Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Dreamers’ Category

Marvel comics are filled with strange words and phrases: negative zone, infinity gem, cosmic cube, Shi’ar, Kree, K’un L’un, Genosha, vibranium, Immortus — but a few words I never expected to see in a Marvel comic were Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius.

They’ve been cropping up a lot lately in Ales Kot’s Secret Avengers, appearing for the first time in issue #6. Afficionados of Latin American literature might recognize these three nonsense words as the title of a 1941 short story by Argentine master (and my personal favorite author) Jorge Luis Borges. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like many of Borges’ greatest stories, combines literary criticism and fantasy fiction in a format that is as rigorous as it is imaginative. The story is narrated by Borges himself and features other real-life 20th century literary figures such as Bioy Casares¹. It concerns the discovery of an encyclopedia which is otherwise sound but includes an entry about Uqbar, a province in Asia Minor with a rich and detailed history that also happens not to exist.

“The literature of Uqbar,” we are told “was a literature of fantasy…its epics and legends never referred to reality but rather to the two imaginary realms of Mlejnas and Tlön.” Thus Borges glimpses the edges of a centuries long conspiracy which culminated in a massive effort by a group of linguists, scientists, writers, cartographers, and eccentrics to imagine, in its vast breadth and minute detail, the fictional world of Tlön:

“I now hold in my hands a vast and systematic fragment of the entire history of an unknown planet, with its architectures and playing cards, the horror of its mythologies and the murmur of its tongues, its emperors and its seas, its minerals and its birds and fishes, its algebra and its fire, its theological and metaphysical controversies — all joined, articulated, coherent, and with no visible doctrinal purpose or hint of parody.”

Later:

“Who, singular or plural, invented Tlön? The plural is, I suppose, inevitable, since the hypothesis of a single inventor — some infinite Leibniz working in obscurity and self-effacement — has been unanimously discarded. It is conjectured that this ‘brave new world’ is the work of a secret society…”

How does this all tie back to comics? When this story first appeared in 1941, the idea of a team of slightly mad individuals devoting their lives to rendering every detail of a fictional universe probably seemed far-fetched. By the time the first English translation appeared 20 years later, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were about to embark on just such a task with Fantastic Four #1, the first entry in what would become one of the most elaborate and fully-realized fictions of all-time: the Marvel Universe.

Comics fans often hear that the decades of complex continuity inherent in properties such as Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman are intimidating to new readers and keep the superhero comics genre from growing.  But it is the long term commitment to world building that actually defines the genre.  Marvel and DC comics are not the best comics on the shelves, with rare exceptions (like Kot’s SA, natch) they are not artful examples of the potential of sequential art.  But a Marvel comic offers something that a Chris Ware or Joe Matt comic cannot:  50+ years of history, collectively constructed by hundreds of writers and artists and millions of fans.   Continuity is not what hinders corporate comics — it is actually the one thing that makes them unique and wonderful.

Realizing this, the most successful writers of such comics over the last decade have been those who have engaged with continuity as the defining feature of superhero comics.  Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns stand out as the two writers who have made the biggest recent impact on corporate superhero comics by actively engaging with the long history of DC comics, untangling and retangling the insane histories of Superman, the Flash and the Justice Society, retroactively altering history just like the magical hronir in Borges’ story.

Many of Borges’ stories end on a dark, or at least foreboding note, and “Tlön” is no exception.  In the postscript to the story (which is dated 1947, even though it was published along with the original story in ’41), JLB discusses how the discovery of the complete cyclopaedia of Tlön has rapidly remade the world.  Fictitious history has replaced the real — a scenario which does not seem so far-fetched.  It is not unlike Baudrillard’s state of hyper-reality, a world in which in reference to pop culture has become the dominant, and perhaps only, relevant form of communication.  Behind all of that slash fic, those reaction gifs, those cosplays, is it possible that we are all actually losing touch with reality, replacing it with a new one sewn wholecloth from imagination? Or, to put it another way, “Shaka, when the walls fell?”

 

¹ Borges and Casares engage in “A vast debate over the way one might go about composing a first-person novel whose narrator would omit or distort things and engage in all sorts of contradictions, so that a few of the book’s readers — a very few — might divine the horrifying and banal truth.” This is just the strategy later employed by late-postmodernist authors such as Paul Auster and Gene Wolfe, writers reared on the continental literary theory which was largely inspired by Borges himself. Of course, this excerpt is not only a suggestion to future generations of writers, but to future generations of readers, who may begin to question everything they are told by “Jorge Luis Borges,” the narrator of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

bryan lee omalley seconds characters

My essays on here have been getting less frequent and more personal.  I’d guess that means that I’m just more focused on my personal life than on comics and pop culture right now.  Probably for the best, as I’m getting married in eleven days — an event I’d certainly hope would be more important to me than Future’s End or the Death of Wolverine.

The following review of Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley contains spoilers for the entire book as well as for the entirety of my own life.

***

katie seconds page 11

That’s the opening to the first proper chapter of Seconds, the second proper graphic story from Bryan Lee O’Malley, the first proper cartoonist many people of a certain age fell in love with.  And if the preceding sentence seemed improbable and convoluted, it’s only because it is so freighted with meaning.

For readers of a certain age, that is.

When I first started reading O’Malley’s breakout work, Scott Pilgirm, I was in much the same place in my life as the titular character.  Fresh out of school, in a cramped and highly unglamorous living situation, at best marginally employed, and dating a much younger and more innocent girl largely because it was the easiest thing to do at the moment.  I was, too put it mildy, a selfish whelk woefully unprepared for the realities of adult living.

Fast forward a few (too many) years and very little has changed.  I mean, I’ve got a fairly grown-up looking apartment, I make a decent living, and I’m in a stable and healthy relationsihp of equals.  But I still see myself reduced to the simple clean lines of a Bryan Lee O’Malley comic.

I’ve been talking to myself more than usual.

***

I’m twenty-nine years old.  I work in the restaurant up the road.  I love the restaurant.  It’s not my first one.  Restaurants, like women, mark phases in your life, lessons learned.

My first one was a neighborhood star that had shone brightly for a year and since fallen on hard times.  This place, let’s call it The Café, had already broken up the chef-owner’s marriage and sent one general manager running for the hills.  The new manager was a hard but humorous fellow who had worked his way from dishwasher to maitre’d in the most legendary dining rooms in New York before relocating to Chicago, which he viewed as the hinterlands.  We at first seemed to have little in common, but soon discovered that we were both alcoholics, and for that reason perceived each other with a grudging sort of respect.  I grew closer with the crew there than at any other place I’ve since worked; I watched my coworkers get married, have their first children, move across the country, and in many ways grow into themselves.  I was the youngest of the bunch but I felt in many ways like we were all growing up together.  Still, after a couple of years the whole environment proved too volatile, and I walked out at the end of a particularly tense shift.

The next place, which I shall call Lé Chic was a very elegant and very expensive lair with a prime bit of real estate just close enough to downtown to draw the big crowds but just far enough away to maintain some illusion of edginess.  They had just brought on a new rising star to run the kitchen and undo the damage done by the previous chef (another alcoholic — the world is positively full of us, if you know where to look).  Those ambitions were rewarded in my first year there, when the restaurant earned a Michelin star.  After the turmoil of my first restaurant,  Lé Chic showed me what a real, functional restaurant could be: the attention to detail, the completeness of the experience, the overwhelming emphasis on going well beyond the guest’s expectations, and more than anything, the level of complexity and technique that was actually required to make deceptively simple food at high volumes and ensure that every morsel was delicious every time.   Although the sense of pride I felt in being a small part of such a place was immense, I also knew that  Lé Chic was, for its owner at least, more a business than a passion, and as I saw more and more decisions being made solely in the service of profit margins (often at the expense of employees’ well-being), I had to once again move on.

After a couple years spent in the wilderness of sales and marketing for a meat, cheese, and specialty goods purveyor, I missed the fun and flexibility of restaurants and asked a chef friend about a job at his new spot, aka The Hipster.  I realized when I joined up that I had gone from being a young curiosity (a well-educated waiter, probably on a pit stop on his way to some sort of real career) to an old and tired cliche (an over-educated waiter who never made much of himself in a real career, and now knows the restaurant business the way a mercenary knows the war business).  Still, I loved it.  Saturday nights at The Hipster were like being on stage.  The best looking, coolest and richest people in town were all clamoring for a table in the city’s hottest dining room, and I was one of the beautiful people chosen to entertain them for the evening.  The truth is, I never would have left, unless provided with the perfect opportunity for something even hotter, even younger.

Enter The New Place.  My first time opening a restaurant.  It would be the latest project from a chef and a group that had dominated the city restaurant scene for the last half-decade, and best of all, it was just up the road from my house.

***

Screen-Shot-2014-07-16-at-1.30.15-PM

Seconds focuses on a crucial period in the life of Katie, a 29-year old chef suffering through some serious ennui.  Unlike O’Malley’s previous protagonist, Katie seems to have life pretty well figured out.  She’s the most popular chef in town.  She’s on the cusp of opening a restaurant of her very own.  But for the time being, she stuck living most of her life out at Seconds, the restaurant she helped create but feels little love for anymore.  All tied up with this is Katie’s fraught relationship with her ex (and ex-sous chef), and her semi-secret relationship with (you guessed it) her new sous chef.  When an ill-advised hookup leads to a chain of events that ends with a young employee being seriously injured in a kitchen accidents, Katie is overwhelmed with regret.

And then things gets pretty weird.

***

Your early twenties are a great time to make, and learn from, mistakes.  Your late twenties are a great time to make, and reflect on, regrets.

I regret changing colleges after sophomore year.  I regret slacking off  and never giving a thought to a job or life after school.  I regret doing what my father (a chef) told me never to do and getting into the restaurant business.  I regret not getting out sooner.  I regret not keeping up with my friends from my old school.  I regret the way I treated every woman I was ever with before the woman I’m with now.  I regret not spending more time with my Granddad Bill.  I regret not sticking with golf like my brother did.  I regret not seeing my brother grow up.  I regret downing a half dozen pain pills and five Guinnesses the day I got fired from my first job.  I regret not letting rehab stick the first time.  I regret not writing almost anything at all from roughly 2006 to 2011, which probably should have been my most productive period as a creator.  I regret all the times I missed a social engagement because I was either passed out or too drunk to drive.

I love the New Place.  It’s the greatest restaurant I’ve ever been a part of, and this time I’ve been there since the beginning.  It has a concert venue upstairs that focuses on musicians native to the surrounding area, a onetime mecca of entertainment that has since fallen into obscurity.  The food is incredible.  The space is full of plants and light and basically looks like an oasis of joy in an otherwise dreary stretch between a strip mall and an L.A. Fitness.   There’s an adorable little coffee bar in the back where I can quietly make myself an espresso and then look over a room full of happy, laughing people, and feel like I’ve actually been a part of creating what I see in front of me.

I also sort of hate the New Place.  Cutting out my long commute and working in the neighborhood was supposed to give me more time at home with my fiancee, but we didn’t count on the significantly longer hours.  I also have less time to write, and I’m exhausted more often than not.  I think about it when I’m not there.  I have stressful dreams about it.  I’m afraid I’m going to regret leaving the easy money of the Hipster in favor of working a lot harder for the same pay at the New Place.

***

second chances

Overcome with guilt after allowing harm to come to a coworker, Katie discovers an opportunity to make things right.  When she wakes the next morning, everything is okay.

She was only supposed to get one chance, but Katie uncovers a loophole that allows her to go back and fix more mistakes.  Despite the warnings of the hip young House Spirit that has started haunting her, Katie embarks on a program of course corrections, going back to change increasingly important moments in her own life.

And all of this, of course, has unintended consequences.

If I had never left home early, and then if I had never changed schools,  I never would have met the love of my life.  If I hadn’t gotten fired from that first job I never would have found something of a calling in the restaurant world.  If I hadn’t hit rock bottom, I wouldn’t have been so lucky as to start curing my addictive behavior early in life.  If I had held on to the same old friends, I might never have had room for the amazing ones I have now.

Still, I obsess over tiny moments of the past, reliving in minute detail the way things did happen and the way I wish they would have happened.  If I, like Katie, had the power to do-over any moment, the list of things I would change would be almost infinite.

But, given that my past mistakes indicate a life-long history of poor decision making, what would make me think that I would be able to go back and do a better job?

Who’s to say I wouldn’t just make things immeasurably worse?

And that’s precisely what happens to Katie.  She doesn’t just mess up her life by trying to redo the past.  She messes up the whole space time continuum.

***

The inner-workings of a restaurant are a frightening and mysterious thing

The inner-workings of a restaurant are a frightening and mysterious thing

I focus most of my attention on the past, and the rest on the future, often with very little regard to the present moment.  Lately the universe has been conspiring to remind me that that is precisely the wrong way to do it.

In the beginning of Seconds, Katie is the same state.  All of her emotional energy is tied up in the past (her relationship with Max) and in the future (the all-too-distant opening of her new restaurant).   Attempts to change the outcome of the latter by altering the former are met with disaster.  In the end all she has to do is focus on the present, on being present.  It turns out the work of changing the future is difficult.  Back-breaking.  It can’t be done by flicking some single switch in the past.  There is after all no lever of sufficient length to lift the whole world.  Progress can only be achieved in real time.  By focusing totally on the present moment, and on doing the right thing in this moment.

Ha.  Maybe there’s something I can take away from that.

Read Full Post »

The restaurant I work at recently received a pretty harsh review from a fairly important publication, and it has really gotten me thinking about restaurant criticism.  Restaurant critic was once one of my dream jobs.  Given that my two primary hobbies are eating and criticizing things, it would seem like a perfect fit.  But having worked as long as I have in restaurants, I always view anyone who would deign to criticize what we do with, if not disdain, at least suspicion.  What do you know, anyway?

Almost all restaurant reviews focus on three things: service, food quality, and ambiance.  This is as true in major newspapers as it is on Yelp.   Criticism in this vain offers its readers a service: there are many, many options for dining in any major city, so which ones are worth spending hard-earned money at?  This is the restaurant review as a product review.  Comparing the latest trendy restaurants is barely different from comparing the latest models of Android phones:  give me the technical specs, the price points, and that indescribable ‘x factor’ (which is, 100% of the time, just the reviewer’s totally subjective gut reaction).

But there has to be more to it, right?  What about where that cellphone comes from?  It’s environmental impact?  The kind of conditions the people who made it work under?  In the world of product reviews, that kind of deep data is so far removed from the end consumer that it is more or less irrelevant — or rather, very easy to ignore.

But in a restaurant those factors are more in-your-face.  There’s more than food, service, and ambiance.  The top-tier of restaurants today are a microcosm for some of the most important social issues of the 21st century:  questions about class, race, the environment, economic sustainability, multiculturalism, and labor are all constantly at play.  I believe there is room for a restaurant criticism that looks beyond the surface dining experience to examine and evaluate the real workings of a restaurant.

Here are some possible questions a restaurant critic with a Marxist-Feminist-Ecologist perspective would ask:

  • Who works here?
  • Is the staff young or old?
  • Has the staff, especially the bar, host, and waitstaff, been hired for attitude and intelligence, or have they been hired solely based on their appearance (people outside of the industry may be surprised to learn how many restaurant jobs require you to submit a headshot along with your application)?
  • Are people of color fulfilling many roles throughout the restaurant, including managerial, or are they relegated to support roles (busboy, barback, prep cook, dishwasher)?
  • What is the ratio of women to men on the staff?
  • Is the LGBTQ staff provided with a safe and supportive working environment and provided the same opportunities, in both the front of house and kitchen, as the staff as a whole?
  • Are there women in managerial roles?
  • Are there women working in the kitchen as well as the front of the house?
  • How much are kitchen and front of house workers paid?  Are there benefits offered to full-time employees?
  • Are kitchen staff paid hourly or a day rate?
  • How many hours a day and hours a week do kitchen staff work?  How often are employees actually allowed to take their legally mandated breaks?
  • Is there significant staff turnover?  Are loyal staff members rewarded with opportunities for advancement?
  • Where does the restaurant’s product comes from?
  • Does the restaurant utilize locally farmed products and develop mutually beneficial relationships with farmers?
  • Are the products being served currently in season?
  • What percentage of the product served comes from local or sustainable sources, or from small purveyors, and how much comes from industrialized sources and corporate purveyors such as Sysco and US Foods?
  • Does the restaurant actually use the farms they name or are they just using the name for a marketing advantage?  If a farm is listed, is 100% of that product from that farm, or is it a mix of accurately named farmed product and a substitute product from a different origin? (This is unbelievably common, especially with meats.  Be wary of any high volume restaurant that claims to serve a specific cut of steak from a single family farm.  There’s only so many ribeyes on an animal, people).
  • Are fish and oyster species names and points of origin given accurately?  Does the waitstaff have the correct information regarding seafood sustainability?
  • Is the restaurant committed to serving only sustainable seafood?  Are there red-flag items such as farm-raised salmon, tuna, and Chilean sea bass on the menu?
  • Does the restaurant take steps to minimize environmental waste (forgoing hand towels in favor of dryers, re-using menus, minimizing the size and quantity of to-go containers, using environmentally friendly cleaning agents, favoring draft beer and wine over bottles and cans, converting vegetable oil for use in biodiesel vehicles, composting, using LED and low-wattage lighting, using reusable non-petroleum candles, etc., etc?)
  • Does the restaurant offer bottled water?  In areas that frequently experience drought, such as the Southwest, serving water only upon request or preferring bottled water is often the environmentally responsible move.  In other parts of the country, serving bottled water is an environmental nuisance when filtering and/or carbonating water in house and using washable carafes is possible.
  • What kind of community does the restaurant serve?
  • Are the primary clientele locals, citywide foodies, or tourists?
  • Does the restaurant cater to the wealthy, the middle-class, bohemians, or the poor?
  • Does the restaurant cater to the old, the young, to professionals, to others in the restaurant industry?
  • Does the restaurant staff treat customers of different races differently?
  • Does the restaurant offer options and positive experiences for people at many different income levels?  Does it welcome a young couple that has scrounged every dollar for a modest bottle of wine and a shared entree with the same hospitality it would provide to a wealthy group of white men with black Amex cards?
  • Does the restaurant provide a substantial benefit to its surrounding neighborhood, in terms of economic impact and quality of life?
  • Does the bar serve spirits from independent distilleries and beers from microbreweries?  Or does the backbar represent the numerous marketing categories of powerful global alcohol conglomerates such as Pernod-Ricard, Beam Suntory, and Diageo?
  • Does the wine program feature organic or biodynamic wines from small producers?

What is the point of all this?  There are restaurants out there that, while they may be fun and delicious, are out to do little more than maximize profits.  They may do so at the expense of their own employees, the rest of the local economy , and the environment.  And there are also restaurants that are fun, delicious, and ethical.  If restaurant critics really want to provide relevant information about where we should spend our money, they should do so by providing more information about which restaurants are Doing the Right Things.

Here are some of the restaurants in the Chicago area which I feel are not only generally tasty but also do right by their workers, purveyors, and their environment.  Pretty much all of these are former clients of mine or places that I have worked, so, I guess that’s a conflict of interest, but that’s also how I now that they are upstanding folk:

  • Vie and Perennial Virant
  • The Publican and Publican Quality Meats
  • Frontera/XOCO/Topolobampo
  • The Bristol
  • The Girl and the Goat
  • Trenchermen and Sportsman’s Club
  • Longman & Eagle, Dusek’s and The Promontory

Few of those restaurants are new or still trendy, but they’re also not names that would surprise anybody.  The reason they’ve stuck around for a few years and become so popular might, just might, have to do with the fact they not only put out great food and drink, but they treat their employees well and never sacrifice ethical principles in favor of a quick buck.

Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to expose some of the restaurants that I know are talking the talk without walking the walk.

Next time you read a harsh restaurant review, or sitting at a table wondering why your $28 entree is taking longer than you’d like, keep in mind that a restaurant in an incredibly complex organism that many people have devoted a ridiculous amount of their life to.  And that, while the food is still always the most important thing, there is so much more to a restaurant than just what ends up on your plate.

Read Full Post »

modok conspiracy wall

Comic-Con was last week.  I didn’t hear anything about any comic book news coming out of it.  “Comic books” are a mainly a genre of TV and movie now, in case you didn’t know.  This *could* actually be good for some creators — Mark Millar has shown one way to create a sustainable model in which he’s able to put out creator owned books on his own terms, pay his artists a living wage*, and fund it all on the back end with movie rights.  So if you’re creating the kind of comic book that could conceivably be transformed into a summer blockbuster or a multi-season ensemble TV spectacle, hey, there might be some money in that for you.

If you’re creating a comic book that is designed to be a comic book and take full advantage of the beauty and flexibility of the form, doing things that can only be done on the illustrated page,  I recommend the restaurant industry, freelance technical writing, or house/petsitting as ways to make extra money on the side.

Regarding this year’s Eisner Awards: congratulations to Los Bros; the fine folks behind Saga, Sex Criminals, Battling Boy, The Wake, and The Fifth Beatle; and Hall of Fame inductees Irwin Hasen (Dondi), Sheldon Moldoff (Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Batman), Orrin C. Evans (All-Negro Comics), Hayao Miyazaki, Alan Moore, Dennis O’Neil, and Bernie Wrightson.   Here is a link to a full list of the winners.

—–

southern bastards 2 cover

Southern Bastards #2 by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour.  Image, 2014.

I was a bit harsh on the first issue of this series.  I had been stoked about a JA title set in the deep rural south, especially after what he did with the North Dakota reservation setting of Scalped.  But Southern Bastards #1 just read like one long cliche to me — more a parody of the South than something derived from lived experience there.  Issue two shows that some of those broad strokes were necessary to set up where this first story arc is going.  It seems like the idea is that Craw County is not just another chicken-fried locale where High School Football rules and the sweet tea flows freely.  It is all that, but much worse, because the football culture is linked to a culture of corruption that pervades the entire county.  By digging a bit deeper, Aaron and Latour have turned cliche into metaphor, with much success.  I should have known that they just needed a little time to get going.

star spangled angel

The Star-Spangled Angel by Scott Roberts.  Self-Published/Ubutopia Press, 2014.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to read the origin story of Captain America or the Hulk in the form of a highly abstracted, nearly wordless indie comic?  That’s basically what this is, and it’s totally awesome.  The story of Star-Spangled Angel is pretty simple: two childhood friends join the army and then sign up for a science experiment in order to avoid the worst of the combat.  The experiments transform them both beyond recognition, nearly killing them in the process.  They develop superpowers.  Later, a robot designed by one of the pair loses control and goes on a killing spree.  It’s kind of like the short-short-short version of the first few years of The Avengers.

But it’s also a really gorgeously hand-printed three color risograph featuring truly absorbing artwork and imagery.  Roberts really uses the artwork to get deep inside the mind of someone undergoing a profound and frightening transformation.  There are only about 125 words of text in the entire comic, yet there is more nuance and psychological realism here than in even the most ambitious mainstream versions of similar “science gone awry” origin stories.

Roberts created this comic for Brain Frame, Lyra Hill’s long-running performative comics series that has been a focal point of the Chicago alt comics community for three years now.  You can watch Robert’s performance on Vimeo.  There is didgeridoo involved.  Sadly, Brain Frame is nearing its end, but there are still tickets available for the last ever Brain Frame, to be held at Thalia Hall in Pilsen on August 9. (Conflict of interest report: I work for the company that owns and manages Thalia Hall).

wonder woman 111

Wonder Woman #109-112 by  John Byrne with Patricia Mulvihill.  DC (Warner Bros.), 1996.

My big goal at C2E2 was to find as many of the ’90s Wonder Woman issues with Brian Bolland covers as possible.  I fantasized that a few hours of crate digging would lead to a complete set, but what I found was that very few of the vendors had any Wonder Woman from this, or any, era.  What I did find was a complete run of John Byrne on the title.  In 1995, Byrne came on Wonder Woman with issue 100, in the hopes that he could do for the title what he had done a decade before for the Man of Steel.

The results were…mixed.

Byrne doesn’t seem to have much of a feel for the character, the biggest disappointment being the somewhat retrograde portrayal of gender roles.  Byrne’s artwork is decent but hardly belongs on the same shelf with his best work — the inking is sloppy, the layouts are jumbled and sometimes barely readable, and many of the character designs seem to be lifted directly from Byrne’s own Next Men series.

The one standout storyline buried in the middle of this morass is the four issue arc starting in issue #109.  Wonder Woman encounters The Flash, who is running rampant and carelessly destroying the city.  Even more shockingly, it’s not Wally West (who was the Flash at the time) but Barry Allen, who was supposed to have died a decade early during the Crisis on Infinite Earths.  Soon, Diana also runs into Sinestro and Doomsday, who are acting similarly out of character and, of course, leaving trails of destruction in their wake.  Needless to say, there’s a mystery to be solved and a hidden actor pulling the strings.  It’s a pretty hokey story, and Byrne’s understanding and depiction of computer and videogame technology are particularly laughable today, but it’s a very nice self-contained arc that makes for a really fun and satisfying read.  Recommended, but skip the rest of the Byrne run and treat yourself to some vintage Fantastic Four or Uncanny X-Men instead.

clap for modok

Secret Avengers #5  by Ales Kot and Michael Walsh with Matthew Wilson.  Marvel (Disney), 2014.

Oh, Ales Kot from Zero is writing this?  Mmmm, Tradd Moore is doing covers?  M.O.D.O.K. is one of the main characters and there’s a big ‘ol conspiracy wall with M.O.D.O.K. at the center of it?  Whoa there, you can stop sellin’ cuz I’m ready to sign on the dotted line.  HAWKEYE AND SPIDER-WOMAN ARE IN THIS TOO?  Are you serious?  Take my fucking money, here please just take this $20, keep the change, okay thank you bye.

—–

* That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, of course: “I’ve started having all my artists sign on to not work for other publishers while they’re working with me, because creator-owned can not be part time,” he added. “The rates I’m paying are better than the rates at Marvel and DC, generally, so I say, ‘You have to commit to this for six or 12 months.”   What I don’t know is whether Millar also shares any of the profits from his Hollywood licenses with the artists behind the books.   I’m pretty sure John Romita Jr. did get a fat payday for Kickass — if you can confirm or deny this, leave it in the comments!

Read Full Post »

Hot take: this film is polar-izing.

I enjoyed just about everything in this movie from start to finish. The thing that gives me pause in my reaction is that some media outlets whose taste I rarely share loved this movie, while some whose taste I definitely do share kind of slammed it.  Have I been blinded by the offbeat premise, the wonderfully realized sets and art direction, and the sweet action set pieces (snipers shooting at each other from different train cars, the axe vs. fire axe fight sequence, ¨they have no bullets!¨)?  Is this a Pacific Rim scenario — a slightly-above average genre piece that gets labeled a masterpiece because it’s not as bad as the popcorn fodder we’ve been surrounded by for weeks?

There seems to be a strain of thought regarding this kind of film that goes something like this: the political metaphors are presented on the surface and are not subtle, and therefore as a piece of political commentary the text is co-opted and not valuable. This is a view that is most commonly espoused by Slate, the home of online smarm and smugness, but it crops up everywhere. Basically, it boils down to: I think someone who is less smart than me would also understand what this movie/book/comic is getting at, therefore I have nothing to gain from it and it sucks.

Pretty shitty way to be, imo. Here is a list of significant 20th century works of political allegory that are not subtle:

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Dr. Strangelove, dir. Stanley Kubrick
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

You may not be a fan of all of those.  I don’t much care for either the style or the content of Ayn Rand, for example, but it’s hard to deny that she’s had a huge impact on political thought, working largely in the medium of the allegorical novel.

So why should a film like Snowpiercer, which deals with the dramatic stratification of society and the self-reinforcing nature of class and caste systems, be dismissed as trite?  Is it not true that one percent of the people control 90% of the wealth, land, and goods?  Is it not true that when a new person rises to power, they are more likely to perpetuate the old system than make radical changes?  Is it not true that the everything the ruling class tells us is a lie and if we could see the truth we would throw off our shackles and revolt this very minute?

I think the real reason some people, especially here in the US, don’t like Snowpiercer is that they can’t relate to the protagonists.  Because the protagonists are the real global poor who face real struggles for survival.  And you, and me, and everyone you know in Chicago or Brooklyn or Silver Lake or wherever?  We’re the ones in the middle of the train who are just following orders, keeping those below us repressed and those above us well fed.

Read Full Post »

2009-11-24_Persepolis_02

If you ever find yourself on the south side of Chicago with an hour or two to kill, skip the MSI and check out the Oriental Institute, aka Indiana Jones’ day job. It’s full of artifacts from Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Persian history. Particularly impressive is the room devoted to Persepolis, the capital city built by the Achaemenid King Daryush and his son Xerxes in the 4th and 5th century B.C. The temples, treasuries, and palaces of Persepolis were built on a raised stone platform, such that the entire city was raised above the earth, a testimony to the power of human ingenuity and technology. Though the city was sacked by Alexander the Great in the 3rd Century B.C.E. and then gradually abandoned, the magnificent grey limestone terrace and many limestone and marble columns and statues remained virtually intact into the 21st century, far outlasting the culture that originally constructed them. As we were leaving this gallery, I noted to my companion “say what you will about monarchy, the concentration of 99% of a civilization’s resources under one person’s control sure leads to some amazing architecture.”

IMG_20140707_131758

In The Boy in Question by Michael DeForge (Space Face Books, 2014) two soldiers stumble upon a third person in a strange, undulating landscape. They radio their base for help and are told to sit tight. They do so. The sit tight for thousands of years. Their children and grandchilden and great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren sit tight. Novel forms of agriculture are developed. They build a massive interconnected city that is raised above the ground.  A Persepolis. The radio to base becomes the center of a cult of esoteric worship, along with the original mysterious corpse. Help from the base never arrives. But in the meantime, civilization was created.

—–

DeForge recently tweeted

This seems like a reaction against critics, myself included, who may have tried to use DeForge’s comics to decode aspects of his personal life.  That type of criticism runs counter to all the best practices of the twenty-first century critic.  But it’s also the easiest form of criticism and the prevailing one in today’s media climate.  We no longer seem to care that much about art, and are much more concerned about artists.  This is not a trend that has been created solely by lazy critics, however.  Artists feed into it.  Artists who spend more time self-promoting on social media than creating principal materials encourage us to view them as quasi-celebrities and brands first, and the art takes a back burner.  In comics, especially indie comics, the problem is exacerbated by the diary/journal nature of so many self-published comics and comic tumblrs.

DeForge’s body of work has largely been a reaction against all of that.  The questions that he tackles are metaphysical even as the subject matter in his books is often shockingly corporeal.  This approach reminds me of another wave-making cartoonist of late, Julia Gfrörer, who has been on a campaign to bring seriousness back to independent comics:

The internet is a fun place to do whatever you want and it’s true that there are no rules for making comics or writing about them.  But I do feel, and I think Gfrörer and DeForge may share this sentiment*, that there aren’t enough people legitimately trying to push the artform forward now.  After a decade full of nip-slips, listicles, Ryan Gosling memes, anal sex jokes, Jimmy Fallon, and reality television, isn’t it time that we stop being “Cutesy,” not just about feminism but kind of about everything?  Comics critics may be among the worst offenders; as Tom Spurgeon has been pointing out lately, no one ever offers any real criticism of comics these days:

Comics critics are scared to make waves by calling out bad art or retrograde storytelling.  The only time indie cartoonists get criticized is if they say something offensive on twitter or fail to deliver a Kickstarter on time.  It’s the very definition of preciousness.  It’s time to look, LOOK, at that pile of metaphors over there.  It’s time to stop waiting for the approval of our gods and build our own Persepolis.

*Which basically makes me guilty once again of the same kind of “putting words in authors mouths” thinking that my deconstructionist college professors would spit in my eye for

Read Full Post »

Top Row: Saint's Love by Krystal DiFronzo, Ines Estrada, Needle Dick by Anya Davidson.  Bottom Row: Chris Cilla, Blimpakind by Tanya Modlin, Lucy Knisley

Top Row: Saint’s Love by Krystal DiFronzo, Ines Estrada, Needle Dick by Anya Davidson. Bottom Row: Chris Cilla, Blimpakind by Tanya Modlin, Lucy Knisley

Topical!

I spent my weekend at my favorite comics convention of the year, CAKE, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo.  I wrote a full report for Comics Beat  , which was kind of a big deal for me.  Even after writing that massive 4,000 word con report there were a ton of comics that I was excited about that I didn’t mention or give enough attention to, so I’ll be mixing some of those in with my usual tights’n’fights stuff in this column over the next few weeks.  It’s kind of remarkable how a show like CAKE, which is approximately 1/30th the size of C2e2 (CAKE had 2,200 attendees this year, C2e2 63,000) can offer so much more diversity than the larger show.

That means diversity as far as who was at the show and diversity in terms of the types of comics and art on offer.  C2E2, a convention which aims to embrace all of pop culture, essentially boils down to popular science fiction and epic fantasy franchises, video games (but only popular current and vintage mainstream games, not experimental or indie), superheroes, and paranormal romance.  Creators at CAKE had comics about all of that stuff, but also about food, punk music, graffitti, environmentalism, dealing with illness, coming out, losing touch with friends, making new friends, buttsex, non-butt sex, crossdressing, long walks on the beach, dismantling the patriarchy, baseball, absentee fathers…and that’s just walking down one row of tables.  Basically what I’m saying is that comics can be about anything, anything in the world, and CAKE proves that.  And at C2E2, about 80-90% of the creators exhibiting are straight white men.  At CAKE, more than half of the creators are women, and there is a ton of representation of the LGBTQ community, who are the backbone of the Chicago indie comics scene.  CAKE also has a higher percentage of creators of color, although it did seem like C2E2 drew a higher percentage of fans and attendees of color.

I hope the future of comics look a little more like CAKE and less like C2E2, although I love aspects of both shows.  If I could have a show that combined the diversity and range of creators and comics of CAKE with the event programming and cosplay of C2E2, that would be my ultimate show.

*****

Flu Drawings by Michael DeForge.  Self-published, 2014.

Drifting in and out of reality, the author envisions a psychosexual memory of adolescence.  Is it a poem, a memoir, a comic, a fever dream?  Whatever, it’s pretty good.  Pretty and Good. DeForge’s surreal illustrations allow the boundary between real and imaginary to become diffuse, inviting the reader to question the reality of the narrative as well.  Is the unseen narrator DeForge himself, or someone else?  Is the story being told truth, fiction, or something in between?  It sparks a lot of further contemplation for such a short work, which as a metric of quality is as good as any.

Image via Comixology

Image via Comixology

The Lizard Laughed by Noah Van Sciver.  Oily Comics, 2014.

“Even weak men can become fathers.”  That’s what Harvey has to say to Nathan, the son he hasn’t seen in a decade or more, after a tense confrontation in the desert.  It’s an effecting moment in a comic that’s full of them.  Set against the backdrop of Jemez Springs, New Mexico, the comic shines a harsh light on the effects of shirking parental responsibility, while also hinting at the possibilities of an alternative value system in which our traditional conception of family is turned upside down.  Engrossing.

Doctor Spektor: Master of the Occult #1 by Mark Waid and Neil Edwards with Jordan Boyd.  Gold Key/Dynamite, 2014.

What if Mythbusters was the most popular TV show in the world, was hosted by a fabulously wealthy eccentric with severe bipolar disorder, and even the most outlandish Myths turned out to be real?  That’s the basic premise of Mark Waid’s Spektor relaunch, which succeeds where so many recent paranormal adventures have failed by secretly being about reality TV instead.

Image via Valiant Universe

Image via Valiant Universe

X-O Manowar Vol. One: By the Sword by Robert Venditti and Cary Nord with Stefano Gaudiano and Moose Baumann.  Valiant, 2013.

Barbarian, meet crazy advanced alien culture.  Crazy advanced alien culture, meet Aric of Darcia — wait, what?  He already took your most powerful weapon and he’s hell bent on revenge?

Ideal for superhero fans who love historically accurate content about Visigoths.  Valiant’s flagship title may actually be the kookiest of the bunch.  I think I figured out my recent obsession with Valiant — entering this new universe recaptures the feeling I had delving into Legion of Superheroes  and The Avengers  as a kid — the feeling that I was in over my head, that there was a whole wild world out there and that it would take me ages to fit all of the pieces together.  Now when I read Marvel and DC comics it’s all “Green Arrow would never this” and “Wolverine’s costume is supposed to like that” — my preconceptions and, tbh, childhood associations make it hard to fully appreciate new developments in the universe.  With Valiant, I have no such biases, and am left ready to be blown away.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: