Nerd Heroes

The Social Network: Director: David Fincher, Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin.
You’re going to be successful and rich. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that won’t be true: It’ll be because you’re an asshole
- Description of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, from The Social Network
I managed to watch The Social Network the other day, catching the last showing. Even in a country with short theatrical releases, the movie was initially slated to run in many nearby theaters for only three days. Did local distributors think the understated style, dense jargon, American patter, and techno-centric subject matter create a high barrier of entry? (internet usage is still comparitively low) But Manila is as cosmopolitan a city as any, with plenty of savvy internet users. Filipinos are avid consumers of Hollywood imports. And The Social Network was riding on a wave of critical acclaim. Or are films featuring geek/nerd protagonists perceived to be relatively less profitable by distributors, especially if they spotlight unlikeable characters? (For example, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has yet to receive an official release date or audience rating)

There's something typically American about this mythologizing of Mark Zuckerberg - a maladjusted youth barely out of his teens and claiming to not care about the views of his peers, yet still smarting from the rejection of Harvard's prestigious final clubs. So he retaliates against tradition and class privilege by creating, carefully managing, and profiting from, a more inclusive virtual community. In a sense it's an updating of Revenge of the Nerds. The experience of social rejection is universal, but probably less so is the film's particular milieu. Then there's the choice to portray Zuckerberg as a Jay Gatsby-like figure pining after the girl that got away, even as he answers the siren call of Palo Alto. This makes him a little more intelligible. But like Gatsby, he's still primarily an enigmatic figure. This is a film that for all its dialogue, requires audiences to read between the lines. Ultimately, it says more about the views of filmakers David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin than about the real-life Zuckerberg.

Eh, whatever. I'm sure The Social Network still found an audience. Its success is too big to ignore at this point. And it makes for a great Halloween flick. Scream in horror at the slow death of your privacy dweebs!


Hellboy: The Storm

Hellboy: The Storm by Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo, Clem Robins, Dave Stewart.

by Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo, Clem Robins, Dave Stewart

Despite moments of wonderful visual beauty, I was never overly impressed with Guillermo del Toro's film adaptations of the Hellboy comic book series. Part of it is found in the differences between the two mediums. A ninety minute feature film is always going to look cramped next to a long-form story told through many individual chapters and interlocking arcs. Recent events in the comic mirror the premise of Hellboy II: The Golden Army insofar as some disgruntled characters decide to declare war on humanity. But whereas del Toro resorted to a freshly-minted villain commanding a conveniently prefabricated army of shiny robots, creator Mike Mignola has taken years to build-up his rogues gallery. From the series pulp-inspired beginnings, Mignola has used the time to fashion a sizable cast of characters, and cleverly weave disparate mythological sources into the protagonist's quest to prevent Armageddon.

The Storm is by itself an incomplete arc - continuing where The Wild Hunt left off, and ending just before it reaches any resolution. But the screws are beginning to tighten. The pace quickens. The stakes are higher. The danger is more palpable. Several characters not seen for awhile reappear just to emphasize how things are going from bad to worse. Hellboy makes a surprising decision which is calculated to keep the reader on tenterhooks (Actually he makes a few smaller decisions too, like quitting alcohol now that the end of the world is nigh). And a familiar figure is revealed to be manipulating everything, tying together plot threads that originated at the beginning of the series.

Even with the situation becoming more dire, Mignola still leaves room for quieter character moments. The Gruagach finally gets his comeuppance for his part in instigating the war, and yet is still deserving of some pity. Hellboy reflects on his relationship with father figure, the late professor Trevor Bruttenholm. But it's the romance between him and Alice that finally comes into focus. Given penciller Duncan Fegredo's involvement since The Wild Hunt, she's now as much his creation as she is Mignola's. Not that Hellboy doesn't get to tussle with more monsters - there's one fight scene that forms the centerpiece of The Storm. But his relationship with Alice goes far in opening up the hero's stoic facade. I wonder if she'll come through all this intact when the story is concluded in The Fury...

Hellboy: The Storm by Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo, Clem Robins, Dave Stewart.


Thor: The Mighty Avenger #1-5

Thor: The Mighty Avenger #1-5 By Roger Langridge, Chris Samnee, Matthew Wilson, Rus Wooton.
By Roger Langridge, Chris Samnee, Matthew Wilson, Rus Wooton

When reading superhero comics, it's often difficult to untangle objective analysis of the story's merits from appreciation of how that story manages to play off against the expectations of long-time fans. The genre is too entrenched, and its most prominent characters have been around too long, to see it through truly fresh eyes. Thor: the Mighty Avenger is no different in that respect. This retelling of the origin of a classic Marvel superhero is easily accessible to first time readers. But truthfully, much of the pleasure derived from the series comes from how the comic successfully reinvents and streamlines many of its well-worn elements so that they at least feel like they're new again.

What is immediately appealing is how writer Roger Langridge has removed the Marvel-style Sturm und Drang and replaced it with a low-key, leisurely paced approach to storytelling that leaves room for humor and more subtle character moments. It's far less melodramatic, but more human in scale. Jane Foster isn't just the love interest who prompts the hero into action, but the point-of-view character who bridges the gap between the mundane and the superhero worlds. Thor himself is an affable individual who can sometimes behave impetuously under pressure. The budding romance between the two anchors much of the story, making Thor's quest to return to Asgard all the more interesting.

The writing is ably complimented by the drawings of Chris Samnee, whose blocky and impressionistic linework isn't nearly as fussy as the more heavily rendered art found in many mainstream comics. Particularly noteworthy is how his figures are just stylized enough to appear fantastic, without resorting to outrageous bodybuilder type physiques dressed in skintight fetish-wear. Jane looks like an ordinary, if attractive brunette. Thor has the build of a heavyweight athlete. Hank Pym has a more slender frame. Namor the Sub Mariner has a lithe but muscular figure with a slightly alien appearance. This thoughtful approach to character design is nicely accompanied by the muted tones of colorist Matthew Wilson.

Even the fight scenes are considerably lighthearted, with comparatively little emphasis on collateral damage or bodily harm. Nor do they function as a metaphor for the inner demons the hero must confront and conquer. I particularly like how the confrontation between Hank and Thor was resolved by Hank using his brains instead of his brawn. Even the first meeting between Namor and Thor portrays the former as cool and calculating, and he ends up lecturing the latter on the value of humility. That's right, the guy who screamed "Imperious Rex" in past incarnations is telling Thor to bring it down a notch. Every fight serves as part of a learning process in order for Thor to eventually make his way back home of Asgard.

What this means is that Thor the Mighty Avenger doesn't fit in with the rest of Marvel's lineup: Not the mainline Marvel Universe, or the Ultimate Universe. And probably not with the upcoming Thor movie. This probably also means that the series won't last beyond the original creators' involvement with it. Frankly, that's not necessarily a bad thing.


Photos from the Hermit Kingdom

Pyongyang Too by Deemer and Woo.

North Korea is in the news again, which is as good an excuse as any to dive into Guy Delisle's travelogue Pyongyang. There's a photo mockup of the book posted on his blog made by some of his fans. Good stuff, and that unfinished monstrosity the Ryugyong Hotel just looks atrocious.


Louis Riel

Louis Riel by Chester Brown.
I initially kept putting off reading Chester Brown's fictionalized biography on Louis Riel, intimidated by a combination of the book's massive size and the central importance of the character to Canada's national history. But I was also unsure what to make of the change in graphic style Brown adapted for the story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his autobiographical explorations in The Playboy and I Never Liked You. So the approach used in Louis Riel didn't immediately appeal to me. But after getting over those concerns and finally diving into the work itself, I came to the conclusion that this is was one of the most engaging and beautiful comics that I've read in the last twenty years. That's quite a strong impression considering that its stark and minimal art, inspired by Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, stands in complete contrast to the increasingly lavish illustrative techniques and complex page layouts that have come to characterize some of the more notable examples of the medium. It's almost as if Brown set out to prove the viability of classic cartooning when applied to the modern graphic novel.

Brown's command of that language is remarkable. Despite my trepidation about the story's length, Louis Riel is a highly accessible narrative about a complex subject matter. In keeping with Harold Gray, Brown eschews dramatic close-ups, melodramatic displays of emotion, or changing panels arrangements. Even at its most intimate moments, Brown keeps the characters at middle distance. The characters are often portrayed at eye level or slightly above it, and usually in profile. Their faces are often masks that betray only subtle changes in emotions. The backgrounds are similarly sparse and the landscapes are very flat. This creates a certain theatrical staging for the characters' actions. There's also a quiet beauty and lonely majesty in many of the natural settings. Brown draws with clear and confident lines that require a minimum of fussy detailing and a strong sense of composition.

Louis Riel by Chester Brown.

What such restraint does is allow the story to be told efficiently and with a minimum of distraction. The art conveys all the information necessary, allowing for an easy flow from panel to panel. The maintenance of an unchanging six panel grid also reinforces this. The caricature employed also effectively conveys each character's personalities without overselling it. Riel's spiky hair and unkempt appearance portray a certain directness that contrasts with the slyness portrayed by the bulbous nose and tweedy clothing of his nemesis Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. The uniformity of the panels isn't a hindrance when the story begins to focus on key events. Brown slows down the narrative with the use of a succession of barely changing images that adds to the gravitas of the proceedings. He also uses clever changes in the content of the panels to underline dramatic moments. The use of a blank white panel to show the moment of the Englishman Scott's death during his execution, or the use of black panels during Macdonald's decision to drive the Métis into rebellion, and during the jury's deliberation at Riel's trial. Deceptively simple, none of this minimalism is easy to accomplish.

Louis Riel by Chester Brown.

For those unaware of what this book is all about, Louis Riel was a political leader of the Métis, a French translation for the Spanish "mestizo" - used in colonial times to describe people of mixed race. In the context of the story, the Métis were descendants of various European colonial (predominantly French speaking) and Native American populations. Riel would lead two armed rebellions against a primarily Anglophone Canadian government bent on limiting Métis representation within mainstream society. Eventually captured, tried, and executed, Riel was originally painted as a lunatic terrorist bent on the destruction of Canada. Today Riel's image has been largely rehabilitated as that of a freedom fighter who stood for the human rights of the Métis against the racist bigotry of the time. He's now recognized as a founder of the province of Manitoba.

Louis Riel by Chester Brown.

This book isn't a comprehensive biography of Riel's life. Rather it focuses mainly on his political career. Brown's restraint also applies to his judgement on Riel's political legacy. Neither an unadulterated saint or a villain, Riel comes across as an astute and contradictory figure. A person who fought for the down-to-earth concerns of his people while being something of a religious fanatic. Was Riel a traitor or a patriot? Was he insane or simply intensely devoted? Was he a messianic figure, or a crackpot? Was he the rugged individualist standing up to the power of overbearing corporate interests and culpable state leaders, or a delusional thinker. Brown avoids giving pat answers to these questions. Sometimes this self-discipline has its downsides. For all his brilliance, it's never clear why Riel inspired such loyalty within the Métis community, especially when his convictions began to negatively impact the Métis cause. And Brown is unusually circumspect about exploring in greater depth the nature of Riel's clinically diagnosed insanity vs. his spiritual visions. Thus the book leaves his individual motivations unclear.

Louis Riel by Chester Brown.

It should also be noted that as a work of historical fiction, Brown inevitably takes certain liberties with events in order to provide a clearer reading experience. But he is quite upfront about this and provides copious notes about how his interpretation differs from the actual facts of the events which are worth examining in themselves.

Louis Riel first appeared in serialized form before being collected into trade paperback. While the publisher still sells at least some the original pamphlets, I really can't imagine how the story benefits from having to consume it in serial installments. As far as I'm concerned, Louis Brown works better as a massive, singular tome.

Bonus: Kate Beaton has her own funny take on Riel.


Facebook, meh

xkcd by Randall Munroe.
Go to: xkcd by Randall Munroe. Go here for the first map from three years ago.

Update: More about Facebook here and here


The Mighty Magnor

The Mighty Magnor by Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, Tom Luth, Stan Sakai.
By Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, Tom Luth, Stan Sakai

In 1993 the then wildly popular Image Comics ended their partnership with Malibu Comics, leaving the latter company with a huge infusion of cash reserves which they used in part to fund a new line of comic books. But Malibu's success was rather short-lived, and the publisher was purchased in 1994 by their bigger rival Marvel Comics. One of those discontinued titles was from the team led by Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier. Bringing their Mad Magazine brand of satire to the superhero genre, they created six issues of The Mighty Magnor. In the letters section a buoyant Mark expressed hoped that the series would go on to be have a long and successful run. Yeah, those were the days. Mark does mention on his website that there was once a Spanish language trade paperback. Other than that, I'm unaware of Magnor being reprinted elsewhere.

The Mighty Magnor by Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, Tom Luth, Stan Sakai.

Like Groo the Wanderer, Magnor is about a thick-headed protagonist who wreaks mass destruction every time he attempts to perform heroic acts. In reality he's an amnesiac super-powered alien soldier who crash lands on Earth. He's then discovered wandering the streets of New York by two wannabe comics professionals, C.J. Delaney and Gil Gillman. They take him back to their studio and hire him to model for their new superhero series called "The Mighty Magnor". While there, "Magnor" reads C.J. and Gil's entire comic book collection, and begins to believe that he's an actual superhero. Unfortunately, his crime-fighting goes unappreciated by the police mainly because his actions tend to cause significant collateral damage. But things only get worse when the evil ruler of Magnor's home planet attempts to retrieve him.

The Mighty Magnor by Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, Tom Luth, Stan Sakai.

Magnor is a hilarious snapshot of the excesses within the comic book industry at the time. The protagonist himself is a walking cliche of the increasingly violent superheroes that dominated the market. Magnor has no personality of his own, but speaks entirely in dialogue lifted from television and comic books. That probably makes him just a tad less engaging than Groo. Other issues that weighed heavily on Sergio and Mark's minds are the burgeoning awareness of creator rights and the speculator craze driving demand for comic books. The only editor in the entire series is a money-grubbing, over the top figure who barely pays his employees while profiting from their work. He does get his comeuppance in the end. Meanwhile, scorn is heaped on the practice of bagging comic books without reading them. This must have been a real pet peeve at the time, given the way the story keeps coming back to the issue.

Anyway, here are my favorite pages in the series:

The Mighty Magnor by Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, Tom Luth, Stan Sakai.

I really enjoy this two page spread, especially the love given to Jack Kirby. I keep imagining Rob Liefeld and Frank Miller being among the people kissing his ass. Actually, it was the news of Comic Con's decision to stay in San Diego for at least the next five years that brought back memories of this image, and prompted me to take another look at Magnor.

Re-reading Magnor seventeen years after its initial release imbues it with a oddly nostalgic vibe. Sure, the comic book industry would implode soon after. And yes, the superhero remains the one true genre within the Direct Market. But it would never regain the glamour it had during this period, nor would its comics be attached to such over-hyped superstars. And as much as Sergio and Mark poke fun of superheroes, a real affection for the genre does come through. It's also rather quaint how much more centered the comic book industry was around the DM back then. So is its comparatively nascent working relationship with mainstream media. While the series skewers Hollywood's increasing involvement with comic books, it never gets past portraying it as a brief and dangerous flirtation. And as a comic written before the world wide web exploded into the public's consciousness, the story's context almost feels like looking into the last days of some medieval era before the introduction of movable type. But creator rights and copyright ownership is an important issue tackled in Magnor that continues to be unresolved, and has only gotten a whole lot more complicated since then.

The Mighty Magnor by Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, Tom Luth, Stan Sakai.

Then there's this conversation between two nameless pedestrians spotting Magnor on the street:
- It's the most powerful man in the comic book world!- That's Todd MacFarlane?
Oh, how the might have fallen.


More NonSense: No More Mutants

Marvel Graphic Novel #5: God Loves, Man Kills, 1982, by Chris Claremont, Brent Eric Anderson, et. al.
Marvel Graphic Novel #5: God Loves, Man Kills, 1982, by Chris Claremont,
Brent Eric Anderson, et. al.
Comics’ default position on diversity seems to be one of avoidance – a position that’s perfectly summed up by the Scarlet Witch’s memorable phrase, ‘No more mutants’. Those three words might also suggest the best way forward; let’s stop talking in metaphors and put the actual minorities in comics, to tell their own stories.
- Andrew Wheeler
Andrew Wheeler has written an interesting series of columns in which he tackles how mainstream comics (i.e. Marvel and DC) have attempted to deal with the issues of racial prejudice, sexual inequality, and dubious minority representations. It's a informative survey of the seemingly arbitrary and incoherent editorial decisions that publishers make in order to preserve continuity. These choices inevitably induce a fair degree of defensiveness amongst fans. But that's a whole other topic for discussion. For now, "No more mutants" sentiment is a good place to start.

I'm not closely following the events within the X-titles that gave rise to that phrase, so I can't really say how this latest mutant massacre differs from other past massacres. But Andrew does briefly touch on one thing about the X-Men that's bugged me for a long time now - While the mutants are clearly an oppressed minority within the context of the Marvel Universe, they are an incomplete metaphor for this thing in the real world called "race". The X-Men comics traditionally viewed race from a mainly negative perspective, which was one of discrimination and resentment. Mutants were either hunted-down and rounded-up, recalling genocidal campaigns of the past. Or they were lynched, echoing similar practices from American history.

Uncanny X-Men #196, 1985, by Chris Claremont, John Romita, Jr. et. al.
Uncanny X-Men #196, 1985, by Chris Claremont, John Romita, Jr. et. al.

What was missing in these portrayals was a preestablished culture. If people are going to insist that mutants are a metaphor for real-world racial politics, then the lack of an ancient tradition is a pretty big omission. The mutants began as a blank slate. As minorities go, they didn't have their own archaic customs, norms, myths, art or science. They didn't have their own alternate history that was being suppressed by a more powerful group. As a social classification, they're still brand new. They started out in the comic pages being vaguely defined by a popular misinterpretation of science (the X-gene and the effects of radiation), and were unable to counteract it with any kind of long-established, internally generated, traditional identity. The oft-repeated claim that mutants are the next step in human evolution puts them light years apart from the ground-level concerns of real ethnic groups who face discrimination because they are viewed as inferior and backward. And if I recall correctly, the original members of the X-Men were white teenagers born and raised within mainstream American culture. They were simply denied by their own society's widespread prejudice from openly integrating into it. So it's no surprise that they were a miserable lot (That and living in a never-ending soap opera). That's not the same as people being feared, hated, or treated with casual condescension because they openly identify with an altogether alien (e.g. non-European) community or ancestry. If the X-Men were ever a suitable analog for any particular group of people, it would be for the series' geeky fanbase who were searching for the perfect comic book vehicle for their own adolescent frustrations.

New X-Men #135, 2003, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et. al.
New X-Men #135, 2003, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et. al.

Now, it's not unrealistic to expect any minority group being ostracized for whatever reasons (age, gender, sexual orientation, profession, hobbies, skills, unique abilities etc.) to form their own counter-culture at some point. Marvel's mutant population should be no different in this regard. There should be mutant artists, musicians, writers, designers and other creative types. There should be respected intellectual figures along with vapid celebrities. If there's already a school for mutants, where are the museums, galleries, theatres, clubs, restaurants, and other institutions which are, at the very least, sensitive to mutant perspectives? And if there's a mutant counter-culture, wouldn't this inevitably spill over to the rest of the Marvel universe? A couple of writers have tried to explore this area. The tentative beginnings within the series could arguably be traced back to arch-villain Magneto's separatist ideas. Mike Allred put mutants under the media spotlight when he took over X-Force. But the process was only accelerated to its logical conclusion when rebellious teenagers started worshipping their own mutant idols during Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men. I guess that's all being undone now in the name of bringing the X-Men back to their secretive roots. As Andrew quotes editor-in-chief Joe Quesada:
"...we ended up with a mutant island where there were over six million of them, and every time you’d turn a page, you’d see a mutant on every corner. We even had ‘Mutant Town’. So, one of the things that we wanted to do was put the genie back in the bottle.”
Taken on it's own terms, what's being voiced unfortunately sounds too much like: God forbid if minorities of any kind could be spotted openly walking down the street of every major city, living wherever they choose, or be allowed to congregate at their own preferred hangouts. Especially if it messes with the superhero universe's precious status quo.

New X-Men #135, 2003, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et. al.
New X-Men #135, 2003, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et. al.

I'm not necessarily implying that this editorial decision is being consciously motivated by racism or sexism, or any other form of intolerance. But it does highlight how working with decades-old legacy characters, while being beholden to accepted modes of expression, can sometimes make it harder for creators and readers who want to explore new and possibly fertile ground. Creative change is being proscribed by genre convention, fastidious fandom, or protective intellectual property owners.

Or perhaps Marvel's merry band of misfits are just no longer the optimal vehicle to drive a relevant discussion on race and diversity, if they were ever one at all.