I’m back in the airport VIP lounge. Just completed 3 days of Company Law revision lectures and I’m waiting for my flight home. My last post was two weeks ago and I wrote about the missing Malaysian airlines plane (MH370). Sadly, the plane is still missing and relatives of the passengers are getting distraught over the lack of progress in the search for the missing plane. The latest update is that some object (believed to be debris from the plane) has been spotted over the Indian Ocean – south west of Perth, Australia. However, efforts to search for said objects over the past two days have been disappointing and it does not look like the efforts will improve with the impending cyclone in the area. Furthermore, the area identified by satellite is approximately the size of Europe, to begin with! Aside from all the unsolved mysteries and the myriad speculations (ranging from terror hijackers to technical failure to a ploy by the Opposition to topple the Malaysian government to, the latest, a fire caused by batteries brought on board the cargo area), the whole thing got really embarrassing when some witch doctors turned up in KLIA juggling coconuts and going on ‘trips’ via a ‘flying carpet’ to locate the missing plane. How such a fiasco could have been allowed to take place is beyond all rationality – resulting in not a bit of unwelcome comedy in the face of a terrible tragedy.
Anyway, I was thankful for the 10 days or so that I was back home with my family last week. Got to spend some time with my family and we even got to catch the entire first season of HBO’s True Detective starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as troubled cops on a case involving serial killing hillbillies and small town religion, occult rituals and politics. This really is Matthew McConaughey’s year. Aside from his Oscar win, he delivered probably the most intriguing performance for an extremely complex nihilistic-yet-in-need-of-companionship character ever on television. The true ingredient for the success, however, is traceable to the singleness of vision of creator-writer Nic Pizzolatto, who was able to channel all his love for literature, comic books and The Twilight Zone into a tight and taut suspense series. Here’s hoping for more good stuff to come in the upcoming seasons. The worrisome thing about a great new series is that it will end up going the same route as Heroes – where after a cracklingly good first season, the show ended up going downhill from the second season onwards. A lot of that had to do with unrealistic expectations – both from viewers expecting something even more mind-blowing in the follow up season, and from the writers of the show trying to up the ante in order to meet those unrealistic expectations. Of course, in the case of Heroes, the creators of the show could always blame it all on the Screen Writers’ strike at the time that cut the second season by half; after which the show fizzled off and lost its momentum. Anyhow, if Pizzolatto simply maintains what he does best – i.e. great characterisation in a relatable story playing on our darkest fears – Season Two of the show should be a winner as well.
Another really good experience I had was reading Scott Snyder’s Batman: The Black Mirror in hardcover over the past two days. I was actually not expecting to finish the whole book in between my lectures and student consultation sessions. However, the book was unputdownable! Finished the whole thing in two sittings. Truth is, I heard about Snyder’s original run on Detective Comics in 2011 (just prior to the universe-level reboot of DC’s New 52) several years back. Many people were calling it the greatest Batman story ever told – with some even elevating it to the status once reserved for the works by Miller, Morrison and Moore. Well, I’ve long known about Snyder’s status as a wordsmith and even followed his run on the relaunched New 52 Batman series. While there were some intriguing elements in his Court of Owls arcs, I didn’t think that his writing was good enough to be elevated to the upper echelon of Bat-writers in history.
Fast forward to Friday evening (two days ago). After dinner, I dropped by the local bookstore just before starting my lecture. Saw a copy of The Black Mirror in hardcover. Are you familiar with the feeling (not really unique among bibliophiles, I was told) where you feel like you are destined to have an epiphany-filled encounter with a book? Well, there I was – staring at the book on the shelves. I was actually pretty short of cash as pay day is still a week away. But then, as is the lot (curse?) of bibliophiles the world over, you know you just gotta have it! I gave in to the hunger within, plunked down my wad of dollar bills on the cashier counter and ran out of the store with the book in my hands before I could change my mind.
All in all, it turned out to be the best Batman story that I have ever read. In fact, it is also the best Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon and Jim Gordon story that I have ever read. Heck, it is probably the best serial killer story that I have ever encountered in any medium (even exceeding my enjoyment of the above-mentioned HBO True Detective series). The book doesn’t just belong among the Miller-Morrison-Moore level, it is actually way above what those comic book demigods have accomplished with Batman. Firstly, like the HBO series, the whole thing was the vision of one single writer – the inestimable Scott Snyder. Secondly, like the HBO series also, the writer’s vision was masterfully brought to life by two masters of the craft – in this case, the artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla. Thirdly, the storyline is anchored on the two main character (Dick Grayson as Batman and Commissioner Jim Gordon) on the trail of a horrific serial killer. Fourthly, instead of just giving us a simplistic tale of crime, Snyder (like Pizzolatto above) gave us a disturbing and claustrophobic meditation on the effects of being sucked into the darkness of a locality – here, it is Gotham City; just like how Pizzolatto mythologised Louisiana in the above HBO series. Finally, the lead characters survived the ordeal (over about a dozen issues that read even better in a collected edition) but both Dick and Jim realised that they’ve just stared into a distorted reflection (in the serial killer, who has personal ties to them both) representing the darkest aspects of their psyches.
Without spoiling anything, let my just conclude by saying that, as a long-time Batman fan who has read hundreds (if not thousands) of Bat-tales over the decades, this has been the most rewarding and emotionally-wrenching experience with a Batman comic in a very, very long time. Remember reading Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns for the first time and finding your world turning upside down by the experience? Or remember the first encounter with the insanely twisted Arkham Asylum in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s seminal graphic novel back in the day? Snyder’s The Black Mirror is like that. A book that delicately balances the warmest and most hopeful character nuances with a sickeningly dark and psychologically scarring plot. Here’s hoping that Snyder will hit this standard again with his ongoing work on the Batman series. In fact, I’m tempted (and not a bit worried) about picking up his subsequent work. Will they measure up? Am I succumbing to unrealistic expectations? Arrgh! The agony of always having to measure up to past glories.
Speaking of ‘past glories’, this is a particular pressure that I apply chiefly to myself. I’m constantly trying to top my previous performances as a law lecturer by communicating in a clearer way, making my teaching materials more relevant to the needs of the students, and holding their attention longer than before. At the end of my previous Law of Trusts revision lectures earlier this month, the entire class gave me a thundering ovation. Today, upon the conclusion of my Company Law revision lecture, quite a number of students came up on stage for a photo-session with me. Yes, I am humbled and honoured by their heartfelt outpouring of thanks and appreciation. My colleagues will probably tease me even more (if they’re reading this) and remind me that I don’t have students – I have fans! Well, I sure hope that I can continue exceeding my own expectations and continuing to do better the next time.
Aside from that, I think it’s also important to know when to bow out and not to overstay my welcome. Everyone has a limit – once a person arrives at that point, it’ll all be downhill from then onwards. As mentioned above, Heroes went on for three more tortuous seasons (and, even as I’m posting this, is geared for a comeback with a new re-launch of the TV series). In comic book terms, this is called the Cap-Wolf phase. Legendary Captain America writer, the late Mark Gruenwald, stayed on the title for more than a decade. He is today remembered fondly for his many wonderful Cap issues. However, every single time the Gruenwald-run is brought up in discussions, people also end up talking about the embarrassment of his Captain-America-as-a-werewolf tale. My prayer and hope is that I will know when I’ve drawn the last bit of inspiration from my own internal well and know how to bow out gracefully before I enter into my personal Cap-Wolf phase.