Category Archives: TV

You Gotta Make Your Own Stuff Work Out: Reflecting on Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye #6

You gotta make your own stuff work out. 

Writing is hard, even when you’re writing about things you love for nothing but yourself. It’s hard because writing requires something of you, from you. It doesn’t matter what. The act of writing is the act of self expression and vulnerability and frustration. 

Writing about things you love is not any easier because inevitably the things we love are busted and a mess and half- taped together. But you have to make it work. You gotta make your own stuff work out. 

Comics are broken and busted and exploitive and a mess. One of the most highly regarded superhero comics of the 21st century (Shelfdust’s 100 Greatest Comics of All Time list has fourissues appearing), Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and his primary artistic partner David Aja, is, at last, being adapted into a new massive Disney+ series with Jeremy Renner’s version of the character. The show isn’t shy about the inspiration, wholesale lifting Aja’s cover design and major set pieces. And it’s no criticism, the source material is rich and exciting. It’s a testament to the defining work these creators did that they are inextricable from the character. 

But comics and film, they’re busted. Fraction and Aja get little more than a thank you, no compensation for the work, no royalties on the tv show… it’s hard to love these things.

But we try, because to give up on it all,what do we close ourselves off from? We celebrate what is good in hopes that by so doing  these works of art and commerce can enrich and enliven us and others.

Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye is about a broken man who does his best but can’t put the pieces together to be the hero in his personal life that he presents to the world as an Avenger. A blond carnie with an Errol Flynn obsession, Clint Barton is a mere mortal among superpowered beings. Throughout the series he is beat up, bandaged or otherwise in over his head. The series’ sixth issue, “Six Days in the Life Of,” is perhaps Fraction and Aja’s most important issue thematically, a thesis statement for Clint’s journey of self destruction and listlessness. No matter what he tries to do, he can’t stop hurting himself or others. His life is splintered around him and the weight of the mess of all his baggage—all his stuff—contorts around him and the page itself. 

At its most basic, the issue follows a week in Clint’s life between Avengers missions as he tries to make his normal life work in the apartment building he purchased at the start of the run, and tries to keep its residents safe from the Eastern European thugs that want to develop the land. The issue is presented nonlinearly, days flashing back and forth. Aja transitions the scenes expertly, finding points of visual similarity to connect disparate moments into a cohesive whole. 

The issue opens with a collection of tiny square panels, of colored wires tangled together as Clint and Tony Stark tensely stare them down. Clint cuts a wire to avoid having to untangle them. We’re led to believe it’s a classic bomb disarmament scene, instead it’s a gag about Clint’s disastrous technology situation. He can’t face the mess of his VCR’s knotted up wires and cuts them away.

Aja’s layouts throughout the issue are a contrasting array of meticulously designed pages and details  and a chaotic interconnecting patchwork of tiny square panels. The classic grid structure  is mostly non-existent and instead Aja embraces the white space of the page, leaving tiny moments hanging in the air as the events of these six days in Clint Barton’s busted up life sweeps him away.

At the start of the week, the tracksuit mafia, as Clint calls the Eastern European thugs, threatens the building and get the better of Clint in a brawl. His first instinct to help the residents is to run away, feeling no one would miss him and their problems would vanish along with him. He places no value on his own life, beat up and lonesome as it is.

It’s only after sending his young protege Kate Bishop his bow as a farewell present that the selfishness of his decision is made clear to him. By running away and assuming his life leaves nothing for others to miss, he discounts those around him. When Kate confronts him he is forced to reckon with the harder truth of his own fear that has isolated him. Ultimately, he decides to confront the tracksuits in a dramatic full page splash that shows no action but conveys the full story.

The issue’s preceding pages are important to understand why this penultimate moment lands and is as dramatically effective as it is. As noted, up until this point the pages have been cobbled together by small disjointed moments. The complex and crowded panelling, the jumping around out of order, all inform us of Clint’s emotional state. There is something deeply wrong with him that leaves him unable to embrace those around him, to piece together his daily life or even recall it properly. It is a morass of moments and experience that he can’t quite bring into a cohesive whole until the issue’s end.

Writer Matt Fraction, when he was active online before smartly disappearing, has been remarkably open with his struggles with mental health, depression, and alcoholism and it is all but impossible  to read Clint Barton’s passive self destruction as anything but a deeply personal catharsis. Even superheroes can be damaged. The trick is to keep fighting.

The time jumps and dizzying Tetris layouts are rarely confusing thanks to Aja’s meticulous design, but they reward a close reading and rereading. The shifts are not random, instead focused on events or items that overlap and relate. Clint’s neighbor’s busted tv is because of his first skirmish with the tracksuits. Kate’s lecture is a direct response to his wrapping up the bow and handing it off to a bike courier in his apartment. The opening scene where he is setting up his home theater is a direct result of both of these events. 

Reading this issue, knowing how Clint gets to the point that he has asked Tony to help him set up the tv, having been challenged by Kate to stay and fight for the life he wants to have, in order to help his neighbors watch their Christmas specials, makes his brief speech to Tony about making due with what you’ve got even more powerful. On first blush it reads as a single outburst, a frustration with an out of touch billionaire. 

But it’s something more–a man trying for the first time to make an effort to make his messed up little life and all the busted parts of it just work for once. Because you gotta make your own stuff work. It’s the only way through the damn week.

Which takes us back to the splash page at issue’s end. The only glimpse of that Sunday is him stepping out in front of the apartment building in the snow, an arrow nocked. The apartment rises above him, the windows of the building echoing the traditional comics grid structure, tenwindows and a door echoing a twelve panel grid, the bank of snow separating the page into three distinct horizontal moments in time. 

It is a classic heroic moment. The dramatic catharsis of Clint’s nonlinear journey to stand up and put some effort into his life for once. It echoes a classic comic layout, but instead of big bombastic action, the apartment looms over Clint. It is the only thing that matters to him in that moment. The windows and their rectangular resemblance to comic panels guide our eyes across and down the page, forcing us to sit with the time and weight of Clint’s action. After a full issue of small panels representing rapid individual moments, the empty window panels expand the pause into different moments of dramatic tension.

But the emotional end is what follows, as he hosts his neighbors to watch Christmas specials. He’s decided to make this place with all its problems–all his problems– home. No more running.

I read “Hawkeye” for the first time when I was fresh out of college, in Los Angeles far from home and constantly feeling like I had made a monumental error, that I was in over my head and unqualified for what I was doing, and doing it poorly. I was in month four of  a new relationship that was now long distance for a full year, none of my friends or family around to lean on. I didn’t know where I would be in a year or two years or five. At the time, Clint’s speech felt familiar because my life felt a shambles, a broken patchwork of things I couldn’t connect after four years in safety as a student.

Now life is much different, married to that woman whom I left behind for a year, a new father in a home of my own, but I feel the pain in Clint’s attempt to make his broken stuff work no less. 

How often am I reminded that my body, with its inflamed intestines and scarred torso, is a broken thing itself? How often do the anxiety and depression that llurk within the confines of my mind threaten to overtake the things I have accomplished, whisper that I am worthless and i’d be better off hiding away forever where I could never bother anyone again? 

No, I’ve gotta make my own stuff work out. 

What Hawkeye reminds us, this issue particularly, remind us, is that life requires the courage to fight for the things we have that are important to us, even if they’re busted. Even if we have no idea how to do it, even if we can’t really see why they matter or why we matter to anyone else. We make the effort to reach out to a friend to help fix our TV set up, we help a neighbor with their Christmas decorations, or just sit with our dog for a moment at home.

It’s bittersweet to be a comics fan. Because like our own personal lives the business is a mess. I’m excited to watch the new show, to see how it spins the source material with a much different Clint Barton. But it is hard and disheartening to consume these books and shows, even deeply personal ones like Hawkeye issue 4, and know the unfair business practices behind it. But I guess that’s why I keep writing, to try and make these broken things mean something. Because comics, they’re ours, and we gotta make our stuff work.

The Simple Beauty of WandaVision

You would be forgiven for thinking WandaVision was a complex narrative full of redirects, misleads and hidden clues in every frame. An entire ecosystem of takes, theories, and explainers sprang up around the series over the course of its eight week run. I found myself caught up in it, firmly convinced the arrival of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver was a sign of multiverse shenanigans, fueled by speculation of Wanda’s forthcoming appearance in Dr. Strange 2, subtitled In the Multiverse of Madness.

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The Urbane Turtle Year in Review

2020 has been a hard year for everyone, there’s no way to say it that doesn’t sound trite. So let’s get it out of the way.  

All things considered, I’ve been fortunate. But there have been times that living through one more unprecedented event after another has been too much to bear, and there isn’t another dish I can wash. That is where escaping into entertainment has been a saving grace, and luckily there has been a lot to enjoy in pop culture, if nothing else, while we’ve been cooped up.

This list isn’t a Top 10, and it’s not a “Best Of,” I can’t claim to have read or played or watched enough of a cross section of things that came out this year that I can say with confidence they are the best in their given medium. But they are some of the highlights of these dark times for me, ten-ish things that brought me joy or made me think. If you’ve not checked any of these out yet, it’s worth doing so.

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Your Holiday Guide to the DCAU

I pulled this out of the archives of my old tumblr, Tim Likes Comics, dusted it off, and made some minor edits to present to you this helpful guide to celebrating Christmas with the heroes of the DC Universe.

Find yourself having trouble getting into the holiday spirit? Something missing in your life this Christmas season? This looks like a job for Superman. And Batman. And the Martian Manhunter. Because nobody demanded it, I’m going to run down for you fine folks the antidote to this year’s Scrooge Blues and give you the lowdown on what the DC Animated Universe has to offer your eyeballs and cold, cold hearts. Like Batman throwing a cup of scalding hot chicken soup at your face, this cup of DC Holiday cheer is the cure for all ills.

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Christmas with the Joker (Batman: The Animated Series DVD Volume 1 Disc 1)

I’m going to be honest, I’ve never particularly cared for this episode. The animation is some of the show’s worst, it is the first of many Joker stories about Joker hijacking a television feed, and Mark Hamill’s first outing as the Clown Prince of Crime finds him still grappling with how to portray the character. My original write-up of the story here reflects my  long time bias against it. It didn’t help that when my younger brother was just a toddler he would watch this episode on repeat.

Removed a few years from any previous watching, I have to admit… it’s pretty charming. What makes it work is that it’s played straight. The Joker hamming it up is perfectly in character and the use of the canned laughter is pitch perfect.  It’s over the top in a wonderful way and there is a lot of great subtle humor. From Batman having to be coerced into a night off, to his reason for never having seen “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and the general juxtaposition of Batman and Robin at Christmastime, there is something pleasantly absurd and humorous about the entire proceeding. I just can’t help but love Batman refusing to get into the spirit. 

Joker utilizing the Christmas variety show and twisting it to his criminal ways is the kind of thing he would do, and the way he balances the mayhem with his jokes is a fine example of who this show’s Joker is: equal parts clown and criminal. 

Of course, this episode has what every episode of Batman: The Animated Series does, even the worst ones: gorgeous music and lavish background artwork. Even when the animation or writing itself is lackluster the design work and atmosphere are gorgeous. And I’ve got to admit, it’s one of the first classic, memorable episodes of the series. It doesn’t quite have the holiday charm of some of the other episodes of this series, but if you’re looking to combine Batman and Christmas, then how can you ignore this pleasant romp through Gotham City? I also can’t deny the pure nostalgia that goes along with this classic.

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Heart of Ice (Batman: The Animated Series DVD Vol. 1 Disc 2)

This isn’t technically a holiday episode…or at all, really. It explicitly takes place during August. But do we need an excuse to watch one of the best episodes from Batman: The Animated Series? Listen, the snow, Batman having a cold… To me, it all feels like the holiday season. And something about it gives me that cold December evening feeling—so I’m just gonna go ahead and put it in this holiday bunch.

It’s a beautiful, haunting story propelled by the tragic and brilliant acting provided by Michael Ansara. The animation is stunning and seamless—the frost effects on Freeze’s helmet make him look better than he does in any subsequent appearance. It also digs into an interesting character component about Batman. Mainly, that his goal is more than just stopping criminals: it’s about redemption and second chances. He saves Freeze from himself, prevents him from committing murder. But it’s too late—Freeze has already lost the piece of who he is that makes him care about real justice. 

Maybe it isn’t a feel-good story, and it doesn’t really have much thematically to do with the joy of giving, and peace and such that we should look for during this time of year, but it’s…got something that feels kind of sweet, doesn’t it? Batman’s generosity of spirit is as important in August as it is on Christmas Eve.

Oh well, whatever—just watch it. There’s snow. And chicken soup.

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A Bullet for Bullock (B:TAS DVD Vol. 3 Disc 2)

Set in the week between Christmas and New Years Eve, A Bullet for Bullock is a hidden gem from Batman: The Animated Series. With an Emmy-winning score, great animation, and a story that focuses on a supporting character, it’s a superb, noir-inspired hardboiled detective story. The snowy, holiday backdrop perfectly compliments the moody jazz that plays through the episode and makes it feel straight out of a different era. If you are one of those “Die Hard is a Christmas movie!” types, this story should be right up your alley.

Batman The Animated Series’ Bullock is a great, complex character, brought to life with fantastic voice work—as most characters in these cartoons are. His team-up with Batman is handled perfectly, with neither man really liking the other very much. Later episodes focus more on superheroics, so the time spent with a supporting character benefits the world of Gotham as a whole.

While this episode isn’t explicitly holiday related it definitely benefits from its setting. The contrast of the deadly mystery and the jazzy Christmas twist to the score keep the episode off balance.

The somewhat twist ending gives Bullock an almost Scrooge-like lesson to think about. If you’re looking for reasons to watch Batman and want it to coincide with the season—look no further. 

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Holiday Knights (B:TAS DVD Vol. 4 Disc 1)

This is the DCAU Christmas episode that really fills me with nostalgic holiday spirit. It so far outshines Christmas with The Joker as a holiday special. It perfectly combines the holiday spirit with Batman. Written with wit and heart by Paul Dini, it is chock full of humor, action, and emotion. The mix of Animated Series score and classic Christmas tunes is part of what really makes this episode so delightful. From Harley and Ivy’s shopping spree, to Harvey Bullock as the Worst Santa in History, to the subtle playful animation of the new, younger, Robin, there is plenty to love.

With playful and sharp animation, Holiday Knights serves as an excellent introduction to the new look and feel of the final season of the series, now known as The New Batman Adventures.

What I love most about this episode is how much it emphasizes just how hectic Batman’s life is—over the course of just a few days all of these outrageous plots take place, and over the holidays no less! For Batman, there are no days off. Which is exactly what makes the final vignette all the more rewarding. A quiet moment between Jim Gordon and Batman relaxing as old friends and toasting to the new year and hope for better days to come. If that doesn’t capture the essence of this time of year, I don’t know what does.  It is a touching character moment made all the more poignant by how uncharacteristic it is to get in a 20 minute action cartoon.

This is probably THE holiday special to watch this season, if you have time for only one holiday cartoon. Frankly, I can’t understand why it’s not on TV somewhere every year.

BONUS: Holiday Knights was adapted from the BATMAN ADVENTURES HOLIDAY SPECIAL, and while the episode largely improved upon the source material, with a bit more room for the stories to breathe, the voice acting, and the music, there is one tragic piece missing from that book. The Adventures Holiday Special includes a wonderful and moving story featuring Mr. Freeze. Thanks to the release of the movie Sub Zero, Mr. Freeze’s wife Nora was brought back to life,and so the story wouldn’t work anymore. Nonetheless, it is an excellent short story that captures the best parts of the DCAU version of the character. If you can find it, and with some internet sleuthing you may be able to, it’s worth reading for that story alone. 

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BATMAN ADVENTURES HOLIDAY SPECIAL, art by Glen Murukami

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Comfort & Joy (Justice League Season 2 Disc 4)

While I don’t have the nostalgic affection for this that I do for Holiday Knights, since I didn’t grow up with it, this episode is an excellent holiday treat. It’s also a nice breather from the intensity of the Justice League series, especially before the epic finale, STARCROSSED blows everything up.

Taking a break from saving the world  (and the surrounding ones, as they do in the beginning of this episode) the League splits up for a holiday respite. Green Lantern and Hawkgirl spend some quality time together, Superman takes J’onn (Martian Manhunter) home to the Kent farm so he won’t be alone, while Flash takes it upon himself to get the local orphanage the most-wanted toy of the season. All of the stories are charming in their own way, but my favorite is the Clark and J’onn story. Seeing Superman as Clark in this series is simply wonderful, and it is the Kent’s welcoming of the lonely, alien J’onn that is the most heartwarming aspect of this show. And just watching Clark get so excited about Christmas is fun.

The Flash teams up with a super villain to bring some Christmas cheer to the children, and thus brings out the best in him. Meanwhile, GL and Hawkgirl have fun with their superpowers and flirt—thus taking part in one of the most extreme snowball fights in history. 

Justice League spends so much time chasing plots and action set pieces that to spend 20 minutes with these characters is a refreshing examination of who they are as individuals, helping making the subsequent stories even more heartbreaking.

It’s perfectly charming, superbly executed and 100% Christmas Cheer. What a fun way to spend 20 minutes.

That’s all, folks. Hopefully with this trip through the DCAU you’ll be in the spirit of the season and ready for a visit from Ol’ St. Nick.

The Mandalorian and Identity in Exile

The Mandalorian appears to be doing something fascinating in its second season as its threads begin to unravel themselves: Exploring the question of what it means to be “Mandalorian.”

The set up for this exploration seems to have been established near the end of season 1, where Cara Dune explains to Greef Karga that the Mandalorians aren’t a “race,” but rather “a creed.” To be a Mandalorian, as our laconic lead Din Djarin understands it, is to follow this creed to the letter, live in “The Way.” It is a Way of tradition, ritual, and visual signifiers. The helmet becomes the true face, providing a visual identity that binds a disparate people together into one community, regardless of what features might lie beneath the helmet.

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