Archive for August, 2012
Very few people write stories about noble failure, about people who go hard after a dream and fail to attain it. We tell ourselves lots and lots of stories about success after adversity. We tell stories about hard workers who keep pursuing their dreams despite setbacks; those setbacks make their ultimate triumphs all the sweeter. In movies, books, TV shows, and comics, the failure is a loser, usually a broken and embittered one, and often our rising hero’s resentful enemy.
In Heart, Oren “Rooster” Redmond starts out on a typical enough hero’s journey for a sports story. He’s 24 and dissatisfied with his office-cubicle life when he sees his brother fight in an MMA match and decides he wants to do the same. He has early success as an amateur, pushes his coach to let him go pro, and wins his first few fights as a pro, too. He almost loses the third, redoubles his training, wins his fourth. He’s quit his job by now, is living in his mother’s basement so he can train full-time.
Then he loses.
He’s devastated. He can’t believe it. But we know what is supposed to come next: after some head-hanging and soul-searching, Oren will get back in the game, wiser and purer, and begin his climb to the top once more. Having tasted defeat he will appreciate his eventual triumph all the more.
Only that’s not what happens in Heart. Instead Oren slowly comes to realize that he is out of his depth, that the men he’s fighting are stronger, more skilled, above all more fearless than he. In his final fight all he wants is to go out on a win, even though at this point it’s meaningless, but his younger, faster opponent overwhelms him and puts him in an armbar.
Thing is we can’t all be champions. And some of us are just lucky enough to get a few good fights under our belts before the game passes us by. The last four years of my life spent chasing this dream. I just let all of it go. And honestly it’s a fucking relief.
I know people who have given up on dreams and described that same sense of relief. I have not yet reached the point where I can give up on mine, but I have considered it. Thing is, while giving up on dreams is disappointing, it shouldn’t be shameful. Not all of us can be champions. Most of us can’t be, that’s just math. So must all the rest of us hang our heads and search our souls forever because we gave it an honest go and lost? Wouldn’t it be better to count ourselves lucky to have gotten in some good fights, and then move on, as Oren does? He gets a new job, finds love, and is proud of his fighting days. So should we all.
Thank you, Blair Butler, for writing one for the rest of us.
Brief preview at Comixology.
I can’t decide whether to be pissed off by Ales Kot‘s one-shot Wild Children or impressed that he is willing to risk pissing readers off in his attempt to say something meaningful. In it, a group of teenagers take their teachers hostage, streaming everything they do live to the Web. Very quickly Kot begins to play metafictional games, in which the characters acknowledge they are within the fictional reality of a comic book and, addressing the reader, make larger claims about the nature of all reality.
We’re a generation that doesn’t recognize just one reality; we recognize them all and they’re all real. All equally … real. As we travel, we create a seamless grid: but some realities become half-realized, haunted by their own possible pasts and futures. Perpetually in flux, these realities remain frightened to the point of immobility: a personal psychospiritual crisis of a universe that’s momentarily blinded by the realization that it’s also less than an atom. So we travel back … and we help fix things.
Like I said, I’m always happy to see someone taking on big ideas like this in a comic. Unfortunately, this big idea strikes me as horseapples. This kind of absolute relativism just stopped being interesting to me at all a long time ago, and attaching it to “our generation,” these children of the internet, only makes it worse. Are privileged kids surfing the internet really the heroes of the new age? Do we not need to worry about power or control of the means of making truth anymore?
Think about the fact that in China, the government-controlled internet reports the air quality wrong. How does that fit into this world of infinite realities? More to the point, can’t we confront the problem of the Great Firewall using the everyday epistemologies to hand, without needing to resort to this consciousness-raising dose of fictional universal love? And even if that were a better way to address the Great Firewall, wouldn’t it be more interesting to talk about it in the context of that specific example rather than airy generalities? Ales Kot obviously greatly admires The Invisibles—it would have been obvious even if he hadn’t referred to it—but part of what made that series successful was that Grant Morrison satisfied the reader’s need for stories and characters even as he attempted to make his complicated mystical point about the world. Maybe there just wasn’t room for that here.
Still, even if I didn’t love this one, the fact that Ales Kot thought this big means I will certainly be checking out the next thing he does.
Joshua Hagler is a terrific comic book artist, probably because he is primarily an artist. He has exhibited his large paintings in galleries here in the U.S. and in Europe. No wonder, then, that the small-scale paintings of The Boy Who Made Silence have depth and creativity far, far beyond what one would normally see in a comic book. (Volume 1, published this spring, collects six issues of the comic from back in 2008.)
The story gets a bit overwhelmed by the art, but it’s still intelligible. A boy falls into a river and although he is saved from drowning, he loses his hearing. When he gets out of the hospital he goes to a parade and screams, and while he screams an absolute silence descends, allowing the parade-goers a moment of transcendent clarity. The boy becomes an object of religious fascination as a result.
It’s a strong premise and I’d like to see it played out, but I have a few problems with how Hagler is doing it. First, there are an awful lot of panels that consist of one character telling another or telling the reader something expositional or philosophical. Not nearly enough panels show action or conflict directly. It’s as if the art is on too high a plane to condescend to menial narrative work. As a result it feels like nothing ever happens, even when things do happen.
Second, I think Hagler is making a mistake Thomas Pynchon refers to in his preface to Slow Learner as “try[ing] to show off my ear before I had one.” In trying to do regional dialect he has characters use words like “cain’t” and “iffen,” and unless all this is supposed to be happening before 1950, which several details suggest it is not, that seems awfully archaic. I half expected to see a “sho ’nuff.”
Still, gorgeous art. Check out large swaths of it online.
I have come to appreciate nonmemoir nonfiction comics a lot. These include the works of Scott McCloud, Larry Gonick, and Fred Van Lente. Manvir Singh joins that group with a lovely little self-published comic called Zoostalgia, which memorializes some of the animals that have gone extinct in the last 50,000 years.
Each small two-page spread pairs a doodle of the animal with a single factoid about it. Many if not most of the animals shown went extinct because of human hunting or human-caused habitat change (which effectively puts the lie to th old idea that ancient humans lived in eternal harmony with nature). The most recent and saddest is the baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin considered in Chinese mythology to be an enchanted princess, declared extinct in 2006 after the construction of the Three Rivers Dam.
Singh also has a self-published book available on concepts in evolution, which I plan to pick up if I can find it. Another pamphlet of his, Lifecycles, is available for free download under a Creative Commons license.
There are bits in the first issue of the anthology Black Eye that I liked a lot. Most of it is from author/artists who already have established reputations, like Al Columbia, Kaz, and Ivan Brunetti. I especially liked R. Sikoryak‘s retelling of Medea in the style of Momma and a sweet little untitled fable from Ludovic Dubeurme.
Overall, though, this is one of the rare times when I felt an anthology’s guiding theme took something away from the material it contained. Editor Ryan Standfest tells us early and often that Black Eye is devoted to “black humor” and that’s a genre I generally like. It doesn’t get much blacker, humorwise, than Arsenic Lullaby, for example, and I love that thing. But Standfest’s sincere pursuit of “black humor” is so relentless, page after page, that the comedy drains away and all the mutilation and Holocaust jokes are left feeling kind of bleak. Nothing is shocking when it’s all shocking.
I found it revealing that when Standfest interviews Al Feldstein, who wrote for the legendary EC Comics back in the 1950s, Feldstein seems genuinely confused by the laser focus on one kind of joke.
AF: Our subject matter was completely open to any part of Americana …
RS: It seems that much of your writing for the horror and science fiction titles had a strain of dark humor running through it. Was this intentional?
AF: No, not intentional—although I’m sure it reflected some of my personality. Except for the intrinsic ironies I had a tendency to include in my story-plotting ideas, I did not harbor any hidden desire to work with humor exclusively.
RS: How would you characterize your approach to humor?
AF: Pure and simple: make me laugh! I have no explanation for the “black humor” that you feel was prevalent…
Standfest has a great Rolodex of talented humorists. I just hope he lightens up about needing them all to be dark.
The two author/artists behind Strumpet—Jeremy Day and Ellen Lindner—used to publish an anthology of comics by U.K. women called Whores of Mensa (along with a couple of collaborators). This new anthology collects women from the U.S. as well. There’s nothing particularly feminist about the work itself, but giving more space to women in a male-dominated field is always welcome.
As with most anthologies, there’s stuff I like and stuff I connected with less. On the positive side were Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg‘s story about a guy who parties with cats, Maartje Schalkx‘s short piece about a nun who spent 57 years alone in her cell, and Tania Meditsky‘s weird reconstruction of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s first date. So now I have three more artists to follow online. What more can you ask from an anthology?
Apart from those, you can preview some Strumpet pages here.
Sometimes current events cooperate with authors. For Mat Johnson, this is one of those times: Right State, his book about the rising threat of right-wing, white-power militias comes out the week after a major terror attack by a member of one of those militias, when we’ve all been reminded that they really are dangerous.
(I’m sure Mat Johnson never would have asked for that kind of luck, by the way. I’m sure he wanted his book to serve as a warning, not come too late for warnings.)
Right State‘s main character, Ted Akers, is a conservative Fox News pundit who gets recruited by the Secret Service to infiltrate a militia in Pennsylvania. It’s wildly implausible, of course, but thematically it’s clear what Johnson is trying to do: force a Fox News representative to face the consequences of his rhetoric. It mostly works, in that Akers meets this militia leader—a former Department of Homeland Security agent who was radicalized by things Akers said on TV—and Akers must turn his attention to foiling his scheme.
One thing I really wish had been there more strongly, though, was an opportunity for Akers to recognize his words in the militia leader’s actions. We don’t see a ton of Akers on TV before he goes undercover, and I’m not sure we get enough of a reflection of Akers’s TV persona in the way militia members adore him.
See, Johnson has to walk a fine line in characterizing Akers. On the one hand, he has to avoid making him a Sorkinesque Noble Conservative (the modern liberal’s equivalent of the Noble Savage). He does that by having Akers be openly bigoted to his Muslim Secret Service handler, which goes a long way toward establishing his bona fides as a Fox News asshole. On the other hand, he has to make him sane enough that he can ultimately recoil from the militia’s insanity, as he finally does when he realizes the level of violence they have planned. But since it is so hard to establish a convincing character for Akers, he ends up a bit of a blank, especially in the middle. I kept hoping to hear more of his TV words repeated to him by the racist caricatures in the militia, just so I could calibrate how responsible he should feel for the lunatics who worshiped him—and how responsible he did feel.
One final quibble: the militia leader Akers encounters is far smarter and cagier than those guys tend to be in real life. In Right State, militiamen use LSD to force a new recruit like Akers on a disorienting vision quest, negotiate with a presidential campaign (via a Todd Palin stand-in), and run an elaborate misdirection on the Secret Service in an attempt to sway a presidential election. In real life, militiamen tend to be lone wolf terrorists who do things like shoot a bunch of innocent Sikhs because they mistook them for equally innocent Muslims. Or try to bomb a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade. Or burn down a mosque.
In real life, in other words, right-wing militias are dangerous because they know not to set their sights too high. Because they take aim not at presidents, but at ordinary Americans. Maybe they know that if they ever did take on a president, even the black one with the funny name, that House Republicans could no longer cover for them, as they did in 2009 when they badgered the DHS into backing off their investigation of right-wing terrorism. More likely, though, they’re simply bullies, with the cowardly innate calculus that steers bullies away from anyone stronger than them.
But as I say, these are mainly just quibbles, if for no other reason than that very few other comic book authors even approach the kinds of subjects Mat Johnson does. Who else is writing comics about the nexus between Fox News’s daily denunciations of Obama, Democrats in general, and Muslims, and the rise of right-wing hate groups that take those words seriously? For a decade Fox has been calling Muslims, Democrats, and liberals un-American, treasonous terrorist sympathizers, and for four years they’ve been calling the president a secret Muslim communist foreigner who wants to make War on Christmas and overthrow the free enterprise system. They may think they preserve their deniability with the Cavuto Mark, but we all know what they mean, including the actual terrorists who take them at face value and end up shooting at temples or burning down mosques. For all the small problems I may have with its execution I am very glad that Right State exists, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Harvey Pekar died just about two years ago, in July 2010. By the time he passed, most people who cared about comics had at least heard of him, if only through the 2003 biopic/adaptation American Splendor (which Josh K-sky called one of the only two great comic book movies ever made). With artist after artist over the years Pekar reproduced a recognizable style: short pieces, focused on the hassles and joys of an ordinary guy with a civil-service job in middle America. The only longer work of his I can remember is Our Cancer Year, from 1995, which describes his struggle with cancer.
But in the last few months two new books have come out under his byline, and both depart from his usual style significantly. He retired from his civil service job in 2001, and seems to have had much more time to research and write, because each of these books delves deeply into a single big topic.
The first, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, tells the story of his beloved hometown, from its founding to the present day. Apart from being a fine historian, he has a charming way of describing big political and demographic shifts so simply that you think he’s being naive—until you realize it’s a product of hope. If he can drag big forces down to the human level, it is possible to imagine them changing.
The inner-ring suburbs like Cleveland Heights don’t have the appeal they once did. The city’s population is fairly well-divided between whites and blacks, but black kids are way overrepresented in the public school system. White families live in Cleveland Heights for a little bit, but then move to outlying suburbs. When their kids get to school-age, some whites don’t even consider moving into Cleveland Heights; they think it’s down the tubes already. This is a shame, because the Cleveland Heights Board of Education is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to upgrade the schools! Cleveland Heights is still a quiet, law-abiding area. but it’s been put “BEYOND THE PALE” by many whites.
And you know what? He’s right. There’s nothing mystical or larger-than-life going on here. If white families made different choices, things would be different. It is kind of that simple.
Along the way he tells the story of his life, beside the modern history of Cleveland. It’s a familiar story for fans of the American Splendor comic, but yet another way he grounds big changes in everyday reality.
In the second book, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, Pekar travels around Cleveland and talks to artist JT Waldman about the entire history of Israel, from Biblical times to the present.
I love the framing device of this book perhaps more than anything else about it. Pekar’s Cleveland is like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Mark Twain’s Mississippi: not quite the real place, more like a mythical place that exactly resembles reality. Reading this book together with Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, you realize that the sites he visits with Waldman—like Zubal’s bookstore—are his holy sites, as important to him as the holy sites of Israel.
This subtly but powerfully reinforces one of his major themes: once you take God out of it (and Pekar tells us flatly that he doesn’t believe in God), Israel becomes no more important than any place a person might love, like Cleveland. Its people therefore come in for the same standards of judgment that Clevelanders might apply to themselves. Pekar’s story is as much about the relationship of American Jews to Israel as it is about Israel itself, so using his beloved American city to demystify Israel is incredibly effective.
(Partly, I suppose, I like it because I sympathize with Pekar’s point of view. But I have read better, more persuasive pieces of argument. Agreeing with Pekar might be a necessary condition for me liking his book, but I don’t think it’s a sufficient one.)
Pekar tells his own history alongside Israel’s, just as he did with Cleveland: how and why his parents became fervent Zionists, and how he became disillusioned with Israel after it occupied the West Bank in 1967 and began building settlements there. He needs a device to separate his story from history, so JT Waldman does his history pages with period-appropriate art. For example, he draws the scenes of Roman occupation to look like mosaics, the medieval diaspora to look like the Bayeux tapestry.
Look, as I said, Pekar doesn’t make the most eloquent argument along these lines that I have ever heard. But it is quite moving to read these two last works of his together. These were the last two big subjects he chose to tackle, the two he cared about enough to treat on a grand scale. He could be a bit of a crank, but he was also a profoundly decent man, and his sincerity and honestly come through in the way he talks about both.