New reading for a new year

Happy new year, everyone. I have been mostly cleaning my study to create space for some new arrivals, but I wanted to take a moment to mention some new additions to the bookshelves here at head office.

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It’s Larry Gonick’s two-volume Cartoon History of the Modern World, which is in turn the conclusion to his three-volume Cartoon History of the Universe, about my love of which I have written before. I loved the early volumes when I was a kid, and while there are some bits you want to fact-check (and, as in history, maybe a few things that aren’t quite appropriate for younger readers, although of course younger readers love that sort of thing), I think that for the level of detail they contain they’re actually pretty good basic history books. And, of course, they’re a lot of fun. There are five volumes in total, plus a Cartoon History of the United States, which I had at one point.

Anyway, I’ve already started on these and I’m looking forward to getting them done, although I’ve shelved them for now.

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So satisfying.

 

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New reading for a new year

Batman, Buddhism, and the trajectory of pop ideas

In a previous post I mentioned going to a talk by Ian “Cat” Vincent at Treadwell’s Books about popular culture and occultism. During this talk, he mentioned a point about the idea of the tulpa in Tibetan Buddhism, a point I’ll return to later, and I mentioned that there was actually a Batman villain in the late 1980s who was a tulpa. I mentioned it briefly in the last post, but yesterday I found 20 issues of the Grant/Breyfogle run on Detective Comics for a quarter each, so now I can talk about it in a little more detail.

Our story runs from Detective Comics 601 to 603 and, as I mentioned before, is written by Alan Grant, pencilled by Norm Breyfogle and inked by Steve Mitchell. In it, we start out with a mysterious robbery committed by a young man who crumbles to bits when Batman catches him. Later, an identical-looking young man tries to rob Wayne Manor. Batman investigates and discovers that these are tulpas or thought-projections sent out by Tenzin, a young Tibetan man who is desperate for money to repay the gangsters his father owed $5,000 to.

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Worried that the gangsters are going to kill him, Tenzin creates yet another tulpa, drawing on his own anger and resentment at the criminals and gives it the form of Mahakala, the protector of the faith. Mahakala is an emanation or projection of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who has a frightening, demon-like appearance but is actually a good guy (a letter in the letter column of issue 604, complaining about the comics’ misrepresentation of Tibetan Buddhism, points out that in this respect Mahakala is actually similar to Batman). However, the comic is quick to point out that this is not the Mahakala, but merely a physical representation of Tensin’s negative emotions in the form of Mahakala.

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This is comics, of course, so Mahakala gets a slight redesign, complete with a bitchin’ huge axe.

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Anyway, the gangsters shoot Tenzin, then run off, pursued by Mahakala, while Batman tends to the injured youth. Cue a load of Batman running around Gotham trying to stop the crooks from being murdered by the tulpa. Since this is a mystical matter, Bats tries to enlist the help of Jason Blood, the human host of the Demon, Etrigan, but Blood, who as we all know hates Etrigan, is having none of it. Breyfogle gets to draw some angry-ass Batman eyes.

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Blood’s psychic sidekick Randu goes along with Batman, though. Batman hits Mahakala with a wrecking ball.

Comics!
Comics!

But the tulpa ain’t dead, and when Randu gets in trouble, Blood has to overcome his reservations and intervene as Etrigan. Grant loves writing Etrigan and Breyfogle draws the hell out of him, so this is pretty good news.

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Anyway, Etrigan takes out the tulpa, then decides he’s going to kill the gangsters, but Batman tries to intervene. Etrigan whups him too, but then lets him win in one of his fits of demonic whimsy. The End.

So, other than that I got a chunk of my childhood for $5.00, which is a pretty great deal at today’s prices, what’s the relevance of this story? I think the point that Vincent was making in his talk was that the popular conception of a tulpa, shared by occultists and comic fans alike, is of a sort of physical manifestation of a concept, and that this conception originally derives from the work of Alexandra David-Neel.

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However, David-Neel’s description of the tulpa seems to be not quite right in Buddhist terms; they’re not really imagined going around smashing stuff and cutting off one of Batman’s ears with a big damn bronze axe. Instead, they’re a sort of tool for thinking about things, and it’s all much more complicated, which may make for great meditative practices but not such good comics. I know next to nothing about Buddhism, so I’ve read this big summary of what a tulpa actually is, but I’m afraid I’ve just come away with “not like in the book; much more complicated.” If I’ve got a detail wrong, please forgive me.

But that’s always the way: the reality of a cultural or religious practice is always much more complicated than the summary of it — just look at the difference between the popular conception and actual practice of “selling indulgences,” for instance — but it’s the popular conception that stays with you. These ideas take on a life of their own, regardless of the original intent, and often outlast their originators.

seriously didn’t intend for that paragraph to say that Alexandra David-Neel’s interpretation of the tulpa is kind of like a tulpa, but it’s worked out that way a bit, hasn’t it?

Anyway, I just thought I’d expand on a point of trivia from an earlier post at great length because I do like talking about Batman.

Additional:

On a sadder note, the artist who drew this issue and so many other great comics, Norm Breyfogle, recently suffered a stroke, leaving him partly paralysed, including his dominant left hand. A fundraiser raised $100,000 to cover his medical bills, but sadly that’s only half of the needed total (my non-US readers are reminded to be appreciative of our health care systems). However, apparently the Hero Initiative are also getting involved, and DC Comics are releasing a hardcover of his work earlier than scheduled. Breyfogle is posting messages to Facebook and seems to be on the path to recovery, so that’s all good news. But this just demonstrates how precarious the existence of an artist can be; that’s why the work of the Hero Initiative and others is so important.

Batman, Buddhism, and the trajectory of pop ideas

Pirates, comics, and historical fiction fads

Check out this exciting new vidya technology!

Show Notes

I am a big fan of The works of Larry Gonick. See my previous post on the topic.

The first volume of Age of Bronze is a good place to get started. I wrote about it in an earlier post.

I got my copy of Escape Velocity at Comix Experience in San Francisco.

Check out Archaeological Oddities.

Pirates, comics, and historical fiction fads

Cartoon Corner: Spider-Woman (1979)

I have written in the past about superheroes and archaeology, largely inspired by the papers given at the Monstrous Antiquities conference back in November. Today, I just want to point out that there is a surprising amount of archaeology in the 1979 Spider-Woman cartoon … or, well … sort of. 

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Spider-Woman cartoon, but it seems to have been largely an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Wonder Woman, right down to the spinning transformation, here called a “spider-spin.” And yeah, you know you’re back in the olden days when Marvel is trying to cash in on a DC property. 

Anyway, the cartoon basically resembles what you’d get if you got one of the less grounded Bronze Age creators (poor old Bill Mantlo, perhaps, or maybe Bob Kanigher (I may mean Bob Haney)) and just fed them an absolute shitload of cough syrup and told them to have at it, oh, and to try to work in something educational to satisfy the FCC. Maybe the easiest way for you to see what I mean about this show’s bizarre mix of earnestness and foolery is just to watch an episode. 

Our very first episode is “Pyramids of Terror,” and it kicks off with Spider-Man being in Egypt (for some reason) where he is captured by a villainous mummy. Spider-Woman, her bumbling sidekick and her plucky sidekick go off to Egypt following a series of mummy attacks, and then … erm … 

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It turns out, right, that these mummies came from space in their pyramid ships and were buried under the sands of Egypt lo these many years ago, and I guess they inspired ancient Egyptian culture, because why not? The classic motif of the Sphinx shooting beams out of its eyes is gone one better here — not only does it have eyebeams, but if the beams hit you, they turn you into a mummy!

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Eventually, Spider-Woman realises that the motive force behind the alien spaceships is, no fooling, Pyramid Power and uses her webbing to turn the lead ship into a cube. 

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It’s like a checklist of pop culture Egypt: 

  • ambulatory mummy
  • did ancient astronauts …?
  • Pyramid Powah!

So this is all well and good, but what’s weird is that it keeps happening. Spider-Woman is a very globe-trotting sort of heroine, and she winds up in contact with a lot of past-type stuff. 

She goes back to the 10th century to fight some Vikings: 

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Fights some Amazons in a vaguely Mexico-ish sort of Amazon temple thing:

Seriously, I think the statue:eyebeams ratio is about 1:1.
Seriously, I think the statue:eyebeams ratio is about 1:1.

And there’s a few more temples and castles as well. Apparently it all gets a bit more UFO-y in the later seasons, but I’m not there yet. I really just wanted to share that mummy episode with people because, you know, pink pyramid spaceship with sphinx-shaped mummy-ray turret. 

Cartoon Corner: Spider-Woman (1979)

Reader Questions: L-l-l-lightning round!

Today we’ll be answering some questions that I ignominiously begged for received over on G+.

Reader Paul of The Scatterbrained Gamer asks:

Speakeasies!

OK, um … sadly, I get the impression that most of the fun things you hear about speakeasies are probably not true — the tables flipping over and so on. Or at least they were not that common.

What’s interesting to me about speakeasies is that they’re this very direct encounter that many people have with criminality, with breaking the law. And it was a law that was, at least in many places, routinely flouted. If you read contemporary discussions of it, they’re pretty funny. Here’s Ring Lardner on the subject:

It seems like about the biggest difference between now and 7 or 8 yrs. ago in big cities at lease is that in them days most cities had a law that you must close your saloon at 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock. Now days according to the law, they ain’t no saloons so they can and do stay open as long as they feel like.

Which may strike a telling parallel to contemporary debates about legalisation of what-have-you; you tell me.

However, there are some odd people who join in the fight for or against the right to get your drank on. Here is shameless scandal-monger Herbert Asbury in his lesser-known oeuvre Gangs of Chicago:

Interspersed among the marchers were many elaborate floats, graphically condemning vice of every description. … Another, equipped by the Norwegian churches of Chicago, was occupied by twelve young men in armor, and a thirteenth in pink tights, representing the god Thor. About his neck hung a placard saying: “The Great God Thor with his hammer. The Norwegians will help smite the saloons.”

Thor, do you like speakeasies?

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Reader Adam asks:

Cultural appropriation of Roman deities once the Romans settled in Britain?

Boundaries between “religions” were pretty permeable back in the day. The Romans, in particular, liked to decide that local deities were the same as the ones they worshipped back home. This makes sense if you think of the Roman religion as already having tons of distinct little local cults, each with its own sacred sites, traditional festivals and so on. So when they arrived in Britain, the Romans blended their religion with the religion of the locals easily enough.

Consider if you will Sulis Minerva.

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The Roman name for Bath is Aquae Sulis, and Sulis seems to have been the local deity of the springs. When the Romans turned up, they identified Sulis with Minerva, and everything went great from there.

But not every local deity prospered in the same way as Sulis Minerva. Many of them are known from a very small number of inscriptions or artefacts. Here is one from Nettleton:

DEO APOLLINI CVNOMAGLO COROTICA IVTI [F] VSLM

(“To the god Apollo Cunomaglus, Corotica son of Iutus, willingly and deservedly fulfills his vow.”)

This is the only source we have, as far as I know, for Cunomaglus (“hound lord”). Some have suggested that he was some kind of hunting deity, which is not crazily inconsistent with Apollo, but we’re really just speculating.

So there are lots of combinations of British and Roman deities, and this is pretty standard practice for the Romans. It’s only when the Romans encounter a culture that is dead set against assimilating (Judaism, for instance) that things start to go a bit awkward.

Paul asks once again:

Powers behind the throne — from evil viziers to royal stewards.

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Powers behind the throne are a weird facet of certain monarchies. I teach a fair amount of Tudor history, and it’s something you see a lot in the reign of Henry VIII, with people squabbling over access to the king and targeting the various “powers behind the throne” like Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. And it’s very odd, because it’s … it’s neither the case that the monarch is a helpless puppet nor that the favourite/minister is merely a royal servant. Once Cromwell gets taken out, he’s not replaced by someone else so much as he’s just replaced with nobody, and government gets very confusing.

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In another way, the “evil vizier” is a very convenient fiction in a monarchy. If you’re opposed to the crown’s policies, you can blame them on “evil counsellors” and not have to confront the fact that the king is a dickhead. And if you’re the king and people are very unhappy with you, you can blame it on being misled by your ministers, throw them off the proverbial balcony and escape with your skin. In my mind, I associate this with the Byzantine Empire?

I have more questions to answer, but I will save them for another day!

 

Reader Questions: L-l-l-lightning round!

Hey Kids! Comics!

 

 

This past weekend my wife and I went to the Comics Unmasked exhibit at the British Library. It was pretty good, but somehow it left me feeling a little unfulfilled. poster-orig

Let me put my cards on the table here: I like my comics pretty mainstream, with the notable exception of Age of Bronze. I am a superheroes guy, broadly speaking. Nothing against the underground stuff, but that is what I seem to have wound up liking and I’m OK with that. I don’t love ’em uncritically, of course — I don’t do anything uncritically, as you may have noticed. But I think that the fairly widespread attitude of rejecting cape comics as “mainstream” or “conventional” or whatever is completely misguided. A Kirby issue of Fantastic Four has more non-mainstream content in it — in the form of weird, brainbending Kirbyness — than nine out of ten earnest, diary-style comics. Now, that may not be true of an issue of New 52 Justice League, but I’m just pointing out that while there’s a lot of garbage in there, I think it’s a big mistake to write off the genre.

And the impression I sort of got from this exhibit was a little bit like the one I got from the BL’s science fiction exhibit — that when they have this geeky material, they sort of handle it with tongs? I don’t know. Anyway, let me recount my experience.

So you walk into the exhibition room, which is this usual hushed, dimly lit sort of space, and there are the usual glass cases full of open books, such as you might find in any British Library exhibition. And there are also these mannequins in men’s clothes and Guy Fawkes masks standing around in packs and one or two other cool pieces of art here and there. The exhibit is divided up into various sort of zones — you proceed through the zones pretty linearly, but within them you can wander around and look at stuff. There are some tablets with comics on them attached to the benches, which I thought was cool, and there are some computers with interactive stuff near the end, which I didn’t really look at. Most of the zones are just exhibit spaces, but there’s one set up as a little artist’s studio where you can add your drawing to the ones other people have done and one that’s like a little faux office/studio space with reference works and stuff.

The zones are divided up thematically: there’s one on identity, one on politics, one on sex, etc.

OK, the good stuff:

  • It is the British Library, so they have everything. Little underground publications, typescripts, weird unpublishable 3D comics, super-collectible stuff, whatever. They’ve even got a Renaissance “pauper’s bible,” one of those brightly illustrated collections of Bible stories. It’s pretty cool. (I don’t think it’s that actual one, but you get the idea.)

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  • They cast their nets wide in tracing the influences of comics — there’s a big spread-out front page of the Illustrated Police News (a Jack the Ripper headline), for instance. They’ve also got illustrated ballad sheets, children’s picture books, political cartoons, and so on and so on, to really give you a full grounding in the “illustrated trash literature” genre that comics grow out of. It’s thorough and it’s informative.
  • They nail some of the key things that are particularly British in British comics and that have since become standard in American comics, such as the kind of wry, cynical attitude toward violence (although you could argue that this actually existed in US comics but was just suppressed … what do I know?).

What’s not great about it?

  • One of the problems with British Library exhibitions in general is that people tend to spend a longer time reading a book than they would looking at a vase or something. This isn’t so bad when what you’re just looking at a medieval Bible or a Chinese scroll or something, but when it’s an Oor Wullie strip and it’s in English (or Scots in this case) people will stop and try to read it. And what this means is that if there are a lot of people in the exhibit, it can turn into one long line just veeeeeery gradually shuffling along in front of the display cases.
  • The thematic division is interesting, but it felt broken up to me. Maybe it’s just that I would have preferred to see it done chronologically, but it felt weird and bitty to me, and I felt like it obscured the connections between things rather than highlighting them.
  • It really lacked American comics. Now I know that this is the British library and they have British things, but I don’t think I saw anything (or barely anything) from Marvel UK, for instance. I just think that from the war onwards you can’t really understand what’s happening in British comics unless you see where the US influences are pushing them and how they’re responding to them.

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I also thought there was a bunch of predictable silliness. Like, they show a two-page spread from “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and the sign says, I don’t know, something like “we see Superman confronting his own mortality, exemplified by this panel of him sitting on a bed crying.” Now I know that (hat tip to Chris Sims) it is impossible for DC comics not to try to create cheap pathos by having Superman cry, but what I can’t understand is why the card doesn’t say “we see Superman confronting his own mortality, embracing it as part of his humanity and settling down to raise a child with his beloved Lois in anonymous old age” since that is what happens literally on the very next page.

For Pete’s sake. I don’t think I saw the phrase “grim and gritty” at any point, but there were parts of it that were remarkably like the 1990s. And I’m not talking about the good Grant-Morrison-JLA 90s either.

Oh, and there was a display of HP Lovecraft paperbacks, because Lovecraft influenced British comics writers. Which of course he did — although not as much as they claim he did; they’re using “Lovecraft” to stand in for “spooky occult shit” — but if HPL gets in, why doesn’t Jack Kirby? Or Alex Raymond? Or or or or …

In short, while I think it was an interesting if incomplete look at UK comics as an art form, I think that if you were looking for an exploration of UK comics as a cultural phenomenon I think it was lacking in some ways. I realise Crisis was important, but there must have been half a dozen issues in there, and not one of Commando or Starblazer. I get what they’re trying to say — comics aren’t just for kids, they aren’t just superheroes, look at all this other stuff they have done. And maybe to an audience that’s not as aware of that diversity, that’s fair enough. Maybe all the stuff I took for granted is news to some people.

Enrique Goddamn Alcatena drew for Starblazer

Hey Kids! Comics!

Things I Like: Age of Bronze

If you like comics and archaeology, and you haven’t at least taken a look at Eric Shanower’s epic Age of Bronze, you’re missing out.

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Writer/artist Shanower is telling the story of the Trojan War in comic form, and I mean the whole story — the abduction of Helen, Achilles hiding among the women, Troilus and Cressida. Not just the Iliad, but everything that’s anything to do with the story. It’s an entirely human tale — no gods, although the characters certainly believe in them — and it’s compelling reading.

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What’s really exciting to me is the amount of research that Shanower does to bring his Troy to life in honest-to-Schliemann Bronze Age glory. Age of Bronze is one of the only comics I love enough to collect it both in trades and in singles, and every time I’m somewhere with a good comics shop, I look around to fill in the gaps in my collection. The most recent time I was in the US, I picked up several back issues, including this special:

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This is the special in which Shanower just talks about the research he did to prepare for the book and the decisions he made (such as basing the Trojans on the Hittite culture). There’s pages of great stuff like this:

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I have a lot of time for this. Every issue of the comic also contains a section of literary and archaeological discussion — basically footnotes — in which Shanower goes behind the scenes of the book.

I love this comic a lot. So what’s wrong with it?

Well, the most important problem with Age of Bronze is that it comes out … basically every once in a while. I’ve been collecting it since about 2003 or so, and it hasn’t made it to issue 40 yet. The fighting at Troy has really only just started.

Now, if you want to read this book, all that means is that you should pick it up in trade, rather than trying to follow it “monthly.” The first volume deals with the origins of the war, while the second volume is about the buildup to the conflict and the Iphigenia story. After that, you have the third volume, in which the war actually starts. This is split into part one and part two. You can also pick up the first issues for iOS, with colour and annotations and all kinds of stuff.

Seriously you guys, it is pretty good. You can read my copies if you come to my house, but you can’t borrow them. They are mine.

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Things I Like: Age of Bronze