Thursday, July 24, 2008

Public Service Announcement

If ever I utter an oath again may my soul be blasted to eternal damnation

In our culture, the strongest swearwords are those with a sexual reference; but words which refer to God and the Devil remain mildly taboo. At any rate, we retain a folk memory of the time when they were taboo.

Superstitious people feel that it is bad luck to use the names of God and Satan frivolously; and nice people think that it's bad manners to do so. So people swear using euphemisms. May God Strike Me Blind is clearly a very offensive thing to say, but Gor-Blimey! is okay; By Our Lady is disrespectful but Bloody isn't. And which of us hasn't said zounds and sblood from time to time?

Even if these examples are apocryphal, it's hard to think that expressions like jeez! jeepers! jeepers creepers! and gee whiz! (assuming anyone ever really said anything so silly) aren't euphemisms for or corruptions of Jesus! or Jesus Christ! It works with the other kind of swearword, too. Civilization would obviously collapse if anyone printed or pronounced the word shit but we are all agreed that shite is perfectly harmless.

Dealing with swearing in stories intended for children is always a bit of a problem. Characters in Grange Hill used to say flippin' heck but we all knew what they meant. J.K Rowling has people say things like Merlin's Underpants!, which corresponds to no sort of expletive that any human being has ever used. Characters in the Beano used to say Crikey! and Crumbs! both of which are presumably divine euphemisms. Great Uncle Bulgaria used to tell young wombles off for saying lummee! although he used it himself when severely provoked. It's obviously very rude indeed, because I have no idea what it means.

American comics sometimes allowed British characters to say bloody -- the Comics Code Authority being, one assumes, unaware of what a relatively rude word the English regard it as. I just came across a 1959 Superman story in which an allegedly English villain says "You haven't got the blimey point!" which is so wrong it's inspired. But native characters didn't get to say anything so filthy. Billy Batson would say Holy Moley! and Batman's special friend Robin would use expressions like Holy Mackerel! (Jimmy Olsen says Super Duper! which makes sense, since Superman is clearly his God.)

You may, if you like, argue that "moley" is a magic herb in Greek mythology, and that mackerel was the fish used by Jesus at the feeding of 5,000 (or the thing that you should eat during Lent) but one assumes that both expressions are really euphemisms for Holy Mary!

This highly stylized form of swearing was one of many aspects of the Batman comic that were affectionately lampooned in the 1966-68 TV series. Robin in particular is given the habit of creating ad hoc swearwords by attaching the word "Holy" to some innocuous noun. "We are going to have to travel to Africa, Robin!", "Holy Travel Agent Batman!"

It seemed funny at the time. Well, actually, no it didn't.

It would be interesting to know when the last time "Holy Mackerel!" was used non-ironically in a comic-book, or, indeed, anywhere else. The Comics Code is long dead and while you probably don't get that many four-letter-words in superhero comics, Frank Miller's current version of Batman swears so much that fans have taken to referring to him as "The God Damn Batman."

So, for frick's sake, guys. I realise that the arrest of an actor after a family fight is far more important than the arrest of Radovan Karadzic. But after 40 years, five movies, and a graphic novel that even the mainstream press thought was quite good, surely you don't have to introduce every freaking item about Christian bally Bale with phrases like "Holy Arrest Warrant Batman!"

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

One of These Things Is Not Like The Other One

Superman, as originally conceived, as a force for the common man, as an answer to the mindless tyranny with which his name (as a term) had come to be identified, as a foe of corruption and injustice, as the embodiment of FDR-style liberalism and the epitome of the notion that one individual can, should and must, of necessity, make a difference; in all this Superman ... Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman... the only true Superman... stands as a beacon of freedom shining as brightly for an adult who holds the ideals of the character sacred as he does for a child seeing him and learning them for the first time. As a symbol of the nearly limitless power of imagination, he has inspired creators for five decades to take up pen and brush in pursuit of excellence, to weave our tapestry once more. To aspire; that one day we might know a tenth... a hundredth of the greatness implied in knowing you are Jerry Siegel. You are Joe Shuster. You are the creators of Superman. And that no monumental and tragic injustice can strip you of that mantle. As comic book creators, this is our greatest heritage...and our greatest debt.

Dave Sim (1988)



Past the age of ten, I realized that the
comic book medium was my thing. Superman was just something I read as a kid. As I said to Chester Brown, I have a bunch of my old Superman comic books. It's pleasurable to flip through them once in a while. But, Chet, if I ever read the stuff and say, "This is so good!" Please. Shoot me. For Wendy [Pini], it was her friends. The Fantastic Four were her friends. The Silver Surfer was her friend. Batman wasn't her friend. The way she connects with wolves. In her mind, she has more in common with wolves that she has with Richard. The more influence women are given in society the more pecular stuff like that gets moved to the center and the weirder everything starts to get.

Dave Sim (2004)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

NOTE:

If everyone buys two copies of "Sci-Fi Now" and writes to the editor and tells him that you bought it solely to read my piece on Doctor Who monsters, then I might get some more work.

Yes, I do know the difference between a Silurian and a Slitheen.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Born: November 23rd, 1963 
Died: July 5th, 2008, after a long sickness.

Friday, June 27, 2008

FIVE

I asked Jonathan what he thought of Glamourpuss. He told me:


"I fell asleep reading it.


"Not because it's boring. It isn't boring. But it is like reading a technical manual. It's got that much detail in it. The words don't make much sense to me because I don't have much understanding of the material. I've got no interest in Rip Kirby. I'd never heard of it before. I've got no interest in the fashion industry. I would find it easier to read a computer manual.


"He's taken the device that this is an origin story for Glamourpuss, except Glamourpuss isn't really a character. At the same time he's saying that he wants to work out how Alex Raymond created comic books out of photos, because he was the best at it. So it's kind of a study on that particular kind of comic. And none of those are things which interest me.


"His writing is as good as ever. I got the feeling that he's just repeating gags that he's used before, but it did make me laugh. Evil Dave Sim realising that this was actually working and that he could perhaps use this -- with a lovely little caricature of himself presumably taken from a photo. I thought that was just very well done.


"He seems to be deliberately playing up to and teasing his critics. He's chosen the fashion industry knowing that people will jump to conclusions, because he's a famous misogynist. But lots of the digs at the industry are very funny. There are some nice jokes. "Top 5 signs you've already found Mr. Right" is one of his standard jokes. You just reverse something and make it funny. Of course once you get to the 5 signs they're all absolutely wrong... Which is an old Viz joke. The scenes with Glamourpuss are a bit funny. But they're not his best stuff; not the 'early funny issues.'


"Since he's taking pictures from fashion magazines and using those as illustrations, they don't connect at all. He's got very good drawings -- translations from photos -- but they are a stream of photos of models wearing designer clothes to which he's trying to add a thought bubble which fits. There isn't a narrative.


"It reminded me most of Alan Moore's "Magic Cards" which is basically a collection of poems, or plotless prose with very good illustrations -- basically a stream of consciousness. You come to the end and think "I have no idea what he was going on about." I could read the words; I could see what was happening in the pictures; but nothing happened in the story. He'd adopted a style to write it with, but it wasn't a character. I think the same is true of this.


"There are some lovely bits where he is quoting a particular piece of fashion -- dresses or gloves or handbags or shoes -- which sounds very authentic. I don't know whether he's actually gone and learned who the designers are and what goes with what or whether he's simply copied it all out of the fashion magazines.


"That's quite amusing: that Dave Sim is writing about fashion, apparently very knowledgeably. I assume he actually sat down, read about fashion, and found out about it. Because he's mad. I'm sorry, I mean committed."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

FOUR

Judenhass is a 40 page comic book, with stiff card covers and shiny pages, with a few pages of text notes at the back. As everyone knows, it deals with the holocaust, or, as Dave Sim prefers to say, the shoah. According to the theory of the Unity of the Literary Virtues, I ought to say that Glamourpuss, being sexist, is Bad, whereas as Judenhass, which sets out to remind us that the holocaust was horrible, is Good. In fact, while I found Glamourpuss interesting-but-bonkers, I felt that Judenhass failed to cast what little it had to say into any particularly interesting artistic form.


Pages 1 - 7 depict six shots of the gates to Auschwitz: in the first frame it's in the middle distance, and it gradually gets closer and closer. Clearly, the point of view is that of a victim in a train to the camp. There is no dramatic narrative: the text consists of Lucid-Dave, (in his own voice) telling us why we still need to think about the holocaust -- especially if we are comic book readers, since the founding fathers of the American comic were, to a man, Jewish. The final panel of page 5 states that people often talk as if the shoah was inexplicable and unique to Nazi Germany, "Whereas I believe that the historical record of non-Jewish culture and its tolerance for and embracing of Jew hatred shows, instead that the shoah was very much..." We turn the page an are confronted by a 2 page spread of the gate to the concentration camp, accompanied by the single word "inevitable."


This may be a little mannered and obvious; but it's definitely making use of the comic book form to progress an argument. The big (and not at all small or cramped) panel gives an interesting rhetorical emphasis to the little word in the caption.


Unfortunately, this is the last page of comics in the whole pamphlet. Oh, the rest of the book is laid out like a comic, but there's no sequence and certainly no narrative. We are simply showed a series of pictures of holocaust victims. Pages 12 and 13 each consist of 9 panels. The first is an extreme close up of someone's eye and each subsequent panel "pulls back" until we are looking at a body on a pile of victims. (Because no context is provided, it isn't always easy to tell if we are looking at live people or corpses, which may be the point.) This sequence of panels doesn't have any particular point of view: it represents, if anything, a camera zooming in and out of the scene.


Page 33 and 34 consist of 2 large pictures of horribly emaciated children, and around 24 small close-ups of their faces. A photo realistic picture of Hitler, making the familiar Nazi salute is superimposed across the spread, along with three panels of text about Hitler's anti-Semitism and Europe's reluctance to accept Jewish refugees. So far as I can see, there is no sequential way of reading the comic book panels – the image of Hitler and the text completely disrupt any sequence. The comic book grid is simply one element of a montage: a well constructed and striking montage, but just a montage.


If Dave Sim chooses to spend his retirement sitting at a light box trying to work out how to translate satin gloves or leather shoes into pen and ink, that's his business But the idea of Dave Sim taking documentary images of dead Jews and trying to translate them into photorealistic pen and ink drawings... and then, presumably, scanning or photocopying the result and assembling a collage which repeats the same picture 20 or 30 times....strikes me as, if anything, a little distasteful.


Do the pen and ink drawings say anything that the actual news pictures would not have done? And do we in fact need to see the images to understand what the holocaust was? The book doesn't tell us about the scale of the genocide, or the cold-blooded industrial way it was carried out. It just shows us that people were treated appallingly and some of them were killed. But, surely, we knew that already? There might be some purpose in showing someone who agrees with meat eating, abortion, or capital punishment pictures of an abattoir, an aborted foetus, or an execution: It might be that they thought it was possible to switch a cow, a foetus, or a murderer off like a light, and need to be told how horrible the procedure actually is. (Mad-Dave would say that this was an appeal to emotions, and therefore invalid.) But is anyone in a similar state of ignorance or denial about the holocaust? There are a small number of nut-jobs who already know that no such event ever took place. I don't know why they would be impressed by pen and ink renderings of what they believe to be faked photographs. Everyone else already uses "holocaust" as a synonym for "human evil".


Throughout the comic, images of famous and in some cases reputable historical figures are juxtaposed with the death porn, along with captions quoting anti-Jewish remarks that they made. Sim's notes show that his research on this has been characteristically thorough: he has taken care to verify that everyone really said the things he attributes to them, and that they really meant what it sounds as if they mean. He says he rejected a widely circulated quote from George Washington, because it referred to war profiteers rather than Jews; he gives Aquinas the benefit of the doubt, assuming that a passage about usurers is a condemnation of people who charge excessive interest, not of Jews in general. He quotes famously inflammatory remarks made by Martin Luther, but notes in that nearly all modern Lutherans have repudiated this aspect of their leader's theology. If only everybody was this careful about their use of the internet.


Other than "the holocaust happened", does the book have anything to say? Sim rejects the term "anti-Semitism" -- after all, Arabs are "Semites" too --- and says that the Holocaust was the result of Judenhass -- Jew-Hatred. And he prefers the Hebrew word shoah (calamity) to the Greek holocaust (sacrifice by fire) adding:


"The shoah was done to Jews -- and yes, to others as well. But the fact that "to others as well " has become a universal interjection when the subject of the holocaust comes up it seems to me, points to a central and malignant evasion on the part of non-Jews."


Evasion? If you define "shoah" as "the massacre of Jews in Nazi Germany" then it is trivially true that only Jews were victims of the "shoah" I do not see why it is "evasive" to say that between three and five million non-Jews were also killed. And I don't buy his central claim that there is a specific thing called "Jew-Hatred" that made the concentration camps inevitable, any more than I believe that Diocletian, Stalin and Richard Dawkins are all infected with a single thing called Christian-Hatred. I think that at times of plague, war and economic recession, stupid people will look for someone to blame, and will generally pick on a small, easily identifiable group that looks or acts differently.(British Jobs For British Workers, and all that.) I think that similar fibs are always told about the target group. Romans said that Christians were cannibals; Christians said Gnostics ate babies; Gentiles have often said that Jews steal Christian babies to use in their sacrifices. Nick Griffin says that the Koran requires Muslims to molest white children; Richard Dawkins thinks that raising children Catholic is the moral equivalent of etc etc etc etc.) I think that saying that "the holocaust was caused by Jew-hatred" is like saying "Crime is caused by criminals". It tells you nothing; it gives you an excuse not to even attempt to understand the specifics of why it happened when it happened where it happened.


I wonder whether Sim's essentialist belief in one specific thing called Jew-Hatred is related to his increasingly shrill insistence that although he thinks that women should not be allowed to have jobs, should not be allowed to vote, and should be spanked when they disobey their husbands he does not in any sense suffer from Woman-Hatred?


As ever, some of the strangest stuff comes in the text epilogue.


Unfortunately in this age of diminishing attention spans it seems to me that there is also a need for distillations of the facts that allow even the slowest reader and the most reluctant teacher to comprehend and convey some measure of the enormity of the Shoah and the profound level of enmity against Jews which made it possible. I hope that Judenhass with roughly a 25 minute reading span will serve that purpose. It is to be hoped that 25 minutes could be found to teach high school students on the subject..and the on-going significance...of the holocaust."


Even when he means well, Dave still exists in his own parallel little universe.


I don't know anything about Canada, but I find it spectacularly unlikely that any child in the UK could get through school without knowing what the holocaust was. You can't avoid Anne Frank's Diary, for one thing. Don't some schools pay attention to something called "Holocaust Day"? There is a widely disseminated complaint that English History has been reduced to "Henry and Hitler": a curriculum that concentrates on the Second World War (and the Tudor dynasty) to the exclusion of everything else. We English can't resist mentioning the War because we single handedly won it without any help from anyone else. But maybe things are different in Canada.


It's an intriguing picture. The teacher, who is apparently reluctant to teach the children, possibly because he himself is an evasive non-Jew who thinks that the holocaust was done to other people as well as the Jews. The little emotion based beings, totally out of control since we stopped beating them, with no idea that such a terrible event ever happened. One morning they come to school. They sing a hymn or swear allegiance to a maple leaf or whatever happens over there. Teacher goes to the cupboard and hands out 30 copies of Judenhass, presumably neatly covered in brown paper and paid for by the Canadian government. The little emotion based beings put their heads down and start to read. The silence is broken only by the occasional question. ("Please Miss, who was Stan Lee?") Twenty five minutes later, the books are put back in the cupboard, and the children never hear another word about Hitler until they leave school.


I am not sure whether, during those 25 minutes, they will actually have learned very much.




Cerebus: How many of these off-limits cattle do you suppose your people mutilated and burned trying to please the living thing, the big light and the big fire in the middle of the earth?


Konigsberg: Once again, I decline to answer on the basis of feeling even more nauseous than I did a few minutes ago. [thinks] Millions, probably


Cerebus: There's the sad part. Someday, Yoohwhoo is going to demand that that "debt" be paid. And... millions, you said? Millions of your people are going to... um. [Long pause] [Clears throat] [Another long pause]

Cerebus the Aardvark, "Latter Days"


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Three

-- Do you think that we'd be as interested in these paintings if they weren't by Bob Dylan?

-- No, but they are by Bob Dylan, so let's move on.

News night Review, BBC2 13th June.


Glamourpuss is a 28 page comic book -- 19 pages of comics, 7 pages of text + covers.


It is packaged as a parody of a woman's fashion/lifestyle magazine. It is, it goes without saying, spectacularly well-drawn. In places, it is very funny. Almost everyone who has seen my copy has at least smiled at the strap-line: "The high fashion comic book that's SO six months ago"


Six pages of the comic depict the internal monologue of an airheaded fashion model named "Glamourpuss." Reading about Chinese culture, she exclaims: "These people make foot binding seem like a...a...bad thing. Don't they realise that an L.B.D by Vera Wang just looks wrong with size four booties?" Exegetes may take the view that, since it depicts a woman who is a self-obsessed idiot, "the comic" "says" that "women" are self-obsessed idiots. I found it quite amusing.


Many people have spotted that as Cerebus progressed, it became less and less about Cerebus and more and more about Dave Sim. It has also been noted that as the comic got more and more Simcentric, the art got better and better. Glamourpuss. is not about Glamourpuss. Nor is it, except incidentally, about fashion. It is about Dave Sim, and about drawing. It is about Dave Sim drawing. It is about Dave Sim drawing Glamourpuss.


Dave says that the title of the issue -- "The Top Secret Origin of Glamourpuss."("WHO she is! HOW she came to be! WHERE she gets all those great clothes") is a slightly cynical in-joke: "In comic book stores, if you have a No.1 and a "origin of..." story, no matter how pointless, it's going to boost your sales." But it is actually a pretty good description of the comic. The comic is about how Dave came up with the idea for the comic; and about the techniques he used to produce it.


Pages 1 - 5 are a series of pictures of a pretty girl in various outfits, overlaid with captions in which Dave speaks in his own voice. (The voice is that of Lucid-Dave, not Mad-Dave: the voice of the funny editorials, not that of the ranting essays.) Lucid-Dave says that when people asked him what he was going to work on after Cerebus, he always replied "photo-realistic pictures of cute teenage girls". This was, in fact, what he was drawing, but he had no way of coming up with a story to go with the pictures. (Exegetes may wish to spend some time wondering whether the comic "says" that it's ok for middle aged men to look at pictures of teenagers, and whether "cute" is a sexist word to apply to members of the opposite gender. The models in Glamourpuss. are all well over the age of consent.)


On pages 6-9 there are more fashion pictures, and copies of comic-strips by Alex Raymond, who he believes to be the past-master of the photo-realistic style. He comments in great detail about the techniques that Raymond used. I must admit that I had rather assumed that "photo realistic" drawing wasn't real art: it's simply a matter of tracing a photograph, isn't it? Sim explains that it's actually all about translation -- finding the exact kind of brush stroke that will represent a texture in pen-and-ink. And indeed, every one of the "traced" images in the book are instantly identifiable as "Dave Sim" pictures.


Sim uses Raymond's Rip Kirby as an example: a comic which I confess I've never seen. I enjoyed Raymond's Flash Gordon for the strange architecture and the inventive story-telling: although I can see that the realistic human figures are very pretty indeed, particularly in the Ice Kingdom segment. Sim uses pages from fashion magazines to experiment with photo-realistic work simply because they provide a ready source of reference material – and also, presumably, because the clothes themselves present an interesting artistic challenge.


On pages 10 - 15, he "demonstrates" that it isn't possible to turn this material into a comic because -- obviously -- a series of pictures of different models in different poses don't make up a narrative sequence. So he presents a series of montages of Glamourpuss. and her meandering thoughts about life and clothes – the last of which is interrupted by Lucid-Dave saying "This is actually pretty good! This could work!"


The remainder of the comic consists of more close readings of Rip Kirby, concentrating in particular on Alex Raymond's use of heavy black shading, breaking off on page 19 with a "Sorry, I seem to have run out of pages this time around."


The package is rounded out with text pages which are parodies (parodies) of women's magazine features, such as Glamourpuss's "five signs that you've found Mr. Right" which are, of course, five signs that the man you are dating is completely unsuitable for you. ("He stands you up and doesn't call to apologize....Horrified? Relax. He's just playing head games with you because he's finally realized how deeply and passionately and inextricably in love with you he is...") Exegetes may have a problem with this section, since it seems to "say" that men are selfish louses, but that women aren't clever enough to spot this -- which suggests a sexual politics which is slightly (slightly) more complicated than the single word "misogyny" might suggest.


I dunno. If you asked me "what does Dave Sim do well" I'd come up with a list along the lines of:


a: caricature

b: body language

c: voice -- using balloons and lettering to tell you what his characters sound like

d: Panel composition

e: Dialogue -- even the barking mad Torah commentaries were intermittently very funny

f: Farce

g: Big, overarching plots

h: Complicated political machinations


Glamourpuss. seems explicitly created to leave all of this out.


Not that one can't still see Dave's skill. Page 14 is a single image of Glamourpuss. against a white background. The captions are printed directly on the background, but the whole page is enclosed by a heavy black box. It is almost ostentatiously "not a comic." This is in contrast to page 15, which is a montage of three images against a realistic background. A small picture of Glamourpuss. is juxtaposed with a large picture of Gandhi (because she is thinking about him).This time, the page itself has no border, but Glamoupuss's thoughts are printed in boxes like conventional comic-book captions. I think that this draws us into a more sequential, less novel-like way of reading. At the bottom of the page, there is a small, inset frame containing a caricature of Dave Sim himself. The inset frame is black, were the rest of the page is on a white background; which makes the point that two different kinds of narrative, the fictional and the autobiographical, are being placed alongside each other. (We have Dave, who is creating Glamourpuss, Glamourpuss herself, and Gandhi, who Glamourpuss. is thinking about, all represented on one page, but in slightly different ways.) Sim's thoughts are in slanted text boxes to represent their "madness" and intrusiveness. The small "GP" insignia at the bottom right of the page indicates that this section of the story is "over", and we are returning to something which will at least look like a conventional comic. This represents an effortless, fluency in the sheer language of comic-books; a creator who is entirely at ease with the form; unselfconscious innovation.


Some critics objected to Cerebus on the grounds that a long work which includes both passages of comic strip and passages of prose is not kosher. I don't know whether Glamourpuss will similarly be accused of mixing milk with meat. The sections where Glamourpuss is thinking out loud are quite wordy and say "She thought" and "She said" instead of using speech bubbles and think bubbles. But the text looks like standard comic-book lettering. Perhaps we only feel that "prose" has intruded into our funny book if it is printed in Times Roman?


Glamourpuss reminds me of nothing so much as one of Harvey Pekar's less inspired days: when he spends three pages telling you that he got up, went to the toilet, bought some eggs, and couldn't think of anything to write a comic about. Of course, the whole point of American Splendour is that it's trying to transmute ordinary domestic life into art. I don't know whether the latest meanderings from Planet Dave are going to seem as interesting in the long term.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Two

Rich Puchalasky wrote:


"Some day someone will be able to explain to me how a long-running parody strip, full of tired misogynist cliches from day one, drawn in cramped little panels, makes someone an enfant terrible whose crazy missives have to be head-banged over."


Dear Rich:


I take it that, in your universe, "long-running-parody-strip-drawn-in-cramped-panels" translates as "not especially good comic-book", so your question comes out "Since Cerebus was not an especially good comic book; your should not pay attention to Dave Sim's letters."


Presumably, in your universe, the converse holds true: "If Cerebus were an especially good comic book, then perhaps you should pay attention to Dave Sim's letters." Since I do regard Cerebus as an especially good comic, it should be clear why I pay attention to Sim's letters, at any rate when someone takes the trouble to point one out to me.


You state that "Cerebus is a long running parody strip." I take it that you do not mean "If Cerebus had only run for a short time, Sim's letters would be worth paying attention to." You must be saying "Cerebus is a parody strip whose only virtue is that it ran for a long time."


This contains two assumptions:


1: Cerebus is a parody strip.


2: A parody can't have a great deal of virtue.


Point 2 can be easily disposed of. Wasn't Hamlet a parody of the Revenger's Tragedy? Isn't Northanger Abbey a parody of a the Mystery of Odolpho? Weren't Tom Jones, Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso originally parodies of works which only scholars could now tell you names of? But we don't really need to bother with this, because Point 1 is manifestly absurd.


The first issues of Cerebus the Aadvark is modelled very closely on Barry Smith's art style. If this amounts to parody, then we would have to say that the whole of the American comic book industry since 1960 has been a parody of Jack Kirby (and therefore that there are no significant comics at all.) Of course, Cerebus contains elements of parody: very funny and clever parody, the kind of parody that other people steal and turn into reasonably successful comic books and cartoon series of their own. The Cockroach is a very funny and clever parody of the 1980s incarnation of Therbatman. The Tick, not so much.


I have in front of me a copy of Swords of Cerebus vol 6, which includes the last 3 issues of the "early, funny" issues of Cerebus the Aardvark. In issue 22, Cerebus, injured in the foot ("The Earth Pig mutters grimly about civilians who wear chain mail under their clothes") takes refuge in a deserted house. It turns out that this is a girls' boarding school, run by the mysterious Madame Dupont who agrees to take care of him until he has recovered. Cerebus expects to protect the girls against militia who are active in the area, but in fact, the girls are more than able to defend themselves. The title of the piece is "The Beguiling", acknowledging the debt to Clint Eastwood 's move The Beguiled, in which a Civil War soldier similarly takes refuge in a girls' school.


Certain scenes in the comic gain an added significance if you are familiar with the filum: on page 3 Dupont makes a veiled threat, saying that she will not charge Cerebus extra rent if she has to amputate his limb. In the movie, one of Clint Eastwood's legs is indeed removed. However, it is hard to see that this story is a "parody" of the movie. Only the basic situations are similar.


On page 15 of issue # 23, it transpires that Madame Dupont is, in fact, the alias for a male alchemist named "Professor Charles X Claremont". Claremont requires the schoolgirls as a focus for a magic spell to resurrect "the apocalypse beast." Anyone who has ever read a comic book will instantly know that Charles Xavier is the leader of the X-Men and that Chris Claremont was the long running writer of that comic. Prof. X's team of teenage superheroes is also based in a private school. But anyone who has NOT read a comic book would miss very little of what's going on in the rest of the story. Some of Claremont's speech mannerisms, and some of the poses he is drawn in, are a little like those of Prof. X; and, his physical appearance (bald, aquiline features) are indeed a caricature of the Marvel hero.


At the end of the episode it turns out that the Apocalypse Beast is a female, because Claremont has used girls, rather than boys, as a focus for his spell. He calls the beast "Woman-Thing." This is indeed only funny if you've heard of the Marvel character "Man Thing", and if you know that Chris Claremont had a policy of writing against gender stereotypes. In the the following issue, it transpires that a wizard named Sump has also created a monster, named "Sump Thing". Again, comic book readers will instantly spot that this is a reference to DC's "Swamp Thing." Again, I am not sure how relevant this is to the rest of the comic, which is mainly concerned with a ludicrous artist who paints topless women but claims that their breasts represent "the conflict between short term profit gouging and nest-egg mercantile capitalism."


These issues certainly have a lot of intertextual references: to Clint Eastwood, The X-Men, Swamp Thing, Man Thing, possibly to Frank Frazetta. But the humour comes mainly from the social comedy of Cerebus' interaction with the schoolgirls, and the very broad farce of the two monsters having noisy, messy sex. Is this parody? Among other things. Is this only parody? Certainly not. And in the next episode, we embark on "High Society" which is a compelling political novel set in a believable (if absurd) imaginary world. The best issue ("The Night Before",) is a character piece with no external reference at all.


I suspect that the only people who write Cerebus off as a parody comic are the ones who didn't get past issue 6.


The "little-cramped-panels" bit bemuses me. Presumably, crazy letters from George Perez (who thinks nothing of putting 100 panels on one page) are more reprehensible than ones from John Byrne (who loves big panels and double page spreads) -- with Sim somewhere in between?


Since "misogynist" is precisely the contested word, I think we should be careful of how we use it Early Cerebus sometimes used stock situations -- the nymphomaniac woman with the husband who really isn't interested; the fierce mother in law; the prissy school girls -- to comedy effect. Some of those situations could be said to be "sexist". To infer "misogynist" from that seems to take us back to the world of the 1980's when the Greater London Council were banning pantomimes because Widow Twanky said "Silly old cow!" to her, er, cow. You can think that the interplay between Cerebus and Red Sophia is very funny without Hating Women.


(To digress. Dave Sim seems to have lucid periods and less lucid periods. Most of Following Cerebus is perfectly coherent. I agree that, even in his lucid state Dave has a set of socially conservative beliefs -- extreme, but rational. For example, Lucid-Dave says that it doesn't make sense for a woman to go to work, on very low wages, while another woman is paid very low wages to take care of her child, and for a third woman to pay tax to pay the second woman. Unfortunately, when he's Off On One, Mad-Dave is just as likely to add that wife beating is not merely permissible, but actually a duty, and that women are certainly not rational and may not even be sentient, and 1960s pop music was a gnostic allegory. I suspect that Lucid-Dave does not clearly remember some of the things which Mad-Dave has written, which is why you get remarks like ""I simply say that state funded day-care is a lousy way to bring up kids and everyone calls me a misogynist." )


It seems to me that the question that Rich actually meant to ask me was: "Can someone explain why being either the greatest cartoonist whoever lived or else merely the greatest since Wil Eisner means that even Dave Sim's crazy faxes have to be agonized over."


This is a very good question.


The answer is, of course, biographical. I am the kind of person who thinks that the the mere existence of John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band is sufficient reason to listen to Two Virgins, although not often. I think that Parsifal is the single greatest work of art ever produced by a human being: to me, that confers some interest on Rienzi. I don't say that this is the best way to be; I don't say that this is the only way to be; but it happens to be the way I am. If I had to explain it, I would say that I have a scholarly interest in certain subjects: it isn't enough for me to say that I like a particular writer or composer; I want to understand them, which may involve finding out where they came from and where they went to. But it also comes from a collectors mentality; a desire to "complete the set" – something which is, I admit, almost unprecedented among comic-book enthusiasts.


So, yes: it is of interest to me that the-creator-of-one-of-only-two-funny-books-that-deserve-the-name-graphic-novel has done something crazy. Again.


And it is of very great interest to me that the greatest-cartoonist-of-all-time-or-possibly-merely-the-greatest-since-Wil-Eisner has produced not one, but two, new comic books.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

One

I piss on the evil of that film. He's raped my childhood

Anonymous Star Wars fan .


There is a theory, held by some ancient Greeks and the majority of modern geeks, which says that there is no difference between aesthetic and moral judgment. If a work of art is aesthetically bad; then it is also immoral by definition. And if a work of art is immoral then it is necessarily an aesthetically and creatively poor piece of work. The Phantom Menace is a Bad Film; therefore George Lucas is a Bad Man because he made the Bad Film. It follows that if I go and see the Bad Man's Film, I will be a Bad Man too. This is a very good theory because it allows us to make critical judgements about films, books and comics without actually going to the bother of reading them.



"Our aspirations, cunt? Folk on t'fucking dole

Have got about as much scope to aspire

Above the shit they're dumped in, cunt, as coal

"Aspires" to be thrown on t'fucking fire."

Tony Harrison


In 1987, one Mary Whitehouse wrote to the Independent to complain about the publication of V, a poem by Tony Harrison, which the author had also read out loud on Channel 4. The poem (an imaginary dialogue between the poet and a skinhead who had vandalized his parents' gravestone) contained an unusually large number of very rude words.


The sainted Mrs Whitehouse wrote:


"It seems to me a matter more of aesthetics than morality, except in so far as an unsolicited affront can always raise moral issues. The four letter word, referring as it does to sexual intercourse, has with in its very sound, let alone context, a harshness, even brutality, that negates and destroys the nature of the love, sensitivity and commitment which is or should be its very essence."


Her first point – that printing the word fuck over and over again in a national newspaper is bad manners, is debatable. But her second point -- that fuck is a Bad Word and that just saying it (in any context) "negates" human sexuality -- borders on the pathological. If she is correct, you don't need to think about what the poem says, or the way in which it says it. Once you know that it contains the Bad Word, you know that it is a Bad Poem, that it was written by a Bad Man, and that reading it will make you Bad. (See Note 1)


And there are lots of other Magic Words apart from fuck.



When, long ago, the gods created Earth

In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.

The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;

Yet were they too remote from humankind.

To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,

The Olympian host conceived a clever plan.

A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,

Filled it with vice, and called the thing a nigger.

H.P Lovecraft


The Shadow Over Innsmouth is one of the finest works of gothic horror ever written. (The Call of Cthulhu is more famous and more influential, but The Shadow Over Innsmouth is better written.) The theme – that there are some questions that it would be better not to ask – is as old as Oedipus Rex. The hero investigates strange goings on in an isolated town and spots that many of the inhabitants have strange heads and funny eyes. By degrees, he learns that this is because there has been intermarriage between humans and sea monsters called "deep ones". The fish-faced people are the off-spring of these unions, and they will eventually lose their humanity altogether. Inevitably, on the final page the narrator learns that his own family have links with Innsmouth, and that he himself will one day turn into a fish-man.


On a first reading of the story, it's possible to ignore or glide over its unpleasant sub-text: the fear of outsiders, the revulsion towards those who look different from you and above all the terror of miscegenation, of learning that you have impure blood. (People who believe in the Unity of the Literary Virtues often also suffer from Sub-Text Blindness, also known by the technical term " Oh stop reading things into it it's only a bloody horror story.") But once you know that the author of The Shadow Over Innsmouth also wrote The Creation of Niggers, the sub-text pretty much jumps out and hits you in the face. What follows?


1: The Creation of Niggers is a Bad Poem. Therefore Lovecraft was a Bad Man. Therefore, Shadow Over Innsmouth is a Bad Story. If you read Shadow over Innsmouth, it will make you Bad.


2: Since Shadow Over Innsmouth is a good story, Lovecraft must have been a good man, so The Creation of Niggers must be a good poem. Therefore, I must give at least some degree of consideration to the idea that people with dark skin are sub-human.


3: Since the author of Shadow over Innsmouth also wrote The Creation of Niggers, it is irrelevant whether or not Shadow Over Innsmouth is a good story. Lovecraft is a Bad Man and you shouldn't read the Bad Man's work, even when it is good.


Knowing that Lovecraft wrote the racist poem unquestionably affects how your read his horror stories. Does it necessarily determine whether you read them? (See NOTE 2)





"Hobbits delighted in such things, if they were accurate: they liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions."

Tolkien


Some theorists see the Unity of the Literary Virtues in economic terms. "If I read the Bad Book, I will be giving the Bad Man some of my money," they say. "Since giving money to Bad Men makes you Bad, I will not read the Bad Book even if I'm actually quite interested in it." Some people qualify this and say that reading Bad Books only makes you Bad while the author is still alive. It's okay to read Shadow Over Innsmouth now Lovecraft is dead and can't profit by it; if he were alive, it wouldn't be. I don't know whether the fact that he was on a page rate rather than a royalty scheme affects his badness one way or the other.


I have no particular problem with consumer boycotts – refusing to buy a particular product in order to make a particular political point. But you should be very careful not to confuse the political with the aesthetic. I might very well say "I will not buy a Marvel Comic until the company credits Jack Kirby as creator of the Fantastic Four". But I would not add "Since Kirby deserves to be credited, 1602 is badly written" or "Since you think that 1602 is well-written, you obviously think Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four."


Ideological boycotts are much more slippery. It sounds fine and dandy to say "Insulting the Prophet Mohammed is Very Bad. The man who wrote the book insulting the Prophet Mohammed is therefore a Very Bad Man. Therefore no one should buy, read, display, publish, print or distribute the Very Bad Man's book. But obviously, that isn't the same as censorship." After all, if Islam is true, then insulting the Prophet is very bad: much worse than saying that women shouldn't have the vote. If Christianity is true, then denying that Jesus is God is very bad, maybe as bad as denying the Holocaust. If God is a delusion, than promoting Catholicism is (I read in an impeccable source) even worse than sexually molesting children. So it follows that Muslims should abstain from reading anti-Muslim books; Christians from anti-Christian books; and atheists from...well, from practically everything. No-one should read anything except things they already agree with.


When I refuse to read books which I don't agree with, I am exercising reasonable choice as a consumer. But of course, when you do it, you are being narrow minded and bigoted.




There is no such thing as a moral book or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written . That is all.

Oscar Wilde


Works of art contain ideas.


Those ideas are part of the work. "Siegfried contains anti-Semitic ideas" is a true fact, as true as "Siegfried contains a French Horn solo."


But we cannot easily go from "Siegfried contains anti-Semitic ideas" to "Siegfried is an anti-Semitic work". The ideology of a work doesn't reside in a single image, a single scene, or a single word. Mrs. Whitehouse thought that counting the number of "fucks" was a good gauge of whether or not a poem was obscene. (If the number was greater than zero, it was.) Dr Wertham said, in so many words, that if a comic book depicted a crime being committed, then it was a "crime comic", and that "crime comics" made kids criminals. In fact, if an opera or a comic book has an ideology, it must be contained in the whole work. Many of the Batman comics that Wertham wanted to protect us from were actually highly moralistic. The views about language expressed in V were actually not a million miles from Mrs. Whitehouse's own. The only way you can find out what a book "says" is by, er, actually reading it.


In fact, I am very doubtful whether any artistic work can ever be said to "say" something in such a narrow sense. Does Macbeth say "Political violence is sometimes a necessary evil" (which would make it a Bad Play) or "Your crimes will always catch up with you in the end" (which makes it a Good Play)? Or does it say "Don't trust your wife", "Don't try to force your spineless husband to get on," "Beware of soothsayers" or "I think James will be an excellent King so could I have a job please?"I don't think that you can say what Macbeth says in less words than the actual text of Macbeth.


But even if you can extract "The Meaning of the Work" from the Work Itself, I doubt whether agreement or disagreement with that Meaning is particularly relevant to your appreciation of the The Work. The Taming of the Shrew says "Strong women are ridiculous". Does it follow that those of us who do not think that strong women are particularly ridiculous cannot find the play funny? Does our approval or disapproval of political assassination determine in advance whether or not we will think that Julius Caesar is a good play. Can members of Amnesty International watch 24?


Writing about music, as the fellow said, is like dancing about architecture.



NOTE 1

One the nasty things about grown ups is that they can't believe that children have any sense of justice; indeed any opinions of any kind. If Jimmy complains that he had been queuing politely for 20 minutes and then Joey came along and pushed to the front of the line, grown-ups are inclined to say "Oh, you kids, always finding something to quarrel about. Put a sock in it or you'll both get a slap."


The BBC's recent docu-drama about Mary Whitehouse seemed to treat everyone involved as quarreling children. What occurred during the 1960s was an argument about ideas. One side thought that the state funded public service broadcasting company in a Christian country should broadly reflect Christian value -- or at any rate the consensus values of the people who paid for it. The other side thought that it was the BBC's duty to produce high-quality, cutting edge artistic work, which (by definition) would sometimes offend people. The play chose to represent the argument as a private spat between the head of the BBC (a comedy dirty old man) and a "clean up TV" represented by a dotty old biddy. Whatever the argument was about, it wasn't about that.


Oh: and she was quite right about "Tomb of the Cybermen."


NOTE 2

It is a truism of the Unity of the Virtues theory that once we know that a work is morally bad, we can assume that it is aesthetically bad. So it's probably worth saying that "The Creation of Niggers" is, in its lavatory-wall kind of way, not a bad piece of work. The rhymes (birth/earth designed/humankind) trip of the tongue reasonably well and the scansion doesn't feel too forced. Lovecraft cleverly uses strong rhymes to make us anticipate the end of the sentence before we get to it, and saves the Bad Word to the very end of the poem. We hear "semi-human figure" and think "oh...he can't be going to...he did." (A reasonable amount of music hall comedy involves using rhyme to make us expect a rude word, and then not actually saying it.)


A great deal of Lovecraft's work is about language -- over and over again, a complete collapse of syntax signifies that the the heroes of his stories have learned something that it would have been better never to have found out. And of course, his demons have weird names that are all but unpronounceable. When people see the Great Old Ones they often announce that they are unspeakable, ineffable, "unnameable." It is rather interesting that, when deliberately trying to be offensive, Lovecraft should structure a short poem around a word which is "unspeakable" in a different way.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

So: the 2009 season of Torchwood will have only 5 episodes, and RTD gets an OBE.

If he'd canceled it altogether, would he have got a knighthood?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I am resigning from the opposition because I oppose the policy of the government.

Er...I haven't thought this through properly, have I?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Head. Wall. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Been trying to think of some witty and ironic comment to make about this. But words really, really fail me.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

4.8 Silence in the Library


"Silence in the Library" was a nice episode of
Doctor Who. I enjoyed it very much indeed.








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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

O would some power the giftie gie us...


"The man who resurrected the nation's favorite timelord
(sic), reinvented him and bequeathed him to future generations of slightly inadequate men and women to obsess over once again, has stepped down...."


The Grauniad

Saturday, May 24, 2008

4.71: The Eurovision Song Contest

A strange, disconnected world in which vaguely camp characters, indistinguishable and without backstories, come in and go off without being properly developed, and periodically burst into song: I suppose, given that RTD's first love is Buffy, it was inevitable that sooner or later he would attempt to make an episode of Torchwood in the style of "Once More With Feeling."


Davies also has a bad habit of taking Very Good "Big Finish" stories -- "Jubilee", "Fires of Vulcan", "Spare Parts" and turning them into Not Quite So Good TV episodes -- "Dalek", "Fires of Pompeii", "Rise of the Cybermen." Gareth Roberts classic "Bang-Bang-A-Boom" is set on a space craft ("Dark Space 5") during an intergalactic song contest: transferring the action to Belgrade and making all the contestants human seems to remove the episode's central point.


The extremely tight filming schedules required by new Doctor Who has required that Season 2 and Season 3 both included episodes in which the Doctor played a relatively minor role. And of course, in the Very Old Days, actors had to occasionally have time off: Bill Hartnell missed part 4 of "Dalek Invasion Earth"; and during "The Mind Robber", Fraser Hines famously mislaid his face causing Jamie to go down with chickenpox, or possibly vice versa. But tonight's episode cleverly references "Mission to the Unknown" in that none of the regular characters appear. Presumably, the Irish Space Agent who is the only recurrent character has sent an SOS message that will be picked up by the TARDIS in the next story but one...









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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

4:7 The Unicorn and the Wasp

And the award for "Silliest episode of Doctor Who excluding those in which the villain is made of Liquorice Allsorts" goes to...

The Doctor goes back to the 1920s and meets Agatha Christie. Fine.

The Doctor finds that Agatha Christie is embroiled in an Agatha Christie mystery. OK: roughly what we'd expect.

The Agatha Christie story in which Agatha Christie is embroiled isn't an actual Agatha Christie story: it's a BBC adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, full of televisual devices like flashbacks and scenes from the P.O.V of the murderer.

I'm a Holmes man, myself, but didn't actual Christie stories take place on exotic locations like the Nile, the Orient Express, the Clouds and so on? And weren't her actual characters rather less generic than Nervous Country Clergyman and Stiff Lipped Anglo Indian? Isn't this, in fact, Agatha Christie as imagined by people who haven't actually read many many Agatha Christie stories, pretty much as last week was Doctor Who as remembered by people who haven't actually seen many Doctor Who stories? I mean, the opening scene: Prof. Peach is murdered in the library with the lead piping. That's not from Christie; that's from a board game that was a parody of Agatha Christie. First published 1949.

But this isn't even Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel: this is Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel in which an evil shape shifting alien is deliberately and consciously acting out an Agatha Christie story. But it's more complicated than that: this fictitious alien-organized murder-mystery party is the explanation of the real mystery of why Agatha Christie disappeared for a fortnight in 1926. And it also turns out that's the place where she got the ideas for many of her best stories.

In short: what we have here is yet another example of Doctor Who chasing it's tail round and round in ever decreasing circles and eventually disappearing up its own eye of harmony.

There's no mystery about Agatha Christie's disappearance. She ran away because she was distressed after learning that her husband had got a young woman pregnant, although, in his defense, he always claimed that it was the policeman who did it.

We all miss you, Humph.

I found the solution to the metafictional mystery, which involved an evil shape shifting alien insect, only slightly more unsatisfactory than one of Christie's own. But that may very well have been the point.

No West End Theater manager today would consider staging a three act whodunit; such things are purely the province of church hall amateur theatrical societies. The Mouse Trap is not even especially good of it's kind: I'm told by people who know that Ten Little Wassissnames is a much better example of the genre. Yet The Mouse Trap limps on for forty, fifty, sixty years, famous for being famous, a mummified relic of the way theater used to be half a century ago. Christie's stories are not rooted in police procedure, or forensics, or logical deduction, or a particularly subtle understanding of character. Her twists endings surprise us; not because of what they say about the real world or her imagined world, but because they break the rules of the detective genre. The corpse dunit. The first person narrator dunit. The detective dunit. Everybody dunit. No-body dunit.

The analogy between Agatha Christie and Doctor Who is left as an exercise for the reader.







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