Wednesday, May 30, 2007

An Amazing Deal on Some Amazing TV

On the short list of my all-time favorite TV shows (along with Buffy, Firefly, Veronica Mars, The Wire, and a few others) is an NBC show that ran for seven seasons (two of them unusually short), called Homicide: Life on the Street. (After it was canceled, a two-hour TV movie wrapped up the remaining plot points.)

Like the still-ongoing (and equally if not even more amazing) HBO show The Wire, Homicide arose out of the work of journalist David Simon. Simon was a Baltimore reporter who took a year off from his newspaper work to follow around the homicide unit of the Baltimore Police Department. Out of that experience came a nonfiction book, called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The book was turned into a fictional TV show, with characters based on their real-life counterparts, and plots (and even dialogue) taken directly from the book. Simon was not initially involved with the show, although he did get involved in the later seasons.

The Wire was created, executive produced, and so forth by Simon (along with his collaborator, ex-PBD cop Ed Burns. One way to look at The Wire is Simon's attempt to rewrite or rework what he didn't like about the TV version of Homicide; see, for example, this amazing blog essay by Marc Singer about how various Wire characters are rewrites of Homicide's Frank Pembleton.

Homicide is different from The Wire: for the most part the episodes are self-contained (unlike The Wire, where each season is a single film fairly arbitrarily divided for broadcast purposes); the show is just about the police, rather than also having the investigated people as co-equal characters; it's not an HBO show, and that effects a lot of elements; and it's not quite as grittily realistic in its refusal of narrative conventions as The Wire is, especially in its later seasons. Obviously Simon had his critiques of Homicide, notwithstanding his own involvement both as the author of the source material and, later, as a writer and executive producer on the show. But saying Homicide might not be quite as good as The Wire is like saying that Bush might not be quite as evil as Cheney: given the magnitudes involved, such distinctions ultimately don't mean much. (And some people like it better: some people reasonably like that you don't need to watch an entire 12 or 13-hour film to get the aesthetic pay-off, for instance.)

Despite all that, Homicide is some amazing television, unlike any other cop show (except, naturally, The Wire): gritty, realistic, fabulously dramatic and powerfully bleak, it's just superb. It is well-directed and well-acted -- Andre Braugher (playing Frank Pembleton) is widely (and correctly) seen as the show's anchor, but most if not all of the other actors are also astonishingly good. (Although Braugher's absence in season seven is one reason that Homicide's last season was its weakest (he returned for the wrap-up TV movie.)) It is, quite simply, great TV. If you don't know it, give it a try; if you like The Wire and don't know Homicide, you should definitely check it out; if you liked Homicide at the time, but don't remember it... read on.

Right now -- and I haven't a clue how long it will last -- Amazon has an amazing deal on something called the Homicide Life on the Street Complete Series Megaset. The set contains all seven seasons, the TV film, the three cross-over episodes that Homicide did with the vastly inferior (but vastly more popular) show Law & Order, which aren't included in the usual single-season sets; and a variety of documentaries and so forth. It's basically the entire show with all the trimmings -- for $97.49. Given that individual season sets run from $45 - $85, with the Amazon discount, this is really an incredible deal. Even if you have a few of the season sets already, this is still the cheapest way to get the others; and if you don't -- well, it's clearly the best way to get one of the best shows ever to air on American TV.

So if you want to get the show on DVD at any point, now is the time to get it. And if you haven't wanted to in the past, but like watching great TV on DVD, consider getting it. It's really worth watching -- and rewatching.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Justifications of the Prayers of the War Prayer

There's a great little fifteen minute animated film, to which I've already seen several links, and to which I expect to see many more -- and for good reason: it's terrific. Kevin Drumm describes the background here. The brief version is that Mark Twain wrote a brief story -- really a parable -- called The War Prayer, which his friends and family and editors entreated him not to publish, and so was published only after his death. Now, a hundred years later, some filmmakers have made an animation of it, with the complete text read over the animations.

Twain's story, brief as it is, is easily summed up: he presents a country, festooned in flags and fervent in patriotism, praying for success in a coming war. A mysterious man shows up and points out a fact about this prayer:
Is it one prayer? No, it is two -- one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken... When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory--*must* follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer.... [That is,] O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief...
And so on and so forth. It's a good story: go read it, or go watch the animated version.

What interests me is that this won't give pause -- not a second, not a tenth of a second -- to anyone who is not already doubting the wisdom of this war. Or any war. Twain is already preaching to the converted. (In some sense he knows this, since his closing line is "It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said." But in some sense you can't write a parable like this without hoping that it will touch those at whom it is aimed.)

So my question is: why don't they care? Or, more accurately, what will be their defenses against this most terrible of accusations -- that they are praying (literally or figuratively) for "little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it"? (In the unlikely event that they consider at all, that they watch the film, read the words, and think of what they have done.)

Here's what they'll say -- to others, to themselves. Maybe even, in comments here, to me.

1) They started it.

This is the basic justification -- one offered as recently as last week by the chief warmaker himself: "they attacked us even before we were in Iraq"! It is, of course, a lie -- and a racist lie at that: Iraq did not attack us; Al Queada did -- a group of 19 terrorists who, as it happened, not only had not connection to Iraq, but did not even include any Iraqis.

But it's all "they" to the prayers of the war prayer: and so they pray for the deaths of others.

2) We have a right to defend ourselves.

This is the next step -- a complicated one for those who care about reality and facts, since the supposed threat, Saddam's WMD's, did not exist (which even had it existed was extremely unlikely to actually threaten us). Now it morphs into the fact that we have to defend our troops against the current attacks -- which is totally question-begging, since of course we wouldn't have had to if we hadn't invaded, and we wouldn't any more if we would withdraw -- or to keep "them" from "following" us home, which again is simply disconnected to reality and facts.

But reality and facts mean nothing to the prayers of the war prayer: and so they pray for the deaths of others.

3) We're there to help those people.

This is the current favorite -- and a hard one it is, too, since we have killed hundreds of thousands of more people than would have died under even so brutal a dictator as Saddam -- most likely more than half a million. (If you've heard the lies about the study's methodology -- which is standard and accepted, even by the U.S. government, in similar questions that don't involve current U.S. wars -- read this defense of the methodology, based on the first Lancet study.)

Still, despite the death; despite the millions of refugees our actions have created; despite the basic destruction of Iraqi society, our kick-starting of a civil war likely only to get worse (and whose prevention is now among our chief justifications)... despite all that we have done, they still say we're there to help. We went in to help.

But only our intentions and not our actions count to the prayers of the war prayer: and so they pray for the deaths of others.

4) We're not out for conquest, like those Twain depicts.

And of course even our good intensions are partial at best. As Atrios has tirelessly pointed out, we're not there to fight some pseudo-liberal fantasy of what the war might be, or might have been: we're there fighting George Bush's war, and that's all we'll fight for at least the next twenty months.

And part of Bush's war is the construction of permanent bases, which continue to be built and whose maintenance we continue to insist on. Part of Bush's war is the privatization of the Iraqi oil that we did not oh of course not invade for. Part of Bush's war is staying for the sake of staying, staying so Bush won't loose face, staying to send a message to groups (like Al Queada) that weren't in Iraq before we went and to whose benefit our presence there has been.

But because they take as axiomatic that America is good, the realities of this imperialism means nothing to the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

5) No one could have known it was based on lies, or would go so badly.

Never mind that millions of us said so before the war in this country alone, not to mention the overwhelming majority of the world's population elsewhere. Never mind the abundant warnings about precisely what has happened. Never mind that even the threats warned about were hardly sufficient to justify an aggressive (and hence immoral) war.

Even so, those who said we had to go, and now say 'oops' as if it was a glass they'd broken and not the bodies of hundreds of thousands and the lives and souls of millions more -- even so, they now say we have to stay. At least until September. Or beyond. Or until a Jeffersonian paradise arises from the ashes of what we have burned.

They scream that they couldn't have known, though so many of us did.

But regret is just a word to be mouthed by the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

6) What are you, a pacifist? Wasn't it right to fight Hitler?

Yet another evasion: retreat to a broad principle to ignore the unbearable facts before them; resort to extreme analogies and inapplicable parallels to ignore the horror they have unleashed, and continue to unleash. Ignore that even in a good cause human beings do immoral and unjust and horrid things. How many of the U.S.'s invasions and wars and toppling of elected governments have been just -- a tiny handful, out of dozens and dozens? How many times will we delude ourselves that we are the noble defender as we ourselves start an invasion, carry it out, and occupy a foreign country?

But all wars are The Good War to the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

7) Civilian casualties are inevitable in war, but of course we regret them.

This too is a big one: we didn't mean it. Never mind that this depends on us having had some good reason to go to war -- for without it, the "collateral damage" is not even conceivably justified. Never mind that this fact -- that civilian casualties are inevitable in war -- is precisely why we must only go to war as a true last resort, when attacked, and not simply when politicians feel like enhancing their poll numbers or want to be elected or when pundits decide that someone deserves an ass-kicking, it doesn't matter who.

Inevitable collateral damage is only a defense in genuine and measured self-defense: if you defend yourself against a mad gunman by taking out an AK-47 and mowing down not only the gunman but also hundreds of his potential victims trying to hide, no one will care that you were acting in self-defense: you are simply a murderer.

But the piles of bodies of those we have killed "accidentally" in pursuit of no good ends at all are rationalized away by the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

8) They're all just barbarians anyway.

And this is what underlies so many of the rationalizations and evasions. The blood lust that seeps out from between the lines of so many of their writings. And sometimes comes out in the open: when they talk with regret about our adherence to "quaint" norms like the Geneva convention; when they talk about how we need to "take the gloves off"; when they openly regret our overly "gentle" initial approach, and say things like:
What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?
That is the basis for some if not all of them: that they don't care, because they long for the deaths of others. Not that they pray for victory ignoring the other half of the prayer: but that they positively revel on both. Bloodlust: the basic bloodlust that is either based on hatred of those who are not like us, or are simply based on a lack of concern for those not like us. Let others die: the poor who are in our army, the many who are brown-skinned and not of our religion in another country far away.

But the lives of people who are not like us mean little or nothing to the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

* * *

That is why they won't care. Indeed, safely ensconced in those eight reasons, many of them might even watch this film with enjoyment. They might tut-tut about how they -- those awful foreigners -- are indeed just like that, and why don't they see how awful their desire for war is; and never for a moment think that it might equally apply to them.

And now I, too, have spoken in vain. Like Twain, my words will convince no one who is not already convinced. They will say -- at best! -- that I am a lunatic: and there is no sense in what I have said.

But for those with ears to hear, eyes to see, minds to think and consciousnesses to feel, I repeat what you already know, adding my small voice to the chorus of screams in the futile hope that it might somehow reach the ears of the powerful.

Extricandae copiae!


Monday, May 28, 2007

One of My Favorite Playwrights, Whose Plays I've Never Seen Alan Ayckbourn.

It may sound like I'm describing some weird, pomo, slightly Borgesian thing here, but really, I'm not: I love Alan Ayckbourn's work. I've just never seen (as best as I can recall) a single one of his plays.

In the theater, I hasten to add. I have seen the complete Norman Conquests on video -- in fact, I've seen it a couple times. And in addition to The Norman Conquests, I've read a number of his other plays. And liked them a lot. So it's not that I don't know his work. I've just never seen it live.

I am, however, one of the few people (I don't know how few, although I can't imagine many other people (besides my wonderful and long-suffering wife, who did it with me) who would have bothered) to have seen The Norman Conquests sideways.

What's that mean? Well, it's a bit like having watched Memento backwards. Without the nifty easter egg that does it for you automatically.

To understand, you need to know something about The Norman Conquests. I was going to describe them, but heck, wikipedia does a good enough job, and I'm feeling lazy:
The Norman Conquests is a trilogy of plays written in 1973 by Alan Ayckbourn... There are only six characters... The plays are at times wildly comic, and at times poignant... Each of the plays depicts the same six characters over the same weekend in a different part of a house. Table Manners is set in the dining room, Living Together in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden in the garden. Each play is self-contained, and they may be watched in any order. Some of the scenes overlap, and on several occasions a character's exit from one play corresponds with an entrance in another. The plays were not written to be performed simultaneously, however...
Emphasis added in case you are one of those lazy readers who skip indented quotes.*

Anyway, as the whoever-damn-well-felt-like-editing-it was saying, the plays take place in the same weekend, in the same house, with the same people. Thus events in one play reverberate in others -- in ways you often only understand the second time through the complete set. But despite the ominous warnings of temporal overlaps, for the most part it's possible to line all 12 scenes in chronological order -- and watch them that way, switching tapes all the while. Thus watching the plays sideways: not as presented, but as they "really" happened. In a giant mega-play that is, of course, something like five hours long (I don't remember exactly, this was some time ago).

Actually, I must admit that I thought the plays made a lot more sense this way. Also, I should note that Ayckbourn actually wrote them this way, although he wrote them to be seen separately. (He says in his forward to the edition of the plays I have that he "decided... to write them crosswise", so my term is actually pretty grounded in Authorial Intentions (for what little that's worth.))

This scheme of Ayckbourn's may seem a bit gimmicky -- and of course it wouldn't work if he didn't also actually write, y'know, good plays -- but the truth is I sort of like the gimmicky aspects. He does this sort of thing a lot. He's written plays to be performed simultaneously in two adjacent theaters by the same casts; a play in which a woman's imaginary friends share the stage with the real characters -- and on and on: Ayckbourn has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of what theater can do, how it can be presented, and so forth. He's played with time, with space -- with all sorts of theatrical variables.

In fact, although he's not listed a member of the Outrapo (the Ou-x-po dedicated to theater),*** he's clearly what the Oulipo call an "anticipatory plagiarist": that is, an artist working within the Ou-x-po style before that particular Ou-x-po was founded (or invented or discovered).

All of which is preface to the fact that one of Ayckbourn's plays -- well, actually, eight (or arguably even sixteen) of his plays -- that is (are) opening in New York for the first time: Intimate Exchanges. The NYT review makes it sound quite cool, and I wish I could see it/them.

The sequence of plays works somewhat like a choose-your-own-adventure novel (remember those?), one of those kids books in which you started to read, came to a choice, and then continued on a different story depending on the choice. This effect has been tried in plays from time to time (such as plays where the audiences votes to determine the ending), but Ayckbourn does it slightly different: the choices are (as it were) all made by which performance you choose. Different realities unfold with different choice sets, all ending up with eight different plays, each with two endings (how that's different from it just being eight different plays I don't know) -- starting off with the choice of whether or not to smoke a cigarette. It's a series of alternate realities about the same sets of characters, with various different possibilities unfolding in the different plays.

Here's the flow chart which the (UK) theater handily provides:

A similar (but differently laid-out) chart can be found on Ayckbourn's official page.

But wait, there's more! As the Complete Review points out, that's not the only constraint that Ayckbourn wrote under:
Only two characters appear on stage at a time throughout the play -- though there are ten separate characters. And, despite the fact that there are ten different characters, Ayckbourn means the entire play(s) to be performed by only two actors.****
Yikes. And there's yet another constraint: if you look at the chart above, you'll see that the scene breaks that follow the choices jump in time (in order) five seconds, five days, five weeks, five years... in each of the eight (sixteen?) plays.

And not one of them contain the letter e! -- Okay, that part's not true. The rest of it makes it all pretty constrained, though, even without any additional lipogrammy.

It sounds cool as all hell... and there's no possible way I can see it. I mean, even if I could get down to New York City for one of the plays (could find the time, could afford it, managed to get a ticket, etc, etc)... there's no way I could go down for three or four. But I think that I'd want to see at least that many to get the effect -- I mean, maybe you wouldn't have to do all sixteen, but still, you'd want to do a bunch. Heck, even the Times suggests that you may need "at least two trips to the theater". (But any New York-based readers might want to check out the plays: Ayckbourn's terrific.)

There is a film version, a pair of films called Smoking/No Smoking... which I might have to see. But they're hardly a straight adaptation: first of all, they're a translation of Ayckbourn's plays into French; more seriously, they're only "adapted" from Ayckbourn's plays: each of the howevermany plays is 90 minutes long; the films, together, are 5 hours... which means a lot is left out. (According to Ayckbourn's web site, the films are adapted from six of the eight plays; although even those clearly aren't done in their entirety.) Probably still worth seeing, I admit -- and now that I've written this entry I'll probably get my act together and do so sometime.

One can also read it -- the set of plays is long enough that it was published in two volumes -- and I might do that too.

But I'd still love to see them live.

Anyone for an eight-play, all-out production here in scenic Ithaca?

* C'mon. Admit it. Even if you won't 'fess up to doing it in this case, you've done it. Oh, stop it, you know you have: you're reading along, prose as pleasing as punch, and then come one of those long quote things, and it's in a different style, and doesn't really look that interesting, and heck, the writer will probably sum up the key parts anyway, right?**

** Although if you're a reader who skips indented texts, you probably skip footnotes too, and may not have seen that one. Or this one.

*** What's an Ou-X-po? Well, they're groups which study various arts and other cultural subjects -- history, comics, mystery stories, etc -- all modeled after the French literary group the Oulipo. If you don't know what the Oulipo is, then click here for my explanation, or here for Wikipedia's.

**** I really hope you didn't skip that one, now did you? It was really short. Oh, come on...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Thoughts for a Memorial Day in a Time of Unjust War

How do you honor soldiers -- genuinely honor their profound and honorable sacrifices -- while deploring the war they are fighting? As this is -- alas! -- a question for Memorial Day tomorrow, I point you to this article by anti-war writer Andrew Bacevich (via), whose son was just killed in Iraq, where he gives the obvious but often-derided answer: "As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen." Bacevich notes that it has become standard right-wing politics to attack this answer: to say that opposing an unwise, unjust war is failing to 'support the troops'. But he notes that opposing wars that are both immoral and powerfully counter to your country's interests is a citizen's duty: and that he, like his son, strove to do his duty.

He ends with some understandably bitter thoughts on the effectiveness of his work -- thoughts I don't entirely agree with (I certainly disagree that he has done "nothing", although obviously the anti-war movement has been terribly ineffective in this country). But, alas, he is not wrong in his basic conclusion:
I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others -- teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks -- to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond. This, I can now see, was an illusion. The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as "the will of the people."
How can one argue with that? The people spoke: they continue to speak, through ever-stronger polls saying that they oppose this horrific, self-defeating war... and they continue to be ignored, by politicians, by the 'Wise Men' in the media who continue to bloviate about September and surges and political advantage and all those other words that, in the context of ongoing death and slaughter, are little short of obscene.

Spencer Ackerman is of course right to warn that troops will likely not support a withdrawal -- and right that we must push for it anyway, not to 'support the troops', but to support our country, whose interests this war is doing so much damage to, daily; and to support the just and the right and the good, and stop our own participation in this slaughter (which, having begun it, we have no power to end).

Also inspired Bacevich's article, Thoreau at High Clearing writes about the words exchanged between Bacevich and his Senators (Kennedy & Kerry) and his Congressman (Stephen Lynch) at his son's funeral:
There they are, at the funeral, right in front of the casket and a family that is paying the price for the errors of this Congress, and all these guys can say is “Don’t blame me.” They can’t be bothered to confront the enormity of the nightmare that they have unleashed, they can’t be bothered to pledge to fix it. Instead, they say “Don’t blame me” and then fly back to Washington and let this funding bill go through. Stopping this war should be the first and only priority of Congress. Instead, when they realize that it will be hard, that it will require them to use every parliamentary maneuver at their disposal to suspend all other government business and force a showdown, perhaps running out the clock on funding so that the President is backed into a corner, they opt for political expediency. Even if it means standing in front of more coffins at funerals in the coming months and years.
I understand, I really do, the writers who have defended the Democrats' criminal cowardice in capitulating to Bush on the issue of funding and timelines. I hope that they are right that this will ultimately have no political effect, or will even help the Democrats, since defeating the Republican party is a good in and of itself, apart from any issue of the war. And I sympathize when they ask what could be done, given that the votes were not there?

But the answer is: vote for the moral thing -- vote to end this bloody war -- anyway. Vote though it is useless. Raise a standard, however hopeless, for the voice of the people.

Maybe it wouldn't have done any good. But it was worth a try. And it was right.

The people have spoken: the politicians have ignored them. All we can do -- what we must do -- is continue to speak, to shout, to scream, louder and louder and louder until we drown out all the lies and equivocations and excuses and force the politicians and the pundits into a position where they thing that they "have" to do is not vote to continue failed, criminal and horrible stupid policies, but vote to end them.

This memorial day, let's all spend time thinking about what we can do -- within the bounds of the effective and the moral -- to end this damn war.

To ensure that by the next memorial day, no more soldiers will be dying to be honored by solemn liars in suits by the sides of grieving families at military funerals.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

100 Great Pages: Lewis Trondheim & Sergio Garcia's Les Trois Chemins, pages 3-4

Twelfth 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.

It'd be an exaggeration to say that I've read Les Trois Chemins. I've certainly looked closely at every page (which is a significant part of what it means to "read" comics (and why it is perfectly sensible to talk about reading even wordless comics), but hardly the entirety of it). But I've done a sort of half-hearted job on the words. The reason here is simple: Les Trois Chemins is in French. And it's not been translated -- at least not yet. My French is good enough to sort of hack away at the text with a dictionary in hand, but this bears the same resemblance to reading that hacking through a jungle with a machete does to bicycle riding. In both cases you travel some distance, but that's all that you can say about the matter.*

But for me, even given my difficulty of the language, Les Trois Chemins (the title means "The Three Ways" or "The Three Paths") is an utterly delightful book.

Les Trois Chemins is a children's book** -- a fairly brief one too, only 32 pages long. The book is structured around the three paths of its title -- paths which criss-cross, join, separate, entwine and otherwise get very tangled over the course of the work. On those paths travel four main characters. The first path starts with two: John Mc Mac -- a rich man, in search of someone who owes him some gold -- accompanied by his secretary, cook, housekeeper and porter, Robert. The second path is traveled by Roselita, a young girl: she is fed by a cloud which rains bread, but it's begun to rain stones, so she needs to find the master of the clouds to fix the situation. The third path starts as a river, with a robot named Duezio in a boat, drifting down but afraid to get out because it's afraid of rusting. Each of the characters meets various people, animals, and so forth, and gets various adventures: the plot of the book is essentially the journey across the pages. What makes the book fun are the various ways the paths interact, cross, mirror each other, and so forth. (You'll see what I mean in a minute, once I show you a page.) The characters' journeys take them underground, into a world on the clouds, into buildings, over an ocean, and so on and so forth. It's a wonderfully charming, fanciful book.

But, y'know, in French. Which I decipher more than read.

How did I happen upon such a book, in a language that I read slowly and with difficulty? Well, Lewis Trondheim is associated with the Oubapo, the comics spin-off of the Oulipo, and I'd gotten interested in Oubapian techniques, including the work of the American spin-off, such as the amazing work of Matt Madden. All clear? No? Well, see here for more (then here); but this is the short version: The Oulipo is a French literary group devoted to constraints in literature (ranging from poetic forms such as the sonnet or sestina to more outré forms such as the lipogram to newly invented ones such as the N+7 method); the Oubapo uses parallel techniques (some almost precisely the same, some unique to comics and without parallel in poetry or prose) in sequential art. Anyway, Les Trois Chemins was plugged as one of the few book-length Oubapian works, so I tracked down a copy.

... But it's all a bit moot, actually, since I don't even think it's that Oubapian a work. It's experimental, insofar as it plays with the comics page in wild and wonderful ways; but those ways aren't, to my mind, particularly characteristic of the Ou-X-po groups. -- The Oubapo disagrees, incidentally, and give it their official seal in the back ("Ouvrage agréé par l'Ouvroir de Bande Dessinée Potentielle"). You might want to listen to them rather than me on the issue of what is and isn't characteristic of their own work -- I would, if I were you (although, since I'm me and not you, I still think I'm right.)

I should mention that Lewis Trondheim, credited as the writer ("scénario"), is one of the preeminent French cartoonists working today. (It says so right here on the label.) He's done a huge variety of work, sometimes both drawing and writing, sometimes just writing. Except for the silent Mister O -- which is also wonderful, a marvelous exercise in existential humor, or funny despair, or something (for more see Derik's review) -- I don't know any of his numerous other work. But various translations of his books have been published by First Second, Fantagraphics and NBM, so if you're interested they're around.

As for artist Sergio Garcia, I know even less about him (except that he shares a name with some !@#$% golfer which makes him hard to google). Other than the "Trois Chemins" series, he collaborated with Trondheim on another book called Bande dessinée, apprendre et comprendre; and he's done a neat-looking kids book called L'aventure d'une BD ("Adventures of a Comic Book") which looks like a sort of 'how-books-are-made' guide.

Returning to Les Trois Chemins, let's look at pages three and four (note that I'm again exercising my self-imposed rule that a "page" is something that works as a single visual unit, so that a double-page spread counts if I want it to). The first double page introduces the characters; here the paths start to mix and things start to get interesting:

(Click for larger version.)
In addition to Lewis Trondheim, the writer, and Sergio Garcia, the artist, this page has colors by Lola Moral. (And sorry for the middle of the scan -- the art sort of gets swallowed by the middle of the page.)

Where shall I start on the wonderfulness that is this page?

I guess with the obvious: after a (double) page of simple parallel traveling, we have here the first interactions between the three paths.*** The river that Deuzio (the robot) travels on snakes up the page, going under bridges in both the other paths, so that whereas the first page had John Mc Mac & Robert's path on top, Roselita's in the middle and Deuzio's along the bottom, by the end of this page the order is Deuzio - John Mc Mac/Robert - Roselita. The twisting and braiding makes for a fun design, of course, and it continues, in increasingly wild permutations, throughout the book. On this page Duezio is clearly the linking thread, interacting twice with Roselita and once with John Mc Mac & Robert, although which of the characters is the linking thread shifts (and sometimes its minor characters rather than one of the three (and there isn't one on every page)).

We also get the first interactions between the characters: as Duezio's boat passes under the first bridge, both Duezio and Roselita cry out to the other for help. Roselita has identified Duezio as a knight ("chevalier") and cries out to it in appropriately flowery language; Duezio simply cries "help! help!". Neither manages to help the other -- but Duezio does get stuck with Roselita's stone-raining cloud, which mysteriously begins to again rain bread (as Roselita wishes it to) once it switches. Roselita runs around to try to help Duezio, but to no avail; she continues on, however, to try again (and get her bread-raining cloud back) -- with the cheerful thought (in the text accompanying the last image of her on the page) that perhaps the knight (i.e. Deuzio) will marry her. Meanwhile, Deuzio hopes that Robert will help it... but John Mc Mac, Robert's employer, is scandalized by the idea of doing it for free ("Gratuitement?"), and hurries them along -- taking with him the cloud, now raining rain. (John Mc Mac thinks they should try to catch the rain, since it's free water.)

The structure of this page (and, indeed, the entire comic) forces some interesting and comparatively unusual choices on the reader. The braiding paths function almost as a comics version of a hypertext: as in some postmodern fictions, each reader is forced to decide for themselves which order to read the page in. In customary comics order, one reads each panel (no help there -- no panels) in the same order that you'd read a text in, left-to-right, up-to-down, reading the elements within each panel the same way. But here it's not clear. If you start in the upper-left-hand corner, reading the journey of John Mc Mac and Robert, you'll go straight to the second bridge -- an event that clearly occurs after the first bridge crossing in the lower part of page three. (On this particular double spread, you might solve this problem by reading all of page three and then all of page four -- but it won't work on every page, nor on every problem on this page.) Each path is continuous: when you reach the edge of the page, that particular thread of plot just continues. Do you follow it? But the threads merge, split, mix in various ways -- so obviously that won't do.

But assuming you start with John Mc Mac & Robert, at what point do you break off to start reading of Roselita? Or Deuzio? Do you read all of one thread on this double page, and then double back before turning to pages five and six? That treats the page breaks as far more significant than they really are. And if you do this, you'll have a very different experience of the moment at the first bridge (as each of the figures cries for help) then if you creep up to it along both paths at once.

It's not as fully Abelian as some hypertexts -- indeed, the entire comic is about a journey, is very much a series of progressions that demand to be read, in order, across the 32-page journey. Still, any two readers are unlikely to read the elements of this page -- let alone any of the other pages, or the book as a whole -- in the same order.

The paths march relentlessly on: each encounter is filled with more history than any single path encompasses; if you double-back it will distort your view as much as if you don't. Whichever order you read it in, you will be forced to play catch-up: you can't deal with it all in order, since it's happening all at once. -- In all of this, this comic works unlike normal narratives -- and very much like life, where in all our interactions we are always seeing half a story, always unaware of the other threads we cross and join and diverge from, always trying to catch up on the past.

As I said, it's fascinating the way the characters' journeys intersect and interact. But what makes the page so much fun are the details. There's Robert's Little Prince -like love for flowers, birds and mushrooms, which John Mc Mac (like Saint Exupery's Businessman) says he will simply buy. There's the way that Deuzio feels threatened by the branch that Roselita offers him ("elle veutm'achever avec son bâton"); there's the fact that Trondheim & Garcia have carefully shown us the branch before so we see where Roselita gets it (notice that the figure of her running, right before the second time she approaches the boat, is actually seeing it by the side of the path as she races along the path) -- we can even surmise that the branch blew off the tree stump that the beaver is reading under right across the road. Notice the animals creeping among the rocks in the center of the page.

Look at the expressions on the (very simply drawn) character's faces: look at the sadness that Deuzio has in his final appearance on the page as he asks himself if he prefers to be alone; look at the thoughtful uncertainty of Robert as he follows an angry, anxious and still, above all, greedy Jonh Mc Mac; look at Roselita's childlike joy as she imagines that she might marry her "knight".

I like the way that Trondheim & Garcia use the space of the page as well: lots of cartoonists will use the occasional multiple, superimposed figures within a panel, but creating an entire comic out of superimposed figures -- in what could be seen, if it could only be laid out, as a single, endless panel*** (or as a print version of Scott McCloud's infinite canvas) -- is something I don't think I've seen before.

There are eight figures each of John Mc Mac, Robert and Deuzio on this page; there are thirteen of Rosalita. Yet her story fairly clearly takes no more time than theirs: to the limited degree that the question has any definitive answer, time seems to march evenly across the page (yet her path bends: doesn't it take therefore more time? It's longer...). This inequality, incidentally, is by no means regular; I haven't counted the others, but most of the pages seem more balanced (although, in the few I checked, never exactly even). -- Perhaps it signifies the speed she runs as she races down along the bend? Or perhaps it merely looks better? (That is to say: it does look better; that's presumably why they did it -- but is that all of it?)

Trondheim and Garcia also fill the page with other marvelous bits with no particular relevance to their story -- visual digressions (so to speak) which are the soul of their wit. In the bottom-left corner, we see a monkey showing a group of animals their location on a map (so far as I can tell, the story roughly parallels the outline shown -- although they soon cross an ocean, and so go off the map's borders -- but basically this is extraneous to the tale, just for fun). In the bottom-right corner, two pirates wait along a road (after a fork at which Roselita chooses the other direction): they don't show up again (although different pirates do): they're simply there for fun. (Notice the alligator is biting the large bird's leg; and that the opossum has some sort of guidebook in its hands.) The same with the family of ducks hanging out in the cluster of rocks behind the pirates, or the various animals in the larger, central cluster of rocks, or any of the many animals by the various paths. I particularly like the animal (a beaver?) with the eyeglasses and the book resting against the tree stump that Roselita's path snakes around in the middle of page four. (And the owl right above it is ferocious.)

Note that while the paths sometimes clearly occupy the same space -- the entire middle section when Roselita races around to try to rescue Deuzio, or both the moments when the boat goes under a bridge are examples -- they don't always occupy the same space. This is easiest to see on this page on the far left-top (Roselita and John Mc Mac's paths) and on the far-right bottom (the same): the white space between them is deliberately ambiguous, and it's not at all as simple or clear as the two paths simply running beside each other: they are each simply in their own narrative space, a space which might solidify into physical space if Trondheim and Garcia wish the paths to interact but which otherwise are linked only by their placement on the page.

As with many of the pages I've discussed in this series, what finally sells this page is a hard (if not impossible) to articulate, but utterly crucial, sense of design. Not all great comics pages have this (some simply work because all their constituent panels work, relying on the invisibility of the standard grid for their overall design); but those pages that are self-consciously crafted as pages have it. The second double page of Les Trois Chemins has it in spades -- as, indeed, the rest of the work does as well.

Just looking at the overall structure is impressive in this regard. Scroll back up to the thumbnail, and look at it without clicking to enlarge it (which I hope that, before the previous section of the post, you did). Squint and just look at the flow of the paths. Each of the paths flows slightly differently -- yet with enough parallel and balance to make the whole work. The top path arcs down, as if one strand of the bottom of a sideways Caduceus -- except that the far extension to the left is a different path, since the bottom two paths cross earlier. The lower path swoops down and up and down again, its belated fork both adding a fun twist to the overall page, a balance to the crossing, an opportunity for complexity otherwise lost, and a note of Robert Frostian realism. Also note (and you might need to click through the larger version to see this) the way in which the third major section of Roselita's path bends right before bending back to the left for its upward peak -- a sort of hint at an S shape that, again, adds a lot to the sheer balance of the page.

And of course that description leaves out the rocks in the central circle, the animal lesson, the figures, the subtle array of colors -- all the elements that really make the design work.

A number of the comics I've excerpted from so far have been Great Works, serious in tone and intent. Les Trois Chemins is simpler than that -- a children's story filled with delight. But even in a children's work, there can be powerful innovation -- as in this comics' playing with reading order and time; and even in a children's work, there can be craft and art and, yes, beauty.

Just with a lot of light hearted fun added in as well.

Even if your French is as shaky as mine, you'll definitely enjoy it; for that matter, I suspect that it's fairly enjoyable even if you can't read a word. And certainly if you can read children's French fluently, it will be a true delight. (If you want to find a copy, it may help you to know that the ISBN for Les Trois Chemins is 2840554615. It only seems to be available as a used book in the U.S.; but Amazon's Canadian version has it in stock new, and there's always interlibrary loan.)

And hey, maybe if we make enough noise, someone will put out a translation.

Incidentally there's a sequel called Les Trois Chemins sous les mers ("The Three Ways Under the Sea"), which was published in 2003, though I've never seen a copy. You can see a sample page here; judging by that, plus the cover, it seems to be a very similar idea with different characters and settings. Those seem to be the only two volumes in the series to date.

* Which means, incidentally, that you should take any translations I offer in this post as (to put it kindly) preliminary. I've almost certainly got some of them wrong.

** Comics for kids are great for practicing languages one knows only poorly: the pictures help, and the language is both simple and colloquial.

*** Perhaps it's obvious, but I should note that each page begins where the previous one ended: if you bought enough copies of the book, you could line them all up to make a grand, single banner, like a children's Bayeux Tapestry (though the page links would be obvious, since nothing happens at precisely those moments, to allow the reader to turn the page).

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday Diversions

Diversions from what? Oh, you know, this whole thing (more here). Not to mention this (more here and here). And this. And, y'know, everything else.

Okay, on with the diversions:

• Just the title of this web site made my wife laugh so hard she nearly died from lack of oxygen. Use with caution. Not doctor recommended for children under 12.

• Today's Boing-Boing-Did-You-Click-Through?™ Link: chatbots Alice and Jabberwacky talk with each other. It's even better than BoingBoing's post made it seem:
ALICE: Are you alive?
Jabberwacky: Perhaps.
A: Why the uncertain tone?
J: Everything is uncertain except for five facts.
A: The whole universe?
J: And we both might just be some ones and zeros in the computer memory.
More fun at the click-through.

Sinister Ducks. Sung by Alan Moore. No kidding. (via)

• I usually don't find very McSweeny's funny, but these two posts on the top 20 Democratic Candidates and the top 20 Republican Candidates are hilarious. (via)

• Extra, bonus Boing-Boing-Did-You-Click-Through?™ Link, now with alternate link for the slashdotted content: "A Fair(y) Use Tale": information copyright film made up entirely of fair use from Disney films. Guaranteed to piss off The Mouse, or your money back.

• Finally, an internet classic, just in case you've never seen it: Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Became An Evil Overlord. (Teresa Nielsen Hayden made a random generator out of this, and the many other similar lists.)

Update: More serious than most of the above, but less so than the links in the first paragraph: I don't think you need to read this grumpy "artistic heroes sell out" post to appreciate the wonderful counter-statements by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and by Scott Lemieux at LGM. (Particularly since Amanda quotes the relevant bits in her post.) I never thought I'd side with the pro-sell-out crowd... although I've long been less bothered by it than I used to be... but so far as I'm concerned, Amanda & Scott have dusted that vamp idea. (It's part of the whole collapse of the Wagnerian artist-as-visionary-hero notion due to multiple causes, including a more accurate sense of the inevitably collaborative nature of all art... but that's another post.)

Update 2: I don't know if this will be funny to non-comics geeks, but comics geeks should definitely look at these superheroine tampon ads. (via)

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Long Goodbye

Season two was somewhat uneven; season three has been very uneven. But since season one of Veronica Mars was hands-down flat-out one of the greatest seasons of television which ever aired, it is with no small regret that I inform my Noble Readers that Veronica Mars has been canceled. (via via) There are some rumors, such as in this news story, which hold out hope for some sort of continuation; series creator Rob Thomas squashes those rumors here. That last link via Abigail Nussbaum, who has some some characteristically thoughtful and measured words of her own.

Update: Damn but that show went out on a high note. Their last episode was one of the best in the entire three-year run. (Of the final five, the first was by far the weakest -- it was what inspired my italics in the first sentence of this post -- & then they just got better and better.) Now I'm really !@#$% bummed that there won't be a season four. They ended on something of a cliffhanger too. Frack!!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

100 Great Pages: Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby, page 131

Eleventh 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.

Howard Cruse's extraordinary Stuck Rubber Baby is one of my very favorite graphic novels. In fact, I've written about it at length before, describing my experiences teaching it in an undergraduate seminar (on historical fiction) here at Cornell. But of course that's not going to stop me from including it in this series (which will produce a very different sort of post, after all).

Stuck Rubber Baby is semi-autobiographical, but if you read Cruse's long and richly interesting web site about the process of writing it, you'll see that the "semi" is very much warranted: it's grounded in his experiences but it isn't a narrative of those experiences: it's very much fiction.

Stuck Rubber Baby might be reasonably described as a coming-out novel. The basic arc of the story is the gradual realization by Toland Park (Cruse's protagonist) that he's gay -- or, more accurately, his coming to accept this fact about himself as true and immutable. It's set at a time -- the early 1960's, "Kennedytime", as Cruse calls it -- when attitudes towards gays was almost unimaginably far from what they are today: jumping that gap, feeling the differences down in your bones, is one of the hardest tasks in thinking historically -- and one of the reasons that I find historical fiction valuable as a teaching tool (and one of the reasons I taught Stuck Rubber Baby specifically). Cruse invokes the social, psychological, and personal complexities extremely well (and -- insofar as I can judge a period about a decade before my birth, which I know only second-hand through study -- accurately).

But there are more historical complexities at work in Stuck Rubber Baby than simply the distance traveled by gay and lesbian citizens in the intervening decades. Stuck Rubber Baby takes place in a fictionalized version of Birmingham, Alabama -- a city that was the focus point of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 (from SCLC's campaign there that spring to the KKK's terrorist bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church that September). Toland Park -- like Cruse -- is white; but for this very reason his perspective on the movement is a fascinating one.* Toland is sympathetic but clueless: well-intentioned, but not someone whose normal tendency would be to get deeply involved.

(It occurs to me that I may be making Stuck Rubber Baby sound dull, if all this talk of historical settings and psychistoriocial who-dads and so forth sound that way to you. Fear not! Unless you're in my class, no one will make you notice: the book is a gripping tale -- a "page turner" as Amanda Marcotte recently put it -- that will educate you without you noticing it at all. Unless, of course, you care to pay attention. (Nor is it at all preachy; its politics come out simply through its story, and are richly integrated into the complexities of real people's lives.))

The richness of the historical setting is one of the reasons I adore this book; the other is the richness of the characters. Cruse's characters are marvelously complex, flawed, likeable, fully human people. (I keep wanting to say they're "well-drawn", which is true, but means something different when talking about a graphic novel.) At least a dozen of his characters are fully realized individuals; many of the secondary characters are vivid as well. These characters are black and white, straight and gay, male and female, active in the movement, sympathetic but detached, and even fairly hostile. Historical fiction works by embodying the complexities of history in the equally complex but very differently textured realities of individual lives: and that's why Stuck Rubber Baby works so well.

And Cruse can also really lay out a page.

Stuck Rubber Baby's pages are crowded: Cruse's book is filled with pages with twelve or more panels, all with lots of words. "Decompression" this is not. But Cruse makes them work, because his sense of balance and pacing and design are all so good. Many of his pages are -- "merely", if "merely" is the word -- extremely good: clear, compelling pages which draw the reader along, laying out the story in the clear, unobtrusive way of clear prose: like untinted glass, you don't notice the artistry because you're so busy looking at what's through the window. But some of his pages show a bit more extravagant flair: and, yeah, you guessed it, those are some of my favorites.**

Page 131 is almost two-thirds of the way through the graphic novel. (It doesn't spoil any of the major surprises in the book, although I will spoil a fairly minor one.) On this page, Toland Park is looking for Anna Dellyne and, having told she was at the hospital, goes to find her. (Anna is tangentially involved in a personal problem of Toland's, but I won't say any more so as not to spoil it -- you don't need to know any more for this page, anyway.) Anna Dellyne is the wife of Revered Harland Pepper, who is the leader of the movement in the book's fictional city of Clayfield. (You could say he was sort of a Martin Luther King character -- except that simply betrays the fact that our culture has far too simple a memory of the Civil Rights Movement: there were a larger number of preachers involved in the Movement, of whom Dr. King was only the most famous.***) Anna Dellyne is a famous former blues singer (in the Billie Holiday mode) who doesn't sing any more: she gave up singing in public when she married and quit her career. Hence Toland's surprise when he gets to the hospital room (one of the characters in the book was injured in the bombing that is the book's fictional equivalent of the real-life terrorist attack on the 16th St. Baptist Church) and hears her singing to the unconscious Shiloh Reed:

(Click for larger version)

It's worth noting that this page contains much of what makes Stuck Rubber Baby so wonderful (in the way that a steak contains cow, of course: it's just a bit of it, sliced away from the rest of it so that it's hard to recognize, but still: easier to serve). The historical events of the Civil Rights Movement are here, in their fictionalized form: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was a major event in the movement's history, and here we see -- in the wounded, unconscious body of Shiloh Reed -- the price that the Movement required, whose sheer pain and horror is too often downplayed in our current sanitized memory of it. At the same time, this is very much a page about Toland: he's a dreamy figure, given to longings he can't quite identify (or is simply afraid to), and his fantasy of having been back at one of Anna Dellyne's performances is very much in character.

The most obvious feature of this page -- that is, obvious when looking at it, and looking for it: like many obvious solutions, it was (I suspect) devilishly hard to actually think up; and like many of comics' fictive devices, easy to assimilate almost unconsciously if you're not paying attention -- are the forms of the panels. Cruse draws Toland's fantasy images in circular panels -- well, almost circular: their actually sort of spirals, with each having a pair of little tails flowing counter-clockwise. I don't know if this shape has a name, or why Cruse chose it over plain ovals -- although the tails do effectively capture the movement and flow of the music (much as the lettering does, see below) in a way that simple curves would not: they'd set it off from the other panels, but they wouldn't help it seem to flow. I presume that's what they're for.

But the curve of the shape serves the other purpose: to visually set off the imaginative scenario from the real one. As I said, if you're not looking for it, you might barely notice it, but it will still serve to mark off the fantasy from reality in a clarifying way. Notice that Cruse goes so far as to make the little panel of Toland and the nurses in the middle of the second tier rectangular, so as to strictly adhere to the distinction. Further, while the image of Anna Dellyne in the lower left bursts out of her panel, the actual panel itself remains circular: look at the shape of the panel around the horn player's head, continuing the tails from the previous tier (this time going clockwise though -- presumably just for design purposes); look also at the shape of the panel at the very bottom of the page, next to Anna Dellyne's shoulder: again, curved. (Even Dellyne's head fits this pattern, although it does go beyond the normal boundaries, since her hair itself is drawn as sort of a curve.)

Let's stick with the curve theme for the moment, and notice the other curved shapes on this page: the lettering of the lyrics that Anna Dellyne's singing. This is most obviously true on the second tier, where they run around the outside of the two curved panels, each its own semi-circle. (And how perfect to have them outside the panels, by the way! If they were in the fantasy panels, their reality in the hospital room would be lost; if they were in just the hospital panels, we wouldn't sense them in the fantasy. By drawing them on the white page between the panels (along with the "note" emanata signifying singing) Cruse manages to have them wrap through both the real and the imaginary seamlessly.) But of course the singing in the third tier, and in the first tier are curved too: in fact, look at the latter closely: even the second half of the words ("your soul is under lock and key") are curved -- in a wave shape for the third line -- and although it's subtle, it's very definitely there.

This curving of lettering is a device that Cruse uses sparingly but deftly throughout the book. In addition to singing, he uses it to signify emotionally distressing memory (p. 63, another page I considered writing on) and for some of the lines of Sammy -- an openly gay man -- when he's being self-consciously fabulous (e.g. page 41: y'all are with Sammy Noone, you might as well be here with royalty: the final word is in a lovely upward arc.) Cruse is not a flashy letterer the way that Eisner or Sim are; but he uses this particular device well. Here, it helps capture the feel of music in static, silent words. It's a wonderful touch.

While I'm on the subject, I should note the lyrics themselves:
You may try forgetting me
But you will not succeed.
Your soul is under lock and key,
And it will not be freed.
You'll always be a part of me,
Forever in the heart of me.
You may have left me before
But you can't leave me behind.
These lyrics were written by Cruse himself; this was true not only because he would need to quote too much of them to fall within fair use limits, but also because, as he said, "I needed them to convey thoughts specifically related to the subtexts of the scenes that featured them." So we definitely should look at the lyrics. The themes here apply to all sorts of different aspects of this page and this novel. The entire work is narrated by Toland as a much older man, so the most obvious meaning of the words is Toland's relationship to his past: it'll always be a part of him; he can't leave it behind. (This meaning is, in fact, explicitly drawn out towards the end of the book.) It equally applies to Anna Dellyne's past, of course: she may not be a nightclub singer any more, she may not perform save to sick friends and eavesdropping nurses, but that past is part of her, and she can't leave it behind.

But that only scratches the surface, of course. You can read the lyrics in so many ways. They speak about Toland's sexuality: he can try forgetting it, but he will not succeed: he is gay, not straight, whatever dreams of "curing" himself he may be hanging onto. Then there's the Civil Rights Movement -- how many ways do the lyrics apply to that! Anna Dellyne is singing at the bedside of a man gravely injured in the terrorist violence that opposed the movement; but is the implication that the dark racism that produced such violence will always be a part of our past -- or that the heroism that confronted and overcame it will be? Is it about the Movement and its triumphant place in our past? Or is it about the place of African Americans in the United States, that they are integral to the meaning and culture of this country however much some white Americans have wanted to (in the not only evil but historically imbecilic phrase from the time, quoted in the book) "Keep Dixie White"? The indelibility of the past, the inability to change the fundamental truths about who one is -- these apply both to Toland as an individual and to America as a nation, and the lyrics here are about both.

They're also beautiful, marvelous lyrics, I think. Someone should make them into an actual song.****

Let's return to the issue of the visuals of the page. One thing you can see here is Cruse's amazing, painstaking hatching that he uses on every page. He uses this sort of hatching to richly color the skin of all his characters -- not only black, but white as well, in a way that more accurately conveys the realities of rich, multiple skin tones. (I owe this point to Alison Bechdel, who discusses it in her book The Indelible Alison Bechdel. (More on Bechdel when I get around to doing an entry in this series about a page from her work!)) You can't quite see the way he uses it on white characters all that well on this particular page -- but look at Toland's neck in the first panel. It's a good device, to keep from falling into the trap of only "coloring" black characters (as in Franklin in Charles Schultz's Peanuts.)†

And of course the hatching isn't used only on skin: look at the shadows on the wall sin the third panel, or the bed clothes or Anna Dellyne's dress in the same image. Look at the Ceiling and floor in the bottom tier once Toland goes back out to the waiting room. That extremely labor-intensive use of hatching to create shadow, shade and shape is part of what make's Cruse's art in this book work so well (and part of what makes his style so distinctive).

Another masterful panel is the panel between the two central circular ones, with Toland listening from the doorway along with the various nurses. There is so much to like about this panel. First, there's Cruse's use of the doorframe (you can see it in context in panel three on tier one) as a panel border. This both makes the panel's integration into its tier work better -- it helps it not look artificial superimposed on the other panels -- but, in fact, it makes the entire middle tier feel like the room: the doorway is set in a wall, just as it is in panel three, which makes the rest of the tier the room itself; Toland is looking into the room and seeing his imagined image. Second, Cruse's choice to present the nurses here in silhouette is masterful. It's not that he's hesitant to draw them -- we see them quite clearly in the first three panels of the page -- but here it helps emphasize that Toland is off in his own world, with nothing between him and the music. Cruse couldn't show Toland alone -- it wouldn't fit the scene, where he is in fact crowding behind others at the door -- but this helps us capture his emotional state in which he sees past them to commune with the song. Third, the fact that the panel doesn't end but fades out -- something that Cruse's hatching is especially well-suited to do -- helps the atmosphere of timeless enjoyment saturate even this return to the "real" world: it's not bounded, physically, and that affects how we read it.

Finally, the last brilliant touch in this panel is the smoke snaking across it, originating from the first circular panel and leading us into the third. Obviously the smoke is not "really" there: it's part of Toland's imagined scene. But it helps connect the imagined scenes to the small interjection of reality. It creates a thread tying together (almost as if it were the music itself) the three panels (particularly with the smoke's continuation (or it's new smoke perhaps, who cares) in panel three, making it look as if it is just running behind Anna Dellyne in that panel. Without this smoke, this inset panel might well look odd and out of place; with it, it is tied tightly into the scene.

Let's look at that fantasy scene another minute -- in particular the second of the two circular panels on the middle tier. The man sitting in the bottom front is Shiloh: healed, well, dressed in a suit. Behind him is Toland -- also in a suit ("conservative clothes" as Cruse calls them (in a different context) on page 33). And then, beside Toland, is a woman. It's not his girlfriend; it doesn't look anything like her. We don't know for sure that she's with Toland rather than just sitting beside him. But Toland's fantasies (as we see elsewhere in the book) are intimately tied up with his fantasy that he might become straight. And while another character in another book might imagine being in an nightclub as a freeing experience -- releasing him from society's restrictions, allowing him to experience his sexuality freely and without guilt -- so that the phrase "what kind of a different life would I have been living..." would have referred to his having been openly gay, I think the meaning here is clearly the opposite. Toland is using the fantasy of having been back in Harlem to indulge in a fantasy of himself as straight: the woman in his imagined scene is, I think, with him -- not clingy with him; Toland isn't, in fact, straight so why would he imagine that? But she's a part of his self-denial, right in front of us, on the page.

I like how the fantasy begins in images before it begins in words -- in fact at a moment when the words are explicitly denying it: "it wasn't like she was on a stage" the narration says, as Toland is seeing (and we are seeing) her already on a stage, with a microphone.

Returning to the issue of panel shapes, look at the three panels on the right-hand side of the bottom tier. They increase slowly in size: the first panel, as Toland waits for a timeless period (as Scott McCloud notes in Understanding Comics, silent panels often have a "timeless" feel to them), then Anna Dellyne shows up. The increase in size goes along with a change in his mood: the small size is associated with the sense of being lost in wonder (given that it's the same size as the that middle tier panel), hence his disconnection with reality: as the panel size increases, as we see more clearly (and the panels begin to resemble the "normal" sized panels elsewhere in the book) Toland is drawn back into the complex, even sordid, world of his ordinary life. Cruse may well have made the panels those shapes simply to fit in with the drawing on the left, and to make room for the middle panel up top; but it still has this effect just the same. (And who knows? He might have meant it to. Trying to read an author, or an artist's, mind is well-known to be folly; this is why.)

I also like the transition from the fantasy to the scene in the waiting room. The use of the large close-up, with its bleed off the page, culminates Toland's absorbtion in the music: he is wholly taken by it, there is no defined end... and then rather than showing him leave, Cruse simply jumps to his waiting by himself in the room. (I called that panel timeless a moment a go, and in some ways it is... but if you look closely you can actually see Anna Dellyne in it, just a silhouette, but clearly her, and moving towards Toland, which makes the panel slightly less timeless (although, again, that feel is still there) and also ties it in with the previous moment.)

And while I can't quite express why this page -- full as it is -- still works as a whole: balanced, clear, one might easily read it quickly, absorbed in the story, hardly noticing the artistry.

This page is a quiet moment in an eventful work: between the lives of Toland and his friends, and the historic events that are their backdrop and which filter in and out of the narrative,†† there's a lot going on in this book. In fact, one of the few genuine criticisms that my students raised, and that I sort of agreed with, is that they would have liked the work to be longer: several plot thread, particularly involving minor characters are closed rather quickly, and it'd be nice to see some of their fates work out at greater length. Cruse was pressed for space in its construction: he had agreed on 200 pages, got an extension to 210, but was still working within tight limits. So why not cut this page? In terms of "plot" Toland could just as well have caught up with Anna Dellyne and began their conversation without this interlude.

Much of the answer -- perhaps all of the answer -- is that it is thematically important: the themes of self-realization, of hiding versus being open about who you are, of the genuine and painful cost of resistance -- all of these are important to the work and more than justify its inclusion. But it also serves as a quiet, personal moment: a moment of beauty -- for the characters, and for us -- in the midst of larger issues of struggle and identity and power. Cruse takes his time here, and as I hope I have showed puts a lot of work and thought into its careful construction. It is the elegance of its small moments, as much as the sweep of its grander themes, that make this book as extraordinary as it is. If page 131 wasn't this good, Stuck Rubber Baby wouldn't be half the work that it is; but it is this good -- and so is the rest of it. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

Post Script: Oh, and the title "Stuck Rubber Baby"? It's one of those titles (the other example I always think of is Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49") that make absolutely no sense until you get to the point of the novel which clarifies them... after which they seem so self-evident that you can't quite recapture how strange they are. Believe me, it makes perfect sense. If you don't see it now... read the book. You won't believe you missed it.

Update: A shout-out to Howard Cruse, who links to this post on his own blog. He includes a link to the page for Stuck Rubber Baby -- a good idea, I should probably do that myself in this series. It also reminded me that Cruse has this teaser on his site, which is a nice little introduction to the book.

* As I've mentioned before, the perspective of whites on the Civil Rights Movement is getting more study from historians these days -- a good thing, I think (but then I would think that: it's close to my own area of study). If you're interested in historians' works, two books I'd recommend are Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything (full disclosure: I've met Jason, and we're friendly) and Kevin Kruse's White Flight (a somewhat more specialized study, but equally interesting). Still, fiction is often the best way to learn -- and Cruse's book, too, is a marvelous place to start.

** Actually, the page I'm talking about isn't quite in my top five, say, because many of the most spectacular pages come around central plot points I'm reluctant to spoil. So while I (obviously) like the page I chose a lot, there are some still more spectacular ones that I might have otherwise written about. (If you've read the book, you'll know at least some of the ones I mean -- look especially at chapters 19, 21 and 22.)

*** Go watch the Blackside documentary television series Eyes on the Prize sometime -- you should anyway: it's one of the finest things ever to appear on television, a superb history of the Civil Rights Movement, both historically important and also simply gripping on a narrative level; and now that it is finally available on DVD, it should be easier to actually see -- and you'll see a huge number of ministers (largely from SCLC) interviewed -- Rev. Andrew Young, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. C. T. Vivian, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, etc., etc. They all played important roles. So did a lot of other people. It not only does history a disservice to remember the Movement as equivalent to King, it does progressive reform a disservice too, since it encourages us to wait for Leaders to Lead, when that is a gross distortion of how change has happened in the past.

**** Incidentally, on the above-cited page, Cruse also says that "For those lyrics... no actual tunes exist (yet)". I can't say for sure, but this seems to imply that he'd be open to the idea of someone writing music for them. Any blues musicians out there, take note!

† No disrespect to the extraordinary artist Charles Schultz intended.

†† This is a dual effect. In part, Cruse shows that (as the Old Masters know of suffering), history takes place "while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along". But he also shows it affecting lives -- not only in the big, obvious ways -- now African Americans and gay or lesbian citizens can lead freer lives than before -- but in the small, multiple ways: people altering their life this way or that (getting a job or loosing one; moving somewhere or leaving it) around its currents.

Does Anyone Know the Source of This Quote?

Moses Hadas is credited all over as the author of the famous book review put-down "This book fills a much-needed gap." But no one seems to give the context. Does anyone know anything more -- what book he was reviewing? Where the review appeared? Anything?

James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction: an Updated List of Winners

Update, 2009: Since there is now a list of winners on both the web site of the Society of American Historians (which gives out the prize) and Wikipedia, I am no longer planning to update this entry.

Winners of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction, given biannually by the Society of American Historians

1993: Shaman, by Noah Gordon
1995: In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O'Brien
1997: The Cattle Killing by John Edgar Wideman
1999: Gain, by Richard Powers
2001: Tie: A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just
Bone by Bone by Peter Matthiessen
2003: Paradise Alley, by Kevin Baker
2005: The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
2007: The Last Town on Earth, Thomas Mullen

This is an updated list of the winners of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. I'm keeping the list here because there doesn't seem to be any convenient page with a complete, up-to-date list of the winners -- not even on the web site of the Society of American Historians, which gives out the prize. (For the longer version, including why I'm interested, see my previous post on the subject.)

The links above go the authors' book pages, if such exist, and wikipedia otherwise.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


I tend to work for a long time on my blog posts before posting them, often deleting half-baked efforts that haven't worked out. So I hope you'll forgive some thinking out loud, some extremely tentative thoughts that I may well want to take back five minutes from now. This, Noble Readers, is just off the cuff.

But I just watched a five minute clip from last night's Republican debate (on Andrew Sullivan's blog) in which Ron Paul explained his foreign policy views and...


He's against invading foreign countries. He believes in blowback. He explicitly draws the line between our (shameful) overthrowing of an elected Iranian government in 1953 and the taking of the embassy hostages in 1979. He boasts -- boasts! -- that Republicans were elected to end the Korean and Vietnam wars. (He doesn't note that in the latter case Nixon took his own sweet, genocidal time doing it, invading yet another country in the process. But still.) He seemed to, quite genuinely, be against going over to foreign countries and killing people for little reason. And he held to that even when the Sacred Words to End Debate -- "9/11" -- were spoken.

Frankly, he sounded a lot like Noam Chomsky on foreign policy. In the best sense of that phrase.

Now, my sense (my very vague sense -- I don't spend a lot of time tracking the positions of longshot candidates for the Republican party) is that Paul is a pretty down-the-line Libertarian. As such, I imagine that he'd be catastrophic on what I consider to be the most important domestic issue for our country, getting a health care system that works, and treats everybody (ideally a single-payer system). He'd probably do a lot of harm to poor people in this country. And given that those are my fellow citizens, that bothers me. A lot.

But, on strictly utilitarian grounds, we've been responsible for an awful lot more deaths by invading Iraq (to say nothing of Vietnam) than through having a horrible health care system. What's the moral balance between failing to help, and possibly even seriously worsening, the plight of our citizens here at home (including my friends and my family and possible me)... but hurting far, far fewer people in foreign countries?

Anyone who's read me for any length of time knows that, in American terms, I'm pretty far to the left. (In Europe I'd probably be a vaguely-to-the-left centrist.) But if the choice was between a committed, dedicated war monger like Hilary Clinton -- who is probably not going to do much about health care anyway, given both her history and her indebtedness to the worst powers in the Democratic party -- and a Republican like Ron Paul... I honestly don't know how I'd vote. (The real question would be how much power Ron Paul would give to the vast, malignant power structure that is the current Republican party... Who would his appointees be? How much damage would be done, even on issues he is nominally good on, by his plugging into that malevolent force in American life?)

But I'd have to think about it. Hard.

Fortunately -- he said with grim irony -- I'm unlikely to be put in that position. Apparently (I haven't watched the clips myself, but Matt Yglesias has and reports) when Giuliani gave a strong version of the neoconservative, imperialist, pro-war, authoritarian Republican position, the crowd was wildly for it. It's hard to imagine the median Republican primary voter going against their strongly pro-authoritarian strain and voting for Ron Paul... particularly if he is (as my even-more-vague-than-my-earlier-vague-sense sense of the matter is) a "hands-off" laissez faire conservative on social issues that mater to them like controlling women's sexuality and discriminating against gays. If Ron Paul speaks for a Republican tradition, it's one that's a pretty distinct minority at this point, whatever Andrew Sullivan would like to think.

I'd like to think that some anti-imperialist conservatives (Jim Henley types, say) would be put in the opposite position than my imagined Clinton/Paul dilemma -- i.e. do they vote for someone who's against waging aggressive and immoral war even if it means bad things from their point of view (good things from mine) on domestic issues, e.g. a single-payer health policy? But none of the major Democrats have come within light-years of what Ron Paul was saying about foreign policy last night. (Maybe minor ones have... I don't spend much time tracking them, either.) To say nothing of whatever weasel compromises they're making on domestic issues, of course.

Just now I heard -- for the first time in living memory, if not beyond -- a Republican I can imagine myself voting for -- with deep regrets, with the knowledge that to achieve some goals I might be doing terrible damage to others that I care about, and specific individuals that are closer to my heart; but still voting for. I don't want to live in an empire. I don't like that the U.S. has a long tradition of going to foreign countries, invading them, toppling their governments, etc, on the flimsiest of grounds. I think it's immoral to make aggressive war. And these feelings might overcome my disdain for libertarianism on other grounds if push came to shove. I simply don't know.

Fortunately -- again with the bitter irony -- today's Republicans are unlikely to put me in that position. I have confidence that whatever candidate they choose (and there are such serious problems, from their points of view, with all of them that it's really hard to guess at this point) will be even worse than the militarist hawk and squishy-centrist- damn-the-poor- DLC-Democrat that is Hiliary Clinton, even if my party is fool enough to pick her over the less-militant, less-squishy-centrist alternatives of Obama and Edwards. As usual, voting for the lesser of two evils will be obvious.

Because, heresy thought it might be from a committed Democrat and strong (by US standards) leftist... if Ron Paul were the Republican, it might not be.