Thursday, June 17, 2010

Crossesd vs. The Walking Dead

Thanks to a visit to the recent Wizard-sponsored Comic Con here in Philadelphia, I was able to get myself caught up on WALKING DEAD trades. I'm now only six issues behind the stands and as enthralled as I was after picking up the first issue. The overall strength of this series has caused my mind to wander back to another of the post-apocalyptic outbreak comics that seem to be littering the shelves these days, Garth Ennis' CROSSED. Normally I'm all for a new Ennis series. The sheer number of them makes it hard to keep up, but I'm getting to them in turn. I first picked up CROSSED last year shortly before the '09 Philly comic book convention. As luck would have it Garth Ennis was a featured speaker. I attended his panel and made sure to sit up front as to better my chances of getting to ask a question. I believe that it started with something along the lines of "Your books have been getting a little rapey lately. Would you care to comment on that?" He more or less shrugged off the question as smart alicy comic book writers tend to do, and moved on. I was not reassured. CROSSED, for anyone not familiar with it, is Ennis' contribution to the zombie book genre. His big innovation with the book is that the zombies are non-dead, plague victims who retain all of their human intelligence and use it to torture and rape their victims. Mostly rape, though. "Rape Zombies" was how I summed it up for friends. Well, that is scary. No doubt about that. The question is, where does it go after that? The short answer is not far. For nine issues and an "issue 0" prologue book, more or less nothing happens except for the most unimaginable horrors and flash backs to yet more horrors book-ended with lame, phoned in dialogue and contrived situations that make EC's old horror line like look downright sane.
Garth Ennis books have always been shockingly violent. Even amongst the other writers on JUDGE DREAD, he stood out. His run on HELLBLAZER excised the Neal Gaimeny purple prose and gave the book a real-world (I refuse to say "gritty") feeling that drove the mystical and earthly horrors home is a genuinely affecting way. These same techniques would later serve to make PREACHER one of the biggest game changers in comics since Frank Miller's first, good DARK KNIGHT miniseries. The books that would become the VERTIGO line had been pushing boundaries and exploiting religious subjects for visceral impact for years, but it's that tone that Ennis struck that changed things. That swaggering, "it's ok for out hero to be cool and competent again" vibe mixed with lots of swearing and crazy violence. Lots of guys are still trying to write the new Wolverine, but the better read ones want to write the new Jessie Custer. The Da Vinci Code? Old news to Preacher fans. Our version was way funnier too.
In spite of their superficial qualities, the real uniting factor of all of these books was not their violence, but their story telling. John Constantine really outsmarts the Devil, more than once. In PREACHER we see the story of a full-fledged world dominating organization and a man trying to hunt down God whittled down to two men standing nose to nose, and it all makes sense! The plain fact is, when all of the window dressing is torn away, it's story telling that makes it work. That's my problem with Garth Ennis' current work. There are still books he cares about. His War Story titles are outstanding, but I can't honestly say the same for much else that he's done in the last five years. 303 is strong, but undeveloped, no matter how satisfying. I've still yet to get around to WORMWOOD, but I read the first issue and I haven't been back since. It all follows the same pattern for me. When Marvel needs to make budget, they crank out more books with Wolverine on the cover. When Garth needs to pay the bills, he writes something grotesque.
In each hand I hold book in which people are constantly dying in gruesome and horrifying ways. In both books the human race in on the brink, and the main characters are forced to do things to survive that test their limits and cost them bits of their souls. One of these books is THE WALKING DEAD. In this book the characters feel real. The situations feel natural, and the horrors have a real impact because the world that has been drawn, both literally and figuratively, feels as real and solid as the one out of my window. The other book is CROSSED, and I would not even recommend it to people who crave the unconscionably violent and obscene because real life images of such things are readily available for free online to those who know where to look.

As an afterward, I would like to point out that I've obviously done more here to pique interest in CROSSED than I have to dissuade it's reading. To paraphrase Sideshow Bob, I'm well aware of the irony and I can accept it. I'm also aware that pushing limits is the point of things like CROSSED. Putting aside my moral objections to using extreme subject matter to sell comics, there must be the writing to back it up. I don't think that a writers get to wave rape around like a kid who found his parent's gun unless they are prepared to say something worthwhile. Otherwise it's like using the Holocaust to sell spare tires. Crude and juvenile.
Even in bad taste, there's an art, and few understand that art like John Waters. His films are the best kind of exploitation. They're filled with horrible acts by worse people but also humor and joy and some fine film making! The ones being exploited are those on the screen, and even then not really because they were all in on the joke. (With the possible exception of Edith Massey.) The exploited were never the ones who paid to be in the theater. (With the possible exception of those who went to see A DIRTY SHAME.) It also bears mentioning that comparing a miniseries with an ongoing title is unfair on it's face, but quality is quality. In the 80s, it only took four or twelve issues to change the industry. How many books can you name that haven't even come close after hundreds?

Survival of the Dead

I had the good luck to attend a theatrical screening of Survival of the Dead. This is the fifth Romero zombie flick after Night, Dawn, Day, Land and Diary. While it's not the best of the series, it represents a serious improvement after the disappointment that what was Diary of the Dead. As a loose rule all of Romero's Zombie films stand alone from each other. Dawn and Day go together quite nicely, but could just as easily be in totally different worlds, and the years between Night and Dawn are more than obvious. Survival, on the other hand is a direct sequel to Diary of the Dead. It follows a group of National Guardsmen who robbed the insufferable college kids from Diary. For those who didn't see it, and those of us who don't care to remember, we are treated to a narrated flashback. The military never does very well in these movies. Sometimes they're just incompetent. Sometimes they're crazy. Invariably they're eaten. The reason that this group stands a chance seems to be because they have gone AWOL and as such are no longer tools of the establishment (as viewed from the perspective of hippy politics that still pervade the series). The fact that they're still robbing anyone who crosses their path is framed with surprising ambivalence by the typically moralizing director, and the moral high ground that they cop towards other traveling brigands is an irony that is left unexplored. Anyone following these movies is apt to detect certain patterns. The strong black lead whom the white people don't listen to is a big recurring element for George Romero. At some point in every film, that guy is the voice of the director. He's the voice of reason in the first two films. By Day of the Dead, he's telling the characters who will listen that they shouldn't try to control everything and enjoy the days that they have left. By the time that Land of the Dead rolled around this character had morphed into Big Daddy, the zombie general leading what could only be characterized as peoples' revolt against their human oppressors. Romero had clearly switched sides. Tellingly, Diary of the Dead had no black main characters at all. Along with melanin, all good sense and likability had also been drained from the cast. Our snow white protagonists did run into an all black group of survivors who were doing pretty well for themselves, that is until out heroes came along.
Survival of the dead has no black people at all. The only non-white person on display is an indistinctly Hispanic character sporting a cringe-inducing accent. George has always tried to add variety to his casting, but sometimes the result is a bit strange at it's best and at worst, downright George Lucas-like. When this Latin lothario makes the slimiest sexual advances imaginable, he sounds like a pornographic parody of Speedy Gonzalez stealing Pepe LaPew's act. Those familiar with Romero's politics will probably shrug this off as a miscalculation, but I wouldn't hold it against anyone who didn't.
The set up is that our small group of National Guard deserters have set off to survive on their own and end up on an island off of the coast of Delaware that is inhabited by a warring clans of Irish farmers. Since the movie has already featured thick Southern Accents in what we are told is Philadelphia (!), I suppose Irish brogues off of Delaware aren't the strangest thing going on here. Nonetheless, this is only one of the elements leading to this being hands down the weirdest of Romero's zombie movies to date.
The clan rivalry largely stems from one group wanting to kill the zombies, embarrassingly called "Dead Heads" by some characters, and the other who want to domesticate them. The level of zombie intelligence has been a major question in these movies since Day of the Dead, when Bub the zombie learned how to say "hello to (his) Aunt Alicia", and here they are seen chained up trying to till fields and deliver mail. The suggestion seems to be that they are less mindless monsters than aggressive proto-humans. This is all explored in a rather limited way by the rather limited characters. The rest of the time is taken up with wacky zombie kills, dodgy CGI and outright Loony Tunes physics. (A hand grenade makes a wall vanish revealing surprised, soot faced characters. A flare gun makes a zombie's head burst into flame from which a cigarette is lit. The skullcap of a blown off head drops neatly back onto a now vacant neck hole.)
All in all, Survival of the Dead has more going for it than against it. It's a good time, if not a scary or compelling one, and worlds better than the previous entry. For a director who has been making movies for roughly forty years, George A. Romero's work is surprisingly lively and fresh feeling. These last two movies, while inferior to earlier ones don't feel at all like the later work of an aging director. The mistakes seem more like those of a novice- someone who is so excited about his subject matter that errors come more from enthusiastic speed than waning talent or lack of ideas. Weather this is due to the director himself, or those with whom he has surrounded himself, it's refreshing and gives every indication of only getting better.