Monday, 14 July 2014

Book Club Report - Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine: Gender, Identity, Sexual Politics and Whining


Questions on Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings

Our Book Club met recently to discuss Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings. We all had very diverse opinions on the book. I personally did not like it, but in a way, it kept me wanting to rip it apart panel by panel to discover why. In my case, it was more visceral than anything. Others thought it was a well-thought out study on identity and sexual politics; some others felt the main character was such a whiner it was difficult to take anything he did seriously. I thought it would be easier to come up with some questions on the book rather than do a full book club report like I did on Dotter of her Father's Eyes. The goal being to foster discussion and help other book clubs who may wish to have a fruitful discussion on the book. In no particular order below:
  • How does the page layout affect the reading of the story? Does the inflexibility of the layout (its 7 to 9 panels per page) represent the inability of the protagonist to accept change? We were all quite aware that Tomine does not normally play with structure. Is it a conscious choice in this to mirror the protagonist's ineptitude to evolve?
  • Is it offensive that the book depicts Alice, Ben Tanaka's friend, as a sex-addicted lesbian? Does this character feel like a cliché as depicted by a male?
  • Is it offensive that the bisexual character of Sasha feels like a real character or is this one of Tomine's weird sexual fantasies?
  • Why is this a graphic novel? Tomine's theme suggests an affinity with the literary. So does Tomine wish to write, but illustrate instead? 
  • Does the pacing in the first chapter of the book affect the reading of the book? Segments begin abruptly in the middle of a page without any signs of transitions (7th panel on p.13, 7th panel on p.17, 7th panel on p.22, 8th panel on p.27). Is the lack of transitions too jarring? Is it clunky? It happens less and less as the story progress; was Tomine refining his work as he wrote his single issues?
  • Is Tomine writing a thinly veiled movie screenplay? Is this a graphic novel or a movie screenplay? 
  • Why was Ben Tanaka so attached to Berkeley? 
  • Does your appreciation of the book depend on your knowledge of identity in second and third generation immigrants in the US?
  • Does Ben Tanaka get upset at Miko for her betrayal or because he finally recognizes Miko's sexuality after he lost her?
  • Can the reader distinguish between the statement made about race and those made by the characters themselves? Is it really a book about ethnicity or single-mindedness?
  • Is Tomine's underlying theme that one's ethnic background matters? That denying your identity and heritage will make you unhappy?
  • By refusing to address ethnicity, is Ben Tanaka refusing to also aknowledge his own problems?
  • Does the book want to address acceptance of third generation immigrants in the social fabric of America? About how sexuality can act as a way to neutralize and suppress ethnicity? Or is it only about a whining man-child unable to deal with life?
  • Does the final page explain the rigidity of the page layout? 

There is much more that could be said about the book, but the bulk of our conversations centered around those. Can we recommend this book? We most certainly would. It is a deeply flawed book and brings its fair share of discussion. Shortcomings is a very interesting read in spite of its many problems. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

Rub the Blood - The Dark Ages of Mainstream Comics Ridiculed and Respected

Bloodwulf...fuckin' hell

Alongside my Yeah Dude Comics subscription, I received a fantastic reward. A copy of an earlier Pat Aulisio and Ian Harker's Kickstarter project Rub the Blood, a tribute tabloid art comic that explores the early 90's mainstream comic industry, including the rise of Image Comics, with it's over the top art, stupid stories and Rob Liefield.

The 90's comic book era has often been referred to as "The Dark Ages". It is a thing of wonder, fascination and terrifying piles of garbage. The mainstream comic book industry spearheaded by Marvel and DC began changing. The superhero deconstruction style began with "Watchmen", "Marvelman" and many more. Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" ushered in a new age of dark anti-heroes. Gone were the days of  hopeful good guys; it was now a time to get bleak and dark. Superheroes were no longer intended solely for a young audience. This redirection is still going on to this day. Just look at how many dismemberments there were last month in DC comics and the sheer volume of senseless violence. The comic book market also changed during the 90's. Collectibility, major crossover events, and speculation brought on more buyers. Image Comics was founded and Diamond took control of the market. Man, copies of X-men sold in the millions! A lot of crazy stuff happened, and only some of which are looked back upon fondly. The market crashed and many of people lost their jobs, mostly in retail. I'd recommend you read the archives of Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin on his retailing sections. It's a gold mine of information.

I was too young to remember most of it as I only started reading comics in the mid 90's. I watched the X-men and Batman cartoons and those were the only comics I read for a while. I remember enjoying the craft. The whole variant cover thing was really nasty. I remember having my parents buy me 4 different copies of X-Men #1 so I could have all the cool covers and impress my friends. It wasn't even a good comic book. Just people standing in awkward poses with ridiculous amounts of narrative captions. It's exploitative to a point of being ridiculous. And they've been peddling the same shit for longer than I've been alive.

Child abuse

I went off track for a while. Rub the blood is an homage to this period. It is irreverential, both ridiculing and and admirative of this time period. In spite of all the garbage spewn out of the 90's, a few nuggets of good came out and most of them came from Image comics. It is more culturally relevant than ever before, yet it started in such a weird way, with dark overstylized rip-offs of DC and Marvel comics. Rub the blood is an anthology of short stories; some last a few pages, some are a simple illustration. What emanates from it is a sort of admiration for the silliness of 90's comics culture, such as Rob Liefeld and Youngblood. This is a tribute to a decade of comics. Nostalgia and appreciation from a generation of artists who grew up with this vile material. Those comics were the pieces of garbage they grew up with. There has to be something there to redeem it, even if it's to put a spotlight on how terrible it was. 

I found the story of Josh Bayer on Herb Trimpe Trimpe Loses to be particularly interesting. Herb Trimpe is an artist who worked for Marvel for over 2 decades and is mostly associated with the creation of Wolverine in the pages of The Incredible Hulk. He stopped working for Marvel in the early nineties. Bayer assumes it's because the market was changing and consumers were only interested in the X-treme comics. Trimpe is driven away from his career by the ludicrous creations of 90`s comic book artists. 

Benjamin Marra's Prophet and Box Brown fan letter page are also quite fabulous.

All the public ever wanted, Deadpool decapitating shit

I'd recommend Rub the Blood to anyone with an interest in this decade of comics. If you have fond memories of Spawn, Nighthawk or Bloodwulf, then you may actually hate this book. Nonetheless, its satire is as sharp as Cable's sword. It should interest anyone who wishes to know what good actually came out of the 90's. It is a generation of alt-comix makers expressing their frustration and disappointment in the comic books of their childhood by recreating them in the only way they know how: awesomely and expertly.