One Bad Day: Breaking Bad, The Killing Joke & Something or Other about Mark Millar

Posted by Charles Reece, October 2, 2013 09:48am | Post a Comment

As if you don't know, that there is Jesse Pinkham from Breaking Bad having one very fucked up day (in the episode "Granite State"). He's just witnessed his ex-girlfriend, Andrea, get knocked off by Todd, whom Jesse has appositely summed up as "that dead-eyed Opie piece of shit." Todd belongs to criminal clan of ratio-instrumentalist racist rednecks and he's the least emotional of the bunch when it comes to taking care of business. He shot a child witness last season without flinching, now terrorizes Skyler by threatening to kill her baby girl Holly should anything come out to the cops about Lydia (Todd's crush and criminal business partner), followed by murdering Andrea to prove a point. The point being that Jesse better keep cooking meth for Lydia and the rednecks or he'll kill Andrea's boy, Brock, just as easily as he did his mother. Contrary to the cannibalistic hillbilly savages that Hollywood tends to depict the under-employed and -privileged white Southerner as, Uncle Jack's family are real cold motherfuckers. Everything is about profit and risk assessment. They are the smartest criminals in the the entire five season run of the show. And they're probably the most evil, too, for that same reason.

Andrea's murder is the most heinous of all in a story that has featured many, many murders. Why? Because of its iniquity: she was killed because of what it would mean to Jesse, not because -- as was the case in killing Hank or even the boy witness last season -- she had anything on Todd's family or business associates. In terms of the criminal ratiocination that makes up the show's diegesis, her death was the most unfair. Hank was actively going against the criminals, so chose to put his life at risk. And the boy on a bike, at least potentially, had knowledge that might've been actively used against Walt, Todd and the others. Andrea had nothing on which to ever actively go against the rednecks. Instead, she was killed as pure means to an end of which she had absolutely no knowledge or ability (potential or actual) to alter as a free agent -- that end being the continuance of Uncle Jack's family business. Her death was pure collateral damage, in other words. Hank went out with honor, accepting his fate as a result of trying to live as a moral agent, Andrea's life was simply used by others.

Writer-director Peter Gould effectively portrays the emptiness of Andrea's murder by pulling away from it, making it small to the viewer:

She is a supporting character, of course, so what we feel for her is based on how she was depicted in previous episodes (entirely sympathetic, I'd say) and what she means to a main character, or how she's reflected in that character. This isn't her storyline, but Jesse's, so the degree to which we feel anything about her murder will ultimately rest on how much we identify with him. Although Gould pulls the camera back, making her death appear meaningless in the overall scheme of things, by stopping at Jesse's vantage point, the viewer is now aligned with his perspective, reminding us that Andrea's death isn't so meaningless after all. This is good, solid filmmaking.

That scene made me think of a more notorious shooting of a supporting character for the purpose of dramatically affecting the main character -- the Joker's crippling of Barbara "Batgirl" Gordon in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke. (The book's been in the geek news because of Grant Morrison's recently spouted theory on the ending -- i.e., 'killing joke' refers to Batman's killing the Joker.) As the Joker explicitly states, the reason behind his shooting her through the spine, disrobing her and taking pictures of his crime is "to prove a point" to Batman and, by implication, the reader. Like Uncle Jack's use of Andrea's death, Barbara's crippling has little to do with the Joker's relation to her, but what it might mean to his actual nemesis, Batman. Clearly more insane than the rednecks, the Joker's intent is to mentally destroy Jim Gordon (Barbara's father) by torturing him, both physically (beating him up, stripping him naked and putting him a cage on display to the Joker's band of freaks and loonies) and mentally (by not only shooting his daughter, but forcing him to look at pictures of her bloody, naked body). This is supposed to prove to Batman that everyone's choices in life are arbitrary, dependent on the vicissitudes of the day. Because of one bad day, Batman dresses up as a bat just like the Joker gave up on making any sense of the world, either legally or rationally. If the chief representative of the law can be driven to the brink, then our laws are shown to rest on an abyss, or structured around a big gaping existential hole.

Despite the fact that Chief Gordon doesn't go nuts and insists that the vigilante known as Batman bring in the Joker "by the book" (yeah, sure), the story still concludes that these two arch-nemeses are sides of the same psychological coin. And even though Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises was a more fully realized exploration of this theme (using Harvey Dent as the lawman who breaks down), the comic said it first and said something more than most Batman stories up to that time. Moore, however, would eventually not think so:

But at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker -- and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they're just two comic book characters.

Regardless of how much one agrees with this thematic assessment, Moore and Bolland crammed about as much dramatic heft into a Batman one-shot as is probably humanly possible. Moore fills the book with allusions to the history of the character, letting that evoke an emotional density to the character arcs via whatever memories the reader might possess from having read the comics for years and years. And Bolland is particularly skillful in rendering Barbara's mutilation. If her maiming has no resonance in and of itself, that's largely because she was a fairly empty character to begin with and the reader doesn't care about the character of Jim Gordon. The one page depicting her loving relation with her dad before the Joker shows up is probably more characterization than she'd previously received in her entire existence. Bolland makes the shooting about as dramatic and empathic as one could reasonably expect, using a technique that's fairly similar to the Breaking Bad example:

He doesn't pull back as much as Gould does his camera, but Bolland starts off with a perspective that places the reader near the Joker, as if you're one of his gang, then pivots around during the shooting to place you with Jim. This keeps with the two-sided theme of order and chaos, something like: our vigilante fantasies are equally dependent on fantasizing about doing evil as doing good (otherwise, without this desire for evil or chaos, we'd just read comics about pacifists hanging out in a utopian park where everyone minds their own business). And, just like Andrea, Barbara is being used as a means, merely to prove a point the main character. And, just like Todd's action, the shooting is supposed to be chillingly evil.

Going back to at least 1999, in the medieval days of the internet, there's been the "women in refrigerators" interpretation of this scene that takes it as offensive, rather than another example of a supporting character being used to support the main character's narrative. It can be safely claimed that males outnumber females in filling main character roles (in comics, film and TV). That's structurally sexist and, indeed, problematic -- particularly when it comes to doing dastardly things to side characters to effect changes in the lead character. As comics started included more realistic examples of violence to demonstrate just how evil villains are, this resulted in female characters being more likely brutally stuffed in the fridge to see how a male character would react than vice versa. Gail Simone is cautious enough in that link to insist that she's talking about a trend, i.e., the structural level, not about individual titles that may or may not have dealt dramatically responsible with a female character's death or maiming. But, in other places, she threw caution to the wind:

There's no question that Alan Moore (in one of his worst stories ever--I love the guy, but the hatred of women in Killing Joke is palpable) meant to imply a rape-like scenario. It's rape without the sex, in other words.

Love Alan Moore. He's a genius. But this book is exploitive and cruel and is the very definition of a Woman in Refrigerator scenario; the long-running female character in question, Babs, is put through the grinder in the most vouyeristic and (ostensibly) tittilating fashion possible, and is then pretty much forgotten by all involved. She's not the story, the outrage of Batman and Gordon is ten times as important as the act itself.

That's pretty much the phrase's standardization as an ideological cudgel -- used to bash, whack-a-mole style, any instance of a female supporting character who experiences violence. Once applied to a particular comic (as in the list Simone and pals made), the misogynistic reading becomes fairly widespread. Before having reread The Killing Joke, I had come to believe Batgirl was actually raped. And it was just this year that some concerned citizen filed an official request that The Killing Joke be removed from a Columbus, Nebraska library for "advocating rape and violence." A like-minded opinion of the book can be heard from Jeffrey A. Brown who called it an example of “inherent misogyny of the male-dominated comic book industry.” (ibid.) The library's board members showed more sense and a keener eye for reading text than either the censorious patron or the academic, denying the request by noting that there is no rape in the comic.

This is trickle down slander. Although he doesn't use the word, Osvaldo Oyola's recent queer reading of the book uses an inferred homosexual bond between Batman and the Joker to reinforce the misogynistic interpretation of l'affaire Batgirl. While not explicitly committing to the Joker raping Barbara (since Moore no where mentions it), there is to him, like to Simone, a "suggestion that she’s raped" that later in the essay becomes "likely": "Even the most contentious scene in the graphic novel, the brutal shooting of Barbara Gordon, leading to her disrobing, (likely) rape and photographing, is attended to in silence." It is this scene that is "part of what makes The Killing Joke flawed" and he's clear enough that his offense at the "brutal treatment of a beloved female character" is largely dependent on this supposed implication (insertion) of rape.

It's not the brutal shooting that's cited as being so troubling, but, "[t]he sexualization of the violence against her [that] serves to give the scene just the kind of morbid appeal that plagues a lot of contemporary comics." The "plague" I take to mean something along the lines of women in refrigerators (recall Simone's accusations of "voyeuristic" and "titillation fashion"). The misogyny is to be inferred from the enjoyment the implicitly male readers are taking not from reading what they consider to be a well told Batman story, but in the enjoyment of seeing Barbara gets crippled and, even worse, raped after being crippled. This is an specially uncharitable reading of the fans of this book, not to mention a simplistic take on how narrative identification works in a story, as it simply assumes that no one is being dramatically affected by Barbara's ordeal as a supporting character (despite her being a "beloved female character"). In other words, this imagined reader doesn't feel for her in a way that places him in the perspective of Jim Gordon, but is instead sadistically enjoying it all through Joker's eyes. (He would also have to ignore the way Bolland drew the scene with the shift in perspective.) Moore is not giving Batgirl the respect she deserves in the interest of strengthening the homosexual fantasy of a patriarchal comic book boys club:

Like an especially twisted reference to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men (1985), this is a love triangle, with Barbara playing the proxy for the desire between the “rival suitors.” Sedgwick writes, “in any male-dominated society, there is a special relationship between male homosocial (including homosexual) desire and the structures maintaining and transmitting patriarchal power. . . this special relationship may take the form of ideological homophobia, ideological homosexuality, or some highly conflicted but intensively structured combination of the two." Thus, the maiming and violating of Barbara Gordon is not about her at all, but about the Joker’s desire for Batman. She is the proxy through which this desire is expressed as it literally serves to summon Batman to attend to him so they may take up their “highly conflicted, but intensively structured” relationship.

What belies this reading is how it completely ignores Bolland's actual drawing of a triangle configuration with a supporting character in the middle of the Joker and Batman. Barbara is only shown in between her dad and the Joker (after she gets shot), but Jim is literally placed in a cage between the two just before they begin to fight:

Is Jim serving as a proxy for the Joker's desire? Well, yes, the desire to prove a point to Batman, but not necessarily any desire for Batman. Then again, the queer reading is pretty much irrefutable since anything can be read that way. When you have a society with an overrepresentation of men in most of its halls of power, then it's quite obviously the case that power relationships will be "homosocial." Making the destruction of Barbara the center of the Joker-Batman struggle artificially reinforces the queer reading by portraying it as misogynistic (boys being boys by taking pleasure in destroying girls). Oyola only brings up Jim's traumatization only to dismisses it as homophobia: "The image of the Commissioner stripped naked and made to wear a studded leather bondage collar does a lot to equate madness and queerness run rampant." (This is to assuage the queer reading of any anxiety towards possibly blaming homosexuality for the misogyny, because the book's also homophobic.) This assumes that bondage is prominently associated with queerness. Very dubious, given the many sites and magazines that are clearly aimed at the sexually straight. For example, the most commercially popular bondage model, Dita Von Teese, hardly seems aimed at gay guys. And, from what I could find, the vast majority of BDSM practitioners do appear to be heterosexual. So, just to get this straight: taking pictures of a crippled Batgirl is "egregious," "brutal," of a "morbid appeal" and "part of what makes The Killing Joke flawed," but keeping the Commish naked and chained, beating him, and psychologically torturing him for days is merely homophobia if someone sees that as evil?

Ignoring or dismissing Jim's treatment is pretty common among the book's critics. Focusing on his trauma, though, dispels the whiff of misogyny -- the women in refrigerators reading -- by making it two men fighting over another man. The showdown's about what Jim represents to Batman and the Joker. His torture is what's being used to make a point to Batman. I don't see how Moore could've appeased the naysayers without turning the book into a story about Batgirl. How else would you break Jim if not through his daughter -- at least, that would parallel what Joker and Batman went through? It was the death of family that lead to both Bruce Wayne's and the Joker's breaking points. So it makes thematic sense that Barbara would be used to dismantle Jim's psyche. Does anyone condemn the comic for promoting patricide because of the "shallow" use of Bruce Wayne's parents? Who were they as people besides giving Gotham their son? 

Few, if any, seem equally offended at the treatment of this other much beloved character. Like Jesse, Jim isn't just shot and left alone, but is imprisoned and tortured with the intent to psychologically break him down, to fundamentally alter who is for the rest of what is sure to be a miserable existence with no end in sight. If anyone is suggestively raped here, with or without the sex, it's Jim. Consider this explanation, from Feminist Praxis, for why rape is worse than murder:

people tend to think that a rapist doesn’t take your life away, but they do. they took away my ability to trust, reason or think clearly without wondering what a person’s intent is. rapists took away a life filled with hope and wonder and instead replaced it with a life filled with regret and uncontrollable anxiety. am i supposed to feel “lucky” that they left me alive? because what kind of life is it where i have to second guess the people around me? 

Continue reading...

Watchmen (2009): Some Arguments about Design

Posted by Charles Reece, March 14, 2009 11:32pm | Post a Comment

The Impotent God Snake

I love discussing issues of time in comics and film, so Zack Snyder's Watchmen makes for a good opportunity to reflect on its relation to both media. I'll be returning to this sometime in the future. For now, I'm going to stick to a few problems with Alan Moore's conception of Doc Manhattan that the movie doesn't do much to improve on. There is one improvement, though, namely the Mjölner-sized hammer he has hanging between his legs, befitting a puny scientist resurrected as a god. Dave Gibbons merely gave him the statistical average. The Doc can create anything from anything else -- perhaps ex nihilo, if you believe in miracles -- and exists in all points in time simultaneously. One can't get more virile than absolute mastery of matter. However, even though he can still sexually please his woman, he's ontologically impotent-- everything already existing as it was/is/will be, independent of his will. His control of matter is constrained by the deterministic course of the world. Thus, the fact that we never get to see the hammer of the gods raised on camera is a telling sign of his lot in existence (as well as the failure of our last, best chance to see expensive CGI-porn). While Doc's attending the Comedian's funeral, he's shown to exist in Vietnam, where the latter murders a girl who's pregnant with this child. The girl, like the Comedian, is already dead to Doc, so he stands by flaccidly and "lets" the murder occur. When Doc voices concern, he gets a moral lecture from the most nihilistic of the bunch:

The Comedian elaborates on why Doc's relationships all turn to shit, but there's a metaphysical problem here. For example, Doc is shown doing some sort of research when he's first introduced (in both the film and comic), but what exactly is the purpose of doing research when he already remembers what he's going to discover? This is the same old theological paradox that exists for the monotheists who believe in an omniscient god and free will: either everything's determined, because the deity knows what'll happen, or people can freely choose, meaning the deity isn't all-knowing. Some theologians have tried some hoo-hah to get out of this dilemma by suggesting God exists outside of time, but that's a verbal game. Besides, even if this circumlocution worked, it most clearly doesn't here, since Doc is shown to exist temporally. He didn't create everything, but exists within a creation not of his choosing.

Regardless of the ending (the film's or the comic's), Doc's simultaneity makes the possibility of his being fooled by Ozymandias' plan impossible. Tachyon particles might cause some interruption in his temporal perception during the period T1 to T2, but once in T3, Doc's perception is back -- meaning that he should be able to "remember" his thoughts in T3 before T1 begins. A possible out for this narrative dilemma that wasn't used is suggested by the scene above, as well as the one where Doc and Laurie are on Mars, and he tells her the course of the conversation they're about to have. That is, Doc is cosmologically inert, unable to affect the causal chain of events. All he can do is watch and interact as fate has already determined. As he says, he's a puppet who can see his strings. Had the story consistently depicted him as the self-aware puppet, philosophical nerds like me could've suspended disbelief by saying he goes along with Ozy's plan, knowing of it from the outset, because that's just the way things are to be in the Watchmen's deterministic world. I suspect the reason Moore didn't go this route is because he still wanted to hang on to free will within the book. While rendering Doc's agency impossible, Moore used some Star Trek gobbledy gook in order to keep the surprise of philosophical libertarianism in play.

Wait, No Did Mean Yes?

Snyder's film eroticizes the attempted rape scene, making Sally Jupiter's eventual consensual sex with the Comedian more logical, if more morally twisted. Moore and Gibbons' take was as follows:

For the most part, as he does throughout the film, Snyder slavishly follows Gibbons' panels as a storyboard, but he adds a shot of Sally bent over a pool table, looking at the camera as if there's a part of her that's kind of disappointed the Hooded Justice enters to stop the rape. Now, any fan of Go, Go, Second Time Virgin, Blind Beast or, even The Collector isn't going to have his or her envelope pushed too far by Snyder's little transgressive gesture, but it's a bit surprising when it appears in a $130 million dollar superhero adventure movie. On the other hand, Snyder's conservatism (cf. 300) comes through in the way he sets up the scene: the kino eye ogles Sally's half-naked body -- in an off-Hollywood, Bettie Page kind of way -- just before Comedian enters, as if asking the audience, "What would you do?" This doesn't mean the film justifies Comedian's assault, but it does smack of the scenarists trying to add scriptwriting 101's narrative justification to Moore's more psychologically believable characters -- that is, subsituting a fictional whole for the latter's understanding of sexual desire as nonrational.

An Abattoir of The Mentally Challenged

You'd have to go pretty low on the professional critic foodchain to get one as predictable as The New Yorker's Anthony Lane. If he didn't fancy himself high-brow and have his predecessor's gift at turning a phrase, he'd be about as exciting to read as The Rolling Stone's Peter Travers. Without a hint of irony, his views favor what then-critic François Truffaut long ago sliced and diced as the "tradition of quality" (in "A Certain Tendancy of the French Cinema”). Lane is, in other words, the perfect example of a snotty critic. Nothing wrong with snottiness, mind you, only when it's wrapped around middlebrow moralizing. Like with new money's taste in fashion, just because it's expensive doesn't make it worth wearing. Thus, if a film revels in its genre-ness, Lane isn't going to like it.  Such things aren't what people of imagined distinction are supposed to like.

Lane can't be bothered to think too hard about such obvious trash. Regarding Rorschach's line from the second panel above:

That line from the book may be meant as a punky retread of James Ellroy, but it sounds to me like a writer trying much, much too hard; either way, it makes it directly into the movie, as one of Rorschach’s voice-overs. (And still the adaptation won’t be slavish enough for some.) Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights. In the end, with a gaping pit where New York used to be, most of the surviving Watchmen agree that the loss of the Eastern Seaboard was a small price to pay for global peace.

The only thing Lane manages to get right is that "abattoir of retarded children" was written by an author trying too hard. However, the author is the diegetic Rorschach, not the realworld Moore. The line is supposed to be overwrought and funny, not give the audience (well, the target audience) something to quote like it came from Commando. Rorschach's mental life is confabulation, concocted from the jejune conspiracies of Ayn Rand and far right journals:

Rather than acknowledging the drudgery of an always postponed apocalypse, these millenialist types want a good end to history, one that only comes in stories, mostly geared towards children. While no more religious than Rorschach, Rand subsitutes his and the more literally inclined monotheist's fable for reality: "Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong" (from here). There is always an end. To admit otherwise would be a slippery slope to Hell, or some equivalent, such as Continental philosophy. Kitschy, purple prose is nothing if not pretentious, so what else should those pretending to have the final answer to everything write like? (That's why modernized English versions of the Bible don't work: the style doesn't match the content's seriosity.) Rorschach's life is his own version of an old children's radio show about a masked vigilante. Of course, he tries too hard -- that's the point. Fanboy, all too fanboy.

Moore's "commentary" on the character is, I believe, summed up at the end of the book where Rorschach's last hope at getting "the truth" out there is with the nutjob journalists to whom he sent his journal. Unfortunately, the humor is botched in the film due to its leaving the newsstand interactions (depicted above) out. The viewer doesn't get the feel for just how nutty The New Frontiersman is by showing a slovenly fat, possibly liberal guy reaching for the stack where the journal is lying. Like all on the far right, the threat of violence is all Rorschach has to get his point across. With him dead, that's that.

Of course, stuff has to get left out (and the often off-panel fight scenes have to be beefed up to a commercially re-spectacle level), but the major problem with the film is that it doesn't re-interpret what it leaves in. Instead, its fidelity to the included makes the whole movie feel like the comic, but with pages cut out. The big reveal of Rorschach's face, for example, loses a lot in translation without the minor appearances of his conspiracist secret identity month to month.

It's these hacked out lacunae that result in the final third of the film feeling like it was tacked on. As Night Owl II and Rorschach are investigating the cancerous deaths of Manhattan's known associates, they discover Ozy's business has something to do with the victims. Upon flying to his arctic hideaway to ask him about it, he tells them something like, "by the way, I just murdered millions of New Yorkers."

Speaking of The End, It's Nigh Ludicrous as Ever

Along with Alan Moore's name, this is the other most noticeable present absence:

For the smartest guy on the planet, Ozy's not much more than a brutish utilitarian, using the hedonic calculus as if it were one of those bones at the beginning of 2001. Regardless of whether he's fooled the world into thinking his New York holocaust is the act of invading alien squids (comic), or Doc Manhattan's playing the God of Abraham (film), there's some obvious flaws in the plan. While the plan in the comic plays to the xenophobia that exists in all cultures, bringing them all together multilaterally against the Big Other, it fails to take into account that after, say, 10 years of no alien reappearing, societies will go back to fearing each other. This is something like black nationalists and white supremacists postponing their differences until they've together vanguished their common enemy, the Jews. A few years of peace from a war that wasn't definite hardly warrants (from an utilitarian perspective) the killing of millions. And while the film's continuing watchful eye of a present God does away with the need to continually kill more people to keep the danger imminent, it's a bit hard to swallow that Russia's forgotten that God's an American. I'd say the movie ending probably works better in terms of plausibility, but the comic's ending has more of connection (aesthetic, formal, ideological) with the superhero genre.

Ah well, the story is more about power than any particular philosophical position or the logic of the plot -- another point about the comic/film to which I'll hopefully return. But I'm tired, so I'm going to shut up now.