Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Reviews (page 2 of 2)

Pour One Out for 1990s Feminism

So, I was watching cartoons the other day. And I had such feels that I had to interrupt my Oblivion craft breakdown and talk about it.

I watched the pilot of the X-Men series, which aired in 1992 and ran until 1997.

Then, for contrast, I watched the pilot of the X-Men: Evolution series that aired in 2000 and ran until 2003.

And the difference between the two has a lot to do with just the style of popular TV and world-building that was common in TV shows of the different times…but there was something more, something about the female characters I wanted to try to explain.

X-Men (1992)

xmen_animated-1024x798

This series starts with the titles–showing all of the X-Men with their branded logos: Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Storm, the Beast, Gambit, Jubilee, Jean Grey, and Professor X. This seems like a direct descendant of 80s TV shows that were designed to sell toys. But I digress.

The opening image of the show is a TV that’s running a news program about a dangerous mutant tearing things up (it’s Sabretooth).

Then we zoom out and see Jubilee’s foster parents watching the program and arguing about whether or not to register Jubilee with the mutant control agency. Jubilee is the Wesley Crusher of the series, both in that she’s the youngest character meant to be a viewpoint character for the kids watching the show, and also that she can be pretty annoying. Still, take note: The “viewpoint” character we are first introduced to is a Chinese-American girl.

Jubilee flees a Sentinal

The first action sequence in the series is when Rogue and Storm interrupt a Sentinal that’s in the middle of trying to abduct Jubilee. They beat up the Sentinal until they are thrown out of a window. Jubilee continues to run away from the Sentinal, eventually aided by Gambit and Cyclops, who psi-blasts off his head. Let me rewind for a second there. The first action sequence is three women and a robot. And yes, Storm and Rogue are in a mall, ’cause they’re shopping, like girls. But they’re shown as quick-thinking and powerful.

Storm and Rogue prepare to take down the Sentinal that's holding Jubilee

In the first episode, there’s a lot of talk about the relationship of the mutants with the rest of the world: the Mutant Control Agency (which is a “private company occasionally assisted by the government.” Blackwater, anyone?) has a secret agenda, people hate and fear mutants, etc. This is a world with mutants firmly established as a thing, a thing to which the world is reacting in a variety of helpful and destructive ways.

Callisto

A couple of episodes in, Jean Gray and Cyclops are on a date, and end up running into a bunch of sewer-dwelling mutants known as the Morlocks. Their leader, a brash, semi-masculine woman named Callisto, takes Cyclops hostage. When Jean comes back with the cavalry to save him, Callisto makes it clear that she doesn’t care about Cyclops’ powers or anything, she just wants someone to impregnate her. So, Cyclops is reduced to a hunky sperm-bag in her eyes, even though we know about his power, leadership abilities, and relationships with other characters. Nobody says to Cyclops, “Well, it must have been that tight costume. That’s what caught her eye. If you didn’t wear such a sexual costume…” They rescue him, no big deal, and carry right on.

To recap:

  • About half of the X-men team is female. They are team leaders, powerful, and integral parts of the plot. Jubilee is not a leader yet, but she is the viewpoint character.
  • The first action sequence in the whole show is three women fighting a Sentinal.
  • There is a lot of casual inclusion of women in the show: main characters are female, side-characters are female, random walk-ons are female.
  • The gender-reversed Damsel in Distress episode with Cyclops pokes fun at the trope as a whole: “See how ridiculous it is that this evil lady only wants him for his body? When we know he is so much more than that?”

A scene like that would never happen in cartoons these days. It would be considered too…blatant? Are we too cool to directly gender-swap sexist tropes? Is that passe now? Do we use “ironic” sexism now? ‘Cause frankly, I don’t see nearly the representation now in TV shows that there was in the 90s.  I’m not just talking about X-Men and cartoon shows. I’m talking about Xena, Buffy, Daria, and Aeon Flux. These are all mainstream or popular alternative TV shows that featured women as leads, and often had female side-characters as well (in contrast to the plethora of “woman makes it in a man’s world” shows, *coughCastleAliasMadMencough*). I mean, maybe my perceptions are skewed, but can anyone name off some TV shows from this decade, or even the 2000s, that featured female leads (not a female half of a duo, but actually a female main character)? In the world of animation I’ve got My Life as a Teenage Robot and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I know there are others, so help me out in the comments.

X-Men: Evolution (2000)

This series is a reboot of the whole show, in a very specific context: high school.

Earth-11052

The opening image of this show, before the titles, is a high school football games. First, cheerleaders. Then, football players: the home team makes a touchdown. Then we see Jean Gray taking photos.Then Cyclops, watching. Then, Todd Tolanski (a.k.a. Toad) stealing wallets. Three of the football players notice Todd’s thieving and go to beat him up.

"Hey, I gotta go beat up some kid I don't like or understand. BRB."

“Hey, I gotta go beat up some kid I don’t like or understand. BRB.”

Cyclops ends up sticking up for Toad, suggesting that they settle the issue peacefully and return the wallets. Instead, the football players beat up Scott/Cyclops, knock off his glasses, and there are eyebeam explosions and shit that Storm and Professor X have to clean up after the titles happen.

Welp, that was awkward.

Yes, instead of one Wesley Crusher character, there are a whole slew of Wesley Crusher characters. Each of the first several episodes introduces a new character: Shadowcat, Spyke, Rogue, Nightcrawler, and more. The adults in the series are Storm, Logan/Wolverine, and of course Professor X. We also get to see Mystique revealed to be disguised as an administrator in the high school. Yep. The high school is the battle ground. And that, I think, is where this series breaks down. Fundamentally, it seems like school administrators are battling over teenagers and using them as weapons against one another. Which I find kind of depressing, perhaps because it hits too close to home in the world of educational politics; we just have test scores instead of mutant powers.X-Men-Evolution-x-men-6480523-889-700

In general, I think the series is served poorly by its beginning in this world where mutant politics are not out in the open and already a thing. In X-Men, we had a whole world, even a planet as a setting. It felt like these mutants really did have the fate of the world in their hands. In X-Men Evolution, the setting is greatly reduced, to just a dang high school. And while the male:female ratio is about the same, the girls don’t get screen time in that same effortless way. We don’t see Storm leading teams, we see her standing next to Professor X like he needs her to push his wheelchair or something. The Shadowcat introduction involves a lot of Naughty Mutant Boy trying to corrupt Kitty Pryde and her trying to run from her own powers.

Seriously. I know she'll all undercover and stuff, but in the '92 series she straight up spontaneously costume changed and zapped a robot. This is much less badass.

Seriously. I know she’ll all undercover and stuff, but in the ’92 series she straight up spontaneously costume changed and zapped a robot. This is much less badass.

While the X-Men are still about 50% X-Women, the relationship with women in X-Men: Evolution is subtly less empowering enough to make the series disappointing, along with the great shrinkage of the mutant world. Did you want a world of drama and high-stakes big mutant battles? Welp, you get high school. The end.

Oblivion: Written by Real Human Writers

This is Part One of a review/craft breakdown of the movie Oblivion. Happily, Part One is pretty much spoiler-free; nothing you wouldn’t see in the previews.

Oblivion movie poster

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, 2013

So, after seeing a whole lot of films that seemed to be written by either a team of trained monkeys with typewriters or the vast and terrible Hollywood Machine, boy was Oblivion a lovely breath of fresh air. (Apparently others disagree, but lo, I will break it down yo why this film is good.)

The film wasn’t really on my radar; I tend to roll my eyes whenever Tom Cruise is in anything. And the irony of Tom Cruise’s  Scientologist ass in a film that involves hostile alien takeover was not lost on me. Thetans eat your heart out. Cruise aside, though (and seriously, I *almost* forgot it was him), I am a huge sucker for dystopian stories. So Oblivion is right up my alley. Also, the whole damn score is by M83, orchestrated by the guy who worked with Daft Punk on the TRON: Legacy soundtrack. Also, the movie would be worth seeing in theaters for the visuals alone.

But a lot of movies have rad soundtracks and pretty visuals. I mean, that was true of TRON: Legacy,  Joseph Kosinski’s first go at film directing. But this movie had so much more going on.

So, what this movie has that so many do not:

  1. Careful and strategic worldbuilding (which actually could have been slightly *more* careful at the end, but hey. It still outclassed many sci-fi releases of the past decade)
  2. Here’s the kicker: Really well-designed, active characters that all had clear motivations upon which they acted.
  3. Kicker No. 2: A clear “ticking clock” in every scene that drove the plot forward.
  4. Nice use of symbolic props.

So many films tend to forget these, particularly number two. Seriously. It is oddly difficult to write active characters, even when you’re trying. It’s so much easier to throw big scary monsters at your characters and see how they’ll REACT.

So, let me break down the beginning, non-spoilery bit so you can see what I’m talking about.

We begin by meeting two characters:

Jack Harper and Victoria, or “Vic” Olsen. They live in a ivory tower of a fancy house on top of a giant pole that lands them well above lightning-filled doom clouds.

Jack and Vic's house

Thus.

Jack Harper is a mechanic. He explains his job in voice-over: He fixes the drones that repair the machines that suck up the ocean that powers the getaway vehicle (a giant tetrahedron craft called The Tet) that has all remaining humanity on it and will shortly be bound for Titan (Saturn’s moon) since Earth is wrecked (radiation, hostile aliens called Scavs) after the big ol’ war where the alien invasion force blew up the moon then invaded. (Worldbuilding, anyone?) But day-to-day, he fixes drones.

Jack fixes a drone.

Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise.

Vic is Jack’s controller. She stays up in the tower. She’s a line between Mission Control on the Tet and Jack; she literally watches his back for Scavs and other hazards while he does his job. She’s pretty frigging anxious to get out. At the beginning of the movie, she can’t stop thinking about how it’s two more weeks, and then they’ll go up to the Tet and be whisked off to Titan with everyone else. She’s doing her damnedest to hold it together for just two more weeks, and trying to get Jack to do the same. (Ticking clock, anyone?)

Vic at her control desk.

Victoria “Vic” Olsen, played by Andrea Riseborough.

Jack and Vic are in charge of a limited section of territory in between radiation zones. Hint: It’s New York. The only other things we know about Jack and Vic: They’ve had a mandatory “memory wipe” so that they cannot reveal secrets should they be captured by hostile aliens. Jack has memories of Old Earth and a woman he doesn’t know.

Vic is actively trying to get out; she’s ready to go and is doing everything she can to survive these last two weeks to Titan. Jack is trying to preserve the memories of Old Earth as much as he can before they leave. He’s also curious. And, as with any good story, today is the day something different happens.

  • Major Dramatic Question: Will Jack solve the mystery of what happened to his world and who this woman is? (Will Jack be able to preserve his world?)
  • Passover Question: Why is tonight different than any other night….? Well…”An object has come down in Sector 17″ is all I’ll say.

Apparently Kosinski got Tom Cruise to sign on based on the little Oblivion comic/ashcan book, and then spent a year working on the script. And to my mind, it shows! Michael Arndt, of screenwriter for Little Miss Sunshine, was among the writing team.

Other cast members include Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, That One Guy From Game of Thrones, and Xena’s Friggin’ Stunt Double.

Okay, now go see it already! Next post will be filled with Spoilery, spoilery spoilers. I plan on tracking the character motivations and symbolic props throughout the whole thing in a delightfully anal-retentive way.

 

 

 

Five Romantic Comedies I Like

In honor of Crap Corporate Holiday, I will talk about Romantic Comedies.

(Actually, my lovely partner Mikeatron and I are going to a drag show for Valentine’s Day, because that’s the only sane thing to do on such a day.)

Growing up, I never much cared for the romantic comedies of the 80s and 90s that everyone was supposed to like.  Sure, I watched ’em…Can’t Hardly Wait, Sleepless in Seattle, She’s All That (where she was totally interesting and pretty to begin with), While You Were Sleeping (which I now want to rewatch and see if it’s the bad Sleeping Beauty rehash that I suspect it is), and even 10 Things I Hate About You (which was okay, but never stuck with me).

Quickly, here’s a definition of “romantic comedy,” because I had to spend some time convincing myself that Wayne’s World didn’t actually count as a romantic comedy:

Garth Algar and his scientific helmet.

Garth is my Spirit Animal.

“Romantic comedy films, also known as “rom-coms” or “romedies”, are films with light-hearted, humorous plotlines, centered on romantic ideals such as that true love is able to surmount most obstacles.[1]” –Wikipedia (which had a better definition than the dictionary, honest)

And here are five that I genuinely love:

5. The Decoy Bride (2011)

Poster for The Decoy Bride

By the title alone, I should have hated this film. It has two things I dislike, weddings and lying. So why did I watch it?

a) It was free on Netflix.

b) It has David Tennant. And he makes me feel kinda funny, like when we used to climb the rope in gym class.

c) The mouseover text had something like “Scotland” and “writer” in it.

Why I liked it:

  • It has a strong setting and sense of place. The female lead is the ONE single woman on tiny tiny Scottish island, who’s considered a black sheep by her whole community, and is struggling to gain some sort of sense of identitiy. David Tennant is a writer with one commercial success who’s now blocked, but pretending that he isn’t to his fiance, a gorgeous and popular movie star who is sort of constantly hounded by paparazzi. His one novel is set on said tiny Scottish island, and he’s rented a castle on said island for the wedding. The island isn’t window dressing; it’s essential to the plot and characters.
  • The characters have depth. Nobody is all good or all bad in this film, not even the stalking paparazzo or the close-minded islanders. None of the leads are perfect people, and their imperfections coupled with their strong character wants drive the plot.
  • This one time David Tennant swims in a moat and then he’s all wet and attractive. (What? I don’t have to talk about craft *all* the time.)

4. Blow Dry (2001)

Poster for "Blow Dry"

Why I liked it:

  • It’s got a small town competition as it’s main plot focus. Basically, East Arseville, England has been chosen to host a major hair competition. It has a strong sense of place, which apparently is important to me in these things.  But the competition lends a nice backdrop to the whole thing and helps the plot along by giving all these characters a major want and a reason to be in the same place.
  • There’s more than one type of love represented. You’ve got the Girl Next Door young love, you’ve got father/son love and tradition going squish, you’ve got a man who’s wife long ago left him for his female hair model, and their son who loves all three folks involved, and you’ve got people’s abiding love for the town.
  • More than the traditional American definition of what’s attractive is shown as beautiful in this film.

3. Amelie (2001)

Poster for Amelie

Why I liked it:

  • The strong narrator character lends a wonderful window into the characters’ interior lives.
  • Both Amelie and Nino are ADORABLE and socially awkward as hell. Their creativity drives them in beautiful ways that are both within the romance plot, and beyond the romance plot.
  • The subjectivity of the filmmaking, i.e. how we see the world as Amelie does, is stunning and captivating.
  • Audrey Tatou’s hair.

2. Strictly Ballroom (1992)

poster of Strictly Ballroom

  • Again, a competition is the focus of the plot, this one even more intertwined with the characters’ lives than in Blow Dry because of the family heritage aspect. The male lead has to deal with his parents’ issues as well as his own. And issues they have.
  • The Mockumentary style is super effective: it gives us a window into the story because characters have a reason to talk about things to the camera. This is why The Office works, too.
  • Fran is seriously awkward and does a very genuine, believable ugly-duckling-to-swan transition. She’s also got more going on than mooning over Scott. She’s got her own history, family, and the same strong want that Scott has: to show her own moves.

1.  Sliding Doors (1998)

Sliding Doors movie poster

Why I liked it:

  • I am a huge sucker for parallel dimension/timeline stories. This one answered a What If moment in a really intriguing and compelling way. The magic of the timelines splitting was done with ease and grace.
  • While it didn’t have a Happy Ending, it had the suggestion of one. I didn’t feel cheated, I felt interested.
  • James’ constant Monty Python references. <3

A Ray of Hope…

Lest the last post be too disparaging about fairy tale ladies in iffy marriage situations, let me bring a seriously rad lady to your attention:

SHAHRAZAD, heroine of The Arabian Nights

illustration from the Edumund Dulac edition

So here’s the deal with The Arabian Nights: it’s one large frame story with several smaller frame stories grouped inside of it. Tales within tales within tales.

magic card

This is accurate.

In the outmost story, the Vizier’s daughter Shahrazad seeks to save her own life and the lives of all the city’s women by telling the king stories and thus staying her execution. The entirety of the Nights is Shahrazad’s slow, clever campaign to save her society from its murderous leader.

So here’s what I always somehow misunderstood: Shahrazad willingly enters her situation with the King. For some reason, I thought she was just next up on the chopping block, a victim of circumstances.

But no, Shahrazad wants to marry the King. She actually blackmails her father into letting her marry a murderer. This is the total opposite western Animal Husband tales where, as Bruno Bettleheim puts it, the heroine goes to a beastly husband “because of love for or obedience to her father.”

*cougheveryDisneyPrincesscough*

So why does Shahrazad put herself in such a deadly situation? Because she’s one smart cookie. And she has a plan.

The first description of her doesn’t go on about her beauty (the number one trait of all Perrault and Grimm princesses), but her intelligence: “[She] had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by hreat, had studied historial  reports, and was acquainted with the saying of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined.”

"Damn it, all *I* got were these really heavy earrings and a pet tiger that didn't actually rip anyone's throat out."

Shahrazad knows exactly what she wants to do, and lays it all out for her sister: “Then I will begin to tell a story, and it will cause the king to stop his practice [of killing women], save myself, and deliver the people.” Even by Joseph Campbell’s standards, this is a large-scale, heroic goal.

Shahrazad chooses an incredibly clever setup for her time with King Shahrayar. Firstly, she brings her sister Dinarzad into the picture. Her plea to get Dinarzad in the bedroom is heartfelt and simple, “I have a sister, and I wish to bid good-bye before daybreak.” Of course Shahrayar sends for the sister, and at the opportune moment Dinarzad speaks the words for the first time that will become a refrain throughout the book: “Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night…” Shahrazad asks permission, of course. But when the king agrees, he is entrapped.

illustration by Kay Neilsen

Shahrazad never gets quite all the way through a story on any given night, at least not without hinting at the next one. She never finishes the tale during the daytime, presumably because dawn is the time of her supposed execution. The king never demands her to finish except at night, when Dinarzad has again asked for a story. The king himself never asks for a story directly; Dinarzad becomes the innocent voice of the eager listener, and the catalyst of the storytelling. Shahrazad never pleads for her life with the King, she merely tells her sister what further amazing tales she has in store “if the king spares me and lets me live!” The King is never threatened or directly coerced, giving him the illusion of control. In fact, Shahrazad controls the stories, and thus the action, the whole time.

Within the stories themselves, there are a number of frame stories that bear a striking resemblance to Shahrazad’s situation. In one tale, three Dervishes must tell their tales or be executed by the fearsome mistress of a house in which they stayed. In another tale, a vizier named Ja’far must stay his execution by telling a strange story to his Caliph. In yet another, four characters plead for their lives to the King of China. There are several life-or-death situations.

Shahrazad unquestionably holds the most power in The Arabian Nights. She willingly throws herself into a deadly situation to save her people. She stops and starts the stories at will, aided by the soft, inoffensive voice of her sister. She succeeds at every heroic goal she set forth for herself. In the end, she wins the ultimate boon, saving not only of her life, but the lives of all the other women, and even the life of King Shahrayar. As translator Husain Haddawy notes, “Shahrazad cures Shahrayar of his hatred of women, teaches him to love, and by doing so saves her own life and wins a good man.” So, yeah, she got the guy in the end, but it was a kind of bonus effect after she saved the women of her culture from violent death.

Oddly, this does not all end in tears. (illus. Kay Neilsen)

By the way, if you want to pick up a copy and check it out, I highly recommend Husain Haddawy’s translation. It’s really readable and feels faithful to the source material. Also, he has a big honkin’ introduction about how Sir Richard Burton’s translations sucked….because Burton and others loved to Anglicize (and pontificate about) Eastern stories. It’s a proud Western tradition.

1001 nights vess

Snow White and the Sultan from Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham. The book in general is lovely and completely beautiful. But its frame story makes the actual character Shahrazad look all like she's a victim of circumstances following in Snow White's footsteps.

There are two volumes from Haddawy, The Arabian Nights and Arabian Nights II: Sinbad and Other Popular Stories. The second one has the more well-known stories (Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, etc), but the first one has the beginning frame story with Shahrazad, which is the best bit in my opinion. Click on the pic for an Amazon link:

Translated by Husain Haddawy from the 14th century manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi, published by Norton.

I highly recommend checking the tales out! They are approachable and worth experiencing firsthand. Besides, badass fairy tale ladies are a sight for sore eyes after the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen.

Review: Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes

A Tale of Two Daughters

SPOILER ALERT: I do talk about some events that happen during this book. I don’t give away everything, but if you want untouched, pristine snow of new reading, then go buy the book. And stop reading reviews, you silly.

 

Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes explores the paths of two women: Mary Talbot and Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. Mary’s memoir alternates with sections of biography about Lucia. The two are particularly suited for each other; Mary’s father was a Joycean scholar, and Mary grew up steeped in the language and culture of Joyce. While there are remarkable parallels between the women, the stories are not exact mirrors of each other. Mary and Lucia both struggle, during the tale, with their relationships with their stodgy, angry, and abusive fathers.

Talbot’s art is well designed to aid the reader in knowing exactly when and where the action is taking place. Scenes of Mary in her young adulthood are in crisp color, while scenes of Mary’s childhood are delicately watercolored sepias with less defined panel borders. Lucia Joyce’s stories are told with a watercolored blues-and-blacks palette that nicely mirrors Mary’s childhood stories.

Compared to Mary’s childhood, Lucia’s seems almost idyllic. Mary details her distant, academic, and angry father with details that cut right to the heart. “I’m not sure when longing for his presence turned into its diametrical opposite,” says Mary, as she details a scene of her father slapping her after a failed math homework session. The sophisticated, intelligent voice of Mary-the-writer blends nicely with the innocent, honest voice of Mary-the-child. Mary also uses quotes from Joyce and others in the narration, which helps Mary’s father truly become the “cold mad feary father” of Joycean prose.

While Mary’s story begins in depression and rises to somewhat of a happy ending, Lucia’s is the opposite. She begins on a high: a frugal-but-loving childhood, an adolescence pursuing the dream of dance, and an apparently decent relationship with her father. However, her story plunges into depths of tragedy and psychological turmoil even as Mary decides to get her life together and move on.

Mary’s story does not end definitely, certainly not as definitely as Lucia’s. In a way, the “soft ending” of Mary’s story is satisfying; it highlights the sadness and ridiculousness of reality, how life doesn’t follow a nice story-like path. To an extent, Mary-the-storyteller seems wrapped up in her anger with her father more than self-examination and a desire to save herself.  In some ways, however, the book suggests that these two women made different choices in their heroine’s journeys…each woman reacts to her father’s desire to infantilize and dismiss her differently. Lucia’s wild anger pushes her over the edge, while Mary’s persistence sees her through to some kind of a coherent adulthood.

In the realm of Graphic Memoirs, I find this a compelling read. It’s not as satisfying and justice-filled as Bryan Talbot’s intense fiction story about abuse, The Tale of One Bad Rat. Nor is it as nuanced and brilliant as Alison Bechdel’s Funhome. That being said, I think it has a place on the graphic novel enthusiast’s shelf, and certainly on the Joycean’s shelf and the memoirist’s shelf.

On a completely unrelated note, Mary and Bryan Talbot were adorable in the 70s. They were just the cloak-and-ankh-wearing Tolkien nerds that I would have been. Well, let’s be honest, I *was* that nerd in my early 20s. But I still would have been that nerd in the 70s. Just with more exciting hair.

 

Want to take a peek? Buy it at your local comic shop or online.

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary Talbot, illus. Bryan Talbot. Dark Horse, 2012. $14.99

Book Review: Ray Fawkes’ One Soul

one soul, eighteen stories

*Spoiler alert: I do talk about things that happen in this book. That being said, I think that it doesn’t matter if you know what happens or not; you’ll still want to pick up the book and flip through it.

Ray Fawkes’ One Soul is like nothing else I’ve read. Really. People have tried parallel storytelling before, but not like this.

Firstly, I read the book eighteen times; rather, I flipped the pages eighteen times as I followed each of the eighteen stories Fawkes sets up. Each double-page spread consists of nine equally sized panels per page, tracing a total of eighteen life stories that are supposedly connected by a single soul. The strong narrative voice that shows up in the captions seems to serve as the voice of the soul, and is the reason the book holds together rather than seeming disjointed to the point of incoherence.

Fawkes makes a point of starting the book in blackness, all eighteen panels delineated, but dark. The first spark of life shows up after the page turn as a white paint splash in each panel. The concept of the soul is visible and supported by the captions that appear in several of the panels. The captions are the only words in the book; there is no direct dialogue. After the third page turn, we see all eighteen children being born in various circumstances. In effect, Fawkes is teaching us how to read the book by showing his concept through pictures and structure.

If you read the book like a traditional comic, left-to-right, then you’ll follow the stories chronologically, showing a moment from each person’s infancy, childhood, etc. The oldest story is a neolithic hunter, the newest a 70s punk girl. The characters range from slaves to military leaders, doctors to prostitutes. Aside from the interesting array of life circumstances, Fawkes’ structure allows you to compare the length and themes of the various lives. The first character dies about a quarter of the way through the book, and is thereafter represented as a black square. However, words appear in the blackness. As more and more characters die, more words appear in the blackness. The words of the dead seem to be specific to each character at first, but as the book goes on the language is more like a chorus. Eventually the words in the blackness overtake the pages and meld into one.

There is no clear moral to these stories, nor any obvious lesson to be learned. The longest-lived character, a woman who was raised by a chorus girl and grew up to be a singer, seems to be the closest the book gets to any kind of answer. At the very end, as an old woman, she says, “I’ve had some time/when I was small my mother taught me to say/thank you.” At the same time, the black panels of the dead have turned to one large panel which reads “this is me and all of this”. The character’s moment of gratitude seems to align with the uniting of the soul in darkness. This re-uniting—a striking change from the book’s opening image—seems to be the closest thing the book has to a conclusion.

In a way that mirrors the characters living and dying again and again, I read this book again and again. I read the individual stories. I read the pages across like a traditional comic, where each page took on a poem-like quality, connected by theme of events and images more than anything else. But overall, the thing that held this comic together for me was the voice. The voice asked the questions about what the point of the stories that I was wondering myself. The voice of the soul tied the stories together and allowed me to track themes across characters, both living and dead. While the voice may not have had too many answers, the visual unity of the panels at the end was enough for me.

Sounds interesting? Pick it up at your local comic shop or online.

Ray Fawkes, One Soul. Oni Press, 2011. $24.99

 

**article cross-posted at Geekerific**

It’s the End of the World as we Know It…

Who loves dystopias? Me, clearly, because I wrote one, but still. A good dystopia story is totally cathartic, the ultimate act of schadenfreude.

Holy crap. Too many big words. To review:

Dystopia: a “negative utopia,” i.e. a supposedly perfect world gone horribly wrooooong.

Schadenfreude: A German word meaning “happiness at the misfortune of others.”

…Anyway, dystopias. I’m sure you were forced to read one or two in school, if you went to school in the US…in any case, here’s a few of my favorites, in no particular order (with Amazon links for your convenience):

Utopia by Sir Thomas More


This is worth a read for sure, even if it does mean putting on your Literature Hat and slogging through some archaic language. A traveler is describing this perfect land of Utopia that he’d visited. I was interested in what parts of the society actually seemed like a good idea (women working) and what sounded like utter crap (people will stop caring about gold is we make our toilets out of gold and don’t use gold for money).

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin


This is a rebellious book. It was first published in Russia in 1921, and immediately banned. While it was available in other countries, Russia kept it banned until Glasnost in 1988. I think anything worth strict government quashing for 67 years is worth reading! Really, We is a Classic Dystopia, in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. The society in We is authoritarianism complete with names-as-numbers and lack of emotion. It wrestles with the question “How do you break out of your own mental prisons?”

Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess


I admit it: I have never seen the movie. While I intend to, I think I’ve been putting it off because film can never capture the voice of the book. The story is told in first person from Alex’s point of view. For those who aren’t familiar, Alex is an insanely criminal 15-year-old in a dark future England whom the government tries to “fix” with mind control. The entire book is written in dialect, a strange Russian-based language to which you don’t know all the words and have to pick up as you read along. The language removes you a bit from the visceral violence of the plot, and allows you to read with more of a cold, Alex-like mindset. Whether or not you liked the movie, the book is absolutely worth reading.

The Giver by Lois Lowry


Yes, you probably had to read it in middle school. Here’s what I appreciate about The Giver: While most dystopias are a conservative or authoritarian society gone wrong, The Giver is a liberal society gone wrong. When I read it again recently, I was a little embarrassed to admit that I really liked a lot of the things in their society…the lack of cars, the open sharing of emotions, the coherent role for young adults… of course, there’s a lot about it that is Horribly Wrong as well. Lois Lowry actually wrote two sequels, Gathering Blue and The Messenger. They were good, but not as genius as the original. I think the ambiguous ending was one of the great things about The Giver, and its sequels make it a little less ambiguous. Nevertheless, they’re interesting enough to read and draw your own conclusions.

Y: The Last Man (series) by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, et al.


In 2002, a mysterious plague wipes out any animal, embryo, and sperm with a Y chromosome. The only survivors of the plague are a man named Yorick and a male capuchin monkey…and, of course, all of the females in the world. Perhaps this series is a little more “post-apocalyptic” than “dystopian,” but in either case, its vision of what the world would look like if all the men died is pretty damn fascinating.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler


I’m about a third of the way through this so far. I am reading it in small doses, because it’s depressing as hell. I think it’ll actually have a redemptive ending, but good lord. I have to be in a masochistic mood to read it; it’s set in a grim and horrible future America where crime and corruption are so rampant that people live in these little walled enclaves, growing their own food and trying not to get robbed/raped/shot.

In another post, I’ll touch on dystopian film, which is a delicious subject too big to be broached here. Lately Mikeatron and I have been doing double feature movie dates, where each of us rents a video that the other one hasn’t seen. So far I’ve managed to pick out weird and disturbing movies (Cube, eXistenZ), and he’s managed to get heartwarming 90s films (Enemy Mine, The Professional). I don’t know what this says about our respective personalities. Perhaps he is a big softy at heart. Perhaps I am not. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

Secret Seattle

I am about to let you in on secret, sacred knowledge.

First, a disclaimer: I am not much of a consumer. I tend to be predictable and somewhat pretentious in how I spend my disposable income. Mostly I spend my extra money on exciting food. I come from a long lineage of foodies, and am willing to label myself as such with some degree of pride. I love food, particularly when it help me feel a connection to my community or the earth. I am lucky enough to have a garden AND a year-round farmer’s market that I can walk to.

Anyway, that being said, I have some secret-ish Seattle spots that I am going to make public. Some of them are even unrelated to food.

#1) Paseo

Paseo is a sandwich shop, but you might not know it because both locations are more or less a shack, a shack with no obvious signage and a line of people in front. It falls into that kind of restaurant that I love most: greasy, hole-in-the-wall, makes me feel all hip and exclusive because it’s not advertised anywhere, etc. It’s cash only and the most drop-dead-of-a-heart-attack delicious meal I can imagine. The sandwiches are a delicious blend of flavors and textures: spongy, crusty demi baguettes that house a medley of crispy romaine, cilantro, divine caramelized onions, garlic aioli, and your choice of delicious protein substance. I have many friends who swear by their pork. I do not feel particularly passionate about pigflesh. (I will rant about my poser vegetarianism later.) So, the pork is apparently rockin’ if you’re into that kind of thing; I can vouch that their fish, prawn, scallop, and tofu options are freakin’ awesome. They’re closed Sunday/Monday and all of January…just because they can. They’re that good.

#2) Vintage Closet

The Vintage Closet has the distinction of being one of the few places that I will go spend disposable income that’s not on food. It is at heart a boot shop, although they’ve got lovely hats and other fun leatherwear. It’s leather a obnoxiously socially conscious person can feel good about owning, too: all used, all bought by the owner from her Secret Source of Secrecy. The boutique is open Thursday through Sunday in the afternoons and only accepts cash. Apparently “cash only” is a theme in the awesomeness of hole-in-the-wall places in Seattle. They’re at the corner of 65th St NW and 3rd Ave NW, right across from New Roots Organics.

#3) Bernie Utz Hats

Bernie Utz is the real deal, an honest-to-God Haberdashery that would make Johnny Depp proud. You want your Stetson? They’ve got it. You want a towering creation that would make Vida Boheme swoon? They’ve got it. Are you a grizzled bald man who wears a long leather trenchcoat and a leather eyepatch, who’s nearly died five times and needs a Greek fisherman’s hat in leather to complete his outfit? You’re covered. (Yes, he really was in the store when I went there, telling stories about his near-death experiences.) In any case, Bernie Utz is a trip well worth taking.

#4) Theo Chocolate

If you live in Seattle, you’ve seen their bars at most grocery stores, and know that Theo Chocolate is divine, delicious, and more expensive than a root canal. However, if you are a cheap bastard like me, you can go to their storefront, step into a darkened room that smells like heaven on earth, and have free samples of all of their deliciousness. You can also go on a tour; I haven’t done it myself, but I hear it’s pretty cool. You can also buy single chocolates that are less wallet-burdening and yet ever-so-satisfying, and a white chocolate orange lotion that will make you eat your own arm off. So, if you’ve been staring forlornly at the $3.75 chocolate bars in the QFC, look no further than the storefront at 4300 Phinney.

#5) 5 Spot Late Night Date

I image many of my local readers know about the 5 Spot already, but I feel the need to detail the Anne Bean and Mikeatron brand 5 Spot Late Night Date. The 5 Spot sit on top of Queen Anne Hill and boasts a unique and delicious “regional American Cuisine”. This translates to a main menu that stays the same with a few key dishes that rotate quarterly in accordance with the restaurant’s theme region. Some of the regions I’ve tasted include Oregon, North Beach San Francisco, Puerto Rico, the Florida Keys, and the Mississippi River Delta. It’s not just a few dishes that embody the theme; the entire restaurant is decked out in region-specific paintings, sculpture, and bathroom decor. It’s one of my favorite restaurants for breakfast or brunch, albeit a bit spendy for my tastes. However, after 10PM there is a fabulous menu of $5 “little dishes,” a bit bigger than an appetizer but smaller than a meal, which are delicious and satisfying. There are also lovely desserts and $1 PBR, so among all of that you can spend $20 for a thoroughly satisfying date for two. Afterwards, there’s a lovely walk down to Kerry Park, where you can get a picture postcard view of Seattle. Seriously. Had I not already found Mikeatron, this would make a killer first date. That’s why he and I repeat it so often, I suppose. 🙂

#6) The Knee High Stocking Company

The Knee High Stocking Company is an honest-to-god speakeasy. From the outside, it appears to be one of those mysterious little triangular buildings on the asymmetrical blocks of Capitol Hill. It has no sign, merely inch-high stickers spelling out its name by a doorbell. The windows are blocked with opaque brown cloth. In order to actually drink there, you must text in your reservation (although their number does not appear in their ad in The Stranger, nor does anything except a photo of the entrance). You then ring the doorbell, where someone in 1930s garb will answer the door and ask, “May I help you?” You then announce your reservation and are seated, plunged into a booze-soaked session of wit and banter. There are also about seven varieties of absinthe. Truly, visiting the Knee High Stocking Company is an experience.

That’s all I’ve got for the moment. Should you feel the need to confess your secret local loves, please, let us in on the scoop.

Webcomic of the Day

Ever since I was fifteen years old and stumbled across Sluggy Freelance, I’ve been secretly in love with webomics. In high school, webcomics and I went at it like rabbits. I’d read ten or fifteen daily, mostly on sites like Keenspot. I mellowed out in college a bit, mostly because I picked up the habit of paper comics instead. In fact, I became somewhat of a comics lit-geek. Now it’s kind of surreal to think that many of the comics I used to read have been around for TEN YEARS. When did that even happen?

These days I read only a few regularly: xkcd, Questionable Content, all of the creations of Drew Toothpaste and Natalie Dee, and sometimes Dinosaur Comics or Wondermark. There are others that I enjoy, a list far too long to mention. Except one. Recently I sat down and read in about three sittings the entirety of Anders Loves Maria, a Swedish comic by Renee Engstrom that just recently ended. My god. I cannot believe literature/entertainment of this quality is available on the internet for free. Seriously! The comic is a love story, spanning about four years of work which I devoured in just a few hours. It’s beautifully drawn, and has a masterful story structure.

Seriously, log off of Warcraft, sign out of gmail, and read this comic. Start at the beginning. It’s totally worth your time. And I don’t say that lightly about comics.

<resist> urge to go through and rank every comic I’ve ever read </resist>

Anyway, more later about my classes with David Wagoner, absurdist plays, and all of the other things that are bouncing around in my pea brain.

Adolescent Passions, or, Things I am not so Sure About Anymore…

I picked up a book at the library the other day: A Season In Hell, by Arthur Rimbaud. I know little if nothing about Rimbaud. To be perfectly honest, I picked it up because of a line from a Gregory Corso poem (Marriage):

What a husband I’d make! Yes, I should get married!

So much to do! Like sneaking into Mr Jones’ house late at night

and cover his golf clubs with 1920 Norwegian books

Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower

like pasting Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence

like when Mrs Kindhead comes to collect for the Community Chest

grab her and tell her There are unfavorable omens in the sky!

It’s a fabulous poem, and I recommend you go read the whole thing. Anyway, Rimbaud. I knew very little about him, and from the introduction I learned that he wrote A Season in Hell in 1873 at age 18, after going on a drug-fueled homosexual love journey that ended in violence, alcoholism, heartbreak and apparently, this essay. I’m not quite sure what to call it—essay, poem, rant, generalized adolescent freakout put onto paper. It’s really what so many people feel in their raging, hormonal hearts.

The remarkable things to me about this work are twofold: One, the raw passion of the work for the time. The 1870s in France were a time of political turmoil—the Franco-Prussian War, reflections of Eastern European communism. Somehow the inner turmoil in the work is even fierier than the world at the time. Secondly, the age at which it was written. I know I couldn’t turn out prose of that quality at age 18.  It feels like Salinger of the 1800s.

What I can’t decide is a) if I like it or not, and b) if it’s “good.” By “good,” I mean effective to its aims. I think it actually is decently effective at being a part of the throes of adolescent “passion as suffering.” I guess I’m just not sure whether or not the suffering stirs me much. Part of me is impressed, feels cathartic fierceness in his words. The pragmatic woman who’s passed through the gauntlet of the teenage years and the first bit of the 20s wants to say, “Hey. Arthur. Get over it, you silly man.” I’m not sure what to think.

Here’s the overture*, so that you can come to your own damn conclusions (which I would be keen on hearing):

“Once, if I remember right, my life was a celebration where all hearts were open and all wines flowed.

One night I saw Beauty in my lap. And I found she was bitter, and I called her names.

I found weapons to use against justice.

I ran away. Poverty, hate, you witches, my treasure was left in your care.

I managed to wither all human hope inside me. I attacked like a wild animal, and strangled every joy.

I called for executioners, I wanted to die chewing on their gum butts. I called for diseases, so I could suffocate in sand, in blood. Unhappiness was my god. I lay down in the mud, and dried off in the crime-infested air. I played the fool until I was really crazy.

And by spring I had the scary laugh of an idiot.

Now, a while ago, when I saw about to go Argh! for the last time, I thought I’d try to find the key to that lost celebration where—maybe—I could recover my appetite.

That key is Selfless Love. (—which goes tot show you I was dreaming.)

“You stay a hyena, etc….” shouts the demon who once crowned me with pretty poppies. “Go find death—use all your appetites, your egotism, and all the Seven Deadly Sins.”

Oh, I did too much of that. But Satan, please, don’t look so upset! And while we’re waiting for a few last-minute cowardices, here. You like writers with no talent at all for description or instruction, so take these pages. They’re for you I tore them out of my notebook of a lost soul.”

…mon carnet de damné…

What do you think? Deep? Pointless? Any good? Option D: Other?

*This being from the version translated by Robert Maplethorpe and published in 1986 by Bullfinch Press.

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