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How About Alex?, -or- The One Punch Chump

29 Mar

By Darryl Ayo

“Let The Good Times Roll”
Uncanny Avengers, no. 5
Rick Remender & Olivier Coipel
Marvel Entertainment

Not to be Mister-Anti but I actually liked this comic book. It moved several characters with distinctive worldviews through one day that ended with somebody getting his neck broken by accident. The flat-note ending was pitch-perfect for me and I like that the ending’s implication is…implied by the way Rogue looks up to see the press cameras all directed at her. Not a word is needed after that moment and not a word is offered. That is the end of the story, CRACK, neck broken.

But let’s be reality, the reason people care about this particular comic is a scene that happens earlier. Alex, a character who is indicated by the story to be the leader of this group of characters, delivers a press conference where he says something so silly that I’ve never heard it before in real life.

Alex:

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Short and simple: my only problem with Alex’s speech is that “mutant” isn’t “the M-word.”

“Mutant” in comic storyland isn’t a slur in and of itself. It’s a group descriptor like “gay,” “black,” “Muslim.” A slur would be a crude term of division which shouldn’t be spoken in polite company (taking its cue from “the ‘N’word” of real life). The slur would be a term of undisputed hostility and derision (ie, “gene-joke,” “mutie,” “freak”), not the term which merely describes the group of people.

Now, Alex could be a “self-hating mutant,” I suppose. Particularly to contrast with his brother Scott, who is concurrently raising a mutant revolution army in some other comic book. Scott the separatist and Alex the assimilationist. That could work as a believable tension. But it still doesn’t work in the particular language twist that this scene tries to achieve. This scene doesn’t achieve its goal of paralleling real-world expressions of oppressed people (which the mutants are meant to represent).

Here is writer Rick Remender weighing in about the contrasting opinions on twitter

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Not a problem, I live in Greenpoint.

All jokes aside, I strongly suspect that Remender was responding to people who opposed his story’s anti-bigotry message rather than members of oppressed groups who objected to the logic of his story’s argument. That said, he’s made his statement and that’s that. I do find it interesting that nobody in Marvel Entertainment editorial second-guessed the tone of character-Alex’s press conference. That nobody saw the glaring problem of equating general group description with the idea of a pejorative slur. Because even a character who is self-hating in his or her cultural identity would know that the generic descriptor isn’t a “___-word.”

This comic makes a try at tackling a real-world issue. It misfires. That’s okay, try again.

-Ayo2013xoxo.

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Everything at once

15 Feb

By Ayo

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*Stuart Immonen w/ Brian Bendis*

Last night I watched a bunch of episodes of the CW network’s evening drama Arrow which is based on the comic book hero Green Arrow.

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It wasn’t a great work of art but neither is Green Arrow as a comic book. What does distinguish it is that it is solidly entertaining. There is an overarching storyline for the entire series, a storyline that seems to comprise the season and an individual storyline or each given episode. Just like most other evening dramas. And not at all like most comic books. This isn’t rocket science but it is something novel in the comic book field: trust.

Trust that you have created an engaging premise with captivating characters. Trust your writers. Trust your art direction. And then don’t rely on cliffhangers to try and compel people to return to you. End the short term plots and slowly build up the long term, character-driven plots. It’s very basic, my friends. People don’t come back because your hero is in danger. We know he’ll live. So stop trying so hard to extract drama out of the immediate conflict and simply resolve the immediate conflict in the same episode. People come back because they like the hero and they like how he or she solves (or simply manages) problems. If you take six months to get to a resolution like comic book writers do, you lose readers. That’s because the readers lose sight of what is interesting.

Each unit of storytelling that is sold or released should give the audience a plot with a resolution AND the seeds for developing overarching plots. It’s not a secret. So stop writing comic books all wrong.

That goes for all of you.

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On HBO, there’s a show called Girls that you probably heard about. Some of the characters have storylines based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn which is where I live. It’s a pretty good show. Much more amorphous than many other modern television dramas are structured but much more interesting for the fact that this show eschews many of the tried and true formulas. Yet it clings to other formulas.

I’m not usually happy with the way sex is used in popular entertainment stories but the sex scenes in Girls are pretty shocking for how lived-in they feel. These aren’t sex scenes where the cameras cut to artful montages of knees and shoulder blades. The sex scenes are actual stories in themselves. With each participant wanting something from the sex and often with differing results.

Sex that is treated as a battle of sorts, something that can leave participants happy, empty, deluded or amused. It’s very rare to see sex depicted as the lively, continually-evolving part of a relationship that it factually is.

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Speaking of sex, here’s a page from Cable designed to appeal to women whose fetish is men who are literally half-automobile. By Ariel Olivetti.

Dating Ironically

7 Dec

By Ayo

“Arrête, cést icî L’empire de La Mort”
“Bad Brains/WOTW”
By Simon Hanselmann
Space Face Books, Nov. 2012
http://girlmountain.tumblr.com/
http://spacefacebooks.com/

Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that I read somewhere that Simon Hanselmann is relatively new to cartooning. If that is the case then he has taken to the vocation like a fish to water. This is a beautiful comic. Clean character design, expressive storytelling and smooth panel-to-panel transitions: nothing is awkward about reading this story. The drawings are relatively pared down but are so instantly readable and the panels’ relationships to one another are so effortless that the reading experience feels fully immersive and engaging. Slick cartooning.

As a narrative, I don’t quite understand the comic. I know Hanselmann’s characters Megg, Mogg and Owl from the strips that he has posted on his website. But the actual plot events of this particular story are mysterious to me. I’m not complaining. I’ve read more than my share of abstract minicomics in my day–and I’ve made them too. But Hanselmann doesn’t feel to me as though he is trying to go over our heads; even though his work is richly coded in a language of his own symbols. I just feel as though I’m missing a step somewhere in this story.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

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A lot of Hanselmann’s Arrête, cést icî L’empire de La Mort reads essentially like stream of consciousness psychedelia. The storyline is very much about drugs and possible psychological problems, which both effect people’s perceptions and coping abilities. These combine with the general setting and characters which are all a fantastic in composition and in nature. Talking animals who shift between humanoid and beast mode. Alien spaceships. A television actor. All just sort of appear and can be accepted as nothing strange.

This sort of storytelling convention is quite common in the world of artcomics and minicomics. The story takes place externally but it feels internal, like somebody’s dream. Part of me feels that externalizing psychological and emotional strife is an excellent use of visual storytelling.

It is interesting that Hanselmann uses no captions or narration. Everything happens by action or by characters talking. This furthers the feeling that I get as a reader that the author himself is in a process of discovery and exploration as much as his characters. I’m happy to follow him along and learn whatever he discovers.

Embrace the process, not the product.

2 Nov
By Darryl Ayo

Joseph Lambert impresses me as a cartoonist because more than most people, we can see him working. We can see him in the gym doing the pushups. Nobody can question where his abilities come from, he has no fear of drawing, of repetition, of working the same image over and over and over until he’s internalized it and digested it. His tireless exploration of his themes are an inspiration.

Continue reading

Uncompromising.

19 Oct

The Infinite Wait and other stories
By Julia Wertz
Koyama Press, 2012

Julia Wertz keeps it moving in her stories. While the stories in this volume tend to involve Wertz laying in bed sick as much as going around to jobs, events etc, Wertz is very good about moving quickly through periods of time which in reality represented days or weeks of relative inaction. She manipulates time in the simplest way that cartoons can, which is by compressing like moments into single mentions. The result is less a shared subjective experience which most cartoonists strive for, and more an distanced, matter-of-fact telling by a speaker who has lived the experience, is over it, but is telling the experience to a friend. Thus, there is a tone of casual, conversational familiarity to Wertz’ stories. Similar to a new acquaintance giving you “the long version” at a casual party.

The three stories in this book all overlap concrete events in Wertz’ life but approach these facts from different angles. “Industry” focuses on every job that Wertz has ever held but the reference to one of those jobs in “The Infinite Wait” serves as kind of a callback. You have had coffee with this person on three separate occasions. She has spoken at greater length about that detail earlier and its mention ties her stories closer to a reality that you can imagine.

In this way, Wertz’ narrative tics and storytelling phrasing becomes familiar to you. As a storyteller Wertz reflexively uses asides to clarify details or to mock things retroactively. She also frequently puts literal-yet-subjective descriptions of what people once said into their dialogue rather than attempting to reconstruct the dialogue naturalistically. This is another sort of an aside. In some ways it feels to me more hers than the traditional comic strip caption-with-arrow-pointing-at-things style of aside. I enjoy both techniques as Wertz employs them. Her stories are absorbing enough to me on their own but these snide jibes and jabs at past-people further humanize Wertz as a narrator and storyteller: long memory and enduring grudges, I think.

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The stories are funny but I’m not sure that “funny” is the primary tone that they convey. Wertz’ stories remind me of a friend who is laying bare a life’s worth of stories but surprisingly little baggage. There is no plea for pity or cry for sympathy in these pages. Yet, one wouldn’t call Wertz’ writing dispassionate or even quite matter-of-fact. Honesty without the usual emotional trade off of ear-bending and wrist-twisting.

Ironically, this makes me place even greater trust in Wertz as a narrator and storyteller. Anyway, there’s a really great, show-stopping joke in the middle of the story “Industry” that is almost an unfair gag in that the setup is that there was no setup, bam, surprise, that’s how you tell a joke.

-Ayo2012xoxo.

Comics criticism, or whatever

21 Sep

By Ayo

The Comics Journal features an interview of Benjamin Marra, conducted by Matt Seneca. You go and you read that here.

Okay great. Thanks for coming back, that was a long one.

I like Benjamin, he’s a friendly, personable guy with a deep knowledge and love of comic books. He’a a few years older than I am so his tastes are an earlier equivalent to what my tastes in mainstream comic books were. His influences are easy to trace and he wears them on his sleeve.

I’ve talked with him. Here we all are:

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Matt Seneca, Darryl Ayo (that’s me), Jonny Negron, Michael DeForge, Frank Santoro, Benjamin Marra, Lala Albert, Aiden Koch.

Very important to convey the precarious nature of who I am and where I stand in reality. I have written this several times. And deleted it most of those times. I shouldn’t have to do this. But I’ve waited patiently an nobody else will step up to the plate.

So once again it’s on me to explain to y’all white folks what it is

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xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

Benjamin Marra is a satirical cartoonist, an ironic cartoonist. Not in a specific sense but in how he appropriates a certain period of Americana in his work. Appropriates and ramps it up. His drawings, subject matter and writing style are products of a certain kind of 1980s American comic book. His subject matter also reaches out into the 1970s pop culture and subcultures. Two that he mines frequently are sexploitation and blaxploitation. I have feelings about the sexploitation aspect of this kind of work (and I intend to speak at length about sex in comics one day) but what rarely gets talked about is racism and racial fetishism and exploitation.

It is very self-serving and I’ll go as far to say callous about playing in the sandbox of people whose degradation and oppression you do not share. Not writing about black characters or exploring the pain of black people but rather exoticizing the struggle, the pain, the humiliations, the inhumanity of the road to freedom.

Marra works in the domain of 1970s blaxploitation films but he lacks something: black people. When you watch a blaxploitation film, even if the filmmaker is white, you are seeing black people. Black performers whose frustrations are laid bare on the screen, even though the plots and dialogue were themselves exploitative. The presence of black actors made it real. “Actors,” meaning “independent agents,” not the profession. There are no black actors in a book such as “Lincoln Washington.”

I knew what I was setting myself up for when I bought and read “Lincoln Washington.” But somehow I didn’t believe. I didn’t want to think about how savage and brutal and soul destroying it would be. I didn’t expect to like it but I wanted to learn about what this Ben Marra fellow was about. Well now I know.

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I could be way off base, but the emotion that I feel about “Lincoln Washington” might be similar to how many (not “all”) women feel about rape-revenge stories: this isn’t your story to tell.

It’s the way I feel. Spotlight on, all eyes looking, my cultural history paraded around to make an “awesome comic,” insults, rapes, whipping, murder, all for the vicarious benefit of destroying the “bad white people” so that the audience (“good white people”) can have a cathartic release and feel good about themselves. I’m not like those people. I’m on the side of the superhuman negro who punched those white folks’ heads clean off. Those were bad white people. Not like me. I rooted for the good guy.

When I finished reading “Lincoln Washington,” I was physically shaking, gritting my teeth trying to calm my nausea. This isn’t fun. This isn’t “radical,” this isn’t “awesome,” this isn’t a game. This is a brutal reality that a lot of you couldn’t possibly relate to or understand, emotionally.

This isn’t a black person’s fantasy, it is a white person’s fantasy. The ability to get on the correct side of history. The ability to both taste the lurid pleasure of breaking a human down and then switch sides and share in the vicarious thrill of revenge. Lincoln Washington doesn’t exist. He is Benjamin Marra’s own id. He isn’t real in any sense of the word.

Better to talk to would be my mother, an enthusiastic reader of the post-slavery period called “Reconstruction.” The heroism of the era wasn’t vigilante, beastlike super-blacks. The heroism was in the the way blacks rushed to assume political offices, attend law schools, work on a systemic level to bring America from a barbaric state into the beginnings of a humane state. This was before blacks lost many of their public rights such as voting.

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There isn’t much to say. People are going to do what they’re going to do. Benjamin Marra is going to make whatever comics he feels like making and I’m not trying to stop him. You are going to read whatever comic books you want to read and I won’t try to convince you otherwise. I really believe that: “you should read whatever you want to.”

But with works like these, please be aware of what you’re getting into.

You cry and cry all the time!

7 Sep

By Ayo

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“Hot to the Touch”
Adventure Time, season 4, episode 3
Storyboard: Cole Sanchez & Rebecca Sugar
Adventure Time created by Pen Ward

Human body is approximately sixty percent water. The Flame Princess is made out of fire. Her relationship with Finn the Human is therefore very complicated and filled with the frustrating and sad moments of young love, suitably multiplied by the proportion of fantastic elements in the stories. “Hot to the Touch” is the second part in a dramatic arc that begins with “Incendium” (storyboard: Adam Muto & Rebecca Sugar) and pays off greatly in the barn burner “Burning Low” (Sanchez & Sugar).

The Flame Princess stories are enriching because it is sort of painful to think that a terrific show such as Adventure Time would stay anchored in the cultural idea of “love at first sight, I will sit and wait for the princess of my dreams until she eventually loves me.” Finn and Princess Bubblegum’s relationship of unrequited love vs platonic friendship made for some good stories but the idea to move Finn forward from that paradigm was smart. And considering our cultural mythology of “true love, forever,” it was a bold decision.

With the Flame Princess, we have Finn the Human meet a girl who is different from Princess Bubblegum in age, maturity, temperament and physical composition. Described as “my evil daughter” by the Flame King, Flame Princess represents a more clear-headed and empathetic view of the “wounded woman” archetype.

Of course she isn’t “evil,” merely misunderstood and tired of feeling maligned. Which I’ll grant you, is a cliche in itself. But there is a persistent empathy from the storytellers that brings new life to this kind of character.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

“Burning Low”
Adventure Time, season 3, episode 10
Storyboard: Sanchez & Sugar

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“Burning Low” reminds me of Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover.” It is probably meant to. There are lots of music references in Adventure Time.
“see the candle burning low/
is a new world rising
from the shambles of the old”

The thing about “Burning Low” that is shocking is how effortlessly the story introduces the concepts of sex as a physical bonding experience for people in love. So confident are the creators in this that they even lean heavily on a safe sex metaphor. Which is not just hilarious, it’s a needed change in our general culture. In the story, the role of “sex” is played by “hugs.” Which can be heart-stoppingly intimidating for tween/teens who are just beginning to have complex romantic feelings. What a messed up time that was!

There is also an STD angle if you’re willing to read that far into it. In the 90s, they used I say “burning” to refer to someone with an STD (likely from the sensation of burning that accompanies some STD symptoms). It’s really funny to see Jake the Dog step in and insist that Finn use some protection before hugging Flame Princess. Wrap it up, kids.

Doubling back, Princess Bubblegum discovers that if Finn and Flame Princess actually kiss then the planet would explode, which is absurd and not a sex metaphor but rather the actual plot of the episode. Goofy stuff happens and the kiss doesn’t blow everything up…

Anyway.

Sex (by metaphor) as a goal in itself, as an expression of intimacy as well as a deepening of a relationship. It’s something that I have been thinking about for years in the cartoon arts. Mostly comics, of course, but Adventure Time is close enough to the comics experience for my tastes.

The problem with “sex” as a subject matter is that most people think “pornography.” And while pornography has its own wonderful place in our culture, “sex” as a storytelling tool is often anchored to that concept and tossed overboard.

There is a weird thing that doesn’t happen in most of our culture’s romantic stories. It’s necessary in real romance. It’s repetition. We have been acclimated to an idea of romance as a destination, a finish line. Kiss and fade to black, the end. In reality, a kiss should be “the beginning.” The thing that is weird is watching real people’s relationships rot away because they appear to be patterning their relationships on films. Once you “get” the girl/boy, that’s that. You have won. Pat yourself on the back. In truth, while many people do find it to be a struggle to begin a romantic relationship, it is very difficult to maintain these relationships as well. Sometimes you have to fall in love with the person all over again. People affirm and reaffirm their romantic feelings for one another and through this continual reinforcement a relationship thrives.

The repetition spans from speaking regularly, going on outings together and yes, by having sex. Surprise! You thought this was a comic website. It is couple’s therapy. This is an intervention.

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Anyway. This is the stuff I am into. Adventure Time is a lot about the sword and sorcery, dungeon-roaming adventures of tabletop gaming. But it’s also about the adventure of young love, the sudden onset of complexity into lives that were previously straight forward. The program has charged headlong into subjects like queer relationships, fat acceptance, death, forgiveness. The type of subjects that a show aimed at clever kids should be tackling. Art and cultural outpourings are the products of society but also part of a society’s education. You are what you eat so it is good to consume art that is about how we can better relate to one another.