Category Archives: Comics

Suddenly Some Links Drifted By

Here are some of the links I’ve made note of during the weeks this blog has lain fallow:

Kevin Huizenga, The Wild Kingdom

Walk into a comics shop1 and you’ll see rack upon rack of detailed and carefully rendered mainstream comics–“mainstream,” in comic-shop terms, meaning the style and aesthetic typical of superhero comics. Comics that methodically delineate every hair on a characters head yet seem to know about as much about the way the human body moves as an octopus man from the planet Xoth. Comics that obsessively-compulsively render every sidewalk crack and windowpane of a street scene, but fail to clearly communicate what’s happening there. Comics whose draftsmanship is at times photo-perfect, but miss everything that would invest their art with meaning, emotion, or life.

And then there’s Kevin Huizenga, whose comics look like the button-eyed, pipe-cleaner-limbed 1930s newspaper strips of Bud Fisher and E. C. Segar, and are among the most realistic comics currently published. Before I go further, I want to make it clear that this is not genre-bashing. Only a superficial (and dull) interpretation of “realism” would equate it with realistic subject matter. Anyway, although most of Huizenga’s comics are set in suburbia he often uses fantasy–Curses collects several magic-realist tales, and he’s serializing a post-apocalyptic comic on What Things Do. What I mean is that Huizenga’s cartooning is more evocative–better at seeing and understanding the essence of an experience and translating it into marks on a page.

Take Ganges #3. Glenn Ganges, Huizenga’s all-purpose protagonist, spends the first chunk of the book trying to drift off to sleep and getting stuck halfway there. A hypnagogic state, it’s called. On the second page of Ganges #3 Glenn walks out to his front yard. It’s a clear moonlit night, and, without even the benefit of full color, an excellent impression of the way light falls on a clear moonlit night. As his thoughts wander, Glenn absent-mindedly walks up a tree. He’s dreaming. And the feeling of reading this page reminds me of how actual dreams feel: the disjointedness, the way one element of the narrative (Glenn’s thoughts) refuses to acknowledge another (the suspension of gravity), the acceptance of surreal events as literally unremarkable (Glenn walks back into the house, observes himself sleeping, and climbs into his own head as though it’s just what you do on a restless night). Dream sequences in comics aren’t usually like this, partly because they usually serve the kind of narrative function they do in movies–i.e, to develop characters or themes through allegory–and partly because drawing a dream that feels like a dream is hard.

Cover art

Huizenga pulls off the same trick at the beginning of the book I’m actually attempting, however circuitously, to review: The Wild Kingdom. Huizenga has given real thought to how the defining features of dreams could be translated to the page. For instance, how do you depict the sudden time-skips that are typical of dreams? Because here’s the thing: skipping over time is how comics normally work. Moment-to-moment panel transitions, to use Scott McCloud’s categorization, are less common than action-to-action or scene-to-scene. So comics have to work to depict actual narrative discontinuity. Huizenga solves the problem by showing Glenn see himself at different moments in a single panel as he approaches a house. Then there’s the way that dreams tend to jumble together things that seem to belong to different levels of reality, which Huizenga represents by collaging photographs into his cartoony drawings.2

I shouldn’t spend too much time on this dream sequence, though. It’s just a prologue. What The Wild Kingdom is really about… well, that doesn’t become clear for some time. In a good way–this is one of Huizenga’s more challenging works. The cover design and the binding resemble a mid-20th-century children’s science book. There’s a mock-serious introduction and fake table of contents. There are paintings of songbirds on the endpapers. So when Glenn wakes up and proceeds to spend Saturday puttering around his suburban home readers might assume The Wild Kingdom has already wandered off premise. But that’s the point of the book’s first chunk: Suburbia is a wild kingdom, a point reinforced when you flip to the back of the book to discover the songbirds on the endpapers are taken from an ad for Ethyl gasoline.

We usually define “nature,” or “the wild,” as what exists where people don’t. Here we have a city, and here we have a farm, and over here, in this stand of trees along the creek, where no one mows the grass, that’s Nature. We tend to assume, when we’re not particularly thinking about it, that “nature” has clear borders, like a square on a chessboard. It’s more complicated than that, of course, as anyone who’s confronted a suburban lawn after a month’s neglect knows. Cities are also ecosystems. There’s a lot going on in cities that’s not under our control–that is, in other words, wild. To say wildlife survives in the cities is understating the case–those pigeons, raccoons, squirrels and feral cats are thriving. Right under our noses are enough predator-prey dramas to keep Marlin Perkins busy for years.

Glenn is woken by a mosquito, and finds a stag beetle in the basement which is subsequently hassled by a cat. There’s a worm in his apple; he tosses it to a squirrel. On a drive, he sees another car run over a pigeon. A hawk stops to pick up its remains. Again, everything here is closely observed and efficiently communicated. On one page a pigeon pecks at a couple of chili fries. There are seventeen closely packed drawings of just the bird’s head and the fries, without panel borders. The pared-down drawings and the page structure read with a staccato rhythm a lot like the jerky head-bobbing of an actual pigeon. Also interesting: the panels showing Glenn’s car as he drives often enter Glenn’s point of view. Nearby cars are well-defined; so are objects in Glenn’s view as he watches the road, like stoplights and telephone wires. The buildings and trees to the side of the road are built mostly from motion lines with a few sharp details jumping out from the background–the flashbulb images Glenn picks up out of the corner of his eye. These panels are at once pictures of Glenn out for a drive and maps of where his attention is.

The common factor is that these panels are both representational and… diagrammatic, let’s say. In fact, at times Huizenga’s comics include actual diagrams, some accurate and some parodies (as are the diagrams in The Wild Kingdom).

Just when you think you might be getting a handle on The Wild Kingdom, there’s a commercial break. It’s in color. And much more oblique. And it seems to jump around a lot, like the book has lost its attention span. It starts with a Glenn-substitute attempting to ponder some deep questions, but within a couple of pages the book moves on to Hot New Things, and repeated promises that “you’ll be saved from your own life,” and naked dancing Technicolor people shouting “Yeah!”, and Walt Whitman with an exciting new way to make money. This is a different kind of wild: the mental noise that distracts us from the deep attention to the world demonstrated by the black and white pages. This is the wildness of Glenn’s mind when it’s out of control and bereft of attention span. This section is about wanting, and desire, and how the ubiquitous mass media and relentless advertising that surrounds us like air sublimates our more nebulous desires into a need for the Hot New Thing. Because, honestly, isn’t the Hot New Thing easier and more fun to think about than the deep questions? It saves us from our own lives!

After a few pages of this, The Wild Kingdom calms down, gradually going from bright colors to muted colors back to black and white. It returns to the nature theme of the first section in a series of short pieces which include pictures of “fancy pigeons” and clip-and-save trading cards covered in bizarre “facts” about the animals we’ve seen. Then the book introduces Maurice Maenterlinck, and its theme comes together. Maenterlinck was a surrealist playwright who also wrote three books of natural history. The closest thing to a statement of purpose in The Wild Kingdom is a long quotation from The Life of the Bee (available on Project Gutenberg), from which I’ll quote part of a paragraph:

Let our heart, if it will, in the meanwhile repeat, “It is sad;” but let our reason be content to add, “Thus it is.” At the present hour the duty before us is to seek out that which perhaps may be hiding behind these sorrows; and, urged on by this endeavour, we must not turn our eyes away, but steadily, fixedly, watch these sorrows and study them, with a courage and interest as keen as though they were joys. It is right that before we judge nature, before we complain, we should at least ask every question that we can possibly ask.

The first-glance take on The Wild Kingdom might be that it’s about a conflict between nature and the suburbs–but, again, these are “sides” that don’t really exist; even in the city, nature is there. The natural world is the example The Wild Kingdom uses to make its real point. What this book is really about, I think, is attention.

Recently there was a psychological experiment that had a lot of publicity. You might have heard about it. People are asked to watch a video of basketball players, and count how many times the players passed the ball. About half the people who try this become so intent on the task that they do not notice when a guy wanders through the game wearing a gorilla suit. The human brain is not an outstanding multitasker; we can do it, but if we juggle too many tasks at once we’re just a little bit worse at all of them.3 There are limits to how much we can focus on, how much input we can take in, at once. I know the brain-as-computer metaphor is massively overused, but at this time of night I can’t think of a more succinct way to put it: the human mind has only so much bandwidth and can run only so many processing cycles at once.

So it’s not such a great thing when too many of our processing cycles are taken up with toothpaste, chili fries, and endless anticipation of Hot New Things. I don’t want to sound too disapproving. I like Hot New Things; one thing dour anti-consumerists don’t always get is that sometimes everyday life is a grind, and a certain amount of daydreaming about Hot New Things can be one way of coping. Every once in a while we need to be saved from our own lives.

Moderation, though, is key. Daydreams are good; it’s not so healthy to let manufactured anxieties (Are our teeth white enough? How clean is the carpet, really?), catchy slogans, and secondhand narratives colonize our attention entirely. To return to the computer analogy, it’s the difference between playing a game on your computer and letting a virus dominate its processing cycles. The Wild Kingdom’s focus on the natural world hidden in the urban landscape is a reminder that it’s important to pay attention to the world that’s actually there, around us. It’s important not to be so focused on our destination that we don’t see the bird about to be crushed by the wheel. It’s almost Buddhist: Huizenga is asking us to be here now.

The Wild Kingdom ends by returning to the hawk that, in the first third of the book, took off with the pigeon. The hawk lands on an electric transformer and electrocutes itself. This, through a series of Rube Goldberg disasters, leads to an apocalypse. The camera pulls away from Earth–peaceful, from so far away–only to see it collide with another planet. This is, I think, a memento mori; a reminder that some things may not always be around, and we won’t always be around, either, and we should pay attention now, and ask every question that we can possibly ask.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this essay, and the question of how Huizenga invested a simply drawn, cartoony book like The Wild Kingdom with so much more conviction than the pseudo-photorealistic comics a few shelves over.

It helps to look.

  1. If you do, you’re braver than I. The comics shop in the town where I live is relatively neat and clean and I’m still not comfortable going in: however pleasant the store is, I’m just too creeped out by the merchandise. (Want to increase sales, comics companies? Try coming up with products that don’t look sleazy.) ↩

  2. Also, I find that The Wild Kingdom’s dream sequence really captures the way dreams often involve a sense of menace without containing anything obviously menacing. Although maybe that only says something about what my dreams are like. ↩

  3. Although multitasking feels easy. Which is why so many people their cars crash while texting: yeah, they know other people can’t handle it, but… ↩

More Links to Things

There’s probably going to be another gap of at least a week before my next substantial post, but I have a few more interesting links:

  • Comix Cube on comics, sound effects, and typography, with a focus on the work of Jordan Crane:

    That being said, there’s something especially exciting about what Crane is doing here. The graphic forms he’s using are typographic, but by and large they’re just beyond identifying as anything in our alphabet.

  • SF writer Karl Schroeder makes the case for aspirational science fiction:

    The fact is that if I’ve learned one thing in two years of studying how we think about the future, it’s that the one thing that’s sorely lacking in the public imagination is positive ideas about where we should be going. We seem to do everything about our future except try to design it. It’s a funny thing: nobody ever questions your credentials if you predict doom and destruction. But provide a rosy picture of the future, and people demand that you justify yourself. Increasingly, though, I believe that while warning people of dire possibilities is responsible, providing them with something to aspire to is even more important.

    Right now, this is the kind of thing I want to read.

  • This article, about a local-food restaurant operating in a small Virginia town, contains the most comedically oblivious sentence I’ve seen in any news story this week:

    The biggest challenge has been winning over townspeople. It’s not hard to find residents who say that a meal at the Harvest Table is more than they can afford, though none who said so in interviews had actually eaten there.

    Gee, I wonder why.

  • Every so often, you hear politicians and talking heads claim that half of Americans–the bottom half–pay no taxes. This is, of course, not the case; these people are using rhetorical sleight of hand, using the single word “taxes” when they mean “federal income taxes.” Kevin Drum explains the real situation, and then clarifies exactly who doesn’t owe federal income tax, and why.

Links to Things

I’m still not writing much because my mind is still acting like this a lot. Here are some people who are more interesting than I’ve been during the past month:

I spend much more time staring at the drawing than drawing, to spot possibilities hiding in the unfinished image.

To create is to love, but apparently not always. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins do not love Hattie Durham. They despise their creation. Their contempt for her and disgust with her is tangible in every scene she appears in.

I think the authors expect their readers to share in this contempt, but that’s not how this works. When an artist creates a character that the artist does not love, readers or audience members don’t come to dislike that character, they come to dislike the artist. It is the writer — or actor, or painter — who reveals himself as unlovely. The character just becomes an expression of that unloveliness.

When one encounters a character like Hattie, a creation unloved by her creators, one has to wonder why she came to be at all. Creation takes work, so why put in all that effort for something you do not love?

Protagonismos, the quality of being the kind of person to whom things happen.

  • Kip Manley, at Long Story, Short Pier, with one of those “oh, yeah, that’s what that genre is for” moments you get sometimes from good criticism–in this case, in a post about what’s driving Urban Fantasy. (Or what we called Urban Fantasy, before the term was grafted onto the Angsty Vampire subgenre.)

No, the point is the moment just before, the moment when the thing there on the side of the building shivered, or could have shivered, maybe, if the light had been right; when a wonder-generating mechanism of fantasy reattached itself however briefly to something any one of us could see out in the world: cables; snakes; pythia: not a portal opening onto some secondary world beyond the fields we know, but something indisputably here and now: contemporary; indigenous; syncretic.

The only reason it’s urban is because so very many of us who make it and read it these days live in cities. (Or suburbs, yes. Or exurbs. Urban. Look at the words.)

  • Lance Mannion has written a three-part essay on a point of similarity between P. J. O’Rourke, as he presents himself in a recent essay, and Ebenezer Scrooge. Part one, part two, and part three.

Quiz the O’Rourkes of the world and they’ll tell you, usually in no uncertain terms, that they have a Scrooge-like opinion of their fellow men and women.

Everybody—everybody else, that is—is a fool, an incompetent, or a would-be thief, which turns out to be a very useful thing to believe because it provides an instant defense against arguments that they are somehow responsible for and obligated to other people. Nobody deserves your help if everybody is by definition and natural design undeserving.

At the heart of O’Rourke’s grumpy old man post about elections not changing anything until we stop electing professional politicians to office is the Scrooge-like belief that it’s not just professional politicians who are fools, incompetents, and thieves. Everyone who collects a government paycheck—especially teachers—and all the other kids in his kids’ school and their parents are also fools, incompetents, and a form of thief, which pretty much amounts to an argument that the public school system is dedicated to employing and serving the undeserving but also, by extension, that all public services are dedicated to employing and serving the undeserving.

In Local News…

For the second year in a row, I’ve managed to get three drawings into a show at a local art gallery.

A photo from the show.

This is a small piece of a show featuring work from many other people who are, in all honesty, more talented than me. In the unlikely event that you’re in the area, you might follow the link for the address and take a look.

The Comics that Scare Me

Mention horror comics and most comics fans picture something like this:

A panel from Four Color Fear.

(That’s from the recent anthology Four Color Fear. Which I will also post about at some point, although in that case the horrific bits aren’t what I intend to write about.)

As that panel suggests, most comics that get classified as “horror” aren’t so much scary as campy. Some people don’t think comics can be viscerally scary at all, and they have a point, but there’s a caveat. As Richard Cook writes in the essay I just linked to:

To the extent that “scary” refers to the visceral, immediate fears that horror movies deliver so effortlessly, the answer is yes. But if “scary” also encompasses the deeply-rooted fears and common anxieties of the readers, then perhaps there is some hope for horror comics.

A recent post at the blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics about scary moments–scary in the “anxious” sense–which snuck into ordinary superhero comics got me thinking about what comics, if any, give me the sense of creeping unease I get from good weird fiction.1 And the first answer that came was Jim Woodring’s Frank. Which might sound a little weird on first blush to anybody only vaguely familiar with Frank, because Frank looks like this:

The cover of Frank number one.

Frank’s world–dubbed the “Unifactor”–is not immediately alarming (though it gets more so the closer you look). But it unsettles me–something the merely queasy EC tradition of O.-Henry-with-gore horror comics can’t pull off. To explain why Frank is so much more powerful than Tales from the Crypt (and why I suspect the unsettling core of this work might whisper too quietly, or in too foreign a tongue, for some readers to hear) I’ll first have to describe the kind of thing Woodring does.

One story that particularly creeped me out was “Frank in the Ruse Garden.” This is the story that finishes the first Frank collection published by Fantagraphics in 1994; I’m pretty sure it also appears in the big Frank hardcover and the recent Portable Frank. Like all the Frank stories, it’s told without dialogue, and it goes like this:

Portable Frank Cover Art

A leaflet in Frank’s mailbox informs him that he’s won a dream vacation. Unbeknownst to Frank it was put there Manhog, the Unifactor’s resident ne’er-do-well. Which explains why, after a long drive into a stony and desolate landscape, Frank finds a deserted cabin jutting half over a crevasse. The accommodations are ramshackle, the views aren’t verdant so much as vertiginous, and the only entertainment option is the Rev. J. Bufo’s fine book, The Case Against Art. Frank beds down and makes the best of things.

He wakes in the night to pounding and clattering. A swarm of animate hammers are whacking at the porch. Frank chases them off. They come back. Frank stuffs them into a pillowcase and tosses them into the canyon. He’s just chasing down one more that had a go at his car when he trips over a shape which rises out of the dirt to reveal a Great. Big. Momma. Hammer.


A chase scene! Lots of really scary-looking pounding from the big hammer! The hammer backs Frank up to the cliff… and overbalances, plummeting to the ravine floor like Wile E. Coyote.

As that last reference suggests, this is, in outline, all very Warner Brothers. Maybe like one of those slightly alarming Robert Clampett cartoons.2 But that’s not what I think of when I read the actual comic. “Frank in the Ruse Garden,” like all the Frank stories, like most of Jim Woodring’s work, is one hundred percent unadulterated Uncanny. Like Jim Woodring saw fever dreams we’d forgotten ages ago, and put them down on paper to remind us.

Woodring’s deep blacks and strong pen strokes have the look of and 18th-century woodcut from a book of forgotten lore. It feels like there’s more information there, revelations for readers who look hard enough and understand the context. And the night scenes of “Frank in the Ruse Garden” have a feeling of darkness and silence and aloneness that’s hard to capture in comics; I know what night feels like at Frank’s cabin, what the nothing-but-clattering sounds like. It feels real enough that, as abstract as Frank appears, I forget he’s a… well, whatever he is. He’s more or less a person.

But mostly what makes “Frank in the Ruse Garden” very much not a Porky Pig adventure is what happens after the big hammer’s last plunge. Frank sits on the edge of the ravine and stares down. In the ravine is the pillowcase, now still, and the great hammer, broken in two, its expressionless eye completely dead. Frank has screwed up. Something unusual and tremendous has gone out of the world. No matter the provocation, Frank should never have allowed the situation to come to this.

This is one of the core conflicts driving the Frank stories. The Unifactor is an animistic world of spirits and strange forces. Time and again, Frank comes in contact with numinous wonders, and fail to rise to the occasion. Frank comes upon a field of floating souls, and grabs one to use as a flying horse. Frank dives into a well ringed with eyes, and emerges mutated and warped. Frank wanders into the House of the Dead wearing a party hat, and it’s, like, awkward.

Manhog, too, tends to bite off more than he can even get his teeth around. He doesn’t just fail to rise to the occasion–he doesn’t realize there’s an occasion to rise to. Frank wanders down the wrong path because he’s looking for something indefinable, hungry for meaning; Manhog is just hungry. Usually Manhog ends up in worse shape than Frank.

The difference is that Frank is open to whatever experience has to teach him. Manhog never learns; he believes he knows everything he needs to, so his surprises are usually nasty ones. Frank knows the world is bigger than he is, it’s full of things he doesn’t understand, and he actively tries to learn to understand them. He may not do the right thing but in the end he at least learns what the right thing is, even if it’s sometimes too late.

Here’s why I find the Frank stories creepy as well as uncanny, and why “Frank in the Ruse Garden” scared me more than anything from the Vault of Horror, and why it might not scare someone else at all. Lurking under the surface of Frank are philosophical horrors, quietly unsettling ideas: “Good” is not a switch you flip. Rising above Manhog’s level is not a one-time effort, it’s an active, constant process, something you get up every morning and do. For all his good intentions, with the best will in the world, sometimes Frank is still the kind of person who can throw a pillowcase of baby hammers off a cliff. And Frank, as strange as he looks, is us.

  1. Well, relatively recent. Check the date and compare it to this post, and you’ll see just how long it takes me to write a thing these days. ↩

  2. I’m grateful I didn’t see “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” until I was an adult; as a child I’d have had nightmares for weeks. As it was, I was more than sufficiently freaked out by Tex Avery’s “The Legend of Rockabye Point.” ↩

Links to Things

I thought it might be time to do another links post. So:

  • Lance Mannion argues that one thing all great novels have in common—even such mournful volumes as Madame Bovary and Lord Jim—is a sense of humor:

    If a part of you doesn’t laugh when Emma Bovary takes her poison, or Jim stands there and lets himself get shot, or Anna kneels down to wait for the train, or Ahab goes down with the damn-ed whale then you haven’t been paying attention.

    I don’t mean this the way Oscar Wilde meant it when he said that a reader must have a heart of stone not to read of the death of Little Nell and laugh.

    I mean that Flaubert and Conrad and Tolstoy and Melville all intend us to see that there is something ridiculous as well as something beautiful in human beings taking themselves and their troubles so seriously.

  • Shaenon Garrity, with several things people who know Popeye through the cartoons tend not to know about Popeye:

    1. Popeye is old. I don’t mean the strip is old. Everybody knows the strip is old. I mean Popeye himself is supposed to be a senior citizen. He’s a grizzled old sailor, with emphasis on the old, with extra old added on. Although his official bio now describes him as 34, according to the Segar-era strips he’s in his sixties, and his father (more on him later) is pushing 100. That’s why Popeye is bald and missing an eye. Because of the oldness.

  • Chris White, at McSweeney’s, solicits a little empathy for history’s failures:

    It’s easy to care about a Lincoln or a Washington—they give us so many mattress sales. But greatness is a relative condition. There is no Lincoln without Pierce, and when you ignore those who failed, you miss out on the humanity of the past. You miss out on the reassuringly universal stories that will play out again in our future.

  • Colin Marshall at The War on Mediocrity has written “The Plight of the Social Maladroit,” a five-part series about how much of life—including the stuff that we seem to be doing by ourselves—is about connection and collaboration. Part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five:

    As examples of the unsociable novelists the likes of which we stand to lose, Miller cites David Foster Wallace, J.D. Salinger, V.S. Naipaul and Thomas Pynchon. Fair enough. But could any set of names scream “outlier” louder?

    And even they, in presumably that least collaborative of all art forms, collaborated. They collaborated with their publishers, their editors, their research sources, their friends and associates who read drafts. Most importantly, they collaborated with their audiences. That sounds like nonsense, and maybe it is, but if it’s not nonsense, I’ll bet it’s beyond relevant. What’s a work, after all, without an audience? I hate to go all zen on you again, but if an audience isn’t an important partner in a work, how different is that work from one hand clapping, a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it, etc.?

Links to Things

I haven’t done many of these links posts lately, so I have a bunch of links saved up. I’ll try to get caught up over the next few weeks.

  • First, Aaron Diaz of Dresden Codak has started a new blog on which he writes perceptively about the craft of comics. It’s very new, but he’s already written several posts that have clarified things I’ve been doing haphazardly and inconsistently because I hadn’t thought about them consciously. Example: body language. Sometimes I manage to express my characters’ personalities through my drawings—through Bob’s frequently hunched-over posture, or Buck’s disregard for other people’s personal space—but sometimes they’re more or less talking heads.

    Also useful: Comic Tools has been on hiatus for a while, but there’s lots of helpful stuff in the archives. New Construction is Kevin Huizenga’s new blog about “cartooning practices and concerns.” And Temple of the Seven Golden Camels is written from the point of view of an animator, but has lots of good advice about draftsmanship and composition.

  • Laura Miller, at Salon, writes about the brave new world, anticipated by many aspiring authors, in which anybody can get their books “published” without going through the filter of an actual publisher. Self-publishing enthusiasts like to talk about what this means for writers; Miller focuses on on what this would mean for readers:

    A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also — as is less often admitted — emotional and even moral.

    It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés — for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that’s almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue.

  • On a related note, have you ever tried to search for something on, and found your search results littered with generic-looking print-on-demand books? If you actually were to order one of those things, this is what you’d get. If Amazon were to scour these things from their catalog they’d be doing their customers a favor… but that’s not likely to happen; as long as there are people unwary enough to buy the things, Amazon will turn a profit from them.

  • Sarah Monette, on why craft trumps inspiration:

    It occurred to me today that one of the places from which the idea that craftsmanship and devotion to craftsmanship are unworthy of artists might be coming is the Renaissance idea of sprezzatura, the art of making the difficult look easy. Sprezzatura is all about disclaiming effort, about presenting the appearance of not working hard to achieve perfection, and it seems to me like there’s a point of slippage between sprezzatura as a pose, equally understood as such by author and audience, and the devaluation of craft.

  • Kit Whitfield on why it’s a mistake to assume too much about a writer’s mental state from their work:

    Well, ask yourself this: if an inept draftsman creates a picture of a man whose head is too small and whose right hand is half the length it should be, does that mean the draftsman actually believes we live in a world full of tiny-headed, bob-handed people? No; all it means is that the draftsman isn’t very good at reproducing the reality he or she sees. And the same attains to writing. Writing is pretty difficult, reality is massively complicated, and even a moderately accurate reproduction of it is hard to manage. Get it wrong, and you’ve created a weird facsimile of reality that sounds, well, crazy.

    And on “metaphorisation”:

    Fiction creates situations where the strong feelings are tied to events dramatic enough to justify them. It’s one of the great escapist satisfactions of reading: not escaping into a more comfortable world, but escaping into a world where you have good, unchallengeable reasons for feeling the way you do.

  • SF blogs in the past year or so have periodically been writing about representations of different cultures, and cultural appropriation. Hal Duncan has written an essay thinking about appropriation, abjection, and related topics. I’m not certain what to excerpt; just go read it, if the subject interests you.

Links to Things

A sad wombat-related moment.

I’ve been unable to write much recently. I’m even behind on the comics. Exhaustion seems to be the problem; I come home in the evenings and can’t focus on anything much.

It’s been a while since I even did one of these links posts… but I do have a few links, so just to keep the blog going, here they are:

  • Apparently the Pre-Raphaelites were really into wombats. I recently read some doggerrel Dante Gabriel Rossetti had written about his wombat, and assumed it was some kind of parody. But no—Rossetti loved wombats. Here, from the website of the National Library of Australia, is a history of Pre-Raphaelite wombats:

    Much later, in 1857, by which time he was a national celebrity, Rossetti was commissioned to decorate the vaulted ceiling, upper walls and windows of the library of the Oxford Union. He mustered a large group of helpers, including his new Oxford undergraduate friends, the future artists Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, as well as the artists Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Arthur Hughes and John Hungerford Pollen. Recalling the hugely enjoyable experience of working in the Oxford Union, another artist—helper Val Prinsep—recalled: ”˜Rossetti was the planet around which we revolved, we copied his way of speaking. All beautiful women were “stunners” with us. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.’

  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti liked wombats; Honoré de Balzac liked coffee. A lot. He described its effects in a delightfully crazy essay called “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee”:

    Finally, I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain.

    He also observes:

    Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.

    I think Starbucks should put that on their cups.

    Apparently Balzac died of caffiene poisoning; until I read the introduction to the essay I hadn’t realized that was possible.

  • At The Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong reviews one of the saddest comics I’ve ever read: Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey Volume 3 Number 2.

  • Finally here’s a review of Farmville, an online game which I had never previously heard of, mostly because I don’t spend any time on Facebook but also because I really am completely out of it. Farmville sounds completely appalling:

    We are obligated to examine what we are doing, whether we are updating our Facebook status or playing Call of Duty, because the results of those actions will ultimately be our burden, for better or for worse. We must learn above all to distinguish between the better and the worse. Citizens must educate themselves in the use of sociable applications, such as Wikipedia, Skype, and Facebook, and learn how they can better use them to forward their best interests. And we must learn to differentiate sociable applications from sociopathic applications: applications that use people’s sociability to control those people, and to satisfy their owners’ needs.

    “Sociopathic application” sounds ridiculously melodramatic, but the author makes a good case for the term.