Sunday, 22 November 2015

Rambo, Thirty Years Later: Well, That Could Have Been Worse

I was in kind of a silly mood last night, so I watched Rambo: First Blood Part 2 on Netflix, and it reminded me of why 1980s action flicks were so great.

Rambo's such a big part of 80s culture that it's easy (at least for me) to overlook the fact that Sylvester Stallone made only three of those films in that decade, and just two of those are actually what we think of when we hear the name "Rambo" - the first one takes place entirely in the US, and is remarkably bloodless, apart from some accidental collateral damage. It's also surprisingly nuanced and heartfelt, in that it's all about someone coming back from war to find that he doesn't fit in at home anymore. I won't say I was disappointed, exactly, when I saw it a few years ago, but it's fair to say that wasn't the film I'd been expecting.

Rambo 2, on the other hand, must have filled the pockets of fake-blood merchants quite considerably. It's pretty unapologetic about what it is and what it wants to accomplish, and does it with a reasonable economy - no pissing about, he's in Asia within ten minutes, and shooting people full of arrows by about the halfway mark. It's got double-crosses (dishonest politicians, of course), doomed love (in the shape of his Vietnamese contact who gets blown away somewhere in Act 2) and a nicely histrionic but still straight-forward approach to action scenes.

One of the things I lamented most about action movies in the 90s is that they all became a bit too self-aware, which led on the one hand to certain (mostly French) directors trying to make them operatic, and on the other to the effects-heavy approach pioneered by the Matrix.

(You could argue that action movies had a similar evolution to rock music: it got crazy and filled with excess in the 70s - ie Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones - which turned into a parody of itself in the 80s - Styx, Whitesnake - and then was all swept away by grunge in the 90s.)

Rambo also has some pretty questionable politics at its core, which another hallmark of 80s action flicks. When Rambo's being told about his new mission, his only question is, "Will we get to win this time?" I think I get where they were trying to go with that (veterans' sense of betrayal and shame), but it just landed too close to the "stab in the back" accusation that the Nazis used to explain why Germany lost WWI.

Godwin's Law aside, its portrayal of the Vietnamese is not particularly flattering, and when the Russians arrive (in the form of perennial baddie Steven Berkoff), you get the sense that it's some big wish-fulfillment for those asking why we couldn't just go blow up the Russkies and have done with it.

At the same time, though, the slightly less intellectual parts of my brain were just reveling in the sheer ridiculousness of it all. I mean, you have to have a cold, dead heart indeed to not appreciate Rambo shooting a bazooka through the broken windshield of his helicopter to destroy his nemesis, or blowing up the Vietnamese officer with a grenade arrow.

I guess the silliness becomes a little more apparent when we're 30 years off from those days - all I knew about Rambo in the 80s and 90s was that my parents wouldn't have approved of me watching those movies, and that Green Lantern Guy Gardner's love of the character was shown as the worst excesses of Reagan-era right-wing politics.

You could argue that the current crop of Republican candidates shows that things have changed for the worst, but it's hard to imagine a summer tentpole action flick taking on geopolitics so obviously. Although a lot of folks loved American Sniper, which by all accounts was even more reprehensible, so maybe that kind of filmmaking has moved up into the prestige category?

What I'm trying to get at, in any case, is that as awful as the movie and story were, we're far enough away from those days that we can appreciated just how dumb it all is, and revel in that stupidity. In his travel book about the Pacific, Paul Theroux holds up Rambo as the thing that's ruining traditional cultures in the region, but I find it hard to see what all the fuss is about now. I mean, compared to the coups that the CIA was instigating throughout the global south, Rambo seems quite straightforward and broadly harmless.

I don't mean that to negate my political/philosophical objections from a few paragraphs ago - but it's not exactly Birth of a Nation, is it? First Blood Part 2 is violent, brutish and stupid, but unlike, say, Zero Dark Thirty, it doesn't try to glorify the shitty things done in our name - it just presents a simple, black-and-white view of the world. It is entirely itself, without apologies or equivocation, and that's why it works.

Hopefully Rambo III will hold up just as well, though I'm not getting my hopes up.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Good and Bad of Comics in the 80s and 90s

As my search through my old boxes of comics continues, I came across a few more oddities and other stuff yesterday. The one I was really happy to find was my set of the Giffen-Bierbaums Legion of Superheroes from 1989, which carried the "Five Years Later" story arc - somehow this turned out to be my first initiation into the Legion, and so all subsequent (and even previous) versions have kind of paled.

To make a long story short, the idea behind it was that the Legion, a super-team in the 30th century, is now disbanded and scattered throughout the galaxy - some members are dead, others have retired and one or two are still trying to do good in limited ways. Aesthetically, Keith Giffen's art in those first few issues is the grimy middle-style he adopted at the turn of that decade, and is redolent of the "used future" aesthetic that George Lucas employed for Star Wars.

Giffen had his weird visual tics at that time, including the seriously over-used shot of someone in profile, looking up, but beyond that he used some really neat techniques, including framing a single view with the traditional nine-panel grid to act as both establishing shot and give the sense of movement.

I'm not sure who influenced whom, but his technique in those books is very similar to that of Charlie Adlard in The Walking Dead, which is one reason why I've also always loved Adlard's work.

Story-wise, I don't know if I can say that those Legion books influenced me that much - certainly not in a very overt way - but I've always loved that kind of long-form story where characters are separated and fighting their way back to safety, or to another objective. Another comic that did this well was Chris Claremont's late-80s work on the X-Men, when they weren't anchored at the school anymore.

It's a type of story I've always wanted to tackle, but haven't gotten to - though I hope to do it someday!

On a less positive note, I also found a Superman annual from a couple of years later. This was from 1991, during DC's Armageddon 2001 crossover event (there was a time, weirdly, when the crossover events by both of the Big Two were limited to annuals rather than the regular monthlies). Now that we're nearly 15 years past that iconic year, it seems quite quaint, but the story was that in 10 years a superhero would go mad and take over the world.

This caused one man to undergo an experiment to turn himself into the time-traveling Waverider, and use his powers to imagine possible futures for each superhero. It was a pretty clumsy way of doing it, and probably didn't need to be done as a company-wide crossover (DC did it right a few years later, where each book got the Elseworlds treatment, showing alternate takes on the characters).

This particular issue was Waverider's second look at Superman's future, and ended up being mostly - even nauseatingly - positive. In short, Superman ends up becoming president of the US, and absolutely nothing goes wrong. There are hints here and there of trouble, but are either brushed aside or never developed:

Lex Luthor (who at the time was masquerading as his own son; long story) gets arrested within two pages of Superman's election. Rogue Green Lantern Guy Gardner takes issue with Supes' agenda, and tries to fight him, only for Superman to take his ring and get him drummed out of the Green Lantern Corps. When Superman's offered the ring, which would make him even more powerful, he hands it back without much soul-searching. And then, when Superman's looking at all the work he's accomplished, some of it by intimidating his fellow world leaders, and is worrying about how to ensure his legacy, the story ends.

It's probably 20 years since I read that story, and with each page I kept waiting for something to go wrong: assassins shooting kryptonite bullets, someone killing Lois Lane, Superman himself taking an expansionist line and intimidating the rest of the world into kow-towing to American interests. But at each point I was balked.

I actually quite like Superman stories, because when they're told well, they're a good look at how that specific character interacts with the world around him, mindful of how easily he could destroy everything. This wasn't a well-told story, though. After he was rebooted by John Byrne in 1986, after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman fell into the hands of a bunch of not particularly distinguished writers (and artists), who completely took away all of the charm of the character.

It made me, in fact, want to revisit Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar's Elseworlds story looking at what might have happened if Kal-El had landed in 1930s Soviet Russia instead of Kansas. Millar had a lot more pages to work with there, and he made them count: instead of positing a completely nightmarish vision, which we might have gotten in the 1980s (or from Frank Miller), he adds the conflict of two men both trying to do good but from different viewpoints, while also examining how Superman's powers worked with the built-in authoritarianism of the USSR.

The "Five Years Later" Legion and the post-Crisis Superman make for an interesting contrast, as the former represented a spirit of risk-taking and innovation that DC hasn't recaptured. Other examples were the "Bwah-ha-ha" era Justice League (which Giffen also co-wrote), as well as books like Sandman, Hellblazer, Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Mike Grell's Green Arrow. Those first three were among the books that formed the basis of Vertigo, while Green Arrow, along with Dennis O'Neil's run on the Question, took a more mature-readers approach to the less fantastical heroes - and Grell's work now is a big influence on the Arrow TV series that I love so much.

That era's Superman, on the other hand, kind of stands for a lot of what DC did later - using gimmicks to try and spice up badly handled characters, which led to an arms race of terrible stories that were intended to top one another and only resulted in making things more confusing. It's no wonder they keep having to retcon everything.

The poor old Legion has also suffered this fate, since it was rebooted after the Zero Hour crossover. But it also served another function for me: whenever a property is rebooted or retconned into something unrecognizable (and shit), I can remember that the old stories are still there, even if they aren't canon anymore.

Or as Alan Moore said in "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", his farewell to the Silver Age:

This is an imaginary story... Aren't they all?

Saturday, 7 November 2015

How Ads in Comics Have and Haven't Changed

Since I started watching the CW's superhero shows, Arrow and the Flash, I've not only started buying new comics, but have also revisited some of the older books I picked up when I was in high school or college. And in doing so I've rediscovered one of the finest pleasures of reading old comics: the ads.

I feel like it's a cliche that old comics were full of stuff like Mike Marvel and Charles Atlas ads for bodybuilding (so much so that Grant Morrison based his Flex Mentallo charactor on them), along with the small ads for useless crap you could send away for, like X-ray glasses or magic tricks. But if it's a (slightly broader) cliche to note that it was a different world, it's also interesting to see how long some of that stuff lasted. For example, the picture below is from a comic that came out in 1992:

Elongated Man Europe '92 #1

That Atlas Body ad in the top right appeared in comics going back to the 60s, but you feel like you can almost trace Charles Atlas's shifting fortunes by the form the ads took. From the full page ads promising books to teach you sex appeal, the ads went smaller and the address would change. By the 90s, the address is a PO box in Madison Square Station, which suggests rather straitened circumstances.

It's not a million miles off from this page, grabbed from Justice League of America #46:

JLA (vol. 1) #46 (copyright DC)

The model ad at the top is charmingly of its time - I guess if you were a boy your options were sports or models, or visiting crappy amusement parks in New Jersey. What's striking is how wordy it all is: the word balloons nearly crowd out the art because the kids are so busy relating how great the models are. And turning to the one at the bottom, I love how $0.85 must have seemed a princely sum to kids in 1966 (who were, let's remember, paying $0.12 for this issue). These days a trip to Six Flags sets you back at least $33. And you can't see it very well, but I've always been intrigued by what kind of ride the Caterpillar must have been (bottom left).

Another thing you'd never see now is this:

JLA (vol.1) #138

This one's from 1977, which was almost as fertile a year (judging by this issue) for neat ads. There was another one for Slim Jims that made prominent reference to werewolves, because if I recall correctly horror was big in comics at the time. But I like this one because it's kind of the last gasp of comics as a thing for all kids, rather than just the nerdy ones. What could be more all-American than BB guns?

I could go on. For this blog I actually lined up six comic books and took a picture of what I thought was a nicely representative ad, though admittedly the later ones are a little less interesting visually - in The Authority #11, from March 2000, ads were all full-pagers for video games or apparel. One from JLA #1, which came out in 1997, is hawking a video box set of Michael Jordan's greatest moments.

Nowadays, unfortunately, I don't know what ads are being published, because I only buy trade paperbacks, and I suspect my local shop wouldn't like me taking photos of their wares on my iPhone without buying them. I can only presume the ads aren't as charming as these old ones, though - even in that Elongated Man one, looking at that array of notices and ads told you that there was this network of fans and mail-order stores nationwide.

This is, of course, one of the reasons I love old comics, and old stuff in general. I've always been fascinated with what the world was like before I was born, and it's poignant seeing that some of those aspects survived into my own times, even though I didn't notice then. It'd be interesting to find out what happened to all those old advertisers, though...