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About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

two Supers and a DMZ

The first two issues of the J. Michael Straczynski run in Superman were interesting, but not entirely convincing.  #703 starts to move things into a higher gear, and I liked it quite a bit. The first two issues showed us a Superman walking the back streets of America, one might say to find his zen. In this issue Batman comes by to tell Superman why we don't see superheroes doing this. When a Superman is out with the real people there's too much danger of them becoming collateral damage. It's an interesting argument, one which might have seemed out of place in the more innocent days of the "relevant" Green Arrow series. Certainly an argument intentionally not scene in the prior two issues. Simultaneously there is Kryptonite arriving on Earth, only this type effects us instead of the Kryptonian. While it lasts people want to attack Superman and have a Superman power. So you can see where its going.  Regular Joe under the influence attacks Superman and there is lots of collateral damage to go around.  Even though the first pages may too clearly foreshadow the last, I liked the way the series pivoted in this issue, and I am very eager to see where Straxynski goes next.  Eddy Barrows is doing nice art. This issue is smooth both in it's low-key moments and in the fight scenes. 

Which we do not find in #704, which is an unusually good fill-in issue by G. Willow Wilson and Leandro Oliveira. A fill-in, but clearly planned. It looks at Superman's rumspringa from Lois Lane's POV, as she decides to join her hubby on tour, running into an old flame along the way. Good stuff. 

Speaking of fill-ins I've been lukewarm on the Collective Punishment arc in DMZ, but happily "A Decade on the Wall" in issue #58, with Danijel Zezelj doing the art honors (series creator Brian Wood scripts), is the best in the arc. It tells the story of a street artist who's been held in the Shea Stadium prison camp forma while and has now finally been given his freedom. One can quibble. A 22 page story that could have been told in 17 or 12. But ya know, even though I've never shied from saying that DMZ takes its own sweet time getting places, it's always been going somewhere, and way more issues than not I'm content to enjoy the ride. And this particular issue has stickiness to it. Just leafing through while I write about it, I find myself wanting to linger on these 22 pages a little longer. I doubt I'd feel that way retrospectively about the first few issues in this arc, but this one for sure. 

The ending of DMZ has been announced for issue #72. Knock wood this means series co-creator and regular artist Rick Burchielli is getting a running start on the final 14 issues, will be around for the lot of them, and there won't be one of those famous three month waits for the final issue that have been an unwelcome part of the comics scene dating back to Camelot 3000 and Ronin.  With the inability of recent Vertigo series to hold me after the first few issues, and some with very promising first issues, I'll be sad to see DMZ ending in by the start of 2012.       

Saturday, October 30, 2010

the trademark twins

Once upon a time DC Comics had a Superman team-up book called DC Comics Presents, a companion to The Brave and the Bold that was a long-running Batman team-up book.  They like the title, so they trot out the title every now and again to keep it nicely trademarked. The current trotting out is a series of reprint books, and I decided to sample a Green Lamtern volume with four issues from 2001 written by Judd Winick.  Solid entertainment. The first of the reprinted issues was a minor landmark because it had a supporting character come out as gay. Preachy, no. But very much a best case scenario, the coming out process should go so well for everyone. [down the road a bit the character became the victim of a gay-bashing] The next two issues are a little preachier but surprisingly relevant today, as Green Lantern goes to a planet trying to emerge from a long civil war, but the extremists win. GL heads for home, mission not accomplished, which is not the traditional way in comic books. Why should he stay and help people who don't want to help themselves?  Whose side should he take?   The final issue could have been written 30 years earlier. Old GL engages newer one in a test of strength.  All in all, more than sufficient comics entertainment to justify the $7.99 tariff.   

Ten years later Winick is still producing similar quality work.  Red Robin #5 (Judd Winick & Jeremy Haun) continues to be good, straightforward comic book action.  A former Robin soon to become a bad guy Red Hood stops a suicide bombing plan in London.   This doesn't have the relevance of the earlier GL story but it has that same sense of straightforward fun, not choking on continuity. There isn't enough of that any more, certainly at DC there's always this pull taking a series back to continuity hell, where you can't read one thing without having read 32 others and then going out to read 23 more. 

Another recent series of DC one-shots resurrected the names of the company's old war titles. No particular reason for those, war comics haven't been a viable genre for decades, but heaven forbid you lose your trademark on the title "Our Army at War," which is the one I sampled. The script by Mike Marts was both not bad and reprehensible. Not bad, because the basic premise was a good one well-suited to the comics art form. The timelessness of war, the basic sameness of being a soldier now or sixty years ago with a modern soldier and one from Sgt. Rock's WWII days and they complete one another's sentences across the decades. But it would have been the same without having a two-page title splash featuring the destruction of the World Trade Center. I saw that as a gratuitous trading on tragedy, and it left a sour taste. It's a nice two-pager, the art by Victor Ibanez is clean and smooth, like good John Byrne.

And if you want to write comics, think of good ideas for a dozen obscure characters not much heard nor seen of in fifteen years for your coffee with the editorial big kahuna. And if you're lucky, one of them will ha e been the subject of the latest memo from legal that it's use or lose time for Doctor Obscuropus. My best career suggestion:  Sugar and Spike. Seems to me it's been a while and opportunity will soon be knocking.  

Friday, October 29, 2010

two anthology funny books

The DC Universe Halloween Special for 2010 demonstrates the anthologist's creed, to put your best feet at the forward and tail ends of an anthology. Billy Tucci both writes and draws the opening story, Trick for the Scarecrow, but special kudos to colorist Hi-Fi. There's a nice and very Halloweeny orange and yellow color scheme that sets the story apart from the dominant tones of 99% of what we see in comics, and works even around the very blue and gray Batman. I'm not entirely sure I understood the story, but it was intriguing and nice to look at.  Brian Keene wrote Fears of Steel with Superman encountering The Demon.  I didn't understand this one either, nor could I say that the depiction of The Demon was The Demon I knew, but the art had panache and the story seemed to reflect an artistic vision of sorts. The other few stories in between these made no impression at all.

I can kind of recommend House of Mystery Halloween Annual #2.  There's a nifty main story in three parts about a group of cursed trick or treaters. First part is House of Mystery proper, second part Madame Xanadu, third Lucifer by the respective writers.  Liked part one, loved the Madame Xanadu segment written by Matt Wagner with some very nice art by Brandon Graham, pencil ink colors trifecta. The Lucifer section was enh but overall this reminded me of the better days of the old House of Secrets-House of Mystery. Alas, this was a $4.99 book that would have been better with less pages less price. The pointlessness of the John Constantine Hellblazer story did not remind me of the best Hellblazer from 20 years ago but rather of the stories in the DCU Halloween special. And the iZombie story was, what?  It's a to be continued in the regular book, but where the first issue of the series was promising and got me back for a second this has not much at all about the characters or concepts or anything to make one go back to the mothership, so why do it at all. I got my $2.99 worth but paid more.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

two funny books

I bailed out of DC's Brightest Day after a promising first issue, but now a few months later I find myself bailing back in.  I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Firestorm and he's taking on a primary role in the series, so...  And considering I haven't been reading the series issues #11 and 12 cohere well enough that I shall buy another issue instead of re-bailing out.  But what are they doing with the covers?  They match so poorly I think the cover of #12 should've been on #11. Maybe because this is biweekly, two issues a month and ads sold to run in one issue of each book over the course of a month, the second issue in a month is filled with house ads. #12 has multiple ads ballyhooing the new lineup of Batman titles. And I find not a single one of them which I have even the slightest interest in reading. This is not good, whole year storyline leading up to this relaunch and instead of ending up someplace that would broaden the appeal of one of the primary DC characters I think they've ended up immersed in a massive navel-gaze. 

I picked up Superman: World of Krypton, script by Cary Bates and art by Renato Arlem, out of Bates nostalgia. He was once the Superman writer, among other things. DC not very optimistic, burning off six issues in three double sized. I'm sad it wasn't better. The second "issue" i.e. parts 3 and 4, may be the best, the 5th part went off on a tangent about the Green Lantern Corps, then a little better, then kind of fades. Basically, it's an alternate Superman without a point of view. It borrows a line from the movie here, some other piece of DC mythology there, a bit of Superman mythology there. It's all surrounding the overall idea that the entire El family is on Earth instead of just Kal-El, aka Clark Kent aka Superman. But instead of take the one idea and thoroughly exploring it, the main idea, the theoretical raison d'etre of the series, becomes a clothesline on which to hang way too much else. Bad editing?  Bates and switch that didn't end up looking like the proposal?  And yet for all that I think it doesn't work, DC has gotten behind much worse in a big way. If the writer had been some big flavor of the day instead of the flavor of yesterday, DC could probably have turned this noble idea into a major to do instead of trying to hide it

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Updating my Facebook Status

It's extremely rare to get to the end of a movie and be left wanting more, but that's how I felt at the end of The Social Network, the extremely delightful film directed by David Fincher, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin based on The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. I wanted more. I was so delighted by the music, by the writing, by the performances, by the unobtrusive craft in every frame and every minute, by the true drama still made with enough wit that I found more laughs here than in many an alleged comedy I had seen, that when we got to the end and I realized we were at the end that I deflated a bit that there wasn't going to be another hour I could be entertained. This movie is good. It is good, good, good, it is Empire Strikes Back good because that's about how rarely it comes along that I am Not Happy that I will have to leave a movie behind. Jerry Maguire, maybe, or Bull Durham, there just aren't too many movies I can think of over the past 30 years that have had me under their spell the way The Social Network did.

So if you haven't seen it, go, come back to my blog after you've done so.

As most of you probably know by now, the movie's about the circumstances surrounding the founding of Facebook, the social networking website that I've thoroughly resisted joining but which a huge fraction of the world is taking advantage of these days. In a nutshell, the public face of Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard student who started the web site less than seven years ago from his Harvard University dorm room. He started it not long after he was invited by identical twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss to work on another social networking site called HarvardConnection. They sued him. Three other Harvard students, Chris Hughes, Dustin Moskovits and Eduardo Saverin are listed with Zuckerberg as co-founders on the Founder Bios page, and it's Saverin who is the third leg of The Social Network triangle with Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses (or "the Winklevi" as Zuckerberg calls them at one point during the movie). He provided the initial funding, a start-up investment of $1K and then $18K follow-up for Facebook, but disagreed with Zuckerberg on the timing for starting to monetize the site, and sued after his stake was diluted from 30% to .03%. Coming to hang over Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook like Polaris to the Ancient Mariner is the figure of Napster founder Sean Parker.

It doesn't sound like a comedy, does it? It also doesn't sound like a Valentine's Day card for Mark Zuckerberg. But in some ways it manages to be both. [And let me say moving forward that I'm always talking about events as we see them in the movie, which may or may not be what they were like in real life...]

Let's first deal with Zuckerberg. Certainly the movie depicts him as, being maybe somewhere on the autism scale. His skills at computer hacking are amazing, but his interpersonal relationships are incredibly bad. It seems vividly clear that he had a prior interest in the different social networking sites at Harvard. Prior to founding Facebook, he hacks into many of them to get images for a website that will allow Harvard students to rank the coeds. Yet it seems quite likely that he would never have founded Facebook without being shown what was planned for HarvardConnection. His defense isn't to claim that the idea was his, but rather to say that the coding was his. i.e., it doesn't matter if they gave him the idea because they didn't give him any of the expression thereof. And from a literary agent perspective, I find this isn't necessarily a persuasive defense, but it's a valid one, and the implications are worth studying. Ideas are nebulous things. They can't be copyrighted, none, really. Some can be patented, but even there the idea can't be too obvious or too already out there in the aether. Even taken that the Winklevi were royally screwed by Zuckerberg, their naivete in their initial dealings with Zuckerberg is really, really naive. On the other hand, how do you know when to be really cautious and when to be somewhat trusting? In publishing, most authors don't copyright their manuscripts before they start submitting them, as a rule I don't think they should, as a reality there are few allegations that unpublished books are stolen. There's somewhat more smoke surrounding the infringement fires in Hollywood. Corporate espionage is a fact of life and theft of intellectual property seems to be more of a problem than theft of creative property. There's just a lot of interesting stuff lurking in the background of all of this, the upshot being that I'm more conflicted over Zuckerberg's treatment of the Winklevi than even I might expect.

And as to Eduardo Saverin, it's again a situation that's fascinating to me on a professional basis. It's clear that Saverin and Zuckerberg were on very different pages regarding Facebook well before he was forced out. It probably would have been best if one or both had decided to end things long before things ended. When Saverin is asked to sign papers to faciliate Facebook's corporate restructuring as it starts to attract venture capital angels, he doesn't hire his own lawyers to look over the papers before signing and trusts that the interests of himself and the company lawyers are one. The stakes aren't as high in my line of work, but similar issues present themselves when it's clear that an author and agent have gotten themselves on very different pages. When does everyone realize this and move on?

As with Jerry Maguire, The Social Network has some rich professional relevance that might give me an added interest in the movie, though I think the questions are of much more general interest here. When to end a sour relationship, when to consider the big blow-off to be something other than innocent, when to trust the people you're dealing with and when not, when it's honorable to do the right thing and when all is fair in love and war. And in reviewing and thinking on the movie, when do you consider the circumstances of others to be unique and when does past history provide a life lesson for today?

And then to go broader, why are there those nice guys who manage to succeed by being nice, and then the guys who succeed by being brutal to the people around them? Zuckerberg is the kind of person we're all told not to grow up to be, and he's the kind of person we all want to be. He's the embodiment of the conflicting cliche, that eternal battle between "parting makes the heart grow fonder" and "out of sight, out of mind," between "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar" and "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

It's rare for a message movie to entertain, but The Social Network entertains in spades.

Let's start with Jesse Eisenberg. You can click here for reviews from this blog of other movies he's been in. Just turned 27, I've kind of been watching Eisenberg grow up in film, from early roles in Roger Dodger and especially The Squid and the Whale where he's playing a high school student, and into a bad movie like Adventureland where he was too old to be playing a high school student and looking bored in a script that wasn't good enough for him, and more recently starting to grow up a bit in much better roles in Zombieland and Solitary Man. He's amazing here, like he was born for the part, like this is the role God wanted him to play. His Mark Zuckerberg is constantly wrapped in a university hoodie, almost like a ward against the rest of humanity. He never seems to have a kind word for anyone. He never seems to come alive unless it's when he's taking the Sean Parker approach that Facebook must be cool vs. the Eduardo Saverin approach that Facebook must make money. In fact, it's interesting to compare his reaction to Saverin's attack on Facebook cool to his much calmer approach when Sean Parker's arrested simultaenous with Facebook getting its millionth user. I'm not Pauline Kael, I'm not good at describing what makes good acting good acting. But I've seen Eisenberg in enough films playing enough different kinds of characters to know that he's acting here, that the person we see in this movie is a different person than the one we see in Zombieland, and that this is a fully-realized portrayal.

And Justin Timberlake is the fire to Eisenberg's ice. Timberlake is a bona fide actor these days, not just some boy band expatriate. He's shown bits of it in other movies, or in his command of Studio 8H hosting Saturday Night Live. He's got a touch of Jude Law in his portrayal of Sean Parker, as a kind of Peter Pan of internet start-ups. He's been shown the adult world in starting and losing Napster, but he doesn't really want to be an adult. He finds in Zuckerberg and Facebook the opportunity to locate his own little fountain of youth. And yet his eternal impishness isn't the all of him. There's a head for business, the experience that comes from having made his mistakes, and learned from them. The two performances are a pair. There's a wildness to both, but Timberlake is every bit the outie to Eisenberg's innie, and the two make beautiful music together.

It's hard for the other actors to emerge fully from behind these two great central performances, but nobody fades into the background. This is also one of those good movies where the efforts at casting reach far down into the cast list. There are a lot of deposition scenes in the movie, and the actors are as well matched in them as the lawyers.

Aaron Sorkin has written the script, and it's an amazing piece of work. He tells a story about the invention of a website that manages not to drown in shots over the shoulder of a computer screen. He's written a legal thriller that doesn't once set foot in a courtroom. He's written a serious business drama that's full of great throwaway lines. Shakespeare did comic relief, where he had to cut to the special characters designed to provide the relief, and Sorkin improves upon this totally since he manages to find the relief inside each character and fully integrate every piece of the stew.

And David Fincher is fully in control of every frame of the movie. The main titles of the movie are shown over a scene of Mark Zuckerberg walking back to his hotel room in an angry rage after being dumped by his girlfriend, and this is the kind of scene that in a lot of movies would be kind of quiet and sedate because after all it's just the background for the credits, or would go the other way where you'd get kind of all artfully fancy in making the credits swooping and fancy. This credit scene doesn't do either. The main titles aren't very fancy at all, it's Jesse Eisenberg fairly plain with the first name italicized. But yet there's something utterly propulsive about the most basic walk through Harvard Yard, about the way the shots are edited, about the purposefulness of Eisenberg's stride. The entire movie is every bit as propulsive, and yet at the same time never goes so fast that you don't notice every line of dialogue or every bit of techie business about the underpinnings of Facebook that you might need to know to understand everything that's happening. I've read that Fincher was Kubrickian in his filmmaking process, doing dozens of takes for some scenes, and if so let us stipulate that the gazillions of feet of film show up on the screen. The amazing performances from Timberlake and Eisenberg, the perfect line readings from every member of the cast on every line of every scene throughout the entire movie. You don't notice things like the photography or the music, but this isn't the time or place where you want to.

In a way, I'm overstating the case for The Social Network. There are lots of good and great movies in the world. This one doesn't have the best acting up and down the entire cast, or the best photography or the best music. I wouldn't say The Social Network is one of the Best Movies I've seen in my life. But there are better movies that don't inspire me the way this one did. Better movies that ended when they ended, and I was fine with that. But I'll reiterate the point I made at the top of this post. There just aren't that many movies that leave me deflated and sad when the credit sequence starts to roll at the end. The Social Network is an awfully good movie, and I don't know if it will be the "Best" movie of the year, but I doubt even the "Best" movie of the year will be as thoroughly entertaining as this. I doubt it will be resonant. I doubt it will be as successful in walking a tonal tightrope.

The Social Network dropped a projected 31% in its 2nd weekend, which is the smallest percentage drop second weekend of any #1 movie this year. That wouldn't have been so hot 30 years ago when I first started paying attention to these things, but in the current day and age you hope to drop 40% and a lot of horror flicks or other genre fare will routinely drop by 60% or more. I'm glad to see this is getting some good word of mouth, and I'll happily join in. This is one anticipated well-reviewed movie that's living up to expectations.