Sunday, November 30, 2008

Comics Review: E.C. Segar, The Complete Popeye, Volume III: "Let's You and Him Fight"

My review of The Complete Popeye, Volume I can be read by clicking here. My review of Volume II is here.

The Complete Popeye, Volume III collects E.C. Segar's daily Thimble Theater strips from June 9, 1932 through December 9, 1933, the Sundays from October 9, 1932 through November 26, 1933, and a 1933 advertising insert featuring the Thimble Theater characters that promotes the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago. This collection doesn't have anything comparable to the absurdist highs of the Volume II strips; the satirical impulse behind the "One-Way Bank" and Nazilia-Tonsylania War storylines isn't as conspicuous. Segar's focus this time out is all but exclusively on slapstick and character comedy. He does it well, particularly with his handling of the Wimpy character, who dominates the Sunday strips featured here. Overall, though, the book doesn't quite escape the damning-with-faint-praise label "of largely historical interest".

However, it should be said that there is a great deal of historical interest present, particularly in "The Eighth Sea" sequence that covers Chapters I-III. The animators Max and Dave Fleischer licensed the Thimble Theater material for adaptation around the time these strips were originally published, and "The Eighth Sea" gave them their recurring antagonist for Popeye: the bearded, musclebound sailor/pirate Bluto. It's not hard to see from these strips why the Fleischers and later animators chose to use Bluto as Popeye's perpetual nemesis. He's completely malevolent, he competes with Popeye for the same goals, and he's the only character who can hold his own with Popeye in a fight--the climactic brawl between the two takes up two full weeks of dailies. What's most surprising is that Segar, at least in this volume, never brings Bluto back. (Segar was certainly happy to include the spinach from this point on: Popeye's love for the vegetable--it gives him "strenk an' vitaliky"--first appears in this sequence as well, and it becomes a recurring element of the strip.) A good hero is almost always defined by a good villain, and Bluto, who's so greedy that he steals the gold fillings from his henchmen's teeth, comes closer to being Popeye's antithesis than any other character.

Bluto (and spinach) aside, "The Eighth Sea" sequence is the strongest of the daily continuities in this volume. Segar structures it in distinct sections, all of which have their defining piece of slapstick. The story revolves around Popeye's quest to find Dooma, "a lost city of gold in an unknown sea," and his journey is hampered by one complication after another. A "black Chinese parrot" is the only way of finding the island, but Popeye finds it quite uncooperative--it tells him to learn to speak English before trying to talk to it in Chinese. Olive Oyl insists on coming along, but Popeye won't hear of it. As they're not married, he feels she needs a "shappyroon" if she's to accompany him, and anyway, it's bad luck to have a woman along on a treasure hunt. His crew feel the same way, and after Olive forces Popeye to take her along (she parachutes onto his boat once it's at sea), he has to quell a mutiny. The battle royale with Bluto is the sequence's centerpiece scene, and a good deal of time is also taken up with Merlock Jones, a stowaway detective who confounds the various characters with his mastery of disguise.

The satirical tack that distingushed the dailies in Volume II isn't entirely absent. Popeye returns to Nazilia at the end of "The Eighth Sea" adventure, and King Blozo is now flush with gold for the nation's treasury. Popeye tells him he should share it with the nation's citizens, a course of action that Blozo, despite his initial objections, eventually goes along with. However, when every citizen receives his or her gold, they all choose to retire and live a life of luxury. The country of course grinds to a complete halt, with the citizenry complaining, "How can we spend the gold you gave us? All the stores and shops are closed. There ain't no place open." The Nazilia sequence also features some sharp absurdist bits, such as the time Blozo decides to give a condemned prisoner clemency. The callousness on display is hilarious:

KING BLOZO: Well, if you haven't already cut off his head, why, don't cut it off--I've changed my mind.
EXECUTIONER: I think you're just trying to save my sixty-cent fee--you know my business has been bad--please let me execute him.
KING BLOZO: You say you need that fee to buy shoes for your kid?
KING BLOZO: Oh, all right--go ahead.
It just isn't right to pay people unless they earn their keep.

The continuity that follows the initial sequence on Nazilia is disappointing. Popeye convinces King Blozo to let him have a neighboring island on which he can found his own country of Popilania. The text panel that introduces the story raises hopes that the story will reach the satirical heights of the Nazilia-Tonsylania War storyline--it describes Popilania as a utopia where "trouble will be unknown" and "spinach will be the national crop," but it gets bogged down with Popeye's dealings with a prelapsarian native population. A war with the nation of Cuspidor seems to mine the same vein of humor as the Nazilia-Tonsylania conflict, and the competition between Popeye and King Blozo for Nazilia's citizenry just seems frivolous, if not outright juvenile. Some humor hasn't worn well over the decades, and jokes about attracting single young men with comely brides who don't speak a word of their language just fall flat.

The bright spot of the Popilania sequence is the addition of Wimpy to the daily strip's cast. The storyline highlights what an articulate and well-mannered coward he is. He's refreshingly straightforward in his insights, such as when he describes a diplomat as "a person who gives the worst sort of deal in a nice way." He's also quite honest about himself--Popeye berates him for abandoning Olive Oyl to the natives, and when Wimpy is asked why he replies, quite simply, "Self-preservation." Wimpy's insistence on good manners leads to some delightful moments as well. Popeye brutally insults a soldier in the Popilanian army, and Wimpy will have none of it:

WIMPY: You mustn't talk like that--do you want to hurt our army's feelings? Shame upon you!
POPEYE: Aw, pipe down!
WIMPY: There... there now, Mr. Shultz... don't you cry. Everything will be all right.
There's never any excuse for poor manners.

Wimpy, though, really comes into his own as a character in this volume's Sunday strips. Segar's treatment of him in the volume's dailies highlight other aspects of the character, and considered against the Sundays, they're just the icing on the cake. The Sundays feature him in all his mooching glory. Wimpy is always trying to cadge food out of the proprietor of the local diner, constantly making his classic promise, "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger to-day," which is often accompanied by the less well-known "I want you to come to my house sometime for a duck dinner--you bring the ducks." His battery of tricks for getting food knows no shame. He steals fish from the city aquarium, and when he takes a job as a waiter, he can't resist temptation long enough to serve the customers' orders. He can't even follow through on a small act of charity: he buys a homeless man a hamburger and then eats the sandwich off the poor fellow's plate. Wimpy is sloth and selfishness incarnate, but the comic force of the character comes from his complete obliviousness to how self-centered he is. There's nothing the least bit self-conscious about him, and his shamelessness makes him oddly endearing.

It's hard to tell from this volume if there's a tension on Segar's part about which approach to stories he feels most comfortable with. Farce and slapstick are the strip's foundation, but he seems to be pulling back from the sharp satirical approach that's distinguished the best of his work so far in Thimble Theater. It's possible, though, that the volume reflects something a dry run; the final two daily continuities, which feature Popeye's adventures as a reporter and then as an amnesiac trying to take care of the baby Swee'Pea, are rather dull reads. Segar's reputation as a cartoonist is most based on the work in the years that followed this material--strips from 1936 through 1938 in particular are the basis of his stature--and the work in this volume, though uneven, certainly doesn't dissuade one's anticipation of it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Movies: Favorite Films

The storied French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma has polled 76 French filmmakers, critics, and industry executives on their favorite films. The 100 top vote-getters have been compiled in a new book titled 100 films pour une cinémathèque idéale. For those interested in seeing the list of films named, click here.

It's fun to see what the French are big on right now, and I have to admit I was surprised to see certain films listed (and sometimes ranked quite highly) that I wouldn't have expected to see at all. But rather than quibble with their list--they certainly have a right to it--I decided to put together one of my own. I've limited it, though, to a top ten list (albeit one with 12 films). Here are my favorites:

The Fabulous Baker Boys (Steve Kloves, 1989; USA)

The Fabulous Baker Boys is my all-time favorite film, which Pauline Kael described as "a romantic fantasy that has a forties-movie sultriness and an eighties movie-struck melancholy [...] a movie in which eighties glamour is being defined." I came of age in the eighties, and the movie's atmosphere, which combines the hard-boiled tone of forties movies with the cool-jazz ambience of the early sixties, was one I fell in love with right away. The story, about three nightclub musicians who come face to face with the good, bad, and ugly of their ambitions and relationships, hit me where I lived as well. Writer-director Steve Kloves stunningly realized his story with sharp characterizations, crackling dialogue, and one terrific setpiece after another. The three stars--Jeff Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Beau Bridges--are all terrific. The film is best known for featuring Pfeiffer's signature performance, and the various plaudits for her work here--Academy Award nomination, Newsweek cover story, Best Actress prizes from the Golden Globes, the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Board of Review--were all richly deserved.

City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931; USA)

City Lights is my pick for Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece, and it is perhaps the sweetest, most touching film ever made. It follows the Little Tramp as he tries to raise money to cure the girl he loves from blindness. The millionaire who can only remember his friendship with the Tramp when he's drunk is perhaps the funniest running gag in any of Chaplin's films, and the scene featuring the Tramp's boxing match is just about the greatest slapstick sequence on film. One aspect of the picture that I always get an enormous kick out of is the fact that a "silent" film features some of the most inventive use of sound effects that I've ever encountered. However, these all pale in comparison to the ending, which is one of the most beautiful moments to be found in any work, regardless of the medium. This film was ranked 17th in the Cahiers poll.

The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939; France)

"You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons."
There are so many things to admire about Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, including the extraordinarily sophisticated staging, the beautiful deep-focus cinematography, and the dynamic construction of the story, which shifts from comedy to tragedy and back and forth again. However, the aspect of the film that always stays with me is the sophistication of the character development throughout the ensemble. Everybody has their reasons at the weekend hunting getaway at a French estate just before World War II, and no matter how much those reasons change, they're always clear. It never once seems discordant when the various characters drop one lover for another; the shift in their whims always seems harmonious. It's moral and emotional relativism made lyrical, and it's charming and horrifying all at the same time. The Cahiers poll ranks this film third, and justly so. I know a lot of people who prefer Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert's Children of Paradise, but The Rules of the Game is the greatest of all French films, and it's good to see Renoir's countrymen acknowledge it.

L'avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960; Italy)

No filmmaker has ever combined anomie and glamour as well as Michelangelo Antonioni did in L'avventura. As in The Rules of the Game, prosperity destroys one's sense of moral direction; all that matters is one's whims. A woman (Lea Massari) disappears during a boating excursion to an island, and concern for what's happened to her quickly falls by the wayside. Not even her lover (Gabriele Ferzetti) or her best friend (Monica Vitti) can maintain their interest in finding her; they ultimately become more interested in each other before their attention wanders again. The story development is epiphanic; the point is not what happened to the missing woman, but what the lover and the best friend gradually discover about themselves. The quiet, deliberate pacing gives the movie the feel of an unusually subtle novel. In terms of staging and cinematography, the film is nothing less than exquisite--the compositions and scene choreography are so extraordinarily realized that the film is like a painting come to life. Antonioni, as James Monaco once observed, is one of the few directors who can make it on visual style alone. L'avventura, in my opinion, is the acme of post-WWII European film, and it's ranked 36th in the Cahiers poll.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971; USA)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman's melancholy, atmospheric Western centers on John McCabe (Warren Beatty), who is the American entrepreneurial spirit personified--he sees a market for liquor, gambling, and whores in a Pacific Northwest mining community, and he brings the place a brothel and a saloon. Julie Christie plays Mrs. Miller, the madam who becomes his business partner. Their biggest challenge comes from the mining company, who see their success and want it for themselves. All the clichés of the genre are present--the outlaw gunfighter trying to settle down and go straight, the hard-nosed businesswoman seen through sentimental blinders, the dastardly established interests trying to step on the little guy, and even the climactic gunfight in the town streets--but all are presented in a way that had never been shown in movies before, although it is probably as close as can be to how things really were. That, when combined with the remarkable use of ambient sound and Vilmos Zsigmond's extraordinary cinematography, which evokes the candlelit interiors and outside weather with equal delicacy, makes one feel that one has stepped out of a time machine into the past. One looks at later revisionist Westerns--Unforgiven, Deadwood, There Will Be Blood, etc.--and regardless of their prizes and acclaim, they all stand clearly in the shadow of this film.

The Godfather/The Godfather, Part II (Francis Ford Coppola 1972/1974; USA)

With The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, Francis Ford Coppola, working from a potboiler novel by Mario Puzo, accomplishes for the gangster film what McCabe & Mrs. Miller did for the Western. However, Coppola's style is as different from Altman's as can be. Altman used a naturalistic, documentary approach; Coppola's work is operatic in tone, with a Shakespearian sense of characterization--the Corleone family and those who surround them have become cultural archetypes. At the center of it all is the family's youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), who sought to escape life in the family's criminal empire, but whose sense of honor and duty ultimately lead him to rule it. In the process he becomes a greater monster than any he beheld. The films present the story of two generations of the Corleone family, from the arrival of Michael's father in the U.S. as a boy, to the moment of Michael's crossing the point of no return into evil. It's an epic story of the underside of the American Dream. In the Cahiers poll, the first film ranked number 40.

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975; USA)

Nashville, Robert Altman's greatest film, accomplishes what one would think impossible--it's a successful naturalistic satire. Satirical techniques work at cross-purposes with naturalism: they're rooted in exaggeration, and their aim is to heighten absurdities until they're unmistakable. Altman meets the challenge by centering the film on the outsize personalities of show business, specifically the performers and hangers-on in the country-music capital. The film's two dozen characters include the stars, the press and businesspeople who surround them, and the talented (and untalented) wannabes. They're parodies of themselves and, as Altman shows, human to the core. The character who's the center of attention is the star singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), and she's a microcosm of the film's contradictory approach: warmly observed, deeply sympathetic, and an utterly vicious parody of singer Loretta Lynn. (Lynn is alleged to have been so offended by the portrayal that she commissioned the biographical book and film Coal Miner's Daughter in response.) Altman's open-minded, ground-level approach opens up a world of possibilities, and one feels anything can happen and probably will--from the bedroom farce that climaxes with Keith Carradine's performance of "I'm Easy," to the assassination attempt on a singer that uncomfortably anticipates the murder of John Lennon. The film was reportedly cut from a four-hour running time to its present length of two hours, forty minutes, and one can easily imagine the truncated material being just as rich as what's in the final version. The film leaves one wanting more.

Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982; USA)

Tootsie is perhaps the finest farce to come out of Hollywood. All the classic elements are there--the false/mistaken identity, the cross-dressing, the ambitious fool of a protagonist--and they're perfectly attuned to the story's milieu. Dustin Hoffman stars as Michael Dorsey, a fanatical perfectionist of an actor whom no producer can stand to deal with. Unable to find work, he creates the alter ego of Dorothy Michaels to audition for a soap opera role and lands the part. The gender confusion humor finds rich veins to mine in every aspect of Michael's life, whether it's with his relationship with his girlfriend (Teri Garr), life with his roommate (Bill Murray), or just about everything to do with the soap opera, whether it's with the show's actresses, its aging-lothario star (George Gaynes), or its sexist-pig director (Dabney Coleman). Things get especially complicated when Michael falls in love with an actress on the program (Jessica Lange), only to find that her father (Charles Durning) has fallen in love with him as Dorothy. Director Sydney Pollack keeps the outstanding script (by Larry Gelbert, Murray Schisgal, Don McGuire, and an uncredited Elaine May) crackling along. Hoffman gives a masterful performance--Michael and Dorothy manage to be both distinct personalities and yet recognizable as part of the same person. The supporting cast, which also includes Pollack as Michael's agent, is nothing less than outstanding. The film was a career peak for nearly everyone involved.

Carlito's Way (Brian De Palma, 1993; USA)

Brian De Palma is perhaps the most brilliant of contemporary Hollywood directors, but he is also the most erratic, with a taste for violence, raunch, and black humor that makes him the most disreputable major filmmaker out there. Even the cheesiest of his films have passages that are nothing short of astonishing; one can dismiss Dressed to Kill as a ridiculous upscale slasher movie, but only the most insensate viewer could look at the romantic chase in the museum without being awed by De Palma's ability. His most artistically accomplished film is probably the Vietnam War drama Casualties of War, but my favorite by him is Carlito's Way, a tour de force of filmmaking flamboyance that is perhaps the most strikingly directed film to ever come out of Hollywood. Nearly every scene leaves one blown away by De Palma's directorial imagination and skill, whether it's the sharply executed drug deal gone bad in the first act, the through-the-door flirtatious thrust-and-parry between Carlito (Al Pacino) and his girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller), or the climactic chase that begins in a Spanish Harlem nightclub, continues through the New York subway, and ends in Grand Central Station. (The Steadicam shot in the moments at the Grand Central escalators is my nominee for the greatest shot in movie history.) De Palma is especially enamored with shooting scenes in a single take, and the complex staging he creates in response to the challenge is nothing less than extraordinary. His most remarkable achievement is in never letting the filmmaking pyrotechnics get in the way of the story. The story is about the efforts of a reformed drug kingpin trying to go straight against all odds, and it is never less than compelling. A number of viewers find the ending infuriating, but even that is a testament to De Palma's storytelling ability: he generates so much narrative momentum that he makes one forget that he showed how the story would end at the beginning. The film is a surprising omission from the Cahiers list. A poll the magazine conducted at the beginning of the decade ranked Carlito's Way as the best film of the 1990s.

Before Sunrise/Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 1995/2004; USA)

By itself, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise is a lovely romantic fantasy. The two main characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), are an American and a Frenchwoman in their early twenties who meet on a transcontinental European train and fall in love during a one-night stopover in Vienna. The film follows them through the city, guiding us through their infatuation, their awkward efforts to charm the other, the rapport they develop, and the passion for each other they eventually feel. No film has better captured the high of falling in love, and the couple's innocence and idealism made it especially sweet. However, the film ended on an unresolved note: Jesse and Céline's outside obligations demanded they go their separate ways in the morning, but they agree to meet again at the train station in six months. At the beginning of Before Sunset, which reunites the characters in Paris nine years later, we learn that they didn't meet again at the train station. Yet despite the passage of time, they fall in love all over again. The difference is that this time, their feelings have none of the purity and naivete of youth: their rapport is colored by the disappointments and anxieties that come with being an adult. Together, the two films are an extraordinarily rich treatment of the nature of love: the rush of it when one is younger, and the emotional complications that challenge it later in life. There's been talk of making subsequent installments in the years down the road. I, for one, look forward to them being made, and I hope they deepen our view of their subject as much as the second film did with the first.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Music Monday--Hugh Jackman, "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top"

Like most moviegoers, the first performance I saw by Hugh Jackman was as the Marvel Comics anti-hero Wolverine in the screen adaptation of X-Men (2000). I saw the film with friends the night it opened, and we came out of the theater blown away by how completely Jackman had nailed the character. He brilliantly captured the dynamic of violent anger, self-loathing, and good-heartedness that has made Wolverine the single most popular comic-book superhero to emerge during the last thirty-odd years. We were even more astonished when we saw Jackman on Jay Leno later that evening. Honestly, we could hardly believe it was the same person. His real-life manner--cheerful, high-spirited, flamboyant--was so diametrically opposed to that of the character he'd so effectively played that he was barely recognizable.

What's most remarkable about Jackman is that action-hero and other dramatic roles--as terrific as he is in them--are not his true métier. He's at his best in musical comedy. In addition to his acting skills, he has a gorgeous baritone singing voice, and, unusual for a man of his height (he's 6' 2 1/2"), he's a beautifully graceful dancer. Before doing X-Men, he was best known for his performance as Curly in Trevor Nunn's 1999 London production of Oklahoma!. After wrapping up his obligations to star in the first X-Men sequel and some other film projects, he headed straight to Broadway to star in The Boy from Oz, a stage-musical biography of musician Peter Allen. And it wasn't for a limited run, either. Jackman spent a year doing eight shows a week between October 2003 and September 2004, and his flamboyant, high-energy performance earned him a Best Actor Tony. He also made time to host the 2003, 2004, and 2005 Tony Awards, performing in several show-stopping musical numbers on all three occasions. He showed he could more than hold his own when dancing with the Rockettes or singing with Aretha Franklin, and he received an Emmy for hosting the 2004 show. (It was in the same category Stephen Colbert shakes his fist over losing year after year.)

Film audiences unfortunately haven't been able to see his genius as a musical-comedy performer. He turned down the role of Billy Flynn in the Oscar-winning film version of Chicago because he felt he was too young for it (the part went to Richard Gere), and other movie musical opportunities haven't presented themselves. However, now that he's wrapped up work on Baz Luhrmann's Australia (it opens Wednesday) and a solo Wolverine movie, there's talk he'll be playing Billy Bigelow in a new film version of Carousel. In the meantime, though, one can always enjoy his work in 1999's Oklahoma!, which had a special performance taped for video that's been released on DVD. My favorite song from it is "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," and it's this week's featured performance in Music Monday.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Comics Review: The Hernandez Brothers, Love and Rockets: New Stories #1

The first issue of Love and Rockets: New Stories, the latest incarnation of the showcase periodical for Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez's work, finds them both at a low ebb.

Gilbert, in particular, appears to be just blowing off steam. Since the previous Love and Rockets series ended last year, he's completed a full-length graphic novel in Speak of the Devil, and it's easy to see the nine pieces he contributes to this issue as fun-to-draw, for-the-hell-of-it efforts meant to recharge his batteries. They include three oddball strips in the daily-newspaper format, a goofy funny-animal story featuring a gambling kangaroo, and a madcap tribute to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis imitators Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, done up in the sort of story one might expect in the DC Comics Martin & Lewis series from the 1960s. The experimental piece "?" plays around with aspect-to-aspect panel progressions and Caligari-style surrealistic distortions. "Victory Dance" is apparently a send-off for Juan Julio, a featured character of Gilbert's in the last Love and Rockets series. The most interesting moment in the piece is the ending, which arbitrarily ties into the ending of another story, "Papa," a meandering effort that looks like it could intersect with the Palomar material but never does. These strips aren't much of a read, but they fly by quickly enough, and Gilbert's cartooning is as energetic and expressive as ever.

"Chiro el Indio," which Gilbert cartooned from his brother Mario's script, is the most entertaining story in the issue. Set in what appears to be a 19th-century Central American village, it's an amusing slapstick piece that pits traditional Latino Indian religion against the governing Roman Catholic faith. The main characters are the forever squabbling Indian couple Chiro el Indio and Preciosa, and much of the story revolves around their arguments over who will bring rain if prayed to: the "Beer Hen" Mary or Quetzaquatl, divine king of the Toltacs. The central joke guiding the strip is that everyone defines his or her life through religion without ever having anything resembling a spiritual connection to it. The various characters--the impulsive, high-strung Chiro, the cynical-but-gullible Preciosa, Chiro's sexpot "savage" sidekick Moom-Fah, the randy monsignor, and the exasperated town mayor--show comic potential that would seem to go beyond this one short, and one looks forward to Mario and Gilbert doing more with them.

However, the story that dominates the issue--it takes up half of the hundred pages--is Jaime's "Ti-Girls Adventures No. 34." It's a remarkably vapid strip that reimagines the superhero genre with Jaime's standard-issue fantasy girlfriend characters. Jaime's central flaw as a cartoonist is that he doesn't really write stories; he commits his daydreams to paper. (He may load them up with grit and angst, but they're daydreams nonetheless.) His pieces are rarely worked out in terms of dramatic conflicts or narrative effects; one thing just happens after another, and the reader's interest is largely defined by how much one shares Jaime's infatuation with the girls he depicts. I quit finding the ding-a-ling behavior of late teenage girls charming somewhere in my mid-20s, when my hormones cooled down enough to look at them and not fight the temptation to drool. Jaime's pushing 50, and he still hasn't gotten over them. His delight is palpable in moments like the one when two girls are putting on make-up and happily exclaim, "Oh, look at us. We're so gonna look like whores." And he's obsessed with their bodies; he rarely indulges in drawing overt cheesecake, but one can tell he's thought out every aspect of their figures and poses, and with a big grin on his face the entire time. I have no doubt his favorite visual detail in the story is how one girl's skin-tight top keeps riding up over her belly. "Ti-Girls" seems like a complete waste of time, largely because it doesn't feature much of the well-observed social detail that helps one through the "Locas" material. It also doesn't have any characters like Izzy Reubens or Terry Downe, who have an urgency for Jaime that snaps him out of his daydream mode and compels him to think like a proper storyteller. "Ti-Girls" is just a jokey good-girl superhero piece, and it evaporates while one is reading it. The story's supposed to continue in the next issue, but I doubt anyone will care if Jaime drops it in favor of something else.

It must be said that Jaime's art is phenomenally good, though. I prefer Gilbert's looser, more expressive style, but Jaime's draftsmanship is just astonishing. As impatient as I get with his story material, there's no denying the skill and sophistication of his visual treatment. His sense of black-and-white design is peerless, as is his precision with delineating character expression and gestures. The action is clear and uncluttered, and there's not a lapse anywhere in the drawing of figures or places. So much ability that so little worthwhile is done with. Jaime is alternative comics' answer to Alex Toth, another masterful cartoon dramatist who wouldn't have known a good story if it hugged him.

A number of reviewers have observed that Love and Rockets: New Stories harkens back to Gilbert and Jaime's earliest efforts at the start of the 1980s--pieces like "BEM" or the Maggie the Mechanic material. There may be something to that; the key difference with Jaime's "Ti-Girls" piece, at least, is that the execution is much more polished. But the Hernandezes' reputation was built on their expanding comics' capacity for handling extended realist narratives. Who knows, they may have gone as far with that as they can go--it's always possible the realistic material might stop having expressive urgency for them. But one hopes the first issue of the New Stories doesn't signal a new direction for their work. It's hard to feel they're doing anything here besides spinning their wheels, which is guaranteed to get everyone nowhere fast.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Know Thyself

Anglachel, Historiann, and others have been having a grand old time playing around with the various blog analysis sites out there. I got a kick out of them myself, and I thought I'd share the results.

According to GenderAnalyzer's reading of this site, there's a 77% chance I'm a man. I don't know why I should be seen as less masculine than Anglachel, whom the site says has an 80% chance of being male. However, her writing feminist polemics doesn't seem have any impact on her score. Subjecting my topic-day URLs to the analysis shows that the least masculine writing on this site comes from the movie reviews and the poetry essays. Why the writing there is any less masculine than the philosophy discussion pieces, which the analysis says is by far the manliest writing on the blog, I'll never know.

Typealyzer looks at the blog in toto and says I'm an INTP type, or a "Thinker." When submitted individually, all but two of the topic-day URLs say the same thing. Here's the description:

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.
However, the Music Monday feature is produced by an "ISFP" type, or an "Artist," described as:

The gentle and compassionate type. They are especially attuned their inner values and what other people need. They are not friends of many words and tend to take the worries of the world on their shoulders. They tend to follow the path of least resistance and have to look out not to be taken advantage of.

They often prefer working quietly, behind the scene as a part of a team. They tend to value their friends and family above what they do for a living.
The FCLA Friday feature, on the other hand, marks me as an ISTP type, or a "Mechanic." Here's the lowdown on this group:

The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously. They generelly prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal conflicts.

The Mechanics enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people and often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life. They enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters.
I don't know why writing about Cormac McCarthy, Philip Guston, Ian McEwan, Bob Peak, and Goethe makes one more of a "fun and action" type than somebody who focuses on Alan Moore, Plato and Aristotle, and Dante and Petrarch, but I'm sure there's an explanation somewhere. Like Whitman, I must contain multitudes.

Then there's the Blog Readability Test. Apparently, this blog is written at a postgraduate college level. That sort of worries me, because I want to say what I have to say in a way that's accessible to people, but it's good to know that one can write about comic books and come off as legitimately scholarly.

Out of curiosity, I decided to submit some outside sites to this test. Here are the results:
There are some shockers there. I mean, the Daily Kos is written at a higher intellectual level than The New Yorker or Historiann? Are they kidding? However, I do think they pegged John Aravosis just right. I'm assuming a "Nursery school" option wasn't available.

Finally, the Business Opportunities site analysis says Pol Culture, as of today, is worth a grand total of $2,822.70. If anyone wants to send me a check, everything here is all yours.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Comics Review: Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben, Swamp Thing, Book 1: Saga of the Swamp Thing

It’s funny how time overtakes perceptions of things. Twenty-odd years ago, when Alan Moore first came to prominence, the Swamp Thing series he wrote between 1983 and 1987 was considered his signature work, with projects like Watchmen treated like tangential undertakings. There was even a concerted effort on the part of Moore’s principal publisher, DC Comics, to distinguish Moore from the renaissance in comics he spearheaded with creators such as Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller. With the help of journalists in the mainstream U.S. press—Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone is the name that immediately comes to mind—they tried to create the perception that Moore, like prose author Clive Barker, actually should be considered part of the avant-garde in horror fiction.

Today, Moore isn’t seen as a horror writer at all. He is firmly identified with comics and graphic novels in the publishing community, with Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell seen as his major efforts. Critics by and large view him as a versatile postmodernist who specializes in deconstructive treatments of the superhero genre. His reputation has all but entirely eclipsed that of figures like Clive Barker, and Swamp Thing’s stature has faded as well.

The ebbing of its reputation is not entirely undeserved. Swamp Thing was undertaken as a freelance journeyman assignment by Moore, and the editorial demands of adventure comics series demanded that he reconcile his story material with the work of the writers and cartoonists who preceded him on the feature. The creative personnel who followed him were also free to modify the concepts he introduced as they saw fit. As such, Swamp Thing has less of a stand-alone quality than any major project he’s worked on. By his own account, it wasn’t even a job he was terribly enthused about taking on at the time. However, it still deserves to be considered a major work in the artistically modest superhero genre. (Swamp Thing is not what one would comfortably call horror fiction; it is best described as a superhero series that occasionally employs horror-genre elements.) The episodes are finely crafted suspense pieces, and in terms of values and tone, it is perhaps the warmest, most humanistic work ever seen in adventure comics.

Moore’s initial goal in taking over the series was to get out from under the conceptual baggage that had dogged it since its first publication in 1972. As created by writer Len Wein and illustrator Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing was originally a scientist named Alec Holland. He had been working with his wife Linda in a swamp laboratory on a "bio-restorative" formula that was intended to speed up rates of crop growth. Saboteurs shot Linda and attempted to kill Holland by blowing him up in his lab. Holland was doused with the formula during the explosion, and, on fire, he ran running into the swamp waters. Some time later, he emerged metamorphosed into a humanoid plant monster. The series followed his adventures while he sought the people responsible for his wife's murder, as well as finding a way of metamorphosing back into Alec Holland's human body. Moore, by his own account, was not impressed by the premise. His opinion of it was best summed up during a 2005 BBC interview (transcript here):

The whole thing that the book hinged upon was there was this tragic individual who is basically like Hamlet covered in snot. He just walks around feeling sorry for himself. That's understandable, I mean I would too, but everybody knows that his quest to regain his lost humanity, that's never going to happen. Because as soon as he does that the book finishes.

Moore's first order of business in taking over the series was to find a way of writing the character's adventures that didn't rely on this pathos.

Saga of the Swamp Thing, the first of six volumes collecting Moore’s run on the series, begins by revising Swamp Thing’s origin. The character’s fixation on finding a way to turn back into his human incarnation is treated as denial. In Moore’s treatment, Swamp Thing was never physically Alec Holland; the doctor’s consciousness had been absorbed by plant-life mutated by his formula when it consumed his body. The Swamp Thing’s body was simply that consciousness’s effort to reconstitute itself as Holland. The volume’s seven episodes follow the character’s efforts to come to terms with this reality and embrace the happiness to be found in his present circumstances, particularly his friendship with a young woman named Abby Cable.

Moore had to develop this narrative idea in the context of adventure material, so he begins by treating the episodes’ antagonists as counterpoints to the personality-ideal he has devised for the hero. The initial episode, titled “The Anatomy Lesson,” is centered on the characters of General Sunderland and Dr. Jason Woodrue. In the series episodes previous to Moore’s run, Sunderland’s interest in the alleged transformative aspects of Holland’s “bio-restorative” formula has led him to try to capture Swamp Thing for study. Just prior to the events of “The Anatomy Lesson,” Sunderland’s men had apparently killed Swamp Thing in a shoot-out, with the body being brought back to Sunderland's headquarters, upon which Woodrue was hired to determine exactly how Holland’s transformation occurred. Moore sets Woodrue and Sunderland up for conflict immediately. They are both exceptionally unpleasant and self-absorbed egomaniacs who prefer to deal with other people as little as possible. They naturally can’t stand each other, and Woodrue ultimately decides to kill Sunderland in response to the older man's belittling treatment. Moore expertly orchestrates this narrative strand with that of Woodrue’s gradual discovery of Swamp Thing’s true origin, and the tension he builds is extraordinary. When Sunderland’s murder finally comes, it hits with the force of a crescendo. However, what’s most horrifying about the climax is not the circumstances of Sunderland’s death; it’s the realization of how vicious a personality Woodrue is. The story is ultimately a portrait of a genuinely evil person.

Moore expands on the negative ideal he creates with Woodrue in the subsequent episodes. Swamp Thing suffers a catatonic breakdown after learning the truth about himself, and his metaphysical journey back to sanity runs parallel to the scenes of Woodrue’s descent into psychotic megalomania. Woodrue identifies himself more and more with what he sees as the concerns of the world’s plant life, and when he finally goes insane, he regards himself as “"Wood-rue, green messiah [...] annihilating agent of the thorns." He sees it as his calling to avenge humanity’s despoiling of the environment on the plant world’s behalf, and having the ability to control plant life, he goes on a murderous rampage through a local town. (In his climactic moment of madness, he threatens a woman with a chainsaw, telling her, “"Close your eyes and shout 'Timber.'") Woodrue's every action is guided by his need for self-aggrandizement and his willingness to subjugate others through violence. Like all real-life villains, he’s a hero in his own mind, and it’s satisfying to see him brought down when it’s impressed upon him that his actions are entirely selfish and work against the plant kingdom he thinks he's championing. Swamp Thing, in contrast, doesn’t view himself as a hero; he just acts like one. He is always shown as unselfishly concerned about the needs of others, and he helps in any way he can. He’s oblivious to achieving glory. Moore highlights the difference between Woodrue and Swamp Thing with a pair of images. When Woodrue insanely believes he’s found his messianic calling, he reaches to the sky in triumph. Swamp Thing does the same after he comes to terms with the truth about himself; it signifies how genuinely happy he is with his circumstances now that he's accepted them. It's a potent reversal of meaning--an uplifting moment of fulfillment versus a sick, twisted one--and it makes for a fitting ending to the Woodrue story.

The collection’s final three episodes develop a positive complement to Swamp Thing's personality with the character of Abby Cable; she enhances the positive traits Moore is setting up for him. An easy rapport between the two is quickly established, and Abby's empathy and altruism spurs his along. The depiction of Abby and Swamp Thing dramatizes how a friendship brings out the best in both its principals. One only wishes the thriller story that showcases their relationship was more imaginatively realized. It centers on the autistic children with whom Abby works being threatened by a supernatural force, and it follows the basic reactionary structure of most superhero and horror stories: a threat emerges, and then it is contained. Fantastic elements are ladled on, such as a demon ally against the threat who speaks in rhymes of iambic pentameter, but none of these feel particularly integral. The best part of the thriller plot is its resolution: an autistic boy’s affection for Abby is what defeats the threat to the children. Evil is defeated by transcending oneself and reaching out through one’s regard for others.

Like virtually all of Moore’s work, this volume’s seven episodes are exceptionally well-crafted. He makes deft use of flashbacks, parallel plotting, and elliptical structures, and his pacing is nothing short of remarkable. He often uses narration captions to move the story forward, but his use of them goes far beyond accompanying the pictures with text. He creates a dynamic interplay between the words and images, and the effect is like listening to a masterfully played duet between two musical instruments. Each makes the other's contribution more effective, and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The artwork, by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben (with occasional assistance from Rick Veitch) almost doesn’t need this heightening. The layouts create dynamic contrasts of their own, and the attention to detail in character gestures and facial expressions is exceptional. These strengths are only exceeded by their atmospheric realization of the swamp setting. Gorgeously rendered images of greenery and fauna abound, and they’re integrated seamlessly with the story’s action. Everything seems organic and interdependent, and given Moore’s emphasis on self-realization through embracing one’s crcumstances, the art is an ideal complement to the stories they illustrate. Saga of the Swamp Thing is modest in its goals, but it achieves many of them masterfully. And while it doesn't rate consideration as one of Moore's finest achievements, it does provide some of the most enjoyable reading out there for fans of the superhero genre.

Other posts in the Comics Renaissance--Alan Moore series (click to read):

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Comics Review: Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Superman: For the Man Who Has Everything...

Alan Moore’s 1980s superhero strips are frequently constructed around criticisms of the superhero genre. They take an especially cutting view of the escapist and nostalgic impulses that are typical of superhero protagonists. When confronted with a character who seems devoted to a rosy view of the past, often in rejection of one’s present circumstances, Moore’s response is to pull the rug out from under that character’s fantasies. His 1985 Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything…” is perhaps his most overt use of this thematic approach. (The story, capably cartooned by Moore's Watchmen collaborator Dave Gibbons, was originally published in Superman Annual #11. It was reprinted in the collection DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.)

The story’s taking-off point is Superman’s birthday. Batman, Wonder Woman, and a novice replacement Robin named Jason Todd meet outside the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s Arctic retreat. Once inside, they discover a catatonic Superman standing with a strange plant wrapped around his chest. It’s gradually revealed that the plant immerses anyone it bonds with in a fantasy of their heart’s desire, and that it is being used in an attack on Superman by an alien villain. The scenes in the Fortress of Solitude are intercut with Superman’s imagining of his life on his home planet of Krypton if it had never exploded.

Like Snoopy in his daydream battles with the Red Baron, Superman finds no satisfaction in his fantasy world. He’s content with his imagined wife and children, but his being the son of Jor-El undermines his happiness on every front. The fantasy Jor-El, once Krypton’s leading scientist, was permanently discredited when his predictions that Krypton would explode turned out to be wrong. He’s become a reactionary crank and radical-group leader who’s estranged from most of his family, and he castigates his son for being a terrible disappointment to him. Worse, Jor-El’s invention of the Phantom Zone banishment for criminals decades earlier is viewed by many as a means of torture. As a result, a fringe protest group has targeted members of Jor-El’s family for violent attacks. After Superman’s cousin is hospitalized after an assault, he and his family are forced to flee the city where they live. The heart’s desire of Krypton’s survival becomes a nightmare.

Moore constructs the story so that engagement with the circumstances of one’s present life constitutes a triumph. On the one hand, Superman cannot escape the villain’s clutches until he rejects the fantasy of Krypton’s survival. On the other hand, the villain is defeated by the one character who consistently engages with the reality around him, no matter what anxieties or frustrations it holds. Superman isn’t the hero of “For the Man Who Has Everything…”; the Jason Todd Robin is. Moore opens the story by showing how intimidated Jason is by everything he encounters. He doesn’t know what to make of Wonder Woman’s brief outfit, he feels embarrassed by his failure to remember one of Superman’s powers, and he’s all but unnerved by Superman’s catatonia and the alien’s attack. But he ultimately overcomes his fears. Through his own initiative, he manages to contain the alien plant, and he is the one who defeats the alien who used it to attack Superman. He lacks the older heroes’ assurance and grace, but he’s not hobbled by their illusions, either. His courage and determination allow him to take advantage of a serendipitous moment and prevail.

The story’s moral about the desirability of engaging with reality and rejecting fantasy outlets is a pleasant one, but it feels a little too pat in execution. In a rather heavy-handed metaphor, Moore has Batman’s birthday present, a specially-bred rose called the Krypton, crushed underfoot during the battle with the alien; when Superman is told, he says, “Perhaps it’s for the best.” And Moore isn’t able to create enough emotional resonance through the scenario to make it feel like much more than a better-than-average superhero story.

On the other hand, I appreciated Moore’s implicit view of Superman as someone who cannot avoid being dissatisfied with what life presents him. It’s what led him to fetishize a homeworld he never knew, and it’s what enables to him to escape the alien’s fantasy prison. Moore underscores Superman's inevitable dissatisfaction with his circumstances during the exchange between him and Wonder Woman in the story’s epilogue. She kisses him, and he replies with, “Mmm. Why don’t we do that more often?” She jokes that it would be too predictable, to which he resignedly says, “You’re probably right.” Something in him resists real-life happiness when it presents itself. (One can read this tendency in his traditionally frustrated romance with Lois Lane.) In real life, it’s a psychological block characteristic of adolescents, and it represents something to grow out of. It’s fitting that Moore, whose work with costumed heroes has done the most to transcend the genre's adolescent appeal, should be the one to highlight, however quietly, its presence in one of the greatest adolescent fantasy figures of all.

Other posts in the Comics Renaissance--Alan Moore series (click to read):

Politics: You Jumped the Gun, Harry

This is a fairly dull week for politics. The presidential election is behind us, and Barack Obama has signaled that he is not planning on announcing any cabinet picks until after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I will say that I’m happy with Obama’s actions so far. Rahm Emanuel is an excellent choice for White House Chief of Staff (thank God the job didn't go to Docile Tom Daschle), and I’m glad to see that Obama is staffing his transition team with Clinton Administration veterans. The Clinton-haters in the media, the left blogosphere, and the Democratic Party are gagging, but Obama will be taking the reins of the biggest bureaucracy on the planet, and he can’t rely on novices or Republicans for help with that. He’s thinking pragmatically, and that’s a good thing.

The only real political story at the moment shouldn’t be one. What was Harry Reid thinking when he decided now was the time to call Joe Lieberman on the carpet? A lame-duck session of Congress is a necessity right now--the automobile industry needs federal assistance or it’s facing bankruptcy by the end of the year, and a stimulus package that includes extension of unemployment benefits has to be passed or there’s going to be a lot of needless destitution by the time Obama takes office on January 20. A lot of Republicans are in a very sour mood right now because of the election results, and they’re not terribly inclined to support efforts to help the auto industry and the down-and-out in any case. Reid is going to need every vote he can get to head off a filibuster and pass these initiatives. Antagonizing a Senate swing vote right now is not the way to go about it.

Does something need to be done about Lieberman? Certainly. He has spent the last twenty years looking to undercut the Democratic Party at nearly every turn. His decision to actively support John McCain’s candidacy and promote GOP smears of Obama was the last straw. (There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Obama, but encouraging people to consider him a Marxist is just beyond the pale.) I don’t blame Reid and other Senate Democrats for deciding they’ve had enough of Lieberman. He deserves to be stripped of his committee chairmanships. However, this should have waited until the issues for a lame-duck session were resolved.

Obama's being pragmatic with his decisions, and one wishes Harry Reid had done the same.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Music Monday--Dave Grusin, "Mountain Dance"

Dave Grusin has always been more of a behind-the-scenes musician than a headliner. He's not a concert performer for the most part, and most of his studio recording has been soundtrack work for movies and television. His work for Hollywood has been enormously successful, and apart from John Williams, he's probably the most prominent film composer in Hollywood. One might even say they're equals, as they're each the preeminent practitioner of a particular musical style. If the filmmakers want symphonic music, their first choice is invariably Williams. But if they want a score rooted in jazz or piano pop, they go to Grusin. He's turned out nearly fifty film scores over the course of his career, with seven Oscar nominations and one win (for The Milagro Beanfield War in 1988). My favorite of his movie pieces has the distinction of not being composed for the movies at all. The soundtrack music for the 1984 Robert De Niro-Meryl Streep vehicle Falling in Love is "Mountain Dance," from the 1979 album of the same name, and it's this week's featured piece for Music Monday.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Comics Review: E.C. Segar, The Complete Popeye, Volume II: "Well, Blow Me Down"

My review of The Complete Popeye, Volume I can be read by clicking here.

The second volume of The Complete Popeye encompasses E.C. Segar's Thimble Theater dailies from December 22, 1930 to June 8, 1932, and the Sunday strips from March 1, 1931 to October 2, 1932. The first volume in the series was entertaining, but it was largely of historical interest. This second collection is something more. One can see Segar gradually developing the characters and the world for which the feature is famous. And two of the daily continuities are of special interest: Chapter II's "A One-Way Bank," and the Nazilia-Tonsylania War in Chapters III-V. The sequence set in Nazilia (no pun was intended with the country's name) is the better-realized of the two, but both have moments of brilliant absurdist satire, and both are worthy of the considerable stature Segar's work on Thimble Theater enjoys.

At the beginning of the "A One-Way Bank" sequence, Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Castor Oyl have each received a $50,000 reward for breaking up a cattle-rustling ring. Apart from having funds to pay for pipe tobacco and a place to sleep, Popeye doesn't need the money--he'll just blow it on craps games--so he decides to open a "one-way" bank for poor people. He reasons that people with money have banks where they can cash checks, so people with no money should have banks where they can cash checks, too. Segar describes the concept of a "one-way bank" in a text panel:

Money goes one way only--out! No more hard times--every town should have one! Success is certain because everybody will patronize this bank! A run will be considered good business!
A bank that serves poor people instead of the rich--"no millionaires allowed unless busted"--is an inspired satirical concept; it turns the usurious function of banks inside out, and it highlights the fact that a bank is not a beneficial enterprise. One can see the idea of the "one-way bank" having considerable satirical resonance during the Great Depression, when banking follies wiped out people's savings and left millions destitute. It's also germane today, when banks are accepting hundreds of billions in emergency taxpayer funds to ostensibly thaw out credit markets, but are actually using the money to finance acquisitions, pay shareholder dividends, and bolster cash reserves--credit markets be damned. A bank treats it as better to receive than to give, and Segar emphasizes the unjustness of such an ethos by positing the idea of a bank that does the opposite.

Segar uses the "one-way bank" as the springboard for a number of hilariously absurd moments. Popeye wonders if the other banks will resent him because he'll be getting lots of business by giving money away, and Castor Oyl angrily responds, "Let 'em get sore! What do we care! Everybody for themselves is my motto." When Popeye goes to a landlord to negotiate rent for the operation, the landlord calls him cheap for wanting to pay less than the asking amount, but Popeye has become so conceited with the idea of his generosity that he responds by paying the landlord double. The bank begins disappointingly: there are no customers because none of the local poor population can believe it's for real. And once things get going, Popeye has to put up a no-kissing sign after a female customer gets overly demonstrative with her gratitude--remember, he's into giving, not receiving. The "one-way bank" is a rich source of humor for Segar, but one wishes he'd been able to build the ideas in the sequence to a climax. The second half depicts a series of scams that wipe the "one-way bank" out, and while it's amusing on a moment-to-moment basis, the satire is nowhere as sharp as it is in the first half. One might say the story starts strongly and peters out.

The shapelessness of the narrative structure in "A One-Way Bank" is probably attributable to the daily-strip format. The strips were meant to be read a day at a time, rather than as a whole in one sitting, and Segar's main concern was undoubtedly to make the daily episodes amusing in themselves. Effectively developing them into a larger story wasn't his main priority. However, the strength of the premise leads one to expect a comically explosive resolution to Popeye's folly, and it's hard to imagine that the people who read the episodes as they were originally published weren't disappointed with the conclusion, where one discovers the bank's failure when Popeye asks another character for some pocket money. Segar seems to need a story foundation where narrative development and climax are beside the point, one where things only a matter on a moment-to-moment basis.

The extended Nazilia-Tansylonia War continuity gives him that foundation, and it's by far the most successful section of The Complete Popeye's first two volumes. The outcome of the story is irrelevant--no one knows how the war that provides the setting has started, and one doesn't sense anything will change when it ends. The narrative is free to proceed arbitrarily; the premise simply gives Segar the opportunity to play the conceits and pretentiousness of military and government leaders off Popeye's no-nonsense personality, and to exploit the setting and characters for absurdity. King Blozo is a fretful, excessively ceremonious ruler who, among other things, is embarrassed that the war is making him a laughingstock to other countries--it's been going on for six months, and not a shot has been fired. The soldiers fight for the distinction of being called the biggest coward, and the head of the armed forces, General Bunzo, is an egomaniacal Napoleon wannabe with whom Popeye gets into a perpetual battle of wills. At one point, he says to Popeye, "My man, do you know you made a jackass of me?," and Popeye replies, "I didn't make you a jackass--I jus' proved you are one." Bunzo harbors dreams of assassinating Blozo and assuming the throne, but when Blozo tries to abdicate at one point and gives him the crown, he recognizes the mess he's inheriting and hands the crown over to a subordinate. (Nobody wants to be king, and the crown keeps getting handed off until it's being worn by a dog.) Segar scores off the setting and the characters with one comic high note after another; his absurdist treatment of state and military folly ranks with Dr. Strangelove and Duck Soup.

The evolution of the feature towards it classic incarnation is apparent throughout the volume. Of the strip's three original principals--Castor Oyl, Olive Oyl, and Ham Gravy--only Olive Oyl remains as a regular character. Ham Gravy is entirely absent from this collection, while Castor Oyl disappears from the Sundays in June of 1931, and from the dailies that August. Castor, who commanded center stage through much of the first volume, disappears so quietly that one wonders if Segar got so caught up with other aspects of the strip that he just forgot about him. (One also wonders if there were significant reader inquiries about him at the time; Castor receives a brief mention in December of 1931 that explains his absence, and then he isn't heard from again for the remainder of this volume.) Popeye is the main character throughout, with Olive Oyl joining him as a love interest and ultimately supplanting Castor as a constant foil. One also sees new characters of prominence emerge, such as King Blozo, General Bunzo, and, most notably, the well-spoken, hamburger-loving moocher Wimpy.

One also sees trends emerging in Segar's treatment of the Sunday and daily material. The differences go beyond the Sunday installments largely avoiding continuities and being self-contained narratives. The dailies seem more varied even within their continuities; the Sundays invariably use one of two premises: Popeye's efforts to win Olive's favor by promising to swear off brawling (he never succeeds in keeping his word), and Popeye's boxing matches. The Sundays are also far more dependent than the dailies on the spectacle of slapstick violence. (That's not to say the dailies don't feature a great deal of fighting, but they aren't defined by it to the degree the Sundays are.) There is an aesthetic justification for the disparity: the Sundays allow for greater visual opportunities. There's more space, the art is printed larger, and there's more compositional freedom. The Sunday panels are far less crowded and constricted than the dailies, and Segar takes advantage of it to indulge his genius for action choreography. Segar's fight sequences are second only to those of the great superhero-adventure cartoonist Jack Kirby, and they are beautifully realized ballets of movement and energy--comic-strip slapstick at its best.

Despite the effectiveness of the Sunday visuals, as well as the strength of the Nazilia sequence and moments from "A One-Way Bank," one isn't entirely convinced that the stature of Thimble Theater is justified--at least not from the work in this volume and its predecessor. The characters' resonance is comic, not emotional, and the effectiveness of the strip is entirely dependent on Segar's inventiveness. He hasn't quite broken through to the fecund, anything-goes anarchy that one would think marks the epitome of his style of humor. But the work in this collection is considerably stronger than the material in the first, and the occasionally inspired quality raises one's hopes. A part of me has often wondered whether E.C. Segar deserves banishment to Woody Allen's Academy of the Overrated, but the more I see, the more I'm sure he doesn't. I look forward to the subsequent volumes.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Politics: "...the terrible aftermath..."

A hilarious coda to the Obama campaign, courtesy of The Onion:

Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

Politics: President Barack Obama

Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. He was announced as the projected winner when the polls closed in California, Oregon, and Washington, and he crossed the 270 electoral vote threshold.

However, I do not offer President-elect Obama my congratulations, as I do not regard him as a legitimate candidate in the general election. If the Democratic primary process had been conducted in good faith, it is all but certain he would not have been the party nominee, much less the next President. I have nothing but contempt for the chicanery, intimidation tactics, and outright voter disenfranchisement he and his allies engaged in to secure the nomination. Especially deserving of scorn are Howard Dean, Donna Brazile, and their lackeys in the Democratic National Committee. It's clear they determined in late 2006 or early 2007 to rig the process for Obama to become the nominee.* I consider myself a conscientous objector to the choices in this year's Presidential contest, and I refused to vote for either him or John McCain.

That said, I hope Barack Obama proves to be an excellent President. If John McCain had won, I would wish the same for him, as an outstanding tenure is what is best for the country.

These are my criteria for a successful Obama presidency:

  • Successful promotion of business expansion and entrepreneurship, with a return to the job creation rates of Bill Clinton's presidency.

  • A return to the essential structure of the federal income tax under President Clinton, with increases in the percentages of income paid in the top brackets, and decreases in the middle and lower ones.

  • Universal, government-guaranteed health care for both children and adults.

  • All U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq, with a stable government in place that is independent of Iran.

  • An end to the Afghan civil war, achieved without destabilizing or occupying Pakistan.

  • Substantial reduction of the federal budget deficit and the concomitant strengthening of the Social Security trust fund, with absolutely no privatization of any aspect of the program or percentage of its monies.

  • A strengthening of the U.S. dollar relative to other currencies.

  • Successful promotion of expanded public transportation.
There are other things that don't immediately come to mind, but this is good for starters.

In the weeks and months to come, we will see Obama's choices for various federal offices. We will also see specific policy proposals. The good and bad of what Obama wants and that with which others counter deserves vigorous debate, and I will do my utmost to include my voice. As should everyone else.

*The tip-off to the intentions of Dean and the DNC was the January 11, 2007 announcement that the 2008 Democratic convention would be held the last week in August, with the Presidential nominee's acceptance speech scheduled for August 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" address. Given Obama's race, the acceptance speech could easily be portrayed as a "passing of the torch" moment from King to Obama, and that significance would not have existed with any other candidate. In order to get the dates to coincide, Dean and the DNC had to conspicuously delay the week of the convention, which, for the non-incumbent party, is traditionally in July. All national party conventions before this cycle were concluded before the Labor Day weekend.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Comics Review: Charles Burns, Black Hole

Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, completed in 2005, replicates many of the tropes and conventions of North American horror films from between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s. One sees the same emphasis on teenage protagonists, the use of horrific material as a metaphor for the adolescent anxieties of the main characters, and the superficially secure suburban setting of John Carpenter’s Halloween combined with the primeval woodlands setting of the Friday the 13th franchise. David Cronenberg employed physical disease as a metaphor for alienation in his films of the period (all were horror genre pieces), and Burns does as well. However, Burns’ approach is not sensationalistic: the horror elements aren’t there to shock an audience. Instead, he brings the subtexts of those elements to the forefront, and uses them to create a poetic narrative about adolescent alienation.

The story's setting is ostensibly the Seattle suburbs during the mid-1970s. There are a number of characters, but the main focus is the different but occasionally intersecting lives of Chris Rhodes and Keith Pearson. Chris seemingly has everything going for her: she’s a beautiful, popular, straight-A student. Keith, on the other hand, at first appears to be far more poorly adjusted. He’s shy around girls, and he’s fed up with his friends. All they do on their own time is smoke, drink, and do drugs, but Keith’s heart isn’t in it, and he’s almost desperate to find a new direction for his life. As one of his friends says to him, “You always want to be somewhere else.” As it turns out, Chris behaves as self-destructively as Keith and his friends do: away from school, all life has to offer is smoking, getting intoxicated, and casual sex.

Burns takes care to show that the hedonism reflects a need for the kids to make contact with one another—it’s a social activity. He also recognizes the irony of their actions; intoxication in particular has the effect of making one more psychologically isolated than ever. Burns dramatizes this in small ways and large ones. In one scene, a girl who smokes cigarettes to socialize finds that it cuts her off from her friends; they’re in front of a mirror in a public bathroom talking while, unbeknownst to them, she’s partitioned away smoking in a stall, using the cigarette to lose herself in her thoughts. In another, a girl wistfully describes Quaaludes as “the perfect buzz. You just sit there and don’t give a shit about nothin’.” When her troubles catch up with her, and she breaks down crying, she screams at a person who comes up to her to leave her alone. Keith permanently dumps his friends when he walks up to talk to one and finds the fellow so high that he’s completely oblivious to everything. Keith’s description of him:
His face had changed. The skin was all pulled back in a horrible grin and his teeth were showing. Suddenly his body started shaking and he let out an awful barking sound. It took me a while to realize he was laughing.
Burns emphasizes with this and other moments that getting intoxicated ultimately comes at the expense of one’s humanity. One can’t connect with others, and one ultimately loses touch with oneself.

There is a second, smaller community of teenagers outside of the high school students. They live in the woods, and they are all in the advanced stages of a venereal disease. Early on, Burns shows them sitting around a campfire roasting hot dogs, and he renders the fire-cooked frankfurters so that they resemble penises with running sores. The metaphor points up a similarity between the disease and herpes, and like herpes, it doesn’t appear to be a direct threat to the sufferer’s long-term health. Someone who is afflicted just becomes disfigured; the signs of the disease are benign sarcomas, permanent rashes, and molting or permanently withered skin. In the two oddest instances, the disease leads to the development of a small tail and a vestigial second mouth. In narrative terms, the disease is a metaphor for adolescent anxiety about sex: the terror of how having it signifies that one is making the transition from childhood to being an adult. A girl who manifests the disease on her back (where she can keep it hidden) looks at her face in the mirror thinking, “I shouldn’t look like this. I look normal but I’m not. I’m a monster.”

Teenage sex is viewed as ultimately as alienating as the drugs and alcohol; in fact, it’s portrayed as a later symptom of the same anomie. The disease speaks to the terror of having had it, and through Keith’s point of view, Burns creates one unsettling visual metaphor after another for his anxiety over not having it: the chest incision into a biology-class dissecting frog, a cut on a girl’s foot, the tear through which a disease victim has shed a skin layer like a snake—all are deliberately rendered as vaginal imagery. The anxiety is so emotionally disruptive for Keith and the other characters that they employ drugs and alcohol as a catalyst for sex. The only rapport is shared intoxication; there’s little or no emotional connection between lovers.

Burns doesn’t treat sex as inherently unhealthy; he simply recognizes that the self-absorbed milieu perverts it. The impulses of goodwill upon which strong emotional relationships are built are certainly present. Keith, who’s attracted to Chris, helps her tend a wound after she’s badly cut herself in the woods. He has to overcome his considerable squeamishness at the sight of blood in order to do so, but he succeeds, and the act of helping her is genuinely fulfilling—he even looks at her blood on his hands as a sign of communion. In another scene, a girl who’s found the beginning of a rapport with a boy comforts him even after he reveals he’s upset over being rejected by another girl. “Shhh, of course there’s a girl,” she says to him. “It doesn’t matter.” However, despite his own attraction, the boy rejects her when he fears being with her will make him look uncool to his friends. Chris doesn’t respond to goodwill, either: her relationships with others are also predicated on glamour and looking cool. She’s oblivious to Keith despite his help, and later in the story, after she’s run away from home, she becomes dependent on a boy in the advanced stages of the disease. She rejects him as well, which being the latest in an unbroken string of emotional defeats for him, sets him off on a murderous rampage.

However, Burns doesn’t lapse here into the reactionary tendencies of the horror genre; he’s not creating a sympathetic monster through whom society rediscovers its communal values by destroying. He doesn’t go out of his way to make the murderer sympathetic; the killer is kept on the periphery of scenes throughout most of the book. And the fellow’s not a threat to people in the greater community; his only act of violence there, although over the top, is one of self-defense. His only victims are the other diseased residents of the woods, and his violence is just a later stage of the deterioration that alienation inflicts upon society. The group of disease victims in the woods is the only place where communal values of goodwill have reasserted themselves, and the killing spree destroys it. Those that survive disperse and flee to parts unknown, and Burns makes it clear—explicitly in some cases and implicitly in others—that they have nowhere worth going. At best, they are pursuing fantasies that will leave them lost and alone.

The book is masterfully executed. The dynamics of the story feel more poetic than dramatic. It doesn’t develop by emphasizing narrative conflict; Burns constructs the scenes by using the action to create powerfully resonant metaphors and epiphanies. These combine to create a narrative world of extraordinary emotional complexity. The story structure is remarkable, and so is Burns’ cartooning. His draftsmanship is excellent, and the hyper-controlled rendering of the art seems almost mechanical--it emphasizes the emotional sterility of the environment. It also abstracts the horrific and violent elements to such a degree that one views them almost clinically; the imagery is fantastic at times, but it’s never shocking. A film version is in the works, and one can’t imagine how a cinematic depiction could treat Burns’ visuals without sensationalizing them; the book works because Burns’ medium is comics, not despite it. Black Hole is easily one of the most accomplished graphic novels published to date.