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Belleville Rendezvous!!

I took my 12-year-old brother Bertie to see The Triplets of Belleville today. So far, the Curtin family opinion is (unanimously) that you should find it, see it, stay through the end of the credits! It’s a madcap mixture of George Booth and Quentin Blake and Jacques Tati and a million other things with a complex visual vocabulary and spectacular music and sounds. I have a strong pro-verbal bias, and this was a movie with almost no dialogue, and yet I don’t think words could have improved it. Instead it worked fully within a language of images. Well, not fully; I had a great time watching the posters and street signs and graffiti. My favorite writing was what amounts to URINATION PROHIBITED on the wall of what I think was someone’s house.

It benefited greatly from a willingness to be a bit loose with visual styles, bringing things into focus as they become important to the story and letting them slide to the background (or foreground) when not needed. What impressed me most was a consistent editing touch that would splice simultaneous scenes together, crosscutting. When one door opened, you’d see what was behind a different door, and yet this wasn’t confusing. Triplets is just a movie that depends heavily on parallels, on multiple converging stories, on the choices people make to bind themselves to each other. I’ll have more to say later on how this relates to my pet theme, but I’m too tired now for analysis. I’m too tired for anything but polemical cheerleading - see this movie! It’s fun! Take an interested kid!

In fact, that last point is an important one. We both enjoyed the movie, and I was proud of Bertie’s level of analytical sophistication. He appreciated parallel structure in the beginning and end of the story and was quite excited about this. He laughed that a puppy who had a runin with a toy train would become a dog who barks at commuter trains. Most importantly, and setting this apart from previous film excursions, he didn’t need anything explained to him in the course of the story. Perhaps my constant exhortations that if you don’t ask who the person entering the room is but listen instead to see if it becomes clear have gotten through. Well, I also quietly translated some of the written French at the beginning to make sure he was following. At any rate, it gave us plenty to talk about and he’s already (well, was already, before his bedtime) bragging about how he’ll be able to tell all his friends tomorrow that he saw a movie that has “only one line of dialogue!” My littlest brother’s growing up, and it’s good to feel I’m doing something right in gently guiding him. Ah, the cleverness of me!

Joan of Arcadia, Alternative Superhero

There is, as ever, a lot of talk about superheroes these days. From Jim Henley’s dead-on analysis of superhero books as a literature of ethics to the discussions on reading habits prompted by John Jakala, Why just superheroes? and Why not just superheroes?, which don’t quite amount to the same thing. David Fiore has been talking nonstop about Watchmen and superheroics. Steven has our copy of Watchmen, so there’s no danger of my entering that critical community now. In fact, I’d been feeling sort of alienated from superheroes and comics in general lately, listless, not getting excited about what the characters I like (or hate) might be doing. And I’m guilty as hell of waiting for the trade, but not with urgent anticipation, but with a sort of quiet resignation, that I might as well read it eventually. This would all be less of a problem (or really no problem at all) if I hadn’t signed on to what was supposed to be in large part a comics blog, and then contributed basically no comics content of note. Then I realized that I’m still getting my superhero fix, but in another medium. Folks, don’t laugh, but I’m watching Joan of Arcadia.

This is the first tv show I’ve ever followed, with the possible exception of a deeply felt fling with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I didn’t grow up with a tv, and so it’s taken me a long time to even be able to follow and appreciate television conventions. So somehow this fall I ended up watching a show about the family of a well-off and lovely teenaged girl who get messages from God. Joan is 16, new in town, not sure how she wants to fit in at school, basically realistically awkward until God starts appearing to her in the guise of people she’d pass every day and giving her advice and assignments. Joan’s father, Will, has just been hired as the chief of police in Arcadia, an awfully corrupt fictional city, and is working hard to clean it up, which pretty much precludes making any friends. Joan’s mother, Helen, got a nebulous job at the high school office, so she’s around a lot. Joan’s older brother Kevin had been a star athlete in high school until he was paralyzed at the waist after a car accident. The move to Arcadia is supposed to encourage him to pursue independence. Then there’s Joan’s oft-ignored slightly younger brother, Luke, a science prodigy who is slowly becoming more than just a nerd stereotype. Luke initially made friends with Friedman, a creepy misogynist geek, but thankfully is not going in for such stupidity. Joan’s friends are Adam, a confused artist everyone assumes is a stoner, and Grace, whom Steven calls “The Junior Radical”, a rabble-rousing rabbi’s daughter who’s ostensibly the school lesbian.

So how is this a superhero story and not just a standard family/high school drama? That’s where God comes in. I haven’t seen the first episodes, so I don’t know how this is described in the context of the show, but basically each episode involves God giving Joan an “assignment” (Joan’s word) that somehow causes a reaction she didn’t anticipate, often with the same metaphor being played out in subplots about the family. So the basic setup is that Joan has some knowledge about what sh’es supposed to do and has a secret that keeps her different from other people, insight she can’t share. She has power that her peers don’t (maybe - more on this later) and has to decide how she’s going to use it.

I’ve always thought of the Spidey mantra “with great power comes great responsibility” as part of a gnomic triptych with “where much is given much is expected” and “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” They’re disparate sources with a shared message about how to internalize guilt and expectations. I’m not quite sure what power-based reading of this David is rejecting, since I don’t see how there can be an escape from power relationships, but he seems right that “[e]very origin (or “conversion”) story renders the protagonist entirely responsible for him/herself.” I don’t know who’s responsible for the rest of us in this view, since that’s what I think of as the human condition, but this is what happens to Joan. Oh, sure, she can ask God for questions and advice, but God, who’s apparently spent millennia coming up with snarky responses to The Big Questions, wants her to figure things out for herself. God is a built-in support system of sorts, but Joan can’t summon God; it’s nothing she can count on. Similarly, the X-Men can decompress back at the mansion and practice all they want, but whatever happens in the field is a matter of individual choice and chance. I suppose this is true of the sex crimes unit in SVU, for that matter, and I think that’s what attracts me about all the stories, principled individualism. All of these characters have an inner drive and that’s what matters more than maxims about power and what we owe to each other.

Actually, the inwardness is where I think Joan works best as a show. I don’t believe that God is hanging out with Maryland teens, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that I don’t think a radioactive spiderbite would make me superhuman. Taking these stories on their own terms, they are strong metaphors about being a young person and stronger because the metaphorical distance allows plenty of room for identification. I don’t know if people who do think God interacts with them daily (or could, at least) watch or approve of this show, but that’s a different issue. What matters is that mild-mannered Joan Girardi wants to have friends and understand who she is, but most of all she wants to do The Right Thing, and it’s that that gets her into trouble. Because the visits from God aren’t something she can explain to others, she doesn’t have much to fall back on when things go wrong, as they often do. But because she doesn’t question the rightness of her intents, she has an opportunity to analyze herself and her actions and understand herself better, and this ultimately is God’s goal. Well, God has other goals, which basically involve remembering that there’s more to life than being a self-absorbed teenager and that small actions can have major consequences.

Basically, as I recall it, this is what much of growing up was about, trying to learn to balance others’ needs against your own wants and trying to figure out what your wants even are. So Joan of Arcadia is a story about being a teenager (or a parent or an early-20s paraplegic) and trying to figure out what that means in relation to the world. It’s because it depends on the God conceit and the ripple metaphors in the related stories that it’s more than just a story about somebody being a teenager, etc. It’s both “universal” and personal, insightful without being (overly, so far!) didactic. And in comics terms, there’s good, clear art and sharp, snappy writing. Not to mention believable, realistic anatomy!

So why do I watch this and not explicit superhero shows like Smallville or Mutant X or the unlamented Birds of Prey? Well, in part because I haven’t given them a chance, but that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen maybe 10 minutes total of the last two, and that was more than enough to convince me never to watch again. Silly, campy writing! I like Joan because of the things extraneous to the superhero story. I like female protagonists, though not exclusively. I always have a soft spot for nerds, and Luke is blooming into a fun character who’s wiser and more self-aware than he initially seemed. Grace is wonderful, half-believing the politics she publicly won’t compromise, and I am completely thrilled that the writers for the show don’t feel a need to make her sexual orientation clear. Whether politicized or not, sexual ambiguity and identity are big teen issues and big issues in general, and this is handled in a way that works for me, although people who were hoping for something to watch after 7th Heaven would probably not approve. And an early episode even addresses sexual assault, which is a deal-breaker issue for me, in a lucid and moving way. The parents struggle lovingly with their relationship and clash over religion and how to deal with their children. And there are issues of civic and family responsibility and cliquishness and disability and all sorts of things that don’t show up on mainstream shows. Then again, I don’t watch mainstream shows, so maybe they do. I’d like to think I’m wrong, but I think they’re like the majority of superhero comics, full of almost-caricatures and fights and breasts and ridiculous outfits and perhaps occasional patches of good writing. In both media, I’m glad there are alternatives to this. And I’m even more glad that there are plenty of things I enjoy outside of comics and tv, but it’s good to find things that I like.

Updates on Me Me Me!

Quickly, for those who care, I’ve got small and somewhat inadequate reviews of the movie I Capture the Castle and the Dark Horse collection AutobioGraphix in the new issue of Sequential Tart. I liked both.

Also, I didn’t weigh in on the fascinating issue of Catwoman underwear, which Graeme and others discussed a week or so ago. Target seems to stock Superman (Supergirl?) underwear, but I haven’t seen other comics properties in women’s grundoons. I searched for a scary Hulk face, but to no avail. Of course, maybe that wouldn’t have sold well to people who weren’t me. But the boys got them! Then again, I’m still annoyed the Daredevil boxers didn’t have the proper slogan: HERE COMES… DAREDEVIL, THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR. I’d have bought those indeed!

the pain of backward-glancing thoughts

This could be a long, meandery post, so I’ll get right to the point. Arguments about morality (and plenty of other things) often get phrased in a way that creates some link between the activity in question and historical precedents. I have an example here, but all I want to know is what mythical past these people are interested in finding again. I’m not one to think we live in the best of all possible times or anything absolutist like that, but I’d rather have the freedoms I have now than ones I would have had in plenty of other historical contexts. And so I don’t know what to do when I read in the Cincinnati Enquirer’s letters to the editor:

“Sexual abstinence and monogamy are major pillars of a lasting society. Children deserve to hear the truth regarding life - anything of true value must be obtained through self-control and seeking to honor the interest of others above self. Without more emphasis on abstinence training in the culture, promiscuity will continue to defraud the masses of true beauty and eventually life itself.”

I’ve succeeded so far in staying out of the marriage debates, because my views are strong and not going to convince anyone who disagrees with them. In fact, I’m not sure it’s right to call them debates when all the terms are contested. I’m just interested in the idea that there’s a way things used to work and that we ought to be working our way back to that. (Well, ok, I also have a lot of interest in the ideal of self-sacrifice, to the extent that this would be one of our categories if I wrote what I think about most often. I think there’s a lot of good to be found in placing the “interests of others above self” and am in many ways not yet comfortable choosing my desires over others’, but I’ve also hurt myself almost irreparably in the past by doing this. And so I’m very conflicted and thinking a lot about it.)

Anyway, going back to going back, in last night’s episode of Quicksilver, Isaac Newton was trying to work backwards to figure out what laws god had set to govern the world, and he (Newton) was using geometry rather than calculus because it was less abstract. Because calculus was an abstraction of geometric issues, using it would necessitate distancing himself from the truth. If I still had my copy of The Search for the Perfect Language I’d be able to cite all the arguments about in what language god spoke the world into existence. According to Herodotus, who didn’t have the Genesis god to contend with and merely wanted to know what language children raised without language would speak, I think it was Phrygian. So I know there can be a primordial urge to know and understand and contend with who we were, and that’s what the whole thorny “creation of self through narrative” is supposed to address, and I will come back to that theme soon. I’m just not sure how people hope to do this on a cultural level. And I’m not even being pedantic about being in a pluralistic society and all that. I just want to know where people want to be, I guess.

I don’t even know what it means to have a society supported by “sexual abstinence and monogamy” (presumably as a binary opposition, not simultaneously for any given individual) because I can’t imagine there’s ever been one and I’m not sure what criteria a person could come up with to force any past history into this simple a setup, even after nipping off unnecessary heels and toes. I’m always interested in the personal metaphors and touchstones that people create for themselves, but it’s hard to imagine anything that would make me want to project them onto some sort of system of norms. David Fiore has lots of fascinating and fun theories about big-R Romantic and Transcendentalist influences in Marvel comics, but that doesn’t mean (I hope!) that he goes around on message boards telling readers that it’s the only way to read these comics “correctly”. That was really the core of my initial realization about the “creation of self” thing. I understood taht it was a theme that linked most works I really, really enjoy, and that it seemed to be this aspect of them that I found attractive. I don’t think other people have to see this or like it, but it’s become a useful system for me.

Growing up, I read a lot of historical fiction, and I haven’t entirely given it up as an adult. One thing I often find exasperating is putting a modern protagonist with modern sensibilities and tone in the guise of a legitimate historical picture, which can happen in books from The Moon Lord (where it was fascinating in its own way) to the Oprah-approved The Secret Life of Bees, which annoyed me a lot. Then there’s the aforementioned Quicksilver, which I’ll have to blog on more when I’ve finished it, because the same narrative tricks used in different places in the text seem to be giving me vastly varying impressions. What made history interesting was that it was different from my life, and there are translation issues involved for me to understand (to the best of my ability), and I’ve always enjoyed thinking about that. I thought about what it would be like to translate myself into a Greek context or a medieval Christian one, but that doesn’t mean I’d advocate moving society in that direction. I’m not sure I advocate moving society at all. I’m much more interested in individuals. And it’s because I’m interested in them that I wonder why so many of them long for something they never knew, something that exists only in their imaginings, and yet they feel the pain of its absence. I follow my own advice: forget your nostos, but keep your eyes open. For me, at least, it’s better that way.

Iliad Super-Lite

I don’t think there’s anything I could add to this, so I merely note that my friend Jeffrey has managed to sum up the good old fall-of-Troy story in limericks. I’m impressed.

The Moon Lord

I promised an update on sexual politics and more in the now tragically out-of-printThe Moon Lord. If you want a glimpse of the writing style, Amazon offers a little excerpt, which should whet your appetite for more, or not, as the case may be. Neither of the reviews I found give the names of minor characters, so I’ll just make them up as needed. So with that out of the way, I’m sure we’re all ready for a romp through a medieval romance.

Now, despite the introduction you may have read about the brave chevalier Tancred de Vierzon and his runins with Richard the Lionheart, it isn’t really his story. Well, it is, but it’s more importantly the story of Rosamund Bourton, mistress of Wynnsef castle. With her ne’er-do-well older brother away on the crusades, Rosamund is capably managing the household, though a fat, ugly, old, wealthy neighbor is trying to gain control of the manor and its mistress. His plans are foiled when Tancred and his troups, back from the crusade, overtake Wynnsef and claim it for themselves. Now things really get intersting. Rosamund, recognizing Tancred by his special symbols (Does this tie into the big Superhero Discussions) and his crescent-shaped scar, realizes she and the women of her household could be in for a rough time. So, in a brilliant flash of anachronistic insight, she calls upon Tancred’s well-known honor and makes him swear that he and his men will abide by what is basically The Antioch College Sexual Consent Code. No man will engage in any sexual activity whatsoever with any female in the household without first getting her explicit verbal consent, and there’s not to be any trickery with getting women drunk or anything like that, because that doesn’t count. The men grudgingly agree and take full control of the castle.

At this point, the plot boils down to a romantic comedy, in which Rosamund learns that this horribly vain and useless Tancred has actually occupied the castle to spite her brother, who had shown himself to be a scoundrel, not exactly news to her, by engaging in some traitorous act I’ve now forgotten, which was news indeed. Now Rosamund finds herself falling for the honorable Tancred in earnest, but he’s just too darned honorable! When she gives him his bath, he won’t allow anything that might give the impression of impropriety to go on, or when it seems he might, they get rudely interrupted. When she sneaks into his room to confront him, he has some Oriental herbs burning to ease his slumbers, and he refuses to take advantage of her in her inebriated state, having inhaled the toxic fumes, despite her repeated pleas that he do so. And Tancred, who originally took Wynnsef to anger Rosamund’s brother, finds Rosamund to be so honest and capable that he can’t help but fall in love with her completely. However, Tancred doesn’t think he’s good enough for such a beautiful and pure lady, because (at least as I recall) he had been tortured and molested by the Saracens who left the scar on his cheek.

Meanwhile, her best friend, whom I’ll call Elizabeth, a novice in a local convent, comes to visit and eventually falls for Tancred’s right-hand man, Mehmet or something like that, who happens to be a Saracen. Eventually Elizabeth gets excused from being a nun by her chipper Mother Superior and is able to get on a horse heading east with her beloved, off to start a multiethnic family. There are several more twists in the Tancred/Rosamund story, which does manage to reach its logical culmination, since this is a romance novel. But then Tancred is driven away by something or other. And Rosamund’s land is going to be repossessed and she’ll be married off to the hideous neighbor, but at the last minute there’s something very exciting that happens instead, and I won’t tell you because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. And what a surprise it is! Ok, not really. It’s a happily-ever-after.

What fascinated me about this book, though, was what seemed like fairly radical content under its surface. I haven’t read enough romance novels to make any kind of informed comparison, but it seemed more overtly political than the books my classmates chose (except maybe the one about the lawyer for the evil land-grabbing corporation who fell in love with the lawyer who wanted to save the lakefront property as a bird preserve). I assume, like superhero comics, there’s a major aspect of wish-fulfillment going on here, and so I wonder if the author was trying to make an explicit point about issues of full consent and the like. And while the middle American readers might not be keen on multiracial couples (or maybe they are, which would be a fine thing in my eyes) they don’t seem to mind love matches between Franks and Musselmen (to use the book’s term) or, according to classmates, Apache and white settlers. If this were a realistic modern story of a woman with strict rules about sex and more pressure from her family than she wants (because Rosamund is more than happy to share the task of running the castle with the right man) who falls in love with a rough but sensitive man of his word who’s a troubled survivor of sexual abuse, I’m not sure whether it would find as many readers. Add in the best friend finding bliss in a relationship her society wouldn’t condone, and we’ve got something pretty much unlike what I’d expected from a romance novel.

The book was not without flaws, several of which I’ve already mentioned. I wasn’t really comfortable with the rape-fantasy aspects of it, although they were perhaps mitigated by the elaborate consent structure. I’m not sure what message to take away from that, that it’s good to have such structures in place but that it’s still nearly impossible for a woman to say “yes” when she means “yes” or what? And then there’s what seemed to me like a lack of historicity. I don’t like my historical stories to be so pristine and easy, although this one clearly had at least some reasearch feeding it. The “Saracens,” both good guys and bad guys, didn’t seem to get beyond cliches, but I suppose they’re not as cliched as the handsome, principled swordsman with a heart of gold. Still, since I had to read a romance novel, I think I made a good choice. It certainly seemed better once I realized the promiscuous characters in several different modern-setting books my classmates chose were named Rose. Usually they save a name like that for alcoholics and suicides! Anyway, those are the bones of it, and anyone who’s interested can read more. I’m almost tempted to try to dredge it up again, but I don’t think I’ll make any special effort. Once may have been enough.

Kids these days!

I got an ad in the mail today offering me a free issue of Teen People and I’m going to have to turn it down because I’m afraid I’d want to subscribe. Now, as a teenager, I didn’t read such things, but now I’m fascinated with youth culture and the messages given to teens. I suppose Teen People might somehow be more sophisticated than other teen magazines and have some sort of pseudonews content, but I’m sure the makeup tips would still be too sophisticated for me to follow.

Also, is Valentine’s Day really a big deal? I mean, people actually do the dinner and flowers bit? See, debate has sprung up over the propriety of scheduling regional quizbowl (team quick recall) competition for the hardcore academic format quizbowl on that date. Clearly it’s a point of pride to be unnerdy enough to get a girlfriend, and I’m sure that’s a worthwhile endeavor for some, but it’s ridiculous to watch people bragging about it on a public forum. And then making jokes about other people’s masculinity to improve their own social standing. Somehow masculinity jokes have never been high on my list of things I find hilarious and biting and I have plenty of thoughts about the roles women get put into in such interactions. So I’m linking, but I can’t say I recommend anyone going to read, unless there’s some comparative analysis of geekdoms being done by any comics fans. At any rate, it’s just useful to see the same sorts of comments in different male-dominated niches. I’ll have to ask my brother if sports works this way. Sometimes it seems like everything else does. What I really wonder about is these girlfriends, whether they want this or are just using tradition as leverage for something else. Or whether the girlfriends even care about Valentine’s Day, I guess. It could be one big ruse. So many options!

In other news, I’m headed out of town for the rest of today and tomorrow. The blog is in good hands with Steven, and I’ll come back exhausted and with little to say, I imagine. And I’m off.

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.

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.