22 April 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing: Episode Nine

Doom Patrol Volume One: Crawling Out of the Wreckage
Grant Morrison

This is an addendum to the con edition of Four-Color World, because I picked up the first volume of Doom Patrol there. I've been looking for it for a while, but previously I've only ever managed to find volumes two through four, never one.

Doom Patrol is a comic about a group of superhumans who are not superheroes. They've got superpowers, but you can't look up to them. They're weird and fucked-up and depressed. One of them is a human brain in a robot body. One of them has sixty-four distinct personalities, each with its own superpower. They're pretty bizarre. And they fight the enemies too freaky for the normal heroes to take care of.

They got a few different comics, and the one this volume is from had been running for a while when Grant Morrison got hold of it. Before he started writing it, however, he persuaded the previous author to kill off a number of characters, so that he could build the cast himself. Crazy Jane, the one with multiple personalities, is one of his creations.

In short: this comic is intensely disturbing. The nature of reality is frequently fluid, and several of the monsters are based on things from that horrifyingly delightful children's book, Struwwelpeter. I read it in the van on the way back to Maine, and it gave me the wiggins, enough that I didn't want to let my feet hang off the seat into the place where it was dark.

At the same time, though, it was really cool. The writing was fantastic, of course, the art was fairly cool, and the creepiness added. The characters were also amazing--they were well-developed and interesting. Crazy Jane's multiple personalities added depth without being an irritating stereotype. Rebis, Negative-Man, was intensely bizarre in a way that was genuinely unnerving.

Anyway, it's really worth reading. Creepy, but cool. I'd recommend it.

Four-Color World: The (Slightly Belated) Con Edition

Hello, everybody! Today, your lovely Miss Becca is reporting to you on New York Comic Con.

My classmates and professor and I drove to New York City on Friday. Because we're in central Maine, we started out at three in the morning. The drive was long and cramped and mildly horrible, but when we got there it was cool.

Highlights of the con:
  • On Friday evening I went to Neil Gaiman's reading. He was very funny and charming, and he read chapter three of The Graveyard Book, which was awesome. Afterward I got to see the Christmas special of the latest season of Doctor Who. It was dreadful. But in a fun way.
  • On Saturday there was shopping, and my boyfriend and I went to the "Spotlight on Grant Morrison" presentation. I got to ask him how he felt about being a character in the DC Universe. He's pretty cool with it.
  • Later, there had been plans to go see the previews for Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Spirit. However, they were ditched in favor of waiting in line for Grant Morrison's signing. He signed my copy of Arkham Asylum and gave me a hug. It was the pinnacle of my con experience. ^_^
  • Met many exciting people, including Jon Rosenberg, the author of Goats. It is one of my favorite webcomics. I bought the first volume and he signed it.
  • Sunday had a bit more shopping, and the Final Crisis panel. I didn't pay too much attention, because I don't keep up with current comics, but it was fun listening to Grant Morrison's lovely accent.
All in all, a very good trip. I came back with lots of swag. Very fun.

16 April 2008

Rorschach the Optimist

Alan Moore

To the winner goes the SPOILERS

Whoo! This is the week I've been looking forward too. My dad got me a copy of Watchmen when I was in high school, and I've loved it ever since.

Anyway, with this latest reread I noticed something sort of odd. Rorschach, probably the scariest character in the entire comic, is actually kind of an optimist. But not happy. Just an optimist. I mean, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a less cheery comic book character. But he really believes in what he's doing, and he believes it in a good way.

Witness this. In the second issue of Watchmen (I have to go by issue--my trade has no other page numbers), Rorschach goes to visit the Comedian's grave. He is busy pondering the case of the Comedian's murder, and provides us with this really amazing quote:

"So many questions. Never mind. Answers soon. Nothing is insoluble. Nothing is hopeless. Not while there's life."

Think about that. Rorschach is sketchy and violent and has a lot of prejudices. He does not get along well with others and never smiles. But he's the one who believes in the human race. Dan Dreiberg can't decide what he wants, let alone figure out what he wants for other people. Laurie Juspeczyk always hated the hero business. Ozymandias can only help people by doing things for them, and Dr. Manhattan doesn't care.

But Rorschach...he thinks things are going to work out. He thinks that things are probably going to work out all right. Which is kind of weird, given how much he dislikes most people.

I think I like Rorschach a lot more now.

13 April 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing: Episode Eight

The Book of Ballads
Charles Vess and various others

Hey, look! It's not a webcomic!

Not only is The Book of Ballads not a webcomic, it's also nothing like really any of the comics I've reviewed here so far. It doesn't have a continuing story, and nothing in it connects to any other comics. It's a fully standalone book of short pieces. I figured it'd fit into this week's set of post because all of the stories in it are, as you may have guessed from the title, taken from ballads.

Charles Vess is one of my favorite comic book artists. You may have heard of him, particularly if you're a fan of Neil Gaiman. He did the Fairyland section of the original Book of Magic and was the other half of Stardust--not the recent movie, but the illustrated novel it's based on. He does extraordinary work, and The Book of Ballads is one of his babies.

Basically, what Vess did was get a bunch of awesome comics writers to do scripts based on various traditional English ballads, and then he illustrated them. The first one, "The False Knight on the Road," is actually by Neil Gaiman. Other ballads used are "Alison Gross," "Barbara Allen," and "King Henry," among others.

They're all well-written stories, and of course the art is beautiful, but the little thing that makes this book even more awesome is the appendix. At the end of the book, Vess has included a list of all the ballads used, with information about where you can find various recordings of them. For example, Steeleye Span, one of my favorite music groups, recorded an amazing version of "Alison Gross," and that is listed.

It seemed right to include this review in this week's posts because of the whole icon theme. A ballad is not necessarily iconic, but ballads and their themes are in the same family as icons. They're songs because it's easy to remember songs, and they tell stories that people felt, for one reason or another, should be remembered. Ballads are part of the collective memory of the English and Celtic cultures.

If you'd like to dispute the important of ballads, I will tell you do one thing. Find the old Loony Toons episodes where they did Robin Hood stories. One of them has Porky Pig in it as Friar Tuck, and what is he doing when we first see him? He's singing "Barbara Allen," probably one of the most famous English ballads and also one of the ones used in this book.

This is a cool book. You should read it. It may not be like anything you're used to, but it's interesting, and makes for good bite-sized bits of reading.

Other Iconic Characters

The group presentations I mentioned in the last post were focused around five fairly iconic superhero characters. My group was of course Captain America. The others were Batman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, and Superman. Actually we haven't gotten to those last two yet in class; the presentations run a bit long.

Anyway, that's a good selection of characters for basic icon status. However, I think there are a lot more to be considered. They're not necessarily quite as much in the common consciousness, but they still represent interesting and long-lasting things. So this post will be a brief list of other people who seem important in that way.

Number one: The Phantom Stranger. I've got a bit of a weakness for him, because he's weird and interesting, but he's also got something going for him on the iconic level. He's that guy. You know, that guy. The one who shows up and helps you out and then is just sort of...gone. He's like the Doctor, and look how popular the Doctor is. He's Obi-Wan Kenobi. It's awesome.

Number two: Dr. Strange. Another weakness. Well, honestly, I've got a weakness for any magic-based superhero. But Dr. Strange fits well into that iconic mold because he's not just a magic-user. He's the Sorcerer Supreme. He's the kind of guy people might seek out for instruction. Big Top Wizard Guy is an important iconic role.

Number three: Beast. Besides being my favorite X-Men character, he's got a very important iconic role to play. Specifically, he's the Smart Freak. You know the Smart Freak. Lots of things have them. A lot of them, though, aren't as freaky as they're made out to be. For example, Willow, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, or Smallville's Chloe. Those two are supposedly freaks at their high schools, but they don't look it. They're cute and personable. Beast's appearance can be genuinely alarming, and he's a bloody genius.

Number four: Swamp Thing. He's like Captain America. But for the planet. Also he's got that immortal elemental spirit thing going for him.

I'm Not Even A Cap Fan And I Think He's Cool

This week in class we didn't discuss specific comics. Instead we talked about icons and iconic characters. This included breaking up into groups and doing presentations on certain iconic comics figure, and my group got Captain America.

Witness the title of this post. I think Captain America is neat. I was vaguely sad when he died. And I've never even read any comics with him in them. I mean, he made a couple of one-panel appearances in other things I've read, but nothing big.

We've already done our presentation, of course, but I thought I'd provide a little of it to you, my adoring public. We had to answer four questions:
  • What does this character stand for?
  • What other icons are associated with this character?
  • Why has this character endured?
  • How do you think this character will change in the future?
My favorite question was number three. The simple answer: Captain America has endured because he's Captain America. It may sound silly, but think about it. Captain America is sort of like a comic-book version of George Washington. George Washington is an icon because he symbolizes America; so is Cap.

Captain America can always be used to fight whatever real-life bad guy people in this country are scared of. Scared of Nazis? He's fought them. Communists? Punched them into next week. Terrorists? He'll battle them for you. The US government? Well, hey, Civil War. He's fought them too. And he's always fighting racists.

He may not be on as many t-shirts as Superman or have as many separate comics as the X-Men, but Captain America is still Captain America. He's our guy. Not the government's guy--the people's. And that's all the people, too.

06 April 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing: Episode Seven

John Allison

This week we have yet another webcomic review. This wasn't originally meant to be primarily a webcomics review series, but I read a lot of them, and love most of the ones I read. So today it's Scary-Go-Round, which is one of my very favorites.

Scary-Go-Round is awesome because it is a lot of things at once. It's sort of an extended exercise in magical realism, with a dash of comedy of manners and a lot of people who have funny ways of talking. It's another one of those comics that you can't just drop into; it's been running for a few years and has a lot of back story, but the archives are totally worth it. Besides all the plot, you can watch John Allison's art style improve and morph and do things that are really weird. It's super cool.

The first couple of storylines notwithstanding, Scary-Go-Round mostly follows the adventures of Shelley Winters and a number of other complicated characters. For example, the current storyline is about The Boy, whose name was recently revealed to be Eustace. He is spending some time in France on student exchange, and is living with his friend Elodie, who hasn't quite gotten the hang of pronouncing his name and as a consequence refers to him as "Useless." The traditional French Easter bell, the one that brings the eggs, has just been replaced with a super-sketchy pink bunny with long sharp teeth. Havoc is ensuing.

Scary-Go-Round is a place where anything can happen. It is a place where the moon watches people getting undressed and sometimes there are demons. It is a place where occasionally the headmaster of the local school is a creepy Victorian warlock-type named Crowley. It is a place where you can have friends that are bats, although Ryan's friend Friend Bat died a while ago and was replaced with Comrade Bat. It is a place where people use very few contractions.

It's kind of hard to describe, actually. Mainly it's just bafflingly weird in a way that is at the same time really awesome. And of course, I live for things that are bafflingly weird. They make me do dances in my heart.

Academic Pretension

Fun Home
Alison Bechdel

I was mildly puzzled in class on Monday to hear one of my classmates accuse Alison Bechdel of academic pretension in the writing of Fun Home. This wasn't because she used long, complicated sentences or went off on lengthy discussions of obscure topics for no reason or anything else that I would think of as pretentious. It was because Fun Home was filled with literary references, including references to what some might refer to as "great" works of literature. James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, or the novels of Marcel Proust, or the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

Now, this accusation puzzles me because it implies something unpleasant and unfair and unnecessarily restrictive to authors. Maybe the average person off the street, picking up a copy of Fun Home and flipping through it, won't get every single literary reference. But hey, that's ok. Bechdel explains many of them, and what a reader doesn't get, he or she can look up. It shouldn't really be an imposition to ask someone to hop on the computer and search Wikipedia or something. Also, though, saying that making literary references is pretentious places a restriction on authors that they shouldn't have.

True, some people use fancy language and refer to famous books because they want to look smarter. But reading Fun Home, it seemed to me like Alison Bechdel made these references because literature was what interested her. Referencing something because you enjoy and because you feel it's a good comparison is not the same as referencing something so that you can look down on people who don't understand you.

From the depictions of some of the more irritating professors and students at her college, in fact, Bechdel seems to despise that kind of behaviour herself. It's rude to look down on people because they know less than you. If someone doesn't understand something, one should explain it, not be snooty. Snootiness just makes people less inclined to want to learn things.

Anyway, I was also puzzled because making literary references seemed entirely appropriate in the context of the story. Literature was obviously important to Bechdel's father, and it's something you get to see them connecting over throughout the course of the story. Given that this is, indeed, a story about Bechdel's father, it's only right to pepper it with the things he liked best.

The Uses Of Autobiography

Fun Home
Alison Bechdel

I really liked Fun Home. It's a little depressing, but then, what that we read in this class isn't? It was also one of my boyfriend's textbooks for his American Autobiography course last semester, and autobiography came up in class, so that seems like something to talk about.

We came up with a few reasons in class for why something relatively unknown would write an autobiography. To give other people something to relate to, maybe. Because you've got a story you think people should know. Maybe, in the case of Alison Bechdel herself, to provide another book which could be added to a "self-discovery reading" stack like she shows us in Fun Home.

Honestly, though, I think the main reason for any autobiography is the straght Occam's-razor one. People like to talk about themselves. Everyone is, at all times, composing a little autobiography in the back of his or her head. Seriously. That's what your memory is; that's part of what it's for. Not everyone necessarily wants to deal with their little auto-autobiography, but there it is. The main difference between that and a written autobiography is that some people feel like letting everyone in on the secret.

Also, I think people write autobiographies as a personal aid to memory. Alison Bechdel, for example, describes Fun Home as a "memoir of her father." Fun Home seems like primarily an autobiography, but I'm certainly also willing to believe that it's exactly what she says it is. At one point in the book she discusses how uncertain she became, for a while, about the events in her life, to the point of writing "I think" after every statement in her diary. An autobiography is a way to validate your memory: it's easier to prove to yourself that you know what you know when you've got it in solid written form. And not only do you have a solid copy of your memories, you get to make them last even longer by giving them to other people. As long as someone lives who has a copy of your book, people will still know that what happened in your life happened.

I forget where I read this first, but there's...well, I think it'd probably be called a philosophical concept, that says that no one is truly dead unless everyone who remembers them is also dead. Autobiographies keep people alive. So that's also what Fun Home is. Until a time comes when there's nobody alive who's read it, Bruce Bechdel will still be alive.

Isn't that cool?