The Intermittent

Why Are You Still Here?

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

STARING AT THE OCEAN, STARING AT THE SEA

So, the conversation on fascism (on which you were all mercifully spared my thoughts) has started to morph into a conversation on Important Books, and how and why these are neglected critically by the blogoshere. I'm not really interested in this conversation, and frankly, I would have little to add to it even if I were; my knowledge of the canon is sadly and obviously lacking. But this new conversation does raise by implication one question that I am curious about: how is it determined what works are Important and what works are merely disposable entertainment?

In music, the criteria is simple to express though hard to pin down: music is important if it is cool. Coolness is largely though not exclusively a function of novelty and inversely related to popularity. Be both obscure and the first to do something, and you too can be a legend. Alternately, mental instability gets you bonus points, the Syd Barret/Daniel Johnston road to glory.

It's not so easy to determine what criteria count when evaluating a comics' bid for immortality. I can't say as I have discerned a pattern to the books that make up the canon (and saying that the pattern is that they are important or otherwise good is a rather circular way to attack the issue). So. What does determine whether a comic makes the canon or not? Authorial intention and ambition? Command of the craft? Superior narrative or artistic techniques? Having the right politics? Subject-matter? Importance to the field in a historical sense? Emotional impact on the critic? All the above, but only sometimes? Novelty?

Like I said, I'm curious what people who actually get to make the lists have to say. As for me? Great art--including great comic art--is art that makes me feel something more than mere satisfaction or appreciation. How about the rest of you?

(Having finished this, I see that Marc tossed out this very same question in the comments section of the post I linked to. Damn him and his atomic brain. Well, I'm not making two stops tonight, so this is the post. Sorry for the redundancy).
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Monday, June 21, 2004

BUT HOW LONG FOR THE POWER TO COME BACK ON?

Via Ken Lowery, Cecil Adams on zombies and the powergrid. It's good to know that, in these trying and duplicitious times, we can still get straight talk on the pressing issues of the day.

Adams, however, doesn't address the remainder of the issue: namely, how long will it take for the zombies to rot away to grue and nothingness, allowing the sheltered survivors to reclaim the post-apocalyptic wasteland, re-start the power plants, and start watching DVD's. What is the half life of a zombie, anyway?
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INSERT WITTY MADONNA REFERENCE HERE

So, I'm guessing that this is at best a backhanded compliment, at worst a condescending smear; I can't pick up enough of the context to be sure:

"Since 99 percent of the discussions are half-baked attempts at justifying a love of junk, it's all pretty harmless in the larger scheme of things."

Now, I'll be the first to admit that most of my work is likely not even one fifth baked. So, either way, no skin off my nose. But I am sort of interested in this statement, and what it implies about critics and criticism. If a critic isn't supposed to figure out why a work does what it does--inclusive of trying to figure out why a piece works on the critic in a certain way--there isn't much left for the critic to do, now is there? Or is the problem the application of the critical eye to
"junk"; because, again, I would imagine that trying to figure out why large numbers of people like "junk" as opposed to the Approved Art Du Jour is a valuable endeavor. Am I missing something here?

I'm probably reading more into George's statement than is really there; it wouldn't be the first time I've misread something. And to the extent he's talking only about bad (half-assed) criticism, fair enough. Bad writing is bad writing, whether done by amateurs or Important Critics of Note. (Or by me; Lord what a load of typos this post used to have).

Link via Sean Collins.
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Saturday, June 19, 2004

A BIG TENT, SMOTHERING

One of the things that always strikes me as odd about the indie/superhero spat is how it presumes that these types of books are totally fungible because both are comics; that is, that Luis Riel is an adequate replacement for Batman: Hush. This is a deeply wrong idea. Look at the two books above. One is a work of historical biography, one a work of pulp adventure. The only point of similarity is that both are told with words and pictures together; which is to say, each has as much similarity to each other as the Bible does to American Tabloid--after all, each tell a story using words. Or in other words, no real similarity at all exists between them, despite the fact that they can be grouped into some sort of general category together. So the follow up question becomes: to what extent are these things actually in competition with each other, except in the most general sense, or except as such competition is artificially created?
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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

THUMBNAIL REVIEWS

Quick takes on some of the comics I picked up today.

Ex Machina: Solid work, but it could be so much more. Hopefully it will be. The first issue is very heavy on the soap opera elements of local government: plucky reporters and bribes, oh my. This is frankly dull stuff, the kind of cliches we all expect. The more interesting government issues are more prosaic; the day to day spasm of electoral politics, the insane amount of work it takes to keep a machine as big as a city to keep running. The money in things like garbage trucks. This is where the real conflicts are. The real moral choices; and thus the real fun.

On the other hand, the last page is just stunningly audacious. I'm sticking around, hoping that the book is smart enough to really work the terrain.

Seaguy 2: Well, I sort of lost the plot with this one. Or rather, I'm starting to suspect that there is no real plot per se, only a series of set-pieces designed to impart some larger lesson. Go figure: a comic that is on the surface all shiny fun tropes at heart demands nothing but work from the reader. Decode these symbols to find the magic message, cause there is nothing else to see! Sure. But I had more fun hunting for the message of the Invisibles, hidden as it was in a shell of character and tight plotting. The scenery on the road to enlightenment was a lot more pleasant in that latter work.

True Story Swear to God TPB: Ordered on a whim, based on having the funds for it and having heard good things about it. And dammit if it isn't a nice little piece of work; breezy fun, but with a very human heart, or what sitcoms aspire to. And I mean this last as a compliment. More to come, since I've only just started in on it.

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Thursday, June 10, 2004

POUND FOR POUND, THERE IS NO MORE FIERCE CREATURE THAN AN ANGRY SHREW

No posting for a little bit, as I travel back to the frozen tundra (in this case, being played by some warm blacktop) for the annual three on three tournament. Enjoy yourselves, and pray for my jump shot.

UPDATE: Well. That didn't go so well. The message, as always, is that getting old is hell on your game; cf, in this respect Gary Payton. Does BALCO have a local branch?
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DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH?

Marc Singer makes this a throwaway point in his Bendis-bash, but it deserves a lot more attention: "A fully naturalistic dialogue would be so clotted with 'um's and 'uh's and pointless gropings for elusive meanings that I wouldn't want to read it."

Yes. And in fact, Marc doesn't make the point forcefully enough, so I will: there is no such thing as "realistic" dialogue. I've had the misfortune of reading thousands of pages of transcripts of people talking. Verbatim transcripts. It's an educational experience. It very quickly becomes apparent that people, even educated people, talk in a manner just this side of incoherent. We speak in incomplete sentences, in sentences that lack nouns, sometimes verbs. Pronouns are always indeterminate. There are weird pauses, excessive um's, ah's, and like's; odd repetitions and strange omissions. As compared to textbook English grammar, spoken English is an unholy mess.

(It's especially shocking to read a transcript of your own words. Thoughts that seemed at the time to be expressed in an elegant or cohesive fashion look on the page like the mumblings of someone with severe damage to the frontal lobes.)

I suppose it might be possible to recreate this mess in art; but it would be hard. If you think comics are decompressed now, they'd be seventeen times worse with "realistic" dialogue, as characters babble at each other. And even if possible, what would be the point? Realistic dialogue wouldn't be fun to read. It would be work to read, demanding that the reader keep track of obscure meanings and slug through superfluous words and interjections. What passes for "realistic" dialogue in art is thus instead an approximation of "realistic" dialogue; a construct to give the illusion of realism without sacrificing coherency. Which is a long way of saying, I suppose, that Bendis really shouldn't be critiqued for writing dialogue that isn't realistic; it's not, nor is it supposed to be, rendering the comparison rather moot (though one could still say that his mannerisms are irritating, granted).

Oh, and while I'm here making qualified defenses of Bendis, a quick tilt at this broadside. Very quick. Adam argues that Daredevil's kingpin activities really shouldn't be that big of a deal in a city that's seen Galactus; he then goes on toe complain that the Bendis' depiction of Hell's Kitchen is wrong. Why, it has a library in the real world--what's the big deal in Daredevil building a library? Dude, maybe Galactus stepped on the old one. I can't see how you at once complain that the story isn't true to both the real world and the Marvel Universe; pick one, please.

With respect to the rest of the piece...well, I'm waiting for the trade, so I've got nothing. Haven't read this issues. Check back in seven months for a well-argued rejoinder, as appropriate.
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Thursday, June 03, 2004

SETTING THE SCENE

Just wrapped David Rieff's Going to Miami. An interesting book, if dated; the South Florida I know is largely over the racial discontents that make up the bulk of Rieff's book. Or rather, people have moved on to warily eying each instead of taking verbal (and sometimes not so verbal) potshots at each other. Many of those who couldn't handle it have self-selected themselves out of the polity. I'm not enough of an optimist to say that South Florida is the best of all possible worlds, or that there are no race issues in play today; but still, 2004 is a long way from 1985.

Rieff does very accurately capture the surreality of Florida life; folks, Carl Hiassen isn't that far from the truth. The whole area feels impermanent, always in flux; half the residents are transients, the other half permanent exiles. The landscape is one good hurricane away from permanent change. Dead pigeons are daily cleaned from the courthouse steps, offerings to the gods to help resolve litigation. In 2001, there was serious talk that the shark attacks on the Atlantic coast were being carried out by a special cadre of Castro-trained attack sharks. Rieff is good at conveying just how jarring Florida really is; though sometimes, he forgets that the nominal subject of his book is Florida, not himself (for more thoughts on this problem see J.W. Hastings). In all though, a good book on a fascinating place. I find it odd that more writers don't take advantage of Florida as a setting, given how fascinating it really is.

For me, writing fiction (to the extent that what I play at can even by called writing fiction) begins with setting. While Matt Rossi sees images in his head, I see places. Setting can be just as much a driver of plot as character. For good examples, see two other books I recently finished: Tom Bradby's the Master of Rain, and Ian McEwan's The Innocent. Both are largely defined by their settings: the former, 1930's Shanghai, the latter, 1950's Berlin.

Brady's is better than average post-Ellroy crime thriller. His plot mechanics are competent enough; but what raises the book above the pack is his evocation of Shanghai between the wars. At that time, Shanghai was the most glamorous city in the world, as well as one of the most corrupt. Expatriate White Russians rubbed shoulders with Chinese warlords. British and American companies operated with impunity, literally creating special laws for themselves. Beggars rubbed shoulders with millionaires on the streets; Shanghai embodied every cliche of cyberpunk fiction, only for real and seventy years ago. It's a setting that just begs, begs to be used; used right, as Bradby does, it transforms the Master of Rain from a fairly standard noir into a very good read.

McEwan, in his book, uses Berlin almost as a replacement for a plot. Certainly, things happen in the book. But afterwords, reflecting on it, you realize that those things don't really add up to a plot, per se. It's a character study masquerading as a spy novel; which is okay, since McEwan writes in a way that makes the most mundane activities seem sinister (a trait he shares with Martin Amis--perhaps it's a British thing), and Berlin takes up the rest of the slack, supplying by inference weight and heft to ever character's actions. Berlin is the reason the characters act the way they do; and Berlin was at the time the espionage capitol of the world. By the transitive property, any action taking place in Berlin carried with it a whiff of espionage. This whiff creates the suggestion of a story where there really isn't one, at least not in the conventional five act sense.

Which is not to say that The Innocent is a bad novel. It isn't; it's in fact rather good. But it is to point out that a good setting properly used can cover up a number of weaknesses in a work. I'm thus somewhat surprised the more comics don't use their setting to more advantage. Think about it: what do we know of Metropolis? What sets it apart from anywhere else? What makes it special? Beats the hell out of me; as near as I can tell, Superman books could be set in New York or Boston or Star City without at all altering the nature of the story, and that's a shame. Worse, its a waste of potential.

Last note The Innocent: it contains a passage of almost hypnotic dread, as two people attempt to figure out how to dispose of a body (reminiscent of a similar problem in the Coen's Blood Simple), that is one of the most gripping things I've read in a while. It's a tremendously well done piece of writing, detailed and taught at the same time. I won't spoil the whys and whos for potential readers, but suffice it to say you'll know it when you read it.
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YOU'LL HAVE TO PRY MY EM-DASH FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS--UNDERSTAND?

You're on dangerous grounds, there, Mr. Collins (see the PPPS); if you start speaking ill of the semi-colon, I may have to start contemplating pre-emptive action.

UPDATE: Can't believe I forgot, but happy blogsday to Sean Collins! Along with Unqualified Offereings, Sean's was the blog that most inspired this effort; if the former is the blogfather, then Sean is...um, also very important. Can't think of any sort of useful metaphor, sorry. In any event, Sean continues to be a must read, and I wish him the best.
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CAT SHIT ONE, APE SHIT CRAZY

Via Shawn Fumo, an online preview of Apocalypse Meow, the manga that recasts the Vietnam War as a conflict between bunnies and cats. It looks to be a beautiful project; also, nuts. It's intensely surreal to see a straight retelling of that conflict with U.S. Marines being played by intense looking rabbits.

I sincerely hope I remembered to preorder this, like I intended to.
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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

WAY DOWN IN THE MUCKY MUCK

Thinking about The Filth, but not sure I'm ready to put anything at all coherent down; not that I ever am, mind.

Anyway. I think that The Filth is largely of a piece with The Invisibles. The latter was a suggestion that, metaphysically, everything is the same; that there is no differentiating between good and evil. The Filth I think applies this same impulse to the physical world, in essence implying that, irrespective of scale, all life is the same; as below, so above, with germs and people essentially the same. I gather that the point of this (and I always, always assume Morrison has a point beyond mere entertainment) is perhaps to suggest both that our mundane obsessions--love for our pets, say--are the product of a million tiny mysteries, and also that our mundane obsessions shape the larger world around us: if the world is made of germs, and we are all germs, then the world is merely the sum of us all.

Or something to that effect. More later, maybe.
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RALLY ROUND THE BLOG

Steven Grant takes some potshots at Jim Henley's argument that superhero comics can be "the literature of ethics." I think that Henley and Grant are talking at wildly different levels of abstraction. As I understood it, Henley's argument is that the superhero genre conventions allow creators to explore questions of ethics; a way to explore if great power really should entail great responsibility, and if so, to whom? The genre tropes can in fact aid in this project, allowing a story to address the issues without having to address or justify the messiness of the real world. If great power is a given, it doesn't have to be explained. But I didn't read Henley as saying that ALL superhero stories function in this manner (though they assuredly reveal something about the ethics of either the creators or the consumers), merely that they can.

Grant's objections, therefore, are not entirely persuasive. Grant argues that comics have done a poor job, historically, of explaining ethics. Fair enough, but not fatal to Jim's larger point, or so it seems to me. The mere fact that creators are often to lazy or stupid to use the tools given them doesn't mean that the tools themselves are flawed.
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