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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Though I didn’t figure it out until finishing the last page of Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore’s graphic novel BTTM FDRS and flipping to the cover, I don’t think it’s giving anything away to reveal that the title is a variation on “bottom feeders,” the racist nickname for folks from the semi-fictional Bottomyards district of inner Chicago. As the main character Darla says, “Bottomfeeders come in all types”—including the giant slithering kind.

Though her father grew up in the area and is financing her as she tries to make it as a fashion designer, Darla and her white roommate Cynthia are fresh from art school and moving into a soon-to-be-gentrified apartment complex. Except why aren’t there any windows? And what are those noises inside the walls? And why is that freaky white guy always lurking at the entrance? And are those entrails in the toilet?

Based on BTTM FDRS’s race-fueled, scifi-horror premise, Ezra Claytan Daniels would find a happy home on the writing team for Jordan Peele’s rebooted Twilight Zone. He’s well partnered with Ben Passmore whose art is also all about color—in both senses. It’s a diverse cast, but Passmore tellingly avoids the most common marker of ethnicity: skin color. Old school comics color separation produces blocks of solid hues divided by object shapes: shirt, face, hair, background wall. Photoshop makes the technique that much easier, but Passmore twists it for more subtle effects, filling whole panels and pages into single colors, with internal shapes varying only by degrees.

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The approach seems natural enough at first, usually suggestive of changing light sources as characters move from windowless room to windowless stairwell to windowless basement. Yet why exactly is the hallway all greens? And when the panels later vacillate between all purples and all yellows, is that because the light fixtures are pulsing like police strobes? If so, why doesn’t Passmore draw the fixtures—and why doesn’t Daniels write dialogue so we know that the characters notice it too? The effect is quietly surreal, an unacknowledged ambiguity darkening the fabric of the story’s already horror-tinged reality.

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Passmore’s characters are cartoonish, but not outlandishly exaggerated and so not able to break the bounds of their otherwise naturalistic world. Though cartoons often morph to reflect their internal thoughts and emotions, Passmore’s characters are consistently solid. Instead of drawing a violence-obscuring dust bubble around the exploitative white landlord as he’s dragged through a too-small opening, Passmore lets us witness arms popping from shoulder sockets in atypical cartoon gore. His cartoons also never break from their story’s prison-like panel gutters, which vary but mostly maintain a loose 2×2 base pattern. Interestingly though, Passmore’s orientates the entire book ninety degrees so the spine is bound along what would normally be the top edge, producing wide instead of tall pages. The story literally goes sideways.

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For all the novel’s early creepiness and eventual full-blown monstrous spectacle, the real horror bubbling under its white gutters is a different kind of whiteness. As her new neighbor, the problematically ironic rapper Plymouth Rock, tells Darla: “Can we just agree for now that the real threat is white people?”

He doesn’t mean in the Charlottesville Klan rally sense. Probably the 911 dispatcher wasn’t trying to be racist when she tells Darla: “You’re calling from the Bottomyards. We can’t send a car all the way down there unless there’s an actual emergency.” And Hadley, the white woman who might hire Darla and Cynthia for her fashion firm, she just doesn’t know any better when she remarks: “You live in the Bottomyards now? Jesus, aren’t you scared? That part of town is like a WAR-ZONE! … I have a friend who drove through there once and it was like crazy!” And doesn’t Hadley practically make up for it when she decides to rent an apartment in the complex for her visiting designers: “For, like, a totally AUTHENTIC Chicago experience, you know?”

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Sadly though, the worst is Cynthia, the prototypically good-intentioned but clueless white liberal who thinks having a black friend is basically the same as being black: “I know I wasn’t the one they called the n-word in elementary school, but I was usually right next to you when it happened, and it was embarrassing for me, too.” After Cynthia refuses to move in as planned, fawns over Julio (Plymouth Rock’s actual name), and uses Darla to score cool points with Hadley, Darla dumps her. Cynthia returns the next day with her version of an apology, which ends with a familiar refrain: “But that doesn’t make me a racist, and I’m like super hurt that you think that. I’d feel a lot better if you apologized, too, actually. For calling me a racist.”

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What’s this have to do with the entrails monster haunting the building’s vents? Literally everything—though readers wary of spoilers should stop now and go buy a copy of the novel. It turns out there’s a reason for the complex’s hidden surveillance cameras, lack of windows, and general prison-like architecture.

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It’s a prison. Or was. I won’t recount the entire backstory (it’s even weirder than you’re thinking), because it’s all a pleasantly elaborate conceit to reflect back on Cynthia and the world of white privilege she represents.

A wall of walking entrails, the ultimate bottom feeder, is awakened by the influx of new excrement to eat and, when Cynthia wanders through the wrong broken hatch, merges with her. As the gently deranged son of a former tenant explains: “It’s a BUNCH of things all living in symbiosis. … I’m thinking that’s what happened to your friend. She got sucked into the symbiosis.“

In addition to straight-up horror trope, symbiosis is a good metaphor for U.S. race relations. Call it the deepest, darkest entrails of white privilege that need to unconsciously believe in black inferiority to survive. Or as Cynthia remarks as she’s hanging from the ceiling: “It’s uncomfortable but like not in a bad way. I don’t know what it’s putting in me, but it makes it feel okay.”

Of course she feels okay. She’s had her BBF black friend to lovingly undermine her entire white life. The monster just makes that literal, killing Julio in a jealous rage, blocking the exist when Darla tries to flee, resulting in yet another ineffective apology: “Ugh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that, either. I saw you running toward the door and couldn’t help it.” Since Cynthia is incapable of changing her own monstrousness, it’s up to Darla to save them both, resulting in Daniels’ two best lines of dialogue in the novel:

“Cynthia, I have an idea,” says Darla. “I’m not gonna tell you what it is though because you’ll probably subconsciously sabotage me.

“I don’t know why I keep doing that.”

Of course she doesn’t. That’s the whole point of white privilege. And that’s the whole point of horror–to drag up our culture’s biggest, ugliest globs of unconscious sewage and spread it across a white page for us to acknowledge. Ultimately, Daniels and Passmore are optimists though, opting only for a temporary kind of horror, the sort that resolves in hospital bedrooms instead of sealed basements. Even Passmore’s color scheme reboots to the comics standard, a range of blues and greens and yellows and reds, all in the same happily integrated panels.

Until the very last page offers a final, purple warning to Cynthia …

 

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

 

 

 

 

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When I received a review copy of Estrada’s Alienation last June, I liked it so much that I contacted the publisher for permission to include four pages in the anthology section of Leigh Ann Beaver’s and my forthcoming textbook Creating Comics (Bloomsbury 2020). Here’s why:

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Maybe 2054 won’t be so bad. Press a button and a fully prepared meal appears. Nap while your bed-shaped car drives you to work. Answer calls without picking up a phone. Let your Googleland brain implant monitor and adjust your chemical health, while McBody takes care of the rest. Watch a livefeed of the solar eclipse in the privacy of your own VR. Attend a Jimi Hendrix concert. Travel to fantastical landscapes and transform into impossible creatures. Have polar bear sex. Have snail sex. Set your implant to methelendioxymethamphetamine mode.

There are some downsides too. The north pole is floating in the center of the Arctic Ocean. All the pizzas and tacos and sushi you’re eating are made from fungus because most animals are extinct and nuclear waste poisoned the oceans that flooded the coasts. The world supply of oil will run out in a few years, and you were just laid off from the last refinery that wasn’t run by robots. Unpredictable extreme storms have eliminated all air travel. You stopped playing Call of Duty because the advanced levels may be secretly hooked to military drones for actual combat missions run by the government. Commercials happen directly to you, with annoying company mascots literally in your face. The content is suggested by your recent thoughts. Oh, and that livefeed of the solar eclipse was from a Starbucks satellite orbiting above permanent clouds of pollution.

This dystopic future is the product of Inés Estrada’s disturbingly plausible imagination, beamed indirectly into readers’ heads via the antiquated analog technology of ink and paper. When her characters Eliza and Charly logout from the solar eclipse, Estrada draws the Starbucks logo flashing inside their eyes. Readers just have to turn the page. The physicality of the book is always an appeal of graphic novels, but it is rarely so thematically critical to the story it contains. Eliza and Charly are trapped in an alienatingly virtual reality while we view them inside Estrada’s 3×2 comics grids.

That two-worldness plays out the level of style too. Estrada typically draws Eliza and Carlos as rudimentary cartoons, the lines of their bodies, like the lines of their apartment walls, containing little crosshatched detail. They’re literally and metaphorically empty. But when they go online, Estrada upgrades the CGI to detailed naturalism. Eliza floats in layers of meticulously inked cloud banks, the progression of their evolving shapes receiving their own page grid of near abstraction. When she gazes at her reflection in a forest pond, the surrounding vegetation approaches photorealism.

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Estrada captures the quality of light reflected off of gently bobbing water as Charly floats, every kink of his hair precisely etched. When they are talking in their apartment, Estrada renders their bodies with sack-like simplicity, their anatomy more implied than shown. But when virtually floating underwater, the careful contours of their forms reveal the depth of Estrada’s drawing skill.

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Though their real world is less real than their virtual worlds, Estrada breaks that norm at key moments. The two-page spread of Charly’s bayside oil refinery and the remaining fragments of polar ice surrounding it are as detailed as anything in their VR escapades. And Charly’s full-page commute through the raised highways looping through edge-to-edge skyscrapers of once-rural Prudhoe Bay, Alaska is too.

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In contrast, Eliza never physically leaves their apartment, while working as a unicorn-horned, thong-bikinied, virtual porn star. If Estrada were a male artist, I might have found the porn choice exploitive, but she seems fully aware of and in charge of her novel’s politics. As one of Eliza’s NPC (non-player character) friends says, “Most AI are misogynists, just like the humans who programmed them.” That also helps to explain why all of the NPG characters in the virtual dance club are white people. As Eliza’s porn avatar dances, talk balloons from unseen viewers ask, “What’s your ethnicity?” (she’s Inuit), and offer to “pay u to fix your teeth.” Her grandfather calls her (by his hand-held cell phone) about the bad omen of a beached whale, extending their tribe’s colonization by Europeans and their descendants to the level of technological exploitation as their bodies are invaded by artificial organs.

Like Estrada, Charly is from Mexico. When he virtually visits home, half of the dialogue is in Spanish with footnote translations breaking the narrative flow for monolingual readers such as myself. It’s a smart choice because it pushes against the kind of effortless absorption that the virtual technology represents. Sometimes it’s good to have to work harder.

The footnotes also include the proto-links of choose-your-own-adventure technology, with six of the virtual scenes ending with a direction to “Return to pages 86-87” where the two-page spread offers a mid-story table-of-contents of the time-killing activities Eliza and Charly employ while waiting out the most recent storm. Only this time the storm waits out them when they lose internet connection for days. This result is boredom, actual rather than virtual sex, and, most importantly, dreams—the original, biological version of VR.

The problem is Eliza and Charly have already been having trouble distinguishing what is real and not real, and whether the distinction still means anything. Charly’s violent past has been haunting him in hallucinogenic flashes of Eliza’s corpse (a fear that briefly comes true). Estrada explores the theme at the meta level too, with Eliza asking, “Why do I feel like I’m still being watched?” (because she is, by us). Later she notices the fourth wall of her own comics panel and climbs out of the grid and into the open page—only to startle herself awake. More subtlety but weirdly, she refers to one of her earlier virtual adventures (an unfortunately R. Crumb-esque pornographic one) as something she read in a comic—which it was for readers, but not for her.

There’s a central plotline involving Eliza’s brain transplant getting hacked and the world’s A.I.s searching for a human host to create a hybrid biological/artificially-conscious baby. Though Estrada’s glossary-like endnotes assure readers “Don’t take anything too seriously, after all …. this is just a comic!,” she also refers to the “current exponential development of AI,” and, oddly sandwiched between the copyright and ISBN notices, “Climate change is real. The earth is alive and we’re killing her. Technology is not the enemy: oppression, greed, & exploitation are.”

It’s a fitting final word to her not-so futuristic dystopia.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

 

 

 

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(It’s a long walk between the elevator and the doorway to the hearings room, and everyone testifying has been led down it by congressional aides and DC cops as a gauntlet of photographers snapped pictures. I assembled many of them into a sequence 4×2 layouts, showing the same hallway six times. I also digitally adapted the images, and though I added quotes from some of the witnesses’ opening statements, I eventually preferred to let the images stand by themselves.)

 

Ben O’Neil is a devotee of surreal absurdism. His Apologetica—a collection of seven short comics, ranging from two to twenty pages, plus a three-page illustrated prose story—is difficult to describe. I mean that in a good way. Though the title references a defense of religious beliefs by Roman-era Christians, O’Neil’s focus is not Christianity or even religion generally, except in a reversed sense, the absence of a meaning-providing God in a world of mass-produced plastic crap literally held together by chewing gum.

Three of the comics feature “Mr. Martyr,” a self-flagellating cartoon that has more in common with SpongeBob Squarepants than the riff on the iconographic Christian martyr adorning O’Neil’s book cover. Though both figures sport paper-white skin, the torso-less Mr. Martyr’s hose-like limbs protrude from his circle of a head. If he had an actual body, the BDSM vibe would be even more extreme. Mr. Martyr loves abuse, and though he speaks through the fourth wall of his panels for readers to spit on him, no one does. His three-part adventure is a quest for meaningful torture, but how’s that possible when no one is paying attention, and you’re just one torture-seeking fanatic in a world of almost identically drawn fanatics?

O’Neil uses a 2×2 panel layout for his Mr. Martyr pages, a very traditional format (Jack Kirby had a thing for it too) that offsets the non-traditional subject matter. Though other chapters vary layout, they remain rigidly rectangular with unbroken frames that center their content with poster-like clarity and simplicity. O’Neil’s secular hell is not crosshatched with naturalistic details but stamped in place by a blunt instrument. His lines are consistently sharp-edged and colored in undifferentiated blocks of yellow, red, pink, blue, and black. The effect is intentionally garish and so well-suited to the consumer-culture critique.

The ten-page “Trash Culture” is the most defining. Global warning results in biblical-level flooding and the discovery of a continent of floating garbage. But instead of an ark, survivors board a cruise ship, and instead of a dove returning with a land-promising olive leaf, seagulls carry back used syringes. When a couple hundred years of asylum-seeking immigration and procreation renders the island too small, new factories produce new plastic crap, eventually expanding the landmass into an all-encompassing crust across the planet.

Though prophetic, the absurdist parable is less about the future and more about the U.S. right now. Interestingly, O’Neil draws his critique of consumer selfishness with very few consumers. Occasional individuals appear in panels (the murdered cruise ship captain, three warring soldiers), but most feature distant angles of inanimate objects. Rather than highlighting acts of gluttonous consumption, it’s as if the objects of consumption have consumed their consumers. We have literally replaced ourselves with human-shaped trash.

My favorite of O’Neil’s selections is “The Sentient Loin,” a demonically pro-vegetarian horror tale in reversed white and red art on black pages (a little reminiscent of horror artist Emily Carroll’s most recent comic, When I Arrived at the Castle). Although the events unfold in standard story fashion (the main character purchases a loin chop at the supermarket, eats it, and plunges into a monstrous dream state), O’Neil’s visual storytelling works more at a symbolic register. Instead of spatiotemporal snapshots following the logic of a movie storyboard, the images represent their content from a greater, iconic distance. The microbe of meat coursing through the narrator’s bloodstream is the smiling face of the supermarket’s mascot. The perfectly round hole that the narrator digs to bury the remaining loin descends into the page in red concentric strips like a target sign. Did the narrator somehow actually dig a hole like this? No. It’s an image once-removed from the visual content it visually represents. It’s an image of an image. Like the narrator who purchases her animal flesh prepackaged in containers that obscure the circumstances of the product’s creation, O’Neil’s readers are weirdly removed from the story too.

The visual distancing approach is most extreme with the inclusion of a prose story. While stand-alone words are an obvious norm of prose fiction, the inclusion of three double-columned pages of prose disrupts the visual norms of comics, while also revealing the weirdness of non-comics visualization. When we read words in prose, we picture things, but when we read words in comics, we see the pictures that surround and so define the words. But suddenly O’Neil gives us “Entire Tinyhouse,” a story about Hubert, a dissatisfied billionaire longing for a Thoreau-esque experience of nature. Does Hubert have the absurdist body of Mr. Martyr or the human proportions of O’Neil’s cover martyr? Is Hubert’s skin the same page-bright white as all of the other characters? The answer is all of the above. Or none of the above. Hubert doesn’t exist visually in the same way as the comics characters who surround him. He’s just words and whatever vague, pseudo-images a given reader experiences mentally.

Though Hubert’s nature trek comes to a tragic end in keeping with O’Neil’s overall apocalyptic tone, Apologetica is not all doom and destruction. There’s even an undercurrent of hope under all the surreal absurdism. Happy ending might be too strong a term, but when the last oil well runs dry in “Trash Culture,” humanity does take “its first collective breath.” And though still haunted by her meat-induced horrors, the narrator of “The Sentient Loin” does escape her immediate hellscape, now apparently a fully devoted vegan. Even Mr. Martyr reevaluates his life, realizing that suffering is not divine punishment and that the pleasure of friendship has more meaning: “If only I’d noticed sooner …”

O’Neil and his readers do notice sooner—though that hopeful undercurrent is mostly swamped by the massive tide of plastic crap washing ashore the shores it creates. If O’Neil is apologizing for any God, it’s the nihilistically indifferent one who maintains our self-inflicted, capitalistic marketplace.

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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Last week I published a blog post titled “My Ongoing Attempts to Reason with the Generals Redoubt.” In retrospect, I should have called it “My Ongoing Attempts to Reason with Neely Young” because Neely Young was the only person from the alumni group that I interacted with. He is, however, one of its three founding members and leaders. He told me that he writes all of the essays distributed to their email list and posted on their website. He called himself their “idea man.” So while my impressions of Neely are specific to Neely, they apply to the Generals Redoubt to the degree that he shapes the organization. He said running it is like his full-time job. I believe no other member is fractionally as involved.

My impressions of Neely are based on his essays (starting with the one denigrating two of my courses), a lengthy email exchange (included almost verbatim in my post last week), and two separate in-person meetings totaling more than two hours (and four coffees). I think this is a fairly solid basis for drawing impressions about someone, though I don’t want to overgeneralize since I’m sure there are many positive aspects of his character that I haven’t had the chance to observe.

But in short, I will no longer be attempting to reason with Neely. I will try to explain why, but if you are not inclined to trust my assessment, I urge you instead to read the email exchange I posted last week and draw your own conclusions. The post includes no commentary from me about Neely, and roughly half of it is Neely’s own words. He paints his own portrait.

I offer my assessment of Neely here in order to support the following recommendation: if you are a member of the W&L community, whether faculty, student, administrator, or alumni, you should not expect to engage with Neely in meaningful conversation. I have repeatedly tried and failed.

This is disappointing to me because I especially value conversation between people from opposing perspectives. I co-founded the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society in order to bring conservatives and liberals together in open-minded, stereotype-challenging dialogue where both sides learn and, ideally, find and expand common ground. I believe that compromise is not a necessary evil but a profound good that should be embraced by all members of a community like W&L’s. Neely does not agree.

Though Neely uses the words “conversation” and “communication” and “discussion,” he does not mean the same things by them as I do. He wishes to have his opinions stated to as large of an audience as possible, whether online or in the debates he’s trying to organize on campus. A debate is the opposite of a conversation. A debate is a polite fistfight. Each side listens to their opponents only to detect and exploit weaknesses while never exploring let alone acknowledging weaknesses of their own viewpoints. A debate reinforces divisions and undermines any hope for forging common ground.

Neely and I also appear to be using different definitions of the word “opinion.” When I say opinion, I mean an informed opinion as opposed to a gut reaction. We all have gut reactions. They are necessary and inevitable. But after experiencing gut reactions to something, I consider it our job to educate ourselves about the topic by gathering verifiable facts and using them to evaluate our initial response and develop an informed opinion. Sometimes my informed opinions match my gut reactions; sometimes they don’t. Regardless, a gut reaction is only a starting point, never an end point.

Neely seems to have experienced a gut reaction to the words “superheroes” and “comics” in my course titles. Based on that reaction, he called my courses inane, frivolous, trivial, dubious, and of questionable value. But to be able to state such opinions meaningfully, Neely would have to know at least a little about graphic narratives, the analysis of pop cultural icons, contemporary literature, studio arts, and writing pedagogy. I tried to help him develop an informed opinion by sending him two of my scholarly essays, which he said were “excellent,” though I have yet to see any evidence that he read either of them. Prior to our second coffee, I selected five graphic novels that I thought would expand his knowledge about comics, but he refused to hear a word on the topic. I was also going to give him examples of graphic narratives that won or were nominated for the most prestigious literary awards in the English language (Pulitzer, National Book, Booker, MacArthur), but he cut me off.

As I said repeatedly to Neely, comics are irrelevant to the larger issues facing W&L. I attempted to engage with him about comics so that he could demonstrate his ability to engage meaningfully on a topic of some kind, with comics providing an easy, low-stakes building block toward more difficult issues. He would not engage. He would not acknowledge that his opinion was uninformed, that he had made no attempt to learn anything about my courses before disseminating his opinion about them to 8,000 alums, and that he ignored my attempts to provide information afterwards. When I asked him to explain why he held his opinion, he refused. He would only repeat his claim, as though the fact of his stating it was evidence of its truth.

What if instead of comics we had tried to have a meaningful conversation about the legacy of Robert E. Lee at W&L or the continuing importance of the honor code? How do you talk to someone who forms strongly negative opinions based on gut reactions, does not educate himself about the topic, refuses others’ attempts to provide information, does not offer evidence for his opinions, and refers to those opinions as “the truth”?

I don’t care that Neely thinks comics are stupid. I do care that Neely has convinced a group of well-intentioned alums that his opinions about the state of W&L are accurate and that its traditions are under attack by liberal professors out to destroy their alma matter. If any reader thinks W&L is facing such an “existential threat” (Neely’s phrase), it will take more than a blog post to build trust between us. It will take a lot of conversation.

Neely did offer me a quid pro quo: if I would agree to help him organize public debates on campus, he would not post his “Dumbing Down the Curriculum at W&L” essay at his website. I declined.

Though Neely and I agreed to shake hands and amicably part ways, I remain open to the remaining 7,999 members of the Generals Redoubt’s email list. I believe in the importance and sincerity of your concerns, and I believe your commitment to W&L is one of the many many things that make our school so excellent. I also suspect you have some inaccurate impressions about the current faculty, the student body, and the direction the school is headed.

And I’m happy to talk about that.

Amplify

Amplify is not your typical textbook—and not just because 115 of its 166 pages are comics. Professor Norah Bowman selected seven feminists and feminist organizations, transformed their histories into stories with the aid of playwright Meg Braem, and then handed those scripted stories to comics artist Dominique Hui to transform into graphic narratives with the aim of motivating new acts of feminist resistance from inspired readers.

The focus is intersectional, so in addition to the white women of Pussy Riot and Rote Zora, the collection highlights mostly international women of color. Since the press is the University of Toronto’s, two of the seven narratives appropriately take place in Canada—with a Canadian cameo concluding a third. The U.S. appears only once, as do India, Russia, Liberia, and Germany. The inclusion of a South American narrative would have completed the range of continents, and the omission of a Muslim feminist (Malala Yousafzai perhaps?) is equally disappointing. But the project offers only a sampling, not a canonical list of feminist icons. The field is rich. Instead of seven narratives, future editions of Amplify could include 14 or 21 and still not be definitive.

Since the focus is primarily and usefully on the 21st century, the two 1970s narratives do seem oddly placed. They’re also atypically violent, featuring the only firearms and bombs employed by protestors. Most of the vignettes instead highlight the power of modern media: TV, online petitions, YouTube, Twitter. This matches the collection’s pedagogical focus, since readers are far more likely to reach for their cellphones than for Kathleen Cleaver’s rifle. And though Rote Zora’s 45 fire bombings have somehow resulted in no injuries, no textbook can or should provide the necessary basics of skill and luck that requires.

Bowman’s basics are more academic, including a 24-entry glossary of such terms as ‘lateral violence’ and ‘heteronormativity.’ She discusses the more centrally defining term intersectional feminism in her introduction, urging readers’ local communities and grassroots organizations to combat multiple kinds of oppressions. The goals are lofty, though also classroom-focused, with reading lists and discussion questions capping each chapter. As much as I appreciate a well formatted Works Cited, is an inspired community action group going to interlibrary-loan an essay from the Journal of the American Academy of Religion or spend time discussing questions better suited to reading quizzes (“For what crime were the women of Pussy Riot imprisoned, and how long was their sentence?”)?

I debated at times who Amplify is most addressing since the 11- to 22-page comics communicate their content with rudimentary directness. While the historical events might welcome critical engagement—when, for instance, is it okay to fire bomb a porn shop?—the graphic adaptations echo the narrative logic of children’s tales, condensing time into summarizing dialogue that replaces what it represents. When Kathleen Neal, for example, appears in the doorway of the Blank Panthers meeting room after the arrest of Huey Newtown, her speech balloons declare: “I’m Kathleen Neal, from Atlanta. I understand there’s a crisis in the organization.” A member shouts: “They arrested Huey!” A 100-word caption box spelled out the facts on the previous page, making the response redundant. Bowman’s afterword (she includes one for each chapter) is redundant too, repeating much of the same information covered by the comic.

The afterword also produces contradictions. Though the graphic narrative implies that Kathleen Neal traveled to California to join the Black Panthers in response to Newton’s arrest, Bowman later explains that Neal had already met her husband, Black Panther member Eldridge Cleaver, and took up Newton’s cause only after becoming a member herself. The difference is perhaps minor—and I appreciate the authors not portraying Neal as an appendage to her husband. Still, the contradiction is unnecessary and situates the comics as something other than exacting nonfiction.

The Leymah Gbowee comic treats time similarly, presenting a 2,000-woman protest on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia as Gbowee’s first organized event and combining it with a march outside the parliament building as if the two were consecutive actions by the same gathering of people. Bowman explains afterwards that Gbowee didn’t just send “out a message to the women of Liberia hoping they would come,” as her talk balloon states. She co-founded the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a religiously diverse organization that undertook multiple actions, culminating in the parliament march and peace talks that eventually resulted in the collapse of the Charles Taylor dictatorship.

Again, Bowman’s afterward expands on the comic, adding absent nuance. While this is helpful, the effect is odd since Bowman co-wrote the comics and so helped create the gaps she later fills. Why not just script the comics differently? According to the preface, playwright Meg Braem was “in charge of storytelling and drama,” and so the based-on-a-true-story condensing is presumably hers. The juxtaposition of the two narrative forms, the comics and their prose-only afterwards, are potentially intriguing, but the result here is neither a harmonizing whole nor a structured point-counterpoint but a surprising undercurrent of mistrust in comics to represent history independently of traditional scholarly apparatus. So I would augment Bowman’s reading lists with at least two more comics-specific texts: Joseph Witek’s Comic Books as History (University Press of Mississippi, 1989) and Hilary Chute’s Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (Harvard University Press, 2016).

The third author, freelance artist Dominique Hui, used Bowman’s photo archives to illustrate the scripts, giving her pleasantly loose ink style a different kind of authenticity. While her black and white rendering remains largely consistent, her layouts vary with each chapter and often each page, reflecting the ever-changing topics. She also displays the occasional visual flourish—the diagonal lines of lyrics emanating through the full-page Pussy Riot concert panel is my favorite. I also admire her careful vacillation in reproduction sizings. When Leymah Gbowee’s portrait narrates in present-tense, the lines of her head and clothing are granularly thin with meticulous detail, but her flashback images are enlarged to create thicker, bolder lines that further contrast the two time periods.

Though I’m not sure if these comics ultimately amplify their subject matters or merely alter them through a different medium and documentary ethos, Amplify’s goals are laudable and their results engaging.

 

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

 

 

 

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Last winter an alumni group distributed an essay titled “The ‘Dumbing Down’ of the Curriculum at W&L” to their mailing list. My courses Creating Comics and Superheroes were in the top two slots for courses that the unnamed author considered “of dubious academic value, dedicated to the espousal of a political agenda, trivial, inane, or some combination of the above.” The author suggested eliminating these and other courses and also “eliminating some of the professors who teach them.” I responded in my blog post “Why I Shouldn’t be Fired for Teaching Comics.”

The author of “Dumbing Down,” Neely Young, emailed me in September with multiple attachments including a “response to your post of May, 2019. As we say, we would have responded sooner but we were not aware of your post.” He added: ” I really think we all should realize that, at this point, any communication between us should be considered as in the public domain. That is, unless both sides agree to confidentiality in advance.”

I wrote back: “I would be happy to sit down and chat. Shall we get coffee some time?”

Neely: “I would be more comfortable meeting with you after you have had a chance to read over all of the material. I think it would make our conversation more productive. I’m not saying that you have to respond to anything which I have written prior to our meeting, although you are free to do so. I’m saying that some of my ideas about how we might move forward in increasing communication between the various parts of the W&L community are sort of embedded in my letter. We can talk further about this when we meet.”

Chris: “I had already read the newsletter and I read your letter to me and the short essay regarding Chavis and Robinson before responding. Since you said you didn’t want “to litigate past differences of opinion but to discuss ways to improve communication,” I didn’t respond to any of the content. I can of course respond to the content in person or by email, but my main interest is in finding common ground and that’s probably done best by sitting down together.”

Neely: “I couldn’t agree with you more. Just let me know when and where you would like to meet.”

We met at Lexington Coffee. Neely emailed afterwards thanking me, saying he “enjoyed our conversation,” and suggesting that we meet again with other members of his alumni group: “I am thinking the focus should be on possible public, on campus meetings to discuss recent developments at the university and its future direction. I am also thinking that it would be good if we could find some topics to discuss initially where compromise or agreement could be reached among the various university constituencies. I welcome your thoughts on this. As I said previously, if you would like to ask another faculty member to accompany you to our next meeting, that would be fine.”

Chris: “I’m glad we met for coffee, and I hope to continue to expand our better understanding of each other. With that goal in mind, will you do me the honor of reading some of my research? I’ve attached two articles that I think might provide some sense of the work I’m doing in relation to your “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” paper.”

Neely: “I will certainly read it, but I am not sure I am qualified to comment on it. I am sure there is something to be learned from any area of study.”

Chris: “As a published historian with UVa Press, you should be more than qualified.”

The essays I gave him were “The Well-born Superhero,” published in the Journal of American Culture, and “The Ku Klux Klan and the birth of the superhero,” published in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. Both trace the development of the superhero character type through the eugenics movement in early the 20th-century U.S.

Neely contacted me again in October. After describing the Generals Redoubt’s new website, he wrote:

I have now read both of the essays which you sent me, and I am afraid that I am in pretty much the same position that I was before you sent them to me. That is, I have almost no familiarity with the subject/s upon which you are opining and do not feel qualified to comment. I will say that I think your research and writing are excellent and that you are certainly qualified from a scholarly perspective.

This is not the same thing as saying what or what should not be included in the curriculum. But that is a subject for another day. Indeed, I would like to meet with you again at your convenience and would like to bring a friend with me. Barry Brown lives in Lexington and is a former parent. Her family has been involved with Washington and Lee almost since its inception, and she is a member of the Executive Committee of The Generals Redoubt. The main thing I would like to discuss is how we might move forward in setting up some on campus forums, panel discussions, etc. involving various elements of the W&L community. However, I am open to discussing any other issues which you like. I am also open to your bringing someone else with you if you like.

I would also like to say that I have revised my essay on “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” to delete any mention of eliminating faculty positions. This is not my place or concern. Otherwise, the essay is pretty much the same. I will be publishing the revised edition in upcoming material on our website.

Chris:

Good to hear from you. Congratulations on launching the website—I know personally the challenges involved—and I look forward to reading your new essay “Ideological Diversity.” I’m also pleased to hear that you have decided to drop the part about eliminating faculty positions from your “Dumbing Down” essay.

May I ask if my courses will still be featured at the top of the “Dumbing Down” list? While I acknowledge there are some differences between scholarship and teaching, W&L as you know encourages a teacher-scholar model, and my work especially reflects that. The idea for “Superheroes” came from a group of honors students who sought out a professor willing to develop and teach a syllabus on their behalf. When they found me, I had done no research into superheroes or comics, but I said yes, and that has since led to four books, two from the University of Iowa Press  and two from Bloomsbury. I also have a contract under way from Routledge for a fifth.

If you consider my research and writing to be excellent, it would seem odd if you maintained that courses based on that research could be “of dubious academic value,” “trivial,” and “inane” as you previously stated. At that time your opinion was based only on the names of the courses—which is why I accurately accused you of conducting “shallow research” last spring on my blog. Having read the two essays I forwarded, you now know at least some elements of actual content covered in the courses. When we met for coffee last month, you seemed like a reasonable person, and so I find it difficult to believe that you could still characterize my teaching as “dumbing down” W&L’s curriculum. Am I mistaken?

Neely:

Thanks for your prompt reply. It is my opinion that the courses which should or should not be offered at W&L is a discussion we can save for another time. I am thinking that this can be a part of the public forums which could take place on campus. When I say a part, I mean that there could be a broad conversation about what constitutes a quality liberal arts education. As I said, what I would like to do is set up another meeting with you and my colleague, Barry Brown, to talk about the possibility of setting up these public forums and discussing what topics might be discussed at these forums.

Chris:

I agree course offerings is a general topic that can be discussed in a public forum, but my concern is more specific and immediate. Honestly, I’m startled that you want to include “Dumbing Down” on the website. I thought you’d let that one quietly go. It is not very good. I don’t mean that I disagree with its opinions (which, as you know, I do); I mean its opinions are poorly presented. I disagree with opinions in your other essays, but they don’t suffer from the same weaknesses. Your writing in your summer newsletter, for example, might earn a B in my Writing 100, but “Dumbing Down” wouldn’t receive a passing grade. This is because, as I explained in my blog post, it shows “bias, shallow research, inadequate argumentation, and hypocritical rhetoric.”

You objected to that assessment when you wrote me last month, implying it was based on my disagreeing with your opinions. I disagree with many of your opinions, but the assessment applies only to “Dumbing Down” for the reasons I carefully detailed. You also wrote: “I have read your arguments for maintaining courses in Comic Books and Superheroes, and, although I appreciate your perspective, I am not convinced by your arguments.” But I explicitly stated: “I do not feel the need to present counter arguments.” Since I didn’t make any arguments for maintaining my courses, it is not possible for you to have been convinced or not convinced by them.

That you could imagine that you read such arguments does not reflect well on your reading skills, but I have a much larger concern. You have now read two of my “excellent” essays that emerged from my superhero and comics courses, but you still intend to keep those courses on your “Dumbing Down” list, continuing to call them inane, trivial, frivolous, and of dubious academic value.

You also expect me to help you organize campus forums and panel discussions with faculty. To do that, I would have to assure my colleagues that you are a reasonable person who is sincerely open to meaningful conversation. But a reasonable person would not draw conclusions about courses based only on their titles. A reasonable person would also not continue to malign a professor after acknowledging the excellence of his research and writing.

You said in your letter that “we will have to agree to disagree.” I had hoped that we could instead develop common ground and bring opposing sides of the W&L community into better understanding and compromise. But if you can’t change your stance about the comparatively inconsequential issue of my courses, then continuing our conversations seems pointless.

Neely:

I do not intend to argue with you about all of these points. It seems to me you are getting into a lot of semantics here. For example, when I said that I was not convinced by your argument, perhaps I should just have said that I am not convinced at this point that such courses should be taught. What difference does it make how it is stated? At this point, I am still not convinced that such course should be taught. But I would rather focus on some things about which we might be able to find agreement rather than on things about which we disagree. For example, I can see a series of public forums taking place on a series of topics such as ideological diversity, curricular matters, the legacy of Lee, freedom of speech and expression, etc. You use a lot of strong language like saying that I lack “reading skills” and am attempting to “malign” you, that I am not a reasonable person, etc. It is almost as if you are seeking excuses for not having another meeting. If you would like to meet with me again to discuss how we might move forward in creating a dialogue between faculty, students, alums, and other members of the W&L community, I am glad to do so. If you do not, then I suppose that is the end of our conversation. However, I will note that you are the one ending this conversation, not me. We will continue to work with others to create dialogue among the various elements of the university.

Chris:

You said you “would rather focus on some things about which we might be able to find agreement rather than on things about which we disagree.” I shared my articles with you in the hope that we would come to that sort of agreement. I thought that because your initial claim was made in ignorance (I mean that literally not pejoratively), once you learned something about my actual course content, your opinions would evolve. You said you’re “still not convinced that such course should be taught,” but there’s quite a distance between that position and your continuing claim that my courses are inane, trivial, frivolous, and of dubious academic value. In what sense are you not disparaging me? Why do you object to my “strong language” but not your own?

You said you want my help organizing “public forums” on topics including “curricular matters.” Why do you want to discuss these matters publicly but not privately with me? My goal is to bridge differences between opposing viewpoints in our community. If the forums would help achieve that, then I would support them. But your emails suggest that you are not interested in bridging differences but only in maintaining and more widely espousing intractable opinions.

Looking over your previous email, I hear the unpleasant echo of a reading quiz where a student creates the impression of having done the homework but on rereading I see there is not a single reference to content of any kind. I selected those two articles because their arguments are historical, and you are a historian and so should “feel qualified to comment.” How is it possible to feel unqualified to comment on my essays to me privately and yet continue to feel qualified to comment to your 8,000-member mailing list on my courses (about which you know only their titles)?

Instead of taking insult at your “Dumbing Down” essay, I have been trying to engage with you personally. The so-called inanity of my courses seemed like an ideal side topic because it has nothing to do with the main focus of the Generals Redoubt and so I thought with a little mutual effort and openness we would arrive at a better understanding, one that could be a stepping stone to wider growth. You said to me over our first coffee that your essay “wasn’t personal,” meaning you had no idea who taught my courses when you wrote it. You no longer have that luxury. We know each other. We sat and talked for 90 minutes. That should have been the first step toward something better.

And perhaps it still will be. I am happy to meet with you again, and with Barry Brown (I hope she has made a full recovery from her surgery). But please understand that my goal is actual conversation. I have no interest in helping you build a soap box to espouse opinions that you maintain in the face of greater counter evidence. That is my working definition of “unreasonable.”

Neely:

Here is what I am willing to do; I hope you are willing to do the same. If not, I will understand. I am certainly willing to meet with you again. I am willing to discuss further with you the topics which you raise in the email you sent to me, but I am not willing to do so ad nauseum. It is possible that at the end of the day, we will still disagree on some of these issues. Even if we do, I don’t see why we can’t move forward in setting up some public forums to discuss these issues on campus and involve people with different points of view. You may see it as a “soapbox”, but I see it as an opportunity for all sides to discuss issues which I feel were not adequately discussed before the issuance of the History Commission report and the directive of the Board in fall, 2018.

I will say that my language was not directed at you personally, but at the course which you are teaching as well as some other courses. I do not see this as disparaging you. I am interested in a broader discussion of what a quality liberal arts education should look like. The question of which courses should be taught is a part of that discussion but not the only part. I am willing to change my language from “trivial and frivolous” to something like of “questionable academic value” I say this because this is how I feel at this time. You say that my emails indicate that I may not be interested in bridging differences. I am interested in bridging differences where I can, but, frankly, I am more interested in the truth and in helping to make Washington and Lee the best place it can be. It may be that in this process, some people’s feelings may be hurt. That is not my intention nor the intention of the Generals Redoubt; neither is it our primary concern.

I suggest than we meet we have a discussion on how we can do more to bridge differences while still maintaining our particular points of view. I suggest we spend as much time as possible focusing on how we can set up public forums where all of these issues can be discussed among the various elements of the W&L community.

Chris:

As I said, I’m happy to meet. Feel free to suggest a time.

I’m glad you’re removing “trivial and frivolous,“ but you continue to miss the key question: on what basis are you making any judgement? If you instead wrote that my courses were excellent (as you said of my research and writing), that statement would be equally uninformed. You only know the course titles. You wrote in “Dumbing Down”: “Do we really need classes in comic books with so much great literature to study?” Creating Comics is not focused on the study of literature because Creating Comics is not a literature course. You would know that if you had done even the very most basic step of research and read the course description. It is a joint creative writing and studio arts course co-taught with a drawing and printmaking professor. Do you know literally anything about drawing and printmaking? Are you also unaware that Superheroes is a section of Writing 100 and so also not a literature course? Writing instruction is an enormous, decades-old field of study. Have you read literally anything in the field? You said you don’t want to discuss these issues ad nauseam, but you have yet to take even a first, rudimentary step.

My hope was that you would demonstrate intellectual curiosity about things that you know nothing about and yet feel qualified to judge publicly and loudly. In doing so you would demonstrate your ability to learn. Obviously, my courses have nothing to do with the History Commission report and the Board’s directives. If you are incapable of engaging meaningfully with the content of my work, how can I hope that you will do any better on issues of actual significance to our shared community? Your “truth” regarding my courses is based in willful ignorance. You said, “I don’t see why we can’t move forward in setting up some public forums to discuss these issues on campus.” This is why.

Please demonstrate that you are an individual capable of open-minded conversation who cares more about learning and bridging differences than creating a platform for espousing uninformed opinions.

Neely:

Thanks for your response. I have spoken to Barry Brown, and we can meet with you any time on Thursday or on Friday morning. Why don’t you pick the place and time? We can meet  with you anywhere that you feel comfortable. Perhaps Barry can help us bridge our differences. I think we can discuss all of the things which you mention at our meeting.

We have our second coffee scheduled for later this week.

Wish me luck.

[The saga continues here.]

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