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01 June 2009 @ 05:32 pm

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá ~

Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite presented a distorted view of the concept of family, seeking to reveal through the medium of comics that even the seemingly heroic and virtuous have had difficult upbringings. While one would expect darker characters and villains to be the products of dysfunctional families, UA: Apocalypse Suite posited that not even the most noble and altruistic hero has had a completely satisfactory upbringing. The childhood of young Clark Kent, growing up in Smallville with living saints for parents is put forth as being a lie, and one expects that Bruce Wayne’s upbringing with no parents would be considered favorable. The kids of the Umbrella Academy had only one father to speak of, Reginald Hargreeves, a man who saw himself as headmaster first, and father second or third or perhaps even not as a father at all. The final judgment that the first volume made in its critique of family life was that all families are imperfect, and one needs to accept and deal with the mistakes and shortcomings of others as well as themselves in order to be a functioning and mature person.

UA: Dallas retains the dysfunctiona of the family, but instead of offering a critique of normal family life, it proceeds to offer a critique of America. These concepts walk hand in hand to a degree; we have the portrait of the American “nuclear” family from the 1950’s, which has proven to be an unattainable ideal. While there are many families who’ve managed to attain something similar to Ozzie and Harriet, one imagines that in sacrificing their dysfunction, they’ve sacrificed that which would make them unique and interesting. They essentially sell their souls in order to become conventionally ideal. So it follows that a redefinition of perfection needs to be made, one that includes no small measure of dysfunction, and the pain and suffering that goes with it. I’m reminded of Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”, where all of the members of the family were unique interesting people, but who were also infinitely troubled and strange. And it’s this strangeness and sorrow that made the characters special.

So instead of painting a portrait of America as a model of perfection, UA gives us an absurd, melancholy and violent portrait. America is not built on altruism and noble beliefs; it’s built on a series of assassinations and a history of imperialism and warfare. The history of America as portrayed in UA is sordid, schizophrenic and filled with confused decisions. However, unlike it’s portrayal of family life, which UA presents as damaged but fixable, the history of America is presented as perverse, and as showing no signs of disrupting its never-ending cycle of chaos. People may be able to fix their own lives, but they can’t stop the world from turning. This is a cynical view for a comic book to take, especially during this current epoch that is filled with a spirit of hope and change.

The plot revolves around the characters traveling backwards through time and trying to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The heroes become split into two groups, with one group trying to save Kennedy, and the other group trying to keep history intact. The heroes fight tooth and nail against one another, and finally they manage to preserve the course of history. However, after all of the infighting and backstabbing, no character can be seen as having behaved gloriously. Only the fact that if Kennedy had not been assassinated the price would have been that the world would have been destroyed makes the outcome seem beneficent. The book ends with the characters chastising and scorning one another, and after all is said and done everyone is left with a bad taste in their mouths, and they can barely stand to be in the presence of each other.

This focusing on the zeitgeist of the sixties and this pontification on the so-called “Kennedy lie” is nothing new in fiction, but the timing of the publication of this book is. One expects that the book was released concurrently with the first months of the Obama administration in order to tap into the obvious similarities between Presidents Obama and Kennedy. However, since the book was released so recently, I can only assume that it was written during the run-up to the 2008 election, when there was still the possibility of there being a President McCain. I wonder how this book would have read if that had come to be, with Obama’s spirit of hope soundly quashed. I suspect the cynical spirit of the book would have rung even truer.

It bears mentioning that the first pages of UA: Dallas feature a re-enactment of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, albeit an assassination of the animated statue of Lincoln from the memorial in Washington D.C. Assassinations are grisly businesses and when a leader rises up who is an inspiration for many, it often follows that the leader also inspires violent hatred in a few other people, as well. The history of the 20th century was rife with political assassinations, a plague that unfortunately continues into this century. One would hope that would-be assassins would step back and realize that when a public figure is murdered for political reasons it serves to make their message stronger not weaker. It serves to convert people to the leader’s message, not the killer’s. I think of the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller, and I know that instead of turning me into a pro-lifer, the violent and senseless act of killing a man, in a church on Sunday no less, has made me only a more fervent believer in a woman’s right to choose.

A few quick words about the art team of Gabriel Bá and Dave Stewart; they’re great. I think they were the perfect choices for UA, and Bá’s ability to create a world of stylized mania is nonpareil. The stick by which I measure a comics artist’s skill is how well the characters act, and Bá gives these people a full and empathetic range of emotion. He makes the reader feel what the characters are feeling, and takes us into their psyche and makes us feel what it might be to inhabit their world.
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Are you sure you wanna wear that color of shirt?

I went to see Star Trek at the Union Square multiplex, where some of the theaters have balconies that not everyone knows about. When I get the chance to see a movie in one of these theaters I always sit in the balcony on the chance that it will be largely deserted and I’m treated to my own private screening. As luck would have it, the balcony was abandoned except for myself and one other person. I could hear the moviegoers on the lower level titter when something funny happened, and gasp when something surprising happened, but I was able to watch the movie on the big screen with next to no distraction.

So I watched the movie and enjoyed it, judging that it is a very good movie, and a stimulating diversion. Now, it’s getting more and more common that an audience will applaud after a movie, even if that movie is only adequate and not exceptional. I remember hearing a little clapping after Watchmen, so I can say that a little applause after Star Trek was expected. But the level of applause that I heard rising from the gallery made me reconsider how good this movie actually is. Something about this movie seemed to resonate with this audience.

I knew that Leonard Nimoy was going to appear in this movie, reprising his role of Mister Spock, but I didn’t now how much the plot revolved around him. With his Spock having such an important role in the film, the story was lent a sort of authenticity, as if the aura of the original was still vital in this reinvisioning. Though, of all the characters in the story, the one I enjoyed the most was Zachary Quinto’s Commander Spock, who was manic yet steady, romantic yet stoic, and rebellious yet civil.

I certainly enjoyed the action, even if I did know that none of the characters were actually in danger. If Sulu gets knocked of the edge of a platform, I’m not worried because I know he’s not an expendable character. When a gung-ho character shows up in a red uniform, I know immediately that he’s going to die, not only because he’s a redshirt, but because he wasn’t a major character from the original series. If a minor character is put in danger, I’m also not that worried because by definition they’re not that important. So while I did get caught up in the action, I never felt that there was anything at stake, because I knew that everyone that I would be made to care about would be alive and kicking when the credits rolled.

Also worth noting is that this film was directed by Lost’s own J. J. Abrams, and the plot of Star Trek involved a bit of time travel, as did the most recent season of Lost. So, of course, I was looking for clues about the fate of my beloved castaways. If the rules of time travel in Star Trek apply in Lost then the final season of Lost will be set in an alternate reality, which I really have no problem with. It’s like, if I could go back in time to correct the mistakes I or someone else made, only with the knowledge that I’d be creating an alternate reality and the reality I came from would still remain horribly wrought with errors, then I’d still go back in time and fix the mistakes. Because it’d mean there would be at least one reality where the things I regretted didn’t happen. And maybe Jack could still end up with Kate.

So why did this movie leave me only satisfied, when it left the rest of the audience ecstatic? I guess people need to feel the kind of hope and excitement that went along with the zeitgeist that the original series was made in. Perhaps America may be returning to the spirit of President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier”, one of the inspirations for the original series. Maybe the audience is subconsciously recalling that spirit and feeling it resonate with the mood of today. If that’s the case, then I’m glad the audience enjoyed it as much as they did, and I pray to the celluloid gods for a sequel.
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Alan Moore is at the height of his popularity, given that many people who wouldn't have considered picking up a comic book went ahead and did so in order to enhance their viewing of the movie based on his comic book Watchmen. I'm not sure if popularity is something Moore actually wants, given the fact that he pathologically distances himself from the movies that have been based on his books. Add to that a tendency to evoke the prurient in his books, especially recently, and it's no wonder that he isn't well-known by people who aren't fans of comics. But I expect that widespread popularity is something he never wanted, and perhaps it's for the best that he isn't a worldwide celebrity. However, having a celebrity comics writer could only help the medium, and Moore, given his body of work, would be one of the better candidates for that mantle.

In any event, this book is a whole lot of fun. The previous installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen introduced a few new Gentlemen, in the personages of Orlando, Raffles, and Carnacki, who become active in the story much more so than they did in that book. The personalities and peculiarities of these characters, only hinted at in The Black Dossier, are quickly reintroduced and magnified. They become as interesting characters as Hyde and Nemo were in Volumes One and Two. For antagonists Moore casts Aleister Crowley and Captain Nemo's daughter, Janni. Both of these characters conspire separately against the well-being of England, and while Crowley's goals are more long-term, Janni's goals are more present in the story.

Moore turns Janni into Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera, however, unlike that character, Janni lives in squalor in order to defy her pedigree of piracy. Moore also invokes The Threepenny Opera by including Macheath and Suki in the cast, who, true to character, sing many of their lines. Of course this is a break from the dramatic rules that Moore has set forth. Up until this point, in the world of LoEG people don't randomly break into song, and if they did, other people would notice it as being odd.

Moore thus creates a degree of critical distance for the reader. Instead of being a simple comic diversion, LoEG becomes overtly metatextual. By détourning, and perhaps perverting, these established characters Moore seeks to make commentary on the original stories and the eras in which they were made. Since this is only one chapter in a larger work, I can only speculate on what that comment might be. It remains to be seen if Moore would agree with Macheath that human civilization can only perpetuated by man's inhumanity to man. I think, however that, through Mina and Allan, Moore seeks to present an alternative mode of progression and evolution.
26 April 2009 @ 05:18 pm

As a very casual and very outside observer, I can say with little reservation that the United States Republican Party is in crisis. There is a complete lack of leadership, with most elected GOP officials having been forced to distance themselves from the policies of former President George W. Bush. No Congressperson or Governor has stepped forward to fill the void of leadership. Nature abhors a vacuum, and now the leaders of the party are non-elected personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck. Congressmen kowtow to these blowhards out of fear of the size of their soapboxes and the profusion of their ratings.

Why should this be? Is this not the party of Lincoln and Reagan? Why the paucity of Republican leadership? Given, the seventy percent approval rating of President Barack Obama would make any challenger seem foolish, but there always needs to be some sort of official opposition in a democracy, just to keep the party in power honest. The Republicans need a leader, so why should it not be the Presidential candidate whose supporters were the most passionate? Why should the leader of the Republican Party not be Texas Congressman Ron Paul?

Congressman Paul represents everything I wish the Republican Party was about. He emphasizes Libertarian ideals and Free Market policies, and lessens emphasis on so-called "family values". While I'm not on the side of the Libertarians or the Randians, I'd rather the debate be about these principles rather than pithy issues designed for the sole purpose of instigating furor.

The downside of having Paul be the leader of the GOP would be that his campaign attracted a number of supporters that I'd lovingly refer to as wackjobs or coucou birds. When people get exceptionally worked up over a political cause it starts to look like the Nuremburg rallies, where there is no place for dissent. Such is the case with all political rallies, but the Paul supporters come off as excessively fervent, and I worry that they begin to see red when someone challenges the policies of their leader.

Paul himself, however, seems like a thoughtful man, interested in doing what he believes is best for the United States. He wants to end the war, and he appears to be socially tolerant. He is dissimilar from former President Dubya in so many ways as to make him appealing by comparison. Instead of defending the blatant failure of the Bush presidency, the GOP should be reinventing itself, and moving forward. Paul represents an opportunity to do so, and I wish they would, because it would mean the main opposition party in this country was at the very least rational.
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24 April 2009 @ 09:58 pm

I just thought of a great idea for a biopic about Blanche Oelrichs. Drew Barrymore could play the lead, which would be incredible stunt casting. I'd like to focus on her relationships with John Barrymore and Margaret Wise Brown, obviously. But the idea of a female poet using a masculine psuedonym, ostensibly to deflect sexism, then becoming a prominent member of the Lucy Stone League is equally stimulating to me.

The downside is that neither her poetry nor plays seem to be exceptional, and the most exceptional thing about ther was the life she lead. Which, I'm sure, is fertile ground enough for an entire work to be based on. But the fact that the protagonist's art isn't remarkable would have to be dealt with in some way.

As far as tone goes, I imagine something in a David Lynch vein, something I really can't remember seeing in a period piece, outside of Lynch's own Elephant Man. I think the world could do with a Lynchian period piece more than once every twenty years.
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19 April 2009 @ 04:16 pm

Clever Tricks to Stave Off Death by David Malki ! ~

So comics are still great if they come in strip form, right? When they are collected don't they still form a coherent narrative from cover to cover? Even if they are meant to be read and digested one strip at a time, in daily or weekly doses, I think that very often strips work better when collected and the reader can take them in all at once instead of having to take them in periodically, forcing the reader to parce out their attention and interest over an extended period of time. I think of strips like Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes where when the strips were collected in books I was able to discern a cogent narrative out of a series of strips the author put out over the course of a week, or more.

Comic strips, I imagine, can be difficult for a writer, and I can see how many writers are forced to rely on cheesy one-liners lacking in wit or humor. To create a thoughtful and witty statement in three or four panels that can make sense both by itself, separate from a larger narrative, and also have it participate in the larger world that the strip proper has created is a difficult task for an author.

Since the term "comics" is generally thought to refer to long form narrative rather than shorter pieces like strips, I get the impression that strips are perceived as the ugly step-sisters of comic books, the intellectual fodder of children and morons. I think it's important to point out that comic books and comic strips are essentially the same things, the only difference is length.

The dark absurdist tone of David Malki !'s Wondermark telegraphs that the strip is intended for a more mature reader with an intellect capable of recognizing nuance and irony. Malki creates the art for the strip by collaging images from Victorian periodicals, invoking the spirit of a dead and decaying era thereby lending the strip a peculiar atmosphere. The strip wages war on what the reader expects from a comic strip, being so very dissimilar in tone to strips like the ones one would find in their daily newspaper.
12 April 2009 @ 04:01 pm

Echo #11 by Terry Moore ~

I know little to nothing about mathematics beyond that which I learned in high school and managed to retain into my adulthood, but this book has managed to spark a fascination with math inside me that I haven't experienced since my adolescence. There is a certain beauty in numbers and their relationships to one another, and while I couldn't describe in words the specifics of the golden ratio, nor how it works or how it's applied, I can definitely see in my head how it works and why it's awe-inspiring.

This issue introduces the golden ratio as having been the inspiration for the scientists that built the suit that the book's heroine, Julie, unwillingly wears. The suit bears the Greek letter Phi in the middle of its chest, a letter whose significance was completely lost on me since I lack the necessary knowledge where I'd immediately associate it with the mathematical constant that it represents.

Phi is what's referred to as an irrational number, a number that cannot be represented as a simple fraction or integer. This I find significant, since Julie finds herself in a situation where no rational behavior could be possible, or even be deemed appropriate. Luckily for her (and the reader) she has a guy-wire in Dillon, keeping her from snapping and losing control. It's this burgeoning relationship between these two strangers which makes this book captivating to read.

I have been reading up on the golden ratio so that I might gain some further insight into this book's story, and I think it's a great source for a story to grow out of. The fact that so much science and art and other very real things can be made from a number that can't be represented by a real number amazes me. That something that can't be represented by anything other than a placeholder symbol can be used to build spectacular human achievements is miraculous to me. Moore has wisely chosen a concept to build into his story, and it's great food for thought.

By now, any fan of the genre should at least be somewhat aware of Moore's work, and the fact that this book, and SiP, are largely auteured. The fact that Moore finds the time to first write the book, then do the incredibly detailed artwork, and then write other books for Marvel and then still have Echo book come out once a month amazes me. I am in constant awe of Moore's talent and work ethic.
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04 April 2009 @ 06:32 pm

Glamourpuss #6 by Dave Sim

I have as much respect for Dave Sim as a person with my politics and background can have, and I regard him as a pioneer and a crusader for the rights of creators. I think he's a brilliant artist, and I think that he has a keen intellect. That being said, I do think that he is a misogynist. I think that his jokes, if they are supposed to be jokes, are often offensive, and even worse often not funny.

Consider the first fake headline on the book's cover, "10 Blonde MENSA Supermodels". The implication being that women are too wrapped up in their own vanity to have any degree of intelligence (at least not the women who appear in fashion magazines). So Sim equates female beauty with idiocy. Much of the humor in this book stems from that inferred correspondence.

So why do I read this book? First, the art is spectacular. One need only look at the image that I've attached to this post to see that. This, by the way is what makes the book so complicated, the fact that Sim goes out of his way to mock these women, while at the same time making such achingly beautiful drawings of the very same women.

Also, Sim is right about fashion magazines being silly, and they are worthy of being mocked in a very cruel and unrestrained manner. When Sim attacks the magazines and not the women in them, I'm very much on his side. Finally, the book is a love letter from Sim to artists like Rip Kirby and Stan Drake, and their photo-realistic style. Sim doesn't only use this style for the book's art, he also praises the style, putting it on a well-deserved pedestal.

I notice that people are attracted to this book primarily by its art. I notice that my friends spend a lot of time just looking at the art, just taking it in, more so than they would with any other book. That in and of itself is reason enough for me to recommend this book, the art pulls you in and captivates you.

Also out this week: Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #1 of 3.
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01 April 2009 @ 12:32 pm

Protesters: Oh, hai!
Cops: GTFO.

Wow, these people really don't like money.

On the one hand, I can see where they're coming from. Life would be MUCH easier if I never had to pay for anything, and possibly people wouldn't be as exploited as they are if money wasn't a factor. That being said, money is one of the few things which hold our society. As the saying goes, the world needs ditch diggers, and perhaps if ditch diggers were paid well, these protests wouldn't be necessary.

When people say that money should be abolished, I'm left scratching my head, because if every dollar, pound, euro and yen were made illegal, something else would inevitably replace it. We'd fall back on some system of barter, because we still a means by which we can get people to do jobs that they otherwise wouldn't want to do. Maybe a day will come when technology will advance to the point where these jobs won't be necessary, but today isn't that day. If we were to end money, the people who had control over the most resources would still have the power, and the lower classes would still be their slaves.

I re-watched the famous 1999 Grant Morrison Disinfo Lecture recently, and in it he makes the point that the people who are at the top of the heap don't actually use money, people just give them things. Bill Clinton never has to pay for a drink, much less a Rolls Royce. Paper money which used to actually represent something physical like gold now is only a number in a ledger. If the entire system is fraudulent, what can you be protesting? They're protesting an illusion.

China, of all countries, put forth the idea that there should be a universal currency for all nations, an idea I like, not only because exchanging currency when entering a new country is a pain in the buttocks. It seems like it would be a step towards unifying the world as a single entity, and it might precipitate the end of war between nations. If all we ever really fight over is resources and money, wouldn't a war be counter productive, if all nations were part of the same capitalist machine? I have no love for capitalism, but the idea that it has the potential to end wars between nations makes it seem more appealing.

Anywho, good luck to the protesters, and be safe, for crying out loud!
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29 March 2009 @ 06:15 pm

Cecil and Jordan in New York by Gabrielle Bell ~

In modern society, leisure (What do I want to do today?) was replaced by entertainment (What is there to see today?). The potential fact of all possible freedoms was replaced by a fiction of false freedom …”
~ Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces

This is a new collection of stories from Brooklyn’s own Gabrielle Bell, some of which I’d already read in MOME, among other places, some of which were entirely new to me. I consider Bell to be one of he finer artists working in the medium, and feel that she has a gift for finding excitement and wonder in the world and transferring that elusive joy to the page. She wages a war against boredom with her stories, and always comes up aces.

The stories in this collection fall into two categories, the realistic, and the fantastic. Only two of the stories are overtly fantastic, with the characters doing things and having things happen to them that could not happen in reality. Even though these stories are unique within the context of the collection, they’re also very different from one another, with one story being a modern fairy tale, while the other feels more like an extended dream sequence. It’s this tendency of Bell to constantly investigate different modes of storytelling that enlivens her work.

The majority of the collection is dominated by more realistic pieces, many bordering on the autobiographical. While Bell does not come right and say that these are things that actually happened to her, the fact that many of the stories feature a main character named Gabrielle, which are sometimes even told in the first person, allow these stories to be posited as autobiographical. But for me whether or not these stories are intended to be honest retellings of events that actually happened to Bell isn’t important. They might be exaggerated stories, they might have small nuggets of actual events that Bell experienced that she built larger stories from, or they may be one hundred percent factual. In the end these stories aren’t defined by their adherence to actual events, they are defined by how Bell chooses to represent the world around her.

Also included in the collection are some stories which are realistic fiction, including the longest piece in the book, “Felix”. The story focuses on a young artist who is hired to teach the son of a famous and successful sculptor how to draw. The story’s drama comes when the artist becomes closer to the boy’s father, threatening to become a sort of surrogate mother for the boy. The story is in part about the lines people draw (see what I did there) when it comes to achieving their goals.

The final piece in the book, “Helpless”, sort of blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and thus is the perfect piece for the book to end on. While the characters in this story do nothing out of the bounds of reality, they live their lives as free spirits, pushing against the limits of reality, and extracting the vibrant from the mundane. Bell likewise does so in her work, and she continues to make an often wearisome world feel vital.
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