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While I called Pt. 1 my recent adventures in fiction, most of this post is about non fiction. In fact, I read most of it for academic reasons.
Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection, Scott McCloud
- Okay, well, Zot! is fiction and I did read for fun. Best known for his Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics books, all of which I’ve read, Zot! is a comic series that McCloud wrote before he wrote those books. Set in both the America of the late 1980s/early 1990s and “‘the far-flung future of 1965,’ a utopian Earth of world peace, robot butlers, and flying cars,” Zot! is the story of the interaction of two teenagers, one from each of the two alternate realities. The complete collection includes commentary by McCloud, which includes discussions of his struggles writing a comic series and how they lead to his writing Understanding Comics. Well worth reading.
- The first two of Will Eisner’s trilogy of “how to” books—the third is Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative—these two I did read for academic purposes. Since McCloud’s books, especially Understanding Comics, have become required reading for visual rhetoric, I thought I’d take a look books he builds up from. In going through these, I’m looking more for student readings than theory, and for my purposes, they provide a bit of both, especially Comics and Sequential Art. I also hope to teach a comics/graphic novel course some day, and as when I teach science fiction and fantasy courses, I want to include theory to help foreground how the genre differs from the fiction they’ve been taught to read throughout most of their schooling. Obviously, these are essential books from that perspective.
- While good, I found them less accessible than Scott McCloud’s books, maybe because these are “textbooks” that emerged from Eisner’s teaching at New York’s School of Visual Arts. They’re full of examples from Eisner’s own comics and graphic novels, mainly A Contract with God, The Spirit, and Life on another Planet. For the casual reader or those interested in getting started in comics theory, I’d suggest McCloud’s Understanding Comics first.
- And no, I’m not looking to break into comics. I am, however, working on learning how to draw and cartoon so that I can create graphic syllabi and outcomes maps. (Think concept maps and mind mapping applied to representing the organization, schedule of topics, and learning outcomes of a course.” If accepted, I’ll discuss my use of these in terms of rhetorical memory and delivery at next year’s CCCC. In addition to creating a graphic syllabus and outcomes map for the course, I’m planning on creating an outcomes map for each of the major writing projects in the first-year comp classes I teach next year.)
The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin
- Another read for academic purposes, I picked this up to better understand Jesuit spirituality and the Ignatian Way, partly to better understand its influence on Walter Ong’s scholarship; partly to better understand the Spiritual Exercises, an ongoing living tradition that is rooted in monastic rhetoric; and partly to better understand how to fulfill my role as a professor at a Jesuit University. (( I discuss a bit of this back in August 2008 when I talk about writing the “Statement of Understanding of the interrelated Missions of the University and College of Arts and Sciences” as part of my application/interview process with Creighton.
- It’s an excellent book. Funny, accessible, and informative, and not written just for Catholics or Christians.
The Android’s Dream, John Scalzi
- Another fiction book, and an enjoyable one at that. I briefly mentioned it earlier this year. Scalzi calls it his “‘popcorn movie’ book: No particularly deep themes, just lots of action and adventure and fun.” While not as philosophical as Philip K. Dick’s Do Andriod’s Dream of Electric Sheep, it does, as I note in that earlier post, as (in part) a homage to that book, it does touch on some of the same themes and issues. As Scalzi says, it’s full of action, adventure, and fun.
- Hmmm, you want a synopsis of the plot, do you? Okay. It’s about a low-level diplomat in Earth’s State Department—a guy who specializes in delivering bad news—who has to save the day after a high-level diplomat murders his alien counterpart, a representative of a far more advanced civilization that wouldn’t mind taking over earth.
Not sure I’ll ever blog as regularly about my media consumption as Brendan does, but I like his posts, so I thought I’d do this roundup of some recent reading. I wanted to call this my non-academic reading, but with me, you never know what becomes academic reading, so let’s call it a roundup of my recent adventures in fiction.
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Alan Moore et. al.
- About 20 months ago, I started plowing through the Hellblazer comics and I picked up Books 1 and 2 of Saga of the Swamp Thing, the hardback rerelease of Alan Moore’s run with the Swamp Thing, mostly to see John Constantine‘s origins. As Book 3 isn’t released until next week, I haven’t encountered Constantine yet, but it’s Alan Moore, so I expected it to be good. It is.
- While billed as horror, it’s much closer to Lovecraft than Stephen King. Getting academic here, I’d say it’s dark fantasy/Gothic fantasy rather than mainstream horror, which suits me just fine as I like dark fantasy but don’t like mainstream horror.
- It was interesting to see how Moore placed the series within the larger DC (superhero) universe while separating it from the DC universe at the same time. Much more overt than what Neil Gaiman did with The Sandman, but also more artful, I think. The Justice League shows up in issue 24: “Roots,”realizing that they’ve dropped the ball and may not be able to confront the threat before them. Green Arrow puts it like this, “Man I don’t believe this! We were watching out for New York, for Metropolis, for Atlantis but who was watching out for Lacroix, Louisiana?” At the end of the issue, after the Swamp Thing has done his job, Green Lantern asks, “What happened out here?” and Superman replies, “I don’t know. Let’s just be grateful that there’s something watching out for the places no one watches out for.” And that’s it for the costumed ones.
- I could have finished off Moore’s run by buying volumes 5 & 6, but having started with the new hardbacks, I’m waiting for Book 3, which has the two volumes together. I’m looking forward to next week.
Crooked Little Vein, Warren Ellis
- I picked up Crooked Little Vein because I’d enjoyed Ellis’ Transmetropolitan comic series (see below), and it was a fun read: the story, the writing, and the medium. (It was the first novel I read on the iPad.)
- It’s a profane, dark comedy/detective/political novel about a down-and-out private detective hired to find and retrieve the “other Constitution of the United States” which “details the real intent of [the Founders'] design for American society.”
- To give you a sense of the writing, here’s one of my favorite passages, a description of the other Constitution itself:
It is a small, handwritten volume reputed bound in the skin of the extraterrestrial entity that plagued Benjamin Franklin’s ass over six nights in Paris during his European travels. Benjamin Franklin wasn’t some nancy-boy novelist who wrote sensitive books about aliens sticking things up his rectum, you know. On the seventh night he got right up and killed the little bastard with one punch.
Spook Country, William Gibson
- Not having enjoyed Gibson’s three previous books, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties and Pattern Recognition, nearly as much as the first four, I held off on reading this one for a few years. It also took me a number of times to get into it: for some reason, I had some difficulty getting past the first few pages. It was the first book I bought on the iPad, so after a few months of dithering, I decided to read it despite the fact it wasn’t doing it for me, or least make a good effort at trying to do so. I’m glad I did. I think it’s Gibson’s best since Virtual Light and it’s got me looking forward to the release of Zero History later this year.
- Part of the Bigend books (along with Pattern Recognition), it’s science fiction thinking applied to the present rather than to the near future, what he has called “speculative fiction of the very recent past.”
- After reading this, I decided to get a hold of the Gibson documentary No Map for these Territories, which I watched Tuesday night. I enjoyed that as well and kept thinking I’d love to show clips of Gibson talking about recent social/cultural changes brought about by technology as I teach McLuhan.
- After reading this book and watching No Map, I’m beginning to wonder if my problem with the three previous books is rooted in me as a reader wanting Gibson to write like he had in the past rather than allowing him to mature as a writer. If that’s the case, then I’m probably maturing as a reader. And now I’m asking my self, what the hell does that mean?
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
- I first came across Bacigalupi when I read “The Calorie Man” in Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, an excellent “biopunk” short story that scared the hell out of me with it’s dystopian, post-petroleum world in which Midwest agribusinesses used bioterrorism to control the world’s food supply and calories have become currency. It scared the hell out of me because it’s an all too possible future, what with agribusinesses patenting the genomes of conventional plants and animals and seeking to replace agriculture with bioengineered seeds and suing farmers for doing things like saving and replanting these genetically modified seeds. [Note: I stated college with the intent of being a biochemistry/English double major with the career goal of being a genetic engineer/science fiction writer, so I have no problem with genetic engineering or genetically modified food per se.] The Windup Girl is set in this same world.
- I highly recommend The Windup Girl. It’s a great book. The future here doesn’t scare me as much as it did in “The Calorie Man,” maybe because having read “The Calorie Man,” it’s not new. That’s not to say the book doesn’t have much new to offer. It does. It’s set farther in the future than “The Calorie Man” and the Midwest agricorps’ gene-rippers are working hard to keep ahead of the mutated horrors they’ve unleashed on the world. While I’m not sure I’d call the “Windup Gir”l the main character (she shares the stage with an agricorp “calorie man”; a “yellow card Chinese,” that is a survivor of the Malaysian purge of the ethnic Chinese now living in Thailand; and a few others), she’s the focal point of a number of the novel’s questions/issues. The Windup Girl herself is a genetically modified, creche-grown “New Person,” a “non-human” human abandoned in Thailand by her Japanese businessman owner because it was cheaper for him to buy a new one in Japan than to ship her back when he returned.
- The Windup Girl won the 2009 Nebula Award, was a 2009 Hugo Award nominee, and was listed by Time as 9th best novel of 2009. That’s 9th best fiction book, not science fiction book, mind you. It’s not too long ago that science fiction would not have made such a list simply because it was science fiction.
- As I said, The Windup Girl is set in the same future as Bacigalupi’s short story “The Calorie Man.” Also set in that future is his story “The Yellow Card Man.” Night Shade Books will let you download and read both for free. Look for the Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Stories link or get a hold of his short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories. [Pump Six is currently out of print, but you can buy an electronic version in a variety of formats from html and PDF to iBook/Nook/Kindle/Rocketbook/Microsoft Reader. That's how I got my copy. ]
Transmetropolitian, Warren Ellis et. al.
- A great series from the DC Vertigo imprint (which Hellblazer, The Swamp Thing, and The Sandman also belong) that follows the return of 23rd century outlaw gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem to the City and to journalism. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson in a 23rd century cyberpunk America.
- The one big problem I have with Hellblazer is that it is an ongoing series. I’ve thought about getting a subscription, but that would entail tracking down past issues not yet collected in graphic novel form, reading it piece-meal, and then buying the graphic novels when they’re released. What I’ve chosen to do instead is wait until each author finishes their run as each has an overall story arc in addition to the individual stories and smaller multi-issue stories. I know, I’m not a good comic book reader in this sense, but I’d rather read each arc at one time as a complete story. Transmet, on the other hand, is a completed series with 11 volumes, all written by Ellis. Only, volume 8 is out of print and won’t be rereleased until September, so I’m waiting. I spent $35 to buy an out of print Hellblazer that has no advertised rerelease date, but I’m not going to spend $60 for a Transmet volume I can get in a few months. If there wasn’t a scheduled rerelease date, I’d break down and buy it. Yes, Transmetropolitian is that good.
McLuhan once again. Or, more specifically, The Medium is the Massage, around which I am yet again centering multiple courses. (What can I say? The book rewards rereading.) I’ve just read Kevin Brooks’ “More ‘Seriously Visible’ Reading: McCloud, McLuhan, and the Visual Language of The Medium is the Massage,”1 available for download from http://www.ncte.org/cccc/ccc/issues/v61-1. As I’ve blogged before, I’ve had some fruitful discussions with Kevin about the book, and his essay is quite helpful. I’ve read Scott McCloud’s trilogy of comics theory2 and have used passages from them in digital/new media theory classes. Kevin’s now got me thinking about including sections in the first-year composition course to help us think about The Medium is the Massage. I’m also considering adding one to the book list for Advanced Composition: Image, Sound, Text, which I teaching in March as an accelerated half-semester course.
As interesting and useful as Kevin’s application of McCloud to McLuhan’s text is, this post is not about Kevin’s application of McCloud but his brief discussion of the structure of The Medium is the Massage. Kevin divides the book into seven scenes:3
- An introduction: pp. 1-7
- The Mechanical Bride reworked, pp. 8-24
- A visual inter-chapter, pp. 25-43
- The Gutenberg Galaxy reworked, pp. 44-75
- Another visual inter-chapter, pp. 76-91
- Understanding Media reworked, pp. 92-149
- A conclusion, pp. 150-60.
As the book is often described as “Understanding Media lite” or “reworked,” I like that Kevin finds sections in the book that correspond to The Mechanical Bride and The Gutenberg Galaxy as well, making the book more of a summary/reworking of McLuhan’s work to date and especially The Mechanical Bride. McLuhan—and through him Walter Ong—were deeply influenced by I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism, which precedes Leavis’ New Criticism. (As Rob Pope notes in The English Studies Book, Richards was much more interested in describing reactions to literature than professing judgments of value as Leavis and his predecessors, and Richards was also much more interested in a text’s rhetorical effects (84-85). Ong used to say that McLuhan brought with him to Saint Louis University the New Criticism of Cambridge and their Richardsonian focus on analysis as description of effect is a unifying methodology through much of their work. The Mechanical Bride is an excellent example of this approach.4 It’s my sense that far too few people are aware of the Richardsonian underpinnings to Ong and McLuhan’s methodology.
While I’m still ruminating on Kevin’s seven scene structure, I’m contrasting it with the structure I present as I teach the book. My found structure is as follows:
- Introduction, pp. 1-41, that is the “Good Morning” page which has the egg on the plate through the page which explains that by altering the environment, media “evoke in us unique rations of sense perceptions.” It is in this section that McLuhan presents his argument and teaches us how to read the book, which he does on page 10 and to a lesser extent pp. 8-9. In the context of the transition that follows, we can call this section the “sentence.”
- Transition, pp. 42-43. The paraphrase of the trial scene from Alice in Wonderland. The focus here is the question of whether evidence should come before the sentence or the sentence before the evidence.5 (I discuss the importance of this transition below.)
- Evidence, pp. 44-151, in which McLuhan both supports and elaborates on his argument.
- Transition, pp. 152-55. Here again McLuhan and Fiore return to Alice, framed by the crowd portrait with numbers instead of faces. Here we find the caterpillar asking Alice who she is and with her responding that she isn’t sure, having gone through several transformations since she got up that morning. This itself invokes page 1 of the book with it’s “Good Morning!” and egg on a plate. This use of Alice’s Adventures here is intended to signify our new awareness of the effects of media and how they change “practically every thought, every action, and every institution taken for granted” (8).
- Conclusion, pp. 156-60. This section begins with a The New Yorker cartoon of a son explaining McLuhan to his father, takes us through the photo credits, and ends with a final A. N. Whitehead quote, “The business of the future is to be dangerous;” a final reminder that we must be willing to contemplate what is happening if we, like Poe’s mariner, are to successfully navigate our environment.6
I probably spend too much time on the transition of pp. 42-43, but I find it’s debate over the order of presenting the evidence and sentence (judgment) as a discussion over when we present a thesis and when we present the supporting evidence. The evidence then sentence model of Anglo-American trials, which is premised on the idea of innocent until proven guilty, is a hold over from Anglo-Saxon legal practices, that is from an oral/oral-literate transitional culture. We also find this structure in scribal culture and early print culture.7 As we interiorized the ideology of print, our evidence the sentence model reversed itself to give us our present structure in writing, including the structure of McLuhan’s book which presents the sentence (thesis) and then supports that sentence with evidence.8 That McLuhan and Fiore use the trial scene from Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is critical to understanding the function of the break. Having just given us his sentence and just about to give us his evidence—which begins with Western culture’s transition from the oral to the phonetic—McLuhan and Fiore foreground for us that even the conventions of reading a printed book are predicated upon the medium itself.
- CCC 61.1 (September 2009): W217-37. [↩]
- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art; Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing an Art Form; and and Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels [↩]
- See pp. W225-27 for a fuller explanation of Kevin’s reasons for dividing the book up as he does. [↩]
- Ong, by the way, was one of three people to review The Mechanical Bride. (See item 67 in Thomas Walsh’s Walter J. Ong, S.J.: A Bibliography 1929-2006 for the full bibliographic record of Ong’s review.) [↩]
- The text and the picture of Alice and the Queen of Hearts used on pp. 42-43 actually come from Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, the original mss. from which is derived Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (( See the Project Gutenberg HTML version, pp. 88-89. [↩]
- I could just as easily posit the start of the conclusion at page 150 as does Kevin, and have indeed done so with some past classes, I can’t ignore the return to Alice and Wonderland and its position right before The New Yorker cartoon. As I place so much emphasis on the importance of first transition, I need to think of this as a transition as well. And, of course, transitions are medial spaces, verges that resist being one or the other. [↩]
- I ask students to think here of Thomas Aquinas—their Jesuit education comes in handy!—and I give a mini-lecture of Montaigne and the origins of the essay, doubly relevant as Montaigne is quoted in The Medium is the Massage and understanding the origins of the essay as exploration through writing helps foreground the idea of writing to learn. Also important is the fact that McLuhan gives us a means of understanding why “the essay” has gone from an exploration through writing to a demonstration of mastery through writing. [↩]
- Note that print culture’s reversal of evidence and sentence is predicted in McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects. The hot medium of print reverses the order in which evidence and sentence are presented. [↩]
A little over a week ago, I learned that Bandai Entertainment has finally re-released the whole of Cowboy Bebop as a box set for $49.98 ($39.99 from Amazon). Cowboy Bebop, if you don’t know, is consistently ranked as one of the best anime of all time (and ranked the best by a poll of industry insiders). It’s directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, and as with his more recent Samurai Champloo, Cowboy Bebop is a cultural mashup (champloo comes from the Japanese word chanpurū, which means “to mix” or “to hash”). Bebop blends Westerns, film noir, Hong Kong martial arts and tosses it all into the late Twenty-First Century. It’s about a group of bounty hunters (cowboys) who team up to hunt down bounties throughout the solar system and how their backstories break into their present. Oh, it’s set to a lot of excellent music, mostly jazz and blues with some rock added in for good mesure. Much of the music is written by Yoko Kano, whom I’ve praised here before and performed by The Seatbelts. It’s well worth watching, if you haven’t seen it
Thanks to Mike at FoolsCap for a point to Rolling Stone‘s review of The Dark Knight. I thoroughly enjoyed Batman Begins revisioning of my favorite hero and I knew I was looking forward to this move. If the movie’s even half as good as the Rolling Stone review makes it out to be, I’m going to be pleased. Here’s an except:
The Joker wants Batman to choose chaos as well. He knows humanity is what you lose while you’re busy making plans to gain power. Every actor brings his A game to show the lure of the dark side. Michael Caine purrs with sarcastic wit as Bruce’s butler, Alfred, who harbors a secret that could crush his boss’s spirit. Morgan Freeman radiates tough wisdom as Lucius Fox, the scientist who designs those wonderful toys — wait till you get a load of the Batpod — but who finds his own standards being compromised. Gary Oldman is so skilled that he makes virtue exciting as Jim Gordon, the ultimate good cop and as such a prime target for the Joker. As Harvey tells the Caped Crusader, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” Eckhart earns major props for scarily and movingly portraying the DA’s transformation into the dreaded Harvey Two-Face, an event sparked by the brutal murder of a major character. [Read more.]