Sunday, September 27, 2009

That Simpsons Treehouse of Horror comic (issue 15) edited by Sammy Harkham and featuring a great many Kramers Ergot contributors ended up living up to all expectations. It is sort of similar to Brendan McCarthy's issue of Solo, which is to say it's kind of as good as pamphlet-format comics can get, now that the bottom has fallen out of that format, and the only way they can come out is through fairly mainstream publishing concerns. There's something about these comics, and the way they use and reconfigure this corporate-owned imagery for its own purpose, that's incredibly exciting. It's also rewarding, to those who've willfully chosen to be bombarded with it, and be in a place where it means something. Tim Hensley's one-page strip that opens the comic ends up being completely insane, while also really similar to dreams I've had in the past. I've also had dreams of watching episodes of The Simpsons that were really funny, and the Ben Jones strip lives up to that expectation as well. This comic blew my mind, repeatedly and cumulatively.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I'm in the middle of reading David Foster Wallace's Oblivion, the last book of fiction he completed before he killed himself, theoretically the work which came closest to his goals of creating sincere and moving literature. It was these stated goals that got me interested in reading his work, after his death, and my perception of them that has led me to be disappointed in what I'd read thus far. The detail and description is astounding, yes, but it gives way to this repetitious self-consciousness which is tedious even in his best pieces.

For the sake of argument, let's consider "good Old Neon" as one of the best pieces. I don't know how many people do, but "The Depressed Person" (from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) is highly acclaimed, and this seems like a more layered version of that story. Although maybe one of those layers is one too many, another bit of labored self-consciousness on top of a story that's already been repetitive. But that's what I wish to discuss, because I think those with a morbid fascination with DFW's self-imposed demise will find it particularly interesting.

It's about a man who's spent his entire life as a fraud trying to impress people, and then goes on to kill himself, and the story is narrated at the moment of death, finally outside time forever, the voice talking to itself as someone else, explaining everything in this epiphanic moment. In the end it moves on to bring the writer into it as a character, looking at a yearbook from 1981, as apparently the story was inspired by high-school classmate who killed himself ten years later. The self-consciousness plagues it, to the bitter end. And that's unpleasant, even if the point is that self-consciousness is unpleasant. It doesn't really make it any more beautiful.

Take, as a point of contrast The Shaggs' "Philosophy Of The World." Some people find it abrasive and hard to process in its amateurism. But here it is in the world, despite those things, a piece of music. For those who appreciate it, on its own terms, despite/because of its flaws, it's deeply moving. It has brought me to the edge of tears. In it, we find a lack of self-consciousness that some find unpleasant, but it's completely astounding, and knocks one to the floor. It makes the point about self-consciousness DFW struggles with all by itself, completely by accident.

Part of this discrepancy comes down to prose versus music, or unmediated voice as opposed to trying, in writing, to convey consciousness as it occurs. Maybe it's an unfair comparison. But maybe it would also be unfair to compare David Foster Wallace to Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, or Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories, and say that the latter two come out looking better for their joy in the place of anxiety.

The other notable reading material of the day would be an interview with Ray Kurzweil, on the Vice website, talking about the coming singularity with his typical fervor. He looks forward to a time when humanity has enough nanotechnology in their blood to make them as smart as they want to be, and as free from death as they've always wished to be. In Kurzweil's view, religion and its views of life-after-death are a stopgap measure, until the point where we can choose not to die.

But in Wallace- projecting his anxieties onto fictional characters for the sake of readers with the same feelings that they wish to see reflected back and explained- intelligence is at least partly a trap. Living inside one's head as a consciousness means being alienated from those around you, while this individuality itself is a lie, with the truth being that all of us are connected, and this idea which we know intellectually can't fully be comprehended is until upon the condition of death. (Or so goes the conceit of one short story.) And this point is important, even as it may be obvious, even as the story used to make it has its own set of flaws, etc. It's somewhat comforting, in the face of depression, or suicide, or a scientist's messianic belief in technology.

It might not be the Shaggs, but hey: The point of their album's title track is that everyone wants what they do not have, and this applies to those with technical acument and those with unmediated sincerity. You can never be, something something something, in this world.

Monday, September 14, 2009

After being disappointed in the TV miniseries The Corner, I held off on my plans to get into Homicide: Life On The Streets. Now, that The Wire is complete, and I live in Baltimore, and the public library seems to have some discs inconsistently in stock, I gave it a go. It has a distinct set of charms- so far unreliant on concepts of "grit," instead moving quickly from scene to scene, with dialogue that feels invested in poetry, and a romantic attitude that's missing in not just The Wire, but Law & Order as well, with these being the two shows I'm most reminded of.

(On Homicide the police spend a great deal of time eating crabs, in a way that seems almost labored now, but is that because 16 years ago, there were more crabs in the bay, and there status as working-class food actually made sense?)

Maybe the attitude comes from Homicide's emphasis on characters, giving actors room to shine with dialogue- The Wire is interested in organization as organism, and while the characters ended up incredibly fleshed-out over time, here in the first episodes the characters are being given plenty of room to breathe, being introduced almost self-consciously, introducing their quirks and being viewed, by those around them, as these distinct individuals, beloved for their strangeness, whereas The Wire's world of bureaucracy would crush such quirks, enraged. Law & Order is given over to procedure and scandal, and while there Richard Belzer plays the same character, he isn't given as much to do.

But I'm only three episodes in, and I'm not really planning on going the distance. (Seven seasons! They make that many for the money syndication allows, why isn't this on all the time? I feel the same way about Newsradio, and now, King Of The Hill.)

On a completely separate note, there are two new single-issue comics worthy of note. The first is the new issue of Matt Thurber's 1-800-Mice, which I've gone on about in the past. Picturebox pulled the plug on serialization after the first two issues, and Matthew self-published (I believe) a thousand copies by himself, to get him to finish the story for the eventual book publication. The new issue is four bucks, and is oversized, bigger than the Picturebox-published issues, bigger than standard-comic size. It looks great. I picked it up at the new gallery, Open Space, run by some of the Closed Caption Comics kids, who are really excited to have Thurber as one of the artists in their first show. (Which looks great.)

The other comic is issue one of Brandon Graham's King City- Which, funnily enough, is in a deeply comparable boat. Tokyopop put out a graphic novel of the first half of the story, then decided not to publish the second half, already mostly drawn. So, Image is republishing the Tokyopop book as single issues, at larger than comic size, bigger than the original publication size. Again, it looks great. When the serialized publication is done, the new material will begin with issue 7.

What's funny is that most comic shops probably won't have both comics on sale within them, and there's the possibility you wouldn't even find these books at the same convention, since their cartoonists move in such different circles. But they're pretty similar comics in a lot of ways: Well-drawn, underground-influenced weird fantasy comics out of step with general trends. King City is the one closer to the mainstream, 1-800-Mice is a little better. But King City is nowhere near bad. When I say one is better, I mean that it is better enough to make up for the price difference: King City 1 is $3 for 32 pages, 1-800-Mice 3 is $4 for 24. King City uses its fantasy elements to tell stories about young people's relationships without getting boring, 1-800-Mice uses its to talk about ecology and society without becoming preachy. It's that distinction in their interests that makes the one book the more mainstream (people care about relationships) while the other is more interesting to me (there's a larger world outside that). But both, like Homicide, or The Wire, are totally invested in their fictional worlds and exploring them with as much detail as they can. Also, both books have these amazing VOICES to them. Graham deals in puns and wordplay while Thurber's prose puts words against each other in this interesting way. The voice, also made manifest in the drawing style, puts together these elements in this way that then drives the narrative to the places it goes. It's weird, and it's funny, and there's really nothing in pure prose that does what the dialogue in these comics do, unencumbered by explanation. Both of them are pretty much as right on as comics get- both for the way they tell stories that are visually interesting and meaningful to their cartoonists, and for the format they tell them in (bigger-than-average single issue comics), both of which are decisions which put them out of step with the larger comics culture which somehow doesn't value what these dudes do. Not like they would complain- The back cover of King City discourages whiners, and Matt's attitude isn't suited towards that sort of thing. If you get the chance to support them, do it.