Monday, July 31, 2006

From Jorge Luis Borges's "The Immortal" (Commonplace Book)

I had made my way through a dark maze, but it was the bright City of the Immortals that terrified and repelled me. A maze is a house built purposely to confuse men; its architecture, prodigal in symmetries, is made to serve that purpose. In the palace that I imperfectly explored, the architecture had no purpose. There were corridors that led nowhere, unreachably high windows, grandly dramatic doors that opened onto monklike cells or empty shafts, incredible upside-down staircases with upside-down treads and balustrades. Other staircases, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, petered out after two or three landings, in the high gloom of the cupolas, arriving nowhere. I cannot say whether these are literal examples I have given; I do know that for many years they plagued my troubled dreams; I can no longer know whether any given feature is a faithful transcription of reality or one of the shapes released by my nights. This City, I thought, is so horrific that its mere existence, the mere fact of its having endured -- even in the middle of a secret desert -- pollutes the past and the future and somehow compromises the stars. So long as this City endures, no one in the world can ever be happy or courageous.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Why Grant Morrison's Magneto Sucks

On the comic geek speak forum a contributor, having read my blog, noted that I thought the third X-Men film was very very bad. Matt S, responding, dismissed me with "This is the guy who would rate Morrison deficating [sic] in a sack to be 'a brilliant piece of genius layered with meta-textual depth.'" He put a smile face after he said it. Several other people on the forum said how funny they thought that was, and I realized that this is the kind of thing people find funny if they think it's true. It's not true, but I know the impression comes from my trying to keep things positive. To use the Auden quote again, you get people to stop eating boiled cabbage by giving them new, good food rather than telling them that boiled cabbage is terrible. But because I have lost some credibility with people who think I can't say a bad thing about a great writer, I have decided to discuss Grant Morrison's greatest failure: his Magneto.

Magneto is a fantastic and sympathetic super-villain. Superhero comics ride a thin line between the serious and ridiculous and are best when they pull off both. Magneto, as a holocaust survivor in a purple cape and helmet, as a man who fights for the rights of the disenfranchised by killing people with bits of levitating metal, fits the bill flawlessly. One of the things that makes Magneto great, I think, is that, while he is the great X-Men villain, his powers are not a kind of simple mirror image of our heroes: he is not the Dr. Doom to Professor Xavier's Reed Richards (genius vs. genius); he is not the Lex Luthor to Professor Xavier's Superman (brain vs brawn). He controls metal. Xavier controls minds. The lack of symmetry is refreshing and authentic -- it has the ring of truth, in an odd way.

Magneto's portrayal as a sympathetic bad guy culminated in Ian McKellen's Magneto in the first two X-Men films (of the third we will not speak): it was understandable that a holocaust survivor would resort to extreme methods in order to prevent mutants from being numbered and put it camps like the Jews. In the first film he was not aware that his master plan would kill people; in the second he attempted to turn a genocide machine someone else built back on its maker and its maker's race. Though he would have killed countless numbers, his plan had a kind of justice. McKellen -- the best actor in the X-Men films, and one that stole the show a bit -- lent Magneto a tremendous amount dignity. Morrison thought he lent him too much.

In New X-Men: Planet X Morrison's wonderful character Xorn, who everybody liked, turned out to have been Magneto the whole time. The unjustified and unprepared plot twist was only the start of the problems. When Magneto shows himself he appears as an insane terrorist, totally unsympathetic. Morrison's Magneto, still a holocaust survivor, claims that studies how mere humans (as opposed to super-powered mutants) don't feel pain (a common racist argument justifying violence). He also acts like a Nazi dictator and herds people into crematoriums, and uses street drugs like a junkie. He has no dignity; he is too crummy to even hate in a fun way. After Morrison left the book other writers tried to write Morrison's Magneto out of continuity ("that Magneto was an imposter") and satisfy Xorn fans by inventing a way to make Xorn a real character and not a mask. Here is a wikipedia article on the whole thing. In an interview on popimage Morrison talked about his Magneto plotline New X-Men: Planet X. This is what he said:
The 'Planet X' story was partially intended as a comment on the exhausted, circular nature of the X-Men's ever-popular battle with Magneto and by extension, the equally cyclical nature of superhero franchise re-inventions. I ended the book exactly where I came on board, with Logan killing Magneto AGAIN, as he had done at the end of Scott Lobdell's run. Evil never dies in comic book universes. It just keeps coming back. Imagine Hitler back for the hundredth time to menace mankind. So, in the way that something like 'Marvel Boy' had that insistent 'teenage hard on' engine driving its rhythms, 'Planet X' is steeped in an exhausted, world-weary, 'middle-aged' ennui that spoke directly of both my own and Magneto's frustrations, disillusionment and disconnection, as well as the endless everything-is-not-enough frustrations of a certain segment of comics aging readership. In hindsight, I think I overdid the world weary a little but, you know, my loved ones were dying all around me while I was working on those issues, so I'm entitled to a little stumble into miseryland. Fantomex's line [he accused Magneto of speaking in cliches] summed up my own cynicism at that moment, definitely and seems justified by subsequent plot developments. In my opinion, there really shouldn't have been an actual Xorn - he had to be fake, that was the cruel point of him - and it should have been the genuine Magneto, frayed to the bare, stupid nerve and schizoid-conflicted as he was in Planet X, not just some impostor. There's loads of good stuff in Planet X - it's just that miasma of bleakness and futility which hovers over the whole thing.

What people often forget, of course, is that Magneto, unlike the lovely Sir Ian McKellen, is a mad old terrorist twat. No matter how he justifies his stupid, brutal behaviour, or how anyone else tries to justify it, in the end he's just an old bastard with daft, old ideas based on violence and coercion. I really wanted to make that clear at this time.
Morrison names McKellen and now we see the problem. Harold Bloom's poetics of influence makes the simple claim that writers need both to be original (in order to be needed; if they were not original we would go somewhere else) and to be in continuity with a tradition (if a poem is too radical -- e.g. ink just spilled on a page -- it won't be recognized as part of the history of poetry at all). For Bloom poetic freedom is only meaningful if it is freedom against some prior poem. Wordsworth's Tintern Abby is a powerful poem, for Bloom, because it manages to be like Milton's Paradise Lost, and to be its own poem. Most poems, for Bloom, just repeat the accomplishments of the past (Southey's Madoc is just another Epic poem), or are meaninglessly original (Allen Ginsberg's Howl is just Ginsberg being embarrassingly hysterical, and is of no poetic value).

Morrison's Magneto fails on both of Bloom's levels. On the one hand Morrison wants to tell a story about how Magneto keeps coming back as a bad repetition, and so he writes a bad repetition of historical dictators, and an X-Men comic book that, because it is about cycle, gives us things we have seen before. The problem is Morrison isn't doing anything interesting with this idea; he is just doing what any hack writer does: repeating something we already know. On the other hand he is enacting too strong a break with the past: his Magneto is not the Magneto we have seen in the comics, nor is he show any continuity with McKellen's Magneto. It is the McKellen connection that ultimately sinks him. McKellen OWNS Magneto -- he owns the character in the hearts and minds of everyone who saw the first two X-Men films -- and Morrison is not going to get to have a different version of Magneto without a fight. But he doesn't fight -- doesn't try to show that his Magneto makes more sense than McKellen's, doesn't try to show why his version of Magneto is better or more necessary or inevitable -- he just ignores McKellen, and so he fails. His break with the past is meaningless because it ignores the past.

A lot of fans defended what Morrison did on the grounds that in Morrison's final New X-Men story it was revealed that Magneto was being controlled by an evil bacteria colony that was transmitting itself through the drugs Magneto was on. The Unofficial Guide to Grant Morrison's New X-Men (thanks Stephen Frug) -- quite smart in many respects -- makes this the lynchpin. This may be a narrative fact -- it may be what happened in Morrison's story -- but emotionally Planet X was Morrison's Magneto story, and it only makes sense in that way. If that wasn't Magneto but merely Magneto being controlled by some outside force, then Morrison avoided a genuine engagement with the character and failed to deliver what a major X-Men writer must -- retellings of the great stories in a new way. We know Morrison was trying to deliver new versions of old favorites: the original X-Men team is represented (with a Latino girl named Angel as Angel and Emma Frost with diamond powers as the new "Ice"man), the Shi'ar, the Return to Weapon X (Assault on Weapon Plus), The Phoenix and The Days of Future Past (Here Comes Tomorrow), and the attack of Apocalypse (all of the apocalypse rhetoric and imagery surrounding the evil bacteria colony -- the Beast, Apollyon, the notion of evolution as the highest call -- points toward Apocalypse the character and the Apocalypse in the final book of the bible). If Morrison's Magneto wasn't Magneto he failed as a translator of Dante would fail if he left out the first few cantos of the Inferno.

The only time Morrison has been overwhelmed and crushed by the spirit of an earlier creator was when he was much younger (Arkham Asylum is a too-earnest attempt to make "serious" comics in the Neil Gaiman vein). He was nearly overwhelmed by the spirit of Alan Moore's Promethea on Zatanna (his Zatanna was basically a weak version of Promethea), but was saved because Zatanna was only part of a much larger Seven Soldiers project; in that way he contains in miniature, rather than repeats, Moore's accomplishment. The dialogue in Vimanarama sounded very much like Joss Whedon -- bascially the guy who took over Morrison's New X-Men -- but the book scrapes by because it is such a small project and the Bollywood thing is original. Ian McKellen, however, is the definitive Magneto just as Frank Miller's 1980s Batman is THE Batman. Morrison probably thought McKellen was not a real presence because he was just an actor -- a small part of a whole other medium -- but he was wrong. Actors are comic book creators too.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Announcements: A Book at Continuum, a Blurb at DC

Continuum International -- the press that brought you my How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Slavoj Zizek's Interrogating the Real, and Harold Bloom's Kabbalah and Criticism -- has picked up an extended version of my doctoral thesis, Imaginary Biographies: Misreading the Lives of the Poets. It will be published as a limited edition (libraries only) hardcover monograph in (I expect) 2007, and will be generally available (i.e. affordable) in bookstores twelve to eighteen months later. David Barker, my editor on the superhero book, will also be my editor here. I will keep everyone updated on this, and at some point may ask you to talk me up to your local or college librarian.

First the poetry then the comics. In my Comics Out 26 July 2006 post I forgot to tell you to pick up Douglas Rushkoff and Liam Sharp's first Testament collection, "Akedah" (Vertigo/DC Comics). It comes well recommended, with blurbs from Forward Weekly and Grant Morrison on the front cover, a blurb from Variety on the back cover, and, on the splash title page, blurbs from Ain't It Cool News, Entertainment Weekly, Columbus Alive!, Robert Anton Wilson, Geoff Klock, and the Comics Buyer's Guide, in that order. "Bible scholar brains meet cyberpunk-superhero brawn! Explosive!" was my contribution, and I was pleased to see my name and my blurb right next to a blurb from the author of the Illuminatus! trilogy. Go check it out. I will be blogging about Testament shortly.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

In Defense of Ally McBeal

Let's start with a youtube clip from Ally McBeal -- James Marsden (X-Men, Superman Returns) sings "The Lady is a Tramp."

I know why everyone hated this show but I think it had a lot going for it and wanted to offer a defense of it on a single point. David E. Kelley is the only guy working to keep the genre of the American Musical alive after it got eaten by Disney cartoons. Mulin Rouge was fun, but a dead end (it took that kind of pastiche about as far as it's going to go). Ally McBeal attempted to keep the whole thing fresh, and injected life into the genre by fusing it with the weekly legal drama, and by incorporating the singing into the narrative. His twist is that, rather than using song as a kind of metaphor for an inner state, Kelley's characters are aware that they are singing -- at their after-work bar, in a hallucination, in their fantasy life, in a church choir, as part of a courtroom demonstration. Kelley had earlier failed to keep the musical alive in his short-lived bomb Cop Rock, but he did a much better job here creating the kind of whimsical background necessary to justify constant singing. His characters are romantics who prefer illusion to cold reality. His favorite senario -- here, on Picket Fences, on Boston Legal, on all his shows -- is the quirky, half charming mentally ill person who may get more out of life than so called normal people. Taking song seriously becomes, in the show, the imagination defending itself against a universe of death, as in the poems of Wallace Stevens.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Comics Out 26 July 2006

Bachalo's X-Men is out this week along with the first issue of Grant Morrison's run on Batman. And comics news this week is too much to handle with Newsarama's coverage of San Diego Comic-con. I have not had a chance to read everything, but the Depak Chopra / Grant Morrison event looked good. My friend Alex Su was good enough to send me the link to the video. Morrison's comments on his upcoming Wildcats and Authority runs were more than interesting. The Futurist was there -- getting people to see his film and promoting -- and he may have a few things to add. Anyone else -- reading the reports or who was there in person -- should sift through the info and tell us what we should notice.

And don't miss the Hellboy animated site, which launched this week.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Comic Book Images (Commonplace Book)

There is no reason a Commonplace Book cannot contain images from comic books. I grabbed four images today that I thought were great details in great comic books.

The first is from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's WE3 3: a dead body stares blankly at the sky; bullets rained down from the sky on her, and now actual rain strikes her retina, creating a beautiful crown of water.

The second is from Grant Morrison and Ed McGuinness's JLA: Classified 2: Batman is supervising the Squire, who is hung, Mission Impossible-style, over a cube of stars -- an infant universe -- trying to contact the missing JLA; her pony-tail gets a separate suspension apparatus.

The third is from Frank Miller's Sin City: That Yellow Bastard. A figure with a revolver emerges from the shadows; going for minimalism and a hyperbolic stark black and white, Miller has not drawn the barrel of the gun: he draws the tip of the gun but there is a large part of the barrel that the viewer just mentally fills in.

The fouth -- actually two images -- are the Travis Charest covers to the two collections of Alan Moore's WildC.A.Ts run. Charest is a great artist, one of my top five, who works slowly and has spent years on a legendary project no one has seen. He has a weird sense of humor, and his covers here place the team and their enemies -- fairly standard comic book action heroes -- in a version of the Gap Kahki adds. Genius.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Titles of The Ultimates

Comic book titles are often just to be thrown away -- sometimes an issue might have a title, sometimes not -- and are almost always forgettable. In the Ultimates, the titles are doing a lot of important work, enlarging the story through allusion and complicating the story with deep and serious irony.

There are movie, book, and song references: Big, How I Learned to Love the Hulk (cf. Doctor Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb -- the Hulk is the product of a bomb), Dead Man Walking, Born on the Fourth of July, the ironic The Art of War, 21st Century Boy. The Defenders is the name of a superhero team, but the Ultimates issue called The Defenders is just ironic -- these guys could never defend anything. A savage domestic abuse scene, and the revenge it engenders are set up as classic superhero-supervillain matches, though they are anything but: Giant Man vs The Wasp, Captain America vs Giant Man. There are understated titles like Thunder, Brothers, and The Experts. Super-Human is simplicity itself, the introduction of the idea of powers, but it is taken apart in the title Persons of Mass Destruction, in which having superpowers is likened to Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction; Homeland Security reinforces the connection. The Passion Play likens the suffering of Thor to the suffering of Christ, while suggesting that the takedown of Thor is all theater, which it is. Loki is playing with everyone.

The most recent three have been the best: Grand Theft America, Axis of Evil, and America Strikes Back. The first likens the attack on America to car theft, and suggests that America is not an ideal but an industry, a product. Axis of Evil, since the "bad guys" call themselves The Liberators and pose genuine questions about America's foreign policy, questions exactly who is the evil -- America or its enemies. America Strikes Back seems patriotic enough until we remember the title is an allusion to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back -- America is the Empire, America is evil.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Edward Gorey's The Curious Sofa

One of Edward Gorey best works is The Curious Sofa. Gorey's books are tiny, strange illustrated books that look like relics of the nineteenth century. The cover of The Curious Sofa calls it "a pornographic work by Ogdred Weary," a name that is an anagram of Edward Gorey. The pseudonym suggests the work must be pornographic -- the author is not using his real name. But the word Weary doesn't seem quite right for an author of erotica. It's not exactly "Lance Goodthrust." Each page of The Curious Sofa has a simple stiffly drawn image and a caption. The story is odd but apparently simple: a girl, Alice, is seduced into a world of debauched bisexual/animal orgies until she is taken to a room with a "curious sofa" and something unclear but unspeakable happens; the end.

What is interesting is how the story leads you to its weird conclusion. None of the images in the book show anything remotely pornographic. Every image has a caption, and almost every caption suggests something sexual without going into any detail -- at all. “Lady Celia led Alice to her boudoir, where she suggested the girl to perform a rather surprising service” captions a picture of the feet of Lady Celia on the far left, and Alice, presumably nude, behind a screen. Of course you never find out what the "very surprising service" is; the next page just suggests another similarly vague sexual act. At the end of the book the sofa is suddenly introduced:

The end. What makes that ending so insane, so disturbing but so cold, so interesting but so silent, is that -- like a big plot twist a la The Sixth Sense -- it makes you go back and reevaluate everything you have read. You thought you knew what was going on in the previous pages: everyone was having sex of some sort. -- But were they? Actually the book was never specific at all, about anything. For the length of the story you read between the lines and as the story ends you fall into the space provided with nothing at all to ground you; you have caught yourself in the trap the book sets up. It is a cunning and very dark parable on the power of the sexual imagination, and striking proof of that old Cosmo cliche that the brain is the biggest sexual organ of all.

"Weary" indeed.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Comics Out 19 July 2006

Testament was the only thing I saw this week that caught my eye. But Newsarama has put up DC's October solicits: The Dini Williams's Batman October 4, All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder October 11, Morrison's Authority October 18, and hold your breath for October 25th -- Grant Morrison's fourth issue of Batman ships on the same day as Seven Soldiers #1 and Planetary 26 (the last issue besides an epilogue). If all goes well, which it probably won't.

And check out Mike Mignola's The Amazing Screw-On Head. Its a 22 minute cartoon television pilot available online for free.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Commonplace Book)

Emerson is one of the few things that makes me feel better when I don't get any work done; perhaps he will do the same for you. Here are the three quotes I think of when I am being unproductive:
"A man must have aunts and cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have a barn and woodshed, must go to the market and to the blacksmith's shop, must saunter and sleep and be inferior and silly."

"We must be very suspicious of the deceptions of the element of time. It takes a good deal of time to eat or to sleep, or to earn a hundred dollars, and very little time to entertain a hope and an insight which becomes the light of our life."

"I like my boy, with his endless, sweet soliloquies and iterations, and his utter inability to conceive why I should not leave all my nonsense business and writing, and come to tie up his toy horse, as if there was or could be any end to nature beyond his horse."

Monday, July 17, 2006

Flashy Comic Book Lettering and Dialogue Balloons

Lettering and dialogue balloons are aspects of comics that often go without comment, generally being unpretentious. When we do notice lettering, it is usually something meant to suggest weirdness: Grant Morrison’s Nebula Man (in JLA: Classified) speaks white lettering in black dialogue balloons, and Chris Bachalo’s Lord Absinth (in Steampunk) has baroque balloons and lettering – the word “French” is coloured like the country’s flag, the word “ladies” is in pink – to communicate his insanity and decadence.

My favourite dialogue balloons in recent comics are in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely WE3. Because the story revolves around animals who can barely speak (and only then though a mechanical device), dialogue is kept to a minimum. Rather than the clichéd “My god--” one character “speaks” an exclamation mark; rather than waste words on an exchange about the morning paper, Morrison and Quitely establish the world of the story by giving the reader a dialogue balloon wrapped around the image of the newspaper the two are looking at. The minimal dialogue keeps things intense.

On a trip to Paris I picked up Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s Le Processus (Delcourt 1993). Le Processus is a weird, Kafkaesque book (the German title of Kafka’s Trial is Der Prozess) that anticipates Alan Moore’s Promethea in having its hero exit the comics page and stand above it (there is an image of him walking on the pages we have just read), and in having him travel from illustrated pages to photographic ones; and Moore approaches, but never reaches, something as outlandish as the bit in which Mathieu’s hero enters “Le Vortex” and the physical page comes apart creating a three dimensional spiral, as in a pop up book. Just before this moment, just before the hero rises above the pages of his story, he walks along the walls of a network of cubicles (anticipating his walking on the gutters between comic book panels): the dialogue balloons of the men in the cubicles do not properly face the reader (they are not on the picture plane); instead they run parallel to the cubicle walls. Their speech takes on a brute physicality and we no longer read the dialogue balloons just to gather what people in the scene are saying; we now think of the dialogue balloons as dialogue balloons, just as our hero will realize he has been living in a comic book and not in the “real” world. Moore cribs this in Promethea, for the same reason, as does Grant Morrison in Flex Mentallo.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Brad Winderbaum's Satacracy 88: Episode One

Brad Winderbaum, creator of The Futurist (about which I have already blogged) and the assistant to the executive producer on the upcoming Marvel Comics Iron Man film -- as well as a frequent contributor here -- today launches his new project, Satacracy 88, at The format? Four-minute live-action choose-your-own-adventure micro-television webisodes premiering once a month on your computer or cell phone. The genre? David Lynch meets Alias. The powerful lead actress Diahnna Nicole Baxter, Brad's girlfriend, has recently finished shooting a horror movie called Shadow Puppets with James Marsters (Spike on Buffy). Go see the short now, and come right back here for the commentary.

Filmmaking is expensive, and if you don't have a blockbuster budget you have to make the limitation work for you. You want to see a perfect example of working with a low budget in the sci-fi genre? Rent Primer. You want to see another one? Go back and watch Satacracy 88. Like early Marvel Comics the fantasy is invigorated by a real world heft. The whole thing takes place in our world, not a stylized funhouse universe, and it is better off for it. David Lynch once remarked that he likes to film in people's houses because you cannot re-create the knick-knacks real people collect. With a 200 million dollar sci-fi budget, you would never think of the simple detail of the post-its on Susan's computer screen. Real people, the viewers, will be deciding what happens; the world should be theirs.

The details are exquisite: the logo, the sound design when Angela cuts the tomato with subtly violent precision, the jump-cut editing in the bathroom, the 88 push-ups, the disorienting fade-to blacks (did anything happen in the interim?), those eyes. I thought the B-movie horror nightmare -- the laughing face with the bloody mouth and the black background -- was a nice touch (when we have nightmares aren't they all like B-movies?); David Lynch and Alias are two influences, and both draw on B-movies heavily (Lynch pulls on everything from bad cop movies and soap operas to Rebel Without a Cause knockoffs and J.J. Abrams has said that Towering Inferno is his favorite movie).

Does she take the pill or not? Go vote now, then come right back here and give the director some feedback (he is reading your posts). The e-mail everyone you know and send them the link. The more support this project gets the better it will be. Then in a month -- like a comic book -- you will get the next installment. Get in on the ground floor of this so that when your friends shove cell phones in your hands and try to get you to watch it you can tell them that, not only have you been watching it, you also guided it to where it is now.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Comics Out 12 July 2006

In addition to getting 52, which I am not going to discuss, I see Ultimate Fantastic Four this week, as well as X-Men 188 (I will buy anything with Bachalo art). The Midtown Comics weekly release link is in the bar on the right, as is Newsarama. Discuss comics and comics news this week, and recommend things. (And anyone in the UK might want to talk Superman Returns).

Giacomo Leopardi (Commonplace Book)

Since blogs can easily act as commonplace books -- like W.H. Auden's A Certain World -- I thought I would post quotations at least once a week in addition to my regular postings. This way I can collect things that I think are quite good even when I don't have anything specific to say about them.

This week I give you Giacomo Leopardi:
No profession is as sterile as that of literature. Yet pretense is so valuable in the world that with its aid even literature becomes edifying. Pretense is the soul, so to speak, of the social life and is an art without which no other art of faculty, considered according to its effects on the human mind, can be perfect. Consider the fortunes of two persons, one of true value in every way, the other of false value. You will find that the latter is more fortunate than the former; indeed the false one is usually fortunate, the true one unfortunate. Pretense makes an effect even if truth be lacking, but truth without pretense can do nothing. Nor does this arise, I think, from our evil inclinations, but because bare truth is always an impoverished thing, and hence if we would delight or move men we must use illusion and heightening, and promise more and better than we can give. Nature herself is an impostor with man, and renders his life likeable and bearable chiefly by means of imagination and illusion.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Shadowcat, Wolverine, Batman, Buffy

The final panel of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men 15 -- Whedon's strongest issue thus far -- ends with an image of Shadowcat (Kitty Pryde) standing in running water and proclaiming "Now it's my turn." This is, of course, an homage to Uncanny X-Men 132 (The Dark Phoenix Saga) in which Wolverine said the same thing in the same situation when he fought the Hellfire Club.

The moment -- Shadowcat is the only team member not to be taken down by the bad guys -- also invokes the standard Justice League of America plot in which the villains have subdued the entire super-powered team but underestimate Batman. In Grant Morrison's JLA: New World Order for example, Protex, having captured Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter, can't believe Batman is giving him so much trouble. "Batman! Batman! He's only a man!" he cries. The captured Superman smiles to himself, and Batman saves the day. The bad guys ignore Batman because "he is only a man" (i.e. only a human being without superpowers); the bad guys will ignore Shadowcat because she is only a little girl, and not a man (like Wolverine).

In his introduction to the collection of his comic book Fray (the only indispensable Buffy comic book spin-off) Whedon says this:
"Don't get me wrong, there were certainly other things on my mind in my young adolescence. But almost certainly topping the list were girls and comics. More specifically girls in comics. Because, frustratingly, there weren't that many. At least in the Marvel universe, where I made my nest, there were very few interesting girls young enough for a twelve year old to crush on. ... Until Kitty Pryde... Cut to me grown up -- yet somehow not remotely matured. The idea for Buffy the Vampire Slayer came from that same lack I felt as a child. Where are the girls? Girls who can fight, who can stand up for themselves, who have opinions and fears and cute outfits?"
Shadowcat, Whedon comes out and pretty much says, is the origin of his obsession with cute girls who can fight -- Buffy, all the Slayers, Willow, River Tam (from Firefly) and Wonder Woman.

That final panel in Astonishing X-Men 15 is important because in it Whedon invokes the two biggest male bad-asses in comic book history -- Wolverine and Batman -- and puts the origin of his cute girl fighters in their place. He thus usurps comic book history, making his preoccupations central. None of this would matter unless he was such a strong writer, strong enough to make us see the history of comic books a little differently in the light he shines. "Shadowcat, Wolverine, Batman, Buffy," we say to ourselves, "That actually makes sense." Only Whedon could make us see those names as equal, and importantly related.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Anne Carson's Epitaph: Evil

A quick post today on Anne Carson's Epitaph: Evil from her 2000 collection Men in the Off Hours. Here is the whole poem:
To get the sound take everything that is not the sound drop it
Down a well, listen.
Then drop the sound. Listen to the difference
The enjambment of the final line is fantastic -- the sentence appears to end with the word difference, and then in the final line, in the final word, we discover we are being told, not to listen to the difference, but to listen to the difference shatter. The whole thing has the beauty and enigma of a Zen Koan.

And yet I am going to risk some of my authority as a poetry scholar and say that I don't really get it. Carson is a serious, wonderful poet, who deserves the praise she gets from both poets and critics. I have written an entire chapter of my doctoral thesis on a cycle of poems from this volume (her best, I think), and I have read (several times) all her published work. Why is the poem called Epitaph: Evil? I don't know. Beyond the connection to Zen Koans, what is the poem about? I don't know. As a teacher I aim to show how poetry appreciation can be an important part of living a full life, but I don't have anything more to say about this particular poem (though I wouldn't be surprised if someone did). I wanted to use my failure here as an opportunity to dispel the idea that poetry is only obscure if you don't know what you are doing. I am a poetry expert, and the thing is far from clear to me. And there is nothing wrong with that. Don't let the obscurity of contemporary poetry keep you from reading it. It may become clear in time, and other poems by the same writer may strike you more directly. Also, as in Epitaph: Evil, you may learn to like something you don't understand at all.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Comics Out 6 July 2006

Nothing coming out this week caught my eye, and I didn't see anything shocking on Newsarama, but if anyone has anything to say, this is your place to say it. Comment away. (Comments on Superman Returns should go under "Comics Out 28 June 2006.")

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Snake (The Video Game from 1980)

When I was a security guard I used to play a video game called Snake on my cell phone. Snake was originally a game from 1980: here is the Wikipedia article on it, and here is a place you can play it online.

While I have recently attempted to avoid self-indulgent over-interpretations, especially on this blog, I am going to give in here. Without overdoing a connection between the snake, the apple and the fall of man from the Garden of Eden -- between the four walls of the game and the fallen, closed physical universe -- I think the game shows a great sense of Gnostic fatalism. The snake is constantly in motion, unable to stop or even slow down. There are only three options: the snake can crash into the walls or itself (Game Over); it can perpetually avoid the apple (playing while avoiding racking up any points); or it can grab the apple only to have another and another instantly appear (the game proper). The first is choosing death. The second Lacan would call the drive avoiding the lure of the object-cause of desire: basically asceticism. The third is what Lacan would identify as the metonymic structure of desire, basically the fact that we never want something, but always something else. Every apple yields another and the point of the game is to keep grabbing apples. Every time the snake grabs an apple it is enlarged but becomes more of a danger to itself; as the snake gets bigger it gets harder to avoid the snake crashing into itself. In the game we are not only our own worst enemy, we are our only enemy; the strategy of the game is to follow the apples while avoiding encountering ourselves or the walls of our prison, which becomes harder with every encounter with desire which is never the last (the apples never stop coming). There is no way to win Snake: the best we can look forward to is getting the maximum score that results when wmaneuverre in such as way as to fill up the entire playing field -- our desire leads us to our death as the last apple crashes us into our tail as there is no where else to go.