onsdag 28 september 2011

I did this!

"Hey! How come Beetle got two pork chops?!"
Perception actually does work exactly like that; you're predisposed to perceive certain things that are of particular interest to you.

fredag 23 september 2011

Ira Katznelson: When Affirmative Action Was White

This is a book for people with low blood pressure, because if reading it doesn't get you riled up, I don't know what...

Here's the story, in brief:

In the early 1900s, the American South was really, really poor, and the poorest people there were the blacks, to a large extent eking out an existence in poorly paid jobs as agricultural (to a large extent seasonal) workers or house servants. During the New Deal, the federal government did try to do something for the people who were suffering economic hardship, and a sort of coalition emerged where northern Democrats wanted to help working-class families and southern Democrats also wanted to help working-class families – just not black ones. Hence, the southern Democrats in Congress, who had tenure and lots of experience in political wheeling and dealing, thanks to having rather safe seats, thanks to the massive disenfranchisement of the South's black population, guided legislation through Congress that would get lots of federal money into their states, but keep federal bureaucrats – who might insist on rules being enforced fairly and equally for both blacks and whites – out of the actual administration of the aid. This was later repeated with the G.I. Bill, much to the detriment of black veterans. With administration of the bill largely decentralized to local white officials, bankers etc, they were largely screwed.

All sorts of dirty tricks were used. Unemployment benefits? Well, sure, you can get them… but you have to have had continuous employment to qualify. So you're a black agricultural laborer who only gets badly paid seasonal employment? Well, tough on you then. And besides, if they get unemployment benefits, they might not want to get back to back-breaking work for a pittance of a salary.

Social Security benefits? Well, sure, you can get them… unless, of course you're domestic help or work in agriculture, the two areas where blacks were hugely overrepresented.

Minimum wages? Well, fine… But not across racial lines down here in the South, where that would mean having to pay blacks much more than today – or, to quote Florida Rep. James Mark Wilcox:

“There has always been a difference in the wage scale of white and colored labor. So long as Florida people are permitted to handle the matter, the delicate and perplexing problem can be adjusted; but the Federal Government knows no color line and of necessity it cannot make any distinction between the races (...) You cannot put the Negro and the white man in the same basis and get away with it.”

Etc. The federal government and the northern Democrats went along to get something done, at least, and the South profited mightily from the inflow of capital – but the black population was seriously underrepresented among those who gained from this aid.

Unions were very important to non-Southern Democrats representing large industrial constituencies, and the South was willing to support their wishes for union and labor rights provided the statutes didn’t threaten Jim Crow. Southern incumbents traded their votes for the exclusion of farmworkers and maids. But as unionization threatened to fuel civil rights activism, they joined with northern Republicans to crack down on it with the Taft-Hadley Act, which helped stop unionization in the South. Instead, unions would concentrate on areas where they were already strong, and instead of fighting for a more advanced welfare state for all Americans, negotiate with employers to secure private pension and health insurance provisions for union members.

Like I said, this is a book to raise your blood pressure. But does it make the case for current affirmative action? I don't know, really. There are so many poor and generally underprivileged people in the USA today that perhaps you should just target programs according to income level or somesuch – but be prepared for the current Republican party to racialize the issue anyway, like for example Ronald Reagan did in his campaigning, talking about "welfare queens" and "young buck". As can be seen from some of the responses to Barack Obama being elected president, racism and race-baiting is still a powerful force that can be used for populist purposes if you don't have any policies to offer that actually make sense.

Highly recommended.

(Here's a review by somebody far more knowledgeable than I on these issues. And here is another one.)

torsdag 22 september 2011

Heroes inherit their wealth, villains earn it

Julian Sanchez  makes an interesting point. Worth reading in full.

Just off the top of my head, here are some of the most prominent superhero characters who have, for some significant chunk of their histories, been portrayed as CEOs of large corporations:
• Bruce Wayne (Batman)
• Oliver Queen (Green Arrow)
• Tony Stark (Iron Man)
• Ted Kord (Blue Beetle)

Here are the first four CEO supervillains who spring to mind:
• Lex Luthor
• Wilson Fisk (Kingpin)
• Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias)
• Norman Osborn (Green Goblin) (...)

While the pattern in comics inverts the meritocratic ideal that seems to rule in most modern American fiction, it fits quite naturally with a pre-capitalist aristocratic ethos, which persisted at least through the early 20th century in the form of Old Money’s contempt for the nouveau riche.  Jane Jacobs, in her bookSystems of Survival, contrasted this aristocratic view, which she dubbed the “Guardian” moral complex, with “bourgeois” or “mercantile” ethics. In this worldview, while wealth and the leisure time it affords may be necessary preconditions of cultivating certain noble qualities (whether that’s appreciation of classical art and literature, or the martial, deductive, and scientific skills of a masked crimefighter), the grubby business of acquiring money is inherently corrupting. The ideal noble needs to have wealth, while being too refined to  be much concerned with becoming wealthy. It’s permissible for Stark and Kord to be largely responsible for the success of their companies because their contribution is essentially a side effect of their exercise of their intellectual virtues. Along similar lines, while the Fantastic Four have plainly become enormously wealthy from the income stream generated by Reed Richards’ many patents, I don’t recall many scenes in which we see Richards stepping out of the lab to apply his intelligence directly to their commercialization: His inventions are presumably sold or licensed to others who concern themselves with transforming Richards’ genius into cash.
A similar pattern holds for literally noble or aristocratic power in comics. Princess Diana (Wonder Woman) and T’Challa (Black Panther) are hereditary royalty. Doctor Doom and Magneto are members of despised and oppressed minority groups (Doom is Roma; Magneto a Jewish mutant) who actively seize leadership of Latveria and Genosha, respectively. Democratic power doesn’t fare too much better: Lex Luthor was briefly president of the United States. 

måndag 19 september 2011

Jodorowsky & Boucq: Bouncer. The One Armed Gunslinger

Alexandro Jodorowsky is probably best known for his work scripting L'Incal for Moebius, but he's also written quite a number of other comics. Of those, I've read Juan Solo (English title: Son of the Gun) which I thought was pretty a much a mess, and too violent. In it, Jodorowsky seemed, if I recall correctly, to be charting a person's voyage from violent gangster hell to some sort of personal redemption, but the road there took too many weird and unnecessary turns and wasn't worth it for me, even though I'm a fan of Georges Bess, the artist for that story. François Boucq, the artist, has done his own writing for some decidedly surrealistic, very funny, and extremely well-drawn comics. The art for  Bouncer is also top-notch; a comparison with Jean Giraud's Blueberry art is probably inevitable, and even though nobody beats Giraud in my opinion, Boucq still doesn't come badly off in the comparison.

I've seen a lot of people praising the earlier Bouncer books; I haven't read those, but based on this one, I can't concur. It's basically a mess.

Here's the setup: The one-armed gunslinger Bouncer works in a saloon owned by a disfigured man, Lord Diablo, who obviously cares a lot for him. He's in love with what seems to be the saloon manager, or possibly a prostitute; Naomi. By the luck of the straw, Bouncer becomes the town's new hangman when the previous one dies, and is reviled for it by the townspeople (even though they, thirty seconds before throwing all sorts of insults at him, were shouting at him to pull the lever to execute the murderer). Meanwhile, the big man in the county, a Clark Cooper, is trying to buy Lord Diablo's saloon, threatening to do what he does with the small farms he's busy gobbling up – burning it down unless he gets what he wants. Bouncer throws him out. He buys guns for five hoodlums and sends them to kill Bouncer. He also bribes the town sheriff to back up their story.

Bouncer kills the five assassins, and does nothing about the betrayal by his supposed friend the sheriff; he doesn't even quit his position as the town hangman. Instead, he proposes to the Naomi, and on their wedding day, the black man she loved when she was younger but hasn't seen since then comes into town to register the goldmine he's discovered. She spots him, and leaves Bouncer to follow him. Then, Clark Cooper decides to take over their goldmine, so they're framed for a murder they didn't commit – in fact, Cooper has enticed his sons into trying to kill each other – and it's pretty darn obvious that it's a fake charge. Nevertheless, the sheriff goes along with it, and when Bouncer refuses to hang the woman he loves and her lover, he is first knocked unconscious, and is then forced to drink copious amounts of whisky. When he's so dead drunk that he's docile, the sheriff, the judge and other upstanding citizens lead him and the prisoners out to the gallows, puts his hand on the lever to hang them, and pushes it.

They hang.

Bouncer takes a revenge of sorts by helping a family stand up against Clark Cooper's hired murderers when they come to kill them, and then, wounded, takes refuge in an opium den – where the beautiful young Chinese woman running it has fallen in love with him and nurses him back to health. Etc.

There's a lot more happening in this rather fat graphic novel – 170+ pretentious pages – but it's mostly of the same variety. Old Western clichés are piled on top of each other, strung together by a not-very-believable plot, with odd sorts of relations between the characters which may be intended to be refreshingly original but instead only serves to make the story less believable. The aforementioned Blueberry also uses a lot of Western clichés, but it takes them seriously, and moreover, takes the job of stringing them together with a believable story containing human relations, interactions and reactions that the reader can believe in seriously. Jodorowsky seems to think that if he only puts his character through enough hell, it'll make for a good story; but it doesn't. Instead, Bouncer reads like the work of an inexperienced scriptwriter who hasn't learned his craft, and who ignores storytelling basics in order to throw out what he (mistakenly) thinks are some really cool situations – much like a lot of really crappy movies, like Mission Impossible II or Rambo.

Like I said, this is a mess. Towards the end, Jodorowsky even throws in some pseudo-mystic, New Age-y stuff from Bouncer's Amerindian father. While it may go some ways towards redeeming Bouncer in the story, it certainly doesn't redeem the story itself. It just seems tacked on for no good reason.

I can only say that I'm sorry that Boucq couldn't get a scriptwriter that matched his excellent art – or that Jodorowsky didn't have an editor that could take his basically unfinished story and made it work before it went to the artist to be drawn. Not recommended.

A four-page sample from the book can be found at the Humanoids homepage.

söndag 18 september 2011

Bryan Talbot: The Naked Artist. Comic Book Legends

Comics artist and writer Bryan Talbot (The Tale of One Bad Rat, among other things) has written a book compiling a huge load of gossip about comics biz people, mainly British comics creators and US. superhero creators. It's both anecdotes he's got first-hand knowledge about and those that are the stuff of legend, told and retold among the professional brotherhood. Some of them are a bit meh, some are absolutely brilliant, but most of them are at least entertaining, or even highly entertaining.

You'll learn what can happen at signings – especially if you bother Simon Bisley too much – and what happens it you foolishly offer British comics creators free drinks, and why it's in many cases probably better to just immensely enjoy reading the work of your favorite comics writer rather than actually palling around with him.

My favorite anecdote in this volume isn't all that funny, though. It has The Question artist Denys Cowan having made loads and loads of money selling art and doing sketches at a San Diego Comic Con, and deciding to pay off the hotel bill with some of that cash rather than carrying all of it around.

Having paid the bill, Cowan goes back to his room to pack up his bags. After a while, he hears an odd sound outside his room, so he opens the door to check it out – staring straight into the barrel of a Highway Patrolman's gun.

Denys Cowan is black, you see, so when he showed the hotel that he had a lot of cash, the conclusion they reached was: drug dealer. It took Cowan twenty minutes to convince the officer that his earnings were legit.

Anyway, the book also carries illustrations by by Hunt Emerson, whose Firkin the Cat and especially the excellent Lady Chatterley's Lover are highly recommended, and who's characteristically funny here as well. Recommended.

tisdag 13 september 2011

Parasites, moochers, generations of utterly irresponsible people...

Why my dream vacation isn't going to the U.S. anymore, but rather visiting Versailles or the museums of London, or something. Too many crazies and, well, creeps get a too free rein in their politics and media.

(This has to be one of The Daily Show's better efforts – although, in fairness, with that kind of fodder the satire practically writes itself. And I have to wonder, do these right-wing bloviators have any sort of shame whatever? I mean, any?)

Lewis Trondheim: Little Nothings Vol. 4. My Shadow in the Distance.

Lewis Trondheim is one of the modern biggies in French comics, and justly so. Not only is he very productive, he also maintains a high quality on his output. He may be best known for his Dungeon series, but he has done so much more, in a variety of genres (indeed, even the Dungeon series may perhaps be said to contain several different genres). The Little Nothings (Les petits riens) series collects his autobiographical, comics-format blog posts in a 126-page books.

The theme for this book – a theme is discernible – is Trondheim's travels to various comics events all over the world and his parallel problems with polyps and the nasal and even eye complications they cause, eventually leading to an operation. Trondheim tells about his various worries (especially in connection with his health problem and the unpleasant operation) and reactions to the vicissitudes of life and travel, and also references the somewhat odd discussions he has with colleagues on the science of zombies – like how could zombies survive if they went for cows instead of people and how Peyo's The Black Smurfs was in fact the first "living dead" story.

These one-page little vignettes are drawn in a simple, clear style that gets the point across in an effective manner, and beautifully painted in watercolors. They range from personal semi-philosophical observations to semi-sarcastic comments on everyday occurrences and set-backs. A lot of it concerns Trondheims own little neurotic tendencies; my favorite is probably his running gag about how he while packing for each voyage feels that he's getting to be a rather experienced, savvy traveller, and how he then invariably fails to pack something he needs to bring with him. (Yes, I do in fact at times get some almost Peanuts-ish vibes from this book, why do you ask?)

In fact, I love this – it's simple and clear (due to a combination of the ordinary-life subject matter and the clear line drawing style) and beautiful while not lacking depth (those lovely watercolors… plus some of Trondheim's observations are quite good). It's also at times quite charming, and a joy to read. Warmly recommended.

Get a peek at the contents via Amazon.

söndag 11 september 2011

Mattias Elftorp: Våra gator... ("Our streets...")

This is a 16-page mini-comic under Seriefrämjandet's Dystopi imprint. In it, Elftorp's heroine Information has taken some heavy drugs and hallucinates that she's flying during a "Reclaim the Streets"-type event. The police arrives to break up the event, and TV sets start raining down from the surrounding skyscrapers, putting a swift end to the police effort. The end.

The results, apparently a good thing in Elftorp's world.

Basically, the ideational content of the book is that a) it's right to take over the streets for what you want to do, regardless of what the authorities or other people inhabiting the city think or say; b) taking drugs will make you feel like you're flying, and doesn't have any discernible averse effects other than perhaps not being able to react quickly enough when the police arrives; c) using extreme, quite likely lethal violence against the police is A-OK.

In other words, it reads like a parody of violent and stupid anarchism, but unfortunately, Elftorp seems to be quite sincere. More's the pity.

Even though a questionable – to say the least – content can't be redeemed by a skilled execution, looking at the style to find something worth praising in this book, I find nothing. The art is sketchy and, to be honest, looks like crap, and the writing is ponderous and trite – "A powerful voice screams out its anger and its hope for fundamental change", which quite frankly isn't any more sophisticated prose than I'd expect from a moderately talented high school student.

So what you get is basically egotism combined with drug  propaganda and a vote in favor of extreme violence. Anti-recommended.

lördag 10 september 2011

Horst Schröder: Framtiden i serierutor ("The future in comics panels")

I've previously reviewed Horst Schröder's book about the earliest U.S. newspaper comics, De första serierna (The earliest comic strips). This is the second volume in what was intended as a series of books on comics history, and which also became a series of books on comics history – but unfortunately only a series of two.

Schröder has a background in history of literature; his doctor's thesis was about American science fiction literature, so he has a solid knowledge base on this subject, and he starts off the book with an essay on the sci-fi genre. He then proceeds to present quite a bunch of sci-fi comics, according to the model established in the previous book: about five pages per strip, giving a short description and some analysis – often incorporating a political perspective – and some pictorial examples.

Schröder presents strips like Buck Rogers, Jeff Hawke and Valerian and Laureline, as well as works by creators like Basil Wolverton, Jack Kirby and George Metzger, and he does it well. He writes a crisp, lively prose (probably aided by some editorial assistance from fellow comics expert Göran Ribe), and is clearly knowledgeable about his subject. There are still remnants of a 1970s, somewhat naive leftism/Marxism in his analyses (the book is from 1981), but that's just about the only thing I can find to complain about. This book sets out to introduce a bunch of sci-fi comics to an interested public, and that's what it does – well. If you read Swedish and like comics, it's well worth your time, and it's a shame that it became the last book in what could have been an excellent series.


Back from the comics store, part 2

I've been remiss at updating the blog recently – quite a bit of work and school and a spot of asthma has gotten in the way of that. I'll try to rectify things with a bunch of reviews later today.

Hate and fear as a business model

Shorter Bryan Fischer (Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association): "See, I'm only talking about the extremist Muslims. But no moderate Muslims exist at all. Thus, all Muslims must be under surveillance, and stopped at the borders."

"Why do these mosques have to be infiltrated and monitored? Because the mythical 'moderate' Muslims aren’t reporting dangerous Muslims to authorities in sufficient numbers to make a difference. By their silence, they are complicit in the deeds of others. 

Of course, most Muslims in America  do not want to blow up innocent people. They are not the Muslims we have to worry about. According to recent polling data, 81% of America’s Muslims do not support violent jihad. The disturbing truth here is that means 19% of America’s Muslims do. If there are roughly 6 million Muslims in America, this means that 1.2 million followers of Allah in the United States right now are perfectly happy with the prospect of innocent Americans being blown to bits in the name of Muhammad.

If there truly are “moderate” Muslims in the U.S., then job one for them is identifying and reporting these 1.2 million ticking time bombs to authorities. If they won’t, then we must monitor them all.  (...)

On my program this week, retired Gen. Jerry Boykin, one of the original Delta Force members, said clearly that we must secure our borders to deal with the threat posed by Muslim immigration and we must stop the building of mosques. He believes that Islam has no First Amendment protections because it is not a religion so much as a totalitarian ideology that is utterly hostile to Western values."

Note also how for Mr. Fisher, when one Muslim is guilty of something, if other Muslims didn't discover his crimes and turn him in, they're all guilty. Anybody care to apply that particular form of jurisprudence on their own nationality, or ethnic or religious group?

No, I didn't think so.

fredag 9 september 2011