Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Batman: The Complete Outdated History

Batman is ridiculously old. Created in 1938 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, he is almost as old as comic books themselves—what we think of as a serialized comic book today began sometime around 1935 and Detective Comics (DC) #1 was published March 1937—but he is still just as popular as he’s ever been. In his comprehensively researched book, Batman: The Complete History, Les Daniels details every aspect of the most ambivalently sinister superhero to wear his underpants outside his trousers while delving into the question of what accounts for this character’s multigenerational appeal.

While this sophisticated book does cover pretty much the entire history of the publication, the text doesn’t offer much insight or go into very much detail in its reporting more or less the bare facts so as to keep the book at a reasonable length. It begins with a time decades before Batman was ever found on the printed page, going through Kane’s various influences (and possible influence)—Zorro, The Phantom, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage—and the lesser-known Finger used to create the Caped Crusader.

We are then taken from the hero’s early all-or-nothing days where he was a grim figure willing to shoot down and kill his enemies, to the diluted 1940-50s version of wholesome family type pulp fiction that literally featured a “Bat-Family”, to the pop-art influenced campy Adam West as Batman television show version, to the Neal Adams years of slick realism where he was a grim detective who relentlessly stalked those who preyed on the innocent that has been widely influential since the early 1970s, and ends with the even more expanded visions of Frank Miller, Denny O’Neil, Alan Moore, as well as Tim Burton’s 1989 film and in 1992 Batman: The Animated Series. Be warned, published in 1999, the Christopher Nolan films are not discussed, though the book is so well done you which it would have been written later.

The most frustrating thing about the book is that it is in no way critical of the film franchise even though things really went to hell with it there in the late 1990s. From this DC copyrighted book (who own the entire franchise, duh) you would think Joel Schumacher was a freaking genius for what he did with Batman and Robin. In other ways too Daniels proves annoyingly uncritical, as Claude Lalumière’s review “A Loving Bat-Tribute” sums up: “[it] flirts (but only flirts) with some controversial issues, such as the attribution of proper credit for the creation of Batman’s classic rogues' gallery and the highly questionable 1988 event ‘A Death in the Family,’ where readers were asked to call a 900 number to cast a vote of life or death for the second Robin, Jason Todd.” But I guess its never rise to bite the hand that feeds you as they say.

Some of the best sections are the ones that detail the effects of the Comic Code that regulated the industry making sure everything was PG-ish and wussified which was put into place following the 1954 publication of Seduction of the Innocent by psychologist Fredric Wertham that claimed “the Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies” after seeing things like the panel at right. This sparked a one-sided debate regarding the morality of comic books and since Batman had such a pivotal role in Wertham’s reasoning, much of the campy ridiculous crap came in an attempt to deflect criticism of angry parents and what have you.

This is all sort of like how people have been all up in arms over violent video games like Grand Theft Auto and such, saying they make kids violent and anti-social which is just insane. Here Daniels does a pretty good job of illustrating how the mindset that brought about the Comic Code was equally as ridiculous and stupid.

Also of note are the three reprinted Batman comics from the various time periods that show the comic’s progression. The stories work very well in context and are all excellent tales.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is its wonderful, aesthetically pleasing design engineered by Chip Kidd. Kidd’s work alone is worth the price of the book. Flipping through the book’s pages reveals its beauty with eye-popping art from cover to cover—its pretty much eye candy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Is Aaron Karo Having More Fun Than You?

A better question to ask would be, who is this guy? This leads to other questions that must first be asked like what authority does this Aaron Karo have? Why would I care what this guy’s day-to-day life is like at all? Or to use his phrase, “Who the fuck are you?” Well, Aaron Karo is a stand-up comedian—his routine for the most part appears in the book and isn’t too bad when performed, however, it loses something when written down—and writer of three books (Ruminations on College Life, Ruminations on Twentysomething Life, and I’m Having More Fun Than You [IHMFTY]) who got his start with a widely circulating “email column”, Ruminations, that he began while a first year at the Wharton School of the Ivy League UPenn, which is the best business school in the country. He has appeared as a guest on the Late Late Show with Colin Ferguson, ABC News, and Fox News, he was especially funny in the last two, has a digital stand-up record, Just Go Talk to Her, that peaked as the #8 Comedy Album on the iTunes Store, and this latest book of his, IHMFTY, reached the #1 spot for Humor on

Karo tells the reader most of this stuff to lend some credibility to everything he is talking about. But it doesn’t really work. These credentials wouldn’t have appealed to me enough to buy the book. How I came to read the book is something of a story in it self.* Anyway, telling us over and over again that he went to an Ivy League school doesn’t make him seem—oh, I don’t know—smart when everything is drinking this and banging (his preferred term for fucking) that. Plus, I assume most people don’t know very much about him and therefore don’t really care like he seems to assume readers do. And maybe the average person to buy his book will, however, knowing nothing about Mr. Karo, this reviewer found the detailing of what his friends are like over some 35-pages filled with contextless anecdotes to be excruciating and unnecessary.

Another irritating thing about the book is that it is littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes. A few others I found were “ever single night” (185) which I assume should be every and it’s a packaged deal not “a package deal” (193). That last one seems particularly infuriating and problematic considering the pun he is setting with the word “package.” While I am a grammarian snoot at heart, as is the case with most English majors, I do make mistakes from time to time. However, when I find mistakes in a published work it annoys the hell out of me since even with all those eyes looking over it, typos still make it in. These sorts of things make it hard to take the book at all seriously.

He is also paradoxical when it comes to many of the claims he makes. On one page it sounds like he bones thousands of women and his number of sexual partners, which he never discloses, rivals that of Wilt “The Big Dipper” Chamberlain, and on another more like he goes months sleeping alone. So too, at times it seems like he is looking to find the girl of his dreams and marry her right now and at other times is he in no way going to step up to the alter for at least another decade. He says that he won’t lie to sleep with a girl, seeing it as both unethical and unnecessary, and then he will go on to relate 25 stories about women he banged that he got into bed by telling complete all out falsehoods. These last two, which sort of go hand in hand, are also related to Mr. Karo’s most unforgivable inconsistency: his attitudes regarding and treatment of women.

Early on in the book, it actually seems that Karo is worried about offending women with his choice of lifestyle, and that he trying to distance himself from say a Tucker Max (see any of the following things about him on Gawker: “The Depraved Sadness of a Tucker Max Fan,” “Todays Lies From Tucker Max,” “‘The kind of asshole that all of his asshole friends love’,” “Tucker Max Seeks ‘Large-Titted Woman Who Is Turned On By Being An Object’,” etc.) or an Eric Schaffer (see “Eric Schaeffer Still Working His Worst-Douche-in-the-World Shtick”)—both whom hate women, a la Andrew Dice Clay—only to later make extremely misogynistic statements. at the beginning, he says things that explain his stance on dating and takes women seriously, writing about the double standards forced on women in a similar position by society. For example, when talking about how when he is surrounded by couples, it is more obvious that he is available, “but for many women, the same situation only makes it more obvious that they’re alone,” a fact he empathizes with women about, saying “that self-conscious feeling is the result of an unfair stigma foisted upon the fairer sex by society,” (11).

He also touches on the way the sexes are viewed differently in regard to their reputation when sexually active/promiscuous while making light of how he has benefited from such a difference when he writes, “It is without question that men and women are judged by different standards. If a girl sleeps around, she is called a slut. If a guy sleeps around, he gets a book deal,” (96). And when he describes rating systems as the “mechanisms passed down for generations that enable guys to assign a universally understood numerical value to a girl,” it seems he is more than anything letting women know what goes through the typical guys head and even says of this terrible but practically universally used practice “the entire exercise is, of course, superficial and borderline offensive,” (37). While this stuff too can be seen as offensive, he does seem to just want to teach more than anything else.

However, his motives for doing so get called into question as he makes uber offensive comments like “drunk chicks are like pinballs: they’ll bounce around the bar like ding!—ding!—ding ding!—ding!—ding! and then just go home with the last guy the bump into,” (51). Stuff like this gives him the air of one that does things like take women’s and gender studies courses in college to seem sensitive to the girls taking the class just so he can bang them. Worse still are things like this “Fun Fact” where he claims that “if a man takes a woman’s virginity, or gives her her first orgasm, he is entitled to sleep with her for the rest of his life,” (73). This sort of thing makes women out to be mindless objects with no ability to choose in that they will go along with anything the stronger and smarter males of the species desire no matter degrading or morally objectionable.

That said, at times, his ruminations do prove to be pretty accurate. For instance, when he posits that referring to fellatio as giving head “implies that a blow job is a gift that any guy [sic] should be appreciative to ever receive,” (85) is sad but true, he reminds me of something my friends and I came up with in college, which too is offensive and childish. What we did was base a person’s willingness to perform oral sex based on what he or she called it. According to this theory, one who says blowjob sees the act as a job that is done but rarely if ever enjoyed, giving head is something given if one is good or on special occasions much like a gift, and then sucking cock or eating pussy, you get the idea.

Proving accurate as well are things like the phenomenon of “guys bringing their love of stats and competition into the bedroom,” (89) when doing things like rating girls, keeping count of sexual partners, and timing sessions. But perhaps the most uplifting and true thing that Karo gets right is his assertion that “the longer you’re single before getting married, the better off you’ll be, because only single people truly know what makes them happy,” (238) with which I whole heartedly agree.

IHMFTY’s major disappointment though is the fact that it is not very funny. Yes, at times it does bring out a smile or two but it never proved laugh out loud hilarious, not once. This is especially unsatisfying after watching all the clips on the web of Karo’s stand-up and interviews where he shines as a witty, fun-loving, articulate man’s man. More often than not, jokes that you laugh on stage end up dying when written out. In Karo’s case this holds unquestionably true as he bombs punch line after punch line. Some examples: “This book won’t tell you how to do it, only how I did. What am I, fucking Oprah?” (4); “In college basketball, overcoming those odds is called being Cinderella. Every year, when March Madness unfolds, you hear a lot of gushing over Cinderella. But I’d only rate her about a seven,” (41); and “You want to find the guy who took a dump in the bar bathroom, huh? I’ll tell you it [sic, I guess?] is—it’s the happiest guy here,” (155). The last one proves to be a twofer in that it is both not funny and that it doesn’t even make any sense.

But I do admit, he is having way more fun than me, even if it isn’t as much fun as he claims.

* After buying and (quasi favorably) reviewing Maddox’s The Alphabet of Manliness a few months back, someone at HarperCollins found my blog, this site you’re reading here, and asked if I would be interested in reviewing Aaron Karo’s (IHMFTY), a book they are marketing to a similar demographic. Never one to turn down a free book, I agreed and read Mr. Karo’s work on living the single life, a topic that doesn’t exactly interest me, not that I have anything against that lifestyle, its just that can’t imagine why I or anyone would want to read about the “wasted” life of someone they have never even met.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Poor Grendel Had an Accident

Up until reading Grendel, I only knew its writer, John Gardner, through his career suicidal book length essay On Moral Fiction so I thought of him as a pompous ass-hat whose attitude made him seem like a sanctimonious, elitist prick. After reading the essay, I was pretty much over Gardner and his accusatory ways. 

So for years I ended up putting off reading this book told from the perspective of my all-time favorite monster, who I see as entropy incarnate, because in this nonfiction work he acted like a dick-head. On Moral Fiction thesis is namely that fiction should aspire to come off the page and wake the reader up to see what it is to be truly alive and believes this to be what fiction writers should aspire to. While this type of fiction is what I consider fiction at its best, Gardner’s tone was lets say off-putting and he also winds up taking shots at such contemporaries as Updike, Barth, DeLillo, and Pynchon, saying that they lack of morality, which again he believes the highest purpose of art.
Finally reading Grendel, which tells the monster’s side of the story immortalized by the anonymously written epic poem Beowulf through the form of a fictional autobiography, and Gardner has been totally redeemed. Composed in the ballpark of a millennia ago, Beowulf is where English literature begins as the oldest work scribed in my native tongue even though it was a much more primitive version of the language.[i] In the original Anglo-Saxon (a.k.a. Old English) poem, Grendel, a descendant of the biblical Kane from Genesis, is a cannibalistic maniac who loves to destroy him some mead halls that may be a monster or not and doesn’t seem to have the ability to think about or control his actions. He is chaos. Chaos that is ultimately quelled when the title hero rips off the arm of the “Destroyer of Mead Halls.”
Gardner takes this basic outline and revamps it for a contemporary, godless, existentially screwed, postmodern world dealing with the same questions that plague us all deep down. The main argument here is against contemporary thought that is so cynical in nature basically concluding that it is impossible to find any meaning in all of this when we think as Grendel does. But in this world where alienation and inner violence are so ingrained without any interpersonal connections to help us deal with these horrid feelings, what chance do any of us having at attaining true happiness, especially considering we can’t know anything with any certainty having everything constantly in question due to the banality of post-structuralist theory. 
For Gardner, this doesn’t just ruin literature it ruins lives. This becomes clear when Grendel meets the Dragon, a personification of such dangerous thought. Here, Grendel is told how to make his own meaning when the Dragon says “You want the word. That's what you've come for. My advice is, don't ask! Do as I do! Seek out gold--but not my gold--and guard it!” (62). Upon hearing these words, Grendel then sets about his philosophical quest of how to live in a world that lacks reason and has no inherent meaning. Regularly taunting King Hrothgar’s subject Unferth for his heroic romantic notions, he wanders why, answering why not when he says, “How, if I know all this, you may ask, could I hound him—shatter him again and again, drive him deeper and deeper into woe? I have no answer, except perhaps this: why should I not?” (122). In this he resorts to selfishness which can only end in his eventual demise.
The book is very self-aware, as is the case with most postmodern fiction, with its deployment of that old popular tactic of the 1950s on and especially it seems in the 1970s, metafiction. Some find this tactic extremely irritating and is one of the reasons very few readers, and there are very few of us left these days, hate postmodern fiction. I, however, eat that shit up and for some reason love references to the writing process and art as craft. This method works especially well in Gardner’s novel since it shows how stories shape the lives of everyone, including the sardonic, skeptic Grendel who is “shaped” not only by the stories he hears of himself through the “lies” of the Shaper, even going so far as to believe them at times, but also, because the book is intertextual, by the story that limits him outside of the novel existing outside of his own experience. In essence, he is confined to the rules programmed so long ago in the epic poem, which amounts to predetermined fate that is utterly inescapable. Making him even more tragic is the fact that he sort of knows this which he hints at with statements like “only in a world where everything is patiently being lost can a priest stir men's hearts as a poet would by maintaining that nothing is in vain,” (159). So then, Grendel is in a double bind since his existence does follow a set order but even still it is one that he or any of us for that matter can find any meaning in, resembling an arbitrary cosmic joke that is always on us in the end and is in no way funny. 
Grendel is so brilliant in so many ways that a dissertation can hardly even do it justice. It receives this reviewers highest praise and recommendations. It is required reading for anyone who takes literature seriously. The book is at times surprisingly hilarious. For example, when Grendel briefly kidnaps Hrothgar’s queen, Wealtheow, who he has sort of had a little crush on, flips her up and pulls “her naked legs apart as if to split her,” when he suddenly gets the idea to hold her over a fire to cook her “ugly holy,” (109) all while laughing like a maniac only to lose interest after getting self-conscious and realizing that to kill her would be just as pointless as to not kill her. He then leaves quasi-proud of himself for throwing everyone for a loop. Another example is when Grendel goes into the mead hall to eat people and ties a tablecloth around his neck to act as an ironic bib, which of course amuses him. Despite behavior like this accompanied by a pompous attitude, which is typical Gardner, the reader truly feels anguish for my all-time favorite monster as he warns those he is alienated from and has terrorized for years gathered around him, “Poor Grendel's had an accident. So may you all,” (174). This brilliant ending gets us because once it is over and we have put the book down, we realize its true and he is talking to us.

[i] Beowulf is a work that has been very near and dear to me. I have read it more than any other book for class and pleasure, I think I'm somewhere around my eighth reading, I have preferences with various translations (for example I like the Chickering version much more than the more popular Heaney-wulf text), and I am one of very few who is able to read the work in its original Anglo-Saxon, which I consider beautiful, having done extensive study in the language. Part of what I did in my course work for my Advanced Old English class was translate poems which more often than not ended up being from this epic tale.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

DeLillo's Falling Man may disappoint but it is still the best 9/11 novel to date

There isn’t a writer alive who is more talented or more prophetic than Don DeLillo. Even though his most recent novel, Falling Man, published in 2007, (which I completely by coincidence finished reading on September 11th which marks the eight year anniversary of the Horror) falls short of the work he has done in the past, it is still the best work of fiction dealing with the events of 9/11.

Long before “the planes,” DeLillo foretold the rise of terrorism explaining their mindset as “the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith,” aptly depicted the power of mass media and full public viewed death, the seduction of technology and popular culture, institutionalized paranoia, how a crowd can become “violent, history-changing mob,” and the conclusion that “the rules of what is thinkable” has and will change as these things come together.

Having established himself as, in your reviewer’s opinion, the greatest living American writer with his fingers firmly on the pulse of late-date American culture, it is not surprising that DeLillo’s 9/11 novel trumps those of say Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Or as New York Review of Books critic Andrew O'Hagan in his piece, “Racing Against Reality,” writes:

If the twin towers could be said to have stood in wait for the Mohamed Attas of the world, then the Mohamed Attas of the world were standing in wait for Don DeLillo. To have something exist as your subject before it happens is not unprecedented in the world of literature—consider Kafka and the Nazis, Scott Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age—but the meeting of September 11 and Don DeLillo is not so very much a conjunction as a point of arrival.

In other words, no one has been destined to write the definitive 9/11 novel than Don DeLillo, which to date, he has done.

The novel, which spends most of its time following Keith, who survived the attack of the North Tower but lost two friends from his weekly poker game, and his family as he falls deeper and deeper into a state of alienation that eventually leads him to a depression inducing life as a professional poker player in Las Vegas, is another great example of DeLillo’s ability to depict middle-aged male dissociation in traumatic situations heightened by a chaotic domestic environment that steels away the protagonist’s power and confidence. This perhaps especially true in Falling Man as the planes pile it on even thicker by giving Keith an excuse to remain blank with shock.

Also of note are an interesting portrayal of one of the hijackers in the time leading up to American Airlines Flight 11 crashing into the tower and the ongoing image of a performance artist who re-enacts the iconic image of the 9/11 jumper nicknamed “The Falling Man.” These are some of the most attention grabbing sections of the novel and alone make the book worth reading.

Even so, DeLillo’s genius doesn’t manage to completely convey the events or the ways that they have made us crazy as a country in a profoundly accurate way. As New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, who of course hated it as she does pretty much anyone—Franzen (penned his memoir The Discomfort Zone an “odious self-portrait of the -artist as a young jackass” to which he responded by saying that “the stupidest person in New York City is currently the lead reviewer of fiction for the New York Times”), Foster Wallace (tiresome, whiny), Amis (weak, risible) and most notably Mailer (silly, self-important and at times inadvertently comical) whose fiction I’m not crazy about but nevertheless share in his Kakutani hatred although think it did go overboard at times like when he called her “a one-woman kamikaze” with a “hair up her immortal Japanese ass” and told Rolling Stone that the only reason the Times didn't fire her was because she was “a twofer”, in that she is “Asiatic” and a “feminist” saying that “she is a token” and “deep down, she probably knows it”—that should be considered genuinely innovative, wrote in her review of the novel “perhaps not even enough time has passed for any novelist to grapple convincingly with those actual events, without being eclipsed by the documentary.” This statement proved to be unexpectedly—believe it or not—spot on since even DeLillo fails live up to the real time, live pictures that we all saw on that lovely and terrible day.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Joker Kills It

Watchmen author Alan Moore’s retelling of the Joker origin in his one shot, Batman: The Killing Joke, focuses on the psychological warfare Batman and the Joker have long been engaged in. While the short graphic novel proves in some ways groundbreaking and has enjoyed much influence in the Batman universe and continues to hold an incredible amount of pull with the various Batman films, the story ends up lacking in its character development and is riddled with clichés.

When revisioning how the Joker came to be Batman’s all-time greatest foe, Moore presents his pre-costumed villain days as those of a struggling stand-up comic who joins up with a band of thieves to provide for his wife and the child they are expecting. The crime the group undertakes, shown in flashbacks as the main narrative goes forward, consists of robbing a chemical company where he worked as an engineer before deciding to become Seinfeld.

Things start going wrong on the night of the heist when police show up at the bar where the group makes their plans to inform the comedian that his wife has died in an ironic, “Gift of the Magi”-ish accident involving an electric baby devise. Obviously in no condition to perform his role, which requires him to dress in the mask of a villain known as “Red Hood”, instead of letting him go back to his empty apartment to cry himself to sleep or de-map himself or whatever, the two thugs he sits with strong-arm him into going through with it.

When they end up in the plant, the cops show up immediately and they finger the comic in the red getup as the criminal mastermind Red Hood in hopes of Gotham’s finest focusing their efforts on him. Making things worse, Batman shows up and scares the holy bejesus out of the comedian, forcing him to make the ill-advised decision of jumping into a vat of toxic waste to swim to freedom. After his swim, he drags himself to shore only to discover that the poison has forever dyed his hair green, bleached his skin, and given him a constant Cool-Aid mustache. This telling of the Joker’s myth was clearly a major influence for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film where in following a shootout with police at a chemical factory, Batman busts in which eventually causes Jack Nicholson’s character to fall into a large vat of some sort of acid and then emerge from a near by reservoir with stained hair and skin.

This is not anyone’s idea of a good day and apparently the events of this really crappy day caused the comedian to go insane and become the Joker. His scheme in Moore’s work is to drive Commissioner Gordon as crazy as he is by giving him his own personalized “one bad day.” After shooting and paralyzing his daughter, the Joker takes Gordon to his newly acquired carnival, strips him naked and taunts his to force him into madness.

This series of events constitutes some of the book’s best work. For instance, the Joker’s “Average Man” speech is particularly chilling, boasting the following in carnie fashion:

Ladies and gentlemen! You’ve read about it in the newspapers! Now shudder as you observe before your very eyes, that most rare and tragic of nature’s mistakes! I give you…THE AVERAGE MAN! Physically unremarkable, it has instead a deformed set of values. Notice the hideously bloated sense of humanity’s importance. The clubfooted social conscience and the withered optimism. It’s certainly not for the squeamish is it? Most repulsive of all are its frail and useless notions of order and sanity. If too much weight is placed upon them…they snap. How does it live, I hear you ask? How does this poor, pathetic specimen survive in today’s harsh and irrational world? The sad answer is ‘Not very well.’ Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them in a world as psychotic as this…any other response would be Crazy!

However, before Gordon completely nuts, Batman arrives to save, hurm, the day. These are issues director Christopher Nolan took up in his exquisite film The Dark Knight. The words above are echoed in the film when the Joker reveals his master scheme to prove that deep down, anyone can be as ugly as him when he states “I took Gotham's white knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn't hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!”

Even though the book has influenced the two most successful Batman films of all time—with Burton’s telling and Nolan’s transposing the Joker’s scheme of attempting to drive an upstanding citizen insane as well as themes such as the Joker as an unreliable narrator who prefers “multiple choice” when it comes to truth, the blurring of lines between Batman and his nemesis, and their inevitable mutual distruction—there are still a few problems with the work, namely it works too deeply in the archetype which doesn’t allow it address its themes in a powerful way. As Andy Shaw of Grovel points out, “the necessity of playing by the unwritten rules of such a tale round off its spiky edges… Without giving too much away, the ending is a little more traditional than the promise (or at best, ambiguous enough to leave it open to interpretation) and, as a result, a little disappointing… it’s incapable of squeezing out of its own shackles.”