Friday, 9 October 2015

Waxing Philosophic: Cause Comics

Or a look at the murky depths of supporting books for ethical/moral reasons.

There is this peculiar thing happening in the world of comics that I've been noticing more and more, and I have absolutely no idea how to feel about it.

There seems to be a push inside comics for more diversity. It seems that DC and Marvel, perhaps bolstered by the successes of alternate publishers, are making an apparent effort to publish more stories staring women or people of colour. Tied to this is also a rising trend in hiring people who are not white dudes to write and draw and colour some of these comics. Which among other things has resulted in Marvel preparing to publish a Black Panther comic written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and drawn by Brian Stelfreeze, which as a reader, is pretty rad and interesting.

Now, first of all, I think it's great that comics are trying to be more inclusive and diverse. I think it is morally good and important for everyone to see themselves reflected in fiction, and I think it is ethical to give talented people with different backgrounds a fair chance to write comics. (For instance, a world where Lauren Beukes isn't being given every opportunity to write comics is a world where merit doesn't exist.) I am also a big fan of this movement for mercenary reasons: as a reader it's great to see new artists with different perspectives tell their stories and bring their unique experiences to comics. It makes for a richer comics landscape filled with stories that would never occur to me. This also, I think, has the potential to make comics more accessible to non-white-dudes who might be interested in reading comics, which could grow the audience and make comics a healthier industry. Which again is pretty great for purely selfish reasons. So I am all for the diversity push.

I mean, if nothing else, we are getting a Black Panther comic made by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Selfreeze.

The thing is, this movement toward diversity has resulted in some weird behaviour on the part of progressive readers that I think warrants some examination.

Specifically, I am interested in the notion that there is a moral responsibility to "support" pro-diversity comics. That the "right thing to do" is to preorder Black Panther, or that there is a moral quandary over whether we should "support" Red Wolf, a comic starring a Native American superhero, or to boycott it because its writer is allegedly a conservative creep. That the success or failure of comics with progressive or anti-progressive characters or creators is somehow a moral battleground that we as readers have a duty to enter into.

Which is kind of crazy!

I mean, regardless of the intentions of the editorial boards of Marvel and DC, we are talking about intellectual properties owned by multinational corporations. I'm a firm believer that corporations beyond a certain scale become semi-tame sociopaths that behave solely to maximize share price. So the apparent reality of these amoral money machines leveraging the activistic passions of progressive readers to establish readerships and market comics is super weird. It's kind of like ideological blackmail advertising... or like companies evolving a memetic pathogen-vector that uses guilt and empathy to invade our wallet. It is cynical and bonkers and gross.

So while I applaud the existence cool new comics by interesting creators, I think the idea of a moral obligation to buy a product owned by Disney or Time Warner is bizarre. 

But at the same time, I can't help but wonder if this is how it is supposed to work. Large corporations exist to do a single thing: create share value. The fact that the comics publishing wings of Disney and Time Warner see sufficient incentive to make progressive gestures is reflective of the fact that there is a large group of comics readers clamouring for more diversity. And given that corporations are amoral money bacteria, the easiest way to make them dance is to well, give them money and buy things. So maybe the most expedient way to see more inclusive storytelling in comics is to just play the game and "support" diverse comics. 

At the end of the day, I can't really say where I fall between these two extremes: it is weird and gross to have morality commodified, but working within that framework might be an effective way to keep the inclusive storytelling coming. I just don't know.

What I do know is that I'm going to focus on reading interesting comics by talented art teams, which means that I will most likely be trying a few of these new progressive comics.

And that definitely includes Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Selfreeze.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

So I Read Velvet: The Secret Lives Of Dead Men

A 250 word (or less) review of Velvet Vol. 2
by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Bettie Breitweiser, and Chris Eliopoulos; Image Comics

This is a review of an ongoing comic. To read about the first chapter go here.

Velvet is a comic about Velvet Templeton, the unassuming secretary to the head of a clandestine espionage agency who is secretly a deadly spy. In the first chapter Velvet reactivates herself to uncover a traitor responsible for the deaths of agency spies and finds herself framed as a potential mole. In The Secret Lives of Dead Men, Velvet begins to execute her own plan to find the identity of the traitor and to outsmart the men hunting her. Velvet Vol. 2 is a properly good espionage story. In some ways I felt that the first chapter of Velvet, while a gorgeous and well written comic, was more interesting as a concept exploration, what if the cliched Bond secretary were the real secret agent, than as a thrilling spy story. Velvet Vol. 2 manages to build on that fantastic premise and create an engaging plot filled with twists, betrayals, lies, tension, and all of the action that the espionage genre demands. Velvet: The Secret Lives of Dead Men, completely aside from the fun premise, manages to be a fantastic and stylish spy story that will have you frantically turning pages. It's a great comic.

Word count: 193

Velvet Vol. 1

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Lathe Of Heaven Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula K Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven is a novel about a man with the power to change reality with his dreams. George Orr, a humble draftsmen, is abusing drugs to prevent himself from sleeping because he is convinced his dreams are warping reality. Fearing for his sanity Orr is sent to Dr. William Haber for psychiatric care and counselling. Dr. Haber begins a course of induced dream therapy using hypnosis and a trancap, his invention, and discovers that Orr *can* affect reality with his dreaming mind. Rather than try to cure or suppress Orr's dreams, Dr. Haber decides to try and use this power to fix the ills of his overcrowded, war torn, polluted world. But to do this Dr. Haber must navigate the complexities of reality, Orr's subconscious, and his own questionable intentions.

The Lathe of Heaven is an extremely sharp book that asks some very fundamental questions about the nature of reality. Specifically, the novel asks just how solid reality is, whether there is an objective continuity to events or if it's all an illusion based on limited perspective. Which... is a thing that sometimes bothers me in this kind of facile, academic way. One of the events which The Lathe of Heaven makes reference to is the fact that Japan sent fir balloons, essentially weather balloons laden with explosives, to terrorize the United States and Canada and that one balloon did manage to kill some US civilians in Oregon. This is a fact I only recently learned about on the Radiolab podcast before encountering in this novel written in YEAR that I am only now just reading for the first time. Which is weird right? Or, in a longer coincidence, a US thriller novel I was reading made a small reference to the French town of Narbonne and I read this while sitting on a train platform in Narbonne while en route from Marseille to Barcelona. These kinds of coincidences always make me feel like reality has a dream-like quality, like my observations and ideas are somehow shaping reality. And so the questions about a mutable reality in The Lathe of Heaven really resonate with and fascinate me.

The Lathe of Heaven also asks some less academic and more practical questions about the kind of people who want to wield power. In the novel different people try to harness the power of Orr's dreams. Orr himself is afraid of the power and tries his hardest to not change reality with his dreams. However, when pushed to it by necessity, he makes altruistic use of his powers to help others. Dr. Haber, meanwhile, has a combination of confidence, altruistic intentions, and a special kind of greedy drive that makes him deeply want to exploit Orr's dream powers. He blithely uses and abuses the godlike dream powers in a way that imposes his goals on the world and helps himself. The contrast between these two characters really gets at what makes someone seek corporeal power. It's deeply insightful stuff. 

I would recommend The Lathe of Heaven to anyone who enjoys speculative fiction. It's as smart and thorough as any other classic work of Science Fiction. It's also, like many of the other giants of Sci-fi canon, beautifully written with wonderfully rich prose. The Lathe of Heaven is a joy to read. It is a novel that should really be on your reading list if not your classic Sci-fi bookshelf.

The Left Hand of Darkness
The Dispossessed 

Monday, 5 October 2015

Atoll Comics Round 23

Or changes to my Top-Ten comics

Due to having an entertainment budget and an urge to buy better comics, I have decided to be selective about which superhero comics I read. Harnessing the Awesome Power of Maths, I have determined that I can afford to read 10 ongoing titles. So I get to read 10, and only 10, titles published by either Marvel or DC as well as one trade paperback a week of my choosing.

A complication of this is that I am forced to drop an on-going title if I want to try reading a new on-going title, an act of very tough love. Being financially responsible is the worst.

I will be adding Mockingbird and dropping Secret Six.

Why Mockingbird: I think a good description of why I'm reading Mockingbird at the moment is encapsulated in this bit of dialogue: "I'm not going to shoot anyone darling. I'm a biochemist...I wouldn't even know how to fire this thing." which is said while Bobbi Morse clearly demonstrates familiarity with a firearm. As an actual biochemist, this particular bit of dialogue tickles me, but as a more general comics reader this snippet I think showcases the wry, playful wit that runs throughout Mockingbird #1 and makes it fun to read. It's playful and smart and I like it. I'm curious to see what it will develop into in a longer format espionage story. The one caveat of my recommendation at this point is I'm not completely sold on the artwork: while it features clear storytelling and has a distinct style, it doesn't quite have the facial acting needed to nail every joke and doesn't really innovate. But it is early days yet, and I'm willing to see give the creative team a chance mesh and completely win me over.

Why not Sectre Six: Secret Six was a comic I was hoping would become playful and smart and a comic I would like. But, even with a substantial chance or the series to find it's voice... it's just not clicking for me. A past iteration of Secret Six, one of my favourite comics, was a heartfelt look at a group of amusing sociopaths who went on morally complex adventures. It was sometimes challenging, bizarrely warm, and absolutely hilarious. This Secret Six just never worked for me. The characters in the series seem somewhat slapped together and lack the maniacal edge and chemistry needed to make the series work. On top of this, Secret Six has suffered from art inconsistencies: the final issue in the current story arc in particular, which featured a fill-in artist suffered from especially poor storytelling and really didn't jive with the aesthetic of the main series artist. If there is one thing that kills my interest in a comic, it's when a story conclusion features subpar artwork. All that said, I've found that Gail Simone comics often have rocky starts but eventually find their stride. I'm hoping Secret Six finds its voice and a more consistent art team and that I get to try it again in a few months.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Deep Sequencing: Red Runnin' Rebs

Or a look at the use of red in Southern Bastards Vol. 2
by Jason Aaron, Jason Latour and Jared K Fletcher; Image Comics

Southern Bastards Vol. 2 is a brutal comic that tells the backstory of Coach Euless Boss: the high school football coach who runs Craw County with an iron fist. The comic fleshes out the man showing a glimpse of the determination, poverty, and pain that drove him to become the impressive, perhaps even monstrous, force of Southern Bastards. It's a really compelling story. 

It's also comic that does some really effective things with the colour red.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Southern Bastards Vol. 2 below.

On the most basic level the colour red is used to distinguish things happening in the present day from the memories of Euless Boss. Present day events are depicted in the muted, slightly desaturated tones that capture the stark, vaguely rustic feel of Southern Bastards. The memory sequences are done in a muted red-sepia that is distinct from the main part of the comic. This choice maintains a common aesthetic across the comic, but also keeps everything neat and tidy from a reader's perspective.

The thing about the colour red though, is that it's a pretty emotionally charged colour. It isn't just red. It's red! The colour of blood, pain, passion, and anger! Which imparts the memory sequences in Southern Bastards with a certain violent emotional palette. An angry emotional pitch that throttles up and down with the intensity of the red in the story: a muted palette in the quiet moments and a brilliant scarlet in the most painful, most striking, perhaps the most defining moments of Boss' story. It's an involving choice that, I think, really imparts the core of anger that forged Boss.

The other thing about the colour red is that it's the team colour of the Runnin' Rebs. This does a whole bunch of pretty nuanced things. For one thing it ties the Euless Boss memories thematically to the football team which is at the heart of his story. Boss' history is indelibly stained in the colour of his team. This choice is also interesting in how Boss continues to clothe himself in Runnin' Reb red: it's like he is clothed in his backstory. Which to me translates to Boss proudly displaying the adversity he's overcome and a sense that Euless Boss is still marked, still traumatized and controlled by his painful past. This is using colour to really develop character, which is properly cool comics.

Deep Sequencing: Southern Bastard Faces

Southern Bastards Vol. 1
Southern Bastards Vol. 2

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

So I Read Southern Bastards: Gridiron

A 250 word (or less) review of Southern Bastards Volume 2
By Jason Aaron, Jason Latour and Jared K Fletcher; Image Comics

Southern Bastards is an ongoing comic. To read about the first chapter go here.

Southern Bastards is a deep-south crime comic. In the first chapter Earl Tubbs travelled back to his hometown in Craw County, Alabama to set some of his dead father’s affairs in order. Seeing the town overrun by organized crime, Tubbs went about stirring up some trouble. Which got Tubbs dead at the hands of Euless Boss, the crimeboss and football coach of the high school football team. Southern Bastards: Gridiron picks up just after the Tubbs murder and focuses on the backstory of Euless Boss and how he went from being the poor son of the biggest bastard in Craw County barred from the football team to the team's coach and the man who runs the whole damn place. One of the true marks of a quality story is how strong the villain is: one-dimensional, simple antagonists can make for decent backdrops, but complicated characters with detailed goals and motivations make for a much richer story. Southern Bastards Vol. 2 turns Euless Boss from a menacing concept to a well rounded, compelling character with the strength to be the star of his own story. Which has me far more invested in the coming conflict as Earl Tubbs' daughter is finally coming back to Craw County to discover just what happened. A storm is coming to Southern Bastards, and I can’t wait to see it erupt.

Word count: 225


Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Influx Is Not A Good Book

Or a look at why I wouldn't recommend Influx
by Daniel Suarez

Influx is a technothriller about a secret cabal who vanish disruptive technologies and inventors in an effort to protect the status quo. Jon Grady, a brilliant rogue Scientist and inventor has just discovered a way to bend gravity fields, a discovery that should net him a Nobel Prize and change the course of physics. But on the night of his triumph he and his colleagues are kidnapped and inducted into the secret world of The Bureau of Technology Control with all of its wonders of hidden Science. Now Jon Grady is given unlimited resources to further his technology, but only if its kept secret and he submits to total control. Jon Grady isn't a man to submit to a gilded prison, but to escape he must outwit captors who have the future at their disposal.

Which is a pretty great sounding premise right? It makes Influx sound like a Scientifically literate story that delivers imaginative, Sci-fi action that might just challenge notions about the role of technology in society. The trouble is, Influx proved not to be this kind of book and really failed to deliver on this promising premise. And, as a result, I found that Influx really wasn't a very satisfying reading experience.

TLDR: I really did not enjoy Influx.

Jon Grady, the protagonist of the novel, is a poster child of why I found Influx so unsatisfying. The conceit of the character is that he is a free-thinking, self-made supergenius who is too libertine and brilliant for academia. Which, right off the bat, is pretty unlikely. The notion that you can just bootstrap yourself into being a thought leader in high energy physics without formal training or access to the resources of Academia is about as likely as Jon Grady being the Kwisatz Haderach. Which would all be fine if Jon Grady was written as a supergenius: if Jon Grady was able to demonstrate with his narration or actions that he is plausibly a once-in-a-generation mind, then his unlikely situation could be overlooked in service to the story. Unfortunately Jon Grady never demonstrates his brilliance and is written as a pretty regular, not especially intelligent guy. The novel does try to get around this somewhat by giving Jon Grady a special synesthesia where he conflates colours, math, and music in his mind and that this is part of what makes him a supergenius. But this too is done poorly with the synesthesia treated more like a convenient superpower rather than a consistent mental outlook/condition that he has to deal with or regularly utilizes. Also, I am in no way an expert on stynesthesia, but the portrayals in this book read as extremely superficial or at least highly unconvincing. Collectively, Jon Grady is just not a convincing genius which means that I fundamentally didn't buy into the novel.

(Incidentally, Jon Grady is a great example of why I think we often experience geniuses in fiction from the perspective of a colleague or friend. Everyone can relate to being around someone smarter than them, but very few people are actually legitimately brilliant. So it is much easier to make a Watson's internal life believable than it is to sell a convincing Sherlock.)

The same systemic issues that prevent Jon Grady from being a convincing protagonist also serve to poison a lot of other facets of Influx. A huge number of plot developments do not make sense under scrutiny and seem to occur mostly as a convenient way to advance the plot. For instance, a prison cell designed to feed inmates via a surgically implanted umbilical system can conveniently also magically prepare passable pho soup for some reason. It's distractingly silly. Similarly, the villains of the novel are cartoonishly two-dimensional, bland, and, for being the masterminds of the BTC, distractingly stupid. Instead of getting convincing, earnest villains who believe in their mandate and are impressive in their intelligence we get laughable strawmen with cartoon diabolical plots. The love interest of the story is a genetically engineered woman meant to be perfect, which means that along with enhanced strength and intelligence she has perfect beauty and irresistible sexy pheromones which is just amazingly foolish, sexist, and juvenile. Influx, for being sold as am intelligent techno-thriller alternative is just full of really, really dumb choices. 

This even extends to the Science of Influx. Influx seems to very proudly announce itself as a Scientifically literate piece of fiction. I have an armchair-enthusiast level of knowledge about high-energy particle physics, so the collection of superficial physics buzz-words in Influx could very well checkout and be fine. I am however a cardiac cell biologist who specializes in calcium ionic signalling so I know a fair amount about neurobiology and specifically the processes in neurobiology that involve ionic calcium signals. As a result I can tell you that pretty much the entirety of the neurobiology in Influx is wrong: either vaguely mistaken or downright bonkers incorrect. For instance the idea that glial cells (a family of neuron-like brain cells) constitute a second "chemical brain" that works independent of your "more electrical" normal brain is ridiculous. In reality glial cells are integral to the one brain in your skull and seem to play mostly a supportive role in coupling things like blood flow to brain activity. (BTW, the *entire* brain is a chemical brain.) The other glial idea that what separates supergeniuses from regular people is a difference in the number of glial cells in their brain is also ludicrous and actually pretty problematic (since imbuing physical differences to intelligence like this is a slippery slope to craniometry batshittery). Of the Science I could parse through the condescending grapeshot of jargon well enough to assess, it was all entirely wrong. So Influx also fails utterly at being scientifically plausible. 

I clearly would not recommend Influx. I think it is a failure as a technothriller and just generally an unenjoyable book. If you want to read a really good, really scientifically literate technothriller, I cannot recommend Ramez Naam's Nexus enough. It is everything Influx tried and failed to be: smart, exciting, and a really thoughtful examination of the role of technology in society. If you would like to read a bonkers book about rugged, misunderstood geniuses facing institutional morons I'd read Atlas Shrugged. Thematically Influx and Atlas Shrugged are crazy similar and Ayn Rand's novel, despite being loopy and toxic, is at least written with the zeal of the true believer. (I kid you not, there is a scene in Influx where Jon Grady forgets his name and nearly calls himself John Galt. *Seriously*.) And, real talk, a novel that compares unfavourably to Atlas Shrugged is not a book you should ever, ever read. So please, read something else.