Opera Night: Pagliacci

When I was a child, I remember seeing this commercial on PBS on a Saturday afternoon about opera. Specifically, about how ridiculous it is that the opera has a reputation for being “boring,” especially since the most famous operas are chock full of sex, violence, and murder. I get where that reputation comes from. It’s difficult to get engaged in a plot where you don’t understand anything the major characters are saying. Heck, I went to the opera once in the Czech Republic. The singing was in Italian, while the supertitles were in Czech, so I was utterly lost in two languages at once.

That said, I’ve been at least curious about getting into this opera thing for years. For example, a song from Madame Butterfly inspired the only bit of writing I ever got paid for (a poem which netted me a whole dollar bill!). I’ve attended a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, which was great, although somewhat pricey. However, when I finally got the chance to go see a real, live opera (with supertitles I could actually understand), I leapt at the opportunity.

Utah Opera put on a double feature at the Capital Theater. One of the shows, a comedic little episode called Gianni Schicchi, provides some much needed context to the operatic standard “O Mio Babbino Caro.” It is not, as I first suspected, a lullaby sung by a mother to her baby. Rather, it’s a plaintive plea from a young girl to her father, claiming that she will die if she can’t be with the man she loves. It’s, you know, dramatic and all, but in the context of a comedic opera, it carries about as much depth of emotion as Veruca Salt demanding that daddy buy her a goose that lays golden eggs NOW.

The real draw to me, though, was the classic Pagliacci. I’m pretty sure everyone’s heard of Pagliacci by this point. You know, it’s the opera about the sad clown.

I first encountered Pagliacci in that one episode of Batman: The Animated Series where the Penguin tries to show off for his date by singing “Vesti la Giubba.” From there, I associated the song with the cliches of opera – stilted, boring, overly dramatic, and inaccessible. And yet… in the context of the show, “Vesti la Giubba” is really unbelievable. A brutish man, completely and utterly destroyed by his wife’s infidelity, has to dress up in a clown outfit and make a buffoon of himself, because that’s what show business demands. It’s a real gut punch of a number, and it’s absolutely worth checking out.

But go to a live show, if you can. Operatic recordings are nice and all, but there’s something to be said for seeing the production live. If nothing else, watching the singers overpower the orchestra with nothing but their voices (no mics) is truly awe-inspiring.

Also, in commemoration of the occasion, I drew a sad clown:

New Gods, Old Fears

News broke today that Ava DuVernay, director of the divisive (but visually-stunning) A Wrinkle in Time will now also direct New Gods, an upcoming entry in the DC Comics cinematic universe. As this is news involving a superhero movie, you might expect that I have some opinions on the matter. And you would be right.

I am 100%, absolutely, totally excited for this jazz!

See, New Gods is based on the “Fourth World” saga, which is easily one of my favorite comics, one of the best things DC ever published. The story begins as something of a Superman spin-off, but it quickly turns into its own thing, combining The Lord of the Rings with the soft sci-fi of superhero comics and a liberal dose of hippy-dippy social allegory. And, with art and writing by Jack Kirby, it’s a truly beautiful thing to behold.

Kirby is one of the most influential artists in comics for good reason. The artistic mind behind some of the most popular superheroes in the world (Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, the X-Men…), Kirby had a flair for wild, imaginative visuals. The Fourth World is one of Kirby’s most important creations, and he filled those pages with some of the weirdest and most wonderful drawings he ever did. This is material that is perfect for a visual-oriented director like Ava DuVernay.

But it’s not just about the visuals. The Fourth World is full of some of the richest, most colorful characters to ever grace the comics page:

  • Mister Miracle – a high-tech escape artist and conscientious objector in the war between light and darkness
  • Orion – the son of an evil god, whose dark nature makes him the perfect soldier for the forces of good
  • Granny Goodness – a motherly figure who “nurtures” all the free will out of her charges
  • Glorious Godfrey – basically just Alex Jones, but somehow even worse
  • Steppenwolfe – a warrior who… Wait, we’ve seen this guy recently, haven’t we?

Oh… Oh crap.

Um… so, yeah, before I get too excited about this project, I need to remind myself that New Gods is slated to be part of the DC Extended Universe, a cinematic monstrosity that now includes five films, of which only one and a half are any dang good at all (and those are Wonder Woman and maybe a quarter part each of Man of Steel and Justice League). I know, I just know, that there’s going to be a real temptation to follow in Zach Snyder’s deconstructionist grimdark footsteps. That’s a huge problem for the material, which is so straightforward and earnest that it literally named its chief antagonist Darkseid.

He wears a minidress, so he is clearly the best and most evillest.

Darkseid is probably the best known of all of the New Gods. He’s popped up in a few major Superman adaptations over the years, including that one time someone decided that the best way to make Superman relatable was to have him date Kristin Kreuk. He is also (and I know I’m using this word a lot recently) my favorite super villain of all time.

There’s a lot of great stuff about Darkseid. He’s every bit the physical match of the heroes he faces off against. He can easily beat the tar out of Superman or Wonder Woman, and he actually killed Batman once (and by “killed” I mean “turned into a caveman”… long story). But the best stories about Darkseid don’t involve him throwing a single punch. Darkseid wins the same way evil wins in the real world: by slow, imperceptible, inevitable corruption.

See, Darkseid preys on the “dark side” of human nature. He seeks, like so many do, to “take over the world,” but he’s a theological villain more than a standard super villain. He doesn’t control people using mind beams or hypnosis. Rather, he controls them by appealing to their weakest, most shameful elements – their fear, their selfishness, their anger and pettiness. In the world of the New Gods, he is the devil.

If you ask me, the last great Darkseid story was Final Crisis, a 2008 comics series by writer Grant Morrison. In this story, Darkseid succeeds in placing the world under his control. The heroes of the DC Universe have to unite to fight a war that, frankly, they’ve already lost. Their great strength, their ability to punch evil into submission, is of no practical use here. The big fist fight between Superman and Darkseid never happens in this story. In fact, Darkseid is probably at his physical low point here, having possessed a weak mortal body. He even wears leg braces the whole time, apparently unable to stand on his own.

And yet… he’s never been more terrifying than he is in this story.

I remember that the end of Final Crisis drew a fair bit of criticism, as Darkseid was ultimately defeated by Superman singing a song at him. It’s slightly less ridiculous than it sounds, but only slightly. But I think that ending illustrates an important point: the darkness in humanity cannot be overcome through violence.

That’s a difficult message to portray in superhero stories, where violence is almost as much a part of the medium as ink and paper. However, the fact that Darkseid is an antagonist in a superhero comic means one thing for certain: he will always lose, in the end. That makes for a pretty inspiring message, if you think about it. The literal “dark side” of human nature can be beaten, and goodness and virtue can win, no matter how bad things get.

As much as I love the New Gods and the character of Darkseid in particular, I’m very nervous about how these characters will appear on the big screen. See, I can now, very easily, picture Henry Cavill trying on his best Christopher Reeve smile and saying, “Well, Darkseid, time to send you to the ‘dark side’ of the moon!” before punching him in the face and sending him shooting into the stratosphere, while Darkseid (played by yet another wildly inappropriate actor… I’mma say Colin Firth) screams “Noooooooooo!” before finally disappearing with a distant twinkle, Team Rocket style.

…actually, now that I’ve typed that out, it really doesn’t sound that bad.

My point is this: the New Gods don’t really function the same way other superhero characters do. They aren’t about over the top action sequences and quippy comedy. They’re a Book-of-Genesis style myth about the nature of good and evil within humanity. In other words, they’re the one place the whole “Superman is disaffected Jesus” thing might actually work (but seriously please don’t try that again).

The New Gods are going to be really, really difficult to film. I think DuVernay is up to the task. At the very least, the film should be pretty. But if what we get is just another “pretty and competent” superhero beat-’em-up, then we’ll have wasted a lot of potential, and that would be too bad.

Rejection

It’s amazing how much emotion can be expressed in very simplistic faces. Kinda phoned it in when it cam time to add texture to the trees and the bird. But, you know, it’s a Sunday afternoon, and I need a nap.

Wonder Woman’s Theme: A Pretty Good Song?

***Warning: this post contains hot takes.***

I know I’m not the first person to notice that the music of superhero films has been less than stellar since the Marvel renaissance began with Iron Man back in 2008. Heck, the last iconic superhero soundtrack was probably the score from Tim Burton’s run on the Batman franchise. Ask me to hum the John Williams Superman theme, and I can do so pretty easily. Ask the same for the X-Men films, though? Every time I try to hum the theme from The Avengers, I invariably slip into The Fellowship of the Ring. With only a few exceptions, most superhero soundtracks all sound like the same old summer blockbuster fare: excellent at setting a tone, but not exactly something you’ll be whistling on quiet afternoons.

The only exception for a while there, if you ask me, was Hans Zimmer’s score to The Dark Knight – specifically, the Joker’s theme. Unfortunately, that song, while a brilliant piece of soundtracking, doesn’t make for a terribly listenable track on its own. Its most memorable feature is a single note played on the cello with such excruciating deliberation that my fists ball up just thinking about it. The Joker’s theme sets a mood, but it’s not a “theme song” in the traditional sense.

As far as I can tell, we’ve only had four movies with soundtracks that can possibly come close to reaching the same level as the classic John Williams/Danny Elfman scores for Superman and Batman. The first two of those movies – Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel – are full of wonderfully iconic tunes, but both are disqualified on account of plagiarism.

The most recent of the four, Black Panther, has some of the only songs I can actually remember at all after leaving the theater. The theme songs for the two maincharacters (I stand by my claim that Wakanda, not T’Challa, is the actual protagonist of BP) are powerful pieces built around some absolutely ridiculous* rhythms. That said, I think my favorite track plays over the closing credits. The film ends with throngs of people chanting the name of their king, returned to power: “T’Challa! T’Challa!” It’s moving and operatic and over the top and I love every bit of it.

Despite my effusion, though, Black Panther‘s score is so new, and the buzz so high, that it remains to be seen whether the songs will actually endure beyond the current craze.

And then there’s Wonder Woman, the last one, the song I expect to have the most staying power, but also the one I’m most ambivalent about.

On the one hand, the Wonder Woman theme originated with the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which has only and exactly two good things in it: Jeremy Irons and the savage electric cello theme that accompanied Wonder Woman’s first big screen appearance. When you get down to it, the song itself is all slashing rhythm and wails. It’s an excellent piece to accompany a thrilling action sequence, but it doesn’t really say that much meaningful about Wonder Woman herself.

I mean, John Williams’s Superman theme is dramatic and triumphant, befitting a man who has all the power in the world and chooses to do the right thing. You can almost hear the word “Superman” shouted during the song. Meanwhile, Danny Elfman’s Batman theme is dark and brooding, but it still has those victorious brass notes in there, indicating a man who uses the darkness to fight for justice. These songs are really about their subjects in a way that most soundtrack pieces aren’t.

Not being the biggest Wonder Woman fan, there are three things I know about her from general nerd osmosis:

  • She is a powerful warrior from a tribe of warrior women.
  • She has a magic lasso that makes people tell the truth.
  • She came to the “world of man” as an ambassador of love and peace.

The Wonder Woman theme really captures that first bullet, but, if you ask me, there’s nothing in those notes that really says “truth” or “love and peace.”

All that said, though, the song itself has grown on me, thanks in large part to the inspired work of Rupert Greyson-Williams, who managed to build a pretty workable soundtrack for Wonder Woman around what is arguably just the hook to some arena rock piece. I’ve also gotta give props to one of the major inspirations for the song: cellist Tina Guo, whose performance legitimately rocks my socks off. Add to that some great think pieces that analyze the Wonder Woman theme much better than I can (here and here), and I think I finally get exactly why the song works so well and remains so memorable when other superhero scores fall flat. I’m not convinced we’ve managed to create anything nearly as simple and fundamental as the Superman or Batman themes from the 80s and 90s, but we’re certainly close.

The Wonder Woman soundtrack reminds me, strangely, of the history of superhero costumes. When superhero comics were born, they got costumes that were all simple shapes and primary colors. As comics consumers developed more sophistication, they demanded a bit more verisimilitude in the pictures on the page. Costumes developed seams, laces, buttons and snaps, but they kept pretty true to the original flashy designs, for a time. Eventually, though, all those colorful costumes gave way to armor with shoulder blades, leather jackets, and a notable lack of red briefs worn overtop blue tights. Comic book designs seemed to want to be seen as anything but the the colorful daydreams of children.

Similarly, the scores for superhero films draw little inspiration from the earnest adventures of Christopher Reeve or Michael Keaton (or, for that matter, Adam West). The goal doesn’t appear to be “fun” as much as “action.” That’s not necessarily a strike against the superhero score, but it isn’t exactly a distinction, either.

The truly great thing about the Wonder Woman soundtrack is that it takes the grimdark Batman v. Superman track – which is powerful but seems embarrassed to own its source material – and manages to build something somehow optimistic and inspirational. I don’t think the Wonder Woman theme is on quite the same level as the Williams or Burton theme songs. At the end of the day, it’s really just a song that’ll get you hyped up to deadlift a truck at the gym.

…actually, that sounds pretty cool. Good enough!

* – “Ridiculous” here being a word that means “intricate and powerful.”

Sins of the Nation: Wakanda and Asgard

Spoilers for Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, if you care about that sort of thing.

It’s been about a week now since I watched Black Panther. The movie was great, possibly my favorite MCU film second only to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (which, as you might recall, I liked quite a bit). In the time since I watched it, I’ve been keeping an eye out for interesting articles and tweets. I’ve read up on the costuming, the cast… I’ve even researched some apparent plot holes, all of which confirm to me that Black Panther really is that good.

I also found this:

Now, it turns out that the original Amazon review was some sort of gag, but the tweet did get me thinking again about Thor: Ragnarok. The more I thought about the two films together, the more I saw a pretty strong connection between them. I mean, most superhero movies have quite a bit in common, but let me describe the plot of one of these films. You guess which one I mean:

“After the death of his father, a young prince must defend his home (an isolated technological wonderland) from an invading usurper to the throne, a mysterious and terrifying individual with an uncanny knack for warfare, a blood-relationship with our protagonist, and a serious grudge against the dead king stemming from the king’s dark and secret past.”

Yeah. More than a couple similarities.

Truthfully, though, I’m less interested in the similarities between the films than I am in the differences. To begin, I’ll attempt to summarize the twists of the two movies as best I can. Bear in mind that I’ve only seen these films once apiece, so there may be some minor details I get wrong.

In Thor: Ragnarok, we learn that, before he became the benevolent ruler of the Nine Realms, Odin employed the violent skills of his oldest child, Hela, to ruthlessly wage war and accumulate wealth and power. Because he feared her (and possibly because he was ashamed?), Odin had Hela sealed away. She returns and seeks to conquer Asgard almost immediately after Odin’s death.

In Black Panther, T’Challa’s father T’Chaka visited the United States on a mission to find his own brother. Upon learning that his brother planned to violate Wakanda’s isolationist policy by selling their futuristic weaponry, T’Chaka killed his brother and left a child (T’Chaka’s nephew and T’Challa’s cousin) to be raised an orphan. This child grew up to become the villainous Killmonger, who attacks Wakanda in order to secure weapons for a worldwide race war.

One of the first things that struck me about these stories is how they manage to explain, to some extent, the racial makeup of both our fantastical settings. The Asgard of the Thor movies was a colonizing empire, a fact that would almost certainly create more genetic diversity. Conversely, Wakanda adopted a strict isolationist policy early in its existence, likely well before European nations came in contact with Africa.

Thus, it is entirely plausible and, in fact, expected that Asgard in the MCU would have black people, while Wakanda wouldn’t have any white people. Racists can now shut up forever.

As fun as it is to find handwavy continuity excuses, I wanna go deeper. I think there’s something a lot more interesting going on with the histories of these two fictional countries. In addition to being wild, colorful technological pseudo-paradises, both countries have some pretty awful secrets lurking in their histories. Both movies use their respective villains (Hela and Killmonger) to embody these dark histories, but, beyond that, these movies explore how a country copes with its troubled past in very different ways.

By the end of Thor: Ragnarok – the same movie in which we learn about Asgard’s history of horrifying warfare – the entire nation is destroyed, and its citizens are cast to the stars in search of a new place to call home. The message here appears to be that a country with a history as violent as Asgard’s does not deserve to exist. While there’s a part of me that appreciates the idea that karma functions on such a global scale, I consider the somewhat shameful past of my own country and find myself hoping that there’s a better way than utter annihilation.

Ultimately, I don’t think Ragnarok is interested in dealing with the repercussions of Asgard’s history. It is, after all, a Thor movie, and it’s therefore more concerned with getting Thor from point A to point B along his hero’s journey. But this is the first major difference between Ragnarok and Black Panther. The main character of Thor: Ragnarok is, unsurprisingly, Thor. The protagonist of Black Panther, on the other hand, is the nation of Wakanda itself.

True, the Black Panther performs most of the significant actions, but while Thor is very much the comedic action hero, T’Challa is, in all things, the king of Wakanda. Although T’Challa grows and changes, as most good film characters do, his journey is nothing next to the seismic paradigm shift that the country of Wakanda goes through. Wakanda starts as a reclusive (dare I say selfish?) utopia, but it ends a neighbor and citizen-state of the world.

Early on in the film, T’Challa visits some sort of ghost world to commune with his father and the other past kings of Wakanda. During this meeting, T’Chaka tells T’Challa that “it’s hard for a good man to be a king.” Indeed, by the end of the film, we learn that King T’Chaka likely no longer considered himself a “good man” by the end of his reign. He sacrificed much – his integrity, his honesty, even his own brother – in the name of preserving Wakanda’s much-treasured secrecy. T’Chaka represents the nation’s history, and his violent crime represents the very real pain inflicted by an individual (or, indeed, a nation) that can help but chooses not to. As the new king, T’Challa commits himself to protecting Wakanda by continuing the isolationist tradition, although he does not yet recognize how destructive this tradition has been.

When set against a young king committed to keeping the secrets of his country safe from outsiders, Killmonger becomes a far more interesting villain. His main goal is to use Wakanda’s advanced technology to arm struggling communities so that they can conquer in the name of Wakanda. It’s tempting to dismiss Killmonger as just another megalomaniacal cartoon-book supervillain. The trouble is, though, the narrative refuses to portray Killmonger as entirely villainous. In fact, the narrative appears to side with Killmonger, allowing him to repeatedly chastise the leaders of Wakanda for keeping to itself while so many fellow Africans suffered.

Killmonger’s radical philosophy of “helping those less fortunate” has another ally: Nakia, a Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend. Rather than adhere to Wakanda’s non-interventionist policies, Nakia chose to work covertly, rendering aid and comfort in war-torn, struggling areas. This decision drives a wedge between her and T’Challa – as long as he chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps, they cannot be together. The audience sympathizes with Nakia… which means, to some extent, we sympathize with Killmonger, too.

At the end of the movie, T’Challa abandons his father’s path, and it is implied that Killmonger is part of what persuaded him. Wakanda ends its isolationism and opens a series of outreach centers throughout the world, including one in the same neighborhood where Killmonger was born and raised. The new Wakandan way resembles Killmonger’s scheme, except with fewer laser guns. Although the villain dies… he also kinda wins? And it’s a happy ending?

Moral ambiguity is delicious to us former English majors.

Wakanda is still a beautiful, vibrant country, but it is far from perfect. In fact, it has some flaws that run deep and go back, possibly centuries. Wakanda’s past does not invalidate the culture’s right to exist, as did Asgard’s; rather, Wakanda recognizes its obligation to atone for the past. Wakanda atones by doing what all of us with means should do, and what it should have been doing all along. Wakanda chooses to help its neighbors.

The story of Ragnarok seems to be one of national comeuppance – cathartic, maybe, but ultimately a bit limited. Black Panther, on the other hand, is about national repentance. And that’s something that every country could stand to consider more seriously.

Dance With Me

Black on black is always difficult for me to represent, working as I do in black and white. I think I managed it okay here.

I also chose to work with a smaller canvas than usual, which really required me to simplify the character expressions.

BONUS DRAWING: Stargazers.

Braddy Reads The Girl from the Other Side (Siúil a Rún)

The Girl from the Other Side tells the story of a strangely bitter recluse who has to care for a precocious young girl OKAY SERIOUSLY IS THERE LIKE A NAME FOR THIS GENRE OR SOMETHING I SWEAR TO KIRSTIE ALLEY.

*ahem*

Yes, it’s another entry in the “Braddy Really Wishes He Was a Single Dad” series, last exemplified by Sweetness and Lightning. I’m genuinely not sure why manga seems to like this trope so much, but I’m super grateful that they do. These books are consistently some of my favorite comics, and The Girl from the Other Side is no exception.

Of course, The Girl from the Other Side differs from those other books, which tend to be saccharine slice-of-life adventures about embracing the wonderful mysteries of life, by being a tight, tense horror story.

Our (whom I’ll call Teacher, as I genuinely don’t remember if it has another name) is some sort of demon/monster thing called an Outsider. By contrast, his ward – Shiva – is an Insider, who is stuck in the forests of the Outside until her aunt comes to claim her. Insiders cannot touch Outsiders, lest they be cursed to become Outsiders themselves. Teacher helps Shiva navigate the forest and tries to keep her safe… all while knowing, somehow, that Shiva’s aunt isn’t coming for her.

The first two volumes carry an “all ages” recommendation on their covers, which genuinely surprises me. The first volume ends with one of the tensest moments I can remember in comics: Shiva, convinced her aunt is nearby, wanders deeper into the forest to bring her an umbrella. Meanwhile, soldiers from Inside have come into the forest seeking a demon in the shape of a little girl and have strict orders to kill her on sight.

Then this happens:

I legit lost my mind when I turned to this page. The Girl from the Other Side is already one of the most beautiful manga I’ve ever read, with a distinct style that reminds me more of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind comic than, say, this nonsense. I already adored the scratchy backgrounds, the almost impressionistic rendering of all the major characters… but the picture of a small girl innocently carrying a damaged umbrella past the armed soldiers searching for her to kill her scared me more than just about anything in fiction.

Oh, and the second volume shows Teacher gruesomely hacking another Outsider to pieces with an axes. It takes until volume 3 for the age rating to get corrected to “teen.”

Truthfully, I’m not sure the story in The Girl from the Other Side is all that novel. As I’ve said, there are a million “cute young girl” stories out there for The Girl from the Other Side to draw on. In addition, it’s pretty explicitly riding the coattails of another highly successful manga about a supernatural being serving as mentor to a human girl. In the end, though, I’m not sure how much all that matters. The craft on display in The Girl from the Other Side is enough to have me hooked: masterfully executed tension, beautiful art, and a chilling atmosphere.

Also, I’m still waiting to figure out what the significance of the Irish part of the title is. So I’m at least hooked until that becomes more apparent.

Cooking with Braddy: Banana Pancakes (with a Side of Scrambled Eggs)

Typically, I don’t share the recipes I make, choosing instead to link to the recipe or to the cookbook on Amazon. I like people to rewarded for their creative endeavors, even if those endeavors are simply compiling a collection of recipes. That said, the source of the pancake recipe is a book I got through work for healthy meals and is not commercially available, so here we go:

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 medium ripe banana, mashed
  • 1 cup low or nonfat milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp. oil
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Typical assembly instructions apply: combine the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet in another (bananas are wet, in this case). Mix the wet into the dry, cook on a griddle or in a hot skillet. These don’t make the sweetest, fluffiest pancakes, but a serving of 2 cakes contains about 20% of your daily recommended allowance of fiber, so your guts will likely thank you!

The eggs are even easier to make:

  • 2 large eggs
  • Too much butter
  • Some cheese
  • Veggies, maybe. Like, I dunno, peppers?
  • Are mushrooms veggies? Probably?
  • Shoot, I’m out of ham

Try to make an omelet. Fail. Have scrambled eggs instead.

The Fallen Temple

So my little dinosaur creature was designed (somehow) with Evan Dahm’s Rice Boy in mind. The creepy goo monster with the mask was designed around the creatures from a particular Japanese video game I have an embarrassing amount of affection for. Apparently, I do some of my favorite work when I’m blatantly trying to rip off other creators.