Invasion of the Body Switchers

Avatar is back in theaters with extra footage, exclusively in 3D. I missed the home-video release, so I'm glad for this opportunity to finally re-publish my thoughts on the film — one of the posts that's been down more often, and longer, than it was ever up, thanks to the frequent blog attacks, and one that I've been waiting to reintroduce at an opportune moment rather than throw back up (with fingers crossed) after the April Fool's Day Massacre because I rather vainly hoped it might engender more conversation as a current post than if I'd slipped it back into its original December berth.

Poster © 2010
20th Century Fox Film Corp. and/or Lightstorm Entertainment.

Most of the talk about
Avatar right after the showing I attended, both positive and negative, was about the technology behind the film.

One has to wonder if that fact alone doesn't make the movie something of a failure by James Cameron's standards. The reason why
Avatar was so long in the making, from what I understand, is that it took considerable time and effort to create or refine the tools and techniques necessary to reproduce the alien figures and landscapes that Cameron saw in his head — then, of course, more time for those tools and techniques to be implemented. He seems to have wanted the audience to marvel at what they were experiencing without stopping to think about how that experience was constructed, and on that score I'm afraid he's only partially succeeded.

I must admit, though, that I'm impressed by the extent to which he succeeded at all. There's a concept known as
the Uncanny Valley that I hope to discuss more in a separate post, but here's a quick explanation: As representations of people, be they real-world robots or animated characters on screen, become more and more realistic, the empathy for and connection to those representations that we as human observers feel grow stronger and more specific — until, as the representations most closely approach realism but fail to entirely replicate it, our connection turns to revulsion. If one were to chart a bar graph from anecdotal evidence, as is shown at the above-linked Wikipedia entry, it would reveal a dip late in the steady diagonal march from zero human likeness / zero empathy to actual humanity / complete empathy (the merits of the individual character or person notwithstanding) — i.e., a "valley" where the representations turned uncanny in not only a Freudian sense but also by The New Oxford American Dictionary's simple definition of "strange or mysterious, often in a vaguely discomfiting way". Sadly, I seem to fall into the valley sooner and more violently than most viewers.

Cameron did push his luck by issuing the film almost exclusively in 3D, in my opinion, because the process added yet
another attempt to approximate reality that is inherently destined to fall short of its goal. No matter how painstaking the labor, so-called 3D actually acts as a series of planes — like a pop-up book or diorama — rather than as a rounded, fully three-dimensional experience, and what's more there's nothing to keep foregrounded objects at the periphery of the screen from distractingly jumping into or out of view as the camera pans. I did find
Avatar's 3D effects more obvious (and thus more intrusive upon my suspension of disbelief) in the scenes within the humans' command center, whereas the longer we were completely immersed in the natural environs of Pandora the more I accepted the visual trickery of all sorts at face value.

Which finally brings us to the actual story of Avatar, whose broad strokes you've probably picked up from previews even if you haven't seen the film. It's the year 2154 and a mining company from Earth, the RDA corporation, has discovered a literal mother lode on the planet Pandora of a mineral named, I kid you not, unobtainium. Pandora's indigenous humanoids are called the Na'vi ("nah-vee"), and they live not only with great respect for but in actual symbiosis with the planet's ecosystem, honoring the creatures whose flesh they eat, bonding neurologically if not spiritually with the animals who serve as their steeds, and communing with the deity or collective consciousness called Eywa through such flora as the Tree of Souls. Researchers studying Pandora's biosphere, and the Na'vi in particular, work alongside the mining company and its heavily armed security detail. When a Na'vi tribe refuses to relocate so that RDA can access the unobtainium deposit beneath their habitat, Hometree, the anthropologists who have been studying the tribe are caught in the middle. So is Jake Sully, a former Marine who has been accepted into the Hometree clan in the form of a human/Na'vi hybrid avatar — hence the movie's name; the Earth scientists have developed technology that allow them to project a human consciousness into a Na'vi-like body to better interact with or, depending on your perspective, infiltrate the Pandoran environment.

For me and most of my viewing party the repeated reference to unobtainium was at least faintly ridiculous and one more thing to shake us out of the film's carefully constructed reality. The word is fine
to use in the context of satire or, as has apparently been done for decades, as a wish-list placeholder for a substance not yet extant, but
Avatar is not an abstract parable; however fantastic its trappings, it aims to be a crowd-pleasing action/romance/drama wrapped around, or in, a pro-nature polemic.
Yet while the landscape of Pandora was often as breathtakingly beautiful as the overall plot was predictable, and while it was impossible not to sympathize with the appropriate characters, the conversation not just among my friends but all around us when the lights went up was of how the effects were done or what the story meant instead of paeans to the warm afterglow of amazement Cameron might have preferred.

Across the aisle one fellow was overheard saying he'd spent pretty much the entire movie looking for a hidden meaning that someone had told him about. He finally realized that this supposed hidden meaning was probably the glaringly obvious parallel between the Earth folks despoiling Pandora and episodes in American, Western, or general world history. Avatar isn't really allegorical in this regard because it doesn't refer to a specific chapter in our past or present; rather, Pandora could be a stand-in for tropical rainforests, the Na'vi could represent Native Americans or other aboriginal cultures, and RDA's assault could be a commentary on the perceived collusion amongst the American government, oil companies, and paramilitary forces in the invasion of Iraq.
It's actually more damning that even if you don't buy one of the possible correlations there are plenty of others to chose from than it would be if the film were about a particular social injustice.

There's no denying that Avatar is worth seeing as a cultural event or, if that argument doesn't sway you, simply for the lush optical experience; I'd like to have seen it on a large screen without 3D, though. Still, I mostly thought back, as the lines streamed out of the auditorium, to how on Avatar's opening weekend several days before I'd sat in a nearly empty theater thrilling to the criminally overlooked The Princess and the Frog.

Blood, Typing

The bloody awful news is that on Monday night I was playing with scissors and, to quote Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child, cut the dickens out of my finger.

I'm unable to blame my erratic WiFi for the lack of posting this week, therefore; it's just that I found it powerful hard to type with one hand while the other was raised over my head, bandaged and throbbing.

The bloody good news is that I caught up with the current season of True Blood via HBO On Demand this past week while house-sitting, with all the more time to watch television since the typing weren't happening.

Screencap from one of Jessica's videos © Home Box Office, Inc.

I'd only recently finished Season Two on DVD, and I was really bummed about having to avoid spoilers or just plain wait for a whole year to see where things went in Season Three. Now I either need to rework my long-on-hold review and post it immediately or hope I'll catch this weekend's episode and include it in my writeup before the season finale on Sept. 12th.

I've mentioned here before that if you're not watching True Blood you're missing out on pulpy good fun. Those fortunate souls with both HBO and the On Demand service only have to buy, rent, or borrow the Season One DVDs, as Season Two is available via HBO On Demand along with Season Three to date, and some extras to boot, through Oct. 10th. Those without have until next summer, if the pattern holds, to burn through the first two DVD sets before Season Three is released. And once you're past the first few shaky, expositorily heavy episodes, you won't want to stop. There are a bunch of fun True Blood tie-in websites, incidentally, including the blog of Deborah Ann Woll's newly turned vampire Jessica Hamby, which has frequent short-but-sweet video entries.

Look and Listen

Here are two awesome videos and one radical audio file.

I linked to Ivan Guerrero's Gone With the Wind with Vampires mashup six months ago, and praised his "premakes" trailers as well. But I've neglected to keep up with his work. My friend Stefan Blitz, proprietor of Forces of Geek, keeps up with dad-gum near everything, however, so when I'm able to peruse that site I find gems like Guererro's trailer for The Avengers (1952).

Marvel Comics' The Avengers, soon to be a for-reals major motion picture, didn't hit the racks until 1963, of course. Save for Captain America, who debuted in 1941, none of its members came along until at least a decade after the purported date of this "premake" — which is the whole fun of it.

I Want to Punch Blogger in the Face

So I've been trying to finish laying out a post from Tuesday for friggin' hours now. When Comcast lets me get online, Blogger does its best to screw up my text and fail to load my graphics, either crashing Safari or simply not responding in Chrome. You'd think that Picasa, Blogger, and Chrome would communicate well, all being part of the Google empire, and you'd be wronger than Howie Mandel at a hair salon.

Betty's Here; Veronica, Too

You might recognize the title of this post from
the theme song to the 1970s Saturday-morning Archie cartoon — run under various names, including one taken from the song: Everything's Archie.

Cover to The Archie Show's DVD package © 2007 Archie Comic Publications.

I used to watch the show with my sister, whose Archie comics I'd borrow when I needed a funnybook fix and had nothing new or begging to be reread of my own. The standard Archies didn't interest me as much as her Harveys, though (
Casper, Wendy, Hot Stuff, Richie Rich, Little Dot), maybe because in traditional boy/girl dichotomy I tended to prefer outright fantasy, with action if possible, while even at an early age she was into the dating and high-school hijinks.

were Archie adventure stories. In our day, the best were reprints whose features would pop up in digests and other anthology titles: Little Archie, which brought us the whole gang as young kids but, surprisingly, in more "serious" exploits than the teenage versions, often tinged with mystery or science fiction; The Man from RIVERDALE, camp action spoofing the likes of James Bond and, obviously, The Man from UNCLE; and Purehart the Powerful, which cast Archie, Betty, and Jughead as superheroes (with Reggie as their sometime nemesis, Evilheart). When Archie, the publisher, went through one of its periodic trial expansions of Archie, the character, it would introduce new series often only lasting a handful of issues: Archie's Weird Mysteries or the memorable Jughead's Time Police or series featuring the group as race-car drivers, teens in the future, or (no joke) cavemen.

Archie's latest creative and corporate experimentation has led down some interesting avenues, including working with other publishers. The company is partnering with Random House to distribute graphic novels worldwide, licensing classic material for IDW and Dark Horse to release in prestige collections, and giving DC another crack at its line of superheroes — not the
Pureheart bunch, but characters from its "MLJ" days like The Shield, The Fly, and The Black Hood that in some cases predate Mr. Andrews' pals 'n' gals yet were never as successful. It's also been reviving such concepts as Man from RIVERDALE and long-abandoned characters from Wilbur Wilkin to Cosmo the Merry Martian (if only, cynics might surmise, for trademark purposes), and has played with the more familiar Archie mythology in recent story arcs Freshman Year and The Wedding, a.k.a. Archie Marries Veronica / Archie Marries Betty, which I've reviewed at those links.

Covers to the upcoming Archie Firsts hardcover from Dark Horse Comics and
recently released Pureheart the Powerful Vol. 1 trade paperback from IDW
Publishing © 2010 Archie Comic Publications. Pencils: Bob Montana; Bill Vigoda.
Inks: Bob Montana; Mario Acquaviva. Colors, Letters, Design: Unknown.

The possible-future proposal and wedding tales, now available in trade-paperback form, were popular enough that Archie announced a pair of spinoff series — which before release it decided to combine into one monthly publication, Life with Archie, taking its name from one of the character's myriad past titles. In this incarnation Life with Archie is not a standard comic but a glossy, 72-page magazine priced at $3.99 (US & Can.), aimed — based on the cover's inset photos of the likes of Justin Bieber — squarely at the "tween" demographic; its first issue hit newsstands and other general outlets last week, after debuting in specialty shops last month. Obviously, I am not in that target demographic, and if Archie Comic Publications hadn't sent a promotional copy for review I'd likely not have given it more than flip-through, despite my curiosity and the fact that I still pick up the occasional Archie for my sister (reading it first, naturally).

Covers to the collection The Archie Wedding and the original Life with Archie #1 ©
2010, 1958 Archie Comic Publications. Pencils: Stan Goldberg; Harry Lucey. Inks: Bob
Smith; Terry Szenics. Colors: Rosario "Tito" Peña; Unknown. Letters: Unknown.

I figure that anyone interested in Life with Archie #1 yet skittish about details has already read it, but just in case — since there is one big reveal coming — here's a spoiler alert.

Cover to the new Life with Archie #1 ©
2010 Archie Comic Publications.
Pencils, Inks: Norm Breyfogle
. Colors, Design: Rosario "Tito" Peña. Photos: Various.

Life with Archie's dual features are called Archie Loves Betty and Archie Loves Veronica, each following one of the roads that diverged in a yellow wood on Riverdale's Memory Lane. The Wedding had skipped ahead from love to marriage to the baby carriage, but the strips in Life with Archie — whose covers carry the subtitle The Married Life — rewind the alternate futures to when the couples are newlyweds. Married to Veronica, Archie is working for Lodge Industries, where Ronnie's father has just promoted her to an executive position; in that reality, Betty has lost her job in New York City and returns to Riverdale for a small reunion at Pop Tate's at which it's discovered that Mr. Lodge is making a land grab for half the town. Married to Betty, Archie is a struggling singer/songwriter emotionally and financially supported by the former Ms. Cooper; the bad economy and Hiram Lodge are the villains in this reality, too, as Veronica's dad offers to make Archie a star if he'll leave Betty for Ronnie. While most of the other supporting cast members' lives are, appropriately, similar in both timelines five or so years after graduation from Riverdale High, it's strange that Lodge doesn't seem to be squeezing Pop Tate's (which Jughead is planning to buy in a peaceful transition) out of business in the ALB existence.

Michael Uslan, who conceived and wrote the
Wedding saga for Archie #600-605, scripted the initial installments of its spinoff strips for Life with Archie #1; as of #2, the stories will be handled by comics veteran Paul Kupperberg. Uslan continues his slightly more sophisticated take on traditional Archie punnery, as when Midge and Moose stroll past Emerson Lake (if only the panel had been inked, like the infamous Archie Meets The Punisher, by Tom Palmer), yet there are still some stretches and head-scratchers. For a company that steadfastly refuses to name actual celebrities or television shows and can't quite have Betty working at Saks Fifth Avenue in ALB, it's odd that in ALV she gives a litany of actual fictional teen goofballs and heartthrobs as her past would-be romances. You almost have to give Uslan props, though, for naming Lodge's business partner Fred Mirth so that he can pair him off with Jughead's former flame Ethel to make "Fred and Ethel" jokes (as when Reggie pretends to confuse Fred Mirth with Fred Mertz with Ricky Ricardo) and name his investment-banking firm "Mirth of a Nation" (not just a play on D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation but one that used to be a tagline for the Archie titles). The dialogue also has moments of genuinely touching sentiment and even one of, in the context of an Archie publication at least, ribaldry.

Longtime Archie artist Stan Goldberg, who penciled the
Archie Marries... issues with Bob Smith inking, has given way on Archie Loves... to Norm Breyfogle, mostly known for his superhero work and Batman in particular. Breyfogle has drawn for Archie's so-called New Look stories, but thankfully he hews to the traditional Archie style here, using more dynamic perspectives and page layouts while keeping the characters familiar; those efforts, interpreted by inkers Joe Rubenstein on the Veronica story and Andrew Pepoy on Betty, are all that's required or desired to communicate the relative "realism" of the tales. Unfortunately, while Glenn Whitmore's color choices are fine, the clean line art is too frequently done a disservice by fussy modeling. Jack Morelli and Janice Chiang round out the magazine's creative team as letterers.

Panel excerpts from Life with Archie #1 showing, clockwise from top left, Betty's pop-
culture boyfriends; a buried lead on parallel realities; Emerson Lake; the rear end of a teddy
bear slumped over Archie's head; and the most scandalous line of dialogue ever intentionally
spoken by Betty or anyone else in an Archie comic. Script: Michael Uslan. Pencils: Norm Breyfogle.
Inks: Joe Rubenstein; Andrew Pepoy. Colors: Glenn Whitmore. Letters: Jack Morelli; Janice
Chiang. Composition: Brian Saner Lamken. Panels © 2010 Archie Comics Publications.

It's a tricky thing to inject darkness into the Archie realm, but Uslan and the artists have handled the job admirably. The fresh targeting of newsstands and other mass-market outlets (Toys R Us, CVS, Wal-Mart) with the magazine format also deserves praise, but I'm having a hard time with the disconnect between the medium and its messages. As I said earlier, the cover of
Life with Archie #1 has photos of and text referencing such young stars as Selena Gomez, Zac Efron, and Dakota Fanning. Leaving aside the fact that it's rather disingenuous to imply there's more on them inside, when in fact they only appear in stock images on pages asking readers to cast a live-action Archie movie (and, by the way, editors, Miley Cyrus may already have a blond wig, but she's a total Veronica), I just don't see the audience that watches Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place — the one that enjoys Archie's dating dilemmas and to whom the magazine's trade dress, complete with questionably accurate "Betty vs. Veronica" logo on every cover mockup released to date, is directed — getting into The Married Life. Moose has anger-management issues, Pop Tate's business is under siege, and another familiar character has a life-threatening illness, none of which is a plot device to be resolved in the space of a single issue.

Of course older girls
and older boys, as well as adults with a nostalgic fondness for Archie or just an appreciation for interesting comics, can enjoy the creative content of this bold new Life; I was more engaged by it than I expected to be based on The Wedding, as enjoyable a lark as that was. But I think that Archie Loves Veronica and Archie Loves Betty actually skew older than the Archie issues that launched them. Fans with a taste for "continuity" and more mature storylines would be better served by reading the post-Wedding chronicles in a series of graphic novels or a monthly anthology comic that doesn't require them to look at Nick Jonas — and more to the point, ALV / ALB would be better served by going such a route, letting the magazine focus on Archie's more-or-less permanent adolescence and eternal love triangle (or your polygon of choice, once you include Cheryl Blossom, the recent romance with Josie and The Pussycats' Valerie, et al.), backed by the sort of teenybopper text matter that the cover promises.

The mind-blowing multiversal montage from Life with Archie #1 © 2010 Archie Comic
Publications. Script: Michael Uslan. Pencils: Norm Breyfogle; various. Inks: Andrew Pepoy;
various. Colors: Glenn Whitmore; various. Letters: Janice Chiang; various.

Life with Archie's ambition has yet another dimension beyond its format and its portrayal of the Riverdale High gang after Riverdale High — many more dimensions, in fact. Archie's walk up branching paths of Memory Lane suggested that reality was fluid, but at the time that was just a framing device for glimpses into present-day Archie's possible futures with Betty and Veronica. Life with Archie #1 shows us a newspaper headline referencing the disappearance of Dilton Doiley following his claim that parallel universes exist; the next page — in the big reveal warned of earlier — blows your mind with a total non sequitur splash of Dilton surrounded by panels of teenage Archie in the 1940s and the 2000s, Little Archie, Archie in his Man from RIVERDALE persona, Archie marrying Betty, Archie marrying Veronica, and more. It's nothing short of the Archie multiverse, on display in a manner akin to the revelation of Hypertime in DC's The Kingdom, and based on the last page of Archie Loves Betty's first chapter it's going to be an actual story element. Everything's Archie, indeed.

First six pages of Archie Loves Veronica Part 1 © 2010 and courtesy Archie Comics Publications.
Script: Michael Uslan. Pencils: Norm Breyfogle. Inks: Norm Breyfogle (cover page); Joe Rubenstein.
Colors: Rosario "Tito" Peña (cover page); Glenn Whitmore. Letters: Jack Morelli.

The Archie Wedding, collecting Archie #600-605, retails for $14.95 and is available direct from the publisher for $9.99 (cheaper than Amazon). Life with Archie is $3.99 per issue, with 12-issue subscriptions available for $24.00, half off the cover price. You can click on the thumbnail images above and below for previews of the first chapters of Archie Loves Veronica and Archie Love Betty, or check out the pages sequentially at the Archie website, where you can also vote for your choices in a live-action Archie casting call.

First six pages of Archie Loves Betty Part 1 © 2010 and courtesy Archie Comics Publications.
Script: Michael Uslan. Pencils: Norm Breyfogle. Inks: Norm Breyfogle (cover page); Andrew Pepoy.
Colors: Rosario "Tito" Peña (cover page); Glenn Whitmore. Letters: Janice Chiang.