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.)