Friday, September 29, 2006

When A Long Train of Abuses and Usurpations Evinces a Design to Reduce Them Under Absolute Despotism

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King... is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world....

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

-- The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

I just thought we should all reread that. These are just the second and antepenultimate paragraphs. I have edited out three words for clarity, and added the emphasis.

Update: I see these words are on others' minds as well. (via)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Land of the Free Torturers and Home of the Brave Cowardly

I don't really have anything to add to the chorus of voices decrying the imminent abandonment of our principles and our embrace of evil, but the action that the congress of the United States is about to take is terrible indeed. I am personally long past disappointment in John McCain, who has waterboarded whatever principles he once had, keeping them in stress positions so long that they have now died of organ failure. But I wish that the Democrats would show more spine: filibuster the damn thing, and make them enact it over every opposition that can be mustered. This is an evisceration of the constitution, of moral principle as well as wisdom, and it should be fought with all our strength. But alas, our country is not strong enough to resist this foul and monstrous act.

I'm teaching an intro U.S. history class this semester; I keep thinking of Ben Franklin's words describing the government that the new Constitution would create: "a republic, if you can keep it". We have had a worthy if flawed republic for several centuries. I wish I felt sure my fellow citizens felt it worth keeping.

Update: It is done.
"What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red."

-- Macbeth II:2
Second Update: Glenn Greenwald makes the case for supporting the Democrats despite their craven actions on this bill. An excerpt:
But a desire to see the Democrats take over Congress -- even a strong desire for that outcome and willingness to work for it -- does not have to be, and at least for me is not, driven by a belief that Washington Democrats are commendable or praiseworthy and deserve to be put into power. Instead, a Democratic victory is an instrument -- an indispensable weapon -- in battling the growing excesses and profound abuses and indescribably destructive behavior of the Bush administration and their increasingly authoritarian followers. A Democratic victory does not have to be seen as being anything more than that in order to realize how critically important it is....
For all their imperfections, cowardly acts, strategically stupid decisions, and inexcusable acquiescence -- and that list is depressingly long -- it is still the case that Democrats voted overwhelmingly against this torture and detention atrocity.... By reprehensible contrast, the Republican Party is one that marches in virtually absolute lockstep in support of the President's wishes, particularly in the areas of terrorism and national security....
In the real world, one has to either choose between two more years of uncontrolled Republican rule, or imposing some balance -- even just logjam -- on our Government with a Democratic victory. Or one can decide that it just doesn't matter either way because one has given up on defending the principles and values of our country. But, for better or worse, those are the only real options available, and wishing there were other options doesn't mean that there are any.
Read the rest here.

Update III: Good round-ups of reactions at Majikthise and Making Light.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Shana Tova

Tonight is Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year.

Shana Tova to you all!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Seeing Scott McCloud

So comics genius extraordinaire Scott McCloud is currently on tour to promote his new book, Making Comics. (I previously blogged my initial reaction to McCloud's extraordinary and wonderful new book here.) The tour is designed to hit all fifty states over the course of a year (as of now, he's just two weeks in). I hadn't thought I'd be able to see him, since I figured my state, New York, would just be represented by NYC -- over four hours away. But today McCloud spoke at Syracuse University (his alma mater) which is just over an hour away. That's as good as it gets for those of us who live in the sticks, so I drove up to hear him speak. What follows are my notes & thoughts on the talk.

McCloud Tour Logo

It was pretty packed. A sign on the door to the auditorium said that it held 299, and I'd say it was 75% - 80% full. Most of the people there looked like undergraduates to me -- I suspect that a class or two came en blanc. (Partly this is because fewer people lined up to get autographs than I expected, so that I suspect many there were new to his work.)

McCloud is an excellent speaker. He's dynamic and funny and personable. (His daughter, Sky, introduced him, but she didn't give her full presentation, alas.) It's a powerpoint presentation but -- just as you'd expect from the author of Understanding Comics -- he uses the powerpoint medium supremely well, with impeccable timing and images that add an enormous amount (indeed, for a talk on a visual medium like comics they're basically essential) but never distract or simply act as filler. (He's particularly good with repeating images as leitmotifs to link various concepts -- just as he does in his various nonfiction comics.)

The talk was in, roughly, three sections. The first was an introduction to his new book, going over (basically) the material from chapter one. Even though I'd just read the book, though, it was still a fascinating presentation: he used somewhat different examples -- and more examples with other people's art -- and explained things slightly differently. The second section of his talk began with the story of his life, segueing into a discussion of his new notion of "the four tribes" (from the third section of chapter six of his new book); again, the examples were fresh, the context different, the whole thing very interesting.

The final section of his talk was -- somewhat to my surprise -- based on his previous nonfiction book, Reinventing Comics, in particular the final section, "The Infinite Canvass". And, once again, prior knowledge of the material didn't lessen its interest. (I think overall McCloud did a wonderful job pitching his talk simultaneously at both those who were familiar with his work and those who weren't -- a tricky balancing act.) At the end of this section, McCloud went through several web comics, talking about them. (He spent the most time on the first, and then (conscious of time limits, I think) sped up as he went along, until the final one, where he slowed down a bit.) I jotted down the ones he used, and they are as follows:
And then he took questions. His younger daughter, Winter, passed around the microphone. I'd say she did an excellent job, but then, I got to ask the first question, so I'm biased (I was sitting right in the front row, next to McCloud's family).

My question was about how he reconciled his talk about web-comics and his obvious ongoing interest in them with the fact that he's currently on tour promoting a dead-tree book, and (according to what he's said on his web site, which he confirmed today) is planning afterwards to write a graphic novel -- again in a dead-tree format. His answer was roughly that, first, he was never saying computer comics should or could replace print, and that each had its virtues;
second, he's spent nearly a decade doing web comics and had done what he set out to do, and felt like a change (and, as I've said before, his web comics are wonderful), and that, third, he was hoping the technology would improve while he did something else. A fair and reasonable answer. I was interested that he didn't mention financial considerations -- my impression is that people still make more of a living from dead trees than from immaterial bites, but I could well be wrong about that. He also made an interesting comment about how art is all about limitations, but he wants to get rid of imaginary limitations -- such as page boarders on a computer screen. An interesting and worthwhile distinction.

After he spoke, he signed books, being quite friendly and gracious as he did so. He gave me some hope that the fourth Zot! collection might even come out some day, although not that much hope.

All in all a fascinating and polished presentation. I'm curious how much his talks differ from time to time -- does he have a single talk he always gives? Does he have a longer selection of material that we saw only part of? Or what? It would also be fascinating to go see him at the end of his year-long tour, and see how the talk has changed over the course of it -- although I doubt I'll get a chance. But I'm delighted I got to see him once. I highly recommend trying to catch his presentation if and when he passes nearby -- whether or not you've read his books.

Making Comics Cover

A few other random notes and observations from the talk:

• McCloud made an interesting point early on about (some?) early American comics (early Twentieth Century) being structured like a theatrical performance -- a single angle is held throughout with the action taking place with similar framing. The "camera" doesn't move -- because there was no camera: the metaphor was theater, in particular vaudeville. McCloud also said that many later comics bear traces of this -- he gave as an example a recent issue of Bendis & Bagley's Ultimate Spider-Man (I think that's what it was), pointing out that while the angle changed a lot, all the characters were (more or less) facing the audience; and then he contrasted this with a page of Hergé's Tintin.

• He briefly referred to a "CMYK process" for print comics. I had no idea what he meant, but fortunately Google knows all. Or, to recontextualize one of McCloud's jokes from his talk: We know that's true because it says so on the internet.

• Some of his still images were great. He showed one comic, with word balloons and everything, from the early 17th century (!) -- some anti-Catholic tract called "The True Narrative of Horrid Hellish Popish Plot" or somesuch. Another was a sexual image from a Greek vase (I remember looking at Sky & Winter McCloud sitting next to me and thinking "Hey, there are children here!" -- but I suppose that these days standards have changed, and they are, after all, going to all his talks for a year) of a man trying to have sex with a woman and saying "Hold Still" which (McCloud said) Neil Gaiman claimed was the first-ever use of a word balloon. I remember seeing an almost identical vase at Boston's MFA years ago -- although I remembered it as two men. Did I misremember, or is there some entire sub-genre of "hold still"-erotic vase images from ancient Greek art? (Neither of these two images is online, alas. I guess Google doesn't know absolutely everything. Yet.) (Update: Thanks to Rasselas in comments, the Greek vase -- or, rather, wine cup -- is from the MFA, and is a woman; the image is online here.)

• He had a nice quip, which he ascribed to his daughter Sky, about how humans have error messages -- when the drop something, click the wrong link, or similar goofs. His own was something like "ergh"; Sky, he said, says "meow"; I find that I say "quack" -- I have no idea why, although I've heard at least one other person do it so I know I must have gotten it from somewhere.

• From the Q&A: His depressing message to his comics students: "Being good enough is not good enough." He also made an interesting point about how the internet has, in a few instances, reinvigorated print, causing people to focus on making books beautiful material objects and to really use their materiality as part of their overall effect.

...and that's what I remember. As good a talk as one would expect from as good a comics artist as McCloud: which is high praise indeed. If he speaks near to wherever you are, catch him if you can. And, either way, read his work.

Update: I belatedly see that my friend Michael Burstein went to the Boston version of Scott McCloud's talk. He reports that, based on my write-up, it sounds like more-or-less the same talk that I heard, although he got to hear Sky McCloud's full presentation, and some flying-squirrel joke we missed (drat!)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Even the Conservative New Republic...

...has come to understand that so-called "moderate" Republicans actually moderate nothing:
We don't want moderate Republicans to disappear, right? Surely we don't want Congress to descend irrevocably into bitter partisanship, do we? Actually, yes, we do. This November, it's time for voters to wipe out the remnants of the GOP's moderate wing--and without regrets....

For the longest time, U.S. parties lacked ideological coherence. Northern liberals voted Republican and Southern conservatives voted Democrat... From the moment they took power in 1995, Republicans made it clear that they would act differently....

Unlike the moderate wing of the old Democratic majority, [moderate Republicans] seldom do anything without the tacit consent of the leadership. GOP moderates are allowed-- indeed, encouraged--to publicly scold their party leaders, because that's how they hold onto their districts. But these displays of independence are a sham. Republicans have invented, or perfected, numerous methods of projecting the fake image of intraparty dissent....

At best, moderate Republicans have been hapless dupes. At worst, they've been co-conspirators. In either case, they have done almost nothing to alleviate the radical or corrupt tendencies of Republican Washington. Extinguishing the moderates at the polls this November is not a vote for mindless partisanship. It is simply a vote for transparency.
At last. Now if they can just keep their wits about them a little under two years from now when their knees begin to go soft for phony-moderate McCain, we might get somewhere.

If they go so far as to hold supposedly moderate Democrats who act as if the good old bipartisan days are still here, providing phony-bipartisan cover for conservative schemes -- I won't name any names, but the worst offender just resigned his post as a Democrat and is now running on the ticket of the millions-strong, union-wide Connecticut for Lieberman party -- to a similar standard, then I might even reconsider the title I gave this post.

But then again, I'd like a pony, too,* so I'd better not hold my breath.

Still: progress is progress...

* Okay, not so much.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Sam Harris, Islamism and Liberalism

Sam Harris, in the old formulation which Isaiah Berlin borrowed from Archilochus, is a hedgehog. That is, he knows one big thing -- or, to put it another way, he has a tendency to view everything through a single lens. In Harris's case, the lens is the superstitious and pernicious nature of religion.

Now, I should note that being a hedgehog is not necessarily a bad thing. Berlin describes hedgehogs as "relat[ing] everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance," and includes among their number ("to varying degrees") Dante, Plato, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Proust -- not bad company at all. These labels, thus employed, refer to styles of thinking and writing, and as that list indicates, it can be done well; but it can also be done badly. It all depends on what one's idea is, and how one applies it.

Now Sam Harris, it must be said, is not a thinker with a tendency for subtlety. This can be a major hindrance -- largely in making his work predictable: reading his recent piece on Popegate, it felt like, well, precisely what you'd expect Harris to say. He had a line, and he followed it; and it wouldn't have taken a Pierre Menard to recreate that particular piece of work. But in some ways this very lack of subtlety can be an asset: it can cut to the chase in an important way, adding some important things to an ongoing conversation. It's not the only voice one would want to hear, but, joined with others, it can be a useful one.

I should say that his line is not one I agree with -- although I agree with parts of it, and, as I said, I consider his voice an important and useful one. (I count myself an atheist, so I agree with Harris's metaphysics; but I don't share his certainty that religion is a net negative in the world, nor his disdain for liberal religion in particular. I would associate myself with the words of Daniel Dennett in his recent book Breaking the Spell, where he said that on the question of religions' overall effect we simply don't know -- it's too complex a question, too little-studied. (And it should go without saying -- but maybe it doesn't so I'll say it -- that freedom of religion is a fundamental and important right, and that respect, tolerance and civility are good things (although they should not hinder a lively debate.)))

But I think he goes badly off the mark with his op-ed in today's L.A. Times (via), where he accuses liberals of being "soft on terror" because they don't take the religious motivations of Islamists seriously. Harris writes (paragraphing removed):
On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that "liberals are soft on terrorism." It is, and they are. A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a "war on terror." We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise. This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy. Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities. Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.... Given the mendacity and shocking incompetence of the Bush administration — especially its mishandling of the war in Iraq — liberals can find much to lament in the conservative approach to fighting the war on terror. Unfortunately, liberals hate the current administration with such fury that they regularly fail to acknowledge just how dangerous and depraved our enemies in the Muslim world are.

I think that there is a grain of truth in the idea that liberals -- sensitized by a (commendable) tendency towards instinctive multicultural respect, and pushed by a fear of the policies of their opponents -- sometimes play down the outrages promoted and/or committed by Islamists -- their opposition to women's rights, to gay rights, to freedom of speech and religion, and so forth. I'd like to see more forceful criticism of that myself. We need to uphold moral values -- liberal values -- everywhere. And theocracy is a terrible tendency that is to avoided no matter what religion is imposing it. Grant all that.

But Harris, I think, gets one thing crucially wrong, and avoids a second crucial issue entirely. (I am leaving aside his bizarre claim that liberals are starting to believe 9/11 conspiracy theories -- for which I have seen no evidence -- and his discussion of the morality of war tactics in the Middle East, which is tangential to his general argument and would distract me from my critique of his central focus were I to engage it.)

The thing he gets wrong -- because of his hedgehog, over-simplifying tendency to see everything through the prism of the superstitious and pernicious nature of religion -- is the issue of motive.

Harris says -- and argues at length in his book, The End of Faith -- that we should take religious ideology seriously as a motivator, in the case of Islamists just as much as in any other. And I grant the point: religious motivations are genuinely powerful, and malevolent ones can lead people to do genuinely horrific things.

But there is no contradiction between saying that religion is a genuine motivation and that economic and social circumstances can lead people to favor certain religious views.

I study history, and in history we talk about this all the time. Who did the tenets of early Christianity appeal to, and why? What populations were most drawn to the ideals of the Reformation? What sorts of people were involved in the Second Great Awakening in early Nineteenth Century America? Why were the ideas of Elijah Mohammed attractive to many African Americans in the 1950's and 1960's? And so on, ad infinitum. And in answering these questions we talk about issues of economics and social trends and cultural forces and their interaction with religious ideology. This is not to say that people aren't genuinely motivated by their religious beliefs, nor that they are not attracted to certain religions for genuinely religious reasons. But other factors can and do prepare them for that attraction.

Of all people, an atheist should understand this most. A Christian might say that early Christianity spread to certain people because God spoke directly to them; but this option is not open for an atheist. We have to look at more specific factors. This does not discount religious motivations; but it does underlie them.

So, yes, there is "a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise" which can lead to people believing that "death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy". But why are the more violent, reactionary forms of Islam in ascendence, and not more peaceful, progressive forms? And there issues of colonialism, of economic hope and despair, of cultural marginalization within western societies (particularly Europe), and so forth, come into play.

We may not be able to change the mind of someone who believes that slaughtering infidels will bring paradise by improving these matters; but we might well be able to make those beliefs less attractive in the first place.

(It also behooves those of us in the reality-based community to actually look at the evidence. Robert Pape's studies of suicide bombers have found that foreign occupation, not religious ideology, is the key motivating factor. But again: they needn't be separated like that. One can lay the ground for the other.)

And then there is the other big issue that Harris ignores completely: what we are going to actually do about this.

Harris's only call is for liberals to "acknowledge" and "realize" the dangerous nature of Islamist ideology. But of course acknowledging and realizing won't do a blessed thing. The question is what are we going to do once we have acknowledged and realized it.

The right-wing answer has been to invade a secular fascist dictatorship, replacing it (in a war marked by downright unbelievable levels of mismanagement) with a Hobbesian war of all-on-all, in which Al Queada is now, according to a recent report by chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq, the chief political force in parts of Iraq and to, in the wake of this failure, push the consideration of a war against Iran. Harris himself acknowledges that this strategy has had its limitations.

Harris wants to inspire the opposition to religion as such -- get people to see that religion as such is superstitious and harmful, and to oppose it. Whether or not this would be a good thing is irrelevant, because -- in anything save a long-enough term that we will have to have an alternative strategy -- there isn't the slightest possibility of such a thing happening on a large enough scale to make the slightest possible difference.

So what then?

Might I suggest that we ask why it is the case that, as Harris suggests, "a terrifying number of the world's Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam... [leading] them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior"? Might I suggest that radical Islam has become a rallying cry for those motivated by other -- yes, economic and social -- dangers? And that if we are to encourage people to view questions in other terms, a less militaristic approach might be in order?

But for Harris to deride liberals as "soft on terror" won't do any off this. It won't lead to social and economic conditions where the ideas of modern, scientific, liberal society can flourish. It will empower the religious right in its ongoing surge to become as militant and destructively committed to crusade as Islamists are to jihad. (Indeed, at the end of Harris's piece there are hints that he recognizes this.)

The question is, given the existence of a poisonous ideology, what do we then do about it. Conservatives wish simply to fight it -- despite the incredibly poor track record that bombing people has in making them adopt your values (funny, that). Harris, I think, wants to simply get them to snap out of it -- thereby managing to do what I would have said is impossible in coming up with a solution even less likely to work than the solution proposed by conservatives.

Liberals want to stop invading countries that aren't directly threatening us (since doing so only increases the appeal of the ideology we oppose, not to mention being immoral in its own right). Liberals want to restrict the abilities of terrorists to do harm -- by locking down loose nukes and promoting non-proliferation (indeed, anti-proliferation); by actually checking shipping containers coming into U.S. ports; and the countless other simple, basic precautions which Bush has been unwilling to do -- since, after all, people's ideology matters only according to the degree that they can do anything about it. And liberals want to promote the economic and social development of other parts of the world, on the belief that, if people are given genuine hope and respect in this world, they are less likely to seek the phantasmagorical hope and respect in the next that religion offers.

Liberals recognize the destructiveness of Islamism -- both in its tendency to terror, and its imposition (and desire to extend) sharia. That's why we oppose Dick Cheney: not because he is more dangerous than Islamism, but because he (and his ilk) are taking actions -- not "acknowledging" or "recognizing" anything, but taking actual, concrete actions -- that will expand the appeal of Islamism. Whereas Liberals wish to diminish its appeal (by improving the lot of the societies where it flourishes*), and to limit its actual capacities to harm us.

Harris is right that there are destructive forms of Islam out there (just as their are of Christianity, Judaism and all sorts of non-religious ideologies too, for that matter) -- ones that wish to oppose all sorts of values that we hold dear. But without asking why these ideologies are flourishing, and what we can do that would be genuinely productive, all Harris is doing is fearmongering. And fear is a great motivator of religious belief.

So, Sam Harris: please stop recruiting for religious extremists. Since you'd agree, I feel sure, that we have too many of those in the world already.

Update: Kevin Drum makes a similar point here.
(Much) Later Update: See also Steven Poole here for a very sharp response to this piece.

* If memory serves, Harris has cited the western, secular origins of the 9/11 hijackers as evidence that this is not about economics or social settings. But that's the wrong lesson: there are different economic and social problems that can promote religious fanaticism: poverty and imperialism are two, but the status of a persistently discriminated-against minority in an otherwise western, secular society is another. That's why Elijah Mohammed had so much appeal; and that is why those who recruit for Islamism in Europe do too.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Best of the Blogosphere, Part 6: Slacktivist Reads Left Behind

(Sixth in an occasional and entirely whimsical series. Other entries here.)

Some of you may be familiar with the greatest literary takedown of the Nineteenth Century: Mark Twain's marvelous essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". It's a short, funny and utterly devastating demolition of a crappy novelist. Well worth reading, incidentally, if you haven't come across it before (even if you haven't read Fenimore Cooper -- which, after reading Twain, you won't want to).

Well, a blogger named Fred Clark, who blogs at Slacktivist, has been doing a similarly sharp takedown of what he refers to as the Worst Books of All Time: the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Like Twain, Clark says a lot about literary technique along the way. Unlike Twain, he also says a lot of interesting stuff about a wide variety of other things -- especially Christianity, especially its evangelical branch, and that branch's premilleniast subculture. This is because Twain was writing a fairly short essay, and, therefore, stuck fairly closely to the matter at hand. Clark, it must be said, is writing at somewhat greater length. He is doing a page-by-page reading of the Left Behind books. He began in October, 2003; he's still at it; he is, I think, about half way through the first book in the (twelve volume (not counting prequels, spin-offs, etc.)) series.

The takedown is, as I said, just as sharp as Twain's. But it's a bit longer.

But -- and I cannot emphasize this enough -- I am not complaining. I'm exalting. An essay of Twainian quality is wonderful; more than 100,000 words (I counted (or Microsoft Word did, at my behest)) of near-Twainian quality is superb. I say "near-Twainian" -- the best of it is of Twainian quality; the rest is simply very good.

Still, it rather begs the question: why spend so long on these books?

Well, it's fun and funny. It allows Clark -- who, I should mention, is himself an evangelical Christian, only the sort who doesn't believe that Jesus's main messages were directives to increase the wealth of the rich, start wars whenever possible, and hate gays -- to criticize trends in evangelical culture that he dislikes.

But it's more than that. This is a subculture, set of beliefs, that is very important in America. It is believed by tens of millions of our fellow citizens. If any of those can be reached, it is an important view to try to sway them from; for the rest of us, it is an important view to understand.

But Clark has himself addressed a few times (with some perhaps-understandable self-consciousness) why he's taking the time to do this. So I'll let Clark say why this matters:
...the "end times" mania and wretched theology of the Left Behind series is dangerous for everyone, within and without the Christian community. Swap around a few of the words in [a previously quoted passage] and you've got a standard piece of al-Qaeda fundamentalist propaganda. Same world view -- different religions. Actually, that's not true. Kill-the-irredeemable-infidel fundamentalism is always the same religion, no matter what faith it masquerades as a form of.
Elsewhere, he says:
Why expose myself and the readers of this blog to the potentially toxic foolishness of Left Behind? Because LB is more than simply a wretched novel. It is a wretched novel with serious consequences. It is, among other things, an assault on the central beliefs of the Christian faith... But please don't think of all this as a simple for-Christians-only intramural struggle affecting only the church and those within it. L&J present a political perspective that is every bit as corrosive as their theological views. And that political perspective is being read and absorbed by millions of Americans. The political impact of L&J's brand of dispensationalism is difficult to measure and difficult to overstate. It affects people's attitudes toward religious pluralism, multilateral and international institutions, diplomacy and peacemaking... At a very basic level, this worldview opposes and undermines any long-term thinking, any sustained effort to make the world a better place -- replacing the hope of redemption with a perverse longing for apocalypse. As such, L&J ultimately are like any given set of villains from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They want to open the Hellmouth and bring about the end of the world. Stopping them, as always, begins with research. So let's send Xander out for donuts and get back to hitting the books.

These are, I submit, convincing reasons to make the attempt. Clark's wonderful writing and analysis are convincing reasons to read it. So I therefore present the sixth official Attempts Best of the Blogosphere™ award to Slacktivist's Left Behind Series. Go read it: you'll enjoy it -- and profit from it.

...Except that, as I've mentioned, it's, well, er, long. As in, over 100,000 words. A reasonable-sized book. I mean, in one of my previous entries to this series, I gave the award to two essays, each serialized, totaling 22 blog posts in all. But they were also available as two pdfs -- and they were, in the end, two essays. This is a book. And still growing.

Now, the whole thing is worth reading, really. (The link above will take you to an archive of the series -- an archive, somewhat irritatingly, organized in normal blog style, that is, with the oldest posts at the bottom. The problem, therefore, is that to read it in order you need to start at the bottom, scroll up a bit until you get to the top of the first post, read it, then scroll up a bit more, and so forth. Not the best UI in the world for this sort of thing, frankly.) But I figure that my Noble Readers might like to have a place to start. So here are a few entries in the series that stick in my memory, that are good ones to start with. (In following my one-year-old minimum for this series, I've picked ones that are at least a year old; but the series is ongoing.)

L.B.: The Evil of Banality
L.B.: Holy Spirits
L.B.: Explicit Content
L.B.: No Change of Power
L.B.: Funny You Should Ask
L.B.: Other People

As I said, those are just a few I personally liked. Other people will click with other entries (sometimes people will leave comments on entries that strike me as comparatively weak saying 'that's one of the best of the series). But if you haven't read the series yet, you can start with those. And if you like them, do read the series. It's a funny look at an important subject.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago

I wanted, and hoped, to write something to mark today's anniversary. But the press of time and circumstance has not allowed me to do so. So rather than let the occasion pass unremarked, I thought I would re-post something I wrote a year ago today to commemorate the fourth anniversary of 9/11 in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. It still seems relevant.


Four years ago our country was attacked.

At this juncture, I find it hard to separate out my feelings about that monstrous crime from my feelings about the hideous uses to which our so-called government has put it, rhetorically, since it occurred -- waving it around like a bloody shirt to justify unrelated wars, attack political opponents and all manner of other things. The horror of the murdered innocents is primary, of course, but I also feel a horror at what my country has become since -- a country which tortures as a matter of policy, a country ever-less free, a country which even today is hosting a revolting spectacle that Matt Yglesias properly described by invoking Milan Kundera's notion of "totalitarian kitsch".

One of the standard complaints about Bush is that he passed up a tremendous opportunity to unite the country: if instead of exploiting the murders for cheap partisan gain he had endeavored to unite the country -- had asked for shared sacrifices, put aside crude partisanship, and so forth -- what good he could have done! If he had finished the war against Al-Queada rather than draining resources from it to fight an unrelated, long-desired war against Iraq, how much safer we might be! If he had, in short, reacted with greatness -- truly acted as if 9/11 had changed everything instead of simply saying it did while acting as if it had changed nothing... But, of course, he did none of those things: merely one of a thousand sins each in itself sufficient to confine him to hell, should such a place exist.

But I must admit that I put forward that criticism (unlike all the others) only half-heartedly: for I never believed it. Most liberal bloggers will tell of how, in the days following 9/11, they put aside their disdain for George Bush, put their trust in him, hoped for his success. Well, I didn't. Oh, I hoped for America's success: in the war against Afghanistan, in tracking down those who sought to do us harm, in limited the proliferation of weapons that they might do it with, in securing the homeland, as we quickly learned to call it. But not Bush. I already felt that he was utterly untrustworthy: viciously and pettily partisan, utterly incompetent, mixing cronyism and ideology in noxious combination. Rather than wish him well, I mostly feared for us that we were stuck with such a man at such a time.

Well, I have since been borne out: alas that I was! If the disaster that was Bush was clear on 9/11, it was utterly evident by November 2004 to anyone who bothered to look -- and may have become outright inarguable given Bush's criminally negligent handling of Katrina, and what it has revealed about our readiness to safeguard our citizens in the event of another terrorist attack (a readiness that was, let us never forget, the key element in Bush's reelection pitch). I have not written much about Katrina since the early days because -- frankly -- I am too heartsickened by the dead, too infuriated by the appalling response at every level. A thousand fine pieces have been written, but I will not bother to link to them here; I can't bear it. Most of you will have seen most of them anyway, I suspect.

In the first day or two after Katrina hit, there were a few calls, even from some normally level-headed leftists, not to "politicize" the situation. These calls were quickly discarded by all except Bush mouthpieces, as it quickly became evident that the situation was entirely political: the lack of preparation, the lack of response -- these are political matters. (Only those who see the political as petty -- only those, ultimately, who do not see it for what it is -- could fail to see that this life or death situation, like most, was and is political. Politics is about the most serious stuff imaginable: life and death, hope and despair, right and wrong, freedom and fear. Nothing is ever too important for politics: politics is about human life, which is as important as things get on this earth.) The calls to be non-political, now, are simply the Bush administrations weaselly way of trying to avoid responsibility for the nightmare they abetted -- indeed, for the nightmare abetted by twenty-five years of a poisonous rhetoric and philosophy which spoke ill of all government. And the left saw this, this time -- very quickly. Because, I think, of how Bush had handled 9/11 in the previous just-shy-of four years.

But in truth I wish that the left had reacted with as much furry and skepticism after 9/11. Uplifting it would not have been: but the country would have been better for it. Politics, ultimately, is not about inspiration but about policy: about what governments do. (To which inspiration may be key, of course. But it's instrumental.) If we had reacted with skepticism and not blind-faith, perhaps the patriot act would have been read by the congress before it was voted on; perhaps the tortures in the American gulag would have been met with fiercer resistance; perhaps the struggle against nuclear proliferation would have counted for more than scoring half-assed political points; perhaps the battle against Al-Queada would not have been shelved in pursuit of another. (In this last regard, let me recommend today's NYT magazine cover article by Mark Danner, who points out -- not in these words -- that while some have said we needed to invade Iraq when we did so that we fought Saddam on our terms and not his, what we ended up doing was fighting Osama on his terms -- terms that have led us to be loosing in the fight that most matters.) Most of all, if we had not had not abandoned skepticism for blind-faith in a faithless fool, perhaps we would have monitored matters, to ensure that our homeland defenses -- against any terror, man-made or natural -- were adequate and not neglected. Perhaps the people of New Orleans and elsewhere would have been treated as they deserved to be. Perhaps more of them would now be alive.

It is hard to properly commemorate the dead of four years ago when the bodies are still being drawn from the rubble of a newly ruined city -- rushing to find them before they can be devoured by wild animals. But ultimately, if they are utterly disconnected in their root cause, they are alike in the utter disaster of the government's response -- albeit a disaster that in one case took four years to see, and in another was evident within hours. Perhaps if we remember this -- and act on it -- we can struggle to make sure that when the next disaster comes (for disasters are unavoidable; only our responses to them are within our control), we are readier to meet it.

The dead of 9/11; the dead of Katrina. Rest in peace.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Preliminary Notes on Scott McCloud's Making Comics


This is not a review. It is not a systematic attempt to analyze or evaluate the book under discussion, Scott McCloud's just-out graphic novel* Making Comics, his third nonfiction book** and the third in what one might inelegantly call his "--ing comics series" which also included Understanding Comics (1993) and Reinventing Comics (2000). It is, rather, some notes on it. Also, I'm not being coy in labeling them" preliminary": I've just begun absorbing McCloud's extraordinary new book, and I might well change my mind on any or all of this after I've reread it, thought it through more, and so forth. (Hell, the promised chapter five-and-a-half -- a web-only chapter that is referred to several times in Making Comics -- isn't even up yet. (ETA eleven days from now, according to his web site.))

I am assuming that if you want to make comics, or even do already make comics, you either have already read or have already arranged to read (e.g. ordered a copy, reserved it at the library) a copy of McCloud's book. He is simply too important, too central to thinking about comics for anyone serious about the medium not to read it. So yes, if you have any interest in making comics you should read this book. Period.

What is less clear is that if anyone who is not interested in making comics should read it. Understanding Comics, of course, seduced many people who were otherwise uninterested in comics into appreciating the medium, but it also proved relevant and interesting to the work of others such as graphic designers and web designers. It's much less clear whether Making Comics has anything to say to either those who are interested in storytelling in another medium (prose, film, what have you) or those who read comics but aren't interested in making them.

Therefore these notes will address three separate audiences: those who have read the book, for whom they will serve as part of the opening volley in what will, doubtless, be a long and fruitful discussion of the book (including its merits and flaws, but largely about its points); those who are intending to read the book, but haven't got around to it yet, who might be curious about what they will find when they do read it; and those who aren't interested in making comics who are curious about whether or not they should read it.


Making Comics is about a very specific set of things -- how to translate a story that is already in your head to the medium of comics. It is about page layout, word choice, image choice, and that sort of thing. In the promotional material, McCloud says that "If you’ve ever felt there must be something more to making comics than just copying drawing styles then this is the book for you." This is meant to distinguish the book from the many 'how to draw' books, in particular the 'how to draw in such-and-such a style' books, which make up the vast majority of how-to books about making comics.

But he doesn't talk about a lot of the elements that one might talk about apart from how to draw -- he doesn't talk, for example, about how to structure a lengthy story. His book is focused on how to tell stories using comics -- and it largely avoids broader materials on how to tell stories. (We'll return to this point.)

Also, interestingly -- given its own format! -- it is very much about how to tell stories using comics. Now, a great deal of what he says would be relevant to anyone who wants to make nonfiction comics in the same mode as Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics or Making Comics -- obviously, how to combine pictures and words, what techniques and materials to use, etc, are all equally relevant. But some material -- e.g. character creation -- is less so. And, interestingly, McCloud frequently writes as if "making comics" was synonymous with "creating fictional comics stories" -- despite the fact that his own work is evidence to the contrary. It's not enough to keep someone who is interested only in making nonfiction comics from buying the book, but it is slightly odd.

A parallel might be seen in McCloud's discourse about art. As was also true of Understanding Comics to some extent, McCloud is careful to define comics in such a way as to exclude no artistic method -- and then goes on to write as if his readers are all using line-based artwork. Now this is probably fair given that most people who make comics do use line-based artwork. But some of his discussions of line, for example, will mean little to anyone who paints their comics. And as someone who is currently working on a photographic comic, a great deal of the lengthy section about facial expressions did little other than to remind me how crucial getting good actors is. (There was no reference to "photography" in the index, only to "photographic reference", i.e. using photographs as the basis for drawings.) But, again, this will serve most of McCloud's audience well; and the material is quite fascinating even when it isn't directly relevant (and some of it is more relevant than it might seem at first glance -- the material on expression has some interesting things to say about the uses of expression even to those who won't be directly drawing them). Still it's interesting that he doesn't always seem to remember his own insistence that comics can use any materials.


No one should read Making Comics who hasn't read Understanding Comics. This is true for several reasons. The most basic is that the audience for Making Comics is a proper subset of the audience for Understanding Comics: anyone who is interested in the former will be interested in the latter, but the reverse is not necessarily true. If you are interested in comics at all you should, of course, read Understanding Comics; and a great many people who don't think they are interested in Understanding Comics like it enormously too, whether or not this leads to an interest in comics. (Among other things, if you are interested in aesthetics, or the nature of different artistic media (particularly narrative media such as prose or film), or graphic design, or anything like that, you'll get a lot out of Understanding Comics.) Basically, if you haven't read Understanding Comics, you should go do that now and then come back and talk about whether or not you should read Making Comics.

But this is true for another reason as well: Making Comics is very heavily based on Understanding Comics. He regularly builds on concepts and ideas first developed in Understanding Comics. While he describes these concepts and ideas briefly, he does so nowhere near enough to make up for not having read Understanding Comics. Understanding Comics is a prerequisite for this book.

He does, however, describe them enough so that someone who hasn't read Understanding Comics as recently, repeatedly or obsessively as, say, I have will be sufficiently reminded of them to keep going. I was tempted to say that he says a bit too much about them, given that people obviously need to have read Understanding Comics to read this book -- but I'm not at all certain that's true: since he is actively using the concepts & ideas, he does need to be sure they're fresh in people's minds. (In Reinventing Comics, he could and did get away with a brief, opening review -- but Reinventing Comics was much less dependent on Understanding Comics than Making Comics is.) So I think what he does is probably just right -- reminds people of what they need to know. Since, again, Understanding Comics is a prerequisite for Making Comics.

This is not true of Reinventing Comics, though. There are sections of Making Comics which refer to Reinventing Comics, but far fewer, and (based on a single reading) less essentially. Now, I'm a very big fan of Reinventing Comics -- I enjoyed it tremendously, and thought that it was generally quite underrated -- but you can read Making Comics without having read Reinventing Comics, and some people might want to.

Making Comics Cover


One complaint I would make about Making Comics is that it's a relatively unattractive book in its packaging -- layout, back cover, and the like. I don't mean the contents -- I like McCloud's art a lot, personally (and you should know whether or not you like it or not from Understanding Comics) -- but everything else. The front cover is nice: but the back cover struck me as a bit jumbled, and the inclusion of McCloud's by-now familiar icon on the spine of the book looked cheesy to me. The binding is a bit tight, so one has to choose between letting the edges of the images get lost in the crack between the pages and breaking the spine.

Far more seriously, I think that the decision to put the notes to any given chapter directly after it, rather than gathering them all together in the back, was a serious mistake: it makes the entire package much less attractive. It might be worth it if it made the notes easier to find or more accessible -- but I don't think there's much difference between keeping a finger in the text and flipping to the back of the chapter and keeping a finger in the text and flipping to the back of the book; if anything, it's harder to find the notes at the end of the chapter. Unlike actual bottom-of-the-page footnotes (which I'm not recommending, they would have been a bad idea), end-of-the-chapter footnotes have no particular benefit. And the break up the feel of the text as a comic in a way I disliked. Gary Groth, co-founder of comics publisher Fantagraphics, criticized Reinventing Comics (inaccurately and unfairly, in my opinion) as simply a non-fiction essay with pictures added to inflate it took a book***. No one is likely to say that of Making Comics, since it so thoroughly uses and depends upon its status as comics; but the notes do break up the flow. They should have been left at the back of the book.

In fairness, I got McCloud's book the day after I received Moore and Gebbie's Lost Girls which -- whatever else you can say about it (and there's a lot to say, my own version of which I may or may not write up at some point) -- is an extraordinarily beautiful physical object, a gorgeous set of books, beautifully laid out on very nice paper, etc., so that perhaps my standards in this area were momentarily inflated.


Making Comics is filled with humor and wit and insight that isn't directly related to its topic. It is one of the joy of McCloud's nonfiction that this is true, and it's certainly true no less in Making Comics than in his earlier books -- perhaps even more. The little "throwaway" stories and characters that he uses as examples are frequently delightful. I don't know if they're enough to keep a reader who isn't interested in actually making comics going, but they add an enormous amount to the book. McCloud's books always have generous helpings of analytic insight, but they wouldn't be half as good as they are without his extraordinary wit and charm.

These incidental stories also belie, to my mind, a powerful sub-theme of the book, namely McCloud's own doubts about his own storytelling ability. He begins by saying**** that "my own comics stories are never as good as I know they could be" (p. 2), and he consistently presents himself as among the audience for his own book. Now, to some degree, this may simply be a pedagogical move: it's a disarming tactic to present yourself not as the master lecturing the hoi polloi but as a fellow-seeker, and on that level it works quite well.

But I suspect -- given not only its tone in this book, but supporting evidence from (e.g.) remarks on his web site -- that it's not just a pedagogical pose (however well it works as one), but a genuine concern. To which I have two responses.

First, I think that to a fair degree it's unwarranted. Sure, he's not (say) Alison Bechdel or Alan Moore in relation to his creation of character or story. But he is quite good. I invite readers to judge on their own by reading his online Zot! story (a sequel to his 36-issue 1980's series, but perfectly comprehensible on its own) and the two parts (out of a projected three) of his online story "The Right Number". He may not be one of the all-time masters, but he's a very good storyteller. Even lesser works like "My Obsession with Chess" and some episodes of "The Morning Improv" show an enormous amount of talent. So while I appreciate his ambition to do still-greater things -- and I look forward to them -- I think he's being a bit more self-depreciating here than is warranted.

But -- and this is the second point -- to the degree that it is warranted, nothing in Making Comics will help him.

Making Comics is all about using the comics medium to tell stories. It's not about how to tell good stories -- which is a slightly different matter. In fact, McCloud says as much on page 150:
So far, I've barely touched on what makes a "good story" -- partly because I'm still trying to figure that one out for myself. This book is about how to tell the stories you already have in mind, regardless of where those stories come from. (Translation from comics lettering into prose-style typography mine.)
-- then follows a page of extremely commonplace advice on how to tell a good story before McCloud pivots to the topic of not selling out, about which he has more to say.

I submit that the topics in Making Comics are precisely what McCloud already knows how to do and does extraordinarily well. Of course this only makes sense: he can hardly write about what he hasn't learned how to do yet -- a point that would be so obvious as to be not worth mentioning except that he claims that that is what he is doing. But he's not: he's giving guidance about how to tell a story using comics -- not how to tell a story. And I submit that to the degree that his earlier fiction is lacking (which, again, is less than McCloud himself thinks), it's lacking not in its use of the medium, but in basic storytelling principles that you won't learn from Making Comics.

Which also gets to the issue of whether or not someone who is not interested in making comics should read this book. This book is truthfully labeled: it is about making comics -- not about telling stories, or reading comics, or anything else. Now, some of the things he says are more broadly applicable -- for instance, I suspect that filmmakers could learn a lot from some of his discussions about visual storytelling. And reading about how comics are made has obvious insights for those who are simply reading rather than making comics. To say nothing of the fact that, in asides, tangents and the like McCloud says interesting things about (for example) Manga and their relationship to western comics. But none of this is the focus of the book. If you read the book for anything than a book about how to make comics, you'll be reading it at a tangent to not only its stated purpose, but to its central effort.

This, too, would hardly be worth mentioning -- since, after all, the book is truthfully labeled -- except that some people might be fooled by progression. Both Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics were books about reading comics; this book is in every way (its title, the visuals, etc.) clearly the third in that series. But it is for a subset of the previous book's audience. People who pick it up should bear that in mind: it is what it says, not what the previous books might lead you to believe it is.

If you know that going in, you might well decide to read it anyway -- since it does have applicability to other things, unrelated insight and wit, and all of that. But know that you'll be doing the equivalent of buying Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for the art: possibly a reasonable thing to do, but not the central focus of the project.


To return for a moment to McCloud's artistic ambitions: I wonder, from time to time, if McCloud is not in some way making the mistake of Arthur Sullivan. Sir Arthur Sullivan -- that's "Sullivan" as in "Gilbert and Sullivan" -- wanted to be a Serious Composer of Great Operas, and was frustrated that his light, comic operettas (with lyrics by W. S. Gilbert) got all the attention. But his genius was for light, comic music. Few today listen to Sullivan's serious compositions; his light operettas have been enjoyed for more than a century. Perhaps he should have stuck to what his genius was. Much the same tale could be told of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: he wanted to be a Great Novelist; what he was was the inventor of Sherlock Holmes. (Moral: if you're a knight named Arthur, aim lower.)

McCloud wants to tell stories; his next project is a long graphic novel. I wonder, however, if his genius isn't really for non-fictional comics. If I were McCloud's agent -- but no, that's wrong: it's not only that that's what sells, it's what is valuable, what lasts. If I were advising McCloud, I might suggest he work on a fourth non-fiction graphic novel -- ideally about comics, but maybe about computers, or really anything else that strikes his fancy.

But there's another level to this. I wonder -- and I don't know, I have no idea what he's doing for his next graphic novel -- if McCloud wishes to do serious work. I get that sense, for example, from "The Right Number" -- it is an attempt to do a Serious comic. But this may be a mistake. In addition to non-fiction and analysis, McCloud is quite gifted at light, witty comedy. Indeed, he is able to take light, witty comedy and make it profound. So if he does want to work on fiction, I would advise him to not to try to be serious. Work on something light and funny, and you might well hit something serious and profound. It's how Zot! worked. And a lot of great art has been done that way. (A recent example is Buffy the Vampire Slayer: began as humorous parody, became the best show on TV, maybe ever -- and often an extremely serious one, while (almost) always staying funny, too.) It might be the way to best use his storytelling gifts.

Connected to his longing to tell better stories than he heretofore feels he has, perhaps, is the sense of his own mortality -- which is a reoccurring leitmotif in Making Comics. So far as I can tell, his cartoon depictions in Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics are identical; not so his cartoon depiction in Making Comics, which has a distinct, unmistakable mark of grey hair about the temples, and is a bit chunkier. He even makes his own age-induced weight, in opposition to his depiction in the earlier comics, the source of some of his humor (examples: page 2 panel 1 and page 4 panel 1; page 79, panel 3). At first I thought this was a mistake: as explained in Understanding Comics (pages 36 - 37), there is a good reason for the minimalism of his icon. But in fact I quickly forgot about it, so I suppose it works. But it strikes a slightly bittersweet note in the book.


So McCloud's book is about making comics -- that is, how to use the tools of comics, particularly line-drawn comics, to (mostly) tell stories. How good is his advice in this area?

I'm probably not qualified to comment on this, as I am someone who has written comics scripts but has never participated in the production of a finished, actual comic. Nevertheless, my sense is that McCloud spends a lot of time making explicit things that people largely know and do instinctively. He is even a little bit defensive about this point; for instance, talking about his own advice on word/picture combinations, he says
Just to reiterate, I'm definitely not suggesting that anyone sit down and carefully choose their word/picture combinations before creating a comic. As with the 6 panel transitions in chapter one, I don't want this kind of classification to replace whatever instincts you have. Instead, by asking the kinds of questions I pose... I hope you can hone your instincts in the future to take advantage of these word-picture possibilities in a natural, intuitive way. (notes to chapter 3, p. 155)
I think this is about right. In many cases, I read what McCloud says and thought, "oh, I knew that". But it is still valuable to read, and to think about, and to discuss. And, of course, in other cases I thought, "wow, I hadn't considered that possibility --". Obviously which category any given discussion falls into will differ from artist to artist, as will the percentage in each; but I think that every creator will benefit from McCloud's book. Even if every single thing in here is stuff "you already know", McCloud's presentation is still valuable, smart, witty and interesting.

I should say, though, that I don't think his categories in Making Comics are quite as profound as those in Understanding Comics. This was, perhaps, the heart of the complaint about Reinventing Comics, and the one degree to which those complaints had merit. The categories he unveiled in Understanding Comics changed the way we think about comics, throwing not only new light but deeper light upon the subject. The categories in Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, while still extremely interesting, aren't as revolutionary as those in Understanding Comics. They don't have that quality of retrospective inevitability (or, for you Kantians out there, synthetic a priori) that the truly groundbreaking categories do -- as the analyses from Understanding Comics did. Understanding Comics made you wonder how you could ever have seen comics otherwise. The ideas in Reinventing Comics, on the other hand, were interesting additions to the conversation. It's a different level -- still a very worthy one, mind you (as I said, I am a big admirer of Reinventing Comics and think it underrated), but nevertheless a different one.

I do think, however, that the conceptions, ideas and categories in Making Comics, while not quite up to the level of those in Understanding Comics (and, let's face it, thoughts on that level are rare: to have them once in a lifetime is to do far, far better than most writers and thinkers) are richer and more interesting than those in Reinventing Comics. Rich enough, and interesting enough, that I think I want to stop talking about them until I have had a chance to think about them some more -- upon which, perhaps, I will even upgrade my evaluation of them. But even if not: they are, if not revolutionary, then unquestionably extremely interesting.

So, to end where I began: anyone who wants to make, or is making, comics should read this book. No question about that. Others should read it if, given that it is precisely what it says it is, they are still interested (and, if they do, they will be rewarded with wit and insight aplenty). Once we've all read it, then the discussion can begin.

This has not been a review.

Update: My thoughts on a lecture by Scott McCloud -- part of his 50 State tour to celebrate Making Comics -- can be read here.

Update 2: Scott McCloud's promised online supplement, "chapter five-and-a-half", is now online.


* It's a "graphic novel" even though, if it were prose, it would be nonfiction and, hence, not a novel. I say a bit more about this here if you're curious or dubious about this. Suffice to say it's the standard usage.

But since "comics" is not only McCloud's term but the more general term, including not only graphic novels but also daily cartoons, monthly comics and so forth, I will use that term throughout.

** Oddly, McCloud often talks as if his nonfiction books are his only books, referring to Understanding Comics as his first book and Reinventing Comics as his second, as if he hadn't also published three volumes of Zot! and various other narrative comics.

*** This summary is based on my memory of Groth's essay and my responses to it at the time, since they've now taken the relevant part off-line so I can't reread it and check. But that was my sense of it when I read it some years ago.

**** Any time I quote McCloud in these notes, I will "translate" his comics-style lettering (all capitals, generous use of bolds for emphasis, etc.) into a format more suited to prose (upper-and-lower case, only occasional emphasis and that with italics, etc.) So bear in mind that you are reading his words through my reformatting. McCloud has a fascinating (if inconclusive) discussion of the merits of different styles of lettering and which works best for comics on p. 156 of Making Comics.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How to Buy Lost Girls for $15, Absolutely Legally

(Note: this post is entirely safe-for-work, but it is about a book that isn't, and links to reviews which may contain unsafe-for-work material. I'll try to indicate which, but no guarantees. Key:
* = link includes images, but work-safe ones
** = link includes images that are not work safe

The comic du jour -- probably, based on its buzz, the comic d'lannée (Or should that be "d'lan"? My French sucks) -- is Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's 16-year-in-the-making work of artistic pornography, Lost Girls.

Yes, I said pornography. By all accounts, it does for porn what, well, Watchmen did for superhero stories: elevates it to an artistic heights never before attained, while preserving the essence of the genre. It is, in other words, really art, and really porn. (To be clear: I haven't read it yet; according to Amazon, my copy has shipped, but it ain't gotten here so far. So this is all based on reviews, blog posts and other hearsay.)

If that bothers you, don't read further.

(And the word, incidentally -- or at least Alan Moore's preferred word -- is indeed "pornography" rather than "erotica", for reasons he has explained in various interviews*.)

I've seen something like a score of statements saying that it is a work of art, one of the best comics Moore has ever done (more or less unsurpassable praise in the comics medium), a must read, and so on and so forth. It's something that, unquestionably, anyone interested in graphic novels/comics or in pornography will want to read; if one believes some (many) of the reviews, that may extend to anyone interested in human sexuality. It is, in a word, supposed to be great. (A round-up of some reviews, interviews and link follow.)

What people have not been emphasizing, however, is that it is also extremely !@#$% expensive. As in $75.

As Neil Gaiman pointed out in his review, this is part of "the traditional approach of a respectable publisher when faced with the problem of bringing out pornography... to package it elegantly, expensively and beautifully, thus pricing, shaping, signaling and presenting it to the world, not as pornography, but as erotica." A reasonable choice, all things considered. But difficult for those of us who don't casually drop $75 on anything, let alone a graphic novel we haven't read yet. Its publisher, Top Shelf, compares it to DC/Wildstorm's "absolute" format for graphic novels, which publishes graphic novels as oversize hardcovers costing $75 (such as, for example, Absolute Watchmen and Absolute League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). But those are for well-established graphic novels -- not always "classics" of the still-young medium, but ones that publishers wish to present as such, anyway. And they are always available in cheaper editions. Whereas Lost Girls isn't yet -- and might well not ever be.

Never fear, Noble Readers. You can get it cheaper -- at least for $45, possibly even for $15. Absolutely legally -- not downloading a scanned copy or buying bootleg copies or anything.

Here's how.

Okay. Part one is that** -- yeah, I prefer neighborhood bookstores and local comic shops too, but when you're talking about a !@#$% $75 book, I'm willing to cut corners -- is selling the book for $45, or 40% off. That's already a lot better than $75. (When I pre-ordered it, some time ago, it was only 37% off -- $47.50. Bah, humbug. But the take-home point here is that the price can change -- and I doubt it will go lower than $45.)

How, then, to get down to $15?

Then the key is this: will -- or at least did recently, I don't know if the promotion is still active (since it knows I already did it and won't show me), but I think it probably is -- give you a $30 credit if you sign up for a free credit card. So you sign up for the card, put Lost Girls on it... and your first bill is only $15, once the credit has been factored in.

I'm pretty sure -- I'm hoping! -- that Top Shelf and Chris Staros don't get any less than full royalties on the $45 that Amazon charges. I believe that discounts such as that come out of the bookstore's pockets, not the publisher's. (Although maybe publishers give big bookstores like Amazon special deals that smaller bookstores don't get. I don't know.) And in any event the latter is clearly an Amazon promotion, and won't affect Top Shelf.

So that's how you do it: a new, legal copy of Lost Girls for $15. Bit of a pain, really. But it allows you to buy Alan Moore's latest work for more or less the price of a new, ordinary graphic novel. I mean, $15 is a very reasonable price for a major new Alan Moore graphic novel. Even one that isn't porn (if that's more your thing).

The cover of Lost Girls. The link is to a
photoset with review art**, including
some material that is not work safe.

And why would you want to buy Lost Girls? Here are some review samples, to answer that question -- to explain why I, at least, bought a copy.

"There’s no question it’s a stone masterpiece by both [Moore and Gebbie]... a stunning narrative achievement with a whole lot of fucking. It is unquestionably art: however explicit the drawings (and they sure are), they are, after all, still drawings. And there’s a level of artistic remove in the work that almost defies titillation. The weird thing is that Moore and Gebbie might very well have split the atom here. Filmmakers have for decades tried to make truly artistic smut and failed miserably. Moore and Gebbie succeed." -- Joe Gross

"LOST GIRLS is not only one of the best things Alan Moore has ever written, I also think it’s a fairly important work of art judged by any standard. It’s genuinely dangerous... I think it’s one of the most human and heartfelt pieces of work of his career, and his reputation as a dark genius will survive the truth of this piece... that he’s a fucking romantic deep at heart. It took writing about sex to bring out a passionate, soulful Moore that I’ve never seen before in print." -- Ain't It Cool News [second ellipsis in the original]

As an exercise in the formal bounds of pure comics, Lost Girls is remarkable, as good as anything Moore has done in his career... It is one of the tropes of pure pornography that events are without consequence. No babies, no STDs, no trauma, no memories best left unexamined. Lost Girls, however, is all about consequences. It's also about more things than sex – war, music, love, lust, repression and time, to pick a handful of subjects (I could pick more)... Lost Girls is a bitter-sweet, beautiful, problematic, exhaustive, occasionally exhausting work. It succeeded for me wonderfully as a true graphic novel. If it failed for me, it was only as smut; the book, at least in large black and white photocopy form, was not a one-handed read. It was too heady, dense and strange to appreciate or to experience on a visceral level. (Your mileage may vary; porn is, after all, personal.)
-- Neil Gaiman

"LOST GIRLS is about as sacred and profane as comics can get, and an absolutely essential piece of Alan Moore work comparable to From Hell, Watchmen, Voice of the Fire, or whatever your personal favourite Alan Moore work happens to be... about the most thoughtful rumination on sexuality and fantasy as I have ever experienced." -- Alan David Doane **

... and so forth. Top Shelf has a long list of reviews and interviews, which run from the impressed to the utterly blown away. The point is, it's a book that has impressed a lot of people. If you want to read it yourself, get a copy (it won't be at many libraries!). I hope this helps you get one a bit more reasonably priced than you otherwise might.

(If anyone knows any legal ways to get even cheaper copies, feel free to leave them in comments. But legal ways only, please! Top Shelf is putting itself on the line for this one; no one should download it or otherwise get royalty-free copies.)

Another Argument Against Hillary

The arguments against supporting Hillary Clinton (our esteemed junior Senator here in New York) to be the Democratic nominee for 2008 are manifold, various and overwhelming. There is the fact that she has been disastrously bad on the central issue of her time in the Senate, Iraq. There is the fact that she has the temperament and record of a centrist and the reputation of a liberal -- by far the worst possible combination. There is the ugly aristocratic odor of supporting a former president's spouse right after the presidency of a former president's son. And there is the central, crucial fact that however strong she may be in the Democratic primaries, she would be a terrible candidate in 2008 -- exceedingly likely to loose at a time when a Democrat ought to be able to win. All of this, frankly, ought to be decisive. (Indeed, a recent London Times report is that even some in Hillary's circle are starting to think it might be. (via))

But just in case anyone needs it, here's another argument.

There are innumerable important issues on the agenda -- from the clusterfuck that is Iraq, to actual efforts to improve rather than worsen American security; from the problem of diminishing supplies of oil to the environmental havoc that that oil which we have already used has caused, is causing and will continue to cause; from the growing cultural power of theocratic forces in this country to specific issues, such as gay rights, on which they take discriminatory and immoral positions. But in one specific domain -- namely, the domestic domain of economics, social structures, and similar affairs -- the single, overriding issue is the absolute disaster that our health care system is, and the urgent practical and moral necessity of fixing it.

I don't know if I have to make an argument for this -- there have been a lot of arguments for it (here's one from just yesterday, for example (via)). But no other single problem has so many deleterious effects on our economy and society; no other single problem would help such a broad range of people, from the poor through the middle class to even some in the upper classes; no other single problem is as easy to fix on a technical level (every other industrialized nation in the world has universal health care, so there are a wide variety of tried and tested options to study and learn from); no other single problem has, I believe, the political power that this one does -- my sense is that people are increasingly agitated over this, and the option of universal care would sell well to a broad majority of them. So this is the issue to work on (within this domain, as opposed to, say, security or foreign policy or the culture wars or the environment) the next time we have a competent, reality-based administration -- hopefully as soon as January of 2009. I hope that many, or even all, of the Democratic nominees for 2008 take strong stances on this. We need to fix this already.

But here's the problem: because of her involvement with (and the public's association of her with) the most recent failed attempt to solve this pressing issue, in 1994, Hillary is perhaps more poorly placed than any national politician -- certainly than any foreseeable candidate for the Democratic nomination -- to deal with this problem. More than any other figure, she would be scarred off from this, unable to persuade the public on this, more likely to dodge it.

There are plenty of other reasons to oppose Hillary -- plenty of other reasons which are sufficient in and of themselves, irrespective of all the others. But her basic deficit at grappling with the central (domestic, economic/social) issue of our time is, for me, yet another.

Let's find someone else. If possible, someone who will take a bold stand for universal health care. For Lord knows that we could use it.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

People Work Better Treated like People

(A belated post for labor day.)

There was an interesting story on NPR a month or two ago about how Best Buy is letting its (managerial) workers structure their own work. From the squib:
[Best Buy] has abandoned the concept of a regular workday.... [It] is encouraging much of its corporate staff to work whatever hours they want, and to do so wherever they please. The company says productivity is booming.
This story has gotten surprisingly little play in the media. A quick google search only turned up one other story about it, a Time magazine piece from about a year ago. The Time piece is now behind their firewall, but there is a summary of it here.

It's been successful in ways beyond simply increasing productivity: employees are much happier -- they are giving up promotions if those would bump them into a department that has not yet gone to the ROWE ("results-oriented work environment") system (the departments are apparently going at their own pace; not all have made the transition yet). And, for those who actually care about the family values that get so much lip service, people are spending more time with their kids.

All this and -- to repeat -- more productivity too.

It's an interesting story -- but one which, on some level, ought to be predictable. It is, on some level, the opposite of Taylorism, a progressive-era U.S. movement which sought to use "scientific" (which was basically a parody of true scientific thinking, one which scraped the shiny surface off it and ignored the engine underneath) methods to control workers, on an incredibly detailed level. Workers hated it, of course, and pushed back. And, it turned out, workers knew their jobs better than "scientists" who swept in for the day.

There are some down sides, as expressed in the Time article:
In exchange for more autonomy, Best Buy employees give up the guidelines that signal where work ends and leisure begins. Janssen says the hardest adjustment was "not working 24 hours a day. Because you have that ability now. I had to learn when enough is enough." Moen says the old rigid system is comforting for routine-loving workers. ROWE, she says, "could be harder for people who want order in their lives."
There is also the adjustment that showing up early and leaving late is no longer a way to show dedication -- no longer a sign meaning "good employee". Overall, though, the employees love it. They have more productive meetings, since the time is real time now -- why waste it? They are less stressed and have more time with their families. The managers have "learn[ed] how to stop treating [their] employees as if they were 'unruly children'" -- which, face it, ought to happen, since we are talking about adults here: it is clearly better for their health and sanity and happiness if they're treated like, well, adults.

And I think that people work best when treated like adults -- like people, one might say. This is more or less inarguably true of people doing any sort of work which requires thought or creativity -- such as the corporate staff at Best Buy. But I would wager that, with some, well, thought and creativity, it could be made to be true of many other work environments as well. I'd love to see Best Buy try -- and one store -- to organize its sales staff this way. (According to the story in Time, Best Buy is "working" on a way to do this.) It couldn't be precisely the same, perhaps -- but I bet a great more flexibility, a lot less ordering-about and a lot more let's-make-sure-the-task-is-done could do a lot of good. It seems worth trying at any rate.

And I would certainly like to see a lot more businesses try this sort of model. It would not only be more productive: it would be healthier for our culture and our society. People ought to be treated like people, able to arrange their own affairs. Why not give it a try?

Update: At the other place where I post these musings, a commentator asked this question: "...more companies should adopt this. Companies are so loath to change, though. Do you think many large corporations actually will do this?"

I think the answer is twofold.

The first part is, alas, probably not. As she says, businesses loathe change. It's new. It's unlikely.

But the second part -- perhaps the important part -- is: They will if we push them. This pushing will, necessarily, have multiple parts: asking, talking about the idea in public, pushing the idea in public, forming unions, agitating by unions, slowly turning it into a cultural norm. In short -- like so many other things -- we can do it if, collectively, we decide to.

"If you will it, it is no dream".