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

 
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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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Thursday, Jun 25, 2009
It is not the kind of scene readers have come to expect, but with this subtle inversion, Ellis and Hitch offer a proof of principle for 'widescreen' comics.

It is not the kind of scene readers have come to expect, over the short course of 8 issues, from Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority. The narrow focus on two lead characters, the slight worms-eye view, the slight Dutch tilt of the image, all make for a very personal moment. This is not at all the kind of comics that has become hailed as ‘widescreen’ format, the kind of comics of sleek, near-Tarantino-esque ultra-violence that depicts ever-widening vistas of blasted landscapes. But with this subtle inversion, Ellis and Hitch seem to offer a proof of principle for ‘widescreen’ comics.


In this panel The Doctor, a global-level shaman operating with super-team The Authority, prepares to flood the Italy of a parallel reality. Always struggling with the scope of his planetary-wide powers, The Doctor has faced the unique challenge of never fully unleashing his power. When the expeditionary forces of this parallel reality invade Earth, the expeditionary forces of a ‘military rape culture’ in Ellis’ own words, The Doctor must harness his full power to destroy their powerbase. Hitch depicts a literary staple of the superhero genre. The moment where the superhero embraces rather than withdraws from his power. The psychological curtain is lifted, and the hero stands on the threshold of destiny.


Such a moment seems at odds with the cultural project of ‘widescreen’ comics. At first glance, the ‘widescreen’ format appears to depict violence and mayhem on both sides of the superhero battle. The heroes of the ‘widescreen’ format do not simply fall out of skyscrapers only to save themselves at the last minute with the help of a propitious flagpole. These heroes hurl skyscrapers at alien armada to prevent the invasion of cities. But the use of a typical ‘widescreen’ panel, one that occupies the full width of the page with a bidirectional left-right bleed, to tell the story of the actuation of personal superpowers creates a very different set of expectations for the format. Just as the format is about the panorama of ultra-violence, so too can its tools be focused on the personal moments of the superhero genre. This use of ‘widescreen’ paneling makes the format much more a meditation on the superhero genre than a simplistic relishing in the postmodern exaggeration of its themes.


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Wednesday, Jun 24, 2009
In Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, it is the ordinary that provides opportunity for the most strange interactions.

Readers have seen this moment play out thousands of times before; a moment of expositional conversation, a brief respite between periods of combat or investigation. These are the quiet times, when readers get to know characters. But for Grant Morrison writing Doom Patrol, this is another opportunity to underline the inherent strangeness of both the team, and the comicbook. For Morrison, this is an opportunity to emphasize the new kinds of relations constituted by the team, especially the nonchalant uncaring of an irascible team leader.


Dr. Joshua Clay, no longer able to deal with the strangeness the Doom Patrol perpetually confronts, and wheelchair-bound team leader Dr. Niles Caulder walk through a Doom Patrol HQ hangar towards a helicopter. Niles Caulder is en route to see the President, while Joshua ponders on recent occurrences. In a surprise twist, Caulder offers no indication of concern for his missing team. Readers find themselves thrown into confusion. Could a team leader be this uncaring? What of the genre benevolence established by such well-loved team leaders as Professor X of the X-Men? And yet, the belief Dr. Caulder expresses in his team’s resilience seems to sway him from being viewed simply as a coldhearted manipulator the likes of Magneto or Doctor Doom. The ostensible normalcy of the panel, of two characters, their backs to readers, moving toward a vanishing point that appears to the right of the panel, only adds to the complexity and to readers’ confusion.


‘I wanted to break away from the massive influence that the Claremont/Byrne era X-Men continue to exert over the whole concept of the comic book super-team’, Morrison writes in his Author’s Note that concludes Crawling From the Wreckage, the volume in which ‘Imaginary Friends’ is collected. What Morrison proposed was a return to ‘the spirit of the Arnold Drake/Bruno Premiani stories of days gone by’. The kind of stories where ‘the Doom Patrol slouched into town like a pack of junkyard dogs with a grudge against mankind’. In the most usual of settings, in the most ordinary of encounters, this panel shows, Morrison achieves this objective admirably.


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Tuesday, Jun 23, 2009
The bright lights of New York City's Times Square below him, Captain America jumps anonymously from a S.H.I.E.L.D. designated military helicopter. In a single panel writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch offer a compelling argument for the necessary but also unnerving confluence of military and superhuman prowess in the media-saturated reality of the 21st-century.

Could it ever have been any other way?


In The Ultimates, writer Mark Millar offers a radical inversion of a popular Marvel theme; superheroes and the media. Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four and even mainstream Marvel Avengers have never been strangers to media scrutiny, but with The Ultimates, Millar provides something of a reversal in a team that relish media attention. The media often being cast as an antagonist in Marvel stories, always seemed to foreshadow a moment when a superhero, or group of superheroes, would actively embrace media attention. The other side of visual equation, the collaboration between superheroes and military intelligence has similarly been a Marvel mainstay, with such heroes as The Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man and even Captain America himself either confounding or aiding in military operations.


The power of this Millar-Hitch image comes by way of a number of vectors, not least of which is the image’s resilience at imbricating the reader in the act of storytelling. Does Captain America somehow belong among the bright lights of Times Square? Is his joining the vibrant bustle of NYC nightlife a foregone conclusion? And if that reading is imposed, does it signal the presence of the military as somehow sinister? Or could an entirely different narrative arise from the panel? Is the bustle of city life at night somehow unsafe? Is the encroachment of advertising the means to subliminal control of the populace? Is the government, in an effort to intervene and protect the lives and property of its citizens, correct in enlisting the aid of superhumans?


Does the true danger lie with the military sworn to protect citizens, or with the city that despotically organizes the minds of civilians? The true power of this panel lies not in its search for an answer to this question, nor in the visual of the superhuman dwarfed by both military and media, but in Millar and Hitch’s skill in posing the question.


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