Month: July 2004

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Greetings From Brigadier Furryface (and other items of interest)


Barack Obama–the keynote speaker’s address was equal parts Eugene Debs (“Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth…While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”) and Frederick Douglass (the “outsider” as cultural “insider”)–and it adds up to exactly what the Democratic Party should be. Don’t you think?

In other news:


If you have any cash to spare, you might want to consider using it to help Rick Geerling reobtain some of his most cherished possessions, which were pilfered from his home last week. Hang in there Rick!


H from The Comic Treadmill presents a statistical breakdown of the lameness of Captain America’s run in Tales Of Suspense.

And here’s an interesting article by Geoff Klock, author of the excellent How To Read Superheroes and Why–it’s called “X-Men, Emerson, Gnosticism”, and it deals with Millar and Morrison’s work on our favourite mutants… I can’t say too much about it just yet (I haven’t read most of the issues in question–and besides, I’m moving in two days, and there’s an awful lot left to do around here!), but I do know that I dispute Klock’s Bloomean take on Emerson (and Morrison!)–you can find my own ideas about gnosticism in American literature here.




See you Soon Friends!
Dave

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Only Disconnect


John Commonplacebook discusses Alan Moore, who’s just been named our “greatest living writer” by Salon.com. Along the way, John quotes Moore on the proper attitude toward information overload:


Connection is very useful; intelligence does not depend on the amount of neurons we have in our brains, it depends on the amount of connections they can make between them. So this suggests that having a multitude of information stored somewhere in your memory is not necessarily a great deal of use; you need to be able to connect this information into some sort of usable palette. I think my work tries to achieve that. It’s a reflection of the immense complexity of the times we’re living in. I think that complexity is one of the major issues of the 20th and 21st centuries. If you look at our environmental and political problems, what is underlying each is simply the increased complexity of our times. We have much more information, and therefore we are much more complex as individuals and as a society. And that complexity is mounting because our levels of information are mounting.



Personally, I’m much more impressed by John’s response to this quotation:


I was thinking about something like this the other day, but I came to a different conclusion. With the astounding proliferation of information around, we have essentially looped back to where we started from, i.e., with very little information that we don’t really know how to interpret. Consider the sheer amount of worldviews available to us: we could be Marxists, feminists, Buddhists, occultists, libertarians, cognitivists, Reform Jews, Wiccans, etc., etc. Which doesn’t even account for the variations in those worldviews themselves: what kind of feminists should we be, or Marxists, or occultists? There are variations within variations, a network extending to infinity in all directions. This is complexity so extreme it reduces to simplicity just as a lot of little pen-lines crossed will look at a distance like a black mark. We don’t know anything.

Exactly!


Thanks to mass communications, we emerge from the birth channel into a position of Socratic skepticism. I have high hopes for the “Internet Generation”. Moore, David Icke, Fritjof Freakin’ Capra, et al–these guys are still playing by the old rules, assuming that the people need a Shaman to drape the blanket of “coherence” over their scared little bodies, when in fact we are more and more comfortable at the room temperature of “particularity”. We are living through a second Reformation my friends.



The “ooh, there’s too much information–the sheep are confused” take on postmodernity (for Exhibit A of this line of reasoning, as it pertains to the tiny little world of comics criticism, see Heidi MacDonald) is the pathetic last gasp of would-be experts in a world in which “expertise” has been exposed for the chimera that it always was. Even God would be incapable of following every conversation on the Web. The internet is a powerful telescope zeroed in on human individuality itself. At long last, the dots have overwhelmed the lines that would turn them into false constellations of “meaning”–and the story of the 21st century will be the rise of intersubjectivity at the expense of Moore’s “connections”.



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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Things That Now Are


Thanks to Jess Nevins’ generosity, I received Matt Rossi’s book–Things That Never Were–in the mail this morning. It looks fantastic! I’m right in the middle of John Dos Passos’ massive USA Trilogy right now (which we’ll discuss at the final meeting of the reading group I helped to found in 1997 that I’ll be able to attend for quite a while…sniff!), and of course I’m about to go (Mid-)West, but I expect to deal with TTNW in detail in a couple of weeks!

Also–I’m still not sure what to say about Seaguy #1-3 at this moment–except that I found it mesmerizing, in a Dead of Night kinda way (and there aren’t many better ways, believe me!)



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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Black Dan’l–The First Superhero?

(Soundtrack: The Minutemen —What Makes a Man Start Fires?)





All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!


Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame!
–John Greenleaf Whittier, “Ichabod!”


A long time ago, I pitched my idea that Stephen Vincent Benet’s (and William Dieterle’s) The Devil and Daniel Webster is not merely “an American Faust“, but the American answer to the Faustian dilemma of infinite longing. By all accounts, Webster did have a superpower–he was the greatest orator of the 19th century (how great was he? he actually impressed Emerson–and Emerson’s whole philosophy turned upon a refusal to be impressed by anyone). Give Black Dan’l some chains and a shaggier mane and he’s Webstar the Speaker.


The real Webster is kind of an anti-hero actually, because the signature moment of his career is the Seventh of March (1850) Speech, in which, mind distempered by Presidential ambitions, he profaned his instrument by joining in on the corrupt pro-Fugitive Slave Act jam-session then in progress. On that fateful day, in the Senate, Webster spoke on his own behalf, not the nation’s. Of course, in his private life (secret identity) he had always been as self-serving as any other politician you could name, but (at least in the public’s perception–and perhaps in Webster’s own) when it came to speechifying, he had, up until then, merely sung the lead part in the hymn to abstract right, as embodied in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.


That’s history–but the Webster-figure in literature is something else again, thanks to Stephen Vincent Benet. Benet’s Webster (who first appeared in 1937–one year before Superman), like the early superheroes, was a product of Depression/Popular Front culture. This Webster still has the ambitious side of his nature in check. We see him comfortably ensconced in his private life at Marshfield, farming, reading, and generally living high on the hog. But he has a great power and, of course, that entails certain responsibilities. For example, he cannot ignore Jabez Stone’s plight, since he knows full well that he is actually capable (although not certain!) of defeating the devil himself in a war of words. He wades into the Faust legend in order to prove that human reason (embodied in our contracts with each other) can sometimes overrule the pacts we make with our own worst selves (symbolized by old Mr. Scratch)–it’s a socialized version of the Buddhist concept of escaping the wheel of desire. When Webster enters the court of the damned, risking his life in order to further the interests of another (and society), not himself, he is every bit the superhero, even though he does not wear a mask.


I would argue that “secret identities” are not essential to the superhero genre, but dual identities are (and it sounds like Eightball #23 is the latest illustration of this fact). In life, there are certain situations in which moral action is required, and there are others in which a more nuanced, aestheticizing approach is called for. The former is, obviously, the realm of superhero action–a strange place where “the right thing” is fairly obvious (and has nothing to do with what you want for yourself), and what counts is steadfastness of purpose. Incidentally, this is why superheroes cannot kill–it’s not because “killing upsets the kiddies”, it’s because vengeance is always at odds with justice, and superheroics are “adventures in morality”, not dramatized power fantasies.



The world of the secret/private i.d. is much more common, of course, and to fail to recognize this is to fail the “Rorschach Test”–but to rule out the possibility of moral action is just as dangerous. In a society characterized by “good enough justice” (as Rawls and Stanley Cavell put it), every one of us is obligated to live in both worlds.



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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My Friend Jamo (who, when we first met in a graduate Lit. seminar, upon learning that I liked comics, assumed that I must know Daniel Clowes–alas, I did not!) on Eightball #23–Enjoy!



After harrassing my favourite comic book store owner for nearly two years, finally another Eightball has arrived. The cover will shake people to the core – a lone red masked figure, surrounded by black background, dressed in costume. The figure is reminiscent of another character from a short strip from issue 18 titled “Black Nylon.” Who is this though on 23? What happened to our Eightball? Such a sparse and heroic cover? This is your protaginist, Andy, who like many a Clowes character is cynical, obsessed with his past, and depressed by the present and future because he is unable to find any satisfaction with the world around him. The difference for Andy, the point that separates him from many of in the Clowes’ Eightball family of recent years, is that Andy has super powers. Now stop for a moment. You’re worried. Is Clowes (gasp) moving into and reinventing the super hero genre? If yes, are comic nerds everywhere about to get the blankets they’ve been hiding under ripped off to reveal the blazing flashlight that once danced merrily over the panels of the latest issue of X-Men! Can anyone ever say ’nuff said again without grimacing at its insignificance? Stop this thinking people, you have nothing to worry about. Unless of course you live alone, then ask yourself why are you still under that blanket. Get out from under it and run to the store and demand your Eightball medicine.



For those who have been reading Eightball from the start, those veterans of ’89 that can still tell you where they were when they first cast eyes on the lovely Tina, Clowes is back from his sojourn into film. He hasn’t sold out, man. He’s still on our side. Still fighting for all us marginals. But now he’s given us a hero. Forget your namby-pamby Spider Man, Fiore, Clowes gives us the undisputed champ, the world shaker, the panel defying…ANDY.



Unlike Spider Man 2, which asks among other questions, is Peter Parker capable of having an identity beyond his super hero persona, in Clowes’ Eightball world, Andy is always asking himself can he have a super hero identity. The problem for Andy is that he has super strength (courtesy his scientist father, who passed away while Andy was still a child). What Andy is missing though are those situations that will define him as a super hero both to himself and the rest of the world. He cannot just walk into danger like Spider Man, he has to find them, or what is always the case, create them himself. The likes of Dr. Octopus don’t exist, Andy’s nemesis is the banal. He has to settle for school bullies, abusive fathers, and insecure best friends. In one instance, Andy’s best friend, Louie, swear’s a friend of his, Janet, is being beaten up by her father. Andy confronts the man while he is walking his dog late one night. The result is not that Andy has made Janet’s life easier, but that while he’s beating up her dad, the family dog escapes. Janet’s thanks to him: “I pray to god you fucking die!” (21)



The only time Andy ever gets to construct an idealized persona is in his imagination. There are several series of panels of both Andy and Louie, dressed in costumes, jumping across building, flying in a space ship, or watching the Earth from the Moon. These fantasies though are never complete escapes from the real world. The dialogue is grounded in Andy’s real world – as he and Louie are swinging through the city sky, their conversation is about the school bully, whose car they both vandalized. A scene that should allow Andy respite from the real world is still trapped in that world, and a moment to see his potential is only a reminder to him of his ordinariness.



Clowes never allows Andy to escape his average life. From the moment “The Death Ray” starts, we see that Andy is mired in the banal. We’re introduced to Andy at the mid point in his life, in the section titled ANDY 2004. He states his situation: twice divorced; only friend a dog; and at the end of the second page this statement: “You try to make the world a better place and what does it get you? I mean, christ, how the hell does one man stand a chance against four billion assholes?” Possible the least inspiring words ever spoken by a super hero. Then he retraces, like a great Dick Powell film noir, the events that led him to this cynicism.



Is this Clowes at his finest? A friend of mine hasn’t finished it yet. Issue 22 (Ice Haven) was the high point, he says. Clowes has nothing left. This is just retreading over the same material without anything new. If you’ve already read “The Death Ray”, if in anyway you agree with any of these sentiments, don’t be insulted baby, but like I said to my friend, you’re wrong. What Clowes has done in issue 23 is subvert again his readers’ expectations of the tone of an Eightball comic. This isn’t a laugh out loud comic like 22. The humour is subtle – there isn’t a Pencil Dick or Dan Pussey to make us feel better, or my favourite supporting character Mr. Beard with his wonderful “Glad to see they’re still teaching the classics” when he sees David Boring reading a comic at a coffee counter.



Death Ray is upsettingly full of cynicism. Why detail the fall of an optimist, a child, who, with his super powers, has, finally at his finger tips the super powers that only our imaginations allow us? Why end the comic the way it ends? Why be so dark Clowes? The answer, I feel, is one of timing. More than anything else, more than a super hero parody, more than a study of adolesence to adulthood, or the relationship between boys, “The Death Ray” is a critism of America in the present moment. Yes I agree it is about super heroes, about teenagers, about the homoerotic undertones in many male relationships, I won’t take that away from anyone who is more passionate about these aspects of the comic, but lingering over Andy’s story, is a criticism of America right now and primarily the Iraq war.



Clowes lets his criticism slip into the narrative subtely. He ain’t no Michael Moore, in your face, guiding your hand as you fill out your ballot. In the strip called “Sonny,” while enjoying a bowl of cereal, Andy tells us: “Really I’m kind of an All-American type — a modest guy with common sense who knows the difference between right and wrong.” In the next panel, his hand over his heart as he listens to the national anthem at a sporting event, he says: “I’m a straight–shooter and a stand up guy. I value honesty, integrity, and above all else, loyality.” (24). Wow, if that ain’t how Jr. has presented himself over the past four years. Then there’s the strip called The United States of Andy (40), a monologue of Andy in the present. Here his identify and beliefs are interwoven with the society he’s a product of. Andy shows throughout the story, especially his relationship with Louie, that he is incapable of seeing right and wrong. His decisions are made strictly for personal reasons, not necessarily positive reasons, but to eliminate situations he has clear solution to – the results always emotionally ambiguous for him.



This is an America in which a US soldier rapes his girlfriend every night and who laughs when his dog kills Andy’s dog. How does Andy stop a person like this? A evil next door that he can’t reason with? Zap him with his death ray and make the problem disappear. Kind of like Jr.’s plan to tear down Abu Ghraib – problem solved because problem gone. Andy’s the law, getting rid of who ever he wants, without answering to anyone (cue UN analogy now). And if that’s not enough example for you, Andy at the super market reading a paper in line, and what does the cover scream but “Weapons found in Artic!”



I don’t want to blast people with political ray guns all day though. Eightball 23 is a major achievement by Daniel Clowes because it isn’t just an attack on the Iraq war, that’s embedded within in the story as much as the parody of a super hero comic, hey as much as the strip comic. There isn’t anything that can be discarded from Clowes story, finally he has found a way to incorporate his love of the set-up punch line comic and a narrative storyline.



My fear, as I read #23. as my hands shook, is when will these beautiful new panels stop arriving. When will the outside forces of Hollywood and big magazine money interfere with Clowes Eightball work? Who is there that can replace him? (My bet right now is Rick Altergott who’s new Doofus storyline is soaring within the Raisin Pie covers). Sorry, comic book panic.



Jamie Popowich


Good Afternoon friends!
Dave