Cartoon Dialectics 2: Apocalypse Is The Suburb Of Utopia

The new issue of Cartoon Dialectics is almost here! We were able to score a leftover batch of Pantone 804 fluorescent ink for the cover! It should be the perfect radioactive glow for the nihilistic content inside!

Table of contents:

  1. Cover
  2. Your Mind is a Vast Landscape by Adalbert Arcane. New spatial analysis of the mind and the comics medium. Co-presented by Omniversity. Illustrated Mind-Scape by Tom Kaczynski.
  3. Trans Terra Continues: The End of the World and the Typical Post Apocalyptic Scenario
  4. Eschatological Book Club with Ransom Strange
  5. Trans Terra Continues: The Ignoble End of Igloo City
  6. Extinction Level Events: We Are Elementals
  7. Trans Terra Continues: Continent Wrecked on a Mysterious Island
  8. Aesthetic Education: Man / God
  9. Indicia: Language as World
  10. Uncivilized Books Paid Advertising + Mechanics of Enjoyment
  11. Back Cover Motto: Apocalypse Is The Suburb of Utopia and A New Logos For The Anthropocene

The first 200 orders get a signed print. The first 50 get print + sticker!

Cartoon Dialectics #1

I bring my cartoon-theoretical focus on contemporary neuroses, obsessions, and contradictions. Did you know about the 36th CHAMBER OF COMMERCE? Get productivity tips from a master of Shaolin kung fu! Is there any possibility of Utopia after an orgy of modernity? What are komicxs? Irreverent, funny, and DINKy-award-winning Cartoon Dialectics becomes a regular series.

Us vs Them: Pandemic World

4.5.20

Levi R. Bryant’s fragmentary musings on the Covid-19 pandemic are interesting and beautifully written and worth a read. It sparked a lot of thoughts and musings of my own. I was in particular struck by Bryant’s speculation on the possibility of constituting an Us; a planetary Us:

“Paraphrasing Badiou, the problem of politics and ethics is not that of the different, but of how to construct the Same. Ontologically, he says, there is nothing but infinitely decomposable multiplicities without one. Between me and my identical twin – if I had an identical twin – there are as many differences as there are between me and the Chinese person across the globe. Difference, he contends, is just a trivial fact of being. The question is how we can draw a transversal line across these differences to construct a space of the Same. The virus is the great leveler. It refuses to be an elsewhere. It is indifferent to whether you are rich, poor, belong to the ersatz “middle class,” black, white, male, or female. As they are thrown out of work and suffer the disease, the “middle class” discover that they have more in common with the homeless person than with the billionaire.

[…]

The terrible and cruel injustice of our economic system, the tremendous inequality of power and representation, is revealed and laid bare for all to see, and in this it becomes possible – perhaps – to construct a One or a People.

[…]

In the constitution of a planetary Us we rediscover society and our interdependence with others.”

Levi R. Bryant

There is a kind of utopian underpinning to that Us. But every Us demands a Them? Who are the Them in this binary?

The Realignment

The now crumbling international, globalist, neoconservative consensus was already trying to constitute a planetary Us. It was constructed on purely economic terms. The Us, was the global consumer, undergirded by global transportation logistics which allowed goods and people to be made and transported anywhere in the world. The Them were countries like North Korea, or Iran. They were outside of the Us global consensus, but they were also constituted as ‘future Us.’ They were the barbarians that could (and should) become Us.

This system brought us to where we are today. As the pandemic spreads the limitations of this order are revealed. It is porous. Easy movement leads to easy pandemics. The global ‘just-in-time’ supply chain can’t keep up sudden demands of crucial goods. Additionally, offshoring the production of vital goods is a problem when ‘offshore’ shuts down due to a pandemic. There are many examples.

Workers of the World Unite!

Bryant’s new Us references classic Marxist global call: “Workers of the world unite!” Identities, racial differences, all fall aside as we continue the project of the left and try to re-constitute an Us that cuts across all identitarian lines. If the Us are the workers… who are the Them? In this model the them are the 1%, the billionaires, the class with capital. By doing this, aren’t we simply re-constituting the old global order but putting an accent on the 99%. That’s fine and good, but I’m not sure that is what’s happening.

The ‘perhaps’ in Bryant’s piece:

“…and in this it becomes possible – perhaps – to construct a One or a People.”

is doing a lot of work. Just as at the beginning of his piece he says:

” A world is ending. I do not say the world is ending, but rather that a world is ending.”

The world is not just ending, it is splintering.

Consumers of the World Unite

The global order constructed the Us via consumerism:

  • The consumer is an identity based on aesthetic difference.
  • The consumer identity (consumers of the world unite) unites by the need to express a particular individuality.
  • The consumer is constituted as an individual, and a target market.

Consumer politics were expressed via identity & grievance politics. Each identity (racial, ethnic, gender, nerd, political etc.) constituted a market with specific demands and needs. Us as United Colors of Benetton. Grievances are resolved by contracts or complaints to the HR department. For consumers, Them are those choose the wrong products, or those that don’t want to sign on the dotted line.

A New Them

That order was fraying for quite some time. Events like 9/11, 2008 financial meltdown, and now the pandemic keep revealing new weaknesses. We’re not constructing a planetary UsThe Us. We’re already busy constructing an Us, one of many Us(s)… and many Them(s). We’re proliferating new Them(s).

The response to the pandemic and the solution adopted—social distancing—is anti-social. It creates a new binary: infected/uninfected. Just as there are many clusters of infection, we also have many clusters of ‘un-infected.’ To remain uninfected, you have to create barriers: masks, distance, isolation, closed borders, etc.

Technologies of Unification

The consumer ‘global village’ was not very strong to begin with. But, with a proliferation of new Them(s) it will crumble. To preserve the current Us and the international global order requires massive investment and a new hegemonic deployment of technologies of unification. Listen to Zizek’s recent conversation (starts at timestamp 4:47):

“… it’s clear we need some kind of global healthcare system, some kind of mechanism to follow epidemics all around the world to act in a coordinated international way how to prevent them… so all this has to be controlled; and controlled at the world-wide level. This idea it doesn’t work, it’s not realistic. This is the dream of those in power.”

Zizek is describing a potential massive new global, neoliberal health regime… biometrics, quarantines, surveillance at levels unprecedented and hitherto unseen. There is already a global commercial quarantine system, set up to prevent the spread of non-native plants and animals, and to preserve unique local ecologies. This system has spectacularly failed so far. Adding infectious disease into the mix will not be easy… and it might be too late anyway.

Us or Them?

A (d)evolution of the global order into more local spheres of influence appears more likely. Will cities re-acquire walls and gates? Not for military defense this time, but as ways to lock down an entire population to prevent the entry of new diseases. Will countries strengthen their borders? Will international travel industry survive? European Union seems doomed in this scenario. Will there be a re-industrialization as some production returns from offshore? This will not be the end of trade, but the flows of people, goods, and money may become much more controlled. Is this the return of strong nation states again? Us vs Them will be constituted along new lines: infected/uninfected, local/foreign, citizen/non-citizen, etc. All these binaries have never left us, but under the current political order, they were deprecated as archaic, uncivilized, and intolerant. These tendencies (already gaining strength for some time) will be reinforced and gain new momentum in pandemic world. For many this is a nightmare scenario.

Is it possible to envision a new utopian world under those circumstances? Without holding on the world that is crumbling today? Is it possible to proliferate many new communities of insiders and outsiders without creating new tensions or awakening old ones? In other words, will it be possible to co-exist with Them and see them as Us?

Ecological Collapse and the Horror of Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom

drifting classroom kazuo umezu

Paradise Adrift

The distance between the present and utopia is measured in centuries. We locate utopian societies in the future, and prefigure them with premonitions of apocalypse; the dysfunctional order of the present must be swept aside by some vaguely grasped apocalyptic event to allow a new and better world to emerge. Every generation faces their own unique brand of the end of the world: religious rapture, nuclear annihilation, natural disasters, clash of civilizations, Malthusian overpopulation, and so on. Ecological collapse caused by industrial pollution fuels the horror in Kazuo Umezu’s inventive, eleven-volume manga horror epic, The Drifting Classroom.

Adults As Part of the Problem

The titular classroom is actually Yamato Elementary School, which due to unknown circumstances finds itself ripped out of time and flung into a devastated future. The school, housing 863 students and teachers, becomes an ark adrift on the sea of toxic sand that covers the remains of Tokyo and the rest of the world. The school’s temporal realignment brings the kids and adults face to face with the deadly consequences of Japan’s famed “economic miracle.” They become the last remnants of civilization and, at the same time, the last hope for humanity’s survival.

It’s clear that Umezu perceives adults as part of the problem, for he dispenses with the teachers early on. One by one the grown-ups succumb to madness and die off quickly. They can’t process what is happening to them—the idea that the school might be in the future is utterly impossible—and unable to imagine the impossible they have to die off, like dinosaurs. The children, not yet saddled with dogmas of adulthood, are able to imagine the possibility of time travel and thus grasp the reality of their predicament. Their capacity to imagine the impossible becomes their salvation, but also the source of the horrors to come.

Devolution

By the third volume the kids are on their own, allowing Umezu to present a kind of post-apocalyptic Lord of The Flies, with several hundred Piggies. Led by the idealistic sixth grader Sho and a few of his friends, the children try to survive both the inhospitable environment and themselves. The body count grows rapidly as they face toxic mushrooms, vicious plagues, freak floods, mutated spider-humans, mummies, bizarre starfish, gigantic sand worms, and starvation. This degraded future sharpens the children’s connection to the environment in several ways; for example, they can no longer take things like clean water for granted, and they have to conserve what meager supplies they have (a swimming pool with water, lunch room food, etc.).

These are just the more obvious lessons of ecology, however—Umezu’s genius is that he broadens ecology to include the social. To survive, the kids form the Nation of Yamato Elementary and elect Sho as the Prime Minister. But, like its counterparts in the present (their past), the nascent nation quickly succumbs to infighting and breaks into rival factions. Their society devolves from an idealistic democracy through various stages of feudalism to a band of starving nomads. For Umezu, the Nation of Yamato Elementary becomes a stand-in for the present world and shows the fate of civil society deprived of its ecological base.

Cyclopean Ruins

Working in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, the horror of The Drifting Classroom is purely material—it isn’t mystical, as it tends to be in earlier Umezu works like Cat-Eyed Boy. He dispenses with ghosts, spirits and unexplained monsters, locating the real sources of “evil” in our ignorance of the workings of the world and the hubris of technological progress. And buried under the desert wasteland around the school are the remnants of human civilization; Umezu thus turns our own world into something akin to Lovecraft’s cyclopean ruins of some ancient antediluvian civilization (like the corpse-city of R’lyeh). Seen through the prism of the destroyed future, the industrialized world we live in seems like an apocalypse in slow motion. The skeletons of our cities seem bizarre and alien, the fossilized bones of a civilization choking on its own success.

Gods and Mutants

Umezu does break with Lovecraft in some ways. Lovecraft’s universe is completely indifferent to the fate of humanity. His gods are cosmic entities that have crossed into our world from unknowable dimensions. The destruction they wreak is almost accidental. In Umezu’s universe, the fate of humans and the planet is more intertwined and symbiotic; a poisoned planet leads to a toxic society and vice-versa. In one revealing sequence, the children decide to create a religion, and the image of Sho’s mother becomes a benevolent Goddess designed to give the kids hope in a hopeless world. Meanwhile, a small group of children slowly mutating from having ingested toxic mushrooms (!) create their own god: a one-eyed devil. Religion is not something divine and eternal—it’s a product of the environment and our imagination, and it offers both comfort and destruction. But neither can be our salvation. One leads to a debased existence as mutant spider-humans, the other only offers temporary relief. Ultimately, we have to listen to the planet and use our imagination to avoid the kind of future The Drifting Classroom posits.

Techno-Eden

Unfortunately, according to Umezu, the imaginative powers of the present are tainted by our “miraculous” industrial society. When we first meet Sho, he’s a typical kid. He covets toys, especially a “future car”—a sleek UFO-like automobile. And he has a conflicted relationship with adults; he tries to be nice to his mother, but ends up having a childish argument with her about some thrown-out marbles. Enraged, Sho runs off to school discarding an unwrapped present his mother gave him (it contains, of course, the “future car”). For both of them, futurity is embodied by the toy, a shining symbol of Japan’s relentless economic progress and technological prowess. Yet later in the series, after the children are forced to evacuate the school ahead of a toxic cloud and have been wandering through the lifeless desert, the starving kids end up in a UFO-domed amusement park—an impressive, automated relic from Japan’s industrial peak. At first it appears like paradise to the famished children, but the techno-Eden isn’t as benign as it seems. Everything is artificial—there is nothing that the kids can eat—and the park’s helpful robots, damaged by the ravages of time, have turned into deadly Terminator-like killers.

Japanese Miracle

In fact, both the UFO-domed park and car had real world counterparts at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair Expo. Housed in part under a space-age dome by architect Kenzo Tange, the Expo presented Japan with an airbrushed techno-utopian vision that was becoming increasingly preposterous to the visitors. The Drifting Classroom was serialized in 1972-74. Japan at that time saw the emergence of its nascent environmental movement. Up until then, a single-minded pursuit of economic strength, characterized Japan’s post-war years. The “Japanese Miracle,” as it came to be known, saw a decades-long increase in the industrial output of the nation and a corresponding increase in the wealth of its citizens.

But the counterpoint to the economic miracle was a high level of environmental degradation. Japan’s industrial might was tainted by ecological disasters, increasing occurrences of birth defects, and a string of incurable disease outbreaks: Morinaga Milk Powder Poisoning (arsenic), Yokkaichi Asthma (sulphur dioxide), Minamata Disease (mercury), Itai-itai Disease (cadmium). All this led to a greater ecological consciousness, the emergence of the environmental movement, and eventually, the creation of the Japanese Environmental Protection Agency in 1971.

Future Present

Until the disappearance of the school, both Sho and his mother are oblivious to the ultimate fate of the planet. They haven’t realized the damage their way of life was doing to the Earth. Paradoxically, when they become separated by centuries their relationship grows stronger. Through a handicapped girl, Nishi, who appears to have unexplained powers, Sho is able to communicate with his mother. Several times she is able to help her son, by strategically placing valuable objects (a knife, vaccine, etc.) in the past for Sho to excavate and use in the future.

Once the future cataclysm is made concrete by Sho’s time travel, his mother can finally take steps to try to avert that catastrophe. Her love for Sho enables her to overcome adult skepticism, bear the ridicule of others, and put her mind to work. If she can’t bring Sho back, at least she can change the present to make his future a better place.

Sadistic Glee

If this makes the book sound didactic and preachy, it’s not. The themes and ideas outlined above simmer beneath a shimmering surface of a fast-paced and slickly drawn comics narrative. Since The Drifting Classroom was serialized in weekly episodes, it’s chock-full of cliffhangers and surprise twists and turns. It’s a compelling page-turner designed to move the reader efficiently through the narrative. Umezu’s detailed art skillfully builds tension in series of cinematic sequences. He uses darkness very effectively: sequences comprised entirely of panicked dark silhouettes can go on for page after suspenseful page.

Finally, when he unveils the bizarre mutant monsters of the future, they’re lovingly embellished with detailed renditions of blood, bone, and peeling skin. Also, the 863 inhabitants of Yamato Elementary give Umezu ample opportunity to rack up a high body count, and he doesn’t flinch; the students die off quickly, dispatched in new and inventive ways. He often lingers on a violent scene with sadistic glee, just to make us feel a little queasier. With a few deft pen strokes he can change an innocent child into one possessed by some unknown menace.

Stephen King of Japan

Often called the “Stephen King of Japan,” Kazuo Umezu is a giant of Japanese horror. A steady trickle of his comics has begun appearing in the US since the 2002 publication of Orochi: Blood, yet The Drifting Classroom remains his best-known work. Regardless, this is an opportune time for its appearance on American shores. It’s an artifact of a fertile period in Japan. The eco-awareness of the Japanese was mirrored by a growing sophistication of their manga.

Umezu’s sprawling epic dates from the same period that saw the rise of mature comics known as Gekiga (see the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi). Around the same time, Osamu Tezuka, the “god of manga” and creator of Astro Boy, serialized Ode to Kirihito, his first mature work. As American comic books make their steady climb into respectability and the specter of global ecological collapse appears imminent again, the horrors of Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom are a useful glimpse of a strange parallel world not that different from the one we encounter today.

The Drifting Classroom
Volumes 1-11
Kazuo Umezu
VIZ Media ($9.99 each)
by Tom Kaczynski

Note:

I wrote this review a decade ago, but only a small snippet ever appeared online.

Utopia Adrift: The Drifting Classroom

drifting classroom kazuo umezu
the drifting classroom kazuo umezu
Poisoned paradise

I should have posted this earlier. I wrote a review of Kazuo Umezu‘s The Drifting Classroom for Rain Taxi. The review is not online, but the magazine is available for free in most independent book stores around the country. You can also get a copy by ordering direct from Rain Taxi. Here’s an excerpt:

The distance between the present and utopia is measured in centuries. We locate utopian societies in the future, and prefigure them with premonitions of apocalypse; the dysfunctional order of the present must be swept aside by some vaguely grasped apocalyptic event to allow a new and better world to emerge. Every generation faces their own unique brand of the end of the world: religious rapture, nuclear annihilation, natural disasters, clash of civilizations, Malthusian overpopulation, and so on. Ecological collapse caused by industrial pollution fuels the horror in Kazuo Umezu’s inventive, eleven-volume manga horror epic, The Drifting Classroom.


The titular classroom is actually Yamato Elementary School, which due to unknown circumstances finds itself ripped out of time and flung into a devastated future. The school, housing 863 students and teachers, becomes an ark adrift on the sea of toxic sand that covers the remains of Tokyo and the rest of the world. The school’s temporal realignment brings the kids and adults face to face with the deadly consequences of Japan’s famed ‚ “economic miracle.” They become the last remnants of civilization and, at the same time, the last hope for humanity’s survival.
It’s clear that Umezu perceives adults as part of the problem, for he dispenses with the teachers early on. One by one the grown-ups succumb to madness and die off quickly. They can’t process what is happening to them‚ “the idea that the school might be in the future is utterly impossible,” and unable to imagine the impossible they have to die off, like dinosaurs. The children, not yet saddled with dogmas of adulthood, are able to imagine the possibility of time travel and thus grasp the reality of their predicament. Their capacity to imagine the impossible becomes their salvation, but also the source of the horrors to come.

UR : Utopia Report : No. 1

cartoon utopia by Ron Regé, Jr
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 sources 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:

[‚Ķ]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 Reg√©, 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 come kind of utopian comic-book, but it’s amazing to watch a whole world come into being before your eyes.