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, clich├ęs 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?