A Tentative Return

So I finally made it to an English graduate program that has oodles of comics resources and an up-and-coming cohort of people interested in video games. I have more work now than I ever did in undergrad, but I’ve been wanting to get this blog up and going again, so now is better than never!

I don’t exactly know what direction I’ll be taking this, nor do I know exactly when I’ll be able to have regular posts coming up again. I’ll be sorting all of this out in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’m going to attempt to get some academic bibliographies-in-progress up, in case anyone’s hurting for resources having to do with comics, video games, and pop culture in general.

I hope it’s been a good two-ish years for everyone!

video games

SUPER MEAT BOY = The Jungle revisited?

So, I’ve been playing a lot of video games. (At least, as many as I’ve been able to get to while my research program is going on. Tough times, right?) Among those is Team Meat’s addicting and infuriating platformer SUPER MEAT BOY.  In this game, you play as a little block of meat and try to get from one side of the level to the other, where Meat Boy’s cutie-Q girlfriend Bandage Girl is waiting.

Oh, and there are blades.

Blades everywhere.

If you’re successful in navigating through the level, you’ll momentarily reunite with your beloved, only for Dr. Fetus (a monocle-sportin’, spaceman-lookin’ kind of dude) for pop out of nowhere and steal Bandage Girl away from you again. Womp womp. This is the basic routine for Super Meat Boy’s 300 or so levels.

As much as I’m used to playing some strange games (BINDING OF ISAAC, anyone?) I still haven’t stopped wondering why the hell someone decided to make a game that features a main character made out of raw meat. Of course, the English major in me delights in this conflict, because it means I get to do my favorite thing:

Read into the gameplay!

The longer I kept thinking about Meat Boy, the more I kept coming back to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. This incredibly depressing book was on the summer reading list for my 10th grade English class. I was really unexcited about having to read this old, stuffy literature, but I really ended up enjoying the book once I actually got down to it.

If you haven’t made it over to Sinclair’s corner of the lit-o-sphere, I’ll give you the basic rundown of what happens in the book.

Immigrants move to America. America sucks. Working in factories really sucks. Working in meat factories is especially awful, because you get to see all of the gross, diseased meat that is somehow allowed to be packaged for human consumption. (Gag…)

So, call me crazy, but I can’t help but be reminded of Sinclair’s seminal muckraking text when I start playing Super Meat Boy and see…meat. 

So. Much. Meat. Meat, dripping its gross meat juices all over the place, getting all over walls, working into the crevices between spikes on the floor. (Okay, that part probably wasn’t in The Jungle.)

Let’s begin to unpack (HA! Get it? Like meat! Like unpacking meat!) the greatness that is Super Meat Boy.

Say MEAT!

I took this screenshot moments before falling into the boiling sea of meat.

The first thing you’ll notice about Super Meat Boy (or SMB from here on out) is that there is meat and meat juice everywhere. I’m not gonna lie. I was kind of grossed out by this at the beginning, which is what sparked the correlation I saw between the game and The Jungle, which is also pretty gross.

My reading of the game goes like this:

The Protagonist – Of course, our meaty protagonist has to be Jurgis Rudkus, the tenacious immigrant who is willing to work a dangerous job at the meatpacking factory to support his family. If you’ve read the book, you know that Jurgis has a pretty rough time for the entire book. With gruesome workplace accidents occurring throughout the text, the reader is always stuck wondering if Jurgis will be the next person to have his arm cut off in some terrible factory catastrophe. So when I look at our little meat pal, affectionately called Super Meat Lad (in my head), I find something similar in the struggle he faces throughout the game. Just like Jurgis is fighting to protect everything he holds dear, Super Meat Lad is doing his best to recover the love of his life, Bandage Girl.

I’m also reminded of the way Jurgis and his family are talked into buying a home that they cannot afford, which puts them in a precarious financial situation that results in them losing everything they have. Bandage Girl doesn’t seem to have many assets. Just saying. And the villain reminds me an awful lot of the Americans who are bent on making Jurgis’s life a living hell.

The Scenery – SMB is all about industrial, factory-like settings. Obviously, the levels and the obstacles within them vary from stage to stage, but this only makes the connection between the game and Jurgis’s forced commitment to his terrible job more prominent. The player literally cannot escape from the filthy environment, in which meat juices end up covering every surface as the character navigates the level, and the player must constantly be aware of dangerous aspects of the environment. I’m pretty sure that the dangers in The Jungle were justified by a sick commitment to keeping costs low and were not a conscious effort to kill the book’s characters (although I sometimes wondered if this couldn’t be the case….). In the case of SMB, of course, the aim is to make the level difficult. There’s something poetic about leaping over lethal fans that makes me want to reach into The Jungle and give ole’ Jurgis a pat on the back. Or a hug. Or possibly antidepressants. 

I know most of this sounds humorous, and it’s meant to be. However, I think it’s about time that we start looking at games critically the same way we look at literature. Obviously the creators of any given game are bringing their life experiences to the table, which means that the game will automatically be touched by its creators’ experiences in the same way an author brings his or her experience to works of prose.

I’m sure there’s more to say about this game, but that’s all I have at the moment.

What do you think about Super Meat Boy? Simple game or adorable, meat-filled piece of literary brilliance?

Happy reading!

LH

Sorry for the delay

I usually try to post graphic novel reviews every Thursday, but a fortunate (unfortunate for this blog) set of circumstances is currently keeping me from doing so. As I write, I am waiting at the airport for my plane to La Crosse, WI for an undergraduate research conference. As a growing scholar, I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to get feedback on my research. A similar opportunity will have me out of town next week as well. 

As irritating as it feels to break the semi-regular posting schedule, I beg for cooperation until this flurry of activity dies down.

(On the bright side, if I get permission from the publisher, I may be able to put up some reviews that have been published online recently.)

 

I hope everyone is well! Keep reading!

-LH

film

Really Old Movies: Grey Gardens

Edith Bouvier Beale

Edith Bouvier Beale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In lieu of a new graphic novel review, this week you get an extra edition of Really Old Movies.

A crew of filmmakers find their way into the dilapidated mansion of a pair of possibly-schizophrenic high society dropouts, set up their cameras, and begin filming one of the biggest cult classics in the cinéma vérité canon. Grey Gardens is a fascinating case study in eccentricity and an eerily prescient harbinger of the reality TV craze that’s given us Hoarders, Dance Moms, and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. While it may seem blasphemous to compare the Maysles’ revered documentary to programs widely regarded as trash, they operate on the same basic principle: we, the media consuming audience, enjoy watching bizarre, trashy behavior because it confirms for us that we, at least, are better than the people on the screen.

The Beales, Big and Little Edie, were a pair of distant relatives of Jackie Kennedy who came briefly into the public eye after it was revealed that their expansive estate, the titular Grey Gardens, had fallen into an unbelievable state of disrepair, with rooms piled high with garbage, stacks on stacks of worthless trinkets, and a large population of cats occupying the premises along with the mother and daughter. An embarrassed Kennedy quickly had the estate renovated well enough to keep the city from condemning it, but soon after, a pair of enterprising documentarians began convincing the Beales to allow a camera crew in to film their living conditions.

The footage they captured is fascinating, of course, in the classic train wreck style we’ve come to expect from reality programming. The Beales wax poetic on their days as high society women, surrounded on all sides by garbage, Big Edie in a nightgown and straw hat, her daughter always adorned with a colorful headscarf. The juxtaposition of grandiose narratives of courtings and debutante balls against the sheer squalor of the Grey Gardens estate is so perfect that it couldn’t be scripted; in true vérité fashion, the Maysles simply set up the camera and let the Beales weave a narrative that couldn’t be any eerier for all the music or narration in the world.

But the ethical question remains: what responsibility did the filmmakers have to these women? Anyone in her right mind would surely be humiliated to be seen in the condition the Beales have found themselves in, yet these women parade around for the cameras like Gloria Swanson: oblivious and deluded by visions of their own long-forgotten glamour. To what extent did the filmmakers allow these women to believe what they wanted to about the nature of the film? Surely they didn’t understand it for what it really was, a modern-day circus sideshow where the buttoned-down middle-class audience comes to gawk at the freaks.

The fact remains that, ethical considerations aside, Grey Gardens is a near-flawless example of the potential of vérité filmmaking. The narrative unfolds clearly and powerfully through simple editing of an enormous amount of footage into a cohesive whole; no soundtrack, narration or staged interviews are necessary to bring the viewer into the Beales’ world. But it’s worth asking ourselves what price we’re willing to pay to be entertained by people like this. Is the manipulation of these clearly oblivious people justified by commitment to truth, or even by the remarkable final product? It’s a question we’ll have to answer for ourselves before the next episode of Sixteen and Pregnant.

film

Really Old Movies: The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth (film)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1976, no one believed anymore that David Bowie was an alien. It was four years since the youth of the world had been captivated by the soulful croon of Ziggy Stardust, and in that time Bowie the man had transformed into the Thin White Duke, a persona far removed from the otherworldly freakiness of the past, and heavily indicative of his increasing dependence on cocaine. It was an interesting decision, then, when Nicholas Roeg cast him as strung-out alien outcast Thomas Jerome Newton, a character who seemed to blend elements of the Duke, Ziggy, and Bowie himself.

The basic plot of Roeg’s film concerns Newton, an alien sent to earth to bring back water that will save his dying planet. This is basic genre stuff, but Roeg uses it as an excuse to explore the subtleties of human loneliness in a meandering, surreal, rhapsodic piece of film.

At the risk of spoiling the ending, Newton never succeeds in his mission to save his home planet. This is mostly immaterial. We are told within the first few minutes of exposition how long he has before it will be too late; in the film’s vast scope, it almost immediately becomes clear that that time will run out with little effect on Newton. It doesn’t matter that the last members of his species die slowly of dehydration (we see them occasionally, wandering in the desert for implied eons); what matters is Newton. Nothing is stopping him from saving his species; he simply gets bored. The distractions of life on earth—money, love—seem both irrelevant and fascinating to him. Roeg shows us an alien afflicted with all-too-human human ailments: ennui, disaffection, and overwhelming irony.

The sci-fi affectations are, at best, plot devices employed in the service of a grander narrative. When Newton is unmasked as an alien, he looks like nothing so much as David Bowie in a rubber mask and colored contacts. The few glimpses we are given of his home planet make it look a bit like an old trolley line in a dust storm. Even the plot doesn’t hold up to scrutiny—if there are so few aliens left, why not simply bring them all too earth and assimilate into human society?

None of this matters too much. The Man Who Fell to Earth is not a science fiction film, it is an exploration of the unsatisfying nature of industrialized society in the 1970s—with aliens. The 60s were over, Ziggy Stardust was dead, and cynicism was taking root. Here is a film about an alien’s time on earth, spread out over the decades of the 20th century, yet it never escapes from being a film about 1976.

In 1977, Bowie would move to Berlin to kick cocaine and begin one of the most acclaimed periods of his career, the “Berlin trilogy.” Low, the album that marked a transition into a new period of creative energy for Bowie, would repurpose an unused soundtrack from The Man Who Fell to Earth, a haunting, experimental epic that permanently put to rest the glam-rock days of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie had given up plans for a feature film following Ziggy’s exploits, but in a way, The Man Who Fell to Earth is more honest about the character than any rock musical extravaganza could have been. Here, he is not Ziggy, a tragic symbol of the rock and roll revolution; he is Newton, a lonely, bored man who seeks but never finds companionship and happiness. There is no glorious rock and roll suicide for Bowie here; Newton will live on, knowing that his family is dead, pondering his own actions, but always surviving and always looking for something to kill the time.

comics

[REVIEW] Krishna by Abhishek Singh

Abhishek Singh’s brand-new graphic novel “Krishna: A Journey Within” adds an entirely new level of depth to the phrase “It’s lonely at the top.” Of course, we already knew about this phenomenon. Take celebrities as an example. By virtue of their fame, stars are isolated by the constant threat of paparazzi, ever-present fans, and (God forbid) stalkers. Now, imagine that the person in the situation is not Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lawrence, but is instead the god responsible for rekrishnastoring balance to the earth. If that doesn’t raise the stakes, I don’t know what will.

“Krishna” follows its titular hero from humble origins to glorious death. In between are scenes of war, which can get gruesome, and even the occasional scene of love. Whether good or bad, all of the events are filled with emotion. Writing about Krishna, an incredibly important figure in the Hindu faith, is a tall order. I can only imagine the pains with which Singh considered what words to attribute to the legendary god, his god. Singh’s care—and not to mention talent—is evident in many crucial points in the narrative. Take, for instance, the moment at which Krishna speaks with a warrior who is reluctant to go to war. “Be like the tree that does not mourn the falling of the autumn leaf,” Krishna cautions his subordinate. To restore balance to the world, unpleasant measures must be taken. Singh’s writing shines in such heartfelt passages, but not for the entirety of the narrative. The flow of Singh’s beautiful words is broken every now and then by awkward passages, such as the strained couplets recited by a villainous uncle at the beginning of the novel. As in other parts of the book, this section is an example of a good idea that didn’t rise to its full potential.

I wish I could say that Singh’s illustrations, at least, were consistent. After all, Singh’s style is impressive in a way that most standalone art isn’t able to achieve. His character designs lay a strong foundation for the written narrative. Krishna’s portrayal as a lithe, attractive young man allows Singh to communicate the young god’s sensitivity. Because Krishna is so often drawn with billowing hair and delicate, pursed lips, it feels perfectly natural for the character to give a great deal of thought to the meaning of life. Singh also has a gift for drawing landscapes that are colorful, expansive, and yet intricately detailed. Interspersed throughout the text are standalone backgrounds. Largely unoccupied by text, these masterful landscapes exude an almost holy feeling. Although the images definitely serve their purpose in the text, they would not feel out of place in a sacred setting. If nothing else, they deserve an exhibition of their own. With all of this said, it breaks my heart to say that the art was downright distracting in a few areas. One particular scene comes to mind, in which the same picture is examined at a closer and closer distance over the course of two pages. Instead of drawing the same viewpoint from a closer perspective, it appears as if someone clicked the “Zoom” button on a computer. The close-up panels are devoid of the charming complexity that is characteristic of Singh’s illustrations to the point that the image is slightly blurred. A couple of similar instances occur at different points in the book, as well.

Despite its inconsistencies, “Krishna: A Journey Within” is an incredible graphic novel. The story is touching and interesting and the majority of the writing and art is wonderfully executed. There are inconsistencies that break the flow of the narrative, but that doesn’t keep Singh’s novel from being an excellent one.

film

Really Old Movies: Rashomon

Cover of "Rashomon - Criterion Collection...

Rashomon

Überlit is syndicating past editions my almost-bi-weekly column for The Alabamian, Criterion at Carmichael, which is dedicated to exploring the Criterion DVD’s available at the University of Montevallo‘s Carmichael Library. We’re starting with spine 138, Rashomon.

Akira Kurosawa is likely the most represented director in the Criterion Collection, and with good reason: Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Yojimbo—these films speak for themselves. Kurosawa’s filmography is so bursting with universally-acknowledged classics that to select just one as the ultimate Kurosawa film seems almost blasphemous; still, there’s a case to be made for Rashomon as the key to this mammoth body of work.

Few other films have been so widely imitated, parodied, ripped off, or referenced that even those who have never heard Kurosawa’s name would recognize it instantly. The basic conceit has become so iconic as to be cliché: a murder is recounted four times by four different witnesses, each with subtly altered details and each with something to hide. Everything from art films to sitcoms has aped this structure, but generally sacrificing the remarkable ambiguity that makes the original so iconic.

This is a story without resolution. The integrity of the narrative is compromised by lies and faulty memories, and the film leaves us with an uncomfortable blend of satisfaction and foreboding. It is the film’s uncertainty that has lent it its classic status, with its narrative twists and turns refusing to coalesce into an easy moral, instead leaving its most basic elements up to interpretation.

Kurosawa’s refusal to offer easy answers also makes Rashomon an interesting primer for the moral complexities of his unconventional samurai epics, or for his subtle deconstructions of the harsh coldness of modern relationships in Ikiru and High and Low.

Rashomon offers a useful entry point into Kurosawa’a work, as it features him at the peak of his output both cerebrally and viscerally. While the tangled plotting is what the film is known for, it is equally significant for its remarkable sense of aesthetics. The primary setting, a grove in the woods, takes on myriad meanings through the endless recapitulations of the central narrative. As each witness recounts his version of events, the same space is reconstructed through shifting light and shadow, complex yet nearly indiscernible shifts in camera styles, and Kurosawa’s general mastery over the frame.

The film also features one of Kurosawa’s mesmerizingly stylized performance sequences. Drawing from the Noh theatrical tradition, as he would to a much greater extent in his later films, he presents the vision of a psychic medium as a feverish, surreal dance, juxtaposed against a film otherwise marked by its bitter realism.

There’s a good reason why Rashomon is in the Criterion Collection, and a good reason why it’s where we chose to start this project. This is a remarkable film, one that changes the way we think about storytelling and forces us to rethink our ideas of what film can be.

It’s also the archetypal film from one of the most revered figures in cinema, a man whose films have helped shape the Criterion Collection into the shining beacon it has become for movie lovers. Rashomon is not only a brilliant classic in its own right, but an iconic work that has helped to shape the path of modern film.

comics

A New Haul

Photo on 2013-03-18 at 20.03

So I got a nice lil’ package in the mail a couple of days ago.

The new things are as follows:

  • The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts: A Graphic Novel

From the book by: Issai Chozanshi

Based on the translation by: William Scott Wilson

Adapted by: Sean Michael Wilson

Illustrated by: Michiru Morikawa

(Geez, such difficult attributions for this one)

  • Darwin: A Graphic Biography by Eugene Byrne and Simon Gurr
  • Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir by Nicole J. Georges

Within the next few weeks I’ll be posting reviews of these books.

Happy reading!

LH

comics

[REVIEW] Jillian Tamaki’s Skim

You may have already noticed, but I’m a real sucker for a good high school story. I come to you again with a tale that’s addled with the usual teen angst and self-exploration. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim is unique, however, in the sheer number of accolades it has amassed. The book successfully claimed awards in multiple age categories, including an award from the New York Times for Best Illustrated Children’s book, inclusion on the ALA Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Graphic Novel. This caused a lot of confusion when I originally got the book. What makes a book a children’s book? Teen literature? A “grown-up

Source: Amazon page for this book.

Source: Amazon page for this book.

” book? Those are questions for another time. Suffice it to say, however, that I wouldn’t give this particular book to anyone who isn’t at least in his or her teens. While there isn’t any explicit content, there are pretty heavy themes of suicide and depression throughout the book.

Similarly to Ghost World, Skim focuses on a best friend duo comprised of Kimberly Cameron (who is called “Skim” by her close friends) and Lisa Soor. The two identify as witches, although this element of their lives is largely left out of the narrative after the opening scenes. There is an emphasis on the importance of Wiccan artifacts in Kim’s life, but these items serve more as good luck charms than religious items. Especially important is Kim’s pack of Tarot cards. When she’s conflicted over the unrequited love she has for her English teacher—a beautiful woman named Ms. Archer—she attempts to tell her own fortune at least five times in a row. Later on, she offers them to said teacher as a token of affection, only to regret this when her teacher suddenly moves to another school. Kim’s totems allow readers to get a glimpse of her tumultuous inner state.

The plot of this book is loose, but plot doesn’t seem to be the main thing the author wants readers to take away from the text anyway. What we have here is a classic coming-of-age story, rife with forbidden love and friends who may be there one moment and gone the next. Near the beginning of the story, Kim and Lisa learn that the ex-boyfriend of one of their classmates had killed himself. This causes the rest of the student body to treat their classmate with the utmost delicacy. This already tense situation only becomes more uncomfortable after the classmate “accidentally” falls off of her roof. Kim and Lisa have been watching everything unfold from the sidelines and the two have greatly differing opinions about the situation. A wedge starts to be driven between the two as Kim is alienated both by her love for Ms. Archer and by the sympathy she feels toward her classmate. The rest of the conflict blooms from this initial spark, taking Kim through an emotional journey through what could be one of the most difficult periods of her high school years.

While I can’t say that the drawing style itself is outstanding, it should be noted that the panels are excellently composed. The authors found a lovely rhythm in their layouts, following a page that is filled with small panels with a large picture, as if a large breath is being taken before continuing the story. One such full-page image shows the two friends running off into the night, still dressed in their Halloween costumes. Kim’s narration continues, but it is placed in the periphery of the page. Because Lisa and Kim appear on the far right of the page, the page gives off a vibe of loneliness. Except for the scant text and the off-center picture of the two girls, the picture is overwhelmed by darkness.

Skim belongs to a class of books that can’t be tied down to one age group. It would be a reasonable read for young teenagers, isn’t overwrought enough to alienate older teenagers, and is written and illustrated well enough to appeal to adults. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that Skim is poised to take its place among the ranks of other great graphic novels, such as Ghost World.

comics

[REVIEW] Fingerprints by Will Dinski

fingerprints

Image credited to Amazon page.

One of the first things I do when selecting a book is look at its packaging. Sure, we’ve all heard that “don’t judge a book by its cover” nonsense. Chuck it. Get rid of that thought. Go on—I’ll wait. You finished? Alright. I’m not saying that you should count a book out because its paratext isn’t your style, but cover art plays a crucial role in a book’s journey from bookstore to bookshelf.

Not only does the a book’s packaging give clues about the book’s content and tone (by cover art and color, for example) but it also allows the reader to effectively screen the books he or she wants to put time into. Even the most devoted reader cannot read everything that is out there, and paratext is one of many ways to judge a book’s quality before committing to what could be hours of reading.

Now, when I found a copy of Will Dinski’s Fingerprints at a 2nd & Charles, I saw a tastefully assembled package. The cover, which is a light blue embossed with glossy designs of a darker blue shade. The title Fingerprints is emblazoned in large, stately letters, which have a drop shadow behind them. This creates the illusion of grandeur and sophistication, especially when combined with the intricate designs on the pale blue background. I grabbed the title eagerly, expecting that it would join the ranks of other graphic novels that I’ve loved. What I discovered instead was a puzzling mix of elements that left me confused more than enamored.

Dinski has an excellent sense of color. Using a wide range of tones, Dinski combines lush pictures replete with several hues with the negative space of the word panels, which are bare except for a thin blue border, the text itself, and a line that indicates who has spoken.

As far as art goes, Dinski places above average. The only weak point is, well, the content. The main character, a famous plastic surgeon named Dr. Fingers, makes a strong entrance. In the first scene readers see the doctor at his desk, consulting with a celebrity who looks suspiciously like Jennifer Anniston. She watches footage of herself on television and laments seeing pictures of herself post-surgery. At this point, Dr. Fingers is summoned to perform surgery, and the scene is over. This opening scene is powerful, and I suspected that the book would go on to make a convincing statement about the perils of a society that prizes artificial beauty, or something, but this isn’t the message that comes across. Looking back, I’m not sure if there was a message encoded in this narrative. Apart from the theme of superficiality, there is also the problem of Dr. Fingers’s power struggle with one of his subordinates, his failing marriage, and the dangers of a new plastic surgery breakthrough. It’s not the case that these themes aren’t worth exploring, but Fingerprints is much too concise to allow for an adequate exploration of the subplots. Coming in at 87 pages, the book is crippled by the weight of its many storylines.

I want to have positive things to say about this book, but it suffers from a fatal flaw. Despite its lovely art style and interesting concept, the small volume is so overpacked with plot that none of the themes or characters have time to speak for themselves.