Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Quotations: Sometimes I am so funny

"Forgive me, Mr. Auster. I see that I am making you sad. No questions, please. My name is Peter Stillman. That is not my real name. My real name is Mr. Sad. What is your name, Mr. Auster? Perhaps you are the real Mr. Sad, and I am no one." --Paul Aster, "City of Glass," The New York Trilogy.

Later Days.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dual Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde and The Equations of Love by Ethel Wilson

My attempts at reviewing have been somewhat delayed as of late. It started with my utter failure to compose a review for Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails, a satirical examination of the boy detective genre, a very good book whose highlight, unfortunately, is still its title. The failure continued with the library's other Meno book, The Great Perhaps, which revolved around a man who had a seizure when he saw a cloud, and his wacky family. Searching the library for that book had led me to select a third book based purely on the title: Golfing with God by Roland Murello. I'll give it this much: it delivered what it promised. I followed that up with two other Murello books, A Little Love Story, and American Saviour, the latter of which features Jesus Christ's run for president of the United States. For each, I intended to write a review. Or least construct an interesting footnote. But time wounds all heels, and I just never got around to them. So, I vowed, on completing Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey, we will review it! There will be no more delays! And then I put it off, and finished reading Ethel Wilson's The Equations of Love instead. My plan then was to write two separate reviews, but I noticed in mentally composing them both that the end point I was reaching was the same, even though the books themselves are wildly different. And so, I decided on a joint review.

As such, this is going to be a long post, even my standards. Read accordingly. Divide it into chunks. Break it up a bit. No one needs to be a hero here. We're looking at about four sections here: the usual starting quotations, a run through of each book's premise, a quick sketch of what I thought of each, and the concluding thoughts. Ready? Let's do it, then.
* * * * * * * * * *

"The Standard Variable procedure was in place to allow very minor changes of the Rules. The most obvious example was the 'Children under ten are to be given a glass of milk and a smack at 11:00 a.m.' Rule, which for almost two hundred years was interpreted as the literal Word of Munsell, and children were given the glass of milk and then clipped around the ear. It took a brave prefect to point out--tactfully, of course--that this was doubtless a spelling mistake, and should read 'snack.' It was blamed on a scribe's error rather than Rule fallibility, and the Variable was adopted." --Shades of Grey

"By this time, now, that Vicky Tritt is thirty-nine, she is little Miss Tritt who has drawn her cloak of anonymity so closely about her that the dreaming eye does not observe her. She is anonymous, as a fly is anonymous. To the alert and glancing eye she is like so many others that she is indistinguishable, but is recognisable when see repeatedly in the same place, as, behind the counter where she sells the notions; or customarily leaning against the rail down by the docks watching--as you do--the seagulls; or sitting, withdrawn, in a pew at St.James Church; but you will not know her again when see her in another place; the place has to be united with the person before Miss Tritt exists as Miss Tritt. This satisfies her. She has not thought all this out, but she has so ordered (if that definite word may be used) her timorous life that she is able to avoid all notice on the potential acquaintances, or, worse than that, of friends. She is sufficient unto herself, in a parched way, and she is sometimes lonely with a vast loneliness that for a dreadful moment appalls. She goes her way by day and by night and all is well enough; and then suddenly she is aware of a loneliness which is insupportable. What makes her suddenly aware and alone? It is not the crowd in the street, for the anonymity of the continually passing crowd suits her; it is, perhaps, the greeting with delight of the woman with woman, of man with woman--not of man with man, which stirs nothing; it is the emptiness of time and occupation, the desert that lies between now and sleep; it is the inexplicable fusion of something within her and something without." --"Tuesday and Wednesday."

* * * * * * * * * *

Every now and then, the term "speculative fiction" gets bandied about as an alternative to "science fiction." It's the same sort of urge, I imagine, that led the "Sci Fi" channel to rebrand itself as the eye-rolling "Sy Fy." I appreciate the benefits of the term: it allows the potential for a broader mandate that science fiction, but keeps traditional science fiction as well--it even maintains the same initials, sf, so you can keep the same abbreviated form. On the whole, though, I'm against the term, purely for what it implies about its predecessor. In short, it says that science fiction isn't good enough. It says, simultaneously, that science fiction is too childish to be taken as serious literature, and too geeky to achieve mainstream attention. It's purely an optic change, rather than any change of substance.

That said, I think the term is appropriate for discussing the work of Jasper Fforde. It's not quite science fiction, as the science behind his work is always loopy at best. It's not quite fantasy either; there's just enough explained that the world within could come to exist without the dreaded "M" word rearing its ugly head. The best description I can think of is China Mieville's worlds run by Douglas Adams' attitude. The conceit behind shades for grey is that, after some cataclysmic event, the average human's eyes have been altered so that each person can only see color in a limited spectrum. The result, after an indeterminate number of years, is a rigid caste system bound by its founder Munsell's rules, in which a person's standing is determined by the colors he or she can see. The result is a society that's half way between 19th century England, with families setting up marriages that enhance their color standing, and Orwellian Big Brother, where merit points become the given currency and a negative enough ledger means going for a Reboot via the Night Train to Emerald City. The plot of the book starts simply enough: the narrator, Edward Russett, accompanies his father to East Carmine, where he has been ordered to conduct a chair census as a punishment for making an unsolicited suggestion regarding a potential improvement in Rule-based queuing. Edward wants to get the census over and behind him as soon as possible, so he can get back to wooing up-spectrum Constance Oxblood. The only problem--besides the town's mysterious murder, bizarre Yellow disappearance, and Apocryphal Man--is that he has fallen in love with the low class Jane Grey, and thus thrust into a world of intrigue that he never imagined. Suffice to say, the Revolution will be colorized. (Sorry.)

Ethel Wilson's The Equations of Love, in contrast, is a very different kettle of fish. Rather than speculative fiction, it hails from a different genre: Canadian modernism. (It was written in the 1950s; modernism took an extra twenty five years to reach Canada. Prime Minister MacKenzie King personally held it back as a campaign promise.) I've always had somewhat of an estranged relationship to Canadian literature. Yes, it's the written words of my country men and women, and yes, I'm very proud. That said, from Sinclair Ross to Margaret Atwood to Alice Monro, I find it very well written, but also very, very depressing. Then I read Ethel Wilson. To paraphrase Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds, my days of finding Canadian literature depressing have finally come... to a middle.

The funny thing is that, in terms of plot, neither of the two novellas that make up the Equations of Love is that depressing. The first novella "Tuesday and Wednesday" follows two days of the life of Mort and Myrt Johnson, and the people surrounding them (including Myrt's cousin Vicky, featured in the quotation above). The two quarrel, adopt a kitten, and at the end of the day, Mort dies in such a way that Myrt can preserve his memory as a heroic figure. (Oh--spoiler alert) The second novella "Lilly's Story" follows the life of Lilly Waller from childhood on, and her obsession with raising a daughter that is better than her. Lilly hides her identity, flees multiple homes, and tells endless lies to protect her life. And yet, after all this striving, she manages to find herself, in her mid 50s, meeting a nice enough 60 year old man, and settling, at long last, into domestic bliss. The depressing part of both stories is the execution. Myrt is as bitter a woman as you will ever come across in fiction--she accepts the heroic version of her husband's death purely so she will be able to spend the rest of her life lording it over her "friends." And besides Lilly's driving need to escape the attention of the police and raise her daughter, there is nothing to her--Wilson compares her in multiple instances to a cat in her complete unwillingness to think about the future or even think about a situation.

* * * * * * * *

So what did I think about these books? Well, first, Shades of Grey was fun. Incredibly fun. While never quite reaching the absurdist heights of his Thursday Next series--in which Mr Toad and Miss Haversham, for example, have a drag race--there were several moments where I'd put the book aside and just revel over the sheer brilliance of the situation Fforde had set up. The book has an engaging inventiveness to it, and in despite of the dystopic influence and nineteenth century primness, there's a sense that the world Fforde's created is an inviting place to explore. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and I think that's important in a world that deviates this far from our own. And that's why the ending leaves a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. Not to give too much away (like I did, say, with Equations of Love), but Edward and Jane's fortunes take a turn for the worse, and Edward's forced to make a decision without a good option--in short, the book goes from a sort of happy-go-lucky adventure to something much darker and sobering. It doesn't damage the book irreparably by any measure, but it did strike me as an unnecessary raising of the stakes in order to show that This Is Serious Business.

I have to give a full endorsement to Equations of Love as well. Not for the wild inventiveness, but for the accuracy of the characters she depicts. From Myrt to Mort to Mr H. Y. Dunkerley, Wilson is a master of the character sketch, setting up a believable, fully fleshed person in the absolute minimal amount of space. And that, to be honest, is my problem with her as well. These sketches seem so complete that, at times, they seem like prison sentences, where the character is doomed to live out a life that seems defined by being petty and small. Vicky won't so much live as become invisible, and Myrt will always wear her widowhood as a weapon as she descends into obscurity and scruffiness. Wilson's keen eye for realism is one of the best I've seen, but the realism slides into cynicism so indiscernibly that I barely realize it until, well, until for example, Lilly's latest boyfriend is compared to a kennel "into which a homeless worthless bitch crawls away from the rain, an out of which she will crawl, and from which she will go away leaving the kennel empty and forgotten." Any port in a storm, but in some lives, it always seems to be raining.

* * * * * * * *

And now it's time to draw everything together. It should be clear by this point that I've got a similar stance on both books, despite their wild incongruity: both are extremely well written, but both have a negative streak running through them. I think I've mentioned before that my early reading had a large fantasy component to it, and I think one thing a lot of fantasy reading will do to you is make you into a literary optimist. Flo Keyes, in the Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today, argues that hope that everything will turn out well as the defining trait of fantasy literature, and I'd agree that most of it moves towards that point.

And yet there seems to a recognizable trend to inject an almost false pathos into some fantasy/speculative lit, as if by doing so, it crosses from make-believe kid stuff into serious writing. I see it in Fforde's Shades of Grey, and I see it in other books, such as Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, a book that starts off as an audacious blend of the heist genre with high fantasy, then descends into a revenge tale after a series of gruesome deaths. Particularly, I see it comic books--the books designed for children are allowed to be fun, but the others have to be "serious," and "mature"--because a comic book that features a terrorist villain blowing up a school or ripping off limbs is clearly the height of maturity. To say it plainly, rather than seeming more serious, the gratuitous pathos of such events make the books often seem maudlin, and more ridiculous than the original fun because they're trying so hard to be taken seriously.

Again, Ethel Wilson's Equations of Love is something different. Rather than ground its adventure with pathos, it avoids both extremes in the name of realism. Wilson's choice of title is incredibly apt, because the stories treat love as an equation, as a sum. In the Wilson story, love is what you call anything that fills the void, the void that you reach when you can't hide your loneliness from yourself anymore. Is that cynicism, or realism? For the fantasy comparison, there's a scene in Terry Pratchett's Hogfather where Death is pretending to be Santa Claus--in order to save him from the Universal Auditors--and is asking Hex, the Unseen University's mechanical sentient, to help by believing in Santa. Hex responds by composing a wish list of gifts. When Death objects on the grounds that Hex isn't even alive, and shouldn't have any desires, Hex responds: "All things aspire." Many, perhaps all, of Wilson's characters don't aspire; they scheme, they covet, they survive, and they live, but actual aspiring seems beyond them--or maybe apart from them.

That's always been my problem with the modernist movement, to be honest. I don't have the same problem with postmodernism, because whatever else such novels are lacking, your basic postmodernist novel never entirely forgets that a story is always a game, something to be played. Modernism allies itself closely with realism, and in its claim to be reality, it seems to leave games behind. It seems that there was always a sense of this in our high literature, going all the way back to Plato, who rejected fiction for its failure to be real, and Aristotle, who preferred the pathos of tragedy to the frivolity of comedy. In Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, he traces the evolution of realism in Western literature, and while he never comes out and says it, he definitely implies that the pursuit of realism is the point, that true literature is always striving for the imitation of the real, and that the modernism of Wolfe and Joyce and others is as close as we've gotten. I--as you've probably gathered by now--disagree. I like my stories with humor, and joy, and fun. And I like my life the same way. That doesn't mean ignoring the pathos and realism, but it does mean keeping an eye on them so they don't take over everything else.

So after that philosophizing, let's finish with a return to the books. In making this argument, I've presented a false picture of both of them. Shades of Grey is almost entirely fun and games, with inventive twists on 19th century Victorian plots and sci-fi tropes. And the best scenes of Wilson's novellas come in either quiet moments such as Mort and Myrt's bonding over a kitten, or in Vicky's one shining act, standing up to her tyrannical cousin (even if Wilson makes a point of mentioning that she'll retreat afterwards for the rest of her life back into friendless obscurity). They're both beautifully written, but in completely different ways. Read them for what they are, and they'll entertain, enthrall, and engross.

And really, isn't that all we're looking for in our stories?

Later Days.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Now That It Is Almost Next Weekend, Let's Discuss What I Did Last Weekend

Last Friday, my roommate's mother was in town, and she took us all out for dinner. It was a celebratory thing, since he'd just gotten his MA, so she did not spare the expense; it was a pretty upscale restaurant. And the food was fabulous.
But maybe.... a little too fabulous.

Back at the dawn of time (or the dawn of this blog, same thing), I mentioned that I'm sometimes not a very good vegetarian. Well, it's almost two years later, so allow me to amend. I am a HORRIBLE vegetarian. Short of someone reverting to cannibalism, I've got a lock on the title of "Worst Vegetarian Ever." (I exaggerate for comedic effect. Still, it's pretty bad.)

You've probably put two and two together at this point: during this restaurant outing, I ate meat. But it wasn't entirely deliberate. See, the restaurant in question had a vegetarian menu, consisting of a grand total of four items--or so I thought. The actual title of the section was "Vegetarian and Pasta Dishes." It consisted of--and I'm working from a hazy memory here--a salad, a thai dish, a spicy dish, and a penne. I thought I'd try the penne. And thus the rationalizations begin. The penne contained an element called "peameal bacon." "Well," I thought, "peameal must be a fancy restaurant equivalent for tofu--it's telling me the bacon is made out of peameal."

This was not the case.

Next, the gentleman/roommate sitting to my right TELLS me it's not vegetarian. "You know peameal bacon is really bacon, right?" "ah-HA!" I thought. "A delightful comical jab at my expense! Finally, I am one of the group!"

This was not the case.

And then the meal actually came, and I started eating. Now, at this point, the rationalizations become a little more desperate. I'm not stupid. I can taste bacon when I'm eating bacon. Well, actually, it tasted like chicken, but 7 or so years without meat can understandably screw up a palate. Somewhat desperate, I thought to myself, "Man, they can do amazing things with this peameal/tofu substitute!"

This was not the case.

Finally, someone drew attention to my meal, and I couldn't hide it any longer, from myself or others. I blanched. I literally could feel myself blanch. It's a very weird feeling; it's like when you can feel your face go red, but in reverse. I quaffed the remains of my wine, slid down in my chair, and my already narrow trickle of conversation dried up entirely. Miserably, I waited for the end of the meal.

For dessert, I had a lovely slice of carrot cake.

So what's the lesson here? There's a few. Well, despite my attempts to claim otherwise, ignorance of the meat in the meal doesn't entirely excuse eating it. Or slightly excuse eating it, for that manner. That's one lesson. My roommate's mom is top drawer for taking us out to begin with. There's another. Restaurants are not above writing their headings in misleading manners--I mean seriously, peameal bacon or no, who expects non-vegetarian items in the vegetarian portion of the menu? And as a final lesson: peameal bacon is still bacon.

Has the experience changed me? Not really. I haven't gone on any wild meat benders since. On the "falling off the wagon" scale, (always a very scientific form of measurement) it was more a light jolt than a full collapse. The real question is, what will I do to ensure that it won't happen again? Next time, will I ask the waiter what is actually in the dish? Will I honor my own beliefs and act accordingly? Will I stay true to my convictions?

Eh. Maybe? I don't really like talking to strangers more than strictly necessary, you know? And I'd hate to look stupid in front of the other diners. Ah, priorities.

Later Days.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Eventually, I'll do a real topic, like a book review, or a video game reflection, or why I'm a horrible vegetarian. But for now, a point to ponder:

Is there a difference between being innumerable as opposed to being uncountable?

Later Days.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Friday Quotations: It's How You Play the---

This stretches the definition of a quotation, but as the opening scene of Deus Ex, it's been of my mind of late. I've been making another attempt to play through the game recently, and it's worth playing, despite its age of nearly a decade. (Of course, this is coming from someone who just finished playing through the original Zork text-games last week, the first of which was made before I was born.) It's got more lofty Nitzschean references, moral dilemmas, and truly offensive Asian accents than any "next-gen" game you can name.
And if you can't stand the idea of a game being picked for the lofty position of Quotation of the Week, here's a quotation from a book about a game so big it's God's Number One Pastime:
"I think one of the reasons golf is such an addictive pastime is that, after you've achieved a basic level of proficiency--somewhere around the fifteen handicap zone--you can, to a certain degree, control what happens on the course. Not every shot, no one controls every shot, but you can control a high enough percentage of your shots that you have at least the illusion that you're in charge. It's a small amount of authority, but on certain days that's about a million times more than you have in your married life, or in your work life, or in world politics, is it not? You hit a nine iron stiff from 135 yards and think: All right, I did that. I made that explosive white ball fly 405 feet through the air and stop an arm's length from where I aimed it.

"It's a rather special feeling."
--Golfing with God, by Roland Merullo

*UPDATE*: And here's something we haven't seen in a while:

There and Back Run
Distance: 12 km
Time: 1 hr, 5 min
Speed: 11.1 km/hr

Given that it's 27 C out, with a "feels like" in the 30s, I think that's a respectable time. The runner is back!

Later Days.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wednesday Comics: How Do They Keep it Fresh, After All These Years?

Even though it's just the cover for a comic that comes out next month, it's still the panel of week. Because... well, I don't think it needs explaining.

Later Days.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Also acceptable: rubicund, hued, blowsy, roseate, sanguine

A few days ago, I mentioned that I lost my glasses. A full room clean yesterday determined that I have, at some point over the last weekend, also lost my student card. Operating under the assumption that these things happen in threes, my keys, wallet, and memory stick have been moved to an undisclosed location where I can't hurt them anymore. Anyway, today I went down to the card office at the U of Blank and got a $20.00 replacement. The price is kind of steep, but I'm still doing better than my undergraduate days, where, at its peak point, I lost about one card a month. That's a lot of money I could have been losing in foozball tournaments.

Anyway, the replacement went as expected until the woman at the counter told me to sit down at the stool so they could take a new photo. I had not been expecting this. I had assumed they'd just print off a new card using the stock photo. I was not prepared to be on film.

Photo ID is a staple of stand-up comedy, on account of the fact that everyone's is usually bad in their own eyes, and so it becomes a common experience people can bond over. In my case, though, it goes a little further: Forget ID. I've never liked an actual photo of me ever. Okay, yes, some of the childhood photos are adorable. But the others? Forget it. I'm either about to sneeze, or I've just sneezed, or I'm blinking or frowning or twisting my face in bizarrely inhuman contortions or some damn thing. The entire high school-era photo album is a mess of an unfortunate body type mixed with one bad fashion decision after the other. The university years are similarly unbearable, at least until the point I started exercising a little and admitted that the full beard was not going to happen. Even now, the most innocuous circumstance leads to the most hideous photo. My Facebook account is a testimony this fact. Every smile is a grimace. Every wry look is searing contempt. Even a simple toast looks like an SS Salute.

So when I was told to take a seat, my mind went into blind panic. I was dripping sweat, I hadn't combed my hair before leaving the house, I hadn't shaved in days, I hadn't even showered that morning. (I was going for a run later, see, and--forget it.)
But the woman was gesturing, so I got on the stool, gave a weak smile, and snap! Another student card, with a photo that will represent my identity in the university system for the next 2-ish years. And... it's not bad. Maybe even an improvement over the old one. (In my old one, the glasses are not just crooked; they're practically at right angles. It's a miracle of geometry.) It's a little... tanned, though. Actually, that's not the right word. I look ruddy. But... the smile is present, the eyes are focused, the hair seems to have taken it upon itself to assume a pleasing form, and the facial hair isn't too obvious. So... we'll take ruddy. This time.

Later Days.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Quotations: Man, This Stuff is Depressing

"The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one's own." ---The Professor's House, by Willa Cather

"This is what a boy detective does: He is always counting, estimating, recording. He cannot stop himself and simply let one moment move into the next. His is a life of connections, patterns, histories, motivations. In the world of the boy detective, as in our world, there is a reason for everything. Without a reason, without a plan, without a precise count of steps to the closest escape route, there is nothing." --The Boy Detective Fails, by Joe Meno.

"I know, answering phones seems like a dreary job for someone of my intellect and education, but it was, in a way, perfectly suited to my disposition. The right words are always in my head; it's just a matter of spitting them out. That's my main problem. When I'm talking on the phone, I'm usually more relaxed, and, thus, more articulate. But when I'm face-to-face with someone (especially a stranger) I end up sounding like some mumbling, glazed-over panhandler. Sometimes I feel like there's a sign floating above my head that says something like 'warning: avoid contact with this person.' I was told once that I look 'naturally stand-offish,' which I could not understand." "Hawaiian Getaway" by Adrian Tomine

And though it does veer wildly from incredibly depressing into outright farce, I'd like to give credit to Meno's book for having the best title ever. It's even better on the library's abbreviated hardcover: "Boy Detective Fails." How could you not read that?

Later Days.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Punisher Retrospective

In the past week, I've read a lot of issues of the Punisher. For the uninitiated, a quick overview: Frank Castle was a fairly ordinary man who did a tour in Vietnam and came home. His family--wife and two children--were gunned down in the park after they accidentally witnessed a mob shooting. From that day, Castle took the name Punisher and began a one-man war on crime. I'd like to make it clear from the beginning that I don't actually like the Punisher as a character. I'm against capital punishment, for one thing, and I think a zero tolerance policy is naive-- as many characters have pointed out through the years, Punisher isn't fighting a winnable war, he's just rearranging the players. In terms of personality, there's not a lot there--he's actually supposed to be one-note, so obsessed by the war that he can't do anything else that distracts him. The one thing I'll say in his favor is that I prefer him to most depictions with Wolverine, since Marvel doesn't pretend that we're supposed to look at him as a hero. He's a little ways yet from Dexter-level psychopath who kills other psychopaths, but he's not supposed to be part of the world's greatest heroes.

Of course, that means he makes kind of an awkward fit in the Marvel universe proper. First, it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief to believe that a guy that fires bullets is a credible threat against the likes of Doctor Doom--in order to make him fit the rest of the superhero stuff, it usually means that he needs to be significantly upgraded--see either the Angel Punisher era or the current Franken-Punisher run. Second, a guy known for killing his enemies doesn't seem very credible as a threat in a universe where superheroes and villains come back to life on a regular basis. Back around the end of the 90s, interest in Punisher was waning.

Enter Garth Ennis, and the Punisher miniseries of 2000. This 12 issue series was followed by a Marvel Knights series that ran 37 issues, until 2004. The series is probably best described as a black comedy, with some darker undertones. The original miniseries has Punisher taking out multiple gang families and the nearly unstoppable Russian, finally defeated by a toilet to the head and smothering by a morbidly obese man's stomach. (Notice I didn't say it was a particularly highbrow comedy.) But we also see a lot of barbs that Ennis will develop further. First, the miniseries ends with Punisher killing a trio of imitator vigilantes, with the statement that one's a fascist, one's plainly insane, and one's sloppy--killing an innocent makes you guilty. The message you're left with is that Frank's code of honor, such as it is, spares no one, least of all himself.

The Knights run has a number of different plot lines, so I'll go through them briefly. Issues 1-5 has the return of the Russian, reconstituted in the body of a woman, because, well, because men with big boobs are funny. Spider-Man happens along, and after some ineffectual attempts, fails to beat the Russian and is knocked unconscious. The Punisher uses Spider-Man's prone body as a human shield to wear the Russian down, culminating in one of the best scenes of the series:

The storyline wraps up with Punisher chaining the Russian to an atom bomb, blowing up an island of mercenaries, and giving a thinly-silhouetted G. W. Bush a lecture on morality. Moving a little more quickly, #6 is a stand alone where Punisher goes after a serial killer, #7 is a silent issue (no word bubbles), and #8 is by Ron Zimmerman, which means I skipped it.
Ennis returns for issue 13, and we get a number of stories: one where Punisher reunites the crime families so they're more likely to gather in a single place, one where a reporter blackmails Punisher into following him around for a night, one where he "teams up" with Wolverine (ie, drives a steamroller over him, Roadrunner style), and one where Punisher goes on a tour of Belfast. Add some extended storylines including a crooked cops story, a story set in Texas, and one where the Punisher goes underground to fight homeless people led by a psychopath with a fetish for sleeping underneath the remnants of the bodies he devours. (Yes, really, on that last one. It's a veer into outright horror, which is rather rare for the series. The secondary overtone--that we ignore our society's homeless--fits a little better with the series' overall themes.) The series wraps up with "Confederacy of Dunces," in which Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Wolverine teaming up to bring Punisher to justice. That works about as well as you think it would.
The bookend stories of the run--the Spider-Man beat-up and the Dunces team-up--sum up Ennis' feelings concerning superheroes: he thinks they're really, really stupid. Under his hand, Wolverine is a ridiculous caricature of a character, and Spider-Man is, at best, a naive joke. Daredevil gets treated a little better, but largely because he essentially comes to accept Frank's view that the Punisher is a necessary evil. Ennis' distaste for superheroes comes out in other places too. Currently, he's writing "The Boys," which features a world where superheroes have become corrupt assholes, essentially lackeys to the government controlling business corporations. He's also somewhat famous for a "What If" he wrote years ago in which Frank's family is killed in a superhero crossfire rather than a mafia gunning, and Ennis quickly crafts exactly how Punisher would eliminate all those do-gooders once and for all. But the pinnacle of the super-hero commentary is one that's not played for laughs at all--in Hitman 34, the titular character has a long conversation with Superman, assures him that Superman's always been a big inspiration to him, and, as soon as Superman leaves, continues with his task at hand: assassinating a man three buildings away. It's a wonderful summary of what Superman stands for, and what he means, followed by a deconstruction of any meaningful impact in the real world.

The other major theme of the Knights run... well, we'll get to it in a minute. But immediately after Ennis' Knights run, a new run, Punisher MAX, began. The new run distanced itself from super-heroics; the only super-hero who showed up in the series' run was spy-master Nick Fury, whose main demonstrated power was smoking in public places and swearing a lot. Essentially, in the MAX run (60 issues, though it continued on without Ennis for a few more), Ennis admits that the Punisher doesn't work in a superhero universe, and tells some other, more mature-themed stories instead. To offer a sample: there's Punisher vs. corrupt business/government, Punisher vs. the widows of the gangsters he murdered, Punisher in Afghanistan, Punisher destroying a child prostitution ring. And in the process, Ennis uncovers his other two major themes beyond anti-superheroics: Punisher as addict, and Punisher as soldier.

It probably won't surprise you, at this point, to learn that Garth Ennis is well known for his series of war-based comics as well. He's got a lot of titles such as Unknown Soldier, Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, Enemy Ace, and so forth under his belt. Punisher's enemies are often characterized specifically as failures at soldiers: there's the undisciplined, never ending masses of poorly organized mafia goons, the fall-apart discipline of the various mercenary groups, the antipathy of the soldier as represented by the military generals who never saw live combat. The most noble (and often, the most ruthless) of Punisher's enemies are often those who follow soldier codes; the primary example of this type is the Russian general Zakharov, who at one point calls Frank a Russian accidentally born in America. Most critically, though, the Punisher's war on crime is presented as a literal war, and Punisher himself is a perpetual soldier, struggling forever for a battle he can't win.

That in itself is almost noble, and it's necessary to find SOME sympathetic element to Castle's character if you're going to write him at all. But the soldier aspect dovetails into the addict part. Fleshing out Castle's life, Ennis implies it was always about violence. A one shot, "The Tyger," explores Frank's childhood, and "Born" looks at his tour in Vietnam. What both conclude is that the Punisher has always been about violence. As is pointed out by various figures in the MAX series, he can't really claim it's even vengeance that drives him anymore, as he's already killed anyone remotely involved with the original shooting. Rather, he uses his family's death as an excuse to continue fighting. Frank Castle is a man who spent his entire life looking for a war he would never have to stop. And while Ennis raises the issue, he never has the Punisher defend himself from this accusation; first, because any moralizing, for himself included, is outside Frank's nature, but equally because answering the question definitively effectively ends the character. As long as that ambiguity is there, as long as Punisher is pulled between the poles of human revenge and endless battle, you can keep the war on crime going.

Accompanying this soldier ethic is Punisher's moral code: you don't kill innocents. Ever. There is, however, a catch. It's best depicted in the Knights series #15. That's the one that a reporter blackmails the Punisher into letting him tag along for an evening, on the threat that hired goons will kill the Punisher's police connection if he doesn't. Beyond this insurance, the reporter is counting on the fact that he never killed anyone to force Punisher to keep him safe as an innocent. Punisher eventually concludes the night with the reporter's dismembered corpse, and the haunting lines: "Only the bad guys die. What he found out too late was... It never takes much to make the list." This comes up a few times in the MAX series, in different ways. The widows "make the list" because they're ultimately not innocent--their silence made them complicit in their husbands' crimes. Similarly, the first arc of the MAX series has Punisher shooting his former ally Microchip, after the Microchip teams up with an off-the-books government agency that operates through funds raised by drug trafficking. There's a lot of ambiguity in the act--we don't quite know if it's because Microchip crossed the line, or because Punisher is showing some mercy in quickly killing someone dying of a gut wound, or, as Microchip suggests, Punisher is killing him because Microchip knows him too well, that he's the only person left who can engage him on a human level, and avert him from his war.

Though Ennis never quite goes here, the Punisher reminds me of a movie monster. Not the Frankenstein type (though they currently are directly exploring that direction), but the Jason type. Often, there's the same sense of relentless pursuit, of a truly unbeatable foe that Jason elicits. The Jason archetype has always, deliberately or not, followed a long line of horror-based creatures, beings who murder and punish those who transgress outside of the proscribed normative behavior permitted in typical society. In the Jason movies, for example, Jason often goes after sexually promiscious teenagers. Part of the horror comes out of the disproportionate response to the transgression--we don't kill people for hanky panky. In this case, the cure is worse than the disease, and we viewers feel satisfied when the punisher (hmmm, there's that word...) is punished for their own transgressive behavior. Because he punishes something actually monstrous rather than responding disproportionately, it's okay for us to root for the Punisher, to a point, at least. The difference between the Punisher and these monstrous villains is often not in methodology or origin, but simply in the type of transgressions he responds to--and his "list" of guilty and innocent.

Take all of this with a grain of salt--it's my interpretation of Ennis' interpretation of a character. Ennis' take on the Punisher is hardly the one out there either-- Jason Aaron, for example, is currently writing a series that seems to be inspired by the Punisher Knights era, and includes Bullseye to boot. But I'm absolutely amazed that Ennis found so many different facets--part Jason, part Dexter, part Rambo; soldier, addict, monster, person--in a character whose only purpose is to shoot things. So who is Frank Castle, after all is said and done? Well, I'll let General Zakharov explain.

'Nuff said. Later Days.

Toy Story 3: It Ain't No Shrek the Third

And Thank God for that. Join me if you will, for a trip down Memory Lane, and an exploration of all things toy. The first Toy Story movie came out in November 1995--fifteen years ago. I was twelve at the time. And I remember being more than a little suspicious of the film at the time. I was just old enough that the subject matter could be experienced in three parts: one part nostalgia, one part "just kid stuff" scoffing, and one part pure enjoyment, because I was still a bit of a kid myself.

But the movie carried a little bit of a stigma, because it was clearly borrowing--if not outright stealing--more than a few plot pages from one of my favorite childhood films, the 1986 Jim Henson film "Christmas Toy." Though I'm sure you all recall, the plot of the latter film is that it's Christmas Eve, and the current favorite toy Rugby the Tiger experiences some existential doubt when he realizes that he's about to be replaced by the new favorite, Meteora, Queen of the Asteroids. So he hides in Meteora's box while Meteora runs rampant, convinced that she is not a toy at all, but a person beset by aliens. There's a more than passing resemblance to Toy Story here, particularly in the original Woody/Buzz dynamic. Toy Story even borrows the "toys freeze in the presence of people" motif, although in the original, it had a more sinister twist: any toy seen moving freezes forever, which as I recall added a lot of suspense to the proceedings.

Thus, I went into the theater with assuming that this would be a rip-off of the other material, replacing classic puppetry with new-fangled computer graphics (I was a very jaded twelve year old.). But the show won me over. Of course it did. With the great acting, the wonderful set pieces like the attempts to get Woody back into the moving van, and the excellent writing that managed the balance between "grown-up" and "kid"--well, what else could I do? Even the Randy Newman songs fit perfectly (though I'm glad they decided to reduce their frequency in later incarnations). Generously, I allowed that there were room for two toy-based films in my personal canon.

Fast forward to Toy Story 2 in 1999. This time, I distinctly remember that going to the film was a family affair--albeit a family composed of two adults, a 17 year old, a fourteen year old, and an eleven year old. We are, in other words, a little past the ideal demographic for the film. But the best thing about the Toy Story franchise--something that puts it head and shoulders above the competition of Shrek, Ice Age, and Madagascar--is that it's always recognized that it caters to multiple age groups. The second movie takes this to extremes, with an extended homage to The Empire Strikes Back, delivered by Emperor Zurg. The core story also has a pretty deep moral choice at its heart, something shared by the other two. In the first, in the first movie, it's Woody's pride versus his love of his owner, and in the third... well, we'll get to it soon. Here in the second, the choice is between returning to Andy's care, knowing full well that Andy's days of playing with toys are nearly over, or staying on display forever in a toy museum, forever viewed, but never again loved. That's another thing I think Toy Story has over its cartoon brethren, something that Pixar in general realized a long time ago: being a kid's movie doesn't mean being a stupid movie. Kids live in the real world, and they can handle movies with themes beyond "and then we were all a family." The Toy Story series has always contained just enough of that beyond to keep things interesting.

I think it's important to note that Toy Story 2 is also one of the rarest Hollywood feats: it's a good sequel. Movie sequels are hard. In comedies, there's the problem of relying on the original too much; since the character plots wrapped up earlier, there's nothing for them to do, so they stand around delivering call-backs to previous films--see the American Pie series. Or in adventure/action movies, there's a need to drive up the stakes, to introduce more and more characters, to make the sequels seem better through sheer accretion of plot--see X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3. Toy Story 2 does have its callbacks and its new characters, but they never seem excessive, and never detrimental to the story at hand. And adding Wayne Knight and Kelsey Grammer as villains doesn't hurt.

So now, 2010, we have Toy Story 3. I think the distance between the second and third films doesn't hurt the franchise--yes, it means that if you enjoyed the second as a child, you're at least a teenager now, but the series has always been about nostalgia anyway, so a revisiting every few years is appropriate. It also means they can't rely as much on callback gags, and aside from references to Buzz getting "reprogrammed" again--he spends a portion of the movie reset to his Spanish settings--and the triple aliens' obsession with claws, what we mostly get is fresh situations and humor. The plot, if you don't mind the minor (actually, major) spoilers--is that Andy, the toys' owner, is going to college, and he's decided to consign his remaining toys to the attic, except for Woody, whom he wants to take with him to college, creating an immediate schism. Through a series of mishaps, the toys get taken to a daycare center, where they meet Ken, Big Baby, and the daycare leader, Lotso Hugs, a giant teddy bear. Lotso is voiced by Ned Beatty, perhaps best known for his roles in Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Deliverance.

If you think these credits are a bit at odds with a hugsy persona, you'd be right. Embittered by his abandonment at the hands of a former owner, Lotso runs the daycare with an iron plush fist, consigning new toys to the toddler room, and a short life of brutality. What follows is one of the greatest genre mish-mashes I've ever seen as the toys plan a jail break. Again though, at its core, the Toy Story franchise is about real choices, and this time, it's not just Woody making them. Granted, the cowboy has to choose between his friends and his owner, but in one of the more moving moments of the film, Andy also makes a choice regarding the future of his most beloved toys.

One of the books I've read recently include a 90s anthology on design approaches: Discovering Design by Victor Margolin and Richard Buchanan. While the essays range wildly from overly idealistic to outright patronizing, one theme that arises continuously is the importance of designing in such a manner that we encourage consumers to preserve, bond with, and take of their products. In a world of plastic packaging and disposable material, it's an easy message to forget, especially when we've got an economy based on picking up the next new thing. In the third movie, this discussion is front and center, as we are visually presented the consequences of donating second-hand toys and throwing them away. But I'd argue that the Toy Story movies have always been about this sort of conservation. Simply by imagining our toys as more human, we become less likely to toss them out out of hand. Admittedly, there's a danger in ascribing human traits to objects definitely not human. It comes out a lot more with animals: if we think of everything as human, we're basically imposing our stamp on everything that exists, whether it warrants it or not (see also: Genesis 2:20, where Adam names the animals). But I think that's infinitely better than insisting that the environment around us is infinitely disposable and amenable to our will. Granted, there's a definite consumer purchasing blitz behind the Toy Story movies--franchises exist to promote products, and toy franchises exist to sell toys. But the movies themselves deliver a message that, I think, is a little more.
Or, to put it a different way, it still beats the message of the original Shrek movie: it's okay to be different. Unless you're short.

Update: if you'd like a point of view that's a little less gushing sentiment, this blog has some potential objections to the film.

Later Days.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Friday Quotations: the Black Hole and the White Wall

"The novel has always been defined by the adventure of lost characters who no longer know their name, what they are looking for, or what they are doing, amnesiacs, ataxics, catatonics." Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, "Year Zero: Faciality."

We're stuck with Deleuze and Guattari until I'm finished A Thousand Plateaus. It's been a week, and I'm 250 pages into the 600 page volume. So I guess what I'm saying is, get used to them.

TMI about PoC:
--I finally deleted both Mafia Wars and Farmville from my Facebook profile. I feel liberated and empty at the same time.
--Due to the aforementioned foot injury, my muscle build training has accelerated faster than my aerobic training. The result has some decidedly odd physical consequences. It looks like someone's taken my regular flabby chest and stenciled a six pack onto it. No sexy beach time yet, then.