I want to spend some time discussing another media-centric thing my wife and I have enjoyed over the last few years. Having cut the cord of the malefactors of the cable industry years ago, we have come to rely on the increasingly amazing source of entertainment to be found among the streaming networks. Netflix and Hulu have defined television for our modern era, and are now producing quality, serial shows the likes of which have never really been seen outside of HBO and some of the other premium cable channels. While it remains to be seen if Netflix’s growth can be sustained over the long haul, there can be no doubt that in a few short years the company has unleashed some of the best stories we’ve seen in the medium for a long time. For now I want to focus on an animated show from the streaming service that is a roaring success in various and deep ways.
And that show is BoJack Horseman.
What is this show, exactly? I could describe it simply as a pastiche of anthropomorphized animals and humans co-existing in a world of “Hollywoo” - but that’s not all that detailed or interesting. I could be boring and say read the Wiki. A better description would be this: a show that seems OK with the idea of being a screw-up, in life or in career or anything. And that is something our world desperately needs. Voiced by one of my all-time favorite television actors (Will Arnett), BoJack is the washed-up former star of “Horsin’ Around,” the type of banal sitcom that was populous in the alternate 1990’s of this (and our) world. After a glorious eight seasons, while he has become famous BoJack leads a desperate life of partying and drift. We first see him in season one working with a ghost writer (Alison Brie), who he first is fearful of getting his autobiography wrong and who he then becomes romantically attached - and that’s just getting started. But I can hardly do justice to the writing of this show - it is that freaking good. Arnett is surrounded by an amazing cast, including Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, and Paul F Tompkins.
In my lifetime, we have witnessed a fair amount of variation of animated television shows for adults. The Simpsons premiered just as I was turning 6 and my parents didn’t really let me watch it anyways; I was more lucky to be around during my formative and uh, substance-using years to enjoy a hefty dose of the reality-bending comedy coming out of the folks at Williams Street, adult swim (then known as the Cartoon Network’s evil, late-night twin). The intervening decades also brought new and highly original ideas like South Park, Futurama, and Archer. The chain of events leading to BoJack has led to something that is like a homage to all that has come before, and yet is very unique on its own. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksburg, who got a nice profile in the New York Times Magazine this July, stated that he pitched the show to his partner Lisa Hanawalt as being about a “Depressed Talking Horse.” That gets a lot closer to the center of it for me, and especially my wife Mary. Living with a mental illness is not easy, and being the partner of someone with that affliction can be tough. But I don’t know how hard she has it, most of the time. Late in the first season, Arnett gives a stunning voice performance, pleading with ghostwriter Diane to (in his words) “tell me I’m a good person.” It’s a poignant moment for many reasons, but it also speaks to a fundamental emptiness many of us have felt at one time or another in our lives.
I can speak to this as well. Moving to Minnesota in the summer of 2007, I had essentially zero reason for going other than my current life in Iowa was falling into a malaise of drugs and a general feeling of no direction. Not having much of an ability to change myself at this point in my life, this lifestyle unsurprisingly followed me up here. The results of which, while being helpful to mine for my in-progress third novel, led to a desperation that was only resolved by meeting the woman I was supposed to fall in love with and marry. But in the intervening years I indeed could be described as a “f*ck up,” having the desire to write a book but no motivation to see it through. This is the world BoJack inhabits all the time, and so it’s difficult viewing because of the raw nature of the portrayal of what very much is one of life itself. We’re not necessarily used to that from a show of this type, are we?
At the end of the first season, BoJack finds out that the autobiography he maligned has gotten him the role of a lifetime: playing the great racing horse Secretariat. Season two finds him acting in the movie and slowly, finally finding a way to gain happiness, only to find that it causes him to lose out in being in the film (to find out what I mean by that, you gotta watch!). This leads into the phenomenal season three, released this year, in which the creators found even more bizarre and experimental ways to toy with the medium and nature of the show itself, including what I thought was one of the best yet: a (mostly) silent, underwater episode that takes place under the ocean. Having some sort of pseudo-nostalgia about silent films dredged out of me after viewing The Artist years ago, this one particularly moved me. The entire three-season run covers a rapidly growing amount of ground, including celebrity culture in general and the shallowness of those people we put on pedestals in Hollywood. Season three even has a disturbing Cosby-esque allusion revolving around a supposedly “beloved” talk-show host and his treatment of women.
At its core, this show is about disappointment, and realizing that life is going to give you plenty of it. But for some people, this is about as good as it might get for them. Depression is a real disease, and it affects a lot of people. Just the fact that a streaming service was willing to take a chance on a show that caters to this very fact of our modern existence is a pretty big step forward, and is a start toward addressing larger issues about why so many people in today’s America feel this way. Sure, everyone feels like a screw-up once in awhile, but a lot of people can never escape that feeling. Those of us who can gain pleasure from a dive into a depressed talking horse’s alternate universe and still come away in one piece need to be there for those who may not find the return trip so easy.
Without diving too further into the dark territory, I have to conclude by saying that if you have the means and the time to watch this powerful show, I would highly recommend it. I will also say this - in our current era of “peak TV” (or whatever blithe description you want to throw on this First-World Problem) there seems to be an encouragement to binge-watch these kinds of shows. In this case, I would actually advise against it. While each episode is telling a part of the overall story they are each worth digesting on their own; even breaking it up to one or two episodes a week is worth it. But if you don’t give a hoot what I think, binge away! The important thing is to get more people viewing this incredible, moving show.
It’s time once again for another update in my Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fiction. Kicking off the second-half of my year was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and next I took on Chuck Palahniuk’s (now) famous first novel Fight Club. Much has been written about this book and its film adaptation so I’ll skip much discussion about its plot or the crazy twist at the end. First I want to hit on the two major lessons on writing I have garnered from reading this amazing book.
Overall, I found this book to be a stunning triumph, and has definitely gotten me interested in more of Palahniuk’s work. Having seen David Fincher’s decent film version in my college years (a viewing that challenged my very perceptions of storytelling back in those days), I still wish I had read the book first. I decided to break my general rule of NOT watching the movie of any of the books I read this year and sit through the Brad Pitt/Edward Norton picture again before writing this, and while Fincher does stuff on-screen that makes the novel come alive in unique ways (splicing images of Pitt’s Durden into the middle of scenes), it still pales in comparison to the raw urgency and devastating prose of the work itself.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book, but am not sure I would recommend it to everyone. Just as not everyone would like to romp through a visceral, intense 700-page Stephen King novel (as I would), not everyone might enjoy reading a book about grown-up Gen X-ers creating underground clubs which then turn into a domestic terrorist organization. That being said, any writer worth their salt should be open to books not among their “wheelhouse,” so to speak, so I don’t think I am steering you wrong when I say anyone can get something out of this novel - it is that unique.
Ok, looking ahead I have a few more books to tackle in the first year of this experiment, starting with Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I will also be doing a some more media and process posts in the next few months, as well as more updates on my pursuit of an agent. Thanks for reading!
I want to talk about something near and dear to this nerd’s heart: comic book movies. This also lines up with a theme I have been trying to establish more around this blog: what I am taking in outside of those fiction books I’ve been reading this year. One of the greatest dorky pleasures of my life are comic books, especially those related to Batman.
We have seen a few movies from Warner Brothers this year that directly tie into this character’s larger world within the DC universe. 2013 saw the establishment of what has come to be known as the DC film universe with the release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. This year we saw two of what most people will tell you were the biggest box-office bombs of the year: Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. Since I refuse to see the crappy, pared down theatrical version of David Ayers’ villain extravaganza, preferring to wait until it gets a proper director’s cut release (similar to what happened with BvS - more on that later), this essay will focus on the first two. And be warned: those who would rather read my writing advice-type stuff and don’t care to take a deep dive into such a fantasy environment, feel free to exit at any time. Exits can be found at the front and rear of the blog.
But for those who care about these characters like I do, I feel that it’s time to set the record straight a little bit. First we need to begin with Man of Steel. But really this all starts with Zack Snyder. The guy epitomizes the idea of the hit-or-miss blockbuster filmmaker. A scorching remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead put him on the map, the jaw-dropping visual rendition of Frank Miller’s 300 made him a huge name in the comic book world. Since then you’d be hard-pressed to say his work has been stellar. The less said about his emphatically flawed take on Alan Moore’s legendary Watchmen, the better. And I won’t say anything about Sucker Punch because I haven’t seen it. Despite this rather interesting record, Warner and DC both decided he had done a good enough job to give him the reigns of their biggest franchise. And so the first installment was a sort of re-booting of the Superman universe. Man of Steel saw a brand-new version of Krypton and drastically altered a lot of the characters we thought we knew. The plot centers around Superman as he reaches the Christ-like age of 33, having never revealed himself or his powers to the world. That all changes when he comes across the wreck of a Kryptonian shuttle, which in turn sets off a beacon that brings the remaining Kryptonians to Earth for what they see as a last chance at the survival of their species. The movie was criticized for a lot, not least of which was the climactic final battle sequences that levelled the fictional (remember that - fictional) town of Smallville before moving to an epic showdown with General Zod and his cronies over Metropolis as they try to re-make Earth in their home planet’s image. And yes, a lot of people probably would have gotten killed in an epic battle of this nature. In a fictional city. In a fictional universe.
This is getting me to the first of a seemingly limitless amount of points people bring up about these films without understanding the first bit of what makes a comic book story so gripping. There is a reason why DC sets its universe in cities with made-up names. There is a reason why Superman doesn’t destroy buildings in New York City, like, say that other company’s group of superheroes. There is a reason why Gotham City has remained a cesspool of corruption and crime that Batman still has not wiped out 75 years into his existence. These are not real places, but because of that they can tell us more about our own real universe. Besides, if two all-powerful superbeings started a huge fight in the middle of an urban core, would they care all that much about who got in their way? We’re talking about beings that are on the level of what we puny humans would call gods.
Which brings me to my next point. Snyder got epically criticized for portraying Superman as a Christ-like figure throughout this film - the aforementioned turning 33 (same year Christ was supposedly crucified), holding his hands out as he floats through space like he’s about to be placed on a cross, not to mention (*spoilers* for the people who let word-of-mouth spoil an awesome movie for themselves) sacrificing himself for the good of the planet at the end of BvS. Again, depending on your view of religion you could see this in different lights. But there is no denying the fact that if an alien creature like Superman actually came to Earth, Snyder’s vision of how humanity might react isn’t too far off the mark.
There is plenty to go after in this movie, for comic book fans and movie fans alike. But less discussed are the things Snyder got right. For a long time DC has made sure that the most important questions their superheroes raise are front and center - chiefly being the morality of a group of super-powered beings (or if you’re incredibly nerdy like me, “metahumans”) running around with zero constraints and taking on threats the entire collection of world governments could not take on themselves. Sound familiar? It should, if you’ve lived in the these here United States for the past century. Questions of moral turpitude, questions of the use of power and why, questions about the “oldest lie in politics,” as Lex Luthor says, “that power can be innocent.” I simply cannot see why these deep issues could not resonate so much with the populace at large.
Despite all of this, the movie works for the most part. People were mad that Superman destroyed a lot of two cities in this fight. Considering how he was revealing himself to the world for the first time, and had next to no idea of the powers his Kryptonian foes would have on this planet, all things considered I thought he did a decent job in taking on a threat to the very existence of all humanity. Zod essentially brought a machine to Earth that would terraform it into a new Krypton, exterminating all life in the process. As Michael Shannon puts it in his over-the-top performance as Zod, “a foundation has to be built on something.” If that isn’t a threat that is even worth causing major damage to a city like that, I don’t know what would be worse.
But of course people couldn’t let this go, and so the largest criticisms of the first film caused the next to ave to deal with them. Which brings me to what quite possibly might be the greatest comic book movie ever put to film (that’s right haters - LOL), Batman V Superman.
But no, you cry! Someone who is supposed to be a good writer and knows plot and structure of narration and all of that crap couldn’t possibly like this dog turd of a movie! It was so dark! Batman shoots people with guns! Superman is one-dimensional and has no motivation. Jesse Eisenberg just plain sucked! And on and on and on it went all through the spring, with no end in sight. Having decided to just wait and watch the actual, R-rated version (opposed to the edited whatever that got released into theaters and was ripped to shreds) of this film I can say with almost complete confidence that if you are somebody who doesn’t like this movie, you simply do not understand DC, or perhaps even comics in general.
How can I say this? I guess the major issue I had with this film is that most of the stuff about it that people hated, I didn’t. That’s not much of a defense, but hear me out. I want to go through some of the major criticism of this movie and offer my own take.
First - it’s “too dark.” I imagine people who said this were amazed at the 1978 Superman film and haven’t paid much attention to the comic book world since then. Which means they would have missed DC’s profound turn toward more dark story lines, especially by the late 1980’s. It was this decade that produced some of the most genre-defying works of Detective Comics, including landmark titles such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (a huge influence on BvS, as should be obvious), Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Swamp Thing, among many others. This was hardly the first foray of comics into darker territory, but it made a lasting impression upon the industry. The major questions of Watchmen, which in itself was a major philosophical quandary ruminating on the nature of American power in the world, were the ideas of “who watches the watchmen,” i.e. who is out there to check our own nation’s ability to rule the world because we have the most powerful entity in the universe on our side. These questions sink directly into the plots of many of DC’s flagship titles, and formed a big core of its much-ballyhooed re-launch of “The New 52” in 2011. When Grant Morrison got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reboot Superman in the pages of Action Comics he chose to make him an outsider much like Henry Cavill’s portrayals. At first, the city of Metropolis enlists Lex Luthor to try and stop this invulnerable being, but in the end realizes that they are better off not trying to kill him but acknowledge him as the savior of their city he will become.
This is the pedigree Zack Snyder’s film walked into, and I think he accomplished it in spades. Yes, the critics forced him to acknowledge the “collateral damage” Superman caused in his fight against Zod (funny, I wonder how many people know that’s what the US called it when our bombs killed scores of Iraqi civilians over the course of that failed enterprise) by integrating it into this story, but this is a story that has been told many times. The very nature of the Justice League and its members is one of angst over the very people they are supposed to be serving and protecting. This quality of power and who should use it informs every aspect of this movie - from Lex Luthor’s unquenchable rage at suddenly being less than a god now that Superman is around to the literal representation of the United States government trying to hold the Kryptonian responsible for deaths caused by a set-up in the African desert, the notion that power can never be incorruptible is at the heart of this. Lest we forget, toward the end of the movie it’s the US government itself that nukes the crap out of Doomsday, making it the invulnerable leviathan that our heroes can barely contain afterward. Can anyone possibly deny that these are exactly the type of questions each citizen of this nation and planet should be asking as we watch the spectacle of a corporate-fueled election cycle that promises to place one of two incredibly corrupt people in the most powerful position on earth? Perhaps it’s because Snyder’s movie raises these questions, albeit in his heavy-handed way, that people felt the need to bash it. Just a theory.
This one goes in tandem with the next critique of this movie: the characters were not people “we” recognized as an audience. This one irritates me almost to no end, in that it seems to be made primarily by people who have never read or understood a comic book in their entire lives. The reviews I read boiled over with acrimony over this version of Batman, who dares to use a gun and isn’t terrified of killing gangsters who threaten Superman’s mother. For one thing, a cursory reading of the general source material for this movie (Dark Knight Returns) would show any reader that Snyder was actually following this version of the character almost completely. Frank Miller’s Batman is a world-weary character later in his life who, yes, drinks and doesn’t totally mind when things happen like the Joker’s broken ribs puncture his heart, ending their feud once and for all. Critics also hewed and cried over the “bat-brand” scenes, apparently never noticing in the screenplay that it’s Luther’s cronies who actually cause the guy to be murdered in prison, making it seem to investigative reporter Clark Kent like it was Batman’s fault. But I could spend another entire essay about people not understanding the story of this movie (bizarrely convoluted as it was at times), so we’ll leave Batman here. But suffice it to say from a huge, obsessive, long-time Batman fan: I was fully expecting Snyder to not get this character at all - the casting of Affleck proved that years ago, right? Wrong! In fact, the combination of how badass Batman is in this movie, combined with Affleck's stellar performance caused me to cease any further doubts I had in any regard to the upcoming films.
When it comes to Superman, the jury is still way out, and I would have a difficult time arguing against people who say that Snyder never understood the Kryptonian alien or his motivations. Cavill’s performance isn’t terrific in either films, and while he ably performs his duties I understand why people thought he wasn’t quite up to the challenges of the role. However, this does lead to another bit of criticism of these movies regarding the alien - his depiction as a sort of “god” among us puny Earthlings and what that means. I thought this was one of the things Synder got exactly right in Man of Steel, which was to show how humanity doesn’t know how to react to a being of this magnitude, and continued this theme very well with BvS. While humanity seems to owe Supes a debt for “saving” Metropolis by destroying most of it in the previous film, in the next one the tide has turned and more people seem afraid of him than anything, especially after Luthor’s trap makes it seem like he is only in it to save those he cares about, chiefly Lois Lane. This notion of humanity struggling to come to terms with what appears to be a real-life deity is something the comic versions of the characters have really been hitting lately, and I thought it was an excellent choice to pursue these ideas through both films. Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White says it best in Man of Steel: “Can you imagine what people would do if they found out someone like this exists?”
Since this review is getting lengthy, I figure it’s time to center on another critique that just blew me away when BvS came out: the movie was too long. As a writer, I have come to understand this as quite possibly the laziest form of criticism that exists. What you’re basically saying is that “my attention span was not long enough to fully come to terms with this piece of film that I paid my hard earned dollars to view, and that sucks.” This goes for anything that has what you would consider too long of a length - books, other films, musical pieces, anything. Saying something is “too long” is a pointless form of criticism. So stop it. And get off my lawn while you’re at it.
Now I want to get to something about both these movies I really enjoyed: Hans Zimmer’s sweeping, powerful scores. This was another thing that people didn’t seem to get: the overbearing nature of his Superman and (in collaboration with Junkie XL) Batman themes. While yes, if you don’t like repetitive drumming, sweeping vocals and powerful horns, then they’re probably not for you. But then again, why would you then want to view a movie about colossal superheroes fighting one another? These movies are purposely, forcefully, boldly epic, and they deserved nothing less in the musical department. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the flack the movies took for being so serious, so dark, so monumental. Once again, a cursory reading of any DC comic over the past decades would cause you to understand that in fact Snyder’s movies are the closest we have ever seen to a DC comic book come to life. As amazing as Nolan’s Batman trilogy was, at the end of the day he was attempting to show the Dark Knight existing within what appeared to be the “real world.” Snyder’s Metropolis and Gotham are clearly not of the “real world” from these movies, and therefore deserve to be spaced out accordingly. And come on, I dare you to listen to Zimmer’s stunning, beautiful theme for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and not be blown away.
So is there a point lurking in all my discussions here? Yes, and here it is. The biggest, largest, hugest mistake DC/Warner could make with these films is try to make them like the Marvel cinematic universe. While I am hardly a Marvel fan, I can certainly see why their movies attract large audiences and critics seem to love them. I don’t totally understand why, for in my opinion most of those movies are a cluttered mess, but I’m also not a fan and so who gives a crap what I think? I am a DC fan first and foremost, and it pains me to think that they might try to copy the perceived success of their biggest rival. First of all, DC, your movies are not for kids. Yes, there are a lot of kids who read comics, but I’d be willing to bet there are a lot more on the adult side who have read your stuff for years and continue to do so. Creating movies that don’t take this fan base into account is moronically stupid. There is a reason why the omnipresent Disney corporation owns Marvel, and while I won’t say the main reason is to attract kids, you’ve gotta believe that was in the calculation somewhere. Whereas the R-rated version of BvS I have viewed is definitely not for children. Unless they’re of the sadistic type like me that loves seeing Batman toss Superman’s Kryptonite-weakened ass into a bunch of concrete pillars and almost murders him. Because to this uber-nerd, seeing definitive on-screen proof that Batman could indeed best Superman is freaking awesome.
But I feel I must repeat this: DC, your movies are not for kids. Your superheroes are violent, they take violent actions to protect Earth, and don’t always have the ability to see right from wrong. For God’s sake, the entire point of Watchmen was to consider the morality of these characters that supposedly existed in an alternate timeline of the “real world!”
Second, whoever is making these decisions to release “sanitized” PG-13 versions of these movies that are clearly irritating the directors and actors of these movies, please stop. All you are succeeding in doing is bringing more critical rage upon your movie house and from the fans who are expecting one thing but getting a watered down corporate version instead. Thinking this can be rectified by a BluRay release of each of these movies in an “ultimate edition” is flawed logic. Just release the actual version into theaters, and trust that your true, actual fans will come see them.
In conclusion: for a die-hard Batman fan such as myself, after viewing the first two movies in this series, I am fully on board with wherever DC is taking it. BvS proved to be without a shadow of a doubt that DC is committed to telling the stories of these characters in ways that stay defiantly true to their source material, but are different enough to be contained within an original Justice League origin story. Those of us out there who love DC and want to see more of their work, please consider these things. And for those of you out there who had a lot of fun bashing these movies, BvS in particular, well I have something to say to you too.
Basically, I don’t really care that much. At the end of things, we’re discussing movies based on comic books. And while I happen to think that comics are just now finally getting the recognition as the art forms they truly are, who am I to tell anyone else that their particular characters or stories or companies are any worse than what I like? All I am attempting to do here is to show why DC fans should be celebrating these amazing movies, instead of lamenting how crappy they are compared to the Marvel movies.
I also want to say this - there is quite a bit more about these movies that is worth both heavily criticizing (see here for one example) and celebrating (here for another). Bottom line, comics fans: go see these movies, and don’t let things like aggregate critical reviews slow you down. DC needs to know we appreciate where they are taking these films, and I for one am totally excited to see where they are headed next.
Long live comic books, and long live the era in which we got so many freakin’ amazing comic book movies.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.