Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A very good example of why superheroes are disturbing my studies

It's not what you think. I'm not reading The Incredible Hulk while I should be reading Heart of Darkness, or sneaking copies of Defenders into my course packets in class.

More than any other semester since returning to college (or, really, any other semester in my entire college experience), this term has exposed me to a lot of dense theoretical texts. Unfortunately, few of the novels or poems I've been assigned this semester have proven page turners, even in comparison to the aforementioned literary criticism. I've already bored everyone with my rant against T.S. Eliot. The works of Rudyard Kipling, Matthew Arnold, and Joseph Conrad certainly aren't as frustrating as The Waste Land, but reading a few pages can make me feel like I've run a marathon.

One of my unconscious strategies in dealing with this stuff is to always keep my superhero alarm on the ready. In other words, if I read something that I feel like could easily be relevant to superheroes, it becomes more interesting and easier to read.

At the same time, it slows my work down because instead of, for example, thinking about how a particular essay relates to Heart of Darkness - which is what my professor wants me to do and my success or failure in doing so will be reflected in my grades - I'm thinking about how it relates to Batman.

Tonight, I came across a perfect example of this, and part of my reason for this blog entry is to purge it from my mind so I can keep on reading.

In response, I fear, to our look at The Waste Land, one of my English professors assigned a theoretical text whose title screams excitement and intrigue: The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance by Northrop Frye. The first chapter deals mainly with concepts of myth, legend, and folklore, so right away I was thinking "Hey! Superheroes!"

On page 18, I thudded to a stop and couldn't get past the end of a particular paragraph. He's talking about how the concept of mythology eventually comes to mean something that is "not really true." He talks about how the word "mythos" is used in The New Testament to describe religions other than Christianity. He writes:

Mythoi, or just stories, were what other religions had: what Christians had were logoi, true stories. Confronted with this distinction, a literary critic can say only that the structural principles of the two appear to be identical. But if one story is true and another one of the same shape false, the difference between them can only be established by attaching a body of discursive writing to the true story, designed to verify or rationalize its truth.

Particularly in that bolded sentence at the end, isn't this exactly what Marvel and DC has been doing in their dueling series of never ending crossovers?

Because, unless I'm reading Frye incorrectly (and I don't think I am because he even mentions something like this earlier), texts like The Inferno and Paradise Lost are parts of the "body of discursive writing" that are verifying and rationalizing the "truth" of The Bible, even though they are not literally part of The Bible.

The company-wide events of old used to be done a lot differently. For a few years, all the cooperative universe titles of the respective companies would each go their own way, criss-crossing here and there, and eventually many of the separate stories would merge into a Secret Wars or Crisis On Infinite Earths. Then, the separate titles would go their own directions for a while until the next big event.

Now, the events keep coming, and they all intersect. There are Big Events that lead to Huge Events. "Avengers Disassembled" leads to House of M. House of M breaks up into Decimation and Son of and The 198 (and probably a few others I'm forgetting, I honestly haven't followed any of them). And then all those, plus "Planet Hulk," "Annihilation," and "The Other," plus a few one-shots like New Avengers: The Illuminati lead to Civil War. Then Civil War will break up just like House of M, and then all the little shards will help to form something else. And on and on and on. I don't think anyone who browses comic book blogs needs me to illustrate the same thing going on at DC.

The effect is that each separate universe seems more real. Obviously, I'm not arguing it seems more "real" in the sense that Christians consider their God to be real, but in an aesthetic sense the two companies are at war as to who can suspend disbelief more successfully.

The interesting thing is that the "reality" of the universes is , I think, maintained by the disconnections more than it is by the connections. In other words, if DC had just released Villains United, waited for it to end, then released The Omac Project, and waited until it ended, and so on, it wouldn't seem as real. It would seem contrived and formulaic (yeah, I know, it already does, but it isn't like nobody's buying these things). Instead, they released four mini-series and a bunch of one-shots, all around the same time, each of which led to Infinite Crisis in peripheral ways. The cooperative universe seems more real because in the real world one event doesn't lead to another all on its own. For example, people tend to say that WW I led to WW II (hence the I and II), but of course isolated from the rest of history, WW I didn't wholly lead to WW II. More events than the most sleepless historian could name, all working simultaneously, helped to lead to the second world war.

I just find it interesting. Obviously, I don't think even the most crazed fans believe that Superman and Spider-Man are really out there somewhere, but aesthetically the conflict between Marvel and DC has become all about "attaching a body of discursive writing to the true story, designed to verify or rationalize its truth," or, more simply, which universe comic book readers decide is the "true" one.

I realize that if there's any response to what I've written, it will probably be along the lines of "Yeah, duh," but whatever. Had a thought. Wanted to write it. Got a blog.

Okay. I'm purged. Now back to reading this page-turning thriller.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

History of superheroes

I already posted a request for book names at Comics Journal Message Board, but I figured I'd post it here too since this has worked well for me in the past.

I'm looking specifically for any books that discuss how specific social conflicts of particular eras influenced the superhero comics of their day, and how those stories spoke back to the conflicts. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

I'm hoping to write a paper on the subject for my English Honors seminar. In the past, I've had good luck managing to sneak my comic book obsession into my academics, though this semester the chances of doing this are slim. I've got one chance, and I'll be damned if I'm going to write my final Honors paper on Rudyard Kipling if I can do it about my beloved sadomasochistic harbringers of justice.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A not-completely-comics-related post about my own critical biases

Brad Curran's angry anti-indy-fans rant over at Comics Should Be Good struck a chord with me in regards to my troubles with school this semester, but I don't want to come off like I'm either starting a cross-blog argument with Brad or heralding his views, because I'm not. If I'm responding to him at all, I'm doing it tangentially, as his post reminded me of something I've been wrestling with the past few weeks.

I fucking hate T.S. Eliot.

I'll explain.

A few semesters ago, a writing professor nagged at me to hand in an essay that I hadn't written. I hadn't written it because I didn't like it. The assignment was to write a manifesto about poetry, and I don't like manifestos about poetry or literature or any other creative medium. I've been exposed to phone books full of such arguments by various writers since returning to school, and the result is usually a drop in respect, on my part, for the writers in question. Each writer has his or her way of writing, and in their diatribes they always do the same thing: each writer reviews how he or she writes, describes how he or she writes, and heralds the idea that everyone should write that way. Since I have a nagging suspicion that at least at this point in history, most professional creative writers would value the idea that people write differently from them, if for no other reason than the fact that it renders that individual writer's work unique; I suspect that this act of writing manifestos on art, poetry, literature, whatever, has become more of a rite of passage than anything else. In other words, if Bartleby Shitfarm becomes a well-respected author, he figures he has to write a manifesto because Matthew Arnold did it and Oscar Wilde did it and T.S. Eliot did it and Mr. Shitfarm's place among the canon will somehow falter if he doesn't do it, too.

But it was close to the end of the semester, and I had to fill the gap in my grades. So, I did what I usually try to do when I have absolutely no idea what to write for an undesirable assignment: I turned to comic books. I wrote an essay called "Nobody Likes A Smart Ass." I talked about The Riddler. I said The Riddler was a lame super-villain because he didn't commit crimes for money, for power, or even out of pure psychosis. He commits crimes to prove he's smarter than everyone else.

And that last sentence should, for those who have read T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, give a hint as to where I'm going with this.

As a writer who constantly struggles to convey sometimes complex subjects, ideas, arguments, etc., in ways that, hopefully, anyone could understand, I have to question the motivation of writers and other artists who create things with the goal to confuse.

My edition of The Waste Land is close to 300 pages long. The poem itself, accompanied by extensive footnotes which sometimes take up over half the page, is 21 pages long. The 40 pages directly following the poem are filled with Eliot's own notes to individual lines of the poem and, mostly; with excerpts from the 19 poems, songs, novels, plays, religious texts, and academic texts directly alluded to in The Waste Land, each of whose overt and covert significances must be understood in order to unravel the enigma that is The Waste Land.

What kind of runny piece of shit writes a poem you need footnotes for; not only 80-plus years after the fact, but the fucking day it's fucking published?

I realize that there is worth to texts whose meanings are not obvious, and that there is worth to the learning that must take place in order to find the meaning. But, as a writer, I have a very specific opinion on this subject. If you create something that has some kind of covert message that you hope the readers and the critics will figure out on their own, fine. But if you create something that can ONLY be appreciated if that covert meaning is extracted, you're just being a smart-ass.

For example, when I first watched Dr. Strangelove, I didn't really get a lot of the statements Kubrick was making about the connections between sex and violence (though on my second viewing, I was surprised because they were kind of glaring). But, I still loved the film. I was still able to appreciate it purely as a war satire. And I might add that my enjoyment of the film on that level is exactly what inspired me to look deeper into the images Kubrick was giving me. Likewise, bringing the conversation back to the comic book world, I'd be a lying bastard if I claimed that I absorbed all or even most (or maybe even any) of the subjects Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were exploring with Watchmen the first time I read it, but I was still able to appreciate and enjoy it simply as an alternative history/super-hero conspiracy thriller. And, on a bit of a tangent, it was the first comic book I ever read in which prose was used to accompany the sequential art, I loved it, and still wish it was something I saw more. The only other examples I can think of off the top of my head are Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules and Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor.

Back on topic, with something like The Waste Land, there's nothing else to appreciate. You either get it, or you slave through a library's worth of literary allusions in order to get it. And if you don't make me at least enjoy, on any level, what you're creating without that grand message, I'm not going to be interested enough to go any further (unless, of course, my GPA is on the line).

Tomorrow, I'm going to regretfully tell my professor that I will accept any deserved grade reduction he gives me for turning in my paper next Monday instead of tomorrow. I HATE this poem. I HATE T.S. Eliot's approach to writing, and I haven't been able to get over my hatred enough to write a 4-5 page paper on it. Believe me, I'm usually a-okay at this literary stuff, even if it's literature I don't particularly like. But you can't give me a rubics cube and expect me to be enthralled. If I wanted riddles I had to unravel, I'd dig out my old Infocom text adventure games (and I always needed the hint books for those things anyway).

P.S. The fact that I've been blogging more probably has something to do with my enduring hatred for The Waste Land, since it's helped me feel productive while avoiding the paper I have to write on this useless, canonical piece of ape-shit.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Samurai and me

Well, it turns out I'm going to have a short story printed in two different publications. I brought a five-page story called "All the Samurai I Know are Dead" (definitely inspired by my growing obsession with Lone Wolf and Cub) to the graduate-level fiction workshop I'm taking this semester. Ironically, I thought the story would be met with, at best, loud indifference. Everyone seemed to enjoy it (except for one woman who wrote some very frustrated, but funny, comments on her copy of the story complaining that she didn't know what all this ritual suicide stuff was and that she needed some explanation).

In class, one of the editors of my school's literary journal (Cement, and actually I should say one of my school's literary journals, there are a few) nagged at me until I agreed to submit it. Honestly, since returning to school I've wanted nothing to do with any of the school's literary publications. I was involved with that stuff in Tampa and there was just too much stupid drama involved. Plus, if I've got something good enough to publish, call me an ass, but I want to save it for a journal or magazine that might throw me a few bucks. But, the guy was persistent, and I was flattered. And he gave me soda (not really).

This weekend another member of the workshop e-mailed me and asked me to submit it to The Culture Star Reader. I made sure he was cool with the fact that it was being published in Cement too, and he didn't mind, and so we have my first paying fiction gig. It's only $10, but it's $10 more than I've been paid for my fiction before, and I'm a happy camper.

Hello, step one. I can't wait to meet step two.

Friday, March 17, 2006

This American Superhero

As I write this, the station I work for is airing a superhero-themed episode of This American Life, that kicks off with a few interesting comments from Chris Ware about his childhood.

The funny thing is the first segment actually managed to piss me off. The guy who put it together went around and asked people whether they'd rather be able to fly or turn invisible. One woman said she thought everyone, if they were honest, would choose invisibility and that people who choose flight have a disingenuous, mythic view of themselves.

And I'm such a geek that it actually made me mad, and I started going over retorts in my head like, "Well, if you could fly you could fly beyond everyone's sight so you get the best of both worlds," or "Well, in Hollow Man Kevin Bacon effectively couldn't sleep because his eyelids were invisible (bad movie, but the logic is still pretty sound)."

No, moving out of your parent's, having sex, and getting a job don't cure you from unacceptable levels of geek, and I'm proof of it.

UPDATE: The show just ended, and the host mentioned that Chris Ware allowed them to post a comic called "I Guess" on the show's website. You can see it here.

I should also mention that this might be a repeat, as someone who works here told me they've been airing a lot of repeats lately. At least, I haven't heard this episode before, and I've worked the Friday night shift (when we air it) for a year or so.

Top 10 selfish comic book related wishes

10. That what seems like the recent trend towards really long titles for superhero comics would continue because for some reason I can’t pinpoint, I really dig it, even though I haven’t read any of the comics in question (e.g., Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Supergirl and The Legion of Super-Heroes, All Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder).

9. That I knew about more books I could name when they were still fresh so that I didn’t always feel late to the party.

8. That every time I went to the comic book shop I wouldn’t forget at least 3 GNs that I’ve been wanting to pick up for a while.

7. That I had more bookshelves so that my growing number of GNs would not be forcing all of my other books into awkward piles all over the place.

6. That I could sell my floppies faster, using the money to buy GNs, so I could get the long-boxes out of my office.

5. That I knew more people outside the Internet who I could talk to about comics; That the few people I do know outside the Internet who have any passing knowledge of comics didn’t either A) talk about them with a kind of nostalgic condescension usually followed by tired Batman/Robin gay jokes and almost always "the thing I always wondered about the Hulk is, why don’t his pants come off when he changes?" or B) read only Spawn and things like Spawn.

4. That the following mini-series and storylines would hurry up and get done already so that I can get the GNs: Batman and The Monster Men, Batman: Year One Hundred, Astro City: The Dark Age, and "Planet Hulk" (and probably others I’m forgetting).

3. That the horrific flood of Victorian era literature forced upon me this semester (from not one, but two classes) would abate both so I have more time to read and write and think about comics - and also so I don’t have to fucking read and write and think the pompous, elitist, imperialist (but usually well-written) Victorian era literature; that I had known that the professor of one of the aforementioned Victorian-thick classes was teaching another course which included examination of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Vol. 1; That I could stop thinking and reading and writing about comic books for a bit so I could just get through this Rudyard Kipling shit and forget about it.

2. That I had more money and less expenses so I could buy more graphic novels; That I had more time to read and think and write about comics; That I had more time to read more comics that had nothing to do with superheroes (which may sound silly, except that crimefighters are not only my main comic book interest, but also my main academic interest so they have to take priority); That someone would pay me to read and think and write about comics; That I had more time to work on the superhero prose fiction I’ve finally started working on; That I had the time to finally flip through the copy of Absolute Watchmen my girlfriend bought me for Christmas.

1. That I had the time to write and post reviews of every single volume of Dark Horse’s Lone Wolf and Cub reprints; That I felt the same kind of excitement for other comics as I do when I know there are volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub on their way in the mail; That I had the time and money to get more volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub RIGHT NOW; That all the comics I read had the same level of depth, beauty, and complexity as Lone Wolf and Cub; That when I finally buy and finish reading all 28 volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub I could have the memories of the stories selectively chiseled out of my brain so I could repeat the experience; That that asshole hadn’t shot Daigoro’s little puppy in "Hunger Town."


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Quick thought about Marvel and Wildstorm

For a while I’ve noticed something I can only call a Wildstorm-ization of Marvel, and with Civil War on the horizon, I wonder if either the event is a result of this or if it’s been going on in order to set the stage for the event.

I’m not as familiar with the Wildstorm universe as some. I’ve hardly read any WildC.A.T.S. or Stormwatch, but I am familiar with Sleeper, its prequel Point Blank, the first couple of Planetary trades as well as the first Authority collection. I think I read a Majestic tpb a while back too, but I don’t guess that doesn’t count since it was all about the character being brought into the DCU proper.

I first noticed the signs as the opposing organizations of S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and The Hand started making more prominent and consecutive appearances in a lot of Marvel’s books. They’ve been around for a while, sure, but there have been long periods when they were either in Limbo or confined to one or two titles. And in a lot of cases what was going on with Nick Fury’s covert ops wasn’t as much in concert with the activities of Hydra and The Hand as they have been lately. They’ve played prominent roles recently in Wolverine, Fantastic Four, New Avengers, New Thunderbolts, Marvel Team-Up and The Incredible Hulk (and probably others that I don’t know about).

Likewise, I’ve noticed that John Lynch and I.O. are prominently featured in just about all the Wildstorm books I’ve read, and the organization is shown to be much more hands-on with Wildstorm’s super-guys than S.H.I.E.L.D. has been (up until now) with Marvel’s. Also, particularly in the case of Daniel Way’s recent Hulk run, Fury seems to be taking on a much more Machiavellian aspect than usual, which brings his portrayal closer to Lynch’s. Sure, he’s always been the head of this covert ops organization, but more than often he’s been written as a hard-nosed vet who’s misplaced in a world of spies and intrigue, and always a little sad that he can’t deal with problems in the more direct manner he used to with the Howling Commandos.

And, overall, Marvel’s respective characters have been moving closer to each other for a while, certainly in comparison to Jemas’s stay at the company, and there seems to be a greater effort to keep the continuity straight. For example, during Way’s recent Hulk run, he had the green guy hiding out north of the border. And all the Hulk guest appearances that came out during his run, at least that I know about (Sentry, Marvel Team-Up, and Captain Universe/Hulk) had him starting out in roughly the same geographic area even if the rest of the story took place somewhere else, whereas during Jemas’s reign he’d be in Africa in one comic, New Mexico in another, Nepal in a third, all in the same month without any care of explaining how the guy got around. As another example, from what I understand (haven’t read the stories and won’t until their in trades), there were a lot of direct references to both Daniel Way’s Hulk run and “Planet Hulk” in the character’s recent FF appearance. Likewise, the Wildstorm books (at least, what I’ve read of them) seem to be able to maintain a consistent continuity, probably because they have a relatively small number of titles.

Not the most thrilling insight, I know, but whatever. Had it on my mind. Got a blog.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Some reads from the break

Well, I was called in to work early tonight. Unfortunately the guy who works before me had a family emergency. So, since I have a little extra time, I figured I’d talk about some of the stuff I’ve read during my hiatus (not much, since I’m still in trade-only mode).

More than anything, I’ve been devouring volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub as fast as I can. I’m up to volume 15, and volumes 16 and 17 are en route along with House of M: Incredible Hulk.

Speaking of HoM, partly inspired by Chris Allen’s positive review of the House of M trade, I ordered it and found it, surprisingly, to not completely suck. I was more impressed with Coipel’s pencils than Bendis’s writing, and in fact a scene close to the end of the trade helped me get a firmer grip on what I think is one of Bendis’s glaring weaknesses in his Marvel efforts. He has a tendency to make major shifts in character accompanied by really weak justifications for those shifts. For example, the scene that made me think of it in House of M was towards the end when, rendered invisible by Strange’s spells and Frost’s psychic crap, Cyclops give a speech about how killing is a-okay this time around because the stakes are so high. So, how were the stakes any higher than in a ka-zillion other Marvel crossover events? The world was changed, yeah, but vs. threats of the world being invaded or threatened with destruction or being sucked into hell or everyone’s heads turning into blocks of cheese, having a world in which everyone gets what they want doesn’t really seem to rate, does it? I felt the same way with his intro to New Avengers (though I generally liked the first two or three issues while I felt it went downhill after that). A contrived, impromptu gathering of heroes inspires Captain America to restart a team? Well, how about being inspired by the fact that he wears his underwear on the outside and all his friends do, too?

Speaking of the intro to New Avengers - David Finch’s art was one of the highlights of those first few issues and, assuming it will be collected in a trade, I’m looking forward to this new Moon Knight, even though I’ve never really cared about the character either way (and it seems like, particularly considering how hard Marvel’s pushing it, a trade collection is inevitable - Hell, if they collected Alpha Flight . . . ). I read a few Finch-hater comments on Newsarama, and I don’t know. Obviously, everyone has their own tastes, but it seems like criticizing a superhero comic artist for subjects who are too “overmuscled” seems a little bit like criticizing a lawyer for being too argumentative.

Let’s see, what the hell else did I read? I checked out the Spider-Man/Human Torch: I’m With Stupid digest, and it was pretty cool. Though I almost choked on my food when I read a comic book writer’s (forget who, but no, it wasn’t Slott) comments that it was the best limited series of the year. Also in Slott land, I got the GLA trade and was a little disappointed. It was good, but not as funny as I remembered. I’d already picked up the first two issues as floppies (right before I changed to trade-only), so maybe that had something to do with it.

You may or may not remember I surprised myself by giving the first volume of the Kirkman/Kolins Marvel Team-Up a thumbs-up. Mainly, it was just fanboy nostalgia for me. Well, I bought the second volume. Oh boy. Not even Kolins’s art could save that one for me. The clincher was the Punisher/Blade chapter in which Kirkman revealed, hold on to your seats - this insight is going to make Sherlock Holmes shit his pants, Blade and Punisher . . . are in some ways . . . alike. And man was I glad Robert Kirkman was there to let me know. I never thought a psycho loner who kills shit would find common ground with a psycho loner who kills shit. No more MTU for me.

About a month ago, I decided I want to check out some of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics trades and with the exception of Whedon’s own Fray, they were all disappointments. Most of them are just too derivative of the show. I read The Origin, Ring of Fire, and The Death of Buffy, and most read like fan fiction. I may check out Peter David’s various Spike books if/when they get trades, just as I’d be willing to pick up the future Buffy book Whedon plans to kick off, but other than that I ain’t interested.

Speaking of Whedon, in the past few months I picked up Serenity: Those Left Behind and the first tpb for Astonishing X-men. I wish I’d stayed off the Internet enough to get the full impact of Colossus’s resurrection, but other than that Astonishing rocked. The “fastball special” moment was beautiful. Serenity was good, but a little disappointing in the half-assed way they dealt with the Blue Hand Men.

Tom Strong, Book 2 was, without surprise, a lot of fun, as was the first oversized Avengers Assemble hardcover. I got the first Seven Soldiers of Victory trade, but had already read all of the collected stories in floppy form, so it was mainly just to get the stories in preparation for the subsequent trades (I think, in floppiness, I read as far as #3 of Shining Knight, the first two issues of the other four mini-series that kicked off the project, along with the #0 issue). WE3 was the work of genius everyone said it was, and that means a lot coming from me. Not that my opinion is any more valid than other reviewers/bloggers, but violence and fluffy animals usually piss me off when they’re mixed together. Hell, I cried when that Ewok died. You know. That one.

Collections I'm looking forward to picking up include the HC editions of the most recent Defenders, Marvel Monsters, subsequent Seven Soldiers of Victory trades, along with everything I still haven't read from Lone Wolf and Cub (where most of my comic book money is going these days). "Planet Hulk" is testing my fortitude as far as my collection-only rule is concerned, but I. I will survive.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

So I've been thinking . . .

Despite the "CLOSED" sign, a few people here and there have been posting responses to Superheroes, etc. and one of them wrote:

Oh, keep going every now and then. You're a good writer. When you have a moment, blog. But don't feel like you have to do it.

And that made me think about WHY exactly blogging takes up too much time. Is it because blogging takes up too much time, or is it because how I approached blogging?

And I think it's the latter. Whenever I wrote reviews, I always had an outline beforehand, and without fail I copy-edited everything I posted ruthlessly. Particularly when I moved my blogging from The Daily Burn to here, I became much more conscious of using scanned pics to make everything look more professional.

If I don't approach blogging like it's some kind of pseudo-professional thing, why should it eat into my time that much?

So, you know what? I'm going to keep blogging. I'm going to take Chance's advice (the source of the above quote), and just do it whenever I feel like it. Might not pump out too many reviews, but whatever.

So, if you read my last entry...don't tell me to shut the fuck up yet.

If I start writing and formatting things in a way that makes it look like I'm trying to be all "this ain't just a blog, it's a one-man magazine," then, please, tell me to shut the fuck up.