Universes: The Point

4 11 2015

From Tim Leong’s Super Graphic

Nothing new or interesting in this post, I’m just writing to clarify my own thoughts. Because I’ve written a couple of vague rambling posts recently on fictional universes, and I finally figured out what my problem is. It’s not the universe, it’s the history.

So, assuming you’re still here, lemme back up. The gist of my previous post was, the Marvel and DC trans-media universes are fun but exhausting to keep up with. I didn’t make the point very well, because I was missing it myself. I only articulated my complaint as part of my efforts to chatter at Wyatt enough to foster his speech development (12,000 words per hour is about the minimum target, which I’m sure I never reach). When I notice the silence I usually just verbalize my train of thought, which can’t be very valuable for teaching a toddler to talk since it never relates to anything concrete he can see or grasp. But at least I get my complaints about pop culture in order….

Still here? Really? Okay. So in that previous post I was complaining about trying to keep up with the TV and movie versions of comic characters. But the movies and TV shows are already doing what I wished for; letting the individual stories breathe, rather than adhere slavishly to the entire published history. The TV shows and movies from the DC universe don’t acknowledge each other at all. Marvel has a very ambitious plan for movies and TV shows that all align, from 2008’s Iron Man to multiple projects through 2019, but each movie or TV series pretty much stands on it’s own. The reality of filmmaking is, they have to. The continuity elements are extra fun, but so far not critical to the enjoyment of the piece.

So really, the cross-media properties are the ones doing it right. My real complaint is with the comics. I tried in recent years to get familiar with the large canvases of both the DC and Marvel universes (see some other recent posts). Both publishing houses encourage that approach, through big crossover events and universe-wide reboots that encourage the purchase of multiple titles. But that’s just the wrong way to read comics.

These characters have been around for decades. The most recent creation that garners any kind of following is Wolverine, who first appeared in 1974. In that relatively short time he has literally been to Hell and back, been possessed by demons, lost and regained his metal skeleton, found and lost children he didn’t know he fathered, gone fully bestial and been restored, lost and regained his healing powers, and died (temporarily–count on it). Just about every other Marvel and DC character has a similar history; it’s the inevitable result of passing the character to different writers, trying to sell new books every month, for 40 to 80 years.

To learn the history of one character, let alone get any grasp of the various universe-shaking crossover events, is a scholarly exercise. It requires hours, days, weeks of research. Which is fine if you enjoy that sort of thing and need a hobby, but it’s not exactly casual fun. In recent years, Marvel has shaken up its universe with Civil War, Secret Invasion, Annihilation, Seige, Fear Itself, and probably more. I don’t know what order they happened in. I sort of meant to research it and get the trade paperbacks from the library and read everything in order, but that is a lot of work and I just don’t have the time.

When I was a kid (eech, I hate when bloggers say that) I would occasionally buy comics off the rack at 7-11, if the cover grabbed me. Often the issue was one part of a longer story, but it was still fun to read Hulk being Hulk even if I didn’t know what he was doing in The Savage Land.

I don’t want or expect publishers to return to doing things like they did in the 70s. I appreciate the more sophisticated writing, and I prefer stories that take a minimum of 5-6 issues and can spend one whole issue on secondary, connective material if they need to. So I always buy the trade paperbacks rather than the monthly issues. And during my whole attempting-to-grasp-the-universe phase, I tended to choose books that seemed like they had some relevance to the universe as a whole, rather than ones that just look like interesting stories.

But, I won’t be doing that anymore. I’m officially giving up on comic book universes, scaling way back on my comic purchasing, and going back to picking up the odd story that grabs my interest. In fact I’m feeling more and more dubious about legacy superheroes, mostly because of a recent critique from Alan Moore.

I have more mixed feelings about the culturally catastrophic nature of recycled characters, which I will save for another post.

But, I think I’m done with the universe issue, both in life and on this blog. Finally! Hooray…?

The Argument Against “More Guns, Less Crime

19 10 2015

is essentially this: “The problem… isn’t that criminals don’t follow laws, but rather that criminals aren’t dissuaded by weak laws. And gun laws in all but a few states are decidedly weak.”

The full article from The Trace is here. It’s long and complicated, as the truth often is. A simple sound bite like “only a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun” can have the ring of truth, because we want the world to make sense. But the world is messy and often counterintuitive.

What really drives me around the bend (and if you’ve been following my Twitter feed you’ve seen it happen) about people who argue that the only solution to gun violence is to turn everyone into an armed vigilante is this: not only are they living in an infantile old west fantasy, they are perpetuating the same fantasy that drives mass shooters.

(I’m going to exit the realm of facts for a bit, and express my own intuitive speculation. This is just for my own emotional well-being. We’ll come back to reality in a moment.)

Who are these men and boys who go into public places and randomly open fire? They are disempowered people, who imagine that shooting others will make them stronger. The only difference with the would-be vigilante is they are waiting for the other guy to shoot first. Or so they say. At a Detroit Home Depot, a vigilante recklessly endangered bystanders in the parking lot by firing at shoplifters who posed no threat to her. How is that different than a shooter using deadly force in response to petty or imagined slights from coworkers or fellow students?

A lone gunman waiting for their Dirty Harry moment, watching the crowd for some punk who feels lucky, is separated from the mass shooter by a hair’s breadth, by the tiniest or even illusory concession to social conventions which the murderer has completely abandoned.

I realize that I have very strong feelings about this subject, which lead me to make gross generalizations. I also realize that it is one of many issues that polorizes America into seemingly irreconcilable camps. If anyone from the opposing camp reads this, I hope they will take away an understanding of what their arguments mean to my side, so that we can communicate better. When you say we should all carry guns to stop shooters, I picture a world full of shooters. Therefore I find your argument horrifying, personally threatening, and infuriating.

And now, the promised return to reality. The fact is, mass shootings are not committed by career criminals, with connections and expertise at breaking the law. Mass shootings are committed by desperate, disturbed people, whose bloody visions tip into real life only because deadly weapons are so accessible.

A modicum of sensible regulation is necessary. Not a ban on guns. And no, it won’t eliminate gang violence or mob hits or armed robbery. But it will go a long way toward solving a specific problem that is getting tragically, tragically worse every day.

24 Hour Comic #11: The Crystals of Kwa-Bulawayo

13 10 2015

It’s been awhile since I got to do a 24 hour comic. Last year it was pretty much out of the question with a 3 month old. But this year, the artsy cartoony community of the Twin Cities came through! Organized by the local chapter of The International Cartoonist Conspiracy, hosted by the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, supported by Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and sponsored by The Source Comics and Games, 20-plus artists gathered on October 3rd to take up the challenge.

targetcomickitA couple years ago, as a joke birthday present, some of our new friends gave me a comic making kit for kids. It came with markers, some sound effect rubber stamps, and two 32 page books of blank panels. While designed for kids, it seemed like a great tool for drawing a spontaneous story. Normally I like to draw on much bigger paper, with fewer panels per page, so I knew I would have to change my style to make it work. I stuck to my larger format for the Bunnirah comics, and held the kit in reserve for a completely spontaneous story. I tried for a pared down style that would read well as very small images. I had a half-formed notion of doing the whole thing after the fashion of Chris Ware’s semi-stick figures, with a static camera, but I didn’t stick to it. I also thought I might have a page or two with lunatic colors and rubber-stamped effects, but that didn’t happen either. Still, I think there are a couple pages with very effective interaction between panels and content. I’m happy with it overall.

tcok_thum01My go-to story seed generator sites are all gone. This time I turned to Wikipedia, and did three random article searches to get a jumping off point. Wikipedia gave me the old capitol of the Zulu empire, a Columbian airline from the 30s, and a bad 2001 caper movie. I knew I wanted a female main character. As a privileged white male doofus I’ve been tripped up by blind insensitivity before, so a black character felt risky, but what’s the point of art if you don’t risk anything? I did some quick image searching for Zulu dress, and tried my best to make Bapoto a real person, at least within the context of my usual cartoon weirdness. I’d also been reading Philip K. Dick and listening to a lot of Legendary Pink Dots, so an atmosphere of post-disaster dystopia crept in. The result is The Crystals of Kwa-Bulawayo.

I still have the second book of blank panels, which I will probably use in a more dedicated attempt at a super-iconic, semi-stick figure comic, but not a 24 hour comic. Next October (or next May if I can make it work) I will go back to my large format for 24 hours.

An Open Letter to Members of the NRA

27 08 2015

Dear hunters, target shooters, and gun enthusiasts, I have no quarrel with you. While I don’t enjoy guns myself, I do like swords and knives. I don’t own a sword, but I would like to. So I can’t fault you for owning and enjoying guns. But I urge you to cancel your NRA membership immediately.

Some of you are my personal friends. Every gun owner I know takes great pride in knowing how to shoot, care for, and store a gun responsibly and safely. So why would you belong to an organization that promotes exactly the opposite values?

The NRA has become the voice and the engine of a powerful lobby that causes lawmakers to lose their jobs if they do anything to reign in our current policies of reckless abandon toward guns. The NRA continues to push for looser gun regulations, even when our country averages more than one mass shooting per day.

The NRA is effectively fighting to put guns in the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, and children. Why are they like this? Base, short-sighted greed is the only reason I can imagine. The paranoid fringe of gun culture is passionate, and passion is just the low-hanging fruit where business is concerned. While the NRA is composed of human beings, as an organization it is simply a machine that follows the money without conscience. The NRA will never respond to arguments about human lives. But maybe, if the sane and honorable gun owners were to stop paying membership fees, maybe the machine would get the message.

Ultimately my speculations don’t matter. What matters are the innocent people dying every day in murders that are 100% preventable. The NRA, as a powerful lobby with strong influence in our national and state legislatures, is directly culpable. Please cancel your membership today.

Not Erasing History

14 07 2015

Here’s a letter a wrote to the paper, about the confederate flag and an effort to rename Lake Calhoun. Yes, I’m an old letter-to-the-editor writing curmudgeon, but at least I did it on my phone! Points? No? Oh well…

Changing the name of a lake or taking down a flag is not the same as erasing history. Those historical figures and symbols are still in our books, museums, and school curricula. Our society has come a long way over the years; it only makes sense that the people and symbols we choose to honor would change.

Comcast blows

24 06 2015

We dropped our cable TV. The savings will be negligible since we’re keeping our high speed internet. Comcast is the only game in town as far as that goes. We dumped the tv out frustration with their service. 

We’ve had to keep a close eye on our cable bill, because apparently Comcast policy is to gradually raise it and hope we don’t notice. We’ve had technical problems with our cable box, and had to fight through layers of bureaucracy to get to an ultimately simple solution. Then, for the last couple of weeks, our picture has been flickering every few seconds. The idea of wrestling with Comcast’s technical support seemed no better than developing type 2 epilepsy*, so we switched to internet only.

With an antenna and digital converter we get dozens of channels. Aside from the local stuff it’s mostly vintage movies and shows, but those are fine for a little mindless distraction, which is what we mostly used cable for. Netflix and Hulu stream plenty of stuff to watch, on the increasingly rare occasion we can actually pay attention for an hour or two. If we were sports fans it might be a different story. But we’re not. I don’t think we’ll miss cable at all.

Rumor has it than in a year or two, Century Link or the city of Minneapolis will offer high speed internet in our neighborhood. The second that happens we’ll ditch Comcast for good.

*I know there’s no such thing, just making a poor joke.

Mad Men: Bridge to History

19 06 2015

(Spoilers. Why would I do that?)

[This would have been way more relevant back when I started writing it, when the series actually ended. But I’m not bothered if you’re not.]

I always enjoyed Mad Men most as a history lesson. A dramatic, unpredictable, emotionally turbulent history lesson. Surely that’s the wrong way to watch it. The show was never a mere nostalgia fest, but was driven by vibrant, three dimensional characters, as any story should be. Still, I’ve gotten more interested in history in the last ten years or so, trying to form a coherent mental picture of the decades and centuries flowing one into the next. TV dramas have been my primary tool, and probably what sparked my interest in the first place.

I knew some things about the 60s, and didn’t know a lot of things. Of course I’ve always heard about how it was a dynamic time of sweeping social change, but you always hear that in a way that emphasizes the goals and outcomes of the counterculture. Mad Men focused more on the entrenched old guard, and seeing them struggle really brought home the psychological violence of all that upheaval. Even as it happened gradually, almost in real time over seven seasons. The key to the whole series is Don’s reaction to Kennedy being shot: “We’re not who we thought we were.”

The last half of the final season takes place in 1970, the year before I was born. That makes the show a bridge from history to my lifetime. For the kid I was, the 70s was all fun and games. I was too young to understand the cultural vein of deep cynicism brought on by Vietnam, Watergate, economic recession and the failure of the Age of Aquarius to materialize. That understanding I gleaned later on from Philip K. Dick, Network, The Ice Storm, and so on. In Mad Men’s final episodes, we see the seeds being sown.

Out of a dissatisfaction he could never understand or articulate, Don has finally walked away from his whole life; his job, his home, his assets, his identity that was never fully his anyway. His family too, although I had the sense that he maintains a tenuous connection to Sally. He’s gone as far west as there is to go, and fetched up in a new age hippie commune. He attends workshops designed to plumb the emotions and access the truth. And it works, to a certain extent. The efforts of the gurus and the pilgrims are genuine, and the methods make sense in a time when so many longstanding, reliable traditions have been turned inside out. But we know where it all leads. It leads nowhere. The communes all failed, the gurus gave way to crooks, self-actualization degenerated into petty self-interest. (Is my Gen-X mistrust showing?)

The final shot is a cut from a meditating, ohm-chanting Don, with a smile spreading across his face, to the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. The prevailing wisdom among viewers said that Don conceived the ad in that peacenik love den, and brought it back to McCann Erickson (a real ad firm by the way, which really did make that ad), having learned just enough from the Aquarians to exploit their optimism and change the face of advertising forever.

I didn’t see it that way. Because I couldn’t imaging Don going back to the company after disappearing without a word for so long, I saw that cut as Don breaking away from the cynical world of advertising. He had stepped out of his fog at last, learned to see himself objectively, lost all interest in corporate achievement and could maybe start his life over for real. Meanwhile the company, absent Don’s sensitivity, ushered in a new era of advertising with a piece that was highly successful despite having none of the emotional truth of, say, the Carousel campaign.

Except the more I think about it, the more that outcome seems impossible. If Don is our window into history, it’s only fitting that he would design the Coke ad. It’s only fitting that he would transform the promises of the 60s into a cash cow. The Coke ad is the perfect summation of a cultural failure to awaken, and Don is the perfect vehicle to bring it to life.

Maybe it comes down to whether the show is about history, or about its characters.


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