A Blog Found on a Garbage Heap

plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Someone asked, so now you all have to know

Well, I'm finally catching up to a meme for which I have been tagged. The very least I could do.

So here we go...things...

1. I can’t eat cold pasta because it freaks me out.

Actually, that goes for pretty much anything that was once cooked, but is now served cold: pizza, chicken, shrimp, potato salad, egg salad—I cannot do any of it because it just isn't right. My mind can't process it. I was also afraid of purple cabbage as a child. So I have food things...

2. I am trying to manipulate my son's taste in music, and I think it's working

When we're driving in the car, we listen to my iPod. One time a song came on and he asked, “Daddy, is this more of your cool music?” Yes, son. Yes it is. Then the other night at the dinner table he started singing “Summer Wine.” It was the most awesome thing ever. Also, he's 4.

3. Once while dressed as a woman I was hit on by a straight man

And then I started talking to him, thinking it would put him off his game, but he kept right on going. This was back before smoking made my face implode, so I had softer features. But I have to say, they're still pretty damn soft. Man, I could totally not pull that off again.

4. When I'm stressed, I like to clean my house, while dancing around and listening to Plastic Bertrand

I'm just gonna go ahead and leave that there.

5. I wear the chainmail assless chaps to distract my opponents


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Recycling my Graduate Work, Part 2

Well, I've reached the end of my first semester of graduate school, and I have now found myself in possession of a plan of study that will determine the course of my work over the next couple of years. For those who might be interested (that is to say, pretty much only if you're a grad student whose name is Dan Jacobson...) I am posting the introduction to my plan here. Hopefully I will be able to use this plan to coordinate with others who are doing similar work and we can help each other out, maybe form some kind of...I dunno...squad. There just aren't enough squads these days.

So here it is:

Cheap, Trashy and Possibly Revolutionary: Comic Book Culture and Social Positioning

Comic books have a history of low cultural valuation, running along a line directly back to their pulp magazine, mass-product roots. It is a history to which they remain tethered, in spite of the work of countless critics, scholars, and serious cartoonists over the past few decades, and, frankly, because of some others. Superhero comic books (which represent the majority of comic books that have been published in the United States) in particular are primarily regarded as escapist power fantasies, for that is precisely what they are, though they are other things as well (it’s largely in how the reader uses them). Non-superhero comics tend to be the same way for the most part, drawing on crime-based power fantasies, science fiction-based power fantasies, horror-based power fantasies, etc. Those that are not power fantasies (at least in the obvious sense) are often self-consciously avoiding that label, and are therefore still in some ways defined by it. In any case, it is not difficult to see the connection between the low status of comic books among arts and letters, the type of fantasy material that most of the work published to date either represents or knowingly disavows, the means by which the work is produced and distributed, and the people who read, consume, and generate demand for more of the same.

Much effort has been made in recent years to elevate comic books in terms of their status among the mass media. From the industry side this has involved entry into bookstores (as opposed to only being available in specialty shops), an emphasis on single-volume publications or collected editions of previously published material and articles in major newspapers and magazines with the occasional appearance on a television news show or National Public Radio broadcast. Among participants in comic book fan culture, it has involved attempts to arrive at a consensus as to which comic books are great works, which decades represent the important eras, and which creators are making the most--and most important--contributions to the form of comics. Academically, it has resulted in volume after volume of apologetics, assuring us that yes, comic books--even superhero comic books--can and do have literary merit. This happens over and over again, and frequently involves the same comic books (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, Jimmy Corrigan, Ghost World) being used as examples. Librarians, journalists, prose authors, film directors and scholars are all eager to tell us that while we may think of comic books as objects of trash culture, they really aren't.

But they also are. And as a complement to all of the new critical appreciation for certain comic books that “rise above” the regular garbage (which I think is a vital and important subject of its own), I am proposing that we look at the rest of it as well—that is, look at the trash as trash where necessary and see what it tells us about the culture as a whole, about the medium, about its creators, and about how the readers and fans are using the texts and participating in the formation of the culture. While the examination of important and pivotal work is valuable, I believe that to focus primarily on that work and how it is read to the exclusion of the vast body represented by everything else (that is, the trash) will also exclude the experiences and critical responses of the readers of everything else. Such an approach would erase from the scholarly view the contribution that those readers have made to the development of comic book culture and culture at large. It would also blind us to an examination of how readers have used the texts to position themselves within the comic culture, particularly as it relates to their positions in the culture at large. I want to include the reader and the fan in the emerging scholarship of comic books along with the examinations of the other aspects of comic book culture. Fan and reader activity on the internet has demonstrated that the readers are actively engaged with the texts and with the culture. They are also much more diverse than conventional wisdom suggests, as are their reading and participatory strategies. Through an examination of reader participation in comic book culture and the ways that it affects the creation of individual works and the industry as a whole, I hope to discover something about narrative and its relationship to the reader, and how the reader can use narrative to navigate culture, which in turn feeds the production of future narratives. I believe that the size, the history, the high level of reader participation, and the collective and ongoing authorship of the most popular and resonant narratives make comic book culture an ideal place to examine these effects.

Monday, November 06, 2006

All That Heaven Allows and the Case for the Effectiveness of Melodrama

Note: In light of some responses I've been posting over at plok's, I thought that I would post in full a brief essay I wrote for a film class in school, where the first rumblings of my ideas on melodrama, and by extension my development of "Trash Theory," can be documented. Having read over it again after it was handed back and graded (A, thanks for asking--though to be honest, I wouldn't have given it that), I realized that there were some things that could be changed around to make it communicate my points a bit more clearly. However, in the end laziness always wins, so I am just copying and pasting the text. Ah well, enjoy. Also: has it really been over two months since I last posted? Man, that's grad school for ya!

Melodrama, when employed properly as a narrative tool, makes use of ridiculous plots and characterizations to tease out genuine meanings regarding the way in which we understand human social relationships. While often used synonymously with mere poorly-written drama, the melodrama is in fact its own distinct style with its own rhetorical devices. Poorly-written dramas make a genuine effort to have their plots emerge from characterization, and where their dialogue is sappy it is nonetheless a naturalistic sappiness rooted in characters that are meant to be read as individual human beings. Melodrama, in eschewing naturalism, letting characters represent concepts rather than people (and thus resist the change that is necessary to the naturalistic drama), and breaking plot from character development (which allows contrivances to be contrivances), exposes an absurdity in the way that social relationships are constructed and maintained through narratives.

Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film All That Heaven Allows, were it a naturalistic drama, would be about two people navigating the circumstances of their class and age and overcoming the pressures of their community in order to have a successful romantic relationship. However, the film is a melodrama, so while a number of those plot points actually happen, that isn’t what it’s about at all. There is no space in the community that Sirk creates for the love between Cary (Jane Wyman) and Ron (Rock Hudson) to exist because the contrast in their environments is too stark and nothing about any of the characters ever changes. All they can do is stare longingly and lament the immutability of their circumstances, until those circumstances miraculously change. This kind of melodramatic structure is necessary in order to point out the stupidity of elevating the importance of the social order above that of human desires, which actually does happen. Sirk’s method of dealing with this dehumanization is to employ melodrama, which removes the humanity from the narrative and allows the ridiculousness of the plot (and of the society in which it exists) to come forward. In a naturalistic drama all of the characters would have to speak out against the social order for the love to work; the critique would have to be overt, which would violate the Hays Code and generally freak the audiences out (because nobody likes to be told that their civilization is anti-human, especially by the Saturday matinee).

The characters in the film tend to represent states of being more so than individual humans. Cary is the desire of the mature woman, while Ron is the sexual potency of the nature lover and the working class. Accordingly, there is no space for Cary to even exist in her world or in Ron’s. In such a bright and colorful film, she dresses so drably most of the time—the symbolic value of having her appear out of place no matter where she is takes precedence over any personal fashion statements. The exception is the red dress that she wears in the beginning, the last time that she really feels comfortable in the country club environment. Her friend Sarah (class propriety and politeness), by contrast, fits in fine there, and wears vibrant colors to go with her head of outrageously red hair. To go along with her outfits, her outlook on life generally has no place in her community. When Sarah mentions needing to find a date for Mr. Allenby (who is Cary’s age), Cary perks up, but then Sarah not only brushes her off, but steers her toward the older, sexless Harvey. “At least he’s available…” she says, implying that someone her own age shouldn’t be considered so. Cary’s daughter, Kay (the intellectualization of physical desire) invokes whatever Freud lesson she was taught that week, saying, “When we reach a certain age sex becomes incongruous.” She is shocked by Cary’s racy bedside literature. Is it any surprise that there is no space in any of their minds for Cary’s relationship with Ron?

As representations rather than people, the characters resist change because the structures that they embody resist change. Both Cary and Ron are willing to let their relationship end rather than change themselves. Cary’s children are certainly not about to modify their worldviews to accommodate their mother’s desires. As for the rest of the town, come on; its name is Stoningham, which implies a threat of collective retribution for transgressions against the social order. This resistance to change is what Sirk holds on to most tightly, and it is the reason why this film and the critique it presents can only exist in a melodrama. In a naturalistic drama, the community’s attitude toward relationships like the one that Cary has with Ron—that is, an older and wealthier woman involved with a younger man from a lower class—would have to change in order for that relationship to succeed. But while perhaps more naturalistic, that option is less realistic. Either that or Cary and Ron would have to change, but what could they change? The obstacles to their relationship emerge from the fundamental circumstances of their lives--not from themselves, but from a social order which does not allow them a space to exist.

How do they manage to end up together, then? The only way they can: through contrivance. The plot goes on, because it must in order to be a romance. In naturalistic drama the plot is resolved by the agency, decisions, and changes of the characters. In All That Heaven Allows, the plot is resolved by sheer coincidence. Cary’s daughter is getting married and will no longer need to live in her house. Her son is leaving the country on business. Cary finds out that Ron is not, and has not been, in a relationship with Maryann like she had thought. Ron gets injured and needs someone to care for him. And she is under doctor’s orders to re-enter the relationship. The characters have no agency. The obstacles to their relationship simply vanish. A story that has the outward appearance of being a tale of love overcoming social scorn, and of the value of staying true to oneself is in fact no such thing. The only way that the film could end happily, as required, is for it to end stupidly, and therein lies the real message: if you think that romantic love can thrive in such an oppressive, dehumanizing social structure, you’re out of your mind.

By being ridiculous, the film demonstrates that social change is the only option. A drama would either have to end tragically, with broken hearts all around for the good of the community, or with the redefinition of the entire fabric of the community in order to accommodate one relationship (as all of the many, many other relationships in the film fit well within the social constraints of the town—including the flings of philanderer Howard). A melodrama, by contrast, is able to preserve the hopeless social structure and the relationship, and to allow the logical gap between the plot and characterization to function as the critique that it dares not make explicitly.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Response to Ragnell's Question (Unabridged)

Ragnell posted last night asking whether something she'd written previously in regard to the Green Lantern refrigerator scene comes across as a justification of the trope of harming members of the supporting cast for the purpose of developing the hero. I said in comments that I didn't think that it did, because the trope really can't be justified, and I promised to elaborate further here because my reasons for saying it are so complex and multifaceted.

*edit* not as much as I thought they were, as it turns out*

The first thing is that I don't think it makes a whole lot of sense. More accurately, it does and it doesn't. Starting from the end goal and working backward through the events, as Ragnell does, it almost works. The goal is to develop Kyle as a character by in this case putting him through some of the risks involved in being a superhero, and to get him to make a break with his old life. Another goal is to show how nasty the villain, Major Force is. Working backward, a common way of doing this is to harm a loved one. So we create a loved one, and give her a fairly developed and likable personality. The villain drops some hints, shows up while the hero is out, there's a struggle, then the hero returns to find the girlfriend dead. It hits the beats and solves the puzzle. But...does it solve the puzzle well?

This is where I have to say no. Like I said, starting at the goal and working backwards, it kind of makes sense. There's a sense that things have to happen a certain way in order for the end goal to be realized. Working forward, though, it really doesn't make much sense at all.

The main problem is with the villain's motivation. Why does he want to hurt the hero at all? Does he see Kyle as an obstacle to his primary goal? Well, given that in this case his goal is to get the ring that's on Kyle's finger, I suppose he is an obstacle. So why not just go after the hero directly and try to kill him, rather than hurting the girlfriend? Somewhere along the line there has to be an indication that there is greater value in going after the girlfriend than in going after the hero himself, and that there is greater value in killing her than in, say kidnapping her (on this point I'm a bit confused. Is he supposed to just be a general homicidal maniac, or just a somewhat unstable government agent?). If the villain is thinking "I'll show him it's dangerous to mess with me," well, that kind of fails in that it wasn't particularly dangerous to the hero. When the deed is done, he still has all of his totally rad powers, and now in addition he has become an even bigger obstacle to the villain's goals because he is pissed off and has a personal stake in stopping him. If the goal is solely to get the ring, Major Force's actions don't make much sense. If the goal is to demonstrate his threat level, he kind of fails there, too. He's just another in a long line of super powered people who has murdered a non-powered person, which is pretty unspectacular. In the end he has demonstrated that he is mean and willing to kill people, but we already knew that. He's willing to kill Kyle, too; he just happens to fail at that.

Now, stepping outside of this one specific story to look at the cliché in general, the point of the villain's motivation is where it most often falls flat. Hurting the hero's loved ones is never going to stop the hero from ruining the villain's plans. So while from an extra-textual perspective it may satisfy the author's plot requirements, intra-textually it doesn't satisfy the villain's goals, and in fact often works against them (this is not such a big deal for explicitly revenge-motivated villains, like Venom). Now, some villains work against their own goals all the time and don't even realize it, but the text knows, if that makes sense. It's sold to the reader. When villains go after the heroes' loved ones, they may accomplish something for the writer, but what do they accomplish for themselves?

The other element that makes the convention a problem is the girlfriend. She is a character, and so presumably she has an arc of her own, which generally culminates with her death. Again, extra-textually, we know it's really about the hero. His name's on the cover. He won't be dying or getting permanently injured, and everything that happens in the book is his story. But inside the text, she is the victim. It's important to know that her death is necessary for her arc. There needs to be a purpose for her arc to intersect with that of the villain other than just "we need her dead so the hero can be driven to the edge." Otherwise it's just a plot point, and she, rather than being a character in her own right, is really just an extension of the hero. Killing her becomes the equivalent of cutting an arm off of the hero or something. She doesn't really have a purpose of her own; she doesn't need to be there. That's lazy writing. There's nothing particularly sexist about it until we contextualize it, until we realize that it exists in a world in which women really have been seen as appendages of the men in their lives for a very long time.

So kill away, writers, but keep in mind how and keep in mind why, is what I guess I'm saying.

Also, to answer the question that Ragnell actually asked: no, I wouldn't consider that paragraph a justification of the phenomenon. There's a difference between explaining the logic behind an instance of the convention and justifying it even in itself, let alone the entire phenomenon.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Wizard World 2006 impressions

Well, I had an awesome time at Wizard World this weekend. It's been about three years since the last time I was there and pretty much nothing has changed. Well actually it did seem to be a bit louder than I remember (thank you, Spike TV).

On Friday I met up with 100littledolls and Shions_Glasses and they are some fine folks. We wandered around mocking silly things for a while, which was not as difficult as you might think, and there was the flier-ing. I'm not saying any names, but someone was clearly handing out girl-wonder.org fliers and seemed to always be one step ahead of us. Someone may have been slipping them into Frank Miller, Frank Cho and Dave Sim books, and may have been putting some in such inconspicuous places as the men's room. Indeed, wherever there were boobs on robots for no reason, there was a flyer. Also, I've heard legends that someone handed a flier to ol' Pornface himself. The highlight of this alleged flier-ing-that-may-have-happened was that some young women walked past a stack of them, picked one up, read it, and then went up to whoever was putting them out (I swear I don't know who it was) and asked for a stack of them to aid in their placement.

Later, while touring artists' alley (*cough* ghetto *cough*) looking for some of my artist friends I finally found the answer to the Great Supergirl Underwear Question (yes) and that Barbara Gordon gets Brazilians. I have to admit that I never really noticed this kind of thing in my earlier years of attending the show, though it was undoubtedly there. But now that I know how to spot it, I can't shut it off. Every time I turned my head it was there. I kept walking around going "hello, boobs!" "hello, crotch!"

We found ourselves getting the giggles when in the proximity of Dirk Benedict at the snack area, and repeatedly had to stifle ourselves whenever he looked over at us, which of course just made us laugh more. Lousy giggle-loop.

The Peter David writing panel on Saturday was SRO by the time I got there, but I hung out anyway and found it informative and entertaining. He's a pretty funny guy and the hour was up before anyone noticed.

I also went to the Vertigo panel, the highlight of which for me was Bob Shreck's exasperated "Yes, we'll think about reprinting Kill Your Boyfriend..." when a fan asked. Apparently he gets asked that a lot. But I know I loved it when it first came out and I'd love for younger readers to have the opportunity to read it without having to go to great lengths to track it down.

$10. That's what I paid for a Knob Creek at the Hyatt Bar. I must have been out of my mind, but it was exactly what I needed at the time. After two days at the con from open to close a good drink helped.

Sorry I missed the When Fangirls Attack folks, though I can hardly be blamed as they were so inconspicuous as to be wearing matching blue shirts. I did see Johanna running around on Friday, but didn't stop to introduce myself.

And now for my scores:

The first three volumes of Runaways, which I of course loved

Essential Marvel Two-in-One, so I could read what Jim's been writing about

Another Little Lulu collection for my son (we read these at bedtime every night, and I was getting weary of the one volume over and over)

The first two volumes of Astro Boy

Most of the Andy Helfer and Kyle Baker run on The Shadow from the late 80's, which I had heard was some crazy shit (it is)

110 per¢

Babel #2 (I have to wait and read this one last, because David B. is so damn good that he tends to ruin me for all other comics for about a month after I read his stuff, and I don't want my reading of the rest of the material to be a chore)

So there it is, my con experience. I hope other attendees had fun, and didn't have a hangover every day like I did.

On an administrative note, I have darkened my background image in the hope of improving readability. Let me know how it worked.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

29 on 29

So yeah, it's my birthday today. The big two-nine. Hmm, don't really have much more to say than that (WHA!!!???).

I've just finished making my final arrangements, which means that yes, I will be in Chicago for Wizard World next weekend. I'll be staying in the city, where the food is better and the drinks cheaper, and making the ridiculous trek out to the airport in the mornings. Should be exciting. Fellow bloggers who are also going are encouraged to get in touch (dlouisjacobson-atsign-yahoo-dotcom).

*Later Edit* Also, this is what I look like (because, y'know, I can never have too many things competing with my background image).

Monday, July 24, 2006

An Open Letter to Edgy Writers Who Write About Really Real Real Life

I cannot censor you. I wouldn't if I could. As a matter of fact, I may be more interested in the blossoming of your career than you are. I just don't want you to be a talentless hack. You don't want to be a talentless hack, do you? If you do, just say so and we can reevaluate the terms of our relationship honestly, like adults.

I am aware that rape happens in real life. In fact, I am aware that it happens more often than people are comfortable acknowledging. You can be sure that when I critique real life, it's on the "needs improvement" list. Curiously, when I bring it up in reference to real life, I am never accused of trying to stifle anyone's creative vision.

But all of that is rather beside the point, isn't it? The point is the text, and whether it is any good. When I am critiquing someone's work of fiction, I am (and I admit that I was foolish enough to think that this was obvious) not critiquing real life.

See, much as there are good and bad ways to deal with murder, bank robbery, whacked-out cosmic shit and world domination plots (you know, the real-life stuff), there are good and bad ways to deal with rape and its consequences. For example, using rape and/or serial rape as a shortcut to show how really really bad/serious/big threat your bad guy is qualifies as a bad way to do it. Even aside from the rape thing, why do you need to take shortcuts to establish anything about any of your characters? Why do you care so little about your creations? Same goes for using it as a motivation, by the way. If I were to break it down mathematically, it would go something like this: sexual assault + cliches and hackery = trivialization of sexual assault. And that is offensive. And when you think about it, doesn't that make it a less effective way to show how bad the bad guys are? And doesn't it, in fact, undermine any gritty realness that the introduction of such a high-impact real world issue may have introduced? I'm not just trying to bust your chops here, I simply think these are things you may want to consider as you refine your craft.

You may think that this means that I think there's something inherently wrong with dealing with sexual assault and rape in comic stories. This is not precisely true. Dealing with it is fine. But simply introducing it into the text is not the same thing as dealing with it. Simply presenting it as bad, or taking a textual stance against it, is not the same thing as dealing with it. We all know it's bad. You won't be blowing any minds with that stunning revelation. And yes, the same could probably be said for all violent crimes. What sets rape apart, however, is that it is a crime that, the overwhelming majority of the time, happens to women, and happens to them precisely because they are women.

So you see, I'm not interested in stifling your creativity. I am not taking a stand regarding what you should or shouldn't "be able" to write about. I am not calling for your work to be censored, and even if I did, nobody would listen. I don't matter that much. What I am saying is this: as long as you continue to produce texts that deal with rape and sexual assault in a cavalier or trivializing way, especially if you do so because your writing is poor, I will continue to bring critique. I want you to be a better writer. Edgy, even. And good writing starts with good thinking. I wish you well, I really do. See that you don't bring the hackery, though. And if you do, and I express my disappointment, please don't act as though I'm attacking your freedom of expression, when I am merely exercising my own in kind.

Yours always, except when not,