lördag 27 augusti 2011

Another post on US politics...

The election is, after all, getting ever-closer.

Why I consider the US  malgoverned and have long since abandoned my youthful aspirations of living or even visiting there:

Along with Simmons — who won permission to build a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in Texas, a project that promises to generate hundreds of millions of dollars — The Times found dozens of examples in which major donors to [Texas governor Rick] Perry have benefited during his tenure.

Auto magnate B.J. "Red" McCombs, who contributed nearly $400,000 to the governor, is the primary financial backer for a Formula One racetrack to be built near Austin. The state has pledged $25 million a year in subsidies to support the project.

The Houston-based engineering firm of James Dannenbaum, who gave more than $320,000 to Perry, received multiple transportation contracts from the state. In 2007, Perry appointed Dannenbaum to a coveted post on the University of Texas' board of regents.

A Mississippi-based poultry company run by Joe Sanderson, who gave $165,000 to Perry, received a $500,000 grant from a state business incentive fund championed by Perry to open a chicken hatchery and processing plant in Waco.

 Copyright 2011 Los Angeles Times.

Rachel Maddow comments:

onsdag 24 augusti 2011

My t-shirts, part 45: Royal Sound-Ranging Platoon

OK, so it's a sweater and not a t-shirt, but it still has a funny picture, drawn by the brother of one of the guys in the Royal Sound-Ranging Platoon from when I did my military service at the artillery regiment A4 in Östersund. I was a bit worried beforehand what the officers would be like, but it turned out they were pretty much like most people – some good, some not so good, the occasional idiot – only somewhat more knowledgeable about military matters. When I much later started my Home Guard career, I had the chance to meet more Swedish military officers and learn a bit more about them than I did when I was 19-20.

Turns out they're still like most people – some good, some bad, the occasional idiot – but they're usually very good at their job. I have a lot of respect for the Swedish officer corps. They know their stuff.

fredag 19 augusti 2011

Paul Krugman: The Accidental Theorist

What is a public intellectual? According to Wikipedia, it is (roughly) an intellectual who takes important debate to the public.

(This is a pretty darn awful cover, if you ask me.)

I'd add a rider to that definition: the public intellectual needs to be doing so in an intelligent, elucidating manner. That rider eliminates quite the number of so-called "public intellectuals" who are merely propagandists (like most of the op-ed writes of the Weekly Standard, the National Review or the Wall Street Journal) or cranks either blowing up personal hang-ups to ridiculous proportions, or putting out a lot of garbage under the pretense that it's worthy of somebody's attention. (I'd nominate somebody like Jan Myrdal in this category, for – for example – going to China and being totally snookered by the Maoist dictatorship, and then propagating that vicious regime as some sort of "model" for the rest of the world.)

Paul Krugman is, to me, pretty close to the ideal of what a public intellectual should be. He is a prolific writer with not only a twice-weekly NYT column and a blog, but several books under his belt as well – some of them economics textbooks, some of them essays on current economic history – and a number of articles, in journals as well as aimed at the general public. The Accidental Theorist falls under the "collections of essays aimed at educating the general public" banner. In it, Prof. Krugman tells us, among other things, that

• No, losing jobs in one sector of the economy due to productivity growth doesn't mean that the whole economy is tanking; rather, other sectors will usually pick up the slack if you don't have policies that actively work against job creation. (This doesn't apply to the current crisis, where the job loss is in practically all sectors of the economy and not caused by increased productivity.)

• Programs that help the working poor is a Good Thing, and should be fought tooth and nail for.

• Fine phrases will unfortunately never overrule the reality that hard, realistic analysis describes. You have to base your policies on that analysis, not on your own wishful thinking. (This point was made in connection with French economic policy, but also got me thinking of the back-of-the-envelope calculation Prof. Krugman did of the stimulus the Obama administration was trying to get through Congress despite the united obstructionism of the Republicans and some unwilling Democrats as well as the demand loss that it was supposed to compensate for, and how he – from the numbers, mind you, not ideology – concluded that the stimulus was too small and wouldn't be enough to kick-start the economy. It did stop the bleeding – see, for example, here – but it wasn't enough. His prediction was validated by events, unlike the ideologically driven and/or just plain paid for "stimulus doesn't work, stimulus doesn't work"-chanting of bought-and-paid-for pundits like the ones at the Weekly Standard or the National Review.)

• No, the right-wing meme that tax cuts pay for themselves isn't true; nor was it when it was used by the Reagan administration to get the US started on its current, long-lasting huge deficits trajectory. (And no, the economic recovery under Reagan wasn't particularly awesome.)

• Right-wing propagandists like Richard Armey et al lie frequently, and shamelessly. Exposing those lies is pretty much a full-time job, since the lies – being useful to a rich and influential segment of society – return again and again; again, frequently being mouthed by bought-and-paid-for pundits (and so-called "scholars" of equally so-called "think tanks"). Yes, that applies to supply-side economics as well. Especially to supply-side economics.

• Globalization isn't ruining the world; the rich world has to accommodate to the fact that competition is increasing, but that can be done without crashing our economies or our socio-economic safety nets, and the many millions of people in the Third World whose standard of living improves if they can get relatively decent work and use trade to improve their living standards are better off than they would be if locked into the previous status quo.

That's pretty much half the book right there; the second half, you'll have to read all on your own. And you should. If you're a liberal, for affirmation and for getting the necessary arguments to stand up against strident left- and right-wingers. If you're a left- or right-winger, to get a different perspective from your own, and one that is very, very well argued.

Professor Krugman is indeed a gem of a public intellectual, writing clearly and understandably on important subjects. (Here is a recent example of him performing that important task yet again.) This book is warmly recommended, and I'll wind this down by quoting it directly:

"Particularly depressing for anyone who would like to believe in intellectual progress is the reappearance of decades- or even centuries-old fallacies, stated as if they were profound and novel insights – as if those who propound them have transcended conventional views, when in fact they have merely failed to understand them."

Another review of the book can be found here.

I did this!

Tried to liven this cover up a little by having pictures of the strips inside on top of it, instead of as usual running the logos of just three of them. Couldn't quite squeeze in a Garfield image among the other six, unfortunately.

söndag 14 augusti 2011

Storytelling 10: The unknown threat

I'm a fan of Chad Carpenter's Tundra strip. This one is a variant on the "the character is unaware of something" sort of joke that was also exemplified in our first installment in this series. Carpenter tells his whole story in one panel and with only one character, but the basic premise is the same: the reader is aware of something the character is not, and the basic humor emanates from that.

Carpenter spruces up the gag a bit with the character's line – the "nibble" he felt is clearly a massive understatement in relation to the giant bite that just led to the disappearance of not only his fishing buddy, but the entire rear half of their boat.

(Note the hat from the fishing buddy floating in the rubble – it is there to inform you, the reader, that this isn't some crazy person talking to himself but rather a normal person who simply doesn't know there's nobody left to listen to him.)

onsdag 10 augusti 2011

Storytelling 9: Time and words/speech balloons

Time and pacing are important aspects of comics storytelling. Usually, in humor strips, you go for a snappy last panel with the punchline. Here, the point of the gag is Jeremy sitting half-dozing at the table for a very long period of time. This is shown by having the events of the day pass by in the background, but also through the impossibly long balloon where the word "trött" ("tired") is drawn out over no less than 24 hours.

So here creators Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman use two modes to convey the how tired (and bored) Jeremy is: the passage of time in the background, and how he draws out the word "tired" – and half the joke is that he just couldn't do that in the real world. His mother's "maybe you need more rest" just adds a nice touch of (likely unintended – by her, not by Borgman and Scott, of course) irony.

tisdag 9 augusti 2011

My t-shirts, part 44: Snoopy in the sun

Much as I love Peanuts and Snoopy, that recipe isn't really for me, I must confess. I've tried just lying outside, soaking up the sun, and it bored me to tears. I've also tried lying in the sun and reading, but the sun just takes away the energy to read, so the end result is pretty much similar after a while. Nowadays, I just stay in the shadow and read. That relaxes me.

söndag 7 augusti 2011

Brian Michael Bendis & Romita Jr.: The Avengers Vol 1 (2011)

OK, so this is what I chose to start with from yesterday's haul; it collects Avengers vol 4, #1-6. The story in brief (sans spoilers): Steve Rogers is reforming the Avengers. Immortus/Kang the Conqueror suddenly appears before them, and after the short but obligatory fight tells them that time itself is broken. Ultron has taken over the future, and can't be defeated – except by the Avengers' children, and once in power, they're going to destroy Time. Kang can't have that, so if the Avengers don't fix things, he's going to destroy everything – because what's the point of being the ruler of time if time doesn't exist, anyway?

Kang then returns to the future, a future where he has some rather surprising allies as well as an unexpected boss. The Avengers remain, debating what to do and to what extent they can trust Kang. Eventually, they decide that they have to construct a time machine to check his claims out, and since Reed Richards isn't in, and Iron Man doesn't trust Vincent van Doom, they approach the Kree Marvel Boy Noh-Varr instead. While the time machine is under construction, they are attacked, first somewhat inexplicably by Wonder Man, then by creatures from another future led by Apocalypse. A massive fight with the latter ensues before Iron Man manages to solve the situation in a rather clever way.

Then, Wolverine, Iron Man, Noh-Varr and Captain America go to the future to try and settle the situation there – arriving right into the battle royal between Ultron and one of several armies Kang has assembled to defeat him (failing every time) – whereas the rest of the team go to contain the outbreak of chaos that has hit New York City due to the disturbances in the timestream, including a Martian invasion (complete with Killraven) and Galactus.

So the part of the team remaining in our time has its work cut out for it, but it doesn't really work as much more than a placeholder for them while the real story is resolved in the future. That story is, on the other hand rather good, so I won't spoil it for you with details.

Anyway, it's a decent read; Bendis tendency towards the glib in his dialogue veers into "annoyingly glib" territory in the first chapter or so, but once the action starts, he stays clear of that trap. Some of the action sequences aren't really necessary but seem thrown in just to have some action sequences, but that is pretty much par for the course. The second half, when you get the explanations for much of what has gone before and various plot twists are thrown at the reader and elegantly resolved, is a rollicking good read, and lifts the book into "recommended" territory. The Wonder Man bit is almost completely irrelevant to the story, but I expect that it is part of a subplot that is to be resolved later.

John Romita Jr. is his old competent self with massive heroes and villains, good storytelling and excellent posing of the characters, well worth your while. Klaus Janson does the inking, so it's of course great – except a couple of pages in the last chapter that seem rather rushed; but they may be by Tom Palmer who also contributed (deadline crunch?).

Finally, big kudos to colorist Dean White who does one of the best coloring jobs I've seen on a mainstream Marvel title. He doesn't overwhelm the line art with colors, but is capable of some rather nice painting and spectacular effects when it suits the story. The end result is very good; helping the storytelling along, not intruding on it, and looking darn nice in the bargain. Again, kudos for that.

So, how good is this Avengers collection, then? Well, it's not a masterpiece but it's certainly recommended; a classical Marvel tale about time travel and threats to the Multiverse with plenty of plot twists. Good, solid and nice-looking superhero entertainment – and that's nothing to sneeze at.

lördag 6 augusti 2011

fredag 5 augusti 2011

Modern Masters Vol. 3: Bruce Timm

Eric Nolen-Weathington's Modern Masters series features substantial interviews with great comics creators, which is something I always appreciate. (By "substantial", I mean that Nolen-Weathington gets into the details of what makes the creator tick, his influences and how he approaches his craft, but doesn't go into various theories about this or that more esoteric subject to show off or to make himself look "intellectual", something that put me off the early Comics Journal interviews.)

Anyway, this book highlights the career of animator and comics artist Bruce Timm, and does so very very well. Timm tells about his start in the animation business and his initially unsuccessful attempts to break into the comics industry, who his major influences as an artist were, and the learning process that would eventually lead him to some very successful projects – like the animated Batman, Superman and Justice League shows. That would have been enough to make this a reasonably interesting book, but elevating it to very nearly must-read status is the fact that he and Nolen-Weathington also discuss the creative process behind his work in detail, and that it is richly illustrated throughout by Timm's designs and storyboards. It then wraps up with 20+ pages of pinups in both color and black-and-white, but that is unfortunately the weakest part of the book. The pinup girls and the posing heroes don't stand out in such a manner as to become really interesting; you've seen it all before, and Timm's artistic talent isn't mainly in this territory IMO; while he certainly draws pretty (if cartoony) girls, they're usually not sufficiently erotic nor rendered beautifully enough to  merit the full-page treatment – even though he is very good with colors.

On the other hand, when presented in connection with the interview in the book and in a slightly smaller format, I often find his drawings quite beautiful. Timm presents himself in the book as storyteller first and foremost, and I would agree with that – his drawings work best in the context of a story.

Black Canary. Note how beautifully the he spots the blacks on her
sleeves to tell the story of both the creasing and the texture of the fabric.

In a special, shorter chapter, TImm enumerates his greatest influences among comics artists – Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, John Buscema, Wally Wood, Alex Toth, Frank Frazetta, Jim Steranko and Mike DeCarlo – which isn't really surprising when take a careful look at his art and his storytelling. From Kirby, for example, the staging and poses, from Kurtzman, the pacing of the storytelling, from Buscema muscle shapes and posing, from Wood shadows and lightplay, etc. I would have thought that there might be some Frank Robbins there as well, but nope – though Robbins is mentioned later on in the interview.

Timm's road into the animation and comics businesses is interesting, but it's when Nolen-Weathington turns the subject to the whys and hows of creating the various shows and comics Timm has produced, and goes into the details of some of particular episodes, that the book really shines. First of all because Timm himself is very forthcoming about what is done and the reasoning behind various choices, but also – credit where credit is due – because Nolen-Weathington knows the subject matter well and is able to engage Timm in a dialogue on it. I've noted that comics creators often appreciate it when they're interviewed by somebody who actually knows what he's talking about and can ask intelligent – sometimes even perhaps slightly provocative – questions. Nolen-Weathington falls in this category, and I doff my hat in his general direction.

Timm tells about the selection process to get the right lineup of Justice League members that can play off each other in the best fashion; how he starts out with pretty clichéd dialogue as more or less "placeholders" in a story, going over it towards the end to polish it up, retaining the general meaning but moving towards better dialogue, and how sometimes because of unforeseen time constraints, more of the clichés will remain in the story than intended; how him penciling a story a bit loosely – because a lot of what he does, he does in the inking process– and then handing it over to somebody else to ink to save time might not always work out because the inker has too much respect for his pencils and can't let loose on his own; and many other interesting tidbits about the creative process in both animation and comics, and throughout it all, you're also offered a cornucopia of excellent illustrations. Of course it's warmly recommended.

Look at how beutifully the highlights of Talia's black hair shows off both shape
and, yes, texture.  (I got some strong Steranko vibes off this picture, I might add.)

(If you don't have the money to spend on buying books, you can do what I did and borrow it at the specialized comics library in Stockholm, Serieteket. And they're on Facebook!)

onsdag 3 augusti 2011

My t-shirts, part 43: The real reason dinosaurs became extinct

Well, what can I say? This is one of Gary Larson's most brilliant cartoons, and that's saying something. Not only is the concept of the cartoon hilarious, but the looks on the faces of those 'saurs when they're sneaking their smokes are priceless. He's the master, and much missed... even though I do like Chad Carpenter's Tundra.