Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Music Lists: 2007

I'm going to be blogging only very infrequently over the next 2 weeks, so I might as well indulge in a bit of list-making before I take a vacation. So here's some comments on music that grabbed my attention in the past year...

5 Pleasant Surprises

5. Mika - Life in Cartoon Motion
'Grace Kelly' is pure joy; the rest of the album is almost as fun, but it's also entirely vacuous. That's why it's a 'pleasant surprise' and not in the 'favorite/best' list.
4. Kelly Clarkson - My December
If 'Irvine' is any indication of what she's capable of, I could actually start buying Kelly Clarkson albums. This album makes this list on that one, Radiohead-ripping song alone.
3. Rihanna - Good Girl Gone Bad
Likewise, this album could have been 10 tracks, all 'Umbrella', and it would be here for that reason alone.
2. Spiral Beach - Ball
Teenagers have no business writing a song like 'Kind of Beast'. Or the rest of this album.
1. Bruce Springsteen - Magic
'Radio Nowhere' could've been written by The Boss in the 70s. Springsteen gets his teeth back.

9 Disappointments

9. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
To be fair, almost anything was going to be a disappointment.
8. Kevin Drew - Spirit If...
The 'Broken Social Scene Presents' title should have clued me in: it's a Broken Social Scene album, only not as good.
7. Klaxons - Myths of the Near Future
The first song is catchy; the rest of the album is exhaustingly just more of the same, track after track.
6. Dragonette - Galore
There are three songs that I really love on this album; the rest belong on really bad pop radio.
5. Stars - In Our Bedroom After the War
How can an album whose title references both sex and war be filled with such dreadfully middling AOR MOR?
4. Editors - An End Has a Start
I was so bored that I cleared all but two songs off of my iTunes.
3. Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full
McCartney has released consistently good-to-great solo material for over a decade, now. I suppose the time was ripe for a snoozer.
2. Timbaland Presents: Shock Value
How is it that someone so good at doing material for other people's albums can put out such an awful album himself?
1. The New Pornographers - Challengers
I love the title-track, but didn't the New Pornographers used to be, like, a rock - or, at the very least, pop-rock - band? Nearly every song here is an aimless sort of mid-tempo indie-folk number. Which would be forgivable, I suppose, if it weren't so boring.

9 Favorites
(It's far easier for me to describe my disdain than it is to explain why I like the music that I like, so I'll just include my favorite songs from each album.)

9. Radiohead - In Rainbows
'Bodysnatchers', 'Nude'
8. Los Campesinos! - Sticking Fingers Into Sockets
'We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives', 'You! Me! Dancing!'
7. Caribou - Andorra
'After Hours', 'Sandy'
6. Black Kids - Wizard of Ahhhs
'I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You', 'Hurricane Jane'
5. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
'Keep the Car Running', 'Ocean of Noise'
4. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
'Resurrection Fern', 'Wolves'
3. Feist - The Reminder
'My Moon My Man', '1234'
2. Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
'Suffer for Fashion', 'Gronlandic Edit', 'She's a Rejector'
1. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
'North American Scum', 'All My Friends', 'Someone Great'

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Juno and (un)deserved endings

We watched 'Juno' yesterday - I enjoyed it and laughed embarrassingly in at least a dozen places, but there was one nagging little problem that I only figured out when I got home.

The story is largely divided into two parts: Juno and friend/boyfriend Paulie (and school) and Juno and the adoptive parents of her baby, Vanessa and Mark. The former scenes are overly witty and sardonic - not unlike Knocked Up or Superbad if they had been directed by Wes Andersen, I suppose. The latter part is still clever and snide, but it's heavier and tinged with an anxiety and cynicism that's much more recognizably adult and is entirely absent in the other scenes. Juno (and, too a much smaller extent, her dad) is the only common element.

When the movie ends, each half seems to rely on the other to bail it out: Vanessa and Mark's story ends well in advance of the film's conclusion, which saves us from dwelling on its tragedy, and Juno and Paulie's relationship takes on a sudden emotional weight that seems to have been produced almost entirely by an implicit comparison to Mark and Vanessa's relationship. (This comparison is made by Juno, of course, so as ensure that the viewers aren't entirely responsible for figuring out why the Juno-Paulie situation has a sudden dramatic weight.) And it feels, to some degree, like that weight is unearned. And maybe it is... but, despite myself, I find that the figurative move still seems to work in the end because of Juno. (And Ellen Page, of course, for showing some ridiculous range.) The whole genre exercise that Juno's school friends and family are taking part in may not deserve the emotionally weighty ending, but Juno herself does - and that's enough.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Follow-up: The baseball race game

Note: The baseball race game probably doesn't make a lot of sense unless you read my previous post. So go and do that first.

I quickly compiled a group of eight ostensibly black all-star baseball players. Without cheating by attempting to Google names or teams or what have you, can you tell me which four players are - within the race logic that C.C. Sabathia described below - black and which four are not? No trick questions - four are American born-and-raised and four are originally from the Caribbean. (I removed the logos from their hats to take away that potential clue, but I've otherwise left the original pictures untouched.)

After you've made your guesses, click on the comments to find the answers...

Baseball's C.C. Sabathia on black and black-but-not-black

Back in March, Cleveland Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia made a big deal of lamenting the lack of African American players in professional baseball. ESPN and others picked up on it, in part because Sabathia was very deliberately trying to draw attention to the North Vallejo Little League that he sponsors, as well as the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities and Urban Youth Academy programs, which are aimed at young black American boys. Explains Sabathia: "I want to show them. I came from there. These are the fields I played on. There is a way out, and it could be baseball."

But the issue is a slippery one, and there are major problems with the discussion in the way that Sabathia and ESPN framed and continue to frame it. They use African American and black interchangeably and synonymously; so not only are all African Americans black, but it seems that all blacks are African American. Having set a sort of syllogism thusly, Sabathia seems to reach the conclusion that ballplayers of African descent but who are not American (ie. black Hispanic players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.) are not black, and begins to problematically demarcate the difference between black and, I suppose, black-but-not-really-black.

To this point, Sabathia makes some interesting references to sight and the visibility of black (and black-but-not-black) ballplayers, and I want to quickly tease out how complex they are. He suggests that it's important that black bodies be visible on the field, since, he suggests, black American kids aren't playing because they don't see themselves represented:

"They don't see us playing," Sabathia said. "When I grew up, I was a pitcher and I liked the Oakland A's. I liked Dave Stewart. I was a big left-handed hitter, so I liked Dave Parker. You had Barry Bonds playing in San Francisco, guys like that. There were a lot of guys to look up to."

This is all well and good, except that the number of black bodies is actually increasing - it's just that those bodies are, within Sabathia's logic, black-but-not-black. But for Sabathia, this is a problem - these bodies are misrecognized/mistaken by kids for black bodies. So even if kids do appear to see themselves represented, it isn't actually bringing them to the game because it's a false recognition:

"I don't think people understand that there is a problem. They see players like Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado and just assume that they're black."

How black American kids intuit that Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado aren't actually 'black', I don't know. For Sabathia's logic to work, we have to assume that something about Reyes' and Delgado's inauthenticity explains how they fail to attract African Americans to play ball, that the misrecognition at work is either eventually defeated or is itself self-defeating. It's a very white project, though, to participate in this sort of game aimed at drawing a line between those inside and those outside of a well-defined category of the proper citizen, or proper player. It's obviously xenophobic, yes, but I suppose that it seems somehow less obviously racist when this sort of disturbing nationalist rhetoric comes out of a black man's mouth.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Because we haven't had any Islamaphobic panic in a while...

There's nothing quite like a domestic abuse tragedy to work the media into a frothing imminent-religious-war frenzy. A 16 year-old girl in Mississauga (a suburb of Toronto) was killed by her dad on Monday - what makes this story such big news, though, is that it their family was "devoutly" Muslim and the girl had, against her family's wishes, stopped wearing her hijab and started dressing like her non-Muslim friends. The quotes and commentary from the article that's on the Toronto Star site is predictable and problematic:

*She wanted to be "free" and independent of her family's devout Muslim beliefs. But that was a problem.

*"Her dad wanted her to be a person who followed the religion. But she wanted to follow her own rules, wear her own clothes."

*Wendy Horton, executive director of Etobicoke's Youth Without Shelter, said that while she's shocked by the level of violence in this situation, she isn't surprised by its root cause. Parents who want their children to remain faithful to old world ways are often at odds with kids growing up in Western society.

*"She wanted to show her beauty but her dad wouldn't let her."

This sort've stuff is also common in the network TV reports - Global TV was calling the murder an instance of "culture clash" and reported that the girl just wanted to "be herself". The Globe and Mail's article, at least, offers some another perspective, differentiating between the domestic abuse and the Islamophobia that it's inspired:

*Across Canada, the killing has taken on larger proportions. On call-in shows and websites, many have used the incident as part of a wider indictment of fundamentalist Islam. One Canadian conservative blogger suggested Canadians boycott taxicabs driven by Muslims. In a statement Tuesday, the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations called on Canadians of all faiths to address issues of domestic abuse, and called for “the strongest possible prosecution” of those responsible for Ms. Parvez's killing.

The point they're driving at, if only implicitly by way of the CCAIR quote, is that this isn't an Islam v. West/Christian thing. There are domineering parents of every faith and abusers can find any reason to hurt or kill their family. I'm completely intolerant of fundamentalism, but the problem here is that our attention is being drawn to a particular kind of fundamentalism, which manages to simultaneously absolve other fundamentalisms of fault and excuse their abusers as somehow lesser. (At least they don't kill you, right? And if they did, at least it would be, it seems, for a better reason!)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

While I was marking...

I had the Beatles Anthology DVDs playing in the background while I marked today, though I would occasionally look up when they played some archival concert footage. I noticed that the clip from Sweden just seemed...wrong. I started tapping out the beat on the table with my hand and realized that what was bothering me was how the audience was clapping on the beat. (That is, on the first and third beats of a four beat bar of music. Don't ask me to explain what actually means - I can't, for the life of me, tell you.) I can recall reading numerous times that white pop music audiences always clapped on-beat until bands like the Beatles and Stones started appropriating jazz and blues music, but I've never really understood how it is people ever found the on-beat. I tried imitating it and lost it within seconds every time.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Thoughts on some other comics I recently bought...

Buffy: Season 8 #9 - Count me among the people for whom this thing is just 'meh'. I don't really get why 'No Future For You' necessitated 4 issues when it seems like, at most, a two-parter. But my problem is mostly that it's a retread: Faith has to have a crisis of 'faith' in Buffy and her own self-worth, which was already done to death in the TV shows and doesn't do much of anything new for us. Her new status quo with Giles seems somewhat interesting (though I don't totally get the necessity of operating out of Buffy's reach), but I could have just as easily done without the story that led to it. (It fits into the big bad's plan, of course, as explained at the issue's close, it seems to me that the story should still manage to stand on its own.)

The Umbrella Academy #3 - I bought the first two issues a week before this issue was released. Had I written about those, my comments would've been positively glowing. As it is, this issue is more perfunctory - the characters have been introduced and their rather odd relationships established, so this is the first big-battle issue where we get to see that the anti-hero really is a hero, that the sister who betrayed them really does care, etc. These clichés aside, the first two issues - featuring such quirks as the gorilla-body transplant, the 60-year old time-traveler in a 10 year-old's body, the orchestra whose symphony will end the world - have earned plenty of goodwill. And Ba is always incredibly, especially when he cranks up the Mignola-ness to an appropriate level.

There's a Law of Diminishing Returns joke in here, somewhere

I don't think I'm prone to hyperbole, so don't think I'm being rash when I say that Ultimates 3 #1 was the worst comic I've read all year. It's maybe even the worst I've read in the last couple years.

It takes a particularly awful comic to activate my continuity-geekism. (For those non-comic, theory-friendly friends of mine, continuity geeks are my abject.) For instance: Thor's hammer uses the mainstream universe design, not the Ultimate universe one; Thor's dialect is similarly wrong; the Wasp has changed races (!?). As well, the military-style uniforms have been abandoned for superhero costumes without explanation, which signals a far more troubling shift - Millar's Ultimates might have lacked subtlety, but he aimed for a certain verisimilitude that is lacking in the mainstream Marvel world and his stories were driven by their political texts and subtexts. In failing to ground Ultimates 3 in this way, Loeb has somehow managed to entirely miss what made the Ultimates something other than the Avengers.

Need more examples of its awfulness? Well, we're introduced to a villain (Venom) who lacks any character or motivation, and who spends most of his screen-time battling a new Ultimate (Black Panther) who isn't even given a line of dialogue. Why is he even there? Don't know. Sensing that the story is just awful, I guess, the Wasp delivers a particularly painful recap of what's happened between Ultimates 2 and 3, which serves only to remind us why the 'Previously in...' pages that usually appear at the beginning of these books were such a good idea. Madureira's art is, I suspect, quite spectacular - but it's hard to find under a ridiculously dense wash of digital-paint that muddies his lines. Why Marvel would want to obscure Madureira's strengths like this, I don't know - I can't think of anyone in their right mind who would try so hard to ruin the one thing this comic has going for it.

But I don't know why they let such an unrepentant piece of shit like this go to print in the first place, either. If anyone recommends this thing to you, never ask them for reading advice again. In fact, you should probably stop talking to them altogether.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The hysterical Joker: Batman is a hobo?

Wow. I shouldn't be surprised any more, but it seems that every Joker picture for this new movie is worse than the pictures that preceded it. The same complaints apply, so I won't aim to repeat myself: if you want to read my old objections, you can find them here.

What's funny, though, is that I was only just complaining about where they've gone wrong with this interpretation of the Joker to someone last night. I noted that one of my favorite interpretations of the Joker is as a sort of hyper-hysteric - sort of what Morrison attempted in Arkham Asylum, though perhaps not so literally. Think of it this way: The Joker's personality is less a declaration - "I'm really crazy!" - and more a question in the form of a demand - "I'm really crazy: tell me who I am!" That he's presented in the comics as a flamboyant, arbitrarily homicidal, and fantastically neurotic crime boss is meant to say more about Batman than the Joker, as such - that hysterical demand is made of Batman, in particular, and so the Joker reflects (and inverts) the crime-fighting Batman's own neuroses, disciplined violence, and repression.

Given that Heath Ledger's Joker looks like something of a tramp or an out-of-work clown, I can only guess that Christian Bale's Batman will be a hobo-detective. Maybe he'll trade in his utility belt for a bindle?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Fyi, for people studying comics in and around the Toronto area...

Two notes on 'Lars and the Real Girl'

I always appreciate it when a film that loosely models itself on the familiar structures of the rom-com or family melodrama genres. Convention suggests that there should be a scene where someone decides to embarrass or humiliate Lars by pointing out that he's crazy/perverted for thinking that Bianca, his real doll, is a real human being, and Lars should deny that it's true, but suffer a breakdown of some sort because he knows that it is. (Similar to any one of those movies premised on the main character having a secret that is revealed by the antagonist before the protagonist can reveal it/come to terms with it himself.) Thankfully, Lars and the Real Girl teases at this potential swerve on very briefly - and in a totally convincing way - and never revisits the cliché again.

The film also has an atypical take on Lars' "delusions", though I'm less certain of how that take makes me feel. While it's suggested that Lars' creation of Bianca is connected to his father's recent death and his sister-in-law's pregnancy, there is no simple and obvious causation - the moments in which his delusion start and stop don't correspond in any direct fashion. It's also never presented as a pathological condition, aside from it being labeled a delusion; it's simply how Lars' mind has chosen to deal with its depression. Conversely, I'm sure that it'll earn the ire of certain mental health profession: Lars' delusions are presented as something that can be overcome with love and patience, and the condition is one that Lars himself can overcome if he so chooses. It's not that simple, of course, but it appears impossible to undertake the one - presenting the delusions as part of a normal process of coping - without eliding the other - that is, medicalizing and medicating the ostensible illness. But this is a debate for people who are far more versed in the nuances of the discussion to undertake.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Brief responses to LOST's "Missing Pieces" web season...

I'd like to say that "Missing Pieces" has been hit-or-miss, but that would imply that they're hitting with the same frequency that they're missing. The overriding theme through the first 3 mobisodes, at least, seems rather bland - seemingly self-satisfied Losties don't know just how badly things are about to go. It's dramatic irony played to cheap effect, mostly, though the latest mobisode has a bit more going for it than the others.

1: The Watch
Christian gives Jack the watch this his dad gave him as a wedding gift, though Christian's dad meant it as a sort of curse. Beyond being something of an ambiguous character-moment for Christian - is he sincere when he says he thinks it'll work out for Jack? - not much is happening here. Geoff objected to the attention paid to the watch when we already have an important watch on the island, but I'm fine with it. The show is certainly obsessed with time, counting, and numbers, so it's consistent, at least.

2: Hurley and Frogurt
Frogurt threatens to make a move on Libby if Hurley doesn't first. Aside from the irony, I can't tell why this is necessary at all.

3: King of the Castle
Jack and Ben play chess while chatting about their deal to set Jack free. This is the first really interesting mobisode. The dialogue is painful in letting us in on the main joke - there are references to blowing up the sub, which happens, and to Jack wanting to return, which happens - but the chess game provides some additional interest. It's not immediately obvious - a number of websites, I've noticed, have mistakenly said that Ben wins the game - but Jack puts Ben in check and Ben 'castles' in order to escape. The comment, then, is not on Jack's attempt to escape and Ben foiling it, but rather on Jack seemingly defeating Ben (in the season finale?) and Ben slipping through his fingers (which has yet to happen?). Finally - and this is something I learned through lostpedia - the castling move that Ben uses is actually illegal, since Ben's king has already been moved. I can't imagine that this would be a mistake, but it would seem to imply that, if we can take the symbolism at face-value, Ben will continue to manipulate the rules of the game.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Comic book round-up...

I have two weeks of comics worth to blog about - and an unusually busy two weeks, for me at least - but I've put off making any comment at all until now. (Too busy, and so on and so forth.) So I'll make some brief comments here, which I'll eventually get around to expanding into longer reviews on comicboards.com. (Which is, incidentally, where every blog I write about a comic ends up anyway.)

Astonishing X-Men #23 - I've pointed out a number of times that Whedon's individual arcs have largely the same structure. I won't belabor the similarities that I've drawn out in other posts, but there are some more worth mentioning: Cyclops' resurrection after last issue's suicide marks the second time that the Breakworlders have brought an X-Man back to life; more to the point, this is the fourth time in four arcs that Cyclops has either been killed or recovered from being near death, which seems a bit excessive; as well, his break-out and bad-ass pose on the final page bears much familiarity both narratively and visually to the similar "you've taken your best shot, bub..." poses at the end of AXM #10 (Xavier) and AXM #15 (Kitty). Whedon also continues with his habit of borrowing tropes from old X-Men comics, though the "Cyclops actually can access his powers" swerve is less obscure than those he made in the last couple issues. (Jason Powell notes that this turning point is also featured in Uncanny X-Men #134, #150, and #272, to which I also must add also add X-Factor #39.)

Whedon does manage one repetition with a much subtler and cleverer variation to it, though. In the opening scenes of the issue, two of the rebel Breakworlders discuss the likelihood of an X-Men victory against Kruun. One expresses optimism and Aghanne, their leader, suggests that she has been driven mad by the "hope" that the X-Men have brought with them. It's an interesting choice of words - the mutant cure in the first arc was, we should recall, also called "Hope".

The Order #4 - There's something very Lost-ish, I think, about the frame narrative 'interviews' (job interviews? or therapy sessions? we're not entirely sure) that are probably the most distinctive feature of this comic. New books written in total sincerity and full of characters we don't know are a tough sell, and this quirk shoot straight for the heart every time in trying to compel us to like these people. It's probably not working quite as well for me as I would hope: the first issue's interview was able to integrate Apollo seamlessly into the Marvel Universe and cleverly critique Tony Stark at the same time, making the entire notion of the Order feel somewhat discomforting. The subsequent interviews just haven't cut that close to the bone.

I'm also ambivalent about Barry Kitson's art. He's ideal for the interview panels, where his raised eyebrows or smirks are perfectly expressive without ever being too explicit. But his entirely generic face designs are often confusing, making it difficult to tell one character from another, and there's very little dynamism to their movements. (This is my same complaint of Jim Lee, whose characters similarly seem to be posing when they are ostensibly fighting.)

All-Star Superman #9 - All of the comments I've seen from other fans of this series - I tend to not bother reading actual 'reviews' - seem to agree that something is missing from this issue. Perhaps its the heart. Superman seems weak and whiny in this issue, (and the reason for the weakness, which actually leads to his victory in the end, comes from out of nowhere) and the villains' motivations are cliché but without serving any redeeming metatextual purpose. We certainly don't learn anything about these villains as we did about Lex or Zibarro in their issues, nor do we learn anything particularly interesting about Superman.

Even the political commentary (or what passes for a criticism of Superman's seeming apoliticism, anyway) is rather confused and superficial: the Kryptonians criticize Superman for being at the beck and call of the humans while refusing to release the miniaturized inhabitants of Kandor into the sunlight, but nothing more comes of this potential exploration of Superman's alienness. He meets their complaints with some empty-sounding platitudes and we hear nothing more of it.

Scott Pilgrim #4 - Of all these books, I've read the latest Scott Pilgrim most recently and so given it the least thought. It's easily the most melodramatic of the four books, which doesn't immediately strike me as a good thing. One of the pleasures of the early books is that the heavily stylized art, often esoteric (or, rather, geeky) allusions, and ironic tone have affected a comfortable distance for the readers from the characters: the stories have a kind of magical realism (as opposed to superhero stories which, while featuring fantastical elements, are typically aimed at approximating realism) that borders on the absurd, with dialogue that's too self-conscious and, accordingly, characters that are hilariously adept at meeting our expectations of their type. O'Malley seems to have made a habit of delivering more of everything with each new volume, and this one takes a misstep by turning up teen angst (which is particularly bothersome, for me at least, because these characters are very nearly my age): discussions about the 'L-word', the introduction of new-old love interests just for the sake of complicating things, misunderstandings that could easily be cleared up if the characters weren't sometimes idiots...

Perhaps worst of all, I suddenly realized that Ramona is entirely out of Scott's league and I have no idea what she would see in him. (Which is to say that the consequence of humanizing your characters and giving them real emotional problems is that we begin to regard them as real people and question their decisions accordingly. And there's no question in my mind that their relationship makes no sense.) A recurring exchange perhaps illustrates this best of all - Scott makes repeated mentions of how Ramona's age is "unknown", as if she's some sort of villainous 80s wrestler. And despite this being a cute quirk of the book's style, O'Malley turns it into some sign of their communication problems before finally revealing her age at the book's end as a way of patching things up. (Spoiler: She's 24.)

All this said, O'Malley also continues to widen his range of always entertaining geeky references: that Scott's dreamscape resembles a Legend of Zelda game, complete with a "forest elf", is priceless. It's a wonderful escapist moment in a book that, despite its previous successes in eliding flirtations with the mundaneness of too much realism, seems aimed at demystifying precisely what's made it so interesting.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Because i know some LOST fans lurk around my blog...

ABC is going to be posting 2-3 minute 'mobisodes' - which feature individual character flashbacks - over the weeks leading up to the season premiere. The first episode is going on their site this next Monday, but it's already been leaked. You can check it out by clicking here.

Minor Spoilers: I don't have a tremendous amount to say - I suspect that the watch has made an appearance and I just don't recall. I might edit in some more thoughts upon further reflection.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Dallaire! The Musical: On Canada's conflation of Rwanda and Afghanistan

When the Toronto International Film Festival opened this past September, the dramatization of UN force commander Romeo Dallaire's spectacularly failed* peacekeeping mission in Rwanda - titled Shake Hands with the Devil, as it's based on Dallaire's book of the same name - garnered plenty of attention, in Canada at least. Not all of it was good. NOW Toronto gave it a middling review, the critic noting that this was "the third kick at the can" for Dallaire's story, including the original memoirs and a Dallaire-guided documentary - though not including the incorporation of a character based on Dallaire in Hotel Rwanda, nor an earlier documentary that features interviews with him - and closes the the festival guide blurb by sarcastically suggesting next year we'll see Dallaire! The Musical.

The closing comment might be in bad taste, but the joke nonetheless identifies a baffling eagerness to fill Canadian bookshelves, television screens, and movie theatres with the story of this now-iconic hero. It is not a coincidence, I think, that each version seems more successful than the last and that Dallaire has turned into something of a mini-industry as Canada's participation in ostensible 'peacekeeping' missions in Afghanistan lose public support. There's no comparable hero in Afghanistan - General Rick Hillier seems to make more news butting heads with the governing Conservative party than he does through Canadian military action - so Dallaire has been marched out as some symbol of selfless Canadian sacrifice in the name of keeping peace.

I suggested during a class discussion that Dallaire failed in his mission, but quickly came to realize that it was actually something of a success. Not with respect to the estimated 20,000 people that he managed to save, but in a much more ideological sense - his failure to avert disaster but to simultaneously secure some small victory in spite of the odds is itself very consistent with a hegemonically Canadian sense of the nation's self. Appropriating Dallaire for Afghanistan - even if it's never done explicitly - allows Canada to again deny its complicity in neocolonial wars abroad (even if only to its own citizens), to race to innocence where Americans struggle to avoid being saddled with the guilt of a neoimperialist agenda. Dallaire's failure - illustrative as it is about the costs of being a peacekeeper, rather than a conqueror, in a country of 'devils' - allows the government to paint Afghanistan with the same brush - if Canada is failing to maintain order, it's because the 'devils' in Afghanistan are similarly beyond the reason of peace. One would imagine that Dallaire's underdog story can only be milked for so much sympathy - though the incredulous letters that the Dallaire! The Musical joke earned would indicate that it still has some mileage left.

* Granted, his peacekeeping force was reduced to something like 250 soldiers at one point, so he's hardly to blame for failing to stop a civil war in a country with a population numbering in the millions.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The NHL and destructive masculinities

A brief primer for the non-hockey fan: Back in the 2003-04 NHL season, Todd Bertuzzi sucker punched Steve Moore and pushed him to the ice, knocking him unconscious and breaking his back. People were outraged, but swore that it was an isolated incident - most players who are punched (which is nearly every hockey player) aren't rendered immediately unconscious, and most players who are driven from behind into the ice (again, probably most of them at some point in their careers) aren't paralyzed. Problematically, of course, the emphasis was placed on the severity and freakishness of the injury, rather than on the hypermasculine and uberaggressive game that encourages players to attack with intent to injure - so long as there's some small chance that he can defend himself.

In this NHL season, which is not even one month old, there have been three similarly vicious attacks - and all of them by players on the same team, (the Philadelphia Flyers) no less. The NHL has penalized the players severely - a 20 game suspension for the first and 25 games the second, (Bertuzzi also got 20) with nothing yet determined in the latest case - but it seems that no one is getting the point. Explains Philadelphia's general manager, Paul Holmgren, after the second suspension: "I do think it was an isolated incident."

The first problem, of course, is that Holmgren mistakenly used the singular form of incident - even when there were only two, it was incidents. The larger problem, though, is that these people continue to think that severe injuries in a game that permits shoulder checks to the head and punches to the face - provided that your opponent can see you coming, as if that should someone ensure your safety - could possibly be considered 'isolated incidents'. They may be uncommon, but it seems like they're a natural consequence of the sort of hockey game that NHLers are told to play. I don't know why none of the people who have a vested interest in seeing the players stay healthy and, y'know, play have so much trouble seeing that.

She was just seventeen/And you know what I mean...

One of the great things about Fraction's Casanova is that it is at once wholly accessible and utterly obscure. (To quote Fraction: "I'm fine alienating the stupid.") I could cite any number of instances, but I'll focus on one particularly silly one: the scene in which Zephyr watches a tape of her next target and remarks that "I want to shoot this guy so bad my dick is hard." It's a hilarious line, but it's made all the better when Fraction's notes at the back explain that it's a paraphrase of a line from New Jack City, as spoken by Ice-T's character. (Ice-T, of course, is famous for recording "Cop Killer" and feuding with the LAPD's chief - and now he plays a cop on TV. Zephyr, on the other hand, is famous for feuding with her dad, who's in charge of the SHIELD-like organization EMPIRE - and her parallel self was an EMPIRE agent.)

For the as-yet-unconverted: I feel it necessary to wax ecstatic just a bit about what Fraction (and, to a lesser extent, Moon) does with the final few pages of each issue of Casanova. See, each comic is only 16 pages - 6 fewer than the standard. Fraction fills up the remaining few pages with the equivalent of a director's commentary - sketches, biographical details that are pertinent to the plot, (and sometimes not pertinent whatsoever) and various other stuff about the visual and textual allusions that might otherwise go unnoticed. And after several of these notes - about a film collection, one about the first issue of The Order, a random Rolling Stones line... - he also admits that one of them is a total lie.

He doesn't explain everything, though. Take the title of the issue: "Seventeen". It's vague enough that it could be referring to pretty well anything. Two good possibilities spring to mind immediately, both of them speaking to the focus of this issue - Zephyr Quinn's unpredictability, desirability, and maniacal evilness (err, evilability?). The first is Seventeen, the Booth Tarkington novel, which is also a film. (And Fraction has made his love of old films quite clear.) Long-story-short, it's about a teen-aged small-town boy who alienates everyone in his attempt to seduce a big-city girl, only to fail when she leaves at the end of the summer. The second is The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There", the song which features the memorable opening line, "Well she was just seventeen/And you know what I mean". The Beatles would subsequently explain that there's just something ambiguous and wonderful about the age of seventeen - no longer totally naive, but not yet world-weary - and seventeen year-old girls are a mystery to both the boys and themselves. It's not a stretch to suggest that we should have Zephyr Quinn in mind here.

Update: Fraction notes that the phrase 'asa nisi masa', which appears quite often in this issue, is from Fellini's 8 1/2. Double that number and you get 17. Also, the number of bodies (including Zephyr and Kubark) in the final panel of the comic? 34 - which is 17 doubled. I realize that I'm flirting with the Law of Truly Large Numbers here, but maybe that's part of the point?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

In Rainbows

I don't quite know how to describe my reaction to the newest Radiohead album, "In Rainbows". Vaguely disappointed, I suppose - "In Rainbows" is getting a lot of favorable comparisons to "Hail to the Thief", their previous album, but I actually quite liked the strong narrative/thematic line running through the latter's lyrics. There's something much more romantic and even ethereal about "In Rainbows", which perhaps makes it appropriate that I find myself having difficulty in pinning it down.

From "Nude": "Now that you've found it, it's gone/ Now that you feel it, you don't". Radiohead's sound was all over the place with the last album, but their anger and words were very deliberately pointed. But a line like the one from "Nude"? I don't know what to do with that - a distinct political project has given way to something vaguely philosophical and more than a little out of focus.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Evaluating Whedon and re-evaluating Morrison

(It seems silly of me to try and summarize a run that hasn't yet concluded. But my recent renewal of appreciation for Whedon's Astonishing X-Men - coupled with the increasingly annoyed and/or dismissive responses from a large number of folks in X-Men fandom - prompted me to produce a version of the follow comments on the X-Universe Message Board a couple weeks ago. Exchanges with Jason Powell allowed me to refine and add nuance to those arguments, so I'll try to capture some of that, too.)

First things first: If nothing else, Joss Whedon is responding to Morrison's persuasive, if ultimately nihilistic, appraisal of the X-Men canon with an appraisal of his own. Morrison, of course, set out to rejuvenate the X-Men, make them sexy and overtly political - to approach the other without returning to the norm. (Indeed, I recall hearing Morrison theorize his New X-Men as a dialectical process, where JLA was thesis and the Invisibles were antithesis.) When he failed - and it is unclear whether failure was always already immanent - Morrison resorted simply to a vicious mockery of those same X-Men tropes that he had claimed to have abandoned.

The major difference, then, between Whedon and Morrison is that the latter saw the tropes and canonical stories of the X-Men as a restriction - Morrison says that every writer must do the obligatory Phoenix, Magneto, Sentinel, etc. stories - while Whedon seems to regard them more narratologically as guidelines that are fundamental to the telling of an X-Men story. Which is not to say that Whedon isn't ambivalent about the way that those tropes and narratives are deployed, and I think this is made clear in the very first issue:

1. Kitty sees apparitions from some of Claremont's best-loved stories, so we know the past isn't just in play but will be actively haunting this run. And indeed: Colossus returns from the dead, as do the Sentinel that killed the Genoshans, Cassandra Nova, and the White Queen. Though you can argue that certain exercises are less successful than others, it's an excavation of their history - in peeling back the layers, Whedon's trying to get at an understanding of who they are and the compromises that each of his cast has made along the way. (And, in turn, how they have been compromised by those decisions.)

2. The costume/no-costume discussion establishes that this isn't simply a reversion to an old status quo - Cyclops says that they have to look like superheroes, not that they are superheroes. Mutant politics and ethics take something of a backseat, but we'd be mistaken if we thought they were absent and they'll come roaring to the fore soon enough. In this point, I'm not even talking about the Cure or the irony in imprisoning a mutant computer program. The most poignant political moment is when the team, in costume, fights the Mole Man's monster but fails to be convincing in their act. They don't make the news and they don't make things better for mutants; dressing - performing - as superheroes didn't hide the fact that they were still mutants. (And, in fact, I think that this realization allows for Cyclops subsequent growth.) This is certainly a critique of writers who portray the X-Men as Just Another Superteam, and perhaps even critical of Morrison for trying to situate the X-Men as post-human. Cyclops' ambivalent relationship to mutanity and humanity allows us to recognize that mutants cannot extricate themselves from their humanness and find an 'outside' that places them exterior to humanity as post-humans. But likewise, having been marked as mutant they cannot ever be entirely 'inside' humanity, either.

Where Morrison left us with a dead-end - a critique with no obvious direction forward - Whedon seems to be trying to resolve what the X-Men can be if they cannot be like superheroes. The alternative, it seems, is to shift genres entirely: Whedon's latest arc (which heavily alludes to Dune) seems to take heavy inspiration from the early- and mid-80s X-Men stories that often found the team in space and otherwise battling science-fiction tropes, the sorts of stories and characters that have receded from interest in the past decade or two like the Brood (Aliens), Nimrod (Terminator), and the Reavers (Mad Max). To steal a line that I heard elsewhere, it seems Whedon is saying that 'everything you forgot was pretty cool'.

My least developed thought is on the structural aspects of the four arcs, each of which seems to mirror the various parts of the Phoenix Saga more or less closely. What I wonder is if it's fair to suggest that Whedon is elevating this story to a sort of 'master narrative', the "totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience" within the X-Men mythos, the control mechanism though which multiplicity is engaged and difference is recognized, registered, and regulated. Certainly, it seems fair to argue that the Phoenix Saga - both its narrative form and tropes of corruption, forgiveness, rebirth - has established the parameters that allow us to makes sense of difference and what it can be "about" within the context of the X-Men.

It might be silly and/or hyperbolic of me to liken the canon of the X-Men to a phallic economy, but I'll go there and claim that the same caveats apply: that Morrison failed to successfully possess and redirect the X-Men precisely because mastery of a 'master narrative' is always delusional. And, sure enough, in the end Morrison seems consumed by an sort of hysterical anxiety - he is able to say what his X-Men are
not, but what they are remains ill-defined or even only negatively-defined, demanding recognition from the canon that it has made great lengths to otherize.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Like a turd covered in tasty chocolate

This is quite possibly the most fantastically devastating and amusing simile that I've ever read. It appears in Devin Faraci's review of 30 Days of Night - a new vampire movie which, from the trailers, appears to be Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (note the similarity in the names, even), only with vampires instead of pseudo-zombies. But I digress:

"30 Days of Night" is a stupid, stupid film, a disaster at the script and casting stages. It's like a turd covered in tasty Ghirardelli chocolate - as soon as you sink your teeth in you know you've got mouthful of sweetened shit."

Monday, October 15, 2007

An Ontario provincial election follow-up...

One interesting note from the Ontario provincial elections that happened last week: it was probably the first and only time that a political commentator will accuse the electorate of racism for not voting Conservative. The Conservatives lost to the Liberals by a huge margin, largely because the former pledged partial funding for private religious schools and then rescinded the offer when it proved unpopular.

The commentator (Mike Duffy, I think) was surely right to suggest that the Liberals and NDP were playing a race/anti-Islam card in saying that they wanted to allow kids of all types to grow up together, (especially disingenuous, since they both support the continued existence of a public Catholic school board) though it's ridiculous to reduce the entire race to this one factor. More likely, given the emphasis that past North American elections have put on the decisiveness* of political leaders, the major factor was Conservative leader John Tory's inability to inspire confidence when he backed away from the most widely-known element of his party platform.

Me? I'd do away with the Catholic board as well. The problem is that only the Green party was making that offer and they weren't going to win any seats in the legislature; I voted NDP, despite the subtly racist implications that this choice implies. But when the choice is between a subtly racist education platform and the less subtly racist, sexist, and classist assumptions underlying the Conservative party's entire platform? Not so hard a decision.

* I've chosen 'decisiveness' not because it's necessarily accurate or even a word that commentators use in describing a leader - it could, after all, just as easily be called 'stubbornness'. The difficulty here is that decisiveness is always described negatively by pundits: a "bad" politician is a 'flip-flopper', a 'ditherer', unsure, lacking. A "good" politician is usually only defined as not one of these things - presumably because he or she could flip-flop at any moment. (Of course, this logic fails to perceive that it's often better to change your mind when your plan is failing or that staying the course may be a disastrous proposition.)

Friday, October 05, 2007

Morrison's Batman: All irony, no heart

My mostly ambivalent observations about the rest of this story seem to hold true for its ending: I get what Williams' is doing in imping other artists but I still feel that it's more of a distraction than it is clever, and the murder mystery plot is a decent hook but turns out to be wholly unsurprising. Convention implied that the murderer (or murderers) would come from within and, predictably, the Agatha Christie model suggested that it would be masterminded by the patriarch. The Black Glove remains unrevealed, sure, but he seems almost incidental.

If the story fails, though - and I think it does - it fails for reasons having more to do with an aesthetic than Morrison's near-exact faithfulness to the genre. And its this aesthetic, actually, that makes Morrison's ostensible faithfulness seems disingenuous - in fact, a show of bad faith. Visually, Batman and Robin were never really a part of this 'Batmen of the World'. Though each of the various Batmen differ from one another, all of the others are nonetheless dated; Batman and Robin, on the other hand, are painted with a neo-noir brush that could only appear in a contemporary comic. Morrison echoes Williams (Or does Williams echo Morrison? Whichever.) by writing a quietly confident, if not smug, Batman who is almost never as concerned as the heroes around him, and certainly never as panicked. And while we're fairly certain that any of the other Batmen could die at any moment, we know with equal certainty that the title character can't.

Which is to say that, for all its seeming genre-playfulness, the story is impossible to actually submerge yourself within. As Batman remains critically, even patronizingly, distanced from the exercise of the story, it becomes difficult for us as readers to feel anything for - as Robin described them last issue - the 'league of Batman imposters'. It's an ironic revision of a terribly lame concept that supplies us with equally lame motivations for the villains and does little more than convince us that, yes, clichés and Batman imposters are, as I said, terribly lame. Didn't we already know that?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

On comics and the church of Continuity...

So I allowed myself to get dragged into (another) one of those internet comic arguments where the crux of the discussion is Continuity*. Run quickly from these fights, because they're never fun. (Even when you're right!)

[*Comic book Continuity (n.) - to paraphrase Wikipedia, a consistency
in the characteristics of character
and a contiguity of plot]

Case in point: Emma Frost explained some issues ago in Astonishing X-Men that Cyclops' inability to control his powers related to a mental block, not brain damage from a childhood fall (as it had always been explained). Ardent anti-Whedon X-Men fans complained that Whedon is just making stuff up as he goes along, ignoring tons of precedent that would render such a development an impossibility. I suggest that, in fact, there is precedent and am told, basically, to put up or shut up and produce the evidence. And after 10 minutes on Google, I find it: Cyclops hits his head on a rock in Uncanny X-Men 332, and the accompanying caption implies that the brain damage is somehow undone. It's a stupid explanation, but it's there. So I win, I guess.

After all that trouble, though, I'm not sure that I even care. The fact that Whedon may have had some other comic in mind - and this is worse because it was written by a hack writer (Scott Lobdell) as part of a massively awful crossover (Onslaught) - actually does something to diminish the experience for me. Sure, Whedon's story isn't entirely self-contained, but its references have been pointed and meaningful; they add something thematically, and there's often a knowing reflexivity to them. If Whedon is referencing Lobdell, though, it's purely to satisfy the utilitarian demands of plot. And for that reason, I'd almost prefer that Whedon didn't know about this scene, or that he never had any precedent in mind whatsoever.

Continuity be damned. I prefer that writers take whatever liberties they feel necessary in order to tell an individual story, one that's coherent and intelligible in relation to its own parts. What's the alternative, really? Attempting to maintain some sort of narrative unity in relation to thousands of issues of comics is a fool's errand, if ever there was one. If the options are loyalty to 1) a confused, contradictory, and notoriously disloyal tradition or 2) loyalty to your own storytelling, why is there even an argument?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Adventures in TAing, case 1 (in a ? case series)

(One of the great things about being a TA at a university is that it allows me to recognize pet-peeves that I never knew I even had. In order to deal with some of the frustration in a passive-aggressive but slightly bemused manner that others may enjoy, I'll share bits and pieces of my favorite peeves here. Note: I changed the title of this ostensible series. It was a little too snarky, I think.)

Case 1: That funny habit that students have of overstating their claims by declaring them 'clear' or 'obvious'. As in, "we can obviously see that so-and-so is clearly a symbol of such-and-such", whereupon they proceed to explain why this is so for the rest of the paragraph. Clearly (tee-hee), this begs the question - if it's so obvious, then why do you even need to waste your/my time explaining it to me?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

300: Heroic masculinity and the thin, homoerotic line

It often seems that some of my best blogger thoughts are posted in the response threads at Geoff Klock's blog. So I'm going to refashion one of them and post it here. (Geoff: It's not a proprietary thing - I'd just like to be able to access it on my own blog, labeled so that I can easily find it if I need to.)

The article Geoff posted was from Slate, and expressed a powerful anxiety that the writer, Matt Feeney, felt toward the habit of audiences and critics to label as homoerotic those "films that offer idealized portraits of heroic masculinity." Feeney's argument immediately begs the question, though it's a good one and a question that probably needs to be asked more often in popular writing - what does "homoerotic" mean, anyway? It's clear from Feeney's usage - and made all the more clear by his not-so-subtly-homophobic closing sentence - that homoerotic here is simply a synonym for gay, even though it's also perhaps suggestive of some higher aesthetic aim.

But homoeroticism and homosexuality should not collapse so easily into one another. Eve Sedgwick, in "Between Men", writes that
“[f]or a man to be a man’s man is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line from being ‘interested in men", and it's this thin line that Feeney can't make sense of. According to Sedgwick, while terms like homosocial, homosexual, and homoerotic have phonic and linguistic similarities, they can't be substituted for one another. The ease with which they're mistaken for one another is explicable, to be sure - they're different points on the same continuum, Sedgwick argues - but such mistakes are expressive of a tremendous loss of meaning and create some serious confusion. A quick example: the act of celebratory ass-slapping in sports is certainly expressive of homosociality, and they may even have a certain homoerotic element, but there is certainly nothing necessarily homosexual about it. Collapsing these 'invisible, carefully blurred' boundaries also restricts our ability to be precise in our own speech. Another brief example: Because these boundaries exist, tenuous as they may be, I can say "Jude Law is hot" without actually meaning "I would like to fuck Jude Law." But according to the logic that Feeney appears to employ in the article, to say one would be to necessarily imply the other. Some room for negotiation is clearly required.

I may, in fact, be giving those critics that Feeney is responding to a bit too much credit. It's entirely likely that their usage of homoerotic is equally crude and is derived mostly - if not entirely - from the Athenian historical record regarding the sexual practices of Spartan soldiers. Which isn't to say that they're wrong to note that "300" is homoerotic, but rather that they're right for the wrong reasons. (I'm also tempted to write something about Feeney's unwillingness to allow audiences to construct their own meanings - even when those meanings may be radically opposed to authorial or directorial intention - but that would seem like overkill, wouldn't it?)

Monday, September 24, 2007

TCAF follow-up: "This Will All End in Tears"

I vaguely recall Roger Ebert once being asked whether he's ever troubled by all of the depressing art-house movies that he's required to watch. His response was wonderful: "No good movie is depressing." (Granted, this means that bad movies with depressing stories are all the more depressing, but that's a topic that I don't feel inclined to pursue...)

For whatever reason, this line flashed through my mind after I finished Joe Ollman's "This Will All End in Tears", the winner of Best Book at the Doug Wright Awards. A collection of 5 short stories, each ranges from mundane to miserable and offers little or no obvious (that is, cheap) consolation to the reader. Likewise, the characters range from the tragically flawed to painfully flawed. And just to show that the trifecta is in play, Ollmann's art - arranged in a tight, regular grid as if they were comic strips in a newspaper - does little to provide us with the sorts of visually appealing (or at least idiosyncratic) characters that we tend to find even in small press comics. I wouldn't even classify Ollman's art as 'realistic'; if anything, his characters are actually grotesque.

Recontextualizing Ebert, briefly: I was talking about this book with a friend, and I remarked on the disturbingly large number of indie comics that batter us with the same sort of tragic or bathetic characters in sad circumstances, books that crank the EMO-factor up to an 11 and leave it there until we either find ourselves either a) unable to continue or b) masochistically compelled to finish. But the best of these books never actually depress or enrage us, never leave us wondering why we misspent our time making ourselves feel miserable. And if it wasn't already obvious, "This Will All End in Tears" is one of the best.

One brief example: in "Hanging Over", the final story, Ollman concludes - very suddenly - at the moment that one might suggest is leading directly into what should be, structurally, the expected climax. At the moment when Dennis is no longer able to defer or delay his decision and must decide to take care of his brother or send him to a home, the story ends. Dennis picks up the phone, says "Hello?", and we flip the page to find... some notes on each of the various stories. It may be a cop-out - Ollmann, as well as Dennis, is saved from the responsibility of making a choice - but where can the story go from here? Dennis decides to take care of his brother or he decides to hand him over to caregivers. If Ollmann would choose to be dishonest, then the choice would be between disappointing us by proving Dennis an asshole or disappointing us by going the cheeseball route and having the brothers live happily ever after - an option that Dennis openly mocks on the second last page. More likely, though, and in the case of either potential ending, Dennis would come to begrudgingly accept but regret his decision. But ending (that's not really right, is it? it's not an ending, but i don't know what to call it) the narrative in that moment provides a sort of liminal space - however small, however tenuous - in which the decision doesn't ever have to be made.

Does it violate the spirit of a verisimilitudinous story, or is it unfair to the reader who demands some sort of narrative closure? I don't think so. In fact, it's a solution that seems to reconcile both our readerly desire for some emotional satisfaction and Dennis' own desire, expressed on the final page, to find "an idyllic, utopian" space where he doesn't have to make hard, hurtful decisions. It's unrealistic, yes, but only because that's the point.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

TCAF follow-up: "The Luxury of Living"

I never followed-up on the books that I picked up at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, so I'll write about one today and another in the next day or two. (Since committing to blogging tomorrow is never a good idea.)

The first is one toward which I feel rather ambivalent - Michael Noonan's "The Luxury of Living". I'll start with a brief comment on the visuals, toward which I feel absolutely no ambivalence. Noonan's pencils remind me of David Mazzucchelli, which is no small compliment. I don't know if it's that Noonan's lines seem somewhat scratchier than Mazzucchelli's, or that the directness of his prose - while the entire piece is a letter, of sorts, he occasionally speaks directly to the reader - is creating the connection in my brain, but I'm also reminded of "Waking Life" aesthetic. And so Noonan's carefully composed line-work, seeming to barely contain the anxiety that creeps out through those lines and that's likewise expressed in his text, appears to shake and undulate as if a part of that (equally anxious, paranoid) film. (One minor problem? The computer-typed text - it has the opposite effect, given that it is clean and uniform, often ill-fitting, sometimes misspelled, and simply disruptive of the experience.)

Of course, "Waking Life" is something of a precocious and precious film - and so too is
"The Luxury of Living". The book is, in almost equal parts it would seem, an expression of love for his daughter and disgust for his ex-wife. And this is something of a problem, as the latter seems to necessarily drain some of the sincerity from the former. I don't doubt Noonan's emotions, but the comic seems to be implicated in the custody battle that Noonan describes - it makes for a problematic and discomforting experience. It feels as if this if the daughter herself is secondary to striking back at charges that he's the poorer parent. And arguing that, in fact, the reverse is the case.

Well intentioned as he might have been, Noonan's book feels like a thinly-veiled attempt to drag his daughter into the fight, though indirectly. And whether he's totally conscious of the book's instrumentalism, he at least acknowledges his inability to keep her entirely sheltered from the fighting. In the book's first short narrative, Noonan argues with his ex-wife's boyfriend over the phone. He checks on his sleeping daughter afterward, hoping that she hasn't overheard. Satisfied that she's asleep, he closes the door - and her eyes open.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Comics don't deal with terrorism? Are you kidding me?

I've been very bad at keeping this blog updated - I blame September, a class, a reading course, and two teaching jobs - but scott s. recently posted a link to an article/blog titled "Why won't comics deal with terrorism?" by Ned Beauman, and it seems to demand some kind of response. So back to the blogosphere I go.

Briefly, then: the article is awful.

Longer: I expected the piece to critique superheroes for their moral exceptionalism, their authoritarian streaks, or their nihilism. Instead, Beauman manages one of the most painfully literal readings of a super hero comic that I've seen emerge from someone other than a teenaged fanboy. For example: "
quite a few superheroes are powerful telepaths, yet apparently none of them can find Osama Bin Laden. Terrorism makes superheroes look ridiculous, and if you're ignoring terrorism, you can't do much with Iraq, either."

If the juxtaposition of superhero telepathy and Osama Bin Laden isn't already silly enough, then perhaps it should be spelled out - superheroes are a fantasy genre, not a realist one. They aren't aimed toward versimilitude, but toward the fantastic. And when they have a point to make, they usually do so with some subtlety. 'Identity Crisis' seems to be as much about the Patriot Act (and like-minded legislation) and our own complicity in the systemic erasure of dissent as it is about superheroes who brainwash each other. 'Civil War' tackles a similar subject with much less tact, deciding to deal with the matter of dissent from legally enforced patriotism by recasting it as a thinly veiled superhero matter. And 'Ultimates' - and this is all the more amazing because the article in question features an image from this series - is about as subtle as a punch to the jaw, featuring as it does an epic mini-war in which various countries declare war on the Ultimates and the USA for their empire-building policies in the Middle East.

Seriously, I get the feeling that Beauman would criticize Orwell for not 'dealing' with communism in "Animal Farm" - after all, if Stalin did appear then it would only cause us to realize the absurdity inherent in a book where animals converse with one another and build a society, wouldn't it? The cleverest sorts of responses to global politics - those that are harshest, and as such must hide to some degree in the subtext - require that you actually look for them, y'know?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

And the only thing to fear is Mister Fear himself...

Somehow, I had never actually caught this Winston Churchill quote before, which is credited to a speech he gave in 1943 upon receiving an honorary law degree from Harvard: "the price of greatness is responsibility." FDR said something similar in a state of the union address two years later: "In a democratic world, as in a democratic Nation, power must be linked with responsibility." And a quick Google search shows no shortage of other potential inspirations for Stan Lee and his legendary 'with great power (comes/must come) great responsibility' line from Spider-man's first appearance. Churchill and FDR seem to make for the most reasonable inspirations, though. It's interesting that Spider-man is usually regarded as an incredibly modern hero, one who's almost outside the WWII milieu that created Superman or Captain America, the cold war politics that allowed for the Fantastic Four, or the racial tension that gave us the X-Men - which is to say that he's treated as somehow universal and beyond ideology. And yet the crux of the character is derived from Churchill and/or Roosevelt. Go figure.

(Apologies to anyone who reads this for not posting anything in the past two weeks. It's just been that kind of two weeks.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Briefly recapping the panel at TCAF...

A brief entry on the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which happened this past weekend and was much larger than I was expecting. (This thing grew exponentially between the 2003 and 2005 editions - I don't know that it grew that much between 2005 and 2007, but I wouldn't be surprised if it grew significantly in terms of attendance and the number of artists.)

The 'Comics in the Academy: How to Study Comics and Why' panel seemed to be well-received. Though it got to be nail-biting and I was reduced to begging for at least one panelist to attend, our panel went ahead with Rohanna Green (University of Toronto, English), Alan Rhodes (York University, Communication and Culture), Anne Rubenstein (York University, History) and Jeet Heer (York University, History - though quite well-known, it seems, for his comics journalism). I would've loved to include someone who studies the actual drawings, but the panel was about as inter/multidisciplinary as I could have hoped for - and certainly better than the many worst-case scenarios that were running through my head.

More interesting than the disciplinary lines, though, were the strange ways in which the speakers handled their 15 minute speaking bits in wholly different ways - ranging from the conversational and off-the-cuff to powerpoint presentations. So we didn't simply have content for many different folks, but presentations of very different kinds. (Not surprisingly, then, a number of friends in attendance would later tell me that they really liked 2 or 3 of them disliked one person or another - whether it was their delivery or their content that was a turn-off also varied. But this is what happens when everyone brings something different to the table.)

Another interesting tidbit: despite our being the first panel of the day, the attendance at the start was actually rather good. I think I counted 35 people when I scanned the room right before we started, and it was probably closer to 45 at the time we finished. Granted, I haven't attended many panels at festivals or academic conferences (this falls somewhere between the two), but this seemed rather unusual. Here's hoping that I get the chance to organize this panel (or panels?) next time around. And maybe the content will be less general - can it get any more general than 'how to study comics and why?' - and we can speak to more specific issues.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Casanova 8: pure, distilled fun

Reading Casanova is like inhaling the expression oils of some otherwise inaccessible essence of entertainment as they are boiled in an alembic, vaporized, and then condense in front of our noses, producing the aroma of pure, distilled fun. Nothing else that the superhero companies put out can compare to this stuff - it's as electric as the shockingly blue accent colors within its pages. (Electric blue? The gall!) Jean-Baptiste Grenouille couldn't have concocted a more enticing aroma. (Am I mixing my aroma and electricity metaphors? I don't care!)

The first issue in Fraction's new arc, it hits us with three quick acts - the first entirely bathetic but necessary in order to establish Casanova's new status quo, the second reestablishing the tone, character, and humor of the comic, and the third pulling the rug out from underneath us by discarding everything that came before it. In 16 pages, Fraction can pack an embarrassment of story and humor into a space that's smaller than that which lesser writers can only fill with such trivialities like 'establishing the setting' or 'introducing the characters'. The cliffhanger question that closes the book - it was included in solicits, but I won't copy it here for fear of ruining the surprise - is at once stupefying and, when we realize that Fraction can and will get away with absolutely anything, totally appropriate.

As an added bonus, Fraction provides a sort of journal entry at the end of the comic, explaining why Casanova was beset by so many delays this year and linking his personal life to various parts of the story that we've just completed. It's sort of a director's commentary, and makes an immediate re-read even more rewarding than it already would have been. If you haven't read the first 7 issues or picked up the hardcover, do so now - if only so you can appreciate just how fantastic this issue is.

Batman 667 - second verse, same as the first?

Grant Morrison has always had a fixation with the history of characters and genres, of battling it out with their strongest incarnations in the only way he knows how - by writing his own version of their stories. It failed miserably a few weeks ago with Batman 666, but it seems that Morrison has conceded that battle and is ready to start anew with 667. And he's left Frank Miller behind, sure, but it doesn't appear that he knows where to go from there.

In fact, Morrison's inspirations and the sources that he's drawing from seem to completely overwhelm the actual plot. The story is super-saturated with allusions, both textual (on Morrison's part) and visual (on Williams'), and it's all too much. The crux of the story is itself derived from a cheesy 50s team-concept called, variously, 'The Club of Heroes' or 'Batmen of All Nations', and its been given the requisite modernizing tweaks: several of the characters look decidedly more like Batman now than they did in the 50s, one is grossly obese, a French swordsman looks like the living incarnation of V's Guy Fawkes mask, another looks like a cross between Darkhawk and Judge Dredd, the Dark Ranger is drawn in such an idiosyncratic style that it appears as if Chris Sprouse has been sub-contracted to pencil him alone, and several are brooding in that characteristic Batman manner. The V, Darkhawk, and Judge Dredd visuals are undoubtedly intentional - these are characters that no doubt owe their existence, if not something of their manner and appearance, to the success of the Batman archetype. Such intertextuality is certainly clever, but it quickly becomes an overwhelming abundance of intertexts, many of which simply don't work in conjunction with some others.

Briefly: most obviously, the story seems to be a retelling of Agatha Christie's 'And Then There Were None' (or, if you will, 'Ten Little Indians'), causing me to suspect that one of the heroes is, in fact, the mastermind; it even resembles Morrison's own Seven Soldiers #1 in some ways, in that it is a gathering of lame heroes that is in fact a trap and will certainly see many of them die; the title also appears to be making a literary reference, this time to 'The Island of Dr. Moreau'; as well, the villain who wears a human face as a mask recalls Morrison's Orlando from 'The Invisibles'. Morrison's attempts to reconcile modern superheroism with its entirely goofy 50s predecessor also works unconvincingly in several moments, as when Batman picks up the hand-written name-card at his seat on the meeting table. I laughed, and it was not an ironic laugh by any means - the name cards are cheesy and stupid, and they have so little business being in an otherwise serious murder mystery that I couldn't help but giggle at their absurdity.

I can't help but wonder if Morrison and Williams could have made a better comic simply by reigning in their urge to reference so many disparate pulp sources. The scenes with Williams' Batman and Black Glove - especially the pages and panels that take the shape of a glove, which is fantastically dramatic and affecting - drip with a wonderful noir aesthetic that seems ideal for the retelling of a Christie-inspired murder tale. Conversely, his two-page splash depicting the murder of one of the Club of Heroes looks rushed and confused - there's also obviously an aesthetic reference being made, but it's beyond me - and is easily the ugliest J.H. Williams art I've seen in my entire life. Any book that manages to get so little out of the best artist working in superhero comics right now is in deep, deep trouble.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Indie film round-up: 'Once' and 'Away From Her'

My blog entries are usually long-winded and analytical, so I'll take an ever so brief break from that and just mention two incredibly touching films that I've seen in the past few weeks. Movies are so rarely affecting without resorting to tired and familiar conventions that it seems important to mention them.

The first is 'Once', which you might vaguely know as the Irish musical that stars two musicians with one previous film role between them. The back-story is charming enough in and of itself: a modest production with a $1.5 million budget, they lost their funding when Cillian Murphy - who was going to play the lead - dropped out. (Apparently because he didn't want to act opposite a teenager with no acting experience or sing in the high range that the songs demanded.) Putting together a new budget at one-tenth the original size, the director filled the role with the Glen Hansard - his friend and former band-mate, but also the singer who wrote the music. Explains the director, "Though I was initially thinking of using a good actor who could half sing, I quickly realized I should do it the other way around and get a good singer who could half act."

I could go on about the movie itself, I suppose - about the way in which Hansard and Irglova are often shot from a distance in crowded streets to make it seem as if we're passersby or voyeurs who have stumbled onto their awkward conversations, about how raw and immediate the music is, and mostly about how unbelievably complicated their lives and relationships are so as to make the expected 'happy' ending utterly impossible - but I think it's enough that I simply say that much. There's a cute, if initially confusing, scene about halfway through the film where the two take a scooter ride to the country and Hansard's character asks whether Irglova's is still in love with her husband, who she's separated from. She says something in Czech, smiles, and walks away. That sort of ambiguity, of feelings left unsaid or implicit, gives us a bit of credit as smart viewers - which is always a good thing, and is always more satisfying. (It turns out that she said precisely what we want to believe she said: 'No, I love you.')

The second film is 'Away From Her', which is, shockingly, Sarah Polley's feature-length directorial (and screenwriting) debut. I say shockingly, first of all, because I never would have though that anyone would choose a love story about Alzheimer's to launch their career as a director, much less that she would do it so beautifully. There are the sort of writing hiccups that you would expect of a first-timer - all of the bit players are a too self-conscious and intelligent, saying exactly what Gordon Pinsent's character needs to hear at exactly the right moment - but I honestly can't identify anything in the pacing or framing of the narrative that struck me as wrong. Julie Christie is incredible as the wife, blurring the line between playfulness and deception in those scenes where her character (seems to?) forget something or (pretends to?) surprise us with the recounting of a memory. She's so ridiculously regal and charismatic that we're sucked in when she's toys with Pinsent early in the film and want to believe, as he wants to, that she's continuing to play with him - even as when she's clearly no longer capable of it.

Christie's been getting all the rave reviews, it seems, but I also want to call attention to the much more subdued performance that Pinsent gives. He has much less to work with, given that his character seems to be stoic and repressed, a proud man who carries a lot of guilt and wants only to do right by his wife this last time, at least. And the lengths he'll go to in order to do so are both surprising and wholly, if not problematically, logical. Polley invests a lot of long shots on his face, and in capturing the distant but pained looks that fill his eyes - something about it recalls Richard Farnsworth in 'The Straight Story' for me. And the ending of the film? I'll simply say that it's inevitable but catches you off-guard nonetheless. It's a heart-wrenchingly ambivalent moment, somehow provoking a powerful response that isn't wholly sad or happy or identifiably anything at all, for that matter. It's so overwhelming that the particular emotional chord(s) it pulls at don't much matter.