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Category: Comics

Rosemary for Remembrance

I guess it was early April when Steven I went to see V for Vendetta and I managed to hold off on buzzing my hair until late May, though I’d wanted it well before I saw Natalie Portman pull it off. I don’t talk about fashion and haircuts just to be frivolous but because I think the movie’s frivolity is key. Back in the 80s when V for Vendetta was written, dystopia looked dim. Recession would give way to civil war and ethnic cleansing (though that wasn’t a term yet, then, right? Not until the next decade and Yugoslavia’s demise?) and grim cement-block dormitories that would drive a girl right out on the streets to take a chance on prostitution when it could hardly be worse than home. Nowadays, I think we imagine it more like the movie does, although now the Fed’s this week stopped moving up interest rates, et c., et c., and who knows? But yeah, the “first they came for the Pakistanis and I didn’t speak up because I was too busy watching tv, plus don’t you have to be suspicious of them anyway?” approach seems like a plausible enough one to take. Unfortunately removing the squalor means removing some of the motivation. Here, Evey’s looking plenty fashionable by our standards and is sort of coddled by our fascist dictatorship, sure, but that’s what happens in the book too.

When Evey sets out from home at the start of the movie, she’s not exactly hoping to sell her body, or not so directly. She’s got a date with her boss (of some sort; like I said, it’s been months and the details are hazy) Gordon, who we later learn is gay and only dating girls for cover. Not only that, but he’s got a secret archive of Korans and Mapplethorpes. (I’m making that detail up because I don’t remember what the pictures of frolicking male nudes in the movie actually were, and because it lets me add the bitter footnote that I haven’t ever recovered from my anger that my parents wouldn’t let me see the Mapplethorpe exhibit that was subject of an obscenity trial here in Cincinnati. I listened to the details on the news every night and wanted to go judge for myself whether, as I suspected, the child nudes were in fact non-sexual and the adults appropriately so. Apparently the fact that I was 10 was enough to keep people from taking me seriously when it came to this request. I see their point, but, like I said, I still resent how it made me feel so left out, like history was passing me by.) So okay, it’s in Gordon’s best interests to have these beards so that he doesn’t raise enough eyebrows to get his place searched, but for that reason it’s in his best interest not to be encouraging young women with his business card from sneaking out after curfew to be caught and questioned by the secret police, so I don’t in fact think this was a good translation from book to screen, but it gets Evey out on the streets and lets V become her savior.

So the movie prettifies dystopia, but more interesting I think are the ways it erases some of the messiness around gender in the original. Here, when Evey’s thrust back into her corrupt world, she finds Gordon again to be her hero who’s keeping it real while living a lie. In the book, though, she lives with a rather different sort of character, a middle-aged man who wants her to share his bed. I think Steven thinks she’s legitimately fallen in love (whatever that means), but I think love isn’t even an issue at that point. She knows she’s nothing but a pawn and yet her body gives her an edge up, the only sort of power she can have. Living with V, like living under the tyranny outside, has taught her to comply with anything without protest, to easily readjust her worldview to let her survive inside the new power structure. So Evey learns to live out there and she survives, and then gets pulled back into the secret world and survives there too. She’s really not a very exciting protagonist, although I think she’s supposed to be.

More interesting, at least in the book, is the character I found most sympathetic, Rosemary Almond. She doesn’t show up in the movie, like the other major woman among the minor characters, Helen Heyer. Dr. Delia is there, in about an equivalent role, and the mysterious martyred Valerie, but none of the women who actually act like women. Of course, in this world “acting like women” means they are able to create roles for themselves based on those of the men they’re married to or otherwise fucking or at least implying they’d be willing to consider fucking. Helen, whom I do find sympathetic and more interesting than V or Evey, is a conniving bitch who gets her comeuppance, but she’s also in some ways the only woman with any sense of agency we get to see in the story. Sure, Evey takes on a mantle, but that’s some mystical transformative thing and a necessary unbelievability if you want a hopeful future for humanity after the final page.

Rosemary, though, has something else going on. By my reading, she seems like the solidly middle-class wife of a civil servant who doesn’t appreciate her (claiming he’d want to fuck her if she were more like the glamorous Helen, excuses for erectile dysfunction being more than common in the book) and yet whom she loves and accepts as loving her as much as he can. Then he gets offed by V and she learns quickly that even her bitter husband provided for her better than the state will, and she eventually does decide it would be in her best interests to accede to the propositions of one of her dead husband’s friends since it’s the only way she can maintain the standard of living she barely wants. V eventually gets him, too, and poor Rosemary ends putting on makeup like Evey at the beginning of the book to become a chorus girl at the cabaret the political leaders (formerly her social set) frequent. Unwilling to accept such an ending, though, she buys a gun and shoots The Leader of the fascist regime. In the book she does, at least.

In the movie, there is no Rosemary. It’s V and his awesome fighting skillz that come into play in the Matrixy assassination sequence, no “hell hath no fury” sequence needed. And yet while they’ve written out this Evey-parallel character in making the translation, there’s more to the Evey parallel than I’ve already said. See, in the book when Evey learns about the trademark rose V leaves with his victims, she asks if there’s one for The Leader but V replies that he has a different rose for that job. By this part in the story, Rosemary has been going by Rose for quite some time, a switch that’s not botanically sound but does sometimes seem to happen in namings though I’m rather particular about being a Rose plain, and now we learn that instead of being a woman out for vengeance and truth and power, she’s just another domino. In the most charitable reading, perhaps V’s just kept up with his surveillance and happens to know what she’ll do, but that hardly seems like him, does it? No, Rosemary/Rose is just like Evey, who’s guilted and manipulated into becoming exactly the woman V wanted her to be, giving him his perfect send off. Each has her heart ripped out by V until she can learn to be violent in a way that’s useful to him and his precious cause.

None of this is to say that I don’t sympathize with V, don’t think an evil, racist, fascist, misogynist government shouldn’t be overthrown. It’s just a bit creepy, if honest, to show the sexist, megalomaniacal tactics he uses to do that in the book. It’s equally creepy, I find, to edit that out in adapting it to movie form. While the movie avoids the “Evey, I am your father!” scene for seduction, neither story has much to show about truthful or healthy relationships, which I suppose is a rather obvious statement. It’s hard for me to watch Evey being abused even when V’s on good behavior and not locking her up with a rat for company. It’s hard to watch Rosemary pull a trigger that she knows will ruin her life with the hope that it might save others, though harder still with the thought that she’s just doing this for V and only thinks it’s for herself. But maybe all I’m saying is it’s just hard to sympathize with a crazy fascist who wants to overcome crazy fascism. There’s got to be a better way and I hope we find it soon.

Moominsummer Madness

I’m already starting my countdown to Drawn & Quarterly’s September release of Tove Jansson’s Moomin comics with the free strip every weekday that they offer. The story starts here if you’d like to read from the beginning. Or there’s a PDF preview if you’d rather not wait on the daily postings.

Can you tell I’m pushing Moomins? Of course, who wouldn’t love a family of gentle hippo-ish creatures and their many and varied friends? I was such a fan of the books when I was young (or became a fan then, since clearly they still get me excited) and I’m really looking forward to reading the comics. Jansson wrote stories that are sort of ridiculous but also kind and honest in a way that I find appealing. They’re books for children, certainly, but I think adults can appreciate their goofy depths too. As I recall, my littlest brother got his start in comparative literature at 8 or so by comparing how the adventures in Exploits of Moominpappa shape up against the reminiscences of Moominpappa’s Memoirs, although the Wikipedia entry thinks that these are different titles for the same book.

As far as the books go, my favorite is the one whose title I stole for this post. In Moominsummer Madness, a volcanic eruption starts a flood that sweeps through Moominvalley, forcing the inhabitants to evacuate. They find refuge in a floating theater and decide to write and perform a play. Or there’s Finn Family Moomintroll, a good introduction to most of the major characters, in which Moomintroll’s friends find a hat lost by the Hobgoblin who lives on the moon. It turns out that anything put into this hat transforms, which is part of the reason the sinister Hobgoblin is tracking it down and thus stalking the Moomins and their friends.

I write these plot summaries as if plot is really what drives these stories, but it definitely isn’t. From the lonely Groke whose alienation is so extreme that she leaves a trail of dead grass behind her with each step to Moomintroll’s friend Snufkin, a thoughtful wanderer who plays the harmonica and despises the park-keepers who want to keep him from enjoying the greenery, the characters are both outrageous and recognizably human underneath their fantastical forms. It’s especially the details that make the books such fun for me, which seems to be true of the strips as well. The background business is a delightful complement to the main characters’ conversations. in both cases, it’s the vividness of the world that makes everything more interesting.

I hate writing reviews, as I’ve said before, and so everything I’ve written here seems fake and cliched to me, but I’m sounding like a fangirl because I am a fangirl. Other bloggers can write about their childhood superhero crushes or how they thought they were Ninja Turtles, but instead of anything like that I taught myself to draw Moominmamma and Little My. I even made a little shoebox Moomin house for all my homemade Moomin paper dolls to live in so that I could let them walk across my bed and have conversations but also have a nice place to stay at night. Maybe once I read the strip collection I’ll have more sensible and insightful things to say, but for now I’ll just look forward to it and know that to me it feels like home.

“Well, it’s because the other 90 percent is filled up with curds and whey.”

Last night was for major travel, so tonight is for majorly early bedtime. I can’t go there without sharing the news that at last I found a copy of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness and it’s mine mine mine. Well, okay, and the real news you probably couldn’t pick up on in previous sentences is that I’m totally geeking out and it did in fact lift my spirits every time I picked it up, which is just amazing. So here are some of my super-spoilery happy impressions.

Steph from Lost at Sea plays viola and percussion (and probably something else prior to that) in Kid Chameleon and I’m so glad to see her again!

Lynette is straight, which really surprised me. Or maybe she’s not straight and is just fucking Todd to destroy him, which would be basically evil and awesome. I don’t suppose we’ll really find out. But hmm.

Oh, and speaking of which, Wallace’s new not-quite-boyfriend is the next ex, right? Because Ramona’s head lights up when he’s mentioned and she (intentionally?) misinterprets the chi trick Scott learns from him via Wallace, and even her response to Wallace’s plans to cuddle with him seems pretty much ambivalent. But if he is indeed the dark, mysterious man at the final concert, he knows Todd and is influencing him for non-vegan psychic reasons, at least during the Honest Ed’s fight. SCOTT, IT’S A TRAP! BEWARE! Oooooooh, divided loyalties! I can’t wait for more of it in the next book.

I love that Ramona reminisces in her underwear and the memory is so strong that she reverts to the tank top she was wearing then. It seems so real that she and Scott are in many ways less mature in their relationship than Scott and Knives were, though on the surface that seems not to be the case.

My favorite scene is just post-fight when everyone’s in pain and sad and yet looking to help or at least be aware of someone else. Envy may not be one of the story’s “good guys” (and recall that this is a story in which the top good guy has to beat people into oblivion) but she’s not the heartless bitch her ex and his friends might almost wish she were. The more plot there is, the more things in the social group get tightly incestuous and yet, while “everyone in this town is bitches, apparently” there’s an undercurrent of support and strength amid the heartbreak that just makes me want to wiggle.

And there’s more Comeau! I hope his ring from the future comes is something he picked up (can you use past tense for trips to the future?) while visiting me so we can share data and gossip because we’re the National Security Agency, though I’m not holding my breath on that one. But how awesome would that be? Call me, Michael. I know you know who I am.

So yeah, what I’m saying is that I’m really too old for this now, but I’m utterly charmed. It’s great that the wacky fantasy and the emotional frenzy have come to the forefront now. I mean, by this book when there are save points and extra lives I might have finally noticed that there were video game references instead of having to be informed after reading book one, but I’m not there for the geeky in-jokes, just the in-book in-jokes. I barely know the characters in any real sense, but I have such a fondness for them all the way down to the poor waitress who doesn’t want to be in a documentary and doesn’t want small and thoughtless tips. I feel so lucky to have these books that speak to me at a dopey emotional level and just make me happy. I like this happiness. “Today a child is born unto us, and his name will be bacon.” And it was good.

Continued unblogging

So I’m definitely not back to regular blogging—OK, I’ve never managed to blog very regularly, but anyway, I’m definitely not prepared even for monthly blogging at this point. We’ll have to see how it goes when my semester ends in a couple weeks. In the meantime, I’ve decided to join the world of Web 2.0 and start participating in Flickr (see also the rose and steven group) and So far I’ve only uploaded the photos from our trip to New Orleans and many photos of our pet cat.

As long as I’m writing, I might as well write a little more. I think the only movie other than Brokeback Mountain that Rose and I have seen in a theater this year is V for Vendetta. Oh, no, we also saw Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. I need to read Laurence Sterne’s novel so I can understand how it works as an adaptation, but it works well standing alone too. As far as this kind of movie goes, I think it’s more frivolous than and probably less frivolous than Adaptation.

But V for Vendetta. We weren’t initially planning to see it, because it looked pretty stupid. But William Gibson recommended it and John Pistelli at Maxims and Reflections had a whole series of entertaining posts (“Ideas are Bulletproof,” “Re-review,” “Brands are Ideaproof,” “A Shamanic Soldier Priest” [tangentially related]) that really made me want to see the movie. So I did. Twice, in fact: once on my own because Rose was otherwise occupied and then again with Rose. I think Alan Moore’s book doesn’t translate well to cinema—it might have worked better as a much longer movie or a miniseries. It needs an ensemble cast and time to develop several protagonists. The movie jettisons pretty much everything from the book except V’s story and follows a more conventional heroic adventure format that misses much of the book’s political sophistication. I guess Evey’s story is largely intact, especially her imprisonment, but it suffers in comparison with Evey’s story in the book. Movie Evey is older than Book Evey, and this allows her to be less dependent on V. But the filmmakers replace Book V and Book Evey’s coercive power-imbalanced relationship with a more conventional romantic subplot that appears unexpectedly and arbitrarily near the end of the movie. (I certainly wasn’t expecting that kiss, anyway.) I prefer the movie’s less Stockholm Syndrome-esque version of Evey’s escape from prison, but I prefer the book’s less sentimental version of Evey’s final crisis and climax after V’s death.

Other V for Vendetta thoughts, maybe for writing about in the future:

  • The prologue and epilogue with Evey admonishing the viewer that the man is more important than the man’s ideas: why do the filmmakers undermine V’s claim that ideas are bulletproof?
  • The surprising prosperity and invisibility of class and poverty in this fascist dystopia which lost at least several tens of thousands people from its population to plague and genocide, in a world where the U.S.A. has disintegrated into civil war and the Middle East has presumably done the same or been destroyed entirely. I’m sure it’s U.S. culture’s typical blindness to economic inequality—everybody’s middle class in TV land—but it seems especially egregious in such a political polemical movie.

I am Curious (…)!

Anonymous commenter says (in reference to Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #106, “I am Curious (Black)!”):

Live this next 24 hrs. as a black woman… Man, just live the next 24 hrs. White, black, red, yellow… It don’t matter what color.. Just live!!!!

Thanks to you, O commenter: we will take these words of wisdom to heart.

Except…. This comment arrives, fortuitously, soon after I complained about excessive attention to universal themes in Brokeback Mountain. The exhortation to just live suggests that we ought to pay more attention to our universal, shared experience of life and not worry so much about differences—don’t live in some other person’s skin for a day, but consider what you share with that other person. Good advice. Exclusive attention to differences leads at best to alienation and lack of empathy and at worst to hatred and oppression: racism, sexism, homophobia. But exclusive attention to universal or shared experience and ignorance of difference leads to the subtler oppression of whitewashing. By living in some other person’s skin for a day, figuratively or literally, we may find and celebrate the diversities and the universalities of our lives. “I am Curious (Black)!” for all its clumsy preaching, makes this worthwhile point.


Ah, not blogging is fun. Maybe blogging can be fun too?

Um, but what to blog about? Rose and I saw Brokeback Mountain a few days ago. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are so brave! Fah.

I was going to mention how it’s not exactly a universal love story, since people whose love doesn’t deviate from normative restrictions aren’t encouraged to fear and despise themselves, aren’t murdered for the crime of existing or driven into a traumatized unlife in the closet. Then I read the New York Review of Books review, so I’ll just link to that instead. Because I’m lazy.

I will say this: universality is overrated. Universal themes: who cares? They’re generic, we’ve seen them a million times before. The specificity is what makes stories worth reading! And the specificity is especially important in Brokeback Mountain, where the specific story is real and happening right now. There are people—maybe not as many as there used to be, but still far too many—who would watch Brokeback Mountain and rejoice in Jack and Ennis’s misery. (They’d probably be sad about the broken marriages, though.) There are many men who won’t see the movie because they fear the image of gay sex. That’s what the story’s about: denial, hatred and fear of sexuality, a man who can’t overcome his fear and kills his own soul as thoroughly as other fearful men kill his would-be lover.

I just thought of something. Did anybody praise Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard for playing bisexual in Kinsey?

Isn’t it sad that the little girls can’t read Wonder Woman? (Um, what about the little boys?) I was gonna say the little girls are being denied their veiled bondage quasi-porn, but it occurred to me they they must be getting plenty of that in their manga.

Abraham Lincoln (from Posivite Atheism):

My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.

When the Know-Nothings get control, it [the Declaration of Independence] will read: “All men are created equal except negroes, foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure….

If today he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us,” but he will say to you, “Be silent; I see it, if you don’t.”

Thomas Jefferson:

To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise … without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

Believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

Dr. Rush told me (he had it from Asa Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington, on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice.

“Every woman loves a fascist”

As soon as I’d finished All-Star Superman #2, “Superman’s Forbidden Room,” I had pretty much the same eh, fine I guess reaction I’d had to the first issue. Yet the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became.

First of all, when people were talking about this as a return to the Silver Age for Superman (a character I’ve never really felt compelled to follow anyway) I hadn’t really thought about how this meant that the “Superman is a dick” factor would be at the forefront. But wow, what an awful hero he is! It’s really kind of fun to watch him shrug off Lois’s complaint that it’s unfair that he lied to her for years and years because he’s too busy trying to micromanage her birthday dinner on his personal recreation (by which I’m not sure I mean “replica” or actual “whole object remade from the broken parts”) of The Titanic. I mean, even when she’s apparently crazy, she’s more reasonable than he is anywhere in the story.

Then there’s the Bluebeard aspect, both in Superman’s secret room and his magical key that only he can use. It makes me more sure that the first issue was an Icarus allusion, since in both cases flying into the sun can kill you but also lets you star in your own story as the guy who tried. I was going to say jokingly that issue 3 is going to feature Superman realizing that he has brothers but they’ve been turned into swans, except that this might not end up being far from the truth. After all, he’s pressuring Lois to slip into a supersuit and I can’t imagine that story’s going to end well! I sort of hope it doesn’t. I like how the cheery covers here are cloaking something darker. I said to Steven that I was going to laugh and laugh if Superman ended up dying, which is probably a lie, at least a little. I wouldn’t mind a Death of Superman done well, but DC has made a world (our world, I mean) where the Death of Superman is necessarily something ludicrous.

It sounds awful to say that I’m enjoying the story because Superman is, if not quite abusive, at least a real creep. It’s not that I want to see the mighty fall or insist on the infamous darkening of superhero universes, but it’s nice to see that as a man he’s not all that super at all. He’s got a world of façades — a giant, empty mecha suit and his recreation of the space shuttle Columbia — to complement an emotional world in which he can’t love the woman he loves enough to let her know who he is. His fortress is staffed by robot simulacra of himself, it features a portal where he can converse with Supermen of the future, but how is Lois ever supposed to find a home here? She does realize that the problem is not just that she’ll someday be saggy and worn but that Superman has lied to her and deliberately undermined her self-image by taking joy in keeping this star reporter from ever proving her suspicions about his secret identity. But, he says, “Aren’t you happy your suspicions were right all along?” Aren’t you glad at least that you’ve still got your womanly intuition, Lois, not to mention your looks??

What she doesn’t know, or doesn’t know for sure, is that he’s still lying to her, not just by refusing to tell her he’s dying but by actively telling her that nothing’s wrong when she asks about repercussions from his jaunt into the sun. Oh, sure, he’s got the excuse of not wanting to spoil her birthday, but conveniently that means he doesn’t have to spoil his own control of every situation. I’m looking forward to finding out down the line whether there really was a mysterious gas making Lois overly suspicious or whether that’s just another in this string of convenient lies. Either way, it’s one of those “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean no one’s following you” situations, and I can’t wait to see whether Lois is more perceptive than she realizes or whether she, like her man, will be willing to accept a life of lies because of the way it easily makes sense of a messy universe. At least we as readers get plenty of glimpses of the mess underneath, and that’s going to keep me coming back. That and a bastardy yet tragic dying Superman!

New Manga Thursday

It’s been almost two hours since I took my antibiotic, which means in another hour or so when I’m ready to lie down the horrible taste will start. It’s a side effect 7% of patients get, an awful metallic, chemical taste in my mouth that makes my mouth wet and itchy. I wake up at night (this is only day 3 of a 14-day regimen, after 3 weeks of awful sinus infection or something) and the taste keeps me from falling back asleep. I mention this not because I’m begging for sympathy. This is a small inconvenience, though a consuming one for me, and I’ll be done with it at the end of the two weeks. Instead it’s that I’m thinking about the indescribable, that I’m basically necessarily obsessed with this horrible taste I can’t describe or overpower with my mind. I just finished reading today’s manga haul, Death Note and Dragon Head and both of them deal with situations that are trying to humanize suffering in a way that’s easily readable.

Dragon Head, by Minetaro Mochizuki, was recommended indirectly by Bryan Lee O’Malley in the lovely interview> conducted by David Welsh last week, which I very much appreciate as I would have assumed it was not my thing otherwise. In this first volume of Dragon Head, a boy wakes up on the train bringing him home from his class trip only to realize that an apparent earthquake (it’s too early in the story for me to accept much outside as certain) has forced the tunnel to collapse and destroyed the train. He is the only survivor in his class, though he eventually finds another boy and a girl who have also managed to stay alive. What impressed me tonight was the way it portrayed trauma without unnecessary exposition, so while no panel is complete without shattered glass and blood, the survivors don’t talk much about what’s happened to them. When Seto awakes after being unconscious for several days, her first thought is that she needs to find a tampon, to deal with the blood flow that doesn’t threaten her life. (My immediate thought was yargh, toxic shock syndrome!, but perhaps she started her period while unconscious and hadn’t been wearing a tampon the whole time. Is this why manga’s considered comics for girls?)

None of the three can talk about the accident in terms that affect them, only explanations of what was heard on the radio. Or maybe they can talk, but not to each other. Lead character Teru has flashbacks or maybe just flights of imagination to life with his family, and after at first remembering nothing later claims he saw something just before the train entered the tunnel. Yet no one mentions what hurts, despite their many visible cuts and Seto’s sliced up knees. The third companion, volatile bullying victim Nobuo, at one point returns to them drenched in blood and what could anyone say? This is a wonderful representation of the unspeakable because it is so spare, so full of emptiness and shock. The students scream in their sleep, but all they can do for one another is acknowledge those screams without asking the reason. They understand their predicament, but can’t express how it feels to them not only because they’re with strangers but because they don’t have words for the feeling that there might be nothing out there for them but death or to dare express the pain they feel when thinking of all that might be lost to them forever.

Death, unsurprisingly, figures heavily in Death Note, too. Written by Tsugumi Ohba and drawn by Takeshi Obata, this is the story of teen genius Light, who finds a notebook dropped by a death god. By this third volume, he’s learned many of the rules of how to use this notebook to bring about the deaths of anyone whose name and face he knows, although he restricts himself largely to criminals in an attempt to form a better world. Now, though, he’s finally literally met his match, the young strategist who goes by the name L, as both become friends of a sort when starting college. Light knows L suspects him of being Kira (”Killer”), as this mysterious criminal-killer is known, and L has to be open about his suspicions in hopes of trapping Light into confessing. I’ve gotten to see death gods less motivated than Light’s now-constant companion who sit around playing cards and gossiping, paying no attention to the human deaths they inevitably bring to pass. What’s interesting is the extent to which Light (and, to some degree, L) have become equally callous, though still canny and alert. Death is little more than a line in a notebook to Light — at least if it stays far enough away from him! — and more compelling are the ways he uses deaths to get to L, whom he hopes to kill eventually, I suppose to preserve his freedom.

Here, too, the elisions are noteworthy not because they denote trauma so deep and intense that it can’t be expressed but instead its opposite, a world in which the only pain that matters is one’s own and even that can be worthwhile if it brings about a success in the power struggle between Light as Kira and L and the other members of the task force (including Light’s father) who hope to catch him. Finally in this volume we get to see something nagging at Light, when his own father has a heart attack that those outside (and Light in his public persona, convincing L of his innocence) think may have been the work of Kira. It’s not yet a vile taste in his mouth that he can’t shake, but suddenly death is something more than words on paper, more than cosmic justice. This is a manga I’d first picked up only in the last month or so, and I’m glad there was another volume available for me so soon, although now I’ll have to wait like everyone who got on at the beginning. I’m really looking forward to this entrance of ambiguity, if that’s what’s really happening. Is Light becoming a death god who can casually eat apples while thinking about the death he causes? There’s such a difference between this and the numbness of Dragon Head’s characters, and yet I wonder if they do come from the same instinctive recoil from the thought of death.

And here I am, not deathly ill, and thinking in meta terms not about death in my life or for me, but how it affects the paper people whose lives I follow while I’m in the bathtub. Is that proof of more of this trend? I can think about nausea and this taste that creeps up on me, but when they’re not there and I’m not hurting otherwise, my mortality doesn’t hang so heavily in every muscle. But this sounds so melodramatic, when my point is that neither manga is that. Instead they’re compelling looks at, well, looking at and looking away from the big human questions, but more than that too. They’re stories about young people figuring things out slowly and thinking they understand more than they do. Maybe there, too, I’d like to think this is something that interests me at their level because I’m not doing it enough myself.

beauty and faithfulness

Ooh, it’s another quick note on translation and comics! There’s a great preview of Hope Larson’s upcoming graphic novel Gray Horses at the Oni website, if you’re willing to click the images to get a good look. Young, French Noémie arrives in the pseudo-Chicago Onion City (with an appropriately Rutabaga Stories name, even) and considers her new environment as she moves through it.

Her thoughts are presented in French with an English translation, not something I think I’ve seen represented like this before. I love the organic flow of the words, more frames than subtitles as they snake in pairs around the images. I’m interested to see how this works through the rest of the book (though I’d be interested anyway) because I can read both languages and do feel myself reading more consciously because both are there. I can’t pay attention to just one because there’s an interplay between the two, nuances on each side.

As a personal aside, I don’t think I can still speak French, come up with sentences on my own, but I can read it pretty fluently and I don’t exactly translate as I read, just understand. I remember asking my Greek professor during the semester I was taking Latin, Greek and French (and one day a week all three back-to-back, which left me unable to understand any language by the end of the last class) whether if I kept with the classical languages I’d ever be able to lie in the bathtub and just read the way I did with my French, and he doubted it. But I also do (I should probably use a past tense verb here, actually) better with Greek and Latin if I read the sentences aloud or at least subvocalized them before translating, which doesn’t seem as necessary with French. The other languages I’ve studied have been with a focus on speaking rather than reading, and I never had any true fluency there.

But back to Gray Horses, it’s fascinating that Larson has moved from the dialogue-free and nearly wordless Salamander Dream to what seems from the previews to be a less-than-wordy book but where what language it has is doubled. I’m interested to find out what the reading experience is like for those who don’t read French (Steven, a hint!) because they, too, will have an awareness that what they’re getting is translation but a different one, one where the “original” is inaccessible. I feel this way when reading manga, but my eyes gloss over the holdover Japanese letters in sound effects and so on. I’m not sure if it’s as easy when there are familiar or seemingly familiar words and letters as in this story.

But basically this post is just a beginning, a placeholder. Someday I’ll hunt down the author at a convention and ask what language came first (if any) and how the words grew out of that, but for now I get to wait to read what I’m even more convinced is going to be a fascinating book.

“Anything I say can be held against me.”

Today I was thinking about a conference I attended as an undergrad, Performing Aristophanes. I really miss going to conferences and lectures and talking to visiting professors, but that’s not really the point. What I was thinking about was how difficult it is to translate humor. How can I make a joke that was relevant nearly 2500 years ago funny now while still leaving it in some way intact? What’s cultural-specific and what’s universal? This is something I think about a lot when reading manga, and I wish more manga translators/adapters kept blogs themselves, because I’d love to hear about the process.

I have a few examples, though I’m not going to be a good enough blogger to look up the page numbers or anything like that. In the first volume of Genshiken, the club welcomes a new otaku member with the chant, “One of us, one of us, one of us.” Is this because there’s a big Japanese market for Freaks or was there something else there originally? Since Japanese isn’t even on my list of languages to learn, I don’t think I’ll be finding out. Then there was, I think, the first volume of .hack//Legend of the Twilight, in which the main character, Shugo, was told he wasn’t even qualified to be an “assistant pig-keeper” in the online roleplaying game he was entering. Is this a Japanese Lloyd Alexander shout out or is the translator remembering his (the Tokyopop site doesn’t list any names, but I remember blaming Jake Forbes, perhaps unfairly) own childhood favorites?

There’s more than this, though. When the character called Osaka, after the town where she most recently lived, talks like she should be on The Sopranos in Azumanga Daioh, is this to denote class and ethnicity or could it be any funny accent? When the Chinese student in Negima uses pidgin English (presumably originally Japanese) I do feel kind of awkward about it because I can’t evaluate the extent to which she’s playing on ugly stereotypes. (And in that case I’m tending to believe that’s what’s going on, given that apparently Ken Akamatsu’s more famous book, Love Hina, features some sort of fictionalized Polynesian girl who is also a sort of ingenue/airhead figure.)

So how do you translate culture and context and depth? I was left wondering about this when we saw Syriana last weekend. I didn’t find the plot confusing, but was fascinated by some of the language choices. As far as I can tell, the considerable foreign language portions were under-translated (Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, French that I recall), perhaps because American audiences can’t keep up with long subtitles. You can tell that when a long string of text doesn’t lead to correspondingly long translations, something may be up, but I noticed something even more striking. At one point as Wasim, a young Pakistani man who has been working as a day laborer in the fictitious Persian Gulf state where much of the action takes place, is being pulled on a radical Islamic path in the madrasa he attends, the man instructing him and his friends goes on a tirade about how, basically, globalization is not solving the problems of modern life. I’m trying to phrase this so that I’m not paraphrasing the Islamist slogan “Islam is the answer,” but I do think that’s left implicit in the teacher’s repetition of “Qur’an” as a counterpoint to everything that isn’t making the students’ lives easier. And then he says something that is rendered as (more or less, because I know I don’t remember the predicate of the sentence, though I do know the subject), “The Christian world doesn’t help you.” But he didn’t say “the Christian world,” or at least didn’t exactly say it. He said “al-Harb,” meaning “Dar al-Harb, the house of war. He’s saying in much stronger terms than just breaking the world into Muslim and Christian spheres of influence that there’s a war going on and there are sides to be chosen, that the dichotomy is real and comprehensible. It was strong enough that it grabbed me in the theater and I elbowed Steven and told him to bother me later for details, but I wonder whether the language was strong enough for other viewers who didn’t know even enough Arabic to notice this. Obviously they still knew that Wasim was being wooed into a system where he was still a pawn, but well-fed and literate, Arabic-speaking. They understood that this was a lecture about the state of the world and the imperative the teacher felt for his brand of Islam, but is it only because they knew what kind of movie this was and because of the America we live in that they could tell what brand that was, know that there was a war on?

I don’t know how to answer questions like that. You can call this a hypertext movie, but in hypertext there are more links, you can keep another tab in your browser open to google what you don’t understand. It doesn’t really work like that if what you don’t understand is in Farsi, because where do you start? How do you know?

Maybe Syriana is more interesting to people like me who already ask questions like that, who appreciate the necessity of incompleteness in communication. Certainly it may resonate better with others like me who will recognize that its corporatespeak is awfully close to the real thing, or those who pick up on more religious references than I do, or people who know more about the flow of oil and LNG. For me, though, it worked as a movie and as a parable of sorts about corruption and complicity. I was able to tell the characters apart even though they were virtually all men (an ongoing problem) and I think the complexity of the plot was overrated by a lot of the critics I read. However, as I’ve commented, the complexity in the story was perhaps more than I can know.