The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Better Call Saul


Like so many others, I was looking forward to "Better Call Saul" with trepidation. Disappointing spin-offs are a dime a dozen. For every "Frasier" or "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine", there is a "The Tortellis" or "Star Trek: Voyager" or "Legend of Korra". While normally it would be too soon to say, after the spectacular two evening premiere of this "Breaking Bad" spin-off, I am confident that this will, at worst, go into the "good spin-off" category... and if it keeps up this quality, or exceeds this quality, it just might become the greatest spin-off of all time.

Like "Breaking Bad" before it, we are watching the transformation of our protagonist. Walter White was an egotistical, yet beaten down by life, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who transformed into the murderous, methamphetamine kingpin, Heisenberg. Here we will slowly watch fast talking, down on his luck, lawyer, Jimmy McGill transform into criminal lawyer, Saul Goodman. And yet, thus far I don't feel like we're going back to the same wall. Walter and Jimmy are both very different people, in very different situations, likewise Saul while shifty and crooked is still someone you'd want to have a beer with while Heisenberg was someone to be avoided at all costs.

I was enjoying the show from the first moment, but as soon as we got to the New Mexico desert, where Jimmy and his two scammer cronies were facing execution at the hands of Tuco Salamanca, this is where we began to see the sparks of Saul Goodman. Jimmy is a natural performer, as many good lawyers are. And right there, when he talked his way out of an execution and talked Tuco into letting his cronies off with a single broken leg, each... Jimmy was finally in his element, he even later pointed the experience out as a good thing. He's found his audience. And when he retorts to the accusation of being the worst lawyer ever with "I got you off of death row to six months of probation, I am the best lawyer ever", you can't help but agree with him.

The two-part pilot did everything it needed to do, it re-introduced us to Vince Gilligan's Albuquerque and built up Jimmy's supporting cast, from his brother, Chuck, to his new business associate, Nacho. Michele McLaren and Gilligan's cinematic directing for the small screen made a very welcome return as I am confident enough to say that, like "Breaking Bad" before it, "Better Call Saul" will be the most visually beautiful show on television. Gilligan's use of cinematography would make Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock proud, and television is lucky to have him. It's like "Breaking Bad", but very much its own series.

So let it be known, a spin-off to a much beloved series just took a popular supporting character, successfully built him a supporting cast consisting of potentially interesting characters, all portrayed by actors who are not thespianly challenged. Sharp writing and cinematic directing has been brought to this spin-off. It can be done! It has been done!

Do you need to watch "Breaking Bad" to appreciate this? No. But you'll get so much more out of it if you have. Long time fans are rewarded while new fans are welcomed with open arms. Besides, when a show opens up in a courtroom with three nineteen-year-old hooligans on trial for breaking into a morgue and having sex with a decapitated head, you know you're in for something very special. I give it an A+

Monday, February 2, 2015

Spider-Girl

This is what "Batman Beyond" should have been. 

Very recently, I plucked down about $150 at my local comic book shop and purchased seven Spider-Girl trade paperbacks. All five volumes of "Amazing Spider-Girl" and both volumes of "Spectacular Spider-Girl" which conclude the series. I wish Marvel would release trades of "Spider-Girl", covering those initial one hundred issues before the relaunch, but it has yet to happen. I loved this series. Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz were just a dream team on a book that was obviously a labor of love, more so than any other comic published by Marvel and DC in the last twenty years that I can think of.

For those of you who don't know, "Spider-Girl" stars May "Mayday" Parker, the daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. After she was born, she was kidnapped by Norman Osborn before being rescued and returned to her parents. When she was around two years-old, Peter and Osborn had their final battle where Peter lost his leg and Osborn lost his life. Peter then became a forensics scientist for the NYPD and focused on raising his child, who's own spider powers manifested when she was sixteen... and well, with great power there must also come a great responsibility. So Mayday becomes a superhero, herself. She finds her own allies, make her own enemies among a new generation of superheroes and supervillains.

I think what I like most about Mayday is that while she is very much both of her parents' child, she's very much her own person. She feels just as real as either Peter or MJ did in their best stories without ever feeling like a gimmick. Watching her develop and grow over the course of this series feels organic and believable. She has just as rich a supporting cast as her father, and she, herself, is great. In a medium with a very disappointing lack of great female protagonists, Mayday distinguishes herself by being everything a protagonist, regardless of gender should be. Also, unlike most female comic book heroes, she's never objectified. Oh, she's sexy, don't get me wrong, but without any male gaze cheesecake. She's smart and tough, but she also has her vulnerabilities, insecurities. She's trying hard to live up to her father's standard, as well as maintain a normal life which in itself provides relatable angst without a background in darkness and tragedy. Not that those kinds of backgrounds should be avoided, but it's hard to just have a hero living a relatively normal life without tragedy and still be compelling, something which Superman tries and fails at (and don't mention Krypton, he has no memories of that). In fact, there's a point in the series when a character called Mayhem (who I will not be spoiling), with a different outlook than Mayday's says it's time for a darker, grimmer kind of superhero... clearly Tom DeFalco hanging a lampshade on a majority of modern comic characters. So, in a way, Mayday is very much a response to the dark and grim 90's.

The series is compelling, and fun. It's not written for the trade the way most modern comics are. Don't get me wrong, there are arcs running through the series that make great trades, but each individual issue packs more story in them than the majority of modern comics. While it's definitely not like comics of old, it often reads like a hybrid of classic and modern comics in a way that works... this is the model modern comics should have been based upon, as opposed to comics by the likes of Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis. And as far as writing a Spider-Man for a new generation, this succeeds at it where Bendis' "Ultimate Spider-Man" failed. It respects the mythos without handcuffing itself to it, and forges its own path... in a similar manner that "Spectacular Spider-Man" the animated series would do later. Both series have a similar tone to them.

Sadly, recent times have not been so good to Mayday, but I still hope we'll see her and her family again under DeFalco and Frenz's pen. Overall, I give the series an A+