Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fear and Loathing on Naboo, Part Four



As I said, it's a mistake to read too much into Star Wars, but it's also important to recognize that more than almost any other piece of popular entertainment in recent memory, the films have been constructed with an eye towards carrying a strong subtext. Admittedly, it is ham-fisted and occasionally leaden, but it's there and it's honest, the end result of the films' nature as independent productions. You're never going to see a Spider-Man movie that ends on such a down note as Sith, with bodies everywhere and the heroes dead or defeated. They are still, at their core, adventure movies, but unique among the seemingly infinite big-budget extravaganzas that were spawned in its wake, it also presents a workable facsimile of intellectual context in the form of a willingness to show the audience something more than what they passively want to see in the full awareness that it may unsettle or intrigue them - a subtle distinction from the nostalgic stasis of the fanboy contingent, but definitely predicated on the notion that the films, with their occasionally irascible subtext, are fully Lucas' creations, as opposed to the populous masturbatory chaos of the "Expanded Universe" . In a civilization starved for content, the degree to which the ideas embodied by the Star Wars movies haved permeated the body politic is embarrassing, but, in all honesty, people could do a lot worse than to pay attention to the issues lying just underneath the surface of the prequel trilogy. Better than merely parroting the veiled theistic propaganda of "May the Force be With You" - if there is a Force, I'd rather it not be with me, thank you very much Jerry Falwell.

The ideas at the core of the original trilogy were mythical in nature -- the heroic quest for enlightenment, the Biblical concept of redemption, the success of righteousness through sublimation to a celestial ideal of piety. But the original movies erred in presenting these mythical ideas without any criticism or cultural dialectic either assumed or implied, an anti-rationalist "poison pill" that carried a generation of blissful moviegoers back to pre-Enlightenment modes of thought on the back of an undenialy enjoyable adventure tale. A perfect lullaby for the rock-ribbed conservative, with their urgent desire for paternalistic power structures to reinforce their seemingly contradictory lust for unfettered individualistic adventurism. The rise of the original Star Wars films coincides rather uncomfortably with the rise of the Evangelical right as a force to be reckoned with in American cultural politics, and while it would certainly take a concerted effort by a much more dedicated researcher than myself to decipher whether or not there is any causation to this correlation, it is an interesting observation nonetheless. (On a purely anecdotal level, I can say from experience that the original films are perennial favorites among the evangelicals of my acquaintance - definitely one reason I have been forced into frequent reappraisals of the films' quality. News flash: none of the Star Wars movies are that great to begin with, cut, print.)

Thankfully, the prequel trilogy offers a much more muscular and gratifying thematic perspective than the original films - even if, admittedly, the dedicated viewer has a lot more work ahead of them in terms of disentangling the thematic meat from the often incomprehensible and convoluted storytelling. The sources here are no longer ancient myth and oracular legend but history and literature, in particular the drama and politics of ancient Greece and Rome. The idea that power exerts an inexorably corrupting force is one of the oldest, but it is still sickeningly current - as is the fact that democratic instutiutions are inherently fragile and prone to the pernicious influence of demagoguery (this is something that both the Greeks and the Romans learned to their chagrin). The best intentions of good men blinded by pride can lead to tragedy - or haven't you read your Sophocles lately? Blind obediance to authority is no guarantee of righteousness. Even the best-laid political foundations can fall pray to Bonapartism when pressed by unforeseen circumstances.

Are the prequels better films than the originals? Well, that would be a difficult judgement to make on the grounds of subtext, given as subtext is only a small part of what goes into making such immensely (and often unnecessarily) complex movies. By that same token, it would be churlish of me to dismiss the original films simply because they implied a philosophy I found distasteful, considering that the retrograde philosophy is only a small part of what makes them so enduringly popular. But I would be extremely surprised if the prequels' reputations didn't improve as the years go by and more studied moviegoers can examine Lucas' achievement apart from the rather jaundiced perspective of the cultists.

The Star Wars movies are escapism, but they are escapism of a kind rarely seen anymore. Most popular entertainment barely registers any kind of intellectual or rhetorical pulse anymore, beyond a flatline of bare consumerist nihilism, authoritarian conservatism or - as is the case with the Matrix films - baffled incoherence. Certainly, Lucas is no Almadovar, or even a Tarantino - as a filmmaker he is a craftsman whose formalist tendencies would probably have been better suited to the silent era, with little feel for the vagueries of individual actors or the emotional complexity of technique above the level of pure spectacle. But still, he is an exquisite craftsman (if anything, the prequels suffer from a surfeit of craft, often to the detriment of clean storytelling), and the (tentative) conclusion of his magnum opus should give us all cause to reflect on just how rare it is to see such a dedication to occasionally clumsy, occasionally thought-provoking, but ultimately engrossing entertainment. At the very least, the prequels, with all their warts and bruises, seem sincere - and that's just too refreshing a sensation in modern moviegoing for me to easily overlook.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Fear and Loathing on Naboo, Part Three



I've been a Star Wars fan for almost as long as there has been a Star Wars to like, and yet I find myself strangely at odds with the majority of Star Wars fans for one simple reason: I really, really liked The Phantom Menace. I'm not going to say that it's my favorite of the films (I won't rule out the possibility), but in all seriousness, it's the one that I enjoy watching and re-watching the most.

The prequel trilogy benefits from the fact that all three films were conceived as a complete thematic unit a priori, and not merely ad hoc. There is more there for the interested viewer to latch onto. A great deal of the antipathy towards the prequel trilogy among fans may stem from the fact that the movies are far denser, in terms of both visual and thematic content, than any of their predecessors. This is understandable, considering that these early films carry the heavy burden of establishing context - building a world - for everything that follows. In doing so he has managed the sly trick of recontextualizing everything we thought we understood about Episodes IV-VI - revamping them without revoking them. To a group of fans who regard the original trilogy as "Holy" (their word, not mine), even the slightest recontextualization undoubtedly feels like a knife in the back.

As much as I love Star Wars, it has often been hard for me to defend the movies on the basis of their not-so-subtle ideological content, the exact same themes on which much of the excessive philosophizing has been built. At their core, the original three movies propose an almost Medieval value system, a world of blind animistic obeisance to unseen forces and unwavering commitment to spiritual asceticism. It's hard to rationalize this subtext in a post-Enlightenment world. Not surprisingly, Christian evangelicals have always responded strongly to coded messages of piety and submission in the films, despite the frequent Buddhist overtones that also sneak their way into Yoda's pronouncements.

To my mind, the single most significant and gratifying element of the prequel trilogy was the creation of the Midichlorians. The fans weeped and wailed that the Force had been reduced to such a literal and mechanistic plot device, but this one revelation totally redeemed the movies in my mind. Whereas before the films had portrayed the Force as a kind of universal "Holy Spirit", an invisible manifestion of the Godhead in the presence of the faithful (and wicked), the conception that the ability to tap into the Force is merely the function of microscopic parasites is ingenious. It irrevocably changed every facet of Star Wars mythology, adding layers of complexity where before there had been none.

The primary theme of the prequel trilogy is corruption. Power corrupts, almost inexorably. The Force is not a blessing, it is a blind and insensate power that scars all those who use it. Those who embrace the "Dark Side" - the villainous Sith who embrace the unrestricted license which the noble Jedi deny themselves - are corrupted by the use of the power, just as the Jedi are corrupted by their pride and the Draconian self-abnegating measures they institute to prevent the abuse of their power. I don't think it's a coincidence that the two most powerful characters in the Star Wars universe are also the two most wizened and bent - Yoda and (Emperor) Palpatine. The Force has used them, the Midichlorians operating as parasitic symbiotes to consume the host bodies. Sure, they may seem spry and athletic in the prequels, leaping and running and whirling through the pixelated air, but all their magical power also renders them strangely impotent. They are vulnerable to the pervasive doom of their destiny, fastened to the pre-Christian notion of "doom" as an irrevocable compact with fate. The more power you have, the less free you are. In the Star Wars universe, God is a powerful idea, but it is also, ultimately, chimerical - too potent for mere mortals to harness without being burnt and broken - a sobering idea for those Christian ideologues who embrace Lucas' stories as their own. In a wonderful bit of anti-theistic repudiation, Darth Vader was revealed to be a virgin birth - but not a child of divinity, but the product of ruthless genetic design, a vessel for power through untrammeled ambition.

This undoubtedly came as a harsh bromide to anyone who grew up with an image of the Jedi as kind and incorruptible symbols of chivalrous honor. But throughout the prequels, the Jedi were portrayed as arrogant, superstitious and tragically unyielding. Episode III states in no uncertain terms that the Jedi fail because they have become bloated and unfocused, with Yoda's once-insoluble wisdom rendered strangely soggy by the mad rush of tragedy. Throughout the course of these movies - some twenty years - we saw them unable to identify the "Phantom Menace" in their midst, unable to see the delicate machinations of their foes, unwilling to look past a blind obedience to prophecy in order to grasp the concrete nature of the very real dangers surrounding them. Of course, their prophecies would eventually be fulfilled, but only in the nasty way that most self-fulfilling prophecies have a way of coming to fruition: yes, Anakin would eventually bring "balance to the Force", but only after he's become Space Hitler and killed many billions of people.

Whenever prophecy rears it's ugly head in popular fiction, my eyes roll - there is no less modern an idea than predestination. The existence of free will is absolutely mandatory for any conception of individual determination in a liberal society. Thankfully, the notions of prophecy and predestination have been roundly debunked in the prequels, as the Jedi's dependence on superstition and hollow ritual to the expense of common sense play an enormous role in their downfall. The image of Yoda in Episodes V-VI has changed from wise and righteous to chastened and defeated - sadder but infinitely wiser. There is far more pathos - and much more dramatic potential, for those raised with the image of Yoda as the apogee of oracular greatness - in seeing a righteous man overcome by hubris than in seeing him fall through no fault of his own. It's the stuff of tragedy since the very beginning of drama, and it still resounds, even when the vehicle is a two-foot tall green Muppet. Even an eight year old, watching The Revenge of the Sith, should be able to tell that Yoda and his cohorts screwed up: infallibility is a myth.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Fear and Loathing on Naboo, Part Two



Whether or not Lucas takes his own movies too seriously is an open question, but it's interesting to contrast Lucas' career with that of the Wachowski Brothers, who crafted The Matrix and its ill-begotten sequels. Regardless of whatever kind of philosophical or mystical mumbo-jumbo may have been sitting on the wings, Lucas takes great care to make his movies, all his movies, wildly entertaining. The Wachowskis, after the release of the first Matrix film, were faced with the daunting challenge of crafting a movie trilogy which most were comparing - the second two films sight-unseen - to Star Wars. As everyone knows, they blew it. Not even the most hardened cyber-partisan could view the second two Matrix films as anything other than shambling messes punctuated by occasional bits of gorgeous imagery. (The fact that they were still quite successful - albeit nowhere near as successful as they would have been if they were any good - says a lot about the unrelenting mediocrity of moviemaking in the 21st century.)

The Lucas of 2005 knew the same thing that the Lucas of 1977 did, which is that at rock bottom you have to have an enjoyable film, or people just won't care. The Wachowskis put their cart before the horse by crafting a nonsense philosophical manifesto and then bolting a movie series around it. It's interesting to note that both Lucas and the Wachowskis fell into problems for similar reasons (although Lucas was able to extricate himself with far more equanimity): neither Star Wars or The Matrix were initially pitched as self-contained trilogies. Both were single movies that became trilogies by way of their unanticipated success. Lucas was able to think on his feet fairly well, but there are enough inconsistencies in tone and theme between the films of the initial trilogy that it's easy to imagine that A New Hope would have been a far different film if he had known he would be saddled with these characters and this universe for the next six years, let alone three decades and counting. (As it is, A New Hope seems to exist apart from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the latter two essentially one long story, whereas the first movie was complete in and of itself. Lucas would return to this structure in the prequel trilogy, with The Phantom Menace acting as a kind of self-contained prequel to the prequels.) Taking into account the numerous discrepancies between the later films and Lucas' own novelization of A New Hope, along with early artifacts such as Alan Dean Foster's Splinter Of The Mind's Eye and the regrettable 1979 Christmas special, it's easy to see that the "mythos" took a while to develop.

These inconsistencies in tone are almost entirely absent from the prequels. What few unfortunate moments there are occur seem to occur almost exclusively as a result of Lucas changing the shape of the movies to fit the preconceptions of the fan base who wanted the movies to be something other than what they were obviously designed to be. The fact that the origin of a minor character like Boba Fett featured so prominently in Episode II pointed to decisions made not necessarily for the health of the picture but to appease an unappeasable fanbase - could any uninterested observer, having seen the original films but nothing else, have reasonably predicted the prominent role Fett would play in Attack of the Clones? Also, the fact that Jar Jar Binks, despite his significance to the plot, plays a far less prominent role in the second film than the first, and is entirely absent from the third, implies that poisonous fan reaction took its toll on Lucas' better judgment. It's common knowledge that most people don't like Jar Jar, but writing out the character simply because he proved unpopular bespeaks a regrettable loss of nerve on Lucas' part. Perhaps I was the only one, but I was sorely disappointed to see Jar Jar missing in action in the second two episodes. (Hopefully the forthcoming television series will remedy this exclusion by showing us more of Jar Jar's adventures in the intervening years.)

In retrospect, the original films suffer for their tight focus on a small set of central characters -- an unfortunately aristocratic reaction to the challenges of filming a massively broad and essentially sui generis epic the likes of which no one had ever really attempted before. (The scale of world-building on display was unprecedented, and while many filmmakers would attempt to duplicate it in the years that followed, few would succeed.) Many of the emendations that Lucas has subsequently perpetrated on the original series have been conducted with the express purpose of pulling back the tight focus and inserting more of the truly cosmic scope that pervades the prequel trilogy. There is no way that Star Wars fans will probably ever warm to the "Special Editions", and in their defense there really isn't any reason they should have to. The original three movies are unique and special for many reasons both nostalgic and historical, and by tampering with them Lucas was admitting his dissatisfaction. He should allow the fans their memories of the original trilogy, while taking deserved pride in the fact that the prequel trilogy is the most perfect reflection of his ideas possible. (Whether or not those ideas are any good is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.)

With the creation of the prequel films - and regardless of their relative or perceived quality - Lucas has stepped into the ranks of the most exacting auteurs in the history of filmmaking. The fact that he enjoys practical and absolute authority over his productions, from every step of financing to the creation of the entirely digital environment in which his characters interact, might just make him the single most powerful filmmaker in the history of the medium - it's odd to imagine a hypothetical Hitchock in the age of pixels and CGI, but it's hard to argue that he wouldn't have embraced any techniques that would have maximalized his control over the finished film.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Fear and Loathing on Naboo, Part One



It goes without saying that some people are way too invested in Star Wars. Anyone who didn't understand this basic fact was probably a bit shocked by the massive worldwide phenomenon that was the first film in the prequel trilogy, 1999's The Phantom Menace. Although the hard and brittle core of Star Wars fandom is essentially the same crew that has always celebrated fantasy and science-fiction properties like Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, the cult of the Force has spread a bit wider that of than any other comparable nerd totem. Everyone who has ever loved Star Wars - and there were many millions of them - came out in force for The Phantom Menace.

And, as is also widely known, the vast majority of the hard-core recoiled in horror when they actually saw the movie. The reaction was far more extreme than anything Hollywood had ever seen before. Considering the shaky quality control of beloved franchises such as Star Trek, Batman and Superman, the true-blue fans had never reacted so harshly to a bad sequel. The hyperbolic refrain of "George Lucas has raped my childhood!" was heard and echoed across comic book shops, office water-coolers and internet chat-rooms across the globe. (But, of course, they still bought tickets and lined up in droves.)

Star Wars is just a movie. A good movie, a movie that may have done more harm than good to the business and art of moviemaking, a movie that may excel at evoking particularly fond childhood memories in the minds of many, a movie whose numerous charms far outweigh its few serious flaws - but still just a movie. I remain convinced that the vast majority of fans who deride Episodes I, II and III are all, at least to a degree, in thrall to exalted memories of the original trilogy in such a way that they simply could not rationally judge the new movies for what they were on their own merits. They would have been happy with nothing less than an exacting stylistic homage to Episodes IV through VI - essentially they wanted Han Solo and Chewbacca, and anything that deviated slightly from their impossibly high standards of nostalgic bliss was going to be doomed from the start. The endless reams of indulgent fan-fiction masquerading as novels, the video games, and the comics are dedicated to nothing more than perpetuating a blissful stasis wherein Star Wars remains a steadfast bulwark against any kind of dynamic change, leastwise the dynamic change that entails growing up and away from the fleeting childhood pleasures of familiar intellectual properties. Art and nostalgia are warring impulses, and for Star Wars to retain even its limited dignity as a work of art, the tendency towards nostalgic inertia must be actively suppressed.

The worst hypocrisy, to me, was the endless recitation of the new movies' objective flaws - as if the original Star Wars films didn't have more than their fair share of wooden acting, cutesy characters and contrived plot points. Chewbacca was a giant teddy bear, Yoda was a muppet, and R2D2 was seriously annoying - go back, watch the original movies, and tell me that you don't want to punch the droids in the face. I just can't get too upset over Jar Jar Binks.

The worst thing that ever happened to Star Wars was that the fans took it so damn seriously. On their face value, the movies are great fun, dazzling spectacle and melodrama with just enough thematic meat on its bones to fuel a thickly allusive but occasionally corny storyline. Certainly, Lucas' debt to Joseph Campbell's pop-mythography has been dissected to exhaustion, but it is a mistake to read the movies' debt to myth and legend as anything other than plain dramatic horse-sense. Almost all popular stories - or, at least, popular stories with any lasting resonance - have their roots in older traditions. Lucas knew how to tap into familiar myths (or, steal from public domain) in order to give his stories more of this kind of resonance, not to make any deep philosophical statements. There's nothing much new under the sun, as they say, and even if Star Wars was more bald-faced than most in its appropriations from myth, any stories with lasting power are going to carry echoes of the past.

Saturday, May 26, 2007



Previous Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

9

If women ever truly understood the nature of lust, they would lock their doors en masse and never pass their thresholds again. Lust is inescapable, it’s ubiquitous. It’s the cultural currency and we live in a masculine culture. Rape is the subliminal undertow that carries across every transaction in our lives.

I feel slightly bad leaving Connie in the proverbial lurch - as I know I am doing - but there’s nothing for it. She fell in love with me. I feel gratitude, slight affection, some friendship towards her . . . but no love. Certainly no lust. I envy those who feel love, I envy the feeling itself. Just to feel anything besides the constant white background noise of painful trembling fear would be a relief.

Perhaps that is love. I know that I envy Connie her assurance. I envy her and I also despise her. I despise her deeply and with every fiber of my being.

I rise with the sun and drive south. I have a few odds and ends in the car but mostly I’ve packed light, for reasons that will soon become obvious. I have a cassette in the tape deck that I recorded off the late-night campus radio, some DJ or another spinning fairly decent acid house with some Goa trance thrown in for good measure. It’s going to be a hot day, I can feel the sun just starting to tickle the skin on my neck through the window pane of the drivers’ side window.

There’s a recurring dream sensation from my childhood that I can’t seem to get out of my head. For some reason I’m grasping a balloon, holding onto it as it grows larger and larger. It grows until It overwhelms me and I feel it all across me body, pulsating like living tissue under my arms and hands. I can feel the muscles in my body recede with this until the feeling of weight and gravity grows distant and dim. My jaw moves like a marionette on strings. It’s a strange disconnect.

For some reason this recurring childhood hallucination has returned to me on this august morning. I’m grinding my teeth as the miles pass me by behind the windows of the car, I’m grinding my teeth to feel the mass of muscles and ligament come loose and unattached in my face. I feel liberated.

I set out on the freeway heading due south in the morning haze. I reach my first destination after about an hour of driving.

Although the town where I grew up is situated in a strange pocket of desert suspended between massive mountain ranges, the areas to the immediate north and south are composed of rugged hills. I get off the freeway next to a small town on the shores of a large lake. Everything is tight and winding, with roads hewn close to hillsides and strange houses built upon isolated hilltops.

I’ve driven through the area before, a few times, on leisure trips of one sort or another. There’s one place I know very well.

It’s a beautiful drive. The sun is just starting to settle in as I hit the thick green forest near the lake. Its an artificial lake, an eyesore reservoir built into a series of dammed canyons in order to provide water for farmers and municipalities further south in the state. Its easy to make out the shapes of the original canyons and gullies that marked this area originally, before the waters came.

There’s a side road somewhere on the east side of the lake, overlooking a tepid and forgotten tributary of the sprawling reservoir. There aren’t any houses overlooking the ravine. There aren’t any fishermen out on the stark rock outcroppings that stand for beaches. Over the side of the thin dirt road there’s an almost perpendicular fall down around one hundred feet of hard red clay with harsh rocks set against the waterline.

There was a guardrail along the side of the road, sometime a long time ago. There are a few wooden posts with rusted bolts still attached, but mostly the railing was demolished by time, by rust and drunken drivers. I park the car in the middle of the road and grab my duffel bag. Everything I need is here, my clothes and maps and notebooks.

I shift the car into neutral and turn the wheel towards the ravine. It’s a light car, a compact, and it pushes relatively easy. Before I know it the front wheels are over the cliff and the car is tumbling down the long face of the ravine.

It makes a God-damned noise when it hits the rocks at the water line. I half-expected the car to blow up, but I guess that only happens in movies. It just sat there, easing into the soft mud exposed by low tide and hissing softly in the morning air. Probably burst the radiator, undoubtedly popped the tires.

From the road, you’d have to be looking down to see the wreck juxtaposed against the rocks. No one comes along this way anyway. I imagine someone in a fishing boat will see it in a day or so, and then they’ll need a crane to pull it up and there’ll be an investigation. But by the time any of this happens I’ll be gone and they won’t know where I am, or if I’m even alive.

There are sinister forces at work in this world, forces that killed my father and engineered the tragedy at the World Trade Center. The evidence in my notebooks, the evidence that I have carefully compiled since my father’s tragic passing, makes me the most dangerous man in the world.

The only problem is that they’ll eventually figure out I’m not dead on account of the fact that my notebooks are missing. My notebooks and my maps, all that I have to prove the conspiracy, are safely tucked into my duffel bag. They’ll know this, and then they’ll come for me. Hopefully by then I’ll be ready.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

You Know You Want It

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

did you get to shake your ass to
the sounds of modern jazz and soul?




I think this is a great cover. It's funny. On it's own, in the context only of other comic book covers, there is absolutely nothing special or (pardon the pun) inflammatory here - super heroes are getting set on fire all the time, and I'm sure whichever of Captain America's fiendish foes is setting ol' Sam Wilson alight is gonna get a good pounding when all is said and done.

But to me the cover is funny because, well, it's further proof for many (myself included) that there is a tremendous disconnect between the faces of Marvel the multi-billion dollar publicly-traded firm and Marvel the niche comic book publisher. At some point all major corporations that deal in intellectual properties (as opposed to, say, news or commentary, which operate under different rules) make the conscious decision to moderate what is done with their intellectual properties, in such a way that the only risks taken with time-warn properties are calculated risks designed to offend as few people as possible. Offending people is bad because it risks offending the bottom line. Marvel and DC haven't reached this point yet. It's not that people aren't paying attention to the companies, merely that the kind of attention being payed isn't detrimental to the perceived value of the characters in question. But at some point this will inevitably happen: someone at Marvel and DC will wake up to the negative potential inherent in just such a screwball move as this cover, or a hyper-sexy Mary Jane statue, or Power Girl's strangely disproportionate boobs, or any number of other similar gaffes, and realize it is not in their best interest to put out anything with even the slightest potential to offend their audience. Because ultimately it's about money, and moneyed interests will always seek the most conservative course available.

But for now, the existence of these artifacts - tentacle porn and boobs and flaming black men - is really the best testament to comics' continued niche status. No one bothers to stop these things from hitting the stands because so few people are paying attention. The actual Spider-Man comics are considered such an a distant ancillary to Spider-Man Inc. that they can afford to publish books with Spider-Wang and statues of lusciously-rendered Spider-Bewbs. If they can get away with doing that for a character with one of the top two or three most successful franchises in film history, well, obviously the standards for Misty Knight and Power Girl are going to be a wee bit lower.

One of these days, however, the mainstream superhero folk are gonna get pulled kicking and screaming into the contemporary intellectual property landscape. Spider-Man will eventually join the ranks of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Yoda and Buffy Summers as valuable characters who really shouldn't be appearing in comic books without their trousers on (er, Bugs being the obvious exception). It's not like it's much of a sacrifice, when you think about it: it's essentially how these types characters have always been handled. These last few years have been rather odd in this respect, as comics have raced slightly ahead of already loosened societal standards in the pursuit of an ever-more-specialized demographic that doesn't really bat an eye at, um, questionable gender politics and occasional insensitivity towards minority groups. One of these days Marvel's going to hire an ombudsman, and their responsibility will be to ensure that the company doesn't ship comic books that have black people burning to death on cover. Not that, as I said, there's anything really offensive about the image (leastwise, not for anyone who knows anything about comics), just that there's always a chance of pissing people off. It's good business sense, and that alone makes it inevitable.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Because You Demanded It!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Announcing the Next Great Advancement
in the Science of Internet Tomfoolery


Friday, May 18, 2007

Friday Night Fights

Crak.







Previous Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

8


I retrieved my car from the parking garage and filled it with stuff. The rented trailer was big enough to handle all the boxes of my crap. I reached home late that night after a nerve-racking drive.

My mother pretended to be happy to see me. She helped me unload the trailer in the morning and drove with me down to the U-Haul center.

I mentioned in casual conversation that I was going to be leaving on a trip in a few weeks. She seemed nonplused. It was obvious to me that her reaction had been precisely calibrated to make me think that her feelings were hurt when in fact she didn’t care. She didn’t care and she didn’t want me to know that but she was out of luck as far as that was concerned.

After college the old hometown is invariably gray and pallid. I’m not going to say I was in love with college one way or another, but it does enable you to get your head out of the dirt. I am grateful to the university for giving me four years away from my life to prepare for my journeys and labors.

And I had a nice piece of paper on my wall certifying that I was an expert in the field of history, with a minor in mathematics. It was an odd mixture but it worked. I was already fielding offers from graduate programs across the country, but I sincerely doubted graduate school was in my future. I think I would like to be a teacher, if I live that long.

The worst part about being home is having to put up with my mom’s “boyfriend.” She says they met at the supermarket but I’m pretty sure that he’s her handler. Have I mentioned that while I was gone they took the opportunity to wire every length of the house? I’m certain that nothing I say or do in my mother’s house goes unnoticed by the men who killed my father. Ironically, given the fact that I’m under constant surveillance I think I’m fairly secure here. If they wanted me dead they could have killed me the moment I set foot inside my mother’s door, but as it is they want to watch me. They’re probably unsure how much I know and I’m damn well not going to tip them off.

The first day I was back we had a big dinner, with my mother’s boyfriend and Connie. He was pretending to be amicable for the sake of the ruse, which I at least appreciated in Connie’s presence.

He says he went to Stanford and I don’t have any reason to disbelieve him. He’s probably been instructed to tell me as much truth as he can get away with, so as to allay my fears. He tries to build some conversation from the fact that Stanford and my school are perennial rivals. I gave him a tepid response and he smirked. I told him I’d never attended the “Big Game” and he was vaguely disappointed.

Constance was overjoyed to see me. She had returned from her school a few weeks before me and had been very impatient for my return. She was as beautiful as ever. My mother was very eager to press the subject of our impending nuptials. As we ate I watched her hands, watched her engagement ring bouncing gaily in the bright light of the dining room chandelier. My mother had given me the money to buy it and I had bought a very nice ring. I just didn’t feel it.

But it was on her finger nevertheless. We had postponed the wedding long enough, my mother insisted, and now it was time for us to get down to the nitty-gritty in terms of planning. When were we planning on getting married? Where were we planning on living? Connie could conceivably get a job anywhere but my decision was the vital one, because I had yet to decide whether or not I wanted to attend graduate school.

Or at least this is what my mother thought. My goal was to string her along as long as I could without actually upsetting her plans, under the notion that this would be the best way to ensure my plans went unmolested.

So I let slip in the most casual way that I was planning on taking a trip at the end of the month. Constance was disappointed that I hadn’t thought to ask her along but she assented readily enough when I told her this would be the last delay before our wedding. It was time to relent. I said we would spend the next few weeks before my trip planning the wedding and then while I was gone Connie and our parents could focus on the planning.

I suspect that women are generally disappointed when men fail to share their interest and enthusiasm in wedding planning. At the least, I will say that if I had been planning on actually marrying Connie we would have eloped, far from the prying eyes and ears of my mother and her “boyfriend.” If I was actually her husband I would have to spend the rest of my life keeping Connie safe and secure from the forces that wish to harm me. In the long run, it’s better she have as little to do with me as possible.

It was in my interests to keep my itinerary as vague as possible. I mentioned possibly visiting my grandparents in the southwest. Most importantly I gave them to infer that this was merely the last fling of my boyhood, one last great adventure before being shackled to the "ol’ ball and chain". These were phrases which I think appealed to them on this issue, gave them reassurance that everything was above-boards.

These are the reassurances I had to proffer in order to buy my freedom. I dislike lying but what is left of my life but subterfuge?

So I spend the next few weeks in a fugue. Before I know it I’m looking at invitations and banquet halls and registering at department stores. Strangely, I think Connie herself is only halfway concerned with the wedding preparations. Perhaps she is merely going through the motions, trying to convince herself that this is what normal people, people with real parents and affectionate fianc├ęs, actually do. Again, I am stung by the reminder that she is very fragile. Undoubtedly in the end I will have hurt her, but it's best this way.

We make love and it is unsatisfying. She caresses and protects me but she is not stupid, she knows there is a reserve which hides those things that I do not share with her. I imagine she considers it her fault, and so sex becomes wilder and more primal, more desperate and pleading on her part. She believes that orgasm can bridge the gap.

There’s nothing I can do but wait these last days out. The summer is coming meekly across the mountains and I grow weary of pretense. Every night I check my notebooks where I have hidden them, in order to ensure it has not been stolen. It is safely hidden away where no one can find it.

At night I watch the blinking lights in the sky as the jets mark their passage through the night. I’m sitting in the backyard at our picnic table and drinking a beer. It’s very quiet and the night is just barely chilly.

I think I’m ready to leave.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sky Blue Sky



I'm just going to throw this one out to the peanut gallery: what the hell?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

This Amuses Me



Do you think the horses recognize themselves as members of the same species? I always wonder how it is that dogs can recognize other dogs even when they are radically different breeds. A dog can still tell a teacup poodle from a cat. Is it the same here? Or does the horse just not know what the fuck is going on, like if you woke up one day and saw a three-inch tall version of yourself sticking the middle finger at you?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007





Lone Racer
by Nicolas Mahler


I didn't know anything about Lone Racer, or Nicolas Mahler, before I opened up the book to read. Without any preconceived notions whatsoever, the first thing that really struck me about the book was the mood. At the risk of seeming flip, I was able to tell within just a few pages that this was not an American production; the execution and atmosphere was definitely European. Sure enough on the indicia page you find a credit that indicates the book was translated by Mark Nevins. Maybe I'd know more about Nicholas Mahler if I paid more assiduous attention to Bart Beaty's columns over at The Comics Reporter - in any event, I didn't and I don't, because reading about all the great comics being done in languages I don't read and which will probably never be translated is simply too depressing - not to mention aimless - a prospect.



But I can still be thankful that Lone Racer made it across the Atlantic. It's a small book, 92 pages of brisk story, but it carries itself with such a cheerfully mordant aplomb that it manages to communicate quite a bit with very little, as well as communicating some fairly complex emotions under cover of dry wit. I've got an image in my mind - probably unfair, no doubt grossly distorted - of what Lone Racer would have been if it had been tackled by a domestic creator. There's an ambiguity of tone here that just doesn't seem evident in the work of very many young American cartoonists. The subjects on display - aging, disappointment, deferred ambition - are not usually the province of the young, or, at least, not usually. So many of the books that cross my desk these days are by young or young-ish cartoonists whose essential ambition in terms of both their talent and their medium precludes the kind of warn-out, undemonstrative melancholy on display here. It feels lived-in.

The pictures themselves are about as understated as possible, expressionistic glyphs intended to relay withdrawn emotions on a minor-key scale. Although it's certainly only a vague impression (not intended to convey any comparative worth), Mahler's work brings to mind Matisse, in particular the way Matisse used simplified geometries and refined composition to counter Picasso's more explosive impulses.

The story itself isn't really much - an aging race car driver (no NASCAR, thanks, this is all about the old-school European Formula One) faces getting older and going nowhere with his life. His wife is hospitalized with some sort of chronic debilitating condition. He spends most of his time at the bar with a handful of similarly dissipated friends. He doesn't seem to be depressed - nothing nearly so dramatic. The fact is that he's lost his way, wandered into a state which a clinical therapist might more accurately describe as anhedonia. It's a story about small steps - not reigniting any kind of grand passion, but merely learning how to keep going forward, relishing the sensation of being alive and the small victories that naturally occur.



As much as the critic in me tries to qualify the statement, it's hard to get around the fact that I enjoyed this book a great deal. It's refreshing to encounter a small book that doesn't carry any kind of implicit ambitions above and beyond its limited scope - it's hard to fault Lone Racer in any way because it fulfils its mandate with such conscientious skill that you find, for once, nothing less than a sense of complete satisfaction upon reaching the end. It only takes about fifteen minutes to read - twenty if you linger - but it should stay with you for a good while after that.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Friday, May 11, 2007

Wednesday, May 09, 2007





Fox Bunny Funny
by Andy Hartzell


I must admit that I got the wrong initial impression of this book when it first arrived in the mail - I looked at the black and white animals acting in pantomime and the first thing that occurred to me was that Andy Hartzell must be quite enamored with the work of Jason. Well, after reading the book I'm no less convinced that Jason is an influence, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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Fox Bunny Funny is a wordless story - more a parable, really - which introduces us to a world wherein a race of anthropomorphic foxes prey on anthropomorphic rabbits. Fox culture is totally carnivorous, with the act of killing and eating of rabbits positioned at the center of their society. The rabbits live nearby, in similar cities and towns protected by an ostensible border, but as we see throughout the book these borders are often violated by raiding parties of rapacious foxes.

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The metaphor here is clear but also wide enough to inhabit a number of interpretations. The first that springs to mind is sexuality - with the meat-eating, predatory foxes representing hetero-normative behavior, enforcing societal pressure on "feminine" foxes who refuse to identify explicitly with the homicidal fox program. Later on in the story a young fox stumbles upon a tolerant mixed settlement with fox and bunny living in harmony (although it is not made clear what exactly the foxes are eating in these scenes). The revelation can't help but remind the reader of the typical "discovery" narratives for young homosexuals who first experience homosexual culture as distinct from parochial straight society - there's even an implication of trans-species surgical procedure.

I have to give Hartzell credit for designing a metaphor that resists any kind of easy identification on the part of the reader. As much as the story strongly suggests certain interpretations, there are enough disturbing and counter-intuitive implications throughout the story to add a large dose of ambiguity to any attempts at pat summarization - just what is up with the rabbit eating the foxes? How does interspecies cannibalism support the idea of peaceful coexistence? Hartzwell asks these questions directly throughout the story, and it's to his credit that he doesn't shirk from giving the reader more than they bargained for in terms of disturbing imagery.

It's a quiet work, but the pleasingly small-scale works well for the central conceit. If the book were any longer it'd be too long, but as it is the story lasts just long enough to deliver a satisfying punch without wearing out its welcome or taxing the central metaphor any more than it can bear. A nice piece of work.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

. . . Yeah.


Nothing quite like having your internet out for the better part of a week. Especially when you had been meaning to get a lot of work done over the weekend and you just spent your days sitting around with steam pouring out of your ears. And then it gets fixed... and breaks again, courtesy of a totally gratuitous twenty-second power outage on Sunday morning. Lovely!

I have voice over IP through Vonage, so when the internet goes out, my phone goes out too. And I don't own a cell-phone, so even just calling the cable company to bitch requires hoofing it to the pay phone on the corner. However did our ancestors get by with smoke signals and tin-can and string operations?




Has anyone heard Love of Diagrams? I can't decide which they are cribbing from more blatantly: the Pixies or Sleater-Kinney. You could make a case for either. Of course, neither are necessarily bad bands to crib from, and at least based on their initial Love of Diagrams EP, they do a good job of putting these influences to good use. But, man, this is pretty damn blatant all the same.




Thoughts on Spider-Man 3:

- My first thought upon seeing the movie was something to the effect that international capitalism as a system is entirely inimicable to the human imagination. I mean, you'd be hard pressed to find a bigger example of a global entertainment phenomenon than the Spider-Man films. It's impossible to watch a movie like this without thinking of just how much money has been spent to create these films and how much money is made in the consumption of these films and associated merchandise. And even with all that money they can't seem to write a script that holds water. I knew it before but it's a point that exists to be reiterated: movie people just aren't that bright. The smart people either leave the industry or move to the fringes, because you can't stay at the heart of that animal and still be considered smart by any means. The vested interests involved in a production like Spider-Man conspire to strangle all but the most vestigial wit and intelligence from the proceedings, and this dearth of imagination is passed on to the consumer. We as a society reap the benefits when the imaginations of the body politic are atrophied beyond the point of no return. It's a spiral of ever diminishing returns.

- I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Spider-Man we see in the movies is a criminal bowdlerization of the Spider-Man on the comics page. It doesn't really have anything to do with the surface qualities, which are actually pretty well approximated onscreen, but the real heart of the character. Where's the mordant wit that Lee and Ditko used so well? The slapstick of Spider-Man, ultimately the most light-hearted superhero, despite his melancholy secret identity? Spider-Man works best on the small-scale, with his adventures taken in the context of moralistic passion play or breathless soap opera - not grand, epic heroism. Circumstances exist to deflate both Peter Parker and Spider-Man's pretensions, and the movies, by placing Spider-Man in a solitary universe, miss this crucial point. There aren't many superheroes who really benefit from the concept of a shared universe as much as Spider-Man: in order to really appreciate Spider-Man, you have to be able to place Peter Parker in a context where he just really isn't that special, and he has to work hard for his place in the sun. In the comics, he's an outlaw in comparison to the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, he's nowhere near as powerful as the Hulk or Thor, he lacks the self-confidence of Captain America, the righteous mission of the X-Men, the ruthless efficiency of the Punisher or Ghost Rider. He's special because he's the most average of "super" heroes, and without at least the subtext of existing in a shared universe, that impetus is gone. If Spider-Man is the big guy on the block - as he is in the movie universe - it's hard to really get at the heart of a character insecure enough to try and join the Fantastic Four for a paycheck.

- I have to admit I didn't pay much attention to the criticism that Tobey McGuire couldn't act - it never really jumped out at me as a particular weakness of the films. Maybe I just blocked it from my memory? Because, wow, he was horrid in this movie. It doesn't help that he still looks like he's thirteen. He either has this stupid look on his face like he's drunk or, when he's trying to be "sad", he looks like he's about to pass gas.

- Sam Raimi is the most tirelessly generic filmmaker working today. He's certainly flexible, but his overarching lack of style comes across as merely utilitarian. Say what you will about the Lord of the Rings films - and I still believe they missed the mark by a country mile - Peter Jackson definitely used to the almost unprecedented opportunity to create a distinctive, uniquely epic style. He earned his Oscar, even if the movies themselves were nowhere near as good as the attention to craft that distinguished them. Raimi, on the other hand, is simply boring. He has no style other than simply telling his story in the most effective and unambiguous manner possible. This may seem like a compliment from a certain formalist point of view, but really, the movies lack anything even remotely resembling a coherent aesthetic. Add to this the overexposed primary colors which permeate every single shot, and you've got a franchise that goes out of its way to look like a video-game. Dreadful, and certainly a far cry from the German Expressionism of Ditko's run, Romita's street-level pop-art approach or even McFarlane's neo-Gothic grotesque exaggeration.

- The screenwriting is so ruthlessly schematic and utilitarian that watching a Spider-Man film makes me want to go scrub my brain with steel wool afterwards. There's plot-based storytelling, and then there's screenwriting as the manipulation of action figures, wherein every character exists only so much as they can propel the plot forward incrementally. Obviously a big-budget action film is not going to be a character-driven study in mood. But there's too much plot and too many characters for the amount of time we're given. The screenplay is so jerky that I practically got whiplash from trying to keep track of every plot thread, and spent half the film calculating the precise coordinates of the B, C and D plots. Not perhaps the wholly transporting effect the filmmakers were going for.

- Giving the Sandman a backstory totally undercuts the character. He's one of Ditko's best villains: a gruesome gimmick wrapped around a relentlessly anti-social archtype. Obviously, the movies deviated from any kind of adherance to the Lee / Ditko model a long time ago - the violence they perpetrated on Doctor Octopus should be the subject of criminal prosecution - but the Sandman, especially, is ruined by the attempts at empathy.

- The less said about the emendations to Spider-Man's origins the better.

- I can't be the only one who was thinking throughout the film that Mary Jane was really much less appealing a prospect than Gwen Stacy? The Gwen Stacy in the film seems almost exactly who Mary Jane's character was initially conceived as. It's hard not to be repulsed by Mary Jane's dishwater-tears-and-hairshirt attitude - the lack of chemistry between Mary Jane and Peter Parker can't help but leave the audience wondering just why the hell they stick together through all this crap. Because, honestly, neither of them seem to like each other very much other than the fact that he used to get a boner watching her undress next door.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

You Know What I Love?


When the cable company screws up and you lose your internet for almost four days. I love that so much.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Doctor Doom’s Mailbag

Doom takes pride in answering all of his personal correspondence.


Dear Doctor Doom,
Why you no answer your mail? I keep writing but I get no answer. I am planning on traveling in Eastern Europe and I am curious as to whether or not I will be able to procure a cheezeburger in the country of Latveria.

Your Pal,

H. Cat, Lolz


The demands of absolute monarchy are such that fine leisure pursuits, such as the answering of personal correspondence, must often be relegated to secondary or tertiary importance. This is especially true in our current era of geopolitical instability, as the attentions of Doom have been focused on the events of the Americans' so-called "Civil War". As the ephemeral balance of power shifts in the ostensibly Democratic Western powers, so too are the eyes of Doom perpetually fixed on the object of manipulating the chaos to his own purposes. The internecine warfare within the community of so-called "super heroes" has weakened ideological cohesion, sowing distrust and engendering hatred between allies who had once considered themselves close friends. In the context of such ruinous and divisive conflict, who will stand firm to oppose the advances of an implacable and ruthless foe? Any moderately clever antagonist could scatter the current Avengers like tenpins, to say nothing of the newest jury-rigged incarnation of the accursed Fantastic Four. It is enough to say that Doom suspects that, given enough time, his foes will only weaken themselves further; in enough time, Doom expects to face only token resistance to his inevitable conquest.

And no, you cannot have a cheeseburger.

Doctor Doom,
I know you're the smartest man on the planet, so I was wondering if you could explain the recent revelations regarding the Legion of Super-Heroes? I've been following the Legion for many years and even I'm a bit confused as to how current continuity is supposed to fit with what we've known before.

Thanks for your help,

T. Kem, Bismoll


Although Doom's brilliance knows no peer, even he must admit defeat in the face of current Legion continuity. It is obvious now that everything established in the years immediately following the Man of Steel revamp has been rendered null and void by recent revelations: Superman did not meet the Legion for the first time as an adult in Metropolis circa 1987 following Cosmic Boy's appearance in the Legends series; he did not travel to the 30th century to aide the Legion in their war against the Time Trapper and his ersatz Superboy; he did not encounter three different incarnations of the Legion during the "Time After Time" storyline. Apparently due to Superboy's deus ex machina punch, it is once again established lore that he first encountered them in his youth in Smallville (although the creators have scrupulously avoided mention his Superboy incarnation by name), and that the Legion he encountered was indeed the original Legion whose adventures were chronicled from the late 50s on through the early 90s. What, then of the second Legion, whose adventures were revealed in the wake of Zero Hour, and who had extensive contact with the 20th and 21st centuries, not least of which in the form of their involvement in the "Final Night" storyline as well as Bart Allen's very existence? And what then of the current Legion, who have also been connected with contemporary Earth by means of Supergirl's long visit to the 30th century, as well as Booster Gold's unexpected visit to the Dominator homeworld?

The complicated and contradictory provenance of these different futures is enough to make even the most fervent Legion fan blanch. How idiotic and self-defeating it all seems. Contrast that with the numerous alternate and mutually-contradictory futures in my own universe - the distopian "Days of Future Past", Killraven's Martian besotted apocalypse, the Guardians of the Galaxy, even the alternate 2099 wherein a future doppelganger of myself conquers America. How simple to resolve such discrepancies - it is enough merely to say that they are alternate futures, which may or may not come to pass. Even after the futures have been prevented from occurring by contemporary events, they still exist in the infinite multiverse.

But DC has been obsessed with the internal consistency of their futurescapes for so long that such a natural solution seems beyond their capacity. Everything is so literal-minded, with every universe officially labeled, and every future depicted in its turn as the only possible future . . . an approach that has caused inestimable confusion among fans. Anyone who cares enough to follow the Legion's adventures in the first place will have an intimate investment in just how these adventures fit in the grand metatextual scheme. To push aside these considerations is to misunderstand the appeal of the concept, and to pretend that such considerations are of little importance is to undermine their appeal for the books' core constituency.

So now we see DC stepping, belatedly, in the direction of a saner, more diverse and yet more consistent policy to their future, a landscape in which all extant versions of the Legion can happily coexist and, even, prosper. Perhaps it shall be revealed the one of the subsequent Legion revamps is in actuality the long-speculated Legion of Earth 2? If the ultimate consequence of this change in policy means a return to the original Legion in some capacity - optimally in the fertile post-Great Darkness, pre-Five Year Gap era, preferably an alternate timeline wherein the Dominator war never occurs - then the complicated maneuverings will have been ultimately worthwhile. I daresay that given all the bloviating among the chattering classes about just how disruptive the "Superboy's punch" theory of continuity repair has prompted, the return of the pre-Zero Hour Legion will have redeemed the entire stinking corpus of Infinite Crisis.

Dear Doom,
As the monarch of a small country, you are immune from legal challenge. However, I was wondering if you had advice for anyone who finds themselves stuck in intractable combat with an implacable foe in the legal realm. Unfortunately, siccing a horde of robots at our antagonist is not really an option in this instance.

G. Groth, Seattle


Although I have often found myself in conflict with the brutish Hulk, it is not a conflict I relish. Although I don't doubt that I can defeat the Hulk, antagonizing him is simply more trouble than it is worth. The time and effort required to bring down the Hulk could be spent in many more productive means, such as gardening or philately.

Doctor Doom,
I saw something on the Learning Channel, but I was wondering if you could comment further on the whole duck thing?

H. Duck, Cleveland


Ah yes, the ducks. Although it is usually not the policy of Latveria to air our internal affairs in public forums, the phenomenon of our carnivorous ducks was harmless enough that we allowed western zoologists access to the country's interior for research purposes - all in the name of good will and scientific reciprocity.

Through some unknown chain of events, the majority of ducks in Latveria - specifically our famed speckled ash "dingbat" mallard - became carnivorous. Despite the libelous reports of domestic fifth columnists, these ducks were not artificially altered as apart of some ill-conceived plan to trap the Fantastic Four. Perish the thought! More likely, these ducks were simply the product of innocent natural selection. Furthermore, the common assertions that these ducks have rampaged through the country's civilian population are simply not true. The ducks are mostly interested in small game, vermin and occasionally deer - although there have been reported instances of whole flocks acting in unison to take down individual wolves. Only a handful of humans have fallen prey to the ducks, mostly small children and the weakened elderly.

I tire of this endless barrage of idiocy.