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Interlude 2: Comics roundup.

16 Oct

(I’ve been writing. A lot. And lots of different things, including a novel manuscript tentatively titled Think Vainly of the Guilty Land. But ye old blog has been a bit disrupted. I have pieces I want to post, but I can’t quite pull the trigger. Anyway, here’s a roundup of the latest comics I read, most of which I read last night.)

The Nameless.

Disquieting, unnerving, smart.

Disquieting, unnerving, smart.

Grant Morrison is the comic book world’s Woody Allen or Frederico Fellini. He returns, over and over, to three or four big themes. Here he revisits, in horror form, the question of what happens when we interact with a higher intelligence. What would a higher dimension look like? He’s asked this over and over, often using comics as a real, one-dimensional universe, with our universe serving as a higher level of reality. (Read The Filth, or Flex Mentallo.) Morrison sees existence as a series of cascading realities and points of view, with real, conscious beings above us—probably reading us, just as we read the characters in the comics. So what would a higher dimension look like? Here it’s hell. He takes the (pretty miserable movie, really) Event Horizon as a starting point—or as one character in the comic says, “It’s like The Exorcist meets Apollo 13!”— with an asteroid approaching earth, and the astronauts who are tasked with stopping it. Only, the asteroid is transmitting messages, in a language that seems to be driving people insane. Morrison remains one of the strongest comic book authors, but his major obstacle as a writer is his own restless intelligence. Here he utilizes his vast and lifelong readings in the alchemical/gnostic/conspiratorial literature to provide a very fine, if profoundly disquieting, horror comic.

B.P.R.D.

The monsters keep winning.

The monsters keep winning.

Hellboy started as an occult detective, rooting around in various folktales and myths around the world, with a back-story he didn’t understand. The comic was quirky and beautifully drawn, if a bit one-note and thin. It was clear that the sidekicks—Abe Sapien, Liz, and Johann, among others—were more interesting. So the spinoff. And what a glorious series it’s become. At this point, the earth is overrun with magnificent creatures, larger than small islands. They emit steam that turns humans into mindless, omnivorous creatures. Other sinister forces appear. B.P.R.D. remains a dynamite comic, with great artwork and dialogue, if a bit disheartening, as the monsters never seem to die. The disintegrating world, and the dwindling place for humans in it.

Abe Sapien.

Lonely, one-of-a-kind genius, and possible destroyer of the world.

Lonely, one-of-a-kind genius, and possible destroyer of the world.

The most interesting of the Hellboy characters, a Victorian-era alchemist transformed into a potentially world-destroying mer-man, Abe Sapien in his own title wanders around a ravaged American southwest, meeting up with the remnants of destroyed towns, villages and cities. Weird cults. Murderous gangs. And plenty of monsters. A very fine, if a touch repetitive, comic in its own right, Abe Sapien just recently has been delving into his past, which is great.

Hellboy in Hell.

Marvelous but despairing, like Beckett and Sartre. With fistfights.

Marvelous but despairing, like Beckett and Sartre. With fistfights.

Hellboy dies. His heart is pulled from his body. And he awakens in Hell. Only, Satan has been slain, and the entire underworld is in disarray. Hellboy, it seems, is prophesied to take over. But he won’t. His stubborn, weary psyche ends up wandering from one nightmarish aspect of the realm to another. Hellboy’s surreal journey through Hell is an excellent, and despairing, comic narrative. Think Beckett and Sartre, with fistfights. And superior artwork.

Sandman: Overture.

Wonderful return to form.

Wonderful return to form.

Neil Gaiman returns to his most famous—and most enigmatic—work, with a prequel of how Morpheus came to be trapped at the series beginning. I didn’t think he had it in him, but Gaiman not only matches the tone and quality of the original series, he also adds depth and meaning to what was already a high-water mark for comics. He even introduces new characters! The art by Williams is absolutely stunning. A lot of the Sandman spinoffs have been of uneven quality—some of The Dreaming storylines were good, many were just a hair above mediocre—but here we have a very strong piece of the larger drama. For fans, perhaps, but none will be disappointed. Gaiman still has the goods.

Providence.

Eerie, rambling, but there is something here.

Eerie, rambling, but there is something here.

Alan Moore continues his journey into the psychic underpinnings of H.P. Lovecraft with this oddball story of a journalist investigating occult happenings near Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1920s. The story is filled with eccentric panels, strange points of view, and an unclear, at least so far, message or even storyline. But it is Alan Moore, one of the great horror comic writers, and the comic remains fascinating and unnerving. I think it’s a kind of prequel to The Neonomicon—a deranged, unhinging, fabulous little comic that haunted me for days—but I’m not quite sure. It’s hard to describe, as some of the issues seem to ramble, only they seem to be rambling on purpose.

Secret Wars.

Hickman continues his historic romp through the Marvel Universe.

Hickman continues his historic romp through the Marvel Universe.

Jonathan Hickman is a special kind of comic writer. He’s patient, careful, attentive, and able to think in a vast, cosmic scope. But he also manages to maintain the integrity of the characters, while making them feel fresh, something that is very, very hard to do. His restructuring of the Marvel Universe has been stunning. After all the existing realities collided, Doctor Doom saved what he could from a dozen different realities. He also installed himself as the supreme deity. A handful of heroes—and horrifying villains—survived, too, and come crashing into the new reality, intent on destroying it. Wonderful.

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The boy with a thorn in his side, part 1: Saint Simulacra.

18 Oct

Part 1: St. Simulacra

(being a not-so-spiritual autobiography with many moving parts)

 

There’s an image, in the great comic The Invisibles, of a crying boy trying to pull out the nails from Jesus’s feet. He can’t. Jesus then turns to him and says, “I’m not the god of your fathers. I’m the stone that breaks men’s hearts.”

This sums of Christianity for a lot of people. Including me.

When I was in school, I was taught that we all crucified Jesus. And, like Peter, we all betray him. Every single day. It was the early eighties, with a newfound alignment between prosperity and morality, the Reaganomics city-on-a-hill suburbs, baby! America was God, in a weird sort of way. Sin led to destitution and poverty. Good living led to wealth and prosperity. Every year was year zero.

The story is that every person crucifies Jesus every day with our decision to sin—an impulse we inherited from Adam and Eve. We scour his back with nine-tails. We plunge thorns into his forehead. We pierce his side with a spear. We laugh at his suffering. We betray his teaches. We betray God. And the man. We betray in small ways, little acts of cruelty, evil thoughts, and in big ways, with denunciations, murder.

I never fell for this particular strand of guilt. It feels too much like a simulation of the real thing, a substitution of our actual shortcomings with actions that have and had nothing to do with us.

I also had plenty of other guilt to carry around.

In fact, I’ve never really bought into historical guilt as an idea. I refuse to feel bad, for example, that I was born into a world that privileges white males. I’m aware of my own privileged status. I work for justice and fairness in the world. Isn’t that enough?[1]

Anyway, my Christianity was a mash-up of direct experience with God and institutionalized beliefs. As a Southern Baptist we had less stock in rituals. Or, rather, we didn’t refer to them by that term.

I believed in Jesus, and felt him when I prayed. And when I didn’t. He was a whispery glow, an invisible halo, a sight pressure on my shoulders and chest. A constant threnody.

Partially because of my background, I’m interested in subjective religious experience. I guess this makes me a mystic. The Gnostic tradition values direct interaction with the divine over dogma or ritual. I would, too.

Jesus to me was a decent guy, wise but with a good sense of humor, humble and easy-going, a bit stern every once in a while but loving and intent on making the world a better place by easing suffering. God was something else, a crazed stentorian being that in my imagination was sort of an enormous cloud with tentacles. Sometimes an embittered old fisherman with glowing golden eyes. He was a scary fucker. Unknowable. Without qualities. A shadow out of time. This view only elongated with time. Beyond good and evil and therefore, no longer good.

Jesus good, God not good—this is the basis of a certain strand of heretical Gnostic thought. Arianism was the idea that the New Testament God and the Old Testament God were different dudes, and they were fighting an invisible war over the future of humanity. Deranged creator god—the god of the flesh, or in the other words, the devil—and righteous true god of the spirit. Ahura Mazda and Ahriman.

God and Jesus?

That stone and those hearts.

Which brings me back to comics, The Invisibles, mystery religions, pulp science fiction, Gnostic thought, and how they all jumbled together in my young brain. (see The Devil’s Lonely Boy, my first blog post!)

I was beginning to see the world in a Manichean context: two equal gods, one light the other dark, at constant war with each other. (This idea didn’t go away, it just evolved into a machine/spirit clash. Dan Simmons lays out this same thing in his very fine Hyperion saga, with a machine god duking it out with the human god. And Richard Brautigan sort of applies a similar idea in his great poem, “Machines of Loving Grace.”)

This complicated, pulp-inspired comic book cosmology was detonated by a single event, which I didn’t notice at the time.

I read Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. A novel about an selfish, non-descript, smug, harried middle-aged man. It’s astonishing, funny, mean-spirited, satirical and ultimately redemptive. It’s the first great work of literature I read on my own accord.

Babbitt led to The Secret Agent. And The Secret Agent led to Gravity’s Rainbow. And that was it. I was hooked. I was converted. I fell in love.

It was a painful process. I also began to write in earnest.

The agnosticizing forces of modernity—the pulverizing power of the study of philosophy, history, science, and literature—worked on me, but slowly. Years passed. I stopped going to church. I read heretical texts. I drifted from the faith. I was haunted by God’s absence, and haunted by his presence.

I was, in two words, fucked up.

The inherent contradiction of an omnipotent god in a flawed universe never went away. Nor did the problem of suffering, evil. Or of black holes, red shift of stars, parallel universes, those goddamn birds on Galapagos. All of these problems, strangely, brought to the fore by the Silver Surfer.

The Silver Surfer works for Galactus, a deranged god who has near-omnipotence. Galactus is also eternally hungry. And the only thing that sates his hunger is planets. The more life on the planet, the more sustenance it offers. The Silver Surfer roams the enormity of space looking for suitable planets for Galactus to eat.

And he eventually finds earth.

The Marvel Universe never knew what to do with the plethora of evil gods, cosmic deities, Asgardians, Greeks, and mainstream Christianity. Jack Kirby, probably the most important creator of comics of all time, was a closeted Gnostic, and he marbled in all manner of Gnostic beliefs into the foundations of the Marvel Universe. I absorbed them, and they’re still there.

As my more coherent, mainstream, codified beliefs fell away, these darker, Manichean beliefs augered in my thoughts.

Strangeness remained.

More to come . . .

 

[1] I know that it (probably) isn’t.

Interlude 2: The hidden story of Marvel comics.

22 Jan

(I recently read Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. It’s a very fine history of the comic company, and also a disturbing saga of betrayals, reversals, backstabbing, and the clash of egos wrestling for creative control, all against the backdrop of big and bigger money swooping in to get control of the vast repertoire of characters. What follows is my rambling response, in 28 unbelievable bullet points.)

• Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is one of the great books on comics. The others are The Ten-Cent Plague, Super-GodsThe Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Understanding Comics.

• Howe’s book is a sobering—and often repugnant—read. He keeps his opinions sewed up tight. His disdain for Stan Lee seeps through.

• Marvel began as a small part of a large magazine empire. Stan Lee started out as an intern. He hid his ambition from the handful of the original oldtimers; he wanted to rule the world. In some sense, he succeeded.

• Stan Lee, to most people outside of comics, is Marvel. Fans know better. Half-huckster, half-public relations patchwork humanoid in the vein of a celebrity-obsessed Frankenstein’s monster, Lee was one of the original writers in comics. He created the myth of the Marvel bullpen, the merry group of prankster artists pushing the consciousness of American youth. He was, in a word, a liar. Read his later work, when he wasn’t paired with a strong artist, to see how weak his writing could be.

• Lee is an easy target. His scripts haven’t aged well; he sided with the corporate suits over his friends time after time; he turned himself into a brand at the expense of his soul; and his claims to being the creator of all the major Marvel characters have turned out to be a goddamn lie.

• The key to understanding how Lee got away with his chicanery is the Marvel method of comics he invented. The artist would plot the story out (with or without Lee), then pencil in the pages with word balloons and boxes for exposition. Lee would write the scripts based on the existing pages, then they would be inked and colored and printed and shipped. In many cases, the worst part of those 1960s Marvel titles is Lee’s words. He loved puns, cornball jokes. He often misunderstood the power of the characters he was writing. And he benefitted from two oddball geniuses fated to draw for him: Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

• Jack Kirby was ripped off, mistreated, undervalued, and remains removed from the very characters that have, in a sense, conquered the second half of the twentieth century. The entire structure of the Marvel universe—read Earth X number 0 to see it laid out, it’s fascinating—was created by Jack Kirby. While Stan Lee was paid $500,000 a year to do nothing in his dotage, Kirby was left near destitute and furious at his mistreatment. This was wrong. Kirby is comics John Ford and Orson Welles and Michael Curtiz combined.

One of Jack Kirby's many, many evil gods.

One of Jack Kirby’s many, many evil gods.

Steve Ditko is a stranger case. He walked away from Spiderman, the most popular comic in the world, giving no reason for it. He spiraled into the circular madness of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, wrote and drew a few comics here and there, but has been quiet and withdrawn ever since. He is the Thomas Pynchon of comics.

• Kirby and Ditko weren’t great writers, but they had mountains of ideas. Together, they built most of the Marvel we know today. Kirby provided the weird cosmic madness of the Fantastic Four. Ditko provided the Peter Parker portions in Spiderman, insisting that the comic would only work if it spent equal time with both halves of his psyche, and that Spiderman’s success would hurt Peter Parker, and vice versa. He was a goddamn genius.

• In Mutants and Mystics, author Jeffrey Kripal makes the argument that Kirby was obsessed with Gnostic and occult ideas. And that the Marvel Universe is built around the Gnostic principles of evil, alien gods and archons and so on. This is exactly right.

• When you first look at Kirby, his art strikes you as blocky and rushed. It takes years to see the immense creative power—it’s like being dunked into a blue ocean of pure imagination—of his work. His best work is The New Gods.

• John Buscema has always been underrated as an artist. Ditto for Wally Wood, John Romita, and Paul Ryan.

• Howe doesn’t mention Mark Gruenwald’s ten-year run on Captain America. He achieved greatness. Ditto for Roger Stern on The Avengers. Both provided rich characters and epic storylines that effortlessly moved one to the other. These were superhero comics done right.

• Gruenwald, Stern, Archie Goodwin—one of the pure souls in the shady business of comics, his decency radiates through the pages—Bob Layton and Carl Potts all emerge as minor heroes in the Marvel saga. They had talent, vision and basic decency. Jim Shooter, Roy Thomas, and Jim Salicrup all come off as difficult, arrogant and untrustworthy.

• The great, underutilized character in Marvel comics is the Silver Surfer. The most interesting hero in the Marvel Universe is the Vision. The most fascinating villain in the Marvel universe is Doctor Doom. The problem with all three is that they are so very easy to get wrong. I remain convinced that the Black Panther is one of the great black characters in American pop culture. Power Man[2], on the other hand, was a goddamn disgrace.

Dreadstar remains one of the great, underrated comics. Jim Starlin[1] rules.

• Marvel succumbed to the blockbuster mentality that shook the movie world in the 1980s and continues to reverberate through book publishing right now. It started with Secret Wars. Marvel began overlapping their stories between titles, often pointlessly. The result was an escalation that damaged the individual mythologies of the characters and forced readers to buy titles they didn’t want. The best writers held these larger stories at bay to focus on their little corner of the world, but many didn’t.

• This is when I started collecting. (My favorite villain was The Lizard.)

• The low point for Marvel was the specialized collector’s covers in the mid-1990s. Speculators entered the comics market. Prices went up. Fans were bewildered. The value of individual comics ceased to be about the characters; the value of individual comics was judged in terms of dollars. This was, and is, obscene. (Blame New Mutants # 87.) Comics used to be mini-novels, modes of expression, often hemmed in by a culture and format that simultaneously liberated some writers—like the old Hayes’ Code—while bedeviling others. But with the rise of the 90s artists, comics became a product, like candy, foisted on an ever-aging fanbase.

• Almost everyone fell into the speculator’s trap; all of my comic book collector friends bought multiple issues of the ever-increasing issue number ones.

• The nineties sucked, comic-wise. The reason is simple: Rob Liefield.

I'm speechless; to this day I can't understand how Liefield got rich off this crap.

I’m speechless; to this day I can’t understand how Liefield got rich off this crap.

• Liefield had no talent for writing or drawing, but somehow snookered the industry into giving him the keys to the kingdom. I think he made a Faustian deal with the devil. What else explains his career? (Visit here for the best denunciation of Liefield I’ve ever read.)

• I left Marvel in 1995—which means I left comics; I’ll cover DC later—over my distaste over the myriad X-titles, and the ever-expanding list of lame mutant characters, as well as the drop in storytelling quality and the dissipating weirdness that made comics matter. I washed my hands of the entire medium.

• I wasn’t gone long. Six months later I returned. Vertigo—especially The Sandman and The Invisibles—brought me back[3]. Vertigo was a dark fantasy line of comics for adults. It was modeled on Marvel’s ill-fated Epic Comics.

• The same problems that bedevil Marvel now—too many titles, too many restarts, too many retreads of the same stories, too few new characters, too many crossover events, too much reliance on a byzantine mythology built by other people, many of them dead—was there at the beginning.

• Marvel’s business strategy—and this is a book on business—was to flood the market with product, and crowd competitor’s off the newsstands. Marvel does this same thing today. They don’t learn anything from the history of their own company, pushing themselves through boom/bust cycles that could be avoided if they focused on quality writing and drawing. Having said that, the art at Marvel right now is superb.

• If, as Kundera says, all that we have is the present moment that we cannot truly experience, comics are all present. Put another way, comics can’t escape the past and they can’t escape the future. They are fixed in the present. The way forward seems to be to reset the characters at a zero point, forever wedged between possibilities in both directions.

• Marvel should salvage their universe by copying DC’s 52, illuminating the dark corners of the universe through the minor characters, such as a rogue doombot; Dugan; Mockingbird; the Zodiac supervillains; some LMDs; Scourge[4]; and Ben Urich navigating it all with his sights on a major story. If anyone from Marvel reads this, let’s do this thing.


[1] His Warlock is my vote for the weirdest superhero comic ever written.

[2] Marvel has retrofitted him with more strength, no jive talk, no more mercenary nonsense. He now goes by Luke Cage.

[3] And Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing remains one of the strangest, most thrilling comics ever written. That said, it went on too damn long.

[4] I’ve written a Scourge treatment. The first issue is titled, I am a Scourge, like my father before me.

Interlude 4: My life in comics, part 1: Mark Millar is an overrated idiot.

12 Nov

1.

I learned to read on comics, my first love was comics, and I still collect. I don’t write about comics much. Not sure why. But last night I read a comic that infuriated me, and I feel the spirit to comment.

Time to get my nerd on.

I’ve collected on an almost continual stream for thirty years. Like other fans, I think the comics are infinitely more complex and sophisticated than the movie versions; that graphic fiction, graphic literature and the like are insulting, demeaning terms; that comics are a rich, fertile and elastic medium that can be used in manifold ways; and that Jack Kirby[1] is one of the great unsung artists of the twentieth century.

The top tier writers are Alan Moore, Grant Morrison[2], Neil Gaiman, Ed Brubaker, Havey Pekar and Warren Ellis. (Peter Milligan is close.) The writing team of Mike Mignola and John Arcudi must be included. (B.P.R.D. and the other Hellboy offshoots are all absolutely astonishing.)

Then there are the great writer-artists, including Jack Kirby, Daniel Clowes, Darwyn Cooke, Charles Burns, Craig Thomson, Barry Windsor-Smith and Paul Pope, to name a few.

The middle writers—solid, a touch predictable, but capable of great stuff—is an enormous group, including Andy Lanning and Dan Abnet, Kurt Busiek, Jonathan Hickman, Mark Waid (his run on Daredevil is fantastic), J.M. DeMatteis, Jeff Lemire, I don’t know, there are dozens of talented writers who fall into this category, the bulk of comic writers both in the past and today.

The old warhorses, some of them excellent: Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Peter David (who remains a wry, humorous rascal; his mid-90s run on X-Factor was killer), Chris Claremont (God, the man had to narrate every single frame), Roger Stern (his mid-80s run on The Avengers and Captain American are crowing achievements of superhero comics), Mark Gruenwald (the man who made me love Captain America and his Squadron Supreme was incredible, a real powerhouse), Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon. There are tons of them.

There are the former champs who have gone to seed: Frank Miller, Jim Starlin and Garth Ennis. Miller was amazing, and then he was just terrible, and Starlin was cracking for years with Dreadstar and The Infinity Gauntlet and his early Warlock stuff, but then he stopped trying new stuff and he became stale. Ennis’s run on Hellblazer was incredible, and the first 25 issues or so of Preacher were great. But then he became a parody, and turned all of his work into a vehicle for mediocre black humor.

And then there are the overrated, dudes that either diluted their talents or were never very good to begin with: Brian Michael Bendis (he has some fantastic books, including the early Powers, but he has been one of the worst forces in the Marvel Universe for years, a very bad writer of action with a pretty wretched run on Daredevil, the comic that a good writer can always do well); Joe Casey, who had a fabulous initial run on Cable, but has put out mostly crap since; and the worst of the worst, the biggest turkey in the game, Mark Millar. A real son of a bitch creep.

2.

I fucking despise Mark Millar. He’s a terrible writer. And, I’m almost certain a miserable human being. Yet, he has interesting, often exciting setups and ideas.

Dumb jokes, bad morals, no sense of the characters and a self-satisified, shit-eating grin = a bad writer.

Dumb jokes, bad morals, no sense of the characters and a self-satisified, shit-eating grin = a bad writer.

Old Man Logan[3] is a good case in point. The world has fallen to the villains, some fifty years in the past. The country is divided into zones, each ruled by a different super-criminal. The heroes are either dead or in hiding. Wolverine is raising his family on a rundown little dust farm, he’s late on the rent, and his landlord is the Hulk. The Hulk’s grandchildren are super-strong thugs who rough him up. He has to make a delivery with an aged, blind Hawkeye, across all those enemy-occupied zones, to make enough money to pay his debts. And, because of a tragedy he won’t speak of, Wolverine’s a dedicated pacifist, refusing to unleash his claws.

A pretty nifty idea, derivative of Mad Max, Future Imperfect, Days of Future Past, and The Ultimate Warrior, among other sources, but pretty clever. Only delivered with a simple-minded, vicious, and callous nastiness that dismisses everything decent and good about these characters, about storytelling, about the human race.

I’m not kidding.

The Hulk emerges at the end as a homicidal lunatic who kills people indiscriminately because he’s bored. This isn’t edgy, it’s dumb and childish, and it reveals the lack of moral character and decency in Millar the person.

The Hulk only works as a character if Banner feels guilt over the Hulk’s actions, and somehow has to try to be a hero in spite of the raging monster inside. The Hulk’s value, as a concept, stems from Banner trying to assert influence on the damage the Hulk creates. Otherwise he’s just a monster, and a kind of boring one at that.

Yup. That happens in the comic, without any importance, emotional connection, nothing. Just a dude getting decapitated.

Yup. That happens in the comic, without any importance, emotional connection, nothing. Just a dude getting decapitated.

Here’s another example. Halfway through the story, Hawkeye meets his estranged daughter, who turns out to be a depraved, power-hungry killer. This subplot amounts to exactly nothing; it’s just another way for Millar to show how terrible humanity is. There’s nothing more to it. She’s a tough badass, and any kind of ethical or moral conduct can suck it. Millar admires her character, you can tell.

And, well, it’s a corny thing to say, but heroes matter, even made-up heroes, and to spend your lifetime diminishing them is, well, weird[4]. And kind of hateful.

By the story’s end, Wolverine has to reject his pacifism, that’s his character’s story arc. It’s replaced with a silly vigilante code of justice that comics were grappling with as early as the 1960s. In fact, the comic asserts that it is Wolverine trying not to kill that caused much of the problem in the first place. Okay, fine, but the moral weight of violence must be measured, interpreted. Good writers—and decent people—grapple with the underlying ethics of their fictions, even if the stories seem silly. Even in comic books. Wolverine must fight to keep his murderous instincts at bay, this is the essential conflict within him, and us. To reject this is to misunderstand the importance of restraint in storytelling and in life.

A very fine cover, but misleading. Wolverine and Hawkeye don't avenge their fallen friends.

A very fine cover, but misleading. Wolverine and Hawkeye don’t avenge their fallen friends.

His spin on Marvel Universe’s future—there have been dozens and dozens of dystopian future Marvel stories, including “Days of Future Past” and “The Age of Apocalypse,” even the New Warriors had a story set in some grim future—reveals how little he understands the characters. Wolverine is more than a killer. The Hulk is more than a monster. And I know to outsiders I sound like a nerd splitting hairs, but goddammit, it matters. To me, to other fans, to the medium and to our culture itself.

3.

I’m not finished. Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, besides being a total misfire, “updated” the mutants by making them horny, stupid, vapid, superficial and nasty. He doesn’t understand Magneto—a very hard villain to write well, I admit—and he doesn’t develop any of the other villains at all. (Chris Claremont would drop little clues to the villain’s backstories—he wrote in a time when most of the characters would think in dramatic monologues, asides, and soliloquies—and after a while, all the minor characters had the flicker of internal lives.) Millar doesn’t do any of this, so the minor villains remain mere henchmen. Why even name them? The storylines are all stolen from the original series. He added no new characters of any note. And he boiled the entire X-saga down to Professor Xavier and Magneto[5]. Worst of all, it was relentlessly boring.

Kick-Ass is my vote for worst comic of the decade (and a terrible movie), simplistic, boring even, unsophisticated, childish, a bit creepy with the adolescent sexual perversity. The story is a retelling of two dozen or so teenage origin stories, only marbled through with curse words and extra teenage angst. I hated it. You should, too. John Romita, Jr., is a great comic artist, and even his considerable talents couldn’t salvage this stinker.

4.

Other writers create ultra-violent stories. Warren Ellis, for example, also traffics in a hardline misanthropy, but he tempers his contempt with moments of wonder and transcendence. The Authority might be the best celebration of human ingenuity in the face of existential despair I’ve read. And The Ocean is hands-down one of the greatest science fiction comics of all time. My point: Ellis sees the good in people as well as the bad, and insists on giving some attention to the consequences of violent actions. And all of his output stems from his left-wing politics, which provides an ethical context and for his work.

Alan Moore’s From Hell is one of the supreme achievements of the medium, and it’s chock a block full of corpses, bloodletting, murder. And the Neonomicon, his Lovecraft-inspired miniseries, was one of the most disturbing horror comics I’ve ever read. And I loved it.

I could go on, but my point is that good writers have violence erupt from the characters, their passions, their flaws, their mistakes. Millar uses violence for nothing more than sarcasm, a big middle finger to fans, and I resent him for it. He wastes my time.

5.

Millar is bad at dialogue. It must be said. His characters are either stolen outright or weak retreads. His jokes are terrible. His one defining characteristic seems to be crass violence and unfunny tastelessness.

Okay, credit where credit’s due. His run on The Authority wasn’t terrible, but it was in some sense just a continuation of Warren Ellis’s excellent groundwork, and augmented by one of the great storytellers of the medium, Frank Quitely. His Wolverine: Enemy of the State had a great premise and was pretty fun to read.

And Millar has one significant comic, and I would argue that it is Bryan Hitch’s superb artwork—and there’s evidence that Grant Morrison, his former friend, helped develop the concept—and it’s The Ultimates. The dialogue is still bad. The characters are still vapid. But his run on the series had two great aspects. First, he shows how quickly the world would change, and how dramatically, if superpowers were possible. Second, he has an epic sweep to the geopolitical ramifications of super-powered beings. It’s poorly written, but still rousing stuff.

6.

Okay, I’ve kicked him enough. He’s prolific as hell, and I don’t feel like going through his back-catalog. I’ll finish with this. The artwork in Old Man Logan is exceptional. Steve McNiven is a very talented guy, and the landscapes and characters all look fantastic. But I kept feeling like the very essence of superhero comics was being twisted, but for no particular reason[6]. The crass jokes, the harsh ultra-violence, it added up to nada, zilch, nothing. It wasn’t any fun. I felt like he woke up one morning and thought, why don’t I have little hulkings raping and pillaging everything that moves? And Wolverine’s family will be killed for no reason? And Hawkeye will die for nothing at all? Wouldn’t that be cool?


[1] And Steve Ditko.

[2] I could write a doctoral dissertation on him. I love him.

[3] The comic that inspired me to write this post.

[4] By the by, I accept a kind of underlying viciousness to Celine, Trocchi, David Goodis, Genet and so on, but these men had formulated philosophies on how the world worked. Their misanthropy served a purpose; it was indistinguishable from their art. And none of them mocked the very artform they chose to write in.

[5] The best X-villains are the Reavers, cyborgs armed with futuristic weapons, who represent the other possible branch of human evolution, man melding with machine. And, for other reasons, Nimrod. And the Sentinels. And Mr. Sinister. And Apocalypse. And the Hellfire Club. I wasn’t lying when I said I was a comic junky.

[6] Alan Moore’s Watchmen is partially about the ruin of human ingenuity in the face of Dr Manhattan, and how superheroes would very quickly become ossified, boorish, or tools of the state.

Simone and Pearl and the Power Cosmic! part 5: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

24 Feb

1.

No posts for a while. The stomach flu whipped through our house, snagging Beth first, then Simone, and then me. Pearl remained half-sick throughout; her MO is to carry a cold eight days a week. She’s a happy, toothy, snuffly baby who doesn’t cry[1].

Fever, chills, the shakes and aches, ignominy, retching, and delirium times three; there’s little room for dignity in a household under the banner of sickness. Too sick to read, too miserable to watch movies, too uncomfortable to enjoy other people. Simone bore her burden well. She kept shaking her head when we would tell her it’s okay to get sick. Her response: “No! It’s too stinky!”

Despite the nausea, Simone was pretty happy; she went on a movie binge, watching My Fair Lady; Meet Me in St. Louis; Singin’ in the Rain; and Hello, Dolly. She’ll be an expert on movie musicals by the time she reaches kindergarten. Which has been my plan all along.

The only good thing to come out of it is the return of my appetite and my first cup of coffee in three days. And a major itch to get back to writing. Of course, I also have to return to work.

Back to life. Back to reality[2].

2.

I have plenty of half-written essays soon to be posted, including a lengthy essay on The Master, and an essay on Downton Abbey[3]. I (mostly) ceased caring about the Oscars a long time ago, but I’ll be disappointed when Hoffman, Adams and Phoenix are passed over for the acting awards, despite the fact that they should all win the top honors. (Here’s another prediction: my gut tells me Silver Linings Playbook—which to me was mediocre, although it looked great—will run away with most of the awards. That and Argo.) I also have a multi-part history of black cinema, “Little Ben and the Gnostic Christ,” and “Soccer-skate-surf-punk Pensacola.” That’s a preview, however, not a promise. Don’t know what will make it here or when.

The imagination can be a mercurial thing. My thoughts slip and slide. I don’t procrastinate, I lose interest. I sometimes have difficulty focusing my attention. I write in manic bursts—always have—and then slide into a lonely stupor.

Since Christmas, I’ve been on a reading tear. The Twenty-Year Death (a neo-noir three-part novel written in the styles of Georges Simenon, then Raymond Chandler, then Jim Thompson and it’s excellent); The Natural (Bernard Malamud is superb, my nominee for the most underrated writer of the last fifty years); Tenth of December (worthy of all the attention it’s getting, and more so); The Big Screen (David Thomson’s history of the movies and it’s just great); Somebody (a marvelous biography of Marlon Brando, and I’m only a quarter of the way in); Little Big Man (a very fine romp of a western, I liked it, but ten years ago I would have loved it) and The Ginger Man (one of the best novels I’ve read in years, funny, complex, beautiful, moving, squalid, yet easy to read). I’m also re-reading Sandman for the umpteenth time and finding it to be as rich, satisfying and rewarding as the first time I read it. It’s a milestone, and alongside The Invisibles and Promethea, a reminder of how tame and un-ambitious most comics series are.

I also re-read Heart of Darkness, a few pages a week here and there, and it still holds a disturbing, dark magnetism, and plenty of surprises. There’s a scene near the end when the narrator first sees Kurtz’s house, and it’s ringed by decapitated heads stuck on poles, and the heads are all facing Kurtz’s house. A throwaway detail that explains so much. It’s such an appalling, dense and rich work. Why they teach it in high school is a mystery to me. I despised it when I was eighteen, loved it just two years later.

3.

Finally, the real reason I’ve been posting less: I’m back in the submitting game, with a novel manuscript (which I’ve worked through three drafts), an excerpt that (mostly) works as a stand-alone story, and a short story. I’ve sent the novel to three places. I’ve sent the short story to six or seven. I’ve sent the excerpt just to one place: the New Yorker. Fail big, my friends. That’s my motto. Any neo-friends in the digital ether who want to help a stranger, I’m here.

More to come.


[1] Except in the middle of the night.

[2] I doth quote En Vogue freely.

[3] Prepare to have your mindgrapes blown.

My life with Ayn Rand and Steve Ditko.

26 Nov

1.

I’ve been a busy beaver over Thanksgiving. I read Woes of the True Policeman, by Roberto Bolano—it’s superb, but more on that in another post—and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I also finished Heaven’s Gate, the notorious nearly four hour flop by Michael Cimino[1]. I finally got around to watching Bunuel’s The Avenging Angel, a movie I’ve wanted to see for ten years.

And I finished reading Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko. It’s a coffee table book that examines the odd life and even odder work of one of the great comic book illustrators of the 20th century.

I cut my teeth on Steve Ditko’s comics. I bought the reprint digests of the first fifty Spiderman comics[2]. They were little pocket books and I loved them.

Ditko insisted on Peter Parker’s personal life sharing half the time with Spiderman, and even more importantly, he insisted that Parker’s personal life be negatively impacted by his superhero alter-ego. Unlike all his costumed counterparts, Parker’s powers ruined his life; they shackled him with an unwanted responsibility, and led to the death of his uncle. Fearing for the health of his aunt, he couldn’t take credit for any of his good deeds. He was misunderstood, maligned and mistreated. And when he did do something right, it often came at the expense of Parker the teen. It was brilliant, and so powerful a storytelling device that all four of the big-budget Spiderman films continued with this same theme.

Parker wins and Spiderman loses. Spiderman wins and Parker is caput. Parker is so hopelessly inept at balancing his two lives that he skirts by in each, an anxious wreck. Good writers toy with this psychic dissonance in the character.

Ditko’s artwork was elegant but strange. Odd perspectives, jagged otherworldly dimensions and simple but disturbed faces. He was marvelous at pacing his stories and draw action scenes with a spare panache.

An example of Ditko’s funky yet elegant artwork.

His scripting partner on the series was Stan Lee.

Ditko and Lee were an odd pair. Lee was a shameless self-promoter, left-leaning, and hip to the sixties counterculture. Ditko scorned publicity, despised liberal politics and had nothing but disdain for many of the causes of the 1960s. Their working relationship deteriorated quickly, and soon they were hardly speaking. (Lee was busy with other Marvel titles, adding jokes and gags to Jack Kirby’s grim, Gnostic, despairing stories in the Fantastic Four, among other titles.)

Ditko did the plotting, the layouts and the story ideas. Lee filled in the dialogue in the word bubbles. This is an essential point: Ditko did the creating; Lee was scripting in existing comic pages. Ditko created the Vulture, Mysterio, the Tinkerer, Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, Kraven, the Scorpion, Chameleon, Sandman and Electro. These are more or less still the major villains in the Spiderman universe. He created Dr. Strange, Dormammu, the Hulk, and the Leader. For Charlton Comics he created Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, The Question and the Creeper. These Charlton characters are the basis and inspiration for Alan Moore’s Watchmen, arguably the most influential comic of all time.

A creepy old dude who can fly; one of Ditko’s greatest characters.

Lee became rich and famous, Ditko poor and unknown. Just as Spiderman was becoming a major hit, Ditko walked away from the project and never looked back. It’s one of the big injustices in a system that thrived on stealing ideas from the creators. The answer to why he left is straight-forward, if strange. He became a hardline objectivist.

2.

You can’t kill an idea, not even a terrible one. Ayn Rand’s philosophy is silly, elitist, unsustainable and, well, wacky. She marries antiquated notions of chivalry and heroics while eschewing the moral, religious, and cultural fabric—the things that left-leaning people feel need to be strengthened, not weakened—that holds society together. Her novels are creaky morality tales with little morality. Her heroes are the elite, venture capitalists, bankers. Her characters withdraw; her characters subvert; her characters destroy their work instead of agreeing to any compromise. No welfare, no social security, no empathy, no pity. No common cause, no greater good, no treatment for inter-generational poverty, no understanding, nothing but the relentless pursuit of personal gain. She codifies selfish acts in a way that makes them seem noble. She argues that we have a moral obligation to be selfish. Only in this way can we make the most of our potential and make the world a better place. The world of business is an ambiguous place, yet somehow Rand and her acolytes see it as the most moral of undertakings. She turns most of our assumptions on their head, presenting a potent challenge to conventional liberal thinking. On the surface anyway.

It’s a simplistic, and self-serving paradigm that allows its adherents to act like, well, assholes, and challenges them to live a life without compromise. It’s the cult of the individual, what Alan Moore calls, “white supremacist dreams of the master race, burnt in an early-20th century form.”

Boo. Hiss. Boo.

Ditko picked up on Rand’s Objectivism sometime in the 1950s. He wasn’t alone. Reagan bought into aspects of her philosophy around this time, wedding them (strangely, as Rand was an aggressive opponent to all religions) to conservative Christianity of Randian ideas bubble up from the philosophical sub-basement every fifteen years or so, cause plenty of silly talk about the role of government, equating some baseline for the good of the many ideas—ideas that almost every human being basically agrees with; for instance, I’ve never met anyone who would argue that as a society we should just let people starve to death in the streets—with the food shortages and gulags of her Soviet-collectivist childhood. People are selfish. Governments attempting to abridge this selfishness cause harm to everyone. No one ever made a great scientific discovery, one acolyte of hers told me some ten years ago, out of some sense of helping other people[3]. She utilized a kind of simpler form of existentialism. There is no such thing as fate. We are free agents acting out our grandiose lives on an untethered stage.

How conservative Christians glommed onto this materialistic philosophy—antithetical to the gospels—is material worthy of a book. The Biblical gospels are, at their essence, socialist texts. Jesus and his disciples live in a communal way. There’s no advertising or publicity, no exchange of money for Jesus’s services, no ownership of land. It’s heal and help the poor, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and a more than apparent disdain for the wealthy.

Right wing thinkers have over the years extrapolated a free market cosmology from a single phrase in the new testament, ignoring the pages and pages of caring for the poor,  So Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple gets book-length exegetical treatment. But his advice to discard material things is passed over.

We’re still living with Rand’s ideas today. The core of her political beliefs is that governments are evil, and only in a free market system, with no external control or meddling, can people achieve their true potential. She’s a tough nut: no regulations, no welfare, no taxes, no social security, no charity, and no pity. I haven’t read her deeply enough to discover what she thinks should be done about the disabled, or trans-generational poverty, slums, environmental catastrophes, sweat shops and the like.

I’m not giving Rand a totally fair shake—she was quite funny in interviews—but I don’t think I need to. Her ideas harm individuals and the boy politic. I should know. I was a follower myself, I just didn’t know it.

3.

As a teenager, I flirted with Rand’s ideas. I was raised in the Southern Baptist milieu. I went to a conservative Christian school as a child, and a (mostly) conservative Catholic high school. I moved to Montgomery, Alabama, for college, a more conservative town than Pensacola, which was a shock.

At 19, I went out to Colorado Springs to Summit, a two-week conference for burgeoning Christian intellectuals. There I was bombarded with Christian and far-right political doctrine. One speaker would rail against the (communist-backed) environmental movement, and the next would give tips on how to minister to strangers. Christian charity could solve all of the social ills of our country if the government would just stop preventing young people from praying in schools.

The big threat to us, the Summit speakers kept hammering home, was moral relativism, secular humanism, and the cult of liberal thinking.

It was an intense time. I read Stormer, Bastiat, Jobe Martin and the like. I quit drinking. I bought into an ascetic lifestyle. Joy was for wimps. Pleasure was for sinners. I would walk the golden road.

I took these ideas back to college and became a vocal opponent of many of my professors. I argued against evolution. I bickered about moral relativism[4]. I combated every instance of bias I perceived in the classroom. I was a little David Horowitz, a junior neo-conservative in long pants. I dismissed the U.N., had contempt for foreign intervention. I complained of government spending. I obsessed over the national debt. I brooded over the immorality of taxes. I deified the founding fathers[5]. I subscribed to the cult of the individual. It was a house built on sand. I would say things like, “You can’t legislate morality,” and then I would give my own moral take on things. I would complain of activist judges, but laud judges who ruled in a way that aligned with my beliefs.

I was full of disgust. I was a machine of raw resentment. I carried a bilious taste in my mouth. I operated with a negative enlightenment. I was a libertarian, and proud of it, with a penchant for Coors Light and trangressive literature. I’ve discussed this elsewhere (read it here) but there’s one immutable fact to my Randian beliefs and its cruel disconnectedness to community, history: these beliefs did not make me happy at all. I felt removed from the people around me. Lucky for me, literature saved me.

4.

Back to Ditko. He operates as a cipher to understanding how bad ideas can ruin a person’s talents. Ditko’s intransigence has soiled his gifts. He refused to collaborate in a collaborative medium, and he abandoned his vast storytelling abilities for preachy didacticism.

Rand’s hooks in Ditko ruined his career. He sabotaged good projects, refused to even minute changes, refused to budge. His later comics are didactic and boring; characters preach Rand’s precepts with just the slightest veneer of a story. He denied help, he shrugged off praise, he intentionally turned in inferior work, he distanced himself from the most popular comic book character of all time, a character he created. It’s infuriating, rooting for him, and puzzling.

Ditko at his finest.

Still, Ditko is a sad case. He’s been denied proper credit for his role in creating Spider-man. He’s made next to nothing on the character he invented. He lives off of a military pension, while Spiderman continues to be one of the most recognized and powerful fictional characters in the world. Rumor has it that for a while he lived in a common rented room at a New York Y.

He is one of the greatest innovators in comics history. Yet he spent much of the 1980s doing cheap television knock-off books, and even did a Transformers coloring book for the Marvel television division. It breaks the heart.

He could make a living selling his original artwork, or even prints, but his philosophy prevents him. He has deprived the world of his art, and inflicted decades of financial hardship on himself. And all for nothing. He’s changed no hearts, altered no minds. He’s Sisyphus, and the stone is his own absurd beliefs.

postscript:

There’s a very entertaining documentary on Ditko made for BBC television. You can watch it here.


[1] A pretty good movie, and at times, absolutely stunning.

[2] John Romita was the second artist on the book, and a very fine artist, too, probably better in his technique, but more straight-forward in his renditions. With Romita, Stan Lee did all the writing and plotting himself. Spiderman lost some of its essential strangeness.

[3] I tried arguing with him but saw quickly that you can’t argue with an objectivist. They refuse to see any trace of logic in any position other than their own.

[4] I still do.

[5] Except Jefferson.

October Roundup

10 Oct

I’ve been putting off writing for weeks. The new school year, graduate school, a new job for Beth, and coaching yet another losing season of middle school soccer: time is tight.

Simone now talks in three and four-word sentences. She can say peacock—I have no idea why—as well as dinosaur, give me a bite, me a sip, and the spectrum of monosyllabic words. Her tantrums are few and far between, she always wants to wash her hands, and she can sort of jog backwards. She is, in a word, a delight. She has an internal life that we don’t quite understand; for instance, she gets very upset when Beth pulls her hair into a ponytail.

I’ve been in a writing funk, and haven’t been able to muster the energy to finish any of the longer pieces. (Or the latest novel, for that matter.) So, instead, here’s a roundup of the things I’ve been watching and reading.

 Movies:

Andy Robinson and Walter Matthau on the run from the law and at odds with each other.

Charley Varrick—Walter Matthau’s face tells the story of ten thousand, hangdog losers. His cheeks droop like melted wax. His eyes hang in his fleshy face like two unwashed stones. It’s a face only a mother could love, and he used it to create a fantastic career. I love watching great character actors age; they begin to deliver these lazy performances, where the lines are just right. Varrick is a small little crime caper, following low rent bank robbers through the southwest, hiding out from the mobsters they have inadvertently stolen from. It’s a Don Siegel movie, so it’s violent, a bit off-kilter, but also laid back. Check it out.

 

One of the best movies from the last few years, thrilling and beautiful and sad.

Blue Valentine—A fantastic, biting little movie about the disintegration of a couple, the devastating effects of miscommunication, and the end of things. Ryan Gosling and Michele Williams play a husband and wife who are at the end of their romance. They can’t communicate; they are each living a life they didn’t want and don’t quite understand; their attempts to resuscitate their marriage are, by movie’s end, almost laughable. The film is shot out of order. The importance of certain scenes sneaks up on you. The whole thing is saturated with a piercing and savage anger. It’s precise, edgy and challenging, a superb, muscular and rigorous piece of work, a drama that is sexy and thrilling, while maintaining all the concision of a Raymond Carver short story.

You don’t always need forty hours to tell a story. Sometimes less than two will do.

 

A very creepy movie about housesitting and maybe the end of the world.

House of the Devil—There’s a low budget trend in filmmaking, and it’s a good thing. Directors have to rely on moody atmospherics and good writing. The special effects machine is burning itself out. House of the Devil is a great example of this, a throwback to the 1970s horror movies. Small-scale, a few sets, a creeping feeling of escalating horror. It delivers the goods.

Television:

The West Wing: fast-paced and often funny.

West Wing—It’s becoming a matter of movies versus TV, and I’m not happy about it. Television has made immense strides in terms of quality, narrative and moral complexity. (I’m working on a longer entry on this.) The West Wing was one of the first quality television shows and its a hell of a political education. The show walks you through the backroom political process, usually through the main characters delivering speeches to the many ciphers that dance along the edges of the show. Aaron Sorokin wrote almost eighty episodes by himself, which puts him in the upper echelons of screenwriting. The actors are very good (Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and Martin Sheen are standouts); the show is tense, often funny; the only drawback is its tendency toward didacticism. Sorokin wants to convince the viewers that a tough but intellectually inclined liberal would make the best president. The show misses out on real dramatic potential because of this underlying conceit.

Sorokin’s style is akin to the Lubitsch rat-a-tat style of the 1930s screwball comedies. When he’s good, he’s great.

The musical score is, and this is being charitable, horrendous: cheesy and bouncy and both impossible to ignore yet impossible to remember. And when the show is bad, it’s terrible.

The show learns from its mistakes, dropping characters that aren’t working and moving past storylines that lack gravitas. But, this is a drawback, too, as the show whips past some storylines that could use a little time to marinate.

But overall it’s an enlightening glimpse into the world where policies are actually made (and broken).

A great singer on an intriguing show.

Glee—An education of a different kind, with so much to like and only a little to despair. The show has synthesized the history of musicals into a mashup of songs and styles ranging from the 1950s to the oughts. The song numbers range from the sublime—they deliver killer versions of “Baby, it’s cold outside,” “Teenage Dream,” “Cabaret,” and “Bills, Bills, Bills” among others—to the hokey (most of the showtune ballads).

Glee is flashy, sometimes saccharine, overly sentimental, and at times downright corny. It’s also clever, funny, exhilarating, and celebratory.

And for all its meteoric popularity, it’s misunderstood.

The show is less about acceptance than about resilience in the face of failure. But the failure is often unqualified and deserving; the characters are repeatedly defeated, admonished, embarrassed, humiliated and outright beaten. They aren’t talented enough.

It’s an intriguing character study of people who’ve failed. The first season understands this, focusing on the adults more than the children. Shuster, who never took a shot at anything beyond the small town where he grew up; Emma, paralyzed by childhood compulsions; Sue, a tyrant so emotionally clogged she bullies everyone out of existential self-defense.

The show returns to this notion of failure over and over. The overall effect is a pungent and even withering meditation on inadequacy, deficiency and lack of achievement.

The counterpoint to this theme is the show’s other main character, Rachel. She’s talented, ambitious, difficult, and driven, and unlike other shows and movies, it’s cleat that the writers of Glee don’t think this is a bad thing at all, but necessary and good. Without her devotion to her dreams, she will fail, and watching her frustrate and annoy the other members but then wow them with her talent is one of the show’s great pleasures. (The actress who plays her, Lea Michele, is an amazing singer.)

In season 2, Glee has fled from the yearnings and failings of the adults to the yearnings and failings of the teenagers. This is a mistake. The teenagers aren’t as interesting and they can’t be. They sit on the cusp of a world that will no longer protect them, and they don’t understand the thousand little failures and compromises that await.

Too many show tunes. Too many ballads. Too many repeating storylines. A touch of the afterschool special. All of Glee’s problems could be fixed by a shorter season and less episodes. My other problem is the filmmaking. The show has a style, with bold colors and lots of closeups of people’s faces, but it moves the camera too much. There are three fantastic dancers, but their numbers are cut into thirty or forty shots, when one or two would suffice. Tis a pity.

Still, like a good stage musical, when the storyline and the emotional lives of the characters intertwine with the emotional arc of the song, the show strikes a euphoric chord.

Books and comics:

I’ve been struggling with novels. I’ve started half a dozen: Achilles; The Remains of the Day; Leaf Storm (novella by Marquez); Ten Thousand Saints. But I keep stopping around page 50. So, I’ve turned to histories, comics, short stories and even poetry. (I’m making my way through Kanzantikos’s sequel to the Odyssey. So far, it’s great.)

God Against the Gods—Kirsch has written a concise overview of the conflict between monotheism and polytheism. It’s a great read. The two main characters in the book are Constantine and his great nephew Julian.

The story of Constantine is one of the best films never made. He was the illegitimate son of a noble and a prostitute. He schemed and fought his way to the rank of Augustus. (At the time, the Roman Empire had two major rulers and two minor rulers; Diocletian created this power-sharing scheme to protect the empire from weak rulers. He was a good leader, when he wasn’t torturing Christians.) Constantine battled his way to sole control, made Christianity the state religion, and then attempted to reconcile the various heretical threads into a single church. (He succeeded in a sense, failed in another.) As he aged, he realized his sons weren’t up to the task of running the whole empire, so he split it up between Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II, and then he died. His sons went to war.

Constantius II, go figure with a name like that, emerged victorious. He was weaker, more violent, more suspicious and more tyrannical than his father. He made paganism illegal, burned down places of worship, persecuted Christians who believed differently than he. (He was, by Catholic standards, a heretic.) Through grueling years of intrigue, he murdered or had killed his entire family, hundreds of people, leaving his two nephews, Galus and Julian. With Persia rebuilding itself for an attack, he attempted to raise both to the position of Caesar. He had Galus killed. But before he could dispatch Julian, he died.

Julian is an oddball in history. He was an ascetic, a scholar, a great field commander, and a formidable intellect. He was also fair, honest, decent and law abiding. He was all the things his family was not, and for his short reign, a very fine ruler.

But he was on the wrong side of history. He attempted to return to pluralism, reverting the state back to paganism, but not—and this is a key component to the story—making Christianity illegal. Killing by a tossed lance during a Persian campaign, Julian remains one of the history’s big question marks.

Thus endeth the brief history lesson. Gore Vidal’s Julian covers the story of the pagan emperor on the wrong side of history, and for those who are interested, it’s a great read.

 

A disappointing relaunch from my favorite comic book author.

DC new 52—Comics are, without question, on the whole the best they’ve ever been. The writing is inventive, cinematic. The types of comics are varied and diverse. The art has returned to the glory days of the clean 1970s style. But, monthly comics, on the whole, are losing readers. (I’ll write an entry about why later, but the gist of it is the two major superhero universes have become convoluted and have lost their sense of wonder and fun.) DC decided to do something drastic. And so far, the The DC comics restart has driven thousands of new buyers into the comic bookstores. It’s paid off. But it’s annoying. Comics that I would have bought have sold out, and demand has driven the price of the first printings up to 10 bucks a piece. I only got Action Comics, because Grant Morrison is the author, and it was a big letdown. The art was mediocre; the story was listless; the take on Superman a bit boring and banal. I’ll hang around for a few issues, but I didn’t like what I’ve read so far.

 

Great storytelling and clean lines.

FF—The current run on the Fantastic Four is a nerd’s dream, a science fiction phantasm with forty or so characters and a convoluted storyline. (Or rather, set of storylines. There are dozens of things happening at once: Sue Storm taking over the rule of a pre-Atlantis undersea kingdom; Galactus being killed in the future to save the past; Black Bolt taking over the Kree Empire; Doctor Doom losing and then regaining his dark intellect; and so on.) There’s alternate dimensions, the death of the human torch, Spiderman joins the team, and three evil Reed Richards from alternate timelines are attempting to destroy the earth. The stories are heavy on the scienceThe art, by Steve Epting, is superb.

 

Globe-trotting, superspy heroics

Captain America—Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America has been astonishing. The basic story has been to shift the plot away from Steve Rogers to his former sidekick Bucky. Brainwashed by the Soviets after the war, Bucky became an assassin called the Winter Soldier. Returned to full cognition, he takes over the Captain America uniform when Steve Rogers is “killed.” (Only three or four characters have ever stayed dead in superhero comics.) Steve Epting and Butch Guise, both great artists, have given the book a great consistent look. It’s the best run since Mark Gruenwald’s ten-year run starting in the 1980s.

 

The best monthly comic.

B.P.R.D.—The best monthly comic, bar none, and a kooky blast of Lovecraftian powerpop. The misfits from the edges of Hellboy here get their own title, a quirky team book following a handful of science and cult heroes attempting to prevent the destruction of the world by Cthonic spacegods. They’re losing, and the deformation of the earth at the hands of the cosmic villains has been amazing.

 Writing:

The biggest black hole in my life. For the last two weeks I’ve written one paper (it was glorious, but still only a paper) and a few pages of the newest novel. It feels like sinking into quicksand. It feels like ghost pains from an amputated limb. Some days I don’t think about writing at all. I can feel words receding. I can feel the story of the moment shifting like sand between my fingers. I have waking nightmares about lines of story leaking out of my skull.

Our dreams don’t implode, they die slowly, like wilting roses, or water dissipating in unfiltered sunlight.

Au revoir, faceless readers; there’s always more to come.

Me, chewing on writer's block and fighting back tears.