January 2015


I’ve just read a good swath of the New 52 Catwoman, written by Ann Nocenti, drawn by Rafa Sandoval, Jordi Tarragona, Patrick Olliffe, and Tom Nguyen.

Isn't that kind of uncomfortable?

Isn’t that kind of uncomfortable?

On the plus side: it’s very well drawn. I prefer the more minimalist line of Darwyn Cooke, but I can’t complain about the art (as I did with Hellblazer), especially Sandoval’s. Well, actually I can: I like the way the artists design the whole page, and yet they don’t make a pleasing whole in the way that J.H. Williams can do effortlessly, and they rarely offer the sense of wonder  offered by John Cassaday. Plus it kind of bugs me that the artists think people can talk with their mouths closed.

Drawing Catwoman in particular is tricky. On one hand, she’s supposed to be sexy, and she dresses head to toe in black latex. On the other, she’s a badass heroine, so she shouldn’t look like a bondage model. Again, Cooke got the balance right, seemingly without effort. Your mileage may vary, but I’d say these books, in their choice of poses and camera angle, err a little too often on the side of senseless cheesecake.  The shot above is a mild example: is that a pose a rational person would use to get within ten feet of the Joker? (Curiously, though, she keeps her suit zipped up these days, and she wears underwear beneath it.)

As for the stories— I dunno, they’re grim and ultraviolent (autocorrect wants me to say ultraviolet) without any concession to realism. Nocenti’s Catwoman is a little more immoral, more of a loner, than before the New 52. More like Batman, then, but that doesn’t feel like a good move for her— her greater empathy and real concern for the East End were solid pluses.

Gotham City requires a weird balance too. Batman grew out of noir, and his enemies are goth exaggerations of ’30s gangsters. I think Catwoman works best when she’s planning an elaborate heist, or confronting the gangs directly. E.g. there’s a pretty good arc where Penguin sends drone bombs after her, and she directs them back at him.  It’s always fun to see Penguin going in a few seconds from arrogant to sniveling when his bodyguards are stripped away. There’s at least a little grounding in reality here— the book doesn’t have anything to say about gangsters, but at least they’re based on something real.

But Nocenti amps up the wackiness, and I think that doesn’t work so well. Joker plays some mind games with her… eh, that doesn’t make sense; he’s too much the anti-Batman; he was designed to illuminate Batman’s methods and thought processes, and can’t do the same with the Cat. There’s an extended sequence in the remarkably spacious and well-populated underground of Gotham City… it’s just fantasyland with fourth-tier supervillains. Then there’s a competition for Best Thief, which sounds like something from the ’60s Batman TV show. First, if there really were elite thieves, they’d find this sort of reality-show competition beneath them, or too high-profile to be worth it. Second… jeez, one whole issue is devoted to a Mad Max style race in the desert, it’s just goofy. And this arc is narrated in such a fractured way that it felt like pages were missing. (On the plus side, it had one nice idea: during the actual burglary competition, one team almost wins by stealing a bunch of gold; Catwoman wins by stealing a set of documents that’s worth more. A nice touch establishing her greater sophistication.)

Well, Big Comics has to fill dozens of titles every month, and it’s hard to have good ideas each time. But I wonder if grimdark isn’t a little played out. Gangsters and psychopaths are powerful narrative elements, but they don’t constitute an injection of realism any more— quite the opposite, Gotham City’s villains have just been banging around inside their own lurid bubble for eighty years. I don’t have any bright ideas on how to fix it, except to suggest that the most satisfying Catwoman stories tend to be those that downplay the supervillains entirely, and make use of her intelligence and social skills.

I’m doing research on China, and one of the many arduous research tasks is watching Chinese movies. Here’s a neat one: an animated version of the story of 孙悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King, from Journey to the West. The director is Wàn Làimíng and the movie was made into parts, in 1961 and 1964.

The movie’s name is 大闹天宫 Dà Nào Tiāngōng ‘Big disturbance [in the] heavenly palace’, thus Uproar in Heaven. It’s a rather faithful adaptation of the first chapters of 西遊记 Xī Yóu Jì (Journey to the West), by the Míng writer Wú Chéng’ēn.

If you’ve never met Sūn Wùkōng, one of the best-loved epic heroes of China, the movie is a good introduction. He’s a superhero monkey, born in the Flower-Fruit Mountain on the Eastern Continent. The first chapters of the book are largely Dàoist— the monkey searches for the secret of immortality, learning that as well as the 72 Transformations and the 108,000-mile Cloud Somersault from the immortal Subhūti. He picks up his trademark weapon, a size-changing staff, from his neighbor the Dragon King.

The Dragon King complains to the Jade Emperor in Heaven (he didn’t think Monkey could actually pick up the staff). Amusingly, the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire is projected up into Heaven. One advisor demands war against the monkey, but another suggests a very Chinese-imperial solution: give him a minor post in Heaven, as stablemaster. Sūn Wùkōng happily accepts the position— he likes the horses— until he learns that it’s the lowest-ranking post in Heaven…

The movie is very well done— colorful, inventive, drawing deeply on Chinese opera and painting. What I like most about it is how non-Western it feels. The Japanese made their own version, Saiyūki (which is how you read 西遊记 in Japanese) in 1960, based on the manga version by Osamu Tezuka; it’s very nicely produced but highly Disneyfied— Monkey becomes too damn cute.

The animators also rose to the challenge of making supernatural fights into balletic visual spectacles— one highlight is Sūn Wùkōng’s fight against one of Heaven’s champions, where both shape-shift every few seconds. They remember what many modern animated movies forget: the medium is about drawing and movement, not dialog. (Though the voice acting is good… I like the like “Nnnnn” the Jade Emperor utters while contemplating how to address Monkey’s latest impertinence.)

It’s curious that the movie ends just after Sūn Wùkōng has defeated the Dàoist pantheon— and just before he’s defeated by the Buddha. After that, he’s imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, which breaks down his rebelliousness. When a supernatural guardian is needed to escort the monk Xuánzàng to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, he is happy to take the role. Every demon between China and India— and there are a lot of them— wants to eat Xuánzàng, so he has his furry little hands full.

(Xuánzàng was real— he made the actual trip to India in the 7th century, and did bring back hundreds of Sanskrit texts, which greatly enriched Buddhist literature in China.)

Animation is expensive, and it’s possible that that the studio planned to continue the story— the Cultural Revolution intervened instead, and the studio was shut down. Leaving out the Monkey King’s redemption makes the film an unusual celebration of pure anarchy. Sūn Wùkōng defies Heaven, eats the Celestial Empress’s peaches of immortality, trashes a banquet hall simply because he wasn’t invited to the feast, defeats every champion sent against him, and returns to the Flower-Fruit Mountain unvanquished.

If you play League of Legends, the champion Wukong is a (rather diminished) version of the Monkey King.

I discovered the movie on this list of less-known animated films, which contains plenty of other stuff to check out.

Cartoons are universal… sort of. They often have words in them that need to be translated, and a context, and a cultural tradition. Here’s a cartoon by the French cartoonist Cabu:

cabu

They’re listening to the Marseillaise, with its bloody lyrics: “May impure blood overflow our furrows!” Sarkozy, in the center, pointedly adds “Unemployed and immigrants, you’ve been warned!”

Cabu was murdered by terrorists yesterday, for making cartoons like this.

I find this shocking and insane. I love French comics; I have a page on them. One of the cartoonists on that page is Wolinski… I didn’t have a very high opinion of him, but he was murdered as well, and I feel personally affronted. I had one of his books, and ran into some of the other Charlie Hebdo cartoonists back when I was reading Fluide Glacial. Here’s a cartoon from one of the other victims— Charb, the editor:

charb

The guy is saying “I’d hire you, but I don’t like the color of… um, your tie.”

What’s almost as upsetting is the victim blaming I’m seeing in many places. They deplore the shootings, but after all, weren’t the victims being unwise, being offensive, mocking religion, distributing “hate speech”, being racist, upholding the power structure, maybe even being “neo-Nazi”? It’s left-wing gotcha culture at its most unattractive.

Note, many of these same people would be offended if anyone suggested that Trayvon Martin was holding that pack of Skittles in a threatening manner. Generally when people are murdered in cold blood, you don’t second-guess the victim, at least for a few days. Hell, even if the victim was a criminal, he’s dead now, what other punishments do you want to apply?

Neil Gaiman takes a hard line free-speech position: you have to support everyone’s right to produce offensive speech, because if people can silence the kind you dislike, they will inevitably also silence the kind you like. He’s mostly speaking about the law, but let’s be honest: the only reason some people, left or right, can’t use the law to shut down free speech isn’t because they lack the will, but because they lack the votes.

For radicals who think Charlie Hebdo went too far, I’d like to ask two questions.

  • Did Diane DiMassa also go too far with Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist? The title is pretty descriptive, but to refresh your memory, she has scenes where the title character goes out murdering and castrating random men.
  • Did these Muslim satirists also go too far by mocking and satirizing ISIS? Are you really maintaining that everyone, including Muslims, has to pull their punches to avoid offending jihadists?

Here we’re likely to get a lecture about “punching up” vs. “punching down”. Now, on the whole, “don’t punch down” is great advice. Afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted, and all that. But I don’t think it’s very clear in all cases who’s up and who’s down. In this particular case, I remind you, the cartoonists were firebombed, then murdered. I think mocking armed thugs is always “punching up”. It took courage for Charlie Hebdo to stand up in the face of very real violence, just as it takes courage for those Muslim writers and comics to stand up to ISIS.

So far I’ve been concerned to defend anyone’s right to free speech, even if we don’t like them. In the case of Charlie Hebdo in particular, I’d go much further: these were the good guys. They aren’t racists and neo-Nazis; to say so is profoundly ignorant and hateful.

I chose the cartoons above to help illustrate this. They both poke fun at xenophobes, racists, and right-wingers. Cabu invented the trope of the “beauf”, more or less the French equivalent of Archie Bunker. Wolinski was deeply influenced by the May 1968 movement and was for some time staff cartoonist for the left-wing L’humanité. They loved to make fun of the French right-wing. Don’t be one of those people who get all upset with an Onion article not realizing it’s satire. Some people have defended Charlie Hebdo as “attacking everybody”, but that’s a misrepresentation. They felt that nothing was sacred, but their particular target was always authority figures, particularly reactionary ones.

When it came to caricatures of Muslims, their targets were not Muslims, or Islam, but jihadists— the people who’ve killed thousands of Muslims, the people who bombed their offices, the people who finally murdered them. This collection from Vox should make it clear— e.g. Charb’s cartoon “If Muhammad returned”, showing the Prophet being executed by a jihadist. One of the stories teased on that cover is also relevant: “French Muslims are fed up with Islamism.” Charlie Hebdo was perfectly able to distinguish between Muslims and Muslim terrorists.

But weren’t those caricatures ugly and nasty? Yes, like all their cartoons. French humor isn’t American humor. It’s closest to our ’60s underground cartoons (like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton– and DiMassa fits into that line as well), but that element is far more mainstream in France. The Charlie Hebdo style is vicious, dark, deliberately provocative and obscene. And if you’re shocked by it, they’ll double up and do it some more.

To anyone who thinks that art they don’t like must be suppressed… I really wish you’d think about that, in the light of this attack. These people were suppressed. They were shot down with machine guns. Oh, you didn’t want to do it that way, but how did you want to do it?

But but but solidarity with Muslims… yeah, yeah, did you ask any Muslims what they thought? Here’s an interview with an Algerian cartoonist, Ali Dilem.

It’s joking around. There’s nothing nasty about it. It’s not weapons that we’re carrying; we’re not there to do evil. When there were drawings on Muhammad, I was one of those who defended the Danish cartoonists, saying that there’s no need to cut people’s throats because they drew a caricature. There’s things in life that are a little more serious than that. Here [Algeria], there have been massacres, including in editorial offices. In the paper l’Hebdo libéré, people killed the editorial staff in 1994. I knew that they were capable of that, of such an extremity. But to hit cartoonists like Tignous… you can’t hurt someone like Tignous. Cabu, he’s the one who made me want to take up a pencil, who made me dream of being a cartoonist.

He goes on to say that he tries never to enter the premises of his newspaper… for fear of a similar attack. He’s been put in jail for his cartoons.  He knows what dangers he’s risking. But he’s going to go on cartooning.

Some important nuances and caveats:

  • Some reactionaries will blame the attack on all Muslims. They’re idiots, feel free to mock them. Charlie Hebdo would have.
  • It’s not the responsibility of Charlie Hebdo to manage global geopolitics. They publish cartoons, for god’s sake. Grave-minded politicians who lecture them to be careful can spend their time far more constructively.
  • I’m by no means saying you can’t criticize artists. Criticism is not silencing, especially where the point is that we want additional viewpoints. Though I think ignorant dismissals of Charlie Hebdo are offensive, there’s a place for an informed critique. And a time, but that time is probably not this week.
  • European societies are not so good at assimilating minorities. (By this I mean that the majorities are messing up, not the minorities.)  They should do better, but Dilem’s advice is on point: cartoonist behavior is very low on the list of things that need to be taken care of.

Just got the numbers from the Accountancy Wing of the Zompist Fortressplex. Since the beginning of time I’ve sold just under 13,000 books in all formats.  Print and Kindle run about even.

Nearly half that— 6351 books— is the Language Construction Kit. That’s pretty respectable sales for a book; Amazon tells me it’s #39,836 on their print books ranking (#39 in linguistics). This year it’s being used as a textbook in two different university courses. (Not the first time; last year I visited a class at Purdue that was using it, which was a lot of fun.)

The news if you’re hoping to sell your sf/fantasy novel is: keep the day job. Babblers, along with its supplementary volumes, has sold 71 copies. That’s actually better than Against Peace and Freedom did in its first four months (42 copies). APAF still hasn’t reached the 200 sales where I said I’d create a conlang for it. (It will probably be Hanying, by the way.) I’m not complaining– doing Babblers this year was a labor of love, and the people who’ve read my novels tend to like them a lot– but the next book will definitely be non-fiction.

What will that be? Well, might as well start building interest: I’ve been working on a book about China and Chinese, tentatively called China for Conlangers. I think most conworlders know enough about European history to create classical and medieval worlds, but don’t know where to start with China, so the book will tell you what you need to know about Chinese history, religion, literature, art, technology, and architecture, as well as the Chinese language and writing system. As with all of my conworlding books, it’s also a sneaky way to impart actual information.  I haven’t thought of a better title, though.

(I’m also tempted to write an English-language grammar of Quechua, since such a thing isn’t readily available. Feel free to lobby for this…)