Month: April 2004

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Not With A Bang, But A Sickening Thud

Five Wins.

Eighteen Losses!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Is this the way the Expos end?




Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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Jonesing For “Normalcy”

(Soundtrack: Sheryl Crow–Self-Titled)




“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy…”
–(Warren Gamaliel Harding)

Leave it to Grant Morrison to exploit the latent potential in this factoid: the term “normalcy” was foisted upon America by executive fiat–and by the same president that took the country by the hand and led it into an unprecedented orgy of repression: Prohibition.


In our Derridean times, it’s a given that the “privileged” term in a binary relationship is always “contaminated” by its opposite number. So “good” is “tainted” by “evil”. Masters are dependent upon their slaves. And 1984 is actually fascist pornography.

That last example is introduced by Sir Miles, an unpleasant denizen of Morrison’s Invisibles


I’m not really prepared to discuss The Doom Patrol or The Invisibles yet–this is just a preliminary exploration of one key aspect of Morrison’s aesthetic. To wit:


Postmodern artists are exceedingly prone to Scooby Doo-style debunking excercises. Take American Beauty, for instance, the ultimate nineties deconjob. The film charged into the culture war, “empowering” every marginalized term in sight by knocking binaries on their heads with movie-of-the-week subtlety.
I despise its validation of the “I’m a freak and I’ll never fit in anywhere” mindset. This is all well and good when you know that, by the end of the movie, the bad repressed nazi guy is gonna crack and be dragged away, leaving the “meddling kids” in possession of the screen and the audience’s sympathy. However, in real life, the determination–amongst many of the most intelligent people in our society–to remain “alternative” at all times is the single greatest impediment to change.


Talk about your binary quandaries! You can’t be “alternative” without a “mainstream”. This is why Grant Morrison is so important. Here’s a guy that no “conservative” could possibly accept as “one of their own”–and yet, he triumphantly declares, in all of his work, “this is not alternative–this is for everyone!”

In Morrison, the struggle is not between “freaks” and “normals”–it’s between binary logicians and those who come to realize not only the bankruptcy but the true immorality of this mode of thinking. Morrison doesn’t wait until the end of his stories to “reveal” that his custodians of the status quo are at least as conflicted/fucked up as his punks–it’s all right there on the surface. “Mr. Jones” is a perfect example of this: “Hi Honey! I’m home!” [what–no laugh track?–let’s try that again “honey”–get with the program!]…


Morrison’s oeuvre (what I’ve read of it so far, anyway) is not a deconstruction of “normalcy”, it’s a dismissal. And he’s right. That’s not a word.



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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Update(circa 2pm): If you’re interested in the topic of superheroes as mythology, you can’t do better than this Jason Kimble post


Fragments? Sure. Are we Ruined?


(Soundtrack: Hole–My Body, The Hand Grenade)


I don’t know what (if anything!) you folks got out of yesterday’s discussion, but I’ve concluded that I focused my attack upon the wrong end of the “modern mythology” formula… “Mythology?” It’s a chimerical word. We gotta get rid of it!

But how about that “modernism”?


I’m particularly indebted to Bruce Baugh’s helpful suggestion that 20th century encyclopedistes of myth were, for the most part, depressed modernists seeking to hold the “center” in place. I like to think of the corporate superhero universes as “postmodern” (or “poststructural”), and this is why I disagree so strongly with Richard Reynolds’ Campbellian reading.


Joseph Campbell is the ultimate modernist–at war with the “superstructure”/”false consciousness”. There’s only one hero see? And there aren’t many archetypes, either. Just focus kids, that modernist light will see you through the haze of multiplicity. It’s comforting, I suppose… I work at a bookstore, and believe me, I know that, in many ways, we’re still living in a Campbellian universe–every second item I sell purports to tell its purchaser what “type” of person he/she is. What’s your aura? What’s your inner child? What’s your freakin’ blood type profile, for chrissake!

Whatever “mythology” once meant to those who actually lived in ancient Greece, Scandinavia, etc., in the 20th century it came to mean a system that helped make sense of the world and defined a place for every person in it. If you figure out where you “fit in”, you’ll be happy…


Of course, I think all of that is a snare and a delusion. Any time you think you’ve found your niche in the universe, you’ve actually found a coffin. Go ahead and get in if you want to, but don’t be surprised if it gets a bit claustrophobic in there. Not to worry–fresh air awaits you in Heaven!


Whenever I use the term “postmodern”, people get annoyed, but there’s nothing really new in “pomo” thought. Yeah a lot of the terms are newfangled, but the ideas go back to Plato’s opponents, the Sophists. And they really began to come into their own–on a popular level–with the Protestant Reformation. As far as I’m concerned, the most pernicious idea ever conceived is the “Great Chain of Being”: you know, God at the top, beasts at the bottom, humans somewhere in the middle, and all partaking of the same essence. Everything is really one thing. “Postmodernism” is an attempt to rescue “sophistry” from the pejorative connotations attached to the word by Plato. And one of the greatest blows ever struck against monism is the “no-prize”!


Since the dawn of human history, authors have been “cooking the books”, making certain that the sacred texts “mean” what they want them to mean. Radical Protestantism serves them raw. The “priesthood of all believers”–the idea that every reader of the Bible is free to make what he or she will of it–led to some pretty deluded stuff, but it was worth it. Let’s not forget that it also led directly to liberal democracy.


The “no-prize” goes all of this one better. By incorporating criticism into the scriptura themselves, and acknowledging that no one was really at the helm of the narrative ship, Marvel set sail on the “drift” that modernists aimed to still.



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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Modern Mythology? Fuck No!

(Soundtrack: Heavens to Betsy–Calculated)


I first encountered Richard Reynolds’ Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology in the Concordia stacks about 7 years ago. It’s a well-written, earnest piece of Campbellian scholarship–and I disagreed with it in an insanely visceral way.


I still do.


If you ask me, Reynolds actually does what I’m always accused of doing–i.e. exhalt these texts to a preposterous level of “significance”. Reynolds absolutely buys into the high art/low art binary–i.e. “high art” as cultural “base”, “low art” as mere superstructure–and he argues strenuously in favour of placing superheroes in the former category.

And he’s certainly not the only one in thrall to this way of looking at the issue.


In the infamous Ninth Art thread, Alasdair Watson made this claim:

I am not covinced that the a serious dissection of nature of faith, to use my earlier example, is going to be well served when the protagonists must dress in spandex and fire lightning out of various orfices. I’m sure it’s not impossible to do, but I think it’d either come across as a bit of a joke – (see Chuck Austen’s recent religion-based storylines for examples), or kill the franchise, because lets face it, people come to the X-men for costumes and ass-kicking, not existential crises. Which is my point about not being allowed to do certain things with a given franchise.



So. In order to break out of the “light entertainment” box (“transcend the genre” as they say), a superhero comic book would have to tackle a “serious” issue like “the nature of faith”. And without getting “jokey” about it either!



Well, that’s exactly what Richard Reynolds says these comics do! After all, this is a guy who describes every issue of Damage Control as a “canonical text”. And of course I find that just as laughable as I’m sure Alasdair does.


Here’s what Mark Gruenwald had to say about this, way back in the eighties:

Super hero comics have sometimes been described as “modern mythology”. I am not certain who first spoke of them in those terms but it seems that I first read these references in the mid-60s when Marvel Comics first became a media phenomenon. The surface similarities between our modern day super heroes and the gods and heroes of ancient myth are undeniable: both contain larger-than-life characters in fantastic situations. Indeed, my own interest in mythology undoubtedly sprang from the same basic impulses as my interest in super heroic fiction in general. However, super hero comics are not modern mythology, and here’s why:

The manner of creation is different. Myths are the product of many minds reworking the same basic material orally through successive generations until they are finally written down. Super hero comics are the product of only a few minds working directly for the print medium.



The purposes of myth and super hero comics are different. Myths were created to explain nature, rationalize the metaphysical mysteries of existence, and instruct and enlighten their audience about life and human nature through the use of allegory and symbolism. Super hero comics are created to entertain their audience and, once in a blue moon, get is to think while it’s being entertained. Myths are not without entertainment value (to those they were created for as well as today’s audience) but comics are strictly for their entertainment value.

The cultural bases of a body of myths and a body of super hero comics are different. Virtually everyone in a given culture had a basic knowledge of its culture’s myths. In our culture, the majority of the population only has a passing familiarity with a handful of the beter known characters (Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, etc.). Mythology was common knowledge, super hero comics are an esoteric interest.

At the core of each myth are its culture’s universal truths, whether the myths are believed to be literally true or but symbolically true. In super hero comics, only the very young or naive believe the stories to have literally (or even figuratively) happened or the heroes to be real people. Myths were meant to be believed on some level; comics are meant to entertain on some level.

That sounds more like it, no? Mythology comes into being in order to justify the ways of God (or fate) to men and women–and that’s not what super heroes are about.

But here’s the thing–since the Reformation, all of the most cogent thoughts in the West have been wrecking balls aimed at mythological structures. Oh sure, there was a lot of mythologizing going on in the 20th century (Nazism, monotheistic fundamentalism of all stripes, “Gaia theory”, essentialist gender theory, etc.) but all of it was (and is) either counterproductive or just plain evil.


I prefer a metatext that is generated by the profit motive–we’ve all had enough of the “prophet motive”, haven’t we? I’m an unabashed supporter of “pure narrative”–is it any wonder that Morrison and Auster are my two favourite writers these days? Don’t bother me with what “you think”. Whatever it is, we both know it’s “wrong”. The most “serious” thing a storyteller can do is tell a story. End of story.

The real difference between mythology and Marvel is that, while the former is a “closed system”, the latter is wide open. Obviously, myths are the products of many minds–but myths qua myths certainly aren’t perceived that way. Mythology is a “homogenous” body of work, the structuralist’s dream come true–it is taken for granted that, given enough time, a rigorous exegete could tease THE meaning out of the canonical writings.

But the Marvel Universe is a poststructuralist field of narrative. It may be the product of fewer minds than the norse legends, but, contra Gruenwald, that is not the way it appears to the public. The fault lines are clearly visible in the credits and the lettercols.


“Why does Thor look like an overweight croquet player in the latest issue of Strange Tales Stan?”


“I don’t know Frantic One, ask Sturdy Steve!”


The multiple founts of inspiration within the “batty bullpen” were glaringly apparent in the early Marvels, and that’s what makes these stories more than mythology. The Marvel Universe, like our own world, is built out of parts that coexist on the same plane without fitting together. As far as I’m concerned, that is Stan Lee’s main achievement. He’s the anti-Tolkien! He presided over (and contributed to) the creation of a metatext that opened itself up to “the higher criticism” from the get-go! And the highest criticism is reinterpretation.

Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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I guess this answers my question/confirms my nightmare re:Tales To Astonish

The spectacular life and times of Jack Kirby, the legendary forefather of American comic books.

For fifty years, Jack Kirby drew more pages than any other comic book artist. As talented as he was prolific, Kirby was responsible for many of the most well-known and beloved superheroes in popular culture.



With his first writing partner Joe Simon, he created Captain America, DC Comics’s Sandman, and the lucrative genre of the romance comic. In the 1960s, Kirby paired with Stan Lee to develop a pantheon of heroes that included, among others, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers, the Silver Surfer, and the Inhumans. Together with Lee, this artist and writer forever changed the American comic book by introducing angst-ridden heroes, sympathetic villains, and a dynamic visual style that has influenced every artist who followed.



The inspiration behind The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jack Kirby has been hailed by Wizard magazine as Without any doubt the single most important creator in the History of American Comic Books. In Tales to Astonish, Ronin Ro chronicles Kirby’s poverty-stricken origins in the Lower East Side, his early commercial triumphs and failures, his renowned partnership with Stan Lee, his continuing artistic innovations (the production department hated him for pasting photographs into his pages), and his lengthy legal battles with Marvel comics over the ownership of his original art. An insightful portrait of one of its most enduring—and overlooked—artists, Tales to Astonish is also a lively, novelistic account of the comic book industry, from its inauspicious origins to its sensational successes.



Oh well… There’s no close-reading on that menu. I’m sure I’ll read it anyway. I’m as fascinated by spandex vorticism as the next person. (will there be any discussion of Kirby as a modernist?) But overlooked? By whom? Certainly not by the people that will bother to read this book! (where’s that Ross Andru study I’ve been dreamin’ of?) At least we can hope that Ro will delve into the influence of Warner Bros. films (especially the Dead End/East End Kids) upon the King.



take care friends!

Dave

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Do People Know About This?



We’ve got a few copies on order at the store, so I’ll definitely get a chance to read it when it arrives–whether I have money at the time or not! My worry is that, like the Spurphael book before it, there will be way too much “behind the scenes” material, and a sad lack of focus upon the comics themselves, or even the influences upon the creators from outside of the comic book world… We’ll see! I’ll tell ya: I wouldn’t be concerned at all if J.W. Hastings had written the book. He seems to be one of the few Kirbyites who prefers to discuss the man’s vision than his martyrdom. (check out that astonishing blogroll!)



Enjoy yourselves out there friends
Dave