Saturday, December 8, 2018

"Lets Me Do My Thing!": The Mystery of Alyssa G. and Her (Un)Broken English

It's been obvious for a long time that the internet and social media in particular has brought out every form of kook, conspiracy theorist, and beyond-the-fringe nutjob with their own idiotic take on the world. On my Facebook page, for example, fans are thrilled to have located the creator of Megaton Man, a comic book series they enjoyed as a teenager, but their very next post is how I'm a libtard for not caring about John Podesta's emails.

But I wasn't quite aware how far this mass insanity has spread until last week, when I came across one self-styled social commentator bold enough and ignorant enough to have made up his own grammatical rules to fit his conspiratorial world view, one in which evil corporations are not only taking over his personal Matrix but trying to staff fast-food restaurants with grammar-challenged immigrants.

What sparked his ire was a particular job recruitment poster he saw at McDonald's somewhere in the northeastern corridor of the United States. In it, a young girl, presumably of Latino ethnicity named "Alyssa G." and clearly enjoying her day off in a pink tanktop and blue yoga pants (and presumably listening to an NPR podcast on her device), declares, "Today my job let me do my thing."

"Today my job let me do my thing." It's called the past tense. But to Our Social Commentator, it's a conspiracy not only to recruit and exploit minorities, but also a sinister plot to spread "broken English." (Also Spanish, since this version of the poster is bilingual; so much for McDonald's secret scheme to appeal to Latinos, which Our Social Commentator is convinced he has single-handedly uncovered!)

Our social commentator created a video of this, with a very creative three-minute handheld shot of the poster affixed inside the glass door of a busy McDonald's. While we get seasick watching this cinema verite image, he reads the tagline from the poster over and over again, slowly, in a mock-Hispanic cadence, convincing himself that "my job LET me do my thing" is "broken English." Not only is McDonald's Corporation, in his view, intentionally appealing to Latinos from "down south" to come north and work for them for less than a liveable wage (and take away gainful employment from "legal" American citizens, as he repeatedly asserts), but they are also encouraging bad grammar.

Of course, "Today my job let me do my thing" is perfectly correct written English, grammatically speaking. It's called the past tense. "Today my boss let me have the day off; I went for a jog and listened to itunes; I did my thing rather than salt french fries or stand for eight hours at the take-out window. Today my job let me do my thing."

(One could, arguably, insert a comma after "Today." "Today, my job let me do my thing." But why quibble?)

Not only is Our Social Commentator an illiterate stooge, he's also an inept cameraman with no sense of artistic composition. Technology enables such mental mediocrities to seem reasonable and "part of the conversation."

Presumably her job didn't let her do her thing yesterday; maybe tomorrow it won't either. Maybe she'll have to go in to work tonight and perform oral sex on her (white male) boss to get the day off she wants next week (the comments on Our Social Commentator's video posting make even worse misogynistic, racist, and hateful remarks about "Alyssa G.," believe me). But today, her job let her do her thing.

Our social commentator, however, insists that his willful misreading of the phrase amounts to "broken English," and demands for the sake of Civilization that the word "let" be corrected with an "s" on the end, so as to read "lets." "Today my job lets me do my thing" would be his amended phrase.

However, "Today my job lets me do my thing" makes no grammatical sense whatsoever. In the simple present tense, which is what "lets" is, her job would have to let her do her thing every day, not just today. "My job lets me do my thing everyday." In fact, McDonald's already has a variation of this recruitment poster that reads, "My McJob lets me do my thing."

"My McJob lets me do my thing." Since the letting isn't confined to just today, it's also perfectly correct grammar. It's called the simple present tense.

Presumably this applies not only to today but everyday.

The only way "Today my job lets me do my thing" would make grammatical sense is if the person speaking were a senior citizen. "Fifty years ago, I had to work sixteen hours a day in a coal mine. But today my job lets me do my thing. That's because I'm basically retired and sit around all day sipping coffee in a McDonald's." In other words, "today" would have to mean "nowadays." And it is hard to imagine how a young woman going for a job on her day off would be using the word "today" in that sense.

McDonald's also has a recruitment poster with two other imaginary employees. "Join our team," it announces. One employee, a woman in a blazer, chirps, "Today my job got me promoted to general manager." A second, a hardworking student, says, "Today my job got me two credits closer to my degree." The third, our lovely Alyssa G., repeats her familiar tagline, "Today my job let me do my thing."

Which phrase is in broken English? That's a trick question, because all are perfectly grammatically correct. "Today my job past tense." Written communication never ceases to amaze!
Which of those phrases are "broken English"? Answer: none of them! They are all perfectly grammatically correct. It's called the past tense.

I commented on Our Social Commentator's handheld video clip. I wrote, "You're quite the grammarian. The phrase is perfectly correct as is."

His response was, "No it wasn't, asshole."

Now, a phrase is either grammatically correct or it isn't; it's not a question of is or wasn't.

Which leads me to think not only that Our Social Commentator (who is a self-professed Right-Wing bigot, I should mention, in case that wasn't already clear) is inventing "broken English" in commercial messages where none exists to suit his conspiratorial world view; he also seems to have a serious learning disability (possibly dyslexia), which prevents him from recognizing and distinguishing verb tenses in written English.

No doubt, McDonald's knows who they want to appeal to with their recruitment posters. And maybe they do want to staff their counters and drive-through windows with underpaid illegal immigrants just to fuck up my man Commentator's Extra Value Meal order. But I think it's safe to say that McDonald's Corporation, or its advertising creators, at least know the correct usage of present and past tenses.

In a world of ignoramuses with smart phones, subscriber channels, and silo thinking that is impervious even to objective Standard English usage, that is some reassurance at least.

Time was when hate-mongers, crazies, and other morons who shouldn't be let out on their own recognizance had to resort to cutting letters out of magazines (to compose ransom notes), or had to type out their ramblings (chain letters and other documents of their delusion) on portable typewriters, replete with misaligned text and worn-out ribbons. Such communication, on its face, looked amateurish; it was invalidated and dismissed by minds of average intelligence a priori.

Nowadays, slick technology comes with designer fonts, automatic alignments, and reasonably professional results, even if the operator doesn't know how to hold their smartphone still long enough to make their ignorant assertions. To discern the lies and insanity from legitimate communication requires of us, more than ever, critical thinking. That, and a sharp eye for detail. Luckily, the shitheads still give themselves away because the elements of basic grammar will always elude them.

"Leaves me alone and lets me do my thing!" Okay, pal.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

You Can't Go Home (or Back to #1) Again: Retroactive World-Building and the Limits of a Parody Vehicle

Since 2015, I've been working on more Megaton Man material, some of which I have posted in some form or another on my various blogs or in Facebook albums. Even more than these sketches, preliminaries, and finished art in certain cases, I've written a large quantity of words in various texts that serve as working documents. I've come to regard this process as a kind of "retroactive world-building," and while I'm not prepared to announce any new publications, I'd like to let you in on how this process is unfolding.

When I originally created Megaton Man #1, in about a 13-month period in 1983-84, I really wasn't planning anything more than a one-shot. I aspired to create a "masterpiece" in the classic sense of a work demonstrating my mastery of the various skills (penciling, inking, lettering, etc.). Part of the reason I chose a humorous vein was because it allowed me to lampoon various artistic styles that had influenced me (at the time I was heavily immersed in Silver Age artists like Jack Kirby and Neal Adams, not the easiest styles to strike a happy medium with, and an overdose of Burne Hogarth's Dynamic Anatomy series of books). As a parody, I could exaggerate these affectations to the max, and turn a weakness (my obviously misspent youth studying cartooning styles too closely) into a strength.

In narrative terms, I never bothered to plan out the world in which Megaton Man and other character operated, taking it for granted that readers would recognize the basic genre tropes (the newsroom of a metropolitan daily, the headquarters of a Megahero team, the secret laboratory of a mad scientist, the orbiting killer satellite, etc.). It never occurred to me to map out exactly where these assets might be located other than a generic east coast Megatropolis (which was interchangeably identified as New York City). Being from the Midwest, I probably couldn't have located Long Island in relation to New Jersey in those days, anyway.

In terms of relationships, family trees, and timelines, I also made things up as I went along. If a character had to make reference to their age, where they worked, where they went to school, or other data, it was improvised on a need-to-know basis, and hopefully I would remember to look up the back issue if such information were required again.

I proceeded this way through ten issues of Megaton Man in this fashion, rarely sketching a costume design before a new character appeared on the Bristol board page, and only working from the sketchiest of written (sometimes by hand, sometimes typed) plot outlines. I worked in what was widely dubbed the "Marvel Style," after the fashion of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, where the picture track came first and the scripted text was lettered onto the boards later, before inking. I worked somewhat differently on Border Worlds, often writing more thorough texts before drawing, and over the next three decades, I've employed every variation from completely improvised thumbnail sketches to completely tight, descriptive scripts.

But it wasn't until 2015 that I began to look back over my previous Megaton Man and Bizarre Heroes comics (including various Megaton Man mini-series and one-shots) that I began to wonder how the Megaverse, for lack of a better term, worked, both temporally and geographically.

Again, I'm not prepared to give anything away at this time, but suffice it to say that I have been compiling notes, background stories, family trees, timelines, and the like ever since, in such profusion as to belie my earlier reputation as a satirist who scoffed at all those fanboy "continuity freaks." I suppose when it comes to the history of my own characters, and what they've lived through, it has great value to me in retrospect. In other words, I'm a big, fat, hypocrite.

I've already discussed elsewhere on this blog how Megaton Man #11-#14, at the publisher's insistence, became The Return of Megaton Man #1-#3, and how this was a traumatic moment for me in many ways. Part of this is because of the still-present desire to be able look back over the past thirty years, despite the infrequency of Megaton Man appearances, and be able to count up all the issues simply by looking at the last one (instead, I have to always use a pencil - to make a long story short, some 37 issues between Megaton Man and Bizarre Heroes that take place in the Megaverse).

But the renumbering, which after all I did agree to and now cannot but fully own, was only half the story. The more fundamental issue was that, with the planned issues #11-#14, I had placed the characters on what I thought was a more sound footing that would allow me to go forward. I felt that I had gained a second wind and now saw the characters and situations more objectively, as having value in their own right, rather than as vehicles to parody other icons.

Whereas the first ten issues of Megaton Man took place largely in Megatropolis/New York, #11 showed the entire core cast of character (Trent Phloog without his Megaton Man powers, a pregnant Stella Starlight, Pammy Jointly, Preston Percy, and housemate Clarissa James) in their Civilian (non-Megahero) guises, all in a kind of Doonebury or Big Chill-style communal off-campus house in Ann Arbor.

A sampling of the Ann Arbor trajectory that remained intact in Return of Megaton Man #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1988).

This setting, especially with Megaton Man and the See-Thru Girl's love-child on the way, gave a whole new wrinkle to the continuity I had created. The wild days of Megaheroics in the Big City were now in the past; character-driven stories in a counter-cultural milieu would be the new tone going forward. At least this was what I had in mind, whether I could completely articulate it or not.

What was remarkable about this subtle transformation was that it emerged organically out of the previous storyline (Stella and Pammy left Megatropolis at the end of Megaton Man #1 and met Clarissa in Ann Arbor in issue #4, and Megaton Man lost his Megapowers at the end of issue #10), and I though it also fit in with the gestalt of Kitchen Sink Press (a legacy Underground publisher) and the tenor of the times (the late 80s). And as I said, I had my second wind, and felt I could produce a lot more stories in this vein.

In any case, my fans and publisher had wanted more Megaton Man, and this was what more Megaton Man looked like. I thought there would have been some appreciation.

In the end, what was most hurtful about the disagreement that ensued between me and my publisher over renumbering the series was not the so much the new and intentionally deceptive, confusing, and meaningless #1 itself (which I considered at the time to be outright prostitution - and still do), or even that in principle that the publisher had already tacitly accepted Megaton Man #11-14 for publication and was now subsequently reneging, and blaming me for all kinds of character shortcomings in the bargain.

You figure it out: a collection of Megaton Man covers over the decades.

What was really at issue was that, while gimmicky renumbering may have been more easily accommodated in the earlier, more parodic Megaton Man (still with some difficulty), it was even more out of tune with where I was taking the character(s) and storyline in this new iteration.

In other words, asking me to masquerade each new issue of Megaton Man as one-shot #1 targeting the whatever hot trend was going on in comics at the moment revealed that the publisher still saw Megaton Man merely as a parody vehicle (whereas the editor, the late Dave Schreiner, was in fact encouraging me to see the narrative as an ensemble of characters that were original and valuable in their own right).

 The most common misunderstanding about Megaton Man is that it was a parody of current comics, circa 1985. It was not; it never was. I was accessing the comics that I had read largely ten years earlier - the Silver Age comics, the Treasury-sized and Giant Sized reprints, Origins ..., Son of Origins ..., Bring on the Bad Guys, all that stuff. What was going on in the current mainstream titles, beyond being counterfeit perpetuations, didn't interest me in the slightest. The parody of the month - that's what Valentino was doing in normalman, lampooning a different industry imprint or genre each month. Sure, I gave Megaton Man a black costume for a panel in issue #1, a clear reference to Secret Wars; but beyond one-off potshots like that - the endless mutants, the grim and gritty alcoholic suicidal protagonists, all that stuff - I pretty much ignored. I was mainly interested in fusing together my pastiche of influences and integrating it into something organic of my own, if that were possible. What the industry was doing for the most part couldn't have been of less interest to me one way or another.
 
Lampooning the latest movie or company-wide crossover was not beyond my capabilities, mind you. In fact, the most "pure" parody I ever created, in a Not Brand Echh! sense, was the two-issue Splitting Image I created for Jim Valentino and Rob Liefeld at Image Comics in 1993.

From Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988).

But what I wanted to do with Megaton Man #11-14 and subsequent issues, which I had shown the editor and publisher in plot form, was more character-driven - still with some lampooning of superhero cliches, but not to the extent the publisher was now demanding.

In other words, the publisher just wanted to publish Megaton Man #1 over and over again, with different current pop-culture references, whereas what I had come up with was a Megaton Man narrative that would actually grow. What a self-indulgent primadonna was me!

The angst of Megaton Man #11 aside, when I came to review the extant material in 2015, I continually returned the one-shots of the late 1980s (and particularly Yarn Man #1 of October 1989) as the point that I began to completely lose any focus on the Megaton Man cast.

Yarn Man #1 is still a fondly-remembered issue by a lot of fans, and others tell me later Megaton Man adventures are equally favorites. But the impetus I had when I plotted Megaton Man #11-14 just two years earlier, by the time of Yarn Man #1, was completely lost. The folowing installment, Pteranoman #1, was an anthology of three short stories, only one of which featured the Megaton Man cast. After that, I gave up trying to advance any kind of coherent, character-driven narrative by means of the onerous #1 one-shots.

Some of this impetus reasserted itself in the following series, Bizarre Heroes, initially about more "straight" superhero characters I had created in junior high school and since. But the Megaton Man cast somehow subconsciously wrote themselves back into the strip, and by the end of the seventeen-issue run, completely dominated it once again.

I'm recounting all this to say that there is still a considerable amount of material from that communal house in Ann Arbor that has been left untold, and after several years of "retroactive world-building," one of many projects and stories that I have identified as needing still to be told is about a five-year chunk of the 1980s in which those Civilian characters are at the forefront.

If and when these tales ever see the light of day, I can't claim that it is possible now to reconstruct what I may have had in mind at the time I plotted Megaton Man #11-14 with any faithfulness. Moreover, I have gained a considerable amount of life experience, and at the same time insight into the characters, that I simply didn't have three decades ago. And yet that era still captures my imagination, at least as much as later time periods in the History of the Megaverse, which have been steadily coming into view.
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More on Whirled Building!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Comics Bait: Why Hate Has Erupted in the Superhero Mainstream

Certainly one of the most unwelcome developments in the world of cartooning in 2018 has been the emergence of a fascistic Far-Right Wing among comic book creators – calling for not only that certain well-known corporate-own trademarks be “restored” to their original straight-white-male secret identity orientation (this will surely make America great again – but don’t call me Shirley) – but also for boycotts and even acts of violence against those they see as corrupting their “hobby” by fighting for social justice (usually hapless editors and publishers with the thankless task of trying to widen comics readership in a dwindling digital age).

Elsewhere I have discussed the many ways the Comics Haters’ “reasoning” makes little sense, and how their political attributions are merely misplaced frustration at having been through the mainstream fuck mill and dumped out, obsolete and useless, on the other side.

What has gone unremarked, as far as I can tell – and perhaps isn’t even all that remarkable – is that these reactionary hate-mongers (one hesitates to use the term “creators”) were all work-for-hire labor (again, one hesitates to use the term “talent”) employed by big mainstream superhero publishers in the 90s and 2000s.

When you think about it, it’s not all that surprising that a Far-Right Comics Hate movement would emerge among work-for-hire superhero has-beens. After all, as freelancers, their minds have necessarily been preoccupied with decades of continuity in the two major superhero universes – not to mention pockets of comics and pop-culture history like Fiction House's Jungle Comics, Lev Gleason-Charles Biro Crime Does Not Pay comics, hardboiled detective fiction, pulps, and the like – leaving little room for nuanced thought.

Comics Haters who decry mainstream comicssudden lurch to the Left appear blithely ignorant of the rich Leftist orientation of mainstream comics, including this masterpiece: Bernie Krigstein and Al Feldstein’s Master Race,” from Impact #1 (EC Comics, April 1955).

Much of this material may be viewed as socially regressive (Ive long maintained it requires a generous sense of humor if not a bit of Philip José Farmer-esque schizophrenia to properly enjoy it), but that’s not my point. Rather, these freelancers have had no choice but to study this material religiously, since making pitches to the Big Publishers for new spins over well-trod ground depends on being knowledgeable about which kinds of soles belong on which boots in which multiverse.

Being immersed in such continuity trivia means these Comics Haters have had little time to read The Nation or The New York Review of Books, let alone listen to NPR or watch the PBS Newshour. By the same token, their lucrative employment allows them to subscribe to cable, and mainstream creators can be forgiven for confusing leggy blondes on Roger Ailes’ Fox News with actual journalists. (Alternative cartoonists, as I can attest, can only afford free, and therefore liberal, broadcast media.)

It also goes without saying that none of the Comics Haters seems to have come from the ranks of alternative comics. The comic book Left – if I can employ such an over-simplified term – traces its lineage back to EC Comics (perhaps the most left-leaning, socially progressive comic book imprint in the history of newsstand comics) and blatantly counter-cultural1960s Undergrounds.

Significantly, neither EC nor the Undergrounds ever generated much in the way of identifiable trademarks to rival the major corporate-owned superhero properties, or for that matter ongoing comic book series or continuing characters. Rather, the Left has always seemed to specialize in one-off short stories (particularly in the case of EC, Harvey Kurtzman's anti-war Frontline Combat and irreverent Mad, and Ray Bradbury adaptations and proto-Rod Serling Twilight Zone black-outs in Shock SuspenStories), and only sporadically-recurring characters such as Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural or Frank Stack’s New Adventures of Jesus. The most notable exception would be Mad Magazine itself, which has since devolved into more of a brand than a property, and Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, the closest thing the Underground ever came to launching a licensable commodity.

[Crumb himself, so paranoid about selling out and so revolted by Ralph Bakshi’s animated adaptation, famously killed off Fritz the Cat, just as the character was on the brink of becoming a household word.]

That’s not to say that Comics Haters are completely ignorant of EC or the UGs; it just that this rich tradition of Leftist comics and comix material has never been on the mainstream freelancer’s required reading list. That’s because the bread and butter of your average hapless freelancer consists of putting together pitches to revamp forgotten Silver Age superheroes and hoping to convince Big Company editors to hire them for the script and art chores. Who would you pitch a spin-off to Bernie Krigstein’s Master Race to, anyway?

As I’ve said before, the “social justice warriors” that Comics Haters see as having taken over mainstream comics have always existed; indeed, nearly all of the characters that are the subject of contention and condemnation for being rebooted as female, LGBTQ, African-American, or asexual by Comics Hate were created by a generation of Left-leaning, socially conscious, and – mostly – Jewish creators, who, if alive today and aware of the controversy, would steadfastly condemn the Comics Haters as the regressive, white-supremacist, Apartheid-mongering pigs that they are.

If the Far Right Comics Hate is more or less ignorant of or willfully oblivious to the Leftist origins of the American comic book and the history of the frankly Leftist EC-UG-Alternative comix lineage, Leftists often display an equivalent ignorance and/or bias against the superhero genre. Those who work in the Leftist tradition tend to have an innate abhorrence for mainstream superheroes (one thinks of Daniel Clowes’ Dan Pussey stories, the constant use of pejoratives like “muscle-boy comics” by Alternative cartoonists, or the bias comics scholars demonstrate for autobiographical, nominally “realist” memoir comics over other genres). Too often, this has resulted in drawing that appears completely ignorant of human anatomy and art history and writing that seldom if ever rises above Beatnik nihilism.

Whether the superhero genre is latently conservative, regressive, or fascistic – as Leftist cartoonists have always feared – even in its most liberal manifestations (one thinks of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams “finding America” riff on Stirling Silliphant’s Route 66 in Green Lantern-Green Arrow), it is curious that mainstream comics have tended to favor continuing series and marketable trademarks while the Left has tended to concentrate on self-contained short stories (come to think of it, Route 66 – in which Buz Murdock and and Tod Stiles tooled across the country in a silver Corvette – has been described as an anthology TV series masquerading as an episodic continuity). Perhaps there is something fractured and discontuous in the Leftist worldview that mitigates against serialized (and therefore capitalist) entertainment.

To finish this essay by making it all about myself – and to place myself as morally superior to all sides in the current controversy – let me just point out that I have always occupied a no-man’s land, thanks to Megaton Man. Ostensibly a parody of Silver Age superhero clichés but initially published by a legacy Underground publisher (Kitchen Sink Press), Megaton Man was neither a mainstream success nor a critical darling; both the Left and the Right found something to hate in it. For the Fantagraphics snobs (for whom I would later make a tidy sum of money with King Kong and the Anton Drek Eros Comix), Megaton Man was obviously a “muscle-boy” comic; for the mainstream, or at least a large swath of those employed by the Big Companies in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a frontal assault on the precious trademarks that represented their livelihoods.

No doubt this is why raising a child out of wedlock, a female-and-black incarnation of the title character (Ms. Megaton Man), an obviously-but-never-outed gay character (Preston Percy), and other “Social Justice Warrior” transgressions in my 1980s storylines flew under the radar.

Neither tribe was paying particular attention.

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.
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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.

Morons.

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

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Vanity Fair and Bleak House: A Tale of Two Victorian Novels

One of my favorite classes in high school (after music and French) was Classic Novels with Mrs. White, a plump, white-haired old lady who looked like she had rolled out of a classic novel herself. Among the books I read that semester were Jane Eyre, Great Expectation, Candide, Siddhartha, and Oliver Twist (I did a second Dickens as an elective).

As an adult, my taste ran more to non-fiction, but since 2015 I have been reading more young adult books. This fall, I somehow found the time to read two hefty Victorian novels.

The first is Vanity Fair. William Makepeace Thackeray is one of those familiar names I thought I knew something about, but found I was completely ignorant. I came upon a beautiful remaindered Arcturus Press (UK) edition at my Half-Price Books - a supple edition with a delicious vanilla cover - and knew it was time to make my acquaintance.

All classic novels require some forgiveness - in this case, one had to get over the hump of the narrator's framing device of a puppet show and sometime roundhouse humor. But I found the characters compelling and the story pulled me along.

The great thing about classic novels - if I may refer to them as a genre - is that they have all been studied, and there are ample scholarly or "critical apparatus" to be found on the internet. This is a great help to me - in instantly looking up archaic idioms and keeping track of characters - but I found Thackeray easy to follow, even when Becky became Rebecca then Mrs. Rawdon Crawley interchangeably (I found the various Pitt, Rawdon, and Miss Crawleys a bit more confusing).

Also, thanks to Project Gutenberg and e-readers, there are free, readily searchable texts that allow someone of my limited culture and organizational skills to look up words and find my place after I've set a book aside - although I still enjoy the comforts of paper whenever possible.
 

I always thought growing up that I had lived through a sexual revolution in the sixties and seventies, but one only has to look back at some of the now-creaky commentary on some of these classic novels from the eighties and nineties to see that was not the case. One particular oft-cited analysis of Vanity Fair (Bernard J. Paris, "The Psychic Structure of Vanity Fair") is woefully outdated and complete nonsense. Aside from contending that the book lacks "organic unity" (which is ludicrous - the story follows three characters from their teenage years to their mid-thirties - in roughly chronological order; what more unity do you need?), it also completely elides the characters' sexuality - that Becky is a tramp and Jos is a repressed (and perhaps not even repressed) homosexual (Dobbins and Emmy are just repressed, period).

[Certain inconsistencies of narrative tone arising from serializing 300,000 words is not the same thing as lacking organic unity, as Paris suggest - let alone neuroses or schizophrenia. Sorry.]

Actually, Becky has sexual agency that we would find very contemporary, and the three main characters (five if you count Jos and the killed-off George Osborne) are all arrested development cases that are a couple centuries ahead of their time. Today, such immaturity persisting into well-nigh middle age is universal; in the early decades of the nineteenth century, such infantile, selfish behavior was reserved only for the upper classes.

This is the general tenor of criticism of Vanity Fair that I have found - and a drawback to classic novels in general. For, if there is ample scholarly assistance to be found - in terms of plot structure and character tracking - there is also a great obliviousness to things sexual that we would take for granted now, nearing the third decade of the twenty-first century.

Indeed, if there is anything cloying about Thackeray - beside his sometimes forced attempts at humor - it is his narrative insistence that he is not judging his characters. Of course, in denying that he is judging Becky, he most certainly is, and in fact Vanity Fair ranks as one of the most pornographic novels of all time, since the dirty parts have been cut out at such a high resolution, the negative space that is left leaves little to the imagination. If Becky hasn't screwed George Osborne (betraying his newlywed Emmy) and blown Lord Steyne repeatedly (himself difficult to distinguish from an anti-Semitic stereotype), I'll eat my copy of Vanity Fair.

[I have found this circumspection about sexuality to be true of much of the late-twentieth century commentary I have found on other authors, such as Anthony Trollope and John Dos Passos. It seems unlikely that this scholarship will be updated any time soon - classic novels as a category of literature have been well tilled, and current scholarship seems unlikely to go over this ground again anytime soon. That's okay - I have a dirty mind that can fill in the gaps.]


The second classic novel - of which I am only a quarter of the way through - is Charles Dicken's Bleak House. This is much rougher going - it is Dickens at his least charming (or perhaps my recollection from high school and Great Expectations has waxed nostalgic). Half of the book is narrated by Esther Summerson, who so far seems as bland as Amelia (Emmy) Sedley. Despite her long-suffering and generally forbearing nature, her observations are pure Dickens - no satirical flaw escapes her. This creates a bit of a dissonance, but is easily overcome.

Less so is when Dickens himself intervenes - to describe the court case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, and the urban mayhem surround Chancery Court. It reads like Diagon Alley without the humor, and in fact Dicken's humor here seems even more forced. His characteristic names (Skimpole, Dedlock, et al) is a practice taken over most notably by J.K. Rowling (Severus Snape, Salazar Slytherin, et al), but in Bleak House, often falls flat, particularly when he tries to invent native American tribes and Britsh reform-minded philanthropies. The chapter "Our Dear Brother" is almost incomprehensible, and in general, when Dickens narrates, it comes off as mean.

We'll see how the remaining 3/4 of the book unfolds ...


My particular copy of Bleak House is something of a Picture of Dorian Gray for me; I remember buying it brand new while on a shopping trip with Denis Kitchen, Holly Brooks, and their daughters Sheena and Scarlet. I still have the receipt from Waldenbooks from 1985. Somehow I hung onto this copy, and it has aged terribly - it is one of the rattiest editions I own, despite getting no further than twenty pages in initially. It is somehow fitting to be reading such a depressing book in such a dilapidated state, knowing that I've own it all the while it has decomposed. With any luck, it won't completely fall apart before I've finished it.

Recent book reviews.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Since 2014 I have composed a number of reviews for book editor Tony Norman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (all have been for the P-G, unless otherwise noted). Here is a running list of the links:

Forthcoming (Fall 2018) - for the Journal of Urban Affairs:
Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit by Michael C. Hodges, (Detroit, A Painted Turtle Book / Wayne State University Press, 2018).

September 8, 2018:
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (academia, society).
 
July 25, 2018: (Accepted for publication June 29, 2016, but never published - now on my blog)
An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve (literary memoir).

June 4, 2017:
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis (academia, society).

April 23, 2017:
Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia (cultural criticism).

August 7, 2016:
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (non-fiction/sociology).


July 10, 2016:
The Haters by Jesse Andrews (young adult fiction).

March 6, 2016:
Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes (art criticism, memoir).

September 20, 2015:
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Goldberger (architecture, biography).

December 27, 2014:
Lowriders in Space, Book 1 by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (graphic novel).

December 14, 2014:
Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague by Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli (graphic novel).

September 7, 2014:
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World edited by Monte Beauchamp (graphic novel).

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

An Abbreviated Leve: An Unpublished Book Review


Ariel Leve, An Abbreviated Life (Harper Perennial, 2017). $15.99 paperback.

Journalist Ariel Leve has produced a memoir of growing up as collateral damage in literary New York. Divorced at the dawn of the 1970s, the author’s mother, a poet dubbed Suzanne, places her own career aspirations and uncontrollable drives above the encouragement and support, and sometimes protection, of her daughter. In a complex mosaic of impressions from childhood and adult life, Ariel realizes that even in this sometimes brutal relationship, a love of words has been imparted from mother to daughter, playing no small role as tools in the author’s eventual liberation.

Composed of seemingly random snippets presented out of chronological order, the book is a highly structured argument on the effects of neglect and emotional abuse in childhood on adult intimacy. Ariel the child is at once the neglected, manipulated daughter of a self-indulgent literary diva momentarily rescued by a series of surrogate parents, and the uncertain adult Ariel groping for connection with a loving, supportive partner and his affectionate twin daughters. A third character, the author herself, is the relatively unitary mind trying her best to step back and make sense of these tortured experiences in the very composition of this memoir. 

Against this relatively concrete self-portrait is pitted the abstract maelstrom of Suzanne, the compulsively needy mother, the picture of artistic self-centeredness and unpredictable turmoil personified. Tangible only when making demands or offering timed depth-charges of love and support, Suzanne is a ubiquitous presence that has left fingerprints on Ariel’s psyche that reach to the other side of the world. Now the conflict is within Ariel herself.

The relatively few names dropped are enough to suggest that anybody who was anybody was likely to turn up at one of Suzanne’s raucous dinner parties thrown in her Upper East Side penthouse, interrupting Ariel’s homework and sleep pattern. The child pleads for famous directors, novelists, and magazine editors to go home, and tap dancers, opera singers, and Broadway composers make it impossible to rest. By the time we meet Andy Warhol, we are as unimpressed as the seven-year old who has once again been kept up well past her bedtime on a school night.

In Ariel’s waking hours, her mother’s inappropriate appearances at school and erratic behavior in restaurants are the source of even greater humiliation. Suzanne’s extra-literary reputation has preceded her adult daughter even across the Atlantic, where Ariel has fled as much to escape her mother, since become a documentary filmmaker and Broadway dramatist, as to pursue her own career in journalism. Reports of her mother’s latest scandals follow Ariel even to Bali, despite efforts to curtail communication, and Ariel dreads running into Suzanne when her itinerary brings her back to New York.


Even more virulent prove to the coping strategies Ariel has had to improvise in order to survive her childhood, now hard-coded into her brain and threatening to derail her adult efforts at establishing safe and loving relationships. Thanks to nurturing guidance provided by more stable caregivers, prolonged therapy, and sheer trial and error, Ariel comes to realize that her worst enemy is herself.

It is at this point that the narrative may seem inexorably drag on, as a relentless and increasingly erratic Suzanne only redoubles her efforts to maintain a manipulative presence in Ariel’s life and defeat her. But survivors of toxic childhoods will recognize that realization is not the same as resolution, and establishing new terms for an adult relationship, let alone effecting a clean break, with an irrepressible loved one can involve numerous false starts, prolonged effort, and discouraging relapses. A force of nature such as Suzanne is a worst case scenario.
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Note: This is a book review I submitted June 29, 2016; it was accepted for publication but never run. After two years, I think it's safe to run it on my own. Although the book was well-written and even gripping, it lacked a feel-good happy ending, and didn't seem to make a major splash.