Sunday, August 24, 2014

Excess, Pastiche, and Queerness in the Comics: Reading The Black Dossier

One of the things to love about comic books is the sheer excessiveness of the things.  Part of this stems from the genre of the marvelous, where anything can happen and the rules of realism don't apply.  Bodies become plastic, or move at amazing speed, or leap tall buildings at a single bound, worlds connect to other worlds, other times, other dimensions, and so forth.  Part of the excessiveness, too, stems from the fact that most comics are written in the form of the romance—not the "falling in love" sort of romance (although there have been some built on that model), but the romance as episodic quest narrative, a series of trials leading to rewards.  These serial formats are open-ended, and tend to give us a bunch of climaxes ("The villain we've faced for eleven issues is finally dead!" or "The hero we've loved for a decade has died!") that turn out to be false ("The villain was merely frozen in a derelict space station!" or "The dead hero has risen again!").  These false climaxes would be in poor taste in an epic or a realist's novel—but with the serial, the show must go on.  Also, most mainstream comics are shamelessly commercial, and you just don't kill a franchise by killing off its heroes and villains.  You kill it off by driving its best writers and artists away when corporate status monkeys seize control of the operation.  But that's a different story.  Another part of the aesthetics of excess in comics has to do with repetition.  Certain types of gratification must occur again and again—the most overt manifestation of this being the way each volume of Asterix ends with a repetition of what is essentially the same feast, a re-affirmation of the stability of community at the end of the quest.  And finally, there's the excess of proliferation, of adding more and more levels to the mythos of the original.  Jodorowsky and Moebius, in The Incal, for example, always seem ready to add another secret society, a higher level of interstellar government, a conspiracy behind the conspiracy, another galaxy bent on taking over ours.  "I'll explain it all when we get to my secret underwater base," says a new ally, rushing to the rescue of our beleaguered protagonist.  But it will never all be explained—explanation can't keep up with invention.  And that's all part of the contract: it's not like the wretched television show Lost, which promised to stitch everything together and then died a shameful death, strangled on its own loose ends.  The world of the comics promises to continue opening out to wider and more fabulous horizons, and either you're up for that or you go and read Raymond Carver.

            I mention all this as a kind of preamble for some comments about the aesthetics of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, from back in 2007.  The two are a tremendous team, and Moore is beyond doubt a genius, however one wishes to define that term (my personal definition is this: if, every time I read one of your works, I feel compelled to start planning to write a book about you, you are a genius).  The Moore-O'Neill aesthetic in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen seems to me to be predicated on two things, both related to the idea of excess: syncretism and pastiche.

            One of the more unusual things about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen throughout its existence has been the creation of false documents to go along with the main narrative.  It's an old literary technique to append letters or testimonies or 'found' documents to a narrative, like the maps Tolkien created for Middle Earth; or to embed them in the narrative itself, like Captain Walton's letters at the start of Frankenstein or the documents Dr. Lanyon leaves for our heroes in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It's a little more unusual to use this in the comics, but Alan Moore is nothing if not literary— The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a virtual catalog of characters and tropes from centuries of literary and pulp fiction.  It should be no surprise, then, to find him appending supplementary documents to the various installments of League—and we get them in a multitude of forms, from false advertisements—including one for "Marvel Brand Douche" back when he worked with Marvel Comics' rival, DC—to stand-alone narratives of some scale.  As the title hints, The Black Dossier moves these documents to the center of the narrative, but figuratively (there are a lot of them) and literally: many of them come in the middle of the ostensibly 'main' narrative, when our hero and heroine sit down to read the titular 'Black Dossier,' containing documents that chronicle the centuries-long history of the League.

            The role of the false documents in The Black Dossier, or one of them, is to create, and explain, the world in which the events told in the main narratives can exist.  That is: the main narrative of the League traditionally consisted of a bringing together of various creatures from the popular Victorian imagination: Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, H. Rider Haggard's hero Allan Quartermain, Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's Dracula, and so forth.  In The Black Dossier, we expand the historical range into mid-century Britain, adding a young (and villainous) 007, and a recently-ended period of history in which Britain had succumbed to the Big Brother regime of Orwell's 1984, among other things.  It's a tremendous work of syncretism, bringing all of these imaginative works together, and one of the functions of the documents at the heart of The Black Dossier is to take all of these wildly various things and bring them together in something close to a coherent mythos.  So, for example, we read a mysterious document that tells a story of the intervention of supernatural forces into our own world since deep in prehistory, a document that links Cthulu with Conan the Barbarian's Crom, that interweaves Egyptian and Greek mythology with Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, and Virginia Woolf's gender-shifting immortal hero/heroine from Orlando with Queen Elizabeth as an actual faerie queen.  It takes the excess of syncretism and imposes something like an order on it (I say "something like" because these documents are presented as partial, subjective, and possibly wrong—the excess is partially ordered, but by no means tamed).  The documents that follow present aspects of this syncretic history.

            What makes these documents really tasty, though, is that each takes the form of a pastiche: the pan-mythological document I mention above is a kind of riff on Lovecraft, and the history of Orlando's life is in the form of Classics Illustrated comics.  Another document, one revealing the faerie nature of Queen Elizabeth and recounting her encounter with the ('real life') sorcerer Prospero and the ubiquitous-as-Zelig Orlando, is written in the form of a little lost Shakespearian play, and so forth.  Everything is done in imitation of some other verbal and visual style out of the history of literature and pop culture.  There's an endless invention here, in excess of the mere demands of plot, an invention clearly based on a love of the prolific inventiveness of the past.  A love, maybe even a reverence.  I mean, here's how Moore describes the vast constellation of imaginative creation:
The planet of the imagination is as old as we are.  It has been humanity's constant companion with all of its fictional locations, like Mount Olympus and the gods, since we first came down from the trees, basically.  It seems very important, otherwise, we wouldn't have it.
The thing that keeps this reverence for the whole of imaginative—especially narrative—creation from congealing into something Worthy and Highminded, like the archetypes of Jung or Northrop Frye, is the way the tributes to other styles undergo various forms of what Mikhail Bakhtin called "transcoding."  Bakhtin was thinking of how Rabelais would rework Christian themes with reference to the functions of the body—pissing and shitting and farting and fucking—in order to strip away sanctimoniousness and create comedy.

            Moore often does this sort of thing.  Sometimes it's straight out of Bakhtin's Rabelais, as when he gives us a pastiche of Shakespeare with characters like Master Pisse and Master Shytte (although these aren't too far from the kind of comic characters Shakespeare himself includes); sometimes it’s a matter of incongruously crossing the unlike—as when we find P.G. Wodehouse's Edwardian nincompoop Bertie Wooster recounting his encounters with the demonic and supernatural.  Most often, though, it’s a sexualizing of the narrative source.  There's a brilliant little insert, for example, designed to look like the state-produced pornography secretly circulated among proles by a government ministry in Orwell's 1984.  In one frame, a man cries out about how love proves that "they" can't crush our spirits—but he does this while his hairy buttocks shake during sex on an assembly line, and the transcoding undermines his statement.  This seems like a nasty trick—but then again, it is presented as the action of an Orwellian state, bent on undermining all attempts to subvert its authority.

            Often, the sexualizing in Moore's work is also a kind of queering—a taking us beyond the norms of reproductive heterosexuality.  Sometimes this involves only a little exaggeration of the source narrative (Bram Stoker's Dracula is already liminal with regard to queer sexuality, and you just have to nudge Woolf's Orlando a little toward the NC-17 line to make its queerness explicit).  There's also a tendency to take things that are already sexualized, like the James Bond mythos, and amp up the bondage and discipline or dominance and submission quotient.  All of this makes it clear that we're dealing with pastiche rather than replication: it marks a difference from the original, marking the text as having a kind of difference and aiming at something other than replication.  It's excessive, sure, to add all of this: but the excess makes sense. It frees us from the burdens of accuracy and solemnity, marks the narrative territory as belonging not only to the progenitors of the original characters, but as Moore's own.  And, in the best traditions of popular culture, it adds the titillation of the basic drives and the thrill of the forbidden to the more respectable and 'literary' pleasures of the text.  It's the excess, after all, that makes you want more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

John Ashbery's "Snowball in Hell": A Note on the Renovation of Poetic Language

I've been tapping away on the laptop at a ferocious pace lately, drafting the John Ashbery chapter of Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself that I've been researching and outlining for months.  Here's a bit about "A Snowball in Hell," from April Galleons, and how it begins with anecdote but soon makes us think about form, and about the figures of speech common in traditional poetic language.

Consider the poem's opening stanza:

In the beginning there are those who don't quite fit in
But are somehow okay. And then some morning 
There are places that suddenly seem wonderful: 
Weather and the water seem wonderful, 
And the peaceful night sky that arrives 
In time to protect us, like a sword 
Cutting the blue cloak of a prince.

There is a recognizable narrative here: indeed, it seems almost like a group biography for Ashbery and his circle of poet-friends. Misfits whose lives are difficult but not tragic find a kind of haven where they can flourish. But what are we to make of the simile for the arrival of night? We're given both parts of what could have been a perfectly functional traditional simile—the night sky and a blue cloak. It's an apt enough comparison visually, and since the night sky is meant to protect the protagonists (perhaps they are lovers, meeting in secret), the protective connotation of "cloak" is apt enough. But we are not told that the peaceful, protective night sky is like a blue cloak: we are told that it is like a sword cutting a prince's blue cloak. This is startling, and original, and quite hard to reconcile with the sentiment it seems intended to express. The sword neither looks like a night sky, nor does it function defensively: it is a bright object of aggression. Ashbery has drawn attention to a very traditional kind of poetic simile, putting the night-as-cloak figure into our minds even as he subverts it. In the end, the destruction of the cloak is the destruction of traditional simile itself. And perhaps, given the presence of that prince, it is the destruction of the aristocratic world from which traditional poetry comes down to us. The real action of the stanza lies less in the presentation of the alienated group finding a haven than in a formal matter, the unmasking of old poetic figures as hackneyed expressions.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Israel Has Already Lost: American Public Opinion and the Conflict in Gaza

A few years ago, I was at my local Democratic Party ward captain's house, listening to a congressional hopeful give a speech to rally the troops in preparation for the coming primary election.  When question period came, someone asked about his position on Israel, and he said that the Israeli administration had his full support. Such support was not controversial, he continued—indeed, it was not, and shouldn't be, a partisan issue in Washington.  Support was solid on both sides of the aisle.

There are many measures by which it is still true that American support for Israel is bipartisan.  Both the House and the Senate recently passed resolutions, with virtually no dissent from either party, supporting Israel in the current conflict in Gaza, and such support is not merely rhetorical: approval for emergency funding for Israeli military systems has also passed with strong bipartisan support. But the actions of the American political class no longer reflect the reality of public opinion as well as they once did.  Public opinion has begun to divide, and the division has followed both generational and party lines.

Consider the following graph, with information from a recent Gallup poll (I reproduce it from an article in The Economist):

The news is in the numbers. Younger Americans are, rightly or wrongly, critical of the actions of the Israeli administration.  And only Republicans strongly support Israel in the Gazan conflict. They do so by a considerable margin, but Democrats and Independents tend to take the opposite view.  

The American political system will probably not reflect these shifts in opinion immediately, nor strongly.  Indeed, the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, recently made her commitment to the Israeli administration very clear.  But it is significant that she did so on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, where she had to chide the host, whose criticisms of Israel played well with his youngish, heavily liberal audience.

It is plausible that the end of the conflict in Gaza will lead to a restoration of some support for Israel, and even of Netanyahu, outside the Republican party.  But it is also quite likely that one result of this war will be a slow shift away from the model of unwavering bipartisan support for Israel.  For young people in particular, opinion is less a matter of automatic and overwhelming support for Israel, and this will likely make for a different future for American-Israeli relations. Given how much Israel still depends on American financial, military, and political support, this shift will matter for Israel, probably more than any military victory on the ground in Gaza does. Indeed, it makes military victory pyrrhic.

Regardless of how one feels about the events in Gaza, there is a sense in which Netanyahu's administration has already lost this war.