skip to content or skip to search form

Category: Comics

My spidey-sense is not so great.

Like just about everyone else, I’ve seen Spider-Man 2, but since everybody else has already taken the opportunity to comment, I’m not sure what to say. Well, maybe I am: Peter trying to use “The Song of Hiawatha” as a seduction tool may be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Ok, not ever, but I was amazed and giggly for a good while afterward. But most of the things that struck me were absences rather than actual scenes.

Maybe it’s because the script went through so many authors’ revisions that it just didn’t mesh well or maybe there’s a lot more that will be in the DVD’s deleted scenes or maybe it’s because everyone knows there will be a sequel that no one bothered to tie up any non-MJ plot, but I found all of that somehow disappointing. There were plenty of campy scenes I expected and while they might have annoyed me had they arrived, I missed them when they didn’t.

Where was the bang/whimper joke when Doc Ock rejoins (or doesn’t, depending on his/your view of any afterlife) his beloved wife? If it wasn’t setup for a bang/whimper joke, why was there so much talk about T.S. Eliot?? (As an aside, I still think his last words, “I will not die a monster,” leave open the possibility for his return, because it’s quite possible that he won’t die, not that he won’t be a monster any longer.)

What, did Peter somehow magically pay the rent while not having a job but doing better in school? All of a sudden his previously obsessed landlord stopped asking for it. And why, when Mary Jane escaped her own wedding and ran dramatically to Peter’s doorstep, did the landlord not spoil the moment by accosting her and demanding Peter pay him? Or, worse, why didn’t he send his besotted daughter in to coerce Peter to pay and get her heart broken in the process? I don’t know; they just disappeared.

And Aunt May makes her huge speech and then disappears to her new apartment, which is maybe a good thing since while her husband gets to return from the dead, his comeback is far from a highlight. I’d say that deus ex machina runs in the family except that I’d have to assume they’re not blood relations. Maybe it’s why they were so well-matched?

And then there are general quibbles. Why does the generically Slavic landlord have a daughter named Ursula? (Yes, name issues always bother me, as I’ve said here previously. If you’re going to bother to give your characters some kind of ethnic identity, it’s really not hard to follow through. I swear. It’s easy, and it makes you look bad if you don’t bother, even if only to me.) And how did Peter and MJ and Harry all end up at the same high school anyway, since they’re not from similar economic backgrounds and they wouldn’t exactly belong at an academic magnet school or anything like that? And while I’ve complained, too, about the inappropriately high-stakes danger plots in comics-to-movie adaptations, it seemed a bit odd that having more than the power of the sun causing problems in New York twice wouldn’t generate much attention at all. All part of the superpower-heavy world, I guess.

And all this makes it sound like I didn’t like the movie, which isn’t the case at all. It was enjoyable, though uneven (and outright annoying when heavy-handed) and I had fun and would have had fun even if there hadn’t been Longfellow jokes. I would have liked it even if it hadn’t had a particularly goofy and tacky rendition of The Importance of Being Earnest. I liked the way Peter has trouble finding a balance between power and responsibility, particularly in the way he dealt with both in relation to the people he cares about most. And now that MJ has crossed his boss and complicated his life, what next? Will he be able to manage normalcy, when it’s the normal day-to-day life that has been draining him so far? What will MJ’s third wet-tshirt scene look like, and will she ever realize that Spider-Man’s girlfriend is better off choosing pants over skirts? I have no idea, but I have no doubt I’ll be willing to find out when the time comes.

The Bookshelf

I don’t have a special shelf for my favorite books—not even an imaginary one, because I lack whatever psychological trait that allows people to easily create hierarchical categories of the things they like. I have books I especially love, but I never know where to draw the line between “favorite” and “not quite.” But Rick Geerling created a meme, list the books on your special shelf of favorite books, which has been spreading through the blogosphere (Ken Lowery, David Fiore, Dave Intermittent). I suppose I’ve caught the meme as well.

On David Fiore’s comments thread, Jess Nevins notes that the problem with this meme is that “The Bookshelf” (as Rick calls it) is going to end up with hundreds of books on it. Actually, I think it’ll probably end up with too many or too few, depending on whether your listing is governed by an obsessive completism or a reticent hesitance to include every book you know you really should. To save both you and me some time and boredom, I’ll choose the latter governor.

Before I start my list of favorite(ish) books, though, I want to note something I’ve just noticed. Many of the ones I’ve chosen are about what Rose calls “creation of self through narrative” and David Fiore calls “identiy-formation through narrative-building.” These are narratives that literalize narrative: the characters in these stories usually know or figure out they’re in a story. Sometimes they get to meet the Author. I think if we humans were offered a little discussion time with God—not just your standard prayer or divine visions but a meeting in which you could get some real answers—most of us would eagerly accept the offer. Even those of us who don’t believe in Him would, I think—wouldn’t you like to know what God would have to say about all those clever arguments atheists have come up with to “disprove” Her existence? I know I would. Can God create a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it?

Why is there suffering? Why didn’t you ever answer my prayers—is it just because I didn’t believe in you? If you had a chance to get not just the answers but The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything—well, who wouldn’t be tempted by that? We have all these questions we’d love to ask God, but She doesn’t answer (if God exists then He seems to have been out to lunch for the last few million years, and I never trust people who have a personal relationship with Jesus). The only place we can get God to answer our questions is in our fantasies, that place where we’re more powerful than God and get to tell Her what to do. I think that’s why there are so many stories about meeting God. But then, God (creator of the Wor[l]d) and an author (creator of words) have a lot in common, don’t they? J.R.R. Tolkien discusses writing, especially of fantastic stories, as a reverent imitation of God’s creation of the world in his essay “On Faerie Stories.” In Animal Man, Grant Morrison and God are the same.

My Bookshelf (for now) consists (largely, but not at all entirely) of fiction texts that take on these intersections of text, authorship, and humanity’s own search for cosmological answers.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Michael Swanwick

The dangerous thing about finding God and asking your questions is, of course, what if God won’t answer? Or can’t answer? What if He answers but the answers make even less sense than your own feeble guesses? What if the only useful thing you got out of your meeting with God was a reminder of the idea of free will—and you couldn’t even get God to tell you whether you actually have free will or if it’s just a comforting fiction you invented yourself? Are you even capable of dealing with the responsibility for your own stupid mistakes and fucked-up life, the liberating and terrifying fine-print clause in the free-will contract? (And why didn’t God ever ask if you wanted to sign that contract?)

(In other words, what if you were human?)

The Dark Tower, Stephen King

The fantasy epic about a gunslinger straight out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, on a quest for The Answer, which lies at the highest level of the Dark Tower—or does it lie in the home of the young writer of Salem’s Lot? King thinks the opening sentence of The Gunslinger, the first book of his Dark Tower series, may be the best opener he’s written in his career: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I like the next sentence even more: “The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.” It’s the “parsecs” that makes it great—any writer with the audacity to put “parsecs” in the second sentence of a book like The Gunslinger, and the skill to actually pull it off without sounding like a jerk, is a writer worth reading. (In the recent and ill-conceived revised edition of The Gunslinger, King foolishly replaced “parsecs” with some safer and forgettable word. Too bad for him.)

Vurt, Jeff Noon

Labyrinths are almost as important a theme in this genre as the quest for God, labyrinths as a metaphor of the text. The goal at the center of the textual labyrinth is meaning… but there’s a nasty structural ‘flaw’ in the labyrinth: there is no center! There is no one perfect interpretation of any text—even the simplest of texts may have several plausible interpretations. (This is not to say all interpretations of a text are equally plausible—the lack of one correct interpretation is not the same as the lack of any wrong one.) And don’t fall for the intentional fallacy—a statement of the author’s intended meaning may look like a map to the center of the text, but it’s only another textual labyrinth. What do you do with a centerless labyrinth (the only escape is not to read)? Why not be a writer yourself, a creator of labyrinths?

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

In some shelf of some hexagon [of the Library], men reasoned, there must exist a book which is the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has perused it, and it is analagous to a god. …I pray the unknown gods that some man—even if only one man, and though it have been thousands of years ago!—may have examined and read it. …May heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but may Thy enormous Library be justified, for one instant, in one being.
— “The Library of Babel”

Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too, is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws—I translate: inhuman laws—which we will never completely perceive. Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
— “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

More books…

And now, since this is going to be ridiculously long and time-consuming if I keep writing so much about each book, I’ll list the rest of the books with no more than one or two explanatory sentences each…

  • If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino. The book is narrated in the second person, so you the reader become the protagonist as well.
  • The Invisibles, Animal Man, The Filth; Grant Morrison. Morrison is one of few comics creators I’ve encountered in my short career as a comics reader who gets into these metatextual themes (and, more importantly, deals with them intelligently) (I have no doubt there are plenty of other comics creators who do as well, but I’ve not yet discovered many of them).
  • Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco. I read an essay by John Updike in which he claims Foucault’s Pendulum shows what might have resulted if Borges had attempted to write a novel. He may be right about that, but his belief that it’s a flaw in Foucault’s Pendulum probably shows why I don’t waste my time reading Updike.

For this next book I’m afraid I need to go back to a longer format:

Good-Bye Chunky Rice, Craig Thompson

In this book, Craig Thompson emerges as a young comics master: In the purest narrative form he tells a highly charged personal story, crammed with pain, discovery, hijinx, penance, religious conviction and its loss… and along comes self loathing. In this story of family and first love, that which goes awry in life, goes well as art. Mr. Thompson is slyly self-effacing as he bowls us over with his mix of skills. His expert blending of words and pictures and resonant silences makes for a transcendent kind of story-telling that grabs you as you read it and stays with you after you put it down. I’d call that literature.
Jules Feiffer

Feiffer is writing about Thompson’s Blankets, but he could just about be writing about Good-Bye Chunky Rice. The funny thing is, what he writes makes a lot more sense if you pretend he is writing about the latter rather than the disappointing (and generally redundant, after Good-Bye Chunky Rice) Blankets.

Even more books…

This is getting way too long. OK, here’s the rest of my list:

  • Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Pattern Recognition; William Gibson
  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Ubik, The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, et al.; Philip K. Dick. If I kept going I might end up listing every one I’ve read. Dick’s books are often incoherent and clumsily written, but no other writer inspires quite the same fascinating effect of simultaneous desire to throw a book across the room and unwillingness to stop reading long enough to throw it.
  • Robert Howard’s Conan stories
  • Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

I guess that’s it. For now!

“Don’t die, Chubby!”

Seaguy is shaping up to be one of my favorite superhero comics in a while. It’s the sort of comic where you half-expect a purple gorilla from Mars to show up at any moment (no gorillas yet, but Atlantis and its clockwork wasps have made an appearance). It has that Silver Age-DC sense of manic nonsense in it, but it’s not a nostalgic trip back into the past… Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart grab what they need and leap forward. #2 is very different in tone from #1, and Seaguy and Chubby are finding out why nobody goes on adventures anymore. Things are getting heavy but, thankfully, neither grim nor gritty. (But then, with Animal Man, Doom Patrol, New X-Men and even The Invisibles, Morrison’s always been a chief contributor to the school of ‘mature’ superhero comics that don’t stand on the shoulders of Frank Miller and Alan Moore).

I’m still considering this, but I think Seaguy intersects neatly with the current superheroes-as-fascists conversation flying around the blogs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc.). The only authorities in Seaguy’s world seem to be Mickey Eye and his I-Police, who rule by enforcing the herd mentality with marketing and consumerism. The superheroes have all retired, not because the regular folks decided heroes are fascist, but because they decided they don’t need heroes. (Who needs a superhero when you have a ridiculous iron umbrella to protect you from meteorites? And who cares if the meteorites are moon rocks covered in Egyptian Hieroglyphs? I’m sure the people who’re supposed to know about that stuff know what’s going on…) When Seaguy and Chubby decided to become real heroes and go on adventures, their decision makes them pretty much the opposite of powerful auhority figures—not only does nobody take them seriously (taking things seriously doesn’t seem to be allowed), now they’re being hunted by the I-Police. But at the same time, the I-Police are so inept that Seaguy and Chubby can evade them easily. And the fact that Seaguy and Chubby are inept and half-hearted heroes at best (”Now we’ve done it, Chubby! Maybe we should just pretend none of this ever…”) hasn’t kept them from (accidentally) creating a humongous blob of intelligent processed-food product, (accidentally) destroying the Xoo industry, and (accidentally) discovering Atlantis.

Fascism Victims

In all this talk about superheroes and fascism, I’m struck by an obvious question I haven’t seen addressed. If we read superhero comics and these comics are so harmful, who has been hurt personally by the ideologies or politics or narratives of superhero comics?

I have a story of my own, but I think I’m in the minority. I think of it as being more about the dangers of interpretation than with any problems in superhero stories anyway, but I want to see if I can get any other responses before Monday, when I’ll have time to write about myself.

More Tim O’Neil on superheroes

More Tim O’Neil on superheroes: Peiratikos is not a floating nimbus of freelance love. But we're not cranky either.

See also: Marc Singer: Oh, That Again
See also: David Fiore: On Superheroes & Hero Worship
See also: John Jakala: But Superman Is So Powerful!
See also: J.W. Hastings: The “F” Word

18 June 2004 by Steven | Permalink | 6 comments »

Heroism is fascist!

Tim O’Neil has returned to tell us (again) why superheroes can’t be taken seriously:

In a lot of ways, this hearkens back to the “literature of ethics” conversation of a few months back. As we discussed then, the “literature of ethics” concept was good except for one teeny-tiny fact: there is no examination of ethical dilemma in 99.9% of all superhero books. Black and white, good and evil, are pretty much accepted as is, and any shades of grey are presented as mere obstacles to be overcome. So, when you pick up The Avengers or Superman, the unspoken assumption is that the powerful superbeings whose adventures take place therein are morally infallible creatures whose strange abilities give them the obligation to combat “evil” outside of the traditional constraints of our legal system… Which is why I just don’t think an intelligent, grown adult can seriously accept most superhero books on face value…

Ignoring the unsupported blanket statement1, the problem with Tim’s argument is that phrase, “at face value.” As David Fiore pointed out, “what intelligent adult accepts anything they read at face value?”

But the really weird thing about Tim’s argument is that it implies that it’s good for children to read pro-fascist literature and take it seriously. What?

1 The only reasonable answer to the claim that an arbitrarily large percentage of items in a certain category suck is to cite Sturgeon’s Law. “99.9% of X sucks” and “99.9% of everything sucks” are both cop-out statements, because they seek to avoid addressing specific problems by throwing generalizations at them and hoping they go away. They deserve each other. The bulk of Tim’s argument is based on such a cop-out generalization, so it’s hard to take too seriously. His real point seems to be that he prefers to read superhero comics in a childlike (uncritica)l manner rather than an adult (critical) manner, and his elaborate justifications merely obfuscate this.


I guess it’s not really subtextual at all.

It’s called polysemy

It’s called polysemy: Congratulations on discovering its existence. (See 13 and 14 June 2004.)

15 June 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

“Family honor demands it.”

Couscous Express was published in 2001 by AiT/Planetlar. Its authors are Brian Wood and Brett Weldele. Becuase it has no page numbers, I will begin counting with page one as the first page of the story proper, which begins with the words “Olive Yassin: age sixteen.”

Couscous Express has an odd passage on pages 46-49. Olive, sixteen-year-old daughter of Turkish immigrants, has just purchased a sniper rifle. (She has contacts with gunrunners—her boyfriend Moustafa is a “mercenary courier” who does everything from smuggle guns to escort “political personnel to and from embassies” [p. 8]. Where she got the money to buy a sniper rifle is unclear, unless her gunrunner friends are just loaning it out. Later, she gets some grenades.) Moustafa’s partner Special is going to teach her how to shoot, but Olive doesn’t need the help: she’s a perfect shot. Her explanation for her skills? “I got cable tv. I know how to shoot. Jesus” (p. 49). Remember a few years ago when there was a minor scare about computer games because some of the perpetrators in school shootings played Doom? Well, Olive’s a step up from that—she doesn’t need to play games to practice shooting, she learned to be an expert sniper just by watching movies! There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation for her shooting skills (Moustafa doesn’t let her use guns, she got the sniper rifle behind his back), so I guess we can take her at her word. Olive succeeds in her fights against the Turkish Scooter Mafia because she’s immersed in American pop culture.

So… what? Olive is better because she knows how the story goes? This comes up a little at the end, too, when Olive half-mockingly—and not too convincingly—admits she’s finally learned the importance of Family and stuff. Couscous Express doesn’t deal with this theme much beyond the sniping-practice scene, but it’s what jumped out at me when I read it. It seems connected to assimilation into American culture, leaving behind old traditions and casting about for something to hold onto in their absence. These are the big themes in Couscous Express. Olive has the rebellious American teenager thing down so perfect, she’s stuck in a place where she can’t have a relationship with anybody without screaming “Fuck you!” at them. The only steadying force in her life is Moustafa, who gives her her one basically non-dysfunctional relationship. She’s racing into a nasty dead end (rebellious teenager schtick), pursued relentlessly by the old (Turkish Scooter Mafia), but in the end she’s rescued by the criminal fraternity of mercenary rollerblade couriers and a violent American-style action story…

Weird little story, but fun.

Demo Interepretations

Larry Young has this to say about people’s interpretations of Demo (look for the 11 June entry):

I very much enjoy readers’ interpretations of Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan????????s Demo. It????????s interesting to me, personally, that most audience members find the various snapshots of Demo so compelling that it seems, to me at least, that many readers are missing the lemon because of the meringue. Many folks who should ostensibly know better get fixated on the what-happens-then or the but-what-about-the or the he-didn????????t-take-responsibility or whatever. Me, I think they????????re not getting the fact that the story is the story. You????????re on the bus, or you????????re not. No need to blame the bus.

Sure. On the other hand, though, maybe some readers got the lemon and just didn’t think it was very good lemon. The story is the story is the story, but that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have flaws. I thought Demo #6 (the only issue I’ve read) is a pretty good little story, but I was following one discussion that included people who found it unsatisfying, and everybody involved in the dicussion had cogent arguments for their readings of the story. Some readers found the severe disconnect between the frame story and the flashback troubling and annoying. I found it troubling, but I also found that that troubling disconnect was at the center of my reading of the story. (Actually, I found it quite annoying as well, at first, but I changed my mind.) Brian Wood, who participated in the discussion, apparently didn’t intend there to be a troubling disconnect at all. I can see how all three of these interpretations work—I find my own most compelling, certainly, but I can see how the others work. My point: there are lots of ways to read any text, and the ways you don’t care about aren’t irrelevant (even if you are the author or the publisher…).

Jason Kimble also replies to Larry Young, and makes a good point:

Truly impressive writing works on all the applicable levels, or at the very least plays a skilled magician’s game of compelling the reader to focus on the levels that work while failing to notice those that aren’t quite so solidly constructed.

If you haven’t managed that, you haven’t managed it. Playing “you just don’t get it” does no one any good, and just leads to a lot of naked emperors prancing around. While that might make for good porn, it’s not the best way to encourage critical thought and improve your storytelling skills.

Authors can’t choose for readers which parts of the text readers should focus on. If a reader chooses to focus on a part of the text the author considers irrelevant, it’s not that the reader is “fixating” and is “just not getting” it—it’s just that, well, that part isn’t so irrelevant after all.