Notes on Will Eisner

Will Eisner, A Contract With God

I was asked to contribute an essay on the work of Will Eisner as part of this year’s (2010) Will Eisner Week celebrations. I decided to take a closer look at Eisner’s Contract With God Trilogy. The essay (well… really a series of notes) just got posted. Here’s a short excerpt:

All the stories in A Contract with God take place on Dropsie Avenue. Eisner fills this fictional Bronx street with multiethnic (especially Jewish) immigrants, desperate criminals and ragged tramps. Sudden wealth is as possible as instant ruin. Throughout the book it becomes obvious that the real protagonist of the book is the street itself. Eisner lavishes attention on its dilapidated buildings, rain drenched stoops and moody street-scapes. He’s clearly enamored of the urban patina of the place. With each subsequent story, Eisner increasingly begins to use the architecture of the street as a substitute for the panel border. In effect he trades the comic-book gutters for the gutters of the street.

Read the whole thing here.


Understanding Watchmen

The Trans-Atlantis blog doesn’t pride itself on timeliness. The Watchmen movie is no longer the cinematic event of the moment. The movie’s been debated to death, chewed over, the hype has been sucked out and all that’s left is a gory twitching corpse of low expectations. What better time to see it!? Was I disappointed? No. Was it good? Not really. I’m not sure that I can give an objective opinion. I mostly agree with Zak Sally’s assessment and I think that Isaac Cates is onto something‚Ķ I think the film will have it’s greatest impact on the academic world of media studies. Zack Snyder’s slavish adaptation of the comic-book turns the two Watchmen versions into the perfect study-guides. The story is essentially the same so the student can focus on the unique properties of each medium. Take Marshall McLuhan’s ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media theories. The hot high definition film can now be studied side by side with the cool low definition comic-book. Watchmen the movie is the perfect example of film as a hot medium. Since the film can never approach the comic-book’s narrative complexity, it compensates with visual overload. Every texture, grain of dust, shard of glass, spark of energy, drop of blood and rain, is visible and rendered in loving hyper-real detail. Each frame is crammed with detail in an attempt to get as much of the comic on film as possible. Dr. Manhattan’s nauseating avatar (CGI has a long way to go before it ascends from the Uncanny Valley) represents the film’s high definition aesthetic. Nothing is left to the imagination. Watchmen the comic-book takes full advantage of the cool nature of comics. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons chose to tell the story mostly through a tight nine-panel grid. Each panel by itself doesn’t contain much detail. It’s too small for that. The complexity of the story unfolds though repetition, juxtapositions, foreshadowing, etc. It’s up to the reader to stitch the whole thing together; to fill in the gaps‚Ķ etc. I suspect that both the movie and the comic-book will very quickly become ubiquitous in college syllabi around the world.

UR : Utopia Report : No. 2

Cartoon Utopia the mini-comic

It’s time for another edition of the UR, the Utopia Report. If you missed the previous edition, check it out here.


The first Utopia Report ended with Ron Regé’s Cartoon Utopia. In a recent post, Ron took the time to explain the sources of the utopian world he is building. Ron’s reading list tends towards the transcendental and mystical visions of utopia. This makes sense. His work for me always had mystical underpinnings. The interactions between his characters always depict some kind of unspoken (telepathic?) connections. Auras, rays, and halos emanate from his characters revealing extrasensory sensitivities. Their egos dissolve into larger energy fields producing new undiscovered harmonies. It’s really interesting to see this work develop. The Cartoon Utopia is slowly becoming the theoretical underpinning of its own formal qualities. It describes a vision of the world by being that vision‚ an “ouroboric vessel.”
Also, check out Ron Regé’s Cartoon Utopia mini-comic.


Interesting call for more ‘utopian post-apocalypse movies. The author wonders why we don’t see “suggestions for post-apocalyptic living or specific life-changing prescriptions for our current situations” in movies as much as we see the destruction of the world. The answer seems obvious. It’s a lot easier to destroy than to create. In a way, he’s giving further evidence to the Zizekian creativity deficiency as expressed in his “it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system” statement. If we can’t imagine a small change, then how can we go about devising new utopian societies and civilizations? But, Zizek’s statement is starting to sound a little dated these days. As the financial crisis erodes confidence in our society, it’s becoming increasingly possible to question the way of life that led us to this point. Perhaps this can lead to more creative visions in cinema, science fiction, and politics. I’m skeptical on the political front‚ but I would welcome more pulp utopianism.


I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s, Red Mars. It’s part one of a trilogy about the settlement and terraforming of the red planet. Earth is overpopulated and running out of resources. Mars seems the obvious solution as the destination for mass emigration and a huge source of natural resources. The drama of the novel hinges on the struggle between capitalist and socialist tendencies (though the author doesn’t necessarily spell this out). The capitalists see Mars as a planet-sized mine and a source of planet-sized profits. The socialists see the red planet as a blank slate for a new society and an opportunity to forge a new relationship with the environment. The harsh living conditions on Mars foreground the preciousness of things we usually take for granted on Earth. Atmosphere, soil, water are not there for the taking. The terraforming (literally Earth-shaping) of Mars is a huge collective effort. In such an environment concepts like private property and money become meaningless. How do you turn Mars into a new Earth, when Earth no longer resembles itself? I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.

Speaking of Kim Stanley Robinson… here’s a recent article where he describes capitalism as a multi-generational Ponzi scheme. A lot of ideas found in Red Mars are echoed in this essay.


Popular Again

It’s amazing how quickly things can change. In In Defense of Lost Causes Slavoj Zizek wrote that the success of capitalism was marked by the disappearance of the word ‘capitalism’ from public discourse. Capitalism has become the status quo to such an extent that we no longer recognize it as an economic idea (something made-up, invented, artificial), we see it only as ‘the way things are’ (the reality, natural state of things). Needless to say, the book was published before the crisis of Capitalism we’re currently enjoying. Capitalism is being questioned publicly once again, and with good reason. Still, one has to do a double take when the word appears so frequently on the lips of the British Conservative politician David Cameron. Here’s a couple of choice quotes from his speech at Davos:

“A lot of people are angry with capitalism. Instead of representing hope for a better future, they think capitalism threatens it. This matters because in the future, social, economic and environmental progress will only come from the drive, energy and enterprise of individuals. So if we want capitalism to be a success again, we need to make capitalism popular again.”

“Today, the poorest half of the world’s population own less than one per cent of the world’s wealth. We’ve got a lot of capital but not many capitalists, and people rightly think that isn’t fair.”

“So we must shape capitalism to suit the needs of society; not shape society to suit the needs of capitalism.”

That’s quite a statement from the leader of the party of Margaret (“There’s no such thing as society.” – as Bruce Sterling deftly observes.) Thatcher! Red Tory indeed!
For all his bluster Cameron still clings to tired old Capitalist dogmas:

“Yes, as I’ve said many times, we must stand up for business, because it’s businesses, not governments or politicians, that create jobs, wealth and opportunity, it’s businesses that drive innovation, and choice, and help families achieve a higher standard of living for a lower cost.”

Somehow ‘The Government’ never amounts to anything. It’s as if property laws & regulations, monetary systems, public education and transportation, trade treaties, research subsidies, etc. had nothing to do with the ‘success’ of business. Just as Capitalism disappears into ‘just the way things are’ so does the government. We forget that a lot of the great things Cameron attributes to business (wealth, opportunity, innovation, higher standards of living, etc.) had to be forcibly wrested away in a bloody struggle by several generations of workers and enforced by generations of politicians and lawmakers… yes… the government.

Ultimately, he’s simply a moralist. According to him, the system is fine, we just got too greedy. We just have to shape up:

“Markets without morality. Globalisation without competition. And wealth without fairness. It all adds up to capitalism without a conscience and we’ve got to put it right.”

This call for a new moral Capitalism isn’t as new as it seems. It’s been slowly bubbling up to the surface of politics for years. In fact Zizek already identified its ‘chocolate laxative’ center while discussing another global economic summit in… Davos… in 2001!

This sentiment is echoed in some recent statements from Obama:

“And when I saw an article today indicating that Wall Street bankers had given themselves $20 billion worth of bonuses ‚Äî the same amount of bonuses as they gave themselves in 2004 – at a time when most of these institutions were teetering on collapse and they are asking for taxpayers to help sustain them, and when taxpayers find themselves in the difficult position that if they don’t provide help that the entire system could come down on top of our heads – that is the height of irresponsibility. It is shameful.”

There is an expectation of morally right behavior without creating any incentives that encourages that behavior. But, outside the tough rhetoric, there is little evidence that anything of consequence will happen. Instead the strategy seems to be this: wealthy capitalists need to hit the pause button on excess and selfishness until things are ‘fixed’… then we can return to regularly scheduled programming. At least Cameron, by using the word ‘Capitalism,’ is willing to acknowledge that this is an ideological battle. No such acknowledgment is forthcoming from the ‘post-partisan’ and ‘bipartisan’ Obama administration. This evasion of politics makes it harder to question major economic assumptions and blind-spots that we keep carrying on our backs like the proverbial monkey. Obama is even going to appoint a Republican as a Commerce Secretary. How post-partisan! It only reveals that Democrats and Republicans don’t differ all that much on the basic substance of economic policy. Jacques Monin, the French journalist, has it right [ again via Beyond the Beyond ]:

“You no longer imagine, it seems to me, that there might actually be such a thing as a “choice of society”. Along with New Labour, the very idea of anything resembling an ideology vanished. In France, on the other hand, politics still condition the life of the individual. Rightly or wrongly, my fellow countrymen still want to believe that a choice of society really remains possible. They might resist reform, as you like to point out, but they involve themselves – deeply – in politics.

“Here, however, the boundaries between the major parties have been all but eroded. This drift to the centre, combined with the weakness of the extremes, has anaesthetised British politics. So the British don’t vote very much. They don’t object very much. They don’t dream very much.”

Substitute ‘Americans’ for ‘British’ and that statement still rings true. Of course it doesn’t help when the Global Left is a chaotic mess.

The Eternal Sunshine of the Capitalist Mind

This song has been in my head all day. I finally decided to find it online. Here it is:

It’s called ‘Солнечный круг’ (Solar Cycle). It’s better known to many as ‘Пусть всегда будет солнце!’ (May There Always Be Sunshine). It’s an anti-war song. If you grew up in Eastern Europe (or at least around Eastern European emigrants) you most likely have this song seared into your head. I posted the lyrics in English below the fold.

It’s probably been over 20 years since I heard this song… well, outside of my head that is… Hearing it again is like being hit with a ton of nostalgic bricks. But what really struck me were the visuals of the videos. The second one especially has all the hallmarks of Socialist Realism. And, yet… they are so… well… American. Besides some minor differences in clothing, and the like, the whole thing wouldn’t have been out of place in the US… at least in that timeless-Norman-Rockwell-eternally-50’s-LIFE-Magazine-innocent-Leave-It-To-Beaver U S of A that still grips the popular (and political) imagination.

I’m often struck by an uncanny sense of déjà vu whenever I watch American politics unfold on TV. The discourse is carefully circumscribed by what can or cannot be said in public about the economy, socialism, Islam, Israel, etc. The 2008 campaign was only the most recent example of that. As much as I like and support Obama, I’m still bothered by the slick visuals his campaign saturated the airwaves with. For all the soaring rhetoric (and yes rhetoric matters) and ‘straight talk’, everything is still directed at saving Capitalism (with a hefty dose of socialism if need be… but shhhh). Socialist Realism is the term used for art which furthered the goals of socialism and communism. Until the Soviet collapse, it was the officially approved style of art for decades. How long does Capitalist Realism have?
Obama Logo

Continue reading “The Eternal Sunshine of the Capitalist Mind”

UR : Utopia Report : No. 1

Cartoon Utopia #67 By Ron Regé, Jr

Introducing another new semi-regular feature on Trans-Atlantis: UR™ or the Utopia Report. If you’ve read this blog, or my comics before you already know that I’m very interested in the concept of Utopia. In the Utopia Report, I’m going to start cataloging interesting articles, posts, and snippets relating to the general topic of Utopia. As with my posts on the Apocalypse and Utopia in the past, this is to help me organize my thoughts and resources on the subject. It’s mostly going to be undigested links and quotes, though I may occasionally comment on if the mood strikes. Hopefully, someone out there will find this useful or at least interesting. OK, here it goes.


Momus recently alerted me to an interesting book The So-Called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg — An Interpretation by Luca Frei. From the publisher:

Appearing under the pseudonym Gustave Affeulpin in 1976, and coinciding with the inauguration of the Centre Beaubourg in Paris, Albert Meister’s fictional text imagines a radical libertarian space submerged beneath the newly erected centerpiece of French Culture.


Student Works: Putting Utopia Back To Work is a fantastic and way too short interview with Behrang Behin about his Stack City student project. Behin’s project for a sustainable city is pretty interesting in itself. The conversation veers into some illuminating utopian territory:

abandoning the future as a cultural construct deprives us of a valuable instrument for defining ourselves in the present. You can learn a lot about the ethos of a society by looking at their science fiction. In that sense, the future is a place in our collective imagination, a terrain on which we fight our ideological battles and air out our common neuroses. This is precisely where architecture must play a role. Sustainable architecture shouldn’t just be concerned with the tactical level of engineering efficiency and the preservation of resources, but should also participate in the invention of alternative futures in cultural imagination.


Finally, here’s something I should have linked a while ago. Ron Regé, Jr has been doing some world-building. On his blog, he’s been posting drawings of his Cartoon Utopia. I don’t know if these will be just a series of drawings, or if he will create some kind of utopian comic book, but it’s amazing to watch a whole world come into being before your eyes.


Apocalyptic Vehicles: Segway Chariot

segway chariot gary panter jimbo
Jimbo Mini Cover by Gary Panter

Gary Panter has been very visible lately thanks to a couple of recent awe-inspiring books. Gary has renaissance-man-like abilities as a painter, cartoonist, TV art director, musician, light manipulator, etc. I’m sure this list of his talents is not exhaustive. I’m not going to add much to that list… except ‘postmodern conceptualist.’

I just received the new Jimbo mini-comic from Picturebox. It’s short, but full of deadpan funny non-sequiturs and great drawing. It’s another Gary Panter quality product. It contains one image-concept that encapsulates the Panter sensibility: Jimbo, cruising around on a Segway chariot! A Segway chariot! This post-apocalyptic vehicular imagination rivals Mad Max! It slices right through the Gordian Knot of late-capitalist, apocalyptic imagination: modern/ancient, primitive/advanced, peaceful/war-like, banal/sublime, etc.

In moments like this, I’m tempted to view Gary Panter as an unsung postmodern conceptualist masquerading as a cartoonist. I mean that in the best possible way! In any case, it’s time to dig out Gary’s Jimbo, a post-apocalyptic Gesamtkunstwerk, for a closer read.

Jimbo mini page 1 by Gary Panter

Let a Hundred Utopias Blossom

transatlantis utopia bloom panel p.6

I got a few thought-provoking comments to my Post-Apocalyptic Dreams post from a fews days ago. Some thoughts got provoked, hence this follow-up.

All of the comments mentioned Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road. The comments inspired me to read it. But, since I haven’t finished it, I don’t have much to say. I’m about half way through, though I’m not sure if I reached, what Chris called, the self-parodic moment yet. Hopefully I’ll have something more informed to say about it soon. Stay tuned.

Speaking of hope, I wanted to expand a little on Obama and, for lack of a better name, the Utopian Moment. I hope a general outline of what the Utopian Moment might be, will become clear below. I’m working on the final part of my Trans- series of mini-comics (alas, currently out of print, sigh…) and it deals with Utopias (as did parts 1, 2 & 3 in one way or another). These posts are a way to clarify some of the ideas I’m working with.

In his comment Chris Nakashima-Brown said:

”I’m afraid when it comes to optimism about imminent real change in Washington, despite my relatively high opinion of Obama as a rare politician with some bona fide intellectual integrity, I’m afraid I’m with Zizek (in the New Yorker profile you link) in comparing the choice between Democrat and Republican to the choice “between Equal and Sweet’n Low, or between Letterman and Leno.”

I’m on board with the Republicrat bit. I’m also pretty cynical about the amount of change that Obama will actually be able to pull off. I’m less interested in Obama’s practical abilities, than in the psychological effect he’s had on the collective unconscious of the planet. I’m interested in what he represents. In that sense, some of the ’empty rhetoric’ criticisms leveled at Obama during the campaign by McCain and Clinton are true, but at the same time that rhetoric matters a great deal. Zizek:

”[…]Obama has already demonstrated an extraordinary ability to change the limits of what one can publicly say. His greatest achievement to date is that he has, in his refined and non-provocative way, introduced into the public speech topics that were once unsayable: the continuing importance of race in politics, the positive role of atheists in public life, the necessity to talk with “enemies” like Iran.”

He may or may not be able to achieve practical changes in the Washington, but the effects of his victory reach further into less tangible mental realms. His victory is an optimism tsunami reconfiguring whole archipelagos of calcified ideologies – not in any specific way, but in a kind of general ‘things are possible’ way.

It’s important to note, that Obama is just a part of the Utopian Moment equation. If the financial crisis hadn’t materialized, if the US hadn’t over-stretched militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, he probably wouldn’t have been elected. Or, if he had been elected, there wouldn’t have been this kind of urgent impetus for change. The message of hope is meaningless when everything is going well. Obama needed this crisis as much as the crisis now needs him. In other words, he’s the right man for the right time. I don’t want to perpetuate too much the meme of Obama as ‘The One’ but there is some truth to that. The idea of ‘Jesus the Son of God’ was revolutionary for it’s time regardless of who ‘Jesus the man’ actually was. In that sense, the idea of an Obama is more important then Obama the politician.

The current crisis is probably a more important component of the Utopian Moment. The financial meltdown exposed the fictional nature of Capital. Basically, everybody stopped believing that things were worth what the banks said they’re worth. Mental recession indeed! We’re in a rare moment when we’re allowed to realize that all these economic structures and systems surrounding us are invented and made up by people just like us. They’re made of theories, habits, laws and conventional wisdom. In other words, they’re fictional. They’re no longer natural or inevitable. We can make up new ones that might work better. Or at least we can try.

Hope & crisis (utopia & apocalypse… maybe that’s a little too neat…) form a kind of space-time-mind zone – the Utopian Moment – where the horizon of possibilities has expanded exponentially… at least until the currently semi-fluid economic-political relations congeal into another consensus reality. It’s conditions like this that make optimistic Utopian narratives and projects not only possible but realizable.

I don’t want to give the impression that the Utopian Moment will have a positive outcome. I think there are always real dangers of it’s liberating energies being sublimated into negative objectives. This has happened frequently in the past, the French Revolution being one of the most obvious examples. But, even if we can’t seize the moment in the US, the Utopian Moment will have reverberations across the planet.

It’s possible that I’m giving too much credit to Obama and that I’m blowing up another market correction into something bigger than it is. It feels big. Only history will tell… well that depends on who will write it.