Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The History of the Universe goes on.

When I was about twelve, I picked up The Cartoon History of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great while on holiday in the states. I read it, loved it and reread it until about three years later, when on another stateside trip I stumbled across The Cartoon History of the Universe II: From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome. I was equally enamoured, and painstakingly painted copies of the panels detailing Jesus' teachings onto my schoolbag. After a painfully long wait, in 2003 I found The Cartoon History of the Universe III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance in a St. Louis bookstore (possibly the same in which I had found Vol. 1? I'm not sure) and happily devoured its depictions of Islam's ascendancy and the Crusades while the allies settled in in Iraq. Since then I have mastered internet shopping, and have been twitching with excitement since last week when I realised that Larry Gonick had published the fourth collection earlier this year: The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part I: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution. It arrived this morning, and I have been reading it with a strange sadness of understanding that in a few years I will happen upon Part II, and the history of the universe will be over.

They are a truly marvellous series of books, written and drawn with flair, insight and wit by Larry Gonick, interviewed here. He has a great feel for the interconnectedness of history, drawing links between geographically and chronologically disparate events. It's an angle which suits the form. A fifty page comic (one chapter) is necessarily selective and fast paced, and Gonick manages to use the structure to create a broad continuity, while also cramming in as much curious and hilarious detail as he can. As a result, Cortez does not seem that far from Caesar, whether in action or in caricature. Amusing despots rise and fall; ideas and diseases race each other across the world; and the narrator despairs at having to draw massacre after massacre (I can't think of a comic which contains more corpses), while exclaiming with glee whenever an elephant pops up in the story. The narration is knowing, always on the lookout for irony, and aware of the medium's deficiencies: Gonick's wild-haired alter ego lets us know early on that Herodotus is his favourite historian, because he makes up all the dialogue. I really can't think of a better thing to do with one's life.

Unfortunately, Larry Gonick does not really look like this.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Road

I am unfortunately and somewhat shamefacedly unfamiliar with the work of Cormac McCarthy. All the Pretty Horses has been on my shelf for over a year now, despite me having started and enjoyed it, then for some reason been distracted. I may now restart it with renewed interest having read The Road this weekend, McCarthy's recent Pulitzer Prize winning and Oprah-celebrated novel.

As I understand it, McCarthy is a novelist who has largely worked within the West, that broad and unrepressable American myth. The Road, however, deals instead with the mythic future of the post-apocalypse, describing the journey of a man and his son across an America burned and shattered by some unspecific catastrophe. These two legendary spaces bear some similarities - just ask Kevin Kostner. Each is defined by its landscape, and each demands survival of its characters, survival against the wilderness, and against lawlessness. The Road's desperate family are migrants - pioneers - who must live off an unfamiliar land, scavenging ghost-cities and ashen forest floors, endure the terrible elements, and avoid the roaming savages who have shed civilisation in favour of brutish cannibalism. They do not head West , however, but South, to escape the killing winters; and they do not travel with either certain or illusory promises of gold and land, orange groves and opportunity. They go with no "long term goals," as they realise, only the ebbing determination to live, the vague hope of encountering other "good guys," and most importantly, the assurance that they are "keeping the fire."

The fire is the remaining embers of old values, old culture, and keeping it is no easy task. The man (unnamed, as are all in this world), must represent to his son, born in the months following the catastrophe, the memory of the old world. They play cards with an incomplete deck, forgetting the old rules so inventing new games; they lose their books so must invent new stories; the child plays with a toy truck, while real trucks, to the extent that they now exist, only represent danger and fear; the father carves a crude flute for his son, who can only play tuneless weird sounds - the last music - and who eventually discards the instrument. The fire, however, is perhaps best and most fully represented in their simple refusal to eat of the most available nourishment - other humans. It is an extraordinary book, written with brilliantly stark and lyrical language, frightening and redemptive. Do what Oprah tells you - read it!

Monday, July 23, 2007

More on Superheroes

Since writing the previous post, my housemate serendipitously bought and lent me the first issue of Warren Ellis' new title, Black Summer. The front cover should give an impression of what happens:

Yes, a white-garbed super-powered fellow named John Horus decides to brutally murder the President, the Vice President, and much of their staff. "I also had to kill or injure some secret service agents," he tells the White House press room, "which I regret." This isn't a President who is secretly in thrall to baby-eating aliens, or who is bent on a plot to turn the world's population into zombie-slaves, but one who very much resembles our own dear George W. Bush - less through the features of the blood spattered corpse above, but more through the record described by Horus as he explains his actions (illegal war, torture, election fraud etc.). Nor is Horus a typical supervillain determined to take power for himself, we understand, but a hero who has in previous years protected and served in the name of what is good and just, and now wishes to restore America. Ellis discusses his idea:

If we invite or condone masked adventurers to fight crime outside the law, do we get to draw a line where they stop?

What happens when a superhero's pursuit of justice leads him to the inexorable conclusion that he must kill his President to save his country?

This is the freedom of doing a piece of superhero fiction outside the auspices of company ownership or the weight of continuity: the big questions can be asked in a very direct and brutal manner.

Ellis is a good writer who has some excellent titles under his belt. He often deals with themes of conspiracy and the defiance of all-encompassing power; sometimes with an ingenious panache, as in Planetary, sometimes with hilarity, as in Nextwave, and sometimes with a certain smug heavy-handedness, as in Transmetropolitan. This new story clearly is in danger of falling into the latter category, but is almost certain to develop into something interesting.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Aside from playing too much scrabble through facebook, in recent days I have been watching the first few episodes of Heroes. Of heroes, Reagan said:

You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they're on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They're individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.
Unfortunately, he was wrong. Heroes are people who can fly, or shoot fire from their fingertips, or grow several extra pairs of arms, or whatever - and who will do so always with a mediocre quip on hand, and always in the service of good. The series seems promising. Based on a failsafe cool idea, it offers some innovation amidst a classy handling of traditional ideas - time travel, flight and saving New York from nuclear destruction. It's perhaps an unnecessarily complex plot, I'm finding the shadowy government (?) organisation hunting down our afflicted heroes a bit tiresome, and the suspense is less an "ooh wow! I can't wait to see what happens next!" than a Lost-esque "why won't they tell me what the hell is going on?!" It's also similar to Lost in that the characters, however enigmatic, are frustratingly obtuse when it comes to figuring stuff out. The concept stems from the tradition that has sustained and confined comic book culture for the past seventy years. It is a strange phenomenon, perhaps, that such a limiting (if hugely pliable) theme could come to define an entire medium, but it has created a massively rich and intertextual genre, of which Heroes is only a recent example.

The show pays homage to its forbears, to its concept's original birth-form; indeed, it is accompanied by the publication of a concurrent comic book. I read a few of these a while ago, and, oddly, felt that perhaps the story didn't quite suit the graphic form and would be better suited to a television series - someone should tell the writers. In its basic idea of "ordinary" people (such as a candidate for congress, or a heroin addicted painter) discovering "talents" within themselves brought on by over-explained genetic evolution it is a clear tribute to Marvel's X-Men. In it's content, though, there are overt references, and not only in the occasional ironic remarks about Super- or Spiderman. A comic book is in fact nicely included as a driving plot device: Japanese teleporter/time-jumper Hiro (do you see what they did there?) is guided on his mission by a comic book from the future about himself, and drawn by the aforementioned precognitive junkie painter.

There is some attempt at cerebral contemplation of the consequences and meaning of the emergence of superhumans, provided in the snippets of narration by geneticist Mohinder, who has no power unless it is the ability to accidentally stumble upon things hidden by his dead father, or by the suitably creepy supervillain Syler. It all seems a bit trite, however, and I wonder whether they will truly delve into the questions of how people might be changed by their powers, and how their existence may change the world around them. These have been questions explored relentlessly by recent generations of comics writers, whether in the teen angst and social conflict of X-Men, the celebrity heroes of Brian Bendis' Powers, or in the recent expansive, civil rights themed Marvel story Civil War, in which poor Captain America is assassinated after leading a resistance against governmental measures to restrict, regulate and segregate the power-blessed. Probably the best author to tackle these ideas has been Alan Moore, in his seminal Watchmen (soon, stupidly, to be made into a film - why can't they just leave well alone?), and even more so in his fantastic Miracleman, which due to copyright issues remains unfinished and uncollected (but can be found on the web in scanned form for all those scummy enough to fileshare). Miracleman takes the idea of the superman to its full Nietzschian limits, displaying the brilliance and wonder of power, and its horrific controlling potential. In its shadow is Mark Millar's Red Son, which imagines a Ukrainian, rather than Kansan, Superman, ruling the world through super-ability and Soviet ideology. Heroes is unlikely to become so drastic, but it really needn't, as long as gets the plot rolling and throws in a good fight scene or two.

Hiro gets all intertextual.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Where is John Wayne?

"I am sure it is quite embarrassing to General Torrijos to be called a 'tinhorn' dictator, and I didn't feel that was your style. I hope they weren't your words. This is more the style of a liberal punk who doesn't have to answer for his words."

So advised John Wayne in an open letter to Ronald Reagan in response to his railings against Jimmy Carter's (previously Ford's) Panama Canal Treaty - "We bought it. We paid for it. We built it. And we are going to keep it." The restraining words of a gruff sergeant to his overzealous young officer, perhaps, or of an older, wiser cowhand to his inexperienced colleague.

Reagan and Wayne are inextricably linked in American history thanks to their shared Hollywood careers, their similar public personae, their celebrity conservatism or even the fact that each shed midwestern roots for those dreamy Californian heights. Its a link reinforced, if not originally defined, by the superb historian Garry Wills, who has written books on each. Reagan's America is long familiar to me, and I picked up John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity yesterday for £2.50 in a crummy little shop that despite its complete lack of charm continues to reward me with useful finds. I also got Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home for the same price.

The purpose of Wills' book is to chart not the details and course of Wayne's life, but his image. It is an image that is familiar to us all and that is unique not just in it's singular applicability to one actor, but in its breadth of meaning as an emblem of national myth and identity. "There is no better demonstration of the power of movies than Wayne's impact on American life," Wills writes:
"He was not like other actors, who simply hold political views. ...Wayne embodied a politics; or his screen image did. It was a politics of large meanings, not of little policies - a politics of gender (masculine), ideology (patriotism), character (self-reliance), and responsibility. It was a matter of basic orientation."

The idea of Wayne looms. See the mimicry of the near-children in Full Metal Jacket as they try to comprehend their war; see the struggling posture of "John Wayne" McCain. Joan Didion, apparently, was more familiar with the Duke's face than her own husband's. The question is, is there any equivalent encompassing icon in modern American culture? No, is the obvious answer, but you can see the efforts of some to present themselves as such as well as, perhaps, efforts to find one. Two superficial possibilities occur, each political - potentially in the above sense - and each aligned with the hero and the patriot and the manly. I mean of course Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis.

Gibson, whose early American work included the comically suicidal Vietnam vet Riggs of Lethal Weapon, as well as a leading role in the anti-CIA romp Air America, has since made up for these lapses of conformity. We all know what he's about, and each new product serves to reinforce Gibson's mythic status as Soldier, Protector, Patriot, Christian - even as his 'real life' antics don't. We Were Soldiers, in fact, bears strong resemblance to Wayne's polemic, Green Berets, except in quality - Gibson's effort is the far superior film. Each is about the honour of the American fighting man, and each includes a liberal journalist who saves himself by picking up a rifle. We Were Soldiers, however, carries the hindsight knowledge of defeat, while Green Berets - the only film to be made about Vietnam while the war still raged - carries an assumption of victory. Willis is of course back, dying hard again, as John McClane (John Wayne McClane?), the epitome of the manly individual with a gun. His own contributions to the political discourse have been somewhat flat-footed though. He's yet to pay the $1 million he offered for the capture or death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the rumours of a Green Berets-esque Iraq movie about the Battle of Fallujah appear to have been a non-starter. Wayne's impact, I believe, was peculiar to his time - to the industry and culture of 20th century film, to the America he inhabited, and, indeed, to his own style.

The wise ghost of John Wayne in Garth Ennis' & Steve Dillon's Preacher.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A note about administration.

Being only one of the newest members of the new media, I'm still learning how to use this thing, but I have worked some things out - anybody can now comment, provided you can read wonky letters. I've also learned how to check my "site feed", and apparently I've had no hits in the past 24 hours, so who am I even talking to? Oh well, good night.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Reagans (2003)

"This film is a dramatic interpretation of events based on public sources. Some scenes and characters are presented as composites"

So I was warned as I settled down to watch this three hour film of the story of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, their family and their White House (originally conceived as a miniseries for CBS). Pedant that I am, I was pleased to spot a historical inaccuracy in the very first minutes, where Michael Deaver comes to warn the couple of Senator Tower's conclusions in his investigation into the Iran-Contra affair, distracting Ronald from a western on the television. Deaver had in fact resigned from Reagan's staff two years previously, and was, or would soon be, facing his own investigation into his practices as a Washington lobbyist. Such factual deviations litter the film, but don't truly ruin it, and I won't insist on boringly listing everything it gets wrong - fun as it may be.

It was questions of interpretation, rather than detail, which caused the controversy. CBS decided to pull the series from its primetime autumn schedule, broadcasting it instead later in the year on its smaller cable channel Showtime, following angry preemptive reactions from conservatives, accusing bias and distortion. Though I haven't yet done anything near a full survey of the criticisms, they seem to fall into two categories. First, that James Brolin's Reagan speaks words which are unverifiable, untrue and ill-reflecting, in particular a comment about God and AIDS which was excised from the final cut (though similar to a comment Edmund Morris ascribes to his subject in his biography, Dutch; Dutch, of course, met it's own criticism). Secondly, that the characters of Ronald and Nancy are portrayed derogatively - Ronald as doddering, shallow-minded and not in control; Nancy as manipulative and astrology-obsessed. Also, the pair of them as distant and neglectful parents. However, in broad-stroke, these are characteristics which are apparent in all but the most simpering, hagiographic literature on the Reagans. Also, though the film is a drama, and dramatises these attributes in a pretty clunky manner, it takes pains to nuance its subjects with more positive, admirable qualities - love, compassion, ambition, principle, wit, and so on. Again, qualities that seep through into all but the most simplistic anti-Reagan hatchet jobs.

I suspect that the conservative reaction to the film was more rooted in an instinctive horror at an attempt to represent the Prophet, particularly a representation smeared with the fingerprints of the dastards of the 'liberal media', and motivated by the film's handling of Reagan's political achievements, which are the framework of his current iconic status. At least, his partisan iconic status. Essentially, they are breezed through and overlooked. His principles and ideology are reduced to a few already familiar soundbites, and events broken down to simple, signifying scenes. My favourite is one set in 1986, where George Schulz (a cipher of a character) rushes into the Oval Office waving a piece of paper: "Mr. President! You've ended the Cold War". US-Soviet relations are not mentioned for the rest of the film, replaced by the apparently more dramatically interesting internal machinations of Iran-Contra.

There's much more to be said about this, and about the manner in which it constructs Reagan's life and American history in general, but I sense this is getting too long, and will sign off with my own critical response. Not very good, really - though it is possible my own familiarity with the story added to the sense that it was simply covering events one-by-one. Judy Davis gave the best performance, but that still felt a little Dynasty (not that I've ever seen Dynasty). I was, however struck, not for the first time, by the filmic potential of Reagan's life. In general, it has great dramatic and visual possibilities, and a better script and actor could get alot of mileage out of Reagan's character (Brolin really just gives a passable impression of the President - as well as a good one of Reagan doing Carter). There is also great comic potential in Reagan's administration, which was enjoyably but tantilisingly explored here. Psychotic Al Haig, ever-mumbling Bill Casey, creepy and sly Don Regan, and the apparently inseparable troika of Deaver, Baker and Meese popping up in doorways and muttering their schemes ("You're always looking at each other" yells a justifiably paranoid Haig) - all this raised a chuckle and should definitely be made into a sitcom.

Someone should have a proper go at filming Reagan. Maybe Scorcese, when he's finished doing Edmund Morris's Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, should make a film of Morris's semi-fictional Dutch? That would be very post-modern, bound to piss everybody off.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Dr. Seuss Goes to War

A conscientious ex-pat American, my father made sure I was brought up on Sesame Street and the books of Theodor Seuss Geisel. I learned many valuable lessons from this education, including that going to war over how you buttered your bread would be stupid, that eventually you could pester someone into eating anything no matter how weird it looked, and that if a bird asks an elephant to tend their nest for a bit before going off an extended holiday, it would be presumptious for the bird to then expect the elephant to give up the hatchling he has looked after for so long. Also that any such hatchling would be an interesting cross between a bird and an elephant.

A more deeply thinking child would have realised that the good Doctor's books revealed a social conscience amongst the bizarre creatures and amusing machinery, one that had been initially informed by the rise of fascism in Europe and latterly by racial discrimination at home. Seuss' views were first expressed in the cartoons he drew for New York's PM newspaper between 1941 and 1942, now collected in this book which I have recently been re-admiring. Seuss targets Charles Lindbergh and the America-Firsters (as well as Hitler, etc.) with vicious glee, and with the striking comic imagery so familiar from his later tales. Animals feature heavily, such as Lindbergh's "Ostrich Bonnets," all wonky necks and brainless smiles ("Forget the terrible news you've read, your mind's at ease in an ostrich head"), or "Vanquished Europe" as an enormous moose happily taking a bite out of a bemused Hitler's arse ("Quite dead I shoot him...unt still, by Himmel, he bites!). Best is Uncle Sam as a plump and scruffy eagle - his physique not dissimilar to the Cat in the Hat's - recurring frequently with a full range of emotion. However, despite the consistent and righteous polemic against anti-semitism in Nazi Europe and American isolationism, and against Jim Crow in the military, there is a sad and unwitting irony in Seuss' representation of the Japanese, and of Japanese Americans. All have the same sly, squinty ugliness, and are quite openly portrayed as a fifth column. One hopes that Seuss eventually came to terms with the stars on Japanese bellies.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Townes Van Zandt

When treated as a young man with electro-shock therapy, Townes Van Zandt lost from his memory the images of his childhood. This collapse of identity, eventually and patchily reconstructed from the stories of others, had to contribute to the bleakness of his songs. That and the depression that brought him into hospital in the first place. The alcoholism too, of course, and the fondness for the smell of glue. Be Here to Love Me (2004) tells the life of Van Zandt, which was sad and too short and apparently largely made up of hilarious anecdotes of self destruction. It was not all grim hopelessness though, he was a committed fan of Happy Days. He also spent his life doing what he loved, and was good at it.

"Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world - and I'll stand
on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that" - Steve Earle

It's deeply American music, as is the story. Van Zandt grew up in Texas (where his family has a county named after him) playing the folk music of the South - blues and country. In California, of course, he first met success and lived as a hippy, before drifting between Colorado, Texas and Nashville, and touring the country, apparently following his psychiatrist's advice to "just wander for a while and find himself" ("what is this doctor saying?" his first wife recalls wondering). Old sounding songs of woe and fear and love and death and addiction (and banditry); here's a taster.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

What the internet really needs is a new blog

Hello, reader.

As you are probably aware, there is a dearth on the web of trite musings, ill-explained secondhand opinion, half-baked ideas and lengthy explanations of personal annoyances. I am here to fill that void.

I am a DPhil student at Sussex University studying Ronald Reagan, to whom this blog's title is a tribute. Hopefully this will act as something of a record of my work, as well as of my more inane distractions. Many thanks to dcat, the sometime host of my meagre ramblings, and to all the millions of my future readers.