Saxon Bullock

Writer, Journalist, Copy-Editor and Proofreader

Tag: superheroes (page 1 of 7)

Legion S1 (Some Thoughts…)

I meant to blog about TV in 2017 for the last month or so. There were two shows in 2017 that stuck with me more than anything, and trying to get my thoughts on the challenging weirdness of Twin Peaks: The Return into shape proved to be a tricky task. There was also Legion, which I adored, but blogging about it didn’t happen for various reasons, and seemed destined to be one of those ‘blog posts I never get around to’.

And then, this weekend, I spotted that there’s a quote from my SFX review of Legion on the back cover of the UK release of the Blu-Ray:

This boggled the heck out of me – getting cover quotes is always great, getting a cover quote on something I loved as much as Legion is a rare treat – so I had to write something.

There’s a hell of a lot to write about – the Wes Anderson-influenced production design, the trippy cinematography, the retro Sixties styles, the way it joyfully ignores any continuity with other X-Men related media and is all the better for it, the strong performances, the jaw-dropping use of music, the fact that episode seven contains an extended sequence that’s one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen on television in years, the kooky joy of Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement as the 1960s-obsessed psychonaut Oliver Bird…

But the thing I love most about Legion is what it reminds me of.

We have a lot of superhero shows right now, and some of them are definitely ‘for adults’ – but up until now, that’s principally meant the Marvel Netflix shows, which are a very particular (and uneven) kind of mature that’s worn out its sense of novelty and welcome surprisingly quickly. None of them have really managed to capture what grabbed me about American comics when I first started reading them – they’re all going for relatively formulaic structures but with more monologues, more intensity and more ultraviolence. There’s no sense of them trying to do anything different, except in how adult they can be – a habit that, outside of S1 of Jessica Jones, hasn’t come across very well.

Legion, however, feels different in almost every conceivable way. There’s an infectious sense of invention and creativity to the show, an adventurous desire to push the envelope – and what it reminds me of are the truly weird, artistic and adventurous comics that came along in the wake of graphic novel landmarks like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, you had lots of dark and gritty tales of vigilante justice, superhero stories but with added intensity and violence and upset – but you also had genuinely weird and adventurous stories that you simply couldn’t find anywhere else. Comics like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, The Sandman, Enigma, Hellblazer – boundary-pushing, unpredictable comics that were giving a sandbox to interesting writers who really wanted to see what comics could do, and wanted to do expand the limits of the everyday mainstream comic.

Legion captures that feel better than anything I’ve seen in our current deluge of superhero media. It’s the closest I’ve seen to the mind-expanding thrill of opening an early issue of The Invisibles, or Alan Moore’s epic run on Swamp Thing, or Neil Gaiman’s ambitious work on The Sandman. I can forgive Legion its flaws – like the weird pacing, the way certain characters get forgotten about, the way it peaks too early in episode 7, or the relative lack of conclusion in the eighth and final episode – for the way it uses superpowers as a way to look at mental illness, alongside the way we interact with the world, other people, and our memories. There’s a scene in episode 3, where two characters simply sit down and talk about their abilities in a calm and open way, that’s one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen in a superhero show, and Legion delivers unexpected moments and stylistic curve-balls like that throughout its run. Season 2 is apparently due to arrive sometime in April – I have no idea where it’s going to go next, but I can’t wait to find out…

Schizopolitan: The Podcast – Episode 2 – Guardians of the Galaxy

And we’re back! Our first podcast went better than we expected, we got some nice feedback from a few people, so here, for your delectation and bewilderment, is episode 2 of the Schizopolitan podcast, featuring 75 minutes of Saxon Bullock and Jehan Ranasinghe talking about stuff! This time we tried to be a little more structured, and spent most of the podcast discussing Marvel’s latest hit Guardians of the Galaxy, looking at the many aspects of the movie that worked surprisingly well, while also examining the parts that didn’t come off quite so effectively. (There are a few spoilers in what we talk about – nothing huge, mainly about story structure (especially as relating to big Marvel bad guy Thanos), but it probably helps if you have seen the film already, and it isn’t spoil-free.) After that, there’s also time for a short update on the first podcast’s discussion on Female Superheroes, as we examine Sony’s plans for a female-fronted superhero in the Spider-man universe and try to work out whether any of them have any chance of working…

Hope you enjoy the podcast (feel free to let us know in the comments if you do), and stay tuned for another episode in the not-too-distant future!

Also – you can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Follow this link to subscribe, and episode 2 should be available there relatively soon after this post goes live…

(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

Podcast: Schizopolitan – Episode 1 – The Saga Begins…

It’s been a long time, but Schizopolitan has risen from the grave… and this time we’re trying something a little different – presenting the SCHIZOPOLITAN PODCAST! I’ve teamed up with my friend and occasional collaborator Jehan Ranasinghe (on Twitter as @Maustallica) for what we’re hoping is going to be a regular series of podcasts looking at the world of Movies, TV, Animation, Games, Comics, and whatever else grabs our attention. It’s our first attempt at anything like this, so bear with us as we figure out various problems, wrestle with technical difficulties and generally ramble like there’s no tomorrow.

In this debut episode (running for 95 minutes), we use the recent aftermath of San Diego Comic Con to discuss some of the con’s announcements and reveals, but that soon spirals into a general discussion of blockbuster cinema in general – there’s talk about Star Wars and the new TV animated show Star Wars: Rebels, the first photo of the Wonder Woman costume and how much we know about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the potential upcoming DC Universe movies, and then a more wide-ranging talk about the ‘problem’ of a Female-fronted superhero blockbuster and why Hollywood seems so nervous about the idea…

Hope you enjoy our first episode, and stay tuned for more editions of Schizopolitan: The Podcast soon!

(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

Atom Bomb Blues – The Birth of the Watchmen (2009)

(Originally published in an SFX Special in 2009)

Remember ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ Remember how it was a gritty and realistic saga of superheroes in a world on the verge of nuclear apocalypse? Remember how the story started off with the murder of government-sponsored superhero the Peacemaker? Remember how it put a new spin on comic-book characters like the Blue Beetle, the Question, Thunderbolt, Captain Atom and Nightshade?

Of course, you don’t remember that. Like the alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is still President, the classic comic miniseries Watchmen never actually happened that way – but it could have, very easily. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking saga has been a landmark of quality for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t around, but Watchmen had humble beginnings, and there were many ways this influential classic could have gone in a very different direction.

In fact, it started life in the mid-Eighties simply as a way for legendarily hairy comics mastermind Moore to continue exploring his daring ideas for a different kind of superhero story. His incredible work on horror comic Swamp Thing had netted him awards and acclaim, but what he planned next was to team up with artist Dave Gibbons for a potentially challenging take on the classic superhero.

The basic starting point for Watchmen was the thought of playing with an entire superhero world – ideally using characters no longer being published – and treating them in a different and much more realistic way; subverting rather than following the usual rigid superhero continuity imposed by the big comics publishers. It was an idea that meshed with what Moore had already achieved with radical Brit superhero saga Marvelman (first published in 1982, and also known (for very complicated copyright-related reasons) as Miracleman), where he’d taken a familiar character and pushed it in a new and often shocking direction.

Soon, Moore had a loose concept for his story: one member of a superhero team would die, and the whodunnit mystery would allow him to explore interesting aspects of the superhero equation. And what was best was that it didn’t matter exactly which characters they used, as long as they were familiar. Instead of the usual super-powered action, this would be a tale *about* superheroes, and the emotional resonance and nostalgia of familiar characters would give the story a sense of shock and surprise when the reality of their world became clear.

At least, that was the theory – and after initially considering a team of heroes called the Mighty Crusaders (first published by MLJ / Archie comics), Moore eventually found a firmer structure when DC offered him the chance to use characters originally published by Charlton Comics – the rights were now owned by DC, they weren’t being published and were potentially ripe for reinvention. Moore and Gibbons leapt into action, and it’s here that the Watchmen alternate version ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ came together.

Thanks to most of the proposal being printed in the 1988 Graphitti Hardback edition of Watchmen (and reprinted in 2005’s Absolute Edition), we can get an idea of how ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ would have looked – and at first glance, the two projects are pretty similar in both plot and characterisation.

Each Watchmen cast member has their predecessor in the Charlton Comics heroes, and out of all of them, it’s the Question (who’d eventually become Rorschach) and the Blue Beetle (Nite Owl) who are closest to their Watchmen counterparts. The Blue Beetle is actually the oldest of all the characters, first seeing publication in 1939, and was always planned to be the most empathetic and human of Moore’s group, a Batman-style inventor and crime-fighter who’s sometimes aided by the powers of a mystic scarab.

Moore even worked the fact that there had been a previous Blue Beetle into the story (leading to the creation of Hollis Mason, the 1940s-era Nite Owl), while he also stayed close to the source material when dealing with the Question. One of the more distinctive characters created by famed comics artist Steve Dikto, he was a frequently ruthless crime-fighter who used an artificial skin known as ‘psuedoderm’ to render himself literally faceless.

Despite being a toned-down version of a previous Dikto character, the independently published Mr A, the Question is still a much darker, more extreme superhero, and Dikto’s right-wing beliefs in moral absolutes often came across very strongly in his Question stories. Moore’s own outlook was very different, but the uncompromising portrayal of the ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ version of the Question (and eventually Rorschach) owed just as much to Steve Dikto’s politics as it did to his characters.

Another cast member superficially close to his counterpart was Thunderbolt, who’d soon become Watchmen’s Ozymandias. Orphaned and raised in a Himalayan lamasery, Thunderbolt was both physically and mentally powerful, able to access the unused portions of his brain – but while Moore finally cast him as the ultimate villain of the piece, things got sketchier when it came to some of the other characters.

Destined to die at the story’s opening, the Peacemaker was a pacifist diplomat so committed to peace that he decided to fight corrupt warlords and dictators as a costumed superhero (with the splendidly ridiculous tagline – “A man who loves peace so much that he is willing TO FIGHT FOR IT!!”). Moore’s plans didn’t go much further than him being a patriotic superhero who stumbled across a shocking secret that led to his death, and this version was a long way from his Watchmen replacement, the Comedian.

Things were even looser when it came to Nightshade (soon to be Silk Spectre) – Moore basically admits in the proposal that “she’s the one I know least about and have least ideas on”, and the only firm detail set down was that the US Senator’s daughter with mysterious, shadow-based superpowers would be Captain Atom’s only emotional link to the world.

However, it was with Captain Atom, the direct predecessor of Doctor Manhattan, that the project’s real potential became clear. The original Captain Atom was a fairly clichéd nuclear-powered hero, a military official transformed by an accident that gave him a selection of nuclear-related powers – but Moore’s idea was to tackle what being an immensely powerful superhero would do to a person, and to the world around him. A distant and emotionally isolated character, the Captain Atom of ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ pointed to the depths the project would reach, as well as being definitively unlike any superhero who’d come before.

If ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ had been given the go-ahead at this point, it would have been an interesting, gritty bit of superhero intrigue. However, so much of what made Watchmen unique was the detail around the characters, the way they transcended their origins and went in unexpected directions – developments that might not have happened if Moore and Gibbons had stuck with their ‘remixes’ of the Charlton characters.

As it turned out, though, things went very differently. The proposal was submitted, but DC’s reaction was a polite “No”. They liked the idea, but didn’t want to leave the Charlton characters in a state where they were either dead, or so psychologically messed-up that they wouldn’t be usable.

This could have been the moment where everything came to a screaming halt – but instead it became the turning point for the Project Soon To Be Known As Watchmen. Intially unsure that brand new characters could achieve the same emotional effect as established ones, Moore finally realised if he used the Charlton characters as a loose basis, he could still tap into the sense of familiarity and nostalgia he was aiming to both use and subvert.

On top of that, severing the links with the Charlton originals meant the story was now completely self-contained – and one of Watchmen’s ultimate strengths is that unlike many ferociously complex superhero mythologies, it doesn’t require any outside knowledge.

The proposal was reworked from the ground up, with the Charlton characters morphing into their new versions – and as they did so, the breadth and scale of the project started to increase. Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan, and his quantum-related powers became even stranger, leading to the ambitiously structured time-hopping chapter “Watchmaker”. The Peacemaker transformed into the brutal, morally ambiguous Comedian, while the world of the story started getting more complex, and the characters became deeper.

Bolder experiments started to happen – like the Tales of the Black Freighter pirate storyline that mirrored the main plot, and the symmetrical design of issue 5’s chapter ‘Fearful Symmetry’. It was all adventurous, groundbreaking stuff, but at best, Moore and Gibbons were hoping to carry off a daring piece of storytelling. What they weren’t expecting was to transform the comic book industry forever…

Over twenty years on, and Watchmen has had a truly gigantic effect. Even more than Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it’s the title that kicked off the ‘graphic novel’ revolution – it proved comics could be just as legitimate and adult an art form as any other, and its intelligent, multi-layered approach to characterisation and storytelling has been felt in countless titles ever since.

Unfortunately, it also unleashed a torrent of two-dimensional copycats, with every other superhero title embracing ‘grim and gritty’ for over a decade, and comics suddenly being crammed full of shocking violence and near-psychotic costumed avengers. Even today, despite occasional stone-cold classics like The Ultimates and All-Star Superman, there’s the sense that superheroes are still trapped in the shadow of what Moore and Gibbons achieved.

Maybe it’s not beyond belief that some enterprising writer-artist team will one day achieve a superhero tale that goes way beyond Watchmen – but Moore and Gibbons have certainly given them a hell of an act to follow…

 

 

Movie Trailer: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The-Dark-Knight-Rises-2012-teaser-poster-batman-Christopher-Nolan

Blimey. Okay, given that I’m not going to be seeing the prologue for at least the next few days, this is my first proper glimpse of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming third Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, a blockbuster for which the phrase ‘hotly anticipated’ is an insane understatement. Nolan set himself a huge hurdle to leap with The Dark Knight, and it’s perfectly possible that the ludicrous levels of expectation may in some terms end up working against the film – but the trailer has gone live over at Apple (and is available in an embed below, which may or may not get yanked soon…) and what we’re seeing so far looks pretty damn impressive; certainly a massive improvement over the “Oh crap, we’d better throw together a couple of shots along with a sequence of Gary Oldman mumbling incoherently in a bed” teaser trailer we got a few months ago:

From advance reaction to the prologue, it looks like one of the more divisive elements (unless there’s some serious fiddling happening in the next few months) is going to be Bane’s voice – and the one line we get here isn’t exactly the model of intelligibility, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

And while we don’t get a full look at that controversial costume, we do get to see Anne Hathaway in action as Selina Kyle (including an oh-so-appropriate mask), and as I suspected, whatever she may be wearing, it looks like Hathaway is going to be giving a seriously impressive performance as Catwoman. There’s eye-candy here, and spectacle (which promises to be pretty amazing in the IMAX format, especially considering the film will feature almost fifty minutes of IMAX footage) – although, as with the first The Dark Knight trailer, and almost all the publicity for Inception, there’s very few signs of exactly how this all fits together – but what’s really surprising is exactly how political that speech from Selina Kyle feels. It’s one of those moments where art accidentally coincides with real life (after all, the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises would have been finished long before the Occupy movement got going), but it certainly looks like Nolan isn’t backing away from melding real life issues with superhero action in the same way he did with The Dark Knight. On top of everything, there’s some very interesting hints at how time has moved on for all the characters, and a general sense that whatever happens, even if The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t top The Dark Knight, Nolan is currently at the top of his game and would probably have to really try hard to completely mess this up. Whatever happens, July 2012 feels like a very long time away right now…

 

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