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.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Elaborating on an old blog entry...

Outside internet billboards and message boards, it's rare - in fact, it's never happened - that I get to respond to someone's criticisms of something I've written. Well, I Google-searched myself a few days ago (admit it - you've done it too) and up popped a brief lambasting of my review of Houghton Mifflin's The Best American Comics 2006 by 'joey' at 'Graphic Novel Review'. I actually posted a reply, but the site hasn't been updated in over three months - so I'll post a reply of sorts on here, too.

I'm immediately suspicious when I see that my name is the first to pop up in an article that features a quote such as "too often, the [superhero] genre’s most passionate defenders are its greatest liability". I'm a fan of the genre insofar as I like the best that the superhero genre has to offer, but I read about one or two superhero comic books a month - a "passionate defender", I am not. (Admittedly, I'd read more if I could afford them. But I'd also read more indie/literary stuff if I could afford those, too - the last comic I bought was a Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, and even then I only picked it up because it was less than half price.)

joey goes on to complain about the way that I situate 'literary' comics historically - I claim that until they were able to make it into bookstores, indies and original graphic novels were largely dependent on the distribution, retail, and convention circuits of mainstream comics. (I should add, of course, that their creators and readers always admit to having started out reading superheroes or horror comics first.) joey writes that he doesn't see how such a history has "anything to do with whether or not this or that or the other story belongs in a 'best of' anthology". He calls it a "tangent", which is a shame because it means that he's missed the point. The history is relevant precisely because this edition chooses to mock that lineage. It doesn't just ignore the pulp comics - the superheroes, the bank-robbers, the wolfmen and zombies - that allowed for the founding of an alternative comics industry in the first place, but it actively spits on and kicks dirt all over them.

joey asks dryly: "Literary comics are supposed to drag superheroes along with them everywhere they go, for now and forever, just because … literary comics … um … owe this to superhero comics?" Certainly not. And had Pekar - the edition's editor - just left superheroes out altogether, I probably wouldn't have cared all that much. The fact is, though, that he did include two pseudo-superhero stories - each of which satirizes the form and displays a real venom on the part of the editors. It doesn't really anger me - I mean, the two strips are actually quite funny - but it saddens me just a bit. It's all too common in every field of art that the elite cement their standing, in part, by shitting all over what's popular. And granted, what's popular is often worthy of that treatment, yeah. But it's never entirely bad.

(Also: joey doesn't seem to get that reviewers write with an audience in mind, and that I wrote this particular review for comicboards.com. The place is populated almost exclusively by superhero fans, which is why the superhero discussion may also seem disproportionately long and central.)

joey does get me on a mixed metaphor that I deploy - I don't do all that much proof-reading of these things, I'll admit - but his further accusations of "reactionary posturing" strike me as wholly incorrect and just slightly ironic. (Also? I actually liked the book and said as much!) The beginning of his blog makes it clear that he has an agenda in mind - he's a taxonomist of sorts, looking to identify a particular species of rabid superhero fan who won't like this book - and has found what he's looking for in my review, whether the fuller text bears that out or not. (Note: It doesn't.) He finishes with his own mocking observation that "[neil] realizes, as he's writing" that the characters in, say, Love and Rockets are deeper than those in the X-Men. I wasted five years and two English degrees if I had never previously realized as much, but thanks for assuming the worst, joey. (And joey evidently wasted whatever education in critical reading skills that he received - it's rather clear that my point is a pedagogical one, and not some moment of epiphany.)

joey closes his discussion of my review by suggesting that mainstream superheroes are ultimately excluded from this collection because they "fall flat when read by people who aren’t immersed in the culture". This is true of most any artform, of course - but it's equally untrue of small parts of every genre, including superheroes. What joey ignores, of course, is precisely what Umberto Eco noted long ago: that the seeming shallowness of Superman or Batman isn't necessarily a weakness of the mainstream superhero. Rather, Eco argued, it's a relatively new variation on very old archetypes, a manifestation with cultural import that demands study. We're all immersed in Superman's culture, for better or worse.

Ultimately, the failing of joey's review is the same as the failing of the book that I initially reviewed - snide jokes and mockery make for a decent laugh in the moment, sure, but they don't expand our understanding of the form in any way. They even inhibit our ability to learn, as disregarding entire groups of text in this way constitutes a destructive gesture, one that's antithetical to the process of analysis and understanding to which we're all (ostensibly) oriented.

Which is all fine enough for a blog entry, I suppose - and so joey's off the hook for that part of it. (Not for the misreading part, mind you.) A blog is admittedly casual and can certainly spare the energy and time to criticize or deride to the exclusion of all else. But for a book titled 'the best...' to engage in the same games? Sorry, but I won't have any of that.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Evolving masculinities - Craig's Bond and Dench's M

One of the most interesting things about the most recent Bond film (Casino Royale, of course) is the way in which Bond's masculinity is radically refigured. I've meant to blog about this since I first saw the film, but with the library closed for the holiday, this seems like as good a time as ever.

In Female Masculinity, Judith Halberstam wrote a very clever section on the previous incarnations of Bond, all of whom required some supplement to their masculinity - like Q's devices or M's intelligence. Halberstam also notes - and this is particularly true of a film like Goldeneye - that Bond's female enemies (if not his friends) are often more conventionally masculine than he. In this light, Bond's much-ballyhooed sexual escapades are easily interpreted as a sort of ridiculous effort at over-compensation.

Daniel Craig's Bond seems like a different sort of character. This Bond is built like a pro wrestler and doesn't require laser pens or cuff-link grenades, sure; he's also rather adept at doing his own detective work, as he determines M's top-secret identity and is otherwise entirely competent at putting two-and-two together.

You've probably figured out by now, though, that there's a 'but' coming. More explicitly than ever, this is a Bond with an unformed and dangerous masculine practice. Initially, it's a destructive, libidinal sort that M attempts to reign in by foisting Vesper upon him; and when Vesper betrays him, it's a different kind of control that she exerts. When Bond admits that he doesn't trust anyone, M's (surprising? maybe it is, at first) reply is 'then you've learned your lesson'. It seems that Bond's destructive male power, so useful in pursuit of the bad guys, is just as likely to get him killed.

M's impositions - chastising Bond, saddling him with Vesper, failing to share their suspicion of Vesper's double-agent status - are aimed at maximizing the former and containing the latter. Or, more simply, at teaching him a sustainable practice of masculinity as only a wiser and more experienced woman could. Craig's Bond might seem more obviously the masculine ideal than past Bond's, but that's only because the mechanisms that ensure his masculinity have become much subtler.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants"...

Click on the title to read "Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants: Appropriation, Assimilation, and the X-Men", a paper I wrote a couple years ago and which was published in the International Journal of Comic Art 8.2 (Fall 2006), pages 387-405. It's unavailable through the IJOCA website, so I've uploaded it to Academia.edu. (I'm not sure whether that means you'll need an account to access it, though.)

Also, if you're going to read "Mutant Readers...", I'd like to suggest that you also read a brief follow-up piece from my brief-but-ongoing 'X-Men and Identity' series, which was inspired by Jason Powell's (accurate) observation that I had ignored parts (albeit small parts) of the X-Men's history that challenged my thesis. Just click here to read it. While I stand behind most of the original argument - the X-Men have not been an anti-oppressive force for most of their existence - it's unfair to ignore the moments where they have been. (I also link to some of Jason's own writing, which is worth checking out.) Those moments also provide an explanation of why the X-Men have been unable to live up to their stated goals and of the (often external) limits to superhero radicalism. It's a necessary addendum to the older paper, I think, so check it out.