Thursday, March 30, 2006

Hellboy: An African Myth about a Frog

Mike Mignola's Hellboy is a fantastic idea for a comic book and a world fantastically designed: a heady mix of Lovecraft, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby and world mythology. One chapter of Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, a chapter about frogs and frog-men monsters, opens up with An African Myth about a Frog, one that knocked me out when I read it (I include Mignola's image from the page):
On a day when little water was to be found Man spent awhile in thought and realized that he might one day die, never to rise again. Man sent Dog to God to ask that he might come back to live again, like the flowering plant, after death.

Dog went off and followed his nose toward God. He was soon distracted by the smell of soup, and followed his hunger toward the source. Leaning close to watch it boil, Dog was content and forgot his mission.

Seeing that Dog was lost, Frog took it upon himself to go to God and tell him that Man did not want to live again. If Man were to be reborn, thought Frog, he would soon muddy the rivers and destroy the birthplaces of frogs.

Dog finally arrived to tell God Man's message. Leaning low, he crooned Man's need for rebirth in the song of his howl. God was touched by the devotion of Dog for Man.

But God granted the frog's wish, because he got there first.
This story is similar to James Tate's Goodtime Jesus, about which I have already posted. It imagines, where we would expect a necessary origin, an arbitrary, accidental one. On a cosmic scale the idea of "well that's just how it happened, it could have happened another way," the idea that the dog is just stupidly late, and that this effects all of creation, is terrifying. Mignola uses it to establish that frogs are evil, are man's enemies, but it also must speak to the creator of the world of Hellboy, in which world mythology collides with the absurd figure of a hulking red daemon with a trench coat, an old fashioned pistol, and a badly functioning jet pack. The arbitrary is a form of freedom as well as doom.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

From Charles Wright's Buffalo Yoga Coda III

I want to glance at a single sentence in Charles Wright's poem Buffalo Yoga Coda III from his 2004 book Buffalo Yoga. I first discovered Wright because my favorite literary critic Harold Bloom blurbed the back of his book; Bloom is a bit of a crazyman, but this blurb is him at his most audacious:
Black Zodiac concentrates Charles Wright's considerable poetic endowment into a new poignance that has to be termed religious. Some of these poems achieve an authentic gnosis in a rapt mode of negative transcendence.
Now I know Bloom very well, and I barely know what that second sentence means: "gnosis" is a kind of special spiritual knowledge -- an identification with a distant alien Gnostic god -- reserved for those who understand the world is fallen and evil, a kind of prison; "negative transcendence," I think, is like regular transcendence (going above the merely physical world), except that instead of discovering something (say God) you discover nothing -- you discover that there is nothing, that you are totally free, that nothing is real but your self. What knocks me out about the blurb is that it is a blurb: this deeply obscure statement is on the back of the book, to encourage people to buy it (and figure out which poems do or do not achieve an authentic gnosis in a rapt mode of negative transcendence, I guess).

Here are the Charles Wright lines that I wanted to point out:
Under the low hum of the sweet bees,
Under the hair-heavy hoof of the warrior ant,
Under the towering shadows he must go through,
and surface from,
Under the beetle's breast and the grub's,
The future is setting its table,
its cutlery dark, its mirrors anxious and blank.
The vision of the insects reminds me of the quintessential David Lynch shot from Blue Velvet: the camera explores a beautiful suburb, then (when a man watering his plants has a stroke) zooms in too far into the grass and catches the violent struggle of (insect) reality underneath the simple surface. This vision of insect life in Wright suddenly yields to an unsettling vision of the future as an ominous dinner party that has not yet begun. Where we would expect the host to be anxious because no one has arrived, it is the mirrors that are anxious because they see no one, reflect no one. If the mirror "reflects" this aspect of the future (the host), we are left with the idea that the future is also "blank," unwritten but also impassive, uninterested, inhuman. As with vampires the mirrors don't reflect the action of the future setting the cutlery (the sound "cut" makes it sound more dangerous than "silverware"). The image suggests both danger and freedom. If anything is an authentic gnosis in a rapt mode of negative transcendence, surely this is.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Lex Luthor's Desk in JLA: Earth 2

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's JLA: Earth 2 is the best part of Morrison's JLA run, a fantastic comic book. In a smart move -- one unfortunately not emulated by Marvel Comics for Morrison and Quitely's New X-Men -- DC comics released this as a stand alone graphic novel. It could have been part of Morrison's JLA run, which he was doing at the time, but the graphic novel form better accommodates Quitely's speed. I want to draw attention to a small but brilliant Quitely detail: Lex Luthor's desk.

Punch Drunk Love opens with a calm morning and suddenly out of nowhere a car crashes. The crash is not part of the story of the film; it is there to establish, as economically as possible, the universe of the film: you IMMEDIATELY get that this is a universe where violence can come out of nowhere and you begin to fear for your main characters (a brilliant way to jack up the stakes of the romantic screwball comedy, which is what Punch Drunk Love is). Lex Luthor's desk has a similar brilliant economy: this is the first time we see Luthor in the book and you look at that image, the cavernous room with the empty desk carved from an endangered redwood tree (we must assume) and you know EVERYTHING you need to know about this character: he is rich, wasteful, arrogant, powerful, has very good taste, and doesn't love anything (nothing personal is in the room or on that desk).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Interview on

I have an interview up at Click here to read it. This is how Dan Liebke, creator of the site, describes it:
No regularly scheduled update of Grant Morrison's run on the JLA comic today. Instead, I present an interview with somebody who knows a lot more about the subject than I do. Geoff Klock, author of How To Read Superhero Comics And Why discusses the JLA along with the relationships between text and subtext, hair and baldness and J'onn (Martian Manhunter) J'onzz and David (Angel) Boreanaz.
I forgot to mention in the interview that I found out about Morrison's Alan Moore-Manhattan Guardian connection because Morrison himself told my friend Brad Winderbaum ( when they met in LA. Actually many of my comics observations here are spun out of my weekly conversations with Brad, as was the suggestion to do a blog in the first place; blogs don't generally have an acknowledgements page, but if they did Brad would be at the top, as would Sara Reiss, my partner and website designer.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Russell Edson's The Fall

Russell Edson is a peculiar prose poet, writing weird little quasi-parables. I saw him at a reading once and he flipped through his own book, looking for something to read and said into the microphone "oh, this is a good one," as if he had just discovered a new good poem by someone else. Here is his poem The Fall from his 1969 collection What A Man Can See (though I got it out of The Tunnel: Selected Poems):
There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.

To which they said then go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.

He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.

But his parents said look it is fall.
Hilarious, obviously. That this is a "man" and not a child is important. I imagine someone in their late twenties still living with his parents and acting childish. He comes in and begins to play a game, he is a tree. His parents use the game as an excuse to kick him out of the house, playfully (but with a serious undercurrent) threatening him with expulsion. He sees this and feels threatened and ends the game, dropping his leaves. But his parents -- clever -- interpret his refusal to play as another part of the game, and now he is trapped in his own metaphor, unable to escape. The fall, of course, is the season in which things are done ripening and are ready for harvest, just as it is time for him to leave home. Games and metaphors are always more insidious than we know.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Frank Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again and the Grotesque

Frank Miller's 1986 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns defined the Batman forever. In 2002 Miller wrote and drew the sequel, Dark Knight Strikes Again, which got a lot of mixed press. The 1986 book certainly had elements of parodic art, but the overall tone was serious and operatic; the sequel dangerously veers between, and combines, the sublime and the ridiculous. I think the result is fairly brilliant and fun, but I understand why people didn't get it. The art is garish and (intentionally) loose and sloppy; the coloring is insane (but again I think audacious and fantastic), often falling outside the lines in huge swathes of large, pixilated blocks. I want to grab just three moments (and, for now, avoid talking about his recent All Star Batman run, in which he has, at least for the moment, lost me).

Superman and Wonder Woman have sex in the air over seven pages and then fall to earth together, smashing into the ocean and knocking over an aircraft carrier in the process. Miller is a big fan of pulp novels, and though the scope of the pulps is very different, he keeps that overwrought sensibility: where a pulp novelist would have written "and the aircraft carrier was knocked over, the planes falling into the ocean like toys," Miller draws them like little toy planes.
The image is childish because it is the visual equivalent of a cheesy (but lovable) metaphor.

Similarly Lex Luthor is a monster, and so Miller draws him as a hulking ape. He doesn't go for "cool" dark shadows (as Spawn would) because he doesn't want us to be in awe of Luthor, he wants us to fucking hate him.

In the scene at the end of the first issue, Batman beats the crap out of Superman with a pair of Kryptonite gloves; the issue ends with the words "Get out of my cave." The image is grotesque and the colors match as the movement of the gloves is captured by pixilated green swathes, a bold choice by Lynn Varley -- one of the best colorists in the industry along side Laura Martin (nee DePuy) and Jamie Grant. There is an American literary tradition of showing the grotesque, including William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Conner, and we should judge Miller's Batman in this context, and see his portrayal as a good thing. The word "grotesque" comes from "grotto," a cave, because we imagine that cave dwellers, like Tolkiens's Golem, become deformed and weird; it was only a matter of time before Batman, in the Batcave, was shown in the same way.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

John Ashbery's This Room

John Ashbery is my favorite contemporary poet. This Room is the first poem from his 2000 volume Your Name Here; this is the poem in full:
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
Ashbery is a strange poet: many of his poems feel like dreams. "Stanza" -- the poetry equivalent of a paragraph -- is an Italian word that means "room," so Ashbery suggests that anything he talks about in his poetry is likely to be a dream version of a real thing. A major theory about dreams (from Jung I think) is that everything in the dream represents a part of the dreamer, so Ashbery identifies all the feet as his and the portrait of the dog as himself. In a dream, as in Ashbery's poetry, you can barely tell what is going on, though what you glimpse always seems very important: what he says in this poem is true of his style generally: "Something shimmers, something is hushed up." The problem with seeing poetry as a kind of dream is that a dream is an essentially private experience; John Stuart Mill said that while prose is written to communicate with others, the poet speaks to himself, and is "overheard" by readers, who are not directly a part of what is going on. Ashbery is thinking of this as he offers us a strange statement on food which seems important to him but means nothing to us, and then wonders why he bothers. The poem sets up the volume, in which we glimpse, but never quite see, the personal experience contained in the poems.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

All Star Superman and Jamie Grant

In a podcast interview in August I said that Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's twelve issue All Star Superman run would be for Superman what Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns was for Batman: the definitive run. Two issues in I am holding by that opinion. What I did not expect was the importance of the fantastic coloring job by Jamie Grant. The first two issues have a lot to appreciate. Three of the images I discuss below are available on the Newsarama preview of All Star Superman #1 (scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the images).

A page showing Leo Quintum's ship falling into the sun, showing images of the ship's interior "falling" down the page whose background is the sun, juxtaposes the bright yellow of the sun with the ship's purple interior; purple is the color opposite to yellow on the color wheel, and so a ship designed to withstand orbiting the sun resists the outside light with an opposing color: science becomes aesthetics, a good measure of the difference between comic book sci-fi and hard science based Star Trek-style sci-fi.

Every place in the book has its own color: an image of a woman "genetically attuned to all life" is bathed in soft green light, every scene in the daily planet is colored with various shades of brown, including almost everyone's clothes, Lex Luthor always appears in red light as if he is in a dark room, though it is a less intense red than the red hallway leading to Superman's "dangerous" lab in issue two. Leo Quintum -- genius Dr. Who style science guy -- has a technicolor jacket and stands in front of blank bright white walls both of emblematic of his status as an explorer (all areas are open to him).

The book does not seem colored so much as "lit." In the second issue Grant does amazing things with light: he perfectly captures the soft, strange and limited glow of an interior car light, doesn't forget to leave the light on as Lois exits the car, and captures the moisture in the air in the Antarctic as the car's headlights are captured in the air as if in fog. Magical objects are set apart: Superman's golden key is the brightest thing in issue two, and the room with the mirror of truth and time telescope is an absurd and fantastic shade of hot pink. When Lois loses her sense of wonder, we see what she sees in black and white.

You can recognize Batman by his distinctive silhouette, but the shorthand for Superman is the bright colors Red Blue Yellow. Color is a major part of Superman, and Grant is a major reason this book is as good as it is.