A friend of mine recently moved into a new house that is about as far away from where I live as you can get and still say that it’s nearby. He lives in a new county entirely, actually, which is the county beyond the county that we in the city call “the county.” So basically kind of far away. I recently drove out there to visit and check out the new place, and I found myself suddenly aware of the sky. There seemed to be more of it. It was as though the horizon line had been lowered, somehow, and the sky was increasingly everywhere. Whereas city life tends to block it out or at least finds a way to put an ad in it, the sky in this distant suburb was unbounded and all over. And all I wanted to do was get away from it.
I’m unambiguously aware that, as a person, I am indoorsy (which, unlike “outdoorsy,” is not actually a word according to the dictionary). This might be one of the reasons that I am so drawn to the work of Gabrielle Bell, whose autobiographical comics have been widely acclaimed for over a decade. She has been praised for the simplicity of her line work, her unorthodox use of shading, her judicious attention to detail, and her capacity to transform otherwise ordinary conversations into existential treatises without actually seeming to have done so at all. Bell is also clearly aware that her life and the lives of everyone around her are in a constant state of becoming-comics; she depicts herself incessantly sketching; writes comics about the difficulty of writing comics; and spends time with people doing things that everyone knows will all end up being drawn. It’s a little like if Bertolt Brecht had been a staff writer for Friends.
Her comics are also brilliantly contained, which is why I find a certain comfort in reading them on days when the sky gets too big. I’ve written elsewhere about the tendency toward small spaces in Bell’s earlier work, and her latest collection, The Voyeurs (Uncivilized Books, $24.95), continues to explore our relation to space — both in life and in art. Although many of the episodes in the book were originally published on her website, Lucky, the pages of The Voyeurs are mostly composed with a steady layout of six of the same-sized panels per page, and Bell frames the action with an almost unwavering full shot. For someone whom the Art Editor of the New Yorker, Francoise Mouly, has called a “master of exquisite detail,” it’s amazing how infrequently anything gets singled out or prioritized by a close-up. It’s actually almost never. Rather, Bell seems to want us to see the stuff of her life as… well, as we would actually see it. Sometimes her panels are densely detailed and overfull, but only when that’s the way the world looks. And other times, there’s just not a lot of stuff to look at.
By her own admission, but also obviously enough in the comics themselves, Bell can be quiet, shy, and reserved, and she often retreats into her notebook, sketching and writing even when there’s something else going on around her. But of course, her comics reveal this retreat, and the act of creating comics is as important to her comics as the events that inspire the comics. Part of the irony of her work, then, is that the act of withdrawing into a more private world is in some ways predicated on the future publication of her work. As readers, we are invited to see her world not only as she sees it – which is to say, as it is sketched onto a page – but also to see her sketching this world. In this way, her comics are at once process and product. There’s almost a fractal sense of repetition, by which we as readers are seeing what was once the notebook’s page, which is what Bell is in the process of creating in the story itself, but because she has to draw herself drawing, we are actually seeing her see herself. It’s like the opposite of jockeying for a better view of something in a crowd; Bell’s comics are like two people constantly stepping back and sliding around to get behind each other, further and further away from the action. Continue reading →
As strategists on both the left and the right celebrate the inclusion of Paul Ryan on the 2012 GOP ticket for what seem like a lot of the same reasons, I suppose that we can also add humorists and cartoonists the list of beneficiaries of this nomination. So for the moment at least, everybody is winning.
Many of this first round of editorial cartoons also emphasize the marquee name of Ryan, whose ideological convictions and actual specificity when it comes to stuff (like, you know, budgets) threaten to eclipse whatever it is that Romney was predicted to one day have had from the beginning. It’s not surprising, then, that many cartoons adopt pretty a reasonable approximation of Ryan’s star status, as though betraying a certain ironic accuracy in Romney’s own recent gaffe that, when introducing Ryan at a rally, the attendees were meeting “the next president of the United States.”
One of the more curious trends among Romney/Ryan cartoons, however, is that of violence, in the sense that Ryan’s proposed budget is set to (or threatens to, or is thought to) significantly curtail federal spending, which forces us to consider the vocabulary with which we address financial reform — “slashing the budget,” for example, or “trimming the fat,” or the seemingly benign, “budget cuts,” which nevertheless implies a sense of slicing, incision. When, however, cartoons begin to give a visible body to what in language has become almost innocuous or unremarkable, the results can be a little literally gruesome, as we see in this telling cartoon by Dale Cagle:
Although Cagle’s may be the most extreme example, there is a certain stab-happiness and almost Shining-grade blade-eerieness to the way in which sharp implements signify Ryan’s fiscal conservatism.
Discussing Dane Cook on a humor website is kind of like saying that Twinkies have a recipe; sure, he is technically a comedian by virtue of his standing on a stage and saying things into a microphone, but only in the same way that Twinkies are technically food because we can put them in our mouths and chew. (I’m aware that this is not the best Twinkie metaphor ever, but I really dislike Twinkies. And Dane Cook.)
And yet, disregarding what is apparently a pretty severe personal disinclination toward the comedian on my own part, we find ourselves forced to have to think about him as a result of a recent and gloriously insensitive joke about the July 20th shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises. A shooting which left twelve dead and over 50 injured. About which, Cook joked:
“I know that if none of that would have happened, pretty sure that somebody in that theater, about 25 minutes in, realizing it [The Dark Knight Rises] was a piece of crap, was probably like ‘ugh fucking shoot me.’”
Playing at the Laugh Factory less than one week after the event, Cook’s joke suggests that the real victims in this tragedy are the people whose theaters were not gassed and gunned down – which is to say, anyone who has actually seen the film itself.
As I would also argue about the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh and a similarly sketchy (and equally unfunny) “joke” about the rape of an audience member – which has been previously addressed by Humor in America – I believe that Cook has every right to say what he did, and I would never seek to put parameters around what is available to be addressed in and through humor. But as contributing editor Joe Faina asks of the appeals to artistic integrity and free expression among the license afforded our comedians and writers:
“Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals? I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made. If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art? If not, shouldn’t it?”
The same should be asked of Cook’s joke, which – unlike Tosh’s trademark, over-the-top compulsion to unsettle his audience – betrays something closer to boredom, as though senseless death and injury occurs frequently enough to be almost unremarkable, and as such – and here is one of the central tenets of comedy, plus a paradox in its own right – this banality of evil is therefore at the same time eminently remarkable as well: the comedian’s personal disaffectedness and distance authorizes the kind of casual observation that remains at the center of modern stand-up (i.e. “Have you ever noticed….?” and so on). What Cook seizes on – and what the audience laughs at, after an initial and probably more honest hesitancy – is the fact that, somewhat sadly, the film The Dark Knight Rises will likely have a more immediate, immanent relation to the majority of our lives, if only because only those three fictional hours are the only element of this tragedy to which we will have had access. Not real death, just that of actors who will be seen somewhere else soon enough. Not real blood on the steeped floor of a theater, just that which for most of us will only ever be soda, sticky on our soles.
The problem is that Dane Cook doesn’t seem to care.
This is not meant to excuse Cook for his cynical, privileged remarks, which are offensive at best and subhuman at worst. Cook has since apologized – via Twitter, of course, so you know it’s as sincere as 140 characters can be after suggesting that at least 12 murder victims are better off for not having to have sat through what he found to be a mediocre film. According to Cook’s Twitter feed, he “did not mean to make light of what happened,” which I’m going to go ahead and say simply cannot be the case, because what else is a joke? Or: why tell a joke at all, if not for the laughter that he, to a degree, would have to have predicted in order to warrant the inclusion of this joke, or any joke for that matter? In other words, he either had to know that it would be funny or he wanted it to be funny. He had to have been the first one to laugh at this joke, to be sure that that’s what it was. Cook’s admission that he “made a bad judgment call with my material last night,” as his tweet continues, is at least more accurate and honest. But it also invalidates the earlier point about meaning to “make light,” because he did judge, did choose this joke, which with any luck – for him, that is – would have transmuted darkness into levity, light. The saddest thing about Cook’s joke is how self-serving it ultimately seems; whatever laughter there is here is his, not ours, and certainly not that of the victims or their families.
The impulse to reverse and redress the worst of what we find in life is in many ways what humor is, or is at least what I think of when considering “the value of such art.” Humor is at its best and most valuable when it breaks down and brings close the distance by which we are removed from anything outside ourselves. In every good joke, there is a willingness to let light be made: yes, light as though a lantern that illuminates and exposes, but also light as in the lifting with someone else of what would have been too heavy otherwise. Instead of apologizing for this imperative – to “make light” – Cook would do better to think about why anyone bothers to be funny in the first place. His joke is indefensible because there is no suture there, no pulling together and repairing some part of ourselves. This is not to prescribe a compulsory program for what humor has to achieve or should always do, but merely to consider the condition of laughter as something that we have to share. It doesn’t always have to feel good to laugh. There is nothing unequivocally wrong with offense. Not all jokes are going to be funny. But lack of taste and tact notwithstanding, the thing that is ultimately really wrong with Dane Cook’s joke is that he doesn’t ask us to laugh with, only at.
The first time that I watched Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, I was recovering from having my wisdom teeth extracted, and I was on a lot of drugs. Apparently there had been some complications during the procedure, and when the doctor finally got in there, what I had were closer in size to wisdom tusks. The resulting painkillers were, as they say, the good stuff, and I headed back to my parent’s house to recover and watch some movies. What I remember next is being about halfway through Rushmore, and apparently I was crying uncontrollably and screaming at the screen: “Why are they taking this kid so seriously?! He’s just a kid! You’re an old man, Bill Murray, why are you friends with a kid?! Attractive British lady whom I don’t know: are you, like, dating this kid?! What is wrong with all of you?!?” Someone in my family was kind enough to turn the movie off for me at that point.
I can’t remember what exactly I was on, but it was an oddly emotional weekend. I also remember having a serious conversation with a Slurpee – also while crying. I thought that it thought that it was better than me because I was having such a hard time actually getting it into my mouth.
So… I may have missed a little of the nuance of Rushmore the first time around, but I eventually watched it again in a less chemically-outmatched state, and was deeply moved by its story of the danger of trying to do everything that you can. But while the character of Max Fischer is forced to exfoliate the many obligations that keep him from ever getting anything real accomplished, Wes Anderson has always struck me as a director whose own precision (although his critics tend to call it “preciousness” with alarmingly unoriginal frequency) is constantly at odds with this central lesson of his second film. As is widely known, Anderson’s attention to mise en scene, props, set decoration, and design makes any other definition of “minutia” seem like something closer to “carpet-bombing.” Anderson is the kind of director who puts things that will never be used in drawers that will never be opened. It is for this reason, though, that his films are unparalleled in their sense of texture and depth, their luxurious albeit impossible touchableness. Like the famous large-scale, long-take, cut-out tour of the good ship Belafonte’s quarters in The Life Aquatic, there is something undeniably special about many of Anderson’s designs. As with much realistic dollhouse furniture, for example, our relation to the original object is changed by seeing the detail with which it can be made small. Likewise, Anderson’s aesthetic requires us to accept the artificiality of stage construction as a precondition for having access to what we would have otherwise just assumed would be there.
For example, within the first moments of Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh feature film, anyone attuned to the director’s fastidiousness will have noticed a pair of scissors hanging on the wall, which – regardless of whether they do or do not play a role later in the film (they do) – are as important as anything else. This is not to say that they are or would be symbolic, signifying, or necessarily indicative of anything other than themselves. Rather, they are just so. One of the most visually appealing (and frequently humorous) features of Anderson’s films is not exactly what is there, but that what is there is there. This does not mean that nothing has been left out, as though he were a bitter neo-realist kneeling at the death-dusty bedside of verisimilitude, but that Anderson’s surfeit of objects and documents and little homemade things contributes to an architecture of fantasy wherein what seems so very unreal about this films is the result of too much of life. It’s a little like the difference between looking at your apartment and thinking, “Hey, there’s my stuff” and looking at the same space and thinking “Now that is what I call a scrapbook!”
The finale of the 37th season of Saturday Night Live was also an occasion to say goodbye to one of its finest and funniest performers, Kristen Wiig, whom Lorne Michaels himself has ranked among the “top three or four” of all time on SNL. With an ever skeletal Mick Jagger crooning his own “She’s a Rainbow” and “Ruby Tuesday,” the lengthy send-off allowed the cast members to share a short dance with Wiig as she became increasingly almost tearful, offering rare glimpse into the uncontrollable humanity of an actor who almost never breaks onscreen.
Of the many characters that Wiig has played over the last seven years at SNL, she excels at creating the kind of persona who is confident to the point of being absolutely unselfconscious — marginalized eccentrics who are either oblivious or immune to the idea of being judged. Her “Target Lady,” for example, simply cannot contain a sense of surprise and excitement for each product that comes through the register (“Dog collar… hope you have a dog! Wink.”), to which she then offers a slice of her own inexplicable life. Or Shanna the “sexy coworker,” whose airy and absentminded eroticism at a Halloween party quickly devolves into a detailed story involving peanuts and digestion. Similarly, Wiig’s impression of Bjork is that of a unattenuated pixie who giggles at her own preciousness not out of irony or embarrassment, but because she is pleased with herself for being herself.
There is clearly something unsettling about these characters, but the humor here is not a result of their being outrageous and brazen so much as our awareness of their perceived lack; our laughter emerges nervously, diffusing a certain desire to teach them about self-consciousness. In other words, we become painfully aware of the gaze of the Other in us, as though to compensate for the seeming absence of inhibition and self-restraint in them. For many of us — post-meta subjects who can’t really have a thought without then thinking about that thought (and so on, en abyme) — the pure presence that these characters seem to embrace is like spinach in the teeth of the mind; inside, I am practically screaming to quietly take them aside and set them straight about being seen.
Fine art tends not to be funny. Of course there are many, many exceptions (basically, all of the examples that everyone immediately thought of upon reading that first sentence), but it’s no stretch to say that galleries and museums only infrequently resonate with giggles and guffaws. Or at least we become suspicious of our own aesthetic pedigree when something in a putatively fine art setting seems funny, because maybe the piece is actually supposed to be, like, serious art and the artist is making a statement about apartheid or something.
And there is nothing less enjoyable than trying to figure out whether or not you should laugh at something.
The Clifton Benevento gallery in New York is currently holding an exhibition of five artists entitled “Hello? I Forgot My Mantra,” of which the title is a reference to Jeff Goldblum’s memorably random line of dialogue in Annie Hall. The show features painting, sculpture, and an unusual post-perfomance piece that involves the having-thrown of dice. To me, though, the most interesting work in the show is Anhedonia, a work of video art by Aleksandra Domanović that isolates the entire audio track from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and replaces the film’s original scenes — you know, all the stuff that happens — with an elaborate montage of short clips of stock footage from the Getty Archive. As though the reverse premise of Woody Allen’s re-dubbed What’s Up Tiger Lily?, Domanović’s piece uses all of the dialogue, diegetic sound, and music (of which there is surprisingly little, it turns out) of Annie Hall and supplants the familiar action of Alvy and Annie with generic bursts of video that are specifically cued to what is being said. For example, the phrase “how I feel…” is juxtaposed with a woman rubbing (i.e. feeling) her neck, and “…about life” becomes black-and-white video of spermatozoa wriggling toward an unfertilized egg.
Anhedonia is therefore akin to a 90-minute motion-rebus, a kinetically hieroglyphic account of everyday existence. It’s worth recalling that Anhedonia was Woody Allen’s original working title for Annie Hall during most of its production, and Domanović adopts it in this instance to evoke not only the generic and sterile quality of the stock footage and photography that constitutes way more of what we see every day than we probably realize, but also the base boringness of how we tend to picture what life looks like.
With that being said, though, the piece — intended or otherwise — is really pretty hilarious. This is perhaps because what many of us have practically memorized in Annie Hall is subverted and supplanted by a Borges-level library of images that are wacky enough on their own, to say nothing of having been meticulously reconfigured to recreate Allen’s original study of the absurdity of everything that we do.
And so in Anhedonia‘s final seconds, Allen’s famous joke about “needing the eggs” is replaced with actually seeing the eggs, which — both in the end and as the end — literally depicts the original film’s conclusion about the delicate surface of the world we’ve constructed for ourselves.
[Thanks to Amelia Colette Jones for the tip!]
The best way to characterize Stephanie Eisner’s controversial editorial cartoon about the killing of Trayvon Martin is to borrow a phrase from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a song that has been in my head all week anyway because I’m teaching Do The Right Thing in my film class – which just so happens to famously end with the killing of an unarmed young black man. That phrase, by the way, is Chuck D’s succinct biography of Elvis Presley, and it works equally well for Ms. Eisner’s cartoon: straight-up racist. It is hard not to see the cloying, ironic intonation of Trayvon as a “colored boy” as either outright derogatory or, at our most generous, as the work of a young woman in America who is horrifyingly oblivious to her own go-to vocabulary for thinking about black people.
The cartoon was originally published in the March 27, 2012 edition of The Daily Texan, a student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, but it was quickly pulled from paper’s website after receiving almost instantaneous negative attention. But it was put back up later in the day, and the editors expressed a willingness to publish the views of individuals even if those views are controversial. But it was pulled off again two days later, when Eisner was also fired from the paper, and the editors finally backed down after backing her two days earlier when the cartoon had first went back up. (This is their public apology, although I personally believe that they should have just left it up and let the cartoonist accept responsibility for her work, which I would be happy to debate in the comments section below.) At some previous point in all of this, Eisner herself had publically defended her cartoon, which took some serious explanation – which is precisely what a good cartoon should be able to circumvent – and then she later also apologized and assured everyone that she was not a racist. This all happened very quickly and has already been extensively documented (for example, please read in order this, this, and then this), and so the fallout itself is not something that really needs retelling.
Nor am I willing to suggest that Ms. Eisner is in fact a racist, which she is probably not. The problem, however, is that in her misguided attempt to critique what she imagined to be a media bias when it came to the depictions of Trayvon Martin and his killer, George Zimmerman, the resulting cartoon betrayed both an misunderstanding of the meaning of “yellow journalism” and an almost complete ignorance of the actual issue itself. (Plus it doesn’t seem to care that a real person, you know, died.) If, like many editorial cartoons, the content is meant to be read ironically, then how else are we to interpret the its picture of “the media” telling the story of a “handsome, sweet, innocent colored boy” as anything other than Eisner’s perceived lack of bias against Trayvon? By creating such a disparity between “white man” and “colored boy,” Eisner is not only mining an archaic, emasculating American idiom, but also reminding her readers that it is still important to discriminate against black people, even when the white person (Zimmerman) seems to kind of clearly deserve a closer look based on his actions. The cartoon can therefore be read not as an appeal for neutrality in the media, but for some kind of messed up balance of bias – one that will put Trayvon in his place because he is not “innocent” of being black. In other words, according to the logic of this cartoon, Zimmerman is not “big, bad” to the same degree that Trayvon is not “handsome, sweet, innocent.”
I’m reminded of a joke that Slavoj Žižek told on a recent episode of the public radio show Smiley and West, a joke which the philosopher used to illustrate we he sees as the true spirit of capitalism:
“Like we in Slovenia, in my country, we have a beautiful disgusting saying that if you ask a Slovenian farmer, God appears to a Slovenian farmer and tells him I will give you a cow but I will give to your neighbor two cows. A Slovenian farmer answers no. Rather kill one of my cows but kill two cows of my neighbor.”
In this case, if Zimmerman is currently under the scrutiny in the media, Ms. Eisner would rather have us “kill two cows” and make sure that Trayvon is not only scrutinized but smeared. Why else would she call him a “colored boy” if not to recall an era in which this demeaning phrase was what white folks treated as neutrality in their regard of African-American youth and not as an actual racial slur? Like Geraldo Rivera’s absurd claim that Trayvon’s hoodie was as responsible for his death as George Zimmerman’s gun, Eisner’s cartoon presents the argument that if the media has vilified Zimmerman as a “big, bad white man” on the basis of ethnicity, then it has not fulfilled its responsibility to duly defame and blame the victim on the basis of his.
Again, I am not trying to suggest that Ms. Eisner is anything other than a college student who still has a lot to learn about the history of her country, its language, and the difference between media bias and yellow journalism. But in all honesty, she also has a hell of a lot to learn about cartooning. Many have already commented on the ovoid features of the young child as resembling that of an inflatable sex doll. (Either that, or in my opinion, what the childhood drawings of notorious porn-face-tracer/comic-book-artist Greg Land might have looked like.) Also, it is unclear if the child is supposed to be shocked by what she (?) is hearing, or if there is some other emotion or reaction involved. Also, the child’s right arm seems to suggest a short-sleeved shirt, but the left arm is either long-sleeved or, honestly, pretty much non-existent; her left hand just kind of shoots out from her hip. And really, the lettering in the speech balloon is just, like, totally all over the place. The arrows pointing to “white” and “colored” make sure that we don’t forget that these are important words, and that this cartoon – by extension – is making an important point about an important issue that we might have missed without a triad of arrows pointing to each racial signifier like it was the neon sign outside of a strip club. Also, we can see that the “o” in “innocent” is replaced by a (black) heart, which is kind of awkwardly followed up by another heart right after the word itself, which is probably just supposed to be decorative – that is, just a heart and not to be read as “innocento.” Which is just bad lettering, although I doubt that the paper will receive any angry letters about that. Finally, it is also worth pointing out that the cartoon misspells Trayvon’s name as “Treyvon” on the book cover, which is either just sheer sloppiness or further signifies a complete disregard for the victim and all that his name has come to stand for over the last few weeks.
His name is the easiest thing that Eisner could have gotten right.
In a previous post, I attempted to work through an unlikely dialectic of pride and guilt when it comes my own defiance of the enduring stereotype of male comic book readers; somehow, and for whatever reason, it turns out that I read more monthly titles starring female superheroes than male. So pride because there are some really strong books right now, and many of these characters have rich histories and devoted creators despite the constant threat of cancellation due to poor sales. (Just this week, best-selling author Marjorie Liu’s brilliant run on the Marvel series X-23 ended after only 21 issues.) And guilt because these characters tend to be dressed in costumes that I’m sure Rush Limbaugh would have a choice word or two to describe. But we’ve been over this, and you can read the whole thing here. The conclusion is that the best part of superheroines like Power Girl is the way that they actively resist and subvert the male gaze, turning the target audience – men, basically, who are just too easily titillated – into the worst villains with whom they will have to contend.
This, of course, is all very serious stuff, and so I would like to follow up that discussion with the work of two creators whose satirical versions of comics’s most enduring female superhero, Wonder Woman, challenge our principal assumptions about the character: her historically fierce compassion and overall, um, niceness. Wonder Woman is a character who has had innumerable incarnations and iterations – the subject of an excellent recent retrospective on io9 – and as a result remains elusive despite her seeming ubiquity. For all of her alternate origin stories and shifting set of powers, she nevertheless signifies a kind of permanent strength that has withstood an often uncertain role in the shared DC Comics Universe and a rotating roster of creators who have different interpretations and agendas. Also, there was the whole pants or no pants debate.
Wonder Woman is in a lot of ways what is best about superheroes in that she is both strong and symbolic, dissatisfied and driven. The failure of “man’s world” to ever be at peace is her ironic call to arms, although she is not quite immune to a love of battle and the lure of brutality. And yet, somehow she’s still totally nice, of which Steve Rude’s Rockwell-esque portrait is a not uncommon representation.
What one finds in parodies of the character, therefore, is a kind of world-weariness and existential I-simply-refuse-to-keep-caring that is likely the result of having been so widely and wildly interpreted. Kate Beaton’s parodic appropriation of the feminist icon is the result of the character being so routinely misunderstood, as Beaton said in an interview with Comics Alliance:
She’s just a bit more complicated than everybody else. I mean, how many dudes are going to write her and get her right? I just think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I think it’s a real shame people haven’t figured her out…. I guess the Wonder Woman that I draw is kind of sick of everyone not understanding her.
As a member of the pantheon of historical figures that comprise her brilliant webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton’s version of Wonder Woman smokes unrepentantly, disdains children, and is as unwilling to indulge the praise of her fans as she is the prattle of her super-peers. In one of Beaton’s strips, even the most seemingly effortless feat of super-heroism – getting a cat out of a tree – becomes a study in super-annoyance.