100

And so we start the celebrations, commemorations, what have you, for the 100th anniversary of the First World War. We have already had a host of books and television programmes, even though we still have a few months to go before the exact anniversary of the point at which Gavrilo Princip fired at Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, and after that we have four more years of this. And we’ve already had the first controversies. Continue reading

Comics Works: Battling Boy—Execution and Expectations

Battling Boy, the most recent work by cartoonist Paul Pope, arrived from First Second Books last year, although I was late to the party, and what a strange party it is. Pope is one of comics’ most talented renderers-of-action, but on some pages, his talents actually undermine the story he’s trying to tell. Superficially simple–the combat-novice son of a godlike warrior arrives in a land besieged by monsters–the story invites all sorts of questions about the circumstances of its creation. Pope stages a series of fights with such fluidity–virtuosity, even–that even if his reader isn’t a comics nerd who had heard mention of Battling Boy for years, the book is still likely to read as the product of countless hours of labor. And even the immersed reader might be tempted to think, ‘All this work for a genre pastiche?’

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Battling Boy shouldn’t be written off as shallow exhibitionism. There’s too much charm and levity throughout the story for that charge to stick. (If Pope’s drawing to impress, he’s obviously drawing to have fun, too.) For instance, collection of animal T-shirts endows Battling Boy with the power of their respective animals; when picking a shirt before a battle, the boy must choose carefully. Details like this display a lightness of touch not always present in Pope’s earlier work, even if they don’t register as particularly personal. (In fact, the concept is weirdly reminiscent of ’90s cartoon toy shill Mighty Max and his magic baseball cap.)

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Battling Boy shouldn’t be written off as devoid of ideas, either. Pope has no shortage of those, and readers can find them in his renderings of space and movement. Comics are a visual medium; Pope’s innovations are visual in nature. Even the argument that Pope’s style is his substance doesn’t quite do him justice. His lines are too functional, carry too much of the narrative burden, to be celebrated-slash-dismissed as stylistic flourishes. And yet Pope is such a superlative artist that his comics will always disappoint to some degree as long as the quality of his plotting fails to match the quality of his cartooning.

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In this way, there’s something sad about Battling Boy. Paul Pope delivered a work that is, in some respects, pretty great. Just not holistically great. And holistic greatness might still be what the greedy reader expects, based on what Pope’s able to provide.

Being About Aboutness

The title of Joshua Landy’s How to do Things with Fictions should not lead you to believe that what is written therein is anything like a recipe book or a technical manual; no, instead, what Landy’s short book is after is proving that fictions do things at all—that is, rather than being about things, a fiction does things for its reader—or can—a claim, he argues, that is no longer obvious if it ever was. The reason for our dull-witted view of fiction is that “For some reason, we have systematically—albeit unwittingly—engaged in a long-term campaign of misinformation, relentlessly persuading would-be readers that fictions are designed to give them useful advice.” You can argue with that last part, but if you read the book, you’ll see that’s just the first of our reading deficiencies: if we look to fiction for advice [on how to live our lives], it can only be because we suppose that fiction has a paraphraseable content (as this post will have). If a fiction is about, then it can be paraphrased, and if it can be paraphrased, it can be reduced, and if it can be reduced, shouldn’t it be reduced?

By focusing on one relatively uninteresting aspect of fiction—its “subject,” for lack of a better word—we teach readers that the experience of a fiction is secondary or even tertiary to the reading—if it is considered at all. Thus, Cliff’s Notes. The very existence of such a thing as Cliff’s Notes should tell us that we have completely misunderstood fiction under Landy’s theory, and not at the level of the student, but at the level of the teacher: teaching for message, for content, for subject is teaching readers how to read fiction badly. There is a great deal more subtlety to Landy’s argument, and a great deal more nuance, but then, he has 250 pages to convince you, and this post will be much shorter than that. Continue reading

At Home

In the conclusion to his immense tome, The Culture of the Europeans, Donald Sassoon has one of those brief apercus that seems blatantly obvious when you think about. It’s just that we usually don’t think about it.

In reality the home was always the centre of cultural consumption. Of all the cultural forms surveyed in this book, only the cinema succeeded, for a historically brief period, in getting a majority of people to consume culture outside the home. Continue reading

Victor Holmes

Shortly before Christmas, Maureen and I saw the two versions of the National Theatre production of Frankenstein. In the first we saw, Benedict Cumberbatch played the Creature, and Jonny Lee Miller played Victor Frankenstein; three days later we saw the other version, in which Miller played the Creature and Cumberbatch played Frankenstein. Since New Year I’ve seen the three episodes of the latest series of Sherlock in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays an updated Sherlock Holmes, and six episodes from the first series of Elementary in which Jonny Lee Miller plays an updated Sherlock Holmes.

This doubling of roles casts an almost eerie highlight on the various productions. The different Frankensteins, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the different Creatures, are revealing of the differences between the two Sherlocks. Continue reading

A paragraph about a paragraph I love

There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other. With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of transit, a thin red circle in the water.

It’s from The Great Gatsby, of course, the moment when Gatsby’s body is discovered. I’ve just re-read the novel for the first time in too many years, and what I realised was how often I would read a paragraph and then stop, overwhelmed by how gorgeous the writing is. The way Jordan and Daisy’s clothes billow in the breeze from the window as Nick enters, the memory of a snow-bound mid-West, Fitzgerald has a way of making the ordinary feel magical. It is the tiny detail that just catches the breath: the way that swirling autumnal leaves echo the blood we imagine flowing from Gatsby’s wound. Between readings of the novel I have a vague memory that it is a great book, but it is only when I read it again and re-encounter the glory of the language that I remember why it is so great. It is a book to immerse yourself in, to read aloud slowly. The words touch our senses gently, trigger faint, fleeting sensations of colour and taste and sound and feel that are so subtle you forget the detail the moment you close the novel. But as you turn the pages once more, it is all so immediate and fresh and vivid again. Remind me to re-read this book more often.