Thursday, October 31, 2013

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fun and Games with Dave

A little over a week ago I gave a presentation on Cerebus. It wasn't a major event - an intradepartmental colloquium, quite informal - themed around the department's yearly keynote address (given by a senior faculty member, followed by a reception and potluck, and the unofficial start of the department's social calendar). The themes of this year's keynote were serialization and gender, and a friend within the department suggested, since it is a poorly-kept secret within the department that I am expert in comics (even if I don't officially study them), that I present something on those topics relating to comics.

The first thing that leapt to mind was, of course, Cerebus. It didn't take much effort to work up an outline for a presentation. At this point, even if it's been a while since I've read the individual stories, I've spent enough time thinking about the topic that the format of the talk came without any trouble. In case you're interested (or are new to the blog), the bulk of my thinking about Cerebus can be traced to a series of articles I wrote two years ago, inspired by my contribution to the Hooded Utilitarian's Best International Comics poll from a couple years back:

1. Why We Will Read Cerebus
2. How We Will Read Cerebus I
3. A Word About Hate
4. How We Will Read Cerebus II

My presentation had to do a lot of things within a short amount of time, such that even though the talks were supposedly planned for 5-10 minutes in length I specifically asked to go last because I knew I was going to blow right over that limitation. I had to do the following:
1) Introduce Cerebus and Dave Sim to a group of people who had never heard of the series,

2) Summarize the history of the comics industry from roughly 1970-2003, including the fall of newsstand distribution, the rise of the Direct Market, and the beginnings of the creators rights movement,

3) At least mention Sim's debt both artistic and moral to Steve Gerber, Howard the Duck, and Gerber's conflict with Marvel,

4) Explain why Cerebus was once considered one of the most important comics of all time,

5) Explain the very sad circumstances behind why and how this belief is no longer widespread and,

5) How we go forward in an attempt to reconcile 4 and 5, putting Sim's ideas into their historical context while providing an outline for methods future scholars might use to approach the series without being overwhelmed by the unpleasantness of Sim's later career.
Doing this in the span of even 20-25 minutes might seem impossible, but I actually had a lot of fun boiling the basics of such a complicated subject down to its most basic components.

I had originally considered recording the talk on my phone, but on the day of the presentation I got cold feet. Now, I don't usually experience a lot of nerves when I have to talk in front of people in a professional setting, but I did feel a little twinge of foreboding once I realized (which I had known but hadn't really considered), that even in the context of a value-neutral scholarly conversation among friends, simply speaking out loud Sim's views (essential to explaining the series' history) can be, well, unpleasant. I actually had a brief conversation with the organizer's event (the same friend who had asked me to contribute), and laid my reticence at her feet - the whole thing was, after all, co-sponsored by the department's Women's Research Caucus. So I said, "well, I have a great topic, but it gets a bit dark in terms of the fact that this Dave Sim dude is the most rabid anti-feminist in the world." My friend reassured me that she was looking forward to my talk, and that even if the subject matter was unpleasant she had confidence that it would still be interesting.

So I was wary, in the moments leading up to the talk, and because of that I decided against recording. But I was wrong to be concerned. The talk was very well received. The audience - around twenty people, give or take - seemed fascinated by the subject, and curious at how something as sui generis as Cerebus could even have been conceived, let alone completed. The sections dealing with Sim's political and social views went over well. There's a slide where I list the gist of Sim's assertions from Cerebus #186 - all the "male light, female void," stuff, and the consequences of these beliefs - and when I brought up that slide there was a moment of stunned silence as I read out the summary. But then there were chuckles, and genuine laughs, and I realized that my misgivings had been misplaced: in the cold light of day, and among reasonably intelligent people (all academics, keep in mind), it's really hard to take Sim's views seriously, and even harder when you are trying to get your mind around the fact that these ideas have been presented in the context of a talking aardvark comic. By the time I got around to Dave's late-career religious conversion most people seemed fascinated not so much by the hatefulness of his ideas but by the sheer oddness of them.

More than anything else, this reaction gives me hope for the long-term viability of Cerebus as an object of continued scrutiny and study. We here in the comics industry have such a long and tumultuous history with Sim the creator that it's impossible - and probably inadvisable - not to take his views personally, not to see his downfall as a tragic reflection of some of the worst aspects of our community's longstanding issues regarding gender parity and conservatism. But to a receptive audience of feminist and feminist-sympathetic academics with no real experience with Sim and his toxic persona, the subject was simply fascinating. Outside of a very small circle, Sim's ideas are laughable. Even if the hate is real, the context and presentation render them hard to take seriously in mixed company. I think that this reflexive distancing from Sim's ideology can only mean good things for Cerebus the work. In a room full of people trained to balance and appraise aesthetic objects from across history that are inextricably bound to various kinds of oppressive and harmful ideological apparatuses (big ups, Ezra Pound!), Cerebus found a sympathetic audience.

I've never given a presentation that received such a positive reception from a crowd. People came up to me for a week to complement me on the talk, a few even saying they were inspired to go researching Sim online (and were subsequently amazed by just how deep that particular rabbit hole goes).

Anyway: as I said, the talk wasn't recorded. But I did make a PowerPoint that served as my only notes, and if you care to look through it you can download it here. I will say, for anyone who may have read the stretch from around 270-300 more recently than I, I have a little trouble keeping straight whether or not any of Sim's theological ideas are ideas he actually entertains and which are presented within the context of satire - I think I recall, for instance, that he genuinely believes that microscopic demons live in the sun and are responsible for perturbations in the quantum foam, or whatever the hell. He takes shit like demons seriously, after all, and was genuinely disappointed when, followning the release of Cerebus #289-290, he wasn't immediately acclaimed as a visionary for having permanently reconciled the differences between science and religion.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Top Ten Marvel Covers of All Time

Completely my own opinions, submitted without comment, off the top of my head.

10. Spectacular Spider-Man # 101 by John Byrne (April 1985)

9. Iron Man # 182 by Luke McDonnell and Steve Mitchell (May 1984)

8. Fantastic Four #4 by Jack Kirby and Sol Brodsky (May 1962)

7. Uncanny X-Men # 142 by John Byrne and Terry Austin (February 1982)

6. Captain America #200 by Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia (August 1976)

5. Amazing Spider-Man #33 by Steve Ditko (Februrary 1966)

4. Daredevil #228 by David Mazzuccheli (March 1986)

3. The Mighty Thor #38 by Barry WIndsor-Smith (August 2001)

2. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #6 by Jim Steranko (November 1968)

1. Silver Surfer #4 by John and Sal Buscema (February 1969)

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Low-Content Mode

In case you hadn't noticed, things have been pretty sparse lately. I've halfway considered putting the blog on hiatus again, an option I've exercised a few times over the years, usually when I've gone on trips. I haven't been traveling, but my attentions have been elsewhere - my preliminary exams are next month, November 18th to be precise, so I just haven't been able to justify sitting down and writing comics or music posts. But even if I go on low-content mode for a while, I'll be back after my exams - after all, we have a Tenth Anniversary to celebrate in January. (Ten Years of . . . what? Procrastination? Being a Wiseass? Underachievement?)

So I'm not saying I absolutely won't post something or other if the mood strikes, but I'll be mostly sticking to Twitter, and of course, updating my awesome Tumblr (which is awesome because it requires minimal effort).

Until then, I think I'll post a few songs.

I've been really digging this one, to the tune of listening to it on repeat for a few days now. I was wary at first because the band certainly carries the stink of Industry Machine about them - but they have the goods, I think, if the quality of their debut Days Are Gone is any indication.

Meanwhile, this is pretty awesome too, again in spite of the group's supposed status as current hipster cause célèbre du jour. The problem with their album, The Bones of What You Believe, is that it plainly suffers from the fact that it is a debut album put together by a group of musicians still unsure as to what their strengths are. This song is fantastic, and there are a few others like this on the debut, but there are also a few clunkers and a few songs where the group's egalitarian instincts fail them pretty spectacularly - to wit, the fact that they let anyone but Lauren Mayberry sing. When you've got a band whose strongest asset is a charismatic woman with heavenly pipes, it's hard to regard songs sung by the other members of the group as anything but an excuse for a bathroom break. Admirable idea, but ask yourself, how awesome would it be if Butch Vig had sang three songs on every Garbage record? I predict the next album will have corrected that ratio.

Au Revoir Simone are a group that have been bubbling under the surface for a long time now. They've all the ingredients of a fierce breakout, but are often defined as much or more by their characteristic reserve and devotion to understated mood than their songwriting. Move in Spectrums is the closest they've come to really nailing the dismount. It's still patchy, but there are definitely moments where it seems as if the band is finally starting to cohere into something more than just the sum of its pretty parts.

Finally, I present to you with no further comment Ms. Margaret Chardiet, AKA Pharmakon:

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Boardwalk Empire

I was late to the party for Boardwalk Empire, and yet I find myself appreciating the the show more with each passing episode. One of the reasons I like the show, if I'm honest, is its status as a kind of underdog in the perpetual "Golden Age of TV" sweepstakes: despite would should be a peerless pedigree, it is consistently overlooked and under-appreciated. It's overshadowed at every turn - who wanted to talk about the Season 4 premiere while Breaking Bad was gearing up for its blockbuster conclusion? It doesn't seem to have ever outgrown its reputation as "Sopranos-lite," prestige mob fare for HBO viewers, which now translates to "the drama that comes between True Blood and Game of Thrones" on the calendar.

All of which is completely unfair. And, in the spirit of that fairness, the show does have a strong and devoted fanbase. But even at its best it never seems to catch fire with audiences in quite the way all the other prestige dramas of the past decade have done. (It probably doesn't help that the cast is littered with veterans from The Sopranos and The Wire, which is surely the best way to win over skeptical audiences already inclined to see the show as off-brand.) But I've come around to the show. I'm not a big one for mob stories, but this manages to overcome my natural reticence with regards to gangsters through a combination of superb execution and deft inversion of expectations.
Which is, let's be honest, problematic. Inverting audience expectations is dangerous, especially in regards to such hallowed ground as mob ensemble dramas. One of the first complains I read about the show soon after it premiered was that Steve Buscemi was completely miscast as Nucky Thompson. (Let's set aside the fact that he looks about as Irish as a bottle of Soy Sauce, even though he does actually have some Irish in his background.) He's only miscast if you thought the show necessarily needed a domineering, dangerous, physically threatening figure at its center. You know, like every other mob movie and TV show ever. I really like the fact that Nucky is literally the least imposing figure in his world. He's not particularly physical. More often than not he manages to dominate a room standing stock still - in fact, Buscemi performance as Nucky is simply a marvel of economy. He only moves when absolutely necessary, and when he does so, he does with exquisite deliberation. He keeps his head straight his eyes alert, even when he looks exhausted.

That's the overarching theme of Boardwalk Empire, four seasons in: control. Not simply exterior control, control over the world around you, but interior control as well - control of your passions and your emotions. The gangsters on this show are mostly thugs: there aren't a lot (or any) of the standard avuncular goodfellas we're used to seeing, no tragicomedic Paulie Walnuts indulging in post-Tarantino banter with SIlvio down at the Bada Bing. The killers on this show are either silent and scarred to the point of near-catatonia (Richard and Van Alden/ Mueller), or - mostly - brutal, ignorant, and thuggish. That's pretty much precisely what Al Capone was, after all: dumb as rocks but dangerous like a snake. This is the guy, after all, who died painfully of complications from syphilis because he was afraid to get an antibiotics shot. There's nothing at all glamorous about that. The Sopranos, as supposedly committed as it was to undermining certain generic expectations of the mob show, was still intent on having its cake and eating it too, in terms of its portrayal of wise guys as generally swell guys whose jobs just happened to involve shooting people in the head. We never get those moments of empathic connection in Boardwalk Empire: we sympathize with Nucky not because he's a charming rogue, but because he seems to still have a scrap of human decency left, as opposed to everyone else he meets. We certainly sympathize with characters like Chalky White who experience the worst aspects of the nightmare racism of the 1920s on a daily basis, but his experiences have (understandably) rendered him so violent and reflexively hostile that it's hard to empathize with him in the same way, certainly, that we did Omar on The Wire.

The Sopranos was dedicated to exploring the interiority of its protagonists, so much so that the show's central motivating gimmick was the eight-year-long running dialogue between Tony and his psychiatrist. Boardwalk Empire doesn't do that. What I think I like the most about the show is probably one of the things that makes it opaque to some viewers: it's quiet. There's not a lot in the way of exhausting, performative speechifying. One of these reasons is pretty easy to discern: most of these characters aren't particularly bright, nor do they show any interest in improving themselves. Al Capone and his brothers and cronies are pretty much reptiles in terms of their thought processes: fight, kill, eat, usually exactly in that order. Rothstein is smart but his intelligence makes him overconfident; Chalky is perpetually angry because he has discovered that this is the only way to project the strength necessary to keep his grip on everything he's fought tooth-and-nail to acquire; Gyp Rosetti was an angry thug who came to a bad end because he was stupid enough to try to kill Nucky. I point out these characters shallowness not to spotlight a weakness on the part of the show but to highlight what I believe is the show's great strength: it's not a character piece, not really. It's a show about dangerous men whose egos are so completely invested in projecting the hardest and most merciless vision of their selves that they turn into caricatures of petty evil. Which is, you know, precisely how a lot of real-life organized crime works. It's a plot-driven show, even if it doesn't at times completely feel like one - we're given a lot in the way of mood and atmosphere, but underneath the hood all the characters are moving with a precision borne from their limited, unblinkingly vertical attitudes towards the world around them.

And then there's Nucky. Nucky has gotten where he is at this point in the show's history by being the smartest man in the room (which isn't saying much when you're in the room with Capone, but still). He knows how to play all the angles that need to be played, and how to walk away from unnecessary battles. He doesn't relish the worse parts of the job in the same way that some of the sociopaths on his payroll might: violence is a sign that the situation has moved beyond his ability to control through management. Early in this season there was a great, character-defining scene where Nucky essentially solved any lingering problems caused by last season's violent climax by paying off the injured parties. For any other gangster, such a payoff would represent a significant loss of pride and esteem, and possibly serve as a source of lingering resentment. Not Nucky: paying off his enemies to avoid a pointless showdown isn't just expedient, it represents a principled understanding that his ability to control the situation is far more important than any fleeting loss of face he might experience as a result of essentially buying his way out of his troubles. He is consistently underrated because he refuses to play the macho posturing games. He understands that it's all about the long game, and the person who wins the game in the long stretch is the person who can keep his head while surrounded by half-domesticated animals straining at their leashes to rip one and another limb from limb.

Which is why this season's latest development, the possibility of a serious capital investment in southern Florida, carries such significance for Nucky. Although he initially hated the fact that he was essentially being guilt-tripped by an old acquaintance to invest in a dodgy real estate scheme, after some consideration he comes to realize that a move to Florida might be the smartest thing he could do. Last season he lost control of the situation in New Jersey: it was messy and it was expensive, and even though he was able to regain control it came at a significant loss, perhaps not in terms of face but in terms of his demolished domestic situation. He doesn't like being reminded of that loss, anymore than he likes the idea of being beholden to Chicago for his salvation. Florida represents a chance to build something new, so far from significant competing interests that he doesn't have to feel bound to any man save for himself. The question remains, which will presumably be a central concern for the remainder of the season, how much potential there truly is in the idea. He spent most of the third episode painstakingly outlining every possible obstacle to building a distribution hub in the middle of a sinking Florida swamp (soon to be developed, no less) - the fact that he changed his mind, and is suddenly willing to (literally) gamble his reputation on the idea, points to an earnest and sincere desire to be free of the encumbrances represented to him by New Jersey.

The show is at its best at its most cynical: this isn't a program to offer an optimistic view of humanity. The mobsters are terrible people, and watching them battle amongst themselves has an appeal similar to watching a gang of scorpions trapped in a bottle. We root for some of them because they seem less disgusting than the others. And we root for Nucky because he seems more interesting than any of his rivals. Although he is obsessed with control, it's not pathological. He's smart enough to know that no sane person would be in his business. He has a realistic understanding of what exactly is at stake with every choice he makes. And that perspective makes him not merely a unique figure in the history of mafia stories, but one of a handful of truly extraordinary characters in the history of television.