Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Recently I returned to the United States from a ten-day stint in Israel. It was called a Birthright trip, which I find a little obnoxious, but it was a free trip paid for by, I believe, the Israeli government and some wealthy American Jews, so I will accept their nomenclature. Since being back in the USA, most conversations I've had about the trip have involved responding to knee-jerk cynicism, informed by political readings. For my part I attempted to enter the whole thing without any kind of political agenda, my lens focused on consciousness, an awareness of the narratives people construct for themselves.

On a bus with 49 strangers, it is odd how quickly you begin to feel as if you've known them all your life. Staring at people's faces, trying to place them to college classes or summer camps, thinking they might be recognizable as someone you've completely forgotten and never really known. Until it dawns on you that you have, in face, known these people all your life, that there are archetypes that reoccur over and over again, filling up the background. These roles do not have names, I don't think, but if they did, I'm sure that, within this particular group, I could be labeled with the "weirdo" tag easily. A clear outlier. Partly this followed my decision to think the way I did, but that comes easily enough: Really, the idea behind my behavior was a conscious naming of the way I already act.

This is not to say I did not make friends. It probably would have become intolerable had I not done so. On my first evening, as the rules were being discussed, I thought about breaking them simply to be released from duty. We were told that anyone hungover in the morning would be placed on a plane, and even though being hungover is deeply unpleasant, and easily avoided, I considered it as an option. But I stuck it out, found some nice people to converse with, and had a pretty nice time, a welcome change of pace from the rhythms of everyday behavior. Time was structured fairly rigidly, which is annoying in a lot of ways, but this reduced me to my essence.

The goal of the project is to make young people love Israel. I am too double-minded to be an ideal target subject, but most of the conflict I felt was due to the corrupting influence of commerce, of tourism. Too much of what I saw for sale was tacky souvenirs, sold to tourists. This was most pronounced in the town of Tsfat/Svat, the supposed center of Jewish mysticism, a mountain town with a beautiful layout, narrow streets, and an artists' colony. It is only when you walk through the artist's colony and realize that you are looking at a "fine art gallery," of the kind that sells prints of paintings in suburbia, that takes up blocks and blocks, for an audience of sixty-year-olds. We were spoken to by a guy who'd really found an angle to work- existing in the artist's colony as "the mystic artist," drawing geometric patterns outlining the Qabalic tree of life. Speaking in vagueness but seeming really cool to those who had not had much experience with the genuinely strange, and successfully selling large quantities of work. It makes sense that there is a constant economic pressure leading to conservatism, in a country so old and beautiful, but that is exactly the same problem that makes me avoid large chunks of America. There are parts of Jerusalem where people are still plainly living, but I can only assume those areas have been family-owned for generations. Other parts of Jerusalem are incredibly expensive due to wealthy Americans having purchased properties that they then do not live in.

Cooler was a Drues (sic? sorry, only heard the word spoken aloud) village where, for tax purposes, everyone lives in unfinished homes, continually with chunks under construction. Or the Bedouins, a semi-nomadic group of desert dwellers. Much as it is in discussion of war: My sympathy is with those that are just trying to live their life. I understand that it is difficult.

As for other conflicts: It seems pretty likely to me that any American liberal that is more pissed off about Israel than they are about America is basically retarded. Partly, this is because America is much more distanced from what it's doing. This makes it easier to forget about, but is absolutely an actual fault, moreso than a strength. To me it seems likely that there will be peace in the middle east long before the United States ceases to exist in a state of perpetual conflict. Despite the fact that everywhere you go in Israel, you see people carrying machine guns, and it does not take much for casual racism to manifest itself. The mandatory military service makes everyone much more invested in peace, and there is not a massive military-industrial complex perpetuating itself.

The weird presence of religion, dictating the lives of even those who do not observe it, is more pronounced there, but in a way that makes it that much more open for discussion. The presence of religious sites, monotheisms overlapping with one another, only serves to remind that, in spite of it all, everything is holy. Cats overrun everything; like the guns, a common presence one becomes accustomed to despite the deep strangeness once you think about it.

Strip away the levels. In the hotel in Jerusalem, I saw Fox News coverage of a shooting of Congresswoman and felt like weeping. I can talk about my trip more, to those who want to know what I saw, what I witnessed. I have a journal detailing events and memories. This is an attempt at processing the whole thing, simply, as a response to the cynical that I do not want to talk to.

The response is that what I saw was contrived, a view of a country placed into an easy frame. There is an artifice to it, the same way there is around anything else.

What is artifice? What Israelity? Swimming nude in the Sea of Galilee in the middle of January, floating in the dead sea, peeing in the Mediterranean. A soldier next to me saying that, as a drill, first thing in the morning, everyone strips down to a bathing suit and swims in the ocean. Another soldier made the punchline that I was going to make, in other situation, during a moment where I hesitated. We should all be aware that every soldier is some mother's son, that every loss is a human tragedy. Too often I think that the greater tragedy is that war exists at all, as a result of economic factors: Even this abstraction is a result of my distance. I made some friends who I do not wish to die. They want peace for themselves and the people around them. Can my own feelings of living in a city where there are people just a few blocks away from me who might not want me to live here be projected onto them? I think they can. Everyone needs a space. Most spaces would be nice were it not for money corrupting everything. It is notable that America is the only country besides Israel where circumcision is the default practice for newborns. We are closer than we think, but maybe I know that closeness a little more intimately than the abstraction of it that we often think of.

I doubt I will ever return to Israel: There is much more to see in the world. I am grateful to have seen it, even if it was easily recognizable, if I anthropomorphicize it in the projection of my features. I am grateful for the bit of self-knowledge reflected back to me. I hope I keep in touch with the people who I met, even though I might not have much to say to them without a constant barrage of shared experiences to reflect on.

Monday, January 17, 2011

These are my favorite comics of 2010. It's guided by what came out this year, but alludes to work from years prior, as a rough guide to what feels contemporary. To make this a top ten, please reserve places for Chris Ware's latest Acme Novelty Library and Edie Fake's Gaylord Phoenix, as yet unread. To better imagine a guide to comics I read this year that feel contemporary, please be aware of CF's fondness for Matt Wagner's Grendel comics and Michael Deforge citing his two biggest influences as being Richard Corben and Saul Steinberg.

1. If N Oof/Puke Force by Brian Chippendale. These comics are exhilarating. Reading Ninja in 2005, where each page would be dated with the day of its composition, I would think "He's getting better, steadily. HIs focus is increasing, he's becoming clearer." And now the new stuff arrives, and it's great. The new layout in If N Oof frees up his ability to go back and forth and not just hold its focus on characters animating themselves. The shorter strips in Puke Force move at such a pace that you get a sense of a plot developing itself over the scope of a full city. I also read Mat Brinkman's Multi-Force collection this year, and that's what Puke Force reads like, in its sense of scope and pacing, while If N Oof reads like Taiyo Matsumoto's Black And White in its sense of adventure and emotional resonance. These are some of the best comics ever, filled with some of my favorite drawings. There is a whole world of drawing stories here, a type of energy that signifies "fun" for me but there's a horror underneath it that defines its world and its stakes, to not just signify but to actually be fun, triumphing in the face of death-anxiety.

2. Michael Deforge comics. His most recent publication, Spotting Deer, is this science fiction triumph: I read it thinking "Where is this coming from? Who thinks like this?" What makes this more powerful is not only is that not his debut, but it's the follow-up to a couple of comics that seem to precisely map his psychic territory. Issue 1 of Lose, published last year, gave the reader this sense that they do know where Michael Deforge is coming from, and its a place with a lot of comics. That comic, with its vision of Hell populated by cartoon characters, was really powerful, and the fever dreams that followed possessed an intuitive sense of a polluted inner landscape. Twelve months later it seems like that sense of home has already been moved on from, into streams polluted not by cultural detritus, but by dead bodies.

3. King City by Brandon Graham. I read a lot of Seth Fisher comics this year. Those feel like the closest thing to predecessors to King City, with their manic delineations of architecture, easy flow, and sense of humor. But Brandon Graham isn't drawing other people's scripts, and he's not drawing Batman comics. This distinction is what makes his work feel like the future, which seems important when you're drawing science fiction. It's not hard sf, it's pretty clearly a fantasy, in that there are cats with magic powers, but when I read it I feel the potential for a better tomorrow, not just an escape from the drudgery of today. That potential better tomorrow is all for the world of comics, but comics are a way of processing one's world, and it's the global nature of Brandon Graham's influences that you can see an exciting and open-minded tomorrow.

4. Wally Gropius by Tim Hensley. When I travel, I look for things that appear "foreign," indigenous to the area they originate from and organic to it, but percolating with strangeness. Wally Gropius is that comic, for America. Speaking in a dialect learned from 1960s teen comics, run through the filter of anti-ego to be almost anonymous, talking about this thing of American commerce. Funny and strange and precisely itself, it's hard to imagine how Tim Hensley will follow up a work that feels so channeled from such a coalescing of disparate elements.

5. Love And Rockets Volume 3 by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. The Hernandez brothers do not always work for me, based as it is in serialization and the rhythms of understated daily life. Sometimes they can rip it, though, and a panel or two will make me sit up and take notice, and things can get pretty jarring. Jaime's story here is one of the ones that feels a bit more focused on editing between moments than simply letting the camera run. The other great Jaime comic I read for the first time this year, "Everybody Loves Me Baby," that ran in issue 7 of Penny Century, is up there as well. These are comics of his that feel like endings, climaxes, to whole stories, that bring in fresh elements late in the game to make it feel all the more focused and complete. This comic deals in more uncomfortable subject matter than usual, but it's the ending, after that stuff, that really got to me.

6. 1-800-Mice by Matthew Thurber: Like Michael Deforge, Matthew Thurber seems deeply influenced by Marc Bell. But rather than the polymorphous cartoon composites that people Bell's pages, Matthew sculpts narratives out of this bizarre language-imagery, that move forward and onward. His approach is perfect for discussing this modern world: The weird grammar scans like nonsense, but is easily parsed as you focus in, only for it to remind you of the nonsense that we are drowning in, and taking for granted as understandable. Watching him crack wise about lingo like "apps," an abbreviation for "applications" used in reference to technologically advanced cellular phones, that might not have even been a part of common parlance at the time he began drawing the series, might be one of the great pleasures of our age. Another one would be watching him integrate pages of incredibly well-done action sequences that are still funny even as they are effectively thrilling. If this comic had a taste, it would be honey and moss.

7. Spider-Man: Fever by Brendan McCarthy. The psych-noise cover version of Steve Ditko, who's already pretty psychedelic to begin with. Think of Daily Life's interpretation of Faust's It's A Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl. The collection places them back to back and reduces the passage of time to a feeding into a digital storage unit, like consciousness after the singularity.

8. Mr. Cellar's Attic/Black Color by Noel Freibert. Lighting a room with an oddly-placed lamp suffuses the space with a sinister luminousness, creeping across your face as you go about your business. I was up too early this morning, the lamp on the bathroom radiator lit me before the dawn gazed in. How old is Mr Freibert, exactly? Have we considered the possibility that he might be the reincarnation of Rory Hayes, his soul now scared away from drugs?

I read other good comics this year, but these are the works that hit me the hardest, as I was reading them. The next five would be: Carlos Gonzalez' Steam Walkway, Daniel Clowes' Wilson, Brecht Evens' The Wrong Place, David Hine and Shaky Kane's Bulletproof Coffin, and CF's output.