Friday, November 30, 2007

Licensed Comics and Actor's Likenesses

I came across an interesting assertion in a review of the recent Angel comic presenting the sequel to the five-season Buffy spinoff ("season six", sorta, although they're not calling it that -- Johanna, from whom I got the link to the review, implies it's for contractual reasons, although I don't know the details). Anyway, in his review of the first issue, KC Carlson writes:
Franco Urru, is the regular artist for this series and does a very creditable job in relation to other media-related (“licensed”) titles. It’s always hard to judge the artwork in licensed titles, because you never know if the book has been okayed to use the actual actors’ likenesses, or if the likenesses were denied, and the artist must use generic likeness (or the third, worst-case scenario: likeness have been approved, but the artist cannot draw likenesses.) I’m guessing that in this case, since the property has been dormant, that actor likenesses weren’t even bothered with (they often add much $$$ to a budget), so that Urru has been instructed to keep the faces generic.
"...if the book has been okayed to use the actual actor's likenesses..."? Huh?? I never knew this was an issue; I always assumed that the rights to make a comic of the show included the rights to make the characters look like the actors. Quite frankly, it seems totally bizarre to me to imagine doing a comic based on a TV show (or movie) on any other terms.

Whenever the comics characters don't look like the actors, I always thought it was due to artistic ineptitude... or, at an outside chance, deliberately artistic choice. Now I hear that it may be a budget issue?

"Generic likenesses"? Is this going to fool anyone? We all know what they should look like; if they don't, it just looks... wrong. And what's a generic likeness anyway... a smiley face?

This is really weird. Does anyone know anything about this? I don't know KC Carlson from Adam; is he right about this?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Recent (and not-so-Recent) Links, Mostly Apolitical

Despite my brief flurry of more substantive posts a week or so ago, my autumn blog-slowdown continues -- or, perhaps, has resumed. Until I have the time to come back with more substantive blogging (mid-December is my current guess, but I'm not sure), here are some links worth following -- some recent, some less so. (In a few cases I've forgotten where I got a link from; apologies to the sources...)

• In case you missed it, John Scalzi's Long-Awaited Creation Museum Report was posted recently. I think the flickr set is more fun than the essay, but they're both good.

• Kung Fu Monkey, in one of his Koufax-finalist lunchtime conversation series, presents the arguments for being ruled by robotic overlords. This one is political, but it's also funny.

• I liked this slate piece on email as an obsolete technology, even if it does confirm my old-fogey status.

• I had no idea that so many famous artists had done LP album covers.

95 Theses of Geek Activism (via).

More Batman humor from BeaucoupKevin.

Jacob Levy on the symbolic inversions of Guy Fawkes Day inspired by Alan Moore's V-for-Vendetta (and its movie adaptation).

James Fallows tours a Panda refuge in China. Major cute overload potential. (via)

Cartoons illustrating letters to the editor in the Guardian Saturday Review. Particularly for fans (if such exist) of my debates with Eddie Campbell. (again via)

• I don't agree with all his judgments, but this review-essay of Buffy -- all seven seasons of TV, plus the first trade of the comics-medium eighth season -- is quite interesting. Chock-full of spoilers, and also not interesting to anyone who hasn't, at least, seen all the TV.

• Whereas I read this essay on Grant Morrison's recent Batman series without having read the actual work, and got a lot out of it. Recommended for anyone interested in (certainly mainstream American, but to some extent any) comics.

Update: This fan-created final Calvin & Hobbes strip is clever, fairly funny, and really, really, really sad. (via)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.... Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

-- Psalm 100:2, 4

ANYA: I love a ritual sacrifice.
BUFFY: It's not really a one of those.
ANYA: To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Pangs" by Jane Espenson
Giving thanks: as always, I thank you, Noble Readers, for reading.

See you when the tryptophan wears off -- say, Tuesday. At the earliest.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Alan Moore's Shakespearean Pastiche

I'm still halfway through Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil's just-published book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier -- the third book in the series although not (somewhat confusingly) the third volume, but rather an intermission volume resting between volume two and the promised volume three. But I have to stop and ask the collective wisdom of the internet:

What the !@#$% is up with Moore's Shakespeare pastiche?

One of the reason that I have to ask is that I haven't seen anyone mention yet that it seems off. I've been following the reviews (as linked to by Dirk Deppey and Tom Spurgeon), and everyone so far seems impressed. People whose views I respect will say things like "Those documents are immaculately constructed, whether they're recreating Shakespeare plays or...".

Whereas I thought it was so bad I almost put the book down.

So obviously either I'm seeing something they're not, or I'm just missing what Moore's trying to do, or something. That latter is perfectly plausible: speaking just for myself, Alan Moore is one of my favorite writers, and (I would say) one of the best writers ever to grace the medium of comics. I love his work -- which is why I preordered this book over a year ago.

What bothers me about the sequence?

It's not the visuals. Todd Klein, and whoever else had a hand in their creation, did a bang-up job. And while Kevin O'Neil's pictures are clearly out of place -- Shakespeare's folios didn't have those sorts of illustrations -- I'm willing to forgive them for the larger conceit of the volume (which is a collaboration between Moore and O'Neil).

No, it's the writing.

First of all, it's anachronistic.

...I hesitate to say this, since Alan Moore is the Great Bearded Wizard of Northampton, and I never took a Shakespeare class after high school. What do I know from Shakespeare's folios? And it's possible that I am either A) wrong or B) missing the subtle literary intent -- I haven't even finished reading the book yet! ... But I don't see it. Maybe someone can explain it to me.

It's clearest in the peripherals -- the stage directions and such. They're simply much fuller than any Shakespeare folio would have:
• Directions are given for the character's speech -- "aside", "to gatemen", etc. I don't think that early editions of Shakespeare included these -- oh, modern editors would put them in to clarify matters. But they weren't in the Folio. (Readers were just expected to get when a character was speaking to a particular person, or to themselves.) Maybe it's a crutch for modern readers.
• The same is true for the other occasional stage directions -- "produces paper", in particular.
• Every character enters either left or right. But I don't think that early Shakespeare editions ever indicated this. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong... but take a look for yourself. What's most damning about this is that I can't see that it's making either a subtle literary point, nor making things clear (as the above might be): it just seems anachronistic.
• The Dramatis Personae: I'm not sure that the early editions even had these. But even granting them that licence... the order is wrong. Every Shakespearean dramatis personae I've ever seen -- even in modern editions -- puts the royalty first, nobles second, others third (not according to the size of the role, as latter playwrights would do). It just seems wrong this way.
• Ending with "curtain" -- or for that matter "they sleep" -- did early Shakespeare editions ever use those phrases? In the annotations, Peter Svensson suggests this is meant to indicate a private, commissioned performance.

Again, maybe I'm wrong about some or all of this. But I remember quite clearly learning all this in high school -- it's not overly complex stuff.

Why does all this matter? Well, in another book it wouldn't. But they go to so much trouble to fake the look of a folio -- the fonts, the paper color, the spelling, etc. -- that it really jarred me.

I also strongly suspect some of Moore's word uses were anachronistic. If it weren't Thanksgiving tomorrow, I might pull down the OED and see if I was right. Or maybe I was overly suspicious because of the stage directions. But for me the spell was broken.

Then there's the quality of the writing.

Complaining that Moore isn't as good as Shakespeare is just daft -- no one is, after all -- although it must be said that Moore was really begging for the comparison here. But that isn't what bothered me. What bothered me is that it didn't even seem like a credible pastiche. It felt clunky; it felt telegraphed -- I can't quite imagine Shakespeare writing a line like "Your wit fair spins my head with all its play": he would have made it, well, wittier. To my ear the rhythms often sounded wrong -- one line in an otherwise iambic passage wouldn't scan, for instance. The language seemed far simpler than Shakespeare would use, at least for such an extended passage -- the sentences fit far too tightly in too few lines, there weren't the complexities of sentence structure and metaphor that I find when I read Shakespeare. (To say nothing of the lack of the obsolete language that's everywhere in Shakespeare... which is why modern readers need all those footnotes!).

The conversation between the Queen & the others felt clunky and forced -- as if we were supposed to be so impressed that it was in a Shakespearean mode that it needn't bother to be interesting: but for me the fact that it wasn't interesting spoilt the illusion of the Shakespearean mode. The annotations say that "“Master Shytte” and “Master Pysse” are very Shakespearean names," noting -- correctly -- that Shakespeare didn't shy away from the scatological: but they seemed like cruder jokes than Shakespeare would make, at least to my ear.

All of which is to say that it didn't read well. Not that it wasn't as good as Shakespeare, in the sense that Moore didn't write something that could go head-to-head with The Tempest: but in the sense that it didn't sound credibly like Shakespeare, even in his weaker moments. And what made it so frustrating for me is that I bet Moore could do better: he's such a good writer that I found myself thinking, "come on, Alan, try a little here!"

I'm sure some of my readers will think I'm nitpicking, or trying to be overly clever, or something. I don't mean to do either. Quite frankly my first, gut reaction to this passage was that it was so bad that it almost kept me from reading the rest of the book.

So far I haven't found anything else in the book that bothered me so much: but then, I haven't read Fanny Hill, the other major work which Moore pastiches in the part I've read so far.

So I have to ask: is this just me? Was anyone else bothered by any of this? Or was everyone else just so impressed by the color of the paper and Todd Klein's admittedly impressive work that they didn't care about the details?

I really wanted and expected to like this book. And the rest of what I've read so far has been fine -- not as good as Moore's best work, or even the first two volumes of the League, I think, (I find the amount of sex to be, frankly, tedious (Moore always has had a lot of sex in his work, but in, say, Swamp Thing #34, or Promethea #10, it was frankly done in a far more interesting way)). But the Shakespeare pastiche was the only thing yet that made me really cringe. And I'm curious as to why (or whether) I'm the outlier here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Polkinghorne, Perdue and Dawkins: Thoughts on the Confused Debate Over the New Atheism

The renewed religious debates continue apace: John Polkinghorne, in a sympathetic review of a new book critical of Dawkins's bestselling God Delusion (link via), writes:
...Dawkins makes no serious attempt to engage with the academic discussion of religious thought and practice. His book is “as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free from false modesty”. When it asserts that Jesus’ call to love our neighbour referred only to relations between Jews (despite this claim being in clear contradiction to the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan), the only support quoted for this highly questionable statement is a book written by an anaesthesiologist. Over the centuries, theologians have wrestled with how human language can attempt to speak about the nature of God, emphatically rejecting the idea that the deity is simply an invisible object among the other objects of the world. Yet, as Cornwell points out, the God in whom Dawkins disbelieves is a kind of “Great Science Professor in the Sky”, a simplistic notion that any thinking theist would be quick to reject.
There are several points to make here. First and foremost, Dawkins's error about Jesus and the love of neighbors is simply inexcusable; it is this sort of mistake that drives some of Dawkins's critics nuts (see, e.g., Andrew Rilstone). Accuracy is important; as a scientist, Dawkins knows this -- or should. (Polkinghorne himself is not free of this problem: witness his remarks in his article about evolution and altruism.)

But there is a larger point here, too, a common reply to the so-called New Atheists -- one that Sam Harris parodied here -- which is that they are taking on the silliest form of religion; if one is to debate with religion, these critics argue, one should debate with its most sophisticated form.

These debates follow a common pattern, so the New Atheist reply is predictable: theists are ignoring the enormous number of believers who routinely espouse (and the even larger number who silently believe) precisely these so-called "simplistic notion[s] that any thinking theist would be quick to reject". For example, the current governor of Georgia said last week:
Gov. Sonny Perdue wasn't the least bit discouraged Tuesday after his hourlong state Capitol prayer vigil for rain ended with the sun shining through what had been a somewhat cloudy morning.

"God can make it rain tomorrow, he can make it rain next week or next month," Perdue told reporters who asked him if a miracle was on the way.

More than 250 faithful Georgians joined Perdue outside the Capitol to ask for divine intervention to end the historic drought.

"We come here very reverently and respectfully to pray up a storm," Perdue told those in attendance....

The Rev. Gil Watson, pastor of Northside United Methodist Church, urged those in attendance to "pray believing we should have all brought umbrellas.
(Note that a pastor is among the simplistic theologians here -- it ain't just politicians. Link via this characteristically well-done take-down by Publius; read it if it's not instantly clear to you why these ideas are both harmful and ridiculous).

Obviously, as an atheist, I have a biased view here (although so does John Polkinghorne, author of the autobiography From Physicist to Priest). But it seems clear to me that the problem is one of confusion between two notions of God -- one complex, without evidence but also unrefuted (indeed, probably incapable of refutation); the other simple, silly and very widely believed).

Now, some atheists do deal with more complex notions of God -- although their books tend to be academic monographs rather than bestselling manifestos. (A good halfway point between these is Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell -- by far my personal favorite of (what I've read of) the recent spate of "New Atheist" books (and, probably not coincidentally, the one that has sold the least and gotten the least attention.)) But yeah, the simple and widely-believed views rather than the complex and obscure views of theologians tend to be what are critiqued.

But the new atheists tend to rather irkedly point out that if theists want their sophisticated views taken seriously, they need to themselves rebut the simplistic, widely-believed views: and not simply occasionally, in op-eds criticizing atheist books, but prominently and loudly.

Indeed, I think it's fair to say that until sophisticated and theologians begin attacking simplistic theistic ideas with, well, Dawkinsian levels of ridicule and scorn, then atheists will be fully justified in continuing to do so. And while there are exceptions, they are -- for the most part -- very rare, and least in popular discourse (I presume there are obscure academic examples: that's not what I'm talking about here).

This is where the parallel, often made by the proponents of sophisticated theology, between theological and, say, scientific views break down. Theists often say that it's as silly to judge theology on the opinions of simple folk just as it would be to judge (say) evolution on the opinions of simple folk and not of, say, biologists. But of course biologists routinely (and loudly) try to correct the views of the mistaken; theologians don't do the equivalent with the simple believers.

This is, I think, for two main reasons.

First is what Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, calls team spirit, or belief in belief: a lot of believers (maybe even most believers) belief in the value and importance of belief, a belief that is separable from their belief in God -- if any: as Dennett points out, many people believe in belief who (sometimes secretly) don't believe in God. Indeed, one plausible reading of the recent religious debates is that it is largely about the value of belief in belief as much as about belief in God.* Because of this belief, sophisticated theists are reluctant to do anything (or at least anything loud and sarcastic) which might harm or diminish people's beliefs -- even beliefs that they hold to be patently ridiculous (they sometimes attack beliefs that are actually directly malevolent, but those are a small subset of the ridiculous).

But there's another reason too -- one which Dennett also discusses, by the way -- which is that -- historically and textually if not intellectually -- sophisticated theism is grounded in simplistic theism. The Bible -- read for its surface meaning, what we Jews would call "pshat" -- clearly supports a theology that theologians would call ridiculous. But because they are committed, for a wide variety of reasons, to that text -- even those who don't think it was literally inspired -- they have to go into backflips to make the text try and say something more sophisticated. Now, I am on record as saying that I think those backflips to explain silliness (and contradictions) are part of what make theology -- contra Dawkins -- such an interesting and intellectually rich subject: unlike in mathematics, starting with a contradiction is a great way to get a conversational ball rolling.

But, at the same time, it means that the Polkinghornes of the world can't too blatantly scorn the Perdues. They are committed to the same text; they are committed to the same labels ("God" and its many synonyms), regardless of how many different intentional objects those labels point towards; they are committed, basically, to the sanctity of a tradition that began in anthropomorphic versions of God which clearly show Him as either impotent or malevolent, as acting crudely in the world, etc, etc. And so they have to be careful about those who speak most loudly the still-prominent modern version of their traditions' beginnings.

Thus it is left to the Dawkinses of the world to ridicule the Perdues. And this is unlikely to change any time soon. To the detriment of us all.

* And on this issue, Dennett departs significantly from those whose names are frequently linked with his as New Atheists: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and (if reviews (or even the title) are to be believed, as I haven't actually read his book) Christopher Hitchens. Harris, Dawkins and (reportedly) Hitchens spend a lot of time arguing, not that religious belief is false, but that it is harmful. Whereas Dennett's whole point in Breaking the Spell is that we simply don't know enough to say, broadly, whether or not religious belief is harmful. (My agreement with Dennett, against Harris et. al., on this point is (just one) of the reasons his book is my favorite of this group.)

Personally, while I agree with Dennett that more study would be good, I don't think it will ever settle the issue, since I think the question is fundamentally vague and ill-formed -- and I don't think it's the sort of question that can ever be well-formed. Which is why I personally would like to see a teaming up of atheists and sophisticated theists (or, not quite the same thing but close enough, what I've elsewhere called reality-based theists) against harmful theologies -- or (again, not synonymous terms) reality-defiant theists.

But, then, I'd also like world peace, a Nobel Prize, a second season of Firefly, and a pony. (Maybe not a pony.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Of Eddie Campbell, Useful Distinctions and Distracting Distinctions

Sigh. After many months of determinedly not engaging with Eddie Campbell about definitions of various terms circling (what I but not he would call) comics, I fear I am about to succumb once more. I don't like doing so, because a) I find Campbell a frustrating debater (who abandons the debate every time I feel I've pushed the issue home; see here and here, for example), and b) because I have so much respect for the man's work that I hate to piss him off on a topic he clearly cares deeply about. But what can I say? I'm a sucker for intellectual debate. So, once more into the wolf's mouth (as they say in Italian opera):

In a recent entry on his blog, Campbell wrote:
Anyone who HAS been reading with care will know that I have no interest in naming anybody's medium and I just stand on the sidelines and illuminate assorted moments of verbal befuddlement, just for the sport of it, and also I suppose in some vague hope that those who write nonsense will start to think more clearly.
I think this is disingenuous, however. Claiming to try to get people "to think more clearly" in an intellectually contested terrain is misleading, since rather than simple clarity, what Campbell is after is to convince people of certain things. To claim to merely be making sport of befuddlement, or to seek clarity, is to hide (perhaps from himself, I don't know) the fact that he is actually pushing a particular view of the cultural world -- one which a great many other people disagree with.

But it's a powerful pose, because it lets him retreat behind the "I'm just mocking" claims when pressed on his actual intellectual position.

Ok, putting that aside, what do I think (I might be wrong, of course, as anybody might be wrong about anything) that Campbell is trying to convince people of? I think the answer lies in an earlier sentence in the above-cited blog post:
I reject the notion that there is a great big shapeless field of activity that can all be gathered under the one name (here 'graphic fiction', a term I have never once used).
I submit that this is the key claim that Campbell is pushing in all of his various discussions of the definitions of various terms circling (what I but not he would call) comics. Campbell wants to draw distinctions -- to divide the sheep from the goats.

Campbell is frustrated about the blurring of lowbrow and highbrow culture (he uses these the former of these historically paired terms; I dislike them, but they'll do for now). His oft-repeated quip (which he quoted in the name of "my pal Evans"), "Did Ingmar Bergman have to justify Star Wars every time he sat down for an interview?", is an example of this. As is this related rant:
Bergman is great, Star Wars is fun. Neither needs to know about or explain the other. My beef: everywhere I go, why must I always have to represent the whole customary f*****g stereotype of comic books? It is tied to my ankles like clattering tin cans.
I think the fact that Campbell has made so many of what even he would call comic books, and that he has made many other pieces of art that others (but not he) would call comics, disguises the fact that he disagrees with people about fundamental issues -- namely, the aesthetic value of (what he but not I) would call lowbrow culture. For example, Neil Gaiman wrote on his blog that "suddenly I find myself turning into Eddie Campbell, and wanting to explain that Graphic Novel just means comics anyway, and Graphic Short Story actually means er, comics". But apart from the fact that Campbell rejects the word comics (in the McCloud-like if not strictly-according-to-McCloud sense that Gaiman uses it here), Gaiman is actually moving in the opposite direction from Campbell here: Gaiman is trying to blur the lines between high and low cultures, between serious literature and comic books, and get people to see them all as similar things -- i.e. why be pretentious and call it Graphic Fiction, when it's all simply comics? Whereas Campbell is explaining and explaining to try to make it clear that there is a vast gulf between what he takes seriously (which he refuses to name, but which I would call comics of serious artistic intent which lack certain genre elements) and what he doesn't -- comic books and comic book culture.

This is what makes Campbell so different from others (e.g. Douglas Wolk, or SF writer and (superb!) literary critic Samuel R. Delany, etc.) who contest the definition of various terms surrounding (what I but not Campbell would call) comics: Wolk and Delany disagree with the lowbrow/highbrow distinction, and see the incorporation of narrative art with both words and pictures (including, e.g., Maus and Campbell's own Alec books) into the realm of seriously considered art as part and parcel of the twentieth century's deconstruction of the lowbrow/highbrow (popular culture/high culture, etc.) distinction. I think Gaiman, too, is with Wolk and Delany on this -- he, too, has no patience for the high culture/low culture distinction. It's all comics to Gaiman, which means that it should all be read and evaluated on its own terms -- not subdivided into highbrow and lowbrow.

Campbell, however, insists on it. ("Bergman is great, Star Wars is fun.") Campbell wants it drawn strongly enough that his serious work -- his Alec books certainly, probably others of his work, although I don't know what he would and wouldn't include -- is sharply divided in the public discourse from his non-serious work -- his Batman comics certainly, perhaps others of his work, although again I don't know where he divides the lines. (A list would help. How about it, Eddie? You've said in the past that Graffiti Kitchen was a graphic novel, and Batman a comic book. I know you've abandoned the term "graphic novel" -- but how about expanding the list? Which of your works do you think of as merely fun, and which of them are (or aspire to be) great?)

What differentiates Campbell from anti-low-culture curmudgeons like Harold Bloom is that he wants to expand what's traditionally taken seriously to some degree -- enough to let in books which include pictures with their words, not only his own, but others that he likes too. Campbell is thus in a bind -- he wants to open the door of aesthetic respectability wide enough to admit some works, but narrowly enough to exclude others. (Of course, he might say that claiming the aesthetic seriousness of all of (what I but not he would call) comics simply disgraces the whole lot -- as seen in his annoyance at "the whole customary f*****g stereotype of comic books" being "tied to my ankles like clattering tin cans."

Let me add with the caveat I've put in nearly every time I've discussed this issue: I love Campbell's work. And Campbell and my taste, when discussing specific works, is probably not that different -- I found his list of worthwhile graphic novels (he was still using the term then) at the end of How to Be an Artist to be one of the most reliable guides to good reading that I've used. But I think his distinction between lowbrow and highbrow culture -- and his refusal of terms which deliberately blur it, such as "comics" and (now) "graphic novel" -- to be wrongheaded -- aesthetically, in terms of cultural politics, historically, and in every other way too.

And other people who argue this issue should realise: if you think that popular culture should be taken seriously, if you are against the ghettoiszation of culture into popular and elite forms, than Campbell is not on your side. The fact that he has made some first-rate popular culture shouldn't mislead people here.

One of the reasons that Campbell's stance is often misread is that it goes against the equalizing tenor of our culture. I remember having the greatest difficulty in explaining to high school students (when I was teaching them history, some years ago) how many of the revolutionaries in the English Civil War could be fighting to widen the franchise... but not want a universal one. Rather, they saw those people who would argue for a broader franchise as opponents to their cause... since (in their mind) proponents of an even broader franchise discredited the more limited expansion that they argued for. It's not a move that our contemporary culture understands easily -- but it's the move Campbell is making. He wants serious readers to take seriously books like Maus and his Alec books and others -- and he sees the means to this end not in the destruction of the highbrow/lowbrow cultural distinction (leaving a big stew, each item of which must be judged on its own), but in the redrawing the line in a different place.

Campbell is annoyed that people use Maus to justify Dark Knight Returns -- he rejects terms like "comics" and "graphic novels" precisely because they muddy that distinction. Of course, muddying that distinction is precisely what I (and many, many others) want to do.

I agree that there is good work and bad work; I just don't think the distinctions can be identified as whether or not something is associated with comic book culture or not. (Even superheroes: Watchmen is, to my mind inarguably, a great work -- all about superheroes.)

But Eddie Campbell doesn't want to be associated with the riffraff of comic book culture -- which, despite his participation in it, he really dislikes:
The issue is not about the words. You can have the words. It's about whom I have to be associated with. Thus, if 'graphic novel' now means exactly the same thing as American style comic books, then I don't come under either of these headings. It's like olympic boxing and pro wrestling. They kind of look the same, and there's nothing against being interested in both, but there's no way they can take place in the same ring at the same time. They are in opposition. So let those terms refer to the same thing, and that leaves another opposing thing over here that doesn't have a name. My pal White and I have taken to referring to it as 'that thing of ours' like they did on the Sopranos.

If 'comics' means 'sequential art', then that's not the medium I'm working in either. You can have the words, I don't want them. The medium I'm in is not restricted by McCloudianism and includes regular panel cartoons and EXcludes a lot of stuff that McCloud INcludes, like the Bayeux tapestry and William Hogarth. Including such things as these comes under the heading of 'The lowbrow colonisation of culture' and is despicable. I wouldn't want anybody to think I'd condone that.
But many people -- including me -- don't agree that to "let those terms refer to the same thing, and that leaves another opposing thing over here that doesn't have a name ": we see them as one thing. We are not, contra Campbell, confused about this: we are disagreeing about this.

(I find it ironic that Campbell rejects definitions as excluding things -- "usually about excluding something, throwing out the riffraff", as he just put it -- where it is he who is excluding, trying desperately to keep Bergman safe from Star Wars, Maus safe from Dark Knight: keeping the lowbrow riffraff out of serious illustrated books.)

In addition to disagreeing about Campbell about many other things, I think Campbell is simply wrong that one can include Maus in serious discussions (in general, not in any given instance) without blurring the lowbrow/highbrow distinction totally -- or if not Maus (which sometimes gets a special holocaust exemption), then the Alec stories, certainly. I think the elimination of the lowbrow/highbrow lines will not eliminate good taste, but will simply let us see good works (or, rather, argue clearly over which works are good and which are not), without being bothered by artificial class lines.

Incidentally, I think that Campbell (or his pal Evans, or whoever said it) is dead wrong in the implication of the question "Did Ingmar Bergman have to justify Star Wars every time he sat down for an interview?" -- not perhaps in specific (the timing of Star Wars and Bergman is probably wrong), but in its implication: high artists in film did have to justify film -- long considered a low-brow medium, and used to dismiss all film makers. This ended not when people defined Star Wars and Bergman films as essentially different things, but when film as a medium accumulated enough works of artistic power that people could no longer dismiss it (and when people who grew up with film became the majority in cultural discourse, too). That's when great filmmakers no longer had to apologize for their medium -- not by dismissing the lesser work as something different, but by getting film as such seen as a legitimate form, in which work of all qualities and natures existed.

Returning to where I began, Campbell wrote in his recent post the following comments on the term "graphic novel":
graphic novel: variously and confusingly used to indicate 1)all comic books, 2)a specific format of comic books, 3)indeed the physical object itself (as opposed to the work it contains), 4) what would in prose be a novel but illustrated as a comic, 5) a new form of pictorial literature. Since it is not much use for the purposes of communication, my feeling is that it's better to ditch the term altogether though of course it's much too late for that. However as an overview, I feel that posterity will come to see it as representative of a certain ambition to make something grand out of the elements of the strip cartoon. Its failure will be due to its inability to escape out of comic book culture.
But I think Campbell's wrong that the term "is not much use for the purposes of communication"; it's just that what it communicates (including the blurring of the highbrow/lowbrow culture lines) is not something that Campbell agrees with. (People who argue that "homophobia" is a bad term usually do so because they disagree with an assumption embedded in it, namely, that whether one is straight or gay is a morally neutral question.) But for those of us who take the highbrow/lowbrow blurring for granted -- and as a good thing, not a bad thing -- it is a very clear term: a graphic novel is a book-length work of comics.*

Nor do I see the term graphic novel as failing "due to its inability to escape out of comic book culture"; I think it's succeeding -- readers who would not previously read books with pictures are now reading graphic novels, reviews are discussing them as, well, just normal books, etc. Obviously there is a long way to go -- and a long way to go to overcome the presumption of non-seriousness that some people have about any narrative with both pictures and words (what I but not Campbell would call comics). But the term "graphic novel", the term "comics", and the blurring of the highbrow and lowbrow that these both assume, is helping, not hurting matters -- and, ultimately, leading more people to more good work, rather than the reverse.

Campbell and I would probably agree that promoting interesting, sophisticated works is a good thing. But I strongly disagree that we should see popular culture works -- comic books, to use his term -- and more highbrow works -- for which Campbell has no term, I believe -- as different things. They are one medium -- just as film is one medium, whether or not it's Star Wars or Igmar Bergman. Bergman may not have to justify Star Wars -- but he's clearly working in the same form, albeit to different ends.

If the goal is to talk clearly, then it's easy... as long as one doesn't try to radically distinguish in one's very vocabulary things-Campbell-takes-seriously and things-he-doesn't in the vocabulary one uses: comics is a perfectly clear term (Tom Spurgeon labels some items "not comics": it's clear what he means and what he doesn't.)

If the goal is to get serious works taken seriously, then trying to say that these picture-word combinations are something totally different from these... and Maus has nothing to do with Dark Knight... is also a totally wrongheaded move. The idea that a medium can do lots of different things is a common concept for people, which they assimilate quickly when a metaphor such as film is used. Whereas Campbell's efforts are in fact muddying not clarifying.

...I could keep going, I suspect, but I'll stop here. I hope my point has been made clearly (and accurately); if not, I hope responses will let me understand where I need to clarify.

(Housekeeping note: this long post notwithstanding, my current blog-slowdown will likely continue for the rest of November, and possibly even into December.)

* Well, there is some confusion, since "graphic novel" currently means any book-length work of comics, whether its fiction or non-fiction -- thus works that in prose form would not be called novels are still graphic novels (e.g. memoirs). Like the fact that "comics" don't have to be "comic", I think this is simply a separate meaning that we should simply use and accept as a new meaning arising out of etymologically-but-no-longer-semantically related terms.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reagan's Dogwhistle Racist Appeals: A Scorecard of the Recent Debate

1: Paul Krugman brings up the issue in his recent book. (Link to online discussion of the book.) (Update: Krugman also mentioned it, in passing, in a recent column. (via))

2: David Brooks defends Reagan in his column against this revived "slur", without mentioning Krugman by name (following NYT convention).

3: Krugman responds on his NYT blog (again, without mentioning Brooks by name).

4: Bob Herbert devotes his column to the topic, coming in on the side of Krugman and historical truth against whitewashing. (Yet again, no names are mentioned.)

4a: Matt Yglesias points out that this whole "no mentioning names" thing is really bloody ridiculous, and the NYT should just get over itself and let its columnists argue explicitly. Word.

5: Historian Joseph Crespino weighs in on the side of Herbert & Krugman (via). (Not writing for the pretentious NYT, but rather a web site, he mentions Brooks's by name.)

5a: Kevin Drum, one of the liberal whitewashers cited by name (since he isn't a NYT columnist, he's fair game, apparently) by Brooks in his column, calls it for the Krugman side.

5b: So does Matt Ygelsias, correcting his slight (and uncharacteristic) wimpiness in the above-linked post.

[Update: Publius has a worthwhile blog post on this entire debate.]

The question of the day: will David Brooks continue to try to defend the indefensible? Will he keep digging himself deeper in? Or will he drop the topic, and let the NYT's silly anonymity policy allow him to pretend that he hasn't been totally pwned by his colleagues as well as others? -- I'm voting for the latter.

(If anyone has any key links I've left out, please leave 'em in comments!)

...And the debate continues!

6: Lou Cannon, Reagan's biographer, defends him on the op-ed pages of the NYT on the grounds that Reagan "was not a bigot".

6a: Matt Yglesias has disdain for Cannon's arguments.

7: Krugman at last devotes an actual, honest-to-God NYT column to the topic. It's good. Astonishingly, Krugman actually mentions Bob Herbert by name... but in a complementary way, so maybe it's okay. (And David Brooks -- who at this point should start wearing a bag over his head in public -- goes unnamed.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Word of the Day

Quoth Fred Clarke: "Acts 8:26-39. This is the story of the apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Now to a liberal backslider such as myself, this passage is another example of the anvilicious motif of inclusion that dominates the first half of Luke's account."

"Anvilicious". Hmm. Not in my mac dictionary. Fortunately, Google knows all.* From the site "Television tropes":
A portmanteau of anvil and either delicious or malicious, depending on the usage, anvilicious describes a writer's and/or director's use of an artistic element, be it line of dialog, visual motif, or plot point, to so obviously convey a particular message that the viewer feels as if he is being hit on the head with an anvil. Frequently, the element becomes anvilicious through unnecessary repetition, but true masters can achieve anviliciousness with a single stroke. Heavy-handed for the new millennium.... If the work of art goes beyond anvilicious into hectoring lectures, then it has become an Author Filibuster.
Got it! Use it in a sentence to be sure: "Bush long since reached an an anvilicious level of evil."

Cool word. Thanks, Fred!

(Click through to TV motifts to read a list of examples, and for links to other amusing TV terms with applicability to real life; click through to Fred's site for a characteristically good slacktivist post.)

* Including, unfortunately, the speculative, the possible but not actual, and the outright false.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I Geek-Surf So You Don't Have To

Members of the Writer's Guild of America (which covers TV & movies) are out on strike. This is a link round-up.

WGA members on the strike:

Joss Whedon
Brian K. Vaughan (via)
Jane Espenson (via, who also a link to Obama & Edwards's comments)
J. Michael Straczynski (follow-up here; he also opines that "In order to have any real impact, the strike will have to be at least as long as the '88 strike, which lasted six months")
John Rogers, aka Kung Fu Monkey, who also has links to a lot more (plus a brief note -- but with bonus Coultony goodness! -- here)

(I haven't seen any specific comments from them, but the strike is also supported by David Simon, creator of The Wire, Ronald Moore, creator of the revamped Battlestar Galactica, and a great many other TV writers/producers too... almost everyone whose work I enjoy in TV (and the rest I probably just haven't seen yet, to be honest.))

Other WGA strike blogging:

Nathan Newman, always good on labor issues, adds a bit of historical context
• (Update) ...and, as usual, what Digby said.

I'll add more links if and when I see 'em...

Update: Again via Atrios (who's been blogging this a lot), this is a blog focusing on the strike. Lots of interesting stuff there.

Another Update, with more Whedon-y Goodness: Joss Whedon has been blogging the strike over at Whedonesque; aside from the above-linked comment, here are his posts on the topic: one, two three. ("I can’t let this shoddy journalism go unanswered. They have turned me into a blogger. And that I do not forgive.") The first one is the one to read if you read only one.

And just for kicks, here are photos of the Mutant Enemy writers on strike.

(PS: I think that this link should get you to a Whedonesque page with just Joss posts on it -- including, presumably, any future posts he does on the strike.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Link Round-Up: Popular Culture Edition

Another link round-up, this time more or less all about popular culture (as usual, this was serendipitous, not planned). Things to read or watch or look at:

Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Album covers of all time.

The New Yorker's profile of David Simon, the creator of The Wire (possibly the best TV show ever).

The twelve devices Charles Schultz considered essential for Peanuts' success. (via)

• Somewhat off-topic (or is an internet joke popular culture? I can't keep track): An open letter (via).

• Geek humor: Frank Miller meets Adam West. (Also: Pink Batman.)

The Star Trek captain that wasn't: clips of Genevieve Bujold, the actor who was hired to play Voyager's captain Janeway, in a few of the scenes she did for the role before being replaced with Kate Mulgrew.

Joss Whedon's doing a new TV show, with Elisha Dushku... except that he just went out on strike. Drat. (Links to more here. Oh, and the show already has a fan site. Dang.)

Abigail Nussbaum has links to the twelve minute "pilot" for the unmade Veronica Mars season four (part two). Despite the unevenness of seasons two and three (in contrast to the utter brilliance of season one) -- and despite some serious misgivings about the premise of the proposed season four -- I'd definitely have watched it. Too bad they didn't make it.

(Update: links added.)

(Housekeeping note: As previously noted, I'm in the midst of a blog-slowdown, so original content (as opposed to links such as these, and even to some extent those) will be light until mid-November at least. Check back then for more substantial Attempts...)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

New York Readers: Contact Schumer!

Any of my readers from New York (state) should contact Senator Schumer and demand that he vote against Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey in the Judiciary Committee (on which he sits). Mukasey has refused to say that waterboarding -- a standard method of torture from the Inquisition through Khmer Rouge through, horrifyingly, Bush's America -- is torture.

Mukasey's nomination is now before the Judiciary committee; if it doesn't get out of committee, odds are he won't be confirmed. And Schumer is a key vote -- and is refusing to say how he'll vote: his mind is not made up.

The descent of the U.S. to its open embrace of torture is one of the (many) things vying for the most horrifying acts of the Bush Administration*; and our senator, who happens to be in a key post, is on the fence about it. Tell him to vote no.

Update: ...and Schumer comes out in favor of Michael Waterboardin' Mukasey. Nuts.
* Well, after invading Iraq: that's pretty safely at number one, unless he invades Iran.