One Million Words

Not exactly, of course.  In a thousand posts on this blog, there have certainly been plenty that came in well under my typical one thousand word length; there have also been more than a few that ran really long.  If I were actually trying to math it out, I’d probably put my total output around eight hundred thousand words given how my posting patterns have changed in the six years since I started blogging.  When I first started this project in the middle of the summer after my second year as a teacher, I was aiming primarily to direct a lot of pent up creative energy into some kind of outlet that would require little enough effort that I could maintain it for an indefinite amount of time.

Beyond the practical considerations, I was also taken with the romance of documenting my life; I’ve played with journaling since I was a kid.  Somewhere in the nostalgia box is a journal that I received for a birthday or for Christmas when I was in high school; it has a handful of pages filled out, but it was never something I could do regularly.  Being a lefty meant that I never really took to writing instruction in elementary school, and in addition to having often illegible script I also get physically tired of the activity.  When I was a junior in high school, I received my first laptop from my dad (it was a hand-me-down, not really good for anything except word processing), and I got this idea in my head that I could use it for note-taking at school.  I’d be the super sophisticated guy who brought a computer to class to do his work; it was pretty cool for a few months.  One of the primary uses for this clunker was as a medium for me to complete my weekly journals for my English classes.  My teacher for my junior and senior years was a big proponent of learning to write by simply doing it a lot, so one of our recurring tasks was to turn in journals of a minimum length (twenty-five lines handwritten).  While a lot of my classmates grumbled about this part of the class, I relished it.  I turned in pages from fiction that I wrote, but those eventually ran out, so I turned to writing in a Word document where I recorded an ongoing stream-of-consciousness thoughts.  That lasted me through most of my senior year of high school; I might still have it in my archived files somewhere.  It’s likely unreadable gibberish.

I think what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been at this journaling thing in various forms for a long time, and starting a blog felt like a pretty natural progression of that habit.

In the six years since, the range of topics that I’ve discussed have been relatively wide and also pretty focused.  So much of my writing is about working out how I understand the things that I encounter and trying to incorporate new information into my personal schema for how a person’s supposed to live.  It’s all filtered through things that I’m fascinated with in the moment, and it’s the fascinations that are probably the most worthy of reflection.  In a pretty public way I used this space to disentangle myself from white evangelicalism through its first few years.  If you go back through the archives, there are a ton of posts in the first couple years that are just about exploring different theological topics.  Then there was the series where I had it out with a Facebook rando about Christianity that put me in kind of a tailspin about my faith.  The year after that contains a fair bit of anger at the community that adopted me in college and then turned out not to be a good fit for my developing sense of morality and ethics.

Before too long, the focus here shifted away from theology and more towards my other artistic interests.  Since the beginning I’ve spent a fair bit of time dissecting movies and television shows, but in the last few years I’ve moved more towards thinking about comics (I’ve always had a soft spot for superhero stories).  Most recently I decided to revisit a hobby that I enjoyed when I was a kid but never practiced with any serious intention: drawing.  It’s been a really fun new skill to develop.

For now, this is just a nice moment to pause and reflect on how things have gone in the past six years.  The enthusiasm I had for blogging in that first summer is long gone (there’s no way I’m going back to a daily posting schedule; that simply wasn’t sustainable long term), but it’s not a thing that I feel particularly tired of doing either.  I think the drive to record things is always going to be there, and even if I take a break from time to time, I doubt I’ll ever get rid of the itch altogether.  Here’s to another thousand posts.

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Learning Sketchbook 12: Pencils Change Everything

For a long time I’ve understood the basic concept of doing a drawing in stages where you begin drafting the basic composition and shapes with a tool that leaves a light mark then use the draft as a guide for detailing with a darker marking instrument.  Since I’m only using pencils, this means that I typically sketch things out with a harder graphite (like a 4H) then switch over to something significantly softer (typically a 2B), but a consistent problem I’ve found is that softer graphite tends to dull extremely fast, which becomes a problem on the scale that I’m drawing when I want to produce finer detail.

After reading a bit more about the way graphite works (there is no shortage of treatises on the qualities of various tools and media in books about drawing, as I have learned) I decided that I would try doing details on a couple sketches with harder graphite; the original intent was to give myself some room for error while I worked out how to pose my figures before hanging clothes on them (clothing is fun to do, but I definitely still need to see where the limbs and muscles are first).  Somewhere in there I just started using the harder pencil for stronger lines, and I was pleased enough with the result that I’ve kept at it.

Along the way with that, I also finally started thinking about how to do some proper shading to give my drawings a better sense of volume.  It’s minor stuff for now (I find that I kind of obsess over light sources, so I’m trying to keep things simple), but the difference in quality’s been noticeable to me.  I feel like there’s depth that was missing before, and I’ve found a technique for shading that just doesn’t look as sloppy as what I saw in some of my stuff from a few months ago.  I will say that my faces continue to be very weird, and I think it has something to do with how I measure proportions versus how much space I think specific features are supposed to take up.  Basically, I think that I’m consistently drawing eyes and noses significantly smaller than they should be, and then when I try to adjust I find that the whole face either looks stretched in weird places or the outline of the head is far too big.  Anyway, here are some recent sketches I’ve done at various stages of completion.

On a completely separate note, I’m having a lot of fun learning how different photo filters on my phone help make pictures of my drawings easier to see on a screen.  Those light pencils sure do a great job of not showing up in the final draft, but it’s a real pain getting them to be visible on in-process stuff.  For this picture, I was really pleased with the pose because I attempted it after doing a lot of practice drawing from reference photos, and it was really satisfying to put together a figure with a dynamic pose.

My earlier comments about weird faces are apparent here, but if you set that aside, the hair’s working, the arm has decent proportions with the foreshortening, and the other character details are pretty good.  I had a pretty rough time with the positioning of the hands on the handle of the sword, so that’s a thing that could be better (I spent a lot of time thinking about the way I used to hold a golf club when I went golfing as a teen).  It’s also obvious here that I switched over from the sketchy lines I use in a lot of my older stuff.  The effect looks much more polished.

And here’s the finished version with the shading added.  There’s definitely some messiness around the head with guide lines for the sword that didn’t fully erase when I was doing clean up, but I like it.  The character’s Illyana Rasputin from the X-Men in a variation on her ’80s look.  And because I was on an X-Men kick, here’s another one that I did in the last week.

Nightcrawler is a fun character because he’s agile enough that you can justify drawing him in a lot of fun poses.  Here I wanted to play around with his love of old movies; he’s more of an adventure guy, but I figured he’d have a soft spot in his heart for classic Hollywood musicals.  You can faintly see in this image the outlines of the figure’s muscles that I sketched before putting the clothes on.  Like I said, clothes are fun, but I don’t trust myself to make them look right if I’m not hanging them on a model first.

really like how this one turned out after the shading was done.  It helps that the lighting of the photo enhances the overall effect of Kurt frolicking under a street light.  While I was working on this one I kept thinking about how cool it would be to include some more details in the background, but then I got on this whole perspective kick and decided that determining a vanishing point after the fact would be murder, so that was right out.  It did mean, however, that I immediately started thinking about working perspective into my next piece, which is still in progress at this point.  The early drafting stage is below.

The best thing I can say about doing perspective is that it’s a lot of fun to see three dimensional space just sort of appear on the page as you put in the guide lines for objects.  The worst thing is that I spent about a day stressing over all of that before I pulled out a stiff ruler with a good perpendicular angle instead of trying to use scrap paper to line stuff up.  You can see here that the figure is still naked as I hadn’t begun to do the dressing yet (this is another piece of fanart, but it’s for a character with a pretty specific look to their outfit, so I wanted to get some references before I jumped into that).

Now that I’m on summer break, I’m looking forward to spending a bit more time on drawing.  It’s a nice alternative to staring at screen, and it works out some different brain muscles from writing, which is especially nice.  Also, I’m planning on attending my first life drawing session next week, which should be a lot of fun.

Reading Delver #4

In a fantasy adventure miniseries, I suppose that it’s somewhat inevitable that you have to have a sequence where the hero descends into the figurative and literal underworld to come to some sort of understanding about themselves.  That moment seems to have arrived in Delver #4 with Merit being separated from Clem (whom I believe I mistakenly misgendered in earlier posts; he’s male) and reunited with Birna, the woman who was friendly to her months earlier when the delvers first started to arrive in Oddgoat.  Things are pretty bad; Birna’s delving party was wiped out by a bit of bad luck, and now she’s also lost in the depths of Dungeon.  It’s the dynamic between Merit, who’s so new to delving, and Birna, who’s an old hand at it, that drives this issue.  We’re seeing Merit’s plan to save her family completely fallen apart so that all she can hope for in the moment is to find a way to escape Dungeon with her life and be reunited with Clem while Birna doles out reams of adventuring advice that amounts to “Don’t be sentimental about anything in Dungeon; it’s all terrible and emotions will get you killed.”

Merit and Birna are in deep trouble. (Cover by Clive Hawken; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The back and forth between these characters works reasonably well to convey their differing opinions about delving.  Birna has been living the life for so long that she takes her party’s deaths in stride; she was hoping to retire from delving after this run, but with all of her loot gone and her partner dead, she understands that she’ll have to start over.  The acceptance on display stems from a deep understanding of just how risky delving as a profession is, which Merit is still only beginning to grasp.  Trotman draws a strong contrast between the pleasant, friendly Birna who had kind words for Merit’s stew business months ago and the hardened explorer down on her luck that Merit encounters now.  We know from the second issue that Merit sort of idolized this woman who came through town representing all the promise that delving offered.  The reality is much more hard-edged, and Merit’s stuck in a position where she has to confront what she can expect her life to be like if she continues delving.

Underscoring the high personal costs of being a delver is Merit’s observation that she has no other alternative in the face of this massive economic shift that’s happened in her village.  Dungeon just appeared, and the delvers arrived because they’re totally reliant on access to it in order to survive.  That their presence erodes the stability of every community they arrive in is an afterthought.  Birna’s note that delvers function as parasites who live off of Dungeon’s treasures feels accurate and more than a little hopeless.  The series’s focus on gentrification shifts and expands in this issue to encompass larger economic systems that don’t give people any option but to live in ways that are harmful to incompatible social systems.  The delvers are jerks who exploit towns where Dungeon appears, but they’re just as much victims of Dungeon’s corrupting influence as Oddgoat’s fields and livestock.

The issue finishes with Merit, having finally regained her eyesight and learned a few things about exploration from Birna, chooses not to take the found path to the surface with her reluctant mentor.  Clem is still lost, and that means that Merit can’t leave yet.  It’s a small bit of kindness in an otherwise gruff and callous issue, but it serves as a small rebellion against the system.  Merit can’t help what Dungeon is doing to her home or the delvers who depend on it, but she can at least try to maintain a small bit of human kindness and try to find her friend.

Man-Eaters Feels Icky, And It’s Not Because Of The Menstruation

I have a decent backlog of comics to read (I like to get to them in between blogging, drawing, gaming, and television–you know, because that’s not enough to do with my time), and occasionally it takes me a while to get to things that I bought months ago, usually while quietly admonishing myself for taking so long to read stuff.  Recently, I got caught up on the Mockingbird series by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk that came out back in 2016.  It’s a short, relatively cheerful series that feels tonally similar to stuff like Unbelievable Gwenpool and Howard the Duck while maintaining a pretty grounded emotional core.  The hero is Bobbi Morse, a special agent of SHIELD who uses the code name Mockingbird and has the dubious honor of being Clint Barton, Hawkeye’s ex-wife.  I enjoyed the series immensely, and ended up reading the whole run in a couple of days (not hard when there are only eight issues).

The vibe of all the covers is very indicative of the tone of the series: a mixture of cutesie and pseudo-revolutionary. (Cover by Lia Miternique; Image credit: Comic Vine)

I was so taken with Mockingbird that not too long after reading it, I picked up the first volume of Cain and Niemczyk’s creator owned series from Image, Man-Eaters.  I first heard about it at Rose City Comic Con last year, and the premise was intriguing.  Imagine a world where the parasite toxoplasma gondii has evolved to induce a severe mutagenic effect in humans that expresses itself at the time of menstruation, causing affected people to turn into highly aggressive big cats for the length of their periods.  This is a known issue that society has learned how to deal with, and because we can’t have nice things, the systemic solutions are all heavily skewed towards misogyny and sexism.  Caught up in this world is a middle school girl, Maude, who is getting her first period and leading a small rebellion of other girls who have stopped drinking the tap water (filled with hormones designed to suppress menstruation).  Maude’s parents are divorced and busy working for a special task force that manages incidents of big cat attacks in the Pacific Northwest (that the series is set in Portland is a fairly delightful detail; I recognize the neighborhood where much of the action takes place).

All things told, the plot’s relatively thin in the first volume; I expect there’s more to develop later in the series, but here it’s barely a taste of what’s happening with Maude and her family.  Cain and Niemczyk fill in the rest of their page count with artifacts from their world in the form of ads and, in the case of one entire issue, magazines dedicated to highlighting the absurdity of a world that revolves around fear of menstruation.  These feelies put me in mind of a similar technique that Kelly Sue DeConnick uses in her series Bitch Planet.  Given that series’s prominence and impact on feminist inflected comics, it’s fair to assume that Cain & Niemczyk are paying homage in their own work.  Unfortunately, this comparison reflects poorly on Man-Eaters; the pair’s strengths that they first demonstrated so well in the Mockingbird series feel inadequate to confront the realities of contemporary misogyny.  Every artifact is run through with echoes of things that have been part of the zeitgeist of the last three years; in one issue Cain inserts multiple infamous quotes from the national embarrassment about his predatory habits as a sort of grace note to the casual dehumanization that’s so foundational to Man-Eaters‘s world-building.  The fact that all of these bits of detritus are framed essentially as absurdist jokes (“Isn’t it funny how ridiculously terrible this world is?”) fails to underscore the anger that I think is trying to be communicated, and instead serves as a simple recapitulation of real-world traumas.  I was talking with Rachael about all this the other day, trying to sort out why these elements of the comic made me feel so uncomfortable, and she aptly pointed out that it’s exhausting to see your media simply reflecting genuine problems that are systemic and mostly inescapable.  That’s less escapism and more shoving your face in a litter box.  It’s no wonder that the series’s best humorous moments have nothing to do with the world’s core problem and instead focus on Cain’s idiosyncrasies as a writer (I surmise, based on what I’ve read by her, that she’s a bit of a nut about Welsh Corgis, which is probably the most endearing part of her schtick).

Complicating a lot of these feelings about the series is the recent drama surrounding the publication of Man-Eaters #9.  In that issue, Cain chose to include the full text of tweets that were critical of the series for hewing close to a gender essentialist ideology that almost completely erases the experience of trans men and other non-cis people who experience menstruation.  A lot of folks from the genderqueer community rightly criticized this action as bullying someone who offered a very mild critique of the erasure that the series’s framing of its premise commits, whether intentional or not.  Cain’s reaction to the criticism doesn’t really engender particularly positive feelings about her as a person given the obvious power imbalance between a fan saying something critical in a space with a relatively limited reach and an author using their platform to draw attention to that criticism for, at best, mockery.

All of these events had transpired before I started reading Man-Eaters (I had just downloaded the book a few weeks earlier for travel reading and hadn’t gotten around to it yet), and it’s impossible to say at this point if my mixed reaction to the series can be separated from the larger context of Cain’s online behavior.  At my most generous, I think I can say that I’ve soured a little on creative work that thrives primarily on rage at real world problems, and Cain and Niemczyk’s series is an exemplar of the form.  Speaking more realistically, I definitely approached the book with a little bit more reserve after noting the critique about its exclusion of trans narratives and learning about its author’s poor behavior.

Guest Post: James is Reading “Batman #36”

My friend James, who occasionally shares his thoughts on all things education at his blog Forms of Inquiry, has written up a post for me about a Batman story that’s very much about the barriers that men often have to overcome to build and maintain friendships with one another, which is totally not subtext for anything personal at all.  This is probably the kindest thing James could have done for me in the last month, and on top of that it makes me want to track down and read this issue if not Tom King’s whole run on Batman.

________

I have this tendency to read comics when they refer to important events in the storylines of various heroes. It’s probably not the best habit as I’ve never read a full series from beginning to end unless it’s later been put together into a collection. So, when I heard a little while back that Batman and Catwoman had gotten engaged, I filed it away to be sought out later. Some free credits at Amazon gave me a chance to pick up some issues from Comixology and I wanted to write about a deeply entertaining two-issue storyline beginning in Batman #36. Mea culpa.

Cover of Batman Vol 3 #36. (Cover by Clay Mann & Jordie Bellaire; Image credit: Comic Vine)

So, Batman #36 opens with Lois Lane asking Superman to call Batman and Superman objects because, obviously, it should be Batman who calls because he’s the one getting engaged. Besides, he’s busy. Meanwhile, Batman is having the exact same conversation with Catwoman. She wants him to reach out. He doesn’t feel like he needs to make the call. Besides, he’s busy. This parallelism runs through the issue and is one of the big reasons I love it so much. At the heart of it, Tom King is really showing how two very different men handle roughly the same situation – only, it’s not some crisis or villain. It’s friendship.

All the while, both couples are actively engaged in some typical crime fighting. Lois and Clark are investigating why chemicals keep going missing from derailed trains. Bruce and Selina are chasing down some plutonium working its way through the underworld. I find it all somewhat hilarious to see heroes discussing their respective relationships while doing heroism as any of the rest of us might multitask work and personal life.

Superman is busy. (Pencils by Clay Mann, inks by Clay Mann & Seth Mann, colors by Jordie Bellaire, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While they chase down leads, Lois and Selina are pressing their partners to make an effort, any effort. The women finally make some headway as each man breaks down exactly why he won’t call the other. Batman respects Clark’s ability to be an alien from a dead world and yet take the pain of loss and alienation and turn it into a symbol of hope. That Superman choses to be the hero is remarkable to Batman. On the other hand, Superman is super impressed that Bruce transformed his loss and grief into, you guessed it, a symbol of hope. Likewise, Superman thinks Batman is remarkable because he has no powers, only his wits and will. Both heroes tell their partners that they believe the other man is the better man. Both men assume the other doesn’t really care them. Both assume the other person doesn’t need them. And then both couples exit the elevator and come face to face.

Super couples step out of a couple of elevators. (Pencils by Clay Mann, inks by Clay Mann & Seth Mann, colors by Jordie Bellaire)

As the conversations progressed, the layout of the comic was such that you could read it in two ways: the typical right to left then down of an eight frame page or you could read them vertically as two columns on each page. Either way provides an interesting parallelism in conversation and shows the super-couples working their way into a building. The same building, it turns out. Then, as they make their final points about not reaching out, they find themselves exiting parallel elevators and parallel frames. Now the heroes are shown in a “wide shot” with 5 wide frames cascading down the page. I especially like the way the men are almost motionless for the whole page but Catwoman is peeking around from behind Batman and then Lois juts her hand out and introduces herself. When an immovable object meets an unstoppable force, it appears their respective partners are the ones who can resolve the situation. The moment is interrupted by the bad guy they’ve been chasing – the same one, it turns out – but he is dispatched quickly.

Double-dates can be a lot of fun. (Pencils by Clay Mann, inks by Clay Mann & Seth Mann, colors by Jordie Bellaire, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Unable to avoid talking to each other anymore, our super-couples are about to go on a super double-date. There is probably a lot more at stake here than a double-date might imply. Although Selina’s criminal past is something barely mentioned, the audience knows about it and we also know that Superman tends to operate in a bit more of a binary view of morality. If Batman does his work in a grey area, Superman is doing his in black & white (yes, that is also a newspaper pun, I know). Both heroes are integral to the wellbeing of the world and are founding members of the Justice League. Both respect each other, clearly, but that respect hides a kind of insecurity that could prove really dangerous. It’s easy to go from “he doesn’t need me or care about me” to indignation and hatred. I think this issue does a good job showing us what kind of head-space these men are in. I’m sure many people have experienced friends beginning new relationships, marriages, etc. Some may have friends who’ve entered relationships that aren’t good for them and seen it cause strife within their group of friends. People take sides, they stop hanging out – it can all go pretty badly. What Batman #36 asks us is, what happens if that group of friends includes peer superheroes, especially someone like Superman?

Some stuff I loved:

  • The parallelism made manifest in the layout’s “elevator shafts” dialogue frames.
  • Lois’ messy desk and sticky notes all over her computer. When she is handed another one, you can see her looking at her monitor and then she turns and puts the sticky note on the filing cabinet behind her. I am that person all the time. I know she felt her monitor was a better place but it’s already full!
  • Selina knows Superman’s identity and it shocks Bruce. Lois knows Catwoman’s identity and it shocks Clark.
  • Catwoman is rarely standing upright and is often climbing on things. Like a cat. She’s a cat. Woman.
  • Superman’s super sight apparently couldn’t see Batman and Catwoman sneaking into the building and it really seems to bother him.
  • The heroes enter a fight saying each other’s taglines.

Reading “5: Premise Rejection”

The original intent was to look at issue #5 just in time for the release of Die‘s first trade, but then things happened and I needed a short break from blogging.  So let’s play some catch up!

The one thing Isabelle always wants you to know is that she knows what she’s doing, even when she probably doesn’t. (Cover by Stephanie Hans; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue features Isabelle, the party’s Godbinder and resident skeptic.  The impression we’re generally supposed to take from her appearance here is that she is the player who has it together.  Where everyone else is more or less an emotional wreck, Isabelle stays calm in crisis and marshals her resources to resolve any problems that arise.  As the group’s resident outsider (she was only involved in the original game because she was dating Sol at the time), she stands a bit apart from the rest.  The closest personality match with her is Ash, although because Ash is our narrator we get much more of her internal reasoning for her actions.  With Isabelle, the choices she makes will typically get rationalized a little bit, but there’s no way to know how honest she’s being with the group at large.  Given the personality profile, it makes sense that she’d be the one who relies on working with others without ever legitimately trusting them.

Isabelle is not the focal character for the issue though.  We saw a bit of stuff about her back in #4 that highlighted her intensely private nature, what with one of her gods requiring that she read from her diary to a bunch of worshipers to clear some debts.  Reading private writings to yourself can be difficult enough, especially if it’s from when you were much younger.  We’re looking at the conclusion to the series’s first arc, which means that the status quo has to get upended in some way, and we’re due for some time reflecting on the relationship between our main protagonist and the antagonist.

Sol totally pulled out a tube of super glue at this point. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

In a flashback we see how Sol and Dominic’s dynamic worked even when they were children.  Sol has always been obsessive about building things and leaving them to exist in a pristine state (he very clearly identifies with the villain from The Lego Movie), and Dominic has always been a follower to his best friend’s more assertive nature.  How Sol ever got into role playing, with its essentially chaotic nature, is befuddling.  As the party observes in the issue, he loves to put players on rails and despises when they break from the beaten path.  He’s a control freak, and his inflexibility serves as the way they’re going to goad him into showing himself.  This revelation about Sol, who up to this point has been present mostly as negative space, gives some complexity to the situation the players find themselves in.  It’s evident that Sol knew the group would get pulled into Die when they first sat down to play as teenagers, and now we understand something of why he put them in that position.  The opportunity to inhabit a world he had created for himself and his friends, where he had total control over the parameters of everything, must have been extremely appealing.  Whatever may have happened to keep Sol in the game world (I suspect there’s much more to the story than his simply being snatched back at the last moment by the previous Grandmaster), he’s had nearly three decades to construct his personal mind palace and establish his preferred fiction.  His frustration that his players don’t want to go along with that plan is relatable (I’ve been in a game session or two where the party went way off the beaten path the GM had set up), but also tempered by the fact that he’s abducted these folks twice now.  As we see him in this issue, Sol has caught himself in amber instead of learning to adapt and develop some greater emotional maturity.

Hans is fond of using these sorts of close up views of a character’s face to emphasize that there’s something sinister going on. That in this case Ash actually is doing a bad thing to an unwilling victim only underscores it. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The flip side of Sol, however, is Ash.  Multiple times in the series’s backmatter, Gillen has discussed how he conceived the Dictator to be a genuinely terrifying class because of its power to manipulate emotions.  Everyone within the game world is wary of Ash because of what she can do to them, and we see in this issue what that can entail.  Unlike Sol, Ash has twenty-six years of living as an adult in our world; she’s operating with a much more developed emotional palette than Sol’s simple impulse to control everything around him.  She gets the consequences of all her actions, and reminds us repeatedly how much she loathes her capitulation to necessity in order to get her friends home safely.  That doesn’t change the fact that Ash engages in some heinous things to get what she wants.  The mayor of Glass Town is turned into her helpless slave so that she can arrange for it all to be destroyed in a bid to get Sol to show up, the ultimate point of which is to get the opportunity to kill him.  We’re left with a deeply ambiguous resolution that asks us to weigh Sol’s culpability in trapping everyone else in Die against his state of mind after being trapped there by himself for so long against the reality that Ash jumps directly to the most drastic course of action before even attempting to reason with him.  Sol’s control issues are obvious and childish, but they reflect much deeper questions about who Ash is and why we should trust her unilateral decisions.

At the issue’s end, when Chuck and Isabelle choose not to leave, the immediate reaction I had was to think that Chuck’s full of himself and Isabelle is wrestling with some significant ethical questions about her culpability in displacing an entire community.  We’ve spent five issues getting to know Ash and Angela and Matt, and the cost for them to not go back home is significant enough that it feels like the others are being irresponsible.  Nonetheless, Chuck’s observation about Ash rings true, and there’s a legitimate concern that given the opportunity, she would sooner kill anyone who gets in the way of going home instead of trying to reason with them.  That she has the power to instantaneously change how a person feels doesn’t help matters, although as readers we don’t really know how readily Ash makes use of the Voice.  She’s violated Matt’s trust in the past during a crisis, but given time to talk it out, she’s also used the Voice with his consent so they could accomplish a common goal.  The question then becomes how urgent she thinks getting Chuck and Isabelle to agree to go back is.  Either way, it’s a fair bet to assume she might do some railroading of her own before this is all over.

For all of Chuck’s selfishness, his point about Ash being overly reliant on expediency above fairness is well made. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

So I Just Saw The Matrix Trilogy

It’s been well over a decade since I spent any time with the Wachowskis’ seminal film and its sequels.  So much of the last twenty years of their work feels like it’s in an entirely different category from all the stuff relating to Neo and Trinity and Morpheus.  Somehow in my mind I thought of The Matrix as this mostly sleek sci-fi actioner with just a little bit of grit for atmosphere and a huge dose of philosophical daydreaming to appear smarter than it really was.  It was what the Wachowskis do best but constrained in a way that forced them to avoid the indulgences of their later, more bombastic work.

Back in college, I think I had one of those pop-philosophy books that feature a series of essays 101ing various philosophical schools of thought using examples from pop culture about The Matrix (I definitely had one about Star Wars).  Being a too-smart kid fresh out of high school and hungry to learn about everything that might offer a larger view of the world who was also a colossal nerd, I couldn’t resist that sort of stuff.  This was likely in the fall of 2003; The Matrix Reloaded had come out that spring (I remember going to see it with a bunch of other seniors after we had finished our finals and got dismissed from school early one day), and everyone was sitting in suspense waiting for Revolutions to follow.  We were all high on the thrill of being in the middle of the story, somewhat gutted that the second movie had ended on such a cliffhanger.  I was young; I hadn’t yet become accustomed to the rhythm of blockbuster movie franchises.

The Matrix Poster.jpg

This one holds up. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

I rewatched The Matrix on the day my mother died.  Having been awoken early in the morning without the possibility of getting back to sleep or having the wherewithal to function at work, I stayed home and put on the first thing I found on Netflix.  Gunsplosions and faux cerebral dialogue seemed like the perfect way to pass a couple hours while I waited for something to happen.  It was a good choice.

The first movie still holds up extremely well twenty years later.  It’s a quintessential ’90s movie; everything feels grungy and poorly lit outside of those brief moments of respite in the Nebuchadnezzar‘s training programs (the only moments where the palette’s allowed to be full color instead of green or blue tinted, if slightly over saturated).  Neo whiles away his existence in front of a black screen with green code, the ubiquitous ’90s visual for 1337 hAx0rz.  The special effects are breathtakingly analog, and those iconic bullet time panoramas encapsulate a cinematic technique that was never going to catch on with the impending advent of digital animation.  Rage Against the Machine’s brand of ultra aggressive anti-establishment punk sums up the movie’s ethos as our hero declares his intent to free our minds and flies into the sky.  It’s all so earnest, which is maybe a quality better explained by the directors than the time period.

The Matrix Reloaded is a different beast.  Something shifted in pop culture between 1999 and 2003 that didn’t have anything to do with school shootings or terrorist attacks.  It’s an aesthetic shift; all the design sensibilities of the first movie are still present in the costuming and the set pieces, but a gloss has been added that erases all the world’s texture.  Everyone is always at the peak of style no matter the circumstances; we’re never going to get a scene like the one of Morpheus drugged and gagging on the smell of his own sweat.  Smith has transformed from a creepy program who revels in using humans’ own physicality to underscore how fragile they are to a virus only concerned with exploiting the mind.  The body, a constant shackle that everyone struggles to escape, or at least tame, in the first movie, is now an afterthought.  We’re all neurons here.  The ’90s grunge has been replaced with EDM; the big reveal is that the Resistance is still part of the system.  Assimilation is unavoidable regardless of your personal preference for cultural expression.  If not for Neo’s stubborn individuality in the face of overwhelming conformity, this would be a cynical story.  Fifteen years later, it’s hard to swallow the Great Man theory at the core of the plot; we now live in a world where systems feel too big to topple by individual action, and the people who do appear as singular forces unto themselves are typically better cast as villains.  I don’t care that Neo has broken the equation by creating a free radical in Smith; I want to hear about Zion’s collective struggle and that one Councilor’s ramblings about the unavoidable symbiosis between people and machines.

The Matrix Revolutions is not a great movie.  It’s clear when you watch this finale that when writing a sequel to The Matrix the Wachowskis had a lot of ideas for spectacle that they couldn’t bear to cut, and because they were printing money for the studio, they got the green light to make two movies instead of one.  Revolutions is essentially the third act of the story begun in Reloaded with a lot of padding to justify a two hour run time.  As I watched this one, I kept checking to see how far I had to go until the ending, because I remembered the broad strokes (Neo has to go to the Machine City, Smith tries to kill him in the physical world, Neo is blinded, Trinity dies getting him there, Neo enters the Matrix and has a last fight with Smith before giving in and infecting Smith’s own virus so that the system stabilizes and the machines agree to peace with Zion) but wasn’t sure how all that could take two hours.  What I forgot was that there’s an hour long sequence in the middle of the movie that focuses entirely on the battle to defend Zion.  On its own, it’s a perfectly fine war story with a few good emotional beats for tertiary characters.  My craving for a plot where people pull together to fight for something they believe in is satisfied with all of this stuff.  It’s just so incredibly divorced from the rest of the movie outside of the reminder that Neo is Zion’s only hope of survival.  There’s an element of the ending of Return of the King to the whole thing.  What it’s lacking is the philosophizing and larger thematic meditations that ooze from every part of Reloaded.  If you trim down a few of the action scenes in Reloaded (the chase sequence is fun but really doesn’t need to go on for half an hour) and excise the majority of the defense of Zion along with a few filler bits from Revolutions, you could probably get an edit of the two movies together that’s pretty tight at around two and a half hours.

Overall, I think the Matrix movies hold up.  The original is easily the best of the set, again mostly because it doesn’t suffer from the glut of resources that the Wachowskis received after its success to keep the franchise going.  Reloaded and Revolutions are best viewed as a single story that’s heavily front loaded with interesting character drama and intellectual experiments with a very saggy back half.  If you have the time, watch them together and plan to occupy yourself with something else while the middle of Revolutions runs.  Be prepared for bombast in the classical Wachowski style at all times.