Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My Inner Bimbo--Graphic Essay

Artist/writer Sam Kieth and artist Josh Hagler have used independent comics' freedom to tell personal stories beyond the realm of the "graphic novel." Their current series from Oni Press, My Inner Bimbo, should be called "graphic essay" much in the way that Nicholson Baker or Milan Kundera's works are called "essay novels."

The premise of My Inner Bimbo is pretty high concept. Lo, a troubled sixty-year old in 2023, has a day job of reselling old public-access videos and films on a Internet console straight out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. He's having troubles with his wife Betsy, whom he met when he was eighteen and she was in her thirties. Borrowing explicitly from the Celtic Selkie myth, a mysterious girl appears to Lo, with a strange singing skin that Lo locks away in a trunk.

Lo thinks this is "his inner bimbo", a manifestation of his feminine side. He gets into riproaring arguments with the girl as she matures before his eyes. This is where the "essay" comes in. The arguments allow for real scrutiny of Lo, standing in for any man who considers himself "sensitive". Can he call himself a feminist and still look at porn? Was it right to marry someone as old as his mother? What is his underlying fear of women, anyway? Feminist critics, literary figures, and events from Lo's own life are used equally to flesh out the arguments.

The style of art in My Inner Bimbo fluctuates as much as the form of the bimbo herself, ranging from abstracted cartoons to portraiture. If the text carries the ideas, the images carry the emotions. Sometimes it directly names the influences--Klimt, Egon Schiele, Manet. Most of the time the reader is left to make the connections.

My Inner Bimbo still has one more issue before completion. This reviewer hopes that it does not get overlooked in favor of the graphic novels with epic personal stories--Satrapi's Persepolis being a recent example. There should be room left for smaller, more inner-directed stories in reader's bags.

For more information about My Inner Bimbo, visit http://www.onipress.com/

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Long Arm of Margaret Atwood: Writers, Waldos and LongPen

Borders Books, the Ann Arbor-based bookstore chain, opened its new "concept store" the weekend of Feb 22-24, 2008. Among the attractions designed to bring in the ever-shrinking reading public was the first use of the LongPen technology in a North American bookstore.

LongPen is the idea of Canadian author Margaret Atwood, previously best known in the U.S. for The Handmaid's Tale. She was there on a live feed from Toronto to explain it to interested readers and to sign copies of her short-story collection Moral Disorder.

As she explained it, LongPen came out of "stupidity." The author thought that when you signed for a package from UPS on the touchpad, that signature flew through the air and was written down by an automated pen somewhere else. From that misunderstanding of the technology came the question, "Can we do that?" She found partners and formed a company to invent the required technology.

In its current form, the communications module of the LongPen kiosk stands at an average human heigth. It is a silver box containing a TV monitor, a large microphone, and a display panel. On top is a second flat-panel monitor, and just below that is a swivel-mounted camera. On the pedestal base is the actual LongPen. It's a triangular robot "hand" which holds an ordinary pen. There is a special frame which is used to hold a book in place while the LongPen hand signs it.

At the other end, Margaret Atwood demonstrated how it worked. She had a tablet PC and signed her name on the screen. When she sent the signature, it appeared on a display panel for review by the customer (in this case, a Borders employee). Once the book was put under the holding frame, the signature was sent to the LongPen. It reproduced it exactly, with the same amount of pressure as the original. (This is a crucial point--it makes it a legal signature. Faxed signatures, for example, are not considered legal because the shape of letters can be forged but not the pressure applied to them.)

Atwood also explained the stages of acceptance for the technology. At first, people thought it was a hoax or a put-on. Then, it was "you'll never do it!" Later on, people saw it as being evil, a kind of "Frankenhand, as if it would go off writing things without us."Surprisingly, it has already been accepted and used by authors from financier Conrad Black to the late Norman Mailer.

After the teleconferenced Q&A, the fans waited in line to get a signature via LongPen. In this reviewer's opinion, it is a little uncanny. There is something about talking to a box which is still off-putting. On the other hand, the reduced context of the communication between the author and the fan makes you work a little harder to bridge the gap. While I was waiting for my book to be set up in the holding frame, I mentioned that Robert Heinlein had come up with this independently. He called it a waldo, but it was more like robot hands. Atwood weighed in on this, and said that the closest living relative of the waldo was the robot surgeon. She added that the biggest difference between that and LongPen was that in guided robot surgery, you have to move very slowly--you don't want to be scribbling all over the patient's chest! I would have loved to chat more, but just like a conventional signing line, the next person's book had been set up. I thanked her abruptly so the next person could have a go.

The finished signature does not look machine-made at all. It's good that LongPen does not make a record of the signature once it is sent. Otherwise, as Atwood put it, "someone could pull up your signatures later and be putting them to million-dollar checks."

For more information about LongPen, visit http://www.longpen.com/

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sifting Sand Through a Screen: The Science of Dune

"Ever sift sand through a screen?" she asked.
The tangential slash of her question shocked his mind into a higher awareness: Sand through a screen. He nodded.
"We Bene Gesserit sift people to find the humans."

-Dune, Frank Herbert, 1965

This passage from Frank Herbert's Dune has remained with me since I was a child. I first read the book as a second-hand paperback when I was 11 and the book was 15. It has stood up to many re-readings, as I learned that this desert world drew from history and science. More science, in fact, than I had imagined.

Just how real or probable is Dune's science? Curious readers may find some answers inside The Science of Dune: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science Behind Frank Herbert's Fictional Universe. Edited by Dr. Kevin Grazier, Science of Dune sifts through the entire Dune series for underlying truth.

What the volume cleverly and insidiously does is to propose a fun question like "How would one of those giant sandworms actually live on a big ball of sand?" It then answers that and related questions and in the process, the reader actually learns something about the branch of science under discussion. Dr. Sibyelle Hechtel's "The Biology of the Sandworm" exposes the reader to information about ocean-floor hydro-thermal vent communities, the process of metamorphosis, and the structural limitations placed by the size of an animal. Pretty good science for a fictional animal.

Other topics include real-life counterparts to Dune's mind-altering spice, melange, and an evaluation of the stillsuit which allows a person to survive in the desert and lose only a thimbleful of water a day. Also, Dr. Sergio Pistoi has written a bit of speculative fiction himself to explore the advances in artificial vision. It's one of the more whimsical contributions to the book.

The editor of the series has contributed two articles and co-written a third. In "Cosmic Origami", he explores the feasibility of faster-than-light travel. He employs a Einsteinian thought-experiment dealing with the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction. This will seem familiar to readers who have read many pop-science books, but Dr. Grazier adds a bawdy limerick worthy of Thomas Pynchon in the same article. Take that, Brian Greene! Grazier truly shines in the article "The Real Stars of Dune". He takes the reader to the actual stars mentioned in the book and tries to determine whether or not they can support the planets that Frank Herbert placed in orbit around them.

Sure, there have been other pop-culture science books, most notably the ones related to Star Trek, but as the editor points out in the introduction, we're starting to catch up to Star Trek. Dune is still some 10,000 years hence, and there's room for planetary-scale dreams.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cloverfield: Godzilla '98 Redux

The opening of Cloverfield asks us to believe that we are watching a restricted Department of Defense video, recovered after sightings of the mysterious "Cloverfield" incident. Unfortunately, this also gives viewers a pretty good clue about the outcome. When the introductory text mentions "the area formerly known as Central Park" (italics mine), viewers should take the hint.

When we start watching the "video", it starts out as the document of a going-away party being thrown for some guy named Rob who's taking a job in Japan. An observant viewer will ask, "Why is this being classified? What happened to these people?" Viewers with a memory at least as far back as The Blair Witch Project will probably even recognize the technique.

Unfortunately, Rob's endless going-away party subjects you to the confessions of self-absorbed, drunk yuppies. This isn't the cast of Friends here. They couldn't be attacked fast enough for me.

Once the attacking starts, though, Cloverfield really begins to dissapoint. It breaks one of the major conventions of monster movies--it doesn't present a God's-eye view of the carnage. You lose the ability to project yourself into the monster and enjoy the destruction of major landmarks. This is part of the enjoyment of the older, giant monster movies. (There has been everything from video games such as Crush Crumble & Chomp to the rubber-costume wrestling of Kaiju Big Battel that feed this urge to flatten cities.) Cloverfield shows everything from the victim's P.O.V., which may create more suspense but doesn't allow you to root for the monster.

As much as Rob and his friends annoyed me, watching them die painfully at the hands of the big or baby arachnoid creatures wasn't fun at all. The humans are shallow and immature, but they do nothing wicked enough to make their slaughter enjoyable. There's no self-aggrandizement or outrageous vices on their part which would make us cheer when they "get theirs."

For a movie which is is trying to present a "naturalistic" approach to a giant monster attack, its own internal logic doesn't even hold up under the weight of the monster. The arachnoid is undoubtedly strong. Its babies, however, can be dispatched with blunt instruments. So, when the full-size creature is being hit with tank shells, Stinger missiles, and cluster bombs, it should be similarly dispatched. These weapons are made to go through concrete and armor plating--this thing is organic. Depleted-uranium jacketed rounds should shred it. Asking us to give us the same suspension of belief that we grant, let's say, Godzilla, doesn't work in this film.

The Big G deserves further mention here, for it was a decade ago that Roland Emmerich tried to present a similarly "naturalistic" presentation of Godzilla in the unfortunate remake. Trying to present a more "natural" monster ruined the major thing that's special about Godzilla, which is that he is an anthropomorphic monster. The big spider-beast of Cloverfield reminds of of some of the monsters in Japanese anime--well-designed, but there's no sense of personality.

One other thing that made fellow audience members complain as they left Cloverfield was that we learned NOTHING about the beast. "We never even got to find out what it was." I understand this complaint. In giant monster-related Japanese shows such as Ultraman, there is a convention where each new monster is introduced with a still frame and title clearly spelling out its name. When I asked a Japanese friend why they did this, he said, "It's a new monster and it would be rude if they didn't introduce them." He was only half-joking. Cloverfield denied us the scientific speculation and (usually ineffectual) countermeasure.

It could be said that Cloverfield uses the monster movie to address the horror of 9/11, much in the way that the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters dealt with the fears of a nuclear holocaust. It might be more accurate to say it shamefully exploits those images, such as people running from the cloud of debris, evacuees leaving Manhattan over the bridges, or the "ash" fall. They aren't disguised at all. The head of the Statute of Liberty landing on a Manhattan street has more to do with the iconography of Planet of the Apes than any serious social commentary.

I guess there is a way Cloverfield might be made more watchable. Perhaps when the DVD comes out in several months, some enterprising kid will re-cut it with dance tracks for background music. The street battle would look pretty good mashed up with Fatboy Slim's "Funk Soul Brother".

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

I Demand A Roman Triumph

"We hate it when our friends become successful."

Morrissey sang that, and you know what? He's way off the mark. It's really hard to be jealous of someone who has put in the time and has put up with endless crap.

My friend Paul Dickinson was just named one of the (Minneapolis/St. Paul) City Pages' "Artists of the Year." This random recognition comes with a strangely appropriate writeup by Stephanie Wilbur Ash, one of the Electric Arc Radio Show gang of air pirates that wisely decided to incorporate Paul into their show. As much as I'd like to rebut Ms. Ash's article out of sheer contrariness, I can't.

Paul has taught me too many important lessons--how to scrap metal, for example. I've learned how to hustle a buck in charity thrift shops. In our U. Mass Amherst days he befriended me, being the only other Midwesterner on the dorm floor, and shielded me against a lot of coastal pretentiousness.

If the City Pages took this long to honor Paul, well, now is as good a time as any. (They certainly didn't step in to save either of his Speedboat galleries from people jealous of the good job he was doing.) The award isn't enough, though. The man deserves a Roman triumph. He may not have killed 5,000 men, but probably that many booze bottles. To borrow Paul's iconography, he deserves a parade of Boy Scouts, beer wagons, and Soviet SSNs on trailers.

(To read Stephanie's "doe-eyed" tribute, go to http://articles.citypages.com/2008-01-02/feature/paul-dickinson/)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Cylons Over America: Critical Studies Vs. Battlestar Galactica

After pulling the new anthology Cylons In America: Critical Studies In Battlestar Galactica from a local retail shelf, I had to wonder. "What? The Journal of Popular Culture hasn't already done an all-Battlestar issue?"

Apparently, the Journal hasn't given much space to BSG scholars, so Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall have stepped in to give us their own volume of criticism. Readers who've finished all of the critical anthologies rehashing The Matrix and philosophy might find Cylons in America a breezy read.

In the introduction to the anthology, the editors observe that the original series' name "evokes associations for a significant number of viewers. But there is also something resembling shame in the connection." (Potter and Marshall 3). Where could this "shame" have come from? Is it the shame in admitting that, as a child, you liked a program that you KNEW was borrowing heavily from other popular media? Glen A. Larson's BSG cashed in on the "ancient astronauts" craze popularized by Von Danieken's Chariots of the Gods? and its sequels. Perhaps the most beloved episode, "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero", is just The Guns of Navarone in a slightly more exotic setting. (I didn't know it at the time, but I found out soon enough.) Universal at least paid for the Star Wars-level effects by going to the source and hiring John Dykstra away from ILM. I'll give Mr. Larson a pass for the public-domain ideas such as the 13 tribes of Israel and Pearl Harbor.

Perhaps the best summary of the old show comes from Star Trek's Walter Koenig, who polled his co-stars about their opinions of BSG on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was the day after the original Galactica first aired:

Nichelle (Nichols): "They did borrow from every science-fiction movie ever made, didn't they?"
(Koenig, Chekov's Enterprise, 94.)

The strength of the "re-visioned" BSG is that it can justifiably generate a whole volume of academic criticism. The old show had tried to become "relevant" before, in the much-derided spinoff Galactica 1980. Newly released on DVD by Universal, Galactica '80 tried to address topical issues: the problems of nuclear power after Three Mile Island, kids in poverty, toxic dumping, and prejudice against Mexican immigrant families. Stranding the show on Earth served none of those issues. It just lumped the program in with other Universal TV series of the time, such as The Incredible Hulk, which were as overtly moral but with much better writing.

Of course, the current BSG addresses "current issues" within the framework of the show, instead of importing them from Earth. It has allowed for many approaches in Cylons in America. The essays range from BSG as a portrait of post 9/11 America to a discussion of the show's relationship with "authorized" and "unauthorized" fan production. Don't expect many bell hooks-like exposes of dominant and hidden paradigms. Christopher Deis's "Erasing Difference: The Cylons as Racial Other" comes closest, and that essay cites, logically for its subject matter, bell hooks.

No, many of the authors here seem to be fans. That gives extra pleasure in reading the essays--the feeling that the authors are goofing off from their day jobs and getting paid to write about something they love instead. I talked to a fellow MFA program veteran about the unashamed snobbery we had witnessed. My friend was marked down in a poetry seminar for writing about Charles Bukowski. I can't imagine the scorn I would have faced if I had announced I was going to write seriously about Battlestar Galactica.

If critical studies about BSG aren't enough for you, don't worry. There is a forthcoming anthology of Battlestar Galactica and philosophy, according to Amazon.