Break the Story

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Mateo Moreno is an actor of superlative intuition…which may be why his scripts for the anthology-play Broken Pieces are both a constraint and a structure that doesn’t quite hold together. The tagline that “We are who we break” is an eloquent manifesto for these times of rampant disregard, but the work mostly remains in fragments.

It’s refreshing and revelatory to see Moreno himself play the quietest role I’ve seen him in, with just as much conviction and unpredictability, as a divorced dad reconnecting with his daughter in the first vignette. Frances Ramos bookends the evening as both the disaffected kid and an unheeded, prophetic child immigrant carried off in the closing scenario (a dystopian literally-bet-your-life gameshow), each with a contained power that’s shaded and magnetic.

After the sweet but inconclusive opening act, we see two ghost stories, each told with genuine emotion by the actors but with explanatory devices that are tacked on at the end, making it feel in each case like we’ve watched one detached half of a mystery; dramatically broken does not mean no assembly required. A confrontation between a hitman and the femme fatale who hired him, like a comic-relief interlude in a Shakespeare tragedy if directed by Guy Ritchie, is barely worth mentioning.

By far the most fully-realized segment is the sparest, in which the entire dramatic weight is placed on Kayla Wickes, soliloquizing to a surveillance camera on the eve of her forced marriage in a dystopian patriocracy. Moreno’s pessimistic imagination is well-applied in the rituals, slogans and structure of this prison existence (even beyond what features perhaps inevitably overlap with The Handmaid’s Tale and Bitch Planet), but even here, the protagonist’s determination to pursue her genuine love with the best of the four candidates selected for her by the state seems a strange goal for a feminist revolutionary.

Still, Wickes’ considered intensity and the cold hellish loop Moreno has constructed for her circumstance carry this segment despite the collection’s overall tendency to lose its own threads. The final piece, that allegorical gameshow, pokes holes through the thin wall between abstract satire and direct polemic at several points, not laying bare the brutality of chummy public entertainment so much as going off its own script (and straying from its own premise; Moreno plays the appalled point-of-view contestant in this Rollerball-esque spectacle but we wonder why he seems so shocked when it’s presumably required viewing, and he signed up to be on it).

Ian W. Hill’s lighting design provides economically eerie atmospheres and brisk visual punctuation, and the minimal, essential costuming and settings show a good sense of how little is more. But the drama itself could be further developed. In this era of waning light and widening isolation we’re all still sifting for causes and clues; I just wish, from the ongoing artistic reportage of it, a bit more care in how the pieces are picked up.

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The Narrative Engine

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“Inside is inside,” one character says to another when going back over their prison romance and how it can’t exist, or even be spoken, between two gangster males in their unforgiving “real” life. It’s at the exact midpoint of season 2 of Marvel’s Luke Cage series on Netflix, and in its only sustained highpoint, an Emmy-worthy episode called “The Basement,” about many forms of buried self-truth. We can’t control the stories we live in no matter what we tell ourselves, and characters who are wholly fictional have it even worse.

The inside/exterior schism is key to the whole season; Luke of course has impervious skin but a repeatedly breakable heart; his estranged dad tells him more than once that his true power comes from inside; a conflicted loved-one of the main villain tells Luke he’s worse because of the anger he keeps within him.

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At the start, we’re not sure what movie we’re in; Luke is a local hero in Harlem, and the opening episode plays like an upbeat 1970s action-comedy. Clearly this is mostly in Luke’s mind, but it spills out in ways that make you wonder who is in on the joke. Not much later we’re all inside a soap-opera, and it’s here that the surface starts getting too solid and opaque. Claire Temple is worried about Luke not reconciling with his (justifiably rejected) dad, warning of the damage this can do to his psyche and its danger to those around him; Luke rejects this by laying out all the unfair assumptions projected on him, and impossible standards he needs to meet, as a Black man in contemporary America. It’s all wisely written, but directed like melodrama and delivered by the actors as if they’re reading from brochures.

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From this point on, it feels like Mike Colter, as Luke, is straining against the magnetic pull of a story he doesn’t belong in. We see him bullying minor neighborhood thugs; beating an adversary senseless and trashing his apartment in the process while the guy’s battered girlfriend and her son look on in more terror of Luke; and making devil’s bargains with master criminals to keep a cordon of safety around Harlem. After what has essentially been three seasons (Jessica Jones 1, Luke 1 and The Defenders) there’s no reason to expect any of this from the dude we’ve seen survive prison, work out his grief at widowhood, deliver stirring civic speeches, restrain himself to the point of shielding his landlady from an entire collapsed building, and speak truth to superpowered White privilege as embodied by Danny Rand. Why this season chooses to deny him his grace is mystifying.

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In the vacuum, attention is locked on Luke’s new adversary, Bushmaster, a vengeful scion of the Jamaican rivals to local mob-boss Mariah Stokes’ family. The woundedness and incurable fury of Bushmaster is conveyed with titanic, irresistible charisma by Mustafa Shakir, lifting more that a building’s worth himself, since the portrayal of the stateside West Indian community is another of the season’s most insurmountable surfaces. The show’s creative team had (and evidently chose) an opportunity to comment on colorism and the very real faultlines between nationalities within African-America, but other than some awkwardness from Luke and a steady barrage of slurs from Mariah, the character and status of the Jamaicans portrayed does not reach much beyond gangsta caricatures or early-20th-century melodramas of ethnic refugees in the New World.

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The result is a lot of talking-at. Time and again Luke is told, though we are not really shown, what a ticking time-bomb he is. This strange backslide into racial shaming from unexpected directions has shown up elsewhere lately, as in the Ta-Nehisi Coates/Yona Harvey Black Panther & The Crew comic, which started with several issues of the most natural portrayals of people of color and bravely-observed characterizations of institutional racism (removal by gentrification, execution by police) in all of pop culture , and ended with the heroes trying to stop the citizens of Harlem from hurting themselves in violence incited by (surprise!) Hydra — a bafflingly regressive scold that I had to hope was imposed by Editorial (though that’s not good news either).

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The sad thing is that this season shines whenever there is true talking-to, as in the dialogue between psychotic but layered gunman “Shades” and his comrade/former lover “Comanche” mentioned at the top of this article, or a phenomenally honest, eloquent and sublimely painful conversation/confession between Luke and his dad chatting on the back bumper of an ambulance late in the season. (Even the interplay between Luke and an outsider to his world, the aforesaid Danny Rand, stands out; their attitudes are unguarded and their cultural frictions confronted head-on, in a genuine communication that sparks completely unexpected chemistry.)

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As Luke’s dad, the late, incomparable Reg E. Cathey spills several lifetimes of contradictory regret and pride and wisdom and helplessness, while as “Shades” (get it?) Theo Rossi shows a world of sorrow and cruelty and hope and calculation by how stonily and unsuccessfully he tries to suppress it. Inside is inside, and inner life is what we spectators need, paradoxically, to see. It is entirely obscured by Mariah, in a multi-polar performance by Alfre Woodard that follows up her profound pathos last time; her tapestry of unhinged ticks is bravura in its own way, but, while this time she is a superlative villain, she is no longer a full person. From Simone Missick (as Misty Knight) and Colter, the interior seeps out through their eyes; they are masterful actors of reaction and contemplation, given this-time often murky roles to contemplate.

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The tidal pull of criminality distorts whatever is actually in Luke’s head. By the end, (SPOILER — or is it really?) he’s been convinced that you can beat ’em by ruling ’em, taking over as a kind of peacekeeper at the head of what had been Mariah’s club, imposing order on rival gangs while letting them do some contained business as usual. The close of this season would have been a perfect point, I think, to lead into a crossover The Crew miniseries, to take the place of the optimally-one-off Defenders show; we’ve already got Misty and Luke, and Marvel’s cinematic division could surely okay a Josiah X to lay the ground for Chris Evans’ departure and greenlight a spare Dora Milaje on-assignment to the hood (like when Lady Sif showed up on one of the best S.H.I.E.L.D.s). It would be more Luke’s style to pull together an ethical, unifying anti-gang (as he did in the superb Mighty Avengers comic with its storefront superteam) than become a gang-lord…but in the universe of Luke Cage season 2, there’s a blurry (sloppy?) line between power and crime. Even musical guest the unsurpassably conscious KRS-One is cool with playing the most transparently mobbed-up club in NYC (one of several strangely demeaning implications). But Luke doesn’t get to pick the narrative that’s driving him. In unsparing but aspirational fantasy, that’s something I wish both he and we could escape.

Flight of the Discord

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The fourth wall has been broken beyond repair — but postmodern characters can put up layers of subtext as they retreat across the stage. Anton Chekhov was a pioneer of theatre-about-theatre, so it’s only fitting that a few extra degrees of nesting narrative be layered over his classic The Seagull in Aaron Posner’s rewrite, Stupid Fucking Bird.

Put on in the sprawling square-footage of Long Island City’s Plaxall Gallery, a donated warehouse, the dramatis personae feel like ghosts, and they seem to have passed from preoccupying Chekhov to haunting the house of Posner’s head. Updated to contemporary self-made stars and media wannabes, they are wearing dead characters’ names and straining against long-established structures.

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Con, an artist (heh) is putting on an experimental one-woman show (whose one woman is his girlfriend, Nina) on the home stage of his famous mainstream-actor mom Emma, who’s there with her legendary-novelist boyfriend Trigorin, her doctor brother Sorn and two of Con’s friends Dev and Mash. The oedipal, um, con-flict between avant-garde son and marquee mom spills over into the son’s play and sweeps it away when it has barely started; we are left with the unwritten drama (dashed ambitions, romantic parallelograms) that each character thinks they’re the hero of.

Chekhov may have been chasing the inner narratives we conceal behind the camouflage of polite conversation, but Posner understands that his own century is one in which consciousness of an audience is almost never switched off. This is a smart basis for the spectator-address that inevitably crosses the fictional line the players are performing behind. Of course monologue is futile (though still fun) because we’re long accustomed to soliloquy and we know we can already see everything the characters don’t want us to. But since that doesn’t stop all of them from trying to manage everyone else’s feelings, the motif of Con or Mash turning outward to ask us how they should live or command us how to react magnifies the sense of natural disarray and endlessly desired but forever unattainable control.

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The characters indeed barge in on each other’s audience confessionals, and at times submerge back completely into the play they know best; a middle section with cast and audience led into the spacious art center’s narrow galley pushes them into literal kitchen-sink drama, but even then some characters turn to us; this story wants followers, and its players are fighting a losing resistance against the dissolving screen of their personal fantasy.

Posner himself is fording a tidal pull between the material’s deep despair and its comic possibilities; there’s a tension that stays bravely but sometimes distancingly unresolved. Particularly at the end, the script dares itself to dance to the cliff’s-edge of doomed-lovers bathos and is repeatedly pulled back by the 200-percent commitment of Olivier Renaud as Con and Tana Sirois as Nina; consummate performers immersed in every emotion they plumb, they also keep mindful of the barriers that will never be crossed, onstage or off, in what we think we see.

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Sirois is alternately heartbreaking and delightful as the easily-illusioned Nina, a bird lining up to be shot time after time. Renaud’s comic chops and related consciousness of dives from grace serve him well in a portrait of alternating hysteria and rage and dark blankness and pleading helplessness; both controlling and utterly out of, he’s like some virtuoso gene-splice of Jack Lemmon and John Cleese. David Leeper radiates melancholy insight and honest solitude as Sorn, and Donal Brophy is irresistible as the burrito of rakish remoteness and manipulative humility that is Trigorin. The kinetic direction (Adam Knight) and design (Paolo Martínez Fiterre on sets, Eric Goodman on lighting) — Con maintaining a rant up the concealed stairs, across the utility mezzanine and back out of a door at the opposite end of the space; a ghostly Nina knocking at the bay-door of the (serendipitously maritime) warehouse, lit from behind by bilious harbor lamps that come on by the time night has fallen on the play — make well-conceived use of both frame and free-range, the predestined and the unpredictable, in this porous play (or “whatever it is,” as several characters successively say).

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Toward the end, a jaded and traumatized Nina describes her high but hollow stardom, confessing that she can’t say anything that’s true onstage — a paradox that sums up this whole production’s veils of reality and displacement of feelings. On the globally-networked world’s collapsed horizon and under its threatening sky, Stupid Fucking Bird soars low, and sees a good amount to salvage.

Tickets and more details here.

When you were mine

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I knew J. unwell enough to play a guessing-game with which character was most like the real him. Everyone assumed he was Yunior from Wao, which seemed a little too automatic; I wanted him to be the innocuous neurotic from “Boyfriend” or the hypersensitive nerd Wao himself (of course, since that was mine); I suspected that the truth was closest to the well-meaning, emotionally unequipped, hiding-out-in-the-open guy from “Edison, New Jersey” — caught, or at least not leaving from, somewhere in-between.

I went straight to “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” in The New Yorker the week that issue came out, and straight through the story; when my late wife asked how it was, I said, “a.) It’s a masterpiece, and b.) it guarantees that m’man isn’t gonna have sex again until, like, 2032.” I didn’t realize at the time that he already was, and had presumably moved as far away from that guy as he seemed to me, having committed to a person who I can’t imagine taking one minute of shit from him. I was only assuming that other readers would assume that story was autobiographical.

A certain longtime friend of mine’s unfaithful, unfeeling novelist ex-husband was a lot better on paper, so it didn’t seem implausible to me that J. could be better in life. That friend let me know (and wanted me to tell him) that she’d been curled in a ball on the floor since the moment she finished This Is How You Lose Her, being horrified and amazed, re-wounded but redeemed by the honest opening up of a damaged and damaging male mind.

People turn out to not be who you thought they were, or disappointingly confirm that they are; either way, it is not they who have changed. J.’s stories were always field-reports from, not critiques of, the male psyche; case studies of men which make you think though the men themselves are reluctant to. The usefulness of this work has not changed, though the usefulness of its author may have come to an end.

He said not long ago that “Remembering is not as powerful an engine for the creation of identity as forgetting is,” and to not know him may have been to know him best. Right before multiple women began accusing him (without contradiction) of forcible kissing, creepy advances, abusive rants, questionable ethics and being a hellish boyfriend, he published his revelation of having been raped as a child, and the inner- and outer-directed destructions that that led to. His accusers saw it as a preemptive bid for sympathy before their own revelations finally came to light. He wrote of the “mask” his trauma put over his true self, but the essay is the most anonymous thing he’s ever written, as that repeated cliché and the others the text is built on display. This makes it of little use to anyone but him, and while any motivation of seizing the narrative can only be speculative, and while forcing your tongue past someone’s lips or flirting unwantedly with minors is not as extreme as rape, J. is also no doubt aware that sleeping around on your fiancée and being a soul-crushing boyfriend are not crimes, but assault and harassment are; his essay only addresses the former, and setting the terms of what’s to be admitted to is a one-sided and thus self-negating version of making amends.

Every public person who faces disgrace has his or her defenders, those who see him or her on some level as one of “theirs.” These defenders want a way to adjust things back to the way they were, which is to say, the way they seemed. They call for balance. In a case like J.’s, where the protectiveness (possession?) is unusually pronounced, some form of mediation, a literary truth-and-reconciliation process, with accuser and “great man” on an agreed-to equal footing and no transgressions negotiated off the table beforehand, might salvage some actual rehabilitation for the transgressor and redemption for the injured. But it would restore nothing; instead it would move the parties forward to uncharted and unguaranteed territory; a new plane we can’t envision because we’ve never seen it.

There is no such thing as alternative truth, but there are different ways we can reach and react to it. Arranging the facts to suit yourself doesn’t fool anybody forever, but fashioning an emotional truth beyond the immediately evident is what fiction and all art does. When Woody Allen was a private person, the real him could remain a kind of Schrodinger-being who always might be as tragically honest and unflinchingly insightful as, say, Crimes and Misdemeanors (one of his last releases as a fully private person) suggested him to be; after the shallow schmuckiness (and probable child-molesting, and definite statutory rape) was exposed, he seldom regained his artistic footing in the ensuing 25-plus years (though the same can’t be said for his industry standing, until, maybe, now). So far, everything J.’s said from the minute his mask came off is generic sentiment about the most personal of realities (his person I mean; the women get one letter or less). It’s J.’s life, not mine, but the mask might have been what allowed more of what’s good in him to come through (and for him to do any good). Even now, it seems there were parts he didn’t want removed, which the aggrieved had to pull off for him, and this will likely determine what we can associate him with and how full a perspective he can access from this point onward. There’s a lengthening line of people with bad stories to tell and no reason to lie. Before (and during) that, J.’s fiction and fine thought did me and millions of people immense good. All of which was so much more possible when it wasn’t about him.

A Petard of One’s Own

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Oral sex might not have been the subject of every ’70s rocksong, but it was the most discernible reason for ’70s rockbands’ existence. The Crazy Muchachos correct the record by lightly adapting a brief history of classic pop to work in the phrase “suck my dick” wherever possible. It’s like what two 12-year-olds would think was endlessly funny, and be right; the two 12-year-olds in this case were guitarist Jesse Krakow and percussionist Jon Damon, who came up with their persona-band The Crazy Muchachos in 1989. They show unlimited ingenuity and perfect comic timing in the application of their one idea; while titled “The Crazy Muchachos in Super Magic Destiny: A Night of Succulence” as befits an epic three decades in the making, in every sense this could have been titled “Never Get Old.” It’s as if some supervillain had reversed reality and, instead of tampering with recordings to make them all “clean” versions (like our own world’s supervillains do), took every innocuous ballad and dubbed curses over it (“Speaking words of wisdom, SUCK MY DI-IHHHCK!”, etc.). On premiere (and closing) night at Sid Gold’s Request Room, towering vocalists of New York’s divebar pantheon like Mike Fornatale, Joelle Lurie and Xavier Smith joined the Muchachos onstage, in ones and twos like a downsized Last Waltz and for a full-cast finale that put me in mind of some historic, “We are the world, we are the SUCK MY DICK” moment. Krakow is equally adept at orchestrating satirical bloat and sending up solo pomposity, as we see when he gives a lone guitar encore of a seriously soiled “Message in a Bottle”; that song seems to stem from the Muchachos’ promised followup suite, Fuck My Butt, and if this and the final encore by Krakow, Damon and fearless pianist Leslie Goshko of a similarly defiled “Don’t Stop Believing” are any measure, the duo can be counted on to produce an equivalent Number Two. With a gag a minute, “Super Magic Destiny” will get a clap from me every time!

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Comics: Can They Be for Kids?

(Text of an address given to the OCM BOCES School Library System in Syracuse, NY, on April 28, 2017, in advance of the organization’s activities centered on Free Comic Book Day, May 6, 2017.)

This is a question that actually gets pondered a lot these days, as admirers of the artform lament its shrinking audience, and feel that a once youth-oriented medium has turned its back on the readership that first made it a phenomenon.

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(art by David Mack)

The built-in irony, of course, is that at their height in America, comics were considered for kids but not good for them; at best a rudimentary gateway to “real” reading, in prose novels, and at worst a corrupting and coarsening pastime that would spoil them for literature if not indeed induce them to mass-murder.

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The medium would hover between self-consciousness and self-confidence for many eras; the empirically unsound association of comics with so-called juvenile delinquency would help spell the demise of superhero and horror comics judged respectively fascist and depraved, but the readership too was hungering to stay loyal to the artform while putting away childish things — GIs who had just saved the world from a real-life supervillain in World War Two wanted to read about real life, so comics about their war experiences briefly became popular…

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(art by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

…EC, the company that anti-comics crusaders had focused on, gambled to keep its already uncommonly adult audience by replacing its lurid horror parables with more grounded subject matter…

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(art by Johnny Craig [upper] and Jack Kamen [lower])

…the first attempts at novel-length, everyday-world comics were made…

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(art by Matt Baker)

…and romance comics, the most successful of any of these endeavors, flooded the shelves, both enforcing domestic norms and acknowledging the value of loving rather than fighting, for the largest female audience American comics had ever had to that point or would have for decades after.

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(art by Jack Kirby & Joe Simon)

When superheroes returned with the optimistic, world-saving attitude of the JFK years, Marvel Comics in particular sought to split the juvenile/adult difference by incorporating the soap-opera of the romance comics into their superhero stories, and by actively engaging the social issues that raged in the 1960s and courting a college-age readership that began to gravitate toward their comics.

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(art by John Romita, Sr.)

Kids do tend to sense when they’re being condescended too though, and attempts to “elevate” the medium, which were prefaced on the assumption that the medium was inferior and its readers in need of intervention, were often the true ephemera. Several generations will still remember being dissuaded from reading comics or literature from the stiff, institutional Classics Illustrated…

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(artist unknown)

…and the wave of “relevant” comics, though legitimate benchmarks in the artform’s process of maturation, were ridiculed widely even in their day, by kids who didn’t know, and didn’t have to, that many of these comics originated in then-President Nixon’s appeal to comics publishers to somehow influence the tide of youthful drug use.

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(art by Neal Adams)

The inauthenticity was plain to kids and teens being lectured across the so-called generation gap, though this experience probably gave a lot of them their first exercise in ironic distance from pop-cultural proselytizing.

Still, we find ourselves participating in a lecture about comics today; and in classrooms and cultural centers around the world. This is partly because the ambition and sophistication of the medium has steadily evolved; we don’t need comic abridgments of classic novels, because some comics fill the role of complex reflections on eternal issues themselves.

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It is also in part because the very currency of cultural legitimacy has shifted; through a combination of generational turnover and dissolution of top-down definitions of what qualifies as significant art — not just academic but vernacular, not just European but Global, not just industrial but aboriginal, not only narratives and perspectives which favor the patriarchal — the value of art in different modal voices is more recognized as a scope of inquiry into how we can express ourselves and understand each other.

There is in fact scholarship dating back to the first half of the 20th century that indicates that the immediacy and attractiveness of comics helps develop literacy by engaging reluctant readers. A typical sentiment comes from a 1944 study that affirmed that “instruction must begin in the ongoing activities and concerns of the learner and that its effectiveness depends on the efficiency of the form of communication that is employed.” In the post-World War II period, Will Eisner, who had made his name with an adult-aimed, newspaper-supplement comic, The Spirit, which established many of the techniques we see in acclaimed graphic novels today…

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…was employed by the U.S. military to produce a journal in comic form to impart techniques of preventive maintenance on vehicles and weaponry, which saved real lives; to this no-nonsense branch of government, the educative potential of comics was clear.

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Ben Katchor, a contemporary cartoonist who was the first to get a MacArthur fellowship, amusingly yet pointedly asserts his view that literature without pictures is a relatively brief anomaly in the history of human narrative; that heavy illustration was common in the Victorian novel, for instance, and this tendency has reasserted itself in the current surge of graphic literature.

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(art by Gustave Doré)

Much has been said and studied about the way that meaning is constructed, and shades of interpretation enabled, by the comic form’s requirement of simultaneous textual reading and visual experience, and the higher understanding that coalesces in the mind’s reconciliation of these modes. The most groundbreaking exploration of these ideas, and of the way that comics can embody the processing and perception of complex relationships because each page is both a linear progression of narrative, and a system of juxtaposed images, moments in time, etc., is Unflattening by Dr. Nick Sousanis, a thesis on cognition that he produced as a comic, to demonstrate to us and keep discovering for himself the way that creativity by its nature is a path to comprehension.

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(art by Nick Sousanis [above three])

This of course is a scale model of the information environment we all now live in. The visual has more primacy now than it has since the eras of hieroglyphics or religious stained-glass windows; in the current day, this is not just a matter of the displacement of the page by the (smartphone/tablet/TV) screen, where the image is dominant even though literal text still plays a major role; the complex of media we now experience is sensed spatially, a concept which makes the visual more accentuated because it is more unframed.

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The page of a book is a container of information; now, the information stream surrounds us — in simultaneous audio feeds to our earbuds, textual information on our phones, and news or personal messages while we work on a computer, along with the animated billboards, monumental projections, lasers and neon of the modern public space and, soon enough, the cartoon phantoms and floating readouts of augmented reality and head-up display.

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Comics both model this simultaneity, and provide a means of following it at a personalized pace. (And, often, at a size comparable to the intimate scale that we have become attached to in handheld devices.)

Thus, comics have gone beyond an aid to conventional reading; to decipher a way of life defined by systems of information is a matter not just of literacy, but citizenship; in the semiotic sense of symbols and social standards and competing beliefs all being a kind of language, texts surround us, and comics contain the apparatus to navigate these meanings.

The librarian and comics theorist Damian Duffy points out that comics fandom provided a prototype of the kind of selective cultural communities that later became common on the internet; Philadelphia librarian Matt Catron told me that his branch’s commitment to holding comic cons is intended to strengthen a sense of community by acknowledging and serving the distinct affinity groups of comics fans and cosplayers; Queens, NY children’s librarian Maryanne Olson told me that she mindfully builds graphic-novel and manga collections that will expose her dominant population to the narratives of cultures not their own, so that “the library can be a space of encounter.”

In doing this, she speaks of the balance between “the mirror and the window,” though the mirror can catch passersby too, and everyone has become more aware of how important that mirror is to those who have not been accustomed to seeing themselves reflected anywhere else.

Such identities are usually formulated in youth, of course, and it’s interesting, in light of our opening question, that the current wave of comic characters representing an unprecedented range of cultures and gender associations includes so many who are also kids. The most publicized ones have been Kamala Khan, the Muslim-American teen Ms. Marvel…

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(art by Adrian Alphona [left] and Sara Pichelli [right])

…and RiRi Williams, the 15-year-old successor to Tony Stark, known as Ironheart.

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(art by Jeff Dekal)

The latter is part of a telling parallel trend, of youthful heroes, often female and kids of color, who excel at science or other cerebral pursuits. Myths of inferior intellect are dispelled and ambition is modeled by Lunella Lafayette, the 9-year-old inventor known as Moon Girl…

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(art by Amy Reeder)

…Nadia Pym, the young-adult Russian exile who’s recruiting an institute of unheralded girl scientists and is known as The Wasp…

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(art by Elsa Charretier [upper and lower])

…boy-genius (and current Hulk) Amadeus Cho…

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(art by Stonehouse)

…and my and artist Paolo Leandri’s own oceanography prodigy and highschool-sophomore mutant mermaid, Mirta del Mar, Aquaria.

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(art by co-creator Paolo Leandri, colors by Dominic Regan)

Each issue of The Wasp’s comic has an interview with two real-life woman scientists in its backmatter, and popular comics from entirely on the real-life side include the recent Primates, a charming and textured entwined biography of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas.

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(art by Maris Wicks)

Characters like these represent what I believe is a fundamental shift in the aspirational nature of superheroes. In his pioneering work of comics analysis, The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer recalls how much he hated Batman’s sidekick, Robin, for the reason that he could dream about one day being Batman, but he had no time to become this perfect boy champion. By contrast, characters like Ms. Marvel and Ironheart are the headliners, and very popular with fans. Whereas Robin is someone a 1940s boy already couldn’t be, yet a standard they felt held to, the Lunellas and Kamalas, flawed, promising and underestimated, are each variations of who a 2010s girl already is, but hasn’t been valued as.

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The Queens children’s librarian, Maryanne Olson, told me that when she surveyed the kids about what they wanted to see more of in comics, “more girls” was the choice of both the girls and the boys; this is one demonstration of how comics can create and cross communities.

Another is a remarkable project by the Italy-based NGO known as COSV in which kids from mainstream Lebanese society collaborated on making comics with kids from Palestinian refugee camps, as a way to get these mutually isolated groups to appreciate each other; the program has paired kids and comics professionals from several other countries as well, including Jordan, Morocco, and Macedonia.

COSV1

COSV2

COSV3

Free Comic Book Day programs could include such collaborations — cooperative activities provide a good social model for developing personalities, and the enjoyment of the process helps endear kids to a lifelong-learning practice.

There could also be discussion sessions, in which views are respected but can be put to the test. Graphic novels like Marguerite Van Cook’s The Late Child, about growing up in the rubble of postwar London…

LateChild

(art by James Romberger, color by Marguerite Van Cook)

…or Kindred, an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s classic tale of time-travel to the slavery era, can put kids in the shoes of those facing traumas we still feel the effects of today.

KindredCover

(art by John Jennings)

And cultural relations are portrayed at least once as farce and once as tragedy in the selection of Free Comics your area has received. The Fresh off the Boat: Legion of Dope-itude comic has fun with both the conventions of superhero fiction and the assumptions of ethnic stereotype, while tucked into the back of the Avatar comic is a story from Briggs Land, a series about a Cliven Bundy-style bunker community of White Nationalists. These two alone cover a valuable spectrum of both hopes for harmony, and anxieties about division, that may be on your kids’ minds in these times.

NewDope-itude

Briggs

(art by Jorge Corona [upper] and Tula Lotay [lower])

Between hands-on comic-making, and discussion of comics, could be a concepting session for some new story or character.

What personal experience makes a good story? What would constitute honesty and how can the strict facts be imaginatively embellished? What kind of fictional world would you see as desirable, and which might you see as dystopian?

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(“Ms. America”/America Chavez art by Jamie McKelvie)

What kind of hero might you create — when you think of a hero or villain, what traits of behavior or characteristics of appearance do you picture, and what may this say about how you view your peers of different backgrounds, or certain public figures you see in the media?

StarCover

BlueDot

(art by Frank Espinosa [upper and lower])

Comic artist and educator Frank Espinosa told me how, in conceiving the content and flavor of some educative comics he and writer Sajan Saini did for the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab and School of Engineering, he wanted to aim the work at “the 10-year-old inside of the scientist. The more we talked to them, the more I could see their eyes light up at a sentence or a word — that moment in time was what I wanted to capture; the wonder that got them started on this long journey.”

So, comics are for villages, and children, and teachers and anyone else who isn’t done learning.

Great thanks to Matt Catron, Allison Comes, Damian Duffy, Frank Espinosa, Arlene Frei, Maryanne Olsen, Andrea Plazzi, Sajan Saini, Nick Sousanis and Andrea Viscusi

Fuller references and further reading:

Damian Duffy dissertation:

https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/90581/DUFFY-DISSERTATION-2016.pdf?sequence=1

Nick Sousanis’ online journal: http://spinweaveandcut.com/

Be the Force

Carrie Fisher 1956 — 2016

carriegary

Since a long time ago it’s been easy to forget that in a decade far, far away, the Empire and the Rebel Alliance were besties compared to the partisans for Lucas or Spielberg, some of us loyal to Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘s cosmic exchange-program ethereality, and others to the first Star Wars‘ galactic ass-kicking spectacle. I was a snob about Star Wars from opening week; the plotlines from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and the checklist from Joseph Campbell’s collected works and the more-than-passing resemblances to Dune and Foundation and Flash Gordon, as well as the nostalgia for morally uncomplicated warfare, all seemed like stuff my 13-year-old self had seen before. One thing I’d never seen was the upfront, indispensable presence of a female hero, whose leadership and steely wisdom were admired more than (though at the same time as) her attractiveness and feminine identity were acknowledged. Carrie Fisher didn’t break any precedents with this role, she created one. And then went on to make her personal truth as much of a pop-culture classic as the fantasy she first became widely known for — all the more an achievement as we moved further into an era of filtered and staged “reality.” Redefining admissible womanhood with unapologetic self-acceptance and personal style; making marks as memoirist, novelist, scriptwriter, social observer and public counselor; hilariously disrupting the conventions of celebrity comportment because she was a continual, natural “character,” she showed generations what it looks like to be yourself. It’s why anybody can be as brave and irreverent and realistic and kvetchy and joyous as she was whether they’re fighting the addiction and mental illness her honest witness helped keep at bay, or some completely different demon, and why her life story was about so much more than her. She didn’t have answers, but she was always willing to talk, and she taught much more often than she may have known. We’d never seen anyone like her, and it’s her greatest testament that, in more and more ways, we will.