Posts Tagged ‘Comics’

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Trans: Olena Bormashenko), “Roadside Picnic” (1972, 2012); Leslie Stein, “Time Clock: An Eye Of The Majestic Creature Book” (2016); Stanislaw Lem (Trans: Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox), “Solaris” (1961, 1970, 2002)

August 30, 2016

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The key to understanding the underlying philosophy of Roadside Picnic is in the third chapter, the conversation between Noonan and Pillman, which is also an expansion on the interview with Pillman in the prologue. Noonan chastises Pillman for promoting theories that say the alien Visitors didn’t notice or care about the native population of earth, but simply dropped their stuff off and left without a thought. “Where do you get this disdain for man?” Noonan says; but in reality Pillman is not the one with disdain – as seen in his two relatively brief appearances in the book, he is simply skeptical about the idea that first contact occurs because of humanity or earth’s centrality, or that communication is a necessary outcome – as he explains in the prologue, the significance of the event is not the possibility of humans understanding the extraterrestrials, but that the possibility of life on other planets exists at all. He is the face of the ambiguous science fiction concept that provides the novel’s setting, not answering the questions we may ask about the nature of the technology, but telling us that it’s unimportant, that communication and understanding in this situation is unimportant. The only thing that matters is the expanding possibilities in the known universe. He acts as the Strugatskys’ contextualizing tool, but he doesn’t know much more than the readers about what the Zone is – that knowledge is beside the point.

Really, it’s almost every character other than Pillman that has disdain for man – specifically, Noonan’s “friend” Redrick, whose life as one of the Stalkers has driven him to completely reject all but a few people in his life, never realizing how much of his existence has been subsumed by the Zone until the end. Almost every relationship he has with the others on the edge of the Zone is paired with profound hate: hate for the authorities who try to prevent his scrounging, hate for his fellow Stalkers who are in a constant competition to see who can swindle the other, hate for anyone who knows less about the Zone then he does. We are in Rederick’s mind for most of the book, whether it be the introductory chapter where he is the narrator or the rest where he is picked apart but an omniscient one, and every thought seems to be fed by anger and disgust – his feelings about his destroyed hometown seems to melt away, any sentimentality buried by the realization that he has always had essentially nothing, and seems to want nothing. He seems to care for his family, but even that is undercut by his final thoughts in the closing chapter, his desire to owe no one – being a Stalker has become his sole source of meaning, beyond even his desire to make money, becoming the barest sort of survival drive. The significance of the Zone even begins to influence his family life, where two of the only people he shows affection for are casualties of the Zone’s malignant influence.

Redrick’s life is Exhibit A in Pillman’s theories about this story’s first contact – the very existence of the extraterrestrials and their technology becomes the most significant thing in his life, every action revolving around journeying in and out of the Zone or justifying his reaction to the authoritarianism and criminal greed that were themselves reactions to the visit. Many of the characters seem trapped in this cycle, trapped by how much the Zone has changed human civilization – and despite Noonan’s attempts, answers for what the Zone is and why it’s there cannot provide an escape from it. The only question that can seemingly be asked of it is “now that this stuff is here, what can be done with it?”, a question that is the driving force behind the stalkers and the scientists – but even that ends up having no possibility for conclusion.

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Continuing more or less directly from Stein’s previous Eye Of the Majestic Creature book, Time Clock moves the stories in the direction of small-scale internal conflict, a difficult attempt to balance what you want and what you think you want (complicated by what others want as well.) After spending most of the previous books drifting from job to job, Larrybear decides to get a more serious career going, the kind of structure that she seemed to be looking for in previous stories – there seems to be less of a sense of wandering, even when Larry does move to different settings, with a drive for predictability and security. The one big but brief change that occurs in the middle of the book is initiated with a big, dreamy flourish, pages of outdoor whimsy that contrasts the concrete urbanity of the rest – the one thing unifying both visuals, though, is their inability to affect Larry, who seeks some kind of fulfillment in two settings, the pastoral openness of the country and the tied-down structure of a New York job, but can’t seem to make it work. It’s an ambivalent streak that runs through the whole book in a way unlike previous Eye stories.

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Every story here also seems to have Larry become aware of how other people find solace with their passions while she struggles – she goes to a convention for her artistic calling, where she finds camaraderie with the other artists as well as a “nemesis” whose popularity and methods are the inverse of her situation, but after that point sit becomes increasingly difficult to find inspiration for her work. The move back to the country is spurred by her talking guitar’s increasing sense of isolation and his attempt to find his own calling – but while the move benefits him greatly, she has trouble adapting again and in a fit of low-key desperation goes back to her job and the city, seeking something to do other than constantly ponder what’s supposed to happen next. But no decision in this book is ever not fraught, always in some way tainted with regret – no matter how committed one is to their life choices, it always seems like there’s more good than bad and there’s always something better somewhere else. It’s a secret that everyone other than Larry has figured out, it seems, and by the end she seems to have become even more isolated.

In that way, I guess the wandering feeling of older Stein books isn’t entirely gone – but where before it seemed to contain possibilities, now it just feels lost.

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I decided to read Roadside Picnic because of the essay Lem wrote about it in Microworlds (wherein he attempts to come up with the most logical explanation for the whys of the technology, as Lem is wont to do), and it’s easy to understand why Strugatskys’ novel interested him: in its active refusal to show humanity understanding the signs of alien life, they are playing within the same realm of science fiction thought that Lem himself often did. Lem has often explored the difficulties of a true cultural understanding or exchange between species of wildly different evolutionary histories with vast differences in between, and while Picnic uses the unknown quality of the extraterrestrial presence mainly as a background element (an important one) without the depth of argument that Lem gives it in his own work, the strange incomprehensibility of the alien signs and the human reaction (how the limited nature of human cognition would lead to numerous assumptions as obsessive individuals attempt to crack the indecipherable code) is still very much in line with it.

Solaris is many ways the inverse of his other alien contact novel His Master’s Voice in that it involves humans visiting an alien “intelligence” rather than the alien intelligence being visited upon them. Long stretches of the book are devoted to recounting the history of scientific studies of the sentient ocean, the many theories about the hows and whys of its existence and what it can do and whether humans can communicate with it, volumes of study and debunked crackpot hypotheses that shift and change – Solaris becomes a vessel through which the scientific community displays the aforementioned limits of human cognition, bias and the herd mentality of consensus. Kelvin retreats to the vast library of Solaristic material as a way to further understand what is happening around him, but finds that even first-hand accounts and the words of his own mentor only suggest that Solaris can only be understood by humans in entirely subjective terms, a complicated act of interpretation that never reaches any conclusion. Each of the three human characters in the book have their own “visitors”, dealing with them in different ways after very similar initial reactions – subjective possibilities also seen in the reports Kelvin reads – the true picture of Solaris seems to be distorted because it appears in different forms to different people, contorting itself to their minds.

The most wondrous passages in the book describe the series of nature phenomenon that occurs in the ocean, large ephemeral monoliths and complicated acts of mimicry when humans arrive, which constantly straddle the line between deliberate acts of beautiful creation and mindless reactions to stimuli – the possibility of the latter, of course, making the ocean’s power to spontaneously form life and “read” the innermost minds of the station crew all the more disturbing. As an act of a cognizant being that can be benevolent, malevolent, or even just confused, doing something like physically manifesting Kelvin’s guilt into a independently intelligent being could be understood in human terms, but if it is able to do that unconsciously it is psychological violation and trauma without any purpose at all, and uncontrollable loosing of our own unconscious minds. This is the idea of God that Kelvin speaks to Snow about in the final chapter, a thing with the greatest possible power with no understanding of how to use it – what’s more interesting, or concerning, about this form of non-contact is not simply us being unable to reach another mind, but knowing that it can reach yours and reacts in its own inscrutable cosmic way.

Lisa Hanawalt, “Hot Dog Taste Test”(2016) & Sy Montgomery, “The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood” (2006,2007)

July 30, 2016

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Is food something that needs to be de-mythologized? It’s one of those things people either think about a lot, or don’t really think about much – it’s such an essential part of life, it’s easy to either take it for granted and cram whatever’s nearby into your mouth, or you turn it into something you obsess about, revelling in specifics and obscurities, to the point where you seem to be in another universe from every other eater on earth. It often feels like all the ideas of nutrition and food-as-art have created these weird class distinctions in an essential activity. I would imagine one of the reasons Lisa Hanawalt received the article assignments that form the majority of this book (following chef Wylie Dufresne, trying New York’s street food one last time, going through multiple Las Vegas buffets) is because she has a real skill at straddling that line, knowledgeable and interested in the complexities and varieties in chef and foodie culture, but more than willing to indulge in the simpler pleasures of more common items. There’s an art to food, but that doesn’t mean only artistic food is the only kind worthwhile – Hanawalt recognizes that food is comforting, but also how food and the process of eating is absurd and just another part of our basic biological functions (food and its counterpart, doof, are closer than we’d like to think), and it’s also a cultural and familial touchstone that brings people together (which is the core of the “Argentina Travel Diary” segment.) There’s too much to food to just ignore but a few of its facets – here we even get some food-inspired horror in “Caballos Con Carne”, which explores the strange relationship between us meat eaters and other animals – it’s both funny and exhaustive in its observations, a hundred or more different ways to look at and appreciate your eating habits.

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Look at some of the spreads in the book – a Lisa Hanawalt spread is always a good thing, with a thousand visual jokes all hiding in different corners, rendered in appropriately smeared water colours that can bring out the best and worst in every piece – you can see many of those ideas in one place, elaborate and ornate and silly and disgusting in equal measures. Food becomes part of everything: design, body horror, ritual, communication, corporate logos, a personality test. Not every piece in the book is about food, but the topic seems to permeate every page, on the book’s mind at all times even when it drifts off to other places. Of course, many of the other sections of Hot Dog Taste Test deal with just other aspects of a normal life – happiness, death, family, that sort of thing – which coalesces quite well with food, all fundamental aspects of existence. Like the food itself that appears on these pages, there seems to be a desire to mix all these different ideas together, to serve them up in unexpected and beautiful ways – they are all part of one greater, very messy meal.

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As a companion to the previous Sy Montgomery book I read, The Good Good Pig offers a similar meditation on human-animal relationships – but while The Soul Of An Octopus focuses on a wild and strange intelligence, this one is definitely more domestic in many different ways. This is also a book about small time life, the idea of going somewhere to free yourself from urban sprawl and crowds, only to have the small population crowd around you as the local flavour – the legacy of Montgomery’s adopted pig, Christopher Hogwood, was to allow her to form relationships with neighbours and other citizens of Hancock, New Hampshire, sometimes by accident (creating a vivid cast of recurring personalities, as she would later do in Soul Of An Octopus as well.) The author openly describes how she has always felt more kinship with animals than people, but at several points in this, animals help bridge the gaps and force her to be a bit more outgoing.

The book presents the small town as the place where everyone knows everyone, everyone kicks in to help (in this case, feeding Christopher scraps), confirming that the ideas of community can actually amount to something – these are the virtues of the small town experience you hear about often. Having an escape artist pig makes Montgomery and her husband “exceptional”, but this brings them closer to others – the interesting contrast Montgomery provides is in her own family life, which appears in many major points in the book, where being eccentric or doing something not in line with expectations is not nearly as accepted. This is sometimes seen as another small town “value”, but it simmers beneath the surface – Montgomery can talk to her mother about her pig, but not her Jewish husband. The book doesn’t delve into that connection – she came from a military family, so not particularly representative of the small town experience – but in a broader sense it does present two different paths those close-knit communities can take: they can become an open community, or a closed community. The author uses both her life with a pig and her career as a way to demonstrate of the open community, emphasizing the different backgrounds of all her friends and neighbours, learning about other cultures (and especially their particular relationships with local animals, such as the stories about the river dolphins in Brazil), and keeping in touch with her associates in other countries. In these cases, too, animal life (especially Christopher, whose fame spreads far beyond New Hampshire) becomes a way to understand others and form connections – with the animals, and with the people, all communities becoming open communities.

David J. Skal,”The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror” (1993, 2001); John Wagner/Mike McMahon/Brian Bolland/Ron Smith/et. al., “Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 04″(1980-81, 2011); & Michael Deforge, “Big Kids” (2016)

June 28, 2016

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Horror reflects the anxieties of its time – that’s really not an especially new or interesting observation, and while Skal delves into that here (especially in how the horror movies of the twenties and thirties reflected a depopulated and disfigured post-WWI world, and interestingly shows how the movies of the forties often directly avoided the then-raging second World War even while setting themselves in a mock image of “Europe”), he also shows how adaptive those horror metaphors are (Dracula and Frankenstein, the two primary subjects of the book, appear consistently throughout the decades and in changing forms), and how they are reflected back by society itself. The twentieth-century did not have a one-sided relationship with horror icons (including the ones pulled from previous centuries) – there was a long-standing relationship with horror imagery that appeared before film (as Skal shows in his overview of the Grand Guignol theatre tradition), and in many ways the kinds of body horror and violent obsessions of horror entertainment influenced the way people look at things. By mid-century, horror imagery became firmly ingrained into culture at large (seen in Diane Arbus’ photography, the rise of gory make-up effects “culture”, and even in novelty songs like “Monster Mash”), even as attempts to censor or eliminate the entire genre – and by the time horror became recognized as indelible, the culture became more like the horror it consumed; the latter half of book zones in on that idea especially. Horror is not just a genre, but a lifestyle, and while they are often derived from real terrors, figures like vampires have become potent symbols for marginalized communities as well, taking some of those dark traits and re-contextualizing them to more positive ends. As well, the book highlights how some of the more outlandishly ghoulish ideas from the films seem to become closer to reality as the century moved one – although the desire to find horror metaphors everywhere leads the author to some questionable arguments concerning the trans community and HIV that were contestable in 1993, but seem atrociously wrong these days.

Another fascinating line comes from not just discussing horror movies as some cultural objects that were collectively dreamt up (as these sorts of arguments sometimes lean towards), but as the products of people with their own ideas and their own reasons for making them. Tod Browning is the central figure here, as Skal looks at his fascinating life and brief filmography and finds several recurring themes – Browning’s very peculiar career trajectory is very much apparent in his work, and it’s an especially potent series of events where his childhood as a carnival act (as a man who would be buried in a casket and then “resurrected”, because sometimes things make too much sense) would ultimately lead him to direct Freaks, the film that destroyed his directing career. Browning is the figure the book is most fascinated with, but the history of the stage versions of Dracula and Frankenstein (and the ugly business of securing the film rights) are equally important, and show in microcosm how individual directors, writers, actors, and businessmen interpreted these stories and helped create close-to-platonic conceptions of both those stories, crafting all future reinterpretations of the two most important horror symbols.

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After reading later volumes of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, I decided to walk my way backwards and see what I missed. This volume begins with a very long storyline that, while entertaining in parts, never comes together into much of anything. Considering how few of the stories have anything to do with the main plot (once Dredd and the other judges head into space, especially), one has to wonder if this whole idea was simply because the writers were bored of Mega City One and wanted to have an excuse to set the comics elsewhere for a while – and once they ran out of ideas for weird aliens or planets for Dredd to deal with (and considering how urgent his mission supposedly is, the points where has to stop and do something else because someone asked him are especially head-scratching), they went back to the main plot and finished it on an appropriate (but still maddening, especially if you were reading this weekly back in the eighties) anticlimax. It’s hard for me to even call most of the storyline padding, because most of the stories that happen between the early parts of the “Judge Child” saga and the end don’t even feel like they’re part of the same story – it’s more like they changed the premise of the strip for over half a year.

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It’s also frustrating because of how solid an artist line-up they have for an entire volume, with Ron Smith (who gets frequent opportunities to draw goofy cross-eyed expressions on people), Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson, and Steve Dillon trading off stories, and there isn’t a bad-looking comic in the lot. Once the “Judge Child” story ends and you get back to the more anchored lunacy of Judge Dredd, things begin to click again (although the space stories weren’t bad per se, they lacked the spark of the Mega City One stories, with maybe the exception of the “Battlefield” story – one of two opportunities for Ron Smith to do ad parodies in this volume) – the first comic to follow it is a real nice character-focused piece with even nice Brian Bolland artwork, almost reintroducing readers to the actual point of the series. Subsequently, you get real fun premises like “Otto Sump’s Ugly Clinic” and “Unamerican Graffiti” (probably the best of the stories in here, about as hilariously bleak as you can get), as well as the ridiculous action piece “Pirates of the Black Atlantic”, which somehow manages to be many different sorts of stories all at once (you go from a story with mutant pirates to “oh, a whole section of the city has just been obliterated with a nuclear missile”, which understandably is a pretty grim turn), and even acts as prelude to the stories they’d be telling not long after (this volume ends up introducing several elements that the series would go back to for years to come.) After what felt like a long time away, the second half of volume 4 felt like coming home.

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One thing that struck me while reading Big Kids was the constantly shifting presence of very specific social power dynamics, a slightly unnerving sort of casual cruelty that sometimes appears in Deforge’s other works. There’s always a need for someone to be at the bottom of the hierarchy among Adam’s peer group, who are arbitrarily (although probably not that arbitrarily) chosen to be the target, and this is never questioned even by the designated target. When Adam changes into a “tree”, the dynamics change – he no longer becomes the target as the other teenagers sense something is different about him, people in his life who are still “twigs” become lesser beings (even when, or maybe especially when, they are former authority figures like Adam’s father, his policeman uncle, and his ex-boyfriend) – the twigs are, as the narration itself explains, not actually lesser in any real way, but they not only lack the gifts of extrasensory visualizing and interconnection. But they are also seen as these expressionless, simplistic shapes that are physically smaller and lack any of the “organic” features that define the trees. In a way, this dehumanizes them in a way that Adam seems willing to take advantage of, his new way of seeing the world allowing him to ignore the other level of reality he no longer has to deal with – like on the page where he simply picks up and throws his abusive uncle out a window, the change in their relative realities giving him the confidence to overthrow those who once domineered his life. But while this seems triumphant in that scene, it’s not difficult to see that this is just another arbitrary hierarchy being used – the trees’ “awakening” is random, and the trees’ distinctive societies and relationships are an unspoken agreement.

Another recurring theme is a strange ambivalence towards art and its ability to construct and deconstruct familiarity. When Adam becomes a tree, every object or concept (like sounds) in the world becomes a Deforge-style abstraction, a flowing liquidy shape or living thing – ideas are anti-Platonic in a way, and no ideas are invisible, always visible. Being able to see things in this seemingly nonconforming, elastic way is the gift and the curse of the trees, the world becoming a formless expression rather than rigidity, but one that ultimately gets in the way of understanding people without this artistic mind, and ultimately robs them of their memories of their older world. The computer program April develops with Adam’s mom is a sort of alternative form of expression, returning to some semblance of “realism” in order to preserve those memories, but it also demonstrates the imperfection of visual memory (an idea helped by the way Deforge draws people in this – simple faces that make the imprecise fudging of details more noticeable), every image of the world around us a always a illustration from a hazy thought rather than anything completely concrete. By the end, we see that there are people who seem to gain something from this new mode of interpretation that they can flow through themselves, a viable community, but to others it is ultimately an alienating force (like Adam’s mom, who chooses to physically deform herself to feel more at home among the twigs like her husband) – artistic extrapolation and reinvention being able to bring people together or keep them separate.

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JG Ballard, “The Unlimited Dream Company” (1979, 2014) & Jane Mai, “See You Next Tuesday”(2015)

February 29, 2016

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I found it interesting to look at Unlimited Dream Company through the lens of the previous Ballard novel I read, High-Rise. Both revel in the destruction of suburban symbols, the most carefully-maintained orders in our modern society – homes and businesses (the specific identities and descriptions emphasized in the same way the vocations and hobbies of the people are) become enveloped by the chaos unleashed by the events of the book, and the people themselves embrace it, having awaited the chance to throw off the shackles of their quaint lives. The big difference between the two, then, is in the nature of the upheaval – High-Rise was a savage apocalypse, its setting wholly separate from the outside world and left in a disgusting disarray, garbage and death abound – but the apocalypse in Dream Company is one where the urban is retaken by the natural world, with plants overwhelming the concrete and the sky dominated by birds spawned (pretty much literally) by Blake, and the people inspired to look to the freedom of the animal world. Ballard delights in describing these microcosms in their broken state, but only in this one does something more beautiful grow from the cracks – it’s not just erasure, it’s renewal.

In the plot as well, there is a tension between those two types of change (erasure and renewal, I mean), as Blake slowly learns how he will use his messianic powers to instigate what he sees as an improvement of mankind. Although mostly unaware of it at first, he initially thinks that the way is through destruction – and so many of his early encounters with his multiple lover figures is capped off with attempted murder. This is the underlying ethos for much of the book – even in his creation of life there seems to be a lack of empathy on his part, and when he tries to teach, there is still part of him that wants to take and horde the people he is trying to uplift. The natural beauty of his power is diluted by the depraved humanity that underlies him – he knows something important is there, but hasn’t figured out how to handle it in a decidedly unselfish way. His inability to unlink violence from his revolution is reflected also in his search for the person who revived him – an emphasis on their apparent strength, Blake’s musings that whoever did may have also tried to kill him – and although the answer is clear from early on, he still manages to elide that solution by antagonizing the figure in the plane, avoiding it because of its symbolic tie to death. He only fixes course in the end when he realizes that he was not resurrected in an act of violence, but in an act of difficult but necessary self-driven change, and so inspires others to find the same path.

The cynical (but often well-founded) belief in the inevitability of violence has been a core part in much of Ballard’s work, but in this case he presents an alternative view. Not one that eliminates the violence completely, to be sure, but one that shows it as something that is to be overcome, a part of a cycle of human reinvention. The anarchic free-for-all of Ballard’s text, in this case, has a purpose other than solely reflecting our own capacity to perpetuate it.

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This book really plays with its diary/sketchbook format – the scribbled lines and extra text in the margins suggests that every comic is stream-of-consciousness, but also thoroughly considered, reworked and drawn over to best get the story across. There isn’t a time line to any of the comics – which the introduction tells you upfront – so everything feels less like a straight diary and more like a series of recollections – everything in past tense, memories flooding back in response to something – with the short text pages (written in the same brush strokes as the the notes on the comics themselves, but larger, getting you to pay more attention to what’s written) indirectly commenting on the undercurrents of the comics, conflicts of identity and self-worth. The book is often having a conversation with itself, an ongoing project that is constantly self-reflecting even when it doesn’t make direct callbacks.

Identity plays a large part in the humour and sadness in the comics – the book is about a person named Jane Mai (referred to almost exclusively as Jane Mai), who may or may not reflect the life and personality of the author, who is also named Jane Mai. The character introduction includes three different characters named Jane Mai, as well as Nurse Janey, “a fictional character” – in the page before, the text that explains the non-linearity of the stories also says “I’m not even sure I exist tbh” – which is a joke, but also keys you in on one of the main concerns of the book – the identity in something autobiographical is never completely clear. Mai (the author) mentions it directly in one of the text pieces (and even in an introductory “making of” comic at the beginning), but there’s an idea in the world of diary/sketch comics (as part of social media) that you are trying to sell your personality, hoping the amusing or “relatable” details of your life will ingratiate you with the audience (“What is Jane Mai? She is a product I made and sold” she writes, “And the sadder she got the more popular she was” – because depression and self-esteem issues make for funny and very “relatable” comics, it seems.) This is only one manifestation – many of the comics and asides deal, in one way or another, with how you as a person exist for others, be it family, friends, or (if you’re a creative sort) an audience – you perform to meet their expectations, or to shrug off those expectations in your own way – but in either case, it may feel that everything is forced upon you by the rest of the world, and you can’t seem to escape wanting to shape how you are perceived.

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Tailoring your life details like that, however, can also be used as a distancing tool, to help avoid the internal and external pain by making others (and maybe yourself) laugh about it – but in See You Next Tuesday, it’s also clear that Jane Mai’s goal is to eventually be okay with herself, in whatever form that takes. The book is an intentionally scattershot depiction of that journey – there’s no definite line to say why it ends where it does, but that’s sort of the point.

Julia Wertz, “Drinking At The Movies” (2010, 2015) & John Wagner/Alan Grant/Carlos Ezquerra/Cam Kennedy/et. al.,”Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 09″ (1985-86, 2015)

December 14, 2015

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Drinking At The Movies compartmentalizes life in the same way that Wertz’s later book The Infinite Wait does, using both the actual chronology and location (the various apartments she’s lived in, which also means more of her really delightfully detailed drawings of buildings and streets) to set up each section of the book. The big difference here, though, is that this one longer sustained narrative rather than a trio of short stories – so they’re more like chapters in a single story rather than different stories altogether. Having more of a narrative through-line connecting each of the sequences (which, in each chapter, are themselves treated like comic strips that range from one to several pages), recounting Wertz’s beginnings and developing relationship with the city of New York, and how that change in her life connected with several other personal events gives it a real sense of development, even if you’re still mostly reading some jokes about terrible jobs and poor life choices. In this way, it feels more like full memoirs rather than a series of anecdotes like The Infinite Wait.

This book also dates itself in a way that felt very different than the later one – specifically talking about the political situation in a few places, putting the events of the book in the latter part of the Bush years and up to the 2008 elections. These references aren’t extraordinarily prominent, and I don’t think it was necessarily intentional that the stories in The Infinite Wait used fewer specific reference points in that same vain, but it might reflect on the aforementioned compartmentalization – its pretty easy to connect world and personal events in that way, creating further context. Going back to the memoir idea as well, it’s possible that this book’s position as a longer narrative made Wertz want to connect her own story with some of the external ones, creating a sense of America as she acclimated to its biggest city – a much wider narrative overall.

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That internal/external connection is pretty consistent in the book as well, capped off with Wertz’s own realizations in the last pages – that she had no reason to place any blame on the city for her own problems. She seemed to know this throughout – most of the pages about her alcoholism and other problems show a lot of (probably retroactive) self-awareness, and despite all the frustrations with her new life, she seemed well aware of what the impediments, especially in the latter half of the book. She has some cute ways of externalizing those anyway (like the strips about her missing wallet), but they as it proceeds even those jokey formats feel raw, and when real life really intrudes, it sends the whole thing back to reality in a painfully focused way. Even when trying to add some levity, it never loses sight of the real effects these problems have. Meanwhile, those wider world events, and the details about New York life, may seem like distractions from her self-destructive behaviour, but they also give her that final realization, that new surroundings can give her a chance to create a whole new life for herself, or at least change it in important ways.

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I would call this another pretty procedural volume of Dredd, if not for the presence of some very important one-offs and story developments, like “A Chief Judge Resigns” and “Letter From A Democrat”, although the effects of those stories are probably felt much more later. The latter is especially effective, maybe among the darkest Dredd has ever been, just by showing how the openly authoritarian nature of the series’ universe plays out when Dredd is explicitly the bad guy – we’ve had many strips and jokes about it, but this one goes entirely straight, and while the comics afterwards more or less go back to the more standard outlandish fare (where the brutality of the Judges can be more or less written off), its difficult to shake the full realization you’ve just confronted. The whole series has made sure that it never went too long without reminding us that the stories are about a frightening totalitarian state, and here those reminders are presented without any fantastical distractions (as in “The Apocalypse War”). This volume has a couple other stories that play into that theme as well (“The Man Who Knew Too Much” and the blackmailed Judge three-parter), and although the other stories aren’t as effectively constructed as “Democrat”, they still give an impression that the writers were starting to recognize the story potential of tapping into the people who have legitimate problems with the whole Judge system.

“Letter From A Democrat” also stands out because it contrasts so heavily with the rest of the stories in this period – if there’s one consistency, it’s that this is consistently one of the most tonally varied of any of the Dredd books I’ve read. There are strips that are straight action (with the first one, “Midnight Surfer”, being the best of those), grotesque horror (like “Nosferatu”), strange Sci-Fi tragedies, and straight-up goofy comedy (with the goofiest of them, especially “The Magnificent Obsession”, working a lot more than others – definitely helped by the greatly complimentary artwork of Cam Kennedy and Ian Gibson), as well as other weird concepts like “The Lemming Syndrome”, which seems to be trying to set up some background idea for Mega City One, but really doesn’t add much. With so many different ideas in play, the quality tends to be all over the place as well – “A Merry Tale Of The Christmas Angel” has nice Steve Dillon artwork, but sort of just peters out by the end, and the big multi-part action story (with a few major continuity pieces) at the dead center of the book is just sort of there (and often kind of uncomfortable with its borderline offensive Japanese stereotypes.) Still, the stuff in there that does work works quite well, and some consistently good artwork from contributors like Kennedy, Gibson, Carlos Ezquerra, Cliff Robinson, and Brendan McCarthy. It’s quite a few different styles in there, but they are generally employed well even in some of the more disposable strips.

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Sophie Goldstein, “The Oven” (2015); Andrew MacLean, “ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria For The End Times” (2015); & Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Birthday Of The World And Other Stories” (2002)

October 14, 2015

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For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot of short, post-apocalyptic comics recently. The Oven, as with Vacancy, uses colour to establish environment – the difference here is that rather than using a blend that gives off the impression of a mess left behind, everything is almost a stark monochrome, a place stripped of all but a few things. Everything is usually detail-less gray, strongly unnatural orange, or bleached white – all of which give off an oppressive feeling of a world where nothing is left, even though life is still obviously going on in the foreground. The outside world portrayed here has a ramshackle feeling like Vacancy as well, but rather than signifying a hasty retreat, it seems more like a place kept barely together with whatever remains. It is certainly harsh, but it still seems pretty lived in – the problem with a term like “post-apocalyptic” is that there is no end, just a shift.

In this case, the shift is a sort of sheltered dichotomy – an indoor city life and an outdoor rural life in a radioactive desert. There are attempts by the characters to define it as a freedom or comfort choice – the main characters leave the city in order to have children due to some unspecified government eugenics program, and the reinforced ideology is “freedom of choice.” But the narrative itself never really buys into it, even when one or both of the couple does (one of the first things said to them is “freedom isn’t free”) – as much “freedom” as the outside world provides, it still ends up reinforcing binary roles for the people (both men and women), and very little actual choice of what their lives can be, just one thankless job or another. There’s no government to tell you what to do, but the drive of basic necessities keeps you in place just as well, as well as numerous unstated community standards – it’s all a series of compromises, which doesn’t sound much different from the little we hear about the city.

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Even the “third way” Eric turns to by the end is a compromise – abandoning everything else just for the possibility of doing anything else in his life, still forced but slightly less claustrophobic. If one doesn’t take to the drudgery or find much solace in a nuclear family (which in turn is part of a far-off promise of creating a community, but one seems to require more of some people than others), it’s basically just drugs (numbing you in the same way the “screens” evidently do in the city) and running away as the alternatives, still kept in check by the inhospitable world around you. What “freedom” is seems to be either a slightly different set of standards, which some take to (as Syd does, after initial trepidation) and others (like Eric) do not – the outside people don’t seem unhappy, but there seems to be ideals that need to be in place for that community to work as it does. It’s a binary of hegemonies, ultimately, dictated by one harsh environment or another, and the delusion saying otherwise becomes part of it.

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Colour plays a part in ApocalyptiGirl as well, albeit in way closer to Vacancy than The Oven – this is another more disorganized world rather than a blasted one, but one that has an environment that has been able to move one. It’s always fascinating to me to see what kind of mark the leftovers of human society will leave when the daily commotion is gone – although built over the natural world, the natural world never really goes away, and it may yet find a way to reintegrate itself. That seems to happen here, as there is greenery, there are actual things to see and places to go in and around the ruined city – and because of that, none of the pages have the colour uniformity that The Oven used to set its tone. The only colour binaries that seem to exist are between the two warring tribes. There is a sense of reclamation in that world – even the mech suit Aria tries to reactivate has become dirt-brown, looking as much like a hill as some explicitly artificial thing. It immediately establishes the idea that there is something still there.

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The land’s acclimation to its destruction is not a wholly separate thing from the destructive events that preceded it, either. Aria tells herself the history of the place as a way to justify it – putting it in mytho-poetic terms in order to make it seem like a natural shift than a war over technology, but she has reason to want to make that argument – after all, the destruction led to the creation of the twin lakes that dominate the background, the natural deriving from the artificial. By the end, we see that the whole story was a lead-up to some kind of judgement – the planet abused its gift, but she decides to spare it because it was “home”, and the way it was portrayed at many points (going back to the colours and the other details) allows us to believe that. Despite the violence in its past and present, it still seems like a real, breathing world, one where life can still thrive. Having spent an extended period of time there, Aria knows that better than anyone else could.

As I mentioned before, apocalypse is usually just a hyperbolic term for massive change – it doesn’t necessarily have to be an end, just a transition to something else. It appears bleak now, in this story, but there is a potential for it to become something more appreciable yet – nothing is set in stone. In fact, the only real apocalypse in the story only comes up as a possibility at the end of the book, when a true end to the planet is proposed and rejected – a complete end to everything there, nullification, not just an end to human civilization or a clean slate. As long as there is existence, there is a chance for it to become something beautiful, and there all are the hints that Earth27 will yet reach that something.

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The stories in The Birthday Of The World continue most of the preoccupations of Le Guin’s other work (and returns to some of the same settings as well), but “free of a damned plot” as Le Guin puts it in the introduction (still my go-to place for additional context), they are allowed to be small, personal stories about the people in these societies. Stories like “Coming of Age in Karhide” (set on the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness) and “Unchosen Love” cover some of the same ground as her novels, but do so in a way that emphasizes the individual mindsets and smaller social mores of these places. While some of the longer stories in the book (which are grouped together as the last of them) show societies in some sort of transition, the others are content to simply demonstrate the life or lives in a place where sex is fluid, where marriage is a much more complicated series of traditions, or where solitude is the norm. Love and familial devotion and hierarchy seem to be constants, but each is always tied up in the specifics of the world, and the nuanced way the people these stories follow work with or around them.

The aforementioned “Coming of Age in Karhide” has an entirely sympathetic air, one that recognizes that fear and joy in discovery are all part of finding one’s way in life – by the end, there’s a celebratory feeling of growth, and a great optimism pervades it more than any other story in the book. This might be because of the way the story is presented – as Sov’s reminiscing, a recollection of such a torrent of varied emotions that would be difficult to process even without taking place in Karhide’s particular human-biological situation (this is also true with the more conflicted first-person narrative of “Solitude”.) It is simply a story of growing up in a science fiction setting, allowing it to feel both very familiar and highly specific, which is one of the recurring feelings throughout the stories that follow it, even as they attempt to be just a little bit more alien.

Or in the cases of “Mountain Ways” and “Unchosen Love”, more adult – those stories are also more interpersonal dramas that use the societal norms of the planet O to show characters dealing with the complexity of domestic relationships. Love and sex are part of it, but there’s the everyday interactions as well, and the way people’s unique personalities interact (it is possible to love someone deeply but still be irritated by things they do), as well as what family and society as a whole expects of your relationship. There is something about both these stories that make them feel more like traditional realist fiction, even with the supernatural (on top of the science fictional) aspect of the former, as they are “just” about people navigating complications in their love life, with outcomes more positive or negative.

“The Matter of Seggri”, which is composed of a variety of different “stories”, is the most experimental of the stories in the book because of that, but thematically it actually feels closer to “The Birthday of the World”, “Old Music the Slave Women”, and “Paradises Lost”, all of which deal with civilizations raised on specific truths going into transition. The difference here is that while the latter three show that transitions with specific characters as anchors throughout, “Seggri” is written like primary research – a smattering of first-hand accounts from those inside and outside the gender-divided world, and even a piece of short(er) fiction, which has an old-fashioned feeling and a delightfully specific writing style – that shows multiple eras of change. All of them are about not just the society, or the way that audience surrogate characters like the members of the Ekumen react, but the way changes within a system affect people of different walks of life, in ways that include both direct (sometimes violent) conflict and just in normal interactions – the stuff that colours all the stories in the book.

David Quammen, “The Song Of The Dodo” (1996, 1997) & Leslie Stein, “Bright-Eyed At Midnight” (2015)

September 10, 2015

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Amongst many things, The Song Of The Dodo is about a history of a scientific idea, its extrapolation, and its many permutations. The reason why the first section of the book (and, rather subtly, the later sections) focuses so heavily on Alfred Wallace is not just because Quammen feels he has been duly undervalued as one of the founders of evolutionary biology (at least compared to Darwin), but also because the evidence and experiences he alone had provide the basis for pretty much everything in biogeography. He investigated different island environments (and comparable continental ecosystems), and sought to answer how place changes different aspects of species – and following his ideas was a calvalcade of other scientists, in both field biology and statistics, who took them further and further, finding how consistent the “rules” of biogeography were, and that they could be applied even more broadly. Island biogeography isn’t just AN important idea, but one of THE most important ideas in modern evolutionary biology, helping illuminate the core phenomenon of organisms: evolution and extinction.

Of course, it’s the latter of those two that gets the bulk of the focus in the book, being the major biological issue of our times (even as far back as 1996!) As one would expect, humans have played a major part in the mass extinction of island species (just look at the titular animal), but what’s more interesting is what Quammen learns about the specificity of island extinction, and how isolation directly affects such things. Take the concept of ecological naivete, where particular animals have lived without natural predators (increasingly remote islands often leading to lower populations of carnivorous species who have greater needs) for so long that they are seemingly unable to identify anything as a threat – this was observed by Wallace and Darwin in their time, and Quammen finds it still among the birds and tortoises. Combine that with the smaller living space leading to smaller populations – even a stable island population might be considerably rarer than most mainland species – and it becomes painfully clear how even one change, especially the introduction of human or non-human hunters, can easily devastate island species.

But even so, there’s a surprising resilience in island species, and the information to replenish population numbers when some are eliminated is one of the most important aspects of their study – the destruction of Krakatoa and its reformation as Anak Krakatau providing a perfect example of how an island is repopulated. That an island can be reclaimed by various species so relatively quickly is why, as Quammen explains at the end of the book, the loss of species (usually balanced by gains through speciation) is growing at an alarming rate – through the microcosm of islands, we have become aware that (as is still being written about today) we are in a period of mass extinction, related to a number of changes mostly brought about by us. The latter parts of the book move into explaining this, and applying island concepts to mainland (especially in the area of conservation, where isolated ecosystems, separated by open land, are treated almost exactly the same way as islands) – the transition very subtle, though set-up by Quammen in the first section especially. This was not just about island biogeography; or, more accurately, island biogeography was never just about islands – its a field that has vitally important information for all of biology. Earth is, after all, just a series of islands of many different sizes.

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Although very different in format, Bright-Eyed At Midnight has many of the same qualities as Stein’s Eye Of The Majestic Creature comics: the way it portrays day-to-day living, drifting from events of varying significance, going back and forth in time. There are some things in the comics that seem like they’d be more important than others, like the bouts of insomnia early on or Stein quitting her job near the end, but the egalitarian outlook of the strips means that they become part of a broader context rather than as definitive events – all the things that are drawn here seem equally important to each other, even if they don’t obviously connect. The flow between the strips is less demarcated in the book than they there on the web – days seem subsumed by the cycle of events, which follows a very identifiable rhythm (see the number of pages that begin or end with her in bed, or drawing one the page that we are currently reading) – there are job stories, band stories, comics stories, ongoing internal monologues, bleeding into each other from page to page. The ritualistic/on-the-fly nature of the project kind of necessitates this – each page is a reaction to that specific day, and so the multitude of experiences constantly overlap each other, giving the book a natural non-progression.

There’s also a charming handmade quality to the comics here – again, being daily made Stein use an evolving minimalist style, but that allows her to experiment with her use of watercolours, collage, and text, giving each day a distinct feeling. The speed-and-ease-oriented drawings give the pages extra space and freedom for those elements to really shine through even more than in something like Eye of the Majestic Creature. Some pages, connected or disconnected from what came before them, become a splurge of scribbles, paint splotches, and disembodied forms – and some days, that is an exact representation of one’s outlook. Despite being originally posted online, every comic proudly wears its physicality, the use of whatever materials seemed to be nearby – the colours and layouts of the pages straddle the line between spur-of-the-moment and innately considered.

Which is probably the most interesting part of going through these strips again, in book form: being given the opportunity to see how those elements came together outside the scheduled production these comics had when they were being posted. They were not meant to be read together in this fashion when they were being produced (as we can tell just by seeing the context of Stein’s drawing in the comics themselves), but they (maybe only sort of) accidentally feel part of a continuum. That was probably one of the aims when compiling the strips, but it manages to do that without compromising the original aims of the daily comics.

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John Gardner, “Grendel” (1971, 1989); Jen Lee, “Vacancy” (2015); & JG Ballard, “High-Rise” (1975, 2014)

July 27, 2015

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Grendel’s journey throughout the book is to weather the outside world and defend his own semi-nihilistic philosophy. Although his ways do come from some sense of morality (for example, his disgust with the human’s capacity for hypocrisy and lies, as demonstrated by the Shaper’s deft ability to craft and create both), he decides his ultimate purpose is to create and also deny meaning to others, especially wannabe heroes like Unferth. He even denies it to himself – when he finds beauty and empathy in Wealtheow, he intentionally forces himself to attack her not only to belittle his nemeses, but to prove to himself above those petty feelings (but they leave their mark, for sure.) But for him to be on defensive, he has to recognize that others exist – and that is also the underlying basis for his decisions, the constant need to find some way of communicating with people in the ways he can’t with beings like his mother. Nothingness is not necessarily a blank slate, after all – it can be a reaction, a conscious decision to remove things from one’s life, and while Grendel often observes nothingness around him in nature, his own acts are deliberately made to be the antithesis of the Danes in one way or another.

From his first encounter with them, Grendel decides to be what Hrothgar and his band think of him – a malignant natural being, or an angry spirit (and at various points, he even tries to play both roles among different humans.) Since he is, for the most part, unable to communicate with them verbally, he uses the definitions thrust upon him as his mode of expression – violence becomes his language. He can even justify it, being told by the dragon and later telling himself that his violence inspires the Danes to even greater things, even if Grendel himself finds many of these things (like the eternal warring and powermongering) distasteful. As ultimately destructive as their interactions are, Grendel feels a part of something in his battle against the Danes, in some kind of conversation, the kind he can never have with his mother (who ironically seems to be the only one with genuine concern for Grendel, despite his never ending condescension) and the mindless animals whose actions he explains to the readers.

The great challenge for Grendel following his meeting with the dragon is keeping the bits of his stance he agrees with while defying the others – and especially seeks to balance the inherent meaninglessness of everything while still having full control of his life. Being an instigator is his main method of proving that despite the dragon’s claim of omniscience, that there might not be an inevitable end for him. He loses that sense of control when Beowulf appears, ending his reign in a way he could never foresee (and by someone who shares the need for violence, but in a way that Grendel does not abide by, seeing him as insane) – and Beowulf is conflated with the dragon because of this, becoming the embodiment of the ideas Grendel wanted to defy. The dragon (and by extension, Beowulf) is a kind of Satan figure in Grendel’s life, offering the possibility of evil but taking it out of Grendel’s hands – but even at the end, Grendel will not allow his self-direction to be taken from him, turning his defeat into a stupid mistake, an “accident.” It could happen to anyone, he taunts his animal oppressors in the final lines – but it happened to him.

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I’m personally quite fascinated with what legacy our modern society will leave, especially in the theoretical future without us. Vacancy isn’t necessarily about that, but every image in it is based around a very similar idea, at least – in the background, the abandoned locales, and the hand-me-down clothes worn by all the animal characters. Most interestingly, through the circular sequence of the events – starting in the suburbs, going to the wild, and ending in the suburbs – we see how the world left behind has become an integrated whole, our hollowed towns becoming yet another ecosystem with its own rules. The only thing separating our homes from nature is our human perception of difference – take that away, kick down the wooden fence, and suddenly it becomes a continuum, as it probably always was (after all, animals like raccoons have treated it as such for so long…)

Simon, the dog, he hasn’t quite figured that out at first. He seems only a recent oprhan, desperate to find a new family to join, but not quite able to make the transition. He sees the opportunity once the two wild scroungers appear, following them into the wild world just beyond his familiar one – desperate to prove himself as an adaptable, wild animal himself. But he’s still, at heart, a pet, and even beyond that a creature bred far away from eating rotten garbage off the dirt. It’s not that he wants to leave what he knows, but that he thinks he has to – with the separation of ecosystems gone, with no one else left protect as a guard dog should, there is a void he feels he has to fill. He does that, eventually, but not in the way he thought – him and his wild companions find that the abandoned remnants of human society are as good a home as any. It’s all an animal’s world, anyway, and at least it holds some aura that protects them from the dangers of the woods (the wolves talk of the danger of the suburbs, but is it just a memory, or is there something else still there as well?)

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Whatever quick-acting apocalypse left these animals in a human-free world did the majority of the work blending the town and the woods together – even when beyond the fence, the evidence of our existence forms permanent new pillars of the wilderness. A crashed plane blends in with the autumn trees, abandoned buildings become places to hide, and garbage and belongings that hold little meaning blanket the ground. There are certainly other boundaries, in-between places, but we seem to have left behind much, reshaped the world in our absence. We can see the visual remnants of our lives in almost every panel, and while still subtly highlighted, through the colours alone we can see how those remnants are simply part of the landscape. In the land, and in the animals, the memory of our time remains.

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Once a Ballardian societal breakdown begins, it usually continues on as you’d expect, but part of the angle in High-Rise is how quickly it happens. It doesn’t seem like the escalating violence and hatred found in the tenants was a particularly grand shift in those people – quite the opposite. From the moment the plot kicks in, pretty much everyone (especially the trio of characters we follow) seems anticipatory, giddy, about the possibility of their petty annoyances being used to justify greater and greater destruction. There are external elements brought in, too, the idea that the crush of always being surrounded by an all-encompassing mass humanity (the whole thing doesn’t kick off until all two thousand or so apartments are occupied) is a contributing factor, and scenes of the tenants interacting (mostly by tossing their trash downwards) on their numerous leeringly used balconies establish a distinct lack of privacy. But these, while sometimes interesting, seem more and more like asides as the novel continues. No, despite how oppressive and divide-enforcing the design of the complex is, what really instigates the mini-apocalypse is what the tenants themselves bring into the building.

This is fairly obvious from those characters we follow – Laing and Royal both have plenty of baggage they bring in from the beginning (the former’s divorce, and the latter’s accident as well as his unique position as the designer of the high-rise itself) but those are used primarily as excuses more than anything. These background details serve as feeble justifications for eschewing society in order to force themselves into the roles they imagine themselves in – trying to find some sort of definition to their lives that only a lawless land could provide, a differing but philosophically related need for control. Royal, in particular, remembers how he’s always wanted to build a zoo, hides himself away from the people to stay in the company of animals (his dog and the gathering mass of gulls), but returns when he determines that he has successfully created his zoo after all (only to have it all taken away when he realizes the animals don’t stay in their cages.) They reflect each other in scale determined by their home floor – of course Royal wants to lord over everyone at the top of the high-rise, while Laing on the lower (but not bottom) floors seems perfectly fine trying to jockey for power among a small group of abandoned people – but he’s the one who makes it through to the end, as his lower ambitions are more achievable in the chaos.

More broadly, as a corralled cross-section of middle class life, many of the tenants are treated as some degree of non-entities – names eschewed for job descriptions or social roles. This seems not only to kind of show what kinds of people we are dealing with generally, but also helps reinforce the class hierarchies – the upper class jewellers and executives with their endless parties above, and the decreasingly less prestigious working people (often with the social butterfly-crushing burden of children) as one descends. When the degradation sets in, many of them throw away their obligations to anything outside the pointless tribal warfare of the apartments (and Laing is used to demonstrate this as he slowly argues himself out of never leaving the apartment) – so in effect, many of them remove the only defining characteristic the book gives them, and then what? They become anonymous mobs, with the hazy recollection of their former positions informing their behaviour, abstracted beyond memory – and while the hierarchy remains, it becomes ingrained rather than something tangibly delineated by occupations and money, prejudice both random and encoded in their DNA. Eventually, a great number of them then become corpses in a swimming pool, the logical conclusion of their identity -erasing devolution.

Shotaro Ishinomori (Trans: Dan Owsen), “The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past” (1992-1993, 2015) & Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Word For World Is Forest” (1972, 1977, 1980)

June 2, 2015

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I imagine the main interest in this book is its status as a cross-media historical curiosity. Here is a comic adaptation of one of the most well-regarded video games of all time, made by one of the preeminent manga artists (and general multimedia creator in Japan) of all time, published for mainly American audiences in a video game magazine for children, where the previous facts almost certainly eluded them. It’s also fun to wonder what Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto, himself once an aspiring manga artist, thought when he convinced someone who was very likely a major influence to adapt one of his own games. The comic itself is sort of a book-sized fun fact.

I have no idea what value this comic has to scholars of Ishinomori’s oeuvre, or to anyone not fairly familiar with the series – but for those who are big into Zelda (and Link To The Past in particular), this is pretty interesting beyond just being nostalgia-bait, especially as a representation of the series from another time. For the most part, the comic follows the structure of the game fairly closely, going to place A to get item B after fighting boss X, etc – it’s pretty much a truncated runthrough. Each chapter of the comic more or less correlates to most of the major milestones in gameplay (with some sections left out to keep things concise) – but, of course, there had to be changes in order to better use the form. Most of those changes seem to be incorporating well-trod adventure story traditions – there are some comic relief sidekicks added, and a muted unrequited love subplot (with a pretty downbeat conclusion) between Link and a fairy. The character of Roam is such a well-worn figure (the cocky rival of the unsure hero) and is essentially transplanted from Ishinomori’s other works. Link himself, who to this day defiantly shrugs off attempts at characterization, comes off as an affable goofball slowly becoming a heroic figure – a plotted version of that “journey”, which in the game is represented mainly by Link acquiring better equipment.

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That may be indicative of the whole project, really – taking something that was intentionally left vague in the game (or disregarded, possibly) and filled out with Ishinomori’s own sensibility. What little background and plot there was in the game itself is more or less maintained, without much being added aside from a few characters – and it reminded me how many plot elements in game were fairly dramatic for what is otherwise a pretty simple adventure (the introduction with Link’s uncle, for example) – there was stuff there for Ishinomori to bounce off of, even if it was pretty low key. The iconic quality of most of the character designs and environments remain as well, if only because that was all that was there in the first place – images and concepts. Some of the characters and concepts used here would be fleshed out and defined more concretely as the series progressed, so seeing them here creates a alternative interpretation, something that could only have really occurred fairly early on in the franchise’s history. Before ideas could be entrenched in the minds of both creators and fans – that’s probably the best time for another artist to project their own structures and ideals onto something, given a level of leeway that seems almost unthinkable now.

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In the introduction, Le Guin is the first to admit that, in retrospect, The World For Word Is Forest is not as morally complex as she would want, coming from a very specific desire to address then-current events. It is a direct response to the Vietnam War, and so much of it feels like a straight recreation (acknowledged in the text itself by characters of Vietnamese descent, even) – the colonial efforts are very much a mid-century military job, varying degrees of uncaring soldier and worker sent by their leaders to perform a task, using the resources and people of a foreign land to enrich themselves. There is some lip service paid to anthropology and other science work, but that of course ridiculed by the aforementioned soldiers – it’s a token effort to understand the world they are plundering. The contrast between the Earth men and Athsheans is stark, right down to the gender politics – the human colonies use of women as simple as the Athsheans’ gender roles are complex. Back in the introduction, Le Guin describes Captain Davidson as “purely evil”, the ultimate nightmare soldier – xenophobic, callous, genocidal from the very beginning, jumping to whatever paranoid conclusions are needed to justify his lone wolf violence. He is the most antagonistic character to appear in any of the Hainish cycle stories I’ve read, and while he drives the plot, the directions of it are fairly predictable, although likely intentionally so – it’s just waiting for the bomb to go off from the moment he appears.

That isn’t to say there is no complexity in the rest of the story. There is an acceptance of the inevitability, difficulty, and ultimate repercussions of inter-societal contact, something that weighs heavily on the other two major characters, Selver and Lyubov. The former is forced into a position that he never truly wants to accept, that of the Athshean bringer of death, the first murderer. Although christened a god – a bringer of great change – and using it to invoke his people to drive away the earth colonists, he remains ambivalent about his role, the first to know that the germ of a violence he has wrought will remain with his society, changing it irrevocably even as he tries to prevent annihilation. The more influence he has, the less he feels of his own unique civilization – the dual reality of the waking and dreaming worlds, a cornerstone of the Athsheans, grows weaker and weaker for him over the course of the story, until they seem no longer intertwined at all. The pieces of Selver’s culture is one of communication and peaceful discovering of self, both inward and outward, but once he introduces violence and war to them, he finds the inner sense of self thwarted by the outer realities, which now seem inescapable – he can only sadly dismiss the dream apparition of his friend Lyubov after causing his death, the affect of one reality overcoming all others.

Lyubov, the lone “good” human, is himself forced to recognize what his presence means in his sections as well. He seeks only to understand the Athsheans, to protect them from the more aggressive elements of the invasion – but he himself is still a colonizer, casually overlooking how he disrupts the lives of his subjects as he tries to learn about them. Despite trying to be the one to mitigate the violence, he becomes part of it, and his influence on the course of the story slowly dawns on him at the very end, when he sees how he has failed both sides of the conflict. It is left ambiguous whether there even was a better way for such a meeting of cultures to have happened – the benevolent aliens who appear to present some revolutionary communication technology to the earth humans seem to be a model, but even their presence is seems strangely condescending in the usual imperial sense (bringing their newly-formed intergalactic government on the unwary earth men out of the blue), and is undone by the end, their contributions destroyed in the crossfire. The ultimate conclusion leaves enough space for a more considered exploration of the planet in the distant future, but Selver’s acknowledgement of the likely aftermath of the story suggests that no solution is guaranteed to avoid causing similar damage again. They have all seen the most disastrous version of contact, and it seems that the terrible costs means they can’t even imagine a less destructive alternative.

Julia Wertz, “The Infinite Wait and Other Stories” (2012) & Stephen T. Asma, “On Monsters: An Unnatural History Of Our Worst Fears” (2009)

May 1, 2015

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As a trio of short stories, The Infinite Wait does some interesting interweaving – although all three are fully readable and self-contained, Wertz has them loop through the events of the others (especially the first two, “Industry” and “The Infinite Wait”), so while the stories and characterizations are consistent, or sometimes repeated, they are brought up in different contexts, giving them slightly different meaning. For example, we see two takes on Wertz’s time working at a pool hall – but the more detailed account in “Industry” shows it more as just another one of her many jobs, and “Infinite Wait” positions it as part of the fallout of her diagnosis with lupus. The details are largely the same, but because the stories have different trajectories, the same events can be seen in different lights. Of course, giving multiple angles on these stories also allows her to wring as much humour out of them as possible, which is also a noble goal.

“Industry” and “Infinite Wait” could have possibly been merged into one chronological story, but that could have robbed them of a lot of their punch, with far too much to keep track of – they tend to go in several different tangents within the course of their stories, so on a sheer readability level, separating them gives them more room to breathe. Thing is, we all have a tendency to compartmentalize things in our lives in a pretty similar way, even when they are all part of a single time frame, and Wertz uses that here in order to maintain clarity in these stories. Even so, reading through all three (with the final, shorter story “A Strange and Curious Place” being a kind of coda that provides additional context to the previous stories) we can see a pretty straightforward narrative – how her relationship with her family, her work experience, and finally her struggles with her diagnosis led to her career in comics.

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Of special note here is constant presence of her family, both in the story and in the meta-narration of the book. Autobiography is a tricky subject because, in the end, you’re writing almost as much about other people as you are about yourself, and as confident as Wertz seems to be in describing her life, she always makes it clear that she fully expects the rest of her friends and family to be reading the book as well. This leads to some pretty funny stuff peppered throughout – putting in a special shout-out to her mom when she covers up some particularly lewd panels, or the constant presence of her brother both as a character (and the goofy rapport between Wertz and her brother are the most consistently entertaining parts) and even as one of the pull quotes on the back of the book. The further one gets into the stories, “The Infinite Wait” especially, the more comes to see those relationships as the main anchor of the whole thing.

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(I picked up this book because it was included in the bibliography of the last few books I read.)

In On Monsters, Asma uses a very broad use of the term “monster”, linking both fictional creatures from ancient and modern stories or a descriptions of a murderer or criminal (or the outdated epithet against the deformed.) The fact that monster has such a wide breadth of uses and meanings actually goes hand-in-hand with some of the main ideas in the book – monster as a concept is important in both fiction and reality, and in some instances bridges the gaps between them. After all, the peoples of the ancient world through the middle ages (and beyond, in some instances) had as much reason to believe in dragons and giants and men with faces in their chests they hear of as any of the actual strangeness or deviants in their own lives – the things one can see can give life to things one cannot. They existed in that state for quite a while, too – even post-Enlightenment, it was not easy to determine why a chimera isn’t real, but a platypus was.

The book regularly talks about monsters as liminal beings, strange others that exist between states we see as “normal” (for example, life and death,) a disturbance in our perception of reality. In a way, it’s almost a super-generalized version of the uncanny valley – we have distinct parameters for what something is supposed to appear or behave, be it human or animal or vegetable, and anything beyond that provokes only fear and disgust. In this way, a deformed calf, a demon that appears in our sleep (a liminal being between waking and dreaming,) and a unrepentant criminal all fit the working definition – deviation from our ideas of appearance or understanding or morality is considered monstrous. Especially in the times when all three of those things would be considered “real”, they were all given some sort of magical-symbolic element as well – calves with “human faces” were omens, and criminals and other deviants were often believed to be possessed by demons or otherwise affected by the magical forces those demons embody. As mentioned, “monster” became a go-between for physical and metaphysical between all of a civilization’s collective fears – a place where dangers real and not-so-real real could co-exist and justify each other.

Of course, as western societies changed and natural sciences became more pronounced, the monsters of old were often dismissed, only to be replaced with new ones – once the secrets of gestation and illness were slowly unraveled, and foreign lands thoroughly documented (and verified again and again, as to not repeat the exaggerated travelogues of the past that disseminated less-than-truthful ideas), it only left us with the realization that there was only more to discover, and so monstrous theories often rose up to fill in the gaps. We also had a tendency to create our own monsters where there were none before – the Frankenstein story would become the precursor to most of our modern futuristic monsters, the genetically engineered and the mechanical beings that always seem to creep around our desire for progress. That also brings about other alternative interpretations – if “monster” is even a useful term, when moral relativity is and alternative explanations for things like crime offer up ways to take the monstrousness out of monsters and make them more understandable. Asma seems to reject that idea in some instances, but the possibility that either everyone or no one are monsters – which, of course, is questioning the liminal status at its root, leaving no middle.

That’s a hardly a new thing, though – the book itself shows how interpretations of even longstanding ideas, like the dog-faced men said to live in Africa, changed over time – one of those dog-faced men became a saint, after all. The rise of Christianity itself reinterpreted many monsters and monster stories on their own terms – the story of Beowulf can be read as either a pagan story of a brave warrior killing a gigantic monster, or a Christian tale of a prideful man learning humility. That, of course, is one of the most interesting journeys in the book – introducing religious, scientific, or postmodern lenses allows the same monsters (sometimes in new forms) to find new meanings.