Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Thursday, Jul 9, 2009

Some people move a lot, jumping from city to city, addicted to the newness and the ability to abandon their pasts.  Through this process, they begin to refine their autobiographic introductions.  After exchanging names, jobs, and past times, new acquaintances start to size you up not only based on what you say, but how you say it. Meeting people is easy when you have the story they want to hear, but figuring out just what that story is can be taxing, and the repetition and refinement of those stories can make you start to question what had actually happened. 
 
Local is mostly a series about that addiction and those disaffected left behind.  As Megan, the principle character of the work, travels from city to city, she tries on multiple identities until she starts to have trouble remembering who she is to which people.  Sorting through forgotten name tags at her movie theater job, she starts to make up histories for different names, slipping into simple pasts in each attempt at a new introduction and losing a piece of her self in the process. 


To capture the feeling of the city, Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly had their friends send them pictures of spaces in each place that they thought held some unique aspect of the local.  In this issue, the Oxford movie theater in Halifax, Nova Scotia serves to reinforce the idea that identity is in some sense performance in that people are going to watch actors on film.  Perhaps more importantly, it also plays upon the ease of worker substitution, as evidenced by the pile of abandoned name tags, each representing the forgotten past of someone who had worked there before.  As Megan sifts through names in these panels, she is touching objects that are representative of past employees who bore different proper nouns, but probably sold and tore tickets in equally efficient ways.


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Wednesday, Jul 8, 2009

More than gore for gore’s sake, the best zombie stories are about a force in society becoming normalized into a mob mentality.  Night of the Living Dead was about an African American man in the 1960’s fighting for empowerment among a white population.  Dawn of the Dead, set in one of the first mega-malls in the country, was about the growth of consumer spaces and how they were affecting culture. Of course, the gore is close to magic in these films. Someone recently informed me that the guts in the first were made with ham, but the depth of these works is in their overarching ideas. 


  Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead follows Rick, a former law enforcement officer, who wakes up in the hospital to find himself in a zombie apocalypse.  As his character emerges, we get the sense that he was a true believer in the old societal order and wants to rebuild the world in an image of security that never really existed. 


The failure of his utopian ideal is amplified through his encounter with the city.  As he reaches Atlanta on horseback in his sheriff’s clothes, we see the city is lost.  The café he passes has been spray painted, windows are broken, and a zombie lays propped up against a wall in a pile of trash like a wino.  Not much has changed, except mob rule has displaced law and spread to the county-side.  It doesn’t take long for Rick to be attacked by the infected citizens and run back to the safety of the rural.  The suburbs he and his group attempt to occupy are similarly overridden by these forces and are lost.  It is not until he arrives at a maximum security prison that he finally says, “It’s perfect, we’re home.”


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Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009

Quite a few Marvel superheroes have anger management issues; Hulk’s rage often ruins otherwise sound plans, and Wolverine’s rampaging has to be calculated into any team strategy.  Depression, however, is rarely a vulnerability that dominates a super-powered protagonist’s series of bad decision-making.  It’s almost like Marvel mutants evolved in a way that made them insusceptible to depression. They just skip the listless mornings of lying in bed for hours and go straight for the chaos and lashing out. 


Alias tells the story of Jessica Jones, a minor superhero who experienced a traumatizing event in which she was mostly forgotten by her team and left to the torments of her abductor.  Instead of becoming unrealistically enraged, she retired her costume and became a private investigator.  On top of never really resolving her trauma, Jessica made a career of dealing with people who were being betrayed by someone they trusted, or were trying to dig up dirt on the people who trusted them.  After having slept with Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man, she finds she has been set up by a client, who plays upon her emotional distance to frame her for a murder.  In this panel, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos have placed Jessica in the graffiti-adorned hallway of Luke Cage’s apartment building. The door has just been slammed in her face, and she is, once again, alone. 


That she is closed in by graffiti adds another level of loneliness to her inability to cope with her problems.  In a sense, graffiti is a signifier of alienation.  Surrounded by a dense population, writers throw up their tag names unnoticed or ignored.  The kids write because they are surrounded by a signifying system that has excluded them. They write their tags over and over again to make a place for their names.  The hallway is full of little messages for other writers, and the tags remind us that at some point, probably late some night before, there was foot traffic through this apartment building.  Jessica is surrounded by the names of people who are no longer there and is forced to face the realization that out of desperation, she’s made another bad choice.


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Monday, Jul 6, 2009

At some point in most long-term romantic relationships, couples fall upon the unfortunate question game of ‘would you still love me if…?’  They ask each other questions like:  Would you still love me if I were horribly disfigured in an accident?  Or, would you still love me if I changed my sex?  Only the most faithful of comics couples think to ask, “Would you still love me if I fell into a swamp during a fire, died, and was then regenerated by ‘plant consciousness’, retaining my old memories but identifying more with the plant kingdom than animals? Oh, and instead of flesh, my skeleton would be covered with moss and ferns and swamp stuff?”


Though the possibility of this transformation seems many worlds away, somehow readers of Swamp Thing suspend disbelief.  In addition to buying into this narrative of a man reborn as a plant, we began to agree that such a swamp thing would have a semi-traditional courtship with a human.  Of course, to just let that relationship run its course without the meddling of traditional authorities would be too unrealistic.  The year 1986 just wasn’t ready for a sentient plant and human romance, and in issues #47-53 Abby Holland’s relationship with Swamp Thing was put on trial as a “crime against nature”, mirroring controversy over the real U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold anti-sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick around the same time. Enraged, Swamp Thing returns the city to a fast-growing wilderness and demands not only Abby’s release, but legal recognition of their relationship.  Some city-dwellers revel in the bounty of the new jungle city, but the state wants to reassert its authority. 


Falling in love with someone who is deemed unfit by society to be your partner has been a common literary theme since time immemorial.  From Shakespeare to Stendhal, it’s a trope in which we love to engage.  The addition of modernity versus nature, or the city versus wilderness, gives rise to a much appreciated King Kong grandeur in the Swamp Thing saga.  The combination of Swamp Thing’s love for Abby and his mixed feelings about humans are manifested in the scale of his transformation of the city.  This panel, from Alan Moore and John Totleben’s Swamp Thing #53 shows the city’s transformation and the growth of the kindly monster’s hubris.


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Friday, Jun 26, 2009
The Fantastic Four was always about the costumes, as Reed Richards confesses to his daughter Val.

Following on from the October 2002 cover-dated ‘Inside Out’, Mark Waid continues Mister Fantastic’s secret confession to his daughter Val: ‘Without proper preparation or shielding he took his friends through a wave of radiation that made them all something other than human. His guilt was unbearable and deserved. These were the people he loved, and he’d destroyed their lives. Thanks to him, they were fated to be freaks, lab specimens or worse. Unless he changed that fate somehow. Unless he made the world see them for what they were: three of the best and bravest people anyone could hope to meet. So he refused to let them operate in secret. He gave them a home in a city of eight million. He gave them costumes. And a flying car. And he encouraged them to parade around with some pretty outlandish names. “Mister Fantastic”. Does that sound like something anyone would really want to call themselves? No but that’s the kind of thing that made headlines. And t-shirts. And action figures. He knew that would keep people from fearing them. You see glamour and fame weren’t options. They were necessities. Because by maybe turning his friends into celebrities he could be forgiven for taking their normal lives away. Someday.’


‘Inside Out’ marks the launch-issue of a new Fantastic Four creative team, writer Mark Waid reuniting with longtime Flash collaborator Mike Wieringo. Waid crafts a story about the seemingly unique mid-life crisis of Fantastic Four team leader, Reed Richards. It is a crisis that manifests as a desire for more media attention, a desire so deep that Richards hires a PR consultancy to promote a new image for Marvel’s First Family. But in a secret confession to his daughter Val, Mister Fantastic admits that it was always about the costumes and the celebrity; just not in the way most people imagine. Celebrity was their only tool to prevent a Frankenstein ending filled with pitchforks and torches. And in return, Reed Richards gave the world something entirely new; trailblazers on the road to tomorrow.


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