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Archive: June 2004

More on “the work is the work”

More on “the work is the work”: Sean Collins: "Of course the work is not just the work... sometimes what you want a given work of art to be is what it probably should have been." Uh, is this where I'm supposed to say THANK GOD YOU SHOWED UP?

See also: Jason Kimble
See also: David Allen Jones

13 June 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

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“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.

Turn Your Quivering Nerves in My Direction

What’s up with Scots and psychedelia anyway? I decided to take a night off Grant Morrison to seam up the shirt I’ve been knitting and generally lounge around, which meant I finally got to watch my new copy of The Incredible String Band movie, Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending. My mother watched, alternately amused and chagrined by her own memories, since it was her records that had made me a fan of the band in the first place. In fact, I’m not only a fan of the String Band, but I think many of the musicians I’ve come to like since share common traits with them, most notably Robyn Hitchcock and Rose Polenzani.

But I felt like a fool watching a movie that far predates me of a band that disbanded before I was born, because my first thought was, “They look so young!” And they were young and blooming with exuberance and honesty and songs I love, making it an endearing movie. One thing I noticed quickly was the way my relationship to The Psychedelic has changed since I was a teenager. Then I was mostly put off by the idea of drug use, which hasn’t particularly changed, but there wasn’t any of that visible in the film anyway, and I don’t know to what extent it was a part of their reality. Instead what I realized is that I’d been intrigued and repelled by psychedelic imagery because some of the ideas resonated with me but they were couched in what seemed to be nonsense gibberish. And at that point I realized I hadn’t avoided thinking about Morrison at all.

See, stories in which magical drug insights give a character (or author, I suppose) insight into reality-as-it-is always seemed unsatisfying to me. Morrison seemed to undercut the sincere spirit journey version in Animal Man with all the scenes in The Invisibles that suggest that while you can believe you’ve taken a drug, you can never trust yourself to believe you’re in reality. New X-Men has an awkward anti-drug slant, and drugs other than sex and reality seem to be basically absent from The Filth, which is odd. OK, they’re not absent, but they’re not consciousness-altering either. Tony needs his cat medicine, though what medicine and for what condition is both unclear and crucial. And the president has to take drugs to become a crack whore, so I’m not sure if that means the drugs he takes bring him into closer contact with his real self or not. And then there’s the medical marijuana sequence at the end, in which a guy who nearly killed himself while stoned prolongs his painful status quo (and maybe dulls the pain) with more drugs. So apparently I was crazy in thinking drugs don’t figure in much, but it still seems odd to me that drugs don’t show up more in the filth of the world than they do. I guess it’s still significant that they don’t seem to bring any extra awareness or sensitivity and that just living “normally” clouds your mind too.

What I found revealing about Be Glad was that contrary to what I’d gathered from their songs, The Incredible String Band didn’t believe there were lots of gods in the world. They believed they were gods, creating for their own enjoyment and amusement, and audience was of little concern. I like being ignored like that, because it means they don’t bother to pander to me. It might be that this is what Grant Morrison does too. Some readers think what he does is just playing with whatever he finds intriguing at the time, and I can’t totally disagree. I just think I have enough overlap that the ideas remain interesting without so much that I find them trite, but I guess the question is whether this matters to Morrison. It only matters to me inasmuch as I’ve described; the way he writes is interesting to me, and so I stay interested, not very exciting. And sometimes I think he fails completely at synthesizing things, and that’s interesting too. But while The Incredible String Band was not commercial (or at least I hope they didn’t have commercial aspirations, since their fame was fleeting) and could stand to say heartfelt but unhelpful things to Newsweek interviewers, beaming while their girlfriends embroidered tunics in the background, Morrison is making a real living writing comics and doing fairly well. Does this mean he has an obligation to give his audience what it wants? My standard answer when this question arises in comics is that that would be a horrible idea, because I really don’t want to see Wolverine battling a set of breasts the size of Connecticut. But obviously Morrison has to take audience into account to some degree if he wants to make any money, and I really don’t know how he or others manage this.

So I didn’t talk about The Filth much, but that’s because this was a night to think about what it means to be creating a good world in art and in life. I’m never sure I’m up to it, but there also doesn’t seem to be an acceptable alternative. And there’s another gnomic statement you can use to sum up The Filth. Perhaps I ought to start collecting them, and maybe that would be a start.

And I bid you good night.

Your pages are not numbered

If any comics publishers read this, hear my cry in the wilderness: we need page numbers! This is a serious problem in comics publishing. In my experience, DC is the only publisher that consistently produces books with numbered pages. Marvel books never have page numbers, not even the TPBs. I just flipped through all the Image and Dark Horse I found lying around—no page numbers. I pulled out a couple other books published outside the major American publishers—the only one I can find with page numbers is Persepolis. Thank you Marjane Satrapi! I’ve just flipped through about ten comic books and only one of them has numbered pages!

My problem here is, I’ve decided to be better about citations in my critical writing. Among other things, this means I’d like to cite page numbers of books. This, of course, is very difficult when the books have no page numbers. It’s not too bad with Marvel books, since they’re usually collected reprints of single issues and I can just count from the beginning of each issue rather than the beginning of the entire book. But I just read Couscous Express (published by the blogosphere’s favorite ‘indie’ publisher Ait/Planetlar), and I’d like to write about it, and I’d like to cite page numbers when I reference specific passages—but it has no page numbers! And there are no chapter divisions, so I’ll have to count myself from the very beginning of the book. I’ll probably get a pen and write in my own page numbers, but I shouldn’t have to do that. Comics creators and publishers, please number the pages of your books!

Gunk and Gender: Preliminary Filth Thoughts

Jim Henley wanted to know what women think of The Filth. I finished it last night and I think it’s Grant Morrison all right, and you’re not going to get much more out of me tonight, because my head is rebelling and I need medicine that works or, failing that, sleep. Ok, and what I need most of all is pictures of little kids with superimposed ants’ heads. Lots. I very much need this. I suppose pictures of rotund fellows with eye-bellies would be acceptable, at least the utopian sort, but not as good.

Anyway, the reason Jim Henley wants to know what women think is that he’s worried (or perhaps not worried) that The Filth is a guy thing. I don’t have a good answer to that question. I’m not comfortable with the idea that women deal with filth and bodies more or earlier than men (speaking of course in huge generalizations) do. Yeah, yeah, we’ve got menstruation and the awkwardness of breasts and having to deal with being an object of attraction, and I’ve managed to make my peace with the first of those things at least. But even as a young adolescent when I wanted to be anything but feminine, I wouldn’t have wanted to have to deal with random erections and wet dreams and all that hideously sexual guy-stuff. Also booger jokes. Ugh.

I think maybe a keener difference lies in ownership of sexuality, though this probably relies on even grander generalizations. Especially when it comes to sexuality, men are trained to think they’re in control of themselves. I don’t know to what extent they believe this, but that seems to be the paradigm, and that makes it really difficult to have sexual assault training for men (and here I’m talking about college guys because this is all I’ve had to deal with) who think they could never be assaulted and are sure they and all their friends are nice guys who would never assault anyone else. One way people get around this problem is with a horrible, offensive program that says to men, “Think how much you’d hate yourself if a man raped you! And imagine how you would feel if someone raped your girlfriend!” If the only way to remind men that they’re not in control is by calling on their ick-factor homophobia or urging them to be mindful of people they’re supposed to own, that’s not a good state of affairs. But that’s to some degree what’s going on in The Filth. Male desire (and I think Jim’s right that women aren’t fleshed out in the story, but mostly in that they’re not protagonists even of their subplots much) has gotten out of control. Desire for control is taking over the world, and it’s up to the members of The Hand to be Super-Men, to assert control over the sexually power-mad men. Whether we’re dealing with bad guys releasing hordes of super sperm that seem to destroy rather than impregnate their targets or goodish guys who don’t bother to close the window when masturbating to copious porn and don’t notice the porn in the street, or even possibly unreal has-beens who while away the hours watching their wives engage in hardcore sex with all their old friends and foes, we’re dealing with some ugly stuff and unpleasant guys. So what makes this a Guy Book? Is it because it’s a chance to explore otherwise hidden frailties while still sympathizing with the powerful main character(s)? Is it because it’s a chance to say, “Hee! Erection jokes! Prison rape jokes!” without noticing that their unqualified acceptance isn’t really supported by the text?

I dunno. I’m sure that’s not why Jim liked it, or Dave Intermittent or David Fiore or Steven, but I’m not sure if they have peculiarly gendered responses. I liked The Filth, too, though I think I prefer the pretentiousness of The Invisibles. That I’m not entirely sure may be a sign I’m skewing toward the center of the mind/body scale, our Little Rose growing up! Not hating my body was an important, difficult lesson to learn, but I still don’t love or privilege it either.

And thinking of hating my body brings me back to my impending migraine and thus departure, with assurances that more commentary will come in time. That Animal Man stuff is still in my head, too, while I’m making rash promises, but no more for tonight nor tomorrow, when I watch my brother test his physicality in the all-star game, the end of his high-school football career. He spent four years wallowing in sweat and bruises and bashing, and that’s all Filth to me. I’ll be the bitchy one aching in the bleachers.

“I just wish I could let go of this place.”

(Demo is a pretty good comic book by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan. After the discussion about issue #6 at David Allen Jones’s blog, I figured it was time to do a closer rereading. Since the pages in Demo #6 aren’t numbered, I’m counting starting at the first page after the inside cover.)

Ken thinks his problem as a kid was small-town American xenophobia. Reminiscing on the day he sent an army of zombie pets after his entire neighborhood, he asks, “Did they deserve it?” (p. 23). Ah, Ken, wrong question… It’s obfuscated by the racism angle, but what poor little Ken seems to suffer is the same suburban ennui and fear of conformity that Lester Burnham felt in American Beauty, a dis-ease which is utterly terrifying to Ken (and Lester) and utterly banal to every other suburbanite who felt it and decided to do something other than whine or act pretentiously nutty. Ken’s real problem is his inability to take action to end his bad life. He thinks his problems are anybody’s fault but his. “Then there was my mom. I know she tried. But she was just as miserable and angry and out of place as I was” (p. 8). “But I know Dad tried too. It just wasn’t enough, I guess” (pp. 9-10). Even Ken’s happiness becomes the responsibility of others: “The only person that looked like me weeded the neighbor’s lawn. I never knew his name or even spoke to him, but he always made me feel better somehow” (pp. 6-7). (Ken’s claim that he never spoke to the gardener turns out to be incorrect [pp. 20-21], which is only the most obvious signal that he’s far from a reliable narrator.)

The ability to raise and control zombie pets is, of course, a great power for a guy like Ken who likes to displace responsibility. Ken wants revenge? Hey, he doesn’t have to get his hands dirty, let the dogs do it. He always had his dog to make him “feel better” (p. 14), but when one of those mean neighbors kills it, the dog becomes an instrument of vengeance. “…as much as my dog once helped me control my anger, he now helped me focus it” (p. 15). Ken is so passive himself, he’s passing the buck for his emotions on to his pet dog. The art focuses on horrific images of ghostly skeletal figures, zombies clawing out of the ground, violent death, but this is more displacement. The real horror is Ken’s passivity and retreat from the world.

But then, while Ken may be displacing his revenge onto the zombie pets, it’s still the most proactive measure he’s ever taken. The massive zombie devestation could be a terrible moment of insight that jolts Ken out of his loser world, but even as the power surges through him he can’t give up his lack of control. His one conversation with the gardener is brief: the gardener admonishes, “You should stop now. Hate will eat you too,” and Ken replies, “OK” (pp. 20-21).

Ken foolishly takes the gardener’s advice as the moral of the story:

I remember that day well enough. The one day I lost control, the one day I got mad. The one day I let those feelings out (p. 23). It’s staring me right in the face [over an image of Ken’s resurrected dog, looking up at Ken]. That gardner [sic] was right, hate will eat you up, if you let it. I stopped in time, and yeah, life is good now. But I will never forget how close I came (p. 25).

Well, is that a cop out or what? Here Ken has just lied to his wife about why his childhood neighborhood is an abandoned wreck. Because the text jumps from the frame story with Ken as an adult to the flashback with Ken as a child, and because it conspicuously refuses to fill in any information about the intervening years, and because Ken is hardly a reliable narrator, there’s not much reason to believe him when he claims “life is good now,” that he narrowly escaped tumbling into the abyss and is now happy and healthy. The narration is flat and simplistic (”I got sad. Mom cried. Dad got super mad. Then I got scared and embarrassed” [p. 11])—has Ken reverted to childlike narration for the flashback, or does he still actually think like that, as an adult? Why doesn’t he grow up and deal with his real problems? Oh, but then he’d have to tell his wife about them… And why does he decide not to do that? To protect her from his dark past? or just to avoid confronting them himself? No, there’s nothing good about Ken’s life now, and his wife is just another responsibility-displacement tool.

(David Fiore has a somewhat similar reading, over at his own blog:

…when you make a person you love cry, it’s not “society’s” fault, it’s yours. I would assume that goes at least double for mass-murder! And man, if you aren’t willing to look your past victims in the eye—just don’t bother looking at all, because the objects back there are much farther away than they seem, unless you have the benefit of another person’s perspective to help you find the range.

He also compares the story to the film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.)

The Losers: Ante Up

Plenty of people in the comics blogosphere seem to love The Losers, so when Rose and I found a copy of The Losers: Ante Up at Half-Price Books for $5, we figured it was worth checking out. This is an art-driven book, which is to say, I wouldn’t want to read it if I didn’t like the art. It’s not that Andy Diggle’s writing is bad—I see his job as inventing cool stuff for Jock to draw and filling the necessary speech balloons with tolerable dialogue, and he does his job just fine. The bad-ass quips are only occasionally cringe-worthy. “Candy, meet baby,” after the Losers cleverly escape yet another inescapable deathtrap, is the most unforgivable (N.B. to writers, glib rewordings of clich????s always come off badly). The left-leaning politics are pretty mild (apparently the CIA really does run drugs into the United States, they really do hire evil mercenaries to do their dirty work, they really are still selling illegal weapons to Saudia Arabia, the government really care only about oil, etc.), but I suppose they may seem more radical in the current political climate in which thin-skinned Republicans yelp whenever anybody Undermines the War Effort by questioning Bush administration foreign policies. But whatever, at any rate, I suppose I prefer the mildly liberal action of The Losers to the dumb Republican action of True Lies and other action movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.

The characters are ciphers. The guys are all gruff but sociable action heroes, each with his own specialty: Cougar the sniper, Jensen the hacker, Pooch the driver, Clay the leader. Of course, the one exception is Roque, the asshole who never stops whining and never actually does anything useful. Aisha is the most intriguing characer simply because she gets to be a different kind of cipher than the rest: the silent loner. The sort of character who, in fanfic written by 14-year-olds, would be a seven-foot-tall man in a black trenchcoat, but Andy Diggle is clever enough to make his silent loner a crazy ninja woman from the Hindu Kush.

This is all fine. So far, The Losers is the kind of story whose plot ticks along like a well-oiled clockwork machine. The expert precision of the characters should be paralled in the expert precision of the authors as they construct the plot, and Diggle, Jock et al. do a fine job of it. I usually prefer my action-centered narratives to dig deeper and get a hold of that bloody human nastiness clogging up the clockwork, like Rififi or Three Kings. And I usually like my slick caper stories to be more like Ocean’s Eleven, longer on the witty repartee and shorter on the violent mayhem. And as a veteran of The X-Files, I carry in my heart a lovingly nurtured resentment and suspicion of longform serialized conspiracy adventures. And (last one!) as a veteran of Foucault’s Pendulum, I’m just not that impressed by most conspiracy theories anymore. The Losers, alas, hasn’t (yet) dug very deep, it’s long on the violence and a little too short on the witty repartee, and it’s very much in the just-what-we-needed-another-evil-government-conspiracy genre. Ah, but I’ve read only the first six issues, and those are just entertaining enough to make me wonder if I should keep on keeping on with it.

And since I started writing this post (two days ago) by saying I wouldn’t want to read it if I didn’t like the art, I think what I meant was that the plot of The Losers isn’t quite as well-oiled as it should be, but the art (especially the supercool coloring by Lee Loughridge, which is my favorite part of the book) is pretty enough to make up for it. Just thought I should clarify, since I wrote the first half of this post two days ago and the second half just now and I’m not sure they fit together.

Demo #6

There’s some good discussion of Demo #6 on David Allen Jones’s Johnny Bacardi blog, including some comments from Demo writer Brian Wood. The problem with artists making exegeses of their own work is that it’s always disappointing when you disagree with them, especially when you’ve just come up with a reading that you think makes sense of a text that was bothering you and the author disagrees with your reading. I’m not too worried about whether my interpretations of texts matches up with ‘authorial intent,’ but it still makes me a little less inclined to enjoy a text when I have confirmation that the author’s intent was to create something I wouldn’t enjoy. Oh well, though! I think I may enjoy Demo #6 more next time I read it, but I don’t know yet because I haven’t reread it yet! Until I reread, here’s what I think right now, direct from the Johnny B comment thread. David Fiore said:

The work is the work, and there’s always a way to connect any two points within a story’s structure. In my case, I’ve concluded that Ken is more dangerous in the frame than he ever was as a child…

Which makes me think:

Is Ken more dangerous as an adult than he ever was as a mass-murdering kid? Ken’s real problem seems to be getting caught up in his own story. I don’t have Demo #6 with me now, but I recall thinking as I read that the biggest problem in his childhood was that his daddy didn’t love him enough or was too weak to protect him from the world. Ken seems to have made the gardener into one of the magical wise old men Sean mentioned in the post Johnny B linked to, but the gardener doesn’t do much to deserve it—he remains remarkably calm while Ken is going around making undead pets eat everybody, but of course it’s Ken narrating and he doesn’t seem too reliable. Maybe Ken’s real superpower is inventing objects (his dad, the gardener, flesh-eating zombie puppies) that let him avoid dealing with himself. Ken may look like a well-adjusted happy newlywed, but has anything really changed in his life? Is his wife just another responsibility-deflecting tool?