lördag 21 januari 2012

The truth about zombies

Why Ezra Klein (and his co-bloggers – or sub-bloggers, since he's the boss? – like Suzy Khimm) is invaluable: Where else but on his Wonkblog would you find a link to an article about three actual medical case studies of real zombies?

The cases studies were reported by British anthropologist Roland Littlewood and Haitian doctor Chavannes Douyon and concerned three individuals identified as zombies after they had apparently passed away. (...) 

[O]n the cultural level, zombies are identified by specific characteristics – they cannot lift up their heads, have a nasal intonation, a fixed staring expression, they carry repeated purposeless actions and have limited and repetitive speech.

This means that they are easily identified by the community and Littlewood and Douyon’s study was a medical investigation into three ‘returned zombies’ – each of which was identified as a member of the family who had died and who had returned with the characteristic features. (...) 

FI showed no neurological damage but was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, a very withdrawn form of psychosis. WD was found to have brain damage, probably from lack of oxygen, and epilepsy, which could be treated with drugs. MM was found to a developmental learning disability, probably caused by her alcoholism when her mother was pregnant with her.

And not only does that article describe this actual multiple case study, it also links to an article on the potential role of neurotoxins in zombiefication:

Davis hypothesized that the main ingredient of the coupe poudre was tetrodotoxin, ingestion of which usually causes death by paralysis. In sub-lethal doses, however, it causes a significant reduction in heart rate and metabolic activity, and puts one into a state in which they are completely paralysed but fully conscious. (...)

According to Davis, the irritant contained in the powder causes small wounds on the skin surface, through which the tetrodotoxin enters the bloodstream. The victim is pronounced dead, and buried alive. A few days later, the sorcerer returns to the burial site and disinters the "body".

The sorcerer then administers another cocktail of drugs that leaves the victim in a permanent state of delirium and disorientation. This second powder is thought to contain atropine and scopolamine, toxic and dissociative hallucinogenic compounds derived from the plants Datura stramonium (left) and Datura metel (both of which are known in Haiti as the "zombie cucumber"). (...)

Some see the hypothesis proposed by Davis as the only plausible explanation for zombification. Others, however, are critical of Davis' methods, and sceptical of his findings. It has been argued, for example, that the coupe poudre samples obtained by Davis did not contain sufficient amounts of tetrodotoxin to have any effect on humans. 

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The internet. You gotta love it.

Svenska teckningar, 1700-talet ("Swedish drawings, the 1700s")

The Swedish National Museum tends to publish books about their exhibits, which is excellent. Not only because it gives those of us who don't live in or close to Stockholm the opportunity to enjoy and learn from their exhibits, but also because it conserves the exhibit for later "visitors" (or revisits, for those who had the fortune of being able to visit it in the first place). This isn't, if I've understood things correctly, a book based on an actual exhibit but another and very admirable part of their mission: sharing the wealth of knowledge that resides in the institution with the citizens who pay for its work.

This book does three things. It offers an overview of the artistic milieu of the 1700s, gives brief biographies of some of the most important Swedish artists of that century, and shows samples of their work – drawings, that is. The artists showcased worked was in different areas like sculpture, interior design, or painting, but here, the emphasis is on their drawing skills.

Carl Gustaf Pilo, preparatory drawing/wash for (sadly unfinished) painting of the coronation of Gustaf III.

As I've noted in previous posts, the 1700s set the stage for developing a class of skilled artists and craftsmen in a variety of disciplines thanks to the massive effort to build the new Royal Palace. Not only did it offer work for the skilled Swedes that already existed (and their apprentices), a school was instituted where the imported French masters would teach talented Swedes their skills. A huge number of Swedish artists would benefit from this education, which like the French school it was patterned on would start by letting students learn anatomical details from pictures, moving on to copying whole works and not until they'd learned appropriate shading and rendering techniques having them start drawing from life – sculptures at first, only later moving on to live models. Guillaume Taraval was the first teacher, later assisted by sculptor Jacques-Philippe Bouchardon.

Carl Larsson imagines Taraval's painting school (Malmö Art Museum).
This is a great book. It introduces some artists who never became popular enough to really make it into the collective consciousness of even reasonably well educated Swedes, offers a look at work by large figures in the Swedish art canon that isn't well known, and offers overviews the lives of those artists. I'm impressed with the drawing skills of some of these artists, surprised at the weakness of the sketches of some others, and fascinated by the preparatory work done in sketch format for the paintings/sculptures that would be the ultimate results of some other of these drawings. Louis Masreliez, Jean Eric Rehn, Carl Hårleman, Carl Gustaf Pilo, etc… There are masters aplenty in this book, and pictures aplenty as well, accompanied by an informative, knowledgeable narrative. Thus, very much worth your time, and obviously recommended.

Johan Sevenbom, study of workers hauling a stone slab.

Sevenbom, landscape painting of Stockholm (Wikipedia).

onsdag 18 januari 2012

Grin and Bare It! #s 2, 12 & 13

Now, far be it from me to complain about pictures of scantily clad or even nude women. Seeing as how I don't really think there is anything more beautiful in the world than the female form, it would be pretty hypocritical of me to pretend that I dislike watching it. However…

…as with practically everything else, a lot depends on how it is done.

Grin and Bare It! is essentially 48 pages of one-page gags, most of them old bawdy jokes retold in comics form. That's the first problem – not only are plenty of the jokes old enough that I've heard or read them before, they're also usually not all that great. They're thus in dire need of the boost a pretty, nude girl can offer. The second problem, however, is that those pretty, nude girls aren't all that common, because the various artists (which are more than a dozen) aren't usually good enough to really heighten the gags. One problem is that while the girls certainly are curvaceous, they're not in the elegant sort of cartoony style they'd really need to be, and the artists too often can't offer the nice flow of action and natural body language that the cartoony style really should allow them to capture.

So basically, Grin and bare It! fails the funny criterion (not totally, there are some chuckles to be had, just not all that many of them; especially when compared to really funny comics), and also the beauty criterion – with one big exception: Dany.

Dany started out in the comics business with the famous writer Greg, doing the kids' comic Olivier Ramenau, which quickly went from "fairy tale-ish" to "funny adventure with almost inappropriately hot female characters" He's done realistic comics as well, like Histoire sans héros with veteran comics scripter Van Hamme, but I'd guess he's best known for his erotic comics, which are funny and with plenty of incredibly hot cartoony girls.

I'd be quite prepared to recommend a Dany book just because he's such an elegant artist, but there just isn't enough of his stuff in Grin and Bare It! for it to merit a recommendation. You want erotica with a smile, Phil Phoglio's XXXenophile Tales still reigns supreme (though that's hard-core, of course, not just a bit naughty).

Related: Dany's homepage, and a fan page.

tisdag 10 januari 2012

Jens Jakobsson: Alexanders arvtagare ("Alexander's heirs")

Well, we all know that Alexander the Great conquered a huge truckload of land to practically no point at all since he died shortly afterwards, but what happened then? Molecular biologist Jens Jakobsson has the answers, and offers them in Alexanders arvtagare. (No, the fact that he's a molecular biologist has nothing to do with the popular history book he's written; I just thought it was kinda cool.)

Basically, what happened when Alexander died was what could be expected – civil war broke out and the huge empire was split up between his generals. Since he'd defeated some of the strongest states there were at the time, it's no surprise that some of the pieces of his crumbling empire would also become quite strong players – like Ptolemaic Egypt, or the main subject of Jakobsson's book, the Seleucid Empire.

Jakobsson offers a recap of the events and wars leading to the splitting up of Alexander's empire between the Diadochi, and then concentrates on the successful Seleucus (who carved a nice big piece for himself) and his heirs. Seleucus appears to have been an intelligent man, who ruled reasonably well by the standards of the day and didn't go overboard with the killing of opponents, or defeated enemy armies. The huge and varied empire he created for himself was kept under control by a well organized bureaucracy, a huge standing army, and a network of cities – many of them founded by Seleucus. In this, he appears to have taken the lead of the Persians, who had ruled large chunks of his empire before. Still, the strong centrifugal forces of such a disparate empire meant that a lot of its rulers' time, energy and resources would be spent on simply keeping it together, and in the end, that would prove to be an impossible task. Partly this was because of the forces inherent in the empire, partly outside pressures (like the nascent Roman empire, which would turn out to be the victor in the end – only to eventually fall apart itself) and to a large extent, internal strife within the ruling class. That's something that's struck me again and again when reading about all these powerful ancient and medieval civilizations and states – if you stand united, you often seem to have a decent to good chance of standing up to even rather powerful adversaries, but if not, then you're pretty much screwed.

Anyway, Jakobsson depicts the political history of the Seleucid Empire (with the occasional gaps where the sources are unclear or simply non-existing), from Seleucus I, who was murdered in 281 BC, when he was about to conquer Macedonia and Thrace, and through the ebbs and resurgences of the empire until its final remains were defeated by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC. He also makes excursions into the history of its neighbors – including kingdoms breaking out of the empire, like Bactria (on which he has done some research of his own) and the Maccabees. It's at times impressive how rulers managed to hold the empire together in the face of outside dangers, and at other times depressing how they wasted resources, married their sisters, fought with their mothers and generally made ordinary people's lives a lot harder than they should have been.

Basically, Jakobsson eventually concludes, the empire was simply too disparate and its Greek rulers too much of a foreign elite for it to last – and most importantly, its constant civil wars eroded both the empire's resources and the populations confidence in and respect for their rulers. To this can be added that the Romans developed military tactics  and a level of organization that made the Greek phalanx obsolete, and that the Seleucid capital was a tad too vulnerable, placed at the Western edge of the empire instead of in a protected center. End result: No more Seleucid Empire.

So is this a book worth reading? Absolutely. I mean, its size alone makes the Seleucid Empire worth knowing about, and its at times sorry history also has something to teach us about how to govern, and how not to govern. That said, this is not a perfect book, partly due to circumstances beyond the author's control.

The main problem with the book is that it is, frankly, a bit of a mess. That's not Jakobsson's fault, though. Rather, it's the Seleucids'; there are so many of them, they fight constantly (and almost without exceptions die in strife rather than of old age), and keep losing and adding provinces, allies and enemies to their empire. So this is not a book that gives you a simple, easy-to-remember overview of the history of the Seleucid Empire, mainly because there isn't one to be had; prepare to read with care. Also, the publisher should have done one final proofreading of the book; there are plenty of small errors dispersed throughout the book that don't have any major impact on the quality of the narrative, but which seem a bit unnecessary.

Finally, the emphasis on political history leaves out a lot of stuff that might have made this an easier read; culture, philosophy, daily life and such, but the book is already at 200+ pages. Any more than the brief cultural overview in the introductory chapter would probably have made it overlong, even though Jakobsson writes an easy-going prose that makes this less of a hard slog than it might otherwise have been. Perhaps there will eventually be a follow-up book? I'd read it.

Recommended – albeit with the caveats already mentioned. You want the brief, easy-to-read version, you might want to start with Wikipedia.

Another review (in Swedish) of Jakobsson's book here.

måndag 9 januari 2012

Storytelling 11: State of mind

As everybody knows, Zero is the good-hearted but a bit slow country boy in Beetle Bailey's outfit. Here he is, early in the morning, not-quite-awake yet and thinking he's got to go out to milk the cows.

Now, you could make this a joke about Zero being so stupid that he actually believes that he's got to go out and milk the cows, but that wouldn't be particularly funny. First of all, it would be a cruel sort of humor that Mort Walker doesn't resort to, and second, it wouldn't work anyway as that would go against the character of Zero as it has been established in the strip for well over half a century.

So how does Walker go about making this a credible, not-cruel gag? He emphasizes that Zero is still not quite awake, and that that's why he's preparing to go out and milk the cows as he always does at home.

First, the setting tells us about it being so early in the morning as to be practically night. Beetle is in his bed and undressed, which signals sleeping time (of course it's necessary for Beetle to be in his bed and out of his clothes, as Beetle sleeping isn't in itself much of a signal that it's nighttime). Note also Zero's state of undress. He's taking his jacket on outside his undershirt; clearly he's just gotten out of bed.

Beetle's line in the second panel also helps set the stage, by reminding (or informing) the reader that Zero's from a farm, which explains why he suddenly feels so duty-bound to milk cows.

And finally, the clue that tells the reader that Zero's groggy with sleep: Look at his eyes, in both panels. They're half-closed, and not exactly focused; in fact, the don't even line up properly. (Also, the little bubble-like round things behind his head in the first panel is a classic comics marker that somebody is groggy, tired, drunk or a little bit crazy.)

You may think that the gag isn't all that strong, but the backing it gets from the meticulous storytelling nevertheless makes it work.

lördag 7 januari 2012

My t-shirts, part 49: Snoopy

Just Snoopy.

And really, Snoopy is all you need to make a t-shirt great.

Stig Johansson: Slottsbyggarna ("The palace builders")

In 1697, the Swedish royal castle in Stockholm, Tre Kronor ("Three Crowns") burned and was largely destroyed.

The old castle depicted by Govert Dircksz Camphuysen, 1661 (Wikipedia).

Sweden at the time being a great power in Europe – Karl XII hadn't yet managed his impressive feat of destroying Europe's most invincible army (twice!) – it was obvious that the castle would have to be rebuilt in style. The old castle had been old-fashioned for quite a while, its origins were medieval even though it had been modernized by Sweden's Renaissance kings. Architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger had already started turning it into a strict Baroque palace, starting with the northern part.

The fire as depicted by Johan Frerik Höcker, 1866 (Wikipedia).

The fire meant that that work was halted, even if the northern part to some extent survived the fire. But this was an excellent opportunity for building a completely new palace according to the most modern architectural fashions of the day. (The really big tragedy, IMO, was the loss of so much of Sweden's national archives, which could have been very helpful to today's historians.)

Post-fire (Wikipedia).

So Tessin the Younger got the job, and set to work. He had a design ready the very same year, and work started tearing down the remains of the old castle. It was hard, dirty work, done by soldiers in clouds of unhealthy dust and soot – but not just soldiers; women also worked there, picking up and taking care of things that could be salvaged. People convicted of theft but unable to pay their fines could be condemned to working there. The hard work and lousy working conditions killed a few.

Then Karl XII lost the battle of Poltava, and most of the Swedish army, and holed up in Turkey. He could no longer properly oversee the work, and it ground to a halt – first for that reason, then because Sweden had become impoverished by all the wars, and once it lost large parts of its empire, it couldn't afford the expense. By 1709, the outer walls had been erected one floor high, and that's where things would stand until 1727, when it was finally deemed that Sweden could afford restarting the work.

By then, Tessin the Younger had but one year left to live. His son Carl Gustaf took over, but not being the architect his father had been, left the practical work of designing the palace, especially its interior, to the talented Carl Hårleman who created a beautiful Rococo palace, since Baroque had by then gone out of style. Tessin instead concentrated on getting enough money from the parliament to keep the work going, and on getting French artists and artisans to Sweden to do the actual work and decorations – and to teach talented young Swedes how to do it, as well. This would eventually produce several generations of skilled and talented Swedish artists, sculptors, architects and artisans, and is something to be very grateful for. Building the palace was costly, in money as well as in human toil, but at least some really good and beautiful things came out of it in the end.

Wikipedia has a bunch of pictures of the palace and its interiors here.

        Cover pic borrowed from this bookseller.

Stig Johansson's excellent book Slottsbyggarna tells the story of how a new palace was built to replace the old one, and tells the stories of some of the people who worked on it in various capacities by going to the archives to see what they did, how they were paid, and in some cases, what eventually became of them. That is in itself enough for a good book, but he also describes the crafts involved in the building process (like bricklaying, masonry, stucco etc) as well as how the necessary resources were extracted from nature or produced at various mills, and transported to Stockholm. To this he also adds observations on how life was for the ordinary people of 1700s Stockholm. It's an impressive feat, and at times quite fascinating.

(Though occasionally, when Johansson delves a bit too deeply into the details of some crafts and/or building techniques, I will admit to my eyes glazing over slightly. In those cases, when the text becomes too technical, I do wish for some pictures or diagrams illustrating what he's talking about.)

Anyway, this is an great and impressive book, and recommended for the Swedish-speaker who is at all interested in those beautiful old palaces and how they were built, as well as for those who want to learn about what people's lives and work looked like 300 years ago.

torsdag 5 januari 2012

Shannon Wheeler: I Thought You Would Be Funnier

Shannon Wheeler is a good, solid cartoonist in the tradition of, well, magazine cartooning. Previously, he's created a satirical superhero called Too Much Coffee Man, and contributed cartoons to The Onion and The New Yorker. This book contains cartoons rejected by The New Yorker. Are these rejects bad? No, they're usually pretty funny, and in some cases really funny. Wheeler works within an established cartoon tradition, using dry wit and often taking established or ordinary situations and putting a new, slightly absurd slant on them – like relationships, pets, at the doctor's office etc. For example, you have one cartoon showing a psychoanalyst sitting beside an empty couch and asking "How long have you felt like an imaginary patient?". It's amusing and worth a chuckle, if not quite laugh-out loud funny.

And that's my only problem with this 116-page (one cartoon per page) hardcover collection – it's funny, but it's not $17.99 funny. (On the other hand, the Boom! Studios website has the softcover version at $19.99, which seems outright bizarre.)

Cartoonist Dan Piraro has written the foreword, and I'll have to put his books ahead of this one in my cartoons books-buying priorities. It's worth reading, Wheeler is good, but at this price, it's not worth the money it costs to buy it IMO. (Of course, I've already bought it, so that insight comes a bit late for me.)

Another review of the book here.

onsdag 4 januari 2012

Back from the comics store, January 4th edition

Yes, well, I have picked up some new stuff as well, not just stuff from the sale.

I'm happy about the DC Comics Presents series; you get a lot of comics for a very reasonable price. If you don't already have the paperback of The Kents, for example, I certainly recommend getting it in the DC Comics Presents editions. I'm also happy to see that the Showcase Batman series now has reached the Neal Adams & Denny O'Neil period; there are a lot of good stories from that era, and not only by those two eminently skilled storytellers. Very much recommended.

And of course P. Craig Russell's art is just gorgeous, and you'll learn a bit about famous operas in the process of enjoying it – that's got to count as a win-win, learning about "fine" culture while enjoying beautiful culture. Also recommended.


I went by the store again today, and darned if they hadn't put a bunch more books on sale. Sienkiewicz's color art is always wonderful, of course I'll get another Kyle Baker book if it's on sale, and Tezuka is such a legend that it's practically a duty to get everything he's done.

tisdag 3 januari 2012

Back from the comics store, January 3rd edition

OK, so my regular hangout, the comics and games store Prisfyndet has a big post-Christmas sale. What can I do? Of course I have to stock up on some classics that have been beyond my meager financial means when they've been published. (And it's not like I even like the Checkered Demon or those early The Phantom comic books, but there were great big holes in my collection calling out for them...) I'm pretty happy about stuff like the Tony Strobl collection, for example – not nearly enough collections with his stuff available that I know of.

måndag 2 januari 2012

Kyle Baker: Kyle Baker, Cartoonist; Volumes 1 & 2

Cartoonist Kyle Baker has produced a number of brilliant works, but my favorites remain the early ones. The Cowboy Wally Show is a flawed masterpiece, which starts out as one thing and then – because Baker didn't have enough material but lied to the publisher and said he did, and then had to produce it for the book – turns into something slightly, and oddly different. But that flaw is what makes it such a masterpiece; the absurdity of the (wicked) humor in the different chapters matches the sense of disconnectedness between the chapters, and the result is brilliantly funny and irresistably charming. If you can get your hands on it, do so.

Baker, disgusted with certain elements of the comics industry – like having to do things the way editors told him to – then went on to produce what is essentially a sitcom/Neil Simon movie in comics format, Why I Hate Saturn. With its sharp, clever and really funny dialogue, it would have been a masterpiece even if Baker's art hadn't been so exquisite. Also a must-read IMO.

And with that out of the way, we can now get to the actual subject of this review, namely Baker's self-published books of cartoons:


I have mixed feelings about these books. Baker's art is probably better than ever, but the jokes aren't really top-notch. Too many of them are of the "family strip humor" variety and lack something of the sharpness and edginess that make his best work so brilliant. A lot of it is OK jokes told in marvellous drawings, but the crisp, biting, sometimes absurd but always enjoyable and funny dialogue he excelled with in works like Cowboy Wally and Why I Hate Saturn is missing. It comes off a bit like one of those MAD paperbacks with Sergio Aragonés' cartoons, but lacking the never-ending stream of brilliant ideas that is Aragonés' hallmark.

And the MAD comparison is apt in more ways as well, as Baker's art reminds me of what you'd get if you managed to marry Mort Drucker's drawing style to that of Jack Davis – with a smidgeon of Jack Rickard, Bob Clarke etc. thrown in for good measure where needed. Occasional ventures into the MAD Magazine article style works well, too. But overall, this is too much Family Circus and not enough Aragonés or Frank Jacobs.

That doesn't mean that it's bad – besides, you may well prefer the recognition humor provided by the insights into the Bakers' family life that comprise not-quite-half of each book – and it's still worth reading for the brilliant drawing skills of Mr. Baker. But if you're going to buy something by him, I recommend starting with The Cowboy Wally Show and Why I Hate Saturn instead.

söndag 1 januari 2012

Galago #99: Nu blåser vi borgarna igen ("Screw the bourgeois – again")

The Swedish alternative-comics flagship Galago has a tradition of leftist social criticism and satire, and has recently declared itself dedicated to attacking the center-right government of Sweden. Previously, they'd done an issue before every election dedicated to attacking the center-right political side, but now that's a permanent direction of the magazine.

Galago #99 was published before the most recent election, in 2010. So how did it measure up? Well, not greatly, IMO – but since I'm a liberal, I'm probably not the intended audience.

The first story depicts a TV show in a future where the (basically racist) party Sverigedemokraterna ("The Sweden Democrats")  is in power and executes people for being different under the motto "Bort med slöddret!" ("Get rid of the scum!"). It's a bit over the top and doesn't really address Sverigedemokraterna's policies, so it really comes off as mainly venting. And that's the problem with most of the comics in this issue – they're not really satirical; instead they're just angry people telling the reader that they're angry.

Now, venting is often personally satisfying, I'll grant them that, and reading somebody else venting about things that one is angry about oneself is also pretty satisfying. But that's also all it is. It doesn't bring any new knowledge, any new arguments, it's just emotionally satisfying. It's kinda like those people carrying around a sign of Pres. Obama as the Joker – they and their friends may go "Ha! Ha! That stupid Obama! I really got him good!", but they're not learning anything about actual policy in the bargain; instead they're just wasting valuable time and energy that could be better used educating themselves. Similarly, drawing a picture of the conservative Swedish prime minister as an ugly, big dick is probably very emotionally satisfying for people who hate him and his policies, but it's not really much in the way of satire.

So what else is there? Well, Mats Jonsson draws a short story about his communist youth, when it was considered very funny to accuse young conservatives of being Nazis. Sara Hansson does a good page on how to resist turning your rental building into a co-op – and it's good because she does a good job depicting the feeling of powerlessness that people might feel when such a decision goes against their wishes. Pontus Lundkvist does a really good story on people who complain about "political correctness", but IMO doesn't really manage turn it into the attack on the center-right as much as on a special brand of conspiratorically-minded (usually rather right-wing) people. Fabian Göransson – who's normally very good, and whose Inferno is worth your time – does a story about growing up in a wealthy, politically rightist suburb that starts out interesting but sort of fails to really go anywhere.

Sara Hansson then does a story about her fears of the EU and the political center-right parties, which starts out interesting – after all, she's talking about her own genuine emotions here – but which loses me when she tells about going out with her friends and tearing down the election posters of the center-right parties; I'm not a big fan of the "freedom of speech for me but not for thee" political theory. Sara Olausson does an initially amusing, zany story about a grownup Pippi Longstocking blackmailing her childhood friend Tommy into giving her a job (which turns out to be distributing anti-immigrant chauvinistic propaganda), but it peters out towards the end when she tries too hard to get a shoutout for the Anarcho-syndicalist Youth Federation into the story. Etc.

Again, the basic problem with most of the stories in this issue is that they're too much on the simplistic side. Some of them capture my interest with a personal story or a more personal touch, but on the whole, it's pretty tepid fare, and usually not very well drawn. Comparing it to some great American political satirists like Tom Tomorrow or Ruben Bolling, it's simply not even a competition (although admittedly, the US political scene is probably a lot easier to satirize than a Swedish center-right government – I sometimes find myself wondering what The Daily Show writers get paid for other than lifting large portions of crazy practically verbatim from the speeches of right-wing Republican politicians?). If you want Swedish political satire, perhaps you should try Max Gustafson instead. I don't really agree with him either, politically, but at least he's a bit funnier.

Not recommended.