Saturday, March 29, 2008

Comic Book Reviewlets

I resist calling them graphic novels, because "graphic novel" is a euphemism, which presumes that comic book is a bad word.

A friend recently was telling me he was in a big comic book store, but felt lost without a guide, so he asked my advice. Agreed completely. A lot of dreck. I normally depend on hcduvall. But here were my thoughts on things I have read recently.

Despite the large selection, there are a few authors that people universally seem to agree are the best. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman fall into that category. I might put Ellis there as well.

Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's 10 volume series Sandman series about the anthropomorfication of the concept of Dream. Finally finished. Amazing and impressive as a giant work. But spotty. Gets off to a rough start. And finishes a bit full of itself. But in the middle, amazing stories about what if concepts like Death and Dream and Destiny looked like people, and if they interacted with Lucifer and Cain and Abel and people like you or me.

Aside from Sandman, Gaiman has mostly tried to gain respectability by switching to novels. So not much else I'm aware of.

Warren Ellis

He has nice stories that rethink the 20th century in terms of a global conspiracy. And takes a sarcastic view of the world. Global frequency was among my favorite, (mostly for the innovative neat art style). but ended too soon. Planetary was a big 20th century conspiracy story. The Authority I just read recently, superheros at a grand scale, with very odd fascist politics. He has this new superhero series which is one of my favorite recent reads, Next Wave, which is superhero stories with pure sarcasm and not much else. Lots of fun to read though, nice sarcastic art too.

Alan Moore

Considered a god it seems. Most famous for Watchmen. Superhero stories that delve into neat ideas about magic and reality and science etc. Promethea is amongst his most "serious" series. About how magic = art, and how both play a real role in the every day world. Helped change how I see the world. Top 10, is easier reading, about how the government forces all the superheroes to live in their own little city (like a concentration camp) and how superheroes deal with living in a world, where it is normal to have super powers. The story is a police drama, like CSI or something, but with superheroes. Recently read League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Not his best, but amusing.A superhero story that re-used historical fictional superheroes like James Bond, the Invisible Man, Captain Ahab, Gulliver, Dr. Jeckyl, Prospero from Tempest etc. The 3rd volume is most ambitious, but very text heavy. Rewrites Shakespeare and other writes. Contains the most memorable panel I have ever seen in a comic book (the setting is a giantess' cavernous VJJ).

Bryan K Vaughn

Media darling. Agree with hcduval, highly overrated. Got into him because of npr's and nytimes gushing reviews about Y: the Last Man (story of how a plague kills all the men in the world except for 1). You get the feeling that these reviews (especially from the crazy media hype of its last issue) were all written by people who have never read a good comic before and thus have low expectations. Sorta neat idea, pretty boring execution. Similarly, his Runaways series and Ex Machina (like Aaron Sorkin's West Wing but where the president is a former superhero, and inferior writing) are ok, but not great.

Other recent random reads:

Fables, about fairy tail characters: Snow White, Prince Charming, Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella, etc. but living in modern New York. A classic detective story. Interesting, neat idea.

Dungeon. A whimsical French series, child-like, coming-of-age story, of anthropomorphic animals in a medieval feudal world. Has a very french sensibility. Sort of aimed for kids, but includes hints of french philosophy, and includes cartoony sex scene when the hero, a kid, runs in on an embarrassed naked snake woman with breasts and pubic hair.

Marvel Civil War Series:

A huge cross over where all the Marvel characters get involved in a huge civil war. Read parts, including the main Story Arc and the Frontline series, which talks about the role of the reporters during the civil wars (a marvel version of the older Marvels series by Kurt Busiek). so still marvel style, like very mainstream-y, but yet, I'm impressed that it is basically about the War on Terror and Civil Liberties, and it does so in a reasonably balanced way.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"white flight" and hegemonic discourse

I always hated the term "white flight" used to describe the transition from a white neighborhood to a minority neighborhood because it focuses only on one half of the story. Because in order for a white homeowner to "fly" and sell his house you need a minority homeowner to enter and buy the house. So why is it that only the white person has agency while the majority is embedded in structure. The white person is doing, while the minority is having something done to him. When you flip the scenario, and have a minority neighborhood transition to white, it's called gentrification, and again it is the white folk doing the gentrifying and it is not "black flight" though empirically the two should be the same.

Not sure if anyone has done the paper that separates out whether increasing black population lowers prices or whether decreasing prices attracts a greater black population. Might be a good economic paper.

This center has agency, periphery embedded in structure mode of discourse I'm sure has been studied to death. But an interesting area of research that I have little clue about. Just thought about it because TAL did a recent story on gentrification, and why because micromotives for macrobeaviors are hard to see, folk logic assumes gentrification is conspiracy driven, rather than driven by market forces. But that's another subject.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Gary Gygax RIP

I've largely been disappointed by the coverage of D&D creator Gary Gygax. Ok, first I was impressed at how widespread and pervasive it was. But then disappointed because all the articles lacked depth. Usually Salon and Slate are good for that kind of thing, but on this subject they were pretty uninspired.

The Economist and New York Times came closest, but I felt let down.

I did like this line from the NYTimes: "For us, the character sheet and the rules for adventuring in an imaginary world became a manual for how people are put together. Life could be lived as a kind of vast, always-on role-playing campaign."

That totally was true. Growing up, I automatically worked up stats on people. i also grew up assuming everyone should have the same number of build points, so figured those with high str and dex must be low somewhere else. (That thought made me feel better about getting picked last in gym class). Only recently did I drop the idea that everyone is given the same endowment just allocated in different ways, though I still try to cling to it. Though now, it's more of a broader egalitarianism.

Plus, I totally dig the last Star Wars reference in the NYTimes.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

fractal hobbies

I have long characterized my performance at a lot of hobbies (chess, scrabble, clarinet and saxophone, hockey, skiing and snowboarding, trivia) in the following way, I am better than any casual player, but I am the worst amongst the people I participate in the activity with.

I always thought this made me a dilettante.

I play chess well enough from for having read several books and own several chess clocks, but I typically lose against anyone else who takes the game seriously. I continued with clarinet and saxophone well into grad school (far beyond when most people dropped music) but I was always the least skillful musician in any group I performed in. I played roller hockey every weekend in grad school, which made me passable, but I was typically the worst player who didn't quit playing. I ski and snowboard comfortable (more or less) on the hardest terrain available (from lifts anyway) at most mountains, even the unmarked ones, but I am almost always the least skilled one on those trails. I recently started playing scrabble on facebook, and helped spread that viral addiction. I always thought I was much better than most casual players who are impressed by the use of words like Qat and Xi and Jo and Aa, but I find these days I lose most games I play, where even getting a Bingo in a game (use all 7 letters for 50 bonus points) isn't enough.

Today I started wondering if this was somehow endogenous.
How much depends on how I push myself into the groups I associate with, and how much is merely outlook. Maybe everyone feels this way.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

On the cluelessness of Americans

So here's another author making the point that Americans are so clueless about foreign affairs they don't the capital of Hungary, and sure, maybe Americans are clueless but these are somewhat unfair comparisons.

Europeans have before been held up as morally superior because they once had less racism, but that's because they used to be homogeneous. Now that they have large minority groups, they are recapitulating the race riots that the US has for the most part put in its past. Similarly, they are held up as having more self-control in terms of obesity, unlike fat Americans. But of course Parisians are fit, they are city folk. Just like New Yorkers are mostly fit. But as a country, their obesity levels are approaching those of the US, while obesity in the US is on the decline. A carefully done economic analysis suggests that it is wealth that leads to obesity, and as Europe catches up to US wealth levels, their waistline follows.

I think a fair evaluation of geography knowledge might show that the US and Europe is not so different. So, sure, maybe more Europeans know the capital of Hungary than Americans do. But given that the population of Hungary is smaller than Ohio, perhaps a more fair comparison is how many Europeans know the capital of Ohio, or even know what Ohio is. I'd imagine very few.