Monday, November 19, 2018

Bleak House, Part II

I finally finished Bleak House - although much of the final third was rough slog. As warm, direct, and unassuming as I found Esther Summerson's first-person narrative, I found Dicken's objective, cynical, sardonic present-tense narrator at times impenetrable. The syntax was garbled, not so because of the present tense so much as Dickens trying too hard to be cynical and sardonic.

The only function of this narrator seemed to be to tell portions of the story that Esther herself could not have witnessed - also to remind the reader, heavy-handedly, that Dickens is after all a satirist. These passages would have been better had Dickens not tried so hard to overdo it. (This objective narrator is at his best at such times as when, late in the book, the steel manufacturer,  Rouncewell, converses with his long-lost trooper brother, George.)

Esther Summerson as narrator, for all her warmth, is every bit as penetrating and insightful - of such characters as Skimpole, Mrs. Jellyby, and Mr. Turveydrop - as is Dicken's presumably "objective" narrator, without the bite, and without seeming to be aware of her often sarcastic and critical transcriptions. The characterization of the seemingly roundabout but in fact relentless Columbo-like Inspector Bucket, for example, is completely consistent between the two narrators, offering no difference in point of view. Bleak House would have been a better book if told completely from Esther's generous (but not unflinching, as it turns out) perspective, rather than being shared with the intrusive and too-snarky "objective" narrator.

Still, the book finishes strong, and is quite moving, particularly in the reunion of the two brothers and Esther's corrected matrimony to the philanthropic Dr. Allan Woodcourt. In many respects, Bleak House is every bit as panoramic as Vanity Fair, albeit with a forced taciturn quality in the former that pulls in the negative direction as much as the latter pulls in a faux-comic upbeat direction.

Bleak House is not a novel to begin when I did (in 1985, at the age of 23), but it is a novel to read when you're almost 57. It is a middle-age novel, when one can appreciate the passing of time, look back with some objectivity over foolish life choices, and can appreciate the wisdom of experience.
Vanity Fair and Bleak House, Part I.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Lies of Comicsgash!

The Culture Wars Comes to Funnybooks

One of the more insane trends to take place in recent years is a "movement" started by a small, irrelevant coterie of has-been comic book creators dubbed Comicsgate (which makes little associative sense to someone of my generation, unless its leaders are trying to lay claim to Nixonian paranoia - not exactly the most admirable moment in our Nation's history). But the present moment isn't particularly admirable, either.

Among their specious claims is a convoluted theory that various retcons and rebootings affecting entirely make-believe storylines involving stupid corporate-owned trademarks has something to do with the fact that these fairly lackluster and mediocre creators no longer are as actively employed on the superhero assembly line as they want to be. The result is these disgruntled hacks have taken to the internet (what else?) and started calling people hateful names, ordered bans and boycotts of particular creators, titles, and companies, and threatened violence against a number of innocent bystanders who by all accounts seem only to be doing their jobs.

Trying to give an account of their hopelessly muddled ideology end-to-end is impossible, so it's best to take their incompatible lies one by one:

Lie #1: The movement is a "consumer-led revolt." This is clearly false; it's a small number of vocal (which is to say, whiny) writers and artists who for a brief time drew prominent titles in the Marvel and/or DC pantheon, and now find themselves without gigs. They thought they were essential to the perpetuation of certain namby-pamby, vacuous and hollow franchises, but they found out this was not the case, and they resent it.

Lie #2: The talent brought in to replace the Whiners is inferior because the selecting criteria of editors and publishers was ideological and/or identity-based. False; there is little evidence that comics are any more or less hacked-out, mindless, and unoriginal as ever, or that the level of work is any more less inspired or insipid as it's been since the early 1970s.

Megaton Man visits the pretentious hacks on the superhero assembly line in Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988). In those days, the Culture Wars was only a gleam in the eye of Morton Downey Jr. ...

Lie #3: Beloved characters and franchises are being ruined by inorganic, top-down imposed makeovers to conform to said ideology and/or identity-based criteria. False; no intelligent human being could possibly care less that Scuba Man used to be straight, WASP newspaper reporter Kyle Kildare and now is involuntarily celibate, ambidextrous, undocumented Dreamer and lesbian activist Fortuna Primigenia, or that his (her) mutant robot sidekick Willy has been replaced by a self-levitating smartphone that sounds like a Burbank voice actor doing a bad impression of Lin-Manuel Miranda doing a wisecracking, hip-hop Bugs Bunny. (Besides, Scuba Man has always been stupid, no matter what his/her/its creators have tried, and nobody really cares.)

Lie #4: The comic book industry is being taken over by Left-Wing Ideologues. False: the comic industry was started by left-leaning liberals and always run by them; read one of Stan Lee's Soap Boxes circa 1972, for Christ'ssakes. People with imagination and talent have always tended towards social compassion, inclusion, and just plain hanging out with other social misfits like gay people, free-thinkers, and other mild-mannered types. Some of these people actually embody understated Judao-Christian ideals without voting for billionaire rapists. It's called Art, not Fox News.

(If anything, the industry has been taken over by humorless haptics who stopped developing before the concrete operational stage, are severely repressed closet cases who get hardons from back issues of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and can't draw a woman who's more true to life than a mid-sixties Barbie doll.)

Lie #5: The Whiner's short-lived careers are the result of an engineered conspiracy by said Ideologues. False: writing and/or penciling corporate superheroes has been a career with the life expectancy of a gnat since the days since Kirby, Kane, Romita and Buscema. Gene Colan was famously fired by Jim Shooter while arguably at the height of his creative abilities; I attend comic book conventions with creators from the 1990s who could still be happily churning out monthly comics for Marvel and/or DC and still aren't even old enough to join AARP. The Comicsgate generation has been put out to pasture too soon? Sign up for food stamps and stand in line; it's a long one. If you want job security, next time become J.K. Rowling or George Lucas; i.e., originate something, don't just learn to cut out cookie cutter capes and cowls for a Big Company paycheck, then complain when your particular cookie shape is no longer in vogue.

The labor dispute metastasizes into an all-out assault on creative liberty! From Return of Megaton Man #2.
Lie #6: Having someone to blame for your plight will make things better. False; try reading some of the characters you helped perpetuate for the past few years. Did they gang up and pick on people and threaten violence? No, they were heroes - albeit make-believe; if they had to punch someone, it was out of self-defense or to right an actual wrong, not because Life dealt them a crummy hand this time. Conspiracy theories may be comforting (and make for entertaining storylines in fantasy material), but to actually believe them is to become unhinged, pathological, and dangerously disturbed. Grow up and create something that reflects positive human values, and stop hating.

Lie #7: Sales would be great again if companies would just go back to the classic formulas, i.e. manly (white) men and curvaceous babes. False: the print medium is dying, in case you hadn't noticed; and sales figures are bound to decline regardless. Marvel and DC would have gone out of business in 1983 if it wasn't for their media and licensing revenues; for decades, print comics have been a loss-leader and farm system for ideas for much bigger movie and TV series tie-ins, a break-even proposition at best. And they ran out of ideas well before 1974; if you think the cosmetic monkeying with identity politics has any more substance than mutants, robots, and the cloned Gwen Stacy, you have seriously lost touch with reality. Besides, editors and publishers have a fiduciary responsibility to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks; or have you lost your faith in the Free Market?!

Like everything else, at the bottom of every creative complaint is ... wait for it ... MONEY! From Return of Megaton Man #2.
Why doesn't everybody just sit back down and draw their little Men in Tights and fight their Culture Wars on paper (and in their ring-bound sketchbooks, if Marvel and DC won't send you their custom blue-lined Bristol board anymore)? And if nobody wants to pay you for the works of your imagination anymore, let alone cares, at least you've done something personally therapeutic and kept your poisonous hatred to yourself.


Update: See if you pass the Ms. Megaton Man Social Justice Warrior Litmus Test!