Louis L’Amour, The Californios

{683035FE-823B-4BE9-9D11-82932C1AB5EC}Img100A very good friend and I, about a year ago, were hiking Torrey Pines Park and we were talking about good pulp writers, and not only that but how good pulp writing was really good writing. I consider myself a highbrow lowbrow man all the way. I have read and continue to read “serious” literature, though when I do it tends toward the satirical, but I like to read high-caliber crap. Crap in the best of senses.

So my friend told me, after discussion pulp sci-fi, Dashiell Hammett, and favorably comparing Fritz Leiber to Tolkein, I turned the conversation to Zane Grey, whom I have yet to read. My friend mentioned Louis L’Amour very favorably. I was somewhat shocked. I had in my mind associated L’Amour with both romance novels and the Reagan era, of which I know he wasn’t a part per se but which was the time in which I became aware of him. The romance novel association was because I remember seeing so many romance novels laid out in bookstores, end to end, and seeing a similar thing for Louis L’Amour novels. Or maybe the Western section was by the Romance section. I think it was, actually, in every bookstore there was. I say Reagan era because I remember developing a conscious antipathy to all cowboy mythology because Reagan was such a vicious ass in his faux cowboy gear. I have people from Montana, I know from cowboy, and Reagan wasn’t it.

So, having some time to kill, wanting a bite to eat, and not having a book handy, I stopped into the library and grabbed a L’Amour book. I had a feeling that they were all basically the same and I’ll bet $50 my feeling is correct. I chose The Californios because of the setting only. I figured I might as well root for the home team.

I blew through the book, which I think is the general appeal of L’Amour’s work. This is not simply a beach book, but a short day at the beach book. I don’t think that a brisk read inherently indicates a lack of substance, but I will say that the various critiques of L’Amour I spotted with a quick search–rote and predictable plotting, stereotypical characters–seem to apply. If you want a Western–so-called–that tweaks the genre, go elsewhere.

At the same time, I was surprised by the book. I had associated–Reagan–the genre with political conservatism, and a quick glance around the internet seems to indicate that I’m not the only one, though for some others a conservative bent is a good thing. L’Amour, though, seems like he was relatively good white people. While there’s a sense that indigenous people are of an older time, a typically white view that leads to horrific policy vis-a-vis actually-existing Indians today, native people in L’Amour’s book are real people, not just a vague threat worthy of genocide. The sympathetic white characters explicitly say, regarding native religion, that native people had lived on the land longer and so their religious practices should be taken seriously even if the white character in question didn’t fully understand. Imperfect, but complex. That’s about as good as white Americans get at this historical juncture. To boot, the female characters are as complex as the male characters. Not actually complex, but equally shallow you might say. The book was vastly less offensive than most Western movies, and that’s a good thing.

I can’t complain about the setting, in and around Los Angeles, Malibu most of all, just before the United States invaded Mexico on a flimsy pretext to up and take the land. It made me think about where I live, and at some basic level any book that makes me think is a good book, whatever critiques I might otherwise level.

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Jaime Hernandez, The Love Bunglers

bookcover_lovbunI haven’t actually read the entirety of Love and Rockets, start to finish, but I have read the bulk of Los Bros Hernandez‘ work. I began my relationship with their work–and at some level I think the work becomes richer when I see Love and Rockets as a collaboration among individuals rather than the work of separate people who happen to be brothers–with a collection of Gilbert’s Palomar stories. My first exposure to Jaime’s work was in hist very first stories, which, though fun and interesting, feel as if he was chasing something he had not yet quite found. It’s a natural process: Ornette Coleman‘s first couple records are great, but nowhere near The Shape of Jazz to Come.

So, I had pegged myself, internally, as a Gilbert man, with great respect for Jaime, and I made this explicit in my piece on Chelo’s Burden. Maybe it’s the passing of time, and my own development–getting older, to me a good process–that has refined my opinion, but I’ve been drawing a lot from Jaime’s work over the past couple years. I’ve allowed myself to connect more openly and closely to people, and to myself. I think that in some sense Jaime’s relatively close focus over three decades of work on a small number of characters, particularly Maggie Chascarillo, fits comfortably with changes in how I try to be in the world, and how I am.

So I’ll echo any number of reviews of The Love Bunglers and say that I’ve read no better work in the medium. I struggled to find a negative review of the book, but found one piece–link lost, actually–in which the review, on obvious grad student in the most pejorative sense, kept going on about Lacan while insisting that Jaime, who uses such techniques as “narrative” and “characterization” was not worth all the hoopla and was something on a drag on the forward formal momentum of the medium. Let me point out that Joyce‘s innovations were all–all of them–a function of characterization. More to the point here, the common thread among responses not only praise the work but report the reader breaking out into tears, sometimes at the denouement alone and sometimes at various points throughout. I myself am no exception and fall into the second group.

No real sense in rehearsing the plot of a book that anyone with any sense ought simply to read, or read twice in rapid succession as I did. The second time I was more overwhelmed than the first. Despite the suggestions of the Lacan-name-dropping reviewer, the emotional weight of the work is not at all melodramatic. My sense is that for really uptight people any type of emotional response is evidence of passe literary technique or willful manipulation. It can be. In the case of The Love Bunglers, though, it’s the evidence both, as any number of reviewers have correctly commented, of thirty years’ accumulated experience with the characters, and an exceptionally well-executed storyline in the particular.

This last is something that I haven’t seen emphasized enough. It is true, as I have said elsewhere, that I like comics as a medium precisely because of its serial, open-ended form. As such, always building on prior, if rarely complete, knowledge of characters and milieu, the work provokes a different type of response from a reader than a self-contained novel would or can. Neither better nor worse, but certainly different. I can’t say what it would be like for a reader with no prior experience with Love and Rockets to read The Love Bunglers, but my strong sense is that it would be powerful. If you haven’t read Love and Rockets before, my sense is that, while this one does indeed tie together a long development, if you started here you’d make it a point to read the entire thirty years-plus of the project.

As an aside–possibly–while Jaime’s work is justifiably praised for the deep characterization of its people, the importance of the greater Los Angeles area in the work struck me in this read. It’s true that the particular town names are fictional, but the place of everything is in the very real Los Angeles. Much has been made of Los Bros as chroniclers of Latino life, particularly Jaime, and without question this is the case, though putting it that way almost seems to diminish the achievement. More accurately, there is no universal outside of a particular, and it is a mark of Jaime’s real achievement that he documents not only the people he does, but the time and place. The levels of specificity are profound: cultural, temporal, spatial, individual and ultimately within each individual character.

A last note. It is incredibly heartening for me that work of this quality continues to be produced and, against odds, make its way to an audience. To be sure, Love and Rockets began at a time when Love and Rockets could begin. There was a lot of posing and silliness in early punk, but the sense of DIY, that was real and Love and Rockets more than anything else is its finest exemplar at least as far as the heritage of the L.A. punk scene is concerned. I’m reading another book about Anthony Braxton (et al.):

In T-a W 2 Braxton considers the relationship between creative music and what he names “the spectacle diversion syndrome,” or “what America has rather than culture.” (Graham Lock, Blutopia, p. 174)

This is right. What we’re dealing with is the spectacle diversion syndrome rather than culture. It’s not that there’s no culture at all, but rather that real culture, which is what people do to process life emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, is very often suffocated or supplanted by diversionary spectacle. Love and Rockets generally and The Love Bunglers particularly is culture, not diversion. It points to who and where we are, now, as people.

I can’t praise the book more highly, except possibly to point out that, without making any conscious, explicit connection, within a week of finishing the book I recommenced work, dormant for months, on my own long-term recording project. In hindsight, I can’t see it as coincidence.

Harvey Pekar, The Quitter

quitterBriefly, a procedural note. No more Amazon linking. I’m done with them. Go to a comic book store. Or if you want your books cheap–I mean really cheap–go to the Library.

The Library. Use it.

So, that’s what I did when I got “The Quitter.” I’ve long loved Harvey Pekar‘s work, though I will say that indeed I was first exposed to it through the film. I feel like I was sort of late to the party with Pekar, like he was a major household name by the time I’d gotten to his stuff. He had, after all, been on Letterman. But I still find myself in conversations where my interlocutor has never heard of him.

Briefly, then, Pekar made his name by self-publishing the comic, American Splendor, which chronicled his own life in Cleveland. Pekar explicitly conceived the work as a counter-point to superhero comics. The medium, he suggested, could handle more than the product he’d read as a kid suggested. This wasn’t a unique observation and Pekar gave much credit to Robert Crumb, but Pekar seems to have ran, as much as anyone and definitely more to my liking than Crumb, with his argument.

The Quitter, as more than one review I spot-checked while looking for an image of the cover noted, isn’t explicitly labeled “American Splendor” but in substance it’s part of that larger project. Much is made of Pekar’s unflinching, to use the word everyone else seems to, self-examination, and that’s definitely what we have here. The book follows young Pekar as he tries various things out only to quit when they become difficult or uncomfortable. Surely Pekar overstates the case in his title, but he is examining something I’m familiar with myself.

One brief episode illustrates for me the essence of Pekar’s art. Harvey gets in an intense violent fight with his father. No Freudian cliches whatsoever, but as important as that is it’s not my point. My point is that on the very next page, life continues in comparatively banal fashion, almost as if the fight never happened. “Almost” is the key word. This strikes me as Pekar the observer at his finest. That is how things work in life. There is a terrible, huge thing that takes place, but you still have to go to the store to get groceries, or put gas in your car, or whatever. Life works that way, and it’s something lesser artists, who imagine that the job is to deal with the apparently big things alone. But–the example is just from my head, not from the book–going to the supermarket after a tragedy is, in fact, a big thing. It’s a very big thing, and entirely necessary to portray in art.

My stolen glances at a couple reviews indicate that a number of people called this Pekar’s finest work, and certainly that is a reasonable argument. People are saying the same thing about Jaime Hernandez’ The Love Bunglers, and that’s an argument I can accept, too. My point here–more true for Pekar who was of comparatively advanced age when he wrote The Quitter–is that I have always felt that any artist, all things being equal, ought to produce better work as they get older. Problem is, music buff that I am, a lot of popular musicians don’t seem to do that. Comics seems to be more friendly to older artists. I haven’t fleshed out why yet, but I’m wondering about it.

Tom Piazza, Devil Sent the Rain

DevilSentRain_PB_tile_ver6I think I have previously reported my habit of wandering the stacks in the library and randomly picking a book off the shelf to read. Often I won’t get out the door with it, and more often than not I won’t finish it or even get more than 50 pages in. I don’t finish books I don’t enjoy reading. Never did. Sometimes, I find a real gem on a subject I know nothing about.

Tom Piazza’s Devil Sent the Rain is not one of those real gems, but I did finish it. I don’t know why I grabbed it off the shelf, but it was with the books about music and when I leafed through it I saw that it had a piece on Jimmy Martin. That was enough for me to take the book. And, sure enough, by far to me the most interesting work in the book was the stuff about Martin. The main piece on Martin had a slightly pornographic quality to it, with, to be certain, nothing that would actually qualify as pornography. Piazza meets Martin, Martin drinks a lot, lives up to his reputation as “difficult,” raises hell at the Grand Ole Opry, Piazza watches, writes, makes money off it. Making money off someone else’s personal difficulty, just like the porn industry, but with clothes on.

In no way do I mean to dismiss popular music journalism, no matter how much I will get upset by it. Scholarly music writing for sure has its problems as well, though different ones. Above all, I appreciate music journalists because I like to read about music that I care about. That’s really all the justification a music journalist needs. While I love to read, though, about a musician I care for–and Jimmy Martin is for me far and away the best thing bluegrass has given us–when it gets down to it the Martin piece is really more about the personality than the music. This is interesting at some level but totally incomplete. Yes, the man was difficult, but the man was the music as well. Maybe you can do music journalism without really getting to the music itself in detail, but you can’t in my book do it well.

Piazza does, in pieces about Jimmie Rodgers, Charley Patton, and Bob Dylan, try to get to the music more particularly. Unfortunately, the conclusions he comes to aren’t particularly interesting. Rodgers is found to be a fox, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. Patton is the deepest of real blues deeps you can get. Dylan tapped into some Great American Vagueness or Vague Americanness and expressed what was already there waiting to be said by someone who would say it. Two problems, the first the smaller. First, these are completely pedestrian opinions, right or wrong. You can’t spit 10 feet at this point without hitting that same line about Dylan. And Rodgers–the most interesting thing about his work, aside from how amazingly good it is, is how his music–I know nothing about the man, though I hope–is functionally anti-racist in a genre that often as not encourages redneckery. I love the music, but that’s how it is. Not Jimmy Rodgers’ music, though. But nothing about that.

The second, deeper problem, is that when dealing with the music, Piazza really doesn’t penetrate the sounds themselves. Penetrate, for lack of a better word. The best music criticism of which I know, like Amiri Baraka’s work or Lester Bangs‘ best stuff, gets one inside the music by providing a vocabulary with which we can experience the music more fully than we would otherwise.

I’d heard of Piazza for his timely Why New Orleans Matters. One large section of the book consists of pieces about New Orleans, post-Katrina. I agree with everything Piazza says, socio-politically, on the subject. As I said earlier, I finished this book, unlike many I randomly pick up off the shelf. Tell me something I didn’t already know? No, not really. Got a few new facts. But I am not sure that the function of journalism at this point is to tell a reader, like me, something he didn’t already know. It’s pretty clear it’s to tap into a market demographic of people who already agree with the premise.

Alan Moore, Watchmen

watchmen-thumb-350x538I’d been meaning to reread Watchmen for years now, but I didn’t feel like I liked the book enough to spend money on it, and it was always checked out at the library. Then, lo and behold, it was on the shelf a few weeks ago. A part of me wants to write a lengthier piece, and may at some point. Here, 500 words or so.

My first take on Watchmen, borrowed from a friend about a decade ago after I’d first gotten into comics, was that its reputation greatly outweighed its value. I had heard “greatest comic ever” from any number of people, and once I’d finished it, it was clear to me that those people were simply repeating to me what any number of people had told them. It was as if there needed to be a greatest comic ever and Watchmen was in the right place at the right time and so took the title. My second read has confirmed that first impression.

I’ve written about Moore’s Swamp Thing elsewhere and all of the basic critiques of his writing there were really expressions of what I’d felt upon that first read of Watchmen. What became clearer on this second read, however, was just how full of holes he is as a writer, or rather how wide the gaps are in his understanding of the world as it expresses itself in writing. Moore gets plenty of stuff right, to be sure. As a critique of superhero comics from within, the work is brilliant. Moore is a guy who–it seems to me from the outside–has an understanding of his medium that few likely can equal in sophistication, however one may disagree. No need to over-rehearse the details, but Moore very clearly exposes the fascist implications of the genre. Watchmen is genuinely meta, and from a time–late 1980s–when meta remained semi-hip.

Likewise, the comic is one of the finest documents of British/European Center-Left Cold War nuclear angst of which I know. Outside of its place inside comics, this is probably its chief importance as literature generally. As the Cold War has ended outside only a few right-wing think tanks, the possibility of nuclear annihilation has faded from public consciousness, however real the possibility remains. So too, at the time of publication, the general discourse in the United States was all Reagan triumphalism. Falklands aside, there was more room in public for a robust anti-nuclear movement in England, possibly because England lay in the middle of the two nuclear “superpowers.” Interestingly, reading Watchmen in this light gave it a vitality where it might, in 2013, seem a relic. Moore clearly had passionate feelings on the subject, and his eggheadery needs all the passion it can get, as a tonic.

The flaw in the work is that Moore references things he doesn’t really understand. One example: Nite Owl’s ornithological article, “Blood From The Shoulder of Pallas,” at the end of issue #7. No actual 1980s academic journal would publish an article a) in the flowery prose of British gentleman historians of the late 19th century that b) questioned the whole premise of the academic discipline the journal represents. That’s not how journals work. It might have been a letter to a colleague. This is admittedly a detail, but from a guy who seems to want to be placed among literary titans, it is completely unacceptable. The work is littered with similar semi-understandings. I’ll get to those in depth later, maybe.

577 words, not 500. I gotta reel it in.

Jack Vance, the Dying Earth

dying-earth2These words refer to Jack Vance’s original, 1964 anthology, consisting of six stories, and currently out of print. What remains in print is a larger anthology of the four Dying Earth books Vance wrote over the course of his lifetime. Unless there is some compelling reason, I like to deal with things as they originally came out.

I’d long known Vance’s name because of his influence on the magic system in Dungeons and Dragons, and, then, by the consistently high regard in which his work is held by readers who by all appearances care about quality. I will say that with this collection–to be clear, I’m talking about first Dying Earth book, six stories–I entirely agree.

While on the one had the characterization in the collection is strong across the board, the setting itself here is of central interest. Briefly, the “Dying Earth” stories are so-called because the setting is on the planet Earth, but of the far future, when the Sun is in the process of dying out. Climate and weather change in fantastic ways, and, more interesting, the characters are aware that they are living, if not at, then near the end.

It’s not a deep observation to say that good speculative fiction, be it sci-fi or fantasy, or whatever, uses the speculative aspects of the genre to examine ways in which actually-living people live in the world. Not a deep observation, but a critical one. There is an escapist appeal to speculative fiction, but if it is going to stick, it needs to be about us. The best case in point I know of is Octavia Butler. Vance’s setting, fantastic, with magic, points to the underlying awareness in all people that life is transitory. Nicely done, Vance.

Nearly immediately, it’s clear why the people who created D & D turned to Vance as a source for their system of magic. It’s not simply that Vance’s portrayal of magic fits the demands of a game. It certainly does: in Vance people who use magic must memorize spells verbatim, which, upon their use, they completely forget, requiring more study before more use of magic. Great for a game.

Reading Vance, though–and this leads right to characterization–what’s most interesting is that part of the reason people need to memorize spells is because, late, late in the Earth’s game, magic is magic because people have, by and large, forgotten how to create it through experimentation. What remains are the records of other magicians’ work, which one memorizes, uses, and forgets.

In “Turjan of Miir,” we meet the titular character who is trying to create humanoid live in vats using magic. He is not up to the task, and seeks another, greater magician, Pandelume, who by reputation knows how to pull the spell off. This of course is the same basic trope, with all its attendant patriarchal problems, as Pygmalion.

Pandelume has previously created a physically beautiful and mentally flawed woman named T’sais. T’sais sees everything negatively, and as a result is both miserable and violent. Her story in the collection, taking her name as its title, is one of the most affecting works of fantasy I’ve read, and by any measure a beautiful story. Maybe it spoke to me on some personal level, and as a result produced the emotional response it did. I know what it is like to see everything as ugly. The crucial moment, one of the most beautiful transitions I’ve read, is when T’sais becomes conscious that it’s not that the world is ugly, but that she perceives it to be so. She then resolves to learn how to see beauty, and her attempts, with some beneficial results, are entirely believable and therefore very affecting.

I can’t overstate how thoroughly a small transition in a character, like that in T’sais, is the mark of a real writer. I’m in the fifth of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and feeling very frustrated with the writing. The action seems to be in taking more or less static characters and creating situations in which the plot develops, but the characters do not. Or–this in hindsight–we have a character who develops, if very early on, like Daenerys’ change from timid girl to Dragon queen. The more I read in the books, though, the more confused I am about how that change actually happened, and the more convinced I am that Martin did not in fact give us a character development but merely replaced the first Daenerys with a second. Vance, totally contrary and vastly superior, not only shows us a turning moment in T’sais but causes us to feel it. That’s the real thing.

George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

A_Feast_For_Crows.365x600.w.bI’d heard from more than one source that this fourth novel was one of the weaker, if not the weakest, of the five yet published. Likely this is because—I’m not making an original observation here—it’s one-half of the too-large manuscript Martin submitted to his publisher, only to be told to split the thing into what would be the fourth and fifth books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin chose to divide the text geographically rather than chronologically, and this meant that a number of well-liked characters, left in cliffhangers in A Storm of Swords, made no appearance in A Feast for Crows. This, and a large part of the book involves new characters, yet to prove their depth compared to the old.

So be it: the book’s good. If the new characters don’t seem as deep as the old, then at some level it remains to be seen whether this is a function of knowing them for less time or a less-compelling conception.

The broader issue for me, aside from enjoying the read, is the extent to which Martin’s work revises Tolkein’s precedent. Along this line, the question of women in the narrative is central. Martin’s work is widely seen as rebutting Tolkein’s near-totally male Middle Earth. Rhiannon, in an excellent piece, puts it as follows:

A Song of Ice and Fire is a mostly feminist text, featuring fascinating, dynamic female characters in a variety of situations. The fact that these girls and women live in a deeply misogynistic world only adds to the realism of their struggles and ultimately to the strength of their achievements.

I might have gone with that sentiment all the way through the first three books, but am hesitant with A Feast for Crows. Why, precisely, and why with this book? For me, any feminism worth getting behind is based on the premise that women are precisely as complex as men. This is more of an analytical point than an evaluative one. Patriarchy is based on the premise that women are as a group are subservient, simply. All my experience flies in the face of this idea, and so I reject it.

Martin’s treatment of Cersei in A Feast for Crows has forced me to re-investigate the women who populate the books generally. She is, here, an alcoholic hitting her bottom. For starters she drinks constantly, and to finish everything she does is wrong and destructive. Interestingly, I find myself becoming more sympathetic toward her in inverse proportion to the extent Martin reduces her to a simply destructive presence. It’s as if I feel like it’s one thing for her to fight against a rotten father, dashed hopes, a philandering royal husband, and a murdered child, but something more difficult entirely to fight against an author who chooses to make you a predictable villain. Nobody deserves that kind of treatment.

I don’t have the series of books at hand and were they here I would not refer to them in any event. My concern is how I feel about the books now. I find myself wondering about how Martin built Cersei in previous books. The general idea is that Martin, contra Tolkein, not only writes women into his books, but writes them well. I am not sure at this point. Martin places appropriate details in Cersei’s trajectory, but I am not sure, in hindsight, that I saw them come together as someone like Jaime or Tyrion. Cersei behaves selfishly and abominably throughout the series, but we get told that she is truly devoted to her children. This is contradiction substituted for complexity. I don’t suggest that any individual has some kind of essential core character from which all behavior springs. There is no such core in anyone. What is true, however, is that as people develop, the varying aspects of what we call, as a convenience, personality, fit together, not because of a predetermined design but because each influences the other and in turn is influenced.

We don’t see this kind of developing “personality” in Cersei. We have elements in her that form contrasts—love of children, selfish behavior—but not mutually-forming contrasts, as in real people and, I would say, in characters like her brothers. Though she makes no direct appearance in A Feast for Crows, I think back to Daenerys and feel as if a similar process is at work. On the face of it, she functions as a foil for Cersei, and vice versa. Where Cersei wields state power foolishly, the teenage girl Daenerys,when last we saw her in A Storm of Swords, makes political and strategic decisions more effectively than either Jorah Mormont or Barristan Selmy. All good, but we don’t see any development that would have given her the kind of understanding she demonstrates in her actions. She began the series timid and emotionally dependent on her older brother. After learning to enjoy sex with her husband, her personality changes and she becomes assertive. That’s the only development, per se, I can recall in the character. I like Daenerys, it’s good that we see a woman wielding political power well, but real people have a learning curve. Daenerys doesn’t.

Feminism’s most important point is that women are real people and that our social, political, and economic norms need to reflect this fact. I see powerful women in Martin,and certainly progress from Tolkein, but I am increasingly unsure that I’m reading, in his female characters, about real people.

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George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

I'm with the consensus. Best yet.

I’m with the consensus. Best yet.

For whatever reason, A Song of Ice and Fire really has its hooks in me by this point. A number of people I know who’ve read the series thus far have told me that A Storm of Swords is their favorite, and thus far I have to agree. More than anything, the book is good because Martin maintains a general inventiveness in plot and depth in character.

To return to the running thread of the discussion, my concern with Martin has been the extent to which he revises Tolkein’s influence on the genre. Right now, my concern is that the genre, nearly without exception takes a European center to its fantastic settings. Middle Earth is Europe, and the Shire is rural England. We know this. Even a Moorcock, who so thoroughly revised Tolkein’s ethical framework, maintained this European focus. His principal non-Melibonean characters were either Europeans by another name or exoticized others, sympathetic or no. In Tolkein, Sauron enlists the forces of Islam, if one scratches below the surface.

There can be no doubt that Westeros is, for the greater part, Europe. You could argue about Dorne, but the rest is there. I make this point without judgement, but with some concern. Why? Because one of the reasons I engage with literature the way I do is because literature, particularly more lowbrow forms of it, those for “entertainment’s sake” shape the way we as people see our world and the other people in it. This, and the fact that when we imagine that something is “just entertainment” we are all the less likely to be conscious as people of how what we read (or otherwise consume) affects our thinking about our world. My concern is that the thoroughly Eurocentric character of the genre can leave a reader with the impression that Europe–or the settler colonies Europeans established–is the center of the world and its history. This can transfer easily, especially in one of the settler colonies like that in which I live, to people. White people become the center of the world’s action, and their phenotypes become the norm. This type of thing has concrete, destructive consequences.

So, Martin doesn’t change this aspect of the genre. The question then becomes, how does he handle Europe? Discussions about what Europe means are very important, just like though we know Marx didn’t deal in depth, in his major works, with the non-European world, what he had to say about Europe is of enduring importance.

The colonialist line on Europe is that it took a civilizing turn away from the rest of the world when the Greeks defeated the Persians. Where others had superstitions, Europeans had philosophy. This predicated the Roman and British Empires both, and is why the English-speaking peoples gave us heavy industry.

There is a second, less discussed, and much more accurate and useful take on Europe. Rather than a Europe that breaks from the rest of the world with the Greeks, we have a Europe that breaks in the modern period. Of interest here is Carlo Ginzburg’s work, which I’ve discussed before. In essence, what we see with Ginzburg’s work is the process of church orthodoxy rooting out–physically–localized, indigenous religious practices under the guise of a struggle against witchcraft. This happens both under the context of the new Reformation and the development of modern, global, colonialist capitalism. The point here is that Europe was, as it continues to be, split unto itself.

We imagine Europeans, and, it follows, their white descendants in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, as peoples entirely culturally–genetically, to the biological racists–distinct from the indigenous peoples they displaced in their colonialist primitive accumulation. However one deals with this, though, the arrival of those Europeans who settled other peoples’ lands was the end of another, European process as much as it was the beginning of another. What a Ginzburg points to is a Europe that was as much connected to its particular, local land as any indigenous culture could be. In this view, Europe split from the rest of the world when it cut off its own roots in its own land.

All this discussion, because Martin deals with this process, in his way. Jojen Reed is the best example, at least in Storm of Swords. Bran, too, but Jojen is the one who is conscious of the processes involved. Tolkein gave us happy Hobbits living in their English countryside, but Martin gets to something more real: indigenous peoples under seige by settlers. The settlers–think the kings of Westeros, with their ideologues, the maesters–imagine that what had been there before is now entirely gone, but they’re wrong. The land still functions through people like Jojen.

Why is this important? Because one of the sustaining fictions of white supremacy is the lie, cherished as fact by explicit racists and privileged white liberals both, that “the Indians are gone.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that precise sentence from people who considered themselves on the left. Indigenous people are not gone, though white settlers did their damnedest. And who were those white people? Not people who were at some basic essence different from those they displaced, but people whose bond to their land had been forcibly cut, who found themselves at some level unmoored, and, as such, capable of great social violence. I return to Chief Seattle, to whom I will continue to return, again and again:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret.

Frank Miller, Batman: Year One

I had and exchange with the tremendous Matthew Southworth on Twitter.

southworth_exchange

Valuing, as I do, the opinion of creators in a medium–Southworth not only the artist on the brilliant Stumptown comic, but a musician as well–I figured it might be time for me to get over my distaste for Frank Miller. Not even so much for Miller’s work, which I’ve largely avoided, but for Frank Miller.

As this isn’t a comics blog, a word or two about Miller. He is one of two names that’s near-always mentioned as part of the Great Growing-Up of comics as a medium in the mid-1980’s. Alan Moore is the other name, almost always mentioned first despite alphabetical order. Where Moore’s work is cited for literary ambition, Miller’s work, particularly his run with Batman, above all The Dark Night Returns, is tagged with terms like, “gritty realism,” and “adult-oriented.” Batman, in Miller’s world, is intensely violent and sociopathic, but sociopathic against criminals. He is a criminal against criminals. Society, in Miller, consists of helpless, faceless masses, a small number of venal movers and shakers, and a vastly smaller still number of decent people who actively try to improve society.

Not as problematic as Miller's Occupy rant.

Not as problematic as Miller’s Occupy rant.

So, Miller clearly has never been a little-“d” democrat, and he showed it with a now-famous rant against Occupy, in 2011, published, no link provided here but easily enough found, on his own blog:

The “Occupy” movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.

And that was just the first full paragraph. Moore responded:

I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favour of it.

So, when Southworth pointed to Miller’s Batman: Year One as his all-time favorite comic, it’s not so much that I was sceptical of its quality, but I approached it with some concern. I’d tried previously to make it through The Dark Night Returns, but very simply could not stomach Batman’s sociopathy.

Batman: Year One, despite the title, isn’t about Batman, however, but about James Gordon, future Commissioner Gordon. [ADDENDUM: to be clear, it’s Batman who takes the primary focus in the book. What I’d argue, though, is that the real drama takes place with Gordon’s development.] Part of the problem with a world view like Miller’s is that it substitutes contradiction for nuance. Batman is a criminal who fights crime. Contradiction. Miller, despite this, achieves some nuance with Gordon. He has an extramarital affair, but is torn up about it. Not that remorse is an excuse, but it does show some real complexity. I suppose if anything, reading Year One gives me the clear impression that, at his best, Miller can write.

The problem of course is that Miller, like Moore, demands to be read not only for entertainment, but for ideas. And so, while I agree with China Mieville that we need to allow ourselves to enjoy art even when the politics of the work repulse us, part of the enjoyment of a work of art for me is precisely the process of critiquing it on among other things political grounds.

This is not an original observation–Moore himself made it among others–but the thorough reprehensibility of Miller’s social politics is entirely on display throughout Year One. Above all, his famous misogyny. Selina Kyle, Catwoman, is a prostitute. Most of the women we see here are as it happens involved in sex work. The exception to this is the colleague–subordinate, actually–with whom Gordon has an affair, and Gordon’s wife. The partner in Gordon’s affair, in Miller’s imagination, is, despite her professional credentials, really just ready to jump in the sack with her boss. Gordon’s wife is the only woman in the thing who is not, fundamentally, a sexual object, and Gordon is, clearly, turned of by her. In Miller’s world, if a woman isn’t simply and completely sexual, she’s repulsive.

Even in something like this, which from what I gather is leagues away from something as gratuitously brutal as Sin City, Miller’s work drips misanthropy. This is not simply a moral or political failing, but an aesthetic one. People in general, in Miller, are pretty rotten creatures. It begs the question, then, why there is any virtue in fighting crime. Why protect people who are themselves crap–because Miller, fan of Ayn Rand, certainly sees people that way. Heroes tower above sheep. Rand, whatever else you’ll say–and I know this only from others’ reports–had John Galt up pick up his marbles and leave. That made sense, given the point she was making about society. There is no reason to help people if people in general are truly crap.

Revenge motivates Miller’s Batman, not any sense of wanting to improve society. We see how the Wayne parents’ murder scarred their son, Bruce, but there’s no indication–necessary for aesthetic reasons–that Bruce transferred the pain he felt because of the trauma to any kind of appreciation for living people. For Bruce to become Batman, he needs to have said at some point to himself,

Wow. It sucked the my parents were killed in front of me. But look at this living person in front of me. He’s beautiful. She’s beautiful. They’re worth fighting for.

With that thought process, Batman could be Batman and still keep his “darkness.” Without that kind of thought process, you can’t explain why someone would put in the effort into becoming Batman. As it stands, Batman is really just a d**k. But my impression is that Miller understands being a d**k better than he understands anything else.

George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

A-Clash-of-KingsBeset by illness, I plowed through the last 200 pages of A Clash of Kings much more quickly than I expected to. A part of me had thought I’d finish both it and the ensuing A Storm of Swords before the third season of the HBO series began, but that train’s left the station. 960 pages is long. Needless to say, the best part of being fairly sick was the time spent with this book. Generally I felt awful.

Substantively, A Clash of Kings improved on A Game of Thrones. We all miss Ned Stark, but what struck me, having seen the series, was how well-developed the characters are in this second book compared to the series. Arya Stark stands out. There’s a lot more going on with her in the book than the show. So too Davos, Stannis Baratheon’s “Onion Knight.” These are fantastic characters, and the show simply does not do them justice.

Any glance at any of the bits I’ve written on fantasy here will reveal that one of my hobby horses is to bemoan how thoroughly Eurocentric the genre as it exists is. I noted that while Martin certainly demolishes Tolkein’s almost entirely-male conceptual precedent, he does so in a world that is, basically, late Medieval Europe. In particular, I am concerned when indigenous people–in Martin’s world we have “the Children of the Forest” are “all gone” or at least presumed to be.

My point has nothing to do with fantasy lit per se but rather that I’ve had too many conversations with actually-existing white people (it’s white people that concern me most because I am one, and because they still hold, as a group, social sway in this country) who say things like, “gee, the Native Americans really had a good thing going. Too bad they’re all gone.” This, despite the very real presence of all kinds of Native people not only on reservations but living in your city, white man. This approach allows this country to not deal with the present results of past genocide, and it’s not good. So, when I see that trope play itself out in fantasy lit, I know that it soothes the white subconscious in a way that will not move us forward.

So, let me then say that it’s becoming clear that Martin’s approach to indigenous people is more nuanced than was clear, or at least clear to me, in A Game of Thrones. First, we meet Jojen, who has the ability of greensight. He is of a group of people who, while not children of the forest, “keep the old ways.” Those old ways, clearly, still work in this new world of Westeros, and that is leagues removed from the idea that “those nice people are all dead and gone now.” It puts the question of our full, human relationship to land and ancestry into the present, rather than the past. There are other examples as well: Bran Stark is a “warg,” inhabiting the body of his direwolf in dreams, and one gets the feeling that we will meet children of the forest in later volumes. Good for Martin.

I’m nearly 200 pages into the third book as I write this. I don’t feel like I’ll bother with the HBO series for some time, if at all. Good series, better books.