Thursday, 16 April 2009

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What's wrong with Reading Comics? Quite a bit, actually. Because late to the party is better than never, I’m reading Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics. When I’m not maybe being mocked, the book is a compelling read. This is a problem. Since tradition dictates picking nits with blurbs, I’ll start with the quotation from the Los Angeles Times printed on the cover: Deliciously quotable. Of all the Times blurbs to pick with nits, this one may not even be the best. From the back cover: Everything is here. If everything is there and there is deliciously quotable—but let me begin with the second blurb, because it concerns a minor point. No matter how you define “everything,” Reading Comics does not contain it all. Wolk periodically informs the reader of this fact: There are . . . several very big names I’m barely mentioning or neglecting outright in the following pages: Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb . . . (137) And we can ellipses away there because this is a book about comics that barely mentions or outright neglects Jack Kirby and Robert Crumb. Why the Times would make claims the author explicitly rejects I don’t know—but I suspect its decision relates to the tone of casual expertise Wolk displays throughout the book. Every reference I catch—about half of the ones Wolk drops—complements his argument; however, the way you wear your erudition lightly on the web differs from how you do it in print. The book’s delicious quotability is a byproduct of its learned chattiness, and if the medium is ever to attain academic respectability, its expositors will need to try a little harder than this: [Steve Ditko] shared a studio for years with bondage/fetish artist Eric Stanton and has claimed they didn’t collaborate, but Ditko expert Blake Bell has a Web site on which he points out some work credited to Stanton that’s clearly Ditko—those hands are the giveaway. (157) Not only does Wolk punt academic form, he punts online decorum too. If you mention that someone has a “Web site,” you provide the reader with a way to find it. A link to Blake Bell’s discussion of Ditko and fetish comics in a printed book would be gravy, but at least provide the name of the site (Ditko Looked Up) and the name of the article. Speaking of which, the article is not on the “Articles“ page, nor is it listed on the “Creations." It took me some time to track down the reference—according to its address, it should have been on the “Creations” page—and once there I realized why Wolk obscured the reference. Behold the first evidence Bell uses to establish that Ditko collaborated with Stanton: The dead giveaway here is the man in both pages; especially the bottom inset panel on Page 2. How Ditko is THAT guy? Look at the fingers on his smoking hand! Did Stanton even TOUCH that panel? Now for the second: That cop in the bottom three panels of Page 6 (on the right) is so Ditko, it is scary. Look at the...
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Attention medievalists/classicists/smart people: A reader near-and-dear to my heart (and person, as she's writing away in the other room) writes: I’m looking at a series of medieval anecdotes, tales, exempla, &c. in which a person discovers an underground palace or banquet hall filled with filled with both treasure and human-like statues. In some versions of the story there is an explicit warning against removing any object from the room or dining table; in others, it is implicit. Also, in some versions the transgressor/thief manages to escape (only after replacing the stolen item), whereas in other versions, he/she fails to escape and spends the rest of his or her days trapped in the banquet hall. The story is very similar, in many respects, to the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth, in which Ofelia is warned against eating or touching anything on the banquet table of the Pale Man (i.e., the monster-guy with eyeballs in the palms of his hands). She is warned of the consequences, yet still breaks the taboo. The result is terrible, yet she does escape. I’m looking critical studies or readings that go beyond stating the obvious—e.g. "This is, indeed, a common motif in X folklore" or "This motif appears in sources x, y, and z, with variations a, b, & c."—or identifying the motif or narrative as part of a specific (or worse still, universal) tradition—e.g. the Gerbert of Aurillac/Virgilius legends, the legend of Sinbad/Sindibad/Seven Sages, &c. Interpretations and imaginative readings of the scene from Pan’s Labyrinth are also quite welcome. Addendum: I’ve also spent quite a bit of time trying to reconcile this motif with other "underworld journeys" (e.g., the Aeneid, the Inferno, &c.) and the long tradition of commentary and allegorical interpretation that develops around them, with some degree of success; yet there are still undoubtedly plenty of readings and retellings of the same (especially late antique & medieval) that I’ve overlooked.

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