The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Comics

Comic Review: Open Spaces and Closed Places

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Probably the greatest part of enduring the huge milling crowds of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) is the chance to interact with creators one has never met or heard of before. I met the wonderful saicoink/An Nguyen while exploring one of the smaller exhibition rooms. She cuts a striking and fashionable figure, and her art embodies all the nostalgic indulgence and defiance of her clothes. Open Spaces and Closed Places, collected in six volumes, came home with me in a bag I got from the local Japan Foundation, and I read the entire series over about two days. Having just finished it, I felt it was best to commit some of my thoughts to writing so I can look back at this when I am rereading it or just flipping back through the pages someday.

OSCP revolves around a genre-standard shoujo setup: two high school boys, Oscar and Jirou, furtively crushing on each other while dealing with academic problems, rival schools, and other assorted slice-of-life issues. Although the tone of the book is rather flowery and cute most of the time, however, there is a strong undercurrent of occult darkness that runs through it. Oscar and his friend Vivien, in particular, carry with them a sense of sadness and urgency, a sense that all of the places they inhabit are ultimately fleeting and temporary for them. One of the central conflicts, in fact, is Oscar’s attempts to dissuade Jirou from getting attached to him. Oscar, ashamed of his various afflictions and haunted by literal and metaphorical demons, responds to overt affection in a way I find quite familiar as someone who struggles with depression and social anxiety.

The more surreal and occult elements of the story were the most appealing for me. Much like in the recent game Night in the Woods, supernatural terror haunts all of the most mundane social interactions, and the author is able to bring many of the characters’ anxieties to the surface with a heavy use of black, grotesque shapes. Curling, cackling demons remind me of all the spectres that stalked me in my sleep as a child and during the first months of university. Despite the characters often behaving in frustrating ways, their grounding in both real-world problems and more fantastical situations makes them mostly understandable as human beings. While Oscar is something of an enigma and I never quite grasped him, I still found him compelling, reminding me of myself while also not feeling like a simple self-insert or a mirror that the reader can simply project onto.

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Although saicoink’s drawing style is fairly simple, especially for the human figures, layouts, stylistic flourishes, and a strong grasp of facial expressions make it more evocative than it otherwise might be. Simple  figures, after all, are often more emotionally resonant and easy to understand. Some of the action scenes are more stiff than I prefer, and certain aspects of the style are not to my taste–to me a few of the characters are difficult to tell apart because they have very similar head shapes–but I find the entire presentation of the story to enhance rather than detract from the basic drama of it. The story inhabits the style very well, and I can’t imagine it looking any other way. It’s nostalgic and soft, yes, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

I appreciated OSCP as a diversion and as a narrative about the difficulty we have in relating to each other and our positive and more self-destructive reactions to those problems. I would certainly recommend the book to those who are fans of shoujo or just to those who appreciate a cute love story with some darker and more esoteric aspects to it. It’s an understated, lovely bit of work from an artist I am certainly going to follow from now on. Here’s to chance meetings and little glances.

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The Peanuts Movie: Not a Review

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My maturation process was different from most people’s. From my teens on, I always thought of my past selves as ungainly skins to be molted off at the earliest convenience. Nostalgia was anathema to me, and I openly derided my past tastes. Thrown into university with a brittle psyche and depressive, even nihilistic, tendencies, I would complain at length to my friends about all the insecure students trying to reconnect with their childhoods when adulthood was beckoning. It’s not that I exorcised all my passions and tastes from earlier; I just had a hypercritical attitude about myself and, by extension, anything I liked.

Peanuts, though, was bone marrow, a phantom limb. My first love was the television specials, but I quickly devoured the 60s and 70s comics Schulz and Melendez mortared together to make those specials. Being raised in the Midwest as a depressive, hyper-articulate, wannabe adult, Schulz’s spare, efficient commercial line art and heavily psychologized characters were irresistible. So while Schulz’s capitalist acumen and  aptitude for self-promotion and unholy dedication were what made it famous, what fused Peanuts to my brain was its portrait of a hopeless world where people just took comfort in their own flaws.

And that’s why this is not a review of the Peanuts movie. The quality of any given ancillary Peanuts product is meaningless. In fact, all it has to do to have me enraptured is to preserve the tone. The tone that has me coming back to Wes Anderson’s movies long after I acknowledge they are rather inconsequential––so why do I cry for so many of them?––is the gentle bleakness of the polite, decaying Midwest. I don’t cry for the Peanuts movie because it’s not appropriately cruel. Too many softening touches, too much Hollywood glitz. It’s not that the creators don’t understand the characters, but that they recognize they have to limit the audiences exposure to them, like a heavy element somewhere in the low hundreds on the periodic table. Peanuts is all about being sad, privileged, conceited, and shattered all at the same time. It’s about having a comfortable enough life that you can take shelter even in your own worst flaws. Characters come together and form an unbroken chain of schadenfreude. Of course, that’s not all of it. It’s much gentler than that in practice, even if its character roster is populated by insecure whiners and overconfidence artists.

We could talk about how comic strips in general make their characters run on little hamster wheels, trapped in formula as surely as they’re bound in rectangular panels. Comparisons to Sisyphus and existentialism arise, but at the same time, in the logic of the strip (ignoring the deified hand of the author) Charlie Brown is not forced to run his kite into the kite-eating tree. He does it because he’s an all-American do-gooder who won’t give up though the plants themselves thwart him. He never seriously considers never kicking the football again. And contrary to Camus’s famous pronouncement about Sisyphus, no one can imagine Charlie Brown happy.

The Peanuts Movie is the most credible attempt I’ve yet seen to turn Peanuts into a conventional feature film. It succeeds well enough to make itself anonymous. Simultaneously, it’s hard to forget what happens in the film because most of it has happened before, in other movies or comics or specials.

Maybe someday I’ll get over Peanuts. I’ll probably have to want that to happen before I do, though.

 

Christian Kitsch #11: Archie Gets a Job!

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We’re rejoining Archie live in progress. After reviving the Christian Kitsch series last week, I rediscovered the joy of pure riffing.  Unfortunately, our next specimen, one Archie Gets a Job!, is about half the book I want it to be. The 13 pages of the book are just a summer parade of halfhearted slapstick gags involving the physical––possibly spiritual––destruction of Mr. Weatherbee. A brief montage of screenshots should be enough to give my readership the gist:

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Fig. 1: Archie tries to loaf at Veronica’s, is thwarted by Chinese vampire dad.

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Fig. 2: Archie asks for a job at Mr. Weatherbee’s scenic Christian bookstore, which is built into a lighthouse.

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Fig. 3: His employment uncertain, Archie resorts to drastic, physically implausible measures to get the job by “rescuing” Mr. Weatherbee from the crushing tide.

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Fig. 4: Mr. Weatherbee realizes that, no matter how miserable you are at your job, you can always rely on schadenfreude and violence to lighten your mood.

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Fig. 4.1: If you cannot reason with your opponent, silence him instead.

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Fig. 5: Archie takes obvious pleasure in sucker-punching Mr. Weatherbee with a heavy metal object. Vengeance is mine, sayeth Archie.

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Fig. 6: Even with his eyes snapped shut, Mr. Weatherbee realizes the extent of the horror he has brought on himself by bringing this deviant under his roof.

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Fig. 7: The company parts ways, and Archie and his friend head off to the beach to sell, sell, sell!

At last, on page 13, the propagandizing begins. In their ramshackle phallic jalopy, Archie and Jughead bound across the dunes until they find the author Al Hartley’s prop for preying on young women’s insecurities: Big Ethel.

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Fig. 8: Ethel’s desire to learn springs from the void of despair.

Classic propaganda setup has been established. Now it’s time for the hammer to fall. What kind of easy prescription will Dr. Archie Self-Insert recommend? Apparently the solution for patriarchal body expectations is about 500mg of nepotism.

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Fig. 9: “You can be sure it was written by a well-adjusted male such as ourselves.”

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Fig. 10: Text reads: “Dear Reader: There are hundreds of good Christian books I could have used in this story! So why not choose one my son wrote?–Al Hartley. P.S. Here’s his picture.”

Yes, not only is Al Hartley running commercials in his comics, but he is using his comics to promote books written by his own son, Fred Hartley. Fred is something of a Christian popular literary celebrity, having published books like Dare to be Different, That Morals Thing, and Growing Pains: First Aid for Teenagers. Obviously, the man found his niche writing Christian self-help lit for teenagers, but evidently lacked his father’s cartooning ability. And he also graduated from Wheaton, which suggests that he has some kind of work ethic, if nothing else.

Our redoubtable boys have made a sale––and I’m sure our author’s son made a few as well––though we never see them take anyone’s money so they may just be distributing Mr. Weatherbee’s merchandise without compensation. While Ethel seems satisfied with her purchase, not everyone is so enthusiastic about Archie and Jughead’s mission.

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Fig. 11: And he knows crazy ideas, having perfected the self-Heimlich.

Still, something must be working because Ethel’s dramatic reading of the book is drawing in the masses. Even Veronica feels outdone by Fred’s arresting words.

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Fig. 12: Archie is just as shocked as everyone other named character in the book.

Pause. Let’s remember that the book has so far been completely devoid of (un)helpful advice for children of any age. Hartley’s usually much better at rapidly hitting the bullet points and integrating the pratfalls and absurdities into the propaganda. The only mission he’s given us so far is to buy his son’s book. For which I suppose we’ll all have to get summer jobs. Frustratingly, the book once more turns to comic mischief (as the ESRB would have it) as Archie ties Jughead to a kite sporting a streamer with a truly memorable slogan.

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Fig. 13: Jughead’s monastic vow of silence has a surprisingly slapstick-y origin.

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Fig 14: Let the lighthouse turn me on! Everything about this panel is perfect, especially with the odd colour errors on her face.

Having enlightened the people and left Jughead-shaped gaps in people’s tans, this foolproof advertising scheme comes to a safe and happy end.

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Fig. 15: Mr. Weatherbee won’t be smiling when OSHA comes rapping on his lighthouse door.

This panel and the next are a perfect encapsulation of the bizarre dream logic by which Al Hartley’s Archie operates. In one panel, Jughead is basically Jesus in the Pietàa crumpled shell of a person whose eyes are shut and who is incapable of standing. One could only speculate about the internal and external damage he’s suffering. The very. next. panel. however…

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Fig. 16: They lied to us. Money can cure any ill.

No further acknowledgement of Jughead’s life-threatening injuries is to come. But we finally have some proper preaching to look forward to! Archie decides that he’s going to give ten percent of his paycheque to “the Lord,” by which I’m sure he means his local church.

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Fig. 17. A standard crab trap, beached and unloved.

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Fig 17.1: Enhanced view.

But we all wonder why we should give ten percent of our income to the Lord. Or church, whoever is easier to get to by car. Archie has a rather dramatic illustration of the true commitment that Christians should have for their God. It’s not the one anyone expected, but I’m sure it was persuasive.

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Fig. 18: I’m sure that’s what all our parents said when we were born. “See what did?”

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Fig. 18.1: And he looks ecstatic about it.

I’m fairly sure that Christianity abhors human sacrifice, and we’re meant to take this quite metaphorically, but I think the visual medium works against Hartley’s point here. We can’t help but empathize with the pig’s pitiful situation, stuffed and prepared for consumption. Is it alive or dead? Whichever it is, the moment that Hartley captured with his pen triggers a deep sense of identification with its plight, which our very souls cry out: “I guess that makes sense, but let’s leave the butchers out of this!”

After that, possibly the deepest, darkest panel Hartley ever cartooned, our comic can only manage to sputter to its conclusion. We have another bout of slapstick nonsense that culminates in another grim-seeming injury:

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Fig. 19: Jughead realizes the true extent of his sins, and he watches the heavens, trembling.

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Fig. 20: Archie breaks the fourth wall because he knows his time has come.

But Mr. Weatherbee remembers that his hapless employees have somehow generated a sensational amount of business for him, so all is forgiven.

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Fig. 21: It’s this panel that made me wonder: why did Hartley think “Yes, this has to be a Veronica panel!”

At long last, and after much dithering and padding, Hartley comes around to remembering what the true message of this book is all about: local bookstores are important cornerstones of the community. I’m actually not sure there’s much more to it than that. Observe:

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Fig. 22: I’m not sure why Jughead only has 90% of his paycheque left. Did God spirit away the tithe off-panel? Also, Hartley never figured out how to do a fourth-wall break that elicited anything other than fear and spine-tingling.

In summary, this is one of Hartley’s weakest comics, at least that I’ve reviewed on this site. Nuggets of preaching and ill-considered but hilarious situations are few and far between, separated by dusty canyons of ineffectual slapstick. Nothing comes to a head in the end, either. Despite this being somewhat less episodic than the typical Hartley Archie entry, his writing is flaccid and even distracted. More than any of the other comics, this one tastes distinctly of a rush job he didn’t have any feeling for. I may only be speculating, but I think that Hartley was more the chicken than the pig this time around.

 

Christian Kitsch #10: Barney Bear Out of the Woods!

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Yes, Spire Comics, we’re back. Back to settle an old score.

For the tenth instalment in our expedition into the mighty Christian kitsch industry, we’re considering a spawn of Spire’s children’s imprint. Kiddie Christian Comics was the company’s imprint for very young children, and also put out God Is…, which we covered in Christian Kitsch #4. We can only hope that this entry will achieve the same slapdash surrealism of that comic, though this time the preaching is grounded in a narrative form.

Because this is a special occasion, and these characters are Spire originals (though, as a friend named Tom informed me, Barney Bear is also an MGM cartoon and comics character), it’s only right to give them the honour of a dramatis personae.

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Barney Bear. Age: young. Religion: take a wild guess.

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Parents. Age: middle. Property owners, concerned citizens.

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The Wild Bunch. Hobbies: delinquency, immiseration, squalor, and noise violations.

And, last but certainly not least, the pillars of the community.

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Left to right: Church mouse, the owl, and the goat judge (Satanic affiliations unproven)

Now that we’re familiar with the many colourful characters of the Barney the Bear Extended Universe, let’s see what kind of adventures they get themselves into when they come OUT OF THE WOODS.

Al Hartley begins his story on a clear night. The parents are sleeping, until all of a sudden:

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Clearly, something is amiss, or else this bear would not be having trouble sleeping in his natural habitat. Though it appears that, in this world, only some of the anthropomorphic animals have assimilated into a domesticated life. I’m also unsure what Mama Bear’s curlers  are supposed to accomplish given how short her hair is. On an artistic level, they serve as gender markers, but other than that they probably just pull her hair and sort of sit there.

The entire comic, being meant for children, is also quite light on panels, often having only two or even one per page and very little dialogue. I’m not opposed to this approach, and we’ll see it actually leads to somewhat creative page layout, but the drawing itself is just as generic and overall lifeless as it always is on these books. Competent, but nothing above mediocre.

After the whole family wakes up and rushes into the parents’ bedroom, the father bear begins the story proper:

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Basic plot outline: white (brown bear) suburban paranoia.

How exactly has the neighbourhood changed? Basically, we’ve gone from cute, domesticated Disney animals, complete with Bambi, Toby the Turtle, and Air Guitar Frog…

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Is “Rabeet” what frogs say, or is it labeling the pink fluffy thing in the bottom corner as a “rabeet?”

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Pictured: Rabeet’s fourth album cover.

To Ralph Bakshi animals:

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The Redwall books had less obvious racial profiling of animals.

Having realized that their tranquil suburban bliss has been upended, the family rushes from their house and heads out to investigate the source of the racket. Perched on an overhanging cliff, they behold a landscape wholly and terribly transformed:

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Though it’s not stated or even implied by the text, I have to assume that the family awoke not from a normal sleep but from an extended hibernation. Otherwise, this level of urbanization would not have escaped their notice. And indeed this city is a swarming hive of misery and sin. People out at “All Night Movies,” being “Adult,” having “Fun,” and even heading to the “Grotto.” Take that inebriated elephant for one. His dome is smoking something fierce, though he doesn’t seem too worried about plunging over the green waterfall. I’m jealous of the bear triplets riding the useless water wheel in antique swimsuits, and much less jealous of the white-suited gentleman taking a swan dive right into the turf. Overall, though, it seems like a good time.

Not if you ask our nuclear family in peril, of course:

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Note the inexplicable day/night change, which suggests the rough part of the woods is in an eternal Gotham-esque night.   

Well well, what kind of bright idea is forming in the effervescent young mind of our young ursine scout? As we learn over the next few tedious pages, he has enlisted the help of the noble bachelor Church Mouse, a meek evangelist who hurries to the woods with his Tent of Miracles.

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My guess is that state repression is not available as an option in this case. I would guess that this bedevilled family would probably put in a call to the SWAT team or the National Guard to break up this tomfoolery, but it seems the Hobbesian state of nature is still strong and unfettered in these woods. And so one Church Mouse is summoned to do the work of a thousand gentrifiers and beat cops: clean up the damn neighbourhood with an old-fashioned revival meeting.

But perhaps our mouse of the cloth is not as unshakeable as he appears.

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On learning that his natural predators are likely to be in attendance––though why the derelict denizens of the wild woods would even want to attend such a meeting is never explained––the mouse hoofs it back to the car and doesn’t even think to bring the tent back. It’s all fight-or-flight in this predator-prey world. But the bears, optimistic and, shall we say, rather presumptive, think that the mouse would make a good vessel for the Word in reforming these critters. He offers to leave them tracts and literature, but they insist that the servants of God have to be a bit more involved than that.

So we have our first bachelor pillar of the community, the beginning of the somewhat incoherent core of our book. In propaganda like this, the point is to instruct first and entertain second. The artwork and the story are important but they are subservient to the political or, in this case, religious, point that the work is trying to make.

The structure varies, but in the general case, the characters in this kind of didactic literature fall into a number of fixed types. We have the wise teachers, the ones who espouse the views that the literature considers correct. In this case, the bear family acts as a unit, and if you’ve been paying attention they often finish each other’s thoughts and basically act as extensions of one another. They’re the embodiment of the conservative fantasy of the family as an organic and undifferentiated unity reproducing itself without conflict, especially between generations. Second, we have the characters who are ignorant, mistaken, or fatally flawed in some other way. In this case, the wild jungle animals. These characters are usually the ones who espouse positions the wise teachers have to criticize and correct. In this book, though, their problem is not so much possessing mistaken ideas but instead having no direction whatsoever. They are carte blanche, the people whom Christian evangelists imagine have somehow lived in the United States but never gotten the basic idea of Christian doctrine before. They will either conform to the words of the wise teachers in the end or are put to some kind of bad end.

But, to work our way back to the mouse and his fellow bachelor pillars of the community, there is also a third type: the well-meaning but mistaken “experts” who exist to exhibit arrogance and to be corrected by the wise teachers.

And look who we have here:

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The owl with the wicked eyelashes.

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Here is our second patsy, the intellectual who will, inexorably, bow before the simple folk knowledge of our put-upon Normal American Family. No matter his schemes for urban renewal or educational initiatives or what have you, Jesus can and will fix every problem. What kind of fiendish puzzle will Barney and co. pose to the posturing owl?

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I know what you’re thinking, but let’s first focus on the tree-house in the background. No doubt Al Hartley woke up that day, pulled on his drawing clothes, and said to himself “I’m going to draw windows wherever I damn well please!” Or, excuse me, “darn well please.” I also think we can definitively say that that owl is just a graduation cosplayer who’s never actually read a single word from that unsheltered outdoor bookshelf he has. J’accuse, charlatan!

Well, the church mouse and Barney know an easy catch when they see one.

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So the owl recognizes it on sight but apparently has never read it.

One more aside: the last panel I screen capped shows off one of Hartley’s strangest stylistic tics: the triple punctuation mark. If you scroll back up through this post you’ll notice that in almost every instance where a question is being asked or someone is particularly excited, Hartley puts another line in the dialogue balloon and fills it with three question marks or exclamation points. Notice what I mean??? It’s weird once you notice!!!

But, in an effort to keep up its nonexistent narrative momentum,the book debuts the third and final bachelor pillar of the community: the goat judge!!!

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“And I say that we should evict the purple gopher hobbits!!!”

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“Honey, get the pruning shears!!! We’re going to teach eminent domain a little lesson!!!”

Of course, we can’t have the state judge usurping the divine right. Again, our sphinx-like protagonists pose an unsolvable quandary before the magistrate.

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Once again, his ignorance is never directly corrected, even with something as simplistic as “read the Bible, it’s the truth!!!” Instead, the book leaves him to drown in his own question marks. Obviously the book has a sharp sense of irony: a judge who can’t judge and a know-nothing intellectual. What’s more, Hartley kicks the climax into gear, showing the dangers of running perilously long extension cords in a flammable environment. Although Hartley didn’t bother drawing the wire in a damaged condition, so it appears as though it spontaneously combusted for no reason at all. Well, I suppose it is just a plot device, so let’s scurry forward.

The next few pages show the fire spreading as the dithering judge and owl are no help whatsoever, culminating in their crowning moment:

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Pay close attention to this. Remember that one thread that’s been running more or less consistently through this comic is that one should take action. The bears admonished Church Mouse for suggesting that he just pray for the cats and leave some tracts, and the goat is shown up as a buffoon for his indecision and ineffectual attitude. Eventually, the goat judge does come to his senses and pronounces his judgment:

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He’s got some gumption taking on the spontaneously combusting extension cord industry, I’ll tell you what.

It gets better, since when you think through this comic’s theology and view of how the natural world functions, you have to conclude that the senseless fire was caused by God sparking up a totally intact electrical wire. I mean, if the plot supplies no answers and the art is shoddy and lazy, I have to assume that the judge needs to go after God Himself here.

Luckily, the book doesn’t contemplate deicide. Barney and the Church Mouse have had enough of the goat’s vindictive attitude and just want to get the fire put out. Behold their solution:

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Let’s think for a moment before I reveal what occurs next. As established, the book has criticized the idea that we can just lean on praying and not actually intervening in bad situations. God might carry the day but we have to be his hands and feet, etc. If the book actually wants to teach children something positive and one of the benefits of prayer, it might show the mouse and Barney taking a moment to compose themselves, gather their courage and, maybe, help out with rescue efforts, get the goat off that precarious log for goodness’ sake, or get professionals to help. They even ask for God to help them stop the fire, suggesting that they will prove Christian integrity by acting selflessly even in the face of danger. A raging fire is their crucible, the trial that proves they can live the faith rather than just preaching it.

Yes, the other shoe is about to drop. Along with buckets of…

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rain.

Conveniently, the divine rainstorm both snuffs out the blaze and forces the hapless sinners of the woods underneath the only shelter that apparently survived the fire: the tent.

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Finally, after some prodding and a pep talk, the Church Mouse delivers his beneficent message:

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Our moral has truly pivoted. After dedicating a good chunk of space to criticizing the mouse’s complacency and unwillingness to act, we get a literal deus ex machina solving every problem for everyone. The book has come utterly untethered from recognizable reality, and this is a deep flaw in a book that is marketed and produced to teach practical and religious lessons to children. Out of the Woods is not infuriating because it’s propaganda, but because it mistakes its audience for fools and chumps.  Children are naïve, not incapable of facing hard truths or life’s ambiguities. Even a message as simple as “faith needs action to be real” gets muddied up because the comic presents a world where the benevolent God will, say, send rain to douse your burning home. It’s convenient and shoddy, and children probably won’t buy it for a second. At least, not if they’ve ever had to face actual trials in their lives.

Also, it might just be a jerk move to start haranguing forest fire survivors and giving them the three-point sermon after––we have to presume––many of them have lost their homes due to environmental negligence and a lack of social services. And yes, I’m taking this gravely seriously, far more so than the lackadaisical writer and artist. Partly that’s for comic effect, considering just how fluffy and klutzy Out of the Woods is, but it’s also because  I hate the idea that junk media is acceptable just because it’s for children. If you’re writing propaganda and cushy comfort food for the converted, at least get your messaging straight.

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The Midwestern Chill of Charlie Brown

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Peanuts, like nearly all media aimed at children, did not spring from the mind of children themselves. As a matter of fact, I doubt that most children, at least ones I knew growing up, would be interested in writing stories about short young people. Contrary to the assumptions of TV hacks and toy promoters, particularly in the late 1970s and 80s, I would assert that children find it much easier to get invested in characters who are adults or at least act more like adults than they do.

Without a doubt, Charlie Brown and company appeal to children. For me, that affection started with A Charlie Brown Christmas and wound its way through the feature films, comics, and The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, the last of which was fairly hard for my younger self to obtain and watch. Even though the entire cast of Peanuts is either human-spawn or animal, they don’t talk like children, and one of the reasons why their low-key escapades connected with me is that the characters are able to voice common childhood concerns in a much more articulate way than my language skills could muster at that age. Infused with a love of pop psychology and attentive to the fact that children have all the anxieties associated with being a small, weak being in a frightening world, the strip has an uncommon ability to communicate these ideas without being either condescending or complicated.

Partly that’s an advantage of the stock characters and situations which are the basic components of the newspaper comic strip. This strength is not just internal to the paper and ink drawings of the medium, but involves the way that comics form and maintain audiences. Comics were, at one point, integral to selling newspapers, offering light entertainment as comfort in the midst (or at the back) of a newspaper often full of disquieting stories. Reporting of the real world, no matter how affected by ideology or smoothed out by the censors, has to react to a changing modern world. In an unsettled, cutthroat capitalist world, the comic strips are little idylls, mildly amusing islands of comfort. Since reading a newspaper was a nearly universal activity for much of the 20th century, comic strips that could get established had an almost guaranteed audience that would rapidly grow comfortable with repetitive situations, able to predict each move a character would make.

In this way, Peanuts is no different. the opening panel of a Peanuts strip, no matter how esoteric or depressing the subject matter, sets up a situation using characters and cues that immediately suggest a conclusion to the reader. Lucy, Charlie, and the football. Snoopy and the typewriter. Schroeder and Lucy. Their internal struggles and relationships are so fixed––if they shifted, they moved like glaciers or tectonic plates––that the characters are often more like stand-ins for abstract concepts than actual living characters. One character could embody multiple, perhaps contradictory ideas, of course. Linus is both the incisive thinker of the cast and the most juvenile and credulous. Being the smartest one in class…who still slept with a blanket was a very familiar experience to this blogger.

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What distinguished Peanuts as a comic was that it used its comfy arrangement with its readers to present characters who, although not realistic children, were capable of entering troubling territory. The reassuring Midwestern milieu of the show swarmed with insecurity and antagonism. Which is not to say that Schulz was anything like David Lynch, but, for me, growing up in the Midwest as a child aspiring to grow up as quickly as possible, reading Peanuts and watching the specials and films helped me realize that sadness and failure are universal, and that sometimes an escape into a surreal flight of fancy, as Snoopy often did, is a rational response to a world so hard and simple.

Though the new Peanuts movie might fall anywhere on the spectrum of quality, I will be watching it. Peanuts might be the only bit of mass-produced media I feel true, old school nostalgia for. I feel this nostalgia as a kind of sickness or homesickness, a longing to be small and loudmouthed and philosophical again. Despite the loopy deviance of the later decades of the strip, the uneven episodic films, and the gross commercialization of the entire Schulz enterprise, I still feel that Schulz and his collaborators did find ways to bring the sad affects of childhood to light in a way that so little Western culture does. And they did it in the comfort of a Midwestern living room.

56 Cities, Two Books

Painting of the city of Irene from Invisible Cities by Colleen Corradi Brannigan. Click on the image to see more of her renderings of Calvino's work.

Painting of the city of Irene from Invisible Cities by Colleen Corradi Brannigan. Click on the image to see more of her renderings of Calvino’s work.

Urbanization is one of the lifebloods of modern life. If industrialization is the hear of capitalist society, urbanization fastens onto its productive powers and, like a tsunami, creates a sloshing deluge where there was once relative stability. Social struggles have taken to the urban stage since before the French Revolution, though Revolutionary Paris represents their apotheosis in the capitalist core of Europe and North America. So talking about cities involves talking about social struggles. More specifically, cities are living and working spaces, playing spaces, channels for industrial goods, outlets for propaganda and advertising and every form of visual and aural production imaginable. Increasingly, the human race lives out its collective life in cities, leading many Marxists like David Harvey to call for a renewed focus on the character of cities and the political strategies necessary to making cities livable.

Having just moved to one of the larger cities on the continent, I have felt the pull of its acceleration, adding an experiential weight to some of the fictional reading I have been doing. Reading about cities and living in them are separate matters, but I find it helpful to take directions from fiction and other artworks as to what we should look for in cities. Two books in particular have left their marks, providing me with some cutting questions to ask of my new hometown.

1. King City by Brandon Graham

In King City, the characters serve to inform the setting more than the other way around. Their stories are in the foreground, but seems marginalized by the background.

In King City, the characters serve to inform the setting more than the other way around. Their stories are in the foreground, but seems marginalized by the background.

I read King City in a few days from the omnibus collection published by Image Comics. But attempting to read this book along a single plot thread is a mistake, since at the end the “comic book” climax of the story happens in a flash, making the ostensible narrative engine just another story among many. This makes the story not so much a single plot but a book of accounts showing how life is lived in a city warped by, among other things, extraterrestrials, magic cats, and the author’s hyper-dense reimagining of Los Angeles. The titular King City might have a central power core, a government of some kind, and a convoluted network of criminal gangs running the show, but when reading the book none of these things seems to take any kind of priority because Graham’s art is always letting us in on a hundred other stores, sometimes in the space of a single page. It’s a melange or mosaic of disparate moments connected by a certain logic––most of the time, that logic involves groan-worthy puns––that sets romantic tensions, life-or-death rescue operations, petty crime jobs, and supernatural apocalypse on the same level of relevance.

In King City, politics loses its meaning, or at least its collective character. Issues of class, nation, and gender don’t get much explicit discussion in the book. Power blocs form today and dissolve tomorrow, and life is precarious to the utmost. Individual struggles are what is important; the heterogeneity and acceleration of the city seems to render all connections temporary at best. Graham is showing us an important aspect of the modern city: the speed and visual overload people experience there renders the surface of the city a film of blurry fragments. Many jokes at the expense of New Yorkers start off with some catastrophe happening, raising only shrugs from life-weary denizens. Graham’s production here condenses that facet of the city and gives it a deeply weird and novel guise, drawing on anything and everything to pack in. And it looks to use like business as usual. Well, business as usual with a dose of scatalogical surrealism.

2. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Uses one of my favourite Magritte paintings as the cover.

Uses one of my favourite Magritte paintings as the cover.

Now this book, unlike King City, is more properly “literary,” being a collection of what I hesitate to label prose poems interwoven with bits of dialogue. Despite that pedigree, I believe it qualifies as “speculative fiction,” seeing as its goal is to explore the affective and imaginative aspect of cities.

Calvino’s conceit here is that Marco Polo and Kublai Khan have met in the Mongol capital. Polo regales the Great Khan with tales of cities from all across the vast span of the Empire. Khan, plagued with worries about the coming dissolution of his realm, looks to Polo for a sign, though whether that sign is a confirmation of his own decline or the contrary remans unsolved. 55 cities pass through our minds, page by page, unfolding like nautilus spirals. Because the Venetian and the Mongol do not share the same language, at least initially, Polo has to resort to describing cities with objects from them, sketching often fantastical and anachronistic portraits. On his journeys, he has apparently passed through at least one airport and one American-style suburb, not to speak of the more classically Orientalist constructions.Even though every city Calvino describes is nothing more than an assembled fiction, its components find their origins in real cities or legends of cities. The mystical quality of the book comes from its strangeness. Example: one city’s citizens built a replica of their city underground, burying their dead in the same poses they assumed in life.

The entire structure of the book reminded me of Kino’s Journey, a Japanese animated show about a nomadic woman and her talking motorcycle visiting countless cities that embody human virtues, vices, desires, and ideals. Here we have no protagonist in the present tense: all of Marco Polo’s “expeditions,” if they ever happened (and Khan has no reason to believe they did), seem to have been ages ago. So what we have here is a book party archaeological, partly poetic, and partly speculative, and if I could identify a single virtue it would be in expanding our conceptions of what cities are and what they are capable of being. It also shows us quite directly how we conceive of cities in modern times: repositories of buildings, yes, but also stories, images, and desires, not to mention refuse and leftovers.

For Marxists, obviously, the matter does not rest there. We see cities not as fixed or swirling without coordinates, but evolving according to social needs and the dictates of those with political power. In other words, cities are only perceptible through a historical and materialist vision. But I would argue that both of the works in this post offer compelling insights into the nature of urban living today, regardless of their various mystifications and tendencies to treat those social struggles in an oblique way. Like cities themselves, they’re not pure illusions, but products of social labor and embedded processes within their respective industries. Let’s ponder the questions they raise and celebrate the positive aspects of the visions they evoke; we have a long road ahead, after all.

Moto Hagio: Heart of Thomas

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Moto Hagio participated in the remaking of Japanese comics for girls. Before the Year 24 group, of which Hagio was a part, girls’ manga––shoujo from now on––traded in pitifully slight fantasies about mistaken identity and had men writing them. Defeat in World War II unleashed major upheavals in all parts of Japanese society, and though the potentially revolutionary energies at work in Japan ran afoul of American and comprador repression, Japanese culture in the 1950s through the early 1970s crackled with invention. Manga and anime as we know it today, along with the classic canon of Japanese films and the countercultural New Wave after it, burst forth in these few middle decades of the century. As an artifact of that time, Heart of Thomas registers the shockwaves of liberalized sexuality and expressive freedom that existed precariously alongside growing commercialization of popular art in 1974, when a weekly magazine serialized it in its pages.

Though I made reference to sexuality, sex itself is anathema in Heart of Thomas, existing only in the painful margins of the story. That tale begins with Thomas, the title character, committing suicide by plunging off a bridge. The subject of his unrequited love, Juli, who is a student at the same German boarding school, receives Thomas’ suicide note, and along with his friend Oscar is the only one who knows that Thomas’ demise was no accident. The cryptic note reveals that Thomas intended his death to carry a powerful meaning for Juli, but this is not unraveled until near the end of this expansive book. Complicating matters is the arrival of Erich, who resembles Thomas so much in appearance that it awakens Juli’s death drive as the latter attempts to expunge Thomas’ specter from his life.

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Heart of Thomas is also an origin point for shounen-ai, or “boy love,” casting the roles of the narrative almost entirely with boys who have their own complicated romantic politics. Their loves are always idealized and angelic, having an almost puritanical devotion entwined with sexual desires. The former, as mentioned, rarely figure into the story. Love in this book is internal and mystical, swirling like a torrent around the body but, because the characters are so young, not explicitly sexual at all. To illustrate, let’s take the handling of kisses in the story. Because Hagio injects elements of Christianity into the book, kisses figure as “Judas kisses” more often than genuine tokens of affection, used to spite or as currency for favors. Judas and the fallen angels form perhaps the central motif of the story, symbols of betrayal and loss of innocence. Love and hate, therefore, tend to work on an abstract plane in the story, complemented by the expressionistic use of spacing and composition in the artwork. Characters may be in proximity to one another in the panels but separated from each other by vast distances or, more often, the boundary between life and death. Hagio renders the psyches of the characters as just as literal as their physical forms, constituent parts of their presence in the story. As one might guess, the content of these worlds is often easily read in a Freudian way, a tangle of narcissism, misdirection, and repression that often boils.

Despite the complexity of the multiple subplots and character explorations, the fundamental theme of the story can be simply summarized: how people live with the scars of past torment. Some of these are literal, like Juli’s, while others signify themselves through absence and regret more than transfigured skin. Because the story takes place in what seems to be a Catholic boys’ school, characters sometimes express their troubles in religious language, whether they believe or not. Because of their class status as petty bourgeoisie, their immaturity, and their upbringing, these characters have a highly abstracted relationship to all areas of life, which includes their romantic conflicts. Theirs is a sheltered world, something like the academy in Revolutionary Girl Utena, an island where the larger themes of the story work themselves out almost as actors on a stage; we can sense the artifice of the story but also the integrity of the basic truths being expressed. Unrealistic in some ways, Heart of Thomas maintains an unflinching eye on the subject of pain and trauma, and how the people of this peculiar space deal with their mistakes and the terrible sins committed––by them or against them.

Though Heart of Thomas is unmistakably steeped in the shoujo tradition, it deploys the typical romantic phantoms one would see in those stories in far more meaningful ways than the norm. It accomplishes what all art should: forging truth out of lies, taking the concrete world and rendering it newly recognizable in a fiercer and more lucid form on the page.

Sam and Max: Freelance Kitschmongers

Sam and Marx Cover

Human beings seem to have this idea that, if animals could talk, they would be terribly cynical about everything. One of the archetypal examples of this is Hobbes from the Bill Watterson comic strip. Even though Hobbes is a bouncy, joyous character, his view of humanity is pitch black. I bring up Calvin and Hobbes because those title characters make an informative comparison to Sam and Max.

Both are duos of comic characters created in the 1980s who have a great deal of cultural prestige despite not being as popular as, say, Snoopy. Where the two diverge is in tone. Calvin and Hobbes certainly had a satirical streak, overtly parodying Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Superman‘s overheated prose styles and flashy artwork. Wattersons’ characters also often took opportunities to mock disposable American consumer culture, conveying their creator’s well-known aversion to commercialism. The comic strip could also have a genuinely curious spirit to it, mocking hypocrisy but openly celebrating creativity and the wonder of nature. Sam and Max, however, descends from the Looney Tunes lineage. In all of its incarnations, the characters are manic, frequently self-aware, and almost totally amoral, committed to causing chaos and raising Cain. It’s not hard to see the deranged, sharp-toothed lagomorph Max as a 1980s update of Bugs Bunny with an appetite for destruction and a craving for stomach-churning junk food.

But now I want to focus less on the characters of Sam and Max themselves and more on their relationship to that junk food. And cheap toupees, celebrity-shaped gourds, circus freaks, and the world’s largest ball of twine. Yes, this is another salvo in my ongoing discussion of kitsch, the commoditized lifeblood of the American art market, the river of tripe that New York galleries blissfully glide over like unicorns in a summer meadow. One of Sam and Max’s defining characteristics is their prostration before almighty plastic doodads and greasy processed foods. They are head-over-heels ironically in love with everything chintzy and pandering. In many ways, they are the ideal post-Fordist consumers: ironically detached and able to mock the hell out of knick-knacks and fried foods but only too willing to purchase tons of it. In the comics, games, and the television show Sam and Max: Freelance Police (the first game being our main topic for the evening), the characters have an ambivalent relationship to filth and junk. They are “skeptical hedonists,” savants of the known-to-be-bad. Observe the following typical exchange:

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Text: Sam says, “It’s one of those impossible-to-win carny games that have been ripping off the American consumer for decades!”

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Text: Max says, “I love capitalism.”

 This conversation happens early in the game and serves to establish the tone of the piece. Sam, the more moral one of the pair, sports both a faux-Bogart voice and a withered sense of duty. Max, on the other hand, is more like the aforementioned Bugs Bunny mixed with the Tasmanian Devil. His heart is in it for the anarchy, with any attachment to the cause of justice being tenuous at best. Jokes like this function in a specific way: they call attention to social problems, trite tropes, or other unpleasant business, but lacking any kind of critical edge. There is no imperative to the punchline because the jokes are subsumed in a text that dissolves everything into a cartoon triviality. The pace of such lines works differently in an adventure game than in a television show, of course. In a TV show, episodes develop themes and incidents over time in a linear fashion, which means that jokes can play off of one another and relate to each other in time in a very specific way. In a game, on the other hand, every joke is its own self-contained bit.

The little gag shown above happens when the player inspects a carnival game, which may not ever even happen. Of course, for the joke to work it still has to be in-character and have good internal timing, but the flow of language in the game is not predetermined or holistic but highly contextual: click on something and be rewarded for a joke. It’s a different kind of humor, and because of that these “political” jokes have even less impact than they would in the show. Lines like this pertain to a single situation, producing a witty retort or maybe some back-and-forth leading to a punchline, after which the player clicks on something different. There is a flow, and themes and plot lines do develop, but there’s nothing incisive or biting about it; it’s parody but, ironically given Max’s grin, toothless.

Chuck Kleinhaus notes that parody is “persistent under conditions of advanced capitalism. Parody stands as a means of accommodation to things that people think they cannot change.”¹ Sam and Max are almost utterly unprincipled, which is a winning trait for cartoon characters because they can embody a pleasant fantasy of consequence-free mayhem. It would be wrong of us, though, to mistake wry jokes as being in any way subversive. Let’s look at another gag to see another example of what I mean. The setup is that Max is appalled by the fact that the Siamese twins who own the local carnival are technically naked since their skin just grows as green vinyl––it makes little more sense in context––whereupon Sam reminds Max that he is also naked. Max responds:

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Text: Max says, “Yeah, but I’m cute and marketable.”

I have to concede that, of the two technically naked characters in this scene, Max is easier on the eyes. More to the point, what we have here is a self-aware commodity. Not only that, but the mascot characters in this capitalist entertainment product are fully aware of their being shills for a game company. What’s notable is that not only are Sam and Max utterly at peace with their kitschy American world, they are knowingly kitsch themselves.

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Pictured: the kitschy world of Sam and Max: Hit the Road.

To delve once more into the scholarly realm, let’s quote Kleinhaus one more time:

The characteristic parody of self-aware kitsch promotes what John Fiske has called “skeptical hedonism” in audience response to much mass-culture documentary, that is, we all know this is a fantasy, but we want in on the fun of such phenomena, for example, as television wrestling or supermarket tabloid headlines. In this duality of response, self-aware kitsch is related to, or overlaps with, Camp.²

What we have here is an explicit example of what modern advertising thrives on: its ability to convince its audience that it is in on the joke. At this point, satires of advertising are often actually advertising themselves, showing to me that satire is ultimately toothless as a tool for social change. As long as capitalism needs to stoke consumer demand to absorb its immense surplus and avoid crises, advertising will evolve in response to culture’s attempts to render it impotent. People become aware of advertising ploys and, like in Sam and Max, call attention to them and make a show of being unaffected. Coincidentally, Bill Watterson provides us with an apt demonstration of this process:

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Text: Calvin says: “Another thing to remember about popular culture is that today’s TV-reared audience is hip and sophisticated. This stuff doesn’t affect us. We can separate fact from fiction. We understand satire and irony. We’re detached and jaded viewers who aren’t influenced by what we watch. ” Hobbes says: “I think I hear advertisers laughing.” Calvin says: “Hold on. I need to inflate my basketball shoes.”

Ultimately, Sam and Max make for weak satirists because they rarely draw connections between the obvious shortcomings of their daily lives and deeper social determinants. That doesn’t make them unfunny or bad cartoon characters, but as parodies or satires go, they seem distinctly lacking in substance. There’s no edge to them, which makes them, as Max astutely points out, marketable. But that tends to mean the opposite of critical, and Sam and Max tend to want to have their cake and eat it too a little too often. Though, with sweet teeth like theirs, I’m sure that sounds delightful to them.

Notes:

1. Chuck Kleinhaus, “Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody,” in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Moe Meyer (New York: Routledge, 1994), 171.

2. Ibid, 160.

Christian Kitsch #9: Archie’s World

Tigers keep large territories, but tend to be insular creatures, preferring the superior company of our own thoughts to the intrusions of others. This is why it’s hard for tigers to develop a cosmopolitan streak; why fantasize about pouncing on some poor sap on the Champs d’Elysee if there’s a stagnant pool right around the corner just waiting to be waded in? I, on the other hand, have acquired a taste for the exotic, the kind of wanderlust that pushed Marco Polo down the Silk Road and led to the hoarding fetish that produced the modern British Museum. Luckily, Archie is here to take us on an adventure that’s sure to satisfy that restless streak.

Where are the "We are not a costume" people when you need them?

Where are the “We are not a costume” people when you need them?

Well, this is no an auspicious beginning. Not only has Archie plainly appropriated other cultures’ hatwear, but has also paid the ultimate price––beheading. No sign of anything below the neck on this cover. Maybe that’s a stylistic choice that will carry throughout the entire issue. Possibly indicating something about how your physical form gets “lost” when traveling because of all the newness you have to absorb.

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Well, the first page seems to continue the trend, though luckily we are not going to be subjected with a cavalcade of Archie heads solipsistically chatting to each other about foreign cuisine. A few things stick out to me about this page. 1.) The globe is entirely covered in water, suggesting that Waterworld has become a reality and fish people now rule the universe. Either that, or we’ve been able to terraform Europa and founded submarine lobster-fishing colonies there. 2.) Big Ethel seems to have a startlingly binary view of both geography and morality. Luckily, the world is a sphere and not shaped like a gigantic sheet of notebook paper. I know Marx wrote that history progresses on its bad side, but I don’t think that’s what old Al Hartley, son of a union buster, had in mind when writing that. 3.) The Earth is smoking and has dizzy stars cascading off of it. Apparently, the oceans have become far more geologically volatile in the Archie universe. Enough with the first page! We have yet to scratch the racist surface of this issue.

The next couple of pages explain our plot: Archie and friends are going gallivanting around the world on a quest to visit missionaries and see them propagate the Word of God to the heathens all over the world. What is their first destination? None other than Travis Bickle hometown New York City! Naturally. Hopefully they can get to the poor guy before he, well, spoils the end of Taxi Driver for everyone. One of the flight attendants (?) on the plane hears their destination and gasps:

Archie New York City

Time’s Square had such a distinct flavor before Giuliani, I must admit. I honestly prefer the fedora-sporting thugs to the costumed kitsch merchants.

Apparently the writers of Jungle 2 Jungle actually had something. Not much, but something. After looking at the weird post-deluge globe on the first page, you might assume that Archie is referring to the fact that the world’s cities were mostly reforested in kelp and coral reefs after the Second Flood. But no, he mostly means that cities have become hives for heathens and dens of degeneracy. Archie could make Rorschach and Travis Bickle proud, now that I think about it.

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Archie’s whirlwind tour has already taken him from New York to London and to Paris in a single page. Despite all that jet lag, the jolly crew has managed to accost, encourage, and leer at multiple sinners. Though their sins seem restricted to looking like they take drugs and hanging out in somewhat Bohemian locations. Since we’re given no reason to believe that the orange-haired, black-moustached chap in the second panel has a good reason for speaking to the poor woman there, I have to presume that he’s offering her Jack Chick tracts or something. Those tracts and that hair are probably both grounds to be arrested as a public nuisance. At any rate, we continue with the cavalcade of urban locations before settling into the meat of the issue: short stories about exotic locations.

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I checked, and there are in fact crocodiles in Tanzania. You got me this time, Al Hartley.

Yes, we can expect a bonanza of cultural sensitivity from what follows, I am sure. Of course, this being the 70s, these kids would be familiar with the American-backed plot to overthrow the socialist republic of Zanzibar and forcibly unite it with the friendly regime in mainland Tanganyika to form modern Tanzania. Armed with such information, they just traipse into the rain forest with nary a bit of bug spray. Shame, that.

Naturally, Jughead has difficulty adapting to his new environment, leading him to pine for McDonald’s. The missionary gives the following retort:

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Have to wedge that panel of a toucan and a monkey right in there, don’t you, Hartley?

Of course nothing about American culture seeps through when American missionaries are allowed to proselytize an American religion to complete strangers in Tanzania. I’m against all forms of proselytization in public places, which I’m sure is a minority position in some places, but one has to agree that the naivety here is astonishing. Of course, the role of American missionaries in, say, getting bills that will execute people for being gay in Uganda hadn’t become an issue yet. Plus, this is for children and you need to whitewash the whole enterprise in order to make its subtle colonialism more palatable.

A couple of short stories later, we’re in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan that has remained a semi-active war zone for decades. Suffice to say that they stumble into a nameless city during a “carnival” celebration and immediately set up a rock and roll band in the open. For some reason.

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While I’m not sure you would be able to openly set up a Jesus concert banner in the middle of a non-Christian (they never specify which religion) holiday, nor would I imagine the reception being so immediately warm, I am sure that this idea about people just attempting to buy random women with cow barter is complete hogwash. Cow-wash.

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Of course, the core message of the book isn’t hard to glean at this point. People who embrace Jesus no longer have any serious problems. Or, at the very least, they know that all problems can be solved with Jesus. Human trafficking could never happen in a Christian country, says this idea. Women are going to be enslaved wherever Christ isn’t. Of course, that last panel is meant as a direct jab at feminism, appropriating the concept of a liberated woman and tying it directly to simply converting to Christianity. Lurking in the background here at all times is the notion that the United States is a superior nation because of its Christianity, which is an idea that stretches far back in the colonial period. It directly fed the British idea of the “white man’s burden” and the French “civilizing mission” in Africa and India. Spanish colonization had an especially cozy relationship with conversion, that being one of the major justifications for forcibly interning native people in plantation labor and forcing them to work in the mines. Archie’s World might be a relic of a less judicious time, but that by no means implies that these kinds of attitudes don’t still contaminate all missionary work today. American missionaries work under the protective banner of the world’s most powerful military and a state that might mete out major punishments if these missionaries are forced out or not admitted in the first place. And there would be no point in being a missionary if you didn’t believe that you were somehow superior to the people you were coming to, at the very least by virtue of being Christian while they are not. It’s messianism of the most vulgar sort.

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This very well-educated man––he knows English so he must have had some schooling––has a point. Of course, he is a prop written by a conservative hack who has a blatant streak of paternalistic racism running right through his coronary artery. So I think we can safely put the rest of this issue to bed rather quickly. Oh, but first we have to discredit other religions with a catchy parable.

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Buddha and Confucius are just jerks. That’s what it comes down to. Anyone who knew a thing about Siddhartha Gautama or Confucius would know that they were models of ethical fortitude. If anything, Confucianism has a far more elaborate and sophisticated moral code than Christianity, the latter of which has tended to downplay acts of righteousness in favour of the idea of grace. That is probably the message here. What’s going on is that these people are metonyms for their religions. Christ for Christianity, etc. Confucius is a doddering old moralizer. Buddha just told people to think their way out of their problems––yeah, I’m sure that’s what Buddhism teaches. And Jesus, though divine grace, lifts the human race out of its predicaments. Let’s move on. I’m going to skip the anti-Communist tract about Hong Kong or the patronizing story about Myanmar and close out our discussion.

Screenshot 2014-11-30 13.19.38Luckily, the comic leaves its message crystal clear by the end. Namely this: it reaffirms the traditional Christian commitment to missionary work. The twist is that it argues that introducing Christianity to the world will be some kind of panacea for global problems. Accepting Jesus is the key to “the good life,” in their word, establishing a one-to-one correlation between conversion and life improvement. In many ways, it’s not too distant from the self-help and New Age craze the hippies inaugurated in the 60s. It’s a simple restatement of old Christian/American values with a groovy coat of comic printers’ ink.

Archie’s World is probably the most difficult of the old Spire comics to get through. It’s short on hilarity or absurdity except in short bursts, and its constant stereotyping and patronizing make it a slog to read. Unfortunately, the missionary industry is still thriving today, and you can hardly walk into a church, especially of a more conservative bent, without the requisite bulletin board celebrating junior colonizers’ escapades into the pagan wilderness. OK, I’m done. Time to gnaw on a deer carcass and reflect on the wonderful fact that, no matter how much filth he may have put into the world, at least Al Hartley is in a cold grave.

Christian Kitsch #7: Archie’s Love Scene

033. Archie's Love Scene

A long time ago, in an unfathomable land between the civilizations of Canada and Mexico, a pasty comic book character named Archie became the subject of a whole series of deeply terrible Christian propaganda comics. Entrancing and yet repellant, the source of much derision and laughter, the comics had an aura of silly glory all their own. Though they appeared simple and plain, and truth be told had less intelligence and wit than the barrel of salted peanuts I’m gnawing on right now, they nonetheless brought delight to many. How they did so is a mystery best left to the mists of time. It has been too long since I have set my critical gaze upon the Spire Comics’ run of Archie issues. Today, I will be correcting this with a special Valentine’s Day edition of Christian Kitsch. It is time to enter the surprisingly erotic and fraught adolescent world of Archie yet again with an examination of Archie’s Love Scene. 

This comic is a compilation of short segments separated by vague themes and bookended by Bible verses. All of the segments address love as a topic, but in quite different and sometimes contradictory ways. Of course, those who are familiar with these comics and their writer/mastermind Al Hartley will know what to expect from Spire’s attempt to talk about love: upbeat preaching, regressive gender stereotypes, and a worldview so thoroughly whitewashed that Tom Sawyer would be sheepish around it.

Now for the comic itself:

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One page in, and we are already in the realm of this grizzled father’s worst nightmare: his daughter Veronica eloping with Archie through a window. His expression is not angry, contorted with so much sheer terror that all the vanilla custard is spraying from inside his head. I’m hoping that my own parents weren’t so nearly terrified by the thought that I might waltz out of the house on a ladder and elope in high school.

Of course, Archie and Veronica are not about to skip out to Vegas to pay Rev. Elvis a visit, right?

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The dialogue makes the excuse that Veronica didn’t want to wake anyone up, but, as we see, the ladder clanging on the side of the house was probably much louder than quietly sneaking down the stairs would have been. Enough of the superficial nitpicking, though. What is this comic trying to tell us about love? First of all, Veronica calms down her father’s conniptions (and leave Archie slack-jawed) by asserting that she knows “what the Bible says about real love and marriage.” Well, I know that the Apostle Paul thought that it was better not to marry and that the Old Testament is a veritable minefield of terrible marriage advice and doomed couples. For starters, just ask Leah how she felt being forced to marry a man who didn’t want her and thought she was her own sister. And then have tons of kids with him. Or all the times in the OT where the Bible just skips over the existence of women and talks about fathers just begetting sons, presumably emerging chest-burster style.

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First Lesson About Love: God will bring you your soul mate, to the horrified dismay of your aging WASP father.

The second part of the comic is about expert playboy Reggie, who demonstrates the kind of tactical error you don’t want to make while using weaponized Valentine’s cards.

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I can only presume that Reggie thought he had better chances with his four-pronged maneuver than focusing on a single woman at a time. It’s hard to tell, but I like to think that he got all four of them together, handed them all a card, and said “OK, now you can kill each other for me.” And instead they go Lord of the Flies on him. This page ends with a verse from the Bible (what, were you expecting the Qur’an?): “Love one another as I have loved you.” That comes from John 15:12. I assume that Jesus did not have a barrage of giant Valentine cards in mind when he said that.

Second Lesson About Love: Love the way that Jesus did–one woman at a time.

Prepare for a massive tone shift as we transition from a playful tale about an eviscerated playboy to a far more macabre yarn. Fearful Archie and hapless Jughead are about to take a ride through what appears to be the Christian version of a horror-themed roller coaster.

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“The weather is zilch,” Jughead? I concede that the dense overhanging forest does make it seem like there is no weather. The color of the sky in the top panel is perfectly ambiguous and all of the green fog ribbons appear to be emanating from the forest floor. Of course, we all know who the green-robed figure looming in the distance along a forest road is. Right?

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Jughead makes a point to register his astonishment at the cloaked woman’s peculiar fashion sense, but that’s the least of our concerns with this bizarro page. For those of you without an encyclopedic knowledge of Biblical prophecy, the person they have just picked up, named Mystery, is the legendary Whore of Babylon. Archie’s blatantly irresponsible driving and panicked expression are quite understandable in this case, since he just picked up a prostitute. Not only a prostitute, but one who represents all the depravity and worldly delights that send a shiver down the spine of any Revelation-reading, rapture-anticipating fundamentalist. I think it pays to be a bit skeptical of Jughead’s fearful ranting about Mystery, though, because it’s not as though she did anything bad to them. She just invites herself into the car, which apparently doesn’t set off any alarms at first, and sits there before vanishing. Granted, vanishing into thin air fall short of conventional behavior for forest-stalking symbolic ciphers for corruption and evil, but the two strapping straight men in the front of the car appear unscathed.

The next page has the gang running into a whole crew of Scooby-Doo worthy vices, including crime, fear, and hate.

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Being licked is Jughead’s greatest fear, for reasons he would prefer to keep in the dark.

This parade of hitchhiking weirdos still seems far from threatening, with the exception of Crime. He relieves our protagonists of their summer job money and beats it. That makes me suspect that he was just an actual criminal and not a hazy symbol like the rest, since he doesn’t look at all like the other apparitions. Of course, like any morality play, this comic needs to come to a shiny conclusion where the sinners on their wayward road are rescued by the powers of heaven.

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What a delightful turn of events! Not only have Archie and Jughead gotten clear of the forest and rid of the vile vagabonds that inhabit it, they now have a triple-double-date lined up. The comic wants us to think that these ivory-skinned beauties are eminent representatives of heaven, but I’m not entirely sure. For one, if the devil actually wanted to to corrupt the character of Hot Blooded All American Boys©, a triad of alluring sirens would seem a craftier plan than throwing random vagrants into the back of their car. Perhaps I’m being too presumptuous. After all, we should see how the comic ends before rendering judgment.

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Let’s do some math. Blonde woman=love. Love=God. God=ready to touch your life this minute. I have to say, that’s too close to pagan temple prostitution for my virtuous heart. While Reggie can’t get away with trying to proposition four girls simultaneously, God has seen fit to deliver unto this doofy pair three companions. Clearly, they are the chosen ones, or else the Almighty would not favor them with His “touch.”

I hope we’re all getting a sense of the somewhat split-minded attitude this comic has toward sex and love in relationships. In a more coherent and better-constructed work, I would assume this was evidence of some kind of intelligent ambiguity on the topic. In Archie’s Love Scene, though, I think it’s more symptomatic of sheer incompetence. We’re going to skip ahead through some of the more boring segments, though one about Betty’s diary entry pining for Archie deserves some notice. The comic shows her writing in her journal about her unrequited love for the titular character, before dismissing it as mere selfishness. She has to submit to God’s will for her life, she decides, and eventually the comic concludes this way:

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God not only touches people, he fills them up too. I suppose we’re given a disclaimer that God’s love is wholesome and pure. The comic becomes more absurd and far more interestingly queer when you assume that all of the comics are in continuity with one another. Why? So we know that God’s love has previously been equated with a blonde woman with a red rose in her hair. Taking that into account, we could read Betty’s “stepping out of the darkness” and wanting to snuggle up to God’s Love a sign of her realizing she’s more into women after all, though she makes allowances for when she wants to be filled up with God Himself. Not to mention that last panel. Jughead does look slightly catatonic, leaning against Archie’s shoulder that way. But Archie is grabbing him with some vigor, and even though he’s torn himself away from Jughead’s gaze to focus on the newly liberated Betty, there is a tiny bit of homoromantic subtext going on here.

The depressing reality, of course, is that this is all Christian propaganda encouraging women to put up with stupid men because being a good Christian will make you more desirable to the “right” man. Given this bleak reality, you will understand my desire to find a subversive reading or two in there. Especially since, not one segment later, Archie is out on a Smooching Cliff in a car with yet another woman. Veronica said she was a player, but Archie sure seems to get around himself.

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One problem with more aggressively propagandistic Christian kitsch is that it often doesn’t understand what it’s trying to fight against, and ends up stomping all over its overall message in exchange for taking potshots at its favorite villains. For instance, Suzy, taken with Archie for some unknown reason, is inordinately passionate about the stars, so much so that she seems completely oblivious to his erotic advances. He, being the sensitive, insecure male that he is, makes creepy claw hands and demands that she let him plant a kiss on her. While he’s clearly turned on by all the talk about Saturn(alia) and Jupiter, he seems to take offense at her astrological interests.

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Let’s stop to appreciate the breathtaking grandeur of what the author has done here. Ostensibly, this whole comic book is supposed to be a treatise on various aspects of love. It’s meant to impart virtue, defend against vice, uphold dust-dull bourgeois family values, that whole familiar tune. Up to this point, the comic has at least respected individual agency and condemned just the sort of tryst that Archie appears to be on at the moment. After all, we had paranoid white-haired WASP father panicking just because his daughter was using a ladder to leave the house. At this point, though, we’re being asked to sympathize with Archie–because he doesn’t hold any stock in that astrology nonsense!–at the point where he is not only alone with a woman in a car at night, but attempting to force himself on someone. It’s clear that he only cares about her proclivity toward less-than-rational adherence to horoscopes only after it’s clear he’s not getting any. Ask me why this travesty of a page belongs in a paternalistic comic book teaching children the values of monogamy and letting God into your life. I dare you. Though I suppose this kind of male jerkery being excused is perfectly consistent with the patriarchal, feudalistic claptrap the rest of this comic is selling. Which is more depressing still.

That would be a good place to end, but there is one more segment that tickles my fancy, and I would be remiss, nay, I would make a mockery of my blog without bringing your attention to this gem.

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Yes, the dog wants to be a hippy. Throw off your chains, canine! Set that ignoramus in his place. Once you put him in jeans, hip sandals, and a counter-culture headband, he looks almost as human as the crudely drawn hominids around him. Of course, the creators couldn’t resist pairing him up with the “ugly girl,”  but otherwise things look up for our social-climbing dog.

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What begins as a glorious expropriation of the expropriator and a liberation from the chains of dog-hood ends in decadence and alienation. I love that the story being told here almost exactly parallels the much-ballyhooed fall of the Baby Boomers from the youth in revolt to the kind of people who, well, watch Disney cartoons, waterski, go driving in a convertible, and listen to music on their expensive stereos. It’s weirdly prescient for a comic written in the 70s. Reaganite excess–prophesied in Archie, folks.

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Alas, alack, the ruler of the household is not to be downtrodden for long. A skinny, lunkheaded dude with a stripy T-shirt can only live on dog food for so long before he gets furious. With the proper human order reestablished, our yuppy dog ponders all his unanswered questions with a pensive expression. He follows his master, but class consciousness, once won, is difficult to get rid of. Jughead’s appointment of the guillotine has only been postponed, my friends. Faith is the answer, people. A romantic notion if I ever heard one.

There is a small coda about following Jesus, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been covered in previous posts, so I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that it’s been immensely pleasurable taking apart another Spire Comics monstrosity, and hope that by staring into its black and banal abyss we will conduct ourselves better this Valentine’s Day. Whatever your relationship status, take heart! For God will touch you and fill you up if you let Him. Adieu!

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