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...