Wednesday, June 22, 2016

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Sandman Overture

I slept and dreamt of Cautious Enthusiasm....

Sandman Overture begins with a carnivorous plant having a bad dream. It ends with two siblings abruptly forgetting what they were talking about. Believe me, I am understating the fuck out of this...but, then, understatement is one of the things Neil Gaiman does best. He’s a titan of fantasy literature, and there are many reasons why he’s so good at it, including his knack for dry British restraint. He can describe a cosmic battle between godlike beings with the same inflection you’d use to speak to the vicar at Mrs. Cumberfarthing’s tea social. All the while, his imagination is running at the speed of light. Look at American Gods, or Coraline. Better yet, look at The Sandman.

For it was Sandman that put Neil Gaiman on the map, and helped usher in a wave of adult-oriented comics under DC’s Vertigo imprint. Sandman is 75 issues of storytelling magic. And now, years and years later, Gaiman has returned to give us Sandman Overture, a prequel miniseries that’s now available as a single graphic novel. And that’s so, so awesome, and a little nerve-wracking, because in order to write about it, I somehow have to summarize Sandman. Can’t be done. I lose. So let’s be as brief as possible. Sandman is a comic about many, many things, but at its center are the Endless: seven siblings who aren’t mortals or gods, but personifications of certain aspects of our psyche. The Endless have been around since everything began. If one dies, a replacement is found to assume not only their duties, but their very persona. The names of the Endless are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. Dream is the important one. He’s the tall, gaunt, raven-haired guy in the ragged cloak, also known as Morpheus...or The Sandman. At the very beginning of the original comic, Dream was returning to his realm after fighting a battle, the details of which we were never told. Weakened and distracted, he was captured by a bunch of dopey occultists. What manner of sturm und drang could leave such a powerful being so vulnerable?

Sandman Overture has the answers, although I was concerned that Gaiman couldn’t easily slip back into his old storytelling voice. He was a relatively young man when he began Sandman, and the early issues of the comic read more like pulp horror than epic fantasy; even the art style was reminiscent of Tales from the Crypt. Gaiman has come so far, and as an author, I know how shitty one’s older work can seem. I really shouldn’t have worried. Gaiman isn’t going for pulp horror. Why was Dream so bruised and battered when first we met him? Short answer: he was saving the universe. Long answer: don’t even ask me to summarize everything Gaiman crams into six issues. Basically, Dream learns that one aspect of himself -- an alternate Dream from a far-distant world -- has suffered permadeath, which is supposed to be impossible. He sets out to investigate, and discovers...badness. Cosmic unrest, which leads to cosmic war. Much of Sandman Overture is sort of science fiction, which is like saying that Mozart sort of wrote melodies. Sandman Overture is epic, operatic, mind-bending, and utterly glorious. It’s one of Gaiman’s greatest Sandman tales. Better late than never!

There are a couple of ways to make a lousy prequel. There’s the Star Wars thing where you fuck up your own continuity. Then there’s the “Who cares?” route where the prequel does not contain a single piece of new information. Sandman Overture avoids these traps admirably. Nothing in it contradicts Sandman, and more so, it sheds a new light on, well, everything. I plan to revisit Sandman with the knowledge that Dream is, from start to finish, numbingly tired. All too aware of his own mortality. His flaws. At one point, faced with a crowd of alternate-world Dreams, he asks, “Am I always like this?...Self-satisfied. Irritating.” Indeed, Dream always was unapproachable. We didn’t get inside his head enough. This new tale humanizes Dream to a surprising extent and, again, implies that his ordeal renders him a tired, jaded shell of his former self. Yeah, it’s a top-notch prequel. Its one (minor) sin is that Gaiman can’t resist bringing back a lot of the Sandman supporting cast for cameos, some of which contribute nothing to the story. (Hey, it’s the Corinthian! So what!) But he’s able to flesh out a few folks (Dream’s feline version, who only appeared once in Sandman, plays a huge role here) and introduce some intriguing newcomers. We meet the Endless’ parents, and I won’t spoil who or what they are, but they slot perfectly into the mythos.

Okay, let’s talk about the artwork, because holy shit. The comic is drawn by J.H. Williams III and colored by Dave Stewart, and they are an absolute dream team, no pun intended. Once it got past the pulp horror phase, Sandman featured a constantly shifting series of artists and a wide variety of styles, depending on the story arc of the moment. Sandman Overture sticks to one art style, but it’s...well, to call it “psychedelic” is a start, but not enough. It blazes across each page in great, grandiose whorls. Its eye-popping colors are a proud Fuck You to any grim, gritty aesthetic. At times it utilizes clear lines, and at other times the edges soften like watercolor. The layout of the panels and even the speech bubbles become part of the madness. I could compare it to Dr. Strange, or perhaps to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen once Alan Moore went completely insane. But it’s in a league of its own, perfect for visualizing such an epic tale. Anchored, of course, by that dry Neil Gaiman understatement. Certain double-page spreads contain so much goddamn detail that you could pore over them for an hour or more. This massive a story, coupled with such boundless artwork, would form the climax of many comics.

Here, though, it’s an overture. What’s an overture? An introduction that foreshadows what is to come. Yes, Sandman Overture answers some leftover questions from the original Sandman comic. The motives of certain characters. The placement of a key object or two. Old fans can appreciate each easter egg, while newcomers shouldn’t be scared off. But everyone will be a little lost, because Sandman never was straightforward. Reading it, you must understand that the Endless exist outside of regular time and space. They aren’t entirely linear, and although they appear tangible, they’ll always be misty around the edges. You can’t take them at face value. Who or what is Dream? Why, he’s dreams. All of them. And he’s a person, yes, and a figment of our imagination. He’s real, but he’s not. There’s only one of him, and there are a trillion trillion of him. He’s beyond human thought, but he’s also deeply human at heart. Sandman Overture hints that maybe, after many years, Neil Gaiman has come to understand Dream a little better. Enough to rewind the clock and tell a story that remixes the entire Sandman universe. That’s pretty damn impressive. And I hope Gaiman never leaves this Dream behind.

VERDICT: Endless squee!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Dang-Blasted Theory: Disney's Talking Animal Universe

A Dang-Blasted Theory: Disney’s Talking Animal Universe

I don’t often hit upon really good fan theories. When I do, it’s best to scribble them down before they dissolve into a puddle of mental stroganoff.

Zootopia was great. I loved it. Definitely my favorite Disney animated feature in quite some time. It was funny, smart, driven by characters and dialogue rather than farts and slang, and had some surprisingly pointed stuff to say about our own society. You can unpack this colorful romp about talking animals, deconstruct its themes of social equality and prejudice, argue whether or not it succeeds in having a coherent message. (For a film decrying racism, it sure does lean heavily on obvious animal-based stereotypes.) I’m not really gonna do that here, because I had a whimsical notion that led me to formulate a theory, not only about Zootopia, but about a ton of other Disney movies.

My whimsical notion was this: Nick Wilde, the jaded, charismatic fox who serves as Zootopia’s secondary hero, is the descendant of Robin Hood -- the jaded, charismatic fox who starred in Disney’s 1973 adaptation. They’re both lawless knaves with their hearts in the right place. They even look very similar, which I’m positive was deliberate. Once I realized that Robin begat Nick, my brain formed the next logical conclusion: Robin Hood and Zootopia take place in the same universe, at different historic periods. A world devoid of humans, where animals function as fully sentient beings with their own society. And then I began wondering if the same could be said of other Disney movies too. A ton of them involve talking animals. But many have humans too, so that doesn’t work. Or DOES it...?

I believe it works, and I’ll explain why. My theory encompasses all Disney animated films that involve talking animals but not magic or fantasy elements. So, for instance, Cinderella may feature those cute mice, but it’s also got magic, so it’s off the table. Science fiction is also not allowed (piss off, Chicken Little). Films that mix live action and animation don’t count (goodbye, Song of the awkwardly racist little thing, you). I’m gonna ignore TV cartoons, and I’m excluding Pixar, which already has its own awesome fan theory. This leaves all the films that ostensibly take place in the “real world.” These films, in chronological order, are...deep breath...Dumbo, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, The Rescuers Down Under, The Lion King, Tarzan, Dinosaur, Home on the Range, and Zootopia. Crappy-ass sequels also count, if you really care.

Put together, these films show us a kind of alternate universe -- let’s simply call it the Talking Animal Universe, or TAU. For whatever reason, animals are sentient here. They coexist with humans, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Communication between humans and animals is rare; they might not be speaking the same language. Wild animals generally consider humans to be dangerous and frightening (see: Bambi), while domesticated animals are content to serve humans as pets in return for security, food, etc. Children, as is often the case, are better at communicating than adults, as seen with Mowgli from The Jungle Book and the imperiled kids from the Rescuers movies. Hell, Tarzan is raised by apes from infancy. However, to most adults, animals are just...animals. For better or for worse. Keep them and love them, hunt them and eat them. Whatever. Humans may willfully blind themselves to animals’ sentiency, because acknowledging they can think and feel would force us to face how we’ve treated them.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an animal rights activist. I eat meat. I approve of zoos. I don’t like seeing chimps in science labs but I’m okay with mice being used to cure cancer. I hate the fur industry and I also think PETA is evil and disgusting. It’s called being moderate. Moving on!

From the list above, I want to single out four movies in particular: Dinosaur, The Lion King, Robin Hood, and Zootopia. I put them in that particular order on purpose. What distinguishes them from the others? They are the only films on the list with absolutely no human presence. Dinosaur, that CGI romp from Disney’s experimental phase, is (apparently) set long before mankind. The Lion King seems to exist far from human influence. Robin Hood and Zootopia are supposed to take place in a made-up world where humans never happened. That’s if you take these films at face value. But I believe they’re part of the TAU, and they reveal what ultimately happened to the human race.

So. At some point in our alt-verse, humans realize and/or admit that animals are sentient. Our awakening probably springs from advances in technology and social awareness. As the TAU enters the new millennium, as we stop treating animals cruelly by nature, as political correctness rears its head, we see: our pets can think like us and speak their own language. The wild animals we hunt have minds and souls. What do we, the human race, do with this knowledge? How can we atone for centuries of killing and exploiting sentient creatures? And, from a scientific standpoint, we’re curious. How did animals evolve sentiency, and what might they have accomplished if humans hadn’t been there, blocking the way?

We create a massive experiment that also serves as an apology. We designate a small continent, clear it of all human life, allow it to return to nature. Working together with the animals, we seed this mini-Pangea with life. We rewind all the way back to the first complex beasts, the first vertebrates. We accelerate their evolution so we can watch them develop. Having created this human-free paradise, we sit back to see what happens. The result? Dinosaur. The beginnings of a world where sentient animals evolve without humans and don’t even know humans exist, because we, on the outside, keep them in a bubble. Then, at some point, we destroy ourselves. Human society crumbles. It goes up in flames. Dinosaur shows this: its inciting incident occurs when fire rains from the sky, forcing Aladar and his lemur family to find a new home. Meteors? No. Human satellites, crashing down from space, signaling the Big Death for our species.

(Note: I said I wasn’t going to allow films that mixed live action and animation. But since Dinosaur uses live action as a scenic backdrop only, I give it a pass.)

With humans gone from the TAU, the animals on that isolated continent can go on peacefully evolving with no idea that humans ever existed. Next stop: The Lion King, in which we see the beginnings of true society. Predators still hunt and eat prey, but they rationalize it. All part of the Circle of Life, Simba. I’ll use my anthropology degree here and mention that primitive cultures generally begin with Animism (the belief that everything is alive) before progressing to organized religion. From its early stages, this animal civilization keeps right on evolving. Predators figure out that they don’t need to eat prey at all. How can this be? Well, perhaps humans altered predator DNA to allow them to subsist on some other food source. It just took them awhile to realize this on their own. By the time we reach Robin Hood, animals have learned to walk upright, wear clothes, build towns and castles. Just as humans did. Their evolution mirrors ours. Finally, Zootopia, an ultra-modern culture where animals use smartphones and live in harmony with only the occasional racial hiccup. Our experiment succeeded beautifully; we’re just too extinct to appreciate it.

One big issue is that Zootopia only contains mammals. What about the sentient reptiles, birds, saurians, and even insects we saw in all the other movies?  I can imagine some explanations. Sentient bugs might never have been introduced to the experiment. The saurians would have evolved into birds and/or reptiles, and then...perhaps disease killed everything but the mammals. Perhaps Robin Hood took place right before some horrible Black Plague scenario. Alas for Lady Kluck! Or maybe all the birds moved elsewhere in the world and that explains DuckTales. Did I just blow your mind?

You gotta admit, it all works pretty well. Zootopia glosses over what the predators eat, so why not imagine they were genetically altered by long-dead human scientists. Also, we never see a hyena in Zootopia, and I imagine that after being so thoroughly shat upon in The Lion King, the hyenas would want nothing more to do with anybody, ever. But why does Zootopia include foxes, lions, koalas, otters, camels, moose, jaguars, snow leopards, polar bears, gazelles -- a mishmash of species from all over the world? Because we, the humans, planted the DNA for all those species to develop together on a single landmass. They lived in their preferred temperate zones until all of it, from desert to tundra, smashed together into one metropolis.

And that is my theory. It links Disney’s talking-animal films together and demonstrates how, in a sense, they all culminated in Zootopia. The beasts inherited the earth, and good for them! I can’t wait till Zootopia 2 comes along and we can perhaps gain more insight on whether or not Nick and Judy have romantic feelings for each other, and what sort of weird DNA-based shenanigans could lead to sexytimes between a fox and a rabbit. Y’know?