Sunday, June 27, 2004

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho

First off, I’d like to thank Master Shake, Garfield the cat, Ariel the Little Mermaid, Robert Smith of the Cure and Lee Iacocca for filling in for me last week. They all stepped up to the plate and did a terrific job!

But I would like to point out that it’s not every day we get big-time celebrity guests to come and share their wisdom with this here blogosphere. You people need to show some appreciation for these fine upstanding citizens for sharing their hard-earned time with us.

We were going to have a telethon to raise money for you sense-of-humor impaired people but we realized that we would ultimately need too much money because no one seems to have a sense of humor anymore.

I mean, good Lord, I say anything that dares impugn the superhero, everyone gets all up in arms and talks about it for weeks. But try to spread laughter and joy to all the children of the world? Damned if I don’t hear crickets chirping.

Speaking of which, I was quite surprised to find myself enjoying the new Mike Millar Spider-Man book. Sure, it’s nothing really new but I think this book should serve as a nice rebuttal to anyone who sees Millar as a cynical craftsmen with no affection for these characters. He’s got a good handle on just about all the major players, and that’s no mean feat. It is a bit darker than I think most Spidey books should probably be, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still handled well: this is exactly how I think Spider-Man would act in such a dire situation. I wouldn’t give the book to an eight-year old Spidey fan who just saw the movie but it would probably be perfect for a 12-14 year old.

One problem, and I know I can’t be the first to notice this. Why does Spidey have any problem getting into Avengers Mansion? He has an ID card. He has his retinal scans on file with the Avengers’ computer. Hell, even if you forgot that he’s been an Avenger since the early 90’s, they covered this in last month’s issue of She-Hulk. Its not enough to make me dislike the book, because it is fun, but little things like that just rub me the wrong way.

Be sure to check out my new reviews posted at Popmatters – including my take on Uberzone’s excellent contribution to the Y4K series as well as Theo Parrish’s fantastic Parallel Dimensions album. If you like my review of Parallel Dimensions, please feel free to check out my Amazon link to the left of your screen . . . hey, it’s not like I get paid to do this, so I can’t afford shame.

Tomorrow we’ll continue our look at the first Drawn & Quarterly Showcase book, this time focusing on Kevin Huizenga’s superb contribution. Buh-bye!

Travels With Larry Part XII

Couscous Express

Will Eisner aside, there aren’t very many comics being made out there, in any genre, that have successfully attempted to communicate the cultural plight of the immigrant in America. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that most cartoonists are WASPs (with some Jews thrown in to the mix as well).

Couscous Express gets some points for trying to tackle these issues head on. However, I’m afraid to say that there’s not much else I can find to recommend this book.

The book details the adventures of Olive Yassin, a fast-food delivery girl in New York City, working for her parents’ award-winning middle-eastern restaurant. First, Olive is perhaps the least likeable protagonist since Leatherface in the first texas Chainsaw Massacre. I know that writer Brian Wood isn’t stupid, I realize he made a conscious decision to portray her as an irredeemable brat. But as with many things, there are two ways to make an unlikable protagonist viable in a your narrative: the way that works and the way that doesn’t. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. She’s a self-absorbed brat who complicates and endangers the lives of everyone around her.

The story is supposedly built around an arc of character growth on her part, but it’s an unconvincing transformation. At the end of the book, despite all the danger and destruction, all the main characters are essentially unscathed. Olive has had some bad times but the fact that everyone came out OK in the end serves only to reinforce the essentially solipsistic nature of her character. At the very end of the story she says she’s learned her lesson, but at no point does Wood actually show this. Just having her say she learned and grew is hardly enough. Show, don’t tell. People lie, and we have no reason to believe that Olive is any less of a bitch on the last page than on the first page.

Brett Weldele’s artwork doesn’t do much for me either. I can tell he majored in design, because his pages are full of cool design elements and trippy Photoshop effects. The one thing his pages lack, however, is the ability to tell a story clearly and succinctly. There are many times throughout, especially during longer action sequences, when the reader is basically left to their own devices in terms of following the narrative thrust. Perhaps the years will reveal Weldele as a rising star, but his work in Couscous Express is very, very raw.

Ultimately, Couscous Express failed for me on a very visceral level as a direct result of the casual violence and gun fetishism throughout the book. Maybe I’m a "square", but I don’t think guns are very fun. Guns are dangerous. A bullet can shatter an arm, a leg or a life. Every time a shot is fired, the potential exists to permanently damage or destroy someone’s life, as well as the lives of everyone they know and love.

Violence is a very real and very unpleasant part of life. I don’t like art that glorifies or fetishizes or in any way puts across the notion that violence is an acceptable solution. I can handle it in a superhero comic book or a horror movie, because they’re fantasy. I can handle it when used in satire (as in The Punisher) or realistically (The Wild Bunch springs to mind). But I don’t like action movies. I don’t like heroes who shoot first and ask questions later without any thought to the pain and havoc they wreak with every bullet. I don’t like these things portrayed in a straightforward and essentially uncritical manner. I don’t like seeing the lifestyle of the young and criminally inclined glorified in the manner that Couscous Express glorifies the group of violent criminals, the self-proclaimed "urban warriors" at its core. Where are the police? Why is there no acknowledgement of the fact that these people live lives of meaningless and inescapable violence?

The book ends with a figurative "happy ever after", on the assumption that simply because enough people have died the violence is over. But that’s not how it works. Violence begets violence begets violence. Our culture is awash in art that attempts to convince us that casual, sexualized violence is OK, when it’s not.

Art has no external moral prerogative, but it must remain true. Couscous Express reads incredibly false to me, the product of having seen too many bad action movies and maybe having lived one of those rare and privileged lives that is never darkened by brutal violence. As someone who has touched the barest perimeter of overwhelming violence, and felt the uncontrollably pain and suffering it inspires, I can’t help but find this book sorely lacking.

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