This Year, Everything Ends… Apparently. (With GIFs…)

RobLoweEverythingEndsFirst DC Comics brought us Future’s End, and also Convergence. Marvel comics brought everything sort-of-not-really to an end (so they can have another new beginning-that-isn’t-a-reboot-we-promise). More relevant to this post, Black Library/Games Workshop also brought us the End Times. It would appear that 2014/15 is the year to bring everything to an end so we can start anew. DC and Marvel’s reboots aren’t particularly game-changing — yes, there are some major changes, but functionally everything’s staying pretty much the same, save for Marvel’s series naming strategy, which is moving in a direction that looks like parody: “All-New” is becoming “All-Different All-New”… Which is something I joked about last year. So, +1 divination/prediction for me.

This brings us to Games Workshop’s End Times and what, revealed today, it has been replaced wit. Continue reading

Jonathan Franzen on Writers and Social Media

JonathanFranzen-AuthorPicIn the October 6th issue of the Atlantic Weekly, author Jonathan Franzen had an article called, “Why Novelists Should Stay Off Facebook”. [Before I continue, I must say I’ve been enjoying the Atlantic Weekly a great deal – it’s a brilliant read for anyone who can’t wait the month between each issue of the main magazine – and I’ve particularly enjoyed the articles on books and literature.]

The author is no shrinking violet when it comes to his opinions on technology, and especially any advancements that have an impact on publishing. He is not, for example, a big fan of eBooks, and has warned that they are “corroding values” and “damaging [to] society”. Anyway, the article was interesting, so I thought I’d offer some comments here, and see what other people think. The article carries a pretty restrictive prescription, especially in this day and age, but if you stand back and take a look at it, there may be some truth in what he writes (subjective and individual truth, of course, as there is no One Way to Write a Novel).

Let’s begin with this comment:

“… the internet in general – and social media in particular – fosters the notion that everything should be shared, everything should be communal. Where that becomes especially dangerous, I think, is in the realm of cultural production – and particularly literary production. Good novels aren’t written by committee. Good novels are produced by people who voluntarily isolate themselves, go deep, and report from the depths on what they find. The result is communally accessible, but not the process itself.”

Do you agree? I sometimes wonder about this. I think there is undeniable value that can be found in utilising social media to reach out to fans, potential fans, and the ever-growing horde of bloggers and reviewers (almost all of whom, I’m sure, use at least Twitter). To be able to reach out and engage with fans of your genre (critically or from their own position as fans), must have value. I can think of a few authors who, early in their careers, have reached out to bloggers to help get the word out about their upcoming debuts. Established authors can also marshall their considerable followings to help promote their own work and causes, or those of others they deem worthy.

I think the most important part of Franzen’s point, though, lies in the “Good novels aren’t written by committee” comment. To that end, he continues:

“What makes a good novel, apart from the skill of the writer, is how true it is to individual subjectivity. People talk about ‘finding you voice.’ Well, that’s what it is. You’re finding your own individual voice, not a group voice.”

I agree with him. There are times when, in my precocious and pseudo-intellectual moments, I get the feeling that an author’s voice has been trampled by the requirements and tastes of their editors and/or agents. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of stunning debuts followed by lacklustre sophomore efforts that bear little resemblance to the style and panache of what came before.

JonathanFranzen-TIMEI wonder if, while he makes no explicit mention of them, Franzen is also passing judgment on the new-and-proliferating online writing forums and communities? Perhaps so, but then I wonder what his opinion would be on writing groups that are “old school” and in-person? Surely the online forums bring the potential for wider and more varied input? If you’re only able to meet and discuss projects with like-minded people from similar backgrounds (geographical and/or socio-economic), then you might miss a trick, or end up regurgitating time-worn cliches and tropes. But what if someone from across the world was able to offer comments and advice? Surely that would help keep things fresh, or spark a wholly original idea? (Gasp! Yes, they must still exist…)

As for his comment about novels not being created by committee… Well, as anyone even remotely interested in the publishing industry and process probably knows, no novel is written in a vacuum, and that there is a committee, of sorts, that will likely put their fingerprints on a novel that is to be published. One novel that was recently sold by my boss, for example, went through a number of drafts, before it was sent to me for a reader’s report, before then being sent to the editor, before being sent to another editor. That’s quite the committee. I don’t think anyone involved suggested anything that would take away or adversely suppress the author’s voice (one which I thought was superb, atmospheric, and at times immersive). But I do wonder if online forums might? If your audience or committee (just to keep using Franzen’s term) has no vested, professional interest in the final product, might that change their prescriptions? There is an online writers group/platform that at least one publisher keeps an eye on. I know of one novel that was picked up based on how much attention it received from users of that platform. To me, it wasn’ that interesting or particularly well-written. The novel equivalent of a camel? (Please tell me I don’t have to explain that metaphor?) That probably sounds like elitist claptrap to many people who read this, or something Franzen (professional Grumpus and naysayer that he is)* might pronounce. But I do think there is at least a kernel of truth in Franzen’s belief that for an author to develop his or her own Voice, one does have to step back from the cacophony of voices and opinions and inputs online.

Franzen-FreedomUKI do, however, think Franzen also doesn’t really understand the ways in which many authors (certainly many in the SFF genres) use social media and the internet. I don’t know of many who reach out blindly or incautiously for input from online communities. Most, at least in my experience, do so for publicity reasons. And for many it seems to work rather well, at least from a critical (if not commercial) standpoint.

Near the end of the article, Franzen expounds on some wisdom that Don DeLillo once shared with him, on the subject of authorial isolation:

“… if we ever stop having fiction writers, it will mean we’ve given up on the concept of the individual person. We will only be a crowd. And so it seems to me that the writer’s responsibility nowadays is to very basic: to continue to be a person, not merely a member of a crowd. This is a primary assignment for anyone setting up to be and remain a writer.”

In other words, writers and would-be writers should Be Aloof? What do you think? Is Franzen wrong? Completely, partly?

Jonathan Franzen is the author of, among others, Freedom and The Corrections.

* That being said, he still seems to have nothing on Brett Easton Ellis on that front…

On Meeting Other People’s Expectations… [A Response]

Over on his website, Abhinav (a great fellow who I have got to know as a reviewer and friend these past couple of years) has written another good post about reviewing and being a part of the online book community. I agree with most of the piece. There was, however, one comment he made that I have long had issue with – he is by no means the only person to have articulated it, but he was the latest to use it. It is also something I think needs to be addressed (and, hopefully, purged from reviewers’ and prospective reviewers’ minds…)

The comment in question:

“You often have to meet people’s expectations of what you should and should not be reading, reviewing, discussing, and so on. I’ve gone through this several times, and is something I’ve blogged on about as well. Because we put ourselves on a pedestal, it gives people the license to call us out. I’ve seen plenty of cases, personally and second-hand, where these instances have gotten out of hand. Not a fun thing to deal with.” [Emphasis mine.]

The text in bold I disagree with. Not because bloggers and reviewers don’t think this, but because they really shouldn’t think this, or approach their blog through other people’s expectations.

Shakespeare-ToBlogOrNotToBlog

See, Shakespeare knew what he was about.
[Image shamelessly pinched from Abhinav’s post…]

A blogger should not review/cover books they think they SHOULD cover. It should only ever be what they WANT to cover. It happens, certainly, that bloggers will take the road that they think is expected of them, and this can manifest itself in a number of ways (one example: praising popular books and authors, regardless of whether or not the reviewer likes their work).

The apparent belief among reviewers (perhaps especially newbies?) that they have to feature certain books and authors is probably why it is so easy to find reviews of certain novels and writers. Sure, it’s nice to be able to engage in discussions about the books a lot of people are talking about, but when you feel you have to keep up with the Joneses? Fuck that.

Read and feature what you WANT to read and discuss. Following the herd, by only reviewing all the hot-topic books, or writing about the latest hot-button issue (whether or not you are able to articulate an interesting and intelligent position or not) is a terrible strategy. It’s also boring: Why become a clone of all the other blogs? Sure, no blog can really hope to be 100% unique (except in voice, perhaps), but there’s no need to follow everyone else in everything.

In the comment thread, some people are also talking about the rate of hits they get, and being one of many shouting into the void to be heard. [Something I discussed in this post, three weeks back. Much of this response is an outgrowth of stuff in that post, actually…]

Cardinal Rule of Blogging/Reviewing: don’t blog/review for attention. It won’t work. Do what you want, how you want. If you’re good at it, then people will come to your site organically and through word of mouth. Honesty – in your opinions and also taste – are the only expectation of others’ that you should keep in mind.

As for “we put ourselves on a pedestal”… I’m not sure if I’m getting Abhinav’s meaning right, but I don’t believe (most) bloggers do this. Others may put their favourite, or prominent bloggers on a pedestal, or hold them in high regard but, as I mentioned in the above-linked post, we should always be considered, first and foremost, as fans who have taken the time to write about what we love. We’re a vocal lot, basically, and the internet allows us a platform to publish what we want to say. If people like what they find on our various blogs and platforms, then great. But I don’t believe we hold ourselves in any great position of esteem or influence. [At least, I don’t, and I think it would be very unhealthy for others to do so…]

But yeah. Otherwise, a great post, and I think a lot more people should be reading Abhinav’s stuff – he produces a hell of a lot of quality content, from reviews (fiction and comics) to editorials/opinion pieces. Some of his comic reviews have appeared on Civilian Reader, too.

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Most recently, Abhinav has also had his first piece of fiction published, in the Manifesto UF anthology.

Various-ManifestoUF

The collection features stories by Lucy A. Snyder, Jeff Salyards [review], William Meikle, Teresa Frohock [review], Zachary Jernigan, Betsy Dornbusch, Kirk Dougal, Karina Fabian, Adam Millard, Timothy Baker, Ryan Lawler, Andrew Moczulski, R.L. Treadway, Abhinav Jain, TSP Sweeney, Nickolas Sharps, Jonathan Pine, Kenny Soward, Joshua S. Hill, Jake Elliot, Lincoln Crisler, J.M. Martin, & Wilson Geiger

Go check out his site, you’ll probably find something you like.

Propaganda & Politics – When Historical Images Remain Relevant

I was at the British Library’s Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition last week. I highly recommend anyone within easy reach of London visit the exhibition (open until September 17th). There are a good number of excellent displays, and even a couple that are relevant to content that has appeared on Civilian Reader. I’m putting together a longer post about a specific piece in the exhibition, but I thought I’d share another of my favourites here today. Namely, “Freedom American-Style” by B. Prorokov (1971):

FreedomAmericanStyle-1971-BProrokov

I shared this over on Politics Reader, too, but I thought some readers of this blog might also find it interesting. According to the British Library’s page on the poster:

“… New York’s famous Statue of Liberty is parodied as a look-out tower for the American police to observe its people, mocking the idea that it is a symbol of freedom. The poster attacks and subverts American propaganda that promoted the idea of the democratic freedom of the West.”

Given the considerable prison population in the United States, it would appear that Prorokov’s piece retains contemporary relevance, and probably will for quite some time to come…

Wonder Woman, Vol.2 – “Guts” (DC)

WonderWoman-Vol-02Writer: Brian Azzarello | Artist: Cliff Chiang (#7-8, 11), Tony Atkins (#9-10), Kano (#10) | Inks: Dan Green (#9-) | Colors: Matthew Wilson

Wonder Woman goes to hell! After playing Poseidon, Hades, and Hera against each other, Hades strikes back by kidnapping Zola and trapping her in the Underworld. It’s up to Wonder Woman — with a little help from the God of Love and the God of Smiths — to break Zola out. But what is Hades’ real game, and once you get into the land of the dead, how exactly do you get out?

Collects: Wonder Woman #7-12

I rather enjoyed the first collection of Azzarello’s run on Wonder Woman. Chiang’s artwork is great, and Azzarello’s story has some surprises and is a pretty interesting interpretation of Greek Mythology. Where the first collection, “Blood” was strong, “Guts” didn’t live up to my expectations as much as I had hoped – mainly because there’s a bit of a weak middle-section. Otherwise, though, this is still pretty interesting and it does end on a strong note.

One of the first things that jumped out at me in this book is the sinister, predatory, almost evil character Azzarello imbues the Amazons with (it involves the methods they employ to reproduce…). Wonder Woman and her allies have travelled to Mt. Aetna, seeking the help from Hephaestus (the gods’ weapon-maker). Over the course of the first chapter of “Guts”, we learn of the fate of male offspring of the Amazons, which shocks Diana’s impression of the Amazons’ culture to the core.

While in the company of Hephaestus, we also get the Wonder Woman-equivalent of the “Guns, lots of guns” scene in The Matrix. Only, they don’t just pick up guns (Wonder Woman has, initially, a more conventional, traditional approach to weaponry).

WonderWoman-08-InternalArt1

Issue #9 onwards dropped a little in quality, I must say. The story becomes a little more odd, and gets just a tad silly. I still really enjoy the depiction of Greek mythology and so forth, but the story just didn’t feel as strong as past issues. The ending to issue #10 was… A bit meh, too. I’m not sure if it was meant to be a morality tale, or a clunky attempt at a future-redemption tale. Or if it was just a long lead up so they could have that final page, when Wonder Woman employs Eros’s guns in a particular way. I’m just not sure what to make of it. I didn’t hate it by any means, but it was an oddly-written issue.

Ultimately, Wonder Woman has become a tale of squabbling families, deals and bloody betrayals. Which is rather appropriate, I think, given the Greek Mythology that infuses Azzarello’s version of the Wonder Woman story (I have no experience reading any previous Wonder Woman series or storylines, so I can’t comment beyond this). The final chapter ends with a nice twist, before offering quite the tease for the next story arc.

I really love Cliff Chiang’s artwork. Atkins & Kano’s issues/chapters do a very good job of matching Chiang’s style, but we start to see some odd touches coming through (for example, exaggerated facial expressions – particularly Strife’s). Thankfully, Chiang returns for issues #11 and #12. The depiction of Hell is pretty interesting, too.

WonderWoman-08-InternalArt5

Although, I’m not sure why a Greek god would re-create a hellish version of London… (Despite some earlier issues taking part there, Diana and everyone else in this series is either a Greek God/myth or American, so London is an odd choice, no?)

WonderWoman-08-InternalArt4

To be honest, I didn’t like this collection as much as Volume 1. Despite the very strong artwork and aesthetic, Azzarello’s story (particularly the botched wedding/romance with Hel in the middle) just failed to grab my attention. Nevertheless, apart from that mid-point wobble, it is still not a bad read – I just think there have been better issues in the series, and Azzarello has definitely produced some better comics. If you’re a fan of more “modern” approaches to classic comic heroes, then I think you’ll find something in here to enjoy and meet your needs.

WonderWoman-Vol.2-Content

Original Issue Cover Art

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Further Reading: The Atlantic ran a story on their website about Azzarello’s Wonder Woman, “Wonder Woman’s Violent, Man-Pandering Second Act” by Noah Berlatsky (who also runs Hooded Utilitarian), which I thought others might find interesting. I also had more to say about the article than I did about the book, so if you’ll indulge me…

WonderWoman-MarstonArticleImageBerlantsky believes Azzarello has betrayed the original intent of Wonder Woman’s creator. William Marston, who seems to have been quite the polymath in his day, created the character of Wonder Woman sometime in the mid-1940s, in reaction to the comics available at the time. Me being me, I tracked down the original article, and it’s pretty interesting, so I’ve included a couple of quotations from it, below.

In The American Scholar, Marston wrote that, “from a psychological angle” the comics of that era’s “worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity.” (In “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics”, Winter 1943/4 issue, pp.35-44, in case you’re interested in tracking it down). Berlantsky offers a nostalgic run-down of the classic ideals Marston brought to his series (space kangaroos!), and then moves on to how Azzarello has broken with it. I should mention from the outset that all I’ve read of the character has been the first two volumes of the New 52 series, and a few Justice League-related books (including Geoff Johns’ New 52 iteration of that series as well).

I won’t deal with everything from The Atlantic article, but there is one thing I’d like to pick up on. Specifically, the guns.

He takes particular objection to Chiang’s cover pieces that depict Wonder Woman wielding Eros’s guns:

“Chiang’s interior cover for issue #8 shows Wonder Woman leaping from the side, shooting two golden pistols while discarded golden shell cases rain down around her — the insufficiently swaggering golden lasso nowhere in sight. Elsewhere in the series, we get to see Wonder Woman shot in the chest; a woman displaying her gashed open and bleeding arms, a giant devouring monster zombie creature, and another interior cover showing Wonder Woman with a death’s head toting those cool golden guns again.”

Berlantsky has a point, in some respects. But, given the ending of issue #10 (which I mentioned above), there is a little bit more to it than the chance to just give Diana big, gold-plated (shiny!) guns. I do agree with him that the ending is “banal”, but perhaps I wouldn’t have used quite as strong a word. When maybe I should have. He goes on:

“The fact that the guns belong to the god Eros, and shoot bullets of violent infatuation just emphasizes that, for Azzarello, even love is a blood-curdling business best expressed through phallic firepower.”

Also possible, but part of me thinks Azzarello’s use of pistols may be more of a nod to Baz Lurman’s Romeo & Juliet (“Take up your .45-Magnum-semi-automatic swords!”) and the inspiration for updating classical weaponry for more modern firepower. I have absolutely no proof of this, though, so it’s entirely possible I’m wrong. It’s just an optional theory.

I think Berlantsky’s right, though, about Azzarello & Co.’s “eagerness to demonstrate the adultness of the adult content” of the New 52 series. But, I think he sadly does not appreciate Azzarello’s take on Greek Mythology:

“each [god/character] is rolled out to demonstrate their cool-as-shit, bad-ass powers and complicated dynastic motivations. Everybody – Hades, Wonder Woman, everyone – bargains and schemes and betrays and manipulates everyone else. It’s a god-eat-god world out there – and one built, in every way, on blood”

This is, actually, a pretty faithful interpretation of Greek mythology. In some ways, then, despite the obvious added masculinity, Azzarello has returned Diana’s story and that of her supporting cast to a point closer to the source material? True, this defeats the intended “purpose” (for want of a better word) of the original series, but it is nevertheless an interesting story. Comics writers are frequently criticized for trying new things with characters (often, it is met with Screaming Denunciation from long-time-fans, and bemused incredulity from newer readers).

Berlantsky’s article has an interesting omission, though, which I think supports his point even better than Diana taking up twinned fire-arms. One could argue that there is even more “blood-curdling masculinity” in the way Azzarello changes Diana’s classic weapon. Berlantsky says the guns are more attractive to the “(much smaller) audience of (mostly) men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s” than Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. (I always thought it was a whip, but that could just say something about me…) In this book, Hephaestus gives Diana a different whip (definitely a whip this time), which can cause some pretty nasty, fiery damage/pain/destruction. Surely it is the bastardisation of her traditional weapon (“tool”? “Accessory”?), the one that set her apart as the hero who settles conflict non-violently, that is more indicative of the shift Berlantsky wants to highlight?

Ultimately, the article finishes on a note I agree with: the justification of (using Berlantsky’s terminology) “blood-curdling masculinity” as a short-hand for “maturity and realism”. Or, in fantasy community terminology, short-hand for “grimdark”!

“But making Wonder Woman more violent doesn’t make her more mature or more real. It just makes her more conventional.”

Not mentioned in Berlatsky’s article is a Marston quotation, also from The American Scholar, his reaction after an attempt to submit Wonder Woman to a comics publisher:

“A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life. Suppose your child’s ideal becomes a superman who uses his extraordinary power to help the weak. The most important ingredient in the human happiness recipe still is missing – love. It’s smart to be strong. It’s big to be generous. But it’s sissified, according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring.”

WonderWoman-MarstonArticleImage2

A lot of the article is rather dated, but there’s something nice about reading an article by a writer back in the 1940s who was so clearly irritated by male-domination of comic literature. I also rather liked this passage from Marston’s article, with regards to why people read comics:

“Nine humans out of ten react first with their feelings rather than with their minds; the more primitive the emotion stimulated, the stronger the reaction. Comics play a trite but lusty tune on the C natural keys of human nature. They rouse the most primitive, but also the most powerful, reverberations in the noisy cranial sound-box of consciousness, drowning out more subtle symphonies. Comics scorn finesse, thereby incurring the wrath of linguistic adepts. They defy the limits of accepted fact and convention, thus amortizing to apoplexy the ossified arteries of routine thought. But by these very tokens the picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective coverings of indirection and disguise. Comics speak, without qualm or sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self. The response is like that of a thirsty traveler who suddenly finds water in the desert – he drinks to satiation.”