Friday, 13 August 2010

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Cerebus and Modernist Freedom Revisited Some of you may remember this series (Part I, Part II, Part III) from long ago. The Interwebs did, and so arose an opportunity for revision and publication (complete with preapproval from Sim and Gerhard to include panels and pages from the series) in a forthcoming collection. Below is the abstract I concocted while foolishly spending much of my time writing the actual essay, but that's neither here nor there. The close readings of the texts themselves will commence somewhere near the end of this capsule history of what I'm calling "modernist freedom," but previews of them can be found at the links above. That said: Cerebus and Modernist Freedom When Dave Sim and his fiance, Deni Loubert, founded Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc. in 1977, its express purpose was to publish Sim's own parody of the sword and sorcery genre typified by titles like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja. Two years, twenty-five issues, countless tabs of LSD, and a stint in a psychiatric ward later, his increasingly threadbare parody—later collected in phone book-form as Cerebus—was re-envisioned as a project of almost unimaginable magnitude when the 23-year-old Sim declared that the series would run for 300 issues, at which point he would be 48 years old. For a writer to dedicate 25 years to a single project is not merely unheard of in the domain of serialized comics, but in literature at large, comparable in stamina to the 26 years William Gass labored on The Tunnel and superior in final effect to the nearly half-century in which Ralph Ellison failed to complete Juneteenth. Moreover, Sim rarely had—or, at least, rarely abused—the luxury of stopping production on Cerebus to write essays in the mode of Gass or Ellison, as the schedule required to produce a monthly comic demanded that he work without cessation. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the serial nature of monthly comics eliminated the possibility of revision in the traditional sense. Sim could not simply revise a previously unpublished chapter to accord with another of similar status, he had to incorporate previously published material into his increasingly complex cosmology—a feat he accomplished sometimes brilliantly, sometimes not. He possessed, in 1979, the kind of creative freedom editors can afford Grant Morrison today: he could remake this fictional world so that it functioned in accordance with his vision of it. When coupled with the increasingly popularity of his title, this freedom from editorial interference allowed Sim to develop Cerebus solely in reference to his expectations and those of his readers, a financial and artistic arrangement that shares more with that of Continental modernist literature than not. James Joyce knew Ulysses would continue to be serialized in The Little Review because of the number and influence of its subscribers and the unflagging support Sylvia Beach; this knowledge afforded him the opportunity to risk formal and narrative strategies at which an artist lacking it might balk. Despite Joyce's constant anxiety about money—he once wrote his mother, "Your order for 3s 4d of Tuesday last was...
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Tendentious people are tendentious (and frequently dumb). It will surprise no one who read my previous post to learn that the folks at Big Hollywood loved The Expendables exactly as much as they are ideologically required to anticipated. Still, John Nolte’s review is a teleological marvel. What he likes about the film is the simple straight-forward plot, all the B-movie mayhem you could possibly ask for, and two unapologetic hours of masculinity—which may be two hours more than we’ve seen in all of the last decade put together. These boys smoke cigars, drink beer while piloting airplanes, and return us to those glorious pre-Oprah days when stoicism was still a virtue and real men didn’t gush about their inner-emotional lives like 13 year-old girls drunk on Dr. Pepper at a slumber party. Maybe someone should tell him that the reason flat characters don’t “gush” about “their inner-emotional lives” is because they don’t have them. Maybe I should. I suppose I will. Please, Mr. Nolte, continue: Sylverster Stallone’s glorious throwback to the brawny 80s is also about something, and it’s not Bourne-ian self-discovery. It’s about something that actually matters. And in this age of nihilism when believing in anything bigger than self is considered old-fashioned, unsophisticated and naïve, that’s both refreshing and important. If you insist on italicizing the word “about,” you might want to indicate what that “something” that it’s about actually is. Sorry, I’m being rude. Mr. Nolte, you may continue: The story opens with a well-crafted action sequence involving Somalia pirates that not only establishes how deadly competent our guys are, but also that they’re not cold-blooded killers. These are men with a moral code and one of their own breaking that code will be the root cause of deadly complications and a couple over the top action sequences to come. So these are mercenaries who only ever fight the good fight? If I may, Mr. Nolte, let me recommend my friend Adam Roberts’s post on Iron Man, in which he notes that that film adheres to the dream narrative of US military involvement in the Middle East: one American is able to go to Afghanistan, kill only the bad Afghans, leave all the good Afghani men women and children alive and leap away into the sky. That “dream narrative” isn’t the product of a moral code, but simply a denial of the reality of reality. But I should let you finish: The plot gets a nudge courtesy of a self-referential Meeting of The Titans. Ever in search of a job, Barney meets with “Church” (Bruce Willis), a CIA spook in need of some housecleaning that won’t make headlines and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a long-time rival. Cinematically this is far from a great scene— First, stop pretending to be German. Second, I think you’re starting to realize that you didn’t even like the film. You call it a “B-movie,” rate its action scenes as “over the top,” and now you’re criticizing how it films a conversation. What did you think of the dialogue? [T]hese aren’t men...

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