David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: comics (page 3 of 4)

David B.: Two Stories

The Armed Garden and The Veiled Prophet appeared in the Winter and Spring/Summer issues of MOME, Fantagraphics’ otherwise unremarkable comics anthology. David B., though, is perhaps the greatest living comics writer/artist, and certainly the most mystical. His work draws heavily on portraying visual representations of internal and metaphysical states. He deployed these techniques at length in Epileptic (L’Ascension du Haut-Mal in French), his three-hundred hundred page chronicle of his brother’s severe epilepsy and his family’s life with it. At some point in the future, I will attempt to come to terms with the scope of David B.’s achievement of creating a visual weltanschauung as universal as that of any of the old masters. Here, though, are two little religious fables about crossing the gap between the human and the heavens, and the horrors therein.

“The Armed Garden” is the more straightforward of the two. Jog describes it in detail here, but in brief, it concerns a Prague blacksmith, Rohan, who is subject to visions of Adam and Eve urging him to lead humanity back to paradise before the fall.

This he does, setting up camp in a verdant garden and descending into debauchery. One defiled woman under his reign asks, “You claim to be men of God, yet you commit the most abominable crimes,” and Rohan responds:

We are now one with God; we are no longer held to observe the commandments! We have the right to satisfy all our desires! If you refuse me, I shall kill you but you will be the one at fault!

Then the twist. Eve now appears to the militant Ziska, telling him, “Your brother Rohan has lost himself on the road to Paradise.” Ziska takes up arms and invades the garden, where they have regressed to a pre-human state of existence, having been absorbed into the trees, rocks, and ground. Rohan himself has undergone some kind of false apotheosis into a sun, and Ziska is able to destroy him with the aid of a talking goose.

Though the mythos is Christian, the story uses a more ancient mode of divine-human interaction that is closer to Greek and Norse mythology. Rohan loses the approbation of the gods even as he embraces their words and leaves humanity behind; it’s Ziska, who remains human, who comes out the victor, along with the backing of Eve.

“The Veiled Prophet” (also described by Jog) is very much the complement of “The Armed Garden”: this time, the divine intrudes on the human instead of the other way around. Set in a vaguely Arabic milieu, A veil falls from the sky onto an average man and transforms him into an all-purpose religious leader, appearing as any and all former prophets to others and inspiring an immediate and immense following. He amasses an army and sets about conquering all around him, until the Caliph marshals a large army against him. The prophet holds forth with rhetoric reminiscent of Rohan:

This world does not exist! It is an illusion! The real world is behind this veil. But you cannot see it without perishing! Here, there is neither law nor religion. The violation of every law is the first step toward the real world.

But unlike Rohan, the prophet is divine. He unleashes a literal flood of the skeletons of the victims and martyrs of injustice from all of history. The Caliph fights wisely and bravely, but he doesn’t have a chance. He’s only human.

The tenors of both stories are similarly folklorish, but the differences in setting and outcome are salutary. Reading “The Veiled Prophet” after “The Armed Garden,” I expected the prophet to come to grief, led astray by the intrusion of a piece of eternity–the veil–into the human world. But no, the prophet is now eternity (or the “real,” as the prophet would have it), and he is as destructive to the world as paradise was to Rohan’s sect. Humans touching eternity and eternity impinging on humans. David B.’s cosmology in these two stories has the same axioms:

  1. The eternal world is more real than the human world.
  2. It is hostile to humans in its very nature.

This cosmology is a gnostic one in that the eternal world reveals itself subjectively and in pieces. Yet David B. seems ultimately concerned with the idea that it is precisely the illusory world that allows we as people to exist and to survive. Every incursion of the Real destroys us. Merely to touch the Real, as Ziska does at the end of “The Armed Garden,” is enough to blind one. People exist in the space between the Real and nothingness, condemned to see the world in lies and misunderstanding, and it is those fictions that form our very existence. Fictions keep the Real at bay, though it remains a constant presence. Hence the theme of compulsory, obsessive creation that underlies Epileptic.

In addition to gnosticism, it’s also a Hermetic metaphysic. Hermeticism thrives or dies based on the ability of its advocate to enthrall the aesthetic appreciation of the reader, and David B. is sublimely skilled in this regard. Hermeticism is particularly suited to the comics medium, just as Lull and Bruno communicated more intuitively and persuasively in their charts and graphics than they could in their writing.

As for the source of David B.’s inspiration, I can’t say, not being a gnostic or a hermeticist myself, but I cannot deny the overwhelming reaction (illusory or real) that his world (illusory or real) is more freestanding than those of most artists, requiring less support from the shared assumptions of his culture, and that this is a crucial aspect of at least one sort of genius.

Inquest on Left-Brained Literature

Excuse me while I get all Franco Moretti on you readers here. I work among engineers, and many of them are voracious readers who, nonetheless, have little connection to any prevailing literary trends. Rather, there appears to be a parallel track of literature that is popular specifically among engineers, which I’ll call “left-brained literature” for lack of a better term. The provisional definition of the term is simply those books that fall into the category of my having empirically observed them being read by a multitude of engineers with a literary bent. My conclusions are tentative, but I think that it’s valuable just to construct this sort of list.

I’m excluding all genre science-fiction from the category, because I don’t find it particularly revelatory. I’m interested in that subset of “mainstream,” “non-genre” fiction (these relative terms having been established by social consensus), and within that set, which novels of some notoriety and good PR happen to attract members of the engineering professions.

(Another scholar who also works amongst engineers produced near-duplication of this list when queried. Some affinities were further verified by use of the “similar items” feature on Amazon. Give me a research grant and I’ll confirm further and conduct a less ad hoc census.)

After each name I’ve given a list of a couple general elements of the author’s work, which I think might be useful in considering their inclusion.

Richard Powers. Uses “science” (and scientists) with a minimum of “science-fiction.” Yet of course this does not explain his comparative left-brained success. By far the most popular of his works amongst engineers: The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2. Emotionally pathos-laden works. Clear stylistic and thematic affinities with Douglas Hofstadter (see below). A key figure in that he appears to be more popular with engineers than with almost anyone else.

Umberto Eco. Only popular for his fiction, and mostly for his first two novels. Use of generic material (mystery and suspense) towards metafictional and postmodern ends. Rather dispassionate.

Milorad Pavic. Portrays history, myth, and religion as game. Most popular for Dictionary of the Khazars, but this is also his most famous work, a self-described “lexicon novel.” Emotionally sterile, but historically panoramic. Experimental means but clear empiricist ethos.

Georges Perec. Life: A User’s Manual is the ur-text for many spatially architected novels to follow. Mathematical (and other Oulipo-esque approaches) methodologies deployed in fields of the humanities. Hesitant about traditional psychology, abandoning it after the early work A Man Asleep. Controlled emotion, especially notable in W: The Memory of Childhood.

Haruki Murakami. Genre-elements of science-fiction and mystery used in psychological phantasmagorias. Imaginative but construction is often less than rigorous. Linear plots with plenty of momentum. Heartfelt and sincere, if sometimes clumsy. Literal writing sytle.

Colson Whitehead. Quite popular just on the basis of his first novel, The Intuitionist. Not yet categorizable, but shows a tendency to sublimate emotion in allegorical assemblages. Pristine, detached style belies strong messages.

David Mitchell. Heavily influenced by Murakami and has lived in Japan. Also heavy use of phantasmagoria, complemented by very sophisticated narrative construction. Prefers simple, visceral, classical themes approached in flashy, novel way. Heavy use of pathos.

Don DeLillo. Highly acclaimed by literary establishment, but not as popular amongst engineers as some of those above. Heavy allegorization, usually irony-laden. Socio-political commentary, often delivered through the voices of characters who tend to sound the same. Virtuosic stylist, but the prose can drag.

Italo Calvino. Favored mostly by engineers for post-1965 experimental work reminiscent of Borges such as Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Heavy mythological content; light math/science content. Some “new novel” influence via Robbe-Grillet. Wonderful, breezy stylist.

Douglas Hofstadter. Non-fiction writer, but importance of Godel, Escher, Bach, which partly uses fictional forms, is too great not to list. Brilliant computer scientist and popularizer, but suffers from a glib, punny style and a lack of verbal taste (see his translation of Eugene Onegin) that render his works unreadable to many. His ideas, drawn from logic, music, mathematics, and elsewhere, suffuse the works of many other American authors on this list.

Nicholson Baker. Obsessively detail-oriented. Near-autistic categorizing and cataloguing of quotidian material, especially in his early work. Baroque style, flattened emotions.

Neal Stephenson. Crossed-over from science-fiction into information-laden historical epics of chiefly science history. Most beloved for Snow Crash, but Cryptonomicon is also important. Appropriately-titled Baroque Cycle remains unread even by most engineer fans of his. Competent stylist, light on character and emotion.

William Gibson. Another cross-over. “Cyberpunk” tendencies disguise lack of rigorous science content. Aggressive use of technology, but fundamentally rhapsodic and character-driven. Innovative, influential stylist, but often narratively lax.

Bruce Sterling. A third cross-over who may not yet have crossed over. Parallel career to Gibson, but weak style, emotional shallowness, and lack of character development may have hindered mainstream acceptance. Compensates with greater science and technology content.

Jorge Luis Borges. Literary genius who wrote conceptual, highly-compressed short stories. Not as widely-read as some of the others on this list, but has influenced so many of them that he must be included. Lack of emotion, character, and plot; stories are often driven by a single, revelatory idea.

There were a few other candidates that I excluded from the list either for lack of confirmation data (Cortazar, Pynchon, Auster) or due to the work falling into the realm of “trash,” to use the term descriptively (Danielewski, Coupland). I’d be willing to reconsider. And as much as I racked my brains, I could not come up with a single woman writer that fit.

One obvious conclusion is that engineers tend to like novelists that deal in math and science material, but that does not explain many of the names on this list, notably those that use science in a “soft” form, such as Calvino and Gibson. Certain common traits do seem to recur, such as verbal literalism and a lack of irony, but even these are contradicted by some members of the list above.

I have no definite conclusions to draw at the moment, but I do believe that this is more than just an exercise. Within this overlap, I believe one can observe two different forms of reading, one more particular to engineers and one more general. While they may not be discrete, I think they separate cleanly enough to merit deep investigation.

[How do you all like the new list-making Waggish? It’s only a temporary phase, probably brought on by reading Finnegans Wake, which contains many, many lists itself, particularly the list of names of ALP’s letter (i.e., the book itself) and the list of titles for
HCE. These tendencies will be further explored in a forthcoming post
on listmakers and architects.]

Update: more suggestions and hypotheses from readers in the comments.

Thoughts on Genre: Hitsville, Dullsville

So, we have two rough categories for placing tight genre product: first, exemplary genres, where the best work represents the ideal summation of what all the genre product aims at, and second, exceptional genres, where the best work stands out because of its departure from the genre’s standards. Ray Davis suggests that the ideals of 1930s comedy are simply better ideals: what’s not to like about them? I agree in part, but I don’t think this explains the disproportionate amount of good product relative to nearly every other era of filmed comedy.

One correlation to be drawn is that in the exemplary case, the best work does not emerge from particular talents but across the board, while in the exceptional case, it is the peculiarities of individual creators that give the best work its shape and form. Indeed, it’s the issues of shape and form themselves that seem to determine whether genres can succeed on their own merits, or whether they require the intervention of a particular individual to bring their own idiosyncrasies to mediocre requirements.

So then, some genres I can think of on either side of the fence. Predictably, I was able to think of far more exceptional cases than exemplary ones. One thing I’m fairly confident of is that as with many mass phenomena, exemplary genres only roll around rarely, through chance.

Grub St. Writers: Exceptional. The sheer hackwork being done by most of these novelists rivals any commercial genre extant today. The few giants of the era tower over their competitors beyond belief.

90s Techno/House/Gabba/etc. Music: Exemplary. The sheer homogeneity of the genre and the rate at which evolutions in beat percolated throughout the communities made individual authorship subservient to all sorts of emergent properties. I’m no Simon Reynolds, so I can’t give the details, but here’s one case in which no one particular artist has ever jumped out at me as being especially ahead of the pack. Meanwhile, the big names have never especially impressed me, seeming to be commercially watered-down rather than especially personality-laden. I do love DJ Scud, but admittedly he’s less interested in working within the genre than eviscerating it.

Chivalric Novels: Exceptional. If the works quoted in Don Quixote are any measure, it took masters like Cervantes and Ariosto to prove that this genre wasn’t completely unredeemable.

EC Comics: Exemplary, sort of. The confluence of talent in
EC is hard to explain, but the randomness that besets the quality of
individual creators’ work, and the ability of the writers and artists to cancel out each others’ flaws (and sometimes their strengths) is one of the few cases in comics where a huddle-room mentality worked. Still, I have to admit that people like Wally Wood certainly have their own stamp, and because the genre never overtook individual quirks, this is a conditional judgment.

Disney/Marvel/DC Comics: Exceptional. I could add many other genres here from the Golden and Silver ages, to say nothing of newspaper comics. Barks, Kirby, Cole, Eisner: without the handful of great names in these genres and their commitment to very personal visions, comic books would truly have the shameful, worthless history that many assume of it.

Stax/Volt/Motown Records: Exemplary. There’s a reason why punters focus on the multi-artist greatest hits discs.

60s Beat Groups: Exceptional. Despite the attempts at a Hitsville USA type factory approach, very little of quality came out of endless beat groups covering a narrow repertoire of house songs, until the best of them gave up and started writing for themselves. Interesting how early some of them (Hollies, Beau Brummels) started to do that.

Dub/reggae: Exemplary. Despite the persistence of some huge names, gems pop up all over the place from people who are never heard from again. Massive amounts of appropriation, plagiarism, and retooling also make picking out individuals extremely difficult to begin with.

Baroque Kantatenwerk: Exceptional. Bach’s sheer weirdness and inspiration blew away whatever qualities his competition had.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Anonymous apotheoses versus individual quirkiness. The first conclusion to draw from these examples is that by banking talent together and forcing tons of cross-pollenation, a bottom-up approach emerges whose impact is only seen in retrospect. In comparison, the top-down dictates of a publisher or a church official make for a more static environment in which it is easier for individuals to insidiously invest themselves in their work.

And that brings me to my next question: whither blogs?

To be continued…

Will Eisner, RIP

Will Eisner, beloved author of The Spirit, had one of the longest careers, stretching from the 30’s to the present-day. Along with George Herriman, he was one of the early masters of the topology of the page (this Spirit splash page is the best example I could find on the web), and as Jules Feiffer has pointed out, his were some of the most Jewish superhero comics of the time.

Two good pieces on Eisner’s work and its importance are Michael Barrier’s Will Eisner: Moved by the Spirit, which only begins to describe Eisner’s incredible graphic and narrative sensibility, and Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. I can’t find it on the web, so here’s an excerpt:

Eventually Eisner developed story lines that are perhaps best described as documentary fables–seemingly authentic when one reads them, but impossible after the fact. There was the one about Hitler walking around in a Willy Lomanish middle world: subways rolling, Bronx girls chattering, street bums kicking him around. His purpose in coming to America: to explain himself, to be accepted as a nice guy, to be liked. Silly when you thought of it, but for eight pages, grimly convincing.

Or the man who was a million years old–whose exploits are being read about by two young archeologists of the future who discover, in mountain ruins, the tattered remains of an old Spirit pamphlet, which details his story: the story of hte oldest man in the world, cursed to live forever for being evil, until on the top of a mountain, in combat with the Spirit, he plunges into the ocean and drowns. “Ridiculous story,” say those archeologists of the future as they finish the last page; these being their final words, for coming up behind them is that very old man, his staff raised high to crush their skulls, to toss them over the mountain edge into the ocean, and then to dance away, singing.

I collected Eisners and studied them fastidiously. And I wasn’t the only one. Alone among comic book men, Eisner was a cartoonist other cartoonists swiped from.

And he still is. Whenever I pick up a modern semi-alternative adventure/mystery/noir/etc. comic, Feiffer’s panel layouts are everywhere. And so are his fables, which lived on in everything from EC Comics to The Sandman.

“Here”, Richard McGuire

Which isn’t to say that formalist experimentation can’t occasionally produce absolute total genius. Richard McGuire‘s earliest fame came as bassist for early 80’s minimalist funk band Liquid Liquid, authors of “Cavern” (or “White Lines,” more or less), and who apparently just played a reunion show. But he also fell in with Art Spiegelman and the RAW anthology crowd and drew comics. And one of those, “Here,” from RAW 2.1, is a concentrated masterpiece.

“Here” is six pages long, drawn in a clean, neutral, almost nostalgic style. Its main construct is that each panel portrays the exact same location and space at different, marked times, non-linearly. The space mostly a corner of a living room, of a house built in 1902. A family moves in, a child is born, he grows up and continues to live in the house, he leaves and another family moves in, the house burns down. McGuire subdivides each panel into multiple time periods, so that the bottom left quarter of the corner can portray 1948, and the rest portray 2032, with an inset in the middle from 1968.

The device is so overwhelming that McGuire keeps the story as neutral as the artwork. Some of the juxtapositions make simple points (kid in 1955 says “Who’s a chicken!”; rest of panel shows chickens in a pen in 1870) and get out of the way; others seem to be assembled through pure intuition. Perhaps McGuire sought a neutral tone to mirror the implacability of the passage of time, which, unsurprisingly, weighs heavily here. But that pathos still dwarfed by the pure elegance of the structure itself; the impact is sublimely aesthetic above all else. The achievement of “Here” beneath that is to take material that normally could only be treated in highly subjective fashion and decontextualize it without producing alienation. (The base material is so traditional, down to the retro-futuristic fashions in the 2020’s.) It’s a strange, unsettling effect, numbing but not unpleasant.

McGuire was rumored to be expanding “Here” to book length. I’m not sure how it could be done, since the six pages succeed through rejecting traditional notions of “depth.” But the thing is seminal and deserves to be reprinted.

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