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

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Friday, Aug 7, 2009

Popular cultural mediums are usually a few years behind youth sub-cultural movements.  When those who work in such mediums do get around to addressing such groups, it’s usually in a way that only makes sense to those bound by Hollywood stereotypes or the embarrassing misinterpretations of New York literary magazines.  For the most part, however, Marvel Comics addressed punk well. 


They played it tongue in cheek in The Mighty Thor panel from 1984 in which some young punks give Thor fashion advice.  As he walks into the Avengers Mansion, the kids tell him, “Listen, man, haven’t you heard? Long hair is definitely out. Why not come over to our place for a Mohawk?”  To which Thor responds, “I thank thee. But were I to cut my hair, my helmet would fall off.” 


To some extent, Marvel also addressed punk seriously.  Though many people think back on Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr.‘s Uncanny X-Men story of Storm becoming punk as a silly sub-plot that couldn’t see past the time, the transition to the Wendy-O-Williams aesthetic was a good way to signify Storm’s identity crisis.  After renouncing her faith in herself as a goddess and finding herself without a pre-set system of beliefs, Storm externalized her crisis in a new look.  In this panel from Uncanny X-Men #180, Storm is explaining the meaning of her new aesthetic to Professor Xavier, who also sports a strange ensemble.


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Thursday, Aug 6, 2009

John Constantine has been written as a character that murdered his twin brother in the womb, pumped his body full of demons blood to fight cancer, made fools of representatives of both heaven and hell, and, perhaps most importantly, sang for a punk band in 1977.  Fortunately, he is a man with baggage he can’t seem to drop.  All of these life events feed into Constantine’s persona and come into play as he encounters new ordeals.  The character has been re-invented many times through the over 20 year run of the Hellblazer series by re-interpreting the meaning of these memories in relation to whatever problem Constantine is currently trying to sort through.


Aside from setting up a traumatizing demon conjuring mishap at Newcastle, Constantine’s role as singer for the fictional punk band ‘Mucous Membrane’ is a story often returned to in order to define his character as cautiously chaotic, as in Jason Aaron and Sean Gordon Murphy’s beautiful run last year.  A slightly different take on this history has been explored by several other teams, however, emphasizing other aspects of the diverse punk culture of the time. 


In a 1995 issue from Paul Jenkins and Sean Phillips, they explore Constantine’s friendship with some more ‘Crass’ inspired peace punks.  In possibly the only story in which Constantine can be seen riding a bicycle, we find a touching work on his loss and recovery of a friend after a punk show at Edgewood.  One night the friend bikes off into a time warp and goes missing for a couple of decades.  In this panel, Constantine has found his friend displaced in time, and they ride against a medieval battle back towards the present. In the midst of this onslaught, he can only think of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s film score “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head”.


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Wednesday, Aug 5, 2009

It seems it is impossible to be a moral citizen in Mega-City One, the dystopian future city for which Judge Dredd serves as law enforcement and quick judiciary.  Pretty much everyone is breaking a law, often even those who are filing complaints, so any time one gets near a ‘Judge’, they are probably going to receive a relatively harsh sentence.  Young perpetrators, or “Y.P.s” as the judges call them, receive equally cruel sentences for their misdemeanors.


Writer John Wagner and artist Ron Smith addressed the issue of graffiti and youth crime in two 1981 issues of 2000 AD, the comics magazine that to this day serializes the ‘Dredd’ stories.  Following the teenage Marlon Shakespeare through his school days, in which he attends a compulsory class about his future titled ‘unemployment’, he is instructed to find a hobby and stay out of trouble.  After all, finding a job in a city with an 87% unemployment rate is highly unlikely, another class lesson.  The hobbies of his family are absurdly boring, so Marlon has decides to be the biggest ‘scrawler’ (graffiti artist) in the city. Using the tag name ‘Chopper’, Marlon gets into a graffiti war with a rival scrawler who goes by ‘The Phantom’. 


The art war escalates from skyscrapers to monuments, until the final scene in which the two scrawlers plan to tag the Statue of Judgement, a giant statue of a judge that overshadows the Statue of Liberty.  In the panel above, Chopper finds out the surprising identity of his rival and the meaning of resistance in his ungovernable police state before tricking the Judges in a surprise ending.


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Monday, Aug 3, 2009

The first issue of The Invisibles introduces us to Dane McGowan and his isolated rebellion.  Dane’s background as a teenager from a British industrial town, raised in a single parent household sets him up to be a young nihilist, our favorite kind.  Fittingly, by the end of this issue, he has stolen a car, burned a library and a school, and seen the ghosts of two of the Beatles and a demon.  The above panel takes its sequential place after Dane has assaulted his teacher, who is trying to stop him from burning the school.  Earlier that day, the teacher had asked the class, “Can anyone tell me the name of the anarchist writer of ‘Mutual Aid’ who denounced the Bolshevik Revolution?’


It is appropriate that artist Steve Yeowell captures enraged Dane looking down on us from a skewed angle while yelling about Kropotkin, not only because it ties into that earlier question, but also because of the foundational Russian Anarchists’ popularization of ‘propaganda by the deed.’ Often misunderstood as a political strategy of using property destruction and violence as a scare tactic, more recent works like Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination have argued that these acts were used to create media around anarchist ideas.  The anarchists on trial would use their court time and final statements before execution to give speeches about their beliefs that were carried around the world by the increasingly global, news media. 


Though Dane is being built up as a smart kid who is lashing out, this moment feeds well into the relations of the sign system Morrison built with the series.  The Invisibles is well-known for its abundance of cultural references that resonate into the strange meta-physics he was proposing.  And though I read this work as metaphor, giving it less power than the realism Morrison has attributed to it in his interviews, one would be hard to argue that the series did not gain a significant depth from its use of affective cultural undercurrents.


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Saturday, Aug 1, 2009
They lived on opposite sides of the planet, at roughly the same time, and never met. In their lifetimes (one is now dead) each became an acknowledged and influential master in his chosen form of storytelling, and even though their media, social contexts and biographies were worlds apart, the early work of each artist bears striking similarities: they shared a melancholy, darkly humorous, and peculiarly bleak vision of character, story, and life.

They lived on opposite sides of the planet, at roughly the same time, and never met. In their lifetimes (one is now dead) each became an acknowledged and influential master in his chosen form of storytelling, and even though their media, social contexts and biographies were worlds apart, the early work of each artist bears striking similarities: they shared a melancholy, darkly humorous, and peculiarly bleak vision of character, story, and life.


After a lifetime in manga—from being a precocious, published artist before he was 15, to becoming known as the “godfather” of an entire style of storytelling—Yohihiro Tatsumi finally gained a significant profile in the West with the publication of four books over the past few years.


Starting in 2005, Canada’s Drawn and Quarterly published three collections of Tatsumi’s short stories, representing work from 1969 to 1972, and a massive memoir that covers his life and work in manga up to 1960.


Represent a fraction of his output, the four books shed light on a fascinating genre of manga, and reveal an avenue of storytelling with connections to the greatest modern short fiction.


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