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Monday, Jun 8, 2009
Like most other superhero stories, 2001's "Absolute Progeny" ends with the hero's fist planted firmly against the villain's jaw. But for X-Men team leader Angel, this punch signals a bitter defeat at the hands of the Vanisher, a D-list villain turned corporate rival.

The X-Men have tasted defeat before, but never of this kind. “Feared and hated”, as their splash page introduction reminds readers, “by a world they have sworn to protect”, X-Men count their victories by stemming the loss of life and preventing the outbreak of racial violence. Their steely resilience has always stood in sharp contrast to more glamorous teams like the Fantastic Four who regularly save the planet from galactic-level threats and enjoy the adulation of crowds. More an emergency rescue and intervention team facing the growing species tensions between human and mutant, the X-Men resolve simply to train and prepare for the worst.


In a surprise inversion of the conventional rescue-mission genre then, writer Joe Casey presents a tale ending with the X-Men being simply outclassed. Adding insult to injury, their most humiliating defeat comes at the hands of the Vanisher, a relatively inconsequential villain relegated to the dust-pile of X-Men lore.


In 2001’s “Absolute Progeny”, the Vanisher returns, only to be exposed as the head of an international drug cartel. By harvesting mutant genetic material (in the process killing ‘donors’) and marketing mutant ‘designer genes’ as the latest fad at teenage rave parties, the Vanisher has cornered the market on billion-dollar illicit industry.


In the closing pages of a story where the usual narrative conventions of the superhero rescue story are readily deployed, Angel leads a team to confront the Vanisher in his ‘lair’.


But it is at this point that the conventional narrative is overturned. Instead of a hideout overrun by henchmen, the X-Men find a technologically sophisticated environment. Here is fully-developed corporate headquarters, complete with onsite genetics laboratory, located in a country with no extradition treaty. As the X-Men prepare to engage their target, the Vanisher pontificates. Stating simple facts, he points out the impossibility of physical conflict. Even with the dissolution of his corporation, even with his removal as figurehead, the designer drug and marketplace it spawned will continue to flourish. Yet removing the Vanisher as corporate officer will require lawyers not fists.


Shortly before his exit, the Vanisher himself momentarily yearns for the halcyon simplicity of physical confrontation. “You know, I remember your fist against my jaw”, he confesses to Angel. The Vanisher’s ostensible moment of weakness, although remaining unexpressed, is marked by artist Ashley Wood’s homage to the original artwork from Uncanny X-Men #2, where Angel won a victory by striking down an adversary he ultimately dismissed as ineffectual.


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Sunday, Jun 7, 2009
"Out of time", Captain America summons to mind two classic icons of the American popular imagination.

Captain America stands as perhaps the most richly-textured superhero in American popular culture, in that he enjoys not one, but two origin stories.


Originally created in 1941 by writer Joe Simon and seminal artist Jack Kirby, “Cap” was patriotism writ large. As one of the three Invaders he infiltrated Nazi-occupied Europe and launched counter-insurgence operations. His first issue closed with him soundly planting a fist on the jaw of Adolf Hitler. But the end of the Second World War saw a drop in circulation and the inevitable discontinuation of Captain America from publication.


It was during the 1960’s that then Editor-In-Chief at Marvel sought to resurrect the original Captain America character. In Avengers issue #4, it was discovered that Cap had indeed survived the War, frozen in a block of ice. It was the Avengers who discovered Cap and thawed him out.


It was this decision by Stan Lee that would make Captain America a complex tapestry of meaning. The bright, gaudy Cap who knew only the certainty of enemies that could be confronted with a strong right hook would forever be changed. Boldly-clad Captain America would now become a character negotiating an equally garish future.


It is this sense of alienation, an innovation of Stan Lee’s, that connects Cap with two popular literary figures; Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle, who slept away a generation, and Philip Nowlan’s Buck Rogers, a twentieth century astronaut catapulted forward five centuries. But which character provides a better analog for Cap?


In this coming Wednesday’s “Iconographies” feature, we explore the 2007 Death of Captain America, and the impact of this iconic character.


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Friday, Jun 5, 2009
Could Charles M. Schulz have guessed at his own cultural relevance, 50 years down the line?

Who could have guessed that 50 years down the line in 2007, there actually would be a comedy show called The Office? And that deadpan, cornball humor, exactly of the kind to be found in this 1957 cartoon strip would be its trademark? Certainly not Charlie Brown. Nor his prodigious creator, Charles Schulz.


Approaching the second decade of the second millennium, it is hard to miss the cultural impact of Schulz’s Peanuts. Three generations now have grown up in a world where Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown have been part of their world for much longer than they themselves. More than a literary staple, Peanuts has become a permanent fixture of popular culture. In time, as with all enduring cultural objects, Charlie Brown and the Gang have become the fuel for these generations having dreams and writing popular culture of their own.


Fifty years down the line, it becomes very easy to celebrate Schulz’s achievement by saying, ‘Without Peanuts there would be no…’. This cry can be completed in any number of ways. No Rugrats, no Dilbert, no Calvin & Hobbes, no Boondocks. No TV show called The Office. But making this claim while living in a world where Peanuts culturally predominates, also means losing something of the vitality and vibrancy of Schulz’s original work.


Just beginning to write in the mid-‘50s, Schulz could not have guessed at the overwhelming success that awaited him, nor at the popular and critical reception still to come for his work. Schulz’s Charlie Brown was not the Charlie Brown of our era. Peanuts was slow, and deliberate, just as Charlie Brown was the kid who always got out of bed late at night to feed Snoopy, no matter his own fear of the dark or neuroses around social failure. And like his fictional analog, Charles Schulz was the guy who drew a comics strip, everyday for fifty years.


It is this enduring spirit that would propel Peanuts well beyond the newspaper funny pages and into the popular imagination. Writing in the Introduction to second volume of The Complete Peanuts Jonathan Franzen reminds us, ‘Schulz wasn’t an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip everyday for 50 years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It’s the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz’s early sorrows look like “sources” of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humor in them’.


Tagged as: peanuts
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Thursday, Jun 4, 2009
A seemingly innocuous panel from "The Wake", the concluding storyarc of Neil Gaiman's groundbreaking series, The Sandman. This panel both epitomizes and offers a savage critique of "mature reader" comics.

Morpheus, the eponymous Sandman, has died. The anthropomorphic manifestation of hopes, fears, dreams, and storytelling has passed from perception. As they sleep, dreamers have gathered in wake, mourning this passing. In this panel, Dream’s familiar, the raven Matthew, responds to an offer of some wine. Off-panel chief librarian for the Dreaming, Lucien confirms Matthew’s sobriety with an enigmatic quotation.


In more than one sense, this panel marks a moment of realization for readers. After this panel, there is no going back. Morpheus will not be returning. The last moments of his story really have played out on the final pages of issue #69. For regular readers, in a very real sense, the Dream has died.


But in a wholly other sense, The Sandman marks a point of no return in comics publication. Writer Neil Gaiman brought a literary quality to the series that along with such works as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer winning Maus brought critical acclaim to the comics medium. At the height of this critical and commercial success however, Gaiman petitioned publisher DC to terminate the series. Agreeing to this, DC prioritized artistic creativity over commercial concerns. This decision would have lasting ramifications for both mainstream publisher-owned and independent self-published comics series. Almost from this moment, comics stories could end, something that had never happened before. There would be no going back.


But this panel also offers a secret betrayal of the “mature readers” project. The quote offered by Lucien comes from writer Alan Moore’s run on another DC publication, Saga of the Swamp Thing. More than a decade before “The Wake”, Moore kills off a Swamp Thing supporting character in a drunk driving incident. Consumed by fear and frustration, Matt Cable steadily turns to drink. When he finally decides to face his frustrations, he grabs the car keys and braves the night. As the car swerves, hitting a tree, Moore offers the sobering thought, “The night can make a man more brave, but not more sober”. In finally revealing the dependable raven Matthew to be none other than Matt Cable, Gaiman offers Moore’s character a redemption. But with redeeming the ghost of Matt Cable, Gaiman also gestures at DC’s mainstream superhero continuity. In the era of creator-owned, terminable series that Gaiman helped usher in, such gestures become increasingly impossible.


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Wednesday, Jun 3, 2009
Set against the backdrop of a society where conformism and uniformity of outer form are prized, Domu traces the survival and ultimate triumph of the human spirit through a resurgence of personal objects. The splash page (a single panel on a single page, near the book's opening) sets the tone perfectly. The emptiness of the panel evokes both isolation from others, and the alienation of children from their inherent creativity.

The opening page of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu presents a tabula rasa. But rather than the blank slate as opportunity, this tabula rasa is a prison for human creativity and an indictment against the society that produced it.


A group of children huddle together, not so much to investigate a boyhood curiosity, but more to push out an unpitying emptiness. In the background another boy walks by almost anonymously. His personalized backpack and wing-decaled baseball cap light up in a brief, but invariably inconsequential spark of creativity. Forced into a birds-eye view, the reader’s emotional distance from the scene is exacerbated. Unable to connect the visual fragments of the panel in a cohesive narrative, readers are simply onlookers.


Otomo taps primordial feelings of isolation and alienation in this powerful panel. Moreover, he incorporates the reader themselves in this drama. What Otomo presents the reader, is a comics that undermines the usual processes by which narratives are constructed from various visual and textual fragments. Just as the environment itself defeats the characters depicted, so too are readers defeated. The visual elements are too diffuse, and the textual elements are completely absent. The level of detail in the linework of the boys, the cross-hatching on their clothes and the ben-day dots coloring their shadows, serve to further isolate the boys through use of the masking effect (where greater detail equates to increased realism and therefore reduced emotional investment).


Domu tells the story of a battle between powerful two psychics, both residents of super-massive apartment complex in Tokyo. Cynical and jaded, Old Man Uchida uses his psychic powers for his own twisted entertainment. For him the thousands of residents in the complex become mere puppets, performing acts of vandalism and self-injury until they are psychically forced into suicide when Uchida grows bored with them. However, when young Etsuko and her mother move into the complex, a psychic battle ensues. Etsuko takes it as her duty to stem the loss of life and ultimately bring Uchida to justice.


Beyond the extrasensory battle that provides the centerpiece to the graphic novel, psychic repression of the human spirit remains the central conflict of the story. With Domu, Otomo delivers a powerful comment on how environments shape human psychology. Rather than simply demonize the monstrous Uchida, Otomo illustrates how even the villain’s murderous psychopathology is influenced by the stifling, soul-destroying environment he finds himself in.


With panels like this one, and many similarly-themed, Otomo illustrates an environment equal in monstrosity to Old Man Uchida himself. In 1983, Otomo was awarded Science Fiction Grand Prix (Japan) for Domu. This marks the first time a comicbook has won an award usually reserved for general fiction.


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