Monday, December 3, 2012

WALKING DEAD Viewers Made To Suffer

My articles, here, have rather exhaustively documented the wretchedly low quality of the writing of much of THE WALKING DEAD. The persistence of this awfulness suggests a fundamental problem with the authorial talent, namely, the almost complete lack of it. It's a harsh judgment. The writers of TWD have earned it. Earlier this week, I was discussing it over on the Internet Movie Database "Walking Dead" board. A poster, there, suggested the series was its own creature, and that its critics have to stop comparing it to the comic. I replied:

"It's dishonest to say 'you guys have got to move away from the comics here' when the series creators abjectly refuse to do the same. There is, to put the matter more acutely, zero creative work going into the writing of TWD. The writers have taken all of their storylines and nearly all of their characters (along with a large number of random plot scenarios) right out of the comics. And every change they make in adapting the comic to screen--their contribution to it--is for the worse, fouls up things that make sense in the comic, and just makes a mess of what is, in the original, a very well-written tale. The rubbish with which they fill it is, in almost every case, merely cribbed from bad movies and, in particular, soap operas. There's no creativity at work, here--they're just pillaging a superior source and a large compost pile of inferior ones."

Tonight's midseason ender, titled, appropriately, "Made To Suffer," offered even more examples of what I was describing in that little rant.

It kicks off, though, with an example of the same impeccable sense of drama TWD's writing team has always displayed: after spending the entire season building up the conflict with Woodbury (and with Rick and co. armed to the teeth and right outside the town's walls), they abruptly cut away from it entirely, in order to spend the opening of their closer introducing a whole new group of characters. Leading them is a big, hammer-wielding fellow named Tyreese. He's a fan favorite from the comic, but here, he's merely used for filler, something to add running-time to yet another terminally underplotted adventure. To be fair, filler, properly speaking, doesn't add anything but running-time, and that's not really the case here. The arrival of Tyreese is a significant event. It's just totally out-of-place in this particular episode.

As it turns out, it spells bad news for Oscar, as well. TWD has taken a lot of ribbing for treating T-Dog as the Token Black Guy, an obvious redshirt given virtually nothing to do except be black until such time as he could be bumped off. Earlier this season, the writers introduced Oscar, one of the inmates at the prison our heroes have made home. In the same episode in which Oscar was accepted into the group, T-Dog was finally allowed to be eaten by zombies. At the time, it led to a lot of Token Black Guy jokes on the various TWD message boards. At the time, some of these jokes were of questionable taste. Tonight, the writers lived down to all of them, though. The opening introduces Tyreese--by the end of the ep, Oscar is pushing up daisies.

In the comic, the Governor was a fellow who had abandoned himself to abject barbarism--a living symbol of what the world of the dead could do to people if they allowed it. He was set up as the ultimate contrast to Rick, who constantly struggled to hold on to his humanity in a world in which it seemed a burden. Rick and a much larger group of survivors had built something resembling a community at the prison, and it was suggested that the Governor wanted it because it was so much better than Woodbury, which was subject to constant assaults by the dead, and was difficult to keep together. The tv version has reversed this, and makes Woodbury the idyllic locale. Tonight, tv TWD's "Governor" (GINO the Liam Lesser) explicitly rejected the idea of moving Woodbury's population to the prison. He wants to exterminate the group presently occupying it. He offers no reason for this, and, in fact, has no reason, other than that he's the designated villain.

The fact that the Governor kept Penny, his zombified "daughter," on a leash in his apartment was, in the comic, just another example of his Sick-Fuck-ism. It even hints at a sexual attraction to her. GINO, by contrast, is the kinder, gentler "Governor," who genuinely loves and wants to somehow restore Penny. This and she become the subject of multiple scenes, this week, in which the big, tough villain becomes a mewling baby. This kind of pussification is aimed at making the character more "sympathetic," thus loudly breaking from the comic, where the entire point of the Governor is that there isn't a sympathetic bone in his very bad-to-the-bone body. But while the creators want to make a show--or, more appropriately, whimpers--of breaking from the comic, they don't have anything better--or even remotely as good--to replace what they're trying to overwrite. The Governor is the comic's greatest villain, a vibrant, mainacal, single-mindedly evil character who marked a natural progression of the central theme of TWD. GINO is just another b-movie villain.

After Rick's group sneak into Woodbury and rescue Glenn and Maggie, Michonne slips away and hides out in GINO's apartment with her trademark scowl, the only facial expression TWD can give to its Angry Black Woman caricature version of the character. It's another moment cribbed from the comic, and another one robbed of the logic and the power it had there. Comic Michonne was sexually tortured by the Governor. Repeatedly. When she went so far as to slip away and hide out at his apartment, it was to lay her vengeance upon him. TV's TWD, as pussified as its "Governor," had no intention of subjecting its milquetoast, middle-American audience to any of that, but, without it, Michonne has little reason to go after GINO in this way. GINO sent his men to kill her a few episodes ago, and viewers are supposed to find this sufficient cause. Another example of very powerful material being replaced by standard-issue b-movie-ism.

TWD's chronic Idiot Plot Syndrome kicks in, big-time. Throughout this season, Michonne was constantly accumulating evidence that Woodbury wasn't safe, was constantly trying to get Andrea to leave, and was constantly refusing to share, with Andrea, any of that evidence she'd collected, even when Andrea demanded it. Tonight, after fighting it out with GINO and blinding him in one eye, Michonne is confronted by a pistol-wielding Andrea, who, appearing, presumably, to service and be serviced, isn't happy at all about what she sees, and offers up the standard cliché rhetorical: "What have you done?"

Possible response: "I'm here with your old gang to rescue Glenn and Maggie. This trash"--and she'd wave her sword at the mewling GINO on this beat--"kidnapped them. While you were polishing his knob up here, he's had them tortured in the basement. Oh, and by the way, he sent his men to kill me right after I left Woodbury. See this nice gunshot wound in my leg?"

But instead of any of this (and solely because the writers want to continue to drag out this matter), Michonne doesn't say a word again. She just leaves.

GINO gets his eye taped up and goes out to make a ludicrously misplaced George Bush Jr.-style speech to his followers about "terrorists" (quite topical, if it had been offered a decade ago). The big cliffhanger on which things end is that his men have captured Daryl, and GINO opts to use Merle as a scapegoat for the "attack" by Rick's group. Whatever.

TWD, at mid-season, remains a show mired in crises. Lots and lots of them. One is a creative crisis. The crisis, there: No creativity. It lacks the guts to tell anything remotely as bleak as the comic it allegedly adapts, yet doggedly refuses to step away from that comic and strike out on its own, choosing, instead, merely to pillage and travesty one character after another, one storyline after another. In an era of groundbreaking, high-quality dramatic television, the iron was hot for a series based on this property. That this is what we get instead is a damned shame.

--j.

Monday, November 26, 2012

When THE WALKING DEAD Come Knocking, Don't Bother Rocking

Way back in the first season of THE WALKING DEAD, it was established that zombies can differentiate the living from the dead by their scent. A stupid "rule," to be sure,[1] and one the series writers have since acknowledged or ignored depending entirely on the momentary needs of their "plot." This week's episode began where last week's left off. Michonne, with a gunshot wound to the leg, has managed to make her way to the prison. Having been covered with a gout of zombie gore last week, she can travel among the dead until the writers arbitrarily decide this no longer works, which, it so happens, is just at the moment she reaches the prison and is discovered, and just at the moment the wound is about to overcome her. There's no rain or anything to wash off the smell, as in the first time this trick was used--it just suddenly doesn't mask her anymore,[2] providing the episode's first moments of gratuitous zombie action.

Rick and co. rescue her, but are, of course, distrustful of a stranger. She tells them about the capture of Glenn and Maggie, about Woodbury, and about GINO, but, this being TWD, she fails to offer a word about Andrea, though she knows this is Andrea's group, and describes Merle, whose brother she knows is present, as merely the son of a bitch who shot her.

The gang decides to mount a rescue mission,[3] and that's pretty much the end of their story for this week. Not that it's the last we see of them, mind you. It's just the last thing they do that matters. The rest of their time, which is substantial, is spent trying to sneak up on Woodbury. They encounter a crazy old hermit, lots of zombies (more gratuitous action), and basically just act out a lot of filler scenes that had no other purpose than eating up as much screen-time as possible in order to delay, until the end, their arrival at the walls of Woodbury.

Speaking of filler, the Woodbury material this week features a pointless sub-plot wherein Andrea is asked to assist in an experiment studying how much of one's human consciousness survives when one zombifies. It's another one of those moments that inadvertently feature a dead-on metatextual commentary--in this case, it's on the translation of TWD from page to screen. Andrea isn't the subject of this experiment--she's just there to kill the creature when, it turns out, nothing worthwhile survives the transition.[4]

The rest of the Woodbury material is devoted to interrogating Glenn and Maggie. Andrea is now literally in bed with GINO, but, this, again, being TWD, the idea of using her to get info from them is never even broached. Instead, it's right to Merle. He isn't feeling very subtle this day, either. He roughs up Glenn, who takes the beating admirably, then, with Glenn's arms duct-taped to a chair, unleashes a zombie on him! Taped-down Glenn vs. the zombie in a junk-filled room makes for a really good sequence. Given that Merle is trying to find his brother and get info on the larger group for his boss, his actions don't make a lick of sense (one of his underlings even points this out to him later), but when Merle is pissed off, he isn't the sharpest tack in the box, and TWD can sort of get away with this one. GINO does, however, decides to handle the interrogation of Maggie personally. She's entirely unhelpful. GINO has her partially strip, and stands poised to rape her. In the comic, the Governor was a monstrous sexual sadist who would do this sort of thing at great length just for the fun of it, but this is GINO the Liam Lesser, tv's kinder, gentler "Governor," and he decides to spare Maggie (and the viewers) such an ugly scene. Instead, he puts Maggie and Glenn in a room together, puts a gun to Glenn's head, and Maggie spills the beans about the prison, giving up her father, sister, and friends to GINO and his thugs when a lie would have worked just as well.

As the episode is about to wrap, we get some interesting cinematography, the camera gliding along the group outside the walls of Woodbury, into the town, and on to Andrea, who was, at the time, walking by that same section of wall (apparently, the only section of wall the budget allows). The ending provides what, for my money, is the absolute worst moment, to date, of TWD's character assassination of Andrea--after we've witnessed GINO's very bad behavior, Andrea luxuriates in his arms, with a warm smile at his soothingly reassuring words.

And that was it. Mostly just another delaying-action to get to the last ep before the mid-season break.[5]

--j.

---

[1] Drawn, to be fair, from the comic.

[2] The episode suggests the zombies suddenly realize Michonne is alive because of the blood from her gunshot wound, but by the time she'd gotten to the prison, she'd already lost so much blood she collapsed, and the zombies had taken no note until, again, it was (melo)dramatically convenient. The vampiric zombie angle, wherein zombies pursue blood, was, in any case, added to the series very late--only toward the end of last season--and it's another ill-advised "rule" the writers follow or ignore on momentary whims. Zombies, when feeding, never attack one another, even though they're generally covered in fresh gore. This very episode offered an example of that when the crazy hermit was eaten. Actually, TWD's creators apparently couldn't afford to do the effect of a body being eaten (likely a consequence of Mazzara's throw-zombies-at-the-problems approach stretching the budget too thin), so they just threw in footage of their "zombie horde" scraping what looked like spilled Glidden off a bare porch floor and called it a feeding frenzy. All the zombies with a hand in it are covered with gore, yet no zombies bit pieces off any other zombies. Nor have we ever seen them do such a thing. Rewinding, the second-season opener had shown T-Dog slashing his arm open on a car door. The astonishingly copious arterial blood-spray that followed nearly made him black out, and probably should have killed him (an overdone effect). Instead, Daryl was able to put a dead body on top of him, and an entire herd of zombies--hundreds of them--marched right over him and the gore he's sprayed everywhere and never noticed a thing. And so on.

[3] Michonne had lost so much blood, she'd lost consciousness moments earlier, but after Hershel apparently applies some of his magic healing potion, she's rarin' to go, and accompanies the gang on their rescue mission.

[4] Two eps back, Rick had, for no real reason other than eating up running-time, instantaneously gone Stark Raving Mad. Last week, he was so insane, he spent the entire episode taking imaginary phone calls from dead people. This week, all of that is gone, and he's back to being Rick again--not even a trace of the extreme mental illness he'd previously exhibited. Perhaps Hershel's, off screen, administered some of his patent magical healing potion. Hey, it works on everything else--why not madness?

[5] And inspiring, by my estimation, one of my subbier sub-standard articles.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Old-School Horror Posse, part 1

Something I whipped up this morning, yet another variation on a much-copied model. Imperfect, but I like it.

Present left to right: Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Boris Karloff.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Viewers Hounded By THE WALKING DEAD

Another episode of tv's highest-rated zombie soap has just meandered by, and I must confess "Hounded," this week's mangy melodrama, has me somewhat up a tree. What manner of creature is this? Certainly not the lovable, lop-eared flea-bag suggested by the title. The episode isn't good, yet it seems wrong to call it a turkey, because TWD has set such an appalling standard for full-blown turkey-ism. I suppose I could just cut-and-paste my review of "Walk With Me," from a few week's ago:

"Insofar as viewer expectations are concerned, the breathtaking idiocy and awfulness that, in season 2, became its standard succeeded in setting the bar so low that anything that isn't just as breathtakingly awful and idiotic can't help but seem a significant improvement."

To an extent, "Hounded" has changed my mind about how to properly evaluate this particular species, though. Being an improvement over the absolute rubbish that constitutes TWD's regular output doesn't seem enough to earn it any praise anymore. I certainly have none for it. I don't have much of anything for it. Up a tree. It's that kind of episode.

It's mostly filler, but pointing this out doesn't really seem to say anything. Most of what happens on TWD these days is filler.

Absolutely nothing interesting happens. Last week, the writers showed some of TWD's patented Character Development by having Rick instantly go from being Rick to the way-over-the-top bad tv/movie version of Stark Raving Mad. He spent this week's ep taking imaginary phone calls from dead people,[1] while the writers rolled out another example of their skills in this area; a thug from Woodbury, part of Merle's merry band out to murder Michonne, goes from pissing-his-pants scared and practically having to be dragged around to, in a span of mere minutes, gung-ho stone killer, who wants to pursue Michonne into a zombie-infested area, and openly defies Merle. At this last, Merle, in what I'd like to see as a bit of metatextual commentary by actor Michael Rooker,[2] draws his gun and blows the guy's head off.

Some of the characters from the prison meet some of the characters from Woodbury. Nothing very interesting, there, either. In the comic, the Governor had gleefully descended into abject barbarism, the living embodiment of everything bad the Brave New World of the undead could do to someone. The prison, on the other hand, was a community where the characters tried to maintain some semblance of the prior civilization. All of this has been removed from the television version, replaced with empty melodrama and a standard-issue b-movie villain. A conflict is coming, and this week brought it a step closer, but it's without substance, and it's hard to give a damn about it.

"Hounded" is aggressively mediocre, an episode that, like several this year, gives off a vibe that even the awful writers behind TWD have lost interest in it.[3] It's a challenge to write something interesting about such an episode. To consistently do so about repeated eps of this caliber is really tough. It could be argued I chose poorly when I made TWD the subject of my first foray into weekly blogging about a series,[4] but looking back over my output, it hasn't been so bad. Even when I was feeling quite burned out, I still managed to say something. This week, a proper metaphor may elude me, as "Hounded" is neither fish nor fowl, but it is rather foul, and perhaps the fact that I've made it this far through such a generally subpar series but find myself so entirely uninspired by this week's offering says enough.

--j.

---

[1] UPDATE (19 Nov., 2012) - The writers are bringing the same skills and thoughtfulness to Rick's "character arc" this season as last. In season 2, the gutsy, smart, take-charge leader-of-men Rick from S1 was arbitrarily devolved, suddenly written as weak-willed, indecisive, overly emotional, and dumb, just so he could "evolve" (revolve?) back to some semblance of a leader. This season, he was written as instantaneously transforming from Rick to this cartoon version of madness presently playing itself out--so entirely insane that he's already taking imaginary phone-calls and hearing the voices in his head. Rick eventually got to a point of near-madness in the comic, but he went through a lot worse for a lot longer before he started having imaginary conversations. The stress of leadership--which was much worse in the comic--had taken him frighteningly close to the breaking-point several times. Unlike the television version, Rick and Lori had a good marriage. He and his wife loved one another, and losing her, after everything else, was just more than he could bear. The television version stripped away all of that development, in favor of Just Add Water Instant Lunatic. Paradoxically, it stripped away most of his reasons for becoming crazy in the first place--his "marriage" was a poisonous thing he'd basically abandoned--while at the same time making him much crazier than he was in the comic.

[2] And I'd like to see it that way because Rooker really is great at what he does, and far better than the material he's being given, here.

[3] Speaking of disinterest, the characters couldn't be bothered to search for Carol last week. After she disappeared, they simply declared her dead, without a trace of evidence for this, and even dug a grave, which they then filled in with dirt and marked with her name. She turned up alive this ep.

[4] I'd argue it!

---

Something else:  During last week's baby formula fiasco, we were told the group had failed to find any formula during any of their scavenging throughout the entire 9 months of Lori's pregnancy, and discussed having to drive a long distance to even look for any. Then, they manage to find some almost immediately after they start looking for it. In "Hounded," they find a huge supply of it at the store just down the road from the prison.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Say The Word For THE WALKING DEAD

This week's installment of TWD is called "Say The Word." The series invokes a few words. Awful. Stupid. Tedious. Embarrassing. In my reviews, I've used most of them, some until I'm as sick to death of them as I am of the series itself. "Melodrama" particularly wears on me now, the thing and the word. If, as it's said, a picture is worth a thousand words, any given minute of TWD--24 frames per second, at its present level of writing--would exhaust the best-stocked thesaurus in any human language.

Some words on "Say The Word":

Continuity. This week's ep begins right where last's left off. Lori is dead, T-Dog is dead, Carol is believed to be dead and there's a new baby now that needs to be fed. In an hilariously unconvincing effort to portray Rick as having fallen into a veritable abyss of grief over the death of his awful wife, Andrew Lincoln is insanely overacting. Wholly unconcerned with the fate of his newborn daughter, Rick grabs an axe and charges into the prison, intent on working out his misery on the dead still shuffling about within.[1]

Intelligence. With the prison overrun by zombies, all the gates and doors opened by the villainous Andrew presumably still standing wide open for every new creature that shuffles along, their leader out of his mind and Carol missing, Daryl, Glenn and Maggie immediately decide their most pressing priority is to make a run into the outside world to try to find baby formula, leaving their now zombie-infested home in the hands of a child, a baby, a gimp, a lunatic and two unarmed former prisoners they don't even trust. Glenn ultimately stays behind only because Daryl can't fit three people on his motorcycle.[2] Why is it so important to immediately go out and find formula for baby? Well, in nine months of pregnancy, neither Lori nor anyone else has bothered to acquire any.

Grief. Rick is so troubled by the loss of his pernicious paramour--the one he, toward, the end, didn't seem to like any more than did the viewers--that he seems to be hearing voices in his head. They tell him "Play the bad, b-movie ham actor's version of Going Completely Insane" and he simply must obey. Daryl, on the other hand, is so totally unconcerned with the disappearance of his lover that he immediately and enthusiastically elects to undertake the baby-food mission. He and Maggie find a supply, return and he has cutesy moments as he feeds the wee tyke and plies it with baby-talk. He shows no sign of being upset by Carol's possible death. He doesn't even show the slightest interest in her fate until the very last scene of the ep and then only to put a flower on her grave.

Holes. Before that, Glenn was sweating away in the hot sun, digging graves for his fallen comrades. The prisoners elect to give him a break and pitch in and between them, they scratch out the three Glenn says they need. Basic math, it would seem, is a problem for the writers, as our heroes actually only have two bodies to bury. Or do they?

Carol. Beside T-Dog's well-eaten corpse, our heroes found some cloth that was hers. It was bloody and, being the morons that pass for "characters" on TWD, they assumed this meant she was dead. There was no body. No one, not even Daryl, bothers searching for her. They just dig a grave for her then fill it back in with dirt. Or did they find her body and bury it, and the writers just didn't bother to tell the audience?

Baffling. That last wasn't the only example of strikingly incompetent storytelling. During his rampage through the prison, Rick comes upon the room in which Lori died. Her corpse, however, isn't there. Did the others already recover and bury the body? Did Carl fail to effectively brain-blast Lori and she now walks with the living dead? Is the fattened zombie Rick finds in the same room and kills supposed to have eaten Lori's corpse? Who knows? Certainly not TWD's viewers.[3]

Rubbish. I think even those who mistake TWD's storytelling for compelling can figure out this one.

--j.

---

[1] Showrunner Glenn Mazzara continues to throw zombies at the problems, instead of doing anything to address them, banking on concealing them behind a faster pace. Rick goes on this random kill-fest and in the same ep, Michonne, over in Woodbury, finds GINO's stable of zombies and for no real reason at all turns them loose so she can slaughter them. Just as she finishes them off, she's discovered by the fellow coming to feed them. He's carrying a bucket of gore. Zombies only eat the living or the just-dead. Is it fresh human gore in that bucket? We aren't told but when Michonne insists to Andrea they have to leave Woodbury, she once again omits the detail, as she has every piece of evidence she's collected regarding Woodbury, and Andrea stays behind.

ADDENDUM (12 Nov., 2012) - Reading Lebeau, who also reviews TWD each week, reminded me that, on this ep, Andrea specifically says, to Michonne, "you need to give me more to go on." As Lebeau puts it, even at that prompting, "Michonne doesn’t mention any of the mounting evidence." I should probably start making notes during the eps!

ADDENDUM (14 Nov., 2012) - The series has been leaning more and more heavily on CGI gore, which looks awful on its best day, and has been looking really awful on TWD. The practical effects have suffered this season as well. Mazzara's pour-on-the-zombies approach is actually making things worse this season, because the effects crews are trying to do far too much with an inadequate budget and inadequate time. It makes the technical work--one of the only things TWD was still doing mostly right--into just as much a mess as everything else. Rick's rampage could be somewhat justified but Michonne's was entirely gratuitous and was obviously included for no other purpose than to add some zombie action to the episode. Cut out one (or both) and there would have been more time and money to do everything else right but because they're thrown in the mask the inadequacy of everything else, the show without them becomes dull and people would start to notice how awful it is.

[2] In the aftermath of Sophia's death back in season 2, Glenn was given the unenviable task of trying to convince the viewers, after the fact, that Sophia's death hit the group particularly hard. This was the writers' substitute for doing anything to make the viewers feel any attachment to Sophia before or during the time she was missing. This week, Glenn got the duty with T-Dog, revealing that, when the zombie apocalypse first broke, T drove his church's bus around helping out old people. He also tells us that T saved his ass a million times. Perhaps if the creators had shown one or two of those million times or if they had at any point treated T-Dog as more than a token redshirt, this wouldn't be necessary and wouldn't look so pathetic.

[3] UPDATE (12 Nov., 2012) - Actually, TWD's viewers noticed something I apparently didn't--a blood-trail leading from the site of Lori's body to that zombie. There isn't even a trace of Lori, so we're apparently to assume the others dug a grave then made absolutely no effort to recover the body (it was after dark by the time Rick entered the room where Lori died) and that porky zombie ate the whole of her, bones, clothes and all. ADDENDUM (13 Nov., 2012) - The episode's director, Greg Nicotero, has apparently confirmed that the zombie is supposed to have eaten Lori.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why My Zombie Massacre?

I massacred a pack of zombies this morning. They were shuffling through the "comments" section of my latest WALKING DEAD review with an endless barrage of empty insults aimed at me.

It happens. I've offered an ongoing, substantive critique of THE WALKING DEAD, and some people simply will not tolerate any criticism of their cherished series. This, unfortunately, isn't just true of TWD, but of practically anything these days, and if TWD seems to attract a much larger contingent of this particular species (and it does), I'll be charitable and chalk it up to the fact that it draws a large audience in general.

The existence of such creatures isn't new, nor are their activities. My reaction to them, in this case, however, is. I've always maintained a strict policy, here, of letting people say what they want. The only comments I've ever deleted are a few stray spam posts--I want this to be an open forum, but folks who only want to peddle hair-gel and dick stiffeners can take it elsewhere. Faced with my latest critique, fans of TWD lumbered into my comments section with these sorts of insightful rejoinders:

"You're a pathetic dumb trolling cunt Stalk the imdb message boards some more you fucking puke."

"Yawn. Stop watching the show if all you want to do is bitch about it. Tl;Dr."

"Seriously, can I take a shit in your mom's basement you cum guzzling cretin?"

"Hey, what do you expect from a fat virgin? This puke must be the saddest little mope on the Internet..."

And so on. Ten or eleven of them (though from far fewer sources, trying to appear to be many), out of only 13 or 14 comments on the article. Last night, I got an email from one of my regular readers expressing concern that these were cluttering up the "comments" section, making it look "trashy," and maybe even running off those who may have something to actually say. I thought about this a bit, but I probably would have left all that rubbish in place anyway if I hadn't called up the blog this morning and seen that one of these creatures had aimed, at one of my more substantive regulars, an effort at a racial slur. An hilariously inept effort, but the brain-dead cretin who authored it didn't know that. The target of this abuse is a good fellow and a friend of this blog, so that comment, along with the others that had nothing to say, are now gone.

I don't like doing this sort of thing. Abused, it can chill conversation, and I've seen it abused far too many times. It's not going to be abused, here, and I don't want it to have that sort of effect, here, either. Far too often, those behind various internet venues put the zap on people merely for disagreeing with them, particularly if the disagreeable poster is somewhat articulate. Some are openly hostile to open discussion. That's never going to be the case here. Those whose comments I deleted earlier today weren't offering any sort of discussion or disagreement, just insults, and, to be clear, I'm not even hostile to insults, in and of themselves, or to people who only want to insult (sometimes, that's an entirely appropriate response). It's just that I want this to be a place where discussion is welcome and invited, and I'm unwilling to sacrifice that in order to allow a few clowns with nothing to say to run amuck.

--j.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Killer Within THE WALKING DEAD Is The Writing

After last week's relatively leisurely installment, the creators of THE WALKING DEAD picked up the pace tonight, with "Killer Inside," another action-packed episode. Two episodes ago, a pair of inmates caused some trouble for Rick and the gang--Rick split the head of one with a machete, then chased the other into a zombie-filled prison yard. Through the door Rick slammed in his face, we heard the fellow's agonized screams as he was torn to pieces by the hungry dead, but this week, he apparently got better. Having reassembled himself and left the prison grounds, he finds a dead deer, and though zombies only eat the living or the flesh of the recently dead, he's able to use the meat to bait a bate of zombies back into the facility with the goal of having them overrun it and kill everyone so that he and some of his previously fellow inmates (who are also inside and would also be targeted by the flesh-eaters) can retake it for themselves.

No, it didn't make a damn bit of sense when watching it, either.[1]

What can you say? It's THE WALKING DEAD. Another ep that follows showrunner Glenn Mazzara's now-familiar prescription for the series' many problems: throw zombies at them, instead of doing anything to address them.

TWD is set in a world in which, theoretically, anyone should be able to die at any time, but it's played out on a mainstream tv show where, to quote myself, audiences "typically demand a stable cast of familiar characters." Utterly lacking the metaphorical equivalent of the viscera it sometimes displays, TWD employs a number of methods of getting around the need to leave the impression that anyone can die without actually killing any of the popular regulars. One is by setting up redshirts, who, though among the regulars, are given no real attention, aren't given much to do or say, and, consequently, have no real fan base to object if they are destroyed. Early in tonight's ep, the two remaining inmates, who, in "Sick," had been exiled to a separate cell-block, appear with a plea that they be allowed to join Rick's group. Rick's utterly unyielding--which is to say utterly un-Rick-like--resistance to this idea provides an opening for T-Dog to disagree, and to argue for letting the ex-cons join up. T-Dog has been TWD's longest-running redshirt, and those familiar with the series will have immediately recognized the telegraphed-by-a-mile death-sentence inherent in the fact that Rick suddenly wasn't Rick for the purpose of ham-handedly contriving a situation in which T-Dog was given something of significance to say tonight. And, indeed, in the conflagration that follows, T-Dog bites the dust.

Another way in which TWD kills regulars is to render them so odious to the viewing audience that they can be destroyed without causing much of an uproar. TWD may not be no comedy club, but most viewers probably applauded back in season 1 when the dead dined on Carol's abusive husband Ed.[2] Later, Shane was turned into a cartoon villain. After having Pscycho-Shane brutishly "solve" all of season 2's manufactured "moral dilemmas" while keeping the other regulars' hands clean, he could then be killed without anyone missing him very much. Lori is easily the most hated character on the series--the writers devoted nearly everything they did with her last season toward making her such, as a means of setting her up to be killed, and tonight, they dropped the hammer on her. Hypocritically, they tried, at the last minute, to give her some little hint of sympathy, having her suddenly pause, in the midst of a bloody, failing effort to give birth, to have a little Lifetime For Women melodrama with her son, before Maggie gutted her. This last is allegedly an effort to "save" the baby, but the procedure is carried out with the finesse of an angry Freddy Krueger--that baby is just fine afterwards is, to put it as kindly as possible, contrived.

Not, however, as contrived as Lori's instantaneous death upon being cut. Perhaps less than a full day after having his leg chopped off with an axe,[3] Hershel has apparently applied some of that patent TWD magic healing powder--he's up and hobbling around on a crutch, little apparent pain, and seems to be just fine--all fired up to "take a stroll."[4] That Lori received no magic powder for her far less serious wound suggests the other characters may have thought as little of her as do the viewers.

Over in Woodbury,Michonne took a closer look at one of the Guard trucks GINO and his men brought back to town after killing those manning it. She finds bullet-holes in it and fresh blood, contradicting GINO's account of what happened to the Guardsmen. Being on TWD, though, she immediately confronts GINO with this (!!!), but doesn't tell Andrea about either what she found or about the absolutely ludicrous explanations GINO offered her when confronted. No, when it comes to talking with Andrea, it's merely her "gut" that is telling her "something is off" about Woodbury and GINO. Every bit of forward momentum on TWD is made dependent upon everyone consistently being a complete idiot, and, the writers, being terminally untalented, constantly rehash everything. We're seeing played out, here, the scenario from last season wherein Andrea was in thrall to Shane, and Dale, while trying to warn against this, declined to share any of the significant evidence he'd amassed regarding Shane's growing madness, leaving his warning at bad feelings of his own. In the current rehash, Andrea is falling further under GINO's spell, continues to resist Michonne's efforts to leave, and Michonne, who has collected some evidence, declines to share it.
All together, another fast-paced but utterly stupid and tedious episode.

--j.

---

[1] When zombies invade the prison (let in by the fellow Rick allowed to be eaten two weeks ago), Rick immediately moves to blame the other inmates, the ones who had spent all day groveling in an effort to let him join their group, and who he'd locked out of the prison (though they'd stood at the front gate in plain sight since he'd done so).

[2] Though not everyone was pleased. Ed reportedly wasn't very happy about it, either.

[3] The ep doesn't say exactly how long it has been, but our heroes haven't even yet cleaned up the dead people they killed in "Sick," Lori, who was said to be already past her due-date, is still pregnant, and back in Woodbury, the blood of the Guardsmen killed by GINO in the previous episode is still fresh when Michonne finds it. If more than a day has passed, our heroes have basically sat around doing nothing after "Sick," and those Guardsman must have been chugging some serious anti-coagulants before they died.

[4] Last season, the magic powder healed Carl's gunshot wound to the abdomen in a little over 2 days, and, in merely a week, had so effectively healed Randall's hideous leg wound--a hole six or more inches wide through the leg, his calf severed--that he could hobble around on it and even break a zombie's arm with it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The First Walk With THE WALKING DEAD's Governor A Snipe Hunt

In a way, THE WALKING DEAD has it pretty easy these days, when it comes to critical evaluations. Insofar as viewer expectations are concerned, the breathtaking idiocy and awfulness that, in season 2, became its standard succeeded in setting the bar so low that anything that isn't just as breathtakingly awful and idiotic can't help but seem a significant improvement.

Such is the case with this week's installment, "Walk With Me," which takes a break from the main group of characters and follows, instead, Andrea and Michonne as they encounter the barricaded town of Woodbury and its secretly villainous Governor. The ep will, I imagine, take a few hits for its glacial pace. I've never been particularly bothered by this aspect of the TWD that devolved last season, except when it's just being used to eat up screen-time. There was some of that tonight--it's maybe a 28-minute plot being stretched to cover a 42-minute episode, but that's actually pretty good by TWD standards. More significantly, the ep dispenses with the most extreme elements of soap melodrama, even more so than did the 3rd season debut. The creators clearly still view the series through that lens, and while that remains the case, TWD will never be mistaken for a high-quality production by anyone qualified to render the judgment, but dialing back the soap to any noticeable extent will always feel like a big step up--its absence doesn't even have to be filled with anything particularly interesting.

And in this case, it isn't. This particular storyline and its central antagonist are both drawn from the TWD comic, but, as with much of what the series takes from its source material, noting this unfairly sleights the book. The comic is, among other things, an open-ended study of how the end of the world affects those who survive it. Our heroes struggle to hold on to the important parts of their humanity in a world were such things feel, increasingly, like burdensome baggage. As one would expect, those they encounter tend to be deeply damaged in various ways. When it comes to adapting this, the series got off on a very wrong foot right out of the gate, when, in season 1, the street hoodlums in "Vatos"--the first survivors they'd encountered--turned out to be kindly young fellows guarding a nursing-home full of old people. The rest of that particular episode is one of the best-written of the series, and one of the only ones that feels like the comic, but the note that particular twist struck was so fundamentally wrong that the ep is often regarded as one of the worst of the first season (and the series itself). The Governor is the comic's greatest villain, a sadistic maniac who learned it's good to be the king. Upon the end of the world, he devolved into barbarism most excessive, an example of how far people can fall, and a contrast with our heroes. The series, perpetually aimed at a milquetoast, white-bred, middle-class, middle America audience, has always soft-pedaled (or eliminated) the horror elements of the book, and its creators certainly have no intention of ever offering any glimpses into an abyss as black as that. David Morrissey would be as miscast playing anything resembling the comic Governor as was John Wayne playing Genghis Khan. In "Walk With Me," he does his best impression of Liam Neeson playing an American southerner, as he goes through the paces of the kinder, gentler, English-er Governor-In-Name-Only the series' writers have concocted--a standard b-movie villain part with no thematic point, and, in fact, nothing to distinguish it from any other b-movie villain part. GINO is the benevolent ruler in public, while being villainous outside the sight of the general population of Woodbury.

Andrea takes another beating at the hands of TWD's notoriously misogynistic writers, almost immediately falling for GINO's corny public-face bullshit and seeming to fall, to some extent, for him, as well. It's up to Michonne to be skeptical of GINO and his little paradise, but instead of writing her as wisely so, she's being written only as an Angry Black Woman caricature, pissed off, cynical and disapproving of everything without apparent reason--her part leaves the viewer with the impression she'd react exactly the same way to anyone. Shorn of her sword, she wields at the world her one facial expression: a perpetually sour look. As a character, she doesn't yet exist, and rather than developing her and using her (and Andrea) as our eyes into the world of Woodbury, the writers leave her at the caricature, and break off to follow the Governor and his henchmen for long stretches. Her relationship with Andrea is yet another casualty of the creators' decision to skip so much time between season 2 and 3. She and Andrea have been together and surviving the zombie badlands for more than 8 months, but are written as basically strangers, with no rapport and no apparent understanding of or trust in one another. When, last season, Andrea was written as in thrall to Shane, another homicidal maniac, Dale tried to warn her; he genuinely cared for her and was trying to look out for her, and she was contemptuous of him for it, and treated him as if she could barely tolerate him. Now, she's under the spell of yet another homicidal maniac, and, again, the pattern repeats; she's giving grief to the woman who saved her and has looked out for her for more than 8 months, merely because that woman is not immediately willing to jump on GINO's bandwagon (or his bones).

Michael Rooker returned, tonight, as Merle, Daryl's scumbag brother. He's with the Woodbury gang now, having survived the self-amputation of his hand, and I'd be lying if I said he wasn't a sight for my own rather sore eyes. Merle has proven very popular among the TWD fan-base, but one suspects its really Rooker who is the draw in the equation. That's certainly the case with me. I was a Rooker fan for a long time before TWD came along. But it's also true (and rather unexpected) that, watching him tonight (and his scenes are easily the highlight of this ep), his character feels like a reminder of a time when the show wasn't the godawful mess it later became, a time when it still had all the potential in the world.

Beyond Rooker, "Walk With Me" is pretty uninteresting. It wasn't, however, actively godawful. It's unfortunate that this, alone, can make it better than most of the rest of the series.

--j.

---

NOTE: This ep was also astonishingly poorly directed. Andrea and Michonne, near the beginning, were able to "hide" from GINO and his men, though in plain sight of them, behind a pathetically thin bush or two--Michonne was even able to stand up, openly, and behead her two pet zombies with her sword (who were also standing in the open) without anyone seeing (the zombies had drawn attention by becoming riled up by the sight of GINO and his men, which is in direct contradiction to what GINO's "scientist" says later in the ep--that zombies like them who have had their means to attack people removed lose the desire to attack them). Later, GINO and a handful of his men are able to creep up on and massacre a National Guard unit that outnumbered them and was waiting in a more-or-less open area in zombie country, apparently without having a single look-out posted. There was no firefight, as directed--the Guardsmen just stood around and let themselves be killed by a force they outnumbered.


[Cross-posted to my comics blog]

Monday, October 22, 2012

On THE WALKING DEAD, Shit Happens

A good title for tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD would have been "Shit Happens." The creators of the series chose, instead, one that warned their terminally mainstream audience of what was to come: "Sick." Though one fellow was injured in "Sick," no one was actually sick. Rather, the sickness in question had to do with the decision, by the creators, to import, into their mainstream tale, some of the nastiness routinely found in the comics they're allegedly adapting.

It was a welcome addition. The world of TWD should be a dark, brutal, unforgiving one, and the television version, chasing that middle-American-milquetoast audience, has been marked by a distinct lack of ugliness for far too long. Our hero Rick, in particular, seems to have regrown the testicular tissue arbitrarily razored away from him by the abysmal writing of season 2. Tonight, he had some steel in his spine when he dealt with the antics of a way-over-the-top-of-the-top villain briefly thrown his way. In this case, it was a prison inmate overly fond of pointing guns in people's faces at the least provocation, even when they had weapons trained on him. It's the sort of thing bad filmmakers have, in recent years, mistaken for an intimidating posture, the sort of thing that, in the real world, would pretty much guarantee a continuing lifespan of about 30 more seconds. This clown lasted more than 30 seconds, but, with Iron Rick on the job, not much more than as many minutes--Rick even fed the pistol-waving prick's sissy-boy sidekick to a crowd of zombies after the hard-charging henchman fled right into their midst.

Some good shit. Rick, it should be said, seemed a little more upset than he should have been about this, but that would be a small complaint, indeed, if it had been the only crack in the episode.

Unfortunately, the rest of the episode cracked open and unleashed some shit that was significantly less than good, and significantly closer to the object of the metaphor.

Last week, "Seed" planted some little hope that TWD was about to become something like TWD, rather than wasting its time as the world's most expensive, worst written daytime soap at night. This week, the show mostly collapsed right back into the very bad habits of season 2. In the closing moments of "Seed," a zombie chomped a chunk from Hershel's leg, and Rick, in an effort to short-circuit the zombie infection, grabbed an axe and chopped off the afflicted limb. Hershel spent "Sick" in bed, hovering between life and death as a bad Lifetime soap melodrama played out around him. Lots of time spent on long faces and pointless, redundant, cliché-ridden speeches about the old boy's fate.

Very, very bad shit.

Idiot Plot Syndrome--one of the absolute worst elements of TWD season 2--was back in full force, as well. With Hershel having suffered this horrible injury, any viewer with more than a few functioning brain-cells could be forgiven for thinking the group's immediate concern would be toward locating the prison's infirmary and acquiring things like bandages, antibiotics, painkillers--the things the stricken vet needs so he doesn't die. Those were more brain-cells than the writers employed when assembling "Sick," though, because while the characters speak of the critical need to find the infirmary, they don't do anything toward that end. They've just encountered a group of men who had been incarcerated in the prison, and who would presumably know exactly where to go, but our heroes don't even ask them about it. They choose, instead, to spend their time helping clear a new cell-block, so these fellows can have a place to sleep--an adventure in zombie-killing that could just as easily have been written as necessary to get to the infirmary. It's left to young Carl to slip off on his own--off camera--and find the supplies they need.[1] For his troubles, he's publicly shat upon by his wretched mother, whose own contribution to Hershel's health, up to that point, had amounted to hovering over him and looking Very Concerned (perhaps realizing how this looked, the writers added in, as an apparent afterthought, a moment wherein Hershel stopped breathing, and Lori resuscitated him).

And that's the shit that happened with "Sick"--after a promising start to the season, an ep that, overall, would be best sent to a waste-treatment facility.

--j.

---
[1] It would be virtually impossible to overstate the idiocy of this complete lack of concern for finding the infirmary. The group wasted half of season 2 in the search for a red-shirt non-entity of absolutely no consequence, whereas Hershel, being a medical professional who has shown wizard-like powers in both the healing of the injured and of the conjuring of ammunition, is one of their most important human assets, yet not even his own daughters make any effort to find the infirmary nor demand any action from anyone else to that end. They just stand around with long faces, reciting the clichés of the Lifetime soap melodrama they're playing out. Maggie, rather than doing anything to help her father live, tells him it's all right for him to die.

UPDATE (23 Oct., 2012) - BMF125, a poster on the IMDb's "Walking Dead" board, reminds me of a massive continuity error I meant to mention but forgot when doing my write-up. In "Seed," the group prowled through a corridor that was absolutely crawling with zombies, and had to duck into the cafeteria with a whole horde of them on their trail. It was difficult to hold the doors closed from all the creatures outside. As "Sick" begins, they open that door seconds later, story-time, and there's only one zombie there. Then, they drag Hershel out into the corridor and back to the section of the prison they'd already secured, again failing to run into the zombie horde. They leave the door between the allegedly zombie-infested section and the secured section open so the prisoners they found in the cafeteria can follow. Add a vanishing zombie horde to TWD's many, many problems.

[cross-posted to my comics blog]

Monday, October 15, 2012

THE WALKING DEAD Plants A Curious Seed

A remarkable thing happened on THE WALKING DEAD last night. "Seed," the series' 3rd-season opener, aired, which should, itself, seem pretty incredible after the complete creative train-wreck that was season 2, but the ratings for that unfortunate mess were high, and that isn't the remarkable thing in question. The remarkable thing that happened on TWD last night is that, for the first time since 2010, the series offered an episode that not only wasn't outright awful in every respect but was, on balance, actually pretty good.

TWD is, to quote the comic legend, "a continuing story of survival horror." In my long initial review of the television version, I wrote about how, during the series' brief first season, its writers focused on survival concerns, but often de-emphasized the horror elements of the project, likely in an effort to "mainstream" it. When season 2 came along, with a new writing team, the survival concerns mostly went out the window as well, as the series was rebuilt on a daytime soap model, the quality of the writing plummeted, and the zombie apocalypse--the central premise of the project--was mostly shunted aside and treated as something that got in the way of recycled soap melodrama "plots." When the end of the world was allowed to be a factor in the proceedings, it was written as badly as everything else.

At the time, I noted that "in the comic, when the characters are out on the road, they're short of everything, starving, stinking, at the mercy of the elements, of zombies, of other humans, and are rarely far from devastating harm. There was little sense of this in the series, and the atmosphere of desperation it produced was almost entirely absent." In a footnote to this, I wrote that "oddly enough, the CDC plotline [from season 1], which was pretty dumb, was one of the only times the series briefly featured the sense of desperation that hovers over the characters in every issue of the comic when they're out in the open. With the exception of that one story (which mostly just paid it lip-service), the series does very little to convey this."

The first thing TWD's writers got right with tonight's episode was to inject a taste of that sense of desperation.

Caveat: it would be wrong to overstate the extent of this. After the creators ham-handedly rushed the series into winter at the end of last season (in a way that made a typical TWD hash out of the timeline), one would think they had a winter storyline in mind. That would be a good choice--it's much harder to survive a winter, particularly without a safe haven--but tonight, they decided to skip the colder seasons entirely, and pick up several months later in warm weather again. It's poor storytelling, and the characters' months on the road don't seem to have taken, on them, anything like the toll it should have, which is particularly true in the case of Rick (who is still functioning at the fevered intensity he'd achieved by the end of last season, and, absurdly, still hasn't talked to his wife about what happened with Shane). It would be easy to overstate the degree of that Sense of Desperation present in "Seed," but after last season, it's hard to regard any little bit as anything other than a massive improvement. The characters, last night, were cruddy, grim, allegedly low on ammo, and contemplating canned dog-food for dinner. That's a start.

Another thing the writers got right is just to shut up. The series has suffered from a combination of varying degrees of writers who can't write dialogue and actors who can't perform it. Most "conversations" last season were of that insanely stilted breed of soap melodrama speechifying, directed toward subjects that, given what should have been the characters' circumstances, were absolutely ludicrous as a focus. The world had ended, and they were spending their time arguing about Rick's worthiness as a father and Lori's theory that women should be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Tonight, showrunner Glen Mazzara (who wrote the ep) seemed to find a solution: long passages of visual storytelling in which no one says anything. "Seed" features a very sparse script. Much of the dialogue that does exist is devoted to the task at hand: surviving the zombe apocalypse. Even the silence of the characters serves that end; they're trying not to attract the dead. The soapy rubbish that had consumed season 2 was kept to a minimum, and treated as an aside.[1]

Here's where I see the potential problem going forward. Mazzara responded to the loud complaints about last year's deadly dull first 7 episodes by essentially saying he was going to throw zombies at the problem. And that's exactly what he did. As the last 6 eps demonstrated, though, this can make the series less dull, but it doesn't really deal with its underlying problem, which is the very poor quality of its writing. "Seed," while toning down the soap, throws in a shit-load of zombies, and it seems likely that this is just another version of throwing some zombies at the problem. That's not something the creators can do every week.[2] The sparse, to-the-point dialogue probably won't continue--the more likely scenario (since there hasn't been any sort of shake-up behind the scenes) is that TWD soon slips back into the inanity that ruled season 2. When, earlier this year, it was announced the series would be adapting the prison arc from the comic, it sounded like a terrible idea. Not just because it would almost inevitably become another example of a great storyline the series would travesty but because the prison was another safe haven. That faint hint of Sense of Desperation I found so refreshing in "Seed" is probably going to disappear rather quickly, and TWD, safe behind prison walls, will go back to wallowing in piss-poor melodrama.

"Seed," though far from perfect, is, overall, a good episode, one that provides some little hint of what TWD could have been in more talented hands. Will the crop that springs from it be a bumper one of roughly realized potential, or will it just come up more poison oak?

I'm curious.

--j.

---

[1] It's also the case that "Seed" doesn't steer clear of reliance on Idiot Plot Syndrome to move certain parts of the story along. The characters know zombies sometimes lie motionless--while they were cleaning up the yard, one of the creatures who had fallen down after being shot even started moving again as they walked by it--yet when they go inside the bowels of the prison, they're walking over the corpses that litter the place without a care in the world for this. They take Hershel, the one fellow they have with any medical training and a guy who is really too old to be putting in too much action in the first place, right into combat in a dark labyrinth filled with dead people.

UPDATE (20 Oct., 2012) -  A sub-gripe: When last TWD aired, I complained about how survival concerns, which should have been the primary preoccupation of a group of people in a zombie apocalypse, were almost entirely shunted aside throughout the 2nd season, and one of the items I noted was the group's failure to employ melee weapons against zombies, sticking, instead, with guns, which make a lot of noise and run out of ammo. In "Seed," when Rick suggests they have to clean the prison yard "hand-to-hand," it's treated as a remarkable suggestion, which means that, in 7-8 further months on the road and dealing with the zombie menace, they still haven't figured out the utility of blades, clubs, axes, etc.

This, to enlarge the focus again, is part of a larger dramatic problem with the ep, which is that, with the exception of a few lines, the (sparse) script for "Seed" could have taken place the day after the last episode, or a few days after. Besides the poor storytelling involved in skipping the winter, skipping so much time also leaves a dramatic black hole, because, while Hershel has grown some chin-whiskers, Carl's voice is breaking, and Lori appears as if she's about to pop, none of the personalities, or relationships, or the dynamic within the group seem to have evolved an inch in all that time. Seven-to-eight months have passed, and they're right where they were when we left them. Even the moments between Andrea and Michonne seem as if they're happening the day after "Beside the Dying Fire."

[2] Indeed, even the one week seemed to strain the production. The episode was full of guns spouting CGI muzzle-flashes while visibly not cycling, and Greg Nicotero's ordinarily solid, often fantastic zombie make-ups were frequently weak to outright awful ("Seed" featured his single worst "hero" zombie design, in an indoor creature that loses its head to a sword).


[cross-posted to my comics blog]

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

For Your Height Only/Challenge of the Tiger

The most excellent blog of the most excellent Mondo Macabro presently features a brief piece I penned pimping MM's deliriously endearing double feature FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY/CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER. Check it out, and if it grabs you, grab a copy of the disc. In fact, grab lots of Mondo Macabro releases--you'll be glad you did, and you'll be supporting the work of one of the best labels we have.

--j.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Tangled Web of SPIDER-MAN 2

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, Sony's effort to reboot their Spidey franchise (and hold on to the lucrative movie rights to the character), has just opened, and from the initial reviews it sounds a bit like those behind this new film may have made some effort to get right some of the things the much-lauded (but not very good) SPIDER-MAN 2 got so wrong.

I was a fan of the first Sam Raimi movie. It certainly wasn't perfect, but it succeeded a lot more often than it failed and watching it unexpectedly turned into one of the two best theater-going experiences of my life. In my childhood, Spidey had been a good friend of mine. I read before most kids my age could even recognize their letters and even at that I was a fan of comics before I could read them myself. And Spider-man was one of my favorites from the beginning. I spent hours pouring over his four-color adventures, making them three-dimensional in my head, then I'd take to the back yard and make up new ones of my own at such a pace that my efforts to instantly act them out could scarcely keep up. At some point, I lost touch with that. You grow up, your outlook on things changes and even if you retain a love for what had captured your heart back then, that love changes as well. Something that means so much to you at that age never really leaves you though. That remarkable level of enthusiasm ends up stamped on your DNA, even when you're not aware of it, and sometimes--very, very rarely, but every so often--you come across something that, seemingly like magic, reconnects you to it in some way. This is what happened to me when I saw SPIDER-MAN. Going into it, I was just hoping for a good flick. What I got was one that stuck a tap right into that intense enthusiasm of childhood and turned the spigot wide open. It--and by "it," I mean this feeling I'm trying to describe--was awesome. Spell that word in all caps, bold print, with it underscored, and enough exclamation-points after it to make up the Great Wall of China and it would still never be enough.

That reaction wasn't random. Sam Raimi had more than just the talent to pull off the picture, and more than just the right kind of talent. He also had that same love of the character, and it floated between every frame. Transmitting that through a big, Hollywood picture is quite a trick. With me, he managed it.

For a brief time, the movie could still bring on faint aftershocks of that initial reaction. This didn't, however, lead me to exaggerate the merits of the movie. It never became one of my favorites. I haven't watched it very often. The Green Goblin's "Power Ranger chic" look never fails to make me groan. It still managed to be a damn good movie, though, and, in spite of some missteps, a damn fine adaptation of the character and his world.

SPIDER-MAN was a huge hit. It received mixed critical reviews. Two years later, the gang behind the first film returned with SPIDER-MAN 2. It cost more and didn't make as much, but it met with smashing critical success. People saying it was better than the original. Calling it the best comic adaptation of all time. Saying it transcended the comic material, which is what people who look down upon comics but know nothing of them always say when they like something based on one.

Nearly seven years ago, I wrote about SM2, and, as is so often my habit, took a very different view. Here's what I had to say about it then:

THE TANGLED WEB OF "SPIDER-MAN 2"
20 Oct., 2005

It raked in a fortune at the box office, was greeted with nearly universal critical approval, and, in the year since its release, has frequently been a hailed as one of the best comic book movies of all time. Often, as the best.

But I didn't like SPIDER-MAN 2.

More than that, I didn't even think it was a good movie. I didn't hate it, though my reaction to it admittedly becomes much firmer when faced with the blind adoration of many of its fans. It had its moments, some of them wonderful. Overall, though, not good. Frequently awful, in fact. Inferior to the mostly excellent original in pretty much every meaningful way.

Being a lifelong comic fan, I'm always trying, when I begin one of these reviews, to work out some sort of formula that allows me to offer criticism of these movies as both movies and as adaptations. A movie can, after all, be a good one even if it's a poor adaptation, just as the reverse can be the case, if the material isn't well suited for the screen. For fans of the characters and stories, of course, the ideal is to have both a good film and a good adaptation. For this piece, I'm not going to make as much of an effort to separate the two, aiming, instead, for something a little less structured and a lot more free-flowing; more like a series of observations. This are several potential pit-falls to this approach, and I may not avoid them all. For the record, though, I'm not one who thinks a poor adaptation necessarily makes for a poor film.

On with the show...

In discussing the film in different venues, I've often referred to it as SPIDER-MAN 1 FOR MORONS. Thematically, the movie is simply a rehash of SPIDER-MAN, retreading the same power/responsibility theme that had already been covered in the first film and doing so in exactly the same way, often using exactly the same scenes. Have great power, shirk responsibility, bad things happen, resume responsibility. Rinse. Or, depending on the metaphor one feels is more appropriate, wipe and flush. Essentially a remake, it adds exactly nothing to the story of the original film and in fact takes much away from it in the retelling. Most of the humor is eliminated, most of the elements that allowed us to identify with Peter are removed or severely watered-down, and, most egregiously, the story is retold with all the subtlety of a loaded log-truck traveling up a bad road. Lots of noise, lots of flash, lots of driving home the points the film wants to make in sledgehammer-to-the-face fashion, but far less intelligence, little charm, little wit, and no real point.

This alone isn't necessarily sufficient grounds to damn SPIDER-MAN 2. The power/responsibility theme, even if it is simply being rehashed, is still a Spider-Man theme (though, as I'll get into in a moment, the movie deviates wildly from the source material in most matters). And big, dumbed-down rehashes can be fun sometimes, too.

"Fun," however, isn't a word in the vocabulary of SPIDER-MAN 2.

In the comics, being Spider-Man caused Peter Parker plenty of problems but it also served as a release from the frequently high stress of his ordinary life. As Spider-Man, he could swing free through the city on a pleasant day, flip off rooftops with reckless abandon and be as big a clown as he wanted. The mask freed him. As dangerous as his activities could be, they were also fun. His Spider-Man persona was that of a merry prankster, a smartass, always throwing wisecracks, relentlessly teasing and taunting the stuffy underworld stiffs he battled, revelling in the role.

This is a crucial elements of Spider-Man, one of the central ones. The first film, though arguably underplaying it, clearly understood it. The second, however, hasn't a clue. Being Spider-Man is presented in it as some sort of cold, harsh discipline, to be engaged in relentlessly, joylessly, in martial fashion, and as a matter of "responsible behavior," regardless of whatever trouble it may cause in one's own life. Everything else is to be held as a secondary concern; the discipline must always come first.

This is, to put it mildly, quite out of step with the spirit of Spider-Man. Having chosen to shear away such a crucial element of the character, however, director Sam Raimi inexplicably chooses, as the major source for the film's story, a plotline from the comics which depended entirely upon this clown persona element he'd excised. The result is a hollow adaptation, one that uses superficial elements of the original story to tell an entirely different one.

In "Spider-Man No More,"[1] the principal comic story from which most of SPIDER-MAN 2 is drawn, Peter, after years as a costumed crimefighter, had lost touch with why he'd become Spider-Man in the first place. Maintaining the identity was causing him a lot of problems and he was becoming convinced that, because it was fun, and got in the way of his more adult pursuits, it was an immature thing. "...every boy, sooner or later," Peter thinks, "must put away his toys, and become a man." It was time to grow up, so "toy" Spidey went in the trash, in that famous image from the comic recreated in the movie. After Peter renounced his secret identity, crime became, for him, what it is to most people; a distant thing about which he heard on the news. Though it took some adjusting, this distance made it much easier to ignore. One night, though, Peter, passing by a warehouse, sees a night watchman being attacked by a pair of thugs. With the crime no longer distant but right there, up close and personal, he doesn't hesitate for a moment to jump into the fray and put away the two would-be thieves. The incident and the sight of the watchman, an older fellow, bring flooding back the memory of his Uncle Ben and of the reason he really became Spider-Man--those things with which he'd lost touch--and this makes him realize he'd gotten the equation reversed. Spider-Man wasn't a toy of childhood. It was his mature acceptance of responsibility, not a youthful shirking of it. He reclaims the mask and swears that no one will ever come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act.

In SPIDER-MAN 2, being Spider-Man isn't something Peter enjoys at all and, though he helps others, it seems to serve no positive function in his own life--it is, instead, a joyless exercise through which he puts himself in almost masochistic fashion and that he allows to utterly consume his life because he feels it's the responsible thing to do. He hasn't lost touch with why he became Spider-Man. He has, in fact, become obsessed by it to a very unhealthy degree. When he has an imaginary conversation with his deceased Uncle Ben and tells him he's going to stop being Spider-Man, it's a conscious walking away from what he'd seen and accepted as a responsibility.[2] Such a characterization of Peter is a drastic deviation from "Spider-Man No More," and from nearly all of the over 40 years worth of comic stories. This sharp disconnect from the source material is made even sharper by a scene in which Peter witnesses a mugging a few feet away from him, mirroring the one in the original "Spider-Man No More" story, and, with the victim yelling for help, just walks away.[3]

Such a gross mischaracterization is actually the point where an earlier ill-conceived snowball became an avalanche. That early snowball was set to rolling at the end of the first film, when Peter tells M.J., the love of his life, that he can only be her friend, nothing more. It was only one scene, and, troubling though it was, it did arguably help give a more operatic ending to the movie. And, of course, it could be written off later without too much trouble. Unfortunately, Raimi decided, instead, to build an entire movie upon it. Thus was born the Peter Parker of SPIDER-MAN 2 who, out of a combination of masochistic commitment to being Spider-Man and an obsessive fear of putting loved ones in danger, shuns intimate human contact and commits himself to a lonely, loveless existence--that harsh, joyless discipline. This is a Peter Parker entirely alien to the comic character. In the book, Peter actively pursued romantic interests over the years, like any other normal person. Even after Gwen Stacy, whom he intended to marry, was murdered by the Green Goblin because of her connection to him, he never adopted the course chosen by the movie Peter. And for good reason; it's a completely irrational choice. In the first film, it appeared at the very end out of nowhere. During the course of the movie, the Green Goblin had learned that Peter was Spider-Man and had menaced M.J. and his Aunt May. This is a problem, but the obvious solution is for Peter to zealously guard his secret identity. If it's compromised, all of his friends and family would be in danger in any case.[4] Unless he planned to cut off all human contact--and he clearly didn't--it made no sense to deny himself a romantic interest. Yet that's exactly what he decided to do in "reaction" to the Goblin's actions. The filmmakers arbitrarily committed movie Peter to this inane choice, setting up being Spider-Man and having a real life as all-or-nothing mutually exclusive options. This notion doesn't logically flow from anything in the movie and has more patently obvious holes in it than a Swiss cheese, but it becomes the "rationale," if the word can be so abused, for his giving up Spider-Man. It's the only way he thinks he can live a normal life.

In the all-important matter of M.J., we can only empathize with Peter to the degree to which we choose to ignore the fact that he's losing the love of his life only because he, himself, is needlessly throwing her away.[5] M.J., at the end of the film, easily refutes his "reasoning" for doing so by pointing out another of those obvious holes in the cheese; she's an adult, and can make her own decision about what kind of risks she's willing to take. In the meantime though, we've had to sit through two hours of a movie allegedly about Peter Parker/Spider-Man wherein a character who isn't recognizable as Peter Parker or Spider-Man commits to a transparently illogical, arbitrarily-imposed decision Peter Parker never made, requiring him to go through a process through which Peter Parker never had to go in order to reach a conclusion that should have been obvious to anyone from the beginning.

Not very impressive, either as an adaptation or as a film on its own merits.

In the adaptation department, Dr. Octopus doesn't fare much better than Spider-Man. The movie appropriates the spectacular visual of Doc Ock with little of the substance. This isn't necessarily a bad decision--in spite of the efforts of various writers over the years to better shade the character, Doc Ock, in the books, is still rather bland and lacking in depth. He's insane, obsessive, greedy, self-absorbed--quite a weird little guy. The accident that grafts his mechanical arms to his body damages his mind but he wasn't in very good shape in that department to begin with; the brain damage only made bad matters worse. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't succeed in replacing this with anything better. Their attempt to build a better Dr. Octopus makes of him a sort of sympathetic pseudo-villain. Movie Ock is actually a good guy, a fellow with a loving wife and stable life, selflessly dedicated to the cause of bettering mankind. He only does bad things because a protective microchip on his neck burns out during the accident allowing the artificial intelligence in his mechanical arms to manipulate him into it.

The scope of Spider-Man's powers in the film offers another wild deviation from the source material, adopted to the film's detriment. This, too, was born, somewhat, in the first film, where we see Spider-Man exhibiting strength and ruggedness that if not completely beyond the abilities of the comic version are certainly at the extreme end of those abilities. With SPIDER-MAN 2, however, all restraint goes out the window. At one point, when his webs stop working in mid-swing, he falls what looks like 50 or 60 stories, crashes into a roof and gets right up without even having the wind knocked out of him (comic Spidey would have been killed instantly by such a fall). Later, he takes another nasty fall and lands with his bare midsection crunching, full body weight, across the lip of a dumpster. Again, no apparent harm. Later, another nasty fall and he bounces off the roof of a car. This time, he appears to be injured, but only for humorous purposes (the scene is a repeat of the playing-across-rooftops scene from the first movie[6]). In his battles with Dr. Octopus, he's repeatedly slammed, face-first, into stone and brick walls; slammed so hard those walls crack and crumble under the impact of his face and body. They leave him completely unmarked and don't even slow him down. (Comic Spidey has, when weakened, been bloodied by ordinary human foes). He falls off a speeding el train, landing on the paved street far below, and zips right back into action without a moment's pause. By far the most outrageous scene though (and the most embarrassingly awful), is the one wherein he stops that train, speeding out of control, with his bare hands.[7]

Such things look absolutely ridiculous on the screen; they're abjectly pointless, brutal assaults on the willingness of the audience to suspend disbelief. Perhaps more importantly, they amount to an attack on another core element of the Spider-Man character: his basic humanity. This was the very thing that made Spider-Man so revolutionary in the 1960s. He's "not Superman," to quote Aunt May's laugh-line from the first movie. He isn't a god pretending to be a regular fellow; he is a regular fellow, who just happens to gain amazing powers. Throughout SPIDER-MAN 2 though, he's presented as an all-but-indestructible juggernaut, with strength and durability so far beyond our frame of reference as to seem positively otherworldly. This works to undermine our ability to relate to the character; it's a constant visual reminder that he's not one of us--taken to the extreme it is in the movie, not even remotely one of us.

Related to this is another of the character's core attributes brutalized by this treatment: his bravery. For all of Peter's doubts and anxieties, Spidey is a very gutsy fellow. Frequently, he's completely outmatched by his opponents. In the early years of the book, which saw the introduction of most of the key villains, it became a virtual formula that he would fail in his first attempt at taking them down, sometimes rather spectacularly being served a dish of his own posterior. In the latter category belongs his first encounter with Dr. Octopus.[8] Ock dismantled him in short order, tossing him aside when he was through like a piece of refuse. But as in all those other stories, Peter gets it together, comes back, and, defying the odds, puts the villain away. By contrast, it's difficult to imagine anyone giving too much trouble to the character with the capabilities we see in SPIDER-MAN 2, much less outmatching him. He's relentless, unstoppable, possessed of Hulk-like strength, and nearly impossible to injure; attributing bravery to him for what he does is like attributing it to a person who squashes a bug.[9]

Of course, no one wants to see a movie about a "hero" squashing a bug. The filmmakers deal with the problem they've created in so radically amping up Spider-Man's powers in exactly the wrong way; they radically amp up the durability of the villain in order to make him more of a match. They don't bother to give any in-story reason for it either. As with their Spider-Man's vow of celibacy earlier, this is a matter of one bad decision dictating another. The result is both an absurdity made even more absurd and a thing so completely removed from the source material as to be unrecognizable. In both the comics and the movie, Dr. Octopus is bonded with his mechanical arms via a lab accident but he, himself, has no superpowers--physically, he remains a normal human. In a fight with Spider-Man, comic Ock must let his mechanical arms do the work and be careful not to let Spidey land a solid blow on him. One good shot and it's all over. In the movie, though, Spider-Man is shown laying into Ock with full-blown, right-to-the-face haymakers over and over again, to little or no apparent effect. In a bank, he hits Ock so hard with a very large bag of coins that Ock is blasted backwards, his head and body leaving a crater in a rock wall, again little effect. Moments later, he hits Ock with a desk so hard it blows Ock off his feet, across the room, through a plate-glass window, and into the side of a car outside. Even after all that, Ock's impact on the car is still violent enough to blast it off the ground as though another car had plowed into it at a high speed. It doesn't even slow Ock down.

And so on.

"Spiderman 2" isn't one to let a little thing like internal logic or consistency get in its way either. The fellow who can stop a train with his bare hands can't even slow down Ock with repeated haymakers but frail old Aunt May manages to stagger Ock by striking him with her umbrella.[10] The film's lowest point in this regard occurs as the dreadful climax of the elevated train sequence. As noted earlier, the entire film presents Peter as being almost pathologically obsessed with the notion that his activities as Spider-Man pose a danger to his friends and family; it is, in fact, his central motivation throughout the film. If such a fear had no other effect, it would certainly lead him to zealously guard his secret identity, exposure of which would be the very thing that would place his loved ones in danger. His anxiety about this is so great that he's made of his life a misery, but during the train sequence, he whips off his mask and needlessly exposes his identity to the entire train full of people.[11] Rumor at the time was that this was done at the insistence of star Tobey McGuire, who wanted to be more strongly associated by moviegoers with the character of Spider-Man rather than just nerdy Peter Parker. This seems likely, as the entire film is replete with scenes where, while out as Spider-Man, he removes his mask. It thus offers a character far more more obsessed than his comic counterpart has ever been with the fear of placing his loved ones in danger via his Spidey activities, but one who, paradoxically, is far more careless--almost cavalierly careless--than his comic counterpart about having his identity revealed to the world.


SPIDER-MAN 2 was a big success and I know I'm pushing a very large rock up a very steep hill on this one but I also know that history's judgment of a film often isn't the same as that passed by the temporary passions of its own day. I don't really have any formal closing comments here. These are some of my observations on the film and why I didn't like it. Take them for what they're worth.

--j.

---

[1] From "Amazing Spider-Man" #50

[2] Raimi visualizes this by having Peter revert to his former pre-Spider-Man nerdy self from the first film.

[3] The only exception to this that springs readily to mind is "Spidey Cops Out," from "Amazing Spider-Man" #112, wherein, in the course of two pages, Spidey encounters but refuses to get involved in a mugging, then a kidnapping, the latter with the victim screaming to him for help. In the story, Aunt May had disappeared and he'd decided it was more important to try to find her than to get involved in the incidents in question. Still, it comes across as a gross mischaracterization (the fact that I even remember it attests to that). The story was written by Gerry Conway. It was only his second issue on the book and he hadn't quite gotten a handle on the character yet. He went on to a classic run.

[4] He keeps M.J. at "just friends" arm's length throughout SPIDER-MAN 2 but she's still kidnapped because of the Spidey connection.

[5] In the comics, the creators were forever devising ways to put Spider-Man between Peter and his various romantic interests but as contrived as they sometimes were, they made much more sense and you could empathize with Peter's plight. Betty Brant, after the death of her ne'er-do-well brother, was very firm on the point that she wanted a stable, boring mate who took no chances. Gwen Stacy believed Spider-Man had murdered her father. And so on.

[6] Significant portions of the movie were direct repeats of things from the first film. We get Peter taking out the garbage again, leading to another familiar conversation with M.J. We get the villain-talking-to-himself scene (in the first movie, it was Osbourne talking with his evil Goblin side--this time around, it's Octavius conversing with his mechanical arms). Another rescue of another child from another burning building. Another conversation with Uncle Ben (same car set, same wardrobe as the first time around). A repeat of that roof-jumping scene, played for comedy as it was the first time around. M.J. is once again kidnapped by the villain in order to draw out Spider-Man. The villain once again has a last-minute moment where he comes to his senses. And so on.

[7] Regarding the scope of Spidey's strength, there are moments of wild inconsistency in the comics (the most outrageous--and idiotic--probably being his takedown of the cosmically-powered Firelord in Amazing Spider-Man #269-270), but stopping a speeding train like that is a feat worthy of the Hulk; it isn't even remotely within the power range of any version of Spider-Man we've seen before. I singled out the train thing but that's only the most outrageous example of this sort of thing.

[8] From "Amazing Spider-Man" #3, another story from which SPIDER-MAN 2 is drawn.

[9] To put a finer point on this line of criticism, one of the most celebrated moments from the comic came in "Amazing Spider-Man" #32-33, when Spider-Man is pinned beneath a large piece of machinery in a room that is rapidly flooding. A few feet away is a new serum that will heal a dying Aunt May. If he can't free himself, he'll die, and, without the serum, she'll die. He's completely exhausted though. He's been running for days without a break. He'd just fought his way through a phalanx of hoods then gone 10 rounds with Dr. Octopus. The machine above him is massive. When he first tries, he can't budge it an inch. Between the two issues he spends seven pages--an eternity, by Silver Age comic standards--struggling to free himself, thinking of Aunt May, beating himself up again for Uncle Ben's death, insisting to himself that he won't let May die. And, throughout the course of this, slowly, ever so painfully, he manages to begin lifting the machine off his back and, with the strain so great he's on the verge of blacking out, he frees himself. The sequence is one of the greatest moments in the history of superhero comics and is widely regarded as Spider-Man's defining moment. As such, its a severe criticism of SPIDER-MAN 2 indeed to note the obvious fact that such a sequence--Spidey's defining moment--would, after seeing what he does in the second film, look insultingly disrespectful of continuity if included in any subsequent film.

[10] She saves Spider-Man's life by doing so--Ock was about to skewer him on a large blade. In SPIDER-MAN 2, May is a fan of Spider-Man and dislikes Dr. Octopus, exactly the opposite of the comics.

[11] The passengers' subsequent promise that they won't tell anyone is pure corn, and handled in such a disgustingly saccharine manner as to be wretch-inducing--easily the lowest depth the film plumbs.


...

This is reprinted from my comics blog, here:
http://comicscomments.blogspot.com/2005/10/tangled-web-of-spider-man-2.html

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mickey's Last

July 17th was the 6th anniversary of the death, at the age of 88, of Mickey Spillane, one of the bestselling authors of all time. The Mick was an unpretentious, even anti-pretentious, writer of hardboiled crime stories, with emphasis on the "hard"--hard-hitting, hard drinking, hard-headed, and pushing the envelope with regard to sex and violence in popular fiction damn hard. His most famous creation is Mike Hammer, and to the extent that the character was Spillane's fantasy version of himself--and it's probably fair to assume this was largely the case--it doesn't speak well of him, but Spillane was an extraordinarily talented pulpster. Their often reprehensible aspects aside, his tales sold so well because they're damn good. I was a fan.

Upon hearing the news he'd died, I spent an hour or two writing a sort of obituary in a rough counterfeit of his style, with several twists on some of his more memorable lines. I've never really done much with it. I came across it a few weeks ago, decided I sort of liked it, and, entirely by coincidence, the sixth anniversary of his death was approaching, so I thought I'd post it here (then forgot about it until a few days after the anniversary--sue me):

MICKEY'S LAST

The old man coughed and sputtered, tossed in his bed and cursed whatever gods made him old, made him weak, made him sick. "God must be a woman," he grumbled, and maybe the thought made him feel a little better. As tired as he was, he was still a tough old bastard, but as he sensed his end upon him, he knew Death was one rap he wasn't going to beat.

"Fuck you," he growled. "I got one more story to finish, and you can't have me 'till it's done."

Hauling himself off the bed and over to his desk took nearly everything he had, but he managed it, flopping into his chair with a grunt, wheezing, trying to catch his breath. His old Smith-Corona--"Betsy," he called her--was there, the paper already spooled and ready to go, carriage poised where he'd left it earlier. He'd banged out a lot of tales on the old girl over the years. All the blood and thunder that had made him one of the best selling pulp writers in human history had spooled though her on the way from his mind to the book-shelves. Beatings, rapes, murders, all the tools of the hardboiled trade--she'd seen it all.

He didn't have a lot of time left, now, though, and he knew it. His next story was nearly written. His last story. For weeks, as he'd felt Death creeping up on him, he'd worked on it like a madman, devoting his every waking hour to it, correcting as he went along. It was put-up or shut-up time. Get it in the can, or forever hold your peace.

And he desperately wanted to get it in the can. Of all the lousy luck, he'd been hit with some first-rate inspiration right here in the last few days of his life. "With me it always has to be the hard way," he thought, and the curse he spat at malevolent fate filled the room, as he glanced at the page to remember where he'd stopped, paused a bit to put himself in the moment and try to get the swimming feeling out of his head, and started typing it out.

This wasn't just hack-work, his last story. He'd done hack-work, and he knew the difference between it and the real stuff, even if he made a show of never giving a damn one way or the other. That's why he wanted to get this new story done--it was the real stuff, and it was really good. It was the best damn thing he'd ever written. He had to get it on the page.

He'd known how it was going to end before he'd started, and, after working through it in his head for a few weeks, he knew it was nearly finished. He even had a pretty good idea of what the last paragraph would say--it would be a big reveal, and a big blowout ending. It was just a matter of getting it there. "Best damn thing I've ever written." The thought drove him. As he typed along, he was fading, though, no way around it. He was numb, his eyes getting heavy. He had the story by the balls, but his fingers flew over the keyboard more and more slowly. For an hour, he kept himself focused, kept himself together, hammered away at it at best speed.

Finally, he'd nearly licked it. He'd broken himself, but it seemed he'd outrun death after all. He was down to the end, the big finale. It felt good, a weight off his chest. He was ready to put his much-contemplated final paragraph into place and call it a wrap. He knew roughly how he wanted it to go; he'd turned it over enough in his head. He definitely knew the last line. He paused to think it out. It had to be perfect--it would be the last paragraph of the last story he'd ever write. The last paragraph of the best story he'd ever written. He leaned back in his chair, eyes closed, breathing deeply and mulling it over until he had it cold perfect, every word in line in his head. He cracked his knuckles, and a smile crossed his lips. As he opened his eyes, he noticed, through his window, the first rays of the dawn sunlight peaking over the Carolina horizon. "Quite a sight," he thought, and he suddenly went lightheaded. "Goddamn it," disgustedly. He never felt his head hit the typewriter.


He was outside his body, a soul or a spirit or some damn thing. He could see himself lying in a pile slumped over his typewriter and knew his big finale would never be written. He shook his head, offered another disgusted "goddamn it." Beside him stood a figure in a black robe with the face of a corpse.

"Death, right?", he asked the visitor.

Corpse-face nodded his head.

"Y'know, I was almost finished with that," pointing to the typewriter.

"I know." Spectral, creepy voice.

The old man looked surprised. "You knew?"

Corpse-face noded again.

"Then... how could you?!" The old man thundered incredulously.

Corpse-face smiled wickedly at the old man. "It was easy."

* * *

To the extent that he was his characters, the Mick was a reactionary, a sadist, a misogynist, a scumbag, and there's not a whole hell of a lot good you can say about that.

He was a hell of a writer, though. And sometimes, that hell is enough.

Mickey Spillane died today, at 88 years of age. He'll be missed.

--j.
17 July, 2006

---

A few extra notes: Spillane died of pancreatic carcinoma. At the time this was written, I didn't know that. It's years ago, of course, but as I recall, the press reports just mentioned an illness, and I made him sort of generically ill. Also, my comments about his character at the end could be taken as pretty harsh, if not read carefully. People who knew the Mick said he was actually a good fellow, and if that's true, I'm glad to hear it.