Dan Clowes' Wilson & McTeague

"Has anyone read McTeague? If so, could you write an essay or blog post describing in what way, if any, the novel’s story or themes resonate with Wilson? Because I want to read that essay, and I am not going to have time to get to McTeague for a very long time."
Over at the always engaging Comics Comics blog, T. Hodler's opened up discussion on Daniel Clowes' Wilson. Among the many things that Hodler brought up is the connection between Wilson and Frank Norris' McTeague which Wilson is reading. I briefly explained the connection--or my interpretation of the connection--in the comments fray but I thought I would flesh it out a bit...

Before T. Hodler's question/prompt, I hadn't actually thought of Clowes' use of McTeague as anything more than a novelistic detail: A small, seemingly minor thing thrown in the story that succinctly characterizes Wilson. But that is a good place to start--we'll get to the thematic connections in a second.

Think of Wilson reading McTeague the same way John Ellis in Ghost World had a zine called Mayhem and was very much enamored with stuff like snuff films, kiddie porn, serial killers and just generally flaunted an anarcho-conservative point of view. The character is specific but not too specific. Just a "type" that you recognize, maybe you went to school with a guy like, or some chick's boyfriend is that very same kind of "subversive". I always thought of Jim Goad when I read the book--Goad would very much have been in the alt-comics/zine world news of the time--but Clowes' satire isn't so squarely aimed as that; again, it's more about a "type".

Wilson reading McTeague is similar. A detail there for those people that "get it" to chuckle to themselves, but it isn't crucial to understanding the story. For those that do get it however, it's quite rewarding. Even your classic elitist isn’t going to reach for Frank Norris’ social realist classic, but a certain kind of “never wants to fit in but thinks they’re a man of the people” type jerk would totally read McTeague. The novel’s grotesque and literary, but it’s also very raw and immediate--something resembling popular literature. I can imagine Wilson thinking “this is preferable to the hoity-toity works of Proust or Conrad" (who were writing around the same time). A false populism--which Wilson most certainly exhibits.

The detail also clarifies Clowes' pointed satire. It's the author/artist saying to readers, "Look, I know this asshole well, I'm hip to his game". By employing such a clear but still general reference, Clowes enters the world of his satirical targets and proves himself to be ridiculously spot-on about them. Most satire stems from a mix of contempt and distance, but Clowes is right there, beyond superficial characterizations and simplifications. Kinda that same way Hipster Runoff has an uncanny ability to inhabit the minds of the bros it satirizes.

Wilson would read McTeague. John Ellis would have some awful, third-generation shocking zine. The main character of Caricature's "MCMLXVI" would defend his love of 1966 precisely the way Clowes has him do it. It's the opposite of Clowes mocking himself--and establishing a distance between creator and creation--in Ghost World but it has the same effect. It tells the reader that a very self-aware artist is behind the very mean work you're reading.

Thematically, McTeague isn't going to open up the whole book, it isn't the Clowesian key to all mythologies or nothing, but Clowes shares Norris' rather harsh, unforgiving view of man. Norris is writing only forty or so years after Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species and so, all these connections between man and animal are new and just really fucking shocking. Like, seriously, not to dig up all my notes from when I taught 11th-grade English, but think of how much of a shock to pretty much everybody's beliefs it must've been when they couldn't take for granted--at least in quite the same way--all this stuff about God and where we come from and shit.

Norris channeled all these Darwinian ideas into McTeague. Wrapped up in the Social Darwinism survival of the fittest stuff that was hovering around, and caught up in bat-shit crazy ideas like Eugenics and Phrenology, Norris crafted a novel based around this unforgiving view of humans beings. People as animals, looking out for number one, cruel, harsh, and manipulative but ultimately, pathetically unchangeable. That's where Wilson enters. He's like an animal, scrapping around for survival--think of how he looks for his ex-wife once his dad dies, or how the girl that watched his dog ends up moving in with him--while at the same time, pinned to basically the same pathetic life patterns.

Lastly, there are a some weird biographical connections between Clowes and Norris. Both were born in Chicago, both eventually ended up in the Bay Area--Clowes in Oakland, Norris in San Francisco. McTeague's subtitle is "A Story of San Francisco" and you get a sense of the bubbling bay area around the late 1890s. And though environment isn't quite as key to Wilson, you certainly come out of the book with Clowes--or Wilson's at least--subjective view of Oakland--and because American's not quite so regionalized anymore-- the weird sad United States in the early 2000's.


Apologia for Iron Man 2

If you want to understand the differences between Jon Favreau's Iron Man and its imaginatively titled follow-up, Iron Man 2, you need look no further than the respective historical moments from which each movie was borne. And I'm not talking about the sort of tabloid-news understanding of American politics that results in ham-handed representations of so-called "Tea-Baggers" as somehow equivalent with white supremacists. Like its predecessor, Iron Man 2 is interesting because it evinces a subtle and complex understanding of the particular forces at work in our country and the peculiar leadership challenges faced by those concerned with fixing our broken country.

But this subtlety might also be the biggest flaw of Iron Man 2, in the sense that much of the film's sophistication has been missed by critics and moviegoers. In a genuinely probing—not to mention almost wholly justified—critique of superhero movies, no less a critic than Matt Zoller Seitz credits Favreau's Iron Man franchise with "cool competence" . . . and little else. As Seitz formulates them, superhero movies "[crank] up directors' box office averages and [keep] offbeat actors fully employed for years at a stretch by dutifully replicating (with precious few exceptions) the least interesting, least exciting elements of its source material." The critique is perfectly apt, but I think it fails to register the sort of societal self-examination that Favreau effects through this replication.

Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark is a perfect stand-in for the sort of second-generation tycoon that typifies the deficit of integrity and self-effacement that have been the unfortunate legacy of America's post-World War II prosperity. Stark wants all that is glamorous and awesome about being a titan, without any of the mundane drudgery. Part of this, of course, has to do with the sort of media saturation and commodification of sexuality that is a relatively recent development in American culture. Americans do not want their titans to be mundane any more than the Tony Starks of the world themselves do. But this sort of unbridled vanity is not without its costs, not the least of which is represented by the blurring of the lines between economies of production and value creation, and those derived solely from a desire to get rich.

If it seems like I'm getting a bit doctrinaire, there is a point to it. Iron Man 2 picks up right where its predecessor left off, with Stark basking in the glory of his revelation that he is indeed Iron Man and parlaying the public's fervor into the multi-million dollar monkey-spank that is the Stark Expo. The film's message about hubris and unbridled ambition is obvious, but where things get really interesting is in the weird doubling/opposition of Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff.

As with the best mainstream comics, Favreau uses an obvious opposition, in this case Pepper's prim elegance against Romanoff's more overt sensuality, to do something surprisingly sophisticated. As Romanoff first enters the film, at this point as Stark Enterprises counsel Natalie Rushman, she projects a dark and dangerous influence over Tony's life. Over Pepper's—and the viewer's—objections, Rushman encourages Tony to give in to each of his self-indulgent whims. The results of this are rather predictable, with Tony self-destructing at his own birthday party, losing an Iron Man suit, as well as the respect of just about everyone in his life.

Had the movie played out predictably, Stark would have realized the error of his ways, rejected the sexual decadence of Rushman/Romanoff, in favor of Pepper's relentless responsibility, and ultimately defeated Ivan Vanko's robot army by tapping into the unique combination of organizational genius, bluff daring and technical wizardry that has pretty much defined his character over the years. But that isn't what happens—at least not exactly. The monkey wrench thrown into the works is at least nominally due to the film's relationship with the overall Marvel universe. The biggest surprise of the entrance of Samuel L. Jackson's entrance as Nick Fury—ignoring for a moment the incongruous casting—is the revelation that Natalie Rushman is actually S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff. Her turn as legal counsel Rushman is simply a cover that allows her to get close to Stark/Iron Man, whom Fury covets for his quasi-covert governmental goon squad.

But setting aside this sort of comics nerd esotericism, it becomes clear that the movie can be read as something of an allegory of the early years of Obama's presidency, with Pepper Potts and Natasha Romanoff representing two seemingly opposed personae that the president has struggled to reconcile. Johansson's luridly sexual Romanoff is the equivalent of Obama as messianic world savior whose very election seemed to suggest that all the world's problems were over, while Paltrow's Pepper smacks of the pragmatic Chicago dealmaker whom everyone refused to see. What becomes clear as the film enters its third act, is that it is necessary to reconcile and harness both of these personae in order to have any hope of dealing with the enormous threat posed by Vanko and his slimy benefactor Hammer. The same can also be said of Obama as president—messianism alone cannot fix the enormous problems America faces, and yet people are bored by problem-solving pragmatism and thus it must be sexed-up a bit to make it more palatable.

If it seems like I am stretching things a bit with this analogy, consider Mickey Rourke's delightfully threatening turn as Ivan Vanko. Vanko is essentially Stark's intellectual equal and yet he is far more dangerous precisely because he is not motivated by a desire for wealth or personal glory. As Vanko sees it, men like Stark and his father placed their own personal gain ahead of the sort of selfless dedication of men like his own father and, in doing so, not only robbed him of his own personal birthright, but ultimately made the world a much less salubrious place. There are many Americans now, misguided though some of them may be, who feel a similar disgust at the sort of unbridled greed and unprincipled ambition that have come rather close to bankrupting the country.

Iron Man was the product of an America in which the greatest threat to our prosperity continued to be the foreign conflicts in which we were involved for increasingly nebulous purposes. What is perhaps most surprising about Iron Man 2 is that it avoids the predictable representation of the industrialist as unalloyed villain. Like its predecessor, Iron Man 2 is sophisticated precisely because it rejects just that sort of easy polemicism that simplifies national problems into neatly categorizable distinctions between Right and Left or Liberal and Conservative, and presents events in terms of a broadly distinguishable struggle between good and evil. And that it does so at the same time as it delightfully entertains is certainly deserving of admiration.



-Download Diamond Comics #5. This came out a several weeks ago and has got some cool art from Pete Toms, Benjamin Marra, and others. Published for free by Floating World, but only circulated around Portland. It's funding is maintained by viewers like you so, you know, pay it forward. -j

-Brandon Graham interview at CBR. Reveals that he's close to finishing issue #12 of King City which will be the last issue of King City 2, and also that his next project will be Multiple Warheads. And Brandon Graham is always straight up, "Plus, I'm the kind of asshole who asks about the ends of movies that I haven't seen." Also in Brandon Graham news, his list of "dream" comics from his livejournal is pretty entertaining. Included was James Stokoe's Silver Surfer which is actually partially completed, and apparently he just did for fun one day. -j

-Also, Frank Santoro's Silver Surfer. Love these strange, dull vibrant colors and the overall hazy feel of the image. It's like the comics equivalent of a distorted, kinda electronic cover of a classic pop song.-b

-New Mignola art. -j

-With images of Batman as a hoarder and Lego universes Ulises Farinas' internet game has been pretty tight, but he's just taken it to the next level with his Gotham Go GO GO. It pleases me to no end when webcomics actually use the internet to their advantage, and Go GO GO's eye catching giant middle panel is a perfect example. A panel of Superman with tears streaming from his eyes and his heat vision on the fritz after being mind controlled seals the deal. (via) -j

-Death to the Universe has been a comics blog that's been blowing me away lately. I found it after Matt, the blog's creator, commented over here and really, just wow. Smart, fun comics writing with a good sense of history and dude's feet are always on the ground, which is important. There's a real good thing on Starlin's Warlock up right now.-b

-Paul Pope and Dash Shaw in conversation with Robin from INKSTUDS.-b

-You've probably already seen Animated Albums, but yeah, some dude doing some old-school Gilliam-esque cut-out animation on a computer. I wish dude would pick better albums though.-b

-This "Tips for Freelancers, Artists, and Other Creative Types" is helpful for any creative types out there, making money off their creative type stuff or trying to make money off their creative type stuff.-b

-"M.I.A. and music's newest marketing frontier: the guerilla Web itself" by Gardner is a really interesting take on the web and what I've taken to call anti-memes or web imagery in a post-meme world: "MIA has taken the culture of the Internet's most creative, subversive and zealous hipsters to market herself and wrap her whole brand."-b

-Finally, rest in peace to the great Ronnie James Dio. Our buddy Julian has his thoughts on Dio's death over at Heavy Metal Infinity. Also, Phil Freeman's "A User's Guide To Ronnie James Dio, 1942-2010".-b


The Best of Ariel Pink's Sketchbook (NSFW)

Scooped from an angelfire website with 18 drawings, I've selected for you, the BEST 10 of AP's sketchbook.

For context, Ariel Pink is a lo-fi, avant garde musician from Los Angeles, California. He's noted as being "weird" or "outsider" and these drawings neither confirm nor deny this. Personally, what I like about these sketchbook drawings is they maintain craft. He didn't play down his ability to draw which is pretty great in the context of a sketchbook. The images where he does use simple lines and shading are hilarious. His drawing ability is so consistent and well-rendered, it's borderline obsessive. I always wished, when I kept a sketchbook, that my drawings would meet both criteria seen here: 1. well drawn 2. interesting but after seeing these, I don't think I can ever doodle again.

This looks like some sort of contraption straight out of a Tim Burton movie but with hidden dicks?


A faceless "psychedelic businessman" is similarly Tim Burton-esque but with less dicks and shards of clothing holding on to the contraption.


I think a couple of these are for mixtapes? This is the first of the two. Ignore the great list of music on the side and just the gross, old man, face saying he's "fucked up and horny" clearly commuicates a possible underlying theme for the tape. Plus, I always want to hear "what was said at the dinner party" and music from MEGAMAN.

More traditionally artsy? It's a haunting show of draping and stretching over stuff that I can't quite make out besides the upside-down bird at the bottom.


Maybe it's a scrapped album cover or single cover, as we can see his name in the upper left corner...but continuing on the theme from number 7; it's as if items are lost in some weird mass of drape-y material.


Old fart, Booty time is amazing.


Whatever this is, I'd like to own it. It seems like another tape cover with his music on it, as I am noticing some familiar song titles. Notice that Peter Schilling, David Bowie, Santana and Isaac Hayes all played a part in the making of this :-)

Hellloooo, Benjamin Marra!!! Testosterone eaters, johnny pump? I need an AP + Benjamin Marra comic immediately.

A child hiding inside various human forms.

!!!!!#1.!!!!!! Not sure I've seen a better sketchbook impression of boredom. Are those neurons coming out of the bottom? So good.



Why Does This Insanely Racist Thing Happen in Spider-Man: Fever?

Brendan McCarthy's return to comics for the first time in a while is delight, and it's a kind of smarmy, contrarian comics nerd's wet-dream--a superhero comic in a defiantly throwback style, and also it's bubbling over with tripped-out, next-level art and ideas. Not a superhero comic and not not a superhero comic, you know?

Really, no "diss" on Ditko or nothing, but Spider-Man: Fever is what I wanted Ditko's work to be like before I ever really saw Ditko's work. See, back when those shits were sorta hard to find and I had like my Comics Journal issues and maybe one or two dusty-ass collections from my local, suburban library and that's it, the idea of Ditko (or Kirby or Moebius or even, Frank Miller) bubbled-up into something no artist could never live up to.

Same way, say, descriptions by Scorsese and a single still in some crappy International Cinema book turned Bresson's Pickpocket into something "bigger" than the patient, brooding, kinda erotic crime movie it actually is. Point is, Spider-Man: Fever is something else, it's close to the kind of insanity I drummed-up from other people's descriptions of Ditko's work. That's great!

Spider-Man: Fever also helps me cope with a more recent comics-related disappointment: Mike Allred's steady downward trajectory into suckiness. It's something I've discussed with my fellow writers here and we all confessed to, on some dark, bored night, re-opening those first two volumes of Madman to make sure they were still perfect because well, his work's fumbled from confused, high-concept kinda cool stuff to dopey, too high-concept, digitally-colored pop-art garbage.

McCarthy certainly isn't aping Allred here or anything, but he's stumbled upon a lot of the things that made Allred's work really invigorating: A genuine love of comics, un-ironic chintzy humor, some heady stuff here and there, and a confident but wacky art-style that bounces off in twenty different directions at once.

How awkward but real Spider-Man looks sitting on a windowsill checking to see who's on Letterman. That Spidey tells Vulture, a page later, to "Cut that out!" when dude's sticking his grubby birdy mitts in his eye. That the villain of this is named Albion Crowley. That the whole bug world in issue #2 is so gritty and weird you kinda wanna vomit looking at it. It's just really good and really bizarre. But I almost didn't buy the second issue this week because of this one weird tangent in issue #1. I'll remind you real quick...

Spider-Man and Vulture are fighting and they crash through a window. McCarthy's brilliantly cuts-away from it for two pages of Dr. Strange weirdness and when we return, Vulture's all tied-up in a web and mad and shit. And then, out of the corner of the panel, a speech bubble reads "Hey, thass my phone!".

The next panel reveals a black guy (sideways hat, medallion hanging from his neck, baggy jeans and shirt), the owner of this apartment, and he's really worried because Spider-Man called the cops with his phone, and well, black people are all criminals, so the cops coming would be real bad. It's a weird, bad punchline. A page or so later, you get some more of this unfortunate "urban" patois ("You the guy who wrecked my pad!", "You the guy who brung the cops!") and it's just really, really awful.

First, it's just weird. How, in 2010, a clearly smart knowing guy like McCarthy could write such ridiculous coon-ish dialogue is baffling. Second, it's confusing because the guy's dressed like say, a De La Soul or Souls of Mischief fan from the early 90s, not a thug at all. Third, it's a buffoonish black character dropped into the narrative for some incredibly cheap laughs. This kind of stuff happens in comics all the time, like casual sexism, and it's just sort of jarring and weird and worst of all, innocent. McCarthy clearly doesn't think this is a big deal, right? He finds it humorous or maybe somehow, accurate to real life? What the fuck.

Well, it is a big deal. On the humanist tip, I prefer not to see people and peoples degraded like this. But frankly, more important than the "this is racist and it's bad" argument is that it really kinda derails the whole comic book and makes you look at the piece of art and artist behind it quite differently.

Real quick though, a rant about artists and ideology, so you see where I'm coming from. One of my favorite records of this year is Burzum's Belus and unlike many other metal fans, I don't think the quasi-Neo Nazi, Odinist ideology that fuels Burzum's work is to be ignored or laughed at, but just part of the package. Dude does what he does well and there's something fascinating and in a weird way, sincere, about an all-out racist rattling out these insanely thrilling metal songs. There's no bullshit behind the undeniably bullshit ideology and I can kinda sorta respect that. You know what you're in for and dude goes for it.

With Spider-Man: Fever, McCarthy's not even some insane racist dropping in some quick propaganda, which I can accept that way say, Dave Sim's misogyny or Ditko's Objectivism kinda "works", this is just some dopey white asshole who doesn't even realize he just put some insanely racist shit in his comic book! It's distracting because it's a bummer and it's distracting because it forces you to think about the guy behind the comic, and well, exposes him.

Thankfully, none of this returns in issue two and I guess it's better it was in the first issue and just out of the way than a boner-kill two or three issues in, but really, I just wish it wasn't in there at all.


Live-Blogging Eating Some Jelly Babies

So, a while back, Monique was in San Francisco and bought me a box of Jelly Babies, something I'm obviously obsessed with because of Doctor Who. I've never had them and only vaguely knew what they were--some kind of gummy treat--and so, I figured I'd finally try them...

4:01 PM: They're a way bigger than you'd expect and they have this like, white, dusty residue on them. They're also British so my guess is they will taste really awful.

4:02 PM: I had to get a knife to open the package. It's one of those bullshit-ass packages that's kind of what cereal's in and it's caked in this white dust.

4:03 PM: Flashbacks to being like five years old and trying some weird-ass food I've never had before and already anticipating gagging or something.

4:04 PM: They're greasy and shiny, and kinda desiccated feeling, like a big bug that's been dead in the basement for a while. When you bite into them it's like all the air pushes out of them or something. Weird for sure, but not bad. This one was a brown-orange. I have no idea what it tastes like.

4:05 PM: Tried a black/purple one and it was vaguely berry-like. I don't think I'll ever get used to the way they just sorta crumble and crunch up and melt in your mouth...but not in a sexy, delightful M & Ms "melts in your mouth, not in your hand" way at all.

4:06 PM: Looking at the ingredients: Sugar, Corn Syrup, Water, Gelatin, Citric Acid, Artificial Flavors, Corn Starch, Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 1. Kinda explains this dry sugary taste...there's no preservatives!

4:07 PM: Fucked-up story: My grandmother told me how they used to sell these chocolate-dipped gummy baby things at the corner candy store when she was growing up (I'm remembering this story no doubt because what she described were closer to Jelly Babies than say, Gummy as we know it) and they were sold in the candy shop as "Little Nigger Babies". Yep.

4:07 PM: Second go around on the black/purple ones, which are much closer to a turd brown really. These sorta hurt the back of my throat. The brown-orange ones are better.

4:08 PM: These brown/green ones are maybe the best. Vaguely Lime. Closer to Lime-scented floor cleaner than Lime but they work. Also: They're less babies than like some weird disproportioned man-baby. Jelly Man-Babies. Jelly Mongoloid Man-Baby Babies.

4:08 PM: I totally couldn't snack on these for too long, which is a good thing. 3-5 of them is good enough. Maybe that's why the Doctor's always trying to pawn them off on other people, he's got too many!

4:10 PM: Really can't get over the consistency, this dusty, crumbly, berry-flavored gelatin shit but it kinda rules too...no stomach aches, no OD-ing on sweetness, just like vaguely tasty, kinda drab sweets.


Monday Links

-A few months ago, we were all pretty psyched about this documentary simply titled Babies. Well, here's the best review ever of Babies, coming to a theater near you very soon. You'll kill yourself from cuteness when it's over.

-Tom Ewing's "Poptimist" column this month is about the comic book, Phonogram, and surprise surprise, it's better than most real comics criticism. Flashbacks to Tom writing about Final Crisis and Secret Invasion awhile back.

-Nathan Williams, aka WAVVES, sometimes reviews video games for The Fader. Today, he dropped a review of Heavy Rain:
"Heavy Rain is unlike any other game I’ve ever played before. It’s a serious interactive movie and every action you make dictates how your personal story/Heavy Rain experience turns out. It starts a little slow, which makes room for the plot to actually set itself up, and at first all the menial tasks you have to do (rock a baby to sleep, grab dishes for your wife, play with your son) seem kind of boring. But that also sets up exactly how to control your character’s actions, which will be important later on when you’re fighting or in other high-stress situations, such as chopping off your own fingers with a rusty butcher knife. (Without context that won’t make much sense and I don’t want to give anything away so fuck an explanation, just play it and find out for yourself!)

Really, the driving element of Heavy Rain is the story (DUUUUH)—there are four characters and four possible endings, with the plotline based mostly around the lengths a father will go to to save his son. The actual story line is a little flat at points, falling somewhere between Saw II and Seven, but the objective is to eventually just see how it all turns out, like a movie. It’s pretty long for a movie, though, and for a video game it’s pretty short. It’s probably around six or so hours to beat? It took me two days, so it’s a pretty quick run. My girlfriend didn’t even mind watching me play it, because Heavy Rain connects with whomever is watching or playing. Minus a couple small plot holes, this game is a total banger and comes highly recommended accompanied with orange juice and a blunt."
-BEAT ELECTRIC is an awesome 80s R & B/Boogie/Disco blog I've been stealing a lot of music from lately.

-The new Future Islands album, In Evening Air comes out tomorrow, but some awesome motherfucker already scored one of the tracks to Dragon's Lair!