Month: September 2003

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Soundtrack: The Verve Story, Disk One 1944-1953

Wow! I’m in a talkative mood today/tonight!

I ranted at length on “The Pop Culture Gadabout” on the subject of Singin’ In The Rain’s inferiority to Swing Time, Gold Diggers of 1933, and a few other films (RIP Donald, give Francis the Mule a hug for me!)

I engaged in some back and forth with Doc Nebula over whether it would be a good thing if scientists could settle this whole reincarnation question.

I tried to register over at Pulse:

http://www.comicon.com/cgi-bin/pulse.cgi?http%3A//www.comicon.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi%3Fubb%3Dget_topic%26f%3D39%26t%3D000046

(thanks for the reference NeilAlien!)

in order to get in on all the craziness going on there thanks to Michael David Thomas’s big thumbs down on Jordan Raphael & Tom Spurgeon’s Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book and Mr. Raphael’s subsequent childish replies… Unfortunately, Pulse wouldn’t let me register, because I don’t have a stylish-enough e-mail account… Oh well. By the way, I read the book (and loathed it) a couple of months ago, but more on that later…

Also, if Sean Collins had a comments thread, I would certainly have checked in there to applaud his humour piece, er, review of Jeph Loeb & Jim Lee’s Batman series Hush. Suffice it to say, Mr. Collins has an instinct for the jugular worthy of Edgar Allan Poe (and anyone who hasn’t read EAP’s evisceration of William Ellery Channing’s poetry is really missing out!)… Sean certainly doesn’t inspire me to want to return to my late-eighties habit of buying 70 reserve titles off the racks every month… To be fair, I never liked Batman, and the only issues I ever really actively looked for were the ones drawn by Gene Colan in the early eighties, and even those weren’t very interesting (just more of Doug Moench’s Moon Knight desires…)

And A.C. Douglas has added me (along with Forager) to his select Blogroll! Very classy A.C., maybe we can be friends after all…

Okay, now, without further ado: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Battle for the Soul of the Silver Age—My Twelve Cents’ Worth:

Whilst stickering new hard-covers at work tonight, I kept ruminating upon Geoff Klock’s book… After more consideration, I think I’ve isolated what I find most troublesome about it: when discussing the version of Silver Age that he claims Warren Ellis’s work would eventually supersede, Klock acts as if Stan Lee didn’t exist. To make matters worse, in my quick critique of the book, I pretty much treated King Kirby the same way. Of course, the Lee-Kirby war goes way back, and has only intensified since Jack’s death, but what I’m starting to see is that this is more than just a personal feud over the attribution of creator credits—it’s the fault-line of an enormously important interpretive divide.

On the one hand, we have Klock’s (Ellis’s) paradigm, which equates the Silver Age with Jack Kirby. And on the other we have those who, like me, believe that the most definitive contribution to the Silver Age was made by Stan Lee. People who hold the second opinion clearly (is there anyone besides me? please tell me there is!) would not see Planetary as the culmination of any tradition that they recognize. Reading Klock, you get the impression that he considers the main difference between the Silver and Golden ages to be merely the oft-mentioned fact that the super-powers go from being magic-based to science-based. Oh, maybe “characterization” sharpened up a bit, and continuity started to become important, but basically, according to Klock (and—unless I’m wrong, and please let me know if I am—Doc Nebula as well) Golden Age and Silver Age super-heroes are the same animal… And there’s a lot of truth in this—if you’re looking at DC. But, I submit that, at Marvel, there’s a lot more than that going on.

Now, Jack Kirby doesn’t change, from one era to the next—except in the fact that he kept getting better at doing what he had been doing since he created Captain America—i.e. depicting high-octane action though the use of highly stylized, almost cubistic renderings of powerful figures in motion against wildly imaginative, alien backdrops. Pure Kirby characters are always supremely competent human beings or Gods—either “justified” or Ancient, and often (to invoke Tammy Wynnette & the KLF) both…These are characters who always know where the action is, and what to do when they get there (it starts with an uppercut to Hitler’s jaw, and just keeps rollin’). Kirby’s people are strong, confident, and obsessed with the accoutrements of their power. If you want an idea of what I mean, here’s a vintage Kirby moment from 1958:

Green Arrow & Speedy hitch a ride on a giant arrow from “Dimension Zero” and find themselves stranded in that very same null zone. Of course, this is Green Arrow’s cue to think, “Will we ever get back? Will we ever see the arrowcave—or the arrowcar? Will we see those days again when kids flocked around us in department stores, asked for our autographs, and played with the Green Arrow toy arrow kit.” (Adventure Comics #253; reprinted in The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told, 62).

Clearly, the Green Arrow is one fucked up guy—he’s a HERO alright, and if you want to find latent fascism in his attitude, I’ll join you. On the other side of the sixties, Jack went back to doing this kind of character, in his 4th world stuff and his Eternals stuff, and his atrocious mid-seventies Captain America stint. Now, surely anyone can see that the FF, the X-Men, and Ant-Man et al are nothing like this (Thor seems to have been a sop to Kirby’s wonted mode, and, not surprisingly, Stan really went crazy with the self-parodying dialogue in that strip).

In my opinion, the major change (at least at Marvel) is that superheroes become stand-ins for the reader, instead of objects of worship, and this is Stan’s doing all the way (or, at least Stan & Steve Ditko’s). Ditko’s vision is very similar to Stan’s, although it’s a lot grimmer—this is not a writer vs. artist debate, it’s a conflict between two fundamentally different conceptions of the superhero. And it’s Kirby’s conception that needed Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s critique in the eighties, and has had its Id completely unleashed in the pages of The Authority. The Lee-Ditko formulation spawns a completely different tradition (although the two traditions often coexist between the covers of the same magazine, as in the FF, where Lee’s “spiritually conflicted” protagonists clash with Kirby’s godlike figures, or, in the case of Galactus, God himself, basically)—the one I intend to write my dissertation on–which, I believe culminates in the work of Mark Gruenwald (on Captain America) and Grant Morrison (on Animal Man).

I’ll explain what I mean by this cryptic pairing tomorrow. I’m awfully tired.

Good night friends!

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Soundtrack: The Minus 5—“Let The War Against Music Begin”

Well, I’m done with Klock’s book, and I’d like to do this right & give you a 500-word précis + critique, but alas, there is no time for such meticulous treatment (although the book merits it, I think…) That said, here’s my haphazard attack:

What is Klock’s thesis?

He does a nice job of summing it up himself—“. . . the third age of superheroes will establish itself by defeating the silver age. . . The strong writing [in Warren Ellis’s Planetary] here retroactively reconfigures [comics] history to set itself up as the inheritor of the new age of superheroes. Planetary and The Authority are the apex of the study addressed in this book not because every work cited culminates here, but because these works are strong enough to make it look that way” (Klock, 165).

So, Klock’s whiggish history of comics jumps from landmark to landmark on the way to Warren Ellis’s work, and I guess that’s a valid exercise, but his book makes no effort to get outside of Ellis’s paradigm of the tradition he is supposedly supplanting, and that’s not so great… The problem is that Ellis doesn’t defeat(when you’re discussing Bloomian criticism, you can’t get away from this kind of language) the authentic achievements of Marvel’s Silver Age. Klock may be correct in identifying Planetary and The Authority as the legitimate successors to the “self-conscious” late 80s/early 90s works that he privileges (Dark Knight, Watchmen, Marvels, Kingdom Come), but he makes no case for these books–which supposedly force all of us naïve silver age readers to reflect upon the reactionary politics, disturbing sexual undercurrents, and insanely convoluted continuity that grew out of the contradictions of a medium in which the protagonists faced the contemporary world every day (regardless of the decade) without ever aging—as offering anything more than a few possible interpretations of what the Silver Age was all about. There’s nothing definitive about the Miller/Moore critique of the “fascism” latent in the super-hero concept, and the idea that, until these two whiz kids showed up to do our hard thinking for us, we in the audience simply read super-heroes in a mode of transfixed awe is preposterous.

We aren’t meant to “look up to” Marvel’s protagonists! I don’t understand how anyone who read those comics (and Stan Lee’s prototype narratorial tone, which strikes me as extremely self-conscious) can make that argument. Spider-Man doesn’t “know best”—not even Mr. Fantastic does (outside of his area of expertise, which is scientific invention, not moral stewardship). The whole point of Marvel is that these “heroes” are always at war with themselves, a fact which should nip any possibility of hero-worship on the reader’s part in the bud… And about the continuity “difficulties”—well, I don’t see the problem, frankly. But then again, I don’t believe that real people develop any more than Marvel characters do—once we get to a certain point (maturity/”conversion”/the origin story), we just start having “experiences”, and they all just pile up on top of a pretty static psyche—things affect us, but they do not change us…

I think that Marvel Comics (along with stuff like Hammett and especially Chandler—in which the central characters never “develop” either) ought to be read as a sub-genre of the American romance tradition (as opposed to the novelistic/realist tradition—I’m not talking about “love stories” here!) Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the preface to The Blithedale Romance, explains pretty clearly what the strange, static half-enchanted, half-realistic world of his medium is useful for:

[My] whole treatment of this affair is altogether incidental to the main purpose of the Romance; nor [do I] put forward the slightest theory, or elicit a conclusion, favorable or otherwise, in respect to Socialism.

In short, [my] present concern with the Socialist community is merely to establish a theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures of [my] mind may play their phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events of real life. (BR, Norton critical edition, 1-2, italics mine)

As a latter-day, secular-minded Calvinist, Hawthorne is very much a precursor of Stan Lee (yes, Stan Lee is Jewish, but cultural transmission doesn’t go from parent-to-child—my job will be to show that it did go from Hawthorne to Lee, stay tuned! One thing is for sure– I certainly don’t have any Calvinists in my family tree, and I share Hawthorne’s preoccupations…). The danger of fascism never arises in Silver Age Marvel Comics because everything in these books is scaled down to the level of the individual psyche—the struggles are spiritual struggles, and they are convincingly portrayed. The most interesting thing about all of this is that the readers (those who wrote the letters anyway) at the time seemed to recognize this (as Miller and Moore et al. do not) and did the work of transposing the insights gleaned from the comics to the world stage—by equating super-powered self-consciousness with the struggle within the American mind itself, as the country nervously attempted to live up to its post-World War Two role as the “hope of the world”—thus bringing Perry Miller’s Errand Into the Wilderness full circle.

Now, if you want to argue, Louis Hartz style, that this distinctly American mode of existentialism prevents social critique of any kind and supports the status quo, that’s fine, but that’s another debate and it certainly cannot be made to fit with the charge that the comics seethe with latent fascism…

I have a lot more to say, and I’m sure it will all come out in the days to come, but for now—

good night friends!

Dave

(the preceding was typed last night, but there was a problem with my blog-manager, so here it is, at long last!)

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Soundtrack: Bikini Kill–“Reject All-American”

Good evening! I’m still reading Klock (had to work today—first Saturday in a long time… I hate deviations from my routine!!). As far as I can see, he’s not going to be any help to me, but I’m enjoying the book on its’ own terms (and it has gotten me thinking about trying to free up some cash to buy an ABC title or two, which is unusual for me… the last time I bought a comic off the rack was in 1991!) Tomorrow, I’ll check in with my considered opinion on the book as a whole…

Forager has read the book and has a completely different take on it from what I’ve offered so far:

http://www.forager23.com/archives/000142.html/

Now, moving on to Hitler… (Yes, you read me correctly.) I don’t like Hitler—do you? I’m sick of that motherfucker, and I’m sick of World War Two. Unfortunately, I never go more than a couple of days without being reminded of The Big One (and the Big Hun), because our “history” section is basically one big Hitler fest. When I’m at the cash, there’s no avoiding his megalomaniac gaze–he’s got every angle covered.

In Canada, there are only two big chain bookstores (Chapters & Indigo), and they’re both owned by the same person—so it’s no coincidence that both chains have banned Mein Kampf from their shelves. My store, however, has refused to give in to the temptation to censor the book, and, consequently, we have become known, in some circles, as “The Mein Kampf store”. And if you’re guessing that that’s not a good thing, you’re guessing correctly.

Now, I’m the last person to play the “political correctness game”, and I often take the line that the abandonment of old grievances by formerly oppressed people is the major challenge facing liberal democracies in our day and age. We all need to develop thicker skin. However, my “free speech at all costs” stance buckles at the knees every time a neo-Nazi comes into the store and smiles at me because we’ve got his (or her) drug of choice. Of course, many people read Hitler’s asinine book for scholarly purposes, and a large group read it because they like car accidents and they like “plumbing the dark side” or whatever. But then there are those who you just know are getting it for their little nephews in the hopes that someday someone at the big family Christmas Dinner will join them in a chorus of Holocaust denial… There’s no way out. We’ve got to sell it. But man, I don’t have to like it…

Good night friends!

Dave

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Soundtrack: Elvis Costello—“Brutal Youth”

Okay. Change of plans—I can’t talk long today, because I’m immersed in Geoff Klock’s How To Read Super-Hero Comics And Why, which I finally got hold of this afternoon. This is an important book (to me, at least), because there just aren’t many scholarly analyses of the super-hero genre (we’re getting more and more looks at the medium—which is great—but most of the critics are going after what used to be referred to “alternative” comics—which is, again, fine, but it doesn’t help me at all). I need other critics to bounce my ideas off of, because, in the academy, critical context is everything! I can’t just state what I think in a vacuum (and actually, I’m just enough of a wanker for historiography that I wouldn’t want to do it that way!!) I’ll be done the book by Sunday night, at the latest, and I’ll give a full report on it then (I imagine some of you out there have already read it, and I will certainly welcome any criticism of my criticisms of Klock’s criticism—I told ya I love this stuff!)

Just based on the introduction though, I’ve got a few preliminary remarks:


  1. I love the way Klock distances himself from the super-hero scholarship that preceded his book. He laments that what little attention the genre has received has been really unhelpful. Most of these works take a “cultural studies” approach, looking at pop culture as “artifacts” and social indices, never dreaming of making a claim for these things as “art” (presumably, A.C. Douglas would find this type of criticism acceptable…) And on the other hand, we have Richard Reynolds’s Super-Heroes A Modern Mythology, which mindlessly shoves the square-pegs of the super-hero tradition into the round holes of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With A Thousand Faces”-all-stories-are-myths-and-all-myths-are-funadamentally-the-same theory. I hate Joseph Campbell, and I hate Richard Reynolds’ book (which I read a few years ago) with a passion. I know these people have their defenders (a good friend of mine is a devotee of the Campbell/Jung school—not surprisingly, he doesn’t read fiction—why would you bother when all stories are the same?), but I was happy to see that Klock’s methodology owed nothing to either of these.
  2. Instead, Klock proposes to do “something like a literary analysis” of the super-hero genre, using certain “key texts”. Unfortunately (again, only for me), the texts he chooses (Darknight Returns and Watchmen preeminently, followed by nineties stuff like Marvels, Astro City, Kingdom Come, and Planetary) are things I was either never that thrilled about, or (in the case of some of the most recent items) just haven’t read. The problem stems from Klock’s hard-core Bloomianism. Harold Bloom’s major contribution to literary criticism is his notion of the Anxiety of Influence, and, while I’ve enjoyed some of Bloom’s work (and, notably, wrote one term-paper with the idea of setting fire to his entire map of the American poetic landscape because its’ glaring deficiencies made it unable to situate Frank O’Hara in his rightful place!) Writing, for Bloom, is about “strong misprision”—which we can translate as: “willfully redirected tradition”. And the will (basically the strain) has got to show! So Klock ignores people like Englehart and Gruenwald—each of whom certainly re-envisioned Jack Kirby’s Cap—simply because they don’t do it with enough Bloom(in’) bravado! Oh well, you can certainly understand why Bloomian critics would become fascinated by modern comics, with their endless ego-fuelled “retcons” and “reboots”.
  3. That said, I’m prepared to enjoy the whole thing with a grain of salt. At the very least, it’s intelligent, if overly reverent of Miller’s Dark Knight (and he compares Miller’s initial DD run to Hammett! sacrilege!!! personally, the only thing of Miller’s I’ve ever liked is his “Born Again” storyline in DD #228-233, I know Doc Nebula agrees with me on that…anyone else?)—and devoid of jargon.
  4. Sadly, Klock makes no mention of letters pages (but I guess that’s good, this can be my niche—ya gotta have a niche!!), nor does he discuss Antinomianism or any other species of Protestant doctrine (but then, he’s not an Americanist, and he hasn’t been obsessing on Calvinist theology for years, so I’ll forgive him).

Okay! There will be more details and less posturing when I’m done the book…

Good night friends!

Dave

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Soundtrack: The Breeders—“Pod”

Went to visit my mom today (Thursday)—it’s her birthday right now (Friday). I was overjoyed to see that she seems to be doing quite well (she had a by-pass recently, and, with all my comprehensive-exam related scurrying, I’ve been unable to see her as much as I would have liked…) We had some fine old debates:

–about the relative merits of the CFL and the NFL (my mom’s a Canadian patriot; I think the CFL’s a joke—the players are NFL-rejects, the three-down rule eliminates a lot of strategic short-yardage plays [aficionados of the league will tell you that this makes the games more exciting, and what they mean by that is that it makes it more like hockey, which I loathe], and, most importantly, the CFL, until a few years ago, consisted of eight teams, two of which were called the “Roughriders”!!! How the Hell can you take that seriously, even if they finally forced the Ottawa team to rechristen themselves the “Renegades”?)

–about the future of socialism in the West—my mom still thinks the working-class is on the verge of attaining class-consciousness. Well, maybe, but I don’t think there is a working-class in the West anymore…

–about that old chestnut “free will vs. necessity”. I’m getting more and more convinced that the only thing we are free to choose is whether or not we accept what happens to us. Predictably, she took the opposite point of view…

As she put it: we are an argumentative clan, and it was good to get back into that mode.

It was also good to see the beasts at the ancestral home—Zeus (the schnauzer/chow), the cats (Marbles & Rover), and a whole flock of Blue Jays. On the other hand, my little brother (Matt) was out the entire night, chillin’ in the park or the mall or something. Ah, Suburbia…

Anyway, I know I said I was going to do a lot more marvel/puritan stuff tonight, but I’m really hoping to finish Leon Chai’s book tonight, and I don’t want to start throwing all kinds of terms at people that I don’t have time to define properly. For the moment, I’ll just set up the “visible”/”invisible” saints binary.

So:

According to a consensus of 17th century Puritan Divines, “invisible” sainthood was perceivable only by God. And by sainthood, I mean “election”, not the kind that is bestowed posthumously by a group of Cardinals poring over dubious accounts of “miracles”. The “Elect” are, quite simply, the souls chosen by God, before the world began, to join the Heavenly choir, when the time comes. There are only supposed to be about 144 000 of these, so it’s a pretty select club… All of that is beside the point, from the vantage of worldly community-builders. For them, “visible sainthood” would have to be good enough. You get to be a visible saint by experiencing “conversion” (that is, claiming to receive grace) and convincing the public that you weren’t hallucinating. No orthodox Puritan would claim to be able to say for sure if your experience was real—which is why humans can’t see “invisible saints”… Profoundly skeptical (& practical) people, those Puritans—you gotta love ‘em! And then you have the Antinomian fringe (back in this column to bedevil us all), whose whole rebellion consists in blurring the boundary between visible/invisible sainthood (because even you yourself cannot tell if you really are saved, and if you start to feel as sure of it as God is supposed to be, you know you’re in trouble!)

Anyway, in the Universe that Stan, Jack, and Steve built, it’s pretty clear who the “Visible Saints” are—because they’re all wearing spandex (if origin stories are equated with “conversion” and super-powers are equated with “Grace”) —but it’s pretty significant that almost all of them have secret identities. Certainly, Peter Parker’s “conversion” fails to bring him “pillar of the community” status, which is what “visible sainthood” is supposed to be about. The FF, on the other hand, disclose their experiences to the world almost immediately, and set themselves up at the Baxter building to keep watch over the flock, which is sound orthodox procedure… So you can make an argument that, when Spider-Man swings through Marvel New York (manifesting evidence of grace, without revealing himself publicly), the man in the street is actually witnessing the passage of an “invisible saint” (maybe this is what Kurt Busiek was trying to get at in his—over-rated, I think—Marvels)..

I’ll keep at this, and tomorrow I’ll bring letters!

Good night friends

Dave

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Soundtrack: Bobby Fuller—“El Paso Rock, Volume One”

 

Well. It’s official. I’m a Master of English Literature… That–as they say–plus a quarter will get you…well, to within about ten minutes’ worth of earnest begging away from a good espresso. Or, as Bill Murray remarks to Scarlett Johansson’s recent philosophy grad (in Lost in Translation): “There’s some bucks in that hunh?” In my case, a Bachelor’s in American History + this recent piece of paper add up to $7.61 (Canadian)/ hour…

 

I’m not complaining mind you. Whenever I get cash windfalls, I spend profligately, but I’ve never had a big problem with living off of oatmeal and coin rolls. Despite never even sniffing the poverty line (no, that’s not a reference to cheapjack cocaine), I can’t honestly say I’ve ever suffered at all (unless you count the winter of ’94-’95, when my apartment had no heat, but even that was kind of fun, at least in retrospect), and I’ve never failed to provide for my feline dependents… Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t have any basic quarrel with a competition-based society (as long as there are safeguards in place to ensure that no one actually starves or goes without medical attention). The way I see it—if you want to go out drinking every night, or take big trips, work for it. Personally, I wouldn’t do it. I compute every expenditure in terms of how many hours I have to work to finance it, and there just aren’t many things that pass that particular test. One thing’s for sure—in a more “just” society, I’d have to work a lot harder than I do. If people want to work seventy hours a week, I say leave ’em to it! And if you need big money and/or big status as a reward for your metaphysical inquiries, maybe you should abandon them…

 

Tonight we watched Possessed (1931), an interesting “fallen-woman” melodrama with Joan Crawford & Clark Gable that, refreshingly, doesn’t end in the woman’s suicide. Crawford is pretty great in the movie actually. I’ve been warming to her thirties performances lately. I used to find her clipped delivery and pop-eyed intensity too disconcerting outside of film noir, but if you look closely enough, there’s some real wit, even playfulness, behind the façade (and I kind of like that she never smiles!). Gable turns in a pretty stodgy performance: he’s a couple of years away here from being liberated by Capra’s direction in It Happened One Nigh(1934)—best way to observe the difference is to contrast the byplay between the two stars in this movie with the much livelier dynamic they enjoy in Forsaking All Others (1934) (and if it turns out that FAO was filmed before the Capra movie, then I guess I look like a fool, but you take your chances! I’m not gonna look it up, I’ve only got a couple of minutes left!). So this is Crawford’s show all the way, and it’s great! There’s an almost surreal scene near the beginning where she’s walking home from work at the “paper box factory” and observes various passengers through the windows of a luxury Pullman car as if each high-gloss scene were an MGM movie on a screen.

 

I’m reading Leon Chai’s Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy—it’s very good so far, uses Edwards’s thought (the greatest that the Calvinist tradition has produced) to provide some insight into the Enlightenment rage for epistemology (the study of how the mind acquires knowledge). Chai tries to understand why people like Locke and Malebranche were so hell-bent on proving that the external world “really” exists, and what the western philosophic tradition lost when Kant & Hegel turned in their respective obituaries of that quest…

 

tomorrow, I’ll be getting to some thoughts on “Visible”/”Invisible” Saints and secret identities + (if there’s time) genetic mutation & the “Half-Way Covenant”. This is all stuff that’s swirling through my brain as I attempt to settle on a finished version of my grant proposal (which a professor advised me today I’d “better get cracking on!”) And there’ll be more silver age letters!!

 

Good night friends!

Dave

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Soundtrack: A Napster/ Morpheus rave-up I compiled a while ago—it features a number of tracks by Peter Parker (the band, not the guy), live Ramones, the Muffs, Cadallaca, Subbluecollar, live Fastbacks, a colloborative effort by Joan Jett & Bikini Kill, & two versions of Kim Deal’s supreme triumph—“Full On Idle”

Okay, I really have to try to keep this short tonight, because I’m playing Bridge in the morning!

We saw Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation tonight, and I’ll tell ya—it was brilliant! A worthy addition to the great tradition of anti-“empowerment” films that begins with Frank Capra’s work (epitomized by It’s A Wonderful Life). Personally, I think our culture needs as many doses of this philosophy as artists who share the worldview are willing to produce, because the “Stella Gets Her Groove Back” school of writing/filmmaking/you-name-the-artform is in the ascendant! We’re so obsessed with freeing ourselves from worldly constraints these days that it seems we’ve lost sight of the idea that you only truly get outside your “discursive system” (i.e. “reality”) by dying. Honest works of this type—such as Chopin’s The Awakening and Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, at least don’t attempt to camouflage this crucial fact, but they’re still “empowerment fantasies” and I really dislike them.

I don’t want to go into Lost in Translation in too much detail, because I imagine most of you haven’t seen it yet, and I think all of you should! Suffice it to say, Bill Murray is incredible, and Scarlett Johansson is, if anything, even better—and together they create some of the most expressive dead-pan love-scenes I’ve ever witnessed on film… More than anything, this movie is about why we need other people—and it’s not to fulfill our desires. It’s to remind us that desire is, by definition, unquenchable, and, in fact, untranslatable. And that’s not a bad thing. Think about it—there are a lot of ways to fulfill oneself sexually without the aid of other people, but there’s no way to recreate the feeling that is triggered by proximity to a person that you find overwhelmingly attractive, but who, for whatever reason, is sexually unavailable. If you make sure to breathe in the gusts of possibility in these ghost-moments, and resist dragging undead intuitions into the world of social relationships (where they take on a monstrous cast), then you’re in for one hell of a great life… My favourite scene? (Without giving away the context and destroying your enjoyment of the film) The moment when Charlotte steps into the elevator and is replaced onscreen (at a strange angle) by mirrored sliding doors…

good night friends!

Dave

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Soundtrack: Bikini Kill—“The Singles”

Short post tonight! Been perusing the Journal of Popular Culture (through my university’s ProQuest hookup) all night—and all I can say is, there’s a lot of pointless research going on. No wonder people like A.C. Douglas get annoyed with our society! I mean, I’m as obsessed with my pets as a person can possibly be, but did we really need a thing like Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence’s “Feline fortunes: Contrasting views of cats in popular culture” (JOPC, Winter 2003)? The point of the article (which is mostly just an encyclopedia-style account of changing attitudes toward the cat from Ancient Egypt to the present) seems to be this:


Speculation about the causes of the cat’s current popularity in American society includes “changes in life style”-both spouses work and there is “crowded housing” (Dunlop and Williams 615). Cats are more easily maintained as pets because they sleep a great deal, use litter boxes, and do not have to be walked like dogs. But I assert that beyond these superficial factors lie deeper motivations for owning cats that are related to the image of the cat in society. Acceptance and valuation of the cat’s observable and perceived traits, as they are interpreted through the lens of a particular ideology, ultimately determine whether cats become cherished pets or detested enemies in a certain cultural context.

Earlier on, we got this startling bit of info:


In the human mind, cats frequently have a feminine image. Undoubtedly that concept influenced the formerly maledominated veterinary profession, with its traditional macho attitudes, to devalue cats. When I was in veterinary school, women students were totally unwelcome, but if, grudgingly, there was going to be an appropriate job for them at all in the profession, then it might as well be treating cats, which the men disdained (Lawrence, Anthrozoos 162). Gender discrimination and speciesism were correlated.

This is a published article? Why? What could have impelled this person to do this? Clearly, the desire to publish an article predominated over all other considerations…

And how about Samantha Barbas’ brilliant “I’ll take chop suey”: Restaurants as agents of culinary and cultural change” (JOPC, Spring 2003), which begins with platitudinous remarks about how people like to gather at restaurants, and builds toward this:


What this case study of Chinese restaurants and Chinese American food may suggest is that culinary preferences do not always correlate with racial and social attitudes-that cultural minorities, for example, may seem far less threatening to dominant social groups when placed in the context of food and dining. For that reason, restaurants, particularly ethnic restaurants, may be more interesting and lively sites of cross-cultural exchange and interaction than scholars have traditionally assumed. Notably, Harvey Levenstein has written that Italian American restaurateurs initiated boundary-crossing in the 1920s and 30s Italian restaurants were largely responsible for the popularity of pasta and pizza among mainstream American consumers-and historian Donna Gabaccia, in We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans, has suggested that Jewish and Mexican American restaurants may have sparked similar patterns of culinary transmission and exchange. What is needed in the fields of American studies and American culinary history are more case studies and explorations into the ways that particular foods and restaurants have facilitated cultural and dietary diversification, transforming how we cook, what we eat, and ultimately, who we are.

How are we supposed to respond to this? Clap politely, mumbling “good… good”? I could go on, but I won’t.

Now, you may ask: how can this guy run other people down when he’s planning a dissertation on “Marvel Comics and the Puritan Legacy in America”? Well, I’ll tell ya—at least I’ll be making huge, controversial claims about the society we live in—such as: the kind of theological debates that blazed through colonial New England have persisted into the Post-Puritan era, under new guises and altered as America’s role in the world has changed. Unquestionably, the most important of those changes occurred after World War Two, when a formerly overwhelmingly isolationist society was thrust into a position of global dominance. As they say—“with great power comes great responsibility”—and the comic books produced by Marvel during the era of the Vietnam conflict (and increasingly, the letters pages reprinted therein) offer perhaps the most naked insight into this new outbreak of doctrinal warfare within the Mind of America. (okay, so no one should be convinced by a few hastily-written sentences like those, but you’ve gotta admit, there’s some meat there! And when this thing is done, complete with coherent reasoning from one point to the next and footnotes galore, you’ll at least want to read it, right? Well, that’s what I’m hoping, anyway… But I guess I won’t try and shop this to people at the JOPC. I’m sure they’d rather I just write about how Stan Lee & Jack Kirby decided to do “somethin’ different for the kids!”

Good night friends!

Dave

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Soundtrack: Nirvana—“From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah”

Well, since we’ve been on a bit of a Dr. Strange kick lately, why not press the attack? (And perhaps Neil Alien will weigh in with an opinion—which I would value at considerably more than the proverbial two cents, I assure you!)

Here’s a letter from Doc’s first solo series (he’s had quite a few!)—issue #176 (January 1969), to be exact:

Dear Stan, Roy, and Gene:

As a long-time fan of English epic poetry, I must reveal that I have seen Dormammu before. The art was not as good and the script was less complex, but the language was a little better—I refer of course to Paradise Lost, scripted by J. Milton around 300 years ago. Consider: your villain makes a blasphemous attack on “Eternity”, is cast down, and comes up with a line like “I shall tame this land of fire and brimstone . . . and make it mine!” He hassles with under-demons, and then decides to take over Earth. Hmm . . . Meanwhile, our hero gets in trouble port and starboard because his women fall into the power of the arch-enemy. Given your—so to speak—original sin, can you in good conscience permit Dr. S. to win? You are treading on theological eggshells here, but keep on—I can’t wait to find out how many super-heroes can dance on the head of a pin! Also, consider the possibility that the first Marvel-style super-hero was Edmund Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight, star of The Faerie Queen, who shares Thor’s propensity for perplexing archaic language. Last, but certainly not least, think a little on William Blake, who put super-heroes like Orc and Los (Orc being exactly like the Human Torch, only with better lines) into a sort of comic-type medium—strange-looking engraved art with the words worked in. (The story has it Blake’s wife was a fantastic inker!) Anyway, tradition calls for Dr. Strange to become less dependent on external things like the amulet and cloak—Blake says a superhero’s puissance must be derived from his imagination and the justice of his cause. See what you can do, allegory-mongers.

John M. Stuart

Philadelphia, PA

Was that great or what? Mr. Stuart–if you’re still out there—please take a bow! Of course, as an Edwardsean myself (that’s Jonathan Edwards) I cannot go along with Stuart’s Blakean interpretation of these characters. The important ones are absolutely dependent upon the world outside of themselves—which provides both a sphere of action and much-needed epistemological grounding…Blake is as much of an antinomian as Professor X and Magneto, and no headline Marvel character would ever rely entirely upon his/her imagination (read: some kind of “immanent grace”) and the “justice of his[/her] cause” (read “assurance of salvation”)—that stuff is for villains and dull angels… And as to the question of the Doc’s “winning”—no chance of that, is there, in an open-ended epic that hammers its’ protagonist with new threats to the fragile (and very much fallen) status quo every month?

All kidding aside now, if I were to go looking for literary antecedents of the Marvel super-heroes–which isn’t my intention at all, I’m looking at theologians–I wouldn’t go anywhere near Milton or Blake (Spenser is somewhat closer to the mark, but still not quite right), I’d make a bee-line for Arthur Dimmesdale, of Scarlet Letter fame (who, not surprisingly, is reputed to have been based on the heterodox, but not quite antinomian, Puritan John Cotton…)

Good night friends!

Dave

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Soundtrack: Pixies — “Death to the Pixies,” disk two (live)

I thought that tonight I would deal with a couple of things that are too interesting to leave stranded in the comment threads (no, not the issue of the “intrinsic value of art”—I think that one’s dead right?).

 

1.                  Forager: You wanted to know if I had seen On Dangerous Ground. I’m sorry to reply that I have not come across it in all of my years of buying classic movies, and taping them off of PBS—but it’s on my list(s)! (In grade eleven, I did not use a school bag, or any text books. I had one Hillroy book—the “all-book”—and my Leonard Maltin Guide, which I pored over in math class each day. I used the all-book to make lists of all of the studio age films I needed to see. When I got to Z, sometime in October 1990, I think, I started back at A, like a man who has lost a game of Canfield solitaire, but continues to flip through the pack for help.) Anyway… all of Nicholas Ray’s movies were on those lists, each time I made them—and for me the Ray thing started with A Woman’s Secret(1948), a strange film that is quite badly constructed, but puts a young Gloria Grahame front and center for the first time (after eye-popping turns in small roles in It’s A Wonderful Life and especially Crossfire) and just seethes with the trademark Ray emotion. The movie is so good that you get wrapped up in a mystery that really isn’t a mystery at all (sort of like In a Lonely Place, but it’s less carefully camouflaged). In fact, I think it’s Ray’s refusal to supply any believable plotty cathexes for the kinetic performances of his actors that creates the special tension that makes his films unique.

 

 

2.Darren:  Okay, so you’re saying that Doctor Strange is Marvel’s resident Antinomian, because if anyone is “assured of election” it’s him! I can buy that, to some extent. On the other hand, Doc is, in some ways, the least antinomian of the company’s heroes (or perhaps he’s tied with Captain America–I’ll explain!) The early Puritans split into two rival camps, once they got away from the easy fight against High Anglicanism in England (because it was cut-and-dried, as a theological problem, not because Archbishop Laud and his friends weren’t powerful!)—and the split was over the issue of how much a person could do to “prepare” for the reception of “grace”. On the one side, you had John Cotton and a few others, notably Governor Henry Vane, and Cotton’s more extreme disciple, Anne Hutchinson, who believed that there was absolutely nothing you could do. Either you were ravished by the spirit or you weren’t, and that’s it (Cotton always kept in mind that you could just as easily be ravished by the devil, and you’d most likely not know the difference. Hutchinson just threw caution to the wind, which is why she seemed very dangerous to the civil and religious leaders… imagine if you felt that you were saved, and that therefore everything you did was right, even if you wanted to do things that “unregenerate” society frowns upon, like, oh, killing a lot of people, or just indulging in the craziest orgies this side of Hieronymous Bosch. Obviously, none of that stuff ever happened in New England, and Anne Hutchinson was as tame in her daily conduct as she was wild in her theology, but people with the similar ideas went bonkers in Europe in the 16th century).

 Okay, so there’s the spectrum from Cotton to Hutchinson.  In the other corner, you’ve got a lot of powerful people like Boston pastor John Wilson, Thomas Shepard, and once-and-future Governor John Winthrop. These guys were trying to build up a good society, or at least an orderly one, and they balked at the extreme doctrine of the Antinomians. They expressed this theologically by arguing that you could pave the way toward the reception of grace by preparing your soul in various ways (although they tried to hang onto their Calvinist notion of God’s absolute sovereignty by claiming that even that desire to prepare was foreordained!) These are fine distinctions, but important ones…

Now, most marvel heroes really are ravished by grace (i.e. their super-powers) without doing anything to prepare themselves. The FF are just trying to get on with their space flight, Peter Parker just wants to enjoy his trip to the lab, etc. But Stephen Strange actually flames out of his worldly vocation and goes on a spiritual quest (a la Larry Darrow, in The Razor’s Edge) and he works damned hard to get those powers. And Steve Rogers volunteers for a government grace infusion project, which may not be on the same level as Strange navigating treacherous passes through the Himalayas, but it’s proactive, at least…

But I don’t think that even Dr. Strange ever seems as sure of himself as Anne Hutchinson did. He doubts himself constantly in the issues I remember reading, and those doubts are not just about whether he’s going to win a battle (Rest assured–I’m going to read everything I can get my hands on in order to substantiate this claim!). So do Peter Parker, and Cyclops, and pretty much anyone who got a thought bubble in a Marvel comic in the sixties and seventies. So, while a lot of them have antinomian-type origin stories, they don’t lead the kind of carefree lives real antinomians would lead (that, I submit, is the province DC’s pre-Crisis super-heroes, who may have trouble with villains occasionally, but are not troubled by questions about their role in the universe). Conversely, the ones who have “preparationist” origin stories (Doc & Cap) actually come the closest to feeling assured about their respective roles, although even they, as Steve Englehart shows us, could doubt themselves, as indeed we all should. Right now, if I had to speak broadly about all of Marvel’s heroes, I would locate them somewhere near John Cotton on the spectrum I outlined above…

 

CD’s over! More lettercol stuff tomorrow! Good night friends!

 

Dave