On PopMatters in 2015 (so far)

Here is a roundup of my contributions to PopMatters so far this year:

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New project: The Placing Culture podcast

I’ve started a podcast, “Placing culture,” which focuses on cultural geography, and particularly on conversations with individuals doing work at the intersections of geography, the arts, sciences, and humanities. You can follow the podcast via tumblr, Twitter and SoundCloud. The first episode, with Stephen Daniels and Lucy Veale of the University of Nottingham School of Geography, is embedded below.

PopMatters round-up for the end of 2014

Here are my recent publications on PopMatters since my last update:

In Worlds in Panels:

  • From October, a critical examination of Warren Ellis’ and Jason Howard’s Trees (Image).
  • From November, a reflection on GeekGirlCon 2014.
  • And from this month, a look at how digital comics has affected my relationship to print.

In October, I also had a feature on narrative themes in Buffy, Angel and Grimm.

Critical notations on the new GODZILLA

I went to see the Godzilla reboot yesterday with Anne-Marie and A, and we all enjoyed ourselves, especially A, but I do have a few critical thoughts and feelings to share.

  1. Director Gareth Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, and their collaborators in special effects, get right one of the essential points from the original kaiju movies, which is that many of these “monsters” are sympathetic characters. Most of what they do, they do not out of malevolence, but simply as a result of their natures: they mate and breed, hunt and feed, and fight other animals that they see as threats or rivals. People are largely irrelevant, which may be what also makes them terrifying even as you can also sympathize with these creatures simply trying to survive and reproduce.
  2. I also appreciate how the new design for Godzilla references the classic “person in a suit” while also updating the character for contemporary aesthetics and expectations. There is one shot of Godzilla where he takes in a big breath and exhales that prompted A to remark that he looked like a person, which to me, was just perfect. The “humanity” of Godzilla is important to acceptance of him as something other than just a “monster.”
  3. Like others, I thought about Pacific Rim (2013) a number of times during this film, and, on the whole I enjoyed last year’s movie more. I found the creature designs to be more interesting, and, I suppose, I also liked the spectacle of having the giant robots as well as the giant monsters (although as A pointed out to me, the kaiju in Pacific Rim are alien while the ones in Godzilla are terrestrial). Mostly, I think that my reaction here has to with the difference between remaking an existing work and creating something new from familiar material. Guillermo del Toro made something new and the larger universe of his film is richer and more interesting than that of the new Godzilla.
  4. Another important difference for me was the fact that Pacific Rim featured two people of color (Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost and Rinko Kinkuchi’s Mako Mori) in the principal cast, while Godzilla defaults to the far more common young white male and his white family for the primary human characters. Indeed, even though the story starts in Asia and Japan is given a central location in the narrative in a nod to the source material, somehow a white American (or EuroAmerica) family has narrative prominence in Godzilla. Anne-Marie also made the good point that the primary family relationship, and loss, for the white guy protagonist in Pacific Rim (Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket) is a brother, not a wife and kid or even a parent. This is a less common dynamic for these kinds of films.
  5. For me, the most interesting, and underused characters in Godzilla are Ken Watanbe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins’ Vivienne Graham. The story of Serizawa’s decades long pursuit of Godzilla seems more interesting to me than the monster/disaster movie spectacle we get at the end of his pursuit. As far has Hawkins goes, I’m not sure that her name is mentioned once in the film or that we are told that she is also a scientist. But she seems to be Serizawa’s partner in the search and I want to know more about that (I gather that this is the focus of the prequel comic). Both Watanabe and Hawkins are charismatic actors who draw your attention when on screen, and I was more compelled by them than I was by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Elizabeth Olsen did not have much to do, but I am interested to see her as the Scarlet Witch now).
  6. Obsession with Godzilla is also a narrative through line for James Stokoe’s “The Half Century War” mini, and, honestly, as far as contemporary re-imaginings of this story goes, it is hard to do better than what Stokoe did with that book (I wrote about the way that Stokoe adapted Godzilla for comics, particularly his roar, for PopMatters).
  7. I left the theater with an uneasiness over the reworking of the origin story which removes American culpability for creating the kaiju as a result of the testing of nuclear bombs in the south Pacific. The original Godzilla (1954) picked up threads of anger and resentment among many Japanese for the American use of nuclear weapons in World War II and the subsequent occupation. This is also an important reason for Godzilla being a sympathetic, even, ultimately, a heroic, character: he, too, is a victim of the American bomb. There is a brief acknowledgment of Hiroshima in the new film between Serizawa and Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), but that only served to remind me of what has been lost in the new telling in terms of being a critique of American militarism and nuclear weaponry. Now, at worst, the American deployment of military and nuclear force just seems stupid or ineffectual rather than existentially threatening to ilife as we know it (I am drawing on Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters, University of California Press, 2006, for the gist of this interpretation of the original Godzilla).

November Worlds in Panels: Geek Girl Con 2103

My latest column for PopMatters posted on Monday. I give my annual review of comics programming at Geek Girl Con:

… unlike other conventions, which are largely promotional in nature, whether from a corporate perspective or that of individual creators, Geek Girl is rooted in the desire for a critical unpacking, interrogation, and re-construction of the category “geek” in a way that is more open and inclusive than is normally possibly in the predominantly male spaces through which fields like comics, computer programming, and video gaming are defined.

Read the column

Notes towards season two of THE BRIDGE

I’ve enjoyed the first season of The Bridge on FX, but as others have also argued, notably Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress, the show’s creators, Elwood Reed, Björn Stein, and Meredith Steihm, and their collaborators, have split their narrative between a conventional serial killer story and a sprawling, multi-layered exploration of a place, or, maybe, places, depending on how you want to look at the border and at El Paso-Juarez. I think the series has been at its best when pursuing the latter, and at its least interesting when following the former. During the middle part of the season, from about episode three, “Rio”, through episode eight or nine, “Vendetta” and “The Beetle”, I looked forward to watching The Bridge as much as I have any show this year. Since revealing the identity of the killer, however, the series has moved strongly in the more generic direction, with this week’s installment, “Old Friends”, being especially undistinguished in terms of plot and story, albeit still strongly acted.

(Spoilers to follow)

Rosenberg articulates the tension between the show’s narrative forks well in this passage from her review and recap of “Vendetta”, referring to the revelation of the real suspect as a fairly stock white guy ex-cop:

 I think The Bridge might have been able to earn this revelation if it had spent a season or two on a more prosaic but infinitely more interesting project, sketching in the details of the societies and economies of both Juarez and El Paso. When the show gives us hints of that, as was the case in tonight’s glimpses of Graciela singing and drinking with a group of musicians on a streetcorner, or its quick sketch of Santi Jr. and his role in Juarez, it’s always the most interesting part of an episode of The Bridge. A show that was more willing to be slow, like The Wire, might have set an entire episode at the party Daniel sent Adriana to attend, an interesting freebie of a story that she’ll now turn into a blockbuster, and would have handled the characters such that it made sense that their presence their and all of their interactions during the evening felt like one of those magic paintings when it finally becomes clear. But The Bridge is so unfortunately tied to its central murder mystery that it can’t afford to linger too much.

As the series has made clear, this region has no shortage of crime, from smuggling people to gun running, drugs, and murder of the non-serial variety (though, as shown in “Maria of the Desert” what constitutes a serial killer is a matter of perspective), which could make for interesting opportunities to show border crossing, cooperation and friction, but without relying on the kind of sensationalism or master-minding (to crib from Alyssa Rosenberg again) that has driven this season’s primary investigation.

At this point it is tempting to compare The Bridge to The Killing, another series that began promising much in terms of story and place before taking different, less interesting turns instead, but I don’t think the comparison is apt (and, significantly, has become less common as the newer series has progressed).

While the backlash against The Killing is often pegged to the lack of closure in that show’s first season, for me the series had degraded long before that finale. It took only an episode or two beyond the premiere before it became evident that there was little consequence to setting the story in Seattle. I can’t think of a single notable character introduced in season one, or two, for that matter, whose reason for being wasn’t directly related to the murder investigation, and virtually all of those were presented as either suspects or accomplices at some point. Ultimately, The Killing showed little in the way of world building, no matter how many grey skies and how much rain and water appeared in the backgrounds and establishing shots. By the time season one was ready to conclude, an answer to the question, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?”, was about all the series had left (well, that plus Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman).

By contrast, The Bridge already includes critical elements that are, at most, only tangentially related to the serial killer and that suggest future plans that are more about context and less about plotting. This season will clearly only scratch the surfaces of characters like Charlotte, Steven Linder and Fausto Galvan. Local press, on the El Paso side, have already been successfully incorporated into the story world, and through Adriana the series also has at least one well-realized character who effectively lives on both sides of the border.

While there is room for growth – we’ve been shown little about the command structure of law enforcement or how the agencies networked along the border might be entangled around more mundane issues and cases; similarly, government figures, live ones at least, have been, essentially, absent, and I think that the series would be enriched by having counterparts in Juarez for Daniel and Adriana – there is also a structure in place to accommodate such growth. So, contra The Killing, as The Bridge winds down its first season, the main mystery is its least interesting aspect, and the promise of a wider, richer narrative remains authentic, if still less than fully realized.

Of course, having a serial killer driving the narrative machinery is not, in itself, a problem, but thus far the producers and writers have been unable to ground David Tate’s actions with the same sense of place that infuses other story lines and characters. There are nods in that direction, notably in the way that the tragedy sparking Tate involves figures from both Juarez and El Paso and also the fluidity of the border, but, at the moment, these seem incidental rather than integral to the plot.

At the Television Critics Association, Meredith Steihm and Elwood Reid indicated that their plan for a second season does not entail another serial killer story. While that only goes to what the season won’t be about, the most obvious alternatives, threads that are already embedded into the narrative, point to criminal enterprises that should present greater possibilities for place-based storytelling than has season one’s serial killer.

Reading & Comics: Journal digests for July

You can now read all of the July journal digests for my Reading & Comics project:

Read more about the project on tumblr or via this post on this blog.