Friday, May 27, 2011

CBR III #5: Blake Bell's Fire & Water: Bill Everett, the Sub-mariner, & the Birth of Marvel Comics

Part of me wants to adopt the voice of Stan Lee: Because you demanded it, the bio; Excelsior. But that’s just not true. In Bill Everett’s twilight years of creating comics and superheroes for generations, Stan Lee came to power and created what we now know as comics. Stan Lee is a household name. Bill Everett is not. Yet Bill Everett had laid down all the right notes before Stan was even a gofer.

Bill Everett was an alcoholic who struggled with the bottle as much as his chosen profession. He constantly missed deadlines and let people down. But such was his personality and his work that someone would always keep hum employed.

He created the Sub-Mariner. He created the Human Torch. He introduced a bold muscular violence to comics that never existed before him. Today, we thrive on action and heroics in the movies. Bill Everett made that happen. He died of a broken liver with little fame. And he bequeathed soaring action to the comics.

This book is not a biography, isn’t painstakingly researched, and doesn’t profess to be so. It’s a big coffee table art book filled with anecdotes, and legend and endless pages of really good art. It is exactly what it purports to be.

I am myself not an expert in the history of comics, and I sometimes do not see what is described in the book. There was much better draftsmanship to come. Better stories. Better ideas. But when people first started to think about stapling together comic drawings and selling them, Bill Everett was THE maverick.

I don’t even like his drawing style. But I did see his motion and narrative and learned a lot about the art form. That is why you want this book.

Yes, the stories of comics in the forties are memorable and nostalgic. But that isn’t the focus here. It’s a big book. It is filled with his art. You get your money’s worth just for that. The text is secondary.

What it does do is give a portrait of a just born art, and the way one man shaped graphic narrative for decades to come. I will never love his drawings; they really do seem cheap and empty to me. I have not eyes to see that part of history. What I did learn, though, was the birth of motion through panels, of suspense, of trepidation. The kinds of layouts that Bill Everett produced from his imagination allowed all future generations of comics to be. He had no history to draw upon. And no one paid him enough to care. He, in fact, professed not to care. And yet here we are, basking in the wealth that he helped form.

If you ever loved comics, this book is for you. If you want a critical biography, keep on truckin’, but you won’t find a better one of Bill Everett. The book tells three stories: The birth of comics, the growth of an artist, and an artist’s downfall. It does so with love and reverence, between the mighty pages of art. What else can I say?

If he had come on the scene 20 years later, someone might have said excelsior. He might command better respect and be better known. But that didn’t happen. At least we have this book today. Thank god for that.

Friday, May 13, 2011

CBR III #4: Michael Chabon’s the Yiddish Policeman’s Union

Reading Michael Chabon inevitably leaves me with my skin tingling, my senses rapacious and my soul restless with a passionate and earnest urgency to be awake in the world.  I can’t underscore the vibrant hot-bloodedness of his work enough.  I haul the most tawdry hyperbole out of the cellar that I can find, and it is lacking.  My shriveled black heart blooms and mutates in his work.  I have trouble looking people in the eye afterward because I am vulnerable and teary, a naked and painful love-creature bounding, swollen with both jubilation and melancholy.  I don’t normally try and articulate the wonder of his work; I just give people his books, like a dime store apostle.

People familiar with Chabon will know that he is a shameless lover of genre fiction and has an alchemist’s skill for twisting and blending supposed low-brow conventions into penetrating art.  The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is an alternate history that speculates on an outcome of WWII and an Israeli war that results in a 60 year interim Jewish state in Alaska.  The story takes place in the waning days of the Sitka Jewish state.  2 million citizens are paralyzed with anxiety over what is to become of them and it is a credit to Chabon’s story-telling that it takes over a hundred pages of embedding the reader into this world to truly reveal the fear.  In this world, the Jews are not welcome anywhere.  Mirroring actual histories, they are being evicted, without any options for where to go.  The theme of being forced into action, but with no good choices to make is reflected in layer after layer of the actual story, a motif that frames the story in the chess conundrum of zugzwang .

In this fully realized world, Chabon delivers a hardboiled noir of a mystery that comfortably stands shoulder to shoulder with Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Jim Thompson.  In true Chabon fashion, the mystery is a love letter to the genre and Chabon uses it to explore the rich themes that always flow through his work:  love, family, father son relationships, identity, loss, grief, endurance, guilt, redemption.

We meet Meyer Landsman, a depressed, drunk, down-at-the-heel police detective who wants nothing more than to disappear into a black hole after his marriage implodes over a pre-natal tragedy (another zugzwang in the story).  Unfortunately, a junky is murdered down the hall from him and the hollow empty death takes hold of Landsman and won’t let go.  Soon it becomes apparent that the murder is a single loose end in something far larger, as the case is buried and closed, from the highest orders.  Like Marlowe, or the Continental Op, this sets Landsman on an obsessed course to find the truth no matter what is uncovered and no matter the lumps he takes.  It’s a pitch perfect story in this regard:  the seemingly isolated crime, the hints of wealth and power being tied to the crime, the exhausting labyrinth that becomes more dangerous and more futile at every turn, the improbably large conspiracy revealed by the dogged obsession of the detective.  Chabon braids politics, organized crime and Jewish mythology into an audacious almost hammy story that successfully juxtaposes pathos with almost keystone kop silliness.

Like any good potboiler, the story, despite being vast, is actually a claustrophobic embroilment of several interwoven families and their secret violent histories.  The protagonist and the murder are catalyst for everything to unravel.

If it was only a noir, it would be a great noir.  If it was only a literary journey through the painful hearts of marriages, families and communities it would be a great literary journey.  If it was only a subtle and nuanced exploration of a speculative alternate history providing insight into the real world and its history, it would excel on that front too.  But Chabon sets the bar high, and goes for the trifecta and achieves it.

The other thing that needs mentioning (unless you’ve read anything by Chabon) is his virtuoso opera of language.  Chabon’s gift of language requires lusty, athletic, blood streaked metaphors to describe.  It’s punk, not chamber music; it’s a cage match not fencing, it’s needy primal fucking, not lovemaking.  In any lesser hand, Chabon’s brand of extravagant verbosity and punch drunk metaphors would be shameless purple prose, but he has an inner wizardry that transcends the rules and even the most jaded reader can’t help but become ecstatic.

Stop reading this review, go read the book!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Pleasures of Aging

The other day, my doctor said to me, “you aren’t twenty anymore, what do you expect?”.  I didn’t know if she was insinuating something about my soaring blood pressure, my sagging pectorals or my stagnating dreams.  Then it dawned on me, if I can begin an anecdote with ‘the other day my doctor said to me’, I have become another statistic in the plague that goes by the lurid name, aging.

She told me I needed to reduce my fat and salt intake, lose half my body weight, cut out alcohol and caffeine altogether, and eat green vegetables.

“Green vegetables”, I said, “I am way too old to form new habits now”!

Not understanding that a rich sense of humour is the only effectively proven method of attaining immortality, she scowled and said, “If you don’t do these things, you will never see your hundredth birthday”.  My face went ashen: my one true fear is going blind.

Using what I clearly recognized as the patented Bruce Lee Two Fingers of Death, she jabbed me in the side and asked if it hurt.  She just got angrier with me when I whimpered and asked if it was a trick question.  Aging, I am quickly learning, is a condition of fear and vulnerability where people are always angry at you and may abuse you out of some twisted transference of mortality dread.

I tried to placate her with good intentions, but by this time she was hell-bent on my getting comeuppance, and so, ordered a battery of tests.

I found myself with a requisition for an ultrasound, something that up until now I thought was simply part of midwifery witcheries.  I feel pretty certain it was to confirm that I have in fact been the victim of organ theft.  During my half day layover in the waiting room of the clinic, I pictured the jelly lube, the little rubber gadget, and a cute technician and had just about consoled myself that it was going to be pretty much like sexytimes when my number came up.  I was made to put on a paper dress that was obviously stolen from a fashion blind pygmy.  On me, it shredded instantly, and if it weren’t for my nervous sweat gluing the bits on, I would have been the next Chippendale patient.  Dignity, it seems, is just another sacrifice on the altar of aging.

Alas, sexy times were not to manifest.  The technician, whose forearms I envied, employed all the enthusiasm and fervor of a dog digging for a bone and set to work attempting to reach my spine through my abdominal wall.  It was a clever technique really: by systematically tenderizing my organs one by one, she verified their continued presence.

At the x-ray clinic, again denuded and crepe papered, I was ridiculed over my nipple ring.  I was fuming with the injustice that Keith Richards can do what he does, but suddenly I am relegated to the high riding plaid pants section of the store. No urban primitive jewelry for old people! Actually I think she wanted to make sure I didn’t have a tumour shaped like a mystical symbol, fearing that if I had some proven sign of being the antichrist I might wind up a rich tv evangelist.  I am learning that the medical community is a caring community.

The testing gauntlet, worse than those humiliating Canada Fitness Tests they used to break the spirits of children from the seventies, accomplished it’s morbid task:  I am now acutely aware that I am becoming an old fart.

It’s like a wall of denial crumbled and now I notice ringing in my ears, flattened arches, and the end of a pee is becoming an increasingly vague and variable period.  In the ongoing bickering between my bed and my back, I realize it is me, not my bed.  My vision is going, my teeth are hanging on by a thread, and today I used the word ‘piles’ in its euphemistic sense.

Part of the onslaught is I am losing my powers of language.  More and more, in a state of confusion, I find myself consulting my dictionary and thesaurus.  While I find the activity soothing and always have, I feel paranoid that simply owning a dictionary and thesaurus is a sign of aging.  From there, I start to question if being paranoid is a sign of aging.  It’s like going down the rabbit hole.

The language thing is real.  I can’t spell anymore, I forget words and names.  I stumble and stutter and lose my train of thought mid sentence.  I found it really embarrassing until I employed the brilliant strategy of heavy drinking as a scapegoat.  Pounding the potables, or dedicated dipsomania, as the thesaurus might put it.

It’s sad too, the things you lose as you age.  I used to enjoy interjecting ‘get off my lawn’ and ‘when I was your age we had to walk through 3 miles of broken glass and lava to get to school’ as playful ironic banter.  Now, all that playful irony is gone, and people nod and smile while ignoring me.  I used to get angry that I should be expected to give up my seat on the bus just because someone was ninety, even though I actually paid more for my fare.  Aging has robbed me of my righteous anger as now people offer me up their seats.

It’s not all bad.  It’s like the motto for that thing I can’t remember: Membership Has Its Rewards.

When I was young and would flirt with girls, I was laughed at because they all wanted someone more mature.  As I aged, the reaction turned to scorn and occasionally being maced because I was perceived as a skeevy pervert.  Now, I am on the cusp of my golden years, where if I flirt, girls think it’s just adorable.

Aging also brings you to the laurel time, you gain respect and your achievements are acknowledged.  When I was younger, I enjoyed the obsessive vice of cross country running.  That pleasure I was soon denied as I was told I had the knees of an 80 year old.  I laughed—not only is the notion of an 80 year old running pretty unbelievable, but I had my doubts that some skulking octogenarian could pull a switcheroo with me without my even noticing.  Still, I was pretty bummed for the next 25 years until I realized it wasn’t a literal statement, but a reference to a bizarre genetic aging anomaly.  After some quick back of the envelope calculations, my pride was rejuvenated—by my estimation, my knees are now 227 years old.  Most people’s knees are one with the cosmos at that age, while mine continue to demand glucosamine and tremble when my blood sugar is low.  Surely someone could get a grant to study my achievement?  I’m still waiting to hear back from Ripley’s.

Aging is a great equalizer too.  I may have been ugly when I was young, but we all look like dilapidated potatoes as the years go by.  And while I never excelled at sport and suffered the stigma that accompanies, there comes a day when simply maintaining continence puts you ahead of the curve.

So, it’s not all bad.  I find myself at a Starbucks, ordering my decaf, and on a whim complement my barrista and give her a wink. She beams a great smile back at me and says “you’re so adorable” and I realize I am living the dream.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Welcome To The New Dark Ages

My problem with democracy is 50 million Elvis fans can be wrong. They can be wrong about all kinds of shit.  But it is much more than the oversimplified idea that electing leaders based on popularity, soundbites and tie choice is a dodgy way to go about things.

My problem with democracy is most people are, through no fault of their own, not in a great position to make informed choice--whether they are smart or stupid, greedy or community oriented.  Even if inclined towards good decisions, does the average citizen have the time, energy and accurate information to become knowledgeable about economics, environment, climate, social costs and benefits?  I'm not saying the average voter is a simpleton (though it seems that way at times) but that s/he is very busy with mundane immediate concerns (like paying the rent or feeding the kids) and the world is a very big and very complex set of systems.

Add to the recipe a media that confuses people about important issues so intensely that people will often become hostile at even being asked to think about something. Sometimes this media is incompetent in exactly the same way as the poor voter, but often the Media, concentrated as it is in the hands of a wealthy few, has a strong agenda not at all in line with the best interests of the average voter.

Now you have a voter, commuting several hours a day, working at a job that is perhaps underpaid, struggling to keep a roof over his two kid’s heads and he has at best 20 minutes a day for information gathering.  This, he usually gleans from The Sun.  His peers are pretty much identical.  None of them want to appear ignorant.  All of them are biologically wired, and socially conditioned to look for group identity and fear the consequences of standing out.  Now you have a group with very little real information, a great deal of misinformation and slant, and a strong desire to take the shortest route to a comfortable unconflicted solidarity.  

If you think I am painting an unrealistic portrait of Joe Six-Pack, chances are you are an idealist who spends little time among the working class.  It’s not so different among the white-collared except they have a bigger mortgage and receive their propaganda dose from The Globe and Mail.  Then these people are expected to vote, not on an issue, but for a fairly concentrated executive group who will make decisions and laws for four years.  When the government screws them over, they are told tough titty, you got what you voted for. But did they understand what they were voting for?

The vast majority of people, including those with higher education—which face it, isn’t what it used to be, and at its strongest tends to be highly specialized--are not well informed about virtually any of the issues that should concern them most when it comes to civic activity, politics or voting.

The average citizen doesn't even understand that smaller government (a constant Conservative rallying cry) means less social goods and protections.  They do not understand that the majority of tax money is recycled right into society via jobs, social programs, culture, healthcare, infrastructure, safety regulations, etc, etc.  They vote for the party promising smaller government because they have been bamboozled into thinking that the government is their enemy.  

Ironically, by fulfilling the promise of leaner government through gutting social spending, deregulation, closing down oversight departments, cutting science spending, and fighting public unions, the resulting social problems confirm for the voter his suspicion that government is the enemy.  As a bonus: that same government still manages to overspend, just not in ways that benefit the people, further aggravating the voter. The sad thing is this cycle often does not translate into a shift in alliances to parties that actually would look after the voter better.  Absurdly, the voter often takes out his anger on the party that would be his best ally.  This does not happen in a vacuum, it happens in a heavily mediated environment.

Take for example, recent talks to privatize Canada Post.  CP is not an essential service, but the way privatization is framed perfectly illustrates the smaller government fallacy.  The spin in the media is that this will create competition and efficiency and benefit you.  Now, Canada Post is not only fiscally responsible, but generates a profit, nearly 300 million dollars annually, the article I read stated.  So talks of privatization are, from the get go, about fixing things that ain’t broke.  The article went on to state that 2/3 of CP’s expenses are the incomes of its 71 000 employees and that that money is costing you too much.  The article warns that in coming years a stamp could rise to 61 cents.  Given the size of Canada, this still strikes me as a steal. 
What made me angry is this angle I see all the time that you should feel vindictive because people are employed at a living wage, that wages are a frivolous unacceptable use of money.  These wages, posed as a negative are wages that get spent on houses and washing machines and cars, on restaurant meals, on clothes, on charitable donations, on taxes that keep parks, sewers and roads in good shape.  These wages aren’t stolen from you; they are part of the social compact of interdependence and mutual benefit.  These wages contribute to a healthy economy and a functioning community.  

With privatization, some significant portion of those jobs disappears altogether; many become rehires at substandard wages with benefits and protections removed.  The newly unemployed are added into job competition (which pushes wages down), the reduced wage employees have less money to spend in the community and contribute less tax to the government leaving it less able to provide for the community.  The collective economic and political clout of the people is reduced as well.  Lastly, the price of postage does not go down because private executives make much bigger salaries and with those fussy government regulations out the window perhaps the mail is less reliable too.

There isn’t a single good reason for an average person to want Canada Post privatized, but if all a person has to go on is the persuasive slanted media (that doesn’t feel the same strident need to portray “both sides of the story” as it does with climate change), that person will probably feel encouraged and supportive that another fat-cat public institution is getting its comeuppance.

More and more often, it’s the same story no matter the issue.  People are fooled into laws that harm them, deregulating safeguards that protect them, foisting costs into the public and profits into the private.  Is it really hard to see the harm in a Harper government?  Slash social spending; this grows poverty desperation, and social ills.  Create an omnibus crime bill with harsher sentencing and wider swathes of criminally deemed activities which eventually soar due to the aforementioned.  Build private super prisons for a slave waged “competitive” manufacturing industry for profit.  Is that what it has come to mean to be Canadian?
What is the end game in destroying civil rights and their institutions—for women, minorities, homosexuals, the poor, children, psychiatric patients and what motivates someone to vote for that?  What’s the end game in destroying environmental protection departments, closing down scientific bodies and denying the already actualizing consequences of climate change and what motivates someone to vote for that?  What motivates an average citizen to vote for a constrictive police state of disempowered citizens while creating a free for all for banks and corporations?

Why do farmers vote conservative, their worst enemy?  I know working poor and unemployed people who voted conservative.  I know rabid atheists who voted for Harper.  I know women who voted for Harper.  You would think in a world of record oil profits even the most ignorant voter would be wary of a party that endorses fat subsidies and tax breaks for the oil industry?

I get angry at voters even though voters are so poorly situated to vote well so it’s hard to blame them.  I do blame our voting system and voter apathy for awarding a majority government to the party that received approval from 24% of the electorate. 60% of the electorate voted, and nearly 40% of those chose Harper.

Harper doesn't even talk a good game about "the people" or "family values" or any other traditional political veil.  Whenever he refers to Canadians, he sounds like he is speaking of foreigners who he deems barely human, an irritating obstacle that needs to be humoured at times.  So, I just don't understand him winning an election, except that a lot of the non-voters are people who wouldn't have voted conservative had they voted.  They did not understand that refusing to vote was not a vote for none of the above, or an act of defiance, but a tacit endorsement of whoever did end up with the most votes.  If every person who earns less than 25 grand a year and didn't vote had added their vote to the NDP, we'd likely have Prime Minister Layton today.  

There were a lot more non-voters than Harper votes.  Think about that.  If every non-voter had voted rhinoceros party, they would be the government of Canada.

John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, discusses at length how helpful it is to conservatives to encourage the idea that "all parties are the same" and "what difference does my vote make" and "politics is all corruption and greed", because it never fools conservatives, only left leaning people and vulnerable people who feel powerless.  Every time a conservative rolls back the social good, it reinforces powerlessness to the vulnerable people in society and they feel further disenfranchised from the political process.  It’s a terrible ignorance fed feedback loop.

I keep hearing “the people have spoken”.  And I think, so what.  Even if it weren’t the case that a small minority has granted a great deal of power to a dangerous man, even if it was a real majority, even if it was unanimous, should I feel consoled that democracy has been served?