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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (4/16/17) 7:01pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Paper Girls (vols. 1 & 2)
Movies:  Logan
TV:  <none>

Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughn (writer) and Cliff Chiang (artist) (vols. 1 & 2)
These are the first two collected volumes of Brian K. Vaughn's sci-fi comic about a group of teenaged newspaper-delivery girls whose small town is attacked by time travelers.  It's a period piece, set in 1988.

On some level, this whole goddamn property makes you throw up your hands and say, "well, OF COURSE."  The 80s are lousy with 'kids on bikes saving the world' -- Goonies, Monster Squad, E.T., and on and on.  It's so prevalent that, when Stranger Things came out, everyone who watched it instantly knew, "Right, it's another story in *that* canon."

But hell if I can think of a single one that ever featured a group of girls.  So that story idea's just been laying there on the ground for anybody to pick up.  And that's sad, both because representation matters, and because it's a golden opportunity to give us the story we're well familiar with -- "welp, looks like this hardscrabble bunch of mismatched kids are the only folks who can stop this supernatural threat" -- and play it out in a novel way.  If you're a pre-teen girl in 1988, you're living a different life than a pre-teen boy in 1988, and Paper Girls has the opportunity to play off of that.

All of that is a lot of talk *about* the story or *around* it.  As for the story itself, it's hard to say much besides "it's good".  Brian K. Vaughn is a damn good storyteller, so he gives us sharp, emotionally-grounded characters and sets them against the terrifying threat from beyond.  He weaves the plotty "fight the bad guys" threats in with the characters facing up against their own issues.  It's solid storytelling.  If you know your 80s adventure movies, you know Paper Girls.

Apart from the "it's not a bunch of white dudes" quality, the first volume fits right in with this old pop-culture genre.  The only element that's outo f place, making it feel like a modern story instead of an artifact of the 80s, is its emphasis on mystery.  In most of the old 80s stories, you very quickly knew what the threat was.  Maybe in the first scene there was just a terrifying thing in the shadows (say, a briefly-glimpsed creature in the shed in E.T.), but you quickly figured out, oh, they're fighting against, I dunno, griffins or whatnot, and there happens to be a kindly old man at the nearby museum who tells the audience all about griffin lore.  Great, we know all the rules, and off we go.

In this one, they present the girls with a massively confusing scenario, and they don't hand-hold at all.  Now there are time-travelers, and they all speak something as baffling as Middle English, and cause and effect are messed up.  Mr. Vaughn keeps your perspective locked down with the bewildered protagonists almost all the time.  The few times he cuts away from the girls -- usually to drop in on the time-travelling antagonists -- it serves only to confuse things further.

But we're modern readers.  We've seen LOST.  We know how to enjoy these kinds of games.  And I sense the books are designed to reward multiple readings.

And then there's book two, with its time jump into 2016.  I felt pretty good about that.  It felt analogous to a TV series, where a new season has to square the circle of giving us the same show -- keeping what we liked about season one -- but changing it up somehow.  This allowed them to keep building the heroes' relationships, and keep diving into the world building, but giving them a new angle to explore.  Plunking the girls into 2016 is a pretty direct way to discuss these cusp-of-adulthood kiddos facing up to an uncertain future.  (And hell, if adult!Erin giving kid!Erin a hug doesn't punch you in the gut, you may not have a gut to be punched.)

All in all, it's a great read -- a rollicking adventure story with a keen empathy for its teen protagonists.  It'll be worth rereading, and I'll hope against hope for a film adaptation.


Logan
This is the 2017 X-Men film where an aging Wolverine is tasked with saving a young mutant.

I watched this at the Drafthouse, and I was stuck next to a chatty douchebag.  He was talking just enough to be annoying, but not enough to get me to do anything -- though to be fair, it takes a lot to get me to do anything, because I am a wuss who hates conflict.  So I suffered through it.  Hundreds of hotel patrons got nearly choked to death at the hotel, and Douche Dude chortled "cleanup on aisle five!"[1]  Eriq La Salle appeared, and he helpfully pointed out to his girlfriend that he played "the black doctor on ER".  And so on, every ten or fifteen minutes or so.

We'll get back to him in a bit.

Logan made me think about grimdark.  "Grimdark" has been a sort of catch-all term for the film-and-comic rebellion against the bright, cheerful superhero world of bronze-age comics.  Grimdark is where everything became pained, serious, and, well, grim, and dark.  The genre always annoyed me, and I couldn't really put my finger on why.

This movie helped me bring that annoyance into sharper focus. 

Logan, by the construction of it, feels like it *should* be 100% straight-up grimdark.  It has massive amounts of violence, earning it its hard R.  Its hero is put through hell, and there is never anything aspirational about his world or his circumstances.  At one point, they even hang a lantern on how this movie undercuts the tone of the old comics, with Wolverine dismissing an old X-Men comic[2], saying "it didn't happen like that".  Everything about Logan feels like it should be the epitome of grimdark.

But my gut instinct is that no, Logan actually isn't grimdark.

And I puzzled over that for a while.  I finally started to piece together why I felt that way when I had this thought: no good guy ever cries in grimdark.  Now, you can wisely point out that there isn't much crying in Logan, certainly not from its protagonist.  But imagine one of the heroes just sobbing -- like, full-out, ugly crying -- in 300.  Or The Dark Knight Returns.  Or The Crow.  That image seems ludicrous, just fundamentally at odds with the picture -- in a way that's not true for Logan.  Crying fits in with that movie.  When Logan carries Xavier out of the house, assuring him "It wasn't me.  It wasn't me," I can't rightly remember if he had tears in his eyes or not.

And, if you turn that thought around *again*, it doesn't make sense, on the face of it, that crying seems so *out of place* for grimdark.  After all, the ostensible point of the genre is to show a world that's painful and awful, and to subvert the bland decency of our hero narratives, the plain, untroubled goodness that doesn't match reality.

But I don't think grimdark is about that anymore.  Maybe it never was.

I don't think grimdark is *about* pain or awfulness -- or grimness, or darkness, for that matter.  I think it's about invulnerability.  It's not about "this world is brutal and terrifying and painful".  It's about "this world is brutal and terrifying and painful and lookit how THIS GUY doesn't give a FUUUUUCK."  You may think grimdark is about the world where somebody might burn your hand with a cigarette, but it's more precise: it's the world where you stare down that dude with the cigarette the whole time, right up to the point where you make him eat it.

And again, you'd think this would circle right back around to Logan: Logan is canonically invulnerable and has the snide distancing to match.  And you could argue that the whole movie is about Logan endlessly "refusing the call", explaining to anyone who'll listen that he doesn't have to help *anybody*.[3]

And here's where I do some serious hair-splitting -- but I think it's relevant hair-splitting.  To quote my favorite Roger Ebert line for the zillionth time, "A movie is not about what it is about -- it is about *how* it is about what it is about."  Grimdark movies are about invulnerability.  But the *how* of it is, they are about *celebrating* invulnerability.  Yes, everything is awful, but let's watch this man exemplify the masculine virtue of stoicism on the "insane" difficulty setting.  Isn't that awesome?  Isn't he a TOTAL BADASS?  Don't YOU wish you could MAN UP THAT HARD when BAD GUY DRUG DEALERS ARE COMING AFTER YOUR GIRL?

I think it's one reason the genre can feel so teenagerish.  If you're a teenager -- or at least you're a teenager like I was a teenageer -- you're most likely a live wire of feeling too much of everything, all the time, so a protagonist who feels nothing -- or responds only with very focused (and impressively productive) anger -- is something to aspire to.  "Man, if I were just as snarling and badass as that movie hero, maybe I wouldn't be frustrated and sad all the time."

So that brings us around, yet *again*, to Logan.  I think the main difference here -- the reason why it doesn't feel like sulking, teenagerish grimdark -- is how the *movie* feels about Logan's attitude.  This is the movie where Logan *wants* to be that grimdark hero, but the film undercuts that at every turn.  It has Caliban there to literally make fun of him for that shit.  It has Xavier there to tell him, straight-out, that these moments of human connection are life's whole point.  It has Laura there, to show an example of this unrestrained id, and to force Logan to exemplify better behavior.  And the whole plot hinges on Logan realizing that, deep down, that's just not who he is.  He's not the sneering "whatever" teenager.  Instead, he's gonna die to save a kid he barely knows.[3]

Let's run a bit further with this idea that grimdark celebrates dude-like invulnerability -- heroes that are emotionally unaffected by adversity beyond getting angry and lashing out effectively at it.  That means that the adversity has to be something you *can* lash out at.  If the awfulness is there purely to test the hero's mettle, he has to be able to bash the badness's face in while being emotionally unaffected.

As a side note, this is one place where grimdark diverges from noir.  In film noir, the *real* bad guys are untouchable.  In Chinatown, Jake can get back at the low-level thugs that go after him, but the figure in charge of it all is too rich and too powerful for Jake, or for any comeuppance, to touch him.  The grimdark version of that would've had Jake get revenge via ANGRY PUNCHING and then glower and walk away, because apparently happiness at accomplishing your goals is for, like, women or pussies.

But coming back (yet again) to Logan, our hero is not facing *grimdark* adversity.  Not quite, anyway.  On one level, yes, there's a bunch of bad guys who can get filleted like so much tilapia.  And there's an Evil Research Company that can get, if not stopped, at least get smacked down with a noticeable (and high-body-count) setback.

But that's just the surface.  There are undercurrents beneath it.  Logan faces other, bigger problems.

Watching a parental figure slowly die of Alzheimer's is the least grimdark adversity there is.  It's surprising, if you think about it, because as life events go, that is as miserable and as bleak as anything is.  If grimdark were just about grim darkness, dementia would be first in line.  But imagine a parent dying of Alzheimer's in a Zach Snyder movie.  It's out of place.  There's nothing to punch there.  There's no productive anger to be had.  And the sulky-teenager "Whatevs, I ain't emotionally affected by your BULLshit" move doesn't make your hero look strong -- only weak, or worthless, or even sociopathic (and not the likable sociopathy of your Dexter-style antihero, either).

And in a larger sense, this is a movie about growing old.  It's about Logan growing old.  It's about Logan getting slowly poisoned to death by his own skeleton.  And grimdark doesn't *do* growing old.  It's about being young, and virile, and willing to punch that crackhead in the face in a dark alley.  "Yeah, I'm suffering the age and bodily decay that will lead inevitably to death.  Whatevs."  That just doesn't have the same "YEAH YOU TELL 'EM" feel that snarking/shooting at bad guys has.

So, again, we've got a movie with lots of hallmarks of grimdark: bleak content, a hero known for both emotional and physical invulnerability, and a sense that it's undercutting certain candy-colored, superhero source material.  But it's using that material to do something that undercuts grimdark.  In essence, it's saying, "You know these last ten, fifteen years of superhero movies? these past thirty years of superhero comics? all of them grimdarking so hard they might deplete the world's supplies of black eyeliner and writerly angst?  Aren't they all... well, a bit fucking stupid?"

And that, in turn, takes me back to the douchebag in the theater.

'cos I think what was most frustrating for me was a feeling that he was *watching the movie wrong*.  That's always a danger, when a movie walks this sort of tightrope.  You're going to get the Chappelle Show fan who's saying, "Ha!  Yeah, black dudes really *are* that dumb!"  You're going to get the going to get MAGA Starship Trooper fan who thinks his favorite movie totally pro-Trump.  When you undercut something, a lot of fans will just assume it's another example of that thing.

And to muddy the waters even further, a movie can be both.  The Princess Bride is both a winking satire of old fantasy tropes *and* one of the best fantasy movies ever made.  So maybe Logan is more of an inkbot test: I saw the satire of masculine stoicism that I wanted to see, and my neighbor saw a buff dude cutting bad guys.  We both saw the movie, just different bits.

Logan plays a pretty intense game.  It's upending the cheery, upstanding old superhero tropes where a square-jawed hero always does the right thing, saves the orphanage, and advises us to buy war bonds.  But it's also a pretty savage take on the grimdark genre that rebelled against those very same tropes.

And I think that, having done all that, all the movie's 'creative capital' was spent.  There wasn't anything left in the coffer to make, say, interesting secondary characters.  The nurse trying to hire Logan and the gangsters who fight him in the first action scene both feel like they came right out of the "Unfortunate Studio Executive Stereotypes of Mexicans" game-book.
"The evil scientist" and "the bounty hunter" both waste amazing actors on bland roles.  And honestly, this movie's story has, at most, one or two surprises.  If you've seen the trailer, and you've seen movies, you can work out the entire plot before the opening credits.  Beyond its unique tone (and remarkably effective future-forecasting and special effects), Logan just isn't a movie that zigs when you expect it to zag, and you have to be okay with that.

But I enjoyed the movie, and it'll stick with me, for finding a thing in the superhero genre that I don't often see: sadness.  Not the petulant ragefest of grimdark, and not the perfunctory, press-F-to-pay-respects mourning of older, happier superhero stories, but a place to stare down the barrel of mortality, and sigh, and acknowledge that this is how it ends.

(And yes, next time I'll raise an order card with a handwritten complaint.)


For next week: so much media-writing still to catch up on, including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Louis CK's 2017, OJ: Made in America, and Made to Kill .  At the moment, I'm catching up on podcasts and finally reading On the Origin of Species.  (Weird to get caught up in arguments about evolution and realize I'd never read that.)  While exercising, I'm on season 11 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.

_______
[1] If you do improv long enough, you find a new reason to hate the average movie-talker: you just loathe how shitty they are at comedy.
[2] There's a useful lesson here for improvisors: you can say 'no' to an offer even as your character does exactly what the offer asks for.
[3] Though not a 'real' comic -- one of the few bits of studio interference on Logan was that the suits insisted no actual Marvel comics appear inside the movie.  So they had to commission new comics and distress them for the picture.
[4] Some perceptive friends have pointed out that his final "So this is what it feels like", while it most likely means "this is what dying feels like", could also read as "this is what it's like to die *for* someone" or even "this whole thing is what it feels like to be connected to people again."

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