David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: comics (page 1 of 4)

Books of the Year 2014

I had less time for reading this year than I would have liked. When I selected Drago Jancar’s haunting and beautiful The Tree with No Name for Slate’s Overlooked Books, it was still with the knowledge that I’d read a lot less fiction than I’d wanted. And Antal Szerb’s excellent, though modest Journey by Moonlight is a bit of a cheat, since I read it (and wrote about it) when Pushkin Press published it all the way back in 2003, rather than when NYRB Classics reissued it this year. It’s stayed with me, though, so I can pick it with more certainty than some of the other choices.

Seeing Richard McGuire’s long-gestating Here finally be published bookends my reading the original 8 page version in RAW when I was 13, when it changed my life. I wrote about the original Here in 2003 too.

And Alonso de Ercilla’s 1569 Spanish-Chilean epic The Araucaniad has been an alluring title to me since I read about it in David Quint’s fascinating Epic and Empire in connection with Lucan’s Civil War. Quint described The Araucaniad as one of those rare epics that takes the side of the losers, and it’s one of those artifacts, like Lucan’s Civil War, that doesn’t fit neatly with any common sense of literary history. Its relevance stems from its own grim variation on a theme that is at the heart of so many great epics and books: in Quint’s words, “that those who have been victimized losers in history somehow have the right to become victimizing winners, in turn.” It deserves a new translation.

As with last year, I haven’t read the entirety of some of the nonfiction selections: Chris Wickham is an excellent historian but I’m not going to deny that some of his Annales-ish wonkery had my eyes skimming. And while the biology and physics books are pretty interesting, I can’t say with much certainty that they’re accurate.

If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks again for reading my work here or elsewhere.

(As always, I do not make any money from these links; they’re just the easiest way to get the thumbnails.)


The Araucaniad: A Version in English Poetry of Alonso de Ercilla y Zuniga's La Araucana
Zuniga, Alonso de Ercilla Y (Author), Lancaster, Charles Maxwell (Translator), Manchester, Paul Thomas (Translator)
(Vanderbilt University Press)

Contemporaries and Snobs (Modern & Contemporary Poetics)
Riding, Laura (Author), Heffernan, Laura (Editor), Malcolm, Jane (Editor)
(University Alabama Press)

The Tree with No Name (Slovenian Literature Series)
Jancar, Drago (Author), Biggins, Michael (Translator)
(Dalkey Archive Press)

I Am China: A Novel
Guo, Xiaolu (Author)

All Our Names
Mengestu, Dinaw (Author)

Foreign Gods, Inc.
Ndibe, Okey (Author)
(Soho Press)

A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly
Kelly, Robert (Author), Joris, Pierre (Editor), Cockelbergh, Peter (Editor)
(Contra Mundum Press)

Prae, Vol. 1
Szentkuthy, Miklos (Author), Wilkinson, Tim (Translator)
(Contra Mundum Press)

The Time Regulation Institute
Tanpinar, Ahmet Hamdi (Author), Mishra, Pankaj (Introduction), Dawe, Alexander (Translator), Freely, Maureen (Translator)
(Penguin Classics)

The Alp (Swiss Literature Series)
Camenisch, Arno (Author), McLaughlin, Donal (Translator)
(Dalkey Archive Press)

The Stories of Jane Gardam
Gardam, Jane (Author)
(Europa Editions)

Harlequin's Millions: A Novel
Hrabal, Bohumil (Author), Knecht, Stacey (Translator)

Journey by Moonlight (NYRB Classics)
Szerb, Antal (Author), Rix, Len (Translator), Orringer, Julie (Introduction)
(NYRB Classics)

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country: And Other Stories (NYRB Classics)
Gass, William H. (Author), Scott, Joanna (Introduction)
(NYRB Classics)

Midnight in the Century (NYRB Classics)
Serge, Victor (Author), Greeman, Richard (Translator), Greeman, Richard (Introduction)
(NYRB Classics)



Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach
Auerbach, Erich (Author), Porter, James I. (Editor), Newman, Jane O. (Translator), Porter, James I. (Introduction)
(Princeton University Press)

Plato and the Post-Socratic Dialogue: The Return to the Philosophy of Nature
Kahn, Charles H. (Author)
(Cambridge University Press)

The Classical Tradition: Art, Literature, Thought
Silk, Michael (Author), Gildenhard, Ingo (Author), Barrow, Rosemary (Author)

We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer's
Swaab, D. F. (Author), Hedley-Prole, Jane (Translator)
(Random House)

Inside Paradise Lost: Reading the Designs of Milton's Epic
Quint, David (Author)
(Princeton University Press)

Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All?
Hacking, Ian (Author)
(Cambridge University Press)

Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Translation/Transnation Book 35)
Cassin, Barbara (Editor), Apter, Emily (Editor), Lezra, Jacques (Editor), Wood, Michael (Editor)
(Princeton University Press)

A World without Why
Geuss, Raymond (Author)
(Princeton University Press)

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away
Goldstein, Rebecca (Author)

From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change
Assmann, Jan (Author)
(The American University in Cairo Press)

The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself
Pettegree, Andrew (Author)
(Yale University Press)

Japan and the Shackles of the Past (What Everyone Needs to Know (Hardcover))
Murphy, R. Taggart (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Social Dynamics
Skyrms, Brian (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Absolute Music: The History of an Idea
Bonds, Mark Evan (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Osnos, Evan (Author)
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia
Jemielniak, Dariusz (Author)
(Stanford University Press)

Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective
Biess, Frank (Editor), Gross, Daniel M. (Editor)
(University of Chicago Press)

Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age
Wright, Alex (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 - Updated Edition (Princeton Classics, 7)
Palmer, R. R. (Author), Armitage, Professor David (Foreword)
(Princeton University Press)

July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914
Otte, T. G. (Author)
(Cambridge University Press)

The Logical Must: Wittgenstein on Logic
Maddy, Penelope (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900
Beiser, Frederick C. (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Pay Any Price
James Risen (Author), Christopher Lane (Reader)
(Brilliance Audio)

Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge
Huebner, Daniel R. (Author)
(University of Chicago Press)

The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon
Vick, Brian E. (Author)
(Harvard University Press)

Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination
Beveridge, Jan (Author)
(McGill-Queen's University Press)

Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters
Rudwick, Martin J. S. (Author)
(University of Chicago Press)

Forensic Shakespeare (Clarendon Lectures in English)
Skinner, Quentin (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

The Computing Universe (A Journey through a Revolution)
Hey, Tony (Author)
(Cambridge University Press)

Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame
Zahavi, Dan (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

In Other Shoes: Music, Metaphor, Empathy, Existence
Walton, Kendall L. (Author)
(Oxford University Press)



Here (Pantheon Graphic Library)
McGuire, Richard (Author)

Beautiful Darkness
Vehlmann, Fabien (Author), Kerascoët (Author), Dascher, Helge (Translator)
(Drawn and Quarterly)

Hubert (Author), Kerascoët (Illustrator)
(NBM ComicsLit)

Dungeon: Twilight – Vol. 4: The End of Dungeon (4)
Sfar, Joann (Author), Trondheim, Lewis (Author), Alfred (Illustrator), Mazan (Illustrator)
(NBM Publishing)

Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen
Horrocks, Dylan (Author)

Incomplete Works
Horrocks, Dylan (Author)
(Victoria University Press)

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel
Greenberg, Isabel (Author)
(Little, Brown and Company)

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel
Greenberg, Isabel (Author)
(Little, Brown and Company)

Perfect Nonsense: Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson
Carlson, George (Author), Carlson, George (Artist)
(Fantagraphics Books)

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy
Lanzac, Abel (Author), Blain, Christophe (Illustrator), Gauvin, Edward (Translator)

Books of the Year 2013

It was a pretty good year, especially for fiction. I stand no chance of ever catching up on my backlog of books to read, so these are less “Books of the Year” than “Books of My Year,” ones which happened to be published in 2013 (or late 2012). A boom in non-Waggish writing resulted in me not having time to write up some of these books, which I really do regret. I spent a month rereading old Pynchon novels alongside Bleeding Edge, which was blessedly worthwhile, but did not help my productivity. Reading list longa, vita brevis.

The order is fairly random though I have tried to put my favorites toward the top of each section. Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo was probably foreordained to be at the top, while the final appearance of Lem’s Summa Technologiae in English was a major event for me. (See my review here.) As with War and War when I first read it, I don’t have a lot to say about Seiobo right now. Maybe in ten years.

As with last year, I haven’t read the entirety of some of the nonfiction selections: Judith Herrin’s two volumes of essays will take some time, while the Maimonides book had me flagging on several topics that just aren’t my thing.

If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks again for reading my work here or elsewhere.

(As always, I do not make any money from these links; they’re just the easiest way to get the thumbnails.)



Seiobo There Below (Ndp; 1280)
Krasznahorkai, László (Author), Mulzet, Ottilie (Translator)
(New Directions)

Towards the One and Only Metaphor
Szentkuthy, Miklos (Author), Wilkinson, Tim (Translator), Hanshe, Rainer J. (Introduction)
(Contra Mundum Press)

Terry, Philip (Author)
(Reality Street)

The Black Spider (New York Review Books Classics)
Gotthelf, Jeremias (Author), Bernofsky, Susan (Translator)
(NYRB Classics)

Anti M
Samuels, Lisa (Author)
(Chax Press)

Phaedra: with New Year's Letter and Other Long Poems
Marina Tsvetaeva (Author)
(Angel Books)

Cartarescu, Mircea (Author), Cotter, Sean (Translator)

The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller: Vol. 2
Emshwiller, Carol (Author)
(NonStop Press)

Dossier K: A Memoir
Kertész, Imre (Author), Wilkinson, Tim (Translator)
(Melville House)

The Enchanted Wanderer: and Other Stories
Leskov, Nikolai (Author), Pevear, Richard (Translator), Volokhonsky, Larissa (Translator)

Mo Said She Was Quirky: A Novel
Kelman, James (Author)
(Other Press)

When the Time Comes
Winkler, Josef (Author), West, Adrian (Translator)
(Contra Mundum Press)

The Forbidden Kingdom (Pushkin Collection)
Slauerhoff, Jacob (Author), Vincent, Paul (Translator)
(Pushkin Press)

McElroy, Joseph (Author)
(Dzanc Books)

Bleeding Edge
Pynchon, Thomas (Author)
(Penguin Press)

Middle C (Vintage International)
Gass, William H. (Author)

All That Is
Salter, James (Author)

His Wife Leaves Him
Dixon, Stephen (Author)
(Fantagraphics Books)

The Childhood of Jesus
Coetzee, J. M. (Author)

The Sinistra Zone
Bodor, Adam (Author), Olchváry, Paul (Translator)
(New Directions)

The Guy Davenport Reader
Davenport, Guy (Author), Reece, Erik (Afterword)

The Adjacent
Priest, Christopher (Author)

The Book of Monelle (WAKEFIELD PRESS)
Schwob, Marcel (Author), Schluter, Kit (Translator)
(Wakefield Press)

Georges Perec and the Oulipo: Winter Journeys (Atlas Anti-classics)
Perec, Georges (Author), Audin, Michèle (Author), Bénabou, Marcel (Author), Bens, Jacques (Author), Braffort, Paul (Author)
(Atlas Press)

Tales of the German Imagination from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann (Penguin Classics)
Wortsman, Peter (Editor), Wortsman, Peter (Translator), Wortsman, Peter (Introduction)
(Penguin Classics)

A Hero of Our Time (Oxford World's Classics)
Lermontov, Mikhail (Author), Pasternak Slater, Nicolas (Author), Kahn, Andrew (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Alexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets)
Vvedensky, Alexander (Author), Ostashevsky, Eugene (Editor), Yankelevich, Matvei (Translator), Ostashevsky, Eugene (Translator)
(NYRB Poets)



Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations)
Stanislaw Lem (Author), Joanna Zylinska (Translator)
(Univ Of Minnesota Press)

Nagarjuna's Middle Way: Mulamadhyamakakarika (Classics of Indian Buddhism)
Siderits, Mark (Author), Katsura, Shoryu (Author)
(Wisdom Publications)

Being, Humanity, and Understanding
Lloyd, G. E. R. (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Savage Energies: Lessons of Myth and Ritual in Ancient Greece
Burkert, Walter (Author), Bing, Peter (Translator)
(University of Chicago Press)

Properties as Processes
Seibt, Johanna (Author)
(Ridgeview Publishing Digital)

The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance
Ganeri, Jonardon (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind
Foley, John Miles (Author)
(University of Illinois Press)

Foundations of Modern International Thought
Armitage, David (Author)
(Cambridge University Press)

The Circle of Socrates: Readings in the First-Generation Socratics
Boys-Stones, George (Translator), Rowe, Christopher (Translator)
(Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.)

Baroque Science
Gal, Ofer (Author), Chen-Morris, Raz (Author)
(University of Chicago Press)

Language, Truth, and Literature: A Defence of Literary Humanism
Gaskin, Richard (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield
Scahill, Jeremy (Author)
(Nation Books)

The Matter and Form of Maimonides' Guide
Stern, Josef (Author)
(Harvard University Press)

Was Hitler a Darwinian?: Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory
Richards, Robert J. (Author)
(University of Chicago Press)

Consciousness and the Social Brain
Graziano, Michael S. A. (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

Trade and Romance
Murrin, Michael (Author)
(University of Chicago Press)

Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium
Herrin, Judith (Author)
(Princeton University Press)

Margins and Metropolis: Authority across the Byzantine Empire
Herrin, Judith (Author)
(Princeton University Press)

Complexity and the Arrow of Time
Lineweaver, Charles H. (Author)
(Cambridge University Press)

The Engine of Complexity: Evolution as Computation
Mayfield, John (Author)
(Columbia University Press)

How Did Poetry Survive?: The Making of Modern American Verse
Newcomb, John Timberman (Author)
(University of Illinois Press)

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea
Blyth, Mark (Author)
(Oxford University Press)

The Essential Hirschman
Hirschman, Albert O. (Author), Adelman, Jeremy (Editor), Adelman, Jeremy (Introduction), Rothschild, Emma (Afterword), Sen, Amartya (Afterword)
(Princeton University Press)

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
Adelman, Jeremy (Author)
(Princeton University Press)

Quantum Computing Since Democritus
Aaronson, Scott (Author)
(Cambridge University Press)



Incidents in the Night: Volume 1
B., David (Author), Evenson, Brian (Translator)
(Uncivilized Books)

Black Paths
B., David (Author)

The Amazing, Enlightening And Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley
Deitch, Kim (Author), Deitch, Kim (Artist)
(Fantagraphics Books)

Giandelli, Gabriella (Author), Giandelli, Gabriella (Artist)
(Fantagraphics Books)

Walt Disney's Donald Duck: The Old Castle's Secret
Barks, Carl (Author), Groth, Gary (Editor)

Barnaby Volume One
Johnson, Crockett (Author), Reynolds, Eric (Series Editor), Nel, Philip (Series Editor), Ware, Chris (Introduction), Clowes, Daniel (Cover Art)

Continuity as Commodity and Fetish

Q: How do you keep an idiot in suspense?

A: I’ll tell you part of the answer for sixty minutes each week for the next six years.

FRY: Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared.

Futurama, “When Aliens Attack”

The First Final Problem

Sherlock Holmes is the defining case of the problem of continuity. Conan Doyle killed off Holmes because he was sick of the character, then was faced with the problem of bringing him back. It wasn’t such a terrible problem, even if the solution was a little tacky. Because the stories were written by a fallible first-person observer in the form of Watson, he simply had the smarter character sneeringly assert the unreliability of the narrative:

In your picturesque account of the matter, which I read with great interest some months later, you assert that the wall was sheer. That was not literally true. A few small footholds presented themselves, and there was some indication of a ledge…A mistake would have been fatal. More than once, as tufts of grass came out in my hand or my foot slipped in the wet notches of the rock, I thought that I was gone. But I struggled upward, and at last I reached a ledge several feet deep and covered with soft green moss, where I could lie unseen, in the most perfect comfort. There I was stretched, when you, my dear Watson, and all your following were investigating in the most sympathetic and inefficient manner the circumstances of my death.

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Empty House”

Hence the problem of continuity: the need for a post hoc coherence to a storyline that was never planned out in the first place.

Because of the nature of mystery fans, Conan Doyle scholarship embraces the eccentric tendency of trying to justify all discontinuities that Conan Doyle never did bother to explain:

The most curious facet of this undeniably sumptuous package lies in Klinger’s decision to play the parlour game of Sherlockian scholarship. Initiated in 1911 by a Catholic priest who intended it as a spoof of scriptural exegesis, the game assumes that Sherlock Holmes actually existed, that the stories really were written by John Watson MD, and that Doyle acted only as the doctor’s agent. The supposed fun lies in ensuring that the canon’s numerous mistakes, implausibilities and inconsistencies are coherently explained away, no matter how tortured the logic required. Klinger fills page after page with the kind of wilfully pedantic literary mischief-making which John Sutherland has turned into an art form. How many wives had Doctor Watson? Did Holmes love the only woman ever to have outwitted him? What colour was the Baker Street dressing gown? And what really happened at the Reichenbach Falls? The whimsy of this conceit swiftly becomes grating and, in relegating the author to the role of mere go-between and front man, also seems faintly insulting to Doyle himself.

Jon Barnes, “Too Spirited for the Spooks,” TLS 07 January 2005

I’m fascinated by the seemingly futile efforts of fans to render coherent what was never intended to be such. In effect, they are rationalizing God’s ways to man.

When John Sutherland does it in books like Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in Nineteenth-century Fiction or Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?, he does so with a wink and a nod, but the method is essentially the same, postulating clues in order to obtain solutions that aren’t there. Seeing Sutherland ply his craft is instructive because he applies it to works that don’t normally entertain it. He does so in the same spirit as well, coming out of an obsessive love for the world creation of Victorian novelists. Compared to Joyce or Proust, Victorian worlds never felt particularly real to me and so I have little desire to make them more real.

I am, however, easier on the fans than Barnes is. The rationale this “supposed fun” is that it in fact fun of a deep and meaningful variety, and rather than an insult to the author, it is a gesture of fanatical love for characters now elevated to the level of myth. This form of myth, unlike traditional myth, tolerates inconsistencies only inasmuch as they can be explained after the fact, giving  it a strangely paradoxical character.

The results, like the results of theodicy, are almost inevitably disappointing, since the absence of a grand plan makes it impossible that such a plan will be discovered. The attribution of too great a level of reality puts both the fans and the creators in a tight spot. The near-inevitable failure of grand unifying moments occurs because the arbitrary restrictions make impossible any satisfactory unification of ex post facto continuity.


Stan Lee’s Shared Rhizomes

Stan Lee was probably not the first to consciously commoditize continuity, but I believe he was the first to achieve massive success through it. The Marvel comics that were written by Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby have far more value for their visual artistry than their plot, but the plot sold the art at least as much as the other way around.

In the 1960s, Lee’s titles fostered fan involvement by printing fan addresses in the letters columns, so that the more involved fans could contact one another. (I thought that Lee invented this gambit, but it turns out to have been originated by DC’s Julius Schwartz. See this excellent Wikipedia article.) But more significantly for our purposes here, Lee loaded up stories with cross-references to previous issues and other titles, putting asterisks in dialogue balloons that pointed to footnotes reading “As seen in Fantastic Four #42! -Ed.” (Lee did not invent this device either, but he put it to far more work.)

Lee, far more than anyone before him, created a tight network of “hyperlinked” content that, naturally, encouraged fans to make sure they bought every single issue of every title, so as not to miss out on part of the continuity. This has come to be known as a “shared universe,” but this term is something of an insult to genuinely fleshed-out universes. It is a network of gaps and contradictions claiming the illusion of coherence. At least call it a “shared rhizome” or something like that.

Yet the embrace of continuity worked, and fans bought into a concept that inherently guaranteed disappointment. The claim of writers like Lee to possess the hidden gnosis of the entire “universe,” to be revealed in dribs and drabs, went mostly unquestioned even when patently false, even when acknowledged to be false.

So one can only attribute fan dissatisfaction to real cognitive dissonance, as here:

One such tool is retconning, short for “retroactive continuity”, where later adjustments result in the invalidation of previously-written material. The most severe form of retcon involves a wholesale rewrite of the groundwork for the entire setting. These reboots, most closely associated with DC Comics, are not always effective at resolving underlying problems and may meet with a negative reaction from fans.

Shared Universe

This in turn fosters an attitude of contempt from many writers, who see themselves as absurdly boxed in and know that there is no way to please the fans. In effect, the reaction is: “How can you hold our titles to their false promises of coherence when those promises were so blatantly ridiculous?” You can see the dynamic on display as Lost scribe Damien Lindelof squirms under interrogation from Josh Horowitz, half-embarrassed and half-condescending. Hence Fry’s quote at the beginning of this essay. (Lindelof had acted in especially bad faith by earlier claiming that the show had been planned out from the start.)


Doctoring the Doctor

When fans become part of the creative apparatus, this contempt becomes internalized, and the simultaneous effort to worship continuity while knowing it is a lie can come to resemble the internal workings of religious bureaucracies.

The posts at the Tardis Eruditorum hypothesize a particularly nasty form of this self-immolation occurring in the 1980s with Doctor Who, which became both nastier and more incoherent as it incorporated fandom and fan feedback into its creative process, under the diabolical show-runner John Nathan-Turner.

There, in the context of discussing the killing off of a character no one liked anyway, Philip Sandifer writes, “The problem is that so much of fandom seems unaware of the ‘guilty’ part of guilty pleasures.” I think it’s more epistemological than that, at least for the more fanatical of fans. It’s a matter of cognitive dissonance. The pleasure of buying into a world of continuity, and the suspense of having it revealed slowly, requires an ongoing suspension of disbelief that is impossible to sustain in the face of growing evidence that nothing is in fact being revealed.

Doctor Who, sheerly by dint of being on continuously for longer than any other such continuity-based program short of a soap opera (where large-scale continuity isn’t an issue since characters can simply be abandoned), probably faced this problem first, a point which I’m grateful to Sandifer for pointing out. That the results were frankly disastrous bears repeating. Sandifer puts the logic succinctly in talking about the 1983 twentieth (!) anniversary special The Five Doctors, in which the five actors to have played the part to that point (one a ringer for a dead actor, another appearing only through leftover old footage) had to be worked into a single story:

On the one hand, Nathan-Turner is obsessed with strip-mining the program’s history. On the other, Nathan-Turner remains obsessed with distinguishing himself and glorifying his tenure as producer. And so the program is increasingly obsessed with referencing its past for the sole purpose of trying to show how much better it is than the very past that it sees itself as primarily existing to reference.

Terence Dicks has said that his strategy in writing The Five Doctors was to just put everything in and trust that nobody was going to look too hard at the glue. This is, again, essentially correct. The story proceeds not according to narrative logic but according to a paratextual logic. It is driven by a need to shove in every signifier of Doctor Who it can find, and more to the point, its audience knows it. It works not according to plot logic but according to the logic of nostalgia.

The Dalek is the point where this is most blatantly signposted. It appears, gets one scene, and is abandoned, having served its purpose. The audience, upon seeing this, knows exactly what sort of story this is.

The Five Doctors

Not all of the audience. For a substantial number of fans, frequently the most vocal ones, the story remains one more set of jigsaw pieces to assemble into a puzzle that does not in fact fit together. And so continuity purposes and creative purposes become an ever-more-quickly-spinning ourobouros.

This intolerable self-loathing seems to have resulted in what Sandifer terms the nadir of the series, “The Twin Dilemma,” a rewriting of the Doctor mythos so horrendous as to be indefensible. I will let Sandifer, whose sense of betrayal is palpable, tell it, since his passion conveys more of the sheer hatred at the heart of the story than a rote plot summary would:

Colin Baker’s Doctor isn’t just unlikable here. He’s intolerable. He’s an overtly bad person who any reasonable audience should actively dislike and want to see get his comeuppance. Whereas the series still visibly thinks he’s the hero. It’s not just that Baker’s Doctor is prickly and hard to like, it’s that he’s a bad guy.

…The Doctor attempts to choke his heavily sexualized female companion. He physically and violently assaults her in a manner that is chillingly familiar as a real-world phenomenon that happens to women at the hands of their male partners. Then he drags her against her will to what he says could be an entire life in which “it shall be your humble privilege to minister unto my needs.” She readily forgives him and grins stupidly at his charms. It’s not Nicola Bryant’s fault – she plays the material as well as it can be played. Nor is it Baker’s fault. They try to make the scenes watchable, but nobody could possibly make this work. Peri is violently assaulted by a man who overtly sees her only purpose as being to serve him, and chooses happily to stay with him. The show treats this man as its hero and expects the audience to tune in nine months later to watch his continuing adventures.

Of course they declined to. Baker’s Doctor is completely poisoned here. There’s nothing whatsoever that can be done to make this character watchable to anyone who has seen this. And I speak from experience here. This is the story that killed my parents’ interest in Doctor Who. To this day my mother refuses to accept the possibility that Baker might be good on the audios simply because of how much this story made her hate him. That’s how bad this played to people. That’s how you kill Doctor Who in under a hundred minutes. You make it about a battered woman idolizing her abuser.

Yeah, OK. I take it back. This is the worst fucking story ever.

The Twin Dilemma


Tommy Westphal’s Head

These days the embrace of continuity is done with simultaneous irony and fanaticism, sort of a post-Nietzschean “God is dead but can we pretend he’s alive?” approach. It’s prima facie absurd to try to figure out all the television characters who were only in Tommy Westphal’s mind on St. Elsewhere by tracing crossovers, but then again, someone did it. There doesn’t even need to be the stated intent of continuity to practice this game.

This is ultimately because the problem of continuity is unavoidable. As long as you are recycling the same characters or other pieces of a creative franchise, there has to be some addressing, even unintentionally, of the relation of this particular version to other versions. There is only one actual explanation, which is that the decisions are made pragmatically and haphazardly on a case by case basis with more or less respect for the past.  The best writers simply pick and choose the bits that work best for them, weaving a particular version into the fabric.

But the shared, commoditized myth of continuity mandates that the appeal of such work be in its continuity linkages, and so there is a tension between the big picture fandom appeal and any desire to make art. This is analogous to the more general trend of genre-conformity vs. individual artistic achievement, played out in the more restricted context of actual characters and plot rather than in the context of mere archetypes. Instead of “revenge tragedies” or “knight-errant novels,” we get “Dragonlance novels” or “Star Trek movies.” Such franchises become their own sub-genres.

Assorted sleights-of-hand have been established: the dreaded reboot is the one in common parlance, while alternate universes remain a semantically more acceptable method of changing established rules arbitrarily. Ignoring or finessing continuity will only result in fans trying to solve the problems themselves, as with Sherlock Holmes. Foisting this work off onto fans is probably the best approach anyway, so as to free the writers from plotting and character constraints that make crap art almost inevitable, but creators can’t be seen to say this explicitly, so instead it is sublimated into contempt for their audience. The altar of continuity is a shrine to a false god.

Otto Dix’s War Sketches

I was lucky enough to see the exhibit of Otto Dix’s paintings in Montreal last year. I previously thought of him as one of the weaker expressionists, being too unsubtle even by their standards (check out his doctors, but his war portraits in particular really impressed me and showed a far greater range than his portraits and paintings. This site with Otto Dix’s War Cycle has a good selection, but many are missing and who knows how long it’ll be up, so here are some of the ones that most struck me. I’m not going to post any of the most unbearable images, and I’m starting with the milder stuff. Some of the most overwhelming are from a cycle he did in 1924, but there are other equally good drawings from around the same time and before.

Before gas masks became a horror staple:

Storm Troopers Advancing Under Gas

There’s a bit of an EC Comics vibe to this one. Art Spiegelman loved the expressionists, Grosz especially, and I think their influence shows up strongly in a lot of the RAW comics of the 80s, Sue Coe for example. Not that it hadn’t shown up earlier in the underground too.

Wounded Soldier

Likewise this one. Recently the black and white drawings of Lorenzo Mattotti seem to have taken on the quality of the scribbled figure here:

Nocturnal Encounter with a Lunatic

This sketch bizarrely seems to anticipate George Grosz:

Card Players

This one I would swear was *by* Grosz:

War Cripples

As a side note, some apt music for these sketches. I think Richter has the edge but Sokolov here is very, very good. I’m usually a speed demon but this particular movement should not be played too fast.

This one jumps out at me for the dominance of the landscape rather than of the figures, and the overall brilliance of the composition. Usually my eye is drawn toward some central horror of a work by Dix (not just in the war work, but all of it), but here the whole print is balanced.

Disintegrating Trench

This picture of barbed wire with bodies needs to be seen in much better resolution, though it’s a lot less horrifying at this size. The whole cycle is compared to Goya but the lines here remind me of Rembrandt.

Barbed Wire in Front of the Trenches

The linework here is amazing:


Finally, as a bookend, an allegorical painting from around the same time. The colors here are not captured well; the painting was much more compelling “in person.”

Still Life with Widow's Veil

Blumenberg’s Metaphorology

Two new Hans Blumenberg books are out in English translation, both short: Paradigms for a Metaphorology (and Care Crosses the River (1987). The second one is more aphoristic than anything else I’ve read by him and seems very mysterious at first glance (Stanford’s back-cover comment about how this book “eschews academic ponderousness” is probably not going to help capture the audience they desire). Metaphorolgy is dauntingly abstract but less abstruse, though I’m surprised exactly how much Blumenberg had worked out aspects of his “system” at this early point. This paragraph in particular, from the introduction, seems to be as concise a statement of his concerns as any:

These historical remarks on the ‘concealment’ of metaphor lead us to the fundamental question of the conditions under which metaphors can claim legitimacy in philosophical language. Metaphors can first of all be leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos; as such, they indicate the Cartesian provisionality of the historical situation in which philosophy finds itself at any given time, measured against the regulative ideality of the pure logos. Metaphorology would here be a critical reflection charged with unmasking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech. But metaphors can also–hypothetically, for the time being–be foundational elements of philosophical language, ‘translations’ that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality. If it could be shown that such translations, which would have to be called ‘absolute metaphors’, exist, then one of the essential tasks of conceptual history (in the thus expanded sense) would be to ascertain and analyze their conceptually irredeemable expressive function. Furthermore, the evidence of absolute metaphors would make the rudimentary metaphors mentioned above appear in a different light, since the Cartesian teleology of logicization in the context of which they were identified as ‘leftover elements’ in the first place would already have foundered on the existence of absolute translations. Here the presumed equivalence of figurative and ‘inauthentic’ speech proves questionable; Vico had already declared metaphorical language to be no less ‘proper’ than the language commonly held to be such, only lapsing into the Cartesian schema in reserving the language of fantasy for an earlier historical epoch. Evidence of absolute metaphors would force us to reconsider the relationship between logos and the imagination. The realm of the imagination could no longer be regarded solely as the substrate for transformations into conceptuality–on the assumption that each element could be processed and converted in turn, so to speak, until the supply of images was used up–but as a catalytic sphere from which the universe of concepts continually renews itself, without thereby converting and exhausting this founding reserve.

Remember, Blumenberg thinks of Descartes (at least in Legitimacy of the Modern Age) as a somewhat reactionary thinker who ignores the experimental and proto-scientific mindset of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno in order to think of the world as a rarefied, perfect realm of method. He’s not the caricature that so many contemporary theorists use to trash the entirety of modernity, but a philosopher who seeks refuge in a form of theological thought that had already broken down, Scholasticism. So here, I think, Blumenberg projects mythology and irreducible metaphors as ‘leftover’ aspects of the world that prevent Descartes’ absolutist thought from fully encompassing it. And the more fundamental the metaphors are, the more important the historicism becomes.

Anyway, I find it rough-going.

Care Crosses the River does have a nice little write-up of the infamous meeting between Joyce and Proust, which Tim Kreider dramatized in The Comics Journal [click to enlarge]:

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