I first knew of Morris as the greatest bookbinder of the modern age, a master of textile design who single-handedly rediscovered half a dozen dead artI first knew of Morris as the greatest bookbinder of the modern age, a master of textile design who single-handedly rediscovered half a dozen dead arts. But he was also a fantasist, contemporary with Dunsany, and a political thinker.
My search among the many branching roots of Fantasy lead me to pick up this collection, but I must admit this is not what I had in mind by 'fantasy'. Here, Morris gives us a rather bland and didactic rundown of his perfect world, loosely structured around something less engaging than a story.
Morris' pessimism about the state of man lends him a desperation, a need for things to be different, to be better. He indulges this need, but he does not build upon it. We never learn how his world came about, how it overcame the pitfalls of human conflict, of ignorance, or fear.
There was a bloody revolution, this we know, brought on by the great inequality suffered by the squalid poor. This is not remarkable, as history will attest, but in every case, such revolutions have not resulted in a sudden utopia, but in a new power structure.
In Morris' world, a pleasant socialist anarchy arises from the revolution, and the only explanation for why is that 'human beings desire to be happy'. Certainly, they seem to, but that doesn't mean they know how to achieve happiness, or that they won't be sidelined by fear, ignorance, and internal conflicts.
Morris seems to sense the ephemeral state he has painted, where the problems of the world are solved by pure coincidence, and he often foreshadows that this ideal world is poised to fall at any moment, as well it might, since there is nothing to bolster or protect it.
Like the other Utopian Socialists of Victorian England, Morris wants to see a new world born, but doesn't seem to know how to bring it about. Like them, he is content to rely on the 'pure goodness of man' to do the work for him, and like them, his pleasant thoughts prove ineffective in the end.
After reading about Morris' many laudable achievements in various arts, I felt a need to study him, hoping I might find the personal philosophy which allows a man to explore so freely, and to remain undaunted by the vastness of his studies. I quickly found his secret: he was independently wealthy from a young age.
This allowed him to pursue with absolute freedom anything which interested him, including socialism and the 'plight of the poor', which was indeed a severe one in Victorian period. So he and his other well-off friends started a social club where they would hang about and talk about how to fix the world.
And this book sounds like what would come of the conversation of a bunch of wealthy people who were concerned about the poor and decided they wanted to fix things. There are a lot of noble sentiments, many platitudes, and a complete avoidance of man's darker side.
Morris assumes that if one destroyed all of the social structures (politics, justice, law, industry, business), then all people would naturally be nice to one another, which rather ignores the fact that we developed these systems to replace the violent, anarchic systems which preceded them.
Certainly, all of these structures are rife with corruption and inequality, but it is folly to scrap an entire plan just because it has drawbacks. Every plan has drawbacks, so the real challenge is to find the one that will be most effective despite its flaws, not reject anything that isn't perfect.
Also like other idealist thinkers of the Victorian, he seems to have a very rosy, idealized view of the Medieval Period. After all, it was the Victorians who invented the world of knights, princesses, chivalry, and honor that we not think of as the Middle Ages.
Now, Morris had slightly more knowledge of the period than some of his contemporaries, since he read Medieval manuscripts in order to recreate their craft techniques, but his social understanding seems to be more rudimentary, as he seems to think of it as a Golden Age when people were intelligent and pleasant, not as a period of violent, jostling warlords who were so childish and ignorant that they would buy matching silk shirts instead of armoring their troops.
Morris' Utopia is similar to the Medieval in that it seems to be a period following a Dark Age, where people are mostly simple and uneducated, where much of technology has fallen by the wayside, and people have enough to think about with feeding their families rather than casting their thoughts to higher things.
Overall, the pervasive happiness on which his world seems to run felt more to me like ignorant self-satisfaction rather than the enrichment of a lifetime of soul-searching. Perhaps Morris likes the idea of a world run by the motto 'ignorance is bliss', but I can hardly imagine that would turn out very well.
Another concept central to his world is the notion that work and art are the same thing, and that if people simply took pride in what they did, then they would be happy and all the work would always get done. I couldn't help but think that there would definitely still be some jobs that wouldn't get done, especially ones unpleasant enough that it would be hard to find the art in them, especially if they weren't recompensed.
Certainly, there have been some projects that operated because of a pride in work--namely the great cathedrals of Europe and the Egyptian pyramids, where people were given personal prestige and spiritual guarantees for working free or at a discounted rate, but Morris gives us no such social structure to elevate the status of truly unpleasant labors.
In the conclusion , Morris asks us to believe that this is a vision, not a dream, but that isn't true. This is not a revelation of a philosophy or worldview, not a glimpse of other possibilities, but a vague and ephemeral thing, built of elation and hope--and little else.
The day after writing this review, I continued with my collection of Morris' writings, finding a lecture called 'The Hopes of Civilization' which more-or-less outlines all the problems I had with News From Nowhere. In the lecture he explains how his utopia could come about, why he idealized the Medieval period, what economic philosophies underpin ideas, and he even mentions manufacturing a pseudo-religious motivation for work.
So here were all my answers, all the failings of this book explained succinctly, passionately, concretely, and instructively, in a lecture. A lecture written five years before News From Nowhere. It is hard to describe the combination of frustration, anger, and confusion I felt as I saw him skillfully lay out what this book should have been, proving that he had all of the tools necessary to write an engrossing, insightful, well-supported work, but instead, and for unfathomable reasons, wrote something vague, repetitive, unsupported, and preachy.
I think if you took all the descriptions of how pretty women are in News From Nowhere (usually every other paragraph if the narrator is talking to a woman) and set them aside, the result would be longer than the entire lecture. I'm not sure what this means, but it gives me the same itchy, perturbed sensation I get when I see a luxury SUV parked across two handicap spaces.
I know other of his works have a more overtly fantastical bent, and I hope to get more out of them than I did from this....more
In his introduction, C.J. Henderson expresses a disappointment that Lovecraft's heroes are never able to fight back, that they never just get a gun anIn his introduction, C.J. Henderson expresses a disappointment that Lovecraft's heroes are never able to fight back, that they never just get a gun and start shooting at any otherworldly interdimensional beasts that show up. Perhaps he also feels a disappointment that more people don't fire their guns to fend off encroaching lightning bolts or tornadoes. Lovecraft's entire point is that there are some things larger than the human arsenal.
Beyond that, there are a multitude of stories featuring more stalwart heroes facing the horrors of the mythos. Firstly, there's Lovecraft's own 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' which features a remarkably complex protagonist surviving in the incomprehensible world of the elder gods. There are also Alan Moore's 'Yuggoth Cultures' and Neal Gaiman's 'Only The End of the World Again'. Lovecraft often corresponded with R.E. Howard, whose Conan the Barbarian provides an excellent example of a hero who faces the cyclopean horrors and comes away relatively unscathed.
Conan also provides many parallels with the classic hard boiled detective, the other genre from which Henderson draws inspiration. Conan's no-nonsense machismo and sense of self-preservation in the face of the unknown could have served as an excellent mold for a detective protagonist.
Hard boiled detective fiction meshes rather well with Lovecraft, as the protagonists must know not to get in too far. Private eyes know there is such a thing as knowing too much. That's why we have a witness protection program. Henderson could have created an interesting setting by pointing out the similarities of both genres, especially being 'drawn in too far' and 'losing one's humanity'.
However, despite wanting a strong hero, and drawing from a genre renowned for men who place survival above all else, Henderson instead creates the most cheery, incautious detective he can. While both Lovecraft and hard boiled fiction depend on mood to create a sense of depth and danger, Henderson's book has none.
Though claiming Detective fiction and the Mythos for inspiration, he instead writes a rompy adventure. While Douglas Adams was able to pull humor from detective fiction, and Joss Whedon managed it with otherworldly horror, Henderson is, unfortunately, neither funny or quirky, despite numerous attempts.
The book doesn't fit with either the horror or detective genre, it is almost pure monomyth adventure. The soft boiled protagonist is a literal 'chosen one' with magic powers, and the cast is filled out by a beautiful damsel-in-distress with zero personality, an 'average guy' and two 'magical minorities'.
The latter two are both apparently American-born, firstly a black voodoo weaponeer, and secondly a mystical Asian psychic with the requisite chilled emotions. Though she does not seem to be an actual foreigner, Henderson still describes her by the racist 19th-century epithet 'an oriental'.
The Mandingo is suitably oversized and laconic, and apparently able to get his hands on the most unlikely of weapons. They will certainly need them, if they want to shoot that hurricane before it has a chance to kill them. Besides land mines and rocket launchers, he gets the whole party a set of Pancor Jackhammers, which are fully automatic shotguns. Unfortunately, these weapons were never actually produced, except for two prototypes.
Only gun nuts and fans of certain classic VRPGs would know this fact, so it would only harm disbelief in a small percentage. But then, why add a small detail that will be meaningless to most of your readers, who won't get it, and faulty to the few who will?
The weapon also brings up both the question of how the guy got a hold of them in the first place and why he would give unique weapons to some guy for free. The answer to the latter point is that everyone in this book intuitively knows whether anyone else is telling the truth. It's never explained whether that's a characteristic of this particular magical world, or whether Henderson thinks that's actually how human beings interact, but it certainly saves him from having to write multi-syllabic dialogue or portray human conflicts.
Our weaponeer (who Henderson once describes as shushing the hero with 'a thick black finger') also bores out the middle of the shotgun slugs and puts nitroglycerin inside of them. Nitro is the most unstable explosive we have, meaning these slugs would explode if you dropped them on the floor. Let's all imagine what would happen if you suddenly set off a firing pin next to one. That's right, exploding gun. Now lets imagine you have a whole clip full of these things. Take that, you damned flash floods!
Our Celestial psychic serves the purpose of introducing us to the main mover of this books' plot: the intuitive message from beyond. Nearly every problem Henderson sets before his characters is solved within the next half page, and usually by some sudden epiphany from out of the blue. Whether it's simple mistrust or the secret location of the bad guys, nothing is too small or too large for the author to simply put directly into his characters' brains.
Ironically, this bypasses any thought or emotional strength that would make the characters 'strong in the face of overwhelming odds', as he originally envisioned them. By removing any purpose or will, he ensures that the characters can have no personality, growth, or ability to actually overcome challenges.
At one point, the protagonist begins to doubt, falling into an uncharacteristic moment of introspection, which is then rudely interrupted by a magical voice in his head saying 'believe' and removing all his doubts in one fell swoop. Apparently, Henderson has to personally enter his books and bully his characters back on track, because not even they can believe how poorly-written their world is.
This book also gives an opportunity for him to represent his lack of understanding in the areas of science and mathematics when he begins to explain all about the world of the elder gods. While explaining that the evil only comes at times of grand syzygy (no cliche left behind) he suggests that planets are kept in motion by their own gravitational wells, which is the opposite of true. Gravity saps away energy.
His original suggestion that the placement of planets allows the otherworldly creatures to enter our world is likewise fraught, since the effect of gravity quickly diminishes over distance For example: the gravitational pull of Jupiter on you at its greatest is about equal with the television set across the room. If you really want to stop the elder gods, just rearrange the furniture.
He then misquotes 'A Brief History of Time' concerning the expansion and contraction of the universe. Between that and the Pancor reference, I expected this book to have been written circa 1987, not 2006.
As a sort of final insult, Henderson indicates that Lovecraft's own works were the result of him psychically connecting to the coming horrors which occur in this book. This is like saying that the Bible was only written so it could eventually be a footnote in the Da Vinci Code (not that Dan Brown actually cited references).
The title of the book really says a lot more than it means to. It evokes the Lovecraft story "The Things That Should Not Be", except Lovecraft's title is frightening. We are naturally afraid of things that should not exist, but things which don't exist are understandably less threatening.
The title clearly doesn't refer to the monsters themselves, which show up early and often, and leave their very corporeal body parts all over. Rather, it refers to the fact that this book is without many things, including mood, tone, character, humor, suspense, fear, conflict, research, or editing. Henderson misuses numerous words and metaphors throughout. One example is using 'sweating bullets' to indicate lots of hard work, instead of anxiety over the fast approach of death.
Finally, the book bears as much resemblance to Lovecraft's work as a Michael Bay film. The hero even talks to 'Cthulhu' at length, showing that Henderson has never come close to comprehending Lovecraft's style or philosophy. The very thoughts of these creatures are too complex for the human mind to comprehend. Just as no single person could memorize all the books that have been written, so too we could not comprehend such complex, alien minds.
Instead of blasting the hero's brain with unbelievable thoughts, 'Cthulhu' prattles on about death, sounding like a child paraphrasing Sauron from Lord of the Rings. Then Henderson puts into effect the threat from the introduction of taking on incomprehensible forces of nature with blazing pistols.
It's much easier to shoot them once Henderson makes the naive mistake of creating a theological pseudoscientific explanation to make the creatures small, simple, and understandable. At which point, nothing remains at all which ties this book to Lovecraft's legacy.
In the end, Henderson is not creative enough or experienced enough to produce anything new or interesting, even when mixing two such promising and interesting genres. One comes away with the sense that his personal experiences with fear, human conflict, and the insurmountable are so limited that he couldn't imagine anything that would create more than a half-page's difficulty for his characters.
This book achieves about the same level of horror, plot, and character depth as your average made-for-TV sci fi channel movie. His monsters even feel rubber-suited, which is odd, since books don't have limited CGI budgets. I hope Henderson's Kolchak novelizations are better than this, because one man shouldn't make fodder out of two previously enjoyable worlds....more
The role of comic books in America is in transition, and so comics hold a tenuous and unusual position in the American psyche. To some degree, they arThe role of comic books in America is in transition, and so comics hold a tenuous and unusual position in the American psyche. To some degree, they are still considered dirty and cheap, still artistically bankrupt, and there are good reasons for this. For a long time, the industry had its hands tied by the 'Comics Code', a punitive ratings system. One can realize the effects the code had by imagining what movies would be like if the government stated that all films released must attain a 'G' rating.
Imagine a G-rated Star Wars, a G-rated Godfather, a G-rated Blazing Saddles, and you may begin to understand the impossibility of trying to write quality comics under the code, which held sway over comics for thirty years. To give you an example of just how punitive the code was, at one point author Marv Wolfman was not allowed to be credited with his real last name because under the code, it was too scary.
It wasn't until the early eighties that publishers began to break away from the code, first under the daring pen of Steve Gerber, who lost his career in comics over it, and then under Alan Moore, who was made a household name for helping break the grip of the code. But comics are still fighting a bad reputation, as evidenced by the fact that the term 'graphic novel' has been coined solely so people who consider themselves sophisticated don't have to condescend to read 'comics'.
But this struggle for recognition as an art form has played out very differently around the world. In Europe, the revolution took place in the mid sixties, so that today, an individual can get a government grant to work in the field of comics, so that, instead of trying to please the narrow requirements of a multimedia conglomerate bent on cannibalizing old stories (like Marvel and DC), they can freely bring to life their meticulous, experimental visions, pointing towards a future for comics, instead of a well-thumbed past.
And it's this level of experimental artistry that I have come to expect from comics, since my experience with them has been primarily from foreign authors. Even the early books I read from the big publishers were mostly the result of their hiring British and Irish authors. After this experience, I explored the Franco-Belgian and Italian traditions, much to my edification.
But oddly enough, I had never read any Japanese manga. Here I was, searching the back shelves fruitlessly for English translations of rare European comics when every bookstore has a thickly-stocked manga section. It's partially a sense of stubborn iconoclasm I can't seem to shake, but there are other reasons I have remained wary.
Like anyone my age, I'm familiar with 'anime'--animated cartoons from Japan. In fact, I got into them fairly early, around '94, before we had the word 'anime' to describe them. So it's odd that I never became a committed japanophile like so many of my peers.
Most of the anime I've seen is just repetitive escapism, but there have been a few works, here and there, that impressed me. But then, that's true for any medium: most books are sub par, as are most movies and comics, and we hold out for the rare good one.
But there are some larger complications to get around. Firstly, America has an Animation Age Ghetto to match its Comics Age Ghetto, meaning that when companies bring in animation from Japan (or Europe), they are looking for something to sell to kids, and aren't very picky about the quality of the writing or acting.
But, even when this isn't the case, and we've got entities like Cartoon Network who are deliberately trying to bring in adult animation fare, we aren't getting the most conceptual and experimental stuff from Japan, because translating such a work is no enviable task. The wordplay, allusions, cultural content, and literary traditions are just not in the reference pool for Americans. Hence, the average American can only appreciate a story which is simple enough to translate clearly.
Even with European comics it's less challenging, because we are culturally and linguistically closer to France than we are to Japan. Unless you're willing to go in there and learn the language, culture, and history, the most complex and involved works will remain remote. Eventually, when you get a large academic community committed to the works of the culture, you can start producing expert, informed translations, but it's only recently that we've begun to look seriously at our own comics, much less those of Japan.
But there are still those stories that translate well, even across such boundaries, such as the film work of Akira Kurosawa, which I loved as a child, long before my occasional studies of Japan. But then, Kurosawa is, in many ways, reflecting our own culture back at us: he takes American film and story techniques--most notably Westerns and Shakespeare--and adapts them to his culture.
Even though the content and language are different, the film techniques and literary tropes are recognizable. But then, that should also be true for comics and animation, both of which were explored and refined in America three-quarters of a century ago. In both Disney's Fantasia and McCay's Little Nemo, we have visions of great experimental artistry in both animation and comics.
Unfortunately, the great conservative backlash of the nationalistic fifties put an end to that. The intense controls put onto films and books hurt these fledgling forms, who had few defenders in the arts and academia to keep fighting for authorial rights.
So, our comics and animation were sent out, all over the world, inspiring both Europe and Asia, where Carl Barks is still a household name. Without the same cultural controls and juvenile expectations, they thrived. And they have provided great inspiration for American authors and artist throughout the years, from the Spaghetti Westerns to Valerian and the abortive European 'Dune', which birthed Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Wars, the cultural exchange of ideas continued, though other media.
So it is far past time for me to crack open some of the great Asian works, daunting as their unfettered length might be (no thirty page issue limits, here), and see for myself how the visions of Osamu Tezuka--the innovative father of both manga and anime--have played out. After all, Tezuka based his stories off the works of Disney and Carl Barks, so in many ways, manga and anime are prodigal children, finally returning.
We should thank the Japanese and the Europeans for keeping the artistic vision alive and thriving for those long decades when we, blinded by fear and nationalism, had forgotten them. And now, they deliver them back to us, fully-formed, and I can only hope that some American artists will be able to help us get back on track, moving forward to a bright, innovative future for comics and animation.
Though perhaps I should have started with Tezuka, the appeal of the traveling ronin story was a great draw for me. As epitomized in the Kurosawa/Mifune films (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Seven Samurai), and also in the Zatoichi films, such stories, while straightforward in concept, allow for many variations of theme and many explorations of characters and cultural elements.
Lone Wolf & Cub takes the form of a series of vignettes: small, self-contained stories. Each one has its own theme and tone, each shows the complete arc of an idea; but, like a poetic cycle, these stories are greater as a whole than they are alone. We return again and again to concepts, and each time, a new layer is added, a new side of the story is explored.
Gradually, these small stories build up into a much larger arc. They are not related by a continuous plot, but by continuous thematic explorations. I often find such collections of short stories are much more effective in creating intriguing settings and characters than a protracted plot full of exposition. The author is free to move through time and place, exploring character and world elements as they come up, and is not forced to create tenuous, convenient connections to string the plot together. The characters and themes anchor the story more deeply than a simple sequence of events.
The art takes its cue from traditional sumi-e ink and wash painting, with the swift, decisive strokes which were so equated with sword strokes that it was said you could read a man’s fencing style in his art and calligraphy. The marriage of this style with Western sequential art is seamless, and it’s hardly surprising that the stylized forms displayed here have proven so inspirational in the visual arts.
Some of the story comes off as cliché, but it’s always difficult to say with an original work how much of that is because other artists have copied the style in the meantime. We have the amusingly esoteric discussions of styles, attacks, and schools which grew up as Japanese society formalized and striated, turning death-dealing into an academic exercise for the literate. But that’s part of the charm for adherents of samurai and wuxia.
We also have the inevitable ‘passing stroke’ which dramatically ends every battle, which might seem repetitive to a Western eye, until we recognize that every Western fight ends with a haymaker. The scenarios which play out prior to this final blow are widely varied, action-packed, and fully realized in the onrush of dark, ever-moving lines.
Many of the plots are likewise variations on a theme, presenting us briefly with a complicated bit of feudal shogunate politics which necessitate our protagonist’s intervention. Though he is an impossibly strong, invincible warrior, sometimes to the detriment of tension, his methods of solving these problems are often surprisingly insightful and subtle, showing a deep and shrewd intelligence behind his mighty sword arm.
The stories are unapologetically violent, which includes graphic sexual violence. However, the sexual violence is not pornographic: it does not linger upon carefully detailed forms, but is used to tell a realistic, if sometimes unsettling story. Nor does the book get drawn down into taking itself too seriously, as so many of its imitators have. Violence is only one part of the human story, portrayed in equal footing with love, honor, sorrow, hope, and humor. It is the nature of the story that physical conflict often takes the forefront, but never to the exclusion of other human desires.
You know that thing, where you find this great webcomic and spend half an hour clicking through it backwards, seeing if it's actually good, or just aYou know that thing, where you find this great webcomic and spend half an hour clicking through it backwards, seeing if it's actually good, or just a fluke, and then you figure "what the hell, I'm not doing anything tonight" and so you click the 'archive' button, and go back to the first comic, and it's from 2002, and it's really not very good? That's kind of the experience of reading Scott Pilgrim.
The art's rudimentary, the characters all look the same (except for their hair, which the author constantly changes),the jokes lack subtlety and insight, and the characters are kind of annoying. I even went to the wiki page to see if it had started as a webcomic, and hence, that by starting at the beginning, I was reading the weakest part, but apparently not.
This issue showed some improvement over previous volumes: at times, the rudimentary nature of the art approached a kind of idiomatic elegance, and the humor was more insightful and satirical. Unfortunately, the funniest bit ended up getting dragged out for the rest of the volume, eventually becoming the (anti) climax. The constant self-references caused me a lot of eye-rolling, particularly when the author fourth-walled a deus ex machina to complete his plotline.
That's a funny bit if you are competent at writing plots and, in a moment of self-deprecation, use a deus ex machina to amp up the surreal humor of your comic (as in Ellis' 'Nextwave'), but when you actually aren't great at plotting, it just feels kind of sad.
Between the ever-growing cast of indistinguishable characters and the author's love of flashbacks, the storytelling leaves a lot to be desired, particularly in terms of clarity. Perhaps with a better-constructed plot, the books wouldn't have to stretch to so many pages just to get their points across.
I've heard some people blame manga/anime inspiration for the similarity of O'Malley's characters, but there are plenty of manga artists who have mastered the art of caricature, and use it to great effect. However, lazy animators are another story. Same face/different hair is a time-honored tradition, and in the hands of an engrossing author, the artistic similarity is counteracted by the psychological differences.
Again, this volume is an improvement, but it's still only about as good as a mid-level webcomic. Hopefully it will catch its stride sooner than later, and I only wish there had been more rewarding gags or climactic story elements to buoy it up until it gets there....more