Grindhouse

Wildstorm: World’s End is a “change in the status quo” event for that particular universe: global apocalypse happens, and doesn’t get immediately fixed. We are promised an ongoing fiction where superheroes cannot restore the universe to order after transformative chaos. Which is both a refreshing change of pace and a somewhat grim elaboration of trends that have been happening in comics for a while.

A few years ago, DC Comics fairly obviously decided they were going for a “more mature” demographic, and ratcheted up the violence and “edgy” content in their mainstream comics. This has led to a monthly fiction that better depicts what adults are thinking about, such as anthropomorphized crocodiles eating people etc. It has also led to an increased tone of horror and angst, which I’ve written about before. It’s also led to a thematic fascination with the destruction of civilizations and apocalypse.

In the series 52, the Shazam! villain/anti-hero Black Adam builds his fictional native country, Kahndaq, into a utopia with the partnership of his wife, Isis. Isis is then killed by a group called (yes) the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In rage and grief, Black Adam kills the horsemen, commits genocide by wiping out the fictional nation of Bialya, and kills hundreds of thousands more before being stopped.

Black Adam is one of the most intelligently laden characterizations in recent comics: he is a Middle Eastern supervillain who nonetheless, with his strongly-held and comprehensible principles, invites our sympathies. (Like Magneto, if Mags is more familiar.) He is an emblem of our ambivalence regarding cultures we fear and struggle to understand. In 52, he is also us, at least those of us in the United States: focused on building a better world until an unexpected tragedy drives us blindly to a further tragedy of violence and destructive response. The fact that he is so compelling as a character, and the ease of revising away inconvenient narratives in comics, might cause us to quickly forget: he was depicted as killing millions of people. And is still kind of an anti-hero. What kind of world system is capable of performing that sleight of hand?

It’s the same system that has generated cataclysms with regularity in the past decade: Coast City, Bludhaven, San/Sub Diego, the deaths of Infinite Crisis. The revival of the multiverse in DC Comics has allowed for a designated dimension, Earth-51, which is called the “Graveyard” and is apparently intended as a place for apocalypses to be exercised and re-exercised. These kinds of cataclysms have bloodlessly happened in superhero comics for years, of course. But these have been portrayed with an increasing realism: body counts are released. Irradiated killing fields become recurring locales for future adventures.

What doesn’t get portrayed as realistically is what this must mean to a fictional culture. What does it mean to be a human being in the DC Universe? Can you really take any solace from these creatures that are supposed to be your figures of transcendent order? Or by catastrophic trauma #5, have you concluded that this place is just a mess?

Marvel Comics investigated this with Civil War, a mini-series where, in the wake of the destruction caused by superhero battles, heroes were mandated to register with the government. Likewise, comics like Marvel’s Front Line series investigate street-level psychology in this incongruous human world of gods. We don’t get this in the DC Universe: the street-level heroes of Gotham Central were turned into superheroes themselves. The only psychologies we are presented are the fantastic ones of the heroes, and these profiles read as increasingly alien and aloof. Still: Civil War hasn’t really slowed down the pace of destruction in the Marvel Universe. We’re currently seeing a catastrophic alien invasion coming off the “quiet” event of New York being destroyed in World War Hulk.

I’m sure this is a personal reaction, but these days it all feels like a desensitization exercise to me. We exist in a world where we must increasingly confront the fragility of the way we live. It’s natural to want to deal with this through art, and from nuking cities to zombie apocalypse to Joker terrorism, we are using our fantasies in an attempt to deal with the anxiety we share about our civilization. What I’m concerned about is that comics (and not just comics) are evoking these anxieties while trying to resolve them with the patterns of past narratives, and that these patterns aren’t adequate any more. Maybe World’s End represents what BSG represents for sci-fi television: an attempt to bring in meaningful new patterns, an attempt at studying through fantasy what happens to psyches when they have to work through unresolvable traumas.

Service Toolkit

I manage a (very smart, excellent) technology team in my daily life. I like management. I actually kind of love management. When you get over the false “Office Space” assumptions about the role, it becomes a practice in understanding organizational psychology and organizational culture. It’s a chance to engage with both people and technology. And, you get to move around a lot. Aces.

I recently started a discussion about our focus on service and communication in our direct work with clients. Though logic has largely triumphed over this, there does remain the occasional unspoken assumption that developers (do/can) fall victim to intrinsic social limitations because of their occupation, and that their clients should expect a level of awkwardness and bad communication. This is a bad assumption. Good coding practices and good communication practices are both important, but honestly I’d rather manage people who come in with more of the latter.

But both practices are teachable. Social practices, like any other practices, can be learned and exercised and mastered. Our team’s started sharing “tools,” discrete practices that improve one’s ability to listen and engage with their clients.

Here’s our starter list.

Goals:

Responsiveness – Communicate actively with our customers and colleagues. Meet, exceed, anticipate their needs and engage with them on those needs.

Adaptability, cooperation – Reject the idea that your conceptual model is necessarily correct. Understand the ideas of others, evaluate them respectfully and fairly. Come to a point of agreement that results in the best outcome. This outcome should not be entirely yours nor theirs but something shared.

Engagement – Understand the perspectives of others to be as valuable and important as yours. Focus your attention on the person with whom you’re engaging.

Techniques:

Everyone is awesome. Everyone is the boss. – Focus on the amount of respect, deference and attention you devote to a.) yourself; b.) your boss; c.) the smartest person you have ever worked with. Now devote that respect, deference and attention to everyone.

Notepad your agenda – When going to a meeting, think of the needed outcomes and the points you want to make. Write them on a notepad and take it with you to the meeting. Then, let go of them and concentrate on a meaningful discussion with your colleagues on the topic. Near the end of the meeting, review your list, and bring up only the points that are a.) unaddressed b.) not made irrelevant by the discussion of the meeting.

Questions – Approach ideas not as immutable statements but as potential ideas for discussion. Put forward arguments not as truisms but as propositions. Ask your colleague or customer about these propositions: do they sound correct? Do they raise concerns? Do my propositions not line up with yours? If not, let’s talk about why not and try to reconcile.

Check in with the person you’re with. Are you making sense to them? Do they have questions? Ask them these things, and ask often.

Hold, Breathe – When an idea pops into your head during a discussion, hold it there for 5-10 seconds and stay engaged with what is going on at the moment. Then, express that idea only if it is still relevant.

Cool Tool for Talking about John’s Legacy

Folks have put together a wiki to talk about John Slatin’s legacy. It is a very good idea and worth promoting.

I avoid talking about loss and personal stuff on the blog, mostly because I think I’m miserable at it. It’s a conscious choice, though probably not healthy. So I’ll just say quickly —

I’ve just started remembering the afternoons talking with him in his office, hearing his triple-speed JAWS output and playing ball with an off-duty Dillon. John was a brilliant teacher, technologist and advocate, and an amazing mentor. He dealt with great adversity with patience and kindness; he always blessed me with patience and kindness. I love and miss him very much.

Say you love seitan

Anyone who knows us knows that we are not vegetarians. But it’s late holidays now, and we’re trying to eat better.

I grabbed a package of seitan on a whim at the grocery and made these for lunch, also on a whim. They were pretty good.

Seitan Fusion Tacos
makes 3-4 tacos

  • 1 standard package seitan
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • soy sauce
  • lime juice
  • 2 limes
  • one jalapeno pepper
  • sriracha sauce
  • shredded cabbage
  • tortillas (we used spelt but corn and flour would also be good)

Dice the jalapeno and cut the limes into wedges.

Heat up the oil in a pan while chopping the seitan into bite-size chunks. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the seitan to the pan. When the seitan has browned, add just enough soy sauce and lime juice to coat the bottom of the pan and deglaze (we used approx 2 parts soy sauce to one part lime juice and one squirt of sriracha. Go easy on this… too much soy sauce and the tacos will be too salty). Increase heat to high and reduce the liquid by 1/3 – 1/2 (when it’s viscous, it’s good to go).

Start warming the tortillas about the time you’re adding the soy sauce to the pan.

When the sauce is reduced, turn the heat off. Fill the tortillas with sauced seitan. Add a squeeze of lime and sriracha to taste. Top with jalapeno and cabbage and garnish with lime.

Blogging Countdown: 1

Hey Ryan,

Welcome to the chat, and here’s to some fun conversation about Countdown, which is at the present moment what you’ve called DC Comics’ “spine of continuity”: a central, 52-week comics event and core narrative from which the corporation’s serial superhero comics will synchronize themselves for the duration. Countdown is carrying on the “Love Boat” format of its predecessor 52, with multiple independent storylines unfolding in the same periodical, but in the case of Countdown these multiple storylines do seem to point to one core conflict: as we learned in 52, the DC multiverse has been once again reconfigured; what we understand as “continuity” has been once again revised; this is going to cause some interesting troubles for all fictitious parties involved.

Our conversation about Countdown will inevitably spend some time talking about what it means to have a “multiverse,” what continuity is, and why it is. With that in mind, I’m going to start with a digression, beg your forgiveness, and promise that we’ll talk about the actual comic book very soon. Before we talk about Countdown, though, I want to talk for a bit about this continuity thing that is its central topic. I’d argue that “continuity” is often to comics fans what pornography was to SCOTUS Justice Potter Stewart: they know it when they see it, but sometimes the intrinsic definition is tough to come by. I’ll offer two definitions: one appealing to the conventional wisdom, and one appealing to my contrary nature.

1.) Continuity is narrative consistency. You’ve talked in the past about readerly expectations of continuity as consistency, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that: we’re all reading a story that unfolds regularly, and we expect it to make some sense, and for the actions that happen within that story to have consequence. Continuity emerges from the desire of readers that this narrative work honestly as narrative, that cause generates effect and a follows b in a way that doesn’t too badly insult one’s suspension of disbelief. But I’m going to present yang to your yin and argue for

2.) Continuity (forgive me, I’m a recovering academic) is a contingent social contract enforcing a retroactive continuous narrative on a structure that is essentially discontinuous. Superman is somewhere between 28 and 32 years old, and will always be so. Oh, and Superman is 75 years old and fought the Nazis. The consistency we can rightly expect with conventional serial fiction becomes a problem when your main characters must maintain a level of stasis across generations in order to sell blockbuster movies, roller coasters, and grocery staples.

Marvel solves that problem by fudging it, by quietly resetting the clock at regular intervals and being fairly vague about when Professor X and Magneto actually met. DC, on the other hand, actively manages continuity: the Nazi-fighting Superman lived on another planet, and died last year. As of fairly recently, the current Superman is kind of an extension of that handsome kid on Smallvile… ish… and is between 28 and 32. Like the 108 minutes in Lost, the clock of plausibility for this current understanding of how Superman makes sense is now ticking.

Full disclosure: I believe DC a.) fully realizes the implications of definition #2; b.) has evolved this management to a point where the pleasure of watching continuity being actively managed through fiction is a primary — if not the primary — reason to follow the DC Universe; c.) understands Countdown as just a part of an ongoing process of selling the foregrounded and mythologized management of DC continuity, for fun and profit, indefinitely.

I’ll leave it at that and throw it your way. Does this sound at all plausible? Is continuity an achievable consistency, a postmodern groundlessness, or something in-between? And, regardless, why the heck is DC selling continuity management to its readership as a year-long event, and why do we buy it?

Best, Jason

Blogging Countdown: About

I’m trying something new… co-worker and fellow comics nut Ryan and I are getting a blogged critical conversation going. DC’s current event Countdown starts us out, and we’ll follow it as it unfolds over the year. But I imagine we’ll end up on many other topics as well (I’ve already started flying outwards).

I’ll publish my salvos here: they’ll get reprinted along with Ryan’s able responses at Comicfodder. Ryan’s a much more disciplined blogger than I and has been building a nice body of stuff there.

Grant Morrison 52 Goodness

Grant Morrison interview on Newsarama

I liked the idea that we could have so many different types of storytelling in there: there’s comedy in the Oolong Island stuff, there’s tragedy with Black Adam and the Question, there are space opera, horror, mystery, detective and cosmic strands to this extended narrative which is why some people can have a hard time explaining the ‘high concept’ or applying Hollywood storytelling jargon to 52. This was never intended to be a movie; it was a comic and proud of it. It is its own unique thing and will tend to defy convenient pigeonholing.