Wednesday, December 8, 2004

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#25: RAW

edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly

RAW has been encumbered with a burden I wouldn't wish on any comic. It's developed a reputation as the ground-breaking, avant-garde comics anthology. More serious in its subject matter and more rigorous in its formal invention than the exuberant, but unfocused underground comix, it's now remembered more as part of Art Spiegelman's project to show that comics could be art (and, in fact, often had more life in them than much of the work that made up the stagnant high art scene), rather than for any of the actual comics that filled its pages. Of course, it's these pages, drawn by cartoonists who would shortly become superstars of the art comic world, that show that Spiegelman's polemic is more than just the hot air of a defensive fanboy.

It was in the pages of RAW that I first read work by Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, Richard Sala, Chris Ware, and Ben Katchor, not to mention George Herriman (Spiegelman was kind enough to repreint the "Tiger Tea" episode of Krazy Kat). It says something about the quality of the artists assembled for the book, that none of them seemed out of place next to Herriman, and in some way it seemed as if Herriman's own restless creativity and virtuoso inventiveness had finally found a fitting home. Reading RAW also marked my first encounter with the European comics scene, opening up for me a whole world of comics I was barely aware of. What strikes me now is the wide variety of the stories and the breadth of the artistic achievement.

Despite the undercurrent of playful po-mo, deconstructionism that runs through most of the comics (most noticeable in Art Spiegelman's own, non-Maus work), there's a wide variation of tone, style, and technique: from Charles Burns' deadpan horror to Ben Katchor's melancholic surrealism. However, if I had to single out the strip that sums up best what RAW means for me, I'd have to go with what is perhaps the obvious choice: "Here" by Richard McGuire. Through a series of panels that represent the exact same space looked at through constantly shifting time frames, "Here" explores in depth, a single formal issue of comics, and, moreover, does so with an irony and humour that never eclipses its underlying poignancy. RAW's place in the history of comics may be due primarily to Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly carrying through on their strong editorial vision, but it earned its place in my own personal history of comics reading because it collects a number of the most challenging and best executed strips I had ever come across, which changed the foundation of what I thought comics were capable of, forcing me to reevaluate my own beliefs about what made my favorite art form work.

Friday, December 3, 2004

From the Archives: TV Serials

Maybe it's because I grew up reading super-hero comics, but I'm a sucker for serialized storytelling. However, I'm always a little wary when it comes to tuning into new TV-serials.

For one thing, most TV-serials are cancelled before they can wrap-up all their storylines, and I have a hard time investing time in a show if I suspect that it's not going to be around very long. Sometimes I go ahead anyway, as is the case with the ABC teen comedy/soap opera life as we know it, which is based on this YA novel by Melvin Burgess. The show has a lot of things going for it: it's well-acted, funny, and it handles its more melodramatic moments extremely deftly. Going against it: it's hardly groundbreaking, and even though it's a less preposterous show than stuff like The O.C., I'm not sure that it will be able to find an audience. It's more likely to go the way of My So Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, which resemble life as we know it in everything except their self-importance.

On the other hand, going on too long can be just as big a problem as stopping too soon. For example, I already have my doubts whether or not the people who make Lost can really drag their plane-crash-survivors-on-a-haunted-island story on to the end of this season, let alone the next one they're presumably hoping for. (And even though I enjoyed the first two seasons of 24, it really seems like a premise that shouldn’t have been repeated).

The final problem is that it is very difficult to sustain the right tone, mood, and style over the course of an entire season. I’ve had fun watching Desperate Housewives, so far, but I think that the show is almost always pretty close to the line that separates "campy guilty pleasure" from "just plain crap". And I'm kind of amazed that the few second season episodes of Arrested Development have been able to recapture the screwball style of the first season. (Success is perhaps the great sitcom spoiler).

Now, all these issues relate to the one of the peculiarities of American TV: that most serials are intended to be open-ended and (potentially) everlasting. British TV has a greater variety of formats for their serials. For example, The Office was a serial comedy, with two seasons of six episodes a piece, and two follow-up "extended" episodes, all of which told a complete story.

Why don't we have more series like tha--that is, shows that are somewhat longer than a special-event-style mini-series but with a definite beginning, middle, and end--here on American TV? Well, the market has a lot to do with it: with so many channels and so many choices of what to watch, TV shows need to last long enough to develop a kind of brand name strength to attract big advertising money. Long-lasting shows can be counted on to deliver an audience week after week. Of course, there's a kind of Catch-22 here, because most shows don't even get past the pilot stage, let alone last for multiple seasons.

There's slightly more variety in serial format on cable: HBO's Band of Brothers was a kind of maxi-series (to borrow a term from 1980s DC comics marketing). But even Band of Brothers was sold because of the star power behind it. While it might be possible for an up-and-coming TV creator to get a traditional kind of show on the air, it's not that likely that any TV network or cable channel would get behind a serial with this kind of maxi-series, beginning-middle-end format.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

From the Archives: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

I'd like to look at Pattern Recognition in three ways: (1) as a William Gibson novel, (2) as a descendent of and a variation on The Crying of Lot 49, and (3) as an attempt to deal with a post-9/11 world.

1) Though promoted as Gibson's first novel set in the present, Pattern Recognition reads almost exactly like one of his sci-fi novels. Maybe this is because the present looks more like the future everyday or it may be that Gibson's cyberpunk prophecy has come to pass. My own belief is that Gibson has always understood that you can find the future in the world around you, as long as you know where to look. And almost all of his novels, including Pattern Recognition, are about characters trying to find those places where the future reveals itself in the present.

In this case, our hero is Cayce Pollard, a "cool hunter," paid big bucks by corporations to sniff out the next big thing and to figure out future trends. In all of his novels, there's a loaded MacGuffin (i.e., a plot device that not only motivates the action but also has a symbolic meaning) that drives the story. In Neuromancer, it's AI, in Virtual Light, it's a pair of virtual relaity glasses. Here, it's "The Footage"--fragments of a movie that begin to appear mysteriously on the fringes of the Internet.

No one knows who's made them or why or even how they've made them, whether or not the fragments have been released in any kind of order, or what the fragments--by themselves or all together--actually mean, but a small group of dedicated Footage-followers have set up message boards in order to debate these questions, as well as any other Footage-related issues. Cayce, a fan herself, is hired by a shadowy corporate bigwig to track down the filmmaker and find definitive answers to these questions. The bigwig--who runs a cutting edge advertising company--sees the way the Footage has been distributed across the web as a revolutionary guerilla marketing tool.

Essentially, this is the same plot as every other Gibson novel: our hero uses her special abilities to track down an artifact that will reveal what the future will look like. But Gibson handles this kind of thing really well: the story is well paced and full of neat twists and turns and conspiracies within conspiracies. However, the story is really just a platform for Gibson's observations and commentary on contemporary consumer culture--on the nature and meaning of new fads, careers, and lifestyles that have emerged from the digitized, globalized world.

Unfortunately, Pattern Recognition not only has the plot of Gibson's other books but also their major weakness--their complete lack of humor. The relentlessly depressed mood gets to be a bit of a drag: it seems at odds with the Hitchcock-like thriller plot. Moreover, it makes Gibson's observations of the quirks of contempo-pop culture seem overly dramatic and pretentious.

2) Though it follows the pattern of Gibson's sci-fi novels, Pattern Recognition is also his version of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. The parallels jump right out. Both Cayce and Oedipa Maas are driven by their curiosity to follow the trail of a secret conspiracy. Pierce Iverarity appears in Pattern Recognition as Hugh Bigend, an advertising mogul for the 21st Century. Both center around the question of how are we to make sense of the patterns in the world around us. Yet, where Lot 49 is playful, Pattern Recognition is dour.

Gibson shares his humorlessness with Don DeLillo, another Pynchon disciple. (DeLillo often tries to be funny, but the jokes in something like White Noise are more theoretical than real.) And Pattern Recognition shares Underworld's interest in post-Cold War Russia, urban legends, and the alienation of globalization. Though there are passages in Underworld, a Very Important Novel, where DeLillo's writing is on par with Pynchon's or Saul Bellow's, for the most part the book is not as satisfying as Pattern Recognition, which is merely a thriller that wishes it was a Very Important Novel.

After reading DeLillo and Gibson, not to mention those writers of lesser talent who have also appropriated Pynchon for their own purposes, I think it's time to call a moratorium on novels inspired by Lot 49. As much as I like that book, it seems that (1) it already said everything it needed to say and (2) it is simply too easy to rewrite it by dressing it up in contemporary drag, replacing Tristero with a mysterious Hotmail competitor.

3) Gibson's attempt to deal with the effects of 9/11 is only moderately successful. Part of his problem is that throughout the book he deals more the symbolic effect of 9/11 than with the terrorist attacks themselves. In fact, I don't think he uses the word "terrorist" at all during the entire novel. Gibson does get at the sense of what it was like to be in NYC in the days following the destruction of the WTC--the simultaneous pathos and nobility of the way no one covered up other people's "Missing" flyers while posting their own, the almost unbearable pain of not knowing whether or not a loved one had survived, the shell-shocked feeling shared by everyone in the city. But he really isn't interested in how the world really did, and not just symbolically, change after 9/11: how globalization looked radically different, much more dangerous, than it had before.

Pattern Recognition succeeds where it is least ambitious, in its slick technothriller plot and its commentary on digital culture, but it's take on 9/11--and the bigger picture in general--is too shallow. Nonetheless, it is an honest attempt to deal with a post-9/11 world, even if it falls short.