The Onus of Creativity

First, let me again thank all of my new readers for reading as well as “Liking” my posts and “Following” my Blog. I very much appreciate it and it encourages me to keep writing on here: influencing me to believe I have things that are worth saying about what I do.

A question that writers almost always get asked at some point or another–so I’m told–is where do you get your inspiration from?

It’s a similar question to the infamous where do you get your ideas from, and I might get into that as this Blog entry unfolds a bit more. I can be a real smart-ass and say that I get my inspiration and my ideas from inside of the strange, convoluted thing that is my mind. I can even be literal and say that I get them from reading, from watching movies and television, from my time at school, from long walks talking to myself, and from basically experiencing life. I even say as much in this Blog: which was founded on those very principles.

There was a TED Lecture created by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert called On Genius in which she discusses the Western view of what an artist and a creator is. Specifically, Gilbert looks at the symbol of the tormented artist: of the person or “genius” who is the sole producer of all the art and knowledge and expression that comes to them. She contests the view that it is somehow “natural” for a creator to suffer from depression, alcoholism, to be genuinely unhappy a good portion of their lives.

Even though she tries to debunk this, there is something very … seductive about the idea. I mean, look at the very nature of a piece of literature for instance. There is no novel, or short story that doesn’t have a conflict of some kind inherent in the plot or the theme of the thing. Without conflict, there is no story. Not really. Utopias get very boring to talk about after a while, but we love to hear about how they go wrong. Just like nightmares can seem more compelling to write and read about than dreams. So if these traits existence in the makeup of fiction, why shouldn’t they be in the nature of its creators?

Sometimes unhappiness, or tremendous passions fuels a writer. And in some of my darker moments, I believe that true joy is finite, while unhappiness is limitless. Sometimes, I don’t even believe I’m wrong and it is no secret I tend to write about some dark, violent, and sad things. Imagine writing about a world around you that was perfect and always full of joy. Imagine just how hard that would be to hold anyone’s interest for longer than a few minutes. Neil Gaiman managed to do something like this in his run of Marvelman/Miracleman, but even then he had to bring human nature and its inherently conflictive nature towards a paradise that was imposed on it.

When I’m feeling really negative, I feel like my negativity is what makes my writing immensely powerful: hence my above statement. I also know it is not always the case. Passion and conflict are not necessarily inherently unhappy, but necessary things. If anything I’d venture to say that stasis is also a tremendous unhappiness because nothing grows in it. That can be a form of struggle itself for a writer: the struggle against stasis.

In her TED lecture, Gilbert attempts to look at how earlier cultures dealt with the concept of human genius. She talks about how the Greeks believed that each person occasionally meets a daimon–a spirit or muse–that gives them ideas outside of themselves. The Romans also adopted this notion and called this spirit a genius. It’s all a conceptual framework. If anything, I understand that one advantage to this paradigm is that it takes the personal onus or burden of creativity from inside the individual and places on something “outside” of them. Alan Moore, in his Voice of the Fire, even states that he placed the building of said novel on the town of Northampton which he was writing about in a mythological way.

I think that it is a question of cultural and personal attitude towards the creative process and your own life too. I know that I also have a responsibility to write and express myself, but my experiences and knowledge also informs that. Sometimes I do feel a strange energy in me when I write something. Even when I write something with personal emotion, it overlays a kind of calm as well as I feel myself “getting the job done.”

I will tell you now: I almost didn’t post this here because I thought it would potentially be too personal and I want to just make this about writing. At the same time, my writing is powered by my emotions and experiences. It is a dichotomy I have to navigate a lot.

I’d like to finish off this post by quoting from the last eight lines of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water,” in which she states:

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

Despite what happened to Gwendolyn in her own life, and towards the end of her life these wise words are a gentle admonition to remember and I have to remember them everyday. If you haven’t, you should definitely check out Gilbert’s TED Lecture and the other TED Creativity Lectures as well. I hope that you can all find what suits and works for you as well.

Star Wars: Back to the Basics

So this is not a new argument. I have been thinking about–and talking about–the Star Wars films and their effectiveness for years. I’ve been talking about George Lucas’ universe to the point of being obnoxious. I have readers on here who have heard me say many of these things before in some way or form: mainly in the form of ranting. I might have even written something like this in another forum, but after a few more years and really not talking about Star Wars for a while I think I can better articulate some of my views.

Let me begin by saying that you would be right if you guessed that I like the Old Trilogy far better then the New one. I will also tell you why, and I will tell you why by delving into something I’d spent some years studying in my Grad Program: mainly mythic world-building.

In the Old Trilogy, you have a universe that is already established. It looks worn and the aliens and droids are its indigenous cast. In other words, they look like they belong there. You have very archetypal environments that these beings can play in and there seem to be stories behind everything. What’s more is that the universe–or Galaxy–presented to us is filled with mysteries. These mysteries are what make the Old Trilogy: the mysticism of the Force, the background of certain characters, the unspoken history behind particular groups such as the Jedi Knights and just how old some places and people really are. There are a lot unspoken stories or rumours in this galaxy as well and when you first enter it amid the swashbuckling and space-fights you really get immersed in it.

It like you just came to this place in the middle of the story–which you have–and there is so much you want to know even when the three films are over. The Old Trilogy is filled with darkness and old history, but also with the hints of glory and just a mythical greatness that pulls you in with the scenery, the hinted upon lore, and John Williams’ musical score.

George Lucas has explained that his inspiration for Star Wars–in considerable part–came from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers science-fiction shows he watched as a child. These “space-opera serials” helped to inform and create his own. You can see it in the devil-may-care blaster-toting Han Solo, all of the space battles, and even in Luke’s wannabe adventurer character: at least in the beginning. Basically, these old science-fiction elements are integral to Star Wars’ existence.

I just thought this scene from The Star Wars alternate reality comic–the one adapted from an original draft of Star Wars itself–would be appropriate on some many levels considering the subject matter and the character resemblances. But what is definitely from my perspective is the following.

Then you have the Prequels. or the New Trilogy. One thing that most creators of worlds tend to do when they make a world for the first time, or try to re-imagine a pre-established world is to “go back to the basics.” You see a lot of this in comics nowadays: using Golden or Silver Age characters and expanding on them or taking a different slant on how they might be. What I think happened was George Lucas looked at the Star Wars universe he created and decided to “go back to basics”: to tell the story of what caused a lot of the events that happened in the Old Trilogy and at the same time re-imagine Star Wars. Of course there are two kinds of re-imaginings: which are reboots (which the Prequels were not) and matters of continuity.

From my perspective the Jedi are evil … no, George Lucas brought Star Wars closer to the spirit of the source material that informed his own childhood enjoyment: that of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. In fact, I believe he said as much in an interview or two in the past.

Flash Gordon aesthetics …

Meet Revenge of the Sith.

I believe that with the Old Trilogy, Lucas started out with those inspirations and expanded from them into something that looked older and actually resembled that strangely wonderful and mysterious phrase, “Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away” that never gets explained but is still beautiful. With the Prequel Trilogy, I feel like that Lucas “went backward” and started to make something closer to the old shows he was inspired from. It wasn’t old and established anymore. The lines and creases weren’t there: the organic elements were stripped away to reveal this prototypical place.

Not all of the ideas in the New Trilogy were bad. Some were very intriguing and even did expand on certain elements in that galaxy. But unfortunately, they were elements that were poorly executed: if only because they seemed rushed. There was only so much lore you can throw into even three films to hold someone’s interest and sometimes things can get lost when you try to be succinct and “to the point.” Also, and I think you might know all too well the example I’m thinking about, it is a lot like humour: sometimes you can hit that place and sometimes you get far off the mark and actually offend people. Jar Jar, I am looking at you.

But some wooden dialogue and unfortunate caricatures aside, I think there were a lot of concepts that just couldn’t be fit seamlessly into the Prequels. I don’t like all of them and I would have liked to see some different things happen than what did, but I can sympathize with those limitations. That is probably what The Clone Wars CGI cartoons are for: to fill in the gaps between Episodes II and III. Again, they seem to hearken back more to Flash and Rogers and there are some intriguing concepts in them but they can be clumsy and awkward to watch: never mind how they can mess with continuity. And then, of course, there is the humour too.

Some people might even find the closeness to those old science-fiction serials outdated for our time, but I can see how it can be pulled off. I will tell you though that the galaxy of the Prequels does feel like a different galaxy from the Old Trilogy and sometimes it s a jarring thing to realize there supposed to be the same. I miss the mystical elements and mysteries of the Star Wars I grew up with.

And then there is Stars Wars: The Old Republic. I haven’t played this online multi-player game but my friends do and they have been trying to get me on this habit for a while now. But from what I have seen, this galaxy has gone back longer ago, but unlike the Prequels it does not seem farther away. Here you have the grittiness of the Old Trilogy mixed with a massive amount of Jedi and Sith lore. Both Jedi and Sith do not feel as watered-down as those in the Prequels: in fact from what I have seen they are what I always expected them to be. You have your bounty hunters, dynamic smugglers, and all of that stuff with plenty of story and mystery to explore.

I feel that for this game, the creators went back to the basics of Star Wars: but instead of merely just the science-fictional basics, they went back to the archetypal mythological building-blocks that I love so much. And I feel that is a place where the New Trilogy should have gone: that if we had gone to the mythical gravitas of the Jedi at their peak, Anakin Skywalker as a hero, Obi-Wan as a wise mentor even then, with Yoda still in the place of sage, and seeing Anakin go from something of a combination of Luke and Han into a tragic monster instead of the flash of ship and droid battles, and an actual romance between him and Padme in the films it would have made all the difference. Also, seeing Darth Vader slaughter Jedi in his suit, and even seeing the populace turn on and allow soldiers to take away and commit genocide against the Jedi–who’d otherwise been a natural part of their galactic population–would have really been far more striking and effective: from my point of view anyway.

Still, I am glad the New Trilogy exists and has inspired me and others. I like it in that it seems like a prototype or an outline of a movie or another world. But I would go with the timelessness of the Old Trilogy any day.

I would like to mention one more thing though. There are some people that wished Star Wars would be as dark and gritty as the Old Trilogy and remain so. Some people do not like the “cutesy” elements of it. You know the ones: the talking battle droids, the Gungans and the Ewoks.

Let me tell you something about Ewoks. I know that many consider them to be a blemish on Return of the Jedi. I don’t. Long before I watched the movies, I used to watch Saturday afternoon cartoons like Ewoks and Droids. They were the things that made me aware of the Old Trilogy. I really liked the Ewoks and the droids and seeing them in live-adventure with other bad-ass characters made Star Wars seem so much more real to me and that made my childhood self so happy: as though they–my friends–could exist somewhere out there past all we know in our world.

Sometimes when I get annoyed at the droids or Gungans, I ask myself what would it have been like if I hadn’t seen the Ewoks in Episode VI: if Star Wars had remained completely gritty all the time to the very end? People decry marketing the films solely to children, but children have made this universe. I was a child when I saw the films and they changed my life. Do I think that children can handle grittiness, violence, and the concept of the struggle of good verses evil? Of course. I definitely don’t think that things need to be “dumbed down” or completely censored out for children to like them. I also don’t believe good quality films for children should be three-hour long commercials.

At the same time, I also believe that a little light and levity and the comical–when done well–are also good for children and adults too. I wouldn’t have liked Episode VI if Han Solo had died the way it was originally planned or if there had been no Ewoks. They are also a necessary “basic” in the Star Wars universe: almost like a living cartoon–a neoteny–that is different from us but definitely something we can relate to. I always find it funny how we can relate to something that is more simplified than we are more than something that is supposed to be as complex and “serious” as us.

That too is something to keep in mind with regards to Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, or many similar adventure films: that while archetypal dangers and challenges are key, it is only when they are set with humanity and warmth that they feel like you are taking your first step into a much larger world.

Addendum: I DO like Lucas’ film work paralleling scenes between the Old and New Trilogy: especially with regards to what Luke does and what Anakin does. Also, Anakin Skywalker is a very good subversion and critique of the vintage reckless, daring hero archetype.

Film Review: Inglourious Basterds

I’ve been making a lot of reviews lately, I know, but this film has made itself a special place in my heart. I also made a reference to it in one of my earlier entries–with regards to Marvel’s Nick Fury–and I guess compelled to actually say something about the film now that I actually watched the thing.

If I could sum up Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds into two words, it would be these:

Fuck History.

If I could get a mug or zippo lighter in the spirit of Garth Ennis’ Preacher with those words, I would definitely consider it. I think what I really liked about Tarantino’s film is the fact that it plays on your expectations–usually well ingrained film or plot-expectations–and then says “Nope,” and does something else entirely. There is something really exaggerated and almost lampoonish about Inglourious Basterds: from the portrayal of its characters, to the garishness of its iconography and all the way to the messed up situations that occur within it.

But while there are moments of hilarity–yes hilarity in a movie about a group of Jewish-American soldiers sent to kill, torture, and destroy Nazi soldiers in 1944–it is not a comedy or a parody. It is quite serious. It is a film that shows what happens to the best laid plans: especially in a war or an enemy infiltration situation and how quickly some interesting characters can die. It illustrates how evil wins when good men have their families threatened. In addition, it also shows how the “good guys” can be immensely but necessarily cruel in war, and how even an evil, remorseless antagonist can be one of the most captivating characters in the entire film.

There is something very … comic book action hero-like about this film and how it is put together. Tarantino himself stated that he wanted to create a World War II movie over the backdrop and ambiance of a spaghetti Western. There is definitely a resonance of Kill Bill in some of the seemingly ad hoc situations that arise in this film: complete with contemporary music set around a period piece and lots of gore and dead Nazis.

But I definitely think about super-hero comics when I think about this film now in retrospect. Hitler seems to have something of a cape, the American soldiers have a very brash gung-ho Americanism thing going on, the Nazi antagonist is very Machiavellian and over the top, and there is a very clear revenge scenario going on here. It feeds into your sense of blood-lust and satisfaction in watching something “evil” die. At the same time though, Tarantino subverts this. For all the protagonists portray the Nazis in the film as evil, and often most of the people in here are relatively two-dimensional–there are still moments of humanity from the “bad guys” that almost make you feel sorry for them being scalped, or having swastikas carved into their heads, or, you know, killed.

As for those people who think that this, well, obviously not historically inaccurate, consider my reference to action hero comics. Was it accurate for Superman to beat the crap out of Hitler? Was it also accurate for Captain America to have a few swings at him? Probably not, but I’m sure there was definite satisfaction in reading that and these comics–the result of war propaganda and good art–translated into Tarantino’s film very nicely.

But all that is either surface or merely part of the film. There is another aspect as well: more of the details. The multi-lingual segments of the film carried me through and gave me some more of the ambiance of that time. It left it no less charged. And then there is a meta-thematic element: that of film itself.

It is no coincidence that the build-up and the climax of Inglourious Basterds takes place in a film theatre, is centred around the viewing of a propaganda film, is subverted by a “revenge film” and whose antagonists are ultimately destroyed by film–by a moving sequential account of history ignited by the flames of war–itself. Because while many of the events in this movie did not happen, and many of the characters didn’t even exist, I feel like that the enemy’s “death by film” symbolizes a much greater artistic achievement over fascism: that when you seek to destroy something with art, art can ultimately change and destroy you as well.

On the television, Inglourious Basterds didn’t get any stars–which is a shame–but that only suits its personality. It’s not here for the glory, and it is not ornate or nice, but definitely has a lot of very kick-ass–literal and otherwise–moments. I think that I will give this film a five out of five.

Comics Review: Chester Brown’s Paying For It

One weakness I have as a writer, that I always have to work on, is that once I start talking about really abstract concepts–like my last post on Craig Thompson’s Habibi–it can become very unrelatable. And if something cannot be related to, a reader will be less inclined to want to unless they are part of a specialized reader-audience: and even then readability is important. It is key. There are very few things more asinine than talking about how elitist some knowledge-bases are while at same time bandying about its jargon like it is a matter of course and not even bothering to explain what it means in context.

For me, a dialectic is a structure where two or more concepts are pitted against each other: or at the very least a structure of, or narrative argument. I also think it can be more complicated than the above and can say more than one thing at the same time. So, really, mentioning all of that in this review is appropriate given that the book I want to look at is called Paying For It.

Chester Brown is a fascinating cartoonist. He and Craig Thompson have a few things in common: in that they came from some relatively religious backgrounds and have delved into some esoteric subject matter from time to time. Brown himself really likes to make “weird stories” in addition to the esoteric stuff and examines human relationships in a very analytic, detached, but thoroughly detailed way. If you want to look at a wide variety of Brown’s work, I would suggest reading his collection The Little Man.

As for Paying For It, I came across it a year ago when I went to the previous session of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I bought the book and had Brown sign it whereupon I was exposed to another very fascinating dialectic with some interesting implications. First of all, it is an autobiographical work. This is no new thing given that Brown has drawn autobiographical comics before, but this time he gets honest: sometimes brutally honest. You know, that kind of honesty where you show yourself in wide natural human spectrums of intelligence, decency, and ugliness.

Chester Brown essentially creates a comic about his experiences with prostitution: with sex-workers. However, he doesn’t stop there. No, Brown doesn’t really defend his actions–or his depicted thoughts–so much as advocate prostitution as a natural form of human monetary, social, and personal interaction. He depicts this through interactions with his friends as well as the women that he makes sessions with and a very long Appendices of actual information and figures at the back of the book.

Like I always like to say as a catch-phrase, this is no new idea. Prostitution has been called the oldest profession in the world for a reason. The aesthetics of Brown’s graphic narrative definitely affects how his argument: and story because the argument is merely one facet of the thing. It is flat background with simple small square panels on which the characters are small. The sexual acts are quick and to the point and almost clinical. The sex-workers’ faces are never seen at all–which Brown explains is to protect even the hint of their identities–and he even admits that has changed their names. Some other reviewers have commented on this and I can see different interpretations of how this can be perceived by the reader.

One might say that he is objectifying these women by what he does with them, and by depicting them in his story, yet you can also make the argument that by reducing everyone–including himself–into these small caricatures he shows that the issue is either bigger than all of them or it is something that in the grand scheme of things the universe doesn’t really care about. I myself really feel a little unsettled about sex and the body being treated as a very clear commodity: which is even reflected in Brown’s internal monologues. At the same time, there are also depictions of humanity: of affection, and warmth, and questions. He shows, despite their lack of faces and names that these women are human beings who notice if someone hasn’t been around, who are curious about a person, who sometimes forget to take money, who at times will let it known that they are uncomfortable, have their own loves and insecurities, and, understand that fear can go both ways between client and employee.

Brown makes it clear that for all money is involved, as long as human beings are involved feelings of some kind–even something ideal like basic common courtesy–can always be there. Those little touches are what make this book and what add to the strong themes inherent within it. Paying For It also makes you ask some questions about what relationships actually are.

I think the crux of it for me is when Brown talks about how he hates romantic relationships and how romantic love is a faulty concept that we have built our society around. He goes on to state that romantic relationships breed jealousy and a fear of loneliness that is the price to have emotional and sexual needs gratified. When Brown talked about these romantic relationships, as a few people in society will say, he tends to refer to exclusively monogamous ones: as if the romantic somehow automatically equals monogamy.

The concept of what is “the romantic” is a very fascinating subject that scholars and people have always debated amongst themselves. Brown himself depicts himself as reading a book by Denis de Rougemont called Love in the Western World: an account of how the early “courtly-love” ballads–arguably integral to a conception of romantic love–may have been secret Cathar messages created to symbolize “a particular love for the divine” instead of for a particular individual. Notice how Brown–like Thompson in Habibi–brings in an esoteric element with regards to this dialectic of what love is: something that I’d only realized they both had in common today. Brown himself posits the idea that people did not grasp the hidden message and went with the overt love message of “love with one person in an established relationship” instead.

Like I have been saying a lot throughout this post, it is a fascinating idea but I think one that is not unchallengeable. First of all, Western culture is not a monolith. There are–and there have been–different cultures in its structure. The fact that something like the Cathar movement, though problematic because they were exterminated as heretics–is proof of that. Also, you have to look at how the word “romantic” has evolved: from the sublime and terrifying in Nature, to love between two people, and really love itself. I myself  don’t believe that romantic love is “evil” and that it can be interpreted in many different ways by our era: just as it has changed over the centuries.

It is true that love in a marriage and an established relationship is a relatively new (by some centuries) ideal. Also think about like this: in ancient times, only marriage was seen as a legitimate and lawful sexual relationship where property and political alliances were the key. It is only later that relationships outside of marriage, even those with the proviso of potentially leading to one–became more accepted and mainstream. I won’t even go into the different conceptions of what love is because that is a whole other subject matter.

Brown even admits later that perhaps romantic love isn’t so bad and can be adapted. I do find it very intriguing–however–that Brown and Thompson in talking about two only somewhat-related subjects ultimately go into a dialectic or meditation of what love actually is. One might think that talking about prostitution would exclude any mention of the word “love,” yet Brown manages not only to dissect himself and his own motivations in Paying For It, but he also critiques societal norms with regards to love and sex. Brown seems to ask the question what a society would be like if prostitution was commonplace and fully accepted. I think that such a society would have to have a very radically different idea and attitude towards sex, the body, and love. I don’t think our society is at that stage–and I’m not sure if it ever will be–but it is definitely something to think about.

I also wonder what another account of prostitution would be like from a sex-worker’s perspective: even as a comic. I think that, whatever people may say about Chester Brown and this work, that this was definitely a work of art and meditation. It is probably not for everyone and I can imagine some people having an adverse reaction to it, but to anyone else it is definitely worth pondering over. I myself am still not sure what to think of it, but I would definitely give it a five out of five: for making me think.

Addendum: Someone should definitely do a paper on Plato’s Symposium, Chester Brown’s Paying For It and Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Habibi with regards to love, but that person probably won’t be me.

Habibi and Thompson: A Dialectic of Love

I know, it’s a little irregular for me to add more to a previous review, but after reading another book I realized I’d be greatly remiss in explaining another reservation that I had about the narrative

One thing that I really forgot to mention about Habibi was its emphasis–at least with regards to its characters and their experiences growing up–on the negativity of sex. Physical intimacy, passion, and sex are depicted as tools of degradation against which the purer esoteric love that is breath, unity, and wholeness must struggle against. It is your basic Zoroastrian or binary opposition of the physical as something base–being in the realm of Ahriman or the God of the Earth–and the spiritual love of Ahura Mazda and the God of the Heavens being pure and the real thing to strive for.

It is a theme that is identified with Zoroastrianism that is credited with influencing the Essenes, the Manichean Heresy and Kabbalism as well as Judeo-Christian theology. It is also something I don’t really agree with: though there is an immaculate order to the logic being employed.

I also realized something else. This is not the first time I have seen this. I know, I just made a whole bunch of religious and cultural references earlier that say that I did, but I’m talking about Craig Thompson in particular. Because now I remember a little more of Thompson’s other graphic novel Blankets. Thompson depicts himself with his first love in a more spiritual and emotional way. Even though there are moments of very clear physical and auto-erotic interaction, I recall the illustration around them seemed more airy, as though those moments were less to do with Earth than with the idea of clouds and the Heavens. I also remembered Blankets was just as much in some ways Thompson’s meditation and debate with the fundamentalist Christianity he was forced to grow in as much as it was a first love story.

For some reason, I feel as though Thompson was more successful placing that dialectic or narrative model in Blankets than in Habibi. I mean to say, he was very successful in creating stories around this theme, but in Blankets it seemed more subtle and seamless, whereas I feel in Habibi it was … awkward somehow. Perhaps the autobiographical narrative of the first graphic novel suited the theme more because it was about Thompson, while with the second it wasn’t about him–perhaps–it felt as though it were applied to something outside of himself that he wasn’t as sure about?

The idea of two kinds of love: manifesting in physical passion and then divine adoration is not a new one, but it wasn’t until–pretty much now–that I really see just how far this goes as a narrative and how it echoes other works. I just find this–and how it functions differently from autobiography to fiction–very fascinating: especially with regards to the graphic novel that I am about to review next: Chester Brown’s Paying For It.

Comics Review: Craig Thompson’s Habibi

I read Habibi during the Toronto Comics Arts Festival over a month ago after hearing about it, and even seeing it in bookstores for even longer. It was this very thick book filled with immensely detailed black and white drawings ranging from thatch-lined to the lushly illustrated.

This does not surprise me. Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets used a very similar style: to the point where one could even see the influence or resonance of Bill Watterson’s cartooning in there as well (according to Nevin Martell in his book Looking For Calvin and Hobbes at least). However, while Blankets focused on Thompson’s autobiographical account of discovering his first love while growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family and society, Habibi is something that … covers quite a few themes.

The story itself is about two runaway child slaves–Dodola and Zam–spanning from slave markets, deserts, palaces, and harems all the way into polluted villages and industrialized cities that threaten the environment. Thompson attempts to link all of these backgrounds and elements together in the form of a love story: sometimes a very brutal, very esoteric and ecological but also spiritual love story.

I will say that Habibi–the title derived from the apparently Arabic word for the masculine “my beloved”–was a very grandiose narrative filled with Arabic and Islamic history, lore, poetry, mystical, and even Christian references: or at least from what I could glean of it given that I am not an expert in many of these subject areas. However, there are some flaws within it as well: at least to my mind. Details such as very long-winded expositions, areas and situations that didn’t seem to match other places in the world Thompson creates, one very over-long internal monologue that would have been too much even in a work of prose, and some trite moments did take away from the book a bit. In fact, I believe that it could have been culled down a lot more in some ways.

Even so, I’d say that my biggest criticism of the book is something that, in the end, is very difficult to define. Every narrative work has a pace or a rhythm to it. This is especially true in a comic or graphic narrative: whichever term you prefer. It was Scott McCloud, I believe, who said that the panel makes up the grammar of comics narrative. I think that Thompson’s piece functions well with all of the above details I mentioned, but it is very important in a comic to align your panels on the page, with each other, and with their own subject matter in such a way that you have a sense of continuity or flow. Essentially, I think that–in part–Habibi is an ornate piece whose rhythm is just a little off.

Yet there is something very special about Thompson’s narrative as well. Firstly, I like how he uses Arabic calligraphy–or at least the seeming of it–to link his words and images together. From my limited understanding in addition to my own aesthetic sense, it is truly inspiring. The calligraphy is blood, water, trash, djinn, and God all at the same time. It surrounds and binds the myths and legends and parables of Solomon, Abraham and the Middle-Eastern folktales that Dodola tells Zam at night. I really enjoyed looking at the calligraphy that represented the concept of God and just how complex and intermeshed it was. It looked like a greater, more powerful, inhuman, beautiful being that interlinks with more than one symbol in a figurative and literal sense.

And I think one reason I loved what Thompson did with this calligraphy–whether with cultural knowledge or no–is how he shows as a special intermediary between words and images. The Arabic calligraphy resembles words as the symbols we understand–whose own numbers influenced and informed our own numbering and scientific systems–while at the same time they are flowing and powerful images seemingly moving from a divine origin. It is no coincidence that many cultures throughout time have considered certain kinds of writing sacred. Comics too, in a sense, are an intermediary between the written and the illustrated and–like this form of calligraphy–it takes a different perception or frame of mind to immerse yourself in its depths.

This leads to the other reason why I liked Thompson’s use of calligraphy because of how he gets it and his subject matter–including the depictions of parallel Biblical and Koran accounts of Abraham and Isaac and Abraham and Ishmael (and how the represent two different but similar cultures)–unified under the overarching narrative of love that he creates: that of a need for unity. If love is a unity of disparate, parallel, and even oppositional stories, views, and people–or even the intense yearning for physical, spiritual, and environmental wholeness–then Habibi is an apt title for this piece.

I confess, I still have mixed feelings about it long after reading it. It is almost like Craig Thompson attempted to create a mystical illuminated text that is a unity of Judeo-Christian and Islamic elements–along with Middle-Eastern esoterica–to say something about our relationship to a world made of divine Words through the interactions of the two protagonists. If so, I can suspend some disbelief. However, even with the proviso that the overly exotic Eastern or Orientalist world he makes is “not quite our world,” I feel like it is something of a cop-out in saying what he wants to … or seems to want to … about our world as it is. I also think that the interaction between the two protagonists is somewhat cliche and I couldn’t always relate to them.

Nevertheless, I’d still give Habibi a three bordering on four out of five. Thompson does some brilliant work and innovation in a graphic and medium sense in the construction of the piece and I always enjoy his art-work. It is certainly something to be looked at more than once and by varying experts. I don’t know how helpful this review was to anyone completely unfamiliar with any of this, but I hope–like the rest–that this one was interesting.

Now I am the Master

Eventually, I will get tired of saying that.

One day, I am going to look back at the events of my Convocation yesterday and laugh, or use it to make someone else feel better about their own or other embarrassing experiences, or–really–just to remember the time fondly.

The title of this post is the exact opposite to what I felt yesterday. My family and I arrived at the Rexall Centre with seemingly little time to spare for me to figure out where to get my robe and hood. It was raining outside. In order to get to the robe and hood fitting section, the graduates had to walk through said rain up various stair and enclosures to get to a room and stand in a line for a while. If there is one thing that York is good at being, it is definitely being labyrinthine and liking its lines a lot.

The line went relatively quickly and we managed to find our sections. There was a very nice volunteer there that helped us put on the white and red hoods on our robes properly. And we waited there for over an hour and a half. I talked with some people I never met before about what they did in their Programs. I feel a little of two minds on that subject. I mean, I can understand getting really sick of people asking you what you do in your Program and what your work was. I mean, you spent all that time on it and energy–perhaps even sacrificed a fair amount–and your Graduation comes and you just want to think about that and then get on with life. You can get sick of it really fast. On the other hand, you did spend a lot of time on your Graduate work presumably because you were interested in it–perhaps even believe in it–and when you’re in a line for a really long time with people that have done similar or different studies in what is a relatively solitary understanding, you do get curious and it can definitely make for good conversation.

We were finally led in and I was hoping that now the hard part was over and the rest would just be sitting back, listening to speeches, then shaking hands, photographs, and then the end.

Of course, that was not what happened: at least not for me.

In the meantime, there was the other side of the equation: my girlfriend and my family. I had only been allowed to pre-order three guest tickets, so if they wanted any more they would have to basically wait outside directly before the ceremony to get more. My aunt wanted to attend along with my grandmother and her helper. To compound matters my Dad misplaced his cellphone before we left and needed to use my Mom’s. They had also meet my girlfriend who was making her own way to the Centre.

All that apparently went well. They even got a special guest status for my grandmother who needed it for her and her helper. But then something happened. The ceremony apparently started earlier than was advertised and people were not allowed back into the guest tent. This included my family who were in the process of doing the telemetry to have everyone there. They were told that they couldn’t come back in and were obviously rather pissed off about that: and they were not the only ones.

However, they told me later that at intermission they were let back in and hadn’t missed anything. Someone very nice apparently realized just how angry people locked out of their own loved ones’ Convocation ceremony might be and dealt with it.

For my own part, I couldn’t see any of them from where I was sitting: though I did manage to see the resigned and chagrined expression on my face as the big screen in the tent caught me and my fellow graduates. It had been an interesting procession to the tent. Actual bagpipes were being played along the way and the sun came out. As a result of course, it had become quite hot and muggy and I was wearing a sweatshirt under my robes. But the tent had air-conditioning.

So we were sitting on stage and listened to a few speeches. The one that stood out for me the most was by the Honoris Causa recipient and the host of CBC’s Radio One Sunday Edition  Michael Enright. He essentially addressed us directly and offered many words of advice: including learning how to drive a motorcycle.

All was relatively fine and underway until the Dean’s speech. And I had to go to the restroom.

Yeah.

That was fun. I have to tell you: moving those robes around after they are perfectly fitted–especially the hood–is a whole other kind of fun that it is not: especially when you consider that the zipper on my robes came apart and I had to adjust it.

But that was all right. I managed to get out and then back into the ceremony. I remembered my Undergrad Convocation we were lined up in Vari Hall and I had to go to the restroom: only to come back and find out that they had all left without me. This time though was even better because, of course, it wasn’t that long after I decided to leave that my row had been called up to the Chancellor, President, and Dean.

Essentially, I missed going on stage, and almost missed my whole Convocation.

I came back and found that my seat had been taken and I sat at the end of the row fiddling around with the paper I was supposed to present to the announcer, watching the Undergraduates go onto the stage and thinking about how my family would not get to see me on stage, how I’d not get my photograph taken, how I’d wasted a whole load of money just to miss my own Convocation, wondering if I should just leave at that point, wondering why I even bothered to come here, and overall feeling a tremendous amount of despair. Not one of my best moments.

Luckily, after an agonizing long time of watching the upper rows of Undergraduates come down, I managed to show an organizer my paper (while not getting anyone’s attention which is no mean feat considering how I was on a stage with people filming us like the perfect paragons of educational virtue we were supposed to look like) and–being the very nice lady that she was–fit me in at the very end. I was also very pleased that throughout all this ridiculous stress that my stomach had not decided to betray me again.

My family tells me that I managed to get all the applause, being the last person on the stage, but I barely even noticed. I was tired, hot, most likely dehydrated, and I just wanted this spectacle over with. At the same time, it felt nice to stride on there and tell Michael Enright that he made an excellent speech: to which replied something to the effect of “this your day” or “you made it.” I don’t actually remember, but he was nice. Then I shook hands with the Chancellor (I got to actually greet someone as “Chancellor,” which is a favourite word of mine for various reasons), the President of the University, and the Dean and I got my picture taken and then eventually we all left in a procession in which we were lead in circles throughout the building and then abandoned outside the guest pavilion for everything to become a barely organized chaos of parents, families, and camera-taking everywhere.

It took me a long time to find everyone: what with my Dad not having his phone and waiting for my Mom and my girlfriend to text me back. I finally went into the guest tent: wanting at this point to just go the hell home, as it were. Everyone wondered why I was the last person to be called and almost everyone found the very anticlimactic reason behind it pretty damned funny.

My Dad had to take my grandmother and my aunt back, so after going through another winding journey I gave back my sweaty robes and got my piece of cardboard with the excellent words “Magisteriate of Arts” below my name. At some point my girlfriend realized that I hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day and got me some iced tea, and she and my Mom–when we found each other yet again (getting lost was a running theme for this Convocation, yes that was an unintentional pun) we were going to wait for my Dad to pick us up in an insane spot that used to be the place where we were all dropped off to begin with. It was filled with more cars and buses for the next ceremony.

At that point, my Dad managed to gain access to a phone and I had a plan. I decided we were going to go for a walk: from the Rexall Centre all the way to Vanier College. It would be far less crowded there and easier for my Dad to come in. I also recognized the area we were at: having lived close-by back when I was on residence.

So my Mom, my girlfriend, and I walked for twenty minutes through the sun, past Tate Mackenzie, past the Office building all the way to McLaughlin and then finally Vanier. As we passed, I saw people playing tennis, walking around, even measuring a tree, and just talking and walking. It was just another day at York for them. I suspect a few were even summer school students. By the time we came to Vanier, I was thinking of all the times I had and didn’t have at York. I was thinking of how beautiful the campus became in the summer and of all the clubs and friends here that would meet throughout the year.

And then it occurred to me. This is one of the last times I’m going to be here. Again, I thought all the things happened and didn’t happen to me on this campus and I thought about my Graduation earlier on that day and how it isn’t every day that one graduates from their first Master’s Program: from their only one. I realized it was a special day and one I would not see again. I’m not going try for another Master’s or PhD–at least not for a long time–and so much has already changed in my life these past four years. What should have supposedly been a one or two year program became a four year odyssey. Sometimes it felt lonely and empty. Many times I wondered why I did this to myself. The sun felt just as bright and warm as it did when I got my first apartment at York, like when the Sakura trees began to blossom after my Japanese class ended in song, and all the adventures I had downtown.

That sun would be that way for someone else now, and maybe it had been for someone else: just like it will for the future me. I don’t think these thoughts are really unexpected or even unwarranted given the event of significance that happened yesterday. It was an exhausting, sometimes very frustrating day but it also had its grace, its moments of good karma, and its place of transformation. I remember sitting on a bench outside Vanier and thinking to myself that once I’d skipped a class to write a paper on Children’s Literature there: back when I wrote papers by hand.

You know, despite or because of all the events that happened yesterday, I’m glad I went to my Convocation. I’m glad I had my moment. And as for what happens after, as many people have been asking me incessantly, I don’t know. But I do know that I have–and I will–be facing it.

As a Master.

Thanks, The Last Fat Lady Sang, I’ll Be Wearing Robes Tomorrow, and Other Tales

First of all, let me thank everyone from yesterday and today who “liked” and liked my articles on horror. It was the most “Likes” I’d ever gotten on here–in one day and ever–and I more than appreciate it and the new readers that I have Following me. I just love writing about subject matters as though I am some kind of expert, though I tend to expand on just a few thoughts I have rolling around in my head and fill in the blanks with Internet and whatever books or other people I have access to. I also notice that there are some topics and themes that can really strike at the heart of the matter when you write about them or when they are even seen: some human universals if you’d like and I woud definitely like to write about more of them. But let me thank you all again: you are all awesome and I hope to make many more things here that will be worthy of further entertainment.

Well, I didn’t make it to the Finalists on ENO’s Mini-Opera Contest, however they are all pretty bad ass from what little I’ve skimmed through. I’m not surprised I didn’t make it–what with it being my first attempt and being done more or less at the last minute–however, it left me with quite a few ideas that I want to work on in other ways, shapes, and forms. And I also get to say that I dabbled briefly with librettos at one time too. For those of you just tuning in now, you can find my works through my “mini-operas” tag because linking to them apparently makes WordPress believe that I am actually commenting on the post directly and that just plain feels weird.

But speaking of standing ovations and conclusions, I’m going to be Graduating tomorrow. It is my Convocation Ceremony at York University at the Rexall Centre at 10:30 in the morning (I do wish my section had been given the afternoon time-slot and was closer to campus–I’m not used to as early mornings these days though I am working on it). Of course, I will have to be there much earler to wear a bunch of rental robes and then help my guests get their seats and all the fun that entails because I was only able to get three tickets in advance: again making something that should have been simple into rocket-science. So I want to get some writing of various kinds today while my time is still my own. I am kind of nervous, but it is one day and I will get through it. And I get to wear robes and a strange hat legitimately too.

What else can I tell you? I am very proud of finally getting my Master’s. But I also very proud of the Master’s Thesis that got to this point: a paper that used Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Herodotus, and their works as its basis. I finished off my first year of Undergrad reading American Gods for the first time and there is some symmetry in ending my Graduate Program with a paper on a good portion of my favourite author’s work as well. There is something really satisfying in that that I can’t explain except to say it is. I think of all the books and articles I used as old friends or collaborators. We all came together, sometimes procrastinating, sometimes arguing, and constantly moving around to make this paper. We’ve been together for a long time, some of us, but we really worked together for two and half years: perhaps even longer. Now some of them are back in the libraries, others still roaming on the Internet and quite a few more back on their respective shelves having said goodbye to one another. We don’t know when we will meet again, but I know that even if I don’t always hold them in my hands, they will always be with me: them and the work that I did.

It’s been a long ride and I am glad I got to tell a little of the story.

Horror as a Universal Power: The Function of a Creepypasta

So in my previous Blog entry, “Horror as a Universal Power,” I talked about how I believe horror is a slow-growing epiphany or realization of just how beautiful and terrifying the seemingly normal reality around us truly is: how it is a feeling we are both repulsed by and attracted to in a kind of feedback loop. It’s this kind of perverse fascination with something very strange and uncanny right in front of us.

After something of a Blogging dry-spell, I was watching a few horror movies such as Insidious and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark: you can, in part, blame these films for today’s horror craze on “Mythic Bios,” but it was also due to finding a unique “creepypasta” that I also began this.

When I first saw the term “creepypasta,” I had no idea what the hell it even meant. What first came to mind was a strange of twisted pasta with a pale hollow-eyed doll’s face on the end of it, or a malignant white spiral-worm with a single blood-shot eye. So after I really read a definition of what a creepypasta is, I realized it is derived from a term called “copypasta”  in which someone supposedly copy and pastes a body of text over and over again onto different websites and message-boards. So basically, the pasta is taken from the word “paste,” while the “creepy” part is pretty self-explanatory.

The link I provided above pretty much lists different kinds of formulas or tropes that creepypastas fall under, but that is not why I want to write this article about. I want to look at just how the creepypasta is such an effective medium of communicating the essence of the horror genre.

My first experience with a creepypasta was when I was sent the “message-board transcript” Candle Cove. I actually didn’t know that this was a work of fiction because the person who created it, Kris Straub, did a superb job in crafting the narrative aesthetic. It actually looked like a message board conversation would: complete with screen names and typos in discussion. He also tapped into that place of barely recalled memory and nostalgia–into the zeitgeist or spirit–of 70s children shows to great effect: along with an incredibly effective sense of pacing and different voices for each “poster.” The element of television static and white noise within the story was even more inspired because it plays on the depths of the imagination and just how far someone–particularly a child–can fall into it.

I really liked “Candle Cove” because you don’t know that it is a story and it is written that way. It is also written in a way which taps hard on that collective unconsciousness we all have and actually in some ways made it real. And that is the thing right there. Candle Cove, though fiction, made itself real.

This is what I really want to talk about. Other creepypastas have managed to do something similar based on the characteristics I listed above from “Candle Cove.” The thing that actually influenced me to write these two recent Blog entries was a creepypasta called Ben (or the Haunted Majora’s Mask Game). I came across an account of it on Youtube purely by coincidence. You can read a very long written account of it here or watch the video “footage” that the creator made to complement it here. What we have here is a mixed-media story: a combination of message board posts, a text file, a Nintendo 64 game-hack and video recordings by a user named Jadusable. But look at what he does here.

First, he turns a game made twelve years ago–a Nintendo work firmly entrenched into this generation’s or at least this gaming generation’s collective unconscious–into a medium for his story. He purposefully glitches parts of this hacked game and uses elements of the game itself to add to this story. Bear in mind, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a very unsettling but wonderful game to begin with taking place in an alternate dimension from the usual world of Hyrule with various characters and elements to work with: not the least of which being the graphics, soundtrack and some of the dialogue.

Some parts of this creepypasta are, however, somewhat stereotypical and cliche: such as the protagonist and creator Jadusable buying “a haunted bootleg” from a “creepy old man” but that is a trope part and parcel with urban legends in general. Most people would have a lot of trouble suspending disbelief for this–especially gamers–but it does have some very creepy moments: especially for me given that one of the text messages on one of the videos associated with the piece referred directly to a person named “Matt.”

I think the reason I find this creepypasta fascinating is because it uses elements of our generation–specifically video games and the medium of the Internet–to attempt to relate to us in a way might not have affected other generations. Other creepypastas that have utilized Nintendo such as Pokemon Black and Pokemon Lost Silver really tap into that shared popular cultural consciousness, but they do more than that. You’ll find that if you Google or even click on the above links (pardon the unintentional pun), that after these stories became memes–cultural information that spreads to different people–people started creating works based on these pastas to make them more real. Candle Cove now has surviving televised scenes on Youtube. The haunted Majora’s Mask game has many imitators and parodies. Even the Pokemon games I mentioned have been made into actual bootleg games by readers of the things. Basically, they are not only Internet memes, but they become living stories. They become alive inside the people that want them, and I think that is an incredibly bad-ass concept.

It makes me really want to create a creepypasta of my own. I’ve had ideas for some, but I never really followed through with them. You have to get that mixture of intentional typos that look unintentional, a compelling and readable but realistic-looking narrative aesthetic and revealing the horror but not revealing the full origin of the horror down pat because not only do you have to contend with a reader’s disbelief, but also the myriad of other creepypastas out there that share so many–and in some ways too many–characteristics to make yours unique. I tend to get very elaborate in my works and that would definitely count against me in creating such a potent literary hoax.

Still, I know I can’t help thinking about it. It is no coincidence that a loved one chose to give me the strange and wonderful gift of an old newspaper article talking about the effects of the legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast on its audience at the time.

A creepypasta functions as a horror story pretending to be real and yet even when revealed as fiction, readers make it real by believing in it and paying homage to it. In other words, we make our nightmares real and we actually seem to enjoy doing so which leads me back to my original question of why?

The Internet allows creepypastas to exist: to replicate and spread across not merely servers, message boards, and chat-rooms but imaginations as well. Where is that line between the machine and the human mind these days? What happens when we interact with an increasing body of knowledge that we can manipulate and shape to our whims (technology permitting)? I believe that, in the end, creepypastas exist for three reasons: the first being entertainment, the second being that they are a form of oral storytelling around a pixelated campfire, and the third because we want to believe and make real and manifest the idea that the wondrous and the terrifying can exist in a world where we all live: where something like the Internet exists and not only contains the growing sum of all knowledge and information of what we think exists in our supposed certainty, but also human experience and its less concrete intuitions as well.

I also believe that in light of all of this creepypastas–along with their verbal and written urban legend and folktale predecessors–demonstrate that horror is not only the fear of the unknown. Rather, horror is the love for the unknown–for an unknown–and the sheer limits of human understanding.

Horror as a Universal Power

What is it about horror that is so incredibly powerful? It’s something that many like to avoid, but is attracts people as well: and oftentimes it does both. In part I think it is linked to fear. Fear is a healthy and necessary human emotion: a “danger-sense” to let you know that something isn’t right and that you might want to watch yourself before doing anything foolish: or not doing anything at all. Many old cautionary folktales derive themselves from this ancient impulse: utilizing archetypal images and story-elements to make their points.

This is me basically writing as though I know exactly what I’m talking about. Because I know horror is more than merely fear and it has more than a cautionary function. Aristotle would most likely posit that a story or play created from horror brings out pity and fear in the audience, but that isn’t completely true either because horror doesn’t always bring catharsis: it doesn’t always drain out the pity and the fear. Sometimes it plays with these feelings, increases them and leaves them inside you like a hollow, dark cold spot as you leave the theatre.

Among others, Clive Barker in his short story “Dread” looks at another other aspect of horror. Dread as an emotion is knowing something bad is coming for you, or lurking just over your shoulder and feeling powerless to do anything about it but writhe in a corner. You try to avoid it and it only makes it stronger in you. Dread is fear so internalized into a loop inside a human being that it cannot be resolved: or at least not without considerable effort and willpower.

Yet none of these explanations are enough. Horror is more than just a cautionary genre. It is more than leaving people traumatized and afraid. It is definitely more than embodying something that people try to avoid in vain: only to give it more power over them. Horror has all of these elements to an extent, but I think there is much more to it and I think this is why it has such powerful through its narratives: particularly its universal narratives.

I think horror is a part of the human psyche that is both repulsed by and attracted to what Freud would call “the uncanny.” I also think the uncanny is very much linked to Romanticism and the Gothic’s worship of Nature as a terrifying form of beauty far beyond human understanding. You can argue that when one feels horror–true horror–they blow beyond the limits of their comfort, cultural, and even conscious boundaries into something so weird and still so unknown that it can be positively overwhelming. It uses fear and dread as building blocks to off-set or play with the rational mind enough to connect the animal mind with the infinite darkness that is already there connected to them. Horror is the darkness in us all. The bloody plays of Seneca, the gruesome feast of Thyestes, the ancient dithyrambs of Dionysus and his Maenads all play with this power and instead of providing catharsis–as Aristotle believed tragedy does–it alters the mind by showing the wonders and the terrors of a much greater world.

That above paragraph is a lot of poetic license, I know, but given the nature of this Blog and the subject, I’d like to think it’s at least somewhat appropriate. After writing this and mentioning Clive Barker, I realize why the former’s stories are so effective: in that they really play on the attractive and repulsive aspects of horror. Books of Blood make the very thing the characters fear or dread, or what the reader finds disturbing, attractive in a perverse but natural way. I loved those two books when I read them and I have never looked at the horror genre in the same way again since I did.

Attraction and repulsion towards the uncanny is why we like horror stories. We also like them because they tap into truly universal elements and archetypes inside all of us: the very places some people want to deny the very existence of. Short stories, novels, and films structure horror in a very symmetrical way but before the existences of any of these–before even the ancient rituals of the divine that led to theatre–there were tales and stories told around campfires spreading to other campfires like the wildfire they already were. They are called folktales and horror stories, and in our time now they are called urban legends.

Then there are the stories that exist on the Internet. They are called “creepypastas” and I think this post has gone on long enough and I will write about creepypastas in the next one. I tend to write a lot and I just want to make sure that people will want to read my points this time and not give up because of the length. But soon, I promise, we will talk about creepypastas.