Sunday, April 29, 2007

Milan Kundera, Philip Roth and a Mangled Quotation

Preparing for a class tomorrow (in which I'm teaching Philip Roth's marvelous novel The Human Stain), I was looking up a quote I remembered from an interview that Roth did with Czech novelist Milan Kundera. I remember it well; and I've seen it quoted many times. But -- so far as I can tell -- it's misquoted on both Milan Kundera's official website and on the NY Times web site (where the interview appeared). Here is the quotation -- both the question and answer -- as it appears there. (I cut & paste from the NY Times, but it looks like it's word-for-word the same on both sites.) I've bolded the relevant part:
PR: Is this, then, the furthest point you have reached in your pessimism?
MK: I am wary of the words pessimism and optimism. A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don't know whether my nation will perish and I don't know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having a question for everything. When Don Quixote went out in the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.
The problem is that this makes no sense: Kundera is praising questioning (as he does in many places in his work). Why would he say that "The stupidity of people comes from having a question for everything"? He is in fact famous for saying the opposite.

And when I looked at the Lexis/Nexus archived version of the interview, it was reprinted as I remember it -- as it is often quoted -- and in a way that makes sense. Slightly, but crucially differently. The Lexus/Nexus site has the exchange as follows:
PR: Is this, then, the furthest point you have reached in your pessimism?
MK: I am wary of the words pessimism and optimism. A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don't know whether my nation will perish and I don't know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.
Now that makes sense: the quoted lines now fit with the rest of the paragraph, as well as with what Kundera is frequently quoted as saying (it's a famous quote), not to mention everything that I (at any rate) know of his worldview. Not to mention my vivid memory of reading it, in the back of my parents old paperback of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. (The newer edition, which I have, doesn't have the interview reprinted -- alas.)

But why would both the Times and Kundera's own site get it wrong? I can only assume that Kundera's site took it from the Times site, and that it got mangled somewhere. (I can sort of imagine that: a line of type -- " answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having..." -- got dropped somewhere, aided and abetted by the fact that "comes from having" appears twice.)

Anyway, I mention this for two reasons: first, to get the fact about the misquotation out (insofar as I am able) into the memeosphere, to try and correct what appears (to me) to be an out-and-out error on the part of two rather credentialed websites; and second, to ask if anyone knows how that did (or might have) happened. -- Any thoughts?

(Any irony about my looking for answers, given the content of the quotation in question, will be punished by my hitting you on the head with very heavy Philip Roth quotes.)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Old Supervillain Jokes Never Die...

...they just seem to, somehow reappearing (with brand-new and even-more-fiendish plans!) several blog posts later!

• From Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin: Dr. Doom's Top Ten Euphemisms for Sex

• Jonathan Coulton's song Skullcrusher Mountain

Dave Campbell: "Enter Stilt Man - enter Radical Awesomeness. In my mind, any comic can be improved by the addition of Stilt Man, the most gloriously goofy and retro and somehow charming villain you could ask for." More Dave Campbell Radical Awesomeness here.

From all over the place:

(Yes, Dick Cheney is a supervillain. -- What? You really need that one explained?)

... um, yes, I am grading papers today. Why do you ask?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Articulate Anger of Arthur Silber

He writes:
The similarities between Cho's psychology and the forces that drive United States foreign policy ought to be startling, and profoundly disturbing: the feelings of vulnerability, victimization, humiliation and rage are the same -- as is the determination to restore one's own dominance through violence and murder. But be sure you appreciate the the chronology and the causal chain that Lifton correctly identifies: just as Cho did not suddenly become a murderer on the morning of April 16, but only reached that awful destination after years of inexorable psychological development along one particular path, so too the United States was not instantaneously transformed into an unfocused, rage-filled international murderer after 9/11. As Lifton states, "The war on terrorism, then, took amorphous impulses toward combating terror and used them as a pretext for realizing a prior mission aimed at American global hegemony." ...

As I said, the horror of the Blacksburg killings was genuine. But consider the immense difference in scale between the expressions of grief and horror at Cho's actions -- which led to the deaths of 32 innocent people -- and those that have arisen out of our war of aggression against Iraq, and the subsequent hellish occupation. The Blacksburg murders consumed our country for a week, blotting out almost all other news; the horrors and deaths in Iraq, which far outnumber Cho's killings on any single day, receive mention, but nothing remotely approaching the frequency and intensity of coverage that followed the Virginia Tech incident.

As I have repeatedly stated, Iraq had not attacked us and constituted no serious threat to our nation. These facts were entirely clear in the spring of 2003. Thus, our invasion and occupation of Iraq were and are immoral, illegal, and an unending war crime. We have murdered well in excess of half a million innocent human beings; the number creeps closer to one million with each day that passes. Cho unforgivably murdered 32 people who had done him no harm. What are we to say about the actions of the United States in Iraq?
Read the rest. Also recommended is this piece from Tom Dispatch which Silber quotes extensively. (via)

Oops, Too Late

My wife and I don't get any television reception. Oh, we have a television -- old but serviceable -- but it doesn't get any channels. We live in a valley; to get channels, you need cable. We don't have it.

Honestly, we like it that way. If you get channels, then you spend time trying to find something on them, and, well, usually there ain't nothing. It wastes time; it sucks you into watching stuff you don't really like, just 'cause it's on. (Once upon a time, the idea that you needed it for up-to-the-minute news was an excuse; these days, though, the internet really serves that function perfectly well.)

But that doesn't mean we don't watch television. We just do it differently. We get DVDs of shows through netflix and watch them that way (if we really like them, we buy sets). Some shows are now putting their episodes online, and either or both of us will watch shows that way. Other shows are on iTunes. Or friends with a tivo will invite us over to watch a show. All of these methods tend to assure that you're watching something you're interested in (and when you feel like watching it) rather than whatever happens to be on. And there's been some great TV in recent years, too.

But it does mean we're a bit behind the times.

All of which is to say that I hadn't really heard of Drive -- oh, rumblings on the horizon, but nothing that stuck in my head -- until today, when Robert Farley mentioned it. But it sounds good! Executive produced by Tim Minear, writer for Angel and co-executive producer for Firefly? Staring the beautiful Nathan Fillion, star of the aforementioned Firefly? With Angel's brilliant Amy Acker in the bargain? Hell, I don't care what the premise is: I'll watch it. Now, what was Robert Farley saying about it?

It's been canceled
. After four episodes.

Well, frack.

Some people might say -- with some justification -- that I'm part of the problem here: not watching it live, I don't get counted in the ratings. But if the ratings only pick up people who watch it live then -- given all the (vastly superior) options for watching TV otherwise -- then the rating system badly needs an overhaul. There's gotta be a way to keep a series going that has (or will have) a fan base on DVD/internet download, and not just those who watch it with advertising. (HBO seems good at this -- at least, they've done a lot of great series that haven't gotten stellar ratings (it fits their business model, of course); whereas Fox seems a particular villain in this regard: starting great shows and then cancelling them before they have time to find an audience. Now only a sucker would let themselves get hooked on a Fox show early on: chances are if it's good, they'll can it.) Connected with this is the fact that shows take time to build an audience (and even to find their footing and voice): four episodes seems utterly insufficient to judge if a series will succeed or not.

Still, it's a bit depressing to hear of a great-sounding show for (basically) the first time when being informed of it's cancellation.

I'm not sure who; but someone ain't doing something right, that's for sure.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Flag Has Fallen: We May Not See It Raised In Our Lifetimes

Yesterday at ThinkProgress there was a story about an op-ed by Army Sgt. Jim Wilt asking "Why don’t we honor our fallen servicemembers?" Noting that President Bush ordered flags lowered to half-mast to honor the victims of the Virginia Tech Massacre, Sgt. Wilt wrote: "I find it ironic that the flags were flown at half-staff for the young men and women who were killed at VT yet it is never lowered for the death of a U.S. servicemember."

In some ways, it's a good question. Lots of people have noted in the days since the massacre that the deaths in Iraq are less noted than those in Virginia, although they are no less violent. Keith Olbermann noted that as many young Americans died in Iraq in the ten days before the Virginia Tech Massacre as died in the massacre; others have noted that that many Iraqis die in Iraq on a daily basis. The former deaths should make us mourn the deaths of our fellow citizens, who sacrificed their lives in our country's service (whatever we think of the ends that their commanders -- who we as a people picked -- chose for them); the latter deaths should call us to conscience for a situation in which, as Andrew Sullivan noted, we are ultimately responsible for the security -- a responsibility we are failing far more manifestly than any of the authorities so hastily blamed in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre. But even setting aside Iraqi deaths that are our ultimate responsibility (as current politics would no doubt do), surely we could -- and should -- lower the flag for our own soldiers?

But in another way it's a silly question -- one that Sgt. Wilt answers almost immediately: the death of a servicemember in Iraq
lack[] the shock factor of the Virginia massacre. It is a daily occurrence these days to see X number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan scrolling across the ticker at the bottom of the TV screen. People have come to expect casualty counts in the nightly news; they don’t expect to see 32 students killed.
So he settles for asking that flags be lowered for a day in the states in which slain soldiers originate -- and the bases on which they serve. (Some do, some don't.) A request that is both utterly reasonable and heartbreaking in the low level of respect it asks for.

Why not ask for more? Why should not the violent deaths of American soldiers be honored the same way the deaths of American students and faculty are?

Because the flag would never fly high again. Because, at least until we leave Iraq (January 2009 at the very earliest, and I fear likely later than that) American soldiers will continue to die.

There isn't the shock factor. We get used to it: humans are remarkably good at getting used to ongoing things. And if the things are off in the distance -- happening to someone else -- maybe it isn't even all that remarkable. "The sound of gunfire off in the distance -- I'm getting used to it now."

But these are real people -- the Iraqis, innocents whose deaths we are ultimately responsible for even if we are not their murderers; our fellow citizens, who have lost their lives for the failed policy of a failed president who is too proud and detached from reality to admit his failure.

For Bush to order the flag lowered nationally, even once, for an American soldier who died in Iraq, would ensure that it was not raised again during his presidency -- and quite possibly not for long after. He can't lower the flag for the same reason he won't go to the funerals, and the same reason they ban photos of the coffins returning home: once opens the door to others -- to all. Only by shutting our eyes can we avoid seeing what he -- what we, in installing him; what we, in not doing enough to oppose him -- have done.

Apparently the murderer at Virginia Tech blamed us for his murders (I haven't watched the video nor read the manifesto). Obviously he is wrong about that. But for the deaths of American soldiers (and Iraqi civilians), we -- to widely varying degrees, and Bush above all -- do bear (partial) responsibility. Without our actions, they would not be dead. If we acted now, to end this horror -- which we won't -- no more will die.

So our flag will go on flying high, ignoring the deaths of those who gave their lives in service of this country that will not honor them. Better to shut our eyes, to ignore their sacrifice, than to acknowledge our own guilt.

But of course the flag has fallen, even if we obstinately refuse to see it: the deaths cannot be undone. The shame on our national honor -- of torture, of rendition, of aggressive and unjustified war -- cannot be undone. The damage to our republic and our freedoms can be undone only with great cost; it may never be. All that physically lowering the flag would do would be to acknowledge that.

Lower the flag? How could Bush order that? The flying flag is all he has left: the hollow appearance of patriotism.

If Bush lowered the flag, we would see the stains on it. Better to keep it riding high and shut our eyes against anything out of the ordinary.

Lower the flag? If we lowered the flag, it might not be raised again in our lifetimes.

Maybe it shouldn't be.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

100 Great Pages: Kevin Huizenga's Curses, p. 77

Eighth of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

Okay this one's just pretty.

What's interesting about it, however, is that I don't think it's supposed to be. Or perhaps it'd be better to say: it's pretty somewhat despite itself.

Kevin Huizenga is a young up-and-coming cartoonist: Curses is, I believe, his first major book, although he's published individual issues with several publishers (the early ones of which being what's collected in Curses). One of my favorite works of his, "Time Traveling", is online, and if you like the page below (and haven't read it before), I urge you to check it out.

So last year, on the strength of many good reviews, the aforementioned "Time Traveling" and his general reputation as the greatest thing since sliced Crumb, I picked up Curses. I flipped through it before I read it -- I do that with graphic novels in a way I don't with prose, for better or for worse -- when my eye alighted on this page:

(Click for larger version.)
Awestruck. Love -- or at least aesthetic bliss -- at first sight.

What's weird, though, is when you go back and read the story it's in: it's not a story about beauty. It's a story about pests.

Page 77 is the seventh page of a ten-page story called "The Curse". It's about starlings, interweaving facts about them (such as their mimicry and Mozart's affection for a pet starling) with a small-scale human story about the irritation of the birds. Starlings, you see -- as we learn from Huizenga's piece -- are a European bird introduced to the U.S. by someone who was trying to ensure that all birds mentioned in Shakespeare were found here. Some lines in 1 Henry IV brought the starling to our shores. As a non-native species, they have grown extremely fast, and damage crops, other birds, even man-made structures. They are also a pest to humans: much of Huizenga's lovely little tale is about Glenn Ganges (Huizenga's recurring character) and his family being tormented by the droppings and (particularly) the sounds of the starlings.

Interwoven with this tale of environmental damage are repeated scenes of the damage from human habitation and suburban sprawl: the connection is repeatedly drawn between the damage we have done to the environment and that of the starlings (which is, after all, a consequence of human acts and thus adds to our column too). That starlings' mimicry means that many of their sounds are now mimicking human sounds -- in particular automobile sounds -- simply draws these themes closer together.

(One nice touch: on the penultimate page of the piece (page seventy-nine of Curses), Huizenga does a short homage to Robert Crumb's classic strip "A Short History of America", which I discussed in an earlier installment in this series: four panels carefully reproduced from Crumb's twelve, with the addition of an increasing number of Starlings, their calls (and some narrative captions). It's a marvelous intertextual (if that's the word) invocation of a classic history in order to place a new element within it, tying the human transformation of the environment (in a classic comics representation) in with the spread of the invasive species of birds.)

So this story is about environmental destruction, about helplessness as the blowback of interfering with nature comes to haunt us at all hours. Starlings dot every page of the work: they are a menacing presence, not unlike the biblical plague of frogs. Page 77 of Curses (page seven of "The Curse") is about Glenn Ganges's failed attempt to scare the starlings off with a bottle rocket his neighbor gives him: they leave for a brief moment, whirl about, and return. This page is the page of failure, a page about the intruding, unavoidable nature of an intensifying pest.

But God, it's beautiful.

Huizenga captures -- in a few simple lines -- a common, extraordinary, beautiful sight in nature: a huge flock of birds, swooping about the sky.

The cartooning here is extraordinarily simple -- almost as simple as cartooning can get* -- but it embodies an acute eye for realistic detail all the same.

Huizenga captures an extraordinary sense of motion -- of careening, fluid flying -- in his simple lines. Through the astonishing expedient of changing from crosses to v's to single lines, he injects a wonderful dynamism into his page, making you feel the birds change directions all together, as they seem to hang in the air (crosses), turn suddenly and swiftly downward (lines) or soar generally in the same direction (v's).

How amazing is it that such simple shapes -- which, individually, look not the least like a bird -- look so terribly realistic when collected altogether like that?

It's not just the precise placement of the "birds" in relation to each other that makes it so wonderful, nor the beautifully precise "timing" in his shifting from one shape to the next, capturing exactly the way in which it feels to watch flocks of birds sweep about the sky. It's also the placement within each panel. The shifting of the flock from the upper right, to the lower right -- and then, masterfully, leaving it there for another panel while shifting the direction of the flight by shifting the shapes used to draw the birds -- then shifting again to the upper (but not far upper, now all in frame) left, and then having it careen off panel to the left -- without the skill in these placements, the page wouldn't work at all. With them, the sheer poetry of the emotion is fixed onto the otherwise-motionless page.

Another masterful touch are the few birds going in a different direction in each of the top six panels: the three v's at the bottom left of the group of crosses in the first panel representing birds that are still going in a slightly different direction; a few crosses at the top right of the lines in the next panel representing birds that haven't turned yet, though are presumably about to. (While I'm at it, notice the changing directions of the lines in that panel: as your eye moves down the image, the lines go to a sharper and sharper angle, matching the increased speeds as the birds careen downwards.) There are a few such in each of the top six panels: and for the most part they are all down with an incredible eye. (The one exception, in my view, are two v's in the middle of the turning lines of panel four: they seem out of place, ill-considered. It always makes me think they'll crash into the other birds. Elsewhere the exceptions are placed in ways that seem to work beautifully; here, not quite.)

Then, to finish it off, the mixed lines and crosses in panels seven and eight convey powerfully the return, the medium-speed soar down to rest, again, in the trees from which they had been scared away. Here the lines add motion, the crosses slow it down: the mix works perfectly to make a statelier (and more inevitable) return than the swift, careening flying of the first six panels in which (almost) all the same shapes are used in every instance. The small numbers of lines in the final panel, of course, indicate that the starlings are mostly already at rest in the trees: whether the small lines you can see in the tops of the trees are starlings, or just part of the depiction of the trees themselves, is up to the individual reader.

The overall layout of the page is also extremely effective: with the tops of the trees grounding the bottom panel, the entire page becomes the sky, as we see the starlings fly up, wheel, and eventually settle back on the trees. The panel borders act as conveyors of time, showing us motion in the gutters; but the page as a whole also can be seen as a single (time-faceted) image of the sky.

One marvelous little technique which may escape the reader on this particular page: Huizenga denotes the cries of the starlings by -- generally -- meaningless lines in speech balloons. (Here you can see this only in the bottom panel, two single balloons, cries of two single starlings.) It's quite an effective technique for capturing the sense of spoken, palpable, but meaningless noise so utterly essential to the effect of the piece as a whole. It also allows him to incorporate fragments of more meaningful cries into an otherwise meaningless wall of sound -- a few notes from a Mozart opera, the "ding ding" of a train -- in a natural way that effectively captures the reality of bits and pieces of mimicry strewn through otherwise (so far as we know) mere noise. (At times he uses other techniques -- the sound of the city represented by an image in a speech balloon -- but not on this page.)

Coincidentally, this Sunday's NY Times Magazine, which came out as I was already deep in the process of writing this entry, has a brief article on starlings by Jonathan Rosen, accompanied by a photo essay with pictures by Richard Barnes. Rosen's piece is oddly (or not so oddly, given the similarity of the topic) congruent with Huizenga's comic, repeating many of the same facts (Shakespeare, Mozart) and even repeating the trope of thematically entangling the environmental damage of starlings and people. But I am grateful for the coincidence, for it happens that Rosen gives us a vital clue to the nature of this inappropriately beautiful page of Huizenga's. Rosen writes that "Barnes’s photographs capture the double nature of the birds — or at least the double nature of our relationship to them — recording the pointillist delicacy of the flock and something darker, almost sinister in the gathering mass."

Huizenga's "The Curse" focuses largely on the darker, sinister element of the birds; but page 77 captures the "pointillist delicacy" with remarkable accuracy. (Compare this page to Barnes's Murmur 7, Murmur 8 and Murmur 15; other Barnes photographs are more towards the sinister side.) In crafting a piece about starlings, Huizenga may have intended to focus largely, or even entirely, on their history, their irritation, and their sense of gathering, inescapable menace. But Huizenga is too precise, too accurate a cartoonist not to see the duality of their nature. Perhaps against his will, perhaps deliberately, page 77 captures another element of the starlings' being: their swooping, swirling breath-taking beauty. With extraordinary economy and grace -- with simple lines that a child could draw (but never would) -- Huizenga captures something essential about the world, about our experience of it (which is after all itself part of the world): sets it down in the most vivid way. Sometimes sheer simplicity is the greatest accuracy of all.

This year, for my work, I have an hour-long commute (each way) twice a week. The drive is mostly through rural areas, though: much of it through flat farmland where the sky is almost midwestern in its size and majesty. And I frequently see huge flocks of birds, rising up, arching out, v-ing back, dropping down. And ever since I saw Huizenga's page, it always makes me think of that. He so powerfully, so accurately captures it -- not the literal sight (if you look closely, in real life, you can really see the birds, of course, not just little marks; and the birds are not starlings, so far as I know), but the experience of it, that it has been hard for me to now experience the reality save through the lens of his art.

And that, Noble Readers, is the sign of a great page.

* Although yes, it can get simpler -- and still be really good! -- as I'll discuss in a future installment: stay tuned!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Wikipedia's Really Taken the Smeg This Time

I am on record with my love for Wikipedia. But they have a really bad habit of deleting awesome articles. When I compiled my earlier list of wacky (wonderful!) Wikipedia lists, I noted that in the time I was collecting them, some of them had already been deleted.

But this fracking takes the gorram cake. Wikipedia has deleted its list of fictional expletives!! All of their reasons are total kark -- various smeg about it being "indiscriminate", "unverifiable"... a lot of which seem to boil down to it not having the Dignity of An Encyclopedia Topic.

Which is a load of total dren. First, have they seen some of the stuff that they do have articles on? I mean, really? Second, this whole "not notable" thing... it's the fraggin' internet!?! It's not like you need to save space! If it's not notable... don't read it. Let those note it who care.

Basically, this seems to embody a sense of Taking Itself Seriously which, as far as I'm concerned, misses half the point. Yeah, Wikipedia is a good resource (sometimes) for standards subjects. But it's a really kick-ass resource for weird and random smeg. It's what makes the whole thing fun, keeps it worth looking at.

I mean, yeah, fortunately the web archive site comes through with this preserved version of the list. And yes, there are similar lists that exist on other sites. But if it can't be changed and updated... if it isn't on Wikipedia... it's just not the same.

Wikipedia, you really frelled up this time.


(Update) Other Lost Lists:

Going through my earlier list of wacky Wikipedia lists the following lists have also been deleted in the last 8 and a half months. I liked all of them. (Links are to versions of the lists, where available.)

List of fictional people who were cremated
List of fictional characters with one eye
List of fictional cities
List of fictional road numbers
List of fictional frogs
List of people who became famous only in death
• List of people who became famous through being terminally ill
List of places by Jedi (i.e. number claiming to adhere to the religion)
List of people widely considered eccentric
List of songs over fifteen minutes in length
List of sets of unrelated albums with identical titles
• List of songs parodied by Weird Al Yankovic
List of real people appearing in fictional context

May they return speedily, in our days.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Links (Day-Olds Cart)

Please note: these links were all baked yesterday. Management assumes no responsibility if they have gone stale. They're cheap, that's all we say. (And while you're here, why not try some of our world-famous cream cheese?)

Oh, and as far as updates go, if we find more links where they've rolled under the oven with all the golf-ball sized dust bunnies safely preserved in the back, we'll be putting them out without additional notice.

Gun Control:

The recent massacre at Virginia Tech has brought up the issue of gun control again. Two of the most interesting things I've read about it -- neither strictly pro nor strictly con, which is part of what makes them interesting -- are this post by Jack Balkin on the legal issues; and this post on Making Light about the practical issues.

As to whether or not we should be talking about this at all, see Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise.

Update: Also this piece in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik (of whom see more below), which very much does take a stand,-- but what an amazing articulation of it! (via the wrongheaded dismissive comment here)

Pretty Pictures:

This is a wonderful comics review of Bryan Talbot's new book, Alice in Sunderland (via), which is itself done as a comic, in the style of the work reviewed. I've just gotten my copy of Talbot's book, and will have thoughts of my own when I have a chance to read it with the care it quite clearly deserves (which, given grading & the end of the semester, may be a while). But the review above is still fun even if you haven't read the book -- an entertainment in and of itself.

This digital photographer is doing really cool things. (via)

• When I was talking about the Codex Seraphinianus, I mentioned the Voynich Manuscript, which may have been an inspiration for the Codex, and which is even more mysterious. Someone has now put the entire thing online as a flickr set (via). I haven't read (if that's the word) it closely, but at a glance it looks less interesting than the Codex Seraphinianus. Also from BoingBoing, there's a new statistical analysis indicating that the Voynich Manuscript may be a hoax. Still a neat text (if that's the word), of course.

Diverse Diversions:

• While I'm linking to a site which you probably all read, I'll mention that if you didn't actually click the link in this BoingBoing post about The Zimmers -- a chorus/rock band made up of senior citizens, many of them over 90 -- their version of My Generation is really awesome. (What a cool thing to do!) It totally rewrites the line "hope I die before I get old" anyway. Even better is the video, which you'll find if look at BoingBoing's link-back. (Hey, I just noticed BoingBoing used the link I sent them (which I got from here, incidentally.))

• One of the courses I'm teaching this semester (here) is a history course on "The United States Since 1939". Well, the semester is drawing near to its conclusion... which meant that the other day I found myself preparing a class on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. I remembered vividly that the best piece on the whole affair (so to speak) that I read that year was by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker -- a reading of the Starr Report as if it were a literary text. So I googled a bit, and yes, someone has put it up online. So I reread it.

It's not as good as I remembered: it's much, much better. Really, it's flat-out wonderful. So do go read it -- or reread it, if you read it at the time. Best thing to come out of that whole sordid episode (with the partial exception -- partial because it's only tangentially related to the episode -- of the novel I'm making my students read, which is also superb. But not online.)

Criticizing Bush: a preview of things to come. (via)

• A "cousin tree" visually depicts the difference between a first cousin once removed and a second cousin (and so forth). (via) Wikipedia totally rocks.

Dave Campbell on the practical problems of the Batmobile: "Can that thing even fit into a standard parking spot? Have you ever tried to parallel park a car that has huge scalloped bat wings on the back while wearing a rubber cowl that prevents you from moving your neck more than five degrees in any direction?"

Monday, April 16, 2007


Nothing really to say but horrified silence; but my thoughts are with the friends and families of those murdered at Virginia Tech today. Rest in peace.

Friday, April 13, 2007

100 Great Pages: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, page 1

Seventh of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

Some things are so titanically great that we can even loose sight of how amazing they truly are: living for too long in their shadow, we come to underestimate their size. Such is Watchmen which, despite being widely acclaimed as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time, despite being seen almost universally as the definitive deconstruction of the superhero genre, despite its widespread acclaim even beyond regular readers of graphic novels,* is somehow nevertheless continually underestimated -- because it is taken for granted, I think.

Typically in this series -- at least thus far -- I give a brief introduction to the works from which I am presenting a page, since I assume that they won't be familiar to (at least some of) my readers. I shan't do this with Watchmen, since I presume it will be familiar to most of my readers, at least by reputation if they haven't actually read it. If not, well, the footnote below (*) will give you some indication of its cultural place in the developing field of the graphic novel; and since I am writing about the first page there's no context you need. (And I hope that this one page can convince you to read on: it is a truly wonderful book, one I recommend without reservation to everyone (so that, for example, many superhero comics require being a fan of that genre to enjoy (or even familiar with the specific characters and backstories used), this isn't true at all of Watchmen: you can read it without liking Superhero stories and still enjoy it tremendously, as I know from several successful recommendations (and reports by others of many more.))

So we'll jump right into page one:

(That scan, by the way, is from my old copy of the trade paperback, bought fairly soon after it first came out. Apparently the recently-released, oversized hardcover, Absolute Watchmen has completely re-done color (by John Higgins, who also did the color the first time around). But since I've only seen it shrink-wrapped in the store, I can't speak to that point personally. (Though if anyone feels moved to buy me a $75 book as a present, I will not only update this entry, but I'll provide a new scan of page one.))

We open with a long upward zoom -- a shot that allows us to slowly take in a scene in every sense -- both broadly, introducing us to a city which (if we look closely) we'll see is altered from the familiar world that we know (Watchmen occurs in an alternate history which includes different technology than in our world); and narrowly, showing us a specific scene which we come to realize (on pages two or three if not on page one) is actually a murder scene. The page's zoom actually begins with the cover of the first issue -- in fact if you (unlike I) bought the right edition, it actually begins even earlier with the cover of the entire book; in its day, this cover, and its use as (effectively) the first panel of the story was atypical for (at least mainstream) comics, the first of dozens if not thousands of innovative uses of the medium that Moore and Gibbons would debut (or in some cases popularize) in their work.

So let's begin by simply noting that as an overall visual organization of a page, it's extremely striking. A zoom from a close-up street to a high-window: what a wonderful way to begin! The zoom allows us to take in the scene in a visually engaging way, one which engrosses us in the story through sheer force of receding point of view. The page, of course, is drawn with Gibbons's typical clarity and grace: he simply draws extremely clear, powerful precise art, wonderfully framed and richly detailed -- from the cracks in the sidewalk to the reflections in the building's glass windows. -- Look at the detail in the image of the street-cleaner in panel three: as far as I can remember, a character who never appears again, but one that is unquestionably himself, a recognizable and specific individual (so that if he does reappear, we'll recognize him). And he is extremely expressive too: from his posture and expression in this and the following panel, we can ourselves imagine a whole dialogue of his yelling at the doomsday sign-carrier who tromps unconcernedly through a sidewalk of spilt blood.

And ah yes, the sign carrier: he we do see again: in fact, he is one of the major characters in the work. I shan't say who he is (since I imagine some of you have never read the book, and I don't want to spoil the surprise), yet while we could imagine him as incidental -- simply a passerby to represent many, and to track symbolic blood across the still-clean part of the sidewalk -- nevertheless he isn't incidental, and indeed upon rereading a few additional connections will be made from the fact that yes, he is here, there, on this page. This is another way in which this page -- and Watchmen more generally -- is extraordinary: the detail and precision in the art allowing the extraordinary use of significant background characters, places, actions, so that more is always going on in a panel than one notices at first.

And I should mention that the central image that begins the zoom -- the smiley face with the blood streaked across it -- is itself an unforgettable image, a powerful reversal of a familiar iconic form: one that for me, at least, totally changed the entire meaning and set of mental associations with the smiley, so that I can now hardly see one without imagining blood streaked across it. The vapid, insipid cheer that the smiley represents has become streaked with blood, a far more arresting (if far more cynical) icon.

And, of course, one that is in many ways symbolic of what Watchmen does on a larger scale: takes the vapid, smiley-face genre of silver-age superhero comics and drops a bit of blood on them, making them deeper, darker, more disturbing -- and unreadable again in their earlier, naively and simplistically optimistic form. This is true at almost every level, from the overall meaning of "superhero" and what they're like to the specific associations of the smiley itself (the blood is not the only thing that stains it in this work: its associations do too). It is as appropriate an image to begin with -- whether as a first panel, as the cover of the first issue, or the cover of the book as a whole -- that one can imagine.

And then there are the words.

Moore is a writer whose words are as rich and interesting as those of any contemporaneous** prose writer you care to name. This is true of his words on this page too, and even if one separates them from their images:
Rorschach's Journal. October 12th, 1985: Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "save us!" ... And I'll look down and whisper "no."
Now of course this is prose of a certain type: Moore is aping a particular style here, so it is missing the point as completely as possible to say that the prose is overwrought or hysterical: it's supposed to be, that's the entire idea. Moore is drawing a portrait with a first-person narrative style, a portrait of a person who is overwrought, hysterical and (as we shall learn) given to right-wing anger and tempers in a John Birch society mode. (This association of a superhero -- we don't know yet, but we soon learn that Rorschach is a superhero -- with this sort of right-wing craziness is part of Moore's larger critique of (and rereading of) the genre: with murder (what we imagine Batman and Spiderman to be concerned about), Rorschach places "sex" -- immediately making us ask precisely what superheroes are supposed to be fighting, what they are defending, and who they are defending against.)

What's amazing about Moore's prose here is, given that it is a deliberately overwrought piece, how much better it is than it needs to be. There is a particular style of writing with a long tradition (from Shakespeare to Nabokov and beyond) in which the dialogue is placed in the mouths of characters is not only indicative of character but is also simply a bit more literary than such characters would use in real life: realism is sacrificed, to some extent, to poetry. And that's what Moore is doing here. The economy of the initial image ("Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach") is matched by the wonderful employment of sounds: the repeated staccato sounds adding to the atmosphere of menace. This is a sentence that works both rhythmically and in terms of its specific internal sounds. The page as a whole uses verbs that are -- while never departing too far from the style Moore is trying to achieve -- beautifully economical and apt: "scab over", "foam up": you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style, I suppose, but most won't do it this well. Moore can, and does.

The opening quote from Rorschach's journal is apocalyptic, and heightens the tension that we already feel in our upward climb; it is characterization, beginning to play already on some of the themes of the work; and it is, in its own way, poetry.

(One more brief note about the words here: isn't "Rorschach" a sublime name for a superhero? Of course the story of his costume, his mask, his ideas (all told in chapter six) are what make it as rich as it is. But even on its own terms, it is a wonderful twist on all the simple, iconic names -- "Flash", "Spirit", "Hulk" -- that we are familiar with. This sounds like one of them -- it's plain and simply a cool name -- while also being a reference to deeper issues of interpretation and meaning.)

Now let's talk about the interplay between the words and images.

The central technique of Watchmen -- one that Moore and Gibbons use over and over, in a plethora of ways -- is the ironic juxtaposition. They will interweave two scenes so that each comments upon the other, so that the text of one is given new meaning by the images of the other. They will cut from one moment to another which entirely rewrites its significance. And so on. A lot of this is the sort of thing that only comics can do -- a switching back and forth that would be so quick as to be sea-sickening in film, say. This is particularly true when Moore and Gibbons will interweave two scenes, which we don't see here; but we do see the first usage of the technique of the ironic juxtaposition, which allows to elements -- in this case, the opening visuals and the unrelated (at least in any overt sense) text that are put over them -- to comment upon each other, adding and changing the meaning we see in both.

Here are some examples of the wonderful synchronicity which Moore and Gibbons weave in the words and images: the phrase "its true face" is matched with the bloodied smiley face in the first panel; the comments about blood in the gutters in the second is literally illustrated (despite the words being written separately from what we are seeing: the words aren't describing or illustrating the scene); the phrase "followed in the footsteps" in the fourth panel occurs simultaneously with the bloody footsteps of the sign-carrier who has just walked through the blood; and so on. Above all, the text of Rorschach's journal is filled with metaphors involving looking over a chasm, which interplay with the fact that as we read we are looking from an increasing height: "the whores and politicians will look up and shout "save us!" ... and I'll look down and whisper 'no'"; "they... didn't realize that the trail led over a precipice until it was too late"; "And now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell..." (all emphasis added). And that last one does double duty, of course, since the watcher (who we see in part -- his hand -- in this panel for the first time) is literally staring down into blood: the blood of the murder victim thrown from the top of the view (at the bottom of the page) to die in the gutter where we began.

All these juxtapositions are fairly light, compared to ones that will come: but they set up the technique -- and, most of all, they set up the final one at the bottom of the page, the one that adds the sting at the end of the tail of this astonishing opening.

The ultimate juxtaposition is between two disconnected (in any overt sense) sets of words: the ending of Rorschach's journal and the seemingly (and misleadingly) banal line from the detective looking down where his victim fell. The juxtaposition here is between Rorschach's word-painted scenario in which "the whole world stands on the brink staring down into bloody hell... and all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say" and the (visually portrayed) fact of a person literally standing "on the brink" of a "precipice", "staring down" -- into blood, if not hell -- and finding something to say: namely, "Hmm. That's quite a drop". The romanticized, operatic roar of Rorschach's language is deftly undercut by the detective's simple (almost simple-minded) observation.

Because the detective is literally doing what Rorschach is describing -- because we see him doing it -- his words become an answer to Rorschach's challenge. It is an answer that parries with the ordinary, the mundane, the non-superheroic, Rorschach's histrionic panic. The world of grand drama is made silly by the world of ordinary life (again, a symbol for the effect that Moore and Gibbons's work will have overall.) The necessity for dramatic solutions -- the existence, even, of such (over) dramatized situations -- is undercut in a line that is (if you really think about it as an answer) quite funny.

What do you say when staring down into bloody hell? "That's quite a drop." What else?

And all of a sudden the dramatic storms, the apocalyptic warnings, that superheroes live on become to seem silly, excessive -- unnecessary. And because, in Watchmen, the power of superheroes functions as a metaphor for power in general -- above all, political power -- the dramatic storms and apocalyptic warnings of politicians and pundits come to seem silly, excessive, and unnecessary: and we begin to think that we might not need to look up at anyone and cry "save us" after all.

Watchmen was created at the very last moment when the Cold War could still be taken seriously as an ongoing concern: it is a piece of Cold War fiction, but one which (like, say, the film Dr. Strangelove) is a strong enough piece of work, and one with enough meaning, to survive the extinction of its original historical context. So the apocalyptic cries which Moore and Gibbons are undercutting here specifically are those of the cold war: the idea that a catastrophe is needed to end this particular looming danger. But since so much Cold War rhetoric has been transferred, with only minimal alterations, to the so-called War on Terror, Moore and Gibbons's ironic dismissal of operatic panic from the holders of power might just as easily have been created today.

Watchmen is never only one thing. It's a deconstruction of the superhero... and also a comment on the realities and corruptions of (political and other) power, using the superhero as a metaphor for the powerful. It's a superhero story... and a mystery and an alternate reality story and a series of character sketches. As I hope I have demonstrated for this page, at least, it is a work that richly repays multiple rereadings. If you've read it, but it's been a while, it's probably a better work than you remember; if you've never read it, and do, you'll find that it's just as good a work as you imagined and hoped.

Visually, verbally, and the interplay of the two... in every way, this is a great page, a terrific opening, that encapsulates many of the themes and techniques that give Watchmen as a whole its enduring power. A great page: and the rest, every single one of the 384 of them, are just as good.

We see masterworks from afar -- blurred by the distance of memory and the inadequacy of our own readings. Which is why they are so often better than we remember. Better than we can imagine. Underrated. As, despite its near-universal acclaim, I find Watchmen still to be.

* The first graphic novel boom of the late 80's and early 90's was ushered in by the coincidental appearance of three titanic works in a single year (1987), each extraordinary, and so astonishing in their collective power as to force themselves into broader public consciousness. Watchmen was one, of course; the other two were Art Spiegelman's Maus (which will be the subject of a later post in this series) and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. At the risk of the disdain of people whose opinions I respect, not to mention a host of irritated commentators, I'll admit that I think that The Dark Knight Returns was, quite clearly, the weak link in that particular trio -- the Crassus to the Pompey and Caesar of that particular triumvirate. It was quite good, but not nearly as good as the two works it was most commonly linked with. In any event, the three books catapulted the graphic novel into the public consciousness -- only to have it dwindle (as Paul Gravett as written) once the lack of readily available other works of equal quality became apparent. By the time of the second graphic novel boom -- circa 2001 to the present -- enough older strong works had been reprinted, enough foreign strong works had been translated and a cornucopia of new strong works were being written, so that it was sustainable. But the ongoing power (of at least two of) those three works of 1987, their near-universal reputation, has in some paradoxical way almost obscured how truly amazing they actually are. (I think this is true despite the recognition the work has gotten, such as Time Magazine listing it as among the 100 best novels since 1923).

** Comparing great writers of the present to great writers of the past is a mug's game: it always comes off sounding ridiculous, in part because the names of old great writers come to refer not only to their specific works but to iconic notions of greatness, so that to say that anyone is as good as Dickens or Shakespeare comes to be practically a contradiction in terms, since what "Dickens" and "Shakespeare" mean is "writing as good as it can get". So defenders of current writers are well advised to stay away from old masters (never wrong about suffering) in their defenses.

So I won't hold up Alan Moore to anyone from an earlier era, to praise or damn him: it's simply a silly and invidious comparison however one tries to make it turn out. But I will say that, Alan Moore is in the first rank of wordsmiths as compared to any writers of his own time that you care to name. And that's all one can ask of anyone.

100 Great Pages: Index by Creator

This is a list of all the posts I've done in my 100 Great Pages series, indexed by creator. I will keep this page updated as I go along. Please note that single posts on pages with multiple creators (e.g. writers & artists) will be listed multiple times, once under each name.

For an index by title, click here. For an introduction to the series, click here.

Auster, Paul, with Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchielli, City of Glass, Page 4
Chadwick, Paul, "Stay Tuned for Pearl Harbor" (Concrete), page 2
Crumb, R. "A Short History of America", page 4
Cruse, Howard, Stuck Rubber Baby, page 131
Delany, Samuel R., with Mia Wolff, Bread & Wine, page 10
Gaiman, Neil, with Charles Vess, Sandman #19, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", p. 13
Garcia, Sergio, with Lewis Trondheim, Les Trois Chemins, pages 3-4
Gibbons, Dave, with Alan Moore, Watchmen, page 1
Huizenga, Kevin, Curses, page 77
Karasik, Paul, with David Mazzucchielli, Paul Auster's City of Glass, page 4
Mazzucchielli, David, with Paul Karasik, Paul Auster's City of Glass, page 4
Moore, Alan with Dave Gibbons, Watchmen, page 1
Morrison, Grant, with Frank Quitely, We3 #2, pages 6-7
Quitely, Frank, with Grant Morrioson, We3 #2, pages 6-7
Serafini, Luigi, Codex Seraphinianus, page 39
Trondheim, Lewis, with Sergio Garcia, Les Trois Chemins, pages 3-4
Vess, Charles, with Neil Gaiman, Sandman #19, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", p. 13
Waldman, JT, Megillat Esther, page 84
Wolff, Mia, with Samuel R. Delany, Bread & Wine, page 10

100 Great Pages: Index by Title

This is a list of all the posts I've done in my 100 Great Pages series, indexed by title. I will keep this updated as I go. Please note that where there are multiple titles (e.g. of a series and an entry in it) I have listed single posts multiple times; this is a feature, not a bug.

For an index by creator, click here. For an introduction to the series, click here.

Bread & Wine, by Samuel R. Delany & Mia Wolff, page 10
City of Glass, by Paul Auster, Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchielli, page 4
Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini, page 39
Concrete, "Stay Tuned for Pearl Harbor", by Paul Chadwick, page 2
Curses, by Kevin Huizenga, page 77
Esther (Megillat Esther), by JT Waldman, page 84
Glenn Ganges in "The Curse", by Kevin Huizenga: Curses, page 77
Les Trois Chemins by Lewis Trondheim & Sergio Garcia, pages 3-4
Megillat Esther, by JT Waldman, page 84
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Sandman #19), by Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess, p. 13
Paul Auster's City of Glass, by Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchielli, page 4
Sandman #19, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", by Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess, p. 13
"Short History of America, A", by R. Crumb, page 4
"Stay Tuned for Pearl Harbor", Concrete, by Paul Chadwick, page 2
Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse, page 131
Trois Chemins, Les, by Lewis Trondheim & Sergio Garcia, pages 3-4
Watchmen, by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, page 1
We3 #2, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely, pages 6-7

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

RIP Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007)

One of the truly great writers of the Twentieth Century has died.

So it goes.

Update, the next day: As it happened -- "as it was meant to happen," Bokonon would say -- my niece was born on the very same day that Kurt Vonnegut died. So, as a joint welcome to her and farewell to him, I can't resist quoting one of Vonnegut's most famous passages (hell, it was even quoted in his NYT obituary) -- in which Eliot Rosewater welcomes babies to the world with an unconventional baptism:
"Baptizing?" ...
"I told her," said Eliot... "that I wasn't a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. I told her nothing I did would count in Heaven, but she insisted just the same."
"What will you say? What will you do?"
... "Go over to the shack, I guess. Sprinkle some water on the babies, say, 'Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know, of, babies --:
"'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

-- Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Chapter 7

Update 2: PZ Myers passes on a request from Vonnegut himself (corrected to match this (via BoingBoing)):
Do you know what a Humanist is? I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

We had a memorial services for Isaac a few years back, and at one point I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.” It was the funniest thing I could have said to a group of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, “Kurt is up in Heaven now.” That’s my favorite joke.
To honor the dead, then:

Kurt is up in heaven now.

Everyone laugh.

So it goes.

(More good KV quotes from poputonian at hullabaloo and d at lawyers, guns and money.)

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Thursday, April 05, 2007

100 Great Pages: Samuel R. Delany and Mia Wolff's Bread & Wine, page 10

Sixth of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

Warning: One of the images in this post is NSFW (although you have to look closely to see it).

Samuel R. Delany is a name more likely to be familiar to SF fans than to comics fans: Delany is extremely prominent (and good) as both a writer and critic of SF, and has been for several decades. His work in comics has been more limited, however, consisting mainly of two fairly obscure graphic novels: Empire, an SF "visual novel" done with artist Howard Chyakin (which I've never seen), which was apparently altered greatly in the editorial process in ways Delany didn't like; and Bread & Wine: an Erotic Tale of New York, an autobiographical work done with artist Mia Wolff.* Like Delany, Mia Wolff is someone who has done most of her work outside the comics field; judging from her web site, she's only worked on two, being primarily a painter (& martial arts instructor).

(I've actually met Delany on a number of occasions, largely at Readercon where we're both regulars. He's a nice guy, and an extremely good speaker. He is universally known as "Chip"; I'm going to refer to him as "Chip" when talking about the character in the graphic novel, and "Delany" when referring to the author of it.)

But despite (because of?) the fact that its creators are not well-known within the field of comics, Bread & Wine is a fantastic work, which I recommend extremely highly. (And, in case you need someone with more rep, Alan Moore wrote the introduction, and the book has plugs from Neil Gaiman, Howard Cruse, Frank Miller and Edmund White.)

Bread & Wine is the story of how Chip met his (still-current?) lover, Dennis, when the latter was a homeless man living on the streets of New York. Chip -- then the acting head of the Comparative Literature department at U Mass Amherst -- meets Dennis on the street. We watch them court; we see their first sexual encounter, in a motel room Chip gets for the two of them; and at the end of the narrative Dennis goes up to Amherst with Chip. For all its gritty detail about life on the street (not presented in any romanticized terms: it looks hard, and horrid), it's often described as a "fairy-tale" (e.g. in the plug by Edmund White on the back cover) -- largely, I think, because of the 'prince rescuing the helpless' aspect in which Chip takes Dennis from a hard life into an easier one. White also talks about Bread & Wine as "breaking taboos", but I think the one taboo -- not even quite the word -- that really stands out is the issue of the sexuality of the homeless: even describing the book to people, people who would never be remotely shocked by (to mention White's other taboos) gay sex in a house with a teenage daughter or interracial relationships, have found it hard to get around the notion of the desire, and the desirability, of a homeless man. (If you feel the same way... read the book.)

Incidentally, the title -- "Bread & Wine" -- is taken from a poem by German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, "Bread and Wine", which is quoted throughout the text in a running contrast to (and comment on) Delany's words and Wolff's images.

Wolff's art is extraordinary: I wish she'd draw more comics, because she seems to be a natural at it. Her art varies a lot from page to page, even drawing to drawing: sometimes her figures are extremely simple (a minimalist line sketch) or abstract (a smudge, like a child's fingerpainting); at other times she draws Chip and Dennis in quite rich detail. This jump from the highly abstract to the grittily concrete takes place all over this book. Here, for example, are two panels from the bottom of page 7:

On the left you have a mere silhouette of Chip, done with rough hatching (although you can tell it's Chip, not Dennis, from his posture and shape (given the earlier images)); but on the right the image of Dennis is quite detailed. This see-sawing between styles is extremely effective, and is on of the wonderful things about the book.

My main complaint about Bread & Wine is that it's too damn short -- only 44 pages (not counting the forward, afterward, or many pages of ads in the back of the book). It's such a wonderful work, one wishes it were twice or three times the length. It's particularly ironic given that, in the afterward (which is a conversation between Wolff, Delany, Dennis and a few others) there's talk about how space was limited, how "if you tell one story, that means there are lots of others that you don't tell", and so forth. The stories hinted at in the afterward are wonderful; and I for one would have loved to read them in comics format, with more details about what happened later, and so forth. (I wrote this paragraph before seeing this review, in which the same complaint is made, or this one, which has a similar issue as well; I guess it shows that I'm not alone!)

Let's look at a page.

I've mentioned before how, in thinking about entries in this series, I am often caught between several possible pages from a given work. But so far, that has never been truer than for Bread & Wine: I swung indecisively between two possible pages over and over, before finally settling on page ten. The other candidate -- I can't resist showing it, even if I won't talk about it at length -- was page nineteen, from what is (in many ways) the climax of the story, in which Chip and Dennis have sex for the first time:

(Click for a larger version.)
Page nineteen is simply gorgeous: its two images beautifully laid out, the smaller echoing the larger, the kiss and the blow job mirroring each other, surrounded by those wonderful lines, as if the entire thing were a woodcut. It's a marvelous image -- would make a marvelous poster if one hung it on a wall.

But I think that I've decided instead to talk about page ten:

(Click for a larger version.)

Page ten is less obviously beautiful: but its very beautifully done. The scene is that Chip has just rented a motel room in which to spend the weekend with Dennis so that they can see if they're right for each other, and is offering Dennis the key. (The motel room is where the sex scene depicted in page nineteen takes place.) And Delany and Wolfe show us the entire scene focusing only on Chip and Dennis's hands.

And what an extraordinary, expressive page!

There's the subtle shift in perspective from the first to the second panel -- in the first, we're seeing through Chip's eyes, looking at his own hand holding out the keys; in the second, we're seeing through Dennis's eyes, watching them offered. Then there is the shift between the views of Dennis's hands in the second tier: we see the same hand three times in the first three panels, never fully, never from the precise same angle: it conveys all of Dennis's awkwardness, shyness, hesitation. Then in the final panel on the second tier we see him fingering his ponytail (which we've seen earlier in the comic, or we might not be able to identify what we're seeing). The hands say a lot: just as a great actor will convey extraordinary nuances of emotion in subtle gestures, the shifting, partial view of Dennis's hands conveys volumes about his emotional state.

And he mere fact of just showing hands conveys shyness, disconnection, isolation -- but also, simultaneously, the reaching across the gap between persons to show the possibility of connection.

This page takes place within the context of Chip's specific sexual interests. He says on page eight: "I told Dennis that since I was a kid, I'd been sexually attracted to guys with big hands who bit their nails badly -- and that's what I'd first noticed about him." And, in fact, five pages earlier -- in the scene of their first meeting -- Delany concludes a descriptive sentence with the phrase: "[Dennis] waved a big grey-black hand with bitten nails."** So the focus here on hands -- first Chip's, then Dennis's, and lastly the two of theirs together -- takes on an extra, erotic dimension.

(In fact, there are a lot of hands in this comic. I don't want to give the wrong impression -- page ten is atypical; most of the comic shows people's faces, or whole forms, or settings -- the usual stuff of most comics. But there are a number of images of hands, and two other pages -- page thirty-seven, and the final page (which duplicates the cover image) -- are, in different ways, also centered primarily around images of hands.)

Then there is the final image: one hand reaching out -- awkwardly! -- to the other: taking it -- sweetly, we are told in the narration, but also at an incredibly hesitant, halting angle. It is not the grip of two men used to holding hands: it is the tentative grip of two men just getting to know each other, just wondering if touching that way is something that their bodies and spirits will do well together. There is not only hesitation but desperation in that touch: rawness and newness and hope. The angle here is neither clearly Dennis's nor clearly Chip's: it is impossible to determine, the perspectives meshing awkwardly together as their hands do.

Even apart from the hands, there are amazing artistic things going on on this page. Look at the linework that Wolff does as backgrounds: it, too, is incredibly expressive and rich. The top half is all straight, even, orderly: the lines have character (they don't look ruled nor machine made), but they're quite regular. The top two panels, of course, have no background at all -- there's just blank white space -- which again increases the sense of isolation, of there being a distance to be crossed. In the middle tier, the lines come to life, moving with the hands, providing a hint of motion, and more than a hint of emotion. Less regular, they are far more expressive. And at the same time, the background lines come together to form the dense black background of the second half of the page: swirling, growing denser to the point of (here and there) becoming sheer black, although most of it in fact remains lines. Still, it is black enough to turn the text white for clarity. In the bottom left of the page, Chip and Dennis's arms come out of the swirling lines as from a void, the lines coming and flowing together as they do, and whether the dense hatching at the bottom is supposed to be Dennis or Chip or the city can't be said, and hardly matters, as if there were no distinction between them at all.

It would be a terribly different page without the background: far less rich, far less beautiful. Expressive as Dennis's big, nail-bitten hands are here (and look at his knobby fingers in the second panel on the second tier -- those are the hands of someone who has lived too hard for too long), the page is as beautiful and emotional as it is because of Wolff's extraordinary hatching behind them.

The reason, in the end, I decided to write about this page rather than page nineteen is because it seems to me that anybody can make a love scene meaningful and beautiful: the human body is gorgeous, gorgeous as two meld together, and their union is a powerful emotional moment. But to make a page of nothing but two hands so expressive, so filled with the unspoken emotion of the moment, is an extraordinary achievement.

If you haven't read Delany and Wolff's Bread & Wine, I recommend it extremely strongly: it is an amazing love story, superbly told: in its words, in its drawings.

Sometimes just with hands.

* In the early 1970's, Delany also scripted two issues of Wonder Woman, #202 and 203. I haven't seen those, either.

** Actually, if you read Delany's other work, both fiction and nonfiction, he frequently describes their hands, mentions if they have bitten nails, etc.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Absolution Requires a Commitment Not To Repeat the Sin

While I was off reading the NYT on health care, the entire liberal blogosphere (& beyond) has been talking about today's NYT interview with Mathew Dowd (who was Bush's 2004 campaign strategist) in which he says roughly, 'Sorry about that whole polarizing-the-country, electing-an-incompetent-disaster thing.'

What are we to make of this?

Steve Benen says that the responses break down into two categories: “Welcome to the reality-based community, Mr. Dowd.” and “Piss off, Matt.”

There are good reasons for both -- the former, because it's good politics; the latter, because Dowd did so much personally to create the very Bush-lead divisiveness which he is now decrying. The first also has an important subset, I think, which is: What took you so bloody long? There's nothing -- nothing -- of a general nature that we now know about Bush that we didn't know very clearly in 2004: the disastrous nature of his war, his authoritarian bent, his divisive style. It was all crystal-clear. The only additional information we now have are the details -- and we'll be getting those for years -- or decades.

But even beyond these two or three responses, it seems to me that there's a crucial fourth response -- one that applies not only to Dowd, but to every Bush-supporter who has since seen the error of their ways (a great many, if polls are to be believed (although not nearly as many as there should be, given the magnitude of the disaster that his presidency has been: a 99% disapproval rating would hardly be sufficient for that.)) This, it seems to me, is the most crucial response of all -- and it's the one we should make not only to Dowd, but to Andrew Sullivan and every other former Bush supporter:

Absolution requires a commitment not to repeat the sin.

It's not enough to know now that Bush is a disaster -- that won't help anyone. What is required -- necessary -- a minimum condition -- for saying you're sorry is a firm commitment not to do it again. Otherwise you're not sorry -- you're just covering your ass, posturing in the face of the massive clusterfuck you enabled.

This is true of every Bush voter, every one of whom has some responsibility for the nightmare that has been inflicted upon our country (and Iraq, and the world). It is many orders of magnitude more powerful in a case like Dowd, who did far, far more than simply vote for this clusterfuck-on-legs.

But what does that mean, not to do it again? It can't simply mean not supporting Bush again: he ain't never running again. If we are to benefit from the lessons of this experience, we need to see the more general lesson:

Bush hasn't been a disaster because he himself personally is corrupt or incompetent or stupid (although he's all three). Bush has been a disaster because of the nature of the contemporary conservative movement and the contemporary Republican party.

Bush's Iraq war came from deep, multiple roots -- neoconservativism, a deep racism and fear of the foreign, an imperial mindset that all of your oil are belong to us, a willingness to use war to score cheap rhetorical or political points. All of those things are deeply embedded in the contemporary conservative movement and the contemporary Republican party.

Bush's divisive politics has roots back to Richard Nixon; his authoritarian presidency, with his willingness to brazenly disobey the law of the land whenever it suits his purpose does too.

The bile against gays and lesbians has become standard fare on the pro-hatred side of the culture wars.

The huge budget deficits come from the Republican party's fanatical commitment to tax cuts, particularly for the rich, combined with a realistic but cynical understanding that none of their 'shrink-government' rhetoric has enough support in this country to get them elected.

The cronyism comes from their belief that government is the problem, which leads to a cynical treatment of it and an inability to do well what it in fact does well.

The denial of reality -- in terms of science and so much more -- has deep roots in the fact that many of the right's cherished policies and beliefs (on the issues of evolution and global warming, say) have simply and plainly been proven wrong -- but that they remain committed to them because of the commitments of their Christianists (evolution) or business allies (global warming).

And on, and on, and on.

Bush's disaster is the disaster of the modern conservative movement and of the contemporary Republican party. It's that simple.

So what does every single Bush-supporter need to do -- not to show they're sorry, but to really be sorry: to do a minimum amount of atonement for the damage they've helped cause?

Not repeat the error.

Don't support conservative candidates until the contemporary conservative movement has fundamentally changed.

Don't support the Republican party until it has fundamentally changed.

A few conservatives have begun to grapple with this. (Since I mentioned him before, I should note that Andrew Sullivan has been one of them.) But there is a long, long way to go.

Anyone who sees what a disaster Bush has been should not support the authoritarian Giuliani, the war-monger McCain nor the Christianist Romeny.

If they do, they haven't really understood why Bush has been a disaster at all.

They've just seen the shit on their shoes -- long after it got there -- and said 'that's not shinola'.

So what should we say to Mathew Dowd -- “Welcome to the reality-based community, Mr. Dowd”? Or, “piss off, Matt”?

Well, if he supports Barak Obama in 2008, as he muses he might in the NYT article -- then I think we should say “Welcome --belatedly -- to the reality-based community, Mr. Dowd.”

But if he doesn't -- if he doesn't begin to do active work to make up for the incredible damage that he, himself, personally did to this country, and the far greater damage that he literally dedicated his life to (in Matt Ygelsias's felicitous phrase), then I think we should say “piss off, Matt”.

And the same to all those who are now decrying the mistakes that they have made.

Absolution requires a commitment not to repeat the sin.

Envoi: You could re-read this entire post, substituting "the Iraqi war" for "the Bush presidency" and "liberal hawks" for "the conservative movement"/"the contemporary Republican party", and it would make an equally valid -- and equally important -- point. If you don't actively want to get us out of Iraq -- if you aren't refusing to abet the possibility of our invading Iran -- then you haven't seen why you were wrong. (Hillary Clinton, who wants to stay in Iraq indefinitely and who remains fundamentally a hawk, is the most important disaster-waiting-to-happen in this category. This is the central reason why she is by far the worst candidate among the various Democratic possibilities at the moment: she would continue -- possibly even expand upon -- the very worst policy of the very worst administration in American history.