Comics

Taking a Break for Commercials: "Batman #28"

Just as Zero Year’s second chapter was beginning to pick up momentum and move beyond the essential, there’s a pause for Batman #28 to flash forward to the near future.


Batman #28

Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Scott Snyder, James Tynion
Price: $3.99
Publication Date: 2014-04
Amazon

Just as Zero Year’s second chapter was beginning to pick up momentum and move beyond the essential, but stalling, moments of character developments, namely the story behind Jim Gordon’s camel-colored shame coat, there’s a pause for Batman #28 to flash forward to the near future. It’s a fuzzy picture of Gotham City in shambles yet again, and while we see some major plot points to come for a related title, it’s a frustrating picture painted with broad strokes on what looks like a recycled canvas.

To call Batman #28 an issue of spoilers is a misuse of the word. It’s a story-length advertisement for the upcoming weekly Batman: Eternal, designed to pique interest and get people talking. It picks up in the latter half of the proposed 52 issue run, minus the evolving narrative of the previous installments, so for instance you have to take it on faith that it’s completely reasonable for character Harper Row to put on a costume, call herself Bluebird, and shoot a ridiculously big gun. Writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion do their best with the dialogue to establish plot point tent poles, but it’s hardly enough to resolve the inherit problems of dropping in an issue from the back-half of the run before the debut. I’m certain there’s a belief that this is some sort non-linear narrative technique, similar to what Image’s Chew did the other year. It’s not. It’s a shock-and-awe advertisement.

Zero Year as a story arc has used some non-linear narrative techniques to overall excellent effect, namely the updated Batman origin opens with Gotham in some sort of post-apocalyptic state. We have an understanding of how that comes to be, and as we left off in Batman #27, the storm-of-the-century hurricane was about to descend on Gotham and make the Riddler-caused blackout that much worse. Batman #28 shows that Gotham is yet again in some quasi post-apocalyptic state that will unfold within the pages of Batman: Eternal. Is there any other state Gotham City can be in? Make no mistake about my point, the hurricane ravaged Gotham is only slightly different from the infected Gotham. While there is a difference of six story years, within the course of two actual years Gotham will once again be in some terrible state – by some accounts it always is. Art can mimic life, and we’ve been in a state of perpetual disasters for over a decade, but at some point art has to move beyond the life inspired.

It’s true that not all urban disaster stories are the same, and the difference comes in space between the plot points. I have to withhold judgment on whether these two scenarios are too similar until the creators have been given proper time to show how they are different, but to ignore the similarities even at this point does a disservice to the study of perpetual fiction.

There are surprises within Batman #28, but Stephanie Brown/Spoiler showing up on the last page is not one of them. It was revealed months ago that she would return in Batman: Eternal--a spoiler if there ever was one. The surprises to me were seeing Harper Row in costume-and-codename mode and Selina Kyle/Catwoman committing a 180 degree character turn.

Selina is the new kingpin of Gotham, and while it’s a role she could wear well like that pants suit she wears in this issue, it’s a big surprise. Done with the pseudo will-they-or-won’t-they state of play Batman and her have been in for far too long, it is time for Selina to have a prominent villain role. There’s a hint that her turn is the result of something that Batman did or didn’t do, and that certainly creates a personal reason for her new status. It establishes a conflict that could create some real tension, a type of tension that hasn’t really existed since the return of Jason Todd.

But while Selina’s new status has many possible story directions, it’s almost disheartening to see street-level character Harper Row succumb to the flash of vigilante duds. It shouldn’t surprise me, if you’re a character in Batman comics who isn’t a high ranking cop or doesn’t have a handicap of some kind then you’ll eventually end up in a mask with a colorful codename. But for once, I had hoped that that cliché would have been broken and turned on its head. Of course her character journey to Bluebird has yet to be revealed, but the initial impression is mixed.

And that is the real truth about Batman #28 and Batman: Eternal--initial impressions are mixed. To say this issue is good is a difficult judgment to make. There is not enough to go on. And by the same account I can’t say that it is bad, despite the criticism I’ve leveled above. This is a teasing advertisement for another title, and while that title will supposedly have an effect on the main Batman comic, this story is more of an interruption to the story taking place at present. That is frustrating to an extent. While it gives us a peak at what Batman: Eternal could be about, and by coincidence give the authors time to adjust if there was a bad reaction to the material, it’s hardly doing Zero Year any favors. But sales charts don’t lie, and I’m sure everyone involved took that into account when putting this issue together. Spoiler: these Batmans will sell.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"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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