Thursday, October 28, 2010

Miltonic Allusion in Kill Bill: The Epigraph

Ok I am reposting this from like a year ago but I need it in place before next week, when we start diving into clips.

Kill Bill opens with an epigraph: "Revenge is a dish best served cold." After a beat the "source" is revealed: "Old Klingon Proverb."

"Revenge is a dish best served cold" is an epigraph that introduces the theme of the movie, obviously, but also says something about Tarantino's confidence in his own technical skill. (Technical skill is often described as "cold" in directors because we associate precision with lack of emotion; Kubrick is most often described as cold. Tarantino certainly has some serious skills, and he has also been accused of being insensitive in his use of violence, cold to its consequences. I hardly think this makes him dispassionate but since his passion is more for other films than anything else, with an emphasis on style, his films have this feel to a lot of people, people for whom film is lesser part of life maybe, rather than in continuity with it).

The epigraph also says a lot about the upcoming film just by being an epigraph -- this is a film that is epic enough to need a "literary" start (and will be divided into "chapters").

Most importanly is the reveal we get a few seconds later: "-- Old Klingon Proverb": which sends the whole epigraph into a tailspin. This is not a quote from Dangerous Liasons, but from Star Trek. That is funny in itself -- in a movie that will quote Samurai movies THROUGH their remade status as American and Italian Westerns, this one quote sets up a chain of references: just as we can go Kill Bill --> Man With No Name --> Yojimbo, we can go Kill Bill --> Star Trek --> Dangerous Liaisons. The quote is also revealing because it is not just a chain of reference but one that crosses high and low culture, and revels in the continuity rather than bemoaning it as a degeneration or even a copy. This is transumption -- Tarantino alludes not just to previous art, but to art that alludes further to still other works of art.

The whole movie is almost entirely set up right there but there but all this would be true if Kill Bill began "Revenge is a dish best served cold -- Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan." But it does not say that. It says "Old Klingon Proverb." There are only two groups of people that would refer to that phrase in that way: the characters in the fictional world of Star Trek (Klingons and whatnot), and die-hard fans who talk like that because they WISH they lived in that world. (Howard Moon on The Mighty Boosh often ends his sentences with "sir" -- what makes that super-dorky? Because like a lot of nerds he is nostalgic for some time in which people spoke like that -- a time suggested to him more from fiction than from history.) In 20 seconds Tarantino establishes his ambition, his talent, chains of reference that link up high culture and low culture, shows his unironic love of trash, and where all this comes from -- his status as a FAN.

Miltonic Allusion in Kill Bill: What is Miltonic Allusion, part 3

Just an epilogue-y thing about the leaves. A passage of Ashbery and a quote by Bloom at his most ... Bloom-y.


out of night the token emerges
its leaves like birds alighting all at once under a tree
taken up and shaken again
put down in weak rage
knowing as the brain does it can never come about
not here not yesterday in the gap of today filling itself
as emptiness is distributed
in the idea of what time it is
when that time is already past

Bloom says "Ashbery’s finest achievement, to date, is his heroic and perpetual self-defeat, which is of a kind appropriate to conclude this book, since such self-defeat pioneers in undoing the mode of transumption that Stevens helped revive. Ashbery’s allusiveness is transumptive rather than conspicuous, but he employs it against itself, as though determined to make of his lateness a desperate cheerfulness. In the final stanza of As You Came From the Holy Land, the most characteristic of Shelleyan-Stevensian metaphors, the fiction of the leaves, is duly revealed as a failure (‘taken up and shaken again / put down in weak rage'); but the metalepsis substituted for it is almost a hyperbole of failure, as presence and the present fall together ‘in the gap of today filling itself / as emptiness is distributed.’ The two lines ending the poem would be an outrageous parody of the transumptive mode if their sad dignity were not so intense. Ashbery is too noble and poetically intelligent to subside into a parodist of time’s revenges."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

X-Men 100 (#1 in a four-issue limited series)

[Guest blogger Neil Shyminsky With Two Ys heroically picks up where Claremont SuperBlogger Jason Powell leaves off.]

When Geoff asked me, many months ago, to cover Claremont’s return to the X-Men – 100 or so issues after he left – I told him that I would be glad to cover the issues where he set the new status quo, but that I didn’t have enough enthusiasm to go beyond that. At the very least, I had genuinely fond memories of X-Men #100 and Uncanny X-Men #381.

But memories are a funny thing. There’s a University of Washington study that’s commonly taught to Intro Psych students where, under particular conditions, researchers found that they could convince nearly half of their subjects that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. Which is, of course, impossible. I bring this up because, having re-read the issues that I agreed to write about, I can only assume that Jason’s series – and, of course, the issues that I’ve read alongside his analyses – somehow warped or otherwise compromised my sense of just how good these comics were. Which isn’t to say that they’re purely awful...

But let me back up. X-Men #100 shipped only a month after #99, but six months had passed since the High Evolutionary depowered and repowered all of mutantkind. The six month gap isn’t unprecedented – the X-books pulled something similar a few years after Claremont left, after the “Age of Apocalypse”, and also skipped an indeterminate amount of time prior to Giant Size X-Men, which immediately preceded Claremont’s first run – but there’s something lazy about it. Over at, Peter Luzifer writes that the gap occurred in lieu of “slowly building up new plot elements and having the characters coming up with lame excuses for their new looks”, and the results are generally underwhelming: there’s no explanation for why this is the current line-up, who’s leading, and why it’s such an unusually small team; Psylocke has new powers, inexplicably; Rogue’s absorption power no longer affects Colossus; Colossus and Rogue hook up spontaneously*; a new Thunderbird appears and we’re given no reason to care about him; the new villains, the Neo, have no clear motivation, ambiguous powers, or stock-villain personalities and dialogue.

(*Okay, so this one could have been good, in the classically soap opera-ish way that CC really excels at: Claremont later explained that the idea was to give Rogue a choice between a man she loved but couldn’t touch and one she could touch but didn’t love. But it unfolds too quickly and awkwardly, and it’s never picked up again.)

It’s not all bad. Aside from Warren Ellis on Excalibur, it seems like no one since Claremont himself had done much (or ANYthing) to develop Shadowcat, so the change in her appearance and attitude and the central role are nice surprises, if awkwardly executed. (Of course, she would be separated from the team and wouldn’t reappear for the duration of Claremont’s stay on X-Men.**) Take the line of dialogue, given to Shadowcat, that would become emblematic, at least among people on internet message boards of the day, of how Claremont was pressing too hard: “Reboot your system, baby. ‘Cause time only goes in one direction.” Ugh. Nightcrawler’s turn as a priest is also a worthy development, even if it’s strange that Claremont effectively skips the developmental bits – why he left, how he’s changed – in order to “return” him to super-heroics after he had retired from it for... zero issues. These are minor victories, clearly.

(**I’ve read that this was due to – stop me if you’ve heard it before – editorial interference. Kitty was supposed to get a miniseries that would address where she went, why Seth said she was a Neo, and so on, but the L.S. was dropped and Claremont was told to move on. One other interesting side-note on editors: the X-editor who chased Claremont off in the first place, Bob Harras, was presiding as editor-in-chief and rehired him for this run. And it wasn’t his fault that CC’s second run was so short, either – Claremont was booted this second time by Harras’ replacement, Joe Quesada.)

But for a Claremont reader with a long (if malleable) memory, these things shouldn’t be surprising. The first dozen or so issues of his original run have a similar slap-dash feel, as if Claremont is just throwing ideas against a wall as they come to him, knowing that most of them probably won’t stick. (Spoiler: most of them don’t, the second time OR the first.) We fans remember how early he planted the seeds for a Wolverine-Jean relationship and are impressed with his forward-thinking, but we forget that he did the same for Colossus and Storm; the first hints of what will eventually lead to the Phoenix Saga appear in Claremont’s first ten issues, but so is the suggestion that Wolverine is literally a mutant wolverine (though this was originally Len Wein’s idea), which will turn out to be much less fondly recalled. The point, simply, is that Claremont’s stories have always unfolded slowly and he needs time to set things up, to figure out what will work and what won’t. Whether this is an adequate defense of these newer issues or a knock against the older ones depends on how much patience you have as a reader.

In a move that’s entirely to be expected if you’re a long-time reader of either Claremont’s X-Men or Jason Powell’s re-evaluation of them, there is also a very deliberate effort on Claremont’s part to revisit his own work: the space station, Peter Corbeau, the telekinetic bubble to protect the team on re-entry – this stuff all recalls the first year of Claremont’s original run and the events that lead to the first appearance of Phoenix. (So, too, does the series of variant covers, each drawn by someone who had their own lengthy penciling gig during Claremont’s run, and often featuring the team as it existed when that penciler was on Uncanny X-Men. And so this has the effect of feeling like a tribute to the writer after-the-fact, a remembrance of what he’s done, which is a curious choice when you’re supposed to be pushing new stories with new characters and a new set of villains.)

What’s lacking here, though, is any obvious commentary on the older stuff. Jason’s series did a particularly good job of showing how Claremont’s backward glances were always meta-commentaries on where the team had been and where they were going – there are too many that fit the bill to list them all, but here are a few*** – but I don’t really see that meta-element, here. (Except, I suppose, in Kitty’s brief dialogue.) I’m not even sure that we can call this connection anything more than “interesting”, especially since it’s not clear that the events of the space station are meaningful outside this story – it provides a scene for a Neo terrorist attack, but why did it need to be a space station? It’s as if Claremont thought that a lazy gesture would be good enough.

(*** Thanks goes to Jason, once more, for helping me track down a lot of the posts that are found via these hyperlinks. There’ll be more of them, too.)

I should also add that Claremont is simply not the same narrator he once was. In the very confusingly rendered scene where Kitty descends into the, um, I guess the bowels of the space station, we would be forgiven for wondering whether we were watching a flashback. For a writer who was famous for over-narrating in order to compensate for poor art, Claremont is surprisingly unhelpful. More surprisingly, none of that purple, poetic language that Jason has noted numerous times is in evidence, here. The issue is set in outer-space, but he never describes it to us in anything but a perfunctory manner. It’s a notable absence.

A bit of good, a lot of bad, and the feeling that something is missing – it’s an auspicious start to Claremont’s second-coming.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Batman Inc.

[Lost like Bruce Wayne in the time-stream, Guest Blogger Scott returns with a look at the idea of Batman, Inc. -- including a very well observed connection between Morrison's Batman and Will Brooker's book Batman Unmasked. I make a comment below about Dark Knight Returns.]

Perhaps this old news to some of you, but it was only upon picking up the latest issue of Morrison’s ‘Batman and Robin’ that I learned of Morrison’s plans for the Batman franchise once Bruce Wayne returned. Like most, I assumed that Dick Grayson would, of course, immediately hand cape and cowl back to his mentor and go back to doing his own Nightwing-thing. But Morrison has something bigger in mind: we are now going to have two Batmen: Grayson will remain Gotham’s Guardian while Wayne will become ‘Batman International’ so to speak and travel the world setting up a network of ‘Batmen’ (expanding upon Morrison’s reintroduction of the ‘Club of Heroes’). It’s not a completely unheard of concept; when Oliver Queen returned from the grave Connor Hawk retained the Green Arrow title as well, a similar concept has worked with the Flash even before Barry Allen’s return with Wally and Jay both bearing the mantle and there’s been more than one Green Lantern of earth for close to 40 years now, so why not Batman?

The idea of the hero passing on the torch to another is nothing new and, in fact, has long been a part of pulp-heroic tradition. Perhaps the most direct ancestor of the modern superhero is Lee Falk’s Phantom and in that strip the original Phantom wasn’t even the ‘original’ Phantom within in the continuity of the story (I think he was something like the 4th or 5th to have taken up the mantle; a way of cementing the idea that ‘the ghost who walks’ is actually immortal). Also, within the pulps, many characters over the years would develop a complex network of allies and associates to the point that, eventually, the central character would take a back seat in the action.

The idea that Batman should take this step is nothing new, in the conclusion of his book, Batman Unmasked, Will Brooker was inspired by the then most recent successful interpretation of Batman in a popular medium, Batman Beyond, to observe, “if the Batman line of comics really is being brought more into line with the animated series and its younger audience, Warners have realized that to a kid of twelve, a man in his early thirties might as well be a sixty-year old in terms of appeal […] why not take this model to its logical end, push Wayne forward to his ‘real’ age and play to the strengths of this ‘Team Batman’ concept?” (326). It is worth noting that Brooker’s book was published in 2000, when the most recent Batman film, Batman and Robin had flopped and no one could foresee that Nolan would re-invigorate the film franchise and, outside of the comics—perhaps even more so than the comics—the animated series was the most successful representation of the Bat Franchise as a whole and, with Batman Beyond as its latest incarnation, perhaps it was about time to re-imagine Batman as a whole. Brooker imagines a ‘Batman Genre Story’, “some of the codes would always remain—a Bat-costume, gadgets, crime-fighting, Gotham […] ‘Batman’ as a genre could embrace variation and improvisation around its core template, adapting to survive as Batman has always adapted to survive, both in Gotham and the real world” (328). In fact, to the younger Batman audience, Bruce Wayne is pretty inconsequential, “He just needs the suit and the gadgets, the abilities, and most importantly the morality, the humanity” (329). The latest Batman animated series, Batman: The Brave and The Bold—a series aimed towards a slightly younger audience than previous animated series, is an excellent example of this concept; while there is an unspoken implication that it is Wayne under the costume, this is not what is emphasized in the show. His motivations are unimportant; he’s just the guy with all the neat gadgets who fights crime.

Of course, older Bat-fans have a problem with this; we prefer Bruce Wayne. While the utility belt and Batmobile hooked us as kids, what brought us back was Bruce Wayne, the man behind the mask, a character with, arguably, the most complex psychology of any superhero; he must constantly balance his own darker nature and need for vengeance with justice, he must walk the line between hero and villain, savior and tyrant; however, this could equally be true of anyone who donned the cape and cowl. What anyone else would lack is Wayne’s origin; he has a very understandable, primal motivation for doing what he does and he is understandably driven—even obsessive depending on which version of the narrative you subscribe to-- to continue in his crusade no matter what. Bruce Wayne DOES NOT give up; he does not retire. When Neil Gaiman wrote his ‘Whatever Happenned to the Caped Crusader’, he envisioned several different ‘deaths’ for Bruce, all of them in the line of duty, none of them from just growing old and dying of natural causes. It is this rich psychology of the character of Bruce Wayne that, perhaps, explains why, of all superheroes, Batman has inspired works that tend to transcend the genre in terms of quality (The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, many of the vignettes in ‘Batman: Black & White’, Arkham Asylum, to name a few).

What Morrison seems to be attempting to do with the ‘Batman Incorporated’ concept is to split the difference in this controversy: he allows Bruce Wayne to remain Batman, but in a very different role than the street level vigilante of Gotham (namely the Globe-trotting adventurer that Morrison is so fond of) while, at the same time, allowing characters like Dick Grayson to move more to the forefront of the Bat-Mythos and take on new roles. While it remains to be seen how well the concept is actually EXECUTED it does make for an interesting compromise in the ongoing debate of the future of Batman. I, for one, am open to the concept at least; after all, this doesn’t preclude any ‘old school’ batman tales from being told. Titles like ‘Batman: Confidential’ could still give us tales of Bruce Wayne, the troubled, obsessive loner, patrolling the streets of Gotham, not to mention mini-series, alternate realities, and so on and so forth. So, the question that I am posing to the blog is this: could this work? Does Bruce Wayne have to be Batman, or rather, the ONLY Batman?

[I stopped reading Morrison's Batman, but I have blogged about the tension between Miller's Batman and Morrison's. I wonder to what extent is Morrison's Batman Inc a response to Miller's Batman at the end of Dark Knight Returns -- become a teacher to a new generation of Bat-Soldiers.]

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Miltonic Allusion in Kill Bill: What is Miltonic Allusion part 2

This post might be a little indulgent. "What is Miltonic Allusion, Part 1" may have been sufficient to explain what Miltonic allusion is. But just in case you wanted to hear more about it, here is some stuff from Bloom on how Milton's figure of the leaves continues in Coleridge, Shelley, Whitman, Beckett and Stevens. Again, my thesis is that each poet interprets the images that he inherits in the same way Tarantino interprets his favorite movies in Kill Bill. What follows is mostly poetry, and quotes by Harold Bloom. I don't have much to say about these passages today, but I will be keeping them in mind as I look at Kill Bill. I want them up here because I may need to return to them later.


At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry – the peacocks.

Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it the cry of the hemlocks?

Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks.
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

Bloom says that the leaves in the poem must be understood in the context of the image of the leaves in romantic poetry: Coleridge, Shelley, and Whitman.


There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

Bloom says "This, to Ruskin, was the fallacy of imputing consciousness to the object world. Coleridge truly inaugurated the grand Pathetic Fallacy of the fiction of the leaves. ”

Coleridge’s 1817 volume of poetry was called Sibylline Leaves, a reference to the legend of the Cumean Sibyl who wrote prophecies on leaves which she placed at the mouth of her cave. If no one came to collect them they were scattered by the wind and never read. She offered nine volumes of such prophecies to the emperor of Rome but he refused to pay her outrageous price; she burned three volumes and then three more at which point his curiosity was piqued, and he bought the last three books.


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken to a new birth!
And, by the incarnation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

[Bloom says that in the Milton passage quoted last time, the fallen angels “must awake and arise, or be forever fallen. Shelley, lest he fall into Satan’s predicament, does not call to the leaves, nor does he allow them to cry aloud. He calls only to the wind, like the Hebrew prophet before him. Shelley’s fiction of the leaves abandons Milton’s revision of the major Western poetic sources and origins, by forsaking Isaiah’s image of the host of heaven falling down as the leaf falls off from the vine."

I have never been super clear on how calling to the leaves like Satan calls to his troops (compared by Milton to leaves) would cause Shelley to "fall into Satan's predicament," but you get the idea: Shelley inaugurates a shift in the use of this image. Is "falling into Satan's predicament" demanding success, demanding rising, from things that are forever fallen, like the leaves in Homer?

Bloom says Shelley’s “leaves are double, adding to the Miltonic composite the image of the leaves of a book. Shelley’s words, his dead thoughts, belong to both the book of nature and the book of a new revelation.


Bloom: “Whitman is more interested in the figuration of the grass," from Peter 1:24: “For all flesh is grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.”

[Bloom: “But since the ‘of’ in the title means both ‘consisting of’ and ‘concerning,’ Whitman intends a more conceptual interplay also. Leaves fall annually, but the grass in Palestine has an even shorter life. Anyone who has watched a Jerusalem spring will remember how quickly and cruelly the Judean hills turn brown again after their brief green. Leaves of grass are thus also leaves of the transitory flesh, and almost come to leaves of mortality. If all flesh is grass, nevertheless leaves are both pages and, after Shelley, words that quicken to a new birth. Whitman’s title transumes both the Bible and Romantic tradition so as to suggest an intricate personal balance of immortality and mortality."

Bloom quotes John Hollander, who suggests that with so much poetic baggage it is as if Stevens is saying, in Domination of Black, “even as the leaves turn color and die; and the Sybil’s scattered leaves are reconstituted metaphorically in all our own writings, even as men fall like leaves and become mulch for new generations, even as the leaves of the book of life turn, so does the very image of the leaves present itself for revision."


The mobile and the immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembling the presence of thought,
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,

In the end, in the whole psychology of the self,
The town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.

Bloom says “The trope of leaves as words of the world is available to Stevens because Shelley has purged it of its Miltonic associations. This seems to me part of the story only.” The idea that a strong writer an "purge" an image of its earlier associations seems very important.


Bloom: “Perhaps, though, it was most of the story for Beckett, whom I invoke here as the dead end of the trope of the leaves. In act II of Waiting for Godot Estragon and Vladimir engage in a lyrical dialogue concerning ‘all the dead voices.’ Vladimir suggests that the dead voices make a noise like wings, like sand, like feathers, like ashes, but each time Estragon replies “Like leaves.” That is a darker vision than Stevens’ in An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, but no darker than Wallace Steven’s The Course of a Particular."


The fiction of the leaves is the icon
Of the poem, the figuration of blessedness
And the icon is the man

Bloom says “The man is Walt Whitman.” I feel like this is more dramatic than accurate.


Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of the cry of icy shades and shapen snow.

The leaves cry … One holds off and merely hears the cry.
It is a busy cry, concerning someone else.
And though one says that one is part of everything,

There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.

The leaves cry. It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of the leaves that do not transcend themselves,

In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.

Bloom: “Shelley’s leaves do not cry out. In Leaves of Grass also, leaves never cry aloud. Stevens leaves contrast bitterly with Shelley’s withered leaves that will quicken to a new birth and Whitman’s crucial mixed trope, leaves of grass."

Bloom concludes: “Today the leaves cry, which implies that they do not cry everyday, and they may not cry tomorrow. They are particular leaves, hanging on branches swept by wind, and Stevens cannot or will not tell us whether his hearing of the cry renders the nothingness of winter a little less or whether that little less comes merely by and in cycle. His “yet” is interpretive, and begins the depreciation of the cry of the leaves which is the apparent plot of the poem. I do not think that this plot can be trusted by any aware reader who understands the fury in the words, the antithetical fury that turns away from and against Shelley and Whitman, which here means against anteriority itself. Truly we have here what Hollander termed allusion and elusion inextricably mixed. The fiction of the leaves has become the only available image of voice, the last remnant of the human in a landscape of loss, of the possibility of mere force without meaning. Stevens makes the gesture of seeming to accept such force, but his poem belies him throughout. The cry of the leaves is no pathetic fallacy, because the poet is hearing voices, is at last hearing a misery in the sound of the wind, is at last becoming what Ruskin himself said a poet must be, a man to whom things speak."

See ya next time. Next time is a little bit about poetry and a short look at the very first thing in Kill Bill.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Justice League of America: Scary Monsters 1-6

[Jason Powell, in his final epilogue to his HUGE look at every issue of Claremont's initial X-Men run. This has been a tremendous ride. Thanks for everything Jason. And of course you are always welcome to come back and write about whatever you want, whenever you want.]

This one is from 2003, I believe. Claremont was well past the peak of his popularity, and I’m sure one could make a strong case that his writing skills had atrophied by this point as well.

I don’t care – I love these comics.

The premise here: A Lovecraftian race of otherworldly demons is attempting to make an incursion into our world, at a dimensional junction point located – conveniently – in the same physical space as a resort where Wally “Flash” West and Kyle “Green Lantern” Rainer are vacationing. (This trope is a Claremont favorite, of course. See: The N’Garai, Fall of the Mutants, Inferno, Star Trek: Debt of Honor, etc. ) (Alan Moore, an avowed Lovecraft devotee, also uses this one a lot.)

When it becomes clear to Wally and Kyle that something’s amiss here, they summon Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter and Plastic Man to help out. And once again – just as with Renegade in “Aliens/Predator” and Huntsman in “WildCATs” – Claremont seems to be using this story as a pilot for his own original superhero. This time it’s a female cop – half-Black, half-Native American – whose tribal ancestors fought the Lovecraftian demons several generations back. So yeah, Claremont is doing the “magical Indian” cliché again. Not very politically correct, but … well, look, I happen to have dated a Native American for years, and hell I’ll just say it: they ARE pretty darn magical.

At six issues, the story is maybe a little long given the straightforward nature of the premise. As the simplistic title suggests, this is just the JLA fighting monsters for six issues. Still, I very much like how Claremont uses his large page-count: He demonstrates a really shrewd understanding of the iconic DC characters, and he fills this series with truly charming character bits. Oh, and since I’ve gone to such pains to suggest that Grant Morrison did absolutely nothing “new” on New X-Men, that it was all just a recycling of Claremont … it’s only fair to concede here that Claremont’s JLA characterization in “Scary Monsters” has got to have been influenced here by Morrison’s revisionary take.

Claremont’s vision of the Superman/Batman relationship I find particularly convincing. As someone who has come to hate the whole “Batman is an ass-kicking genius, and Superman is a hick and a wimp” line of thought (thanks a lot, Frank Miller), I love Claremont’s intelligent, articulate Superman. Clark and Bruce are intellectual equals in this story – and they both know it -- yet each is able to offer something unique to the situation at hand. (Unfortunately I don’t have the issues in front of me, else I’d quote some dialogue from my favorite Batman/Superman scene in the series.)

The other characters are done just as well by Claremont. This is a superhero writer who knows how to craft a story so that each member of the team has something significant to contribute, and at his best he comes up with some delightfully original stuff. Claremont’s use of Plastic Man at one point is hilariously novel, and the use of the Martian Manhunter – not only his powers, but his alien origin – is marvelously creative.

No hidden Easter eggs here for X-Men fans, although there is a more blatant nod to Claremont’s roots: At one point, during a very inventive use of The Flash, Wally comments that what he’s doing is straight out of “Lee and Kirby.” I love a reference to the founding fathers of the Marvel Universe, right smack in the middle of a story starring DC’s biggest icons. Nice one, Chris.

Despite leaving matters perhaps a bit too open-ended in order to set up a solo series for his new super-heroine (which he must’ve known was unlikely to ever see fruition), the story nonetheless ends extremely satisfyingly, with a neat twist that even explains a slight inconsistency in the nature of the Martian Manhunter. (Not being a DC fan, I have no idea if Claremont’s take on DC’s martians accords with canon, but personally I thought it was fantastic.)

Although “Scary Monsters” was published in the era of TPBs, I guess the miniseries didn’t sell well enough to warrant a collected edition. That makes this a fairly obscure little gem, and one I’d heartily recommend. The individual issues are worth picking up anyway, just for the awesome covers, all six of which are drawn beautifully by Art Adams. God, it would have been great if Adams could’ve been convinced to do the interiors as well … !

And so ends my little post-1991 Claremont examination.

I think I have now said all I can say about Claremont’s work. And about comics in general, to be quite honest. With this, I’m hanging up my comics-blogger hat. Thanks for reading, guys!

-- fin --

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Miltonic Allusion in Kill Bill: What is Miltonic Allusion?

Miltonic Allusion AKA Transumption AKA metalepsis.

John Hollander calls transumption “the figure of interpretive allusion.” So transumption is when one work intentionally reminds us of another work, not just to say "hey, wasn't that thing awesome?" but to change the way we think about the work we have just been reminded of.

In the process it also changes the way we see the work that is doing the reminding. The artist alludes to previous work in order to increase his own artistic power. The aim of transumption, says Harold Bloom, is to capture an image away from canonical tradition. If the artist does a good enough job interpreting, he will basically own the thing he interprets. See Frank Miller, the definitive Batman guy, for a good example. It does not matter that he did not invent the character. He did it best, so he wins.

J. Hillis Miller writes “[transumption] puts early late … as late’s explanatory predecessor.” Normally, if you were an artist you would complain "Dammit everyone thought of everything else first." But with transumption you change the game. If you do transumption right guys that came first stop being BIG INVENTORS. They become merely your footnotes, the things people only need to understand to fully appreciate YOUR AWESOME WORK.

All of this is very abstract. Let's go to an example. Here is Milton talking about Satan just after his fall.


Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbow’r;

Milton's leaves, metaphors for fallen angels, are not just ordinary leaves -- he is calling on a poetic tradition of the metaphor of the leaves. These are the leaves mentioned in the Bible, Homer, Virgil and Dante


“And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll; and their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine.”

FROM HOMER’S ILIAD (6.145-150)

As the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the fine timber
Burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.


Thick as the leaves that with the early frost
Of autumn drop and fall within the forest,

They stand; each pleads to be the first to cross
The stream; their hands reach out in longing for
The farther shore. But Charon, sullen boatman,
Now takes these souls, now those; the rest he leaves;
Thrusting them back, he keeps them from the beach.


“The demon Charon, his eyes like glowing coals, beckons to them and collects them all, beating with his oar whoever lingers. As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground, so there the evil seed of Adam: one by one they cast themselves from that shore at signals, like a bird at its call. Thus they go over the dark water, and before they have landed on the other shore, on this side a new throng gathers.”

Here is Harold Bloom on Milton's use of these guys:

“Homer accepts grim process; Virgil accepts yet plangently laments; Dante is more terrible since his leaves fall even as the evil seed of Adam falls. Milton remembers standing, younger and then able to see, in the woods of Vallombrosa, watching the autumn leaves strew the brooks. His characteristic metonymy of shades for woods allusively puns on Virgil’s and Dante’s images of the shades gathering for Charon, and by metalepsis carries across Dante and Virgil to their tragic Homeric origin. Once again, the precursors are projected into belatedness, as Milton introjects the prophetic source Isaiah. Leaves fall from trees, generations of men die, because one-third of the heavenly host came falling down. Milton’s present time again is experiential loss; he watches no more autumns, but the optic glass of his art sees fully what his precursors saw only darkly, or in the vegetable glass of nature.”

I am still working out exactly what some of that means, but you get the idea: Milton "carries across Dante and Virgil to their tragic Homeric origin." Milton references more than one guy here in order to link them. None of the guys are doing the exact same thing with the image. Homer Virgil and Dante may have thought of everything first but Milton has one big advantage to being the last guy at the party -- he sees more history than they do, and can position them in relation to the bible, which for Milton is the super-truth. Say what you want about that but it is certainly something Homer and Virgil cannot have known. This is how he will beat them. He comes late, but because he comes late he knows more than they do.

Bloom says
“By arranging his precursors in a series, Milton figuratively reverses his obligation to them, for his stationing crowds them between the visionary truth of his poem (carefully aligned with Biblical truth) and his darkened present. ... Troping upon his forerunners’ tropes, Milton compels us to read as he reads, and to accept his stance and vision as our origin, his time as true time. … Milton’s design is wholly definite, and its effect is to reverse literary tradition, at the expense of the presentness of the present. The precursors return in Milton, but only at his will, and they return to be corrected.”

In other words Milton wins because he makes it look like Homer Virgil and Dante are squished between the BIBLICAL TRUTH and MILTON'S TRUTH (which is basically a new biblical truth). Squished like that there is barely room for Homer, Virgil and Dante. Milton has no problem if his work makes you thinks of others, because rather than you just noticing similarities and calling him a rip off artist he is going to highlight the similarities and then point out the DIFFERENCES. He is going to interpret them according to his new, super-persuasive vision of HOW THINGS SHOUD FUCKING BE.

And Tarantino is doing the same thing in Kill Bill. More next week.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Video Games, Choice, Japan

[Jill Duffy, who you should totally remember from her Twin Peaks blogs, is back with a look at video games.]

Sid Meier, best known for the Civilization series of games, is almost as well known for saying: "a [good] game is a series of interesting choices" (Game Architecture and Design, Rollings & Morris, eds., 2000).

Among video game designers and developers, "choice" is a consummate word. “Choice” is the thing that defines a good game. What the user can choose to do at any particular moment, and how those choices are presented, is the most crucial question that game designers ask themselves as they design and iterate their creations.

Generally speaking, developers agree that the more open the game environment — that is, the more "choice" the player has — the closer the game gets to realizing the ultimate vision of what an interactive world can be. This is especially true of virtual worlds and other games that strive to be immersive.

But there is more than one kind of "choice," and not all players want choice the way that developers assume they do.

Some of us believe in constraints. Back in 2004 Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab, gave me a demo of Second Life about a year after the game first debuted. This was before Second Life really found its footing as a true virtual business world, before online universities were holding classes there, before organizations were using it to connect employees who lived far apart. At the time, users (and Rosedale himself) saw it more as a game.

He launched us into Second Life. We flew around for a while. We checked out a virtual rave. And I thought, “But what am I supposed to DO?”

The so-called freedom that comes with sandbox play isn’t for everyone. Even as a child, I sought out board games and organized outdoor play, like tag and kickball, where clearly defined rules protected me from the whims and exploitations of older kids, especially my sister, who could otherwise manipulate the unspoken rules of play.

A game of Grand Theft Auto, where there is “something to do,” a series of tasks to complete, but always the open “choice” to do something else instead, is too much freedom for me. I will always want to complete the tasks as efficiently as possible.

A recent New York Times article about the 2010 Tokyo Game Show got me thinking about this, especially because only a few days earlier I had listened to Sheena Iyengar's TED talk on the art of choosing.

The Times article reflects about Japan's place in the world of video game development, and to an extend consumption. Jake Kazdal, a game developer with a history at both Sega and Electronic Arts, was interviewed for the article:
"Part of Japan’s problem, Mr. Kazdal said, is a growing gap in tastes between players there and overseas. The most popular games in Japan are linear, with little leeway for players to wander off a defined path. In the United States, he said, video games have become more open, virtual experiences."

In light of Iyengar's talk, and other ruminations about choice and false choice (including Malcolm Gladwell's "spaghetti sauce" TED talk), Kazdal's point makes a lot of sense. But I don't think it’s a matter of "taste" so much as culture. The Japanese are not "lagging behind," as Keiji Inafune of Capcom tells the Times reporter. It's that their whole ideology doesn't embrace "choice" the same way that Western cultures do, but they're being asked to both produce and consume games in a global marketplace.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

WildCATs 10-13

[Jason Powell writes his second to last Claremont X-Men epilogue. Though I was instant messaging him the night before last and he was reading the Claremont Willow novels, threatening to blog about them. The man is an addict, I tell you, an addict.]

Back when these comics were published – 1994, I believe – I was still not entirely recovered from the sad way that Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s collaboration on X-Men was cut so short. This four-issue “WildCATs” arc was a nice gift from Lee to Claremont fans, reuniting the team from the author’s final issue of X-Men – not just the writer and penciler, but inker Scott Williams and letterer Tom Orzechowski as well.

I hadn’t read any previous WildCATs stuff, so the characters were pretty unfamiliar. And there were a LOT of characters in these four issues. Generally speaking, the story is a bit over-stuffed. For someone coming in fresh, it was too much. Not that the story is hard to follow, really – just that the surfeit of characters made it hard to latch onto any one and find them sympathetic.

Still, it’s a great action movie. The Claremont/Lee chemistry had not atrophied in the three years between X-Men 3 and WildCATs 10. And Claremont certainly seems to be having fun with Lee’s creations (although who knows, maybe he was faking it just for the paycheck).

The point of this storyline was actually to introduce an original Claremont character, the Hunstman, who was theoretically going to be spun off into his own solo series. Had this happened, I believe Claremont would have been the first non-artist to bring an original character and series into the Image fold. For whatever reason, though, the Huntsman solo series never materialized. There WAS a later Huntsman appearance after WildCATs, in a Claremont-penned 3-issue “Cyberforce” arc. Cyberforce was Marc Silvestri’s series, so it was another reunion between the author and a former X-Men collaborator. As a huge devotee of Claremont/Silvestri, I was really looking forward to the Cyberforce arc, but it turned out just terribly.

This WildCATs arc, on the other hand, is a lot of fun. The Huntsman character is your basic “awesome at everything” action hero, very much cut from the Wolverine or Gambit cloth. He is a striking member of Claremont’s ouvre simply in that he is male – though he does have a female companion (“Tai”), and there are implications that she is actually the really significant half of the pair, in some oblique way.

The plot here is all over the place: There are something like six or seven different villains, an alternate timeline, and maybe an evil duplicate at some point too. Despite that, there is a spine to the story, and it leads to a turning point in the relationship of Zealot and Voodoo, two female members of the team (surprise). There is also, if I’m remembering right, an easter egg for X-Men fans at one point. When we’re in the office of Savant, one of the several WildCATs cast members that is much older than she looks, one of the photos on her desk is of her and Wolverine. The image is very reminiscent of the photo of Logan and Rose Wu in Uncanny X-Men 257 (Jim Lee’s third X-Men issue, and his first time drawing Claremont’s Wolverine).

If one is not a fan either of Claremont or of WildCATs, this little arc might read as just a lot of mindless action. But if one is willing to put in the concentration, it’s a fairly rewarding piece, and a fun addendum to the Claremont/Lee X-Men run.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Star Trek: Debt of Honor, from DC

[Jason Powell continues his Claremont epilogues.]

This one is a relatively short graphic novel (96 pages, I think?) set after Star Trek IV (the whale one), and published around 1992, maybe. (Sorry, these dates are easily found online, I realize, but I’m just kinda cruising through this stuff.)

People who are Claremont fans but not Star Trek fans possibly need not apply to this one. Claremont is very clearly a huge devotee of Star Trek, and this book is in many ways just authorized fan fiction. (But then, that is true of a lot of the licensed Star Trek stuff, really.)

On the other hand, if you’re a Trek fan (which I am), this is great fun. The gimmick here is that at key moments in Star Trek history (which we are shown in sequential flashbacks), Captain Kirk had multiple encounters with the same species of hostile alien. But so shrewd were these creatures that they were always able to cover their tracks, and Kirk has never been able to prove that these guys exist, or convince anyone that they pose a credible threat. (We learn that they inhabit another dimension, much like the limbo demons and N’Garai in X-Men, which is an idea I liked so much I pinched it for my musical, “Invader? I Hardly Know Her.”)

The only other person who knows about these aliens is another starship captain: Basically a female equivalent of Kirk (of course!) who also happens to be a Romulan. Kirk goes rogue to team up with both her and a Klingon captain (whom I think Claremont made up, although he might be from an old “Trek” episode …) to take down these aliens once and for all.

The fan-fictional elements include cameos by a ton of old Trek characters, an explanation for why Klingons used to have smooth foreheads and now don’t (years before “Enterprise” offered a different explanation; I like Claremont’s better). And I think there is at least one Mary Sue in this book as well. (Not being an expert on original Trek, I have trouble distinguishing the cameos of canonical characters from the Claremont originals … there are a LOT of people who turn up here.)

Oh, and there is also a reference to “Cat’s Laughing,” a band whose members Claremont is personal friends with, and who also have cameos in issues of Claremont’s “Excalibur” series in 1988. Claremont likes to link his different stories via musicians.

Despite all the indulgences, though, this is a tight adventure story, a great example of intelligent and rousing space opera. The artwork here is by human dynamo Adam Hughes (with inks by Karl Story), which means that the evil other-dimensional aliens are suitably terrifying, and the sexy Romulan captain is suitably gorgeous. Just visually alone, this is a beautiful package, but the intelligent story is what makes it worth the read. Plus, Claremont writes an awesome Spock. In another universe, a movie adaptation of this book would have made a spectacular Star Trek V or VI, and a much better final adventure for the original crew.

Sometime later, Claremont contributed a story to an issue of DC’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” comic series (one of the annuals), wherein a teenage ensign from Debt of Honor (very Kitty Pryde-esque) comes back – now much older, of course – and resolves a semi-dangling thread from the original graphic novel. The details are fuzzy in my memory, though I think they involve the woman – a human -- getting adopted by a Klingon house, which leads to her crossing paths with Worf, a Klingon adopted by humans.

I guess you could call it an epilogue to “Debt of Honor.” It’s a well-written piece, with a very satisfying ending, although I don’t think it would make even the tiniest impression on anyone who hadn’t already read “Debt.” But it is a great little addendum. I personally would have preferred a full-length sequel to “Debt” set in the Next Generation era, but perhaps that was not viable.