Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Christmas from Family Reads!

Happy Christmas, Gentle Reader, or whichever Winter Holiday you choose to celebrate. If you choose not to celebrate any at all, happy day-off from work! We Reads have had a lovely visit with Family, and I must admit, rather blushingly, that Mr. Reads and I have Raked Up The Gifts. Video Games, gift cards, lovely bags, and of course, the gift of a stereo receiver for We Reads, to each other.

This eve, we head off into the wild to dessert with family and friends, and then, This Humble Author is Away to Quite the Snowy State tomorrow morning! See you on the other side, and if I do not see you by then, have a lovely New Year.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Amy (Belatedly) Reads the Week (of December 16th, 2007)

I know, I know, Gentle Reader: I am Woefully Behind on my weekly column. But I have little to offer you this week. There is a post In The Works on Ms. Simone's fantastic new issue of Wonder Woman, and I have some enjoyable--and critical--things to say about recent pop culture events, like The Golden Compass, I Am Legend, Life on Mars, finally back on BBC America, Mike Carey's recent Dead Men's Boots (interlibrary loan, How I Adore Thee), etc. etc. ad nauseam.

But rather, I will leave you with Amy Reads' Best of the Year Lists, as soon, the Readses will pack up the car for The Journey Home for the Holidays. Yes, Amy Reads, Mr. Reads, and the intrepid Pup Reads will endure a long car ride home in order to celebrate the holidays with the Reads Family and the Reads-In-Laws. Therefore there is Much Laundry to be done, Lots of Packing, Great Amounts of Housekeeping, and, of course, dissertation planning. I promise to update here and there, but consider this column, belated as it is!, as the last official "Amy Reads the Week" column of 2007.

That being said, let's away to the lists!

Amy Reads' Best of 2007

Best Album
The White Stripes - Icky Thump
runner up: Tegan and Sara - The Con

Best Novel
Joe Hill - Heart-Shaped Box
runner up: Chelsea Cain - Heartsick
runner up: Mike Carey - The Felix Castor series

Best Rediscovered Novel
Edith Wharton - The House of Mirth
runner up: Alan Moore - The Watchmen

Best Movie
The Coen Brothers - No Country for Old Men
runner up: Paul Greengrass - The Bourne Ultimatum (it was loads of fun, Gentle Reader, sincerely)

Best Rediscovered Movie
Brian Percival - North and South (BBC)
runner up:Sam Raimi - Spider-Man II

Best New Television Series
ABC - Pushing Daisies
runner up: NBC - Life

Best Continuing Television Series
NBC - 30 Rock
runner up: CW - Supernatural

Best Comic: DC and Imprints
Gail Simone - Wonder Woman
runner up: Grant Morrison - Batman
runner up: Brian K. Vaughan - Y the Last Man

Best Comic: Marvel
Joss Whedon - Astonishing X-Men
runner up: Brian Michael Bendis - New Avengers
runner up: Joss Whedon - Runaways

Best Comic: Independent
Joss Whedon - Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 (Dark Horse)
runner up: Brian Lynch - Angel: After the Fall (IDW)

Any thoughts to add to the mix, Friends?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Pride of Armaghetto

Jimmy Olson is “Misdirection” in Countdown to Formal Criticism!?!

It’s birthday time once again, Gentle Reader, and unlike last year, I am not suffering from a terrible virus, complete with hospital stay (!!!). In fact, it’s lovely and cold here in The South, and Mr. Reads and I are planning a long day of playing Spider-Man: Friend or Foe on the Wii. Part of my birthday present included all four Wonder Woman action figures, and part of it includes the following from Dear Mr. Reads. He has written us Quite The Delightful Read and has been so gracious as to grace us with his cyber-presence. Please join me in welcoming him to Arrogant Self-Reliance, and thank him for picking up my Blogging Slack as a lovely Birthday Present!

Hey! This is the apparently-so-called Mister Reads reporting live from wherever I am. (Find me and win a shiny coin!).

In point-of-fact, my long-running e-dentity in has been “Mister Fiction,” which, I suppose makes my married name “Mister Fiction-Reads”. Apropos, that. By that same measure, you can also call me “Mister Poetry-Writes” and “Mister Argument-and-Literature-Teaches-at-the-University-Level”.

You know what? Don’t call me that. However, it is in that latter role that I have been thinking about our four-color friends recently. I have been experimenting with using the graphic novel as a topic of discussion and an artifact of literature in classes for a few years now. This started when I created a prompt which required my students to defend what they were a nerd about— any secret hobby or passion— against an oppositional audience. I am amused by how many to date who have admitted to secret readers, collectors, closet cartoonists, and so forth. This has evolved into a variety of assignments that either critically dissect a graphic novel or expand on arguments made in the text to...blah blah. Yeah, you don’t care.

The long, shortened, is that after looking at V for Vendetta last Fall as a political text (discussing not only the book’s anarchic arguments and incorporating it into a wider discussion of subversive argument, but also comparing it to contemporary political rhetoric, other propaganda-of-the-deed culture jammers like Adbusters, and the lessons of Nell’s Primer in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age), I decided to step back from heady political rhetoric and consider a lighter, “funner” book, like Pride of Baghdad, by Brian K. Vaughan and Nico Henrichson.

This is the closest you are getting to a spoiler warning: I’m not going to bother with spoiler warnings. The literature is in suspended animation on the page; let’s not concern ourselves with base worries about “surprise.” I’ve now read through the book two dozen times and I am still surprised by the end-- not what happens, but how and why. If you haven’t read the book, go read the book.

And here’s where I’m cruel. Not that I taught a book where Disneyfied, wholly humanized characters are killed because they ran into Man’s story of the current war in Iraq—killed by history in the guise of artfully faceless American soldiers. (It really is a powerfully realized scene, you should have read the book. Now it is ruined. Good job!) The cruelty is that I did everything I could to avoid lecturing on surface topics like “theme” or “plot”. I put this cunning book, with its complex, implicit political arguments, in front of students and would not untangle its sticky politics for them. For their papers (and, to a one, they outperformed my expectations-- good on them) they had free reign to look at what happens in the book and what it means, but for the sake of my lectures given and questions asked, I was more interested in the bare mechanics of the storytelling. The who, the where, the how seen. Why is the more “feminine” lioness the less maternal? Is the construction of the family in the story natural or artificial? Why is Safa's rape necessary to the plot? How is it more than a “women in refrigerators”-style attempt to achieve character-depth via rape? Why do we keep seeing the same panel construction at rhythmic intervals: the splash image of the lion straddling the reader's perspective, framed against a sky empty but for one bird, with a sprig of vegetation around the lion's foot? Why are the horses just dumb animals when all other animals are anthropomorphized?

Mini-lesson. To utterly mangle the basics of genre studies, as you'll see it in any literature textbook, stories can be broken down into constituent parts, mechanical structure without which there is no story. The common seven are (and usually discussed in this order) character, setting, point-of-view, plot, symbolism, tone, and theme. There are theorists who break this down and explain the mechanism, but what I have seen again and again, as a reader, a writer, an editor, and a teacher, is that, without the first three, nothing else works. You need one or more actors and they must stand somewhere—even a bare stage, even a foggy nothingness for them to flip coins in—and the audience must have a vantage. Without any of these three, there is no plot, no theme, no story. However, as long as these three elements are interacting, the rest just happens. It’s the basis of your local improv group. “Name me a profession.” “Give me a location!” An astronaut! In court! And the audience provides its own p.o.v. by sitting out of the lamplight, sipping overpriced microbrews or Italian Cremes and thinking “There is no way this will be funny.”

Advanced lesson. Imagine a hungry rat and a sleeping baby in a canoe. There is a definite tension, but it never breaks. Where are you in relation to it? Is it coming closer to you? (Feel that anticipation). Is it moving away? (Regret, anger, desperation?) Is it sitting still in the middle of the placid lake, forever out of your reach? As soon as the reader can orient his or her relation to the story, plot just happens, tone, symbols, and themes start accumulating.

Take a basic character: The Flash. Put him in a setting that brings some tension: a crater blasted into a Keystone City street. Does the artist lift the audience's p.o.v. to look down at the wreckage, shrinking our hero in perspective to a red twist in the dark pit, allowing us to literally look down at him? Does the artist set us down, looking past the glowing bolt of iconic lighting on Wally's chest and up at his jaw's determined jut just before he...

And that's where I took my students, as best as I was able. Playing around not just with close readings of the text, genre theory, smatterings of deconstruction and feminist theory, and Scott Morse's “gutter”, but intentionally leading them away from discussions of patriotism, war, politics, and so forth in favor of looking at characters, settings, and our forced perspective on the story. Because that last one, right there, that's what comics do that other art forms can't. We are encouraged to help create and maintain the character in the fashion of prose and poetry (not relying on an actor's interpretation) and having your point-of-view mobile but forced on you (as in film, or carnival rides). Pride of Baghdad gets this right; the story is about the lions and their interaction with the history of Baghdad. The nature of war is lagniappe. America's pride, which many of my students wanted to their deep heart's core to be at the center of the story, is no great actor in this story, nor was meant to be; it is a functionary of the plot, like Fortinbras, like Polonius. Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse, almost. At times.

This is what event-books like Countdown have gotten completely wrong. It has taken everything that comic books have to offer—visually strong, iconic characters, bold, imaginative, symbol-rich settings, and the aforementioned cinematic use of perspective—and thrown it away in return for that most mechanical of story-elements, plot. The dull accumulation of stuff happening. The slow arch—or in comics, the slow wave—of things going bad, getting better, getting worse, and a return the status quo. This is the process that even the writers themselves call “the illusion of change.” No one believes that Big Barda will stay dead, that The Hulk is “tamed”, that Black Bolt is gone forever, that Risk won't have revenge-fueled prostheses the next time we see him.

At some point, the writers and editors have cut corners or lost focus and misread that we would care about these things just because they happened.

Theoretically, we care about the characters and not the tragedy that befalls them. We care about Sue Dibny not just because of the wealth of stories in her past, but because we see the sorrow melt Ralph. I haven't talked to anyone who is upset about Bart Allen dying because it hasn't been treated as a real death, with real consequences for those around him.

It feels like it's just a plot, not a story.

I have had students over the years jokingly curse me because they can't just enjoy “good enough” anymore. They have to ask why there is so much anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Transformers movie, how the cases aren't thrown out due to the unjust behavior done in the name of justice on any episode of Law & Order, and so on. It's my favorite thing about teaching; I love being there when people teach themselves to ask questions.

I have to wonder though, as I read Countdown – Arena, exactly how we've reached this nadir again, where poorly drawn stories of interchangeable variations of recognizable icons stabbing each other in the eyes, posing, and shouting slogans can be “good enough” for anyone. Stuff happens, but we're never given reason to care. Following not just in the footprints, but in the same footwear, as the story-rich 52, Countdown seemingly is junking everything in the name of “stuff happening often.” The characters are two-dimensional at best, actions have no consequences, the settings vary between the middle of a deserted Metropolis street (“...A GOD DIES!!!”) to a deserted section of Apokolips, and our point-of-view is bleak.

There is a horizon, though, if we rise to see it. I just read Marc Guggenheim's Resurrection which is about anything but what you think it will be. And, at the end of issue #1, a book the author describes as answering the plotty question “What. Happens. Next?” is running instead on well-drawn characters reacting to their settings in a rich, intriguing way. I cherished much the same in the new Angel- After the Fall, The Goon – Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker, and (once you push past the discomfort of some of the textual tricks) Alan Moore's The Black Dossier. I really could just read continuations of these stories for years without any expectation of big plot payoffs. I just want to see more of their worlds and meet more of the people who live there.

Before I go, I also need to give credit to two recent books which have managed to create plot-heavy books which are entirely balanced are just telling nifty stories, DC's Booster Gold and Marvel's The Order—not necessarily my favorite two books in print, but the hooks I'm hanging my hopes for the future on.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Amy Reads. Thanks for letting me ramble.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Amy Reads the Week (of December 9th, 2007)

What an exhausting week it has been, Gentle Reader, as the semester, and the fall television season, come to a close. Mr. Reads and I have been Quite Busy with the End of Term, and the end of Filmed Episodes of all of our favorite shows. Only a few more now, and then we shall wait, patiently, for the Networks to give the Writers their due.

But mainly, Netflix--o, beloved Netflix!--brought all four discs of The Wire, Season 4, and Mr. Reads and I have drowned, maddeningly, in the tales of our Baltimore Friends. More on that soon, when I've had the Proper Time to Reflect. But let me do say this: The Wire is just about as Perfect as Television can get.

And we've just returned--just!--from seeing Beowulf in digital 3-D, and I must admit, it was beautiful. The story was perfect, as I'm sure you, Gentle Reader, can imagine, as it was written by two great writers, Mr. Gaiman and Mr. Avary. The pacing, the story, the suspense, the twists, just wonderful, truly. This Humble Author has heard people express their displeasure of the digital effects, and I truly believe that seeing it in 3-D eliminates all of the complaints I've heard about the film. This was a movie made for digital 3-D. I assure you.

Other delights this week have included the final Pirates of the Caribbean movie (with the Delightful Ms. Knightley as The Pirate King), the Futurama movie, and Super Mario Party 8 on the Wii, which does me A Great Disservice as a Gamer, because I apparently cannot role animated dice to save my life, or the life of Daisy. But I outstrip Mr. Reads and our nemeses, Waluigi and Wario, on gold coins, hands down.

It is a rainy sleepy day here in Chez Reads, Friends, and I find myself in need of sustenance in order to continue. But this week promises further delights, as We Reads will go see The Mist (finally!), the Golden Compass, and I Am Legend on Friday, for the Amy Reads Birthday Celebration. What more to ask for in this world than good Indian food and a promising vampire movie? Not much, I say!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Amy Reads the Week (of December 3rd, 2007)

Last night I was A Bit Ill, and unfortunately, Gentle Reader, this has been Quite the Usual Case this past semester. But one great advantage of feeling ill is the self-permission to lie down in bed and read. Not a Room of One's Own, per se (gratitude, Ms. Woolf), but it does allow one to let herself go, just for a moment.

So This Humble Author decided to read some graphic novels scooped up from the library, and on the docket were Iron Man: Director of Shield, Moon Knight vol 1: The Bottom, and the graphic novel version of Gaiman's and Avary's Beowulf. Beowulf and Iron Man are, of course, Quite Familiar to This Humble Author, but not so much Moon Knight. I was surprised and a bit pleased by the foray into Marvel Comic's answer to The Batman Question.

Ultimately, what I enjoyed most was the introduction (to me, at least) and what I can only assume for familiar readers, reintroduction to a rather varied and interesting cast of characters. Marc Spector is a man driven half-mad over his god's abandonment of him. He finds himself alone, seemingly abandoned by all those who love him and who he loves: namely, best friend Jean-Paul and girlfriend Marlene.

What he discovers in the end is that if one has friends, one is not alone. And Marc does have friends, two of them, who despite the horrors he has put them through (horrors unknown to This Humble Author who is Rather New to This Storyline), trust him, and help him.

Help, and trust. Trust becomes the most important piece of humanity in this work, as is revealed when Jean-Paul's partner--and therefore his sexuality--is introduced to Marc. Marc tells Jean-Paul, "You should have told me," to which Jean-Paul responds, "C'est merde, Marc. I did. [...] Every day. I told you with my trust. With my life. With the hundreds of times I risked my life for you. For your cause. Your... god."

Ultimately, this is a book not about the hero but about those with whom the hero surrounds himself. The ones caught in the crossfire. The ones who, like Jean Paul, lose parts of themselves in sacrifice to the larger quest. The ones who, like Marlene, love the heroes enough to tell them the truth, even when it hurts. Even when it wounds. She tells Marc, "We sacrificed everything for you! We gave up our lives for yours. But when it got hard? You quit." The hero quits, and it is those left behind who must pick up the pieces. Marlene, despite the fact that she and Marc are no longer dating, despite the fact that she tells him, at the end, "I like my life. I don't want to go back all that--" she loves, and helps, and trusts.

Ultimately, Gentle Reader, this is a book about the evolution not of a hero but of the hero's life, separate, perhaps, from the hero himself. Marc finds not that his life has changed suddenly, but that his life has been different, always different, from what he perceived it to be. And that is, in the end, an excellent way to reintroduce characters to familiar readers, and to introduce, for the first time, characters to a new reader such as This Humble Author.

This is a Dark Little Offering from Mr. Huston and Mr. Finch, and by the end, I found myself Quite Intrigued by the complicated and rich storyline. In particular, I found the complexity of the minor secondary characters, Marlene and Jean-Paul, to be Utterly Fascinating.

Now, however, I must return to Work, Work, Work, as it is That Time Of The Semester. Which means, of course, grading, writing, dissertating, and reading, always reading. But We Reads do have lovely plans for the future, including holiday trips and shopping and Much Festive Making, particularly for This Humble Author's 31st birthday celebration next week. Let us hope it is better than last year's, which saw This Humble Author felled by a nasty virus!

And yourselves, Gentlest and Most Constant of Readers? Any plans for the winter festivities to come?