#WYOA: week three

This has been a hectic and unproductive week for me—but it’s been a good week of classes.

Monday opened with some syllabus planning: the students decided to postpone our reading of To Be Or Not To Be—a book I am super-excited about—until after their first paper is due (the Monday of week five), and to put off their individual paper conferences until the Thursday and Friday before (so that we won’t have class on Friday, of course). Not major choices, but not minor ones either.

We talked about the review as a genre—I had to do some coaxing, but we compiled a list of common features (a “hook-y” opening paragraph, some short plot summary near the front, limited use of first and second person, no “I recommend” sentences, &c). Hopefully this will improve their papers—we’ll see how much they incorporate into their own writing. I tried to get them to talk about Fish’s How to Write a Sentence one last time—his division of sentence styles into “subordinating” and “additive” is intuitive and workable, and applicable to writing at all scales. They were unconvinced.

Lastly, we talked about the xkcd assignment a final time (last Wednesday, when they turned it in, we mostly talked about how they felt about writing it). I’d read and commented on all of them, and noticed that most of them were either totally implausible, or totally plausible, but very few managed to be both at the same time. (One that came close was about the civilization under the ice in Antarctica, built by NASA under Nixon; another was about the Coriolis effect necessitating rounded bullets.) I told them why I hate CARS—its premise is so totally implausible that I can’t even begin to suspend disbelief.

Wednesday we talked about three reviews of Man of Steel—in the New York Times, in WIRED, and at HitFix—that they’d read as homework. Our discussion of their responses to these reviews went well, and I hope it clarified for the students what things a review can be and do. Less useful was the “turn these reviews into outlines by taking the most important sentence of each paragraph” exercise—partly because I’d explained it by email, probably not clearly enough, and partly because only Dargis’s review worked that way. I talked a little about coherence in paragraphs, but that’s something we’ll have to return to.

The second half of Wednesday’s class was a bit more fun. I showed them this:

Page 15 of Ellis and Cassaday's Planetary, issue 1

…and asked them to tell me how to draw it. Then I showed them this:

Alan Moore; script for page 1, panel 8 of The Killing Joke

NOW WE ARE LOOKING AT THE POLICE CAR SIDE-ON SO THAT WE SEE THE UNIFORMED OFFICER STANDING FACE-ON TO US OVER ON THE LEFT AS HE STANDS WITH HIS BACK TO THE CAR AND COMMISSIONER GORDON FACE-ON OVER TO THE RIGHT, LEANING AGAINST THE CAR AND DRINKING HIS STEAMING COFFEE, MAYBE LOOKING UP WITH A QUIZZICAL AND CONCERNED LOOK OVER THE RIM OF HIS CUP TOWARDS THE EXTREME LEFT OF THE FOREGROUND, WHERE WE CAN SEE THE BATMAN ENTERING THE PICTURE FROM THE LEFT, IN PROFILE. SINCE BATMAN IS (a) CLOSER TO US AND (b) TALLER THAN EITHER THE COMMISSIONER OR THE PATROLMAN IN THE BACKGROUND WE CANNOT SEE THE TOP OF HIS HEAD HERE ABOVE THE BOTTOM OF THE NOSE AS THE FRONT OF HIM ENTERS THE PANEL ON THE LEFT. HIS EYES AND UPPER HEAD ARE INVISIBLE BEYOND THE TOP PANEL BORDER AND ALL WE CAN REALLY SEE IS HIS MOUTH, WITH THE BIG AND DETERMINED SQUARE JAW AND THE GRIM AND DISAPPROVING SCOWL OF THE LIPS. THE BATMAN DOES NOT APPEAR FROM HIS POSTURE TO SO MUCH AS GLANCE AT EITHER GORDON OR THE PATROLMAN AS HE WALKS PAST THEM EVEN THOUGH BOTH OF THEM STEAL GLANCES AT HIM WITH DIFFERING LOOKS OF UNEASE. THE PATROLMAN LOOKS UNEASY JUST TO BE IN THE BATMAN’S PRESENCE, WHILE GORDON LOOKS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT THE BATMAN’S POSSIBLE STATE OF MIND. RAIN DRIPS FROM EVERYTHING, INCLUDING THE BATMAN’S JUTTING AND GRIZZLED CHIN. GORDON GIVES THE LARGELY-OFF-PANEL VIGILANTE A PENETRATING LOOK OVER HIS COFFEE CUP, AND THE BLUE LIGHT ATOP THE CAR WASHES OVER ALL OF THEM AS IT CIRCLES.

…and asked them to draw it. (I’ve done this exercise several times, and stole it from SEK.)

I’m still reading through these; I’ll let you know how they were next week.

For today’s class, the students wrote three summaries of the book/movie they’re reviewing—one at 500-600 words, and two at 100-150 words (one spoiler-y, one not). We talked about their experience writing these for a few minutes, and then I had them write twenty-word summaries, on the spot. I haven’t read any of these yet, obviously—summaries are on the docket for next week.

We spent a big chunk of today’s class playing Five Card Flickr. We voted on which photos to use, and collaborated on the stories—we did two of them, neither of which ever really cohered, but they were wonderful and ridiculous and kind of violent. The students all seemed involved, even the ones who don’t talk much, which was nice. A good way to end the week.

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ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN THE BOY WONDER

I just finished Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder—published sporadically between 2005 and 2008, on indefinite hiatus after 10 issues, incomplete in several senses of the word.

I’m conflicted.

No, I’m not: I didn’t enjoy reading it. It was offensively sexist, even (or especially) when it was pretending not to be. The dialogue was often ludicrous. The plot was disjointed and uncompelling—though part of this is probably a function that in ends in medias res (more on this in a bit). The villain, the person responsible for the murder of Dick Grayson’s parents in the first pages of the first issue—the Joker, who else?—doesn’t appear until the final page of issue seven (and then only as a full-page joker card), and then is only given a brief and fucking boring scene which opens the eighth issue. Also: the goddamned Batman is a goddamned sadist, laughing gleefully while breaking bones and setting people on fire.

Not fun at all. And yet, perversely, I think it would be a lot of fun to teach—for all the reasons I just said it was no fun to read.

I revisited Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead back in February, and I realized that while it’s bad, it’s bad in interesting and instructive ways. So is All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (also it has a stupid title). I’m teaching Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the fall, and I’m tempted to add ASBAR to the syllabus—Miller has stated that both take place in the same universe (along with The Dark Knight Strikes Again and Batman: Year One)—but there’s not any room left, or I’d be tempted to add Are You My Mother? as well. And, really, teaching a class that was just Miller’s Batman (with his not-Batman thrown in for good measure) would be awesome. Sometime. Maybe after Miller and Lee finish ASBAR, which is never going to happen.

Anyway—why would ASBAR be so fun to teach?

One example: the Joker appears so late—and is such a shallow, uninteresting, carelessly written—because he’s superfluous: this Batman takes up all the room for senseless violence. This is Batman as the villain who thinks he’s the hero, or who just doesn’t give a fuck about the distinction. He’s his own enemy, and he’s really hard to like. He’s an anti-hero, or something. He’s a character ripe for armchair psychoanalysis.

A second example: this series clearly illustrates how ridiculous it is for Batman to exist in a world populated with “real” superheroes—like Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern, who all make appearances, and all look like idiots. And, interestingly, the incipient Justice League is vehemently anti-Batman: Superman wants to hand him over to the “authorities,” and Wonder Woman (“Diana”) wants to put him down, like a rabid dog (and that’s a direct quote). (It doesn’t help that he kidnaps Dick Grayson—the first Robin—moments after the boy’s parents are murdered.)

A last example: the series stopped after ten issues, with basically every plot arc unresolved. (Why did the Joker want Dick’s parents murdered? What’s going on with the unnamed Black Canary? What will happen to Batgirl? What about Catwoman? And, seriously, what does Barbara Gordon’s alcoholism add to the story?) The first nine issues were collected into a single volume: All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Volume One—a collection that ends with Batman and Robin crying together at Robin’s parents’ graves. It’s not an ending, exactly, but it does provide some sense of resolution. Issue ten fucks that up completely—and saving that issue (withholding even the fact of that issue’s existence) until after the students had read and discussed Volume One could be a really interesting exercise.

I have no idea when, or if, I’ll get to teach this class—but it’s totally going in my file.


Comic books!

I didn’t really read comic books as a kid. I read some, of course—an issue here and there—I remember one, an issue of Legends of the Dark Knight, which featured a Viking Batman——but I never really latched onto a title or a character and read issues regularly, as they were released.

Part of the reason—and I may be projecting backwards here, at least a little bit—is that the (perpetually) serial nature of (most) comics felt like work. I like my narratives to be contained and finite, and serial comics are exactly the opposite. Every issue of every comic I read as a kid was the middle of some story arc, which was itself part of some larger collection of story arcs, and I fucking hated it. (Serial comic titles are like soap operas, basically.) I had no idea what was going on, no idea where I would’ve had to start, no idea when the story would end—and, because I’ve never liked interacting with strangers, and this was before the internet, I had no resources for figuring out the answers to those questions——so I just didn’t read comics. I read books. On the playground, during recess, in grade school.

(Another reason I never got into comics, which developed later, and also applies to things like the Star Wars Extended Universe—there’s an obsession with continuity and canonicity that I find ridiculous. I can explain why to you sometime, if you’re interested, and you buy me a beer. For now, here’s an example.)

A few years ago, though, I started to get cautiously interested in comics, largely because a blogger that I read regularly (or read [past tense] regularly, until he stopped posting regularly—which sounds vaguely familiar) kept blogging about Watchmen. I eventually read it, and I was hooked—cautiously. I started slowly picking things up as I found them at Half-Price Books, but I had other things to read, and my reintroduction to comics stalled. Then I read Fun Home in a seminar last fall, and was blown away: that was text that made me realize how much the medium was capable of (a lot). And then I read Asterios Polyp over the break after that semester, and I was hooked in a not-cautious way.

I read Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. I read Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns, and its companion Batman: Year One (I’m still trying to get through The Dark Knight Strikes Again). I read Warren Ellis’s Planetary series—and even taught his Planetary/Batman crossover/one-shot, “Night on Earth,” in my first-year writing course this semester. (If it’s not obvious, I’m a fan of Batman.) I read Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come.

I started to feel confident: with the power of the internet, I could identify (mostly) self-contained story arcs (and read them, too, in an ethical grey area). I solicited advice from more knowledgeable friends and colleagues, and tried to figure out where to start——with Grant Morrison’s (really recent—July to December, 2010) “Return of Bruce Wayne” run in Batman. It was good, if a little odd, and it might actually be better the second time through. It was great! Comic books!

…and then I read Morrison’s All-Star Superman.

It was often, as the above image (pages two and three of the first issue) shows, gorgeously illustrated—but it made no fucking sense. Well, it made sense occasionally, but when it did, it was either inane, or derivative, or boring. To sum the plot up: Superman gets too close to the sun, which overcharges his cells (which are like little solar batteries, I guess?—that’s one of those things that makes me hate comic books)—which means he’s dying, slowly, for the whole twelve-issue run, and he has to complete twelve labors before he dies (except he doesn’t die, exactly, but goes into the sun to keep it running after it turns blue, like a super-hamster on a fusion wheel, or something).

Okay: a hero, twelve labors, a final sacrifice: those are the elements of a good plot. But the labors are never enumerated in the series, and the list Morrison later provided includes some that seem less-than-heroic (and aren’t really presented as “labors” in the text)—and the doing of the labors is surrounded by lots (and lots) of narrative clutter: things that happen for no particular reason except to happen. Some people like that, I guess—but life is full of things that happen for no particular reason, and I like my narratives more carefully constructed than that.

I could continue complaining about All-Star Superman, but you don’t want to read it, and I don’t want to write it. The point is that my newfound enthusiasm for comic books, while intact, has become more cautious again—and it will be a while before I read Morrison or Superman (whom I’ve never really liked) again.