New project: Reading & Comics: An autoethnography

I’ve started an autoethnographic study of reading comics and am using tumblr as a means to make this work accessible while in progress. I am not sure where the research will go or what it will show. This work is exploratory and experimental and I am sharing data to invite participation and comment from readers.

I think that one step towards understanding how comics are read is to understand better how one reads as an academic in the sense of “academic” as an identity and not just a profession. I think most scholars understand that they way they read texts for expressly professional purposes is different from how they read more casually. What I think most of us understand less well is how our more casual reading is informed by our academic reading (and vice versa). I think most of us are probably aware that this happens, but I also think that this understanding is relegated to the background of our work and other daily activities. Developing a more critical and systematic understanding of these different forms of reading, and how they are intertwined, is where autoethnography may be useful.


COMIC BOOK CITY: screening, new video, downloads, “The making of”

Here is a round-up of recent news related to Comic Book City:

I screened the film at Graphixia 2013: Comics & the Multimodal World at Douglas College in New Westminster BC. Read about the screening here.

Before and after that screening, I added new artist and writer interviews on Vimeo. You can now watch all of the creator interviews from the film online via the Comic Book City album on Vimeo (UPDATE: you can watch the entire film at Vimeo now, too). The most recent additions, Graham Annable, Sarah Oleksyk, and Dylan Meconis, can be viewed here:




You can also download a copy of the film from the film blog on TypePad to watch, use, or share.

Finally, I made a “Making of” feature on Storify.

February Worlds in Panels: comics and senses of place

I use my latest column to look at comics art and the exploration of senses of place:

Places never look and feel one way all the time to everyone. The manifest subjectivity of comics makes it a medium almost perfectly suited to exploring varying senses of place, from the city block you might live on to the most fantastic world you can imagine apprehending with your senses.

Read the column

On Helena Bertinelli’s introduction on ARROW

One of the reasons, maybe the main reason, I started watching Arrow was the announcement that Helena Bertinelli (Huntress) would be added as a character. I am not particularly a fan of, or even knowledgable about, Oliver Queen and Green Arrow, but Huntress is one of my favorite pre-New 52 DC characters. Her inclusion in the cast of characters for Arrow was what finally enticed me to give the series a try even after some already pretty good press.

I am particularly a fan of Helena/Huntress as written by Gail Simone on her first Birds of Prey run, but also identify the character with Greg Rucka’s Cry for Blood and Ivory Madison’s Year One. To me, what makes Helena Bertinelli interesting is her mafia family roots and her struggle to grow beyond them. Those roots mean that she often has different, more severe, ideas about justice and the uses of violence than some of the other ‘heroes’ around her, but her struggle to be more than just part of the mafia world leaves her open to other ways of seeing and to alternate moral codes, even as she may not be fully willing or able to entirely change what she does.

In terms of appearance, my preference is for the Year One character design by Cliff Richards on pencils, with a trio of inkers, Art Thibert, Norm Rapmund, and Rebecca Buchman, and Jason Wright doing colors. This design gives the character a sleek and athletic look, as if she is actually prepared for a fight. On the other end is the Ed Benes drawn version (Alex Lei and Rob Lea on inks) which dominates Simone’s Birds of Prey and makes the character look more like she’s dressed for a fetish club and less like she’s ready for taking down thugs. Richards’ look follows Rick Burchett’s design for Blood, but improves upon it with streamlining, making the costume, especially the belt and cape, look less weighty, and more fluid.

Year One

Year One

Birds of Prey (Simone & Benes)

Birds of Prey (Simone & Benes)

Cry for Blood

Cry for Blood

So, how did the character’s entry on Arrow come across? Here’s my assessment of the good and the not so good.

The good.

Given the timing of her introduction on the show, it would have been easy to reduce Helena to having been inspired by “The Hood”, or even a copycat, but writers Andrew Kreisberg, Geoff Johns, and Marc Guggenheim (“Muse of Fire”) and Beth Schwartz and Kreisberg (“Vendetta”) make clear that Helena has her own reasons for having a “list” and enacting “justice”. Furthermore, she not only deflects Oliver’s attempts to tell her that she’s wrong even while he insists on his own rightness, she challenges him on the hairs he wants to split. Later, when she agrees to follow his lead, she do so on her own terms (thus, the crossbow). Their eventual falling out seems consistent with the idea that Helena is from the mafia, but not of it, in the sense that she wants to tear down her family’s operations as much as she wants simple vengeance. Helena’s backstory here tracks, in the broad outline at least, with Cry of Blood and Year One.

The romantic hookup between Helena and Oliver was perhaps predictable, but the spark between the characters comes from a weird place of anger, violence, and self-hate because of their families, and not from Helena swooning in the face of tall, handsome, and broody. She is likely right when she tells Ollie not to make too much of the one night. His insistence on trying to form a partnership is an interesting gender twist on the trope of good hearted women trying to fix darker hearted men in these kinds of hero stories. Typically, it would be the female character who plays the domesticating role, but in “Vendetta” it is Ollie trying to “tame” Helena.

The look adopted for the character on the show seems more inspired by Year One than either Cry for Blood or Birds of Prey, at least in terms of the color palette and sleekness. I like the touch of turning the cape into a coat. This choice works well as an adaptation for live action, as well as feeling something that would work last minute better than a cape. So, nice work to Colleen Atwood, who is credited as the series’ costume designer.



The not so good.

There wasn’t any aspect of Helena Bertinelli’s debut on Arrow that I would describe as bad or objectionable, but there are a few points that did not come across as well as those noted above.

Jessica De Gouw’s performance is uneven. For most of “Muse of Fire” I think that Matt Wilson’s description of her on Comics Alliance as, “a little dead-eyed and cold”, is fair. Certainly, in our house, A was ranting about how emotionally thin the character seemed. I think she turns that around by “Vendetta” and it seems as if the actor and her directors, David Grossman and Kenneth Fink, likely wanted to give her room to burn between the two episodes (Alasdair Wilkins at AV Club has a similar observation about the emotional transformation between the two episodes).

One minor point that I could not help thinking about was where and how a mafia princess learns how to fight like Helena does. Year One and Cry for Blood both develop this backstory, but on Arrow I guess we are just supposed to take for granted that she prepped herself for her vendetta. The series is about Oliver, not Helena, so I understand not going into this detail, but, still, if the show survives for multiple seasons with Helena as a recurring character, I wouldn’t mind seeing a deeper treatment of her background.

On iO9, Esther Inglis-Arkell, makes the case that, “There is one hurdle in this episode of Arrow. If you vault it, you will have a ton of fun with ‘Vendetta,’ where the show’s various couples enact Natural Born KillersSpy vs Spy, andThe Gift of the Magi respectively … That idea is that Helena is somehow immoral and unacceptable, compared to Ollie”.

This is what the discussion between Anne-Marie and I revolved around after “Vendetta”, with Anne-Marie making the same argument as Inglis-Arkell, that the episode wants us to think that Ollie is in the right and Helena in the wrong. I did, and still sort of, hold onto the thought that Helena’s challenges to Oliver are given merit, too, and that you can still see him as deluded. On other hand, seen in the context of his relationship with, Digg, which has been focused on nudging Oliver away from the single-minded, and narrowly defined, pursuit of making right what his father did wrong, I am almost persuaded that this episode was meant to be a final turning of the corner for “The Hood”, which would suggest that, yes, we are supposed to be worried for Helena and supportive of Oliver. As Wilkins puts it at the AV Club:

We were headed this way for a while, but I’m ready to call it: Arrow is officially a superhero now. A vigilante is allowed to let the ends justify the means, to leave a trail of the corpses on the path to what he calls justice. Even in the beginning, Oliver was never quite as grim as that, but his final actions tonight still feel a million miles from the Oliver who once killed a man in cold blood to protect his secret.

While it’s certainly a nice bonus that Oliver’s actions lead the police to Frank and his incriminating laptop, he heads to that mansion out for neither justice nor vengeance. He’s simply there to save Helena, at first her soul and then her life. He succeeds in the latter and seemingly fails in the former, but he still saves her from an irreversible mistake. In a way, being a true superhero isn’t simply about serving the greater good or helping the cops catch criminals. Sometimes, it’s about putting everything on the line just to save one person, whatever the odds.

So far the series has been slow to move into longer form storytelling beyond certain plot threads involving, particularly, Moira, and I am interested to see how “Muse of Fire” and “Vendetta” continue to resonate now that Helena has exited the frame. Like Oliver, I assume we’ll be seeing her again, but if we are to take seriously the idea that he is changing, and that part of why he is changing is because he saw some kind of dark side to what he does reflected in Helena, then whether she is part of the story or no, he should be, for example, more willing to use his power and resources to fight against crime and injustice outside the scope of “the list”. The other alternative is a reset back to Ollie only wanting to take down the names given to him by his father and Digg working to get him to think more broadly than that.

Whatever happens next, I think the show’s creators did right by Helena Bertinelli, featuring her not only in a well executed pair of episodes, but making the second part, “Vendetta”, the best installment of the series so far.

My tumblr: small city graffiti and street art

I’ve been meaning to mention here that I’ve started a blog on tumblr, Small City Bomb Report, dedicated to documenting graffiti and street art in smaller cities and towns. Most of the images are from Corvallis, but I’ve also reblogged some pictures from other tumblrs, notably snappingthewalls’ blog, and streets.

A few of the photos you can see with more information at Small City Bomb Report (all graffiti & street art from Corvallis, Oregon, photos by me):

Follow-up on music: local radio & digital music

Today at PopMatters, Ben Rubenstein has a “Mixtape Confessions” column up about the loss of two local radio stations in Boston. In particular, there are two passages I took note of and that prompted me to further thought on themes from yesterday’s music post.

First, Rubenstein notes the role that one of the stations played in introducing him to certain “classic” artists and songs:

When I was growing up, the Rubenstein car radio was controlled largely by my parents, which meant a steady diet of Oldies 103 during any car trips. The station introduced me to The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”, Ernie K. Doe’s “Mother in Law”, the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” and all the rest. Sure, I still gravitated toward Kiss 108 when left to my own devices, but those songs are as much a part of my childhood as anything Rick Dees introduced me to.

But he goes on to ask what role local radio might play in a context where people who want to hear music have tools like Pandora or Spotify at their disposal:

It all leads to a larger question, one that station managers have likely been trying to answer for a few years: What does a traditional radio station really offer now that we can create our own, customized stations with a few clicks? What drives that relationship beyond convenience?

In the first excerpt, I think that Rubenstein notes a couple of key elements to local radio that are harder to reproduce in a digital context, or in a world where radio is largely de-localized and no longer programmed by people who are members of the community for which they play music.

While different local radio stations certainly carved out niches for themselves, even where you found a favorite, you were likely to hear artists and songs that would not be your choice. You were always dealing with someone else’s tastes, but ideally someone with refined tastes whose selections could direct you to artists that you may not have found on your own. I think that ‘discovery’ works very differently in a context where you are giving yourself over to someone else versus picking and choosing on your own.

The other point I want to note from the first passage is the shared aspect of radio. The means of listening to music used to be more scarce, and as with Rubenstein’s family, in mine, other people tended to control the radio (and the stereo), or, at least, what station to tune to (or what album to play) became a subject of negotiation between family and friends; which is another way in which analog technology fostered a context where discovery often came from the need to deal with others, and their preferences, rather than being driven by self-selection.

It is easy to romanticize one’s own formative experiences, and I don’t want to do that here. Local radio was no less of a commercial enterprise than the stations now owned by Clear Channel, and that means ads and certain songs being put into heavy, heavy rotation. Furthermore, as Rubenstein implies, while relying on others for music selection can be enlightening and educative, by definition, those choices will never be exactly what you would choose on your own. I spent many an afternoon listlessly switching between stations until I found something I wanted to hear. The main reason I made mixtapes for myself is to have, essentially, personal radio.

Which is what Rubenstein is pointing to in the second excerpt: the appeal of digital services like MOG and Pandora is user control, of listening to what you want to listen to, or, at the least, to set parameters for listening and, in many cases, to pick and choose individual songs as you listen. For a fee, you can usually lose the ads, too.

On balance, as an adult, is is hard to to argue with that model. As I admitted in yesterday’s piece, I don’t have the same kind of time to devote to music that I once did. Why sit through ads and repeated plays of songs to which I am indifferent or that I may actually hate just to get to something that appeals?

And yet it is primarily the search for new music that I missed, or that decayed, after college.

Digital music services do offer tools and opportunities for discovery, but these are largely based on inputs that the user provides. As noted above, in one sense this is a feature, but in other senses it is a problem. This kind of ‘narrowcasting’ ensures a steady diet of listening that is likely to be appealing, but it is less likely to provide an interesting juxtaposition or to cross genres. If I had this kind of technology when I was a teen, I’m not sure how I would have ended up listening to Lone Justice, or becoming a devotee of the Indigo Girls in college. The one exception to my lack of musical engagement after college is that Anne-Marie and I started going to Grateful Dead concerts, something my teenage self would have found unthinkable. In practice, I’m sure that there probably are a host of ways in which I could have ended up listening to any number of things if I’d had Spotify and instead of local radio and MTV, but user-driven radio/listening seems to work against wider ranging discovery.

Related to that point is another sense in which digital narrowcasting poses a problem, which is that branching out and finding new music depends on the user making an effort to try something or new or to take up recommendations. And as useful and rewarding as that activity might be, it takes time and energy of a kind that listening to your local DJ doesn’t, and, again, is, I think, less likely to provide a surprise.

As a teen and young adult local radio often provided a soundtrack for hanging out. Waiting for the next song became part of our social activity, as did debating the merits of the selections. Music sharing seems much different for A and her friends. Most of her friends are very intolerant of anything new or unfamiliar (and for all I know, A is that way when she is at their houses). Clearly, ‘kids these days’ have some means of finding new songs to like, via YouTube mostly as far as I can tell, but they also seem used to just shutting off what doesn’t immediately catch their ears.

It could also be that I am underestimating the role that face-to-face relationships play in developing one’s musical tastes. Rubenstein mentions his parents and the car radio. We clearly have an influence over what A listens to, even if she isn’t always able to share what she likes with her friends (and they, in turn, must be getting musical influences from their parents). That kind of thing becomes increasingly rare among adults though, except where you have get togethers of people who play music. At least, this has been my experience.

Right now I am motivated and have time to devote to building my universe in MOG, and I am encouraged that the “Editor’s picks” seem to range across time periods and genres, which gives me an immediately accessible adjunct to more targeted recommendations on the service*. And yet when I have to get back to prepping and teaching classes I suspect that I might miss having a couple of go to radio stations, places staffed by people who love and know music and who program for a specific local audience. Or maybe the digital music bubble I am finally making will be all I need.

Read Ben Rubenstien’s full column at PM:

*Yes, I read reviews, but following up and hearing what is being recommended has been a barrier in the past. Read my prior entry for context (linked in the intro).

CFP: Mix 2012 Comics Symposium at CCAD

Robert Loss recently sent me a Call for Proposals for the Mix 2012: Comics Symposium at Columbus College of Art and Desgin (Ohio) where Robert teaches.  The symposium theme is “Epic Narratives” and the organizers are looking for proposals for papers, roundtables, and workshops. The conference is intended as a setting for bringing together academics, creators, and students.

Get details and the CFP.