"I'll Be Rooting for You": DC's Grand Pop Cultural Experiment One Year On

Just as music should never be harmless, pop culture should never diminish those who read it. If DC's proven anything over this last year, it's that the grander experiment of pop culture can succeed even for a genre as marginalized as superheroes.

"I'll be rooting for you," Green Lantern Hal Jordan says as possibly his last words to the Justice League just before he teleports out. There's a salute, a wry smile, and a glint in his eye. This will be Jordan's last time leaving the League's satellite base, you can already sense that even as the teleporter flickers into action. The panels directly preceding this one detail perhaps one of the most heroic moments in the New 52 -- the League was disgraced by villain David Graves, manipulated into infighting in front of the world's news cameras. Their credibility in the public eye was shattered. But what if one Leaguer took all the blame? "You don't have to do this, Lantern," Batman protested against Jordan's decision to play the scapegoat. "No," Jordan replied, "but I should."

What makes the moment a magical one, is everything that doesn't appear on the page. It's how DC Entertainment's Chief Creative Officer and Justice League series writer Geoff Johns leverages a problem, into building a new mythology for the characters. Traditionally the Justice League book (strongly associated with the birth of the so-called Silver Age), had been a showcase for the more modern heroes. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had all enjoyed unbroken publication since the War, or just prior. They'd been established as classics.

But in the mid-'50s, as things just began to settle down, and as a species we began to settle into the idea that there might be new horizons to aim for. Updates of older, more worn heroes emerged. The Flash, no longer a Mercury-styled super-speedster, was recast as Barry Allen, CSI with the Central City PD. A man of science, he was the promise of atomic science and moon landings, and the villains he fought were equally science fictional. Hal Jordan would not only face cosmic threats as the new Green Lantern, but he would stare down danger as a push-the-envelope test pilot in his day job.

The problem that emerged then, the problem that Johns so elegantly addresses, is one that dates back to this era. The problem is how to showcase these new heroes, on the edge of a new tomorrow, without disavowing the longstanding heroes with more classic powers, heroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Between the publisher's own loyalty to their earlier creations, and the dynamics of a group-book where new characters only get a page or two in the spotlight, Green Lantern and Flash, and later Green Arrow, Red Tornado, Black Canary became de facto second tier characters.

The problem that Johns so elegantly addresses is how to find a place to evolve the unique character of each of these new superheroes, within the constraints of a team book. With Hal Jordan falling on his sword to save the reputation of the Justice League, Johns has done exactly that. He's given longstanding fans, and new ones just taking their first steps into the mythology, a portrait of a League where every member contributes to the core idea of the League.

And it needed to be done in Justice League. As much for DC as a publisher, as for the idea of the New 52. Justice League was the book that inaugurated the Silver Age. Justice League was the very first New 52 book to be published, and the very last title to have its 12th issue published. The story of Justice League as a New 52 title, is also the story of the New 52 itself. Looking back on the New 52, it's easy to see it for the experiment it was intended as. It is perhaps the boldest experiment in the history of the comicbook industry to date. What if, an entire fictional universe could be rebooted? With if, no decades of publication history made it into the mix? What if, we could start from scratch, start all over again, with everything?

The experiment belies a deep commitment to the core values of popculture itself. And to values that began to emerge during the late Renaissance after Gutenberg developed the printing press based on movable type. And values that connect deeply with the notions that underpin and course through the idea of rock 'n' roll. The idea is really best expressed as a choice. Would you like your art locked away and idolized for all time, far outside of your reach? Or would you prefer your popculture to be an ideal, expressed in your own lifetime, reiterated every generation, perfectly relevant to you, before it's handed down to the next generation?

The choice has profound implications for how we orient ourselves in relation to our art, and in relation to ourselves. It's a choice about what we expect from our art and our stories, and from ourselves. Will our art diminish us, by being perpetually out of reach? Or will our art empower us by walking amongst us, immersing in our lives? DC's continuity-wide reboot of its characters and their settings is a statement about the underlying mythic architecture of the company's creations. Is there a way for the pure ideas of these superheroes to shine through? And can that idea itself speak to large groups of people? This is the engine that lies at the heart of transmedia. This the reason why 100s of 1000s of young families stood in line for midnight screenings of The Dark Knight Rises. And why a madman manipulated the iconography from the earlier movie when he committed mass murder in Aurora.

Over the course of the last year, the first year of the New 52, we've Aquaman (really a marginalized figure throughout the character's publication history), be threatened with losing that inner peace he's just regained. We've seen Flash fight for the love of the city he loves and always fights to save. We've seen the Suicide Squad enact black ops sanctions, on American soil, against a fearsome cultish terrorist threat. We've seen Wonder Woman struggle with her newly discovered role as demigod. And perhaps more than anything else, we've seen the idea of space emerge. The idea of there being space for these profound stories that have impacted into our lives for so long, to impact at an even higher level.

It is the idea that Robbie Robertson of the Band articulated so beautifully when he expressed, "Music should never be harmless." It is the idea that music is already immersed in the greater work of pop culture, and that pop culture is itself something alive in the minds and in the everyday behaviors of the people who interact with popculture. If DC has established anything over the course of the past year, it's this: their firm commitment to the idea of pop culture itself.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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