Thursday, 16 April 2009

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"Professor Strunk was a positive man. His book contains rules of grammar phrased as direct orders." On this day in 1959 as you may already know, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White was published by the MacMillan Publishing Company. To this day the college students that read The Elements of Style learn how to properly utilize; a semicolon, dashes, colons and the serial comma. Thinking about it, the prose of none of these students was perfect: but with hard work their writing will be great! You would anticipate such improvement when the book in question is regarded as being the best guide to direct and/or concise writing ever written. An especially meaningful example of directness comes from the noted prose stylist, Herbert Spencer, who in his not ironically named Philosophy of Style wrote about compelling examples: In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulations of its penal code will be severe. There is no doubt but that this second quotation is superior: In proportion as men delight in battles, bullfights, and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, burning, and the rack. Spencer is a man who knows the proper insertion of the particular for expressive purposes is a subject with which all good writers should be familiar. The Elements of Style is both a great book and not tedious to read---but one must watch his or her step lest they depersonalize their prose for the foreseeable future. Which is possible because the truth is, some of the advice they give has the effect of flattening prose: as when, for example, you are told not to use the adverb "tangledly" because no one, at least no one they know (or knew, depending on whether Strunk, White or the current editor, of the fourth edition, named Roger Angell, is the person who is speaking out against "tangledly") ever said the word "tangledly" out loud, even though the word "tangledly" would literally be the most appropriate word to describe a sentence like, for example, this one. So as not to inject too much of my own opinion into this celebration of The Elements of Style today, I will stop this post here, hopefully long after you realize what it is I have done, which is to boldly piss on their grave. (x-posted.)
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How to teach the interrelatedness of historical context and audience via Warren Ellis's Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth Someone emailed to ask how it is I teach historical context via a single comic. The book in question: Warren Ellis's one-shot cross-over between the Wildstorm imprint Planetary and the DC franchise that is the Batman. Ellis created the book as a means of investigating the enduring popularity of the superhero genre. Over the course of thirty-odd issues his team of quasi-cultural anthropologists tore through the history of the 20th Century in an attempt to answer that deceptively simple question: Why have impossible people in tights mattered so much for so long? Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth (2003) opens by jiggering that old comic standby: the multiverse. An incidental murderer named John Black has been having seizures, and every time he seizes, a blue dome extends from his body and shifts him and everyone else from one dimension to another. The dome looks like this: The people who shift from a point in their dimension to an already-occupied point in another end up like this: Not a pleasant way to die. So the Planetary team is called in to investigate. They learn that Black's fingerprints were recently found outside a soup kitchen and go to investigate. They corner him in an alley when: They reorient themselves and move to apprehend him when they hear something above them: That would be Batman circa 2003. How do I know? The Batsuit lacks the yellow shield around the symbol on his chest, meaning this iteration must come before the introduction of the "New Look" suit in Detective Comics #329 (July 1964) or after they retired the shield in Detective Comics #742 (March 2000): Factor in the photorealistic gestures and that can only be the Batsuit of the 21st Century. But why did folks at DC decide to go with the throwback costume at the dawn of a new century? Nostalgia? What happened in 2000 that made the less cartoonish Batsuit more attractive to fans of the book? Because the subtraction of the shield was not the only change: the greys now skew black, the blues shift black-navy, and the yellow of the utility belt pales to a washed and muted gold. My class and I begin to talk a little about the turn of the last century within the context of the story—at this point a fight between one member of the Planetary team and Batman—until the scene abruptly shifts again to reveal: Adam West! We talk about what America would have been like when the show was on the air (1966-1968) and then I show them this clip. Why would people in the 1960s want a Batman who walks into a bar and orders orange juice? What would have been appealing about a Batman who was a fully deputized Peace Officer in the Gotham City Police Department? They respond very generally about the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam and and drugs and hippies and the perceived erosion of the moral fabric of society—at which point I stop and ask, "Who exactly was perceiving...

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