Monday, September 29, 2008

Graphic Novels: Where to Begin?

Right off the bat, I'd like to admit two things. First, you can count the number of graphic novels I've read on two hands. Second, my recent enthusiasm for the medium may very well be fleeting, a fad or something of the like. Despite these possible points of contention, I'll press on with the promise I made last week.

The first graphic novel I read was assigned to me in a freshman literature class. It's called Persepolis, and it is the autobiographical account of author Marjane Satrapi's childhood in Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. And even though comic book nerds will tell you that it doesn't live up to the hype, it's a wonderful book heavy on themes of violence, religion, and growth. It was also made into an excellent movie that won a Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Fest.

Another popular starting point might be Maus, which may very well be the most celebrated graphic novel of all time. Author Art Spiegelman's portrayal of his father's tale of survival in Nazi concentration camps, led to the same Pulitzer Prize Dr. Seuss, Carl Sandburg, and the guy who wrote Roots received.

Now Persepolis and Maus are exceptionally well-written graphic novels. Side-by-side, they even look pretty darn similar (something Dave immediately noticed). Both are black and white, mostly non-fictional, biographical accounts of rather important wars. And both authors utilize their "low" art form to tactfully relate grave stories (just one strength of comics). But ultimately these books have a great deal of history mixed in with the narrative, and will therefore appeal most to those interested in the historical events they portray.

There are many other "essential" graphic novels which I might recommend to a first (or second, or third) timer. For many, Watchmen is the medium's seminal work. Perhaps you saw the trailer for it before the new Batman movie? The book has been dissected and praised to death, all of it deserved, including a spot on Time magazine's Top 100 novels from 1923 to the present. The book is a spin on the classic superhero comic but is thick with political undertones and apocalyptic symbolism. Like much of history's best literature, the reader has to invest a great deal to soak it all in. It's an excellent book in nearly every regard, but like Persepolis and Maus, Watchmen's just probably not for everyone.

So what's the best place to begin? Of the handful I've read, one definitely stands out. It's called Bone, and it's readership is primarily composed of little kids. Author Jeff Smith began the 55 issue collection in 1991, and it took him more than a decade to complete. The individual comic books have since been grouped and reissued in nine volumes, first in their original black and white form by Cartoon Books, and more recently, in beautifully colored versions by Scholastic. You can also buy the one-volume "brick" version for between 30 and 40 bucks at your local bookstore. Smith has won an impressive number of awards for Bone, including ten Eisner Awards, the comic book equivalent to the Academy Awards.

Beginning with the simplistic Out from Boneville, Smith tells the story of three bone-like cousins (though even Smith acknowledges he doesn't really know what they are), named Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone. The Bone cousins are kicked out of their home town and find a mysterious map before being separated by a swarm of locusts. In an effort to reunite with Phoney and Smiley, our protagonist Fone Bone follows a trail of Smiley Bone's cigar butts. They lead him to the valley, a mystical place populated by hot humans, dragons, and the evil though often comical "rat creatures."

The first couple of books are definitely a bit on the juvenile side, and I recall feeling a tad "unchallenged" by their content. But Smith is as clever as writers come, and has a knack for pacing. He draws the reader in with impressive character development that will have anyone with half a heart rooting for his protagonist. Fone Bone's a Moby Dick fanboy, he falls in love with the first pretty girl he meets, and he tries with all his might to write poetry that will win her over. He's goddamn cute.

In my last post, I recommended Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a fascinating and in depth look at the art form. For me, one point of interest was McCloud's explanation of the choice of detail an artist chooses to employ for his characters. Roughly summarized, he describes how the more simplistic a cartoon character is drawn, the more likely the reader is to connect and relate. Simply put, it's far easier to see yourself (no matter who you are) in a character drawn like this, than in one drawn like this (unless of course you're a sharp jawed power lifter). This helps explain Fone Bone's immediate appeal.


But Smith is an exceptionally good illustrator, evidenced by both his meticulously drawn scenery and his ability to draw complex emotions in the faces and hands of even the simplest characters. This is just one more strength on a rather long list.

The beauty of Bone might not become apparent until book three or four. What begins as a family-fun romp chock full of endearing cartoon friends, gradually transforms into an epic story with layer upon layer of sub-plots, subtly introduced but powerful themes (including corruption, love, even Communism), and a detailed history of the valley. It's a lot like a Pixar movie, actually, the way its happy, cute characters appeal to kids, but much of its content is made with adults in mind.

The best (and most often made) comparison to Bone is The Lord of the Rings. Both exist in an expansive, pre-technological landscape; both lead to apocalyptic battles between good and evil; hell, Smith even includes a grandiose map of the valley à la Tolkien's. And what makes Bone most impressive, like LOTR, is the massive ambition and thought that went into creating and completing a story of such enormous scope. There's wonderful humor, heart-warming romance, nail biting cliff hangers, and just plain cool story lines. But with the first book in mind, you'll be shocked to see how far Smith is able to take a seemingly simple tale about three white blobs.

I loved reading Bone, and in my estimation, it'd be near impossible not to.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Different Electoral Conversation

The vast majority of discussion around selecting the next President of the United States is misplaced. Why? Because voters are focusing on promises instead of performance.

In democracy, governments respond to voters’ needs and interests because they are held accountable by the people through elections; accountability causes responsiveness. How then does accountability work?

The most powerful, and arguably only, mechanism of democratic accountability is ex-post accountability, that is, the retrospective punishing and rewarding of politicians based on their performance while in office. If politicians face no risk of punishment or promise of reward, then they would have no incentive to perform along basic social, economic, or environmental criteria. This raises the question, under what conditions does ex-post accountability function?

Accountability in a free and fair democracy breaks down in three cases:

1. People vote based on ideology- Millions of highly educated people say “I would never vote for a Democrat.” This essentially says, “Regardless of your performance, I will re-elect you if you are a Republican.” In this situation, politicians have no incentive to perform because they will be rewarded under any conditions. Ideological voting opposes democratic accountability.

2. People vote on future promises- People often vote based on a candidate’s vision for the future. While romantic, this does not incentivize performance. Instead it creates a system that rewards politicians for making lofty promises, not fulfilling them. If people continually vote based on promises and visions, then politicians never have to account for their past promises, they only need to make more. Voting on future promises (voting ex-ante) does not foster accountability.

3. Voters are not informed- If voters are not aware of what changed or who is responsible for those changes, governments can shirk responsibility because they know that voters cannot accurately measure their performance. According to one study by Adser√°, Boix and Payne (2003), the presence of a well-informed electorate explains between one-half and two-thirds of the variance in the levels of governmental performance and corruption. Performance improves as citizens have more precise political knowledge. Weak political knowledge is opposed to accountability.

So what’s the point? This election is not about Barack Obama or John McCain, it’s about evaluating the economic, social, and environmental performance of our current leadership and sanctioning or rewarding them accordingly. Ideally, we would have an incumbent candidate to reward or punish based on their performance. However, because of presidential term limits (to which I am largely opposed), we must evaluate the incumbent Party instead. Some argue that it is unfair to base one's judgment of John McCain solely on the performance of his Party; I disagree. The Republicans had six years of executive and legislative control and John McCain voted with President Bush 90% of the time. It is plenty fair to vote for or against McCain based on the performance of the Party he represents and desires to lead.

Therefore, come November, we have two obligations to ourselves and to our system: 1) Be informed and 2) Vote according to the performance of those in power, not on the charm or promises of their challengers. Obama may be a better choice, but he should be elected because he represents, not promises, change.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Time Well Spent

One of the most beautifully straightforward scenes in the film Waking Life explores the notion that words are "inert" symbols derived from basic survival instinct.  For those too busy to watch a two-minute youtube clip, the speaker essentially asserts that while some words have clear cut meanings (ex. "water"), others are considerably more "abstract."  With these words, one's interpretation is dependent upon that individual's experience with it.  Her example is the word "love," and she says that your own experiences of love (or lack thereof) directly affect the way you interpret of the word.

It's an interesting point, sure, but she's ignoring the central roles of tradition and culture.  John Doe may not have ever kissed Susie Q, but I'm sure he saw Beauty and the Beast or listened to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a kid.  Regardless, my favorite part of this scene are the little illustrations that the scene's artist decided to add to assist with the viewer's understanding of the screenplay.  Even if you may not know how love feels, you subconsciously associate a cartoon heart with the "intangible" emotion.  Similar picture symbols surround us in nearly every facet of our lives.  If you are driving and see an "M," you might get a taste for french fries.  If you a come to a red light, you know to stop.  And if a tiny picture gas pump lights up on your dash, you know you'd better look for a cartoon shell along the road.

By including these cartoon cues, the artist helps make the same point the writer (speaker) does, and it is more simplistic than we may first realize: the scene speaks to the power of symbols of all kinds, words and pictures alike.  And by combining both types of symbols, this short, two-minute clip leads the viewer to the very "transient" experience it describes.

Two mediums definitionally utilize both words and pictures in a consecutive manner (most of the time).  The first--film--is commonly considered a form of "high" art.  It is consumed in enormous quantities, critiqued and analyzed to death, and still maintains a great deal of respect as an art form.

Why then is the second--comics--so enthusiastically disregarded by the average person?  The question, though rhetorical, has a fairly obvious answer.  The average person has a very specific idea of what comics are despite relative unfamiliarity.  At the very least, this person knows what comics are not: they are not high art, they are not literature, and they are not worth the time.

Now I could go on and on about why comics are negatively stereotyped and why it's unfair and blah blah blah, but if you're at all intrigued, you should check out Scott McCloud's excellent Understanding Comics.  This book is essential reading for anyone with a cursory interest in the medium.  It addresses issues ranging from the ancient history of comics to the speech bubbles they utilize, all with more thought and wit than one might think possible.

Plus, this post really isn't made with the intent to compare comics with Moby Dick or Citizen Kane.  What matters to me is that we--the intelligent, curious, ambitious, and everyone in between--become interested enough in graphic novels (a term used for the same reason we use "film" instead of "movie," or "literature" instead of "book") to want to read them avidly.  Don't pick up the next graphic novel I suggest merely because I suggested it; do it because you have a genuine interest in the medium.

Why should you?  Because that same "transient" feeling described in Waking Life, the one that "we live for," is what comics do best.  By combining both pictures and words, comics are able to more simplistically convey complex emotions, characters, and plots to their readers.  Moreover, many of the most common literary techniques (metaphor, symbolism, et. al) are easily enhanced by mere inclusion of imagery.

Educators are beginning to take note.  School Library Journal found that by simply including comics in junior high school libraries, library traffic increased by 82% including a 30% increase in non-comic circulation.  Jodi Leckbee, a high school teacher in Austin, Texas, details, "a distinct shift in attendance by [her] normally 'borderline' students" when graphic novels were added to her curriculum.  Leckbee explains, "Graphic novels act as a bridge, allowing students to transcend their usual apathy toward reading assignments...A literary piece, like a graphic novel, calls on students to use their analyzing and synthesizing skills, actually requiring more involvement and focus in their reading."

It's about time that we examine our own "apathy toward reading," albeit a singular form.  Please realize that like any form of art, there's a lot of crap mixed in with the good.  On Monday, I'll recommend one of my personal favorites and why.  But ultimately comics are as varied in subject and content as literature and music.  It's up to you to seek out the style or writer that suits you best.  What's important is that we begin to view that seeking as worthwhile.  I guarantee you'll find the benefits to be not only rewarding but transient.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Why write?

As always, it's difficult to follow Adam. No matter how little he tries, it's always something of a tour de force.

First, I am not blogging because it’s the natural consummation of years of experience and expertise. In fact, I am writing here for two reasons: 1) It is an incredible opportunity to be a part of anything with Adam and 2) I am interested in further understanding, articulating, and sharing the stories and ideas that are shaping my worldview and moving me toward political, social, and economic justice in the world.

I have always found that I learn the most about myself and about the world around me when I am writing. That being said, this blog is not about myself nor is it about Adam. For me, it’s about the power of the dialectic, of synthesis, of an awakening through mutual encouragement and challenge. We will be discovering our stories and worldviews together by weaving a new dialogue that includes, but is not limited to, music, politics, religion, economics, and society. I expect that through this process I will be learning, contributing, and having fun; I am not sure what more I could ask for.

Adam’s story above about the role his older brother played in his life closely parallels the role that Adam has played in my life, for which I am most grateful. Adam is responsible for awakening and releasing a latent musicality in me during what have proved to be the most formative years of my life. His deep earnestness, fullness, profound insight, genuine playfulness, and undying romanticism are infectious and always make for spirited company, lively discussion, and most importantly, an ideal partner in crime. Adam has always stood with me in defying social norms and embarking down roads of uncertainty, and I am now thrilled to be standing with him in this project. I certainly cannot think of a better co-conspirator.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Meager Beginnings

In the summer of 2002, my mother and I picked up my brother Joel from the airport, home on summer vacation from Ohio University.  Sporting a green trucker hat ("Trust me, they're coming back") he handed me my birthday present: five homemade mixtapes, each meant to introduce a different genre of music to a teenager who listened almost exclusively to rubbish.  There was one for "Indie," one for "Electronica," one for "Turntablism," and two for "Hip Hop."  I listened to them endlessly, burned them for friends, and recommended their contents to nearly everyone I knew.  In any estimation, these mixtapes were the foundation of my musical knowledge.

The mix I took to most was the one devoted to indie-rock.  I still have that CD-R and revisit it regularly.  The tracklist is basically ingrained in my mind:

  1. Neutral Milk Hotel - "Holland, 1945"
  2. The Magnetic Fields - "I Don't Want to Get Over You"
  3. Pixies - "Debaser"
  4. Red House Painters - "Michigan"
  5. Wilco - "Kamera"
  6. Eels - "Last Stop, This Town"
  7. Looper - "Burning Flies"
  8. The Microphones - "The Moon"
  9. Bright Eyes - "From a Balance Beam"
  10. The White Stripes - "You're Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)"
  11. The Smoking Popes - "No More Smiles"
  12. The Detroit Cobras - "He Did It"
  13. The Soft Boys - "I Wanna Destroy You"
  14. The Hives - "Hate to Say I Told You So"
  15. Gomez - "Love is Better Than a Warm Trombone"
  16. The Walkmen - "We've Been Had"
  17. The Sea & Cake - "Jacking the Ball"
  18. Modest Mouse - "Never Ending Math Equation"
  19. Grandaddy - "The Crystal Lake"
  20. They Might Be Giants - "Nightgown of the Sullen Moon"
Now I could write five paragraphs on why "Holland, 1945" lived up to Joel's promise that, "One day, you'll realize this is one of the most perfect songs ever made."  I could write five more on why "I Don't Want to Get Over You" is as astute an example of Stephin Merritt's unique lyrical humor as you'll likely find.  And I could begin to describe the day I stopped skipping "The Moon" because I couldn't hear Phil Elverum's lyrics and began instead to hear how the production makes that track.  But the point is, this mix gave me my bearings.  This mix is solely responsible for my love of music.

I tell this story because there's a history to every passion, a spark to every flame, and it's always good to know your roots.  I hope to use this blog as a means of recording that history, however it may play out.  With such a central role in my day to day life, music will no doubt be the focus of many of my posts.  But the subject of Holland, 2002 is indefinite and the scope is unlimited.  I hope you read it because you like what I have to say, or maybe, you just want to see what I'm up to.  Regardless of my motives for writing and your reasons for reading, I genuinely appreciate your attention and any comments you may choose to leave.

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I met Dave in high school, and though I've known him for nearly a decade, I continue to be astounded by his ceaseless ambitions.

I had always been under the impression that the smarter you were, the farther away you'd go to undergrad.  While the brightest buds seemed to flee the Midwest for Stanford, Harvard, and the like, Dave enrolled in honors classes at the local community college; you see, so long as a "A" was achieved, tuition for honors classes was fully refunded.  Simple, I know, but it was one of the smartest things anyone I know has ever done.

In his free time, Dave became a certified paramedic & firefighter.  He spent his summers as a counselor at a camp in Maine aimed to afford unprivileged children an opportunity to swim, row canoes, and learn about Mother Nature.  Unsurprisingly, Dave had no problem transferring to Northwestern for his junior and senior years where he would become the most successful student in his major.

This is the guy who I once watched skewer and roast an entire pig, and ironically, the guy responsible for my choice to become a vegan.  This is the guy who once convinced me to walk from Chicago to Naperville (roughly 32 miles), the guy who told me he was going to backpack across Europe alone, and the guy who taught me to drive stick.  He is vastly knowledgeable in subjects ranging from auto mechanics to world politics.  I am always intrigued by his newest projects and passions.  I respect him as much as anyone I know and am tremendously excited to begin this blog with him.

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On a wall in Dave's apartment is a quote from Rumi that reads:

"Start a huge, foolish project
Like Noah."

Alright, Dave.  I'm in.