Tuesday, 7 June 2011

SlutWalking and Institutionalised Sexism

I had thought the SlutWalk phenomenon to be a fairly uncontroversial protest, however it seems I was being hopelessly naive. An acquaintance recently posted this article on the Slutwalk‘phenomenon’ on Facebook. It reads like a rant, and, let’s face it, it’s in the Telegraph which is rarely a source of enlightened debate in my experience, but having been challenged on why exactly I dislike the piece, I thought I’d attempt to deconstruct it in rather more depth than Facebook allows.  

My challenger has already pointed out what he thinks the key argument of the piece is, that “how you appear socially affects how people react to you in a social context”. This certainly seems to be the argument used in the article, with the extension being that the Slutwalk campaigners can thus be criticised for not realising the realities of social interaction, and of equating rape with unwanted sexual advances, which, it is implied, are a natural consequence of the way in which you choose to dress. It’s difficult to argue with this - unfortunately that is indeed the way our society works, and there’s an unfortunate correlation between inches of cleavage and amounts of bum fondles a girl gets. The problem I have with the article is the implicit assumption that this reality is in any way acceptable or not worthy of condemnation.

To take the original point then, “that how you appear socially affects how people react to you in a social context”. The statement is noticeable for not mentioning gender, an unusual fact given that this argument is engaging in an openly gendered debate. Because already, here is the flaw, the blinkered denial of sexism. The statement ignores that the way people react to you in a social context is shaped not simply by how you appear, but by your gender, and perceptions of gender. Judgments on how sexually available one is by what you are wearing, are also, essentially, gendered assumptions. A topless man in a club is not immediately judged as being sexually available, nor is one who is swinging his penis around. Why should it mean a woman is sexually available if she engages in equivalent actions?

Just because women know the norms of society, and know that dressing ‘sluttily’ is going to attract attention does not imply that these norms do not deserve to challenged. Who decided what ‘sluttily’ meant? Who decided the definition of attractive, or available women? Such social norms are a product of essentially sexist society (and I say that as a straight male). Those who would rather claim biology should examine topless tribal women in Africa or South America and study the social norms of propriety in those cultures to note that such definitions are not biologically determined.

Another commenter (male) on the same Facebook thread went so far as to suggest that these protesters are anti-feminist, in that they deny women the right to have casual sex. Excuse me while I scream slightly into my pillow. NO! Jesus mother fucking Christ. So, the protesters, by asserting the right to wear what they like without being subject to socialised sexism, are denying themselves access to casual sex? Because casual sex is impossible outside of women dressing attractively? These protests are not anti-feminist, they are extremely pro-feminist, in that they are a challenge to deeply embedded sexist assumptions within society. The anti-feminist attitude is to pretend such assumptions do not exist, or that they are biologically determined.

In response then, to the argument over social appearance dictating social reaction, does the author, and those who agree with him, really imagine that those social reactions are fair, non-discriminatory or non-sexist? That they do not deserve to be challenged? Note, this is not about finding women attractive when they dress attractively; it is about perceiving that in the context of sexual availability, of denying women the ability to dress how they please, feel how they please, without social judgements. This may be unrealistic, but that is no reason to condemn an essentially admirable aim.

If I am required to address the article itself, one can take this statement as a typical misunderstanding of the point: “Yet that is what some SlutWalkers seem to be demanding: effectively the right to dress provocatively without ever being looked at, commented on, whistled at or spoken to by a member of the opposite sex.”

No, SlutWalkers are demanding the right to dress the way they feel like, without it being perceived as provocative. They are debating the very definition of ‘provocative’. There is no objection to interaction with men; there is simply an objection to being defined by appearance. If male interaction is simply limited to flirtatious comments to a ‘provocatively’ dressed woman then us males are a rather sad and unsophisticated lot.

Again, to address the article more precisely, Mr O’Neil actually ends reinforcing the SlutWalk argument. That argument being that the norms of society are sexist, and there is a culture which supports those norms. The SlutWalkers are making an extreme statement, to end an extreme problem. That the author refuses to see that those norms are essentially sexist (and belittles the protesters for pointing this out to him) is, sadly, making their point perfectly.

Finally, there seems to be much criticism focused on a perceived overreaction to the incident which began the 'SlutWalk'. That being that a policeman suggested that women would not be such obvious targets for rape if they dressed more appropriately. This is not an overreaction to that comment, because it isnt even a reaction, it is a reaction against institutionalised, socialised sexism, a reaction sparked off by that comment, but certainly not limited to it. I quote one of the founders of the phenomenon: "SlutWalk was a reaction to not one officer’s remark, but to a history that was doomed to keep repeating". Unfortunately, the article quoted, and many other examples, are simply continuing to repeat that history by not addressing, or even acknowledging, the inherent sexism within society.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Article at Hurriyet Daily

Non-comics related though it may be, I've just had a joint article on the Egyptian economy published on Hurriyet Daily, one of the leading Turkish newspapers.

Its an expanded version of an analytical briefing I did as part of my work for AKE, and while its not exactly Op-Ed worthy, I think its still fairly interesting!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Footnotes in Oral History - Guest post at the Hooded Utilitarian

Noah Berlatsky at the Hooded Utilitarian recently asked me to write a guest post about Joe Sacco, the pioneering graphic-journalist. I'm still getting to grips with this comics criticism, but here it is, a look at Sacco's 'Footnotes in Gaza', and basically at the issues I see in his historiography.

Noah and Bert have also added a few very interesting comments which place my less educated impressions within the theoretical context of post-structuralism in general, and Lacan in particular, which certainly adds a layer of intellectual sophistication to things!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Unfortunate Relevance of Superheroes: Neil Gaiman

Rules are made to be broken. I like my previous plan about exploring the comics canon, but the thing is, Neil Gaiman recently wrote an episode of Doctor Who which screened on Saturday. Doctor Who is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, its generally cheaply, if charmingly, made, with an even blend of witty and cheesy banter, and a storyline, unsurprisingly, that seems written for a ten year old. Because it is. But for an overgrown child like myself, its still just FUN, and Gaiman's episode was certainly the most entertaining thing I'd seen in a while. Don't judge me too harshly, its exam time.

But who on earth is Neil Gaiman? Well, as everyone apart from me seems to know, he wrote 'Sandman', a series of comics very, very, loosely based within the DC superhero universe, and which, you might point out, is definitely not in the TCJ's comics canon. Yeah, fine, but its still pretty acclaimed, its been recommended to me by several people, and its my blog. So, in the lovely cuddly aftermath of Doctor Who lets take a look at these here 'Sandman' comics.

It'd be a brave man who summarised this lot in a few hundred words, there's a lot of themes here, (ImageText ran this article on the sexual politics in the comics for instance), but if I had to pick up one constant theme in this lot, it would be that of belief. Gaiman's comics are ostensibly about the anthropomorphic personification of the concept 'Dream', the pantheon of entities which accompany Dream, and the relationships between the two worlds, our world of reality, and the world of myth and representation which Dream inhabits. And these connections are the important bit. In Gaiman's universe its all about perception, humans bind themselves to hell by believing they should be punished, the world can be remade by dreaming, and old gods die (and new ones emerge) through the power of human belief. It generally reminds me of 'The History of God' by Karen Armstrong which I've just finished reading. The point in that book being that throughout history God has become what he was required to be by the people of the place and moment. Our Gods then, are simply extensions of our beliefs and characteristics, and thus in Sandman, Gaiman can use his personifications to look back at humankind and its deeper mysteries.

Its not an original conceit, but Gaiman executes it quite nicely. Unfortunately, he arguably falls afoul of another point raised in Armstrong's book, which is that throughout the history of religion, there has been a tension between the depiction of God as vast, unknown and sublime, and the personification of God with human characteristics. Essentially, the first impulse towards God comes from the sublime, yet people require personification to feel appeal; however by doing so, they lose the essence of what the word 'God' was attempting to describe in the first place.

The problem becomes apparent in Gaiman's works; by anthropomorphising concepts of the human psyche, you essentially simplify and caricature those concepts. You may object that Dream and the rest of Gaiman's pantheon are quite complex characters, yet this misses the point, their personalities are simply human personalities imposed through anthropomorphism onto abstract concepts. That those concepts and their complexities are of interest to art and artists is undeniable, yet any attempt to portray them as characters essentially fails to grasp the enormity of each one. The representations of the characters impose characteristics which should not exist, and remove ones which should. You cannot fully contemplate or philosophise about death when death is a pretty girl in skinny jeans grinning at you. All representation simplifies, but the best representation hints rather than reveals, it allows the reader to muse on a concept and impose their own complexities upon it. Gaiman's approach is by necessity less subtle. 

Gaiman seems to try and address the issue, his human characters frequently express astonishment and amazement at the complexities of Dream and his family, yet this simply creates a greater disparity between that which we see on the page, and what it is we are clearly supposed to see. So the problem remains, the tension between the complexities of life and human experience which Gaiman wants to explore, and the overly simplistic representations on which he relies.

It is no surprise then that 'Sandman' works best when it focuses on the humans themselves, when it tells short parables of experience, such as the man who lives forever and meets Dream every hundred years for a pint and a chat, or the man who is made to believe himself emperor of America, and desires nothing beyond this, despite his life as a street bum. Here, arguably, Gaiman comes closest to transcending his clever quirks of style and representation and making something worthy of inclusion in my canon. But it never comes regularly enough, and seems almost accidental when it does. Ultimately then, just as I wouldn't put 'Doctor Who' in the same category as 'The Wire' in terms of television, I have to admit I can't really place Gaiman alongside the likes of Chris Ware or Alan Moore in terms of comics. TCJ, we, rather worryingly, agree again.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Unfortunate Relevance of Superheroes: Canon time!

There's been a rather aggressive debate on the Hooded Utilitarian this last week about canon and canonicity. Without getting too involved, it boils down to a debate between those who favour including historically relevant comics, which includes embarrassing superhero comics, in the 'canon', so far as there is one, and those who would want to form a canon based entirely on artistic merit, thus focusing largely on modern, clever, generally awesome Alt comics. Its a big complicated subject which many intelligent people have argued slightly uncivilly about on the blog, and there's a fair bit of room inbetween the two extremes. However, on a personal level, in my 'personal canon', I'd tend more towards keeping things at an artistic level. Not because I'm artistic or anything, but because I'm a tiny bit pretentious like that.

That said, it's made me reconsider what I was doing when I decided to do this 'Unfortunate Relevance' series of posts. As I laid out in the first post, I wanted to look at superhero comics, which are pretty historically relevant to Alt comics, and see if I could find artistic value within them, to find if any of them have anything to offer other than simply teaching good draftsmanship to more artistic creators. See the (utterly unintentional) connection? What I'm basically doing is re-evaluating the 'historically relevant' canon to judge how much of it would make my own 'artistic' canon. In this light then, my previous post could (honestly) be read as concluding that Miller wouldn't make the cut, but implying Moore would. Cos he's better.

With that in mind, I thought I'd approach things slightly differently. Rather than blindly muddling through recommendations from the few friends I have who give a flying one about the comics medium, I'm going to look at The Comics Journal's 'official' canon. I think the consensus on the HU comments has been that this is a list compiled by a bunch of overgrown, be-spotted fanboys with 'I'm the motherfucking Batman' T-shirts, but I feel its a good enough place to start. I'm going to have a look at this list, ignore their influence or historic relevance (which won't be hard as I have almost no knowledge of comics history), and judge them by the standards by which I judge any book, music or YouTube clip. So there's no allowances made for time period, or innovation within comics, if its not as good as any of Joseph Conrad or Jorge Luis Borges' stories, not as affecting as “Maus” or as intriguing as “Blankets”, its gone, dismissed as tedious escapist tripe not far removed from Big Brother. Harsh words, but we play for big prizes.

P.S Interestingly, note the lack of any Frank Miller on that canon, but the plethora of Alan Moore books. At least I can agree with TCJ on that.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Unfortunate Relevance of Superheroes pt1: Miller and Moore

Miller 'n' Moore. That's where this will start, with that catchy twosome. I'm reliably informed that's where the rejuvenation of superhero comics began, and so thats where I'm going to start my education in mainstream comics. It seems these two took the adult themes that people like Eisner had proven could be portrayed in comics form and brought them into the mainstream. Suddenly sidekicks were maimed, men and woman had (gasp) sex, and, probably most importantly for a superhero, morals were questioned. The simple binaries of golden age comics gave way before the far more sophisticated and in vogue ideas of post-structuralism. Comics under the two M's became about the deconstruction of the superhero. In many ways it became about a question Matt Seneca places central to Grant Morrison's later work, “What if superheroes were real people?”.

Given that then, it seems odd that Miller's contribution to this shift in approach, was 'The Dark Knight Returns'. In DKR, Miller takes Batman deeper into the idea of caricature, both in his art, and his writing. Batman becomes a hulking figure of blocks, and his battle against the underworld of Gotham becomes starker, the fight becoming a war, and war against all that he sees as evil. There is no compromise, no backing down, he is right, always right. Its quite a difference from the other seminal work of this time, Moore's Watchmen. In Watchmen the heroes are troubled, complex characters with recognisable issues. The black and morality of their profession encountered the grey world of politics and society, and they are left groping for ways to understand the world. Only Rorschach retains his absolutist philosophy, and he is eventually forced to confront the stark truth of both Moore's and our world, you compromise or, eventually you die. There's no way to live the black and white life in a grey world.

Miller's Batman is a Rorshach character, placed once again within our world of politics and public opinion. But Miller draws on a different tradition to Moore. As Theo Finigan points out, Miller's Batman taps into the American myth of the frontier. The lawless situation, where established authorities are failing and anarchy threatens, and the lone, brutal, hero, who sets it upon himself to single-handedly impose his order on the community. In a stroke, Miller finds the heart of the Batman myth, and brings it down to that basic premise. Its a macho, hyper-masculine vision, with femininity equated to weakness, where the hulking titans of Batman and the Mutant leader battle for dominance over us all. Ultimately of course, the vigilante outlives his usefulness. When all is achieved, he must hand back authority to more acceptable forms, thus Superman, agent of the state, intervenes. But Miller's answer to the question of superheroes in the real world is tellingly different from Moore's. Here, Batman's black and white morality is imposed over the grey world, not subsumed under it. And this particular Rorschach doesn't die, he simply strategically retreats, until the next time.

The logical extension of this comes in the sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again (DK2), where Batman's imposition of morality is extended to the entire world, as the corruption and evil is shown to encompass the whole of America, and, by extension, the rest of the globe. DK2 is full of odes to the morality of the Golden Age heroes, from the resurrection of old heroes such as Plastic Man and the Atom, to Superman's growing disgust with his ever more human troubles. The story, really, is about Superman, about his return to his golden age roots, and his acceptance of his power to impose order. In both Moore and Miller, the morality of golden age superheroes meets the complicated realities of our world. For Moore, the heroes break, they abandon their morals or die. For Miller, the world breaks. In a sense the two are asking different questions. Moore asks, “What would happen if real people were superheroes?”, while Miller asks “What would happen if superheroes were real?”.

Among critics and advocates of Alt Comics, there seems to be an idea that Moore is the superior artist out of the two, or at least the heavier influence. Given the above, its possible to see why that is the case. While both books are positioned squarely within the superhero genre, Watchmen still depicts a realistic world, with all its complexities, while the Dark Knight saga is inherently about reducing the complexities of the world to superhero level depictions. This isn't just on a thematic level either, Moore's art, in exploring the difficult concepts of reality, become increasingly sophisticated, with the obvious example being the renowned temporal reflections sequence on the moon. Moore grapples with the problems that all artists grapple with, how to represent the incomprehensible, whether that be real emotions, or higher concepts such as time or morality. By doing so, he pushes comics into the realms of real art, which is where Alt Comics aim. But the Dark Knight doesn't want to confront those issues, by its very narrative it seeks to reduce them down to the simplistic ideas of superhero comics. While Moore uses superheroes to explore reality, Miller ends up using reality to explore superheroes.

That's not to say I don't enjoy Miller's work, I love the art, and he has an impressive ability to grasp and drive a narrative, all positives which echo in his later work like Sin City. But Miller never moves beyond his world of caricature, still using simplified archetypes rather than addressing the complex unknowns which mark out more mature works. In a way, Miller is the ultimate superhero artist, he knows the characters and the worlds, he reflects seriously on those characters and explores their depths, and he certainly pushed the boundaries of violence and sex within comics. But he never steps back and questions the bigger rules of his genre, the rules which say that all comics can do is caricature, that the only morals in a comics are painted in primary colours, or that you can never depict the complexities of a real human being. Within his genre, within his chosen medium in fact, Miller is a genius. Yet Moore is the genius beyond genre.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Craig Thompson and Islam...mmmmm...

While just checking my facts for the last post, I came across this announcement for Craig Thompson's new project 'Habibi'. It apparently aims to look at Islam in a similar way to how 'Blankets' explored Christianity, and it's also inspired by Arabic calligraphy! As a student of Arab culture words cannot express how excited I am by this, I love Craig's work in Blankets, both his innovative art and his thematic depth, and I'm pretty sure this is going to be something exciting. September 2011!

The Unfortunate Relevance of Superheroes: Intro

I'm a recent convert to comics and comics art, I didn't read Superman, or Wonder Woman, I didn't learn about anger through the Hulk or justice through Batman. I read pretty standard literature as a kid and a teenager (though I read a lot of it). My first introduction to comics was Alan Moore's 'Watchman' when I was an undergraduate at university, and it was the structure and innovation of the form that struck me more than the incredible (and not so incredible) feats of its characters. My interest in comics has pretty much remained at that level, and so I've remained immersed within what you might call 'alternative comics'. The Hernandez brothers, Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine and the rest. As alt comics are such a relatively new art form, there's fairly firm consensus on where all of these artists got their inspiration, on where the genre began: Zap comix and Robert Crumb.

However, like it or not, there can be very few people making comic books today who only ever read Crumb comics (comix?). Superhero tales, the Marvel's and the D.C's of the world, are the mainstream of comics art, the constant, and slightly embarrassing, presence looming over anything done in alt comics. Understandably really, many comic book artists get their first break at one of the big studios and its where the money is. With such an overbearing presence then, it seems difficult and wrong to separate alternative comics too far away from the mainstream industry. The crossovers between the two strands have been frequent, there's Eisner's shift from 'The Spirit' to the realism of 'Droopsie Avenue', or Craig Thompson's work for Marvel and DC while writing 'Blankets'. Then there is, of course, the ultimate cross over artist, Alan Moore. Some of Moore's work, such as Supreme or Miracleman, sits comfortably within the superhero genre (while still being uniformly excellent artistically), while something like From Hell is clearly alternative comics. However most of Moore's writings (and it is writing, he never draws his own comics) blurs the lines of genre.

My point then? My point is that the two strands are inextricable, and have clear lines of intersection and influence. My point is that if I, or indeed anyone, wants a fuller understanding of the alternative comics world, you have to also be prepared to engage with the less respectable, often cringe inducing world of the superhero comic. With that in mind, I intend to write a series of articles on less-alternative comics, starting with a look at Frank Miller, particularly his series of Batman graphic novels. My education begins...

Thursday, 5 May 2011


Okay! First thing first, I've changed the blog design. More importantly, I've changed the name. Its always bugged me that blogger make you pick a name before anything else, particularly as you then get stuck with a half joke culled from a rather bad article you were writing at the time. But, as always, Darwish has given me a brilliant idea, and here we are. I also now promise to update more often...

Secondly, I've started a political blog on the Middle East, which I've been meaning to do for ages. I'll be posting up adapted political summaries of the Middle East, adapted that is from the work I do for a certain risk analysis company. It'll all kick off on sunday, but in the meantime there's some interesting links.

Right, all change...

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Killing's Space

I find space tantalising, its just unbounded potential inviting speculation. Take the continuous mantra of space in football: looking for, finding, and, most importantly, making space. More important than the killer pass or the beautiful chip, is the unnoticed run by a team-mate which dragged the defenders out of position and opened the room for the moment of genius. And obviously a great defence is one which sees the space and squeezes it, blocking the potentials. Watching a team like Barcelona excel at both aspects of the game is to view the manipulation of space at its best, as the understated architecture of the highlights reel.

That this philosophy of football emerged in Holland isn't going to prevent me from drawing parallels to the Danish crime drama 'The Killing', which ended its BBC4 run last weekend. A brilliant character study of the effects and impacts of a single, long (20 episode) murder investigation, the manipulation of space is, arguably, its master-stroke. However, where football players create space to fill it, in the Killing, space is used simply for its potential, simply for its ability to tantalise. Its the universally abhored vacuum, and if the characters in the Killing don't fill the space then the audience's mind will.

Its there when Theis and Pernille sit across the table, silently staring at their hands, its there when Lund repeatedly ignores Meyer's (and everyone else's) questions, and when Troels silently observes hostile debates before unleashing his strategic ploys. The cloud of possibility, inviting invention and elaboration over and over, is what any mystery story must do well in order to engage the audience, but The Killing makes this essential trope its omnipresent theme. Everything is suspect, nothing can be certain, simply because little is ever said. We also thus empathise with the characters even more than we would if we could be privy to their thoughts. By creating such well rounded characters of possibility, the writers and actors of the show allow us to literally inhabit those characters. The characters are thus only complete before the eyes of an audience.

While verbally the theme may be the creation of space, visually the program aggressively limits it. The locations are cramped, often claustrophobic, with the only possible sweeping wide shots (the murder location itself) inhibited by only being shown at night, as indeed are almost all external scenes. Internally the locations are split and partitioned, while awkward camera angles obscure almost all peripheral action. Partly this is simply a continuation of the verbal theme, it invents the audience to imagine, to extrapolate and imagine yet further about what they are not being shown. Its not coincidence that the widest angle views come only in the final episode, once everything is revealed.

It goes further however, because in The Killing, the locations are largely unimportant except for what they symbolise, whether that be 'City Hall', 'Police Station' or 'Murder Scene'. The actual backgrounds are often bland, with items of singular impact scattered sparingly, such as the picture of Christ over the head of a forlorn Theis at the end of episode 17. This is the crux though, unlike brilliant social dramas like 'The Wire', where the city is as much a character as anyone, The Killing is about humans, and humans in a very specific, but not uncommon, situation. That the action occurs in Copenhagen is superfluous to the plot, this is an examination of murder and a study of its (many) victims rather than an expose of a society.

All of this room for interpretation which is left in the program creates an incredible murder mystery. But one also has to ask, with that level of audience participation, how did my viewing of it (in English subtitles) differ from the original Danish audience? Or the French? Its a great thought, and it shows that The Killing's greatest artistic premise is also a brilliant decision from a business perspective: because The Killing is everywhere and anyone, and thus crosses national boundaries with ease. And it does it because it makes the space.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Media in the Middle East: Or "What I'll be doing all through summer"

So, I haven't been posting much recently (the long ago written bit on Logicomix notwithstanding), and this has basically been because, for us Postgrads, its dissertation time, or at least, dissertation proposal time. So, while I'm going to write something about the Danish drama 'The Killing' soon, I thought I'd justify myself by writing up a quick summary of my proposal. It'll help me get my thoughts in line, and maybe someone will find it interesting!

So, I want to look at the media, particularly the internet, in the Arab World. Yeah, I know, its very original, but bear with me. Firstly, there are two ways people are looking at these 'Facebook revolutions' in Egypt and Tunisia. One group of people reckon its a cause of the revolution, the majority of the rest of people think its just a tool. The tool interpretation is basically uninteresting, except to say “could this have happened without the tool?” (answer: probably yes). Its also difficult to analyse this close to the event. The more interesting interpretation is that since the emergence of 'new media' 20 years or so ago, cultural attitudes have been changed and altered by this media. These changes and shifts in society have contributed to the changed perceptions necessary for the current social revolutions to occur. Sounds a bit more interesting doesn't it.

To explain further, lets think about how the media in the Middle East has been analysed in the past. Generally it was viewed as a 'public sphere', a sphere for free discourse where the relation between state and society could be rationally discussed and transformed. This idea was taken from a theory Habermas came up with to describe a phenomenon he perceived in the emergence of democracy in Europe. Unfortunately it doesn't quite translate well to the Middle East. Not only is the media debate punctured by state censorship, and cultural intolerances, as well as the media's commercial bias, but the authoritarian states themselves have no interest, or reason, to take any notice of these debates. Arguments on Al Jazeera don't translate into state policy. So, the media in the Middle East is viewed as a LARGE public sphere, but a WEAK one.

However, that isn't to say that the media isn't causing changes in people's social attitudes, even if it isn't affecting state policy. So, Marc Lynch, in a great book, set out to describe and define the public sphere of satellite television (particularly Al Jazeera) to understand what the message and underlying norms were that were being absorbed by the eagerly watching Arab population. He saw argumentative debate, self reflection, and diverse opinions being aired and theorised that these norms were being inculcated in the watching Arab population, creating profound shifts in social thinking. Unfortunately, this hasn't gone beyond theory. No-one yet has come up with a conclusive study to link television programming in the Middle East to a shift in public attitudes and norms. Mostly this is to do with the difficulty of gathering public opinion data in the Arab World, and the lack of existing data. So, this remains a theory.

I would love to be the one to prove Lynch's arguments, but the difficulties noted above apply even more to me, as a postgraduate student with limited funds and time. So, I want to look sideways slightly. Lynch's study was essential, you need to define what the influences of the media ARE (I.e. what are the messages behind what people are watching) before you can assess their impact on the viewers (the bit that's missing from the academic literature). But Lynch was only looking at satellite television, for good reason. However, I want to try and emulate his study with the internet. I want to try and define and document the content and boundaries of the Arab Public Sphere on the internet. Again, if I can document the underlying message and influence of the relevant internet content, I can both theorise as to its effects and also set the stage for future studies to empirically assess its impact, just as Lynch did with Al Jazeera.

So, this is my dissertation, to analyse internet viewing habits in the Middle East, and to assess the content that is being viewed and read, with the aim of perhaps gaining some understanding of how it might be affecting social attitudes in the region. Right, well, here goes!

Logicomix and the Frame-story: Part 2

Having discussed my disappointment at Logicomix, and its poor use of the frame story structure, I wanted to think about the genius of the frame story, and what it can do when its used well. As an Arabist (sort of), the first example that springs to mind is obviously One Thousand and One Nights, and its witty and delightful frame upon frame. But as an organically evolved literary conglomeration, its difficult to read more into that use of the frame story, there is no single author who employed it with a purpose, its simply a device for creating the never ending story itself. Two other of my favourite authors stand out however: Conrad, particularly in 'Heart of Darkness', and Borges in, well, most of his short stories.

In both cases the frame serves two purposes. On the one hand it distances the story, and the narrator, from the author. It thus allows the author to characterise the narrator in a particular way, without compromising their position of authority as the ultimate narrator. This then allows the second device, which is the shaping of our reading of the internal story. Thus the opening of Heart of Darkness situates our story within its time, and, through the analogy of the Roman invasion of Britain, sets our perceptions for the following story. It also allows us to see Marlowe from the external, to shape our perceptions of his honesty as a narrator before we hear his account. In the same way, Borges frequently uses his frames to cast doubt on his narrator, framing his stories as bar tales or hearsay, allowing him to suggest the fantastical, or the impossible, and provide a subtle commentary while retaining the force of the central story.

It is interesting then, to return to comics, to consider Art Spiegleman's Maus, particularly in light of the passionate debate that has been raging at the Hooded Utilitarian. In Maus, Spiegelman uses the frame to provide context and shape our reading of the Holocaust story, but he refuses to use it to distance himself from the frame. The frame story of Maus IS Spiegelman the artist writing/drawing the comic you are reading. By doing so, the impression of doubt is not put on a fictional narrator as in the previous two examples, but neither is it put on Artie exactly. This shift puts the doubt on the medium of comics themselves. It creates the doubt, frequently made explicit by Spiegelman, that comics cannot represent real life, that reality must be twisted and shaped by its transformation to the comics medium. Maus then, employs the frame story as a tool of self-reflection, and of post modernist analysis.

Of course the frame doesn't stop there. The 'Artie' character of the frame is just a comics representation of the real Art Spiegleman who is drawing even the 'real' Artie. And Spiegelman hints at this as both stories continue, and the animal masks which have caricatured both the internal and framing stories begin to slip, hinting at the humans beneath. By casting doubt on the ability of his drawings to represent the holocaust, Spiegelman also has to acknowledge its inability to represent even the dilemma of truth values in comics.

It can be argued, as Noah does at HU (and I agree) that Spiegelman doesn't go far enough with this, that Maus hints at the deeper problems of artistic representation but doesn't address them (understandably, his focus is the Holocaust, not the nature of truth in art!), but either way, this is one of many examples of what the frame story as a formal structure can do well. It essentially uses doubt and distance, and when that is understood, it is capable of allowing admirable levels of self reflection and depth to a work of art. It is this wonderful aspect of the frame story which was missed in the Logicomix example discussed previously, and, while not the only problem with that book, it remains a glaring mis-step on the part of the authors.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Logicomix and the Frame-story: part 1

As an undergraduate, one of my first assignments was to write an essay on the word 'the' for a logic class. Unfortunately, that first exciting term I had been more concerned with my new found freedom than my lectures, and I, and many of my fellow students, ended up turning in essays culled largely from a widely circulated copy of an essay from an enterprising third year. Not my proudest moment, and not the greatest introduction to logic either. But, despite a lack of understanding, I do remember a certain sense of intrigue as I hurriedly plagiarised long into the night. There was something interesting here, not as interesting as alcohol and women obviously, but maybe, just maybe I really had been wasting that term.

It is with some interest then that I approached “Logicomix”, an account, by Doxiadis and Papadimitriou of the life of Bertrand Russell, and his search for a logical foundation for mathematics. A comic book giving narrative and exposition to intellectual theories whose exciting potential I had glimpsed on that rather tortuous night. And if “Logicomix” has a great virtue, it is that it does indeed capture that essence of the intriguing power of logic, and conveys it with as much excitement and fascination as it really does deserve. The authors succeed in drawing a compelling fictional narrative from philosophical arguments, and in doing so breathe vitality into what is often taught as rather lifeless subject matter. The art work, by Papadatos and Di Donna works hard to accompany this, to place energy and movement into even the sections where Bertrand Russell is simply lecturing from a stage. Sharp cuts, frequent shifts of perspective, and odd angles give dynamism and help to maintain interest in the visuals, especially in the early years of Russell's tormented and fearful childhood. Particularly brilliant is the portrayal of Wittgenstein, who is clearly too impossibly eccentric to be the protagonist, but who steals the page as soon as he appears, with the portrayal of his energetic mannerisms instantly reinvigorating a potentially flagging story.

The artists also play with referential visuals, one of the most striking being a full page panel of Russell as Casper David Friedrich's “Wanderer above a Sea of Fog”. Despite this however, it could be suggested that the book fails to use its comic nature to its full extent. The visual aspects of comics, the ability hold multiple concepts simultaneously in our view, could lend itself to some excitingly innovative portrayals of the mathematics and logic which it explores. The portrayal of Russell's paradox is useful, but its captions themselves are sufficient to explain the problem, with the images simply illustrations, rather than an integral part of the paradox itself. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but there does seem a missed opportunity to produce a truly self-referential narrative of philosophy and logic, rather than the rather unimaginative view given here.

Unfortunately, my biggest problem with Logicomix is not what it doesn't do, but what it does. The book uses two frame stories, one being an older Russell narrating his life from a lecture hall, the second being of the artists and writers themselves discussing and arguing about the characters and concepts within the book. It sounds like a fine idea, and it would be, except that the writers use and abuse this device terribly. I want to write a longer piece about the use of the frame story in literature, and how comics contain unique and exciting possibilities for the device, and some of those ideas are definitely present in how Logicomix guides your reading of the story and provides context to Russell's story. But repeated cuts between the layers of the story reduce the immersion into Russell's world and jar the sense of narrative, constantly reminding us that this is a comic being read, not a story being watched. While that may be a useful device in many works, here it seems the writers doubt the force of their own story, and lack the confidence to let it flow. They also seem to lack confidence in their own abilities as writers. One of the worst uses of the frame must be to explain that which should be implicit within the story itself, and yet that is exactly what occurs here. The central theme, of the link between logic and madness, is thought provoking and clever, yet rather than allow it to emerge naturally through the characters, the writers insist on explicitly explaining this, repeatedly, to the reader, removing the potential for thoughtful musing on the part of the reader.

It is an essential part of any medium that reader participation is necessary, even desired, to create a great piece. Comics possess great potential for this, as McCloud points out with his discussion on the 'gutter space' and the necessary time gap our minds impose between panels. Yet the creators of Logicomix, perhaps caught up, like their characters, in a search for explanations of even the fundamentals, insist on describing every level of their creation. The result, while visually dynamic, is a story which cannot breathe, hemmed in on all sides by exposition and contextualisation (not unlike, in fact, a typical academic philosophy essay!). One cannot fault the technical skills of the group of artists and writers, but their lone attempt to break the formal traditions of the comic book ultimately results in them enforcing their own, rigid interpretations on a necessarily intelligent audience. An unfortunate fate for a potentially interesting idea.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The film Peter Jackson should have made....

A friend just pointed me in the direction of this review, of a novel telling the Lord of The Rings story from the other side, with a healthy dose of sly references to modern world politics, but more importantly, providing a full scale assault on Tolkein's idealised anti-industrialisation views which underpin the original. Here, Gandalf is the luddite trying to destroy Mordor's 'ivory' towers of progress. Sounds very cool (the full text is here if you want to read), and I certainly had similar issues while re-reading the original due to Tolkein's simplistic (in hindsight) moral views.

But, more interesting than the book itself was, I thought, the last paragraph of the review, where the author indicates that this might be considered 'fan-fiction' as art. Its an idea I like, in that it suggests a debate and dialogue between different writers, with 'fan-fiction' written as critical response to the original piece. Its been done before, plenty of books are written in response to other books (Don Quixote provides alternative complexities to the earlier Tirant lo Blanch for example), but whats unusual about fan-fiction is that it situates its response not only in the same style and genre, but in the exactly same fictional world, with the same characters. Which, when you think about it, seems so obvious its strange this point (to my admittedly limited knowledge) wasn't realised earlier, a very effective way to debate someone's position is to start by accepting the fundamental premises of that view, then take them to a subversive alternate conclusion. I like it.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Great Comics

Over at 'The Panellists”, Charles Hatfield recently posed the question “What makes a great comic”? My gut reaction, and probably that of most people, is that the there is no answer. Greatness is subjective. After some thought I agree with my gut, but its worth explaining exactly WHY there is no answer.

In his attempts to answer his question, Hatfield realises that we must talk about the form of comics as opposed to their contents. To do anything else is to judge a comics' value as art, rather than as a comic. The only sensible answer then, can come from a formalist approach. But as Hatfield points out, by doing so, comics become reduced to a mechanical system of tick boxes. To simply define greatness by form requires conceiving of an 'ideal' form, a Platonic 'comic form' to which all others can be judged. This, of course removes much of the majesty and brilliance of comics, and generally seems pretty unsatisfactory.

For me, the main reason this seems incorrect is because the ideal form of a comic is predicated upon its contents. You cannot lay down the desirable aspects of comics, the aspects of form which equate to greatness, without considering what the form contains. In a great comic, the form must match and enhance the contents, any other judgement of form neglects its very purpose. The form is the medium, the method of expression, its Platonic ideal cannot be expressed without considering what it will be expressing.

This works both ways of course, if form can only be judged by its relation to content, then equally content is shaped by form. We can take a novel or short story, and however carefully we translate it into comics form, it is no longer the same piece of work. The changes that that translation works of course, can be inadvertent, but more often are conscious choices of the artist. The form of a comic and its contents are in constant tension, each exerting pressure upon the other, and 'greatness', even in a formalistic sense, can only be found in the conflict between the two.

In short then, it is not simply enough to say that 'greatness' is subjective to a reader, or even to a context: 'greatness' in a comic is subjective to the individual comic itself. Which is a long, and overly complicated way of saying; we can only judge greatness on a case by case basis.

A Post Modernist Flash


This comic from Matt Seneca (ace critic) is a rather wonderful bit of comics art, and it makes me quite excited that work this good gets distributed for free on the Internet. The comic is an old piece Matt drew of ideas for a 'Flash' comic, featuring the red and gold hero. But alongside the basic, but still compelling, images, Seneca textually narrates the story behind his creation, of the events in his life which underpinned the comic, notably, the end of a relationship.

The fascinating thing here is the way Seneca weaves the two together. His narrative guides us through our reading of the sketches, and transforms our understanding of what otherwise would be a simple superhero story. In the way we draw out elements from the sketches based on the emotions highlighted in the textual back story, the sketches provide an unconscious narrative alongside the blunt force of the more self conscious words. In that context this is an ideal example of what comics can do so well, by providing another dimension, making a three dimensional perspective from a first person narrative. In literature, an author might write in the third person, and use alternative character's reactions, to sugges aspects of personality which the protagonist, for whatever reason, ignores. Here we are able to draw out those aspects ourselves, to gain a deeper understanding than is given in the plain text by juxtaposing it with our emotional reactions to the sketches. This is then, a brilliantly pure example of the power of image and text combination, as well as highlighting the unique portrayal of multiple narrative strands in comics, an aspect I'll be looking at in more detail soon.

The main thing that struck me with this though, is Seneca's use of the comic book superhero. By relegating "The Flash" to the position of a supporting narrative (the big story is certainly Seneca's break-up), he subverts our notions of the superhero archetype. A powerful aspect of superhero comics is inevitably their escapism, the ability for us to place ourselves in the shoes of Superman or Spiderman in a world where they will always win. We don't need Scott McCloud to tell us that we can identify with these characters in the visual form, but the relationship is generally one where we appropriate the power and strength of these heroes for our own fantasies. We become the hero, rather than the hero becoming us. In Seneca's cartoon though, Flash is very much Seneca himself, with a conscious effort from the artist to introduce elements from his own life (namely his girlfriend) into the scenario of the superhero. He admits doing this to 'say the things she increasingly didn't want to hear', the classic case of using the superhero as empowerment and escapism. Yet, as the comic continues, the Flash does not solve Seneca's problems, and it is not Flash's heroic qualities which ultimately shape Seneca's reality, but rather the real world problems begin to overtake the scarlet speedster. The comics increasingly reflect the reality of the disintegrating relationship, culminating in the third to final pages where text and the red and gold colours of the Flash blur completely, and post relationship fantasies utterly consume the world of the superhero.

By making the fictional Flash powerless against the force of real emotions, he deconstructs the idea of the superhero archetype, destroying our notion of escapism associated with this type of character and story. In a sense what Seneca is doing is addressing a question he posed in a later post when reviewing "Wildcats": "What do adult superheros do?" While the answer in that post might be a bit simplistic ("FUCK"), here it is far more nuanced, and suggests, to me at least, that the idea of an adult superhero, in the general perception of a 'superhero', is an oxymoron. In adult situations, with adult emotions, there are no such things as superheros.

The most inventive internet cartoonist?

Blaise Larmee is worth checking out just for the ongoing comic that keeps emerging on the homepage, its a great piece in itself, but its also interesting how Larmee’s using the web page structure specifically for this.
The photography based ‘shower comic’ is also brilliant, in how it explores not only sequential imagery, but our reliance on the truth value of photography. Its also a far more artistic exploration of an idea similar to a valentines gift I just sent!