Saturday, June 22, 2024

Rest in peace, Peter B. Gillis

Cover of What If? #44

Peter B. Gillis was a truly underappreciated comic book writer who was behind some of the most unique and interesting stories including Marvel's What If…?, The New Defenders, Doctor Strange, and Strikeforce: Morituri. He had also co-created 'Shatter', along with Mike Saenz back in 1985, which was the first commercially published comic book to be entirely drawn on a computer.

Among his many noteworthy contributions is "What If...? #44 - What If Captain America Were Not Revived Until Today?", published in 1984, with art by Sal Buscema, Dave Simons, and George Roussos, and lettering by John Morelli. The story deals with an alternative history where Captain America remained frozen for longer, while the US slowly sunk into far-right regime reminiscent of Nazi Germany, with a clear racist sentiment on the rise, corrupt politicians that demonised and restricted the civil liberties of minorities, and with a fake Captain America supporting this status quo.

Captain America shown in several panels delivering a speech that goes as follows:  "Listen to me -- ALL of you out there! You were told by this man -- your HERO -- that America is the greatest country in the world! He told you that Americans were the greatest people -- That America could be refined like silver, could have the impurities hammered out of it, and shine more brightly!   He went on about how precious America was -- how you needed to make sure it remained great! And he told you anything was justified to preserve that great treasure, that pearl of great price that is America!  Well, I say America is nothing! Without its ideals, its commitment to the freedom of all men, America is a piece of TRASH! A nation is nothing! A flag is a piece of cloth!!  I fought Adolf Hitler not because America was great. But because it was fragile! I knew that liberty could as easily be snuffed out here as in Nazi Germany! As a people we were no different from them! When I returned I saw that you nearly did turn America into Nothing! And the only reason you're not less than nothing-- is that it's still possible for you too bring freedom back to America!"  The last panel shows the crowd visibly affected by his speech, and the words "There is a long, silence, then..." and people realising that the one speaking to them is the actual Captain America.
The comic book ends with the actual Captain America delivering this speech as a wake-up call on the dangers of extreme nationalism that is based on hate and the oppression of others, and the fragility of freedoms that have already been established, especially when hateful ideologies are allowed to fester. 

Friday, June 07, 2024

Saturday, June 01, 2024

In ‘Dot and Bubble’ Doctor Who Tackles With the Dark Reality of Certain Groups and Online Circles


(spoilers ahead)

‘Dot and Bubble’ was definitely an episode that went way beyond what its trailer made it seem. It’s also an episode that is absolutely made by its ending and how it all wraps up. It starts in a very lighthearted tone, taking place on the suffocatingly pastel planet of Finetime, in a futuristic environment that has a little hint of Black Mirror. The protagonist, Lindy Pepper-Bean, waking up and much like a ton of people in real life starts scrolling through that world’s version of social media, an actual bubble that surrounds her head, to which she also seems dependent upon for her every action and decision.

And just as you think that this might be commentary on how addicted we all are to social media, and how influencer culture has some people act online, things start taking a slow turn. It’s subtle, at first, but the hints pointing at what is going on are present from the start. I guess it will depend on how familiar someone is with certain language, behaviours, and microaggressions, but it’s not hard to pick on the occasional odd thing that Lindy and her circle says, and the more the episode progresses the more things add up.

It’s pretty clear, with how Lindy immediately dismisses the Doctor, a Black man, when he first tries to talk to her in order to help her escape the monsters that are hunting everyone down, and the contrast with how she responds to Ruby, a blonde woman with blue eyes makes the oddness of that behaviour even more apparent. Especially when she acts so surprised, even appalled that Ruby is in the same room with him. Overall, the way the episode shows the early signs is very clever, and very reminiscent of how things work in real life when you meet a person with problematic views that starts showing hints of bigotry, and you feel that there is something off but can’t quite place it, or even start trying to find excuses to explain it, until the pieces of the puzzle start forming a big picture. Same way in the episode you feel Lindy is a bit spoiled, or obnoxious, maybe a bit insensitive and privileged, but you sooner or later realise that Lindy, and everyone else in her circle, is unapologetically racist.

There is a lot of hyperbole and exaggeration in the way allegory is utilised in the episode, and not everything sticks the landing, but the overall build up works, and offers a really solid social commentary on how white supremacist online circles mostly act as echo chambers that cultivate and amplify a specific mentality, completely detached from the facts of the real world. It’s also very clever to have that one member of the group who had started thinking outside of the box, exploring different perspectives, and acting more like a better person be the one to be back-stabbed and discarded. Ideologies that are based on discrimination treat their own who deviate, even the slightest, exactly this way.

I know mileage may vary, but for me the ending really worked. Sure, it’d be just as good, cathartic even, to see the Doctor give up on the people who were revealed to be just a hateful group who viewed his skin as something that made him inferior. But beyond this going against the character of the Doctor, it also served in presenting a very real truth about people who are deeply sinking into their hate and bigotry, which more or less applies to any sort of prejudiced thinking: If someone’s entire mentality and worldview is shaped around seeing you as lesser, you can be as smart, as kind towards them, as perfectly-behaved as possible, and their stance won’t change.

Sure, growth is possible, people do change. The character of Ricky September showed us a hint of that, but it almost never happens in an instant or overnight. In most cases you cannot debate a racist out of their racism with one clever comeback. No smart and eloquent argument and no appeal to logic or empathy can induce an instant epiphany for someone who spent years believing that some people are inferior to others, and had their entire social group confirming that notion to them. The Manifest Destiny-like quote spoken before those people turned out refusing the Doctor’s help, and most probably dooming themselves, is very characteristic of how much faith individuals with that mentality put on the false belief that they are simply better than others. 

Ncuti Gatwa’s performence, especially by the end was brilliant and heartbreaking, conveying all the emotion of someone who still wanted to help, despite those people very clearly being prejudiced against him, and trying and failing to get through to them. Which for the Doctor, a character who has as one of their biggest strengths their ability with words and communicating with people, feels particularly significant, and Gatwa was phenomenal in that scene.

Overall, it was an episode that both gets better the more you think about it, and also benefits from a rewatch, as knowing the reveal in the ending makes the hints and subtle pieces become more obvious, even to someone that might have missed them at first. The only downside is that in a way it is another Doctor-lite episode, not as much as ’73 Yards’, but we know scheduling conflicts were a factor, so hopefully the remaining episodes will give Ncuti Gatwa even more opportunities to shine as the Doctor.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

George R. R. Martin Makes a Valid Point About Adaptations That Disrespect Their Source Material, but Not Every Change and Loose Interpretation Is Automatically Sacrilege


Recently George R. R. Martin in his blog post ‘The Adaptation Tango’ once again expressed his opinion on screenwriters taking liberties when adapting books for TV or film, more precisely stating his dislike about the tendency to alter the source material in order to make the adaptation its own thing. And, he is not exactly wrong, at least not for many cases, his main point is undeniably valid. But also things are rarely black and white. Frankly, I feel the exaggeration of the statement: “They never make it better, though.  Nine hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand, they make it worse”, rather harms the message, which otherwise has indeed a very solid basis.

Without question, there is a tendency to milk on the popularity and the already-existing fanbases of books, comics, and video games. Companies often view it as a guaranteed investment that they don’t need to put much effort into, because the name alone will draw people in. There have been numerous examples of people adapting something for the big screen without even having any regard for the source material. Amidst the avalanche of cash-grabs, it’s not hard to come up with dozens of examples of adaptations that fell short, completely missed the point of what made the original work appeal to people, or delivered a final product that carried none of the spirit of the story and characters.

For comic book films in particular, especially before the genre was propelled into mainstream popularity, there have been several movies that made extreme effort to change and derive from the original work as much as possible, because the people involved considered it too childish or too weird to appeal to the average movie-goer. The infamous “What would you prefer, yellow spandex?” line from the 2000 ‘X-Men’ film is not the movie’s biggest crime against its source material, but it’s very indicative of the disregard that a lot of people tasked with creating a live action version of those stories and characters felt at the time.

If we have to divide badly adapted material into roughly two categories, there are those that never really cared about it to begin with, beyond the popularity it already carried, and those whose heart was in the right place but for one or more reasons failed to deliver a live action adaptation that lived up to expectations. As much as it may sound pretentious, films and books are quite different in the way they tell their stories, the same goes for comic books and video games. Sometimes a project seems perfect on paper, but the transition from one medium to another turns out flawed or lackluster.

TWO THINGS CAN BE TRUE AT THE SAME TIME

Many use the theory coined in 1967 by French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes in his essay “The Death of the Author” while arguing that the author’s intentions aren’t the end all and be all when it comes to interpreting their work, especially considering how art is subjective and often meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Particularly when it comes to books, a lot of the story, the way the characters look, act, or sound, takes life through the reader’s imagination. Thus very often readers see parts of themselves represented in characters in ways the author never intended.

 It can be argued that this usually is a complete misinterpretation of the story, however it can also be claimed that if someone finds meaning in something, in a way that makes them feel understood, or even inspired, this holds a special kind of sacredness, and it’s something that belongs to them that nobody can really take away. Naturally, when it comes to adapting a book into another medium, even if the screenwriters don’t intentionally aim to alter it at all, the final product will inevitably be infused with and build upon their own understanding of it.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the perspective of the author, it is also both reasonable and very human for someone who has put time, effort, and a little part of their soul into a piece of creative work to feel the need to say that a specific interpretation or adaptation doesn’t do it justice, or does not convey the message they were trying to get across.

SOME THINGS AGE LIKE WINE, OTHERS AGE LIKE MILK

Among the names that George R.R. Martin mentions as examples of people whose work is important enough to be considered untouchable, and therefore should be exempt from alteration, are those of Stan Lee and Roald Dahl, author of beloved children’s books like ‘Matilda’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, two of my absolutely favourite books as a kid. At the same time, it is common knowledge that Dahl has been a rampant misogynist, racist, and antisemite, a fact that has been acknowledged by the Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center too. The recent controversy regarding the altering of some of his books, changing the language in order to make it more inclusive and less offensive, mainly to still appeal to modern audiences, brought up the very valid argument that erasing someone’s problematic history also shields them from accountability and the possibility of younger generations rejecting their work because it’s no longer relevant and choosing to read something else. As Philip Pullman very accurately put it: “Dahl’s books aren't classics in that sense. As I say, let them fade away. Read better writers.”

When it comes to Stan Lee, and this is in no way to oversimplify it as "Stan Lee was sexist", as I hold immense respect for him as a creator, and for his ability to evolve, but a lot of his work, and a lot of the comic books of the Golden and Silver age in general, were most definitely a product of their time, depicting stereotypes and gender roles that have been long proven harmful and do not belong in modern storytelling.

AND ON THE OTHER HAND...

Stan Lee, on the contrary, is a very different case in general too. Not only has he grown and evolved as a creator throughout his career, he has also been extremely vocal against any form of bigotry, and has also been very actively involved with and enthusiastically endorsing adaptations of his works and his characters, having several cameos in most of the Marvel films that have been produced prior to his death. When it comes to comic books, given the very nature of the medium to span several decades, it’s no surprise that dozens of different writers have adapted and added their own touch to beloved characters, shaping them to what they have become today.

Interestingly enough, this mention of adapting Stan Lee’s work happens very close to the airing of the first season of ‘X-Men ’97’, an undeniable critical success, that has been considered a triumph for Marvel adaptations, which not only was a pure love letter to the original work, but also managed to brilliantly update it in a way that allowed the allegory and themes of the X-Men comics to feel relevant to modern issues surrounding bigotry and prejudices. It is projects like this that serve as a strong counterargument to the “they never get it right” claim, because realistically, sometimes they actually do. Especially since a lot of screenwriters adapting books, comics, and games, approach the source material with nothing but love and respect, and put a lot of effort into making the transfer into a different medium work. Even with some alterations, there is no denying of the vast popularity and classic status of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which for many acted as a gateway to discovering Tolkien’s work.

Change doesn't necessarily alter the original material for the worst. Sometimes it even comes from the creators themselves. For example in 'The Princess Bride', in the book there is a scene where Westley slaps Buttercup, that scene has been removed from the film, which was also written by William Goldman. A change that takes nothing away from the story, nor from the classic status of the film, but arguably adds to it by avoiding the romanticising of abusive behaviour masquerading as love. Additionally, in the recent adaptation of 'The Last of Us' video game, a whole new story has been created surrounding Bill and Frank that was not in the game, a story that not only added more depth to the show, but also gave us one of the most heartfelt, genuine, and beautiful depictions of affection and companionship between two people, and one of the most emotionally impactful episodes in television history.

Artistic liberty, even when it comes to deciphering and altering another creator’s work, is by no means a new thing. There is a long tradition of Shakespearean adaptations, ranging from the 1996 ‘Romeo + Juliet’ and 2010’s ‘Macbeth’ starring Patrick Stewart, to even looser interpretations like ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ and ‘West Side Story’. It would feel like quite the stretch to completely deny the artistic value of these works, just because they differ significantly from the original material that inspired them. 

And seeing that Charles Dickens was also mentioned in the same blog post by George R. R. Martin, it's impossible not to bring up that one of the most beloved and immensely popular adaptations of his works is 'The Muppet Christmas Carol'. Which not only features a flawless performance by Michael Caine, but also keeps the spirit of the story intact while masterfully retelling it in its own unorthodox but brilliant way, without showing a hint of disrespect towards Charles Dickens' novella. 

ALL IN ALL

 Adapting a book or any other piece of media into a different form is never an easy task, and there is no magic recipe to follow in order to get it right. There have been adaptations that followed the source material to the dot, yet completely failed to replicate its magic. Then there are films that took liberties and did not remain completely faithful to the original work and they are considered classics, or even masterpieces. 

Not every adaptation will succeed, and most certainly not every adaptation happens with the best of intentions at heart. Very often more value is put into profit rather than delivering a legitimately good product. The frustration from the perspective of the audience when it comes to that is both real and justified, as real and justified as the right of any author to feel that their brainchild was misinterpreted or wasn't treated with respect. But in the history of cinema, too many worthwhile adaptations that, in one way or another, added their own touch to the source material exist to condemn any such attempt as a task almost always doomed to fail.

 

 

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

'Tolerance Is Extinction - Part 3' Is The Finale X-Men '97 Deserved


 
X-Men '97 stuck the landing and then some, and that feels like an understatement. "Tolerance is Extinction Part 3" was unbelievably good. What a way to wrap up a season, and what a way to revive a show! Every character got their moment to shine, every detail and plot point served a purpose. The show managed to bring back a cartoon from 30 years ago, update it, modernise it, make it relevant to younger audiences and current social issues, while also maintaining its heart intact in a way that immediately feels familiar to everyone who's grown up with it.

In a way, it feels that the show has grown and matured along with its original audience. Now tackling more serious issues, not holding back on the commentary, exploring trauma, grief, the anger caused by injustice, and remaining true to the X-Men's history as an allegory for the prejudice experienced by marginalised groups, while also understanding how crucial the 'found family' theme that defines the bond that holds those characters together is.

Every nod and Easter egg comes from a place of loving and respecting those stories and the artists and creators who over the years shaped those characters. All episodes were filled with references that comic book fans would recognise, but not once did it feel gimmicky or cheap. The season finale perfectly wrapped the main storyline, but also opened the way for what comes next, and season 2 cannot possibly arrive fast enough.
 
 
 

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Doctor Who’s 'The Devil’s Chord' features an intriguing new villain, a little taste of The Beatles, and imperfectly delivers a key message on the significance of music


(spoilers ahead)


'The Devil’s Chord' is an interesting episode. It’s very clear from the start that Doctor Who is once again embracing its fun and campy roots. Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor is excited to go on an adventure, meet new people, discover new things, and there’s great chemistry between him and Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday that further amplifies this energy of a new beginning. Jinkx Monsoon is a force of nature as the newly-introduced villain, and delivers a truly creepy and memorable performance as the Maestro. It’s also refreshing to see the show’s commitment to representation, from the diverse casting choices to the way gender and sexuality are casually brought up in the dialogue.

What 'The Devil’s Chord' isn’t, is a Beatles episode. Even if it was marketed as such. It is an episode that features the Beatles, honours the Beatles, visits Abbey Road Studios back in 1963 (when it was still called EMI studios, as it was renamed later, reportedly around 1976), mentions their significance, but it is not entirely focused on the band. The main focus of the episode, in fact, seems to be music itself, and the impact it has on the world. Which is not a bad thing, on the contrary, it is a genuinely interesting area to explore.
 
The way the show does it is by showing how the world changes when the main villain strips it of all music, which eventually leads to a dystopian future. It’s a shame that this wasn’t explored in more detail, beyond showing that when you remove music from the world, the world becomes a worse place. Because the core message holds some big truths. It only takes a brief study of historical events to realise how much music and the arts have contributed to social and political movements. Influencing, inspiring, allowing people to express their frustration, hope and anger, to protest and to show others that they are not alone. It is no exaggeration to suggest that by taking that factor away a lot of key moments in history could have turned out quite differently.



Nevertheless, the episode is not without its flaws. Nitpicking a bit, it’s not hard to find a few inconsistencies and questions remaining unanswered. Why is John Lennon wearing the round glasses in 1963? And if a sinister cosmic entity stripped the world from all kinds of music and rhythm and dance, then why are people forming bands, why are there pianos and orchestras around, and why are people even recording music with the same enthusiasm of someone having to go through obligatory jury duty, even though they are not forced to do it? Why did the world go on for decades only slightly changed since the incident in the 20s, but all that’s left of it in 2024 is an apocalyptic scenery. Then again, one could argue that suspension of disbelief and ignoring certain contradictions is more or less part of the show, and of pretty much every story involving time travel in general.

A more plot-specific question a younger person could very well ask is “why are the Beatles considered geniuses?”, and for better or worse this is a question the episode never tries to answer. It assumes from the start that the viewer is fully on board with the idea, and familiar with the band’s musical achievements. A shortcoming that could have been remedied if licensing issues didn’t prevent the show from actually including some of the Beatles’ music. Which is understandably very hard to do, and given the budget restrictions it’s not surprising that it didn’t happen, but it led to another way for the episode to unintentionally prove the point it was trying to make: an episode with the Beatles without the Beatles’ music is missing something special that would have made it better if it was there.



The way the Maestro is defeated is also clever, but the execution again heavily relies on the idea of ‘genius’. Which is not inherently bad, it makes sense that John Lennon and Paul McCartney figure the last note out instead of the Doctor, still it feels like the resolution lacked more nuance. There is absolutely no denying that there was something very special about the Beatles and the mark that they left in musical history, but what makes an artist unique doesn’t come from the singular place of being gifted, or a genius, or special. It’s the sum of who they are as a person, their skill, their effort, their life experiences, their heartbreaks, their low moments, their ability to transform emotion into art and communicate things through it.
 
On a more philosophical level, one could even wonder if a John Lennon who grew up in an alternative world that had been left without musical influence for decades, who hadn’t experienced the same things, hadn’t discovered the musicians that came before him and shaped his view on music, would have turned out the same. It would have been interesting to see these things explored on a deeper level, the way the Vincent Van Gogh episode did, making it one of the most emotionally impactful episodes in the show’s history. Perhaps in a way that would satisfy the nostalgia of old fans but that would also intrigue a new generation to discover the Beatles through their music.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Fallout Show is Apocalyptically Good



Even after the huge success of The Last of Us TV show, it was still hard to have very high expectations when it comes to a live-action production based on a beloved video game series, given how many such attempts missed the mark completely. In that regard, Fallout on Prime was a feat and such a pleasant surprise, managing to be both a worthy adaptation of the world of the games, and remain a solid post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi show that can completely stand on its own.

One of the most impressive things about the show is that it can be watched by both people who love the games and are familiar with the backstory and some of the things that are not initially revealed to the audience, and by people who are totally new to this world, with the latter group not feeling like they are missing on anything. The way the story builds up keeps you hooked from the first episode, and certain crucial plot points are revealed quite cleverly, showing important details in a way that is both interesting to someone unfamiliar with the games and at the same time doesn't become boring to those who already have an idea of what is actually going on.

It's clear that the show is made by people who genuinely love the source material. There are countless references and nods to the games, locations, plot points, items, even parts of the gameplay scattered throughout every episode, done in a way that feels totally sincere and not gimmicky or cheap. It's also commendable how they managed to maintain such a perfect balance between the themes of a nuclear bombing that had a severe impact on humanity and the trademark dark humour of the Fallout series. Plus the way music is utilised as part of storytelling throughout the show, especially in the opening scene, is nothing short of brilliant.

A big reason for the show's success is the story and the characters, who were practically created from scratch as a standalone part of the Fallout universe. The main cast does a great job in bringing their characters to life. Aaron Moten, Ella Purnell, Walton Goggins, and Kyle MacLachlan all deliver fantastic performances. Lucy is a likeable protagonist, and her naivete comes off as believable, given her circumstances, but always makes her look like someone whose heart is in the right place, rather than making her the butt of the joke. Even when she steps outside the safety of her vault and she slowly starts getting disillusioned as she sees a side of the world she didn't know existed, her core characteristics as a character remain unchanged. Which is quite refreshing.

In general, the show succeeds in avoiding to cross the line separating dire circumstances from full nihilism, allowing its characters to maintain their depth and heart and not appear totally one-sided. In the Ghoul's case in particular, the combination of good writing and Walton Goggins' emotional performance, despite him wearing a ton of prosthetics, allows the character to appear as multifaceted, even sympathetic, beyond his questionable actions and motives. Similarly, Maximus' journey, growth, and change of perspective feel both engaging and realistic. And the way the first season ends allows for a ton of
possibilities as to where the story can go. Really looking forward to the now confirmed Season 2.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

X-Men '97 Keeps on Giving


Halfway through Season 1 of "X-Men '97", some scattered thoughts:
 

1) Props to everyone and anyone involved in this for pulling it off. In an ocean of nostalgia-bait cash grabs they brought back and updated the original cartoon with nothing but love and respect for the source material. The storylines, the social and political commentary, and the dozens of character cameos and little nods to the history of the X-Men prove as much, and are hands down impressive.

2) Gambit and Rogue remain absolute favourites.

3) The weekly drop for the episodes really works in favour of the story.

4) It's such a shame there hasn't been a solid X-Men video game in ages.

5) 'Remember It' was the best, most intense, gut-wrenching and emotionally impactful episode of the season so far. This is the most 'X-Men' anything X-Men related has felt in a long while, and holy shit I can't believe that I have to wait an entire week now (yes, I know this totally contradicts point 3, but let me have it).

6) Nightcrawler!

 
Originally posted on Mastodon

Monday, March 25, 2024

'My Adventures with Superman', a newly discovered comfort watch


Started casually watching 'My Adventures with Superman' as a palate cleanser and ended up bingeing the rest of the show because it is such a comfort watch. It's so sincere, funny, optimistic, and full of heart, and just peak Superman. With some more serious turns in the story as well, keeping things interesting.

 
One of the deviations from the classic comics that more modern stories have taken is having Lois actually be attracted to the kind, dorky, and awkward Clark right away when she first meets him, instead of her fascination being primarily focused on Superman. That's something I'm a big fan of and it's really well executed here. Their romance is really sweet and believable, and the whole dynamic and humour between Clark, Lois, and Jimmy as friends and young interns on the Daily Planet works excellently too.

 


Originally posted on Mastodon

Thursday, March 21, 2024

X-Men '97 more than stuck the landing


Enjoyed the hell out of the first 2 episodes of X-Men '97. Both a love letter and a proper continuation of the 90s show, made by people who obviously love the original cartoon, but also the X-Men characters and storylines. The intro theme is back, the characters are back, most of the original cast is back, the campy dialogue and storytelling format are back too. At the same time both the animation and the way themes of prejudice are presented have been updated in a way that feels more relatable to modern audiences.


It's clear that a lot of effort and heart were put into this, and despite hitting some heavily nostalgic notes, it definitely doesn't piggyback on nostalgia alone. Bringing back old, beloved shows and franchises is always risky, and it's not going to meet everyone's expectations, but if it has to happen then the best way to go about it is with care for the original material and understanding of what made it special to those who love it.

Originally posted on Mastodon

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