Picks of the Week

“Of course London’s riots weren’t a political protest. But the people committing night-time robbery sure as hell know that their elites have been committing daytime robbery. Saqueos are contagious. The Tories are right when they say the rioting is not about the cuts. But it has a great deal to do with what those cuts represent: being cut off. Locked away in a ballooning underclass with the few escape routes previously offered : a union job, a good affordable education : being rapidly sealed off. The cuts are a message. They are saying to whole sectors of society: you are stuck where you are, much like the migrants and refugees we turn away at our increasingly fortressed borders.”

— Naomi Klein

The picks of the week from around the web.

  • “An Empty Regard,” William Deresiewicz on the American reverence for its troops. I’ve long been mystified by the unquestioned reverence in America for its military personnel. It depersonalizes their (often admirable) efforts and suggests that they are somehow inherently more valuable human beings than everyone else. Deresiewicz addresses the question smartly.
  • Naomi Klein on the UK riots. Often prone to hyperbole and tendentious hypothesizing, Klein remains a great rhetoritician and this eloquent op-ed piece very effectively situates the riots and the pathetic official reaction to them in a valuable perspective.
  • Harold Bloom on his influences. Speaking of great communicators, here’s Bloom on five great works of literary criticism and the decrepit state of literary studies. You can’t argue with him, you just wanna hug him.
  • Questlove on the last fifteen years (or so) in hip hop. One of the subculture’s greatest raconteurs offers some intriguing tidbits from his storybook, such as how Puffy screamed at him and his Roots cohorts for their player hating back in the gay nineties.
  • Nelson George on the Civil Rights struggle on film. Enlightening and pointed survey, offered on the occasion of the opening of The Help this week.
  • Loose Canon

    My contribution to the Hooded Utilitarian’s International Best Comics Poll is now online in the very last post in the two-week marathon poor Robert Stanley Martin has been conducting over there (ah, the never-ending joy of being last in the alphabet). It has been an interesting project, conducted by Robert with composure and diligence, so I figured I’d add a few words to the discussion here.

    Robert has an excellent evaluation of the final list and proposes a number of conclusions one might draw from it. The fascinating thing about comics as an art form right now is that it is such a state of flux, that so much is happening artistically at a time when its popular and cultural stature is also changing radically. I didn’t expect to see this reflected in the final list exactly, which predictably is largely a conservative affair, but it doesn’t reproduce the somewhat stodgy fandom consensus of yesteryear either. Signs of change are creeping in: Watchmen‘s cultural stature has become undeniable; the generation that grew up with Calvin and Hobbes rates it as highly (or higher) than Peanuts, the masterpiece that defined their parents’ generation, Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” is edging in on the Marvel Age, and Jaime Hernandez is slowly but safely situating himself at the heart of the canon.

    The real takeaway from all this, however, is that comics don’t really have a canon. When one looks at the individual contributors’ lists they’re all over the place. Yes, the brief called for ‘favorites’ as well as ‘best,’ prompting many to play loose and fast with their lists and then often apologize that they hadn’t gone for ‘objective’ quality, but is there really a point in making a distinction? It seems to me that beyond a few rock solid classics — Peanuts, Krazy Kat, and perhaps a few other of the top ten — there simply isn’t much of a consensus on what constitutes comics’ greatest works, or even how one might go about conceiving of them in the first place. (Add to this that the list is far from as international in scope as one might have hoped: it’s very predictably Americanocentric and reveals just how spotty the knowledge of other traditions continue to be in America).

    Domingos Isabelinho has an article up that points to the problems of definition and how the orthodox institutional framework by which comics have been understood continues to wield strong influence in a time of redefinition — how do we reconcile in a canon a tradition of children’s literature with one of adult concern, and — beyond that — works of art from throughout human history, from cave paintings to Picasso, that share the formal qualities of comics, but aren’t generally considered as such?

    And the discussion that spun off from Shaenon Garrity’s survey of the sparsity of female creators on the list pointed to a further challenge to the fledgling comics canon: to what extent is it going to be determined by the patriarchal discourse that has governed much of its history, especially since the art form is now attracting more women creators than any time in its history.


    There have been quite a few comparisons between this list and the one put together by the editors and contributing writers to The Comics Journal a decade ago, despite their very different premises (half a dozen informed people of similar taste doing top 100s of exclusively English language works vs. over 200 very different and often rather undisciplined listmakers doing top 10s of anything and everything). It is striking how similar they are, but it’s more interesting to think about where they differ. The “new arrivals” in the top 10 (Watterson, Moore, Hernandez; Kirby doesn’t really count) indicate not just whatever bias one might attribute to the TCJ contributors, but that there is a shift happening in how we perceive comics as a tradition and what its greatest achievements might be. I suspect that a similar list made ten years from now will be more substantially different than are these two lists, because whatever canon was formed for comics in the twentieth century is undergoing the same sea change these years that comics themselves are experiencing. This is a period of redefinition and almost everything is up for debate.

    Picks of the Week

    “…when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.”

    — Drew Westen

    The picks of the week from around the web.

  • Drew Westen on Obama. Westen’s psychologically informed critique of the president may be a little facile in places, but it poses a number of real questions, such was ‘”What does Obama believe in?,” and locates in them his failure in a time where American democracy is being sorely tested. On a related note, Frank Rich by now month-old inaugural column for New York Magazine is also worth reading, if nothing else for its bravura opening.
  • The International Best Comics Poll at Hooded Utilitarian. An ambitious attempt at identifying a canon of comics involving over two hundred comics professionals. The final list is predictable and deeply flawed, but it’s still a thought-provoking exercise for those of us who like to ponder such things. Compare with The Comics Journal‘s decade-old top 100 list of English-language comics. I’ll have a little more on this later in the week.
  • Calling Marvel Out

    Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, and Stan Lee, from Fantastic Four Annual #6 (1963)

    Since the ruling in the Kirby vs. Marvel case last week, there’s been a fair amount of discussion in the comics blogosphere as to whether we, the readers, can take positive action to help get Marvel finally to start addressing its shameful history of exploitation, of Kirby, Ditko and the other founding fathers, but also of all the other artists whose underpaid work built the brand and has generated billions of dollars in revenue for their shareholders, especially those published before 1976 when the law and Marvel contracts were made clearer.

    Steve Bissette has mounted a passionate call for a general boycott of any Marvel or Marvel-related product as one small thing each of us can contribute, and suggests further that fans get together to name and shame Marvel into action, on the internet and at public events such as Comicon.

    It may seem utopian to get Marvel to change its ways, but its nearest competitor has made some progress on the issue, paying royalties to creators from films in which their characters or concepts appear. Their track record is far from perfect, but they’re doing a hell of a lot better than Marvel and its corporate overlords at Disney, who are raking in that box office moolah over assorted Kirby-derived superhero movies as we speak. And, as Tom Spurgeon has pointed out, Kirby’s collaborator at the inception of the Marvel Age in the early 60s, Stan Lee, won himself a lucrative deal with the publisher with just as little legal claim to his work for Marvel. Why can’t Marvel do something similar for Kirby’s family?

    I think Bissette’s suggestion is worth taking seriously and have decided to join his boycott. I’ve been enjoying superhero comics from both Marvel, DC, and elsewhere for a number of years now and think there are a lot of talent in the business right now, and I shall be sorry to give up on some of my favorite creators, but thinking things through I just cannot bring myself further to support a company with policies as rotten as Marvel right now.

    I went to my local comics store today, passed over the superhero comics I would usually consider and picked up the latest issue of The Jack Kirby Collector. It felt good. You should consider it.

    Eisner at MoCCA

    I visited the small Will Eisner retrospective over at MoCCA on Saturday. It’s a good show, with sections devoted to The Spirit (including all the originals to the classic “Gerhard Shnobble” story from 1948), A Contract with God, Dropsie Avenue, plus a generous selection of other material, primarily from the eighties. Well worth a visit, if you’re in the area.

    I’ve posted a small selection of images over at Nummer9. Peep them.

    On the Kirby vs. Marvel Decision

    Jack Kirby's iconic cover to Fantastic Four #1 (1961), the beginning of the so-called "Marvel Age of Comics"

    By now, most of you interested in such things will have seen that the heirs of Jack Kirby have had their lawsuit against Marvel rejected in a summary judgment by the federal court in New York. A sad, if predictable setback for the Kirby heirs, but also for anyone hoping for official recognition and substantial reconciliation efforts from the mainstream comics industry towards the creators (or heirs of), whose work have exploited throughout most of their sordid history, without more than a pittance in compensation.

    The judge’s decision is understandable and rationally argued, but sometimes the adhering to letter of the law obstructs justice. Marvel and their corporate overlords at Disney would do well to recognize that and do the only honorable thing and start a systematic compensation plan for all creators who have suffered under the unjust and largely unarticulated work-for-hire conditions that governed their daily operation through at least the 1970s and which have secured for their shareholders millions upon millions of dollars in revenue over the last half century or so.

    For those of you who read Danish, I now have a summary of the decision up at Nummer9.

    Picks of the Week

    The picks of the week from around the web.

  • ‘New’ old masters. This seems to be the season of sensational (and ‘sensational’) discoveries. Headlining is the long-lost Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, which has turned up in an American collection and will be exhibited publicly for the first time at the sure-to-be-unmissable National Gallery show in London this fall. Several highly respected specialists vouch for its authenticity and it does looks like an extraordinary painting — look at the refinement of the right hand, the translucence of the sphere and the distant expression, the almost non-presence, of Christ. It fits well into the master’s modus operandi, better than, say, that pretty drawing from a couple of years ago.

    In other news, the Italian conservator, champion of the “Buffalo Madonna,” of which I wrote a while ago, has now made another find, this time in Oxford, which he also claims is by Michelangelo. And again, it seems obvious that his optimism knows few bounds.

  • The Illustrated Wallace Stevens at Hooded Utilitarian. The next week will see more than twenty artists illustrating selected poems of that great American master. I’m willing to bet already that few of them will be as hauntingly great as Anke Feuchtenberger’s, but am very much looking forward to seeing them all.
  • Ryan Holmberg on Shimada Kazuo and Tatsumi Yoshihiro. This is a bit old now, but I would be remiss not to link to the latest, and in some ways most impressive installment in Holmberg’s series on the birth of gekiga, in which he unearths an important missing link with what went before.
  • Beats, Rhymes, and Longevity

    I’ve been on a bit of a Tribe quick this last week, culminating Saturday at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, where Q-Tip was the headliner. It was a bravura set by a born performer: Tip’s clear delivery, whether rapping, singing (weakly, but charmingly) or beatboxing, coupled with a tighly-knit band animating the Tribe compositions with live instruments, made for a great show.

    The icing on the cake was an all-star line-up of guests that included Monie Love (reluctantly performing “Monie in the Middle” before quickly absconding), an on point Sean Penn (not the mopey-faced actor), Black Thought from The Roots (spitting “Love of My Life and “The Next Movement”, tight as always, then backing up Tip on a crazy rendition of “Bonita Applebum”), Busta Rhymes (the crowd went wild when he appeared for “Scenario”, but it quickly turned into call-response; the real fyah was his insane verse from Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now”) and Kanye West (rapping “Dark Fantasy” down among the crowd, dropping a couple of his pop joints, then acting plug 2 for Tip on “Award Tour”).

    For me the most enjoyable parts were elsewhere though.