måndag 31 januari 2011

Back from the comics shop...

I think I can squeeze these into my bookshelves along with the ones I brought home this Saturday, but I've still got one third of the stuff I bought left to carry home, so I'm still going to have to do some reorganizing to accommodate that. Oh well; I'll just... 

Well, I'll solve it somehow.

Liv Strömquist & Jan Bielecki: Drift ("Drive")

Writer Liv Strömquist and artist Jan Bielecki have created the graphic novel "Drift", which is labeled as a "queerfeminist adventure story". That story depicts two people, Lena and Robert, who meet on a night bus between the cities of Helsingborg and Norrköping. Lena checks out the men on the bus before deciding that Robert is the hottest one, and promptly sits down next to him and starts a conversation (starting with telling him how hot she thinks he looks).

The conversation gradually turns towards relationships and sex. Lena tells about her incredibly hot girlfriend, Pyret, and how they met and first had sex in a public restroom. Robert tells about his work as a painter, how he preferred to have himself as a model but how this girl, Sigrid, used to come to the studio he shared with some other artists just to watch him paint. Gradually, they start establishing a relationship, having sex – even though he at first doesn't in any way restrict himself to Sigrid – and finally she moves in with him. After a while, however, he grows tired of her – my impression is that the narcissistic Robert after a while doesn't feel himself sufficiently excitingly mirrored by the adoring but somewhat clingy and predictable Sigrid. However, it doesn't take long before he starts missing her, because none of the new women who now come to watch him paint look at him in quite the same totally adoring way that Sigrid did. So now he's traveling to Norrköping to try and find her again.

Meanwhile, Lena tells about her developing, sexually open relationship with Pyret – where they are both free to have sexual experiences with others because they're both so great that it would be egotistical to bereave others people of the privilege of having sex with the other. This part, however, is pretty uninteresting, as there aren't any complications to make their relationship interesting, and the sex depicted is rather dull to look at and read about.

And herein lies the two major problems with the book. First, it is too much about the sex scenes which aren't particularly exciting, and part of the reason for that is the art. Bielecki is a good artist, I've seen him work in a more cartoony style that works excellently, and he's very good at depicting movement, gestures and stances in a natural-looking manner, but the realistic style he uses here doesn't work because it's way too sketchy – rough and unfinished. It looks rushed, and for large parts of the book, backgrounds are practically non-existent. Sex scenes are often by their nature somewhat repetitive if there are a lot of them in a book, so to make them interesting yo need to spice them up with something – like real emotions, beautiful pictures, or humor – and "Drift" doesn't deliver in any of these departments IMO. And since it's supposed to be a "femisex" book, it of course has quite a lot of those not-very-interesting sex scenes.

Second, Lena's story is not particularly compelling. "I met this totally hot girl, and she thinks I'm totally hot too, and we have great sex and because we're so great and generous we both want the other to have sex with others as well" sounds more like somebody with an overinflated sense of self-esteem (or somebody trying to pad their own self-esteem a bit) than an actual person you want to get to know. So half the book is more or less wasted on an uninteresting person. The portrait of the tortured narcissist Robert is much more interesting, but it can't carry the whole book by itself.

Strömquist usually does leftist-feminist satire of the somewhat angry variety, and I have to say I think she did better with this effort than she does with her more popular satiric stuff. Here, she tries – and at least halfway succeeds – to actually craft an interesting story about sexual and gender roles in our society. But what succeeds is precisely what she usually avoids in her satire: painting a personal, individual portrait. It seems to me that the vain Robert is something of a generic portrait of things Strömquist dislikes about a male gender role in today's society; she's had similar characters in her satire, but then as symbols of men more generally, but the thing is, the character of Robert works so well because she doesn't blow him up to the level of "symbol of all men". It is precisely because she depicts him as an individual and not a symbol that he works as a character – and paradoxically, because he works as a character, he can also work as a symbol of precisely that sort of male gender role Strömquist wants to criticize. No longer is he a caricature that is used to hit somebody over the head with, he is instead something real, something that can be discussed and worked with, which is infinitely more valuable if one wants to enact change instead of just blowing off steam.

...Which brings me to the somewhat unlikely parallel that struck me as I was reading some of Strömquist's satirical works: The Tea Party movement in the USA.

The common denominator is, IMO, what is often labeled "the politics of resentment". Feeling that you're not getting your fair share of chances and/or resources while some group you're not a part of (immigrants, government officials, politicians, blacks, "progressives", men, capitalists, etc.) is getting way more than its fair share of resources of course breeds feelings of resentment. Playing to those feelings of resentment can make you quite popular and even engender a sizable income if the group whose resentment you're pandering to is sufficiently large (see Glenn Beck, Fox News, and several Republican Party politicians). However, even if pandering to resentment can be popular among those you're pandering to, it's still just pandering, not analysis – and analysis is what is absolutely crucial if you're going to come up with actual solutions to actual problems. What pandering does is instead usually entrenching prejudices and anger, and while anger can be a great motivator, it's usually a terrible rudder. (We have in Sweden a couple of political parties whose rhetoric seems based mainly on resentment. On the left, we have a party that has the haves vs have-nots as their main rhetorical trope, we have a (very small) feminist party for which it's the heteronormative patriarchy that's the big problem in the world, and we have a far-right anti-immigration party for which it is immigrants, immigrants, and immigrants – and the politicians who've let in all those immigrant, of course.)

Anyway, with "Drift", Strämquist took a big step away from anger and caricatures that satisfy a core audience, towards actually telling good stories. She didn't entirely succeed, but she came close enough that I wish she'd do more of that and less stuff of the "Ray in 'Everybody Loves Raymond' hates his mother, which proves that we live in a sexist, patriarchal society" variety.

Anyway, I can't recommend buying "Drift" because of its flaws, but for the intelligent portrait of Robert, and a nice (if not entirely surprising) twist ending, it is at least worth reading – especially if you skip over the sex scenes.

söndag 30 januari 2011

Mike Manley's blogs

Artist and Draw! editor Mike Manley has a blog with, among other interesting things, this excellent advice to aspiring artists, and also a Draw! blog.

Worth a visit.

Back from the comics store...

Bought some books about comics, and some collections of stuff I think I should have in my bookshelves in collected form (even if I do have some of them in comic book format already).

There's been a load of crappy Superman comics these past two decades, but these collections have good writers and/or good artists, so I figure it's worth it to have them.

lördag 29 januari 2011

Jules Feiffer: Passionella and Other Stories

I don't see Jules Feiffer revered all over the world, which is a shame, because he ought to be. His brand of satire was always deeper than just clobbering ideas and people he thought wrong; his was a wry view with the full realization that people are still going to be people, with their own insecurities and failures, so you can't expect perfection. It has been said that you just can't discuss thing with people who insist on being 100% something, and Feiffer seems to have taken that insight to heart.

This collection contains four stories.

1. First, Passionella. She is in reality the somewhat plain chimney sweep Ella, who sits in front of her TV set and dreams about being a beautiful, glamorous movie star – and who is granted that wish by her friendly neighborhood fairy godmother, who resides in Ella's TV set but unfortunately only has power between the Mickey Mouse Show and the Late Late Show (the story is from before our 24-hours-of-crap-on-TV era), so during the rest of the day, Passionella reverts back to Ella. Thus, her movies are shot between those hours, and at 3 A.M., she disappears in her sports car.

Passionella is a big hit with the movie studios and audiences, but she feels empty. She wants more than empty glamour, she wants love, and she decides to learn to act and to... make a movie about a humble chimney sweep.

"Oh", say the somewhat worried studio head, but she's Passionella, so she gets her way. The very best blacklisted screenwriters are secretly flown in from England to write the movie, and for turgid realism, it is even shot in the Bronx. Passionella finds fulfillment in her art, and she also finds love, but she forgets about the conditions of her condition, so to speak...

I won't spoil the twist at the ending of this story, but it's brilliant and funny and charming, and story is amusing and ironic all the way there. As satire goes, it's far from the seething anger of Ted Rall's satire and closer to the more gentle, somewhat absurdly comical pen of Ruben Bolling. Or, as Feiffer himself said about "Munro" (more about which in a second):
"I came up with the story of Munro because I understood that if you're really in a rage and really want to attack someone in cartoon form, the least effective way is to jump up and down and scream and yell and to be polemical — something a lot of cartoonists have never learned. The best way is to go in the other direction and feign innocence, and bring the reader along in a quiet way. And so Munro tells this savage story but tells it entertainingly and sweetly and builds it up and gets the reader stressed, and as you read it, and particularly when you see the film, you feel your stomach knot up because of the obvious abuse and ignorance of authority. And people connected to their own situations with authority in or out of the Army when no one listens, no one believes you. They know, you don't, and they may even start to convince you, as they do Munro, that they're right and you're wrong."

2. Which brings us to Munro. Munro is a little boy of four year's age who gets drafted into the army. He tires to convince the people in power that he's only four, but they can't believe the army would draft a little boy of four, so they simply don't believe him when he tries to tell them how old he is. That's just about the whole story, and Feiffer still manages to make it both powerful and touching (but go check out the film at the link above – writer Feiffer and director Gene Deitch managed to translate the story into a short film without losing anything in the process, which in itself was worth an Oscar.

This is a bloody masterpiece. It is so good that it dominates the book in a way that relegates even a very good story like "Passionella" to the second-string status. Anybody who's tried to convince a rigid organization and its gate-keepers of something will know exactly what this story is saying, and it does it in such a deceptively simple and sweet way that it's a crime against mankind – well, at least against satire – that it isn't more widely spread. If Swedish television, for example, had any sense at all, it would show this every year like it does with a few other classics. If they feel they don't have space to spare in their schedule, they can give me a call and I'll give them quite a few suggestions on what they could throw out to make room for "Munro" and some other quality stuff...

3 & 4. Rounding out the book are two decent stories. The first is a psychological study of George, who lives a pretty happy if somewhat dull life on the moon until he realizes that mankind is going to come there in not-too-long, which elicits all sorts of interesting psychological reactions in him. It's an intelligent piece, well worth reading, but it lacks the deceptive simplicity and powerful punch of "Munro". The second is a darkly satirical piece on the idiocy of the nuclear arms race, but it has lost a bit of its urgency since it was written in the late fifties and is probably the weakest piece in the book.

And even the weakest piece in the book is well worth reading, so I'll simply round this off with a warm recommendation of Jules Feiffer's stuff – including his stint as a writer for Will Eisner's "The Spirit" – and more specifically, "Passionella and Other Stories".

Because it's bloody great.

Note: This is not a review of the Fantagraphics collection but of an older edition. The Fantagraphics edition doesn't contain "Munro", but has some other goodies instead (like the world's greatest athlete who gets called unpatriotic for not wanting to go to the Olympics and beat the Russians, since he finds competitions boring) and is still very much worth your time and money.

tisdag 25 januari 2011

Alan Moore & others: Albion

Alan Moore plotted it, Leah Moore and John Reppion wrote it, Shane Oakley drew it, and George Freeman inked it (and they even brought in Neil Gaiman to write the introduction): "Albion", a nostalgia-driven attempt to put all the old British IPC heroes into the same universe, and create a good story in the process. It succeeds with the first ambition, not really with the second.

Briefly, the story starts with letting us encounter comics fan Danny, buying old British comics from an unpleasant old old stuff-dealer. Watching a nasty old comics character who's apparently also a real person being carted off to some sort of detention facility, Danny yells out the man's comics name, which arouses the suspicions and ire of the crowd hating the comics character. Danny is rescued by a young girl, who turns out to be the daughter of another old comics character who was also a real person, and who has also (long since) been carted off to some detention facility. Penny, as the girl is called, and Danny set about saving her father and all the other old heroes and villains who've been rounded up by the authorities, and enlist the aid of another old comics character, master criminal and escapist Charlie Peace, to find and break into the detention facility.

Interspersed with the scenes depicting Danny's and Penny's attempts to get the old bastard Peace aboard, we're treated to scenes from the detention facility, where an American official is visiting to check on their security. He's strongly critical, and implies that they're too soft – unlike the American approach. Meanwhile, super-computer Brian's Brain, one of the criminal inmates that has apparently actually been hooked up with the facility's computer system, predicts an upcoming disaster while not giving any details about it, and the super-criminal The Spider is plotting his own escape.

I won't go into detail about the resolution of the plot; I will, however, outline some of the problems I had with the book.

First of all, I like elegant art. I like a nice, strong, lively ink line, and I like some nice, smooth, elegant fethering. I'm not getting any of that. Oakley uses stark contrasts between black and non-black fields with rough, angular lines separating them and as contour lines, and while I consider Freeman an excellent artist, he doesn't seem to add any of the qualities I think he's shown in other works here; too many dead-weight lines and not enough of the slickness I like to see. So the artwork's not for me.

Second, while the themes of this book are reminiscent of Moore masterpieces like "V for Vendetta" (detention camps, fascist British government) and "Watchmen" (re-using characters from one publishing "universe" in an integrated universe where they're real), the execution is not up to the standards of those works. The plotting isn't nearly as tight as in "Watchmen" – for example, the various dangerous superweapons that make so many of the detainees so deadly are stored in the same facility, practically guaranteeing that should a breakout occur, they will almost immediately become impossible to recapture. (It's the sort of thing I expect from lazy Hollywood scriptwriters, not Alan Moore.)

So, with the plotting not driving the story strongly enough and the art not being sufficiently enjoyable to keep my interest, that means the scripting has to carry a bigger load, and I'm afraid the Moore-Reppion pair don't deliver, either. There's a lot of cursing – "You think you're so $%€&in' clever"-style – but that's just lazy writing IMO, and the writing never rises to a level where it makes it interesting watching a bunch of people walking and talking, which comprises a lot of the book.

I think an old IPC fan might enjoy this new take on his old heroes, but I'm not; I have vague recollections of some of these characters, most prominently The Spider, whose adventures I thought were exciting when I read them in old 60s comic books as a kid, but really most of those old comics kinda sucked IMO. They were pretty much at least one notch below the old 50s - early 60s "Superman" comics in quality, and at least those weren't done in 2-3 pages installments that meant storytelling had to be incredibly rushed. I am a die-hard Moore fan, though, which is why I bought the book in the first place, and it sorta goes with the territory to read everything he does. This installment isn't terrible, it's readable if not worth the price I paid for it IMO, but it's certainly below the standard I've come to expect from one of the greatest comics creators like, ever.

Not recommended – but for a more positive review of this book, see The Compulsive Reader.

söndag 23 januari 2011

Pär Holmgren & Jessica Cederberg Wodmar: "Klimatkoden" ("The climate code")

Finished Pär Holmgren & Jessica Cederberg Wodmar's "Klimatkoden" ("The climate code", Medströms förlag 2009). The authors are a meteorologist and a journalist who've turned to informing people about climate issues, and it's very didactically conceived and executed – margins in different colors for different chapters, margin notes to emphasize certain points, point-by-point advice on how to reduce the climate and environmental impact of activities like cleaning, at work, and from events like parties, weddings, etc.

Unfortunately, they overdo it a bit with the didactic stuff, possibly a side effect of being too well-trained "communicators" working in a commercial environment. For example, they waste quite a bit of pages on repeating advice they've already given – if you've told the reader that he/she shouldn't leave stuff on standby in one chapter, repeating it in the next chapter, and then next chapter, gets a bit repetitive after a while. Also, they waste one chapter – thirty pages of the book's 190 pages – on celebrities sharing their five best climate saving tips, another (fortunately shorter) on various more or less significant differences between men's and women's behavior and opinions, and another on a Cosmopolitan-style test of the reader's "climate profile". This dilutes the main and best parts of the book, which are about how to live a more climate-friendly life. 

The book isn't a waste of time, there is plenty of good advice in it (even though it could have been shorter and more to-the-point), so it's still worth your time. I'd also recommend Marit Paulsen's much shorter "Lurad av laxen – sant & falskt om maten" ("Tricked by the salmon – truths and falsehoods about food"), though. Paulsen is both a writer and a politician, and has a very thorough knowledge about food and the politics behind it. She offers solid advice on how to reduce your carbon print (main advice: don't throw food away. Really. Don't), plus some interesting things to think about, and she does it in a very readable style.

fredag 21 januari 2011

torsdag 20 januari 2011

Today's quote:

"Having a lot of can-do spirit and a shovel is no match for being ho-hum and having a bulldozer."
   -- Karl Smith

onsdag 19 januari 2011

I did this!

...insofar that I translated the covers we got from the Norwegian bullpen and poked around a bit with the pictorial and editorial elements in them, at least...

tisdag 18 januari 2011

Carl Arvid Hessler: De förtrycktas talan ("Speaking for the oppressed")

Finished Carl Arvid Hessler's "De förtrycktas talan. Ett kinesiskt perspektiv" ("Speaking for the oppressed. A Chinese perspective"; Norstedts, 1988), which looks at the precursors to Mao Zedong's revolutionary thinking and the end results, his revolutionary practice.

First, Hessler looks at uprisings in Chinese history. He then looks at revolutionary theory of late 1800s - early 1900s Europe: anarchism and (Leninist and Stalinist) communism, plus some small smidgeon of John Stuart Mill's social liberalism. All of these sources seems to have influenced Mao's early thinking, but gradually, he discarded first the liberal strains, and then the anarchistic thinking in favor of "communistic discipline" (possibly partly as a reaction to having earlier attempts at organizing the countryside proletariat and peasants in order to cast off the yoke of the landowners thwarted by brute force). Having thus discarded what taste for liberty he might have had in his youth, he proceeds to analyze the Chinese situation to conclude that the Leninist view that you need the working class as the revolution's avant-garde and leaders is erroneous – and besides, China only has the peasantry, so if you want a revolution, the peasantry is the class you have to persuade to make that revolution come about and survive.

So far, so good. At times, Hessler almost seems to take Mao's positions on various issues, but I can buy that as part of making the case for what Mao believed in. However, Hessler never really gets into what Mao's ideological turn towards totalitarianism led to, which has to be, IMO, a major failing in any book describing Mao's thinking and revolutionary practice.

This book is worth reading for its insights into how a) Mao's thinking developed away from an if not liberal so at least not outright totalitarian views into "Maoism"; b) how the power struggle of different ideologies within the Chinese revolutionary and communist movements proceeded until Mao stood as the winner. However, I can't help but think that the lack of exposure of Mao's fundamentally anti-democratic ideology and its results is a major failure on Hessler's part.

Not-quite recommended.

måndag 17 januari 2011

Brian Peck: John Buscema, Michelangelo of Comics

Finished Brian Peck's "John Buscema, Michelangelo of Comics", 170 pages of lush illustrations of a remarkable career in comics accompanied by a lot of data (including one-page mini-bios of inkers who have worked on Buscema's pencils), and a lot of fan-boy gushing.

Peck is obviously a huge fan of Buscema, and unfortunately, that means the book is short on analysis and long on "and then John did this great thing, and then John did this great thing…". It's unfortunate, and it probably didn't help that he had his mom for an editor.

That said, the book covers Buscema's career and career choices after studying at Manhattan's School of Music and Arts and the Pratt Institute, and it is worth reading for the grand overview of his career and the many well reproduced illustrations from that career.

Unsurprisingly, Buscema was a big fan of Hal Foster's "Tarzan" and "Prince Valiant" as well as of Alex Raymond's "Flash Gordon" and Milt Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates". He also admired illustrators like Norman Rockwell, N. C. Wyeth and Robert Fawcett. More surprising, perhaps, was that he wasn't a fan of superheroes and didn't much like drawing them – he hated drawing cars and modern buildings. So when he worked on "Conan", that was much better in his opinion. In a perfect world, though, Buscema wouldn't have been able to draw exclusively adventure stories like "Conan", "Tarzan" etc – he would have loved drawing superheroes as much as they loved being drawn by him, because boy did he do some absolutely beautiful work on them! His Silver Surfer version is just about perfect, and his "Thor" was magnificent, and…


Turning a bit fan-boyish myself, there, it seems. Anyway, the $40 cover price is a bit steep for a book with these flaws, so I can't really recommend buying it. If your library has it, or you can find it reasonably cheap second-hand or on a sale, then it's definitely worth reading if you're a super-hero fan, or just want to know more about great superhero artists. But it's not the definitive John Buscema book this labor of love could have been with a stronger writer, or a stronger editor guiding Mr. Peck.

lördag 15 januari 2011

John Stanley: Little Lulu's Pal Tubby Vol 2

Finished John Stanley's "Little Lulu's Pal Tubby Vol 2: The Runaway Statue and Other Stories".

Stanley, born 1914, died in 1993, but he lives in the annals of comics thanks to his comic-book version of Marge Henderson Buell's "Little Lulu". Dark Horse publishing has done lovers of comics history and good kids' comics a good deed by reprinting it chronologically, and now they're, as an added bonus, reprinting Marge's Tubby as well. This collection reprints issues #7-12, originally published in the mid-fifties.

Basically, the plots revolve around another of those eternal love triangles – Tubby's fond of the pretty blond Gloria, who usually can't stand him and prefers the obnoxious rich brat Wilbur. Usually, Wilbur, sometimes aided by Gloria, pulls some mean prank on Tubby, who somehow manages to come out on top in the end. The stories are often quite imaginative – and not entirely infrequently, the involve some element of the fantastic, like ghosts or little men from Mars – and surprisingly enjoyable. Dark Horse's PR blurb that "Tubby is sure to tickle the funny bone of comics fans of any age!" is not entirely correct, though. The plots are too clearly aimed at a younger audience to be fully enjoyable to the adult reader, and they also frequently fail to deliver the customary plot twist or clever zinger in the last coupla panels; instead, they frequently just sizzle out. That's forgivable, though, because usually the story itself has  been rather charmingly enjoyable – not least thanks to Stanley's excellent command of language. The lines spoken by characters ring true and effortlessly contribute to the flow of the story.

Tubby is well worth reading if you're prepared to accept that you're not going to get Carl Barks-quality plots and drawings (the figures are often a tad stiff), but rather a pretty clever and charming kid's comic – and hey, it's a classic, so you really ought to at least have read a couple of issues.

(So when's Dark Horse – or anybody – going to do a full reprint of Sugar and Spike?)

Recommended, but not entirely without reservations.

onsdag 12 januari 2011

Storytelling 6: More loud yelling

I'll have more to say on this (probably using Frank Miller's "Daredevil" as an example) but here are the basics: comics use visual cues – like size and shape of balloons and size and shape of letters – to reveal the qualities of sound – like how loud it is. Generally speaking, the fatter and bigger the letters, the louder the sound. We already know that "Sarge" in Mort Walker's "Beetle Bailey" is a loud man; let's watch him prove it:

Note how not all the letters in Sarge's yelling are visible. Why not? Because they're so big that there isn't even room for them in the panel! Ergo, they have to be very loud, don't they?

…Or do I mean VERY LOUD?!!

tisdag 11 januari 2011

Social liberalism

Paul Krugman, in a very perceptive post, not only gives a very good definition of what Social liberalism is, but also a most eloquent rationale for why it is the most decent political "ism" out there:

 [T]he typical conservative line about equality of opportunity, not results, really implies the need for a radical restructuring of our society, which doesn’t offer anything remotely resembling equal opportunity. At this point, however, there’s a tendency to think about what that restructuring would involve — and because it’s basically impossible, to throw up one’s hands.

 The point is that you don’t, in fact, have to be that radical once you drop the rigidity of the conservative position. If you admit that life is unfair, and that there’s only so much you can do about that at the starting line, then you can try to ameliorate the consequences of that unfairness.

 My vision of economic morality is more or less Rawlsian: we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be. And I believe that this vision leads, in practice, to something like the kind of society Western democracies have constructed since World War II — societies in which the hard-working, talented and/or lucky can get rich, but in which some of their wealth is taxed away to pay for a social safety net, because you could have been one of those who strikes out.

 Such a society doesn’t correspond to any kind of abstract ideal, whether it’s “people should be allowed to keep what they earn” or “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. It’s a very non-Utopian compromise. But it works, and it’s a pretty decent arrangement (more decent in some countries than others.)

 That decency is what’s under attack by claims that it’s immoral to deprive society’s winners of any portion of their winnings.

 © 2011 The New York Times Company.

And since it's just a couple of days since the horrible tragedy in Arizona, I might add that while mentally disturbed murderers of politicians often have famous and/or infamous political tracts at home, and quite possibly as favorites, there are certain political tracts that don't seem to be as popular with the psychos, terrorists and killers out there, whatever their political leanings. Social democracy and social liberalism, for example, don't seem to move very many people to severe violence. John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty", which can be seen as the first great work of social liberalism, is one of those books that doesn't seem to elicit violence. Not just for that reason, I warmly recommend it – it's a very persuasive, and largely very modern, book.

It's not perfect, however (and I hope to come back to the subject of how the search for perfections actually seems to be an indication of a totalitarian mind-set) – because however intelligent and far-sighted Mill was, he was still a man of his time, and he didn't see colonialism in quite the manner we see it today. So he was flawed, but let's all just grant that he was wrong on that issue and not make up some long-winded defense of him there: he was simply wrong. He was, however, as close to flat-out correct as it gets when it comes to the subject of liberty, and the book is warmly recommended.

(I may take myself up on that recommendation, as it's probably been about a decade since I last read it.)

Storytelling 5: More on sound

In our exploration of sound in the comics panel, we once more look at the storytelling skills of Mort Walker. This time, it's about telling us something we didn't realize about the qualities of an everyday object.

Lt. Fuzz thinks Cookie should be wearing a helmet, and Cookie reveals that he's already wearing one – in a drastic, immediately-understandable manner that will let the reader make the connection immediately. The joke hinges on the use of Cookie hitting his chef's hat with the soupçon to make an immediately recognizable metallic sound ("BONG"); if the reader would have to read Cookie's whole line explaining that "this hat is made of metal", the joke would fall entirely flat. As so often in humor, it's mostly about timing, and the visual shortcut is what makes the timing work.

(The joke is also dependent on another quality of comics: the cartoony way the hat is depicted lets Walker get away with suddenly springing the "it's metal" joke on us. In real life, it would be obvious pretty soon that Cookie's chef's hat wasn't exactly normal, but a cartoon doesn't give enough detail and realism for us to recognize that – which is why we don't react with a feeling that we've been cheated: "Hey, no fair! We would have noticed long ago if that hat was made of steel!")

My t-shirts, part 23: Groo again!

söndag 9 januari 2011

My t-shirts, part 22: Groo!

Groo – always funny (usually hysterically so), usually intelligent (sometimes brilliant) satire from the master, Sergio Aragonés, and some Evanier guy that I don't know what he does on the book.

lördag 8 januari 2011

Back from the comics shop...

...with both some things for the archive shelves and some for pure reading enjoyment.

Mark Waid is one of the better US superhero writers, so I'll of course want his new Boom! stuff. "Ka-Zar" was one of Andy Kubert's early triumphs as an artist (I misremembered and bought the collection because I thought it was Bruce Jones' version, but that was earlier and drawn by Brent Anderson IIRC – but since this was scripted by the aforementioned Waid, no problem anyway). "Magnus, Robot Fighter" is a classic and by the elegant Russ Meyer – unfortunately, the colors in this edition are a rather flat, and murky to boot. A "Phantom" collection from the pen of Ray Moore; the exquisite art of Alex Raymond from his "Rip Kirby" years; and Jeff Jones has done some of the most beautiful paintings I've seen (though I'm not always as keen on his ink work, and the scripts for his comics were always a bit... well, shall we say, sparse?).

Well, more Segar "Popeye"; starting putting together a complete "Prince Valiant" collection; a book on John Buscema ("Mr. Marvel Comics"); and Jim Steranko's comics history (part 2).

Marvel's "Civil War", two more collections; a DC war comics collection that judging by a hasty first look is pretty uniformly crappily drawn (I hope the scripts will be better); and Mark Schultz' marvelous and beautiful "Xenozoic Tales".

fredag 7 januari 2011

Judith O'Sullivan: "The Great American Comic Strip"

Finished Judith O'Sullivan's "The Great American Comic Strip", a review of US (not entirely excusively) newspaper comics from the 1890s onwards.

Unfortunately, O'Sullivan starts off the book with a big whopper, namely that the medium of comics was invented in US newspapers, which sort of ignores not just Töpffer but a bunch of other folks, but the book gets better after that. She discusses how the early comics business evolved, delver extra deep into a few of the early strips like "Little Nemo" and "Krazy Kat", looks at how various genres developed, and also looks at how the changes that American society has gone through have impacted the comics. I appreciate that O'Sullivan makes the effort to analyse strips, as that makes the book more interesting to read, even if I don't always agree entirely with her. I won't go into big detail here, just bring up a few points she makes that I found interesting (from my notes; largely quoting O'Sullivan directly):

• Although weekly illustrated newspapers such as Gleason’s (1852), Leslie’s (1855), and Harper’s (1857) achieved immediate popularity, it was the invention of photoengraving in 1873 that made possible for the first time inexpensive newspaper reproduction. American newspapers became at once more pictorial and more plentiful.

• The young Windsor McCay had jobs like sign painter, scenic artist for a freak show in Cincinnati, poster painter, and a traveling performer on the vaudeville stage. His decade of close contact with the bizarre left an imprint on McCay, whose later work is replete with carnival motifs, including distortions based on trick mirrors, exotic animals, clowns, and dancers. Much of the imagery in “Little Nemo” is borrowed from the art nouveau vocabulary – peacocks, lilies, swans, and water flora abound. Added to this vocabulary is his own carnival experience –exotic animals etc. Presaging Surrealism, appearances are unstable, nature is hostile, objects come together in irrational conjunctions, mechanical devices are frequently threatening.
• Herriman’s mature style, achieved from 1913 to 1925, is characterized by vast vistas through which miniscule characters pass, and by low horizon lines, spatial plenitude, infinite regression, calligraphic pen strokes, and literary whimsicality. His later style, 1925-1944, is marked by full frames of standard size, high horizon lines, limited spatial recession, formulaic and repetitive landscapes dominated by large figures seen close up. The diminished artistic interest is compensated for by its vigorously virile poetic power, incorporating African-American folk idiom.

• In 1896, he was moved by “The Rising Generation”, a drama featuring Irish actor Bill Barry, and felt that a knockout strip could be created using the idea behind the play, the experiences of a laborer’s family suddenly becoming wealthy.  After “The Newlyweds” (1904), McManus created “Bringing Up Father” in 1913, about the Irish former hod carrier Jiggs and his wife, former washerwoman Maggie. The style would later be termed art deco. Jiggs’s ebony tuxedo symbolized the confinement of his upper-crust lifestyle, which he constantly tried to escape.

• In “Blondie”, Chic Young established a triangle similar to that of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, “Death of a Salesman”: the capricious boss, the wage-slave husband, and the family whose financial demands forever yoke husband to boss.

• The domestic strips were originally intended to attract an audience of the increasing numbers of young women entering the work force – Cliff Sterrett’s 1912 “Polly and Her Pals”, Martin Branner’s 1920 “Winnie Winkle, the Breadwinner”, and Russ Westover’s 1921 “Tillie the Toiler”. As time passed, their fashion-plate protagonists became flappers, matured, married, and followed the same life cycle as their readers – except that in the papers’ self-censorship, the depiction of birth and death was forbidden.

• Harold Gray, Chester Gould and Al Capp, the big right-wing trio, created a dark vision of America, where the urban hells and rural retreats of their strips reflected the broken dreams of a generation. Common themes of "Little Orphan Annie" were the demise of the small businessman, the loss of the family farm, and the triumph of the international financier; and "Dick Tracy" and "Li'l Abner" depicted the breakdown of law and order and many aspects of class and gender warfare. (Still, let's not forget that for all his conservatism, Gray showed a strong young woman in his strip – something that contrasts favorably with the often misogynistic underground comics that are sometimes seen as more "progressive"...)

I won't recap the whole book, so I'll just wrap up with recommending it. This is a good book, even if 150 pages is a bit short for the subject. I still hold Brian Walker to have written the so far best book on the American newspaper comics, but this is well worth reading. Recommended.

Addendum: Many of those early comic strips are just terrible storytelling. Thank goodness for the true storytelling artists who would emerge – and I'll quote Milt Caniff on how he did it, because he was one of the greats: "Use motion picture techni(que) in the execution. First panel: Long shot with the speaking characters in the middle foreground. Second panel: Medium shot with dialogue to move the plot along. Third panel: Semi-closeup to set reader for significant last speech. Fourth panel: Full closeup of speaking character with socko line."

onsdag 5 januari 2011

200 years

Courtesy of Hans Rosling and the BBC:

Anti-poverty programs

This is an excellent NYT online article on helping poor people. Go read the whole thing.

 Today, however, Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country.  Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians.  Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent. (...)

 Several factors contribute to Brazil’s astounding feat.  But a major part of Brazil’s achievement is due to a single social program that is now transforming how countries all over the world help their poor.

 The program, called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) in Brazil, goes by different names in different places. In Mexico, where it first began on a national scale and has been equally successful at reducing poverty, it is Oportunidades. The generic term for the program is conditional cash transfers.  The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements.  The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention.  The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families.  The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow. (...)

 Bolsa Familia, which has similar requirements, is even bigger.  Brazil’s conditional cash transfer programs were begun before the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but he consolidated various programs and expanded it. It now covers about 50 million Brazilians, about a quarter of the country.   It pays a monthly stipend of about $13 to poor families for each child 15 or younger who is attending school, up to three children.  Families can get additional payments of $19 a month for each child of 16 or 17 still in school, up to two children.  Families that live in extreme poverty get a basic benefit of about $40, with no conditions.

 © 2011 The New York Times Company.

tisdag 4 januari 2011

Rob Johnson, Michael Whitby & John France: How to Win On the Battlefield

Finished Rob Johnson, Michael Whitby and John France: How to Win On the Battlefield. The 25 Key Tactics of All Time. (Thames & Hudson, 2010.)

Basically, two dozen principles of warfare (not tactics, as they call it, since several of them aren't actually tactics at all), presented briefly along with more or less well-chosen examples of them being used in actual wars. 

If you're already a war history buff, there might not be all that much new info to be had from this book, but it's an easy read and a decent effort. And if you want an introduction to the subject of history of war, this is a good starting (or intermediate) point.

Likely worth your time. I'm reproducing my notes on it below, since I've already written them. Yes, the formatting is all messed up, but that is what happens when you go from Word to the Web without bothering with fixing the formatting.

1. The attack at the center of gravity
Example:      Montgomery at El Alamein.

2. Counter-attack
Example:      The German counter-attack at Cambrai, 1917.

3. Surprise attack and ambush
Examples:      Teutoburg Forest, AD 9. (Recent archaeology suggests that the Romans made a final stand at Kalkriese Hill, north of present-day Osnabrück.)
                      The Six Day War, 1967. “[Q]uality of weapons is never a guarantee of success – it is the men and women who operate them, and their level of training, experience and determination , that really count.”

4. Envelopment and double-envelopment
Examples:      Cannae, 216 BC.
                       Walaja, 633. The early Islamic Caliphate attacking the Sasanian Persians. General: Khalid ibn al-Walid. Afterwards, the Muslims – though exhausted and depleted, went on to defeat another Persian army at Hira and eventually captured Iraq (if only temporarily).
Bukhara 1220 (Genghis Khan).
Operation Uranus, 1943  (the Soviet counter-attack against the Germans at Stalingrad). The Germans lost sight of the true center of gravity, and allowed themselves to regard the city of Stalingrad, not the Soviet armies, as their focus of operations. The focus on Stalingrad played to the strengths of the less mobile Soviet forces.
Zhukov and Vasilevsky were able to build up and hold in reserve five new tank armies. To gain battle experience, these were given limited objectives on other fronts, while for five months the rest of the army endured the fierce fighting of Stalingrad. Deception and good security was important. Any information the German high command received about the build-up was discounted since they didn’t think the Soviets capable of any large-scale mobile operations on this front. Hitler and his senior officers preferred to believe that the Soviets were constructing defensive positions.
Once the Soviets had broken the Romanian and Italian forces on the flanks, they avoided attempting to reduce the German position in Stalingrad, concentrating instead on advancing further west. On 2 February 1943, Paulus surrendered his 90 000 men to the Soviets.

5. Flanking
Examples:      Bouvines, 1214. King John of England and the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV, plus some French noblemen, versus King Philip Augustus of France. Well-controlled French cavalry attacks on the right flank managed to break the back of the allied forces. The Duke of Brabant, who had not taken part in the fighting, fled with his forces and the French cavalry could then charge into the allied centre from its flank.
The Battle of Bouvines created a French hegemony that would last until the Hundred Years War a century later, led to Frederick of Hohenstaufen and Pope Innocentius II defeating Otto IV in the war for the German Empire, and the barons of England rebelling against the weakened King John, forcing him to sign the Magna Carta.
Chancellorsville, 1863. Stonewall Jackson led the flanking movement while Lee demonstrated against the center.

6. Dominating the terrain and using the environment
Examples:      Bannockburn, 1314. The Scots exploited woods, marshland and a ravine to deny the superior English knights room to manoeuvre and gather momentum for their attacks.
                       Horice, 1423. The Hussites faction led by Jan Zizkaformed a wagon fort on hilltop, making it hard for the Ultraquist guns to bring their fire to bear, the cavalry unable to charge, and the infantry tired and disrupted after climbing the steep slopes and subject to withering fire from the Wagenburg. Thus endeth the Hussite civil war.
                       Leuthen, 1757. During the Seven Years War (1756-63), Frederick the Great of Preussia beat Charles of Lorraine’s Austrian army by feinting towards the centre while stealing a march on its left flank behind a line of low hills.

7. Echelon attack
Example:      Leuctra, 371 BC. The Thebans sending in their best troops in an extremely deep formation against the Spartan warriors on the Spartan right flank, and defeating them.

8. Committing the reserve
Examples:      Strasbourg, 357. Caesar Julian beat the Alemanni by saving the situation after they broke through his center by committing his final reserve, augmented by the camp guards.
                       Austerlitz, 1805. Napoleon feigned a weak left flank, hiding his reserve behind the Pratzen Heights plateau, and unleashing them on the Austrians when they were passing – after the Austrians had committed their reserves.

9. Blitzkrieg
Examples:     Khalkin Gol, 1939. Zhukov vs. Japanese army.
                     Operation August Storm, Manchurian Campaign, 1945.

The essential components of Blitzkrieg:
                  - Concentration of force, achieving local superiority in numbers/combat power.
                  - Extending the enemy’s line to weaken the whole, usually involving deception or limited deployments.
                  - Breakthrough at the point of weakness (requires lots of intel and recon work).
                  - Race into depth to hit a mobile reserve, spread confusion & panic, or double-envelop enemy positions.
                  - Maintaining momentum through the breakthrough point, with rapid decision-making and efficient communcations.

10. Concentration of firepower
Examples:      Carrhae, 53 BC. The Partians surrounded Marcus Crassus’ Roman army and whittled it down with an truly extraordinary amount of arrows.
                       Omdurman, 1898. Kitchener sent two years building up the infrastructure necessary, including a railway, and then slaughtered the Mahdi’s forces (after his death led by the Khalifa) with breechloader, rifled guns, Maxims, and excellent rifles when they tried to ambush him. They never even reached the British-Egyptian line.

11. Shock action
Examples:      Arsuf, 1191. A crusaders’ charge slaughtering 7 000 of the Muslim bowmen harassing them.
Balaclava, 1854. A joint British-French-Turkish expedition besieging Russian Sevastopol, receiving their supplies from the nearby harbour Balaclava. The 2 000 strong Russian cavalry tasked with taking Balaclava halted incredulously when the outnumbered British Heavy Brigade (900 strong) closed in on it. So they charged a stationary target, and after 8 minutes, the Russians began to give way.
The Heavy Brigade pursued them to the Causeway Heights before they had to stop, with their horses blown. That’s when Lord Raglan gave the order to the Light Brigade to charge to prevent the enemy from taking away their guns, but failed to specify that he was talking about the guns on the Causeway Heights.
Knights were men of substantial rank who resented discipline, not members of standing armies. In the absence of any real structure of command, the overall military commander had to impose himself by sheer force of personality and the example of his bravery.

12. Co-ordination of fire and movement
Examples:      Cerignola, 1503. Spanish general Gonzalo de Córdoba beat more numerous French army with pikesmen warding off two French cavalry charges and cannon breaking up their formation. Pikesmen and arquebusiers pursued offering mutual support.
                       The Hindenburg Line, 1918. Hamel etc. Short, creeping artillery barrages, intensive bombardments lifted a few hundred yards before the infantry reached there, close air support from the RAF allowing adjustment of artillery fire.

13. Concentration and culmination of force
Examples:  Jagdgeschwader, the Western Front, 1916-17.
                  Midway, 1942.

14. Seizing and retaining the initiative
Examples:  Eben Emael, 1940.
                  Pegasus Bridge, 1944.

15. Off-balancing and pinning
Example:      Trafalgar, 1805.

16. Mass
Example:   The Overland Campaign of the American Civil War, 1864-65. Note: This seems more of a case of using numerical superiority than actually using mass against a point or a foe.

17. Defence in depth
Examples:  Alesia, 52 BC.
                  Kursk, 1943.

18. Strategic offence and tactical defence
Examples:  Panipat, 1526. Turkish Babur went into Panipat, threatening Delfi and forcing Sultan Ibrahim to attack to defend his capital.
                  Yom Kippur, 1973.

19. Drawing the enemy
Examples:      Hattin 1187. Saladin fooled Guy of Lusignan, who’d seized the Kingdom of Jerusalem in a coup, into going out after him with all his knights, leaving the Kingdom’s cities defenceless once his army had been annihilated.
                  Napoleon in Russia, 1812.

20. Deception and feints
Examples:  Kurikara, 1183.
                  Q-ships, 1915-17.

21. Terror and psychological warfare
Examples:  Thebes, 335 BC (Alexander).
                  Palestinian terrorism, 1050-99.

22. Attrition and annihilation
Example:      Verdun, 1916.

23. Intelligence and reconnaisance
Examples:  The Battle for the Atlantic, 1941-45.
                   Cape Matapan, 1941. British Naval Intelligence learned that a strong Italian fleet had set out to attack a British convoy in the eastern Mediterranean. The Italian navy received such a thumping that it never ventured out in force in the Mediterranean again.
                  North Cape, 1943. Led to the destruction of the Scharnhorst.

24. Insurgency and guerrilla warfare
Examples:      China 1934-49.
                  Vietnam 1956-75.

25. Counter-insurgency
Example:      Malaya 1948-60.

måndag 3 januari 2011

My t-shirts, part 21: Gray Hulk

Well, it's the Hulk. What can I say? At least Peter David did some good writing for this series.

söndag 2 januari 2011

The Daily Show shaming the news media again

Jon Stewart does good.

 Though he might prefer a description like “advocacy satire,” what Mr. Stewart engaged in that night — and on earlier occasions when he campaigned openly for passage of the [9/11 responders' health care] bill — usually goes by the name “advocacy journalism.” (...)

 The Dec. 16 show focused on two targets. One was the Republicans who were blocking the bill; Mr. Stewart, in a clear effort to shame them for hypocrisy, accused them of belonging to “the party that turned 9/11 into a catchphrase.” The other was the broadcast networks (one of them being CBS, the former home of Mr. Murrow and Mr. Cronkite), which, he charged, had not reported on the bill for more than two months.

 “Though, to be fair,” Mr. Stewart said, “it’s not every day that Beatles songs come to iTunes.” (Each of the network newscasts had covered the story of the deal between the Beatles and Apple for their music catalog.) Each network subsequently covered the progress of the bill, sometimes citing Mr. Stewart by name. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, credited Mr. Stewart with raising awareness of the )

 Eric Ortner, a former ABC News senior producer who worked as a medic at the World Trade Center site on 9/11, expressed dismay that Mr. Stewart had been virtually alone in expressing outrage early on.

 “In just nine months’ time, my skilled colleagues will be jockeying to outdo one another on 10th anniversary coverage” of the attacks, Mr. Ortner wrote in an e-mail. “It’s when the press was needed most, when sunlight truly could disinfect,” he said, that the news networks were not there.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company.

Let's hope that the US news media actually learns something and comes back doing better reporting, instead of just spending fifteen minutes saluting Mr. Stewart for doing what they themselves really should have been doing in the first place.

Oh, who am I kidding – of course they won't. Still, kudos to Mr. Stewart.