Sunday, December 24, 2006

I wrote this this morning. I woke up thinking about it, and obviously, I've been thinking about it for a while. I'm not sure it gets at what I was trying to get at. Maybe what I'm trying to get at is difficult to discuss objectively. It may come across as accusatory of other people's ways of looking at certain parts of comics. That's not what I wanted to do. One of the major points is that it's unfair to assume accusatory things about someone based on how you interpret their art, but I kept veering towards assuming accusatory things about poeple and their motivations based on their interpretations of comics.

Leave a comment if you think I got at anything worthwhile in this, or if you have any thoughts you'd like to share about the topic. I'd rather not get into detailed discussions about particular creators or their works, however.

Sexism in Comics

I've been sampling a lot of comics blogs lately. There are lots of themes that show up across many blogs, and the one that's caught my attention the most is about sexism and mysogyny in comics. Reading these critiques has brought up some really conflicting feelings.

There are two fundamental problems I've run into when reading this type of criticism. First, the conclusions drawn about the details of illustrations and story elements are often based far more on supposition and on conforming the material to preconceived interpretations than on unclouded, logical assessment. Secondly, the critics go beyond the work itself to make very serious accusations about the artists.

It seems necessary, before I get into this topic, to identify where I'm coming from on this. I'm a guy, and straight, and I like women a great deal. The images in comics are, of course, merely a representation of them (their physical aspects for this discussion), but in so far as they suggest real aspects that I enjoy, I enjoy them. I don't think it has much impact on which comics I choose to buy.

The moral environment that I grew up in was strict. Sometimes I've described it as "morally paranoid", indicating a fear of anything that might even be perceived by someone else as being morally questionable. Obviously, I don't think this was very healthy, and over the years I've had to work through many "issues" that it brought about. My own moral maturation had (has had?) more to do with growing out of prudishness and judgementalism than curbing excessive attitudes or behaviors.

Now, this experience has made me very wary of any criticisms that pronounce something bad or wrong based on judging externals. To the point, when I read a criticism that a certain image in a comic represents mysogyny because a female figure is posed such, and dressed so, it recalls the unhealthy dictums of my youth, like a certain person is morally suspect because they dress so, or because they listen to certain types of music, or use certain unpolite vocabulary. So I'm biased against moralizing critiques, even when they come from different perspectives than those I grew up with. I'm likely to discount them, and to wonder what screwed up thought processes brought the critic to those conclusions.

I'm also reminded of ways of thought I encountered in literary criticism classes in college. Those classes were fun for me, and I thought the methods of criticism were good mental exercise even when they were unhelpful in understanding a text. Frankly, I think that a great deal of literary criticism is pure malarkey. Sometimes it's fun, but it's not to be taken seriously. There are influential literary critics that I respect as accomplished intellectual grifters, but never as scholars.

Despite that, there was reward to be had in class for taking them seriously. You could get a good grade, or praise from a professor, or admiration from classmates. And of course any of those contribute to a personal sense of accomplishment and esteem. I certainly wrote essays of criticism that I didn't believe a whit of, but I accepted the high marks happily enough.

I believe that many critical theories and positions have no basis in their proponents' convictions, but rest entirely on their proponents' desire to secure rewarding employment in their field. While not ideal, that is understandable. The real problem occurs when their theories are used to make judgments about the real world.

Many techniques of literary criticism would rightly be considered absurd or grossly prejudiced when applied to other parts of life. If I were to say to you, "You see how our friend Amy wears blue shoes? That's because she hates Montenegrans," you'd very reasonably tell me that I was full of it. However, when critiquing art or literature, just these sorts of statements can be made, and accepted, as long as the critic can intellectually connect blue shoes with hatred of Montenegrans using theories, presumptions, and biases held by his audience. It's much like the tactics politicians use to elicit votes, by calling on a variety of loosely associated concepts and images (defined either over-broadly or over-specifically, depending on the targeted association) in order to cast either himself or his opponent in a desired light.

When I read blog entries critiqing the particulars of images in comics, and concluding that not only the images, but the people who created them, are hateful towards women, and psychologically ill in themselves, I am strongly reminded of the techniques of literary criticism that I have found to be concerned much more with reaching advantageous conclusions than with understanding or appreciating the text.

This paragraph didn't fit into the tone I was trying to take. It's coming more from my particular "issues" and experiences than an objective assessment of the topic. But I guess it's part of how I view this, so maybe it should go in some how.

There's a comics-podcast hosted by a woman that I used to listen to. It was a good show, but I ultimately stopped listening to it because the host's attitudes towards sexuality was so annoyingly inconsistent. Images of Power Girl with lots of cleavage were childish male fantasies that probably indicated the artist's deep psychological problems, yet images of Conan in his tiny briefs was simply awesome. This is a contradiction that bugs the crap out of me. It essentialy says that a male's appreciation for an idealized, sexualized female image is wrong, insulting (at best) to women, and rooted in psycho-emotional malfunction, while a female's appreciation for an idealized, sexualized male image is all in good fun. (Of course that podcast is not the only place I've encountered this.) The inconsistency in that should be obvious, and the insulted feelings it engenders in me only slightly less obvious. The consistency is more important than the feelings, but both are easily considered.

There's also a question of how far to go in defining "where I come from on this." Do I go into what I like and don't like? None of us would be too comfortable with that, I suspect. Though I feel compelled to say that, for the record, I've always thought Power Girl's costumes have been crummy from a character design perspective, but I won't go any further into it than that. I don't want to be seen as defending stuff that's tacky or gross or obviously drawn from porn, or stuff that is really sexist. I just want to make it clear that a guy doesn't hate women, or fear them, or suffer from psychological problems just because he thinks hot girls are awesome. I mean, how would it be better if he wasn't attracted to them? Truly bad attitudes about women should be decried and disrespected, but since folks tend to paint with such broad strokes (in all controversies, not just this one), I fear that normal, healthy attitudes -- ones that girls appreciate from guys -- aren't painted in the same tones as the unhealthy or harmful ones.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Vassilisa the Beautiful, 1939

Director Aleksandr Rou brought this traditional Russian fairytale to the screen. The story centers on Vassilisa, a virtuous maiden trapped in the body of a frog, and Ivan, a virtous young country bumpkin who becomes engaged to her, then must fight a dragon to marry her.

The peasant father of three sons decides that it's high time his two eldest (and fairly useless) sons get married. So, they go outside and fire arrows into the air. These arrows magically find the homes of eligible young women. Each intended is wealthier and higher class than their beaus, but are equally useless. The youngest brother, Ivan, against his father's protest, also fires an arrow in search of a bride. His arrow strikes a lake, and comes to rest next to a frog.

Ivan is disappointed, but accepts his bride with admirable stoicism. Well, of course she turns out to be a beautiful maiden who was unjustly trapped in the body of a frog. The evil serpent Gorynych had demanded that Vassilisa marry him. When Vassilisa refused, he cursed her to live as a frog in the bog.

Now that she has been freed from the curse and betrothed to someone else, ol' Gorynych is more steamed than ever. He has Vassilisa kidnapped and guarded by the witch Baba Yaga. Ivan determines to go on a quest to rescue her.

Though the serpent is normally unconquerable, there is a "slaying sword" that Ivan can use to kill him. This magical weapon is kept at the bottom of a well, behind a ponderously locked door. So Ivan must quest first for the key, then for the sword, then for his bride. This sort of multi-layered quest is very popular in old tales. This movie movies through the layers at a brisk pace, avoiding the tediousness that such quests sometimes produce in print. (I suspect these developed in the old days in order to stretch a bard's tale over several cliff-hanger-filled evenings.)

A favorite scene: Ivan shows mercy to an enemy he defeats in battle, and is later rewarded for his compassion by his former foe granting him aid.

Favorite line: "The key to every lock is a fearless heart."

You can guess how it all ends, but I won't spoil the details.

The effects are, of course, crude by today's technical standards, but they are fairly ingenious and work quite well as long as the viewer doesn't get too picky. The sets are very good. When the characters go into the forrest, there are huge trees whose trunks and boughs form ominous shapes. Baba Yaga's hut, though it doesn't walk, does suggest the fowl-leggedness of legend. The costumes are also very well done. The two "noble" brides' costumes show distinct cultural traditions from Russia's past, which, if I knew more about Russian culture, I could name for you. (I'm thinking one is Finnish and one is from the asian steppe.)

This is a very fun movie. I'd like to own it for my dvd library.

Spot Reviews

I watch almost all my movies through Netflix these days. Over the next few posts I'll talk about some that I've seen lately.

This is one of those Movies That Everyone's Seen But I Haven't. It was just okay for me. Actually, it was pretty boring in several parts. I wound up fastforwarding through a lot of it. None of the characters clicked with me, and the hunt for the shark just wasn't engaging. Oh well.

Panic in Year Zero / The Last Man on Earth: Double Feature
These two, both from the early 60s, come together on one double-sided disc. Both are about different types of post-armageddon worlds.

Panic in the Year Zero starts off with a great jazz song over the image of a classic car radio dial, with the title splashed on top. I immediately thought, oh yeah, this is gonna be fun! (That's not ironic, btw; seems like it might reat that way.)

Your standard 'nuclear family' from Los Angeles is going on a fishing trip in the mountains. After they're in the hills and out of sight of the town, they see a huge flash in the rearview mirrors. When they pull over to investigate, they see a gigantic mushroom cloud where LA had been.
The rest of the movie is about how the family struggles to survive, and the conflicts that arise both from outside and within. The mother and father are at odds almost instantly. She is most concerned with finding out if her mother is alright, while he more quickly accepts that life as they knew it is over and survival is their new occupation.

I got really frustrated with the mother pretty quickly. She wants to pretend that things are going to be alright when it's very clear that they won't. Later, when the family has to resort to violence in order to survive, she's far more concerned about her husband and son doing something wrong than she is about them not getting killed. It's all part of her denial about what's happened.

It speaks well of the movie that it got this sort of reaction from me. I got emotionally wrapped up in the issues of survival and civilization that the movie was trying to get at.

The Last Man on Earth stars Vincent Price in an adaptation of the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. (The novel was later adapted again as The Omega Man, and is being adapted yet again as I Am Legend.) A plague that turns people into roving undead has struck the world. Morgan (Price) was a scientist who had worked on a vaccine, but failed. He, and apparantly he alone, possesses an immunity to the virus. The movie follows his story of survival in his undead-filled city.

These undead don't fit neatly into any of the traditional categories. The film calls them vampires. They do have many of the traditional weaknesses of vampires, namely daylight, garlic, crosses, and mirrors (they cast reflections, but are repelled by them). However, they are brutish and slow like zombies. They can speak, but do so with little inflection, repeating one or two phrases over and over. It's quite creepy when one of them, a former friend of Morgan's, stands outside his window, droning on about how they're going to get in and kill him.

Morgan has made a small fortress out of his suburban home. Everything is boarded up and warded with crosses, garlic and mirrors. During the day he goes out for supplies, and to hunt down the undead's nests, where he can easily kill them. At night he stays up listening to the phonograph and remembering his wife and child, both taken by the virus three years ago.

The story really gets going when Morgan runs into another living human being. What he learns from her introduces a big twist, and moves the story to its conclusion.

Price lends his uniquely classic creep quotient to the role. He's particularly convincing as a man of logic and science who has been forced to resign himself to the reality of this quasi-mystical plague. He's not so hot in the action scenes. He's also effective in the couple of scenes where his character allows himself to believe that life could get better.

Apparently this movie was filmed in Italy, and much of the cast appears to have been Italian. Their parts have been overdubbed, but it looks like they were are least trying to deliver their lines in English. Maybe the producers just wanted American accents.

There's some very obvious religious imagery in the final scene. I didn't like this, as it didn't make much sense to me. Basically, Morgan becomes a Christ Figure at the end. However, he's Christlike only in the fact that his death is ironic, and his death scene contains some of the iconography of Christ's death. Nothing else he does in the movie reminds the viewer of Christ.

I long ago grew tired of the "Christ Figure" motif, and I really hate seeing it. I am a Christian, and so I'm all about the actual Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. I hate the "Christ Figure" because it is grossly over used, and because it is such a lazy shorthand about what it represents. You may not want to read me go into a diatribe about it, so I'll just say this: the story of Christ is about tremendously more than just a sad, ironic and tragic death scene. (Is tragedy inherently ironic? Hmmm.)

I've also seen The Omega Man. It is fairly close to The Last Man on Earth. It stars Charlton Heston. In it, the undead are instead mutants (still nocturnal), and the religious imagery is even more pronounced and more incongruous. The scenes of the hero wandering around the empty city are much more effective, however; and the fortified suburban home becomes a fortified apartment several floors above the ground, which seems a much cannier place to hide out.


Here's what I got from this movie. Kristen Bell is really pretty.

Now, that's what I rented it for, so I really can't complain. If your interest is less shallow than mine, you'll likely be disappointed.

Some monsters are attacking people via their computers, cell phones, etc. They are pale, bald, naked creatures who screech and wail. When they catch people, they scream and "suck the will to live." The victims then act weird and hermit-y for a while and eventually kill themselves.

Now, there's a decent metaphor for internet addiction in there. It doesn't get explored very far. The focus is on how creepy the victims look and act, and the manner of their deaths.

Kristen Bell plays Mattie (hey, I remembered the character's name!), whose recently ex boyfriend is one of the first victims of the pale naked monsters. Mattie is smart and brave, but not nearly as smart and brave as Bell's better known character, Veronica Mars (who is awesome). She eventually teams up with some guy whom I think I've seen on some WB show, but I can't identify him. Together, they find a computer virus that they hope can kill the monsters.

Okay, the monsters come in through people's computers because, as a character tells us, we've been "broadcasting stuff all over the place." There's the seed of a cool, slightly lovecraftian menace here. I imagined that these creatures live in a nightmare world that's just a quantum smidgen removed from our own, and they can pick up our broadcasts at certain frequencies, then come on over and have themselves a feast. The thing is, they can find you through computers that aren't even networked. More than once there are lines something like "but the computer wasn't online!"

Oh well. It's not a horrible use of your time. There is one scene that was genuinely creepy. And Kristen Bell is really pretty.

Monday, December 18, 2006

February Comics

Alright, although the new issue of Previews comes out this week, here's an overview of the last one, which solicits comics scheduled to come out in February.

Knights of the Old Republic - I want to find a Star Wars comic that I can like. Issue 10 of this one was fun, so this is a potential addition to my list.

Empowered - Look at some of the previews of Adam Warren's pencils for this. They look awesome. Looks like it's more overly "sexy" than most stuff I read, but it's in humor.

Detective Comics 828
Batman 663
Catwoman 64
52 Weeks 40-43
Atom 8
Aquaman 49

Blue Beetle 12 - I really like this character, although I generally dislike "passing the mantle".

Birds of Prey 103
Checkmate 11

Brave & the Bold 1 - Batman/Green Lantern would not be my first choice for a new team-up book. Waid, Perez & Wiacek sell it to me, though.

Firestorm 33 - It's about time we see the New Gods again! And maybe this will explain how their "Seven Soldiers" incarnations fit in the DCU's normal history?

Green Lantern Corps 9

Justice League of America 6 - Great cover by Hughes. They need to explain why Dinah doesn't have time to be in the Birds of Prey, but does have time to be in the JLA???

Justice Society of America 3

JSA Classified 23 - Another arc staring Dr. Midnight? Fine by me, just surprising.

Manhunter 28 - Giving this one a try; liked #26; could be some very cool confrontation between Manhunter and Batman.

Mystery In Space 6 - This has been a great mini-series. I hope they do another one with the same creative team, maybe adding a couple more of the space characters.

Spirit 3 - The crossover special with Batman was so much fun.

Shadowpact 10

Shazam & the Monster Society of Evil 1 - You just know this is going to be great. It might be better to wait for the collection, though.

Crossing Midnight 4 - #1 was cool. I don't think that the solicit copy gives a good sense of the book. Look up the preview pages for #1 and tell me what you think.

Fables 58
Jack of Fables 8

Blue Beetle Companion - I would like to read this. We'll see if I can make it fit my budget. At least it should stay in print for a while.

Utopiates 3 - I like what I've seen online of this book, but I haven't seen #1 in the store yet.

Lone Ranger 6

Action Philosophers 8

Weird Science Archive 1 - This is another one that I'd really like to have, but can't get right now.

Books With Pictures 1 - There's not a lot of info about this one, but for some reason it seems cool.

Just an aside: Is that Sarah Michelle Gellar on the cover of DMZ #16?
This Week's Comics

I just went to Diamond's website and copied the shipping list for this Wednesday ( Here's the stuff that's on my list, and then a couple of maybes. This is a big comics week for me.

PREVIEWS VOL XVII #1 - Man, it feels like these things come out more often than monthly! I'd like to do a post after I go through this about things I'd like to get.
CONAN #35 - This might be the last one for me. See the last post.
52 WEEK #33 - I'm anxious to see what happens with the Question & Montoya, the space heroes, the Black Marvel Family...
AQUAMAN SWORD OF ATLANTIS #47 - Now that I know this book is getting a new creative team (and presumably a new direction), I'm just hoping that they explore some of the more interesting (to me) parts before the switch.
BIRDS OF PREY #101 - How is the new team of Birds going to gel? Should be cool.
CATWOMAN #62 - I love Selina and Holly.
AGE OF BRONZE #24 - If you don't know this one, at least look through it in the store. It's a retelling of the Illiad, with amazing art that's archaeologically accurate. I'm an archaeology buff, so I dig that.
SHE-HULK 2 #14 - Last issue for me, barring something unexpected; see last post.
THUNDERBOLTS #109 - I've loved this book, but I think this is also the last issue for me, since I'm not interested in the new direction that starts next issue. (Am I right about that?)
LONE RANGER #3 - This is a strong book. I loved the TV show when I was a kid (reruns), and this is a good update. Some of the (offpage) violence goes too far for me, though.
ION #9 (OF 12) - I think this is the issue with the Tandem Universe characters on the cover. If it is, I want to read it so I can see if those characters are now in the DCU. Or, if some form of the multiverse is back. Here's hoping it is.
NEW AVENGERS ILLUMINATI #1 (OF 5) - Normally I wouldn't be interested in this, but the preview pages I saw online yesterday were very cool. I want to see Blackbolt smackdown that Skrull emporer.
ACTION PHILOSOPHERS VOL 2 GIANT SIZED THING TP $8.95 - This may collect issues I already have; have to see it to know for sure. This is a fantastic book; very fun and informative.
Trying New Indy Comics

Lately I've really wanted to read more indy comics. I'm getting Event fatigue from a lot of the Big Two books I'm reading, and I'm also just jonsing for something new. The things I need to work out are making room for new books, and identifying the new stuff I'll enjoy.

Making Room.
I'm really tired of comics readers making cracks about how their wallets hurt, or they love all the new books coming out, but their wallet hates them, or how Company X is making them go broke, etc. I've started rolling my eyes whenever I see comments like that. I'm not clear on why, but it's really bugging me. However, the reality is that I can't buy everything I might like, so in order to add new books to my list, I've got to drop some things I'm currently buying.
So, what can I drop? I've identified some books currently on my pull list that are "on the bubble" for me.

First up, Conan. I've been buying this book since #1, and enjoying it far more often than not, but the recent switch in writers has put it on my "might drop" list. Thinking about it, maybe I've just had enough Conan for a while. When the comic started, the original fiction stories were being reprinted in nice paperback editions. I had also started reading some Clark Ashton Smith, and a couple years earlier, H.P. Lovecraft, and so I was having my own little pulp fantasy revival. Maybe my interests are just shifting, and the change in writers on "Conan" is a convenient point of departure.

She Hulk - Without Civil War, this book probably wouldn't be on my "might drop" list. But I'm having a real problem with liking She Hulk since she's going along with the registration/federalizing of superheroes. I don't want to get into it too deeply, b/c it involves political convictions, and I don't want this blog to get bogged down with politics. Suffice to say, I'm very much against the idea that all superpowered beings must be agents of the government or go to prison. I'm so much against it that I can't admire, or even enjoy the adventures of, any character that goes along with it.

Aquaman - While I like the character, the comic just hasn't been that satisfying lately. I'd like to know how the old Aquaman became the Dweller in the Deep, I'm intrigued by the Seascape, and King Shark has become a very intersting character. However, the new Aquaman just doesn't do much for me. Drop him out and focus on the other characters, and I might like the book a lot more. Now a new creative team is coming on board. It might work out, but frankly, if it doesn't spark with me in the first couple of issues, I'll drop this.

Indentifying the Good Stuff
Perhaps one of the big reasons that most comic readers stick to super hero books from the Big Two, and only read the occassional non-superhero book is that the former is such a well know quantity, while the latter is often a big question mark.

I know more about superhero books that I've never read than I do about most indy books. I've never read a Deadpool comic, but were I to pick one up, I'm certain that my basic assumptions would not be wrong. I've read thousands of superhero stories, and I know how they work. Even "postmodern" or "deconstructionist" superhero stories are very familiar, since they use the same conventions, just in a different light.

An indy comic (that isn't about superheroes) can be anything. That's a big part of their appeal, of course, but at the same time it makes it harder to guess at which ones I'll like reading. Of course it helps if they work within an established genre, like crime noir or paranormal or space opera, etc. The thing that draws me most to indy comics is the tone or personality. This is hard to get a sense of from solicitations.

Here's a good example. The following is part of the description of the first volume of "Scott Pilgrim" by Bryan Lee O'Malley, from Oni Comic's website. I think it's the same as the solicitation copy.

Scott Pilgrim's life is totally sweet. He's 23 years old, in a rock band, "between jobs," AND dating a cute high school girl. Everything's fantastic until a seriously mind-blowing, dangerously fashionable, rollerblading delivery girl named Ramona Flowers starts cruising through his dreams and sailing by him at parties. Will Scott's awesome life get turned upside-down? Will he have to face Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends in battle?

Now, my reaction to that, when I read it in "Previews", was "Why do I want to read about this prick, with his 'perfect' and 'totally sweet' life? Why would I read a whole comic about how awesome this jerk is?" Now, that probably reveals more about my own "issues" than I might like, but that's how I really felt. Months and months later, somebody at my local comic shop convinced me to give the book a try, and I absolutely loved it. I read the next two volumes in rapid succession, and I eagerly await the fourth volume. I've pimped this book to lots of people since then. The point is, I had to actually try the book before I understood the "voice" behind that solicitation, and what it was really trying to convey. Describing the book to other people, I've found it hard to really get the essence of the book across. This may be an unavoidable problem, but it does complicate the process of figuring out which indy books to try.