skip to content or skip to search form

Archive: January 2005

On Warren Ellis’s characters

I am perhaps not reading this in the way it was intended (and I’m doing it on purpose, even!)—but if I were Warren Ellis, this preview isn’t quite the sort of publicity I’d hope for:

…Jones is very much an original character. Where Spider Jerusalem would use a bowel disrupter to incapacitate his “victims,” Jones gouges their eyeballs out with his own fingers.

Well, it’s a day after I post my new year’s resolution and I’m posting this? It’s all meant to be jovial good fun, I promise. The problem with my new year’s resolution is that it makes me reluctant to poke even good-natured fun, because the internet is such an anti-jovial zone.

No year’s resolution

Speaking of resolutions, this isn’t one, but I was actually quite domestic tonight and am unjustifiably proud of getting many loads of laundry finished as well as dishes and making an apple crisp. Actually I accidentaly put in too much butter, but I think it will turn out tasty nonetheless.

I’m not sure I can promise to be chock full of sweetness and light since I think it might be cathartically fun to be cruel for no reason, but the chances are good that I won’t try it. And speaking of nice, did I mention there’s no comics content here? None!

Instead I’m going to take advantage of our new digital camera to show off what I did knitwise in New Orleans and on the plane to and from, and this is another thing I plan to continue in this new year. [Kelly, I warned you not to look. Recall this.]

Read the rest of this entry »

Debating Iron Council

Debating Iron Council: A bunch of essays about China Miéville's books, with a lengthy response from Miéville.

Via: Dave Intermittent (in a comment)

11 January 2005 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

New year’s resolution

I can’t believe I’m making a new year’s resolution. Well, I’m not really, though, except in that I resolved to do this coincidentally at the beginning of the year.

This year, I am going to avoid snarky ripostes, gibes, and other such verbal attacks. They are seem counter to the spirit of public conversation I have claimed to enjoy most about blogging. I think most targets of past zingers deserved them (insofar as anybody deserves to be zinged), and I came up with some pretty good ones, and it was usually fun at the time. But I read a nasty bit of bile on a blog yesterday, and it annoyed me—until I remembered I’d spilled a little of my own bile on that same blogger a while ago. Oops.

I’m not asking “Why can’t we all get along?” or vowing never again to get into an argument or ‘agreeing to disagree’ with people I disagree with. I hope only to stop myself doing things that annoy me when other people do them and to engage in reasonable conversation—including argument.

(This might look like the sort of self-pitying sadness that bloggers with impaired self-esteem post so they can bask in sycophantic commenters telling them how wonderful they are and not at all as bad as they think. It isn’t, so you don’t need to comment to tell me how reasonable and kind I am. Because you were going to… right? Right?)

Edit: I also resolve to post much more often. Probably.

The academic conversation (not just for academics)

From Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academia: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (which I haven’t read except for the online preview but which I hope to read soon):

But who gives a fig, you ask, about “the academic conversation,” which is often a bad conversation, boring, self-important, and dominated by insider orthodoxies? Academic conversations are often all these things, to be sure, but at their best moments they are more valuable and pertinent to students’ lives than academic-bashers give them credit for. Even so, you persist, isn’t the point of education to produce good citizens, not more academics? Surely it is, but these goals are compatible, for the issues and problems addressed by academic research and teaching are increasingly indistinguishable from the issues we wrestle with as public citizens. The point is not to turn students into clones of professors but to give them access to forms of intellectual capital that have a lot of power in the world.

Those who charge that academic discourse is itself the problem fail to see that talk about books and subjects is as important educationally as are the books and subjects themselves. For the way we talk about a subject becomes part of the subject, a fact that explains why we have book-discussion groups to supplement solitary reading, why Trekkies form clubs and hold conferences as well as privately enjoying Star Trek, and why sports talk call-in shows and sports journalism have arisen alongside the games themselves. Students must not only read texts, but find things to say about them, and no text tells you what to say about it. So our habit of elevating books and subjects over the secondary talk about them only helps keep students tongue-tied.


…one form the academic/popular culture contrast still takes is the complaint that schools and colleges fight a losing battle with popular entertainment for the hearts and minds of the young. The culture of ideas and arguments, so the complaint runs, is constantly overwhelmed and negated by visceral experience and spectacle. How can Socrates, Mill, and Henry James hope to compete for students’ attention with “Survivor,” the Spice Girls, the World Wrestling Federation, and the latest Schwarzenegger/Stallone action hero blockbuster?

The complaint makes sense up to a point, but it is misleading in two ways: first, from an educational point of view, the real opposition should be not between Henry James and the Spice Girls, but between intellectual and nonintellectual discussion of Henry James and the Spice Girls or any other subject. As I have noted, it is not the object in itself that creates problems for students but the public, academic ways of analyzing, arguing, and talking about the object. Members of the Spice Girls fan club do not read academic analyses of the Spice Girls (though if they were students, asking them to do so would be a way to draw them into academic culture).

What is the there there?

So I said last year I got obsessed with world-building, even if I didn’t always know it at the time, and now I’m going to try to play around with a few things to see if I was right about that. I do hope to talk about The Nikopol Trilogy and maybe even will revisit the first Scott Pilgrim before the second book arrives, but those are not for today. Today I’m thinking more about failure or incomplete worlds with protagonists who don’t bumble in the right directions. I tried to read Kingdom Come to see if a lack of coherent, meaningful world is what made it unpalatable to me, only to find that just looking at the art makes me feel ill. I don’t know quite what the problem is, but looking at Superman (whether with his ponytail or his scruffy beard) made me feel like there was a landmine trembling in my stomach. So that was enough of that.

Instead I turned to The Originals, because it just doesn’t quite work for me (whatever that means) and I’m not sure why. Marc Singer convincingly argues that the background is almost the best part, that the fully realized world allows Lel to be the complacent, unreflexive narrator he is. I think he’s probably right, but I was going to argue the opposite, that it’s the lack of situatedness that makes the whole story play out like an elaborate game of paper dolls. I think it’s the weird dancing scenes that throw me, where all the flat flailing arms make me think this is just a parody of something else or maybe of nothing at all. But maybe I should step back first.

The Originals is a tale about the title group of Mods of the future, a gang of snazzily attired hovercraft-riding drug dealers and users, guys who just want to have fun and have pretty girls. Lel and his friend Bok want nothing more than to be Originals (says Lel) and eventually get their wish, only to find that they may not have known what they were getting into and may not have known themselves quite well enough. So while Lel gets deeper and deeper into the drug-pushing side of things, he also manages to snatch away the girl Bok’s admiring, Viv. The Originals fight with their enemies, The Dirt, a gang of nouveau greasers. Eventually there’s an arms race of sorts and a war of retribution and mistaken identity, and a resolution of sorts.

I suppose the basic question raised is why this is set in the future instead of with real drugs and real Mods and real greasers and I’m still inclined to follow the standard line of response that the lack of real-world specificity avoids the corpselike hypertextual connections of Kingdom Come and leaves room for greater emotional connections, but that last part certainly doesn’t hold. Somehow the distance made me a more cynical reader, saying, “Oooh, their dads fought a war and they don’t care! How very like the ’60s and yet it’s the future!” Part of this was gender distance, too, because gender is a very weird thing here and women wield power oddly when they do at all. I don’t always have trouble connecting emotionally to male characters (or connect easily to female ones) but Lel would be a particularly cold fish even if he didn’t show the creepy, callous selfishness he does. But Gibbons is not just rejecting a chance for readers to try to spot the real-life references and locales and whatnot, but perhaps an opportunity for real emotion. I know I’ve bought and I think even advanced the argument that superhero stories succeed because their lack of specificity makes them abstract templates, but the proportions of the template seem wrong here and I can’t plug myself or what I know into it.

None of this quite talks about setting, though, does it? I said it was paper dolls, and it is, except that I like playing with paper dolls when I get to be in charge. (Ok, I did 15 years ago, and I imagine I could pull it off even now.) But it’s not even that, but that the art is flat like an advertising. The cover could be a pack of bubblegum or something, and while I’m not opposed to analyzing that sort of thing, it doesn’t seem to make much of a world here. It’s not just that things aren’t explained; the real world doesn’t always come with plaques about historical events and guidebooks and clear road signs. I’ve done archaeology and I spent last week wandering New Orleans, and I know that most of the fun for me is piecing together imagined understandings of what’s gone on to make these places what they are and what sort of people are in the houses shaping them as I watch. But in The Originals, I can’t figure out how the world fits together because it’s all so disconnected. The Dirt always seem to be in the same hangout, but The Originals have to ask Lel and Bok where to find them. There are warehouses, homes, clubs, highways, with no sense of whether they’re within two blocks of each other or miles apart. And that’s not the problem, still, but I’m not sure what the problem is. I think the real problem is that this whole book is like a didactic film strip. While I’m a bit young for film strips, this is how I imagine them, somewhat over-acted dramatic stills with awkward, banal voiceovers.

But really what bothers me is that the environment is supposed to have created Lel, and yet I can’t get a handle on either of them (which maybe means it worked?). There’s just no sense of pressure or space or even what inside him drives Lel to do the stupid, self-defeating things he does. What sort of world can have such people in it? Ours, probably, I know, but do I want to read about them? I realize Lel is young and awkward and the sort of person who probably thinks it’s tremendously deep to intercut his sex scene with a fatal stabbing, and yet I don’t find his naive self-assurance charming or intriguing or even shocking really. It just makes me want to be like Viv and walk out of the story and into a world that must somewhere contain something more. I’m not sure how to be clearer because it seems that the book’s clarity is the problem (and I keep saying “problem” as if there is one, which need not be the case) that if it didn’t consist of a set of pristine snapshots with terse teenspeak captions it would be something else entirely, and it isn’t.

Remix Aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill

An essay on postmodern remix aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill from a college film class I took last year. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it anymore, but I don’t necessarily disagree with any of it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Superhuman Genealogy

Superhuman Genealogy: An explanation for the advent of superhumans (in some strange collective-unconscious fanficworld that encompasses the Marvel and DC universes, Star Trek, Stephen King novels, and everything else), the origin being Clark Kent, whose Kryptonian DNA spread through blood transfusions during his service in World War I. Brilliant madness!

Via: Polite Dissent

10 January 2005 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

“I stopped needing to save the world.”

Spider-Man 2

Is it a lovely romantic comedy or a superhero-action flick with delusions of seriousness? Unfortunately, pieta scenes and speechifying crowd out the superpowered romance, which is much more compelling.


I’m with David Fiore, “superhero” is no good. I’m sure it’s fine as a genre for commerical purposes, but as a critical genre, it mutates and limits the discourse in ways that are not useful to me. David’s “neo-existentialist romance” mutates and limits the discourse in ways that I find more interesting. I don’t know if he cares about this at all, but I’d be interested in some study of how the generic necessities of superheroism/crime-fighting distort the “neo-existentialist romance” in his interpretation of the Gwen Stacy clone saga. “Superhero” stories, like any fantastic stories, use fantastic elements to create pleasing and meaningful resonances with real-life stuff. (Well, that’s what I think fantastic stories do.) The generic expectations associated with “superhero” tend to calcify the potentiality of fantasy and make the resonances in “superhero” stories dull and predictable, which is how Spider-Man 2 became a movie that aches so heartbreakingly to be a romantic comedy but ends up overwhelmed by hoary old ruminations on the importance of heroes.

The Iron Giant

Now, I have to admit my favorite “superhero” movies is one about heroism. But The Iron Giant comes at the theme from an unfamiliar angle: the Giant rejects violent confrontation with “bad guys;” he wants only to protect people and rescue them from danger. It’s so refreshing to have a hero whose code of justice isn’t based on vengeance and punishment.

“Saving is what misers do.”

Is that profound or does it just make no sense? Despite my ill-advised participation in some of the debates on the artistic/critical worth of “superhero” comics several months ago, I find most “superhero” stories actually pretty dull. Most of the really good ones either ignore entirely the standard trappings of heroism and saving the world, or they shine that “existential spotlight” on heroism and find it seriously problematic. Not usually because it’s fascist so much as because it’s miserly. “Saving is what misers do.”—forget Watchmen, The Invisibles has my favorite critique of superheroic ethics.

Goodbye, subdomain

As you can probably see by now, we have dropped our bloggy subdomain for uninteresting technical reasons. Fear not, old URLs will redirect painlessly to new URLs. (If you find that some URL doesn’t redirect and doesn’t work, please let me know.)