Thursday, January 19, 2012

2011 has turned into 2012 on the Julian Calendar, and as we have less than a year until The End Of The Way Things Are, people take stock of 2011, the last full year we will have, and attempt to simplify it into list form, even as the nature of current economic structures means that there has been too much to appraise. Many contenders for the best films of last year (The Last Year) have not even been made available in most markets as of yet.

It is funny to reread a work like The Invisibles, and see its pre-millennial vision of the coming end, set in the year we find ourselves now living in: Virtual reality figured prominently. The Invisibles was famously appropriated by The Matrix, along with much of other "cyberpunk," and while 2011 was the year Grant Morrison really planted his flag firmly in the ground of irrelevance (ground he's been travelling on since 2004-2005 but now the flag is planted so as to be visible to all watchers, whereas before he could only be seen by following at close range in a way that led to a loss of objectivity), that work remains interesting as what might be the last work of future-prediction we have, as the movement of information technology erodes narrative structure and creates a world where predictions seem enfeebled. Having moved to setting his stories in the present years ago, this is the year where the newest William Gibson book is an essay collection.

With the future abbreviated, what's noo in the noosphere? What are the ideas on display in the best narrative work of 2011?

One of the best comics of the year would be the anthology Kramers Ergot 8, introduced by an Ian Svenonius essay that implicates all of western culture as possessing the values of camp as a form of surrender to dystopia, perpetrated by Capitalist powers that be. It is describing the same world that Gary Panter describes in the Jimbo strip the immediately follows and begins the book's comics portion: A world where any pleasures are made available by way of a force that remains sinister in its offer of a panacea. The tone is thus set for an exploration of darkness in the modern era. When Kevin Huizenga then redraws an old sci-fi comic, with a happy ending that feels bizarre and unearned, the reader is left waiting for a twist that never comes, and making one think of what could have possessed the story's original author to create something so narratively unsatisfying.
Most everyone's comics are great, with the exception of some 1970s Penthouse reprints. Ben Jones' comic reads like the "comic strip about being a man" promised to be included in the Men's Group/Black Math book now seemingly abandoned. It's maybe the most hopeful and positive thing in the book, even as the last word it has you read is "racism." Men are dogs, but dogs have qualities superior to that of men enough to be a spirit animal/totem of evolution against the rest of human nature. If that seems complicated or contradictory then maybe you are not familiar with the similarly loaded contradictory exploration of cultural flotsam that makes up the bulk of Ben's work, that considers things as symbols but interprets them differently than the narratives we generally tell/sell ourselves. In its understanding of humanity's true needs, it points a way out of the trap.

One of the other best things of the year has been Jacob Berendes' Mothers' News, a free newspaper from Providence, Rhode Island, which introduced a comics page this year that runs the work of many artists Kramers Ergot also publishes. In the same way that Svenonius' essay needs to be taken as inhabiting the same place as the comics that follow, the comics in Mothers' News can be read as an extension of the Mothers' News voice, which isn't coldly intellectual, but friendly and almost inside-jokey, assuming shared values, which are then articulated brilliantly and inspirationally. Mothers' News is free to readers, financed by advertising, and offered for trade to other producers of things. Mothers' News was around in 2010, but 2011 both signalled an expansion of its scope as a number of imitators from other cities offered their own versions which have not been as inviting and charming. Berendes posted his own top ten list, that ends with an endorsement of bad shows. Bad shows are sort of the lifeblood of noise, and this points to a conclusion that bad experiences are the lifeblood of life. These are the dynamics which we live with, as we go out into the night, away from the mediated "I expect to like this" of consumer culture.

In some ways this a major part of the Occupy movement, or of protest in general: Not the statements and suggestions of reforms that people who "support" the movement but do not actually physically occupy public spaces, but in the act itself of choosing to live in a tent, temporarily or indefinitely, in the name of building a community with the people around you that seems real, vibrant and uninsulated. This has been the major story of 2011, the narrative of reality, of revolution as a thing inside consciousness being made manifest in a way that looks a lot like hanging out. (Although congratulations to those who took the story of the year to be corporate death-throes offering up new panaceas, because that definitely also happened.)

Matthew Thurber was there, at Occupy Wall Street, drawing comics about it, trying to make more directly political artwork, as his 1-800-Mice comic was completed and published as a book. His addressing of politics is an understanding of the way in which the internet is an addictive substance, supplanting real world identities, and what it means for the future of humanity to have our minds confined to satellites as our bodies threatened to be drowned underneath melting ice caps. His strip, found both at his publisher's website and in issues of Mothers' News, is hysterical political cartooning. Meanwhile he has a typeset zine, Are Snakes Necessary, soliciting science fiction movies on VHS to be reviewed.

The other relevant the-internet-is-politics, the-world-is-science-fiction, fiction-is-journalism would be the BBC TV program Black Mirror produced by Charlie Brooker. The first episode is the one that will live in infamy, as its shockingly transgressive black-humor premise plays out as horrific drama, about and the mainstream media's inefficacy in the face of the internet, even as the internet itself is a Pandora's Box exploiting the worst aspects of our nature. Each of its episodes point towards technology not saving us, but will simply pander to the worst aspects of ourselves, including our willingness to be commodified as we obliviously destroy the world. The second episode is considerably weaker but still feels like a potential future, even as it obliquely retells Brooker's biography as malcontent-turned-celebrity. The first episode feels fresh and prescient today, the day after the internet's protest of SOPA, which was seemingly quite effective, in spite of the fact that TV news, being owned by SOPA-supporting-corporations, did not cover the law in any substantial way. That SOPA as a law is not actually as horrifying as bits of legislation like the recent NDAA, but does effect the internet, America's current favorite narcotic panacea, which is why there such an outroar ensued from powerful organizations acting out of self-interest, points to episode two's potential future as being extraordinarily likely to come to pass. Perhaps I should summarize the stories to explain what I'm talking about, but, hey, that's what its no-longer-blacked-out Wikipedia page is for.

My favorite TV show of the year, however, was PFFR's The Heart, She Holler, similarly a horror-comedy but being much more of an actual comedy. Serialized over the course of a week in soap-opera style, but with twelve-minute-long episodes as Adult Swim allows, it was a Twin Peaks riff with lots of jokes, even as its creators' stated intent was to make a show where the jokes were nightmares. I loved it. I laughed a lot, and took more delight in its transgressions and weirdnesses than I did anyone else's. While I enjoyed new episodes of Louie and Parks And Recreation as much as anyone else, this felt more genuinely "new," even as its rural setting and VHS tapes might make it seem like a period piece in comparison. Such is the nature of nightmares.

Norm MacDonald's "Me Doing Standup" was a really funny investigation of all sorts of dark recesses of the human mind that was better than any other standup comedy I saw, and the seriousness of its themes was comparable to any other work of art you might name. As I write this, I realize that the high point of the set, where he talks about how he would commit a murder, is comparable to the Dash Shaw/Frank Santoro riff on To Catch A Predator in Kramers Ergot 8. Norm is funnier.

I don't even know what to say about movies, besides that I think 2011 was a particularly bad year for them. Martha Marcy May Marlene was my favorite American movie of the year, that I have seen at this point in time. It's notable that it's also a horror movie, of sorts, filled with a tension that builds and offers no catharsis, filled with the mind's anxieties. In foreign films, I appreciated Certified Copy's mix of intellectual gamesmanship and emotional brutality, and Poetry's observational grace that genuinely felt like poetry. I thought Hanna was far superior to Drive in all the ways that they were similar, and Drive to be inferior to all the movies it was ripping off in the ways it was different. Carey Mulligan is a good actress though, both in Drive and in Shame, which is actually a good movie in general. I was pretty into the second half of The Future. I liked 13 Assassins, Tabloid, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. There are lots of movies I would like to see but haven't yet and don't know when I'll get a chance to, including Margaret, Kill List, Miss Bala, A Separation, 3, and We Need To Talk About Kevin. I will probably see A Dangerous Method within the coming week.

Other comics that are good and interesting would be Michael Deforge's Ant Comic. I really like the use of one-page comics, serialized over time, to tell the story of a society- Another example of this would be Mat Brinkman's Multi-Force, Brian Chippendale's Puke Force, or Matt Thurber's Infomaniacs. It really feels like the comics form for modern society- like looking at a RSS feed or something. It feels like that's as contemporary a storytelling method as you can get. The bright, built for computer monitors color scheme is beautiful as well, although I look forward to the print collection I assume to be forthcoming. I wrote a blog entry all about Ganges 4 when it came out, and even though I also had written about many of the records I wrote about on my "best records of 2011" list, I will refrain from repeating myself here, save to say that that comic is indeed one of the best. I feel like an asshole for not having read the latest issue of Love And Rockets and trying to make a "best of the year" list. Both Olivier Schrauwen's The Man Who Grew His Beard and Winshluss' Pinocchio are beautifully colored Franco-Belgian comics that feel light years ahead of the sort of stuff would run in A Suivre or Metal Hurlant. Beautifully colored comics feels like a new idea to me, still, something to work out going into the future. It's not a new idea so much as the sloughing off an old one, that associated good comics with an integrity that necessitated black and white printing for economic reasons. Conor Stechschulte gave me a copy of his largely black and white, but printed on a risograph machine, The Amateurs on New Year's Eve and that's a pretty great comic, containing a horror atmosphere but some of the best action sequences I've seen recently.

Ending this year-in-review with a list of the satisfying distractions from the state of the way things are might seem like a deviation from my original intent of discussing the concepts highlighting this year, if I hadn't had it as my thesis that these distractions are the stuff of living in the modern age, the balm to distract from a horrifying political situation where power is consolidated and civil rights are eradicated. It's worth noting that cinema is bad because of how much money is needed to make a movie, and that comics seem a little more hopeful because of their comparative lack of overhead. I wish I knew more about literature to discuss books released in the past year, but the fact remains that publishing is a slow-moving beast, kind of dying, that sort of contents itself with the fact that books will remain in existence indefinitely, after a crash of digital technology. So if anything truly great came out this year I will read it in the sunlight in the years to come.