0. TBR! TBR!
Regardless of whether your passion is for books, films, games or comics, the chances are that your home contains a large stockpile of unconsumed culture. Depending upon the exact nature of your passion, this stockpile can take a number of different forms including:
- A pile of books marked ‘To Be Read’
- An array of downloaded or recorded TV series you need to ‘Catch Up On’
- A Steam account containing games boasting zero hours of play
- A shelf groaning under the weight of shrink-wrapped DVD box sets
As perverse as this kind of cultural opulence might seem, it is as nothing when compared to the mind-boggling absurdity of our tendency to buy new books and films when we have dozens of perfectly wonderful titles sitting at home on a shelf. Why do we do it? Why do we buy books we don’t read? The answer lies in our postmodern condition, the economics of human attention and the ever-changing nature of the self.
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Boomtron have my latest comics column on Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier.
New Frontier is an ‘elseworld’ that takes the superheroes of the DC Comics Universe and transposes them into the late 1940s in much the same way as Neil Gaiman transposed the Marvel Universe into Elizabethan England in 1602 (2003). However, while 1602 is really nothing more than an extended exercise in fan service that wanders around Elizabethan London going “Oooh… I wonder what Daredevil would look like if he was an Irish bard!”, DC: The New Frontier is an attempt to liberate mainstream superhero comics from the cynicism of the post-Watchmen era by finding a way of reconciling psychological depth with the values of old-fashioned Gold and Silver Age heroism. While I do not think that Cooke is ultimately successful in his endeavour, I do think that the result is one of the most fascination mainstream superhero comics ever produced. It is fascinating because it is a comic that clearly realises the challenge that faces large generation-spanning mythological systems. As I pointed out in my review of Dick Maas’ horror film Saint (2010), myths must reinvent themselves in order to stay alive and DC: The New Frontier is clearly designed as a mutation that might help superhero comics adapt to the culture of today:
The last thirty years has seen a drive to re-invent traditional heroes as darker and more realistic figures. Moore’s reinvention of the superhero as a vigilante mired in psychological trauma and political compromise is no different to the re-invention of King Arthur as a Roman Centurion or an Iron-age Chieftain. The world has changed and though we can no longer believe in a campy middle-aged Batman, we can believe in a tortured psychopath who acts upon his own flawed sense of justice. Humans have always and will always yearn for escape from the prison of their lives but the vehicle they choose for that escape is determined by the nature of the lives they are escaping. Because of this, stories must be retold and heroes must be reborn. Even modern day myths are subject to these evolutionary pressures, in order to survive stories must change to suit the demands of their audience.
Despite its failures, DC: The New Frontier is still a fascinating read and a great place to start if you are looking to get a handle on the tendency of superhero comics to keep re-launching and re-inventing themselves.
Gestalt Mash have my latest column on John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew.
The comic uses two different devices to pursue its themes. The first is that, following an outbreak of avian flu, the US government has made it illegal to raise and eat chickens. However, because people still crave the flesh of the bird, an underworld of poultry-based speakeasies has emerged forcing the government to crack down on civil liberties. The second device the comic uses is that its primary protagonist has a rare psychic power that allows him to learn about things by eating them. The comic uses these two genre elements to investigate our increasingly problematic relationship with food and how we simply do not want to know how stuff arrive on our plates:
The uneasiness we feel about food is such that many of us have turned to superstition as a means of making sense of it. Our money flows into the pockets of charlatans and quacks who claim that all of our problems arise from spurious allergies and a failure to eat like a caveman, a pharaoh or a 17th Century Italian peasant. Many of us even go so far as to define ourselves in terms of our dietary problems, broadcasting them to the world as though they were sources of empowerment. Nascent ethnicities birthed in diarrhoea and unsightly rashes. Tomorrow’s politicians will take pride in the words “Ich habe ein lactose intolerance”.
Chew is still appearing in monthly form and has, thus far, been collected in three trade paperbacks with a fourth due out soon. Weird, grotesque, smart and occasionally very very funny, Chew provides a fascinating insight into our love-hate relationship with food.
Gestalt Mash have my review of the sixth volume of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Eisner and Tiptree award-winning manga series Ooku: The Inner Chambers.
My review features something of a reassessment of the series as I realise that, rather than looking it as a Feminist thought-experiment about an alternate feudal Japan in which the male population has been reduced by 75%, the series is best seen as a historical epic. The term ‘historial epic’ is somewhat misleading in that it tends to summon images of fat fantasy novels with intricate plots that unravel over hundreds of years. While Ooku’s plot may cover a number of generations, the plot is very much anchored to the waxing and waning of historical forces. There is no grand narrative at work here, just the ceaseless change of an aging ruling class and how the decisions they make change the country:
By stepping back from the lives of the individual characters and focusing instead upon the historical themes that emerge from the passage of the generations, we can see that Yoshinaga is suggesting that history is above all a product of human passions. Yoshinaga’s characters are the twisted and broken products of a twisted and broken society and while their exalted positions allow them the power to shape and reshape society as they wish, there is the growing sense that Yoshinaga’s characters repeat the mistakes of the past because they simply cannot help it. In Yoshinaga’s history, change happens more by chance than by design.
Needless to say, I am still very much enjoying this particular series and I hope that Viz Media continue to show their commitment to the series by publishing volume 7.
My previous posts on the series can be found at the following locations though I have also collected them under a single heading in this site’s menu bar:
Gestalt Mash have my (long overdue) column on Kieron Gillen and Jamis McKelvie’s Phonogram comics.
To date, this series only has two volumes — 2007’s Rue Britannia and 2010’s The Singles Club — but those two volumes contain enough ideas to keep a Marvel character running for a generation. The Joel Silver-style 30 second pitch is that the comic is Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love (2001) meets Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (2001) via Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and John Tynes and Greg Stolze’s roleplaying game Unknown Armies (2008). Set in contemporary Britain, the comics tell stories about a group of mages who perform magic by engaging with pop music. Some mages are critics, others produce fanzines and some simply love to dance. What is fascinating about this particular comic is that Phonogram is that rarest of things, Fantasy series that does not look to the past for its sources of enchantment:
Think of the memories of Woodstock in the 60s, of the Kings Road in the late 70s and the acid house scene in the 80s. Think of the tales that people tell and of the sense of place that inhabit those stories. These were times when people knew where they were and they knew that what they were seeing was important. They knew that magic existed because they could see it spring fully formed on stage amidst the stenches of weed, sweat and overpriced cheap lager. Anyone who has been part of a musical scene will know what it is like to walk into a club and to know who everyone is and why they are there. To be a part of a scene is to know everyone’s side-projects and why absolutely nothing good can come from their decision to start fucking the bass-player. To be in the right place at the right time is to be cool and to be cool is magic. But then the bubble pops. The wave breaks. Maybe the lynchpin band fall out with each other or there’s a fire at the important venue. Maybe the wrong people start turning up to gigs and the atmosphere turned sour. All kinds of things can happen and when they do, you can feel it end. To be cool is to know what it’s like to live in a world filled with meaning and magic, but it is also to know what it’s like when the gods depart the stage and the magic drains from the world. To be cool is to know how it feels to be left standing in a sweaty club surrounded by stupid people who suddenly feel very tired, very old and very sad.
Gestalt Mash have my column on Matoro Mase’s manga serial Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit.
My column draws on the first six volumes of what will be an eight volume run if Viz Media do actually translate the entire series. Set in an alternate version of contemporary Japan, the series is about a society that has decided to force its population to make the most of life by killing one citizen in every thousand at random. The series examines this ideas from two different perspectives; on the one hand, it examines the psychological impact of the death sentences on the victims and their families while, on the other hand, exploring what the effects of this policy are on the Japanese body politic. The result is a series of graphic novels that paint exquisitely detailed pictures of human grief and suffering whilst also slowly creating the impression that such a society is monstrous and must be overthrown:
Death has the power not just to end lives, but also to change them. It can change them for the better by prompting people to make changes, and it can change things for the worse by fostering a crippling sense of futility and loss. Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is an exploration of the tension between these two reactions to the revelation that we too shall someday be no more.
The series has also spawned a film adaptation, which I also wrote about a little while ago for Videovista.
Videovista have my review of Deah Notice: Ikigami, Tomoyuki Takimoto’s adaptation of Motoro Mase’s manga Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit:
There is something profoundly refreshing about Death Notice because not only does it seek to tug the heart-strings rather than quicken the pace, it also tugs the heart-strings in a way that displays a real depth of insight into the human condition and the different ways in which we face death. Each of Death Notice‘s episodes functions as a delicious and perfectly contained capsule of loss, grief and hope in the face of death.
In fact, I enjoyed the film so much that I went out and purchased a few volumes of the manga.
Gestalt Mash have the second issue of Stripp’d, my monthly column looking at translated comic series.
Written and drawn by Denis Bajram and released in two volumes by Marvel, Universal War One begins as a Dirty Dozen in Spaaaaace story but, once the characters are bedded down and the theme of redemption is introduces, Bajran starts to mess with the gonzo knobs, slowly ramping up the epic and the fantastical until the series ends in a widescreen expose of man’s unparalleled hubris. I enjoyed it quite a bit… it’s silly.
Gestalt Mash have my fourth piece on Fumi Yoshinaga’s alt-historical manga epic Ooku: The Inner Chambers.
Volume 4 shifts the timeline forward in order to see how later Shoguns fare with the task of managing a changing Japan. By allowing us to see the ways in which these later Shoguns struggle to fill the first female Shogun’s sandles, Yoshinaga not only invites a more generous appraisal of the first Shogun, she also shifts the series register away from an explicitly feminist analysis of gender differences and towards a more general political analysis of the responsibilities that accompany power.
Oh… and the book ends on a spectacular cliffhanger!
Gestalt Mash has my third piece on Fumi Yoshinaga’s alternate history manga Ooku: The Inner Chambers.
Following hot on the heels of the second volume in the series, volume three teases out a political conflict at the heart of the Shogun’s court. A conflict in which the forces of conservatism battle the forces of social progress for control of both Japan and the mind of the Shogun. Beautifully drawn, exquisitely written and awesome in the power of its insights into contemporary attitudes towards gender and sexuality, Ooku continues to be a fantastic piece of sequential art.