Latest Blog Posts

by Shawn O'Rourke

26 Jul 2009

When I was younger and just getting back to comics I had no real appreciation for Golden and Silver Age characters. I was a Batman fanatic and I had very little time, or money, for series like the JSA or Starman. I started reading the Justice League because my hero was part of the team but my forays into the DCU and its iconic history ended there. I erroneously believed that the JLA represented the full manifestation of the superhero genre (gimme a break, I was young!), and that old characters like Jay Garrick and Alan Scott were prototypes whose appeal had been replaced by cooler and more modern incarnations. It was through the help of more enlightened friends and gifted comic creators that I was able to learn the error of my ways and appreciate the legacies of the heroes that had come before and their continued relevance today.

One of the various books that accomplished my change in heart and perspective was James Robinson’s Starman, which at the insistence of my friend John I finally agreed to read. This series elegantly captures the beauty and the history of the superhero mythos in a way that is almost painful. Superheroes cannot thrive in a microcosm and this series brought new levels of enjoyment and awe as it broke open insular storylines and brought them into a larger more realized universe. While the series has many excellent examples of this feat, I think the best, and my favorite, is still Starman’s first team-up…

by Bill Gibron

25 Jul 2009

No matter the culture, no matter the country, politics is farce. It’s the crazed game playing of people so drunk on power that they don’t ever realize they’re regularly pissing themselves. It’s policy draw on deception, tricks and tactics merged with an infinite desire to betray. As the old saying goes, leadership regularly stifles the needs of a nation, compromising them by the mandate to maintain control. Toss in special interests, unlikely allies, regular scandals, and the freakish rarity of actually accomplishing something, and strange bedfellows are the least of its new world worries.

So it’s easy to see how this bi-partisan, bicameral back and forth leads to laughs. It, like most of its participants, is a no brainer. It’s also an arena that UK writer/director Armando Iannucci has mined before, most successful in his British sitcom The Thick of It. Now he’s turning that delicious debunking of the English government into a feature film - In the Loop - and the results are resplendent. Using the War in Iraq as a backdrop, and offering a multileveled look at the push toward invasion, Iannucci and his fellow screenwriters craft a burlesque so smart, so completely incapable of avoiding the truth, that it turns even the most meaningless events into a devious bit of double-edged détente.

During a radio interview, Secretary of State for International Development Simon Foster deviates from the standard government “line” on potential conflict in the Middle East. Calling it “unforeseeable”, he sets off a firestorm both at home and abroad. The Prime Minster’s chief policy strategist, a gruff and crude enforcer named Malcolm Tucker, wants Foster’s bollocks on a platter. He sees nothing but irreparable damage from this disastrous quote.

Over in the US, Karen Clarke, the Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy, hopes to use the British as a means of uncovering a secret war committee seated by State Department snake Linton Barwick. With the help of General Miller, and a controversial position paper from her assistant Liza, Clarke is determined to stop the march to war. For Forster, just getting through the day without being terrorized by Tucker or undermined by new assistant Toby is a major accomplishment. When he steps into this fray, however, there’s no where to go but down.

Uproarious, bitter, and ever so slightly twisted, In the Loop revives our hope in art infiltrating and exposing the hypocrisies of life. It’s a foul-mouth free-for-all, a wicked assault on all that is proper and expected in the realm of Left/Right positioning. Loaded with both the driest of UK wit and the most excessive of crass curse word wizardry, this is a saber stabbed directly into the darkest heart of the sovereignty process, a blade soaked in the blood of dumb decisions, chest-thumping hubris, and the future lives of thousands of young men and women.

Using an Office like handheld approach, In the Loop places the audience directly into the meaningless mix of the political process. We are bystanders as positions are taken, alliances are forged (and quickly forgotten), and backroom dealings become front page news. Interlacing the need to remain territorial while inviting the like minded into their dominion, we see cat and mouse as a cutthroat enterprise, hands and asses slapped as readily as well honed daggers are aimed at the solar plexus. Sure, we’ve been there before, our post-Watergate world inundated with several marked social commentary spoofs. But In the Loop offers a take that’s so black, so clouded in mean-spirited cheek, that we forget how funny it all is.

Acting is crucial to getting this material across, and Iannucci recruits some former Thick accomplices - Peter Capaldi (as Tucker), Paul Higgins (as unhinged Press Officer Jamie McDonald), and Chris Addison (as new character Toby) - as well as bringing in new faces like Tom Hollander (as Foster), Mimi Kennedy (as Clarke) and James Gandolfini (as the jaded General) to man the mania. All work together in perfect harmony, making the ensemble element of this film function in a flawless and frisky manner. It’s interesting to watch Americans work within the very British mandates of In the Loop‘s sense of humor. You can see them wanting to arch and eyebrow or overplay a scene, removing the mischievous seriousness from the material. But Iannucci keeps them in check - that is, when he’s not purposefully letting them fly off the handle.

Indeed, Capaldi and Higgins are so good scatological outbursts that they provide a primer for how to turn vulgarity into convenient comic gold. They work their dirty mouths with untold energy and verve. Both manage the F-word, the C-word, and multicolored variables of same so well that you can’t wait for their next meltdown. From sexually descriptive assaults to position and philosophical battery, they become the lunatic yin to the more laid back, stereotypical stiff upper lip of the leadership’s yang. Hollander, who many will know from his place within the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is equally effective as the pawn placed directly in the middle of this erratic ego fest. While Addison’s Toby is slightly under-drawn, he is balanced perfectly against Anna Chlumsky’s amiable aide Liza.

While some will see the targets as easy and the marksmanship as hit or miss, there’s no denying how delicious In the Loop really is. It carves a hole within the absurdity that is modern day ideology and argues, rather effectively, that most decisions aren’t based on dogma, but dimwitted double-crosses. Like the moment in Oliver Stone’s W. when Richard Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney explains the oil-based reasons for invading Iraq, what we have here is pre-determination bumping up against the paving of a path to get there. Unlike other films which try to make sense of the surreality, that balances real insight with outrageous antics, In the Loop simply goes for the throat. As comedies go, it’s razor sharp. It’s merely the players and their positions that are dull.

by Rob Horning

25 Jul 2009

Call me judgmental and intolerant if you must, but the Japanese guys (described in this NYT article, by Lisa Katayama) who have sex with body pillows with images of prepubescent cartoon characters stenciled on them in lieu of having relationships with human beings seem pretty pathetic. It’s like appliantology from Joe’s Garage. Judging by the NYT article, these men don’t seem mentally ill or neurologically damaged, like the people who get married to roller coasters, but instead seem pathologically ill-equipped to deal with adult sexuality. The way Katayama describes them is fraught with ontological confusion: “Nisan is part of a thriving subculture of men and women in Japan who indulge in real relationships with imaginary characters. These 2-D lovers, as they are called, are a subset of otaku culture— the obsessive fandom that has surrounded anime, manga and video games in Japan in the last decade.” What makes for a “real” relationship in these circumstances? Or is real just a gratuitous modifier here, like the word really. If these relationships are real, can there be a fake relationship? A non-relationship? If two living creatures are not necessary for a real relationship, than all the rules are inapplicable. Katayama continues in this vein in describing the 2-D lovers: “Unlike most otaku, though, they have real romantic feelings for their toys.” As opposed to fake ones? As opposed to only pretending to be in love with a cartoon pillowcase?

It seems a little too convenient to argue that the 2-D phenomenon is a bellwether for the future of human relations in the digital age, where most of our time will be spent starring at screens of various kinds. And let’s hope that that the Japanese “lost decade” of stagnation is not responsible for producing these men, as the U.S. could very well be entering a similar economic cycle. Katayama suggests that a crackpot, quasi-anticapitalist guru may be responsible for the rise of 2-D love:

The guru of the 2-D love movement, Toru Honda, a 40-year-old man with a boyishly round face and puppy-dog eyes, has written half a dozen books advocating the 2-D lifestyle. A few years ago, Honda, a college dropout who worked a succession of jobs at video-game companies, began to use the Internet to urge otaku to stand with pride against good-looking men and women. His site generated enough buzz to earn him a publishing contract, and in 2005 he released a book condemning what he calls “romantic capitalism.” Honda argues that romance was marketed so excessively through B-movies, soap operas and novels during Japan’s economic bubble of the ’80s that it has become a commodity and its true value has been lost; romance is so tainted with social constructs that it can be bought by only good looks and money. According to Honda, somewhere along the way, decent men like himself lost interest in the notion entirely and turned to 2-D. “Pure love is completely gone in the real world,” Honda wrote. “As long as you train your imagination, a 2-D relationship is much more passionate than a 3-D one.”

The logic here is pretty interesting. Since human love has become commodified and plastic, saturated with status implications (as though marriage hasn’t always been about status conservation; see Pamela by Samuel Richardson, among a million other examples), it’s better to love an actual manufactured commodity, a product. As though marketers never designed products to exploit the insecurities of isolated, alienated individuals (like Honda). Perhaps the idea is that a relationship with a product is always already compromised, so one can’t be disappointed or disappointing. And without responsibility to another person, one can indulge the logic of consumer capitalism—novelty for its own sake—to a much fuller extent in a more intimate corner of one’s psyche. Consider this lover of pillowcases:

“I was steps away from getting married,” he explained earnestly when prodded about his experience. “You have to make sure you don’t hurt a real person; you have to watch what you say, and you have to keep your room clean. In Japan, it’s not O.K. to like another person if you’re already with somebody else. With an anime character, you can like one character one day and a different character the next.”

These people are not resisting the effects of romantic capitalism; they are embracing them more completely. Romantic love began its migration to the center of the individual’s consciousness with capitalism’s advent in the 18th century or so, redefining the purpose of life for many as the ability to find a soulmate. Romantic love deeply ingrained competitive individualism and became the alibi for authorizing a certain righteous hedonism (expressed in the market through purchases) in the name of discovering who we really are.The 2-D lovers represent the completion of that arc; they have dispensed with the alibi and have moved directly to an open and virtually unashamed love for products instead of people. The complexities of reciprocal love among humans are too inconvenient and stressful, as the communal and civic responsibilities have proven to be for us (better to enact dyadic withdraw, enter the family cocoon, view neighbors suspiciously). A 2-D lover named Momo, the most disturbing of those mentioned in the article, puts it pretty succinctly:

“I don’t care if people understand or not,” Momo said. “I just want them to leave me alone. I don’t have any nostalgia for reality. I’m happy living in the 2-D world.”

I am deeply bothered and creeped out by the phrase: “I don’t have any nostalgia for reality.” It’s too easy to imagine a Matrix-like future full of Momos who want nothing more than to be left to their imaginary worlds and imaginary “real” relationships with cartoons, fueled by and sustained through a steady stream of special collector’s items mass-produced by various culture-industry concerns. It’s troubling that technology has been aimed toward making “I don’t have any nostalgia for reality” something a person would even find it possible to say. It has now become conceivable that one can comfortably opt out of reality—reject the construct of society altogether—without recognizing the consequences, namely the foreclosure of the possibility of any sort of social change whatsoever.

by Rob Horning

24 Jul 2009

It’s foolish to say this without data to back it up, but it feels as though the Facebook fad is losing steam. Critiques of the business model— that it’s somewhat unseemly to allow a third party to monetize your friends, that it’s creepy to have your social life surveilled directly by marketers, that once you deploy intrusive advertising on your site you become more of a rent-seeker rather than a service provider—seem to be taking hold and are becoming almost commonplace. And people don’t seem to be as insistent and enthusiastic about others using it. Maybe it has integrated itself into people’s lives to the degree that they don’t mention it anymore. The opposite happened with me—I felt browbeaten into logging on to Facebook every day or so for a period of a couple weeks, then slowly I forgot about my own account with the site and went back to thinking of Facebook as an abstract evil that others are caught up in. It failed to integrate itself into my everyday life, didn’t prove irreversibly useful. This may be because I am unusually antisocial, but I have this hope that my experience mirrors that of many social-network dabblers.

The site seemed a place to turn in anxious moments of loneliness or existential vertigo for pseudo-sociality and pseudo-connectedness; it was a place to turn to relieve the sense of being hopelessly mired in ourselves how we are and do some illusory work on our own characters instead by fine-tuning some settings, making some updates, passing some surreptitious judgment on those friends of ours who seem, judging by their updates, to be even more desperate than we are. Of course you’d have to sort through the chipper updates from the pathologically narcissistic who evince absolutely no trace of self-doubt or troubled introspection, but they made for a bracing backdrop; they set up a kind of grim ideal for what we’d have to eventually become, or else. But now it is starting to seem like that the threat of that dystopia is receding.

by shathley Q

24 Jul 2009

‘Ladies and gentlemen, the sky is ours’. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic way to end the scene. Writer Warren Ellis immediately taps our collective hopes of launching at an escape velocity and slipping free of the bond of Earth’s gravity. This scene from Ultimate Secret ends on a moment of high drama, reminding readers that planetary escape velocity is just the beginning. The sky, is literally the limit.

Imagining a more dramatic ending becomes even harder after three pages of dialogue. It is possibly the challenge that accomplished artists most regularly dread. How would you move the story forward visually during narrative phases of nothing but conversation? Artist Steve McNiven responds admirably to the challenge.

Instead of a simplistic shot/reverse-shot mode of storytelling, he deploys a highly animated array of visual techniques. Close-ups morph into worms-eye views, promoting a sense of intimacy. Back-of-the-head shots of protagonist Philip Lawson framing others at the conference table place the audience in the proverbial hot-seat, creating a sense that they themselves are making the presentation. Birds-eye views provide an abstract and visual distance from the imposing scientific detail at just the right moments.

Equal to the visualization, Ellis’ dialogue provides a unique drama of its own. Hard science concepts like zero point energy and breakthrough propulsion systems are driven home in clear and concise language. As lead character Lawson explains these concepts, the drama of scientific endeavor exploration unfolds.

But everything leads back to the spaceship Asis. And the beginning of the human adventure in outer space. As Lawson guides both the supporting characters and audience through the science, the dream of deep space travel is stirred once more.

Our calculations show that the Asis could will develop a speed of some twenty percent of the speed of light. This puts the Moon just hours away. Mars, days away. It puts a return trip to the nearest star within a human lifetime.

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