Sunday, April 30, 2006

Content

Disclaimer: This isn’t going to be very good, but I thought somebody should make an effort.

Having just finished watching Mirrormask with the wife, I have to say that I’m glad it had only a limited budget, else it might have been even longer and more interminable than it was. There are some halfway cool and moderately creepy parts in it, but mostly it’s fucking stupid and senseless.

 

To people who actually know who Neil Gaiman is, he’s generally recognised as the writer behind the Sandman series of comic books, which DC Comics published between 1988 and 1996, and continues to republish regularly, launching a new edition of the collected trade paperbacks (ten books collecting 75 issues), or TPBs, approximately every week. I was into these books for a while a few years back, and I think I got up to about the sixth seventh trade before giving up on them. Firstly, because they are pretty expensive (nearly $30 per volume), and secondly because the art is uniformly shocking across the entire series (despite a roster of pencillers, inkers, and colourists, which one would think would overcome any problems with artistic burnout or exhaustion). Thirdly, I gave up on them because it was all a bit wank, really.

 

It’s hard to really explain why I think this. Comic book series, like television series, generally consist of a series of “arcs” built into a series of stories. So you have the 75 issues, the “Sandman tale”, and inside those 75 issues you have a couple of dozen different stories, and each of those stories straddles maybe six or seven “arcs”, which are usually character arcs. It takes a lot of planning, I would imagine, to develop this sort of multithreaded storytelling, especially over such a period of time, and to Gaiman’s credit he pulls it off pretty well. Each of the multi-issue or one-shot stories are excellent, and what arcs I was able to detect were also reasonably well executed. As standalone books they would all be pretty good, but the problem is the central character of the Sandman, some sort of god, who looms over the entire series, and Gaiman’s problem was that, for the sake of cohesiveness, he had to link all of the stories, somehow, to the Sandman character. This is where the series fails, because the vast majority of those links are pretty tenuous. Should we be concerning ourselves with the actions and motivations of Sandman, or with the characters in the stories, or what? When I actually stopped to think about it, I realised that despite Gaiman’s writerly chops, my interest was waning – I no longer cared about Sandman because I had been given no reason to, and for a book called Sandman, that’s a bit of a problem. It pulls you in too many directions at once.

 

Supporters of the series will tell me that I am an idiot or a philistine with a short attention span, but the fact of the matter is I just don’t care to spend $300 on shitty drawings and a cobwebbed plot that has no real reason to exist. Perhaps one problem was that I was taking the books in one big dose over a period of weeks, when the story itself was told over close to a decade, but I don’t think that’s it – Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher series, which was 66 issues long, can easily be read in one sitting (though you wouldn’t). The art is excellent, the violence cheering, and the stories and arcs reasonably compelling. The central character, Jesse Custer, turns out to be a bit of a knob near the end, and if you think about it too hard a lot of the conceits of the series turn out to be fairly embarrasing, and some of the dialogue will make you cringe if you’re not speed-reading your way through the thing, but Preacher is vastly superior to Sandman, because it has a direction that it’s obviously going in, and regardless of what bumps you encounter along the way, you want to know what happens in the end. It’s a good read, and worth a look.

 

I’ve recently started on a couple of other comic book series, as well as knocking over a few standalones. There’s the Frank Miller Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, and Daredevil: Born Again, which are all great, and can be read independently of your knowledge of superheroes, though some background will enchance the experience.

 

The Filth, a 13-parter collected in one volume, by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston, and Gary Erskine, is…okay. I think it probably needs to be read closely, and more than once, because it seems to be a bit all over the place and a little too drugged-out for its own good.

 

Alan Moore’s Watchmen is a comic book masterpiece, as most people know, and can be read again and again without any decrease in pleasure. Every self-respecting individual ought to own a copy of it. V for Vendetta and From Hell are fairly decent as well, and so are both League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, but none of them come close to the sheer brilliance that is Watchmen. You really ought to try it.

 

The other multi-book series’ that I’ve started reading recently are Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, and Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. Two books in, I’ve decided that Transmet is a little immature and hasn’t aged very well (even though it’s only a few years old), but it’s a good read and I’ll probably persevere because the world Ellis has created is an interesting and vivid one. I’m not a big fan of Hunter S. Thompson, in fact I hate him and am glad he’s dead, but I appreciate what he did and I appreciate that Ellis would want to pay tribute to him with the character of Spider Jerusalem.

 

Y: The Last Man has a pretty good premise: Yorick Brown and his little monkey Ampersand are the only two male animals on the planet after a mysterious virus wipes out every other male, and they embark on adventures. It sounds pretty stupid written down like that, but it’s compelling and the first volume can be got for cheap, so you can taste it and see how you like it. The series is still going but the first six or so collected editions are available, so if you drill through those quickly enough you could probably start grabbing the monthly releases along with everybody else.

 

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing. I think I’ll start grabbing Strangers In Paradise for my wife (superficially – really they’ll be for me) and after I’m done with all these kiddie books I’ll probably get back to reading some proper stuff. Like, uh, Vernor Vinge.

 

Tell me of your comic book experiences.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Lazy Long Weekend

We're into the third day of the Easter long weekend in Melbourne, and the weather's wonderful. Slight showers are followed by the sun coming out from behind the clouds. The night air is sharp and cool, and the whole city is calm. It's my kind of weather, alright. It might seem a bit odd to non-Australian readers, but if you ever experience the Australian summer - good for inducing sweats and rashes and attracting flies and mosquitoes; not good for comfort or relaxation - you might see why winter is my favourite time of year, and Melbourne is my favourite city.
We've still got a day and a half of the long weekend to go, and I plan to spend most of it reading. Suitably enough for this time of year, the two books I'm reading have a rather pious theme.





Phantastes is the first book written by George Macdonald, a Christian and mystic from Scotland who fell under the influence of the German romantics. It's a nineteenth century fantasy novel, with a free-flowing, dreamlike plot; a little like the Alice in Wonderland books, but written with a slightly more allegorical intent.
I first came across Phantastes on the seventh floor of Fisher library, an unlikely, gigantic, nine-and-a-half-storey bookshelf in the middle of Sydney University campus. I'm not sure how, exactly, I came across it; I think I'd read of Macdonald's name in connection with C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton and went exploring for other books written by him. I have to say Phantastes was well worth finding.

The other book I'm reading might seem to go a little against the spirit of this weekend:




The Devil's Dictionary is, to my knowledge, the only book Ambrose Bierce ever wrote. I could be very, very wrong about that, though.
I've always been fond of fictional lexicons, and made up dictionaries (see as an example my latest Poet's Dictionary post), although I have to confess that comic writers today have overused the idea. Bierce's work may or may not have been the first 'satirical' dictionary; so if you like, you can blame him for starting it all. If only The Devil's Dictionary wasn't so damned good!
Bierce uses what appears to be a narrow idea - a book of definitions - to ridicule all the established piueties and opinions of his time. The book is compiled, like C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, by an imaginary diabolic figure: probably Satan himself. And - again like The Screwtape Letters - it's best read with this in mind. It's full of cheery advice to the pious Christian on how best to land themselves in hell. Definitions are occasionally illustrated by short, satirical poems, mostly of Bierce's own invention.
The definitions are sharp and precise, but occasionally - very occasionally - they become fanciful. 'Chimpanzees' are defined as a 'species of pansy grown in Africa'; Abelians as a 'religious denomination' who unfortunately flourished at the same time as 'Canians, and are now extinct'. I guess Bierce's idea was to lighten the harsher satire with more fanciful passages; and it works well.

Perhaps the last word should be left with Bierce - or is it Satan?

Dictionary: A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.

(Cross posted here.)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Revolutions

Oh boy - if there's one thing I hope to find in my Easter Stocking this year, it's The Dolls’ Revolution: Australian Theatre and Cultural Imagination by Rachel Fensham, Denise Varney, Maryrose Casey and Laura Ginters. Set aside the fact that a book about Australian theatre written solely by men would be immediately labelled irrelevant, nothing more than further evidence of male hegemony in the Australian cultural landscape, and you’re left with a book that I still can’t imagine anybody ever reading. Theatre is of course the poor man’s BitTorrent, but according to Glenn D’Cruz, who writes the review for this particular book, it turns out that certain theatre artists have “played a crucial role in articulating a new Australian identity, which defined itself against the Anglophile ethos that dominated Australian theatre until the late ‘50s.”

That sounds pretty self-aggrandizing to me. Have you ever met a person who reads mainly comic books and graphic novels, and is eager to announce at every opportunity that they are art of the highest order? I dig comic books, sure, and just knocked over Daredevil: Born Again and V for Vendetta, written by Frank Miller and Alan Moore respectively, who are two of the best writers in the business, and I would probably even go so far as to recommend stuff like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns to people completely unfamiliar with the medium of graphic storytelling, but would I ever claim that Alan Moore and Frank Miller “played a crucial role in articulating a new British/American idendity”? Not even if I was padding out a review of a book about them.

I also used to play stuff like Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun, and would possibly consider getting into D&D again if they weren’t constantly revising the rules and forcing you to purchase ten new “core” rulebooks at $60 apiece every three months. It’s good fun, a great way to spend a few hours with some buddies. It gets the creative juices flowing, fires up the imagination (for better or for worse, probably the latter, I would have never “become a writer” if I hadn’t played D&D and read comic books at boarding school), and the old 2nd Edition with its THAC0s even used to help you with your maths. In fact, playing D&D is of more intellectual value than watching any number of plays, and it’s certainly more enjoyable.

But would I say that Ernest Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, creators of Dungeons & Dragons, played crucial roles in articulating national identities? I most certainly would not, but I would certainly say that they played crucial roles in articulating generational identities. The “information age” that we currently wallow in was founded on the back of role-playing nerds from the 70s and 80s. Nobody would give a shit about computers if it hadn’t been for the computer game Doom, released in 1993 (I actually knew that date without having to look it up) and developed by the biggest bunch of outsider RPG-playing geeks that you’re ever likely to meet. I can’t find any evidence of it but I’ll bet you good money that Bill Gates used to be a level 12 elf ranger, awake at nights worrying about getting the 6000XP he needed to go dual-class. And I’ll even go further by saying that if Bill Gates and John Romero hadn’t been picked on when they were kids, we sure as shit wouldn’t be living in the world we live in today.

So what does this have to do with The Dolls’ Revolution? Absolutely nothing. But if you’re going to be a self-important wanker like absolutely every person currently inhabiting absolutely any facet of modern Australian theatre – a thing that absolutely no Australian outside that particular clique has any interest in whatsoever – then you need to go and fuck yourself, because you’re an even bigger loser, riding a train of even less cultural and societal impact, than me and my fat, nerdy, comic-book reading, RPG-playing, graphics card-upgrading mates.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Absolutely Everything You Never Needed to Know About Modernism Part One

Eliot, Schmeliot
Let's not be narrow, nasty, and negative. - T S Eliot.

Nobody says something like T.S. Eliot. He is the master of the overstated understatement and the unstated overstatement. He generally conveys meaning by quoting from dead poets who write in dead languages; and when he writes in English, it sounds like he's translating one dead language into another. He makes rhyming into an abstract art form.

A woman once asked him about a line in his poetry: "Mr Eliot, what did you mean by 'three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree'?" Eliot replied: "I meant, 'three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree'".
He wasn't always so straightforward. But then, he didn't seem to like women much, anyway (his satirical line, 'In the room, the women come and go/speaking of Michelangelo' comes to mind).
His dislike of women and his pessimism comes together in The Wasteland, where the following dialogue occurs:

"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
"Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
"What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
"I never know what you are thinking. Think."
I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.


Bloody cheerful husband he must have been. But I like that last line. Think of how many places it could be used in:

At a party:
"Jeremy's got the hots for Amy. What do you think?"
"I think we are in a rats' alley where the dead men lost their bones."


After the Movies:
"Gosh, that was a fabulous movie. What do you think?"
"I think we are in a rats' alley where dead men lost their bones."


In Maths Class:
"What is the binomial equation for x2 + 2x +1?"
"I think we are in a rats' alley where dead men lost their bones."

After Sex:
"That was REALLY good!"
"I think we are in a rats' alley where dead men lost their bones."


The possibilities are endless.
So, there's T. S. Eliot for you. A man who had a huge influence on the course of modern literature. If only we knew what it was.

Next: W. B. Yeats!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Goodbye Blue Monday

It only took me an hour to read Kurt Vonnegut's most recent book, A Man Without a Country. It is not a substantial book in any sense. Variously promoted as memoir, as polemic, as a summing up, it actually resembles the kind of structureless, extempore lecture a curmudgeonly relative might launch into on Christmas Day. Vonnegut trumps my relatives, at least, by being personable and witty, and capable of expressing anger and dismay without embarassment or hysteria - he's the great benevolent uncle I never had. So even though this book is slight, it is a pleasure to once again hear his voice.

There are bits of memoir in A Man Without a Country, bits of polemic and bits of whatever else Vonnegut happened to be brooding on at the time these pieces - originally published in a newspaper called In These Times - were written. That is, pretty much what he's been brooding on forever: cruelty and kindness, laughter and sadness. He is the great American sentimentalist, but with a cold streak of disdain for liars and tyrants. Vonnegut's argument is not sophisticated or profound, but it warms my aorta to see him denounce in print the "guessers" who control all our fates.

Vonnegut is as wishy-washy and folksy and bleeding-of-heart as ever here. He is also as hard-headed and realistic as ever. That subtle mockery of "grown-up" pieties that is so attractive in the novels is present also, e.g. "We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different". Not exactly a clarion call to revolution, but nonetheless an affecting little irritant for a shallowly idealistic culture. There are plenty of similar lines scattered through the book. Many are rehashed versions of previous witticisms, which I guess could be considered lazy. But whatever, the guy is eighty-four years old. Allowances should probably be made.

Anyway, as I said it only took me an hour to read A Man Without a Country. It's not the greatest thing ever written, but it is amusing enough. Nice to know Vonnegut is still out there, ticking over. There's a photo on the back of the dust jacket that shows Vonnegut standing on a beach, his back turned to the camera, hands in pockets and looking out over the ocean. At first glance it struck me as a cliche: elderly man contemplates the infinite/mortality/his cataracts. But having read the book, the photo takes on extra meaning. Vonnegut comes across as tired, and like the aging Twain seems to have given up on the world. The end is now in sight. In the photo, Vonnegut is not contemplating anything. He is watching the waves creep closer to his feet: he is waiting to be taken.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Which Is The Greater Crime?

Way back in 1993, a thick-ankled young lass from Brisbane, Helen Dale (nee Darville), won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, one of Australia’s highest literary accolades (just as a pile of rabbit droppings would be the highest point on a perfectly flat expanse of desert), for a little book called The Hand That Signed The Paper. As though two surnames wasn’t already enough, the book was released under the pseudonym Helen Demidenko, and in 1995 her efforts were rewarded with a Miles Franklin Award (picture horse manure).


I never read it, but the rest of Australia was going nutty for The Hand That Signed The Paper, a story of Ukrainianism, Stalinism, and Nazism, and finally Australianism. Naturally, when you’re dealing with Nazis, it is considered criminal to not go on and on about the Jewish experience (even if the whole conceit of your project is to examine the Holocaust from a different perspective), so the book was also accused of anti-Semitism, and in the wake of the Franklin, plagiarism. The isms were coming thick and fast and eventually it came to light that Demidenko was a hoax, her real name was Dale/Darville, the book was total fiction, the Mile Franklin judges were frauds, and the Australian literary landscape was, as already alluded to, a perfectly flat and featureless expanse of mediocrity.


But nevertheless, Australia had been betrayed! Who did this woman think she was, writing a book and then getting it published and then getting positive reviews and then receiving awards for it? False pretenses or not, the very fact that the awards were granted on the basis of the plot and alleged inspiration of the book, rather than on the quality of the writing, then the awards themselves may safely be considered farcical and useless.


And it seems that Australia’s literary elite is still not quite done with Miss D. In The Age today, a piece with the heading UNMASKED NOVELIST SNAPS has appeared, wherein a recent column by Helen Dale that appeared in Australian Skeptic has fomented the input of one Simon Caterson, journalist (and probably poet in his spare time). We learn that, recently, Dale has been studying in London to be a ninja, and has also become a lawyer, or judge’s associate, whatever that is (further counterfeit?). She has also been cultivating the look of a Byron Bay fish ‘n’ chip shop worker. But according to Caterson’s headline she has “snapped”, because she wrote this thing in Australian Skeptic, lambasting the Australian literary community (hell hath no fury; she should be careful), the media, and various and sundry for their involvement in what she claims was never anything more than a work of fiction based on a few stories related to her by some old Ukrainians. I don’t really care about the particulars of the case, so you are welcome to research them for yourself.


Caterson does not spare Australian Skeptic, either, and ends his article with a snippy “the magazine did not verify the article’s content”, after taking pains to tell us that the mag is all about the careful investigation of “charlatans, hoaxes, Holocaust denial and racism and racial theories”.


Aussie literati certainly enjoy their controversy, and after the James Frey thing in the US, probably felt left out, and since nothing fresh was going on, decided to unbury Demidenko.


But what is the point of my poorly-structured rant? Simply this: in the very same edition of The Age, much approval is heaped upon Theft: A Love Story, by needledicked “Australian” author Peter Carey (who has lived exclusively in New York since 1990, and sadly has not yet been shot).


The headline reads: “Art and deceit meet in Carey’s new novel”. And indeed they do. At 288 pages, it retails for $45.


Which is the greater crime?