Sunday, 1 November 2015

A Few Good Eggs: Crowdfunding 'The American Bystander'

I had one of those mornings today that felt like it had great narrative cohesion. You know the sort. In this instance, the feeling was brought about by an email I received from Mimi Pond at the precise moment that my order of coffee, hashbrowns, and eggs arrived.

Mimi was dropping me a line to alert me to the existence of a crowdfunding campaign for a new humour magazine, The American Bystander, being run on Kickstarter by Mike Gerber (The New Yorker, The New York Times, SNL). Quite frankly, it looks great. It helps that the project is being put together by a handful of old-guard humour writers who have seen print humour rise and fall over the years and taken a good long look at what works and what doesn't. They've put together a solid-looking editorial model: no advertising impinging on their editorial freedom, a diverse crowd of established and emerging writers, and fair compensation for their contributors (none of that "We'll pay you in Exposure!" bullshit). Mimi happens to be one of those contributors, and from what she tells me and what I'm reading this magazine will collect folks who have lent their voices to SNL, The Simpsons, Monty Python, National Lampoon, and some other chuckle-worthy corners of our culture. The campaign has 11 days left in it, and I'd love to see it hit a couple more stretch goals before it runs its course (particularly because that would include the chance to submit a cover illustration for the thing). I've pitched in a bit so that people can be funny in print; head on over there and do the same!

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Why Make Prints?

Last week my printmaking instructor, the inimitable Briar Craig, assigned us a thinking project: namely, to come with an answer to why exactly are you doing this thing? As printmaking students, something we get from our friends a lot is, "So, what's the point of this...why don't you just print your art out digitally?"...which is a pretty good question. And I figured, since I'd left the blog dormant for so long (though many of you have continued to come back and read old pieces, which is really cool to see), that this was the perfect place to work out my thoughts on this and give you something new to chew on.
As artists each of us will be drawn towards specific imagery, ideas, and media for personal and specific reasons. Whether you intend to be a printmaker or not each of you have chosen to study printmaking at an advanced course level and perhaps it is time to start asking yourself why you make prints. Why not make paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, digital based works or use performance? What do the media of  printmaking offer you and your creative urges that the others may not? How do the media of printmaking supplement or add to whatyou may be working on in other media? How do the media of printmaking support the ideas that you have for imagery?
Bear with me while I think "aloud" here for a bit. My medium of choice is and has always been drawing. In the past few years, the drive to draw has solidified somewhat, found direction as an invested interest in the comics form, in its theory and history, and in my own production of comics as an art object. So when it comes to printmaking, I find it reasonably easy to identify what draws me to it. A significant part of what attracts me to comics is the material nature of the form. I have a deep and abiding love for printed material. It's the reason I have shoeboxes full of minis and zines and postcards, ephemera collected from
conventions and festivals. It's why I spend unreasonable amounts of money on limited edition print portfolios. It's what sends shivers down my spine when I finally hold my work in print, even if it's just a mini run off the printers in the school library.

I didn't really know where that love stemmed from until I dove into my research at Durham this past year, and realized that what draws me to print is the democratization of art and literature. There's an undeniable beauty in old manuscript illuminations, to be sure, and in print I am definitely drawn to the aesthetic of multiplicity that emerges as an edition of something is produced. But there's a restrained sort of power in producing an image or a body of text en masse, even on the cheapest pulp paper, and releasing it into the world in a form that a multitude of people can obtain and share, knowledge and thoughts in material form that will change hands and work its way into the strangest little corners of the world and stick there until someone else finds it, dislodges it, and sets it in motion once more.

There is, decidedly, a point where these ideas come up against the primary motivations of a Fine Arts education, a gallery artist's education. Most of us are shooting for a career in the White Cube, the sanctum sanctorum  of the art world. We're creating big, bold, well-crafted, generally expensive pieces of original art...except that I want to make small, sometimes bold, well-crafted, cheap pieces of original art. Not everyone out there can afford original work, and I think that's where the democratization aspect of printmaking has taken on new life in the digital age: where these processes used to be the only way to print, they now hold arcane status as Art. These are hand-operated processes, sometimes with mechanical elements, which produce some variation in the final product. Typeface wears over time. Ink transfers to textured paper a little differently every time. The colours we mix change a bit between editions. We don't produce copies; we produce multiple originals.

So when I pull a screenprint, and later this year when I start learning lithography, letterpress, and bookbinding processes, this is what drives me. I want to make small, affordable pieces of pleasing original art that people can pick up on a whim, read, lend to a friend, put in a library, art that can go out and
have a life of its own. It's the evolution of a drawing student into a cartoonist who wants people to read what he makes, and wants his touch visible in the object that the reader holds in their hands.

Or maybe I'm just a guy who's been reading too much Walter Benjamin.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Crowdfunding News - The Broken Frontier Comics Anthology Needs Your Support!

Listen up, you mugs! I've neglected my duty to this project for far too long, and now with only four days remaining and $26,000 to go it's high time I remedied that.

Broken Frontier: The Boldest Comics Anthology in the Galaxy
by Tyler & Wendy Chin-Tanner

That real cover shot
Every once in a while a really worthwhile, well-assembled, creator-owned comics project comes along, and you can tell by looking at the roster of writers and artists who have come together to make it happen that it's gonna kick some serious ass. The Broken Frontier Anthology is that project. Now, I may a touch biased because that roster includes some of my own friends and colleagues - like Sacred & Sequential's own A. David Lewis, Canadian sensation Salgood Sam, and the SVA's phenomenally skilled and cordial Nathan Fox - but that really just makes me all the more confident in the quality of the comics that Broken Frontier is collecting in this edition.

This anthology has come together as a collaboration between two proponents of creator-owned comics: the comics news site Broken Frontier, headed by editor-in-chief and writer Frederik Hautain, and Tyler and Wendy Chin-Tanner's publishing company A Wave Blue World, which has been putting out comics without sucking the life out of their cartoonists' IPs since 2005. It's a deadly team. Hautain has assembled a crew of comics makers possessed of a slew of untold stories that they've been dying to realize and offered them the means to do exactly that. All they need now is a little...push. That's where you come in.

And really, could you have asked for a more gorgeous volume to grace your shelves than this? Robbi Rodriguez's (Spider Gwen, FBP) cover for this edition is stunning, and is further complemented by a Farel Dalrymple bookplate and exclusive prints from PJ Holden (Judge Dredd), Robert Sammelin (Cimarronin, Sleepy Hollow), and Toby Cypress (Rodd Racer). After that, let's not leave out names like Greg Pak (Action Comics), Tom Raney (Stormwatch, Avengers Academy), Noah Van Sciver (Blammo, Saint Cole), Steve Orlando (Midnighter), Cullen Bunn (The Sixth Gun, Magneto), Alison Sampson (Genesis, Mad Max: Fury Road), and Box Brown (Andre the Giant). The book promises to be packed full of stories that explore the unknown, from the edges of the universe to the wilds of Alaska in a host of genres from steampunk to sci-fi to fantasy (with Vikings!) and all the cracks in between.
But enough of me rambling at you. Go check out the campaign at Take a read through Bleeding Cool's promotion of the anthology. And get yourself over to Reddit, where the team's doing an AMA session through to the campaign's close on Friday, by which point you've hopefully realized that you didn't need to eat next month anyway and backed this project all the way.

One more thought to leave you with. Something that warms the cockles of my heart is seeing anthology projects that buck up and pay their contributors properly for their work. This project seems to be doing right by its writers and artists and that, I think, is something worth putting a little cash towards.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

RANT - Jared Leto's Joker and Just How Done I Am With Fans Right Now

Geek fandom is a realm of asinine inconsistency.

I am currently embroiled in a comment thread on The Nerdist's Facebook page discussing the ups and downs of the new Call of Duty: Black Ops III teaser, something I wouldn't normally give a rat's ass about except that this time they've gone full-cyberpunk, and I think it looks kinda rad.

The folks behind landmark cyberpunk video game series Deus Ex, which itself recently released at stunning new trailer for their upcoming title Mankind Divided, responded with some good-natured ribbing on Twitter.
Which fans proceeded to take way too seriously. Facebook has erupted like a bad rash of whining fanboys convinced that Treyarch "stole" or "ripped off" the Deus Ex setting, which would be a valid argument if we knew anything about the new CoD game beyond the deliberately vague tonality of a teaser trailer. It doesn't have a setting; it has a feeling, a suggestion of ideas, direction, and mood. In other words, it suggests a genre, and like every other piece of genre fiction ever made it is guilty of a tonal resemblance. Nobody shit on Interstellar for ripping off the Star Wars setting because they're both set in space, just like no one got mad at Beethoven for ripping off Bach when he wrote "Symphony No. 9 in D Minor": "Dude, J.S. already wrote his "Double Violin Concerto" in that key, you can't do that, man!"

And as for you schmucks running around the web peddling that lachrymose "lack of originality/it's all been done before" garbage, I have news for you: we've been copying each other's work since one guy drew a buffalo on a wall and the next guy went, "Dude, I should do one like that..." There have never been any arguments for the so-called Death of Creativity that stand up to real scrutiny. You create, or you don't.

Now yesterday, something beautiful happened.
Comics fans have been waiting for months to see what Jared Leto's Joker would look like, teased by rumours leaked from Suicide Squad production that he'd be losing his signature suit, that Leto was bulking up for the role, etc. And then they finally reveal their new, revolutionary, dynamic Mr. J...and everyone loses their minds!

I have seen every inch of the spectrum of opinion spewed across Twitter since that picture came out, and none of it adds up to anything sane. The same people are saying in one tweet that they hate the new design, it's too different, too weird...and following it with a complaint that DC's cinematic universe is too cliche. For crying out loud, which is it??

There's not a lot more to be said on this. It's the way it's always been with the hype machine, and it's not bound to change anytime soon. And, for that matter, I'm not bound to change either; I'm always gonna be the guy sitting off in the corner, staring at my phone behind a pint and quietly foaming at the mouth while I scroll through my Twitter feed. Because it all just pisses me off: the arrogant entitlement of consumers of culture to be spoon-fed exactly what they want by their favourite media, and the vehemence with which they lash out at people who are pouring their heart and soul into a creative vision, for not creating exactly that thing they really wanted. If you want it that badly, get off your ass and make it yourself! You create, or your don't. It's that simple.

What are we really fans of? Fans of the characters, their worlds, and their creators would support that creation, would uphold hard work and innovation and the effort that goes into bringing new design and iterations of these things into being. But we don't that. As a cultural whole we bitch and whine about changes that are made, about things that don't fit what we wanted, the way we thought it should be. More often than not, the way we wanted it was the Old Way, like wanting Jared Leto to be Jack Nicholson's Joker all over again. Hell of a lot of respect you've got for the actor there, folks, asking him to take a couple years out of his life to recreate someone else's performance. Shame on you. We're not fans of comics, or movies, or characters. We're fans of our own bleeding nostalgia, and we'll cheer for whoever most makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside by validating the things we love to consume.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

2015 Eisner Awards...The Superhero Afterlife!

The Superhero Afterlife (Abridged), pg. 1
Starring Dr. Lewis himself
BREAKING NEWS - In the past couple hours the nominations for the 2015 Eisner Awards have been announced, and among them is my friend and colleague, Sacred & Sequential's very own A. David Lewis! His American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife has been nominated for Best Scholarly/Academic Work, and from what I've seen of the book so far it deserves every bit of that accolade. I like to think I got a unique look at this work, from a different perspective than most, when Dave asked me last year if I'd be interested in turning an abridged version of his book into a short comic. That project went up on the Sacred Matters blog as "The Superhero Afterlife (Abridged)". I'm both immensely proud to have been part of Dave's process with this material and ridiculously excited to see the book getting the attention it deserves. Here's hoping it's a win on July 10th!

In the meantime, if you want to keep an eye on the excellent Dr. A. David Lewis and the work he's doing check out the Broken Frontier comics anthology, and keep a weather eye on Sacred & Sequential's website. There's always crazy stuff going on over there.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Crowdfunding News - Dr. Comics and The Super Villain Handbook

It's been a while since I wrote one of these posts, but this announcement last week was just the thing to pull me out of retirement: my good friend Jason "Dr. Comics" Tondro is Kickstarting The Super Villain Handbook!!

Every table deserves a better class of criminal

Now to be fair, this isn't just the Handbook itself, but a juiced-up, deluxe edition of an already extant resource, enhanced by the power of crowdfunding and a ladder of stretch goals that promises to match your enthusiasm for devastating parties of tabletop superheroes with an arsenal of meticulously crafted villainous archetypes equal to the task.

Now, if you're a Munchkin and you're reading this, I apologize; The Super Villain Handbook might not be your kind of book. Min-maxers of the world, this will do nothing for you. As a far more informed review blog has already stated, this is not a book that will give you villains to use in your games, but rather one that will teach you how to use villains in the stories those games are telling. It's not a monster manual. Jason isn't offering a book full of plug-and-play villains that operate on an XP or party level/challenge rating system; what he's created is a book that challenges you as the GM to come to a better understanding of the story you're writing, the character development you want to prompt in your players' PCs, and then offers you insight as to what sort of antagonist might best help you achieve those goals. Rather than approach villains they way most of us Supers gamers are wont to do, by their power set, Jason has compiled this book based on the narrative role a villain plays: the crime boss trying to rule a city, the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing that the party doesn't see coming until it's too late, the power-hungry twisted genius...character roles that you'll actually find feeding your story, rather than leaving you scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas that fit a power you thought was kinda cool.

There are few folk better suited than Dr. Comics to the task of compiling such a volume. He brings to the table what few others can: an intimate and scholarly understanding of the nature of the comic book villain coupled with the passion of an inveterate tabletop gamer. With that experience comes a dedication to the kind of storytelling which is possible only while seated around a dimly-lit table with one's friends, wielding handfuls of dice against the forces of evil.

Possibly the coolest and most buyer-friendly aspect of this campaign is that the book already exists. As soon as I backed the project I received a downloadable PDF of the basic illustrated book (which looks fantastic, by the way). The campaign offers a wealth of incoming new material as stretch goals are reached. Given enough support, Jason will be adding 40 new villain archetypes which will double the size of the book (an impressive undertaking, considering how comprehensive the current volume is) and working up an edition that works with the Supers! RPG; the current edition uses the ICONS system, and I like to think that with enough support for this project we might see Dr. Comics writing similar volumes for Savage Worlds and Mutants & Masterminds in the future. At any rate, I highly encourage you to back this! The campaign is very nearly funded with a little over three weeks left, plenty of time for us to hit those stretch goals. At the very least, pitch a minimum of one dollar toward the thing, get the un-illustrated PDF of the book, and see if this is something you as a GM could make good use of. Remember, your table deserves a better class of criminal.

UPDATE: The campaign has received a swell of support in the last day thanks to you folks, and as a result they've updated their stretch goals ladder!
To celebrate, when we reach our basic funding goal of 3,000, we will fund BOTH the ICONS Assembled and the SUPERS! Revised editions of the basic book. Keeping this in mind, we have restructured the goal chart to include a new 3,200 goal. The Super Villain Handbook will have FATE Core support from Ross Payton, the author of the Base Raiders Rpg! Ross will handle the conversion of the basic book to FATE and should we reach our goal of 5,000, the book will Include the Deluxe Version.
Ladies and gentlemen, the FATE system is coming to the SVH!! I couldn't be more excited.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Electricomics Market Questionnaire - Lend Your Voice!

Calling all comics people! Do you read, make, or sell comics? The Electricomics project needs your voice! Take a minute to run through this questionnaire and chronicle some of your consumer habits: how often, for how much, and where you buy digital comics, or if you buy them at all. Your input will be furthering the goals of a Digital R&D Fund for the Arts project, jointly run between the arts company Orphans of the Storm, the technology provider Ocasta Studios, and researchers from the UCL Institute of Education and the University of Hertfordshire

Read more on their Google Doc at:

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Killing the Cover, What a Joke: Batgirl, Misogyny, and Everything DC's Readers Are Scared Of

By now most if not all of us have read at least one of the articles addressing Rafael Albequerque's recent Batgirl variant cover, which paid homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's 1988 one-shot The Killing Joke. We've read the artist's statement, and we've read DC's statement. We've perused the Twitter rants and familiarized ourselves with reader outrage about a multitude of things: the scared look on the heroine's face; her position of vulnerability; her position of vulnerability in relation to a man in power. It's been noted that this was put on a cover, the quintessentially unavoidable part of a comic, the bit you can't "opt out" of when you're browsing the shelves. I only recently started reading into this matter, a little late to the party, but the arguments I encounter most often are these: the readers don't want to see their heroine in this situation; they want to see her win a battle against a villain; the cover doesn't suit the intentions of the current Batgirl title; and the cover references dark events in the character's pre-New 52 origins, bringing readers back to a problematic story that they shouldn't have to wrestle with.

Damn right it does. What part of "villain" are we not understanding?

The Killing Joke is a brilliant story. It is also absolutely, fundamentally, a problematic story. For those of you who haven't read it, a brief synopsis: this is the tale of Oracle's origin, in which Barbara Gordon is attacked at home by the Joker, who shoots her through the spine and strips her, leaving her naked and paralyzed on the floor while he takes he later uses to psychologically torment her father, Jim. It's a classic example within the comics canon of a woman being victimized simply to provide a point of pathos for a male hero. Barbara suffers greatly, and is left paralyzed for life, but her ordeal is inconsequential to the story; the focus is on Jim as he bears witness to his daughter's trauma. People are upset because this story bothers them. It should. It needs to bother us; we need to to be bothered by it; it is brilliant because it bothers us.

Stories that don't bother us are not worth writing

But people don't look back at the Lord of the Rings and gripe about Sauron's unconscionable actions. We don't threaten to boycott Indiana Jones if it doesn't stop portraying the cruelty of Nazis on the big screen. We all accept Nazis as evil, the "bad guys", and Tolkien was writing long before the era of Dexter and Hannibal. There's something else at work here. Has a cultural paradigm where we celebrate the villain led to us asking for villains whose actions we can condone? Because that's what the people opposing this cover are asking for: a Joker who is socially conscious, a homicidal, anarchist psychopath who won't oppress women. I figure what we're admitting when we demand this cover be pulled is that we're looking for villains who won't remind us of the problems inherent in our own culture. Aliens are alright. Fascists are fine. Crazy magical forces of evil are good to go. Heaven forbid we be confronted by a villain who embodies misogyny, though; that's way too close to home, let alone a villain who we understand is acting out that oppression because he is batshit insane.

Except that's the meaning of villainy. The bad guys should be exactly that: everything wrong with the world. Everything wrong with us. They should make us squirm. They should be a problem for us.

The cover is also, by nature, a cover; it's not doing its job unless it's in your face. I can't help you there; that's visual culture for you. But we live in a world of trigger warnings now, and that means it's becoming ever harder to talk about these things because once someone plays the Trigger Warning card, you can't speak out against them without coming across as the insensitive asshole at the table. We've built ourselves a fortress of insecurity, a honeycomb of carefully shored-up padded rooms where we can be kept far away from the things that cause cognitive dissonance, that force us to come to terms with whatever it is we've suppressed, in order to convince ourselves that everything's gonna be alright, that we're good people.

Look at this cover and tell me everything's gonna be alright.

Look at this cover and tell me the heroine would be better off if she never had to confront this shit. I wish I could have you look me in the eye and tell me you want a Batgirl who confronts violent, terrifying misogyny (the reality of this world we live in) with a carefree smile on her face. That shit is grim. Now, there's the perfectly valid argument that this cover is tonally disjointed from the rest of the Batgirl title so far. I haven't been reading it, but from what I have seen of Batgirl floating around the internet I would say that's an accurate statement. It will be interesting to see what's actually under that cover when the issue is released; if the cover accurately represents the story within, the younger crowd of readers who have been attracted to this heroine may be in for a shock. There will undoubtedly be fallout. Fans may feel betrayed, and the hard truth is this: you have no right to feel betrayed. DC Comics doesn't owe you a thing, even if they should (I'm an idealist; I think every storyteller and artist ought to be beholden to and mindful of his/her audience, to a degree. Rafael Albuquerque has been a brilliant example of this in his concern for his fans' response to the art, taking it upon himself to enter into discussion with the editors and have the art retracted). But they don't; that's the nature of the industry. This isn't some Kickstarter campaign where your donation entitles you to a reward; it's the publishing branch of a much larger company, owned by another company, owned in turn by the world's third-largest entertainment conglomerate. Any debt of gratitude you feel DC comics owes you for reading their material is illusory and sadly misplaced.

So, any backlash against this cover can't really be about enacting corporate change. The outraged parties got lucky this time around; they appealed to an artist inclined to take their pleas to heart, but I think what he managed to give them was their comfort. What I hear in the bulk of these arguments is a desire to get back to a utopian period in the history of superhero comics, but this cover undermines that mission. It was a time when heroes never lost their battles, when the bad guys weren't too upsetting, when a reader could open a comic and be sure that they wouldn't be confronted by anything that challenged them, made them squirm a little, made them doubt that law enforcement personnel were anything less that paragons of virtue or that the government was anything other than wholeheartedly devoted to the greater good. It was a time when comics built up hope in a reader, wrapped them a blanket of comforting narrative tropes and banality and let them know that everything would be okay. That is the kind of comics scene which this cover works against, and it must be pulled from the shelves and made an example of so that we can return to the golden era of...

The Comics Code.

Maybe you've heard of it? That asinine piece of legislature in the mid-1950s that gutted the mainstream industry, tying the hands of creators and forbidding them to write anything other than moralizing propaganda that fostered children's blind trust in the ethical authority of the state. I can't seem to shift my perspective on this cover to allow myself to see it as anything short of foreboding.

Alright, let's wrap this up. I want to address a couple of other internet articles here quickly. Bleeding Cool posted a great interview with Albuquerque in which the artist makes his position and his motivation for pulling the cover quite clear. He's eloquent and smart about it, which is refreshing. I can't say I agree with all of what he says, namely that, "A series aimed at the teenage female audience should not have a cover like this." Oh? Is it going to be too much for them to see one of their heroes confronted by the same oppressive, violent garbage they're going to have to deal with from men for the rest of their lives? That'd be terrible, wouldn't it? Can't have that.

I'm writing this largely in response to a pair of excellent blog posts by Adam Gorham. Adam wrote the first one in response to the cover debacle, and upon reading it I pitched some raw ideas at him on Twitter, to which he responded with the second post. I'm gonna pull a couple quotes from that second post, but you should go read both of them; they're short, and worth it. Adam, responding to my "what if the story should be a problem?" argument, says,
"The problem I have with that argument is TKJ isn’t about Barbara Gordon. She’s made a victim in service of a plot that focuses on the characterization of three men. Her suffering is merely a plot motivator for them to duke it out." 
He goes on to quote another fellow, John Lewis, who says much the same thing and caps it off with the observation,
"Which isn't to say anything about how completely tone-deaf the cover is given the current Batgirl comic, which has gone to great lengths to establish Batgirl as a strong, resourceful, positive role model for female (and male!) fans." 
I've chewed on that for a while, so let me spit it out and say: what better way to show what a heroine like Barbara Gordon is worth and how far the industry has come than to reprise the horrors of The Killing Joke and have Batgirl emerge victorious through her own suffering. That's the story I hope to see under that cover. I'm not holding my breath or anything, but it'd be nice for a change, wouldn't it? To not pull any punches, to have the Joker enter the scene as vile and demeaning as ever, and to have this strong, resourceful role-model for the up-and-coming generation of modern women stand up to that violation, defeat it, and emerge the stronger for it. Hiding from the cover is not the answer; facing down our demons is.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Penny for Your Thoughts - UBC's Student Elections, Money, and the End of History

It doesn't take a political analyst to tell you that the average university student cares very little for campus politics.

I include myself in that statement. Apart from my four years as an active member of UBCO's visual arts course union, which (in my opinion) plays an integral role in keeping the art communities of both the university and the Okanagan at large from stagnating, I've largely stayed out of student politics and had a hard time stomaching the BS generated each year come election season. To make it worse, as cartoonist for The Phoenix News I've been in thick of it, tasked with critiquing the goings on in my own inkstained way. On second thought...that's been kinda fun; getting paid to take the piss out of student politicians is a good life.

An article from The Ubyssey, the Vancouver campus paper, caught my eye on Facebook the day before yesterday: "Presidential Candidates Discuss Student Life, Tuition Increases, and Hunger Games". The photo on the article made me remember something I'd read about a joke candidate at UBC, some guy running in V's Guy Fawkes mask from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, which I thought was a laugh. So I read the article.

And it really pissed me off.

I shared the article on Facebook, at midnight (which is never good idea; I get cranky around midnight), making clear my opinion that we had officially reached a point where the idea of genuine revolution is now nothing more than a student punchline. I got my first comment around twenty minutes later from a friend back in Canada: "LOL!"

To which I replied:
In retrospect, this may have been a little drastic, but I was mad. Maybe it was lingering effects of receiving my friend Leah Moore's rage when British Unity scumbag Nick Griffin started using her dad's V symbol in his xenophobic political campaigns. Maybe it was the cantankerous streak last weekend left in me, having spent Saturday night drinking in Glasgow with my Irish-Marxist-punk-intellectual-art lecturer buddy Dave, who has pure revolution pumping in his veins. My pal on FB tried to defuse the situation, noting that surely there's "significant distance between Tiananmen Square and a noteworthy play of fiction regarding a vivacious character" (kudos to him for "vivacious"). But I wasn't taking any shit about this; far as I was concerned, sitting in my dorm room at 1:30am and steaming mad, this was The End. Student politics was dead. 
"Noteworthy? Hardly. It's a political shit-disturber cosplaying for attention. Which sort of distance do you mean: geographical, chronological, or ideological? Just because we're no longer living in the Cold War doesn't mean we should leave those sentiments to gather dust on a shelf somewhere. It's like pulling teeth to get our generation of students to vote right now, in our own bloody student elections never mind real-world politics. The apathy is suffocating. We live in a safe, sheltered, postmodern Western world where we are told that we're training to become intellectuals of some kind, when in reality all we want is a receipt for our "education" printed on fancy paper. That makes the vast majority of us weak, ignorant, and lazy, and it's turned the platform of politics into a stage for parodying ideals of revolution from an era when a higher percentage of the student body were willing to die for an idea than we can currently get to drop a slip in a ballot box."

Between then and now I've done a lot of reading. The morning after that exchange I had a less-than-cordial private message waiting for me, calling me on my bullshit for criticizing this harmless gag so harshly when I've not only lampooned politics in my own work but also defended the much harsher satire of publications like Charlie Hebdo. At the same time I came across a brilliant article on AlterNet about a student organization actively challenging current academic economic thought by trolling conferences and lectures with incisive questioning. I sent that back as a reply, saying that this is the role students need to take upon themselves: not sitting on a stage in a comic book mask making Hunger Games jokes, but committing themselves to real, intellectual action that addresses the flaws in contemporary social power.

I woke up this morning and read Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?". I read a piece on The Guardian that a friend of mine shared titled "Politics Was Once About Beliefs and Society. Now It's a Worship of Money.". Then I started digging through The Ubyssey's Alma Mater Society election material, and everything came together in a rather satisfying way.

The first thing I discovered is that the fellow running as V is a wicked smart, well-articulated student activist named Viet Vu (I shit you not) who is currently president of the Vancouver School of Economics Undergraduate Society. "Vu became president of the Economics Students Association in 2013...As president, Vu’s role is both supervisory and ambassadorial. He advises the society’s other execs on their day-to-day activities and event planning, and represents economics students in dealings with UBC and the AMS." Not, I freely admit, the guy I expected to find under that mask. Vu wrote a letter in The Ubyssey last October, voicing his sadness at the results of the AMS's annual general meeting, which ended on that occasion with a poorly-conceived vote on the matter of whether or not the society should be sanctioning student protests. UBC has been steadily increasing student fees, and action is needed; what lay undecided at the time was whether such action would officially involve the AMS. The vote went through, committing the AMS to support of student fee protests, but Vu said this was a mistaken decision. Read his letter; like I said, the guy's articulate. He cites past negotiations with the school which were successful, in which discourse and not aggressive mobilization of the student body won over and implemented change. Using AMS resources to fuel protests, he says, will do more harm than good in the long run.

The man, the mask; Viet Vu (left) and his
presidential alter ego (right)
There are most certainly those who disagree. The opposition was quick to respond to Vu's letter with one of their own, penned by one of the editors at The Talon, UBC's alternative press newspaper (they're the aggressive, activist ones). No punches were pulled. The letter confidently deploys militarist language in presenting Vu's position as defeatist."Despite what Vu and others in his stead imagine, the 'play nice' strategy isn’t about going into battle for students — it's about negotiating the terms of our surrender." After stating that UBC's negotiating process is callous and patronizing towards its students, the piece caps it all off with this:
And for those of you who will counter that those protests should be organized on an exclusively grassroots level, consider this: if student mobilization is being orchestrated by a body independent of the AMS, why would the university negotiate with the AMS? If the AMS has no ability to stop the protests, how would they have any legitimacy in those discussions? And most importantly, if the AMS isn’t on the front lines with students fighting for accessible education, how can they claim to represent us at all? A student association that isn’t fighting with us can’t fight for us; and a student association that can’t fight for us isn’t one worth having.
Apparently there's a war on, and unless they're paying for the picket signs and bullhorns Vu and his diplomats aren't invited.

UBC has a long and strange tradition of joke candidates in their student elections, stretching back as far as the 1920s. The function of such a candidate is up for discussion, but I figure this article is pretty spot-on: the gag runners are there as a satirical foil to cast the other candidates and the election process in a light that makes you raise an eyebrow at the whole thing. "You run a goat in an election to equate the other candidates to a goat. They have to run against a goat. They have to compete with a goat. That’s funny." Damn right that's funny. What I'm working to understand is where Vu and V fit into that tradition. Vu is also running for senate, and advocating for an "action-forward" senate; I can only assume the action he has in mind doesn't involved hand-painted signs and marching. Is Vu, then, running for a senate spot that he sees as being the right channel for the kind of productive discourse he believes in, while using the presidential race as the most prominent stage from which to lampoon the picketers? I'm very curious to see how that pans out.

To wrap this up I want to touch quickly on the three other pieces of writing I encountered recently, external to the whole UBC thing. Some of you reading this may already be familiar with Fukuyama's theories about humanity having reached the "end of history", a point, he says, where we have exhausted ideological evolution. Western liberalism is it, the culmination of all our thinking which ultimately recognizes human rights, class divisions, sexism, etc. All those issues can be resolved within this framework, and all opposing systems (fascism and communism, namely) have already fallen flat. Therefore any political quibbles we have from now on will be about tweaking the system we already have in place (my first reaction was, "but that system won't work because patriarchy", but that's a conversation for another time). "The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands." Which jives rather well with that Guardian article I mentioned earlier, claiming that politics has forsaken the pursuit of ideological reform for good business practice, and that AlterNet article about economic rabble rousers stirring up new and rejected ways of thinking among the old and stale minds in the Academy.

Somehow, it all comes back around to economics.

So, maybe it's true. Maybe this is the end of history, and all we've got left to look forward to is a bunch of wannabe politicians whingeing about funding, student fees, and the f**king activists waving signs outside the boardroom windows. I dunno; I'm a cartoonist, not an economist. You'll find me sitting at a desk somewhere with a pen, making you all look fat for a student newspaper that doesn't have enough money to pay me that week because the funds were diverted to buy pizza for the crowd of angry hipsters camped outside the university president's office.

Oh, and Mr. Vu? Stop making corny Hunger Games quips about fighting to the death for the new SUB; let's not mix our pop-cultural metaphors more than we absolutely have to.


Thursday, 5 February 2015

"Symbols and Censors" - Comics, Semiotics, and Islam

I have spent most of my day talking about comics and religion. It's been brilliant, and I am utterly exhausted.

I was invited last term by one of my professors to help him deliver a lecture on Islam and media, a lecture we both knew would need to touch on Islam and cartoons but the weight of which we couldn't fully anticipate prior to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. The video I'm posting is the audio and slides from the lecture I delivered earlier today in the Theology & Religion Department of Durham University, and I have to say I'm rather proud of it. My ideas for this talk came together in all the right ways, and I was able to tie my portion of the lecture seamlessly into what Prof. Davies was talking about prior to me taking the podium. It went off without a hitch (except for some projector issues near the beginning, so I apologize for the slow start; it picks up around 1:20, I promise).

In this lecture I tackle first and foremost the matter of censorship, both in the lecture hall and as it pertains to depictions of Muhammad in modern media. I look at the prophet in animation and then in comics, before moving on to discuss some of the visual functions of the comics medium and connecting visual abstraction as presented by McCloud to identity as defined by religious symbols. After a brief comparison of the idea of bodily representation in Christianity and Islam I close with some thoughts on the human drive as meaning-making, cultural animals and the role of censorship as we create our history. I hope you enjoy it, hope the sound quality's alright, and I hope to hear your thoughts and questions about what I'm saying.

A couple of notes. First, I inadvertently flipped McCloud's "perceived" and "received" taxonomy. McCloud presents them as precisely the opposite of what I've presented. Something to keep in mind. Second, The 99 has nothing whatsoever to do with Marco Polo. My brain made that up and inserted it into my notes; my apologies to Dr. Naif. In the stories, the Noor Stones do indeed travel to the Far East by the Silk Road, but not by the person I have suggested.

We also had an excellent gathering of students at Josephine Butler College this evening for a "Global Voices" forum, at which I was asked to kickstart discussion around Charlie Hebdo and the matter of free speech. That conversation went in all kinds of interesting directions and I'm sorry to have not recorded it, but know that it happened, that young minds are actively, that we're trying to make sense of what it means to speak freely in a modern, global context. This event was particularly encouraging for me after chatting earlier with a friend about The Free Speech University Rankings in the UK, in which Durham received an amber traffic light (middling grade) for a diversity and equality in which the "Definition of racial harassment includes the ‘display of offensive material’." We have a tendency, it seems, to be vague about what materials we consider offensive, while our Students' Union places no restrictions on speech. Thanks, guys. For more of my thoughts on encountering (almost) censorship of cartoons in my work at Durham, take a read of this post from January on the other blog.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Reblogged: Sacred & Sequential Statement on Charlie Hebdo News

As many of you know, I work with Sacred & Sequential on matters of comics and religion. Yesterday I took part as our group crafted an official response to the horrific acts of violence against the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, an event that has whipped the internet into a fervour in defense of art, satire, and free speech. We at Sacred & Sequential sought to make it clear that, as important as that conversation is to both the field of journalism and the comics/cartoon medium, just as vital is recognizing the impact that this tragedy is having on religion and the religious.
Nothing can justify the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015. Some of the cartoons published by the magazine were offensive and at times deemed Islamophobic, but that in no way legitimates violence. Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish what it did under the protection of free speech. Just as freedom of speech did not guarantee the victims of the attack immunity to criticism, the right to dissent does not include murder.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s killings, the response has been varied. New Yorkers took to Union Square to offer their support in an impromptu vigil. Cartoonists such as Sarah McIntyre and Carlos Latuff, politicians such as Barack Obama and David Cameron, and pundits across the planet have offered their support and condolences to the victims’ loved ones. Among those who have voiced their sadness and outrage are Muslim individuals and organizations from all over the world, such as the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.
Others’ responses have been of a more combative tenor. Internationally, and on a far too familiar pattern, an imaginary “Islam,” simplistically conceived as a monolithic, murderous, West-hating, and terrorist ideology, has been blamed for the attacks. In some places, the response has not been limited to words but has spilled over into violent acts perpetrated against a number of sacred spaces and places of worship. Several French mosques and Muslim prayer halls have been subject to attacks, placing many innocent worshipers in the line of retaliatory fire for the actions of a select few.
“Islam” did not do this; adherents to a particular, marginal, and extreme interpretation of what Islam is and what it means to be a Muslim did. They do not represent the planet’s more than one billion self-identifying Muslims. Neither the Qur’an nor the traditions attributed to the Prophet of Islam uniformly oppose illustrations nor modern comics and cartooning. Moreover, wherever and however they are published, comics as a medium has no innate aversion to religion but, instead, is a fertile site of opportunity and engagement with all faiths and beliefs. We must conclude that these events cannot be attributed to Islam as a religion nor to comics as a medium. Protecting this art and its artists is just as necessary as protecting Islam and Muslims from reduction to ideological extremism.
Art by Sarah McIntyre