Notes : 01/07 - 02/07

 


February 26, 2007

Okay, I'm pretty much addicted to the cover galleries at Comics.org. Just search for a title, click on its link or click directly on "gallery" and wham! you've got comic covers from the Golden Age to now!

Here's some of my recent haul of mildly obscure Kirby Silver Age covers. Kirby actually wrote and drew Kamandi and Superman's Pal (The New) Jimmy Olsen during the runs represented by these covers. The Rawhide Kid cover is an example of getting Kirby to do a cover to spark interest during Marvel's late 50s / early 60s spate of Western titles. I don't believe Kirby would have done the inside art on the book, but the cover is terrific - I think it's the hot pinks and bright, full yellows against a slatey sky blue.

February 25, 2007

This Metafilter link (The Computer-Generated Song Hye Kyo) contained a mild debate on the authenticity of the appearance of a computer-generated image of a popular Korean actress. The debate was interesting both because some folks claimed that the image had the definite appearance of a "CGI fake" and also because of the usual Metafilter semantic-wrangling over "the uncanny valley." The phrase was manipulated to suit the arguments of the posters rather than adhered to with any sense of say, shared communication. (IANAP)*

Anyway, the pictures themselves were striking. At least, they were to me. I don't play computer games much, but I'm pretty sure this level of photorealism has not yet reached the level of run-of-the-mill. To those who argued that the image had obvious flaws I wonder "but would you notice those flaws had you not been primed to check the CGI for mistakes?" In other words if this image had appeared in a 2 by 3 inch square in a magazine announcing some new project by the actress, would I have noticed anything amiss? I don't think so.

The real interest to me is not the gee-whiz factor, however. I don't care what kind of server farm you need to render this image or whatever. What I am curious and even a little alarmed about is the question of how long we have until these kinds of images begin surreptitiously replacing "reality."

*IAmNotAPrescriptivist - It should be relatively clear from this blog that I'm not Mr. Rules, but I think language can present a special case for shared rules in our "truthiness" times. Given our current extraordinary levels of political mendacity combined with an all-pervasive media apparatus, I think I've become a touch sensitive to blatant disregard for the definitions of words.

February 22, 2007

I don't have my usual mythologizing cap on very well this morning. I included this image because Spider-Man and the Human Torch have a funny relationship that, outside of one brief mini-series from Dan Slott, doesn't get much commentary in the world of comics. It seems natural that the superhero genre within the medium* of comics would have a heavy emphasis on brotherly bonds and betrayal. To me, one of the primary cores of the hero quest is the struggle against the laws and rules of the previous generation. Star Wars provides a clear example of the struggle against the metaphoric, and eventually, the literal, father. Part of the hero story's power, particularly in superhero comics, concerns facing and defeating the frightening father. Now I'm no psychological essentialist, so I don't want to be taken to mean that all sons have this relationship to their fathers or that if there is an element of competition between fathers and sons that it has to consume their relationship. But it's still a primal draw in fantasy/adventure stories.

And as I get older, I notice more and more that my friendships with other men must eventually come to terms with the competition between us. I'm no biological essentialist either, but I think an evolutionary-biologist-type might argue that, very generally speaking, men and women have evolved strategies that encourage cooperation between the genders. Really, you needn't even concern yourself with a "nature" view; you can go with "nurture": in our heterosexual society we are trained from an early age to regard a member of the opposite sex as someone to be won over with heart-shaped cards, candy, flowers, foot massages or, in my significant other's case, Buffy on DVD. Where does that leave friendships between men - men are partners for sports, pranks, games, etc. I didn't have a brother, which is the metaphoric basis for Spidey and Torch's relationship, but I've had different friendships with guys over the years. I remember an interesting moment in my friendship with Andre. Andre is a laid-back fellow and is admirably nice and generous in any social situation. We worked together quite a bit on different Web projects and struck up a friendship from mutual interest of all things geeky. I actually enjoyed (or at least didn't mind) doing routine Web work because we collaborated well and could easily share tasks and decisions. One evening we were playing video games (after work!) and I distinctly remember, with no cue whatsoever, we both took a real interest in beating each other at the game.

My other male friendships over the years - Zack, Brian, Brooks, Philip, Ben - have all at times foundered on the rocks of competition. What I have come to decide, though, is that those moments are good, both because of the growth in a friendship they promote and because pretend confrontation can be good for you. Perhaps it's obvious and I don't intend to get quasi-psychological but sometimes within the confines of a game, or any pretend scenario with rules, it just feels good to let out a shove or struggle over a loose ball (I've switched to basketball as my metaphor now, sorry).

So, it's interesting that Spidey and Torch are the only examples in mainstream superhero comics of two heroes who squabble and fight as much as they save the day. Batman and Superman don't like each other (I don't think, I don't read DC nearly as much as Marvel), but that's a different kettle of fish altogether. Maybe it should represent a kind of archetypal male striving, too, but the difference between the two characters seems to be on a much larger political scale. In Dark Knight Returns, for instance, Superman's avatar was a thinly-disguised shrivelled Ronald Reagan while Batman's symbol was the more "romantic" grizzled wolf of libertarianism. For Peter Parker and Johnny Storm the rivalry boils down to more human, everyday problems of jealousy. In one of the first few issues of Spider-Man, Peter gets mad because Johnny has a Corvette.** I think Torch gets mad because Spidey's always in the news.

I had the chance to get some graduate advising from Tobin Siebers at University of Michigan. I really enjoyed his book "Among Men" and want to mention it here as it covers this territory much more eloquently.

PS - if anyone knows how I could get ahold of that Kirby image of Spider-Man top left, I'd be very grateful. EMail is on the contact page.

* - I don't know why I would be so cranky about that point right now.

** - Peter then launches a surreal plan to wow the girls involving fake bats. Don't ask.

February 20, 2007

Autumn reminded me through a post on her blog about the beautiful work of Tadanori Yoko. One of the professors here at NCAD brought up Yoko while viewing my work. I am quite flattered by the comparison: Yoko's work is wonderfully composed and very sensitive in its approach to color. There's also often a strong spark of dissonance, too, to keep things moving. My work has been compared to Japanese graphic work a few times. I suspect it's the combination of flat abstract shapes and my kaleidoscopic, jewel-toned color sense.

Unfortunately there's not a lot of Yoko material out there, at least not available through English-language Google searches. I've basically found one gallery on a Russian site.


February 20, 2007

I've got more Golden and Silver Age covers - this entry is all-Human-Torch. The original Torch, Jim Hammond, was an android who often fought Axis forces alongside Captain America and Namor, the Sub-Mariner. According to Wikipedia, Torch's debut, Marvel Comics 1, sold 880,000 issues in two printings. To put that in a bit of perspective, the top-selling comics today sell less than one-quarter that number of copies.*

In a curious coincidence, I've been rummaging through the 1 euro bins at the local big comic store here in Dublin, just looking for odds and ends or potential new series to read. I got a copy of New Invaders 9, as it looked interesting with its heavy, textural use of color on the cover. It turned out to not only be the last issue of what must not have been a very popular series, but also the death of the Golden Age Human Torch. I don't really care to go into contemporary comics' shallow obsession with death as a plot device to make stories "serious and important." My use of scare quotes should indicate how serious these attempts at maturity usually end up. But it does seem odd that a character that debuted in the original Marvel Comics No. 1, in 1939, should have an ignominious end in a forgotten 2005 series. It struck me as a just a bit too willfully ignorant of history, or worse, aware of history and just shallow enough to want to slap in a two-page funeral scene. I've never been one to wish a narrative universe remain in some safe, stagnant place to satisfy my whims, so it doesn't so much bother me that a character should die, but rather that there is a cheapness to wanting a moment without crafting or considering a moment. Of course, it's more or less a truism at this point that any cultural event billed as such, as an "event movie" or an "event comic", will be a non-event.

But there's some beautiful covers here. Torch (and any Marvel Golden Age hero) can be tricky to find covers for, because there's plenty gruesome examples of sadistic violence against our World War II enemies. I ran across a surprisingly graphic image of Torch burning the arm off of a Japanese soldier. The soldier was himself heavily caricatured, brandishing a sword in little more than a loincloth, threatening a damsel-in-distress. The cover top-left leans a bit more to the Flash Gordon, Saturday serial end of the spectrum with Torch racing to stop an alien-powered drill from perforating poor Toro. The blue spiral of the drill combined with the macrocephalic hobgoblins really makes the cover for me. The Torch cover on the right I believe is another Schomburg (see post below). Here is a better example of Namor and Namora's twee, elongated faces.

The middle cover is the Silver Age Torch, Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four. This image, by Jack Kirby, is a rare showcase of Johnny. Usually the Thing or Mr. Fantastic or the villain of the month got cover billing, although Johnny got the first solo title in Strange Tales. I could write volumes about Kirby and plenty of people have, but suffice it to say he had a truly uncanny sense of space and composition. This is not really even one of his knockout images, but the energy in the flying figure of Black Bolt alone (the black and blue figure top left) is quite dynamic.

* - There may be more total volume of comics sold, but it's still interesting to consider how great a role comics played in American popular culture during World War II.

February 19, 2007

I'm not one to dig up pictures of surgical procedures so the last post was image-bare. To remedy that, we can take another track, to follow my recent treks down the rabbit warren of the Internet. I've begun, slowly, to look for Silver Age issues of The Fantastic Four. The comic collecting market is much more buyer-friendly than when I was younger. My sense of Golden and Silver Age comics when I was a teen (1985-1995) was that one needed to spend hundreds of dollars per issue. Now with a considerable, maybe permanent, cooling of the collector market and eBay, the average person can purchase Silver Age comics and maybe some Golden Age depending as always on the title and one's patience and funds.

The Silver Age directly laid the foundations for the comics I grew up reading. I even had a few Silver Age comics as a kid just because you could still easily find them at garage sales and the like. The titles, such as Spider-Man, the Avengers, and The Fantastic Four were still around as mainstream books.

Because Marvel didn't exist before the Silver Age (or so I thought), the Golden Age was always shrouded in mist to my imagination. I knew that Superman and Batman existed then, but that was part of what made those characters less accessible to me. I later knew that Captain America and Namor had both battled Hitler in war-era comics, but Marvel had largely cut its universe off from that continuity.

So, it's been quite enjoyable as I have been searching for Lee/Kirby FF issues to learn about Marvel's earlier efforts (which featured the talents of Lee and Kirby in a less polished form). The Human Torch cover is by Alex Schomburg, a highly regarded comic and pulp artist from the 40s and 50s. His version of Namor (the small inset at the bottom) is comically arch. To be sure, many of the other Schomburg candidates for inclusion contain much more graphic images of wartime violence.

The Venus cover is the most striking one of the lot. Perhaps it's the simple, graphic play of lights and darks : the sky and clouds versus the strong shadow of the bridge forms. These shadows are beautifully pulled across the images by the purple gloves and tunic of the knight character and the shadows on the suited man. Also, the candy-colored palette shows surprising sophistication stacked up against the jarring (enjoyably so, though) simplicity of the reds, yellows and blues of the adventure covers. Click here for a close-up of the cover.

I'll be posting more Silver and Golden Age covers all this week.

February 19, 2007

I'll get back to Jade sometime this week. I guess she really knocked me for a loop trying to organize my thoughts on such a weird character. In the meantime in the "News of the Future" meets "Your Humble Blogger is Nostradamus" category : scientists in Japan have used stem cells to grow new breast tissue for patients requesting breast enlargement surgery. I saw the original blurb on BoingBoing.* The article BB links to, from BBC News online, mutes any real "eureka!" the news might contain, quoting Adam Searle, past president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons:

"There is exciting potential but no reality in practical terms at the moment. The stem cell 'soup' is too non-specific to really focus on what you want."

The news was interesting to me because I made the assertion in my Master's thesis talk that stem cells would gain much wider use once aesthetic surgery began to utilize the possibilities. In my fetid imagination, stem cells could grow new organ systems such as arms and legs for really radical aesthetic procedures. I don't have much interest in standard aesthetic medicine and in the past found plastic surgery shows like "The Swan" to contribute to a rather scabrous culture of bland vanity. The audience of such a show, or more to the point, the makeover participants, have the most dreary sense of beauty and grind up their face, teeth and bodies to appear dully familiar. So, of course that's boring. But I imagine the stakes would be a bit higher if (when) we are offered new body extensions - body systems that could significantly extend our abilities. This is still sci-fi thinking, but it is becoming rapidly less so with our ever-increasing reach into realms of synthetic biological generation combined with the drive for control over our bodies.

For instance in South Korea, doctors have pioneered techniques to reshape the calves of patients seeking a "Western" look. Doctors in Germany rebuilt the skull of a young girl using a similar technique as the plastic surgeons in Japan (to mix stem cells with existing cells from the donor body, in both cases, fat tissue).

* - Although BoingBoing is hardly salacious or puerile, they have occasionally surprised me by being quite unsafe for work viewing. It's a terrific resource for any creative workers, though.

January 21, 2007

Alright, some disclaimers before I begin : 1) this is going to be a bit of a weird entry, and 2) I don't watch reality television at all.

Let me explain that second one a bit. I think it's clear from my other entries that I'm not any kind of cultural purist or snob. Clearly anyone who writes quasi-academic* musings on superheroes, mythology and other sci-fi flourishes gets their Paris Review subscription revoked. However, outside of my lifelong love of Spider-man, I am not much of a populist, either. I suppose like many creative people, I hope that I like what I like while wobbling wildly between poles of naiveté and calculation.

Reality television is not one of those things that I like. Not because I find the people revolting. Mostly I just don't enjoy filmed versions of people "actually" being mean to each other. There is a world of difference between "Arrested Development", a show I quite enjoy, and "American Idol" even though the entertainment values have similar premises (watch person A ridicule person B). Simon Cowell is never funny (and you don't need me to tell you that) and presumably despite the foolishness and utter lack of talent of nearly everyone who goes on one of these shows, I feel like maybe some of these folks are getting their feelings hurt or are otherwise being dissuaded from being creative. I don't like watching that - I'm a softy. Given the generally mindless, juvenile level of the critiques, one gets the feeling that the audiences for reality television are almost exclusively catty urban hipsters or happily-delusional 14-year-olds. Although I am endeavouring to not deride anyone's taste (and failing here, but I remain mindful of the weirdness of what I like to write about), I further don't enjoy reality shows because they encourage a true lowest-common-denominator approach to creative work. But I think that was latent in commercial culture before reality tv and will be there long after reality tv is supplanted by brain-implanted dramas or whatever comes next. The simplified version is this : I don't like the combination of meanness and plainness on display in any reality show.

So, ordinarily I would have ignored the latest manufactured controversy of the UK's Celebrity Big Brother. As it made the front page of the Grey Lady, and it forms a fair part of the popular culture of Ireland, I was curious, though. I think, as well, that scholars often believe that mainstream culture should be willfully disregarded. This attitude, in my experience, stems from the connoisseurship that academic culture encourages with its concomitant belief in the insignificance of mass culture. Following Barthes or Baudrillard,** I prefer to investigate ordinary culture with at least an open mind, as I believe you can make surprising discoveries there. Further, as a creative professional and future teacher, I believe it is at least short-sighted not to know what backgrounds inform your students. So I read about Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty. And here's where another stream enters the story.

People have asked me occasionally what I am doing in Ireland. I usually can come up with some combination of "studio work/Cuchulainn/altered anatomies/Spider-man/global bodies/Beckham" that makes a little sense. However, the more I describe I my research, the more I recognize its "maleness" (really "boyness"). This is not strictly the case : I am aware of and interested in body pressures and ideals that women deal with as well. I just don't write about them much (until this entry). Further as a creative researcher I make it clear upfront that these interests grow from personal sources. I am a man and generally write about the culture that shaped some of my vision of "men." This is not macho posturing or Iron John drumming on my part; I am offering it as a recognition of where I am coming from.

So lately as I search for a contemporary Cuchulainn I have also begun to look for a modern-day Morrigan.*** And along comes Jade.

To Be Continued...

* - I don't have the heart to just call my posts "academic" (because I don't want to condemn them to consistency), but I don't want to be thought of as engaging the subject of "altered anatomies" in an insincere or hip way either. So my thoughts here are in-between the serious and the surreal.

** - I am by no means a semiotician, however.

*** - Or Medb, or Grainne, or Scáthach...

January 14, 2007

From the twelfth-century Irish "Ancient Book of the Dun Cow" :

"The next island had a wall all around it. When they came near the shore, an animal of vast size, with a thick, rough skin, started up inside the wall, and ran round the island with the swiftness of the wind. When he had ended his race, he went to a high point, and standing on a large, flat stone began to exercise himself according to his daily custom, in the following manner. He kept turning himself completely round and round in his skin, the bones and flesh moving, while the skin remained at rest.

When he was tired of this exercise, he rested a little; and he then began turning his skin continually round his body, down at one side and up at the other like a mill-wheel; but the bones and flesh did not move.

After spending some time at this sort of work, he started and ran around the island as at first, as if to refresh himself. He then went back to the same spot, and this time, while the skin that covered the lower part of his body remained without motion, he whirled the skin of the upper part round and round like the movement of a flat-lying millstone. And it was in this manner that he spent most of his time on the island.

Maildun and his people, after they had seen these strange doings, thought it better not to venture nearer. So they put out to sea at great haste."

The text above is from the 1894 transcription of the Dun Cow by P.W. Joyce, a Dublin historian.

January 9, 2007

More picture weirdness. I ended up in a discussion with someone* once about the Rogues Galleries of various superheroes and their "lameness" or "coolness." Batman's enemies are oft-considered the zenith of comic villains, but I think part of the Spider-man comics' genius is that one of Spidey's major, most-persistent enemies is a newspaper editor. Sometimes in a robot. But mostly just as an angry newspaper editor. This helps to anchor the fact that Spider-man's world, unlike those of Superman or Batman, will be significantly composed of the everyday. You don't need me to talk about Stan Lee's innovation in creating a nerdy, bookish teenager as the bedraggled superhero who would become the standard bearer of an entire universe...

Maybe Lee gets plenty of credit for Spider-man's uncanny accuracy in divining the heart of the reading public. But think about it, before the age of focus groups and mass polling (or its most modern, up-to-the-minute equivalent - the Web forum), Lee figured out exactly what his readers wanted, maybe before they knew. The original Spider-man was a smart-alecky know-it-all, not above a little brown-nosing of intellects he admired. If you read some of the Essentials or Masterworks collections of the first issues of ASM, Peter Parker is actually kinda annoying at times. This characterization has largely been written out over the years although his tendency to wisecrack during confrontation has remained. This original characterization is more interesting though because it presents a more rounded person, to wit, one you don't always like. It's doubly interesting, though, because it shows a grasp Lee had, either intuitive or calculated, on his readers. The comics reader is a smart-alecky know-it-all! The comics reader is bullied by his peers and, unbeknownst to all, possessed of singular talent. This dynamic is true of all dual-identities characters in comics, but Lee made it singularly reflective of the readers churning out No-Prize**-desperate letters month after month.

So, while Tobey Maguire makes a fine, if slightly hesitant, Spider-man, I wish someone would take some time with the original take on the character. Rediscover the prickly nerd a bit. It makes sense that the grown-up Spidey would have a bit more shmoove, as I like to think I don't correct people's mistakes as much now that I'm mature, either. But not every comic character should be a hipster-in-spandex. Perhaps that just proves my point a bit as comics' demographics are experiencing a tremendous shift. Anyone who went in some of the first direct market shops might be bewildered by today's comic shops, but that's for another post.

* - I think it was Andre.

** - I wonder who came up with the No-Prize. That was genius.

January 8, 2007

Sometimes I just like to look at pictures. I'll bet you didn't know that Optimus could also be a lion, did you?

January 2, 2007

Yeah. That's cool.

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