There’s been a long break since the initial installment of my review of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, newly released as a trade paperback, while I have written reports on the 2004 Toy Fair and Cartoon Network “upfront” presentation for IGN FilmForce. But now this critic strikes again, continuing where I left off.
Book 2 of The Dark Knight Strikes Again opens with the cover for The Daily Planet Magazine (presumably the equivalent of a newspaper’s Sunday magazine supplement, like The New York Times Sunday Magazine, showcasing its cover story. “Superhero Chic,” with a picture of what, by coincidence, one friend years ago imagined as being the ideal Supergirl costume: a nude blonde woman with a strategically placed “S” emblem.
This serves to introduce the “Superchix,” seductive young women dressed in superhero-style costumes, calling themselves Batchick, Wonder Chick, and Black Canary (the latter is presumably not the super heroine of that name, who would be much older at this point on the Dark Knight timeline), who are celebrities, though for what reason is not immediately clear: we are told they have their own website (no big distinction, that) and eventually that they are some sort of pop music group.
So what is Miller trying to get at here? Initially, I linked the Superchix to the nude newscaster and other sleazy media types who appeared in Book 1. Are the Superchix Miller’s comment on the ever more sexually explicit trends in pop culture? In a world where superheroes are real, would Britney Spears and company dress up (or down) in superhero costumes?
Perhaps the Superchix are satiric comments on the “bad girl” characters so prevalent in comics in the ’90s, who might be regarded more as pin-ups for male fantasies than the liberated heroines they purported to be. (Take that trend to its nadir and you get the unfortunate Stan Lee’s Stripperella.) If, as we saw in Book 1, The Dark Knight Strikes Again has a subtext about restoring traditional values of the superhero genre, perhaps the Superchix are meant to represent the more disposable, hormone-driven superhero comics of the last decade. Note that Miller’s amusing parody of TV newsman Chris Matthews (or perhaps of Darrell Hammond’s impersonation of Matthews on Saturday Night Live) rants, “So now the President brings the hammer down on three bouncy tarts for making the long green for adolescent boys who’ve got testosterone coming out of their ears and grown men old enough to be their fathers!” Could the same description apply to a lot of comics readers during the notorious early 1990s comics boom? (The Dark Knight Strikes Again is indeed an example of how middle-aged creators can use the superhero genre to voice their own perspective, despite its traditionally young audience.)
And this in turn makes me think of Miller’s long involvement with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which helps defendants in court cases that seek to outlaw the sale of “mature” comics. By having the government in DK2 outlaw the harmless Superchix, perhaps Miller is drawing a parallel to attempts to censor the comics industry, and hence to repress freedom of expression.
Miller makes clear in DK2 that the superhero is a symbol of individual liberty. Sexuality is also arguably a means of personal expression and freedom. It’s interesting that Miller links superheroes and sexuality in DK2 by making them both the objects of government repression. Indeed, in DK2 they are the targets of the right wing. In the media debate over the Superchix, which Miller populates with caricatures of familiar “talking heads,” the person most opposed to the Superchix is the conservative commentator George Will. A longstanding slur on comics readers is that guys give up comics when they discover girls. How ironic that Miller instead links the superhero concept and sexuality together.
Now, superheroes traditionally battle on behalf of the rest of the population: they are the champions of the public at large. Superman, raised in the values of the idealized Midwesterners who were his foster parents, stands for the American citizenry’s traditional morality: “truth, justice and the American way.” But what kind of general public does Miller portray in DK2? The men (and women) in the street types who pop up during Matthews’ Superchix debate are more grossly caricatured than the news media “talking heads” and just babble nonsense; no wonder Matthews yells at them to “Shut up!” It makes one wonder just how democratic the political stance of DK2 is.
There follow three double-page spreads showing Batman descending from the heavens (like a bat and like an avenging deity) along with his aircraft to burst into Lex Luthor’s headquarters. Through these three spreads Miller moves from the satire of the Superchix debate to giving DK2 an epic scale, aided by the beauty of the skyscapers that Lynn Varley colors.
Batman starts whaling the tar out of various Luthor allies: Miller even gives us an extreme close-up of teeth that have been knocked out of his victims’ mouths, accompanied by a spray of blood added by Varley. “Life doesn’t get any better than this,” thinks Batman. “God. I love my job.” (What was that about testosterone coming out of one’s ears?)
Remember the square-jawed, grinning Batman that Dick Sprang used to draw in the ’40s and ’50s, wisecracking with Robin as they clobbered thugs? This strikes me as Miller’s updated version of that. His Batman may look like a grim figure of retribution to his enemies, but Batman himself isn’t grim at all: he’s performing his life’s work, acting true to himself (unlike the depressed Bruce Wayne leading his empty life at the start of the original Dark Knight), and he’s having fun. He is following his bliss.
In the course of doing so, Batman beats up the (fictional) Secretary of State and (fictional) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “So much treason to commit,” Batman muses; “So little time.”
And this sets me wondering. Making known criminals Luthor and Brainiac the secret heads of the government, responsible for a covert coup d’etat, gives Batman a moral rationale for attacking the U.S. government.
But here is Batman attacking a cabinet secretary and the head of the military. Are they Luthor’s knowing accomplices? Luthor, an American citizen, is a traitor for usurping control of the government. But here Batman calls himself a traitor. Is he merely making an ironic joke?
What I wonder here is whether making Luthor the secret power behind the throne is less a moral rationale in the story than an excuse. Is DK2 actually an anarchist work, opposed to the federal government no matter who is in charge, simply out of an ideological opposition to big government?
Batman then beats up Luthor and carves a “Z” on his face. Batman’s sidekick Carrie, now known as Catgirl, is bewildered by this last gesture, but this is Batman’s and Miller’s tip of the cowl to Zorro, one of the influences on the creation of Batman. (It was Miller who established that on the night that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, they had taken Bruce to see the movie The Mark of Zorro.) Zorro is a supposedly idle rich man who adopts a costumed identity based on an animal (Zorro is “the Fox”) to combat a government that oppresses the people. In Batman: Year One, Miller made the young Batman’s principal opponent the alliance of government officials and organized crime bosses that dominated Gotham City; in DK2 the enemy is once again a government run by criminals.
“I’ll see you in hell,” Batman tells Luthor in parting: Luthor is damned, of course, and Batman’s remark suggests the idea that Batman is a kind of devil (hence the horns and links to creatures of the night) who battles on the side of good. Carrie exults (twice), “We scared the crap out of Lex Luthor.” Batman, satisfied with a good night’s work, observes, “Striking terror. Best part of the job.”
Well, whether or not Miller realizes this, I do not know, but, as people have long noted about terrorism, it backfires. Rather than scaring him off, Batman’s assault simply seems to spur Luthor on to further evildoing, resulting in the deaths of many innocent victims over the rest of this miniseries. Had Batman taken this opportunity to capture or even kill Luthor, he could have avoided all of that.
Best of all, since Luthor had covertly seized power behind the facade of an elected President who turns out merely to be a CGI image, couldn’t Batman have simply exposed Luthor’s schemes to the American public once he had captured him? But then again, according to Miller’s caricature of George Stephanopoulos, “Maybe the President doesn’t exist, but that hasn’t hurt him in the polls.” The majority of Americans in DK2 allegedly don’t care whether or not they are oppressed. Batman appears to be fighting Luthor and company because he and his superhero allies think they are wrong, not because Batman is acting according to the wishes of the general population.
And now Batman has referred to himself not just as a traitor but as a terrorist: “Striking terror. Best part of the job.” As noted, Miller has stated that when the September 11 attacks occurred, he found himself in the midst of working on a series that portrayed Batman as a “good terrorist.”
Well, as we know from Batman #1, Bruce Wayne adopted a bat costume to strike terror into the hearts of criminals, who are “a cowardly, superstitious lot.” So the actions of Batman in DK2 are an extension of that.
But having Batman call himself a “terrorist” may be misusing the word. As we commonly think of terrorists, they inflict death and injury on noncombatants to achieve their political goals by striking terror into the population at large. Batman isn’t doing that in DK2: he seeks to terrorize Luthor and his allies, but not the public, and he certainly will not harm the general population. The only people this Batman seeks to kill are Luthor and Brainiac.
The Batman of DK2 is really more of a commando leader, directing his troops in assaults on the enemy (Luthor) and what are effectively military targets: he’s like Nick Fury in a bat suit.
Still, it’s significant that Miller uses such a loaded word as “terrorist” to approvingly describe his version of Batman. It may be another indication of the anarchist, anti-government subtext of DK2. For better or worse, Miller’s success in involving his readers emotionally on Batman’s side also gives us a look into the terrorist’s point of view. This kind of wish to violently overthrow the government may not be such an alien sentiment, after all, if it can crop up in our own fantasy worlds.
Miller next brings in Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, who is doing a commercial in which he urges male viewers to “elongate your love life,” and thus a familiar gag about superheroes with stretching powers finally makes it into a mainstream comic. No wonder Ralph and Sue Dibny seemed to be such a happy couple.
Then Wonder Woman confronts Superman amid the ruins of the Silver Age version of his Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic. Having been soundly defeated by Batman at the end of the previous issue, Superman looks like a wreck himself: bruised, even somewhat bestial with his now distorted facial features and large, rough hands. The Fortress, a symbol of himself, and perhaps of Silver Age comics and their idealism, has been turned to debris by Luthor. “I’ve lost it. I’m finished. I had a good run,” he tells her. This bested, despairing Superman is reminiscent of Matt Murdock midway through Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again, whose own home had been blasted into rubble by his own bald nemesis, the Kingpin. In the way that Superman phrases that line – “I had a good run” – perhaps he is also alluding to the “run” of his comics series. Perhaps here Miller is evoking the attitude of some that traditional superheroes such as Superman are no longer relevant. (Miller himself disagrees with that attitude, as this series will show.)
We learn that Superman and Wonder Woman have a daughter, Lara (named after Superman’s mother), and here another theme appropriate to a generation of comics professionals in middle age becomes clearer. Like John Byrne in Generations, Miller too is concerned with the idea of the next generation of superheroes, symbolizing the next generation, the children of the Boomers. Carrie and the “Batboys” are Batman’s heirs, whom he has trained. Lara is the heir to Superman and Wonder Woman, but Superman has kept his distance from his daughter, serving as neither mentor nor father. Superman’s rationale is a protective one, perhaps overly so: he does not want Luthor and Brainiac to learn of her existence and make her “their slave.” One might speculate that Superman’s real motive is shame that he has become their “slave” himself: it is in this scene that he confesses to being a failure, having lost “our war for human freedom” to Luthor and Brainiac. Superman is in the position that Bruce Wayne was in at the beginning of the first Dark Knight: having been unable to prevent Jason Todd’s death, Wayne felt that continuing as Batman was pointless. In Superman’s case he also voices the guilt of a parent who feels he (and his generation?) has let his child (and her generation?) down by failing to live up to his ideals and to meet his goals. In protecting Lara, Superman is guarding his hope for the future, since he has given up on being able to achieve that goal himself. As I wrote in the last installment, The Dark Knight Strikes Back strikes me as being more about Superman’s character arc than Batman’s.
Superman’s real failure as a parent appears to be his neglect of Lara. Wonder Woman says Lara is “confused – about things only you could possibly explain.” She needs a mentor. Wonder Woman sees Superman’s attitude as overprotectiveness: “Her time will come. She will face the enemy in her own way. She will be wise. She will be brave.” In other words, each generation must take its turn on the world stage, and Lara will rise to virtues that her father perhaps thinks he has lost. It seems appropriate that Wonder Woman, not having perceptively aged, sides with the younger generation, whereas Superman, even if he is not physically old, looks the part of an exhausted, spent older generation with his bruises and depressed manner.
Attempting to provoke Superman out of his depression, Wonder Woman challenges him, “Where is the hero who threw me to the ground and took me as his rightful prize?” Now there is a disconcerting piece of dialogue for Wonder Woman: the archetypal feminist hero likes the idea of rape?
She is also confronting him with the duality of his nature: “Where is the god whose passion shattered a mountaintop? Where is that man? Where is that Superman?” Superman is both man and god, and godhood here is not just a word but has an epic dimension, as the mountaintop’s fate shows. (The first Dark Knight dabbled in this idea: Superman’s first “appearance” in it is as a mighty wind as he moves, unseen, at superhuman speed: it as if he is a force of nature.) Superman should not be the victim of such destruction as the mortal Luthor wreaked, but the creator of destruction on a grander scale.
There follows a sequence of dramatic (but not sexually explicit) full page shots representing Superman and Wonder Woman’s lovemaking. This is Superman’s symbolic resurrection through love and sex: again, the idea of the superhuman is linked with sexuality. (A similar reenergizing encounter between the literally and figuratively impotent Nite Owl and Silk Spectre in Watchmen parallels this scene.) Superman reclaims his godlike aspect, as Miller shows us reports of the hurricanes and earthquakes the lovemaking caused. This enables him to make a joke as a payoff (”Clark. The Earth moved.”) which perhaps distracts the reader from raising annoying questions. (I know that Wonder Woman is no “Woman of Kleenex,” to use Larry Niven’s phrase, but could she really withstand earthquake-level force? And was anyone killed in that hurricane and quake?)
Wonder Woman now somehow knows she is pregnant again, though nothing more is said about this in the series. (So, is Miller already laying the groundwork for another sequel?)
Luthor and Brainiac send an “alien robot” that resembles a gigantic frog to combat Superman; actually it appears to be the computer intelligence Brainiac himself, in a new form. Why a frog? Maybe the giant green animal image is supposed to evoke the giant monsters that menace cities in Godzilla and other Japanese movies, or the dragons that are the traditional adversaries of monster-slaying heroes. Members of the public who witness the battle are amazed to see Superman, saying they were told he was “dead” or not real. It would make sense that a repressive government would try to convince the populace that a symbol of individual freedom and power was dead or perhaps never existed. (Could this also be an allusion to the “Death of Superman” story line of the 1990s?)
But now a new subplot is introduced. The original Joker killed himself in the first Dark Knight, but here’s a new Joker, dressed, without explanation, as Cosmic Boy of the Legion of Super-Heroes, who murders a hero created by Jack Kirby, the Guardian. What’s going on here? Alan Moore’s Watchmen is said to have had a major influence on the last issue of Miller’s original Dark Night. Watchmen had a mysterious “cape killer,” who murdered the Comedian, a costumed hero; now DK2 has a serial killer of superheroes.
In a speech to Superman, Brainiac links the superheroes reemerging into action to the “wannabe superheroes popping up,” by which he presumably means characters like the Superchix. This suggests that the strength of the superhero concept is resurging, through a combination of the revitalization of the old characters (and an older generation) and a younger generation who are striving to imitate them, without yet realizing the symbolic power and meanings of the concept. (Again, there may be a subtext here about the actual comics industry.)
So, in a sort of war of public relations imagery, Brainiac and Luthor intend to “nip this little fad in the bud” by humiliating, defeating and destroying the leading superhero, Superman, before the eyes of the world. Brainiac calls Superman’s approaching demise “a big, splashy spectacle. A deterrent. A show-stopper, if you will.” Right from the start of the original series, Miller’s Dark Knight has concerned itself with how the media portray the heroes’ exploits. Now even the villains speak in terms if media imagery and spin. One might recall Mel Brooks’ lines from The Producers musical: “All you got to know is/Everything is show biz.”
Again, Brainiac holds the threat of destroying Kandor over Superman’s head: if he flees, Kandor lives, but if he fights, Kandor dies. Superman chooses a middle path, neither fleeing nor fighting but withstanding the attack. This may seem the route of moral compromise, that could very well end in his own death and solve nothing, though Miller pictures Superman heroically here, in apparent praise of his decision.
On the other hand, Batman doesn’t seem impressed by this, and is still explicitly rejecting the idea of “compromise” (though, as we shall see, he does not know about the Kandorian hostages).
The generational theme reemerges as the Flash condemns Batman for “dragging kids into your holy war,” a variation on the old theme that the old send the young to die in war. Batman, though, defends this: “Wars are always fought by children! And there are always innocent casualties!” Sounds to me as if this is Batman’s own moral compromise, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it as such: people must die to achieve the greater good of overthrowing tyranny. And Carrie and the Batboys seem younger than typical soldiers. (It’s another sign of Batman’s and the book’s middle-aged perspective that soldiers in their late teens and twenties are termed “children.”)
Following the new Joker’s murder of the Creeper, a hero created by Steve Ditko, there follows another Watchmen parallel involving Ditko’s the Question. In the first issue of Watchmen, Rorschach, a character inspired by the Question, approached various retired superheroes, issuing a Campbellian call to adventure, to aid in finding the Comedian’s killer. So here the Question meets with a retired, virtually powerless Martian Manhunter, who suffers from the same sense of defeat that Superman had. Interestingly, the Manhunter does not speak like the unworldly alien being familiar from, say, the Justice League TV series: he looks and talks like a green version of Ben Grimm, the Thing from The Fantastic Four, as if a disheartened Ben had gone back to where he grew up on New York’s fictional Yancy Street.
Superman had been convinced it was useless to contend against his enemies; Wonder Woman persuaded him to fight back. The discussion between the Question and the Martian Manhunter puts the issue in explicitly philosophical terms. “A new dawn – a new age of heroes can be ours,” the Question claims, “if we seize this moment and make it happen!” This also seems to be yet another reference to what I have dubbed the Neo-Silver movement in comics, the effort to recapture the heroic spirit of the comics of the Silver Age in contemporary terms.
Claiming precognitive powers, the Manhunter says that he knew he would see the Question tonight and knows he will die tonight by fire.
The Question retorts that the Manhunter has “free will” and can create his own fate. “Determinism is a coward’s refuge. The future is ours to create!”
This scene is interrupted as the story briefly returns to Superman’s battle, with the initial, ominous appearance of Lara as a somber, silhouetted figure with glowing red eyes. Here is one of the most striking visual images in the whole miniseries: the two-page spread of Wonder Woman astride a winged horse, wielding Zeus’s thunderbolt, a picture that, in its power and its explicit references to Greek mythology, conveys the epic, godlike dimension Miller seeks to draw from the superhero concept.
Now the new Joker, this time costumed as the Legion’s Element Lad, carries out the Martian Manhunter’s prophecy and kills him. One might argue, though, that thematically it was because the Manhunter had given up fighting against his perceived fate that he succumbed to it; significantly, in contrast the Question, who refuses to give in, is rescued by Green Arrow, another such rebel.
But the debate between the Question and Martian Manhunter segues from them to different characters. Emerging into the light and plain view, Lara, appears first wrapped as if in a sheet, and then, as if claiming her heritage and role in the world, in a variant of Superman’s costume: she is the new Supergirl (as Brainiac soon names her) and Superman’s heir and future successor. She begins by soliloquizing against not only her father’s sense of helpless resignation, but also his attitude towards humanity: “Father. You are wrong. This time is ours. This world is ours.” Her words unite with her actions, as he smashes through Brainiac’s immense frog-like robotic form and blows it up with her heat vision. (Miller seems to use heat vision, and the recurring image of glowing red eyes, as a sign of Superman and Lara’s superhuman natures.)
Next Miller introduces us to the son and daughter of Hawkman and Hawkgirl, the superheroes from the planet Thanagar, who had taken refuge in a rain forest only to be killed when it was annihilated by Luthor and Brainiac. Their deaths are captured in a touching sequence, in which the silhouetted figures of Hawkman and Hawkgirl kiss, knowing there is no escape, as Varley’s bright red fire entraps them. Their son sums up: “Lovers, they died.” Alex Ross and Paul Dini’s JLA: Liberty and Justice also emphasized Hawkman and Hawkgirl as a loving couple; married love (as opposed to the usual endless unrequited loves or endless courtships of many traditional superhero comics) seems to be a theme of the Neo-Silver school.
Hawkman’s son carries on the Question’s argument in different terms: “Thanagarians do not believe in fate. We do not believe that anything is beyond the power of mind and bone and muscle and will.” This pleases Batman, who says that Hawkman’s son will “get what I never got. Retribution.” Here the generational theme recurs: Batman sees the younger generation as capable of succeeding where he fell short. (Who Miller thinks was the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents and what became of him goes unstated.)
(I suppose it’s also a bit odd to find Batman on the same side as a hero named the Question. Batman seems to represent certainty about the difference between good and evil. It is therefore not so surprising that one of his most notorious adversaries calls himself the Riddler, alias E. Nigma, and uses a question mark as his symbol.)
Brainiac may be a computer, but his personality in DK2 is quite human: he not only tells Lara (whose name he has unaccountably learned) he intends to enslave her but addresses her in sexual terms (”Lara. How lovely.”), even calling her “sugar” and “babe.” Perhaps, as in series with such feminist heroes as Wonder Woman and Buffy, the heroine is opposed to violent, oppressive forces that are characterized as male. (Considering that Brainiac appears only as a disembodied head in this scene, perhaps he represents a macho lust for power that arises from sexual impotence.)
“I’ll be the death of you, monster,” Lara tells Brainiac, and, as we shall see, she will! This is a prophecy that will come true, as did Martian Manhunter’s. But whereas the Manhunter passively allowed fate – and his enemy – to strike him down, Lara proclaims her own fate and will take action to bring it about, dooming her enemy.
Brainiac does not believe that this new Supergirl will kill him (though he is not technically alive, if one thinks about it) because she wears “the family crest,” or, in other words, presumably subscribes to Superman’s code against killing, rooted in his Middle American morality.
But Lara significantly declares, “I’m not from Kansas,” implying her rejection of that moral code, and instead proclaims herself an “Amazon,” evoking a pre-Christian system of morality, which does not preclude killing.
Superman then addresses Lara, finally establishing contact with her, and finally adopting the role of her mentor, advising her on the control of heat vision. Then he asks, “Lara, what sort of world have I given you?”, a question that indicates not only his concern for the next generation’s future but his guilt over his failure in making the world a better place.
Brainiac reiterates the public relations theme in his next talk with Luthor, who compares the upcoming Superchix concert to “the Boston Tea Party.” Batman and his allies are leading a revolution, one which is being compared to the American Revolution: so superheroes are fighting for “the American Way” even if the current government does not represent it.
In effect the Superman and Batman of DK2 each has a daughter: Superman literally has a daughter by blood, and Batman has a surrogate daughter and heir, Carrie Kelly. Unlike Superman at this point, Batman welcomes the new ideas that Carrie, a member of a new generation, brings. Speaking of her strategy for their next move, Batman admits, “I never could have conceived it. Not in a million years.”
At the concert the Flash defeats the guards by stripping them at super-speed, and one should recall that the Flash and Atom, when they were prisoners in Book 1, had also been reduced to nudity, deprived of the costumes/uniforms that signified their identities and status: so now the Flash is turning the tables.
What to make of Green Arrow’s sudden infatuation with the “Superchick” dressed as his former lover Black Canary, I do not know.
Batman’s abrupt appearance on a double-page spread as a silhouette against a Batsignal against a light show of red and green is another Lynn Varley tour de force. Batman, who has always recruited “children” into his mission – the various Robins – now bids the young people at the concert, who have a superficial interest in the trappings of the superhero image, to join him in his political movement, his revolt against an unjust government. Usually superhero costumes are referred to as tights as a form of disparagement. In declaiming, “Children, pull on your tights and give them hell,” Batman is treating the tights, the wannabe superhero costumes, as uniforms for his army of rebellion, though they indicate more individuality for the wearer than a military uniform does.
Batman explains that “Carrie’s plan was to grab hold of a fad – a fleeting fashion trend – and turn it into a revolution.” Batman and Carrie want the kids to turn their enthusiasm for a symbol of individual liberty and self-empowerment into a genuine movement for freedom. Again, if this series has a subtext about comics, this may be a rallying cry for the newer readership to demand and seek greater substance, and a similar passion for freedom, in the superhero genre.
If on an initial reading, DK2 might seem merely a tumultuous series of battle scenes, on closer reading it proves to be a work of unsuspected complexity and depth, even disturbingly so. And there is yet more to come, in the third and final part of DK2, to be examined in another column.
THE SECRET AUDIENCE
There is a somewhat controversial artist, J. Seward Johnson, Jr., who creates life-size (or larger) sculptures based on Impressionist paintings, thereby presenting the people and settings of the paintings in three dimensions. Visiting Toy Fair 2004 in February gave me opportunities to think about translating cartoon art into three dimensions as well.
So many collectible figures based on film and TV properties are small sculptures of real people playing celebrated characters, like Buffy or Scully or Aragorn or James Bond; others, like the Marvel figures, are three-dimensional versions of relatively realistically drawn characters from comics. I found myself judging all of these on how much the figure looks like a real human being, or, if it is based on an actor, on the specific person in question. Cinemaquettes goes to all the trouble of doing a “digital scan” of the actor’s face to ensure an accurate portrayal.
But accurately duplicating a person’s features, however amazing as a matter of craft, isn’t very interesting artistically. What I found more intriguing were figures based on stylized cartoon art. The simple stylization of the character designs for Warner Animation’s Justice League and Batman animated series made the action figures based on them more appealing than so many of the more “realistic”-looking figures. With the animation designs the sculptors also don’t have to worry about capturing myriad naturalistic details; apart from Cinemaquettes’ work, the “realistic” sculptures so often fall short of their presumed goal. One of my favorite displays in the entire show was Toynami’s group of Herculoids figures: the clear, simple, but distinctly individual animation designs by Alex Toth came across wonderfully in three dimensions.
The Muppets always come over well as three-dimensional sculpted figures or dolls, not surprisingly, considering that puppets of this sort are designed for three dimensions in the first place. I postulate that puppet design is to cartooning as sculpture is to drawing: a puppet is a cartoon figure that works in three-dimensional reality.
At the very start of my four-day trek through Toy Fair, I was told again and again by Mattel representatives that the collectible figures and toys they were showing me were meant for “the kids.” At the very end, a lady at Palisades was telling me that toys aren’t for kids anymore, they are for adults, and that they might as well admit it. That was something of an overstatement: walking through the exhibit floor at the Javits Convention Center, I saw plenty of toys that were genuinely for small children. But at the booths and showrooms I was assigned to visit, I was primarily looking at collectibles, mostly figures of celebrated movie and TV characters or detailed replicas of movie props, that were intended for adult collectors with money, in some cases a great deal, to spend.
Seeing a lot if this was a satisfying experience. In the comics industry one continually confronts the sentiment that old stories and art styles and past continuity (and writers and artists) should be ignored because the newer, younger readers (and writers and artists) don’t care about them, or because they are dated, or because there is Something Wrong with older readers who still care about this stuff. The attitude at Toy Fair is entirely different. Here is a world in which classics of the fantasy– adventure genre and the cartoon medium are recognized, and, it seems, intelligent enthusiasts who care about them are seen as valued potential customers, not objects of condescension. Indeed, in this world detailed knowledge and appreciation of these fictional mythos is treated respectfully.
At the Master Replicas booth I was unable to detect the differences between the inexpensive and expensive recreations of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, and the well-dressed lady showing me around seemed disapproving: “Well, you’re not a real Star Wars fan,” she said.
I used to work on the Marvel Star Wars comic, but never mind: it was refreshing to be in an environment where such detailed knowledge of a major body of American pop culture was considered a mark of good taste.
One of my biggest surprises at the Fair was to find a set of DC Direct figures of Batman supporting characters from around 1960: the original Batwoman and Batgirl (Betty Kane, not Barbara Gordon), Bat-Mite and even Bat-Hound! These characters have not regularly appeared in comics for over forty years, and yet there is a big enough audience for these characters for DC Direct to make figures of them available. This is worth keeping in mind the next time we are told that characters and stories from comics ten, twenty, or forty years ago have no lasting merit.
Or, for that matter, if we are told this about classic animated cartoons. I’ve now seen Sam Register, Cartoon Network’s head of program development, speak before two audiences of adults, one at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con and the other at last month’s Cartoon Network “upfront” presentation for advertisers and thew news media. The basic difference between these two adult audiences is that the audience at Comic-Con actually likes and watches animation. On the other hand, the impression Cartoon Network sought to convey to the advertisers was that their audience consisted of small children (when the big kids were at school) and “tweens” (9- to 14-year-olds) until as late as 11 PM. At that point “Adult Swim” starts, but those shows are mainly aimed at teenagers and twentysomethings. (So, not all that adult.)
But what about those of us who attended Cartoon Network’s panels in San Diego? There are enough of us so that Cartoon Network holds the panels, no doubt hoping we will spread the word about what we see across the country via the Internet. But Cartoon Network doesn’t want to let the advertisers or news media know we exist. We are the Secret Audience of Cartoon Network. And it’s paying less and less heed to us.
My taste has hardly frozen in time: I like some of Cartoon Network’s original series (like Samurai Jack and The Powerpuff Girls), as do much of the Secret Audience. But when Cartoon Network first appeared, it was a treasure trove of great animation from the past: Looney Tunes, and the Tex Avery MGM shorts, and MGM’s Tom and Jerry shorts, and the Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons. (Notice that I’m not including the network’s Hanna-Barbera television animation, most of which is dreck, though the animation designs and voice acting on the early, pre-Scooby-Doo shows, remain a joy.) Even as Cartoon Network prospered and was able to create new animation (the best of which appeals across a wide age range), it continued to showcase its library of classics. I can recall past newspaper articles about the network in which its representatives even boasted about their sizable adult audience. The network had numerous shows aimed at the discerning older audience, which were also, of course, completely accessible to children: Toon Heads (with its historical and thematic mini-retrospectives), Acme Hour (showing classic Hollywood cartoons from various studios), Bugs and Daffy, The Chuck Jones Show, The Tex Avery Show, The Bob Clampett Show (the latter three celebrating important animation directors), Popeye, Bullwinkle reruns (which the network seemed proud of), and even shows for true aficionados like Late Night Black & White (cartoons from the 1930s) and O Canada (animated shorts from the National Film Board of Canada).
Much of this has disappeared altogether from Cartoon Network or been consigned to the dead of night between midnight and dawn a few days a week.
It’s a trend, I suppose: the Disney Channel originally showcased its Walt-era animated shorts in Mouseterpiece Theatre, hosted by the late George Plimpton, but by the time it went from being a premium to a basic cable channel, was aimed directly at tweens (kids 9-14). The classic Walt-era material was now shown after midnight under the Vault Disney umbrella, but now that’s gone, too. Not even the Toon Disney channel showcases the classics in prime time.
Presumably the Disney Channel’s and Cartoon Network’s own prosperity has changed what they show. The classics dominated in the channel’s early years when they needed existing material to fill time slots. Their executives have apparently now decided that it’s the new cartoons, aimed at tweens and teens, that make the big bucks. There’s no equivalent of TV Land or Nick at Nite on non-digital cable for animation buffs. The Secret Audience isn’t big enough for them (even if it does have enough money to buy, say, expensive toys). (It’s an old story: I remember when A&E and Bravo were genuine arts networks before they started chasing bigger bucks and mass audiences.)
Well, the classic cartoons are classics because they don’t date. Most of the Hollywood studio-era Warners and MGM cartoons (and all of the Fleischers) were already decades old when I watched them as a child: I and millions of other kids loved them anyway. Each generation seems to adopt them as their own. One might think that since the Time-Warner empire owns these cartoons, and makes licensing and merchandising money off them, it would behoove them to make sure new generations of kids get to know these characters. The classic Looney Tunes have finally begun to appear on DVD, but kids aren’t going to ask their parents to buy them DVDs of the old cartoons if they don’t see them regularly on TV in the first place.One might have thought that the continuing success of The Simpsons proves that there is now a considerable adult audience for animation. When the feature film Looney Tunes: Back in Action came out last year, I marveled at how many reviews I read that hailed the original Looney Tunes as a great body of American film comedy. Those reviewers who disliked the movie whom I read invariably claimed it did not match the heights of the classic cartoons. It proved how much artistic respectability the best of the cartoons of the 1930s through the 1960s had achieved. Too often classic works of pop culture achieve critical appreciation once they lose their mass audience. I hope that’s not what is happening here.
On a more positive note, though, was the triumph of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at the Academy Awards, clearly being honored for the entire trilogy. Its director, Peter Jackson, said onstage, “I’m so honored, touched and relieved that the members of the Academy have supported us, that they’ve seen past the trolls, wizards and hobbits [by] recognizing fantasy this year. Fantasy is an F-word that hopefully the five-second delay won’t do anything with.”
Fantasy-adventure, whether it takes the form of the supernatural (as in Rings and Harry Potter) or science-fiction (as in Star Wars and Matrix) or superheroes (as in Spider-Man or even Buffy) has become a dominant narrative genre of our time, embraced by Baby Boomers and subsequent generations, as a study of the list of top grossing films of the last quarter century will show. Except for such relatively minor honors as special effects awards, the Motion Picture Academy has long ignored the fantasy-adventure genre, as it has other pop culture genres (Westerns, musicals, film noir) in their heyday. Perhaps the critical and movie industry recognition given the Lord of the Rings films represents a watershed moment in opinion makers’ attitude towards the genre.
-Copyright 2004 Peter Sanderson
Leave a Reply