ON COMICS: ARCHER & ARMSTRONG

51pF3DPKb5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Archer & Armstrong, Vol. 1: The Michelango Code (Lente/Henry/Milla)
Valiant Comics, 2013

I don’t know where I heard about Archer & Armstrong. I’m guessing it was mentioned in passing on a podcast or I saw a twitter reference, but I can’t be sure. I read a quick synopsis before picking up the volume 1 trade paperback and it seemed just silly enough to grab my attention – an funny, schlubby immortal teams up with a kid assassin to battle eternal forces? I was in.

I’m also unsure of where this book feel in my comics-reading-progression, but I’m fairly certain it was later rather than sooner. The majority of my reading has been DC up to this point, so I wonder if The Michelangelo Code was just enough outside-the-box to capture my attention. For whatever reason, this book really took me by surprise and is still one of my favorite comics to re-read…for lots of reason.

THE INDIE THING
When I bought this book, I knew there were comics publishers (other than DC) out there making a mark. The most commonly heard titles tended to be Vertigo releases, but I had never read any of those. Like a lot of newcomers, I didn’t care much (still don’t actually) about publisher loyalty. The “cred” of certain publishers didn’t factor. Since I buy so infrequently, I’m usually more concerned with story quality over just about every other consideration.

But before the first issue was over, I knew I had picked up something unique. Archer & Armstrong isn’t any more or less graphic, violent or funny than other books, but there was something about the story. It dared to be ludicrous, weaving in Bible-thumping fundamentalism with Illuminati conspiracy theories. Art history was right next to future tech. A barroom brawl interlaced with Shakespearean dialogue. The book took my by surprise because it did what it wanted to.

THE STORY
As a minister, I am always attracted to works focused on faith. While the book does a real number on religion, faith comes out pretty unscathed. I was intrigued that a story could be so ridiculously slanted without actually defaming God. It’s not a pro-God book, but I appreciate a story that so clearly knew what it was about. There don’t seem to be any wasted lines or story-arcs. The writers aren’t writing about faith…they’re writing about what happens when faith gets co-opted by the greedy.

SEEING STUFF FOR THE FIRST TIME
The upside of being a writer is that your mind gets trained to analyze every little turn of phrase. The art element took longer to grasp. I had definitely noticed the artwork in previous books, but Archer & Armstrong was one of the first times I noticed lines and shading and color. Every time I re-read this book, I keep thinking, “This looks like a cartoon.” There’s a vibrance and a brightness to the look of this book that only helps the fun, globe-trotting focus of the story-line.

If you’ve never read Archer & Armstrong, pick it up. I think it performs on a level equal to – if not better – than the bigger and more famous books.

FILM THOUGHTS: BOYHOOD

LMV5BMTYzNDc2MDc0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTcwMDQ5MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_ike a lot of people, I was instantly interested in Boyhood. Richard Linklater has a strong track record of engaging, creative, surprising films and the sheer ambition of this one was enough to suck me in.

In the internet age, this is common. We are intrigued by films long before the projector starts running. This is why most of us could never be film critics – the goal of objectivity is too far beyond our reach. We go see these movies because we want to see them. We want to like them.

I loved this movie. Even though it’s not very good.

Two problems reveal themselves over and over in the film – acting and structure. I think the dialogue felt fake. The “campout” scene in particular had the pacing and delivery of a church youth group sketch. Structurally, Boyhood has a hero gap. We don’t know who the hero is. As much as we want Mason Jr. to be the hero of the film, he isn’t. He’s a roving camera – a sponge – and we’re watching the whole time waiting for that one person who’ll step in and impact Mason’s life. This is the sort of hero narrative that we’ve come to know and expect from movies and it wasn’t in Boyhood.

So why did I love it? Because none of that stuff matters.

Linklater’s movie proves that when you care about a character, you’ll follow that character anywhere – through bad dialogue, through failed relationships one after the other, even through a movie where nothing really happens as we’re conditioned to expect. It also proves that we don’t have to build movies around movie stars. Linklater has Ellar Coltrane portray Mason so painfully honest that in moments, the movie resounds more like a documentary than a fiction narrative.

There are a few other things to learn, too.

Boyhood also reminds us of how powerful music can be. Watch it again and see how many of the music cues do more than just set a tone. In almost every “transition” between years, a song clues us in. Those song placements do more than set a time. They remind us of a feeling – music is a portrait of the past.

Lastly, the role of Ethan Hawke’s character cannot be understated. The real growth in this movie comes in the life of Mason Sr., of all people. And I was reminded over and over again just how skilled Ethan Hawke is at making us care about him and pull for him – whether he’s winning at life or not.

Mason Jr.’s life isn’t like a movie. Mine wasn’t. And yours wasn’t either. Boyhood shows us that each and every story being lived out is plenty compelling and difficult and dramatic enough without Hollywood turning into something fake and plastic,

ON COMICS: BATMAN CACOPHONY

250px-Batman_Cacophony_1Batman: Cacophony (Kevin Smith/Walt Flanagan/Sandra Hope)
DC Comics, November 2008 – March 2009

Kevin Smith was the one who got this whole thing started for me. Eventually, he referenced his own comic writing on Daredevil and Batman and somewhere in the recesses of my mind, something clicked. I had heard of The Widening Gyre, the second book in the Smith/Flanagan series in some previous incarnation and thought it was the coolest title I’d ever heard. I knew Cacophony was a short book, but I heard enough from Kevin to realize I needed to check it out.

When I re-read this book, a lot of it seems pretty standard. Smith himself has admitted he and Walt Flanagan had no idea what they were doing and that Widening Gyre was a leap forward. (It was, but that’s a post for another day!)

But three things always standout, two of which are specific to the book. The third thing I always takeaway from this book is a much larger concept – one that intrigues me to this day.

1. THE JOKES – Cacophony was the first comic I had ever read that was funny. There were solid jokes in this storyline. (Mostly from Joker, naturally.) Even as dark as the book is, Smith and Flanagan don’t take themselves too seriously. This book reminded me that for all the exquisite artwork and narrative heavy-lifting…it’s still a comic book. And those should be fun to read. I don’t think anybody’s written a more fun and silly Joker to date.

2. THE TEXT - I may sound crazy, but I could hear the dialogue in this book. The font, the boldface and the bubbles combined to do something pretty amazing on the page. I’m not a comic book writer, but I do write songs and blog pretty often, so I’m always intrigued by just how much can be accomplished by a few letters on a page. Even something as simple as Joker saying ‘lo, Floyd’ instead of “Hello, Floyd” was conversational and realistic. Up until this book, I had never encountered that.

3. THE JOKER(S) – I saw this in Cacophony for the first time, but it became clearer with every Batman story I read. There were (and are) thousands of takes on the Joker. And it’s not that I had every held just one “character” in my head – I didn’t even think about it. The notion that writers would so deeply and creatively mine the Clown Prince of Crime was completely foreign to me. Until Smith did it. I love this book because, yes, I love the Joker. All his personalities.

I understand comic books aren’t for everybody, but I can’t ignore all the joy and confusion and surprise I’ve gotten from comic books over the past few years. And the most amazing news about that is this – these books keep giving.

If you ever thought for one second, “Maybe I’d like comic books,” I can guarantee you’re right. Sure, it might take awhile to find your particular flavor, but take a few books and go buy some books. You’ll be glad you did!

FILM THOUGHTS: WHIPLASH

whiplashSuddenness.

It’s the mechanism of Whiplash, a tense real-world fantasy tale of a jazz student who finds himself miraculously and terribly tied to a brilliant, mad icon of his genre.

There’s suddenness in how Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman comes into relationship with the famed Terrence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. There’s the brutal suddenness of Flectcher’s mood swings and Andrew’s family and social relationships. And of course, the loud, brash crashing of drums constantly. Suddenness.

And yet something slow and gradual runs the entire length of the film – underneath all the tension and stakes. Whiplash tells you, over time, all the things this movie is about.

It’s about music.
It’s also about idol worship.
And obsession. And family and greatness and hard work.

But for me, there’s was something else happening; because the movie didn’t end the way I wanted. Its climax is a vacuum, an absence of what you think is going to (or should) happen. And that’s the lesson itself. The emptiness I felt after watching it eventually solidified a few days later when I realized what had been nagging me all along.

“This is what we want.”

Whiplash reminds us that we prioritize the wrong thing. We abandon what’s best for our souls to chase things that are the worst for our lives and for those who love us. It’s a great movie, maybe because it’s a cautionary tale for those of us who long to do great things.