Posts Tagged ‘Michael DeForge’

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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Endnotes for 2014

January 17, 2015

I have some more focused book posts I’m planning to get around to, but on a whim I also wrote some paragraphs on many of the books I read in 2014, including a few that didn’t end up on the site, and some quick additional thoughts on ones that did. So, here is my 2014 Year In Review round-up:

The first thing I read this year was The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, something that I had been holding off for a while despite having no real reason to hold it off. I didn’t write a post because I didn’t feel I could flesh out any of my ideas into anything coherent or interesting. I found it particularly interesting to read a piece of historical fiction that essentially rewrites some of the history of something relatively minor, maybe something that many of the readers wouldn’t even notice. I still am parsing, trying to determine what I think about this in terms of a medium that still grapples with the truth of its own founding narratives.

I read two books about the natural world back to back – David Quammen’s Spillover and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. The things I learned from Quammen’s book, which was from a few years ago, turned out to have startling relevance a little bit later in the year. Despite being a 2014 book, the things Kolbert wrote about did not seem to have as much import this year when faced with some more immediate issues, although it is an ongoing condition that remains to be grappled with. Reading them together was one of my first thematic duets this year – the role of man in the precarious and hostile environment we have mostly engineered for ourselves, fundamentally changing the natural system in many ways.

I managed to write a short thing about a Michael DeForge comic I read this year, after failing to come up with a proper response to Mostly Casual last year. Ant Colony (which I followed in webcomic form as it was being posted the year before) seemed a little more straightforward, and I could find a couple dumb things I wanted to mention about it, but I’m still terrible at discussing comics in a half-intelligent way. I also read A Body Beneath, but obviously didn’t write anything about that for the same reasons as Mostly Casual.

I watched a little over half-dozen giant monster movies earlier in the year, and wrote about those as well. It’s a genre that I have a longstanding affection for, and falling for a multimedia blitz like the mark I am, I decided to use it to brush up on my stuff. This was supposed to lead up to me going to see the new Godzilla movie, but that didn’t happen because that would involve leaving my house. This also led me to read August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which is a beautiful, utterly essential book that reminds me on every page why I love these stupid movies.

One author I decided to begin reading this year was J.G. Ballard, and I started with one of his novels (Concrete Island) and a collection of his short stories. The short stories provided some crucial context to development of his style and themes – even when he was working with more standard genre trappings, he had a knack for finding jarring, inward-looking story angles, and crafting claustrophobic environments. By the time we get to the novel (which I read first), he had transposed those ideals from the science fiction realm to a contemporary “realist” one, but with essentially the same results.

I read another volume of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, 07, which I forgot to write about, to be honest. It’s way more of a procedural volume, without any real major developments in the series ongoing, but since it’s those kinds of stories that make up the bulk of Dredd (and allow for more of the stuff I like from it – namely, the dark humour), it’s good to see what the creators do with their “free time” between epic storylines. The art is all over the place, leaving some interesting stylistic changes (the haunted house story in particular) and some less-than-interesting examples (a lot of the latter part of the collection), with the regulars like Ron Smith putting out their consistently good work.

My light summer reading was Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, which like Quammen’s book, had a lot of material that became in-your-face relevant by the end of the year. Questions of how policing in America is used against certain classes of people has finally become one of the most important social questions for everyone, rather than just the direct victims, and The Divide provides many disturbing examples of how the system has been set up like this. It’s not the whole picture, to be sure, but it’s an important piece of it. Reading 2011’s Griftopia gave me even more insight into some of the systems Taibbi described in his later book.

For one reason or another, I decided to go crazy with my Stanislaw Lem reading this year – I read four different books by him: one novel, one short story collection, one book of criticism, and one literary experiment, all the different forms Lem is known for. It’s pretty easy to look at all four of them together as Lem’s mission statement for science fiction: His Master’s Voice is his take on “first contact,” Mortal Engines covers artificial intelligence using older literary forms re-contextualized as science fiction (mocking those conventions in the process,) Imaginary Magnitudes* (which, despite its gimmick, is pretty much a collection of science fiction short stories in its own right) demonstrates how the genre can be applied outside standard literary modes, and Microworlds well, states its purpose pretty openly, attempting to form a basis for actual literary criticism within the genre. Even without many of his more well-known works, one could easily understand many of Lem’s pervading themes and stylistic tics just from these four books.

*To be discussed further at a later date.

Michael DeForge, “Ant Colony” (2014); August Ragone, “Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters” (2007); & Daniel Loxton & Donald R. Prothero, “Abominable Science!” (2013)

May 29, 2014

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It’s not so much the reality of ants that Ant Colony is interested in, but in the idea of ants: a society of tiny alien lifeforms beneath our feet. This is already a strange world, really, so what difference does it make if the ants in the comic have been given a cartoon makeover which simultaneously makes them more anthropomorphous and even weirder, with their High-Lighter colours and the externalization of their internal anatomies? Everything about the way the comic is drawn is meant to accentuate all those qualities already inherent in the insect world, an emphasis on anatomy and baffling behaviour patterns – even when mixing in those aforementioned cartoon elements and some mundane humanity, it only seems to make them even grosser (turning a centipede into a limo, the dog-headed spiders.) While the ants themselves have human problems (filtered through the context of their narrowly-constructed society), the actual human world seems almost non-existent, the only evidence of it being the presence of Sweet ‘n Low as a toxic menace. Even the format of the book itself, telling a longer story mainly through mock-gag strips, plays at making the story even more jarring, which is more apparent in the book than it was as a web comic.

The story proper is kind of an exploration of what kind of personalities would develop in this alien environment. The young ant seems oddly out of place, never clicking with the disturbing realm in which he exists – and as the book goes on, he only becomes more removed (even appearance-wise) from everything, distant and unable to invest himself in anything around him. Most of the cast, however, is even more removed than that, to the point of being borderline sociopathic – but maybe when you’re part of such a rigidly-structured society, that kind of person is an inevitability? The police officer and the young ant’s father are among the early examples, but its really the white-faced worker who ends up embodying it – by the end of the book, every one of his actions, from trying to kill the baby red ant to ultimately killing himself, comes (as even the young ant points out) from boredom, “just to see what it’s like.” Given that the ants existence was either providing for their queen or killing enemies, having real freedom for the first time might result in different things in different people – so while we see the red-faced ant try to stay optimistic and think about the possibilities, his partner decides to leave behind all moral inhibitions (as did the cop and the young ant’s father), if he ever had any at all. Given the context, one can’t really say either one is “correct” – and the prophesies of the young ant play along with the ambiguity – in a tiny, alienating world, nothing can ever be particularly steady or certain.

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So I’ve been writing short reviews of giant monster movies on another one of my platforms, and very conveniently this book came on my radar. As a fascinating, beautiful chronicle of the everyday workings of the first decade-and-a-half of Toho’s kaiju eiga (and the movies and television shows that came along with them), and more specifically the history and method of Eiji Tsuburaya himself, this is a pretty invaluable resource for fans. More importantly, though, it’s an engaging, heartfelt testament to what is a usually disregarded subset of movies, whose craft and cultural importance (especially in its country of origin) is often downplayed solely because of its decidedly childish subject matter. But even as the movies became sillier and sillier following the grim horror of the original Godzilla, it is quite clear here that Tsuburaya and the other members of the crew never stopped trying to make the best fantasy imagery they could, with skills they had developed over the previous decades making serious historical dramas and WWII-era military propaganda films. What began as the result of budgetary constraints became an aesthetic developed throughout the 50s and 60s, and one that, whether or not people are willing to admit it, has become iconic.

Aside from making one appreciate the kinds of little, unnoticed details from each movie’s production (Tsuburaya’s excitement about working at different scales, allowing for different kinds of miniature details), the book also includes insight into the cultural impact of Tsuburaya’s array of entertainment ventures – the Toho movies and his own television productions like Ultra Q and subsequently Ultraman – especially in Japan (the Godzilla side of it was also explored in William Tsutsui’s Godzilla On My Mind). These were not simply B-movies, but works that became cultural touchstones that managed to continue on after Tsuburaya’s death in 1970, and even crossed continents – as the number of in-depth and personal essays from English-speakers attests to. The “monster boom” of the late 60s and early 70s, as shown in the book, is an interesting example of that early impact – from the number of films riding on Toho’s coattails, to the hundreds of tie-in products based on Godzilla and the Ultra series, it was clear that the then-standardized tokusatsu style had become fairly ingrained in the public consciousness. This is something that would be very familiar to the generation that grew up with Pokemon, a franchise that very openly takes inspiration from Tsuburaya’s movies and television work, and created a “monster boom” of its own decades later. In this way, then, Tsuburaya was able to produce things that impacted decades of young minds much in the same way that he was inspired by the original King Kong – a long history of the infectious fascination with monsters.

Abominable Science

Is it possible to love something like Cryptozoology while still remaining mainly skeptical of its claims? That’s really the underlying question of Abominable Science!, which attempts to bring both a rational examination of decades worth of “evidence” and a genuine curiosity about what brings people to the belief in something like Nessie and Bigfoot. The final section of the book even brings the two authors to a short debate, about whether belief in or just general enthusiasm for a decidedly irrational idea is harmful or not – though both believe that blindly believing in much of the “institutional knowledge” in Cryptozoology circles without a proper sense of scientific inquiry or critical eye allows for a lot of hucksterism, preposterous argument, and general delusion.

Probably more of interest to someone like me are the introductory examinations of the history of each of the covered cryptids – when did people start seeing them, what is the veracity of some of the “bedrock” evidence, and what cultural traditions could they have sprung from? The recurring theme in these historical analyses is that these stories are very modern – all of them more or less first appeared in the 20th century, and had a tendency to snowball from one dubious claim or another. This means that claims of long histories of “sightings” of the Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster or sea serpents are often wildly inaccurate – sometimes very clearly taking unrelated stories and legends and retrofitting them as a pre-history of encounters. The Indigenous stories about “wild men”, including the ones where the “Sasquatch” name originate, do not necessarily resemble the descriptions of the creature eventually called Bigfoot; as well, there are clear connections between the descriptions of water monsters and the stories and artwork depicting legendary creatures like the Scottish Kelpie and the Greek Hippocamp, whose evolution into the modern cryptids is lengthily expounded. Many of these creatures, then, become things either mangled in translation, or modernized folklore (sometimes taking after popular movies that appeared just before the first “real” sightings – King Kong being important to both the Nessie and Mokele-Mbembe stories) – which, in a way, makes them just as interesting as they would be as real animals, traceable examples of memetic evolution and stories changing as they cross time and cultures.

But whether or not they actually have a physical reality to them, cryptids have a reality in many people’s minds – with belief in one cryptid or another, alongside other supernatural beliefs, being incredibly common among most of the world population. They are important enough to have certain people devote their entire lives to studying them, to have people come together to discuss them, and to bolster local economies and morale (the story of the Cadborosaurus in Victoria, British Columbia is a prime example, as a local newspaperman decided to play up a possible sea serpent sighting in order to raise spirits amidst the depression) – and that, I think, is where Loxton finds his pleasure in it as a field, and where Prothero finds his unease. What place does the critical eye has in the wider world of Cryptozoology, which has gone quite a while without it, and do these beliefs contribute to the anti-science atmosphere found among the US populace, as Prothero claims? Both seem to see a place for it somewhere in the realm of actual science, if only as a study of cultural elements, a possible backlog for actual (but woefully misidentified) new species, or a case study of how actual science does and does not work.