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Category: Theory

Why Don’t I Dig This?

I’m home sick from work today but, as my dad always says, too sick to enjoy it, alas. I’m assuming it’s a mild flu (complete with respiratory symptoms!) but it’s annoying. This is all a prelude to ranting, letting you know there’s a mild chance when I come to my senses I’ll think everything I’m saying is insane. But onward!

I’ve been thinking about Barb Lien-Cooper’s opinion piece “Why Don’t Chicks Dig Comics? Well, Why Don’t You ASK One?” and several things about it have been nagging at me.

First, and maybe most importantly, there’s this:

In addition, in spite of the fact that women are made to feel somewhat more welcome in comic book stores, there’s still a slight majority of stores that WANT to be like Floyd’s Barbershop or whatever. Some places REVEL in being the last place on earth a man can hang out without having to deal with women or their objections to how women are treated as customers, as readers, as creators, and as characters in comics. I’ve been to some stores where I have been made to feel unwelcome because of my gender. Those experiences were like accidentally stepping into a men’s locker room.

Relatedly, Alex de Campi said that German comics stores are more girl-friendly. I have no way of knowing whether the German part is true. I didn’t find any specialty comics shops in Turkey, and I suppose the Spanish stores I was in would have been friendly to girls who liked Conan and porn. But I’m bothered by the constant references to offensive behaviors in stores. I’ve never had any myself, but I stand up for myself. The problem is that if these kinds of things are going on, we need to know details. If there are stores with systematic discrimination towards women or where there’s a hostile shopping environment, there needs to be a list of names all over the internet so the managers can explain themselves and improve and be aware that this is a problem, and so that the rest of us who care about this issue can choose to shop accordingly. It seems like the most basic site for comics activism, and yet I’ve never seen anything beyond such vague complaints.

But then there’s the whole issue of why women need to be reading comics anyway. I’ve participated in lots of male-dominated fields and never considered that much of a problem or a barrier, nor did it deter me from following things that interested me. I’m also a knitter, a stereotypically female activity, and in reading message boards and knitting blogs there are plenty of entreaties to remember that men knit too and not to assume that all knitters are women as well as comments to the pattern makers that they should include more clothing for men, but I haven’t seen much widespread activism to get men as a group more involved in knitting. So why do comics readers get hung up on this kind of Affirmative Action, tricks to get women to read comics? As Barb points out, lots of women do read comics, especially manga. So where exactly is the problem?

I have yet to meet a comics reader who’s really just happy with the status quo. Whether it’s wanting writers to conform more closely to their view of the Platonic form of Green Arrow or wanting new writers (or a return of old writers) or different art styles or more or less editorial involvement, comics fans all want to make comics better. So when the thesis of such gender-driven articles invariably is that comics should be written better with more awareness of interpersonal interaction and characterization, why is this in any way special to women? To me, that feels patronizing; it’s not enough to say “Smart, sensible people want comics that read well and make sense,” but you have to add, “and chicks would dig it too!” I guess what I’m saying is that “what women want in comics” always turns out to be about what the writer wants in comics, which makes sense, but might be more useful if given in a more direct manner. The Class of Women is not a good demographic. Barb wisely suggests aiming for women who are already geeks, which I think is one place where comics have made significant inroads among female readers – or at least comics published by Vertigo and Slave Labor Graphics, as well as the aforementioned manga.

And one more gripe:

Right now, we are a hermetically sealed off order from the mainstream, with more terms of art, jargon, rituals, secret symbols, inside jokes, and offshoots than one can shake a stick at. We’re the bloody Masons of subcultures! And, that’s the way a lot of us like it. We make it difficult for newbies to come inside, as we make it so only those who are willing to study the subculture and take its ways to heart feel welcome.

Maybe that’s true. Certainly superhero continuity seems like a ridiculous mess to an uninterested outsider, but that’s not all of “comics.” And I think what’s just been described is true of just about any self-selecting hobby group. There’s a new language you have to learn to be a part of any subculture, and having gone through several, I strongly disagree that it’s harder to learn to speak comics than it is to get into any other subculture. I started reading comics 4 or 5 years ago and have figured out how to get by, and I have absolutely horrible visual skills: it can’t be that difficult. I’ve also seen many people who do welcome new or potential readers, both online and real-life folks in general, as well as organizations like Sequential Tart and Friends of Lulu, both of which are explicitly interested in helping women transition into The Comics Lifestyle, whatever that is.

None of this means that I don’t want more women reading comics! Most of my comics-reading friends offline have been women, and plenty of the online ones are, too. I just don’t look at myself as being somehow special or privileged for being a woman who (gasp!) reads comics, even the superhero kind! But trying to use women as an excuse to advocate the kind of comics you like is stupid and demeaning. In Barb’s defense, she’s not just talking. Her comic Gun Street Girl was created to fill what she considered gaps in the range of comics currently available. And I agree wholeheartedly that sexist discourse among and from comics professionals and fans needs to stop. I’m just sick of reading about what women want instead of reading good comics, and the ones I consider good won’t be good for all women. I’m ok with that. In fact, I think it’s great. But at least Barb didn’t advocate beefcake. Ick!

A Virus from Outer Space

Last night’s bedtime reading was “Sociolinguistic Attitudes and Issues in Contemporary Britain,” by Paul Alceo, an essay in English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics, which cost me a dollar at Half Price Books and has been well worth the investment. I was fascinated to come across something entirely new to me:

Polari survives in only about 100 words, the remnant of what was probably once a fuller criminal argot derived in part from Lingua Franca, a Mediterranean pidgin. It is a vocabulary, rather than a full language, used by vagabonds and homosexuals in the theater and navy.

In looking at word lists I realize I’ve read many of the words before, admittedly mostly concerning “homosexuals in the theater” rather than those in the navy or vagabonds of any sexual orientation. Still, while I’d known that subcultures, particularly persecuted or marginalized ones, have their own inflections and code words and circumlocutions (something I was rather obsessed with as a teen, in fact) I’d never thought of this as a separate language. It makes me wonder when and how current argots will be discussed and codified, from 1337sprach to stupid cyberknitters’ acronyms to all the other sorts of shared shorthands that the internet and blogs in particular create and nourish. This is something I like to watch while reading message boards and blogs, and I should probably pay more attention and keep track, but I don’t think I’ll ever do real sociolinguistic commentary on it.

As for Polari, the definitive source seems to be Paul Baker, who has written a history and a dictionary (still in print!) of Polari. I intend to hit the library.

“The loaded table made her feel gluttonous”

Before any substance, I apologize for yet more lack of Animal Man, but it’s been a crazy week at work and home and I haven’t gotten around to rereading or getting my thoughts in order. Poor Steven has very limited internet access now, so he’s not going to be posting either until that situation improves.

So instead of comics, I’ll quickly review the book I finished early in the week, sowing that I haven’t actually kept to my plan of just quickly reviewing all the books I read. This was Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, copyright 1969. The copy I have is a paperback from the thrift store, the cover a woman-shaped refrigerator in a dark kitchen with an overflowing sink. The worst thing about it, though, is the blurb on the back cover:

Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin: she can’t eat. First meat. Then eggs, vegetables, cake, pumpkin seeds – everything! Worse yet, she has the crazy feeling that she’s being eaten. She really ought to feel consumed with passion. But she just feels…consumed.

That’s not really what the book’s about, but it’s an interesting story itself. I don’t know why they thought a feminist horror book would sell, although perhaps that is sort of what The Edible Woman is, if a strange and ambiguous one. It’s set during the sexual revolution, when nice single women of middle-class backgrounds want to have sex and enjoy themselves and still be considered respectable by the sort of people who don’t approve of such things. At least that’s Marian’s situation when she agrees to marry her dull but functional boyfriend, and then her life gets much more strange. She’s losing her identity, her willingness to say what she thinks or what she wants, but at the same time she’s beginning to arrange trysts with an enigmatic, cadaverous literature grad student. Food becomes a weapon, but she’s not sure how to wield it, not sure how her body will betray her next in refusing to accept various forms of nourishment. She doesn’t know what pleasures are the ones she wants and whether they’ll be pleasures if she takes them.

I read my first Atwood as a very young teenager, Surfacing. The writing was lovely, but I found the story incomprehensible. The only story element I liked was a segment in which an Anglophone character remembers being mocked at school for translating vers libre as “free worms.” A decade later I understand well how educated women make foolish choices that leave them furiously searching for a source for their own unhappiness, so The Edible Woman makes sense. And that’s what I think is going on. It doesn’t matter how great or awful Marian’s fiance is if having a fiance is making her turn into something she hates and doesn’t recognize. It’s not a horror story in which an evil man is the villain, but interaction with a corrupt and confusing society. It’s a story about a quest for autonomy and self-awareness, not exactly achievable goals.

The Edible Woman lacks the poetry of later Atwood writings and its metaphors and trajectory are obvious even to the characters. And yet I liked it enough to stay up too late two nights reading it, though not enough to devour it in one. I still prefer Marge Piercy for frothy feminist novels, but Marian made a compelling protagonist, especially because of her ambiguous and only somewhat self-conscious analyses of herself and her peers. I was especially interested in it as a historical document of a setting where women can retire upon marriage and where even when you can be mistaken for a prostitute while wearing a girdle. The frivolous male grad students are a fascinating group, too, and are smugly excited by how shocking topics like S&M in Lewis Carroll are. All in all, it’s a very quick read and in many ways a frustrating one, but I enjoyed it.

Hypertime on Infinite Invisible &c.

Did I say I was going to write more about The Invisibles? I may have lied about that… I’d like to reread the whole series before I get into it.

David Fiore’s latest topic is Joseph Campbell’s nefarious influence on some branches of superhero criticism, and further explanation of corporate superhero universes as postructuralist narratives. Here’s my crazy theory for the day: Crisis on Infinite Earths is Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s attempt to mythologize the DC Universe. See David:

Obviously, myths are the products of many minds—but myths qua myths certainly aren’t perceived that way. Mythology is a “homogenous” body of work, the structuralist’s dream come true—it is taken for granted that, given enough time, a rigorous exegete could tease THE meaning out of the canonical writings.

And again:

Joseph Campbell is the ultimate modernist—at war with the “superstructure”/“false consciousness”. There’s only one hero see? And there aren’t many archetypes, either. Just focus kids, that modernist light will see you through the haze of multiplicity.

Just replace “hero” with “universe,” and there you go. I don’t have a lot to add now beyond what I’ve already written, except to note the connections. Of course, Crisis didn’t succeed in its goal of homogenizing the DC Universe even remotely, and it seems to have created the conditions in which Mark Waid and Grant Morrison were able to incorporate poststructuralism into the very textual fabric of the DC Universe with the introductoin of Hypertime. Just look at this, Warren Ellis’s attempt to describe Morrison’s description of Hypertime, taken from the Unofficial Hypertime Website 5.0:

Take a glass sphere studded all over with holes, and then drive a long stick right through the middle of it, passing exactly through the center of the volume. That’s the base DC timeline. Jab another stick through right next to it, but at a different angle, so that they’re touching at one point. That’s an Elseworlds story. Another stick, this one rippled, placed close in so that it touches the first stick at two or three points. That’s the base Marvel timeline. Perhaps others follow the line of the DC stick for a while before diverging, a slow diagonal collision along it before peeling off. This sphere contains the timeline of all comic-book realities, and they theoretically all have access to each other. In high time, at the top of the sphere, is OUR reality, and we can look down on the totality of Hypertime, the entire volume.

Hypertime is a tool for the consideration of fictional reality.

The funny thing about Crisis is that it posits “trying to discover the orign of the universe” as the action which leads to the splintering of the universe into a frightening multiplicity—and then not only must the characters in the story go back to the origin of the universe themselves in order to prevent the disaster which was caused by somebody observing the origin of the universe, but Wolfman and Pérez and all the other creators who built the post-Crisis universe necessarily look to the origin of the DC Universe in “recreating” it and bringing it “back to basics.” According to the mythology of Crisis, it’s practically a cosmological law that John Byrne would come along and fuck everything up with his Man of Steel!

Can anybody who knows more about this stuff than I do tell me if DC still uses Hypertime? Readers, at any rate, seem unaware of it, or at least don’t seem to consider it as an implicit textual explanation for, say, why the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee Batman is so different from the Brian Azzarello/Eduardo Risso Batman. I know Mark Waid uses Hypertime in The Kingdom. Are there any Morrison comics that use it? Does it come up in JLA ever?

Kill More Kill Bill PSAs!

Sean Collins annoyed people this morning by saying that Kill Bill detractors should be ignored because they’re misunderstanding a great movie. I disagree with Sean that any of the characters renounce violence, except maybe the Tiny Yakuza who brings out Beatrix’s motherly side. And if they don’t renounce violence, are they all getting punished? Actually, I realize what he said was that “characters who refuse to renounce violence and deceit are inevitably punished for that refusal.” So maybe Beatrix escapes on a technicality for not managing to tell lies while dosed with truth serum, and limbless Sophie Fatale didn’t become headless too because she’s a coward who squealed. But that’s not what I’m focusing on here.

In an email, he clarified his thoughts on the aspect of sexual violence that had bothered Steven and me:

Anyway, I’d talk about the sexualized and exploitative violence–if, that is, I thought there was any, which I didn’t. Not all violence against women is sexualized, and I didn’t think any of it in Kill Bill was. No fetishizing shots of breasts, nipples, legs, crothces, asses, or even hair, really, just by way of a for instance. At any rate, it’s tough to think of a stronger female character than the Bride, who’s easily the best action heroine ever (depending, I guess, on whether you like her better than Lt. Ellen Ripley).

So maybe it boils down a problem with definitions, what makes some violence sexual and some not. I didn’t mean the violence was problematic because it involved femmes fatales in boob socks, which seems to be Sean’s definition of sexual violence. Well, I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it. Without talking about which “worked” for me as story elements and which didn’t, I’m going to make an incomplete list of categorically grouped sex-related violence from both my hazy memories of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the more recent volume.

There’s some straight-up sexual violence. Buck has been accepting money to let men rape Beatrix while she’s comatose. I’d argue that the murders in response to this fall in the same general category. Beatrix has no reason to murder these two men except that she’s been their victim, so she’s trying to “right” the power balance because there’s nothing she can do about the sex part, which of course is the point. And Esteban slicing up the faces of his prostitutes, that seems like violence as payback for infractions related to sex and power, though we never learn the details.

Then there’s gender-based or sexist violence. When Gogo slices through the businessman who propositions her, she’s upsetting social norms and doing something unexpected for a woman. She’s penetrating and controlling someone who sought to do the same to her. O-Ren has to do the same thing, beat the men at their game of brutality to lead the Yakuza. If Bill is to believed, Pai Mei is a sexist who makes the women in his tutelage work harder and suffer more to prove their ability.

And there’s no lack of violence in/and romantic or just sexual relationships. Maybe Esteban’s role as a sometimes violent pimp fits better here. I don’t just mean standard intimate violence, but the way sex and violence are intertwined for the characters. Elle kills Budd so she can take credit for offing Beatrix, thinking it will endear her to Bill, not to mention knock out a rival for his affections. And when Elle and Beatrix finally fight, is the extra brutality payback for old hurts or the old girlfriend going after the rival who’s taken her place? Most obvious, though, is that Bill and Beatrix were obviously having sex, and Bill killed Beatrix after she left him. Whether or not it had to do with his jealousy that he was being replaced in her heart and womb, when you kill someone you’ve been sleeping with, it’s intimate violence and it’s not uncommon in our world either.

Objectification seems too subjective to catalogue and was something I didn’t find too problematic, perhaps because it’s what Tarantino understands best. I thought the parallel between the prostitutes in the brothel and Bill’s Assassin Squad was an insightful one that added depth to the story. And I haven’t quite figured out the mechanics, but I liked the way Budd didn’t objectify the strippers he worked with but did treat Beatrix as subhuman when burying her. He treats women who are nothing more than puppets in the movie as characters and belittles (and thus underestimates) the two fully realized women he deals with in the movie.

I’m sure if I spent time thinking about it I could come up with more than this, but there isn’t much of a point. These are issues that hit close to home with me, so I know I’ll be more strongly affected by them than most viewers, but I don’t know how anyone could ignore them all or be unaffected by them. I didn’t think the movie was necessarily exploitative in a porny way, making Uma Thurman some kind of fetish object, but the violence exploited the audience.

Sean also says he’s avoided analyzing Kill Bill Vol. 2 because he likes it too much to have critical distance. I hope he reconsiders, because I think I can see what aspects people would like, but I’d love to hear what they actually are. It’s usually easier to do negative reviews and it can be difficult and self-revealing to talk in any detail about what you like. One of my goals in writing here is to get more comfortable doing both sorts of reviews. I’m still working on that part, but apparently have no qualms about pressuring others to do what I don’t. And Mr. John Jakala, this means you! We who haven’t yet seen Dogville want to know why we should!

Kill Bill: “My baby shot me down”

The real climax of Kill Bill Vol. 2 comes at the end of the credits. The Bride has found herself a new identity, one that’s not chosen for her but actually chosen. Just because she drives off into the sunset as Mommy doesn’t mean she’ll be Mommy forever, but it is a new start. There’s a liminal moment where this change begins to take hold, in a doorway no less! Gun in hand, Beatrix spins to face the most cunning trap Bill could have set, beatific B.B. holding a toy gun. After a painfully long moment of shock, Mommy falls, in the clearest (and maybe first) display of real emotion in all of Kill Bill.

Of course, Daddy has been a bad Daddy, and not just because he lets B.B. stay up past her bedtime to watch Shogun Assassin. Bill tried to kill Beatrix in what he describes as a fit of agony over lost love, which also included anger and betrayal that he’s lost his favorite toy. Daddy metes out gentle punishment to B.B., firmly discussing the death of her fish and the guilt she feels over her role in it. He hasn’t grown more kind or fair to B.B.’s mommy, whom he shoots again, this time with a dart that gives him the power to extract truth from her against her will. Can this “marriage” be saved?

Beatrix has made a lot of choices in her life, but we don’t get to see them. Her only backstory is a glimpse of what she was with Bill, a lovelorn assassin, and what she is because of Bill, the vengeful Bride. Bill and the Vipers wiped out the wedding party and the hope of a new life, and Beatrix has done in the Vipers, so those two identities have been destroyed. “Beatrix Kiddo” is a name suitable for the sort of jokes it inspires in the movies, and she doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to go back to that. But suddenly on the floor of a California mansion she finds an alternative. Her story won’t be over when she kills Bill because now she once again has something to live for!

Beatrix and Bill have been locked in a power struggle for years. Young Beatrix submits to Pai Mei both to prove to Bill that she can (thus proving his warnings wrong) and to make him proud, and indeed it turns out she succeeds more thoroughly than Bill realized at the time. Bill enjoys his control over Beatrix and the Viper Squad disintegrates once that link is lost. Is this mutually destructive bond some Grand Passion or just a standard abusive cycle? And how does little B.B. fit in? Daddy and Mommy both love her very much (or do they?) but they don’t love each other anymore (right?) and so it’s better for everybody if they resolve their disputed custody with a fight to the death! It makes no difference to little B.B. whether Daddy cared for her out of love or for Beatrix or to atone for his violent past (and present) or just because he knew it would make Beatrix more angry. She had a Daddy and she had a life, and now she has a Mommy and a new life. Has anything really changed?

In Westerns, a cowboy heads off into the sunset because he hasn’t been domesticated, hasn’t settled down. If he wanted to complete his Oedipal trajectory, he’d find a nice woman (or make a woman nice) and start a solid life for himself in town or on a homestead. In becoming Mommy, Beatrix is trying to twist this. She’s domesticating herself, switching from murderer to caregiver in a matter of minutes. It may not work this way and may not work for good, since she’s left two little girls half-orphans in a revenge culture, but she’s a determined woman when she puts her mind to a task. She’s still defining herself through her relation to someone else, but that’s what has to happen to some extent if you live in society, and now she has someone who depends on her, has power she can use to do great good. It’s a wide horizon, full of promise, and mother and daugher are heading right in, not looking back.

Kill Bill Foundations: Self-Righteous Indignation

As Steven said, we saw Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 this weekend, and in preparation for saying more, I’m reposting my comments on Vol. 1 from the older version of our blog. I’ve standardized formatting and switched to gendered pronouns from Spivak varient nongendered pronouns.

Originally posted 29 October 2003

Last week was a much-needed vacation not from work but, to a large extent, from the Internet. Now I’m back, refreshed and exhausted and working 10-hour days.

In the interim, though, I saw Kill Bill and I’ve been writing and thinking about it in relation to everything else I run into. It was a very frustrating half-movie, all the more so because I feel unable to critique it fully without recourse to the story’s end. All I’ve got are a bunch of references and reminders and preliminary theories, and they all make me want more. I’m not sure if that means it’s a good movie. I don’t think I’d talk about it in those terms, but it’s compelling to me and I enjoyed watching the later parts, although the first half hour or so (maybe hour, one of the benefits of wearing no watch) left me awkwardly uncomfortable.

I held off posting at first after seeing it because what I was going to say was too personal, and because I thought that most of the failure was my own. It’s not that I’ve changed these views, but just that I don’t see the point of not saying anything just because I’m unable to escape autobiographical criticism.

I have very strong views about rape. It’s an issue that impacts me directly and strongly. I’m interested in theory that surrounds sexual assault and can discuss it intellectually, but that doesn’t mean that I can give up my instinctual emotional impact, either. And Kill Bill really annoyed me on this front. I now have an alternate explanation for the way the scenes went, but I want to talk about my immediate understanding of and annoyance with the scenes involving The Bride and Buck, the hospital worker who sold her body while she was comatose.

First of all, Kill Bill is in many ways a superficial movie that seems basically devoid of social commentary. I mean, it’s not terribly difficult to interpret various stances and arguments into the movie, but, particularly because we don’t have all the data, it’s very difficult to see if there are moral judgments at work or just what Tarantino is doing. I know this.

Still, it seemed to me problematic and cowardly that Tarantino broadly stereotyped the rapists in the film in the way he did. Buck and the hapless redneck whose name I didn’t catch (if it was ever given) are nasty, miserable, ugly people. Both of them die in nasty, bloody ways as The Bride awakens to begin her arc of revenge, taking as spoils Buck’s outrageous “Pussy Wagon.”

The trouble for me is that unlike anyone the Bride kills later (in “real” chronological, not the movie’s narrative, order) they are both just caricatures of brainless hormones, Bad People. Or are we not supposed to read them that way? Are they just pitiful exaggerations of particularly sex-starved “normal” guys, albeit hideous and filthy ones?

The reason I called this depiction cowardly is because it’s easy. I mean, if they’d been black rather than white, it might have raised an outcry about the perils of racial stereotyping. However audiences just rolled with this characterization, laughing a bit in the audience I sat with. What makes this crime different from the others in the movie is that while most of the people in the audience haven’t executed an entire wedding party or disemboweled a man at a bar, a fair portion of what I presume is the target audience has (or knows someone who has) had sex with someone who wasn’t entirely awake or sober or otherwise consenting. To have the characters in the movie who do this be vapid idiots seems to me to allow viewers not to have any thoughts that might indict them or the sorts of things they believe in, since there is no entry for identification with these characters.

I don’t think Tarantino has any responsibility to advance my political views, and I’m not surprised he doesn’t seem do so. I was just troubled by this in the context all the violence toward and between woman, and the audience reactions to all of it. I’m not sure what I’m asking for, which is why I’ve come to different views of the scene, but it was upsetting to me basically because it doesn’t humanize a very human issue and because it lets stupid guys (and I’m stereotyping on gender and many other grounds, I know) go on being stupid guys when there was a clear chance to challenge them. I shouldn’t be looking for verisimilitude in a movie like this, but it’s there to some extent, in a chilling and emotionally compelling scene, and yet it could have been so much more and, for me, made the movie so much less.

“I said exactly what I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say it.”

Dave Sim was actually interviewed by The Onion (not a permalink), and this is the quote that sticks with me most:

“There was no “storm of misinterpretation” following Cerebus’ “marriage” to Astoria. I’m not sure the quotes belong on there. That was part of my point. If Cerebus is the Pope and he declares himself married to Astoria and has sex with her, is that rape? There were a number of levels to that one, but that was the joke as far as I was concerned.”

I’ve never read Cerebus, mostly because I didn’t really see the point in giving money to someone who doesn’t think I deserve to be able to make such weighty decisions. Then as the end drew near and other comics bloggers talked about all the interesting things going on in Cerebus I got more and more convinced that I should give it a chance. But I haven’t yet, and it’s partly what’s contained in that quote that holds me back. I realize I may sound like the sort of “hysterical” feminist Sim so despises on this one (and, let’s be honest, that’s basically my normal state) but I’m utterly put off by a writer who can’t think of a better way to deal with an abstract concept like “what level of power makes you able to make something true/real/existent just by saying it?” without throwing in a “joke” sequence in which his main character rapes the character based on the author’s by-then-ex-wife?

And I hope I can be emotional without proving Sim right about the nature of women, but this all hits me far too close to home and I really don’t understand how it gets to be such a laughing matter. So an established, nuanced character gets raped (or maybe not, since apparently in Simworld there’s no such thing as marital rape) to lend gravitas to some adolescent musings on language and meaning and that’s supposed to just make the point stronger or something. Perhaps it does, but not in the way Sim intended. I realize that the tragedy is that people who weren’t themselves adolescent fanboys were reading and were betrayed by writing like this, not to mention Astoria’s human counterpart. And I just don’t know whether I could read and enjoy this, even without the question of what my money supports. I know other people read and I trust their judgment, but I don’t know how to make this decision.

Not really switching gears, my interpretational fixation just before we began this version of the blog was how people can do wicked, hurtful things and be utterly convinced they’re doing something right. Dave Sim seems to be one of those people, sure of himself and utterly remorseless, although it’s unfair of me to say that when he’s perhaps repented in his way for the things he did before his vow of chastity and so on. What he’s done, though, is build a world in which he doesn’t even seem to have the “number of levels” he put in Cerebus. He knows what’s right and what’s real and what’s best, and never seems to question whether things he says are so. At least he realizes his own thoughts are out of step with many other people’s. They are with mine, and I think because of who I am this may be a fatal disconnect. I don’t know whether or not that’s a good thing.

“God takes special care of little animals, honey.”

It was David Fiore who inspired me to buy and read Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. I’m sure it’s not the Greatest Comic Ever and I wouldn’t want to set anything apart like that, but I feel a lot of affinity for it and it makes good sense to me. And did I mention it’s fun? I breezed through it gleefully, leaving mental notes for later exploration. And now I’m finally trying to get around to that part, which is not as easy or as much fun as the fun.

It’s a superhero story of course, and does what I think superhero stories can do best, show limitations. In part of the recent controversy over superhero merits, Tim O’Neil said that a story in which Superman saves the whales would not be an effective method of getting across a point about the need to save the whales. I concur, although maybe not for the reasons he intended. A story about Superman saving the whale should highlight the fact that even though Superman is great and can do almost anything, we don’t have him. If we want our whales saved, it’s up to us. Any Kryptonian hope would be false, baseless. Much of the point of Superman is that we don’t have recourse to him. I think this is one of the major themes Morrison addresses, one well-suited to the genre. Animal Man is really about the limits of power and the tendency to believe that those limits may not be as confining as they are.

Tonight I’m going to look at power, control and cats. Cats feature prominently in the story as the first and last animals shown, and with major roles along the way. They don’t seem as heavily imbued with meaning as the apes or dolphins or the fox and eagle. They’re cats, the kind you see every day. And there are people who are cat people and those who aren’t, like in the world we know. I’m interested now in cats who are saved and by what means, because this is a story element that, like many others, gets replayed and respun so that it changes meaning and sheds meaning on its other instances.

Issue One begins with a stereotypical cat situation, a cat in a tree being retrieved for a dowdy, fretting woman by a muscular blond. This is of course Buddy, our eponymous hero, who lands on his feet and deposits the frightened kitten into its owner’s loving arms. Isn’t he the greatest? Not only has he carried out the most Boy Scouty move possible, but he is immediately contrasted with portly Morris, who seems to barely humor his wife’s love of cats and certainly prefers his own peace and quiet. The story opening is so straightforward it’s not clear whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or just has some sort of sweet-natured retro innocence. Perhaps that holds true for much of Animal Man. At any rate, Violet, the cat owner, mentions that she hasn’t seen her cat Sheba in several days, which is way too blatant to even be called foreshadowing.

Fastforward to Issue Two, a cat in the bushes. It’s not surprising that it’s Sheba and not surprising that there are now kittens to complicate matters. In the next issue we’ll find that Morris seems not to have moved from his spot, napping with his lemonade beside him. Buddy, though, has gone on to bigger things, fighting mutating beasts in the city, clad in spiffy goggles and spandex. So Buddy’s wife, Ellen, and daughter, Maxine, are off in the woods, where Maxine finds the kittens. Ellen, though, has found a dead doe and a beer can and a snake. It wouldn’t be surprising even if we hadn’t seen them already that the first two have been left by ignorant hunters and the last is there as an allusion in case references to “the garden of Eden” and “Eve” didn’t ring enough bells. This story cuts off there until Issue Three, because the comic is called Animal Man after all, not Animal Man’s Family. Perhaps it should have been called Animal Man’s Family, but not this early in the story. At any rate, we return in Issue Three, where Maxine sees the hunters feed a cat to their dogs and then hit Ellen. Maxine is off like a shot to Morris, who can move when it matters, and who eventually saves the day in a way that’s still painful to all involved. Ellen and Buddy never discuss this in the book, but because of his devotion to animals and more explicitly to being a superhero, he is unable to save his wife. That honor goes to a man who may not even care about whether laboratory dogs suffer and shows that heroism and humane action take many forms. There’s a reason the other superheroes don’t have families, as the JLI representatives remark. They’re incompatible with the dangers and demands of being a superhero. But Buddy doesn’t acknowledge that. He lets the gaps in the story escape his notice because it’s easier and it lets him be the person he wants to be.

The kitten story isn’t over, though. Ellen brings the orphaned kittens home, only to find she can’t save their lives. For me, this was the most emotionally intense and painful sequence in all of Animal Man. She has pushed all of the emotions and fear and anguish of her assault into these kittens she’s saving to create a redemption for herself, and she can’t even do that right. “Why does everything have to die? I saved them. You can’t tell me they’re dead.” And she buries them with the children and Violet, knowing all the while how close she was to being in a grave herself that day.

And when Buddy returns home, his fear for his children is the world they’ll live in, the pollution and animal testing. He doesn’t realize or can’t understand that danger is more concrete and visceral and direct for the humans in his own family. “There must be some hope,” he thinks. “Just some.” And there is. A kitten is going to live, T.C. (The Cat?) and he has a role to play still.

T.C.’s most major role is in wanting his food in Issue 19. He can’t get any because, as Buddy finds, the rest of the family has been murdered and T.C. waits patiently on the bloodstained floor beside his catfood tin and a can opener. Hope is still there, by why? The cat can be fed, the cat will keep going, but all that matters most to Buddy is gone before he realized this was possible. Ellen was wrong, too. Saving the cats and the hopes placed in them doesn’t matter either. Giving too much power to your symbols doesn’t make them strong enough to hold. It doesn’t make them mean what you wanted them to mean.

In Issue 23, the Psycho Pirate unleashes a supercat from another earth. Like T.C., this cat sits beside its food, but it has laser vision that blasts open the tin for it. It doesn’t need human saving or human meaning or help to give it power. That’s what makes it fictional, even within this fictional story.

T.C. returns again in the penultimate issue to turn to a skeleton in Limbo as Buddy realizes he’s losing control of his metaphors. He’s carrying around a dead monkey to get to a place that doesn’t exist, and when he gets back, the cat is a skeleton. Everything around him has turned to nonsense.

And that leads us to the metacat, Jarmara. Grant Morrison writes himself into his story to explain that being a writer doesn’t matter enough. He has the power to make his characters (now including Grant Morrison) do whatever he wants, and yet this is meaningless to him. When it mattered he could not save the cat he loved. He had written the story and knew its meaning but he, too, found it easy to forget how much was out of his control. Superhero stories are supposed to be about great power and great responsibilities, but they’re really about what lies beyond the power, the responsibilities that can never be met. Even when you write the story, even when you create yourself, there are things that happen beyond you. What you do with them is up to you, but it’s easy to forget that being the author doesn’t mean you can stop it all, and sometimes assimilating the pain and making it part of your story hurts just as much. Grant chastises himself for thinking while Jarmara is dying that he can use her in his story, but he really couldn’t have done otherwise. He admits the boundary between Animal Man and Grant has gotten too permeable, that he feared “just becoming preachy” and that the his own life is being influenced by what he writes. He’s become inseparable from his story, which is why he finally writes himself in to wrap it all up.

The last episode in the book is a return to the fox story, which I haven’t touched on yet, but it’s a variation on the theme. It’s about looking for a meaning and a message when it isn’t there. No-longer-young Grant signals Foxy and gets no reply. That’s because Foxy doesn’t matter when it comes down to it, much as he’d like to believe in him. The last non-human creature in the book is Jarmara, yearning and hopeful in her photo with Grant Morrison staring back. Sometimes the stories you tell yourself aren’t enough. Sometimes there’s only death and loss of control and fear. And hope and love.

When Buddy’s family is “reunited,” there is no cat. There is only Jarmara, back in Grant’s dark room. I can’t believe this could be enough of a break or a boundary to keep out the pain, not for Animal Man’s Family. Probably not for Grant. Certainly not for me.

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.