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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

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Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
A good history of The Joker
Joss Whedon weblog
"Crime Story"
A review of "Betrayed"
Gears of War (game)
Crumb family reunion
Recent Books of Interest

Joker by Brian Azzarello (script) and Lee Bermejo (art) (DC) Joker
Aside from our lengthy treatise in the column over there to your left, the book, while pretty nihilistic -- in finest Joker tradition -- moves along at a constant clip, and looks terrific. They really didn't even need to reference the movie make-up, and could've made the book entirely their own. A special shout out to Mick Gray, who did most the inks here -- he was part of the team (along with J.H, Williams III and Jeromy Cox) that did the original Danger Boy covers for Tricycle Press!

Gears of War #1 by Joshua Ortega (script) and Liam Sharp (art) (Wildstorm) Gears of War #1
Is it me, or do they all look like Warhammer 40K characters? In fairness, you'd have to get a regular player of the game to tell you whether this adaptation does justice to the franchise. But videogames are primarily about movement, twitch fingers, and the excitement of split-second decisions. They aren't designed for deliberation or much backstory. The pacing and twitchiness are faithfully reproduced here, but one hopes we'll get a chance to catch our breath with lead "gearhead" Marcus Fenix, and find out a little more about what makes him -- and everyone -- tick. When they're not eviscerating locusts, that is.

Serenity: Better Days by Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews (script) and Will Conrad (art) (Dark Horse) Serenity: Better Days
In contrast to Gears of War, which derives from a video game, this, of course, is based on the late, lamented Firefly television series (which in turn produced one theatrical feature), a story that's based in the pre-film continuity of the series itself (based on who, for example, is still ambulatory). The character stuff is fun, because you can imagine actors you already know, extending their performances here. The action sequences, one suspects, might be better on a large (or small) screen as well, where they could remain fluid. A comfort for fans of the show -- kind of an extension, though not, alas, a complete replacement.

R. Crumb's Family Reunion by R. Crumb, Sophie Crumb, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb (Nov. 3 The New Yorker -- the cartoon issue) R. Crumb's Family Reunion
Crumb, wife Aline, and daughter Sophie make the trek from France to America's heartland for the Crumb family reunion. And Robert finds he's not quite the "unique family personality" he thought he was. R., Sophie, and Aline take turns illustrating themselves -- sharing panels, as it were -- and this recounting of one of drama's great redolent situations -- think of the use playwrights, novelists, and filmmakers have made of it -- shows that comics have their own unique, and perfectly suited role, for recounting the large, small -- and elusive -- epiphanies that accompany such an event.

The Joker Years

It is, for the first time this century, a particularly good time to consider what it means to be an "American." This shouldn't be confused with the usual hegemonic American blustering that says "everything should be American," but suddenly, the world's main faltering superpower, in the midst of economic and environmental decline and numerous, constant, contradictions, about what it stands for, what it means, apparently finds a moment of redemption, of living up to its own ideals, by electing a person who -- let's put it bluntly -- isn't from the same racial caste as America's ruling class has always been. That he's the same gender, well -- that's another column.

But the Obama Presidency will also be a kind of Rorschach -- that word again! -- for America, with people reading into his campaign, and eventually into his administration, what they want to see in themselves. Or, as per the routine projections of the far right, what is unbearable in themselves.

With this somewhat grand overview in mind, then, and sifting through the current stack of comics that arrive in my far west half of the Nexus Graphica co-compound, I began to muse about what the role of call-and-response is in graphic novels, etc., as part of the overall zeitgest -- to what degree comics are indistinguishable from media as a "lump sum" -- will future anthropologists distinguish between types of pop culture, when sifting through moves, TV shows, novels, et al., to determine what it was we thought of ourselves? -- or do comics occupy a perch of their own?

I don't mean in an Alan Moore sense about technique -- obviously, you can tell stories in comics in ways that are different from narratives in prose, film, etc. -- but I mean in terms of substance? Do "comics" see the world differently than other media practitioners?

Joker
Joker
Joker
I was struck by this question when reading the new Joker graphic novel from DC. Called, simply enough, Joker, (has no one really used that as a title before?) written by Brian Azzarello, of 100 Bullets fame, with artwork by Lee Bermejo, himself a veteran of many DC/Vertigo and Marvel projects, I wondered what new take on comics' best villain the book might offer.

Since I read this during election week, I was also recalling the first time I read Frank Miller's Dark Knight, which, of course, reconfigured the whole Batman franchise for the end of the 20th century and beyond.

But I also remember thinking that one of the things that made Dark Knight vital when it appeared in 1986 was its not so oblique references to the excesses of the Reagan administration: There was a thinly disguised Reagan look-alike as President, who'd taken to the airwaves spouting simplified bromides, and grinning as the world teetered on the edge of nuclear annihilation. How Joker-like is that?

With Superman cast, in the book, as a kind of hapless tool of U.S. military policy, the point -- in comic terms -- was further underscored: Batman wasn't just responding to the insanity of the Joker, per se, but the insanity of the world.

And there weren't many "mainstream" media sources willing to critique the accepted 80s narrative that all was fine in Wonderland: there was punk music, of course, and the occasional film -- Under Fire, Salvador, Betrayed, etc. -- and on pre-cable TV, it was mostly left up to Michael Mann, who'd throw up an occasional episode of either Miami Vice or the vastly underappreciated Crime Story, questioning, respectively, things like U.S. support of Latin American dictators, or Mafia complicity with the government (and vice versa).

But generally speaking, in the late 80s, it was a time of see, hear, speak no evil, vis-a-vis what was happening in America. Except, of course, for comics -- even, or perhaps especially, the mainstream ones.

Comics, by virtue of being ignored as "kid stuff," were able to offer commentaries -- both oblique and direct -- on what was going on around them, without worrying about getting into too much trouble, because, really, who cared? Or more specifically: How much money was really at stake?

A lot more since then, of course, but in the latest 20 years, Joker has stayed resolutely psychotic -- murderous -- reaching, perhaps, a kind of apotheosis this year in both the film Dark Knight (bearing little relation to Miller's source material, outside the title), with Heath Ledger's already legendary, and regrettably posthumous, portrayal.

And now here comes Joker, giving us a Joker once again inexplicably released from Arkham Asylum, and looking a lot like Ledger's movie version -- featuring the same smeared make-up and slashed/sewn lips as the recent movie version.

It might be a lateral sequel to the movie -- what happens to the Joker next? This particular Joker is a kind of enraged sociopathic mobster, killing sometimes for "reasons:" -- when the Joker undertakes a one-man mob war in the middle of the book, it makes the end of The Godfather look like a reverent observation of that baby's baptism -- or sometimes, just out of sheer boredom.

There's no larger context for Joker's behavior in this one -- no larger political or social landscape in which superheroes exist (Batman himself doesn't show up toward the end -- evidently, the bodies stacking up in Gotham had to wait 'til he was back from Metropolis or Central City or someplace...) -- this is more akin to the ethos of a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino film, the murderous criminal as prime cultural product.

But again, which culture? Or is the commentary of this graphic novel, coming 22 years after Dark Knight -- and at the exhausted, imploded end of the "Reagan Revolution" in economic, environmental, and military policy -- that things have become so bleak, that, in the main character's own words (budding hood Jonny Frost, a self-appointed Joker henchman who actually manages to stay alive 'til the end) "there's no cure for him. No cure at all."

And then on the next, final spash page: "Just a Batman."

Well, maybe. Two decades ago, Miller's comment was that even Batman had to go underground -- there was no room for heroes "up top."

The rest of us are stuck up here, with no redoubts of our own -- Bat caves, solitary fortresses, or otherwise. There will be some measure, on the comic end of the zeitgeist, of how much, or how little, progress we're about to make, by charting whether the Joker -- circa 2030 or so -- has become even more deranged, deluded or deadly.

Though really, it's hard to see how.

Copyright © 2008 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series, and works as a journalist covering both entertainment and politics, for Hollywood trade paper Below the Line. He's also written videogames, comics, and plays, and wonders what his sons will think of iconic comic figures -- invented in their grandfather's youth -- when they're his age.


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