Tuesday, December 30, 2008

All About Real Life Superheroes

I was surfing through Yahoo! news today and found this article from Rolling Stone about Real Life Superheroes. I thought "That's crazy...it's like Watchmen!" Basically, they are people who dress in a costume for a fad, right? They are just folks who want to reenact fantasies of being a costumed vigilante, pounding down on muggers and drug lords.

Believe it or not, Real Life Superheroes do exist. They cannot shoot claws from their wrists, fling webs, stop locomotives or have a tricked out bat cave and billions of dollars in reserve. These superheroes not only fight crime but help out in community service and fundraising services! Of course, few of these figures have families, let alone jobs. They sometimes conflict with the law and deal with the heavy expenses of their own costumes.

Still, it was cool reading about them!

- Kristopher

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Thanks for the Fun Class! And Then Some...

This is the last week I would leave a post for Dr. Clemente's Graphic Novel class. This post is a formal goodbye to the class itself. I enjoyed creating this blog and working with the people who managed to help me early in the semester. I also enjoyed reading and commenting on other's people's post. To me, checking out if someone made a new post was a genuine surprise. It made the blog watching more entertaining!

For now, I would like to say a formal goodbye to the class for this semester. This class satisfied my taste for knowledge about graphic novels. The class informed me further about the material we read in the class. I managed to learn the history of Iran, the dystopia that is North Korea, the war zone that is Gorazde in Bosnia, the development of the atomic bomb, the horrible effects of dropping the bomb and the history of the Holocaust. I am happy we were able to read some high quality graphic literature that was not just about people in tights. For anyone new to graphic novels, these books (and the class) would blow anyone's expectations away.

Of course, I enjoyed reading about the comics featuring costumed heroes. In all honesty though, I was skeptical at first. I mean, when people think of high quality writing, superheroes don't come to mind. What is so sophisticated about Batman drawn and penned by Sin City creator Frank Miller anyway? Why did anyone bother to put Watchmen up for the Hugo Award Anyone unfamiliar with the graphic novel medium would assume all comics is "kid's stuff." In the words of Scott McCloud:

"When I was a little kid I knew exactly what comics were. Comics were those bright, colorful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights."

McCloud's perception changed when he gave comics another look. I was close to that perception too of thinking that comics was a "childish" medium filled with nothing but shallow and overdramatic stories of superheroes and supervillains beating the stuffing out of each other. I read comic books like Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men and even comic book adaptations of Sonic the Hedgehog and Gargoyles. As I became older, reading through a comic format that lasted close to twenty pages was getting ridiculous. Most stores in my hometown stopped keeping comics on the shelves. So what convinced me to give comics a second look?

The answer, simply put, was rereading through a stack of comics I was given for my fourteenth birthday. There were obscure titles like Sludge and Archer and Armstrong to peer through, each containing characters with quirks and issues. Of course, there were also issues of X-Men and Indiana Jones. What really got me into the comics medium (and even spurred at interest in making "serious" comics) were webcomics. I did not set out to get into webcomics. I didn't even know they existed! All it took was my interest in video games to get me sucked in. I was treading through Gamespy one evening as a teenager. Then I saw a link to its comics section, which included the first webcomic I ever read. It was a strange journey towards my interest in webcomics and other stuff related to webcomics.

This webcomic is Little Gamers, and it was about a trio of Swedish gamers who cursed at each other and made hilarious video game and pop culture references. I admired how this cartoon was drawn: all the characters were a human version of Hello Kitty, save that they were never family friendly. After reading some strips on Gamespy, I spotted the link where I could go to the main Little Gamers site. It was a laugh fest. In all honest, the comic made obscure refrences to game-related knowledge that even I didn't know about. It was a good learning experience, not only because I absorbed the gamer culture into my system but because the website had a list of other webcomics to explore.

From Little Gamers, I soon checked out the soon-to-be-acclaimed Megatokyo. From Megatokyo came the highly controversial Exploitation Now. Both Megatokyo and Exploitation Now were drawn in a manga style format by American artists. Before these comics, I had a limited knowledge of the Japanese comic art form. These comics made me curious about Japanese comics and Western comics based on the popular Japanese art style. The comics introduced me to another culture entirely that interwines with video game culture. The comics introduced me to the culture of the otaku, which is a comics geek interested in manga! I began to explore various art sites like Elfwood and DeviantArt for manga-based artwork and even non-manga related art styles. I continued exploring and reading more webcomics. I began to pick up volumes of Japanese manga at certain book stores. I started to check out books like The League of Extroadinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta and the Hellboy series after initially seeing the movie adaptations. All I had to say was that the original source material was better!

The trouble was, few people in real life understood my love for webcomics, manga, graphic novels and the video game culture. Very few people, I must emphasize. In high school, I was a fairly soft spoken kid who did not share a passion for American Idol, football, MTV or anything of the "mainstream." In fact, most things "mainstream" made me angry because it was not as good as the stuff I was into and the people who liked it really annoyed me. I started to think of myself as a rebel because I did not share the interests of most people. McCloud would confess that he tried to understand his love for comics and drawing comics. But people would just laugh at him! I did not try to explain my love for webcomics, manga and the video game culture. Most people would go "Huh?" or "You weirdo!" or "You're a communist because you don't like football!" I don't want to get off topic of this post but I (and other people) were at the business end of the barrel from people who did not understand. Their perceptions of comics (and everything else) was far too limited.

When I read the reading list that included Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, I would not help but be skeptical at first. Then I dug into The Dark Knight Returns and was enthralled. Batman is not the stock superhero he was sometimes portrayed as. He is a bitter warrior whose pure soul is tainted with the necessary darkness of the bat and his parents' murder. Batman had to deal with his familiar foes such as the Joker but also had to contend with the real problems of a corrupt government, an arms race, the media and old age. Watchmen blew my mind entirely because I had no idea what to expect. It is a well-written murder mystery, adventure story and character study all in one. Its "heroes" were people who we could relate to. Each was extremely troubled in their own way. No supervillains were necessary to fight these heroes. All it took was for the heroes to fight themselves.

Now older and wiser, I'm happy to say I have experienced a whole variety of graphic novels. I feel lucky to explore different subject material from them all, from aged superheroes to atomic bombs to the Holocaust to the Iranian revolution.

For those who happened to check out the blog from time to time, I want to let everyone know that The Graphic Maelstrom is not retiring anytime soon. I will still post new material whenever I can. To me, blogging is a young experience. I first learned how to create a blog after taking Dr. Clemente's Shakespeare class in January of 2008. I was nervous at first. I will be honest I was not too high on blogs in the first place. I did not like MySpace or Facebook, which I kept seeing many people do. It's a long story to why I was not a fan of either of these "social networking" programs. Are they designed only to put useless information on there? To place random photos on the Internet? Would anything I typed be understood by people who used these programs? How useful were the programs anyway? That was my initial perception. The controversy of many people getting into trouble with their personal pages also kept me back.

But Dr. Clemente's Shakespeare class changed my whole perception on blogs. I had a rocky start learning how to make posts, post pictures and put on videos. I learned with a blog, you can put up some useful information. A blog can be useful under capable command. So I started to really get into blogging. I did not get into it just for the grade but because there were limitless opportunities on how to play with the blog. I am even continuing working on the blog I made for Shakespeare class, Much Ado About Nothing and Everything Else Shakespearian. I am also working on a young blog called Call of Cthulhu and Everything Else Lovecraftrian, which focuses on my interests about the works of horror author H.P. Lovecraft.

I understand that this post spans quite a bit. At the same time, I felt compelled to explain my interest in graphic novels and my interest to continue creating new blog posts. The Graphic Maelstrom will still continue along with Much Ado About Nothing and Everything Else Shakespearian and Call of Cthulhu and Everything Else Lovecraftrian.

Till then, same blog time, same blog channel!

- Kristopher

Discussion on a Scene from Understanding Comics - Details on Closure

I have been wanting to explore a segment on Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics for quite time. McCloud goes over a variety of history, techniques and sequences on how comic artists and writers work. The earliest technique I have written for my first graphic novel essay involved closure, a method used for creating suspense on the audience's part.

I like this technique because of the "mystery" element to it. The example McCloud uses to illustrate closure is the image of a man crying for mercy while about to be chopped to death by an axe. Do we see the sad bloke get chopped to pieces? No, for instead we have a panel focusing on a city and a high pitched scream. The scene to depict closure is tense because of not what it shows but what it might show. Could a limb have been lopped off? What are the details of the violence? That is up to the reader to decide. As McCloud says above, the man with the axe is not the murderer. The reader is responsible for the killing because the reader's imagination made it that the man cried bloody murder (literally) at the hands of a psychopath.

With television and movies, imagery and action is produced to us piece by piece. We don't have to think how things might happen from time to time. But with comics, that's a different story. A reader would read panel by panel. Regardless if it is moment to moment or subject to subject as Japanese comics like to adapt, a scene may surprise the reader further because the reader is responsible for interpreting the action.

This is what makes comics quite fun to read because not everything is spoon fed to us. Reading comics is like reading conventional literature, provided if is written well enough. Readers can interpret a scene of Rorschach of Watchmen fame (or infamy) coming out with an axe and aiming his attention towards two hapless dogs. We see Rorschach raise the axe in one scene, but do we see the finished result on the next panel? Not at all, for we see a ink blot test resembling a slain dog's head. That's the beauty of closure. The action is not presented to you on a platter. The reader is the one either customizing food on the platter or making his or her mind with how the food on a platter appears.

- Kristopher

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Discussion on a Scene from Maus - Survivor's Guilt and Flies

The most dominant themes of Art Spiegelman's Maus is the experience of a survivor during highly traumatic circumstances such as the Holocaust. The second theme of survival is guilt. Both Spiegelman and his father, Vladek, feel tremendous guilt in different ways. Spiegelman feels guilt because he felt he had his life easier than his parents could ever manage. Spiegelman is surrounded by the corpses of Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust.
"Time flies..." as Spiegelman would put it, describing different events in Vladek's life (which includes his death) and his own. The "time flying" is more apparent as flies swarm over the troubled writer/artist finishing up a page on the drawing desk.

The corposes surrounding Spiegelman indicate he has tremendous guilt weighing upon him. The deaths of more than six million Jews weigh on him because his father's horrendous experience weighs on him. Spiegelman had to contend with his father during his childhood, even going far to assume his parents groaning at night was "normal" because he assumed everyone's parents did it. Spiegelman had to contend with his parents' obsession over his older brother who did not survive the Holocaust.

Spiegelman is ultimately weighed, ironically, by the critical and commercial success of Maus. He feels he acquired acclaim and money from the horror and death that befell upon the Jewish people by the Nazis. Spiegelman wears the mouse mask because he is a highly recognized figure in the world of comics. Does this make him feel any better? "Lately, I've been feeling depressed." he responds. Just like he cannot escape his troubled heritage and parent's haunted past, Spiegelman cannot escape fame and countless offers to commercialize his creation.

- Kristopher

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More Stories of the Holocaust

Art Spiegelman's Maus is one of many accounts of the Holocaust. Back in public school, I dug into a few books related to the Holocaust. Part of it was an interest in European history related to World War II. The other part of my interest was a burning question: why would one group of people deem another group of people as "vermin" and send them to the gas chambers? It relates to my interest in prejudice's cause and elimination.

But moving on, I want to give an overview on a few more memoirs of the Holocaust that I have read and might be worthwhile reading...

Night by Elie Wiesel

This first hand account of the Holocaust was written by Eliezel (the author of the book) who was a boy at fifteen living in Hungarian Transylvania until the Nazis took over Hungary. Elizel and others were transported to Auschwitz, one of the most infamous concentration camps during the Holocaust. Elizel and his father are separated from the rest of his family, whom he never sees again.

This memoir is harrowing and heart breaking. The prisoners become selfish after initial cruelty by the Nazis, concerned about their own survival between facing forced labor and the possibility of being hanged to death. Elizel's faith is tested as he witnesses death and depression around him.

A hard thing to believe is that some people don't know about the Holocaust. A harder thing to swallow is that some people deny the Holocaust! Night should be read to better understand how horrible genocide is from a survivor's perspective.

The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen's historical novel is about a Jewish girl named Hannah who is transported back to Poland in 1942. She is sent to a concentration camp. Hannah learns to appreciate her Jewish heritage and customs through witnessing the cruelties of the Nazis and realizing she took her modern life and heritage for granted.

Yolen does an excellent job describing horrendous parts of Hannah's imprisonment in the concentration camp while balancing it with the protagonists' struggle for survival and sanity. There's humanity remaining with Hannah interacting with other survivors contrasting with inhumanity. One of the more horrible scenes is when Hannah is led into a cramped boxcar where several people die in the process. Overall, The Devil's Arithmetic is another book that should be checked out.

Others books worth mentioning would be...

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank - This account is one of the best known resources regarding to the Holocaust but one that I haven't read yet. It is the diary of a thirteen year old girl who witnesses Hitler's influence in Amsterdam and the control of the Jewish population in the area.

Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939-1944 by Aranka Siegal - This young adult novel depicts the life of Piri Davidowitz who witnesses the Nazi takeover in Hungary. Aside from The Devil's Arithmetic, this is a book both kids and adults will dig into.

There are, of course, many memoirs, novels and reference guides to the Holocaust. There is not a concrete list on all media related to the Holocaust to be found but a list can be found here.

- Kristopher

Monday, December 1, 2008

Meet Art Spiegelman

Now that we are venturing deep into Maus territory, an introduction to Art Spiegelman would be appropriate. Spiegelman is a highly regarded figure in the area of comics and the graphic novel medium. He is a comics legend and something of a countercultural figure with his contribution to the underground comic book scene. The creation of Maus, which is about Spiegelman's parents attempting to survive the Holocaust, is his most recognized work.

Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden and later moved to Queens, New York in the United States with his family. He began drawing cartoons in high school and became a professional at the age of sixteen. His parents wanted Spiegelman to pursue dentistry but he studied both art and philosophy at Harper College. After graduating, Spiegelman joined the "underground comix" movement. He contributed to publications such as Real Pulp, Young Lust and Bizarre Sex. Spiegelman went under a series of pseudonyms which included Joe Cutrate, Skeeter Grant and Al Flooglebuckle. He drew for comcs such as Ace Hole, Midget Detective, Nervous Rex, Douglas Comics and Cracking Jokes. Spiegelman founded his own comix revue with Bill Griffith titled Arcade.

Spiegelman later founded his own comics magazine RAW (Real Art Works), from which he became the editor. The magazine hosted a number of important talents from the United States and abroad. Spiegelman collaborated on Whole Grains: A Collection of Quotations with Bill Schneider. The book featured quotations from countercultural icons such as Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsberg. The book was mistakently placed with cookbook sections in some shops!

It wasn't until the publication of Maus that Spiegelman earned serious fame. Maus was initially seralized by RAW. Spiegelman compiled Maus into a graphic novel format in 1986. He finished the second part of Maus in 1991. Spiegelman's creation was exibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Maus helped Spiegelman earn the Pulitzer Prize for Maus in 1992.

Aside from comics, Spiegelman invented Garbage Candy and Wacky Packages card series while working for Topps Bubble Gum for twenty years. He also helped create the disgustingly memorable Garbage Pail Kids collection of cards with Mark Newgarden.

After leaving Topps for creative issues involved, Spiegelman worked for The New Yorker. He resigned after the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 for differences in political ideology. The image below is Spiegelman's black-on-black cover which received considerable acclaim:Do you see the Twin Towers in the background? It is a tragically disturbing picture. My interpretation is that the Towers could represent the old figure and philosophy of America destroyed, hovering as a ghost over where it fell. I personally have to give props to Spiegelman for this image because of its deceptive simplicity.

In 2004, Spiegelman later released In the Shadow of No Towers. The book is a graphic account of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a satire on the Bush Administration handling the crisis. At the time, Spiegelman lived in lower Manhattan when the two air liners struck the towers. The book explored his experiences of the catastrophe as well as the psychological aftereffects which followed. As of 2005, Spiegelman has been working on a series called Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! for The Virginia Quarterly Review.
Spiegelman cemented himself into the comics Hall of Fame by portraying many dark events such as the Holocaust and the 9/11 attacks with brutal honesty. Spiegelman is famous for his represenation of the Jewish people as mice. In the Simpsons episode of "Husbands and Knives," Spiegelman is featured in a Maus mask along with Alan Moore and Dan Clowes as highly muscled graphic novel creators!

Later on, I will do further analysis on Maus and possibly on Understanding Comics. Stay tuned!

- Kristopher