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Category: Media

Thor is President Bush! Except more Nordic

Dirk Deppey links to this proposal for a Thor miniseries by former Crazy Twit At Marvel Bill Jemas.

Ooh, that would have been really bad! Like, as bad as that Superman (or whatever) comic where President Luthor was going to send the U.S. military to invade “Qurac.” Of course, both that story and Mr. Jemas’s proposed Thor story are political allegories—rather “thinly veiled” ones, as Mr. Jemas notes perceptively.

Last semester, I took a class on (post)modern fantastic literature and film. At one point, the professor proposed a (fairly half-baked) theory that a fantasy narrative is an allegory distorted/altered/transformed by the gravity of its fantastic world. What he meant was that every fantasy story begins its existence entirely on an “idea” level of reality before the author creates a concrete fantasy world which is a metaphorical mediation between the reader and the idea level of the story, and that the fantasy world is not a perfect cipher from which the reader must decode the idea-level meaning of the story, but a great complex beast which transforms the idea level from the author’s original “intent.” What most of the students thought he meant was that fantasy stories are allegorical ciphers and their job as readers was to decode the meaning. So these students (mostly English majors, who in my experience often seem to have no greater desire than to figure out what they think their English professors want to hear and then say it, much to the dismay of the professors) began dutifully decoding, coming up with, for example, the idea that in Wings of Desire, West Berlin symbolizes Heaven and East Berlin symbolizes Hell (because it has angels, so it must be a religious movie!). They latched onto the fact that China Miéville is a Marxist theorist and became convinced that Perdido Street Station is a Communist allegory and refused to accept repeated assurances that China Miéville in fact is not and never was a Communist. They briefly pondered whether the various fantastic species populating Miéville’s stories might have one-to-one correspondences to real-world races or ethnic groups, at which point the professor finally got fed up and told them to quit with the allegory.

Jemas’s Thor proposal reminds me of those students. When it comes to High Art vs. Low Art, there seems to be one community of readers who believe that the distinction between High and Low is that High Art is allegorical and Low Art has no meaning at all. Like, OK, Thor is just this dumb kids’ comic book, so we can make it meanginful and relevant by saying it’s about the inevitable failure of American foreign policy. Which is an attitude which puzzles me. I mean, isn’t that a bit cheap? If you want to write a story about American foreign policy, why not write a damn story about American foreign policy? What do you gain by turning into cartoony fantasy? A 10-year-old (well, a 10-year-old who keeps up with politics, anyway) can say, “Thor is America and this magical kingdom is Iraq and this big evil dragon is the bad things that happen to America when they mess with Iraq too much. Look, I wrote a story!” Introducing allegory doesn’t make your story relevant art. It makes it something a 10-year-old could write.

The problem is that the particular kind of allegory we’re talking about here, where the story elements are all symbols that have a transparent correlation to part of some abstract idea that the story is trying to communicate, is cheap and facile. It offers no insight into either the abstract idea or the symbols used to represent it. Thor’s mission to export his morality through foreign policy fails, so the United States’ attempt to export its morality through foreign policy is failing! Oh yeah, thanks, but I can figure that out from CNN. The failure of American foreign policy is not the root of the problem, it’s the result of deeper problems (this is assuming you think there’s a problem with American foreign policy in the first place, obviously). You want to use Thor to criticize American foreign policy, for christ’s sake don’t write just write about American foreign policy in disguise—think about it, decide what those deeper problems are, write about those. If you can’t be bothered to dig below the surface of your story, quit pretending you’re a brilliant auteur because you figured out a parallel between Thor’s superpowers and America’s military strength.

X-Men, Cyclops, love triangles

Big Sunny D responds to our X-Men blogging. What he says about recent developments in Cyclops’s soap-opera love triangle sound very good to me, and I think the connected Scott-Emma-Jean and Scott-Jean-Logan love-triangle plotting has been a central focus for the New X-Men themes I’m interested in. Right now I’m thinking: the Cassandra Nova storyarc plays with the themes in a crazy overwrought fantasy metaphor, New X-Men: Riot at Xavier’s does them as a revisionist critique of the X-Men political metaphor, the Weapon Plus stuff does them as a story about turning control of your self over to a higher power. And the love triangles revolving around Scott’s pathetic motionlessness is of course doing them as good old-fashioned X-Men soap opera. Moreover, I read the soap-opera plotting as metacriticism, about the X-Men property itself losing control of its narrative in decades of directionless subplotting muck.

“It must be getting rather tedious, Scott dear. These reruns of your grief.” That’s a great line, hinting at that metacriticism. Is Scott’s absurd love life a microcosm of the X-Men, endlessly repeating old stories, the Dark Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past, Days of Apocalypse, ad absurdum? Morrison’s New X-Men has been hailed (and derided) as the first truly new thing to happen to the X-Men in a long time, but look what we get: Phoenix. Soap opera. A now-he’s-dead-now-he’s-not plot twist with Magneto. An apocalyptic-future storyline. Ooh hoo, the newness. Is what’s new a sense of playfulness about the way the stories are told? I hasten to note that New X-Men is practically the first X-Men comic I’ve ever read, but I get the impression (from, e.g. J.W. Hastings’s post on the X-Men) that the X-Men have been rather a serious and grim bunch for quite a while. The Stan Lee/Jack Kirby X-Men issues I’ve read are not surprisingly very fun and playful, so the fun and playfulness of New X-Men isn’t so new, but it certainly seems to be a change. Even when bogged down in the awful art and nonsensical mysticism of the Cassandra Nova story, Grant Morrison manages to keep his words both light and serious, joking around (”You’re my favorite super hero, Scott,” one of my favorite lines) and suggesting some pretty heavy thematic stuff below the surface, which kept me going without too much effort even as I gnashed my teeth at hideously drawn characters babbling about evil psychic twins built out of Charles’s spare body cells.

I’m not as confident with thinking and talking about the art as I am the writing, but I have some vague ideas about it. I think one thing Frank Quitely manages to do is capture Morrison’s sense of energy and fun. And there’s something about his tiny stick-figurish Emma and Jean that’s both creepy and endearing, I don’t know what.

I’m getting really interested in the Cassandra Nova stuff in preparation for Cassandra returning in Here Comes Tomorrow. My goal for this weekend is to reread the first couple TPBs and blog my thoughts on them. I also need to think more on the evolution of the X-Men concept over the decades, which is going to require an expedition in search of early-Claremont-era stuff, probably some Essential X-Men and maybe the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past if I see them.

Self-Indulgent Grousing on Taste and Kitsch

Edited to correct tags

I wanted to join in on the high/low discussions I found through David’s post (Dave? Curse you inconsistent nicknamed folks, and that goes double for you, Steven!) but I found myself unable to look away from Michael Blowhard’s Thread of Death, which is ostensibly about the distinction between movie people and book people, but the comments are only about books and about how everyone who reads the blog is better than book people. Since I was already grouchy from much meanness and nonsense at work, this thread has only worsened my mental state.

The basic argument I see is that movie people (and by this Michael Blowhard initially meant people involved in the movie biz, although I’m not sure this remained a consistent definition) like artsy, incisive stuff as well as the homespun lowbrow fun that packs them in at the local multiplex. They love the worlds of high art and trash, although perhaps they adhere to their own form of the Law of the Excluded Middle. Book people (ditto as appropriate w/r/t professional status) like pretentious stuff that no one reads except to get status points, the ideal being a book that’s obscure but not so obscure that namedropping it would be a waste of effort. Book people laugh at Stephen King and his silly bestsellers, apparently.

Now, there’s probably little doubt that were I to work in the publishing industry I’d be a book person. As it is now, I just get annoyed at the silliness. I mean, come on, people! “I’m so adventuresome and not at all prudish because I’m really proud to read books with explicit sex!” (and the sex theme annoyed me the most) “Trashy books are great!” “I love lots of YA authors whose names I can’t spell!” I don’t like anti-intellectualism ever, and it was even more annoying for me to see all the ad hominem attacks against literature professors. I didn’t take lit classes in the English department, but I hung out with the teachers, and they were all mixing in graphic novels and memoirs and all sorts of non-stuffy works. In the one English class I did take, I had to do a literary analysis of a romance novel, in part so that none of us could ever again say, “I’ve never read a romance novel.” (Mine was The Moon Lord, and I’m happy to expand on the fascinating sexual politics involved. I’m not kidding.)

I guess where I’m having trouble following all these people is the idea of reading things differently. I’m a fast reader, and always have been. I read three books last weekend and will probably finish another tonight, and that’s just during baths. This has never seemed like a big deal to me. And so I’m always less than impressed by people who read it in a single sitting! I realize that other people aren’t like this and I’d already been thinking about it this evening because of a classmate of Steven’s last semester who’d said of some book they were assigned that maybe she should read it “like a textbook” instead of a novel, and that that might make it more acceptable. I generally read textbooks just like novels. They’re still stories, and a good one should be gripping and have the same flashes of poetry. This is certainly true in the fields where I read most — classics, Islamic studies, anthropology, cultural criticism… (And since I mentioned Islamic studies, I deserve some sort of prize for not making any “People of the Book” jokes until now.) I don’t read knitting patterns the same way, or crossword puzzles or shampoo bottles, but I go into most books looking for the same things, ready to be impressed or inspired by the language and what lies behind that. Some comics thing online (The X-Axis? Maybe Gone & Forgotten?) made an “outside of a dog” pun and I swooned. I got just as excited translating (SPOILER!) Dido’s death (Ok, you can look) in The Aeneid and realizing there was a lovely allusion to some Greek lyric poetry.

Maybe I should file this under “Meta,” since I fear all it’s doing is making me look like the thing I hate, someone who thinks I’m better than everyone else. I actually think most people have an advantage over me, becuase my visual/image skills are really not great, although improving at last. The point is that I don’t want to be an arbiter of taste and I really don’t want people who don’t realize what pure cliches they are putting themselves in that position either. I like lots of things that are considered highbrow Big Culture, and also plenty of things all down the spectrum. I’m picky and I’m (probably rightly) considered a snob, but I do sample. I just want to be able to have fun with At Swim, Two Boys, which I bought and enjoyed after reading a New York Times book review that stuck with me for years, and with Joan of Arcadia (more on this later, I fear!) and Akiko and X-Statix. Reading texts of all sorts is fun, or at least fun for me. I’m just completely lost with this whole supposed dichotomy, since no one ever adheres to it. Of course, that’s the point of dichotomies, right?

At any rate, thanks to David and all the other people who are being reasonable about this. And, really, to all the people who commented on the Blowhards thread. There are a lot of fun books recommended there. I’m just being cranky and letting myself get annoyed, but if there’s one thing that really upsets me (outside of a dog, and certain coworkers’ habits) it’s the idea that criticism is bad, that taking anything apart destroys it. The point of texts (used loosely to encompass the domains of movie people and book people and still more other people) is that they live in an unkillable way, that the metaphors of live dissection just don’t hold. I realize there’s a related trope that innocence can’t be regained, but that’s just how things work because we work like texts, to get back to one of my current themes.

As an example the YA lovers can appreciate, I reread Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Changeling and, reading about the hints at one character’s homelife thought, “Whoa, she’s being molested!” I’m not saying this was “the right” interpretation, and maybe it’s because I don’t believe in such ideals that I can take texts apart and see what they look like when I put them together in different ways. But I couldn’t read the book without that question, even though it didn’t cross my mind to elucidate the abuse she suffered when I read it as a nine-year-old. What I don’t see is why anyone would want to go back to have fewer thoughts and less awareness and lack history and knowledge of life and the world. If anything, it made me happy that I had appreciated the book but that maybe it would have had special meaning to another child who understood that particular pain or to readers with interpretations I haven’t yet considered. Polysemy is not a curse. Words have meanings and meanings have meanings.

Somebody stop me before I reply to Peter David’s thoughts on the new Peter Pan or I make people stop reading this blog altogether. I will sleep, and in the morning I will be happier and then at 7 am I’ll be at work. And the story could go anywhere from there.

More X-Men Metaphors: Role Models and Leadership

In talking with Steven about his current fascination with the X-Men, I ended up rereading Eve’s post about why she likes them. One paragraph in particular has stuck with me:

If you read “X-Men” as a book about leadership, you won’t be disappointed–and leadership is something I could think about all day. It’s an endlessly fascinating topic to me, since I was pretty much forced into a leadership role I wasn’t suited for, and had to figure out how to make it mine. I think I did. I’ve seen my debating society hijack a lot of lives, and so I’ll read anything that helps me understand how it exists and how its particular brand of alienated, intense, political personal leadership works. “X-Men” resonated.

In college, before Steven read X-books, the people I talked to about them were all, like me, seriously overloaded with intellectually rigorous activist leadership responsibilities. This was obviously partly a function of the nature of my peer group — although I’m including professors and administrators in it too — that we readers were all women with heavy leadership burdens. I don’t remember ever talking about whether we read as a sort of cheap therapy, but I think we all intuitively connected with a lot of the dynamics and personal setbacks the team endured.

Back then, I was falling too deeply into metaphors, dealing with my life by partitioning it into more manageable fictional pieces. I could cry for Betty Banner because I couldn’t enunciate my own pain. I could understand X-Men problems and didn’t always think about how they weren’t such a stretch from my own seemingly endless inability to get my fellow executive board members in the same room or to make people keep their phones on when on-call for hotline duty. I wonder now if they were doing the same thing, relaxing with the X-Men in the same way we’d decompress with each other, with people who understand and care. It wasn’t escapist fiction, because even the happy “endings” are never satisfying or complete, but it was certainly encouraging to see the successes the team has, though it was easier (at least for me) to identify with the setbacks.

In talking about geek pride and alienated teenagers, maybe I didn’t stress enough the power of hope, that no matter how different from “normal” you may feel, you can, through much effort, be a profitable member of a society you shape. Part of the continuing theme of the X-books, as I read them, has been an effort to get the reader to identify with the X-Men, but not without recognizing the humanity and integrity of the groups with whom they have conflict. As someone who spent a lot of time working toward a little legacy of change on the campus, I’d be encouraged to think this was something incoming freshmen were thinking about, issues of mutual respect and philosophy of leadership and responsibility and modes of social change. If you can get that from X-Men, that’s as good a place as any.

New X-Men: Liberal Interventionism

[The Three-In-One sez] In our dreams we have seen a new Dark Age. Seen all history set back by a thousand years of ignorance and war. Seen, worse than all these, a terrible flaw at the heart of things. How did this happen so quickly?

[Wolverine sez] I guess no one thought Rome could fall, either… those guys had a postal service that could deliver mail across 170 miles in one day. They had indoor plumbing, the women were free, they had art and science and a communications network that spanned the civilized world.

Within a hundred years, it was all debris and lice.

Sometimes ya gotta take care of what you got. (New X-Men #151)

Then Sean Collins sez:

Now, I may just be desperate to find a fellow liberal-interventionist defender of civilization against theocratic fascism and nihilist terrorism out there in the great big wide world of funnybooks, but what alternate explanation for this passage by Grant Morrison can you offer?

Well, I haven’t read this particular issue of New X-Men yet, but I can think of a few alternate readings of the passage other than as criticism of moral complacency in the face of “theocratic fascism” and “nihilist terrorism.” E.g., as criticism of the moral complacency of liberal-interventionist defenders of “civilization” who’ve decided they’ve got this “civilization” thing down better than so-called “theocratic fascists” and “nihilist terrorists.” Or even better, you could read it as a criticism of moral complacency just in general.

(N.B. You needn’t read this as a critique of Sean’s politics, which I don’t know a lot about since I’ve not read many of his blogging on politics. As far as I know Sean is a perfectly non-complacent liberal-interventionist defender of civilization, self-aware and capable of self-criticism.)

Freudian readings of Spider-Man

Spider-Man is standing on Mary Jane’s head. And Mary Jane looks a lot like May from Trouble, doesn’t she? Didn’t it turn out in Trouble that Aunt May is Peter Parker’s real mom? Now here’s Mary Jane looking exactly like the young Aunt May, and standing right next to Aunt May! This is clearly a subtle reference to the buried Oedipal subtext of Spider-Man.

Superheroes in neverending serial publication have a big problem with Oedipal trajectories—they can’t complete them! Unless they stop being profitable and get a resolution, I guess. Poor Peter Parker got married and still couldn’t complete his Oedipal trajectory (if he’d completed it, he would have settled down and quit trying to save the world all the time—he’d just live with Mary Jane and have babies and grown-up stuff). Can’t complete his Oedipal trajectory and saddled with a wife—it’s tragic!

Actually, reading serial superhero comics in terms of the Oedipal trajectory would probably be very interesting.

GN/TPB Elaborations and Parentheticals.

[Edit 2004-01-12 2:30 am UTC]

To respond quickly to Dirk Deppey’s response to my response to him, I think (and thought then) that we are basically of the same opinion, but I haven’t dropped my quibbly attitude.

As far as I could tell from a cursory reading of John Byrne’s rant (and I wouldn’t want to give it more thought even if I were able to think beyond when I can take another decongestant pill and whether I’ll be able to breathe clearly enough to sleep tonight) the entire focus of the argument was on trade paperback collections of mainstream comments “mainstream” comics. Even the passage Deppey quoted, Byrne’s statement that trade-only publishing would be too expensive for companies to handle and have too little return in terms of drawing in new readers, need not be read as talking about anything more than the mainstream “mainstream” comics market. I assume Byrne does realize that people are buying and reading Blankets and Persepolis and that this is just not what he’s talking about. He’s questioning whether I would have paid $20 to buy Batman: Hush, had it been on the shelf beside Persepolis. In this case, he’s right. I, although not John Byrne’s Platonic Ideal Comics Reader, would be more likely to buy a $3 pamphlet or a minicomic to see if I can get a taste for a creator or story before investing more money and time into it. However I’d be even more likely to pick up a promising trade paperback or graphic novel for free at the library, where pamphlets aren’t readily available, and have bought books based on that. This is how I deal with much of my word-only book purchasing as well, since I want to buy books I’ll lend and read again.

To get back to Dirk Deppey rather than John Byrne, the point I was trying to make and, I think, didn’t is that different genres (or whatever word you’d like to use) employ different marketing strategies. Graphic novels don’t have to be composed of previously released smaller parts, but that’s one way to do it. I’ve read plenty of novels that began as short stories, or that contain previously published short stories, sometimes because I enjoyed the initial story so much that I sought out the larger context. In choosing the examples he did, Deppey actually gave a good implicit rundown of possible alternate, pamphlet-free routes to the graphic novel, which is what he was trying to do. I just think that they’re not what John Byrne was arguing against, and I was saying that having cartoons in Time or multiple reviews and interviews in The New York Times or a highly acclaimed first graphic novel can be seen as (loosely) functional equivalents to having previous pamphlet stories act as teasers for a trade paperback. I just still don’t think this makes what John Byrne said about mainstream superhero trade paperbacks wrong. I’m fully willing to believe he is, although I don’t know the economic details to know whether he’s right on that front, but I still don’t think the existence and success of graphic novels that appeal to a real mainstream readership, or at least some interested subsegment thereof, as opposed to “mainstream” superhero comics readers is actually a refutation of his argument at all.

The Dark Tower

[Edited 2003-01-05 5:21 am UTC]

I’ve just finished the new revised and expanded edition of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. I detect a lot of the changes—much of the dialogue has been rewritten in the distinctive dialects developed in subsequent books. Several references (to LaMerk Industries and North Central Positronics, among others) are in this text that I don’t think were in the original, but I could be wrong. Oh, and there’s a reference to nineteen which I don’t remember from the original, but I could be misrembering. There’s only one change I noticed that I really regret: the second sentence of the original text is something like “The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.” Now that sentence reads, “The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, standing to the sky for looked like eternity in all directions.” Damn, but that sentence in the orignal was great. You’ve got your Clint Eastwood gunslinger trekking after the man in black through the alien deserts of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (as a kid reading The Gunslinger for the first time I’d never seen a Sergio Leone movie, probably didn’t even know very well who Clint Eastwood was, but Leone and Eastwood’s Westerns are deeply enough embedded in pop culture that I instantly got what King was evoking), and that word “parsec” immediately disturbs things. “Parsec” isn’t a word you generally expect to find in the second sentence of a Western story or a non-sf fantasy story, what’s it doing here?

I guess can see why King might have wanted to take it out—the narration is focalized on the gunslinger, and parsecs are not a concept he’s probably familiar with. Nevertheless, I would rather King did a little narrative cheating than lose a classic line like that. But maybe King was right to take it out… the story doesn’t necessarily gain anything from giving away its sf influence so soon, and maybe it makes it more interesting to find out in the middle of the book that this story is more ambitious than a spaghetti-Western-influenced quest fantasy, when we learn that the gunslinger knows about atomic power (but doesn’t know what a TV is). Oh well, I’m just sad the book lost one of its great lines.


The Dark Tower is very much a story about telling stories—Most of the first part of The Gunslinger is narrated in flashback as Roland tells a story to another character. He spends a fair amount of the second part telling stories to Jake. When he finally meets the man in black, the man in black spends a long long night telling him stories. Wizard and Glass is almost entirely a story that Roland tells his companions. At least a third, maybe more, of Wolves of the Calla is one character, Father Callahan (who is also a character in Salem’s Lot, which I’ve not read), telling Roland and Co. the long story of his life. I bet there are many stories told in The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands, but it’s been long since I read those books and I don’t remember a lot of them. Related to all this tale-telling, The Dark Tower also seems to be a story about how a character who begins with no name and no story gains both. “The gunslinger was not a man to dwell on the past; only a shadowy conception of the future and of his own emotional make-up saved him from being a man with no imagination…” (p. 91 of the revised edition) He has a past, a story, but seems not to have thought much on it until events in this book forced it on him.

The subtitle of this book is “Resumption,” and the man in black surprises Roland by saying he has resumed his quest—the gunslinger never stopped questing, so how could he resume? Is it because the gunslinger had drifted without a name or a story (without an identity) and only now events (orchestrated by the man in black) in this story force him to make decisions and sacrifices which bind him to his quest? There are maybe other things in his past which bind him, but they’re revealed in subsequent books, they come later in the narrative order of the story. And in a story such as The Dark Tower in which narratives are so centrally important, might the flow of the narrative take precedence over chronology?

Well, I don’t know where King is going with these narrative-related themes, but I’m interested.

Oh, and it really bugs me that the gunslinger is now named at the end of the first part! It was very cool and tied into the “Man with no Name gets a name and a story” theme that Roland is named only in the (increasingly frequent) flashbacks until the end of the book when the man in black names him in the narrative’s chronological present. Now that’s been negated.

X-Men: Research help

Dear Readers, I need some quick research help. I want to map out how the X-Men high concept has evolved since its beginning, but I don’t want to have to buy and read every X-Men book ever—I just need the highlights. The only X-books I’ve read are New X-Men and X-Statix, so I’m look for other books of interest w/r/t the evolution of the X-Men high concept and the metaphors used in X-books. By “evolve,” I don’t mean “improve,” I mean “adapt to its current context.” E.g., the X-Men began as the Children of the Atom, I believe with the implication that mutation is caused by atomic radiation (surprise, everything is caused by radiation in that era of Marvel). How has the portrayal of mutation changed over the years? And just as importantly, are there stories (preferably ones available as TPBs) that exemplify various stages of the evolution of the mutation concept? I know I should look for the Marvel Masterworks or Essential X-Men. I’m also interested in the evolution of the metaphors in the X-Men. We’ve discussed that some already on the blog, w/r/t race, feminism, geek pride, more general political metaphors. Anything else interesting I might look out for? Are there 1960s-era stories that are especially metaphorically interesting?

More comics

While I’m posting comics, here are a couple more I’ve done: