Thursday, May 1, 2014
What I've Been Reading: Rainy Season, 2014
Batman: Death of the Family by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV
"Batman: Death of the Family" is the latest trade paperback collection of the New 52 series of DC mainstream coninuity comic books from its "Batman" comic series. Confusingly this is not the only comic book featuring Batman, as there is also "Detective Comics", "Batman: The Dark Knight", and "Batman Incorporated", which are four redundant titles all starring Batman. But if you think that's a bit much, there's also "Batman and Robin", yet another Batman series, but this one featuring Batman's newest Robin, his son, Damian Wayne. Oh and Batman is also in the Justice League, so there's all of those comics too. And beyond that, Batman's various allies get their own comic books, such as "Nightwing", "Batgirl" (who is also in "Birds of Prey"), "Batwoman", "Batwing", and "Red Hood and the Outlaws". This book collects five issues of the presumably main Batman storyline, which you would think would be enough to tell a full tale. However, because all thirty-five other Batman comic books had to have their own tie-ins to sucker fans into buying them all, this means the trade paperback I read held only a fraction of the full "Death of the Family" arc. Some of those tie-ins might have been important, some might have just created huge plotholes, and others were certainly giant wastes of time shoveled out to sell more comics.
And then I sometimes wonder if I'm being too harsh on comic book fans when I tell them their favorite medium is a goddamn mess. Unfortunately every time I try to get into the main continuity of a superhero comic, I'm met by this huge wall of tie-ins, references, cameo appearances by characters from another series who are never explained, and then a bigger wall of continuity and prior history, which ironically the New 52 series was supposed to fix. Luckily though, "Death of the Family" is a garbage series anyway, so if you choose to skip all of this nonsense, you're really not missing much.
"Death of the Family" follows the far better storyline "Court of Owls", which opened Batman's appearance into the New 52 universe of DC comics*. But you do not need to read that story to understand what is happening here. It would have helped a great deal to read "Detective Comics #1", the story which sets up everything that happens in this book, but it is not included for some greedy reason. In that story, a new supervillain called 'The Dollmaker' got into a fight with the Joker and according to their pre-planned agreement, cuts the Joker's face off. So for the remainder of this storyline, the Joker has no face. At the beginning of "Death of the Family", the Joker, apparently faceless for a year and unable to find either the faces of Nicholas Cage or John Travolta to steal, decides to launch his greatest and most terrifying attack on Batman yet.
And the story is - in a word - horrible. This is the single worst Batman comic book I have read since "All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder", and probably just as gross ultimately. Over the years between Frank Miller, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Heath Ledger, the Joker has been growing more and more into this grotesque anarchist serial killer with no loyalty, no plan, and no purpose other than mass-destruction. Which is fine, to a point, he is the greatest threat a man of order like Batman can face. But there comes a point, I think, when you go too far. And "Death of the Family" is going too far. Most of the storyline is gross-out horror for no reason other really than to be gross. Like the Joker cutting off his own face, why the Hell would he do that? I get it, he's the Joker, he's out to be lunacy incarnate, but usually everything he does is a joke of some kind. There's really no explanation here, other than a desperate juvenile need to be shocking. And it isn't the Joker who needs to be shocking, it's a comic book writer.
Ironically while the Joker mutilates himself, his antics in this series are not very shocking themselves. He does the usual stuff of continuing his long-running twisted romance with Batman, trying his very hardest to create a menagerie to their long history. There's a running theme of the Joker calling Batman "a king", mostly to build up this deeply unresolved romantic tension**. The Joker treats Harley Quinn like dogshit, and she is forced to strip naked for the pleasure of the nerds reading the book, and that's it for Harley. She's gone from the rest of the story. Batman's own collection of sidekicks, his "family", are the targets of the Joker's wrath, but are entirely incidental victims within this story, accomplishing nothing themselves. The whole lot of them are so weak that one crazy man without a face could beat them off-camera. We're supposed to feel uplifted that Batman can rely upon his family to overcome creatures like the Joker, but the only reason any of them survived is because the Joker cannot murder these characters because their books sell too much. We have reached a point where the Joker has literally become Leatherface from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", yet he's still holding back. He's hideous, but it's all a show! And why should I care if Batman loves his family? They're incidental to this book. Maybe in the other various tie-ins and crossovers they have their own importance, but in "Death of the Family", they have no personality at all. Batman himself has almost nothing to do in this story beyond reacting to the Joker's moves - more so than in the Burton-Schumacher movies, Batman is a weak supporting role.
I don't really want to sound prudish, but "Death of the Family" is the kind of story that goes too far. Which is fine sometimes. It's great to go off the rails and experiment with what will happen once you've removed all limitations. But I don't really get the sense that we are going off the rails. The Joker has done crap like this so often in so many mediums, you really cannot be shocked by anything he does, short of actually killing Batman. Unfortunately he's become overused, and this gimmick of tearing off his own face isn't really breaking new ground or testing the Batman-Joker relationship any further. If anything, I fear we've reached the limits of this character, he's been deconstructed and turned into such a nightmare already, anything more is just shock treatment. The face removal isn't scary, this is actually fan service. And you know what? Superhero fans get too much of what they want from their favorite writers already, that is why that medium has been stuck in limbo, unchanging, un-evolving, for decades. Too timid to make bold changes to stories, but mercenary enough to add more fluff and extraneous characters to sell more garbage. Nothing has changed by the end of "Death of the Family", because nothing is ever allowed to change. That's why it feels bland, why the Joker's horror story seems neutered, and why this book sucked.
And now for some books that didn't suck:
As I noted in my review of the film adaptation, John does not die at the end. He's dies in the first half of the novel, and comes back with incredible ease. Actually it is David who dies (more or less), but even that's only halfway through the book. This is that kind of book.
"John Dies at the End" is what would happen if instead of Buckaroo Banzai, the world's coolest man and handsomest genius, the 8th Dimension opened up for Dante and Randall from "Clerks". The in-novel version of David Wong is an troubled twenty-something, living in a Midwestern town he only refers to as "Undisclosed". His lazy existence of working a dead-end job at a video store*** is broken once Bob Marley shows up at a local garage band concert and offers everybody a taste of his new super drug, Soy Sauce. David and his best friend John both take some, and end up opening their minds to radio signals from other dimensions, becoming conduits for the eldritch creatures from beyond all comprehension. Their lives are forever marked as targets for sinister organizations of silent evils, watching our happy simple world from beyond the boundaries of reason and physics. And they're the lucky ones. Bob Marley gets torn open and lets in the first of several evil creatures that attack Undisclosed.
"John Dies at the End" is a story of barely contained chaos. John and Dave go from adventure to adventure, battling such things as a monster made out of meat, little chimera creatures with wigs, living swarms of flies, and the ultimate evil, a pulsing flesh computer with the power to conquer other universes. There are replicants taking over other bodies, floating jellyfishes, and an omnipotent demon that loves to transform Eighties rock ballads into a racist Weird Al edit, with all the maturity of an eleven-year-old. Despite John's run in with creatures beyond imagining and freaks of nature that would frighten away Satan himself, he still has only one faith: in his own magnificent penis. Dave at one point runs into an angel in the form of Fred Durst, the lead singer of Limp Bizkit. Of course he completely ignores what this off-kilter mixture of the sacred and profane has to say in order to just go home. Dave had a long day, he just fought off an ultimate evil in another dimension.
Dave Wong as a narrator is something of a sad figure, especially for the lead of a comedy. In the movie, Dave's characterization was more or less only as the straight man, trying to find some sanity in the insane world he's fallen into. In the books though, he's a much more tragic person. This is a young man who seems to truly hate himself, he is without confidence or self-esteem. Though he gets involved in several relationships, he acts as if he does not deserve the love of these women, and works his hardest to give them chances to escape. Dave thinks he oozes with his own toxicity, and he is a danger to everybody around him. Partially this is because he lives a doomed life, forever in the eye of hideous creatures that are working to destroy him and his sanity, but it seems to run deeper than that. He had great trouble with bullies in high school, and was forced to take drastic measures to survive. This is a man who has seen his own darkness once, and the guilt from that seems to haunt him even now. Despite being dependable, heroic, and honestly a very funny person, Dave does not seem to believe he should have survived. This is a weirdly complex and depressing persona to put in the middle of a frenetic novel that normally glorifies in weird for weirdness's own sake.
The point is that "John Dies at the End" is a novel built on several layers. From the mere description it sounds like a horror story. From the content, its an irreverent comedy built on modern slacker culture. But beyond even that, there is a great deal of human drama, being weakly guarded by a shield of humor. "John Dies at the End" is a fantastic book, which should only be avoided if in fact, what you really want to read is something terrible. You do have other options, there are books where people cut off their own face.
This is not the first work by Neal Stephenson I've recommended, and this will not be the last****. However, "Cryptonomicon" just so happens to be the Stephenson book I read most recently, so I might as well cover it now.
"Cryptonomicon" is not a book for those of a lazy mind. I don't mean it is a book exclusively for smart people, because there is really no such thing as a "smart person", don't let your grade school test scores discourage you. What I mean is that this is a book that does not let its readers off easily. It will reference several million topics during the course of its roughly 1000 pages, and it would help a great deal for you to know something of them before the book begins. Or if you haven't taken college level courses in computational theory or World War II maneuvers, you better take notes and do some Wikipedia searches to back up your knowledge. "Snow Crash" was Neal Stephenson's most accessible book, and it still threw together ancient Sumerian mythology, wild theories of cognitive evolution within human civilization, and cyberpunk. "Cryptonomicon" has computer hacking, WWII espionage, code breaking, advanced encryption software, gold mining, submarine warfare, the Filipino mafia, and a detailed argument for the failure of Imperial Nipponese***** culture to adapt to modern warfare against the United States. This book is so advanced with a polymath of concepts that is goes so far as to predict the rise of Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, ten years before their arrival in the real world. The entire thing beyond all else is a witty musing on the entire history of computers in the 20th century.
Neal Stephenson is the kind of author so brilliant that it is absolutely terrifying even to me. The sheer intensity of research that must go into what is basically a historical fiction novel mixed with a dab of cyperpunk is stunning. I feel like if you ever met this guy at a party he would suddenly break into an hour long lecture about Turing Machines, and you would be left unable to contribute anything meaningful after the first two minutes, being left with nothing to do but nod in awe at this man's wealth of knowledge, and ask the host for a notebook so you can study this material over the weekend for Monday's exam. The only fiction writer on Earth who seems to even get close to the level of obsessive detail is Umberto Eco. Where Eco will make gigantic postmodern gags against Medieval Philosophers, Stephenson will subtly mock WWII military intelligence culture. Or have a family of Anglo-Saxon computer geniuses use geometry proofs to mathematically divide up their late matriarch's furniture.
To actually describe the whole of "Cryptonomicon" would take more words than I have already put onto this webpage. In fact, it might take more words than I have typed for this entire website over four and a half years. The basic summary is that it is an interconnected saga of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families set in the Second World War and the Internet boom of the 1990s. The WWII characters are primarily Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, an extremely horny mathematical savant whose brilliance makes him a master of code-breaking, espionage, and the inventor of the computer (that is after he's had his whores, otherwise he's just a normal human with a hard-on), and Bobby Shaftoe, an insanely badass soldier fighting half-baked missions planned by Lawrence to hide from the Nipponese and Germans the fact that the Allies have broken their codes. Meanwhile in the present Lawrence's grandson, Randy is a programmer living in the Philippines working to build an advanced, completely independent computer service with its own cryptocurrency, while the physical work of running underwater cables is done by Bobby's son, Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe and his beautiful but intense granddaughter, Amy Shaftoe. All of this is linked by a grand Axis conspiracy to hide their war gold in the Filippines, and a counter-conspiracy by the heroes both past and present to steal that gold.
Beyond just the structure of the novel, "Cryptonomicon" is a book filled with just about everything. There are Nip-eating lizards, a seemingly-immortal promiscuous Catholic priest who appears in both storylines, a long rant against political correct academic culture of the 1990s, fictional British subcultures with their own crazy languages made up mostly of consonants, cannibals tribes in the jungles of New Guinea, an experimental super submarine, Alan Turing, and inexplicably short erotic story about a man with a fetish for pantyhoses. It is a novel about everything, and everyone under the universe.
What's shocking is that "Cryptonomicon" is never dry. It is hysterically funny. Neal Stephenson's language within "Cryptonomicon" is constantly sarcastic, wryly mocking the futility of the entire World War, and the Nipponese strategy. When one major character dies far later into the novel, his death might be the most comical part. Every anti-espionage activity is shoestring hyjinks, completely ridiculous activities for what is essentially no point at all. The Axis are so pigheaded and stupid they would never be able to believe their codes had been broken in the first place, so all of Bobby Shaftoe's actions were unnecessary. The prose in "Cryptonomicon" might be some of the very best I have ever read. In terms of writing quality, this is his greatest book, and one of the best books I have ever covered on this blog.
And no, nobody cuts their face off. That would be stupid.
* I actually read "Court of Owls" across two trade paperback collections. For the most part that story was concise and simple, since it focused entirely upon Batman himself, not his extended family of sidekicks and hangers-on. It also featured a very cool storyline where Batman discovers that Gotham is really being controlled by a secret cabal of underground aristocrats known as the 'Court of Owls', who have an army of undead zombie owl-themed supervillains. Why owls? Because owls eat bats. This seems like an excellent way for Batman to face a long-running shadowy group of enemies who can oppose him from the shadows, essentially making a story arc that Batman can investigate potentially for years, but unfortunately Batman takes care of them all with amazingly quickly.
** Which much to this comic book's disappointment, was far better handled in "Batman: Arkham Origins". Check out this fantastic cutscene which wonderfully demonstrates the foundation for the love triangle between the Joker, Batman, and Harley Quinn.
*** Wow, talk about anachronisms! He might as well wear bell-bottom pants, listen to 8 Tracks, and work at the telegraph office.
**** Somebody remind me to include "Anatham" in the next What I've Been Reading.
***** Neal Stephenson calls Japan, "Nippon". This is a consistent idiosyncratic detail of all of his books, for some inscrutable reason.