doublearticulation

Archive for August, 2005|Monthly archive page

On Interpretation: Comic Books, Superheroes, and the Horizon of Meaning

In Uncategorized on August 27, 2005 at 8:22 pm

A little while ago, Shane Bailey asked me a question that I’ve been thinking about a great deal since I began this blog:

I was wondering, as I do when I read most critical readings of different books, how you can tell if the artist or writer actually meant to instill those ideas or feelings within the reader or if they were some kind of happy accident. A subconscious thought that works its way into whatever their current project is. I don’t think that’s a question that can be answered, but I still wonder…

Me too. And I think Shane’s right: this is an “unanswerable” question. Nonetheless, drunk with hubris, I started to improvise an answer to it in response to his original comment. A thousand words later, I realized that my response was becoming an essay, and not a very good one at that. I’d spun my wheels a great deal, but still wasn’t approaching anything remotely resembling a satisfactory answer. Most importantly, the answer I’d begun didn’t strike me as tedious or long-winded enough. I thought I’d been doing a pretty good job of hiding my glee, but Chris Tamarri wasn’t fooled. As he aptly pointed out in a really nice post about this blog on Crisis/Boring Change (thanks Chris!) I do like to punish lazy readers with cruelly labyrinthine posts. Sometimes I find myself wondering if less maybe really is more, but then I think: Why settle for a pithy but convoluted 1000 words when you could easily come up with three or four times the material, alienate what few readers you have, and increase the level of punishment exponentially?

So I did what any sadistic yet conscientious blogger would do under the circumstances. I stalled for time. I procrastinated. I fed the fish. I blogged about other things. I watched TV. I even did the dishes and took out the garbage. Finally, after much avoidance, I plotted. I came back to it. I though about it. I thought about how I’m approaching the interpretation of comic books, and how I could turn a simple reply into a pedantic assault. I also thought about how my own approach to superhero comics might relate to the more general question about the artistic value of superhero books as compared to, say, the more self-consciously “literary” efforts of indie gods like Seth or Daniel Clowes. With sincere apologies to Shane for hijacking his question so thoroughly, this is what I’ve come up with…for now. (No thanks, Jim, I’m outta here.) Seriously, though, if anyone else has thoughts about these knotty issues of interpretation, meaning, and value that we all no doubt wrestle with, I’d love to hear them. (Seriously, Roeg, I’m gone.)

Literature and Intention: Author- vs. Reader-Centered Theories of Meaning

how you can tell if the artist or writer actually meant to instill those ideas or feelings within the reader or if they were some kind of happy accident?

Obviously, for anyone who interprets art, this is the question. The Big One. It’s a question that contains many even more fundamental questions about the nature of art in general, the nature of specific subgenres (including comics), and the nature of the relationship between the author, the text, and the reader. In other words, like any question about interpretation, it raises vital questions about where meaning comes from and how art “works.” (A subject on which there is obviously no shortage of opinion!)

What this question asks directly is something like: how can you tell if your interpretation (“those ideas or feelings”) is “right” and not just a whimsical reading that you are projecting onto the work (a “happy accident”)? When it’s phrased this way, the assumption is that the text is an artifact that the author has “instilled” with a certain intended meaning and that our job as readers is to somehow retrieve this originally intended significance. This theory of art presumes that the artist knows what the text “really” means (since they wrote it!), and that the reader is always in danger of getting it wrong. Art is a special form of communication, capable of conveying “more” than average speech, but the very thing that allows it to be the carrier of surplus meaning and affect is also what fills all of its messages with ambiguity so that the “intended” meaning is easily misconstrued. That’s one theory.

But this question also implies a second, related question about whether or not this is the only way to conceptualize the relationship between the author, the text, and the reader when thinking about where meaning comes from. The theory that writers have clear, specifiable intentions and “instill” ideas and feelings in a work of art is an author-centered theory of meaning, but it is by no means the only way to go. There are also various text-centered theories of meaning, not to mention an array of reader-centered ones too. In the case of reader-centered theories, meaning is (to varying degrees) seen as emerging not (or not primarily) from the author’s intention (which is inaccessible to us anyway, since we can’t read minds) but from the reader’s interaction and “play” with the text itself. In other words, all meaning is, to a large extent, a “happy accident,” the result of “a subconscious thought” that is produced in the act of reading.

Whereas the author-centered theory envisions art as expressive (a communicative act) and imagines the text as a sort of container that the artist puts meanings into for us to retrieve, the reader-centered theory envisions art as a structure that makes possible certain forms of readerly creativity: a multidimensional web or network of words and images whose allusiveness and density make a single meaning difficult if not impossible to pin down, in which case art is not really communicative in the usual sense at all, and there is no “right” meaning, regardless of what the author might have “intended” when they built the structure. Or, to put it more accurately: even if the author did intend one specific meaning, too bad for him or her! We have no way of getting to it, so we might as well have fun exploring and examining its possibilities in a way that is, inevitably, as creative as it is “interpretive.”

This is a very crude caricature of the author-centered and reader-centered poles of the wrangle over meaning that has animated more than a century’s worth of academic scuffles. (Both poles overlap with the text-centered approaches, which I’ve glossed over in this summary just to prove that I’m not totally sadistic.) Much critical blood (and ink) has been spilled on both sides of the fence, and Wikipedia has some good general overviews of the relevant literary debates on authorial intention, the intentional fallacy, and the death of the author.

My own very rough take on these literary questions is that although the “intention” of a writer is probably never singular, simple, or even paraphrasable, and even though what a piece of literature “means” is neither determined nor limited by what the author may have had in mind when it was written (because there’s no “meaning” without the reader), and even though the fact that a writer (like any of us) may not be totally cognizant or in control of what is motivating the creation of their work (i.e. “a subconscious thought”), and—yes!—even though the medium of expression itself is treacherous and impossible to pin down (words have multiple connotations, ambiguities, double-meanings, etc.)—despite ALL of these things (which I largely grant), I STILL think it is both possible and necessary to think about literature (and indeed all art) in terms of some sort of “authorial intention”—even if it is only a “weak” and vastly qualified theory of intentionality.

We might end up concluding that a particular author isn’t completely in control of everything he or she is “intending” to do, or that “intention” runs up against some external constraint such as a genre convention (or an editorial dictate that the story must have a happy ending, say). But without some concept of intention, my feeling is that we lose track of the fact that art is above everything else a willed human activity and that even the seemingly “simplest” narratives are often riven with subtlety and complexity by virtue of that shaping will. We lose track, in short, of the fact that art is more often than not a communicative act—just a very, very complicated one, not limited to notions of “expression” or “inspiration,” whose messages happen to exceed the apparent “limits” of their containers (since words have many possible meanings). This exceeding of the limits of communication is precisely what makes art, well…art, but it is not (in my view) ultimately separable from the human will of the artist who has, after all, imposed some form on the real chaos of the potentially infinite materials of expression (words and images) through careful selection and combination. To be good interpreters of art, I think, we have to hold both the will of the artist and the chaos of the medium together in our heads all at once.

Double Articulation, part 1: Reading Between Ethics and Pleasure

If I were to try roughly to characterize my own philosophy of the relation between authorial intention and interpretation, I think it would go something like this:

1. All art is “intentional” (even if the “intention” is to be as spontaneous as possible so as to appear to have no intentions, as in certain forms of avant-garde literature or visual art).

2. If we are going to retain the concept of “intentionality,” we have to understand it in a way that is complex enough to admit the possibility of multiple (sometimes conflicting) intentions.

3. We also have to acknowledge that the meaning of art is not limited by these intentions for a variety of reasons: external constraints like genre, the specific social and historical circumstances in which something is read, and the author’s own unconscious, which makes it foundationally impossible for him, her, or anyone to fully know their own “intentions”—to name a few.

4. We also have to grant that the medium of communication is not reliable—words and images are unstable communicators of meaning because one word or image can have multiple meanings, and when they’re placed in combination, the potential meaning increases exponentially until it becomes impossible to name exhaustively.

5. “Meaning” only emerges when someone (a reader) actually encounters the art. And since all readers are different each one will interpret things differently, at least to some degree. (If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound, according to this view.) Clearly, whatever the author “intended,” no matter how complex a notion of “intentionality” we posit, is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct.

6. As a reader, I’m not necessarily aiming to reconstruct some original “intention,” so much as trying to construct a plausible interpretation of the work in front of me that is related to but not limited by authorial intentionality. That is, I’m trying to remain conscious of the existence of an original matrix of authorial “intentions,” and for me, this supposition acts as a sort of horizon against which I’m constantly measuring and checking my own reading and that I’m always trying to stay mindful of, even if I know that it is permanently lost and is probably too complex to fully reconstruct even if it were possible to do so.

7. At the end of the day (and this is just me), I try to approach reading as an ethical activity—that is, I think of reading as one of the most basic ways in which we interact with another person at a very deep level on a daily basis. And I guess I feel (on one level at least) that we owe it to the artist to try to understand their work as a communication. The fact that the full, exact nature of this communication must always remain inaccessible leaves us with an interesting philosophical dilemma, one that is ethical in the truest sense: is it still worth trying to understand someone even if we enter into this relationship with the knowledge that we never entirely will? My answer, obviously, is “yes,” because this is true of every relationship we enter into, even if it often feels that our knowledge of the person before us is perfectly transparent.

This “ethical” dimension of reading is complicated, however, by the fact that, on another level, reading is undeniably about our own pleasure, and the pleasure of our own interpretations and projections—things that we can enjoy more fully in reading than in real life because there are no consequences to projecting our own desires into the purely imaginary space that reading conjures up. Besides, like those cheesily decadent European dignitaries in the Ferrero Rocher chocolate commercials, I would never, never deny my friends pleasure (much less deny myself), so for me, being an “ethical” reader involves a balancing act that I attempt to justify through disclosure: I try to keep my approximation of what I think an author most likely intended front and center in my interpretation, while at the same time trying to be clear about the moments when I’m breaking off and beginning to read more creatively for my own pleasure—those moments when my reading of a text shifts from being author-centered to reader-centered, when I begin to read perversely and autobiographically. Hence (in part), the title of this site, Double Articulation, and also the subtitle, A Comic Book Life.

Does this answer Shane’s unanswerable question? Not even close. The decision that something was “intended” by the author as opposed to being merely “projected” by the reader remains a judgment call. And there are all kinds of things that any critic brings to bear when making such a call. Their reading skills, obviously. Their knowledge of formal and generic conventions. What they know about the history of the medium. What they know about the author’s other work. Perhaps (though this is no longer fashionable) what they know about the author’s life. What they know about psychology, history, politics, etc. What they know about the specific time and place the author was writing. And what they know about the material aspects of the production, circulation, and consumption of the final product. These are the basic tools, and they are all perfectly fallible. But if we believe that some interpretations are better than others, that some interpretations tell us more about the text than others, if we wish to be ethical readers, then it is necessary to retain some abstract sense of an “authorial intention” even if it is only in the form of a distant, ever-receding horizon. Without it, we lose the philosophical grounds to make the judgment call that Shane’s question implicitly (and in my view, very rightly) demands.

Comic Books, Superheroes, and Questions of Value

The debates over art, meaning, intention, and interpretation are complicated enough in literary circles where we are dealing usually with only a single author. But they become even more complicated and interesting when dealing with a multi-authored form like comic books where “intention” is already diffused between the writer and the artist, not to mention the inker, colorist, letterer, and editor. Sure, sometimes a writer and artist work so closely together that they achieve what I’ve often called “synergy”—a working relationship so intense that they seem to share a single intention (Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans is my pet example, as most of you know; it would be easy to name others). But this idea of synergistic creativity is really just an illusion of singular intention and is probably much closer to complementarity than perfect accord. The reality of synergistic partnerships probably involves a very complicated form of give and take whose dynamics are difficult to reconstruct, even in rough approximation. (I like to imagine that Fantastic Four #176 is a paradigm of this dizzying synergistic process.) It’s easier to retain a belief in the more traditional notion of authorial intention when reading the work of do-it-all comic auteurs like Frank Miller, David Mack, Daniel Clowes, John Byrne, or Gilbert Hernandez, but even for these writer/artists, all the complications of intentionality raised by the literary debates over the term still apply. Perhaps there’s a sliding scale on which these two types of comic book intentionality fit. That is, it might be possible to argue that “authorial intention” (the weak version I’ve argued for above) is a category of analysis that has more obvious relevance to interpreting an auteur book like Eightball than to interpreting an old Wein/Perez issue of the Fantastic Four insofar as the concept of “intention” implies a high degree of shaping artistic will and formal control. Maybe, though even here, I’m not totally convinced of the value of this distinction between “high” and “low” comic art that this example implies. For now, my point is merely the simple one that some concept of authorial intention continues to matter in both cases, even though it becomes an increasingly complex issue as the number of artists involved increases.

The literary debates over intention and meaning are also complicated by the fact that storytelling in mainstream comics is not only heavily market-driven but genre-based—two factors which seem, for many readers and critics, to exempt superhero comics from being considered to have either “literary” ambitions or merit. This assumption pervades what might not unfairly be called the Indie snob position, which replicates the position that literary snobs assume in relation to pop culture and genre fiction generally. The assumption of all readers who slam genre fiction (be it romance novels, horror novels, SF, fantasy, manga, superhero comics, what have you) is that only certain types of narrative are worthy to be designated as “art” on the grounds that they are truly “free” artistic expressions: that is, that they are not constrained or limited by external factors like genre conventions or editorial demands. To put it very crudely: something like House of M can’t be art because it is a “market-driven” narrative (not truly creative), because it caters to very specific forms of fantasy gratification (it is escapist and trivial), and because it is too plot-oriented (it minimizes the wonderful ambiguities that characterize “real” art). Something like Eightball (which I love, incidentally!) is seen as genuine art because it is “independent” of all these constraints. One also suspects—though I could be wrong—that it is valued as “art” because it is produced by some people’s vision of the archetypal artist: a lone artistic genius who exists—ostensibly—outside the realm of vulgar, mainstream, “mass” production. If this is true, then comic book criticism turns out to be the last bastion of modernist aesthetic values, or at least, of romanticism.

The foregoing comparison is somewhat facetious because, personally, I have no problem conceding that Eightball is better (more interesting, more sophisticated) art than House of M (nor, I expect, would most readers). What I’m unwilling to concede, however, is the presumption that the work of an independent writer/artist is by its very nature superior to or more complex or sophisticated or interesting than mainstream genre work produced by multiple writers and artists—that these genres are foundationally incapable of producing narratives that command our attention in the ways that we have been trained to associate with the evaluative term “art.” (On a related point, Mark Fossen has just posted a sharp analysis of the current Indie/mainstream fracas that questions all of its foundational categories in a measured, productive way. It is essential reading for anyone following this debate.) As anyone who has been paying attention well knows, genre writing—especially horror and science fiction—have as much, if not more, to tell us about the monstrous world of contemporary history than much of what passes for current “literature” (which is often far more reactionary and “escapist” than the genre works it supposedly surpasses). That superhero comics can also illuminate our world and our lives in the manner we expect from all great art is old news to comic fans after Watchmen, even though culture at large is still catching up.

What this little digression has to do with my qualified defense of authorial intention is simply this: retaining a notion of authorial intention is one way (not the only one) of taking mainstream superhero comics seriously, of treating them as potentially illuminating “art,” even when they sometimes appear merely to be “product.” One might be tempted to say that the “authorial intention” behind Marvel and DC’s current line-wide events is all too evident, all too cynical, and all too little like “art” to be worth our time or money. One might notice, in other words, that “authorial intention” in comics these days is simply an extension of “editorial intention.” But then I read a book like Villains United or JSA and I see so much more going on at an “artistic” level than initially meets the eye (in terms of form, themes, and symbolism) that I find much more than simply my own uncritical nostalgia and love of continuity to interest me. Although I flagged Watchmen above as an instance of the potential of superhero comics, I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning the mainstream work of Grant Morrison here precisely because Morrison is usually treated as the notable exception to the “rule” of mainstream banality and his work is already accorded a sufficient degree of artistic weight and merit that it has been interpreted with the same level of attention and close reading that one would accord a “literary” text. The same attitude has not, by and large, been extended to most mainstream superhero books or their (multiple) authors. My position is that it should be.

Double Articulation, part 2: From Narcissism to Criticism

This site began as an exercise in what I like to think of as harmless, mild-mannered narcissism. Like most bloggers, I wanted to talk about myself and to reflect on my life through the medium of my chief obsessions. In particular, I wanted to think about how the ephemera of childhood turn out to be the building blocks of self, how a stack of ratty old comics turns out to contain the materials out of which my adult personality was and continues in many ways to be fashioned and understood. That anyone other than me could be diverted by my self-interested musings was a pleasant surprise—as pleasant as my (belated) discovery that I wasn’t the first geek to have this thought. (But really, it’s probably best not to encourage me.)

I began this blog, in other words, with a heavily reader-centered approach to interpreting the comics of my youth. However, what I found when I went back to those early comics that captivated me—particularly the Fantastic Four of the late 1970s—was that their narratives were far more sophisticated than I had ever realized, and that they supported much weightier interpretations than I had initially expected they might. Sometimes, the sophistication of these narratives is largely implicit, apparent only as a sort of subtext, but that does not necessarily mean that it is merely “unconscious” on the part of the writer. The multilayered meaning (and very adult double entendres) of a comic like Fantastic Four #186 is perhaps best accounted for by the fact that mainstream superhero books were marketed to children but featured adult characters and situations, and were written by (and to some extent for) adults. This doubleness at the core of many (even most) superhero titles both then and now demands that we interpret both carefully and generously—that is, that we give writers of superhero comics the benefit of the doubt and err always on the side of attributing too much sophistication to their work rather than not enough, which is more usually the case. I suspect that we’ll be right more often than we’ll be wrong.

The fact that I was surprised to discover such sophisticated narratives in my childhood superhero books was a good reminder of how prevalent the prejudice against the superhero genre is, even among its most unremitting enthusiasts. Like science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction, superhero comics began as cultural ephemera and are (very) slowly gaining “legitimacy” as an art form whose sophistication, power, and relevance is gradually being recognized by a wider public and within academic institutions. My own take on the vitriolic divisions within the comic blogosphere (and it is hardly an original one) is that they reflect different strategies for legitimizing comics—strategies which are founded on different assumptions about what artistic achievement looks like and about the relevance and resonance of the superhero genre to contemporary experience. And like all culture-war debates, it will cool down, flare up again, blow over, and do its work despite itself. If we want a crystal ball to see where all this is headed, the best place to look, in my view, is to the history of popular genres like science fiction and fantasy in the twentieth-century. Like these genres, superhero comics are an integral part of contemporary culture, and they are being written and illustrated by incredibly talented, sometimes brilliant people. Not only are they here to stay, they have a history that is already so vast, fascinating, and barely examined that it’s hard to know whether to look forward or back because there are incredible sights in both directions.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough blogging for one day. It’s time to sharpen my pencil, sit back, open a comic, and head for the horizon.

Advertisements

SPOILERS ABOUND: a weekly digest of reviews, notes, and rants

In Uncategorized on August 22, 2005 at 10:05 am

Vol. 1, No. 6
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In this issue:
reviews of Villains United #1-4 and Swamp Thing: Love in Vain / notes on reviving Amazing Heroes, Perry White redux, Katana, my first CrossGen book, linkbloggers, and more / rants about House of M (after which I promise to stop complaining)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

reviews

Villains United #1-4 (DC Comics)
Gail Simone (Writer) / Dale Eaglesham (Penciler, issues 1, 2, and 4) / Val Semeiks (Penciler, issue 3) / Wade von Grawbadger (Inker, issues 1, 2, and 4) / Prentis Rollins (Inker, issue 3) / Sno-Cone (Colorist)

Let us now praise Gail Simone.

I’m one of those Infinite Crossover Zombies that hasn’t yet succumbed to what Kurt aptly dubs pre-Infinite Crisis Fatigue. Not only am I devouring all five Countdown series, I
am actually wringing my hands with delight at the prospect of a full-year of post-Crisis 52*. I’ll try to come up with a high-falutin’-sounding justification for my slavering devotion to Didio-era DC at some future date. For now, I just want to heap laurels on Gail Simone’s Villains United, an ingeniously subversive series that is probably the best of the five Countdown minis (though Day of Vengeance is also excellent).

Where to begin? How about with the most villainous of the real villains of the series: Lex Luthor. Simone writes Luthor not simply as a brilliant megalomaniac, but as a sort of magnanimous ubermensch who, like Nietzsche’s prototype, is too persuaded of his own superiority to be bothered with pettiness or ressentiment. With Luthor, this kind of transcendence of his surroundings is always edged with calculation, but the effect is still thrilling. Watching Luthor step lightly through the minefield of the Society he is building through intimidation and manipulation is almost like watching a solo dance performance: his cunning is precisely that nimble.

Only a scripter as good as Simone could produce an effect like this. Luthor is an intensely verbal character (since his voice and intellect literally are his powers), and in the hands of a lesser writer, the dialogue that is meant to indicate Luthor’s “genius” often feels merely gestural because it just doesn’t sound convincingly urbane, witty, or subtle.

In Simone’s hands, however, we feel Luthor’s charisma every time he speaks. Dr. Psycho’s foaming at the mouth makes him an ideal foil for Luthor’s decorous restrained leadership, and their interactions are a hilarious treat. Of the rest of the Society’s inner circle, the Calculator, Deathstroke, and Black Adam are all suitably shifty, but Talia is the one I’ve got my eye on. If I know Gail (and I don’t, but I like to pretend), it’s only a matter of time before we see what’s lurking beneath the gal-Friday routine she’s been performing for Luthor.

Meanwhile, over on the Secret Six team, Simone is carefully assembling what might become the basis of an incredible Suicide Squad relaunch–particularly given the recent reappearance of Amanda Waller in the pages of JSA. In the space of only a few issues, she’s built one of the most appealing groups of thugs, vamps, and misfits I’ve ever beheld. I haven’t the foggiest idea who or what Scandal might be, but the slow unraveling of her secrets has me intrigued.

Catman is not only cool, Simone has made him into the best type of hero: the loser who wants to make good. Deadshot is a riot. Ragdoll is the best character redesign of the year. Simone’s handling of Parademon as an Apokoliptic trauma survivor in search of happiness is so weird and yet so right that I’m just totally speechless. And of course, Simone binds her anti-heroes together by inviting us to take a crack at the oldest chestnut of all: who is Mockingbird?

If the sheer number of double entendres per issue are any indication, Simone is also clearly having a lot of fun writing the Deadshot/Catman/Cheshire triangle, which is one of the book’s most subversive and delightful elements. Simone falls short of making this triangle explicitly “bisexual,” leaving the sparks between Blake and Lawton implicit instead–but just barely.

As many others have noticed as well (and you’d have to be blind not to) the beefcake breakfast sequence in issue #2 is a hilarious tongue-in-cheek comment on macho male bonding, from the knife that juts from the table to the cigarette afterward.

The fact that Jade is eavesdropping on the entire scene adds yet another layer to the proceedings, and the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) struggle that ensues between her and Lawton for Blake’s attention makes me giggle. The jaw-dropper that emerges at the end of issue #4 in the pillow-talk between Blake and Jade is the best sort of soapy fun, but it is also pregnant (so to speak) with less obvious shades of meaning (Jade’s motives, I suspect, are more mixed than she lets on.) In other words, Simone does not just play this triangle for twists, laughs, or satiric effect. Lawton’s affection for his “cat-buddy” and Jade’s attraction to a man who looks very much like the father of her imperilled daughter hint at a genuine depth of feeling (though Jade and Lawton both talk a good game). Similarly, Cheshire’s jealous goading of Deadshot may seem like pure comedy, but the expression on her face when she learns about Lian’s peril is not, and there’s something downright sweet about a hang-dog Lawton moping around with Scandal outside the lovers’ scratched up bedroom door.

Like any good Shakespeare comedy, moreover, Villains United has a subplot in which a second grouping of characters reflects and implicitly comments on the primary romantic grouping. Okay, maybe Villains United isn’t exactly Shakespeare, but it does have a subplot centering on the bizarre relationship between a Parademon and his “clown” that expands this book’s challenging of normative relationships (personal and sexual) in a number of very interesting ways. I will try to abbreviate my comments on this utterly fascinating pair to two observations.

First, the fact that Parademon’s revelation that his love for “Clown” stems from the absence of humor on Apokolips is, in and of itself, a lovely comic book metaphor for the wasteland of isolation and the promise that love holds. The fact that this “love” is directed at a person that Parademon apparently understands to be only semi-human–a “clown” or a “doll”–says something also about how desire is warped by circumstances of extreme desperation and horror. And yet, one can’t help but feel a little touched by the uniqueness and purity of Parademon’s simple, universal desire, no matter how unconventional a form it takes.

Second, Ragdoll’s perverse attempt to win his father’s approval by embarking on hundreds of surgeries to replace his normal joints with “fully rotating, self-lubricating implants,” so that he becomes “more limber than [his father or brother] could imagine” and now has skin that is constantly in danger of tearing, makes him an unbelievably cool cipher for the contortions that parental violence can inflict. Ragdoll’s pliable body is in this sense pitiable. However, it is also the source of his power. His desperation to please his father may have made him a freak, but as the amazing scene in issue #4 suggests, where Ragdoll breaks into H.I.V.E. headquarters by crawling through the sewer pipe, it is possible to transform freakishness into a “beautiful odiferous masterpiece” or as Ragdoll also calls it: “my aria.” I don’t know if Simone has read Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, or Georges Bataille, and I’m stretching a bit here, but Ragdoll (in all his polymorphously perverse majesty) verges on embodying the sort of progressive pornographic deviance their work celebrates. In other words: the Parademon-Ragdoll relationship? Bloody eff’in cool, Gail!

Of course, things like the “beauty” of Ragdoll’s scatological aria are overlaid with a dark irony, since Ragdoll is, like most of these antiheroes, a murderer. Nonetheless, the subversive appeal of a series like this stems precisely from the fact that these characters are literally and figuratively operating outside of “the law”–that is, they operate not simply outside the laws of the state but outside the “unwritten” laws of restrictive social norms. The appeal of a series like this (for me at least) is that the antiheroes’ literal status as criminals is less important than the metaphorical “lawlessness” this status bestows. Simply put: I’m only moderately interested in the moral dilemmas of a team of bad-guy heroes. I am very interested, however, in the fact that these characters are “allowed” to behave in ways and to explore ideas that ordinary superheroes rarely get to precisely because there is often a tacit equation in mainstream comics between superheroes and normativity (they must set a moral example, etc., etc.). The X-Men are the celebrated exception to this “rule,” of course, and there are others too which I’ve written about before. By and large, however, the current world of traditional superhero comics remains extremely conservative, as was depressingly illustrated by DC’s recent hysteria over the “Gay Batman” pictures, not to mention the homosexual panic that radiates from Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin #1.

Clearly, Villains United is a series with many dimensions. Simone has seamlessly fused the violence and conspiracy of a good espionage thriller with the interpersonal dynamics of a really good, really nasty soap opera. For as exciting (and harrowing) as the action in this book has been, many of its pleasures are not essentially different from those of daytime or nighttime soaps (despite Simone’s publicly declared hatred for Dynasty!). This is true of many comic books, since comics, like soaps, are serials, but it is especially true here, where the thrills so often come from the simmering tensions between unexpected characters, from anticipating who will have a scene with whom and what they will say to each other, and from the snide, crackling dialogue. I enjoy Villains United for the breakneck action, the characters, the conspiracies, and Dale Eaglesham’s outstanding artwork, but I especially appreciate the way Simone slyly gooses conservative norms about relationships and sexuality in this series. As Simone shows every month both here and in her other page-turner, Birds of Prey, she is one of the very best writers in mainstream comics right now. DC is very, very lucky to have her. And so are we.

Swamp Thing: Love in Vain (DC/Vertigo)
Joshua Dysart (Writer) / Enrique Breccia (Artist, issues 9-12) / Timothy Green II (Artist, issues 13-14) / Martin Breccia (Colorist)

I can’t imagine a more thankless task in comics than being charged with reviving Swamp Thing. Most comic readers won’t even notice your book’s existence, and those who do will inevitably compare whatever you do to the groundbreaking heyday of Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch. If you’re lucky, some new readers might find their way your new Swamp Thing comic–readers who are too young to remember that legendary run, a run that not even you can get out of your system and that you are trying very hard not to simply imitate as you trudge forward, heading deeper and deeper in the sloshy mire of a Vertigo nostalgia book. And then, just when you’re having a full-fledged attack of self-doubt, you fire up the internet and discover that you’ve just been reviewed by some yahoo who actually included that fabled Moore/Bissette/Totleben/Veitch run on their very select list of desert island comics. That, I suspect, would really suck.

At least, it should. In theory. I’m a huge fan of the good old days, but the fact is, I’m completely riveted by Joshua Dysart and Enrique Breccia’s creep-inducing take on the Good Gumbo–in my view the most successful interpretation of Swamp Thing since Veitch left in a huff over that Jesus flap way back when. (Not that I blame him. DC was pathetically cowardly and the resulting loss of the Neil Gaiman/Jaimie Delano run is…just too sad to think about.)

After Veitch left Swamp Thing, there was a lot of mucking about, so to speak. Nancy A. Collins had a couple of nice stories in there, and Mark Millar gave it a good shot with a nice assist by Grant Morrison, but the magic was gone and the series was mercifully retired. I tried to get into the Brian K. Vaughan reboot a few years later, but to be honest, I didn’t really like Tefe as a lead and I found Vaughn’s stories preachy and tedious: very different from the work he’d go on to do on Y the Last Man. So when I saw that there was to be yet another relaunch of the title–this one helmed by Andy Diggle and Enrique Breccia–I was both skeptical and cautiously optimistic. Diggle’s story, collected in Swamp Thing: Bad Seed, the first of the new Swamp Thing trades, turned out to be a promising fix-up job. It shifted the focus of the series away from Tefe and back onto Swamp Thing, basically stripping him of the excessive elemental powers bestowed by Millar’s run and also divesting him of much (but not all) of his humanity, reducing him to a kind of stunned, shambling monster–more like Marvel’s Man-Thing than the Swamp Thing of old.

This was all necessary, and quite well brought off, but you could still hear the plot machinery clanking. With Swampy’s new status quo established, the fun finally begins in second volume of the trade collection (ST #9-14) featuring the work of new Swamp Thing writer, Joshua Dysart (of Violent Messiahs fame), and more art by the incredible Enrique Breccia.

The story, which I won’t spoil for a change, focuses on the return of Swamp Thing’s old enemy, Anton Arcane, as well as a couple of other horrors from the pit who find their way to Louisiana, leaving a trail of corpses and nightmares behind them. The story also deals with Abby and Tefe’s struggle to make lives for themselves now that “Alec” is gone, and it also concerns Swamp Thing’s own gradual struggle to make sense of his new state. It’s basically a horror story that picks up on many of the themes of the Moore stories of that earlier era, most notably those of love and death. It’s a disturbing yarn, brought to life in all its maggot-infested glory by Breccia’s stunning art, about which I must briefly gush.

How to describe the quality of Breccia’s art?

Well, that’s a good start. One could also say that he gives the series its most distinctive and frightening look in years. Frankly, the series hasn’t felt visually “right” since Veitch left, but Breccia’s style is absolutely perfect for the book: it is more stylized than Bissette and Totleben’s work, while retaining their love of lavish botanical detail.

There’s something almost whimsical about the details of Breccia’s Hell, which is populated by demonic critters that are straight out of Breugel and Bosch–but depicted as if they have been passed through René LaLoux’s animated SF acid trip The Fantastic Planet (1973) or Terry Gilliam’s bizarre Monty Python montages.

But Breccia also draws the scariest demons I’ve seen in a comic book in a long while, synthesizing the creepy crawly elements of insects, scorpions, parasites, and vermin into a gut-churning combination of stingers, teeth, and segments that are seductive because they are horrific and beautiful all at once.

Breccia doesn’t spare the main characters either, who all look like hell. Abby, for instance, is no longer the often idealized beauty of the earlier series. Breccia briefly conjures images of that era, but only to show us that it is decisively in the past. His Abby is harder and harsher, a woman who’s weathered horrible ordeals and has been marked by them.

Swamp Thing too has changed since that more innocent time. He is no longer a beautiful vegetable garden, bursting with tubers and flowers, a living nesting ground for birds and insects. Instead, Breccia has conceived of him as a gnarled, walking tree, green but with hard brown roots that twist and prickle from his face and body.

As the story progresses, moreover, and the Green becomes diseased, Swamp Thing becomes increasingly insect-like and terrifying, as hideous as the demons themselves.

All of these visual developments are appropriate because they reflect the general approach of the story, which is to insist that while there is a strong continuity between the present and many aspects of the series’s glory days (the retrenched focus on pure horror, the return of Arcane, even the renewal of Swamp Thing’s identity-quest), things really have changed significantly too. The characters have aged and suffered, and they bear the scars of these experiences.

A side effect of this development is that the relationship between beauty and horror has changed considerably in the new book. Previously, as I mentioned above, Abby and Swamp Thing were both typically depicted as beautiful. The horror of the series emerged (visually, at least) from the contrast between the beauty of this pair and the hideousness of their antagonists. Horror was presented essentially as a transgression–an invasion of the beautiful bodies of the protagonists by the crawling, skittering legions of Arcane’s unclean beasts, by toxic chemicals, by fire or magic, etc.

In Dysart and Breccia’s series, beauty is still associated to some extent with Swamp Thing–located, for instance, in the strange but lovely crowned flower that Swampy gives the little Cajun girl to care for. And yet, nature (especially in the form of the protagonist himself) seems on the whole more disturbing than reassuring, and the scenes set in Hell and Heaven have a kind of luminous prettiness to them that the human characters lack.

Rather than simply contrasting beauty and ugliness, Breccia gives us something murkier. It’s hard to know quite what to make of this thorough blurring of the realms of beauty and horror, but I would call its effect grotesque–a term that, as the Wikipedia entry points out, “induces both empathy and disgust.” This is an accurate descriptor of my response to these characters, and it will be interesting to see how successfully Dysart will be able to draw us into a series whose protagonists are somewhat tainted by this kind of ostensibly “negative” ambivalence. It’s certainly easier to feel empathy for Moore or Veitch’s beautiful bayou supercouple, and there’s a danger that the more grotesque Swamp Thing and Abby of this new series will simply end up repelling some readers or feeling like a pale imitation.

Still, it’s a worthwhile gamble. There’s something exciting too about the possibilities of a series that reexamines these characters in light of history, experience, change, and trauma–a reexamination that finds its emblem in the moral and affective ambiguities of Breccia’s grotesque art

notes

The Golden Age of Hype: Bring Back Amazing Heroes

A couple of weeks ago over at Crisis/Boring Change, Chris Tamarri provided an acute diagnosis of the polarized state of comic book magazines, as represented by the impasse between The Comics Journal and Wizard. “If the high artists and the populists had a Constitution,” Chris wrote, “they would probably resemble, respectively, these two magazines. They’re the yin and yang of comics commentary, each defining the other in profile. And without passing judgment on the editorial content of either…it’s possible to say…that the ideological slant of each is clear and, in the case of each, much closer to the border than to the middle. Which is problematic inasmuch as, again, anyone who reads either of these magazines—is there anyone who reads both?—is instinctively inclined to define himself against anyone who reads the other. They might both enjoy, say, Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, but they’ll never realize it, one too busy yelling about the superiority of Geoff Johns, the other of Joe Sacco.” He concluded this post with a rousing call for something better: an Entertainment Weekly-style comics magazine that would, in his words, “pay attention to both high and low culture without overt editorializing about the state of either.”

This was such a great idea that I couldn’t resist adding my two cents worth (click the link above for the full discussion), which consisted primarily of some useless reminiscing about how much I loved (and miss) Amazing Heroes. There was the magazine, I think, that provided a blueprint for the type of middle road (though definitely not middle-of-the-road!) that comics journalism might follow and that Chris was calling for. It’s been years since I’ve seen my old issues of Amazing Heroes, but as I recall, it combined a bit of hype with a variety of regular columns, reviews, interviews, and longer feature articles on comic book history and culture that didn’t treat its audience like idiots (Wizard) but also avoided the rather…um…superior tone of a certain other publication. True, there is a lot of great commentary available on the web for free, but I agree with Chris that a really good magazine that straddles the line between insular elitism and juvenile populism would be a boon to the medium as a whole.

And while I’m on the subject of comics journalism, I have to mention the fun discussion of the old Marvel Age Magazine that was going on at Mike Sterling’s Progressive Ruin not too long ago here and here. Yeah, sure. Marvel Age was hype. But all the fun extras made it feel like a more innocent kind of hype than cynical exercise in spin control that is Joe Fridays. Good grief. I really am beginning to sound like a cranky old man.

Perry White Meltdown of the Week: JLA #117

I’m over two weeks late getting this up, so someone has probably pointed it out already, but sweet Christopher, just because we loved it when Warren Ellis turned Perry into a maniac in JLA: Classified #10 doesn’t mean that he has to be spitting nails in every scene! Calm down, Perry. And take a look at your desk, right beside your arm, for heaven’s sake. Jimmy already brought you your cup of coffee! It looks like maybe he should’ve left it in the cafeteria… I liked the “Flash” gag, though.

Character to Watch: Katana

Is my incessant whining about BATO already beginning to bear fruit? No sooner does Katana show up to dispatch Outsiders villain Fuse than suddenly she’s a regular player, as indicated on this lovely cover to Outsiders #30 by Daniel Acuña. To early to say what’s going on, exactly, but Mark Fossen makes a very good point about the likely significance of Katana’s role in Outsiders 27.

The CrossGen Chronicles (Part 1): Crux #1

As a company and a comics universe, CrossGen had a lot of problems–both logistically and conceptually. But a recent post by Clandestine Critic’s David Norman on the history of the company reminded of how much I enjoyed many of their books and how irked I was that their life was cut short at the very moment when the company seemed poised to resolve its inaugural storyline and launch itself into a more open arena of storytelling. Thus begins an occasional series of notes in which I amuse myself and the other ten folks who bought CrossGen books by remembering some of the things I loved about their books, as well as some of the things I didn’t.

What got me into CrossGen to begin with? It was all Steve Epting’s fault. My god can that guy draw a picture. Even back on the Avengers his art was fantastic. I saw his promo art in the puff piece on Crux in some issue of CSN and was instantly smitten.

Crux #1 by Mark Waid, Steve Epting, Rick Magyar, and Frank D’Armata was the first CrossGen comic I bought and it absolutely blew me away. Even reading it now, it is an excellent first issue. It sets up multiple mysteries and establishes an array of cool looking settings and attractive characters very quickly. I loved the vastness of the story’s scope, which begins in the year 400,000 B.C. and ends up in the year A.D. 100,000. Along the way it moves from the birth of fire among primitive men, to the classical/technological majesty of Atlantis, an ideologically divided city whose denizens are charged with shepherding the human race to its destiny yet driven by a desire for their own transcendence. The story then jumps far into the future, after Atlantis has been destroyed, and we are treated to some amazing underwater scenes by Epting and Magyar (gorgeously colored by D’Armata) of the ruined civilization.

I became quite obsessed with this comic when I bought it, and I still derive enormous pleasure from pouring over some of Epting’s pages. Although I was interested in the story, the sheer sumptuousness of the art was the main attraction. Even at the time, I took the visual luxury of this issue as a tacit direction on how to “read” CrossGen’s books: slowly, like an Epicurean, with the understanding that the story was in many ways secondary to the art. My favorite scenes in this issue, the ones that convinced me that this was a book worth paying attention to, were the inverted panoramas of Atlantis, before the fall:

…and after:

Wow. Brilliantly executed, right down to the birds becoming fish. Very shortly after reading this issue, I went back to the comic store and began sampling almost every title CrossGen published. The one that immediately caught my eye, was a little book called Scion, by Ron Marz and some fellow named Jim Cheung…

Attack of the Linkbloggers

I’ve really been appreciating the time an energy that others are putting into surfing the internet and culling the best links so that I can parasitically enjoy the fruits of their labors.

After cruelly threatening to pull the plug on his Sunday link lists, Greg Burgas has proven himself to be a benevolent dictator by relenting and giving us a couple more pages of good (more or less) clean fun to distract ourselves with last week and again this week. I’m trying to think up a good answer to his contest, but I keep getting distracted for some reason…

Shane also posted a really neat set of links over at Near Mint Heroes last week which you should check out if you haven’t done so already.

And while on this topic, here’s a quick link of my own. I didn’t include this site on my blogaround challenge list this weekend because I check it a little too regularly already, but I really wanted to mention it anyway: it’s Kurt Addams’s sensational Return to Comics. I’d add a link to a specific post but there’s really no need. Everything’s good.

Finally, I owe a much belated thanks to a lot of folks for being so supportive of this site, for stopping by and reading, and for sending some traffic my way. Shane, Chris, Greg, Ian, Dave, Zach, Mark, Neilalien, and Disintegrating Clone: you are scholars and gentlemen all.

Forthcoming at Double Articulation in the Weeks Ahead

A review of Green Lantern 1-3 that I didn’t quite get to this week; essays on Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi’s recently collected Vision and the Scarlet Witch miniseries from 1982; a short essay on analyzing comic books prompted by a comment of Shane’s; a piece about a discovery I made this weekend at a local antique shop; and of course, more blathering about love.

rants

Note: I wrote this rant last week, before I’d read Mark Fossen’s fantastic post outlining what’s wrong with American decompression in general, and with House of M in particular. If I’d read Mark’s article first, I wouldn’t have bothered with this rant, since he explains with focused totality the exact nature of my complaint about Marvel’s shaggiest shaggy dog story. In the unlikely event that you haven’t read Mark’s article yet, do yourself a favor and don’t waste any more time here; go read it! If you have read it, and can stomach yet another litany about how I continue to torture myself with this series, by all means, partake:

From the House of Ideas to the House of M: How Marvel Convinced Me to Wait For the Trade

It’s too late now. I’ve already bought the first five issues; I might as well see if things can possibly get any worse. Or more boring.

And hey. It’s not like this cloud doesn’t have a silver lining or two. Despite Oliver Copiel’s distracting habit of drawing necks like tree trunks, his art on this series is lovely.

And so far, each issue has managed to cough up at least one good scene. Sometimes even two. The exchange between Emma and Logan in her apartment in issue #4 was old-school fun. And I enjoyed Peter’s breakdown on the rooftop in last week’s issue #5.

And yet, I wonder if there’s I reason that the scenes I’m enjoying are the ones where our heroes gnash their teeth and mutter (probably empty) threats against the architect of this ostensibly perfect world. Now, don’t get me wrong. My feelings about House of M are hardly homicidal. But there’s a rather grim irony in the fact that the problem faced by the characters in this book is exactly the same problem that we face as readers: being trapped in a mind-numbing “utopia” where nothing actually happens. Isn’t Joe Quesada always assuring us that House of M is important, exciting, and big, Big, BIG!? The best of all possible (creative) worlds?

If Quesada isn’t fibbing–in that great Stan Lee tradition of Barnum-style hucksterism that Quesada has recently praised–then we all have reason to be depressed. Because House of M is one of the most sluggish, tepid, static summer crossovers that I’ve ever allowed myself to be sucked into reading. And if this is the new face of entertainment at Marvel, then the swiftly dwindling number of Marvel titles on my pull-list will soon be shrinking a little more.

House of M is a comic modeled on the summer movie blockbuster in the truest sense: it’s an attractive but ultimately vacuous time-waster that provides a few superficial thrills, but leaves you feeling kind of crummy as you wander back to your car, thinking how else you might have spent that $10.

My displeasure, I know, is entirely my own fault. If it irritates me so much, why don’t I just stop reading it. The horse is dead, Jim; time I stop beating it. How I wish I could. But the sad fact of the matter is that I’m one of Barnum’s ubiquitous suckers, and I just can’t seem to prevent my hand from lurching in the direction of the latest copy of this mini as I pass by the new comics rack. You see, some pathetic part of me wants to believe that the best really is just around the corner, that there will be a sudden revelation that retroactively transforms the quality of the entire series.

Not for much longer though. And this time I really mean it! Comic book “events” like this one are convincing me of the virtue of waiting for the trade (and for the reviews)—at least where Marvel books are concerned. Despite its “corporate-driven” comics line (are you kidding us, Joe?), DC is knocking the ball out of the park week after week. Yes, I love their characters and their universe, but I buy so many of their books because there’s a palpable sense of commitment to a long-term creative vision at DC right now. Marvel’s recent record in this area is spottier, at least from where I sit, and House of M has deservedly become a galvanizing symbol for the gap between reality and hype at the current Marvel. What this means in practical terms is that I rarely take a chance on a Marvel book, whereas I’m trying out more and more stuff from DC, which is making it easier and easier to prune that Marvel list (Thunderbolts, I’m looking at you!).

Meanwhile, I guess I’m going to stick it out with House of M. There’s only 3 more issues to go, and surely it can only get better… I just wish this recent post at Lady, That’s My Skull, didn’t have me laughing…so mirthlesslessly.

Meme Week (Part 3): The Blogaround Challenge

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2005 at 11:18 pm


Meme week continues! I too have answered Laura “Tegan” Gjovaag’s call to poke around in a bit more depth on other comics weblogs and report back. Nice idea, Laura! I’ve included a number of blogs that I already knew about, but had been meaning to spend more time at. The blogaround challenge was the perfect opportunity.

My findings:

Lady, That’s My Skull
From its nifty title to its zingy, perceptive writing (not to mention its troubling obsession with groin injuries), Lady, That’s My Skull is a fun site to visit. It’s so eclectic in fact that it’s kind of like finding an old Pirate’s chest at the back of the attic filled with all kinds of cool treasures. Sleestak does a lot of witty posts on Silver Age comics and pulps, and he is also digging up some really interesting comics history as he examines vintage comic book Public Service Announcements (he has an excellent post on anti-war PSAs in comics of the Vietnam era). But what I like best about Sleestak’s writing is the thoughtfulness and subtlety with which he explores one of my own favorite themes: the profound impact that things we read when we are children have on our mental lives. I especially like this recent confessional post about a fairy tale that made him question reality and this one about a horrible realization that we’ve all had to face at some point. (And by the way, Sleestak, those HIV/AIDS PSAs are still giving me nightmares–Sweet God, Man! Post a warning next time!)

Websnark
Well, Sean Burns certainly doesn’t need my help. But I wanted to mention his great blog anyway. Websnark is mainly interested in webcomics, but even if you’re not, this is a cracking, professionally written blog that’s worth your time. Although I haven’t (yet) gotten into webcomics, I enjoyed Sean’s critique of a recent article by Sarah Boxer in the New York Times on that subject (it confirmed my own discomfort with Boxter’s comics journalism after reading her side-swiping piece about academic writing on Peanuts, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago here). I also really like the fact that Sean writes about newspaper comic strips. His new piece on the sexual assault story in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse is a shrewd assessment of Johnston’s work.

The Shrew Review
And speaking of “shrewd” assessments, the wonderful thing about the Shrew is that her reviews are not “cranky” (as she would have you believe); they are bracingly honest, which is another thing entirely. They are also pithy, insightful, and more even-handed than her handle suggests. Her review of DC’s conniption-inducing “Sacrifice” arc, for instance, was one of the most measured that I read. She demands that comic books be fun, but she also takes mainstream superhero books seriously enough to neither pull her punches nor be gratuitously snarky. She often makes me wince at my own soggy judgment. The real thing.

Nobody Laughs at Mister Fish
“This week probably isn’t going to be a bag of laughs, but terrorism is one of the themes of our times, one which comic books have sporadically covered, and I think that a reviewer should make an attempt to tackle this most difficult subject.” So began “Terrorism Week” over at the indispensable Nobody Laughs at Mister Fish where Disintegrating Clone is doing something that I really admire: holding comic book narratives to account for their politics, and doing so, I might add, in a way that is intelligent, rigorous, and thought-provoking. The writing and analysis on this blog are always excellent, but never more so than during the past week or so. If you haven’t read the Clone’s analyses of the Black September attacks in Avengers #113, the representation of the IRA in Daredevil #205, and the World Trade Center attacks in The Amazing Spider-Man #36, what are you waiting for? This is a challenging topic and Clone raises a lot of pertinent questions about those weird moments when reality and fantasy intersect.

Clandestine Critic
There’s a lot of great writing by David Norman over at Clandestine Critic. I always read his capsule reviews and recently I really enjoyed his piece on CrossGen, which has inspired me to write a little something on the now defunct publisher myself (coming soon in Spoilers Abound!). He also does excellent movie reviews of films of interest to geeks like us.

I am NOT the Beastmaster
Way back in June, Marc Singer of I am NOT the Beastmaster posted a wonderful discussion of the first Seven Soldiers books that contains some very interesting remarks about Grant Morrison’s “anxiety of influence” where Alan Moore is concerned, and about the presence of Swamp Thing in Seven Soldiers. He also has a fascinating (and very critical) review of Peter Milligan’s X-Men–a comic that I’m still intending to check out. Not the Beastmaster isn’t just comics, but what is posted there is well worth a read, and you can always check out Marc’s other reviews at Howling Curmudgeons!

The Comic Asylum
Wow–The Comic Asylum is a really good site. James Meeley’s commentary on mainstream comic books has a lot of fun stuff like The 10 Greatest Comic Battles Ever as well as really interesting articles on other things. There’s a really nice piece on the great hype-fatigue debate of a little while ago and another good one on his appearance on the letters page of Young Avengers. I’m going to be spending some more time around here.

Collected Editions
This site has become indispensable, not only for its great trade reviews, but for its up-to-date info about upcoming trades. Collected Editions’ wait-for-the-trade mandate gives the whole site an appealing air of austerity and authority. Secretly, I wish I had the author’s patience and will power, though he made me feel better by caving in just a little on Infinite Crisis. Here’s a nice recent review of the Hawkman: Wings of Fury trade.

Size Matters
Shawn Hoke’s thoughtful reviews of mini comics on Size Matters: The Mini Comics Blog make me want to get off my ass and order some of these books. In fact, I’m going to. He’s doing a really good thing here, and this site is clearly a labor of love. (He also has a stellar set of picks for the desert island meme.)

Comics Ate My Brain
Reading Tom Bondurant’s Comics Ate My Brain is a surreal experience because it often feels like I’m reading my own diary, our tastes seem so similar. His capsule reviews are precise and reliable, but the main attractions for me are the long detailed essays (mainly on DC comics), filed under Manifestos in the sidebar. I’m still working my way through them, but I especially want to mention his informative, meticulously researched commentaries on The New Teen Titans 1-2, 3-6, 7-9, 10-12, and 13-15. He’s also got a bunch of great looking stuff on Crisis on Infinite Earths, Identity Crisis, JLA, and Green Lantern.

Meme Week (Part 2): Jim Roeg’s So-Called Life

In Uncategorized on August 19, 2005 at 4:19 am


Turns out it’s meme week here at Double Articulation. I put up my desert island comics list a couple of days ago and now my pal Shane has tagged me, inviting me to divulge a few boring details about my life. Clearly, I hate to talk about myself, but since Shane was nice enough to ask, I guess I can make an exception just this once…

Ten years ago
August 1995: Swimming, reading, and swatting blackflies at the family cabin near Whiteshell Provincial Park. Making plans with a wonderful girl who has inexplicably agreed to move away from Winnipeg with me as I attend grad school out east. I’m also trying my hand at some Chester Brown-style autobiographical comix. Never do anything with them, but the results make a nice time-capsule if you happened to be there.

Five years ago
August 2000: Still in grad school (!) and now married to that wonderful girl. Taking a big break over the summer hosting friends and family from Winnipeg. Peggy’s Cove, the Halifax Citadel, and Alexander Keith’s figure prominently on the itinerary. (And yes, “Those who like it” really do “like it a lot.”)

One year ago
Unpacking in Ottawa. I’ve taken a job in the nation’s capital, and after 10 years of geographical uncertainty, we’re ready to put down some roots. My wife is hard at work writing the novel that’s going to make us filthy stinking rich. (See below.)

Yesterday
Wake up. Walk to the river. Put in a mostly-honest day’s work. Dinner and drinks in the evening with friends. An unexpected conversation about WE3, Fredric Wertham, and the infamous Air Pirates Funnies. Walk to river. Sleep.

Today
I take a real day off. My wife and I play tourist and wander through Rockcliffe Park (a ritzy area of Ottawa) and go on a tour of Rideau Hall, where the Governor General of Canada lives. Like all official buildings of its sort, it’s big, formal, and ostentatious. Hard to believe that anyone actually lives there. It’s worth visiting, however, for several of its striking portraits of former Governor Generals (particularly the unusual and strangely moving portrait of the Right Honorable Jules Léger and his wife, Gabrielle Léger: the only portrait to include a spouse) and, more generally, for its excellent collection of Canadian art, much of it on loan from the McMichael in Toronto. There are a number of amazing Group of Seven paintings in the main gallery by Lawren Harris and Tom Thomson, but the best part of the tour was a painting by Thomson in the room with the portraits.

“The Drive” (1916) is an arresting work: the weight of the thick white lines makes the water rushing through the dam feel as heavy and massive as the logs. Looking at it is like looking at nature cracking up, being reduced to some more essential form. The only image I could find of it on the web is, for some reason, inverted.

Tomorrow
Wow. Two days off in a row. On the agenda: grocery shopping, comics, blogging.

Five snacks I enjoy
Slurpees. No-Name Brand Party Mix. Carrots and garlic salad dressing. Ice cream. Crackers and…pretty much anything.

Five bands I know the lyrics of most of their songs
The Streets. Green Day. Sam Roberts. Matthew Sweet. Pet Shop Boys.

Five things I would do with $100,000,000
Which we will have when my wife’s novel is published, becomes a bestselling series, is optioned, and brought to the screen by James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory Productions). This amount of money makes me uncomfortable, so the goal will be to get rid of it as quickly as possible.
1. Buy a house in the city and a cabin on a quiet lake.
2. Set up my family in a style to which they could become accustomed.
3. Endow a series of scholarships for Arts and Fine Arts students in several Canadian universities.
4. Endow a fund for comic book creators through The Canada Council for the Arts.
5. Five words: Best new comics day EVER!!!

Five locations I’d like to run away to
My cabin. Northern Europe. Easter Island. Paris. New Zealand.

Five Bad Habits
Procrastinating. Missing deadlines. Not putting things away. Blogging instead of sleeping. Navel gazing.

Five things I like doing
Sitting on my balcony and reading. Looking at art. Going for walks. Writing. Hanging out with the ones I love.

Five TV shows I like
Firefly. Arrested Development. House. The Amazing Race. The Daily Show.


Famous people I’d like to meet, living or dead
Virginia Woolf. Nelson Mandela. Samuel Delany. Gilles Deleuze. Jesus.

Biggest joys at the moment
My wife. My friends and family. Writing/reading/thinking. Comics. The Comics Blogosphere.

Favorite toys
Uhh…my computer? My GameCube. I don’t really have many toys.

Five People to Tag
You know who you are. Go to it.

Meme Week (Part 1): My Desert Island Comics

In Uncategorized on August 17, 2005 at 4:13 am

Damn you, Marc Mason! Your meme is the stuff that obsessions and sleepless nights are made of. Rather than a selection of greatest hits, I’ve gone with a list that is thematic, sentimental, and context-specific. If I were stranded on a desert island, what would concern me most, I suspect, are elemental things like memory, friendship, family, philosophy, and imagination. Here’s my list:

1. The Complete Tintin

Back when I was a kid, before I became a comic “collector,” there was Tintin. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a time before Hergé’s intrepid, often zen-like hero, or his supporting cast: Snowy, Captain Haddock, the Thompsons, and Professor Calculus. These stories of the boy-reporter’s globe-spanning adventures were my earliest substantial introduction to the sheer hugeness and diversity of the world and its people. They are quite simply the most important landmark in my own imaginative geography, and in the development of my aesthetic tastes. Hergé’s famous “clear line” style was my first prolonged encounter with the sublime in art, and so many years later, the power of his drawings to provoke wonder, excitement, and laughter remains undiminished. There are problems with this series, to be sure: the racism that mars some of the stories is unfortunately not incidental, but inherent in the colonial fantasy of a white protagonist who can go anywhere, do anything, and do it better than the natives that informs and organizes many of the adventures. And yet, works like Red Rackham’s Treasure, The Seven Crystal Balls, and Explorers on the Moon are undeniably masterpieces of visual narrative. As a document of twentieth-century history and politics, a philosophical examination of friendship and responsibility, an achievement of storytelling, and a pure aesthetic experience, Tintin is unmatched. If I could bring only one comic creator’s work with me to my desert island, it would be Hergé’s, and if I could bring only one of Hergé’s works it would be Prisoners of the Sun, or perhaps Hergé’s own favorite, Tintin in Tibet.

2. The Complete Peanuts

I appreciate Charles M. Schulz’s great work so much more as an adult than I ever did as a child. In fact, although I always liked the TV specials (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was a favorite), Peanuts was one of the comics I usually skipped when I read the funnies section of the Winnipeg Free Press. I just didn’t get it. Now, I read most of these tiny masterpieces with a lump in my throat and a sense of perpetual astonishment at their unwavering affirmation of being in the face of a mystifying, often terrifying universe. I will never be a religious person, but age is making me sentimental, and this is a comic that I could actually meditate upon.

3. The Fantastic Four (Vol. 1)

The FF will always be the archetypal superhero book for me, in large part because it was one of the earliest superhero comics I read and its representation of family was foundational to my own thought about what family is and what, ideally, it could be. Moreover, the complete run of this 400+ issue science fiction soap opera is essentially a capsule history of Marvel comics from the 60s to the 90s. In addition to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s momumental run, an impressive array of talents have worked on the series: John Buscema, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, George Pérez, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne, Steve Englehart, Keith Pollard, and Walter Simonson, to name only a few. I’ve never read the series in its entirety–in fact, my knowledge of the whole is incredibly spotty. I had the wonderful Pocket paperback-sized reprint edition of FF 1-6 from 1977, picked up some of the Lee/Kirby era in Marvel’s World’s Greatest Comic Magazine reprint series, and (as readers of this blog know) was devoted to the amazing Roy Thomas/Len Wein/George Pérez era of the 1970s. I was an occasional reader of John Byrne’s legendary run but didn’t become a regular reader again until the 1990s when Roger Stern and John Buscema briefly took the reins. Bizarre as it was, I really renewed my love of the FF during the weird period that followed, when Steve Englehart along with artists Buscema and later Keith Pollard reinvented the team roster under Ben’s leadership and staged a return to the melodrama and cosmos-spanning high adventure days of yore. The self-conscious homage to Lee and Kirby in these issues was the kind of pure imaginative fun that the FF does best. Even if I’m not stranded on a desert island in the near future, working my way through the entire series is a project I’d love to attempt. (FF Pocket Edition cover courtesy of the Big Comic Book Database.)

4. The New Teen Titans (Vols. 1 and 2)

The heroes: Robin, Wonder Girl, Cyborg, Raven, Starfire, Kid Flash, Changeling, Jericho. The villains: Trigon, Brother Blood, The Brotherhood of Evil, Terra, Deathstroke. Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans was the best ongoing superhero series of the 80s, rivaled only by Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. At heart, it was a series about friendship, love, and the ties that bind: Dick and Donna, Dick and Wally, Vic and Sarah, Vic and Gar, Wally and Frances Kane, Wally and Raven, Dick and Kory, Kory and Komand’r, Donna and Terry, Gar and Terra, Terra and Slade… For many of us, these relationships were so fully realized that the characters seemed like flesh and blood. Wolfman and Pérez achieved a synergy on this series that very few creative pairings ever manage. Together they produced the stories that most influenced my vision of friendship, morality, and responsibility throughout my teens and beyond (I feel like I actually lived the first Brother Blood storyline, the Tarmaran/Omega Men saga, “Runaways,” NTT Annual 2, and “Who Is Donna Troy,” so emblazoned are these issues on my memory). The series also features some of the finest art of Perez’s career, particularly those issues where he inked his own work. Simply put: this comic makes me ridiculously happy.

5. Swamp Thing (Vol. 2)

Yes, Watchmen is Alan Moore’s masterpiece, but if I were abandoned on a desert island, I think I would prefer the more unruly structural looseness of Swamp Thing to the dazzling formal control of Watchmen. The picaresque nature of Swamp Thing’s journey gives the book a kind of visual and philosophical expansiveness that, for all its subtlety and genius, Watchmen’s brilliant deconstruction of the superhero doesn’t quite match. Another reason Swamp Thing makes my list is that it is one of the few comics that has ever actually frightened me. I’m a horror fan, and Swamp Thing is a genuinely terrifying book, something which owes as much to Steve Bissette and John Totleben’s beautiful/nightmarish art as it does to Moore’s ghastly scenarios.

And yet, it is also one of the most realistic and moving love stories in comics. Swamp Thing #34, “Rite of Spring,” in which Swamp Thing and Abby Holland consummate their relationship in a most unusual way, remains one of my all-time favorite issues of this or any series: as a love story it is a minor masterpiece, but it is also, philosophically, one of the most inspired representations of the possibility of an ethics “rooted” in an intersubjective relation of difference that I have ever read. At the end of the day, Swamp Thing, like several of the comics on this list, is an encyclopedic work. It spans an extraordinary array of genres: gothic, romance, satire, science fiction, philosophy, and even superhero adventure. It asks big questions about desire, power, and the nature being, and the answers it hazards are ultimately optimistic and inspiring. Besides, the horrifying “Marooned” subplot in Watchmen might hit a little too close to home if I’m trapped alone on an island, whereas learning how to make love to a vegetable might turn out to be surprisingly practical information.

Comics I’d no doubt wish I’d packed:

Watchmen, Eightball, The Complete Carl Barks Library, WE3, The Invisibles, Doom Patrol, Sandman, Love and Rockets, Calvin and Hobbes, It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken, Night Force, Uncanny X-Men (ca. 1980-84), The Legion of Superheroes, and especially “the first 39 issues of the post-Five Year Gap Legion of Superheroes” (good thinking Rob Schamberger!).

Other Desert Island Comics Lists

  • Beaucoup Kevin
  • Chris Allen Online
  • Cognitive Dissonance
  • The Comics Reporter
  • Craigland
  • Crisis/Boring Change
  • Fanboy Rampage
  • Focused Totality
  • Highway 62
  • The Low Road 1 and 2
  • Philip’s Book and Movie List
  • Precocious Curmudgeon
  • The Silent Accomplice
  • Size Matters
  • Spatula Forum
  • Tales to Mildly Astonish
  • TangognaT
  • View From the Cheap Seats
  • Zilla and the Comics Junkies
  • On Love (Part 1): Clichés, Obsessions, and Objects in The Amazing Spider-Man #205

    In Uncategorized on August 13, 2005 at 7:00 pm

    I: Clichés

    I was eight years old in 1980, when I saw Al Milgrom’s powerful cover for The Amazing Spider-Man #205 staring back at me from the comics rack. Love at first sight: the cliché fits in more ways than one. What was it about that cover?

    Spidey is in the foreground, looking up. And I am right there behind him, looking over his shoulder at the incredible thing he sees: a masked woman all in black, long white hair whipping behind her, has wrenched loose the chain of a crystal chandelier and is pulled behind it as it comes crashing down. Headed straight for Spidey. And for me.

    Spider-Man is the ultimate point-of-view character for a boy of eight, and Milgrom makes this relationship explicit with the angle of this phenomenal image. But what is it that me and Spidey see exactly? What is this glittering crystal object? This unlikely weapon trailed by a woman with hair as silver-white as the diamond-shaped pendants that swing dangerously from its frame like knives?

    Back then, I couldn’t have articulated what this cover showed me. I knew only that it was different from other comic covers I’d seen, that it evoked a strange, powerful feeling, and that I wanted it very badly. This strange, powerful feeling was, of course, desire. And what this cover showed me, I think, was a story about love.

    This, at least, is what it shows me now, and the love story it tells is a very particular one about a certain way of characterizing romantic love that is as old as Cupid and his merciless bow. This version of the story is so old, in fact, that it has become one of the most potent clichés through which we try to talk about this surprising, joyful, bewildering experience that we struggle to name with the help of Hallmark or with the florid gasps of our own bad poetry.

    Despite its costumes and overtly agonistic context, in other words, the story this cover tells is neither fatal nor violent, except to the degree that love–and especially the cliché of love at first sight–can be said to partake of these qualities: the piercing stare, the arrow to the heart. What it tells above all is a story about what romantic love looks like to an eight-year-old boy, and sometimes–though not always–what it looks like to that boy who is now, inexplicably, an adult.

    So what does it look like? Frightening and beautiful all at once. Excessive. Cataclysmic. Blissful. Something you don’t defend yourself against. It looks like a thrashing anemone made out of glass. Like crystal jewels that make a pure bright sound as they fall. Like a chaos of light and sharp edges. Like something precious that wounds.

    And behind it, propelling it, yet being pulled down by it too, is a woman you do not know. She is its agent and at the same time its victim. A woman in black who brings “bad luck”–or seems to. (Love is always “bad luck” for the ego, which it shatters, if we’re lucky.)

    What does love look like? On the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #205, it looks like a falling chandelier, with you caught beneath it. Unable to move or look away. Like Spidey, you are dazzled by this surprise. You hold your breath and just stand there, transfixed, as if waiting to be pierced by a shard, or by an arrow…

    What I remember: It’s evening and I’ve gone to the mall with my mom after a swimming lesson for a treat. I’m crouched in front of a magazine rack, scanning the colored covers. I choose this comic because I think the chandelier is beautiful.

    II: Obsessions

    The Amazing Spider-Man #205 is an unlikely starting-point for a discourse on love. Far from telling us anything meaningful, its story seems to epitomize exactly the sort of reactionary and defensive narrative about love that we might expect to find in a genre that markets itself as Boy’s Own fantasy, an exclusive genre that practically posts a sign on the treehouse: NO GIRLS ALLOWED. In such a genre, we would expect love to “feminized.” To be pathologized as a female “problem,” and also to be treated as an emasculating threat to the male hero. We would expect it to be personified in the character of the ubiquitous femme fatale–the genre’s most essential, even foundational villain. We would expect her to embody all the most sexist, even misogynist clichés of the succubus: she would be feral, dangerous, single-minded, psychotic. A black hole of desire for whom “love” involves none of the mutuality that we recognize in adult relationships, but is merely an other name for possession, mastery, and appetite.

    Superficially, at least, David Michelinie seems to give us a barely modified version of such a scenario in this story about the Black Cat’s obsession with Spider-Man–a story whose very title, “…In Love and War,” conjures some of the clichés I’ve just described.

    The story, in brief, is that costumed cat-burglar Felicia Hardy is at large in Manhattan, stealing famous artifacts associated with love and romance. After a series of romantically-charged skirmishes with the Black Cat in museums and penthouses, Spidey concludes that her burglaries are symptoms of an obsession with her recently deceased cat-burglar father. In the final pages of the issue, however, Spidey learns the true “secret” of the Black Cat that was advertised on the cover: her obsession has not been with her father per se, but with Spider-Man himself. Spidey diagnoses her Electra Complex in a discreet inner-monologue that is a tour-de-force of Mighty Marvel psychobabble:

    Aw, geez. This poor, poor lady. She loved her father so much…too much. His death must have shattered her emotional balance. What her mother obviously wanted her to get…was psychiatric help! But she couldn’t accept that her mom didn’t approve of her being like her father. So she latched onto me as a substitute father! In her own, childlike way…she really does love me!

    Thus, Michelinie ultimately presents Felicia Hardy as pathetic rather than sinister, “childlike” rather than predatory. The removal of her Cat-mask that accompanies the climactic revelation of the love-shrine she’s built to Spider-Man rather than daddy is designed to underscore this point. Felicia is not a femme fatale after all, but a troubled young woman in need of compassion and psychiatric care.

    Yet, this ending is not really much of an improvement on the femme fatale “love story” because all it really does is invert the terms of contempt. “Love” is still feminized, still pathologized, and the hero remains fundamentally “safe” from its temptations. In the end, Spider-Man may show Felicia the “love” she seeks, but it is all in the form of playacting, safely contained within ironic scare-quotes: “Cat… Felicia… I want you to do something for me. I, uh, know some people, some doctors. I’d like you to talk with them. And I promise…‘love’…I’ll see that you get all the help you need.” The story, in short, declaws the Black Cat, but it does not fundamentally undermine the phobic attitude to love (or to women, for that matter) that all too often underwrites the genre. It allows Spider-Man to “care” for Felicia, but only insofar as this affection never makes the hero truly vulnerable or puts his own mastery of the situation at risk.

    And yet, despite my hesitation over the sketchiness of this comic’s gender politics, I can’t shake the feeling that almost nothing about this analysis rings true when I compare it to my original experience of reading.

    I loved this story the first, second, and hundredth time I read it. And what’s more, even though I didn’t grasp the allusiveness of the cover image as fully as I do now, I understood the story inside the comic to be a story about romantic love between Spider-Man and the Black Cat. Most importantly, I understood it to have a happy ending. And (I may be flattering myself here) I understood this happy ending in very different terms than those described above. I understood this ending not to be about pity or power or even compassion. I understood it, rather, to be a love story in the fullest, most mutual sense of that term.

    What story did I read, anyway?

    The story I read hinges on a subplot between luckless bachelor Peter Parker, who is working as Teaching Assistant at Empire State University, and a female student in his class named Dawn Starr.*

    Dawn–blond, curvaceous, and clad head-to-toe in a pink suit–is almost a parody of feminine desirability, and spends most of her panel time throwing herself at Peter, wearing down his resolve not to cross the ethical line that forbids him from dating a student. Peter crumbles under the onslaught of Dawn’s campaign, of course, even allowing himself to believe that “things are looking up for ol’ Petey Parker.” At age eight, I was green enough to believe that this might actually be true.

    But like all Spider-Man stories, it does not deviate from the unwritten law that Peter Parker’s optimism will always be unfounded: Dawn turns out to be an unscrupulous temptress, manipulating Peter so that she can gain access to the science exams he keeps locked in his office. In an ugly scene, late at night, where Peter (as Spider-Man) catches Dawn red-handed at his filing cabinet, our hero comes very close to losing it, shouting, “Lady, in Iran they execute people just for thinking about what I’d like to do to you! But I’ll try to control myself for another five seconds. After which, if you’re still here…!” Dawn flees, and the last four panels are both a portrait of dejection and a blueprint of this issue’s narrative structure.

    They show Peter alone in his office, peeling off his Spider-Man mask and giving in to self pity: “That’s wonderful. The Black Cat is a thief who claims to like me, while Dawn claims to like me, and turns out to be a thief! Let’s face it, Parker, if the world was a tuxedo, you’d be a second-hand jogging shoe! With a broken lace!” But these panels also tell us how to read the rest of the story in a way that subtly redeems the ending, overlaying its condescending fable of masculine rationality and female weakness with an emotional resonance that transforms the meaning of the final pages and pulls our reading experience in a very different direction.

    At the heart of this alchemy is the issue’s (and indeed the series’s) presentation of male loneliness and longing as a normal, even integral, component of Peter’s heroism. In fact, I don’t think it would be too much to say that Spider-Man has been, at various points in its history, a romance comic for boys in the guise of an action serial. What makes Spider-Man such a wonderful character is that Peter Parker is inoculated from the so-called “danger” of being “feminized” by love because he is a character that, like Archie Andrews, is defined from the beginning by his desire for intimate relationships with women–a state of desire that is acutely in evidence here.**

    In a more specific way, Peter’s explicit contrasting of Dawn Starr with the Black Cat in his monologue presents these women as inversions of each other and implies that Peter’s relationship with each will be an extension of this reciprocal structure, even he doesn’t realize the full implications of this yet. If Dawn is the prototypical minx, then Felicia must be much more than she appears. The issue as a whole, moreover, confirms this point: Peter’s compassionate embrace of Felicia at the end is an exact inversion of the violent outburst against Dawn that he barely manages to contain. This symmetrical structure is what organizes the issue’s emotional power, a power that makes the ending feel much happier than it actually is.

    Of course, Peter is necessarily barred from pursuing a real relationship with the Black Cat by the circumstances of the story. Felcia’s fragile mental health precludes a conventional happy ending, requiring instead that Peter do the decent thing and find help for (rather than satisfaction with) his secret admirer. Yet, because of the contrast between the two women and the story’s symmetrical narrative structure, this anticlimax in no way diminishes the sense of emotional satisfaction the story provides at that moment when Felicia ignites the lamp and reveals to Peter that he is not just a broken lace on the second-hand jogging shoe of life, but has actually been the true object of affection all along!

    When I was eight, this panel was my favorite image in the whole comic, and I will address it in more detail below. For now, it is enough to notice that the contrast between the cold empty space of Peter’s office and the warmly lit room of Felicia’s penthouse–a room that is literally overstuffed with the paraphernalia of love–is the culmination of the reciprocal structure we’ve been tracing. The entire story builds towards the emotional impact of this moment (beautifully rendered by Keith Pollard and Jim Mooney) in which Peter Parker discovers that he is not as alone as he initially thought. What he discovers may not technically be “love,” but in that instant, it sure feels like it.

    Some time ago, I wrote about the peculiar childhood pleasure of reading comic books in fragmented sections or “blocks,” rather than as single coherent narratives. My experience of this issue as a real love story is partially related to this selective practice of reading. As I argued in that earlier piece, one consequence of reading in blocks is the possibility of reading somewhat–though never entirely–against the grain of the story’s overtly intended meaning. In this case, the revelation of the room filled with romantic artifacts that the Black Cat has stolen for Peter assumes an infinitely more ambiguous meaning than the one Spider-Man himself will assign to it in his neat Freudian wrap-up on the following page.

    Despite the diagnosis Spidey goes on to provide, the Black Cat’s love shrine does not feel pathological, nor does it even feel inappropriate. Or rather, it does feel like both of these things, but only to the extent that love itself feels this way. The “shrine” to Spider-Man might be “sick” in the context of the story, but emotionally, we can recognize it as no less than what the lonely, noble, long-suffering Peter Parker in all of us deserves. It is, quite simply, the universal need to loved completely and unreservedly.

    Is the symbolic satisfaction of desire represented by the Black Cat’s Spider-Man portrait gallery “narcissistic”? Yes, clearly. Yet all love, one suspects, contains a strong element of narcissism, at least initially. The conventional wisdom that opposites attract is only partly true, since we so often love not otherness per se, but that idealized image of what we might like to be, reflected in some other, who may or may not be the true bearer of this seemingly perfect self. And of course we are all susceptible to the kind of worship that Felicia bestows on Spider-Man. It’s easy to interpret this scene cynically, and to dismiss it as a narcissistic masculine fantasy of the “perfect woman,” but the trope of the lover’s worship of their object should not be so summarily dismissed, for it is only as sinister as the context allows. As I have tried to show here, the context of this “shrine” is richer and more complex than it first appears.

    The relation between love and narcissism is obviously a more complicated question than I can adequately address here. My ultimate point is simply that the language of pathology that frames and “makes sense of” the Black Cat’s behaviour in this scene of adoration is not alien from how we think about and attempt to characterize the experience of loving another person. Often, it seems like the only available language in which we can properly convey the excessiveness of this lawless emotion. It’s not a coincidence that unrequited desire earns the name “love sickness”…

    What this means, I think, is that The Amazing Spider-Man #205 actually tells two stories about love that are overlapping and not entirely compatible. The first story is a very childish story that is afraid of love and is at pains to ward it off, embodying it in the hackneyed form of the madwoman, the stalker, the obsessive. The second story is more adult. It stems from the peculiarity of a “romantic” male protagonist who is not the superior but the equal of his love-struck tormentor. Moreover, it effectively reinterprets the elements of the first story according to an emotional logic that recasts the literal association of love with “mental illness” as a metaphor for love sickness and desire. The implications of this second story are subtly played out beneath and behind the events of the first story’s overtly more conservative meaning, haunting this story like the ghost of a story that was almost, but not quite, written.

    III: Objects

    If we allow ourselves the luxury of returning to childhood habits of reading, and appreciate the story for its emotional rather than its literal truth, we might therefore find that Michelinie has written a profound meditation on the nature of love in the unlikely form of a Spider-Man comic. It is a vision of love that is remarkable, I think, because it expresses itself not through narrative, but through objects.

    A small golden statue of “The Two Lovers.” The Eye of Eros Diamond. A one-of-a-kind wax recording of Caruso singing a love aria. The Helen Epistle–“the only known love letter written to Paris by Helen of Troy.” These romantic artifacts that the Black Cat steals are what make this story special.

    I have already suggested that if we read the narrative symbolically rather than literally, the Black Cat is not a madwoman, but an archetypal lover. She is also, I think, the bearer of a certain “philosophy” of love. What she shows us, through these objects, is the anatomy of a lover’s discourse: a description of its features and its strange paradoxical character.

    The objects themselves, Felicia tells Spidey, are “the most valuable romantic symbols in the country,” and like all symbols of love they are impossible objects in the sense that they stand in for an experience that, by its very nature, is excessive, formless, and resistant to representation. This is why they are also, in my own reading experience, blocks of supreme narrative intensity. The panels in which these objects appear are supercharged with meaning. The eye goes to them, and lingers there. What do they symbolize about love?

    Value, most obviously. And like the value of the loved one in the eyes of the lover, their value is infinite and springs from their utter singularity. The “one-of-a-kind” wax recording of the love aria defines the nature of all four “artifacts” and the emotion they represent. (The very word “artifact” suggests something rare and precious, something fragile and unique salvaged from destruction, the remnant of some earlier golden age. Edenic artifacts, perhaps.) The Helen Epistle is “the only known love letter” from the woman whose face launched a thousand ships to her Greek warrior-lover. The mere fact of their names signifies the uniqueness of the “Eye of Eros” diamond and the erotic sculpture of the “Two Lovers.”

    And yet, despite their “uniqueness” and “singularity,” these love artifacts exceed their original contexts. Helen’s love letter is no longer a private communication but a public symbol. These objects have become “collectible.” They circulate, both legitimately and illegitimately. They are displayed, hoarded, borrowed, stolen. And of course, it is only the true lover who steals, liberating these objects from the museum or the private collection, making them circulate, making them mean something again, reconnecting them with the potency of their original purpose, but for her own ends. This is the paradox: that the lover can only speak of love on the condition that she steals the “language” in which to do so. Her unique, singular desire can only be spoken with a borrowed tongue, with clichés, with “the most valuable romantic symbols in the country.”

    That these symbols will be inadequate to describing the lover’s desire is obvious, and no one knows this better than the Black Cat: it’s why she steals not one object, but many. And also why her communication with Spider-Man is so circuitous. As if she is holding off until her message is perfect, trying to find the one word that will say enough, or to plug, through sheer numbers, that gap of meaning that can never fully be sealed. That tiny pinhole through which “what she really wanted to say” escapes. The Black Cat’s logic, in other words is not as absurd as it sounds: “I set about stealing the most valuable romantic symbols in the country just to show what you mean to me and now we love each other, don’t we?” This is the confession and the secret wish of every prospective lover: the right words are a magic charm, and if I find them, it will be true.

    The meditations these objects make possible all refer to a philosophy of love that is, to say the least, extreme. It is consistent with the violent, overwhelming, cataclysmic image of love presented on the cover.

    What I love about this comic, however, is that its final image points equally to another, more sustainable state of love: not the frenzy of “love sickness,” but the patient loving mutuality of another, later stage. In this last image Keith Pollard frames Spider-Man and the Black Cat, walking arm-in-arm like a loving couple, between two of the story’s most significant symbolic objects. The golden statue of the “Two Lovers” and the “Eye of Eros” diamond (miscolored to look like a ruby) loom large in foreground, magnified to giant size by the composition of the panel. The placement of these objects offers a final way of contextualizing the meaning of this strange “romance.”

    These two objects–the erotic statue and the pure diamond–symbolize complementary states of love which, in another century, might have been characterized as “earthly” and “divine,” “bodily” and “spiritual,” or “fleshly” and “ideal.” Since I don’t like the hierarchy these oppositions imply (what’s wrong with “earthly” love, after all?), I read them, willfully, as symbols of body and mind, of physical and mental love. This is an artificial separation to be sure, but one which has the virtue of clarifying the significance of the embrace between Peter and Felicia that takes place literally “between” these two forms of love.

    When I was eight, this panel was quite simply a happy ending. Two lovers heading off into the future. When I look at this image now, I see something more subtle, something that only a more mature person–Michelinie or Pollard–would be capable of suggesting: two people who are walking as equals, partners in a relationship that navigates the only superficially distinct regions of body and mind, passion and judgment, love and friendship. This is an image of love that I could grow to idealize.

    In my own, clearly idiosyncratic reading of this comic, the final panel does something magical: its composition transposes Spider-Man and the Black Cat onto the plane of objects. The couple seems literally to have joined the ranks of the very romantic artifacts that the Black Cat so painstakingly assembled. For me at least, this “transformation” is emblematic of what this story does. In my own private history, this story has become one of those borrowed or stolen artifacts through which it becomes possible to talk about the thing that baffles me. It has become, like Helen’s letter to Paris, or the wax recording of Caruso’s aria, the basis for a borrowed yet paradoxically very personal discourse on the elusive mysteries of the human heart.

    Notes

    * David Michelinie was evidently a fan of the Legion of Superheroes, or perhaps harbored a secret dislike for Dale Messick.

    ** If you’re still not convinced, read this inspired post on Spider-Man, love, and intersubjectivity by David Fiore at Motime Like the Present. I’ve plundered its insights shamelessly–and then buried the evidence in footnotes. Hi Dave!

    SPOILERS ABOUND: a weekly digest of reviews, notes, and rants

    In Uncategorized on August 8, 2005 at 4:15 am

    Vol. 1, No. 5
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    In this issue:
    reviews of Gotham Central #33-34, Justice #1, and DC Special: The Return of Donna Troy #3 /
    notes on metafiction in New Avengers #8, a Teen Titans: Classified ongoing, my foray into the mind of Morrison, Peanuts on a Budget, and more / rants about my ugly breakup with Chris Claremont

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    reviews

    Gotham Central #33 and #34 (DC Comics)
    Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka (Writers) / Kano (Penciller) / Stefano Gaudiano (Inker) / Lee Loughridge (Colorist)

    It was a cheap trick, but it worked. I can never say no to the Titans (much as I have sometimes wanted to), and this week they got me to pick up two issues of Gotham Central, a title I’ve never tried before, but am now quite taken with.

    These two issues–Parts 1 and 2 of the new “Dead Robin” four-parter–have a lot to recommend them. The main story, which focuses on the Gotham P.D.’s investigation of a dead boy dressed in a Robin costume is immediately involving on two levels.

    As Law and Order: SVU reminds us almost every week, violence directed at children is not only viscerally disturbing, but, it would seem, endlessly fascinating as well. In the hierarchy of crimes it is among the most reprehensible, and as such it is an inevitable subject for those genres of popular fiction that thrive on the exploration of extremes, usually in order to give us what we want after a long day at the salt mines: the satisfaction of confirming what we already know, or think we know, about the nature of good and evil and the inevitable triumph of the former over the latter. When the theme is examined in the context of a police procedural, as it is in Gotham Central, the emphasis typically falls less on the horror of the act than on the redemptive process of crime-solving–the gritty romance and bleak optimism of police work that reassures us that order and justice are not unattainable goals.

    This is the framework of the series, and Brubaker and Rucka supplement a snappily-dialogued presentation of unglamorous sleuthing with an appealing cast of characters (Captain Maggie Sawyer especially, fondly remembered from Superman) and a squad room packed with juicy subplots and simmering grudges against rival Gotham detective, Batman, who is pursuing an investigation of his own into the death of the young Robin imposter.

    What makes the story really compelling, however, is how the hybrid cops-and-capes premise of the series complicates the murdered child motif of pulps and prime time cop shows, turning it into an exploration of the dead sidekick riff that has long been a fixture of the Bat-books. The developments in Part 2 of the story suggest either that there is a truly perverse criminal at work here, or something even more interesting that I’ll hold off speculating about for now (my guesses are always wrong anyway). Suffice it to say, it’s a tantalizing, well-paced mystery that has the potential to be a noteworthy exploration of the wider social implications of Batman-Robin partnership.

    Meanwhile, as we wait for the mystery to unfold, there are plenty of treats in these first two issues. Foremost among these is the moody alt-comix art by Kano and Stefano Gaudiano, nicely colored in muted tones by Lee Loughridge. Their grainy, rain-soaked Gotham perfectly captures what the city would likely feel like from the perspective of beleaguered detectives: gloomy, seedy, menacing–and as much as they might resent it, more Batman’s city than theirs. There’s a wonderful sequence in issue #33 that has Batman emerging from the shadows of a rooftop to warn the police against interfering with his own investigation of the dead boy. Kano draws him as an extension of the architecture, always in shadows or in silhouette, emanating from the city like Gotham’s phantom self.

    When he is stationary, Kano’s Batman is always lurking, hunched over, or crouching, ready to spring. And when he’s in motion he’s a blur, a chaos of black tendrils disappearing into the night, a squeal of tires vanishing around a sharp corner. Kano draws him as he might appear to us or to the police: an embodied myth, concrete one moment, and then, suddenly, gone. Not unlike Dave Gibbons’s memorable renderings of V.

    The main pleasure of issue #34 (and the reason I bought the book) is an extension of this simultaneously realistic and mythic Batman: it’s the weird pleasure of genre-merging that brings brightly clad superheroes into the noirish world of the police procedural. The set up is that Sawyer calls Robin’s Teen Titan friends in for questioning because the police can’t be sure that the dead boy isn’t the real Robin, and Brubaker and Rucka have some real fun staging the squad room encounter between the teen heroes and the salty yet bemused detectives. These are Titans for whom the laws of gravity still apply (well…except, perhaps, Starfire), and the generic mash-up is strangely pleasing to watch, even if it seems somewhat superfluous to the story.

    The weirdness of the mix is broadcast through the use of color (as I imagine it is throughout the series): the bright costumes of the Titans are set in contrast to the subdued palette of greens, browns, and yellows Loughridge uses to define the G.C.P.D. squad room. And yet, the coloring also mediates the generic conjunction of cop and superhero by dulling the colors of the Titans’ outfits, bringing them into line with the book’s noir aesthetic. It’s an uncanny effect that makes the potentially unbelievable conjunction into something else entirely.

    I’m intrigued by the main cast of detectives, but my first love is still superheroes, and these scenes with the Titans epitomize what I like about this book: the generic dissonance produced by the story’s police procedural frame defamiliarizes the superheroic DCU just enough that we begin to see characters like Batman or the Titans through the lens of a kind of heightened realism. There’s more depth to Gotham city here than we get in the average Bat-book–a depth that was also present in Warren Ellis and Butch Guice’s outstanding presentation of similarly stylized but fully developed Daily Planet in JLA: Classfied #10 last week, a depth further generated by Guice’s stunning establishing shots of Metropolis, Gotham (below), and Themyscira. (Kano and Gaudiano provide wonderful establishing shots too, on a smaller, but no less effective scale.)

    Although some readers are not impressed with the so-called “grim and gritty” road that the DCU is following right now as Johns, Rucka, and others unpack the implications of Brad Meltzer’s incendiary Identity Crisis, I’m enjoying it unremittingly, despite its glitches and occasional blunders. One of the reasons is precisely the newfound sense of realistic depth and integration that it is bringing to the DCU as a whole.

    It isn’t just that there seems suddenly to be real things at stake in the interactions between the more sharply-defined characters, but that the elements of this universe, its cities and even its planets, suddenly seem more distinctive and more real as well. Hopefully, one of the side effects of this exhilarating integration and heightened realism will be an increased readership for books like Gotham Central and the now officially pined for Ellis/Guice Daily Planet series. I bought these two issues of Gotham Central because I’m a shameless Teen Titans nut, but I’m adding the series to my pull list because (a) it’s really good and (b) DC has made me care about their whole Universe again in a way that I haven’t since the mid-eighties (though the magical first few years of the Byrne-spear-headed Superman relaunch came close–and there, again, it boiled down to creating a sense of realistic depth by building up entire cities and a vast cast of supporting non-powered characters in rich, complex detail). What an energized DC means, from my myopic point of view, is that books like Gotham Central no longer look like strays languishing in some isolated genre-pocket of the DCU (a crime or Bat-Universe book), but like part of a larger whole that suddenly seems worth taking a chance on. In this case, the chance was worth it. And I hear that Gotham Central #37 will be tying in to Infinite Crisis. Interesting…

    Justice #1 (DC Comics)
    Jim Krueger and Alex Ross (Story) / Jim Krueger (Script) / Doug Braithwaite and Alex Ross (Art)

    Justice is a weird book.

    On the one hand, it’s absolutely stunning to look at, and the premise–that the world’s super-villains are haunted by an apocalyptic dream of the Justice League’s failure to save the world and are taking matters into their own hands–is an appealing set up for an examination of the title theme.

    And yet, I can’t say I really enjoyed it. Despite the fact that this is a group effort, Justice still feels like Alex Ross’s book, and as much of an asset as he undeniably is to DC, he is also, for some readers at least, a liability. The problem with Ross’s work, I think, has nothing to do with his skill, which is obviously tremendous, but with the relation of his style to the current marketplace and especially its relation to the look and feel of the revitalized DC universe.

    What’s great about the new DC is that it isn’t really “new” at all. As Dan Didio’s team of world-builders continually tells us, they are not reinventing the wheel, they are merely repairing some potholes and constructing a much more complex and fascinating network of roads. By all rights, Ross’s brand of nostalgia should be a perfect fit for this project, but it doesn’t work for me for two reasons, both of which relate to the disconnect between his nostalgia and that of the DC world-builders led by Geoff Johns.

    First, Ross’s famous photorealistic painting style reminds us of a time when comics struggled for legitimacy on terms that were not set by the comics industry itself but were, in effect, uncritically inherited from the culture at large. Ross’s art for Kingdom Come, in other words, seemed important and groundbreaking because everyone, even my Aunt Mabel, could immediately recognize that painting was superior to comic book doodling in the eternal hierarchy of artistic achievement. I intend no disrespect to Ross’s talent when I say that anyone sensible (Ross included, I expect) knows this type of prejudice to be bullshit. My point is only that Ross had both the good and ill fortune to become the poster-boy not only for a certain type of popular breakthrough for superhero comics, but also, implicitly, for this genre’s deepest insecurities and bad conscience. The indifference to–even the backlash one senses against–Ross now is in part the consequence of his artwork’s prominent role in the mainstream legitimization of the superhero.

    The architects of the new DCU are experimenting with “realism” in various forms too, of course, but it is not Ross’s realism. It is not (inadvertently) apologetic and doesn’t have even a trace of the bad conscience that Ross’s art (unintentionally) evokes. (I want to be clear that I am not attributing this bad conscience to Ross himself; it is merely an “effect” of his style, rooted in the context of its reception and independent of intention.) Certain aspects of the new DCU may be “grim” and “gritty” (sometimes tastelessly so), but it is also a completely internal (even insular) celebration of comic book superhero conventions, tropes, and histories. Didio may have the bottom line and the mainstream market constantly in his sights, but the feeling DC’s line-wide overhaul evokes for me is very far from the sober plea to be taken seriously that emanates from Kingdom Come, and now, unfortunately, from Justice.

    The second problem, with Ross’s superheroes is, I suspect, more idiosyncratic, both on Ross’s part and on mine. I just don’t like any of these heroes. Ross (and evidently Krueger and Braithwaite too) seem determined to give us a pantheon superhero daddies. Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman all look and act, in this issue, like insufferable, humorless patriarchs. In this day and age, such square, hulking fathers with their gruff, teary-eyed nobility are preposterous at best, and reactionary at worst. In any event, Aquaman and Mera’s Odysseus-Penelope routine certainly isn’t my fantasy of heroism. This is why the hilarious, buzz-worthy seahorse panel comes as such a relief, as does the desert scene with “It” badguy Leonard Snart. Perhaps the heroes will lighten up a bit as the series develops, and maybe this is all setting up some ingenious reversal down the line that will set these boring patriarchs on their ears. Maybe. But on the evidence of the first issue at least, this is not the kind of nostalgia that is informing the general DC revamp where the past is typically reinvented rather than merely fetishized. I’ll give Justice a few issues to see where it’s going, but right now, its 1950s groove feels more than a little musty.

    DC Special: The Return of Donna Troy #3 (DC Comics)
    Phil Jimenez (Writer) / José Luis Garcia Lopez (Pencils) / George Pérez (Inks) / Lee Loughridge (Colors)

    Everyone seems irritated by this series, even Phil Jimenez (kidding, Phil!), yet I continue, defiantly, to be charmed by it. And this despite the fact that I’ve never liked the Titans of Myth, not even a little bit.

    Many are no doubt buying this book merely for the art–and who could blame them? The issue is primarily a showcase of Donna’s strength and skill as she decimates her former teammates, and in lesser artistic hands it might feel flat, but Garcia Lopez and Pérez are as dazzling as ever and their action sequences are hyperkinetic.

    The two-page spread of Donna fighting Cyborg is breathtaking–if all fight scenes were choreographed this precisely, well…I’d be a lot more interested in fight scenes. The battle-staff match between Donna and Kory recalls a similar skirmish between Starfire and Blackfire back in the good old days, and her brief tangle with Roy is a nice bit of foreplay for the tender scene between them later.

    Here, in the space of seven panels, Jimenez presents us with a compressed catalogue of Donna’s attributes that confirms Perez’s description of her as “a feminine ideal…basically the girl next door that everyone just has to fall in love with…rather perfect in her own way–strong, intelligent, giving, loving and of course, gorgeous” (Wizard #165: July 2005).

    To this catalogue of male fantasy Jimenez adds: thoughtful, coy, vulnerable, though, and sensitive. The girl who could kick your ass, but seems, inexplicably, to still need rescuing. Sensitive, damaged letch, Roy Harper, is the perfect guy to appreciate her (since he needs rescuing as much as she does) and he is, in any case, an attractive proxy for male readers who would like to think of themselves as a little rougher around the edges than they actually are (present company excepted, of course…).

    This all sounds vaguely like criticism, but who am I kidding? I love Donna too, and this book is doing a bang up job of catering to saps like yours truly. The character desperately needed reestablishing after almost a decade of harrowing retcons that may have solved certain continuity problems, but left the character an empty husk. The reason this series likely is not appealing to some readers is that despite the Infinite Crisis tie-in, the story is basically a character reconstruction, seemingly intended to restore the emotional resonance Donna’s character achieved in The New Teen Titans #38, the story from which everything since has sprung and run steadily downhill. Not even Wolfman and Perez ever surpassed the perfection of this issue (which I’ll return to in a future post), so it’s not surprising that Donna Troy has been more frustrating than satisfying in the intervening years. The fight scenes are really just dramatizations of Donna’s endless identity crises, and one suspects, represent her final coming to terms with her cumbersome and contorted history. A final settling of accounts.

    More generally, and apart from its visual splendor, the reason I like this series is because Jimenez seems almost to inhabit that period of Titans history that made us love these characters in the first place, and he is able to bring this period into the present DCU as surely as if it was passed through the nexus-zone on Minosyss. Once this is finished, Jimenez will have written the last “Who Is Donna Troy?” story we will see in a long, long while, hopefully forever. It’s not for everyone, I grant, but for this Titan fan, it’s a sweet homecoming that promises a bright future.

    notes

    The Metafiction Police: New Avengers #8

    New Avengers #8 was a mixed bag, but basically I enjoyed it. Despite my strong dislike of issue seven’s metafictional cliffhanger, the opening sequence of this issue–a 3-page comic book Sentry story written by “Perky” (?) Paul Jenkins and drawn by “Sassy” (!) Sal Buscema–is fun, and the two-page spread in which we move from the comic-within-a-comic to the main action is smoothly executed. The drastic shift in art styles and panel layouts creates a heightened sense of realism, but even neater is the way that we and the sentry are put in the same position of turning the pages of a comic book and having our sense of its reality/fictionality disrupted and reorganized. The Jenkins cameo is mercifully short, and artists McNiven and Morales infuse the Sentry’s dilemma with real pathos. I stand by my original gripe, but Bendis and company basically pull off a bad idea as gracefully as one could hope.

    Lost Causes Department: Teen Titans: Classified

    Now that my already flimsy credibility is completely shot, thanks to my ode to DC Special #3, I may as well ask the question I’ve been mulling over this week: when is DC going to announce a Jimenez-fronted Teen Titans: Classified that would allow him to tell Titans stories set in that golden age of Titans history? He would write and draw some, of course. But hopefully we’d also get new stories written by Wolfman and Johns and illustrated by new as well as classic Titans artists like Garcia Lopez, Tom Grummett, and the criminally underrated Eduardo Barretto.

    I’d include Perez in this list, but he needs to finish the Games graphic novel (which has apparently been temporarily shelved, again). Come to think of it, the release of Games would make a nice lead-in to the launch of the Teen Titans: Classified regular series. Come on Dan Didio, you know you want to.

    For other Titans related images and info, visit Bill Walko’s incredible Titans Tower site.

    Teaser of the Week: JSA #76

    Re: Al Rothstein’s conversation with…

    Hell, yeah!! (I’ve been waiting for this, and yet it still caught me by surprise.)

    Scripting of the Week: New Avengers #8

    Mr. Bendis? About that metafiction snafu? All is forgiven.

    Seven Soldiers For Dummies

    We established last week that I am an idiot for waiting for the Morrison trades. I am taking steps to rectify this situation, starting with the purchase of Klarion #2.

    Can’t say I know what’s going on, exactly, but my goodness, what fun. After the dour “Limbo Town” of Justice #1, loopy witch-boy Klarion’s journey through the wonders and horrors of a Dickensian sewer system to the seat of an absent witch-god seems, paradoxically, like a breath of fresh air. Sinister, cynical guide Ebeneener Badde makes a neat foil to the madcap protagonist, Klarion, an “innocent abroad” pushed to a Morrisonian extreme of almost demented giddiness. I am enthralled with Frazer Irving’s incredible visuals, which sometimes look nearly like woodcuts. Gorgeous.

    Peanuts on a Budget

    I’m saving my pennies, but it’s going to be awhile before I can afford Fantagraphics’s exquisite Complete Peanuts collections. In the meantime, I’m trying to content myself with this copy of Let’s Face It, Charlie Brown! that I got for a nickel at a garage sale this summer. Most of the strips have been disassembled for vertical display, to fit the pocketbook-sized pages, and annoying though this is, sometimes the reorganization of panels contributes something unexpected to the effect. Here is one I particularly like for its suggestion of stasis and circularity:

    A couple of Peanuts links worth clicking:

  • Nathan Radke’s “Sartre and Peanuts” from Philosophy Now is quite simply one of the most wonderful little articles on Peanuts that I’ve encountered.
  • By contrast, Sarah Boxer’s “Snoopy: A Beagle With brains Becomes Teacher’s Pet” from The New York Times adopts the smug, anti-intellectual tone that I despise in mainstream writing about comics. (Yes, Ms. Boxer, the MLA is risible for many reasons, but taking popular culture seriously isn’t one of them.) Almost despite itself, however, the article does present an interesting overview of recent academic approaches to Schulz’s masterpiece.

    Making a Graphic Novel

    Ebu Gogol has a brand new horror/graphic novel site that is difficult to describe but worth the visit. His paranoid (justifiably anxious?) attempt to tell his story, “Eater of the Dead,” is creepily addictive. Check it out here.

    Forthcoming at Double Articulation

    At the risk of embarrassing everyone, next week Double Articulation begins a rather personal three-part series on love in comics. First up, Amazing Spider-Man #205 where we learn, “At Long Last… The Shocking Secret of the Black Cat!” Consider yourself warned.

    rants

    Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: On Buying Comics I Don’t Enjoy

    I can remember a time when Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men used to be the first title I read when I got back from the comic store, unless it was a New Teen Titans week, in which case it was second. This was back when there was only one main X-title plus the New Mutants, back when it wasn’t known as Uncanny but simply as X-Men.

    Lately it’s been the last title I read, and usually it languishes for a day or two until I’m actually bored enough to bother.

    For a few brief moments almost twenty issues ago, it looked like the teaming of Claremont and Davis was really going to be fun. But the fun barely lasted for three months and now I find myself wondering why I’ve stuck with this book for more than a year. I’d like to blame Alan Davis and his beautiful drawings, but that’s only part of it. The bigger problem is that my threshold for tolerating things I dislike on the (groundless) expectation that they will immanently improve is simply far too high. It takes a lot to wear me down and though there is a tipping point, it’s usually only triggered by something so offensive that it’s actually insulting, such as Marvel’s incomprehensible rejigging of Thunderbolts into a wrestling comic for a few issues at the end of its first run.

    The truth is that I haven’t really enjoyed the X-Men since Grant Morrison left, and it seems unlikely that anyone is going to top that invigorating run anytime soon. (Not even Whedon’s Scooby-style Astonishing, which is enjoyable but inconsistently thrilling, can touch it.) I’ve always liked science historian Thomas Kuhn’s famous distinction between “paradigm shifts” and “normal science,” the former indicating a revolution in thought that establishes an new overarching set of assumptions and the latter being the minor tinkering and puzzle-solving that follows this revolutionary shift and tries to fill in the gaps that are left in the new paradigm’s wake. I’m not sure if the analogy holds perfectly, but Morrison’s relatively recent run on X-Men, like Claremont’s original run, marked a genuine paradigm shift in how the book was written and conceived. Claremont’s current run feels a lot more like the drudgery of “normal science,” a science that may be productive of some minor pleasures, insights, and discoveries, but is largely concerned with worrying and refining elements of a paradigm shift that now feels increasingly remote.

    A little while ago, Brian Cronin reminded us that we should have a little more backbone, that we should stop buying out of habit and hope. He’s right, of course, and I’m trying. But when your entire identity is built on laziness and optimism, it’s difficult. At some point, I’m going to write a defense of nostalgia; but for now, and in this context, I’m forced to acknowledge that it can easily become the most regressive and hollow of pleasures. Too often, the returns diminish until there’s literally nothing left. Brian Braddock’s reunion with his presumed dead sister Betsy? A revitalized Excalibur? More House of M intrigue? Despite Davis’s best efforts, this is one lifeless book: all crocodile tears and empty posturing.

    Chris, we’ve been together a long time, and I’ve been as faithful as anyone can reasonably expect to be, but this just isn’t working out. I’m sorry, I know this hurts, but I don’t think I can put it off any longer. The time has come. I think… I think we should just be friends…

  • On Fillion, Firefly, and a Truth Stranger Than Fiction

    In Uncategorized on August 3, 2005 at 2:39 am

    Say I were a skillful novelist, or even a competent hack.

    And say I wanted to add a scene to the nominally postmodern, vaguely satiric “geek lit” novel I was writing that would make my imagined audience stand up, cheer, and email all their friends about the kick ass book they can’t bear to put down, not even to type this email, which they are doing one handedly as they continue to read.

    Say further that I was a big honking Firefly fan, too reserved and self-conscious to call himself a Browncoat, but secretly exhilarated by the grassroots movement of that name and by the awesome power of geekiness that they wield.

    Say that I was living in Edmonton, Alberta at the time, Canada’s very own version of the same Wild West that had inspired Joss Whedon to seriocomic SF brilliance, where cowboy boots and ten gallon hats could still on occasion be spotted ambling down Whyte Avenue, albeit not in the same numbers as in Calgary.

    Say, just for the sake it, that I’d been nursing a mild grudge against a local Edmonton comic shop where I’d once almost started an account. A place that, the moment you walked into it, seemed to suck not just the air but the fun right out of the shrink-wrapped comics that lined its shelves like Frisbees.

    Say also (though this part is so far-fetched I can hardly bear to propose it) that the proprietor of said shop had a reputation as a scoundrel–a varmint–and a nickname that conjured up not only the space bandits and crimelords that would bedevil the intrepid crew of Serenity, but the pirate subtext of Joss’s whole damn series.

    Say that I wanted my crowd-pleasing scene to tie into the rather thinly developed postmodernism of the rest of the novel, which consisted primarily of exploiting tired metafictional tropes about the relationship between reality and representation, particularly as these are mediated through the twin crucibles of subculture and celebrity.

    Say (I’m stretching here) that the store even had a name that evoked the sort of postmodern folding of reality back onto itself that so excites Jean Baudrillard and his ilk. Wormhole, maybe. Or Vortex.

    Say that, though I fancied myself a postmodernist, I had a weakness for the clichés of the old west. Say that I loved rough justice and a good showdown. The white hat. The black hat. Good and evil at ten paces. The posse that rides to the hero’s rescue. The angry mob that chases the scoundrel out of town.

    Say, conjecturally, that I had a secret man crush on Nathan Fillion. Hoped he might read my novel and be flattered enough to write a nice letter. Maybe autograph a publicity still, a DVD, a comic book spin-off title.

    What kind of scene, I wonder… What kind of scene could I write?

    Smash!: Escaping from Michael Bay’s The Island (2005)

    In Uncategorized on August 3, 2005 at 1:35 am

    I saw Michael Bay’s The Island over the weekend. Not good. But it does contain one of the best highway smashup sequences I’ve ever seen.

    It’s about an hour and a half into the movie and is over far too quickly, but it’s almost worth the price of admission. Runaway clones Lincoln (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan (Scarlett Johansson) have stowed away aboard a Mack truck that rockets down the Interstate with a cargo of train car axle-wheels. Behind them, cops and bounty hunters give chase in a variety of souped up vehicles, guns blazing. For a glorious 30 seconds (a minute at most) the pretty couple simply roll the cargo (made deadly by speed and proximity) off the back end of the semi, sending the giant iron barbells bouncing merrily down the highway. The carapace-crunching results are akin to watching someone toss cannonballs into a crystal shop, but viscerally more satisfying, because the crystal in question is made not just of glass but of steel and chrome. (It’s okay: Bay doesn’t invite us to imagine that there might be people inside these baroquely rendered wrecks.) There’s a great moment when we watch a tire fly off a crumpled van (or was that a car?) and bounce jauntily across several lanes and we realize that Bay has envisioned this entire set piece around the kinetic joy of this suddenly liberated object. On the Tinkertoy plane of the highway, Bay’s monster axle-wheels are no less bouncy. One wishes it was possible to say the same of the movie as a whole.

    Unfortunately, the highway mayhem is the best scene in the film, which is not surprising since it plays to Bay’s strength as a smash-poet. Given the incoherence of the film’s narrative, I’m surprised that some critics are coddling Bay right now because they can see that he’s borrowed a copy George Lucas’s THX 1138 from Blockbuster and is trying to pass his viewing experience off as an idea. (For those seeking a true example of empty pastiche with which to compare Casey and Scioli’s promising GØDLAND series, here it is.) William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for instance, is reassured “that beneath all those special-effects explosions there’s a kinder, gentler Michael Bay struggling to get out.” Well, maybe. And maybe Arnold is just a nicer guy than I am, but I find it hard to be this magnanimous when I watch someone squander a cast of this quality on a film whose ideas and aesthetic are this confused.

    I would never fault an SF/action film for having intellectual ambitions, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a charge out of Bay’s fetish for destruction (the easiest target for Bay’s shrillest, schoolmarmiest critics). But some time ago, James Cameron’s masterful T2 (1991) showed us that we can have our cake and eat it too–that the SF/action film and big ideas about the nature of Being can be brought together in a way that sacrifices neither thrills nor profundity.

    What irks me about a film like The Island is that it sets its (lazy and sentimental) “ideas” about the ethics of human cloning, race, and the sanctity of all human life in conflict with the bone-crunching pyrotechnics of its “thrill ride” mandate, a choice that diminishes both elements, making the film less than the sum of its parts. Even if the “kinder gentler” Michael Bay supposedly incarcerated within the so-called “world’s worst living filmmaker” really means it when he piles on the slave plantation allegory (and I’m not at all convinced he does), the effect is mawkish because it looks like the director had an attack of bad conscience over his explosions and felt compelled to coat his film in a veneer of pseudo-cerebral apology. Had the film committed more fully to either the ideas or the thrills, the result would probably have been more watchable, possibly even interesting. Instead, Bay has given summer audiences the strangest sort of blockbuster: a guilty pleasure that actually seems to feel guilty.