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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

The Zombie Monologues, a shortened online version of my pandemic-postponed play The Zombie Life, is premiering this week at Richmond’s Firehouse Theater’s website, one monologue each day at 4:00!

The link to the first two monologues is here.

And below is the text and other information about the production.

Hello, my name is Dr. Steve Brandeis. My patients like to call me Dr. Steve. You know, like Dr. Phil I guess. I’m a therapist. I’ve been trying to help people for, I don’t know how many years now, my career, my whole life basically. And sometimes, I’ll be honest, I’ve wondered, whether, I’ve really helped anyone. I mean really helped them. Cured them. Of the one thing that all diseases and disorders have in common. Pain. That’s what we’re all suffering from. The cost of being alive. Of just trying to lurch from one day to the next day. It’s like, it’s like human beings, we weren’t designed for this. For living. It’s a design flaw.

And I assumed it was unavoidable, that all I could do was apply band aids, squirt a little disinfectant into your gushing wounds. But I’ve been watching these former patients of mine, these former people, these converts, that’s what they are. Converts to a safer, an easier, a better way of existing. And I’m realizing that all of my years and years of work don’t add up to a fraction of the solace that they’ve each found on their own. So I’m rethinking everything, my whole approach. Forget therapy. You can’t talk your way out of a torture chamber. Understanding why you’re in pain, where it comes from, how your life is a perfect storm tailored just to you—none of that makes any of it go way. It still hurts. Call it what you like, agony by any other name is still agony. But now for the first time I see a way to actually do something about it.

Based on the testimonies you’ve just heard, from patients who have cured themselves from human suffering, I am following their insights and will make them available to you, to everyone. I am developing a seminar to educate people about the benefits of the zombie life. Benefits that we all desperately need. These are desperate times. We need radical change. We need to rethink and reform what it means to be human. Abolish suffering. Abolish prejudice, bigotry, misogyny, inequality, tyranny. No more police, politicians, elections. Hell, zombies are even good for the environment. No pollution, no waste of natural resources. We can leave it all behind. Zombies feel no guilt, no shame, no regrets. No regrets! Can you imagine that?

Well, soon you won’t have to imagine. I’ll show you up close and personal. But since we can’t meet in person yet because of COVID-19, I’ll spend the coming months developing “The Zombie Life Seminar for Humans Seeking Conversion.” Then next summer, when we’re no longer social distancing, you’ll attend in person. You’ll see for yourself. The zombie life is the answer. The zombie life will save us all.

Until then, please stay safe. You just have to hang on a little longer. Help is on the way. Good night, for now.

 

At first we thought: Government experiment, biological warfare. From … North Korea. China. Or maybe an alien microbe. From thawed polar ice. Or the space shuttle. Or …?  But then we thought: H.I.V., Ebola, H1N1, Covid-19.  Definitely something cross-species. Birds, monkeys, pigs, bats. … aardvarks? Galvani was making dead frog legs twitch in the 1700’s, but full body animation? From a medical standpoint, it was genius. The ultimate breakthrough. If we could patent it, we’d be trillionaires. Military applications weren’t the half of it. Who needs automated assembly lines when you have a limitless supply of inexhaustible workers? Forget Hazmat suits, the whole workforce is invulnerable. No health care costs, pension plans, minimum wage, housing. You don’t even have to feed them. Not … technically. They can’t digest. The whole G.I. track, it’s shutdown. All the organs. They’re not hungry. They just—think they are. Their muscles are sputtering on idiopathic electricity. It’s a matter of harnessing it. It’s not even immoral. They’re not alive. We had been looking at it backwards. This wasn’t a disease. It was the cure. For everything. The end of medicine as we know it. Nobody ever has to get sick again. Life without life. The end of suffering. This is why I became a doctor. To help people. And now we can help everyone. It’s in the saliva. Break the skin, the cells spread, shut down the old system, maybe a day in bed, and voila! It’s like a flu shot. A toothy, flesh-gouging flu shot. But then that’s it. No more pain. Ever again. You’re cured. You just have to stop looking at it … backwards.

 

the ZOMBIE monologues

by Chris Gavaler

directed by Joan Gavaler

August 19-30, 2020

the ZOMBIE monologues is a fully virtual prequel to our world premiere of Chris Gavaler’s THE ZOMBIE LIFE that we’ve had to postpone due to COVID-19.
Videos will premiere at 4pm on 8/19, 8/21, 8/23, 8/25, 8/27, and 8/29 at these 3 links

https://www.facebook.com/FirehouseTheatre/

https://tinyurl.com/zombiemono

https://www.firehousetheatre.org/

Wed 8/19, Thu 8/20
Ken Moretti – Therapist + Keaton Hillman – Doctor
Fri 8/21, Sat 8/22
Marjie Southerland – Chef
Sun 8/23, Mon 8/24
Robbie Winston – Professional
Tue 8/25, Wed 8/26
Boomie Pedersen – Activist
Thu 8/27, Fri 8/28
Caity Brown – Volunteer
Sat 8/29, Sun 8/30
Ken Moretti, Keaton Hillman, Marjie Southerland,
Robbie Winston, Boomie Pedersen, Caity Brown – klansman

the ZOMBIE monologues has been developed by Firehouse Theatre with support from Aura CuriAtlas Physical Theatre through a series of Zoom workshops.

Videos will premiere at 4pm on 8/19, 8/21, 8/23, 8/25, 8/27, and 8/29 at these 3 links

https://www.facebook.com/FirehouseTheatre/

https://tinyurl.com/zombiemono

https://www.firehousetheatre.org/

​donations gladly accepted at https://tinyurl.com/zommon or text “zombie” to 44321.

The Zombie Life: A Seminar for Humans Seeking Conversion
We know life is hard. When you are ready to stop searching for meaning and leave the pain behind, we are ready to help.
1. Zombies have no responsibilities.
2. Zombies feel no guilt, shame, or emotional pain of any kind.
3. Zombies don’t plan for the future.
4. Zombies are never judgmental, petty, jealous, or hypocritical.
5. Zombies are free of racism, sexism, and all other forms of prejudice and bigotry.
6. Zombies form no governments, run no businesses, consume no natural resources, and cause no harm to their environments.
7. Zombies are never uncertain. They never second guess. They have no regrets.

​​​​​Performers:

Caity Brown

Keaton Hillman

Ken Moretti

Boomie Pedersen

Marjie Southerland

Robbie Winston

Production Team:

Joan Gavaler – Director

Dan Plehal – Movement Director

Todd Labelle – Production Designer

Tad Burrell – Set Designer

Annette Hairfield – Costume Designer

AC Wilson – Props Designer

Grace Brown – Stage Manager

 

As I prep my fall classes (which I’m slowly accepting are almost certainly going to be entirely online and not the weird hybrid thing I’d imagined), I’ve been toying with the (I think) untapped potentials of zoom.

I wrote previously about the incredible coolness of a shared whiteboard (To Zoom or Not to Zoom), and now I’m deep diving into virtual backgrounds. I normally don’t like them because they distort the edges of the user, but these are pandemic pedagogy times, so “normally” doesn’t matter. I’m instead working from a couple of principles about zoom:

1) No one is there. It just looks like they are. If you approach teaching with the reflexive assumption that things are how they look, things may not go very well.

2) Figure out ways for everyone to be present in the zoom reality. Since zoom reality and in-person reality are radically different, figure out the metaphysics of zoom.

The first principle is the problem. The looked-at-but-not-seen weirdness of video cams means you can’t make eye contact or know what anyone is doing as their unseen hands fiddle with phones and multi-task on screens that have nothing to do with the class you think you’re teaching. In a way this is true of in-person classes too, but zoom explodes it exponentially.

The second principle is the attempted solution. Since the things that make an in-person class cohesive (eye contact, physical proximity, mobility, basic human interaction) don’t exist in zoom, find things that do exist and build from them.

So those goofy backgrounds. I’m going to upload a bunch for my students to download and use during class as elements of participation.

Imagine looking at the grid of your classroom, and asking something like: “Does everyone understand the homework assignment?” or “Are we ready to move on to the next section?”

Instead of one or two scattered nods in a chessboard of unreadable faces, the grid instead clicks into color-coded answers:

If the grid is a unified field of green, you’re good to go. If there is some red objection or yellow confusion, you know who to call on. But regardless of the specific responses, EVERYONE IS RESPONDING. That means they are actually “in” the zoom reality with you because they are actively interacting. It’s the zoom equivalent of eye contact.

What about when one student is speaking and everyone else is either listening or pretending to listen? Same solution. Active listening is always participatory, but instead of reading the nuances of body language and facial expressions (because they are largely unavailable in zoom), read the changing backgrounds as students respond to what is being said:

It would be a sad universe if that were all we could ever communicate, but it’s a start. Zoom is only as sad as you allow it be.

Here are a couple more possibilities:

And of course:

Should there be more? Almost certainly, but I don’t know what they are yet. We should probably create backgrounds tailored for each lesson, with very specific content applicable only to that day’s material. Think of it as prepping your chalkboard and overhead projector.

I made this background for a conference panel about art and the effects of distortion on subject matter:

 

And this one for a department meeting:

In my creative writing workshop, students will submit images with their story drafts, so when we switch stories, we switch images too. If you stop thinking of backgrounds as “backgrounds” but as ways of foregrounding content, your class’s shared zoom reality will get more interesting.

It’s also super easy:

1) Click on the little arrow tip next to the video icon in the left hand corner of the screen:

2) A cascading menu will appear (I tried and failed to image-capture it). Click “Select Virtual Background,” which will open a new window.

3) Have students download images before class (using the little plus button on the right), and then just click the image and the background changes.

That’s a total of three clicks, just one more than the two clicks it takes to project zoom’s thumbs-up and hand-clap reactions.

One weirdness warning: if you have “Mirror my video” selected at the bottom of the screen (which is the default setting because our brains understand mirrors but not our own not-reversed appearances), any writing will look backward to you:

But it will look normal to everyone else (or what is “normal” in zoom reality).

If you make your own backgrounds, it might take some experimentation to get the shapes right, including the live area for what doesn’t get cut off when projected. Since no one (including me) wants my disembodied head floating behind them, here are the backgrounds I’ve made so far. Feel free to copy and alter them however you like. I plan to upload them all to Canvas (another program I have to learn!) before the first day of class.

Does everyone understand the assignment?

Mitchum: Blutch, Madden, Matt: 9781681374444: Amazon.com: Books

“Don’t be afraid,” an artist tells his model. “We just want to look.”

That fragment of dialogue comes late in Mitchum, but if the graphic collection has a theme, that’s it. Though the various characters are narratively unrelated, Blutch’s pages keep repeating scenes of artists looking at models as they sketch them. The artists of course are male and clothed, and the models female and unclothed. And because it’s a page in a book, “we” also includes us, the viewers—whatever our various states of dress and genitalia.

I Want You

The artist-looking-at-model ur-scene serves as a splash page for chapter one, introducing the book’s most defining motif. The depicted artists include the author, Blutch (penname of French comics artist Christian Hincker), who makes a dream-like cameo in the collection’s longest and most surreal sequence (Jimmy Stewart later emerges from inside a police detective’s trench coat to molest a sleeping woman before kicked aside by the detective’s female partner). While apparently relishing the voyeuristic view, Blutch seems self-critical too, since some of these women have good reason to be afraid (the native woman bathing in a stream unaware of the Puritan husband ogling her from the trees is an example from the first chapter’s first scene).

Mitchum – New York Review Books

And yet the images themselves—black ink portraits rendered in lines that waver from precisely thin to boldly splotchy—are vibrant testimonies of Blutch’s artistic energy. Mitchum is thrilling to flip through. Though the images are technically cartoons, the style of abstraction is idiosyncratic, sometimes warping into full abstraction—as when a dance hall scene devolves into thick wavering lines. If the style of the figures seems vaguely familiar, it’s probably because Craig Thompson imitated it so effectively in his 2003 Blankets.

Though I consider myself reasonably well-versed in comics history, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m a newcomer to Blutch’s work and so am especially grateful to New York Review of Books for this first-time-in-English edition of the author’s collected five-part series from the 1990s. I tend to think of the 90’s as an unfortunate decade in comics, but that’s due to the superheroic norms of Marvel and DC and independent spin-off Image. But Blutch (along of course with Gaiman, McKean, the Hernandez brothers, Seth, Sacco, Clowes, and others) was producing exceptional work outside the U.S. mainstream.

Whatever his reputation when first publishing in the 90s, Blutch has also achieved literary acclaim, as evidenced by the recent inclusion of the eight-page sequence “I Want You” in the Paris Review. Though no excerpt is narratively representative, this one comes close enough. Like the entire first chapter, the segment is wordless. A male protagonist grows infatuated by a female stranger on the street and eventually works up the nerve to approach her. The two seem to hit it off and are soon at his apartment where he shows her his drawings (yes, of course he’s an artist), and next they’re at her more expensive apartment, where she is wearing increasingly fewer clothes as he draws and draws and draws. Then the wordless punchline: her husband arrives home, receives a kiss from his wife, and admires the artwork, giving the artist a literal thumbs up. The artist then returns to his home and receives a kiss from his girlfriend lounging topless on the couch. The joke is on the viewer, who Blutch duped into misperceiving the situation. What looked like a sexual attraction was just an artistic transaction: the artist wanted to draw the woman, and the woman wanted to be drawn.

I Want You

Mitchum was originally a loosely defined series with no repeating characters (while most are human, the fifth chapter features anthropomorphic bears), ranging from thirty to seventy black and white pages. Even the title provides little or no hook. I assume it’s referring to the actor Robert Mitchum (who makes an extended appearance in that dream-like third chapter) and not the deodorant of the same name. Mitchum can also mean ejaculate, presumably a further reference to the actor and his famed manliness.

Other sections include dialogue and brief narration, translated by Matt Madden (whose 99 Ways to Tell a Story I also recommend), and impressively lettered by Dean Sudarsky in a style that merges with Blutch’s art, an effect further emphasized by Blutch’s open style of talk balloons. His panels tend toward open too, creating a frameless visual flow that seems to move with the inky splashes of his penwork Or at least they do in some of the sections. The extended dream-like sequence is entirely framed in squares and rectangles, an extremely common approach that feels sudden and unexpected when first introduced half way through the collection.

Mitchum - (Blutch) - Drame [CANAL-BD]

The prize story of the collection is chapter four’s “Ballet,” which features a female dancer performing overtop layouts of seemingly unrelated images rendered in contrastingly thin lines that further separate the dancer’s thick outlines. The eleven-page background story appears to involve female cowboys and fistfights, but it’s literally secondary to the figure obscuring half of the content. That extreme disconnect is a peculiar delight, pushing hard against the norms of narrative. The even bigger payoff comes in the unnumbered sixth chapter titled “unfinished and unpublished,” which opens with a draft of the background story before Blutch apparently decided to repurpose it as literal surface material for his dance.

The eclectic nature of Mitchum makes it hard to summarize (I didn’t mention the colonial artist painting a portrait of a slave-owner’s wife or the devil crow who barters for a man’s daughter so he can take her down to hell and—you guessed it—draw her), but Blutch accepts the term “emotional diary,” explaining in an interview with Paul Gravett: “Mitchum was my laboratory… Every kind of experiment was permitted. Their success or failure were secondary. The only rule to respect was the excitement of making them.”

Blutch translates that excitement to his viewers too. Ultimately, we’re not looking at his models. We’re looking at him.

Blutch - Europe Comics

[A version of this post and MY OTHER RECENT REVIEWS appear in the BOOKS section of POPMATTERS.]

 

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I created the Facebook page Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society in July 2018. It was an online offshoot of a small in-person group of people from different ideological and partisan backgrounds. I had spent the previous year writing daily emails to my congressional representative, Republican Bob Goodlatte, and publishing them at my blog Dear Bob. It was a very one-sided conversation and so a kind of political performance art. I was craving actual conversation. But trying to accomplish online what RCDS was accomplishing in-person was at best difficult. It’s an understatement to say the internet doesn’t foster thoughtful, open-minded discussion. Oddly, beers help. And bar snacks. And the effort of planning and physically going somewhere to meet other people fact to face, rather than dashing off a snarky comment in a Facebook thread while multi-tasking at your desk.

Results have been endlessly mixed. A couple of Democrats I encouraged to join in the early days of the page dropped out because they said it made them uncomfortable watching me try to interact with people who were not onboard with the whole civility thing. It was like witnessing an abusive relationship, they said. It’s gotten better. The page has grown to include over two hundred people. About a third actively participate, probably another third are active readers, and I’m guessing the other third have wandered off to other Internet fields.

I have no idea how the ideological census breaks down, but there’s plenty of strong opinions coming from both sides of the divide. I keep spending a lot of time trying to redirect “conversation” in more productive directions, pointing out that maybe certain posts and comments aren’t the most effective way to invite engagement. There’s a slow but constant flow of new members, some who arrive ready to participate productively, and some who seem weirdly hostile to the purpose of the page. I admonish both progressives and conservatives, and both progressives and conservatives have accused me of being unfairly one-sided.

I’ve also found that if I engage long enough and sincerely enough with an entrenched conservative, they’ll usually come around to seeing me as a reasonable and well-intentioned guy who they can talk to without making generalized attacks. They still think I’m wrong about most political issues, but merely wrong, not inherently bad. Unlike my Dear Bob blog, the RCDS page has been extremely two-sided, but there’s still been a kind of political performance quality to it. Rather than achieving and maintaining a goal of civil discourse, there might be something useful about watching some guy working again and again to achieve it. That process may be more important than the product. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself again and again. On good days I sincerely believed it.

With my sabbatical over and a challenging semester starting with the pandemic and my vice-chairing my department, I’m taking a breather from RCDS. Whatever the results and its ever-quixotic goals, I have learned a few things in the process. Here’s my work-in-progress advice list for engaging with folks who don’t vote like you:

  1. Be respectful. Not just of each other, but of each other’s points of view. Don’t be disrespectful of the elected officials each supports.
  2. A debate is just a polite fistfight. Conversation requires recognizing that your current opinion might not be entirely right and is almost certainly incomplete.
  3. If you want to express an opinion, express it in a way that invites discussion with someone who doesn’t already agree with it.
  4. If you criticize a public figure, keep your focus targeted (so not a general desire to criticize them) and principled (would you criticize someone you support for the same behavior?).
  5. Ask yourself: is your aim to complain or persuade?
  6. Facts help. No fact-check is perfect, but they promote the right principle. If you make a claim, support it with a well-vetted source of verifiable information.
  7. Most sources have some bias, but some have lots. It helps to draw from a centrist range.
  8. Op-eds are generally a bad idea. Too many present an intentionally lopsided selection of misleading facts designed to create an emotional impression that confirms a target audience’s political preferences. It’s better to chew your own food.
  9. Memes are generally a terrible idea. Too many present an absurdly lopsided creation of false information designed to manipulate a target audience’s feelings of righteous outrage. Don’t be a puppet.
  10. Beware your own brain. It came hard-wired for verification bias (ignoring things that don’t support your opinion) and cherry-picking (noticing only things that do support your opinion).
  11. Beware your own environment: consuming a steady diet of lopsided political news and entertainment encourages blindness to your own blindnesses.
  12. Beware your own emotions. Your political beliefs weren’t born from objective contemplation. They also satisfy some emotionally-driven instincts. You might want to figure out what those are.
  13. When you talk to people who share your political opinions, weaknesses in logic go unnoticed, assumptions look like self-evident facts, and people who don’t agree are easily stereotyped, dehumanized, and demonized.
  14. Talking only to people who share your political opinions promotes self-righteous contempt towards those who don’t. Every horrible thing you believe about them they believe about you. Every passionate insult you express about them they express about you. Your moral superiority is a self-evident fact. Their moral superiority is a self-evident fact.
  15. Take a leap of faith: no matter how passionately you disagree with someone, assume they are a good person trying to do good.
  16. If you think their behavior is bad, not engaging with them makes their behavior worse. Allowing them to believe that people like you are bad strengthens their misperception.
  17. Start a conversation by finding something you agree about.
  18. Start a conversation by showing you understand and respect an opposing viewpoint even though you don’t agree with it.
  19. Start a conversation by acknowledging weaknesses in your view even though you feel the strengths outweigh them.
  20. Start a conversation by citing people and sources the other person admires.
  21. Start a conversation by asking a sincere question. What do you wish you understood better about those you disagree with? Often the answer reveals a false assumption in the question, but you can’t discover that until you ask it.
  22. Some approaches that don’t work: insults, attacks, sarcasm, exaggerations, generalizations.
  23. Don’t confuse politeness and civility. You can be perfectly polite and entirely uncivil. Politeness is a surface behavior. Civility is a deep commitment.
  24. Self-righteousness is an addictively and destructively euphoric drug. Civility is its hard-to-maintain and constructively boring treatment. Expect relapses. Commit to recovery.
  25. The goal is lofty: bridge the political divide by building trust between people with different ideological reflexes and partisan backgrounds. We’re not at war. We’re neighbors and family.
  26. Progressives and conservatives working together doesn’t make them moderates. It makes them conservatives willing to work with progressives and progressive willing to work with conservatives.
  27. Finding common ground doesn’t mean sacrificing core beliefs. Differentiate between what you need and what you want. Give others what they need, even if it violates what you want. Expect to get what you need, even if it violates what they want.
  28. Compromise is the defining principle of democracy.

I always find it disconcerting when the uniquely U.S. genre of the Western ends up in the hands of a non-U.S. author. It’s like blinking into a fun house mirror and trying to understand what you look like through the distortions.

Amazon.com: Cowboy eBook: Villadsen, Rikke, Villadsen, Rikke ...

Since the western is already a massive distortion, the warpage can be a kind of corrective, especially in the artful hands of Danish artist Rikke Villadsen. Cowboy is her second English-language graphic novel, a kind of thematic sequel to 2019’s The Sea, also published by Fantagraphics. I’m already looking forward to whatever new Villadsen book they put out next year.

Though so many U.S. pop culture hero types cry for feminist revision, the pseudo-historical and hyper-masculine gun-slinger is at the top of my list. Since the western is probably best known through films, comics are an apt medium for re-exploring the genre since they are equally visual but are also fantastically unbound by physical reality. Lisa Hanawalt’s 2018 Coyote Doggirl offered a useful gender-flip (with a dog-headed cast) while maintaining a love for landscape and horses, while Frederik Peeters and Loo Hui Phang’s 2017 The Smell of Starving Boys scrambled sexuality with a muddled mystic take on Native culture. Villadsen’s approach is something entirely different.

Fantagraphics Books on Twitter: "Cowboy by Rikke Villadsen is out ...

First off, don’t expect a plot—even though the novel does open with a “Starring” page of six seemingly archetypal characters including “The Sheriff,” “The Whore,” and “The Coward.” Yet how archetypal is “The Smoker”? And I’m embarrassed to admit that I paused over “The Window,” wondering if such a glaring translation typo could have snuck through book production. Villadsen both means and doesn’t mean “The Widow.”

Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity ...

That sort of intentional disconnect describes Villadsen’s overall aesthetic. Readers can never be entirely certain if they’re in the right story or not. Or I should say viewers, since Cowboy is predominately a visual experience of Villadsen’s entertainingly idiosyncratic style. Her lines are entirely black and blue with a looseness and sometimes sketchy incompleteness that gives her story world both an expressively raw energy and a weird indeterminacy—as if any moment could be crumpled up and redrawn differently. Her pages vary around a pleasantly sloppy 2×2 grid. Sometimes figures and objects partially overlap the thin lines dividing panels, but not as if breaking frames for action effects. It looks instead like Villadsen’s lines just like to wander sometimes.

Her narrative structure overlaps similarly. The six character-perspective chapters partially backtrack, trodding on each other’s time frames, but without clarifying an overall structure. Did The Smoker shoot The Coward before or after The Window looked through her window? Did The Whore orgasm and float through her window before or after The Window dressed herself in The Coward’s clothes? And after The Wanted man argues with his talking image in his Wanted poster, does he wake up on the previous morning before the novel began? If so, does his physical transformation into The Window mean the whole novel is an endless loop?

Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity ...

Of course none of these questions are answerable, and they shouldn’t be. It’s not the enigmatic events that matter but their conversations with Western tropes. Sometimes those conversations are literal. Villadsen’s idiosyncratic lines extend into her scraggly talk bubbles and looping letterforms. The Smoker spends pages trying to complete a single, faltering sentence: “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those with a rope around their neck and the people who … And the people who have the job of doing … of doing the … the … the …”

A short paragraph on the final page explains that this and other dialogue is excerpted from classic Western films including Sergio Leone’s 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West.  I’m always happy to see an excerpt credited, but the note is odd since any reader who hasn’t noticed that Villadesen “deconstructs” the genre by “subverting its masculine framework” will surely never make it to this concluding page. It’s also redundant since the John Wayne cameo makes the “homage” explicit, and is there a way to read the novel other than gender subversion?

After the Coward dies his cowardly death, The Window strips his corpse while striking erotic poses that if drawn by a male artist would probably make me lose trust in the project. The sex scene between The Smoker and The Whore is similarly disturbing. There’s nothing erotic about the interior view of the woman’s vagina as the erect penis crushes a fly trapped on its tip. Did the fly’s death cause The Whore to orgasm through the window? Will she remain there forever lassoed above the saloon by The Smoker’s rope? If so, it’s a better fate than the rest of the cast.

I’m not sure what counts as a spoiler for a loopingly surreal mash-up of metafictional events, so I’ll just say the death count increases. What matters more is the implied gender critique behind all the genre chaos. It seems no woman, even a woman who perfectly impersonates a man, can ever occupy a man’s Western-defined role. It also seems an attempt is doubly self-destructive, because regardless of her eventual physical fate, the transformation requires a woman to perform and internalize woman-destroying misogyny.

It’s less clear what Villadsen has to say about women who do conform to gender roles. Is The Whore equally tragic, or is her inexplicable defiance of gravity also a social defiance? I would prefer that interpretation, but her bobbing bare breasts suggest otherwise.

Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity ...

The fate of Villadsen’s men are similarly ambiguous. Likening the “useless hole” of The Coward’s bullet wound to a vagina reinforces Western gender, and so is that the point? Is Villadsen critiquing by making the norms explicit through exaggeration? And The Smoker’s death by bizarre smoking accident and The Wanted’s own gender transformation, what beyond surreal entertainment do they suggest?

In the end, Cowboy is more than a political diatribe. It’s an aggressively peculiar take on an already aggressively peculiar genre. Little wonder the fun house mirror never comes fully into focus.

Rikke Villadsen (Person) - Comic Vine

[A version of this post and MY OTHER RECENT REVIEWS appear in the BOOKS section of POPMATTERS.]

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I’m pleased to announce that Routledge has officially published my second collaboration with Nathaniel Goldberg. After wetting our toes in Superhero Thought Experiments, this is our deep dive into the literary and pop-cultural concepts of reboots, retcons, and sequels, providing a philosophical framework and applications well beyond the world of comics that inspired them. Our working title had been “Bilbo, Brontosaurus, and the Bible,” which might give you a sense of both our scope and the oddness or our specifics. Though I’m the literary critic of our dynamic duo, Nathaniel is the Tolkien expert.

Here’s (much of) the Introduction:

Amazon.com: Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical ...

Novelists change old characters by restarting their stories and reinterpret old stories by revealing new things about them. Journalists correct mistakes in earlier articles, while science writers update textbooks after the latest discoveries. Religious communities follow scriptures that sometimes reinterpret and other times continue previous views of the divine.

These are revisions of written texts concerning fiction, fact, and faith, respectively. Such revisions are ubiquitous. Philosophers however have tended to focus on revisions not of written texts directly but rather of the meanings and theories that those texts express. Even then they have usually focused on factual texts. We provide a philosophical account of revision of written texts both directly and generally.Filling that conceptual gap produces unexpected insights into the philosophy of language, the metaphysics of fact and fiction, and the history and philosophy of science and religion.

The phenomena of revision that we analyze is perhaps most recognizable in literary and popular culture. Though not new, its prevalence is relatively recent. Film culture is especially rife, and we might draw from any of a wide range of franchises. All series have installments that follow one another, and many of the sequential Halloweens, Missions Impossible, and Rockies continue (albeit often loosely) adventures in the same fictional worlds without either restarting or revealing new things about earlier installments. Star Wars also provides multiple examples of installments occurring later (Episodes VII–IX) and earlier (Episodes I–III) than the initial series of stories (Episodes IV–VI). Yet later installments of that initial series also reveal new things about its own earlier installments (the status of Luke’s father, Darth Vader, in Episode V, and his sister, Leia, in Episode VI). Marvel movie franchises include later stories that restart earlier ones about Spider-Man. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) restarts The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), which may itself be considered a restart of the comic book series Amazing Spider-Man begun in 1962. Moreover sometimes some prefer an earlier installment to a later one. Star Wars fans are especially (in)famous for this.

Comics publishers Marvel and DC themselves present an overwhelming number of examples of revision. Frequently later stories pick up earlier plots without changing them. They do not do so always. As we explained elsewhere (Gavaler and Goldberg 2019, 110–11), the first comics example of a later story revealing something new about an earlier one occurs when Action Comics #13 (June 1939) reveals that newly introduced Ultra-Humanite was behind crimes detailed in Action Comics #2 (July 1938). The first example of a later story restarting an earlier one occurs when Showcase #4 (October 1959) restarts the story of Flash, detailed in Flash Comics #1 (1946) and continued through All Star Comics (1951). The prevalence of revelations and restarts, rather than mere continuations, in comics is likely due to their multi-author nature. Characters are intellectual property owned by corporations, which in turn employ a constantly changing roster of writers collectively revising serially published fiction.

Yet literary fiction by single authors exhibits the same revisionary phenomena too. The majority of Louis Erdrich’s novels either continue or reveal new things about her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), and fifteen of William Faulkner’s novels are set in his fictional Mississippi Yoknapatawpha County introduced in Sartoris (1929) and so continue its story. Because Harper Lee’s first written manuscript Go Set A Watchman (2015) has similar but distinct individuals, objects, and events from her more famous and first published manuscript To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Go Set a Watchman restarts To Kill a Mockingbird’s story, though had the publication order been reversed then the reverse would be so. In Lee’s case, a majority of readers likely accept the earlier published work, rejecting the later one as non-canonical. The variant manuscripts of Hamlet are themselves alternating restarts and rejections of restarts of the same story, and the relationships among the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles involve an especially complex combination of all the kinds of revision that we analyze. Add the vast online platforms for fan fiction about all such movies, comics, novels, and more and the application grows exponentially.

The field of textual scholarship—including bibliology (studying the history of books as physical objects), paleography (dating historical manuscripts through handwriting analysis), and textual criticism (studying variants of manuscripts, such as Hamlet)—opens the range of possible application even further. Our goal however is not to overview its application, including within just literary studies. Though our philosophical account of revision is inspired by and applies to numerous narrative texts, it is not limited to them and its application beyond them is at least as significant. While our study should be of interest to literary critics and theorists, popular-culture scholars, and narratologists generally, it is not a work of literary theory of criticism. It instead generalizes insights from fiction to reveal unexpected insights into the philosophy of language, the metaphysics of fact and fiction, and the history and philosophy of science and religion. Moreover we limit our analysis of fiction to a single set of texts by a single author. Because his fictional texts encompass various kinds of revisions, we begin with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by John Ronald Reuel (“J.R.R.”) Tolkien.

Chapter 1, “There and Back Again,” distinguishes the purely physical aspects of texts, the linguistic aspects of texts, and the worlds to which the latter refer. It then turns to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to establish that sometimes new texts are read as replacing old ones, as revealing something new and seemingly contradictory about old ones, and as continuing old ones. Further, sometimes others reject such revisionary readings. The chapter isolates, identifies, and analyzes each of these revisionary kinds as well as their rejection, using Tolkien’s texts as exemplars.

Chapter 2, “Semantic Dualism,” demonstrates that two different theories of the reference and meaning of proper names, descriptivism (the common core of Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege’s, Bertrand Russell’s, and their followers’ views) and referentialism (the common core of John Stuart Mill’s, Saul Kripke’s, Hilary Putnam’s, and their followers’ views), explain each of the revisionary kinds and rejection just considered. Neither however explains them all. The chapter then argues that the two theories previously construed as competitors are instead complementary components of a single semantic account. We call that account ‘semantic dualism’.

Chapter 3, “Metaphysical Foundations of Fiction and Fact,” likewise relies on two analyses of fiction previously construed as competitors, David Lewis’s and Kripke’s, to propose our own metaphysical foundations of fiction and fact out of their complementary components. It then compares those foundations to others.

Chapter 4, “Reporting, Applying, Bracketing,” expands our metaphysical foundations by canvasing case studies concerning fictional and factual planetary objects, thereby making forays into the history and philosophy of astronomy. It does so to distinguish reporting of fact, applying of fiction, and bracketing of texts as fact or fiction.

Chapter 5, “Considering Kuhn,” demonstrates that our philosophical account of the revision of fictional texts of fantasy literature applies equally to the factual texts of scientific disciplines. It does so by bringing that account into dialogue with Thomas Kuhn’s famous analysis of factual, and specifically scientific, change. Considering how the history of astronomy and dynamics converge, the chapter then diagnoses where Kuhn and his critics disagree and uncovers distinctions that they missed. The chapter closes by further distinguishing fiction from fact by analyzing restrictions on kinds of revisions.

Chapter 6, “Being Brontosaurus,” analyzes a complex episode in the history of paleontology. Besides showing a further application of our philosophical account of revision, the chapter also demonstrates how scientific and popular texts can diverge. And it provides a general analysis of illustrations.

Chapter 7, “Analyzing Abraham,” expands our account to religious texts. The chapter argues that, rather than being distinct, such texts are always also read as other kinds, that faith tends to be more important as evidence for religious texts than for others, and that the latter explains why religious communities tend to have remarkable historical longevity. The chapter then applies our total analysis to compelling episodes in the history of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Finally, the conclusion catalogs overall lessons that Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith reveals. These concern revisionary kinds and their rejection; reference and meaning; metaphysical foundations of fiction and fact; planetary objects, dinosaurs, and religions; and fiction, fact, and faith, and their revision. The chapter closes with the metaphilosophical lesson that one way of studying fiction, fact, and faith is studying the history of how their corresponding texts have been revised, offering a philosophical account of revision.

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It’s a matter of perspective.

A painting is cubist because it presents more than one perspective. A drawing is a cartoon depending on the perspective of the person looking at it and whether they think there’s a divide between comics and fine arts. That’s one of the reasons I like John Pham’s graphic novel J&K. Its world is a colorful jumble of discordant perspectives, some literal, some metaphorical.

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As Jay and Kay are walking home in the opening pages, a rush-hour crowd weaves around them. Some of the figures are standard cartoons with giant round facial features on giant round heads. But some faces are more inexplicable, doubling mirror-like along a horizontal axis instead of a vertical one. Jay and Kay would fit into most newspaper funny pages, but their best frenemy Eggy’s face is composed of a dozen bulbous half-circles. Though peculiar, the fact goes without notice within the story world because the style isn’t all that different from the other characters. One of the guys cat-calling Jay and Kay has two mouths, and the other’s face follows the cubist logic of a Picasso portrait: three angled squares with a wedge of a mouth on the back of the head and a misplaced nose near the chin.

Pham’s landscapes are peculiar too. Sloping roofless buildings line the minimalist streets. The mall looks like a modernist architect’s incomplete blueprint. Many panel backgrounds are just a spray of vibrant color with little illusion of depth. Pham changes styles for the video games, creating avatars of free-floating balls and pyramids that draw attention to the peculiarities of the story world through contrast. The environment reminds me of the subtle chaos of George Herriman’s early twentieth-century Krazy Kat cartoons—which, depending on your perspective, should be hanging in the same galleries as Picasso and other artists of the same period.

John Pham's J + K |

Pham also explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle. That scary witch shuffling down the empty street toward you? Don’t worry. She just wants to give you a hug and a sweater. And those ghouls grabbing your ankles as they crawl from their graves? They just want to scold you for not being a better parent. Also, they’d be happy to babysit Wednesdays and Thursdays. Even the vampires at the mall you hurry past, they’re just depressed and lonely. Why don’t you hang out and talk awhile?

 

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The novel is structured as a set of discrete but linked episodes punctuated by full-page ads: laundry detergent, horror movie, video game player, cassette store, taco mix, the mall. Since each reflects events from the story world, the effect is both consumer critique and metafiction. The ads also add to Pham’s pastiche aesthetic, with every story element seemingly borrowed from some other real or fictional source. Better still, the novel contains several mini-comics, including a copy of Cool magazine Jay likes so much, directions for playing Eggy’s video game Dance Warrior, and a vinyl single of Gaseous Nebula’s “Deep Space.” Like Kay, I don’t have the technology to play the song, but I agree with her when she explains to Kay: “I dunno. I just like having it.”

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Pham’s pastiche also includes transitional words in the corner of panels (“And,” “So,” “Finally”) that could be lifted from any of Chris Ware’s graphic novels, and he swiped Eggy’s sweater from Schultz’s Charlie Brown. Eggy looks suddenly very Garfield-like when he transforms into a cat for the last fifth of the novel. That’s not a spoiler. There’s no narrative explanation for the change. Jay and Kay are also suddenly cats. Why? Pham’s apparent answer: well, why not?

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It turns out the lives of cartoon animals and cartoon people are pretty similar. There was a pleasantly bewildering moment where I imagined the characters had been animals all along and I simply hadn’t noticed before, but a quick flip of pages shows how easily Pham turns a cartoonishly round head of hair into cartoonishly round dog ears. The characters’ inner lives change about as much. Jay and Kay remain oddly consumed with liquids. Previously Jay was upset about her back sweat, and Kay about the drizzle of snot down Jay’s face when she was crying about her parents. Now as cats they wander the neighborhood drinking from dog bowls and bathtubs. Instead of shoplifting from the mall or stealing tacos from Eggy’s party, Jay and Kay go to the park and accidentally pee on beds. They still don’t like Eggy though.

There are plenty more oddities (the baby-like creature that erupts from Jay’s back acne is a biggie), but the overall tone is a wandering sadness as disconnected characters fail to find meaning in a cartoon world devoid of either literal or metaphorical depth. Even the unexpected death of a main character only confirms the novel’s background hum of loss. Of course Eggy drives away the girl he asks out because he’s wearing a cross and doesn’t realize she’s a vampire. Of course the one-armed army ghoul rebuffs Jay’s attempts to bond with him because her father was a vet too. We never find out what exactly happened to their parents, presumably because it doesn’t matter. They’re still absent.

Seeing the world from multiple perspectives doesn’t make it a happier place. Cartoons, Pham reveals, are flat for a reason.

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[A version of this post and MY OTHER RECENT REVIEWS appear in the BOOKS section of POPMATTERS.]

 

 

 

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[Guest co-blogger Nathaniel Goldberg and I examine a recent Supreme Court decision in terms of sequels and retcons, two pop culture concepts we explore in our new book Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: A Philosophical Account.]

Responding to the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, the National Review wrote in an editorial: “The Supreme Court Redefines Sex.” Others have also used “redefine” to explain the Court’s action. They’re understanding Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion as an update from previous findings. “Sex” used to mean one thing. With Bostock, it came to mean something else. In fiction, at least if we’re talking about serial works, we’d call Bostock a sequel. It continued the discussion of sex by giving it a new meaning, as a sequel continues the discussion of a hero by giving them a new adventure.

Sequel, however, doesn’t really describe things here.

That’s because, according to Gorsuch’s majority opinion, the Court didn’t redefine anything. Instead, the Court’s ruling was based on “the straightforward application of legal terms with plain and settled meanings.” The ruling merely acknowledged that sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable from sex. Gorsuch’s opinion was reinforced by Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent, criticizing the majority for taking a “literalist” approach to Title VII language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

(In fact, Gorsuch’s opinion matches the “Brief of Philosophy Professors as Amici Curiae in Support of the Employees,” signed by 80 philosophers and arguing that sexual orientation and gender identity are categories “partially defined by sex and cannot logically be applied to any individual without reference to that individual’s sex.”)

Yet, in a separate dissent, Justice Alito also correctly observed that gender identity was a concept “essentially unknown at the time” that the 1964 law was written. Is not knowing something the same as that something not existing?

A philosophical distinction helps. The Justices might not be disagreeing about metaphysics, or facts about the way things are. Maybe they all agree that sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable from sex. After all, being a lesbian means being female by sex and attracted to others of the same sex. Being transgender means being someone whose gender differs from their sex. The Justices also probably aren’t disagreeing about epistemology, or facts about what the authors of the 1964 law knew. The other justices likely all agree with Alito.

Rather, the justices are almost certainly disagreeing about whether epistemological facts (who knew what when) are more important than metaphysical facts (sex is inseparable from sexual orientation and gender identity). It’s a question of priority. Which is more important: what was known or what is the case—epistemology or metaphysics?

While at least Alito opted for epistemology, the majority opted for metaphysics. As Gorsuch argued: “the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.” The authors of the law referred to sex, which as a matter of metaphysical fact is inseparable from sexual orientation and gender identity. So the law refers to those too, even though the authors may not have known—let alone imagined—that it did.

In his 1980 book Naming and Necessity, philosopher Saul Kripke introduced the term “rigid designator.” A rigid designator designates, or refers to, the same thing in all possible circumstances the thing exists in. And that’s independent of our knowledge of the thing. “Water” referred to H2O in 1720, before people knew modern molecular theory, just as it refers to H2O in 2020, when people do.

Kripke is a philosopher of language, and he aimed to show that certain kinds of words—names for people or kinds of things—are rigid designators. On his view, they refer to metaphysical facts, independent of epistemological ones. That, we suggest, is the majority’s reasoning concerning “sex.” The Supreme Court didn’t redefine “sex.” It merely determined that sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable from what “sex” refers to. That follows from the “the straightforward application of legal terms with plain and settled meanings,” including the legal term “sex.”

If Kripke’s notion of rigid designation is right, and “sex,” like “water,” is a rigid designator, then the metaphysics of sex, like the metaphysics of water, stays fixed, independent of our knowledge of it. Add to this Kripke’s view that definitions are about metaphysics and not epistemology, and you have Gorsuch’s point. Bostock didn’t redefine “sex.” It merely determined that sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable from what “sex” (already) means.

That’s Gorsuch’s conclusion, phrased in a philosophical key. The same conclusion can also be phrased in a literary-theoretical one. We’ve written elsewhere that rigid designators are essential to understanding the phenomenon of retconning.

“Retconning” is short for “making retroactively continuous.” Retconning happens all the time in serial fiction. Some metaphysical fact about some character is revealed later to be true, when in an earlier story no one would have accepted or likely even guessed at it. Retconning is also one way of understanding how legal decisions, including the Supreme Court’s, work. In 1896, the Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation was constitutional. In 1954, the Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that it wasn’t. Yet Brown wasn’t a decision only for 1954 onward. Brown retconned Plessy. According to Earl Warren’s majority opinion in Brown, racial segregation had never been constitutional. It’s just that, in 1896, the Court mistakenly thought that it was.

Retconning broadens our epistemology by revealing new things about already-existing metaphysics that, at the time, we would have been rejected. Modern science revealed that water had always been H2O, even though no one in 1720 would have agreed (let alone understood). Brown revealed that racial segregation had always been unconstitutional, even though Plessy insisted that it wasn’t. And—to the present case—Bostock revealed that sexual orientation and gender identity had always been inseparable from sex, even though before Bostock not everyone realized that it was. While it’s surprising that the Court determined this 56 years after the law under review was written, it’s no more surprising than that the Court determined that racial segregation was unconstitutional 58 years after it had wrongly claimed otherwise.

That’s also why it’s not quite right to call Bostock a sequel to previous law, just as it wouldn’t be right to call Brown a sequel to Plessy. Sequels sometimes retcon what came before. But often they merely make what came before continuous, rather than retroactively continuous, with later findings or events. Brown didn’t continue Plessy’s findings. It revealed new things about Plessy that even its authors didn’t realize. Brown made Plessy retroactively continuous with it by declaring that, while it was decided correctly, Plessy had been decided incorrectly.

Back to the National Review. The editors claim that “it would have been better to leave the meaning of the law as it was when written and leave to Congress the decision of when and how to change it.” This is a misunderstanding of the ruling. The majority in Bostock did leave the meaning of the law as it was when written. They just broadened our epistemology by revealing that its meaning covered cases of sexual orientation and gender identity. That’s why Congress didn’t need to change it by writing a “sequel” law with a new definition. Bostock determined that no sequel, or continuation, was necessary, because the decision retconned “sex.”

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There’s weird, and then there’s Weird. Eric Haven is both. He takes an idiosyncratically weird approach to the horror genre of the Weird to produce a hybrid graphic novella that belongs to no genre but his own.

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Haven models his Cryptoid title design on the classic 50s horror comic Tales of the Crypt, but with intricate red lines that suggest a circulatory system, making the letters appear semi-living. The suffix “oid” means “resembling,” but rather than being crypt-like, a cryptoid is apparently a kind of hybrid creature: part animal and part whatever the hell Haven’s car-crash of an imagination can conjure next.

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There’s a Mankylosaurus (half human, half ankylosaurus) grazing at a restaurant salad bar. There are nine types of bat hybrids (half ant, eyeball, octopus, penguin, bear, nose, hand, and batman). The Resister is a half-human, half-eagle superhero battling Donald Trump and his evil, oozing, gray-skinned, tentacled Dark Lord, Steve Bannon. I don’t know what exactly the superhero-oid Nightsword is, but Haven lifted the wheeled but human-headed android Box directly from the classic 70s scifi film Logan’s Run. The Gnome looks like the garden variety found in lawncare stores—except his origin story involves a husband drowning in a flash flood and then inexplicably shrinking.

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After living in the miniature wild for years, he returns long-bearded to his astonished wife, crashing through their bedroom window on the back of a “flightless running shrieking bat.” Despite his changed appearance (why is his cap pointed now, and how does a hoodie grow into a tattered cape?), she says his name instantly: “Roger?” He stares back, as Haven draws a succession of panels zooming into his eyes and the ocean rolling inside them—which transitions into the actual ocean and a monstrous being emerging from the Mariana Trench.

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That’s the kind of peculiar transition Haven supplies between most of his interlocked vignettes. Technically, Cryptoid might be a collection of short comics (you can find part of “The Resister” at Haven’s website), but I would still call it a graphic novel because of its repeating characters, motifs, and structure. The internal logic of each scene may feel random, but the larger design is carefully constructed with nesting narratives.

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After a title-page sequence, the novel opens with an alien face staring back at the viewer and then down at the Salad Bar where Mankylosaurus appears before going to bed. After the bats and gnome escapades and that unexplained creature rising from the deep, Haven draws two back-to-back superhero sequences, The Resister and then Nightsword, followed by Box’s adventure supermarket shopping. Then the creature from the deep continues his ascent in the second half of the now-titled “He Comes Slouching” (an unlikely allusion to Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming”), before Mankylosaurus wakes from a nightmare, and that alien watcher continues his silent observations.

If that doesn’t sound like the plot of a typical graphic novel, it’s not. Haven isn’t interested in narrative. Cryptoid follows the logic and aesthetic of pastiche. Many of the images echo classic comics. Though Haven references EC horror titles from before the company was hobbled by the censorship code in 1954, Marvel artist Jack Kirby may be the bigger influence.  That silent alien giant staring down at the globe of the Earth is a riff on Kirby’s Watcher from his early 60s Fantastic Four. And Kirby drew dozens of monster titles in the late 50s for Marvel’s pre-Marvel incarnation Atlas Comics. Even if the visual allusions are not all apparent, one of the pleasures of Cryptoid is intuiting the overlay of references filtered through Haven’s own idiosyncratic style.

Art - Eric Haven

Despite the superhero references, Haven’s action poses are aggressively un-heroic, suggesting the anatomical awkwardness of posed toy action figures rather than the grace and power of superhuman forms. Nightsword opens with a sequence of full-page images zooming in slowly to the character standing on a roof edge as if positioned there by a child’s hand. When the pages split into double panels, his figure raises an arm while the rest of his body remains unchanged—again as if the same child is hovering just out of frame, adjusting his joints between images. The effect is absurd in both appearance and pacing.

Next Haven draws unexplained swirls in the twirling sword’s wake, each an apparent gap in the fabric of reality. But what they are doesn’t matter. Haven just wants his viewers to look at them as they widen and cascade and consume whole panels. Eventually Nightsword’s squiggly body reforms from the tentacle-like swirls. What does this mean narratively? I have no idea. But the lack of narrative significance is part of the point.

Despite the horror and superhero surface material, Cryptoid may be best understood as a kind of abstract comic. Often the incremental panel-by-panel transformation of shapes and colors is the primary content, not the nominal action of a soon-to-be-forgotten character. We are like the watcher staring silently down at the peculiarities of Haven’s world, content to observe without intervening or even judging, indifferent to the plight of individuals but entertained by the odd and endless cycle of change.

 

Poetic Self-Destruction: An Interview with Eric Haven |

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

 

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First, I doubt there’s much I will add to this topic that’s not been said elsewhere, and so unless you know and are interested in me personally, there’s not much reason to read this. Also, if you are a member of the Facebook page Rockbridge Civil Discourse, which I co-founded and co-moderate, you may have already heard me express some version of this first part:

I do not advocate “erasing history.” Memorials (such as statues and named locations and institutions) are not a part of the history that they memorialize. They are a history of how history has been memorialized, and so they are like history textbooks, only harder to change. To the best of my knowledge, every statue of a Confederate leader (Lee, Jackson, Davis, etc.) is an explicit celebration, not a neutral presentation of historical facts. Even so, I don’t want them erased. I think statues should be preserved but not displayed except in a carefully curated space.

I also have no desire to “attack,” “denigrate,” or “vilify” Lee, Jackson, or anyone else who fought in the Confederacy. But not celebrating is not the same as attacking. Ceasing to celebrate is also not attacking. I understand that these individuals were complex human beings who possessed a mix of traits, including some positive ones. I do not want to reduce them to their negative traits. I do not want to judge them harshly or unfairly or anachronistically by my contemporary values. But I don’t want to glorify them either. I want to understand them as human beings, not as monsters or saints.

Lee and Jackson have been described to me as honorable, loyal, brave, humble, ingenious, heroic, peaceful, and dedicated to the well-being of enslaved people through education. The memorials express the opinion that such attributes matter more than their other attributes. But I believe that slavery is so exceptionally and self-evidently repulsive that leading an effort to keep four million people enslaved cannot be offset enough to merit memorialization.

After 79% of the W&L faculty voted to approve a motion asking our board of trustees to removed “Lee” from our school’s name, the Washington Post headline the next morning included the adverb “resoundingly.” A friend emailed me a congratulations, but I had to say that the moment did not feel celebratory because, while some faculty members of color supported the motion, some objected to its inadequately inclusive process and a wrong-minded focus. I can literally only imagine their experiences. A queer-identifying friend described her experience when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage: That was not what she had been fighting for, and celebrations that drew energy away from her continuing fight were just the latest in an ongoing series of obstacles.

I admit that I did not support the motion “for” anyone other than myself. I cannot claim that my vote was my way of supporting my school’s faculty and students of color if: 1) I did not first ask them if they desired that specific act of support, and 2) there were other things they desired more. If someone claimed to be doing something “for” me without first asking my opinion about it, and while also not doing other things that I care about significantly more, I can imagine speaking against their action, even if the action in itself were something that I might otherwise, albeit mildly, approve of.

I understand that changing names can be merely “cosmetic,” “performative,” or “symbolic,” and that such changes alone achieves little and potentially distracts from more important efforts. I have heard that argument from both white conservatives and black progressives now, and I agree with it. But since symbols do have symbolic significance, changing them is not meaningless.

A memorial to a Confederate leader is statement that white supremacy isn’t important. Confederate memorials means a society is willing not only to overlook racist actions but to celebrate those and other actions for reasons that are unrelated to race. It is a statement of priorities. Other things—regional loyalty, family pride, military prowess, etc.—are more important than four million human beings remaining in slavery.

I can literally only imagine what a black person experiences, but as a white person I experience Confederate memorials as directives to remain silently complicit in the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. They’re hardly the only directives, or the most important ones, but they are some of the most flagrant. I may also be silently complicit in more significant ways. If a majority of black people defended memorials, I would accept that judgement. Still, I prefer my grandchildren to be born in a country that does not place people who committed extraordinary acts of white supremacy on pedestals. That feels to me like a minimal expectation.

I was recently accused of “propping up white supremacy” and “prioritizing racists” because I co-signed a Rockbridge Civil Discourse statement asking Lexington City Council to follow a process that all parties, whether for or against renaming the cemetery, could feel was fair. The accusation came from a white male progressive of roughly my age. I pointed out that many people in our community do not recognize white supremacy as white supremacy and so unless he had a strategy for persuading white conservatives about the existence and significance of unconscious bias and systemic racism his desire to “tear it all down” would fail.

I have regular conversations with conservatives who disagree with me about a range of issues, including Confederate memorials. I had a protracted conversation with the leader of an alumni organization that opposes removing Lee’s name from our school because we should instead “proudly celebrate” his legacy. Though I do not find it entirely convincing, the most effective argument I’ve heard on behalf of Lee and Jackson is that it is unfair that so many people now associate their names with racism. Maybe it is unfair. But if so, that unfairness does not counteract the fact that “Lee” and “Jackson” now primarily do mean white supremacy.

If I had grown up revering them because I had been taught that they should be revered, I imagine I might find the current meaning of their names bewildering. I imagine I would find it difficult to change something so deeply ingrained in me since childhood. I imagine I might feel attacked personally and might respond defensively and angrily. I imagine I might name a range of rationales for why Confederate memorials should remain, while avoiding the most overwhelming fact of these men’s lives: they chose to lead armies in a war to keep four million Americans in forced labor, poverty, torture, rape, and breeding. That’s why I asked for their names to be removed. I don’t think children, black or white, should be shaped by that reverence.

I’m glad my city council voted to remove Jackson’s name from our cemetery, and I am hopeful that my board of trustees will vote to remove Lee’s name from our school’s. Meanwhile, I will continue to work with members of my school and town to address more pressing needs.

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