Doom Patrol’s Gospel of Strangeness

In my latest for Think Christian, I write about one of my favorite DC Comics teams: the Doom Patrol. The team has been largely defined by Grant Morrison’s ground breaking run in the late 80s/early 90s, but the current series revisits many of Morrison’s themes and puts them in a more positive and surreal perspective. They’re still the world’s strangest heroes, but they’re now celebrating and building community in their oddness.

The Doom Patrol reminds me of what the Christian church should be: a bunch of weirdos supporting and loving other weirdos. As I write in the piece,

Christians often face a similar challenge when forming churches. Whatever the reason we choose a congregation, we’re fundamentally there because we’re sinners who abandon the world’s vision of domination to enact God’s grace. As a matter of necessity, then, churches are filled with misfits who don’t just reject conforming to the world, but are, in fact, called not to.

And yet, we still get upset or threatened by our fellow church-goer’s oddities, and we get the urge to “fix” people whose differences we find especially troublesome. In those cases, we risk acting like [Robotman], trying to make others more acceptable, while ignoring our own quirks and issues.

Check out the whole thing here!

The Insufficient Gods of Mister Miracle

The current Mister Miracle series by Tom King and Mitch Gerads is, to my mind, the best superhero series published by the big two right now. And I’m a little surprised by that, because it kind of sounds like the “grim ‘n gritty” nonsense that usually hate in comics. In this story, DC big bad Darkseid finally gets the fabled Anti-Life Equation and uses it against Mister Miracle, just as our hero has been drafted by his half-brother Orion into final battle against the forces of Apokolops. But all of that high-concept action occurs in the background of the series, which instead focuses on Mister Miracle’s descent into depression.

Again, that sounds like a clumsy “Hey! Adults! Comics are serious!’ story. But instead of cheap Identity Crisis grit, King and Gerads fully humanize their characters, and pair the big ideas of Kirby’s vision with big theological and philosophical ideas.

This combination hits every one of my sweet spots, so I had to write about it for Think Christian. My article takes a page from theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of faith to interpret the series:

Mister Miracle is, in many ways, a story about faith—how belief drives one’s life. Like most superhero characters, Mister Miracle and the New Gods are defined by fighting, as many of their stories involve good guys from the planet New Genesis battling Darkseid, the fascist ruler of the planet Apokolips. These fantastic elements inform the plot of the new Mister Miracle series, but King and Gerads relegate them to the background, devoting as much page time to Mister Miracle and his superhero wife, Big Barda, watching television or hanging out in Los Angeles, where he has assumed the alter ego of an acrobatic escape artist. This mix of ordinary and outrageous does not diminish the latter, but rather sublimates super-heroic combat into the characters’ worldviews. They cannot conceive of themselves outside of struggle with their enemy. Conflict is their faith and their life.

Read the whole thing here, and be sure to read the series as we get excited about the upcoming Ava DuVernay directed New Gods movie!

Perfect Faults and Inconsistent Communities: Hope Larson’s A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time was one of the defining books of my childhood. I have vivid memories of sitting on my couch as my mom read it to me, and being terrified by the image of a rhythmically pulsating brain. I read the book several times throughout my life, most recently to my own children.

And so, I’m pretty excited about the film adaptation (I’m going to see it in a few hours and I’ll review it tomorrow), but as a comic fan, I was delighted to see Hope Larson’s graphic novel adaptation in 2012. One of the things I love about it is its emphasis on Meg Murry as a messy protagonist, one whose heroism comes about not because she changes, but because she changes the way she sees herself.

I wrote about the book recently for Tor.com:

While comic books are known for their ability to visually convey bombast and complex action (dating back long before filmmakers had the technology to do so convincingly), Larson’s cartooning slows the narrative and grounds it firmly in Meg’s experience. She does not excise the story’s surreal elements, but subordinates them to the arc of Meg’s shifting perspective. Doing so allows Larson to keep Meg’s faults front and center, filling the book with weirdos whose mere presence undoes IT’s uniform utopia.

We see this devotion to peculiarity in the way Larson renders the characters, conveying paragraphs’ worth of development in a few lines. Her Meg alternates between sloping when sad and tightly angled when angry, glasses forever sliding around and occasional unruly curly-q’s atop her mop of hair. Larson retains Calvin’s ebullience with a smile beaming from between two too-big ears and crowning a too-long body, his knees bent outward and his ankles protruding from his pant legs. Charles Wallace has the wide eyes and small stature befitting his age, but Larson’s skill at facial expressions reveals a mind sharper than any ordinary child’s. Larson follows L’Engle’s basic descriptions for Mrs. Whatsit and her compatriots Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, making the first two little old ladies and the last either a traditional witch or a floating blob of light, but her use of tight curved lines indicate an ethereal lightness. Even when the figures recall familiar types, Larson gives them an odd distinguishing touch.

You can read the whole thing here, and see some cool images from the book. Check it out, and then come back tomorrow for my review of the movie!

Review: Black Panther

Black Panther director Ryan Coogler gets a lot of milage out of revealing that Wakanda, the tiny African country dismissed by most of the world as impovershed and backwards, is in fact the most technologically and socially advanced nation on the planet. It’s kind of the same for fans of the now decade old Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Panther reveals a new and unique world within the one we thought we already knew.

In fact, although it picks up on events from 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, in which Chadwick Boseman debuted as Prince T’Challa of Wakanda and took the mantle of Black Panther to avenge his father’s death, this film is best understood as the introduction of a new universe. That might seem dangerously indulgent, especially given the Disney-owned MCU’s penchant for franchise-building, but Black Panther gives viewers so many new sights and endearing characters that you can’t help but want more.

Here, we meet the Dora Milaje, a group of warrior women led by Okoye (Danai Gurira), who serve as T’Challa’s personal army. We meet Letitia Wright as snarky techno-genius Shuri, a sort of kid sister version of Tony Stark. We meet spymaster and love interest Nakia, played by L’upito Nyong’o. We meet the five Wakandan tribes, lead by the likes of Winston Duke’s would-be usurper M’Baku and Daniel Kaluuya’s advisor W’Kabi. Each is so compelling and well-portrayed that I would love to see a spin-off movie about any of them (especially Shuri).

None of this is a slight against the title character or against Boseman, who does an outstanding job playing a man wrestling with revelations about his father and the weight of his country’s debt to the world. But the film is so dense and rich that, like kids walking into a comic book shop for the first time, the audience is too excited to focus too much.

Until, that is, Michael B. Jordan comes on screen as the film’s primary villain, Erik Stevens aka Killmonger, and completely controls our attention. With a name like that, and with MCU’s record of forgetable bad guys, there’s reason to worry that he’ll be just another one-note loony with a super-weapon. But the script (by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) and Jordan’s nuanced performance make Killmonger the best superhero villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker, if not better. The son of T’Challa’s traitorous uncle, raised as an American mercenary and planning to use Wakandan technology to overthrow global racial oppression, Killmonger emerges as the ideal personal and ideological foe for T’Challa.

Despite all the weight placed on him by plot and theme, Jordan never lets the character feel like a story mechanic or a philosophical mouthpiece. Bringing both technical mastery and ample charisma to the role, he makes Killmonger a fully rounded human, motivated not only by personal trauma, but also a reasonable and just grievence. Joker was fun to watch, and we felt his absence whenever he wasn’t on screen, but no one (except the morally bankrupt) heard his speeches and said, “Good point.” With Killmonger, we do.

The balancing act pulled off with Killmonger illustrates the moves Coogler makes throughout the film. He’s been given almost an impossible task: tell a good superhero story in a fully realized world never before seen on screen and do it in a way that mass audiences can follow. Coogler meets the challenge by working from familiar genres — a spy caper, Shakespearian palace intrigue, a superhero saving the world from his evil double — and rendering them strange. We’ve seen families battle for the throne, but not in futuristic Africa; we’ve seen secret agents fight in hidden exotic casinos, but not with a powerful black woman with a flowing red dress and sci-fi spear. As this last observation suggests, Coogler gets a lot of help from costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who make Wakanda’s citizens not only visually stunning, but easy to identify. Viewers get lost in the story, but never lost by the story.

The same cannot be said of the film’s action sequences. Not only do the poor CG-effects make the otherwise athletic Panther feel weightless and rubbery, but Coogler shoots the action scenes almost entirely in close-up, with far too many edits. That’s the house style for the MCU, but one hopes for more from Coogler, who filmed breathtaking boxing sequences in Creed. Scenes that should be equally awesome — particularly the final battle, involving warrior tribes, space-age fighter jets, and an armored rhino battalion — feel small and disorienting.

But these occasional reminders of MCU mediocrity cannot overshadow Black Panther’s many other accomplishments. Never before have we seen a hero fight for the good of a world so similar to ours, even as the king of a world ours longs to see. It’s truly spectacular, and I can’t wait to see more of it