08 August 2016

BATMETA: 1-2 Punchline

Destiny of the Daleks is a classic Dr. Who episode that may credit Terry Nation as the writer, but has a slightly more patchwork sort of genesis. While much of what went on behind closed doors has remained obscured, the main bullet points are as follows: Terry Nation wrote Destiny but only as a first draft. Historically, Nation's first drafts ended up as his finals with only the most minimal tinkering from the producers and script editors. However, due to various goings-on in Nation's life, the draft he turned in turned out to be uncharacteristically short on length, to such a degree that what dialogue was written had to be completely re-written around the new material. Effectively, script editor Douglas Adams had to recapture the bottled lightning of City of Death by taking a barely-there plotline and building up an entirely new arc on top of it. The result is an odd synergy of two equally talented but extremely different writers. Nation is no-nonsense. Adams is all about nonsense. Nation is a man of extremes, lots of betrayals, bombs, invasions, and perils. Adams reads between the lines and then the lines between those, then re-works them into a kind of Dadaist tableau of metaphysical causality... usually involving towels. 
It's all rather like watching a car crash in slow motion... through a fireworks warehouse... on the hottest, driest day of the year... when the sprinkler system is out... while the Firebird Suite blasts out of a wall of Marshalls, the whole event finally ending with the stunt driver climbing out of the vehicle and yelling, "Tah-Dah!" at the top of his lungs before his legs give out from exhaustion. He was supposed to deliver a pizza, but we're nonetheless impressed at the spectacle that unfurled before us. 

Now that the prologue is out of the way, let's talk about the prologue of The Killing Joke, and the dynamic between Alan Moore and Bruce Timm. 

The Killing Joke is a 1988 one-shot Batman story written by Watchmen creator Alan Moore, offering a proposed origin story for the Joker, complete with a psychological analysis from our unreliable narrator, the Clown Prince of Crime as he torments Commissioner Gordon after shooting his daughter Barbara through the spine. Though the influence of the book is still being mapped out to this day, sometimes we have to call a spade a spade. 

It's not an especially good story...

And I can say that because even Moore has expressed embarrassment over the piece. The biggest criticism that could be leveled at the story (as well as the recent animated adaptation) is that it's a victim of its own hype. It leans heavily on pure shock value, disguising an otherwise humdrum story from a writer with a reputation for breaking the mold with spectacular flair. Remember, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had already happened three years earlier, so the public perception of Batman (and comics in general) had already shifted from juvenile camp and fun to the big leagues of pathos and tragedy. Had it been released earlier, or in lieu of either of those two other works (unlikely, as Dark Knight was Frank Miller's work), maybe it would have had a better chance. 
Similarly, Bruce Timm has had his own run-ins with using shock value to move up from the kid's table, once again causing a ripple still being felt today. When Batgirl came to Batman: The Animated Series, Timm didn't simply want to tick off a box of Batman staples, and he certainly didn't wish to emulate the Yvonne Craig Batgirl of the Adam West show, who, among other silly compromises, was never actually allowed to punch anybody. Furthermore, he wanted to make Batman a tragic figure in every aspect of his life. This included his already tumultuous romantic life. 

Two birds plus one stone equals five words: No dating at the office. 

This is where we have to delve into a slightly (read: very) uncomfortable discussion of eating one's cake and having it too, that of presenting drama and tragedy but somehow not tugging at heartstrings or turning stomachs. Storytelling 101 tells us any good story needs conflict, bad things need to happen to good people, giving them a challenge to overcome and possibly undergo a drastic change as a result. 
Gail Simone found that, more often than not, the tragedy tends to fall on female characters, to an alarmingly disproportionate degree. This is a phenomenon dubbed Women in Refrigerators, a reference to an issue of Green Lantern in which the titular guardian discovers his girlfriend's murdered corpse stuffed in his refrigerator, signaling the return of an old enemy. Put simply, in the opening act of The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon is refrigerated. She is shot in the spine by the Joker right in front of her father, who is subsequently taken away to be psychologically tormented, all as a means to lure Batman into a final confrontation. 

Here's my personal stance on the whole issue of how female characters are (mis)treated in comics: It is most certainly a problem, but not because it's sexist or misogynistic or any other problematic adjective. It is a problem because it is lazy, tired, cliched, and overdone. On top of that, the only reason I care is because comic publishers keep complaining about how they want to expand their audience to include more female readers, only to keep giving their identifying characters the short end of the stick and beating them unconscious with it. 

For the record, I do not consider Timm's idea to romantically link Batman and Batgirl to be a bad one. In fact, I think it is pure, artistic genius, even brave. That said, I'm going to attach a very big qualifier to that statement:

In a vacuum. 

In the context of a mid-90s animated series generally aimed at a younger audience about a popular comic book hero still shedding the stigma of camp, the notion of Batman as a tragic figure by way of his most stable relationship being with his best friend's daughter, is brilliant. Timm has even said, when asked why the odd pairing that's most certainly bound to fail, "That's why we did it." If it's not clear yet why I'm madly in love with this bad romance, let me put it this way: Where is it written that every relationship in any story has to go well? Hell, George Lucas even asked once why every male and female lead have to end up together. For as much of a headache as it seems to be for comic writers to write superheroes as married, they seem to have a harder time writing a relationship that's got red flags from the word go. Of course it's not going to work. Of course it's going to end badly. Of course it's likely to backfire in the worst conceivable way. However, we'd be less invested, if not utterly disinterested, if everything went smoothly. 
This is where the discussion of Barbara Gordon's role in The Killing Joke gets uncomfortable, for both fans of the book and the new adaptation. Again, compared to other stories that came before it, Moore's little one-off special seems rather quaint, almost phoned-in. As for animation, Timm's treatment of the Batman/Batgirl dynamic loses its luster when venturing into the broader spectrum of the comics it's based on. It's still unique, but it gets buried under a host of similar, yet failed experiments. It's too little, too late. Putting the two together works about as well as it sounds. It doesn't fail, but it has the same problem the original did; take away the shock value, and all you've got left is a decent adaptation of a so-so Alan Moore comic, preceded by an above-average "lost episode" of Bruce Timm's animated Batman. 
None of this means it's bad or unwatchable. The parts that work do so beautifully. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy own their roles, and hearing Moore's words through them is well worth the price of admission. It respects the source material, warts and all, hitting all the key points with superb fidelity, even maintaining the subtle nuance of the ending. When the worst that can be said of something is it being a product of its era and a victim of its own hype, that's not a bad outcome for a collaboration of two radically different visionaries. 

01 August 2016

Double Down on DS

NOTE: This op-ed is based on very loose hearsay, speculation, and partial evidence. The very nature of the Nintendo NX is subject to change between the time of this writing and its eventual release. 

The console market is in a place of uncertainty for the first time since the early 1980s. Sure, the uncertainty principle has followed consoles from day one, but if we look at the facts, the years have seen a dwindling number of advantages consoles have held for consumers over PCs in the last fifteen years. The Dreamcast introduced a built-in modem in 1999, whereas previous attempts at internet support have been aftermarket accessories like the Satellaview or the Sega Channel. Despite this, the idea of distributing games over data lines was years away from viability, with the 64DD, PS2 Hard Drive, and Phantom Console's graves as trail markers. Now, hard drives and internet connections are standard, along with digital storefronts and infrastructure for downloads and even streaming. Put simply, the line between consoles and PCs has been completely blurred, the only true differences having more to do with politics than hardware. PCs are still fundamentally the wild west while consoles are gated communities. Literally anyone can develop a PC game, and even get it released through a proper online store like Steam or Humble Bundle. Console developers have to offer their firstborn just to be put on a waiting list for a development kit. Granted, that line is blurring, but there's very little point in waiting for the treaty to be signed if the arms race is already over by way of stalemate. 

Between Miitomo and the runaway hit Pokemon GO, Nintendo has shown they're not above going to third parties for hardware, the taste of Philips out of their mouth at long last. Still, what we've always loved about Nintendo is how they go their own way, for better or for worse. Though they may have tread lightly in bringing the NES to America, compromises have been few and far between, much to the chagrin of developers, publishers, and even gamers. The Super Nintendo sold well enough, but if not for the Mortal Kombat blood controversy and Sega looking the other way to EA bypassing normal publishing channels to bring Madden to the Genesis, the SNES could have buried the competition as the NES had done to the likes of the Master System and Atari 7800. The N64's use of cartridges (in)famously drove away powerhouses like Square to Sony's bed, alienating those RPG fans who had cut their teeth on the SNES. Again, it sold well enough, but we have to ask what could have been. Similarly, the GameCube was a reasonable success, but now stands as Nintendo's second worst-selling home console, after the Wii U (we won't count the 1973 Color TV-Game since it's a Pong console), owed again to a proprietary format and a reluctance to play ball with third parties. 

Meanwhile, in the portable and handheld market, Nintendo's only true blunder to this day is the Virtual Boy. Otherwise, even the weakest link in the Game Boy/GBA/DS chain has been a license to print money. It's almost hilarious how people would forgive serious flaws like a blurry, spinach-green display on the original or a dim-as-moonless-midnight screen on the Advance and still send the things flying off the shelf. It took Sony pouring buckets of money and marketing into the PSP to even make a dent in that wall (Rest In Peace, Neo Geo Pocket Color). It finally took the iPhone to make Nintendo sit up and notice they weren't alone in their dominance of the handheld market. As much as I laughed at the prospect of iPhone/Android games and still hesitate to call it a serious platform, just like consoles, the line is blurring and it's all getting better. I still love my Vita, and I still have my original PSP, and if I could only have one, I'd take either of those over the best iPhone or iPad any day. The problem, the final hurdle for mobile phones and tablets to overcome, is the interface. Touch controls and gyroscopes do not give the same satisfying, tactile feedback as buttons or even knobs. Nintendo seems to understand this. That's why I think they're making a legitimately smart move in presenting the NX as a souped-up gaming tablet, following patterns laid down by the likes of the NVidia Shield or the Wikipad or some of Sony's Xperia devices. Some may be scratching their heads, but I think this move is the best decision they've made in years. They're still going their own way as they always have, it's just down a trail they blazed years ago.