Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Identity Crisis: Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and David B.'s Epileptic

I couldn't narrow down my post to just one comic, since both of them are so realistic, well made, and deeply personal. For those reasons, the two books have a similar ancestry. They are autobiographical tales, in high contrast black and white, that portray the pain and confusion of adolescence. Hopefully I can include enough analysis of both to do them justice.

I think they also share a kinship in their confusion with identity. Purposefully or not, both stories seem to be saying that a person is basically a product of his or her environment and influences. It may be inescapable, as the character Abellio in Epileptic claims.

Both Marji and Pierre-Francois (who later renames himself David), the main characters, are faced with terrible events surrounding them. Marji's problems are on a large scale (political unrest, social uprising, war, government oppression) while Pierre-Francois' are closer to home (turmoil within his family and friends). Both experiences occur during their formative years, and I think this is why the stories are so vivid and powerful in their memories all these years later.

The concept and development of identity is significant in both works. Hayden White's article Content of Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation states that the purpose of narrative is to reflect on culture and humanity itself. Persepolis and Epileptic have very different cultures but the humanity is the same. White also points out that narrative is made up of a person's story, edited down to what they decide to include or exclude. Marjane Satrapi and David B. both cut down their narratives to the essentials of their experience developing as a person around very tough times.

Marji seems to be a bit more malleable than David and his siblings, but both imagine greatness for themselves. Already at age 6, Marji decided, apparently on her own, that she would be a great prophet. However, her ideals and views change from one period of life to the next. At first, she loves the Shah and believes he is appointed by God. Later, Marji strives for greatness by association. She is enthralled with the stories of her ancestors who were persecuted by the old regime. Quickly her love of the Shah disappears. When her uncle Anoosh arrives and relates tales of his communist past, Marji suddenly admires Karl Marx. She even sneaks out to attend demonstrations.

She is very proud of her uncle, not just because of his politics, but because he has suffered. After Anoosh is imprisoned and executed, she rejects God as her friend (a great departure from her earlier childhood) and declares that she is lost and without bearings (p. 70). When the war with Iraq begins, however, she is ready to fight the Arab invaders, and Marji draws herself wearing a military cap (p. 79). In this way, Marjane Satrapi seems to portray herself as always changing and a bit confused as she grows up.

Similar to Marji, at an early age Jean-Christophe (David's older brother) sees greatness in himself, but as an imaginary dictator like Hitler or Stalin. David himself wants to partake in bloody, historical battles and be a conquering hero like Genghis Khan. When the two brothers play with their sister, they treat her as Joan of Arc. War intrigues the two, but they never partake in one. The Beauchard family has a great many soldiers in it, but David and Jean-Christophe are relegated to childish fantasies about it. Marji has to see war up close, and eventually escape it by moving to Austria.

I suppose these are archetypes of adolescent fantasy. After all, nobody daydreams about being ordinary. But it is clear their fantasies, and thus their identities are created by the culture and events surrounding them. In Epileptic, Abellio claims that most people only utilize 1% of their free will (p. 139). Jean-Christophe is the perfect example, because his demonic illness, portrayed as a Meso-American serpent, is controlling him. It is ever present, and cannot be exorcised, despite all the efforts of doctors, faith healers, and other gurus.

That brings me to the alienation of character. What is the significance of alienation in both stories? In both, it can be an empowering device, and one that brings unexpected freedom. Jean-Christophe is first alienated from his friends (the "gang") because they are afraid of his seizures. Marji is alienated from her Iranian society because she wants to be an ordinary, educated, Westernized girl, but the new religious regime forbids such behavior.

Eventually Jean-Christophe goes away to a school for disabled kids and finds freedom from his family, from macrobiotic diets, and from mad scientist doctors. He rejects his family and tries to stuff the demon serpent into his locker. Marji, by contrast, is sent away by her parents to a foreign nation and is sad at the departure. They are both faced with a pivotal time in their lives, where independence is sudden and hard to deal with. However, this alienation means a freedom from oppression, and a freedom to be yourself on your own terms, in a new stage of life.

These two aspects of storytelling (identity as a result of environment and alienation from that environment) may seem to be contradictory, and perhaps it is, but that's life.

I've always said, if there's one thing Star Trek needs, it's more lens flares

And Beastie Boys music.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Interesting Excerpts from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

De vita Caesarum is a set of twelve biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire written by Suetonius.

Robert Graves translation.

Tiberius: Once, as a funeral procession was passing, a humorist hailed the corpse and asked him to tell Augustus' ghost that his bequests to the commons had not yet been duly paid. Tiberius ordered the man to be arrested and brought before him. 'I will give you your due at once,' he said, and ordered his execution with 'why not go to my father yourself and tell him the truth about those legacies?'

A few days after he came to Capreae, a fisherman suddenly intruded on his solitude by presenting him with an enormous mullet, which he had lugged up the trackless cliffs at the rear of the island. Tiberius was so scared that he ordered his guards to rub the fisherman's face with the mullet. The scales skinned it raw, and the poor fellow shouted in his agony 'thank Heaven I did not bring Caesar that huge crab I also caught!' Tiberius sent for the crab and had it used in the same way.

Claudius: These honours [consulship, presidency of the Games] did not protect him from frequent insults... When he took his usual after-dinner nap the company would pelt him with olives and date stones. Some jokers exercised their wit by putting slippers on his hands as he lay snoring, and then gave him a sudden blow of a whip or cane to wake him, so that he rubbed his face with them.

A woman once refused to admit she was the mother of a young man produced in court, and a conflict of evidence arose; but the truth came out when Claudius ordered her to marry the man... After a man was found guilty of forgery, the crowd shouted: 'He ought to have his hands cut off!' Claudius immediately sent for an executioner, with block and cleaver, to act on this suggestion.

While still a boy Claudius had started work on a Roman history, encouraged by Livy, and assisted by Sulpicius Flavus. But when he gave his first public reading to a packed audience he found it difficult to finish because he constantly threw cold water upon his own performance. As he started to read, a very fat man came in, sat down, and broke several benches, which excited considerable merriment. Even when silence had been restored Claudius could not help recalling the sight and going off into peals of laughter.

Nero: It might have been possible to excuse his insolent, lustful, extravagant, greedy, or cruel early practices (which were furtive and increased only gradually) by saying that boys will be boys; yet at the same time, this was clearly the true Nero, not merely Nero in his adolescence. As soon as night fell he would snatch a cap or wig and make a round of the taverns, or prowl the streets in search of mischief - and not always innocent mischief either, because one of his games was to attack men on their way home from dinner, stab them if they offered resistance, and then drop their bodies down the sewers.

He would also break into shops and rob them, afterwards opening a market at the Palace with the stolen goods, dividing them up into lots, auctioning them himself, and squandering the proceeds. During these escapades he often risked being blinded or killed - once he was beaten almost to death by a senator whose wife he had molested, which taught him never to go out after dark unless an escort of colonels was following him at a distance unobserved.

He tried to poison [his mother] three times, but she had always taken the antidote in advance; so he rigged up a machine in the ceiling of her bedroom which would dislodge the panels and drop them on her while she slept. However, one of the people involved in the plot gave the secret away. Then he had a collapsible boat designed which would either sink or have its cabin fall in on top of her... On discovering that everything had gone wrong and she had escaped by swimming, when Lucius Agerinus, her freedman, entered joyfully to report that she was safe and sound, Nero, in desperation, ordered one of his men to drop a dagger surreptitiously beside Agerinus, whom he arrested at once on a charge of having been hired to murder the Emperor.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: Style Over Substance?

Chris Ware's comic Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth strikes me as a great guide to retro art design. I feel it is an amalgamation or picture gallery of different art styles of the late 19th through mid 20th Centuries.

Ware is an admitted fanatic of ragtime music and the fashions of that era. Ragtime was popular from the mid 1890s to around 1920, when Jazz began to supersede it. Around that time, Art Nouveau (1890-1905), American Modernism (late 19th to mid 20th Centuries), and Art Deco (1920s-1940s) were the dominant styles.

Art Deco could be described as a less ornate Art Nouveau. Whereas Art Nouveau had very Rococo style ostentation and curved lines, Art Deco was more streamlined with straighter lines. Art Deco, at least in print, can be summed up as using heavy lines, warped text, and bold contrasting colors. In architecture, the Chrysler Building in New York City is a good example. Art Deco style remained very popular in Eastern Europe right up until the present day. Many modern movie posters from that region still have obvious art deco influence. There has been an on-and-off resurgence in modern America of Art Deco too. One example is the 1991 superhero movie The Rocketeer. More recently there was the beautiful 2007 videogame BioShock.

The purposes and effects of this style in Jimmy Corrigan are quite simple. First, they are very eye-catching and make the comic unique. It stands out from the crowd. The fake letterheads, advertisements, synopses, and introductions in Jimmy Corrigan are dynamic and antique looking. The old, clunky robots and airships could be right out of an early sci-fi publication.

Second, Ware is updating a retro style with a modern story which includes cursing, nudity, etc. In fact it is a pretty mundane story. Jimmy is lonely, has no friends or girlfriend, talks to his mother on the phone every day, has a dead-end job, and eventually flies to meet the father he's never known. All in all it is pretty straightforward and a bit depressing. However, over the course of the story, Ware interjects surreal memories, flashbacks, and dream (or daydream) sequences. Ware may be saying that, despite the passage of time, people are inherently the same. Relationships between people, particularly children and parents, follow the same path. Jimmy's ancestors in 1893 Chicago have the same issues he has today.

Ware brilliantly adapts his drawing to the era it depicts. The Civil War scenes are drawn very realistically like sepia tone photographs, with detailed trees and explosions. Later, in 1890s Chicago, the art changes to evoke the early "color" photographs that actually were black-and-white prints diligently colored in by hand. On another page, a hospital transforms to Doctor Linn's Pharmacy, back to a smaller St. Mary's hospital, and finally to a Medlife Clinicare. Ware nails each architectural style perfectly. The reader is immediately drawn into that time period without having to be told where or when it is.

In Thomas A. Bredehoft's article "Comics Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time" (p. 3), Ware mentions his compositional style. At first he compares the eye taking in a page as the ear listens to music, but then also compares it to a building. "Another way is to pull back and consider the composition all at once, as you would the façade of a building. You can look at a comic as you would look at a structure that you could turn around in your mind and see all sides of at once."

The effect of Ware's widely-varied composition seems to imply a musical sensation. Many pages are uneven, with alternating large and small panels. Others switch between tall and short. Still others have panels that don't have a clear flow from one to the next. Oftentimes the characters take an entire page to get out one sentence of dialogue. In those cases, the panels and drawings themselves provide the beat rather than the words. Some panels may have such little differentiation between the pictorial action that they could be frames of film or pages in a flipbook. Ware apparently wants the audience to be as much a viewer as a reader. The art should be used to create mood and tell the story just as much as the plot and characters.

For more Art Deco content, check out

Gaiman, Goya, Dringenberg, and Jones

I noticed a possible homage to Francisco Goya in Sandman, on page 205 of the Preludes and Nocturnes collection.

The character of John Dee is a withered husk of a man, completely insane and homicidal. The artists Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III draw him much like Goya's painting Saturn Devouring His Son.

Saturn is one of Goya's Black Paintings, which depict themes of turmoil and despair. Goya began these paintings at the age of 72 after becoming deaf and disillusioned with humanity after the Napoleonic Wars.

Goya did 14 of these paintings, directly onto the walls of his home. They were never meant for public display.

Friday, September 18, 2009

V For Vendetta: Fascism, Anarchism, Brit slang and silly masks

In a mere 265 pages, Alan Moore's V For Vendetta manages to introduce the reader to such disparate concepts as Justice, Liberty, Anarchy, Chaos, Fascism, Order, Freedom, and Equality. Naturally, being a comic, all of the philosophy and politics are surrounded by dingy panels and violence. Nevertheless, don't let the subtext pass by unnoticed.

So, what is the significance of V's Guy Fawkes mask? Ostensibly it serves a common purpose for comic superheroes: to make them mysterious and hide their identity. However, the real Guy Fawkes was a Catholic in 17th Century England who tried to overthrow (or dismantle) the oppressive Protestant English government. V, in comparison, is fighting an English fascist regime that oppresses non-whites, homosexuals, leftists, and counter-culture types.

Today in England, Guy Fawkes is a popular villain icon, and the uncovering of his Gunpowder Plot is remembered as a victory for the English status quo power structure. Alan Moore turns this celebration on its head because V fights a government that modern people would find repugnant. It's all a matter of the audience's perception and the times in which they live.

The purpose of masks in modern comics, according to Scott McCloud (p. 34), is one of appealing to the reader by making the hero (or antihero) out to be the everyman. We can imagine what is behind the mask by inserting our own personality. We, as the reader, have an easier time associating with the subject of the comic the less we see or know of them. Our imagination fills in the rest. Your appearance to the outside world (face, hairstyle, clothing, etc.) does not convey everything about us to another human being. Our thoughts and personality have to come out in other ways. There is a mind behind the mask. In the same way, V's mask tells us he has some admiration for Guy Fawkes, but his full character has yet to be seen.

On another note, what is the significance of the comic's fascist head of government, Adam Susan, being called "Leader"? Why is he not identified as President or Prime Minister? This is undoubtedly a reference to the Nazi government. Hitler's official title was Reichskanzler (Chancellor) but his informal title was Führer (Leader). Furthermore, President and Prime Minister are title used in democratic countries, whereas the new English government is trying to do away with all of the old systems and reinvent the nation.

Deckard is a replicant

You heard me.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Art Spiegelman's work in Hayden White's view

Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus, first published in serial form starting in 1980, is the story of Spiegelman's father Vladek as he tries to survive under Nazi persecution from 1939 to 1945. Maus is notable for using a cartoonish style rather than a realistic style, in which different ethnicities are represented by different types of animals. The two main people, Germans and Jews, are drawn as cats and mice, respectively. The setting of the comic is Poland, and the Poles are drawn as pigs.

Hayden White, historian, professor, and literary critic, has made some bold claims about the nature of man and his need to create narrative. He believed storytelling was universal among all humans, and that mankind had an inherent need to create stories. I think Maus is a perfect example of why this is so. Art Spiegelman sat down with his father over the course of many days, writing and recording the family history. Art felt a need to understand how and why he came to be and the trouble his descendants went through to reach their point in modern New York City. People have a desire to understand the past, and storytelling, or historical narrativizing, fulfills this role.

Narrativized history appeals to us because it relates the story to the reader; it adds a personal touch. It cannot reproduce reality, which has no tangible substance, but it can relay the information to someone who was not a witness to help them understand what happened. The reader or listener can recreate the reality for themselves mentally. This understanding of history, from one event to the next, influences the reality of today. Remember the old phrase from George Santayana: "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Maus's style, with the cartoon characters, simple arrangements, and black-and-white art, creates a reality with the reader that is even more compelling than a closer reproduction would. We create a continuity in our minds as we read that may not be there 100% on the page. Also, readers are better able to associate themselves with the characters the less similar we are to them. The artwork on page 86, for example, is deceptively simple. The 90 year old grandparents are being taken away by the Nazis, given up by their own family. The art is straightforward and the mouse characters look essentially the same. However, it is a heartbreaking scene for the reader. We sympathize with these people/animals, despite them being small ink drawings on a page. We can drop our preconceived notions about the actual events of the Holocaust and instead pay closer attention to the story as presented by the author. It is an unorthodox but effective means of storytelling.

Whatever happened to great movie posters?