Month: February 2005

Cerebus Part IV: Issues #11 and 12

Cerebus Part IV: Issues #11 and 12:
(see also: Part I, Part II, Part III)

Having just established Red Sophia as a genuine player in #10, Sim moved quickly to bolster his roster of eternally-recurring loons with the introduction of the Cockroach in the very next issue. Like most of these protean figures, this merchant/ avenger/amnesiac-war-on-crime-profiteer debuts as a parody of sorts…and yet, again, there’s a lot more than parody going on here.

The Roach, at least in each of the permutations that I am familiar with (and remember, I got sidetracked at #150!) is much more than a spoof of whatever caped crusader he’s aping this week–he’s the embodiment of melodrama. Each of the characterologcal squalls that buffet Cerebus from one issue to the next in these early days is similarly constituted. Storytelling elementals. Pure narrative forces. This evolving stable of galloping crazies gives Sim the power to evoke a mood–or alter one, drastically–in one panel flat–regardless of the situation… They appear out of nowhere, as needed, and Cerebus is forced to take them as directed, by the script doctor himself, for the greater good of the story. Elrod lends a sheen of whimsical irresponsibility to any scene in which he appears–he’s a walking screwball comedy; Jaka brings romance–and introspection; Sophia adds a fleshy tone to an otherwise silvery-gray world; Lord Julius (only a few issues away now!) is a meaning-seeking missile; and the Roach is (in?) pain:


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he’s so lousy with angst that he’ll cathect it any way (and upon any object) that he can… “Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry peole can eat”–the Roach will be there, but he won’t have a clue where to start punching.  “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy”–the Roach will be there, but he might very well join in! And whenever overwhelming, contentless emotion is needful, in order to further the plot, or to crush it where it stands, you can bet your ass that the Roach will be there–drunk on  “cruel fate” and with a fistful of self-pity … but I don’t want to say too much more about him right now, because my favourite of his phases comes later, once he embraces the Moon, and perfects his Stan Lee patois… So I leave you with this–the historic first encounter between atmospheric foils! It’s not exactly a clash of titans–but there’s definitely some turbulence!

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Good Night Friends!
Dave

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Two More

Two More

1.We’re open for business on Squadron Supreme #1-3 over on the course blog! As always, I invite you to participate, and, if you so desire, to dispute my claims about the texts in question!

2.Also–Greg Burgas has a nice post up concerning Roger Stern’s wonderful tenure on Amazing Spider-Man…and again, I ask myself–why doesn’t Stern have a job at the Big Two anymore? It’s not as if he’s turned his back on the whole thing, a la Cary Bates…he’s out there–just waiting to do right by the corporate universes, without any of the damned grovelling that we get from the likes of Busiek and Waid…

Cerebus #11 & 12 are gonna have to wait until tomorrow–but man are those good books!

Revenge! Hisss…..

Good Night Friends!
Dave

One, Two, Three…

One, Two, Three…

1. We watched Bamboozled in class yesterday… man that’s a great, disturbing film! I’ll be very interested to see what the students have to say about it… The thing that struck me, this time, was the conspicuous absence of Sullivan’s Travels from the heartbreaking “Burn Hollywood Burn” montage that brings down the curtain… Is Lee exempting Sturges’ film from his ire? Maybe–it is one of the great achievements of the Studio Age, after all…and yet, Wayans’ closing lines (“always leave ’em smilin”) and uncomfortable dying gasp/laugh seem to be offered as a direct attack on Sturges’ gospel of comedy as a healing force (and it must be said that, as moving as the big chain-gang-in-the-church scene from ST is, it’s not exactly the most groundbreaking representation of Black Americans either…certainly, Sturges’ film incorporates a racial critique of its own–how else can you construe the movement from the slapstick abuse of the cook which occurs during the course of the land-yacht derby to the dignified portrayal of the people in the pews… However, Sturges still pigeonholes these “good” black characters as infinitely forgiving of white society’s tresspasses against them…)

2. We’re starting on Squadron Supreme next week! Here’s an interesting essay that relies–far too heavily, I think!–more upon a priori political conviction than textual analysis in order to make its eponymous case–The Libertarian Message of Squadron Supreme. (but there’ll be plenty of time to get into that one in the next couple o’ weeks! I wonder what–if anything–Jim Henley would make of this piece?)

And what can I say about Chris Allen’s review of Gruenwald’s book? Clearly, we disagree upon the merits of the work…and yet–I don’t know how to engage his argument, because there really isn’t one in that piece… How am I supposed to reply to this:

Keeping with the ’80s notstalgia theme for a moment, I finally read Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme from over 20 years ago, one of the first “maxi-series”. A respected if not particularly popular editor and writer of the ’80s, Gruenwald was given a lot of freedom here — a full year to tell dark superhero story with little impact or interference from the Marvel Universe proper. On the other hand, he was saddled with ugly, uninspired artwork from Bob Hall, occasionally spelled by the more polished but dull Paul Ryan (John Buscema breaks down and Jackson Guice finishes one issue, subpar work from both that is still miles above Hall). Add to that that the Squadron — originally just a paper-thin sendup of the Justice League pressed into service by the House of Ideas to try to wring some commercial return out of them — are one of the weakest, ugliest-looking superteams Marvel has ever foisted on the public. The worst of ’80s excess is here, from male perms to female flattops, moustaches to asymmetrical costume monstrosities that make a reader think this era’s four-color process was entirely too liberating.

I mean–ugly costumes? Complaining that the series “rips off” the JLA? Or that it “doesn’t change the status quo in the Marvel Universe”? Later on, Allen expresses dismay that these characters are making “bad decisions”… well, at least that’s kind of a substantive comment–but I don’t see how anyone can read this book and argue that Gruenwald hasn’t done a brilliant job of really thinking through the implications of world-stewardship…without providing a facile resolution like “oh, we’ll leave it up to the United Nations”, or  even “we’ve got to work together now, because psychic aliens could take out the rest of New York any day now”…

The very concept of “working together for the common good” comes under painfully intense scrutiny in Squadron Supreme…and I think Gruenwald asks exactly the right kinds of questions (but then, I am still coming down from writing a seminar paper on the book). And he doesn’t flinch from showing  (without debunking the impulse itself) the more frightening side of utopianism either (it certainly frightens Chris enough to make him lament the fact that these superheroes have become mean criminals–with corny dialogue! and sure–the dialogue is corny, but just about all superhero dialogue is corny–it’s a melodramatic form… does anyone seriously believe that Alan Moore and Grant Morrison–to say nothing of Jack Kirby–are exempt from this “criticism”?)… Nor does he take the easy way out–as Watchmen does–by making his super-utilitarians demonstrably insane… this is not an “absolute power corrupts absolutely” situation–it’s more like an affirmation that there is no such thing as “absolute power”–and that politics will last as long as humans do… Which is not to say, as many libertarians would, from the comfort of their suburban homes, that “it ain’t broke because you can’t fix it”… I believe in what Emerson called “permanent revolution”–despite the fact that no revolution has ever succeeded…

3. Has there ever been a Legion of Superheroes story called “Science Police, Arrest This Girl (or Boy, or Lass, or Lad, or Kid)”? If not–there really should be, don’t you think?


More Cerebus soon! The Day of the Roach is at hand!

Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

Cerebus III: #8-10

Cerebus III: #8-10
(previously on Motime–part I and part II)

Sim’s development as a visual storyteller takes center stage in these issues. As the author himself notes in the Swords of Cerebus introduction,  issue #8  (“Day of the Earth-Pig”–how many comic book titles did Nathanael West unwittingly give birth to? Once I’m done my dissertation research, I’ll actually be able to give you a pretty good idea–I mean, Amazing Spider-Man alone could fill up an ark with animal “days-of”, right?) is practically “Mind Game 0″… Cerebus spends the entire first half of the book weaving back and forth between the subconscious and waking worlds, and it is here that the zipatone phantoms which provide the only scenery–not to mention the only ballast–in his nebulous mental landscape first appear.

I find this sequence fascinating:

On page 3, we find him ensnared by black “cords”, indicating, I suppose, that he is struggling, quite literally, to regain his senses (to fight his way out of a solipsistic void)

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and then, quite suddenly, the cords “go gray”, which suggests that he is now conscious enough to import the “stuff” of reality into a dream he never made… and look at them! Sure, they’re holding him back–but they’re also, it seems to me, propping him up:

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Finally, he comes to consciousness, climbing up out of the void using fetters of reality that he appropriates for his own subjective use. And there you have it–a sophisticated philosophical (& psychological) argument in grayscale!


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The non-“Mindgame” aspects of this issue–and the following two as well–deal with mindgames of a different sort: the realpolitik-al kind! As a 14-year old, I think it’s pretty safe to say that my favourite things in life were strategy boardgames like Diplomacy, Dashiell Hammett, the memoirs of Bismarck, hyper-convoluted film noir, and Cerebus–studies of manipulation (with varying degrees of emotion-based commentary on this type of behaviour..which is what I tend to respond to now–back then, the manipulation itself was the key…which I suppose was owing to the Machiavellian wasteland that I grew up in!) Cerebus learns some hard lessons in these books– about military coups (when he is “elected”–at swordpoint–to wrest command of the Conniptin army away from the princely cocaine-fiend pictured above),  about the “honour of kings” (when K’Cor keeps him busy with knightly challenges while he poisons the army Cerebus intends to sack his city with), and about the sources of sovereignty–and its potential uses: also from K’Cor, who seems like your basic “I just want power” tyrant, until he erupts into this Ozymandian oration…

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He may be insane–but he’s good enough to outwit Cerebus, and deprive him of his new army of barbarian “cheerleaders” (the Conniptin motto is: “Might makes right–might for right–might for might–right for might–fight–fight–fight!”, and they’d sooner repeat these words–no matter what the situation–than breathe!)

In issue #10, Sophia returns, much improved, although still not exactly a favourable portrayal of a woman… Instead of being just a ferociously aggressive sexual submissive, she is now a greedy, scheming, and ferociously aggressive sexual submissive. When Cerebus meets up with her, she is fresh from killing the husband she had acquired at the end of issue #3 (she still refuses to “give herself” to a man, unless he defeats her in combat, and the guy just wouldn’t learn) and has moved on to planning some caper that involves stealing a jewel from a well-armed merchant caravan, with the help of some dork with inside information that she has taken along for the ride… she’s a femme fatale, basically. She still wants to have sex with Cerebus–because he had previously “earned her respect” with the flat of his sword–but he makes it pretty clear that he is not interested… On the other hand, he is very interested in the Black Lotus jewel, and this time he gets the better of everyone (including an extremely menacing guard/crossbowman that Cerebus decides it would be more prudent to bribe than to fight) by, for once, really thinking ahead. The ending of the issue is (or ought to be) a classic in the annals of antiheroism –talk about cutting your Gordian knots of chicanery! And, despite how things appear, we know that Sophia will be back, because she proves–through the amplification of characteristics that were merely used for parodic effect in issue #3, alloyed with some new extreme traits–in this story that she is fit to share the stage with Cerebus.

 Also–it gives me pleasure to note that our very own (oh who am I kiddin’–he belongs to the world!) Fred Hembeck–the friend of obscure but good people everywhere–crosses over (in his inimitably knobby-kneed style!) into the aardvark’s world at the back of issue #8!

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Good Evening Friends!
Dave

Umm…This Was A Really Good Book…

Umm…This Was A Really Good Book…

T. J. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 presents a fascinating, if somewhat disheartening, case study of the role of oppositional discourse in strengthening cultural hegemony. His discussion of antimodern theory and practice at the turn of the past century centers upon the quest for “the real”–through the “cults of inner and outer experience”–in an increasingly abstract mental and physical environment. Lears’ focus upon bourgeois intellectuals and popularizers is crucial to his argument that, in protesting against the inauthenticity of modern life, these “hollow men” (and women) helped to spread the contagion of hyper-subjectivity beyond the narrow confines of their own class, as defined in strictly economic terms; a process which he sees as ongoing at his own historical moment. For Lears, every “way out” of alienation and despair only aggravates the problem and feeds the liberal-capitalist dynamo–and even his own (immensely attractive) doctrine of “ambivalence”, which at least does provide some respite from the fevered dreams of modernity, cannot truly be said to offer much hope of staying the course of the disease at the societal level.

The common denominator which unites the subjects of this book is subjectivity itself. The cry of “disconnectedness”–from God, from the land, from a meaningful understanding of labor and social roles–rallies these figures to their ostensible war against the forces of modernization. Beneath the multiplicity of discontents, Lears uncovers two fundamental modes of protest–the cults of inner and outer experience. The former encompasses all of those activities which would eventually cohere into the “therapeutic worldview” of self-help culture. The latter conduces to a doctrine of bluff vitality which privileges a proactive relationship to the world, in lieu of “morbid introspection”. The author makes a powerful case for thinking of both strategies as part of a general pattern of “evasive banality” (7)–which is not to say that he concurs with the description of these activities as “mere escapism”. On the contrary, Lears identifies his bourgeois antimoderns as, paradoxically, the principal disseminators of the cultural forms they opposed–both to the lower classes, and to the world at large.

Each chapter of the book works relentlessly toward a reenactment of Lears’ overarching thesis–i.e. that the only “exits” from the prison of subjectivity lead to ever deeper levels of self-involvement. His analysis of the search for “wholeness”–through attempts to reconnect with the transpersonal imperatives of medieval culture and the Catholic Church, through the gospel of “simplicity” and resistance to market values manifested most notably in the “arts and crafts” movement, etc.–traces out the various ways in which each of these “critiques” eventually became “coping mechanisms” that addressed key psychological “trouble spots” unforeseen by the more straightforward proponents of “modernization”, thus enabling the project itself to forge on.  Meanwhile, the cult of outer experience–or “strenuosity”–performed an analogous function, by encouraging angst-ridden bourgeois subjects to cathect the malaise of modernity upon each other (on the playing field), the wilderness or, alternatively, and even more usefully (given the necessity for capitalist expansion) the rest of humanity–through militarism and the “muscular Christianity” typical of the Protestant missionary culture that blossomed in the late 19th century.

Each of these routes out of despair led inevitably back to the starting gate of “the rat race”, only reconceptualized in various ways–through the rhetoric of “personal growth”, bodily well-being, or meaningful action/”real living” (i.e.”be all that you can be”)–so as to make this position seem, at least momentarily, more palatable. Lears reveals Emerson’s  “soldiery of dissent” as, in fact, a self-diagnosing and self-medicating (though most emphatically not a self-abnegating) soldiery of peace and of war, whose ranks have swelled–both within and without the borders of the United States–in the decades since the close of the period here under consideration. Far from a means of “escape”, with which one would associate the dissipation of energy, “evasive banality” unleashes powerful antimodern frustrations upon  the world, with very “real” effects.

Given Lears’ sense of the inevitability of these processes, it is not surprising that his own proposed “exit strategy” from the modern condition–ambivalence–can only be understood as a more “genuine” form of escape. By privileging  the early, tension-wracked cultural criticism of Van Wyck Brooks, most notably America’s Coming-of-Age (255), and the poetic oeuvre of T.S. Eliot, Lears appears to be arguing: “if you can’t beat ’em, at least don’t join them”–that the way to halt the machine is not to “rage against it”, but to look upon its manifestations (and its impositions upon the “modern soul”) with a sense of tragic/ironic bemusement (i.e. that the dream of “wholeness” could never have come about without the “reality” of alienation, and that, without our sense of loss, we would founder) . While this is an extremely appealing formulation–and may even be correct–it is impossible to imagine that any society, as a whole, could attain the ambivalence that Lears so admires in Ash Wednesday (moreover, Eliot himself failed, quite spectacularly, to maintain this attitude in his more political writings), and it could certainly be argued that this entraps the author within the logical futility of antimodern self-absorption that he describes so well.

Later Tonight–Cerebus #8 to 10!
Dave

Here It Is–One Reason Why I Love Comics

Here It Is–One Reason Why I Love Comics

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(a Ditko moment from Tales To Astonish #1–is that guy awesome or what? He’s just playing with that ghost–and our heads! )

These people have been far more diligent than I in chronicling their love for the medium. There’s a lot of great stuff out there!  People seem to be repressing their feelings about Mike Murdock, which is sad, in this day and age, but what can ya do? Also–unless I missed it (and I probably did), there hasn’t been any mention of Bernard the Poet and the Cafe-A-Go-Go (from the Roy Thomas/Werner Roth period of the X-Men) or Big Jim’s P.A.C.K

Back to Cerebus tomorrow!

Good Night Friends!
Dave

Get on the (Cere)Bus — Part II: issues #4-7

Get on the (Cere)Bus!

(Part II: issues #4-7)

So, in my first Cerebus post, I mentioned issue #2’s audacious manifesto of the “serial survivor”. Cerebus is about to be killed by a succubus? Well, that’s fine, except that, y’see, he’s immune to that sort of thing–because this is Cerebus. Of course, this is a given in any ongoing narrative that focuses upon one protagonist, from David Copperfield through The Continental Op to Superman. But I like the way that Sim drives home the fact by refusing to produce an explanation for this bit of ontological melodrama:

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Where is its soul?

Again–Cerebus is all soul. All fantasy. And as real as his creator. That is all ye need to know.

Issue #7 builds toward an even more demented instance of this same unlawful law (and manages to anticipate, in some obvious ways, the explosive deus ex machina that brings  Joe Vs. The Volcano to a joyous conclusion! Tom & Meg shoulda stopped right there…)

But the way I see it, the real drama of the early issues of Cerebus is in Sim’s effort to generate a troupe of actors hammy enough to compete for the spotlight with his short gray anti-hero. Obviously, he struck paydirt with Elrod–who first appears in #4, and then, a mere three issues later, returns for some of this:

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(Cerebus is upset because this scene takes place just outside the lair of the Black Sun death cult…Elrod is looking for a cocktail that goes by the same name)

That entrance! It’s pure Groucho–in “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” mode–and even if we didn’t know that Sim was a mere seven issues away from bringing Julius Marx himself into the narrative, we could have predicted it… Elrod, like Cerebus, is “fit to stand the gaze of millions”–and consequently exempt from the bloody logic of whatever situation he stumbles into (or, as is more usually the case with The Albino, instigates)  Is Elrod a parody of Elric? That’s what they always say–but I don’t buy it. He’s a pop-alchemical miracle is what he is.

So what else happens in these issues? Well, Cerebus comes across two separate groups of lunatics (the Pigts–led by Bran Mak Mufin & Fret Mac Mury–and the aforementioned Black Sun) who worship his graven image; he makes some quick illicit cash (although usually not as much as he thinks he’s going to), and he spends it just as quickly.

Oh yeah–and he meets Jaka…
 


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Look at that Charles Schulz grin in panel four! It’s the spitting image of Lucy at the piano, putting the moves on Schroeder. That’s what’s so great about Sim’s work, even at this stage in the game–the juxtapositions. This is supposed to be a Conan parody? No way! That was just a cover story. Barry Smith people don’t grin like that. “Realistic” figures can’t. So much the worse for us realistic types. I’ve felt that grin coming on many times–but I’ve never quite managed to screen it for the world…

So what’s Jaka’s story, anyway?

Well, she’s no Elrod–that’s for sure. She can’t compete with Cerebus on the cartoon plane. But what she can do is force a shift in focalization–an even rarer feat in the context of this particular narrative:

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And here’s one explanation for why it happens:

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Happy–sniff!–Valentine’s Day Friends!
Dave