Are we two weeks away from the Ides of March, and Rick's next mid-month column already!? That must mean it's time for mine.
But it's been a nutty week in which to try and write a column: My high season of freelance showbiz journalism reached a certain
crescendo with my annual (for the last three years) coverage of the Oscars. This was followed by a flurry of unanticipated lit
biz, which included two pitches for a comics anthology.
On which I still await word, as we speak. As for the Oscars, though, while there isn't a lot specifically germane to our work
here in this column, there's a little spillover into the ways that comic book visuals and aesthetics are affecting showbiz at large.
As you may have read, this year's Academy Award-winning visual effects shop, Rhythm and Hues, which won the Oscar for their
great work on Life of Pi is simultaneously going bankrupt. They are "restructuring," as the saying goes, laying off people, etc.
How does Hollywood reward a company while watching it go out of business? There are lots of reasons, having to do with
outsourcing of jobs, studios expecting "post" houses to absorb the additional costs when visuals are changed, tax subsidies
in other countries where governments are willing to fund part of the cost to bring work to their shores, etc., etc.
And while not every "tentpole" film -- as the big FX extravaganzas are called -- is derived from a comic book (the winning tiger
in Pi came from a literary novel, after all), there is an expectation, however, that every time a superhero is put on
screen, he (mostly he -- sometimes she) won't look ridiculous.
In other words, the "bad costume" days of the superhero epic are behind us -- studios think -- so they make plans, stretching
into the next decade or so, for more and more "effects"-heavy films.
Disney buys Marvel, in part because the level of visual effects means all these films will look thrilling, believable (you'll
not only believe a man can fly, but that he can turn large and green, or affix himself to the New York skyline with spider
webbing, etc.) and... cool!
What happens if so many FX houses get underbid and out-subsidized that it becomes harder to finish these films (with more
and more effects houses subcontracted to do the work?), or the VFX has to be done more and more cheaply? (Well, Disney also
bought Lucasfilm, which means they now own Industrial Light & Magic as their in-house FX firm, so that may be one way to
insure your comics and Star Wars sequels will always look good on the screen).
The answers are still roiling Hollywood as we speak; there was a protest outside the "security perimeter" of the Oscars (a
few blocks on either side of the Dolby Theater) of displaced visual effects workers, and immediate Twitter eruptions when
Ang Lee failed to mention his FX workers (who made that tiger for him), or worse, when the film's effects supervisor, Bill
Westenhofer, was cut off by the theme from Jaws (another iconic visual effects animal, ironically), when he tried to mention
the situation at Rhythm and Hues.
I, in fact, have to sit down and write another article about all this roiling-ness tomorrow. But right now, time for a couple of comics.
No one knows if DC-owning Warner Bros. will get its own Justice League film/franchise off the ground (nor who will be doing
all the FX work when they do), but on the video game side, the ol' League is taking quite a hit.
I refer to upcoming fighting game, from the Mortal Kombat folks, called Injustice: Gods Among Us. I've been reading the
limited series -- about ⅔ finished -- that DC is releasing in the run-up to the game. Written by Tom Taylor, with art
by Jheremy Raapack, the series is "digital first," which means you'll be scrolling by as with finger flicks on a screen.
As you doubtless know -- since the game itself has been touted and promoted since last fall -- it's a fighting game, and
culminates in a DC version of Civil Wars with -- as you've always known it would be -- Superman on one side, and Batman on the other.
The comic details the events leading up to said video game battle(s) -- and so far, those events are quite startling in
terms of body counts, etc. The series/game is allowed to exist in its own continuity, so much killing-off ensues and
longstanding villains like the Joker become deadlier than ever, by several orders of magnitude.
The series is fascinating, in a sense, because it's so apocalyptic. And it makes you wonder (as was presumably wondered in
an earlier DC series, like Watchmen) if there were really super-powered heroes in the world, would their existence call
into being the very apocalyptic events they claim to be defending us against?
In any case, I'm curious to see how far the material in the series will be pushed. And it may not only be a "preview" of
the game, but the eventual publishing model for all comics: Digital first, and the most "successful" of those find their
way onto paper, and into bound volumes.
We'll see. First, Batman and Superman have to duke it out as the world burns.
However, the thing that really moved me this month -- and kept me up late, reading -- was On the Ropes,
James Vance and Dan E. Burr's
sequel to their great, Depression-set Kings In Disguise. The new tale -- coming more than two decades
after the original.
Published by W.W. Norton, we now find the Ishmael-like wanderer, Fred Bloch, hitting the age of 17, and working at
a WPA-funded circus, with an escape artist named Gordon Corey. He's taken some blows -- literally -- since the last
book, and in addition to the circus work, finds himself in middle of some very violent labor upheavals.
The book reads like a combination of Clifford Odets and James M. Cain, with the plot barreling along at a mystery/thriller
pace (replete with the bloodshed endemic to the genre), along with Burr's Dorothea Lange-like art, providing stark, B&W
images as the book moves toward its heartbreaking reckoning.
But that might be one of Vance's main points -- that we continue in spite of our heartbreak. Or in spite of living in
heartbreaking times. Which people did then. And which people do now.
And if the streets of Hollywood are any indication, workers -- even in Tinsel Town -- are still fighting to stay
afloat. On the Ropes may not precisely be a comfort, in such times, but it's riveting. And by its very existence, reminds
the reader that even in hard times, they aren't alone.