Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Thank You For Being a Friend (Commonplace Book)

A footnote to our discussion of cover songs: Jason Powell sent this to Neil over on his blog and I liked it enough to post it here.

Jason Powell on “God Loves, Man Kills"

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

Conceived as a comic book that would stand on its own entirely apart from the continuity of the serialized monthly, “God Loves, Man Kills” is a 64-page self-contained story by Claremont and artist Brent Anderson involving a bigoted Christian preacher, William Stryker, on a crusade against mutants. Both its religiously motivated antagonist and its sci-fi MacGuffin (a machine allowing a brainwashed Charles Xavier to telepathically find and kill every mutant in the world) were deemed strong enough ideas to be used as the basis for Bryan Singer’s X2.

Because “God Loves, Man Kills” ran without the Comics Code seal, Claremont had license to go further with his writing, a freedom that manifests itself most memorably in the surprising use of the word “nigger” by Kitty Pryde early on, attempting to make a point to her black dance teacher, Stevie Hunter, about the hurtfulness of the word “mutie.” This attempt to assign the “X” metaphor so explicitly to a single minority group is problematic on any number of levels, and the particular audacity of trying to shore up the story’s metaphorical bite by the use of such an inflammatory term seems awfully misguided on Claremont’s part. That Stevie is humbled by Kitty’s rhetorical posturing – her final thought that Kitty “was right” suggesting that Stevie has been taught some kind of moral lesson – is absolutely too much.

That scene is meant to set the tone for the rest of the book, and indeed – unfortunately – it does. Political naiveté and heavy-handed metaphor are the order of the day here. William Stryker is actually a decent idea for an X-Men villain; in a regular issue of the series, he’d do fine. His philosophy – that if man is made in God’s image, then mutants are made in Satan’s – is a good one for a comic-book villain. Stryker is cut from the same cloth as Bolivar Trask, the original creator of the Sentinels from the Silver Age. Claremont, however, wants to use Stryker to make big, profound points about religion and hypocrisy, and the character’s one-dimensionality simply won’t support it. The issues Claremont wants to talk about are too complex to be dealt with so directly by tights-adorned superheroes. It is one thing to subtly allude to darker themes – as done so well in Uncanny X-Men #160, also illustrated by Anderson – but Claremont is taking the sledgehammer approach here. Intoxicated by the freedom to use Christ imagery and potentially offensive language, the author does not effectively integrate this new vocabulary into the X-Men palette. The result is a ham-fisted attempt at depth, whose occasional moments of gauche explicitness seem arbitrary at best, and offensive at worst.

The book’s saving grace is Claremont’s characterization of Magneto, which – despite the graphic novel’s place outside of the series’ chronology – seems to be very much a continuation of the ending of Uncanny X-Men #150. In that magnificent issue, it was suggested that a profound change in the character’s mindset had taken place. In “God Loves, Man Kills,” that does indeed appear to be the case, as he now seems to consider the X-Men his allies. Magnus’ characterization here is quite shrewd – miraculously as subtle here as in any other Claremont-written use of the character. Given the freedom to be as explicit about Magneto’s past as a Jew at Auschwitz as anything else, Claremont seems almost intuitively restrained instead. Upon his learning of Stryker’s plan to kill off mutants, Magneto’s response is not any kind of long tirade, but instead one single, brutal line: “Once more, genocide in the name of God. A story as old as the race.”

Claremont’s accomplishment with Magneto once again emerges as his greatest triumph as a writer of the X-Men. The garish aspects of “God Loves, Man Kills” demonstrate that Claremont was by no means immune from straying (albeit with good intentions) into poor taste when trying to paint a powerful metaphorical context for the X-Men. Yet he managed – for an entire decade – to strike a perfect balance with Magneto, alluding to the character’s connection with the Holocaust only intermittently, and always with a few deft and simple strokes. And the character’s Judaism was kept even more subtle, never once explicitly alluded to, yet clearly there for those (like Rivka Jacobs) who know what to look for.

With a genre as garish as superheroes, the very idea of giving a character depth by making him a Holocaust survivor seems grotesquely inappropriate. That Claremont ultimately succeeded with Magneto, and did so with grace and intelligence, is testament to his talent. That Claremont is also capable of the embarrassing excesses of “God Loves, Man Kills” is proof that his success wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Teaching Stuff

Scott sent me this funny video of Taylor Mali called "The The impotence of proofreading":

This guy is maybe a little self-important for my taste. He is part of the Poetry Slam scene, something people are always asking me about and which I know little about -- though what I know makes it feel like it is not my thing. He considers himself a poet, and you can hear in some of his more unnatural elocutions something of poetry's mannerisms. I like mannerism, especially in David Mamet -- but am not sure this guy would not be better without them. So Mali considers himself a poet, but I think there are better ways to describe him. His most famous piece, What Teachers Make, is a kind of half inspiring, half cringeworthy performance that feels like Aaron Sorkin pushed a little too hard. "The The impotence of proofreading" feels much more like old time-y piano comedian Victor Borge than it does like any poet I can think of. But maybe I would feel differently if I was reading it rather than hearing it out loud (though someone will object that since poetry was originally written to be spoken aloud this is closer to the origin anyway, which I can see, but now this whole line of thought it making me tired).

Anyway, I thought this might be a fun place to hear from teachers about funny things students write and say. Here is one from Scott:

From a sample from a paper I just graded today from a student who was writing about coming from the more urban (urban being a relative term hear) area of Woodbridge, Va to the very rural Radford, Va: "With McDonald's resturants being a key indicator of modernization, it dawned on me that as I moved closer to my destination that I was leaving behind the civilizationn I had grown up with in favor of a more rudimentary, Hardee's based community."

And one from me:

One of my favorite moments in class was when i showed a clip from the McKellen Macbeth and then later told them Patrick Stewart was doing Macbeth on broadway, and one of them said "So both Magneto and Professor X have been Macbeth?"

Sunday, September 28, 2008

I am now on the twitter machine

(what kind of thing is that to say for a grown man?)

geoffklock is the handle

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Jason Powell on Claremont's X-Men: schedule

Jason will be taking Saturdays off from now on. His Claremont posts will still be up every Tuesday and Thursday. He is doing a yeoman's job.

No Country for Liberal Men

I wanted to write a post about this subject, but then decided I did not know exactly what it should look like -- so I am soliciting opinions from others instead.

I want to talk about Miller's Batman, Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, and 24.

Though not politically conservative, I find something endlessly fascinating about these works, which on some level are just conservative propaganda. And as a liberal person, I am often surprised by how little patience I have for hippie-dippie Alan Moore in works like Promethea even though -- often on specific points -- I am really in tune with his philosophy.

Is it just that I like well told stories of whatever ideology, whereas friends of mind get so offended by the conservative moral indignation of something like No Country they just cannot see past it? Or is it that the conservative position has some kind of weird hold on my imagination (my family is quite conservative), and to prevent it from leaking out into my politics I enjoy it in stories? Surely it is not that the conservative position makes for better stories, though as I remarked in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why Miller's fascist impulses -- bad for politics -- are great if you are a storyteller, as storytellers often need to exercise absolute and ruthless control over influence and tradition in a way that would just be WRONG when dealing with human beings.

Obviously I am not asking you to tell me what you think is going on in my head. But I am wondering what your thoughts are, when you are reading a story whose ideology conflicts with your own.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Comics Out September 24, 2008 (All Star Batman)

All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder 10. Two reviews. First my more abstract comments on the All Star line generally, and then Scott with something more specific on the issue.

Ping33 and Scott and I are in the minority loving All Star Batman. With everyone knowing that Morrison's All Star Superman is the best Superman comic book of all time, this means that for us, the All Star line has been a total success. People complain about the lateness, but in letting only brilliant people work on these books DC has created something really lasting and timeless. When the idea was first announced years ago, everyone assumed it was a late-to-the-party attempt to do Marvels Ultimate line: continuity free, movie-like versions of their most famous characters. But the Ultimate line sports more than a hundred issues of Ultimate Spider Man alone, the line has too many titles and creators. DC wins, as far as I am concerned, and I would love to see Marvel do the same thing.

At the center of the tenth issue of Miller's Year One sequel are five pages of glamour shots of Batman and Robin - shots that do not advance the plot at all. There have been many such images in Millers project. Gordon, Batgirl, Black Canary, and to a lesser extent Catwoman get most of the attention in the surrounding pages. I have written in the past about small tensions between All Star Batman and All Star Superman (click the label below), but now I am starting to think they are up to the same thing. Both books -- in other words the entire All Star line -- use the most famous comic book characters of all time and focus on the idea that they inspire people to be like them. What they do matter's less than who they can inspire, and in Miller this means his man characters are just "posters" a lot of the time. In Morrison's optimistic liberal magical view, Superman is the vision of the human potential for godhood through a combination of imagination and kindness. In Miller's pessimistic conservative view, Batman inspires people to act as crazy as he does -- "impressionable" women in particular? -- but lacking his moral center they also lack his self control. I have friends who are vaguely offended that I like both the conservative 24 and the liberal Wire, and that conflict is playing out again with these books, both of which I really love, especially as counterpoints, and I love them more in that they are part of a kind of walled off prestige universe quarantined from events like Final Crisis and non-sense like fill in artists.

Here is Scott on All Star 10:

First off, this issue is paced much differently than most of the previous issues. As I’ve noted before, other issues in this series actually read very quickly. I can usually finish one in about 10 minutes (about half the time of a standard comic). This issue is denser; most of this can be attributed to a lot more dialogue (mostly internal) than the previous issues. Speaking of which, Miller’s hard-boiled style is in fine form here:

“A fog settles. Made for lonely walks and stolen kisses. Gotham floats, a cloud city, her million plaintive cries muffled, her predators moving freely, silently, leaving not even shadows.”

“Take an airplane over Gotham at night and she looks like diamonds against black velvet.”

“…. Every scurrying rat sounds like Satan’s claws….”

“A six year-old boy screams as bullets turn his mother’s brain into a wad and, almost two decades later, he still screams. He still screams and he’ll never stop screaming.”

A lot of people have criticized Miller as being particularly over-the-top on this series (one critic, apparently, suggested that the only way to save the series was to reprint it sans dialogue and let the reader fill in their own words) and, while there have been some cringe worthy moments, this issue is CLASSIC Miller. Sure, it’s melodramatic… but Miller has always been melodramatic. How is this any more over the top than lines like “The rain on my chest is a baptism” or “It’s the night when the city smells call out to him” from The Dark Knight Returns? To Miller, this is the kind of language he loves; it’s Hammet, Chandler and Spilane, these are his great poets. To him, this is poetry and, at times, I’m inclined to agree.

Miller makes great use of Gordon here as well who, as he did in Year One, takes center stage for much of the issue. Geoff has noted that Miller doesn’t like cops, actually that’s only partially true: he hates a) corrupt cops or b) clean cops who are too naïve to see the corruption around them (i.e. Superman and Green Lantern). However, he likes “good cops”; especially when they are ‘hard men’ like Gordon. Miller, by the end of the issue, will call back to hints dropped in Year One about Gordon’s past when, after Barbara tells him that “he has never done anything to tarnish [his] badge” he thinks:

“I wish on my soul that were true, my darling. But there’s no need for you to ever know about Chicago.”

This is something that, as far as I know, neither Miller nor any other writer has really followed up on; even in Year One he leaves it vague, all that we know is that Gotham is meant to be a fresh start after some sort of ‘trouble’ Gordon was involved with in Chicago (I think there was some implication in Year One that he was on the take but, after his conscience got the best of him, he turned on the other, dirtier cops).

In the issue’s opening, Miller also uses Gordon to make fun of his own hard-boiled verbosity as Gordon delivers a very noir-ish monologue (cue lonely saxophone music in the distance), seemingly to no one, only to have it revealed that he has actually been talking to Batman who has been walking just beneath him on the docks (Panel Watch: page 3, Gordon leaning against the flashback panels. This is straight out of the Spirit. Just as Jason noted that Miller’s Eisner influence shaped Claremont’s economy of words in the Wolverine mini-series, so here does it influence Lee’s visuals).

And then, in my favorite moment from the issue, Gordon thinks:

“And does Mister Goddamn Batman say so much as “thanks”? Of course not, that’d hardly be GRIM AND GRITTY, would it? The jerk…”

First of all, Miller is acknowledging his own part in what would become the “Grim and Gritty” era of comics while simultaneously ridiculing it by having Gordon dismiss it by calling Batman a ‘Jerk.’ It’s also important to note that Gordon’s assessment of Batman as a ‘Jerk’ is important for how Miller views Batman; he has always felt that Batman should NOT be your buddy. He’s supposed to be scary, he’s not your friend but he’s the first guy you’d want to have your back in a dark alley. This informs so much of the way that Miller has portrayed the character, particularly in this series.

Miller gives us an interesting bit of background on Batman and Catwoman: they knew each other and were romantically involved in their adolescence. Hmmm, two people who share a young romance and grow up to be on opposite sides of the law? Sound familiar to anyone?

Batgirl is back in this issue and I get the feeling that Miller likes her a lot more than Robin and is using her as a sort of Carrie Kelly stand in. I also love that she is the ‘Fucking Batgirl’. I love the contrast of this with ‘The Goddamned Batman”. “Goddamned” is a very adult swear; it is a blasphemy and, as such, it carries weight. “Fucking” is a child’s curse word; it is shocking for the sake of shock and exactly the kind of thing that a rebellious youth would say to rail against the world.

I also like how, later in the issue, Gordon decides not to come down hard on his daughter because, as far as he’s concerned, she’s being hard enough on herself but, just a few issues earlier, you’ll remember that she was boasting about how great she was at bullshitting her dad. She’s playing him like a violin.

Black Canary shows up again, this time busting up a ring of internet pornographers and taking their money. She considers gathering her own group of “merry men” to assist her in her Robin Hood style crusade, quite appropriate when one considers that her main love interest has always been none other than Green Arrow (this really makes me hope Ollie is going to show up in the series… and maybe even the Question, I always loved that bit between the two in The Dark Knight Strikes Again).

So why has Miller decided to bring in Batgirl, Black Canary and Catwoman into a story that is, basically, supposed to be a Batman and Robin tale? It’s because Miller knows his comics history, particularly in terms of its controversies. He hasn’t addressed it directly yet, but I think he’s playing with something that is an inescapable part of the history of the Batman and Robin partnership: Frederic Wertham’s assertions that they were a “wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” DC answered Wertham’s original accusation by having Batman and Robin start hanging around with girls a lot more and the original Batwoman was, in fact, created specifically to address this concern (in a bit of what I am sure is intentional irony [is such a thing possible] the new Batwoman is a lesbian). Miller dodged the issue in The Dark Knight Returns by simply making Robin female; here, he does just what DC did over fifty years ago: he gives the boys some girls to play with.

The last page of the issue is great. A distraught Gordon, his wife in the ER and his daughter in Jail, phones Sara Essen (who we all know will one day become his wife) and says to her:

“Right now. Just tell me about your day. I just want to hear your voice…”

Then, in his internal monologue, thinks:

“She washes over me and there’s no pain or guilt in the world.”

This is a pretty powerful (and powerfully fucked-up) moment that highlights how well Miller writes Gordon. In many ways, his Gordon is a much better character than his Batman. He’s far more complex in some ways and much more human. As a result, he gives us someone we can relate to.

We also see the hints of Gordon’s deepening friendship with “The Goddamned Batman” when he thinks that:

“There is one man I’d love to talk to. To tell all my problems to. One person. A man. […] and I’m not even supposed to know his real name.”

I love that he says he isn’t ‘supposed’ to know his real name; this is something many Batman writers, including Miller, have played with: the fact that Gordon has probably long since figured out who Batman is but, for the sake of their ‘professional relationship,’ plays dumb.

All in all, All Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder might be the tightest issue yet. This is, possibly, the best issue of Batman Miller has done since Year One. In much of the previous issues, Miller verged (and quite possibly crossed over into) self-parody. Here, he comes across much like his earlier work. Each issue of this series just keeps getting better and better… and I don’t care if I’m the only one who feels that way.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wario Land: Shake It

Alex Su sent me this link to a really clever ad for a Wii game. It is 45 seconds long, and be sure to see the whole thing.


Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #168

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #168

“Professor Xavier Is a Jerk”

The central conflict of this issue is rather trite. Claremont even points out the silliness of the central conflict, playing it up on Page 1 with his jokey title. After all, it really doesn’t matter whether Kitty becomes a New Mutant.

More significant is the change in focus for the series that we see here. Having finally completed a space-opera story that began over a year ago in issue 154, and in which the lead characters were occasionally buried beneath spaceships and aliens, Claremont uses this entire issue to decompress. Genre requirements are entirely placed on the backburner, and almost every scene of the comic deals with the X-Men’s internal lives. There is a level of reflection and introspection far deeper than anything Claremont has attempted with Uncanny X-Men before this point.

Indeed, the scope of the characters’ ruminations and self-scrutiny is so broad that writer Mitch Montgomery, in his essay “X-traordinary People: Mary Tyler Moore and the Mutants Explore Pop Psychology,” was moved to suggest that what we are actually seeing in issue 168 is the X-Men decompressing from ALL the major traumas from Claremont’s run – including the seminal “Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past.”

In a way, this and the next eight issues – which will eventually comprise the arc collected in Marvel’s “From the Ashes” trade paperback – demonstrate all of the X-Men reacting in more realistic ways to the month-in, month-out catastrophes of their lives. There is a new sophistication to be found here, as the X-Men at last begin to genuinely change, or mutate, as a result of their adventures. This new freedom to imbue his characters with the capacity to evolve is a crucial turning point in Claremont’s development as writer of Uncanny X-Men – the key to getting past the burden of trying to top “Dark Phoenix” and “Days of Future Past.” He has realized that he can’t – those stories took the stakes as high as they could get for the characters. The only solution is to mutate the characters, broaden their psychologies, so that new possibilities open up.

So, indeed, as Montgomery points out, the X-Men are seen here reacting for the first time to the traumas of stories published two years earlier in the chronology. Claremont even links this first issue of the series’ new incarnation to Byrne’s last: both take place on Christmas, and they both feature Kitty confronting aliens in the X-mansion. It’s almost as if everything published in 1981 and 1982 didn’t happen (a notion reinforced by Marvel Comics, who have seen fit to keep Byrne’s run in print as well as “From the Ashes,” but kept the intervening 24 issues out of print for years).

That Kitty faces off against the Sidri, the same characters whose invasion of the mansion incited over a year of space opera in Uncanny #154, is also significant. The all-out action of that first Sidri battle is a stark contrast against the understated 3-issue battle depicted in “Professor Xavier Is a Jerk.” In the latter case, the physical action is incidental and perfunctory, not nearly as memorable as the character bits, i.e., Storm’s failed attempt to control the weather, Cyclops’ reunion with Lee Forrester, and best of all the one-page montage of Kitty trying convince Xavier that she’s X-Man material (Paul Smith’s most attractively designed page of the entire issue).

Claremont’s sense of humor is also more comfortable here than it’s been in a while. Besides the aforementioned Kitty/Xavier montage, there’s a great payoff at the end of Page 7, wherein Claremont has the guts to undercut one of his own characteristically melodramatic monologues (Lilandra: “But someday, Charles, all will be well once more, all that is wrong put right ... and the happiness we yearn for will at last be ours”). We’re expecting the final caption to maintain the tone, but instead it tells us what Lockheed is thinking: “He still hasn’t fed. He’s beginning to get irritated.” The jarring change in tone is cute in itself, but the extra comic punch comes from Smith’s panel design, which shows Lockheed observing Lilandra and Charles from on high, implying he’s been watching and listening during their entire passionate exchange. But while the two of them, swept up in their own eloquent emotions, embrace, Lockheed is unmoved: He just wants food. That makes me laugh every time.

The final page is a reveal of Madelyne Pryor – a cliffhanger moment because she is the spitting image of Jean Grey, although I’ve never understood how Claremont expected that to come off originally. It would work in a television series, because you’d presumably have the same actress in the role as whoever played Jean Grey. But we’ve never seen Paul Smith’s artistic depiction of Jean, so how are we as readers supposed to know that Madelyne is her twin?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mitch: Triumph of the Underdog pt 1

Mitch's Triumph of the Underdog is going up, in parts, on the YouTube. I am going to syndicate it here, with comments from Mitch below. Here is part one.

Triumph of the Underdog Part 1 – Prologue

For Casanova fans, think of this as Triumph’s “Back Matter.” I figured I would use this first commentary to bring everyone up to speed on what Triumph is and why you are watching it on YouTube.

The “undergraduate thesis” for my college theater program was a self-written, self-produced one-person show. I decided to make my one person show a seminar-style lecture. Mostly because I HATE one-person shows where a character talks to themselves for an hour and a half for no reason. That drives me apeshit. See if this sounds familiar:

(Lights up. A single performer stands on stage, in a spotlight.)

PERFORMER: Well, here I am again at the old creek. By myself. I’ve had some good times at this old creek. I come here every year on my birthday. It’s my favorite place to talk about what’s happened in my life recently… OUT LOUD.

Anyway, I was glad that I wouldn’t have to worry about that – I would be addressing the audience directly and even interacting with them. They wouldn’t have to pretend they were in Medieval Camelot or on Tempest Island or at a 1950’s soc hop. They were in theater for a lecture, watching a guy who is, in fact, delivering a lecture. It’s all right there in front of them.

I decided the lecture would be on “The History of Science Fiction,” which was broad enough for me to slide in lots of things I liked (Gilgamesh, Aristotle, Carl Sagan, NASA, X-Men) and would give me a chance to comment on them. But it couldn’t just be that – my senior project professor, Barbara (who would later direct this Fringe Festival production), hammered home that our characters needed an exciting, concrete objective to really make these things interesting. In a solo show these goals are usually more intimate things like “working up the nerve to ask your girlfriend to marry you” or “coming to terms with your father’s death.”

For whatever crazy reason, I settled on “save the world from fiery cosmic doom.” I thought it would be a fun challenge to “sell” the asteroid collisions and stuff with only a guy doing a PowerPoint on stage. This is funny because I specifically picked the lecture format so the audience wouldn’t have to suspend their disbelief about what they were seeing in front of them, and now they have to suspend their disbelief about ALL KINDS of crazy things they AREN’T seeing. Way to think it through, Mitch.

So that’s my general intro. This first part is mostly set up – the guy shows up and starts his lecture. Along the way we are introduced to the radio, which all of us (me, the co-writer, director and actors) tried our damnedest to make more than an “exposition box.” I do an inadvertent and funny sleep paralysis jump at time code 02:07. I’ve tried to jazz up the single angle video by cutting in the PowerPoint slides. As a result there are a few slight clicks in the audio. I’m still getting a hang of the editing software, so hopefully it will get better as we go. Finally, I’ve inserted subtitles for lines that are inaudible if they are integral to the plot or else ones that I find funny.

For more info and reviews and stuff, check out the show’s website www.triumphoftheunderdog.blogspot.com

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If a week goes by and I have failed to add you to the blog roll TELL ME TO DO IT AGAIN, and KEEP TELLING ME UNTIL IT GETS DONE. I can be lazy about updating the non-post parts of this site. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy (but now might not be). That is often the reason I fail to get back to people, and on a blog, after a few days, the comments thread dies and I just kind of forget about it. Let's use this space to fix that, because it does need to be fixed; I look like a jackass sometimes, leaving people hanging. I will TRY to respond to any questions here.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore. For example, if you thought of a great quote for the great quote commonplace book, but now no one is reading that, you could put it here.You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If you think your free form comment here might be better as its own post, but you do not want it to be public yet, email it to me. My email address is available on my blogger profile page. If I think it will work on this site, your post will be published here with your name in the title of the post. You can propose what you will, I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

NYT: The Effect of Teaching on Writing (Commonplace Book)

Poor Mojo put this up on his blog a while back: David Gessner in the New York Times on the effect of teaching on writing.

I know we have a lot of teachers around here and I thought this would be good for debate:

Here is what Gessner said:

In the early, dark days of creative-writing programs, say, 30 years ago, many writers treated university positions not as jobs but as sinecures, and the university itself as a kind of benefactor. I attended graduate school at the University of Colorado in the early 1990s, and only one professor there ever learned my name; the rest, most of whom were granted their positions in the 1960s after the publication of a chapbook or two, approached their jobs with all the liveliness and enthusiasm of members of the Politburo. Iowa, of course, set the standard for the genius approach to writing in which the great man or woman allows the eager young to gather round, where they are to learn by osmosis. That was during the early outlaw years, when administrators, like cautious scientists, were first seeing if this thing, creative writing, could survive within the walls of the university. But times have changed, and these days teaching creative writing is more of a job, with all of a job’s commitments and a job’s demands. And those demands often crash up against the necessary fanaticism of the writing life. “Death by a thousand cuts” is how a colleague of mine described the academic life. Papers, students, classes, meetings, grades. They come all day like electric jolts, making it hard to be a good monk.

What, other than a romantic conception of the writer as creative monomaniac, is lost by the fact that many of us now make salaries almost on par with entry-level accountants? I think it is legitimate to worry that writers pressed for time will produce work that is more hurried; that writers who hand in annual reports listing their number of publications might focus as much on quantity as quality; and that writers who depend on bosses for their employment might produce safer, less bold work. Another thing that is undeniably lost is time spent reading great literature and communing with writers of the past. While the effect of teaching on writing may be a matter of debate, its effect on reading is undeniable. That is because there are only so many hours in the day, and those hours are used up reading our students’ work, which is, by definition, apprentice writing. Energy is finite while college students seemingly are not, and after teaching for a while you begin to feel as if you are in a “Star Trek” episode, lost on a strange planet made up of a thousand pods of need, all of them beaming out at you, sucking your energy, and all of them, invariably, asking you to read something. Since the reading life feeds the writing life, since we are what we eat, this can wear you down, to say the least.

The novelist Mike Magnuson puts this sentiment more bluntly: “What teaching has done for me is make me not want to read anything, written by anybody, for the rest of my life.”

Jason Powell on X-Men Annual #6

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

“Blood Feud”

Released only four months after Uncanny X-Men #159 (“Night Screams”), to which it is a sequel, X-Men Annual #6 features more work by Bill Sienkiewicz. Inked by Bob Wiacek, Sienkiewicz’s Neal-Adams-esque pencils are once again gorgeous, but the story here lacks the impact of “Night Screams.” At almost twice the page count, “Blood Feud” can’t possibly recapture the laser-beam intensity of its precursor. And the powerful mood of Gothic horror that was so persuasive in Uncanny #159 proves difficult for Claremont to maintain at this greater length. After a strong, eerily hallucinogenic beginning wherein a nightmare of Kitty’s apparently metamorphoses into a more gruesome nightmare of Storm’s (the entire sequence strikingly colored by Glynis Oliver), matters swiftly lose focus, and the creepy mood created by the grotesquerie of the opening is leeched away by a needlessly over-extemporized plot.

Uncanny #159 maintained its tone of horror even when it settled into superheroic proceedings, thanks to the clarity and simplicity of the premise: X-Men vs. Dracula, no more, no less. Here, matters are much more weirdly tangled. Storm teams up with Dracula against her will while Kitty is possessed by Dracula’s daughter, Lilith (who is a vampire but not a vampire, but still vulnerable to certain anti-vampire spells, but not when she is possessing Kitty ...?). Also, half the X-Men get bitten by vampires, but by the end are fine. (Colossus is not a vampire because he “didn’t lose enough blood.” Well, that’s convenient.)

And apropos of nothing, Claremont writes the last stand of “Rachel Van Helsing,” the only character in this story with a proper and fully fleshed out character arc. Which would be excellent if we cared about Rachel Van Helsing, but why should we?

In terms of continuity, X-Men Annual #6 has the dubious canonical distinction of being the issue in which Kitty’s parents finally split up. The divorce was alluded to as being imminent in Kitty’s very first appearance back in 1979. Here, in the 1982 annual, this extremely light background thread is concluded. Much is made of the split early on, with Sienkiewicz taking an almost sadistic delight in delineating Kitty’s manic teenage angst. If Claremont were in better form, he surely would have tied in the Dracula/Lilith material to Kitty’s familial woes, perhaps making the entire struggle into some kind of metaphor to give this story an emotional resonance. But, as with the previous three annuals, Claremont again just can’t be bothered.

Geoff has noted that Joss Whedon seems to have learned everything he knows about serial writing from Chris Claremont. But the lesson in how to do a good vampire story that also incorporates teen angst ...? Clearly Whedon picked that one up somewhere else.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Maxx (Youtube 7/12)

Maxx 7/12

This starts with a version of the Darker Image comic book I have already covered.

Gone's viewer makes these odd shapes, for no other reason than Kieth likes to draw panels like that occasionally to make the page look stylish.

Kieth pokes fun of his own pretentious and lofty ideals here, as well as the Paglia name dropping, as Julie comments on what the Maxx has on TV: "Must be the stupidest cartoon ever made. The Crappon in a Hat teams up with Jean-Paul Sartre to fight Nausea. Cartoons today are so pretentious."

Here the Maxx is translated from modern cartoon to acme cartoon, where the acme cartoon is a stylized version of the Outback, but stays self-aware about both his newly rhyming speech and drawn appearance. But we are not out of Kieth territory, as the creatures chasing the Maxx are fears "from the pit of his psyche." They want to rip off his mask and see his face -- which is a standard superhero plot, but in Kieth's hands takes on a psychoanalytic tinge, getting past out personae (which literally means mask) to those personal truths which may destroy us (as Kieth has described earlier, and what Jung calls the anima).

The acme dreamland shifts so something much darker, as the Maxx is reduced to a skull talking to the little girl Julie in a bleak, desaturated landscape. This is a deeper level to the outback, Julie's inner child in a kind of psychologically holy place. Kieth always makes psychological underpinnings part of the story. He always makes subtext into text.

Jung's Anima becomes a literal animal here, as the Maxx fears beneath the mask-personae he is some kind of rabbit he sees in flashes in this episode. This search for the personal truth Kieth puts at the origin of both the spirt animal that is part of the magical fantasy world of the outback, and the Superhero unmasking story. The imagery ties to Gone putting Julie in a playboy bunny outfit when he kidnapped her. Julie makes the whole escapist superhero-fantasy genre into psychological escapism. That escapism is seen as necessary, but also only temporary, as at some point we have to learn what is on the other side. Julie has to confront Lil' Julie eventually. And comic book readers, Kieth indicates, need to get to the other side of their genre in order to be whole human beings.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jason Powell The Uncanny X-Men/The New Teen Titans Special Edition

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

“Apokolips ... Now”

Uncanny X-Men #167 is the transitional issue marking the paradigm shift in Claremont’s approach to writing the series. However, thanks to the vagaries of publishing schedules combined with the mysterious nature of comic-book chronologizing, a few blatantly superheroic epics fall into the narrative gap between issues 167 and 168. The first is the inter-company crossover of Marvel’s X-Men and DC’s Teen Titans. Existing outside of mainstream Marvel continuity in a world where Marvel and DC apparently exist on the same Earth, the story is not officially canonical, but it is a fantastic piece of work by Claremont and occupies an interesting place in the author’s own personal canon. The one-shot also contains 64 pages of Walt Simonson images whose dynamism and crackling energy are cinematic in both scope and sheer kineticism. Inked by the great X-Men inker Terry Austin, the pages virtually vibrate with energy. Not to be outpaced, Claremont crafts some of his most bombastic text ever. (Geoff noted the “Morrison-esque” wordplay of the coinage “atmos-spheres” in Claremont’s Uncanny #98. Here, Claremont gives us machines capable of draining off psychic energy, and dubs them “psiphons.”) The cumulative effect of images and text here is a comic that could be properly be looked on as the prototypical “widescreen” comic book.

For a Kirby-phile like Simonson, it must have been pure joy to draw some of the panels in “Apokolips ... Now” – for example the exhilarating image of the Phoenix-bird blasting right out of Cyclops’ eyes directly at Darkseid (Marvel’s Cyclops and DC’s Darkseid being two of Kirby’s strongest creations, never before sharing space in the same published comic book.) The effect of the art is so intense that the physical pages themselves seem incidental to some arcane process whereby Simonson is channeling his pure joy straight into the reader’s brain. (For an alternative take on all this Kirbyphilia, I must share a bit of apocrypha recently posted by Erik Larsen on John Byrne’s message boards. Larsen relates, “An inker pal of mine claimed to have overheard a conversation between Chris Claremont and Jack Kirby. The X-Men/Teen Titans crossover had just come out and Chris was showing it to Jack. Kirby's reaction was to ask, ‘Why don't you make up your OWN damn characters?’”)

The centerpiece of the X-Men/Titans crossover is the double-page spread of “The Wall,” described by Claremont thus:

“It stands beyond the Promethean galaxy at the end of all things – where the physical universe merges with the domains of imagination and the spirit. From the moment of creation it has stood inviolate. But now, the ultimate barrier has been breached. Streamers of raw energy – the lifeblood of the Source – rip through the ether, random, unfocused, awaiting only some entity to give them direction. To put them to use.”

The entity in question is Darkseid, of course, whose “use” for the Source’s “lifeblood” is to recreate Dark Phoenix. Claremont is getting metatextual here, as he uses the out-of-continuity status of this comic as a way to resurrect a character whose return in the mainstream Marvel Universe was restricted at the time by editorial edict. Within the story, Phoenix lives again via the energy created by breaching the barrier between two different universes. As within, so without. Simonson and Austin’s visual conception of the “Wall,” and the “streamers of energy” that “rip” through it, sell the concept instantly, as the construct seems to have so much dimensionality that it extends beyond the limits of the pages in every direction.

When Phoenix crashes into the wall at the story’s climax, Claremont’s narration reads, “She’s become too human to remain a goddess ... while remaining too much a goddess to live as a human being. That paradox is her downfall – and her glory!” Claremont resolves the first rhetorical contradiction, and then adds a second to confound the resolution – a verbal attempt to parallel the sheer schizophrenic wildness of Simonson.

In among the chaos of this self-contained piece, Claremont slips in a few hints of what he has planned for the actual Uncanny X-Men series. His use of the Teen Titans’ Changeling to recreate “Lockheed the Dragon” from Cockrum’s fairy-tale issue predicts Uncanny X-Men #168, wherein Kitty names a real dragon “Lockheed.” Meanwhile, Kitty’s attraction to Changeling, a geek teen who’s a lot like her -- and Peter’s jealousy, followed hard upon by his sharing a kiss with Starfire, an exotically beautiful alien female – predict the turns their relationship will take a year from now.

Most striking of all is Claremont’s tease at the end: He suggests that while Darkseid’s resurrected Dark Phoenix has returned to a state of non-being, there might be a version of Phoenix’s heroic incarnation (the one who wore green rather than red) still out there somewhere. Since this one-shot is not canonical, the tease is meaningless – and yet ... again, notably, the next Uncanny issue in proper chronological sequence is #168 -- the final page of which just happens to mark the first appearance of Madelyne Pryor.

If Claremont originally meant Madelyne to be the “good” Jean resurrected, then he may have been using the non-meainstream status of the Titans crossover to clue in attentive readers to that notion. (He wouldn’t be able to float such a clue any other way, Jim Shooter still adamant that Jean must remain dead.)

If this was indeed Claremont’s design, it would shed an interesting light on his anger over Jean’s eventual resurrection by John Byrne in the pages of Fantastic Four: Claremont wasn’t angry because someone brought Jean back – he was angry because, as far as he was concerned, he’d already done it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Comics Out September 17, 2008

All Star Superman 12. My third post on this blog, back in March of 2006, was Jamie Grant and the second issue, and in the first sentence a referenced something I said on a CGS interview: I claimed at the time that Morrison and Quitely on Superman would be like Miller on Batman -- the definitive run. In my third post here I said two issues in I stood by that opinion, and now at 12 issues in I STILL stand by it. It is just wonderful and sweet and the final issue was great in part because it did not climax to some fever pitch -- it was just another day in the life of Superman. I liked how the ending implied that the next Superman story is the last Superman story -- Morrison's own DC: One Million. I mean, that is it -- You have the Superman story you need and then the Paradiso ending. And that last panel -- you just know Morrison had this brilliant idea of what the poster should look like for a Superman 2 movie, and the moment having past (in the first cycle) or being doubtful (the next movie will surely not be a sequel to Superman Returns), he used it as the last moment in the run.

Maxx (6/12 Youtube clip)

Why O Why did I not write about the Maxx in my superhero book -- Sarah is the anxiety filled writer who cannot connect with her distant overshadowing father. And Kieth is responding to Miller. For all the errors in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why the basic idea gets confirmed for me a few times a year. "I guess in every food chain someone has to be at the bottom. I guess in everyone's life there's a point where your stuck and can't turn back."

Indecent Proposal is brought in by Kieth to continue his exploration of feminism. Maybe the Maxx's anxiety of influence extends to the model of the anxiety of influence -- Bloom here become Bloom's student Paglia. The Maxx squints his pupil-less eyes like Miller's Batman as he confronts the street thugs from Dark Knight Returns. Except he beats them up while Sarah's monologue robs the moment of Miller's operatic glory, and the whole thing takes place inside a small car. "That was cool. This is ugly." With Sarah in play Kieth can always compare the "story" to "what really happened" setting his psychoanalytic depth as the real thing underneath the superhero genre he plays games with on the surface of HIS story.

The Maxx monologues about pain, but the contrast with Miller is always the point -- this is psychological pain. The physical pain of the battles in the story are literally just cartoon silliness involving, as Sara calls the Izz, "little blue men" bouncing around. The absurdity of the Izz allows Kieth to keep action but anchor his story in psychoanalytic realism, just as Whedon anchors his stories in emotional realism.

In the next story, on this clip, we almost get a version of the famous Batman comic book where the kids talk about Batman but interpret him in different ways -- adapted quite well for Batman animated. The story within a story mode is a cute way of being able to show various incarnations of Batman -- Adam West, Neil Adams, Frank Miller -- without sacrificing narrative unity. (As a side note Ellis is up to something similar with Batman/Planetary but goes the more modern way -- parallel universes). For the Maxx we hear about a kind of Superman-Batman version, and something that sounds more like the then-contemporary Wildstorm -- "demented loners". Then we get Kieth's semi-origin story for the character, that is too much of a downer for the kids. Importantly this is not a chance -- as Moore would take it -- to show the Maxx in various comic book styles. The kid's thoughts are just notebook scribbles -- because unlike Moore, Kieth is not interested in exploring the stretch-y-ness of the superhero story. He wants to show the limitations, and then go somewhere else.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

David Lynch on Product Placement

Brad sent me this.

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #167

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #167

“The Goldilocks Syndrome” or “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Head?”

A study in miniature of the two phases of Uncanny X-Men that it situates itself between, issue #167 devotes its first half to a furious action sequence as the X-Men arrive at the mansion with figurative guns a-blazing in a dynamic double-page spread. Having figured out last issue that Xavier’s earlier coma was the result of a Brood egg implanted inside him, the X-Men are forced to fight their way through the New Mutants before arriving – too late – to do something about Charles’ impending transformation.

By his own account, Claremont’s invention of the New Mutants was something of a pre-emptive strike, to prevent a misconceived “West Coast X-Men” spin-off that would have turned the X-Men universe into something too corporate in tone for the author’s liking. Opting instead to re-emphasize the “school” aspect of the X-Men concept, Claremont teamed with Bob McLeod to create five teenage mutants, who collectively represented a watershed moment in terms of Claremont’s creative contribution to the X-Men universe. Before now, he had only seen fit to introduce one new member to Cockrum and Wein’s “Giant-Sized” team – Kitty Pryde. All of Claremont’s other original characters were villains.

With the invention of the New Mutants, even though they were initially kept segregated (somewhat unnaturally) from the parent series for the most part, Claremont has almost doubled the number of active characters regularly based in the X-Mansion – an unprecedented maneuver.

Right around the time when Ann Nocenti took over the editing of both series from Louise Simonson, Claremont began to intermingle the casts of the two books, taking advantage of the much broader character palette to enrich the overall texture of the X-franchise and soon evolving a dynamic wherein the X-Men acted as de facto teachers to the younger mutants. The paradigm was resonant enough that – even though Claremont quickly got bored with it and shook things up again a few years later – it would re-take its hold on the franchise later and eventually become its status quo, utilized by Bryan Singer in the X-Men films and taken to larger extremes by Grant Morrison, whose New X-Men expanded the school’s student count into the dozens.

But that’s all in the future. In issue #167, the series remains primarily about its core cast of six team members. Indeed, Claremont still clearly prefers the creations he inherited to the ones he invented. (Most likely he was more inspired by Paul Smith than he was by Bob McLeod. When John Romita Jr. replaces the former on Uncanny and Bill Sienkiewicz the latter on New Mutants, Claremont’s priorities seem to switch overnight.)

The X-Men dazzle the New Mutants right from their first dramatic entrance – even if Claremont pays self-deprecating lip service to the notion that his new characters are on a par with their predecessors (Wolverine: “Charley may be robbin’ the cradle, but he hasn’t lost his touch. If these kids had the skill t’match their spunk, they’d be dangerous.”). Paul Smith’s gorgeously subtle art conveys the X-Men’s dramatic priority over the New Mutants as eloquently as Claremont, if note moreso. Note on the first panel of Page 11, the depiction of Karma, Dani, Wolverine and Cyclops running single file out of the house: Smith draws the latter pair of characters at a slightly harsher, less naturalistic angle than the former. Even in how they move, the X-Men do everything at a more intense pitch. Page 14 has one of my favorite dialogue bits by Claremont, when after an intensely passionate speech by Cyclops, the closing panel depicts this quick-fire exchange):

Scott: “Any objections?”
Logan: “Lots.”
Ororo: “None.”
Sam: “So that’s Cyclops.”
Dani: “Wow!”

Partly for the delicious musicality of the language itself (given added fluidity by Orzechowski’s smoothly organic balloon placement), the juxtaposition of the X-Men’s intensity and the New Mutants’ unabashed awe is ingeniously handled.

Music was clearly on Claremont’s mind while scripting this particular page. A few panels before the coda quoted above, Xavier is depicted begging Scott to kill him, and Cyclops notes, “I ... heard Phoenix play this riff before she died!” Given Grant Morrison’s eventual assertion that writing the X-Men requires playing certain “riffs” (the Dark Phoenix saga being one of them), that dialogue now rings with long-sightedness.

It’s perhaps appropriate that the “riff” imagery occurs on Page 14, the very page that caps off the X-Men’s superheroic phase. The remaining nine pages serve as a prologue to a second era for Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, marked by a new level of psychological depth and a decreased priority on the action scenes (particularly ones that occur solely to fill out genre requirements, i.e. excursions to Murderworld or sudden N’Garai infestations).

The shape of things to come is hinted at in these latter pages of “The Goldilocks Syndrome” – in Corsair’s plaintive admission that he envies Xavier for having been Scott’s father figure, or Nightcrawler’s gallant emotional openness toward Ororo at a time when she feels particularly alone. In these simple but affecting strokes is the future of Claremont’s X-Men prefigured.

He’ll opine years later in his “X-Men Visionaries” volume that “the key element in [the series’] longevity and success [is]: these are not superheroes. Foremost and always, these are people.” That philosophy has its seeds in Claremont’s very earliest work on the series, but it emphatically takes root right here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Free Form Comments (#100!)

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If a week goes by and I have failed to add you to the blog roll TELL ME TO DO IT AGAIN, and KEEP TELLING ME UNTIL IT GETS DONE. I can be lazy about updating the non-post parts of this site. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy (but now might not be). That is often the reason I fail to get back to people, and on a blog, after a few days, the comments thread dies and I just kind of forget about it. Let's use this space to fix that, because it does need to be fixed; I look like a jackass sometimes, leaving people hanging. I will TRY to respond to any questions here.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore. For example, if you thought of a great quote for the great quote commonplace book, but now no one is reading that, you could put it here.You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If you think your free form comment here might be better as its own post, but you do not want it to be public yet, email it to me. My email address is available on my blogger profile page. If I think it will work on this site, your post will be published here with your name in the title of the post. You can propose what you will, I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

If you think what you have to say -- new topic or comment on an existing topic -- would be better to hear than to read, use the CALL ME button on the toolbar on the right.

Triumph of the Underdog

Mitch's one man show at the Fringe festival got rave reviews from lots of folks including the New York Times. I enjoyed it a lot myself, and now it will be on the YouTube. Here is the trailer.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #166

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right. This is a particularly good post: I was not a big fan of this issue, as I was annoyed with the whole magic space whale stuff, but I think Jason has changed my mind.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #166

“Live Free or Die”

Classic X-Men #13b, “Lifesigns,” showed Claremont dabbling in a bit of philosophy about nature, suggesting that there was a karmic balance to the world symbolized by the dichotomous relationship between dolphins – symbols of life, intelligence, the future, etc. – and sharks, who represent death, instinct and the primordial past.

That story, as it turns out, is a mirror for this one, which echoes that philosophy on a cosmic scale via Claremont’s conception of two races, the Acanti – who swim through the cosmos in schools and communicate with each other in song – and the Brood, described in issue 162 as perfect killing machines.

In the middle of this dichotomy are the X-Men, who in this climactic double-sized episode choose between a path of darkness and death, and one of life and light. The former is incarnated in the notion of a suicide run against the Brood; the latter, an optimistic rescue attempt that will save the Acanti’s racial “soul.” The choice of course is no choice at all, but Claremont’s writing is fluent enough at this stage that the contrivances required to build to that moment are convincing, and the X-Men’s decision to make a play for the Acanti’s salvation seems genuinely redemptive.

Claremont’s precise plotting is in top form in “Live Free or Die,” which brings together elements of the long-running Brood arc that seemed at the time arbitrary and/or simply stylistic flourishes done for their own sake. The Acanti were not named before now, but issue 162, the one that started the Brood saga’s final narrative domino chain tumbling, established (in Cockrum’s amazing double-page spread) that the corpse of one of the giant whale-ships served as the capital city of “Sleazeworld.” Wolverine’s long ordeal in the heart of the corpse in Uncanny 162 seemed at the time simply a good milieu to get across that story’s Wolverine-as-ultimate-tough-guy motif. Here, in a well-orchestrated revelation, that earlier adventure proves to have been a key plot point, shrewdly disguised: the very place where Wolverine faced the worst trials is the location of the Acanti soul.

The long climactic sequence, in which the X-Men return to Broodworld to liberate the soul, is superbly constructed. Though artist Paul Smith’s greatest strength is in quietude, he proves versatile enough to craft dynamic action scenes here, and Claremont’s text – crisply dressed in Tom Orzechowski’s letters – glides along Smith’s smooth lines effortlessly. To give the whole thing an extra layer of gravitas and significance, Claremont adds some clever chimes with the past: the sudden rescue by the Starjammers is an effervescently delightful homage to the climax of Cockrum’s first run on X-Men (signaling perhaps that though he didn’t quite make it to the climax of the Brood story he inaugurated, the spirit of Cockrum’s creativity still informs these proceedings). Meanwhile, the recreation of the Cyclops/Wolverine enmity is a downright brilliant stroke, cluing both the readers and Logan that Cyclops is a traitor – the panel in which Wolverine rips off Scott’s visor to reveal alien eyes beneath being a deliciously visceral payoff.

(The panel that immediately follows offers a great visual as well, as Scott’s eye beams are shown firing in two segmented lines from his queer eyes: Cyclops suddenly rendered non-Cyclopean.)

The ending of course is a deus ex machina, but is meant to operate more on a symbolic level. Part of the point of the Brood saga was to test the X-Men’s moral center, to see whether their oft-repeated “X-Men don’t kill” refrain could stand up in the face of a completely unredeemable enemy like the Brood. The X-Men – Storm in particular – find their morals strongly tested, and here, in their choice between life and death as respectively represented by the Acanti and the Brood, they all chose life. Even Wolverine, whose moral compass is separate from the others, was tested. Lacking any compunctions about killing the Brood, he faces the choice of killing the other X-Men once they are infected with Brood embryos.

The X-Men thus passing their moral test, the Acanti soul redeems them, and the Brood eggs (symbolic of their collective immoral urges) are expunged. The entire thing is not subtle, but by tying the conflict of “Live Free or Die” into a larger theme, the entire story is elevated beyond conventional superheroics. Carried by Paul Smith’s sympathetic pencils (and Bob Wiacek’s inks as well), the theme is carried off surprisingly well, conveying a palpable sense of genuine redemption.

X-Men #166 marks another milestone as well, being the climax to the X-Men’s superheroic phase. Having explored to the hilt with Cockrum and Byrne the X-Men’s story potential inside the superhero genre, and armed now with an artistic collaborator capable of new levels of psychological depth and complexity, Claremont is prepared now to launch into a more nuanced style of storytelling. Hints existed in earlier issues of the potential for this change (the new back-story for Magneto being the most significant harbinger of darker subject matter, and the tone and style of the vastly underrated Uncanny #160 pointing the way), but the full transformation had yet to occur. Paul Smith’s addition to the creative team was just the catalyst Claremont required, and with the climax of the Brood story here (followed by a tying off of loose ends next issue), Claremont will change the Uncanny X-Men into almost an entirely new comic book.

Trivia: That the new X-Men’s superhero phase ends with #166 is a striking coincidence of numbering, given that the Silver Age X-Men were cancelled with #66. In a strange way, Uncanny #266 will mark a similar milestone as the first appearance of Gambit – the first Claremont X-character deliberately devoid of any semblance of internal psychology, conceived only as an agglomeration of “cool” surface traits.

Scott on the Office: Jim and Pam

[Guest blogger Scott, on the Office again. I make a comment below.]

(Ironically, the only clip of this I could find on youtube was a fan-made montage the sets the moment to music… there are, like, dozens of these on youtube that chronicle the Pam/Jim love story)

One of the things that I picked up on about the Office from our discussions on this blog that I found was one of the things that I love about the show is its emphasis of 'small perfect moments' over big dramatic moments (the latter often being ridiculed by the show). Perhaps the all-time greatest example of such a moment is in the final minutes of the Season 3 finale. This is the moment of the big 'breakthrough' in the Pam and Jim relationship. In any other sit-com it would have been handled thusly: after a big dramatic outpouring between two characters in which their feelings are revealed, one of the two, out of embarrassment or frustration, runs off, only to return at episode's end when we find them standing outside in the middle of a rainstorm and, finally, after 2 or three seasons Rachel and Ross embrace in a passionate kiss to the strains of "With Or Without You"…. or something like that… cue the Kleenex.

As always, the Pam and Jim relationship is more subtle. In the Season 3 finale, Jim, his current love interest, Karen (who, unlike most sit-com 'other women' is actually a fully realized and likeable character) and Michael are all off in New York interviewing for an opening at the corporate office. In the final few minutes of the episode, Pam's 'interview' piece where she wishes Jim well and hopes for the best while regretting that they 'never got the timing right' is inter-cut with Jim's 'job interview' during which he opens his resume to discover a 'good luck' note from Pam. Just as we are thinking that we will have to wait yet another season for the relationship to be resolved, Jim interrupts Pam's interview and we get the following exchange:

Jim: Are you free for dinner tonight?
Pam: Yes.
Jim: Alright… then it's a date.

Then, in an award winning moment on Jenna Fischer's part, she turns to the camera, asks the interviewer to repeat the question and smiles without saying a word as we see just a hint of the sparkle of tears in her eyes. There was no big swell of music… no standing in the rain…. But, you know what? I still found myself reaching for the Kleenex.

[I am always caught between liking the best stuff and dismissing the junk, but then having to acknowledge that without the junk for support the good stuff would not work. Case in point: that scene between Jim and Pam at the end of season three works because of the understatement -- but my criteria for understatement, as Scott suggests, has been determined by all the lame sitcoms over the years. The scene works in large part because I can see so clearly in my mind's eye how all other programs would have botched it.

Comic book tradition reached a level of density to support complex revisionary stuff like Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. TV does not seem to be, except rarely, a very allusive medium, but you can still see shows like the Office and the Wire building success by simply avoiding what we all know to be bad storytelling, but that we have just lived with for so many years.]

Monday, September 15, 2008

Maxx (5/12 Youtube Clip)

Notice, in the scene with Sarah and her mom, how Sarah is silhouetted in black with white glasses -- that is one of Miller's signature visuals, invented for a Batman shadow with white eyes. The Maxx sitting next to her -- the superhero hilariously doing nothing -- helps us see the connection to the genre through his own, earlier, rain soaked monologues. In the story within the story the carjackers -- Izz -- are dressed like Miller's mutant punks in Dark Knight Returns.

Check the parody of dark monologues -- practically a meta-monologue (in the RAIN no less) -- with an admission of total failure at the end: "If dad had to shoot somebody, why couldn't it have been her. Did my saying that shock you? Good. Writers are supposed to shock people. We say witty and uncontrolled things that rip the shroud off a decaying society and expose it for what it is. Well, thats the idea anyway." Gaiman gets tossed into the mix as well, as Sarah makes fun of her classmates that are "necro-nerds and sand-freaks" that is to say fans of Gaiman's Death and the Sandman, complete with haircuts to match. "Death is not some cute chick."

Always interested in psychoanalysis, even of the dime store variety, Kieth loads Sara up here, with a father out in a "gone postal" murder suicide and a hippe chick mom -- of exactly the sort Camille Paglia (Julie Winters' hero) would HATE. Julie and Sara's mom are friends, but rehash a Steinem-Paglia battle when they get together. In counseling, Sarah sheds more light on Julie than Julie sheds on Sarah. The use of this context for character development will become quite popular in the Sopranos and imitators like Grosse Pointe Blank.

There is also a cute joke as Sarah compliments herself on her ability to foreshadow just before she says the line "My father is gone."

"I could feel the gun in my hand. But more importantly I could feel the sweet hot hatred my dad must have felt," she says as Jimmy breaks her heart. She does nothing with the gun of course -- she is a writer, not a post-Miller vigilante. Using a short story within a larger superhero narrative -- putting Sarah alongside the Maxx -- Kieth is doing what psychoanalysis is supposed to do: he is exposing the subterranean origins of surface behavior, as he demonstrates that the silhouetted comic book figure monologuing dark thoughts in the pouring rain is little more than a teenager who someday wishes to be a writer -- but it NOT one yet.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Out Wednesday (EDIT: Batman is not out on Wednesday, messing up the whole post -- sorry):

glory glory glory

Cormac McCarthy: The Road as Prose Poetry 3

[I continue to cut this novel without a plot into good book of poems.]

The blackened shapes of rock standing out of the shoals of ash and billows of ash rising up and blowing downcountry through the waste. The track of the dull sun moving unseen through the murk. 

Where all was burnt to ash before them no fires were to be had and the nights were long and dark and cold beyond anything they'd yet encountered. Cold to crack the stones. To take your life. He held the boy shivering against him and counted each frail breath in the blackness. 

The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. An old chronicle. To seek out the upright. No fall but preceded by a declination. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, load or matrix. To which he and the stars were a common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must. 

Saturday, September 13, 2008

My posting this week has been light...

... but I have three Maxx posts in the can for next week. 

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #165

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right. I make some comments below.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #165


“... One of the most important issues I've ever read, which is just the issue of them waiting to basically die before the big epic. To me, there's more ‘Buffy’ in that than any comic I know because it's just them talking about who they are and religion and sex. I was just blown away that you could do that with a comic and I just love Paul Smith's pencils.” – Joss Whedon on Uncanny X-Men #165

Whedon sums it up rather nicely. In terms of expressive breadth and emotional depth, Uncanny X-Men takes a massive leap forward in this issue, thanks to Paul Smith. With a line as smooth as Byrne’s but softer, as bold as Cockrum’s but possessing more dimensionality, he delivers the series into an entirely different artistic realm. Inspired by the quiet versatility of his new collaborator, Claremont takes the storytelling into new levels of psychological complexity, which seemingly draws less from the tradition of superhero comics and more from the darker and more nuanced independent comics of the day (Claremont’s enjoyment of which is even advertised by allusions to Cerebus in Uncanny #160 and Elfquest in Uncanny #153).

Brought in as penciller for the final chapters of the extended Brood saga, Smith finds himself drawing a few sci-fi sequences, including the opening “explosive decompression” bit and Storm’s dramatic transformation into a “sleazoid.” He handles those moments with seeming ease, but it is the quieter bits wherein Smith demonstrates his profound talent more directly. The “sex and death and religion” motif that Whedon points out is incarnated in two key moments that anchor this issue emotionally and psychologically, and point the way toward a new phase for the series that will begin once the Brood arc is at long last resolved.

“Religion” – A scene in which Wolverine happens upon Nightcrawler praying. The idea that Kurt, raised by a family of sorceresses and witches, should believe in Christ is strange and never gets a full explanation, but perhaps the plaintive comment he offers here is enough. “I admit I’m rarely seen in a church,” he says. “But I draw comfort from my beliefs and from prayer.”

Wolverine makes the surprising admission that he once, as a soldier, tried prayer himself and that it was “a mistake.” Kurt’s response is to pity Logan his lack of spirituality and his loneliness, and Wolverine replies by embracing Nightcrawler, saying, “I ain’t alone, bub – I got you.” This scene is the sentimental apogee of the Kurt/Logan friendship, which Claremont had been developing right from the start of his X-Men run. Emboldened by Smith’s talent, Claremont for the first time looks beyond their surface camaraderie (the essence of which can be found in the running “loser buys the beer” gag of earlier issues) and lets both characters express themselves in a more honest and emotional vocabulary than ever before. Eventually, Claremont would retroactively plant this level of depth into the very start of the characters’ relationship via the Bolton backups in Classic X-Men (issue 4’s “The Big Dare” specifically), but the true beginning is right here.

“Sex and death” – Meanwhile, the origins of Joss Whedon’s take on the Kitty/Peter relationship in his Astonishing X-Men are easily traced to the Kitty/Peter scene of Uncanny #165, which contains the most moving dialogue in “Transfigurations.” Seemingly unsure of how to handle a character of Kitty’s tender age in previous issues – leading to the cognitive dissonance of her detached self-awareness in issue 158 and Cockrum’s ever-awkward desire to put her in a bikini every other issue – Claremont at last seems to lock on to the appropriate way of dealing with her sexuality. Here, her interactions with Colossus feel entirely natural, her desire to make love to Colossus impetuous and fervent, borne out of a confused emotional need for closeness that doesn’t entirely comprehend the magnitude of what she is proposing. Peter, mature beyond his years (he’s only 19 himself), understands what Kitty wants but also recognizes that her desire is coming from a skewed psychological desperation. Her line “Gee, I wish I was older,” rings with irony. Her meaning is obvious – if she were older, sex between them would be legal – but Peter’s response, “You are not older,” comes from deeper awareness. He knows that she’s not ready – that if she didn’t think they were both about to die, she would not be so desperate to go so far. It is a lovely scene. Whedon, I think, has tried to tap the same level of sexual complexity in his re-igniting of the Colossus/Kitty relationship with his work on the Astonishing series. But his ideas – one bit in which Kitty phases as the result of orgasm, another in which she seduces Peter to assuage his fears – lack maturity, and pale in comparison to Claremont’s work here.

[A few things of note, on my end. 

The scene in which Storm struggles in a monologue about killing or not killing the Brood being that is planted inside her and will kill her and will be evil -- this is the kind of thing I have no patience for, and this should have been the example in my superhero book of why the Authority was so liberating - just kill the fucker and move on. The moral hypocrisy is on its way as the X-Men, who don't want to kill, find the beings they will let do the killing for them, and get to keep their hands clean, luckily. 

Notice the irony of Dracula-Storm being the one to put a gentle end to the underage sex between Peter and Kitty: usually monsters like Dracula punish teenagers for their sex drives.

The sex stuff is not the only thing Whedon takes away from this issue -- notice that Storm floating presumably dead in space looks exactly like Scott floating presumably dead in space in Whedon's run -- they will both be scooped up and resurrected by aliens. On a bigger structural level, Whedon was perfect to take over after Morrison because his favorite X-Men period is the post-Jean Grey period, which is exactly what he was asked to write, and he handled it in the same way -- Kitty Pryde. 

I see why you say Whedon lacks maturity, but another way of characterizing it is that Whedon knows the limits of being ernest. Take your least favorite Whedon moment, the scene in which Emma, asked where she disappeared to during battle says "I had to pee." I feel like Claremont, scripting that moment, would have just had her say "I don't want to talk about it" or think "I can't tell him." Whedon's "I had to pee" is just a sarcastic-ridiculous way of indicating the same thing: the outlandishness of it means no one is going to ask her anything else about it. Whedon is also connecting with his readers who are older (I think) than Claremont's were: the geeks have grown up -- they have sex now, but they are still very capable of embarrassing themselves, hence the orgasm-phasing scene. It is actually a bit like Tony Soprano again: you can be a superhero, but you cannot entirely escape your undramatic human failings.]

Friday, September 12, 2008

Comics Out September 10, 2008

I wanted the misprinted All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder with the curse words, but it does not really seem worth the trouble or the price. (Though if you have one, and are looking to sell for less for 25 bucks, let me know). My comic book store guy was surprised: "You're not a collector, are you?" I did not know what to tell him. I just love Frank Miller and what I love about Frank Miller is how over the top he is. A curse word variant just makes me laugh. Two things I wanted to say about this.

1. Is there any genuine claim -- rather than conspiracy theory -- that DC did this on purpose? I wonder if "R-Rated" variants will become the new hologram covers.

2. I have not read any surprise over the physical mechanics of how this went wrong, but I for one was really taken aback by the fact that whenever I see a black box in a dialogue balloon there is a real curse word under it. I always assumed that the script, and especially the printed page, just said "I'm the [insert seven letter black box here] Batgirl." I mean, this opens up a really weird dimension to the comic book page doesn't it? This is a step away from learning that someone draws an anatomically correct Superman BEFORE drawing the uniform on top of him. Wait till DC accidently prints that...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Jason Powell on the 1982 Wolverine Miniseries

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

(Also published in the “Wolverine” Trade Paperback)

James Clavell’s novel Shogun – published in 1975, the same year that Claremont became the writer of Uncanny X-Men – is the story of a somewhat rough-hewn Westerner named James Blackthorne who becomes embroiled in the intrigues of samurais and warlords in feudal Japan after being stranded there in the year 1600. During the course of his adventures there, Blackthorne gains a deep respect for Japanese culture and tradition, and becomes intimate with a woman named Lady Mariko.

Given that the Marvel Comics iteration of Lady Mariko first appeared in Uncanny #118 as a potential love interest for Wolverine, it seems logical to assume that Claremont was flirting with the idea of using Clavell’s character as a model for Wolverine as far back as 1978. (Mariko is the first character with whom readers saw Wolverine share his real name, which rhymes with “Shogun.”) Later issues, such as #148, would occasionally reinforce Wolverine’s affinity for Japan, but the full immersion of Logan into Japanese culture — and the new interpretation of the character as a “failed samurai” — does not occur until this, the Frank Miller-illustrated miniseries published in 1982.

Miller, when first approached to drawn the mini, was purportedly uninterested in the character as portrayed so far, seeing him as a one-dimensional borderline psychotic who couldn’t sustain a solo series. Claremont’s solution was to design a crime-thriller/political drama that borrowed heavily from “Shogun” and took as its theme the transformation of Logan from an “animal” to a man. (Meanwhile, see All-Star Batman and Robin for a look at how much Miller’s sensibilities have changed in 25 years re: the marketability of one-dimensional psychos.)

In terms of storyline, “Wolverine” is cannily conceived despite its unapologetically anachronistic portrayal of Japan. In fairness, Claremont is hardly the only comics author to portray all of his main Japanese characters as honor-obsessed clichés, but that context doesn’t necessarily mitigate the series’ bald-faced naiveté.

Claremont’s conception of Wolverine, on the other hand, is convincing in its synthesis of cowboy/samurai. Inspired by Frank Miller’s strikingly unorthodox page layouts – notable for their use of panels that don’t quite fill the page, leaving large areas of blank white, and for Miller’s occasional use of rough near-symmetry between the two facing halves of a spread – Claremont’s first-person narration takes on a similarly jagged rhythm. Rather than attempt to synthesize his own tendency towards verbosity with the tough, terse cadence one would tend to associate with someone like Wolverine, Claremont simply switches back and forth between them over the course of the narrative. Trusting letterer Tom Orzechowski’s subtly perfect caption placement, Claremont lets the words work in counterpoint to Miller’s images, and the effect is arresting. We’re seeing the birth of a new writing approach for Claremont, who seems to have become aware of the way his words can be integrated by strong collaborators as another aesthetic element of the comic book page. Rather than distract from the visuals, language can be – in comics – a PART of the visuals. Of course, this is something that people like Will Eisner had already known for years, but it seems to be an epiphany for Claremont. (That it happens for the first time for Claremont here, in collaboration with Frank Miller, is certainly appropriate, given Eisner’s massive and pervasive influence on Miller.) The assignment of Paul Smith -- a phenomenally talented artist in terms of design and layout -- to Uncanny X-Men so soon in relation to the Wolverine mini is pure serendipity, having allowed Claremont to continue his experiment with a more integrated relationship between image and text.

As for the “Wolverine” mini, despite its stereotypical portrayal of Japan, it is a triumph of sequential storytelling. In 1982, neither Claremont nor Miller has achieved the peak of his artistic powers, but they both possess more than enough raw talent to drive their story home. Their shared relative crudeness is counterbalanced by sheer mutual enthusiasm, and the occasional narrative shortcuts are redeemed by the utter coolness of the money shots (e.g., Wolverine atop a body of dead ninjas, his narration reading “I’m the best,” or the thrilling image of Wolverine crouched behind Shingen as the former asks the latter, “Am I worthy now?”). The miniseries remains, 25 years after the fact, the definitive Wolverine story.

Scott on an Office Joke

[Guest blogger Scott]

I was just watching a Season 3 episode of The Office that had a great illustration of how Michael Scott works.

In the episode, Michael feels immasculated during a "Saftey Training" program when the warehouse workers are able to illustrate the real danger to life and limb in their work enviornment as opposed to the much more subtle dangers of working in an office (carpal tunnel, seasonal affective disorder, weight gain).

Michael decides that the key to trumping his blue-collar co-workers is to have a 'visual aide' so he has Dwight get him a trampoline. When we first see him bouncing on the trampoline he says, "Hey, here I am bouncing on a trampoline just to blow off steam for a few minutes and releive stress and then I'm going to go on about my day."

For a moment, we think, "Hey, that's not a bad idea for a 'stress relief' activity. Instead, Michael says, "Just kidding" and then informs us of his intention to fake a suicide from the roof of the building by jumping onto a trampoline (and later, when the saftey of the trampoline is called into question, a 'moonwalk' ). This gag illustrates so much of where the humor in Michael can be found. If he had actually used the trampoline as a way for his employees to blow off steam, that would have been a cool thing for him to do as a boss but, as always, he goes way too far in the pursuit of a 'dramatic' moment and creates a scheme as ridiculous as it is dangerous.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I know a lot of people have already seen the pilot of Fringe, as it was available in various ways before the TV showing tonight, but it was the TV viewing that I watched. In case you missed all the adverts, it is a show about mad science (fringe science): an FBI agent is introduced to the world of mad science in the process of investigating a mysterious plane crash where everyone was killed by some flesh eating virus, and saving her FBI boyfriend who was also infected. In the process she recruits a mad scientist from (where else) a looney bin with the help of his boyishly good looking con artist super-genius son, and we get a glimpse of the world of a rival mad scientist who has gone corporate -- he used to share a lab with mad scientist number one.

The show is quite well directed. The opening sequence which takes place on an airplane (shades of Abrams' other show, LOST) was really well shot with the lights flickering and the camera lunging. When blondie gets taken to the hospital the picture and sound go violently in and out in a way that is pretty arresting, and both the LSD sequence and even the storage locker fight was shot really well. The design of Megacorp or whatever was really nice, as was the reveal of the secret of the red haired woman who works there. The twist at the end and the final moment were pretty good.

But for most of the show I was just bored. The show keeps getting compared to X-Files but the proper point of comparison is Threshold -- like Threshold, Fringe is trying to be X-Files 2, and like Threshold it picks what it likes and runs with it. Threshold focused exclusively on the alien thing, and Fringe focuses exclusively on the non-alien stuff (that Scott, and others, argued was always the better half of X-Files anyway). X-Files could be great but it was never a show I followed except randomly, and in syndication. I feel no need for Fringe. It was not exactly terrible, it just didn't feel like much. The mad science is the kind of concept you need a Grant Morrison to really sell, because he is they guy that is going to come up with really weird ideas, or at least make the old ideas feel new by giving them a new name or a new twist. But telepathy, flesh eating viruses, talking to the recently dead -- I have seen this stuff before and seen it better. You cannot put The Filth on TV, but you could learn a thing or two from the presentation of ideas.

And the characters are no help. Our resident Mad Scientist is alright, thought I thought their vision of his crazy was a little to pat -- he just tosses weird non-sequiturs in with his brilliant stuff, and they are not that funny. More than one was predictable. Our FBI girl is just dull as dishwater, as is the aforementioned boyishly good looking skeptical sarcastic genius. These are characters that look alright on paper (clear motivation, clearly distinguished) but are just uninteresting on screen, and the actors are not helping. Lance Reddick was totally wasted, and not just because he was so great on the Wire and deserves a bigger role -- even when he appears for a moment on Lost he commands in a way he just does not here.

The plot, again, looks great on paper: you personalize the thing on the plane by giving the girl someone she can save, and you raise the stakes by having it be someone she just shared "I love you"s with. But it just feels contrived pat and screenplay-neat and reminds me that while "From the creator of Lost" had me excited, "from the writers of Transformers" had me wary. The occasional madness -- like the cow, and the thing with Spongebob -- are ok, but not nearly enough. And the plot has this kind of A to B to C to D quality that got on my nerves: the locker to the son to the dad to the lab (did they really just give him the lab back after 17 years and set it up a day later), to the guy, to the megacorp and so on. A subplot would have helped.

And how long do I have before I have to suffer through some Disaster Movie style parody of the 3D credits where serious FBI guys, or the camera, crashes into them, spoiling the mood?

In short there is nothing like the humor of Firefly, the dialogue of West Wing, the shocking energy of Lost, the cute girl factor of Alias, or the solid acting and drama of Battlestar to get me to come back.

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If a week goes by and I have failed to add you to the blog roll TELL ME TO DO IT AGAIN, and KEEP TELLING ME UNTIL IT GETS DONE. I can be lazy about updating the non-post parts of this site. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy (but now might not be). That is often the reason I fail to get back to people, and on a blog, after a few days, the comments thread dies and I just kind of forget about it. Let's use this space to fix that, because it does need to be fixed; I look like a jackass sometimes, leaving people hanging. I will TRY to respond to any questions here.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore. For example, if you thought of a great quote for the great quote commonplace book, but now no one is reading that, you could put it here.You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If you think your free form comment here might be better as its own post, but you do not want it to be public yet, email it to me. My email address is available on my blogger profile page. If I think it will work on this site, your post will be published here with your name in the title of the post. You can propose what you will, I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

If you think what you have to say -- new topic or comment on an existing topic -- would be better to hear than to read, use the CALL ME button on the toolbar on the right.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

John Ashbery's "Ghost Riders of the Moon" (Commonplace Book))

The title made me think of comic books, and then so did the final lines:

We collected
them after all for their unique
indifference to each other and to the circus
that houses us all, and for their collectibility  --
that, and their tendency to fall apart. 

Check that great line break separating "circus" from "that houses us all" so that for a minute you think he literally means a circus. And check the near tautology of the second of the three reasons: "we collected them ... for their collectibility." I particularly like the tension between permanence and entropy in the collection: we collect things (like comics) so that they will be kept safe and not fall apart, and we collect them because they have some kind of permanent value to us -- those stories last forever somehow -- but here it seems more like we collect because we like the fact that their falling apart is inevitable. We like things that fall apart in the end. 

I am really embracing the idea that I can just get on the blog with unfinished ideas. 

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #164

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

“Binary Star”

Uncanny X-Men, The #164

For Cockrum’s swan song, he goes all-out in the action sequence that opens issue 164. The artist eschews all subtlety for straight ahead impact as he steers the reader towards Claremont’s climactic “Binary” explosion, wherein Carol Danvers because a cosmic being. It’s quite well handled, particularly Cockrum’s rare use of skewed, asymmetrical panel layouts, which genuinely convey a sense of chaos and danger just before Danvers saves the day. Claremont juggles the sequence admirably, managing his eight protagonists well and giving each something interesting to do (except the convalescent Kurt).

As for the story value of Carol Danvers’ transformation itself, it’s hard to get particularly worked up about it. Claremont seems to be playing to the Ms. Marvel fans (including himself), giving Carol an exciting destiny to redeem the premature cancellation of her own series. But while the buildup and execution is well handled, the actual dramatic choice seems arbitrary. The reasoning makes more sense when one considers Claremont’s long-term plans – the addition of Rogue to the cast is now only seven months away. If Claremont already has that planned now, then making Carol into a cosmic character plants the seeds for her easy expulsion from the series to clear room for Rogue.

The second part of “Binary Star” pulls off an appropriately gloom-filled atmosphere, with the X-Men adrift in a disabled spaceship, unaware that they’re all about to die. Storm’s angst as her alien embryo plays havoc with her powers is well-handled. There’s a particularly wrenching, horror-movie-esque sequence when she realizes that there is a baby inside her, and for a few moments finds herself intrigued by the notion, before realizing exactly what it is.

On Earth meanwhile, Claremont has – in the space of only two issues – entirely rebuilt the mansion, and the Bermuda Triangle headquarters is abruptly dropped. Considering the rapidity of this reversal in direction, it seems very likely that it was not originally part of Claremont’s plan, but a result of the impending launch of New Mutants. According to “Comics Creators on X-Men,” Tom DeFalco had pitched an X-Men spin-off series to Jim Shooter, but as soon as Claremont – concerned about preserving the franchise’s integrity – got wind of the idea, he moved quickly make sure that no one else could write it. Since the concept he’d go on to develop involved young kids closer in age and experience to the original Lee/Kirby group, the return of the school would have been a must.

Indeed, the seeds for the first arc of New Mutants are seen in issue 164, in a two-page sequence involving Xavier and Illyana. The latter makes some enigmatic references to her mutant power – to be revealed in the Magik miniseries that will in turn feed into the New Mutants title – while the former has had his spirit broken by the kidnapping and presumed death of the X-Men at the hands of Deathbird. Xavier’s resultant dispiritedness will flow into New Mutants as well, as his new protégés help Charles redeem himself.

For the moment, Claremont has a bit of fun writing an apathetic Xavier, who – confronted with the enigma of the mysterious 13-year-old version of Illyana – thinks for a moment about what he could to solve it, then promptly decides not to bother.