plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Saturday, June 11, 2005


Well, my latest comic has run into a bit of a snag, when I realized that it's awful. Luckily I wasn't that far into it, because it's going to take some extensive rewriting and that means some redrawing as well. I should have known better than to not plot it, as well as to make the premise more complicated than it needed to be. Ah well, this is how we learn the craft, I suppose. What this means is that I can scan and post the unused pages for those who would be interested. We'll see.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Viva Cinema Stupido...Somewhat

By now I'm sure that most folks have read the article by Ron Rosenbaum that Tom Spurgeon linked to over the weekend and had a chance to react in their own ways. If not, go ahead and take the time now. I'll wait.

Done? Good. Now, by this time you're probably confused, enraged, or elated by what you've read (or who am I kidding, you don't care one way or the other), and you're eagerly awaiting a screed in which I lay out my wholesale endorsement or dismissal of the article like some others are providing (in fairness to Tom, all he did was put up one line of the thing as his quote of the week, and didn't really say much else about it. Hardly a wholesale endorsement,I suppose). Well, I'm not going to do that. What I'm going to do is wade in and engage the piece in what I hope is an interesting dialogue, as there are parts of it that I agree with and parts that I don't.

This whole article really seems to amount to a taste issue for the most part, but with some extra barbed comments thrown in just because a discussion of taste apparently can't be had wihout those. I don't want to provoke anyone, or bust anyone's chops, but really...relax. The fate of cinema as we know it is not at stake, nor is the position of the nerd in lay society.

Now, having never seen the Kill Bill films myself, I can't really comment directly on them. What I'm picking up from Rosenbaum's reaction is that they are immature and stupid, but fairly stylish (which is what I suspected, which is why I haven't seen them. I am not the demo, here), which bores him, and he resents that there are people who enjoy them and provide critical responses to that effect. To such a thing I would say, again, relax. There is no last word on the subject of critical taste in films. Constructive dialogue, therefore, is always possible. And besides, I love a number of things that people find boring and am bored by a number of things that some people love. As a matter of fact, I may be boring someone right now. So what? Am I ruining it for anybody? Please, speak out now!

I give Rosenbaum points for disliking pseudo-mythic stuff in these films, but only because I also dislike anything in fiction being taken to the level of the mythic (I know that the mythic is already fictional, but what I specifically hate is trying to tie a given narrative into some bigger master narrative that has supposedly existed throughout the ages and cultures and reveals allegedly universal themes and experiences), and I have no way of knowing whether or not Kill Bill actually does incorporate the pseudo-mythic. Generally I find that the existence of such themes is more a product of the critical response than of the art itself (but isn't everything?). What I don't understand is how this relates to comic books specifically. To clarify: in the article, one of Rosenbaum's themes is how awful the
"graphic novel sensibility" is when applied to cinema. But it seems to me that the
particular mythologizing transgression was committed by painting, poetry, incidental music, novels and probably cinema itself prior to ever having been done in comics. I may be misunderstanding. What exactly is the superhero graphic novel sensibility, anyway? All of the things that I dislike about contemporary superhero narratives, or any narrative of any kind, really, existed before superheroes.

I imagine that the later parts of the article will bring me back around to that, but for a moment I'd like to focus on another of my troubles with the article, that being this:

Still, it’s too bad if you missed it, because it was the perfect epitome of and metaphor for what I would like to call "The Cinema of Pretentious Stupidity." The eyeball-squishing represented the crushing of vision by lead-footed pretension, the blinding of creativity by referentiality. The idea that ceaseless tedious references to obscure martial-arts movies known mainly by video-store geeks adds up to art.

I’ve heard so many defenses of Kill Bill that depend on the apparently marvelous and unheard-of-before wonder of its referentiality. Dude, just because you make a reference—or many references—doesn’t make it meaningful or worth four hours of our time.

Repeat after me, Kill Bill fans: Referentiality itself is not an intrinsic aesthetic value. Empty referentiality, going through the motions, doesn’t make a motion picture, give cinema the gift of sight—or insight.

References are probably not, in and of themselves, art--no. But they can be a language or a tool for use in the creation of art (something that Sean also points out). And references, as tools, have the benefit of being infused with residual meanings from their previous contexts as well as whatever new context that they are brought into. Now, are these reviled fimmakers taking these references and using them to create things that are new and meaningful themselves? Maybe, maybe not. But isn't that for those critically responding individuals to decide? I mean, as an abstract painter, I often use this thing here and that thing over there, for no other reason than to see what happens, what it looks like, what it makes me think about. Poets do it, songwriters do it. I imagine filmmakers do it to. Does the presence of story elements place some media beyond the reach of experimentation with tools (a good question for comic readers too, by the way)? So a collection of references doesn't necessarily add up to art? Well, who's making art? For all anyone knows, these guys are shooting movies. Or maybe just constructing an ode to their idea of coolness. Where does the presumption that all cinema (or any cinema, or anything for that matter) is or should aspire to be art come in? Allow me to let you folks in on a secret that shouldn't be a secret: art is not made by artists. It's made by critical response.

Then there's this:

Sin City: One certain tip-off that a movie is too dumb to defend is the praise that’s lavished on its "look," on its stylishly fab "art direction." Same with the moronic Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Many film critics, usually more verbal than visual, tend to be suckers for heavily art-directed films, because it’s a way they can show they deeply understand "the visual aspect of the medium." Remember how the profoundly worthless Madonna–Warren Beatty Dick Tracy was wildly overpraised because of, um, well, his bright yellow raincoat was really, really bright? And, like, the colors were really, really "super-saturated" (sounds cinematically knowledgeable). As if that alone made it art.

Again, I agree that stylishness itself does not necessarily make something good. What I'm not sure of is why it's so bad to praise someone, in this case the art directors and designers, etc., for doing a good job. If something about an otherwise not very good movie turns out to be great, isn't a critic justified in pointing that out? I think that to say that critics who praise the visual aspect of a film are just trying to look smart is, to put it charitably, disingenuous (I also happen to think that to say a critic who decries a film he thinks is dumb does so because has an axe to grind against middle class white nerds is also a bit disingenuous, though.). Why does anyone feel the need to speculate on what any critic's "true motivations" are? Isn't it enough to address the content of the text as-is? The problem with playing "Uncover the Hidden Agenda" is that there's usually not much available in the text itself to support such assertions, except through the subjective reading of the very person making that assertion. Which is fine, I suppose, but does little to illuminate the discussion of the works at hand. Pick any thread with more than 100 posts on the Comics Journal message board for an illustration of what I'm getting at.

Now, onto the comic-superhero-mythology-is-the-new-avant-garde business. What? What does that even mean? It's dropped into the article with little or no context, and then the article goes on using the idea as the central point to explain something else. Tell me, Rosenbaum: what does "bourgeois avant-garde" mean? Avant-garde itself has become a completely meaningless term. Sure, it may have at one time stood for something transgressive and shocking and different. But after a while, doing something transgressive in artistic endeavors became something of a minimum requirement, which meant that nothing could be truly transgressive. The astonishment is gone. What good is it as a descriptor? Or let's look at it another way, playing off the quote from elewhere in the article. Does anyone really ask themselves (or their peers or favorite critics), "but is it...superhero graphic novel stupid?" I mean, wouldn't someone who embraced the Stupid, as described by such phrases as
"Stupidity with Attitude" and "Stupidity as Aesthetic Statement," be asking that very thing? Put another way, does anyone really believe that the people who love these films think that they're stupid, and take pride in that fact? I'm inclined to doubt that. At most, at most, I think that they may say "it's stupid and immature and so what," more than "it's stupid and immature and that's the way everything should be." But even then, though I may personally think of the films as immature and stupid, someone else may not, and may, in fact, get loads of enjoyment from them.

To tell the truth, I would have loved this stuff (and in the case of Sin City, did love it) when I was in my late teens and early 20's. I'm not interested in it now that I'm in my late 20's, but I didn't think of myself as having had bad taste at the time, and I still don't. I was just at a place in life where I'm not now. As I said above, I'm not the audience. I'll be frank: I see these things as constructions of violent and sexual fantasies calculated to make teenage boys really excited. I don't think there's anything particularly mature or sophisticated about them, and I don't care whether there is or not. There's also nothing wrong with them. The world is complex and out of people's control. These fictions are simple in their themes and can provide some satisfying release of the frustrations resulting from living in a world where you can't just walk up to others and make their hearts explode. If they don't shine the light on the human condition, they at least shine it on something approximating what some humans occasionally wish their condition could be. In fact, the less people believe that these films have something artistic and meaningful to say to them, the better as far as I'm concerned. "Sometimes standing up for your friends means killing a whole lot of people?" Yeah, the fantasy worlds of teenagers can have that. Really.

Those of you who are still with me (and God bless you) will now see what I'm bringing all of this around to. The point of the article, after all of the yammering and bluster aboutavant-this or that, seems to be this:

I was thinking about how sad it is that the success of Sin City and the coming hegemony of the Cinema of Stupidity could blot out any remaining originality in American cinema.

What is this guy, stupid? Has the success of any type, formula, genre, or technique in cinema ever stopped original films from being made? Did the success of Star Wars, often accused of ruining American Cinema back in the seventies, truly stop inspiring,
thought-provoking, emotionally resonant films from being made here in the US? Of course not. Rosenbaum himself goes on to name drop several of them (but in this I think he's being genuine--they are all fine films). Does anyone really believe that the existence of films that they don't like threatens films that they do like? Cinema Stupido is not going to destroy Cinema Snootio. Relax.

Well, I was going to get into my thoughts on the Sin City books and how they relate to all this, but my second reading of Rosenbaum's article ruined that for me. I thank everyone for sticking with me though the post is long. If I have any other thoughts related to this topic, I'll post them. And then apologize. Profusely.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Tap, Tap, Tap

Um, hi, folks. I see people are still checking in on me a little bit. I haven't gone away or anything, but I have gotten a new job and a new house which are going to require a bit of adjustment. Work on Earth, Monster Planet continues apace (a-very-slow-pace), and I have been spending my cartooning time in the company of some really great folks. Other than that, I am having a breadless week, as is the custom around here. It's going slowly. When Pesach is over I swear that I am going to have a bread sandwich. Have a good day, everyone.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

A Condition Very Much Like Dandruff

It had been years since I'd read Enigma, so I just pulled it off the shelf again one day last week and read it a couple times. Damned if the whole thing hasn't changed--which is to say, the way in which I complete the thing has changed. The Truth is a liar, identity is fluid, the author is a huge disappointment as a giver-of-answers but makes a great collaborator in the reader's investigation of the text. Nothing matters, but what did you expect? Relating a narrative in such a way that your audience will understand everything you're trying to impart to them is an impossible, frustrating and useless endeavor. If you want to find meaning, make it up. Where is this Milligan now? I daresay this series has been the high point of his career as I've seen it. Anyway, I'm on a kick about this stuff now. It's coinciding nicely with some of my own thoughts on fiction lateley. Either that or how I feel about fiction lately is driving the way I read the series, or probably both. We're reading each other, and I'm reading me reading Enigma, and so on. I'll post a bit more later. How much later, I don't know. Posting has been sporadic lately as I'm working on a comic of my own, called Earth, Monster Planet. It's not in a book format at all; I expect that I'll do three page segments, print some, release them around town (Kansas City, pretty baby, where the sky is so blue) for nothing and see what happens. Maybe I'll post some pages here as well. You never know. I'm also updating some of my links, so look there for some new people as well as corrections for people who have been on there incorrectly for a while.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Taming of the Shmuck

Okay, so I'm going to start this with a bit of a blogosphere tour, so bear with me. Rereading David Allison's views on Punch Drunk Love that I linked to earlier I came across this quote from Rose of Peiratikos (is anyone getting a sense of who my favorite bloggers are here?) in response to a reaction to Sideways from David Welsh. Wheeeeee! Oh, the quote:

"I'm sort of sick of movies about emotionally stunted men and the smart, sensitive, hurt women who care for them..."

I had the somewhat embarassing realization that so many of my favorite movies fall into that category. And I don't mean that I'm embarassed to like the movies, but that I'm embarassed not to have realized how much the women characters are getting used and just generally put into the position of rescuers not by virtue of anything they do, but more just because of how they're designed/who they are. It's as if all of these shmendricks are running into their idea of the perfect woman, winning their hearts somehow (usually by pedestal-izing them, which never works, or at least shouldn't work) and being healed by them.

Now, I don't really care that that particular plot is completely implausible because we are talking about movies here (obviously this can be extended out to other narrative media as well *ahem* Summer Blonde *ahem*) and for reasons I'll get into someday, I prefer implausibility in my fiction. What I care about, or more accurately what I'm interested in, is why this particular fantasy is so pervasive and so gripping for so many. If I'm being charitable I could say that it's not about gender at all, because the love interests in these movies represent not actual women, but instead a more general "something" outside of the men themselves that is going to make their screwy lives all better. That, of course, is in its most basic form one of the most dominant fantasies of the entire culture. But what if I'm not being charitable? What if I suppose that the women actually do signify, in some way, something that these men (I guess I'm speaking of the writers and directors here) think about women? But this is a problem too, because most of the time these women characters are not written as people, but more as combinations of myths and desires i.e. perfect or flawed in accordance with cultural myths about the way that women are "flawed." Am I making any sense here? I'm not in a place right now where I can cite specific examples, which tends to weaken my ability to argue convincingly, I guess, but think of Virginia Madsen's character in Sideways for a moment... In my memory she's constructed as this kind of note-perfect match what with the wine-geekery and literacy (in the sense that she is a reader for his writer; a good reader, if that makes sense). She's constructed as this person of taste who is willing, to a point, to chase after a guy who won't chase after her. Now, as that kind of guy (reformed, I like to think, but ask my wife) I can say that she is the fantasy woman. She is, in a sense, no more real than the "femme fatale" type in any number of other kinds of narratives. Anyway, one of my major pet peeves is people who speculate on other people's motivations and thought processes, so naturally that's what I've caught myself doing. However, I'd be interested (though righteously indignant, I assure you) in reading what anyone else who doesn't share my neurosis has to say on that point.

One more thing, then I'm finished for now. I noticed, while thinking of this topic, that hotshot 20-something directors will make films about 20-something losers being rescued, hotshot 30-something directors will make films about 30-something losers being rescued, and so on through the decades. This leads me to believe that the rescuing, the need to be raised up from wherever one happens to be, never ends. The cumulative effect is more interesting than any one single film, though it's also depressing. "The need to be raised up?" Gah, I just did it again!

Thanks for reading, and goodnight.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Things are great all over

Tom Spurgeon wonderfully articulates something I've thought but couldn't quite phrase. Check this out:

Very few writers on the medium talk about this, but there's a swagger to junk comics that can be very appealing, a knowledge and assurance that they'll be hitting all the right buttons, pleasure centers that have very little to do with artistic quality. When people ask why comic book aren't as popular as they used to be, it's probably good to remind them that nothing ever is and then, maybe, to suggest it's not that other media do what comics used to do but do it better; it's that they bother to do it at all now and in fact do it with greater frequency. So many of us were sent plunging into comics to find more of what we know we liked. I can't imagine anyone having to leave one form for another just to get that pulpy fix.


It stands to reason that the more casually intended art, art where the bulk of what's produced emphasizes an immediate, surface reward rather than a slow-building, long-term, deeper pay-off, will suffer as a natural delivery system for that kind of work falls out of favor. Could that be why of all the comic books out here, superhero books are doing the worst job of finding their potential audience? I know it's why most superhero comics seem to me really ill served by their collections.

Fantastic. And I particularly admire Tom for simply saying that he prefers comics books to graphic novels (or what have you) rather than saying they're better. As he points out, there is undeniably some work that is better served when presented in one single volume, so really it is just a matter of deciding to like one type of work more than another. But I wouldn't say that most of the superhero comics being made nowadays are ill served by their collections, mainly just because that seems to be what they're written for; the stories are closed/finite, the multiple plot and subplot threads that play themselves out over any number of issues and years being largely abandoned in favor of a "part x of n" style format (and by the way, why? Ugh!). But I suspect that he's talking more about collections of older material. Usually I agree, if only because the artwork of the older books, made for printing on cheap papers, looks terrible on perfect-bound glossy paper. I mean just awful. That's my biggest complaint, anyway. There's also the notable absence of the non story content, but you won't find too many people who are bothered by that, I guess. I do still love the Essentials collections from Marvel, though, particulary because they are cheap and contain a large amount of material, and it isn't presented in some reverential way. And I think that is my other big gripe: the reverential presentation of something that doesn't need it (and note that I did not say that it doesn't merit it). It's as though the material's status as a precious fetish object follows it out of the polybagged monthly and into this new collected format.

Again, that mostly concerns the older material. The new stuff that already has all of the ugly computer coloring and is already made for printing on glossy paper doesn't suffer the same, uh, slickification...yeah. And of course content-wise it is, as I said, more likely to feature closed, finite stories anyway. It's also more likely to be all serious and dark and moody and won't interest me in the slightest. I don't think there's anything wrong with making or liking the serious and moody superhero stuff, it's just that those things tend to leave out the aspects of superhero narratives that interest me and to hold onto the things that don't. But who cares what I like or don't? My point is that Tom is awesome.

In other news, Tim has a couple of interesting posts right in a row. Nostalgianiks, he hath your number.

Also, via Dave Fiore comes news of the return to blogging of David Allison, who tells us, conveniently, why we love both Annie Hall and Punch Drunk Love. Thanks, Daves.

Dave (Fiore) also has some great things to say about identity formation, self-realization and other fun things over at Peiratikos (in the comment thread). I can't give Dave all the credit--Rose and some other posters provide him (and he them) with interesting counterpoints and attempted clarifications (though bear in mid that they are using language, so there won't be even the slightest chance of a mutually satisfying clarification, but we aren't hung up on that sort of thing, are we?).

That's what I've been reading and enjoying this weekend. I also notice that my links sorely need updating. Does anyone know what happened to Jon?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Finding the Writerly in the Readerly, or for God's Sake, Like What You Like.

Who dares disturb my slumber?

Anyway, some of the posts I've read recently have made me feel like doing a bit of blogging again, so here I am. I think it all started, as so many of these things do, at Dave's blog. Other bloggers and readers were doing the "Dave's crazy" thing, which is always fun to read, even though I don't understand why it is that people think so. Well, it had been about two months since I'd even looked at a blog, so I scrolled down and found a post with a link to a piece on Eightball 23 by Dave Intermittent that I found troubling (which is to say I disagreed with enough of it to get stuck thinking about it for several hours. But fear not, I have no life, so it was no big interruption) as well as a link to a great entry by Matt Rossi that has sparked this post. Well, that one and this other one by Ed Cunard about Hugh Grant (somewhat). Really it starts in the comment thread at Ed's post where they get on the track about "is it okay to like such-and-such thing?" Folks, the answer is always yes. It's also quite okay to dislike it, whatever it is. It certainly helps to be able to say why you like or don't like something (well, it helps the person you're talking/writing to. You probably don't need help determining why you like or dislike something), but I wouldn't call it essential. I'm talking about guilty pleasure without the guilt (unless the guilt is necessary for the pleasure to be had, of course). I think that liking something shamelessly-even something that you should, by all reasonable accounts, consider awful-enables you to really broaden and enhance your critical experience. Not to mention just enjoying yourself without feeling like anyone's judging. First of all, they're not, and second, what if they are? But we're all adults here, nobody needs to be told that.

Ed likes Hugh Grant films. Dave loves Gerry Conway Spider-Man stories from the 70's (seriously, go read a 70's Conway/Andru Marvel Team-Up and then read a post on Dave's blog. The tonal resemblance is staggering). I dig the heck out of The O.C. And to be consistent with myself, I can even say why: it's because the rapidity with which events occur reminds me of old comics. Remember in the early days of the blog when I was recapping those old Defenders issues I dug up? I was remarking about the same sort of thing. In the first season, one of the characters divorces her husband, has a fling with her daughter's ex-boyfriend who is in high school, then dates and marries another person--all in the same season. That's nutso pacing right there, and it's like that for all of the characters. It's not serious in any way at all. There are no "very special" episodes. And best of all, it stymied my expectations. I expected a rote noble savage narrative, and got something else entirely. Writerly text on prime time Fox? I was elated, and instantly hooked.

So I like what I like without any shame. Do we really need a common critical resting place? I'm not sure we do. What's the point? There's much more to be gained by everyone finding something to like and then trying to articulate why, to show others what they see in it, to perhaps illuminate and add to our understanding. I'm not sure that I can argue for or even accept the idea of a universal aesthetic sense anyway, as I have, so far as I know, only ever been one person. I happen to think that the notion that reason-with-a-capital-r will lead us to a greater understanding of truth-with-a-capital-t or beauty-with-a-capital-b is absurd. I don't mean to say that it isn't real, just that it doesn't really matter whether it's real or not. And it doesn't add to my enjoyment or understanding of the things I like, or of things that other people are demonstrating to me that they like, so screw it.

I don't think I'm arguing for an abandonment of quality standards. Certainly in order to know whether or not we like something, we must have a standard of some kind. I'm pretty sure, however (though not absolutely certain), that I cannot accept the universality of those standards. And that doesn't mean that I won't still mock people for liking things that I dislike when I'm commenting at the Rampage. That's part of the fun and illumination as well. I read an essay somewhere once positing that intellectual fashion statements, or taste statements, are an essential part of the conversation. Which means that that jerk who always waits for just the right moment to proclaim that this or that critical darling is overrated (whether or not they're prepared to say why) is an essential part of the conversation--although I personally have little patience for those who would accuse somebody of liking something just to appear cool or hip; that's completely unknowable, and just a stupid thing to say just because you don't see what someone likes about something. Every emperor is a little bit naked. Jesus, the more I type the more nonsensical this gets, so I'll wrap up now. But yeah, there's so much awesomeness in the world, who has time for shame?