Sunday, November 26, 2006

An open letter to Will Pfeifer

Dear Mr. Pfeifer,

I've been absolutely adoring your Catwoman run, and the most recent issues are no exception. I could lavish all sorts of praise on your excellent character work, your fast pacing, and your overall sense of fun, but that would take far too long, and would inevitably lead me to discuss in great detail how much I miss H-E-R-O, which for awhile was one of my favorite books on the shelves.

But I'd rather focus my attention on one specific aspect of your most recent story arcs: the Film Freak. Many in the blogohedron have criticized this run, calling the Film Freak all sorts of nasty names. I have a distinct love for the character, though I'm not certain if it's because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of movie trivia (something I aspire to, a little), or because he reminds me of the (admittedly stereotypical) film snobs I've encountered several times in my life, and it's nice to see them get a little vicarious comeuppance.

But what I really like about Film Freak is the purpose he's served in this story. Throughout the current arc, Film Freak has acted as a narrator, punching like Superboy-Prime at the fourth wall, but never quite managing to break through. Even so, his running commentary on the events as they transpired was metafictional brilliance, and his over-reliance on film clichés (coincidentally ones that also happened to be comic clichés) combined with that metafictional streak turned what otherwise was an excellent Catwoman arc into something greater.

It became a parody of Grant Morrison, and to some extent, the modern DCU as a whole.

Let us begin with Film Freak. While it would be natural to assume that the character's monochromatic pallor is a result of a lifetime of watching movies in darkened rooms, devoid of exposure to sunlight, and consequently a physical feature to tie him to the black-and-white movies that are the subject of his obsession, we cannot overlook that a very similar artistic style was used when Grant himself graced the pages of Animal Man. But this artistic flourish is the least of Film Freak's connection to the Seven Soldiers scribe. I've already discussed his tendency toward metafiction, through his narration and deliberate manipulation of the plotline, playing with a tactic that has come to be primarily associated with Morrison's writing. Furthermore, despite working in the medium of film (or perhaps because of comics' associations with that medium), Film Freak is very much a Silver Age comics villain, straight out of an old issue of Detective. He sets a giant gorilla loose on the city (a mainstay of the Schwartz-era DCU), he sets up a bomb with a ticking clock and broadcasts a clue to the city (and the hero), but best of all, he does it all with the same gimmicky flair that one would expect from the 1960s Joker.
What this all adds up to is a character who employs metafictional elements as well as pulling in standard comic fare from the Silver Age. His attempts to dress up his actions with classic movie dialogue (similar to the way intertextual thematic elements litter works like Animal Man, 52, Sandman, and the like) give his story the feel of something new and 'highbrow,' but there's no disguising the fact that this is a by-the-book Silver Age superhero adventure.

Except, of course, that it isn't, as Selina reminds him in the climactic scene of issue #61. The Film Freak's Silver Age antics are antiquated. And, where we expect to see a colorful battle, filled with back-and-forth superhero/supervillain banter, ending with the hero racing against time to disarm the bomb as the villain escapes to fight another day, instead we receive a brutal beating at the hands of Catwoman, whose 'banter' is "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" She derides his methods, his flair for the dramatic, and ends his film by stomping his face into the floorboards.

And calling him "geek."

And so the silliness of the Silver Age, the same wacky fun that fueled the last several issues, that drives All-Star Superman and danced around in Seven Soldiers, met the brutal boot of modern comic realism.

And Selina's right; Film Freak was the height of geekiness. He traded the outside world for cinematic escapism. He dredged up ancient genre history as a part of his ancient genre scheme to thwart a superhero and achieve immortality of a sort. But what does this say as a pastiche of the Morrison era of comics? Perhaps that it's okay to reminisce, it's okay to play Smarty McMetafiction and wax self-referential on the conventions of the genre, but there's got to be more to comics than smug retreads of the old school.

And indeed, as the filmstrip panel borders fade away, so too does the escapism of the conventional Silver Age plotline. Zatanna is shown to be fallible yet again, and the battered Slam Bradley shows up in Selina's apartment to force the truth about her child, while Film Freak lies unconscious with his head in the floorboards.

Is this it? Have you, Mr. Pfeifer, condemned the sensationalistic primary-colored action of the modern Silver Age, in favor of the harsh realism of the modern comic? Has he outright dismissed Morrison's metafictional Silver Age-inspired comics as nostalgic navel-gazing geekery? Has he smashed the collective head of fandom into the floorboards with a leather boot?

Indeed, I believe you have not. After all, the audience would be negligent to see anyone but Film Freak as the more entertaining character (at least, from a classical comics perspective) in this final battle. He makes with the witty banter, the monologuing, the grand gimmick schemes, and Selina's response is a boring, mundane, gritty admonition of his methods. We are forced to see the dissonance between her proclamations that 'this is the real world' and the bright, vibrant sound effects, stereotypical hallmark of the Silver Age superhero. Selina does not appear to be the character the audience, the geeky superhero-loving audience, is meant to like. Indeed, if her methods are the alternative, exchanging melodrama for brutality, then who among us would choose to walk with her? We saw that world, it was the 1990s, and it was unpleasant.

No, I believe that the final-page spread, with a scarred, battered, almost Sin City-esque Slam Bradley, holding the unblemished, brightly-colored, wide-eyed innocent Helena Kyle, represents, as the last several issues of your run have represented, the real ideal: a world in which gritty realism and innocent Silver Age wackiness can exist side-by-side. After all, that seems to be the hallmark of your run: the ability to seamlessly mesh the realistic issues of motherhood and illegal vigilantism with the classic superheroics of guest stars like Zatanna, and the classic supervillainy of the Film Freak. Modern Age meets Silver Age in the pages of your Catwoman, and I think neither you, nor your fans, would have it any other way.

So thank you, Mr. Pfeifer, for this symbolic, metafictional look at the state of the comics industry today. I look forward to the next issue, and to the next inevitable appearance of Film Freak. Knowing that you put so many layers into the story really enriches the experience for me, and I can't wait to see where the story goes next.

Tom Foss

1 comment:

Marc Burkhardt said...

Nicely said. I've been a huge fan of the Film Freak and Catwoman since the OYL jump and I think you've done a better job summing up the story's depth than my own meager attempts.