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?

WHAT ARE KOMICXS? WHAT IS A KOMIXCS?

The meaning and the origin of the term are obscure. It was found in the journals of T___ a Polish writer / artist who lived between World War I and World War II, that is, during the time of great instability and upheaval in Europe. The old aristocratic order vanished during WWI, and the new post WWII consensus had yet to come into being. On every front, economically, culturally, and psychically, the world underwent a spasmolytic existential event. The reverberations are still felt today. T___ was a friend of Bruno Schulz, a somber Polish/Jewish/Writer/Artist/Prophet. Schulz’s work has never been fully assessed in the west. His lyricism is justly renowned, but it is only the tip of a mystical iceberg that is his Work. His series of drawings and prints point to a new developments in his work that were never realized.

The exact nature of Schulz’s final art and writing are unknown, but we know some of their contours. The work was called THE MESSIAH. Most scholars think that it was a novel; his first full length work (all his other surviving writings are short stories). It was smuggled by one of Schulz’s friends out of Nazi occupied Poland (now Ukraina) into the Soviet occupied zone. There, the friend was stopped by Soviet troops, who confiscated the Schulz manuscript.

From that point on, the precise whereabouts of THE MESSIAH have been unknown. There were several instances over the last few decades where various individuals have claimed to possess the lost Work, however none of them have yet to produce the real thing. The last ‘sightings’ claim that the manuscript exists in the KGB Archives. However, it was archived under the name of the Soviet soldier, not according to who carried the manuscript, or who wrote it.

Schulz mentored T____, who was much younger. T____ contracted tuberculosis, and was sent to a sanatorium in Zakopane. There, cut off from the Polish literary society, he was creating a new Work using a new language/medium called komicxs. The exact contours of it are unknown. The work itself was destroyed when T____ died of complications. The standard operating procedure for dealing with personal items of tuberculosis patients was to burn them. This was a precautionary health measure, though entirely unnecessary.

The only artists of note to visit T____ in the sanatorium were Schulz and Witkacy (Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz). Witkacy at the time was experimenting with various drugs and hallucinogens, and may have introduced T___ into that world. T___ may also have posed for one of Witkacy’s famous Metaphysical portraits. None of the these items survive. Witkacy reported that an English patient of the sanatorium was fan of American comic strips. His discarded newspapers were devoured by young T___ who, despite being unable to read English, was mesmerized by the melding of words and images.

Under the influence of Witkacy’s drugs, and Schulz’s prose and art, and his deteriorating health T___ endeavored to create a new kind of revolutionary art using comics as a starting point. Only Witkacy and Schulz have seen all or part of this work. Both perished. Nazis invaded Poland Sept. 1, 1939. 17 days later Soviets invaded Poland from the East. Witkacy—realizing the prophesies of his last novel, Insatiability, came true—committed suicide. Schulz was shot by a Nazi officer in the streets of his home town a couple years later. The Nazi officer was taking revenge against his commanding officer who had previously shot his ‘favorite Jew.’

Most scholars agree that ‘komicxs’ is an amalgamation of English ‘comics’ and Polish ‘komiks’. The insertion of the ‘x’ into the composite word is a mystery. What was the ‘x’ factor? What made T___’s ‘komicxs’ different from ‘comics’? It is speculated in certain marginal and heretical corners of the Slavic Philological Society that Schulz (a Polonized Jew) in his final and lost work, THE MESSIAH, was attempting to continue the artistic discoveries he made with T___ and Witkacy. THE MESSIAH is ‘written’ in a new ‘language’; a hybrid of Polish/Yiddish/Hebrew spliced with narrative imagery. The titular ‘Messiah’ is the Work itself, a generative UR-text of a new way of writing and communicating… a prototype… the first komicxs… a path to a new world…

Silver Surfer Black 1 | Review

silver surfer black 1

Over on Ink Logging, I’ve written a short review of the great looking new Silver Surfer Black series from Marvel. It’s drawn by Tradd Moore. Here’s a taste:

There’s a barely restrained surrealist/trippy component to his drawings. The Silver Surfer series seems designed bring that element out in force. There are a lot of psychedelic flourishes, unusual angles, expressionistic renderings, complex layouts, etc. Moore seems to be really having fun here. There’s a surreal fluidity to everything. Everything is flows, undulates, and bubbles like… a lava lamp. There’s not much to the story… at least so far…

Read the entire post here.

silver surfer black by tradd moore

Logging Ink on Infinite Blogs

dreadstar_2_jim-starlin

I’m writing a lot more. Here a a few places you can find my writing:

  1. In the last post, I mentioned my TCJ column, Event Horizon.
  2. I’m also blogging much more regularly on Uncivilized Books. (check out the first part of the History of Uncivilized Books)
  3. On top of that, I’m writing for Ink Logging, a Tumblr community reading and writing about comics. I mostly use it to log comics I’m reading in preparation for the Event Horizon column, so if you follow me there, you’ll get a preview of where the column is going. I’m having a blast thought. My most recent post is on Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar.

Starlin draws the crap out of this issue. The environments are fully realized, and the crew fight hundreds of robots, all rendered on the page without too many shortcuts. I’ve always liked the way Stalin plays around with the grid. He’s unafraid to chop the grid into small slivers, to give the action an added urgency. He really likes density on a page. All the pages have either a lot of panels, or are rendered with a lot of detail. He also doesn’t skimp on text. He really wants to pack a lot of information into the comic. The result is a pretty satisfying read. Even if the intro info dump is a little much, you come away immersed into a huge story. It made me pretty excited for issue 2.

But I’ve also written on Doctor Zero:

As the series continues, Doc Zero is revealed to be an immortal (or at least very ancient) who has been around the planet since before humanity evolved. In fact in one caption, he says he walked on Gondwana, which would make him several hundred million years old(!!!). Maybe ‘zero’ means he’s the oldest of the Shadowline beings? His Machiavellian machinations are some kind of god-like need to intervene in human affairs. We need saving, and we know not what we do. These kinds of proclamations are frequent with Doc Zero. He clearly has a god-complex.

And Batman and the Outsiders:

The story involves yet another invasion of Markovia. Baron Bedlam returns, takes over Markovia, and proceeds to clone… Hitler! Unfortunately for Bedlam, Clone-Hitler is appalled by the actions of his original and takes his own life. An interesting and rare case of nurture-over-nature in comics. Generally speaking genetics are presented as unalterable law, at least in my experience.

Check out the whole Dreadstar post on Tumblr. Maybe I should turn this into a Dreadstar book club? Let me know if anyone out there is interested. Haha!

Dreadstar by Jim Starlin

Pawn of the Demon: Batman and the Fractal Self-similarity of Superheroes

Batman_Fractal_crop

I’ve got a new entry in my Event Horizon column over at The Comics Journal. This on is about Batman: Son of the Demon (BSOTD) by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham. I did a lot of writing around this episode, much of which didn’t make the final cut. Here’s a bit that got left on the cutting room floor. One thing I found myself struggling with is the large body of Batman literature. Much of this literature is very similar to itself, with small differences. The more I thought about it, the more it resembled a fractal structure. And when zooming out on this fractal, Batman and superheroes in general acquire a fractal self-similarity. But I get ahead of myself.

Ba(TM)an

How do you write about Batman? How do you write about a property like Batman? Specifically, how do you write about a single episode of one of the longest running comics properties in the world? How do you write about something like Batman: Son Of the Demon ?

After 80 years of continuous publication — after countless issues, series, specials, graphic novels, novelizations, TV & film adaptions — what is Batman? Which Batman do you write about? Batman the character or Ba(TM)an the franchise? When you write about BSOTD, which Batman do you compare him to? Is it possible to evaluate BSOTD on its own merits? How can you evaluate Batman’s behavior and story arc in this book? If you don’t know the history between Ra’s al Ghul & Batman will this make any sense? If you know it only in-part, is that enough?

More Than You Can Read

If you’re critical of a work like this, is it because you don’t ‘get it’? Is it because you’re not a fan, and haven’t taken the time to become more familiar with Batman mythos? Is it not for you? Or, is it possible to consider BSOTD out of the general Batman context and say something meaningful about it? This doesn’t even begin to tackle Batman in the context of the broader DC Multiverse; all of his guest appearances, his relationships with Superman, Wonder Woman, The Justice League, and many of the other DC superheroes. Does any of that matter? Or, can you just write about BSOTD?

I have read many Batman comics, seen most of the ’66 TV show and all the Batman films since Tim Burton’s. Even with all this, I have not read more Batman, than I have read. This of course is true of just about anything. During our lifetime we will have not read more than we will have read.

One way is to just not worry about it too much. Each Batman incarnation fits the era in which it was created. Each Batman era owes as much to the general cultural context, as to the writer/artist/editor team that worked on the comics.

Batman Fractal
Batman Fractal

Fractal Self-Similarity of Superheroes

All that said, when you read a Batman comic, no matter how out of continuity, and how random, if you have read other Batman comics, and other superhero comics, most likely it’ll have a quality similar to those other comics.

There’s a self-similarity to superhero stories in general. A self-similar object “is exactly or approximately similar to a part of itself (i.e. the whole has the same shape as one or more of the parts).” [Wikipedia] Batman is like that. On transcendental level, Batman is a set of characteristics and story tropes. When looked at from a distance each part of the Batman canon is like another part. As you zoom in there are differences of course. But the differences circle around repetitions; like a fractal.

Pawn of the Demon

Anyway, back to the column. In this episode I start to zero-in on some of the general qualities of comics of the Event. (What is the Event? Read the introduction) This time I read Batman: Son of the Demon (BSOTD) by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham. It’s a more traditional entry into the Event Horizon narrative.

I created a handy little chart that maps various Event titles onto art-narrative axes and with an experimental-to-traditional scale for each.

Event Horizon Fourfold Structure

Comics of the Event can be mapped onto a fourfold structure of two intersecting axes. On the horizontal axis, we have the ‘art’ continuum, which ranges from experimental (or innovative) on one end, to traditional on the other. The vertical axis is ‘narrative,’ which has a similar range.

Because comics are a unique melding of narrative and image, the intersections between these two continuums can result in unusual juxtapositions. Traditional narratives can be executed in experimental art styles, and experimental narratives might be assigned a traditional artist. These discrepancies were intensified during the Event, especially in commercial comics published by Marvel, DC, and other publishers where writer and artist are distinct figures.

At some point in the future I’ll probably come back to the fractal self-similarity of superheroes. But for now, read the new Even Horizon column here.

batman son of the demon cover back

Explore more posts related to my Event Horizon column about the comics from 1985-87.

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.

10 Favorite Comics of 2018

Arsene Schrauwen

I’m not a professional comics reviewer, so this list is simply based on personal preferences. I’m not looking for objective metrics of quality, I’m much more interested in how a specific work makes me feel or think, or if it surprises me. There are a LOT of 2018 comics I haven’t been able to read, so this also isn’t comprehensive. This list also doesn’t contain any Uncivilized Books titles (all of which I loved, naturally, but I’m biased), for obvious reasons. This list originally appeared as part of a massive round-up on The Comics Journal. There a some spoilers below. Here are my 10 favorite comics of 2018, in no particular order:

Young Frances by Hartley Lin (Adhouse)

Hartley Lin created a stunning graphic novel. The cartooning is flawless, with incredible attention to detail. The story is about Frances, a young legal clerk pulled into the orbit of the menacingly charismatic executive Castonguay. It has some familiar beats about trying to hold on to an authentic self without getting lost in a messy corporate world of petty power struggles. But the execution elevates the story. Hartley’s precise drawings, his framing, sly references (Castonguay as Daddy Warbucks), surreal touches, and great propulsive editing kept things alive and a pleasure to read.

Passing for Human by Liana Finck (Random House)

I was already a fan on Liana’s Instagram feed and her New Yorker cartoons. Passing for Human is beautifully told, via a series of re-starting narratives. One thing that stood out is Liana’s drawing ability. Her drawing style is raw and resembles doodles, but she is fearless and can draw anything with it. A complete world emerges: tiny houses, animals, humans and their lost shadows. Mythical, magical, and absorbing.

Brat by Michael DeForge (Koyama)

Brat contains the word art. One way to read DeForge’s Brat is to substitute Art for Brat; art performance for prank; critical cynicism for temper tantrum; artistic calling for juvenile delinquency. Brats are artists. The titular brat, Ms. D, is an juvenile delinquent/artist struggling with relevance. Once the hero of all brats, Ms. D finds herself older, and no longer a ‘juvenile’. Is she still relevant?

Ms. D embarks on a new project, that, at first glance, appears as a mysterious terrorist plot. Finally, her big performance turns the audience, an entire town, everyone, to become brats! The entire population of the city loses it’s collective mind. The results are at first predictable: graffiti, property damage, zoo animals on the loose, and at least one death (the Mayor gets eaten by a lion). But then, the loss of collective control produces a kind of utopia. In the aftermath, the town rids itself of instruments of control that turned out to be unnecessary. Banks and police? No longer necessary. Hunger? Gone. These things were just accrued, stratified historical layers of a society weighing us down. Once you release the brat, it all falls away. We don’t need these things.

What happens day after brat Armageddon? DeForge alludes to it. But things don’t seem to have changed much. Our hero remains rich, so even if some banks are gone, wealth remains. The world didn’t change all that much. Her former intern, Citrus, is now a star delinquent. Delinquency still exists. Maybe we need a bigger temper tantrum? Or the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Blammo by Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore)

No one does the one-artist anthology like Noah Van Sciver. Blammo is the heir of the 80-90’s single artist anthology comics like Eightball, Optic Nerve, or Dirty Plotte. Every issue fills me with joy and nostalgic pangs for that time.

Tinderella MS Harkness (Kilgore)

MS Harkness has emerged as a vital member of the Minneapolis comics scene. Her incredible work ethic has already yielded many mini-comics and her first graphic novel, Tinderella. Self-deprecating, self-abasing, fearless and fun, there are few books out the like it. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but it’s a promising foreshadowing of things to come.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)

I didn’t know what to think of first when I to started read Sabrina. I was repelled by it’s quiet abandon, it’s cold artwork, and it’s meandering repetitions. But half way through, something flipped in my brain. I did a 180 and absolutely fell for this book. It reminded me of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Both books revolve around damaged characters trying to recapture something utterly lost and unrecoverable. It’s an impossible task. We’re placed in an uncomfortable voyeuristic position – watching the characters grasp at memories and fragments as they slowly evaporate – and we can’t look away.

The Complete Julie Doucet by Julie Doucet (Drawn & Quarterly)

While working on Sweet Little Cunt: The Graphic Work of Julie Doucet with Anne Elizabeth Moore, I re-immersed myself in Julie Doucet’s comics of the 80’s and 90’s. It was another reminder of the incredible versatility of the one-artist anthology format. It enabled the artist to experiment, take detours, and continue on a primary narrative at the same time, while producing regular work, on a (somewhat) regular schedule. Julie filled every page of Dirty Plotte with incredible one-page bizarre experiments, ongoing stories (My New York Diary), and small one-off masterpieces of short comics. It’s really great D&Q brought this important work back into print.

Older Comics read in 2018:

Anti-Gone by Connor Williamsun (Koyama)

It took me a while to finally read this book. It was very much hyped after it’s release last year. When something is hyped, I tend to tune it out. I’m glad I finally read it. Connor’s minimalist cartooning is the perfect match for the absurd vacuous characters literally floating around a dystopic post apocalyptic world. It hits close to home. We are these characters. We are empty beings, getting stoned, floating easy as the world burns. Beautifully executed. Near perfect graphic novel.

Arsene Schrauwen by Olivier Schrauwen (Fantagraphics)

Olivier Schrawen has an incredible ability for the absurd. Arsene, ostensibly a Schrauwen ancestor – gets involved in an absurd folly – a Utopian city in the middle of a tropical jungle. The book comes with explicit instructions to pause reading between certain chapters: a week, two weeks. I followed the directions to the letter, and I must say it enhanced the reading enormously. By the time I’d return to read the next chapter, the previous chapter had receded in my mind, like a dream. It perfectly suited the book. Finally, when Arsene and crew reach the jungle site of the utopian city, the absurd world had wormed itself into my unconscious, providing the perfect imaginative fuel for the finale to come.

Eddy Current by Ted McKeever

I wrote about Eddy Current in my column and here on this blog. It remains one of the best comics I read in 2018.

eddy current by ted mckeever

5 Favorite Books of 2018

hav jan morris

I read a lot of books and I like to think about the books I read. But, I never do enough of either. That will change this year as I plan to engage more with what I read and think about. What better way to start than with a list. Here’s are five of my favorite books from 2018 that had a big impact on me last year. They were not necessarily published in 2018, although one of them was.

Hav by Jan Morris

hav jan morris

It’s no secret that I’m a connoisseur of architectural things. Rooms, buildings, structures, cities; urban areas in general. Hav is a fictional trading city located somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s old. It has been around for centuries, if not millennia. It’s rumored to be on the site of ancient Greek Troy. It is ostensibly European, but has been conquered by Arabs, Turks, Russians, Venetians, British, and others. Each administration has left an indelible stamp on the city through buildings, urban planning, and population resulting in a labyrinthine conurbation with many distinct parts. It’s also a trading port. It’s most famous export is Hav salt, valued for its aphrodisiac qualities. Like other commercial hubs, it is populated by a varied mix of people that first arrive to do business, but end up staying, settling, and creating enclaves that add to the exotic richness of the place. The Hav Chinese built the most impressive structure, the tower of the Chinese Master, that boasts young Sigmund Freud as a one-time resident. Languidly paced, but hard to put down, Jan Morris’ Hav is a place I wish I could visit again.

atta future kobek

The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek

This is a prequel to I hate the Internet, which I loved. Set mostly in 80’s New York, against the backdrop of its waning hedonistic club scene, with short detours to Midwest and California, we get to see the origin and evolution of the friendship between Baby & Adeline. As someone who lived in New York for a few years, it was an easy novel to like. Revisiting old haunts and places I wish were still around was a nostalgic treat.

ATTA by Jarett Kobek

This is a short and incredible book. It’s the fictionalized life of Mohamed Atta, the mastermind of 9/11. I resisted this book for a long time. Having lived in New York during 9/11, it’s hard for me to revisit that moment. It’s probably some kind of generalized PTSD, although I was never near the worst of the action. ATTA is revelatory. His life unfolded like a dark version of my own. I grew up in Poland, he grew up in Egypt, both were outside the western prosperity sphere at the time. We emigrated, and arrived in the west in Hamburg, Germany. We both studied architecture and urban planning. Then our path crossed again in New York, 9/11. A haunting mirror of our world.

1491 charles c mann

1491 by Charles C. Mann

I was aware of 1491 since its release. I read the first 100 pages or so, a couple of years ago at my sister’s wedding. A copy was available at the Airbnb I was staying at. I didn’t want to leaved it, and contemplated stealing the copy. I finally finished it this year when I finally got a copy of my own. This book is incredible on so many levels. From the deep history of the Andean and Mesoamerican societies, through the plagues that wiped out a mind-boggling percentages of Native American populations, to the astonishing ecological impacts of the native populations, this book was filled with incredible history, much of which was completely unknown to me. I say this as someone who’s read fairly extensively on all these topics, and yet 1491 surprised me again and again.

Unamerica by Momus

unAmerica momus

I’m a big fan of Momus; not just Momus the musician, or Momus the writer, or Momus the blogger, or Momus the YouTube lecturer. I’m a fan of ALL of those incarnations of Momus. I’ve listened to his music since the late 90’s, read his Click Opera blog in Oughts, I watch his YouTube channel now, and I read his books when they come out. I devoured and loved The Book of Scotlands and the Book of Jokes.

Parallel World

For some reason it took me a few years to get to Unamerica. Momus can really turn a phrase: The Book of Scotlands’ ‘motto’ is “Every Lie Creates a Parallel World, a world in which it is true.” The back cover of Unamerica announces that, “God doesn’t love America. Quite the reverse.” The book begins with a revelation. God speaks unto Brad, and asks him to go a voyage of discovery, but in reverse. God says: “Brad, Americans have become the opposite of everything I intended humans, especially Christians, to become. If I still could, I’d smash this nation to potsherds, or flood the entire continental basin from sea to shining sea. […] America has to become undiscovered. […] Now it’s the rest of the world that needs to become the shining example, the Tir na nOg, the Shangri-La, the Golden Fleece. You Brad, and your twelve hand-picked companions must learn-and teach the world-how to become as unAmerican as possible.”

Meander

Eventually, Brad embarks on this voyage, but he takes a lot detours and meanderings. Momus is not afraid of language, he frequently makes use of vocabulary that is difficult, and willfully obscure. He relishes it in fact. It’s a slim volume, as are all of Momus’ books, but it’s densely packed with invention, adventure, absurdity, and fun. It feels like a much larger book. It doesn’t play by any narrative rules (that I’m aware of).

Utopia

Above all, Momus’ work revolves around the concept of Utopia. He himself has moved from Britain to France to America to Germany to Japan, and back. It has made him a keen observer of social norms, how they are constructed, and how they differ from place to place. We’re often told of the impossibility of Utopia, or of the impossibility of changing the society we live in for the better. But we only have to step outside of our borders to see that even small changes can produce big results. Humans have been creating different ways of living for millennia, it’s just something we do. It’s nice to have Momus remind us of this ability.

I hope you enjoyed this short list of my five favorite books of 2018. I will have more to say about some of these books in the future. Stay tuned!

Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 3 | Best of 2018 | Preview

cartoon dialectics vol 3

It’s difficult to hype your own work. I should know, I started a whole publishing company just to avoid hyping my own work! But, it’s very gratifying to see your own work on any best of list. When the list written by a writer you admire, well that’s even better! Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 3 makes it on the Best of 2018 list at Your Chicken Enemy. Here’s what they have to say:

Cartoon Dialectics #3 looks like a humble, unobtrusive work– it’s packaged like a zine, printed in purple, black and white with an occasional splash of yellow on somewhat thick, matte paper. But what Tom Kaczynski and Clara Jetsmark provide between its covers is powerful, invigorating stuff, connecting the dots between our society’s retromania and the rise of neo-fascism, while also acknowledging how easy it is for anyone to fall prey to the dangerous allure of nostalgia.

[…]

Bold in its aesthetic and literal simplicity and paradoxically educational and surreal, Cartoon Dialectics #3 did a far better job investigating where we are now and why in its few pages than the entirety of the New York Times this year.

Nick Hanover

A big thank you goes to The Nib for commissioning the piece in the first place. Another big thank you goes to Clara Jetsmark who bravely agreed to draw it on a very tight deadline when I ended swamped with other work.

Here’s a short few page preview of this comic for those who haven’t seen it yet:

cartoon dialectics vol 3

You can order a copy here:

Order Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 3

Science Fiction, Music, Comics. The Secret Origin of Comics Criticism.

nostalgia journal comics journal

Cross-contamination

I stumbled on the following a while ago on Blissblog:

“Along with the many cross-contaminations between rock-etc and s.f., one thing that Heller’s book reminded me of was that many of the very earliest rock criticism publications were started by people who had previously done science fiction fanzines.
 
Intensely self-reflexive fields, rock criticism and science fiction share a strange mix of inferiority and superiority complexes. Painfully aware of their marginal position vis-à-vis “proper” journalism and “respectable” literature, they nonetheless believe that they are doing the Most Crucial Writing of Our Time. I can remember from my own days as an adolescent s.f. fanatic being struck by the s.f. writer’s culture of workshops and conventions – by how the writers loved to write essays defining s.f. as a genre, proclaiming its unique contribution to literature. There were even a few volumes of essays by s.f. writers debating s.f. that I remember reading.

Simon Reynolds | Blissblog

This. This exactly describes me during High School. Except replace music with comics. I took pains to let everyone know that comics were the most important thing. I’m sure it was very annoying. Whenever I had to write essays about books in English class, I tried to convince my teachers to let me write about X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and whatever else I was reading at that time. Most of the time I was shut down, but a few teachers indulged as long as I could ‘prove’ to them that comics weren’t just kid’s stuff. Actually that was crucial. It challenged me to look at comics somewhat differently, and probably led to my actively seeking out better comics to impress my teachers.

Every Page a Painting

Kid Eternity by Grant Morrison and Duncan Fegredo

I have a pretty intense memory of showing Kid Eternity to my teacher. This is the Grant Morrison & Duncan Fegredo 90’s revamp with fully painted art. I remember challenging my teacher to look closely at the art. “It’s all painted” I’d say. “EVERY page is a full painting! Imagine if Michaelangelo had to paint the Sistine Chapel, over and over again, and tell the whole story in that famous painting.” I was definitely already a Science Fiction fan at this point. In Poland, I’d collected the magazine Fantasyka, which serialized sci-fi novels and comics. In the US, I read whatever sci-fi my library had on hand. Harry Harrison, Asimov, Pohl, Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Heinlein, Lem, etc.

Sub-Genre of Utopia

To speculate wildly here… if we follow Fredrick Jameson’s assertion from Archaeologies of the Future, and think of Science Fiction as a sub-genre of the utopian novel (not the other way around), then sci-fi retains a utopian imaginary somewhere underneath all of the technological dress up. Sci-fi at it’s core imagines and extrapolates different worlds/futures based on different customs, different technologies, different environments (planets), etc. It’s easy to imagine young brains blown to bits by science fictional speculations.

I don’t think that I was consciously doing this at the time, but in retrospect, I must have been thinking about comics as some kind of major human innovation. The comics I was reading were not perfect, but I imagined a different future, where comics were the dominant literature. It’s a science fictional extrapolation. Take something small and insignificant from today, and imagine it as a dominant form in the future. Or at least, as something that has the capacity to become that.

Inventing a Future

costalgia journal 30 and comics journal 33

I imagine young Gary Groth in a similar mode. He takes over The Nostalgia Journal, a fantasy, sci-fi, comics, fanzine, and turns it into The Comics Journal, the most important magazine in the world. There was an inkling there already, a belligerent insistence on the importance of the medium. And all this without clear evidence for that importance, as The Comics Journal kept reminding us, while frequently berating the industry for failing to make great comics. It comes out of that same era. Sci-fi fanzines, pop/rock fan-zines, comics fanzines – popping up everywhere – creating new critical appreciation for debased art forms; art forms that were new and vital and popular. There was no rule book on how to write about these things. They had to invent it in real time. They were inventing the future in real time.

Highrise Mayhem Poster feat. Judge Dredd

judge dredd crop

My brief was to do a poster for Highrise Mayhem, a double bill featuring Dredd (2012) and The Raid: Redemption (2011) (coming to the Trylon Jan 18-20)… it turned into a bit more of a Judge Dredd Poster.

I’d never seen The Raid, so I focused on Dredd. I wanted to show off the roots of Judge Dredd by drawing a more comic book version of him. Specifically, I was looking at the Brendan McCarthy version. McCarthy drew the Judge helmet much more flared out on the bottom. It has a bit more impossible look common to most comic book costumes. When they translate to film, they become ‘practical’ and often lose what made them distinctive in the first place.

In the background I just wanted to add some bonkers multistory ‘mayhem.’  It’s no secret I enjoy drawing large architectural scenes when I can find the time.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy looking at this Judge Dredd Poster as much as I enjoyed drawing it.

Judge Dredd for Trylon