.

Finally, I want to note that this comic is definitely not for everyone. It’s a psychological horror story in a super-hero’s cape. It contains suicide, self-mutilation, implied sexual assault, and is sometimes graphic in its depiction of violence.

If you’re a horror fan and you’ve always found yourself wondering what would cause Gotham’s Dark Knight to wake in a cold sweat, then Arkham Asylum should sail to the top of your must-read list.

Asylum and Cage

What does “asylum” mean?

For comic book enthusiasts the word may primarily be tied to a big mansion on the outskirts of Gotham city: Arkham Asylum For the Criminally Insane.

The history of Arkham Asylum has been explored in comics and, if you count them, video games. In the strongest telling of it, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, the late Amadeus Arkham, who watched his mother slowly lose her grip on her mind, founded the Asylum in the old mansion belonging to his family to provide help for those for whom, according to his own words, “their only crime is mental illness.”  Batman notes in this story that the Asylum’s imposing, dark architecture and rumors of haunting by Arkham’s ghost make it hard to imagine that any healing happens there.

If you’re a loyal Batman reader, then this past month you were treated to Batman Annual #2 – a chapter entitled “Cages.”  It was a story of Arkham Asylum’s oldest and newest residents.

Batman Annual #2 (2013).

The oldest, a character called “Anchoress,” committed herself to the care of the Asylum before the days of Batman and the super-criminals. She’d killed her parents in what was either an accident or a fit of rage, and chose the safety of the Asylum over the harsh terrain of judgement found in Gotham.

The newest is Batman himself, who is there to try and escape, testing the new security measures in the facility.

Anchoress brings to light several issues that are not often considered in reading stories about Gotham’s darkest criminals.

She makes it clear what her definition of asylum is: a space of safety and, for her, healing.

But she blames Batman for what the Asylum has become: a cage for dangerous people. You see, when Batman came along and started locking up the likes of Joker, Two-Face, and the other Gotham super-criminals, none of the well-meaning doctors of Arkham had time to help people any more. All of their time was devoted to trying to keep the super-dangerous from the general public.

This point is punctuated by Batman’s presence in Arkham for this issue. His purpose in the Asylum on that night is to ensure that the facility can keep the criminals in, not to see that the Asylum tries to heal patients.

On the other side of Arkham, however, a plucky new Arkham employee tells his more seasoned supervisor, “I don’t think anyone’s beyond help, or saving.”

In Morrison and McKean’s tale of Arkham Asylum, we see the Joker and Batman competing with any narrative of healing that the founder or the well-meaning doctors may have wanted.  Joker, true to form, taunts the doctors, Batman, and the other patients with sexual innuendo, and blackmail , while Batman actively works against some of the doctors who are trying to help Two-Face.

His doctor had been recognized his neurosis as being tied to his signature coin. The polarization of all of his decisions down to “yes” or “no” was hurting his perception of the world – too much duality. She worked him up to a die, with six choices instead of two, and then to a tarot card deck, with 72. Batman, seeing no progress, but rather a man who was paralyzed with too many choices, returned Two-Face his coin saying, “it’s only the madness that makes us who we are.”

Mental illness is often a trope of writers who want to create horror and suspense. Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum is certainly frightening, it uses symbolism tied to Batman’s rogues gallery and the troubled journals of Amadeus Arkham to create the Dark Knight’s nightmare.

But behind every eerie sensation and disturbing image is the ghost of the mental illnesses that plague these characters.

Joker’s tauntings from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989).

Mental illness is incomprehensible for those of us who don’t have it and, I would imagine, mortifying for those who do. Even one of my favorite horror authors, H.P. Lovecraft, concluded most of his stories with a character slipping into insanity. (Trivia: Arkham is the name of a fictional New England town in Lovecraft’s universe.) Many horror and fantasy writers reference Lovecraft as a significant influence.

But where do we draw the line between horror fiction and exploitation? Does the consistent use of mental illness as a tool of fear create real-world fear of people with mental illness? It’s easy to see why people with mental illness would seek an asylum – a place away from the dangers of judgement and fear.

This concept of asylum is important. As the Anchoress would say, people facing mental illness – if they’re to have any hope – need to have a safe place to heal.

But Batman’s methods take away the safety that the asylees need by turning it into a glorified prison for super-criminals, some of whom probably don’t belong (Would the Penguin really count as “criminally insane” or just criminally greedy? The Riddler may be criminally prideful, but insane?).

In the case of Arkham, Batman offers asylum to the Gothamites. They’re made safe from those people they can’t control. But the actual denizens of the asylum are made to live in cages. They’re denied any chance at healing because the doctors can’t be both healers and wardens.

The Coyote Gospel

First of all, welcome to The Promethean Playground. I really hope our thoughts are interesting and entertaining, and I thank you for reading our inaugural post.

When I was considering what to write about for our first post, my thoughts went immediately to Batman. Whenever I’m asked who is my favorite comic book character or super hero I say, “Batman.”

That’s not a lie, exactly, I do love Batman – I think he’s a rich character with a really impressive rogues gallery. But Batman is not my favorite character, or even my favorite hero.

That honor actually goes to Animal Man, but there’s very little Animal Man merchandise available to show my love, and so few people have even heard of him, so I continue to say “Batman,” whenever asked.

Animal Man shouldn’t be a cool hero.

First of all, his name is Animal Man – his name is so pathetically lame to modern ears, but he was created in an era when comic books were still a major entertainment business, and publishers were trying anything (read: scraping the bottom of the barrel) to create new heroes that might increase readership.

Secondly, his costume is pretty consistently weird-looking.

Finally, he’s a celebrity and a family man (both things that an interesting comic book hero shouldn’t be).

But in the hands of a skilled creative team, Animal Man is far-and-away one of the most interesting characters in western comics.

Fortunately for us, Baker has received all-star treatment at least twice in his heroic career. I’m thinking particularly of the current, New 52-run on Animal Man, written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Travel Foreman and Steve Pugh, and the run beginning in 1988, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Chas Troug.

Amid Morrison’s 1988 run (now collected in trade paperback) we witness one of the most unsettling, grotesque, and beautiful stories ever written: “The Coyote Gospel.”

Cover of "The Coyote Gospel." (Animal Man #5)

Cover of “The Coyote Gospel.” (Animal Man #5)

It’s partially a macabre parody of the coyote of Looney Tunes pedigree, and Animal Man is a relatively minor character in this particular chapter. It’s a great injustice to the comic, but I’ll provide a synopsis.

A truck driver hits an anthropomorphic coyote on a desert road, nearly splitting it in half. As he speeds off, the coyote’s body begins to regenerate in stomach-turning detail. The creature’s pain is excruciating. A year later, the same truck driver, convinced that the coyote is some kind of immortal “devil,” hunts it out in the desert. The terrified animal is shot, pushed off of a cliff, crushed with rocks, and blown up in an explosion which also wounds the truck driver.

The coyote's first death.

The coyote’s first death and resurrection.

With each new “death,” the coyote regenerates. Animal Man arrives to investigate the explosion and the coyote, ignoring the hunter who has made so many dedicated attempts to destroy it, hands Animal Man a slip of paper containing “The Gospel According to Crafty.”

In the gospel we learn that Crafty was a cartoon resident of another reality where intensely brutal violence and immediate regeneration was the accepted standard of life. Objecting to it, the coyote goes to speak with God (depicted only from a first-person perspective as an artist). For his dissidence, God sentences Crafty to suffer “in the hell above,” but agrees to stop the violence of the cartoon world. The “hell above,” we discover, is the world of Animal Man and the truck driver.

Crafty feels justified in his suffering because he knows it is not without purpose, “with each terrible death and resurrection, Crafty knew that by his torment, the world was redeemed. … and while he lived, there still remained the hope that one day he might return. And overthrow the tyrant God. And build a better world.”

After all of this is revealed in Crafty’s internal monologue, Animal Man confesses he cannot read the gospel, written in the coyote’s illegible hieroglyphs. Before the coyote forms a response, he’s shot by the truck driver with a silver bullet. The shooter dies, believing he has saved the world, and the coyote falls, dying, in a crucifix-like position in the middle of a crossroads while Animal Man watches, powerless to change his fate.

As the comic closes, it pans away revealing, again from the first-person perspective, God’s paintbrush filling in the blood that pools around the coyote’s body.

Words alone can’t do justice to this story, but that’s the best I can do.

The story contains several elements worth considering, but only one that I’ll focus on today: the grim assessment of God.

I’ve noticed that anti-religiosity is rather popular in the comics industry.

This is probably more true of the smaller, independent books than it is the major publishing houses who are very concerned with losing readership, but it’s something I’ve noticed anyway. It’s quite popular to portray religions or religious people as ignorant, predatory, or silly.

It’s not something I inherently have a problem with (of course, horrific things have been done – and are still being done – in the name of religion, and religions have done an impeccable job of ostracizing and condemning people who are “different” from their normative standard).

I think the comics industry should be a place where tough issues are brought out and challenged. Religious ideals shouldn’t be immune to that.

However, Morrison took a unique approach to his criticism.

By only showing us God from God’s own perspective, the art encourages us into an assumed identity.

But by then showing how God is rather more cruel than God would have us believe, the writing disturbs that identity, making us question what kind of God we might believe in – if we believe in God.

“What kind of God do we believe in?” is not a new question. It’s actually very old, and it’s one of the central questions of theology as a discipline. It became a very important question during and after the Holocaust, however.

Many theologians see the Holocaust as the beginning of a theological practice called “theodicy.”

Theodicy is the study of the origin of evil as it relates to God. The Holocaust left theologians with an unanswerable question: “If God is good and loves us and is omnipotent, why does something so unspeakably evil happen?”

By most logical assessments, one must either relent that God is good or that God is omnipotent, since there is no reasonable relenting on the truth of the evil present in the Holocaust.

The Coyote Gospel, while on a decidedly different scale than the Holocaust, answers the same question.

Its answer, both by the first-person nature of Gods portrayal, and by the questionable acts we witness at the hands of God, is that God is a creator with little regard for the creation. Omnipotent, perhaps, but disinterested or worse – wholeheartedly cruel.

As a writer, Morrison went on to use the Animal Man title as a space for him to consider the relative cruelty that creative teams exhibit over their heroic creations.

Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t yet had an opportunity to read them, Morrison reflects on how characters are pawns in greater games that they don’t understand.

With that in mind, depicting God as a creator – an artist – is quite significant.

Somewhere around the artistic guilt, which tries to walk the line between love of these characters and the need to create interesting stories, and the ridiculousness of satirizing old children’s cartoons, Morrison serves up a powerful theological challenge, one that leads many people into atheism.

If God is the sovereign of history, then God must have sanctioned suffering.

So we’re left with the disturbing question: do we believe in a God who loves us but can’t stop awful things from happening? Or do we believe in a God who can do whatever God wants, but whose love of creation is doubtful? Or do we believe in God at all?

Crafty's final demise.

Crafty’s final demise.