Reviews

Building the Gleaming Tower in 'Batman #2'

Michael D. Stewart

Batman #2 marks a triumphal return to the kind of storytelling that graced the book's pages of old. Detective stories, flat-out action and the human drama of life in the big city of Gotham. Snyder's talent lies in crafting these genre into an engaging tale in the space of just 22 pages.


Batman #2

Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo
Price: $2.99
Publication Date: 2011-10
Amazon

A tower in the horizon opens the second issue of Batman volume two. It is both breathtaking in its majesty and inspiring in its history. This is the time where DC’s relaunch will cement its place in the comics market. Month one of this New 52 period was successful, but it’s the follow ups, not the debuts, that will push the bounds of DC’s efforts to rejuvenate its line. Can the company maintain the momentum? When DC has the creative mind of Batman writer Scott Snyder working for them, how can they not? A gleaming tower amongst the sun drenched skyline – both an opening and metaphor for creative talent involved.

Batman #1 was a good comic. What held it back from being excellent had little to do with its execution, but related more to the expectations associated with such a huge marketing campaign that supported it. Call it overhype or a simple misfire in the management of expectations. Regardless, that time and its context are over. Now is the time to deliver on the promise.

The fact that the focus falls directly on Snyder is a testament to the type of talent we are dealing with. A superstar writer, who seemingly appeared from nowhere, Snyder has built a reputation in a very short time of creating strong plots, featuring narratives threads that are weaved both short and long with stunning intelligence and forethought. His run on Detective Comics was a revelation, and stands as some of the best stories in the latter half of that titles lengthy run. With this comic, he’s given the chance to take on the even larger task of shepherding a flagship title in its infancy. A tough task to be sure, but one he has the skill and insight to make successful.

This new volume of Batman invites the opportunity to assess and sharpen the personality of Bruce Wayne. In interviews, Snyder has talked frequently about his characterization of Bruce containing a robust confidence in his abilities as the Dark Knight, this confidence in a way betraying a weakness. Could this be a fatal flaw? Could this be a hint as to the type of archetypal hero Snyder is writing? He doesn’t play his hand completely in this second issue of his run, but he definitely takes the time to introduce the characteristic and cement it as part of the long narrative he’s creating. It’s a juicy element, one that long time readers have been waiting for, as it is relatable and grounded in the vast publication history of the character.

Snyder does this while designing the frame and support beams for the bigger picture, introducing us to the concept of the Court of Owls. The concept is steeped in mystery and legend, owing a great part of its modern consciousness to a nursery rhyme the children of Gotham can easily recall. It’s an urban legend layered with the truth of its nasty intent. Call it narrative incognito, but while this is not necessarily a one-off story, though it functions as one, this issue is essentially the framework from which Snyder will operate over the next nine to ten months.

That framework also speaks in part to Snyder’s desire to have Gotham City herself as a character. It’s an element that he’s used frequently during his short tenure with the Batman titles. In his Detective Comics run, with Dick under the cowl, he certainly brought a sense that the City was more than just brick, mortar and steel. That she rose from the depths of the earth, mirroring the horrors of her protectors. Not as a consciousness, but as an organic thought that seemingly challenged even the most headstrong of her knights.

In the miniseries Gates of Gotham, Snyder with Kyle Higgins, brought this concept even further forward, relating some of the earlier history to give readers the sense that this city’s dark streets are not a modern phenomenon, but rather the combined efforts of immoral, amoral and apathetic men whose lack of foresight (or blurred foresight) has contributed to her present as much as any other element.

Now here in Batman proper, Snyder can take that concept further, playing with the psychology of Gotham’s favorite son so that the confidence mentioned earlier becomes that weakness in the shadow of a faceless supporting character. The fitting visual supporting that comes towards the end of the book where Bruce, stuck with knives and bleeding, stands on one of the many gargoyles of Wayne tower watching the city and the aftermath of his recent actions. The tower both holds the intentions of this story arc, as well as the promise of this arc and its chief creative talent.

For his part, Greg Capullo shows more consistency in his art this time around. His panels are at their best when they show the scope of which the story will encompass. In Batman #1, it was the quiet moments of intense investigation that showed what Capullo was capable of with the character and the surroundings. Here, the establishing moments and the pull backs from the action are what shine, as the little touches of expression, showing that confidence bordering on cockiness, do more of the heavy lifting. They are placing the frames and support beams in their proper holes. The architect may have designed the structures, but the materials and their placement are equally essential to creating a sound structure.

Batman #2 in many ways is an amalgamation of many types of comics. It is a superhero comic, a crime comic, and an action comic. This mixture has always been a part of the foundation of Batman, but here Snyder uses it to the fullest effect possible. The relatively new structural additions are what enhance the base, creating that pedestal on which his story arc will be supported. The architect has taken the plans from the drawing table and delivered them to the engineers. The tower that will be produced will stand as a beacon for the present and the future. Ladies and gentlemen, when shall we cut the ribbon?

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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